obscure

Sopron, Hungary

Border towns have always held a deal of fascination for me as two (or sometimes three) countries meet. You’d like to think that this meeting would involve a cultural exchange although these border towns have been perennially fought over instead. Alsace-Lorraine isn’t Germanic-feeling by accident, and Sopron (pronounced Shoo-prunn, apparently) carries the German name Ödenburg, regularly used well into the 20th century.

Austria’s ill-fated empire with Hungary was certainly a cultural exchange alright, largely one-way, as Austria poured money into improving the infrastructure and military of Hungary in return for a sort of cultural capitulation where Hungarians learnt German primarily in schools and were subordinate in many areas of public life, in their own country. As with all ruling Empires, they kept the bits they liked and those elements that kept the oppressed from revolting.

Sopron  being on the border of the two countries would make you think of a blend between the two, perhaps a few Austrian style bierhalle and cafés, Hapsburg architecture and even a slightly more prosperous economy. I travelled a very short distance from Sopron to Wiener Neustadt in Austria, which is a bland place with a few notable buildings scattered in between a grey and rather boxy town centre. Despite a short gap in distance and a similar size population the difference between the two was considerable.

Sure, Wiener Neustadt doesn’t really have an ‘old town’ as such anymore, leaving it at a distinct disadvantage at a plain comparison with Sopron, but all things considered, there were far more differences simply in national character than I was expecting.

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Sopron has been undergoing a bit of a tourist push as Hungary has been belatedly trying to sell some of its other cities as a destination. When I arrived there was a few bits and pieces as evidence of this, a sparkly and rather large colourful sign that greets you outside the train station, and the fact they were digging up the ring road around the old town and repaving it (I hope they have finished since writing this, but you never know).

Where do I start?

The old town is certainly worth your time. Like a lot of Hungarian buildings, many are beautiful but slightly dog eared and in need of care and attention. At the same time, the odd crumbling facade and faded sign adds a sense of character it would otherwise be without, creating a dichotomy. Do you want an old town to look overly manicured or like it’s seen some wear and tear? That’s a bit of a head scratcher. It depends on the architecture to an extent. In Southern Europe buildings just seem to get better with age, but the chocolate box painted buildings in Eastern Europe require a slightly different approach. Some cities such as Lublin in Poland have managed this perfectly.

In the dead centre of town you’ll find the landmark of Sopron, the ‘firestation tower’, a very worthy emblem of any city of this size, located in the dead centre of town, towering over proceedings (literally) whitewashed facade with a faintly romantic balcony around the mid-level circumference, with a leadlined ‘onion dome’ roof, typical of this area of Europe. Once you’ve arrived and got your bearings I’d advise heading straight there for a climb up the tower. There is a pocket-sized museum which uses the curvature of the tower to good effect – learning and climbing is an odd mixture but breaks up the monotony of the ascent. The information about how the tower was used to signal fires and direct the citizens to which area of the city was effected is certainly different from most of these attractions which for obvious reasons tend to be religious. While up on the balcony front there is a real panorama of the city where you can appreciate the historic centre spreads further than you might think. So grab a few photos and take your time to enjoy it.

I certainly had to take my time on my visit to Sopron after being laid low in Budapest with very painful trapped wind, almost doubled over for 48 hours and barely being able to drink one glass of beer (it was that bad). Suffice to say I read every caption and observed every observable angle to avoid excessive movement.

You’ll also find the remains of the old roman wall at the base which you can happily spend half an hour wandering around, and doing a bit more learning. There is a nice garden area which is tastefully done and certainly passes a bit of time pleasantly.

Along with the firestation tower you have one of my favourite town squares in Europe, Fő tér. Square must be one of the most misused terms geographically speaking, as so many aren’t even close to fitting the shape, but as with here the understood purpose remains the same. Due to the curved nature of the square the central buildings wrap around, obscuring your views to the alleys off the square creating that vital sense of a hub. Many famous cities refer to their old towns as being like a living museum, and this is where Sopron stands up to that challenge. Fortunately there are a couple of passable cafés where you can recline with a drink and enjoy the sights and sounds.

However, there is more to explore in the bullet-shaped old town, as the road ringing the interior acts as the commercial area and for nightlife and contains a series of typically Hungarian buildings staggered in size almost like the lanes on a 400m track, characterful and not marred too much, if at all by brutalist town planning. It is certainly an area that has been mercifully spared from cultural vandalism.

The centre has its quirks and antiquities as with many others. A synagogue, mining museum, preserved Storno house, a few outstandingly different buildings to divert your attention.

Nevertheless, the mainstream sights can be accessed readily as well, with close proximity to the station and the main road dissecting the town. This is a grand boulevard and worth exploring for a number of restaurants and alternative bars, which may not be immediately apparent but will reward your perseverance.

Speaking of which, I’m thirsty!

If you’re looking for any ruin bar, or ‘kert’ drinking experience, Gazfroccs is your best bet in Sopron. Not as ramshackle or ruined, it is an alternative spot nonetheless, with furniture stuck upside-down on the ceiling in a bright and light space, like a heavenly version of that section from Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits‘. If it’s sunny and/or a weekend there’s a recessed area of the central boulevard that runs a pleasant garden bar and for late night options try the corner bar just on your way through the gate past the tower, or if you’re not feeling too picky, the ‘Croatian’ themed bar on the ring road, a competent town bar that for some baffling reason has decided to make a virtue out of selling Croatian beer. Perhaps only in Hungary could Croatian beer supplant a native country’s offering. Woeful.

Speaking of which, when you’ve been in Budapest enjoying their cheap but awful lager, you may have found yourself drinking Soproni, one of the ‘better’ ones, but far from being halfway near worth praising. Well, as the name suggests, it hails from here, so why not at least try one glass to see if it’s any better? (Or as with Poznan and ‘Lech’, just don’t)

Extra-curricular?

Hang around town at night as well, because the lighting up of the tower makes it turn an eerie turquoise, really something quite different. The square is also worth a night wander as even when it gets quiet there are usually people passing through, either middle aged couples having a stroll or youthful delinquents travelling from somewhere to somewhere in their special way.

It gets better however – you know I mentioned the historic centre was larger than it first appears? Well, if you travel North East of the ring road, no more than 100 metres you reach an extra area of interest, an old neighbourhood with winding cobble streets, homely restaurants you could pick virtually any of and have a great meal, and an equally distinctive character. On my way there and back from my apartment the weather changed a few times, and I saw the neighbourhood cast in a fine mist in the evening, still and fresh air with only the street lights and the odd character milling about. This area, just as much as any other in Sopron made it a visit worth writing home about. Aim for Saint Mihaly Church and you’ll find that a very pleasant and atmospheric walk.

Also, dentists mate! Hungarian dental care is significantly cheaper than Austrian dental care, so people are seriously willing to drive over the border and get it. Most of those town houses you pass with gold plaques screwed into the door are qualified dentists. There you are. Now allow a very mechanical English speaking Hungarian with an American accent to tell you more:

 

N.B – The refugee crisis of 2015 established Hungary as a transit country for people seeking the asylum on offer in Germany. The well trodden route was from Serbia then from Budapest into Vienna and onto Munich. However, the route to Sopron and into Austria is similarly simple. So if you’re a refugee that’s my tip – take a time out from being persecuted by the authorities and treated like dog shit by all and sundry and have a wander around Sopron in between trains.

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Šibenik, Croatia

You might have thought Croatia – Dalmatia especially – was starting to become old news. Game of Thrones has finally tipped Dubrovnik over into being a theme park and a tourist trap, with some unpalatable western-feeling prices for tourist attractions and restaurant dining. While the place may have registered a glimmer a decade ago among the more discerning, virtually every man and his dog knows about it. Meanwhile, several other of the major towns have joined the cheap flight network, with Split especially being a hub for American, Australian and British backpackers.

The surge in popularity for Croatia as a destination is perfectly understandable. With an ever-evolving dramatic unspoilt coastline of rocky clifftops and island archipelagos, a cuisine that offers fresh seafood, very affordable good quality Italian food and Yugoslavian grilled meats, a rugged landscape dotted with ruined fortresses, remote churches and fascinating remnants from the still recent war, there’s a lot to dig into and in the main it is accessible and affordable.

Why Šibenik then, in particular?

Šibenik may come as a surprise, even if you partake in a little research before your visit. While there are certain advantages to being situated in Split or Dubrovnik, Šibenik puts you within shooting distance of a number of otherwise difficult to access activities, while being a charming and atmospheric town in its own right.

What may not be apparent straight away is the lay of the land. Šibenik is a hill town, meaning objects may be further away than they appear on your map, as I discovered booking an apartment I thought was merely 20 minutes walk from town. Choose your location carefully.

However, often the great thing about such towns is their aesthetic, with sloped snaky streets leading into the hills out of town, and a fascinating rabbit warren of an old town leading directly into people’s back yards in a similar way to Robin Hood’s Bay and the like. Wandering through these little yards and urban gardens, climbing up the hill from the main square rewards you with a terrific view. Of any of the major towns on the coast, it is Šibenik that has the prettiest coastline, with an array of beautiful forested islands in which seem to make up a smaller scale world map in themselves. The waters are clear and blue, and you’ll feel like jumping on a hang glider or charging up a jet pack to get a full view. For those of us without such equipment, carry on climbing and you will meet the first of three fortresses in Šibenik itself. For a fair price you can gain entry to a recently modernised and restored fortress, and a ticket that allows you access to Barone Fortress, the highest up and hardest to reach, but as you’d expect, one with a jaw-dropping view. In addition to the three mainland fortresses there is Saint Nikole’s dramatic island fortress based on an island accessible via stepping stones (and a few splashes in the sea) a cycle ride south of the town.

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Looks good, so where are the tourists?

Šibenik felt to me like a city starting to gear itself up to being a major destination. Many of the alleys through the old town area still have an ungentrified look that treads a line between rustic and dilapidated, but this is slowly – at Croatia’s usual pedestrian speed – starting to change. The town’s normal tourism is derived from backpackers and those on boating holidays who anchor at the sea front, but they are starting to pick up more middle class, middle aged, monied tourists as well as word spreads. The town is starting to put on a ‘face’, in the same way as its more illustrious neighbours.

However, this is a long way off. For the time being you can enjoy relative peace and quiet exploring a wonderful historic centre without the choked feeling of crowds, dozens of souvenir stands and people bothering you.

What are the main sights?

Other than the three fortresses mentioned above and the mazy old town, there is a 15th century cathedral with a UNESCO inscription, an atmospheric central square, a typical ‘Riva’ (the promenade on the seafront), as well a small but pleasant beach. A walk from the beach into town gives you a fantastic view of the place as well as being a truly relaxing and pleasant stroll.

In addition to Šibenik itself, you may take boat trips to the nearby islands, which out of season you may find unerringly quiet, although for peace and natural beauty you could hardly go wrong. Šibenik is also a jumping off point for a day trip to Krka National Park an essential trip on your stay here.

The national park is accessible via one public bus at 11am and returning at 5pm, which gives you the chance to walk from the town of Skradin to the park, and enjoy a good 3 hours there before walking back and getting the bus to Šibenik. The park is famous for a series of cascades and waterfalls, an old hydroelectric power plant, monastery and huge plant and animal diversity. Entry is relatively expensive but no-one who visits will ever say it isn’t worthwhile. To top it off, the pool at the bottom of Skradinski Buk, Krka’s most famous waterfall is shallow and in the spring and summer warm enough to swim in. Bring some swimming clothes and take a dip for one of the most amazing experiences of your life. If I’m honest you could spent all week just around Krka itself and never get bored, it’s a paradise.

Okay well…yes, I’ll be going then. What about nightlife though?

Those of you who have visited Croatia before will be aware of the curse of the Caffe Bar, one cultural tradition that certainly won’t be missed if it ever dies down. Caffe Bars are generic mediocrity writ large and almost a watchword for predictability and lack of atmosphere or character. During the day or early evening it’s fine sitting out in one of these places, but when the day turns colder and thoughts turn to having a drink in an interesting place, you’ll struggle to find many places that don’t have interiors like the UK’s dreadful period of the late nineties through to the mid-noughties, where old pubs were gutted and replaced by tacky modern furnishings that lasted barely a few years before ageing incredibly badly.  However, there is one diamond in the rough, and that’s Azimut, an alternative bar/club set in the basement under the steps to the main square, a pleasingly offbeat venue with character, good decor, better beer than usual and a sprinkling of young life. Just the antidote to the whiff of desperation and resigned mediocrity about most of the rest of them.

Walking back at night was also a little interesting as there are little to no street lights in the neighbourhoods west of town, and plenty of youngsters bombing around on mopeds and cars at a loose end, which might make you feel a little more like you’re in backstreet Naples or Rio de Janeiro. Nevertheless, outside of that it does feel like a relaxed and safe place, and exercising caution and downloading a map will see you right.

It would be a shame to only stop off in Šibenik for lunch or as a temporary transit point to Krka National Park. There is enough there and in the surroundings to last at least 72 hours with a full itinerary, yet enough peace and beauty to want to stretch it out even longer, as you will discover for yourself if you give this excellent town a try.  You can access the town via a bus from Zadar, or by travelling north from Split

 

 

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.

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*

 

 

 

Bamberg, Germany

For obvious reasons, there is always a degree of reticence planning a stay of a day or longer in a smaller, unexplored city. Fortunately, Bamberg holds a straight flush of the main things you could think of that make a place great.

As a city of 74,000 inhabitants, Bamberg is approximately the same size as Scunthorpe. However, that coincidence aside, it would be difficult to find two more different towns within 90 minutes flight of each other.

Bamberg boasts the rather obscure fact of being the very first inscription to UNESCO, an institute entirely devoted to preserving and promoting historically significant places and monuments. You would think people would be blazing a trail for it in the same manner they do to nearly every small town in the Loire Valley or the Dordogne, most of which (if you subtract the wining and dining) offer half a day’s interest at most. This city’s inscription covers the entirety of the old town, an expanse of interest which particularly appealed after my last trip to Germany was bookended by a trip to Hildesheim, a city with one fake-historic (albeit very impressive) town square, only a tiny restored oasis of beauty in an otherwise dirty, downtrodden and featureless Scunthorpe of a place. It was clear from cursory research there was plenty of sightseeing to be had. It also made me wonder why Bamberg has become buried under larger more undeserving German cities as a destination, and overlooked by the romantic road/fachwerk town daytrippers who head for the likes of Heidelberg and Rothenburg for their fix of classical architecture and wonky rooftops.

What makes a city great?

There are certain intangible aspects you can’t quite ever articulate about some places no matter how hard you try. However, it’s good to start with the raw materials. I called it a straight flush, right? Well, to labour the card hand theme, here are five aspects I think help make a great city like Bamberg, and indeed any city.

1. Rivers. Any riverside setting is almost always an improvement. The flow of water is a natural respite from the harsh sounds of the city, and feels like oxygen being fed into starved lungs. It’s a place for recreation, for viewing things and furthermore it demands the construction of bridges. No city has ever suffered from a surplus of bridges. Bridges are excellent. Rivers are also a reminder of a place’s historical purpose for existing. The trading, the travel. It also reminds you where the water has come from,where it is going and therefore gives a place a sense of connection. Unlike in Eastern Europe where rivers are often ignored and on the periphery, most Western European towns are either historic or wise enough to have city-planned around the river, making it a focal point. Bamberg is a classic example of this, indeed it goes so far as to put its extraordinary centrepiece, the Altes Rathaus on a bridge over the river. Comprised of a grand tower, a baroque palace, and sticking out on the end, at first glance seemingly dangling unsupported over the river, a large yellow fachwerkhaus. It’s one of those things that really defies existence. You can only see this in Bamberg. Due to the weir, the river rushes past at quite a pace, so much that there are kayak lanes dotting the way. I can’t recall too many cities where the central river has such a strong current. This again gives it a specific character.

2. Hills. Steep-angled pavement and winding streets almost always result in more atmospheric places. It’s the city struggling to tame the surroundings and not quite managing. Whether it’s Bastide towns in France, or Yorkshire Dales villages in England like Howarth and Heptonstall, hills make a huge difference in giving a place a sense of character. Bamberg’s centre is relatively flat on the east bank, however travelling west from the cluster of breweries by the river takes you quickly up the contours and into a series of seven hills, each with it’s own tower and lookout point. The Altenburg is set on the tallest of these, and offers a very attractive 5 mile walk from town and back through parks and woodland, with an extraordinary view of the city along the way. On your walk back you can take a while discovering what is really the undiscovered part of Bamberg, the residential west bank. This area isn’t full of activities per se but the historic housing, undulating winding streets and general prettiness is on another level to many residential areas I can think of. Despite the history all around you, it has the rhythm and local life of an everyday suburb, making it all really, quite special. Especially when it’s Christmas and New Year, and snowing:

3. A Clear Sense Of What The Place Used To Be

A place which has made its mark in history is a fine thing, but if there’s hardly any of it left to look at, to walk through, to smell, taste or experience, well, you’d be in Coventry. You’d be in Kaliningrad. Some of it can be brought back through restoration jobs, but as they are very difficult, not to mention expensive, you are often left with only a hint and a suggestion of the place’s character, and sometime a distinctly fake ‘Disneyland’ type feel. Everybody wants a real flavour of what a city was like in its high period. This is why events like German Markets are so popular, because of our yearning to experience not only heritage, but social simplicity; things you can easily reach out for, eat, drink and touch. Bamberg evidently had two clear high periods, a high medieval period where it was an important town in the Holy Roman Empire, and a later 18th century period where it became a seat of learning and inherited the piles of baroque and classical architecture it’s sitting on. The Alte Hofhaltung with its superb grand timbered ‘Innenhof’ complex and the nearby Neue Residenz sum both of those periods up nicely, and it’s typical of the city that both are still standing. Because Bamberg’s old town is so large as a constituent part of its whole, a walk from the train station to the Altenburg feels like you’ve achieved a transect through nearly entirely interesting mix of historical architecture, almost becoming better, and better as you go along. It’s a rare thing.

4. A centrally located university

Yes, there’s nothing like this to inject energy and atmosphere to a city. Cities filled with young people are immediately more vital feeling, livelier and less predictable. The demand for amenities and entertainment make every bit of retail space in the centre sought after, meaning it’s far easier to find things to do when you want to do them. Bamberg would otherwise turn into a granny-fest like the brilliant, but undeniably pensioner-stricken Goslar , a city I wrote about back in June 2016.

5. A preserved unbroken chain of brewing, pubs and nightlife offering something unique.

A vast amount of holidaying and travelling should be spent absorbing local nightlife and local brews. It is almost a test of any place worth a damn. If a town’s residents can’t be bothered to congregate and spend time with each other then what do you have left? A dormitory where people wake up, get in their cars, drive to work and return home without having made any input into the city they call home. People sneer at the admittedly drab working men’s clubs and shitholes dotted around the place, but everyone in them is contributing to their town’s identity more than many of you are out there. Places without local life are vacuous and pointless dormitories. Pleased to inform you Bamberg is about as far away from that as you could imagine.

Bamberg offers nine (9) independent breweries in the altstadt alone (I put the digit in there a la the final score vidiprinter for when people need to rub their eyes). I don’t need to tell you that’s rare, going on unique. These breweries aren’t closed doors sold-elsewhere places either, these are German brauhauses also offering their own pub, and usually their own restaurant with it. The jewel in the crown is Aecht Schlenkerla‘s pub, in every single way one of my favourite public houses and the epitome of an atmospheric, authentic, and traditional style pub. Dark wood, beams, a window-hatch for serving, gravity pulled beer direct from the barrel, roaring fire, shared seating, friendly locals, and the unique rauchbier.

Rauchbier must be among the most acquired of all beer tastes, being as it is, smoked, something most people are familiar with powerful tasting meats and cheeses, not so much liquids (though there is the smoked tequila Mezcal my girlfriend has introduced me to). Rather like kissing a smoker for the first time, I must confess on a first tasting there is an initial urge to recoil as the smoke flavour engulfs your mouth. Locals assured me that it takes 3 pints of smoke beer to get used to it, and after that it’s fine. I did manage to cross that threshold, though over the course of 2 years preceding this visit, meaning I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect! However, the standard Marzen rauchbier is very nice indeed, perfect for a winter beverage, being hearty, thick and brown with a lovely aftertaste that invites you to dive in and have more. It’s a peculiar flavour but one you very quickly get used to, much as I suppose the Germans would find with English Bitter.

Luckily for the timid there is the usual array of local Pils to try, along with some interesting other beers, as Franconia is famous for its Kellerbier, a delicious unpasteurised and unfiltered ale second only to Hefeweizen in my opinion, as the German’s finest contribution to brewing.

Food-wise, you are deeply ensconced in Wurstland, people. Franconian food starts with sausages and sauerkraut, and everything else is relegated to second place. Most food orders simply involve barking a number at a middle aged woman in a milkmaid’s outfit who will return in due course (usually 5 minutes max) with that quantity of sausages. The Bambergerwurst is a medium sized and thickness grilled sausage, and you can eat this at Schlenkerla’s cloistered banqueting hall from a metal plate with your smoked rye bread and sauerkraut studded with bacon rind. It’s like dining directly from the Middle Ages. Agricultural, and with a flavour profile you won’t even need to remember because you’ll still be tasting the aftertrails of it for weeks after. However, it’s unlikely there’ll be any scraps on your plate left to feed the dogs- it’s delicious. Also check out ‘Bamberger Zwiebel’, local delicacy, an onion shell stuffed with meat. Yes, it doesn’t get more Germanic than this.

There are so many pubs to try it would be impossible to cover these in a few days, but hey, that kind of sounds like a challenge. Who ever complained about a wealth of pubs?

In summary…

Bamberg belies its size, because so much of its outlying areas are also still really nice. So many other cities you have to break through an outer shell of shit before you reach the stari grad, the stare miasto, the altstadt, etc. Bamberg starts off by being reasonably nice, and gets gradually nicer and more impressive from there. But it isn’t all skirt and no knickers – beyond the painted facades and hours of pleasing wandering there is a buzzing centre with an underbelly full of local life living some of it just as you could imagine hundreds of years ago, but without the witch trials, silly hats and ritual prayer (or so I imagine).

Fly in to Nuremburg and on there to Bamberg, 50 minutes on the train. You simply must pay it a visit, or maybe even make it your new home! Got to be better than Scunthorpe.

Barton-upon-Humber, United Kingdom

The more I thought about it, the more obvious a choice this place became. This is not somewhere I have visited by chance, but where I was brought up. Certainly obscure, Barton-upon-Humber doesn’t register much of a flicker outside of East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire (sometimes not even then). The location most likely has a lot to do with that, nestled on the south bank of the River Humber, in a region occasionally referred to as the Bermuda Triangle, in between Hull, Scunthorpe and Grimsby (none of which will ever feature on this website), an area of irrigated marsh, rolling hills and arable farmland. To borrow a phrase, it’s about as connected as a kibbutz.

Why bother then?

Barton is a typical example of an easterly historical market town, with the kind of distinct brickwork and masonry you see all across the region, along with a traditional market place of a kind you see all across the region. It’s a shame the country is seen only in terms of North and South when you have clear differences between East and West as well.

Barton also boasts an inheritance of buildings that hark back to an era where the town was somewhat of a major port (difficult to believe these days when you look at the silted up Barton Haven which is a trickle of sludge that looks like a model miniature of the equally brown and unappealing River Hull). Then there’s its role as a pioneer of children’s education, hotbed of Methodism (and further back, more medieval religious activity). The ropery building once laid claim to being the longest individual building in the country, and is still intact. As teenagers my friends and I used to bike down the road running parallel to see who could ride none-handed the longest. Barton possesses a 10th century Saxon church, St. Peter’s which featured in the Domesday book. It is one of the oldest churches in the country and in a remarkably good state of repair.

Most people these days would associate Barton with The Humber Bridge, an enormous elegant single span suspension bridge across the river estuary, until recently the longest in the world, now simply ‘wow that’s incredibly big’. Not too many small market towns could boast being situated at the end of something like this.

The Humber Bridge starts in another interesting area of town, Far Ings, probably the second most visited attraction in the town, an area of marshland, clay pits and reed beds that attracts birdwatchers and walkers from far and wide. A walk/cycle across the bridge to the Humber Bridge Country Park and back, combined with a wander around Far Ings makes a very nice day out. The views across the estuary from the bridge are, as you’d expect, stunning, as is the span of the bridge itself. It can all be done freely as well.

Okay, interesting…tell me more…

Until the 2007 smoking ban in public places, and the recession a few years later, Barton used to have an extraordinary number of pubs and bars for a place of its size, not only in the town centre but spread about residential areas as well. Prior to the ban, the government started offering late licenses, which seemed like the loosening of a tap at the time, with landlords calling time at 10:30-11 and the majority leaving for home frustratingly early. For a good couple of years before I left town Barton was extraordinarily lively, in some places until as late 2-3 in the morning on a Friday and Saturday. Pubs would have bouncers outside and people would willingly queue for half an hour to get in to a thunderously mediocre pub such as The Red Lion. Regrettably, however, this was a peak. Everyone likes to hark back to their own ‘glory days’, but in my case this was objectively true, a result of a coming together of various factors, meaning 15-16 pubs in a town of 10,000 people (at least at the time) were packed full on weekends. This could be occasionally dangerous but on the whole it was a very healthy social scene.

Is that all dead then?

Much of it is dead or heavily curtailed these days, and the town has what I would call a more normal level of pub activity for a place of its size. The centre point of socialising is now the market place, with the traditional pub The Wheatsheaf which has good ales and a very decent country character, the impressive looking Old Mill (pictured above) with a pub made out of the storage areas next to the mill tower, with brick walls, wooden beams and a cosy atmosphere, and latterly the renovated George Hotel which has seen some notorious times but is now just ‘okay’. I’d also recommend wandering down to The Sloop near the waterside which is another pub with a distinct Lincolnshire charm. Just don’t expect anywhere to be ‘buzzing’. That said, I have noticed on my last view visits that young people have started coming back to some of the pubs and re-occupying a void that has existed for about 6 years where the chain was broken. Long may it continue.

In summary…

Only through living elsewhere do you get the space to appreciate where you come from and to see things you are used to through the eyes of others. Growing up, I thought all the outstanding features of Barton were just normal features of my life, and like any other town was going to be. Slowly, I began to realise most towns of its size didn’t actually have anywhere near the same cultural inheritance we did. It is an interesting place to spend a few days, and with the open space and countryside around. I was therefore quite lucky to live there in a good time.

On a social level it must be said the town is true blue Tory for the most part, mixed with UKIP voting country bumpkins and incredibly insular-minded idiots who complain about things like immigration despite nearly everyone living there being white. (They don’t mind using the Chinese takeaways or the Indian restaurants of course, and if for any reason they befriend someone at the pub from another race they’re described as being ‘one of the good ones’) Everyone knows what a ‘small town mentality’ means. Part of the problem appears to be Brain Drain. The logical path taken by most young people brought up in Barton is to get out of there after leaving college and into places with better life chances, education, jobs, and into wider culture. Many good people remain living in Barton, but a lower portion than those who were produced there to begin with. It is destined to be ever thus. As a visitor, however, this is unlikely to be a concern of yours over and above visiting anywhere else in the UK.

It is a frustratingly provincial but unusually feature packed small town, and therefore I submit this article for your perusal and acceptance in the hope that one day you may decide to give it a try yourself.

Poznań, Poland

Following 4 successful trips to Poland I have recently been struck by a Pavlovian feeling that no matter how many times I return I will be delivered another conveyor belt of beautiful town squares, beer halls and breweries, surprisingly flash public infrastructure and friendly locals. It was for this reason, and going off several recommendations that I travelled to Poznan in western Poland, one of the larger cities and due to its location on the main trainline east of Berlin, a potentially interesting crossroads from central into Eastern Europe.

The city itself had a lot to live up to after visiting Gdansk, Krakow, Lublin and Wroclaw in turn, the latter two being readable on this blog, with their being surprisingly rewarding places to visit. A cursory glance suggested the same  format would be likely in Poznan – fine by me!

We arrived into the stare miasto after midnight by taxi, and discovered fairly quickly the nightlife Poznan has gained a reputation for. In Wroclaw a group of girls my age urged me to visit Poznan to experience it. It’s the first time I’ve been chauffeured behind two police vans to my hostel while all around drunken revellers were enjoying the evening to a bombastic degree. The atmosphere in such a late hour was dramatic, but in fairness familiar to myself, a British person, having been out in the likes of Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle plenty a time.

After depositing our bags we headed for some food and found ourselves at a late night pub Za Kulisami. I would recommend disregarding the out of date and rather stuffy reviews – this is definitely one of the best places to go for a post-uni crowd type drink. Very atmospheric, buzzing even, and the general hubbub you get in a good local. Just like many a good pub there were obvious bits of banter going on between the regulars and the bar staff, and a friendly welcoming feel overall. I got talking to one of the bar staff on our way out and again, you can never be too surprised in Poland by the fluent English and genuine treatment as equals rather than interlopers (with the obvious caveat of my being a white Northern European man). Heading to bed at 4am, it was clear already a lot of the holiday was going to be spent in the pub, but not with any sense of regret!

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Fortunately we were able to get up and about the following day to take in the few hours of sunshine afforded to us, as autumn was well underway. Our hostel position was about 100m away from the main event in Poznan, Stary Rynek. This city square had been very carefully reconstructed for decades and it is sizeable and impressive enough to make a dent, even in the brain of someone who has experienced many central European town squares. There is a blotch in the centre where a cuboid modernist building sits adjacent to the usual gabled burgher houses and some particularly impressive painted portico burgher houses next to the town hall. Although this shitty building houses a regional museum, and is therefore useful, I would personally have preferred the extra space so as to greater emphasize the grand scale of the central square.

There are several other streets going off from it that are worth a wander down, although the centre is on a comparatively small scale akin to Bratislava or Brno. The Stary Rynek never managed to muster the busy vital atmosphere of Wroclaw or Krakow sadly, although still manages the girls sporting neon umbrellas on street corners  trying to lure you into their various dens of ignominy. They really don’t take no for an answer, which is rather ironic given the likely flip-side of the coin most likely happening inside.

So why go then?

Well, although stare miasto never felt like quite as important as the above two, it did have its moments. The square is supremely atmospheric on a misty evening and taking a stroll around at night really provided a flavour of the exotic. Sometimes quieter moments and just taking a scene in for a moment can help emphasize that a bit more. Similarly, Poznan is not all that far removed from the other options at hand. It has a Cathedral Island just like Wroclaw, a brewery with a very good tour, the famous Lech Poznan football team (only £11 a ticket), and a steam train service from the central station (not currently working but back on in December). It also has goats as an emblem, as I discovered once evening double-taking the sight of a billy goat having a chill out by the steps of a townhouse! This will easily take up a long weekend, not accounting for the focus the city has on nightlife.

What about the nightlife?

As anyone living in a provincial city knows, sometimes its cultural sights can only sustain you for so long. Poznan is one of those cities which seems to rely on, even sustain itself via the evening’s entertainments. There are so many bars as to be many times surplus to your requirements, and over a dozen or so that seriously demand attention. Sadly we couldn’t visit that many, but I would strongly recommend Za Kulisami, (as reasoned above), the dark red communist themed Proletaryat where it struck me I have the prospect, being bald, of emulating the visage of a great thinker, and Piwna Stopa, the most homely and welcoming of craft ale bars possibly in Poland full stop. Given the enormous bloom of craft ale since 2014, there are great things coming along across Poland and this pub shows craft ale isn’t all about stark industrial decor and hard furniture, but good service, roaring fire, upholstered seating. On a Friday and Saturday especially, you will have no difficulty finding a tolerable place serving drinks right up until 8 in the morning, although quite WHY you would want that, is another matter.

As with recent posts, Polish craft ale is coming on leaps and bounds, and autumn was a good excuse to try the ever increasing number of dark ales, schwarzbiers, porters and stouts which were almost always good or excellent.

And the food?

There’s nothing of overwhelming excitement although all places we went to delivered hearty, tasty food. As is increasingly the case, Poland are undergoing the sort of food enlightenment Britain went through in the 1990s, therefore there is a glut of new vegetarian/sushi places and world cuisine, reflecting that, similar to the UK, their own cuisine veers towards stodgy wintery food and is lacking in spice. Anyway, for the time of year that can be great, and can certainly recommend the timber stylings and hearty fare of Wiejscie Jadlo, likewise Oberza Pod Dzwonkiem, both of which killed the already outdated, should-be-dead stereotype that Eastern European service isn’t up to scratch. In my opinion that has been long gone. This is a country where the English language is inculcated in any human able to stand up, and in a city like Poznan which doesn’t receive as many English tourists, there are many people very keen to try out their underused skills. English tourists are the undoubted primary benefits of this: you should not miss out.

And also…

It is worth pointing out visiting in October means we missed out on the probable café culture in the main square and the activities available near Lake Malta, an artificial lake famous for its international rowing regattas, a dry ski slope, steam train, thermal spa and generally enough going on around it to take up a couple of days all on its own. Poznan also signs up to the city bike scheme which is a great way to get around a flat and quite easy to navigate city. It’s a pity really the weather and season denied us nearly all of that!

Is this place a priority?

It depends how your wanderlust is coming along. Wizz Air still provide very cheap flights and there are twin private rooms in hostels going for £10.00 a night that are perfectly serviceable. This cuts through notions of priority and more or less demands your attention. The pound might be tanking but this is offset by Poznan being an especially cheap Polish city – there are still places serving good beers for 6zl (£1.25 at the time of writing). If you enjoy seeking out good bars and still enjoy the chilly thrill of a Polish rynek, Poznan is definitely in the top three or four places you should seek out, which means in fairness, it is really good.

By my reckoning though (and limited to cities I have actually visited):

  1. Krakow
  2. Gdansk
  3. Wroclaw
  4. Lublin
  5. Poznan

This factors in that Poznan didn’t quite have the breadth of impressive architecture or the prettiness overall of the cities above it. Poznan might claw its way up to 3 or 4 in the summer with the various activities it had going for it which are notable and will most likely fill your time up well. Might be worth bearing in mind when you plan your inevitable visit!

Szeged, Hungary

Budapest is such a draw for tourists, and with good reason. There are several weeks worth of activities, let alone the general appeal of being in such a vibrant place, especially one so unusual and yet also familiar feeling. It is also Hungary’s largest city by far and the cultural focal point. As a consequence very few tourists venture elsewhere, precious as their time is. On the face of it, this amounts to a quite logical choice.

Hungary’s tourist board isn’t especially interested in advertising the rest of the country, apparently, which is an amusing extension of their historical attitude, pouring all their energy into making their capital worthy of rivaling any in Europe, at the expense of everything else. It has been an interesting use of their resources, but this isn’t to say everything else isn’t worth exploring! I have written previously about Lake Balaton, and spent a night in the atmospheric old town of area Sopron on the Austrian border. Both these visits suggested an underlying depth to the country that big bulky Budapest is distracting people from. There are vital elements to this country not entirely visible from the capital.

A few years back I found myself on a train heading south from Budapest en route to Szeged (Seg-ed), Hungary’s third largest city, for what was a fleeting but nevertheless interesting visit.

Why for heaven’s sake would I go there?

Provincial Hungary is about as unglamourous as it gets, so it may be worth considering your personal needs before suddenly deciding to visit. The people veer towards short, sunbaked and paunchy by virtue of the tremendous summer weather and one of the heartiest and not necessarily the most nutritious cuisines going. There are few airs and graces to be found in normal Hungary. It is one of the more matter-of-fact places, and out in the provinces there is still an unbroken chain spanning centuries of peasantry and serfdom.

Szeged is somewhere to visit if you want to experience a flavour of this, and regardless of your preconceptions I think it really is worth experiencing. The city lies on the periphery of what you could call the old Austrian sphere of influence, being deep in the south of Hungary, located on the banks of the Tisza river, very close to the Serbian border. Budapest is always somewhat in love with Western Europe and doing its best to keep up with the latest trends, but Szeged’s concessions to western culture still seem rooted in a kind of out-of-time, mistranslated understanding of what it actually is to begin with, bizarre considering it’s only a couple of hours away from the world’s most happening bar scene and a basic understanding of English everywhere in the capital. But people invest in what they need to invest in, and you may find Szeged not as well catered for the English tourist, and a little rough around the edges as a result. There can be great deal of charm in ill-maintained things, especially when their design and form remains appealing, however ill-maintained 80s office blocks and shopping precincts tend to be less remarkable unless they take on some otherwordly brutalist form or feature in abandoned cities such as Pripyat. Szeged isn’t a brutalist city by any means but there are a few downtrodden precincts and office blocks that don’t look like they will be replaced any time soon. However, it is not all like this – there are some far grander areas (albeit some with peeling and aged facades), and there are some grand baroque buildings and landmark buildings of note, especially the enormous twin-spired Dom that is as striking in the day as it is at night, when legions of bats swoop around the cathedral towers. The cleanest maintained area is the Austrian baroque central square and surrounding streets which are the cities attempt to present a more classical face to the wider world.

One of the hallmarks of Eastern Europe’s frequent inability to market itself (or just to recognise its own natural assets) is the prevailing attitude towards rivers. The Tisza river, when it reaches Szeged widens to become a grand artery, at least 100 metres across. With this there are perfect opportunities to do something with it – walkways, benches, rowing lanes, cafes, restaurants etc. Unfortunately, like so many others, it seems to still be regarded as an irritating obstacle, neglected, vandalised and occasionally used as a dumping ground. It rarely fails to irritate me.

You’re really selling this.

A lot of blogs concentrate on Old Towns and preserved areas, quite rightly. This can give way to an unrealistically competitive element, and this isn’t a competition Szeged is ever going to win, to be realistic. Szeged has pleasant enough areas but the main reason to visit is it is somewhere to go to feel far away from corporate fast food chains, New York style coffee shops and Apple stores – the sort of hegemony bleeding into all aspects of cultural life as a negative by-product of consumer capitalism. It has its own chains, naturally, but the existence out near the Serbian border is hanging onto Western Europe by a thread, really.

Part of how Szeged manages its distant feel lies in the difficult-to-place culture of Hungary itself, such a strange land with an odd language, neither overly Russian influenced, Jewish influenced, Mediterranean influenced or Northern European influenced. Once you take yourself away from Budapest the cultural ties to your own land and references have been cut and you are thrust into a different world. Not alien exactly, but distinct.

Yeah, okay, that sounds good.

I thought you would agree. Here are some pictures:

 

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What’s there to do?

As with everywhere in Hungary thermal spas and bathing account for a great deal of leisure activity and Szeged is no different. There’s a huge outdoor waterpark near the river and state of the art swimming pool nearby that I considered going to before realising the tiny window of time existing between getting back to the hotel at 3 in the morning and leaving at 10 for Serbia with a raging hangover. There are two bona fide thermal baths, neither of which I visited but I can highly recommend as an activity itself, both for the extraordinary calming, cleansing feeling that stays all evening and into the following day and the fact it is a social activity for many Hungarians, meaning you get to see local life in all its shapes and sizes – sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque. All part of the fun.

Szeged is famous for its salami – which is always worth a try – and Fisherman’s Soup, which is famous enough to be on most menus in Budapest too. The amount of smoked paprika in there is unreal and the almost fluorescent red colour is at once inviting and yet vaguely off-putting at the same time. There are some nice restaurants near the river where these can be enjoyed. I recommend Sortato-Halaszcsarda which has a nice terrace, good service and enormous portions for 3-4 pounds. I ordered a dish called “Pista Danko’s Violin” which was the most almighty upturned hollowed out violinful of roast potatoes layered with 6 different fillets of breaded fish. Impossible to finish but well worth trying to. Everyone else’s food looked, smelled, tasted great.

Along with all this Szeged happens to home to a gigantic synagogue which appears to be somewhat of a pilgrimage site, albeit an incredibly niche one. I laughed at the amusingly out of date website above, I must admit, as it strikes such a parallel to Szeged’s position in the modern world. As with a lot of Jewish sites it is not exactly welcoming of visitors, rather protective and conservative, but if you walk in they will allow you to rubberneck – from behind an iron gate – at the awesome dome and artwork of such detail and intricacy to rival even the most baroque cathedrals.

Nightlife?

Szeged has a large student population so it would be better to visit during term time. We visited a week before term started found it rather quiet overall and without any specific cluster of places. British tourists will be amused and appalled to visit John Bull Pub which is an outrageously lavish attempt to recreate a British pub, right down to the carpets, framed portraits and beveled banisters. I’ve never seen such a waste of time and money personally, and it is also very expensive to boot. Judging by the reviews online it appears to be very popular. Wikitravel goes as far as saying it represents an ideal choice for a romantic dinner! Laughable. The Hungarians have a love affair with the British though, and you’ll see a great deal of them wearing union jack t shirts.

My favourite part of the trip to Szeged was finding a locally famous Jazz club called Kocsma where we finally discovered the sort of decaying decrepit and badly lit drinking hole we hold dear. Firstly, wandering around the backstreets at night was eerily quiet and it was one of those occasions where you wonder how you ended up there, and whether you’ll ever return. The bar looked to be all shut up but, nothing ventured-nothing gained. A swing of the door revealed a candle lit basement and although the bar staff and patrons looked vaguely surprised to see us, they were all far too cool to make a big show of it. We gathered around a table and took in the deeply brooding atmosphere over a glass of appalling, appalling lager.

Ah yes, the beer in Hungary. Their beer is not very good. “Give me a pint of that Hungarian lager”, said no-one ever. The distance to Sopron means it is quite difficult even to find Soproni, one of their more palatable lagers. The constant offering down in Szeged seemed to be Borsodi, a lager so lacking in flavour that all you can taste are some faintly unpleasant mineraly metallic remnants. Lamentable.

Why Szeged?

Don’t visit make a special visit to Szeged, or because it’ll be another page turned. It’s not a bucket list destination unless you really are determined to taste the Fisherman’s Soup. I would recommend joining Szeged along with part of a wider tour of Hungary, or as a stopping point on your way to Vojvodina in Serbia, and on to Belgrade perhaps from there, alternatively as my friend did, taking a train to Timisoara in Romania. Szeged is a sizeable, interesting place with a small classic central European centre of some beauty, some eye-popping grand buildings, and admittedly a portion of unloved tatty streets with cheap billboards. Hungary is still quite a poor country in places. All the same, another fascinating undiscovered spot that will widen your horizons and make you appreciate the great diversity of nationhood and culture in Europe in comparison with anywhere else in the world!

Final note to readers:

Do not ever stay at the Tisza Sport hotel, which is a dreadful shithole.

 

 

Goslar, Germany

“The name Goslar has such a gladsome ring to it and stirs so many memories of the Emperor, that I was expecting an imposing and stately city. But that’s how it goes when you glimpse the famous up-close! Instead what I found was a one-horse town, a dank, run-down dump with labyrinthine, winding streets, the pavement as shoddy as that of the Berlin Hexameter, down the middle of which runs a small stream – probably the Gose.”

Goslar certainly didn’t meet with Heinrich Heine’s approval, however his pal Hans Christian Andersen was a little more generous:

“It was as if I were standing on charmed city earth, of which I had heard so much as a child in many fairytales.”

For these and many other conflicting reasons I arrived in Goslar not entirely sure what to expect. It was a scorching and humid May day and I had just walked 18km from the top of Brocken to Bad Harzburg – the definition of a one-horse town if there ever was one.

Goslar train station was one of the more genteel you could expect, which gave away the ‘heritage’ status of Goslar quickly enough. There isn’t a designated old town and new town area like some places. Arriving means you are already in it, without any signs of an industrial zone, or vast modern shopping centre on the outskirts.

For a city of such diminutive size, Goslar has achieved and even retained rather a lot. With its own world renowned beer style Gose, one of the oldest and grandest mines in Europe, its position in central Germany meaning safe passage through the destructive world wars, and civic protection from architectural modernism. As much by accident as design, Goslar is today a fantastically well-preserved, almost entirely intact medieval town, something recognised by UNESCO (though the ‘Upper Harz Water Management System’ must go down as one of the most dullest sounding inscriptions of all time).

The other towns on my visit, Quedlinburg and Wernigerode were similarly well preserved,  chock-full of fachwerk houses, although surprisingly- and pleasantly – I found they were not repetitions of the same thing, but distinguished places with their own particular character. Quedlinburg has an early-medieval feel with unplanned meshy and higgledy-piggledy streets, at times almost absurdly detached from today’s world. I wrote about the place in vivid detail back in June, here. Wernigerode is  more late-medieval in style with flat-fronted houses, some of which were entirely wooden, facing directly onto straight roads. Goslar ended up being like neither of them.

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One thing Goslar can’t be accused of over-using, is colour. Pretty would be a difficult adjective to use, as the majority of its streets and houses are slate grey with cobbled streets and black and white timber framed houses. In addition to the fachwerk houses there were many buildings fully clad in slate, the tiles wrapping around loft-windows and sharp corners like dragon scales. I haven’t seen anything like it before. For the first time, rather than the fachwerk being quaint and sickly – as could be levelled at places like Quedlinburg and the Romantic Road‘s leading light Rothenburg ob der Tauber, here its role is like a civic suit of armour, a huge teutonic expression of defensiveness and defiance. Beauty seems a strange word to extend to a town like this, but I was delighted to feel the strong sense of character the place surely possessed those hundreds of years ago, minus the cholera and plague pits of course. For this reason, a wander around Goslar’s many preserved streets is really the whole point of being there.  As the weather clouded over later in the day, the sky fitting in with the stark surroundings, I realised there were others uses of the word grey than as a pejorative.

Yes, yes, but what’s there to do?

It’s worth conceding that the majority of day-trippers I saw were elderly retirees lolloping around in their pastel polo shirts and slacks, grimly peering through window fronts and eating ice cream from one of the several dozen cafés in the main square with sneering expressions that suggested nothing would ever be good enough for them. These types exist everywhere in Western Europe, but there’s something particularly horrible about the elderly German ones, who seemingly cannot queue, interrupt you constantly, have no sense of anything except themselves. Worst of all, they just seem genuinely unhappy, which can be a downer when you have come to visit somewhere on holiday. Their objective in life seems to be finding ways to spend the longest possible time achieving as little as possible. That’s retirement, I guess, but not the kind I have in mind.

The Rammelsberg Mine is the main attraction, just a 20 minute walk from Goslar. There is a lack of regular English tours, regrettably, although that fact correlates precisely to the lack of English tourists. This area of Germany is well off the English tourist trail. Nevertheless, despite a shortfall in understanding some of the tour, it was fairly obvious from the printed material and the slow crisp High German spoken by the saxon tour guide what was going on. Working down close to damp grey stone was what the majority of Goslarians (someone will have to correct me if that’s wrong – Goslarers? Goslarisch?) would have done in their working lives, and this made me appreciate quite fully why Goslar the town worked out the way it has. An insular clenched fist of a place.

In addition to the mine there are the various medieval towers to visit, the town hall and the basin shaped market square which had such a profound effect on Hans Christian Andersen but left me a tiny bit underwhelmed. It’s pleasant and the quarterly glockenspiel performances through the day certainly remind you right where you are. As often happens, a couple of buildings were in the process of being refurbished, and that undoubtedly weakened the supposed effect.

One of Goslar’s highlights is a walk along the Gose river where some colour does finally peek out with bushes and trees lining the route, and it also features some of the most – we won’t say stylish – but distinctive and odd houses in the town, with roofs that look like witches hat’s, carved figures of young girls mooning, and what appear to be runes and hieroglyphs on some. On one stretch access to the individual houses are cut off by the stream so there are 12-13 little bridges linking the houses with the town. With this being slap bang in the centre, it really gives you a sense that this is a small place, rather than a sprawling city, but a very charming feature of a city centre.

Finally I recommend going up the church tower as its central location makes the panorama of grey and red rooftops and amid the surrounding rolling hills extra special.

Food and drink?

I’m pleased to say this is one area Goslar excels at, and there are a great number of good long-standing restaurants not just trading on their reputation but maintaining it. I enjoyed two nice meals, firstly at the Wirtshaus an der Lohmule and secondly, a truly memorable meal of veal medallions and dumplings at the Wortmuhle, (which also brews its own Gose beer). This was exceptionally good and just shows, every now and again, the much derided Northern European cuisine can pull some amazing food together by sourcing fresh ingredients and getting creative with the more limited range of combinations on offer.

The two hubs of Goslar socialising and nightlife are the Butterhanne, a famous and long standing preserved…cafe, restaurant, bar, more or less anything you like. If you eat and drink they will do something suitable for whatever time of day or night. I enjoyed its food and drink my abiding memory is of a small, fairly well highlighted step up to the bar area. If you pick a seat near the entrance you can have hours of fun over and over watching elderly people trip over it before glancing back in astonishment as though it just fell out of the sky. Hub number two is Brauhaus Gose, a relatively recent reincarnation – modern but old-in-style attempt to maintain a Gose brewery. It is situated in one of the tallest fachwerk houses in the centre and keeps alive the provincial brewering tradition, albeit their own Gose was nothing to get overly excited about. Nevertheless I strongly recommend both. There are also extremely atmospheric traditional drink and eateries in the form of the Altdeutsche Stuben, Restaurant Gosequell and Weisse Schwan. Suffice to say, you won’t run short of options and it won’t fall short on quality.

Gose beer’s flavour falls somewhere between the citric low countries speciality ‘Wit’ ale and a more saline version of Bavarian hefeweizen. Cloudy, thick, lemony and with a slightly salty aftertaste, it comes uncarbonated and is therefore easy to drink large quantities. It was surprisingly mellow as all previous Gose beer I had tasted was either a lot stronger or saltier. Gose style is also extraordinarily unpopular in some quarters, as this article demonstrates. My favourite was brown Gose. The idea of a Dunkel Gose seems very peculiar as a concept, given sweet malt and sharp salt/sour flavours don’t seem comfortably bedfellows, but they made it work nice. Brauhaus Gose’s dunkel is barely any different from the normal Gose but the Butterhanne’s was really distinctive, so get a glass in when you arrive.

Late nightlife around Gose was a little scratchy but there were some nooks and crannies and I located a couple of bars with a young crowd, the better of the two being Musikkniepe Kö that stays open late without being quiet or depressing. As it says itself: ” if yo ask yourself, what`s up in Goslar, just come here.”

In summary then?

Goslar has something unlike anywhere you’re likely to go, even if you confine yourself entirely to the Harz region of Germany. The monochrome solidity and clean, Germanic crispness crammed into the valley basin makes for a unique atmosphere, and makes this place well worth at least a day trip. Spending a night in one of the fachwerk houses, viewing the slate clad dragonscale houses and wandering around the deserted cobbled streets in the late evening is a experience of pure authenticity and atmosphere, akin to wandering around the Groot Begijnhof in Leuven, where the history of a place is laid in front of you like a living museum, as if you were walking in someone else’s shoes; in my case even more dramatically due to the clear nights and still, starry skies.

 

 

 

 

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.