An Ethiopian Adventure

The offer was an unusual and intriguing one. A month working in Northern Ethiopia was, in itself, an appealing prospect. The fact that the job was with an organisation for women entrepreneurs made it even more fascinating. They certainly didn’t seem to object to offering the post to a man. Indeed, and rather strangely, the head of the association was male.

Not that I would be spending much time dealing with the entrepreneurs themselves. My task was to do some work on the computer systems. The details of this work should not concern us here. There were far too many much more interesting things going on.

The job was based in the town of Mekele, of which more later. The first port of call was Addis Ababa, one of Africa’s largest cities. It is also one of Africa’s highest cities, although a brief stay there was unlikely to incur much danger of suffering from the altitude.

Addis, like many large cities on the continent, is a curious mixture of the old and the new. It is home to a particularly ghastly road, which has about eight lanes and is good only for testing the nerves and reactions of pedestrians. This road borders Meskel Square, a large area in the centre of the city which has a distinctly communist eastern European feel to it. One can easily imagine political rallies and marching troops.

I might be lion

The city houses an extraordinary range of shops, right from tiny wooden shacks to rather plush-looking supermarkets. Likewise, hotels range in variety from scruffy pensions to grand five-star hotels. It is safe to say that Duck Holiday’s budget was somewhat closer to the former.

Addis is not for the squeamish. Beggars are a common sight and many of them are an extremely uncomfortable sight. Be prepared to see people, presumably polio victims, making their way around in ways that seem unimaginable. To watch a legless man “walking” using only his elbows to propel himself is not a sight to leave one feeling at ease.

The train on platform one…

The city has some good facilities. The university is one of the oldest in Africa and has a very good reputation. Likewise, Ethiopian Airlines is one of Africa’s most established and has a proud safety record. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the railways. There is a station in Addis, but it is an extraordinarily ramshackle affair for such a large city. Train journeys are recommended only for the most intrepid travellers.

Addis University

One of the best ways to get around the city is by using on of the many little minibuses that trundle around all over the place. They cost next to nothing and while usually very busy, they get you about and keep you out of the way of scam artists, beggars, shouting children and, even more usefully, the burning sun.

The previous statement may seem rather harsh, but it is a fact of life that you need to have your wits about you. Addis is a huge place and for a few people, westerners are seen as fair game. Of course, it is only a minority of chancers that look to take advantage, but they exist and it’s best to be well aware of that fact.

Mekele, meanwhile, is a far more peaceful and unhurried place. About the worst you are likely to suffer there are the shouts of “Give me money!” from small children. You don’t, of course, and the children don’t really expect you to. Doubtless, they think it worth a try, just on the off chance.

Spending a couple of years in Eritrea proved to be very useful as a prelude to visiting the Tigray region, of which Mekele is the capital. The culture is very similar and there is a common language, Tigrigna. Knowing a few handy phrases in that particular language proved to be handy, both in a practical sense and also earning a little respect from local people.

Mekele is quite a modern-looking city, with lots of new buildings, though it follows the usual pattern of African cities by combining the new with the traditional. There is no better example of when this writer was sitting in his office one afternoon, trying to do some work on the computer, when two goats darted in through the front door, followed closely by a young boy. He looked suitably embarrassed by it all, but it was impossible not to smile.

Church with Ethiopian colours

One of the pleasures in working in far-off places is the opportunity to have a look around and should you visit northern Ethiopia, the chance to go and see some of the astonishing rock churches of the region is not to be missed. These ancient churches are, quite literally, carved from the very rocks. There are a large number of them and they rarely fail to amaze.

A classic rock-hewn church

The Ethiopian Coptic Church is one of the oldest in the world. Its origins were in the Axumite kingdom and Axum is one of the chief towns of the area and a UN Heritage site. This helps to explain why there are so many of the “rock” churches in the Tigray region and a visitor with a bit of time for exploration and an appetite for history will find more than enough to keep him or her busy for a good while. The ancient town of Lalibela, also a World Heritage site, contains no fewer than thirteen rock-hewn churches.

Church interior

The best-known of these churches in Lalibela is the church of St George. It is impossible to visit Ethiopia and not come across him somewhere. Football fans may encounter the team of the same name and beer drinkers will very likely partake of a glass of beer from the St George brewery. His patronage spreads far and wide, taking in as it does Ethiopia, England, Georgia, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, Greece, Palestine and Catalunya.

It’s that man again

Nearer Mekele, there is a curious, but also curiously moving memorial to the fighters from the liberation struggle which saw the Soviet-backed Mengistu regime finally overthrown. Rather ironically, the centrepiece is a distinctly Soviet-style monument with heroic military figures. It’s a bit of a traipse from the city centre, but easy to locate as the vast monument can be seen from all over the city.

The memorial at Mekele

For birders, Ethiopia offers a huge array of species. In Mekele, a trip to one of the larger hotels makes for a pleasant time, combining some birdwatching with a pot of excellent Ethiopian tea. One can notch up a goodly number of species in a very short time. Colourful birds abound, from bright yellow weavers to iridescent starlings and gaudy bee-eaters. One afternoon, some rather beautiful yellow butterflies appeared, only to see their numbers devastated by a family of equally lovely bee-eaters. Such is nature.

A starling visits

One personal triumph arrived on the final full day in Mekele. After a tramp to the slightly out-of-town Hilltop Hotel for a Sunday pot of tea and a final look for some interesting birds, the walk back into town brought an unexpected moment. During two years in Eritrea, hornbills always seemed to be tantalisingly close. People told me about them, even sent me photos of them, but could I ever spot one? A resounding no.

Then, strolling down the hilly road into the centre of town, something flashed black and white in a tree. This was worthy of investigation. A flapping of wings and a strange, raucous grunt. They they were – two hornbills, which we managed to identify as the rather splendidly-named Von der Decken’s Hornbill.

A kite watches

Food and drink? Having made it through two years as a vegetarian in Eritrea, there was no great difficulty in managing this during a mere month in Ethiopia. The bigger towns are well served by restaurants and the ex-colonial Italian influence can still be seen in the number of pizzerias. As in Eritrea, the local bread (injera) is commonplace and on “fasting” days, when no meat is eaten, this is the staple dish served with salad.

There are several breweries in the country, all of which produce a lager of one form or another. The Bedele brewery makes a fairly gentle Pilsener-style beer, which is 4.3% and very drinkable. There are a few amber ales, rather in the fashion of an IPA, but a personal mission was to find the (somewhat difficult to locate) Hakim Stout, brewed by the Harar Brewery. All attempts in Mekele failed, but we finally managed to unearth it in Addis. As the name suggests, it is a dark beer, though more akin to a brown ale than a stout.

Something else that should be tried is an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. There are versions for tourists, but if you can find one not aimed at the tourist market, all the better. One should be prepared, however, to set aside a good three hours. Firstly, coffee beans are roasted over an open fire. Then the beans are ground using an old-fashioned pestle and mortar. The ground coffee is put into boiling water and finally poured into small cups for each of those present. The ceremony is performed three times.

Sunset in Mekele

The end of the visit to Ethiopia brought a pleasant surprise, in the gift of roasted Ethiopian coffee beans. The aroma was quite wonderful and matched only by the taste of the excellent coffee. Not everybody, of course, will benefit from free coffee, but be assured that coffee is not terribly expensive for those of us visiting from western countries. Oh, and the tea isn’t bad, either…

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Ghana Make You An Offer

A month in Accra didn’t sound like the worst offer in the world, especially in the midst of a Scottish winter. Sure enough, there was work to be done, but there would be plenty of opportunity to explore one of Africa’s biggest cities and, one hoped, things a little farther afield.

One of the first things that strikes you about the Ghanaian capital is that it is, like many African cities, a mixture of the modern and the traditional. You’ll see lots of smartly-dressed executive types wandering around amidst people wearing robes, along with those in casual, western-style dress such as tee-shirts and, almost inevitably, football shirts, mainly those of the megabucks English Premier League clubs. You’ll also encounter bizarre sights such as cows grazing in the middle of roundabouts, or circles as they are known locally.

Good grazing today, Ermintrude

So where to start? Accra can be busy and crowded, but it’s a nice place to wander around. There is a pleasantly safe and laid-back feel to it. A good place to see some serious hustle and bustle is one of the many markets. It’s possible to find all manner of produce, enjoy some spicy aromas and just get a feel for the atmosphere of the city.

Not Tesco

On the subject of food, Accra has a plethora of restaurants and it’s not hard to find food from all over the world. There are plenty of places selling local food, though as a vegetarian, I found the menus a shade on the meaty side. Even so, you can usually find something in the mode of spicy beans and discover a bewildering variety of ways to eat plantain, a truly Ghanaian staple. Indeed, you will often come across people carrying huge bunches of the stuff around on their heads.

Food, beer. In we go.

But if you fancy French cuisine, Italian or Chinese, there are many restaurants that will satisfy that need. You can also enjoy a good curry, with a couple of very decent Indian restaurants. Indeed, one such is run by a gentleman from the south of India who maintains a fine selection of vegetarian dishes typical of his home region.

Bars are everywhere. There are four main breweries serving Accra, though unfortunately they all produce very similar, 5% Euro lagers. All are palatable enough, especially considering the heat of the day (and evening), but are not terribly interesting. Those (like Duck Holiday) that enjoy a good black beer can find Guinness in many places, though be aware that much of it is the rather vigorous Export version which weighs in at 7.5%. Another beer you may well encounter, though it is a little harder to find, is Castle Milk Stout from South Africa. This is a very tasty stout and slips down rather more easily than it’s 6.4% strength suggests it should.

It is very pleasant to sit outside in the evening and enjoy a glass or six of beer. A lot of bars pump out some lively local music and you shouldn’t find it too hard to engage in conversation with locals. One thing guaranteed to get the ball rolling (pun intended) is to display your knowledge of Ghanaian footballers. No sooner had I reeled off a few famous names than the debate and beers were flowing at a considerable rate.

For those keen on football, a trip to a game is an experience not to be missed. Even if the game in front of you is not particularly enthralling, the sights, sounds, colours and noise more than make up for it. It’s certainly a fun way to pass a Sunday afternoon.

Bit of encroachment there, ref…

Ghana is a real haven for the birdwatcher. Even in the city, you’ll find lots of exotic birds, and a trip further afield is guaranteed to reveal even more. From small weaver birds to large and noisy species like plantain-eaters and green wood hoopoes, there is more than enough for even the most avid birder. There is plenty of other wildlife to keep you alert; in downtown Accra, you’ll see a variety of lizards and you are almost certain to spot huge fruit bats hanging around, in a very literal sense, in trees waiting for temperatures to cool before they go foraging.

Just hanging around

Once you venture a little way out of the capital, you can be sure to add to the list of birds spotted. Something else you cannot possibly miss is the extraordinary structures built by termites. These earth-coloured mounds appear everywhere and some of them reach truly improbable heights. To see them in the flesh, so to speak, rather than on a television documentary, is quite an experience.

Where’s David Attenborough?

As part of the work schedule, it was necessary to visit a pineapple farm, among other places. After talking to various fruit producers and people in many other lines of business, it soon became clear that many of them were treated appalling by buyers and agents. One common trick was for agents to inform fruit exporters that their consignments had become rotten en route to their destination. Generally, this was a flagrant lie and made us even more vociferous in favour of Fairtrade practices.

Slurp…

One happier result of the visit to the pineapple grower is that, during our meeting, the farmer sent one of his workers out to cut a fresh pineapple. The result was quite wonderful, a sweet, juicy and delicious fruit that tasted positively heavenly. The only downside to this experience was knowing that no pineapple bought in the UK could ever taste as good.

Is there space for us?

Having a car with a dedicated driver was a real bonus. We were able to explore the coastline around Accra. This area is still sometimes known as the Gold Coast, the country’s name during colonial times. There are many delightful beaches, an abundance of palm trees and a genuine, if stereotypical picture of a tropical paradise.

A grim reminder of the slave trade

Reality bites when you visit one of the slave forts that remain dotted around the coast. These were, as the name suggests, effectively prison camps used to hold slaves bound for the Americas. While they may not be as famous – one should say infamous – as the concentration camps of Germany and Poland, their purpose leave the visitor in no doubt as to the dreadful scenes that took place. For a glimpse of man’s blind indifference to his fellow man, it is not necessary to look further.

Village life outside the city

Happily, there are many more heart-lifting forms of entertainment. One is to visit the tropical rain forest and take a walk up in the canopy. This is all made possible by the use of rope bridges high in the trees. It is not, of course, everyone’s idea of fun and more than a few souls decided this wasn’t for them and turned back. It’s entirely safe, however. The trick is not to walk in a normal manner across the bridges, but to cross in the mode of a tightrope walker, putting one foot directly in front of the other. This prevents the bridge swaying and the views are terrific. It may be added that insect repellent is a worthwhile item to pack if undertaking such a jaunt.

More hanging around

Ghana is, generally speaking, an easy-going and safe country to visit. As with any country, one must, however, be sensible and check out local customs and regulations. We were based in an area of Accra that was home to a number of embassies, so it was always wise to check just what you were pointing binoculars and camera at while trying to spot birds.

As the evening sun goes down

Largely, it is a matter of common sense. Even so, there are things that take even the most experienced traveller aback. Wandering along the sea-front in Accra one Sunday, we spotted a lighthouse up ahead and took a photo from a distance. Only when we reached the lighthouse did we spot the sign that informed us that taking photographs of it was not permitted under any circumstances. Quite what penalties were likely to ensue were not worth hanging around to find out.

Illegal photo

Ghana, and Accra in particular, are not the worst destinations for anyone wanting to visit sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. The climate is pleasant and while it is hot for those of us from cooler regions, the proximity to the sea usually means that temperatures are tolerable. There is a welcoming feel to the place and a great deal to see and do. Food and drink is varied and abundant. And there’s even a nice little bonus, at least to those of us from the UK; Accra is in the same time zone as Greenwich, so even the eight-hour flight does not leave one jet-lagged!

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.”

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.