Wanderer

My European Top Spots.

It’s nearly April… I’ve been wondering where to spend my summer. While I’m looking at spreading my wings as far as Thailand or America (I know, completely different ideas there!) this year, I think I’ve definitely scattered my heart across different cities of Europe, including good old England. Then again… I tend to say that about pretty much every city and country I visit, so no doubt as I wander further afield, that list will just grow longer and longer.

I love the diversity of Europe; the array of cultures and languages and delicacies, the contrast of stark differences and intermingled traditions from border to border. There are some cities that I just find myself going back to again and again, and it never gets old – there are always new cafes serving coffee even more delicious than the last, more landmarks that I haven’t found the time to visit yet and beautiful little streets that are deserted but for myself and the occasional knowing local.

This wasn’t easy at all, but I managed to order my unruly top 10:

1. Paris. For years Rome held this top spot, but France’s capital has rather snuck up on me over the years – every time I go I love it more and more, even if I’m literally just passing through on a train, and somehow, it overtook Rome. Yes, the people can at times be a little snooty, but most of the time the snooty-ness that I have witnessed against tourists is purely because they are not meeting Paris’ standards – arriving in Paris in dirty clothes and Birkenstock with a tatty rucksack on your back is not going to make you the darling of the city. It’s quite like trying to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a ball. Everyone makes an effort in Paris, even if it is in that je ne sais quoi, ‘I just fell out of bed’ Parisian sense. They’re experts at putting in a lot of effort in looking effortless. Try to blend in, and that snooty-ness will disappear. Or so I find. 

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2. Rome. See, my ex-top spot has not slipped far. I love history. I love art, architecture, literature and the renaissance, all of which can be found on every corner of Rome. I feel comfortable walking around the city without getting lost – I can act as tour guide to fellow travellers. There’s no better feeling than realising that you know a foreign city. It’s not just a place that I have visited a few times anymore. I’ve always been and will continue to be lured to Rome for its history, its art, its food and its coffee. Yes, yes, yes and a very big yes from me on those fronts!

My one pet peeve when in Rome? Arrogant, metrosexual Roman guys who still live with their mothers well into their thirties. They linger around Trevi Fountain in droves. Huge, huge pet peeve of mine.

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3. Prague. When I first visited Prague, I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s just not a place that I have looked into too much before I arrived at  Hlavni Nadrazi station. Until then my Pinterest (what came before Pinterest? Good old fashioned cut-and-paste scrapbooks?) had been full of photographs of Paris, Rome, Athens, The Great Pyramids, Macchu Picchu and Buddhist Temples. I’d always planned to visit Prague, but somehow looking at what it was like never occurred to me. The beauty of the place blew me away. It’s a perfect blend of East and West European; some streets could easily pass for France or Italy – or even England, when suddenly you’re surrounded by Eastern European architecture, Czech music ringing through your ears and people drinking brands I can’t even pronounce.

Also, Prague is one of the most beautiful cities at night.

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4. Venice. Yes, it’s quite a pricey city, but then I’ve found that I can still keep my budget low – Venice is not a city teaming with museums and must-see sites with expensive ticket fares like other touristic cities. I’m also not big on souvenirs, which could prove to be super pricey if I were. Venice is the city I head to if I want to see Italy, without the hustle and bustle of Rome or Milan or – to some extent – Florence. I tend to avoid the few busy spots of the city – St Mark’s Square and Ponte di Rialto. Two or three streets from these Venetian hot-spots, and you’ll find deserted streets, a woman beating sheets over her balcony perhaps, the occasional cat, but otherwise you’re entirely alone. No cars, no noise. It’s wonderful.

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5. Florence. Yes, Paris may be my number one city, but Italy is clearly my number one country. Florence is a nice balance of everything I love about Italy. It’s not as mad as Rome, or as busy and metropolitan as Milan, and while it has that same peace as Venice, it’s gifted in sprinkles rather than spades. It is quintessential Italy in the country’s best region: Tuscany – I love taking day trips from Florence to explore the beautiful surrounding countryside.

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6. Lisbon. I tend to yo-yo between Porto and Lisbon when choosing my favourite Portuguese city, but right now, I’d choose Lisbon. It’s true what they say – ‘Porto works and Lisbon plays’. Things are much more relaxed in the south, and people seem to mysteriously work less and yet are richer. I do have one issue with Lisbon – its treacherously slippering paving stones.

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Seriously, I had to buy a new pair of shoes just because wearing my sandals or ballet flats was about as effective as wearing Cinderella’s glass slippers. Otherwise you pretty much have to choose between risking your life by walking in the road, or risking your life because every step could end in a broken neck.

Still, Lisbon is beautiful, not majorly touristic and yet not entirely isolated to the lone traveller who doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese – like me. Actually, that’s a lie. I can say thank you. I think thank you is the most important phrase to learn in every language. Even more so than hello.

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7. Budapest. Another city that I had little knowledge of – like Prague. I knew it to be cheap, but that’s about it. Yes, it is cheap, though as tourism grows, so do those prices. The architecture is sophisticated, the people are sophisticated – but for a few old men who linger on park benches whistling at passing women. So many people have apologized for ‘the habits of the older generation’ – honestly, it’s fine. Clearly they have never passed a building site in the UK. The famous thermal baths are wonderful. I recommend visiting the bath houses during winter – it’s instantly even better when you’re lounging in the steaming water watching the snow fall outside.

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8. Barcelona. I’m not a fan of gaudy Gaudi, but of course, his architecture makes Barcelona what it is. I find it amazing how we all flock to see a building that is not due to be finished until 2026. I mean, of course, La Sagrada Familia. However, one place where I feel Gaudi’s unique style does work within the city is Park Güell – also the spot of my favourite (yet discovered) view in Barcelona. In Park Güell you will find pianists, violinists and musicians of instruments so exotic that I don’t even know what they are. They claim a spot and play beautiful classical pieces to entertain tourists and locals alike. It’s quirky and amazing.

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9. Vienna. A haven for museum-geeks like me, my favourite being the Sisi museum; a museum dedicated to the life of Empress Elizabeth of Austria. It’s cleaner than Paris and Rome. It’s more efficiently run than England, but it’s not as frustratingly perfect as a few cities I have been to; so perfect that they no longer feel real. Also, the people who live there are unbelievably lovely.

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10. Off the beaten track. Finally, while I could go on and on about this city and that city, for me, one of the best parts of Europe is the little villages whose names I never learnt before I moved on to the next. I love the lakes, beaches, rivers and hills. I’m a country girl as well as a city girl, and I love rambling around woodland and climbing hills to see the view at sunset. So if you’re going to Europe, don’t just stick to the ‘must see cities’.

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Wanderer

Holy Condoms, scorched Celebrities and Bernini Porn…

My first week back in Rome was quiet, calm, you know. Nothing worth blogging about. And then today happened, and it was one of those days where the world just seemed completely hilarious and you just walk around collecting funny stories and strange observations to later share with friends – and the blog, of course!

The weird and wonderful highlights of today (and the reasons why I’ve spent most of the day laughing so much that it now hurts):

  • Pouring hot coffee over Joaquin Phoenix
  • Having the Pope accidentally bless a condom
  • Spending a bizarre hour with 20 rather confused Chinese tourists who each insisted that I have my photo taken with each of them… and every possible pairing!

First of all, I have to say.. Joaquin Phoenix really needs to pay more attention to where he’s going. I swear he just appeared out of no where, charging towards me – and my coffee – and I had about a split second to consider my options:

  1. I could have jumped in front of the passing bus to avoid him
  2. I could have wildly thrown the coffee in the air, covering us both
  3. I could have chosen which way to tilt the mug – and therefore choose which one of us was about to be covered in coffee.

I of course chose the third. He’s rich enough to duck into the nearest clothes shop and replace his ruined shirt, I’m sure. I wasn’t at this point aware as to who it was who was storming towards me like a raged bull, but I bet that’s exactly what he did as soon as he ran off after our brief.. chat? It wasn’t so much chatting as a lot of ‘what the fuck’s (on his part) and ‘watch where you’re walking, stronzo’ (on mine). And that was that, another minor celebrity story to add to the collection, along with reluctantly sharing a bag of jelly babies with Donny Osmond, saying hi to George Clooney at Lake Como and discussing shoes with Gok Wan… such a thilling collection!

Honestly, if my run in with Phoenix hadn’t happened in front of the Colosseum, I probably wouldn’t have twigged to who it was… though he doens’t look much like he did in his Gladiator days any more.

That’s definitely not the best story of the day, however. The best story came afterwards.

Today I was tricked by a lovely so called friend into enduring a tediously slow few hours eternity in complete silence, and worse, suffering with a completely numb arse after the first twenty minutes. By tricked, I mean tricked, as in, I was told that the ‘free spare ticket’ was for the Vatican museums. And it has been a few years since I’ve last been inside the museums, and then I only saw about 15% of everything on display, so of course, I accepted her invitation immediately.

But no, no tour, no museums. I was tricked into attending the Pope’s weekly audience (not cool, Val), an Atheist surrounded by crying nuns and rosary bead-grasping Catholics, all of whom have a penchant for nonsense muttering… is lying not a sin, Val? Hmm?

So once we were there, it was too late, I had no choice but to sit it through. Well, I’m sure I could have tried to leave, but there has been something so drilled into me over the years, perhaps simply Englishness, that makes it almost impossible for me to cause a scene with a dramatic exit in a large crowd of strangers. And by dramatic, I don’t mean screaming and shouting and jumping around, I mean, they were sitting there so silently, and so patiently, even just to get up and quietly walk away would have turned every eye on me and everyone would have started muttering and wondering why I was leaving. How dare I leave! Because of course I was so fortunate to have a ticket (you know, a totally free, easily available to all ticket)!

I couldn’t tell you what the Pope talked about, even if I had decided to listen, I wouldn’t have understood a word, and even if I could, I probably wouldn’t have agree with most of what he said, unless it was just a simple ‘be good, don’t murder, don’t lie’ (Val), in which case, why do I need the Pope or the Bible or God to tell me that? Surely religious people don’t read the 10 commandments and are surprised that they say ‘do not murder’, ‘do not cheat’, ‘do not steal’ etc.

I swear I started to fall asleep. One minute everyone is sitting there, listening intently while I glare at Val, and the next, everyone starts rummaging, holding up rosary beads, crucifixes (crucifi?), little prayer books, and Val starts nudging me, getting rather pissed off at me and pointing out that people are staring because I’m not taking advantage of his blessing, and again that very English side of me that doesn’t want to offend kicks in, and I think, ‘I don’t believe in this mumbo jumbo anyway, so why not’. And I grab the first thing that my fingers touch in my bag; my travel journal. Yes, my travel journal has been blessed by the Pope. How that would in anyway change my life, I have no idea. Is it supposed to bring me good luck? Or is it a necessary ticket to heaven? Do I have to make sure that when I die I’m carrying it in my hand? Fuck knows.

I just so happened to glance up at my hand, which was mimicking everyone else, holding up my journal, and what do I see poking out from between the pages? A stow-away condom. And my mind begins to panic, because it’s just there, in bright pink foil, about 70% of it clearly visible between the pages, and I’m holding it up in the air, surrounded by hundreds of very devout Catholics, holding it towards their Pope, practically pointing it right at him. And of course, we all know just how much Catholicism hates condoms. I wonder if throwing condoms at a priest has the same affect as throwing holy water at the Devil? He starts his blessing mumbo jumbo, and I just stand so, so still, biting down on my cheeks to stop myself from laughing (because that is literally the only thing you can do in that situation), and hoping that no one notices, because they’re all standing so still, if I moved even an inch, all eyes would be on me, and they’d see what I was holding.

The condom has been taped into my travel journal. I may be Atheist, militantly so at times, but I’m not about to test my beliefs (or lack of) by using a condom that has been blessed by the Pope. Could you imagine what would happen if I was wrong, and if Catholicism was right? Surely there would be nothing more insulting to their God than laughingly using a Papally-blessed condom, and so… he’d be pissed. I’d probably be punished by it splitting and I’d be infected with the 12 plagues of Egypt… the 12 plagues of foo (ew), or worse – yes, worse is possible – impregnated by the anti-Christ… or by octuplets… 8 bearded little Jesuses (Jesi?).

Definitely not worth the risk in my opinion.

As for ‘Bernini porn’… that’s just a strange observation of mine in Santa Maria della Vittoria. I’m a big Bernini fan, I love his art, I love his sculptures, so of course I had to go and see the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which frankly, I’ve always raised a brow about, because it definitely looks like ‘worldly ecstasy’ to me! There’s hardly anyone in the church, just me and a small group of old women, who I quickly gather to be very devout Catholics. They’re muttering to themselves about how ‘beautiful’ the statue is and how it captures the ‘essence of the holy father’, and so I look up.

I don’t see something awe-inspiringly religious. I see a woman clearly in the middle of a hell of an orgasm, a very child-like guy hovering over her, and on either side, two marble-carved theatre boxes, filled with men. And they’ll all carved to look in her direction, watching her, nudging each other, whispering, generally looking very questionably and.. pervy. How no one but me could see that, I don’t know. Yes, yes, I’m sure you could argue that ‘holy ecstasy’ would make you look rather ‘ecstatic’ (wink), but why did Bernini choose to flank the statue with several gawping men watching from a theatre box?

Religion bewilders me. It’s just completely blind to common sense. Among other priceless ‘saintly relics’ that I’ve heard about since I arrived back in Rome: Jesus’ foreskin, Jesus’ umbilical cord, and – in Germany – the breath of Jesus contained in a vial. And people pay to see this?! Insane.

Oh, and as for the confused Chinese people, I don’t know if they mistook me for someone, or if choosing a random foreigner is a strange travel tradition for them, but I won’t complain because they insisted on buying me lunch, in exchange for about 200 smiling tourist photos (peace signs compulsory) with each of them. I gave one of them my business card in the hope that they’d share a few with me, and then you can see for yourself just how well I perfected my bewildered ‘what the fuck’ smile.

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This weekend I decided to disappear to Venice, just because. It was my way of celebrating my 21st; I met up with all of my lovely Italian friends who were kind enough to drive/fly/hitch/train it from all over Italy to Venice for one night just for me, and quite frankly, I cannot remember the last time I had so much fun!

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I went ice skating in Campo San Polo (every time I go to Venice there is something going on in San Polo, last time it was the incredible outdoor cinema), I tried my hand at steering a gondola… me and a friend later happened to find one that had been left unattended, so that brief lesson soon came in handy, and I met so many amazing people from around the world!

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I love Venice, I love the way it smells (and no it does not smell bad, not even when it was 40 degrees back in August, it just smells like seafood and summer and.. Italy), I love getting lost among the tiny streets and back alleys, I love the people and the markets and the boats and pining over designer handbags that are calling out to my credit card in the 101 designer shops scattered around the city. I especially love how healthy it is; walking everywhere, not having to inhale car exhaust fumes whenever I venture outside… and at night I can actually see stars in Venice! I just love everything about it! No doubt I’ll soon enough I’ll be zipping back there… perhaps in the Spring. I’ve seen Venice in the summer and winter.. I’d like to see it in Spring too.

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Of course, my camera had to accompany me ♥

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Christmas in Venice 1#

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