Before I start, I wanted to note that my great-uncle Leonard died suddenly a little over a week ago. He’s been a part of my life since I was born; indeed, one of the first photos I ever took was of Leonard, snapped from the vertically-challenged perspective of a five-year old. I will wait until the funeral to gather my thoughts and memories, but it’s a strange feeling to have someone disappear without warning. We’ll miss you.
“Let’s move to the UK!” I said. “We can go travelling all over Europe! Everything’s so close!” And for a hot minute this plan worked out great – we did make it to Amsterdam and Barcelona, after all – but then Covid happened, and after that we wanted to prioritise seeing old friends rather than exploring somewhere new. This is a long way of saying that it’s been a long time since Randi and I visited a new country together, but now the spell has been lifted after a long Easter weekend with Randi’s parents in a brand new destination for us all: Malta!
Malta is a fascinating place. It’s the smallest EU member state, by both size and population, and everyone we spoke to had a clear pride in their country. For a century and a half Malta was a British colony and some of that influence is obvious: English is one of two official languages, there are British-style plugs and red telephone boxes, Randi could order a ricotta qassata from a ‘Crystal Palace café’ and we even spotted a mysterious Clapham Junction on a map. Meanwhile, the country’s nearest neighbour is Italy – no doubt contributing to all of the delicious Italian food available – while the Maltese language itself is descended from Arabic, and when you’re walking from Mdina to Ir-Rabat it’s very easy to feel like you’re in the Middle East. To be honest, I already want to go back.
Despite a late arrival, Randi and I forced ourselves to get up on Thursday morning for a walking tour of Valletta. Malta’s capital is very small, highly pedestrianised, immensely walkable and incredibly beautiful, with an impressive gorgeous-buildings-per-square-km ratio and photogenic streets which curve up and down before reaching the sea on three of the city’s four sides. Valletta was built as a walled city, established by the Catholic ‘Knights of St. John’ who ruled Malta from the sixteenth century until Napoleon’s invasion in 1798, and unlike most cities has a very clear ‘entrance’ over a bridge and through the no-longer-an-actual-gate ‘City Gate’.
Once inside, the first thing you’ll see is the new Maltese Parliament building – which was only completed in 2015 – built in a ‘controversially modern’ architectural style which Malta should be very grateful isn’t just a euphemism for ‘terrible’ but is actually quite striking. In fact, prior to its construction this plot of land was a car park, so this seems like a big improvement, and we were amused to spot a few designated car parking spaces which remain nearby, tucked away on a side street, reserved exclusively for the following named positions only: Prime Minister, Leader of the House, Opposition Leader, Minister for Family and Social Solidarity, and Parliamentary Secretary for Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Active Ageing.
Valletta is also a hub for buses on the island, and since it’s only a half an hour from where we were staying in St. Julian’s we ended up coming back a few times – especially to eat! Special thanks to Lee and James at work for sharing their curated list of Valletta’s restaurants with me. We tried a few places, but in particular I have to mention the amazing tasting menu we enjoyed at Legligin on our final night as our farewell to Malta.
(Since I mentioned the buses, here’s the low-down: they were mostly very good, and easy for tourists as they accept contactless card, but the big downside came when a bus was ‘full’ and refused to let us on. We could have totally squeezed on.)
On our second day we headed to the island of Gozo for a quad-biking tour around the main sights. As the non-driver of the group my role was mostly to not fall off the quad bike while Randi was driving – which I managed with a 100% success rate – and occasionally risk taking photos.
Mdina & Marsaxlokk
The two other places we visited during our trip were the fortified city of Mdina (Malta’s ancient capital city prior to the construction of Valletta) and the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. Mdina itself is teeny tiny and feels like a well-constructed film set, with a population of less than 300, although it’s surrounded by the larger town of Rabat. From here Randi and I tried and failed to go for a hike through the countryside, having been assured the the path was ‘obvious’, although it was not at all obvious to us where the path ended and the strawberry farms began. Still, we totally forgave everything because the landscape was like walking through a tabletop of Carcassonne tiles.
At 20.30, two and a half hours before Brexit, I bowed to the victory of the Brexiteers by sitting alone in a Wetherspoons pub and ordering British pie and British mash through the Wetherspoons app. (Thirty minutes later I realised I had ordered it to the wrong pub, but the staff kindly saved me from my own idiocy.)
At 22.00, one hour before Brexit, I was sitting on a plane with my seatbelt fastened, waiting to take off.
And by 23.00 I was safely in the air, somewhere over France…
I’d love to pretend that this was all carefully planned, but it was just a happy coincidence that Randi was working in Barcelona last week and suggested I joined for the weekend. Obviously I was happy to do so, because (a) it’s Barcelona, but also (b) the city has always gotten a raw deal on this blog. I visited twice in 2003 – once on a school trip and then later with my family – but alas this was a year before I started blogging so it left an annoying hole on my virtual scratch map. Until now.
Since we had both been here before – albeit a while ago – we didn’t feel any pressure to rush around ticking off all the tourist sights. Instead we did a healthy amount of walking and wandering: eating tapas, marvelling at how different big cities can feel from each other (there are no houses!) and saying silly things to each other like “this reminds me of Buenos Aires”. I was also pleased to confirm that, after over a year of Duolingo, my Spanish is definitely in a better state than it was in 2003. And sure, nowadays I’m even more aware that you’d be wiser to speak Catalan here than Spanish, but I hope that the bar for British tourists is sufficiently low that I passed.
The one attraction we did pay for was the famous Park Güell which consists of a small ‘Monumental Zone’ of Gaudi sculptures and a much larger free area with rewarding views of the city, the sea and the mountains if you climb to the top. We sat up here for a while in the sun, basking in the warm glow of an unhurried weekend trip and the knowledge that Europe is still right here, just over the water, and it isn’t going anywhere.
Last week, Katie and I supplemented our regular Doctor Who outing with the first episode of the new Picard series. It seems strange now but I didn’t discover Doctor Who properly until I was a teenager, while Star Trek was deeply woven into my childhood: my mum (the only one who knew how to program the VCR) would always make sure it was set to record if my dad and I weren’t going to be home to watch it live. It should be noted that my dad loved both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine the best, but for almost opposite reasons. The former is a utopian fantasy of peace and flourishing, the latter exposes the darker underbelly at the fringe. One is a manifesto, the other is a reality check. Both series need each other, and play off against each other.
From a dramatic perspective, however, you can’t tell any interesting stories if all you have is peace and flourishing. That wasn’t a problem for The Next Generation because it was set on a spaceship exploring new life and new civilisations. As long as those civilisations were violent and warlike then you had yourself a plot. But Picard is set on Earth, so it can’t play the same cards. Instead, the first episode features the perils of celebrity, xenophobia and a manipulative media… all good elements for a high-budget science-fiction show, but they also makes it feel like a show set in a higher-tech vision of Future America rather than a genuinely bold and radical imagining of a different social order.
This isn’t a complaint – I enjoyed the first episode and I’ll try to watch more – and even if it wanted to, the makers of Picard couldn’t recreate the The Next Generation anymore than my mum could still program a VCR. It was just a strange feeling, that’s all, that the vision of the future from the past now feels so much further away than our newer imagined future.
As for visions which look backwards: last Thursday I saw Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt with my mum and cousin Alix. I had never seen a Tom Stoppard play before but apparently he has a reputation and the official reason for inviting me to tag along was that I might be able to “help explain what I thought it meant” at the end.
Leopoldstadt tells the story of a wealthy Jewish family starting in early twentieth century Vienna. Some of the family members have converted to Christianity for social reasons although everybody is still very much culturally Jewish, and together they debate questions of assimilation vs. identity etc. One member of the family acknowledges that anti-semitism is still present but optimistically argues that “pogroms are a thing of the past” and things will only get better. The audience is supposed to feel haunted by the dramatic irony, I suppose. As staged, it just felt like a cheap trick.
I have a big mostly-Jewish family on one side, studied mostly-modern history at university and have seen an above-average number of plays. So maybe I’m not the target audience here. But I’m going to trust my instincts and just assert that this isn’t a very good play. The characters are given a huge amount of clunking historical exposition (the British Mandate in Palestine one moment, Bolshevik revolution the next) for no good reason, the plot is full of clichés and the script abounds with arched contemporary references to make the audience feel worthy and knowing. There are so many powerful and moving works about this topic, but this isn’t one of them.
I’ve wanted to visit Amsterdam for a very, very long time and yet the city still exceeded my expectations, even on a grey and somewhat-rainy long weekend in October. So, this is my inevitable fawning blog post about Amsterdam.
We left London on an early Friday-morning Eurostar train from St Pancras with Simon and Fleur, with Steve following a few hours later. I have gushed about the joy of direct trains from London to Paris before, but direct trains from London to Amsterdam are even more wonderful and engender a feeling of European interconnectedness in a way that flying never can and never will. After a pancake and hot chocolate-based lunch we hopped on a bus to a farm just outside of the city and the one-of-a-kind waggon we had chosen to stay in. Sure, we could have gone for a hostel or something, but that wouldn’t have been half as much fun as our beloved waggon.
On Saturday we started with art at the Rijksmuseum and in particular its special exhibition Rembrandt-Velázquez – Dutch & Spanish Masters. As a piece of curation this was easily one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Rather than my usual feeling of ‘wandering through many paintings and feel like I’m not really appreciating it properly’, whoever curated this has systematically selected one Spanish and one Dutch painting on a similar theme (headined, as the title suggests, by Velázquez and Rembrandt) and then invited the visitor to compare the works side-by-side. Combined with excellent historical background text, the whole experience of walking through an art gallery suddenly felt meaningful for someone who loves history but doesn’t really know much about art. And, if you are childish like me, you can also keep a running score of Catholic vs. Protestant? by picking your favoured painting each time. (I think the Protestants won out in the end, but it was a close-run thing!)
After lunch we headed to our timed tour of the Anne Frank House. (Tip: you have to book this online in advance, so check before you visit.) Having finally read her famous diary last year I was really glad that we got a chance to visit the annexe behind a bookcase where she and her family, along with several others, hid from occupying Nazi forces for two years before being discovered and killed. There is not much I can mieaningfully add here, other than that the museum is very well designed and it is both strange and haunting to walk through the rooms which Anne wrote so much about in her diary.
Much of discovering Amsterdam felt like proving that the clichés were true, and not in a bad way. Yes, the homes lining the sides of the canals are incredibly pretty and charming. Yes, there is cannabis everywhere. And yes, cycling has a dominance and a naturalness (no helmets to be seen) which I’ve not seen in any other city in the world. What was especially exciting was finding this was still true even when we ventured outside of the most touristy areas, or late at night. With many cyclists, and few cars, it’s actually possible to have streets which feel calm and quiet without being empty.
Because all other transport modes can flourish together when cars are restricted, all of the other ways to get around Amsterdam were unsurprisingly but uniformly excellent too. The buses to and from our middle-of-nowhere stop by the motorway were astonishingly frequent. The trams across the city were great and – much to our amusement – sometimes contained an entire counter in the middle of the vehicle behind which a member of staff sat and (presumably) dispensed travel advice where needed.
And let’s not forget the Amsterdam Metro with its huge, beautiful stations filled with interesting art to admire in the couple of minutes before the next train would arrive. (To be fair, the line we used was only opened last year, so maybe it’s only fair that the stations look good.) On two occasions, by the way, random members of the great Dutch public stopped and explained the background to a piece of metro art that we were looking at.
We used one other mode of transport: a train to The Hague and back on Sunday, on which we had a bit of a surreal moment when a member of staff walked down the aisle and stopped to check “if everything was OK”. We had assumed she was a ticket inspector and had taken out our tickets to show her… but no, she was just checking if things were good. (On the same train, a young girl was practicing her English by having her mother call out English words and providing the Dutch translation. So we enjoyed a constant and quite adorable stream of pretty advanced vocabulary – “prison!” “pollution!” “pitchfork!”)
Anyway. Why did we go to The Hague in the first place? Why, to visit Madurodam of course! This ‘war memorial’ to a Dutch resistance fighter, George Maduro, is in fact a huge and utterly brilliant miniature park showcasing the best of The Netherlands at 1:25 scale. Although I could easily include hundreds of photos I will try and restrain myself a little, although if you check back in the post so far you may spot several model replicas already. Suffice to say: I loved it, from the intricate historical buildings and streetscapes to the big model industrial areas like Schiphol Airport.
There are so many wonderful little touches here, like the miniature Mars trucks which pick up real mini Mars bars from their mini warehouses, or the stricken cyclist lying by the stopped car. We also had a lot of fun at the immersive ‘New Amsterdam’ experience, which pits the plucky Dutch colonists against the nasty English pirates and – outnumbered – has them totally surrender as New Amsterdam becomes New York. I don’t know how anyone could fail to love Madurodam, and it is definitely worth the extra trip out of Amsterdam to see it.
I haven’t even mentioned the food yet, but this was yet another highlight of our short trip. From pancakes to poffertjes, stroopwaffles to Surinamese food, we all ate pretty tremendously. My only regret was failing to realise that the Van Gogh Museum also runs exclusively on timed tickets and thus failing to get in before our train back home on Monday afternoon. Still, if there’s anywhere I now ‘have’ to go back to, I’m delighted that it’s Amsterdam.
Sadly the train home is not as magical as the way there since there are no passport control facilities (yet) at Amsterdam, meaning that everyone gets chucked off at Brussels, goes through the customary (but absurd) double British/Schengen passport control a few metres from each other and then waits in a too-small waiting area to get on a new train. Not to be outdone, the Home Office then insisted on a third passport check when we came off at St. Pancras. I asked the border agent what on earth this was for, and he responded that it was “only for certain trains”. “But… why?” “Because… well, why not?” On this stellar logic I am expecting passport checks at Brixton tube station in the morning. (Not that I want to give them any ideas.) Can’t we spend the money on someone to check if people on trains are OK instead?
But enough of the Home Office. I hope I have done enough to prove my newfound love for Amsterdam and the dry-humoured Dutch in general. Send me back any day!
From Vienna we took a holiday-within-a-holiday and spent a night in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, as Randi’s parents had enjoyed their visit earlier this year and it looked easy enough to get to. I didn’t really appreciate how easy it would be… the train from Vienna leaves every hour, takes an hour, and costs a mere €10.10 each way. Tickets can be purchased at any time from a mobile app, and of course there are no security queues or passport checks at any point. It does not surprise me to learn that commuting from Bratislava to Vienna is quite common. (I know that this is the normal train experience across Europe. It’s just so great.)
You can’t visit any city (except Toledo, Ohio) without taking a walking tour, so we wrapped up warm for a chilly three-hour history of the Communist era with our guide and two guys from Singapore. (“What is the weather like in Singapore?” “It’s always nice.” “What about in winter?” “There is no winter.”) Despite the cold it was a really interesting walk, including the views of Austria and Hungary from Bratislava Castle. It does seem that every postwar government was prone to inappropriate road-building schemes, whatever their ideology. At least Bratislava got a UFO-shaped restaurant perched on top of a bridge in return, although the authorities had to put up blinds on one side to block out the views of capitalist Austria during the Cold War.
At night we enjoyed the spectacular Christmas market in the centre of town, which was even better (and less crowded) than Vienna’s. The most common food was lokša (known via Catherine as lefse) of which I particularly enjoyed the blue cheese and chocolate options. Meanwhile, Randi was thrilled to discover that the ‘meat and cabbage soup’ meal handed down through her family existed here as kapustnica.
I highly recommend a visit to Bratislava!
Randi and I spent the week before Christmas in Vienna, which neither of us had been to before and seemed like a suitably Christmassy place. Since there is an awful lot to do in the city we decided to buy a 6-day Vienna Pass at the outset, which lets you into almost anything and makes it feel acceptable to swan into the Belvedere or Schönbrunn Zoo for half an hour. And with that, we were away!
On our first night we headed straight for the biggest Christmas market where Randi discovered the goodness of lángos (deep fried dough with garlic butter) and I was delighted to find a stall where I could load up a kartoffel with mais and schinken. (Why has America never embraced the jacket potato as a fast food option? It’s inexplicable.) And on the topic of food innovation, it is worth highlighting how Austrians make hot dogs. Rather than sliding it into the side of a bun, they take a baguette and impale it on a heafty spike before entombing the sausage neatly within and adding sauces. It is such a superior hot dogging system that I have opened my eyes to the inferiority of the English-speaking world on this point.
Vienna has museums for everything. We visited Mozart’s house – with a strikingly sad reminder that even a rich and successful man could lose four of his six children in infancy – and Freud’s home and office before he was forced to emigrate to London by the Nazis. (This is a much more sympathetic angle to view Freud from rather than as the father of psychoanalysis.)
We also saw one of the two Jewish museums, toured the famous Royal Opera House and watched the white Lipizzan horses of the Spanish Riding School do their morning exercises. To be honest, their morning exercises are not especially athletic, although they do seem to involve some diagonal trotting. The Schönbrunn Palace is amazing and well worth a visit, although by that point we were tired of audio guides and just wandered through the rooms making up their likely purposes.
Everyone we met was very friendly and (of course) could switch seamlessly into English mid-sentence after seeing our gormless faces. And I don’t just mean waiters in restaurants, I mean ‘the woman in the lift at our AirBnB apartment block’ or ‘random teenagers on the train’. However, I do also want to salute a few amusing moments of customer service, which is what you expect from a German-speaking country which doesn’t withhold people’s income in expectation of tips. For example, the guy at tourist information at the airport was full of disdain when I asked for a 6-day Vienna card rather than a 6-day Vienna pass. “There is no 6-day Vienna card!” he said, as if I had failed a test.
Props also to the guy who suddenly stepped out and took my photo on the way up to the Donauturm without thinking to let me know what was about to happen. I didn’t buy it, so unfortunately you will have to imagine my surprised expression.
One highlight of the trip was seeing a concert at the Musikverein. We saw the Artis-Quartet perform pieces by Mozart, Einem and Bruckner, during which everyone in the audience mysteriously knew when each piece was actually over (and it was OK to clap) and when they were just taking a little break (when it was clearly not OK to clap). The venue also nearly defeated us with its seating plan before the concert had even started, as they divide each row into ‘left’ and ‘right’ sections, meaning that two ‘number 11’ chairs sit side-by-side in the middle of every aisle. If you don’t know this in advance, it can lead to some awkward interactions when you find people in ‘your’ seats. (Turns out we were in the wrong hall anyway. You can tell we were tourists.)
Roll your eyes all you want, however, because one of my favourite outings was our tour of the Austrian parliament. Parliament Building is a grand and impressive place, though we discovered it’s also a place which is closed for three years for refurbishment and fire safety upgrades. But never mind about the building, because Austrian politics itself is at a moment of tension right now. Our walking tour on Monday was re-routed to avoid the protests against the swearing-in of their unpleasant new government: a coalition of the right and far-right which does not bode well for the general European trend. (We actually only saw a dozen people ‘protesting’ by riding their bikes slowly through the city centre and playing some music, but were assured that others were around.) With all of this in mind, it was cool not just to be able to see the temporary parliament but even sit in the chairs in the National Assembly. They never let you do this at Westminster.
Thanks to Amanda for her suggestions for things to do in the city, including eating Sachertorte in Café Sperl, which we did after working up an appetite by wandering through Stadtpark and Naschmarkt. I was also planning to include our side-quest to Bratislava in this post, but seeing at the length already I will save that for another post. To be continued…