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.

Istanbul – Three Cities in One

Superficially, Istanbul is a tale of three cities; the original ancient Greek version, the great Imperial capital built by the Emperor Constantine and the modern capital city. Byzantion, Constantinople and Istanbul. That is to tell too simple a tale. Few places anywhere in the world have undergone the upheaval and changes of this extraordinary city.

Really, the best way to approach Istanbul is from the sea. That way, you can imagine the awe it must have inspired in medieval travellers as the great walls and buildings hoved into view. How those travellers must have stared in sheer wonder at the vast magnificence of Hagia Sophia as their ship sailed up the Bosphorus.

Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

Historians will tell you, quite reasonably, that to understand the present, you must understand the past. Nowhere is this more pertinent than Istanbul. On this basis, a trip to the Archaeological Museum at an early stage of a visit is not a bad plan. There is a vast collection of Hittite, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Byzantine, Ottoman and just about any other kind of artefacts you could imagine, or possibly not imagine. The prize piece is the huge Alexander Sarcophagus, with its ornate carvings depicting Alexander about to hurl a spear at Persian cavalry on one side and hunting lions on the other.

The museum gives a glimpse of the city’s complex history and there are plenty of other places that attest to the varied nature of Istanbul’s past. The railway station combines the European and Oriental in its architecture and is worth seeing for that alone. The station started life as the terminus of the Orient Express and naturally, there is still a reminder of the legendary train in the name of the station’s restaurant. There is also a small museum at the station with diverse bits of Orient Express and other railway memorabilia.

One of the many must-see attractions is the Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman Sultans and their evidently large entourages and staff. The palace was developed and added to over several centuries, with the result being a large number of buildings of varying styles. Of all the diverse collections, one of the most extraordinary is housed in the Imperial Treasury. This is jewellery at an in-your-face level, with plenty of gold to go with it. This is the sort of place that one can imagine being checked out by a suave international jewel thief (probably played by David Niven), devising some cunning plan (no doubt involving ropes and wires) to empty the collection.

Pavilion at Topkapi

Pavilion at Topkapi

The Obelisk of Theodosius is something that it’s impossible to miss, in any sense. The title is something of a misnomer, as it was originally made for the Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis III and was part of the great temple of Karnak before the Roman emperor Constantius II had it moved to Alexandria in 357 CE. A later emperor, Theodosius I, moved it to the hippodrome in Constantinople in 390 CE. Only a section of the original survives, but at over 20 metres, it is still a stand-out object, not least because it looks so out of place. It has, though, been out of place for the best part of two millennia.

Theodosius Obelisk

Theodosius Obelisk

Across the Golden Horn lies the district of Galata, a Genoese colony in medieval times. It was the Genoese who built Galata Tower, visible from much of the city. The tower is essentially a tourist attraction these days, offering a splendid view across Istanbul, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. There is a café at the top, naturally rather expensive, but a nice place to enjoy the view for a while.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

Galata is part of the Beyoğlu area, still on the European side, but separated from the Constantinople part by the Golden Horn. It’s a very cosmopolitan district with a much more western feel to it. The main street, İstiklal, is permanently packed with shoppers, visitors, theatre-goers and seemingly just about everybody in Istanbul at times. There are stylish buildings covering a multitude of styles and old-fashioned little red trams clank up and down.

Beyoğlu and tram

Beyoğlu and tram

Beyoğlu is the home of Galatasaray, one of three hugely-supported football clubs in Istanbul. Another, Beşiktaş, is located just to the north. Across the Bosphorus, Fenerbahçe complete the triumvirate. Rivalries are, to put it mildly, intense, and those of a nervous disposition or easily scared by loud noise should avoid Turkish football in general and Istanbul derbies in particular.

Virtually across the road from the Beşiktaş Stadium is the Dolmabahçe Palace, which succeeded the Topkapi Palace as the main administrative centre of Ottoman rule in the 1850s. It’s an interesting mix of Baroque, Neo-Classical and Rococo, all incorporated into an Ottoman style. You can’t saunter around as you can at the Topkapi; you must take a guided tour. Be prepared for a dazzling overload of gold and crystal. At the front of the palace is a particularly impressive clock tower in a style that Istanbul seems to specialise in, a kind of Baroque meets Ottoman.

Dolmabahçe clock

Dolmabahçe clock

Istanbul always has the capacity to surprise and for a first-time visitor, the shock can come from the air. A loud screech and a tell-tale flash of bright green mean one thing: ring-necked parakeets. These noisy and colourful birds are a common sight in Istanbul. Originally common to tropical parts of Africa and Asia, the adaptable parrots have colonised a number of European cities including London, Barcelona and Brussels. Gülhane Park, where many of the parakeets hang out, is also the location for a vast treetop heronry.

Eating and drinking can be expensive, though it doesn’t have to be. As usual, keeping away from the obvious tourist areas keeps the price down. There are some good little restaurants tucked away under the bridges that span the Golden Horn. Even in the more central areas, you can still get a decent deal. For ten quid, you can get a soup, main course and a couple of beers, which is pretty respectable. Even so the American couple who asked us for advice were probably being a bit optimistic. Where, they asked, could they get something to eat and drink for ten lira? Well, you could try Albania.

It’s best not to expect too much from Turkish beer. Efes is ubiquitous and at least the draught version is a deal more palatable than the bottled or (shudder) canned. Efes Dark is an interesting concoction, though it is probably best approached as a drink to have at the end of an evening. A rather vigorous 6.1% ABV, it’s a dark brown beer with a slightly nutty taste and not too much sweetness, slightly reminiscent of a strong brown ale.

Istanbul is the sort of place you could spend a long time in without seeing everything, but even if you’re only there for two or three nights, you can cram a lot in. Quite a lot of the ‘must see’ places are within a quick walk of each other; for example, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Theodosius Column and Topkapi Palace are all pretty much adjacent. There’s a good array of public transport, too, from little trams to big ferry boats, to get you around.

There are myriad reasons to go to Istanbul. You don’t have to be an aficionado of Byzantine history, though a little understanding is never a bad thing.

Dubrovnik – where the Balkans meet the Mediterranean

Dubrovnik is overloaded in the summer months. It is not a large city and the beautiful little Old Town gets seriously busy. So here’s an idea – take a trip there in the winter. As long as you’re not desperate for a sun tan, there’s a lot to recommend it.

For one thing, the place is quiet and it’s very easy to stroll around, see what you want to see and take photos without feeling hemmed in. For another, the hotels are virtually empty at this time of year and often offer discounts. Lastly, the temperatures are usually pretty mild and even in December, it’s common enough to have double figures. You’re not going to get baked, but you’re highly unlikely to freeze, either.

Strolling around is the perfect pastime for Dubrovnik. Staying out of town in one of the many hotels on the Lapad Peninsula west of the city is a good option. If you’re not out on the far reaches, it doesn’t take to long to wander into town, but either way, there are frequent and very cheap buses that will take you to the very edge of the Old Town.

Duck cam view of Stradun, the main street

Duck cam view of Stradun, the main street

One thing you’ll want to do is take a walk around the walls of the city, something else that is a much more civilised experience when things are quiet. It provides some splendid views and provides you with some useful historical information on the way. One uncomfortable piece of modern history can be gleaned by looking at Dubrovnik’s roof tops: they are look remarkably similar. That’s because they were all repaired at the same time following the nine-month siege of the city between 1991 and 1992.

View from the city walls

View from the city walls

Dubrovnik doesn’t have any ‘wow’ museums, but there’s still plenty of interest to be found. The Maritime Museum reflects the history of the Republic of Ragusa, as Dubrovnik was known, and the feuds and battles with Venice across the Adriatic. One thing that British visitors might note as they look around the museum is the sheer number of the featured ships that were build in Britain; the museum almost serves as a monument to the British shipbuilding industry. A ticket to the Maritime Museum also allows access to other, smaller museums nearby. One is the pleasant little Ethnographic Museum on the site of the city’s former granary. The other is the Rector’s Palace, the residence of the Rector of Ragusa in medieval times. It doesn’t quite attain the grandeur of the Doges’ Palace in Venice, but the building is an interesting mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance and has a Venetian look to it. It also houses a small and slightly ramshackle museum.

Rector's Palace

Rector’s Palace

While the Lapad Peninsula is well stocked with hotels, there are still plenty of open spaces and places to walk. It’s possible to walk around the peninsula, though you have to circumnavigate the odd hotel. Another good walk is up to Velika Petka, a hill thick with pine trees. The climb to the top is not too strenuous and offers a splendid view of the whole peninsula. Either of these walks offers decent opportunities for spotting birds. What you might spot is rather dependent on the season, but there is always something to see. During this particular visit, the number of human tourists may have been few, but the grey wagtail visitors were present in large numbers.

View from the top of Velika Petka

View from the top of Velika Petka

It’s easy to forget that you’re in eastern Europe sometimes. Walking around in the middle of December with orange trees in full fruit makes you wonder for a moment if you’ve strayed into Morocco. The buildings, too, tell of a varied past, with a synagogue, a mosque and a Serbian Orthodox church all within a short distance of each other in the central area. There is also a plethora of churches, led by the lovely Baroque cathedral.

When it comes to food, not surprisingly fish restaurants abound. There’s something for everyone, though. Dubrovnik gets masses of visitors and there are restaurants to cater for all tastes. Prices vary considerably and it’s understandable that it’s a bit pricey in the Old Town. Away from the centre, food and drink can be very cheap indeed.

Croatian wine doesn’t get exported much, but there’s plenty of it and much of it is very good, as well as inexpensive. The same applies to beer and you’ll find a variety of brews and styles. Drinking local beer is always guaranteed to be cheaper, wherever you go, and it also seems a great deal more civilised. It always seems somewhat impolite to visit a country and drink stuff from other places.

It’s pretty hard to avoid rakija (or variants thereof) anywhere in the Balkans and the Adriatic Coast is no exception. In fact, the area seems to have even more types of the stuff than just about anywhere else, with all of the Dalmatian islands having their own particular concoction.

One drawback of visiting in the winter is that visiting the islands isn’t quite as easy as during the rest of the year. Croatia has more than a thousand on its Adriatic coast, so there’s no shortage of possibilities. The advantage in winter is, of course, that if you can arrange a boat trip, you won’t have to battle with the crowds of summer.

Travellers to Dubrovnik should note that the city is not accessible by train. There is, though, an airport and the bus ride from there to the city is probably one of the most scenic you’re likely to find when it comes to travelling to or from an airport. Airport buses usually make their way past dismal industrial estates and retail parks. This one gives you the splendour of the Adriatic coast.

Our preference would be to avoid Dubrovnik in the summer, but – as with everything else – it comes down to personal choice. The winter offers a look at the city at its quietest, but not everyone wants peace and quiet. It is, though, quite a delight to take a photo of a completely empty square at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when you know for certain that it would have been jam-packed a few months earlier.

Riga – City of Parks

It’s difficult to know where to start when considering the delights of Riga, but one of the first things that strikes a visitor is the sheer amount of green space in the city. Most capitals have their parks – London has plenty, for example – but perhaps the effect is intensified by the fact that Riga is not a huge place.

There is green space everywhere and at the heart of it is Bastejkalns (Bastion Hill), with its lovely park and winding Pilsetas Canal. Like most of Riga, the park is beautifully kept and free of rubbish and it’s delightful to stroll around or take a rest. The park also houses the unmistakable and defiant Freedom Monument, known locally as ‘Milda’. In front of the monument is the equally distinctive Laima Clock, erected in 1924 so that people wouldn’t be late for work.

Bastejkalns

Bastejkalns

For fans of Art Nouveau, Riga is a must. Most of these buildings were built for private rather than public use and the majority are in the Old Town. The is even an Art Nouveau Museum, appropriately situated in the former house of the architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, who was responsible for many of the hundreds of Art Nouveau buildings in the city. It is largely because of the quantity and quality of the architecture that the centre of Riga was designated as a UN World Heritage site.

You can't have enough Art Nouveau

You can’t have enough Art Nouveau

There is an intense irony in that Riga’s ugliest building is the site of the Museum of the Occupation. This truly horrible building appears to have been designed by a Soviet architect who needed to dispose of a job lot of large grey Lego bricks. The museum itself is a moving and disturbing memorial to a people who were occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War and the Soviet Union thereafter. There seems to be a constant debate about the use of the building, but somehow it seems an apposite location.

Museum of the Occupation

Museum of the Occupation

A far more pleasing building comes in the shape of the neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral. It’s a distinctive sight, with its typically Orthodox onion domes standing out across the city. It has been substantially restored after being turned into a planetarium during the Soviet era. There are also Lutheran and Catholic cathedrals in Riga. The Lutheran version is especially with its tall tower and the building features on postcards and many a pretty little biscuit or sweet tin. It’s also the largest church in the Baltic region.

We love onion domes

We love onion domes

By the bank of the Daugara River sits the much renovated and rebuilt Riga Castle. Sadly, it is having to undergo yet more restoration work as a result of a recent fire. This means that the excellent National History Museum is presently closed. It’s also worth noting that the National Art Museum is undergoing rebuilding as well. Thankfully, Riga is not short of museums and galleries, so there should be enough to keep even the most enthusiastic culture fiend happy.

At the quirkier end of the museum spectrum, the Latvian Railway History Museum is not just for the trainspotters. It’s a nicely put together collection of all things railway and is a treasure trove for the social historian. The museum is on the left bank of the river across the Stone Bridge. Near to the museum is the new National Library, a curious white pyramid of a building.

A visit to the Baltic would not be complete without garlic and Riga has the wonderful Ķiploku Krogs restaurant. Every dish contains garlic and that includes the desserts. It’s also a great place to have a drink and a nice option is to have a garlic tapas washed down with some dark Latvian beer. One drawback, admittedly, is that the experience means your breath is likely to be able to fell an elephant at 100 metres, but luckily elephants are extremely scarce in Latvia.

Happily, breweries are not scarce and Latvia retains a decent number of independent and micro-breweries. There is also a reasonable variety of beers, from lightweight lagers to dark lagers, bocks and Baltic porters. Some breweries are owned by groups, though this doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. The Lacplesis brewery, for example, is owned by a large Danish group, but the beers are unpasteurised and of a good quality. Piebalgas, an independent brewery, is also worth looking out for. They produce a very tasty dark lager.

There’s no shortage of places to stop for a drink. It’s a little more expensive to sit in a bar in the main square, but it’s fun to linger for an hour or two and watch the array of performers, chancers, locals and visitors that pass before you. A beer in one of the many park bars will be cheaper and it always feels very civilised to be able to sit around with a glass of beer at half past ten in the evening in a public park. It seems almost inconceivable that you can indulge in this way in the UK. No doubt, after a few minutes, drunken imbeciles would start brawling and causing mayhem.

On that rather depressing note, Riga has become something of a magnet for the retards who feel the need to drink themselves into near oblivion and make live miserable for everybody within about a mile’s radius. These are, of course, the stag weekenders. Cheap flights and cheap beer are not only appealing to the more civilised end of humanity, so if you’re looking for three or four days in Riga, avoiding a weekend might be a decent idea. That said, normal people have no desire to rush into the nearest faux-English pub or McDonald’s and your average retard is unlikely to disturb your museum visit, but it’s harder to avoid idiots in a small city.

Despite the occasional influx from the brain dead, Riga remains one of Europe’s more charming cities and is worth visiting at any time of year. For the sheer magnificence of its buildings and the peaceful beauty of its parks, Riga is, perhaps, Europe’s most attractive capital.

Bratislava – Street Art and Style

Sometimes, you hear the view espoused that Bratislava is a kind of poor man’s Prague, a pale imitation of the real thing. Yes, it’s quite nice, but Prague is the place you really want to visit. Bratislava is okay for a few hours, they’ll tell you, but nothing more than that.

This view is not only lazy, but plain wrong. For one thing, Bratislava is nearer to Vienna than it is to the Czech capital, the two cities being Europe’s closest capitals. For another, and more important factor, Bratislava has its own distinct character, with a few delightful quirks that give it an individual style.

One way to enjoy a stay in central Bratislava without incurring too much expense is to stay on a boat. There are several ‘botels’ moored on the Danube and apart from being near the centre, the experience offers novelty value. Unless, of course, you happen to live on a boat.

One sight on the river that you can’t miss – in any sense – is the UFO Bridge. Its real title is the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising and though it looks rather 21st-century, it was, in fact, completed in 1972. You can go up to the top of the ‘spacecraft’ via a lift (unless you really want to walk up 430 steps) and have a coffee or a meal in the restaurant. From there, you get a fantastic view of the city and if you sit still for long enough, you find yourself looking at a different part because the place revolves (very slowly, thankfully). In the evenings, it becomes a nightclub.

The UFO

The UFO

Another place to provide a panoramic view is the castle, which affords a sight of the city of Bratislava, but of neighbouring Austria as well. Like many European castles, this one has undergone much rebuilding and restoration, resulting in a mix of styles from Gothic and Renaissance through to Baroque. The site houses the current Parliament building, a rather dismal grey box of concrete, and also the Museum of History and Music Museum.

Bratislava (duck cam view)

Bratislava (duck cam view)

One of the remaining parts of the medieval fortifications of the city is St. Michael’s Gate. The lovely Baroque tower houses a small museum and at the top, there is another wonderful viewing point. Bratislava does scenic views very well.

The Castle

The Castle

The street below the gate is, apparently, one of the most expensive in Europe and clearly designed for those with far too much money. Designer names abound on the shops and the restaurants are not for those of us looking for good value. A quick departure to a place of more modest ambition is required and there are plenty of those, even in the central parts of the city. It’s not hard to find somewhere to refuel for a fraction of the cost of the area around St Michael’s.

Something that costs nothing at all is an exploration of one of Bratislava’s endearing traits, street sculpture. A figure appears from a manhole in the street; a shady-looking paparazzo snaps passers-by outside a restaurant; a Napoleonic soldier leans nonchalantly on the back of a bench in the main square. In Hviezdoslav Square, you’ll also bump into a statue of Hans Christian Andersen, who was so complimentary about Bratislava that the favour was returned.

As you might expect, Slovakia is big on beer (one thing it does have in common with Prague). There are the usual international conglomerates and there is a fair amount of Czech beer to be found, but there is also a pleasing growth of micro-breweries and brew pubs. A good example of a proper, no-nonsense pub with its own brewery is Pivovarský Hostinec Richtár Jakub, which is near the university and which sells not only its own beer, but a range of guest beers from elsewhere.

There is no shortage of places to have a good drink and even in the central part of town, it doesn’t have to be expensive. One option, particularly in the summer, is to find a little bar down by the river and sit outside with a very cheap glass of beer while watching the evening sun go down.

Bratislava’s proximity to Vienna is reflected in the culture of music, theatre, opera and ballet. Just near the watching statue of Andersen, the ‘old’ National Theatre building in the Old Town is a glorious neo-Renaissance affair dating from the 1880s and the Austro-Hungarian days. Sadly, the use of this theatre is being overtaken by the ‘new’ National Theatre, which took more than twenty years to build and finally opened in 2007. Presumably, such a length of time was required to design and construct a building as hideous as this.

The main square

The main square

Mercifully, though, there is more to Bratislava than the odd hideous building. These things happen in any city and sometimes, buildings are so bad that they become attractions of their own. Bratislava’s sights, museums, restaurants, bars, parks and streets are a match for anywhere in Europe, all with the bonus of the magnificent Danube at its heart. Don’t for a minute believe all that stuff about Bratislava being merely Prague’s poorer little brother.

Belgrade – Where Two Rivers Meet

It’s amazing how much rubbish is spouted by people you meet while travelling. On the bus from Skopje to Sofia, an English fellow solemnly informed us that we would not be allowed into Serbia as we had Kosovo stamps in our passports. ‘You won’t get past immigration’ he announced confidently. We just nodded. We had another two or three hours on the bus and there are better ways to pass the time than arguing with idiots.

Predictably, nobody at the airport in Belgrade was bothered in the least and the only disturbance to the peace and quiet was from the large rookery outside the terminal building. Rooks, like all corvids, are garrulous birds.

The heart of the city is Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park. It looks out over the confluence of two great rivers, the Sava and the Danube. There are some thoroughly enjoyable walks to be had both in the hills of the park and down by the water.

A climb to the top of the hill takes you past two unusual churches. The Church of the Holy Mother of God, known as Ružica Church, is a delightful, ivy-covered little building. Nearby is another, even smaller, church, St Petka’s Chapel, which has some superb mosaics in its intimate interior. As ever with Orthodox churches, there’s gold and glitz aplenty.

Ružica Church and the fortress

Ružica Church and the fortress

At the opposite end of the scale is the gigantic Cathedral of St Sava, the world’s biggest Orthodox church. The construction began in 1935, around 40 years after the plan to build the church. Remarkably, work continues to this day, as although the building is largely complete, there is still much to do by way of external decoration.

If Belgrade is loaded with churches, it does not go short of parks, either. Topčider Park is a large park extending into forest on the south side of the city and is just one of around 20 or so significant green spaces in and around Belgrade. There is also a substantial Botanical Garden, where you can have a drink at the bizarrely-named Idiot Bar. Assuming you want to drink in an Idiot Bar, of course.

For walkers, though, there is always somewhere to sit down and have a rest. A walk by the riverside allows plenty of opportunities to stop and look around. The rivers provide a haven for waterfowl and migrating birds and you shouldn’t be surprised to see visitors like little egrets or European bee-eaters. Both white and black storks breed in the area. With the abundance of fresh water, plains and forests in the Belgrade area, there are ample opportunities to see plenty of different birds without trying too hard.

Ducks can get hungry, even on holiday

Ducks can get hungry, even on holiday

Belgrade has a complete mix of architectural styles, often in the same building. The National Theatre is a good example, originally built in Renaissance style, but rebuilt and reconstructed several times since. It still has a Renaissance look, but with hints of Baroque and neo-Gothic.

The National Museum is also a bit of a mixture, with neo-Classical and Baroque elements to it. There is a substantial collection of European and Japanese art, though at the time of this visit, most of the museum was closed for renovation. A small part was open, though this was very interesting, an exhibition featuring the work of the 19th-century painter Katarina Ivanovic. She was a Hungarian-born Serb who studied art in Pest and Vienna and also travelled extensively in Europe. Unfortunately, the prevalent attitudes towards women artists at the time meant that her work did not get the recognition it deserved. Although this was the only gallery open during this visit, the experience was most informative and thanks are due to the helpful young woman who provided much explanation and detail of both paintings and artist.

A building of a slightly fading grandeur is the main railway station, though this may not be true for long, as a new station is under construction. The present station serves many European cities and was once on the route of the Orient Express. Although I would not necessarily recommend it for an evening out, it can be a useful place to take shelter from a sudden downpour and you can keep out of the rain with a very cheap beer and watch the assorted travellers making their way hither and thither.

The Baroque railway station

The Baroque railway station

There are, of course, better places to have a drink or two. One is Biblioteka, which is a comfortable bar with – as you’d expect – books everywhere and a good collection of old photos. It’s a pleasant place for something to eat or just for a few glasses of beer. Even more civilized is the fact that there are both light and dark beers. Some of us need the infusion of a good dark beer to satisfy the demands of our Irish blood.

Unfortunately, independent brewers are difficult to find in Serbia. The larger breweries are owned by multi-nationals and the best hope of finding something a little different is a brew pub. These tend to come and go, but the Black Turtle chain now runs to five pubs in Belgrade and produces quite a wide range of beers.

Mmm, dark beer

Mmm, dark beer

Belgrade has more than enough to keep a visitor occupied and there are regular festivals and fairs of different kinds throughout the year. Food and drink is inexpensive and accommodation should not cost a fortune, either. The centre is very negotiable for walkers, with the exception of a few climbs around the fortress. Public transport is pretty good and isn’t costly – a bus to and from the airport costs less than a pound and you should be able to have a decent amount to eat and drink for the price of a tenner. That just has to be a good thing.

Hello to Berlin

Berliners, I imagine, must often feel rather like I did when I used to live in Oxford. Admittedly, Berlin is considerably bigger than Oxford, but there are times when you feel like buying one of those t-shirts that say ‘I’m not a tourist – I live here’. Except, of course, you get the feeling that most of those shirts were worn by tourists.

Yes, Berlin is full of tourists, even in February when the temperatures are sub-zero. Everybody wants to see the Brandenburg Gate and everybody wants to take a photograph of it. The queues for museums and galleries make you wonder how long they get at busier times of year. Tourists – honestly, don’t you get fed up with them?

Everybody has a photo of this

Everybody has a photo of this

The city, as already noted, is big and there’s enough room for everybody. There may be a time when you want to see a particular museum, but think ‘I’m not going to stand in the freezing cold for three hours’ so you simply go somewhere else. It’s not like there are only a few attractions. There is almost certainly something else interesting within walking distance and if there isn’t, then Berlin has plenty of public transport to take you elsewhere pretty quickly. The metro system (U-Bahn) is particularly good.

A Berlin Card is a worthwhile investment if you’re going to use public transport and visit a few museums. A three-day card costs around €25 and if you’re arriving at Tegel Airport, you can buy one there and use it to get the bus into the city centre. Note that Tegel is due to close in the next couple of years, but is still in use at the time of writing.

Museums – where to start? There are masses of them in Berlin, but the German Historical Museum isn’t a bad place to begin. The museum is vast and so is the collection. Culture, art, photographs, prints, coins and pretty much anything you can think of are crammed in. Germany obviously has some deeply disturbing elements in its history, but there is an uncompromising honesty in the displays and presentations.

There is also a frankness and openness about the DDR Museum. It’s a fascinating social history and as likely to be visited by those from ‘West’ Germany who are as curious about the life and times of their countrymen as visitors from other nations.

Museum Island is famous and it’s a shame that the Bode Museum is often overlooked. It’s a lovely Baroque building for a start, with a façade reminiscent of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The museum harbours a particularly fine collection of sculpture and Byzantine art. A small advantage of its seemingly low status is that it doesn’t get crowded.

The Bode Museum

The Bode Museum

Berlin does quirky as well as cultural. A good example is the Sugar Museum in Wedding. You may think that there’s not much to say about sugar, but once you think about colonialism and the slave trade, you soon realise that sugar is just as political as anything else.

Quirky is always good

Quirky is always good

It’s impossible to visit Berlin without thinking about literature; Christopher Isherwood and Alfred Döblin keep coming to mind. Today’s Alexanderplatz may look rather different to the Alexanderplatz of Döblin, but its significance has lived on. This was where an astonishing one million people demonstrated against the GDR government in 1989. Ignore the glass and concrete of the shopping area and think of the history.

As with any sizeable capital city, it can be cheap or expensive to eat and drink. Usually, it’s somewhere in the middle, but it’s perfectly possible to have a decent scoff without spending a fortune. Avoiding the obvious tourist areas is guaranteed to reduce the costs. Anywhere in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate is likely to be in the higher price range.

All of which leads us to beer, which is never a bad place to be led to. German beer is rightly revered for its quality and purity, with no filthy gas, chemicals, pasteurisers or other dross allowed into it. Sane people do not want to drink freezing cold chemical compounds.

Unfortunately, brewing has declined somewhat in Berlin. There is, though, an upside, in that micro-breweries are springing up. This is a recent development, but hopefully a positive one. The result is that beer from all over the country pops up in the city and there is beer to suit all tastes and palates. A personal favourite is the delicious black Köstritzer, not a Berlin beer, but from Bad Köstritz, south of Leipzig. Bursting with all kinds of flavours, refreshing and dangerously quaffable, beer doesn’t get much better than this.

There are some reasonably inexpensive restaurants and bars around Nollendorfplatz and Wittenbergplatz, and it’s worth a trip on the U-Bahn to the latter just for a look at the delightful Art Nouveau station. Also, look out for the London Underground-style sign that was donated by London Transport to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U-Bahn in 1952.

In addition to the U-Bahn, there is a substantial S-Bahn railway around Berlin. For a bit of history, take a trip to Friedrichstraße station, which was in East Berlin but served by trains from not only West Berlin, but international trains as well. There was, apparently, quite a considerable amount of trade done in the station’s shops in the days of Cold War. You can almost conjure up images of some of the shady characters that have passed through here.

The shiny new Hauptbahnhof

The shiny new Hauptbahnhof

Nobody, whatever their interests, should struggle to find anything to do in Berlin. Whether you want high culture or low – or indeed a mixture of both – you won’t be left short of options. If you want noise, clubs and bars abound. If you want a bit of peace, the Tiergarten is perfect for a stroll. Capital cities are not to everyone’s taste, but you’d be hard pressed not to find something of interest in a few days in Berlin.

Vilnius – Amber Alert

The bar in the Old Town was surprisingly quiet. We sat outside with bottles of Utenos Porteris, a very dark Lithuanian beer. The barmaid asked what we thought of the stuff and we agreed that it was a very pleasant drop of porter, but rather strong. She picked up the bottle and looked for the strength, then shook her head. “No, this is not so strong for Lithuania” she announced. The beer was 6.8% ABV.

Like their neighbours in Poland, Lithuanians like their beer strong. A bit of hunting around and you’ll be able to find something a little less vigorous, though a 4.4% beer will probably be advertised as ‘low alcohol’. In UK terms, this is the strength of a fairly robust best bitter. Another factor is the cheapness of beer in the country. Bars are cheap and bottles from shops cost mere pennies. Care needs to be taken.

If you do get a bit wobbly of an evening, it shouldn’t mean getting lost, at least in the Old Town. The centre is not vast and orientation does not take long. It is also a glorious mishmash of architectural styles that shouldn’t fit together, but do.

The place for a great view of the city is the top of the Castle complex. There are two castles and it is the upper one, on Gediminas Hill, that is the city’s highest point. An observation platform at the top of the Gediminas Tower provides a splendid panorama. The whole complex is crammed with museums and is well worth a full morning or afternoon to explore. Below Gediminas Tower is the cathedral, a gloriously neo-classical affair.

View from Gediminas Tower

View from Gediminas Tower

 It’s difficult to go very far in Vilnius without bumping into Gediminas in some form. He was a 14th Grand Duke of Lithuania who is regarded as both the founder of the Lithuanian state and the city of Vilnius. Gediminas Square is at the heart of the Old Town.

Churches in particular provide an example of the architectural contrasts of the city, with the resolutely Gothic St Anne’s church, the neo-classical cathedral and the beautiful Baroque St Peter and St Paul’s vying for attention. St. Michael and St. Constantine is a wonderful example of the Orthodox Church, with its bright green onion domes quite unmistakable. The modestly-named Church of the Apparition of the Holy Mother of God is another Orthodox building, an even more lavish neo-Byzantine affair that stands majestically across the River Neris from the Old Town.

Church of the Holy Spook (okay, Apparition)

Church of the Holy Spook (okay, Apparition)

Like many former Soviet areas, Vilnius has its share of ghastly buildings and one particularly choice example is Seimas Palace, home to the Lithuanian Parliament. Built in the 1970s, it has all of the stunningly good taste associated with that decade. The style, if such a term can be applied, is an abysmal attempt at modern classical and surely takes the award for the most hideous public building in Vilnius. It’s worth seeing just for that reason.

There is plenty to do in Vilnius, but if you’re staying for a few days, a trip outside of the capital is easy enough. Trains are not expensive and the second city of Kaunas is only a couple of hours away. We took the shorter trip to Trakai, which takes around 40 minutes and costs almost nothing. It’s also fun to experience the journey on a train that may lack comforts, but is incredibly cheap. Climbing up into a carriage from the almost non-existent platforms is also a pleasure that feels like it should be photographed in black and white. Another thing that pleases those of us beset with health and safety obsessives is the way one can nonchalantly saunter across the railway lines.

We walked into the station in the rain...

We walked into the station in the rain…

Trakai National Park comprises the area of several lakes and the town of Trakai, Lithuania’s medieval capital. Trakai houses two castles and various museums and is all a bit touristy, but the area is beautiful and there are plenty of places for a peaceful walk and quiet contemplation, not to mention some birdwatching.

Castles that are fairytales...

Castles that are fairytales…

Vilnius makes for an excellent city break of three or fours days. Mid-summer can get a bit hot and winters can be a bit cold, but can make for a very picturesque scene with snow on the ground. It’s not an expensive place to eat and drink, and it should be simple enough to find inexpensive accommodation. The City Gate is a splendid little hotel across from the Gate of Dawn, the only remaining gate to the city of Vilnius. The hotel has only about 10 rooms, but it’s a friendly and welcoming place with a pleasant restaurant. There is a decent pub next door and a brief stroll takes you right into the Old Town.

On the other side of the Gate of Dawn, you’ll find amber. You’ll find lots of amber. In fact, you’ll hardly be able to move for amber. Amber, many may be surprised to know, is not always the colour of, erm, amber. Lithuania seems to specialise in white amber. There is, inevitable, something of an overload towards souvenirs, but it’s not all tat and the Amber Museum-Gallery is a good place to see what amber is all about. Just make sure to go to the pub afterwards and not beforehand.

Krakow – Inside the Horseshoe

It is almost certain that a trip to Krakow will, at least for a first-time visitor, involve visits to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and to Auschwitz-Birkenau. These places merit a full examination of their own and cannot be crammed into a small piece about the city itself. This article will concentrate purely on Krakow.

Weather for duck holidayers

Weather for duck holidayers

Krakow may be synonymous with the above sites, but there is plenty to see in the city. The centre is enclosed by the horseshoe-shaped Planty Park, which makes it very easy to navigate. A river always helps, both in terms of adding something to the scenic aspects as well as for finding one’s way, and the mighty Wisła runs through Krakow to the south of the city.

The Market Square is the city’s heart, full of people and pigeons whatever the time of year or day. The centrepiece is the lovely Renaissance building, the Cloth Hall, still in use as a market, but mainly selling souvenirs these days. Overlooking the square is the giant Gothic brickwork that is St Mary’s Basilica. On the hour mark, look and listen out for the trumpeter at the top of the taller of the two towers. Legend has it that the curtailed call is in memory of the 13th-century trumpeter who was cut short in mid performance by a Tatar arrow as he sounded the alarm.

St Mary's Basilica

St Mary’s Basilica

The upper floor of the Cloth Hall houses the Sukiennice Museum, comprising four grandiose rooms of 19th-century Polish art. The museum is part of the National Museum, which in reality is a collection of museums and galleries. The Historical Museum is similarly scattered and includes the splendid Florian Gate, a typically Krakow-style mixture of the Gothic and Baroque rolled into one structure.

Cloth Hall

Cloth Hall

On the hill at the southern end of Planty Park stands Wawel Castle, which is another collection of buildings that have a slightly patchwork appearance after much destruction and rebuilding through the centuries. The 14th-century Gothic cathedral – itself something of a composite affair – stands out and is the burial place for Polish kings and heroes, including Poland’s greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who is also honoured with a bronze statue in the Market Square.

The Royal Chambers features a number of beautifully decorated rooms and halls. Keep an eye on the ceilings, particularly in the ‘Room of the Heads’, where 30 (there used to be a lot more) sculpted and painted faces peer down to keep an eye on proceedings to make sure the royals don’t get above themselves. The ‘Room of the Birds’ is another hall with remarkable decorations, chiefly in the shape of the Renaissance frieze featuring the aforementioned birds.

To the south east of the castle lies Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. This area has undergone a major revival in recent years. Much of the Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, was filmed here and a little row of shops created for the set has been preserved in tribute. Now, though, there are synagogues, museums, bars, cafés and restaurants of all kinds, including a very decent Indian.

Krakow does not lack for bars and restaurants and vegetarians are well catered for. It’s worth noting that food portions tend to be rather large and that Polish beer is pretty strong, so unless you have an extraordinary constitution, ordering the smallest option on the menu and the lightest beer is the sensible option. A ‘small cheese pie’, for example, is roughly the size of a medium-sized bungalow and may come with enough vegetables to satisfy one’s five-a-day ration in one go. Even Monty Python’s Mr Creosote might be slightly intimidated by the larger versions. For those who can’t manage between meals, there are legions of bagel sellers dotted around the town.

A glass of Polish porter is something well worth trying and for the truly adventurous, two glasses. Żywiec Porter is as black as the Ace of Spades and is so thick that you can almost chew it. At 9.5% ABV, it is a beer to sip slowly and has a kick like a mule wearing reinforced Doc Martens. It is, in fact, quite a pleasant drink with dark roasted notes and a hint of chocolate, but it is not a session beer.

Poles will argue the vodka is a Polish, rather than Russian, invention and don’t be surprised to find yourself offered a chance to sample some in a restaurant. The vodka may be pure or come in unusual flavours, and it is, of course, impolite to refuse the offering. If you’re visiting in winter, a small glass puts a rapid injection of warmth into the body.

One unusual Krakow feature is the corvid commuter run. Early in the morning, vast quantities of rooks fly in from the neighbouring countryside, accompanied by quite a few jackdaw outriders. In the evening, they all head off again. It’s a spectacular sight and while you see plenty of these birds in the parks and gardens, you wonder how the city accommodates such enormous numbers and where they all go.

1,670 kilometres from home

1,670 kilometres from home

Unfortunately, Krakow seems to have become something of a magnet for stag weekends, so a visit during the week is not a bad move. Still, nobody with any interest in culture (or indeed decent pubs) should find themselves on too much of a collision course. Life is too short to spend hours sitting in a faux-English pub drinking bad beer.