Category Archives: Travel

Holidays and holiday reading

Seven Days in North Norfolk and Half a Book

View from Blakeney Hight StreetAfter our long railway jaunt around central Europe earlier in the year H and I both fancied settling in one place for a week. Despite having spent three enjoyable holidays in North Norfolk in four years, we’d not been back in almost a decade: a return visit seemed ideal. We set off on one of those gorgeous autumn mornings, arriving in Blakeney in the late afternoon only a little discombobulated by the ‘axe-throwing escape rooms’ sign just outside Kings Lynn.

North Norfolk is famous for its big sky stretching out over theView out over North Norfolk marshes marshes to the sea. On a clear night the stars are spectacular, something we never see at home thanks to all that ambient light thrown up by the town. It’s also home to lots of pretty villages, many with delis offering treats, plus the small town of Holt which still boasts a proper department store. None of your brand concession nonsense at Baker and Larners.

Beach Houses WellsWe already had a catalogue of walks in our heads, the favourite of which for me is a circular hike beginning at Wells-next-the-Sea continuing to Holkham and back up the beach past Wells’ colourful beach huts whose numbers seemed to have expanded greatly since our last visit. One of the joys of this walk is watching lots of happy waggy dogs cavorting on the beach although they, like us, were having a bit of trouble with the buffeting wind.

By mid-week the bluster was in full-swing so we took ourselves off inland to Hindringham Hall’s Hindringham House gardensgorgeous gardens, far more lovely than we were expecting with its beautifully ordered kitchen garden, groaning with produce, and autumn crocuses scattered across lawns surrounded by a moat.

Inevitably there was a wet day but I’d wanted to visit the Sainsbury Centre at UEA in Norwich for Arcade Norwichsome time. The collection is housed in Norman Foster’s first building, still looking good despite its fortysomething years. Only a smattering of artefacts is on display from the vast collection but it’s beautifully curated. My favourite piece was a miniature Peruvian lama fashioned in silver c. 1400-1532. The afternoon was spent wandering around Norwich which is far enough away from anywhere else to have retained its character. It even has a little outbreak of Art Nouveau.

And the book? Sad to say that not nearly as much reading was done as either of us had hoped thanks to our cottage’s crepuscular lighting, clearly not designed for readers. I did manage to get stuck in to Emma Flint’s Little Deaths set in ’60s New York. Based on a true crime, it’s the story of a double child murder told from the perspective of the children’s mother whose apparently louche lifestyle puts her in the frame and the rookie reporter who shoulders his way into covering the crime and becomes obsessed by her. Not usually my cup of tea but it’s deftly handled and engrossing.

An enjoyable break, then, despite the blowing about by Storm Ali. I’m enjoying the current spell of sunny autumn days before knuckling down to winter. Long may it last.

Four Days in Amsterdam, Fourteen Days in Central Europe and Three Books

John Betjeman statue (St. Pancras International)We’d already decided on another central European railway jaunt this year then Eurostar announced its new London to Amsterdam service. The idea of arriving in a city dear to both of us without setting foot on a plane was irresistible so we decided to extend our holiday to include a few days there. John Betjeman was kind enough to see us off from St Pancras International.

Gorgeous weather meant we spent most of the time outside, in contrast to our Christmas visit a few years ago. I’ve been to Amsterdam many times during most seasons but never in June when the gardens are at their best. Amsterdammers manage to get cottage garden flowers to grow in the tiniest of cracks in the cobbles outside their home. There was an abundance of climbing Hollyhock (Amsterdam)roses, wisteria and greenery everywhere but my favourite was the good old-fashioned hollyhock.

Sunday was spent wandering around Hortus Botanicus and on Monday morning we took ourselves off to the Vondelpark, a haven for bird life with its many lakes and wild areas including a couple of storks busy feeding their four young. The afternoon’s treat was tea at the Tassen museum taken in one of their elegantly decorated rooms overlooking the Herengracht canal. Our only other bit of culture was Our Lord in the Attic, a remarkable hidden Catholic church built within a merchant’s canal house at a time when Amsterdam proclaimed its religious tolerance but could not be relied upon to practice it.

Art Nouveau frontage (Leipzig)On to Leipzig the following day, a stone’s throw away from Dresden which we visited on our last railway holiday. Lots of Arts Nouveau and Deco to ogle here, run through with arcades full of ritzy shops, and some lovely green spaces to explore around the city. Leipzig’s slice of culture was the Grassi, a complex of three museums. We only managed to see the applied arts section – so extensive, beautifully organised and rich in treasures that it could give the V & A a run for its money but, mystifyingly, we had it almost to ourselves.

Next stop Görlitz on the Polish/German border where Wes Anderson shot much of The Grand Budapest Hotel using the interior of the vast Görlitzer Warenhaus department store as a stand-in for Gorlitzthe Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. Unlike Leipzig, Görlitz escaped the devastation of WW2 bombing. It’s a little gem of a town much beloved by film-makers, from Quentin Tarantino to Jackie Chan. Inevitably it’s been dubbed Görliwood, I suspect by the local tourist board.

Our first Polish city was WrocƗaw whose name Botanical gardens (Wroclaw)sounds nothing like it looks to an English-speaker’s eyes. WrocƗaw is one of many central European cities razed to the ground in WW2 but, like Dresden, it’s been meticulously and beautifully restored with jaw-dropping architectural delights at every turn. It’s also home to botanical gardens that put Amsterdam’s in the shade plus an exquisite Japanese garden on the edge of town.

We lost around 14°C between WrocƗaw and Poznań which was something of a Craftsmen's cottages, Rtnek (Poznan)relief. Poznań’s grand square is a little smaller than WrocƗaw’s but its row of colourfully decorated craftsmen’s cottages marks it out. Every day at noon two mechanical goats emerge from beneath the town hall clock next to the cottages and butt horns twelve times to mark the hour. A chilly wind blew a light drizzle in our faces at the appointed hour but being British we’re used to that kind of thing and we were determined not to miss the show.

House of Nicolaus Copernicus (Torun)Our penultimate stop was Toruń which, like Görlitz, emerged from WW2 miraculously unscathed. It’s a small medieval walled city stuffed with Gothic and Gothic Revival red-brick architectural gems including the supposed birthplace of Copernicus (or Copper Knickers as we used to call him, sniggeringly, at school). H and I were both somewhat taken aback to find that it’s twinned with Swindon. Apologies to any Swindon-based readers but if you look to the left you’ll understand.

Our last two days were spent in Warsaw. The first thing we sawPalace of Culture and Science (Warsaw) when we walked out of the station was Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science looking oddly anachronistic and slightly menacing next to the many gleaming skyscrapers but still the tallest building in the city. As the museums close on Tuesdays and we’d arrived on Monday, we chose the Museum of the History of Polish Jews over the Warsaw Rising Museum and wished we hadn’t. Overwhelming multimedia and short quotes displayed without context resulted in an exhibition which lacked any coherence. Not a patch on the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I learnt nothing from it I didn’t already know.

We spent Tuesday ambling around the old town, beautifully restored after its WW2 bashing, and loafing in the stylish Café Bristol. After nearly three weeks away we were both ready for home and wondering if Mischief would still recognise us, let alone be pleased to see us. Then I remembered that we’d be arriving almost precisely at feeding time.

 And the books? Three of the six I took hit the spot:

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley, a perceptive, small town novel about a bright young woman whose future is clouded by family complications.Cover image

Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching tells four very personal stories of New York from the points-of-view of Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White, Walt Whitman and Robert Moses the urban planner who shaped the modern metropolis.

Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade, a heart wrenching, beautifully written story of a young boy’s love for an older woman.

Thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me through this very long post, and to H who planned the whole adventure and who’s already thinking about another. Back to books and brevity on Friday…

Two Days in Madrid, Five Days in Toledo and Just One Book

After a difficult winter which seemed never-ending, we were in dire need of a bit of sun and some relaxation so took ourselves off to Spain, flying to Madrid early on Thursday evening. Our second visit to the city started much like the first with a walk around the botanical gardens. Irises were in glorious full bloom then but this time it was tulips of which I’m not hugely fond – some are a little too gaudy for my taste – but the lovely watercolour exhibition from the Society of Botanical Artists together with a few particularly luxuriant camelias made up for that. The other notable difference was the frantic cacophony at the frog pond where the mating season was apparently in full swing.

We plumped for lunch at the CaixaForum just across the road. Owned by one of the big Spanish banks who go in for supporting culture in a way that I wish ours would, it was hosting an exhibition about Adolf Loos. A contemporary of the Viennese Secessionists, Loos was an architect who believed in putting humans rather than design first and as a result his architectural plans are very pleasing. Sailing Boat (Edward Hopper)

The following day was also something of a rerun, a trip to the wonderful Thyssen-Bornemisza walking past the long queue standing in the rain (yes, I’m afraid so) for the Prado. The attraction of the Thyssen is Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza’ s collection of fabulous pieces by artists you may well never have heard of. My favourite, though, is Edward Hopper’s gorgeous ‘Sailing Boat’, as lovely as I remembered it. Its radiant light made a stark contrast with the increasing gloom outside.

A thirty-minute train journey took us to the ancient walled city of Toledo and La Hacienda del Cardenal, once an 18th century bishop’s palace but now a hotel.  Hard not to gush about this place which reminded me of a Moroccan riad with its walled gardens full of secluded corners in which to lounge and rooms with touches of Moorish architecture, a welcome contrast to our hipper-than-thou Madrid gaff. These five days were to be all about taking it easy, preferably loafing in the sun but an early Easter put paid to that. Being British we were prepared: Monday’s riverside walk through an impressive gorge was taken wearing four layers and a beanie before the rain set in. We stiffened our upper lips and consoled ourselves with a particularly delicious lunch. Toledo is in Castilla-La Mancha, Don Quixote country and the home of scrumptious cheese: we didn’t find any windmills to tilt at but we did eat a lot of scrummy food, some of it Manchego. 

When we weren’t eating and it wasn’t raining, and sometimes when it was, we wandered around this beautiful city whose history can be read in many of its buildings which blur Muslim, Jewish and Christian architectural traditions, nicely exemplified in the Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, possibly the oldest in Europe, whose name Toledo stationsays it all. This pleasing Mudéjar style suggests that all three religions lived in harmony and so they did for many years but sadly the usual skirmishes, violent suppressions and massacres intermittently reared their ugly heads not least in the form of Spanish Inquisition. Other Mudéjar highlights included the Iglesia de San Román whose gracefully arched interior reminded me of the mezquita at Cordoba, the fabulous station and the tiny but near-perfect Cristo de la Luz once a mosque then a church.

Back to Madrid for our last day which ended very pleasingly, buying an American import of William Stegner’s Recapitulation at the excellent Central bookshop we’d visited four years ago. A very pleasant break, then, although not entirely what we were hoping for in the way of weather however here’s a little reminder from the entrance to Toledo’s Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes to enjoy life while you can. I suspect that’s not quite Cover imagethe message the artist intended, though.

And the book? That was Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, an erudite, absorbing brick of a book which carried me through most of the holiday. It’s about a man cursed with a genius for maths, an addictive personality and a distinct lack of humility whose son inherits the first two traits and worries about passing them on to his children. Well worth reading, but not so much that I wasn’t relieved to lose its weight from our luggage.

Five Days in Budapest and a Bit of a Book

I’ve been wanting to go to Budapest for some time. I remember it popping up on the departure board at Munich station when H and I caught the train down to the Dolomites for a walking holiday a few years back. Then we hopped on and off the Hamburg to Budapest train last year but veered off from Bratislava to Vienna. We’d thought about another, shorter railway journey Margaret Island (Budapest)taking in the city but plumped for a long weekend break instead. The trip seemed to be jinxed in the weeks running up to it: first thanks to Ryanair’s fit of cancellations (we were lucky) then a health crisis for H’s father who, fortunately, was well enough for us go after all.

Spending much of our first day on Margaret Island, slap in the middle of the Danube which divides Buda from Pest, was a much-needed laid back start after all that stress and finally getting to bed at 2 am after the flight. It’s a large and lovely area of green space, beautifully planted with trees just on the autumnal turn with squabbling red squirrels running up and down them. There’s a splendidly kitsch musical fountain at one end which knocks the Las Vegas Bellagio’s into a cocked hat. Hard to do it justice but, as ever, YouTube comes to the rescue.Museum of Applies Arts (Budapest)

The following day we crossed the river and wandered around leafy Buda, taking the cog railway a little way into the hills. Back over the Danube to Pest after lunch in search of a bit of culture we headed for the Museum of Applied Arts, unfortunately closed for renovation but it was enough just to see the outside. Readers of this blog who’ve followed my travels House of Art Nouveau (Budapest)around the Baltics, Central Europe and Antwerp will know that I’ve a weakness for Art Nouveau architecture, the more extravagantly flamboyant the better. It’s the sheer bonkersness of it all, and you can’t get more bonkers than the Museum of Applied Arts, although there are many rivals for that in Budapest. The rather more restrained Bedő House, whose upper floors house a museum, is an excellent example of the Secessionist architecture we’d seen in Vienna last year but if it’s extravagance you want – and I did – the former Török Bank fits the bill nicely. Impossible to walk very far in Budapest without coming across yet another extraordinarily ornate building. If you fancy seeing a little more outrageously exuberant architecture you might like to visit this Pinterest site.

Sunday seemed like a good day to visit the Great Synagogue but apparently every other tourist in Budapest had the same idea so we went to the Orthodox Synagogue instead. I’d expected it to be Orthodox synagogure (Budapest)somewhat spartan but it turned out to be anything but with its gorgeously painted walls and stained-glass windows. On to the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre, our only bit of culture thanks to the glorious weather, housed in a beautiful, converted Art Deco cinema. Capa famously documented the Spanish Civil War as did his Polish photographer wife, Gerda Taro, who was killed in action. Sadly, Taro doesn’t get much of a mention at the centre. I remember reading Susana Fortes’s novel based on their lives, Waiting for Robert Capa, which tells their story from her point of view, and enjoying it very much.

With the museums closed and another bright shiny autumn day in the offing, we decided to spend Monday morning in City Park after a brief visit to Heroes’ Square in front of which were parked a huge number of police vans and cars, a reminder that Hungary is not quite the free and easy state it might appear when walking its capital’s streets. We spent our last evening wandering around both sides of the river, marvelling at the gorgeously lit Parliament, Parliament (Budapest)a palace of democracy, over which hung a huge harvest moon. Five days, and we’d barely scratched the surface of this lovely city with its elegant tree-lined boulevards. We need to come back to visit at least one of its many baths, take the Children’s Railway around the Buda Hills and eat more fabulous cake at the stylish Cover imageDunapark.

And the book? Not much luck with reading on this holiday. My first book was pleasant enough but hardly worth mentioning. The second was Louisa Young’s Devotion, the third in a series which began with My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You set against the backdrop of the First World War. Young moves her characters on to the interwar years taking some of them to Italy where Il Duce is on the rise. Unlike the first two, both of which I loved, I found it a little difficult to get into and am contemplating giving it up.

One Week in the Swiss Alps and Just One Book

Unusually for us, H and I chose to go back to the same village and even the same hotel for this year’s walking holiday. Adelboden is a sweet little town in the Berner Oberland area of Switzerland. It’s set in a lovely valley with a waterfall at one end so picturesque it looked as if the local tourist board had carefully placed it there to complete the near perfect vista from our balcony. We stayed here for two weeks back in 2010 and walked our socks off. Thanks to a bug brought home from a conference by H then passed on to me, the holiday got off to a late start and the walking was a little less strenuous than usual although it became more so towards the end of our stay. It was a typical mountain weather week – bright early mornings with thunderstorms in the afternoon, one so heavy that it turned that picturesque waterfall latte brown.

We timed our visit a little earlier in the year than our last Adelboden holiday, hoping to see some ofWild flowers Adelboden the wild flowers that had already been bound up in haystacks by the time we’d arrived. This year we were luckier, walking through fabulous alpine meadows alive with bees, butterflies, grasshoppers and a multitude of other insects I’m unable to name, all feasting on the gorgeous menu of flowers on offer.

Midway through the week we got in a rewarding bout of marmot spotting after visiting the herd of Highland cattle we’d seen seven years ago. A good day for animal watching which started with the surprising sight of two immaculately coifed goats on posh leads seen from the bus on our way to the marmots.

There’s not much to Adelboden other than its beautiful valley, mostly hotels and a few shops aimed at tourists like us including a delicatessen with a sculpted cow above it which moos now and again, advertising the cheese counter inside. Dead opposite those delights is a lovely little church immaculately kept – simple yet beautiful with richly coloured stained glass windows and stars painted on its wooden beamed ceiling. The central window, it turns out, was designed by Augusto Giacometti, a relative of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti. I wish now that I’d taken a closer look. This was the church where we’d seen a freshly married couple picked up and seated on top of some hay bales before being carried of on one of the miniature farm vehicles they have in these parts in order to reach the steeper slopes. I assumed they were farmers but whatever they were, they and their friends and family seemed to be having a lot of fun on their wedding day.

We finished off our holiday with lunch in Basel with A and L with whom we’d planned to spend the first weekend, and very nice it was, too. Still thinking about that Cover imagescrumptious light and dark Toblerone mousse… I should have taken a photo but somehow dove straight in.

And the book? That was Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, a very long novel about a marital break-up, bringing up children and being Jewish in America set against the destruction of Israel by earthquake and the subsequent implosion of the Middle East. I’d started it just before the holiday expecting to give it up but found it oddly compelling and in the end enjoyed it very much. Foer is very funny at times, poking gentle, self-deprecating fun at liberal middle-class urban America while making some serious points. Not much time for reading anything else given the door-stopping length of Foer’s novel not to mention the lure of the magnificent Swiss outdoors.

A Week in Split and Two Books

The first time H and I went to Croatia was just after the end of the war, 1996 or thereabouts. I remember being annoyed with the travel agent (that’s the way we did things in those days) who advised me not to go to a country where there was a war on despite the fact that it had been over for some time. As part of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia had enjoyed a healthy tourist trade: the last thing they needed was visitors to be discouraged. We spent a week on the lovely island of Korcula, staying in a hotel with a terrace overlooking the sea, then went to Dubrovnik which was full of facades hiding bombsites, but still beautiful.

Split was spared the sustained bombardment that Dubrovnik endured, its old town seemingly unscathed. It’s quite unlike anywhere I’ve been in Europe, made up largely of a Roman palace built by Diocletian who became emperor at the age of thirty-nine in 284 CE. The palace was to be his retirement home, not something that emperors usually planned or managed to achieve but he did, taking up residence twenty-one years after gaining power. Diocletian, it seems, liked to make an entrance, sailing his ship into the flooded vaults of his palace from the sea rather than disembarking at the shore like the rest of us plebs. Many additions have beenMajan peninsula made to the complex throughout the centuries including a cathedral in Diocletian’s mausoleum. Somewhat churlishly, the Christians who built it looted his body or what remained of it, putting their stamp firmly on his palace. It’s all very fetchingly got up now, a maze of alleyways running through the complex filled with a multitude of tiny shops, cafes and restaurants. A gorgeous place to wander around as we did the evening we arrived but chock-full during the day.

We turned our backs on the weekend crowds the following afternoon, walking up the hill above the old city to explore the wooded Marjan peninsula. What was to have been a pleasant amble turned into a seven-mile hike for which both of us were somewhat overdressed. Sadly, we failed to find a cake shop, the promise of which had kept me going for the last hot, crowded stretch, full of people heading in the opposite direction to us. Worth it for the magnificent views, though.

Split is Croatia’s second city after Zagreb but it’s charms are confined to a fairly small area unless you’re a fan of high-rise apartment blocks so we’d planned a couple of day trips one of trogirwhich was to Trogir, a little gem of a walled city on its own tiny island. Getting lost on the way to the bus station we stumbled across a patch of rough ground populated by around fifteen peacocks, one of those odd sights you sometimes come across in an unfamiliar place then later wonder if you dreamt it. We arrived in Trogir after a long, hot, stop-start bus journey but it was well worth all that jolting and jarring, not least for the lovely lunch on a shady terrace finished off with a scrumptious dessert: wine soaked dried figs with lavender-scented honey, mascarpone cream and a little chocolate sauce. Fabulous!

Our second outing was to the Krka National Park, yet another UNESCO-listed site, to see the Skrandinski buk waterfalls set in lovely woodland, one of those spectacular sights that’s hard to do justice with just a phone camera but you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, it’s a hugely popular place to visit but the walkways are so artfully laid out that despite the large number of us admiring the jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery, it never felt crowded. After lunch we headed off to the lower reaches of Roški Slap which we had pretty much to ourselves. A much more tranquil, lower-key beauty than Skrandinski buk, made all the more so by constant, mellifluous birdsong.

The rest of the week passed in a pleasantly lazy haze. It’s taken us over twenty years to return to Croatia and after a week soaking up sun, stunning landscape and architecture, I hope we won’t wait another two decades.

And the books? The first was Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love, shortlisted forCover image the Baileys back in 2015 which is what made me want to read it. In essence it’s a literary potboiler about a lost masterpiece made interesting thanks to the author’s knowledge of art history. There’s a nice little edge of suspense running through the novel but ultimately it’s somewhat soapy. Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things was much more of a success. It begins with a young girl opening a box addressed to her mother, full of emails printed off by the woman with whom her father has had an affair. The novel explores the resulting fallout through the girl, her brother and their parents which may not sound startlingly original but Pierpont’s writing is striking and the novel is utterly engrossing. It’s always a gamble when you choose your holiday reading but at least this one turned out to be a winner.

Back to the endless litany of electioneering which will drag on for the next month here in the UK, wistfully remembering our last Croatian lunch looking out to sea from the restaurant’s sunlit terrace…

Three Days in Antwerp and Half a Book

Centraal Station, AntwerpH and I missed our winter break this year and were both champing at the bit for a weekend away by the time March arrived. Malaga sprang to mind, recommended by a friend as somewhere to explore or to sit in cafes and watch the world go by but the flight times didn’t work for us. Instead we plumped for Antwerp, anticipating gloomy skies but interesting things to see. What we got was a gloriously sunny, warm weekend plus a trip to one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. After the success of last year’s railway adventures, we decided to travel by train. Not very different from flying in terms of time but so much less painful and if you’re going to Antwerp you arrive at one of the city’s finest sights: the stunning Centraal Station, a veritable cathedral of train travel. As usual we walked our socks off exploring the city but I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow account, just the highlights. Art Nouveau, Antwerp

Regular readers may remember that I have a weakness for Art Nouveau architecture. I have no idea why – it doesn’t sit well with my taste for most other things, free of frills and fuss. Perhaps it’s the sheer bonkersness of it all, and there was plenty of that on show in Zurenborg, a short, sunny Saturday morning walk out of the centre with a pit stop for pancakes. Some of the original residents had shown restraint but others had gone for flat-out competitiveness of the ‘if you insist on having an outlandishly tall tulip on top of your gable I’m going to have an astrolabe on my roof’ variety. Not so mad as in Riga, but close. Interestingly, someone recently decided to slot a starkly modernist building amongst all those twiddly bits, just the kind of house Modernist building, AntwerpI’d choose to live in. There’s a lovely little square in Waterloostraat, a street over from the more flamboyant designs, with a four seasons theme echoed in motifs in each of the houses. We spent the rest of Saturday exploring the medieval centre whose brick buildings with their stepped gables reminded me of Amsterdam, not so far away.

Sunday was museum day. We trotted off dutifully to Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), housed in an impressive, large modern building, which is all about Antwerp and its way of life. Opened in 2011, it has several permanent exhibits including one on food which, unsurprisingly given our mutual devotion to our stomachs, was the one we enjoyed most. After spending lunch listening to some great R&B, soul and blues tracks at a nicely laid-back cafe on our square we headed over to the Museum Plantin-Moretus which is one of those ‘if you only do one thing…’ places. It’s the house of the sixteenth-century printer Christophe Plantin, bang next door to the apartment we’d rented. The house, and its lovely courtyard garden, is well worth visiting for its own sake but the displays devoted to Plantin’s life and work are fascinating. A shrewd business man, he was also a humanist, printing, publishing and selling books which disseminated the ideas of this extraordinarily exciting time including – very riskily for him – bibles in the vernacular. The company he founded printed its last book in Antwerp in 1876, nine generations later reminding me of our own John Murray. There are many beautiful, crisply printed manuscripts to admire but the most moving exhibit for us both was the two printing presses thought to be the oldest in the world. Without those and people like Plantin, the Renaissance ideas on which the foundations of the modern world were built could never have reached a widerGrote Markt Antwerp audience, influencing readers who in turn developed new ideas. I’ve visited many excellent museums but this one tops the list; worth travelling to Antwerp just to stand in front of those printing presses.

Yet more sunshine for our last morning. After a final stroll around the Grote Markt, lined with gorgeously decorated guild houses, we finished the holiday with a leisurely lunch in a sunny square, marvelling at our luck with the weather. A great weekend: not what we’d originally planned but it’s hard to imagine that a few days in Malaga would have been more Cover imageenjoyable.

And the book? It’s Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, in which Iza whisks her recently widowed mother off to the capital. There’s a terrible disconnect between these two: Ettie is lost in the city, always doing the wrong thing and missing her beloved Vince terribly while Iza, busy with her job as a doctor, seems to want to tidy messy emotions away. It’s a quiet, subtle book which, I’m sure, would repay prolonged concentration, not something which suits a city weekend with lots of travelling. I finished it shortly after we got back and was left feeling I hadn’t done it justice. Short stories next time, maybe.

Eighteen Days in Central Europe and Two Books

20160903_101714Bear with me – this is likely to turn into a long post.  After last year’s successful jaunt in the Baltic states H and I decided that this year we’d take to the central European railways. We started in Berlin where, after two winter trips visiting a multitude of museums, we hoped to explore the city’s many green spaces. Beautiful weather on our first day saw us heading off to the Grunewald woods, a short S-Bahn ride away from central Berlin, along with lots of Berliners out enjoying the last days of summer, not to mention their dogs who may have popped into Pets’ Deli for a lip-smacking plate of fresh meat on their way for a swim. We spent the next few days walking our socks off – setting the tone for the rest of the holiday – admiring Berlin’s elegant architecture and parks with a trip out to Potsdam, a sweet little town half an hour away, where we had a nosy around the Russian colony with its gingerbread houses and large orchards. On one of our evening walks we stumbled upon Dussmann‘s a fabulous bookshop: three packed floors including a very respectably stocked English section.

Dresden was our next stop, full of florid architecture some of it rebuilt after the war when much 20160907_131108of the city was fire bombed, including the Lutheran Frauenkirche which we visited along with umpteen other tourists. It would have been stunning without being told of its reconstruction but knowing that most of it had been painstakingly put back together using the rubble of its bombed ruins made it quite breathtaking. The beginnings of a heat wave curtailed our plans a little but we managed to fit in a lunch at the resplendently tiled and curlicued Pfunds Molkerai plus a look around the hipster Kunsthofpassage, its walls adorned with mosaics and murals.

The Molkerai would fit nicely into Karlovy Vary, a hilly Czech spa town packed with extravagant architecture including some lovely art nouveau buildings, where we spent the weekend: Bath with knobs on as H put it or as le Corbusier, perhaps a little more elegantly, dubbed it ‘a rally of cakes’. A favourite with Russians, it was stuffed with blingy shops but we loved it.

20160913_121215Onto Prague where it was beautiful but blisteringly hot. It wasn’t my first visit but a sprained ankle on the Charles Bridge put the kybosh on that particular holiday. This visit was much more successful. We spent most of our time wandering around admiring  Prague’s many stunning buildings. Look up is the thing to do – even some of the grimmest shop fronts are graced with fabulously ornamented facades on their upper floors

We’d booked two nights in Brno the Czech Republic’s second city, hoping to visit the Villa 20160915_130608TugendhatMies van de Rohe‘s modernist masterpiece which inspired Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. I’d been trying to reserve places for us on a guided tour for four months with no luck. Undeterred we set off anyway and were rewarded with a delightfully laid back day, very welcome after the seething masses of Prague. The villa is gorgeous, a work of genius. All white walls and glass it seems to float above the ground. Although we weren’t able to go inside we were allowed to wander around the garden pressing our noses to the window to see the equally lovely interior. The villa was the draw for us but there are a multitude of other things to see in Brno, so many that we regretted having booked only two nights. Definitely a place to revisit on another expedition.

20160918_160930Our arrival in Slovakia’s Bratislava for our last few days coincided with the EU summit rubbing salt in our Brexit wounds. It’s a sweet little town but truth be told we’d both tired of it within a day or so. A boat trip out to Danubiana, the city’s beautiful modern art showcase with its sculpture garden stuffed full of goodies, cheered us up no end. As part of their Miró exhibition they’d hit on the idea of mocking up his studio, which we’d visited in Palma last year, displaying several of his paintings as if he’d just completed them. It’s a great exhibition – vibrant tactile tapestries, sculpture and paintings all demonstrating the supreme talent of the man.

Given Bratislava’s limited charms and a late flight home from Vienna we decided to catch a morning train and spend our last afternoon there, despite a slightly disappointing visit earlier in the year. Lunch, a bit of culture at the Albertina then a plate of kaisershmarrn rounded off the holiday nicely. It was a wonderful trip, made easy by the spiffy transport links in the countries through which we traveled and their excellent websites. All credit and thanks due to H who painstakingly put it together.

And the books? Not much reading was done with so much hopping on and off trains plus researching the next destination but two stand out. My favourite was Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, a very funny novel which lampoons the pretensions of the old families of the American South – loudly proclaimed Civil War connections, class, old v. new money – ending on a suitably histrionic note. Totally inappropriate for where we were but very enjoyable. Much more relevant was Emanuel Litvinoff’s The Lost Europeans. Originally published in 1958, Litvinoff’s first novel explores the legacy of the Second World War through the story of Martin Stone, visiting Berlin for the first time since he fled the Nazis with his parents aged nine. It’s an interesting period piece, enlightening and atmospheric for me having spent the first few days of the holiday in the city but cringe-makingly heavy-handed in its writing.

Back to real life for us both now, and back to books for the blog next week.

A (Mostly Wet) Week in Herefordshire and One Book

Moonow River Cottage meadowIt started so well: a glorious summer’s evening, sipping chilled white wine and eating our supper on the lawn of our idyllic rented cottage in Longtown, followed by a lovely, warm Sunday walking through wildflower meadows. What could be better? Come Monday morning, those meadows were sodden. The rain continued on and off for the next four days, ranging from torrential downpours to the kind of irritating warmish drizzle for which neither a waterproof nor an umbrella seems to quite work. It was supposed to be a walking holiday, exploring the lovely wooded Herefordshire countryside, culminating in scaling the path over Bruce Chatwin’s famous Black Hill just above us and walking into Wales. Instead it turned into a ‘practising for Mr Big (1)retirement’ kind of week – pottering around, lunching out, spotting a nuthatch at the bird feeder and stroking the gorgeous, big, black, purry tomcat who adopted us. That photo really doesn’t do him justice but by our last day he was altogether too relaxed to sit upright for very long.

In between all that lounging about there were a few outings. I met my old Waterstones friend, R, for a coffee in Hereford while H went off to explore the town which, having already visited the Mappa Mundi and the chained library not so long ago, didn’t take him very long. Poor old Hereford’s suffered badly from the ravages of out-of-town shopping plus public spending cuts: I was shocked when R told me the library had closed. The lack of a reliable mobile phone signal and a decent broadband service hasn’t helped, I’m sure. Hay-on-Wye was in much better shape although there were fewer bookshops than I remembered. R had recommended the café at Richard Booth’s bookshop which turned out to Hampton Court borderbe excellent. Lovely shop, too.

By Friday we were so encouraged by the weather forecast that we decided to visit Hampton Court near Leominster. We could have put on our boots and gone for a walk, I suppose, but the prospect of waterlogged fields was distinctly off-putting and by this time we were both well into dawdling mode. We’d visited the gardens about a decade ago when they were freshly laid out and a little too new but now that they’ve matured they’re absolutely delightful: gorgeous herbaceous borders in full flower, a beautiful organic kitchen garden and a suitably jungly sunken area – all set against a grand, wooded riverside backdrop.Hampton Court poppies

And the book? I’d taken Ed Taylor’s Theo with me. It’s published by Old Street Publishing and I’d long assumed they were based in the hipster end of London but it turns out they’re in Brecon not a million miles from where we were staying. Theo is the ten-year-old son of a famous rock musician. Taylor’s novel covers two days in his life during which his mother disappears to ‘rest’ and his father turns up with an Theoentourage, planning to record his next album. Theo spends most of his time in the incapable hands of his grandfather and his father’s friend, running wild but desperate for some sort structure, someone to take responsibility. It’s a little too long, but Taylor captures the slightly panicky, constantly questioning voice of a little boy who seems altogether more mature than the self-obsessed adults who barely register his presence no matter how desperately he begs for their attention.

So, despite everything that the great British weather threw at us we enjoyed our week away. And I discovered a liking for perry, a lovely drink for a hot summer’s day should we ever get one. Back to books shortly…

Almost three days in Nice and one book

View from our windo, NiceWe’d booked our weekend in Nice long before I was felled by the flu but the timing couldn’t have been better. Four weeks after the first aches and shivers we were on the plane. It always lifts my spirits to see palm trees after a British winter and this time even more so. Nice turned out to be the perfect place for a recuperative few days: sun, an elegant esplanade to amble along – as long as you make sure to keep your back turned to Le Méridien – and lovely food.

Our apartment was in one of the old town’s winding narrow streets lined with tall buildings to keep out that forty degree summer heat which makes me quail just to think about it. Given my feeble state not much was got up to but we did visit the St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church on our first day and it’s quite fabulous. Owned by the Russian Federation, it’s in pristine condition outstripping Helsinki and Riga in its rather more restrained splendour by quite some distance. From the mid-nineteenth century Nice was firmly on the Francophile Russian nobility’s map which explains its rather surprising location. Given that the upper echelons of society spoke in French to each other, a Russian church in Provence makes perfect sense. That and the weather.St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Nice

Our only other bit of culture was a visit to the Matisse museum which charts his artistic development from the first rather gloomy still lifes to his vibrant cut-outs, although ironically many of those are currently on loan to Tate Modern for an exhibition due to open this weekend. We did see a sample of the stained glass which he designed for the windows of Chappelle du Rosaire de Vence, an ambitious project begun late in life which looks quite stunning.

Other than that we wandered around in the sun, climbed the wooded Chateau hill for lovely views of the city and its gorgeous bay (twice) and generally loafed about. Just what the doctor ordered! Many thanks to Allison Coe for her excellent blog which both whetted our appetites in the week before we took off and pointed us at La P’tite Cocotte – one of the few restaurants open on Sundays and just round the corner from us – where we had an excellent lunch before heading for the airport.  If you do find yourself in Nice, I advise you to do your damnedest to avoid using taxis – unless, of course, money’s no object.

Cover imageAnd the book? It was Attica Locke’s Baileys longlisted Pleasantville, picked because I was still feeling worn out and wanted something absorbing but not too taxing. Told from the point of view of the recently widowed Jay Porter, a black lawyer who first appeared in Locke’s Black Water Rising, the premise is a little reminiscent of The Killing with its missing girl coupled with political intrigue but the writing is far too cluttered for me: too many adjectives, too much description, too many similes. A shame, because the story itself is a gripping one. It’s published by the lovely Serpent’s Tail whose Under the Visible Life was one of my wishes for the Baileys longlist but sadly the judges disagreed with me just as they did over Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, an astonishing omission from Monday’s shortlist.

I’m typing this listening to the sound of rain hammering on the skylight. Hard not to wish I was back in sunny Provence thinking about sauntering off into town for a café crème.  Back to books in a few days when I’ll be reviewing yet another thriller, this one beautifully clipped and succinct in its writing.