Category Archives: Travel

Holidays and holiday reading

Almost Three Days in Lille and One Book

Lille Post Office towerI’d been toying with the idea of a weekend in Lille for what must be a decade but had somehow never got around to it. When the train which took us to Amsterdam last year stopped there, less than 90 minutes after we’d left St Pancras, it seemed ridiculous not to go so off we set last Thursday, leaving Bath at 10.13 and arriving in Lille at 15.25 their time.

By the 1990s Lille was an industrial town in decline but the mayor pressed hard for a Eurostar stop which breathed new life into the city. We’d found ourselves a hotel in the old town which is all beautifully restored buildings, upmarket shops and restaurants. Some of the houses reminded me of Amsterdam or Brussels but then Lille is very much a Flanders town; think beer and waffles Art Nouveau (Lille)rather than wine and olives. There were a few arresting art nouveau fixes for me, too.

Friday morning was taken up with a visit to La Piscine in Roubaix, a 20-minute metro ride from Lille where the local authorities have turned their art deco swimming pool into a gallery. Neither of us were particularly keen on the paintings but there were some pleasing ceramics. The first floor offered some very fine textile exhibits plus a few fashion pieces including a lovely, simple, full-length dress by Jean Paul Gaultier, subtly patterned but for the designer’s name La Piscine (Robaix)which marred it ever so slightly for me once I’d spotted it.

No visit to Lille is complete without popping into Méert, beautiful both outside and in with its stained glass and tiling. The window displays of cake and chocolates would induce even the most puritanical tourist to step inside and neither of us is of the self-denying persuasion in that department. We went for Friday afternoon tea with cake for me and a gaufre for H which looked a bit sad when it arrived but proved quite tasty. Meert (Lille)

On Saturday morning we took ourselves off to the Palais des Beaux Arts where, rather like La Piscine, we were more taken with the ceramics than the paintings including a seventeenth-century two-handled mug, touchingly designed for the ‘tremblant’, presumably too shaky to hold it one-handed. We spied a few gilets jaunes through the window and a long line of parked gendarme vans. We’d seen no sign of a march but learned later that there’d been trouble, with the CRS wading in and one street filled with tear gas.

Sea Unicorn (Hospice Comtesse Lille)Our own Saturday afternoon’s outing was much more peaceable taking us to, for me, the best museum we visited in Lille: the Hospice Comtesse originally established in 1236 by Joan, Countess of Flanders. Rebuilt in the seventeenth century, the hospice now houses local artefacts offering a glimpse of Lille’s history. It’s a beautiful building whose entrance takes you into a kitchen entirely covered in blue and white tiles depicting a multitude of scenes and creatures including what appeared to be a sea unicorn. One for the brexiteers, I couldn’t help thinking.

We left Lille Europe station promptly at 12.35, arriving home in time for tea. Oddly, we’d heard very few British voices while in Lille. It’s such a delightful town and so easy to get there, I’m amazed it’s not overwhelmed with weekenders like us. Cover image

And the book? Not much time for reading on such a short break but I enjoyed what I read of Elizabeth Day’s swipe at the British class system, The Party. It’s about the friendship between two men who met at public school, Hotel L'Abre Voyageur (Lille) wallpaperone a scholarship boy, the other a privileged member of the upper classes. An incident at the eponymous fortieth birthday party results in a police investigation during which long kept secrets are spilled. Perfect holiday reading: well written, intelligent and absorbing yet unchallenging.

I don’t usually post pictures of wallpaper but this, from the corridor outside our hotel room, could not be missed. Yes, those are monkeys

Two Days in London and Four books

Dam Weymouth, Fiona Mozley, Andrew HolgateWith two Young Writer Award dates in the diary, H and I decided to make a weekend of it, arriving on Saturday morning when London was looking its beautiful best in glowing autumn sunshine. I went off to the bloggers’ event at the Groucho Club after lunch where the four shortlisted authors were introduced by Andrew Holgate who gave us a little background to the prize and how important such recognition can be in promoting a writer’s career. Each author gave a short reading before a Q & A led by Andrew. It was a delightful afternoon made all the more so by meeting bloggers with whom I’ve shared so many exchanges over the years. Such a pleasure to chat to Annabel, Kath, Elle, Erica and Naomi, and with Clare and Eric all too briefly. There were trains to catch and some of us had to think about where we were going for supper.Imogen Hermes Gowar, Laura Freeman

Sunday was another glorious day, perfect city walking weather. We had tickets for the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern but had time for a quick wander around the City where I worked for a while in what feels like a another life now. Albers was a weaver who lived a very long and productive life, beginning her career as a member of the Six PrayersBauhaus Group, founded in 1919, whose design ethos was based on simplicity and beauty in a form that could be mass produced for the people. She fled Germany for the US in 1933 when Hitler forced the Group to close. Her pieces are lovely, making use of texture and sheen for effect. One of her most beautiful designs is ‘Six Prayers’ commissioned by the Jewish Museum in New York as a memorial to the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. A superb exhibition, highly recommended.

In the afternoon we set off for the Foundling Museum which I’d already visited but H hadn’t. It was founded by Thomas Coram who, on his return from America in 1704, was shocked by the number of infants abandoned on London’s streets. He raised funds for his project by staging concerts and exhibitions: both Handel and Hogarth were amongst the artists with a strong association with what was then known as the Foundling Hospital. The Coram Foundation is still active today numbering Jacqueline Wilson and Lemn Sissay amongst its prominent supporters. One of those lesser known museums, well worth seeking out.

Monday morning was taken up with the shadow judges’ meeting the result of which we’ll be keeping between ourselves until Wednesday 28th. Suffice to say it was a close run thing. Amanda, Lizzi, Lucy and I met at 11 am but poor Paul was still stranded on a train, finally arriving in London at 1 pm when the rest of us were long gone – me to the excellent Dishoom to meet up with a couple of friends for lunch. Paul’s input turned out to be pivotal: we’d all have much preferred it if he could have delivered it in person.

And the books? They’re the shortlisted ones of course: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Elmet, The Reading Cure and Kings of the Yukon which I’ll be reviewing on Friday.

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.