Pisa

While many cities draw in tourists with just one or two world-famous sites, Pisa is perhaps unique in that its continuing success as a must-see destination is based solely on fortuitously bad architectural engineering. Thanks to a combination of inappropriately soft ground and a poor grasp of physics, the economy of this small and otherwise unremarkable Tuscan city can rely almost exclusively on a steady flow of tourists from around the world, who flock enthusiastically to its famous square where they stand grinning inanely with their arms at an angle, while the relative holding the camera says “left a bit…now down a bit…” in a quest for the perfect picture where they hilariously look as though they’re propping up the tower.

IMG_4379
Left a bit…now up a bit…

Of course, if anyone had ever succeeded in propping up the tower it would probably having damaged Pisa’s economy instantly and irreparably. There are lots of beautiful cities in Italy, and most who currently come on day-trips are staying in bigger and arguably more romantic Florence nearby. Would this university city of less than 500,000 people be worth the trip without it?

IMG_3673 (2)
The sun sets over the Baptistery

Well, we liked Pisa. We visited for an obscure conference, giving us (as I’ve often found) evenings and a single morning to snatch a glance at our host destination, and Pisa didn’t disappoint. The Cathedral square, as you’d expect, was a relentless, hot tangle of tourist groups so focused on their cameras and their tour guides holding aloft brightly-coloured umbrellas that they didn’t look where they were going. And the square, of course, is worth not only a visit, but a good couple of hours. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and aside from the tower itself the Duomo and baptistery are astounding examples of Romanesque architecture both inside and out, with their dazzling, wedding-cake facades and elaborate, intricate mosaics. You can go up the tower (for a fee) if you want, but there’s something more than a little disconcerting about standing at an angle and looking down, even though it isn’t really all that high.

IMG_3624 (2)
One of Pisa’s many belltowers

But I’d recommend doing what many tourists do not: stay in Pisa. We watched as hot, sweaty crowds scrambled back onto their buses for onward/return trips to Florence, and where that city is undeniably worth a visit too, it’s a shame not to stick around in Pisa a little while longer. Like any city in Tuscany, Pisa is beautiful, with endless streets and alleyways of pink and orange buildings and crumbling belltowers. And once you’re a hundred yards or so from the square, it’s practically deserted. It’s one of those cities where you could eat in a new restaurant every night and never have a bad meal, where you can stumble upon an ancient church on almost any street corner, enjoy gelato in almost any flavour imaginable, and watch the sun set from a rooftop terrace (I recommend the bar at the Hotel Grand Duomo, though I wouldn’t recommend staying there unless you have a fetish for 1970s decor and amenities).

IMG_3657 (2)
View from the roof terrace of the Hotel Duomo

With budget flights taking just over two hours from a range of UK airports, compact, friendly Pisa is the perfect city for a weekend break, where you can feel you’ve seen everything and still had time to relax.

Advertisements

Miami Vice

We ended a recent epic East-coast jaunt in Miami, because why not? It was the beginning of December and the draw of somewhere with a temperature persistently over 25 degrees won over damp and chilly north London without there being much of a contest.

IMG_2413

Miami, like much of the US cities we’ve visited, is full of contrasts. Known for being an upmarket retirement hot spot populated by affluent Betty White lookalikes, it is also home to devastatingly beautiful, hip young things baring their tanned torsos as they effortlessly whack volleyballs at one another and rollerblade along the boardwalks. Very much a southern city, at least geographically (after all, it’s home to the most southern spot on mainland USA) it nonetheless lacks much of the conservative overtones of cities in neighbouring states. Famous for its thriving gay scene and awash with unabashed hedonism, “reactionary” isn’t a word you’d use about Miami.

IMG_2476 (2)

Some might argue otherwise, but Miami Beach is really the place to go, unless you have some sort of phobia of Art Deco architecture, in which case I’d recommend you try a different city altogether. The downtown part of the city is great – buzzing and impressive – but it’s sticky-hot and there arguably isn’t a lot to separate it from many other US cities. Miami Beach, on the other hand, feels like a film set: miles and miles of Art Deco brilliance, miles of fine, sandy beaches and a deluge of plush hotels and chic dining spots. I clogged up my phone memory in the first half hour there, my husband patiently suggesting to me that I might not want to take pictures of every building.

The drawback of all of this is that it comes at a price, and after a week ambling around the backwaters of Virginia this was a bit of a shock. We checked into a bland chain hotel conspicuous by its modern, faceless facade in a row of otherwise elegant perfection, and vowed to spend as little time there as possible. Instead we went to the nearby Fontainbleu for dinner – twice – and pretended we were actually staying there, and in the daytime sashayed along the boardwalk, taking in the elaborately-decorated beach huts and dazzling blue sea and luxuriating in the late Autumn heat.

IMG_2429 (2)
The bar at the Fontainbleu

Miami is friendly, too. Everyone we met had a certain southern easiness, a natural friendliness that made each encounter a snapshot of joy, and all without the underlying tensions of the other states that we’d visited, still very much, at this time, in the shadow of the Charlottesville protests and the dangerously simmering racism that had bubbled to the surface there. Florida, physically on a limb as well as, perhaps, metaphorically, was safely removed enough from all this, a microcosm of charm and comfort and self-assuredness. Yes, of course, there are pockets of the city that are unsafe; there are areas the hotel would earnestly warn you against visiting; there is petty crime, as there is in any other major city, both in the US and elsewhere. But there is Key West a short drive away; there are the Everglades in the other direction, with their airboat tours and guides delighting the thrill-seekers daily in their dalliances with the local reptilian inhabitants, rousing huge, prehistoric creatures from their natural, murky habitats for the purposes of a decent selfie to show the folks back home.

Then there is cutting-edge street art to go with street food of such quality that in London it would be sold for three times the price by a chap with a beard out of an old, brightly-painted shipping container in Shoreditch – Cuban food, Colombian food, prawns so implausibly big you fear they might be the result of some catastrophic scientific experiment. There are museums, galleries, walks and wildlife – Miami is the only place I’ve been where I have looked down to find an iguana more than a foot long walking alongside me, who, when I paused, paused too, and looked up at me as if to say, “yes? Can I help you?”

IMG_2459 (2).JPG
My iguana – I called him Ian

I have been to a lot of places in the US, from the blizzard-swept north to the deep south, I’ve experienced the unforgiving buzz of New York, the intellectual babble of Boston and the lazy hum of Savannah. But the confident, chic, contradictory fizzle of Miami?

IMG_4180

Yes. It did it for me this time, and I’m certain it would do it for me again and again.

 

 

 

 

Throwing My Arms Around Paris

One of the more bizarre yet entirely genuine afflictions suffered by some unfortunate tourists is known as Paris Syndrome – the psychological turmoil that results from the discovery that the French capital is, in fact, not a paradise of dreaming spires and aching sophistication straight out of a romance novel, but a vast, crowded city with a traffic problem, no concept of customer service and residents who don’t give a second thought to urinating in the street.

paris4

And yet I love Paris. I even love Parisians, some of whom are, as the stereotypes would have you believe, gloriously rude, or, at the very least, impressively aloof. It was in Paris that, upon being told we were staying at the hotel for our honeymoon, the manager merely replied “mmm”, then pointed to the lift: “Your room is up. Also, there is a package for you,” indicating to a box left on the floor with a mere twitch of his finger, as though it contained something most undesirable with which he did not wish to be associated – it turned out to be a bottle of champagne from an aunt in England. It was a Parisian who told me, after what I considered to be a conversation in flawless French, that she could tell I had a Quebecois accent. Interested, I asked what exactly constituted a Quebecois accent. She pursed her lips and looked very matter-of-fact: “It means you speak…er, how you say… Ah! Like a peasant!”

dorsay
Musee D’Orsay

 

Paris is one of the easiest places to get to from London, and there is something incredible, no matter how many times you do it, about hopping on a train at St Pancras and stepping off just two hours later in Gare du Nord. We first went on our honeymoon – probably not the most relaxing honeymoon destination, as we were on a determined mission to see absolutely everything we possibly could, which I will tell you now is impossible unless you’re a millionaire with a year or so to spare. It’s prohibitively expensive, especially since the Brexit vote, and unlike London the museums are most certainly not free. But here are a few tips:

  • If you plan on visiting a lot of the attractions it’s worth buying a Paris Pass, which will allow you to skip the line. Of course, there won’t be any indication as to how you can do this when you arrive at your chosen museum. At the Louvre, we gave up and joined the main queue, until a gentleman on a bicycle rode alongside us and disdainfully indicated we should follow him, nodding his head towards a nondescript side entrance muttering “ici”.
  • Visit the Musee D’Orsay. It really is beautiful, before you even get to the art that’s inside it.
  • Speak French. If you speak English, it’s likely you will be spoken to only in French. If you speak French, you will be replied to in superciliously flawless English: “You try to speak my language? Pah. I speak yours perfectly. And now I will demonstrate your pathetic inadequacies by doing so at length.”
  • A dinner cruise on the Seine is an extravagance, but one worth doing just once in your life.
  • Versailles is a hellish Darwinian nightmare of stampeding, camera-brandishing tour groups jostling for survival. It makes Glastonbury Festival look quiet. Buy tickets in advance and go on a week day, during the school term, early in the morning.
  • Hotels often charge an eye-watering amount for an underwhelming breakfast. This is Paris – you’ll be able to find a café within a five minute walk of any hotel selling croissants, coffee and an array of breads that will remind you just how poor Britain is when it comes to this most basic of foodstuffs.
  • Walk. Don’t go on a walking tour, download your own or buy a book, and explore the under-explored. We stumbled across a Le Corbusier House (devoid of tourists) and the wonderful Musee Marmottan, a more sedate place to see Monet’s paintings than the crowded L’Orangerie.

It’s fine to have expectations of Paris – it’s beautiful, jumbled, disdainful, self-confident, diverse and full of wonderful things to do and eat –  it might end up failing to meet some of your expectations, but it will far exceed others in ways you never imagined.

Top Ten Cities: 2: Tallinn

Our trip to Tallinn, in December 2015, remains possibly the most enjoyable holiday we have ever had. The term “fairytale” is often overused by travel agents when they really mean “a town in Europe that’s a bit old”, but Tallinn, with its turrets and cobbled streets and multi-coloured buildings, genuinely ticks the boxes of a “fairytale” city. Emerging miraculously relatively unscathed from the turmoil of the 20th century, Tallinn is bashfully grand and quietly beautiful.

tallinn1.jpg

Tallinn has a fascinating history that’s in some places uplifting and in others heartbreaking. History fanatics will have plenty to do there with, amongst others, the Museum of Occupation which takes you vividly through years of pain and oppression right up to the inspiring Singing Revolution. But if history’s not your scene, there is a Museum of Estonian Drinking Culture. (Yes, this is a real thing; no, we didn’t visit.)

tallinn2.jpg
Tallinn from the Radisson Blu Skybar. Well worth a visit

 

There are so many restaurants in the centre of Tallinn that it’s possible to eat affordably yet indulgently every night – you could probably stay there for 3 months and eat somewhere different each day. There are also a range of daytrips from Tallinn: Lahemaa National Park is beautiful and the nearby ex-Soviet Submarine base haunting. Tallinn is also a good place from which to visit the eye-wateringly expensive Helsinki without having to actually stay there. Legend has it there is a quick catamaran service that will take you there in 2 hours, but this doesn’t seem to run very often. Optimistically we booked on it and dutifully arrived at their offices at 7am as instructed. They were empty. We finally located a human being behind the desk and asked if the boat was going. “Of course not,” she said, shuffling her papers and not looking up. We persisted, asking if there was another way to get to Helsinki. “Yes, of course,” she said, as if talking to idiots, but offered no further information. We asked where we needed to go. “Over there,” she replied, sighing and gesturing vaguely towards the wall.

laheema
Lahemaa National Park, Estonia

 

Having walked through almost pitch darkness towards the harbor we eventually found there is a slow ferry that will take you, probably more comfortably, to Helsinki in 3 hours.

More on Helsinki another time, but the journey back on the ferry was an eye opener – known as the “party boat”, it turns out this is the route taken by young Finns in search of cheap booze. It arrives in Tallinn just before midnight and you can book a cabin for a pittance and either head for the clubs in town or stay on the boat for an all-night disco. Almost as soon as we left Helsinki the karaoke kicked off with a vengeance. I maintain that you haven’t really lived until you’ve heard Belinda Carlisle drunkenly belted out with great enthusiasm in a Finnish accent.

Top Ten Cities: 3: Ljubljana

3. Ljublajna

I was surprised how many people had even heard of Ljubljana, let alone knew how to spell it. The capital city of Slovenia, it has more of a feel of York about it than of London. Laid back, pretty, quietly confident, it is the flagship city of the Former Yugoslavia’s success story – the country that avoided the Balkan Wars and joined the EU back in 2004 as one of the “A8” countries, many years before Croatia, the only other former Yugoslavian member, joined.

And Ljubljana feels almost self-effacingly successful. It doesn’t shout about its beauty, charm and astounding accomplishments – Slovenia is ranked as offering the 10th best quality of life in the world, with Ljubljana ranked the 51st best city in the world – well ahead of New York, London, Hong Kong, and, well, pretty much anywhere else you’d care to name. (My favourite city in the world, incidentally – Canberra – is number one.) It’s also a very cheap flight away on the ever-fabulous Wizzair (where, disconcertingly, the passengers routinely applaud when you land.)

ljubljana
The centre of Ljubljana

 

Ljubljana is one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever visited. It doesn’t even feel like a city, much less a capital. It’s flanked by mountains, awash with glorious Art Noveau buildings, and packed with cafes and restaurants. There are a couple of nice museums, and it’s a wonderful base for visiting the rest of Slovenia (Lake Bled is the “must go” destination, and for good reason!) and the east of Italy – Trieste and Venice are both just a couple of hours away.

venice
Venice is just a couple of hours away

 

In Ljubljana I let myself do something I don’t often do on holiday: relax. It is cheap enough that you don’t have to fret about money (some of my other favourite cities have been marred by the need to check your bank balance after every cup of coffee), with enough to do to pass the time but not so much that you feel the need to rush around frantically to tick off the sites (Paris, Washington and New York felt like the travel equivalent of Supermarket Sweep: “You have 3 days….GO! Eiffel Tower – check; Louvre – check; D’orsay – check…”) It is not (yet) one of Europe’s big tourist destinations, and you can amble around without getting stuck behind huge tour groups brandishing their cameras or falling over British stag groups dragging down the already much-marred name of my nation.

bled
Lake Bled

This is a city I would visit again. We stayed in the wonderful Grand Hotel Union, complete with a swimming pool on the top floor from which you can watch the sun setting over the mountains. Ljubljana is pure bliss, and I hope nothing ever ruins it.

Top 10 Cities: Number 4

4. Istanbul

When I watch the news now I feel a mixture of gratitude that we visited Istanbul when we did, and sadness that, for the time being at least, it is effectively out of bounds. The political situation, particularly since last year, makes it less inviting as a tourist destination, though the Foreign Office only advises against travel to the area near the Syrian border.

There is so much to do in Istanbul, and we were very lucky to have a local showing us around. It is a spine-tingling attack of wonderful sounds and smells and colours, with wonderful food, low prices and weather that never gets too uncomfortably hot. Unlike in Morocco, non-Muslims are welcome to go inside the mosques (women: take a scarf to cover your head), and they are vast and impressive.

Like all major cities there is a hit list of “must sees”, but I’d especially recommend:

  • the Cisterna Basilica – an impressive feat of ancient engineering
  • Bebek – Istanbul’s answer to Monaco, on the shores of the Bosporus
  • Kadikoy – on the less-visited Asian side, and worth it for the ferry ride and to see another side of Istanbul. It’s also a good place to smoke a hookah, if you feel so inclined.
bebek
Bebek: the Turkish Riviera?

 

I hope that people will continue to go to Istanbul, and that things in Turkey will settle down. It’s a wonderful city, a great country, and I am very glad we got to visit.

Top Ten Cities: Number 5

5. Sofia

Sofia surprised us. Tagged onto the end of a schlep across Eastern Europe by train, during which I developed an infection after cutting my hand on a toilet door, saw a disproportionate number of three-legged dogs and ate a lot of gherkin, we went more because the opportunity had presented itself than because it was on our hit list.

Sofia is beautiful. It has a contentedness that nearby Bucharest, still reeling years on from the horrors of Ceausescu’s tyranny, seems to lack, forever in the shadows of a darkness it can’t seem to shake off. In a fine example of pathetic fallacy, the sun shone throughout our three day visit, and the grand classical and neo-Byzantine buildings basked resplendently in it. The Cathedral is even more impressive than any photo would have you believe, and when we were there was filled with a steady stream of bikers who were in Sofia for a rally but nonetheless (this is a devout Orthodox country) took the opportunity to come in and light candles and say prayers.

cathedral

You can eat like a member of the aristocracy or a Hollywood star in Sofia. Bulgaria is not yet in the Euro, and a meal in a top restaurant will set you back around the same amount as one of the more upmarket chains in the UK. Oh, and the local wine is good too (though getting a nice one is a bit like playing Russian Roulette).

If you are only in Sofia for a short time one place I cannot recommend enough is the Museum of Socialist Art, which should really be called Lenin: a Study in Statues. Though you do every now and then come across a dramatic frieze with a title like “The Workers’ Struggle” and the odd Che Guevara, this is mainly where every bust of Lenin has gone to die: Lenin looking pensive; Lenin looking determined; Lenin looking like he’s trying to remember whether or not he turned the gas off. Quirky, unexpected and ultimately hiding in a back garden in the suburbs, this was the highlight of our trip.