Cork: rebel city, rebel county by Catherine Walsh

Continuing our look at some of Europe’s more westerly locations, let’s take a trip to Ireland. More specifically, we shall investigate the attractions of the grand old city of Cork. My esteemed comrade, Duck Holiday, has kindly requested that I, as a native Corkonian (you can call me a Corker should you wish) pen a few words on my home city.

One of the many pleasures of Cork is that it is not Dublin. This is not intended to denigrate that metropolis, which has many fine points, but the visitor to the Irish capital can find the place rather large and impersonal. True, Cork may not have the museums and galleries of its counterpart, but it is smaller, more manageable and, in my (admittedly biased) opinion, more friendly. There is no requirement to go searching for buses, trains, trams or any other form of public transport unless you wish to visit outlying towns (although this is also recommended).

Not that Cork is devoid of cultural attractions. Since 1978, there has been an increasingly popular international jazz festival, always held towards the end of October. Cork Opera House, which underwent major renovation in 2003, is a popular venue which stages a wide range of productions and there is a thriving local music scene in both the city and surrounding towns.

Cork opera

Cork Opera House

Where to start in the city? The centre is as good a place as any. Cork’s centre is, essentially, an island, residing between the northern and southern branches of the River Lee. At its heart is Grand Parade, where you will find the tourist information office should you wish to seek more details about what is going on in Cork, both city and county. Just to the north of this establishment is a place not to be missed, the English Market.

Cork Eng market

English Market

One common question is “Why English Market?” The simple answer is that the name originates from a royal charter granted by James I in 1610. The market’s many stalls provide food of pretty much any type you can imagine. Lovers of olives (even serious connoisseurs) will be astounded by the number and variety available. Naturally, most stalls concentrate on local produce and one thing that Cork produces in great quantities is cheese. There are some truly wonderful cheeses – a few personal favourites are Durrus, Gubbeen, Milleens and Ardrahan. There are, however, many others and the market also has plenty of places selling delicious bread to go with this feast.

At the eastern end of the “island” sits the Custom House, a reminder that Cork was, and remains, an important port. At the western end is Fitzgerald Park, a nice place for a leisurely stroll and somewhere perhaps to sit and consume all those goodies you bought at the market. The park is home to the Cork Public Museum, which is, understandably, strong on Republican history, but also has a range of interesting archaeological finds and a history of the substantial local dairy industry. To the north-west of the museum – and, beware – somewhat uphill, across the river, is Cork Gaol. This, like the museum, is a good place to learn about the struggle for Irish independence.

The gaol is situated in the Sunday’s Well area of the city. This part is synonymous with Murphy’s brewery, the predominant beer in and around Cork. The general order of things is Murphy’s, then Beamish and lastly Guinness. Thankfully, not all beer in Cork is mass-produced and a personal preference is towards the independent Franciscan Well brewery, started in 1998. The brewery has its own pub and produced blonde and red ales, wheat beer and the excellent Shandon Stout.

Cork brew

Fraciscan Well pub and brewery

While Cork may not have a vast array of restaurants, the quality is generally high. There are, in particular, some very decent Italian and Indian restaurants and, as with many places in both Ireland and the UK, many pubs have expanded into the business of food. As ever, results are mixed. It’s a case of take your pick. The Duck Holiday team prefer restaurants to be restaurants and pubs to be pubs.

If you want to venture around the county – and if you have time, it’s well worth it – there are reasonably good public transport links. Buses cover most towns, even the smallest, and a rail link will take you the short distance down to Cobh, a little to the south-east of the city. Apart from being a pretty little town, it is also home to the Queenstown Story (the town’s former name), a museum celebrating its marine history. From here, the first transatlantic steamer sailed and the Titanic called here on its ill-starred voyage.

Cobh

Cobh – beware of steep hills

East Cork is sometimes overlooked while the west of the county is acclaimed for its beauty, but this region should not be neglected. The ancient port of Youghal is a delightful spot, full of character and with some splendidly old-fashioned tea rooms along with a host of charming buildings. Whiskey enthusiasts may also fancy a trip to the small town of Midleton, famous for Jameson’s whiskey. East Cork is also renowned as a paradise for birdwatchers, the estuary of the River Lee being an especially good place. Look out for Little Egrets, once birds of the tropics, but now very much at home in the southern parts of Ireland.

Clock tower Youghal

The clock tower at Youghal

The coastal town of Kinsale is another good place to spot birds and is also a town with a rich history. An important strategic point, Kinsale has seen its fair share of battles, landings, departures and there is a superb local museum that tells the town’s story. Further west along the coast lies the little town of Clonakilty, birthplace of the Republican leader Michael Collins and something of a centre for traditional music.

Yet further west, we come to Skibbereen, a busy market town with more than its fair share of pubs. There are some excellent places to buy food here, too, so for those travelling around, it’s a good place to stock up, refuel and enjoy some famous West Cork hospitality. From here, it’s a short distance to the harbour village of Baltimore, from where you can take a ferry to the islands during the summer months.

C Skibbereen

Skibbereen

If you keep going west, you’ll eventually get to the town of Bantry, famous for its huge bay which stretches out to the Atlantic Ocean. The bay has some notable history, too, with various attempts to overthrow English rule made by fleets arriving into the harbour. The town’s 1796 French Armada centre tells the story of the famous mission led by Wolfe Tone.

c bantry bay

Bantry Bay (well, part of it)

Visitors to Cork who are left disappointed must be visitors that are very hard to please. The only thing that might bring a tinge of regret is the weather, but you should be prepared to get wet. It rains a lot in Cork. As a local saying goes, “If you can see the Cork and Kerry mountains, it’s going to rain. If you can’t, then it’s raining already.”

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Lisbon – gateway to the Atlantic

Let’s move as far as possible – at least in terms of mainland Europe – to the west of the continent. Lisbon, Europe’s most westerly capital city has a rich and varied history; once an outpost of the Roman Empire, then invaded by tribes such as the Alan and Visigoths, conquered by the Moors in the eighth century, subsumed into Spain four centuries later. Portugal gained independence in 1640 and finally became a republic in 1910.

So where to start? Well, anywhere you like, really, but if you want a feel of the history of Lisbon (and indeed, Portugal), try the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. The former is something of a shrine to Portuguese national identity and houses the tomb of the legendary navigator Vasco de Gama among many other notable figures.

While the monastery is large and imposing, it looks tiny by comparison with the national art gallery. The latter has a vast and wide-ranging collection of treasures, so if you want to take a comprehensive look at what the museum has to offer, it is wise to set aside several hours. If you are looking for a quicker visit, make sure not to miss the big prize, the extraordinary three-panelled Temptations of St Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos provides a glimpse of the Manueline architectural style, something even more evident when you see the defensive tower at Belém (Torre de Belém). The style somehow encompasses Moorish, Renaissance and Gothic elements while still managing to look stylish. Originally, the tower stood on an island in the River Tejo, but is now on the land that has been reclaimed from the river. Belém, incidentally, means ‘Bethlehem’ as a chapel, subsequently taken over by the monastery, was dedicated to St Mary of Bethlehem.

Torre de  Belém

Torre de Belém

As with any city, the best way to explore is on foot. Beware, though, that Lisbon is built on hills and some of them are pretty steep. Help is at hand, however; Lisbon is renowned for its trams and there are many little trams and funiculars to take the strain of aching legs. The city also has a metro system that covers most of the central area, though the west of the city is not so well served.

Castelo de Sáo Jorge

Castelo de Sáo Jorge

An easy way to enjoy an aerial view of the city is to use the Elevador de Santa Justa, a Neo-Gothic lift that was designed by one Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard (don’t let anyone kid you that it was by Gustav Eiffel; de Ponsard was, however, one of the Frenchman’s pupils). The harder way is to tramp up to the battlements of the Castelo de Sáo Jorge, which retains the appearance of a Moorish fort although archaeological finds reveal settlements many centuries earlier. There is plenty of history to see and learn here, too, as well as a very good restaurant that provides stunning views if you can find a seat outside.

View from the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa

View from the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa

If you are staying for more than a few days, there are plenty of places for a quick trip. Trains run along the coast to the towns of Estoril and Cascais, departing from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodre, which is by the riverside. While the former has something of the tourist beach resort about it, the latter has greater charms and it is easy enough to visit both by the simple expedient of walking along the esplanade. One small point to note; if it’s a windy day and the tide is coming in, be careful you don’t get a quick drenching.

Cascais

Cascais

Another trip worth taking is to the Unesco World Heritage site of Sintra. This is also a straightforward trip on a train, this time from Rossio station (readers in Britain may not be altogether stunned to learn that train travel is considerably cheaper in Portugal than in the UK). Sintra has myriad palaces and was the summer retreat for the country’s monarchy. As is typical of this part of the world, expect to see an eclectic mix of architecture, with Moorish styles mingling with Baroque and Neo-classical.

Sintra

Sintra

Portugal is, of course, noted for its wine and there is plenty to chose from. It’s easy enough to get decent quality wine without paying a fortune, though here comes another word of caution. Port is a drink for drinking at home, usually on special occasions. While good restaurants may stock port, bars generally do not. If they do, it is likely to be pretty dismal stuff.

All of which brings us to beer. Not much to see here, is the general feeling. There are two main Portuguese beers, Super Bock and Sagres, neither of which is up to much. Rather more palatable, if you can find it, is the Super Bock stout. It is not exactly bursting with flavour, but it is a pleasant enough stout with some nice roasted hints and infinitely preferable to the cold and fizzy lagers.

If you are travelling into Lisbon from the airport, you may well spot the football stadiums of Sporting and Benfica. Both are relatively new, built for the 2004 European Championships. The two grounds are within around a mile of each other and it’s simple enough to work out which is which, Sporting’s colours being green and white, while Benfica are red. Aesthetically, Benfica’s Estádio de Luz wins out. At least there are some soothing curves to soften its appearance while Sporting’s Estádio José Alvalade looks like the biscuit tin of an especially large giant.

Situated as it is, Lisbon and its coast enjoys mild weather throughout the year, although it can get rather wet in the winter months. Summers are, naturally, rather hot, so spring and autumn months can be a good time to visit, with less tourist trade and a pleasant climate. Even better, there should be no lack of things to do for all types from culture addicts to the laziest of lazybones.

A footnote: while it would be stretching a point to suggest that Catherine of Braganza, the queen consort of Charles II, introduced tea-drinking to Britain, she certainly helped to speed its popularity. When she arrived into Portsmouth in 1662, she asked for a cup of tea, a drink that had long been available in Portugal through the country’s trade with the East. Unsurprisingly, nobody was able to fulfil the queen’s request and she was given a cup of ale, a rather more traditional British drink. Equally unsurprisingly, she was not entirely enthused by it and courtiers soon ensured that Catherine was provided with a regular supply of tea shipped from her native land. The taste for tea spread throughout the royal court and the craze spread from there. So on behalf of the tea drinkers of this land, a belated thank you to Catherine of Braganza.

Catherine of Braganza (without tea)

Catherine of Braganza (without tea)

Malmö (in a few hours)

One of the many pleasures of visiting Copenhagen – especially for first-time travellers to the region – is that it provides an easy opportunity of popping across to neighbouring Sweden. By far the easiest journey is to Malmö and the simplest option is to catch the train, which entails a journey of about 35 minutes across the Öresund bridge, a familiar sight to those familiar with the Nordic Noir TV series, The Bridge.

Malmö looking pretty

Malmö looking pretty

Malmö is a relatively small city that is a mixture of the old and new. In the harbour area, particularly, here are lots of new developments and buildings, the strangest of which is the Turning Torso, a bizarre twisting structure that rises to 190 metres. It is located in the Western Harbour, a veritable hotbed of new development.

At the other end of the scale, St Peter’s Church is the oldest building in the city, dating back to the beginning of the 14th century. The church is in Gothic style and while it does not reach the heights of the Torso, its tower is an impressive 105 metres tall.

St Peter's Church

St Peter’s Church

The heart of the Old Town is Stortoget Square, built in the 16th century. The square is surrounded by a host of lovely buildings, including a number of cafes and restaurants, and is home to a fine bronze sculpture of Karl X Gustav, King of Sweden from 1654 to 1660.

Stortoget Square

Stortoget Square

Malmö is famous for its parks and there are three in the city centre; Slottsparken (The Castle Park), Kungsparken (The King´s Park) and Pildammarna (The Willow Ponds). In all, there are sixteen parks within the city boundaries, so there is no reason for anyone to complain of a lack of green space.

The city has a goodly number of museums, but happily for the short-term visitor, many of them can be found in one place, Malmöhus Castle. The castle, built in the 15th century, is the oldest surviving Renaissance castle in Scandinavia. It houses the Malmö Art Museum (Malmö Konstmuseum), Stadsmuseum (City Museum), the Museum of Natural History and the Science and Maritime House Museum

Visitors arriving by train from Copenhagen will stop at Hyllie (pronounced Hoo-yer, for those who want to impress the locals). Here, you will spot the Malmö Arena, a large indoor hall that hosts ice hockey (a big sport in Sweden), handball and athletics, along with other events and exhibitions. It is home to the rather improbably-named Malmö Redhawks ice hockey team.

Malmö Arena

Malmö Arena

Another – and rather better-known – Malmö team is Malmö FF, the only Scandinavian club to reach a European Cup final, losing to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1979. The club plays its matches at the Swedbank Stadion, about three kilometres south of the city.

With its waterways, parks and easy-going atmosphere, Malmö is a thoroughly pleasant place for a day-trip, particularly if the weather is sunny and allows the opportunity to take advantage of strolling and sitting around for a while. If it’s not so clement, a good idea is to head for Malmöhus Castle and indulge in some quality museum time.

Copenhagen – Culture, Fairytales and Beer

Considering the proximity of Scandinavia to the east coast of Scotland, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why it took Duck Holiday so long to visit the region. However, we got there eventually and spent a few days in Copenhagen.

Many cities seem to have airports that set out to challenge you, with esoteric transport links (or in the case of London, outlandishly expensive ones). Not so Copenhagen. There are many ways to get to the city centre, but if you want to go right to the heart of the city quickly, the train is the easiest option.

The journey from the airport to the Central Station takes about fifteen minutes and comes at a reasonable price. Many city centres are loaded with costly hotels, but once more Copenhagen does a good job in this regard. Sure enough, there are fancy five-star establishments in the area, but there is a good range, with a plethora of mid-range and budget hotels along with guest houses and hostels. In short, something for everyone.

The same rule applies to bars and restaurants. While it’s true that Copenhagen is not the cheapest place to eat, drink or shop, it’s not as bad as some people might have you believe. True enough, you’ll be lucky to get a half-litre glass of beer for under a fiver, but it is possible to eat out without re-mortgaging your home.

The city has a hugely diverse population and as a result, has a wide variety of restaurants. We went to a Pakistani restaurant near our hotel and had an excellent meal, including a beer and an Irish coffee to finish. The cost was around twenty pounds a head, which is no more than you would pay in most places in Britain.

One of the first things that strikes you while wandering around is the sheer number of bikes. There are a number of ways in which Copenhagen resembles Amsterdam and the multitude of cyclists is one. If anything, there seem to be even more bikes in Copenhagen than Amsterdam. It’s one of the few places you’ll see multi-storey bike racks.

Bike mania

Bike mania

Let us, however, return to the important subject of beer for the present. Copenhagen is synonymous with Carlsberg and it is no surprise to see that giant brewery’s name and products all over the city. For those of us from the UK, the thought arises of horrible fizzy lager brewed in Northampton, but this is Denmark and Carlsberg produce a wide range of beers, including stouts, porters and pale ales along with the more expected lager brews. Many of their beers are more than palatable.

There’s much more than Carlsberg, though; Denmark has a thriving micro-brewery scene and there are many brew pubs within a small radius of the centre. We tried out Mikkeller – beer enthusiasts may recognise the name from bottles in UK off licenses – and discovered a busy cellar bar with no less than fifteen beers on show, all brewed on the premises. The only drawback to spending an evening here is that you’ll be lucky to find a session beer, most of the ales being on the strong side. The lightest weighed in at 4.5%, but there is certainly no lack of variety and we even sampled a Danish brown ale during our visit.

Naturally enough, you will also find multiple references to Hans Christian Andersen throughout the city. He was not a native of Copenhagen, but moved to the city when he was fourteen. There is, of course, a museum dedicated to him and this is largely aimed at children. A statue of the writer stands on the street that bears his name and one of the city’s most famous sculptures is of The Little Mermaid, which can be seen at the harbour. A word of caution – it is indeed a little sculpture!

Down by the waterside

Down by the waterside

For those that enjoy statues, the Glyptotek is the place to go. This museum was founded and funded by the Carlsberg brewery, who have been patrons of the arts for some time (I’m almost getting to like them). You’ll find ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman sculpture here along with more modern pieces from Denmark and France. If you’re lucky, like we were, you’ll visit on a day when there is free entry (a Tuesday in our case, though days may not be fixed). It’s true that you don’t get admission to any special exhibitions, but there is plenty to see in the permanent galleries.

The splendid Glyptotech

The splendid Glyptotech

While this museum is centrally located, the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Art Gallery) is a little to the north and situated in a grassy park. It’s not much of a walk, but you can take a tram or metro if the weather is on the nasty side. There is plenty here as well, with works by Durer, Matisse, Titian and many other greats, along with more modern Danish artists. If the weather is good, the park is perfect for a lunch break.

National Art Gallery

National Art Gallery

Back in the centre of town, it’s well worth taking a few hours to explore the Nationalmuseet (National Museum). There is, as one would expect, a comprehensive history of the Danes and their culture, along with extensive collections of Green and Egyptian antiquities. A particularly delightful exhibit is the Sun Chariot, a Bronze Age casting depicting a horse on wheels pulling a large sun disk. Like many of Copenhagen’s museums, there is free entry.

National Museum

National Museum

In short, Copenhagen has plenty to offer, from museums and galleries to castles, parks, pubs, restaurants and all sorts of amusements to suit all tastes and ages. The transport system is excellent, with frequent trams, local (S) and metro trains. Sightseeing is, of course, best done on foot and Copenhagen is highly convenient in that regard, being one of the flatter capital cities in Europe. While it’s true that it’s not the cheapest of places, even budget-conscious travellers should get by without having to shell out a fortune.

St Petersburg – All Baroqued Out

The train trip from Moscow is fast and comfortable, but is unlikely to find its way into a list of scenic rail journeys. The flatness of the countryside gives one the feeling of travelling across East Anglia or the Netherlands, but without any agricultural land or windmills to enliven proceedings. Four hours and ten minutes is impressively quick, though the non-stop trains reduce that time by half an hour. The Moskovsky railway station, twin of Moscow’s Leningradsky, awaits the traveller.

From the Moskovsky, which is very centrally situated, it’s a short hop to the most famous thoroughfare in St Petersburg, Nevsky Prospect. The street, long and straight, appears with regularity in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and despite its modern day plethora of unimpressive restaurants and faux English and Irish pubs, retains a certain grandeur.

The vast neo-Classical Kazan Cathedral is impossible to miss as you venture along Nevsky. Its design was based on St Peter’s in Rome. Shortly after it was built, the cathedral became essentially a monument to the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812. The two large statues outside the cathedral depict the victorious military commanders Kutuzov and de Tolly.

Kazan Cathedral

Kazan Cathedral

St Petersburg does not lack for cathedrals. The biggest is St Isaac’s, also a huge neo-Classical edifice, built some years after the Kazan. The oldest is the cathedral at the Peter and Paul Fortress and it is here that most of Russia’s emperors and empresses were buried. Even by the lavish standards of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Peter and Paul Cathedral is magnificently decorated and features an unusual and decorative iconostasis.

St Isaac's Cathedral

St Isaac’s Cathedral

Peter and Paul Cathedral

Peter and Paul Cathedral

It is, though, Baroque that dominates the city. Baroque is everywhere, and in the park near to St Isaac’s Cathedral is a beautiful little building that turns out to be…a public lavatory. Yes, even the toilets are Baroque.

Baroque bog

Baroque bog

At the other end of the size scale, but also undeniably Baroque, is the Winter Palace, the largest building of the complex that makes up the Hermitage. The Winter Palace was designed by the prolific architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who was responsible for many outstanding Baroque structures in Eastern Europe.

Winter Palace

Winter Palace

Ironically, while the Winter Palace and Hermitage are associated with Catherine II (‘the Great’), the empress was not a fan of the Baroque. It was the previous empress, Elizabeth, who commissioned the Winter Palace, as well as the Smolny Convent, where the empress intended to spend her final days as a nun. However, she died before the completion of the convent.

Another of Rastrelli’s great Baroque works is the Catherine Palace, situated in the town of Pushkin, about fifteen miles from St Petersburg. The present palace is not the original, built for Catherine I. It was completely rebuilt, on the orders of Elizabeth, by Rastrelli and is quite simply an outrageous, over the top, glorious and ridiculous monument to the excesses of imperial grandeur.

Catherine Palace

Catherine Palace

The Grand Hall is a breathtaking and vast ballroom of ornamentation, mirrors, chandeliers and gilded carvings. The Palace’s best-known room, though, is probably the Amber Room, now restored after being looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and taken to Königsberg. The refurbishment was, ironically, completed with amber from the Baltic region, much of it from the city of Kaliningrad, formerly known as the German city of Königsberg and now part of a small enclave of Russia,.

The Grand Hall

The Grand Hall

If the rooms at the palace are lavish, so too the grounds. Gardens, lakes and pavilions stretch out over a large area in a further display of aristocratic decadence. Strolling around the gardens, one noticeable feature is how tame many of the wild birds are, testament to the sheer number of visitors the palace attracts.

The Mariinsky Theatre rivals Moscow’s Bolshoi. It was named after its patron, the Empress Maria Alexandrovna and is a huge building that mingles the Baroque and Neo-Classical. There are regular operas, ballets and orchestral performances, though those wishing to view a performance should note that there is a second and new hall, the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall that is not as aesthetically pleasing as the original.

Mariinsky Theatre

Mariinsky Theatre

St Petersburg, like Moscow, is not cheap when it comes to dining out. It is, though, generally a little less expensive than the capital. Being quite a cosmopolitan place, there are plenty of options for the vegetarian. One of these is The Idiot, one of many establishments that tip their hat in the direction of Dostoevsky. There menu is varied, with a fine array of vegetarian options, including a delicious borsch. Prices are not extortionate; around 25 pounds for three courses and three beers is most respectable. The Idiot also sells very palatable Georgian wine.

The best-known Indian restaurant is Tandoor, which is, like The Idiot, close to St Isaac’s. The vegetarian options are a bit limited, but virtually next door is Tandoori Nights, which has an abundance of vegetable dishes. In an inversion of the usual situation, the beer here is relatively cheap.

There are several establishments that deal in beer, great quantities of it, in fact. Unfortunately, there seems to be something of an obsession for cod Irish and English pubs and while some of them at least have the decency to sell reasonably good beer, those with taste may prefer somewhere like the Craft Bier Café, where the atmosphere is more leisurely and civilised. With 40 or so beers on tap, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to find something to suit.

Those with extremely fussy palates can always try Pivnaya Karta (‘Beer Card’), which has an extraordinary selection of more than 400 different beers. For a nightcap – though definitely not as a session ale – try one of the array of Russian Imperial stouts on offer. Both Pivnaya Karta and the Craft Bier Café are close to Chernyshevskaya metro station, a blessing for over-indulgers.

The St Petersburg metro is relatively new, having started in the 1950s. It is growing ever larger, with further expansion planned. Because of the city’s location – it is essentially in the middle of a coastal wetland – most of the stations, even outlying ones, are very deep. As with Moscow, some of the stations are worth visiting purely from an aesthetic point of view. It is, though, one of the few ‘shallow’ stations that is perhaps the most attractive. Avtovo has a Neo-Classical façade and inside, there are white marble columns and ornate chandeliers, along with a mosaic depicting the blockade of the city from 1941 to 1944.

Two-metre Peter

Two-metre Peter

Those travelling to or from the airport will pass a war memorial and a brief schooling in the Cyrillic script will tell you that it refers to Leningrad, the name of the city from 1924 to 1991. A quick glance at your boarding card will reveal the airline code ‘LED’, so at least in international airline terms, the city retains something of its former name.

Lenin points the way

Lenin points the way

That sums up something of St Petersburg’s character. The city is full of statues; Peter the Great, Lenin, Gogol, Glinka, Catherine the Great, Gorky, Nobel, Dostoevsky, Nicholas I, Pushkin and a cast of many others. Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia, industrial Russia and cultural Russia all meet in St Petersburg. With its rivers, canals, beautiful buildings and wonderful museums, it is little wonder that so many people undertake that bureaucratic joy that is completing the form for a Russian visa.

Moscow – East Meets West

The official population of Moscow is just over 11 and a half million people. The real population is acknowledged to be somewhere around 15 million and during the journey from the airport to the city centre, it can feel like 90% of that number are on the roads.

Thankfully for locals and visitors alike, Moscow has an extensive and reliable metro system. The metro map is a colourful and easy to understand affair that acknowledges the brilliantly simple topological map designed for the London Underground by Harry Beck. Lines of different colours branch out from the centre and there is a circle – a genuine, concentric circle, as opposed to London’s squashed and wobbly circle – at the heart, Moscow’s circle line being brown rather than yellow.

Moscow’s underground is also a good deal cheaper than that of London, a single journey costing less than a pound, multiple journeys being even cheaper. Not only is the metro thoroughly efficient, with trains running every two minutes, it is also an alternative art gallery that can be visited for the price of a single ticket. Space limits further detail here, as this is a worthy of a full article at a later date.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

Red Square – State Historical Museum

However hard one tries not to be an obvious tourist, it’s almost impossible not to start with Red Square and the neighbouring Kremlin. The eye is naturally drawn to the crazy fairytale castle that is St Basil’s Cathedral. Even by the standards of the Orthodox Church, this is one weird building, defying any attempt to ascribe an architectural style to it. It almost seems as if Byzantine architects undertook a full-scale tour of India and the Far East before selecting the bits they liked best.

St Basil's

St Basil’s

The cathedral was, in fact, a collection of churches around a central one, further adding to its idiosyncratic nature. There are no services at the cathedral now. It functions as a museum and is almost certainly the most-photographed building in Moscow.

The towers of the Kremlin are also the subjects of many photos. There are 20 of them and no two towers are the same. The highlight of the Kremlin, though, is its Armoury. The name is something of a misnomer. It’s true that you will find weapons and armour here, but the Armoury contains much more.

The Armoury is the Kremlin’s museum and is packed with the trappings of imperial splendour. The collection of carriages, including sleds, is particularly impressive and it’s clear that the ruling dynasties spared no expense on their own comforts. The sheer weight of gold, silver, diamonds and gems is breathtaking. Perhaps only Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace houses a collection of such ostentatious wealth.

The Armoury

The Armoury

Among the array of imperial clothing is a pair of boots belonging to Peter the Great. The boots are very large, as indeed was their owner, who was believed to have been around six feet eight inches tall. Two metre Peter, in fact.

If the confectionary box that is St Basil’s no longer functions as a place of worship, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour most certainly does. Situated by the Moscow River, it is the world’s tallest Orthodox Christian church and its appearance owes something to the great church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia. The present church, however, is not the original. Stalin had the first reduced to a heap of rubble and the current building, astonishingly, is brand new. There is a strict security check for visitors, but this is designed not so much to stop the destructive urges of political leaders as to prevent idealistic young women with guitars performing protest songs inside the church.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Moscow has a fine and varied selection of museums. For Russian art, the Tretyakov Gallery is a must see museum. The vast majority of the 170,000 or so works are by Russian artists and the collection is strong on portraits. Naturally, emperors and empresses feature strongly, but for literature lovers, there are some real delights. The Kipresky portrait of Pushkin shows the poet in a gloriously Byronic pose, draped in a tartan shawl. Dostoyevsky is captured brilliantly by Perov, the writer seemingly caught in a moment of intense thought. A rather foppish Gogol is portrayed by Moller and the author’s New Romantic-style appearance was surely to provide some form of inspiration for the Human League’s Phil Oakey 140 years later.

Tretyakov Gallery

Tretyakov Gallery

The State Museum of Contemporary Russian History, still known by its former name of the Revolution Museum, is a substantial, though slightly chaotic and disorganised melange of exhibits from the failed revolution of 1905 through to the end of the Soviet era in the 1990s. With a touch of Russian ironic humour, the location is a building formerly known as the English Club, a place where the wealthy and privileged met in pre-revolutionary days before 1917.

Museum of Revolution

Museum of Revolution

Moscow has a reputation for being a very expensive place to visit and in some respects, this is true. It is certainly not cheap for eating and drinking in restaurants and bars. This is not too much of a problem if you are only there for a few days. For those staying for a longer period or those on very tight budgets, there is consolation. The prices in shops and supermarkets are considerably cheaper. For example, a half litre of beer in a pub might well set you back at least five pounds, but a half litre bottle in a shop shouldn’t cost more than a pound and may well be a good deal less. The same rule applies to food.

Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi Theatre

There are nine main railway stations in Moscow. One of the most attractive is the Baroque Belorusskaya, from where trains depart for – no shocks, here – Belarus and numerous countries to the west. The elegant Rizhsky runs trains to Riga and also houses the Moscow Railway Museum.

Trans-Siberian trains leave from the rather quaint Yaroslavsky station, one of three stations on Komsomolskaya Square. Kazansky provides services to the distant Russian cities of, yes, Kazan and Ekaterinburg. The St Petersburg trains depart from Leningradsky station. Passengers arriving at St Petersburg will find themselves looking at the station’s identical twin, the Moskovsky.

Those passengers include Duck Holiday, who will resume the story in St Petersburg.

Zagreb – Strawberries and Stout

It was spring and there were strawberries everywhere. Little stands on just about every street sold punnets of them. The vast farmers’ market in the city centre was overloaded with them. The prices varied, but only between cheap and very cheap. If you’re ever suffering from a craving for strawberries, then Zagreb in springtime is the place to provide relief.

Market

Market

There is, of course, a lot more to see in Zagreb than strawberries. The city is essentially in two parts, the Upper Town and the Lower. Gornji Grad, the upper part, is Zagreb’s historical centre with its great Gothic cathedral, Croatia’s tallest building.

Like Venice, Zagreb has a St Mark’s Square. This is also in the old town and houses a number of government buildings, evidenced by the slightly sinister looking collection of men in black that hang around the area. Rather smaller than the cathedral, but no less striking, is St Mark’s Church with its chequerboard roof that portrays the Croatian flag. The flag is a three-part affair that comprises the flags of the Kingdom of Croatia (red and white), Kingdom of Slavonia (white and blue) and Kingdom of Dalmatia (red and blue). Nature lovers should look out for the pine marten, the symbol of Slavonia, that scampers across the middle of the flag.

St Mark's

St Mark’s

The other significant church in the old town is the elegantly Baroque St Catherine’s. Many of the buildings around it were the property of the church, but are now secular. Several are galleries or museums.

One of these is the Zagreb City Museum, housed in a former convent. First impressions suggest that it’s not particularly interesting, but it gets better as you go further into the building. It does very much as its title suggests, taking you on a tour through the history of Zagreb from Roman times to the present day.

This is very mainstream, of course, but this being the Balkans, expect something a bit odd to turn up. Not far away in the Old Town is the Museum of Broken Relationships, a positively mad collection of items donated from all over the world. The theme, rather obviously, is of those things that are left behind after failed love affairs.

Zagreb also has a Railway Museum, which has an eclectic assortment of photos, videos and equipment. If the collection is a bit haphazard, so too the opening times. They don’t always seem to have staff available to keep the place open, but train buffs can console themselves by walking a little further to the superb, Neo-classical railway station just to the south of the city centre.

Station

Station

The Archaeological Museum is well worth a look, packed with ancient artefacts and hosting a substantial Egyptian collection. Check out the ‘Zagreb Mummy’, taken home from Alexandria by a Croatian official from the Hungarian Royal Chancellery. It’s not so much the mummy that is interesting, but the wrappings. These were discovered to be covered in Etruscan writing, so unusual that the text is, for the most part, untranslated, so little being known about the language.

The city is straightforward to navigate and is, generally, quite flat. The Upper Town, if we can state the obvious, is uphill, but it’s not a huge hike and there is a little funicular to help out. Beyond the Upper Town, there is the opportunity to escape from city life, with plenty of green space and some pleasant woodland walks.

Funicular

Funicular

The Lower Town has its own escape area in the shape of the botanical garden. It’s not the biggest around, but it’s a nice place for a stroll or a sit down. On a hot day, it’s a welcome haven in which to cool down under the shade of a tree. There are set opening times, but it won’t cost you anything.

Duck Holiday takes a swim at the botanic garden

Duck Holiday takes a swim at the botanic garden

Zagreb does not lack for cafés, restaurants and bars, and there’s no need to spend a fortune on refuelling. Croatian wine is mostly for the internal market, which is something of a shame (not for locals, obviously), as it is very good. There is also a decent range of beer, with some excellent dark stuff among the Pilsener-style lagers.

Duck Holiday, having a significant proportion of Irish blood, is not very keen on so-called Irish pubs, believing them to be something of a travesty. Most rules, however, have an exception, and Sheridan’s Bar in Zagreb is one of them. For one thing, it is run by a man from Offaly. For another, it sells terrific beer. O’Hara’s Stout, from Carlow, is a proper stout, unlike the pasteurised chemicals served up by the likes of Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish. Sheridan’s also serves ales from independent breweries in England, Scotland and the US, along with more localised stuff. Unlike most pubs of this ilk, this one is well worth an evening of anyone’s time, the only caveat being that it’s a bit more expensive than ‘local’ pubs.

Yes!

Yes!

Further down the same road, if you fancy a change of scene, is the Bikers Beer Factory. This is, as you might expect, big on motorbike memorabilia. You don’t have to be a biker to enjoy it, though it probably helps. An enthusiasm for beer is more important, with the selection being more of a local nature. Beware, though of the Tomislav. This is a dark beer that could easily be mistaken for a 5% porter, but is, in fact, a rather vicious 7.3%.

Bikers Beer Factory

Bikers Beer Factory

One thing worth noting is that the airport is a fair trek from the city. There is an airport bus that is pretty cheap (about three or four quid) and certainly a great deal cheaper than using a taxi. The latter option would set you back about ten times as much. However, the bus station is a bit out of town, so if you’re staying in the centre, allow yourself plenty of time. If you need to get to the airport very early, as Duck Holiday did, a taxi to the bus station and the airport bus will do the trick. The fares work out at about the same for each journey, so it’s still an economical option.

Spring is a nice time to visit Zagreb. Temperatures are warm without being overpowering. If it does get a bit hot, taking shelter in the botanical garden or slipping under an umbrella at a café is a nice option. You can sit out in the evenings with a glass of something and watch people rushing around. If it rains, there are plenty of things to keep you amused. And, of course, you can indulge in those strawberries.

Budapest – Two Cities in One

Budapest is really two cities that face each other across the Danube. For those familiar with the north east of England, this is rather like creating a single place called Newcastlegateshead. It may seem absurd, but Buda and Pest were separate entities until late in the 19th century.

In very simplistic terms, Pest, on the eastern shore of the river, is the flat part and Buda, to the west, is the hilly bit. Naturally enough, the castle is on the Buda side, overlooking the river and it is a fine place from which to view the Pest embankment and the Parliament building with its unrepentantly Gothic style.

Attempted arty shot from castle

Attempted arty shot from castle

 

The Parliament, built just after the merging of the cities, bears more than a passing resemblance to Britain’s Houses of Parliament. This is not a coincidence – the London building provided the inspiration for its Hungarian equivalent.

 

Parliament

Parliament

Back on the Buda side, the castle was initially constructed in the 13th century, but, as with almost any medieval castle, has been rebuilt and reconstructed on many occasions. A stylish little funicular can get you to the top of the hill to save the legs, if not the wallet. There are two particularly fine museums at the castle complex, the Budapest History Museum and the National Gallery, which is primarily devoted to Hungarian art. A Budapest Card will allow free entry to both.

National Gallery

National Gallery

There are cards that cover 24, 48 and 72 hour periods. If you’re on a city break or something similar, the three-day version is pretty good value. It costs about £25, which sounds a bit pricy, but you can travel on any public transport (including the airport bus) and it allows free entry to seven museums. The Museum of Fine Arts and National Gallery are also among the participating museums and most other museums offer some form of discount, so if you’re planning to enjoy a bit of culture, the card is very worthwhile. You can even have a free walking tour with a guide if you fancy it.

Walking in Budapest is, largely, a pleasant experience, with the caveat that there is always a lot of building work going on, so you won’t necessarily always be able to follow the map. Occasionally, something that looks like a straightforward walk might involve a bit of a detour.

Something that’s impossible to miss is the vast St Stephen’s Basilica. This huge Neo-Classical edifice took over fifty years to build, not helped by the collapse of the dome and the subsequent total rebuilding. It’s possible to ascend to the modern, rather safer, dome and enjoy a full view of the city.

St Stephen's

St Stephen’s

Down at ground level, the Central Market is well worth a visit. It does, in fact, extend to three floors and the myriad stalls sell just about any kind of food you can think of. There are frequent ‘National days’ featuring foods from particular countries. The market is undoubtedly a tourist magnet, but locals shop here, which is as good a recommendation as any. There is more than food, with shops selling various craft products. Even vehement non-shoppers might grudgingly accept that this market is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

The market

The market

Bizarrely, one figure that you’ll encounter, thankfully only in statue form, is Ronald Reagan. The late American president never actually visited Budapest, but someone has seen fit to raise a statue of him. In a splendid piece of irony, Ronnie is left to gaze at a Soviet war memorial.

Ronnie wonders what the Soviets are up to now

Ronnie wonders what the Soviets are up to now

There is certainly no shortage of things to see and do. Budapest has more than 200 museums and 40 theatres, along with several other concert halls. There is a large and varied collection of churches and Europe’s largest synagogue. Look out, too, for the glorious piece of Art Nouveau that is the Gresham Palace, once a residence for wealthy Britons associated with the Gresham Life Assurance Company, but now a hotel.

The Budapest Metro is not huge and most of it is on the Pest side of the river. It is, though, the second oldest underground railway in Europe, after the London Underground. There are currently three lines, with a fourth under construction. Oddly, the trains are all of different types on each line.

It’s worth taking a trip on Line 1 (yellow line), a relatively short diagonal that runs from the centre of Pest under the stylish Andrássy Avenue, terminating at the City Park. The little yellow trains and the rather quaint stations look as though they belong to a completely different era. The experience is rather like travelling on a small subterranean tram.

Once you’ve reached City Park, expect to spend some time there. Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) contains a plethora of statues and monuments to figures throughout Hungary’s history, with the Millennium Memorial as its centrepiece. To either side of the square are two Neo-Classical art galleries, The Palace of Art (Műcsarnok), which holds temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, and The Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum).

The latter has an extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities (one of the largest in Europe), as well as an impressive Classical section. The highlight, however, is the Old Master collection, a veritable lesson in European art history from the 13th to 18th centuries. The Spanish collection is notable, with works by El Greco, Vélazquez and Goya. In all, there are some 3,000 paintings in this part of the museum.

Also to be found in City Park is the lavishly Neo-Baroque Széchenyi thermal bath complex, Europe’s largest medicinal bath. Thermal baths are something of a Hungarian speciality and the Széchenyi is a substantial affair with indoor and outdoor facilities.

If you’ve taken the yellow line metro, one option is to retrace the journey on foot, because Andrássy Avenue provides an interesting walk. The street is full of Neo-Renaissance buildings, cafés, restaurants and shops. The delightful Opera House is situated here and even if you’re not going to a performance, it’s worth simply popping in for a look at the richly decorated foyer. This is, indeed, the grand opera.

Another notable building on Andrássy is the House of Terror. This museum concentrates on the period of the 20th century when Hungary was under Soviet and Nazi control. It is certainly an interesting and thought-provoking museum, but a personal view is that the presentation is rather over-the-top, with its penchant for flashing lights and throbbing music.

House of Terror

House of Terror

Budapest can be a little expensive in terms of food and drink, but it doesn’t have to be. As ever, the more tourist-orientated areas will cost a bit more, but even in the central part of Pest, there are plenty of places where you can find good value. Hungarian food tends towards the meaty, but most places have a vegetarian option and there are some very good Indian restaurants (the Indigo is especially impressive) where a filling meal and a couple of beers will give you change from a ten pound note.

There is a host of restaurants around Liszt Square, across from the imposing Academy of Music. Lovers of dark beer (Duck Holiday owns up) should consider the Bohemia Restaurant, which serves a few different beers including the tasty Prágai tavasz (‘Prague Spring’), a Czech-style dark beer that is friendly for session drinking. It’s a bit thin on the veggie options, but a cheese tapas selection and a few glasses of Prágai tavasz make for a very pleasant evening.

Budapest is unquestionably one of Europe’s great capitals, boasting many World Heritage sites and, of course, the magnificent Danube. There is never a bad time of year to visit a city this impressive.

Vienna – Art and Coffee

It was five degrees below zero and there was snow lying around. No matter; trains, trams and buses were running perfectly normally. These little things matter. In the UK, it sometimes seems that the merest drop in temperature or a little snow causes the entire transport network to cave in completely, though obviously cold or wet weather is so unusual in Britain that the chaos is entirely understandable. In mainland Europe, though, life continues.

National Library at the Hofburg Palace

National Library at the Hofburg Palace

If you’re on a three-night trip and planning to use public transport and visit museums, it’s worth buying either a Vienna card (for about €20) or a 72-hour public transport pass for €14.50. You don’t get a big discount for museums (most are 10%), but there isn’t much of a difference. If you’re visiting in freezing temperatures, there is more of a temptation to dash down into the warmth of the U-Bahn for a short while.

There is no shortage when it comes to museums. The Neue Burg at the Hofburg Palace has three museums, the Ephesus Museum, the Museum of Musical Instruments and the Kunsthistorisches (or Museum of Fine Arts, if you don’t want to spend half an hour unravelling your tongue). The Musical Instruments Museum contains some delightful oddities, several of which appear to have been designed for an octopus with three mouths.

A personal choice would be to visit the museums in the order listed above. The Kunsthistorisches is likely to take quite a while, as the collection is vast. It is simply too big to do justice to in this brief article and will be considered as part of a little series on museums and galleries.

Kunsthistorisches

Kunsthistorisches

Museums of Natural History are not generally, I concede, my favourites. All too often, there is a rather moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals and that is as far as it goes. The Vienna version, however, has a lot going for it. Yes, the taxidermists have been kept in employment, but there is a wealth of fossils and minerals here, enough to keep an army of David Attenboroughs happy for several days.

The city has more than a hundred museums and some of them are decidedly different. Those with a sense of the morbid might enjoy a trip to the Undertakers’ Museum, perhaps after seeing how victims may have been despatched by a look round the Kriminalmuseum. There are also museums dedicated to those favourite Viennese drinks, schnapps and coffee.

Music, of course, is another Viennese speciality. The Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) is both an opera house (in Neo-Renaissance style)and opera company and is possibly the busiest in the world. There is something happening throughout the year and it’s perfectly easy to turn up on the night and buy a cheap ticket if you don’t mind standing. Going to an opera or a classical performance is not the preserve of the elite in Vienna.

Not too far from the opera house is the Secession Building, an extraordinary Art Nouveau concoction that acts as an exhibition hall. The features the Beethoven Frieze, a work by Gustav Klimt that was originally intended only as a one-off for an exhibition, but has stuck around for more than a hundred years. Adding to the general lunacy, there is a statue of Mark Antony being hauled around in a chariot by a team of lions.

Secession Building

Secession Building

Visiting a coffee house feels obligatory. How could one go to Vienna and not visit a coffee house? Naturally, they get rather busy when it’s cold, but there are plenty of them and you should be able to squeeze in somewhere. If all else fails, then you can book a table for another time. Only in Vienna could you imagine booking a table for a cup of coffee.

There are quite a few cafés near the park. A couple of good ones are Café Diglas and Café Pruckel, but there is not exactly a dearth. The ideal is a sense that you have been transported back in time and if you can immerse yourself in a deep philosophical debate while enjoying your coffee, even better.

Stadtpark (with ducks on holiday)

Stadtpark (with ducks on holiday)

The ‘park’, of course, means the Stadtpark, the huge municipal park in the city centre. It’s filled with monuments and sculptures, including the famous gilded bronze affair that portrays Johann Strauss. Franz Schubert is also well-represented, with a fine monument. The music of Strauss and Schubert can still be heard in the park, at the Kursalon, a beautiful pavilion in Italian renaissance style.

Strauss statue

Strauss statue

Vienna has a particularly impressive public transport system. The U-Bahn has six lines and the trains are amazingly frequent. To miss a train by seconds early on a Sunday morning may sound like a serious annoyance, but the indicator boards reassure you that you’ll only have to wait a few minutes for the next one.

Also impressive is the CAT (City Airport Train), especially for those of us used to the legalised extortion racket that is the Heathrow Excess Express. The CAT is not exactly dirt cheap, but ten euros for a single (using a Vienna card) isn’t too bad. The trip takes fifteen minutes or so and you get a nice big double-decker train to sit on.

Vienna is no different to any other capital city in that there are expensive places to eat and drink, and there are not-so-expensive places. Food leans towards the meaty, but just about everywhere has a vegetarian option and one particularly pleasant evening was spent in the Palatschinkenpfandl, a pancake house where spinach and sheep’s cheese pancakes were washed down with several glasses of Salzburg’s Stiegl beer. There are many, many worse ways of spending about 20 euros.

One pleasing thing about Vienna (not that it’s too hard to find pleasing things) is that there are some delightfully old-fashioned bars. Bane’s Bar represents a throwback to days when pubs were for drinking beer in, rather than posing ostentatiously and pretending that you really want to eat roasted polenta with crispy ostrich droppings in a rich salmon and chocolate sauce. Bane’s offers beer, atmosphere and the feel of a good local, all served with a pleasing background of jazz and blues music.

Austria, naturally, is rather overshadowed by its German neighbour when it comes to beer, but has a good range of both breweries and beer. Another brewery from the west of the country, Hofbräu Kaltenhausen, dates to the 15th century and is notable for its wheat beer (under the Edelweiss name). It also produces some intriguing dark beers, including a black lager and a creamy chocolate stout.

Ah, Vienna

Ah, Vienna

There really isn’t a bad time to visit Vienna. There is always something pleasing about sitting outside a café or bar on a warm summer’s day, but a trip in the cold of winter is just fine. A little walking around can be interspersed with strategic disappearances into cafés, museums, restaurants, bars and any of the myriad delights on offer. Besides, a little chill in the air does no harm if you really want to revisit the eighties and do that coat-collar-up thing from the Ultravox video.

Lake Balaton – Duck Heaven

There’s nothing that Duck Holiday likes more than a nice lake (unless it’s high quality wholemeal bread and a glass of oatmeal stout, of course) and Lake Balaton is quite palpably a nice lake. It’s a pretty big one, too, in fact the biggest in Central Europe.

How nice a view do you want from a hotel room?

How nice a view do you want from a hotel room?

Naturally enough, it’s a tourist magnet, but don’t let that put you off. Going at the height of the summer might not be the best idea, but a visit in May or September is likely to be considerably quieter and you’d be a bit unlucky if you didn’t get some decent weather.

The biggest town around the lake is Keszthely, situated at the western end of Balaton. The town is not far from the border with Croatia; Keszthely is roughly half way between Budapest and Zagreb. It’s also in grape growing country, so a glass of decent wine is never too far away, either.

The idea – and someone suggested this in all seriousness – that there is nothing to do is absurd. Clearly, it depends on what you like doing, but there should never be a shortage of options. You don’t have to spend the time sitting around or hanging about in Keszthely (though both are pleasant enough options for a short time). There are places to visit and things to see.

A trip to Budapest isn’t too difficult. There are both bus and railway stations at Keszthely, but the bus is probably a better bet. Times vary, but there are quick buses that will get you to Budapest in less than three hours. Unless you’re planning to stay in Budapest, you will only have the opportunity for a fairly quick look around the capital from a day trip, but for a first-time visitor, it provides a nice little taster and will leave you eager for more at a later date. Neither the bus nor the train will cost you a fortune.

Keszthely bus station is a haven for House Martins during the summer and the whole area is a magnet for birds. Anyone staying near the lake can hardly fairly to notice the weird chirring and reeling bird sounds in the early morning. Closer investigation reveals warblers. Not just any warbler; these are Great Reed Warblers, warblers with both size and attitude. They are the biggest European warbler, not far off the size of a Song Thrush. At the risk of stating the obvious, they nest in the many reed beds around the lake and they’re not difficult to spot, often clinging to the tops of reeds to unleash their distinctive song.

House Martin apartments

House Martin apartments

Even a short walk around the margins of the lake should reveal plenty of birds. This part of Europe attracts lots of bird, as well as human, visitors, so migrant warblers, flycatchers and many other species can be seen. Herons and egrets lurk around the edges and it’s not too difficult to encounter relatively exotic species like Purple Herons and Great White Egrets. If you’re lucky, you might also spot an osprey fishing on the lake.

Lurking egret

Lurking egret

There is one bird that it’s easy to overlook because a superficial glance will probably suggest that you’ve just seen a robin. Not necessarily; it might just be a Red-breasted Flycatcher. A good way to tell the difference is in the behaviour. Flycatchers will hunt from a favourite perch, speeding off to catch their prey before returning to the perch time and again.

There are plenty of ways to get around. In addition to the buses and trains, there are regular boat services to lakeside towns. There’s a pleasant day to be had by taking a boat trip, visiting a couple of places by bus and catching a train back to Keszthely. Since all of the towns and villages are postcard pretty, any trip of this sort is unlikely to be aesthetically disappointing.

Out on the lake

Out on the lake

The prettiest of the towns on the northern shore is probably Balatonfüred, or simply Füred. Although it’s the third largest town by the lake, it’s a small place of stunning Baroque beauty. It’s also renowned for its spa waters and wine. Those looking for a bit more action should head to the other side of the lake and the town of Siófok. This is the place for the 24-hour party people, which rules out Duck Holiday, who favours a much more sedate existence.

Public transport is cheap and it’s worth having a trip on the train as there are stations at almost every little town or village by the lake and thankfully Dr Beeching had no Hungarian equivalent. If you’re planning to do quite a bit of travelling, you can buy a combined ticket for trains and boats. A seven-day ticket costs about £15, so it’s good value if you intend to make a few trips.

Keszthely has attractions of its own, however. Situated in a large and rather lovely park, there’s the splendidly Baroque Festetics Palace, for a start, which houses the Helikon Castle Museum, notable for its substantial and extensive library. There are several other museums in the town, including the Marzipan Museum for those with understanding dentists.

Festetics Palace

Festetics Palace

The town also has a decent variety of restaurants, including vegetarian. This being a tourist area, they’re not the cheapest around, but you shouldn’t have to pay a fortune for a decent meal. They are certainly cheaper than hotels, and that applies to having a drink as well. One nice way to spend an evening, assuming the weather is nice, is to sit at one of the little bars by the lake, where you can watch both the sun and the beer go down. For a pleasing snack to accompany your drinks, try a potato pancake, or lángos in Hungarian (a personal preference involves plenty of garlic). Civilisation doesn’t come much better than this.

One can, of course, indulge in the local wine and there is plenty of it. There are five wine regions around Lake Balaton. Balatonboglár, on the south side of the lake is the centre of Balaton’s wine trade, but there are vineyards all along the northern shore as well. Many of the wine cellars can be visited by the public, though it’s safer to make a booking in advance.

Those who prefer to treat holidays as exercise camps have plenty of options, from water sports to cycling and hiking. There are myriad cycle routes around Keszthely and lots of countryside to tramp around in. If you’re high enough in the hills on a clear day, you can see a long way. As The Carpenters almost sang, you’ll be on top of the world, looking down on Croatia.

A Duck Holidayer relaxes

A Duck Holidayer relaxes

Even in the busier parts of the tourist season, there’s no need to be swamped by the crowds. There is plenty of space and there are plenty of places to find some peace and quiet. Several thousand ducks cannot be wrong.