So what have I learned?

After over 40 years, having visited 49 European capital cities, written 42 blog posts during a period of around 18 months, what have I learned? Well, in no particular order:

  • There are a lot more capital cities now, than when I started visiting capital cities in the 1970’s (with no idea that 40 odd years later I would have visited every one in Europe); one trip to Dubrovnik then covered all of Yugoslavia – whereas now former Yugoslavia is 7 separate countries and therefore 7 capital cities.
  • The number of countries then ruled by communist dictators (the USSR, Yugoslavia and Albania) which are now independent and to a greater or lesser extent, democracies has meant that when I seem to keep writing about “former Soviet architecture” or “Genocide/Torture Museums” it is because the countries I am now free to visit once had closed borders or ones difficult to enter and enjoy simple tourist pleasures.  In alphabetical order, these countries are Albania, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. And half of Berlin of course. What a changed face Europe has now….

 

  • The length of a flight does not correlate to the level of interest and “foreign-ness”.  I visited Marrakech, Moscow and Istanbul in the 1970s and they could not have been more different from home or from each other.  The capital cities that I have visited in the past decade – Chisinau, Skopje and Minsk – plus the tiny “so-called autonomous country of Transnistria” are short flights away but are so different and visiting countries like these helps see differences and similarities throughout Europe. Travelling where you not only don’t speak the language but also can’t read the writing broadens the mind far more – in my opinion – than travelling to other English-speaking countries.

 

  • Travelling around Europe you learn how odd, in many practical ways, the English are, with different electrical plugs to the whole of the rest of the continent, with milk in tea and coffee being the norm rather than the exception, and with the freedom to cross the road whenever and wherever you want a basic human right. We also change our clothes – particularly outer wear – almost daily when the weather changes unlike many nationalities that change their clothes according to the calendar so remain in their padded jackets (with or without hats and gloves) until the end of May regardless of how hot it may be.

 

  • You also learn that smiling is just not a Russian thing. I have to presume that Russian mothers do not smile at their babies who grow up now knowing how or why to smile and no matter how often you smile and thank border guards, waiters or taxi drivers, they will not smile back. I used to assume Vladimir Putin has such a smooth face for his age as he has had face lifts and Botox (which he almost certainly has) but now think that if he doesn’t smile he doesn’t acquire the nose-to-mouth lines and crow’s feet that the rest of us do.

 

  • My top city is London; favourite country: Italy. I rate Bradt travel guides highly, plus Rohan travel clothes and the travel company Regent for their expertise in former USSR or Balkan countries.

 

  • A new city doesn’t need much research prior to visiting, with the guide book often being first read on the flight out.  Depending on the size of the city we will take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, go to the Old Town, the Cathedral, the river, the Main Square, the Tower or the Castle or the old city wall. Most capital cities have all of these.  We tend not to visit art galleries or general historical museums as we have such a number of excellent ones in London, but do visit ones which are unique to that city – The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, the Naïve Art Gallery (also in Zagreb), the Art Gallery full of “Soviet realism” art in Tirana and the Vasa museum in Stockholm. We can’t find those at home.

 

  • Learning the Cyrillic alphabet would have been very useful.

 

  • We have never felt in danger or been mugged or the victims of scams – although we were nearly scammed in Geneva, of all cities. We realised later that it was a variation of the “dropped wallet” scam and probably only the fact that we had so few Swiss francs on us (it was the last few hours of our holiday) made the would-be scammers drift off.

 

  • Happily we suffered no losses (apart from the odd travel adaptor left in hotel rooms) or thefts (apart from Valencia where my husband had his wallet stolen from his back pack).  Oh, and apart from my leaving my handbag complete with passport, money, credit cards etc on a train from Amsterdam to Brussels.  It headed off to Paris while we were at Brussels Midi railway station due to catch the Eurostar to London … but I was probably now stateless with no ID.  Happily handbag and I were reunited in time for us to catch a later Eurostar. Phew!

 

  • Flights are ridiculously cheap now compared with the previous century – in the 1990’s we paid £800 (!!) for four return flights to Majorca for our family at half term week. RyanAir and Easyjet have their critics, but they and the other “no frills” airlines have opened up travel opportunities for millions of us.

 

  • VIP lounges at airports are worth it for the peace and quiet even if you don’t feel like free alcohol with your breakfast.

 

  • I am more IT competent that I was two years ago, having learnt how to have my own website, include hyperlinks and understand a lot of blogging jargon.  Thanks Isie, and thanks to Stephen for many of his photos and to Ian for drawing my logo!

This blog may have come to its natural conclusion, but we will keep travelling and keep visiting cities in Italy, Spain, Poland, France and most of the rest of the world – anywhere that takes our fancy or we hear good things about but I don’t plan to write about them.  Thank you to those of you who have commented on my blog posts or have told me you enjoy reading them – or have argued with me about some of my findings! So this blog has ended but “Little City Sparrow” travels on!

Advertisements

Kiev – the last capital city!

We spent three nights in Kiev in May 2019 (followed by 3 nights in Lviv to the west of Ukraine) and really liked the city, which was an enjoyable and upbeat finish to my journey to every capital city in Europe.

Kiev is at the eastern edge of Europe, with Ukraine being the largest country in Europe and also the poorest.  Many of the cities I have visited have had a troubled history, and Ukraine is no exception – although it is exceptional in that its turbulent revolution and war for independence is so recent that it was only in the winter of 2013/14 that snipers killed over 100 protesters in Independence Square (Maydan Nezalezhnosti); the enquiry into which group or force the snipers came from is still on-going. It is also exceptional in that its own government when it was part of the USSR caused a famine in the region which led to around 4 million people in the Ukraine dying of starvation during 1932-33 – a famine now regarded as genocide with Stalin wanting to obliterate the Ukrainians. 

 

However, the city we visited was a friendly and welcoming one and one which is really pleased to have tourists from other parts of Europe.  Ukraine had just elected a comedian as President a few weeks before we arrived, but we agreed with our guide, Vladimir that at least the Ukrainians knew they were electing a comedian…

We booked our trip through Regent Holidays, who booked our flights, hotel accommodation, transfers to and from airports and railway stations, first-class train tickets between Kiev and Lviv and a half day guided tour on our first morning in Kiev – all the background basics so we could just potter around as tourists.

In Kiev we stayed at the Hotel 11 Mirrors Design Hotel which has won many awards and we did find it very comfortable with a spacious and well-appointed bedroom but the décor in the hotel reminded me of the 1980’s – Playboy style or some man’s idea of glamour? It was all shiny black and mirrors everywhere, with a large photo of a naked woman on our floor and a continuous video running in the lift which seemed to consist mostly of women pouting at the camera.  The hotel had not been designed with women guests in mind, that’s for sure! Breakfast was excellent and luckily it was a buffet as the service when we had a lunch in the hotel was dire – not just slow but the timing was completely off.

However, back to sight-seeing: we had a half day guided tour with Vladimir on our first day and as well as driving and walking us around the city, he answered our questions and gave us a good insight into life in Kiev during its turbulent recent past. Vladimir was 19 when the Orange Revolution happened in 2004 and 28 when the demonstrations and shootings went on in Independence Square which led to the overthrow of the government and the flight of the then President to Moscow where he remains. Vladimir also explained the complex relationship between those of Russian or Ukrainian ethnicity but both being Ukrainian passport holders versus Ukrainians who held Russian passports (mostly in Crimea, now under Russian occupation).

Kiev is a city of golden domes in every direction, churches and cathedrals usually painted blue or pale green and mostly reconstructions as the city was pretty much destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets during WW2 and then some churches were deliberately razed to the ground by the Soviets when Ukraine was part of the communist USSR. The churches are Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian and probably some others which I have forgotten, but generally were strikingly covered with gold inside, heavy with the smell of incense and with icons on every wall.  Orthodox churches do not have pews, as everyone stands during a service, unless you are too frail to do that in which case you can kneel on the stone floor (definitely not for those of us with arthritis!). Women should have their heads covered but this didn’t seem to be strictly enforced and the hood of my jacket seemed to fit the bill. We saw confession taking place in St Anthony’s in the Lavra where the priest sat in the main body of the church by a pillar and the confessors (all women when we were there) crouched so that their mouth was close to the priest’s ear as they made their confession (ideally without the rest of the church hearing too).

Kiev has a very clean and efficient Metro, with 3 lines (eat your heart out, Rome) which interconnect with passages between lines (Monument & Bank style). The train lines are very deeply underground with extremely long and very fast escalators running down – it seemed more like a ski lift to board and depart the escalator and I wondered how those with suitcases or baby buggies managed, but then realising I hadn’t seen any of these, presumed the Metro users in Kiev worked out that potential hazard long ago. Nobody walked up and down the escalators (so no standing on one side) but stood on both sides of the escalators.  Vladimir said that the deep platforms and tunnels were used as air raid shelters in the war and were planned for use as nuclear bunkers during the Cold War between USSR and USA. As a sign of former Soviet times (when no-one was allowed to be unemployed) we saw a few instances of people doing a job which didn’t seem necessary and in the Metro this was the job given to a stern older woman, who sat in a glass booth at the top of each escalator. What their role was we don’t know.

Kiev underground

You paid for your Metro journey with a plastic token which you bought at the entrance, and it was a flat fare for all journeys of approximately 7p. You put the token in the entrance barrier and that was that – no need to know how far you had travelled with a flat fare system.

There was also a flat fare on the trams, trolley buses and buses and that was nearer 5p equivalent.  You paid the driver, or, if there was one, the conductor who was, each time we saw one, a stern older woman.  On our first tram journey, the tram was very busy and we couldn’t see how we could pass down the tram to buy our tickets from the conductor in the middle of the tram.  No problem: the passenger standing next to me gestured for me to give her our money, which I did, and it passed down the bus from one person to another (presumably with the request to “two tickets for the foreigners please) and the tickets were then passed back to us, and sent off again to be “validated” in a press and then passed to us.  How friendly and helpful we thought this was – and by the end of our stay, we were acting like locals, being handed money, buying tickets and passing them back.

So on foot or using the Metro and buses, we visited all the main churches and cathedrals in Kiev: St Sophia’s and St Volodymyr’s Cathedrals, took the funicular from the Poshtova Square area up to visit St Andrew’s and St Michael’s and then walked down the steep Andriivskyi Uzviz street which has bars, shops and restaurants lining it as it descends to the riverside and the former merchant area.  We admired the Zoloti Vorota or Golden Gate – which is not, and has never been covered with gold, but it was effectively a toll gate to enter the old walled city and got its name as it was felt you had to hand over a lot of gold to pass through it!

On our second full day in Kiev we took the tram to visit the Lavra complex, or Caves Monastery, one of four in Ukraine, a walled former monastery complex beside the River Dnipro housing a few churches, the Historical Treasures Museum and catacombs containing clothed mummified bodies of monks (in glass cases).  The poorly lit, twisty stone paths past the mummies were so narrow they inspired instant claustrophobia in me and I retreated before I was too far in, but my husband walked to the end and wasn’t very impressed.  What impressed us both much more was the Museum which had room after room of wonderful Scythian gold artefacts and jewellery – much more than we had marvelled at in the British Museum exhibition a year or so ago – and we were usually the only people in the room in Kiev.

In the afternoon we visited the Chernobyl Museum, a modern and well-curated place which is really more of a shrine or memorial to all the people who died in this nuclear disaster, the staff at the plant, the local residents and all the “first responders” who came to help the injured and then tried (not very successfully) to contain or reduce the impact of radiation on those in the vicinity. Japan has sent money and items for the museum in empathy with their own nuclear disaster at Fukoshima. We could have had a day trip to the Chernobyl site itself but opted out of this – we probably received enough radiation drifting across Europe after the nuclear explosion to go and seek out more of it.

We visited the highly recommended Pharmacy Museum and found it exceptionally dull, but could not visit the Pinchuka Art Centre to see if it lived up to its glowing recommendation as it was only open from Tuesday to Sundays and didn’t open until noon so we just couldn’t fit it into our short stay in Kiev.

We found Ukraine more westerner-friendly than Minsk with street signs in both Roman and Cyrillic language signs and announcements on the buses were made in Ukrainian and English. We also had dual language maps which were very useful as when lost we could point to where we wanted to go, and the person helping us could see the name in their own language and direct us.

There was a lot of attractive municipal flower planting in Kiev, and we saw what was unusual for us, but common for countries which have a long, severe, winter – namely masses of flowers out at the same time which would be flowering in different months at home – so tubs of daffodils, tulips in the borders, lilac in full bloom and geraniums, alyssum and petunias in window boxes! Four months of flowering all at once.

We didn’t explore restaurants as we originally planned, as having a very large hotel breakfast, we had a snack lunch (sometimes that healthy choice of a piece of cake and a glass of wine..) and were too footsore to go far in the evening so proximity won over adventurousness.  I think Ukraine has adopted food from all the countries which have dominated it, so borshch from Russia, pierogi from Poland, cakes, hot chocolate and excellent coffee shops from Vienna, iced gingerbread from Germany and so on.  We ate chicken Kiev of course but suspect it was frozen and it wasn’t as garlicky as the M&S version which dominated English dinner tables in the 1970’s.  I can say that the bread in Ukraine – as you might expect from the “bread basket of Europe” – was really good: dark, white, seeded or plain and all delicious.

We left Kiev after 3 nights and took a train from the “old” railway station to Lviv, a 6 hour journey to the West of Ukraine.  The “old” railway station dated from before the Second World War – not “old” by London standards, but old for a city which had been all but obliterated during the war.  The train was a “corridor” train, as I remember from my childhood, with compartments for 6 (2nd class) or 4 (first class) passengers and pull down upper bunks.  A historic touch from Russia was a guard in each carriage who sold snacks from her cubby hole, but also had a samovar and would make tea for passengers.

We spent 3 nights in Lviv and our 6 night holiday in Ukraine cost us £2,115.48 in total, made up of £1,720 to Regent Holidays for 4 or 5 star hotels on a bed and breakfast basis, flights to and from Kiev and from Lviv to Kiev, first class train tickets from Kiev to Lviv, transfers between airports, hotels and the railway station and a half day private tour in Kiev.  We paid £42 to book our seats on the three flights we took and for travel to and from Gatwick airport, and only £353.49 on top as food, drinks, entry fees and transport are all inexpensive in Ukraine, so the holiday cost us £2,115.48.

 

 

 

Museums: the best place to while away an hour or two.

As with art galleries, I am largely discounting the “heavy hitters”: the British Museum, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and the British Library which attract millions of visitors a year –although I would say, that if you are visiting the British Museum, pop into Room 2a on the right as you enter for the Waddesdon Bequest and you will find a couple of rooms of real treasures funded by the Rothschild Foundation.

 

The Imperial War Museum used to be one of my favourites, not for tanks and old Spitfires but for its collection of moving War Art including Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer and for its entertaining and informative exhibitions such as “Fashion on the Ration” where we learnt that during WW2 elastic – in short supply due to it having to be imported from Burma – was reserved mainly for use as women’s knicker elastic.  Lipstick was not rationed as it was felt women needed to wear lipstick to “boost morale” and those men who wanted turn-ups on their trousers got around the regulations forbidding them as a waste of fabric, by buying trousers longer than they needed, and making their own turn-ups! However, I understand that in a recent reorganisation the art in no longer on display so the IWM may drop out of my “favourites” list.

Historic Top Three: number 3:  The Geffrye Museum

This museum is an enchanting time warp on the Kingsland Road.  As traffic thunders along an uninspiring road in Shoreditch with unattractive tower blocks along its length, an expanse of lawn leads visitors to the U-shaped 2 story building which makes up the Geffrye Museum of the Home (but check before visiting as it is having renovation work done at present).  The Geffrye has rooms decorated and furnished in the style of the time from 1600 to the present day and also has restored almshouses around the side where you can take a guided tour.  A visit at Christmas is the best time of all as each room has decorations current at the time, with explanations as to what and why different decorations were put up.  Listen to the visitors in the 1950s or 1980s rooms saying “we had those in our house when I was little” etc! And you don’t need to ask: there’s a café!

 

In my last post I had my top 3 quirky places to visit, and while talking weird and wonderful, I have to flag up the Horniman museum down in South London (and not even on the tube!) with its repository which includes stuffed okapi, dodo and walrus and also living fish in its aquarium.  Continuing with a “stuffed” theme, on the outskirts of London in Tring is an offshoot of the Natural History Museum which contains past winners of Cruft’s dog show, stuffed. And also cabinets full of different designs of dog collar – the canine versions, not those worn by vicars.

 

The Wellcome Foundation on the Euston Road puts on some very interesting exhibitions with a scientific base (all free) ranging from forensics to teeth to skeletons discovered while tube and train lines are being dug, the latter in glass cases captioned with their age, probable cause of death and ailments they had suffered in life.  I do think the curator who commented about a young Victorian prostitute who had syphilis and TB (one of which must have killed her while she was only in her 20s) that she showed “a poor attention to dental hygiene” was somewhat harsh and that she probably had more pressing things on her mind than flossing her teeth….  The Wellcome also houses permanent collections relating to science and medicine since 1936 (when Henry Wellcome died) and much of his collection of art, photos, books and objects from around the world which he collected before his death. It also has a great café with excellent cakes!

On the medical/scientific front, do try the Hunterian Museum for human and non-human anatomical and pathological specimens  (part of the Royal College of Surgeons, but currently closed for renovation), and the Grant Museum of Zoology (skeletons and stuffed animals) – part of University College London now – and for huge private collections “stuffed” into one place, try Sir John Soane’s house at Lincoln’s Inn, or  the Wallace Collection for 18th and 19th Century works of art collected by Sir Richard Wallace and his ancestors, and bequeathed to the nation by his widow.  University College London also houses the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology – and all of the above museums are free to enter and you can see all they have to offer in an hour or two, so a perfectly sized museum in my opinion.  And in case anyone is wondering, yes, I really have visited all of the museums I write about and my sister luckily shares my interest in obscure medical/zoological/archaeological museums, which my husband does not enjoy!

Guildhall in the City is a very good “all-rounder” with both an art gallery, a library and a Roman amphitheatre – and has a very interesting history if you catch a tour during Open House weekend.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Back to the skeleton theme, the Museum of London at the Barbican and its sister, the Museum of London Docklands (with the lovely acronym of MOLD) does a good line in skeletons and the treasures unearthed during the excavations of the new Cross rail train line. I mentioned the Museum of London in my last post, but as well as learning London’s history, I also enjoyed a fascinating workshop there one evening, on the topic of forensic archaeology. All these potential careers which were never flagged up to me at school or University….

Whenever we visit MOLD we are usually the only visitors to the museum itself, although children are in the (free) play centre but no adults at the (free) exhibitions, so when we indulge in coffee and cake, we feel we are providing really valuable income to the museum which we surmise is heavily subsidised by the Docklands Corporation.  This summer it is having an exhibition on “Hidden Rivers” which sounds intriguing: we’ll be there. We also enjoyed a day trip organised by MOLD for photographers (and those who went along for the ride) called “Landscapes of the Estuary” to Gravesend, Chatham, the Medway and Whitstable.

Which brings me neatly to the river and Greenwich.  A trip down to Greenwich on one of the Thames Clippers is a joy on a sunny day and when you arrive you have not only the Maritime Museum to visit, but the Cutty Sark ship, Queen Caroline’s House, the Greenwich Meridian to bestride, the Painted Ceiling at the Old Royal Naval College to crook your neck at and lots of grass and hills to climb or picnic upon (although of course there is a café!).

 

 

Fashion and jewellery

I wasn’t going to mention the “South Kensington Three” but the V&A almost deserves a category of its own, being part antiquities museum, part art gallery and part fashion house and I have to mention it for probably my best exhibition moment ever, when during the 2012 London Olympics it was staying open late until 10 pm. My elder daughter and I had booked to see the “Ball Gowns” exhibition and we were greeted by three members of staff with “Marilyn? We’ve been expecting you”. Yes, no-one else had booked that evening so we felt like royalty as we enjoyed a fabulous exhibition all on our own.

The Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey is a complete contrast to the V&A in size but has put on some excellent exhibitions over the years that my friend Allyson and I have been visiting it. It’s small but curates the exhibitions well and it’s rarely crowded so that you have plenty of time to admire (or not!) the clothes on display.  Sadly, its café has closed, but there is one on the other side of the road.

Fashion & Textile museum

Single topic museums:

London abounds in single topic museums. As part of our own theme “museums within a short walk of Waterloo station” Allyson and I visited the Garden Museum and the Florence Nightingale Museum:  you can guess the topics covered.  The Garden museum does have an award-winning Café one notch above the usual gallery café which makes it almost a destination in its own right (if you are in the Waterloo area).

The Postal Museum opened fairly recently and it is great fun – very well curated and with the additional option of booking a ride on the Mail Train, which used to move post underground between the different sorting and delivery offices above ground. Fun for old and young alike (and unsurprisingly mostly men).

 

The Jewish museum in Camden has had some enjoyable design and print exhibitions worth watching out for; the Cartoon Museum has a good range of cartoons from political jibes in the 18th century through Punch witticisms to satire, Dennis the Menace and graphic novels. We found the House of Illustration in Granary Square somewhat disappointing, however, as its range of exhibits was narrower than we had hoped.

William Morris House in Walthamstow is an excellent and free choice for everything to do with William Morris (and the occasional exhibition too) whereas at the other end of London, The Bethlem Museum of the Mind describes some of the history of this hospital for the mentally ill, and has exhibitions of art produced by former and current patients. The London Canal Museum  is near Kings Cross and not only describes the history of barge traffic on the canals, the boats, the horses, the goods carried and so on but also the history of the ice industry in London in the days before refrigeration. Two themes in one!

The Foundling Museum (free with the Art Pass) has a fascinating history as a place where foundling babies were cared for and trained for future careers in domestic service or the navy.  Supported by Handel, Thomas Coram and Hogarth, it was the first place to display art for the public (previously only seen in private homes) and held what must be one of the first “benefit concerts” when Handel’s Messiah was performed there with the proceeds going to the hospital. Sadly its café has closed recently but there are plenty of places in the nearby Brunswick Centre.

The Museums of Brands houses the private collection of one somewhat obsessive collector – so if you want to see how bottles of Vosene shampoo have changed over the decades, this is the place for you!  I preferred the Design Museum in its previous home on the South Bank, but it moved to Kensington and I find the space for the permanent collection rather cramped compared with the space given to the (not always interesting) temporary exhibitions.

Out of the 246 museums which apparently London houses I have still not visited the Museum of Curiosities, or the Museum of Fans, or the Army Museum (apparently has lots of war art) and even though it’s tempting, I may never get round to the Antique Bread Board Museum, but if you are planning to be in Putney, do book an appointment to have tea with the woman behind this one-room museum and discuss the 150 or so bread boards on display there and let me  know what you think of it!

In my next blog post, I will be back to European capital cities, with Kiev – the very last capital city and at the eastern end of the continent of Europe (although the organisers of Eurovision would disagree with me).

 

 

London: Going Back in Time…

….and starting with the Romans (not that they were the first settlers by any means).  The best place in my opinion for an overview of why London is where it is and what has happened to it over the last few thousand years is, logically, the Museum of London.

The Museum of London

The Museum of London at the Barbican is unfortunately incredibly difficult to get into.  There it is, in all its concrete glory, on an upper floor which you can see from the street, but actually finding how to move up to that level and gain admission seems irritatingly tricky.  Fortunately, it plans to move to Smithfield in due course.  Meanwhile, do go.  It’s free, and tells the story of London from Roman days almost up to the present and puts on some excellent exhibitions.   You will learn who the early settlers were and that the Romans built the walled city which became the City of London, deserted it when the Romans left Britain and then, around 400 years later, the local Britons who were based further upstream, moved into the walled city for defence against the Vikings. There are chunks of the original London Wall  around in the area.

London Mithraeum: Temple of Mithras. 

This Roman temple is also home to Bloomberg’s European headquarters, and was returned to (nearly) its original site and opened free to the public as a condition of Bloomberg’s obtaining permission for their new building. The Temple itself was built in the 3rd century AD by a Roman Londoner to the God Mithras. The cult of the god Mithras will remind most people of the Freemasons – a men-only religious cult where they met, wore unusual regalia and went in for odd rites. The Temple was discovered by chance in the 1950s on a bomb site.

IMG-20171217-WA0000

 

By far more interesting than the temple itself (and not just in my opinion this time!) is the glass wall of exhibits in the entry with brief descriptions and more detail available on an i-pad provided (or use your own). Among them are a leather sandal has been preserved since Roman times by being in the peaty water of the Walbrook River and there is on display the oldest known bill of sale or debit note written with a stylus on a wax table showing that on a certain date, one Roman owed a certain amount of money to another Roman.

Historic Top Three number 2: St Paul’s Cathedral

St Pauls

 

I last visited St Paul’s a few years ago, and was astonished at how beautiful it is – either the gold and white interior had been renovated since my last visit, or|I had, as so often happens, ignored such a treasure close to home.  It is not cheap to enter but the £20 fee is reduced by £3 for booking online and another £2 seniors’ reduction and you can have real value for money, with a guided tour and an audio guide all included in the price, and so much to see and do, such as the historic tombs in the crypt, the amazing “whispering gallery” (which really does work) and a wonderful view of the city from the cupola on the top of the dome. And there is a café in the crypt, so you can rest your legs and be refreshed part way through your visit and then continue.

In contrast, the £11 or £12 you pay to enter Westminster Abbey is not worth the money compared with St Paul’s.

 Quirky Top 3 number 1: There aren’t many National Trust properties in London (English Heritage seems to own more) but the National Trust owned 575 Wandsworth Road is a real gem. You would never guess from the outside that the inside of this small 19th century terraced house owes more to an ornate temple than suburbia.  It was bought in 1981 by a Kenyan born Civil Servant called Khadambi Asalache.  Mr Asalache  covered the walls with pine floorboards and doors which he acquired from skips in the neighbourhood  (initially to hide damp in the basement) and then over the next 20 years he carved wood on the walls, ceilings and doors, mantelpieces and items of furniture into intricate and delicate fretwork, turning his home into a work of art.  On his death he left the entire house and contents to the National Trust.  You can visit in very small groups for a pre-booked tour.  The National Trust members who look after the house take photos of everything before they dust so that every piece of glass or lustre wear is put back in exactly the same spot Mr Asalache left it.

 London Small Historic Houses (LSHH)

Benjamin Franklin House.

As well as the well-known English Heritage and National Trust houses in London, there are a group of smaller historic houses sharing a website as the London Small Historic Houses.  Of the fourteen houses in this group, we have visited ten (so four more on my list!) and my favourite so far is the Benjamin Franklin House, partly as I learnt a lot about this anglophile American that I hadn’t known before but also as the custodians dealt very well with the fact that although they had a beautiful early 18th century house near Trafalgar Square, there was almost no original furniture.  Instead of buying pieces of the right period, they have one item in each room and play an audio in each room (described as a “historical experience show”) describing what would have happened in the room when Benjamin Franklin lodged there. Charles Dickens’ House is another   domestic sized house, and the guided “Housemaid’s Tour “ with an actor dressed up and in character to play this role as one of Dickens’s maids is entertaining and in this case the House is full of original furniture from Dickens’ time there.

Quirky Top Three number 2: Dennis Severs House, E1

Dennis Sever's House.

This five-storey terraced house in Folgate Street, Spitalfields, would have housed Huguenot silk weavers and was bought by an American artist called Dennis Severs who had it stripped back to its original plumbing and gas power (no electricity) and had the rooms furnished, decorated and equipped with everything that a family of Huguenot silk weavers living in it from 1724 up to the beginning of the 20th century would have had.  Spending only a short while in a room lit only by candles and heated by an open fire made me extremely grateful for electricity as my eyes smarted within minutes. You can tell immediately which house in the terrace it is as it has gas lights beside the front door, rather than electric ones!

Walking history

Guided Walks have entertained and informed us in many parts of London.  Two which we enjoyed most (both by London Walks) were Clerkenwell, an area which had a strong Italian community and also was the centre for print works and where Lenin and Trotsky and possibly Marx lived for an overlapping period of time – so yes, had a bomb been thrown into the local (The Three Johns) the course of European history would have been irrevocably changed… On the other side of the river, near Southwark Bridge, we went “Mud larking” searching at low tide for historical artefacts deposited on the shore.  And there were masses, once you start looking: lots of clay pipes – the original disposable product from Tudor times, when you bought the pipe already filled with tobacco, smoked it and threw the pipe away – and pieces of pottery and oyster shells galore. Our knowledgeable inter-costal archaeologist guide could tell us which pottery the different shards came from, and taught us to tell the difference between a Roman and a Victorian oyster shell. You never know when that will come in handy.

The City of London guides offer four “Garden walks” – Bunhill fields, the Inns of Court and basically east of St Paul’s and west of St Paul’s.  There are a surprising number of patches of green in the City, many being former church graveyards but some are there as part of the new rule that the City has imposed that all new builds must provide green space – vertically, high up or at ground level – for their staff and passers-by to enjoy. The East of St Paul’s walk ends at the stunningly photographic ruins of St Dunstan in the East, often visited by sketchers, photographers and home video-makers using it as a scenic backdrop and this walk also includes a visit to the tiny Postman’s Park where ceramic plaques record instances of heroism in Victorian times where someone tried to save a life – sometimes succeeding, sometimes not – in cases of fires, drowning and runaway horses which tragically seemed the stuff of everyday life in those times.

The Inns of Court provide a scenic backdrop for many films and TV series, when they are not in use during the day for England’s barristers and their chambers.  Cobbled streets, gas lights and – yes, beautifully planted gardens – and a good guide telling you some interesting and funny stories is a lovely way of spending a couple of hours.  You could combine one of these walks with a visit to the Sir John Soane museum which is in the late Sir John’s house at Lincoln’s Inn, a house absolutely crammed with paintings and sculptures, ornamentation and even an Egyptian mummy. And it is free to enter!

Inns of Court

Other random things to do that I can recommend:

  • Watch the Lord Mayor’s Show in November – We have watched this three or four times, taking up a place on the pavement near Temple tube station, and it can’t be beaten for pageantry and sheer bling ending with the new Lord Mayor being driven along in a gold coach Cinderella would have been proud of.  The organisational ability of the Pageant Master who has to have every troupe or float pass certain points at certain times is superb.
  • Tour the Bank of England – book a tour or try for a free one during Open House weekend – we did and descended 7 stories down into the vaults where the gold is kept – not just British gold reserves (depressingly small) but those for many other countries who prefer to keep their gold in the City of London. You can feel just how heavy a real gold brick is and get to sit in the chair of the Governor of the Bank of England.
  • Take tea at the British Museum – absolutely delicious with or without prosecco, and much better value than the traditional tea at the Ritz.
  • Feed your inner transport passion: for lovers of buses, tube carriages and all sorts of bits of metal associated with London Transport throughout the ages, go to a Transport for London (TfL) Open Weekend at their depot in Action.  There are also transport related talks – but get there early and be prepared to queue – there are an awful lot of transport buffs out there!
  • Admire 2, Temple Place the sort of house you can build with an unlimited budget!  This was the house William Waldorf Astor – arguably the richest man in the world at the time he immigrated to England – had built in 1892.

2 Temple Place

  • Marvel behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House on a back stage tour where for only £14 (seniors’ rate) you are guided around the enormous building (the auditorium forming only a small part of it) with rehearsal rooms, prop-making and costume-making rooms, computer-controlled lighting and flats and scenery for several different ballets and operas which will appear in the repertoire in any one week all tucked onto the huge back-stage area. You hear anecdotes and see dancers (who are simultaneously bony and muscley) rushing round to practice rooms and can marvel at a lift big enough to hold a large lorry as scenery is sent off to store or rented out abroad.

Quirky Top Three number 3: Wilton’s Music Hall

This former Alehouse (from 1743), Music Hall (from 1853) and Methodist Mission (from 1888) was semi-derelict since it closed in 1956 until in 2004 it was made safe enough (though still very much a “bare bricks and plaster” sort of place) that it could be opened to the public again. Wilton’s Music Hall is a Grade 2* listed building which sticks to the music hall tradition with an eclectic mix of acts from music to puppetry to straight theatre, and much in-between.  In the space of a few weeks earlier this year we laughed out loud with the comedian Omid Djalili, at two young men performing Magic, Victorian style, and two other men performing all the parts (women as well as men) in a radio version of  three episodes of Dad’s Army.  They also have delicious-looking pizza and delicious-tasting rhubarb gin in beautiful cut-glass stemmed glasses.

wiltons-music-hall.jpg

Most of the fascinating things to do and places to see I have described in this post are either free or very low cost (so long as you don’t indulge in too much rhubarb gin) and I shall continue this theme in my final post on London when I enter the world of museums (generally the small and unusual ones) and many of them free of charge!

 

 

London!

I have lived in or near London all my life and I have never yet run out of things to do or places I want to see. With only one more capital city in Europe yet to visit, I feel I can speak with some confidence when I claim London to be the best city for locals and visitors alike. Best for:

  • Art – world famous galleries – all free to enter – plus dozens of smaller galleries, again often free to enter
  • Green spaces, gardens, scenery, views and a major river
  • History – Roman, Medieval, Tudor, Georgian,  Victorian and everything in-between
  • Live events – theatre, music, comedy, music hall, talks,
  • Museums – apparently there are 246 in London (enough to last me a lifetime)
  • The unique, quirky and down-right odd

And I won’t even start on best for restaurants, cafes, pop-ups and other places to eat memorable food from probably every country/cuisine in the world (partly as they change so often I would be out of date by the time the blog was published).

Of course there are some disadvantages to living in London, although if you take out housing and travel costs (which most older Londoners are not paying anymore)  it is not such an expensive place and so much of what I enjoy doing is free!

And if you are a visitor to London, yes, the tube is crowded and like a sauna when it’s warm but so quick and efficient with one of our local lines, the Victoria line, having trains come every minute at busy periods; or take a bus and have a free sight-seeing tour (I recommend the Number 19). And with so many of our galleries and museums and all our parks free to enter, there is a lot to see and do at no cost at all.  Here are some of my favourites (and a Historic Top Five):

Charterhouse

Historic Top Three number 1: The Charterhouse!

So much history has happened in this spot that it provides a history, religion and culture lesson all in one place.  It is in EC1, near Smithfield and the Barbican, and is an oasis of calm while outside its walls building work such as digging Cross Rail goes on and men with hard hats and hi-vis jackets shout orders in many languages.  Founded as a monastery in 1348, it only opened its doors to visitors in 2017.  Do book a guided tour (we recommend one through a Charterhouse guide rather than one of the Brothers)and learn how the plague, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Tudor noblemen, Charterhouse school and living accommodation for elderly men (and now women) “Brothers” – who still live there – all left their mark.

Art galleries:

I’m not going to describe the joys of the large and well-known galleries that any visitor to London will consider – the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern, the Royal Academy (RA), Somerset House and the Courtauld Gallery, although I would just remind visitors who may be buying tickets for the often-amazing temporary exhibitions not to forget the free permanent collections in these galleries, and the often free guided talks run in the large galleries by a very knowledgeable troop of volunteer guides.

Instead I want to flag up some of the smaller ones which are well worth paying a visit (check out online what’s on before you go) such as the Bankside Gallery, home of the Royal Society of Watercolourists, almost next door to Tate Modern and free to enter (and you can even buy the artwork!); the Victoria Miro near Angel where we have seen some fascinating exhibitions such as tapestries and pottery by the brilliant social commentator Grayson Perry; the Hayward Gallery, newly re-opened after refurbishment where I have seen exhibitions which surprised or moved me (Anthony Gormley’s room full of little terracotta people); the Saatchi Gallery off the King’s Road – free – with huge rooms offering plenty of room to walk around the installations or stand back from the paintings  (and with its own café/restaurant as well as an excellent food market nearby on Saturdays); and the Serpentine galleries, beautifully sited in Hyde Park, and best visited in the summer when you can also see the annual architectural installation right outside the gallery.

The Serpentine

The Queen’s Gallery, part of Buckingham Palace, has exhibitions of art, artefacts and paintings from the Royal collection.  Unlike all the other galleries we visit it doesn’t offer a reduction from the entry price to holders of the invaluable Art Pass (I guess the Queen doesn’t need help from the Art Fund charity) but if you have your tickets stamped, you can visit free any number of times during the 12 months afterwards.

Whitechapel Gallery has put on some excellent exhibitions – I especially enjoyed seeing what our politicians and ministers chose from the Government Art Collection to hang on their office walls – and the Dulwich Picture Gallery has opened my eyes to artists which I did not know before such as the print-maker Edward Bawden, the vortexist Winifred Knights and a few Nordic artists such as Tove Jansson and Harald Sohlberg.  As well as being pretty and set in attractive grassy  gardens, it also has a lovely café (a pre-requisite for any decent museum or gallery in my opinion).

If you look out for a copy of the free weekly magazine, Time Out, it will often flag up small, free and off the beaten track places to visit.  Tipped off in this way we went to a pub in East London near Cambridge Heath to a small (free) exhibition in rooms above the pub of one of our favourite artists, Patrick Caulfield.  We were the only visitors at the time….

Open Spaces

Hampstead Heath, around 790 acres of parks, woods and heath in North London is very popular with many who live near, particularly runners and dog walkers! My favourite part of the Heath is Kenwood which boasts not only the free Kenwood House with its many treasures inside (and a good café) but also a view over London where, so the story goes, Guy Fawkes sat with some of his fellow plotters looking out to the Houses of Parliament; when the HoP did not explode as planned they knew their “Gunpowder Plot” had been foiled, and fled.

kenwood-house.jpg

Gardens and Royal Parks

47% of London is green space, although this does include private gardens and those enviable private squares where only local residents have keys.  As well as Hampstead Heath there are eight Royal Parks (five of them in central London) and all the council parks, commons, marshes, wetlands and reservoirs, all supporting the return of many rare birds, insects and fish to the city.

I haven’t forgotten Kew Gardens, full of rare plants, trees, and huge glasshouses and a lovely place to take children and a picnic, nor the Chelsea Physic Garden where volunteers guide visitors around this plot (founded in 1673 by the Apothecaries to grow plants with medicinal use), the guides battling against the noise of planes going in and out of Heathrow. And yes, it has a lovely café!

 

Cemeteries:

Anyone dogged/loyal enough to have read all  my blog posts to date will have noticed that quite often when visiting a capital city we find time to go to their cemetery and we have done this in London too.  I recommend the Victorian Magnificent Seven cemeteries which form a ring around London and were all started in Victorian times in response to a dramatic rise in the population of London and an equally dramatic rise in the number of deaths from cholera.  The traditional burial grounds attached to each parish church were overflowing so seven huge cemeteries were built in Highgate, Tower Hamlets, Abney Park in Stoke Newington, Nunhead, Brompton, Kensal Green and West Norwood .  It wasn’t all for public health reasons however but a good way of making money for the developers as the plots were sold off freehold to would-be occupiers and their families which causes a problem nowadays as the freehold is in perpetuity, the descendants may have died out or disappeared to a far corner of the world so the graves can’t be disturbed to add more bodies, for example.  Modern plots are I believe sold leasehold to avoid this problem in the future.

The joy of visiting these cemeteries is to enjoy a stroll around in a wild life park, while learning some history and hearing entertaining stories about some of the inhabitants from the volunteers who run guided walks most weekends in the summer for a small fee or voluntary donation.  The cemetery in Tower Hamlets is particularly charming for wildlife with birds singing their heads off when we visited to compete with the noise of planes, presumably from City Airport.  Cemeteries have the supreme advantage to botanists, biologists, zoologists and so on that the land has hardly been disturbed for over 150 years, so the plants, trees, and insects which inhabit them include some so rare that several of the cemeteries are officially Sites of Scientific Interest and are categorised as wildlife parks – I particularly enjoyed this aspect of Abney Park in Stoke Newington but all of them have some charm or interest – a wonderful view of St Pauls’ Cathedral for example from Nunhead and the Gothic  ivy-clad woodland scene of Highgate (West Side) which is only open to guided tours and is not the one with Karl Marx’s or George Eliot’s graves in (that’s the far more sterile East Side).

West Norwood

If you don’t have time to visit one of the Magnificent Seven, try Bunhill Fields Burial Ground the Dissenters’ cemetery (off the City Road) where City of London Guides provide guided walks weekly in the summer.  It’s a popular spot with many city workers just to sit and eat a lunch-time sandwich and has some famous inhabitants.

 

And if you want a wonderful view without braving the cold or wet for too long, I recommend the Sky Garden high above the City at 20 Fenchurch Street. It is a two-storey green space full of plants, with a café (of course!) and a walkway all round the edge for photos and it’s free – but you do need to pre-book as space is restricted and there is airport-style security as you enter on the ground floor.

I couldn’t possibly fit all my favourite parts of London into one blog post, so there will be more to come!

 

Travelling closer to home

Those of you who have been reading my blog posts for some time will have read my post on Belfast and may have wondered if I was going to write about any other UK capitals; wonder no longer!

Edinburgh

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, offered me a different experience at different stages of my life.  I first visited it with my mother for the famous Fringe festival, probably in the 1970’s.  We stayed outside Edinburgh in Falkirk with my mother’s sister Dot and her husband Tim and drove in for a few days in a hire car Tim had arranged for us so we had all the benefit of the Fringe without the exorbitant hotel rates of Fringe time.  We enjoyed ourselves very much rushing around the city seeing a comedy in a church hall and then off to a drama in a room over a pub and then off again, with little breaks to eat or shop. Great fun – but you need stamina!

Roll forward to the early 1990’s and again I was staying with the very hospitable Dot and Tim, but this time with my husband and our two daughters. We visited Edinburgh as part of a week travelling around that part of Scotland, including Stirling Castle and a ride on the riverboat Waverley on Loch Lomond.  As our girls were I think about 5 and 8, they weren’t interested in Holyrood Palace and the National Museum didn’t open until 2011 but we got a flavour of the city with the ever-popular hop-on hop-off bus tour.  We hopped off to visit Edinburgh Castle, and went in to look at the Camera Obscura which is a pin-hole camera which projects live moving images of Edinburgh onto a table.  That may not sound very impressive, but with a hall of mirrors and 3D holograms, it certainly entertained our girls! Our bus took us up Princes Street and along the Royal Mile which links the Castle and the Palace. The girls were impressed with loyal “Greyfriars Bobby” – the statue of the dog, Bobby, who followed his master’s coffin to the cemetery after his death and who stayed there for 14 years until his own death.  Someone built Bobby a kennel for shelter and presumably the locals all fed him and then a statue was erected after his death.

We stayed free with my aunt and uncle and I have no record of what we paid for train fares, a hire car or expenses on our holiday; all lost in the mist of time.

Cardiff

Roll the clock forward again to 2003 and I was then visiting Cardiff, the capital of Wales, with our elder daughter as she had chosen Cardiff University to study for her degree in Psychology.  Olivia was impressed with the glorious sunshine on her first visit and the day I visited it with her the sun shone again – though the locals did warn her it wasn’t like this all the time.  It was certainly a great place to be a student as it was so compact that you could walk from University to student house and to most of the places where the students socialised and, to a Londoner, everything seemed remarkably cheap! There is a beach not too far away, the Principality Stadium (the home of Welsh rugby) and the Wales Millennium Centre: Cardiff also seemed to be on every major music tour, so you could see all the top acts but at Cardiff prices!

We had seen more of the city in 2000 when we stayed at our friends’ house in the Mumbles (a district of Swansea) for a week, house and pet-sitting for them while they were on holiday. As well as exploring the Castle and Cathedral (the starting points for most capital city visits) we went to the St Fagan’s National Museum of History outside Cardiff.  This was one of the first open-air “living museums” I had visited, showing through buildings spread over a large area the last 500 years of Welsh history.  What fascinated me most was a row of about 6 or so small terraced houses, the first one simply furnished and equipped just as it would have been when they were built and then each house over a couple of hundred years showed the changes the occupiers had made.  A bathroom was added, the kitchen extended, the garden dug up and made over to vegetables during WW2 (and had an Anderson shelter in it) and  every interior was perfect for the period with just the right kitchen utensils and appliances, china, avocado bathroom suite, radio and then tv. I could have spent hours admiring every detail but the family were not so enamoured and dragged me away.

Again, we stayed free of charge in the Mumbles, and I did not record petrol, entry fees or eating and drinking but I’m sure it was excellent value for money for a week in Wales!

Isle of Man

I’m not covering the capital city of every self-governing British Crown dependency (although we did visit St Helier, the capital of Jersey, in 1983) but will end my round-up of other UK capitals with Douglas on the Isle of Man, which we visited for a long weekend in June 2014.

Douglas waterfront

We flew to Douglas from Gatwick with Easy jet and collected a hire car at the airport. We had the benefit of a detailed itinerary for our 3 night stay on the island organised by our Manx friend, Angi, who also kindly ensured the sun shone throughout so when at the top of Snaefell, the island’s highest peak (which we reached via the lovely –if creaky – Snaefell Mountain Railway) we could indeed see all the so-called kingdoms of England, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, and Northern Ireland.

Snaefell Mountain Railway

Old forms of transport also crop up in Douglas, where we drove along the front on the The Douglas Bay Horse Tramway, the oldest-operating horse-drawn tram in the world. We remember it in particular for the dry wit of our conductor: when buying tickets my husband asked if they gave a “seniors discount” – to which came the response “No; I should charge them more as they are so slow getting on and off”.

Horse drawn tram

With our friends Ian and Angi we rented two adjacent apartments in Douglas,  the Waterfront Apartments at 12 North Quay, and had breakfast, aperitifs and nibbles in one or the other, moving the necessary chairs, glasses and plates across the landing from our flat to Ian and Angi’s and vice versa. Douglas is compact, with an attractive marina and we ate very well on our first night at the conveniently placed 14 North restaurant just next door.

Breakfast

You won’t go hungry in the Isle of Man, as portions can be large! Our first lunch was as The Creek Inn on the harbour in the town of Peel, where we tackled plates of kippers and bowls of “queenies” as the locals call the tiny scallops harvested there. We enjoyed ice creams on the beach at Laxey beach, before driving up to admire The Great Laxey Wheel – the largest surviving waterwheel in the world.  Dinner back in Douglas was at the Douglas Railway Station Ticket Hall Supper Club, which is just what it says – a restaurant opened up in the station Ticket Hall.  Our last dinner was at Jaks Pub in Douglas but we did manage another ice-cream in Peel at its famous ice-cream parlour

The Great Laxey Wheel

The Isle of Man is locked in its own past in many ways: the rows of boarding houses on the front are still there, having received at its peak in 1913 663,000 visitors from England and Ireland  and even in the late 1940’s half a million visitors came to the Isle of Man, particularly from Ireland, Liverpool and Lancashire.  Now tourism has moved on and the Isle of Man’s income comes from being a financial centre for offshore investors, which means some rather anonymous banks as evidence.

The Isle of Man played an important part in WW2 as being home to interned foreign nationals who lived in Britain but were nationals of the countries with whom we were at war. They were shipped to the island and accommodated in the boarding houses and in camps.  The biggest problem they faced was boredom. There were many intellectuals including the famous Joseph Pilates: as a fan of Pilates it was interesting to visit the place where Mr Pilates had worked on his method of strengthening core muscles and improving suppleness and recovery from injury.

WW2 internees

Injury is foremost in the Manx TT races where motorcyclists race round the island on the ordinary roads at terrifying – and dangerous – speeds.  The TT brings tourists and money to the island (the population doubles while it is on) but when we were there (soon after the annual race) the straw bales tied round trees and lampposts on corners and particularly hazardous bends were evidence of the risk to life that all the competitors take.

As we left to return our hire car and fly home, we drove over Ronaldsway Bridge, where Angi firmly instructed us to greet the fairies who live below the bridge in a most friendly fashion.  I’m not sure what dire fate awaits those who neglect this ritual?

Our Easyjet flights from Gatwick cost £148.96 plus £31.96 for seats and a bag in the hold. Our apartment rental was £270 for 3 nights and our share of the hire car £158.81.  We spent a further £636.62 on eating, drinking and other expenses so the total was £1,246.35.

Luxembourg – our final “Benelux” capital.

We visited Luxembourg, the eponymous capital of the country, in May 2014. It’s not a city that the budget airlines fly to so we flew with the national carrier, Luxair.

Luxembourg is pretty much as we imagined it would be – a very clean city where everyone appeared to be financially “comfortably off”, with modern cars and no run-down areas with beggars or street drinkers – or if there are, we didn’t find them. The European Parliament is based in Luxembourg and it is one of the three EU capitals (beside Brussels and Strasbourg) and we assume the opportunity to work in support of this organisation provides very well paid jobs for many different sectors of employment.  We learnt, for example, that Euro MPs (MEPs) who relocate to Luxembourg with their families want their children to go to school and be educated in their home language, no matter how minority that language is, so Welsh speaking teachers are employed, and I assume Catalan and Gaelic as well as the more obvious Polish, Estonian and Portuguese. Luxembourg is also a centre for banking and financial services and it boasts one of the world’s third highest per-capita GDP (or did at the time our Bradt guidebook went to press in April 2012).

The visually dramatic part of Luxembourg is that the city is divided by a stunning sheer cliff-face which separates the upper town from the lower part – the Grund district – where the River Alzette meanders along a broad valley. The buildings down in the valley beside the river used to be the “scruffy” area of run-down houses where the poorer residents lived, but now, as happens in many cities, middle class families look at the size of the houses by the river, the lovely aspect, the low price – i.e. the value for money, or affordability – and move down, do the houses up, and reap the benefit of being among the first to spot the potential in what is now a “gentrified” district. We had warm and sunny weather on our visit and enjoyed exploring the Grund, having drinks by the river (Scott’s Pub was popular) and chatting to locals who seemed interested in tourists like us – I assume most visitors to Luxembourg are there for business reasons. You can walk from the Grund to the upper town, but not being gluttons for punishment we chose the lift to make light work of the 70 metre ascent!

We stayed in the Hotel Simoncini, a stylish, modern and arty gallery/hotel, very centrally situated just off the Place Guillaume II which itself was just by the Place d’Armes, generally considered the centre of the city.  The Place de la Constitution contains an impressive gold-plated monument, built to commemorate the Luxembourgers who died in WW1. She represents freedom and resistance and national pride in being an independent nation against the odds – part of the odds being that Luxembourg is the sixth-smallest nation in Europe!  Most of the city can be easily walked around, though as we do in many cities, we started our visit with a hop-on hop-off bus tour run by CitySightseeing Luxembourg to orientate ourselves. There was an English commentary and the bus took us around the city to business areas we would not otherwise have visited where we saw some stunning modern architecture and the whimsical statue of the Tall Banker in the Kirchberg business district.  Wearing a grey suit and red tie, he has a giant umbrella and apparently size 96 shoes!

There are some imposing buildings to admire from the outside, or inspect more thoroughly inside: the Grand Ducal Palace, the Chamber of Deputies and the European Information Centre were three that had impressive exteriors (but we did not look inside). We found some of the older buildings had more appeal such as little St Michael’s Church on the oldest occupied site in the city which allegedly had a cannonball embedded in the wall after a city siege (though we didn’t spot it). The Notre Dame Cathedral survived two world wars but then burnt down in 1985 and has been rebuilt.

 

We ate well, though not cheaply, at the Café ‘Am Francais where the weekday lunch menu was good value, at the cheaper Bistrot de la Presse opposite the Grand Ducal Palace (where my husband ate – and enjoyed – horse for the first time) and the Café Musee in the City History Museum which boasts lovely views over the Grund. The Museum itself was also very interesting, with a modern glass façade added onto four residential houses which make up the museum itself. There is a very impressive circular life-sized panorama of a street scene in 1655.  The museum is cut into the cliff and you can ascend/descend in a glass lift (which can also be used as a route between the upper town and the Grund).

p1040326

Cut into part of the cliff called the Bock Promontory are “casements” or tunnels which were dug out to help defend the city from marauding invaders. There were originally 23 km of tunnels but these were sealed in 1933, with 17 km left open to the public. They are closed in winter to protect the population of bats which live there.  The Petrusse casements (to the west of the river) are even older than those on the Bock Promontory and were built for the same defensive reasons.  The Chemin de la Corniche which leads on from the Bock Casements provides some lovely views along its length. In fact, without the sheer cliff and the views it affords, Luxembourg would be a rather forgettable city but with it, it provides an enjoyable place for a city break.

Our flights with LuxAir cost £356.85.  3 nights B&B at the Hotel Simoncini was £369.99 and we spent an additional £418.59 so a total of £1,145.43 for a 3 night trip.

 

Can local buses add highlights to your trip?

My husband and I used to hire a car abroad when we were staying in villas partly as the villa was invariably outside any town and partly as we were travelling with our children, who  did not see any charm in a local bus or train and preferred an air-conditioned hire car!

Now we travel without our daughters, we have stopped hiring cars.  A car is an encumbrance in most cities – you have to navigate unknown streets, deal with unusual parking regulations and find somewhere to park (and then remember where you parked). Railway and bus stations are often right in the middle or on the very edge of where you want to explore so as you disembark, you are beginning your visit.

We have formed some generalisations about trains and their staff: in Italy they are punctual and cheap, and always covered in graffiti.  In Germany, train tickets are as varied as in Britain, and in a similar way, can be very expensive unless you can decipher the complexity of ticket prices.  We worked out pretty early on when visiting Hamburg that a 5-person day travel pass was as cheap or cheaper than two single day passes but never quite got the hang of the “Schleswig-Holstein” tickets, so started just asking someone in the travel office for the cheapest tickets to Bremen or Lübeck or wherever it was we wanted to go and that seemed to work.

Another surprise was on Swiss trains, when twice in one day on a day trip out of Geneva, we were given by a ticket officer and then a coffee seller on the train far too much change.  The ticket officer was so overwhelmed when we returned to his window with a handful of the notes he had given us, querying whether it was right (and it wasn’t) that he offered to buy us breakfast!  And we used to think the Swiss were a nation of financial experts….

Now buses are a different matter.  You not only have to work out where to buy bus tickets – on board, or in a tobacconist or in a kiosk – but also have to make sure you are going in the right direction which, if you don’t speak the language or know where to look, isn’t as obvious as you might think. We went on several day trips by train from Verona, and each time would return to the station wanting to take a bus to our hotel.  We would find what we thought was the correct stop for a bus to take us back towards our hotel but either no buses came, or the one we thought we wanted didn’t stop, so in the end we admitted defeat and joined the taxi rank queue. One day we caught what we were now confident was the correct bus but as it wound its way through suburbs and housing estates, my husband started to feel concerned. Our hotel in Verona was by the castle, so using my way of getting around not being able to speak Italian, I pointed to the castle on my map and asked the woman sitting next to me – “Castello?” “No!” was her shocked response.  There was consternation on the bus among many of the other passengers and at the next stop it was indicated that we were to get off, and shown the bus stop on the other side of the road, where we went, returned by bus to the station, and caught a taxi…..

Similarly in Warsaw, as one by one fellow passengers got off the bus we were on heading for  a museum we started to feel uneasy.  We checked the map on the bus and our destination was clearly marked but when we were the last two passengers and the driver turned the engine off (never a good sign) we had to ask for help, in our non-existent Polish.  The driver spoke no English, but with signs and pointing we established that when he had had his cigarette break, he would be turning the bus round and taking it back to where we had got on and then to our intended visit in the other direction.

Not speaking the local language means that I can’t formulate a grammatical sentence and ask a fellow passenger “Is this bus going to …..?” but instead go in for saying the place name with a rising inflexion at the end, so making it into a question, and this seems to work.  If you can understand the answer, that is.  While staying in Maggiore on Lake Como we took a day trip to Bergamo.  This involved a ferry across the lake, a train journey (with one change) and then a bus from the station up to the old town.  All went well until our return journey. As each bus stopped at the bus stop  in Bergamo where we were waiting I would ask the driver “Stazione?” to which 5 or 6 replied at some length but starting with a shake of the head. We waited and waited and started to get a bit nervous, as the time constraint for us was to catch the last ferry across the lake to our hotel, or we would be stranded for the night on the “wrong” side. When the 7th bus arrived, I took my map on board and showed it to the driver, pointing to the station.  He put his finger very near the station and said something in Italian.  We boarded the bus and got off in the main square, on the opposite side to the station, but only a few minutes walk away. I realised that probably each of the other bus drivers had replied “No, we don’t actually stop outside the station but we do stop very close by”. Never mind, we caught the ferry in time to be back at our hotel.

Another aspect to Italian transport which we experienced is strikes. One  day in Bologna we noticed A4 notices pinned to trees and stuck on lampposts and could work out that there was to be a bus strike the next day – not a total one day strike (that would be too inconsiderate to their fellow workers) but the buses would run early in the morning for a couple of hours, at lunch time for a couple of hours and at the end of the working day for a final couple of hours. To travel in-between those times we took a taxi!  Similarly, while staying in Genoa, taking the train out to the end of the Cinque Terre and spending the day walking back along the Cinque Terre, stopping at each village along the way for coffee, lunch and so on, we found  out at our lunch stop that a strike was planned for later that day, so shortened our planned outing and caught the train home from Corniglia (I seem to remember) rather than risk being stuck if we walked farther on.

Having a bus ticket valid for two hours does mean that you can travel out and back on a bus if you have taken the wrong one, usually for the same price.  We have, however, fallen foul of local ticketing rules in Prague and in Bucharest, and been fined for our ignorance, as I have described in previous blog posts.

Sometimes the operation of buses seems to defeat logic – but presumably the locals are happy with the system. In Santiago de Compostella we were at the bus station to catch a bus to nearby A Corunna. We had bought the tickets and were waiting for the bus to arrive, with a small group of fellow tourists.  As each bus came in with “A Corruna” in bold lettering on the destination board, we would advance to board, tickets in hand, but each time the ticket inspector stopped us and shook his head.  This was repeated several times until one inspector pointed at a number on our ticket and at the wheel arch of the bus, where a number was painted. Ah! Light dawned! We stopped looking at the destination boards on the buses and looked instead at the front wheel arch where a number was painted – when it matched the number on our tickets, we boarded!

In Albania, however, we were utterly defeated. As I said in my blog page on Tirana, on our second day in the city my husband and I had decided to take a day trip into the countryside to visit the ancient fortified hilltop town of Kruja which the Bradt guide book praised.  My husband went to the tourist office to check out the best method of reaching Kruja, but returned with the answer they had given him which was that to visit Kruja we were best to take a taxi.

And finally we understood that to catch a bus in Albania required knowledge not of the bus number or the end destination or even the route, but to know the name of the driver and where he lived.  For example, if you wanted to go to Kruja, you would find Igor’s brother’s cousin, who lived in Kruja, and he was the bus driver.  Definitely a place where it’s not what you know but who you know which matters!

So is taking local transport cheap and good fun, or tedious and time-consuming, as some travellers feel?

We generally agree with the first viewpoint, and also that you feel far more under the skin of a country, travelling with locals, with people whose language you don’t share, with posters and signs you need to translate, with customs – such as validating tickets on entering a bus or train that are completely alien to the way you travel at home – and feel far more integrated that if you are in a hire car where you are in an English bubble, sealed off from locals, enjoying air-conditioning and probably listening to music in your own language. If you are good walkers or confident cyclist, then walking or cycling will be an excellent way to explore a new city and its surrounds, but as I am neither, I prefer to take the bus!

Amsterdam – the second “Benelux” capital

Amsterdam is a delightful city and one we have visited several times – and been in transit through its airport on even more occasions. It is certainly in my top 5 of European capital cities.  For a long time I believed The Hague (which I have not yet visited), was the capital of the Netherlands but although The Hague houses most of the important civic buildings, offices and organisations, Amsterdam is considered the capital. Phew.

We last visited Amsterdam in 2016 in March, flying with Easyjet and staying with friends who we plan to visit again in March 2019 – travelling by the new direct Eurostar route. Having visited the city several times before, in 2016 we didn’t visit any of the museums but we took a day trip out to Utrecht and had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called De Plantage which is inside what looks like a giant greenhouse or conservatory.

However, when we took our two daughters to Amsterdam in October 1998 (when they were aged 11 and 14) we had a pretty thorough immersion in Dutch culture considering we only had two free days; Amsterdam punches above its weight in terms of museums, galleries and other places of interest having so many in which it is worth spending time in a relatively small city.

Amsterdam-canal-3.jpg

Most people have a clear vision of Amsterdam, with its canals and cyclists.  The latter cycle at great speed and silently and we were often at risk of being run over as we strayed into cycle paths which weren’t that common in London at the time. Trams were also a danger to us as we weren’t used to traffic which couldn’t swerve to avoid a pedestrian crossing recklessly in front.

It is a relaxed city which has a relaxed attitude towards taking soft drugs.  Signs on the doors in restaurants and hotels had drugs with the red diagonal line as in “not in here” and one possible victim slid out of her seat and gently to the floor while we were having breakfast at our hotel one morning.  Our elder daughter was studying drug taking at school at the time as part of Personal and Health Education so this helped add practical points to her theoretical study.

Amsterdam canal 4

The weather was not kind to us that year; we had booked a ferry crossing and sailed over without problem (the crossing was rough, but we are all good sailors) but the return crossing was cancelled due to storms so we returned by train.  The rain and winds didn’t cease while we were in Amsterdam.  We had waterproofs, but not water-proof over trousers so I remember every day returning to our hotel with trousers wet from the knee down flapping around my legs.  Our daughters would have happily stayed in the hotel for the whole trip having the giddy luxury of a TV in their hotel bedroom (not allowed at home) with not only the English channels so they could keep up with East Enders, but also the tawdry Jerry Springer Show which they found hysterically funny.

Our hotel, the Hotel Imperial at Thorbeckeplein 9, was very centrally placed almost within the inner circle of canals, near Rembrandtsplein,  and once we had dragged the children away from American soaps, we wandered around the city on foot a lot and escaped from the storms into the evocative Anne Frank House, where despite the other tourists, I could just about imagine being imprisoned as Anne was (voluntarily but no less an imprisonment) in a hideaway made in her father’s office building at 263 Prinsengracht with her parents and sister, three family friends and a dentist – so eight of them altogether.  In this house Anne wrote her moving diary until she and the rest of her family were betrayed and taken away by the Nazis, leaving her diary behind; it due course it become an international best seller,

I particularly enjoyed exploring the Bejinhof in Spui, once home to the Beguines, a semi-religious order of women who undertook charitable works, they and other hofies in the Jordaan district are now privately occupied almshouses clustered around a courtyard or garden, completely cut off from noise and bustle once you have pushed open the door into a courtyard; the oldest remaining black-timbered house in the city is preserved here.

Amsterdam canal 2

Of course we walked through The Dam, the large central area with the National Monument on one side and the Koninklijk Paleis or palace on another.  We enjoyed wandering around (even in the rain) looking at the attractive buildings with traditional “stepped” gables which line the sides of the canals and admired the lovely Magere Brug or “skinny bridge”, the delicate spire of the Mint Tower and the floating flower market along the Singel canal. We visited the Noordekerk and Noorder Markt, but our daughters were only up for two museums, the Stedelijk Museum (modern art) and the wonderful Van Gogh Museum where so many of his works are on show and you can chart his descent into ill-health as the paintings become darker and more manic. The Rembrandthuis and the Rijksmuseum were left for another time.

We also saved for another visit the joys of Indonesian food as it can be very hot in terms of chili heat and we weren’t confident enough about ordering to suit our daughters’ less adventurous tastes.  We also – with two children under 14 – didn’t spend hours sampling different beers or genever gins, let alone beer with genever chasers (called kops toot or head butt!) erring more on the side of hot chocolate, frites with mayonnaise and rich and warming soups such as pea and ham in the Haesje Claes restaurant at Spuisstraat 273-275: very welcome in the blustery weather as was a dip into the Pancake Bakery at Prinsengraft 189 for calorific treats.

In 1998 we spent a total of £942.00 which seems a lot for 3 nights, although there were four of us.  The train and ferry cost £142.  The Hotel Imperial charged 185 guilders per room per night, bed and breakfast, so our bill was 1110 guilders. I can’t remember the exchange rate at the time but we spent £700 worth of guilders which must have included the hotel and another £100 in sterling.  Hotels were not booked via the internet in 1998 (or certainly not by me) but in among restaurant receipts and other papers from our visit, I have a letter which I faxed to the hotel Imperial confirming a booking I had made by phone that day.  It seems pleasantly antiquated, but a step up from when my father booked our family holidays in Europe in the 1960’s when he wrote requesting a booking and the reply also came by letter – I think phoning Europe would have been a “trunk call” made via the operator and probably prohibitively expensive.

 In 2016 our Easyjet flights from Gatwick cost £190.92; we had free accommodation with our friends.  The delicious dinner at cost £75.36 and we spent an additional £154.42 on food, drinks and our day trip to Utrecht to a total of £420.70.

Prague and Bratislava

These two capitals, now respectively of the Czech Republic and of Slovakia, were once one country – Czechoslovakia – until 1st January 1993 when they split into two different countries; it seems fitting to write about them in the same post.

We visited Prague with a couple of friends in 2001, and it was a real bargain of a weekend costing us just under £553 for 3 nights. Indications of good value started when we travelled into the centre from the airport by bus and paid the equivalent of 26p each for the journey.  We stayed in the Hotel Salvator, which produced a tale that I am still teased about. We had been up in our hotel room freshening up before meeting our friends downstairs and the maid had been in to turn down the bed covers.  She had laid a chocolate on the pillow, a welcome and not unusual feature of hotels.  I opened it and saw it was white chocolate – lovely! – so took a bite to find it was not chocolate but soap! What?! Why was soap laid out on the bed instead of being left in the bathroom?  My mistake of course was to tell my husband and friends about this and they have never let me forget it ……..

On our first night in Prague we tried the local specialities and didn’t really need to eat again for the rest of the holiday.  We started with 2 cold meat platters between the four of us (thank goodness) and then we each ordered the house special – duck, pork, chicken, cabbage, potatoes and at least two types of dumpling (plain and with bits of bacon in) – which came on huge oval platters and defeated us all.  It was food for cold winters, for land workers or those doing heavy manual work who needed all those calories to keep warm, not for tourists who were just going to wander around all day. I craved something like a watercress and orange salad at each meal after that, but at the time vegetables other than cabbage and potatoes were not much in evidence in restaurants.  I studied the locals during our visit and none of them seemed overweight so they presumably ate their national dish in moderation, if at all.

What did we visit? The historic centre of the city – the Castle District and the Small Quarter on the west of the river and Stare Mesto (the Old Town) and Wenceslas Square on the east, with the Charles Bridge connecting the two – is pretty compact and we walked around the district pretty easily. We followed a couple of suggested routes in our guidebook (Lonely Planet) which took us to Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral and then descended from the castle to St Nicolas church in the Mala Strana (or small quarter).  The pedestrian-only Charles Bridge, with 30 monuments along its length, including St Wenceslas, St Vitus, St John the Baptist, St Augustine and the popular St Jude (patron saint of lost causes) and St Christopher (patron saint of travellers) is a “must see” for visitors and in busy periods is a crowd of tourists, hawkers, buskers and (so our guide book warned us ) pickpockets.  The beautiful Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Hall which chimes on the hour and has figures coming out and moving around is another vital spot on the tourist trail, and there is always a crowd standing waiting for the hour to strike (all the above are featured in the Lonely Planet guide).

We had another “bus/tram – related incident” on this trip – in fact it may have been our first!  We took a tram number 22 up to Prague Castle, having dutifully bought tickets and validated them in the ticket machine on the tram.  After exploring the castle and its gardens and having a refreshment stop we caught the return tram, to be stopped by two men in plain clothes who examined our tickets and told us we were travelling outside the permitted 2 hour window – 2 hours from validation of the ticket, a very common continental fare but not one we were used to.  We were fined, I think 30 korunas and our friend Neil was furious and berated the alleged inspectors (who may well have pocketed the fine if it was a known tourist scam and they were not real inspectors – I don’t remember if they showed us ID or not).  Neil even wrote to the Czech embassy in London when we returned home, but I don’t think he got a reply.

The Old Jewish Quarter was also interesting to explore, as were the picturesque streets of the Mala Strana, and the maze of alleys around the enormous Old Town Square, considered Prague’s heart since the 10th Century. Only Wenceslas Square disappointed us, being much larger, less picturesque and more traffic-filled than our Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” had led us to imagine.

We used Air Miles for our flights to Prague, only having to pay £73.20 for the airport taxes.  Our 3 nights B&B at the Hotel Salvator cost £165.00 and we spent another £314.75 on food, drink, travel and fines, so £552.95 in total.

 Bratislava

 We visited Bratislava some 15 years later in June 2016, and stayed for just 2 nights, having learnt by now that not every capital city needs 3 to 4 days to explore it – especially those capitals formed when one previously large country is split into two or more smaller ones.

p1080787

Bratislava’s Old Town, on the northern side of the River Danube, is in fact tiny and very easily explored on foot.  Our hotel, the Art Hotel William, was on Panska Laurinska which led into the main square (Hlavne Namestie) which we reached by pleasant pedestrianised streets. The striking Old Town Hall is situated in the square, with a distinctive red roof and yellow tower. We spent time in cafés watching the world go by – always an enjoyable holiday occupation – and browsed some pretty market stalls set up in the square, buying Christmas tree decorations made out of red and white curls of paper; good to start Christmas shopping in June!

p1080820

We visited the main sites of interest flagged up by the excellent Bradt guide to Bratislava: most were in the Old Town, with one exception being the large rectangular Bratislava Castle, well-sited defensively on high ground to the west of the city, and the other the aptly named Blue Church with its exterior painted pale blue (could almost have been twinned with the powder-pink Primate’s Palace) to the east of the Old Town.

 

Back inside the Old Town we had fun spotting the quirky bronze almost life-sized statues dotted around, such as one on our road of a press photographer with a telephoto lens, and another of a workman peeping out of a manhole! Another reason to keep a good lookout in the Old Town is to find little brass crowns fixed into the pavement at intervals; these mark the coronation procession which starts at St Martin’s Cathedral (where 11 Hungarian kings were crowned between 1563 and 1830) and heads out of the Old Town at Michael’s Gate.

p1080614

Michael’s Gate was part of the old fortifications built to defend the city and includes Michael’s Tower, which we climbed for a view over the city.  For an even more panoramic view we crossed the Danube on the Most SNP bridge (full name: Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising) to visit the flying saucer-shaped UFO restaurant and bar for a view from the observation deck. The bridge and UFO (built in 1972) were apparently later declared “Building of the Century” in Slovakia.

As well as aerial views, we took in a couple of small museums, both of interest for their interiors as much as for their exhibits – the Mirbach Palace and the Palffy Palace (one of two palaces built for the Palffy family in the Old Town).

To see something of Bratislava’s Soviet past, we visited the Slavin Monument, some way out of the centre in a residential area of the city.  We took a taxi out and planned to get a bus back, but the labyrinth of residential roads we would need to navigate to find the main road and a bus stop showed this to be a wild plan, so we managed through sign language (as usual) to have the taxi driver agree to wait for us and take us back – the price and duration of our stay agreed as well!  The Monument is to the 6,845 Red Army soldiers who died in the battle for Bratislava in 1945 and are buried in six mass graves, with the names of the Slovak towns “liberated” engraved around the base of the monument and a 37m tall column supports a 7m statue of a soldier raising a flag with a gold star on top.

p1080810

We ate well in Bratislava, although generic “European” food rather than anything specifically Slovakian – like a Portobello mushroom and halloumi burger at Urban House, near our hotel in the Old Town. Zichy Café Restaurant (website not currently available so may have closed?) provided the traditional pork, but this was cooked in more modern ways.  It has a lovely terrace and an elegant courtyard.

We flew with Ryan Air to Bratislava, paying £275.96 for the flights and various add-ons such as seat choices. Our hotel, the Art Hotel William, cost £122.16 for 2 nights B&B and we spent an additional £318.33 on food, drink and taxis, adding up to £716.45 for the trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brussels: the first capital in “Benelux”

We have visited Brussels, the capital of Belgium, several times. We live in North London, only two stops on the Underground from St Pancras International, so it is a very easy and comfortable journey to Brussels on Eurostar and in my opinion it is an underrated capital, tarred with the “faceless bureaucrats of the EU” brush.

The last time we went to Brussels seems to have been in February 2008; for a few years we took day trips to Belgium to celebrate our wedding anniversary in February.   Once you have bought a Eurostar ticket you can travel by train for up to 24 hours elsewhere in Belgium free of charge, so we also visited in successive years Bruges (for the umpteenth time), Ghent and Antwerp.

You can explore Brussels quite well on day trip, but need more than one day to enjoy it all.  Leaving on February 19th on the 08.25 from St Pancras International we arrived in Brussels Midi at 11.50 – nicely in time for lunch.  And what a great lunch we had at the La Roue D’Or.  My husband loves offal and had bone marrow followed by veal kidneys with tarragon while I indulged in fish soup and rabbit fricassee (cooked with prunes), washed down with a glass and then a carafe of wine while my husband had a beer.  All for 84.25 euros, before service.  Our lunch might have seemed rich and indulgent (and it was) but at the table next to us were 5 or 6 business men in grey suits and ties, who not only worked their way through 3 courses of food, and several bottles of wine but as we were leaving they started on brandies to have with their coffee – and (we presume) went back to the office and did an afternoon’s work with that inside them! It reminded us of our days working in advertising …..

DSCF5090

Sightseeing in Brussels starts with the Grand Place, a beautiful square graced with gild-strewn guild houses and a Gothic Town Hall. Surrounding the square are narrow medieval streets known at the Ilot Sacre or Sacred Isle, with many bars and restaurants. One block away from the Grand Place is the Galeries St Hubert, a shopping arcade opened in 1847 with a good mix of shops, cafes and restaurants. Whatever happens, you will not go hungry or thirsty in Brussels, with beers, chocolate, waffles and frites with mayonnaise almost on every corner.

DSCF5080

Most visitors feel they ought to see the Mannekin Pis, the world-famous fountain of a little boy having a wee into a pool (3 blocks from the Grand Place), and also the Atomium, (a metro ride away) the symbol of Brussels and a space age looking construction which is a model of an iron molecule enlarged 165 billion times, left over from the 1958 World Fair. We admired, took photos, but didn’t have time to go inside.

DSCF5037

We both appreciate Art Nouveau and visited the Horta Museum but unfortunately feared we were running out of time to catch our return Eurostar train before we could see the houses in the Art Nouveau quarter.  We had in fact set off on a bus to go there, but timing its progress, and estimating how much time we might want to look around the streets and then making the return bus journey to the terminal just didn’t add up, so we got off the bus and caught one going back to the station.  It’ll have to wait for another visit.

Our day trip cost us £118 for our return Eurostar tickets, plus £118.74 on our magnificent lunch and other expenditure, so a total of £236.74 for a very enjoyable day.

 

Warsaw and Budapest

Warsaw

We visited Warsaw in May 2014. It was our second trip to Poland, having visited Krakow in May 2007.  We enjoyed our visit to Krakow very much and it whetted our appetite for Warsaw; since Warsaw we have enjoyed visiting Gdansk and Wroclaw is on our list for the future.

Warsaw bears more similarity to Dresden in neighbouring Germany (visited in May 2011) than to Polish Krakow as Warsaw and Dresden were both more or less razed to the ground during WW2 and both were rebuilt in the traditional style using 18th century paintings by Canaletto as guides.  It brings up an interesting topic for discussion, whether it is a good thing to try to restore the past as it was, or whether one moves on and builds anew in whatever style is fashionable at the time?  As a traveller I can see the benefit in almost “time travelling” back to the time before Warsaw was attacked not once but four times by the Nazis during the war– a tragic consequence of being a nation-state in the middle of the European plains – but as a Londoner I love the medley of old and new buildings which have replaced London’s bomb damage, most dramatically seen in the City.

We travelled with Regent Holidays to Warsaw for our 3 night break, flying with Polish airline Lot from Heathrow and staying at the wonderful art deco Hotel Rialto.  In hindsight, I wondered why I used a tour operator for a country where I could very easily have booked the flights and hotel; perhaps I was just short of time for the necessary research, review reading and price-checking involved in booking it myself?

The hotel really was glorious with just 44 rooms and our room had stunning art deco/art nouveau wood work and brass trimmings not only in the bedroom but also the bathroom. The hotel lifts were such works of art that I was inspired to take a photo which is not something which often happens in a lift!

So what else did we like so much about Warsaw, apart from our hotel?  The Old Town is delightful, even though it is a reconstruction – only 6 buildings remained standing after Hitler vowed to erase it from the map.  We were lucky to have warm and sunny weather which made ambling around the Old Town a real pleasure and we enjoyed dancers and musicians performing in traditional dress and pondered as to why outside a Church – where we believed a Christening was taking place – men stood with placards on poles with, we think, the child’s name written on them, in a strange way like mini cab drivers at airport arrivals halls.

We explored the Royal Castle, liked the colourful fronts to the merchants’ houses in the Market Square and compared old with new beside copies of the Canaletto paintings displayed at various points.  We marvelled over the strange and out-of-place “Palm Tree” statue on Jerusalem Avenue – apparently made by the artist as she saw many palm trees in the country of Jerusalem and felt Warsaw needed one – which boasts an artificial trunk from France and artificial leaves from California. We went into the Church of the Holy Cross where Chopin’s heart is buried inside one of the pillars of the nave, into St Martin’s Church which has a partly destroyed crucifix on one pillar – the only church artefact which survived WW2 – and into the Cathedral of St John the Baptist which became the final battle site of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising when a Nazi tracked bomb exploded inside, massacring the rebels sheltering there.  Part of the tank’s tread still hangs on an outside wall.

P1040919

The Old Town is very walkable, but we did take a bus in and out from our hotel and along the “Royal Way”, following a self-guided walk into the Old Town.  We also caught a bus up to the station to visit the nearby 42 storey Palace of Culture and Science, a “gift” from Stalin in the 1950’s and truly Soviet not just in style but with relics of Soviet service in the grumpy, monosyllabic staff inside. In typical Soviet way, it is the highest building in Poland (234.5 metres) and is located on Defilad Square, one of Europe’s largest squares. You get a great view from the 30th floor and can see more widely what we were conscious of at ground level as we dodged around road works and scaffolding, that this is a city booming and growing and taking its place firmly in the modern West after the days of restrictions under Communism.

We managed not to get fined on the bus this holiday but did fall short of local knowledge in not realising that in a deeply Catholic country the magazine kiosks which sold bus tickets did not open on Sundays, so my husband walked a long way up to the Railway station to buy the bus tickets we needed for that day. We took a bus to visit the Warsaw Uprising museum, which took a little longer than planned as we were certainly on the right bus but as everyone got off but us and the driver, it became apparent through sign language and pointing at maps that we were going the wrong way! Smiles all round, and after his cigarette break (again mimed) the driver took us back along the route and made sure we got off at the correct bus stop.

The Uprising museum is very interesting but chilling (as these places often are).  The displays are all well-captioned in English and among the many exhibits we watched a black and white 3D film called “City of Ruins” with aerial footage made by the RAF from planes flying over Warsaw Old Town visually documenting the post-war devastation and showing basically piles of bricks and rubble which took me several moments to spot a church spire poking up and realise we were looking at the city.

Other films in the museum were Home Army newsreel footage from the period. One showed women (the men all being in army camps, dead or injured) starting to rebuild the city by heaving up bricks and passing them down a line and I marvelled to think that for the person in charge of the city, knowing where to start would be overwhelming.  A clean water supply I guess is a first and distribution points for a supply of food and then if each householder can reconstruct shelter and a living space where their house was, then that’s the beginning.

On a more cheerful note, we ate and drank well with hearty but tasty dishes using pork (of course) or not pork, as in the Restauracja Samsonem which serves affordable Jewish and Polish comfort food to well-dressed locals (always a good sign when a restaurant seems full of locals, well-dressed or not) and  generally in Warsaw we found the locals very helpful indeed – three times while navigating the city on foot and stopping to check my map young women came up and asked in excellent English whether I needed any help.

We paid £800 to Regent Holidays for flights, a transfer from the airport to the hotel (we made our own way back) and 3 nights B&B in the Hotel Rialto. The brochure cost was £850 but we had a £50 reduction by using a Wanderlust magazine voucher. We spent an additional £391.55 which included buying some attractive local pottery to bring home, so £1,191.55 in total.

 Budapest

DSCF0055

We visited Budapest in September 2002 so quite early in our exploration of European capital cities apart from the “must sees” of Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. And looking back, the first thing that comes to mind is just how totally impenetrable the Hungarian language is! This was of course pre-Kindle and pre-smart phones so before we went out in the evening to eat I would go through the guide book and  I would try to memorise street names so we could find the chosen restaurant but by the time I was down at street level outside our hotel, the words had skated off my memory.  (In case you are wondering why we didn’t just take the guide book with us, the street lights were so dim we couldn’t have been able to read it). However, with great good fortune we found that even 16 years ago, most people we met on the street understood enough English to help us out.

DSCF0052

Budapest is made up of ancient Buda on one side of the Danube and more modern Pest on the other side and our hotel – the Intercontinental – had a splendid location on the Buda side of the city and we had a lovely view of the river and also the benefit of a swimming pool and sauna – and we took advantage of both. Our room in this 5 star hotel was a bargain as a special offer with our air miles flights, but a disadvantage of staying in a 5 star hotel is that aperitifs are at 5 star prices too! We did enjoy people watching in the vast ground floor lobby, and listening as well as watching.  There were obviously business meetings or conferences going on as we would see groups of people from different countries in the world all speaking English as the additional language they had learnt. Lucky us, again, that English is so well understood throughout the world as we really have no “additional language” to use when abroad, apart from mime.

DSCF0051

We found Budapest somewhat dark (not many street lights, and those dim, as I mentioned above) and mysterious, and architecturally a mix of ugly modern buildings from the Soviet era with older buildings with a faded charm. We took trams around the city – to the Nagycsarnok or Great Market Hall, the Applied Arts Museum (rather dull) and Parliament Square where we watched bi-centennial celebrations of Lajos Kossuth’s birth in 1802 who, you may know (I didn’t) led the Hungarians in their fight to become independent of the Hapsburg Empire.

We took inexpensive taxis to and from the main park with its 200 seat theatre and traditional thermal baths at Szechenyi Bath where we showered, changed and sank into the wonderfully hot and steamy water and tried not to stare at the locals, with the women with bath hats on to protect their hair-do’s from the steam and the men mostly playing backgammon or chess at built-in boards while steaming gently.  Massages were available too, but I imagined they were going to be delivered by muscular women and be painful rather than relaxing so didn’t try one.

When it came to restaurants, our Lonely Planet Guide to Budapest let us down two or three times, as once we had struggled to navigate our way to the correct number in the correct street, the restaurants they recommended were either closed that evening, or closed for good. We did have some good meals but the Hungarian restaurant where we ate one night was very expensive and another night we ate Belgian food – also good, but we do like to try local food in recommended restaurants where possible – and this was the era long before Google maps of course!

On our second full day in Budapest we left the city and the country itself and took a train to Vienna, capital of Austria, mentioned in an earlier blog post. The journey took only 2 and a half hours and we marvelled in the South Railway Station at the departures board listing seemingly every capital city in Europe a mere direct train ride away. I had had no mobile connection in Budapest, but the minute we crossed an invisible country border – ping! – my phone came to life. We had guards checking passports on the train too as we crossed the border, no Shengen agreement in 2002!

We used air miles not only for our flights but to book at a very good rate a splendid 5-star Intercontinental hotel on the banks of the River Danube. Airport taxes and 3 nights B&B cost us only £345 in 2002 plus £388.24 spending money on top so a total of £733.24.

Around the Mediterranean

Athens

We visited Athens in April 2006 and our visit was greatly enhanced by our visit to Cuba in February of that year – enhanced as one of our group in Cuba was an  interesting Greek woman called Titina, born in Crete but living in Athens.

Titina was very enthusiastic to hear that we were coming to visit Athens later that year and we exchanged emails when we got home.  Titina asked what hotel we were staying in and I told her and was surprised later to have an email from her saying that she had been to the hotel, the Jason Inn Hotel, and felt it would suit us very well, in terms of location and facilities.  It was a very short walk to a nearby metro station and an equally short walk to the Keramikos ancient cemetery which Titina recommended we visit. I’m ashamed to say that had the situation been reversed, we wouldn’t have gone to check out whatever hotel in London Titina may have booked!

Titina asked us to contact her once we arrived, which we did, with the usual British diffidence about inconveniencing people or forcing ourselves on them. I don’t know whether Titina is typical of Cretans, but she was  extremely hospitable and generous with her time.  We met one evening and went to a restaurant nearby.  We are familiar with Greek food due to the large number of Greek Cypriot restaurants near us in North London, but I am pretty sure that having Titina ordering for us ensured the quality was high and the prices low!

Titina met us the next day and drove us around the city, in particular to the sites where the Olympics had taken place in 2004.  It was not a very encouraging sight; stadiums had been built for sports which the Greeks did not engage with and there seemed no legacy planning to convert these into stadia for more popular sports.  We drove to an airport which had been  built specially and it practically had tumble weed blowing around the runways as it had not proved useful once the Olympics were over.

We had experienced some of this “not fit for purpose” aspect the previous day when we took a metro train out to Piraeus – or rather, nearly to Piraeus.  The line actually stopped near the Olympic hockey stadium where we then had to get off, navigate a dual carriageway to get to a bus station, and from there continue our journey by trolleybus the short distance to Piraeus.  Could not the metro line have been extended to the major port? Apparently not. When London won the dubious privilege (in financial terms) of hosting the Olympics in 2012, we did think back with alarm to what we had seen in Athens and what Titina told us about the crippling debt that the Athenians would be paying off for the next 15 or 20 years – 11 billion euros plus costly infrastructure improvements.

Titina earned her living by being a translator and we felt her income was not great and somewhat precarious.  She lived with her elderly mother and we felt privileged to be invited into her home and see how “typical” Athenians lived.  Titina and her mother lived in a large flat, somewhat old-fashioned in décor and facilities, with spacious balconies where many plants, herbs and vegetables were grown. There was no air-conditioning but Titina told us that in the summer she and her mother escaped back to the family home in Crete.  She even gave us bottles of Cretan olive oil and olive oil soap from her family’s olive groves in Crete – she really was exceptionally kind and hospitable.

Our final day in Athens was on Monday which happened to be May 1st.  Titina told us that she would be demonstrating in front of Parliament in Syntagma Square on Monday as she was part of a “front”. We understood this to be a particularly left wing “front” and Titina believed that the police had a file on her as a potentially dangerous activist.  Not being politically engaged ourselves, we were impressed, never having met anyone before who was in a “front”!

There was at least one legacy of the Olympics which we enjoyed, and that was the Archaeological Park which linked ancient sites surrounding the Acropolis by a 10 mile pedestrian walkway, a walkway we certainly used and seemed equally popular with Athenians and as a footpath strewn with historical artefacts it was an infinitely preferable way of walking around the city compared with the grid-locked roads.

Athens April & May 06 076

We of course went to the Acropolis and marvelled at the Parthenon – according to our guide book, “the most technically perfect Doric temple ever built” and the recently opened Acropolis museum and April was certainly a lovely time to visit, without the heat that would make clambering up to ancient sites unpleasant to say the least.  We also enjoyed visits to Athinas Street with its central market and admired the Univeristy, the Academy and the Library buildings on Panepistimiou Street.

We flew to Athens from Luton with Ryan Air with our flights costing £326.73.  Our 3 nights in the 3 star Jason Inn were a very modest £183 for bed and breakfast and we spent another £387.62 on parking at Luton and eating and drinking in the city, so a total of £897.35.

Valetta

I visited Valetta, the capital of Malta, sometime between 1973 and 1977, when I worked at Thomson Holidays (now Tui), but unfortunately can remember almost nothing about it! I was staying at the Thomson-run Hotel Mellieha Bay and my main memory of Malta is that I didn’t rate  the island very highly, finding it barren and drab compared with Spain with no charming villages with narrow streets and geraniums tumbling out of pots on every window sill.  Like Vienna, it’s probably due another visit.

Cyprus

Cyprus was another disappointment and I haven’t actually visited the divided capital, Nicosia, but only Paphos, and not being impressed, don’t expect to return to see Nicosia.

We visited Cyprus in October 2009 and whereas it provided the anticipated lovely warm sunshine, it was too “British” for our tastes, with Belisha beacons and branches of M&S.  The menu in every restaurant we visited was more or less the same, so we could decide in our hotel room before setting off to a restaurant whether to have tatziki and kleftiko or hummus and stifado for example; we also felt that the Greek Cypriot food was better in London, and certainly better value. We were impressed with the Paphos Archaeological Park with its beautiful Roman houses and stunning mosaics but that was not enough to make Cyprus a hit with us.

We booked a week in Paphos with Thomson Holidays  (now Tui)and paid £1,420 for our flights, transfers and 7 nights bed and breakfast in the Hotel Pioneer Beach in Paphos.  We spent another £868.50 on food and drink so a total of £2,288.50.

 

 

Bucharest

My husband and I visited Bucharest in September 2017 and I suspect his main memory is of incurring a fine while using the bus.  We never hire cars when exploring cities so frequently use buses and metros; we used both in Bucharest but the metro stops are quite far apart from each other so it’s often better to catch a bus.  Bucharest has the usual continental European way of validating tickets when you board a bus or train. We had been sold a two-person ticket for a return journey, and on boarding the bus I had wondered to myself  – should I validate it twice? – but then thought that might use up the return journey part of the ticket.

Inspectors boarded the bus, checked a few tickets and then homed in on us.  In excellent English they told us we had paid the right amount for our ticket but had not validated it correctly so were going to be fined. My husband was outraged at this and said that he thought we should be let off as we had paid the correct fare and were visitors from another country.  One of the inspectors pointed out – again in excellent English – that if he were visiting our country he would make sure to find out the rules for travelling on public transport. While I was paying our fine (about £3) and been given a receipt and another ticket for our journey home, my husband was busy chatting with a local and agreeing it was all a scam, the inspectors weren’t real but were con merchants (despite them wearing uniform, having a computer ticketing machine, giving an official receipt). People who believe in conspiracy theories won’t accept logic and reason!  We saw the same inspectors on another bus journey that holiday and we waved at each other as if we were old friends – or rather, I waved at them while my husband glowered.  And by the way, I should have validated the ticket in another part of the machine, there especially for double tickets which I would never have thought to look for.

Transport fines apart, we enjoyed our long weekend in Bucharest very much – it is an interesting combination of buildings from the time of Ceausescu the communist dictator and traditional Eastern European architecture, with some art nouveau survivors and a lot of trees and parks. We took a hop-on hop-off city bus tour which more or less travelled north/south along the very wide main roads, taking in large squares with stirring names such as Victory Square, Revolution Square, Union Square and the less obvious Charles de Gaulle Square.

 

Our hotel, the Hotel Design Christina, was well-situated – just off the Plata Romana – and is apparently an eco-driven hotel, with ergonomically designed beds, a first for us.  These had switches so that the back could be raised (good for reading in bed), the foot raised (good for weary legs) or both raised together.  It was very comfortable though did make me feel we were in a room in an expensive private hospital.

As with other cities we have visited which have been run by communist dictators, “huge” and “enormous” tend to be the key to the design of the city and its squares and roads; Ceausescu had visited North Korea and was impressed by the scale of the capital and set out to remodel Bucharest with equally wide avenues, or in the case of the Bulevardul Unirii, deliberately slightly larger than the Champs Elysee. Largest of all is the former leader’s Palace of Parliament, allegedly the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon.  This 1100 roomed building was built on the site of the former Spirei Hill, which was razed to the ground to fit the twelve-storey building with four underground levels which include a nuclear bunker.

IMG-20170911-WA0005

We were also told that the building had escape tunnels in the basement which led directly to the airport in case of need (paranoia is a given for dictators).  We went on the obligatory booked tour and I have to confess that I was slightly disappointed as it wasn’t as “blingy” as I had hoped.  Yes, there were lots of chandeliers – 4500 in all – and lots of marble and gold leaf, but actually rather tasteful wooden floors and not as gross as I imagined it would be.  There is a wonderful balcony at the front, just perfect for delivering a stirring speech to thousands of subjects.  Michael Jackson used it to talk to his fans when he gave a concert in Bucharest but unfortunately he said “Hello, Budapest!!” – an easy slip of the tongue but I doubt it endeared him to the city.

As part of Ceausescu’s remodelling of Bucharest, around a quarter of Bucharest’s historic centre, some 9,000 nineteenth-century houses, were demolished, with the 40,000 residents moved to a new development on the outskirts of the city.  There are a few old churches remaining, looking rather squashed by modern apartment blocks on each side, with the interesting Biserica Cretulescu boasting some impressive frescoes inside and on the porch.

IMG-20170910-WA0008

There is a little part of the Old Town remaining down by the river, an area known as the Lipscani after its main thoroughfare the Strada Lipscani. Here are the city’s bars, cafes and restaurants, while the Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse, a stylish covered arcade, is full of café’s offering hookah pipes and the smell of the various vapours clouds the air.

20170910_191321

We didn’t manage to visit any museums or art galleries although we planned to visit the National Art Museum but it operates a strict policy that no-one can enter within an hour of the closing time, and although we were perfectly happy to pay to whisk round in 45 or 50 minutes, this was not permitted.

We did, however, take a bus out to the “Village Museum” on our last day. Having found  enjoyable a similar collection of old buildings on one site in Estonia, and one outside Cardiff really interesting, unfortunately most others look rather “samey” and the disappointing part of the Bucharest Village Museum is that you can’t go inside any of the buildings but walk around what is effectively a large park (deserted when we were there) with old buildings dotted around.  It was also ridiculously difficult to find the exit when we decided – fairly soon – that we had seen enough.  There were no signs with universal “Exit” signs or symbols and we couldn’t even find where we had come in so walked and walked until we found an exit and then had to walk and walk again down the dual carriageway firstly to find a subway so we could cross the road and then to find a bus stop to take us back into town.  On such experiences an aversion to folk museums can be based….

 

We also took a day trip out of the city to Transylvania which we booked when in Budapest through a travel agent in the city, and saw some of the lovely countryside, the traditional old buildings – particularly in Brasov’s Old Town – and Peles Castle, which looked not at all like a castle in my mind, but a Bavarian Schloss, which is not surprising as it was built for King Carol I who was German prince Karl von Hohenzollern and presumably wanted to be reminded of his homeland as often as possible.

 

The day trip inevitably also visited sites dedicated to Romania’s chief tourist export, Dracula.  The story of the blood-sucking Count Dracula was based on the real Count Vladimir Dracul, who I think it’s fair to say was not a nice man, with his nickname “Vlad the Impaler” giving the clue to his chosen method of dealing with his foes.

IMG-20170912-WA0014

We flew with Ryanair from Stansted to Bucharest for £217.96 and our 3 night’s bed and breakfast in the Hotel Christina cost us £246.70.  We paid £131.71 for the day trip to Transylvania and other spending on food, drink and transport cost £260.93 so a total of £857.30.

 

And so to Vilnius (via Copenhagen)

We visited Vilnius, capital of Lithuania and our last and favourite of the three Baltic capitals, in May 2010. I originally booking a direct flight with Aer Lingus, who then re-considered this route and cancelled the flights.  There were then no direct flights from London, so we flew with SAS from Heathrow to Copenhagen, hung around for a couple of hours (thankfully Copenhagen is a lovely airport in which to spend time) and then flew to Vilnius.  We were able to use Airmiles which sweetened the 10 hour process (including check in and time changes) and there was another less obvious benefit in visiting a European capital city which doesn’t have direct flights from England: no stag parties!

We liked Vilnius a lot: apart from the lack of drunken stag parties, it is a very green city with lots of trees, parks and public gardens – apparently green spaces cover over 46% of the city. There are also many pretty churches in Vilnius which survived Soviet occupation; elderly ladies in national dress played music in the Cathedral Square and Vilnius lacks the dour feeling which can permeate some of the former Soviet cities and also lacks too many concrete Stalinist public buildings.

Vilnius felt modern and free-thinking in the way Amsterdam can feel and its locals shared with the Dutch a love of bicycles.  We observed – with no explanation that we could think of – a huge gathering of cyclists, mostly young, one late afternoon/early evening, cycling round and round in the Cathedral Square.   Was this a silent protest?  Was this a silent cycle rally (like a silent disco?) or was it a way young people met in Vilnius? We’ll probably never know.

lithuania-020.jpg

Another quirky area in Vilnius  was the Uzupis Republic, an artist’s district located on a bend of the river Vilnele which was like the artist’s district in Dresden which we visited a few years later. Uzupis seemed to us a 20th Century hippy space but we learnt it has been the creative centre of Vilnius for centuries and the residents take part in the annual Montmartre Fair in Paris.  It is home to many art galleries and workshops as well as places to eat and drink and the residents are guarded by an angel in one of the squares and there is also a mermaid to be seen on the river bank. The Republic is also home to the smallest church in Vilnius, the church of St Bartholomew.

In Vilnius we stayed at the Artis Centrum Hotel chosen, as usual, for it’s central location (the clue is in the name) where we paid 240 euros for 3 nights bed and breakfast.  The city is compact and we could walk to everywhere we wanted to see, starting off – as we often do – with a hop on hop off bus tour to give us an overview.

One of the places where we hopped-off was the former KGB headquarters and what a chilling place that is.  It is unnerving partly because of its appearance and location as it bears a distinct resemblance to a department store on Oxford Street, not hidden away in a back street as we would have imagined. It had originally been a prison, and was then used by the Gestapo during WW2 and after the war when Lithuania became part of the USSR the KGB took advantage of the ready-built cells and torture chambers.  When we visited it was called the Museum of Genocide Victims (now renamed the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fighters) and has been left as it was, as if the former inhabitants had left just before we arrived. There were padded cells and cells too small to sit down or stretch out in, and one which had a small central concrete circle surrounded by a “moat”.  We read that a prisoner would have to stand on the concrete circle and when s/he fell with exhaustion s/he would fall into what would be icy water and have to climb out and back onto the concrete stand, now in wet clothes in the bitter Lithuanian winter.

Lithuania 085

There were photos of some of the people who were known to have gone through the building and those known to go in but not return, as well as statistics and photos of the very many Lithuanians who were deported to Gulags in the Soviet Bloc.  There were areas with bullet holes in the wall or blood stains. There was only one other visitor while we were there which made it especially chilling, to walk around the dark and damp underground areas more on less on our own, knowing that above ground only a few yards away people were shopping and socialising and definitely not wanting to relive the grim days in their recent history.

We took a day trip out of Vilnius and visited the old town of Trakai, one of the former capitals of Lithuania and a place very popular with tourists and locals alike. It is a town formerly of much historical importance but now visited for the Castle which is situated in a lake, and reached by a bridge.  It’s a very pretty setting and we had lovely sunny weather but apart from that, we found it rather dull (my husband expressed this more strongly in his holiday diary….)

Lithuania 166

The only thing I could mark Vilnius down on was the local food, which was far too bland for my palate – based on root vegetables and pork in common with most northern European countries; I felt everything I tasted needed Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce or even a good twist of black pepper….

We paid £164.22 in cash in addition to our airmiles for the flights and the Hotel Artis Centrum was £202.79 for 3 nights bed and breakfast.  We spent an additional £437.15 on food, drinks and transport, so £804.16 in total for the trip.

 

Berlin during the Cold War

In my post on Moscow, I said that Moscow and Berlin are, for me, “frozen in time” as my very strong memories of both cities relates to a time in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s , before the “Iron Curtain” and the Berlin Wall came down, and as I have not visited them since, in my memory they are still in that state, when Berlin was governed by the post-war agreement which saw the armies of Britain, France and the USA living in the city, watched across the river by the Russians.

I visited Berlin about 4 times, each time to visit and stay with my friend from University days, Lelly Bebb, who was teaching British Army children with Berlin one of her posts in Germany. I visited at least once on my own, at least once with my husband, at least once at Christmas and at least once with both my mother and my husband (in 1983).  The reason I am not clear about how often I visited was not the mists of time so much as the mists of alcohol.  Berlin at that time had a slightly frenzied, “seize the moment; live for today” feeling which seemed to encourage drinking, the cheap prices in the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) and the American army store equivalent the PX (or Post Exchange)  almost made it compulsory and Lelly was a very good hostess.  She would check before we arrived what we liked to drink, what brand of cigarettes we smoked (this was the smoking era) and when we arrived at her flat she would plonk onto the coffee table in front of us a demijohn of our chosen spirit, a pack of mixers and a carton of 200 cigarettes, with the order that we were to make our own drinks when we felt like them. It would have been churlish not to have done so.

Berlin wall 2

The Berlin wall was something that tourists always went to see, to ponder over the barbed wire, the dogs, the watch towers with armed guards and the wide “no man’s land” between what were in fact not one but two walls.

We went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum where you could learn about the ingenious ways some East Germans had used to escape to the West in hidden compartments in vehicles and other devices, and in one instance in an especially lowered sports car which could just about race under the barrier between East and West.  Unfortunately with each successful escape, there were many more unsuccessful ones and each ingenious plan which had worked led to tighter restrictions so the plan would not work a second time.  Many people were shot trying to escape – there was no arrest and trial,  just a death sentence executed on the spot.

Berlin and graves

We went on the obligatory tour of the East by coach where as we went through the checkpoint we had to hold up our passports at the coach window and turn over each page, one after the other very slowly so the GDR (German Democratic Republic) soldier could inspect them carefully. Once inside the East we marvelled at how drab it looked and at the view of sights such as the Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Linden from the east side rather than from the more familiar west side. We could get off the coach and had to change a certain amount of Deutschmarks into East marks. We didn’t find anything to spend them on apart from a somewhat average cup of coffee so drank  coffee and went back on the coach to the contrast of the lively West Berlin with shops on the Ku’Damm full of the latest fashions and any material goods one might want to buy.

Lelly had a very comfortable flat, suitable for her rank as a “Major”.  I have put her rank in inverted commas as she was a civilian teacher, but the army needs to find a suitable rank for everyone so they know what “quarters” to give them and who should salute them.  The British army would keep busy by going on manoeuvres which often involved young soldiers with camouflage paint on the faces and twigs in their helmets achieving whatever task had been set them – usually involving crawling along the street on their elbows – and then traveling back in more comfort on the ordinary civilian buses.

The Christmas we spent in Berlin set the soldiers on duty another task – that of rescuing our turkey!  Lelly’s sister, Glynis, was also teaching in Berlin at the time and lived in a flat on the same landing as Lelly.  We were sharing the tasks involved in the usual Christmas lunch, with Glynis being responsible for the turkey and gravy (and I know I was on roast potato duty).  We were drinking champagne cocktails in Lelly’s flat when Glynis, who had left us for the moment to baste the turkey, returned to say she had locked herself out of her flat!  Luckily, a call to the duty soldiers led to two fit young men breaking into Glynis’s flat in no time at all.  The turkey was rescued from incineration, my roast potatoes had more time to brown, and the soldiers returned later to repair the damage. I hope we added a modicum of excitement to their day on duty.

WW2 still seemed a very recent event when we were in Berlin.  Rudoff Hess, formerly the Nazi Deputy Fuhrer was still imprisoned in Spandau in Berlin, and maintained his record as Spandau’s last prisoner as the prison was destroyed after Hess’ death in 1987. (Interestingly, Hess also had the honour of being the last prisoner to be kept in the Tower of London).

The Berlin blockade, when the Soviet Union blocked all road, rail and canal access into West Berlin for almost a year during 1948-49 – bringing about the first major international crisis in the Cold War – was still a recent memory for many of the inhabitants of Berlin. The blockade was broken by an impressive and very effective airlift where the RAF, French and aircrew from the USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia made 200,000 runs into West Berlin during a 3 month period to drop food and fuel to the Berliners. In fear of it happening again, Lelly and her colleagues were ordered to keep at least 6 month’s of food, fuel and other supplies in the freezers and cupboards provided in the basements of their flats.

We were in Berlin one summer when the Queen’s birthday ball was held, which involved dressing up, much drinking (of course) and fireworks by the riverside.  As the Russians were on the other side of the river, they had to be forewarned of the explosions, in case they decided WW3 had broken out…. this feeling of living on the brink, moments away from potential disaster, added a frisson of excitement to my visits to Berlin which I have not met elsewhere.

I have no record of what I spent on my visits, perhaps not surprisingly.  My accommodation in Lelly’s guest bedroom was free and my flights into Berlin Tempelhof airport were subsidised and involved a chit or permit which Lelly had to obtain before we could visit her. The amount spent on food and drink and other entertainments is all a happy blur.

 

Our first Baltic capital: Tallinn (and Riga, our second).

The three countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are often described as “The Baltics” as they each have access to the Baltic Sea.  They were formerly part of the USSR until its breakdown.  The first capital city we visited was Tallinn in Estonia in June 2005.

It is fair to say that tourism was still in its infancy in 2005, although unfortunately British stag parties had found their way there, attracted by the irresistible lure of cheap flights and cheap drinks! However, even though the Old Town is small, we managed to avoid most of the stags and the ones we passed were thankfully just at the happy and chatty stage of their drinking.

Tallinn & Helsinki 074

We stayed in a compact and quite stylish hotel, the 3 star modern Unique City Hotel, which had an excellent location just a short walk from the Old Town wall. The Old Town has an “upper” and a “lower” town and we spent a happy day wandering around viewing the imaginatively named Tall Hermann’s Tower, Fat Margaret’s Tower and the Great Coastal Gate – all parts of the wall around the Old Town. We visited St Olav’s Church, the Holy Spirit Church and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

Tallinn & Helsinki 059

In the small but informative City Museum I learnt that from the 13th century onwards, Estonia had been involved in wars and occupation, being ruled by Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Russia until it first gained independence in 1918, aided to a very great extent (I was pleased to learn) by the British Royal Navy which provided guns, food, fuel, arms and equipment to help Estonia in its battle for independence against Russia. Unfortunately their independence only lasted until June 1940 when Estonia was occupied by the USSR.

Tallinn & Helsinki 062

None of this sightseeing was done on the first day of our stay, however, because we arrived on Midsummer’s Eve. The Estonians celebrate Midsummer’s Eve as it turns into Midsummer Day with the wild enthusiasm of a Scotsman celebrating Hogmanay but with more of an outdoor element to it with huge bonfires and lots of dancing, singing and drinking.  The next day the city was effectively shut, with all its inhabitants recovering from hangovers or at least loss of sleep. Rather than mooch about trying to find somewhere open, we opted to take the ferry over to another capital city, that of Helsinki, capital of Finland, and just across the water from Tallinn with the return ferry costing just £49.10 for two.  We had an entertaining day in Helsinki  and by the time we were ready to explore Tallinn the next day, it was ready to welcome us.

Tallinn & Helsinki 084

On our third full day in Tallinn we felt we had seen most of the Old Town, so took a bus to the Estonian Open Air Museum at Rocce al Mare. Finding the right bus was a challenge in its own right – the tourist board had told us the timetable, bus number and location to catch the bus, but we must have spent almost half an hour peering at every bus by the railway station before we found our one, tucked away in a little separate bus park off the main bus depot area.

The Open Air Museum is interesting in its own way, being a collection of traditional old buildings mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries although the chapel was made in 1699.  The buildings have been brought together from all over Estonia and together form a pattern of rural life with farms, windmills, net sheds for seasonal fishermen, a school, shop, inn and even a fire station.

Tallinn & Helsinki 077

 

There were staff in costume in many of the buildings, happy to talk about or demonstrate what would have gone on when the building was being used for its original purpose but what I found most interesting was talking to one of the staff members whose English was fluent; she told me how the internet had opened up her life to an extraordinary degree and how she was studying online to be a homoeopathist. Talking to this young woman I felt how much the internet was a “window on the world” to this small country, far away from most of Europe and formerly effectively imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain until it gained its independence (again) in 1991. I was also reminded that it was only in 1989 that the world-wide web was invented by Englishman Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Such changes in Estonia in her lifetime.  Fascinating.

Our Easyjet flights cost £95.96, and our 3 night stay in Hotel Unique City £168. The ferry crossing to Helsinki was £49.10 and other spending £384.92, so a total of £697.98.

Riga: our second Baltic city

I cut out an article in The Times in September 1998 which recommended visiting Riga, capital of Latvia, “before the rush” of tourists.  We didn’t make it that year but arrived  the eight years later, in June 2006, the year after we had started exploring the Baltic capital cities with a visit to Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

We flew with BA from Gatwick (the budget airlines were not yet flying the London to Riga route) and we stayed in the Hotel Riga, described as being a “historical hotel” as well as having four stars. The hotel was a huge granite building, comfortable enough, but still retaining much of its former soviet bloc, state-owned “history” which was perhaps what the description meant…. It was very well located (which is mostly why I booked it) being right in the centre of Riga, just on the edge of the Old Town and near the landmarks of the Opera House and the impressive Monument of Freedom.  I haven’t been able to post a link to the Hotel Riga as it may not still exist as it was when we stayed there, or may have been taken over and now be a “Grand Palace” Hotel Riga. As I doubt you’d want to book a hotel that we stayed in for 3 nights 12 years ago, I am sure the missing link won’t matter!

We always use room safes in hotels, if they are provided, for our passports and return boarding passes and also for travel cards, English money and door keys which we have flown out with, but don’t need to carry around with us on holiday. I also often put my jewellery in the hotel room safe as it nearly all has sentimental value and I would be upset if any was stolen. In the Hotel Riga the room safe was not in fact in the bedroom but down in the hotel lobby and to access your room safe you needed not one but two keys.  One was given to us and the second was held by an enormous man in uniform who could be summoned from the hotel reception.  He would solemnly escort us to the locked room which held the locked safe deposit boxes, I would sign a giant ledger with the date, time, and number of  the safe deposit box and he and I would each use our keys. I would take something out or put something in the deposit box and the procedure would be gone through in reverse with the two locks and the signature in the ledger.  Quite a palaver to change a pair of earrings I felt and more suitable for gold bars – or state secrets.

Riga had become the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1945 and in our opinion still seemed much more steeped in its Soviet past than Tallinn, with a high proportion of the population being Russians who had stayed on after Latvia gained independence in 1991 for the second time (the first having been in 1918).  One interesting aspect of travelling to other cities is to see yourself through the eyes of another country and its history.  We went to the  Museum of Occupation and here the history of Latvia during and after WW2 puts Britain – and Winston Churchill in particular – very much in the firing line for having agreed to Latvia coming into Soviet hands and becoming an unwilling part of the USSR.  I know we were only in Riga for three nights, but I am stunned that we did not find time to visit the Latvian Railway History Museum or the World of Hat Museum!

Latvia june 06 166

There is an Old Town and a New Town in Riga, with a canal running between the two and we based our wanderings on suggested walks 1 and 2 in our Bradt Travel Guide to Latvia. There are plenty of historic towers, domestic architecture, churches and monuments to admire, but what we admired most was the Art Nouveau houses.  Riga has one of the largest collections in Europe of houses built and decorated in Art Nouveau style between 1896 and 1913, with a development from 1905 known as National Romanticism. Most of the houses had been allowed to fall into disrepair, but were now in a process of restoration and return to their former beauty with painted and ornamental facades.  There must be 40 or 50 such houses in one area with most of the roads that carry them running off Elizabetes iela.  Alberta iela also has some beautiful examples and you have to make sure you look right up to the top of them to admire all the engravings, gilding and elaborately wrought iron.

 

The food in Riga seemed a Scandinavian/Soviet mix, with lots of herring in various guises, rye bread and smoked salmon.  There is a local spirit, called Black Balsam, which we were assured by a Latvian friend at home would cure any respiratory or digestive ailment.  It is vodka based but then infused with 40 herbs and ends up completely black.  We bought small bottles to take home for ourselves and our daughters but, as so often happens with local specialities, they don’t travel well and we found the taste of Black Balsam to be like Fisherman’s Friend lozenges melted down. Our bottle lingered in the back of the cupboard for a very long time.

Riga is also memorable for being the only city where we couldn’t find on supermarket shelves the essential purchase of cat food to take home for our cat so he could share our travelling experience.  As I described in an earlier blog on Language issues, I had to crouch down, meow and mime being a cat eating food which caused howls of mirth from the shop assistants, but in return for a little embarrassment on my part, a couple of small tins to take home. Success!

Our BA flights cost £243.40 return, and 3 nights in the Hotel Riga were £245.59. We paid £20.57 to park at Gatwick airport and spent a very reasonable £196.26 on food, drink, entry fees and the cat food and Black Balsam to bring home, so a total of £705.82.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Iberian Peninsular

Madrid

We visited Madrid in March 2003 and it joined the small band of European capitals that I felt “I would like to live here” although in reality, the weather – as befits a city in the centre of a large land mass – is stifling in summer and freezing in winter, or as the Madrilenian say: “9 months of winter and 3 months of hell”. However, when we visited, the weather was delightful – warm enough to sit outside in cafes and enjoy watching passers-by and not too hot for walking around sight-seeing and the locals seemed equally warm and friendly!

Madrid has no river, which is unusual for a capital city, as being on the coast or with good river access is why they start to be inhabited in the first place. It made it more difficult to have the layout fixed in my mind without the focal point of a river with its north and south banks.  Madrid is famous for its art collections and we enjoyed them all– The Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia – and also for its magnificent Palacio Real.

Royal Palace

Galleries and exploring the squares and alleyways generally took up our mornings, which were long as we never had lunch before 2 pm, this being the earliest most of the restaurants seemed to open. After a leisurely lunch, a siesta seemed the appropriate way to continue the afternoon until we were ready to wander around the delightful tiled bars and enjoy, as we did one evening, a flamenco performance put on in one of the small bars – Casa Patas – which fill Madrid’s back streets. Casa Patas had been recommended to us by a friend and we did as she suggested and booked a table for dinner and for the flamenco afterwards which was in a dark back room, and started at the extremely late hour for us of 11.30 pm! It was dark and moody and seemed more authentic than the brightly coloured tourist shows.

I believe Madrilenian who live in the city centre tend to have very small flats with tiny kitchens so eat out and meet their friends not in each others homes but in a bar or restaurant as these were full every night of the week.  One other name for Madrilenians is “gatos” (the Spanish for cats) due to their love of night life continuing well into the early hours of the morning.  They even have breakfast out of the house, a strong espresso, a pastry and perhaps orange juice gulped down in a café on their way to work. We ate very well in Madrid.  Restaurants I particularly rated were El Caldero, Champagneria Gala and Do Salmon, but many years have passed so who knows how much I would enjoy them now?

Our hotel was very near the main square – Puerto del Sol – which is literally the centre of the city and the point from which all distances to and from Madrid are measured.  It was a style of hotel we met for the first time in Madrid where the hotel had no ground level frontage but was on a higher floor, reached by lift, so a “horizontal” hotel.  This kept the prices down at the Hostal Astoria despite its brilliant central location and I remember what seemed to us at the time the exotic touch of ice machines in the corridor and  also a caring receptionist who was worried about us being robbed so showed us with emphatic gestures how to wear our back packs on our fronts, not our backs, and to hold the tops firmly as well!

Our hostal 2

The only exception to the locals being “warm and friendly” was when a large and noisy rally was held in Puerto del Sol.  We mingled with the locals trying to work out what was being protested against.  We heard the shouts of “George Bush, terrorista” and thought “fine, a political protest against American policies” but when the chanting turned to “Tony Blair, terrorista” we felt it best not to speak in English but quickly slid away, joining in the singing of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in fake Spanish accents.

We felt we had had a good overview of Madrid, so took a day trip out to the surrounding countryside and had to choose between Toledo, Aliva and Segovia – a difficult choice as I am sure each one would have had its charms.  In the end we chose Segovia.

Segovia townscape

Our 3 nights in Madrid cost us a total of £740: £129 on flights, £188 on bed only in the Hostal Astoria, £29 on airport parking, and £394 on food, drinks, entry fees, travel and including £38 for our flamenco evening.

 Lisbon

 The following year in 2004 we flew to Lisbon for a long weekend. In contrast to Madrid, which sits in the centre of the large land mass that is the Iberian peninsula, Lisbon sits on the River Tejo (Tagus) which flows into the Atlantic from where Vasco da Gama set sail for India in the 15th century and it shares with England a maritime history of looking out to sea, of crossing the Atlantic and sailing east and west in search of trade and building an empire as a result.

My memory of Lisbon falls into almost two different cities – one at the riverfront celebrating its history as a seafaring nation and the other the city centre away from the river bank, dark and cool and almost secretive. I found Lisbon somewhat gloomy in the evenings as, like some other cities I have visited such as Pisa, the standard for street lighting in the neighbourhood was far dimmer than the level of street lighting I am used to at home in London. As with Pisa, dim lighting and dark streets make me feel a tad nervous, and that I should be aware of potential danger.  However, in both cities I became used to the dimmer lighting and I don’t believe there were any particular dangers I needed to be aware of.  Lisbon is cool – particularly at night – for the simple geographic fact that it faces the Atlantic and cool winds blow in from the ocean once the sun goes down. I don’t know why I felt it was secretive.  There weren’t many people on the streets at night and because of the cool evening temperatures, we ate indoors at restaurants so there wasn’t the openness of cities where warm evenings result in restaurants and cafes having most of the eating and drinking out at the front on terraces or pavements.

Set on a series of steep hills, Lisbon is famous for its four “elevadores” – three funicular railways and one giant lift, the Elevador da Santa Justa, which enable visitors and locals alike to access the heights of Lisbon’s various districts without toiling up hundreds of steep steps. We went up all 4 elevadores, which are amazing feats of engineering as well as providing a way to different districts and some spectacular views. We used the funicular Elevador da Bica to reach the Cais do Sodre station from where we caught a train to Belem, although it took a bit of searching to find the entrance which is tucked into an arch on Rua de Sao Paulo. The Elevador da Gloria is worth taking just for the view at the top from the gardens of the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara where you can see right across the city to the ruined Castelo de Sao Jorge but you can also use this to access the Bairro Alto district.

The river front at Belem is 6 km from the centre of Lisbon but easily accessed by public transport and it is here that Portugal’s historic maritime past – similar to London’s Greenwich or Portsmouth – is celebrated with the Torre de Belem (which survived the major earthquake in the 18th century) guarding the entrance to the port. There are other monuments to exploration and an excellent museum, the Padrao dos Descobrimentos which celebrates the Portuguese explorers and their discoveries and a Maritime Museum.

As with our visit to Madrid, we felt we had enough time to explore Lisbon and also to take a train trip so we went to the seaside resort of Estoril, just half an hour’s journey by train. We found it a stylish resort, with old-world charm and good seafood to be had in its many restaurants.

We spent £769 on our 3 nights in Lisbon: £456 plus air miles on our hotel (the Hotel Tivoli Jardim) flights and airport taxes (itemised separately in those days) plus £313 on food, drink, travel and entry fees.

Joining up the dots

Five of the European capital cities we visited are in some of the smallest countries in the world, often called “principalities” and too small to have their own airports, so visitors have to fly into a neighbouring country and travel in from there.

There are other small capital cities in Europe, but I have not included in this blog Torshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands , even though we have visited Torshavn, en route by boat to Greenland.  The Faroe Islands have been a self-governing country within the Kingdom of  Denmark since 1948 so not totally independent, and therefore not included here. For a similar reason Gibraltar is not included as it is a British Overseas Territory, so including Gibraltar in this blog may lead me to needing to include the British Virgin Islands, or Reunion as it is a French Overseas Territory with the same political status as other departments in mainland France ….and I have to stop somewhere!

In order of my visiting these five small European capitals:

Vatican City: sometime in the 1970s

 The Vatican City is a tiny independent sovereign state (the smallest in the world?) with a population of around 1,000; it is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and where the Pope is based, and has it’s own version of the euro with the Pope’s head on it, its own radio station, newspaper, postal service and security service in the shape of the Swiss Guards.

However, for most tourists it is another historical and artistic site to see when on holiday in Rome.  And this was how I visited it when in Rome with my mother for a long weekend in the 1970’s.

We were impressed by the vast Piazza San Pietro and enormous Basilica di San Pietro (or St Peter’s church) and of course by the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo’s painted ceiling and Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar are – according  to The Rough Guide to Rome – the greatest masterpiece in Western art, the largest body of painting ever planned and executed by just one man, and probably the most viewed paintings in the world. When you see them you will have your own view.

Monte Carlo:  June 1984

 Monte Carlo

My husband phoned me one day when I was at home on what passed for maternity leave in 1984 to tell me that we had won a weekend in Monte Carlo, all expenses paid, due to his successful entry into a newspaper competition! The brief details which he had were that we were going with members of the Lord’s Taverners youth and disabled sports charity, and there was going to be a cricket match.

It turned out to be a very enjoyable weekend indeed.  I was seven months’ pregnant, so had to have a “fit to fly” note from our doctor and I also took out extra travel insurance which would fly us home if I went into labour. I found out on the trip that the newspaper had done the same so I was probably rather over insured.  In hindsight, had our elder daughter Olivia been born in Monte Carlo she might have become a citizen of Monaco and allowed tax-free status for the rest of the life….. but it was not to be.

Our group of competition winners also included TV and media stars associated with the Lord’s Taverners – including Omar Sharif, Terry Wogan and Babs from “Pan’s People” with her husband Robert Powell – and the cricket match was against the Monegasque royal family with Prince Albert playing (if my memory serves me right). I can’t remember who won, but blame pregnancy amnesia – or a lack of interest in cricket!

 

We didn’t see much of Monaco apart from the drive from Nice airport and in our free time walking around the marina in Monte Carlo with all the expensive yachts – though this was before the era of “super yachts” with helicopter pads and heat-seeking missiles (I may be making that one up).  We went into a casino where for the first time I saw the depressing sight of people indoors on a lovely sunny day, with no windows, feeding coin after coin into slot machines (or one-armed bandits as they were then called) .  This was certainly not the glamorous “James Bond” side of gambling, with roulette tables staffed by dinner-jacketed croupiers and elegantly dressed gamblers. We had a gala dinner with entertainment which included a singer whom neither of us liked, so my pregnancy was a very useful excuse to leave early.

I’m afraid I have no notes about the airline we flew with or hotel where we stayed, but the weekend cost us absolutely nothing and we had a great time!

San Marino May 2017

 San Marino 3

The nearest airport to San Marino is Rimini, but my husband and I chose to make a day trip to San Marino part of a week’s holiday to a really lovely part of Italy, so flew into Bologna and out of Perugia, staying in Bologna, Rimini and Perugia, travelling between them by train and taking the express bus from Rimini up to San Marino.

San Marino feels just like a pretty Italian town but is in fact a separate country, a republic perched on top of a very steep hill surrounding by the city walls which defended it for centuries, with 3 of the ancient towers still standing. There are churches, museums (we sampled the Museum of Curiosity but declined the Torture Museum) and, of course, some good restaurants – this is Italy after all! San Marino’s main income (only income?) is tourism and it does good business with selling stamps, coins and passport stamps which are obtained from the tourist information office where for a small fee you have a pretty stamp in your passport to prove your visit.

San Marino

San Marino was a pleasant day trip in a very enjoyable week in Italy.  We had stayed in Bologna before, but consider it a city well worth another visit and we were impressed with the well-located Best Western Hotel San Donato where we stayed for two nights.  Bologna is considered the “foodie” capital of Italy, and as well as its own food market, shops and restaurants it is also a very good base for trips out to Modena (for every “vintage” of balsamic vinegar)  to Parma for Parma ham and parmesan cheese, and also to Ravenna for stunning mosaics.

We stayed in the comfortable Card International in Rimini, chosen for its proximity to the station, but also to Roman ruins which impressed us, the more so as my image of Rimini was of mile after mile of sandy beaches. Sandy beaches there were, but as we were there in May, not a soul was on them, even though the weather was, in our opinion, very pleasantly warm.

And so to Perugia, an amazing city again built on a very steep hill, where the locals ingeniously use Roman underground tunnelling to help modern-day Perugians and visitors to move from one level to another, by building flights of escalators from one height to another.  We had a lovely relaxing time in Perugia, staying at the Sangallo Palace Hotel, conveniently just near one of the entrances to the flights of escalators.  These are dimly lit, and with Roman statues looming out of the gloom are tremendously atmospheric as well as extremely functional! We took a day trip out of Perugia to visit Assisi, where the legend of St Francis is brought to life in the cathedral and to Gubbio, a delightful walled medieval town.

 We flew with Ryan Air to Bologna for £82 and Ryanair back from Perugia for £104.72. Our accommodation in Bologna, the Hotel Best Western San Donato, costs £250.86 for 2 nights; in Rimini we stayed 2 nights at the Card International Hotel for £286.49 and 3 nights in Perugia at the Hotel Sangallo Palace cost us £283.95. We spent an additional £940.90 on eating, drinking and transport so our week’s holiday cost £1,948.92.

 Andorra la Vella (via Toulouse):  July 2017 

IMG-20170720-WA0000 

We chose to fly into Toulouse before and after our visit to Andorra la Vella as we had heard good things about the city and hadn’t visited it before.  We booked to stay at the 2 star Hotel D’Orsay, chosen as it was near the railway station (where we would arrive from the airport) and also the bus station (to catch our bus up to Andorra).  Like many 2 star hotels we have stayed in, it was excellent, without pretension, with a comfortable, well equipped bedroom and a lovely breakfast.  Star  ratings for hotels are a bit of a mystery to me – I believe you must have reception manned all night to achieve one level, room service available 24 hours for another level and so on, but as these factors are rarely important to us, we are often happy and better off financially in a 2 or 3 star hotel.

We looked round our area near the canal on our first evening in Toulouse and found a restaurant highly recommended for its famous Toulouse cassoulet and booked a table for later that evening.  It was a traditional French dining experience with Madame firmly in control of staff, kitchen and customers and we enjoyed our local speciality meal very much.

We were up early to catch the bus to Andorra.  It is in fact a mini-bus laid on and paid for by the hotels in Andorra and it zipped us up in 4 hours into the Pyrenees and on to Andorra La Vella.  Andorra is principally used for skiing in winter and the capital has little to offer in summer apart from duty-free designer shops. Spaniards and French bargain hunters arrive by the car load to shop on the main street.  Discount designer clothes, perfumes and shoes were not on our list for that holiday (if ever?) but we walked up and down the streets and found a pleasant Spanish-style restaurant to eat al fresco in the evening.  We learnt that the Andorrans speak Catalan, and that in fact Andorra is part of the Catalan area which covers Spain around Barcelona, the Pyrenees including Andorra and parts of France around Toulouse.

We had booked to stay overnight in Andorra, rather than have a 4-hour bus ride twice in one day, but we should have put up with two bus-rides instead.  We stayed in the Hotel Andorra Centre which was comfortable enough but lacking in character and was more a business or conference centre I felt than a place for travellers.  The next morning it was pouring with rain.  “Museum weather!” we decided so my husband left me reading in the hotel lobby and went to the Tourist Information office to find out which museums we could visit in Andorra La Vella on a Sunday morning in the rain while we waited for the 2 o’clock bus.  He returned with the news that there are museums in Andorra but none in its capital city so we stayed reading in the hotel lobby watching the rain until it was time for our bus which this time was driven by a driver who loved euro-techno-pop which he played loudly for the entire 4 hours…..

We moved hotel in Toulouse and stayed in the extremely elegant Hotel Grand Balcon just off the main square for two nights and enjoyed sight-seeing, eating, drinking and just wandering around Toulouse for the next couple of days far more than we had Andorra La Vella.  There you are, not all capital cities are worth a visit.

We flew with Easyjet to and from Toulouse for £239.10. Our hotels cost £78.34 for one night in the Hotel D’Orsay, £73.80 for a night in the Hotel Andorra Centre, and £287.64 for 2 nights in the Hotel Grand Balcon in Toulouse. We spent another £652.67 on the buses, trains to and from Gatwick airport, eating, drinking and souvenir tins of cassoulet (which were confiscated at the airport) so a total of £1,331.55.

 Vaduz (capital of the Principality of Liechtenstein) via Zurich: August 2018

 As we had found Andorra la Valle very disappointing when we had visited it the previous summer, we decided not to stay in Vaduz overnight (as we had done in Andorra la Valle) but visited it for the day by way of an organised tour from Zürich.  We therefore flew into Zürich and stayed for 2 nights.  It was only after paying what seemed an eye watering price for a small hotel room in Zurich that I read a newspaper article which claimed Zurich is the most expensive city in the world …

We had a strange view of Zürich, arriving so late on Friday evening due to spending 2 and a quarter hours on the tarmac at Luton airport that we had no energy to explore but instead had a snack and drink at a station café (which cost the equivalent of 27.50 euros). On Saturday we found that the annual Pride parade was being held that day (which may also explain why our hotel – the 2 star Walhalla Hostel – was so expensive)  and when we returned at about 7.30 pm from our day trip to Vaduz, the streets were awash with drink bottles, cans, polystyrene cartons, sobbing women being comforted by friends, drunken men posturing before a fight and every type of costume you could imagine.  Not enjoying walking ankle-deep through rubbish (I could go to Wood Green for that) we returned to our hotel area and had a snack at a nearby café where, readers, my thrifty Yorkshire-born husband spent the equivalent of 8 euros on a plate of chips!

In the morning  (well done the Swiss) the city was clean again and we could see how attractive the old town and riverside areas were as we strolled around before catching our flight (which was delayed an hour in boarding, coupled with another hour or more on the tarmac).  And our Hostel Walhalla (not to be confused with its sister Hotel Walhalla, with four stars) did provide an excellent breakfast, the room had sufficient power points, waste bins, mirrors and towels to suit my exacting requirements, and also play station equipment, a virtual reality headset and the ability to play Spotify play lists through the room speakers via blue tooth…… I chose it mostly for its location, being opposite the bus station from where our coach tour left, and near the railway station for travelling to and from Zürich airport. The main down side to the room was that it had no air-conditioning, just a fan, and Zürich was experiencing a heat wave with temperatures reaching 31 degrees.  Fortunately, we had been experiencing even higher temperatures in London so had to some degree become acclimatised.

 

But what about Vaduz, the point of our visit?  We had booked before leaving home a coach tour with English guide described as the “Heidi land” tour – two countries in one day and this was what it delivered.  I hadn’t realised the fictional character of Heidi had bred a tourist industry where “her” house could be visited; one could pose for photos with plaster cows and so on.  Before “Heidi land” we had a brief tour of Zürich – excluding the centre because of Pride – and then stopped in Rapperswil , a fairly attractive resort on the banks of Lake Zürich. This all meant that we actually spent 45 minutes in Vaduz, considerably less time than we had spent on planes on the tarmac, let alone the time spent in airports.

Liechtenstein really is an odd country, being so small – only 25 km long – having a population of under 38,000 (so only a tenth of the London Borough of Barnet), being ruled by a Prince, who is Head of State as well as Monarch and who does indeed live in a castle and having an economy built entirely on banking and money laundering.  Our guide told us that the Gaddafi family keep their money here, as do many Russian oligarchs, and Imelda Marcos did and so on.  Interesting to hear a Swiss person being critical of another country’s banking ethos! Liechtenstein has its own flag and postage stamps but not its own currency but uses Swiss Francs instead.  We were expecting to cross a visible border with passport control and hoping for a stamp in our passports, but in fact you just drive over a bridge from Switzerland and there you are – with Austria a few kilometres away on the other side.

I read an interesting article in the Evening Standard which quoted facts about Liechtenstein from a book by Charles Saatchi, and learned that Liechtenstein is double landlocked as it is bordered by two countries – Austria and Switzerland which are also landlocked. The national anthem (Oben am Jungen Rhein) shares the same tune as the English national anthem, so when Northern Ireland played Liechtenstein in the 2004 Euro football, two national anthems were sung, each with the same tune! And Liechtenstein leads the world in false teeth manufacture, making 60 million sets a year and thus claiming one fifth of the world market.  Who knew?

I was entertained to read that Swiss troops accidentally invaded Liechtenstein in 2007 as they had become lost in a rain storm. Switzerland immediately apologised.  The only time the Liechtenstein army engaged in action was in 1866 when they sent their 80 soldiers into battle, returning with 81 including a new Italian friend who had joined them.  All were unharmed.  Thank you for these amusing snippets, Mr Saatchi!

Vaduz is full of designer shops but also had whimsical street art and at the time we visited a festival in full swing.  I bought an excellent Aperol Spritz even if it did cost me 8 Swiss francs to drink it out of a plastic glass walking around (I daren’t think how expensive it might have been if I had sat down and had it in a proper glass). I liked what I saw of Vaduz but 45 minutes was more or less enough time and I was glad we weren’t staying the night; we did, however, gain our coveted passport stamps by the simple process of paying 3 francs each in a souvenir shop which placed a stamp on whichever page of our passports we chose.

Our flights with Easy Jet cost £279.50 return, our two nights B&B in the Hostel Walhalla £342.31, the day trip booked through £133.38 and we spent a further £174.18 on food, drink and train fares to and from airports, so a total of £929.37.

 

 

 

Travel light; travel essentials

My first holidays abroad were as a teenager with my parents and sister.  We travelled by public transport which meant the Boat Train from London Victoria to Dover, the cross-channel ferry and then trains, boats, or buses to our destinations.  Porters being thin on the ground even then, my father made my sister and me each pack the bag we were taking for our fortnight’s holiday (mine was a checked holdall – no wheeled suitcases then) and we then had to carry our bags to the nearby bus stop, as a “test run”.  My aunt Joyce, a well-travelled woman, supervised my packing and introduced me to the idea of “small and light”.  “Out” went my wooden Dr Scholl sandals; “out” went my economy-sized toiletries.  “In” came sachets of shampoo.

I did try to follow this teaching and managed two and a half weeks travelling around Canada on public transport with the same checked holdall and a large shoulder bag which impressed my Canadian Uncle, Tom.  Once wheeled suitcases were introduced however, I started to disregard some of my early training.  I still kept to the “small and light” but added “but lots of them” – lots of clothes and even in the 1970s, a travel iron!

However, over the last few years, the more I travel, the more I started to see luggage almost as a burden, not just to drag around but also to pack, unpack and then bring home and wash it all!  Looking back to a recent holiday to China, I took a 26kg bag for a two-week holiday.  Why? What on earth did I put in it?  Long-haul trips to Africa and South America were the catalysts for “packing small”. We left London with an allowance of one 26kg bag to go in the hold plus a carry-on bag of up to 10kg BUT in our holiday itinerary we had internal flights in a light aircraft with a maximum of 15 kg baggage per person, hand luggage included.  This meant that 15 kg was the maximum we could leave home with, and I haven’t looked back. I now travel with the smallest bag possible for the trip I am going on.

The arrival of Kindles or e-readers meant a huge saving in packing space for those of us who read a lot on holiday – packing 7 paperbacks was not at all unusual for me but now there is just my Kindle and one paperback guide-book (which I could always read from cover to cover if my kindle was lost, stolen or malfunctioned).

For each trip I pack much the same non-clothes items, no matter how long or short the holiday is going to be. I save the tiny bottles of shower gels and shampoos given out in hotels and buy travel sized toothpastes and moisturisers. As we fly on city breaks just with hand luggage, these liquids, pastes and gels all have to be under 100ml capacity and fit into the one small sealed plastic bag which security dictates.  I bought a travel hairdryer based on its weight. I have a “day sack” of strong nylon which folds down and is tucked into its own front pocket. I have a Uniqlo sleeveless light weight padded jacked and a Primark shower-proof parka, both of which also pack down into their own little pouches.  I take medication out of the packages and travel with just the blister-packed strips of tablets – if you bring home two carrier bags of toiletries, anti-mossy spray, sun tan lotion etc, once you have binned the packaging you have a very modest collection to pack. If you need to be reminded of the dosage instructions, write them on a small sticky label and stick that on the back of the blister pack. I do still send a few postcards as well as What’s App images and take the smallest address book I could buy for this purpose.

For a holiday of up to a week, I take only an 8 – 10 kg carry-on bag plus a smaller piece of luggage which fits under the seat in front on the plane (handbag or day sack). This is only partly to avoid having to wait by the conveyor but also makes travelling to and from airports and onward travel in our destination much easier.

The main reduction in my luggage nowadays is clothes, particularly shoes.  I always travel wearing the heaviest or bulkiest pair of shoes such as trainers or trekking sandals. I will then have one spare pair in the bag, partly to change footwear for the sake of my feet and also in case one pair becomes wet or damaged in some way. If there is a beach where I am going I will squeeze in a pair of flip-flops for hot sand and to wear in the hotel room and bathroom.

I usually fly wearing my invaluable pair of Rohan “Trailblazers” trousers which are light, comfortable with stretch material included, seem to shrug off marks and have as well as two hip pockets, a zip pocket on each leg just the right size for passport and boarding pass on one side and phone in the other and – I think importantly – the pockets are integral to the trousers not patch pockets, so don’t make my thighs look fat….

I take separates and favour patterned clothes so they don’t show any marks and can be worn over and over again. And I take as few clothes as I can manage while still expecting to look tolerably smart and coordinated (those holiday photos tell a story …) or at the very least, clean!  A top or t-shirt worn one evening is worn again in the daytime.  I have a reversible top – spots on one side and stripes on the other – so that I can fool the camera into thinking I have two different tops!  The one warm cardigan or jumper which I take has to be in a colour to go with the trousers or skirts I am taking. I always take a long pashmina style scarf which provides warmth, protects  my skin from the sun, can cover my head or shoulders for visits to religious sites and certainly earns its keep. I look at the clothes and try to take the minimum, remembering that everything I take I will have to wash once I return home, and I aim to wear all my outer clothes  several times.

I don’t use a hotel laundry partly as I am often not in a hotel for very long but also as I doubt they can cope with the “wash at 30 degrees; don’t tumble dry; iron on wrong side” instructions on most of my clothes.  Hotels often have hair dryers in the room but I take my own as it is not only lightweight but very powerful (hotel hairdryers are sometimes as hot as a breath of warm air –not efficient at all). Hotel hair driers are also often wired into the bathroom which means that I would have to be in there drying my hair when my husband wants to shave – not efficient use of space and time!

I also find invaluable an illuminated magnifying mirror, which stands up in the same way a photo frame does.  Bought on sale from Boots, the lit screen is battery powered and ensures I can apply makeup or fix jewelery  in a good light almost anywhere where there is a suitable place to perch the mirror. Illuminated magnifying mirrors on extension arms fixed to the walls in bathrooms are excellent, but not always provided but with this in my case (inside its own velvet draw-string bag, with added bubble wrap) I am self-sufficient.

Everything in my bag has to be there for a reason and be used on each trip – the exception to that being a mini-medical kit in a little zipped bag – if I haven’t used anything it means we had no medical problems: which thankfully is the norm. I know I could buy almost anything in the city we are visiting, but I don’t want to waste precious holiday time by trailing round looking for a pharmacist, hardware shop, electrical shop etc so I want to have everything I need when we leave the house.

Some of my essentials are: rubber bands; Klippit fasteners; plastic bags of all sizes including ordinary supermarket bags which scrunch into a very small space; a universal plug for wash basins; the right travel adaptors for the country we are visiting; charging cables for camera, e-readers, and phones; and very small note books for noting what we spend, writing down directions, train times and anything else we need to remember while travelling or once home. And I take a head torch and/or small torch for hunting in my luggage in dim lights and for going to the loo in the middle of the night without disturbing my husband.  I have recently added to my “essentials” list something which is not light at all but is very useful – a portable charger with two sockets so that my phone and kindle can both be charged at the same time and without needing a power point in the hotel bedroom which is vital if my husband and I are fighting over only one or two power points.

Essential paperwork includes a copy of our travel insurance policy with all the details of how to make a claim, as well as a certified copy of my passport which I carry around as ID if required (while leaving my actual passport in the hotel room safe) and a full copy of the EU Passenger Compensation Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 for instant reference in case of major flight disruption!

I have a travel wallet for foreign currency which also always has in it my European Health Insurance Card  (EHIC) and my Priority Pass lounge card so I just need to add a debit and credit card and cash in the right currency and that is ready. Most of my travel kit spends the year in a carry-on case so almost ready to go once some clothes are added into the case. If I’ve finished any product while away I replace is as soon as I return to avoid last-minute shopping at airports. I have various “master packing lists” on my computer for city breaks at any time of year (as well as long haul, UK breaks, beach or boat holidays) so it takes only a moment to check I have all I will need on my next holiday.

I’m not going to advise anyone how to pack their bags as I am sure you all have your favourite methods, though I would recommend grouping separates – which are all in the same colour range so can be worn together – and packing them in one clear plastic bag.   If you are traveling around with only one or two nights in each place, it does make choosing what to wear much easier.  And wrap anything which might leak, such as suntan lotion, in small plastic bags;  I once had one explode in the hold of the plane and it smeared my clothes with white lotion – in fact most of my travel tips have been learnt by bitter experience.  One such involved my husband having his wallet stolen in Valencia.  He cancelled all the cards in the wallet but unfortunately he and I had joint debit and credit cards so when he cancelled his, mine were useless.  It was only the fact that we were travelling with friends who paid our hotel bill for us and lent us money which we could repay back home that saved us from having to send one of those desperate emails asking friends and relations to send us money, no doubt to be ignored as a scam…. So no more joint credit card accounts, and we each take different cards and try and have both Visa and Mastercard with us, in case of technical problems  with a bank.

Finally, there are of course things I don’t take on holiday and that is the cards that most of us carry around every day, including numerous shopping loyalty cards, library cards, sports club entry cards, membership cards etc.  You are not going to need any of these when you are abroad, but if your wallet is stolen with all these cards in it, it will be a real chore to replace them all (and the loyalty points may be lost for ever).

Happy travelling!

Rome – my favourite capital (after London)

In April 2018 my husband and I went to Rome for, I think, the sixth time.  My first visit was in the 1970s, when I went with my mother for a long weekend.  We visited all the main sights – Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel – and managed to navigate around by bus without the benefit of Google maps! We noted women waiting for buses wearing their fur coats and expensive jewellery which was something you would not see in the suburbs where I grew up (and where my mother still lived) and where if you were on a bus it generally meant you couldn’t afford a car! We ate and drank with great enjoyment all the classic Italian dishes which you can still eat in Rome today.

Our younger daughter lived in Rome for nearly 2 years so that gave us plenty of reasons to re-visit and we did: four times in all including Christmas 2015 (read all about life in Rome on The Curious Sparrow).

Having visited all the main tourist attractions, we could visit the less well-known ones. Our daughter and her boyfriend, Ian, lived for most of her stay in the Testaccio area.  This had formerly been the meat market and abattoir area so never a “smart” district but we liked it all the more for that as it had some very good restaurants where the locals ate and, a Mecca for foodies, the Eataly food store where every type and flavour of Italian foods and wine could be sampled, eaten and bought. Their chocolate and pear pannetone lingers in our memories as the best pannetone we have ever eaten…..

Trains from Fiumicino airport came into the nearby Ostiense train station and the nearest metro stop Piramide was on the Roma Lido line as well as the Metro B line so convenient for Colosseo, Cavour and Termini which interconnected with the Metro A line.  Our daughter had to travel around the whole city for her job so learnt to use the metro and buses very early in her stay, though after a couple of weeks she told us that she would never criticise the London Underground again!

Rome’s metro has only two lines, A and B although a C line is, very slowly, being constructed.  The B line closes at 11.30 at night during the week, and at some of the main stations (such as Termini) the trains are much shorter than the platforms and seem to stop at random somewhere along the length of the platform causing travellers to have to run forward or back to where the train has stopped before they can board.  Given that there are only two metro lines in Rome, we used buses and trams a lot and they were frequent and not expensive, though the driving over the old cobbles made the bus shake so much it felt as if it would rattle my fillings loose in my head…

20160220_105915

On the subject of transport in Rome, the style of driving and parking that the locals exhibit leaves most visitors aghast or lost in admiration!  To park your car in Rome seems just to be that it is stationary and with the engine turned off.  It may be at a jaunty angle to the road, on a corner, or double or even triple parked with banks of cars blocked in. I presume if you are the driver of one of the cars on the kerb side, you just toot your horn for long enough until the driver of the car blocking you in appears and moves it.

We also enjoyed strolling around the Trastevere district, on the other side of the River Tiber to the Centro Storico (or historic old town).  Trastevere is very arty with boutique shops, art galleries, market stalls and pretty cobbled streets.

20160220_095926

We didn’t avoid the main tourist magnets on our visits to Rome – one of the joys of the city is that as you walk or ride your way around, there is the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, just places the cars and people pass as if they were the local pub or the supermarket, not world-famous several thousand-year old buildings. My husband’s favourite Piazza is Piazza Navona so we went there each time we were in Rome to people watch, though our thrifty daughter was so horrified at the price of an espresso that we had to go elsewhere for our coffees.

IMG-20161203-WA0004

One of my favourite lesser known places is the so-called English cemetery in Testaccio. Its proper name is the Protestant Cemetery as people who weren’t Catholic could be buried here so as well as famous Englishmen such as Keats and Shelley being laid to rest here, there are also Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and any other non-Catholic religion.  It is a well-kept cemetery with box hedges around each plot and trees and flowering shrubs making the place attractive and colourful.  But what I like best is the over-the –top statuary such as life-size weeping angels, or the relief of a life-size angel leading away a woman by her hand, and her sobbing husband and weeping children stretch out hands to keep her with them. Wonderful!

So what took us back to Rome in April 2018 when we no longer had our daughter to visit? Of course the food and the gelato were a big draw but the main reason was an artist we both love – Caravaggio.  We have seen many of his paintings in London, particularly at an excellent exhibition at London’s National Gallery called “After Caravaggio” and been to a talk by Andrew Graham-Dixon, an expert who not only talks about Caravaggio’s technique but also his life and the story behind and around each painting.  The majority of Caravaggio’s paintings are in Rome, in the galleries and on the walls of the churches for which where many of them were commissioned.  We visited the stunning Galleria Borghese, set in parkland on one of Rome’s seven hills, which has 6 Caravaggio paintings as well as some marvellous mosaic floors and amazing painted ceilings, and we also enjoyed some early Caravaggio’s in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in the Centro Storico.

IMG-20161203-WA0005

Because we so enjoyed Andrew Graham-Dixon’s talk, we pre-booked a guided walk from an art historian through Context Travel.  We spent a very enjoyable and informative 3 hours with Lauren, an English woman with a PhD in art history, walking  around “Caravaggio’s mean streets” and into three churches so we felt thoroughly steeped in Caravaggio’s short life and understood and enjoyed all the more the paintings we saw.

So why do we love Rome so much?  It is a compact city where many of the main tourist sites can be seen on foot.  The light seems warm and caressing and brings out the wonderful ochres and terracottas of the apartment buildings lining the streets.  It is the fact that so much of Rome is its old, Roman, buildings and systems that the Romans brought to the city such as water fountains at almost every block with clear drinking water brought down through a system of pipes from the surrounding hills.

IMG-20160213-WA0013

Roman food – a sub-branch of Italian food – is superb, whether it is globe artichokes which they cook every which way – including deep-fried – or spaghetti cacio e pepe, the pasta dressed just with cheese and black pepper, or the hand-made ice-cream in every flavour you can imagine and all without artificial colourings or flavourings.

And the Romans themselves seem to have a style and a way of living which enjoys the good things in life.  When the city becomes unbearably hot in August, they escape to the sea or to the hills where many families have a country house the whole family owns and has been passed down through the generations. Food, family and friends, lively conversation, wine, Aperol spritz, a nippy little Piaggio to ride around on, and a passion for football defines many Romans and their way of life seems admirable on many levels.

On our last visit to Rome we flew with British Airways, using Avios (airmiles) topped up with £130 cash. We stayed in the Hotel Ani, 4 nights bed and breakfast (£283.69). Our Caravaggio tour was £160.15, Galleria Borghese tickets £49.70 (bought in advance through an agent, so we paid more but they are notoriously hard to find). As a change from Caravaggio we paid £87.48 for a guided tour of the Domus Aurea (Nero’s palace, currently being excavated and conserved).  We spent £414.35 on food, drink and transport, so a total of £1,125.37 for our 5 day visit.

We mince over to Minsk…

… with apologies for the pun, but I couldn’t resist it! In July 2018 we went on a 3 night trip to Minsk, organised for us by Regent Holidays, who are experts on holidays to Balkan and former Soviet countries, of which Minsk – the capital of Belarus – is one.

We flew with Belavia, the national airline, whose generous luggage policy meant that not only could you carry on the usual small wheelie bag, bag to go under the seat in front, cane or umbrella, plus outer clothes, and a suit in a suit carrier, but also a bouquet of flowers!  My elder daughter and I chuckled over why anyone would risk squashing a bouquet onto a plane, when lo! in the check-in queue at Gatwick (no “bag drop” being available for those who had already checked in online) was a young woman with a bunch of roses.

Belavia check in

I think we were the only English people on the plane, with Russian and Belarusian being the only languages spoken (although I think I may have heard the odd word of English in pre-recorded announcements). Even the cabin crew spoke little or no English; I asked one flight attendant if she had any wine.  I had to repeat the word several times before she understood and said no.  In fact there was no alcohol of any description available in Economy though perhaps they were quaffing vodka in Business class.

On arrival we were met and driven to our hotel, the Hotel Minsk, a large and opulent 4 star hotel situated on one of the main roads in Minsk and just by Independence Square (complete with a statue of Lenin) and the Red Church, so all set up for sightseeing the next day.

We were in need of a light snack before bed so braved the hotel restaurant, replete with chandeliers and marble floors but with no other diners.  However, the food was good, service excellent, and wine certainly available, with a palatable Georgian red hitting the spot.  Belarusian food is similar to that across the former USSR countries which have to survive hard winters – so pork, pork and more pork plus duck, with potatoes, cabbage and mushrooms and berry fruits for sauces, pancake fillings or tarts.

Our first morning sight-seeing did not go well. It drizzled all the time (we had been warned to expect rain, even thunder storms, so had come prepared) but the main problem was navigating. I had checked on my phone the evening before about adding on a data roaming package (Belarus is outside the EU) and my network operator, EE, told me that 24 hours of data would cost a staggering £36! By the morning I decided it would be worth it so that we could use the buses and trams and signed up.  In Rome we found Google maps and directions invaluable for telling us what bus to catch from A to B, and how many stops to travel and the names of every stop so we could count them down. Like Rome, Minsk has only 2 metro lines, which cross, but this leaves large areas of the city not served by metro but by lots of buses, trams and trolley buses which I wanted to use to save having to walk too far.

However, two things conspired against me: one was the Cyrillic alphabet.  All the paper maps and guide books we had with us wrote the street names in Roman lettering, whereas on the ground in Minsk they were in Cyrillic lettering and the two just don’t translate, they don’t even have the same number of characters.  Hotel Minsk was on the Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue, which in Cyrillic is written as shown here:

Minsk street name

It was only by spotting that numbers were at least written the same way that we could calculate that while we were at least on the right road (Nyezalyezhnastsi) trying to find the GUM department store, as we were at 119 heading towards 117 and our hotel was at 11, we were however walking the wrong way and had to turn around.  Buses of course have numbers on them but the destinations were written in Cyrillic. Which was where Google maps were supposed to come in, and this was the second problem as despite having had confirmation of my purchase of £36 worth of data, I couldn’t get it to work, my phone just kept saying “you are offline”.  I had mobile data on, data roaming turned on, but “nyet”. So we walked, trying to work out from the shape of the roads whether or not we were going the right way, and it was only by the second day, when the city centre was taking shape in our minds, that I could see we had walked at least 3 sides of a square to get to the railway station.  On returning home and checking to see if I had been charged £36 for a service I couldn’t use, I found that EE recorded Belarus as being a country “which does not permit data roaming”.  Now you tell me, EE!

However, once I had given up raging at my phone, foot sore and damp we did see a lot of the landmarks I had highlighted in our guide book (The Bradt Guide to Belarus).  Minsk has streets 8 lanes wide and enormous squares (Independence Square -formerly Lenin Square – Victory Square, and  so on) where you can hardly see from one side to the other.  Minsk was pulverised during WW2 and had to be largely rebuilt.  Like many other communist or former communist cities – not just Moscow and Bucharest but Beijing too – these cities seem to be built not for people but for huge marches and parades of military might, for armies and tanks and bazooka carriers to stream along the full width of the streets and for the people to be harangued from a leader in the vast squares.  Belarusians in London must find even our main roads extremely narrow and Trafalgar Square not at all good for demonstrations, with the fountains and lions and plinths and Nelson in the middle on his column.

Minsk is not people friendly in terms of crossing the wide roads either.  There is a lot of fast traffic and the only safe way to cross is by using one of the rare zebra crossings, which are light controlled – and you cross on the red man only if you have the turn of speed of Usain Bolt – or by one of the many underpasses where gopher-like you enter and then pop up in a completely different place than you planned. Though that was probably just us.

On our first day we visited two lovely cathedrals – the Roman Catholic cathedral of St Simeon and St Helena, also called “the Red Church” due not to its politics but the red bricks of which it is built which has outside a moving gift from Nagasaki, a memorial bell, erected in September 2000 as a symbol of unity of both cities having been the victims of nuclear power mis-use, with Belarus very badly affected by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986.

Minsk atomic bell

The Orthodox cathedral of the Holy Spirit was beautiful with gold icons covering all the walls and kindly provided headscarves to borrow and return.  There was a service going on as we peeped inside, with the congregation (mostly elderly women) singing a capella.  Like other Orthodox churches we have visited, there are no pews or seats but people kneel down.  I sympathised with the women with arthritic knees (like me) getting up and down and some kneeling on all floors to touch the floor with their foreheads at times during the service.

We walked an awfully long way to the Railway station, of interest as ever to my husband.  The departures board may well have shown a host of fascinating destinations but we couldn’t decipher any of them (Cyrillic problem again). We noted the so-called “Minsk Gates” which are two matching apartment blocks, built with shops, restaurants, pharmacies, schools and medical facilities all complete in the towers.  A social experiment constructed in 1948 which sounds a little strange to me but probably makes sense in the bitterly cold winters they have in Minsk and not that different from Montreal or Canary Wharf in London which have facilities underground e.g. shops, banks, restaurants (even a cinema in Montreal) designed to avoid the cold winters in Montreal and in Canary Wharf presumably to avoid workers having to leave their desks for too long – or glimpse fresh air and the outside world.

We did find the Metro quite manageable, having only the two lines and having stops translated into Roman lettering  so we could work out where we wanted to go (signs always told us where we were) and we then just counted stops. Strangely, there were signs on swing doors in English saying “Please hold the doors” and people generally did!  On our short visit we found English speakers only in the “hospitality” sector i.e. our hotel, one woman in the museum and one in a café but tourism is still being developed here. We had a Japanese tour group and a German one staying in our hotel one night so perhaps Minsk is starting to appear on the tourist maps.

Just before it closed we managed to find the Tourist Information Office.  We were fairly confident we were in the right street and knew the number  was 13,  but  the office was not at number 13 or anywhere thereabouts so we assumed it had moved.  Round the corner at a tourist map we saw that the street had back alleys so retraced our steps and found Tourist Information down an alley and at the back of number 13. At least the young woman was able to provide us with maps and timings for a tourist bus which we wanted to take the next morning to have an overview of the city.

P1120593

Out second day was brighter, and not raining, so a good start.  We walked down to the Railway station to catch the Tourist Bus, which didn’t operate in the usual “hop-on, hop-off” way, but visitors  were expected to get on at the station and stay with the tour until it returned to the start.  It had an English-speaking commentary which described not just what we were seeing but had a very Soviet – or even Trumpian – way of describing everything with superlatives, the biggest, tallest, most successful, most popular etc.  This tone was amplified in the Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War (World War 2 as we know it) where really detailed exhibits including tanks, planes, fire power and cabinets full of photos, helmets, newspaper cuttings and so on all led visitors to the conclusion that the Soviet Union had won the war (single-handedly it was implied) and released all the countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea from the tyranny and oppression of Nazi occupation by enveloping them in the warm arms of the USSR.

Before we visited the Great Patriotic War Museum we boldly announced to the driver that we wanted to “hop off” the bus and got off down by the Svislach river, and enjoyed wandering round the little Old Town district which has a few old buildings which survived the bombing and where we miraculously found some postcards. We walked over the bridge to the Island of Tears which houses a memorial to the servicemen who lost their lives in the Afghan War and has harrowing carved images of wives and mothers vainly waiting the return of their loved ones.  Nearby on the island is a statue of an angel who weeps real watery tears into his hands and then into a fountain, weeping because he could not save the men’s lives.

While on the tour bus I had noted the numbers on regular buses travelling up Pobediteley Avenue and past the Great Patriotic War Museum so we successfully made our way there by bus and found a young woman working inside who spoke English and could tell us which buses to take to get back to Independence Square for our hotel.  We hadn’t by any means visited everything we wanted to, but time and energy had run out so the Market, the Jewish memorial, the Modern Art Gallery and the Azgur Memorial Museum all remained unvisited.

 Our 3 night holiday with flights, one airport transfer and 3 nights bed and breakfast at the hotel Minsk cost £1,070 through Regent Holidays and we spent a further £194.05 on food, drinks, travelling and entry fees in Minsk, plus £71.37 on our guide book, on travelling to and from Gatwick, and paying for lunch at Gatwick airport as the VIP lounge in the South Terminal yet again was full, so £1,349.31 in total on a very interesting trip.

 

 

 

 

Transnistria: our first “so-called autonomous state

October 2016 saw us visiting both Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and Tiraspol, the capital of our first “so-called autonomous state”, Transnistria – and both within a 3 night holiday and only a three hour flight from London!

 

We enjoyed both capitals and they were an interesting contrast to each other.  We booked the holiday through Regent Holidays, with direct flights from Luton with Air Moldova.  There was none of this decision-making about which departure airport, what day of the week and time of day to fly.  Nope – the flights went on Wednesdays and Sundays so we could fly out on Wednesday and back on Sunday or vice versa.  We chose the latter.  Included in our trip were return transfers from the airport to the Hotel Best Western Flowers Hotel , three night’s bed and breakfast, and the services of an English speaking guide, car and driver to take us into Transnistria for the day.

IMG-20161014-WA0010

Chisinau was an enjoyable city to visit – we learned that it fairly recently split with Romania, that most of the population are ethnically Romanian and that many people have two passports – one Moldovan and one Romanian (thus with EU membership). Moldova was the “wine basket” of the former USSR and we certainly enjoyed some local wines with our meals.  Like many former communist countries in Europe, there were not many places to eat (eating out being a financial luxury) so we ate in the hotel each evening, in the very comfortable (though tiny) bar lounge where food was bought to our table.

IMG-20161012-WA0002

One of the many endearing features of our hotel was a mat in the lifts which changed each morning to have the day of the week written on it.  I sent a photo of this to friends, saying how useful it would be for those older travellers who often forgot what day it was – although my friend pointed out that it would only be useful to the English speaking dementia sufferers….

We had been told in our guide book that when we were out and about in Chisinau we should have our passports on us at all times and we should avoid encounters with the police who might demand a bribe, or we might have  to spend interminable hours in the police station. As I prefer to keep my passport safely locked up in a hotel safe, I carried a certified copy of it but still dived down a side street if I saw a policeman coming towards us – an interesting perspective into the daily life of those living as illegal immigrants or without the correct papers.

 

The city centre provided us with the most staggering potholes – nay, craters – which we have seen which cars sank into and lumbered out of, and similarly for pedestrians in the pavements which led to large detours to get onto safer ground.  But the locals were very friendly, and in the few cafes we did find for lunches, they were English speaking, and we were lucky to be in Chisinau on the annual City Day.  In pre-USSR days, this was the city Saint’s Day celebration.  Cleverly “re-branding” the day instead of abolishing it and causing dissent and underground celebrations, it was changed to being a City Day.  The traffic in the main street was closed off, and stalls were set up on either side of the road selling foodstuff to buy or eat there, drinks, gifts and other goods.  Bands played and people danced and it was very pleasant to wander along (while still keeping an eye out for policemen…)

IMG-20161014-WA0011

The so-called autonomous state of Transnistria and its capital, Tiraspol.

When the USSR broke apart and many countries (including Moldova) re-gained their independence we read that the people of Transnistria did not want to leave communism behind, so formed a separate state, but as it is generally unrecognised by other countries (including Moldova) it is called “the so-called autonomous state of Transnistria”.  We pre-booked a day trip there with Regent Holidays before we left home and went on our day trip with excitement and some trepidation.

We had read an article which told us that visitors to Transnistria would have to bribe the border guards ($5 dollars was considered the correct amount) or they may keep our passports and we would be marooned there – possibly for ever, as we had read on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website that while HM Government would try to offer consular assistance to any Brit in trouble in Transnistria, as there was no consul or embassy in the country (as HM Government did not recognise it) any assistance would be very limited indeed.

We were collected from our hotel by an English speaking guide and local driver.  Our guide’s English was exceptionally fluent and she was amused when we told her what we had read about Transnistria.  Suffice to say, we had no trouble at the border and did not need the 5 dollar equivalent we each had with us for the bribes – but perhaps that was because we were in a local car with local driver who spoke Moldovan/Romanian?  It might have been different if we had crossed on our own.

IMG-20161014-WA0007

Tiraspol was quite startlingly: so clean and new with immaculate buildings and pavements with not a pot hole in sight.  There were Russian monuments, including a moving one to those who had died in the wars in Afghanistan, and statues of Lenin. They have their own local roubles as currency and the Russians keep a “peace-keeping” force there.

IMG-20161014-WA0008

The huge supermarket was extremely well-stocked with every fresh food you could imagine, (as well as racks of different vodkas) and quails’ eggs displayed next to hens’ eggs, as an everyday food, whereas at home, as I told our guide, they tended to be luxury items not generally available and usually displayed in supermarkets next to smoked salmon. There is a new football stadium, but the matches are only with other teams in Transnistria or with Moldovan (and possibly Romanian?) teams, so no World Cup excitement for them!

The Post Office was much more like the Soviet Union that we had visited in the 1970’s.  There was a large table in the middle with people wrapping parcels and no open service points but ones with tiny windows and grills.  If you wanted to buy stamps (which we did) the woman serving passed us a file with plastic pockets inside, each containing different stamps of differing denominations. We pointed to the ones we wanted and our guide kindly paid for us as we did not have any of the right money. The stamps were of use only for collectors as they can only be used for post within Transnistria or to the few other “so-called autonomous states” which formed in other parts of Asia after the break up of the USSR.

It was a fascinating visit and one we are unlikely ever to be able to replicate.

We paid Regent Holidays £1,300 for our 3 night’s accommodation, flights, transfers and our day trip to Transnistria.  We spent only £102.25 on eating and drinking over a 3 day period so our holiday cost us £1,402.25 for a really memorable trip.

Reykjavik: the western edge of Europe

I had wanted to visit Reykjavik since the 1970s – something about it just caught my imagination – but the cost of a visit was far beyond my budget so I had to wait until the disastrous financial crash in Iceland in 2008 which suddenly made it affordable for tourists.  Every cloud has a silver lining ……

And Reykjavik – and the whole of Iceland – was worth the wait.  It is a fabulous place, and one that every geology student should visit as the whole island feels still alive and moving and not yet “settled” or “finished” as other countries do.  As well as the famous Strokkur Geyser which gave its name to all geysers in other countries, jets of steam shoot out of grassy slopes and we were told that Icelanders have woken up perhaps to find enormous cracks have appeared in the hall of their house with steam coming out. This unlimited supply of underground hot water means that, for example, the outdoor car parks in Reykjavik have under-floor heating so that when the inevitable snow falls, they are kept clear.

SONY DSC

There are stunning waterfalls, an icy lagoon with glaciers calving into it, and of course, active volcanoes such as the infamous Eyjafjallajokull which erupted in 2010 and caused a cloud of volcanic ash which grounded flights worldwide for a week or more.  People were inevitably stuck abroad and for those of us at home in London, life without any planes overhead was strangely peaceful: we hadn’t realised how much aircraft noise we put up with every day until the noise wasn’t there.

Iceland is a small country, with a population of only about 330,000 (less than the London Borough of Barnet -384,000 – for those to whom this comparison will be useful) with a tremendous history as well as geology.  It has no indigenous people but was settled by Nordic people who sailed there via Ireland where they “persuaded” young women to come with them to settle the island, so the Icelanders have Irish as well as Nordic blood and their language is apparently similar to Old Norse.

P1100048

But back to our visit to Reykjavik.  We first visited in July 2010 for 5 nights on a trip put together by a very helpful agent at Discover the World.  When I told her which hotel we were thinking of booking she queried whether we were planning to hire a car while we were in Iceland as the hotel was a good choice for drivers as it had free car parking.  As we weren’t planning to hire a car, she recommended the Plaza Hotel which was absolutely central in Reykjavik so we could walk to everything we wanted to see in the city.  Our Discover the World agent also suggested we take a later flight out of Heathrow which saved us a very welcome £150.  We arrived at about 11pm and were met by taxi at the airport (as arranged) and as it was still broad daylight, it didn’t feel we were arriving late. In fact, we never saw darkness in Iceland as it was still light when we went to bed and light when we woke up. And not just light as in “not dark” or “slightly dusky” but glorious radiant light almost as spectacular as we saw on a ship above the Arctic circle, when the sun shining at midnight gleamed so brightly off the pack ice that we needed sunglasses to be able to go onto the deck.

We spent a day wandering around Reykjavik city centre and visited the opinion- dividing Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral, the Saga museum, the Culture House, the Settlement Exhibition 871+2 and a temporary photographic exhibition showing the Northern Lights in all their splendour.  My cynical husband was convinced they were all photo-shopped and said so, loudly and several times, which was a bit embarrassing as the photographer-exhibitor was in the gallery. It may have been sour grapes on my husband’s part, as we have never seen the Northern Lights in splendour or otherwise, despite having paid a small fortune to visit northern Sweden in peak Northern Lights time in February one year (also with Discover the World).  We were the only two of the 130 people on the plane home who had gone to bed, or been having dinner or whatever while the lights chose to cover the sky to the delight of our fellow travellers.

 

We noticed, particularly by the waterfront in Reykjavik, several large buildings which were unfinished and with no work going on which we assumed were victims of the financial crash from which we were benefitting.  There was one aspect of the life of the inhabitants of Reykjavik that was well ahead of Britain at the time and that was their use of debit or credit cards for all payments, no matter how small.  I bought a hot dog from a stall which allegedly sold the best hot-dogs in the world (where Bill Clinton had apparently enjoyed a hot dog) and I paid with a debit card which seemed very odd for such a small transaction.  They didn’t need a signature nor a pin number but merely swiped the card through the till and gave a receipt – one swipe and done, so far quicker than cash or plastic, as Britain had not at the time had contactless payments on debit cards.

SONY DSC

We went on several day trips out of Reykjavik, seeing the countryside, the Geyser and the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, the Thingvellir – the site of the oldest parliament in the world, which translates into English as the splendidly named “Thing” or Althing (National Assembly) and taking a boat ride out of the harbour whale watching.  We bathed in the Blue Lagoon and listened with great interest to our English-speaking guide talk to us about life in Iceland and the rage that the locals felt at the financial crash and what it meant for them as individuals to have to endure a drop in their pensions and incomes and be told to “work harder” – and this in a country where many people already held down two jobs.  Disbelief was expressed at the fact that so many organisations and individuals had snapped up financial deals offering 7% or 8% return on investments – how did we imagine that a small country (smaller than the London Borough of Barnet, remember?) could produce that level of profit? There seemed to be a sense of betrayal, that the Icelanders had trusted their politicians and then found they had lied and cheated and profited personally while the country headed for financial ruin.

We saw a political protest while we were in Reykjavik and found it almost endearing.  The Prime Minister’s House was near the centre of the city and was guarded by two policemen, one each side of the front door.  The protest took the form of a “noisy protest” with the protesters (men, women, children and dogs on string) banging saucepans, metal lids, tooting horns, blowing whistles and generally creating what they hoped was sufficient noise to disrupt the PM from her work.  We suspected she had nipped out the back door and was in the library.  The police looked on amiably and then it started to rain and the protesters returned to their minibus and headed off.

We really liked the local Reykjavik people.  Like many Brits, they go in for binge drinking at weekend.  Not for them a glass or two of wine with a meal and knowing one’s limit and sticking to it, savouring the taste of a good beer, a single malt or a special cocktail: no! we were told that on Friday and Saturday nights they go out with the express purpose of getting drunk. As I said, like many Brits. Despite this, I felt Reykjavik to be the safest city to go out on my own at night.  The reason I was on my own one night was that there was an important football match (World Cup? European championship?) which my husband wanted to watch and I didn’t so he went in search of a television and like-minded supporters and I took my book and went out for dinner and drinks and felt more comfortable doing this on my own on a Saturday night than I have almost anywhere else in the world.

I have to mention the odd taste in food the Icelanders have, however.  They don’t get 10 out of 10. On principle we didn’t eat whale meat nor puffin (such endearing little birds!) but the Icelanders are also fond of “hakarl” which, we were informed,  is Greenland shark left to rot underground for 6 months before it becomes digestible…. Mmmmm! However, Icelandic lamb is delicious, as is their skyr yoghurt.

Our second visit to Reykjavik was in August 2016 and was by ship as we were sailing to Greenland via Iceland and the Faroe Islands. We caught a bus from the port into town and marvelled at the Harpa concert hall which had been finished since we last visited.  It is a really stunning piece of architecture.  Many cities choose their opera house or concert hall to be dramatically different designs, works of art which makes a statement about that city: the Sydney Opera House of course, but more recently the Oslo concert hall, the dramatic Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg and to that short list must be added the Harpa in Reykjavik.  Its design reflects the country so well, with the outside covered in moving, shimmering “tiles” which shimmer pinky-grey or grey-green, just like herring scales as homage to the Icelandic fishing industry.  Inside, the structure of the building includes hexagonal shapes to reflect the shape of the basalt rock on the coast of Iceland.

 

While in Reykjavik that time we took a boat trip out around the harbour – a small boat with about a dozen passengers, and us the only English. The English-speaking guide also had an English style of humour and we accepted her gloating over Iceland beating England in that summer’s European Championship football and in return she consoled us on the result of the Brexit referendum and suggested Britain should join Iceland and the Faroe Islands as a federation of small islands in the North Sea which have fishing industries.  It was a tempting offer ……

On our boat tour we had another view of the Harpa from the sea, and also of a strange white building in the middle of nowhere.  We were told it was a gift to Iceland from Yoko Ono.  She gave it to the country in recognition of Iceland’s peaceful nature and it having no standing army.  Apparently it is illuminated from within after dark.  It made me wonder how the process happens – does Yoko Ono phone the Prime Minister and says “I have decided to give Iceland an illuminated dome”?  And can the Prime Minister in such a situation only reply “How lovely! Thank you”?

P1100032

After we have been on holiday somewhere, many people ask us if we would go again.  We usually reply that there are too many other places to visit first but unusually, even after two visits, we would like to visit Iceland again, particularly to explore the north and east of the country.

Our 5 nights in Reykjavik with flights by Iceland air from Heathrow, bed and breakfast accommodation in the Hotel Plaza, airport transfers and 3 pre-booked excursions cost £1,652.30 for the two of us, booked through the excellent Discover the World. We spent an additional £591 on eating, drinking, and a whale-watching boat trip so a total of £2,243.69.

 

 

The Perfect Hotel room

It seems remarkably difficult for hotels to put everything in their bedrooms which most or all travellers would want, and a hotel having four or even five stars does not seem to make a noticeable difference. I have stayed in several hundred hotel rooms by now, and have a very clear idea of what I would like to find in my room.

Let’s start with the perfect bed: it needs to be wide enough (and if it’s a double bed that means queen-sized at least) and comfortable – not too hard and not too soft – and it should go without saying, not squeaky or creaky no matter how often sleepers toss and turn. There needs to be a choice of pillows, ideally one medium firm and thick and one medium soft and thin for each sleeper.  If even more variables are in the wardrobe or available on request, that is a bonus. I have once or twice found a pillow so unforgivably hard that I have used a folded towel inside the pillow case instead.  I don’t understand French-style square pillows, which leave the edges of the mattress without a pillow, and bolsters are unforgiveable and have no place in the 21st century!

Bed linen needs to be suitable for the weather both outside and inside the room, which may include air-conditioning or heating, depending on the time of year, and can be typical for that country so a permutation of duvets, thinner quilts, sheets and blankets are all fine so long as various permutations can be made to suit the likes of the sleepers.  Again, spare blankets in the wardrobe for chilly mortals are a plus.

IMG-20161012-WA0000

Guests spend most time in their room sleeping, so the room needs to be dark enough and quiet enough to make a good night’s sleep probable.  Unless the room has roll-down built-in blinds (often found in Germany and Italy) which provide almost 100% darkness, then curtains with blackout linings are needed and these must cover the whole width and depth of the window, with no gaps for the light to come through. Double or triple glazing is really the only way to guarantee a quiet room although most experienced travellers will carry earplugs just in case (or in case they share a room with a snorer or are unlucky enough to have noisy neighbours).

Now furniture: a bed-side table for each sleeper with enough space for a glass of water, clock, mobile, earplugs, box of tissues, book, spectacles and so on.  Having to put these on the floor is not a good plan.  There then needs to be a wardrobe with hanging space with plenty of hangers and not the variety which you cannot lift down but only separate the hanger from the hook, the presence of which shows that the hotel believes its guests are thieves.  The hangers should be suitable for trousers, dresses, jackets and also skirts and trousers which have loops at each inside waistband so the hangers need to have indents at each end to hold these.

Shelves or drawers are also needed and these may be in the wardrobe and/or in the bed-side table and/or in the desk/dressing table unit.  Hotels which have mostly business guests for one night tend to skimp on these but should provide a basic minimum for underwear, tops and accessories.  I particularly appreciate hotels which treat the entry area (the part of the room created by carving out space for a bathroom) as a hall, and have hooks on the wall to hang outdoor coats, a shoe rack and a large full-length mirror on the wall and these are most often found in countries where it is cold or rainy at times so guests want to hang their outdoor clothes away from the dry clothes in wardrobe.

IMG-20151227-WA0000

I like a safe in the room with easy to follow instructions for putting in our own 4-digit code and the lock has to work faultlessly every time: having a passport stuck in the room safe is no joke when checking out of the room to catch a flight.

What accessories do I want to find? I want at least two waste bins, one in the bedroom and one in the bathroom and I like a box of tissues in each room too.  A decent coffee machine is great but if milk is not provided I will need a fridge to keep milk (and white wine for my aperitifs) cool once I have bought them from the supermarket.  I don’t need an iron or an ironing board, and I do like a hairdryer but only if it is powerful enough – 1200 watts? – and not wired into the bathroom as I like to dry my hair sitting down in front of the mirror (which I hope is above the desk/dressing table area) which also frees up the bathroom for my husband to shave.

Which brings me to power sockets: there really can’t be too many! I like at least one each side of the bed (preferably two) so that I can charge my kindle and mobile over night while still having them within reach.  I like at least two by the mirror above the desk/dressing table for my hairdryer and hairstyler and I like one beside a full length mirror too. A few more for my husband to charge his cameras, phone and tablet and for us to plug-in a kettle are also needed and we don’t want to have to unplug table lamps, the fridge or the TV to use them.  Too many hotel rooms seem to me to be designed for male travellers so provide power points above a desk area to plug in a laptop but no mirror for someone to apply make-up or style their hair so the positioning of mirrors is important too – at least one above the desk/dressing table area, and a full length one in an area where you can step back far enough to see yourself in full length and not tucked round the corner where you have to navigate the small table and chairs and the edge of the bed to look in it.

Lighting is as important as power points. There needs to be a hall light, bedside lights, lighting by chairs and over the desk mirror and I like a good bright overhead light too even if it is mostly used when unpacking or packing. I have not forgiven the XXX hotel in Hove, which had 3 lamps in the room, none of which had a light more than 40 watts.  I asked reception for some stronger light bulbs but was told they didn’t have any.  This was obviously a lie as the lights in the corridor outside the room were a good 100 watt  strong.  We were tempted to unscrew the fittings and take a bulb into our room, but sense prevailed and instead I used the head torch I had with me to peer into the depths of my case to find what I needed.

We expect free wifi in every hotel nowadays but I also need it to be a secure site and I need it to be able to send photos via What’s App as that is what I do most days when we return to our room from a day sight-seeing.

IMG-20170217-WA0003

What about the bathroom?  I don’t take baths so will always want a shower and I prefer a large walk through shower, but can cope with a smaller shower cubicle tucked into a corner and if I have to, a shower inside the bath. What I hate are plastic shower curtains instead of a glass screen as they wrap themselves around your damp body in a most unpleasant way.

There needs to be an extractor fan for steam and smells; a bonus is a bathroom mirror with a heated panel that will not steam up. I love magnifying mirrors which extend out from the wall – aimed at shavers, they are perfect for makeup and in one Swiss hotel the magnifying mirror was also illuminated: I think I could have performed simple eye surgery using it. There have to be enough towels.  “Enough” in my book is a large towel for after the shower, plus a smaller one for drying my hair plus a hand towel – one of each for each guest – plus a bath mat. A towelling robe and slippers are a good. I expect soap, miniature shower gels and shampoos to be provided; body lotion and hair conditioner are a bonus as is a surprisingly useful mini toothpaste and toothbrush so that before heading off for an early flight I can brush my teeth after breakfast when I have already packed my own toothpaste and toothbrush. And an obvious point which some hotels ignore: there need to be one or two hooks in the bathroom behind the door or on the wall so that clothes being taken off or put on don’t have to be hooked onto the door knob.

Some other aspects of a hotel room can be the view and temperature controls.  If the hotel is by the sea or river, then a sea or river view is wonderful but these are usually “extras” which need to be paid for, which is fair enough.  I try not to be in a city when it is hot, but air-conditioning is always welcome just in case, providing it can be operated independently of the main hotel settings – and the same goes for heating. I can’t sleep in a room if it’s too hot, either through central heating or the sun!

I think that is about the end of my list, and reading back, it does make me seem really picky but having stayed in so many hotel rooms I have over the years learned  what will make my stay in a particular room very enjoyable, or less enjoyable, or even unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.   All a hotel owner or manager has to do after all is to provide a room for a good night’s sleep; it shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

 

 

UK capital cities: Belfast

Belfast was the last of the capital cities of Great Britain that we visited, and our visit in March 2017 left us with mixed feelings about the city. The city centre itself is small and our excellent guide book (the Insight Guide’s Great Breaks: Belfast) had self-guided walking tours around the different areas or quarters of the city with the River Lagan a useful orientation point. As we walked around there were obvious signs of “euro money” being spent on restorations and new builds and as only 9 months’ ago Great Britain as a whole had voted to leave the EU, we were acutely aware that this funding would in due course dry up.

Our hotel, the Belfast Holiday Inn, was a short walk away from the city centre at Donegall Square, with City Hall in its centre, and we followed the recommended walks in the guide book, mostly noting buildings from outside (we declined spending £8 each to go into the Cathedral).  We particularly enjoyed the St George’s Market, the oldest covered market in Ireland, now given a second lease of life and full of stalls selling all manner of fresh food, farmers’ market style, and food to eat there or take away, with live music playing and on the upper mezzanine floor lots of cafes ideal for enjoying people watching over a coffee or bite to eat.

I believe Belfast boasts the only pub in Britain owned by the National Trust (apparently bought on the recommendation of Sir John Betjeman) and it is a sight worth seeing. The Crown Liquor Saloon is set on Great Victoria Street and has gloriously tiled walls and booths with wooden walls and a bell that waves a flag for service (though we took the traditional route of going to the bar).  We were both a little surprised to find the pub so full by 5 pm on a Friday with people who had obviously finished work for the day and were celebrating the start of the weekend in the traditional way!

We had visited the excellent Titanic Museum en route back from Greenland, so did not go out there again, but it is well worth a visit, showing not only how the famous ship was built and how it reached its end but also has masses of artefacts showing how a third class and first-class cabin was furnished and has pictures and furniture of the state rooms so you can really get a feel of life on board this fabled liner.  As they say in Belfast “It was perfect when it left here!” In the grounds of the City Hall there is a poignant Titanic Memorial to the “eleven gallant men” who were the shipyard’s guarantee group checking performance targets on the Titanic’s maiden – and only – voyage, all of whom drowned.  In 2012 another memorial was unveiled, listing the names of everyone who died in the tragedy.

IMG-20170310-WA0006

Our mixed feelings about Belfast came with our Taxi Tour, which we had pre-booked before leaving home.  We were collected from our hotel by the driver of a black cab who drove us around the streets and districts in Belfast where “the troubles” in the 1970s had centred (“troubles” being an understated word for a “war” between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland where the British Army tried to keep the peace and where many civilians, police and soldiers in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland were murdered) and where now tourists like us go and look at the murals vivid on the walls of houses.

The “Good Friday” agreement signed in 1998 we believed had effectively ended the fighting so what shocked us was to find that the roof-high concrete barriers, barbed wire and even metal grids over back gardens are still there, dividing the streets of social housing where Catholics live from those where Protestants live.  Not only are the walls still there but entry in and out is banned at night after curfew time and the people are locked in so firmly that if an ambulance or fire engine is needed during curfew, they have to drive a three-mile round trip to get to where they are going, which must at times lead to loss of life.  In my innocence, I assumed the walls were maintained by the city council or some authority such as the police and asked our guide why the residents didn’t just make holes in them to be told “They like them; it makes them feel safe”. Safe from a neighbour who looks the same as you, sounds the same, follows a Christian religion – it’s crazy and my husband found it particularly depressing, along with the glorification on the murals of “heroes” who were feted for having murdered innocent men, women and children.

This inability/refusal to compromise and let the hatred go also shows in a weekly protest (“the Loyal Peoples’ protest”) outside the City Hall where the protest, if I remember right, is about the number of days in the year that the Union Flag is flown.

IMG-20170311-WA0011

On a much cheerier note, we enjoyed an extremely good value day trip on the Sunday (again pre-booked from home) which took us up to the famous Giant’s Causeway via the Bushmills Distillery and Carrickfergus Castle.  The sun shone and sparkled on the sea as we drove on the Causeway Coastal Route and we could appreciate the lovely countryside just a short trip outside Belfast city centre.  The trip was a good 8 hour’s duration and cost us only £20 per head!

We had also booked two restaurants before leaving home and were delighted to find that one of them The Ginger Bistro, was only a few yards from our hotel.  The food was delicious, the service warm and friendly, and as they were “between” alcohol licences, we brought our own wine and beers and were charged a modest corkage so paying only £59.00 for 3 delicious courses.

We flew with Ryan Air into Belfast International airport for £83.19.  Our 3 nights in the Belfast Holiday Inn cost us £367.00, our Giant’s Causeway trip was £40 and other spending on food and outings added £354.37 so our weekend in total cost us £844.56.

 

 

 

 

 

Moscow: frozen in time

My  very strong memories of Moscow (and of Berlin, which I will cover in a later post) relate to a time in the 1970’s before the “Iron Curtain” and the Berlin Wall came down, before the USSR broke up into different countries and the Cold War ended – for a time at least – and “glasnost” began, and as I have not visited Moscow since, it is frozen in my memory as it was at the time.

I went to Moscow with my mother in November 1977 for a long weekend organised by Thomson Holidays. It was one of my most interesting weekend holidays and perfectly demonstrated how only a short flight can take you to another world. Our trip coincided with the October Revolution Parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the revolution which involved amazing processions along the wide roads and into Red Square.  We were staying in the Intourist Hotel and could watch the parade from one of the windows on our corridor, many flights up, with the tanks, marching soldiers and display of military hardware very small below us while we were “supervised” by a large and impassive man in a suit.

March past jpeg
The tanks and troops parade past our hotel and into Red Square

It was generally believed at that time that tourists were “observed” or spied on and believing our hotel bedroom was bugged added to the excitement of the holiday!  We followed all the traditions of that time. taking out nice soap, tampons or tights to leave as tips for our chambermaids as those items were, we were told, in very short supply in Moscow.

It was late November when we visited, but not as cold as I imagined it was going to be.  I wore an ordinary winter coat, long leather boots and had a hat and gloves with me but the air was dry and so we weren’t as cold as we would have been in England where when it snows – and in winter generally – the cold weather has dampness to it.  The hotel was warm and the rooms had treble glazing at the windows – a fixed double glazed outer layer and then a space of about 4 inches or more with a sliding pane into the room – the space between proving just perfect for keeping beers cold!

Hats and coats
My mother, dressed for a Moscow winter visit

We were on full board at the Hotel Intourist which was where we met for the first time Russian waiters, who have a knack of never catching the eye of any guest who wants attention or to order something. You could starve, choke, or die of thirst without a Russian waiter ever coming to your assistance.  You needed to be punctual for meals as the waiters would serve each course at your place, regardless of whether you were there or not, or whether or not you had eaten the course before, so a late-comer would find, soup, starter, main course and pudding all set down on the table, in varying degrees of congealment.  The Hotel Intourist was demolished in 2002 and a few mourned its passing, with most agreeing with the views in this  news article that the hotel was famous for bugged rooms, surly staff and  cold food and featured in many Cold War spy dramas, but for us, as visitors to Moscow in 1977, its very flaws added excitement to our stay.

The meals also showed up some cultural stereotypes among travellers: the English were so used to having a boiled egg served in an egg cup (especially if it was soft boiled) that we were quite stumped when served them without an egg cup, just a tea spoon.  An enterprising American at the table made a sort of egg cup in the palm of his hand out of a paper napkin where he then placed his egg and ate it as normal, and we followed suit.

The city of Moscow was visually absolutely stunning when we were there with white snow, the dark green of the fir trees, dark grey of the roads and buildings and then the dramatic contrast of the huge red flags and banners which were put up to mark the anniversary, and the bright gold of the cupolas on the Kremlin inner buildings.

Banners

We walked around Red Square and into the famous GUM department store.  There was an underpass to cross the road to get to GUM but as there was not a car in sight in any direction, we ignored the underpass and stepped off the pavement when a loud whistle was blown by a large, armed soldier on duty, who pointed at the underpass.  Sensibly, we took that route on the philosophy of never arguing with a man with a gun.  A colleague told me recently that her father lives in Moscow and that the roads are so crowded with traffic that rents are very much higher for apartments near Metro stations so that one does not have to spend hours travelling across the city by car.  I can’t imagine that – we saw one or two cars at a time right in the city centre.

Red Square 2
Red Square – with hardly a car in sight

The Moscow Metro was famous at the time for having wonderful chandeliers and, compared with the London Underground, being really clean (remember that smoking was still allowed on the London Underground at this time, so spent matches and cigarette stubs joined the general debris).  What surprised me was there being no advertisements anywhere – I was used to reading them when going down the escalators and waiting on the platforms. In fact, not just the Metro but everywhere in Moscow was tremendously clean, with not a cigarette butt or sweet wrapper on the street anywhere and, with the policy of not allowing people to be unemployed, the streets were swept clear of any snow long before we woke up each morning.

Roubles could not be bought outside the USSR and tourists such as we shopped in tourist shops using our own, hard currencies which we used to pay for the usual Beryuska dolls, lovely red, black and gold painted wood ware such as bowls and spoons, amber ornaments and other souvenirs which were novel at the time. I also bought brightly coloured packs of cigarettes as much for the cigarettes themselves as the packs, as the cigarettes had a very long cardboard filter, designed so that one could smoke them even with very thick gloves on.  Clever!

 

 

The staggering arithmetical skills of the bar staff at the Intourist hotel bar still impresses me in memory: if we paid with, for example, a British £5 note we would receive change in a mixture of coins, such as (in these pre-euro days) French francs, German Deutschmarks, Dutch guilders and British pounds, shillings and pence which, once back at our table, made up the correct money at approximately the current exchange rates for each currency –  and all taken out of the till with great speed and without the bar staff particularly looking at what they were doing.

We were guided around the city by an English speaking guide, whose English may have been good, but her head-counting led much to be desired.  My mother and I must have lagged behind when in the Kremlin as we became detached from the group and when we came out it was nowhere to be seen! It won’t surprise you to know that we spoke no Russian, but went up to a soldier on duty in the street and asked him for the Hotel Intourist and he pointed at a bus stop nearby. Each bus that stopped, we asked “Hotel Intourist?” with a questioning inflexion to which we had the reply “Niet” until one bus when the reply was “Da”.  We could recognise our enormous hotel once we came near it so knew when to get off.  And looking back, I am sure we hadn’t bought tickets!

Golden domes

Our 3 night package holiday also included a visit to the ballet to see the world famous Bolshoi Ballet perform “Swan Lake”.  It was a wonderful experience, not just to see the ballet, and the theatre building itself but also the enormous cloakrooms where everyone left their winter outer clothes and which were so well-staffed that the queues of hundreds of people retrieving their coats at the end of the performance moved extremely fast. One element surprised us however – the ending of the ballet was changed (presumably to celebrate the Anniversary of the Revolution?) so there was a happy ending with the swan princess Odette going off to marry and live happily ever after with the Prince, rather than the usual ending of the dramatic dying swan dance. We stayed in our seats for several minutes after the curtain calls had finished, dismayed.

It was a fascinating experience to visit Moscow in the 1970s, a world away from London and yet just a relatively short plane ride away.  I certainly can’t remember the cost, but as I worked at the time for Thomson Holidays (now Tui), my mother and I would have enjoyed the benefit of the staff 60% discount off the cost of the package, which included flights, transfers, hotel accommodation, full board and guides!  All we spent our own money on was drinks and souvenirs. I doubt I will go back to Moscow but it remains  vivid in my memory.

 

 

 

Dublin: rain doesn’t have to spoil a city break!

What is the perfect weather for a city visit?  I can cope with cold weather – although an icy wind straight off the North Sea drove us into too many cafes for hot chocolate when we visited Antwerp – but provided you are prepared for it and have the right clothes, cold weather can be fine.  Sunshine is lovely and brightens the mood, although I definitely don’t want  high temperatures (even worse if coupled with humidity) on a city visit as pounding the pavements is not enjoyable when all I want to do is sit down in a cool, dark place with a cold drink – which is more or less what I did when we visited Milan and it was nearly 40 degrees centigrade so after a brief, mad, visit to the roof of its famous cathedral (heat rises, remember?) I sat inside the cathedral in the cool until it was time to meet my husband.

Rain is the worst weather.  Yes, you are inside a lot on a city visit, in cathedrals and castles, galleries and museums, but rain almost invariably means a grey sky, and you are forever putting umbrellas up and down and the chances for people-watching are much reduced if you can’t sit in an open air café and watch the world go round.

Rain certainly didn’t help our day trip to Vienna (capital of Austria), which we visited by train on a two and a half hour journey from Budapest.  Ah! The thrill of the departures board at the Budapest main railway station with cities in Europe in every direction reached by just jumping on a train… However, the relentless drizzle and grey skies once we arrived in Vienna left us with a poor impression of the city which I’m sure isn’t fair and it deserves a re-visit to adjust the balance.  We walked around the old centre (somewhat impeded by a roller-bladers race on at the time, so no bus tours of the city were operating) and bought and ate chocolate Mozart balls. We caught a metro to St Stephen’s Square, (but the eponymous Cathedral was closed at the time) so we walked to and admired from outside the State Opera House, the Hofburg Palace and the Rathaus (City Hall), but didn’t visit the Schonbrunn Palace – as I said, Vienna is due another visit – it certainly boasts enough museums to keep even me happy… And of course we had the classic Wiener schnitzel for lunch!

Rain also dampened our opinion of Bern (capital of Switzerland) which we visited again by train for the day, this time from Geneva (where it also rained). At least Bern has very attractive covered walkways or colonnades along the main streets in its medieval Old Town so we could walk around and window shop without rain dripping down our necks. It also has a really interesting Einstein Museum which offers different temporary exhibitions as well as an excellent one on Einstein. In addition, the city has a splendid Cathedral (apparently the tallest in Switzerland), a quirky clock tower called the Zytglogge Clock Tower and Bern possesses a bear pit, with brown Pyrenean bears living in it as  living versions of the symbols of the city’s history and the bear on the flag of Bern. The trouble is, rain also doesn’t help when you want to take photographs, whether it be of bears or clock towers …..

However, the exception which proved the “rain rule” for us was Dublin! Yes, it drizzled for most of our visit to the capital of Eire in 2015, but as it was March and Ireland has a bit of a reputation for rain (you don’t get to be called the  “Emerald Isle” without having a lot of rain to green the grass), we came with hooded waterproof jackets and umbrellas and enjoyed Dublin so much we gave it the rare accolade of wanting more – unusually, we left feeling that the 2 nights we spent there were not enough and there were still lots of attractions to visit which we hadn’t had time for, and had the weather been dry and bright, we could have visited even more places!

We stayed at the aptly named “Hotel Central” which was just that, being a few minutes walk off Dame Street, College Green and the River Liffey.

I chose the hotel partly for its location and partly as it has a famously attractive Library Bar i.e. a bar which looks like a traditional library with studded leather wing chairs and little drinks tables – oh, and books of course.  The problem was, the bar was so attractive that many non-residents came to drink there and we never managed to be there at the right time to get a seat in two of the lovely leather chairs!  The downside of the hotel was noise – we had a room on the corner of two streets and the noise of buses and lorries passing – or even worse, beeping while they reversed – woke me up many times in the night. If we stayed in the Hotel Central again, we would definitely ask for a quiet room!

Traffic noise aside, however, the hotel staff were absolutely lovely and couldn’t have done more for us, including lending my husband some Tippex to paint out an incorrect crossword answer and sending their handyman to our room to try and mend the retractable handle on my husband’s wheelie suitcase, which wasn’t retracting.  He managed to move it back a bit, and then offered to saw the offending handle off, an offer my husband after some thought declined (although the case did go to the charity shop on our return home).

20150329_124556

Like many city breaks, we had studied the guide book (in this case, the excellent Dublin guide from Lonely Planet) , checked timings for everything we wanted to see and were up and about early, starting our first full day with a “hop-on, hop off” tour with the Dublin Bus Company.  We “hopped off” at the first stop, the Kilmainham Gaol (or jail) as we had read that there were always queues for the guided tours and you couldn’t pre-book.  We waited for about half an hour until we were able to get onto one of the tours where we peered into cells, heard the role some of the inmate’s played in Ireland’s fight for independence and saw the bullet-marked yard where some of the same inmates met their death.

20150329_095205

Back on the bus, our next stop was the Guinness Store House.  Guinness is famed in my world for being the only alcoholic drink I don’t like and even here, with my free pint of draught Guinness, I couldn’t manage more than a couple of sips.  However, we enjoyed the slick Store House presentation and our former careers in advertising made us appreciate the skill and charm in old prints, promotional material and iconographic commercials on show.

Continuing the alcoholic theme of the day we took a guided tour of the Old Jameson Distillery where I enjoyed a hot toddy (made with Jameson whiskey of course) a drink just made for a drizzly day. Apart from brewing and distilling, much of Dublin’s history echoes the tragic history of the country, including the mass emigration after the potato famine and the Famine Memorial is a poignant monument to this time in Ireland’s history set beside the Liffey near the Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship (we ran out of time to go round the ship).  And as a stunning reminder of Ireland’s cultural and religious history, we beat the queues with an early morning visit to see the illuminated Book of Kells, dating from around AD 800, in Trinity College.

We ate extremely well in Dublin, making reservations from home at the Fade Street Social for one evening and The Winding Stair for another and the food was really world class and the staff so warm and friendly that we felt as if they were welcoming us as regulars who dined there every week. We were struck by the fact that every café, pub or restaurant we went into or passed was full, even though Ireland was in the throws of a severe economic recession; it must have passed Dublin by, unless the diners and drinkers were drinking to forget their financial woes.

The warmth and friendliness of the Irish is a bit of a cliché, but we certainly found it to be true in Dublin, from the bus drivers to the hotel staff, waiters and bar staff and even ordinary people in a pub.  We went into the traditional and picturesque Stag’s Head pub and it was heaving.  However, while my husband went to the bar for our drinks, a couple of couples seated nearby all scrunched up around their table so that there was room for the two of us to sit down too: I couldn’t imagine Londoners going out of their way to accommodate strangers in a London pub.

20150330_121454

What had we run out of time for? Mostly galleries as several of the ones on my list – the Hugh Lane gallery, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Chester Beatty Library and the National Museum of Ireland are all closed on Mondays, which was one of our days in Dublin (and a day I am increasing avoiding on European city breaks as so many places of interest are shut on this day – and sometimes Tuesday too).  Had the weather been good and had we more time, we would also have visited the Dublin Zoo and Phoenix Park.

We spent a total of £665.08 for our 2 night trip to Dublin. Using Avios/air miles to fly with British Airways meant our return flights cost us only £70 for the taxes for both of us.  Our stay at the Hotel Central was £193.09 and we spent £401.99 on some very good meals, bus tickets, entrance fees and so on.

The language issue (and more)

I am quite often asked if I speak many – or even any – foreign languages  as we travel around these lesser known cities in Europe and I am ashamed to say, the answer is no.  Apart from ‘O’ levels in German and Latin (of some use when reading notices in France, Spain or Italy) and some level of understanding of Italian, Spanish and French menus, that is it.  Only some understanding, however.  We have never forgotten a meal in Palma, (capital of Majorca) many years ago in a small restaurant by the harbour filled with locals.  No-one spoke any English but we discussed the menu and I ordered fish soup and my husband ordered trout.  Or so he thought. What came out of the kitchen was one of the few dishes he loathes – tongue.  A whole, hot, steaming, curled tongue.  He could not eat a mouthful.  I did get the fish soup I ordered but it was so salty it tasted as if they had dredged the harbour.  It had bits in it which may have been fish, but not any I had tasted before, and I half expected to find an old bicycle or a supermarket trolley in there. Typically English, we paid the bill, left the food and went.

Like many English people, I am very grateful indeed that, partly due to the internet, English is increasingly spoken almost everywhere we go.  I was so impressed that some scaffolders in Budapest could understand my English well enough to direct me where I wanted to go –  it would be impossible to imagine the reverse happening in England.

I am good at mime, and don’t mind looking foolish (which helps).  My husband and I used to buy cat food in every city we visited to bring home to our dearly loved cat thus enriching his gourmet experience. You may not appreciate that the common brands of cat food have the recipes tweaked to suit the country they are sold in as a Spaniard, for example, will expect more tomatoes in his cat’s dinner than a German buyer.  This does involve finding a small supermarket where we can browse the pet food section before making our final selection.  On our trip to Riga, capital of Latvia, we had drawn a blank – not in cat- food but in small supermarkets.  We found tiny grocers on our last day, and went in but could not see what we wanted on the shelves.  Nothing ventured, I dropped to my haunches, meowed and mimed eating from a dish on the floor.  This did actually produce the desired result, as once the assistants had stopped laughing they found us some small tins of cat food and we hopefully provided them with an entertaining story to tell at home.

One insuperable problem however is Cyrillic script.  I had no idea when we arrived in Belgrade that they used Cyrillic script rather than Roman which made it almost impossible for us to translate even street signs to work out where we were or where to go.  It was the same problem in Sofia (capital of Bulgaria).  The only way we could work our way around the city was by matching the shape of the roads on our map with the shape we seemed to be walking along.  There was one imposing building which could have been a museum, theatre, or government building but we had no idea.  I tried to translate the stone lettering on the facade, letter by letter, from the back of our guidebook but most of the symbols seemed to be different ways of pronouncing the “a” sound so we left the city none the wiser.

What else makes us different?

One of the lovely benefits of travelling is learning that the way we do things in England is not the way everyone else does – a genuine “travel broadens the mind”.  There are some easy differences – I think I can state with confidence that we are the only country where coffee automatically comes with milk, unless you specify otherwise.  As husband and I always take milk in our coffee, so are sadly often very disappointed in having a lovely high-tech coffee machine in our bedroom with capsules of different coffees, sugar, sometimes even little biscuits, but no milk, not even those long-life milk mini capsules.  If we have time, and we can find a supermarket, we buy milk but often have to leave the free coffee in our room un-sampled.

I still don’t know why, in Leipzig, they put a cloth, like a tea towel, on the floor beside the beds at night.  Is it so your bare feet don’t touch the carpet when you first get out of bed or am I missing the point?

Why do the French have square pillows that don’t reach to the sides of the bed but do come down rather too far (and the less said about bolsters, the better!)?

Why do the British have large 3-pin plugs with a fuse inside each one, whereas continental Europe manages with small 2-pin plugs (with the fuse in the wall socket?). Are there more accidental electrocutions on the continent than in Britain?

Why does Britain traditionally use bayonet light bulb fittings while continental Europe has screw fittings?

Why does most of continental Europe have the system of “validating” train, bus or metro tickets by punching the date and time of travel on them while Britain has never had this system?

Why do the British seem to view each train journey (and to a lesser extent, metro journeys) as an opportunity to eat and drink throughout the entire ride? The Italians don’t, nor the Germans nor the Dutch.  Most of these countries don’t have the British “buffet car” carriage on a train where one can buy alcoholic and soft drinks, hot drinks, hot food, and expensive sandwiches and snacks.

In short, when the British Isles geologically moved away from continental Europe thousands of years ago, we seemed to have made life changes greater than the few miles of sea which then came between us.

And why are showers so complicated and different in every country? I’m usually OK by day two, but always have to allow more time when getting dressed when it involves my first experience of the hotel shower – which may include having to phone reception (as in Stockholm) to ask someone to come up and show me how to turn on the shower.

Signs in shops, cafes and public toilets can also be entertaining to us Brits, to whom carrying a gun is so alien that signs forbidding taking one into the WC seems very strange, as does the sign reminding people that they should not climb onto the toilet seat so that they can spy into the next cubicle!

And I have some ideas about the sign in the car (below) seen in Chisinau (capital of Moldova), such as “warning – don’t wear high heels when driving” and really hope it is not just “watch out! Woman driver!”

IMG-20161013-WA0007

And sometimes the question in my mind – again in Chisinau – is just WHY?

IMG-20161013-WA0010

 

Scandinavia: Copenhagen

We went to Copenhagen in June 2012 with our friends Allyson and Mick and  had a very enjoyable time.  It’s a very small and walkable city, and as three of the four of us  were well- steeped in the Scandinavian dramas on English TV at the time – starting with “The Killing” and working our way through “Borgen” and “The Bridge” – it already seemed like home (although rather a dangerous one…).

We stayed in the very well located “Copenhagen Strand” hotel for our 3 night stay. We flew separately from our friends and once we met up and checked in, we went out for dinner, and, as unfortunately often happens, the first meal of the holiday was the poorest, at a tourist destination in Nyhavn.   The first meal of a holiday is often taken when you are tired, don’t know the layout of the new city and what is where, you are hungry at the wrong time (even with an hour’s time change) and just plump for something near and convenient and you will know it is rarely the best choice.

On our first day we took a bus tour which I find is usually the best way to get to know the layout of a city when you first arrive and can also take in sights at the far edges of a city which you are not planning or do not have the time to explore.  The bus zig–zagged around and took quite a while to cover the main sights, which included the famous Little Mermaid statue, the symbol for Copenhagen throughout the world and much smaller than most people imagine. The port was included on the tour and we collected and deposited passengers from the enormous cruise ships, 7, 10 or 12 decks high and totally dwarfing the people and traffic nearby.

Mermaid (2)

When we later set out on foot to head towards the Parliament buildings (featuring in every episode of Borgen) and the Tivoli Gardens, we located them on the map and were working out which bus to take when we looked a bit closer and realised they were within easy walking distance.  The tour bus was really for the benefit of cruise passengers rather than those like us staying in the centre, so travelled farther and took longer than would take on foot.

Copenhagen Tivoli 2

We were very impressed with the Tivoli Gardens which were delightful even though in early June they were not really open or operating and we just strolled around in the evening enjoying the lights and the curious buildings. We did find that early June is still pretty chilly in Copenhagen and we needed hats and gloves most of the time and the cafes which had seats outside to enjoy weak rays of the sun also offered fleece blankets for those brave enough to eat outside.

Copenhagen Tivoli

Opposite our hotel on the other side of the canal was the alternative “Freetown of  Christiania” where ageing hippies live, make and sell crafts, sell weed and – we found out – are not very thrilled with tourists taking photos!

Our preconceptions of Copenhagen included the fact that drinks were expensive so we reverted to student ways, and drank in our rooms before going out.  Allyson and Mick  bought duty free gin, while we provided tonic waters and limes and we had great fun playing music quizzes (“Beat the Intro” anyone?) on an i-player while drinking our G&Ts with lime hacked into bits with a nail file (no sharp tools on a cheap flight when you only have hand luggage!).

Well lubricated, we then went out to eat. We didn’t get to eat in Noma, the world famous number one restaurant, but did have our photos taken outside it and the menu wasn’t that expensive so I regretted not planning far enough ahead to try and book a table there. However, we had very enjoyable meals in Madklubben (modern Danish and not too expensive), in Frankie’s Kokken and in Tony’s New York/Italian restaurant, all found in our guide book and all accommodated us without having made prior bookings and thanks to our G&Ts we kept our wine consumption to a couple of glasses only and thus the bills were manageable.

I have said that three of us were Scandi-noir addicts and had recently watched the fantastic drama “The Bridge” so had to spend a day and take the 30 minute train ride to Malmo in Sweden over the Oresund bridge where in the drama the corpse was left exactly straddling the Swedish and Danish borders.  It’s a fabulous bridge and we enjoyed pottering around Malmo (Sweden’s third largest city) , eating lunch and doing a little gentle shopping for souvenirs. The only downside was an embarrassing moment in the train on our return journey.  The four of us were chatting, laughing (as we usually do) and reading out restaurant reviews to each other as we planned our dinner and, to be frank, we were probably a little loud. A fellow passenger then pointed to the “Silent Carriage” sign and put her fingers to her lips and we realised that a silent carriage in Denmark and Sweden is not like one in England, where it merely means no chatting on your mobile phone but means no making any sound at all!  Profuse apologies from us and red faces all round: we were not good ambassadors for our country!

We flew out with British Airways using airmiles/Avios where we paid £54 for airport taxes.  Our stay at the Hotel Copenhagen Strand for 3 nights B&B was £585.40 and we spent another £439.45 on food, drinks (not including £13.99 on our gin at Heathrow duty free) and travel so a total for the holiday was £1,145.18.

 

 

The Balkans: Skopje and Pristina

Quirky Skopje – capital of Macedonia

We visited Skopje in October 2015 and enjoyed our 3 night stay very much, due in part to the quirky nature of civic expenditure (although if I lived there I am sure it would enrage me instead!) and in part to the excellent English speaking guide who we had booked through Regent Holidays before we left England to take us to Pristina, capital of Kosovo, and give us a tour of the city.

Skopje

Skopje centre  is dominated by enormous statues, the height of two or three houses, which dot the main streets and squares.  The Statue of the Warrior (Alexander the Great) dominates Plostad, the main square ; there is an Arc de Triomphe and a White House (Skopje’s Government Headquarters) and a utterly pointless new pedestrian bridge across the Vardar river which divides the old town from the new, just a few yards from an existing bridge. A statue to Iustinianus I dominates the river side, and there are more huge statues, which apparently cost millions of euros, and weren’t even made in Macedonia, so no new jobs were created and the money all went abroad.

Skopje 2

Our guide felt that the money could have been much better spent on infrastructure and we agreed – our taxi driver from the airport couldn’t take us right to the door of our hotel (the delightfully named Hotel Duvet) as the side road which should have connected to the main road which had the Hotel Duvet on the corner, stopped a few metres short of the road it was to connect to.  Our driver thus had to drive partly onto the pavement to allow us and our luggage to climb out.

Walking out at night in search of dinner, the pavements were so hazardous and full of potholes and tripping hazards, that like most locals we just walked in the road instead.

We spent a very pleasant day just mooching around Skopje, enjoying excellent and cheap coffees at various cafes, exploring Carsija, the Turkish old part of town which has a bazaar.  We visited a reconstruction of Mother Teresa’s former house (The Memorial House of Mother Teresa), now turned into a museum to her, and enjoyed reading about her life.

Pristina

Pristina
Under the graffiti is the word “Newborn” in Pristina, capital of Kosovo and one of Europe’s newest capital cities.

I don’t have a lot to say about Pristina, capital of Kosovo which only gained independence in 2008.  Pristina still shows the scars of its very recent history, with Serbian troops killing thousands of people in the 1990s, leading to a NATO bombardment.  We walked around the centre with our guide who told us the makeup of the city population in terms of ethnicity and religion – with a Muslim Albanians majority and a much smaller minority of Orthodox Christian Serbians, with a bizarre military monument in the countryside outside Pristina which is “owned” by Serbia and has Serbian military guards.  Trying to imagine something similar in Britain – perhaps a pocket of land owned by the French and guarded by their soldiers – I did feel that peace was only a delicate state that could be overturned again at almost any moment.

We booked our trip through Regent Holidays again, and paid them £851 for flights, 3 nights in the Hotel Duvet, our day trip to Pristina with an English speaking Guide and a driver, and then spent £273 on all other spending (so £1,124 in total).

Hotel or Air B&B?

So far when we visit European capital cities, we have always picked a hotel ahead of an apartment and the main reason is the cliche:  “location, location, location!”

We have only limited time in most of the cities we visit and really want to pack in as much as we can into our 2 or 3 night stay.  This means not spending time on travelling around if we can help it, so we choose a hotel as near as possible to the centre (usually the old town) so it will typically be near the main square, the cathedral, the river – wherever “the centre” happens to be.

Sometimes we are caught out, such as when we were in Bologna (wonderful Italian city, especially for foodies, and one of our favourites).  I had booked a hotel which said it was “100 metres from the Old Town” which sounded perfect.  However, when we arrived, we found that it was 100 metres from the old city wall, but in fact the real centre of the old town was a bus-ride away which meant we had to work out what bus tickets to buy which needed three staff members in the little tobacconists to work out what they thought we wanted and sell them to us, and it also meant we were introduced to Italian transport strikes – this time (the first of many) to bus strikes.  Being true socialist strikers, the bus drivers didn’t want to inconvenience their fellow workers so the buses ran early morning to enable people to get to work, and again before and after lunch and then at the end of the normal working day, but not otherwise. Hmmm. Unusual strike policy from the British point of view.

I forgave the Hotel for not being quite as near the old town centre as I had been led to believe for two reasons: the receptionist who doubled as barmaid may not have poured a gin and tonic before as became apparent when I asked her for one.  She got out a tall tumbler (good) put ice in it (good) and lemon (good) and then poured gin without stopping until in fact my husband – not me – said “Stop!” just before it overran the rim (very good!).  There was no room for tonic water but I took the tonic water upstairs with my extremely generous gin and sipped and topped up happily.

The hotel also gave us all a laugh over the “case of the missing safe”.  We were told our room had a room safe but couldn’t find it.  The room was pretty small and we looked everywhere and then rang down to reception to be told that the safe was in the wardrobe (the usual place for safes and where we had already looked).  We looked again and rang down again.  The receptionist stomped upstairs, presumably thinking we were particularly gormless tourists, flung open the wardrobe doors and fell about with laughter.  The four small holes in the wardrobe floor told the tale – someone had stolen the safe! The receptionist let us put our valuables in the hotel safe and we chuckled happily about the missing safe….

Back to the hotel versus apartment issue – not many Air B&B type apartments which are usually lived in by an “occasional landlord” (or a person who rents out their home for extra cash) are right in the centre of an old town for the obvious reason that if the landlord could afford to live smack in a city centre, they probably wouldn’t need an extra source of income.

Another reason for us choosing hotels is to be able to have a drink or two, coffees and breakfast without first having to find a supermarket to buy the necessaries.  Some cities have very few mini supermarkets in their centre, instead having large supermarkets on the outskirts for the locals to do a weekly shop.  We do generally come across a mini market during our first day’s wandering, and buy milk (for our coffee) and wine (for an aperitif while changing before going out in the evening for dinner) but we prefer to know that if we don’t spot a market, it doesn’t matter as the hotel will have all we need, even if expensively.  Really good hotel breakfasts will also keep us going for most of the day, with a few brief “pit stops” for drinks and snacks until we have dinner in a local restaurant in the evening.

 

The Balkans: Belgrade, Ljubljana and Podgorica

Belgrade – capital of Serbia.

We arrived in Belgrade by bus from Sarajevo – a scenic journey and one for which we had luckily bought some snacks at a mini market to eat on the journey, as had the other passengers, although the driver stopped and had a full hot lunch in a cafe.  I was pleasantly surprised that the cafe owner accepted euro coins so we could have a coffee to go with our snacks.

When we got off the bus we were surrounded by men very loudly offering us their services as taxi drivers.  They rather unnerved me, so as we did in fact want a taxi to our hotel we chose a taxi and driver who was parked a little away from the throng.  He took us as near as he could to our hotel – Le Petit Piaf – as it was in a pleasant cobbled street, closed to cars, and full of cafes and restaurants.

We weren’t very impressed with Belgrade I’m afraid to say. The cafe’s served generous portions of very tasty food and everyone was very pleased to see us – I don’t think it was high on a tourist itinerary back in 2013 – but perhaps because we had been to Sarajevo first and felt so deeply for the Bosnians and how they had suffered in the Balkan war, we rather saw the Serbians as the villains in the conflict (certainly as far as their leader at the time, Slobodan Milosevic, was proved to be).  His headquarters during the war was still a bullet- ridden wreck among offices and other buildings on one of the main roads.

As we often do on arriving in a new city, we took a guided bus tour to orientate ourselves, and the guide on this bus must have thought he had a party of potential conference bookers on board!  He drove us round the scenic old town, and then crossed the river and went round and round for what seemed twice as long at least as he had spent on the other side of the river, driving past somewhat dilapidated hotels and run down exhibition centres on the south side, extolling their virtues for any type of marketing or sales event!

20131008_104830
View of the Danube and Sava rivers

We fared better exploring the city on foot, walking up to the Kalemegdan complex,  )where a fortress sits inside a large park and overlooks the meeting of the Sava and Danube rivers.  We were the only people there at the time though the sun shone and there was an attractive view of the two rivers.

There were buildings from the days of the Ottoman Empire which we admired, but Belgrade did not connect with us emotionally as Sarajevo had a few days before.

 

Ljubljana –  capital of Slovenia

From the castle walls 035

As much as Belgrade had not connected with us, Ljubljana did with a vengeance.  We were enchanted with this tiny capital where we spent just 48 hours, flying out on a whim when one of the budget airlines launched a direct flight there (we had a bet as to which one of us could first find out which country Ljubljana was the capital of: I won!).

We arrived on Friday evening in July 2004 in pouring rain, which could well have put a damper on our first impressions.  We checked into our hotel, the Hotel City, and then went straight out to eat and took a table in the outdoor section of a restaurant, under the awning as it was still in the pouring rain, and as the waitresses skipped around between tables, bar and kitchen in such a cheerful way it was definitely an occasion when rain does not dampen spirits.

The following day dawned bright and dry so we set out to explore the city.  And very much part of its charm is how small and compact everything is: all you could want in a city – river, bridges, market, castle, old town – all almost in miniature.  We had a guided tour and were chastened (as so often before in the Balkans) with hearing from our guide about the attack on the city, only 10 years or so earlier, and when we in London were very largely oblivious.

At the weekend, Ljubljana old town becomes traffic free – and not in a shouty, uniformed, punitive way but by a simple red twisted rope across the road between two brass pillars – very like the “VIP areas” are cordoned off in a London club!  A person in uniform stood by this less than formidable barrier to explain the situation to anyone who needed an explanation.  As a result, young couple with baby buggies, teenagers on skate boards and people of all ages could stroll happily, without needing to watch out for traffic.

Reflections of religion 020
The Ljubljanica River

On Sunday morning it was still sunny and we had a few hours in hand before we needed to head off for the airport, so hired bikes to cycle round the traffic-free circuit around the city which marks the area where the Nazis during the WW2 had encircled the city.  It is now a lovely cycling or walking route. The only thing which marred it for me was my inability to get used to a fixed wheel bike, where I had to move off and swing my leg over the bar and then sit down, rather than my traditional “move off from stationary”method.  Despite practising in a car park for 10 or 15 minutes after we had hired the bikes, I still felt the method was intrinsically wrong.

We flew with Easyjet for £96  and stayed in the Hotel City for 2 nights for £183. Food, drinks and other spending, including bike hire, cost us £279, so total £558 for two.

Podgorica

Podgorica (2)

Podgorica – capital of Montenegro – has the dubious honour of being the European capital city we spent least time in!

We spent a week in June 2017 in Montenegro, and while most tourists fly in and out of Dubrovnik, we wanted (of course!) to visit the capital and explained to the ever patient Ellie at Regent Holidays that despite her warning that “it is not very nice” we wanted to see the city, so flew into Podgorica where we were met by a driver who I think had been briefed that we might spend a few hours exploring the capital.

However, once we had been driven into the centre, we had to agree with Ellie.  We stopped and had coffee and looked at the main square and then told our driver we had seen enough.  He may have felt we were not seeing enough of the city on which to base our decision so took us to the lovely Orthodox Church, St George’s, church which was very impressive and well worth the detour (as the Michelin guides would say!).

P1030405
10th Century St George’s Church in glorious sunshine!

We may not have done Podgorica justice, we did not visit the old town (Stara Varos) which I understand has a mosque and the narrow cobblestone streets lined with workshops which we had enjoyed in Sarajevo nor King Nikola’s castle but, perhaps another day.

Interior of St George’s Church

We were then driven to Kotor where we stayed for a few nights and after that to Budvar for the rest of our week in Montenegro, but as they are not capital cities, they do no feature in this blog.

We spent £1,700 on our week in Montenegro, on flights, hotels and transfers through Regent Holidays  and another £737 on travel to and from the airport in England and food and drink in Montenegro (including a very stylish lunch in Sveti Stefan).  Total: £2,437.

 

Scandinavia: Helsinki for the day

 Helsinki was the first Scandinavia capital which we visited, and the visit was unplanned.  We were actually in Tallinn (the capital of Estonia) in June 2005 and arrived at the time when the Estonian’s celebrate the longest day of the year.  These celebrations involved a huge bonfire and the usual eating and drinking, and as a result the city was unnaturally quiet and many things were shut.  Not a good day for sightseeing, so we decided to “pop over” to Helsinki for the day on the ferry.

Once berthed in Helsinki, we took a bus from the harbour into the city centre, had an enjoyable lunch in a café overlooking the water.  Then we took a guided bus tour to help us have a good overview of the city.  At the height of summer, Finns like most Nordic people, really make the most of every daylight hour and spend it as far as possible outdoors, sailing, kayaking, running, cycling, fishing and spending time in cabins in the woods – their summer or weekend houses.  It’s a real verve and passion to make the most of the time which I admire.

helsinki-029.jpg

But my strongest memories from Helsinki come from the National Art Gallery.  My husband and I enjoy art and, as we often do, when we arrived at the gallery (I think it must have been the Kiasma Gallery as it was contemporary or modern art) we agreed a time to meet in reception to ensure we caught the bus for our boat back to Tallinn, and then went round the gallery at our own pace.

The exhibit which impressed me most was a video installation.  In it the artist (I presume) was naked except for a large pair of muddy hiking boots.  He was in a muddy, ploughed field, and among the mud was a large stake of wood and from the stake was a piece of string which was tied to his penis and the artist walked round and round the stake talking (presumably in Finnish). I was awestruck.  I imagined a conversation between the artist and a friend in a café, the friend asks what the artist is working on, and he says “I’m going to take my clothes off, go into a field, tie a piece of string between a stake and my penis, walk round and round and have someone film it”. “Nice one, mate” says his friend.

But what impressed me most of all was that the artist had sold this idea, his installation, to the country’s national gallery. That takes some chutzpah.

Keeping an eye on the time, I went to the lift to go down to reception to meet my husband.  I was the only passenger in the lift and unfortunately I made the mistake the English often do when abroad, and pressed 0 for the ground floor, but instead it went to the basement which was really a storage and despatch area.  I pressed the button to go back up to reception but nothing happened, the lift did not move.  I pressed several times, got out and in again, opening and closing the doors and pressing the “up” button but nothing happened.  I got out of the lift and walked around looking for a staff member to help, and calling “hello” as I went but no-one was there – just bubble wrap and paper and pallets and benches and boxes.  There were doors but all had keypad locks on them. Part of me was thinking “this can’t be happening, I can’t be trapped in a basement in an art gallery in a city I’m not even booked to stay in” and part of me kept seeing it as a sit com on TV at home with Caroline Quentin playing me, and the camera repeatedly going to a large wall clock, ticking along.

But a miracle happened – I had a signal on my phone and phoned my husband and said “Don’t ask why, but I am trapped in the basement.  Please send help”.  Within a few minutes, the lift controls groaned, the lift went up and came down again with a security guard who let me into the lift, turned her key in a lock and we soared up to reception where my somewhat tetchy husband and I ran for the bus and luckily caught our boat back to Tallinn.

I will never know why the lift in the gallery was allowed to go down to the basement but not back up again, but thank you to the gallery for two such vivid lasting memories!