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.

Praça Duque Terceira Cais Sodré Lisboa Portugal Calçada à Portuguesa Roc2c Portuguese Pavement stone white black pedra

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

Joie de Vivre… Part Three!

I love Italy. Anyone who knows me knows that I completely love, adore and obsess over Italy. I love the language, the culture, the food (who doesn’t love the food!), the fashion, the people, the manic driving, the heat, the art, the architecture – just everything!
No matter how much I loved the various cities I was visiting – Prague, Budapest etc, I really found it hard not to feel impatient to reach Italy. I covered the most cities in Italy than in any other country – I travelled to six cities and the five villages of Cinque Terre during my week in Italy. I now love, adore and obsess over it even more, so I apologize in advance to all of my friends if I annoy you by blabbing on about Italy Italy Italy when you see me. I will try to hold my tongue.
Florence
Cinque Terre
 
I was actually stranded here for the night, thanks to Ray, a cocky Californian surfer to despite being the most irritating little shit I’ve ever met in my life, some how managed to befriend me for the day. He swore to me that he had walked from Monterosso to Vernazza in just half an hour, and so, as I had a little over two hours until my train, I decided to walk it. Half an hour my arse. It took us so long (partly because know-it-all Ray kept on straying off path, and believing that he had already walked the path I foolishly followed into all sorts of slippery, impossible-to-climb situations), by the time I made it to the train station, the last connecting train from Pisa to Florence had already left.
Still, there are worse places to get stranded for a night. And he did feel so guilty he helped me find a place to rest my head for a night.
There was just one city that I hated. I hated it so much that I stayed just long enough to visit Pompeii, and then I left pretty sharpish – I hated Naples.
Granted, Pompeii was amazing, as was the huge-ass, dirt cheap pizza that I ate in Naples, in the restaurant where they filmed the ‘eating pizza in Naples’ scene in Eat, Pray, Love (I didn’t recognize it at all but they really made a big deal of it). The people, however. Rough. I’ve since been told that the south of Italy is where most of the mafia activity takes place, and that it’s a very dodgy area, so it all makes perfect sense, but it put a serious smudge on Italy’s otherwise spotless record for me. Also – I discovered that in Naples, the chav culture exists. They wear Louis Vuitton rather than Burberry, but it’s there, poundshop scrunchies, neon mini dresses, cakes on makeup, slicked back hair, tacky ‘bling’. The works.
Even when I was heading back to Naples from Pompeii, dusty and covered in the grubby grimy dirt of Pompeii, I still felt so much classier than the hooped-earring-wearing family who were seated opposite me, obviously heading home from the beach. Call me a snob, I’ll happily call myself one, but seriously, I’d never recommend Naples to anyone. If you must try the pizza, get in, order pizza, get out.
P.S. this is why I have included no photographs of Naples. For a start they’re all on film, and I haven’t developed any rolls yet. Secondly, Naples was ugly, I want to show all my friends pretty.
Pompeii
A rare photograph of me! The one downside of travelling alone; unless I trust strangers to hold my camera – which I most certainly don’t – or stand there trying to take self portraits, there’s no one to take photographs of me in all of these amazing places.
However, in Pompeii I met a lawyer called Michael from Washington DC, and we ended up sticking together throughout the day, and so we acted as each other’s personal photographers.
Pompeii is pretty surreal, as can only be expected really. Over the years I’ve heard so much about it and picked so many random bits of information that only become useful on this one day of my life, and then the moment I step out of Pompeii I can file those once again useless dribbles of information back into the deepest parts of my brain where they will either stay forever, unless I ever visit Pompeii again, or be forgotten.
Michael had picked up a map at the entrance (me being me and collecting maps only to stick them into my travel journals – never to actually use them), but I’m sorry, I personally found Venice easier to navigate my way around than Pompeii – and Venice was, I swear, designed to be confusing and impossible to navigate. Every sign in Pompeii was different to what the map said the sign should say, we often found ourselves walking up and down the same street several times looking for something that was apparently on that street, or we would find streets that didn’t appear to be on the map at all, or we’d be looking for streets shown on the map that I swear did not actually exist at all.
It did not help that I was constantly on edge because there was 100’s of the biggest hornet/wasp things that I have ever seen in my life.
Still, Michael said that if we managed to leave Pompeii without being stung or falling flat on our face on the uneven surface, ‘we’ve done well’. We did well.
I also couldn’t help but notice that 95% of the original wall murals, mosaics, etc that decorated the various buildings of Pompeii were all destroyed in the eruption, but from what I saw, and from what I also overheard a tour guide saying, the best preserved wall murals etc are almost solely in the brothels of Pompeii, where you can find lovely ‘menu’ artwork such as this:
If I ever find myself in the path of a volcanic eruption, I know where to head – to the brothels!

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