castle

Loket, Czech Republic

The main reason most people will go anywhere near Loket, never mind into the place itself, is on a day-trip or a weekend break to the grand thermal spas of Karlovy Vary. These people comprise students on coach trips from Prague, Asian camera-tourists who would take a picture of a lamp-post if you told them it had cultural significance (and would probably capture the lamppost for posterity anyway, just in case it did), cheapskate German retirees driving over the border for cut-price spa treatments, and oil-rich Russians trying to show off to their mates. Most of the Germans and Russians wouldn’t be interested in Loket even if you told them about it.

I’m fairly sure intrepid backtracking sorts and Asian tourists (who in spite of my mocking, love a medieval castle and are attracted to beauty of all kinds) would be interested in the sequestered hill town of Loket, a gem in Czech Republic’s small unheralded borders.

It’s odd quite what people think Prague actually is, in relation to the wider country or whether the majority visiting realise Prague old town represents only the most grand expression of Bohemian and Gothic culture in the country, not simply all of it gathered in one place. For whatever reason, it’s not like France where everyone is bustling out to the small towns at their earliest opportunity. Hardly any bugger ventures out of the capital. And yet there are dozens of Czech towns which have some astoundingly beautiful aspects, usually a harmonious blend of architecture with the natural surroundings, which people simply never visit and Loket is one of them.

It’s annoying to think of the scores of French towns I’ve been dragged through (which had a modicum of civic pride but were otherwise nothing more than pleasant) when I could have been coming here.

Take a bus from Karlovy Vary’s bus station, an amusing step away from the grandeur in the centre to a windswept dilapidated depot on the other side of the river. Google-searching public transport to Loket might make you think there’s hardly any options available, but you’d be wrong. There’s a regular bus that passes through and will drop you off into Loket after about 25 minutes. The bus is a typically elderly machine, and the concern isn’t so much whether the seatbelts work as to whether the bus is going to fall apart entirely around you. The journey takes you on a cranky, rattling chug through a pleasant winding wooded road, without too much in the way of sweeping vistas, which I think is what makes the eventual reveal so impressive.

Loket’s situation, aesthetically as much as any other, could hardly be more idyllic. Over the crest of a hill the town is suddenly displayed below, sticking out from a promontory, the hill top dramatically facing a u-bend along the meandering River Ohre. Loket’s translation ‘Elbow’ makes the most sense from this position.

The medieval castle and arched bridge over the river makes for a most magnificent sight, complimented by the beautiful baroque and bohemian painted houses dotted around it.

After the grand reveal, your clapped out bus (and driver) deposits you near the gate into town, but be sure to take a five minute walk back up the hill to enjoy the view as it develops and the angles change, similar to Cesky Krumlov but on a smaller but perhaps even starker scale.

Loket is dominated by its castle, however, the castle in no way defines the place. You can enjoy a good couple of hours exploring the streets (all of which are interesting in their own ways) wandering back up and down the alley ways and taking in the sights. As with most Czech towns, the Namesti is a good place to start, with the requisite gnarled gothic centre piece, cobbled streets and wholly charming array of traditional townhouses lining the perimeter in a shell-like shape.

The castle itself could hardly be avoided though, and you’ll find it decent value as the museum uses the space of the buildings well, giving you both an idea of its use, plenty of vantage points and exhibits. Don’t forget to look down the cellar for the castle’s pet dragon, one of the more strangely pathetic sights on my last trip.

With the hills and forests around, you will find yourself most enjoying Loket as part of a trek, and luckily there are so many trails that you can tailor this to fit your own needs and limitations. Most of them have a deal of vantage points, and the local environment has a calmness that you’ll find most relaxing. Although the place is small, there’s no reason simply to stay for a day given the natural amenities in the area allow for quite a lot of exploration.

Don’t leave Loket unless you’ve walked the perimeter of the interior and exterior and decided which spot is your favourite!

At some point thoughts inevitably turn to food and drink, and a further feather in Loket’s cap is the brewery Pivovar Svaty Florian, located in the centre of town itself and attached to a hotel. They have a cellar-style Pivnice which is servicable for a trip of this kind, and will pour you a degustation so you can try the various beers. Don’t leave before trying their delicious ‘Special’ beer, a strong concoction similar to a Bock. In addition to this you can order the traditional hearty pub grub to wash it down with.

If you want a more straightforward drinking option try the hospoda U Gardnera, a really no-nonsense locals place that won’t be heaving with tourists and will guarantee you a good beer at a good price.

One slight regret is that a beautiful Victorian chain bridge was destroyed and replaced with the new rather grey one, which although elegant at a distances becomes gradually duller and less impressive as you get closer. There also seems to be a rather unnecessary enormity about it.

Loket_retezovy

There are always regrets, though, such is life.

All things considered, Loket could be half as beautiful as it is currently and still be many times more beautiful than most places. If you aren’t able to visit the extraordinary Czech town Cesky Krumlov on your next visit to the country, but can visit Karlovy Vary, you can come to Loket. Visiting Loket will give you a starter-sized portion for what’s in store. A dramatic gem hidden away in a valley, shrouded with trees as though to cover its modesty, and with an element of romantic timelessness that will stay with you forever.

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Ghent, Belgium

Some places are unfairly passed over as an afterthought, and you wouldn’t blame Ghent’s residents for becoming bitter watching their PR-savvy neighbours and competitors receive fawning adulation and a conveyor belt of tourists whom you only need to prod in order for money to fall out. However, hiding very much in plain sight, they appear to be very happy with this arrangement.

Situated between Bruges and Brussels, Ghent could hardly be overlooked on a map, being one of Belgium’s most sizeable cities. When it comes to self-promotion however, it appears to be a little on the shy side, perhaps featuring in a few cruise offers in Sunday supplements, always itself in supplement to a bigger site such as the medieval streets and canals of Bruges or the Grand Platz in Brussels, always with the implication it is lesser, auxiliary, inessential. Would it shock you to learn that Ghent has sights more impressive than either city can muster?

Whoa.

Yes, I don’t think it is hyperbole on my part. Plus, these pictures offer only a hint of the overall impression Ghent will leave you with.

It would be tempting to see Ghent as a halfway house between the preserved medieval aura of Bruges and the enormous drama and scope of Brussels. This does indeed serve as a useful marker in many ways, but it’s important to pay attention to Ghent’s qualities in their own right, rather than always seeking to juxtapose what it has to offer over other places. Maybe by doing so it can step out of their shadow.

It’s true, Ghent does have its own network of canals, plenty of classic stepped gable burgher houses and hanseatic era atmosphere, as it does almshouses and quaint parks. Similarly it is a large and quite sprawling city with a lively nightlife and impressive monuments. But there are particulars to Ghent which are worthy of note in their own right.

Such as?

Although Bruges certainly carries gothic elements, Ghent takes gothic splendour to a whole other scale. The city centre is at certain viewpoints an almost unbroken panorama of towers, spires and ornate stone gothic architecture unmatched anywhere in the country. I found the feeling of passing over the bridge towards the cathedral, particularly at night especially impressive and powerful, but this is one experience that appears to be, as yet unrecognised.

The cathedral itself contains a famous Altarpiece which you can see (for a fee, naturally), which was stolen and damaged, a dramatic and fascinating story to read about. There are various other works by the Dutch masters and, although your appreciation of these may depend on your interest in religion and indeed art, without this you can still appreciate the cultural significance of the place. Ghent is not to be trifled with.

There are various other eyecatching buildings in the centre, such as a gigantic and long almshouse (pictured above) and Het Gravensteen castle, one of only a few renaissance-era castles which opted to recreate gothic middle ages rather than fairytale romance gothic. The canalside setting is unbelievably dramatic at day and night, mainly because it is so impossible to prepare you for, even seeing images of it before hand. Although the structure may have a rather strange position in the heritage of the city itself, the brutal grey battlements and completeness are sympathetic with Ghent’s gothic core and make the place more interesting.

Ghent is also a thriving university town, as well as being a socialist hub in what is generally a more economically right-wing area of Belgium. The Vooruit is a centre celebrating that, as well as being connected to the university campus and having ongoing activities. Any budding activist or sympathizer could do worse than dropping by there for an hour to see how it’s shaping up in Belgium. It’s also a timely reminder that socialism came about through recognising the exploitation of workers by their employers, something which we could do well to think about at the moment. There are also some really striking hypermodern buildings that come into their own at night. Even those people not fond of modernist architecture would at least be impressed by the sheer monumental size.

I expect there’s good nightlife then.

Oh yes, it goes with the territory. What I found enjoyable about Ghent as a night out, versus Bruges or Brussels was the predominantly local life. Bruges has some excellent pubs but some are now captured wholly by tourists, meaning you can enjoy the shell but there is few or no ‘regular trade’, which is essential to giving a place true character. Brussels is big enough to have enclaves of local life, but also big enough to lack the cohesive feel Ghent possesses, in a similar way to somewhere like Newcastle or Sheffield. A night out in Ghent feels like being part of a community assembly. Also, if you’re into that sort of thing, it goes on for longer, if you know what I mean.

I would recommend Waterhuis aan de Bierkant and Galgenhuis for places in the centre. They are obvious, so no trade secrets here, but they are recommended for a good reason. Galgenhuis is terrifically atmospheric based within a strange and charmingly small property. Wooden panelled bench seating and patterned tiles, it’s a classic pub but with that extra element that elevates it above the rest. Similarly, the crowd in Café Den Turk near the cathedral are following a well-trodden path, the pub bathes in its own history and it’s very pleasant dropping by to be part of that for a couple of hours.

Just to really hammer home Ghent’s untouched charms, it also happens to be the base for a unique beer style, ‘Gruut’, adding herbs and spices in substitution for, or in addition to hops. This often brings out a whole heap of other qualities in the beer. You can buy other Gruut/Gruit beer, it is however Ghent’s own brewery, Gentse Gruut Stadsbrouwerij that can reasonably be called the chief purveyor and protector of the style itself, and a wander to their brewery tap, only 15-20 minutes from the centre, is essential for any beer fan.

Anything else?

I would have thought that was enough to be going along with! Gent’s gothic centre and street layout may at times be surprisingly familiar feeling to lots of UK citizens, as well the way the waterside setting is exploited. However, the differences start creeping in, the trams, the cyclists, and those stepped gables, the lovely, lovely beer, and yes, this really is a slice of classic Belgium.

Take a moment to pause and reflect before committing to Brussels, Bruges or Antwerp only. Ghent may not have opened its arms in the same way but that doesn’t mean it won’t cradle you to its bosom. Ghent. It’s Grrrrrrrruuuuuuuuut! *gets coat*

 

 

 

Quedlinburg, Germany

Thanks to disposable income (thanks cheap foreign labour) and cheap flights (thanks  immoral airline lobby) there are few really hidden secrets these days. The world has been tipped upside down and brought out to play with like a toy box for people with irresponsible inheritances and rich daddies. But it’s not just those people. There are rumours even the uncontacted tribes of the Andaman Islands sent Donald Trump some pretty cutting satirical abuse last week. You barely have to order a pair of shoes without seeing links to blog posts like ’25 places to see before you die’ and ‘Rip up your bucket list mate –  piss poor effort- no seriously – PISS POOR’.

Quedlinburg is the sort of place that ends up on a lot of those lists, but you look at its relative distance to an international airport, and its situation in the reasonably unglamourous and certainly under-promoted Harz region of Germany, and despite the passionately told tales of a lost medieval town containing thousands of timber-frame houses dotted higgledy-piggledy underneath a classic German schloss, it didn’t strike me that many people actually got on that airline website, bought the tickets and actually bloody went. I decided to give it a go.

Where’s this place of times past? Does it have electricity? Does it have wifi? Hot water?

Yes, yes. All in good time. Quedlinburg is in central Germany – actually part of the old East, on a – spiritual at least – fachwerk road, a tourist invention but one that nevertheless  signposts some of the most preserved and classical towns in Germany. To get to Quedlinburg fly in to Hannover and get a bus there, or Fly in to Leipzig and get a bus. A couple of hours later,  hurtling through the Harz in the relative luxury of the air-conditioned autobahn-straddling private transport network, you arrive. The arrival is no unveiling, there is no sleepy town lying over the crest of a ridge. Which was disappointing, to be honest. But Quedlinburg doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t extrude or flirt its wares. It stays right where it is. Instead of a grand entrance, the old town is shielded from view, almost no matter how many turns the bus takes on its way in  you are never truly party to its charms until the bus drops you off at the station and you make your own way in on foot. And then, slowly and carefully it becomes apparent what’s on your hands (or under your feet). Ok -you’ve earnt some pictures:

 

Hang on, that could just be the main square and a couple of streets.

It could, and actually the main square and a couple of streets were pretty good all by themselves. In most places that would qualify it as a ‘nice town’ already. Take the famous Shambles in York for example. Certainly nice enough, even if it is excessively touristy. It is merely a short street and the lack of cohesion with some of its surroundings makes it seem just as much the remnants of a film set as an actual preserved area of the city. Quedlinburg town is all Shambles, if you can stop to imagine that. Granted, there aren’t as many coffee shops or places to buy extortionately priced toffees per square metre, but once it’s coming up to your knees is there really any need to keep purchasing? Quedlinburg exists. Those people who have long yearned to have stopped at The Prancing Pony in Bree should daydream no longer. Welcome to a rare occasion where the fantasy is inferior to the reality.

Yes, Quedlinburg is not going to win any awards for its club scene, or even its pub scene, which is a bit of a shame. The prized Ratskeller is shut at the moment which used to be the hub of the local drinking scene but it apparently poisoned a few too many people – you’re only supposed to poison the ones who don’t like you, I thought. What Quedlinburg does have in its favour in compensation is oodles of atmosphere. You could get yourself lost along any one of its hundreds of cobbled lanes and momentarily forget you’re a train ride away from gleaming skyscrapers, the EUs hub of commerce, drab quickly fading concrete arcades, towerblock living the centre of the European car industry or even the more earthly delights in Hamburg and Berlin. The town isn’t preened or pampered either. It isn’t Disneyland, it isn’t a film set – it’s a lived-in, trifle dusty – needs a lick of paint here and there kind of place. There are so many fachwerk houses – 1200 at the last count, there isn’t enough money to maintain them all, either from the town council or private investment. Despite an appeal dwarfing towns and cities where thousands congregate to gawp contextlessly at less than a few dozen buildings, Quedlinburg struggles to get funding to care for its neglected treasure trove of them. You might even swoop in and live there yourself for a comparative pittance. While we’ve all been busily restoring old towns, recreating fake ones and daydreaming, Quedlinburg has been sitting there patiently all this time.

…and if I don’t like fachwerk?

Read one of my other lovely articles about Croatian towns instead. You will not like this place.

How can a town that is an entire UNESCO site be neglected?

Well they’re doing their best, but UNESCO does have a lot on its plate – you may remember Palmyra being partially destroyed by some juvenile religious zealots with more explosives than brain cells.

I honestly don’t know why Quedlinburg is not better known and more frequently visited. Perhaps there is some plot designed to keep true outsiders from getting in. Maybe I will get an unpleasant phone call from the Burgermeister tomorrow morning asking me to cease and desist in my flights of fancy about the intricacy and eccentricity of the timberwork in case the hordes descend.

Going from the appeal of towns in England with a similar historical charm, I would imagine many of my friends loving this place. It is genteel in that way all medieval towns have ended up now the plague pits, witchfinders and dysentery have ceased. A better writer than me, Simon Winder eulogised about Quedlinburg for The Telegraph and it also gets a mention in his book Germania which is an excellent read for anyone interested in a potted history of Germany and a wry sense of humour.

Drink!

Yes you must be working up a thirst, and luckily as with most medium sized German towns the local brewery is the first port of call. Brauhaus Ludde is a place doing decent beer and decent food. Let’s not go too over the top. It was all tasty. They do seasonal beers and being summer, it’s wheatbeer all the way – fine by me. The staff however looked hugely pissed off at having to pour about five pints worth just to fill one pint glass with actual liquid. It can be such a temperamental style, but oh, so good.

One of the nicer things about central Europe is the appreciation that at certain times of day what a certain man wants is a buxomly lass approaching with a big smile, your pint and a tray full of grub. This certainly has that – there is none of that faint air of disgust you sometimes get in Western europe from waiting staff when your needs are more..let’s say agricultural.

There are things to do aren’t there?

Yes, aside simply wandering around, which can seriously occupy a good morning or good afternoon at a time, there is the rock-mounted Schloss and its accompanying Romanesque church, a shrine/museum to the fachwerk style – (what better place than Quedlinburg?), and a terrific boutique (there’s no less crappy term that applies here actually) selling yummy mummy wares and German craft beer. I was lucky enough to enter during the middle of a beer tasting, and two hours later, having sample 12 or 13 beers I have nothing but praise, with that afternoon being tinted in an indelible hazy glow of warmth and good company.

The accommodation in Quedlinburg can veer towards the expensive for a lone traveller, but I still found reasonable lodgings for 25 euros a night. Sometimes user reviews really are misleading – apparently even more so in Germany. The standards by which some people judge are ridiculous.. I have learnt a valuable lesson since going to Quedlinburg of making a judgement call on accommodation based one what matters to me – comfy bed, quiet nights sleep, working shower, working locks, working wifi – and not what matter to other people – dust marks, a small cobweb in the corner, loose masonry flecks, etc etc. Suck it and see. (The place, not the owner. She was easily 75.)

There’s my ralling cry – so go and visit Quedlinburg.

Just Quedlinburg?

Well, no that would be a bit weird with the Harz mountains and half a dozen other attractive towns on your doorstep. It makes sense to combine it as part of a trip along the Harz region. But, if you decide to stay here longer, fair play to you – why not. It’s a peaceful cradle of calm that ladles on the beauty every street corner, without the need of an shouty autistic tour guide or pills to compensate for any deficiencies. I am supremely confident you will discover your own secrets and not need me to prescribe the whole thing. For this is Quedlinburg. You’ll never have visited such an extraordinary place that acted as if it was the most normal settlement in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Varaždin, Croatia

Far away from the grey stone walls and rugged islands of the Dalmatian coast, and far enough away from Zagreb and anywhere else as to be genuinely off the beaten track lies the pretty town of Varazdin. Nearest city North? Graz. Nearest city East? Pecs. Nearest City West? Ljubljana. Getting the message? Yes, it’s quite far out of the way. Not that difficult to get to, but among Europe’s more unfortunately overlooked destinations.

Varazdin was accessible to us via a trip from Budapest on the train. Obtaining a ticket for anywhere other than Zagreb appears to be impossible so we were left buying a ticket to a border outpost by the name of Gyekenyes, and hoping the ticket inspector would kindly look past the fact we could not pay in Croatian Kuna. It appeared we had to then buy a ticket to Koprivnica, a very dull Croatian border town and switch there for the bus to Varazdin. Despite printing out online bus timetables when we reached the autobus station it quickly transpired none of the printed times corresponded at all, though the station master was kind to usher us onto the next bus going without much delay.

The countryside around Varazdin is a uniform of flat corn fields and intermittent advertising billboards. Once every ten minutes we would quickly skirt through a village, the neighbours absently spectating, shirtless on park benches. Laid back wouldn’t quite cut it as a description. Barely sentient might.

Closer to Varazdin and it appeared that the town itself was quite sizeable, again one of these places with a normal folks’ residential area skirting around the more preserved old town. It was also strangely busy, or at least seemed that way after hours of rural travel. Something was going on.

What’s the appeal?

Varazdin has a pedestrianized old town, impressive moated castle and appeals as an alternative to the capital and the Dalmatian/Istrian coast. In truth there aren’t a lot of competitors to that crown but it gives a different flavour of Croatian life than most will be familiar with.

Being the one-time capital of Croatia has given the place a sense of importance it perhaps no longer deserves- on objective analysis Varazdin’s whole sense of importance is based on ephemera and redundance. It happens to be in a geographical backwater, and has no huge significance in terms of trade and industry. Yet all the same, the market town bustles. From the outer ring road to the centre there was evidence that the usually so laid-back it’s horizontal Croatia does contain a second gear.

In addition to an inheritance of baroque architecture, Varazdin is known for a large central castle with a moat. There are several castles in Northern Croatia that are residual evidence of the general lawlessness and ill-defined borders of the past. It is land well used to being conquered and reconquered, and Varazdin castle seems to have been a kind of hostel for whichever military units happened to be passing through. The castle itself is a sizeable, whitewashed blocky structure with turrets and terra-cotta roof. The structure is fairly defensive but also seems just about homely enough to imagine it accommodating nobles and a retinue of staff. Just as impressive is a steep grass banked moat. A stroll around the perimeter and the castle courtyard was really pleasant and absolutely free.

One reason for Varazdin being so busy was Spancirfest (or ‘festival of good emotions’), something I had glanced at before the trip, but mentally allocated as ‘most likely a few stalls selling embroidery’. As it happens, it encompassed everything (targeting as many good emotions as possible) including embroidery of course, and wasn’t minor at all- indeed we had just missed a performance by Blondie, who had performed at a sizeable stage erected adjacent to the castle. Finding out we had missed Blondie wasn’t the best start to a festival devoted to good emotions.

Varazdin is well off the hostel trail, and there is only a selection of hotels and guesthouses or Pansions (nearly the same as the Pension system in Italy). Naturally these are more expensive, and most research led me to the aggressively marketed and not overly cheap Hotel Turist, an unappealing towerblock. The Pansions all looked better, with some home comforts and still reasonable rooms. ‘B&B Garestin’ was considered to also have a reasonable restaurant- and with breakfast thrown in too, that sealed it.

In the evening the town centre came alive with street music, heaving crowds and the odd macabre carnival show. As you would expect, every restaurant was fully booked and the best recommended choice closed altogether. In fact it wasn’t very obvious at all how to get in to that particular place. This meant street food would be the obvious choice, and in Croatia that means cevapi.

Croatian cuisine, particularly inland, leans heavily towards barbecued red meat. This is something people have wildly different reactions to. I personally love it, but others quickly tire of being served the same fare. Cevapi is found across all the former Yugoslavian nations who treat it as easy fallback food and comprises grilled minced beef packed into small pellet sizes roughly the same size as a camera film case. The accompaniments are a huge bread bap and kaymak– salty soft cheese that despite the dubious description goes with it perfectly. Although it is ubiquitous and not especially well thought of (most folks suggest trying pljeskavica instead, which is better quality meat- a luxury hamburger really), it easily beats most British takeaway food, and fills you up to the brim.

Another quirk of the Balkans is their equivalent to Coca-cola, ‘Cockta’- a drink with more of a Dandelion & Burdock flavour, but still with this rather analogous fizzy phosphoric aftertaste. The company are busy fighting a war with Coca Cola for market share (that on visual evidence they are losing). In Eastern Europe, there is still a residual sense that western products are automatically advanced or superior, so with them also being indicative of a higher social status, the pull towards these brands is irresistible. Most people we saw were drinking Coca-cola, so we immediately resolved to drink Cockta whenever possible.

Beer!? In Croatia beer largely revolves around Karlovacko and Ojzusko, mass-produced and below average Euro Lager. Unfortunately in Varazdin matters sunk below even that watermark as the entirely unacceptable PAN, a mass-produced awful lager from Koprivnica held sway. Even at £1.50 a bottle this was not good stuff, but there was little else.

Extra-curricular

The castle is lit up in a half-light at night, which lends it a slight ghoulishness even when there’s a festival going on right next to it. A quick wander around the side revealed that most of Varazdin’s youths were having fun making out, chasing each other around and drinking booze in the dark. Fair enough. In the streets various bands, largely of a rural or twee nature were playing either on stages or ad hoc on the pavement.

We picked up a couple of t-shirts local art students had designed, and in the typical fashion of such an evening, took a fancy to a terrace we’d seen through an alleyway and discovered Garden Henry– a close relative to a ruin bar! With no visible bar area, but an atrium, and a porch on the far side with benches, the rest of the place was covered in ivy, and umbrellas, and old bicycles. It appeared to be some refuge for the bicycle-riding contingent of Varazdin, while having no real visual clues. A local informed us that it is illegal to ride in the city centre, something they objected to (I can see why). There seemed to be some discussion over whether we were allowed to be around. It was a rather strange set-up all told, but we were eventually offered a drink, and the man returned with two cans of beer (PAN again), shaking his head when we tried to pay. Another secret place discovered. I don’t think they had a license to serve alcohol.

I think I would like to return to Varazdin again. Overall I did experience Spancir, drummed up by the festival atmosphere, and despite missing Blondie, being bitten by a horse fly, missing out on the best restaurant and only having appalling lager to drink, we had a merry time.

Getting there

From Zagreb – train or bus, not long. From Budapest or Pecs, train to Gyekenyes, train to Koprivnica, change to bus to Varazdin. From Graz, train to Ptuj then bus to Varazdin.