Belem Tower, perhaps the best known sight in Lisbon, if not all of Portugal.
Dublin around the time of the Ides of March is a perilous place to be, packed with tourists and locals eager for an excuse to party and imbibe a beer or two. Getting from one end of O’Connell St to the other can take up most of St. Patrick’s Day if you’re unwary. Most years, I stay at home while the parade’s on or make the most of the long weekend in quieter gatherings with friends. This time I took myself out of the country entirely and spent five days in Portugal instead.
This isn’t a thorough description of what I did on that trip. If you want that, you can check it out here: Portugal 2018 What it is is a brief run through the best parts of the trip, which took in two cities, lots of walking, and nearly as much in the way of custard tarts. I’m not sure how well the latter two balanced out in the end, but I hadn’t put on any weight by the time I came back.
The progress of my Christmas and New Year celebrations has remained much the same ever since I moved down to Dublin. Spend Christmas itself with family, then return to Dublin to see in the New Year with friends. Depending on who’s available, this can either be a party or quiet drinks in someone’s house, or braving the madness of the city on New Year’s Eve. This year though, I did something a bit different.
Okay, so that’s a little bit of a lie. There is some Brussels in this post. Just not a lot. As the one bit of Belgium that I’m familiar with (apart from a very brief foray to the North Sea at Knokke), I think I’ve written enough about it. This is going to be a post about exploring some of the more distant corners of Belgium instead.
It’s been an odd year for holidays, 2017. Very much in opposition to my usual habit, all my trips so far have been in company and to places that I’ve already visited. Hence, I haven’t really written them up, seeing as I already said most of what I wanted to say the first time around. This trip was also in company, in this case of a Brussels-based friend of mine, but it did take me to new vistas, hence it’s worthy of a post.
(Yes, this travel diary is exceptionally out of date at this stage. Such are the perils of following a procrastinating writer.)
I’ve only been to one of these places before, so I’ll focus on the other one. There’ll be a bit about Belgium at the end, but mostly this is about Luxembourg. A word of warning though: I’m writing this under the influence of a day of travel compounded by a 90 minute delay for a Ryanair flight. So take every other word with a grain of salt.
Luxembourg was the third micro-nation I hit on this trip, but it’s on the edge of deserving this status. It’s bigger than most of the European micro-nations put together, and where San Marino and Liechtenstein were small enough that you could see from one side to the other on a clear-ish day, Luxembourg is big enough for its corners to be just as scruffy as those of larger nations.
What Luxembourg does have in common with its smaller brethren is that it’s rich. Having sat at the heart of European affairs since the days of the European Coal and Steel Community, the old city is a commendably neat and tidy revamp of a former walled citadel now turned fortress of finance. There are some very expensive, very shiny cars driving around the place, is what I’m trying to say.
Not that you’d recognise the place as a former fortress if you approached it from the west side. Where massive bastions once stood are now broad avenues and neatly tended gardens. It’s only on the eastern side of the city, where the last remnants of the original Bock fortress stand, that you can get an idea of how valuable this place used to be. Founded in the tenth century (there’s a whole legend involving a river mermaid), the Bock commanded a view over the river below, and over the centuries tunnels and storerooms were carved out of the rock below,
You can still wander those passages, and I did so on the first night I arrived. The last tour group was leaving as I arrived, so I had the place more or less to myself for the next hour and half—there are arrows placed in the ground pointing to the exit, but there’s no set path through the narrow passages and the caverns that open out onto views on the valley below. It was only when I became worried they’d close the place with me in it that I started to pay attention to the arrows and found my way out.
Luxembourg in the day is a much neater and more understandable prospect. The national museum covers the thousand-year story of the nation over several floors, the lowest of which are carved into the rock below the city, with massive models demonstrating how Luxembourg was shaped over the centuries. Once, when the House of Luxembourg were kings of the Holy Roman Empire, the fate of nations was decided here. Now the decisions made in council chambers are more abstract but no less weighty.
In the end, Luxembourg felt a little neat and sanitised. Like San Marino, everything has been cleaned and polished, and you have to dive down into the valley to get a better sense of the place. A special mention ought to go to the viewing platform north of the Bock, where you can stand on a glass floor and contemplate the multi-storey drop below.
So then, on to Brussels and the end of the trip. I’ve been here multiple times and like both the people and the place. So apart from an evening of a little food and a little drink, I wanted to see if I could look at something further afield. The options were the battlefield at Waterloo (to annoy someone who’ll never read this) or the beach at Knokke, to complete my journey from the Mediterranean to the north sea. Of course, the beach won.
Not that I had much time to spend there. Courtesy of Belgium’s leisurely trains and the extremely long avenue leading from the train terminus to the beach, I had no more time at the water’s edge than it took to take a couple of photos and wet my feet. (In point of fact, I’d misread the timetable and had around half an hour more than I thought, but a few minutes was all I got.)
Which brought the whole journey to an end. What had started in the parched streets of Palermo on the island of Sicily, had taken me north through Italy, across the Alps to Switzerland, on to the familiar city of Brussels, hitting three small nations along the way, came to a close on the sands of the North Sea, caught between tourism and a massive seaport on the horizon. Yes, there would be a journey back to Brussels and on to the airport and from thence to Dublin, but that was it. Another journey ended.
I’ll get around to absorbing it and adding any extra thoughts in a while. For now, thanks for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts. More detailed descriptions of what I got up to will appear in the Travels section above soon.
There’s going to be a lot packed into this one, so pay attention. As soon as you leave Milan, headed for Tirano, you’re in the Alps, racing along the shores of Lake Como towards the mountains. To an extent, this doesn’t even feel like Italy anymore, or at least not the Italy I started in, back in Palermo. This is Alpine territory, of high, green meadows and bells ringing in valleys overlooked by mountains that rear up, shouldering their rocky peaks above a mantle of forest.
If you like trains at all, I’d recommend the Bernina Express as the way to see the Alps. From comfortable seats before panoramic windows, you’ll have a view of clear mountain streams, those green valleys, viaducts, mountains, glaciers, high lakes, and everything else that the Swiss have spent centuries learning how to build on or through. I saw it in the late summer, when green was the predominant colour, but in the winter it all turns to white and the experience is said to be every bit as impressive.
As for what was waiting on the other side, Liechtenstein is an odd little country, with an emphasis on the little. I’d been planning on staying two days, but two things cut that short: First, I saw most of Vaduz in the process of one morning stroll (to give you an idea of scale, the map of the city includes house numbers), and second, it’s stupidly expensive. Which makes sense given that it’s a tax haven of sorts, and it did give me a bit of warning with regard to what Zurich was going to be like, but it was still a shock.
So I spent one night and a few hours there instead, enjoying the clear mountain air and the views, which were only a little spoiled by clouds that cut off the tops of the mountains. Liechtenstein’s tiny territory is bordered by the Rhine and the mountains, and it takes little more than half an hour to cross from one to the other. Perhaps the most fun thing to visit was the football stadium—they’re very proud of the national team here, for all that they’re the ultimate in European minnows. Or at least they were until Gibraltar somehow got a team of their own.
Stroll over the bridge across the Rhine and you’re in Switzerland. You don’t even have to do that much if you’re a mobile phone—mine kept swapping between Swiss and Liechtenstein carriers every time I approached the river. When I eventually took the bus out of town, in search of the Sargans Bahnhof where’d I’d get the train to Zurich, this was one reminder of my travelling ways I was glad to leave behind.
In truth, there’s not much culturally to separate the two nations. Maybe the Swiss are a little more uptight, at least on first encountering them. Unlike most places I’ve been, where they’ll switch to English as soon as they figure out where you’re from, the Swiss will assume that you know what you’re doing if you try to speak a language not your own. So be wary if you want to try out your foreign tongues here.
As mentioned, Zurich is expensive. Evidence of this can be seen in the houses that line the waterfront of the Zurichsee and the slopes to the east, and proof can be found every time that feel like going for a drink or eating out. Try to keep that to a minimum if you want your funds to survive a few days here. I’m generally not too proscriptive when it comes to spending money on holidays, but even so I couldn’t justify visiting a restaurant with €40 main courses.
Saving money is possible though: there are 24-hour and 72-hour travel passes, which will speed your way on the many public transport options and a lot of museums. Mine took me on a round trip of the northern half of the Zurichsee, down from the heights of the Uetliberg mountain to the west of the city (some might say it would have been more sensible to take the tram up, then walk down, instead of the other way around), through the excellent Landesmuseum and its exhibits, and then up the eastern slopes of the city too, to where the city zoo sits right next door to the FIFA world headquarters.
(There’s a joke to be made here about amoral creatures with insatiable appetites, trapped in a structure that should never have been built, but I’m sure someone else can construct it better than I could.)
In short, if you make a bit of an effort, you can enjoy Zurich on something resembling a sensible budget. If you make the most of the Co-Op supermarkets that are everywhere, you’ll probably even manage much better than I did. It’s worth the effort too. While I loved Liechtenstein for its quiet isolation, I enjoyed Zurich for its reserved honesty. There’s plenty to do and see, and lots of narrow alleys, steep streets, hidden parks and other places to discover. The Landesmuseum exhibit on Swiss history is open, if regretfully so, about how Switzerland’s history of democracy, neutrality and isolationism has had its downsides. If we could be so honest about ourselves in Ireland, it would be a big step forward.
Milan is rich, Milan is big, and Milan wants you to know all about it. The gradual change in Italy that I’d noticed on my northward trek from Palermo to Naples to Rimini came to its natural conclusion in the shadow of the Alps. Milan feels so different to the rest of Italy that I’d encountered that it’s a different brand of Italian entirely: chic, wealthy and engaged with the rest of Europe. The Romans called this area Cisalpine Gaul, connecting it more to France (Transalpine Gaul) than to Italia. That reasoning could still stand.
The unification of Italy under Vittorio Emanuele was an union of states that hadn’t been unified since the time of the Romans. Sicily and Naples were Mediterranean-facing and had been dealing with foreign rulers for centuries. Rome was the Papacy’s domain, and the surrounding Papal States marked a border between north and south. As for the city states of Northern Italy—Genoa, Venice, Florence, Milan, etc.—they managed to maintain on-off independence even as they served as a battleground in the intrigues between France and the Holy Roman Empire.
There’s something of this mingling still at work in Milan. A mix of Italian and Northern influences—a pride in being Milanese and an openness to the outside on terms strictly set out by Milan itself. The famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele I is the prime example of this: an ultra-chic shopping arcade, dominated by high-fashion outlets, almost all of them Italian. Stand in the middle and you can see the Piazza del Duomo at one end, a statue of Leonardo Da Vinci at another, and a McDonalds’ (exiled to a street across the road) at a third.
Milan just feels different. At least in the parts of it I walked through, there’s none of the narrow alleys and abandoned or crumbling buildings that I saw further south. Milan is just as old as those cities—the layout of the city still follows the ancient walls, and the city itself is dominated by the Duomo and the gigantic Castel Sforza—but it wears that age more lightly. There’s more modern sheen than there is ancient dust.
Usually, such a polishing of history makes me less sympathetic to a city, but I really liked Milan. There’s something very open and everyday about its blend of Mediterranean sunshine and Northern European business. Unfortunately for me, I’d arrived in Milan on Sunday evening and was spending all of Monday exploring. Which is my one piece of advice for this city: if you have to spend one day here, don’t make it a Monday. Everything is closed.
Well, not quite everything. I enjoyed spending time in and around the massive and ornate Duomo, enjoying the pillared interior, which I’m sure was an inspiration for the Great Hall of Moria in the Lord of the Rings movies, and the roof terrace, which I reached after a long walk up some very narrow stairs. From the roof, you could see the Alps clearly in the distance, and it was nice to get a glimpse of the place I’d be heading next.
Still, there were things that I’d really wanted to see in Milan, and most of those were closed. The archaeological museum and the church and monastery it was sited beside? Closed. The refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which held Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper? Closed. The museums of Castel Sforza? Closed. The Planetarium and Natural History museum in the Giardina Publicca Indro Montanelli? Closed. Alright, so those last two were targets of opportunity as I was enjoying a stroll through the gardens, but you get the point.
Still, even if all you’re getting to do in Milan is to stroll around the city, it’s well worth the visit. Though you should also bear in mind that a lot of the trattorias close between 3pm and 7pm. (Seriously, this was a weird day of missing out on things.) Milan is its own place, and by a distance the least touristy of the cities that I’ve been to on this trip. Come along and spend your money, it says, but if it’s touristy stuff you’re looking for, you’re going to have to search for it. That kind of thing doesn’t really mesh with our self-image.
Let’s start with San Marino, as it was the reason that I was in Rimini in the first place, rather than being a bonus added on to a stay in Italy’s Adriatic beach resort. Founded in 301AD, if you believe the local legends, San Marino rests on and around Monte Titano and likes to refer to itself as the “Titanic Republic”. Which probably counts as overcompensating, given that it’s the third smallest nation in Europe (only Vatican City and Monaco are smaller, and those two are essentially just cities).
It’s not like it really needs to compensate for anything, as San Marino offers plenty to stun visitors. Perched on its mountain peak, it commands views across a good chunk of northeastern Italy. Rimini and the Adriatic are easily visible on a clear day, and the valleys of Italy’s more mountainous interior are just as open to viewers from on high. Maintaining your independence across the centuries was undoubtedly made much easier due to being able to see pretty much any threat long before it became a problem.
The first impression of San Marino, just off the tour bus from Rimini, might be a little underwhelming though. This isn’t a picturesque ruin: it’s a working, living city (albeit one heavily weighted towards tourism). The stonework is neatly chiselled and well maintained, and the streets are spotlessly clean. It can all seem a bit quaint and even kitschy. The overabundance of tourist-trap shops doesn’t help, even when half of them also seem to be selling guns.
Step away from the well-groomed northern part of the mountain though and you’ll find more interesting sights. Clean and cobbled streets give way to (well-tended) mountain paths that lead up to and between the three towers that protected San Marino in days gone by. Each of them are well preserved, but their sites and prospects are still breathtaking, especially that of the lonely third tower, a single edifice that rises up on the edge of a cliff, commanding views to the east, south and west.
As a tick on the list of nations to visit goes, San Marino didn’t disappoint. I just wished that I could have learned more about it. As mentioned, tourism seems to trump all, and the State Museum is a little light on the actual history of San Marino, preferring to load up on local artefacts and fill in the gaps with strange items from foreign lands donated by local grandees. It’s all a little lightweight, and given that the other museums nearby include a Museum of Torture and a Museum of Vampires, detailed history proves thin on the ground.
Oddly, Rimini fares better on that front. I say oddly, because my first experience of Rimini was of a battlefield of a beach, occupied by an army of deckchairs. This place is resort central, and any Italian charm is flattened under the need to welcome and feed as many guests as possible, divest them of their money, and shuffle in the next crowd. Not to my taste (though I did enjoy the chance for an early morning dip in the Adriatic).
Venture onto the other side of the (railroad) tracks though, and something different emerges. Rimini was once Ariminum, a coastal town formerly inhabited by the Etruscans and others. Plenty of Roman relics remain, not least in the layout of the compact city centre. It’s not a large place by any means and is likely dwarfed by the beach resort that shares its name, but it’s worth strolling through. For one thing, it has lots of charm in its own right, and for another that stroll might just take you across a 1,995-year-old bridge built by the Emperor Tiberius, which still serves as a (single lane) crossing for cars. How many times in your life are you going to get to walk across something like that?
In short, San Marino is definitely the big draw here and deservedly so. Its mountaintop vistas and winding streets are worth spending a good chunk of a day exploring, though you’re likely to tire of it long before it tires of trying to sell you stuff. Rimini, on the other hand, is worth persevering with: beneath, or rather behind, the trappings of a modern day beach resort is a charming little town with plenty of its own history and culture to root around in. I’m glad I had the chance to do so, and it made me happier about deciding to stay there in the first place.