ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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a little more Pesht than Buda

Just got back from a nearly six day stay in the happening Hungarian capital. Feeling a wee bit on the tired side (it’s only a three hour direct flight to Madrid, but since when have I ever taken direct flights?!), but otherwise content with my getaway. It was the perfect amount of time – I didn’t do everything, but did enough. Didn’t quite stick to my budget, but didn’t go too far overboard either. I forgot lots of (fairly essential) items (like a camera, ear plugs, daypack, and sunglasses) but I don’t think my experience of Budapest suffered too badly for it (although this post has – apologies for the lack of photos). I had a couple of days travelling solo, and then some pilgrim friends I met on the Camino de Santiago joined me for the second half of my stay.

Judging by the other tourists I talked to, and the locals working in tourism, it seems that most people try to “do” Budapest in just a couple of days, before jetting off to Prague or Vienna or Bratislava. Even if it’s at the cost of missing another city, I highly recommend taking a little extra time to soak up Budapest at a more relaxed pace. Particularly as a visit to any of the thermal baths (which is a must-do) inevitably leaves one feeling decadently lethargic, effectively wiping out the rest of the post-bath afternoon. A shame, as there is quite a lot to see.

There are two things that never cease to amaze me about European cities; the beauty and grandeur of the architecture, and the barbarity of the history. Budapest is no exception.

Whilst the walking tour I did was fascinating, the information was a bit all over the shop and difficult to take in. The wind in my ears and the guides malfunctioning microphone didn’t help the confusion. Or perhaps some basic knowledge of European history was required, something which my supposedly first rate Australian education neglected to provide me with. Anyway, the main ideas I managed to grasp were: that Hungarian is completely unrelated to all its neighbouring European languages, and that the country’s history seems to mostly consist of war and oppression. A bit of superficial online research only served to muddle me further, however (after much pausing and pondering) I think I’ve managed to decipher the history of Budapest as more or less the following:

The town was first built by the Celts on the banks of the Danube, where it was a centre of craft and trade, until it was conquered by the Romans sometime in the first century. Under Roman rule, it rose to be the military capital of “Pannonia Inferior” (the geographical region of the Carpathian Basin, which is more or less modern day Hungary). After the Romans came the Huns, followed by Germanic tribes, Slavs, and many others, in the aptly named “Age of Migrations” (around about the 6th – 9th centuries AD). One group, known as the Magyars, conquered the city and surrounding lands in 896, and managed to stick around until this day.

The Magyars, ancestors of modern Hungarians, were a people originating from an area of Eurasia somewhere between the Ural Mountains and Volga River. Back in the day (a long long time ago BC), the tribes of this region were nomadic pastoralists, and spoke various ancient tongues belonging to the Uralic language group. Eventually these tribes went their many separate ways, and their languages developed into modern day Finnish, Turkish, Siberian and Hungarian. (Which is why these languages have nothing in common with most European languages, which developed from the Indo-European language family)

By the time the Magyars came to the Carpathian Basin, they were a little less pastoral, a little more martial. After formally delineating the boundaries of the Principality of Hungary, they sought to extend them, as every fledgling Nation/wannabe Empire tends to do. Their leader, Géza, established a dynasty (however one does) and named his son, Vajk (later baptised as Stephen) as predecessor to the crown. This was in conflict with the old Magyar/Hungarian traditions (which dictated that Géza’s brother should have been next in line for leadership), and Géza’s death provoked a civil war. Young King Stephen won, and with many of his pagan adversaries conveniently dead, he set about to convert the rest of his people to Christianity. Those who wouldn’t convert (many thousands), were killed, and the King was canonised and named patron of Hungary for his miraculous persuasiveness.

Violence begets violence and that pretty much sums up the following millennia until the present day. There was more trouble with the Romans, plus the usual medieval crusades, as well as war/invasion/occupation/oppression with/from/by the Ottomans, Mongols, Goths, Bulgarians, Austrians (until they settled for becoming the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Nazis and finally Soviets. The death tolls of the various wars and executions is staggering, and I really don’t understand how there are any people left there today, let alone how the language has survived (though perhaps the reinforcement of language helps the people retain their identity…dunno, but I’m sure that many academics write theses on the topic).

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hungary transitioned into democracy, and has been a member of the European Union since 2004. It kept its own currency, at the cost of high rates of inflation, and these days one Euro is worth about 300 Florins.

Like most places, the central, touristic areas of the city appeared very affluent (in a vibrant, young money kind of way), and (conversion in mind) the prices were similar to Spain. However, the outskirts were incredibly drab, and there were tonnes of sex shops and empty buildings. Whether or not Hungary has been affected by the current economic crisis, or things are struggling along as they always have, was hard for me to tell. The weather was pretty depressing too; it was cold, rainy, and bitterly windy. All this, in combination with such a bloody history, and brutal memories of communism still strong in much of the population’s memory, it’s no wonder that Hungarians aren’t the smiley-est of people. At least that’s the justification that came to my mind. Some Germans I met thought the service was actually better than in their country, which surprised me, as in general I find Germans to be really friendly (then again, I tend to hang out with the ones that travel). Anyway, I did meet some smiley and helpful Hungarians (notably the staff at Unity Hostel), but these were the exception rather than the rule. I’m afraid to say that in Budapest I experienced some of the rudest, most infantile and petulant service I’ve ever had in my life. Let’s hope it’s just because I was (repeatedly) unlucky. Or perhaps I was unconsciously breaking some social code of conduct, you never know.

Anyway, in general, Budapest is a very easy and tourist friendly city. English is widely (albeit reluctantly) spoken, the public transport (though nothing fancy) seemed reliable and efficient, and strangely enough, the drivers were incredibly courteous of pedestrians, often slowing down to let people pass (even when it wasn’t obligatory).

Despite the sour demeanours and unfriendly weather, Budapest has become quite an epicenter of partying and foodie/hipster culture. Something that makes me think I’ve judged the people way too harshly, because to have built so many inventive and fun venues, there must be a lot of optimism and creativity amongst the population.

Whilst the Buda hills (on the southwest bank of the Danube) boast some nice hotels and the best viewpoints of the city, the real action is almost entirely concentrated in Pest (pronounced “Pesht”) on the north bank. Here, students, tourists, and local intellectuals/elite congregate in the innumerable ruin bars, hipster cafes, alternative art spaces, and converted alleyways/warehouses, to sip designer coffees and, one can only assume, come up with more ideas for more interesting themed bars and innovative pastimes. Budapest is apparently the home of “escape rooms*” (you and your friends pay to be locked up in a room and you have to solve puzzles to get out, but they let you out after an hour anyway), and now you can also find “anger rooms” (you and your friends pay to be locked in a room full of rubbish, which you smash to smithereens), who knows what they will think of next.

*If you’re interested in escape rooms, a film worth seeing is “La Habitación de Fermat”, (Fermat’s room), a Spanish thriller about some ill-fated mathematicians, who were not automatically let out after an hour.

So, what other commentaries and/or recommendations can I make about Budapest?

  • Book Café: It’s amazing how quickly we become creatures of habit. This amazing, decadent old café was upstairs from a massive bookshop on Andrássy street, just around the corner from my hostel. It had high, elaborately painted ceilings, mirrors, chandeliers, and a grand piano (and live piano music). Coffee and cake ranged from about 2 – 5 euro, not a bad price to journey back in time and up a few rungs of the class ladder all at once. Another Budapest favourite is the New York Café, another decadent ancient coffeehouse, but was a bit more expensive, crowded and noisy.
  • A good time to see Buda Castle: is at 12 noon, when you can watch the changing of the guard. It has a certain comic value. I’m not sure if the soldiers always wear sunglasses, or if perhaps they were a tad hungover on the day I was there, but either way I do think they’re a little in need of some fresh choreography and some less restrictive uniforms (or more rigorous training/less strudel). A definite “A” for effort though, and kudos for keeping straight faces and pointed toes!
  • The Hungarian cake of the year: is decided annually on the 20th August (St.Stephen’s Day), by the National Guild of Hungarian Confectioners. What a wonderful tradition! If only I’d found a cake shop (other than the packed out tourist traps next to the Matthias Church) that was selling it! I didn’t really look hard enough though. Mum, if you ever go to Budapest, this is your mission!
  • Hummus Bar: Hungarian cuisine is famous for its hearty goulash, paprika poultry, and disgustingly cheap force-fed-goose-liver-pate, none of which appealed to my newly meat-free palate. Even the vegetable soups and salads seemed to somehow contain hundreds of tiny bits of bacon, and there’s a limit to how much battered fried cheese covered in jam one can eat (it was good, but that’s it for me until 2020). Fortunately, there was Hummus Bar, a Hungarian Restaurant chain which specializes in amazing hummus, plus a wide variety of affordable and healthy Middle Eastern cuisine, with plenty of options for vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike.
  • Bakeries: were both the bane of my existence and a godsend (as Hummus Bar wasn’t open for breakfast). The Hungarians do fantastic things with poppy seeds, walnuts, plums and cottage cheese; strudels, scrolls, and stuffed croissants… the poppy seed strudel fast became my daily staple (ie addiction), so much so that despite being a reluctant baker, I’ve bought nearly a kilo of what I hope is the filling (it’s all in Hungarian but they look like crushed poppy seeds) to try making some at home…
  • Poppy seed gelato: just because two things are delicious separately does not mean we should try them together.
  • A38, aka “The Best Bar in the World” (according to a 2012 Lonely Planet survey): this was… extremely disappointing. A38 is an old Ukranian stone carrier ship that has been reincarnated as a bar/restaurant/“cultural centre” and moored on the banks of the Danube. The idea is cool. The clever lighting is very cool. But we went quite out of our way to get there, and the restaurant turned out to be sleek but boring (very conservative), the cocktails less than ordinary (sometimes not speaking the language keeps me out of trouble, I was so tempted to challenge the bartender to an Aperol showdown!), and although the service was attentive, last drinks were called at 10.30pm! The bar downstairs was closed for a private concert, which sounded like some kind of hideous Hungarian death metal…and so we traipsed back along the windy riverfront, to Pest side, for some real drinks on dry land.
  • Szimpla Kert: A derelict (or should I say, “Derelique”?!) factory, once sentenced to demolition, that was converted into a “cultural reception space” (ie, bar) in 2002. It’s since become a Budapest institution and now hosts an arthouse cinema festival, live music, and lots of dancing every night of the week. The décor is outrageously ‘organic’ (chaotically strewn recycled bits and pieces), and the music is fantastic (electro swing, dance, really old oldies, all done well). There are many sub divisions and mini bars, serving fine wines, pastries, cheap and flavourless local beers, potent berry liquors, hot real food at 3am, kachimbas/shishas/waterpipes (whatever you call them, with every flavour), fresh carrots (I kid you not), CDs, t-shirts, postcards, paintings by local artists… and that’s at a fairly superficial first glance. Despite its dilapidated aspect, it was well run, and even had toilet paper, which is more than can be said for many bars in Spain.
  • Fisherman’s Bastion: a collection of Neo-Gothic terraces on the top of Castle Hill (Buda side), with fantastic views of the city, and in particular, Budapest’s famous Parliament building on the opposite bank. Best to go there at dusk, watch the sunset, and see the Parliament, the Basilica, and the three big bridges all spectacularly lit up.

It’s also worth adding that something I didn’t do, but would have liked to, was see some of the cave networks under the city. The land is apparently full of tunnels, which have played an important role through history (mostly as hiding places, but once as a hospital), and it would no doubt be fascinating to do a tour of some of them.

But tours cost money… and caves make me claustrophobic… and it was such a long way to walk through the rain to to get to the starting point. And I was having such a nice time ‘Pest side’ with the Pilgrims, where there were so many more than six days worth of cafes to visit…


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Logroño, a recipe for crazy dreams

Basque Witch Craze - Edict of grace from the Spanish InquisitionIn 1610, six Basque women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake out the front of the Santa María Cathedral of Logroño (a city in the north of Spain, just below the Pyrenees mountains). The Spanish Inquisition, notoriously unmerciful in some regards but generally forgiving of witches, announced the existence of a “Devil’s sect” in the area, sparking fear, hysteria, and the first ever full blown witch craze in Spanish history. At the public execution (which was attended by some 30,000 spectators), papier-maché effigies were also sacrificed, of another five unfortunate heretics who had (perhaps mercifully) died of typhoid before the burning ceremony. Fortunately, due to the tireless investigation and campaigning efforts of a heroic young Inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar, the witch panic was eventually quashed. No more innocent old ladies were murdered, and the Logroño executions became an anomaly in Spanish history (unlike much of Europe, where witch hunts were carried out for centuries, and the death toll ran into the tens of thousands).

Today in Logroño, there is a commemorative sign (not quite a plaque) where the burnings took place, which briefly states what happened and lists the unpronounceable Basque names of the victims.

But most visitors to the area aren’t really interested in its bloody medieval history. Most visitors to Logroño are there for only one thing: wine.

Logroño is the capital of La Rioja, probably the most famous wine region of Spain. Like pretty much every city, town and village in the country, it boasts a remarkably large number of bars and restaurants in proportion to the size of its population. So what’s so good about Logroño? Well, a glass of lovely Rioja is particularly cheap there (as it should be!), and the pinchos (bar food) are also cheap, and really, really yummy. But most importantly, the city is a starting point to visit the many bodegas (wineries) of the area.

The majority of the bodegas are in the countryside, scattered across the three distinct subdivisions of the region; Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. In order to visit a selection of bodegas and see as much as possible of the beautiful landscape, a car would be ideal. But cars and winery tours aren’t really a great combination, especially when everyone else is driving on the wrong side of the road. So unless you can afford a private chauffeur, or want to limit yourself to an organised tour (I found none that appealed), everyday shoestring tourists and backpackers are limited to travelling by bus and/or on foot. Which still leaves plenty of possibilities.

Haro is a small town about an hour from Logroño, and home to a large concentration of bodegas (what is the collective noun for ‘winery’, I wonder?). The bus ride is picturesque, and passes through a few small towns which are home to more bodegas and touristy points of interest (wine museums and the like).

It’s recommended to book bodega tours in advance. Plenty of information and contact details are available on the La Rioja website.

Ramon Bilbao American oak barrelsIn Haro, a friend and I visited Ramon Bilbao, one of the newer wineries. This was partly because, of the many I had contacted, they had got back to me offering a tour at a time and price most convenient to our needs (yes, we needed a wine tour). But, coincidentally, Ramon Bilbao just happens to be my favourite La Rioja wine (of the few that I have tried). I even took a bottle of it home to my family last Christmas. It may not be the best or the oldest or the most famous Rioja wine, but for me it is special, and now even more so.

The tour cost 8€, and included a very generous ‘tasting’ of three wines; the Crianza (aged at least 2 years, 1 in oak), Reserva (aged at least 3 years, 1 in oak), and Gran Reserva (aged at least 5 years, 2 in oak). Cristina, our guide, was friendly, animated, and suitably passionate about wine (bordering on poetic). She did a wonderful job of explaining the complex scientific process in layman’s terms, and was overwhelmingly non-elitist in her viewpoint towards the ageing process and personal taste. She also sang to herself at random intervals. I probably would too, if I had her job.

Haro reportedly has a picturesque town centre, and a suburb of winery-outlet bars (cellar doors?). However, due to the inconvenient return-bus schedule, and unbearably windy weather, we decided to go head straight back to Logroño for a post-wine tour siesta.

Our accommodation in Logroño couldn’t have been better if we’d paid double. Hostel Entresueños was cheap, spacious, spotlessly clean, and the staff were friendly and helpful. It had good kitchen facilities, and a comfy lounge and dining area. Best of all, as it was relatively empty, our dorm accommodation was upgraded to a private room with a balcony overlooking the main drag.

The hostel was a stone’s throw from Calle Laurel, a long, narrow, winding street, where all the pinchos bars can be found. My favourite pinchos were the ferrero de morcilla (a ball of rich melted cheese, encased in black pudding and toasted almonds, made to look like a giant Ferrero Rocher), and the bacalao rebozado (lightly battered cod fillet with roasted mini green capsicum), which were both served at a bar called El Muro (the decor was a little too orange for my taste, but the pinchos were worth it).

The city centre of Logroño is quite compact, and can easily be traversed in an afternoon. So that, and a day trip to Haro or any of the other surrounding villages, makes a nice little weekend getaway. I don’t really have an opinion on whether Logroño itself was pretty or not, it probably is in summer. But the weather affects your image of a place, and we really lucked out in that department.

So that was the end of our Carnival long weekend. Zaragoza and Logroño, Goya and mudéjar. Red wine, rich food, and wild, windy weather. Carnival is only half heartedly celebrated in the area, so from Friday to Monday there was a random sprinkling of people in fancy dress, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Suddenly you would be sitting next to Cruella Deville and a baby in a Dalmatian jumpsuit. Are they pirates or have those girls just overdone the eye makeup? And to make matters even more surreal, I was reading Bestiario, a collection of really weird short stories by Julio Cortázar. Houses possessed by faceless demons and people vomiting up rabbits etc.

And then there’s the true history, the witch craze of 1611…   I’ve been having the strangest dreams recently.


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48 hours in Oviedo (and surrounds)

“The north of Spain is beautiful” they tell me, “but it always rains”.

It also snows and can be incredibly windy, but this doesn’t matter in the province of Asturias, where (according to my recent experience), everything is magical and good.

view near Las CaldasAsturias is known for its green, green hills, ragged mountains, stormy beaches, bagpipes, cider, roasted chestnuts, blue cheese, fresh milk, almond sweets, and hearty stews. It’s proudly, unequivocally Spanish (in terms of the people and lifestyle), but the Scottish, Irish, and French influences are clearly there. To me, some of the scenery is reminiscent of wild and windy Tasmania, and the scattered cows also brought to mind the lush Victorian dairy country back home. I guess I had an incredibly good value weekend, if you take into account all extra the places it felt like I was visiting. Though the truth is, these bus window daydreams were just a bonus. Asturias is wonderful enough itself, without needing to evoke other landscapes.

I arrived in the capital, Oviedo, at 2.30 on Friday afternoon, and was picked up by Marian, a long lost Australian friend (who I’d ‘done’ Spanish with at Uni, though what on earth we ‘did’ in those days currently escapes me). After dumping the backpack and having a quick cup of tea, we wandered in to the city centre for a perfectly timed meal. An Asturian lunchtime set menu is a must do, but the food is incredibly rich and it’s a good thing we were ravenously hungry. On a colleague’s recommendation we ate at ‘El Fontan’, the restaurant upstairs from the central market. I can happily pass on this recommendation, and especially urge you to try the pote, a traditional soup/stew made from chorizo, beans, vegetables, and other mystery meats. Apparently it’s not nearly as heavy as the even more famous fabada, but why you would need anything heavier in modern times beats me.

Lunch was followed by a pleasant wander through the incredibly compact city centre, and a peek inside San Salvador, the gothic cathedral (which was all at once gloomy and bright, depressing and inspiring, austere and ostentatious, depending on your outlook and other reference points… but yes, I think I liked it).

Then, before our bellies had truly registered the weight of lunch, we stopped in at ‘Camilo de Blas’, one of Oviedo’s most famous (and beautiful) bakeries. Possibly a bit overindulgent, but totally unavoidable. A friend had told me I simply must go there, and Marian conveniently happened to live just next door!

After that we had a rest, drank some digestive herbal tea, and then went to hear some nuns singing in a nearby church.

Dinner was cider, al fresco despite the rain, and I learnt a new un-translatable verb. To escanciar is to pour cider in specific manner, with the glass held low and the bottle up in the air, so that the cider (which is flat) becomes aerated on the way down. The waiters on Calle Gascona (the Boulevard of Cider) are practised experts who do rounds of the tables, rationing large swigs (never a full glass), and each table shares a bottle. As it’s considered a bit weird/rude to pour your own drink, it’s important to stay on top of your game, because the waiter tips out any undrunk cider (on the pavement) before he ‘escancias’ the next round. Fortunately, cider is neither expensive, nor gassy, nor particularly breakfast at 26 Degreesalcoholic, so both the body and the wallet managed to get off rather lightly, despite what felt to be a very long and liquid evening.

After a sleep in and some more tea, Saturday morning got to an official start with a hearty breakfast at 26 Degrees, a new and very groovy Ovetense (Oviedo-ian) bakery/restaurant/cafe. We sat in comfy lounge chairs, listened to relaxing music, were attended to by slick waiters, and enjoyed a breakfast of Spanish potato omelette (stuffed with sliced ham and melted cheese), fresh bread rolls, fresh orange juice, coffee, and mini chocolate croissants, for only €3.60 each. I don’t think I will ever be able to pay for a breakfast in Melbourne again.

Then the rain, which had been gently mizzling on and off all morning, kindly stopped for a few hours, clearly in respect for the great expedition we had planned. With the encouragement of full bellies and some unexpected sunshine, we walked 8km from Oviedo to a small village called Las Caldas. The route was the first part of La Senda Verde, ‘The Green Trail’ (which continues on for I have no idea how far, but it would be worthwhile finding out). In Las Caldas you can find beautiful views of green farms, autumn-y forests, and distant Castillo de Priorio, Las Caldas, Oviedosnow capped mountains, there’s also a vine clad castle built on the river bend, some bars and cafes, and most importantly, our target, the Aquaxana spa centre.

Aquaxana is just one part of a big 4-5 star hotel complex, which is fortunately open to the non-hotel-residing public. Whilst most of the treatments are rather extortionately priced and a bit too ridiculously named for my humble plebeian tastes (green tea ‘caprice’ with lymphatic draining for €150, no thank you), entry to the thermal baths is only €18 (and €14 on weekdays)… and for this you get 2.5 hours of spa time, with creatively aimed ‘massage jets’, indoor and outdoor pools, steamy ‘Turkish’ and dry ‘Finnish’ saunas (with optional crushed ice), beautiful views, free foam thongs (sorry, flip flops), and a water, sound and light show for those who arrive at the correct hour (we did not).

After about two hours we reached our literal saturation points, and dragged our pruney bodies out of the water and into a nice cosy bar down the road. It was called El Peñon, served fantastic cider cooked chorizo, and like everything in Oviedo, I’d recommend it to anyone who goes there. Be sure to order the delicious house red, and if you have any luck understanding the waiter’s accent (not even our Spanish friend could), please let me know what type of wine it is, or at least what it’s called.

By the time we got back home (after unsuccessfully looking for peacocks in the San Francisco park in the dark), changed our clothes, and had (another) cup of tea, it was time to do the Saturday night thing…which meant heading for ‘the Street of Wine’ (Fridays being all about the Boulevard of Cider).

On the way we stopped for a few hours at Bodega El Molinón, where you can sit around barrels in a candle lit courtyard, and order your drinks through a window which goes to the main bar. Our reason for choosing El Molinón, aside from the cool set up and excellent (exceptionally excellent) service, was to get a cheese board and sample Cabrales, a famous Asturian blue. It’s aged in limestone caves in the Picos de Europa mountain range, and as you might have guessed, it is quite a potent cheese. It quite possibly singed some of my nostril hairs, and I can almost still taste the flavour (which I’m yet to decide if I like or not). It’s recommendable to enjoy in the company of other milder cheeses, with fruit, quince paste, and perhaps some wild boar chorizo. That’s right…Pumba chorizo, which is gamier and softer in flavour (less acidic) than other chorizos, and definitely worth trying. I guess I’m back to being a fully fledged carnivore again.

The tone of the weekend was well and truly set, and Sunday was more or less a continuation of Friday and Saturday. That’s to say, eating, drinking, and walking (mostly in the rain). It’s occurred to me that for someone who claims they love to travel, I’m a really quite a creature of habit. On Sunday we had breakfast at 26 Degrees, wandered the market (umbrella stalls are a big feature), had midday drinks at El Molinón, and stopped by Camino de Blas (Marian had left her umbrella there the last time, in a rather unnecessary ploy to get us to return).

At 2.30 on Sunday afternoon I boarded the bus, laden with almond filled horse shoes and a bottle of cider*. For once the sugar high was welcome; it helped me stay awake and admire the scenery on the way home.

If this were a proper ‘48 hours’ column in a professional travel publication, I guess it would be considered a bit skewed. There must be a lot left out; I know there’s much more to Oviedo than what I sampled. Such as the seafood, fabada, chestnuts, and salmon. Perhaps they have art there too.

But personally, I simply couldn’t ask for more in a weekend getaway.

Except perhaps a salad.

* I’ve been warned that Asturian cider doesn’t taste as good after you cross the mountains. That’s okay, I bought it for cooking purposes, as boiling chorizo in cider is something that even my little ‘non-kitchen’ can manage.

Vegetable garden, vegetables, mmm...


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Assisi

I’ve been stuck on this post for a while now, getting frustrated over sentences that just aren’t working, sentiments that won’t be put into words, and a tone that cannot be found. Possibly because it’s been a few weeks since I was in Italy and now I’ve got other things on my mind. Or that when I do turn my thoughts towards Assisi, they’re met with glorious sunset images that simply cannot be described without sounding saccharine or clichéd.

I know the world probably doesn’t need another self indulgent writer harping on about ‘the wondrous Umbrian light’… but never mind, indulge me. Assisi is beautiful and I would like to sing its praises, no matter how clumsily or inadequately, and starting with the sunsets.

AssisiAssisi is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been to. At sundown, at least in summer, the ancient stone facades all glow a lovely, dusky pink – a reflection of the peach and flamingo medley sky. The medieval town is built on the side of a hill, surrounded by views  of a seemingly endless rust and olive coloured landscape. That would be Umbria, bathed in magical Umbrian light.

In addition to being almost inconceivably pretty to look at, Assisi has a wonderful vibe. Being the birthplace of St.Francis, it is, of course, an incredibly religious place. I’m not a religious person, and the word ‘spiritual’, in certain contexts, invokes in me an admittedly violent scepticism that makes me feel physically ill. But compared with, for example, the crowded halls and tacky gift shops of the Vatican (and countless other religious hotspots), Assisi seems so much more dignified, modest, and yes, genuinely, humbly ‘spiritual’. In the least pretentious sense of the word.

It was really nice to see churches being used as churches, and pilgrims without cameras.

AssisiAnother thing that struck me about Assisi was that it manages to strike a nice balance between tranquillity and liveliness. The clergy-to-layperson ratio is possibly one of the highest in the world, which is perhaps why the streets felt so safe and everyone seemed to walk rather slowly. But in no way did it feel sleepy or musty, and there’s more to the town than religion. For example, there are lots of fantastic bookshops and bakeries (which is enough to sell a place to me, but possibly not everyone). There’s also live music in the streets, plenty of bars and cafes, art galleries, and non-tacky gift shops (although there were some admittedly tacky ones too). When Mum and I were there, there was a medieval festival happening, with hot marching drummers, and hot roast sandwiches & glass of wine combo for 2.50€. There was a Morris Minor motor club passing through, and like most hilly places in Southern Europe, insanely fit cyclists flitting about in professional looking getup. The streets were filled with happy people enjoying Aperol Spritzers in the late afternoon light. I wouldn’t say Assisi is a party town, but it definitely has an upbeat feel to it. It’s refreshingly clean. And the local dessert is some kind of delicious brioche dipped in some kind of delicious liquor, just in case you were wondering.

As for St.Francis, he sounds like an interesting fellow. Mum and I were talking to a trainee priest who gave us a bit more insight on this apparently misinterpreted saint. Misinterpreted, according to our priest friend, because people often imagine him as a nature loving hippy. The story goes that St. Francis was a rich boy, the son of a wealthy silk merchant, who relinquished his comfortable life in order to be closer to God by living in poverty. He spent a lot of time wandering the countryside, talking with animals, and urging people to respect all living creatures as equals… sounds pretty hippy to me. And makes me wonder, perhaps if St.Francis had been born on the other side of the world, about 1600 years earlier, he and Buddha would have made good mates. Anyway, in addition to being a friar and wild animal tamer, the young St Francis and St Clare and their friends the birdsFrancesco was also a trendsetter; he was the first recorded person to ever receive the stigmata, and he bought Jesus’ humble robes back into fashion (retro was aldready ‘in’). He was reportedly a diplomat, who tried to put an end to the crusades by talking and negotiating with foreign leaders. He started his own order, and convinced his ‘friend’ St.Clare to do the same. St. Francis spread the love and was popular amongst his contemporaries, so much so that he was canonised just 2 years after his death. He’s since become the patron saint of ecologists – a hippy if there ever was one. However, St.Francis appeals to me personally on a more superficial, aesthetic level. He’s often pictured with birds… I’ve a bit of a thing for birds, and they look so sweet in all the paintings.

So anyway, no matter where you fall on the belief spectrum, I can highly recommend a visit to Assisi, especially if picturesque countryside, cute little rambling streets, or elegant architecture is your thing. There are a tonne of churches – not the gilt, austentatious kind, but the graceful, austere, gothic variety. Austere plus colourful pschedelic frescos. Anyway, the town is small enough that you can walk around comfortably, and big enough that you can stay for two or three days without getting bored. Another option is to spend a couple of months there and do an intensive Italian course, now that would be nice. There are lots of picnic spots with good views, and being in the heart of Umbria (more specifically, Perugia, the home of Baci chocolates), there’s plenty to see and do within an easy, day-trippable distance.

As always, but particularly this time, my photos don’t do the place justice. Perhaps St.Francis is telling me it’s time to buy myself a fancy high-tech camera with a panoramic lens.


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MORE on Italy, this time in COLOUR!

VeniceIf a picture’s worth a thousand words, I probably should have cut straight to uploading these photos, and saved myself the effort of writing my recent long and overly descriptive post on Italy.

But judging by the images, you’d think I only went to Venice. That’s because Venice is such a photogenic city. (And given the poor representation of the rest of the country, I’m a lazy photographer)

To see the Italy photo page, click on the blue door →