Like Budapest, Prague is a town that I really fell in love with when I went interrailing as a student. Even then it was a trendy tourist place, but I feel like the fuss has died down a bit and it feels more relaxed. On reflection, Budapest felt more thrumming with packs of Brit stag do lads, maybe they’ve got bored of the Czech capital? I don’t know why, because it’s one of the most beautiful European cities, with crumbly, pastel-coloured buildings and beautiful boulevards. I got the most popular tourist attraction out of the way first, the Charles bridge is a lovely sight, with statues flanking either side but you definitely get shades of Leicester Sq when you walk across.
On the other side of the river, it’s all very fancy with grand buildings and embassies, I carried on to the funicular railway (quelle surprise) and let it carry me up Petrin Hill after a bit of a stressful attempt at buying tickets. The views aren’t amazing once you’re up there (stupid trees!) but nonetheless there’s lots to see, including the Observatory and the Cathedral of Saint Lawrence.
All that walking had built up an appetite and there was a place I wanted to try, I looked around for it but then settled for this nice looking deli. Which ended up being the place I was looking for! Jan Paukert is a bit of a Prague institution, serving up authentic Czech specialities for nearly a hundred years. In truth it’s a little more complicated than that, because of Communist nationalisation and WWII, but suffice to say they’ve tried to stick to their roots and keep with tradition. I had a beautiful lunch of pork and sauerkraut with some deliciously doughy, bready dumplings that were super comforting without being too stodgy. Any Czech food experts want to enlighten me? It was a deceptively simple dish -like my dad’s bacon cabbage and spuds- that is more than the sum of its parts.
(I totally missed Bratislava btw, lamely 4 weeks of constant tourism took its toll and I spent the day in the venue watching Les Miserables)
On my student interrailing trip, Budapest ended up being one of my favourite places, first up the streets just looks different, grand and sometimes faded boulevards that hadn’t changed when I returned. Another big pull is the baths, thermal spas that Hungarians have been visiting for years. On my first time I went to the Szechenyi baths, which is one of the oldest, this time I went to the Gellert which is one of the fanciest and most popular for tourists owing to its central location.
I tell you what, when you’re tumbling out of a hot bunk, with a shower of varying quality a few hours away, spending some time soaking and sweating is the best thing you can do. We whiled away over three hours in there, steaming, sauna-ing, plunge pool-ing and swimming in the thermal water that somehow feels thicker than your average pool. I haven’t felt so serene in ages, there definitely is something magic about being in a body of water, no doubt. It’s also really beautiful, with mosaic tiled ceilings and sculptures lining the pools.
Once out of the pools and a super steep climb later, we were at the top of the Buda hills, looking over flat Pest on the other side. An amazing view that is one of my favourites from the trip. I did a bit of wandering after and took up the opportunity to do something different (aka not a castle) and visit Brody House Studios, a member’s club that is sited in a magnificent old family home. They’ve remodelled the place very sensitively, recycling as much as possible and side-stepping that horrible urge to strip everything out and bland it up. Brody House boasts a mix of creatives, locals, expats and has a few artists in residency in their studios. Definitely looking forward to another visit when I’m back.
In the evening we wandered out to Fulemule, a Hungarian-Jewish restaurant, where we had a tasty but very milky pumpkin soup and I had, quelle surprise, a beef goulash. It’s turning into an obsession.
Settling into normal life after two months away, with the new-ish copy of the Gentlewoman to crack into and falling in love with my one pint-er Sports Direct mug all over again. Yes there’s three bags in there, I’m on a complex system of tea-fills.
While I get reacquainted with sleeping in a bed and self-determined days, there’s still a ton of tour diary stuff to go up, so I’ll get through that before I get back to usual blogging, but in the meantime here’s what I learned on my trip away:
- After a while, wearing the same pair of socks for three days just feels natural.
- My sense of direction is pretty amazing. Never realised how good I am at finding my way round unfamiliar cities and tube systems.
- Even I will reach a limit of tolerance with cheese and cold cuts.
- On average -even most of the people we met were lovely- the German venues were the nicest and cleanest with the most friendliest people. Might brush up on my GCSE deutsche skills for a return trip sometime.
- Europeans really love puffa jackets, shiny slick puffa jackets.
My Munich experience consisted of coffee, a walkaround, picking up stamps and buying a lens cap. Sometimes days are just dictated by thrilling errands. I still managed to get a good bit of the city in while I looked for the perfect coffee spot.
Back at the venue I decided to take my wandering further and go to the Schloss Nymphenburg. I saw the aerial view of the castle on a map and I was like, I’m so going there. Except I’d already been there. Ten years ago, I sat teasing the swans with my friends Heather and Charlie on an Interrailing trip. This fact only hit me as I walked up to the castle, sensing a weird familiarity, then it all came flooding back. A proper grown-up now, I refrained from heckling the swans, well not too much.
It’s an incredible palace which totally comes alive in summer, you almost feel like you can see frolicking cherubs or is that too many cereal bars? Even on the cusp of spring there’s fun to be had, the inside is the most ridiculous example of baroque styling I’ve seen and outside is a crazy landscaped garden, made to look like English woodland. It’s quite eerie. I walked for ages around the grounds, over bridges, past little lakes and adjunct castles. The fact that I’d been there about ten years ago and forgot sort of freaked me out and set off a few brain meanderings. There weren’t very many people and it was perfect for a lonely little walk and a think.
In many ways, touring is a bit like Christmas. There’s a lot of eating, the kind of absent-minded snacking and picking you do at home in your pjs, a lot of sitting around in dressing rooms waiting around and more than a fair amount of passive tv-watching. Much like Christmas though, if you do manage to make it out of the dressing room and go for a walk you are usually reminded that marinating in your own secretions is not good for the soul.
In a windowless, grafittied dressing room I ripped the plaster off and wandered into Salzburg for a look around. I didn’t have any preconceptions, but with a brilliant blue sky and a springtime feel I was just happy to get a bit of non-dressing room guff air. Salzburg really blew me away, the combination of ultra pretty little shopping streets and big squares and gardens make it trad minibreak fodder. There are tons of shops selling original dirnl dresses but oh woops, I already have one in my wardrobe. I did my now classic route, find a castle up on a hill and admire the views before taking in the rest of the town. It was a warmish day, spring beginnings with such a clear sky, soon I was taking my coat off huffing up the hill before leaning against a wall, breathless, to admire the view.
There’s lots of different views to be had, from the top of the hill where you can see the whole town, the narrow cobbled streets where you look up and just see a wall of mountain in the distance and the beautiful Danube that snakes around the town. Petersfriedhof cemetery is a magically gothic place with intricate tombs and gravestones and much evil than I’ve made it sound! I wish I had had a little more time, maybe to get a pastry and coffee by the Danube or try one of their awesome looking pretzels but Christmas was calling and so were the endless cheese and meat platters. Oof.
If Lake Bled taught me anything, it’s to jump at every chance you get. I was sort of hesitating to visit this fairytale place, a few hours north of Ljubljana, even though the lake is nestled in the foothills of the alps and has a magical looking island right in the middle with a little church. I guess I was a bit tired and in a bit of a defeatist mood, but with a bit of persuasion I resolved the night before to make the journey.
The bus journey, which I thought was going to be a mission, was in fact a piece of cake. As soon as I boarded the 9am bus I fell asleep for pretty much the whole ride there. Waking up, groggy and stretching limbs, I couldn’t really see anything spectacular, I walked to the first café and had a black tea to throw off any sleepy muddle.
I made for the lake and started to walk around the perimeter of the shore, there was still the remains of winter’s snow on the ground but the sun was definitely spring-like and I had to take my coat off. Freezing rain and snow storms in Slovenia this winter left most of the forests covered in a thick layer of ice. When I arrived they were still getting to grips with clearing out all the trees that had collapsed under the weight of the ice which meant I wasn’t able to do the 15 minute walk up the mountain to the castle which has spectacular views of the lake and the surrounding area. No biggie, I just carried on walking around the lake and taking in the view. Once I got halfway I knew it was worth shaking off my reluctance to go, crazy blue skies, still lake waters and the jagged alpine horizon.
I can’t emphasise enough, if you’ve not spent a lot of time in mountainous areas these views are really something else. It’s a total cliché, but the mountain air really was sweet and I soon worked up an appetite which I sated with amazing Gundel pancakes. Totally making these walnut cream crepes when I get home.
Gondolas were waiting just outside a restaurant and I hopped on one to take me to the island, looking out at the view as we were rowed to the church. It has 99 steps and legend has it, if you get married the groom traditionally carries the bride all the way up. This is where it all got a bit surreal and magical, I couldn’t quite comprehend that this was me, here, walking around such an amazing place. After the island, I walked back to the bus stop and waited for the journey back to reality, writing postcards to my family. It was a bit like those Guy de Maupassant short stories we used to read in school where the character would wake up with sand in his pjs or something. I’m so happy I bothered to make the journey, even though at a 3 hour round trip from Ljubljana it was a bit knackering it was totally worth the journey.
Ljubljana is beautiful, really beautiful. With picturesque buildings, a pretty river running through the centre and the alps as a stunning backdrop, just crouched behind, it’s totally the perfect place to visit for a few days. I immediately fell for it, it’s just a charming place, easy to navigate and lots of pretty things to see as you walk around. It’s also a bit of an underdog city, compared to the trad holiday places and Slovenian people are just so lovely, which only adds to its charms.
In what has become a bit of a running joke, I immediately headed for the castle. I have seen a lot of castles, but it makes sense, honest! When you first get somewhere, if you can get up to somewhere high, you really get a feel for a place quite quickly. As you go up the funicular, you can see the alps slowly peering up, until they seem to circle the whole city. Growing up in London it’s really mind-blowing to see mountains on the horizon – see also my tear-inducing trip through the Swiss Alps.
As the day went on I stopped for some cake and then headed back to my hotel. I had a real craving for something that night, yes, you guessed it, polenta. I had a cracking beef goulash and polenta at Juljia, a small restaurant in a pretty shopping street. This time the polenta was set and fried, so you know, different.
Brescia was a humble breath of fresh air after bombastic Rome. I mean Italy’s capital is awesome and everything, but Brescia’s charms are sweet and subtle. While Rome is the throbbing, pumping heart of Italy, Brescia just gently flutters. Pretty streets and pastel-coloured buildings gave a bit of a palate cleanser the town and can be covered in around an hour or so. I just went for a little wander, nothing special, but it was nice to have a quiet walk without the stress of missing any major landmarks. It sounds self-indulgent, mainly because it is, but tourism is tiring, you know?
The venue was totally incredible, Teatro Grande is an old theatre – not crumbling but kept in perfect condition. It’s like a theatre in a children’s book, plump velvet seats, chandeliers, gold everywhere and fancy painted ceilings. Before the gig itself we went to Al Frate, a cosy Italian restaurant where I had polenta and beef stew. You’re well advised to do as I did and go through a polenta phase in this area, here they served it wet with the stew, a comfort food of dreams. The owner of the restaurant came and sat down with us at the end of the night and served up some Visciolata, a mysterious sweet wine which after a bit of googling is made from sour cherries. Definitely recommend it.
Rome really was the first city that spring blearily woke up, rubbing its eyes. All the things you forget in the long winter like the smell of the air, sunshine, colours and an optimistic feeling. I was making the most of it, eating an ice cream, coat in hand with bare arms, coat in my hand, when I spotted some Italian children just out of school, in thick coats, scarves and woolly hats. I’m so English.
Whenever I think of Rome I have the voices of my grandparents ringing in my ears: ‘ahhh, Rome c’est beau’ they would always say, reminiscing about their many travels. There’s a list as long as my arm of all the brilliant places you have to go to, first on my tour was the Colosseum. You don’t really get the sense of what it was used for but it did look wonderful in the orange sunlight. What really blew my mind was the Altar of the Fatherland, a ridiculously imposing structure that looms over you, all lions and flames. Built in 1925 in honour of Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel. Wikipedia describe the place as ‘pompus’ and they’re not wrong. It’s insane.
Rome is definitely as beautiful as my grandparents said and it was a relief after the industrial drab of Milan. What I love about Italy is you can walk into an old place and eat like a king, I tucked into some great pasta dishes there. On the gig day I went for a walk near the venue on the hill where Villa Glori sits. It’s a beautiful wooded park where I soaked in the new season, thinking about the lovely summer months to come. Amazing what a difference a bit of sunshine makes.
That evening I had
one two three Aperol Spritzes before dinner, which was a HUGE communal feast in a restaurant next to the venue. This was the night I officially Got Drunk, so I thought I’d put up the brilliantly blurry pic of the gig to illustrate that very fact. Eagle-eyed readers may spot there is no mention of Bologna or Turin, we were in venues miles out of town for both those days and to be completely honest I couldn’t face trying to make a lengthy trip into town. A shame really, as I’ve heard good things about both those places but I was quite cosy in my little tour bubble, watching episodes of Ja’mie: Private School Girl. So quiche.
Have you ever been in a town on fashion week without any tickets? More precisely Milan, whose charms are evident but finite? Yeah, it’s definitely my fault but last minute niggles over tour plans meant I applied for tickets about half an hour before Milan Fashion Week started, then some work stuff got cancelled so I was sort of at a loose end for three whole days.
So what’s a gal to do? I did some work, watched Pitch Perfect which was a laugh -but SO many bootcut jeans, I couldn’t take it- and did a bit of lazy tourism. I was kind of in a grump at myself and my ticket situation and really exhausted so I probably didn’t make the most of it. There’s some weird adrenalin thing, that if you have a break from touring you just crash and get the most intense fatigue. I sort of hung around my airbnb like a bad smell, making friends with the most adorable cat and eating lovely healthy food at the brilliant Radicetonda.
Apart from the Duomo I wasn’t really in the mood for much sightseeing (can you tell how grumpy I was? I’m making myself feel grumpy just reading this!) Turning that frown upside down is a very essential lifeskill and I did go for some nice wanders around town but I don’t think fate was on my side. A distinct highlight at the end of the stay was a meal just down the road at the highly recommended L’Angolo D’Abruzzo, a classic, check tablecloth, neighbourhood restaurant that served up specialities from the Abruzzo region of Italy. If you find yourself in Milan, I can’t recommend their cheap, plentiful and delicious home cooking enough. I waddled home, happy, slightly drunk, ready to catch the train to Turin the next morning.