A bus from Paris brought us to Ghent – in between both Bruges and Brussels. A great (and small) city to wander around with good bars and an amazing rib restaurant. First stop was Dreupelkot, a Jenever bar right on the waterside with a long list of different flavours. After a few doubles we made for an all you can eat rib house – well worth the fifteen euro trip! Wandering the city takes around twenty-minutes, but there is plenty to see and do. Sampling the famous Belgian fries is one thing, while sampling Trappist beers is another. A short train ride (all of twenty-minutes) took us to Bruges with a historic (World Heritage) city centre and the most tourists we’ve seen in Europe yet. After realising it was Valentines weekend, and we we’re two blokes, we tried to look as masculine as possible – sampling the beers was, therefore, the only option. A trip to De Halve Mann brewery is worth it for the free unfiltered Brugse Zot, and also the interesting tour and panoramic view from the top of the brewery. Sampling the beers in the brewery tavern is also worth it for a couple of hours, plus there is four to try in total. Again, wandering the old streets makes for a good couple of hours – a great place to see. Next stop (and last of the trip) is Brussels to first catch the Eurostar to St Pancreas International.
A trip to Europe couldn’t miss out the French capital. Sacre Coeur made for a good starting point – the top of the hill – with a bit of a misty and muggy view of Paris. Good coffee and pression (draught beer) in the Montmartre area too, which could obviously not be missed. Down to the Pigalle area and the famous, but very un-glitzy, Moulin Rouge and onto the Arc De Triomphe – with a quick croque monsieur en-route. A photograph of the Eiffel Tower couldn’t be missed, either, but not worth the pricey climb – Montparnasse better, plus you get views of the Eiffel Tower itself. After bypassing the Mona Lisa (too many Chinese) and warming up in Notre Dame (it’s also a good place to sit, mind you) we hopped on the underground to the nearest bar. Beers all round with the Menu du Jour – Salate Mixte, Steak Frites and Mousse au Chocolat (eleven-euros). A good day indeed and one of the best cities of the trip – onto the sixteenth(!) country now, Belgium.
Finally we’re in Italy and where better to start than Florence. Although a bit rainy, Florence is a fantastic city to wander with fantastic architecture, cafes and, of course, pizza. First stop was the Central Market – best coffee yet – and only 90-cents for a super strong espresso. With enough caffeine we decided to climb the 400+ steps to the top of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – fantastic views of the city and the surrounding Tuscan countryside – if a bit soggy! Crossing the bridge over to the other side of Florence makes for a change – a much less touristy area with, again, fantastic coffee and focaccia sandwiches (gorgonzola, speck and onions). A walk to the top of the hill and to Piazza Michelangelo is great for views across the whole of the city. There is also an interesting church and graveyard with the author of Pinnochio’s tomb (the name, I can’t remember) but thats not a lie(!). A fantastic place to visit – next stop Milan for Inter v Palermo in the Curva Nord.
A short train ride from Bratislava (and on the same river) lies Budapest in Hungary. A fantastic city although a lot bigger than we imagined. The Central Market Hall – the largest and oldest in Budapest – provided a good escape from the rain on the afternoon we arrived with stalls piled high with the infamous red paprika, dried chillies and cured meats. A mad dash from the market and we arrived at Szimpla Kert in the Jewish quarter of the city – apparently the third best bar in the world. A walk over the river Danube takes you to Buda, where a (steep) walk up the hill takes you to the Liberty Statue for fantastic views over the city, and eventually onto the Royal Palace. From there its down to the old town (all four streets of it) and the pretty spectacular Matthias Church. With views of the Parliament Building over the river we decided to take a closer look – it’s worth it- but only after some Goulash. Crossing the Chain Bridge – the first bridge across the Danube in Hungary – took us back to Pest and onto St Stephen’s Basilica and finally to a pub. A fantastic city, definitely not one to be missed.
Not on the usual European trail, but we decided we would give the Slovakian capital a visit. Arriving at midday on a train from Prague allowed us to have a good afternoon wandering the old town. A quiet place with tonnes of bars and restaraunts to visit (there is also a pretty good castle up on the hill). The old streets are interesting, with derelict buildings and hidden doors dotted all over the place. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary it has been home to many political and historical figures – the Bratislava City Museum does a good job of explaining it all. A walk up to the castle is worth it for great views across the city and the river Danube, although there isn’t much to see inside the castle itself. The steep walk up one of the towers is probably the highlight of the trip, which wouldn’t be worth the seven-euro itself! Garlic soup poured into a huge loaf of bread (which was cheaper than the castle) was actually better and more entertaining – try it! The 9:53 takes us to Budapest tomorrow morning.
An overnight train took us from Krakow to Prague – much better than the Asian sleeper trains, by the way. Arriving in Prague at 6:40am, we sheltered in a McDonalds (full of very shady characters at that time in the morning) until it was light enough to read the map. Prague is a great city to walk around – although always busy – with narrow cobbled streets and grand squares bordered with a mix-match of buildings. You can always find a good bar in Prague too, so it was dark Kozel all round. A trip on the funicular railway up Petrin Hill is worth the trip for good views and the chance to climb the Petrin Observation Tower (it’s meant to wobble, apparently). From there a walk around to the Prague Castle and surrounding buildings takes fifteen minutes. Next stop Bratislava, Slovakia.
Krakow is a fantastic city full of narrow cobbled streets and medieval churches. Rynek Underground is a good (and fairly new, 2010) introduction to Krakow – an underground maze of the old medieval city, which not only explains Krakow’s history but also the connection between the city and medieval Europe. Wawel Castle (rebuilt in the 14th century) is also worth a visit, although go on a Sunday when most of the castle is free to visit. The old Jewish quarter – just outside the old town – adds a very different feel to Krakow. Although largely destroyed during WWII, it is now described as Krakow’s most exciting district with fancy cafes and interesting restaurants – worth the walk. A day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau is also worth the trip to pay tribute to those who lost their lives there. Not exactly an enjoyable experience, but an experience which helps to paint a picture of very different times. Photographs describe best.