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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El Camino de Santiago, Cantabria

If you take the coastal route to Santiago, starting from up near the French border, after around ten full walking days you will get to a town called Castro Urdiales. It’s the first stop in the province of Cantabria, and an indicative welcome to the region.Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción, Castro Urdiales

Castro is a medieval port town, which thrives on sardines, anchovies and tourism. The population doubles in summer, as hot and bothered inland Spaniards make their way up to the refreshing north coast. Castro’s water is sparkling, clear and icy cold. The sand is soft and clean. The tall, sandstone streets of the old town are packed with bars, and it seems possible that everyone in them is a fisherman or fisherfolk. The alleyways are caked with salt and tiny grey barnacles – at least that’s how I remember them (although that might be my imagination embellishing things in order to compensate for my hopeless memory and unfortunate lack of photos). One thing I can’t possibly forget though, is the massive church on the edge of the sea. La Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción was started in the 13th century and they finished building it in the 15th. It’s gothic style; austere, daunting, and refreshingly, strikingly asymmetrical. It’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen – up there with Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. I’d have to say I prefer it to just about any other I’ve seen in Spain, which are quite a few. I’m not sure what it was that captivated me so much about this particular church. Perhaps the oldness of it, its proud resilience and rugged presence overshadowing the port. Or the fact that this unsung beauty was such a pleasant surprise. I’d never even heard of Castro Urdiales, let alone that it had an immense medieval church (and castle) that, in my humble opinion, outshines* many of the bigger, better known cathedrals in Europe. (*in a decisively non-shiny way)

Castro was an unexpected delight, as was the rest of Cantabria. Of the four Northern provinces, it was definitely the one I’d heard the least about. After passing through the Basque Country, which had such a strong identity, Cantabria seemed comparatively unassuming. As far as capitals go, Santander was nondescript, as were quite a few stretches of the Camino, which involved a lot of unexciting road – simple, tiresome getting from A to B. Walking along highways is always unpleasant, and we pilgrims complained about it no end. When it was hot, the tar cooked our feet, and when it was windy or rainy it was just plain dangerous. The scenery along roadsides tends to be monotonous, which warps time and creates a sense of futility, I often felt like I was walking on a treadmill; going and going and just not getting anywhere. I’d much rather do 20km cross country than half that along a road, but unfortunately this wasn’t always possible. Fortunately, the tedium of these moments was offset by some incredible upsides, which were all the more fantastic for being unexpected. The real jewels of Cantabria were places I’ve never heard of before and that I’ll struggle to get to again. Mostly they were small towns and hidden beaches, which stole my heart and made all the dusty searing bitumen worthwhile.

Aside from Castro Urdiales, some other Cantabrian highlights were:

ferry from Laredo to SantoñaLaredo: Never so much have I enjoyed a gelati, as when walking the 4km, pristine white beach at Laredo. And never have I felt so appreciative of mass constructed identical beachfront high rises, as when they shaded me and my gelati.

Santoña: is where Spain’s most famous anchovies come from. A point which we were reminded of all too keenly, as the pilgrims hostel was right next to the canning factories in the industrial zone. The air was pretty thick. Some excited kids we met had done a tour of one of the factories, where they had reportedly been told that Santoña produces 90 thousand million tonnes of anchovies per day!!! A rather impressive figure, I’m surprised the ocean has anything left in it. And I wonder how many little old Spanish ladies it takes to clean all those anchovies? Fish factories aside, Santoña was quite a nice place, with a great beach and buzzing plazas in the evenings.

Santillana del Mar: according to Jean Paul Satre, the ‘most beautiful village in Spain’. According to this Jean, it’s definitely a contender. It’s nowhere near the sea (as the name suggests), but deep in forest, which is equally lovely. If you like medieval buildings (with carved shields and encryptions above doorways), brightly decorated window boxes, and cobblestone streets, you’ll love Santillana. It has great buskers too.

Cobreces: wins the prize for most glorious beach day. The hostel was overcrowded so we set up camp on the beach for a bit, to rest before coming up with a plan (to sneak into the hostel at night, which was coincidentally a disused women’s jail). I distinctly remember lying on the beach (using my poncho as a towel), looking out to sea, and thinking “This.is.bliss”. One of the happiest moments of my life.

Cliffs: Cantabria’s cliffs are spectacular. If you ever take the North Way and are faced with variants to the Camino, remember: providing it’s not too windy, always take the most coastal route. Even if it’s the longer path, I promise you it will be worth it.

What more can I say about Cantabria? Well for me, it was where the Camino got real. It wasn’t as spectacular or unique as the Basque Country, and by that point the novelty and excitement of “being on the Camino” had worn off. In Cantabria I began to settle into a more solid (but relaxed) routine. Acquaintance-pilgrims became friend-pilgrims, and 90 thousand million tonnes of in-jokes started rolling. A spontaneous, rain-enforced fiesta brought our little groups into a big group – there’s nothing like a torrential downpour in a caravan park to start a pumping, tightly-packed, wind-up-radio-powered gazebo party. The (really) hard days of walking (occasionally hindered by hard nights of “drinking all the wine because we can’t carry it in the morning”) helped cement the sweaty bonds we were forming. Evenings in the albergues (pilgrims hostels) became more and more family like.

Santillana del MarIf you’re wondering how the albergues work, the answer is, it varies. In a few cases, accommodation is free, but you are expected to leave a donation according to your means and your appreciation of the hospitality offered. This is how it was back in medieval times, when pilgrims (whether kings or genuine paupers) took vows of poverty and lived on the charity that they encountered on the road. Their accommodation could range from a hay bale in a loft, to a private room with a three course dinner. These days it’s somewhere in between, but much more organised. The majority of albergues charge a nominal fee (about €5 – 10), just enough to cover the basic costs of the establishments, which are usually local buildings converted into bulk accommodation. They provided a mattress and a roof, somewhere to handwash clothes, and if you’re lucky, hot showers (often shared). We stayed in monasteries, convents, an old converted train station, schools, a priest’s house, student accommodation (it was uni holidays), campsites (with permanent tents, though many pilgrims also carried their own), sports facilities, indoor soccer courts (on gym mats on the court), and the jail (criminal). As it was peak season, there were often too many pilgrims for the albergues (which ranged between 8 – 100+ beds), and in most places you couldn’t reserve. Overflow spilled into regular youth hostels and pensiones (privately run bed and breakfasts), but these sometimes booked out too. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the quality of all types of accommodation, and it was impossible to predict which albergues would fill. This complicated planning. Sometimes you would stop at a particular town in the hope of an assured nights sleep in a 50 bed albergue, only to find there were no beds left. But surprise surprise, there’d be something available in a 10 person hostel a few kms down the road. Sometimes the manager would let us throw down extra bed rolls, sometimes not. The biggest difference was the fact that some albergues were run by amigos of the Camino who truly wanted to help and foster pilgrims, and others were run by opportunists who just wanted to make money. Five euros may not sound like a lot for a night’s accommodation, but if you multiple that by 100, taken in cash, every night of summer, you realise how these disused buildings are making a pretty penny, with very low operating costs. Needless to say, toilet paper, power plugs, and hot water were in constant short supply. Damp and dustmites were not. I’m not just criticising Cantabria, but the entire north route, which just wasn’t equipped for the increased number of pilgrims in peak season. I think Cantabria was actually the best region in terms of albergues.

My favourite 3, which I recommend to anyone doing the North route, were all “donativos” that provided cosy accommodation, home cooked food, extra helpful advice, and that warm fuzzy pilgrim vibe that makes you want to stay on the Camino forever. They were all run by volunteers and funded purely by donations.

La Cabaña del Abuelo Peuto, Güemes: is a north route institution, run by Father Ernesto and a host of almost disturbingly kind and happy volunteers. Pilgrims are greeted with congratulating handshakes, cold drinks, food, wine, and music. The albergue was built by a priest who inherited a lot of money, and also plays host to community organisations, charity fundraisers, and all kinds of altruistic endeavours. The albergue has a huge garden, and when I arrived, the lawn was dotted with pilgrims reading, stretching, practising Tai Chi, and one of the volunteers playing relaxing didgeridoo music in the background. When thinking of Güemes , the word ‘Utopia’ comes to mind.

Albergue de peregrinos, Santa Cruz de Bezana: run by Nieves and José, this homely albergue only sleeps 16, and I had the feeling of staying for a night with a kindly great aunt and uncle. The town itself is a ‘hole’ (as we say in Aussie); there’s no reason to stop there except to stay at this albergue. Fortunately they’ve got a cute, grassy, ramshackle backyard, with a tonne of chairs and sun umbrellas, and the nearby servo (service station, petrol station) sells nice cold beers. We all had dinner together at a big long kitchen table, and after washing up, Nieves sat down for over an hour with us to explain not just the following day’s walk (which had some complicated variants), but a 3 day plan with insider tips on which towns to weird little beach, somewhere between Cantabria and Asturiasstop at, albergues to stay in, and numbers to call. The final touch was, instead of everyone getting up at their own time and consequently waking everyone else, they got us to agree on a common wake up time. At the decided hour (6am), we were brought back to the walking world with some Pink Floyd and the smell of fresh coffee.

Aves de Paso, Pendueles: this was recommended to us by Nieves, so of course it was lovely! It was newly refurbished and well run, and the owner Javier was another chatty wealth of information. If you go there, get there with time to spare in the afternoon. This part of the coast is dotted with gorgeous little coves.

I’ve just realised that last albergue was actually in Asturias, which I guess means I’ve come to the end of my chapter on Cantabria. Until next time, of course.

 


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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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ITALY

Tuscany, 2011For many people (possibly most people), Italy is a dream destination. With picture perfect scenery and an abundance of art, fashion, passion and prosciutto – there’s no wondering why it’s the choice setting for so many glamorous films, romance novels, and once-in-a-lifetime holidays.

For those who are lucky enough to actually make it there and see the ‘real’ (or just plain touristic) Italy, the spectrum of reactions is always varied.

Italy was the first country I visited when I moved to Europe in 2011, and it didn’t fail to live up to my (very high) expectations. I actually burst into tears when I saw the Colosseum, such was my wonder and joy at the sudden realisation that I was actually there and living my dream, so to speak. I travelled around for over two weeks, and managed to see a number of cities plus some countryside too, you can read about my very enthusiastic first impressions here.

So when Mum proposed going to Italy this summer (it would be her first time), I absolutely jumped at the chance. Of all the countries I’d been to since I got to Europe, it’s where I’d most wanted to go back.

This time, however, my response was completely different. Of course I enjoyed the trip, but this was mostly because I was in good company, in holiday mode, and not working. The country itself left me feeling a bit underwhelmed, sometimes even disappointed.

There are a few reasons why this might be:

– No free tapas. Sigh. I always find this hard to deal with outside of Spain.
– I was reading Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano. Whilst it’s great to match your holiday reading to your destination, I don’t recommend this book to anyone. Partly because it’s so depressing (everything in Italy, and the world, but especially Italy, is corrupt and fake and run by gangsters and ultimately doomed), and partly because it’s badly written and/or badly translated, and a struggle to read. I ended up giving up half way.
– Some parts of Italy seemed quite dirty. Ok, in comparison to Spain (where old ladies regularly mop the fronts of their houses), most places seem dirty. But I’ve been in third world countries where the filth bothered me less. Perhaps it’s because I saw the griminess as symbolic of complacency (the monuments are already there and tourists will come no matter what), a lack of pride (don’t they appreciate what they have?!), and a result of corruption (see Gomorrah above). Whatever the reason, it’s a shame.
– The restaurants. Last time I was travelling by myself and was generally happy to sit on park benches with 3 euro pizza slices and the tasty fresh produce I got from markets. This time Mum and I chose to eat at cafes, though still on a modest budget. As it turns out, we were really just paying for a place to sit down, with air conditioning and a toilet. The food itself was nothing spectacular, especially for a country that’s meant to be a gastronomic paradise… I love Italian cuisine in theory, but in practice, all the pizza and pasta got repetitive (literally), and the prosciutto, salami and olive oil seemed pretty flavourless. I guess the best Italian food must be found at home-cooked family dinners, or in the really expensive restaurants, or in countries other than Italy…
– Mosquitoes.
– The tourists. Yes, we were two of them. Bloody tourists.
– Being there a second time. There are many advantages to this, such as knowing how the train system works, or being able to orientate oneself. However, I don’t know the country (or the language) well enough to be totally at home in Italy, but nor could I experience the adrenaline thrill of being in a completely new and foreign environment. Curious.

The holiday itself was incredibly smooth. We had no transport hiccups, our accommodation was great, and the service was generally good (although the restaurants stop serving much earlier than in Spain, and the waiters made no bones about packing up tables and chairs around people who were still eating. One time they even turned the lights off on us, at 11pm in the centre of Venice. Mum told them very smoothly that if she couldn’t see the bill, she couldn’t pay it, for which they had no counter argument).

As for the highlights of the trip, well fortunately there were many! It was curious to re-visit cities such as Rome, Florence and Venice, and see them in a different way. Some monuments were no less incredible the second time round, others I barely stopped to look at. Here’s a mixed mix of the places I saw, and some of the things that stuck out.

ROME
The Roman Forum: How on earth I missed this last time I don’t know, especially as my ticket to the Colosseum would have got me straight in. The Forum is a collection of ruins in the city centre. The buildings were once temples, shrines, basilicas and government offices, constructed across centuries by various emperors, each trying to outdo his predecessors. I’m not massively into ruins, and to me The Forum looks like a messy shamble from the outside. But I was in the company of people who know and love that kind of history, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Wandering the incredible buildings and gardens was fascinating and very enjoyable, despite the sweltering heat.

duomo of florenceFLORENCE
The Duomo: My favourite building in Italy. This time I climbed the tower, which was much easier in comparison to the claustrophobic steps of Segovia’s Alcázar, due to several rest points and a lovely cool breeze. So don’t be discouraged by the climb, it’s well worth it to view the building from above and look across at the beautiful domed rooves.
Walnut bread, fresh figs and chianti: Florence’s central market is a great place to pick up picnic supplies (and the path up to the Rose Garden across the river is a great place to have a picnic). The highlight was definitely the walnut bread – it was sort of like a chewy, sweet and salty flat bread, made with wholegrain flour. We went back to the market bakery for seconds (a few times), but stupidly didn’t get the name of the bread, and weren’t able to find it anywhere else. If anyone knows anything about Italian breads, please get in touch with me!

TURIN
The shroud of Turin: The cloth that supposedly wrapped Christ’s crucified body is one of the most controversial and most analysed artefacts in the world. It’s held in a shrouded (haha) container behind a lot of security in the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, but you can study a (surprisingly interesting) full scale replica in the nearby Church of San Lorenzo, or in the Museo della Sindone, the Shroud museum.
Mole AntonellianaThe Mole: is more than just a striking piece of modern architecture, it also houses Turin’s ‘National’ film and cinema museum. For me the highlight was the glass elevator, which takes you up through the centre of the museum and out onto an observation deck, for spectacular views of the city.
Caffè Mulassano: This tiny art nouveau cafe is found on the Piazza Castello. Drinks are pricey but well worth it for the nibbles (which came in silver bowls with silver spoons) elaborate decor, and friendly waiters (who only speak Italian). I recommend the spinach quiche, and the olives were the best I’ve tried outside of Spain.
Caffè San Tomasso 10: is creatively named after its address. This was the original Lavazza family coffee shop, and the walls are decorated with stunning, sexy, coffee-themed photography from their various advertising campaigns.

MILAN
Skip all that fashion rubbish, Milan’s Duomo is much more stylish. The Cathedral’s gothic stonework is best viewed from the upstairs galleries, where you can walk amongst the arches and view the statues and gargoyles up close.

LAKE COMO
Well, George Clooney wasn’t there to pick us up from the station in his private, Nespresso powered waterplane, but we had fun in Como nonetheless. I’ve no particular recommendations, other than that if you’re short on time, the funicular and the ferry are both great for taking in views of the scenery, at two very different angles. What else can I say? It’s just a very pretty part of the world. Apparently it looks like Switzerland, and lots of famous people live there.

VeniceVENICE
Venice is tired, and made me tired. It’s hot, and crowded, and expensive, and I feel sorry for the buildings which are all slowly rotting and sinking under the weight of the tourist hordes with their cameras, gelatis, and tacky souvenirs. However, I did have a few pleasant surprises.
Vivaldi: Mum bought some spur-of-the-moment 25 euro tickets to a concert from one of those street vendors dressed in Renaissance get up. I was sceptical, thinking it might be a scam, or at best, the concert would be terrible. Venice has such a transient population that if the musicians were awful, no matter, tomorrow would bring a fresh, ignorant crowd and it would be a sell out as usual. How wrong I was. The music (The Four Seasons, plus some) was fantastic, and the musicians were fascinating. The performance was held in a small church just off St.Mark’s square, which reportedly had the same acoustics and dimensions as what Vivaldi originally composed his works for. The intimacy of the venue allowed us to study the musicians faces, and speculate on their possible relationships and the apparent musical and psychological battle that may or may not have been taking place between them. Definitely the most interesting concert I have ever been to.
Gondola ride: Many people say this is over-priced and overrated. At 80 euros for half an hour, I’ll admit it’s bordering on daylight robbery, but I really think it’s worth it. It’s a beautiful way to enjoy the city. After scurrying around crowded walkways all day, it was so relaxing to kick back in a gondola and glide for a bit. The best bit was enjoying the music wafting by from other gondolas which had payed extra for the ‘canapé and serenade’ package.
Delivery men: The delivery men of Venice have it tough. The logistics of the island are a nightmare; narrow streets, heaps of steps, and lots of loading/unloading big boxes from little boats. It’s hot and they work hard, mostly with their shirts off. If tanned and muscled torsos interest you, I recommend an early morning stroll in Venice, before the shops open.

LUCCA is a small city in Tuscany that’s famous for its medieval walls, pretty shops, and general pleasant-ness.
Aperol Spritzer: Aperol, Prosecco, and soda, served with a green olive on a toothpick, and with plain potato chips. Lucca’s central plaza is  round, and filled with nice cafes, parked bikes, and happy families. It’s the perfect place to enjoy an Aperol Spritzer and listen to some pretty good buskers.
Bike ride along the top of the walls: The city takes less than an hour to circumnavigate and it’s flat the whole way, which makes it an easily doable ‘exercise’ – even if you’ve had a few spritzers the night before. The views are gorgeous and the bikes are only 3 euros to hire.

Amalfi Coast

AMALFI was apparently the ‘highlight’ of my last trip to Italy. This time, it was the biggest disappointment. I remember the Amalfi coast as being spectacularly beautiful and dramatic, but now it just seemed crowded, cheap (classless), and dirty. Fortunately there were two saving graces:
Santa Croce beach and bar: is a free 5 min boat trip from Amalfi. Go to the left-hand jetty (when facing the beach) and look for the little boat with Santa Croce written on the side; it comes and goes all day. The captain is a big guy with long hair and a belly, I think his name was Antonio. This’ll take you to a small private beach, where it costs 15 euro for two banana lounges and a beach umbrella. The beach is much nicer (and the water much cleaner) than the big ones, and there’s a nice little restaurant that’s pretty inexpensive and has good seafood and pasta.
Il porticciolo di Amalfi: This was our ‘splurge’ accommodation. It’s pension which is a little removed from the town, up on the hillside, with a beautiful terrace that has spectacular views (especially at night). The breakfast is fantastic and the owners were lovely (they gave us the recommendation for Santa Croce). They also let us use the kitchen, and in the end we took all our meals on the terrace (so the ‘splurge’ really paid for itself). On the last evening we were lucky enough to witness a lightning storm out at sea, whilst enjoying spritzers and cheeses in the balmy night on our side of the bay.

ASSISI took me completely by surprise, and was without a doubt the highlight of this holiday. In fact, it was so beautiful, that I’m going to write a separate post about it.

So, that was Italy. I’ve definitely sated the lingering desire I’d had to revisit the country, as well as any buffalo mozzarella cravings I’m likely to have over the next few years. In a way, I’m glad that dream is over.

I’ll upload a photo gallery in the next post, and link them to the travel photos tab in the sidebar.


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Český Krumlov…

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Český Krumlov is a little town, nestled in the hills in the southern region of the Czech Republic. It’s about halfway between Prague and Vienna, and was therefore the perfect interlude between the two big cities I visited during my Easter sojourn. It’s popular with tourists because it’s pretty, has fresh air, nice countryside, cute little shops, and a big castle atop a cliff face.

It was popular with me for three reasons.

1. Krumlov House. Was one of the cosiest hostels I’ve ever stayed in. The beds were comfy, the decor was rustic but spotlessly clean, everything was eco-friendly, the living room was decked out with lounge chairs, board games, puzzles and books, and the staff couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful.

2. U Dwai Maryi (The 2 Marys). Was recommended to me by the hostel, and I liked it so much I went there twice. It’s a traditional bohemian restaurant which specialises in medieval cuisine such as mead, gruel, and smoked meats. Although I wasn’t about to go and fight a crusade, it was cold and I did do a lot of walking, so the cheap and hearty meals were ideal. The comprehensive menu features an interesting ‘history of Czech cuisine’, and a guide to the health and nutritional benefits of the herbs and grains used in the Middle Ages. The only disappointment was that the cabbage, potato and daisy soup didn’t come with any daisies because they were out of season. But the idea has piqued my interest and I think I’ll attempt my own version as soon as spring comes.

3. The Egon Scheile Museum. For me a trip to a just about anywhere just isn’t complete without some kind of art and culture fix. Although Scheile was Austrian, his mother was born in Český Krumlov, and the artist took refuge there for a few years while he tried to escape the claustrophobia of city life. These days Egon Scheile is a touristic drawcard for the town, although at the time when he lived there, the people weren’t quite so appreciative of his presence. He was scorned for living in sin with his mistress and for using young girls as models. Eventually they denounced him for ‘violating public morality’; the police raided his home, seized his artworks, and arrested him. He spent a total of 25 days in custody and imprisonment, which turned out to be one of his most prolific drawing periods. Scheile later died of Spanish flu at the age of 28, along with his pregnant wife. He left behind a remarkable body of work for someone so young, in terms of both volume and maturity. I guess people just worked harder and grew up faster those days.


Aside from a lot of trudging up and down hills and trying not to slip on the ice/snow/wet cobblestones, I didn’t do much more of note in Český Krumlov. I’m afraid to say that the castle was (again) a bit of a letdown; it looked great from a distance, but close up, the facade was gaudily painted. I guess I’ve become spoilt from having the Alcazar of Segovia in walking distance – bright yellow fake sandstone bricks don’t just cut it for me anymore. Fortunately the way the castle was built up/on/in a cliff face was very impressive.

And the Scheile Museum Cafe had domed ceilings and a delicious poppyseed slice.