Author Archives: edmartinuk

Zagreb (Feb 15-17)

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Zagreb or Croatia, so it was somewhat of an adventure into the unknown for me. We started our journey from a rather drab and run-down concrete Budapest train station (Deli, as opposed to Keleti the station we arrived at), and managed to bag a compartment on the train to ourselves. It was to be a long train journey, so we’d stopped by a couple of bakeries to stock up on sandwiches and cake for lunch. In the end it was a very interesting train journey. We skirted a huge lake (called Balaton, with many villages surrounding all with names starting with Balaton) for much of the first stage of our journey, and it was fun to watch for the large and plush summer houses that were situated by it’s shores, all currently shuttered up awaiting summer.

Once we left the city the snow returned, and like our journey to Budapest we were transported through a winter wonderland. We kept the compartment to ourselves for most of the journey, being briefly joined by a smart looking older gentleman who sat quietly doing the crossword for a couple of stops. Later the front desk staff at our Zagreb hotel joked about the slow speed of the train. One of them grinned, saying that as I enjoyed walking I’d have been able to get off and stretch my legs by walking by the side of the train! It wasn’t that bad, though it did stop at a lot of local stations, which we found interesting. Many were tiny, and had no platform to speak of. Sometimes the only person in sight was the station attendant, standing outside to greet the train.

At the border with Croatia we had our first passport check, as all our previous journeys had been within the Schengen area. At the last town on the Hungarian side various officials boarded the train and systematically went carriage to carriage. First we were greeted by a slightly dour Hungarian official, who checked our passports. Then came the Croatian border official, who was a friendly lady who gave us passport stamps. Finally was the customs official, who grinned when Greg said that all he had to declare was chocolate cake. This process was apparently an improvement from the recent past when the train would stop at the same station and passports checked by Hungarian officials before all passengers would have to disembark, get on a bus to be taken over the border to a small village on the Croatian side where papers would be checked by Croatian officials before all passengers would board a Croatian train for the onward journey.

Our Zagrab hotel was very close to the train station – a short walk. I soon discovered that this was because the Esplanade Hotel had been built in 1925 to cater for travellers on the Orient Express, a fact that it celebrated with many vintage photographs from that age on it’s walls. It was a larger hotel than our previous ones, and very grand. The staff were very welcoming and our room was well appointed, and quiet as it was on the inside of the hotel. Dinner that night was at the pub of a small local brewery (Pivnica Medvedgrad Ilica), where I enjoyed a popular mix of their locally micro-brewed lager and ale, together with some plain but tasty local fare (overcooked beans – like baked beans – and sausage). Walking down the main street (Illica) we were also impressed by how modern that area of the city felt. Lots of people were around, including more young people than we’d seen at our last stop (and less rowdy than can be the case in the UK). All in all a reasonable contrast from Budapest, and both of us agreed that the right word was vibrant.

In the morning the hotel sorted us out a couple of Zagreb tourist cards, and we set out to explore. We were immediately impressed by the extensive tram system. Most of the trams were very new and spotlessly clean; we travelled very near the driver once and were impressed by the 100% digital display panel. They were also very frequent – in fact during our visit I don’t think we ever waited as much as 10 minutes for a tram to arrive. It was a short hop to the center of town, and then a short walk to the funicular which would take us to the upper (old) town. On the way to the funicular we noticed a wonderful watchmaker, who was busy repairing a timepiece in a shop which looked like it might have appeared the same 50 or 100 years ago. It reminded us of the wonderful watchmakers shop in the fantastic movie Hugo. The funicular itself was rather short (66 meters, not quite the shortest one in the world but close), but a fun way to travel up to the upper town, and included in our Zagreb card. It ran every 10 minutes, so there was never long to wait before we were lifted up to this historic upper town.

Our first step was a rather unusual place – the Museum of Broken Relationships! (romantically, Greg brought me here the day after Valentine’s Day…). This unique museum contained objects donated by someone in memory of a relationship which had ended for them. It proved very interesting, if somewhat dispiriting at times. From here we went to explore a sculpture studio, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations. So instead we visited the city museum. This looked small at first glance, but turned out to be a huge place, with a very comprehensive history of the city, very well presented. We spent over 2 hours here which took us from the cities ancient roots – the merging of the two fortified settlements of Kaptol and Gradec – right to the most modern history of the Yugoslav war and the Croatian war of independence, only 10 years ago. I remember an interesting section on associations, where in the 19th century lots of city associations were formed, like clubs, to facilitate noble endeavours such as sports, music and mountain climbing. We finished here later than anticipated and headed to a restaurant for a late lunch. We found a great place (Kerempuh) near a large market, which was just packing up. There we had a great meal – Greg had particularly wonderful slow roast veal with roast potatoes and I had duck with potato salad and grilled vegetables and some local beer.

After lunch we looked round the cathedral, which had an interesting interior and included some very tall stained glass as well as a large sarcophagus for Cardinal Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac who was declared a martyr and canonised by Pope Jean Paul II in 1998. He was a controversial choice as he apparently died peacefully at home aged 61 of natural causes from thrombosis brought on by polycythemia, rather than being martyred. His very close relationship with the Nazi regime during the Second World War and using their support to force conversions to Catholicism was also very divisive. We also enjoyed the very colourful St Mark’s Church from the outside, which is a well known image of Zagreb, but it was closed so we couldn’t go inside. Peering through the window it looked very severe, with stark architecture and a huge crucifix. We also visited the Stone Gate, which has an altar to the Virgin Mary which seemed pretty busy with visitors. I’ve never seen a chapel under a road arch before; it made a pretty unique setting. It became a shrine in 1731 when the so-called Madonna miracle occurred. There was a huge fire that swept through the town and the only thing to survive was the statue of the Madonna.

We decided that a little dessert was now in order, and went to a fine looking shop on Illica that we’d spied earlier. There we each had 3 scoops of ice-cream from the 15 on offer, and also got three slices of delicious cake to eat later. From here we headed back to the hotel to dump our stuff and get changed, and headed back out to dinner in the upper town. On the funicular we met a couple of American ladies who happened to be headed to the same restaurant as us. We chatted about traveling on the way; one of the ladies was returning home to San Diego, and the other was going on to Istanbul. They asked us what time our reservation was, and we admitted we didn’t have one. They looked doubtful as they’d got the last reservation going, but we kept going to try our luck. When we got there we did indeed get the last walk-in table available, not a great spot but we could eat. Over the next 30mins we watched about 5 sets of people turn up and get turned away, and realised that it was the Friday after Valentine’s, and our table was decorated with a red rose and petals – lucky to get a table indeed! The restaurant was called Konoba-Didov San (Grandfather’s Dream), and offered a wonderful selection of traditional Croatian food. Greg had particularly excellent veal liver (which they asked him how he liked it cooked) and I had a selection of meats with a tomato sauce including mushrooms and onions. I also enjoyed a glass of local house wine, which was pretty good and cost almost a pound!

On the second day we headed slightly further afield and visited Maximir park. This is a large wooded park area very popular with locals in the summer for picnics and walks; we saw several joggers whilst we were there enjoying some exercise. Even though it was only about 20mins from the city center there was noticeably more snow in the park than in the center itself (where it was almost all melted). We aimed for the Zoo which is contained with the park and enjoyed a wander around what proved to be a fairly large site. Some animals were, understandably, hiding away from the cold weather. But quite a few were out and not bothered, such as the Russian Wolves which looked rather like nice dogs to me (safe the other side of a wide moat surrounding their enclosure…). We were particularly impressed by the indoor exhibits they had. There was a good section on snakes, with examples of the great variety of snake found throughout Croatia. Many were poisonous. The particularly venomous ones were marked with a skull and cross bones, and the non-venomous ones were marked with a smiley face. Others were marked with a face half smiling and half unhappy; we guessed somewhat venomous! There was also a good display of insects and lizards; extensive and well set out. We were much less impressed by the current enclosures for big cats and bears, but pleased to see that they were busy building much better facilities – a large African savannah and an equally big and varied bear habitat.

We left the zoo and wandered round a little more of Maximir park before returning to the city center and revisiting the restaurant for lunch which we’d enjoyed the previous day. It was equally good the second time around, and Greg enjoyed Pašticada, a Dalmation style beef pot roast/stew whilst I had grilled sea bass and a nice glass of local white wine. After lunch we headed up to the upper town again and visited the Natural History Museum. (We tried the Naïve Art Museum which looked interesting, but it was closed for the afternoon). This was very quirky, with a couple of pretty odd art installations as our first introduction. Then there was a series of stuffed animals, which looked like they needed a good clean (though to be fair, several of them dated from 1750). We then hit a stairwell where without explanation the glass window was covered with photos of characters from the recent Hobbit movie; we were slightly perplexed at this, but at least they didn’t have labels indicating they were ancient Croatians! Finally we were surprised by an excellent geological exhibition, with a wide variety of interesting rocks and crystals shown excellently in well lit sparkling glass cases.

Next stop was a local cafe called Amelia, which felt a bit like a Zagreb version of our local Bristol favourite, Tart. We had excellent slices of cake here, Greg had the local signature cake and I had a chocolate tart. This confirmed to us, from our small but determined sampling, that Zagreb unexpectedly scored better on the cake selection than Vienna. Before dinner we headed back to the pub we’d visited for a quick drink, and then chanced trying to get a table at the TripAdvisor number one restaurant in Zagreb (Trilogija). This proved to be a small place, which not unreasonably was fully booked. So we headed to our 2nd choice, Agava. There Greg had an excellent starter of local meats and cheeses, whilst I had a surprisingly tasty potato soup. Greg’s main of sirloin steak in a local wine sauce was also very good as was my Gilt Head (Bream) with black squid-ink gnocchi.

Overall Zagreb impressed us. It felt much more modern and vibrant that we were expecting, whether this was in respect of the people we saw and met, the transport, or the streets, or attractions. It definitely had the feel of an up and coming country. We did see much more run down buildings as we left the city by coach for the airport; huge and very basic looking blocks of flats. But overall we came away with a more positive impression than we expected (the opposite of Budapest), and we’d certainly return. (In better weather there is a very local mountain which I’d love to climb, amongst other things).


Budapest (Feb 11-14)

We had a delightful, magical, trip to Budapest. It had snowed the night before and as we left Bratislava we quickly entered a pristine white countryside which looked like we were travelling through Narnia! I’d persuaded Greg to get reserved seats, which proved very necessary… as we looked round the rest of the large carriage and spotted 2 other people at the far end..! As a result it felt that we were in a private carriage (and by extension, train) being whisked away to some magical realm. The carriage was modern with large windows, so we had an almost panoramic view of the winter-scape as we passed through it. We saw a mixture of rolling landscapes, small towns, a large river (presumably the Danube) and a couple of very alpine looking towns. The journey took a very enjoyable 3 hours, and it was almost a shame to get off once we reached Budapest.

The first job at Budapest was to buy our ongoing train ticket. Greg made me wait outside the ticket office whilst he purchased it, lest I overhear the destination. He returned somewhat bemused by the fact that the train ticket had been hand written; definitely not something we are used to in the UK. It was a short metro trip and a walk to our hotel, and we purchased a 72hr city transport ticket – which came in very useful as Budapest was much more geographically spread out than Bratislava. There were also lots of ticket inspectors on the metro, at most of the entrances and exits; a notable difference to all our previous cities this trip, which mostly seemed to work via honesty (and some random inspections, which we never saw). Our hotel – Hotel Palazzo Zichy – was perfectly pleasant, but not at the very high bar set by the first three. Still, we had a room up on the 5th floor away from the road. We left our main luggage there as we headed towards the walking tour meeting point.

This was the third walking tour we’d done this trip, and although good it was probably the weakest of the three. Our young Hungarian guide had trained in hotel management and catering, and had been leading tours since graduation. A quick calculation suggested he was making a lot more money giving tourists tours. He didn’t come across as particularly upbeat or proud of his people or city in the same way as Bratislava. During the tour he did give a small lesson in the Hungarian language, which was interesting. Apparently Hungarian is a very logical language, but very difficult to learn. He speculated that that might be part of the reason why Hungary has produced many eminent engineers and scientists in its history. We were also amused to learn that “hello” means goodbye, and if someone (at a bar for example) says “hello, hello”, it means they are trying to get you to leave!

Our walking tour took us from Szent István-bazilika (St Stephen’s Basilica – the cathedral), to Erzsébet tér (Elisabeth Square, named after Sisi – who we first came across in Vienna) and walked across the famous chain bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd) and then up towards the palace. From there we walked along the hill and saw our first glimpse of the very impressive Mátyás-templom (Matthias Church) and the Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion). It was very beautiful – and not as old as it looked. It had been rebuilt in 1896 (though it was finished later than scheduled) on the one thousand year anniversary of the year 896 when Hungary was established. It makes a magnificent sight on the Buda side, overlooking the river and Pest. It was time for dinner now, and we headed towards a restaurant that Greg had read was popular with locals celebrating special occasions, called Trofea Grill. Our experience confirmed this – whilst we were there 8 of the 12 tables had a lit cake delivered to them! It was an unusual place, offering not just all-you-can-eat but also all-you-can-drink for one fixed price! So for about £15 each we sampled the local food, and I enjoyed picking some pieces of fish and marinated meats to be cooked by the chef whilst you wait (his English was limited, but when he said “garlic?” I gave a thumbs-up!). We also shared a bottle of sparking wine, and I sampled a small glass of local beer (after we turned down a 2nd bottle of fizz). Interestingly we were at the original Trofea Grill which turned into a mini chain of 5 restaurants. Recently the original (located at Erzsébet királyné útja 5) divorced from the others. It seems the other four have morphed into a not well regarded tourist trap (retaining the same name) and the original is the only one that locals eat at.

On the second day we returned Buda and went up the hill in the Budavári Sikló, the old funicular which starts at the Buda end of the chain bridge and ends at the palace, a hill we climbed on foot in the walking tour. It was snowing again, and we arrived just in time to witness the changing of the guard at the palace. Our tour guide had told us an amusing story about this, so we watched closely for a few signs of confirmation. Sure enough we saw some mismatched steps, and the drummer definitely seemed to be struggling hard to keep a straight face… It turns out that the whole ceremony is only a few years old, created for tourists, and the guards still treat it rather informally and don’t always take it particularly seriously. Allegedly on very quiet days the drummer has been known to improvise an Iron Maiden beat!

From here we returned to Matthias church to look around the inside, which has only recently re-opened as renovations are underway. The inside was similarly beautiful to the outside, and very colourful compared with most churches we’ve visited. It had a strong moorish influence, and it was interesting to see the restoration still very much ongoing. It has had numerous renovations and rebuilds and was even a mosque for the century and a half of Turkish occupation in the 1500/1600s. There was also an exhibition in the royal gallery section, showing the restoration process and several before-and-after examples. During the process a time capsule from 1930 and another from 1892 – times of previous renovations – were discovered. Their contents were carefully recorded and the returned, using new cylinders to preserve the contents for future generations. The church is officially named the Church of Our Lady, but popularly known as the Matthias church after King Matthias, an early king of Hungary who had his first 2 weddings there.

Outside it had just stopped snowing, and I enthusiastically wandered around the stunning Fisherman’s Bastion – a sequence of 7 towers on the hillside. Its seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. It is named for the guild of fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of the city wall. Greg was nervous of me taking pictures as the snow had made the stairs and walkways very icy and slippery, and to be fair the outside wall was rather short. So I tried to be careful as I took lots of photos of spectacular vistas and viewpoints, both of the Bastion itself, Matthias church, and of the Danube and Pest. There was a wonderful blanket of snow covering everything, which it made it look gloriously pristine.

From here we headed to the Hospital in the Rock, and happily arrived about 10 mins before an English tour was due. Amusingly Greg got a 30% medical visitor discount on admission as he had his NHS badge with him. This fascinating place had been created just before World War I, and it was dug into the hill using a few km of the many natural caves they discovered extending into the hill underneath Buda castle, and had previously been used by homes on the hill as a chilled larder in their basements. It ran as a hospital for a few years before being mothballed, considered one of the best of its day as it was outfitted with all the latest technology of the period including X-ray machines and a complete surgical suite. It was then reused for World War II, when the Germans also used other sections of the cave system as their headquarters. It was very overcrowded at this time, and the exhibition used dummies to demonstrate how busy some of the wards got – with double beds pushed together in order to fit an additional 3rd person in between the other two. Originally designed for just under 200 patients at its peak it had more than 700, with patients lining the corridors on stretchers. One of the doctors saved many lives when he declared the hospital to be an International Red Cross protected location. Sadly many lives were also lost when the occupying Germans accidentally destroyed the only water pipe into the facility. This left barely enough water for drinking and none at all for life saving operations. The central heating also failed which destroyed the air quality and made it very hot. Without it though many more lives would have been lost. After the end of the war the hospital was again mothballed, until the communists found a new use for it during the Cold War. It was outfitted as a secret bunker to be used in the event of a nuclear attack. As a result additional rooms were added and it was outfitted with it’s own air filtration unit, water supply (with five incoming pipes this time) and electrical generator plus oil supply. Apparently the oil input was hidden in a flower garden above ground and it was replenished once a month by a special ‘watering’ vehicle, where one side contained water for the flowers and the other secretly contained oil for the hidden bunker! The gas exhausts for the generators were disguised as rain water down pipes fastened to buildings above ground. The disguise is not very good and is very obvious when you got to see them above ground, though would probably pass if you weren’t expecting them to be there. We also saw their stocks of medical kits (expiry 1961), decontamination areas, Geiger counters and anti-radiation kits. The idea was that a specially selected team of doctors and nurses would arrive there in the event of a nuclear warning, and lock themselves in for 3 days. They would then emerge into the city to care for any survivors as best they could. A husband and wife team, sworn to secrecy, looked after the facility making sure everything continued to work, ready for immediate use if needed – even changing and washing all the sheets every two weeks. It was finally declassified in 2002 with all of the original equipment, furnishings and even bandages and medication still exactly as it was in the 1950s when it was last used in the uprising again the Communist Party and the Soviet occupiers.

After this we headed to sample some of the local baths, of which about 6 main sites remain. We opted for the Gellert baths, which are renowned for their impressive building. Faded grandeur is how we’d sum them up, and to be honest the whole place felt slightly overly touristed and lacking in soul to us. It all seemed a bit tired and run down, and very expensive for the city thus excluding locals. A shame, as it had obviously been extremely elegant in it’s day, but no longer seemed to be the center of local life that it once was. Dinner that night was Greek, and at Dionysus Taverna we enjoyed the best Greek food we’ve ever eaten. Greg’s starter of garlic prawns with herbed rice was sublime, and my lamb soup was also delicious. For mains we shared a meat platter, which turned out to be both extremely tasty and rather huge! I enjoyed a local soft drink – lemonade with lime and mint – as well as a glass of wine, though I am unsure whether it was Greek or Hungarian.

The next day started with a visit to a different bath house – Rudas baths, which were significantly less grand than Gerhart but also much older; built more 500 years ago in a Turkish style during the Turkish occupation. For decency the bath was originally split in two with one side for either gender. In 1896 a sauna and swimming pool was added and in 1936 it became a men only facility. More recently it has had some ladies days. There was a time when all the baths either alternated gender days or had separate (but identical) sections for different genders. Recent American (and UK) tourist invasions have meant that all but this bath have become unisex and the local bath culture seems to have been significantly impacted as a result. Rudas felt much more authentic to us, and as far as we could tell it was much more used by locals. We enjoyed going between the different temperature pools, which reminded us of Japan, and it was good to see groups of older men (and some younger) meeting up in the baths a catching up with each other – treating it as a social venue, much like we would a pub in the UK; a life which we hoped won’t completely disappear.

From here we visited the Synagogue. I think that this was my first Synagogue, and I was very interested to see this one – the second largest in the world (only New York is bigger). We had to go through security to get in (the only time of our trip so far), and I was very impressed by the inside. There was clear moorish influence in the design, and it was really very colourful and very geometrical. We were proudly told that Prince Charles had visited a few years ago, with Camila. We were given a tour by an older Hungarian lady who turned out to be an interesting guide, and who remembered some historic events first hand, such as her uncle walking home from Auschwitz after the end of World War II. The central pool that originally existed is now home to 6 mass graves to accommodate the very large number of Jews that died in Budapest during the war. Normally Jewish cemeteries are never next to the synagogue, but this time there were so many dead and nowhere to take them that an exception was made. Now small markers indicate the names of those buried where the families know, sadly many have never been identified. There is also a beautiful weeping willow artwork made from metal in the courtyard, in memory if the Jews killed in the holocaust, and the individual leaves had names on them. All it all it was a very moving visit.

Next stop was the Royal Hungarian Opera house, and I don’t remember ever seeing such a grand theatre building. It was built with the financial backing of Franz Josef I of Austria (also King of Hungary) who sent any money remaining in his court budget each year to fund it. During our tour we saw several of the private rooms used by the Empress of Austria at the time (Sisi) who was also Queen of Hungary, and were very impressed by the general opulence of the place – generous use of marble and noble Hungarian oak throughout. We also liked that the Royal staircase (as they obviously had their own – from a grand private entrance way) was now used to put on simplified Opera for children, with the middle landing known as the Marble Stage. The main staircase was for aristocracy only and everyone else came in via the back stairs. The Queen, who almost always attended without the King (he came and used the very opulent Royal box only once) could not sit in the Royal box when unaccompanied by the King, instead she was given a very large box adjacent to the stage where all of society could see her, what she was wearing and who she was with. The beautiful main buffet (the place to be seen in court society) also featured a unique oak lined smokers corridor where men would do the fashionable thing and smoke during the interval. The fug of smoke was so thick that lovers could have illicit meetings there without being seen and causing a scandal.

After the Opera we headed for Hősök tere (Heroes’ square), and admired this large area for a while, with it’s notable historical figure statues, including the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary. (We were also bemused that a local museum appeared to be having a special Banksy exhibition!). From here we headed to the well regarded Zelnik István Southeast Asian Gold Museum, only to find it had closed early. On a whim we stopped for a cup of tea in their tea rooms… and were totally blown away! First, the setting was gorgeous; orchids lined the walls, and the tables, chairs and cushions were all beautiful. The tea menu was extensive and exotic; Greg had lychee tee and I had Vietnamese Alpine Green Tea. We also had a lychee lemonade drink, and a small cake-like dessert each. This was all served in and on exquisite matching china, making it the most elegant looking tea we’ve had outside Japan. Then we came to the tea itself, which was absolutely sublime – it was served in a teapot, but there were no tea-leaves left. The hostess had obviously brewed it for the perfect amount of time, and then decanted to serve. As a result it stayed perfect as I enjoyed it for several cups. My dessert was also superb – a chocolate mouse with raspberry center, and Greg enjoyed his apple and caramel confection similarly. All in all a very very fine tea, and a quite serendipitous discovery. A great experience on our last day in Budapest.

Overall we’d found Budapest fascinating, but we rather felt that the faded grandeur of the Gellert baths somewhat typified the city as a whole for us, which was a shame. From Budapest we head south-west, to the last city of this set… Zagreb!

Bratislava (Feb 8-10)

I knew very little about our next stop, Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic, and was curious to learn more. It was only an hours train journey from Vienna (and a very reasonable €13, the return price which is cheaper than a single). In fact Greg said that had we been travelling in the main season he’d have likely booked the ferry which travels regularly between the two capitals, along the Danube.

The trains ran twice an hour, and we were soon on a short but pleasant journey to Bratislava’s 2nd train station (Petržalka). From there we took a tram to our hotel, and were greeted very warmly and provided with a glass of prosseco whilst we were checked in. We were then taken to our room by an enthusiastic member of staff who chatted with us in excellent English. Our room was well appointed, and huge – it was their standard, but they only had 28 rooms total in the whole hotel.

We had lunch two doors down, at a wonderful place called Shtoor. We found an English menu, which made life easier (and we later found that their normal menu is in Old Slovac, and many locals find the English menu easier to understand!). Greg had an excellent herbed chicken and roasted tomato sandwich and I had very large (and remarkably cheap at €1.90) homemade pate with cranberry relish and fresh bread, which was delicious. After lunch we joined a walking tour, and enjoyed being guided around the old town centre, as well as visiting some of the newer areas. Our guide was a local, and it was interesting to hear her speak about some of the recent changes in her country. Amongst the interesting history she told us we were saddened to learn that during the communist years the powers-that-be decided that they didn’t need two beautiful old cities within Czechoslovakia, and so left Prague mostly alone but destroyed about 70% of Bratislava in order to rebuild in a more modern communist style. This has resulted in, for instance, a four lane highway just meters from the cathedral (which was the traditional coronation location for Hungarian kings for more than 300 years). They also built the first skyscraper, a bright yellow, concrete edifice at a whopping 12 stories high.

The country experienced strong economic growth for over a decade after the end of Communism, and proudly joined the Euro a few years ago. Since then however the economy has struggled, not least due to lower demand for it’s main export – cars. Services including IT outsourcing are increasing, but youth unemployment is very high, and there is a big income difference between the capital and the rest of the country – apparently a shop assistant in Bratislava earns double that of someone in a normal town. It was particularly notable that all the construction (and there was not a lot) seemed to be on an indefinite hiatus. Our guide seemed very proud of her young nation, now 22 years old. Though she still looks forward to when she can truthfully say it’s a good democracy, as corruption is still common (an example she gave was that the main motorway in the country, from Bratislava to the 2nd biggest city in the east, remains perplexingly unfinished after many years). There are also apparently a substantial number of “former” communists still in government. Dinner that evening was at Cafe Verne, which had a small (just a door really) unassuming front opposite the (armoured) American embassy. Going down the stairs we were greeted by a cosy bar and two rooms almost full, mostly of seemingly locals. Greg enjoyed some goulash and spetzel whilst I had duck with potato pancakes and red cabbage, together with some local red wine.

On the Saturday we caught the bus out to Devín, an old castle along the river with commanding views along the valley. The transport in Bratislava proved easy to navigate, and a single ticket cost 90c. The buses had an electronic display which listed their destination, and the name of the next stop. On top of this several had displays with the next 6 or so stops, indicating which were request stops. There was also a free iPhone app for the public transport system, which calculated the best routes and contained full timetable information (so for example you knew to get somewhere you walked 5 mins to the Kolleragee stop, and caught a number 83 bus/tram which would take 6 stops and 10 minutes to get to your destination)! All in all, much better than back home in Bristol. We read that the ticket inspectors could be rather zealous, but we never met any.

The castle had a varied history, with it’s origins dating back to Roman times. It remained in use over the centuries, being expanded by various rulers including one who added a small palace onto the headland just down from the keep. Sadly the upper keep was inaccessible as it was unsafe following archeological excavation, following which they had run out of money leaving it closed since 2010 while they tried to raise more funds. We were there on a cold day, and the water which normally ran down a gutter had frozen solid forming some impressive ice. We wandered around the site for a while before heading back into the town center for some lunch. After lunch we visited the main cathedral, which was an impressive building and which was about to host a wedding. In fact we saw two brides that day, one heading towards the church in a car and the other with her groom being photographed at various locations nearby. Interestingly the cathedral spire does not have a cross on top of it, instead it carries a replica of the crown of St Stephen (first King of Hungary – crowned in Budapest) covered in 8kg of gold, monarchs of course being more important than Gods. The most famous royal crowned here was the Austrian Queen Maria Theresa, mother to 16 Habsburg children who between them ruled most of the known world at the time (including the famous Marie Antionette). We also visited the new town hall (the old one next door is now the city museum), which was previously the very lavish palace of the archbishop of Bratislava. It contained 6 historically valuable, old tapestries from Britain, the ‘hall of mirrors’ and a stunning 3 story high private chapel in the baroque style (looking more ornate than the cathedral).

Of particular interest was the old museum of pharmacology, which had been a pharmacists shop for since the mid 16th century before closing and being handed over to the City Museum in 1953. Remarkably the furniture and equipment in the main room which dated from 1773 was still in use when it finally closed and the room also features an original 18th century frescoed ceiling featuring scenes on the theme of healthcare. It had on display some marvellous additional furniture and a great range of more than 8000 old containers – wood, glass and ceramic. They are also home to several thousand volumes of ancient pharmaceutical literature, including the original volume of work by Paracelsus from 1574. Amusingly it is known as The Red Crayfish due to the shop sign from the late 1800s which features a red crayfish, apparently the sign for a pharmacist in the period. This small but fascinating museum was twinned with the armoury which is exhibited in the old city gate. Not only does this contain a wide range of arms – swords, rapiers, pistols, and more – the top floor affords a commanding view of the city, which I admired for a while as Greg waited inside. The building it is housed in is the last of the original gates of the fortified city, originally built in the 1300s (along with 2 others) before being razed, rebuilt and remodelled several times resulting in the current baroque structure built in 1758 becoming known as St Michael’s Gate after a statue of St Michael and the Dragon which was atop it at that time. Kings crowned in St Martin’s cathedral would solemnly process through the town (a walk now marked by 178 bronze crowns set in the stones of the streets) to the gate and take an oath to protect the interests and laws of the country. Dinner that evening was at a local restaurant (Prašná Bašta) known for it’s Slovak food. We had a great meal – my starter was chicken broth with liver dumplings and Greg had Hortobágyi pancakes (which it turns out are Hungarian) stuffed with chicken and sour cream. For mains we shared a platter of roast meats, which were excellent – with a tasty slightly smoked flavour.

For our final day we started with a climb to the old castle, which dominates the Bratislava skyline (and was a useful sight-line for navigating the city, albeit less necessary in the days of Google maps). It had started to lightly snow and the streets were very quiet, so we felt that we had the place to ourselves. We took a slow amble up to the castle and wandered around the site, though we didn’t go into the main building itself which is largely a reconstruction housing the Slovack National Museum. We enjoyed the views over the city for a while, and then headed back down to catch a bus to the main train station. We were headed for a small spa town outside Bratislava called Senec, and were amazed when we bought the ticket which cost all of €1.32 for the 26km journey. The journey took about 20 minutes, and it was interesting watching the snow covered scenery go past as we left the city itself and passed by much smaller locales. At Senec we alighted (which consists of a steep climb down from the train and walking across the tracks to the station!). From there it was a 25min walk through affluent looking suburbs (we guessed many were summer houses) to the Wellness center, where we spend almost 4 hours enjoying the saunas and steam rooms. It was smaller than the places in Prague or Vienna, but still very pleasant. And it was fun leaving a hot sauna to be able to cool down by standing in the small japanese garden outside whilst the snow was falling. Sauna etiquette was slightly different here – everyone was provided with a sheet to wrap round yourself and sit on in the rooms, and some wore costumes underneath whilst others did not. Whilst the train to get there was a small, old, local train the one we returned on was a large modern one with two floors, so we sat at the top to get a better view as we returned. Dinner that night was at the Slovak Pub, which seemed very proud to have been awarded put 23 of 100 worldwide by Lonely Planet. It had interesting themed rooms, and we ate next to a hot wood burning stove, in the Juraj Janosik room, which was named after a famous local highwayman born in 1688 who had robbed from the rich to give to the poor; the Slovakian Robin Hood.

The next morning we headed for the train station, on our way to … Budapest!

Vienna (Feb 4-7)

Our journey to Vienna was very pleasant.  It was a direct train trip from Prague, taking just over 4 hours.  The train was very impressive – clean, quiet and with a very modern and well equipped carriage.  We enjoyed the view along the way, which especially at the beginning consisted of forests interspersed with lakes and steams (often frozen), and some snow.  And I took the opportunity to write my Prague blog post.

Vienna itself was much larger than Prague, and felt much more like a modern cosmopolitan centre.  It was grander, and felt richer, than Prague.  But didn’t quite manage the same old-world charm and beauty that Prague embodied for me.  Our hotel couldn’t have been more of a contrast from Prague.  Both were excellent, but very different.  Hotel Hollmann Bertage was another small boutique hotel, but there the similarity ended.  It had a very modern design, which even extended to free iPad loans from reception.  It also had a library with a piano, and a listening area with couch, CDs and headphones.  And it’s own small cinema showing relevant classics such as the Third Man every evening, complete with popcorn dispenser outside!  Our room was very well appointed, and the large bathroom was particularly superb – with excellent shower, separate large bathtub and underfloor heating.  In the morning we discovered that the breakfast was outstanding – with up to 5 courses on offer!  We started with bread, including fresh croissants.  Greg enjoyed the fresh fruit.  Then a selection of cold meats and cheeses.  For the next course we could chose a freshly cooked option, and I opted for the ‘egg of the day’ which turned out to be Vienesse egg in a glass.  Finally there was a dessert – a very splendid ‘warm chocolate cake’ which was like a mini-souffle.

Getting around Vienna was very easy.  The metro and tram system was extremely efficient and although more expensive than Prague it was cheaper than the UK (€2 per journey, €6.70 for a day travel card).  Our first outing took us to Hofburg palace, home to the Habsburg dynasty.  There was an exhibition of crockery, cutlery and other table items more lavish than I’d ever envisaged, including a wide range of fine gilt plates and some very fine porcelain.  From here we explored the royal apartments via audio tour, and learned about the Habsburgs in general and about the sad life of princess Sisi in particular (with several parallels to Princess Diana).  Lunch was at the impressive and historic Central Cafe.  From there we visited the royal tombs, which are beneath the Capuchin monastery – founded by the Habsburgs for the purpose of looking after their remains!  Atmospheric and a little spooky.  We also saw the Church of St Augustine, which was pretty impressive in it’s baroque styling.  Our final visit for the day was to the Imperial Furniture museum, which held the movable items for the Imperial family safe and transported them between their palaces.  Their collection includes over 15 thousand chairs, a huge number and variety of which are on display.  They even used to lend items out to the film industry, until in the interests of better preserving their valuables from damage the practice ceased.  After that long day we’d felt we’d earned some R&R, and so we headed out to Therme Wein (just over half an hour via metro and then bus).  There we unwound for several hours, enjoying the many steam rooms, saunas and pools.  In contrast to the Prague spa this was of very modern design, but like Prague it was sparklingly clean.  It also had very regular Aufgass sessions.  During an Aufguss session the Saunameister uses a large towel to circulate the hot air through the sauna, intensifying sweating and the perception of heat.  Sometimes these were run by staff, and other times (rather humorously we observed) facilitated by an enthusiastic customer.

Our second day was focussed around Schönbrunn, one of the summer palaces of the Habsburgs.  We spent most of the morning there at the zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn), which was originally created by the Emperor as part of the palace gardens.  We tend to like zoos, and Schönbrunn is particularly well regarded as one of the best in Europe.  We were impressed, though perhaps not as much as we expected to be.  Maybe the cold weather didn’t help, as many of the animals were keeping themselves warm inside.  I did enjoy seeing the arctic wolves though, which were a less usual and very interesting sight.  We had a fine lunch at the Imperial Cafe at Schönbrunn in splendid surroundings (carrot and ginger soup, fresh ciabatta, dark hot chocolate).  During the afternoon we toured the palace itself, and learnt more about the impressive Habsburg family and in particular Emperor Franz Joseph, who rose at 4:30am and considered himself the “first servant of the Empire”.  We also spent a short time admiring the vast grounds – in the distance you can still see the Gloriette, and that is only halfway to the garden boundary!  We also managed to make it to the Palm House prior to closing, and enjoyed a short but very agreeable wander through the warm house, the cold house and the hot house, each housing a delightful assortment of flora in a beautiful old building (which reminded me of the tropical houses in the Glasgow botanical gardens).  After this it was cake time, and we visited the Hotel Sacher, home of the famous Sachertorte – a renowned moist chocolate cake with apricot jam filling.

On the way back from here we managed a little shopping and I bought a few shirts and a couple of jumpers.  There was a great selection of good styles and particularly of interesting colours, which helped to explain why the standard of dress we’d observed worn in Vienna was a distinct improvement from back home.  Although we had had to wander a little while before finding a suitable store – for a surprisingly long time we were surrounded by high fashion outlets way beyond our price range; as Greg happily noted, we were passing by all of the big names such Prada, Gucci and Armani Couture (the precise hierachy I forget).  In fact overall Vienna gave every indication of being an affluent city still.  We returned to our hotel, and enjoyed a complimentary glass of prosecco and some homemade pate whilst we planned our dinner venue.  In the end we ate at a very friendly local Austrian restaurant (Oswald & Kalb) recommended by our hotel, and enjoyed an excellent meal of traditional fare – Weiner Schnitzel (done properly, with veal) and Tafelspitz (beef with spätzle) together with a glass of Austrian wine.

For our last day we visited the Leopold art gallery.  We started with the permanent exhibition, which features many splendid works including some by Klimt, though I liked some of the other work better such as Summer in the Garden by Theodor von Hoermann.  We also enjoyed their two temporary exhibitions, Fragile Japan and Male Nudes, both of which were interesting.  Male Nudes apparently caused somewhat of a stir when it launched due to the frank advertising featuring French footballers.  After the museum we grabbed a bite to eat at a local bakery cafe and headed towards the Natural History Museum for the afternoon.  We haven’t been to the one in London for a while, but we found this one excellent.  In particular the section with gemstones was very impressive, as was the section on meteors – which had excellent information even for us English speakers.  The building which housed the museum was also impressive, having been first built by the Habsurgs as a pair – the twin opposite housing the History of Art museum, both at one end of the palace gardens.  For dinner we headed to an Italian (Cantinetta am Ring);  we wondered whether Austria sharing a border with Italy would mean it was authentic.  We found it so, and shared an excellent mushroom risotto for our starter, followed by delicious Bistecca alla Fiorentina cooked perfectly rare, and which we have not had since we went to Tuscany many years ago with friends.  We skipped dessert at the restaurant and returned to our hotel via a rather fine cafe we’d discovered that served fantastic ice-cream, which we ate as we walked home.

We’d only scratched the surface of what Vienna had to offer, and it was easy to see why it scored very highly in ‘livable city’ indexes and the like, but unfortunately it was time to go.  So in the morning we headed to the train station for what was to be a short train ride to our next destination – Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic!

Prague (Feb 1-4)

We had a perfect start to our 14th City. The destination was Prague, and we set out to Bristol airport to catch an afternoon flight. We flew with Easyjet, and it was a pleasant flight – helped by us having an exit row to ourselves. There was also free entertainment, as a stag party towards the rear of the plane had dressed their stag as Bruno. It was a short and uneventful trip, and we were soon exiting the airport having very quickly passed a bored looking passport control officer. Greg had arranged for transport from the airport, and a friendly gentlemen greeted us to drive us to our hotel. He was an expat American, having grown up in LA but spending the most recent decade or so in Prague. And when we remarked that it was easy to be a lazy tourist speaking only English he disagreed, saying “do you know how hard it’s been getting the rest of the world to speak our language”!

Our accommodation, the Alchemist Residence Nosticova, was delightful. It is a small boutique hotel located in a quiet area on the castle side of the river. We received a very friendly greeting as a member of staff (Rene) helped us with our bags and the receptionist, Zuzana, invited us to relax on the sofa as she checked us in, and to help us unwind we were quickly provided with a glass of fizz! Soon we were told we had been booked into a small suite on the 3rd floor, and Rene was directing us to the small lift. Much to our bemusement rather than try to fit into the lift with us, he lent in to press the 3rd floor button and then told us he’d meet us on the 3rd floor. So as our lift traveled upwards he ran up the stairs ready to show us to our suite! It was a delightful suite and we quickly settled in. Greg had a restaurant in mind for dinner which was close by, towards the castle, and we set off to find it. Rather than walk all the way we found a small funicular which stopped just by our destination and so enjoyed this unusual transport to climb the hill. The restaurant itself, Nebozizek, had stunning views of Prague from the hillside, and we stood and admired the beauty of the partially lit city for a few minutes before going inside to eat. The food was excellent – we shared a fois gras and spiced poached apple starter, and for mains Greg had leg of wild boar and I had rabbit in old Czech style (roast with tomatoes, herbs, and Czech dumpling) which was delicious. After dinner we slowly walked down the hill, admiring the magnificent view along the way. We finished off the evening with an episode of Brideshead Revisited from the iPad, and fell contently asleep. All in all a perfect first day!

We woke up at 7:15 for an early start on Saturday (or 6:15 UK time as my body kept reminding me). We kicked off with the hotel breakfast, which consisted of a small but well formed buffet plus a few dishes cooked to order. I enjoyed some excellent patisserie – croissant and pain-au-chocolat – and an omelette with mushrooms, mozzarella and black forest ham. We then wandered up to the castle, pausing frequently to allow me to try and capture a few of the very photogenic street scenes. The castle itself took us most of the morning to explore, and has a wonderful collection of grand scenes and smaller exhibits. I enjoyed a wander down the famous Golden Lane, where the tiny old houses have been preserved (and which have been tourist attractions for over a hundred years!). I also found the exhibition about the palace guard interesting, which detailed their history, outfits and changing duties through wars and changes of government and country. We also witnessed the end of a religious ceremony which attracted a wide range of priests and nuns, though we don’t know the occasion. The most impressive single element of the castle is the gothic cathedral (St Vitus), which has been constructed over 600 years – only being finished and consecrated 80 years ago! It’s a monumental building, with a very tall ceiling which creates a vast sense of space inside. We also enjoyed watching the changing of the guard, a suitably over-the-top ceremony. As well as the soldiers on the ground there was a small band performing from a first floor window, with music that sounded at one point distinctly like Thunderbirds! From the castle we headed towards the town center, grabbed some food, and joined in a Royal Walking Tour.

The guide turned out to be a friendly brit called Simon, who was born in York and grew up in my home town of Scarborough! He used to be a sports journalist but quit to go inter-railing a few years ago, started in Prague and didn’t quite manage to leave! He was an entertaining guide, and for the next 2 1/2 hours took us on a fascinating tour of old prague, the Jewish quarter, and the newer city center. This gave us a good opportunity to admire some of the impressive architecture, including some impressive churches and residential buildings; some of which definitely felt almost Parisian. The Jewish museum was closed, but from the outside it we could see the cemetery where apparently thousands of bodies are buried. At the time the Jewish quarter was a walled enclave in the city, built by the city governors, that the Jews were confined to. Within it the cemetery is a small confined space, prescribed by the government of the day which rapidly filled up. Bodies were then buried atop each other creating an artificial hill in the cemetery. We stopped at a fabulous bakery (Prague Bakeshop) along the way, where we purchased a few delicacies for later, including a divine white chocolate and raspberry tart. We went past the Franz Kafka statue which is as odd as his books (we had previously visited his house on Golden Lane in the castle) and visited a high baraque Catholic church. The tour finished in the St Wenceslas square in new town, hearing about the Communist era of occupation (including a fantastic story of how a 4 hour invasion was stretched out to 3 days by the locals through the removal of street signs and overnight renaming of towns surrounding Prague to all be called the same – the name of the city govenor of the time). That evening we headed to Strahov, a small monastery for dinner, and
ate some traditional Czech food (selection of ham, pork tenderloin and beef with dumplings) along with local monastic beer.

On Sunday we decided to visit the National Technical Museum, though we didn’t know a great deal about it. We ended up spending several hours there, and were blown away by the quality of the exhibits. Several sections were particularly interesting – from a work perspective I really enjoyed the sections on printing and astronomy. The printing hall covered technological advancement through the years, and had some impressive presses on display. They were also proud that a Czech invented the lithographic technique. The astronomical exhibit had a wide range of sextants, telescopes and other devices, right up to modern day GPS based equipment as well as an atomic clock. I also really enjoyed the photographic hall which was small but perfectly formed and showed the advancement of the photographic process from inception to the modern digital era. This includes the very first ever image from an early photographic technique, which took about 2 days to expose! We also enjoyed viewing the finalists in the Czech national design awards for 2012. For the afternoon we traveled to the outskirts to visit Aqua Palace. After going almost to the end of Metro line C we travelled by bus for the remaining 20 mins, and I rather enjoyed seeing the small Czech villages go past, as it gave us a very different view of the people than from central Prague. The Aqua Palace was a great way to unwind and we spent several hours there in the Sauna area, going though a sequence of about 14 saunas and steam rooms, including the Vulcan sauna @ 100 degrees C! (I lasted the recommended 8 minutes) and the Russian Banya at 95 degrees which involved an outside dash down a 2 story (freezing) metal staircase and across the courtyard before getting into the heat. It was also nice to see some families with all ages there, which I guess must be partly a Czech cultural thing. Eventually we left and caught the courtesy AquaBus back to the metro, and hence central Prague. For our last
action in Prague we got off the Metro early and walked along the river and across Charles bridge. This proved to be especially atmospheric as snow had started to fall, and we wandered along the ancient bridge through falling snow admiring the statues of Pope’s and other religious figures as they appeared through the weather. A memorable end to our visit to Prague.

On Monday morning we checked out of the hotel, headed to the train station, and caught the Antonin Dvorack intercity train to… Vienna!

Rome (Oct 19-21)

Rome.  It’s a city which conjures up a lot of images and associations.  Most of these come from Hollywood, with it’s many depictions of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire.  So I was looking forward to exploring this truly ancient city, and seeing both the old and the modern.

We travelled there by train, on the impressive FrecciaRosso (Red Arrow).  As we left Turin and headed to Rome mountain scenery gave way to more rolling hills and we sped towards central Rome station at a very rapid pace, arriving at early evening.  We slowly navigated our way to our hotel (a journey which was made significantly harder when we realised that the directions we had weren’t valid as the tram we were expecting to catch had been recently re-routed..!).  Despite this we managed to find our way, making use of an alternative bus service, to arrive at our hotel.  It was the most expensive accommodation of our Italian trip, but also the least impressive, with a pretty basic breakfast and small rooms.  However it was located reasonably centrally and made a decent base for our exploration over the next few days.

Our first day in Rome was a whirlwind of activity, as we planned to hit a number of major tourist sites all in a day.  We were up fairly early, and at our first destination not long after 9am – the Colosseum.  I still remember my first sight of it – it was very impressive in real life, and larger than I’d imagined (even though I’d seen it on screen more than once).  Unfortunately the queue to get in was also impressive and larger than I expected, and so I was pleased to learn that Greg had a cunning plan…   So we went over the road to buy a Roma Pass, and when we came back a few minutes later were able to bypass the main queue and go to the priority queue area which only had a couple of people in front of us.  Inside we sorted out audio guides, and started our tour of the building.  From the inside it’s even easier to appreciate the sheer scale of this monumental place, and imagine just how loud and busy it had been during the days of the Empire.  It survived reasonably intact through several iterations, and a lot of the missing stonework turned out not to be due to years of weather or any other natural cause – rather once it ceased active use Romans started reusing stone from the Colosseum for other building projects, treating it like a convenient local quarry!

From the Colosseum we headed down the road and visited the main Roman Forum.  It was a hot day by this point (~25℃) and so we took the opportunities we could to listen to the audio guide in the shade from the remaining Roman ruins whilst we learnt about the history of this remarkable location.  There are many ruins left standing, from original buildings like the Curia Julia where the Senate sat and the judiciary was administered, and pillars from several old temples – including temples for Castor and Pollux, Saturn, Rolumus and Caesar (which although it has been entirely stripped by various Popes to this day the altar has fresh flowers placed on it by locals).  A little further along is the famous Atrium Vesta (Temple of Vesta), alongside which is the home of the Vestal Virgins;  priestesses of Vesta, Goddess of the hearth, who took a vow of chastity before taking an important role in Roman society.  It took us about 2 hours to cover the whole Forum, by which time we were a bit tired and hungry and so grabbed a bite of late lunch before heading to our next visit – the Palatine Hill.

The Palatine Hill is the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city.  It stands 40 metres above the Forum Romanum, looking down upon it on one side.  It is also the origin of the word Palace.  I enjoyed our time here, it’s a relaxed area in the middle of a busy city and has some peaceful areas of garden to explore along with ruins of important buildings as well as mythological associations – such as being the supposed location of the cave where Romulus and Remus were found.  It also affords some very impressive views of Rome, and I was able to get some idea of the scale of the city, as well as spotting the Dome of St Peter’s in the distance.  It is remarkable how much of the palatial homes and temples on the hill have survived as the Farnese gardens were built over the top of the structures of the hill affording the Farnese family (which included Popes, Dukes and even a Queen) extensive pleasure gardens and aviaries of exotic birds.  In ancient Rome the Palatine Hill was the poshest neighbourhood in Rome where the wealthy built their villas and palaces.   We saw the Temple of Apollo (what little remains), the villa of Augustus (Roman emperor) and the villa of Livia (wife of Augustus).  We walked round the Flavian Palace, and admired the Hippodrome of Domitian before heading back down, stepping away from ancient Rome and back into the modern city.

It was now getting close to 6pm and our next stop was the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica.  Traffic was dense and slow so we headed to the Metro in order to cross the city in reasonable time.  As it was we arrived at St Peter’s just after closing time, and I was disappointed to have missed the chance to look inside this famous cathedral.  Luckily a chat to a friendly security guard proved productive, and they let me through security so that we could look round for a short time before everyone was chucked-out.  This brief visit was still enough to get some sense of the grandeur of the place, and admire the substantial amount of gold and marble which decorates the sumptuous interior.  As we came out the sun was setting and I was luck enough to get a few shots of St Peter’s (Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano) and St Peter’s square in wonderful evening light – a beautiful sight.

It was now almost 7pm, and we had no time to rest!  Greg had special evening tickets for a further spectacular destination – the Vatican museums.  These are notoriously busy in the day time, and Greg had managed to secure two of the more limited evening entry tickets so that we could enjoy a more relaxed and considered visit.  There was a big queue waiting for entry but security was efficient and we were soon inside, and armed with an audio guide we commenced our exploration.  I hadn’t a clear idea of what to expect, but even if I had I think my preconceptions would have been blown away by what I found.  I’ve been to many palaces and impressive buildings on my time – both old and new – but I think the Vatican museums have the most impressive collection of rooms, art and decoration of anywhere I have ever been.  We started with the sculpture gallery, and were blown away by the breadth and quality of the sculpture on display, primarily ancient Roman.  In addition many of the floor mosaics were exceptionally impressive and were by far the most intact that I’ve come across.  I was also in awe of the Egyptian gallery, which had some magnificent work in great condition;  much more so than I remember from the British Museum in London, for example.  It seemed that previous Popes had been very effective at persuading local rulers (or sometimes plundering crusaders) to send the choicest pieces back to the Vatican for safe keeping.  Sometimes when that didn’t work they simply helped themselves, using priceless artwork, marble and mosaics to decorate their villas and palaces in the time before the Vatican became the principal residence of the Papacy.  We also greatly admired the several Papal apartments, one of was built for Pope Julius II (who wanted a more impressive apartment than his predecessor) and was fully painted by the best recognised masters of the age.  However the Pope then changed his mind, and commissioned Raphael to paint over these works (which he did with one exception – that of his mentor).  The result is magnificent.  And then one comes to the Sistine Chapel – more awe inspiring in real life than I expected; in part due to it’s large size, but also due to the quality of the work – personally I didn’t find the one of the central and most famous works, The Creation of Adam the most impressive scene.  The only shame is the large amount of tourists in the room (ironic, I know), who don’t observe the request for silence, and some of whom even break the no-photo rule.  And in terms of impressive Vatican exhibits I haven’t even mentioned the modern art gallery, with original work by Dali, Matisse, etc, the Map Room, the Tapestry Room and many others.  We left about 10pm, and headed straight home to bed after a long day.

Day 2 was a complete change of pace, and a genius plan from Greg.  We donned walking gear, and set out to walk some of the Appian Way.  Of all the roads that led to Rome, Via Appia Antica (built in 312 BC) was the most famous. It eventually stretched all the way from Rome to the seaport of Brindisi, through which trade with the colonies in Greece and the East was funnelled, one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient republic.  In Roman times it was refered to as the “Queen of the long roads”, and also happened to be the route along which Spartacus and his follow revolting slaves were crucified.  It felt odd to be walking along the very road which carried Roman soldiers, merchants and nobles to and from the City, and some of the original covering of volcanic pebbling remains intact!  The very beginning is shared with a road, but quickly you hit a pedestrian area and after that you are walking in what feels like park-land.

Just near the start we visited the Caracalla baths, a huge complex which at it’s height could cater for more than six thousand bathers as this activity became increasingly fashionable.  The scale was vast – it’s estimated that they would have had to install over 2,000 tons of material every day for 6 years to complete the build, the precinct was 412m x 393m and the walls of the Caldarium were approx 44m tall.  And did I mention it had it’s own viaduct?  To complete the experience it also featured two libraries, restaurants and shops as well as masseurs, beauticians and hairdressers.  Next up were the Catacombs of St Sebastian – a very interesting and impressive site, which we learnt served as the derivation of the word catacomb, which came from meaning ‘beside the hollows’, meaning the cave containing the necropolis next door. It has more than 11km of tunnels with tombs stacked 3 or more high in most places.  They have also uncovered the remains of a cafe complex complete with graffiti dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul which was in use by visitors in the 4th Century.

We visited other sights along the way, including the Villa of the Quintilli, a private country villa so large it had its own spa complex.  But what I really enjoyed was just walking along this ancient path as the Romans did.  We travelled about 7 miles and given that we’d chosen a very hot day (27℃) we were also grateful for another ancient Roman introduction – the drinking fountains placed along the path.  We enjoyed a picnic lunch and all in all found it a remarkably relaxing and quiet day;  there were a few other walkers and some cyclists, but overall it was a little like we’d discovered a secret path in the heart of the city which we could enjoy by ourselves uninterrupted.  And the fact that every so often we’d see an ancient Roman relic just lying by the side of the path just made it all the more magical.

That evening we enjoyed a fantastic meal in a small Italian family restaurant called Alfredo e Ada.  We’d booked (with the help of the Venice concierge!), which was lucky as there were only about 16 covers and throughout our meal customers were queuing in the street to get in.  There were no written menus, just great Italian food cooked by Grandma (what she fancied making that day), and and served by her son – himself a somewhat elderly gentleman.  We particularly enjoyed the veal stew, and the house wine – served in carafes with small rough glasses – was excellent too.  From here we wandered to a nearby square full of artists, and shared a little gelato to finish off our wonderful evening, and said farewell to Rome.

Turin (Oct 17-18)

We caught the train to Turin, changing at Milan. The Italian train service worked very well for us, and we had seats in business class which gave us plenty of room and a free drink (glass of Prosecco!) with which to enjoy the journey. Travelling by train meant that we could relax for a few hours, enjoy the view (and write this blog). As we approached Turin (at an impressive 300kph!) we noticed the mountains appearing; it seems it’s nickname of “the Capital of the Alps” has good cause.

We were staying at the Principi de Piedmont (Piedmont being this region of Italy) and after checking in we headed out to a museum which covered some of the early history of the city. In 1706 the Battle of Turin saw the city beseiged for 117 days, after which the attackers were routed with the help of some allies. This battle was remarkable in that the attacking French arrived at the beginning of Winter and had to wait to Spring to launch their offensive (as their gun-powder wasn’t usable in winter). In that time the defenders built 17km of tunnels under the attackers likely positions, radiating out from the city. They used these tunnels to build caches of gunpowder which they ignited under the attacking forces, killing in total thousands this way. And from this battle the story of a local hero lives on, due to one Pietro Micca giving his life to keep the attackers from breaching the tunnels. The museum tells all this story and we were given a personal guided tour in English by an enthusiastic guide, including a visit into some of the remaining tunnels themselves. For dinner that night we found an intriguing place with different food stations where I pointed at a nice looking piece of steak and was pleased to be presented with it a few minutes later cooked nice and rare.

After a reasonabe breakfast the next day we navigated through the city to catch a “tranvia”, a tram with cog wheels climbing the mountain on spoked rails, to the Superga mountain, only to miss the departure time by 2mins due to bus busyness and heavy traffic. Whist we waited for the next departure we practiced our Italian (well, Greg’s Italian and my pointing) with a nice lady in a local bakery and ended up with cold meats, cheese and home-made foccaccia to eat later. The tranvia itself took about 15 mins to slowly climb up the maintain and once at the top we got out to explore Superga Basilica – “the church on the hill” – an impressive building overlooking Turin and the surrounding mountains. On a clear day the view is said to be outstanding, unfortunately we weren’t there on a clear day so we had to take others word for it. Whilst on the hill we explored the Basilica itself, which was very impressive except for the graffiti on many of the lower walls. We would have also visited the House of Savoy royal tombs, but they were accessible by tour only and we needed to catch the next cable car back down to Turin and so missed out on this. After our descent we navigated a few more buses and made it to the Villa Della Regina. This property was being slowly restored after years of neglect, including having been used as a girls school early in the 20th century. It was built by the house of Savoy as one of their palaces, and was very impressive if somewhat decayed. It was on a hill within Turin and as we sat in the garden outside eating our sandwiches we reflected on what a commanding sight it must have made in it’s day. From here we headed to the Borgo e Rocca Medioevale, a mock medieval village built in 1885 for the Arts and Industry Italian Expo. There is a small village and entire castle all exact reproductions of existing medieval buildings in the region. Whilst waiting for the tour we rested in the village cafe, and had a great expresso for 1 euro, and an amazing hot chocolate which was clearly made with care and pride. After the castle we wandered back through Turin botanical gardens and headed to a well established bar which had been in existence for over 100 years. There, in ornate surroundings, we enjoyed a drink and a selection of small sandwiches; a combination which is apparently traditional in Turin. From here we enjoyed a “slow food” approved hamburger at Eataly along with the unintended entertainment of seeing a young Italian bring his date there and the distinct lack of being impressed that the lady displayed (who was dressed as if expecting a posh restaurant). Still, at least he managed to bring her back after she walked out at the beginning. To complete our evening we unwound in the small but pleasant hotel spa, and strolled upstairs to bed.

We got an early start the next day, and made it to the Palazzo Reale (the Royal Palace)in time for a 9:30am tour of the 2nd floor, which it not open otherwise. There were only 4 of us on this first tour of the day, so the kind guide broke with the rules and held a dual language tour, covering the key points in English so that we could better appreciate the history of the impressive rooms we were seeing. We also had a self guided tour of the first floor afterwards. The House of Savoy had more than 20 palace and castles in and around Turin, many of which can be visited. We headed to the Basilica from here, but we were unable to get in as there appeared to be a funeral service for someone important (from the very grand outfit of the officiating priest, the vast number of nuns, priests, etc and the attendant police including cycle escort. So instead we walked to the Mole Antonelliana, a building originally designed as a synagogue, and I went up the tower to enjoyed a good (but still not very clear) view of Turin. The glass elevator rises, through the middle of the building, suspended in the air allowing the interior of the building to be enjoyed. After this we briefly explored the Cinema museum in the magnificent main building, which was very impressive and we felt conveyed a real love of the medum’s history. If we’d had more time we’d have enjoyed looking round the Metropolis special exhibition, however we had to restrict ourselves to the film “rooms” which covered such classic genres as horror movies, westerns and cartoons. Our visit to Turin ended with a relaxed lunch on Piazza San Carlo at Stratta, where we both chose local specialties – Greg enjoyed Agnolotti (sort of like ravioli) and I had rabbit “tuna”. It turns out that the history of the rabbit “tuna” was due to monks wishing to work around the Lent rules banning the eating of meat. Their solution was to dunk some rabbits in the river, baptise them as fish, and hence be able to eat them during Lent. Following lunch we had dessert in the number 4 rated restaurant in Turin – a gelateria. I thoroughly enjoyed my limone and fruiti de bosco as we wandered around a little, having run out of time to effectively visit the famous Egyptian museum.

After this we returned to our hotel to pick up our bags and walked back to the train station in order to head to our next destination…. Rome!

Venice (Oct 14-16)

I write this as I speed away from Venice, city 11 of our 40, by FrecciaRosso (Red Arrow) train. Much has been written about Venice, more capably than me I am sure, so I’ll focus on my personal memories and observations of the visit.

The first thing that struck me upon arrival was that it’s certainly a very unique city – you travel from the airport to Venice proper via water. It’s also a slightly disorganised (probably true of much of Italy, coming off a trip to Germany) and a very busy city. It’s obviously ironic saying this, but I suspect Venice would benefit from a few less tourists. That said we did manage to find many delightful places off the beaten track, and it’s very easy to wander down a side street or two and find a beautiful secluded courtyard or view with no-one else in sight. Overall it’s a magical place that’s somewhat other-worldy. It’s like walking into a European fairy tale, where real-life is temporarily suspended.

We bought a public transport ticket and took the Alilaguna from the airport to San Marco (the stop outside St Marks Square). This was a crowed and rather long journey, but it also gave us our first glimpse of the amazing city. Venice seems completely adapted to it’s island habitat, and with no cars in sight the only way to travel is either by walking down narrow and winding streets and crossing the many bridges going over the canals, or by water. I now understand that the feel that places like Disney are trying to copy originates here.

From San Marco we headed a few hundred meters to a private mooring, where we caught another boat. This time the private boat to our hotel – which was located just south of Venice main island, on it’s own island! After about 15 mins we caught sight of San Clemente Palace – an amazing building which used to be a monastery, and even has it’s own (decaying) Renaissance church. A set of porters met the incoming boat, and took care of our luggage. Check-in was very efficient, and the receptionist showed us to our room; through several huge corridors which disturbingly reminded me of the Overlook hotel (from the Shining).

We changed, and headed back into Venice to wander and explore. We got a little lost down some of the streets and side streets (as did our GPS!) and enjoyed doing some window shopping, and a little actual shopping, in the very many boutique shops that line most of the streets. I also took a lot of photos, as around many turns there were delightful vistas and classic shots of green canals travelling under ornate bridges and surrounded by somewhat crumbling buildings. I know of no other city with this kind of feel to it, and it’s really nice to find something so truely unique.

We grabbed dinner in a local Osteria (Al Granghelo), and enjoyed the menu of the day from which we chose seafood spaghetti (plentiful and excellent) and hot salami gnocchi to start with, and John Dory and veal escalope, followed by Crema Catalana – which was sugared and caramelised at our table before being flambéed with Grand Marnier. After this we had a treat as Greg had booked two seats at a very well regarded music recital. So we enjoyed an hour and a half of Interpreti Veniziani, a small chamber orchestra who were playing Four Seasons by Vivaldi (a Venitian composer) in Chieza San Vidal, a beautiful old church, packed with temporary chairs holding attentive listeners. The violinists were extremely capable, and the entire night had a great atmosphere.

Coming down to breakfast I turned off the main stairs was was greeted by the sight of the Basilica in the distance – I realised that the hotel was cleverly designed, and that the main corridor running through most of the ground floor was specifically aligned to highlight this view. Breakfast was a grand buffet, and included Prosecco which meant that we treated ourselves to Buck’s Fizz. We also enjoyed pastries, cold cheese and meats, fruit juices, sausages, bacon and scrambled egg and of course Italian coffee.

In planning our itinerary Greg had quickly realised that we’d never fit in as much in Venice as we’d like to, so he deliberately picked some slightly unusual options that weren’t always such typical tourist draws. We visited the first of these the next morning, and took a trip to Isola di San Michele, an island just to the north of Venice main island which has served as the city cemetery since 1807 and still does today. It’s rather beautiful and very interesting, and has a wide mixture of memorials ranging from the simple to the incredibly ornate (our favourite was the mausoleum which had it’s own solar panels). It was a peaceful spot with few other visitors, and we enjoyed wandering around for an hour or two enjoying the tranquility. From here it was another short boat hop to Murano, the island from which the famous glass comes. We stopped early for lunch and enjoyed a nice relaxed meal, with a very friendly waiter who humoured our attempts at Italian. The food was relatively simple and very tasty, and Greg particularly enjoyed his Tiramasu. We did a lot of window shopping on Murano, which had the most amazing selection of glass-based art; with each shop window even more beautiful than the last. We also purchased several presents, and only just avoided buying an exquisite necklace as we couldn’t work out anyone it would suit. From Murano we headed home via St Marks Square, where I took the trip up the Campanile, the bell tower of Basilica San Marco, to take some photos of the Venetian skyline and enjoyed the panoramic view of the city. I was also able to capture a mass taking place in the square, which was apparently bringing together the Patriarchs of the church from several branches, though not the Pope as he has renounced the title, and Venice doesn’t recognise the see of Rome as its superior anyway. During this Greg had found a local supermarket, and we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a short trip to the spa followed by a room picnic, a bottle of prosecco and a movie (which I’d brought on my iPad).

The next day we enjoyed several unusual tours, which Greg had tracked down on the Internet. They started with a tour of Torre del’Orologio, the famous clock tower which has overlooked St Marks square since 1499. It has an interesting history, and for many years (500 years in fact) was the residence of the family of clockmakers who had originally built it, and subsequently maintained it, passing guardianship from father to son over many generations. It was also the reason for one (of the many!) excommunications earned by the Duke of Venice, due to the Lion of Venice being placed higher than the figure of Jesus on the facade. There were only four of us on this select tour, and we even got to go out onto the roof by the figures who strike the hours, which commanded an amazing view of the Basilica and square (Greg stayed safely near the middle). From here we could also witness the full spectacle of the Acqua Alta, where Venice regularly floods at high tide at certain times of year (spring and autumn). The wise tourists (and locals) wear wellies, whilst others crowd onto the platforms places strategically through St Marks Square and other key locales. Others still simply took off their shoes and waded barefoot through the sometimes knee-deep water; it certainly made for an interesting sight!

After the clock tower we headed to the Doges Palace to take part in a “secret tour”. This tour goes behind the scenes of the main public areas in the Palace, and focuses on the history of the “Council of 10” and effectively Venice’s early secret service. We visited the private office of the Grand Chancellor, and the secret archive, where important documents such as government treaties were kept safe. We also saw the cell given to Casanova on his imprisonment here, and heard the story of his escape (of which at least some key facts are consistent with historical record). From the Palace we headed to Ca’Foscari, Venice university, and enjoyed a tour of some key parts of this historic building which sits at a key junction on the Grand Canal. Afterwards we walked to Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which has an amazing amount of sculpture in it and some outstanding art including a wonderful triptych by Bellini with a beautiful Virgin Mary which looks almost 3D. We could fit one further short visit in after this, and opted to skip the Basilica as we might not make it in time and instead headed to Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which is a small church in a picturesque setting by a canal, and which is made almost entirely of marble. We were the only visitors here enjoyed a short tranquil visit amidst calm uninterrupted by other tourists. We left here as it closed, as as he headed towards the vaporetto we happened by a chocolate shop (VizioVirtu) that Greg recognised as having one of the best reputations in Venice. A few chocolates and many euros later we returned to our route and caught the vaporetto a few stops in order to track down a local bar – Taverna del Campiello Remer – which served cocktails with cicchetti snacks. It is tricky to find (even for Google maps), but was great break and we very much approved of the musical taste shown too. From here we headed to dinner, again at Al Garanghelo, where we shared a great mushroom risotto. After this we faced the last journey home to the hotel, and both stayed on deck to enjoy the sight of moonlit and street-lit Venice slowly shrinking as we reached our hotel.

Our goodbye to Venice came in the morning after we left our hotel. After checking out we explored the old church next to the hotel, which seemed effectively deserted and was somewhat crumbling giving an amazing atmosphere of peace mixed with decay. For our final journey we sped away from the hotel towards Venice for the last time, and from San Marco caught a vaporetto up the Grand Canal and sat at the front in order to get the best view of the wonder of Venice as we headed towards the train station and our next city. This was our first visit to Venice, but I hope it won’t be our last and that we’ll return to explore at our leisure.

Next stop… Turin!