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 One

So on Monday 30th July, at precisely midnight, I set off for the airport, boarded a plane and found myself beginning a five week long adventure – and it really was an adventure! – in Amsterdam, city of diamonds sex, drugs and getting wasted. Five weeks, thirty-four trains, six flights, three cars and one coach later, I have covered eleven countries, twenty-nine cities, six villages, one lost city (Pompeii), made 1000 new friends, taken 28,000 photographs, shot twelve still-to-be-developed rolls of film and filled three journals. I am exhausted.

I love flying. I love taking photographs out of the window, even if it is just another cloud, another field, another wing of another plane. I’ve never been nervous about flying and I’m terrible at waiting in airports because I just want to get on the damn plane! I love hovering between two places, being neither here nor there, I can leave all of my plans and my worries and my responsibilities on land and spend a few hours not having to deal with anything besides ‘do I have enough cash for another coffee?’
In fact this is how I feel about travelling as a whole. Even when I’d arrive at a place an hour before sunset with no map, no idea which part of the city I am in and no idea where I would be sleeping that night, I have never felt so calm and care-free in my life. I think something to do with not having a working phone the whole time I was abroad had something to do with that. I came home to find 592 texts, 293 missed calls and 5 hours 37 minutes of voice mail, which I am still churning through now, but it was so worth it.
Above is a view of Amsterdam, below is Venice.
I stayed with a lot of locals while travelling – all of whom, although I have said it 1000 times already, I will say again – thank you thank you thank you!! Thank you Yamandu, Nique, Vanda, Florian, Mike, Mallory, Jonathan & Pauline and Phelgo, & his lovely roomates. I would definitely recommend to anyone that would listen that whenever possible, stay with locals when travelling! I was invited to birthday parties, concerts, general get-togethers with friends, I was shown quaint little cafes that only locals know about and shown around the city through the eyes of people who have lived there for most, if not all of their lives. If it was not for the amazing people who I have met I would not now be able to say that I have explored Venice in a speedboat, nearly crashed said speedboat into a 500 year old building in Venice, had my James Bond/Indiana Jones moment fighting a ‘bad guy’ on the back of a speedboat (yes he only stole my friend’s wallet but I am going to call it my James Bond/Indiana Jones moment!). I wouldn’t have zipped around Madrid on a scooter, discovered tomato, cheese and olive oil ice cream in Spain (it tastes as bad as it sounds) and god… I could go on!
Amsterdam
For me the best part of travelling wasn’t simply the fact that I was travelling, it wasn’t the lack of responsibility or even the freedom of being able to fuck off and do my own thing and having no one to answer to or no lingering thoughts about boring adult things in the back of my mind, but I love those moment memories, like waking up to this at 4am on an Amsterdam to Prague night train, somewhere in Germany and annoying all of the passengers who were sleeping in the corridor by clambering over them with my noisy camera to grab some snaps.
Or sitting on the steps of Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset, listening to a guy play guitar and coincidentally play all of my favourite songs while I eat raspberries and chocolate and sip Italian white wine and doze against the stone steps, smelling the flowers and herbs and just feeling blissful.
Or just stumbling across sights like this (straight from camera):
and this:
and this:
Prague
Honestly, anyone who tries to say that life is anything other than fucking fantastic, open your fucking eyes.

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