“Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth”

It’s surprisingly rare to find a place that ignites all of your senses, and always a wonderful surprise when you unknowingly stumble into one. With its magnificent street art, bustling labyrinthine streets, orange sun bouncing off the sapphire waves and burning the skin, and life-changinglyndelicious food, Sicily is one of those.

Four cities in six days – the university student-saturated Catania (which also doubles as the aptly named cat capital); the wealthy boutique-lined Taormina; the sun-drenched coastal Syracuse; and, the Island’s energetic and crowded capital Palermo. Despite being clustered into a relatively small island, the cities of Sicily retain distinct characters. Indeed, the only thing that links them seems to be their people’s genuine love for and pride in their food.

Sicily is known for its food, so I was expecting tasty. I wasn’t expecting to leave questioning everything I ever thought I knew about food, taste, and cooking. The standard was set on the second night with a three-course meal at a local trattoria single-handedly run by a woman who makes her pasta from scratch, hand-sources all local ingredients, and can cook them to perfection. As an aside, I’m pretty sure she also makes her own limoncello.

At a Syracusan market a few days later, a man with a sandwich stall took great delight in allowing us to sample each of his 10+ cheeses as he made what was, quite honestly, the most magnificent sandwich of my life. Fresh crusty bread, olive pate, cheese, olives, cheese, chilli flakes, a smoked cheese, oh and some more cheese. The market itself was a cornucopia of giant fruit and vegetables and the wafting scent of Mediterranean and North African herbs and spices.

But it wasn’t all stuffing and gorging. There was also drinking to be done. Spritzers, dry white wine, and grappa drunk in some of the cosiest wine bars I’ve ever been in. NB Sicilian standard pours are very generous which lends itself to long slow evenings feasting and snacking, but can also flow to your head pretty quick if you’re not used to it.

Sicilian cities are also host to some of the most amazing ancient archeological and heritage sites. My personal favourites were a Teatro in Catania and a cliff-top castle in Syracuse.

But the thing I found most fascinating about Sicily was how seemingly similar it was to the Australian Italian community. In the mass wave of post-WWII immigration to Australia from Italy, many of the emigrants came from the south and specifically Sicily. And they brought their food and culture with them – two things which have adapted well to the Australian climate. Arancini balls, pepper and aubergine-based antipasto, and even pasta sauces found in Australia and Sicily but not elsewhere in Italy made for a very curious fish-out-of-water familiarity.

And on that note – photos!

“A good appetite needs no sauce” (Polish Proverb)

Late last year, a friend checked-in on Facebook to Melbourne airport announcing their impending flight to central Europe. After getting in touch to ask if a visit to London where we were was on their itinerary (it wasn’t: they didn’t know we were there as they thought we had been in Ballarat for the past 6 months – long story), J and I decided that a weekend jaunt to meet in the middle in Prague wasn’t a half-bad idea.

We’d both been to Prague before, but the city still manages to charm. This particular trip was in winter, and there were mulled-wine sellers on most corners, Christmas markets galore, and street festivals and live music performances to top it all off. And the chilly weather provided a wonderful justification to indulge in copious amounts of Pilsner Urquell, fried and fermented cheese, pickles, peppers, and of course poppyseed cake.

We didn’t just spend our time in bars and pubs (just most of our time), also taking walks through many of Prague’s beautiful parks. But, it being only a two-night stopover visit, the eating and drinking and socialising did consume much of the weekend.

Whilst our friend headed back to the Antipodes, we went on to Krakow – a city I had not been to before, but which was absolutely amazing. The central old city – bubbling with tourists, central square-facing bars and restaurants, and enclosed by beautiful medieval façades – was an absolute delight, and I spent much time strolling up and down its numerous thoroughfares and laneways, people-watching and window-shopping.

As the sun disappeared and twilight set-in, we took a stroll up to Krakow Castle which sits atop the hill that overlooks the city. The view of the city was amazing, and we also got to walk through the open part of the grounds of the castle before they closed the gates – an activity I can thoroughly recommend as you get to see the best bits of the site (the view and the buildings) without having to pay the entry fee.

As darkness descended and more and more people came out to play (Krakow is a city that likes to party), we returned to ground level and went in search of a bar. J had heard of a vodka bar just outside the central area, and we shared a 6-glass sampler whilst crammed into a loft-style attic packed with tables of other welcomingly boisterous drinkers. The vodkas were flavoured: earl grey; cherry; apple; and numerous types of berries. And we rounded the whole thing off with a deliciously bitter pickle.

Doing things slightly backwards, we next found ourselves in a wine bar where, feeling holiday decadent, we each indulged in a glass of sparkling. By this stage, our heads were feeling rather light and our tummies rather empty, so we headed out in search of food: pierogi to be exact. Polish dumplings filled with mushroom and cabbage, or potato and cottage cheese, or spinach and cottage cheese, or any other vegetable-based deliciousness. This is one of my favourite dishes, and we spent much time wandering up and down the main pierogi-restaurant street deciding which place to sample first, then ended up enjoying ourselves so much we ate everything we wanted and were too full to go anywhere else.

The next morning we indulged in a pierogi & bakery breakfast – a plate of pierogi, a cup of borscht, and a cherry tart bought from the bakery and hole-in-the-wall pierogi bar not 500m from our AirBnB room – before heading south to Kazimierz for coffee. Our plan was to head to the gallery and the holocaust museum, but we had slept too late and so only got to the latter before the complex closed for the day (it closes early one day a week).

The museum – a very interactive exhibit where you walk through numerous spaces – comprised an almost overwhelming wealth of information that ran the gamut from oral histories, journals and letters, to official and government documents, photographs, and material culture. Very well curated, the act of walking through the museum provided a framing narrative that made the information easier to understand and locate historically and geographically. Knowing quite a bit about the history of the holocaust, and having read the canon (as it were) of fiction and non-fiction holocaust literature, I didn’t ‘learn’ too much from the museum per se (though I was shocked anew at the sophistication of magazine printing by in-mates in the camps), but it’s always interesting to see new documents presented in a different way.

We spent much of the rest of that day in the south, which has seen an influx in recent years of a Jewish population returning to Europe from Israel. It’s also one of the best areas for food, coffee, and cake – which is basically what we did for the rest of the day. That night, we also spent a good few hours in a video game bar playing guitar hero and I am now convinced that a bar is not complete without at least three consoles.

Krakow is a fun city and it feels very young and energetic. The people are friendly, the food is great, and it’s just a wonderful place to visit. Basically, it’s everything I thought it would be and more.

The next morning – our last for the trip – we got up early and hired a car to visit the spectre of Krakow: Auschwitz. This was not a happy day, and is probably best left for another post. Suffice to say here that I would recommend a visit to the museum if for no other reason than to be awed and moved by the physicality of it. Much like how walking through the museum aided comprehension of the documents on display, visiting the physical sites of the atrocities of WWII does enable some sort of grasp on the overwhelming magnitude of death that was carried out and condoned across the continent.

And, on that note, photos:

An Australian Diner in Paris

The title of, and setting for this blog post may seem odd given last week’s post was on San Sebastián. Since last week’s post was inspired by preparations for my own birthday, this week’s was inspired by another’s. Enjoy!

***

While my mother’s approach to travel was an open-ended one-way trip to London, my uncle’s was to remain based in Perth – where he was gainfully employed as an academic – and take short trips to new destinations each year. Being the 1970s, their primary means of communication was letter writing.

One day, after she had been away from home for a number of years, my mother received a letter from my uncle informing her that he was planning a trip to Europe and – since she had been absent for a number of consecutive birthdays and Christmases, and since he had unfortunately missed a few travel opportunities – he would be using his bourgeoning savings to treat her to a rather extravagant gift: a culinary tour of three of the finest Michelin-star restaurants Paris had to offer. Although it’s entirely likely that my uncle’s altruism was in fact motivated by a desire to not dine alone, my mother – who had hitherto flitted between jobs as a bar tender, cleaner, and shop assistant, and who often found herself pinching pennies to pay for coffee – found it within her to magnanimously accept the gift on the generous face-value terms in which it was offered.

My mother, along with some of her friends, organised a trip to Paris that coincided with the dates my uncle had given her. They travelled in the (still-trusty) combi-van and spent their nights in campsites and youth hostels, running to the ablutions block with their bathroom bags at first light to avoid the morning crush. They spent their days wandering the city, sharing small morsels of flakey pastry between the group. My uncle stayed in guesthouses and spent his days riding the metro between all the amazing sites that Paris has to offer.

At dinner time, my mother’s friends would drop her at the restaurant specified, making sure to park the combi van around the corner so that her exit was not noticed by the other diners. My mother had dressed in the best clothes she possessed – not an easy task for a professional traveller. It being a rather cold autumn, she was also forced to don her much-used, second-hand-when-she-bought-it, generally-left-at-the-bottom-of-the bag coat which had seen the worst of European winter. Bought for durability and comfort rather than style, it definitely drew attention.

At the first restaurant, my mother and uncle caught a glimpse of what was to follow at the next two. Whilst my uncle – in shirt, paints, and casual jacket (most likely his every-day work outfit) – had been greeted warmly, upon my mother’s entrance the Maître d’ gave a start:

“Are you lost, Madame?”

My mother explained she had a booking and gave the name. It wasn’t until my uncle – catching sight of her across the restaurant – gave a wave of recognition that they relented.

“Shall I take your…” he paused and my mother tried not to laugh, “…coat, Madame?”

He used a serviette.

Whilst my mother enjoyed the finest cuisine the city had to offer, her friends remained around the corner, huddled in the van with their simple cheese and baguette dinners, sharing jokes and carafe wine.

My mother would always try to sneak something of the meal back for them. At one restaurant the cheque was brought out with a bowl filled to the brim with house-made chocolates. One could, naturally, take as many as one wished, but given the surroundings and the considerable meal which had preceded them, it was understood that ‘as many as one wished’ would not be all that many.

When the waiter returned for my uncle to sign, he found the bowl bare save for the two empty chocolate wrappers from the pieces my mother and uncle had tasted. They had been divine. The rest were in my mother’s handbag. The waiter – though naturally, respectably, silent – was clearly not impressed. My mother’s friends – squealing with delight upon her triumphant return to the van – clearly were.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”

I’m planning my birthday dinner at the moment, and I’ve gone with the best the Spanish-speaking world has to offer to vegetarians. Cue pintxos, tapas, home-made corn tortillas, and a Mexican chilli chocolate cake to die for. To top it all off, I have invested in copious amounts of cava, tempranillo, sangria, and – perhaps surprisingly – apple cider.  Ella Baila Sola is playing from the stereo and there’s also a misguided-purchase of a piñata sitting in the corner cause I didn’t really think through where I could tie it up…

Spanish food is fun. It’s theatrical, it’s delicious, and the invariably small serving sizes mean you get to try a little of everything and make catering a dinner party an absolute breeze. Of course, the only problem with my selection of theme for my birthday is that it’s making me feel incredibly nostalgic for Spain. I’ve blogged previously on Barcelona so today I thought I would go with San Sebastián.

I love San Sebastián. People say it’s too touristy, but what they don’t mention is that the vast majority of tourists (in the non-British season) are themselves Spanish – up from the surrounding areas for a weekend of good times. As a city of tiny alleyways, San Sebastián makes even the smallest crowd feel substantial, and we were there during a festival weekend. There were activities and performances every day, and one afternoon there was a parade in which giant wooden and paper dolls on stilts traversed the city to gather and dance in the square just next to our hostel.

San Sebastián is a loud city. Unbelievably loud. It is a city whose energy is infectious – even after a sleepless night at a Romanian airport and a very early morning flight we were ready to stay up till dawn.

And oh my god the food. The pintxos are a thing of beauty; an ocean of tiny toothpicks pressing magnificent combinations of cheese, peppers, and seafood onto crusty baguette. A well-stocked pintxo bar resembles a poorly built picket fence.

There are two types of pintxo bar. The first is staffed by middle-aged men in long-sleeve white shirts and black waistcoats. Either too bright or too dark, they are populated by a subdued crowd politely sipping table wine and nibbling simple pintxos made according to traditional recipes. The bread is topped with only one or two ingredients – always fresh – and the meal is rounded out with a serving of patatas bravas and pimientos de padrón.

The second is staffed by young bearded men working alongside women sporting bright red hair. The lighting – always just the right side of dark – obscures how many people the tiny venue contains, but the rabble of voices – and the quickly disappearing pintxos – hint at the multitude. The pintxos themselves are always works of art – beautifully executed pieces one feels almost guilty to consume – and are new twists on old favourites (brie with pomegranate, shitake mushroom skewers and the like). The drinks list is invariably simple but performance-based. At one place the cava barrel stood above the waiter’s head and streamed out in an arc. He had to hold the glass at just the right distance and angle to catch the liquid, which had formed a parabola above his head.

Two types of pintxo bar, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which is my favourite.

(I have very few photos of San Sebastián – I was having too much fun to remember to take any.)

Mikri or: How My Mother Learned to Like Cats

I have previously posted stories linked to past posts by place and by culture. Today, I want to link by cats. Last week I posted about Kotor – a must-see city for any cat lover. So from that post comes the following family story: the story of Mikri.

My mother never really liked cats. She would never have said that she hated them, but – being a dog person – she would turn her nose up at even the idea or mention of a feline. It was, sadly, a bone of contention between her and her friend, London flatmate, and often travel companion Sally whose love of cats extended to the intake of strays.

My mother spent most of her time abroad in London and Tolon – a tiny town on the coast of Greece – where, until she was sufficiently able to speak the language, she worked as a cleaner. After many of her own travels, Sally landed in Greece and, as mum was able to get her a job and offer her a spare room to stay in, she decided to stay for a while.

One day, my mother came home from work to find Sally looking – in her own words – ‘suspicious as fuck.’

“What did you do?” my mother demanded to know.

“It followed me home” was Sally’s rather ambiguous reply.

The ‘it’, as it transpired, was a tiny white kitten – near dead – that Sally had found meowing in a wet sack by the water, the other members of its litter – not as strong as the little fighter – lying dead around it.

My mother pointed out that the suggestion the tiny thing – only a few days old and near-drowned – had the strength to ‘follow’ Sally home was probably not quite truthful but, being a cat-disliker rather than an animal torturer, she allowed Sally to keep it and nurse it. She was pretty sure that without its mother and given its ordeal it would be dead by the end of the week. Clearly, she underestimated both the cat and Sally.

Although Mikri – as his naming foretold – was forever small, he became the fastest, and cheekiest, cat in town. Being the only cat within his known world to have a home to return to, his favourite activity was to head out of a morning, wind all the vicious disease-ridden strays up to peak bloodlust and then dash home – with them in fast pursuit – only to pop through the tiny make-shift cat flap in the window of the front door and leave them howling blue murder outside.

He and my mother had an uneasy relationship. Cats seem to have a knack for knowing who in a room wants them to keep their distance, and using that to decide exactly whom they want to sit right next to. He would spend his evenings fighting with mum to sit on her lap and though she invariably relented, she remained resentful.

One day, when only my mother was at home, Mikri came running through the streets with a group of strays in hot pursuit. Mum could hear them from about three blocks away. They got closer, the yowling cries became louder, and she heard Mikri make his jump to his aperture. But then there was a weird sound, followed by a new kind of scream. Mum realised that, in his latest growth spurt, Mikri had become too big for his hole. He had rebounded off the door and was now stuck out there with the big bad tabbies. And that scream was him taking his first hit.

Without really thinking about what she was doing, mum grabbed a broom and ran out to Mikri’s rescue. This is not as simple as it sounds. Tolon’s stray cats – at least those around in the 1970s – aren’t all that fussed by humans. Most humans give them a wide berth; most humans are kind of scared of them. So the tomcats stood their ground and hissed as mum brandished the broomstick at them. It must have been quite the sight – apparently a few neighbours stopped to watch. When the cats became emboldened enough to take a swipe at mum, she got fed up and gave each of them enough of a whack with the broom to show she meant business. Non-plussed by the turn of events, the toms decided to cut their losses and head off. Mikri and mum were left on the stoop observing each other. From then on, Mikri did not stir up the neighbourhood watch, and mum sometimes let him lie on her lap in the evenings. An uneasy truce had been met.

After a few years, mum and Sally found the time had come for them to leave Greece; mum for Australia, Sally for a few more years in Britain. They were worried about leaving Mikri – a domesticated cat in a city without pets or pet owners. Before they left, a friend came to visit with his mother. She was older, a widower whose children had all left home. Whilst they were all standing in the kitchen, Mikri – who had spent the day outside – climbed up to the window and banged on it, then walked around to the front door to be let in. The friend’s mother was astounded that a cat could be so clever. She was charmed. Mikri had a new home.

A few years later, my mother and Sally returned to Tolon. Curious, they asked after the cat. The old woman dissolved into sobs. They were strongly advised to ask no more questions.

Mikri had lived a charmed life, but even cats only get nine.

“Time spent with cats is never wasted”

I’m writing this post from the Mitchell Library in Sydney. I’m on a research trip, but it’s January and the sun is out and my motivation for work is low – so I’m making myself feel better about my low productivity by working on my blog.

On my way in to the library, I noticed a rather curious statue of a cat perched valiantly atop an external window sill. The plaque on the ledge in front of me informed me that it was Matthew Flinders’ ‘intrepid’ cat who circumnavigated Australia with his ‘master’. I’m scheduling this blog post to be published just before Invasion Day, and the incorporation of an animal into the valorisation of the colonial project certainly gives me pause and makes me feel a bit queasy about the way in which narratives of exploitation, violence, and war are obscured through the use of familiar and innocuous symbols like pets (in very flippant terms: ‘ooh look, Flinders had a pet cat just like me – he can’t have been all bad then’).

But the cat statue also got me thinking about how cool cats are, and how they are often invisible in the past and present of cities. Lots of cities have statues and memorialisations of dogs, but few can make the same claim for cats (Sydney – ever ready to be unique – makes the claim to having both). A quick google search for cities with statues of cats got me to here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-tips-and-articles/the-cats-meow-top-10-destinations-for-feline-fanatics

And that, patient reader, is how I decided to spend today’s post talking about Kotor, a tiny city on the coast of Montenegro with a population of 13,510.

A port city since the Roman Empire, ruled from the 15th to 18th centuries by the Venetian Republic, and a contemporary sanctuary for cats, Kotor is a genuinely awesome place to visit (at least in summer, I have no idea if the same could be said of it in winter).

We stayed just outside the main town, in what can only be described as the most picturesque hostel in existence. We were welcomed with a glass of wine and home-made pancakes and sat for the next hour or so overlooking the jagged mountainous view out to the Mediterranean.

The old town itself is obscured from the beauty of its surrounds through an historical necessity: the Venetian fortifications still stand today, and one must scramble and climb up to the peep holes in order to catch a glimpse of ocean.

Inside the impending fortress walls lie labyrinthine stone alleyways which twist and turn past numerous tiny shops and food stalls all cobbled together and then suddenly open out onto expansive squares where tourists and locals alike lounge with wine and conversation. For every person you see, there are at least two scrawny cats similarly going about their business filching fallen or forgotten morsels of food, lounging in the sun, or exploring another of the never-ending selection of hidden passages.

The food in Kotor is tasty but simple – largely derived from bread, pasta, and ice-cream bases – and so we delighted more in the walking a cat spotting than the eating.

On our last day we woke with the dawn and took the famous walk along Kotor’s fortifications as the sun rose. A crumbling structure with many stairs, it was steep, in parts dangerous, and the still summer heat which we thought to avoid with our early-morning rise often made the going difficult. But with a view unrivalled by any other point in the city (and possibly in the Mediterranean) and unimpeded by any other walkers, it was an absolute highlight of the trip.

Once Upon A Time In Munich: My Mother’s Story

As a 1970s traveller, my mother spent most of her time in campsites around Europe, and a combi van was her and her friends’ preferred mode of transport. This sounds like it would have been all very fun in spring and summer, but it seems they also attempted it in winter.

After a week in snow-covered Munich, the seven of them packed up their tents and rucksacks, cleaned up the travel stove, and hopped in the van to head to their next destination.

The engine revved, but it wouldn’t turn over. There was much discussion about what should be done: It needs to be warmed up! – No that won’t help, you just have to keep revving it. – What are you talking about? That will destroy the engine! Maybe leave it running for a bit. – Would some hot water help?

The stubborn van, aware that their traveling was almost at an end and that its passengers were en route back to their jobs and adopted lives in London, had simply given up. Obdurately, it sat on the edge of the campsite, goading kicks and profanities from the group.

Without another option, they were forced to push the van to town. Six of them pitched in to push while one lucky member got to be steerer. I’d always imagined the six of them pushing the van until it got a good roll going before gallantly sprinting to be level with the door and then vaulting into the safety of the steel interior. When I saw Little Miss Sunshine for the first time I pointed excitedly and asked my mother if that was what she had had to do in Munich. She looked at me like I was a bit dense; apparently combi vans are heavy and if the engine doesn’t tick over even with a running start it means you just push it the whole 2k to town. At a rate of about 0.5kph.

They made it to town, no doubt glowing with exertion and a sense of achievement, only to find that the repair was going to take a few days and the rest of their money. They begged a heater-less room for a trifle above a coffee shop and spent the next couple of days sharing a morning pastry and coffee between the seven of them in an attempt to both nourish and warm themselves. They didn’t really drink the coffee, they just held the mug for its warmth, passing it on to the next in the circle only when social convention deemed they were perhaps being greedy.

After an eternity of cold and hunger and sleepless nights, the van was ready to go. Or, at least, it was as ready as it was ever going to be. The mechanics were able to patch, but not fix, the problem meaning that the van was now only able to run at a top speed of about 50kph. Given that their route home included an Autobahn, this was worrying.

Over the next few days of driving, they got a crash-course in German expletives as enraged drivers sped past their sluggish combi. Puttering down the speed limit-free highway at a piddling 45kph, they didn’t make any friends and most likely almost caused a few accidents.

Almost at their destination – or at least the exit route which would enable them to get away from the Autobahn – they encountered road works and only a single open lane. With no choice but to continue on, they crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. But luck wasn’t on their side.

About 1k from where they could see the end of the road works they heard an ominous bellow, full and rich like a boat’s klaxon. In their rear-view mirror they saw a truck traveling at immense speed, and with less breaking space than would be needed to avoid catastrophe. I don’t know who was driving, but I do know they put pedal to floor – an act which only pushed the odometer up to about 47kph. The opened-up highway was getting closer, but so was the impending road train, and there wasn’t really anything they could do but hope. The truck’s horn blew again and again – like the clap of thunder heralding the approaching storm it got louder and louder with each pull.

The combi was straining, the driver’s leg aching, and every single muscle of every single passenger was clenched to the limit. The truck filled the rear-view mirror, and then the whole of the back window – they could see nothing else. And then, at the very last second, the roadblock barriers fell away and the driver ducked into the lane on the right. The truck, thankfully, kept to its linear path, its klaxon shouting back at them until it disappeared into the horizon forever.

“Everything it is possible to imagine can also exist”

I was in Munich for three nights about 18 months ago and it was during a heatwave, so my memories of the city are hazy at best. I’d never been to Europe in summer before and before I landed at Frankfurt airport to a 28°C greeting, I was one of those smug Australians who snickered under my breath at Europeans who can’t handle real summer. Make no mistake, there is nothing worse than a heatwave in Europe. I think I almost collapsed from heat exhaustion.

One of the problems is the reverse of Australia’s lack-of-dealing with winter: there is very little in the way of air conditioning anywhere in Europe. The shock of cool relief one expects from those first few steps into a department store is nowhere to be found; it’s just more stagnant heat air. I remember waiting for a train at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, sweating so profusely I actually could not physically keep myself in the plastic chair. Unable to breathe for the suffocating heat, I took myself to the bathroom to throw some cold water on my face. Almost delirious with the relief of the spray, standing at the basin I removed both my shirt and bra in an attempt to cool down. It wasn’t until a rather surprised and perplexed woman walked into the bathroom that I realised it would be possibly more appropriate to take some wetted towels into a stall with me…

But I digress.

My strongest memories of Munich centre on our second night. A gorgeous city steeped in medieval and early modern architecture and thick with lush greenery and amazing urban gardens, Munich is the perfect setting for a fairy tale. Journeying through one of these amazing gardens – the Englischer Garten – we alighted on an immense Biergaten. Locals, expats, and tourists of all ages stood in a genial snaking line to exchange euros for tokens which could be used to buy Bier, Bretzels, and Bratwurst.

For those who hail from the southern hemisphere, twilight still, I think, holds a surprising and magical quality. In the fading light we drank and ate and were merry; three Australians and one local enjoying the balmy glow of a midsummer’s night dream.

By the time we left the beer garden the sun had well and truly set and the park was impenetrably dark. But we needn’t have worried about tripping over. Almost as soon as we had left the glow of the Garten, a new glow materialised; a tiny floating orb of light. It was chased by another, and another, and yet another – fireflies! I had never seen a firefly before and – emboldened by my numerous steins – I chased after them in squealing glee. Luckily my companions kept me from wandering too far off the path.

As we exited the park and neared the city centre, we digressed through one more patch of park. From the path we heard music, and wandering through the trees and over to the decorated rotunda which stood in the clearing opposite, we found an informal waltz lesson underway.

Gorged with token-bought ale and Bretzels, with tricksy fairies who lead you off the path, and with hidden enclaves in which elderly couples waltz into eternity, we turned back towards the path and followed our breadcrumbs back home, dancing a little along the way.

 

“It doesn’t much matter which way you go…you’re sure to get somewhere, if only you walk long enough”

A few weekends ago, we made a three night sojourn to Barcelona (as you do). This was my first visit to Spain and I absolutely loved it.

We got in quite late on the first night, welcomed to our gorgeous hostel with an upgrade to a private suite and an impromptu guitar concert performed by one of the hostel-owner’s friends. Sitting in a candlelit room, olives and other small dishes sprinkled across the table, the guitarist and his partner performed a small selection of traditional song.

The night was still young by Spanish standards (about 10pm) so we ventured out into the streets in search of pintxos and really good, affordable Spanish wine – both of which we found in abundance. Following the recommendation of one of the hostel staff, we found a lively bar/restaurant where those lucky enough to have already found a seat at the bar ate and drank leisurely and meditatively, enjoying their repas without concern for the bustling crowds waiting eagerly behind them to pounce on a free seat. Having by this stage already consumed half a bottle of (amazingly good) red on an empty stomach, pounce we certainly did when the two seats in front of us opened up. Amalgamating for ourselves a delightful dinner of patatas bravas (‘angry potatoes’ smothered in a rich and spicy arrabiata-style sauce), large green olives, delectable crispy grilled mushrooms, and a number of beautifully presented cheese-based pintxos we picked and nibbled our way through the next hour; as delighted as Alice to find ourselves in a new Wonder(ful)land.

Leaving our seats to those next in line, we headed northwards to the old town playing ‘Spot the Gaudi’ along the way. As it was quite late and the old medieval-style streets are confusingly labyrinthine even in the daylight, we spent a rather enjoyable hour or so navigating our way through the busy streets to each main square in the area, ending the night with more drinks and pintxos at one of the many vibrant restaurants, all named for the sun, which enclose the Plaça del Sol.

Over the next two days and nights we drank in the city. Incredibly aware of how lucky we were to be enjoying +20° days drenched in sunshine (grey London was in the midst of a thunder storm when we flew out), we spent almost all of our time outdoors; strolling the length of Port Vell, traversing La Rambla, circumnavigating Sagrada Familia, climbing Park Güell, and comparing the labyrinth of the Ciutat Vella with the nineteenth-century rationalism of l’Eixample.

We were also lucky enough to be in town for Hispanic Day – the annual celebration of Columbus’ first arrival in the Americas. It’s a National holiday but since many Catalans are in favour of independence from Spain, it is also a day of (non-violent) protest when people march in the streets and the yellow and red flag of Catalunya flies high. It certainly added a lovely flavour to our self-guided walking tours.

Our nights were spent bar-hopping in search of undiscovered vegetarian delights – roasted spicy green peppers, empanadas, mushroom croquettes, Spanish omelettes, and so much berenjena (aubergine) – complimented with amazing (if a little sweet) sangria, cava, wine, and beer.

Then, all too soon, the weekend was over. Returning to the first night’s restaurant for a final farewell we noticed the (Sunday night) crowd was as subdued as we were; the excitement of the weekend over, Monday loomed large in people’s minds. We clinked our glasses for the last time – a bittersweet salud! to our wonderful weekend – returned to the hostel for a final beer on our third-floor balcony, and set our 6am alarm in anticipation for our flight home later that morning.

“If You Don’t Know the Way, Walk Slowly” (Irish Proverb)

Ah Dublin, UNESCO city of Literature, where everyone seems to own a guitar or violin and know how to use it, where Churches and pubs compete for patrons, where it’s cold even when the sun is shining, and where the whiskey is more warming than a fire.

I arrived in Dublin Sunday night (or rather Monday morning) at the rather unsociable time of 2.00am due to a weather-induced flight delay. Luckily, by the time I arrived the rain had moved on and I was able to find my way to my Hostel without getting wet. After a rather brief sleep I ventured out into the city where my luck with the weather continued. I spent a long day walking through the city, north and south of the river, taking in the sights and, over the course of the day, traversing from one edge of the city to the other and then back again.

I decided to begin – perhaps rather unimaginatively – at Trinity College and determined that the most interesting route to take from my hostel near the central bus station would be through the disorienting laneways of Temple Bar. Wonderfully colourful, incredibly overpriced, beautifully framed by stone archways, sadly infused with a faint whiff of urine, Temple Bar is a wonderful part of the city to walk through – if only during the day. Bending through the labyrinth, I eventually found my way to Trinity and enjoyed a walk through the grounds and an entertaining visit to their Freshers’ Fair where I was strongly encouraged by many students to join various clubs and societies (despite my explanation that I did not live in Dublin). Below is an image of Trinity’s bell tower – one of the oldest structures on the campus and its original centrepiece. No longer in use, I was told later in the day that it is said the bell will only sound when a virgin walks beneath it – an interesting introduction to both local humour and legend.

Moving on, I headed south west, taking in the National Library and Gallery, the houses of Parliament (originally Leinster House – a superb Georgian mansion), and two beautiful public parks – Merrion Square and St Stephen’s Green. Along the way, I noticed that Dublin is a city of statues ranging from realism to impressionism, the incredibly grand to the incredibly small, serious to humorous, commemorating those favoured by history and those forgotten by it. These bronze casts wait in the middle of highways and hide around corners to both surprise and delight those who move through the city on foot.

Over the next few hours I made my way through Dublin Castle (spending as much time as I could at the wonderful Chester Beatty Library where, sadly, I was not able to take photos) and the streets of the south-eastern part of the city, and finished my self-guided walking tour with a stroll past the Guinness Storehouse and Brewery and a failed attempt to visit the Irish Museum of Modern Art since it was closed for refurbishment and was not re-opening until the following evening. I did manage to obtain an invitation to the opening, but it sadly coincided with my flight back to London.

My evening was spent on a Literary Pub Crawl run by two local actors. Beginning at the famous The Duke, the guided tour incorporated three local pubs, the grounds of Trinity College, and a wealth of information about Dublin’s literary greats presented through performance, recitation, lecture, and song. It was a really great evening.

Sadly my luck with the weather ended at this point and the next day’s rain prevented my original plans for a day trip to Howth for a hike. Instead, I took my cue from the weather and spent a large section of my morning in the most wonderful bookshop I have ever seen – Ulysses Rare Books. Their treasure trove includes a first edition copy of Ulysses signed by Joyce himself! The rest of my day was spent at Kilmainham Gaol (another appropriate destination for a rainy day) where Ireland’s political prisoners were traditionally housed and where the members of the 1916 Easter Rising were shot.

At this point it became necessary to say goodbye to Dublin, and so I also now say goodbye to you.