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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

 

Singapore

My husband hit the nail on the head when he said Singapore “reminds me of the Truman Show”. A little too pristine, a little too perfect, slightly claustrophobic and slightly creepy, Singapore is a bizarre microcosm of comfortable affluence and quiet tyranny, frequently ranking among the top cities in terms of quality of life, but with an undercurrent of something you can’t quite put your finger on. There is no chewing gum, no graffiti, no cigarette butts… It’s refreshing, but it’s odd.

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Singapore: A bit like the Truman Show

 

As you descend towards Changi Airport the pilot reminds you that bringing any illegal substances into Singapore can result in the death penalty, before casually adding “the toilets will remain open for the next five minutes”. In Singapore you can be fined for feeding pigeons or not flushing a toilet, and you can be caned for swearing or overstaying your tourist visaHomosexual acts are still punishable by imprisonment. So, in many ways, Singapore really doesn’t appeal to me, and I will always feel slightly more at home in the more buzzy and down to earth Kuala Lumpur.

In other ways, though, it’s an interesting tourist destination. The organised, sanitized gateway to the gentle chaos of the rest of Southeast Asia, it’s the sort of city where you can take your mum, where you can tentatively test out Asia to see if you like it.

And Singapore, the astoundingly prosperous lovechild of Malaysia and colonial Britain, has an awful lot to offer. In a country considerably smaller than London you can hike in the (much-tamed) jungle, where monkeys happily get on with their monkeying (seeing monkeys outside of the zoo was rather more exciting for me than it should have been); you can enjoy food from all over the world, from the colonially decadent cafes of Dempsey to the achingly hip fusion food outlets of Clarke Quay; you can marvel at the gloriousness of the new architecture complementing the elegance of the old; there are more shopping opportunities than any sane person could possibly need; there are museums, galleries, parks and gardens, the cheerful quirkiness of Sentosa and the frankly weirdness of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (it has long since been proven that the tooth in question belongs to a dog and not, in fact, the Buddha, but this does not seem to deter anyone.)

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Monkey, just being a monkey, At Bukit Timah

 

A few handy tips you may not know about Singapore:

  • It is the most fabulous jumping off point for the rest of Asia, Australia and New Zealand. A huge international hub, Changi Airport plays host to a huge number of cheerfully cheap airlines, from the Air Asia to Jet to the disconcertingly-named Scoot. If you don’t mind flirting with potential DVT and mind-numbing boredom, you can actually fly all the way to Sydney, direct, for as little as £124 on a no-frills airline. We worked out that, given the plethora of flights from Europe, it can be cheaper to travel from London to Singapore then on to Australia with a budget airline than to travel all the way through.
  •  If you like trains, you can travel all the way up to Kuala Lumpur and even on to Bangkok on the supremely comfortable International Express, though since 2011 you’ve had to change at Johor Bahru rather than going straight through.
  • Hotels in Singapore are notoriously expensive, but Airbnb seems to be making it big these days. That said, the Park Hotel at Clarke Quay (which is really at Robertson Quay just down the road…) remains my favourite hotel of any I have ever stayed at anywhere in the world, partly courtesy of its lovely doorman, Mr Singh, who has now retired but whose kindness to this disheveled, nervous lone traveler masquerading as a high-flying business woman will never be forgotten.
  • The Singapore Flyer was vastly underwhelming and not very easy to get to in the tropical heat, but the view from the New Asia Bar was superb (though you might need to take out a bank loan).
  • And remember: don’t feed the birds, don’t spit or litter or jaywalk, and if you accidentally brought in something you shouldn’t, the toilets will be open for another 5 minutes… just don’t forget to flush.
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The Merlion, a modern product of Singapore’s imagination, and not a creature of ancient legend