48 Hours in Nice

Back in March I treated my Mum to a weekend away in Nice, for Mother’s Day and have finally decided to write a few words about it, considering it was a very lovely trip.

The idea came after reading this Emerald Street newsletter, and quite frankly being seduced by the extraordinary blues and hues of the art deco-esque Villa Otero. Upon discovering that rooms and flights were actually very reasonable (£90 for 2 return flights from London Gatwick with EasyJet), I spontaneously booked the trip and then had a whale of time withholding the secret from Mum.

The journey was really smooth. It was one of the first times I just had carry-on luggage and therefore didn’t have to fuss about at baggage claim (also ideal if you’re operating on 2 hours sleep and a hangover – a 7am flight seemed like a good idea at the time – and waiting around just isn’t in your current lexicon). Buses arrive regularly outside the airport and deliver you to the centre of Nice and the train station, near to where our hotel was situated.

The hotel itself was a delightful mixture of comfort and extravagance. The lobby slash dining area is strikingly decorated, a mixture between Parisian Jazz Age opulence and the alfresco cool of the riviera. And everything is polished to a reflection-spawning sheen. I was immediately won over by the free Nespresso and WiFi (oh to be an over-caffeinated, Instagram-obsessed millennial), and further enticed by the promise of free pastries and sweets in the afternoons.

The rooms are compact but well-equipped, and equally eye-catching in their decor. (The interior designer clearly loves a ‘focus wall’ as much as Anna Ryder Richardson from Changing Rooms, circa 2002). We stayed in the one below. Bonus points for the beds being really comfy, the bathrooms being super clean and modern and the full-length mirror in the hallway area being perfect for taking outfit selfies.

Unfortunately on the Saturday we arrived it was pouring with rain (the kind where you think the clouds are detoxing like Victoria Secret’s models or Brides-to-be, in a bid to get rid of their excess water weight), so our plans to stroll to the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art were scuppered. Nothing a quick nap and some free coffee couldn’t fix however.

That evening I had pre-booked a table at La Maison de Marie, an upscale restaurant near the Place Massena. The food and drink were divine. I had gnocchi with pesto and something chocolate-y for dessert. I remember feeling very decadent and satisfied.

On Sunday, we kicked off proceedings with a bus tour, which is a convenient way to get yourself to all the town’s exemplary extremities, especially when you’re not there for very long.

At our behest (and according to the route on the map), the bus took us towards Port Lympia and up through the winding hills that offer stunning vistas of pebbled beaches and the azure blue of the Mediterranean SeaWe also passed Le Negresco, a palatial, antiquarian hotel on the Promenade des Anglais, which, if you can’t afford the price of its 5-star rooms or Michelin-starred meals, is thought to be a pleasant spot for an after-dinner tipple. Alas, we didn’t get to sample its sumptuous surroundings, but perhaps one to come back to once I’ve made my millions.

We hopped off the bus near the Ascenseur du Château, a brick and mosaic ensconced ascent to Castle Hill which boasts unfathomably scenic views across Old Town and the Port, as well as a surprise waterfall. It was undoubtably one of my favourite parts of the trip, if just for the sheer gorgeousness of the burnt-orange and terracotta tiled roofs, offset by the gleaming blue sea.

Post park-wandering, we then re-boarded our bus and travelled onwards to the leafy Cimiez quarter, home to the Musée Matisse. The building itself is reminiscent of an Italian holiday home, described by Lonely Planet as “a red-ochre 17th-century Genoese villa in an olive grove”. Inside contains a wonderfully broad retrospective of French artist Henri Matisse’s work, from oil paintings and drawings to sculptures, tapestries and his deceptively simple, riotously colourfully cut-outs. For art-lovers and collage-admirers, this is a definite must-see.

That evening we went for dinner at a recommended Italian restaurant called La Voglia, along an adorable little boulevard called Rue Saint-François de Paule near the Opera House, replete with perfume houses and olive oils shops. En route we strolled along the Promenade just as the sun was setting, which if you don’t do at least once each day, are you really even seeing Nice?

On Monday, we strode purposefully towards Old Town, or Vieux Nice, a sequestered part of the city offering shaded, serpentine alleys, boutiques of leather goods and silken fabrics and delis with mouth-watering delicacies. It was here we tried some fantastically fresh tomates provençale and debated whether they would survive the trip home if we stocked up. (The decision, much to my chagrin, was that they would not).

In the centre of the Old Town is the Cours Saleya market, a swarming hive of activity where traders come to sell fresh produce, fish, flowers and more. I was also delighted to discover that on Mondays, it’s home to a gargantuan flea market, where I spent a good few hours rifling through vintage Parisian posters and postcards. It was utter heaven.

To wrap up our trip, we took a stroll through the Promenade du Paillon, a highly manicured and verdant garden planted with lots of different trees and featuring a gorgeous water mirror in the centre. If you’re looking for a serene way to spend an afternoon after a morning of haggling, then look no further.

Nice is a brilliant place for a city break. With the breeze and beauty of the ocean on one side, and the historic charm of the old town, its pleasingly peachy architecture, quaint, cobbled streets and lively restaurants on the other, you can’t go wrong. Sure, it has its seedy patches (and there was dog poop everywhere), the beach is devoid of sand and with its well-monied clientele its not exactly cheap as frites. But whack on your rose-tinted sunglasses, and behold the jewel in the Riviera’s crown.

Advertisements

Everything I ate in New York City

I recently spent a fortnight in the Big Apple, where I ate not a single apple, but did have roughly 28 meals, maybe more. None of which were bad. I repeat, everything I consumed existed within a scale of This is good to Holy shit this is the best thing I have ever eaten. I was on culinary cloud nine. I was eating ice-cream for dinner. And I know its boring to masticate endlessly over past meals, but I’m transferring my knowledge to you in the hope you will visit New York and eat as well as I did.

Tip: If you’re looking to eat on a budget in NY, then look for descriptions on Yelp or Google that describe the place as ‘no frills’ or ‘bare bones’. This is frequently lingo for stripped back decor or a pocket-sized venue, but it by no means captures the quality of the food, which is more often than not frilly and fleshy. (That sounds kind of weird and gross, but you get where I’m going).

Tuesday

Split pea soup, coffee and chocolate rugelach (a Jewish delicacy, like a cross between a croissant and a pain au chocolate, but adorably minuscule) from Zabar’s deli. Came to about $6 and was incredibly satisfying. The coffee is particularly good there. Plus you get to sit at a communal table and eavesdrop on old lady regulars gossiping about mutual acquaintances.

Wednesday

Breakfast at Veselka, a Ukrainian institution known for its 24hr service. I had its flagship dish – the pierogi – with a seasonal twist – a blueberry filling. So sweet. So indulgent.

 

Had an ice-cream from the Big Gay Ice Cream shop in Greenwich Village. I had the Salty Pimp, which before you start making assumptions is vanilla ice-cream, swirled with dulce de leche, sprinkled with salt and dipped in chocolate and it was a religious experience.

Dinner at Tehuitzingo Deli & Grocery, a sort-of bodega (look at me using New York lingo) in Hells Kitchen that has a sort-of food truck at the back with an astonishing array of choice. Burritos, tostadas, tacos, flautas, fajitas, enchiladas, tamales. Name a Mexican food and they will probably be able to make it for you. I had a veggie taco and tostada, both of which were incredibly spicy but tasty AF.

Thursday

Brunch/Lunch at Roberta’s pizza in Bushwick. I had been warned about the queues that can accumulate at Roberta’s, such is the level of fame it has generated amid the foodie, hipster scene, so planned to stop by around 11.30am for a scandalous pizza brunch. After encountering a little bit of trouble in locating the entrance, I was promptly seated and scoffed an entire ‘Famous Original’. Toppings include tomato mozzarella, caciocavallo, parmagiano, oregano & chilli. It was sensational. I forgot to savour. I ate it way too quickly and kind of wanted another one immediately afterwards. I still think about it on a regular basis.

The only downside was on the subway from Bushwick towards Brooklyn Bridge a guy flashed his penis to me and it rather dampened my dough-based high.

Friday

Lunch at Chelsea Market, not in itself an entirely pleasant experience due to the hoards of tourists (of which I was one, I know, I’m not above them. Except I am slightly because I’ve been to NYC before and was traveling by myself, which automatically makes me less of a nuisance than the massive, meandering groups of tourists that clog everywhere. Ok rant over). However I did discover Beyond Sushi, a plant-based alternative to standard sushi and therefore a vegetarian’s dream.

I had the ‘Spicy Mang’ sushi rolls: Black rice, avocado, mango, cucumber and toasted cayenne sauce, and the ‘Smokey Tom’ dumplings: Sun-dried tomato, spinach, smoked butternut squash, and tahini. I took it to the High Line and basked in my brilliant culinary choice.

Saturday

Lunch at Num Pang, a Cambodian sandwich shop that packs its delicious fillings into baguettes. I had the Spicy Organic Tofu with a ginger-soy honey glaze and took it to Washington Square Park and basked in my brilliant culinary choice. Theme appearing.

Dinner at Bar Pitti, a renowned Italian restaurant in the West Village and by far the most extravagant meal of the trip. I had spaghetti al pesto and a glass of red, and when the waiter served my meal, declared it’s time to stop with politics and fuck with some pasta (I was reading Naomi Klein’s ‘No’.)

Sunday

I had Junior’s Cheesecake. This blog has been published posthumously because I actually died and went to heaven after eating it.

Monday

I had a bagel with cream cheese and slice of apple pie from Katz’s Delicatessen. It was the most beige meal I might ever have eaten, but it was reliably delicious. Katz’s could be regarded as a pointless pitstop on my culinary journey, because I’ll never get to try the pastrami on rye, which is feted by patrons and food professionals alike as the star of the menu. But the atmosphere is enough to make it worthwhile.

Tuesday

Late lunch at Totto Ramen. Solo dining proved itself winningly advantageous when I skipped a very long queue because I could be seated at the one stool left at the bar. It’s super tiny and minimalist, but the ramen is stunningly good. The veggie option is packed with vegetables (no kidding right?) and felt like the healthiest I’d been since arriving.

Wednesday

Mealtimes definitely became somewhat skewed during my trip. To save on money I was trying not to eat three time a day, and instead opted for a brunch and early dinner situation. On Wednesday I had no shame in starting the day with a slice of salted caramel and apple pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a winsomely rustic outfit replete with a case full of homemade pies.

For dinner I went to Nom Wah Tea Parlour in Chinatown. Styled like a diner-cum-canteen, its stripped back vibe doesn’t apply to the food, which is cheap, generous and sumptuously good. I had the vegetarian dim sum and scallion and cilantro rice rolls. It came to $8 and you could’ve rolled me home I was so full. Highly recommend.

Thursday

I stopped for a snack at Baohaus, a tiny, industrial-style Taiwanese eatery in the East Village that specialise in steamed buns. And by specialise I mean they knock these bad boys out of the park. For $4 you get about two bites worth of food, but they’re two of the most exquisite mouthfuls of food you might ever hope to chew. I had the ‘Uncle Jesse’ which consisted of organic fried tofu served with crushed peanuts, Taiwanese red sugar, cilantro, and ‘Haus Sauce’.

Friday
Breakfast at Clinton Street Baking Company & Restaurant,  another institution where you can expect to queue (or skip right on through if you’re just dining with you). I sat at the bar, indulged in refill coffee (seriously London, can you catch on with this trend please) and had the stack of blueberry pancakes with maple butter which only really deserves expletives to describe it. Seriously, even the guy next to me admitted to have food envy when my plate arrived. He’d ordered an omelette and I quietly cursed his foolish behaviour and then went back to a whirlwind romance with my pancakes.
Saturday
At this point I’d given up on mealtimes and vegetables, so finding myself in Brooklyn I paid a requisite visit to the Ample Hills Creamery. I ordered a large and told the merchant the two flavours I wished to spoon into my face. She looked at me, bemused, and said, the large gets you four flavours. I silently declared my affection for America, then promptly ordered: 1 x scoop of ‘PB wins the cup’ (vanilla ice-cream, chocolate flakes, peanut butter cups), 1 x scoop of ‘Salted Crack Caramel’ (self-explanatory), 1 x scoop of ‘Dark Chocolate’ (self-explanatory) and 1 x scoop of ‘The Raw Deal’ (vanilla ice-cream and cookie dough). I came, I had no shame and I conquered.

 

Sunday

Lunch at Caracas Arepa Bar in the East Village, a venerated Venezuelan restaurant that prides itself on authentic arepas. I had the ‘La del Gato’, a cornflour bun with Guyanes cheese, fried sweet plantains and avocado. I could’ve gone for more, but apparently I swallowed my pride as well as their sensationally stuffed arepa.

***

All this and I barely even scratched the surface, barely even grazed the epidermis (again the weird skin analogy. I’ll stop. I’m sorry) of New York’s growing culinary scene. I also had really good coffee at The Bean, DTUT, Cafe Grumpy and bought the most exquisite ground coffee from Sarabeth’s because I’m a bourgeois caffeine addict.

I then came home and purged myself on broccoli for a week.

Exploring the Western fjords of Norway

In a game of word association meant to conjure up descriptions of my personality, I would take a punt that ‘outdoors’ would be pretty far down the list. Such is my strong inclination to cosy up in bed with a warm drink and a movie. I’ve always been the sort of kid that would rather spend 10 hours doing a GCSE art project or a history timeline than taking a stroll through the rural fields of my Surrey home. Strangely, I do love a good outdoors movie – Deadly Pursuit, River Wild, Jurassic Park, Everest – but perhaps more so because I’m inside watching them, safely ensconced in layers of protective blanket and the soft crackle of a fire or candle never far away. I’ve being doing ‘hygge’ long before it became the buzzword of 2016.

So no-one was more surprised than I to discover how at home I felt in the Norwegian fjords when I visited there this week. After flying into Bergen, branded as ‘the gateway to the fjords’, we caught a train to Voss –  the more adventurous sibling to the small-town charm of Norway’s second largest harbour-bound city. From here we were collected and taken to the base camp, kitted out with full wetsuit gear and seduced with Norwegian chocolate buns before setting out on our guided excursion.

Our trip was booked through Much Better Adventures, who offer a range of wild-camping, lake-navigating trips for the intrepid vacationer. We opted to hike and kayak the fjords for 3 days and 2 nights, which turned out to be an ideal length of time to immerse yourself in the sublime landscapes whilst mitigating the risk of trench foot or other such hazardous conditions that your parents undoubtedly worry you’ll acquire if you spend more than 4 days outside.

And sublime it was. It’s hard to describe in any other means than the pictures below, but particularly on the kayak part of the trip, spectacular doesn’t begin to construe our surroundings. On our first day the mirror-like water was pleasingly placid, and if you could bear to look up from the concentrated paddling, you’d see only verdant or snow-capped mountains with waterfalls careening through them. Aside from the occasional boat-cruise, there was little to disturb the peace and it was easy to imagine yourself completely alone. And yet far from lonely. The alienation of the city, with its anonymity and aggression is quickly muted when confronted with the comfort of clouds and the reassurance of rain. You simply feel there and present and in it and not thinking about anything other than the what you’re doing (trying not to capsize) and what you’re seeing (NATURE, NATURE EVERYWHERE). It feels cliche to acknowledge, but it was as refreshing as an early evening swim in the fjords themselves to digitally detach yourself from the world and focus your energies on physical exertion. Every meal and sip of water feels earned. Calories become more about sustenance and fuel than guilt and mathematics. Your muscles feel worked. Your mind feels revitalised. You’re not distracted or numbed. You’re focused only on the smooth strokes of your oar sluicing through the cold water, and maneuvering yourself through the alpines or the burn in your thighs as you power yourself up craggy rocks and muddied tracks. And at the end of the day, you fall asleep, not foggy-headed and slumberous but tired. Good tired. With the sound of waves licking the sand and waterfalls trickling in the background.

We explored the Nærøyfjord, which is a UNESCO listed world heritage site, and for good reason. So here are just some of the photos, which will far better communicate the awe the Norwegian fjords inspire, than any frothy encapsulation of their staggering beauty.

Day 1: The journey there & kayak to camp

Roadside views on our way to base camp

On the water!

Our camp.

Day 2: The hike

Despite a persistent 5 hours of rain and some slipperiness underfoot, 10 hours of hiking was more gratifying (albeit punctured with bouts of frustration, discomfort and elation) than I would’ve suspected. There’s something simplistically thrilling about trusting your own feet and body to get yourself from A to B and back again (albeit relying on a guide who knows exactly where they’re going and can be used as a bridge to occasionally cross a chasmal stream). And my goodness were the views worth the cold feet and achy limbs.

Total distance walked: 25km. Total height climbed: 1300m.

The peak:

Day 3: Kayaking and the journey back

Finding peace in Prague

After my brief stopover in Leipzig, I caught the train by way of Dresden, to Prague, the attractive Czech capital just as desirable to holidaying couples as it is to rowdy men on stag dos. Since my return, the go-to question on everyone’s lips is ‘what was your favourite place?’ and it’s hard to single out one city as encompassing everything. But Prague comes closest. It’s easily walkable (you’ve been warned, I’m a reluctant customer of public transport, take easily with a pinch of salt) and feels inherently more ‘manageable’ or at least, negotiable than the vastness of Berlin. It also felt like the most ‘holiday’ destination of the pack, what with the extraordinarily good weather, alfresco dining and majestic ambience of the French riviera. Surrounded by castles, operas and fin de siècle cafes, extravagance turned out to be the name of the game.

On my first night I walked from Můstek, where I was staying (on the cusp of the main high street effectively, the central location comes part-and-parcel with the percussive disquiet of late night revellers and general congregations), along part of the River Vltava and towards Old Town. There were clusters of beer-clutching people sat along the river, feet dangling towards the water that immediately evoked those lazy halcyon summer days that it feels increasingly likely we’re going to miss out on in Britain this year. I made a mental note of my route as I passed the Charles Bridge (along with the Old Town Square, the place you’ll trap the most snap-happy tourists. Selfie sticks galore), which I planned to return to in the morning. From there, with my Vitamin D quota quenched, I relaxed into an outdoor seat at Mistral Café.

20160607_192300This modern, minimalist cafe offers a more refined menu than most of your traditional Czech eateries and I definitely recommend it if you’re in the market for something lighter. I had the tofu in coconut milk, red curry and coriander sauce and with vegetable and jasmine rice, which provided a sublime and gently fragranced respite from the pasta-based vegetarian offerings I had grown accustomed to. With an accompanying glass of wine, a mascarpone dessert and a shot of Baileys for good measure, it was here I discovered what good value Prague is. The meal came to 425czk which I promptly discovered equates to 12 whole British pounds. 12 quid! You’d pay that for an alright burger in London, let alone a fancy pants curry with a side of alcohol and dessert. I was so elated I immediately rang my mother. “I’m going to eat SO well” I declared.

Surrounded by castles, operas and fin de siècle cafes, extravagance turned out to be the name of the game.

I wandered home via Old Town Square, a thriving historical site, deemed to be the heart and soul of the city, whereupon iconic buildings such at St. Nicholas’ Church and monuments such as the Astronomical Clock fringe the cobble-stone interior; a venue for markets circa the middle ages. Milling around the square these days, you’ll find large groups of tourists and holidaymakers, soaking up the sunshine and eclectic architecture whilst sipping on some Pilsner Urquell.

I stayed in an Airbnb not far from the main railway station; a spacious private room that allowed me all the luxuries of living alone (5pm bath-time became a thing) for 4 nights for just £75. Plus (or minus, depending on your taste for risk) the complex where the flat was located had continually rotating lifts – no stopping, no starting, no doors, no floors – just hop in (be quick about it) and hop out at your desired destination. It became a game for me to launch myself into said lift and not wait for the ‘box’ to reach my level. Such are the lengths one has to go to for amusement when travelling by oneself.

My first proper day in Prague consisted of an early start, grabbing a Czech pastry (something in the shape of a stick, with a sweet-cheese filling) and a coffee to go, and walking across the Charles Bridges as the city stretched itself awake. I couldn’t recommend visiting the bridge before the crowds beat you to it enough. It’s distinctly less stressful and allows more time to luxuriate in the staggering views.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Another advantage to the early start is that hiking up towards Prague castle becomes a much more pleasant endeavour when not done in the heat of the day. Prague Castle is a medieval fortress marketed as the largest in the world and potentially the basis for the Disney logo considering the fairytale comparisons it inspires. It’s no wonder you see handfuls of couples using the backdrop for their wedding photos. A ‘long tour’ ticket will set you back 350czk (a tenner), and includes access to St Vitus’ Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, Story of Prague Castle, Basilica of St George, Powder Tower, Golden Lane and Rosenberg Palace. The gardens were unequivocally my favourite aspect of the vast complex, offering unparalleled views over the city and a tranquil destination for some post-breakfast ponderings.

Once completing the circuit of the castle, I headed up towards the Strahov Monastery, which considering my disinterest in religion might appear a strange choice, but this Premonstratensian abbey also lays claim to a library housing 16k+ books, a stucco-panelled theological hall and generally just some very pristine interiors which deserve appreciation. I was one of about four people wandering around at the time, which made for a serene and slightly uncanny experience.

The other main attraction in Hradčany (the Castle District) is the Petrin Observation Tower, which is purportedly taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You have to pay 100czk and climb 299 steps (up a spiral staircase) for the privilege of panoramic views, but consider it your work-out for the day and it’s also located within a rather charming park, so unless you suffer vertigo, or have an aversion to awe-inspiring scenery, definitely check it out.

prague_002

At this point, I was deserving of lunch. I walked back towards Old Town via the Lennon Wall, a bohemian, peace-espousing mural inspired by the famously iconoclastic Beatle, which has become a prime spot for millennials to snap cute Instagram pictures of themselves. It was painted over in 2014, but has since been reborn with another generation of artists, resistant or otherwise, making their mark on the city.

I had lunch at Kafka Snob Food a darkly lit cafe-bistro with turquoise interiors, tan leather booths, eclectically-coloured chairs, exposed steel-ducts and brick walls. It wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch. The menu consists of Italian pasta dishes and a delectable array of pastries to satiate the appetite you’ve worked up after some hefty touristing.

Milling around the square these days, you’ll find large groups of tourists and holidaymakers, soaking up the sunshine and eclectic architecture whilst sipping on some Pilsner Urquell.

I then walked back towards Old Town Square and popped into the Prague City Gallery where they were hosting a retrospective of the works of David Cronenberg. Random, perhaps, but a dynamic and insightful overview of the Canadian director’s oeuvre nevertheless. The exhibition also included a cinema where they showed two of his films a day. I caught a middle section of Fast Company, a lovably hokey drag-racing movie that feels more Linklater than Cronenberg. There are plenty of other galleries in Prague to seek out if contemporary art is your thing.

That night I sampled a taste of extravagance at the opera. I booked a last minute ticket to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Estates Theatre or Stavovské divadlo, Prague’s oldest theatre and where Mozart premiered his magnum opus Don Giovanni. The surroundings are plush and as when entering a library you feel compelled to be on your best behaviour; spine straight, shoulders back, no yawning or rustling. Not that distractions or boredom are likely when the entertainment is this extraordinary. Classical music and operatic singing are unfathomable talents; otherworldly and transcendent. Even if I didn’t always understand what was going (a German opera being translated into Czech with additional English subtitles) the music was always there to elevate the simplistic plot – kidnap, love, betrayal e.t.c – into something enchanting. Even though I only forked out for gallery seats, the venue is intimate enough that you don’t require binoculars or too much strenuous craning to appreciate the onstage happenings. It was a pretty magical setting to experience the opera for the first time.

Estates+Theatre1

The next day in Prague I visited Vysehrad, another castle on a hill. If historical buildings and ruins aren’t really your thing, I’d say do Prague castle and maybe skip this one. It’s slightly further out and not quite as extraordinary. That being said, the cemetery and basilica provide a beautiful spot for some vacation-induced contemplation; tackling life’s big existential questions etcetera and because of its subsidiary status in Prague’s castle-off is much more subdued place in which to do so.

Also factor the Dancing House into your strolls. I happened upon it after Vysehrad and it’s contemporary, jutting structures provided a striking contrast to the historical architecture in the city. Its avant-garde, deconstructivist style is the brainchild of local architect Vlado Milunic and US import Frank Gehry. Whilst fairly inconsistent with the rest of the city’s more traditional aesthetic, it makes for a diverting (in a good way) addition.

I then retreated to Cafe Savoy for an afternoon spent perusing English newspapers and reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Housed in a fin de siècle building with tall, light-beckoning windows, reflective chandeliers, and marble-topped tables spanning a fluid split-level seating arrangement, its glittering interior harkens back to the belle epoque. A.k.a. It’s well posh, innit. For food I had the foamy pea soup, a vibrant, almost offensive shade of green, which was divine if a little on the airy side, (and a side of fries) followed up with the guide-book recommended apple strudel (or Štrůdl, as it’s known in Czech), which is so well-renowned it takes pride of place on the counter – freshly baked – and is sliced upon request. Customers frequently popped in just to order that. The waiters were crisply-dressed and suitably attentive and fellow customers gave off an air of rarefied gentry. I felt a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio eating with 1st class guests aboard the Titanic, without the slicked back hair and tailcoat.

 

 

The next day I decided to take a brief respite from the city and catch a tram to Divoká Šárka, a nature reserve on the outskirts of the capital and trekked around the gorge. It was reminiscent of Slovenia, though not quite as breathtaking. Still, the cool air, bird calls and trickle of the stream that runs through the valley was an agreeable divergence from the sonorous city.

It being my last night I decided to sample even more of Prague’s ritzy cuisine and opted for Cafe Slavia, situated opposite the National Opera and overlooking the banks of the river Vlatva. In it’s heyday the cafe was said to the haunt of Kafka and his bohemian cronies, including Václav Havel, a play of who’s (The Garden Party) I was reading during my meal. It was a sprawling, resplendent affair, from the moment I spontaneously splashed out on a bottle of expensive Italian wine all to myself, to the three course extravaganza I proceeded to languidly devour. Considering its 300-seat capacity and penchant for being crammed, it was remarkably quiet, punctuated only by chit-chat and the piano player in the far corner. If good food and a little romance are what you’re after, Cafe Slavia isn’t to be overlooked.

Prague was sort of a like a lavish love affair that wined and dined me, but that I knew wouldn’t last. It was 3.5 days of picturesque idyll and kaleidoscopic sunsets, and Munich was the rainy reality that set in afterwards. However cursory, it became a symbol of my victory over solo travel. I never once thought about the oddness or awkwardness of my self-enforced solitude, I simply luxuriated in it. And for that Prague will be dearly cherished.

prague_001

My Experience Of Solo Travel

In last week’s Lenny letter, Lisa Goldberg addressed her experience of solo travel, the circumstances that lead to it and the lessons she learned from it. It was a piece of writing that particularly struck a chord, especially since returning from my 17-day sojourn throughout Europe.

“I just couldn’t stomach the idea of censoring my own life’s experiences based on the absence of a companion. It felt so hopelessly Victorian.”

Preach. If I lived by the tenet that I needed companionship to complete all activities, life would be an organisational nightmare. No more popping or pootling anywhere. Invitations would be sent and declined and altered and accepted for even the most banal of enterprises. Do join me on a turn about the room. I can’t bear to appraise these four walls without a second opinion. Independence would be a distant memory. And if you couldn’t source a companion? Well then experience be damned.

No thank you.

When I started thinking about what I was going to do for a holiday this year, it became wonderfully freeing to sidestep consultation and deliberation and flirt with the utmost decisiveness. Look at me go booking trains, planes and, well no other transport actually, without so much as a second thought. If I wanted to experience parts of Europe, then I absolutely could and what’s more, I could do it uninhibited.

“The experience was abstractly luxurious and soul-nourishing.”

Goldberg hits the nail on the head. It’s the most luxurious trip I’ve ever had. I wallowed and delighted and rollicked in every whim and desire I had. I ate a whole loaf of Czech bread sitting by a stream post-hike because I wanted to, and didn’t have to get up to move until my digestive system signalled that that would be ok. I meandered around an exhibition in Berlin twice, because I’d paid for it, and if I wanted to gaze at pictures taken by Helmut Newton for longer than is the norm, then I absolutely could.

The operative word here being ‘want’. And it’s not lost on me that that is a complete luxury. It’s a product of a selfish culture increasingly fuelled by instant gratification, a culture where the self and individualism is more than ever placed on a pedestal (which, incidentally is not always a good thing. Oh hey there Brexit). Not many people get to do what they want – all of time, or any of it for that matter. Which is why this trip felt so damned extravagant. Not because I sipped on champagne at the opera (I did do that though), but because I allowed myself and was fortunate enough to indulge in a rarity; that of acting upon my inclinations 24/7.

As Goldberg also acknowledges, the idea was met by my mother – not with resistance exactly – but a keen desire to dissuade otherwise, or at least to join me on parts of the trip.

“Honestly this is what I want”, I emphatically replied.

Which is both true and not. It came about as a product of circumstance. I was single and my schedule didn’t align with that of friends. If there’d been a group trip to Morocco going, I would’ve been the first to sign up. But there wasn’t, and circling back to the aforementioned point, I didn’t agree that that meant I should miss out on the experience of travel altogether. So it became what I wanted.

So was it? Did the trip turn out to be that which I’d hoped it would?

Yes and no.

It was never going to be the stuff of a best-selling memoir, but that didn’t stop me from harbouring a tiny hope that as soon as I stepped onto foreign soil I’d be living on a diet of enlightenment and ground-shaking, perception-changing discoveries. But as soon as I came round to the idea that I wasn’t Christopher McCandless, or Ron Swanson for that matter, and going ‘off the grid’ wasn’t really realistic, I had the best time.

I’ll be the first to admit, that if by some stroke of absurdity this trip became the plot to a film, it would 100% be rated U. Maybe PG-13. I did go to Amsterdam after all. But ‘best time’ is not some wink-wink lingo for a pleasure-seeking, bar-hopping rampage. Y’all should know me better than that.

It was the stuff of early nights and evenings spent sat on balconies reading Kurt Vonnegut. I traipsed and trailed and traversed through street after cobblestone street, stopping only when the desire for coffee became too resounding to ignore. I brunched and cycled and filled my brain to the hilt with cultural ventures; the highlights of which were the C/O gallery in Berlin, FOAM in Amsterdam and a David Cronenberg exhibition in Prague. Wild it was not. Ridiculously middle-class perhaps. Antiquing and café-crawling were the two most prominent past-times of the trip. But it was bloody lovely nevertheless. I relaxed completely. And though on a couple of occasions I was plagued by the anxiety that I really wasn’t doing everything in my power to be adventurous and meet new people and acquire eye-popping stories that proved to my peers how fun I was, I realised that wasn’t the agenda at all. Maybe another time I’ll go back to Berlin, squad in tow, and show Berghain how to dance, but not today. Not this trip.

It didn’t have to be every colour under the sun and everything I dreamed it would be. It just had to be enough to make me happy, and it was.

The other thing I learnt on this trip, aside from the fact I’m really due a pension and concessionary travel, was to suck it up.

Companionship gives you an immediate outlet for complaint. Of course that’s cathartic and you can bond over mutual woes, but it felt very healthy to avoid that as my go-to reaction. My train’s delayed for an hour? Excellent! I can sit and read my book. I’ve been walking in completely the wrong direction from my hostel? No worries. I can walk myself back. I’ve given myself blisters on day one of the trip? Fucking nightmare, and I complained to the thin air that would listen, but had to get on with it anyway. I never felt like I was hindering or impeding someone else’s fun and if I didn’t fancy seeing a particular attraction, or wasn’t in the mood for cocktails, I was not obligated to pretend otherwise.

“The idea of these solo trips isn’t to be the most swashbuckling lady out there, it’s to show up to your own life, reconnect with yourself as a single entity, and know that you never have to sacrifice an experience because there isn’t someone else there to share it with.”

Goldberg once again proves herself a wise lady. I figured there’ll always be time for more swashbuckling. One such perk of the millennial generation and our ever-receding acceptance of maturity is that I can easily fit in some more debauchery before 30. It’s not ‘now or never’. Just because my 23rd year (and in fact, all those before it) was spent outside of a relationship and beyond the tradition of a family holiday in August, didn’t absolve me of the desire to vacate routine. I wasn’t immune to wanderlust merely because there was no-one to lust with. After 20 or so years of making a lot of decisions to please other people, or at least letting those opinions influence and mould such decisions and quite frankly, wanting to be perceived in a certain light, this trip to Europe became one of the few times I’ve been completely and unashamedly myself.

And I showed myself rather a good time.

 

 

N.B. More specific summaries of each place to follow!

48 Hours in Brussels

 The New York Times published an article in 2015 declaring Brussels the ‘new’ Berlin, a statement one can’t help but feel has been shoe-horned in to lure readers as opposed to accurately describing its supposed cultural revolution.

If Brussels and Berlin are related, the former is the adorable, well-meaning cousin to the otherworldly, exciting main attraction. The kind of relatives that would have others questioning said kinship.

“For decades, Europe’s buttoned-up political center had a reputation for stodginess and chilliness. No longer: Brussels has quietly emerged as one of the continent’s most exciting creative hubs”.

So The New York Times pronounced. I would proffer that whilst Brussels’ buttons remain firmly fastened, therein lies its charm. Berlin might be loose, hallucinatory and brilliant, but Brussels will quietly seduce you. Here are the sights and scenes that particularly caught my eye…

Parc de Cinquantenaire 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Situated in the European quarter this large, manicured public park is the site of both impressive architecture, sprawling greenery and perhaps the best spot for views of the cityscape. If you head towards the arch and turn left you’ll happen upon The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces, step inside and ask at reception for entry to the ‘Arcades’ (4 euros), you then walk past the armour and artillery and a few floors up you’ll discover a platform upon which to revel in the unparalleled views of the city.

Châtelain Area; Parlor Coffee Shop, Le Typographe

Brussels_FoodAndDrinks_ParlorCoffee-10

The Châtelain neighbourhood exudes an air of Parisian grandeur and certainly the businesses in the area speak to that well-monied reputation. Bespoke design and printing shop ‘Le Typographe’ is located on Rue Americaine and has a delectable array of stationary to peruse. Whilst Parlor Coffee is renowned for serving up some of the best caffeine in the Belgian capital, all in suitably serene surroundings.

L’Archiduc

27275256_TpQCkck-nwsoHI5am26uzhiFpDnmaRmE3ZmhFzPCu2U

On Rue Antoine Dansaert lies an establishment with an exterior painted electric blue. It’s neon sign reads ‘L’Archiduc’, an intriguingly exotic name with connotations of eminence and majesty. Ring a bell on the street and you enter a steel bubble swing door like entering a bank, or an ornate hotel. This spins you out into an art deco room replete with high ceilings, a half-moon balcony, pillars to the roof, a piano in the middle and a tiny corner bar, a quixotic, beguiling establishment where jazz and cocktails coalesce. When you rotate once again through the door and reacquaint yourself with the pavement, you’ll be surprised to find yourself in the modern day.

La Grand Place, Café Aroma

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like the Trafalgar of London or the Piazza San Marco of Venice, La Grand Place is Brussels’ central square, surrounded by ornately-gabled buildings and enlivened by the perpetual throng of tourists. After craning your neck towards the sky and doing the customary 360 intake of your surroundings head towards Café Aroma. You’ll pay astronomical prices for any beverage and pastry in this location, but head up to their third floor for a wonderful, window-side perspective of the ongoings down below.

Antiques Market at La Grand Sablon

3053693657_1b4dda450fBecause I really am 60 years old at heart, no trip is complete without a stroll through an antiques market and a search for some black & white postcards of wherever it is I’m visiting. Le Place Du Grand Sablon, a sequestered, cobble-stoned square is home to such an antiques market every Sunday. Though small and sedate, you’ll be charmed by the curious array of collectibles and if that doesn’t float your boat, the square is ensconced by chocolate shops, so you can search for treasure elsewhere.

Egmont Park, La Fabrique Café

egmontEgmont Park is a little-known haven not far from La Place Du Grand Sablon. Amid arches and ivy-lined pillars, compounding the air of seclusion, you’ll find a small patch of greenery, a statue, a fountain and a friendly cafe by the name of La Fabrique. Not that you really need an oasis in Brussels, the city in general has a somnolent atmosphere that perfectly accommodates Sunday brunches and brooding strolls. But were you in the market for one, Egmont Park has you covered.

Rues Haute and Rues Blaes

Flea-market-and-radio-equipmentOn a rainy Sunday in a Brussels, I couldn’t think of anything more enchanting than dipping in and out of the antique warehouses peppered along these two parallel roads. The shops are often multi-storied havens, packed to the rafters with kitsch paraphernalia like cigarette dispensers, typewriters, cassette players and brightly-coloured, curved sofas that could easily belong on the set of Mad Men. You’ll lose hours as well as decades as you pore over regalia of times gone by.

 

Amid handsome facades and refined gentility, its worth noting that there are small traces of the terrorist attacks that occurred in the city back in March. Etchings in concrete and soldiers bearing rifles standing watchfully outside choice Metro stations serve as reminders that despite the cobbled-streets and chocolate shops, terrorism penetrated a tourist’s paradise. It may have shaken the city out of its lackadaisical surveillance, but the air of calmness pervades.

Moderate, historic and the scene of pastoral loveliness, whilst the flourishing café/art scene has given fuel to its rebranding fire, beneath rumours of its hipness, Brussels remains the kind of place you’d happily bring your parents to. Whereas Berlin is still, very much, the bearded, pierced, tattooed boyfriend you’d rather they weren’t aware of.

 

Café Society: Amsterdam

Not to be confused with the coffee shops of Amsterdam, there are great many cafés to sample. Here are just three that satiated my appetite and my soul…

De Laatste Kruimel

downloadTucked away just off the main road ‘Rokin’ is a pocket-sized bakery, with crates for chairs, trays for tables and a hodge-podge of vintage cushions and hand-drawn murals adding to the air of bohemia. If this all sounds a bit too recherché, the home-made cakes, breads and pastries will win you over. I had a polenta tart and a slice of what could have been carrot, or rhubarb cake. Specificities aside, to say it was delicious doesn’t do it justice. Squeeze in where you can (there’s a couple of crates in their outdoor section overlooking the canal) or take it away, just whatever you do don’t walk past it.

 

Louie Louie

Louie5.jpg

Near Oosterpark and opposite the Tropenmuseum is a chic, upscale café offering brunch from 11am-3.30pm. With its plush surroundings, the prices are pretty decent and you can indulge in an array of sandwiches and continental breakfast fare (N.B. banana bread is a massive thing in Amsterdam apparently, I’ve seen it on practically every menu). Rather strangely, their brunch menu has a Mexican flavour to it, including Huevos Rancheros, jalapeños and other such delights, whilst their dinner menu includes tacos, frijoles, quesadilla and ceviche. I tucked into a grilled vegetable sandwich, on bread so soft it could substitute for a pillow, accompanied by an invigoratingly spicy Blood Mary. Both of the Louie’s, whoever they are, certainly know how to make a hungry girl happy.

 

Coffee & Coconuts

It’s fair to say I am enraptured by this cafe and may have boldly claimed it to be the best in the world. I’m in no position to make such an assertion, but I’ll stand by it anyway.

Giving off a tropical warehouse vibe, reminiscent of California, Brooklyn and Scandinavia rolled into one, this renovated cinema in De Pijp has quickly become one of Amsterdam’s most revered establishments. At least among those in the know.

0752eaeb3ad12dd4575ddcafced2a431

Blending urbane design with beach shack cool, C&C emanates a laid-back ambience that extends from the slouchy, taupe bean bags to the ripped-jeans clad staff. Exposed brick interiors, metal piping, hanging houseplants and lightbulbs traverse the several levels over which seating spans. You can choose to sit at comfy sofas, bar stools or tables tethered to rope. Wherever you decide, the deliciously health-conscious menu is the same. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner; the overriding theme is very new-wave, clean-eating centric. Think mackerel, avocado, buckwheat flour, and of course, lashings of coconut. I opted for the coconut pancakes, but was just as tempted by their avocado-based offerings and the acai bowl. The only fault was that the portion was pretty small (scotch, rather than American pancake sized), but if anything that only further compliments the taste. Like Carluccio’s and Bills, you can also buy items on the menu from their downstairs parlour, including homemade granola, or grab a healthy lunch from their salad bar. After finishing up my food, the staff were in no hurry to clear away the taimages.jpegble or suggest my departure. Instead I stayed curled up on the sofa, nose-deep in my book and only ambled away reluctantly of my own accord. Beyond the beautiful design and infinitely Instagrammable interior (not to mention the food and the drink), entering Coffee & Coconuts genuinely feels like an escape from the cacophonous conflation of bicycle bells, pedestrian crossing tickers, and nearby construction works.