All cities in alphabetical order
Introduction Amsterdam, The Netherlands Athens, Greece Barcelona, Spain Berlin, Germany Bratislava, Slovakia Bruges, Belgium Brussels, Belgium Budapest, Hungary Copenhagen, Denmark Florence, Italy Geneva, Switzerland The Hague, The Netherlands Hamburg, Germany Helsinki, Finland Istanbul, Turkey Krakow, Poland Lisbon, Portugal London, England Madrid, Spain Manchester, England Naples, Italy Oslo, Norway Paris, France Prague, Czech Republic Rome, Italy Saint Petersburg, Russia Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina Seville, Spain Sofia, Bulgaria Stockholm, Sweden Warsaw, Poland Venice, Italy Vienna, Austria Zagreb, Croatia
I am half English and half Italian, my wife is half Welsh and half Czech, and our son has a degree in International Relations. So it might seem inevitable that I love travelling to other countries and meeting people from other cultures.
In fact, I grew up in a working class, single-parent household where overseas trips were rarely on the agenda. My Italian mother took us – by train – to her home city of Naples when I was four and again when I was almost 14, but this was the only foreign travel of my childhood.
When I was 18, I was fortunate enough to be selected for an educational tour of western Canada, but essentially I did not start to travel until I was a university student. My first independent trip was as a 21 year old when I spent a bitterly cold Christmas 1969 in Amsterdam.
Subsequently I have spent most of my holidays abroad, usually visiting European cities but, more latterly, venturing further afield. I have only ever lived in Manchester and London - both large cities - and therefore I love going to cities for holidays. Not for me lying on a beach wasting time and risking skin cancer!
Also my work as a trade union official gave me regular opportunities to travel because the transformation of our industries- telecommunications and posts - was of great interest to other countries and because these industries are increasingly becoming global. Therefore I have frequently visited cities to take part in conferences or give presentations and I have usually taken the opportunity to look at some of the local sights.
So, to date, I have visited 57 countries - half of them in Europe, but 14 in Asia, nine in the Americas, and six in Africa - and, in total, I have ventured abroad 175 times. In the course of all this travel, I have flown over 500 times and clocked up over 900 hours flying time in my flight log.
My first visit to this wonderful city of canals and bicycles was in Christmas 1969 when all that water made for a bitterly cold festive season. At the time, I was serving as the sabbatical president of my university’s students’ union and I took the occasion to visit the Amsterdam University Students’ Union. Some 27 years later, my son Richard was studying for a term at the University of Amsterdam and we went over to visit him. As I entered his hall of residence, I had an amazing sense of déjà-vu and, back at home, I checked my diary to find that in 1969 it had housed the local students’ union! In between these trips, another visit to Amsterdam was for my honeymoon with Vee, so the city holds many warm memories.
There are some marvellous art galleries in this city - the Rijksmuseum, the van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum - and Anne Frank’'s House and the Jewish Museum are well worth a visit but, when we went to see Richard, he took us on the 'alternative tour' which involved the Hash Museum, the Sex Museum and one of the city's ubiquitous 'brown' cafes. It's that kind of city - something for everyone (and they all speak English).
Visit Amsterdam click here
Amsterdam Info click here
Amsterdam Hotspots click here
Rijksmuseum click here
Anyone with an interest in the history of western civilisation has to visit Athens, the cradle of European aesthetics and values. Obviously the highlight of any such visit is the Acropolis which is visible over a wide area of central Athens. We were fortunate enough to see it in early March when the weather is not too hot and the crowds are not too great, but at any time it is a marvel.
The Parthenon is stunning and it is a strange thought that, to see all its original marble work, one has to visit also the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. Another especially beautiful feature of the site is the Caryatides on the Erechtheum. The best view of the Acropolis is from Mount Lycabettus which is the highest hill in the city. Two museums that have to be visited are the Acropolis Museum itself and the National Archaeological Museum. It has to be said though that modern-day Athens is a rough and raw place with wild traffic and awful pollution.
My first visit to Spain was to Barcelona which, in fact, is far from typical of the country. Until I went to Barcelona, I had not realised how independent, nationalistic and proud are the Catalonians and I was surprised at the dominance of the Catalonian language over the Castilian (traditional Spanish). This is a city of contrasts from the wonderful architecture of Antoni Gaudí (Casa Milà & Casa Batiló) and Lluis Domènach (Palau de la Música Catalana) to the bizarre art of Picasso and Míro. My favourite area was the Gothic quarter, especially the cathedral cloister, the little lanes, and the palace courtyards. Two of the most memorable experiences were climbing as high as we dared up the towers of the still-uncompleted Gaudí church of Sagrada Família and visiting the fantastical world of Gaudí's Parc Guell.
Finally Barcelona is a great place to people watch, everywhere but especially on the tree-lined Ramblas with its entertainers, the La Boqueria market, and Columbus column.
Link: Tourist site click here
It was more than a decade after the fall of the Wall (2001) before I was able to make my first visit to Berlin and I then made two trips in nine months. I made a third visit in 2006. Each time, I found a city in transition. The skyline is a proliferation of cranes and everywhere there is restoration and conversion. Nowhere is this change process more apparent than at the Potsdamer Platz where a phalanx of ultra modern office blocks and shopping centres has now taken form. The Wall itself has long gone, except for a section on Mühlenstrasse, decorated by artists from around the world, but its route is marked with stones. Also there is still an exhibit to mark the location of the famous Checkpoint Charlie and a fascinating museum there that records the building of the Wall and the inventive escape attempts.
The heart of modern Berlin is the broad Unter den Linden (“Under The Lime Trees”). At the west end is the Brandenberg Gate (totally covered in scaffolding on my first visits for a reconstruction) and nearby the reconstructed Reichstag with its stunning glass dome designed by the British-born architect Norman Foster (frost-covered during my February visit). Between the Brandenberg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, there is the newest and largest monument in the city, the Holocaust Memorial: 2,711 imposing concrete steles in undulating rows designed by Peter Eisenman. I visited the memorial and the underground museum just six months after they were opened in June 2005.
Walking west, one comes to the Bebelplatz, where – as a book-lover – I was particular struck by the empty bookshelves in an underground memorial of the Nazi book-burning in May 1933, and then to the Museum Island, where the Greek and Islamic artefacts of the Pergamon Museum are simply wonderful. Just beyond the Unter den Linden, one comes to reminders of the former DDR state: the memorial to Marx & Engels (an irresistible photo opportunity) and the television tower (with an observation terrace – which I visited – at 203 m/666 feet).
Berlin is a city which reeks with history, notably the Nazi era of Adolf Hitler. One of the many interesting museums commemorates those brave souls who resisted the Führer and usually paid for it with their lives. The museum is located in the war-time Supreme Headquarters of the German Army in a street now named after Count von Stauffenberg who unsuccessfully attempted to blow up Hitler in July 1944.
Berlin is another city at night and, thanks to my good friend Rolf Johanning, on my first visit I was able to visit a splendid variety show called “Damals Hinterm Mond” at the “Chamäleon Varieté” theatre in the Hackescher Hof (a collection of six linked courtyards). In this small theatre, a talented troupe entertained with German puns (which, of course, I did not understand) and amazing feats of juggling, acrobatics, contortionism and trapeze work. Here it was not hard to imagine Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin of the Thirties. On my third visit, Rolf took me to a similar cabaret act called "Der Blaue Montag" at the TIPI, actually a huge 'tent' affair.
Berlin Wall Online click here
Holocaust Memorial click here
“Chamäleon Varieté” click here
"Der Blaue Montag" click here
It is difficult to think of Bratislava as a capital city – for most of the last century, it was the second city of Czechoslovakia and, before that, it was almost an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (when it was called Pressburg). After the last war, the Communists destroyed the best of the city when they built the bridge which they named after the Slovak national Uprising of 1944 and – post revolution - is now called simply the New Bridge. But I love the Slovaks, almost as much as I love the Czechs (and actually they are more laid back). And some of Bratislava’s buildings – notably the castle on the hill and the Old Town Hall in the centre – are worth seeing.
Less than an hour by train from boring Brussels is Bruges which is a delight. Most people are well aware of the pretty canals and the imposing tower of the Belfort-Hallen (climb the 366 steps to the top!), but Bruges also has some excellent small museums such as the Groeninge Museum with its Flemish paintings, the Memling Museum with six of his works, and the Volkskunde Museum with its folklore exhibits.
I have visited Brussels more often than any other place outside the UK – probably around 20 times – but I confess that it is not my favourite city. It is an odd place - a French-speaking island in the northern Flemish part of federal Belgium – and I find it somewhat grey and forbidding.
What I do like is the Grand Place, the cobbled square surrounded by a mixture of splendid Gothic and Baroque buildings including the Town Hall and the Municipal Museum. Also I like the nearby shopping arcade of Galeries Saint-Hubert. Then, of course, in the same quarter is the Rue des Bouchers with its throng of enticing restaurants. Finally the Belgian chocolates are to die for.
However, much of the rest of the city is frankly dull and boring. The most popular tourist image is the Mannekin-Pis, the corner statue of the little boy urinating. He is regularly decked in various occupational and national costumes which are all displayed in the Maison du Roi in the Grand Place. His representation appears in the tackiest souvenirs imaginable, including cork screws where his tiny penis is transformed into the unlikely screw.
Two years after the revolutions in Central & Eastern Europe and at the exact time of the short-lived coup in Russia, we visited the country where arguably it all began, although the Hungarians never had a revolution as such because reform came from within the local Communist Party. We made a point of visiting the grave of Imre Nagy, the reformist Prime Minister who lost power at the time of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.
In the capital city of Budapest, there were still plenty of signs of the Communist era - such as the Liberation Monument on Gellert Hill and old and new street names one on top of the other - but also there was a real vibrancy about the place as it quickly adapted to western-style values - as evidenced most noticeably by the shops on Vaci utca. This is a city of two distinct halves: on the west of the river, the old Buda area with Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion, and on the east of the river, the newer Pest area including Heroes' Square and the ornate Parliament building. One of our favourite visits was to the Museum of Applied Arts which is a wonderful building in its own right, built in the Oriental-Hungarian secessionist style, and contains some exquisite exhibits of craftmanship. Finally, Budapest, like Vienna, is a great place for coffee and cakes and our favourite haunt was the Café Hungaria with its Late Eclectic interior.
Since that first visit (a holiday), I have returned twice to give speeches to conferences and seen the growing westernisation of the city.Links:
Denmark was one of the last European countries that I visited because I had been warned that it was expensive but at last, in the summer of 2010, I spent a few delightful days in the capital Copenhagen, only to find that the Little Mermaid was at the World Expo in Shanghai. Denmark only has a population of 5.5M and 1.5M of them live in the capital. Although a small country, it has 406 islands and Copenhagen is situated on the largest of them (Zealand).
What's great about Denmark is that everyone speaks fluent English and everyone is incredibly courteous (and the girls are gorgeous), but it is unbelievably expensive (my record was a cappuccino costing 60 kroner or £7!).The architecture of the city is charming, nowhere more so that in the Nyhavn area which is a good starting point for a boat ride around the harbour and canals.
The best cultural museum is the Ny Carlberg Glyptotek with a wonderful collection of Etruscan artefacts as well as French paintings and sculptures. If you're young and like exciting fair rides, you'll want to visit the Tivoli Gardens - but the entrance fee and the separate charge for the amusements are expensive. Then there is the remarkable commune of Christiania for those of a libertarian mindset.
I always like to see a city from above and Copenhagen has a number of excellent vantage points including Rundetårn tower and the Vor Freisers Kirke church. Also I'm very interested in the Second World War and made a point of visiting both the Danish Resistance Museum and the Danish Jewish Museum, both of which cover the remarkable story of how the Danes saved their Jews in 1943 (the only occupied country to do so).
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek click here
Christiania click here
Danish Resistance Museum click here
Danish Jewish Museum click here
This was the the birthplace of the Renaissance and contains many outstanding works from that splendid period: Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Campanile, Ghiberti’s doors, Michelangelo’s David and the Uffizi Gallery with its works by Botticelli and a host of other magnificent artists. The Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria are two of the great squares of Italy and the Ponte Vecchio is arguably the most memorable bridge in the world. The city is a photographer’s dream and the views – from the Giardino di Boboli, Piazzale Michelangelo and Fiesole – are simply wonderful. I have managed to see Florence three times – twice for holidays and once for a seminar – and I cannot imagine ever tiring of the place or of ever seeing all its cultural riches.
Geneva has a beautiful location at the west end of the huge lake of the same name and within sight of the snow-capped Mont Blanc. Aircraft from London usually approach from the east, flying the full length of the lake and providing terrific views. Once in the city, there is an excellent vantage from the North Tower of the Saint Pierre Cathedral in the Old Town. Geneva is a good place for trade unionists like me (it houses the International Labour Organisation and – just outside – the Union Network International) and for dessert lovers like me (the ice cream dishes in Mövenpick are to die for). A little known fact: the ILO is an official agency of the United Nations, but Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world that is not in the UN (actually it’s not in anything, including the European Union).
The Hague, The Netherlands
It's worth including this city in my list if only for the absolute gem of an art gallery called the Mauritshuis next to the stretch of water called the Hofvijver. The gallery is a lovely building of compact size with excellent pictures displayed with helpful descriptions. My favourite paintings are two of the Vermeers: "View Of Delft" and "Girl With A Pearl Earring" [for review of novel based on this picture click here and for review of film based on the novel click here].
In spite of its size and importance, Germany is not a country I know that well. The first German city that I had a chance to explore was Hamburg in the north which I had assumed would be grey and industrial. In fact, the city was a revelation: clean, attractive and above all prosperous. The location by the Alster lake gives it a charming ambience and the shops – lots of arcades - are wonderful. The sights include the city hall, the television tower and the Bismarck monument. For many, though, the most famous aspects of Hamburg are the Reeperbahn, a long street lined with sex shops and peep shows, and Herbertstrasse, a brothel street screened at both ends. Most of my time in the Reeperbahn was spent at the Operettenhaus attending a German-language version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Cats".
Helsinki is not one of the great European capitals such Paris, Berlin or Rome but, like the other Scandinavian capitals, it is well worth a visit (at least in summer). Like Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm, it is a capital by the water and the heart of the city is two squares near the harbour: Market Square, where you have to sample a fried fish called vendace in the fish market, and Senate Square, where you have to ascend the steps to the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral. Just off Market Square is my favourite cafe: Aschand Cafe Jugend which has excellent coffee, delicious cakes, and - if you're lucky like us - a free afternoon musical recital. There are lots of galleries and museums in Helsinki and the Military Museum contains a fascinating account of the Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1939-40.
Trips outside the capital include a 20-minute ferry ride to the fortress island of Suomenlinna, a one-hour drive to the ancient medieval town of Porvoo, and a two-hour drive to the town of Kotka which has a new and impressive maritime museum.
Originally Byzantium, then Constantinople, now Istanbul, technically this should not be in a complilation of European cities because three-quarters of the population live in the Asian section of the city, but most of the tourist sights are on the European side so I've included it here. The setting on the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara make this a very special city geographically. The formerly Christian Haghia Sophia and Church of St Saviour, the Muslim Süleyman and Sultanahmet mosques, the Topkapi and Dolmabahçe palaces all make this an equally fascinating city culturally. And then there is the exoticism of the Pera Palas Hotel where Agatha Christie used to stay, the Byzantine underground cistern where "From Rusia With Love" was filmed, and the chance to see wonderful belly dancers.
For more details on Istanbul click here
In most countries of the world, the capital city is easily the most interesting. Poland is an exception – Japan is another – since Krakow is definitely more worth visiting than Warsaw. I went there in mid January when there was snow on the ground and still Christmas decorations in the shops.
Krakow is the ancient capital of Poland and for centuries coronations and burials of the country’s kings took place on the historic Wawel Hill. The city was the only major one in Poland to come through the Second World War largely undamaged and on the hill one can still visit the castle and the cathedral where so much Polish history has seeped into the very stones. Below the hill, the main square, called Rynek Glowny, is the largest of medieval Europe and houses the Renaissance Sukiennice (full of interesting stalls) and the Mariacki Church (where at 11 am each morning the trumpet melody called the Hejnal is abruptly halted in memory of the trumpeter in 1241 being killed by a Tartar arrow). I deliberately spent time in the old Jewish quarter called Kazimierz which some years later featured in the film "Schindler's List".
Also I asked my host, Marian Ogonowski, to drive me the hour or so west to the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (or, to use its Polish name, Oswiecim-Brzezinka). Through the gate proclaiming “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes free”), I was witness to a catalogue of horror. Everyone should visit such a place so that we all remember.
In 1993, I was due to attend an international trade union congress in Cairo that had been planned for four years. As a result of the deteriorating security situation in Egypt, with just four weeks to go, the venue for the event was switched to Lisbon and it was a great success. I just loved the place - and I have made another four visits since (all but the last work-related).
The first thing you notice in Portugal is the language: it looks like Spanish but (to a European ear) it sounds like a Slavonic language (it is actually influenced by Arabic). Then there's the people - so laid back and friendly (and all professional colleagues speak fluent English). Next there is the appetising food: a speciality of Lisbon is a deliciously soft, sweet custard tart called Pasteis de Nata and the best place in the city to taste it is the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem. Another delicacy to be recommended is a sweet cherry liquor called ginja.
Lisbon is a city of hills and cobbled streets and trams. The Manueline architecture – typified by the 14th century Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and Torre de Belem – and the azulejos tiles make the city really distinctive and so picturesque. Opposite the monastery is the Monument of the Discoveries celebrating all the early seafaring exploits of the Portguese from Henry the Navigator to Vasgo da Gama.
The tiny streets of the Alfama district are a delight and above then stands the Castelo de São Jorge. Then there are some great museums such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts. Finally one should always try to visit a restaurant - such as Clube de Fado - which has performances of the mournful fado music.
Close to Lisbon are lovely places like Sintra with its palaces and gardens and Cascais with its beaches and shops.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belem click here
Clube de Fado click here
I moved to London in the Autumn of 1971 and I have lived and worked in the capital ever since. As a movie fan, I love its wonderful cinemas, especially those around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. But I also love its art galleries (especially the National Gallery and the two Tate galleries), its museums (especially the British Museum, the National Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum), and all the other cultural opportunities that the city has to offer (I was one of the first visitors to both the Millennium Dome and the London Eye). When one wants a change from modern London, a visit to the Museum of London is fascinating.
London has so many famous sights that are familiar even to those who have never visited the city: Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus. Even for those who have visited London many times, there are new things to see, such as the brilliant glass-covered court at the British Museum, the newly-accessible Somerset House which hosts the Courtauld art collection with its wonderful Impressionist paintings, and the amazing Tate Modern art gallery converted from an old power station opposite the elegant new Millennium Bridge.
Like many great cities, London derives a lot of its character from its river: the River Thames. Those who live in the city insist that parts north and south of the river have their own distinct personality and I've always lived north of the river which is characterised by an extensive underground system. But the Thames itself is a major feature of the city and one can take boats as far east as Greenwich or as far west as Hampton Court. In recent years, the South Bank has become incredibly lively with lots of live music and street performers to add to the theatres and galleries.
London is where it all happens: the political parties, the trade unions, the companies, the voluntary organisations – they are all headquartered here and hold their meetings and conferences here. I love the cosmopolitan nature of the city with its blend of so many different nationalities and its echoes of so many different languages and, over the years, it has become more Continental with a host of coffee bars and cafés and longer opening hours for book shops especially.
In short, London has everything - including a Roger Street!
London Tourist Board click here
London Town click here
London Net click here
London audio guide click here
National Gallery click here
Tate Gallery click here
British Museum click here
National Science Museum click here
Victoria & Albert Museum click here
Museum of London click here
Madrid is not as distinctive as Barcelona, but it is still a very interesting city with excellent art galleries and historic buildings. The galleries include the world-famous Museo de Prado, which is up there with the Louvre and the Uffizi displaying some 2,300 paintings in 120 rooms, and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which houses Picasso’s moving work “Guernica”. The buildings include the royal palace, the cathedral, and the only head post office that I know which is called a palace.
This is a city which is most alive at night and locals don’t eat dinner until 10 pm or later and then drink and stroll until the early hours. On our visit, we made some fascinating trips out to the historic city of Toledo, one of the oldest cities in Spain and the capital until 1561, and to El Escorial, the summer residence of the Spanish kings located near the Sierra mountains.
Link: Prado Museum click here
I was not actually born in Manchester – that event took place in Sedgley, near Wolverhampton – but I was brought up there from the age of 18 months and lived there until I was 23. In this city of around a million citizens, I went to school (latterly the Xaverian College in Rusholme) and university (the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology in the city centre). Here I spent lots of time in libraries: Withington Library on Wilmslow Road, where I studied for my ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level examinations, and the Central Library in St Peter’s Square, where I worked for my Management Sciences degree. Another memorable location is the Free Trade Hall where I spoke as School Captain at the Annual Prize Evening and attended my first classical concerts where Sir John Barbarolli conducted the Halle orchestra (the building is now a hotel).
This is a city with both a history – home of the Industrial Revolution, destination of the ship canal, location of the first computer – and a present – Manchester United and Manchester City football clubs, the “Coronation Street” television series, the People's History Museum and a modern tram system.
Link: Virtual Manchester click here
Until I was 18, the only foreign city that I visited was Naples where my Italian mother lived until she met and married my English father in 1946. My mother took her children to visit relatives in her hometown in 1952 and 1962 when I was four and (almost) 14, so the city has a special place in my heart even though I have not been there for four decades (my younger brother revisited in 2003).
Tourists do not go into Naples which is a shame because, although it is a rough and noisy place with a lot of poverty, it is a proud and vibrant community with a beautiful location on the bay overlooking the island of Capri and close by the (still active) volcano of Vesuvius (last eruption in 1944). There are some grand buildings, such as the Royal Palace and the Angevin Stronghold, an endless number of old chuches, notably the cathedral which was built from 1294-1323, and exciting shopping areas, such as Via Tribunali (where my mother lived as a child), Via Roma and Galleria Umberto I.
In my childhood diary, I wrote: "They say 'See Naples and die' How right it is: if you're not killed by the heat, the cars will get you for sure". But, for me, the city will always be a kind of home.
Link: tourist guide click here
I’ve been to Oslo twice and the circumstances could not have been more different. The first time was in December when the temperature was minus 12 degrees C and the sun only rose mid-morning and then set in mid-afternoon. The second time was in June when I was able to celebrate Midsummer’s Day – a major event in Scandinavia – by spending the evening out in the fjord and observing that it never really became dark. My Norwegian friends were amused when I described Oslo as having a provincial feel but it is quite small compared to my home town of London. Nevertheless there is a lot to see and I especially loved the Edvard Munch pictures in the National and Munch galleries and the amazing humanistic sculptures of Gustav Vigeland located in the park with his name.
This is simply one of the great cities of the world and now it can be accessed by train – the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel – from London. I guess the symbol of Paris is the Eiffel Tower and I’ve been to the top – a thrilling experience – several times. The Louvre Museum, especially since it took over the former Ministry of Finance on the north side, is arguably the most magnificent museum in the world and, on each visit, I try to see something new. Yet, opposite it on the other side of the River Seine, the Musée d’Orsay art gallery houses a stunning collection of Impressionist paintings.
Other locations that I love to visit include Notre Dame Cathedral, the Art de Triomphe, and Napoleon’s Tomb in Les Invalides. Less well-known places that delight me include the Saint Chapelle with its gorgeous glass and the Orangerie gallery with its giant Monet water lillies. I really enjoy the buzz of the Champs-Elysées and the restaurants of the Latin Quarter and so much more.
On a recent visit to Paris, I was speaking at the INSEAD international business school in Fontainebleau, just outide the city, which gave me the chance to see the magnificent château which was the home of so many French kings and emperors.
Paris Pages click here
Louvre Museum click here
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is home to what I regard as my second family, the Horváths, and the capital of the country housing over 20 of my wife’s relatives. It is my favourite foreign city and, since 1988, I’ve been there a total of 23 times.
The first visit was before the fall of Communism when we smuggled material into the country for the dissident movement and brought out information on behalf of the dissidents. By an incredible irony, the London-based Czech dissident for whom we operated – our Czech teacher Jan Kavan – subsequently became the Foreign Minister in the democratic Czech Republic and later President of the United Nations' General Assembly. Since the "velvet revolution", the city has been in a process of continuous transition and, on every visit, I see more evidence of restoration of centuries-old buildings and discover new cafés and galleries. Even the effects of the terrible floods of August 2002 were quickly overcome.
Every one of central Prague's usually cobbled streets contains little craft shops and wonderful architectural delights with the art nouveau style particularly in evidence, perhaps most notably in the Municipal House [click here] which you can see on a guided tour. The Old Town Square [3D guide to the Old Town Square click here] is simply magical – a beautifully preserved set of buildings of which my favourite is the “Storch” house with the picture of the horse on the front. One of the strangest additions to the tourist scene is the Museum of Communism [click here], located surreally opposite the McDonald's on Na Příkopě.
in the Old Town Square
lining the Charles Bridge
The view of the old stone Charles Bridge with Prague Castle rising above it lifts my heart, whether the scene is by day or by night, in summer or in winter. The Charles Bridge itself presents fabulous views of Prague Castle and is always alive with sellers, musicians and characters of every description.
to the towering Prague Castle
and Martin (left) & Vojta (centre) are leading him astray
On the west bank of the River Vlatava, one can explore the castle, which inspired Kafka's novel of this name, wander through the tiny streets of the delightful area known as Novÿ svět (New World), and finish up at the Strahov Monastery with its magnificent philosophical and theological libraries.
I love observing cities from above and Prague has more such vantage points than most: the top of the Old Town Hall, the towers at either end of the Charles Bridge, and – best of all – the small-scale Eiffel Tower on the Petřín Hill and the top on the spire of St Vitus Cathedral (note, however, that this involves climbing 278 stone steps!).
The city is saturated with history and culture and on each visit I usually manage to take in a concert, opera or ballet. One of my favourite haunts is the cafe located just opposite the astronomical clock with an excellent view from the first floor of the hourly procession of the apostles. Another good eating place is the small chain of "Ebel" cafes [click here], which serve delicious bagels. A good eating place is the Thai restaurant called "Lemon Leaf" [click here] on the corner of Myslíkova and Na Zderaze (where our friends live). However, our favourite place is Restaurace Století [click here] on ulice Karolíny Světlé.
Everywhere one goes in the Czech Republic, one comes across a hrad (castle) or zámek (mansion). A short distance outside of Prague is the finest Gothic castle in all Bohemia: the Karlštejn Castle which was founded by the Emperor Charles IV in 1348. Only a little further outside the city and even more impressive is Konopiště Castle which was the home of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the time of his assassination in 1914.
Prague Information Service click here
"Prague Post" online click here
Sadly, this is the European city where one is most likely to be robbed and I once witnessed my colleague Spike Wood being relieved of his wallet by some gypsy children slickly performing the infamous piece of cardboard trick. But one has to go to Rome – the one-time capital of the world and still the capital of the Catholic Church.
The Colosseum may not look exactly like it does in the film “Gladiator” but it is still a magnificent edifice. The adjacent Roman Forum and nearby Pantheon further evoke the mighty that was once the Roman Empire. Only a little more prosaically, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the Piazza Navona are all magical places. Finally there is the Vatican with St Peter’s Cathedral, the Swiss guards, and the Sistine Chapel with its magnificent frescoes by Michelangelo.
Just be very careful of the traffic. Italian drivers are crazy.
Rome Guide click here
Vatican site click here
A visit to St Petersburg is a great way to begin learning about Russia, because this is unquestionably the most European of Russian cities, and this is a terrific time to go there, because there has been a massive programme of renovation for the 300th anniversary celebrations in May 2003. We went on a four-day tour a few weeks before the celebrations and had a fascinating time.
The city was founded at the location of the Peter & Paul Fortress and, at the centre of the fortress, is the Peter & Paul Cathedral which houses the tombs of most of the tsars, all the way from Peter the Great (who founded the city) to Nicholas II (who was murdered by the Bolsheviks whose revolution started in the city). The most famous building in the city is the Hermitage museum which is in fact a set of four linked buildings contained some sumptuous rooms and an amazing four million artefacts including great works of European art. My favourite building was the Cathedral of Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood, built over a 24 year period on the site of the assssination of Tsar Alexander II - located by a canal, it is is a mass of multi-coloured spires and onion domes. My most memorial experience was attending a ballet in the world-famous Mariinsky Theatre (until recently, better known as the Kirov).
St Petersburg and its environs has so many magnificent palaces that it's not hard to appreciate why there was a revolution. Of course, the previously-mentioned Hermitage includes the Winter Palace - the focus of the October revolution - but another notable home is the Yusopov Palace where Rasputin was murdered. Outside the city, there is the stunning Catherine's Palace in the village of Pushkin - with famous Amber room - and the Pavlovsk Palace in the village of the same name.
For more details on St Petersburg click here
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Situated historically on the cleavage of the Roman and Ottoman Empires, the defining feature of Sarajevo over the ages has been the religious mix of its population and, at the heart of the oldest part of the city, within a very short distance of one another there is an Orthodox church (St Michael The Archangel), a Muslim mosque (Begova Džamija Mosque), a Jewish synagogue (Sarajevo Synagogue), and a Catholic cathedral (the Sacred Heart of Jesus) - something that one can experience elsewhere in the world perhaps only in Jerusalem.
Before the three-year siege of the city, Sarajevo's Muslim population was around 45%. The city today is a peaceful place of 300,000 but with a majority Muslim population of around 85% and smaller Orthodox and Catholic communities. It has a distinctive lifestyle, caught by the words 'sabur' ('take it slow') and 'bujrum' (''you are most welcome'). The caé culture and coffee define the nature of the place.
However, physical and psychological evidence of the war is still everywhere and you should visit the Tunnel Museum just outside the city. The tunnel was built under the airport runway and linked the 'free' area of Butmir with the besieged Sarajevo district of Dobrinja. The length was around 800 metres, while the height was between 1.5-2 metres and the width around 1.2 metres. It proved to be a lifeline for the survival of the people of Sarajevo with food and supplies being carried though on peoples' backs or pushed through on metal carts running on a tramline.
For more details on Sarajevo click here
I love Moorish architecture and the best of it is to be found today not in north Africa but in southern Spain - places like Cordoba, Granada and Seville. In the case of Seville, the grandest example is the the Real Alcázar. This was founded as a fort in 913 and there then followed 11 centuries of expansion and reconstruction. What we see today is mainly the work of Pedro I and a simply magnificent example of mudéjar architecture. The Real Alcázar is said to be the oldest and richest palace complex in the history of Europe.
Seville has much more to delight, however: one of the largest cathedrals in the world, measuring 126 metres long and 83 metres wide; the 90 metre belfry or tower of the cathedral called the Giralda; the Casa de Pilatos, a delightful mixture of Mudéjar, Gothic and Renaisssance architecture and decoration; the magnificent Plaza de España. And then there is the food and the flamenco.
For more details on Seville click here
When I visited Sofia in 1997, it was bleak and there were few signs of a genuine revolution. The city was pulverised by Allied bombers in 1944 and brutalised by the Communist regime for the next forty years. But I liked the Bulgarians – I could not read their cyrillic script, but my knowledge of Czech enabled me to pick up some of the language. Also the city is not without interest. Particularly fascinating is the Aleksandar Nevski Memorial Church. It was built between 1882 and 1924 to honour the 200,000 Russian casualties of the 1877-78 War of liberation and glitters with 18lb of gold leaf donated by the Soviet Union in 1960. It is one of the finest pieces of architecture in the Balkans and a place to lose oneself in contemplation.
This is a city best visited in the summer, but the two times that I have been there have been in late October, when it was wet and cold, and in late January, when it was dry but even colder. Nevertheless one can’t help but be charmed by the place with its special location on a set of islands. Above all though, I love the Swedes and their lovely dry sense of humour.
The Gamla Stan or Old Town - with its Royal Palace - is especially interesting. There are also some good museums in Stockholm, but the most distinctive is the Vasa Museum which houses a Swedish war ship the “Vasa” which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and was raised from the bottom some 333 years later in 1961. It reminds one of the “Mary Rose” in Portsmouth, but it’s much more impressive because the restoration is to 95% of the original.
On my second visit, when I attended an international conference on combating intolerance, I was able to see the interior of the Stadshuset (or City Hall) which was designed by Ragnar Ostberg and completed in 1923. We had a buffet reception in the impressive Golden Room (where the Byzantine-inspired wall mosaics have 19 million fragments of gold leaf), following which we heard a speech from the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the so-called Blue Hall (where the annual Nobel Prize Awards take place).
Link: Stockholm Town click here
When I went to Warsaw in 1991, I started in a miserable hotel which did not even have a plug for the sink and then – when I became the guest of organisers of the conference which I was addressing on privatisation – I moved into the posh Victoria Hotel which was awash with prostitutes. The thing to remember about this city is that some 85% of it was destroyed in the war, so that almost everything that one sees – including the lovely Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square) has been faithfully restored on the basis of old plans and photographs. Locals will tell you that the best view of Warsaw is from the top of the Palace of Culture – Stalin’s post-war gift to the Poles – because this is the only place that one cannot see this fiercely ugly building.
I was particularly interested in the monuments and locations concerning the Jewish Uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Equally I felt it important to see Umschagplatz, the place from which the Jews were deported to the concentration camps. A bitter irony about Poland is that this country, which housed three million Jews before the war, now has hardly any living there and yet I still saw anti-semitic graffiti.
Even though my wallet was stolen on my most recent visit there, Venice is still one of my all-time favourite cities and one of the most magical places on earth.
It is, of course, the location that makes the city and the absence of cars and the preponderance of canals gives it a unique feel. It can be romantic, as one mingles with the pigeons in massive St Mark’s Square or glides along a quiet canal on a gondola. It can be joyous, as when I once observed the annual ‘regatta storica’ with recreations of medieval vessels dominating the Grand Canal. Or it can be mysterious – like a scene from the film “Don’t Look Now” – as one loses one’s way down the tiny streets (called ‘calle’) in the black of night.
Always it is majestic with views that almost reduce one to tears: the Ca’ D’Oro from a passing vaporetto, the church of Santa Maria della Salute from the Accademia bridge or the Doges’ Palace from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Whether one climbs the Campanile for a view of Saint Mark’s Basilica or observes the bronze Moors striking the hour on the clock tower or savours the renaissance paintings of the Accademia, one is in for a treat. Not to mention the Italian food ..
Link: History of Venice click here
The former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a city imbued with grandeur, exemplified by the Hofburg, Belvedere and Schonbrunn palaces. The last is my favourite because, as well as the kind of grand mirrored rooms where little Mozart played piano, there are magnificent gardens.
Vienna has everything from a room-full of Breughels in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (including “The Tower of Babel” & “Hunters In The Snow”) to the Riesenrad or big ferris wheel, originally built by an English engineer in 1896 and famously ridden by Orson Wells in the film of “The Third Man”. As everyone who knows me will testify, I’m a cake man and Vienna is the cake capital of the world – you can try a different one every morning and every afternoon for as long as you are likely to stay (my favourite is sachertorte).
Above all, this is a city of culture. Everywhere there are statues to classical composers like Beethoven and Strauss. I’ve delighted in seeing “The Force Of Destiny” in Italian in the Staatsoper and “West Side Story” in German in the Volksoper, as well as hearing an organ concert in the Votivkirke and a piano recital in the Musikvereinsgebaude.
Zagreb is like a small Prague or Budapest. The architecture of the inner city is heavily influenced by its former membership of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the outer parts of the city display plenty of evidence of the stark, utilitarian style of its decades as a Communist state. Like Prague and Budapest, there is an old town with historic buildings, a hill with an imposing cathedral, and cobbled streets and lots of cafés. The city is particularly blessed with some splendid parks.
The inner city is divided into two distinct parts. First, there is the Gornji Grad (Upper Town) which is the oldest part of the city and hilly. Highlights include St Stephen's Cathedral and St Mark's Church, the Dolac Market and Tkalčićeva street (lots of cafés) and the Museum of Zagreb (which is well worth a visit). Second, there is the Donji Grad (Lower Town) which is more contemporary and flat. Highlights here include the Arts & Crafts Museum, the Mimara Museum and the square named after Bana Josip Jelačića.
Last modified on 18 August 2012
Some Travel Sites
Lonely Planet click here
Wanda Lust blog click here