A glorious, late winter’s day provided the ideal excuse to venture over to the east coast for a mooch round Dundee: Britain’s ‘coolest little city’ (according to GQ magazine) and the UK’s first designated UNESCO City of Design.
Almost 40 years had elapsed since I last visited Dundee and, even then, in the midst of the devastating manufacturing decline of the early 1980s, it retained its vibrancy and creativity and was home to a thriving student community. Today, two of its famous Three Js – jam, jute – have virtually disappeared and, like all other publishers of print journalism, DC Thomson has reduced and restructured in the face of online media.
But, throughout its history, Dundee has been nothing if not innovative and, while once famous for Keiller’s marmalade and the Beano, it is now renowned as the creative centre of computer gaming.
The opening of the V & A Dundee, Scotland’s first museum of design, in September, is eagerly awaited, particularly as its first major exhibition – currently at the V&A in London – will showcase the speed and style of the great ocean liners that revolutionised travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and whose design and construction are irrevocably associated with Scotland.
But there’s more to Dundee than Grand Theft Auto and the new V & A. Dundee’s origins date from pre-history and its location at the mouth of the Tay estuary ensured its importance as a trading centre over the centuries.
The re-furbished McManus Galleries charts the city’s development throughout the ages. It also houses two paintings by Thomas Musgrave Day illustrating Grace Darling’s rescue of passengers from the wreck of the Forfarshire (built in Dundee) in 1838. The bravery of Grace and her father, setting out in their rowing boat into high seas and a Force 10, was one of my favourite childhood stories.
As befits a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, Dundee contains many impressive buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. It has also benefitted from the bequests of several famous entrepreneurs and industrialists; such as the Caird Hall, named after its benefactor, the jute baron James Caird. One of Scotland’s premier concert venues, it has hosted the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Sinatra, amongst many others.
Jute provided great wealth to a few in the city, but subjected many of Dundee’s population to dreadful and dangerous working conditions. These are vividly recreated at the excellent Verdant Museum, housed in an old jute works: another must-visit.
So, a nice little taster for a further visit later in the year. And, despite the bitterly cold east wind, no trip to Dundee is complete without a glimpse of the the Tay Rail Bridge The replacement for its ill-fated predecessor, the bridge is now 131 years old and still links Fife with Angus and Scotland’s north east.
But, despite the city’s many and varied cultural attractions, the piece de resistance of my day out in Dundee was the discovery of The Bach, a gem of a cafe/restaurant near the McManus Galleries. Not content with providing an imaginative and reasonably priced menu and serving up first class, locally roasted coffee from Sacred Grounds of Arbroath, it is also a proper dog cafe, welcoming each canine customer with a fleecy bed, bowl of water and small treat. Wonderful!
Finally, after a far-too-long 18 months, a European train trip; this time to link with a bike tour from Prague to Dresden. Given that both are cities I’ve long wanted to visit, could I arrange a rail odyssey to also include Berlin (another on my tick list), as well as a (fleeting) stop in one of my perennial favourites, Amsterdam?
The bike tour was booked last minute and the trip was the final one for the 2017 season so, essentially, the itinerary, including all travel links and accommodation had to be researched and booked over one weekend. In the event the tight deadline proved to be an advantage: definite decisions had to be made, quickly, with no time for my usual indecisive faffing about.
Train-wise, seat61.com as ever, guided me through everything and links to the excellent English language sections of Deutsche Bahn bahn.de (DB) and Czech Railways cd.cz (CZ) worked quickly and effectively. Lack of time did force me to resort to the internet for accommodation though, with one exception, the suggestions did prove to be comfortable and convenient; less so their irritating and unnecessary follow-up adverts.
I source tickets direct from the relevant rail operators. However, it is perfectly possible, and probably more convenient in some cases, to buy European tickets in one package from UK site Loco2 and the same discounts should still be available.
This is the second time I have used this method to reach the continent and there are several positives: it saves a journey to London (particularly if the fare is cheaper than the Caledonian Sleeper); living in central Scotland it is easy and pleasurable to travel to Newcastle along the scenic east coast from Edinburgh; the cabins are en suite and, given favourable weather, it’s a very relaxing way to begin/end your journey. And they sell the delicious milk/dark chocolate Dutch Droste pastilles.
However, there are several disadvantages; most notably ‘stealth’ costs. Remember, as a foot passenger you are unlikely to want to carry in food for the evening and next morning, so you have little option but to use the ship’s cafes and restaurants. These are expensive – eg, €21 for fish and chips plus a bottle of beer in the cafe – and not good value.
Pre-booking for the restaurant gains a 17% discount, but still costs £26 for buffet dinner and £11.50 for breakfast – a total of £75 per adult for food alone on a return journey. The cabins, while comfortable, are small and not well suited to sitting around in for several hours in the evening and public areas are restricted to bars and the cinema – again, at cost.
Bus transfers (another extra) do drop off at the main railway stations, (but check carefully the Amsterdam location, under ‘Ports’, as this changed suddenly this summer, with no clear notice from DFDS), and there are several decent breakfast options nearby in both cities, so if you can survive until around 11am, it’s best to delay eating until arrival.
Verdict: can be useful but, on balance, I prefer the Eurostar option, with some time in London. Do work out costs in detail, including hidden extras, as price will probably be the deciding factor.
Amsterdam – Berlin return:
By the time the ferry docks and the bus drops off in the city, it’s almost 11am, so relieved I booked seats on the 13.00 service. Time to have breakfast/coffee/a glimpse of Amsterdam – there are plenty of options in and around the station as well as a large left luggage area.
It’s a six hour journey in a comfortable airline-style seat in a second class open compartment and a pleasant ride across the North German Plain – think final days of WW2 and all that. Indeed, the white steel road bridge you can see at Deventer was used as the famous bridge at Arnhem in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. Hanover and Wolfsburg also look interesting for future visits.
Arriving at the spectacular glass and steel Hauptbahnhof (Hbf), I am well impressed to find it is powered by solar energy. From the exit I can see the Reichstag and work out the Brandenburg Gate is only about 20 minutes walk, as is most of the city centre.
The Meininger Hotel is ideally situated just outside the main entrance to the station, on Ella Trebe Strasse, and reasonably priced. Really the next step up from a hostel, the foyer and downstairs area are usually packed with groups of young people. However, the rooms – if not the corridors – are soundproofed, it’s clean, the €6 breakfast is reasonable and the WiFi good. It’s not a luxurious stay, but it’s well located and ideal if you are planning a busy day or two in the city and just want somewhere to put your head down.
It’s raining and as I’m really only on a flying visit, I follow advice from a resident Berliner and buy a day ticket on the city’s transport system for €7. The 100 bus passes many places interest on its way to the zoo, from where I return on the S-Bahn back to the Hbf.
Next day I need to prioritise my sightseeing, so make a beeline for the Reichstag – only 10 minutes walk – and join the queue snaking around the portacabin across the road. I didn’t manage to book online but, fortunately there are a few spaces left this evening at 6pm. (Do remember to take your passport with you, as you will need it, both when you book and to clear security in the Reichstag.)
Norman Foster’s design is simply breathtaking, particularly in the way that light is reflected from different angles. Even on a dank and drizzly evening, the views from the top are superb and the audio guide really informative, both on the Reichstag itself, and on the history of the sites visible across the city panorama. Best of all, it’s free.
A sore throat and inclement weather dampened my Berlin experience a little, but I still managed to see something of the city and soak up (literally) some of the atmosphere. The tour of the Reichstag Dome was one of the highlights of the entire trip.
I’ll be back.
Next morning, up early for a four hour journey to Prague, looking forward to seeing some beautiful scenery, particularly between Dresden and Prague. However, although it’s a weekday in late September, the train is absolutely packed, even in first class, with people standing as far as Dresden.
Fortunately, my discounted first class seat comes with a reserved seat, but in a six-seater compartment: just about OK, but with very limited leg room, even for me.
The Royal Plaza Hotel (initially difficult to find because of building works round the museum and opera house) is central and within an easy stroll of both Wenceslas and Old Town Squares. Very pleasant staff, nice room, good WiFi and a bath, all help to provide an enjoyable welcome. So, dump bags, take to the streets where, even on a dullish midweek afternoon, it’s crowded.
First highlight is the Grand Hotel Evropa. Although still closed, its ornate art nouveau exterior stands out even among the crowds and colour of Wenceslas Square; the first of the many art nouveau treasures I want to see in Prague.
Heading down to Old Town Square the crowds thicken and it’s sad to see the reality of Prague’s recent metamorphosis into one of the stag/hen capitals of Europe. When visiting somewhere new I usually assess the extent of commercialisation by the quality of the fridge magnets in the souvenir shops. These are predictable junk. However, by chance I find a lovely Czech-made, all wool, jade beret down one of the side streets: my first and only buy of the day.
Disappointingly, the Astronomical Clock is swathed in scaffolding, but it is still operational and I enjoy trying to identify the four civic anxieties of the 15th century (Vanity, Death, Greed and Pagan Invasion) and then naming (and failing) the 12 Apostles as the clock chimes on the hour.
St Vitus Cathedral has always been at the top of my Prague wish list, but as this is now only possible with the Prague Castle tour ticket, I reluctantly decide against, given my time restrictions – and castles are not really my thing anyway. Charles Bridge, though does not disappoint, despite the drizzle. Once crossed and away from the crowds, there is much of interest along Mala Strana and Petrin Hill. Turning almost immediately right brought me to Shakespeare and Sons, probably Prague’s most famous bookshop. It’s certainly a place for a good read and linger, but conscious of time, I ration my visit and head along Cihelna to the Franz Kafka Museum. A Kafka fan since adolescence, it is an interesting experience and the shop is a cut above the usual museum/heritage offerings (interesting fridge magnets).
An amusing and quirky detour from here is to walk back to Malostranske Namesti and along Nerudova. Look carefully above the doors and you will see the best collection of house signs in Prague.
House numbering became obligatory in 1770 and these signs show some exotic and eclectic ways of identifying buildings before then. Watch out for the Three Fiddles, the Red Eagle and St Wenceslas on a Horse, among others.
On balance, the highlight of my Prague visit comes on the final day during the Kafka Walk. Living in Glasgow, we are spoiled by our city’s art nouveau treasures, but the Municipal House in Namesti Republiky compares favourably with anything in Mackintosh’s Glasgow, or Horta’s Brussels. Even a glimpse of the foyer and basement takes the breath away with the beauty and symbolism of the designs and decoration. Sign up for a guided tour, you won’t regret it.
Prague’s crowds are testament to the city’s charisma and attraction. They do clog up the honeyspots and cause irritation, but it’s easy to escape. The city is well served with parks and open spaces – climb Petrin Hill for some of the best views – and the contrasting Vinohrady and Zizkov districts, both easily within walking distance of the main station, are a world away from the tourist traps, with stunning art nouveau architecture, the (in)famous TV Tower, Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery and lively bars and nightlife.
And, there is some decent coffee: TriCafe served up a solid flat white and a delicious strudel. Its comfortable, welcoming atmosphere, nice staff and location near Charles Bridge also tick the right boxes. EMA Expresso Bar produced the best coffee, but its too-cool-for-school atmosphere and know-it-all baristas will not be to everyone’s taste.
Next visit; some more craft outlets are definitely on the menu.
After two long train journeys and some city sightseeing, the wonderful Prague to Dresden cycle tour was just what I needed.
All too often the approaches into a city are not its best advert. Not so Dresden. Cycling into the city along the broad water meadows of the Elbe, past vineyards and Baroque chateaux has to be one of the finest entrances to any city anywhere, and a mouthwatering appetiser to the delights ahead. Arriving by bike after an en route stop at Pirna and the gardens at Pillnitz is even better.
After a convivial last evening with the cycling group, I throw my biking gear into the wash bag and go in search of my next hotel. The Intercity right next to the Hbf could not have been better: ideal location, excellent staff, free city travel card for the duration of the stay, pleasant, well equipped room and the right combination of efficiency and personal, but unobtrusive, service you look for in a good hotel.
Aiming to make the most of another gorgeous day, I head for Postplatz (in an unsuccessful hunt for good coffee) and cross the Augustusbrucke to Neustadt, giving the crowds in the Inner Alstadt a miss for today. Past the glistening Golden Reiter, I walk up Haupstrasse, a pedestrian boulevard lined with shady plane trees. Here are some of the best-preserved Baroque townhouses in Dresden and the side streets contain some interesting small shops and pavement cafes.
Before I leave Neustadt I walk along to the Pfunds Dairy on Bautzner Strasse. Described in the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘most beautiful dairy in the world’ the shop is over 100 years old and its walls are covered with richly-coloured, hand-painted tiles. It is undoubtedly a striking interior, but unfortunately now very commercialised, selling a range of rather expensive souvenirs: the fridge magnets are, though, a cut above the norm.
Normally I ration museum visits on a short trip, but there is simply no way I could come to Dresden and not see the Zwinger. The all-in, one day ticket for €10 is good value, although a combination of good weather and too much else to see meant I didn’t manage to get back to the Mathematisch Physikalischer in time.
First up is the Gemaldegalerie Alt Meister. This collection of European painting from the 15th to 18th centuries is simply breathtaking. It is small, but in many ways its size makes it ideal as you don’t feel lost, or frustrated that you cannot see everything, as is often the case in larger ‘national galleries’. Particular favourites include the Chocolate Girl and Canaletto’s impressions of Pirna, especially as we had visited its famous town square en route to Dresden on the cycle tour.
The Porcelain Collection is next and, although I was aware of Dresden’s associations with white Meissen porcelain, I had no idea of the extent of the city’s collection of specialised ceramics – generally regarded as the best in the world. August the Strong’s passion for ceramics resulted in an amazing collection of porcelain and stoneware, particularly from China and Japan. and the displays here certainly set them off to best effect.
A trip on the tram and a quick browse through Inner Alsadt is, I’m afraid, all I have time for. The Frauenkirche, Semperoper opera house, Residenzschloss and the little shops of the Kunsthofpassage, will be first on the list for my next visit.
i) everything travel-wise went like clockwork: message to self; perhaps booking at the last minute clears the mind and is the way to go in future
ii) the train journeys were all on time and generally relaxing, although very crowded at times. My idea of taking two bags of reasonable weight, rather than one heavy case, did ensure I could lift them on overhead racks, but they were difficult to transport when walking any distance
iii) the ferry is the weak link on this type of journey for the reasons above. The new Eurostar direct service to Amsterdam and the Caledonian Sleeper upgrade next year look to be better options and an overnight in London/Brussels/Amsterdam as economic as the ferry, given DFDS’s ‘hidden’ extras.
Ultimate highlight? a dead heat between the cycle tour, Dresden and the Reichstag Dome.
All in all, this was one of the best trips of recent years and an ideal rehearsal, all being well, for 2018’s planned piece de resistance; The Stuff Brexit, Grand Euro Tour.
It had been a while, and the combination of time, slight loss of confidence, some level of fitness, a major house move and a myriad of other everyday impediments had all conspired, in varying degrees, against the organisation, determination and initiative required to put together a bike tour holiday.
The days of plotting routes, throwing a change of clothes, some waterproofs and a couple of spare tubes into my Orliebs, locking the front door and cycling off somewhere scenic seemed a long way in the past. But still, the longing for that freedom, the opportunity to travel much further than possible on foot but still experience the immediacy of scenery, flora and fauna and culture in a close and flexible way still lingered.
And so, after a hectic weekend of coordinating onward and return travel, I signed up for the last place on Europe-Bike-Tours’ (EBT) final trip of the season from Prague to Dresden. Although very much a last minute decision and, even without too much scrutiny of the itinerary, this tour ticked all my boxes.
Prague and Dresden were two cities I had always wanted to visit; their Baroque splendour and influence throughout Central European history particular fascinations. In addition, they could easily be incorporated into my favourite type of European long-distance rail trip, providing the opportunity to stop off in Amsterdam and Berlin en route. And, with the clock rapidly ticking down to the removal of my treasured EU passport in 2019, it made sense to visit now, before the UK retreats into its self-imposed exile and travel restrictions are tightened.
Perhaps, most importantly, this was a guided tour; so, I wouldn’t get lost, I wouldn’t need to carry all my stuff, I wouldn’t have to struggle with oily fingers and five tyre levers if I got a puncture and I wouldn’t need to worry about where I could eat, or stay. What not to like?
Having booked through a specialist outdoor tour company in the UK, I had never heard of EBT and had no idea what to expect. I needn’t have worried – although I do have to admit to a first night of slight anxiety, having received the details for the self-guided tour and no indication when I would be collected in the morning, but it was resolved quickly next day, without mishap, other than a missed breakfast! – the hire bike fitted perfectly, the luggage transfers operated like clockwork, with the back-up van always in proximity, not just in case of mechanical breakdowns, but also as a very welcome provider of fruit, water and chocolate throughout the day.
But our guides, Lukas and Vitek, were undoubtedly the piece de resistance: multi-lingual experienced cyclists, well-informed, charming, endlessly patient and positive, both possessed a diverse and impressive skill-set that ensured the tour ran efficiently, safely and provided constant points of interest. But, equally importantly, their good humour, wide range of interests and engaging personalities enabled a diverse range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds to enjoy a very agreeable week off, as well as on, the bikes.
This tour linked two fascinating, vibrant cities with a route meandering along the Labe/Elbe, one of the great waterways of Europe, through some diverse and, at times spectacular, scenery.
But, although Prague, Dresden and the attractive border area of Czech/Saxon Switzerland, are established tourist areas, the start of the tour, to the north of Prague, passed through a region rarely visited by foreign tourists. One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was to wander around the small towns of Melnik, Litomerice and Decin, noting their impressive architecture and the changes that had taken place in recent years.
The Labe/Elbe has throughout history witnessed the constant migration of people and goods. Its strategic importance has also inevitably meant this region has suffered more from most in the turbulent history of Central Europe. The detour to Terezin, originally a Hapsburg fortress that became a Nazi holding camp for Jews en route to concentration camps during World War Two, provided perspective and a tragic and recent reminder; the many castles perched on the rocky outcrops high above the valley another legacy of the region’s tempestuous past.
The cycle route itself was to die for. Used to everyday cycling in one of Britain’s biggest cities, where dedicated bike lanes are few and often misused, where the holes in the road are as dangerous as the traffic and where you often feel every other road user is out to kill you, the long, flat, smooth, traffic-free stretches of tarmac path were heaven indeed.
As was the peace and serenity and the chance to glimpse a bird or squirrel and enjoy the subtle colours of early autumn. Berries and fruits were in abundance in the hedgerows, ripe and ready for jam/wine makers and birds alike.
Cyclists, like armies, depend on their stomachs and, on this tour, we were exceptionally well catered for. Both the lunch cafes and evening restaurants provided a range of local cuisine, and with meals in a chateau, brewery and the ride through two of the most renowned beer countries in the world, any thirst generated during the day was more than satisfied.
A few other personal highlights included: my room in the chateau, the ‘green’ ferry across the river, the walk up to Pravcicka Gate on the way to Bad Schandau, the market square in Pirna, beloved by Canaletto, and gaining my first glimpse of Dresden. the “Florence of the Elbe’, cycling along the banks and meadows of the river that has defined the city.
But above all, the trip reminded me why I love cycle touring, particularly this type of cycle touring, where everything else is taken care of and all I have to do is get on my bike and ride along excellent – preferably flat! – cycle paths to the next absorbing destination.
Many thanks to: Andy at Freedom Treks in Brighton who organised things in the UK; Vitek and Lukas for being such wonderful hosts and, finally, to all the other members of the group from various continents for being kind, supportive, interesting, great company and such fun.
It’s Merchant City Festival time again, and included in this year’s programme is the opportunity to visit Greyfriars Garden. This wonderful little green space, almost within touching distance of George Square, is a fabulous advertisement for the value – both aesthetically and horticulturally – of urban gardens, as well as to the skill of the gardeners themselves.
Located on Shuttle Street, almost across from High Street station, the garden is circled by the tower blocks of Strathclyde University, as well as the profusion of student residences that have sprung up in recent years in this part of the city.
The site was originally that of a medieval friary. The Greyfriars who lived here were Franciscan monks, known for their care of the poor and the sick and, appropriately, renowned for their orchard and vegetables.
Medieval Glasgow was an important religious and educational centre and the Greyfriars were also responsible for establishing the city’s first hospital, across the road from the present day Royal Infirmary. Sadly, the friary was ransacked during the Reformation and one of the friars reputedly burnt at the stake.
Today, the garden consists of 42 small raised bed allotments, constructed from recycled materials and containing a wide variety of vegetables, fruit and pollen-rich flowers.
Membership is open to residents of nearby Merchant City, Trongate, Ladywell and High Street north. It costs £10 per year and, unsurprisingly, there is a waiting list. The garden was established in 2012 and is a stalled (temporary) space, so its future is uncertain.
If you have the chance, please visit. The Greyfriars Garden Association hosts various other open days during the year and is happy to arrange other visits.
Contact them at: email@example.com
Spring – calendar, if not temperature-wise – a three week window between other commitments and a train journey to north west Europe, so no excuse not to have a city break, or three.
I was on my way to Denmark to visit friends in southern Jutland and had already organised a few days in Copenhagen in the middle of my break. But, as I was travelling there by train, via Cologne and Hamburg, the opportunity to visit these two cities was too good to miss.
First city; Cologne.
Using Eurostar and Deutsch Bahn’s wonderful ICE high-speed trains, you can be in Cologne a little over five hours after leaving London (and this includes connection time in Brussels). Have a look at By Train to Denmark for full details.
Emerging from the station the majestic edifice of Cologne’s thirteenth century cathedral dominated the skyline every bit as much as I remembered from my only previous visit many years before; the massive scale of the building perhaps best demonstrated by the dark shadow its 157m spire threw across the entire Bahnhofvorplatz on what was a very bright spring afternoon.
This Gothic masterpiece was the major reason for my return visit to the city, but that treat was for tomorrow. For the moment, I headed for my hotel, the CityClass Residence am Dom, an easy ten minute stroll from the station.
Pleasant, helpful staff, an uncomplicated check-in and great city view from my window, left a positive first impression of the Cologne and its people. As it was a pleasant late afternoon and I had been travelling for several hours, I wasted little time in taking a walk round the city to make the most of the remaining hours of daylight.
Cologne is an impressive retail centre, with many department chains and specialist stores, but I headed for a rather more specialised and bizarre shopping destination; the Scotia Spirit Whisky shop. Yes, I’m aware of the irony, but buying whisky in Germany, en route from Scotland to Denmark, is not quite so strange once the benefits of not having to carry the bottle as far and, the lower cost and greater selection – particularly compared to the paltry choice and high prices on offer at Eurostar’s terminal – are taken into account.
I’m not a whisky drinker, but I was seriously impressed with the display and the staff expertise. My visit to Scotia Spirit was equally memorable for an extended and interesting conversation on the UK’s (then) forthcoming referendum on EU membership. It also confirmed how much more the average European knows about the UK, than we do about them (or, indeed ourselves) and, in retrospect, how utterly tragic that the general goodwill on the continent towards this country has been so shattered by a decision based on unfounded hysteria and untruths.
Next morning, my only full day in Cologne, there was only one destination. In the late nineteenth century it was the tallest building in the world; it’s still the largest Gothic church in Germany and the tallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world, so there are more than a few reasons to visit Cologne Cathedral. My first port of call was the ticket office to gain entry to the spire. 532 steps later, the view over the city and Rhine, was, as expected, spectacular, but also confirmed the strategic importance of the cathedral.
On the descent there was time to inspect the huge bells that ring out over the city. These massive castings again give a wonderful insight into the scale of the cathedral while the stained glass windows in the body of the cathedral are simply breathtaking. The grainy photograph of the twin spires, in the midst of a devastated landscape, remains an indelible image of the destruction of World War Two. Visiting churches and cathedrals is my default position on short city breaks, not for any religious reason, but as an ideal way of gaining a historical insight into the area and its people.
I couldn’t leave the city without buying an item almost as firmly associated with Cologne as the cathedral: its eponymous perfume. Although heavily commercialised, its inimitable scent and characteristic gold and turquoise bottle always remind me of teenage days and my first proper perfume.
The lure of the cathedral will always draw me back to Cologne, but this attractive, confident city has much else to offer, particularly as an easy-to-reach destination by train, as well as an ideal starting point for further travels in Germany.
Next city; Copenhagen.
I travelled there after a week with friends in southern Jutland. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of spring sunshine and I arrived in the city in the midst of a blizzard; inclement conditions that were to last for the duration of my stay. But, the few windows of intense, freezing sunlight were ideal for some vivid pictures of the lively colours of Nyhavn waterfront.
Good advice from my friends led me to the Hotel Bethel a former sailors’ hostel overlooking the canal and the characteristic 17th century merchants’ houses along the harbour. Efficient, helpful, welcoming and reasonably priced by Copenhagen standards, it proved an ideal location in the midst of the bars and restaurants of Nyhavn, yet only a few minutes walk from the city centre.
Nyhavn itself, proved an immediate and obvious attraction. The waterfront along the canal, dating from the reign of Christian V in the 1670s, was originally constructed to link the old inner city at Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square) with the sea. Subsequently, it became better known for sailors, beer and prostitution. Interestingly, its most famous resident was Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in Nyhavn for 18 years.
As canal transport declined, the area fell into disrepair, but has been revitalised over the last 40 years since it was designated as a veteran ship and museum harbour. The stretch of canal between Nyhavn Bridge and Kong’s Nytorv is lined with old ships and this, along with numerous eating and drinking establishments, now attracts thousands of tourists.
The bars and restaurants tend to be quite commercialised and very crowded, so choose your venue carefully if you want to eat/drink here. Although it was bitterly cold, there were still loads of al fresco diners: the provision of blankets (common across Denmark) no doubt a godsend, but still not enough of an incentive for me to brave the elements.
Next day a relentless blizzard thwarted my ‘free’ city bus tour – technically the top of the bus may have been covered, but the tarpaulin did nothing to combat the cold and the visibility was zilch. So, where better to take refuge than in a museum? The National Museum of Denmark, centrally located, warm, with exhibits ranging from Viking artefacts to a hash stall from Christiana, ticked all the boxes. An additional attraction was undoubtedly the stylish museum shop, although prices of the designer knitwear were a little outwith my budget.
As with any good national museum, the collections are too extensive to be fully appreciated in one visit. Do your homework first and be selective with what you prioritise as a must-see, particularly if there are any temporary exhibitions on display. Sadly, since my visit, this has become even more advisable as the government has now levied an admission charge, here and at the National Gallery. Coming from a city with an extensive array of museums and galleries, almost all of which are free, I find it regrettable when other places charge for national collections.
Cold, wet days call for three things: excellent coffee, comfortable sofas and dependable WiFi and, happily, the slushy trudge to Risteriet in Copenhagen’s Inner Vesterbro didn’t disappoint. Until then, I had found the standard of coffee in Denmark, with a couple of notable exceptions, something of a let down, but this rich, creamy flat white hit the spot, the staff were unobtrusively knowledgable and the reassuringly shabby sofas ideal for a warm, comfortable, quiet half hour.
Although the weather was not conducive to sightseeing on foot, Risteriet is situated on the edge of one of Copenhagen’s coolest destinations, Kodbyen; literally translated as ‘Meat City’. Denmark has never been short of butchers, but as with London’s Smithfield Market and Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, in the last decade the Danish capital has seen the fusion of butchery with hipsters, trendy bars and restaurants, avant-garde galleries and cutting-edge hairdressers. With a fixed 24/7 modus operandi and some reasonably-priced (for Copenhagen) eating and drinking establishments, it’s well worth a stroll – at any time of day or night.
Kodbyen is only a few minutes walk back to the city centre, so what better way to spend the remnants of a dreich afternoon than in a knitting shop; yes, a proper yarn shop, complete with shelves of wool, needles, patterns and helpful, expert staff. If Scandi-mania has inspired you to get knitting, then make sure Sommerflugen is on your itinerary
Usually I have a theme for my city visits – this one was to visit iconic churches for their historical insight and then climb their spires for the view – and, although the weather had been an impediment, I was able to fit in a quick look round Copenhagen’s most visually intriguing church on my last morning.
The remarkable twisted spire of the Church of Our Saviour in the Christianshavn district, is visible across Copenhagen. Despite dire warnings that it was not for the faint hearted, I was determined to climb the exterior steps to the dome and a window of watery sunshine next morning gave me the opportunity.
Dating from the 1680s, this rare Baroque Danish church took 16 years to build, particularly as its foundations lie on a filled-in sea bed. The precise design of the interior deserved more time to admire, but it was the magnificent 17th organ, the oldest in Denmark, that took my eye. Miraculously, it survived the many city fires of the 18th century, as well as the British bombardment of 1807 and it is incredible to realise the pipes that are still used in all services and performances in the church, date from over 300 years ago.
The unique spire was not completed until 1752 and rises to 90 metres above the floor of the church. Of the 400 steps, the last 150 wind their way around the outside of the spire. At the top, I touched the golden globe (considered a test of manhood!) and was grateful that, although it can apparently house 12 adults, this morning there were only two of us. On the descent I spent a few minutes admiring another treasure of Our Saviour’s; the amazing 48-bell carillon. If you happen to be in the city at 4pm on a Saturday, listen out for the weekly rendition of the bells.
Ever since I received a childhood postcard of the Little Mermaid, I have wanted to visit Copenhagen. Unfortunately the statue, while not an unexpected disappointment, didn’t exactly blow me away. The weather could have been better but, coming from Scotland, you learn not to let the elements, however inclement, spoil your travels.
Copenhagen Free Walking Tours promised much, but delivered little. Having tour guide experience myself, I appreciate the demands, but after 90 minutes of best bar recommendations and irritating Aussie Pom-bashing, I was too bored to bother with the second half of the walk. In retrospect, the experience confirmed the old maxims that there’s no such thing as a free lunch and you get what you pay for.
But those minor irritations in no way detracted from my positive impressions of the city. As a cycle freak, despite the snow, I stood in awe and envy as the mass hordes of two-wheeled commuters swept through the city at rush hour, and as a admirer of Scandinavian design, food, knitting, hygge, I was in my own special Nirvana.
Final city: Hamburg.
Travelling here from southern Jutland resembled a living history lesson as we crossed the Kiel Canal and passed through names evocative of the Schleswig-Holstein question in the mid 19th century and several of the other momentous events that led to the unification of Germany.
My hotel, the Europaeischer straight across from the station, could not have been more convenient. With exceptionally well-informed and helpful staff, a good restaurant, small gym and inclusive free city travel for three days, it proved to be the best stay of the trip. Its central location, although slightly edgy in the evenings, provided great access to the city centre, the interesting St Georg area and a wide range of eating and drinking options.
Hamburg has been on my places-to-visit list for a long time. Maritime cities have always fascinated me and Hamburg, the historic ‘gateway to the world’, a cornerstone of the Hanseatic League, with its trading links across the globe is, by any standards, up there with the best. Its uncanny ability to survive and prosper, despite repeated destruction by fire, floods and war also adds to its attraction. Although long before I had little more than a cursory knowledge of European history, I just wanted to see Hamburg because that’s where the Beatles became famous.
Germany’s second largest city and biggest port certainly throws up the quandary of so much to see, so little time, but given my fascination with Hamburg’s maritime past, there was no debate about my first destination next morning: the fabulous Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg (IMMH) Housed in the oldest preserved warehouse in the Hafen district, the collection covers 10 floors and includes 40,000 items and over a million photographs, largely based on the private collection of journalist and publisher, Peter Tamm.
But, you don’t need to be a seafaring type to enjoy the museum. The exhibits include 47 original letters written by Horatio Nelson, over 15,000 cruise ship menus and a 3,000 year old dug out from the River Elbe. There is the requisite cafe and shop (both of rather higher standard than usual heritage offerings) and it does cost – around £10 on my visit, sadly more now given the post-Brexit collapse of the pound. But I spent nearly five hours engrossed in a fascinating, dramatically displayed collection and, if I had a complaint, it would be that even that wasn’t enough time.
It was also a brilliantly sunny afternoon and the kind of fresh, spring temperature conducive to a city wander. And as I stepped out of the museum, the surrounding Speicherstadt (warehouse district) was the ideal place to start. Constructed at the end of the 19th and now with UNESCO World Heritage status, this “City of Warehouses” is the largest warehouse district in the world. The buildings stand on wooden-pile foundations and, although the area is being redeveloped, unusually, it still has many working warehouses, including those trading goods, such as coffee, cocoa, tea and spices, around which this free trade zone originally developed.
On the way back to my hotel I passed the lovely churches of St Katharina and St Petri – both very definitely on my radar for a churches, spires and bells day tomorrow.
Retrospective reading can often be interesting and so it proved with the St Georg district of the city. If I had read, and believed, the lurid warnings about drugs, prostitution, violence and so on, that seem to preface any mention of the area, I doubt I would have ventured out of the hotel at all, let alone at night. But unaware of the its infamous reputation, I went out and wandered around on a cool and light evening. A tasty snack in an efficient Middle Eastern fast food outlet, a stroll to the waterside past the grandiose Hotel Atlantic and a beer in the company of some well-informed young Americans, combined to bring an excellent day to a very pleasant end.
A brilliantly sunny final day provided the ideal conditions to conclude my theme of church visits and spire climbs. In Hamburg, as with everywhere else, the difficulty was selecting a few from the many. Starting with the nearest, Hauptkirche St Petri (St Peter’s Church) is built on the site of several previous cathedrals. Its bronze lion-head door handles are the oldest works of art in the city and, last but not least, its 132m tower afforded wonderful views of the city, its river and canals on a crystal clear morning.
Its near neighbour St Katharina’s (St Catherine’s) is another of the five principal Lutheran churches (Hauptkirchen) of the city. I was particularly keen to see the base of its 13th spire as it is the second oldest preserved building in Hamburg. St Catherine’s traditionally served as the church of the seamen of Hamburg and, although the spire was closed for repairs, the highlight of the visit was seeing its marvellous restored organ – the original, which survived until the bombing of WW2, dated from the 15th century and JS Bach was one of the famous musicians who performed on it.
On then to St Michaelis (St Michael’s) via a much-too-brief at the stunning Neo-Renaissance town hall, the Rathaus (definitely on the list for a longer, future visit). Known colloquially as Michel, St Michael’s is regarded as the most famous church in Hamburg. One of the finest of all Hanseatic Baroque churches, it is unusual as it was purpose built as a Protestant church. A similar height to St Peter’s, its 132m high copper-covered spire has long been a dominant feature of the Hamburg skyline, as well as a landfall mark for ships sailing up the Elbe. And, apropos nothing, I did climb all the way to the top and walked back down, forgoing the lift.
Located in a secluded corner of the 17th century Neustadt district, St Michael’s is just round the corner from Elbe Park. A now warm and sunny late afternoon and the chance to see the Bismarck Memorial at close quarters put paid to the original plan of visiting what was once, also (albeit very briefly) the tallest building in the world, the tower of St Nikolia (St Nicholas’) Church. But St Peter’s, St Catherine’s and St Michael’s had provided a compelling insight into the importance of the Lutheran church, as well as the style of Hamburg’s ecclesiastical architecture; and of course, a useful cardio-vascular workout.
Hamburg, as Germany’s second largest city, is another first-class shopping centre. Until now, I had confined myself to some limited window shopping, but I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of outdoor gear shops in the city centre: and not just small specialist retailers, but huge sports department stores with separate floors devoted to running, hiking, aerobics, cycling and just about everything in between.
I’m something of a Germanophile when it comes to footwear, so the opportunity to buy a pair of leather-lined Meindl multi-activity boots, unavailable in the UK, was too good to miss. The attractive, helpful, multi-lingual young men who served me were also happy to dispose of my trusty, old, scuffed pair.
I set off from the Hauptbahnhof next morning, determined to return to Hamburg for a future visit: always the ultimate accolade for any destination.
Verdict: already a convert to continental rail travel, I needed little excuse to include some city stop-offs on my way to and from Jutland. As always, the contrast between urban discovery and rural exploration was a highlight of the holiday. All three cities are sophisticated, confident metropoles, with distinctive character and history, plenty of culture, coffee and cycle friendly: definitely my kind of places.
Getting to Denmark by train is a breeze, especially if you are the kind of traveller who makes the journey as much a part of your holiday as the destination. In addition, it provides an ideal excuse for a couple of city stop-offs en route. And, you don’t need to live in or around London to consider it; although I live over 400 miles away, I made this into an advantage as it gave me the excuse to recreate one of my favourite childhood experiences and journey to and from the capital by sleeper.
As with any proposed European rail journey, make your first port of call Mark Smith’s indispensable Seat61 Here you’ll find all you need to know, and more, on routes, fares, tickets, connections, as well as a wealth of additional information on major locations.
Loco2 sells tickets for destinations across Europe. You can book online, or by phone. Finalising my dates in late February for a departure in late April and return in early May, gave me just enough time to take advantage of cheaper advance fares. Although this is not always ideal and does conspire against last minute decisions, many European rail providers now work on the same basis as those in Britain and offer bargain fares when the ticketing window opens, usually three months before date of departure. This, of course, is also how most airline ticketing operates.
Step 1: Getting to London
As international rail travel from the UK begins and ends with Eurostar, your initial journey will be to St Pancras International, or Ebbsfleet/Ashford if you live in the south east.
But if you don’t, no problem. A little-known option is to buy a ticket direct from your local station that covers your entire journey through to Paris, Brussels, and other major destinations in the Netherlands and western Europe.
You can, of course, by-pass London and Eurostar completely and travel to the continent by ferry.
Although, sadly, European sleeper trains have been cut back recently, in the UK overnight services still operate between London and five destinations in Scotland, six nights a week. Now living near Glasgow, I jumped at the chance to travel once again on a journey I remember fondly from my childhood.
The Caledonian Sleeper service is now operated by a new franchise and, hopefully, the upgraded rolling stock promised for 2018 will improve the current fittings, which, although clean, are rather dated and shabby in places. However, both my outward and return journeys were quiet, comfortable, on time with attentive and helpful staff.
The big advantage of taking the sleeper – apart from its environmental and romantic attractions (think Robert Donat in the original 1935 version of the 39 Steps ) – is the flexibility it affords in travelling while asleep, leaving late evening and arriving fresh and relaxed early morning.
It also does not necessarily need to be expensive. I travelled alone and did not want to share a compartment. Even so, booking in advance, I secured tickets for around £80 each way. Given that single compartments are first class and, the fare also includes overnight accommodation, this did not seem at all excessive.
If you travel as a couple, or a family, or in a group, fares can be much cheaper – and great fun for children.
I chose to leave London around 11am, arriving Brussels in less than two hours, as it was the most convenient and affordable service for me. There are several other options
Arriving Brussels Midi just after 14.00, my connection left 20 minutes later. This was potentially the only stressful element of the journey because of security restrictions at Midi, but using Mark Smith’s useful advice there was no problem.
Step 3: Brussels to Cologne
Travelling first class in a state-of-the-art ICE train in less than two hours, was one of the highlights of my holiday.
Sitting comfortably at a spacious seat, with table service for meals and refreshments as we sped through pleasant countryside at about 180 mph, what was not to like?
I chose to spend a couple of nights in Cologne before continuing to Hamburg, but it is perfectly possible to reach Hamburg just after 21.00 the same evening.
There is plenty of choice as frequent trains run between the two cities. However, study timetables carefully as some trains are much quicker than others. Most are InterCity but some are the faster and better-equipped ICEs.
Hamburg and Cologne are both ideal destinations for a city break. Read about my visits to both cities on my outward and return journeys.
Step 5: Hamburg into Denmark:
From Hamburg you have several options, depending on where in Denmark you are heading to.
The most exciting option is to take the Danish IC3 train where the train itself actually goes into a ferry to cross from Germany into Denmark.
As I was heading for Jutland I changed at Flensburg (just before the border), travelled on to Kolding, before taking a regional train to Ribe .
More details of connections through southern Jutland are here.
There are plenty of options, so check timetables carefully.
Trains on these services also serve Aarhus (European Capital of Culture 2017), Odense (birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen) and Legoland.
So, getting to Denmark by train is easy, can be very affordable and is probably a great deal quicker than you imagine. Like all long distance rail travel, it is way more environmentally friendly than flying. But for me, the raison d’être of travelling by train is that it is far more interesting, makes the journey an integral part of the holiday and is an ideal way to incorporate some city/regional stop-offs en route.
So, just back from another wonderful week at Kokopelli combined with a few days either side in some of Italy’s most iconic cities.
For me, the best way to get to Kokopelli (or virtually anywhere else in Europe) is by train. There are several reasons for this but, essentially, by taking the train you can make the journey a positive part of your your holiday . So, instead of enduring the abusive security process, punitive baggage restrictions and the in-your-face travel experience that is flying, you can look forward to a comfortable, relaxed journey aboard some of Europe’s fastest and most technically advanced trains, with spectacular scenery flashing by your window.
Kokopelli is an eco-friendly campsite, run on the principles of self sufficiency and low environmental imprint.Therefore, if you are environmentally conscious and concerned about your carbon footprint, it makes little sense to fly there. According to Travelfootprint London to Rome by air creates 240-350 grams of co2 per passenger km travelled, compared to 50-75 grams by rail.
As most Kokopellites love the outdoors, they will often have equipment like skis, snowshoes, cycles, tents, walking and climbing gear. Unlike aircraft, trains have no baggage restrictions. Eurostar has recently altered its conditions for cycle carriage and now transports bikes, without bike bags, if booked in advance. This is well worth the £30 cost to avoid faffing around adjusting handlebars and pedals, particularly if you are touring with panniers. If you live near St Pancras you can also send your bike on to Paris/Brussels in advance which costs less. Have a look at Eurostar’s bicycle carriage and information about taking bikes on trains throughout Europe.
Kokopelli is situated roughly in the middle of Italy, so going by train means you can combine your trip with some city visits: Turin, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Florence, Naples; the choice is yours.
The train can also be much cheaper, particularly if journeying overnight: if travelling as a family or in a group, prices in couchettes can be as low as around £30 per person. And remember, an overnight fare includes your accommodation. You also waste less time as you are travelling when you are normally asleep and kids invariably love sleeping on a train!
But the best reason for travelling by train is simply that it is better. Instead of detracting from your holiday experience, it adds to it. Rather than wasting time in soulless, indistinguishable airport terminals, you get to experience life in other countries as well as the chance to engage with people.
On one journey the Italian family at the same table “forbade” me to go to the buffet and insisted I share their lunch of bread, mozzarella, tomatoes, prosciutto and local wine: something of a contrast with your typical Ryanair experience.
So, how do I organise train travel to Kokopelli? Well, the good news is that it is actually ridiculously easy; you do not need to move from your computer screen, there are no concealed extra charges and planning the journey can be an exciting way to involve all members of the family/group.
1. Make sure you consult Mark Smith’s indispensable SEAT61 as this gives every possible source of advice on routes, destinations, booking tickets and just about everything else.
2. The nearest major station to Kokpelli is Pescara – liaise with Jacqui and Kevin about transfers etc – so look at the information on how to travel there. But you may want to combine your trip with visits to other places in Italy, so look at all the options here.
3. Decide if you want to travel during the day or overnight: if I’m travelling on my own I tend to go during the day as individual sleeping accommodation is only available in first class and because I enjoy the trip though the Alps. But, if travelling as a family/group and if time is at a premium, overnight can be the better option.
4. I book tickets in three stages: direct with EUROSTAR for London to Paris, with RAIL EUROPE for Paris to Turin/Milan and ITALIA RAIL or TRENITALIA for any other journeys within Italy. Booking just under two months in advance I paid £69 return on Eurostar; £116 first class Paris-Turin return and the most expensive of my five first class tickets across Italy cost €29 for a three hour journey from Pescara to Bologna. Often the best deal was the first class offer.
5.If you have a currency card, such as CAXTON FX use it to pay for the tickets billed in euros and you won’t attract any conversion charges.
6. You will have to change stations in Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. The easiest way to do this is by metro, using the green D RER line. Tickets cost €1.70 at the time of writing, so make sure you have some loose euros and cents, although the machines do give change. Eurostar information desks sell books of metro tickets and provide maps of Paris. The metro is easy to use; just follow the signs and use the destination information to check you’re going in the right direction. There is only one stop, Chatelet les Halles, between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon.
Finally, on French and Italian long distance trains the standard of on board accommodation is generally excellent. However, despite commodious luggage racks at the end of each carriage (Virgin take note) Italian and French travellers seem to prefer to lug their cases to their seats! Do make sure your luggage is clearly labelled as French police boarded the train at the border to check this on my return journey.
Bon voyage; buon viaggio!; enjoy the journey, it’s part of your holiday.
Postscript: arrived back safely last night, having left Milan at 6am. Journey went like clockwork – TGV was actually held up at one point on the Italian border, but made up so much time it arrived at Gare de Lyon seven minutes early – only downside was last lap home from Euston to Lichfield Trent Valley. The concourse was packed, as was the train, with many passengers without seats and only their good humour and the diplomacy and good sense of the train manager avoided any serious incident. Arriving at my destination, a busy stop on West Coast Main Line, is like stepping out into the third world: there is no lift over the line, the station was closed (London Midland deem it unnecessary to man the premises after 7pm) and those of us having to wait for lifts/taxis got soaked as there is no shelter.
The joys of UK’s privatised rail network; and to think these train operating companies take millions of our tax money every year, but that’s another story….
Even the grey, raw dawn didn’t detract from the splendour of St Pancras as I dragged my damp baggage out of the Euston Road drizzle sometime before five am. Despite the early hour, it was clear Eurostar’s “cheap” deals were proving popular as the terminal was busy and the queue for the the only coffee outlet already snaked into the departure lounge. However, Cafe Nero’s young baristars coped resolutely and the short wait enabled me to strike up a conversation with the guy in the tiger suit (who everyone else was staring at, but wouldn’t talk to) cycling to Andalucia for MacMillan Cancer Support – hi Cathal, hope it went well. You can read more about his challenge here
Although it seemed difficult to believe, this was my first Euro tour for nearly three years; injury and the increasingly pernicious demands of a depressing day job interfering with my travel plans in the interim. This time, I had chosen to travel during the day, in order to enjoy the scenery, heading initially to Turin, before eventually stepping out into a warm Florentine evening with the Renaissance facade of Santa Maria Novella straight in front of me.
Thursday May 10 2012:
Florence: the city that first took my breath away as a 16 year old and now, still as beautiful, but inevitably, even more crowded than I remember it. The Albergo Duilio hotel is interesting in a quirky kind of way – a traditional building, small, but very clean, with a clever, en suite wet room, in an almost perfect location within walking distance of city, but away from crowds and, in Vincenzo, an extremely hospitable and helpful host. It also provides an ideal Italian breakfast: a voucher for coffee and pastry at the cafe across the road, the Cafe Communarde.
So, I start my first day in Italy proper with a velvety cappuccino, standing at the bar alongside some tasty Italian airline crew. Suitably invigorated, I cross the road to the Arno and stroll along towards the Ponte Vecchio.
Even at 10 am it’s packed and, after a quick wander across to take in the views, I head back and up towards the Uffizi to sniff around the plethora of tours available. Deciding to trust my own (fading) knowledge of Renaissance art later on, I head into the Piazza della Signoria and marvel at the statues – yes I know this David is a copy, but Neptune and Perseus are awesome and the Rape of the Sabine Women finally persuades me my hopeless school Latin wasn’t totally in vain.
One of Florence’s key attractions is its compact centre and, after securing a late afternoon slot at the Uffizi from the booth at Orsanmichele (no queuing and no additional charges) I head up past the Cathedral and stop for a few moment to look at the Duomo and Baptistry.
It’s difficult to keep a space even for a few minutes, but Brunelleschi’s masterpieces retain their magic, even after five centuries.
On a hot, sunny day, the next logical stop is the marvellous Mercato Centrale, whose stalls groan under the weight of cheese, ham and plump fresh vegetables. To get there, however, I have to negotiate the street stalls with their equally tempting array of leather goods and scarves, but fortunately I’m hungry, so for now anyway, I avoid the lure of a gorgeous Gladstone bag and follow my stomach to the food market.
After an afternoon nap, I’m back at the Uffizi for five pm. It’s busy, but not oppressively so and, although it’s difficult to secure an unrestricted view of Primavera, or the Birth of Venus, it’s empty enough in the early rooms to see the works of the Lippi family and and also, later on, to compare the Italian masters with the more realist school of Northern Europe.
There’s never any a definitive length of time you should spend in a gallery, but an hour and a half seems about right: just enough to take in the depth of art treasure on show, but not too much to be overwhelmed.
All these marvels have made me hungry, again, so it’s back over the Ponte Vecchio in search of some sustenance. Found my way to Il Rifrullo busy, but not with tourists and aperitivo buffet (€7 with drink) so good I doubt I’ll need any dinner.
From here it’s a short hop to Piazzale Michelangelo: where else to watch the sun setting over Florence and the Arno?
Friday May 11 2012:
The day starts well: another excellent coffee and more interesting airline guys. I try out a dummy run to the station in advance of tomorrow’s early start, waylaid en route, by a visit to the city’s English bookshop. More seriously, I find myself drawn back to the street market and, in particular, the leather stalls. I can be very persuasive when I want to convince myself I really need something, so force myself back on track to today’s first port of call –
This is my first visit and I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon enthralled by the masterpieces adorning this Dominican church. Masaccio’s fresco of The Trinity, Giotto’s Crucifix, Filippino Lippi’s frescoes for the Capella di Filippo Strozzi, before you even reach Ghirlandaio’s altar. A few more steps, another masterpiece: in some ways this is the highlight of revisiting Florence and the experience is marred only by a handful of brash American women taking photographs when specifically instructed not to do so.
A late lunch, a further selection of sumptuous leather bags and another plausible salesman – it would make more sense to wait until the final day of the holiday, but will they have these bags in Turin? – followed by a couple of hours reading in the shade.
Five pm and it’s cooled sufficiently for me to head back to the Campanile.
I still have a tiny instamatic print of the rooftops of Florence, taken on my school trip, its faded colours looking almost naive in today’s digital age. Today, the vistas taking in the domes and towers of the city, the Arno and its bridges and the surrounding Tuscan hills, are still stunning, their unique shades highlighted by the lowering sun.
This evening’s photos are sharper, but also the final confirmation I need another memento of Florence’s beauty to remember this visit. So, back to the leather stalls, momentarily panic when I can’t find the one I want, out with the credit card and then collapse into nearest bar, racked with guilt and the frightening realisation I have already spent the equivalent of Italy’s national debt on a leather bag.
However, every cloud and all that because, despite its dowdy decor and basic furniture, this place does a mean glass of rosario, the buffet is equally good and, it’s 1€ less than last night. Unfortunately, in my initial hysteria, I completely forgot to memorise the name of the bar.
Saturday May 12 2012:
All too soon, my two days in Florence have come to an end and, just after 7.30 am, I thank Vincenzo for his hospitality, grab a quick coffee – clearly too early for the pilots today – and head for the station.
After my first visit I vowed I’d come back. Now, I mean to return again, maybe in the winter, maybe as part of a wider tour of Tuscany and its hills and towns. But, I will come back. Florence has that effect on me.
The train is routinely packed, but comfortable and on time. The trains also provide excellent storage space for large items of baggage at the end of each carriage – Virgin Trains, take note. Despite this, most of the Italian passengers seem intent on keeping their luggage, no matter how large or heavy, right beside them on their seats!
Rome: a city I’ve always wanted to visit but, until now, never quite arrived at. Termini station is log-jammed, but despite the crowds, the information booths are well-staffed and helpful and I’m soon making a (lengthy) walk to a peripheral platform for my first taste of Rome’s suburban transport system. And, it doesn’t disappoint: 1€ fare, fast trains with adequate space every 15 minutes, what’s not to like?
I emerge out of Trastevere station to chaotic arterial traffic and a burning sun. Fortunately, the Hotel Roma Trastevere is only a few metres along the Viale di Trastevere and I’m able to park my expanding baggage until check in. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for a map, so spend a rather pointless three hours mooching about in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. However, a tiny Arab cafe provides good coffee and an enormous sandwich and the views from the hill behind the main street open up right across the city, heightening my anticipation of what is to come.
This hotel is, in direct contrast to the Albergo Duilio, modern andrather soulless in its public areas. However, the bedrooms are roomy, with a small balcony and the exquisitely tiled en suite the kind of facility you look forward to in a decent hotel. And, it supplies a readable map.
So, after a short rest and shower and, armed with said map, I set off to investigate Trastevere after dusk. Quickly realise that if I had wandered a further few hundred metres earlier on, my lunchtime options would have included a cafe, bar or restaurant at every corner along the Via San Francesco. But at least it ensures I intend to make the most of Trastevere, now I’ve actually found it.
The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is thronged with families, tourists, street artists and people of all ages enjoying the balmy evening. It’s animpressive church, thought to be the first place of Christian worship in Rome and I nip in quietly, trying not to disturb the on-going Mass. Mosaics of saints and a series of panels by Cavallini are stunning and well-worth a future visit for a closer look.
From the piazza it’s a short hop to Via Moro 15-16 and the divine La Renella. Considered by many to be the best bakery in Rome, its wood-fired ovens produce a delectable range of pizza al taglio, focaccio and biscuits that attract a most diverse range of customers; people waiting for a bus, priests, workers from nearby shops and well-dressed couples on their way for a night out in the city. Take your slice of pizza with you, or eat it at the long bench along the width of the bakery. It’s not salubrious, but at less than €2 for a delicious portion of pizza ai funghi, with mozzarella and pomodoro, I’m not complaining.
Originally the artisan area of Rome,Trastevere’a narrow streets, closeted squares, trattorias, cafes, bars and night clubs are now some of the most popular areas of the city, for residents and tourists alike. Even past nine pm, it’s still possible to browse a bookshop, or look round a boutique between sipping a cocktail and enjoying some traditional and (for Rome) reasonably- priced cooking in traditional and unpretentious restaurants.
Sunday May 13 2012:
Benefitting from a comfortable and uninterrupted night’s sleep, I’m up and about early, determined to make the most of my only full day in Rome. The hotel breakfast (usual unappetising stuff at an extra €6) is easily resisted, so I grab a decent enough cappuccino and pastry at the bar next door, before catching the No8 tram into the city.
In less than 10 minutes, I’m stepping off the tram in Largo di Torre Argentina. My plan is to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, check out the best coffee and also take in a few of the beautiful, small churches in the Centro Storico before it gets too hot and crowded. It’s hardly ambitious, but I’m not going to see all that Rome has to offer in a day and, part of the thrill of visiting the Eternal City, is to discover the wonders of the little, unheralded churches found on almost every corner of the city centre.
The Pantheon doesn’t disappoint and, standing for a few moments to appreciate this magnificent building, it is impossible not to wonder how it continues to stay up, without any apparent arches and vaults.
It’s not yet crowded, but busy enough to share the view of Raphael’s tomb:
“Living, great nature feared he might out vie Her works, and dying, fears herself may die.”
Pieto Bembo’s inscription sums up, not just the impact of the great artist, but of the Pantheon itself.
I want to savour the memory of the Pantheon before it merges with the other sights I hope to see, so head east along to the Plazza San Eustachio to try out what is generally regarded as the best coffee in the city, at its eponymous cafe.
This tiny shop, selling all things coffee on one side, with a bar on the other was already crowded with locals and other tourists. Quickly learning the etiquette, I’m rewarded with the best creamy cappuccino I’ve ever tasted. It’s so good I almost order another, but promise myself that abstinence now will be rewarded later with a chance to sample their macchiatos.
Suitably rejuvenated, I walk back towards the Piazza Navona and, although the square is already filling with people,
the magnificent Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi still draws my eye and I’m hard pressed to drag myself away from Bernini’s magical fountain celebrating the four great rivers of the world.
It now hits me (better late than never, I suppose) that trying to visit churches on a Sunday morning is not my greatest-ever idea, given that I don’t intend to participate in Mass and, after a disappointing stop at La Caffeteria – coffee very good, but pretentious service and silly prices – stroll down Via del Corso past the bizarre Palazzo Venezia and thence along to Arco di Tito.
My next visit will concentrate on Classical Rome, as opposed to the Baroque centre, but today even just looking in on some of the ancient monuments, it is humbling to think of them in a historical context. How appropriate then, that on this sunny Sunday morning in May 2012, the entire length of the Via dei Fori Imperiali is packed full of children playing a mini-football tournament in the shadow of the Colosseum, the most famous arena of all.
Monday May 14 2012:
Pack up my goods and chattels, leave in the luggage room and head back into the city. I start with the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio and wonder around the spacious interior, gazing at the amazing Baroque ceiling showing St Ignatius entering paradise and trying to reconcile that with my understanding of the contribution to humanity of Ignatius and the Jesuits. Ignatius, of course, isn’t actually buried here: he’s in the Gesu church a short stroll away that, conveniently, can be easily reached via San Eustachio cafe.
Decide that, despite the shortages of time, I can’t really leave Rome without at least seeing the Vatican. So, head back to find a bus – not sure which bus, but follow the priests and nuns congregated round the a particular stop and, happily, this piece of inspired logic delivers me safely to St Peter’s Square in under 15 minutes.
Seeing the Sistine Chapel is high on my list of “to-dos”, but that will have to wait for another visit. On this sunny, but fresh morning – ideal for my kind of sightseeing, but the Italians are swaddled in scarves and down jackets – I’m content to wander among the colonnades in Bernini’s best-known piazza, taking in the extent, both of the square, but also the beauty of the Basilica and its dome.
Back in the city, I make a point of seeing the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church and home to a host of art treasures. Filippino Lippi’s fresco of the Assumption in the Carafe chapel takes my breath away and I’m thrilled to stand for a few minutes in front of Michelangelo’s Christ Bearing the Cross.
But, unfortunately, that’s it, my time in Rome is up and it’s off to Tiburtina station to catch the bus to the Abruzzo the next stage of my travels.
I say my goodbyes to Kevin and Jacqui as they drop me at Pescara station – very impressive modern building with good catering outlets and lots of lovely escalators to transport me and my ever-more-heavy bags. The sun’s out and Pescara, which looks almost like a resort on the Cote d’Azure, becomes another destination awaiting a return.
Another comfortable, civilised train journey – just how will I cope with Virgin and London Midland after this? – but the weather worsens as we head north and, by the time we reach Bologne, it’s as grey and dull as November in the Lake District.
Fortunately, the HotelInternazionale/en is well within trolley-bag distance of the station and I’m able to check in immediately.This is the most luxurious of the hotels on my trip, and today its comfortable room and plush ensuite are a welcome treat for my end-of-holiday shabbiness and constantly throbbing ankle.
Bologne is compact and its characteristic porticos are ideal in the afternoon downpours – Glasgow take note – enabling me to wander about fairly aimlessly without getting soaked. I suss out Bottega del Caffe and convince myself that 200g of their speciality coffee won’t make too much difference to my overweight bags. Their chocolate, disappointingly, is less impressive and a macchiato in the cafe is average at best.
Bologna is now considered by some as the foodie capital of Italy, however, this evening I sample the more basic end of its culinary offerings with a visit to Pizzarie Altero, virtually across the Via Indipendenza from the hotel. Ignore the strip lighting and wait your turn in the queue and you will be rewarded with an excellent choice of pizza al taglio (up there competing with Renella) for under €2 a slice.
Bologne’s history as a hot bed of socialism has always intrigued me and its leftish leanings are still evident in the names of many of its streets and squares and any city with Rosa Luxemburg as a bus terminal definitely deserves another visit – a taste of socialism perhaps might be an appropriate theme to sample its culinary and political heritage in the future?
Tuesday May 22 2012:
Another day, another train journey: this time the short hop (90 minutes) to Turin and the end of my tour. Fortunately, the sun is shining and Hotel Dock Milano (not as plush as yesterday and en suite wet room even smaller than in Florence, but perfectly adequate once I get the safe to work) is right across the road from the station.
Usual story of too much to see and far too little time at my disposal, so concentrate on getting a feel for the city and checking out some of the best cafes. Start by grabbing a sandwich and drink and head for the nearest park and, already, pick up on one novel aspect of Turin’s street life: the mobile book cart, stationed at the corner of streets and squares.
I’m soon on my way to Via San Tommaso, to visit its eponymous cafe, reputably the original home of Lavazza. First impressions are heartening – a little bar packed with non-touristy looking people drinking small cups of coffee.
And the verdict? The macchiato from heaven, the very best I’ve ever tasted; honestly. It’s only two pm and I do want to see more of Turin, so, regrettably, I force myself away from San Tommaso without trying its famous bicerin (cappuccino fortified with brandy) vowing to return this evening.
Given its location on the northern borders of Italy, some of Turin’s most famous cafes have more in common with those in central Europe. Indeed, Baratti and Milano and Cafe Mulassano would not look out of place in Vienna or Budapest. But be warned, although the gelato in B&M and coffee in Mulassano were both excellent, the prices you pay for gazing at their marble fittings and Belle Epoque interiors are high and in B&M be prepared to be treated with contempt by some of its more mature staff.
Continuing my sequence of cheap eats, in the evening I dine at Brek An interesting concept, and very popular with workers, families and sole diners, it’s essentially a self-service restaurant where you choose whatever combination whets your taste buds. My generous portions of pasta, salad, bread, fruit salad, bottle of water, 250ml jug of house red and coffee came in at a very reasonable €13.
Wednesday May 23:
The last day of my tour of Italy and, with some sadness, I cross the road to Porta Susa station just after seven am in time to catch the TGV back to Paris.
Travelling to Italy by train is easy, enjoyable and economic, read my tips on how to go about it.
Coffee: can’t quite decide between San Eustachio in Rome and San Tommaso in Turin, so will go for the cappuccino in San Eustachio and the macchiato in San Tomasso
Gelato: has to be the amaretto flavour in Baratii and Milano, Turin, despite the service
Pizza: no competition here: La Renella in Rome
Hotel: toss up between the style and facilities of Hotel Internazionale in Bologne and the hospitality, original building and location of Albergo Duilio in Florence
Overall: probably re-visiting Florence, but Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon comes a close second
And: being able to travel across western Europe and around cities, using efficient, clean, affordable public transport, although this always makes returning to the UK’s third word infrastructure eminently depressing
Five hours to spare, a mild, if cloudy, spring day in Glasgow; where else but the Kilpatricks? These surprisingly remote, heather-clad hills, set in relatively wild moorland, perch above Dumbarton a few miles north west of Glasgow. Given this location, their great asset is that they are very accessible from the city, by bus or train, even on Sundays. And, as such, along with Dumgoyne, Conic, Ben Lomond and The Cobbler, they are part of that bizarre and beguiling Glaswegian idiosyncrasy: sizeable hills and mountains that can be accessed by the city’s suburban transport network.
The Kilpatrick Hills are ideal for getting rid of winter’s cobwebs, or as an afternoon or evening walk as the nights get lighter and provide extensive views, not only back along the Clyde to the city, but also across the Campsie Fells and northwards towards the Arrochar Alps.
Trains run every 30 minutes to Old Kilpatrick from Glasgow Queen Street, and once at Kilpatrick station, just head along the road under the A82 road bridge to Kilpatrick Gasworks and follow the broad track signposted “Loch Humphrey”.
The usual route then heads along this path as far as the loch, however, the Forestry Commission are currently resurfacing the track, so the route is temporarily diverted on discernible hill paths up Kilpatrick Braes and around The Stacks. Unlike on many diverted routes, these signs are plentiful and easy to follow and indeed, I think the diversion adds to the circuit as it makes it more of a hill walk, as opposed to a trudge up a sometimes busy track, often shared with mountain bikers and others.
Once at the loch continue on the track that skirts round the loch and then keep on this still obvious, but boggier, path that continues north east along a visible ridge that passes Fynloch Hill on your left and Little and Middle Duncolm on your right.
Head on for the furthest and highest mound: this is Duncolm and take a few minutes to enjoy the 360 degree panorama, including Ben Lomond and Stob Binnein, after the short, steepish, but easy climb to the summit. On this overcast Tuesday, the islands at the south of the loch were still clearly visible and it was just possible to see the summit of the Ben peeping through the clouds.
Retrace your steps to the loch, then head back down to Kilpatrick station (about 3 and a half hours at reasonable pace), or if you have another couple of hours to spare, bear right at the loch embankment and follow a path north west through a conifer wood. After about a mile, turn left at a junction and follow a path downwards, in a south west direction, passing Brown Hill and Greenland Reservoir.
Follow the “Circular Crags Walk” signpost down to a road at Greenlands Farm, turn right and head along the “Crags Walk” to the Milton Inn. Then cross the A82 to the cycle track, turn left and follow this into Bowling, before turning right to the Forth and Clyde Canal.
Head along the towpath as far as Lock 37 at the Erskine Bridge. Cross the canal, turn left into Dumbarton Road, then right into Station Road back to the railway station.
Two trains an hour will take you back to the city for a late afternoon coffee, spot of shopping, or in plenty of time to scrub up for an evening out. Overall, an ideal way to spend the day that marks the equal division of daylight and darkness and heralds the advent of spring.
For details of other walks accessible by public transport Around Glasgow, visit:
Autumn, in particular October, is ideal for a short break. But perhaps time and money are a bit short and you can’t spare more than a few days away; not enough to enjoy some sunnier climes?
No problem, stay in Britain, make the most of the daylight before the clocks change, enjoy the changing autumn colours and, if the weather turns inclement, you can easily spend a day in a nearby city, or local attraction. Britain in autumn is perfect for a few days away where you can combine some cycling, walking, climbing, photography in the countryside, with a cultural, foodie, or chilled-out few days in the city.
One great advantage of our crowded island is that many of our major urban areas are cheek by jowl with national parks and areas of national beauty: think Sheffield/Manchester and the Peak District; Bristol and Exmoor; Glasgow and the Trossachs; Edinburgh and the Pentlands.
Even the sprawling West Midlands conurbation has the Malverns and the Cotswolds on its doorstep and woodland Surrey, the Chilterns and the south coast can be easily reached from Greater London.
But what to pack; particularly for us eco-conscious, self-sufficient travellers, who have to carry our needs for all eventualities on our backs, or bikes and on public transport? You need the footwear and outwear for protection in the great outdoors, but you don’t want to look like an outdoor gear geek as you sip your flat white in Convent Garden.
The key is, like with all packing, to try to take multi-purpose garments and, to be fair, the look, quality and weight of outdoor gear has improved immeasurably over the last few years. Merino wool tops, such as Icebreaker, look good enough to wear out or indoors, and merino also has the priceless asset of lasting several days without offensive odours. Similarly, ultra-lightweight down (and some man-made alternatives), like those by Rab, now are stylish enough, and in sufficiently pleasing shades, not to look out of place in city streets. And if it’s wet, wear your wet gear: if it throws it down, nobody cares much what you look like; hillside or city street.
This first “rule’ is generally to wear your “active” gear and footwear (usually because it’s the bulkiest) when you travel to your destination. This can result in some amusing scenarios: once, having secured a reasonably-priced first class ticket and resplendent in lycra and cycling helmet, I was initially blocked from entering the posh end of the train by an attendant who told me: “This is a first class coach madam.” When I replied that I had a first class reservation and offered to show him my ticket, he apologised and said: “I thought you were off on your bike, not travelling first class!”
So, other than specialised activity kit, what else to take?
Essentials: sleepwear, something to lounge about in, underwear and toiletries – if you’re staying in a hotel, b&b etc, it’s a good idea to check in advance what toiletries they provide as it can save considerable weight and bulk.
For trips of up to a week, I now organise my gear into: jeans/leggings, couple of tee shirts, tunic, sweater, comfortable lightweight shoes – obviously amend as appropriate.
These I can pack into a small, lightweight wheeled bag, with waterproofs, hat, gloves, water bottles and the like in a 20 litre backpack. Thus, I can carry my luggage easily and have enough adaptable gear to keep me dry and warm on the hills, but stylish enough to look reasonably cool in a cafe, or shop, museum or cinema.
Go ahead, take advantage of the autumn kaleidoscope in the woodlands, enjoy the hills and mountains before winter sets in.
Exeter and the Jurassic coast: the city’s beautiful St Peter’s Cathedral is well worth a visit http://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/ and the Bike Shed Theatre http://www.exeterviews.co.uk/whats-on/event/74/henry-v.html presents a critically-acclaimed production of Henry V on October 21st-22nd.
The city sits at the west end of the Jurassic coast: the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site is England’s first natural World Heritage Site – it covers 95 miles of truly stunning coastline from East Devon to Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the Earth’s history http://www.jurassiccoastline.com/
Walk sections of the coastal path, visit the Swannery at Abbotsbury, marvel at Durdle Door rock arch, hunt for fossils on Charmouth beach, or take short detours to Bridport and Thomas Hardy’s Dorchester. And, you don’t need a car; instead use the excellent X53 bus that links Exeter with Poole at the easterly end of the coast http://lulworthcovebedandbreakfast.com/lulworth-cove/buses-jurassic-coast.htm