Tag Archives: travel

Liechtenstein and Zurich – The Alpine Experience

And every steeple that I could climb, I did.
A panorama of Zurich – the Zurichsee is on the left, the Uetliberg on the horizon.

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.

The Swiss and tunnels: an impressive combination.
One of the viaducts on the Bernina express, emerging from the mountain.

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.

The kind of bridge billy goats might trip-trap across.
An old-school bridge separating Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

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.

I'd be annoyed too if someone had planted me where dogs could piss on me.
A friendly (?) face encountered on my way up the Uetliberg.

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.)

Actually linesmen in training, though that's no less a weird sight.
FIFA officials doing their bribery-denial drills.

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.

Rimini and San Marino—Sand and Stone

From any side, conquering San Marino would have been a pain.
A commanding view of the Italian countryside from the towers of San Marino.

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.

This actually isn't in the citadel proper, which starts at the First Tower.
The climb to the First Tower of San Marino.

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.

Old-school Ferrari is hard to beat.
An auto-rally in Rimini at night gave a chance to glimpse some gorgeous Italian motors.

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).

Two thousand years old and still carrying traffic.
He may have been a grumpy sod, but Tiberius built solid bridges.

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.

Naples – Vesuvius and What it Left Behind

My Latin isn't the best, but even I know this is a greeting.
A Pompeiian welcome mat.

(Apologies for the delay on this one – things have been hectic since I got home. Well, hectic-ish. Next one will be along sooner.)

This is going to be all about Pompeii. Well, almost. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s had a look at my bookshelves or knows of my historical preferences. As much as the Romans could be an unpleasant bunch, they had an unrivalled influence on western civilisation, and there’s enough of their writings and edifices that remain to get a pretty strong idea of what life in their time was like.

Pompeii, that most famous relic of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., demonstrates both just how much of ancient Rome we have access to and how distant we still are from it. Streets of fast-food vendors, sports stadiums, the mansions of the suburban rich, and brothels in the back alleys of the red light district are all there to be seen. However, so are stepping stones across streets that allowed citizens to keep their feet out of the rivers of sewage that flowed downhill. So while a lot of Rome might have been familiar to us, there’s a lot more that would have given us pause. (More on that later.)

Just a hop, skip and a jump.
This is how you crossed the road in Pompeii without getting your feet dirty.

A guided tour through Pompeii is a good introduction to the city that Vesuvius buried, but you ought to set aside more time to explore afterwards, as no tour is going to do any more than hit some of the highlights. Two of the most impressive parts of the city—the Villa of the Mysteries and the Amphitheatre—lie at diametrically opposite parts of the site, and most tours will stick to the central section instead.

To complete your Pompeiian experience, there are a couple of options. You could visit Herculaneum, the other victim of Vesuvius, which I didn’t do, or you could head to the National Archaeological Museum, which I did. That museum is split between the relics of Pompeii and the Farnese Collection, which is one of the finest gatherings of classical sculpture in the world, outdone only (possibly?) by the Pope’s own collection in the Vatican. At least one of the Farneses was Pope too, so there’s been some cross-pollination.

Also, rock-hard buns.
An unusual angle on Herc, with the Apples of the Hesperides hidden away.

That collection certainly shouldn’t be missed, but the Pompeiian relics are just as interesting. The mosaics and frescoes are some of the best you’ll see anywhere, including the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great from the House of the Faun (a copy of it now sits in the original house in Pompeii). Rather more amusing is the collection of Roman erotica that’s tucked away into a corner of the museum, guarded by a warning (in Italian) that kids aged 14 or less maybe should go get their culture somewhere else.

You see, one of the things that the excavation of Pompeii did was to puncture forever the image of Romans as dignified elderly types, delivering fine speeches to other dignified elderly types. Whatever truth there is to that image, the Romans were also open and frank about sex and obsessed with dicks. (all right—phalluses.) Even the moralistic Augustus was said to have his own private book of porn. The museum’s collection of erotica includes a range of frescoes kept away from the general public and some completely explicit sculptures, including a Mercury adorned with multiple penises, Pan having sex with a goat, and a winged dick suspended from a chain. Frankly, after roaming these rooms for a little while, you’ll run out of synonyms for male genitalia and need a breather. Or possibly a cold shower.

Possible a good luck charm, but it's also pretty funny.
This image of Priapus adorned a wall in Pompeii, once upon a time.

Naples, much like Palermo, only really comes alive at night. Once the sun has gone, people crowd the shopping district that runs downhill from the National Archaeological Museum, past the Piazza Dante and along the Via Toledo. Perhaps it was just that it was a Friday night, but it certainly seemed to me like everyone was out and having a good time. At least for as long as the weather held—before the night was through, the night was rent by a particularly impressive storm, with Jupiter tossing around thunderbolts a couple of time every minute.

Luckily for me, I was already safe indoors and away from the torrential rain at that stage, having circled back to my lodgings via the Piazza del Plebiscito and the impressively solid Castel Nuovo. Still, if there’s any fitting way to end a visit to the vicinity of Vesuvius, it’s with a demonstration of the fact that natural forces are to be cowered before whenever they start to throw their weight around.

Palermo – Out on its Own

Rooftops that would work well in an Assassins' Creed game.
Looking north from the Teatro Massimo, with Monte Pellegrino in the distance.

My first experience of Palermo and Sicily was the sparkling blue of the Tyrrenhian Sea contrasting with the terracotta dust of late-summer/early-autumn. Sicily, which I’d heard so much about but never seen, was rocky in its northwestern corner, with steep peaks rising straight out of the sea, and Palermo itself sprawled across a shallow valley caught between several of those peaks.

It’s not an easy city to get to grips with, because it doesn’t have a strongly defined centre. Instead, there are a few streets running north-south and one key one that runs east-west. Stray too far from any of these and you might find yourself among run-down quarters with narrow alleys full of street vendors’ stalls, rows of apartment blocks that can be either new or crumbling relics of ages past, or parched gardens that offer some shade in the heat that lingers on after the departed summer.

Let's face it, when you move into a new place, it's the pleasure gardens you go for.
Would that its pleasure gardens were still in as good a shape.

There’s no metro in Palermo, and the only tram I saw actually runs from the non-central train station to an outlying shopping centre, so if you’re going to explore, it’ll have to be on foot. (Forget about wheeled transport unless you’re willing to wait on buses or take your life in your hand on a moped. In fact, the very existence of mopeds requires pedestrians to be either vigilant or accepting of potential disaster.) I like exploration by foot though, so that suits me pretty well.

As far as another habit of mine goes—that of climbing on top of tall buildings to get a better idea of the city I’m in—there are some good options, albeit none too tall. The first and preferable is the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third-largest opera house. Take the excellent tour around the opera house itself and pay the extra to get up to the terrace. Courtesy of a slow elevator and some steep steps you’ll get to enjoy the best view of the city. Mostly unobstructed, it’s the best way to get a feel for how Palermo has spread out to occupy the space available.

The Greeks liked settling anywhere they had access to marble and chisels.
An ancient carving from the Greek colony of Selinunte on Sicily’s south coast.

Palermo Cathedral offers the next best thing when it comes to viewing the city, but the cathedral’s towers get in the way of the view, and the narrower space up there can get a bit more crowded. It is a good bit cheaper though, and as a bonus you also get access to the royal tombs that the cathedral holds (Sicily had its own kings up until Italy’s unification) and the crypt beneath, which contains relics dating back to the Norman occupation of the 12th century. Or possibly even earlier, given the Cardinals’ habit of re-using convenient sarcophagi.

The crypt is a good place to get a feel for how old Sicilian habitation has been and how many different groups have claimed it over the centuries. From the original inhabitants to the Phoenician and Greek settlers, to the following Carthaginians and Romans, who waged their first Punic War over the island, through the Arabs and the Normans to the European dynasties who fought over the island until Italy put its boot down, there are layers of warfare, trade, and settlement everywhere you look.

More than a little Arab in the design, mind you.
The Norman Chapel of Chiesa de Santa Cataldo.

Getting an explanation of all of this history is a little more difficult. The Archaeological Museum is mostly closed for renovations at the moment, with only one out of three floors open. That one floor is free to visit though, and it’s a really well presented exploration of some of Sicily’s earliest history, with a particular focus on the Greek city of Selinunte. It’s really well laid out and explained, and as the rest of the museum opens up, it’ll be even more worth your time.

Palermo, then, is hard to get to grips with but worth the effort. If I had more time, it would be a great place to start an exploration of the island from. As it was, I didn’t get a chance to break out of the city, though the two days I had there were filled as far as I was able with the aid of two feet and a handy map. There’s great food to be had (especially seafood) and sights to see, but when my time was done, it was the Palermo Centrale train station that drew me, with the promise of a bed that would carry me east to Messina and across the straits to the mainland, to visit Naples, Pompeii and Vesuvius next.

From South to North

At the very least, it looks like a straight line. (Damn you San Marino!)
This is probably one of the more sensible-looking travel routes I’ve ever devised.

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m once again taking time off from local affairs this September and heading for less familiar climes. Moreover, so as not to break with tradition, I’m not just travelling to, I’m travelling through. Hitting all sorts of nations and cities that I’ve never been to before.

This excursion feels a little different from previous years though. This time there’s no strong theme, as there was in my Eastern European journey last year, or my exploration of Greece the year before. Instead, there’s just a direction: south to north, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. Or as close to the North Sea as I can manage. If there’s a binding theme at all, it’s one of filling gaps in my collection of nations; visiting places that I haven’t been to, or even near to.

As I said, it feels a little off-kilter, as though the series of mostly train-based journeys that I’ve been on since Norway, back in 2009, is coming to an end. The two or three further European trips that are percolating in my head don’t suit train-based shenanigans nearly as well, and the continents further afield that await my bootprints are even less amenable to sticking to the iron rails.

It may just be time for me to stretch my conception of what a travelling holiday might be. No bad thing that—I’ve gotten a lot out of rail (and sea) travel, but this holiday will stretch the balance between exploring and watching the landscape speed by about as far as it’s likely to go.

As for this trip, there’ll be plenty to keep myself occupied (and not just making sure that I catch the next connection). I’ll be kicking off in Italy, which is familiar enough in itself, albeit in a part of it that I’ve never been to before: Palermo, Sicily. An island that’s been the site of contention ever since the Greeks and the Phoenicians first started looking crosswise at each other, it’s a long way south of any part of Italy (Rome) that I’ve been in before, and it’ll feed my lust for history nicely.

An overnight train (the only one of this trip) will take me across Sicily and the Straits of Messina (loading the train onto a boat in the process, which I’ll likely sleep through) and on through the night to Naples. Which is worthy of a visit in itself, even if it weren’t for the presence of Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii in close attendance. I won’t miss out on those, I can assure you. It’s no accident that the overnight train will drop me off beside the Circumvesuviana line to the ruins at a time when the tour groups have yet to have their breakfast. Should I be able to drag myself away from this long-awaited visit to the preserved ruins of ancient Rome, I’ll see as much of Naples as I can in the time remaining.

Onwards then from Naples and one of the more awkward routes of the trip. North through and past Rome to Bologna, then an almost-180-degree reversal to head south east to the Adriatic coast and Rimini. Why stop here? Well, Rimini itself and the nearby beaches are said to be well worth the visit, but that’s less my style than the small nation-state only a short bus ride away. San Marino has been happily independent for a very long time, and for all that it’s tiny in comparison to the Italian nation that enfolds it, it should be well worth a visit in its own right.

After Rimini and San Marino have had their fill of me, it’s north again, this time to Milan. I came close here last year with a layover in nearby Bergamo, but Milan is the big dog of northern Italian cities, nestled in under the Alps, and it should be interesting to compare it to the more southerly Italian locations that I’ll have passed through to get there. However, for the most part it’s a breathing space before tackling the mountains.

If any day is going to mark my complete over-commitment to the rail theme, this one will. Three nations, three trains (and a bus), and as many mountains as you may care to shake a stick at. From Milan to Tirano, there to catch the Bernina Express that’ll see me safely over the Alps, through some of the most fabulous scenery to be had in Europe. That will deposit me in Chur in Switzerland, from whence a train to Sargans and a bus to Vaduz will drop me in a nation almost as small as San Marino: Liechtenstein.

This is where the nature of the trip and the problems with it ought to become apparent: I’m on a one-way trip to Checklist-ville. Last year I visited ten countries, but I had just over three weeks in which to do so, which meant I averaged out at around two days in each. This time, I’ve got a little less than 12 days to cross Europe from south to north, and in way too many places I’ll be there no longer than it takes to have a look around. At least in Liechtenstein, where an afternoon stroll is enough to take you across the country from west to east, I’ll see a good percentage of it before I go.

Switzerland’s efficient public transport system will shuttle me back from Vaduz, across the border and on to Zurich. Given that my major Swiss influences extend to Heidi, William Tell and one of the Asterix books, it’s fair to say that I have little or no idea of what to expect here. However it turns out, given that Switzerland is one of the world’s most heavily armed countries, I will at least be on my very best behaviour.

From Zurich, it’s all downhill on the home stretch of this trip. Specifically downhill towards Mulhouse in France on a TGV, then onwards to my next destination, Europe’s biggest mini-nation. Luxembourg is a giant compared to San Marino or Liechtenstein, even if it’s trapped between France, Belgium and Germany, and it’s been at the heart of the European Union ever since its founding. I have been told by someone who ought to know that there’s nothing there to see there, but I feel that in these dark times of Brexit and Grexit, it’s probably sensible to visit the beating heart of the Euro Illuminati and make sure that I’m not on their “naughty” list.

After all, Luxembourg is just three hours on the train from my very final stop, which is the even more EU-centric capital of Belgium—Brussels. A place I’ve become all too familiar with over the past year and a bit, and there’s no more friendly or relaxed city to spend a last evening in before a late night flight back to Dublin. I’ll do my best to take a day-trip out to the North Sea before I leave, but the allure of beer and waffles may prove too strong.

For now though, I’m just engaged in pre-packing routines, printing out my train tickets (e-tickets are great, but it pays to have a backup), and double-checking everything else. Inevitably I’m going to forget something, as is always the way of holidays, but with all the travelling to be done, it’s not likely to be anything that I’ll miss much.

Eastern Europe Odyssey: Roundup

It's painful to resist on Ryanair in particular.
Long-legged though I may be, it’s hard to resist a window seat.

So, I’ve been back home for a few days, and after a lot of running around, I’ve finally gotten settled, enough so that I can sit down and think about the journey that I’ve just been on. I’ve been taking trips like this for a little while. What’s changed, what hasn’t, and what have I learned for the future?

Timing: This was probably the tightest trip in terms of timing since I was in Norway five years ago. With ten countries fitted into just over three weeks, some cities got no more than a single night at the expense of places like Berlin that got three. It wasn’t perfectly organised, and a fumble in miscounting the days meant that I ended up missing out Sofia altogether. Still, I quite liked the rhythm of having two days in a place: one to see the city itself, and one for a day trip to somewhere nearby. In some places where I stayed longer, time dragged a little more. That might be something to remember for the future. (Bear in mind, that I’ve developed a dislike of sitting still in recent years. My pace of solo travel might not suit everyone else.)

Rail is the Way: I still love rail travel, and for this trip it took me all around Europe, with only two deviations – the boat trip down the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava and the bus trip from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo. The most expensive tickets were those in Poland and Germany, which I booked in advance, whereas the trips I took as I went further south and east were cheaper and usually booked at the station. There usually weren’t any problems finding space on overnight trains, and you get to meet all sorts of interesting people when you’re sharing a compartment. Though travellers at the peak of the high season would probably find things a little trickier than I did.

Luggage: I think I shaved things close to as minimal as I could on this trip, toting a medium-sized backpack instead of a full-sized rucksack. As it was, I needed to add a shoulder bag that allowed me to keep some daily essentials with me when I left the main bag behind for a few hours. Over the course of the whole trip, I only needed a single laundry day to keep me in clean clothes, so things went well on that front. The lack of luggage space did mean that I was restricted in bringing things back, but my usual collection of fridge magnets fitted nicely.

Accommodation: As in my last trip to Greece, I mixed B&Bs, hotels and hostels, booking them a day or two in advance on my phone. Again, it all worked out well, and the variety was one of the high points of the trip. Hostels are great for meeting people and having a space to chill out, whereas B&Bs and hotels can be cosier and offer some respite for your humble introvert and a decent shower. The last place I stayed in, the Hotel Cosmos in Chisinau, Moldova, was a former Soviet tower that had only patchily been updated to modern standards – just enough to be comfortable while keeping that weirdly appealing ’80s vibe of the original building.

Technology:  Once again, I relied on my iPhone alone. This worked as well as it did in Greece, if not better. Wifi has become completely ubiquitous – even in Moldova I never had any problem finding a place with a signal. This has both good and bad sides: booking accommodation remained easy, and TripAdvisor kept me informed about things worth seeing locally, but there’s no longer a lack of internet to provide a crutch to enable disconnection, if that’s what you’re looking for. You’ll have to rely on willpower alone, or escape to the sticks. Battery life can be an issue, albeit one that can be alleviated with planning. My external battery pack worked nicely, though I couldn’t charge it and the phone at the same time – a dual-port USB adapter might complete the travel kit.

Footwear: I might just have got the balance on this one right this time. I’ve always preferred a sturdy pair of shoes that you can wear both in the city and on the trail over a pair of boots that are only suited to the wilderness. Previously, I’d brought some flip-flops for sunnier weather but found them neither comfortable nor very useful. So this time I picked up a pair of sturdy sandals, which proved a fine backup for the shoes. And no, I didn’t wear them with socks (though if it was cold enough, I probably would).

History: I love digging into the history of places, which usually means museums, but most cities also express their history through their culture and architecture. Bucharest in Romania, with its wealth of gorgeous architecture, is completely different from Chisinau, capital of the neighbouring Moldova, which is Soviet almost everywhere you look. Yet both nations share a culture, and their histories and future are tied as tightly together as those of Ireland and Britain. To travel through so many different nations is to get a real feel of how the changing fortunes of history have affected them all in different ways. Common elements abound, like World War II and the Holocaust, but Serbia has its own experience of history both recent and distant, completely different from those of a nation like Poland. One frustration for me was the language support in museums – it got tougher to find English-language offerings the further south and east I went.

Travel Guides: Phone apps versus traditional books is the choice here. I managed to get an Eastern Europe Lonely Planet book that covered all my stops except Berlin and Vienna, but it had the twin problems of being bulky and a couple of years old. In the other corner, TripAdvisor allowed me to download city guides for major cities, but these had fairly basic navigation functions and didn’t cover minor destinations, such as Chisinau and Veliko Tarnovo. So neither option is perfect yet, though paper’s bulk and the fact that apps are updated suggests that a little more work on finding the best option on the latter front could be well worth it.

Exploration vs Checklist: The one big issue with this trip was that in fitting so many different destinations into only three weeks, there was a danger of turning it into a process of ticking boxes. Most of the cities I went to were capitals, and in many cases I didn’t have time to explore beyond the city limits. Still, there are always going to be limits to any holiday – you can never get to truly experience a place without living there. As long as I’m okay with missing out on some things, there’s nothing wrong with this way of travelling. And, as mentioned above, the two-day rhythm of city and day trip turned out to be a pretty good one.

Future Trips: My next holiday might not be in Europe, but I’ll be doing this again at some stage. Three holidays in particular suggest themselves – a European Fringe Tour from Finland south through the Baltic states and Belarus to Ukraine, a Balkans Tour starting in Venice and ending in Albania, and a Statelets Tour covering as many of the minor states and principalities as I can hit. If I can do all three of those, the only European nation I won’t have been to is Cyprus. And a weekend away in the sun should cover that. Checklisting, maybe, but as an excuse to dust off my travel shoes, it’s proved a pretty handy one to date.

Bergamo: Italian Addendum

Not that I had a choice, mind you. The stairs were out.
I’d say the climb was worth it, but I used the lift.

The vagaries of modern-day cut-price flying being what they are, you will, on occasion, find yourself with hours to waste on a layover in some spot halfway between a distant departure point and home. That being the case, there are probably worse places to spend said hours in than Italy, and more specifically Bergamo. Having been dropped off by WizzAir (comfy and punctual) and having 13 hours before hopping onboard Ryanair (cramped and delayed), I was pretty happy to be no more than a short bus ride away from the medieval Citta Alta, with its massive walls and narrow streets.

Not that the Citta Alta is the highest place in the vicinity. It occupies a high point south of the Alps, overlooking the plains of Lombardy, but San Vigilo Castle stands guard from an ever higher point just to the west. There’s not much there to be seen now, but the views are quite spectacular, even on a misty day. If you’re not inclined to explore and climb your way to the top, there’s a funicular railway that’ll take you to the heights, but you’ll miss out on cobbled streets and horse chestnuts that pop and drop around you as you pass beneath. (That last one might be time-of-year dependent.)

I still don't know what the testicle heraldry is about. Also, three?
Chapel Colleoni in the foreground, basilica in the back. Inside there’s less to choose between them.

As pleasant as it is to sit in San Vigilo and enjoy the view, the Citta Alta is the main draw, and it’s worth your time to descend. Possessed by the Venetians for more than 350 years, Bergamo was their western outpost against the rival great Northern Italian power and was massively fortified as a result. The Venetian walls still surround the Citta Alta, and the winged lions of St Mark, symbol of the Venetian Republic, still stand guard over the fortified gates. Yet Bergamo itself is far older than the Venetian occupation and there are buildings in the Citta Alta that are closer to 1,000 years old than 500.

Perhaps the most impressive is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Dating to 1137 but built on the site of a 7th-century religious edifice, it’s not so imposing on the outside as the Cappella Colleoni, the massive tomb of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni annexed to it, but the interior is spectacular, with tapestries and frescoes adorning that walls and further frescoes and other adornments stretching all the way to the roof. Not that the Cappella Colleoni should be missed either – it’s a masterwork in its own right, and Colleoni’s heraldic symbol of three testicles on the gates have been rubbed to a shine by tourists and locals seeking some of his luck.

A brief visit, a fond farewell.
One of the Venetian “lion gates”, with an elevated walkway approaching it.

The museums are nothing to sneeze at either – I didn’t make it to the art galleries lying outside the eastern gate, but the Piazza della Citadella contains both the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Natural Science. The former has some fine relics of the millennia of habitation in the area, from the palaeolithic through the Celts and Romans to more recent times. The latter sprawls all around the piazza and has an impressive section on other cultures. Closer to the Basilica, the Torre campanaria di città alta or old bell tower is worth climbing, and its attached museum has a fine interactive section on the medieval history of Bergamo itself. Don’t expect much in the way of non-Italian language help though.

Beyond all of the attractions though, the beauty of Bergamo lies in the ability to wander the narrow streets of the Citta Alta freely, medieval buildings towering to either side and cobbles packed tight under your feet. Enjoy a gelato, or perhaps a beer or wine, and find a place to sit and soak in the atmosphere. And then, when the hours have spun past at last, descend though one of the Venetian gates into the Citta bassa and make your way to the airport. The final flight on that cut-price carrier may depress your spirits, but it won’t erase those hours stolen in the Lombard sunshine.

Chisinau: A Sort of Homecoming

 

Though I wouldn't ask him for the loan of a fiver.
A friendly face to welcome you to the National Museum.
 
Familiarities abound in Moldova. A small, agriculturally blessed nation, dominated by larger neighbours and currently wracked by a banking crisis that has revealed cronyism and corruption in the highest levels of business and government? It’s like I’ve returned to Ireland three days early. Add to that my overnight arrival in a former Trans-Siberian carriage, and there were multiple layers of déjà-vu to be had.

To be sure, Moldova’s situation is a lot more perilous than Ireland’s. If there was a boom here before the current crisis, it didn’t reach very far beyond the capital, and not even that far within it. And given the choice between Romania and Russia or the U.K. and the EU as dominant neighbours, I know which ones I’d opt for. (Though maybe swapping Romania for the U.K. wouldn’t be too bad. Can we arrange that?)

 

Though calling it a restaurant is a bit of a stretch.
The decor outside my hotel’s restaurant.
 
Chisinau, the capital, was more or less levelled in World War II, so Soviet Grim is the main flavour of architecture on offer, enlivened here and there by the neon, glass and advertising hoardings of late-arriving capitalism. Day to day life continues in the face of an economic straitjacket, but streetside second-hand clothing markets and museums that turn the lights on when you enter a room and off when you leave are evidence of a national frugality that’s as much a necessity as it is innate.

Outside Chisinau, there are rolling hills of grain and grapes – this is another land between two rivers, the Prut and the Dniester, and it’s just as fertile as the first Mesopotamia. That very richness, along with its position to the north of the Black Sea, has meant that armies have rolled back and forth across it since time immemorial: from the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Dacians all the way to the Ottomans, Nazis, and Russians. The Romans never made it so far, but their trade goods did, as museum finds show.

 

Also more sun than was really good for me.
The valley of Orheiul Vechi – a long walk either above or below.
 
The Russians are still here, in fact. Physically in the breakaway Transdniestr region, but in spirit elsewhere. Decades of Soviet rule is a hard thing to throw off, and while Moldova mostly looks to the west and Romania these days, Russia can be seen everywhere you look. In my hotel as much as anywhere – a former Soviet edifice, it had enjoyed a facelift in places, but the phones, lifts and food were recognisable from my time on the Trans-Siberian. I’ve already mentioned the Trans-Siberian retiree rail carriage that brought me into the country, on which the bedding for the overnight berths may well have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, but there was yet more: the Military History Museum was more of a Soviet Military Surplus Museum, with a garden full of artillery and armoured transports.

I was here too briefly to get a good feel for the country, but I did manage to visit Orheiul Vechi, a bowl-shaped valley enclosing a winding river, where monks long ago carved out dwelling places for themselves from the limestone cliffs. The caves are spectacular, once the wedding parties that sometimes use them clear out, but the view from the rim of the valley is even more so. From here you can see many of the things that signify Moldova: agricultural riches, the remnants of ancient and overrun fortifications, quiet villages with working wells, and a monastery on a hilltop. Visiting there meant that I missed the Milesti Minci wine cellars (housed in miles of limestone caverns), but it proved a perfect counterpoint to Chisinau.

Unusually, I’m writing this while I’m still in the country, on a bus heading for the airport. A long flight awaits, with a half-day layover in Bergamo, Italy (from where I post this). So ahead of that, thank you to those who’ve been following this travelogue, and I’ll be back with a summary article some time soon.

Bucharest: Sum of Many Parts

 

But he has little to do with Bucharest. Go north for more on him.
The obvious suspect: Vlad Tepes and his palace.
 
Romania feels like something of an outlier. In the midst of countries with Slavic languages, written in Cyrillic script, its Romance language owes more to French and uses the Latin alphabet. This oddness is a little difficult to explain, even at a historical stretch: the province of Dacia, lying beyond the Danube, was one of the longest-lasting conquests of Trajan, Rome’s greatest military emperor, and for some reason that association has stuck, for all that Rome and its successor states vanished long ago.

What is immediately obvious as you walk around Bucharest is that the Soviet era was a dreadful wrong turn for the city. There are many examples of absolutely gorgeous architecture – western styles given native Romanian twists – that have spent the decades since World War II, when the Romanians were on the side of the Axis, elegantly crumbling. As they crumbled, massive Soviet edifices sprang up, some of them featureless and uninspiring, others blank copies of Parisian grandeur, such as the monumental Parliamentary Palace, the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.

 

Though for my money, thr Vittorio Emanuel monument in Rome is still more of an eyesore.
Photos can’t capture just how huge and out of place this is.
 
Nicolae Ceacescu’s dictatorship attempted to turn Bucharest into a metropolis and only managed to gather far too many people together, turning a city that had shown signs of becoming the Paris of Eastern Europe into a sprawling space that you could spend all day trekking around. There’s so much to see here and so much to fall for, but the omnipresent feeling that it’s still trying to recover from Ceaucescu and the economic turmoil that followed his ouster and execution.

Escaping isn’t all that hard though, and it proves well worth it. Less than two hours on the train brings you to the foothills of the Carpathians and the town of Sinaia, where the Romanian king Carol I once held court at Peles Castle. Navigate through the tour groups that cram every corridor and you’ll find a mix of German, Italian and Romanian decor to enjoy, as well as rooms as richly appointed as any to be found in Europe. Though given the amount of love lavished on this one building created for the benefit of a single family, the extravagances of royalty become a little harder to support.

 

Assuming the lazy sod could rouse itself enough to rescue anyone.
Huge fuzzy dogs – much needed on mountains.
 
Thankfully, Sinaia offers one of the best ways to escape: a cable car gondola to 2,000m up in the mountains above. There, if the cloud cover is kind, you’ll be able to view the valley below and others as well, and get an idea of how it all fits together. And if the cloud cover isn’t kind, you’ll at least have massive dozing mastiffs and sheepskin wraps to keep you warm while you sip your hot chocolate.

But Bucharest on the Danube plain remains the draw and the hope of the nation. Crumbling that old architecture may be (and the city’s Old Town is tacky enough to outdo Dublin’s Temple Bar), but there are signs aplenty of a desire to preserve just what made the city special and to incorporate it into the new spaces springing up as those Soviet monuments crumble in their turn. Should the future be kind to Romania, and it navigate the space between Russia and the EU with care, there could yet be a golden age here, and this lovely city be even more worth visiting than it already is.

Veliko Tārnovo: Ancient and Mighty

 

I miss Terry Pratchett.
There’s a lot of flat ground in Veliko Tarnovo: most of it vertical.
 
I had planned to spend more time in Bulgaria, but things didn’t work out that way. A combination of a delayed train from Belgrade, some awful weather and a miscalculation on my part meant that I had to miss out Sofia entirely. Instead, courtesy of an overly helpful train station attendant, I ended up jumping on a bus that took me straight to the ancient Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tărnovo, through mist-shrouded mountains and broad valleys to an ancient place of power. I’d rather have taken the train, but given that I found out next day that the local train station was kaput, this was clearly a good idea.

Not that things got any easier once I got to Veliko Tărnovo. If it reminds me of anywhere, it’s Delphi in Greece. Both towns are packed tightly onto a mountainside, using steps as much as streets to facilitate movement. Yet whereas Delphi was meant as a destination, a special place that pilgrims had to trek to reach, Veliko Tărnovo was meant as a defensive bastion, an impregnable fortress, defended by walls, rivers and high cliffs.

 

...not far from the
The old royal palace at Veliko Tarnovo
 
As culmination of my fortress-hopping on this trip go, I couldn’t have asked for more than Tsarevets Fortress. Occupying an entire bend of the local river and accessible only via a narrow bridge that still hosts a gatehouse with an impressively spiky portcullis, it’s a commanding sight, even if most of it has now decayed and crumbled. The parts of it that have been restored – the church on the highest peak and several of the outer towers – show just how imposing it must have been. It helps that one of the towers has been left stocked with (nailed down) arms and armour, so you can see how the Bulgar guards in medieval times would have been able to do their duty.

I don’t really have too much to say about the Bulgarian people, sadly, due to my limited time here, other than that they seem as friendly as any I’ve come across. Though something that is notable about Veliko Tărnovo is its cats. They’re everywhere and they’re tiny – I thought the first one I saw was a kitten, but no, they were all that size, and when I sat down to dinner that evening, there were a host of them in attendance, first yowling for scraps and later just sitting under my chair, making themselves comfortable.

 

On the bright side, it was easy to walk/swim downhill.
I left town along with several thousand gallons of water.
 
I suppose that a place like Veliko Tărnovo, where the ground is as much vertical as it is horizontal, is better suited to cats than to humans. Whereas we trudge up and down or get into cars barely small enough to navigate narrow and winding streets, they can scamper this way and that, find places in the sun to rest, and disappear out of sight whenever they choose. They certainly seemed to have the run of the place – the few dogs that I saw were a cowed and defeated lot.

However, the cats couldn’t have been any happier than I was with the weather on the morning of my last day. It was pouring in a way I hadn’t seen at all on this trip, and it didn’t look inclined to let up. I was even driven so far as to have to purchase an umbrella. The rain certainly accented the Soviet tinges of the town – the gloomy ticket office where I got a train ticket for the connection at Gorno and the Gallery where I spent half an hour in the half-light perusing some weird and evocative Bulgarian art. (Eventually someone remembered to turn on the lights, which came to life with a sound like a flock of birds taking off.) Eventually though, I was washed downhill to the closed-for-repairs train station, where I was able to get a bus to Gorno. And as I write this, I’m on a train to Bucharest, awaiting the Danube and my next nation: Romania.