Travel

Vienna

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kohlmarkt

After reading Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, I was determined to go and visit Vienna. He made it sound like an absolutely beautiful city, with a fascinating history and cultural life. I’d always heard good things about it, and imagined it to be a majestic place, famous for music and royal palaces and its mixture of Western and Eastern European influences. I expected it to be somewhat like St Petersburg, and I had a picture of myself in a fur hat, wandering through deserted palaces and floating in and out of fancy shops, against a soaring soundtrack of Mozart waltzes. Inspired by these romantic notions, I booked myself a cheap short break to the city over half term, and started planning my visits to coffee houses, museums and sights of architectural interest with much excitement.

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I arrived in Vienna on a Sunday morning, and was shocked both by the extreme cold weather and the silence of the city streets. Feeling like the star of a zombie apocalypse movie, I wandered the streets between my hotel and the main square, Stephansplatz, amidst a background of eerie quiet. Despite my increasing concern that I had missed some major world disaster that everyone else was hiding from, I still managed to take notice of the unbelievably gorgeous mixture of architecture around me: from the art nouveau work of the turn of the century, to elaborate Baroque palaces, Gothic churches and more simplistic 17th century structures, everywhere I looked provided a treat for the eyes. When I finally made it to Stephansplatz, I was heartened to find not only a seriously impressive Gothic cathedral, but also several tourists, which reassured me that the world hadn’t ended while I’d been flying across Europe. Clearly, Vienna was just not the same kind of buzzing capital city I’m used to. I popped into the Stephansdom, which is a hauntingly beautiful church, before stopping for a traditional Austrian lunch of Tafelspitz at the delicious Plachutta, which was my first real taste of Austrian cuisine. Once fed, I wandered down the main shopping street, Kohlmarkt, which has many expensive shops as well as some of the most historic establishments in Vienna, which retain their beautiful original 19th century and art deco shop signs and frontages. At the top of Kohlmarkt is the Hofburg, once the palace complex of the Austrian Emperors, and further walking eventually leads to the now public palace gardens, where there was a big winter festival going on, and the stately Museum quarter. By this time it was late, and I had seen a huge swathe of the city, so I headed back to my hotel, both enchanted by what I had seen, but also surprised at how different from my expectations the city was. For it is certainly a city with impressive, stately buildings and a good deal of culture, but it is also one, in my experience, that is remarkably sterile. There was no life, no buzz, no sense of the throbbing heart of a nation that you get in London, New York or Paris. It very much feels like a showpiece for an Empire rather than a place for people to live out the drama of life on the huge scale one would expect of a vibrant and diverse capital city.

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Over the next few days I saw all the main sights. I loved getting the lift to the top of the Stephansdom and seeing the skyline of Vienna. I thoroughly enjoyed touring the elaborate Hofburg Palace and finding out more about the doomed Empress Sisi. The Belvedere Museum offered lovely views of the city and has a wonderful collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings. The Opera District is very beautiful, and it was fun to walk through the long Naschmirkt market stalls and see the beautiful decoration on the famous Wagner Apartments that overlook them. The Secession Building is the most breathtaking example of Art Nouveau architecture I have ever seen. The Ringstrasse is a phenomenon; to think that this street of palaces and public buildings was constructed within such a short period is awe-inspiring, and gives Vienna its stately, elegant quality. I was thrilled to find the Palais Ephrussi, as read about in Edmund de Waal’s book: I could not truly comprehend the fact that one family used to live inside this enormous building. I spent a very pleasurable morning looking at the world-famous Hapsburg art collections in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, my favourites being the Velazquez portraits of the Spanish Infanta Margarita. I had a night at the opera. I ate lots of goulash and potato dumplings, and had wonderful coffee and cake at a number of famous Cafes and pastry shops. I wandered down many ancient cobbled streets and found a number of fascinating little alleyways and courtyards filled with beautiful shops and cafes. I spent a day at Schonbrunn, the Austrian Royal Family’s summer palace on the outskirts of Vienna, which was absolutely beautiful. It was a lovely, lovely trip. But I couldn’t help but feel that Vienna is not really the city I expected, nor the city for me. I like my capital cities buzzing with life. Vienna felt cold and slightly artificial, to me, and while I’m glad I visited, I don’t think I’ll be rushing back.

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Yorkshire

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whitby harbour

When Miranda and her mum invited me to spend a week with them in Yorkshire this summer, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I adore everything about the county: its dramatic natural landscapes, its fantastic range of historic buildings, its quaint cathedral cities and picture postcard villages, and the warmth of its locals. I would move there in a heartbeat. We stayed in a cottage just outside Ripon, which is a gorgeous little city with a historic market square and impressive cathedral that inspired some of the details of Alice in Wonderland, as Lewis Carroll’s father was once the cathedral Dean. There are plenty of independent shops, one of which is a favourite of mine and Miranda’s, the fantastic art gallery Hornsey’s, where neither of us could resist picking up a print by a Yorkshire artist we both love, Emily Sutton. Right next to our cottage was the entrance to Fountains Abbey, which is one of the most breathtaking sights I have seen in this country. Ruined after the dissolution of the monasteries, the owner of the land in the 18th century created stunning water gardens around the Abbey, which form a fabulous backdrop to this fairytale-like place. You can walk into still roofed rooms, looking out across the surrounding parkland, and imagine what it must have been like to live and worship here hundreds of years ago. It is a truly unique experience and one I already can’t wait to repeat.

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fountains abbey

We thoroughly enjoyed an expedition to the lovely seaside town of Whitby, also famous for its stunning Abbey ruins that look dramatically out across the foaming sea to one side and the rolling purple moors to the other, and for its jet jewellery and associations with Dracula. Roaming amidst its cobbled streets and climbing the ancient steps up the cliffside to the Abbey feel like wandering back in time, and there is nothing better than eating fish and chips in the fresh salty air, watching boats bobbing in the harbour. We also loved visiting the smart spa town of Harrogate, which is full of Georgian splendour and boasts a large branch of our favourite Yorkshire restaurant, Betty’s, and the neighbouring RHS gardens at Harlow Carr, which are well worth stopping off to explore if you’re passing. The pretty town of Ilkley also delighted us with its independent shops, especially The Grove Bookshop, and of course, its very own branch of Betty’s.

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RHS Harlow Carr

Probably my favourite place we visited, however, was Newby Hall, a privately owned stately home designed by Robert Adam and containing some of the most exquisite furniture and interior decoration in the country. Our tour around the house was filled with fascinating details about the history of the building and its inhabitants, including the murder of a son by Greek brigands in the 1800s and an owner who brought back crates and crates of ancient sculptures from his grand tour to create his own purpose built sculpture gallery. The nicest thing about the house is that it is still fully lived in by the family who own it, and it feels very much like a home rather than a visitor attraction. The gardens are glorious, too, and there is an outstandingly good restaurant that serves proper food in lovely surroundings. It was an absolutely brilliant day out, and the jewel in the crown of a spectacular trip to God’s Own Country.

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The Amalfi Coast

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I have longed to visit the Amalfi Coast for years, entranced by the beautiful pictures I have seen of its rugged coastline and pastel coloured villages clinging to the cliffs above the glittering Mediterranean sea. It seemed impossible that anywhere could truly be so gorgeous, but as soon as the bus from Sorrento crossed the hills that straddle the middle of the Sorrentine peninsula and gave me my first glimpse of the Amalfi coastline, I was mesmerised by what unfolded before me. Words cannot do justice to such beauty; it truly has to be seen to be believed.

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Amalfi Cathedral

Positano, Amalfi and Ravello are all famously picturesque, and I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around all three. Positano is made up of steeply winding cobbled streets and tiny piazzas containing lovely little shops and restaurants. There is also a pretty beach down at the harbour, and I couldn’t imagine a better view while sunbathing than the sugar cube houses spilling down the hillside above and the endless sea sparkling in front. Like on Capri, much of the older architecture on the coast is heavily influenced by Moorish culture, and this is particularly noticeable in Amalfi, which is larger than Positano and has a seriously impressive cathedral. As the biggest town on this stretch of coastline, it is busy and bustling, with so many streets and staircases and nooks and crannies to explore that a week probably wouldn’t be enough to discover everything of interest. My favourite discovery was the cathedral, which is stunning inside and out, and well worth the hike up the front steps to explore. However, the highlight of the Amalfi Coast for me was Ravello, which is perched high on the cliffs above Amalfi and is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

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Like Capri, Ravello has long been a place of glamour, sought out by the rich and famous for its seclusion and glorious, sweeping views of the surrounding landscape. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore due to the limited public transport up to the town, but we did manage to visit Villa Rufolo, a Moorish villa much restored in the 19th century, with luscious gardens that offer uninterrupted views over the sea. In the summer, they have concerts here, and the stage literally juts out over the sea below – what an experience! If we had longer, we would have gone to Villa Cimbrone, which has an illustrious past and more envious views, and is now a hotel to boot – it’s my dream to stay there one day! The Amalfi Coast is one of those places that stays with you after you visit, and really fires the imagination. It was the jewel in the crown of a wonderful holiday, and I know I will be back for more.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

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I took this delightful book on holiday with me, and it was the perfect read for lazy days bathed in the warm Mediterranean sun. I’ve always known about it, but the experience of reading the novel was quite different to what I had expected. I assumed it was going to be a largely comic novel, about the outlandish behaviour of an overly eccentric family, but Durrell is a far more subtle writer than that. While it is at times laugh out loud funny, this is due to his ironic wit rather than a reliance on caricature. The pleasure of My Family and Other Animals is in its understatedness, and how Durrell presents his family’s adventurous and unconventional lifestyle in a manner that makes it seem perfectly ordinary and plausible. He is also wonderful at capturing the stunning landscape of Corfu: land of olive groves, peeling Venetian mansions and sandy beaches lit at night by the soft glow of fireflies. I was certainly sold on the idea of throwing everything to the wind and moving to a Greek island by the time I finished reading!

When Gerald Durrell’s older brother Larry (the novelist Lawrence Durrell) says he is sick of living in the cold, damp climate of a miserably grey England and suggests that they all move to Corfu, rather than laughing at such impetuosity, Durrell’s mother says “Why not?” and shortly the entire family – Gerald, the youngest, Margo, Leslie and Larry, plus Roger the dog – are on their way to a new life in the sun. This is the early 1930s, when Corfu had become fashionable as an enclave of artistic types, and when the Durrells ship up, they soon find they are in good company. Spiro, an eccentric cab driver who speaks hilariously accented English thanks to a spell working in London as a young man, takes the family under his wing and finds them a lovely pink villa with glorious gardens that is nestled amidst the olive groves. Gerald is initially free to roam the island with Roger, finding plenty of intriguing species of insect to study, peasants to befriend and shady trees under which to nap, but soon it is decided that he is getting too wild and needs to be taught something. As such, a number of would-be tutors are sourced from the town, of varying quality and varying eccentricity.

Coupled with young Gerald’s adventures are those of his siblings and mother, who all float around Corfu obsessed with their own affairs. Larry is perpetually entertaining hordes of friends, eventually necessitating a move to a new house to contain them all, and complaining about his wayward younger brother’s unfortunate habit of leaving insects lying around. Leslie is fascinated by guns and hunting, and takes every opportunity to show off his skills by killing whatever animals he can find. Margot is forever trying new diets to cure her acne, and wears as little as possible in order to attract the opposite sex, with often hilarious consequences. Mrs Durrell is wonderfully vague and affectionate, and spends most of her time trying out elaborate new recipes or pottering in her garden. All of them adore life on Corfu, and embrace the people and landscape of their new island home. One of the most magical descriptions of the landscape is when they all go on a night time escapade to a local beach, and swim in the ghostly light of the water’s phosphorescence and the glowing orbs of the fireflies that gather along the water’s edge. It would be difficult to imagine a more liberating and memorable way to grow up, and I rather envied the Durrells and their carefree, sunlit world. I loved every second of the Durrell’s adventures, and reading this has made me get itchy feet again! This is such an inspiring and evocative read – definitely a favourite I’ll come back to time and again.

Naples and Herculaneum

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Naples

‘See Naples and die’ said Goethe, after experiencing the glories of Naples in the Golden days of the Bourbon Kings. Naples was once the wealthiest and most beautiful city in Italy, and  I couldn’t wait to see it. I imagined splendour, pomp, gilding and streetscapes so architecturally perfect that they would send me into raptures. Unfortunately, my first impression was anything but. On disembarking the train at the Piazza Garibaldi, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The building of the train station had obliterated this clearly once majestic square, and all I could see were seedy shops and crumbling stucco. Where was the fine city I had been promised? Walking through the streets to the Duomo, the dilapidation of the architecture all around me became even more pronounced. Glimpses of alleyways filled with hanging washing and mopeds were all very quintessentially Italian, but they weren’t particularly gorgeous. The Duomo, tricky to find, nestled amidst a huddle of flaking apartment buildings and shops, was breathtakingly beautiful inside, but on the outside, it was rather lost in its insalubrious surroundings. I felt very disappointed.

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Palazzo Reale

However, as I walked on, through the maze of ochred buildings with their wrought iron balconies, beautiful french windows, peeling shutters and decorative ceramic tiles, and caught glimpses of intriguing courtyards and alleyways hidden behind arches, I began to fall in love. Then, when I found the long main shopping street, with its pretty piazzas, side streets that climbed steeply up the cliffside, fantastic art deco buildings and glimpses of the sea beyond its shops, I was able to capture the essence of what made this such a gorgeous city. The piece de la resistance, however, was yet to come; at the end of the main street is Piazza del Plebisicito, home of the enormous Palazzo Reale, former palace of the King and Queen of Naples, which dangles over a cliff edge with incredible views across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius. This Piazza, sadly covered in scaffolding so not a great photo opportunity, is truly beautiful, and I can only imagine what it looked like back in the days of Naples’ eminence. The Palazzo Reale is just as opulent inside as out, and in true Italian style, it is a bargain to visit; just 4 euros to wander the marble and gilded halls, the sumptuous state rooms and galleries, and the formal gardens overlooking the sea. It was the highlight of my visit. I wish I had have had more time to explore; I wanted to get to the archaelogical museum where most of the relics from Pompeii are on display, but it was too hot and too far to walk, so I contented myself with the Palazzo as my token nod to culture for the day. Getting the ferry back to Sorrento was the cherry on the top of a wonderful cake; the view of Naples from the sea, blurring its dilapidation into finery once more, is priceless. It was only later that I found out how badly Naples was bombed during the war, which explains the state of many of the buildings. An astonishing 20,000 civilians died from aerial bombing.

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herculeaneum

Later in the week, I hopped back on the wonderfully named Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to Ercolano Scavi, which is home to the ancient town of Herculaneum, unearthed from volcanic mud mere decades ago to reveal the Roman civilisation trapped at the moment of Vesuvius’ famous eruption. Unlike Pompeii, which is absolutely massive and crowded with tourists, Herculaneum is very compact, nestled amidst the existing city of Ercolano, and not as well known, so much quieter. I couldn’t bear the thought of wandering for miles around Pompeii amidst masses of crowds in the considerable heat, so I decided to visit Herculaneum instead, for a snapshot of what life was like in AD79. I found it fascinating to see how much remains; shop signs hang from walls, wooden doors and shutters separate rooms, the most intricate mosaics and paintings decorate walls and floors, and in the baths, the shelves to put clothes and towels look like they were built only yesterday. It was eerie and rather thought provoking to think that this was a world busy and bustling with people, living lives not dissimilar to ours nearly 2000 years ago. The footprints they left behind show us that we, like them, will soon be ancient history, our customs and habits discussed by people far removed from us in time, and yet in spirit, still essentially the same. I have never before been in a place that showed so clearly how little separates us from the past, and I found it an absolutely brilliant, illuminating experience. If I go back again, I’d like to visit Pompeii, but if you are in the area and it really is too hot to cope with too much walking, Herculaneum is a much more manageable alternative.