A Trip to Rome

I confess, I found Rome a lot like Paris only with older ruins. Perhaps it’s me coming from the UK, or my having lived outside Europe for a long time, but the two felt rather similar. Both have world-famous landmarks in their centres; the streets are often narrow and paved with dark grey, square cobblestones many of which are missing; food and drink is a main attraction; the churches, fountains, and obelisks look strikingly similar; the streets are filthy, and many buildings covered in grime; the traffic is bad and parking spaces in short supply; certain areas are thick with tourists and the accompanying band of hawkers, vendors, and pickpockets. Bear in mind I like Paris a lot, so I didn’t think this was a bad thing.

The first sight we visited was the Trevi Fountain, which I’d never heard of. It was sixteen-deep with tourists, half of whom were trying to take my eye-out with selfie-sticks while the other half tossed coins into the water. It was nice enough, but once you’ve been to Peterhof, Baroque fountains never do much for you afterwards. We moved onto the Pantheon, pushed along by the crowd as if entering a football stadium. I hate crowds and I was already getting grumpy. Half the trouble was the pavements are tiny and you have to walk in the road, but nowhere is pedestrianised and you’re in danger of being mown down by a van or scooter at any moment. When Haussmann designed Paris he at least had the good sense to build wide pavements so pedestrians don’t compete for space with garbage trucks. Anyway, the Pantheon was…okay. Then it started to rain and, with bright sunshine forecast the next day, we abandoned the sightseeing and went for dinner.

My companion booked the restaurant, a well-known place popular with tourists that’s been around since 1906. From what I could tell, the Italians eat like this: first you order a plate a metre in diameter covered in cured ham. This they call a starter. Then you eat several kilogrammes of pasta. Then you eat a lump of meat the size of a rugby ball. At no point does a vegetable pass nearby. In case you’re still hungry you eat a tiramasu. I can only assume an Italian dinner lasts between five and eight hours, or they only eat once per week. I chose the cured ham – which was excellent – followed by the carbonara which was the house specialty. They made it slightly differently than I do, i.e. they fucked it up, but it was still very good. Very good.

The next day dawned bright and clear so we went to the top of the Spanish steps and took some photos.

Then we walked along the upper road and dropped down into the Piazza del Popolo, where sits an Egyptian obelisk which used to be in the middle of the Circus Maximus. I looked at this thing and wished that stones could talk. From there we took the metro to the Vatican where I ignored gangs of Indians telling me I was “going the wrong way”, and headed to Saint Peter’s Square. This was a nice spot and big enough that it wasn’t too crowded. However, the line to go inside was several hundred metres long and there was no way I was going to join it so we didn’t actually enter the Vatican proper, hence I missed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As we approached the building with the balcony  where the pope comes and waves at his flock, a dark cloud formed over my companion, who is Turkish. As we got closer, a warning bolt of lightning shot down and landed inches from her feet. Then when we got to the barrier a Swiss guard prodded her with his pike and said “We don’t want your sort ‘ere, now bugger off!” By contrast, I was left well alone (I may be making some of this up).

I was impressed by the Vatican, or what I saw of it from Saint Peter’s square. This was worth a visit.

We then hopped on a bus which took us across the Tiber and on to the Altare della Patria. This colossal monument features an enormous bronze statue of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king who united Italy. Given the size of the thing and the overall monument, you’d have thought he was someone who beat Napolean six-nil over two legs, home and away. This place also serves as the location for the grave of the unknown soldier and the eternal flame.

From there we walked through the Roman Forum, a collection of old ruins which perhaps ought to have done something for me but didn’t, and onto the Colosseum. This was very impressive but as we approached two dozen people of various nationalities came running up:

“Hello! Where are you from? Do you want to go inside? Do you? DO YOU? You can skip the line with me. Bonjour! Do you want to go inside? I can get you inside! Where are you from? Privyet! Do you want to skip the line? You want to go inside?”

This barrage came before I’d even had the slightest chance to look at the outside, and after that I wouldn’t have gone inside even if someone had let slip Maria Sharapova was there in a hot tub with two of her closest friends and wanted me to join them. So instead we took a leisurely stroll around the outside, where I got some nice photos. Like the Vatican, the Colosseum was worth seeing.

That evening we went to a restaurant where I had a very thin pizza covered in lumps of mozzarella cheese and cured ham. I’m assuming this is how pizzas are supposed to be done. Afterwards we went to a bar disguised as a speakeasy – a theme growing in popularity in Rome, I heard – which could easily have been in Paris. The main difference was Rome was much cheaper; visiting other cities makes me realise how ludicrously expensive Paris is for drinks, particularly spirits and cocktails.

The next day we caught a taxi to the airport and underwent a journey quite unlike any other I’d been on. The driver, an Italian in his fifties with a bald head and grey beard, was engaged in a heated discussion on his phone before we’d even pulled away. Often when this happens the driver spends a few more minutes on the phone before hanging up, but not this guy. He seemed to be following up on some sort of business transactions and had a scrap of paper he used as a ledger with various names and numbers on it, and called each one in turn, taking notes using the steering wheel as a desk. And this dickhead didn’t even have a hands-free kit, he either had to hold it or put it in his lap.

He was probably concentrating on the road for a maximum of 20%, which meant he was constantly slamming on the brakes and veering into the hard shoulder. Even when we got to the highway he didn’t change, and the above picture was taken at around 120kph. My friend recorded the videos below:

If I didn’t think this guy would pretend not to understand me, I’d have asked him to stop and concentrate on driving. Not that any of this surprised me: in April this year, Italy banned Uber because it represented “unfair competition” to traditional taxi drivers. Presumably they mean they would no longer be able to engage in unrelated business transactions while driving customers at high speed along the motorway. Of course, there was no point in complaining but had this been Uber the guy would have been out of a job before we’d cleared airport security. Remember this next time some corrupt politician or their lackey declares Uber is unsafe for passengers.

Anyway, Rome was nice and I’m glad I went.

(The full collection of my photos from Rome can be seen here).


Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

Last Saturday I went with a friend to visit Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 45 mins south of Paris.

Built between 1658-61, it was the first in what became known as the Louis XIV style, which is now arguably the “typical” look of a French chateau.

It was built as the personal home of one Nicolas Fouquet, who became King Louis XIV’s superintendent of finances in 1657. That’s right: the chap in charge of the France’s money built himself that house a year after taking up the position. Audits and oversight might have been a bit more lax in those days.

Setting the standard for what would follow in many French chateaus, M. Fouquet didn’t skimp on the gardens.

Alas, things didn’t work out too well for our intrepid superintendent of finances:

[T]he king had Fouquet arrested shortly after a famous fête that took place on 17 August 1661…The celebration had been too impressive and the superintendent’s home too luxurious.

Building yourself a house like that when you work for King Louis XIV is a bit like Roman Abramovich’s accountant buying a mega-yacht several metres longer than that of his boss. Probably not a good idea if self-preservation is top of your agenda.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert led the king to believe that his minister’s magnificence was funded by the misappropriation of public funds.

Ya think?!

However, Louis XIV was suitably impressed and ordered a similar chateau for himself at Versailles.

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is now privately owned, administered by three brothers, the descendants of those who bought the place in 1875 after it had stood neglected for 30 years. It is open to the public, and you can rent a golf buggy to drive yourself around if you’re bone-idle (we are, so we did).

In the 19th century somebody built a golden statue of Hercules at the far end of the garden.

One of the main attractions of the chateau is the candlelit evenings they put on each Saturday in summer. They lay out a couple of thousand candles around the gardens and chateau and everyone stays until sundown and says “Aaaaaaaah!”

It was worth the wait, although we didn’t hang around for the 11pm firework display. If you can make it one day, it’s worth doing. It is nicer than the Palace of Versailles in my opinion, which I thought was too big, lacking character, and too full of tourists.


A Trip to Nantes

The city of Nantes in the Pays de Loire region consistently ranks highly in the lists of best places to live in France, probably because it is big enough to have all the amenities of a city, yet it is surrounded by countryside and only 2 1/2 hours from Paris by train. Possibly the biggest attraction is that you have a dozen or more beaches and seaside towns within an hour’s drive, making the place great in summer.

The town itself is nice enough and reminded me a lot of Bordeaux: lots of little side streets, cafes, bars, and students. There were also a lot of unwashed hippy-types sitting about in bare feet holding pieces of string with a dog on the end. I’d not seen many of them in France before, but Nantes had plenty. Probably the best thing to do when arriving in Nantes is to walk around the outside of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany and then find something to eat and drink: being a former port town whose shipyards closed long ago, Nantes is nice but not beautiful.

The mirror above was pretty neat. In front was a football pitch laid out in a curve such that the mirror would reflect it as a perfect rectangle.

One of the main attractions of Nantes is Les Machines de l’île, a permanent exhibition of animatronic animals built in the steampunk genre in an area of reclaimed dockyards near the city centre. The most famous of the exhibits is a giant mechanical elephant which carries passengers on a journey of a few hundred metres every hour or so.

It’s both a fantastic work of art and feat of mechanical engineering. Driven on wheels by electric motors, hydraulics make the legs move giving the impression it’s walking. A combination of pneumatics and hydraulics make the head, ears, and trunk move. Were this in Australia the people following would be stood two hundred metres away behind barriers, but in France people are still allowed to have fun so everyone walks alongside or in front, with the kids getting sprayed with water from the trunk. A security guard sort of ushers people out of the way, but otherwise you can get pretty close. To be fair, the thing moves pretty slowly and you’d have to be trying pretty hard to get hurt.

Inside there were some smaller animals, including a mechanical ant which I’d seen a year before at the Paris Maker Faire.

There was also a caterpillar, a heron, and a giant spider each of which could carry a handful of passengers who, by pulling various levers, could make the animals’ appendages move in a realistic fashion. The whole exhibition was an excellent combination of aesthetically pleasing arts and complex engineering, something which is never easy to pull off.

Afterwards I went for a short walk along the slipways of the old docks, where the city has adopted and preserved an old crane as a reminder of its industrial heritage (If you look carefully you can see the elephant on the left).

That evening I watched footage of the flypast in Paris and Trump causing lefty heads to explode by complimenting Macron’s wife on her figure. I was hoping he’d rumble down the Champs Élysées in an Abrams tank, crushing a few vehicles on the way, but instead he turned up in a limo. Back in Nantes, the municipality laid on a firework display in the castle for the Bastille Day celebrations. Judging by the crowd, the entire city turned up to watch them.

The next day I headed to the harbour town of Pornic, which sounds a bit like an app connecting amateur pornstars with budding directors in your area. Naturally, the first thing to do was eat some oysters at the grand price of 6 for 10 euro.

France is probably the only place I’d eat oysters, and the Atlantic coast is the only place I’d make a point of eating them. Meaty, cheap, and delicious they were. As I found with other small coastal towns in France, the visitors are almost exclusively French so you can safely eat in a restaurant which looks “touristy”. You’d not want to do that in one of the more famous towns like Etretat or Le Mont Saint Michel, where the menu will be laminated and in sixteen languages with Russian and Chinese near the top.

Pornic was a nice place, even with the tide out.

On the way back to Nantes I stopped at the Réserve Naturelle de Grand-Lieu, which is basically a lake.

It was nice enough, but what I most enjoyed was coming across a field of mowed hay and taking in the smell of it. Then a tractor pulled up with a hay-turner and I stared long enough for the driver to hop out and ask me if I was wanting anything in particular. I explained that I’d grown up around farm machinery and, living in Paris, I missed it. He sympathised, but not enough to immediately put the thing into action for my entertainment. On the drive back I passed a dozen or so fields of wheat being harvested, dust flying everywhere.

Just for fun, here’s a pic of me with the elephant.

(The rest of my photos from this trip can be seen here.)


A Trip to Budapest

It was a lovely day as the nosewheel of my EasyJet plane touched the tarmac of the runway at Budapest’s airport, with the sun shining and the sky blue. In fact, things were looking pretty idyllic right up until the pilot gunned the engines and shot us back up into the sky at a thirty degree angle. If the steward sat opposite me thought we were all about to die he hid it well, and instead got on the intercom and said that this was “perfectly normal”. For some reason it didn’t bother me in the least, and it gave me time to finish what I was watching on my iPad: Air Crash Investigation – Runway Inferno. I’m kidding, it was something else. Anyway, we did a fifteen minute circle and the second time we had a go there were no fuckups, and we landed safely.

Having gotten my bag off the carousel I immediately fired up Uber only to discover it didn’t work. I didn’t get a message saying “Uber doesn’t work” it just said it was unable to find a car, and did so repeatedly. On further investigation I found the Hungarian government effectively banned them last year. I thought about this for a moment. Had I known that in advance, I might have hesitated before deciding to come to Budapest. Okay, I would probably still have come and as things turned out the city’s public transport is cheap and good, but having found Uber to be invaluable in Lisbon I would have had to think about it. Had it been a more marginal choice, i.e. somewhere I was only mildly interested in visiting, I might have chosen elsewhere. I think in a few years we’ll be at a stage where a city not having Uber will start to cost it dearly in terms of visitor numbers. Anyway, there wasn’t much to be done so I booked a shuttle in the form of a minibus which took me to my hotel.

Only halfway there I realised I didn’t have my iPad on me. I’d decided to hand carry it this time, due to my bringing a small camera bag as hand luggage. Normally I’d put the iPad in a bigger backpack, but not this time. I was vaguely aware that I needed to be careful not to leave it anywhere only I didn’t listen to myself and I did just that. But I had no idea where. I asked the shuttle driver to call the people manning the counter where I’d booked the shuttle and he did, but no joy. I reached the hotel and checked in and told the receptionist what had happened. She very helpfully called the airport and got through to the outfit managing EasyJet who said they’d call if they found it on the plane. I was convinced I’d left it on the seat beside me, but couldn’t understand why the guy sat beside me didn’t notice and alert me. Then again, he might have been a Scouser (sorry Thud).

I didn’t want to hang around waiting for news so I jumped in a taxi and went back to the airport. I looked around for some sort of information desk but all I saw was a row of phones. I got the number of the EasyJet management office and asked them if they’d found an iPad, and they said “Oh, your hotel called earlier and we just called back to say…no, we haven’t.” I asked them who I would call if I left it somewhere in the airport, and they said “security”. I called the security number realising things were looking pretty hopeless at this point, and explained to somebody that I’d lost an iPad. He checked with his mates and came back and said “Nope, sorry”. To be fair, everyone was as helpful as could be and plenty sympathetic. I bet they’d not be either in Manchester airport, you’d be barked at by some nasty little fascist in a hi-viz vest who would issue stern warnings about how you’d breached some law on terrorism written to neutralise hardened jihadists fighting in Afghanistan but now applied to schoolkids going through British airports.

Where was I? That’s right, my iPad. Anyway, I pretty much gave up. I hung around the ATM machine wondering if I’d left it there, then decided to write it off and go back to the hotel. On a whim I decided to ask in the Vodafone shop if anyone had handed it in, and the bloke working in there said no, but perhaps I should try left luggage just down the corridor. So I did and this fat chap behind a desk said “Yes, indeed we do have an iPad.” He reached in the drawer and pulled out what was definitely my iPad. I proved it by unlocking it, and he made me sign a scrap of paper and we were reunited once more. Apparently a policeman had handed it in, but obviously hadn’t told the guys from “security” that I’d called five minutes earlier. Anyway, I was relieved: it had been backed up that morning, but shelling out for a new iPad wouldn’t have been the ideal start to what was supposed to be a quick and cheap trip to Budapest.

The hotel wasn’t great, but its location was: right in the centre of all the bars and restaurants, on Rumbach street. When they said my room had a “city view” they were not wrong, only the part of the city I could view was a residential building across the street, the shop on the ground floor, and that was it. The quality of a hotel can be ascertained by the towels alone, and the ones in this joint put it somewhere between backpacker hostel and Travelodge. Nice hotels don’t supply shower gel using a dispenser screwed to the wall with the contents diluted with water; this one did. But for all that, it was clean, the staff friendly, and the breakfast adequate. For what I paid, I couldn’t complain much and I didn’t.

Hungary isn’t in the Eurozone, something I discovered sometime between booking my flight and taking off. They use forints, which sounds very medieval to me. I’d not be surprised to hear Salisbury cathedral was built for a total cost of twelve thousand forints, for example. This didn’t make Budapest incredibly cheap, but it wasn’t expensive either. I went for a wander down to the river just to catch the sunset, passing lots of bars on the way. A lot of locals were sat outside in the warm evening drinking beer out of enormous glass tankards. Budapest looked like a good place to go on the piss. Most of the buildings were nice if rather unkempt, but you could tell that people from the Soviet school of architecture had been given the run of the place for a while. Below is a photo of the Marriott hotel built on a prime spot on the banks of the Danube:

Thank God us Brits would never construct an eyesore hotel like that right beside one of our main tourist attractions.

Ahem. Anyway, by the time I’d got to the river I’d missed the sunset. I noticed a lot of Thai massage places dotted about and wondered if they had genuine Thais working in them and whether you could get a genuine massage. The attractiveness of the women would answer this latter question in a heartbeat, but they were all tucked away inside and out of sight. In Thailand they’d have been sat outside flapping price lists in your face and bawling at you.

For dinner I chose a Jewish restaurant near my hotel, simply because it looked more like a proper restaurant than a bar which happens to serve some food. I sat on a small table opposite a young American couple made up of a distractingly attractive long-haired woman in tight trousers and a ginger man with a beard who looked as though he was an engineer. For a starter I ordered Jókai, which is a bean soup, and it was excellent. For the main course I had little choice on my first night in Budapest other than to order goulash, and that was good too if a little salty. It was all helped down with a large glass of Dreher beer which seemed to be pretty good, although I’m as much a beer connoisseur as I am an acrobat. During the meal an old man in his seventies played an upright piano that was placed right in the middle of the restaurant. His appearance matched damned near every stereotype of an old Eastern European piano-playing Jewish guy you’ve ever seen portrayed, but he wasn’t half good.

The next morning I set out with my camera and followed a main road in an arc down to the Liberty Bridge. On the way I passed several bookshops, one of which had in the window a single English-language volume: Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, which is a collection of short stories. I’m a fan of du Maurier and this collection didn’t used to be on Kindle (it is now) and it caught my attention. I went in and asked to see it: it was a hardback in good condition. I asked how much it was and he said 2,000 florins which is about 6-7 euros. That was cheap enough for me and so I bought it, although more damage was done to its jacket in a day in my backpack than had been wrought in the thirty or forty years its previous owners had had it. I crossed the Liberty Bridge and walked up the hill to the citadel and victory monument, which offered superb views of the city.

There were a fair few tourists about, but it wasn’t packed. I passed groups of Russians who looked as though they hailed from the provinces more than Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and I heard plenty of French being spoken by other groups as well. I walked alongside the citadel and just as I started to descend I came across a street hustler trying to get tourists to play the ball-and-cup game. When I arrived he was in a full-on argument with a German woman in her sixties who, from what I could tell, was outraged that he had played a sleight-of-hand trick on her. What she expected was anyone’s guess, I always thought you paid these guys in appreciation of their skill. I only hope she never went to a magic show later on.

I followed a lightly wooded pathway down to the riverbank and followed it northwards for about a mile, staying on the Buda side. I walked about halfway between the Széchenyi Chain bridge and Margaret Island, far enough to take a decent photo of the Hungarian Parliament Building partly bathed in sunlight.

By this point my back was hurting me (I’ve got a long-standing issue with it which won’t go away) and so I walked back to the Széchenyi Chain bridge, crossed over, and walked back to my hotel. One thing I noticed as I wandered through Budapest is how meaningless the signage was to me. Being able to speak English, French, and Russian I am pretty well able to work out what most signs on buildings refer to, but with Hungarian being utterly unrelated to any of those (and seemingly everything else except Finnish, although debates rage about this) I had absolutely no idea what any of the buildings were. I’d not been in this situation since I was in the Baltic states, completely unable to interpret any of the writing and signage. At first glance it looked similar to written Turkish, at least to me. When I heard Hungarian spoken it sounded like nothing I’d heard before. But for all that, nearly everybody spoke English well enough for me to get by, even if the older people were struggling. The younger ones, as you’d expect, spoke it well albeit with strange, heavy accents which told me their native tongue was not Slavic.

Some of my readers had advised me to go to a spa, in particular the Széchenyi thermal baths. Given the state of my back I thought it would be a good idea, but this would involve taking the metro. I walked to the nearest station and followed the steps down and was surprised to find there were no barriers. There was a ticket booth, which was closed, and some small machines into which you put your ticket each time you travel. An honesty system, in other words. This would work in Britain for about twenty seconds before it would become a free-for-all. With the ticket booth being closed I couldn’t work out where to buy a ticket and I thought about just jumping on and dodging the fare, but I didn’t want to end up in a Hungarian prison or, worse, in a pot of goulash. So I walked to the next station and crossed to the other side of the tracks where I found one that was open, only later spotting the ticket machines that are sprinkled around all over Budapest. It seems all the transport systems – metro, trams, buses – work off the same ticket, and you can use the same ticket on different systems in a single journey, which comes at a standard price of 350 forint: about 1.10 euro. A similar journey in Paris is 1.45 euro. In London it’s 5.70 euros if you don’t use an Oyster card, 3.40 euros if you do. That says it all, doesn’t it?

The line that took me to the baths (Line 1, yellow) was basically an underground tram. Small carriages rattled me along through stations that looked a bit like those of the New York subway with their vertical steel stanchions festooned with rivets and coated with paint half an inch thick. At the first station a gigantic man got on wearing the armband of a ticket inspector, and he asked everyone in the carriage to show their tickets. I was glad at that point that I hadn’t tried dodging the fare otherwise this post might have been rather different (albeit possibly a lot more interesting).

I arrived at the baths, which were in a complex of classical design and would not have been out of place in Saint Petersburg or Paris. Certainly the system of paying, entering, and renting a towel would not have been out of place in Soviet-era Leningrad. The price list had been printed on a sign in font size 8 and had so many combinations and exceptions that I gave up and just asked for 1 adult and paid whatever was asked. Next I went downstairs into a corridor full of people walking around in swimming costumes, some of them wrapped in towels but often not. I got a bit lost but eventually found where one rents a towel and saw a piece of A4 paper on the counter telling everyone that the kiosk is closed for 15 minutes because of a shift change. So a lengthy queue formed while two women went through a laborious process of counting cash out of a metal container, putting elastic bands around bundles of notes and putting them into a bag, and signing endless pieces of paper. I am sure this was set up with the best of intentions to prevent theft and one person being blamed for another’s light-fingeredness, but I can’t see this Swiss or Americans doing it quite like this. Had I not spent years in Russia where inefficencies and the resulting queues are perfectly normal I may have gotten a little frustrated (as some Germans behind me were), but as it was I found it rather amusing and a wave of nostalgia swept over me as I watched these two functionaries filling out paperwork related to towel rentals oblivious to the queue of customers that was growing steadily beside them. Whoever set this system up must have spent years in the Soviet Union perfecting their knowledge before returning to Hungary to put into practice what they’d learned.

I eventually managed to obtain a towel for 1,000 forints and another 2,000 as a deposit and I went to the lockers to get changed. Fortunately Hungarian spas are not like French public swimming pools where budgie-smugglers are compulsory and I could happily wander around in normal swimming shorts. The place was busy, and every single body type was on display from lithe teenage girls to enormously fat old people. It is times like this when I am glad that I at least attend the gym regularly, although holding the gut in for minutes at a time is tiring work. There were two huge outdoor pools, one for swimming laps and the other for lolling around in. I jumped in the latter and lolled around, and wondered if this was all there was to the place. It wasn’t far off the sort of pool you see in large hotels in Thailand. I noticed people going into the building on the opposite side so I decided to follow them, and discovered a huge indoor complex of dozens of different pools all linked together by a maze of corridors. Giant spa baths surrounded by ornate marble columns looked like the sort of places Roman orgies would have taken place in, and (staying on stereotypes) the steam rooms I imagined to be full of KGB spies meeting double agents, one of whom would later be found on the floor with his throat cut. Each pool was of a different temperature ranging from 15-40 degrees Celsius, and there were loads of them. I tried one and then the other and then all the rest, revisiting some in no particular order but avoiding the cold ones. I went in saunas that were like the inside of a lime kiln and steam rooms full of old men with large bellies. Some of the pools smelled of minerals, and if I were lazy I’d tell you it was sulphur but it wasn’t, it was something else. Limestone, maybe? I don’t know, but the water had a whiff about it and I didn’t drink any. The baths didn’t do my back any good, but it was an interesting experience. I didn’t stay more than a couple of hours, and took the metro back into town.

As I got near my hotel I passed one of the Thai massage places and, given the state of my back, I popped in. The women seated inside looked as though they knew what they were doing and for a very reasonable 4,000 forints I paid the (Hungarian) receptionist and was led downstairs past a slate water feature to a basement kitted out with massage cubicles made from bamboo. Whoever decorated and dished out the uniforms certainly knew what Thai massage places are supposed to look like. It was pretty gloomy inside and I didn’t see much of the girl who came in to work on me once I’d put on the giant pajama bottoms that Thai massages require. I told her my lower back hurt and she went to work expertly, using fingers, elbows, knees, and feet to get all the right spots. She kept at it for twenty or thirty minutes and then asked me to roll onto my back, where she patted my knob through my pajamas and asked “Does he hurt? I can massage him if you like?” I laughed at that, and declined (yes, really). She then carried on massaging my back for another five minutes and that was that. It was a good massage, but it did nothing for my back unfortunately. I think I need a new one.

That evening I went back to the Jewish restaurant and ordered the Jókai again, followed by some roast goose breast. Goose appeared all over this menu, it appears the Hungarians like to eat it. It wasn’t bad, but I think I preferred the goulash. Once again they had a piano player who was different from the one the night before but of the same age and no less stereotypical. Once I was fed I went into a place right next door, which I’d seen the night before. It was a small metal door opening onto a set of concrete steps leading downwards into a cellar-bar, with a sign posted upon it saying “live music”. I am incapable of walking past a place like this: I love underground dive bars which play live music, and most of the other places I’d seen were full of young folk in designer shirts served by barmaids with tattoos while the DJ played shite like Beyoncé at high-volume.

I went in and ordered a Jack Daniels which was less than 5 euros and went into the small area where a small, three-piece band had set up some equipment. There was a piano on the left, a microphone in the centre with a chair in front of it, and drumset in the back right-hand corner. The ceiling was low, the walls and columns made from rough brick, and it stank to high-heaven. Manky old sofas had been placed around the walls of the room and most of them were occupied, and the area in the middle filled with old chairs most of which were falling apart and no two were alike. The tables weren’t much better. The people ranged from old men with beards to middle-aged women in knee-boots, and from clean-cut men to hipsters, Goths, and artsy types of both sexes. Nobody had come here to look cool or to be seen. Half of them were tourists. I picked an empty chair which almost collapsed underneath me, and swapped it for one more sturdy. I wasn’t expecting much: there was no guitar on the stage and the whole setup looked as though they’d be playing jazz, which to me sounds like a petshop caught fire beside a saucepan factory.

I was wrong. Three guys came out and immediately launched into Chicago blues: the pianist was superb, playing rock and roll and boogie-woogie and the singer not only had a superb, deep voice perfect for blues but was also a whizz on the harmonica. That cheered me up no-end and before long I was rushing back to the bar to get myself another drink, and then another (and then another). They played for about forty minutes then took a break during which I shook hands with the singer and had a conversation with the pianist. He told me he was in his forties and had been playing the piano since he was seven, and it showed. He’d been classically trained, and Hungarians know a thing or two about pianos, but now all he played was blues and rock and roll in several bands, playing in this particular bar once per month just for fun. A little later on I spoke to a small, thick-haired chap sat just behind me and he told me he was a schoolfriend of the pianist and he always comes to watch him play. He said they were actually from Romania, only a part of it which is ethnically Hungarian (Transylvania, normally associated to Romania, straddles both countries on some definitions). He told me he’d grown up speaking both Romanian and Hungarian, and had moved to Budapest decades ago, as had the pianist. He had in front of him a shot glass containing a dark liquid and I asked him what it was. He told me it was called Unicum, a popular Hungarian liqueur which probably faces marketing difficulties in English-speaking countries. I’d certainly never heard of it. He offered it to me and, hoping it was cheap as buttons and not the equivalent of some 80-year old single malt whisky, I necked it in one. It was pretty foul, a lot like Jägermeister only without the Red Bull. I pulled a funny face, and thanked him. The band did another maginificent set of 40 minutes, wrapped up, came back for an encore, and then left for good. It was way past midnight at this point, so I shook the hand of the man who’d given me the drink, said goodbye, and made the short walk back to my hotel.

The next morning I decided to go to Memento Park, which is where the Budapest authorities stuck some of the old Soviet statues from the Communist times. Mel had mentioned it in the comments and it sounded interesting, but for some reason I thought it was this place which is actually in Tallinn. Anyone sensible would have researched this but readers of this blog ought by now to know that sense isn’t something I possess in abundance, and so I discovered my error only once I arrived there. The journey took about an hour and was in three parts (all on the same ticket): first a tram, then Line No. 4 of the metro, and then a bus. This part of the metro had clearly been either built recently or very much refurbished because the stations were spacious and ultra-modern and the carriages more of the type you see in the West. The bus was very modern as well, and had digital displays telling you where you were and which stop was next, and the main bus station had a digital display saying when each bus was leaving next. The bus route took us through what amounted to suburban villages, small roads lined with independent houses which didn’t look much different from the modern dachas you see built on the outskirts of Russian towns. Memento Park was probably worth the visit because I got to see some stuff outside of Budapest, but very similar statues I’d seen littering Russia in a hundred towns already.

When I got back into town I went to the Franz Listz museum which, as Squawkbox had told me in the comments, consisted of four rooms where the maestro used to live and work. I saw old pianos, some personal effects and, erm, that was about it. They weren’t playing any of his music, but my merely visiting this place lifted my knuckles off the ground for a few minutes, or so I shall claim. Next I went to the New York cafe where you can sit under chandeliers and drink coffee in a palatial setting. Well, you can if the maitre d’ doesn’t whip a Tensabarrier across the front of you and tells you to “wait there” as if you’re trying to get into a fucking nightclub in Salford. My eye was drawn to a poster advertising a coffee and biscuit for 17 euros and so turned on my heel and left. I made my way up the street to a Tex-Mex place I’d passed earlier: not very Hungarian I know, but Budapest has a pretty international range of eateries and drinkeries. I passed quite a few bars with outdoor seating areas, several of which accommodated groups of young British men obviously on stag parties. I saw parties of Norwegians and Germans as well, who also looked to be in town for the purpose of getting smashed. I went into the Tex-Mex place and the waiter was an old man whose idea of answering questions about items on the menu (such as “How do you cook the beef strips? Rare?”) was to read out what the item was (“Beef!”). I ordered some burritos which, when they came, were very average.

That evening I went to a Spanish bar which I’d spotted earlier and looked quite lively. I think it was called Bareclona. I walked into a place that was almost entirely empty and a young, tattooed waitress immediately asked if I had a reservation. I said I didn’t and just wanted a drink, so I was invited to sit at the bar. I quickly realised I was in one of those bars that is run by a bunch of young staff for themselves and their mates; nevertheless they did a good bourbon cocktail of which I drank two. I then went to eat in a restaurant that was far more touristy than the one I’d eaten at the two nights previously and I ordered what turned out to be a giant schnitzel served on a bed of very bland and greasy potato crisps (described as chips in the menu). Like the burritos I’d had for lunch, it was very average. Like most places, food in Budapest is highly dependent on where you go. Afterwards I went back to the underground dive bar, choosing to avoid mainstream places full of posers and hipsters. This time the band was again three-piece but made up of a man on guitar, another on drums, and a woman playing bass. All of them were in their fifties, playing stuff like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. Not really my cup of tea but I got a drink and sat on another rickety old chair and listened anyway.

After a while I started talking to the chap next to me, a Spaniard in his early or mid thirties. He had been living in Budapest about a year, working as an engineer on railways and trams. That’s the beauty of engineering, you can take it pretty much anywhere, it’s all the same. He was in the company of a dark-haired girl who, when he introduced me, I asked if she was Hungarian. She laughed and said no. I asked if she was Spanish, and she laughed again. She asked me to guess where she was from, and I said I had no idea. She insisted I try, and I clarified that she wasn’t Spanish-but-not-exactly, like Colombian or something. She said she wasn’t. I picked up something in her accent and took a guess.

“Turkey,” I said.

“Right!” she said.

She was from Istanbul, and the two had met when he’d been working there before he moved to Hungary. I sat with them for a while, chatting and watching the band. When the music had wrapped up David, as the Spaniard was called, and his Turkish girlfriend invited me to join them in the next place they were going: the Barcelona bar! So off we went and by that time it was packed, and people were dancing anywhere they could and crowding the bar. We got some drinks in and chatted as best as we could above the din of the music. David said the place had opened only in the past year, and when he heard about it he, being Spanish, decided to check it out (despite being from Madrid he didn’t mention wanting to firebomb it. But then he also said he didn’t like football). As he put it:

“When I first came I saw that it looked quite Spanish. But then they asked if I had a reservation! Nobody makes a reservation for a restaurant in Spain!”

I laughed at that. A little later on, when David was at the bar and I was stood next to his girlfriend, out of nowhere she turned to me and said:

“I don’t know what is going to happen in Turkey.”

I found this telling: Recep Erdo?an is hoping to drum up enough support to win a referendum this April which will change Turkey from a Parliamentary Republic into a Presidential Republic, thus putting him firmly in charge. This young lady was not the first Turk I’ve met who showed signs of being deeply concerned about the future of Turkey under Erdo?an, so much so that they feel compelled to share it with complete strangers. There was very little I could say in response to that. We didn’t stay out much longer, and we all had a photo together (which David emailed me over the weekend) before calling it a night and going to our respective homes.

I didn’t have time for much the next morning other than going to the airport and returning to Paris. I liked Budapest: it looks like a great place to go on the piss, as bars are plentiful, they are quite cheap, and drinking beer appears to be a national pastime. The atmosphere was pleasant, the people friendly, and the city welcoming. I don’t know if I’ll go back but I’m glad I’ve been once, and I recommend everyone else does too.

(The full collection of photos taken on my trip to Budapest can be seen here.)


A Trip to Lisbon

The first thing I noticed about Lisbon was how nice the weather was: twenty-three degrees Celsius and blue skies. Judging by the palm trees dotted about outside the airport it didn’t look as though this was a one-off, either.

I ignored the ranks of surly-looking taxi drivers and called an Uber, which told me to wait at a very specific spot at the departure area. I did so and watched on my phone as my assigned car drove around in circles nearby, but nowhere in sight, before my request got cancelled and they billed me 2,50 euros for my trouble. Thanks, Uber. I requested another and the same car got assigned: this time I wandered around a bit and found my driver, a middle-aged Portuguese woman, standing in a nearby car park looking for me.

“This is where the Uber collects people,” she said.

“That might be so, but the app told me to wait over there,” I replied.


My grumpiness had dissolved by the time I got dropped off at my hotel 20 minutes away, and I even got a refund for the cancelled trip. I gave the driver 5-stars as compensation for my complaining.

I’d booked myself into the TURIM Marques hotel based on a quick look at prices and review scores on booking.com. As I checked in I was somewhat surprised to be asked to pay the bill in advance. To be fair, I’d been faced with such requests before: once in a hotel in Abu Dhabi that was frequented by ropey Chinese prostitutes; another time in a Moscow hotel that had purple velvet in the lift, curtains that didn’t fit the window frame, and a security guard that might have had a second job in a quarry smashing rocks with his hands; and once more in a dodgy motel just off I-95 somewhere in Virginia. I told the clerk that I had no objection to paying now, but it is highly unusual and doesn’t reflect well on the hotel at all (I listed the other times I’d been asked). He said it was the management’s policy, as if I was under the impression it had been handed down by God. He then told me it was a new hotel and a lot of the guests take off without paying. I urged him to continue, believing I was getting far more information about this joint than a review on Tripadviser could ever tell me. He tailed off, and looked at me blankly. I quit torturing him and paid up. It didn’t affect me much, but if my credit card had been subject to foreign currency charges and I later billed stuff to the room, I’d have been well hacked off.

Aside from that, the hotel was very nice. Very modern, comfortable rooms, etc. The breakfast was okay, certainly nothing special, but not awful either. And the location was probably too far north for most tourists: I discovered on my first evening that the interesting bits of town were a fifteen minute walk way, and I walk fast. Anyone wanting to see the sights of downtown Lisbon, especially with kids, would do better to book a hotel closer to the estuary.

I waited until the sun started to dip at about 6pm and walked all the way down the Avenue do Liberdade, through the square with the Monumento dos Restauradores and then the other square just behind it with the statue of King John I and then through some narrow streets to what I supposed is the main square of the city, the Praça do Comércio situated right beside the estuary.

From there I got a good view of the April 25th Bridge at sunset and the Sao Jorge castle on the hill in the other direction.

I did this walk mainly to get my bearings and figure out where I would wander over the next two days.

I walked past what I later realised was the Santa Justa Lift, noticing more the high walkway that leads to the connecting building with its nice wrought ironwork. I walked up and down a few short, steep streets looking for a place to eat (I’d barely eaten since breakfast). I noticed the tram tracks running along the streets in that part of town, and recalled the recommendations I’d had to ride them. Perhaps there is some romantic attachment to them but alas I was on my own, and I found it took me two or three minutes to hike the two hundred metres up the hill in my Merrell boots saving myself 3,70 euros in the process. I occasionally march up and down the hills around Annecy, and I didn’t find much in Lisbon that put me off walking. The other tourists, lazy lot, seemed to enjoy riding the trams though.

Eventually I found a restaurant-stroke-bar where I was shown to a small balcony overlooking a square filled with off-duty fire engines on which sat a high table that wobbled more than the local economy. I was starving but wanted to try a cold, white port as an aperitif (it having been recommended by Mr Worstall). That came and it was good, and I drank it while waiting for a codfish pie to be baked (or defrosted). When that came I tucked in and it was good, but I needed another drink and so I asked the waitress for a local beer. She had no idea what I was on about and she’d swiped the menu when I’d ordered the fish pie, and so she enlisted the help of the barman.

“We’ve got Stella,” he said.

So much for local beer; Belgian would have to do. The bill came to about 12 euros.

I wandered around some more, slowly making my way back towards the hotel, when off a side-street I spotted a tapas bar. In I went and sat down at a table and decided at these prices I could afford two dinners, and so ordered a bottle of water, a local beer (actually, it might have been Spanish), and a bowl of deep-fried potatoes in hot sauce. I sat there and drank and munched and read my book; the place wasn’t busy, perhaps because it was 10pm on a Thursday night. I asked for the bill and it came to 11 euros. I was beginning to like Portugal: the beer alone would have cost that in Paris.

The next morning I got up bright and early, packed away a plate or two of cooked breakfast and some oversweet coffee from an automatic machine, then walked to the foot of the hill on which Sao Jorge castle sits. I tapped in a walking route on Google maps and off I trudged, following winding lanes and climbing flights of stairs as I ascended ever-upwards. At one point the route took me through a very dodgy back alley filled with young men stood around doing nothing in particular, more than one of whom looked to be on drugs and another seemingly in the middle of taking them. This was sometime between ten and eleven in the morning. There was I weaving between them with my Canon SLR just waiting to be mugged, but this boy didn’t live seven years in Manchester and not learn a thing or two about carrying a camera in the manner of a housebrick and walking fast with a sense of purpose akin to somebody on his way to confront a neighbour over rumours involving his teenage daughter. I got left alone.

The view from the castle was spectacular, and I spent a fair bit of time up there exploring the battlements and taking photos. For a while I just sat down and looked at the view. There was a cool breeze when I was there, but I could imagine it got red-hot in summer. The castle apparently features a camera obscura that allows tourists a 360-degree view of the city, but this was closed on the day I went. I have no idea why.

The Sao Jorge castle done, I pondered where to go next. I decided on the Belém Tower located some 10km down the estuary towards the sea. Rather than fanny about with public transport I called an Uber and got picked up by a chap who prattled on about his transport company that was started by he and three of his mates all of whom used to be drivers for the Portuguese air force. Apparently individuals can’t register as Uber drivers in Portugal, they need to form a company, and these lot did and…well, I stopped listening. I did get to look at some of the sights along the way though, the main one of which was the April 25th Bridge which used to be called the Salazar Bridge and is likened to the Golden Gate Bridge because it is a suspension bridge of roughly the same colour. The dominance of the bridge in terms of height, span, and arterial importance reminded me of the 15 July Martyrs Bridge in Istanbul. What is it with these people and (re)naming bridges with dates? It interested me to see that the bridge in Lisbon was double-decked with a lower section carrying trains that was retrofitted, albeit to an original design that had allowed for it. Large scale structural engineering never fails to impress me.

My driver dropped me (8 euros later) at the Belém Tower where I set about taking photos. I didn’t bother going up the tower itself, I couldn’t see that it would supply any view better than the quite splendid one I was enjoying right beside it. The weather was still gorgeous.

My Uber driver had told me there was a military museum close by and I wandered over to take a look. It cost 4 euros to enter and I did so purely because there was an exhibition on the independence wars in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. I didn’t know a lot about these conflicts, and although the exhibition wasn’t very extensive I got the basics which appeared to be as follows: António de Oliveira Salazar really didn’t want to give up these colonies and bankrupted the country trying to hang onto them. They seemed to be mercifully light on massacres and overall loss of life (at least insofar as the Portuguese were concerned) but nevertheless they were committing 1.3 million soldiers to these places some 15 years after every other European power had surrendered their colonies. Little wonder there was a revolution back home in 1974. All of this was new to me. I appeared to be the only other visitor in the museum and so I was free to fiddle with artillery pieces and poke my head into the opened hatches of armoured cars. To be honest, the Portuguese military doesn’t look up to much. One of their displays concerned anti-piracy operations off the horn of Africa and they’d even put up a mannequin dressed as a Somali pirate complete with a battered pair of jeans and an AK-47. I would have said a 1997 Arsenal away strip would have been more authentic than a plain grey t-shirt with holes in it, but it wasn’t a bad effort anyway.

I left the museum and walked along the promenade in the direction of Lisbon, and stopped in a tented restaurant along the way. I ordered some sort of tagliatelle with truffles and ham which turned out to be pretty good, washed down with a beer. Lemon pie and coffee followed and I paid about 20 euros – this was a premium location and a posh joint to boot – and waddled on my way. The next stop was the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a large stone monument with figurines of all the various people that contributed to what is known as the Portuguese Age of Discovery. I was impressed by this monument, both for the subject and design.

I had always assumed that Vasco da Gama was the most prominent Portuguese explorer and hence he would assume the head position on the monument, but it turns out Henry the Navigator hailed from Porto. With a name like that I assumed he was from somewhere near Ipswich. Anyway, whilst I may have no idea who would win a straight-up map-off between Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator the Portuguese plainly do because they’d set the latter at head of the monument with the former a couple of places behind him. My flippancy aside, you have to stand and admire the Portuguese for what they contributed to seafaring exploration, and I did just that.

By now I was drawing a general impression of the Portuguese, at least those I saw around me in Lisbon. They came across as very friendly, helpful people. Most spoke English, sort of. Enough for me, anyway. At the risk of sounding horrible, I got the impression that what they lacked in high intellect they made up for with hard work. Compared to Paris where intellectuals sit in cafes discussing the failings of Capitalism while dog shit lies uncleared on the pavement, people in Lisbon seemed to be doing stuff rather than merely talking about it in lofty terms. The place looked poor though, and this was particularly obvious when I took the train out through the suburbs of Benfica and others on my way to Sintra the next day. There were a lot of decrepit housing blocks covered in graffiti, and many areas the train passed through looked run down. But not the city centre itself, that looked nice and clean. The other thing I liked was even though it was a popular tourist destination, it didn’t feel like one. Maybe it was the time of year, but there weren’t gangs of people hassling you for one thing or another, and there was also a distinct lack of people who looked like pickpockets. I still don’t think Lisbon can match Paris as a tourist destination, but compared to Barcelona – which everyone raves about – it knocks it into a cocked hat. Yeah, I liked Lisbon and the people in it.

Once I was done with the Padrão dos Descobrimentos I crossed the road and headed for the Jerónimos Monastery, at which point I thought “Fuck it, I can’t be bothered”. I don’t find monasteries particularly interesting, and Lord knows I’ve been around enough of them, and there were rows of tourist coaches parked outside and I didn’t fancy fighting my way through crowds to see small artifacts of much religious significance but alas no interest to me. Plus, mid-afternoon was approaching and it was getting hot. I decided to take an Uber back to my hotel and take a nap. And this is what I loved about both Uber and Lisbon: 8 or 9 euros would get you anywhere, and this was a lot better way of getting around than finding a bus or getting a regular taxi. I’d tap in my destination and within a few minutes there was a car, right there. I don’t know what I’d have done in the days before Uber, but I am glad such a service is available now. I did balls up slightly, though: a friend had recommended the best place to eat a pastel de nata – a Portuguese custard pie – as being the Pastéis de Belém, which I later discovered was right beside the spot I stood waiting for my Uber. I never did get to eat one of them, there or anywhere else.

That evening I walked back towards town and passed by the Hard Rock Cafe in order to buy a souvenir for a friend of mine who collects these things. It didn’t escape my attention that in a place which is known to be a rip-off no matter where in the world it is located, there were nonetheless two queues five people deep. Somebody is making money here, hand over fist. I strolled along to the Santa Justa Lift intending to go up in it, but after standing in a giant queue for ten minutes or so I abandoned the idea and just walked up the street instead. I found a terrace bar just opposite which didn’t offer as good as view as the top of the elevator would have, but given I’d been up to the Sao Jorge castle that morning and seen the whole of Lisbon laid out before me, I didn’t think I was missing out particularly. I did get some nice photos, though.

I drank a slightly vile signature cocktail in the terrace bar and then walked up a long, sloping street looking for a place to eat. I hovered outside one, then another, and finally settled on a dodgy-looking joint with about as much class as a Parisian tabac. This would do me, I thought. I was ushered past three old men hunched over the bar into a dining area that would seat sixty people and I had all to myself. A waiter who looked as if he’d come from central casting on a film featuring lots of Inca natives handed me a greasy menu and scampered off. He returned later and took my order of ham with Portuguese cheese (starter), grilled dourada (main course), and house white wine (lubricant). I fiddled with my phone until he returned with my starter, which had plenty in terms of volume and probably contained only a kilogram of salt in total. It was nice. Then came the fish, and here I spared a thought for my Malaysian mate who is forever complaining about the way Europeans cook fish, i.e. by boiling it for so long that all taste disappears leaving behind a soggy white mess. Not so the Portuguese, who grill their fish in much the same way the Asians do. I dropped a text message to my mate begging for an exception to be made, and he – having visited Lisbon himself on three occasions previously – did just that. I don’t remember what the bill came to but it wasn’t much.

Next I went back to the tapas bar I’d been in the night before, and immediately the young waiter who’d served me said “Nice to see you again!” Apparently in Portugal this means we were sufficiently close friends that when he returned with my order of Jack Daniels it came in what looked like a pint glass with the bottom two inches filled. I was beginning to like Portugal a lot. I drank a few of these, sat as I was at a bar stool made from a fake wine barrel. I noticed there were smokers in the bar, and they were smoking inside, and there was even a cigarette machine over in the back near the toilet. I don’t know if they were breaking any laws Portuguese or European in doing so but even though I dislike smoke I was heartened by this blatant defiance of the puritanical trend that is making almost everywhere else so damned sterile. I drank some more jars of whisky and then stumbled home.

The next day I took the train from Lisbon’s Rossia station to the town of Sintra, a 45 minute ride away. The price of the ticket was 2,70 euros, which included the rechargeable card. Did I mention Portugal is cheap? The train was packed at 11am, filled with both tourists and locals. As I’ve said already, we passed through suburbs and towns that looked as run-down as any I’ve seen anywhere, proof that perhaps the whole of Portugal isn’t quite like what a tourist sees in Lisbon. But I wasn’t there to save the world, I came to see…well, I’m not sure what. Tim of the Worstall variety had suggested I go there, and a friend back in Paris mumbled something about “tiles”, but when I got there all I found was a weird white building, a big fuck-off castle on top of a hill, and a howling wind straight off the Atlantic Ocean. There was only one thing for it: climb the hill and see the castle, so I did that. It took me about an hour to get to the top, following footpaths signposted with directions to “The Moorish Castle”. I spent the next half an hour clambering over yet more battlements, taking photos, staying out of the wind, and not giving a damned about the history of the castle and anything other than the walls themselves and the view from atop they offered.

I went back to the entrance and was just wondering how I was going to get down to the town centre when a chap in an old Citroen 2CV waved five fingers at me, indicating the approximate fare per person for just such a journey. I leaped into the back and off we went down steep, winding roads clogged solid with tourist buses and other traffic, while the driver told me of his twenty years spent in Macau teaching tennis to wealthy Chinese who couldn’t play for shit. He recommended a place called the Quinta da Regaleira which I arrived at tired and starving and spent about three minutes walking around after I’d paid the entrance fee before sacking the whole thing off and walking the mile or two back to town. The sunken well was worth seeing though.

I bypassed the umpteen tourist-trap eateries and a hundred metres from the railway station found a restaurant that was packed full of Portuguese. I tucked into the bread and cheese which got dumped on my table when I arrived, and the little triangular pastry that arrived the same way, and ordered boar meat cooked in beer with chips and a gallon of Coke. The dish arrived after fifteen minutes swimming in grease, and it tasted just fine. Of a vegetable there was no sign, not even a dry, wrinkled lettuce leaf for effect. Good.

I paid the bill in a rush giving me a scant 6 minutes to catch the train, and thus I caused grave offence to the waiter who caught me on the way to the door and insisted I tried (for free) a pastry desert that he was holding on a saucer under my nose, and also some port. I would love to have tried both and then some more of the latter, probably, but that would have entailed another 45 minute wait for the next train. I was tired and wanted to get home, so I ran out the door and fought a short but vicious campaign against the ticket machine, leaving the waiter to bewail the impatience and rudeness of Brits (and marvel at the time he met the one who turned down free booze). I made the train with about 3 minutes to spare.

That evening I went back to the tapas bar again, where my waiter asked me if I wanted the same carafes of Jack Daniels he plied me with the night before. I declined politely and drank two mojitos, which were good. These I enjoyed alongside a plate of pork fried in herbs that was excellent, and a plate of chorizo cooked in cider. I paused for a minute and looked around, and saw there was as much Spanish paraphernalia on the walls as there was Portuguese. I asked one of the barmen whether the place was Spanish or Portuguese, and he held his hand horizontally, wiggled it, and said “a leetle of both”. It was a decent bar, and its website is here.

The next day involved another hotel breakfast, an Uber to the airport driven by a chatty fellow from Sao Paulo, and an effortless flight back to Paris. I liked Portugal, and I would like to go again. A lot of people have recommended Porto, including people in Lisbon. That sounds like the place to go next.

(The full collection of photos taken on my trip to Portugal can be seen here.)


Aix-les-Bains and Lac du Bourget

I’m back from Annecy, where I had a splendid few days cooking a Christmas dinner of roast chicken and Yorkshire pudding and taking in some local sights.

One such place was Aix-les-Bains, which I’d never visited before.  Like Annecy it sits beside a lake – Lac du Bourget – which is the largest in France, and I have heard there is some sort of local rivalry between the two towns.  Having now visited both it is clear that Annecy is the more picturesque and attracts more tourists, but the lake at Aix is nonetheless beautiful and it seems more suitable for sailing than Lake Annecy judging by the number of sailboats and small harbours dotted about.  I also found that there are several viewpoints offering spectacular views of Lac du Bourget which can be accessed by road, whereas the best views of Lake Annecy are mostly obtained by hiking on foot to the top of a mountain.  Unfortunately I didn’t have my SLR with me and so was only able to take photos with my iPhone, but I’m sure I’ll go back there before too long with a proper camera.


A Weekend in Kiev

My trip to Kiev was nice, but very short.  Snow had fallen in Kiev the morning of my departure, leading to flights out of Boryspil airport being delayed.  Perhaps the Ukrainians were taken by surprise by this sudden onset of wintry conditions having expected balmy summer days until next May, but it reminded me of the time when I was delayed 5 hours in Sheremetovo airport on my way back to Sakhalin from Istanbul because snow had arrived in Moscow.

Anyhow, I lost two hours of my Friday evening and it was dark when I arrived.  I had a choice of taking a bus from the airport to my hotel in the city centre for about 2 Euros which would take about an hour, or a taxi for 20 Euros which would take half that.  This was the first inkling I got that Ukraine was on that rapidly-shrinking list of countries that are still very inexpensive.  I plumbed for the taxi.

As is now the case in Moscow, almost all the cars I saw on the road were foreign-brands, and only a handful Russian.  The roads and signage and other paraphernalia were well maintained, telling me Kiev has emerged from the decrepit post-Soviet era along with the Baltic capitals I visited 4 years ago.  I have no idea if this is the case in Belorussia, but it would be interesting to find out.  I saw plenty of signs of foreign investment, the French ones catching my eye: Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas, Auchun.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and I spent the day walking around the main sights of the city centre, which consisted mostly of nice looking Orthodox churches.

It was cold.  The actual temperature was only -5C or so, but that’s as cold as I’ve experienced outside a ski resort in a long time, and any residual toughness from my time in Russia disappeared years ago in the heat of Thailand and Nigeria.  I had the right clothes on, but I was not tempted to stay outside too long hence I didn’t see all that much of the city.

I was surprised by how small Kiev was.  I didn’t see the suburbs, but the city centre didn’t seem that big and I was amazed – on a late Saturday morning – by how few people or cars were about.  There didn’t seem to be any traffic even on the city’s main boulevards, which isn’t the case in most capital cities.  For some reason I’d gotten the idea it was a giant megalopolis approaching the size of Moscow, but it was actually far smaller.

Below is a picture of Maidan Square, the location for both the Orange Revolution in 2004/5 and the Euromaidan protests in 2013.

The place was deserted.  One thing that struck me when standing in that spot was that Ukrainians ought to schedule their protests a little better: both took place at roughly the same time of year I was, and I didn’t envy them camped out in the snow.

I was speaking Russian, not knowing a word of Ukrainian, and I from what I could tell there was a lot of Russian spoken.  I’m not sure if I could have told the difference, but on the few occasions I asked I was told it was Russian.  Which is to be expected, of course.  There were signs of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia though, some more subtle than others.  I noticed among a hundred brands of vodka on sale in a supermarket there was no Russki Standardt, nor was there Baltika in the beer section.  And the kiosks in the subways were selling rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s portrait on each sheet.

The food was good: I had two bowls of borsch, which is pretty much compulsory when visiting Ukraine, but couldn’t detect any difference from those I ate in Russia.  Although bowls of borsch are like snowflakes, no two are alike.  If you ever want to start an argument among Russians (and presumably Ukrainians) just for fun, ask two of them to tell you how borsch should be made properly (this also works with salad Olivier).  And the food was cheap: after years of Paris prices, it seemed it was almost free in Kiev.

I took a few photos, some of which are not bad, but they’re nothing special.  It was too cold to walk slowly, hunting around for unusual things in the back streets, and operating an SLR camera with gloves on isn’t easy.  I snapped the main sights I came across, and that was about it.

For those that are interested, the full collection of my photos of Kiev are here.

All in all it was a nice trip, and Kiev is worth a visit.  Only it would be a lot more sensible to visit in summer rather than winter, which is what I said when I came back from the Baltic States in late December.  Although there was something nice about the snow coming down and stirring memories of Russia, a place I’ve not been to in 4 years now.  My only regret is I didn’t go to see the Mother Motherland statue, which I completely forgot was there, but I’d probably have frozen to death if I’d tried.  Next time, perhaps.


Photos from Alsace

I’ve not gone anywhere new for a while and I’ve done enough photography around Paris for the time being, so my camera has been quiet of late.  So instead I’ll post some photos I took when I went to Alsace last May, taking in the towns of Colmar, Eguisheim, and Kaysersberg.




The full collection can be seen here.