Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Our van Gogh love-in continues

Stepping out of Amsterdam Centraal and into the streets of the city, the immediacy in which you get the essence of the Dutch capital is startling. Crooked leaning, quirky buildings encircle you, canals invite in all directions and the ringing of bicycle bells pervade the ears.

The more wicked elements of the city are also readily apparent in broad daylight with the smell of cannabis lingering in the air and workers carrying out the unenviable task of cleaning up the broken glass and litter which blanket the streets from the previous nights antics. Our walk through the streets of Amsterdam bared all that the city is both famous and infamous for, a city proudly unabashed.

After some aimless wandering through the bonny canal system, we settled in with a trip to a coffee shop. One of the few which actually primarily sells coffee too, Melly’s Cookies Bar is a dainty pâtisserie which offers a range of fine tasting hot beverages and even finer cakes. The Dutch delicacy, the stroopwafel is the perfect coffee accompaniment and Melly’s is a terrific place to relax in the afternoons.

A must for sweet-toothed travellers

Perked up by the recent rush of caffeine and sugar, we were ready to take on the streets of Amsterdam. We navigated our way through the tight-knit alleyways admiring the buildings all around us, similar to the eye-catching aesthetic of Bruges only with a more distorted swagger. One building however is a dissonant modern structure which sits by the canal. The contemporary facade hides a significant history, the house where Anne Frank took refuge during World War II.

Today the premises is a museum which tells the story of the famous diarist and even grants access to the ‘secret annex’ in which she, along with her parents, sister and four other jews, hid from Nazi persecution during the war until their eventual capture. It’s a tragic part of history however the plight of the young girl who once lived here was not for nothing. The influence of her diary means that the museum is hugely popular with visitors to this day and serves as a poignant reminder of darker days.

Unused side entrance – ‘ANNE FRANK HUIS’

We didn’t visit the museum as Kirsty has previously been and as the museums of Amsterdam are quite expensive, we budgeted instead for ones which neither of us had been to. One of them being the informative exhibition that is Body Worlds: The Happiness Project. An extraordinary anatomy museum which people have donated their bodies to, so that they could be preserved and are displayed for educational purposes to better understand our own inner workings.

Specifically, the museum focuses on the concept of happiness. What makes us happy? What effect does it have on our health and wellbeing? How can we improve our happiness? Well one way not to is to set the price of tickets at €18 for those paying at the door. However they can be purchased at a lower rate on the Body Worlds website, we did this and saved about €8 between us. Regardless, you won’t leave feeling short-changed as there are six floors worth of anatomical marvels to inspect and fascinating science to learn.

At times disturbing, frequently fun and interactive, always educational and sure to have you leaving with a smile on your face. It’s perfectly understandable that paying €18 for what is essentially a jazzed up biology lesson may not be your idea of fun. However the long term benefits of happiness will become very apparent and if you take on what is conveyed, an afternoon here could do you a lifetime of good. At the very least, you get to gawp at some unique and macabre displays of plastination.

A plastination of a real human nervous system

Brimming with a newfound joix de vivre, it was time to unwind with a drink. The Amsterdam nightlife speaks for itself, who doesn’t know about what happens when the sun sets in this city? It’s not all about wild nights in the thriving club scene though, there are plenty of laid back drinking spots right in the heart of the city in which you can happily spend a lazy evening drinking next to the canal.

Even the seedier sides of the city have been toned down and may soon become a thing of the past. For us, sitting in the terraces and enjoying the views of the waterways from the considerable number of canal-side bars was enough to become enamoured with the charm of Amsterdam at night.

Upon waking we made our way to another of the city’s many fantastic museums, the Van Gogh Museum. Previously we learned more about Vincent van Gogh and his time spent in the town of Nuenen during our trip to Eindhoven. As such we snapped up the opportunity to continue our love affair with the fascinating artist in Amsterdam. On our way there we made time to stop by the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign which pops up around the city, this time outside the Rijksmuseum only a short walk from our destination.

Don’t bank on getting one-on-one time with this tourist attraction

Whilst this is another pricey museum in the city at €17, it is truly worthy of bearing the artist’s name as it sports a vast collection of his work including many of his most celebrated paintings. The collection spans three floors and documents different stages of van Gogh’s life including his humble beginnings as a ‘peasant painter’, his artistic friendships formed during his time in Paris to his later years where his mental health declined yet his output increased, producing 75 paintings in the 70 days leading up to his death.

Add to that another three-floor temporary exhibition detailing van Gogh’s love of Japanese art and the influence it had on his work and you have a riveting way to spend an entire afternoon in Amsterdam. Both my partner and I have a growing interest in art and rifling through the massive collection only fueled this further, making for a fantastic expansion of our knowledge.

As well as seeing hundreds of paintings by the man himself including masterpieces such as Sunflowers, The Potato Eaters, The Bedroom and Almond Blossom, there are also paintings by prominent figures in the world of art each with a connection to van Gogh’s work. These include Paul Gaughin, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Émile Bernard, Henri Toulouse-Lautrect, Jean Francois-Rafaelli, Kees van Dongen, Jan Sluijters and many, many more.

Unfortunately pictures are not allowed inside the museum so here’s a beautiful shot of Amsterdam instead

After getting lost in the impassioned brush strokes of van Gogh’s masterpieces, we decided to grab a coffee and some food over which to discuss our visit. Bagels & Beans was the café of choice, a Dutch coffee chain which offers New York-style delicacies and pops up frequently throughout Amsterdam. A safe bet for a lunchtime hangout, great food, great coffee and plenty of locations around the city.

The canal system of Amsterdam isn’t the only picturesque setting available for locals and tourists to explore. The sprawling Vondelpark provides 120 acres of grassy plains, scenic walkways shaded by a plethora of trees and is frequented by all and sundry on sunny spring afternoons. An hour or so enjoying the aesthetic surroundings and chirpy atmosphere was a pleasant way to roll into our final evening in city.

An allegory for the plight of conservationism? Probably just a novel tree support

An early night beckoned after a few more hours spent haunting the world famous bar scene. The reason being that the following morning we would journey once more, swapping the artifical waterways of Amsterdam for the superb natural scenery of Nice in Southern France.

Eindhoven & Nuenen, the Netherlands: Discovering the town once home to Vincent van Gogh

Travelling from the beautiful city of Prague to the industrial Eindhoven seemed on the surface like we were taking our foot off the gas with our adventure around the great cities of Europe. How wrong we were though, there is plenty happening in this hip city and beauty to discover among the surrounding rural areas, demonstrable by the effect this setting had on the troubled genius that was Vincent van Gogh.

On the first evening of our brief stay within the city we took to the streets of the centre-most Binnenstad and Bergen districts. The pulsating nucleus of the city is dominated by two things, the historic Sint-Catharinakerk (St. Catherine’s Church) at the centre and it’s nightlife (the area’s nightlife that is, not the church’s) which seems to spread forth from this looming landmark.

Sint-Catharinakerk lit up at night

We filled up on our favourite go-to dinner at de pizzaplaats, situated in downtown Eindhoven on a lively square outside the PAnd P performing arts theatre. Here there are a handful of restaurants with terraces spilling onto the street outside the theatre, making this the ideal place for dinner and a show or just a relaxing spot to have a meal before delving further into the city centre.

As we passed by the Van Abbemuseum and over the river Dommel, we discovered the beating heart of the city. Reminiscent of our nights in the Altstadt district of Düsseldorf, this area can be viewed as one single entity with bar after bar lining the streets and linking the patrons of each one together into one single, swarming organism creating a lively vibe. We remained within this hive of activity for the remainder of the evening soaking up the party atmosphere and stumbled back home to our hotel.

The evening allure of the vibrant city centre

We had an early rise the following morning for a truly unique experience, a trip to Nuenen. The town sits just outside of Eindhoven and claims one of the greatest artists of all time among it’s former residents. Le fou roux (The redheaded madman), as he was once dubbed by the townspeople of Arles, Vincent van Gogh is today considered a brilliant painter who produced many masterpieces throughout his life and his work is celebrated the world over. This was not always the case however.

Van Gogh himself only took up painting as his profession at the age of 27. Tragically he killed himself aged 37 having sold only one painting in his lifetime and garnered very little acclaim within the artistic community. As an emerging artist still honing his craft, van Gogh moved to Nuenen in 1983 where he found a passion for painting peasant life and produced his first major work, The Potato Eaters. We learned all this and more from the ‘outdoor museum’ within the town which tells the story of the former inhabitants life there.

It’s easy to see how such a simple place could inspire great art

From the Vincentre we were able to pick up a map marked with locations of monuments dedicated to the painter, places which played a significant role in his life in Nuenen and many real life sights that van Gogh drew or painted. The attractions include a modern statue depicting an early masterpiece, The Potato Eaters; the houses of his parents and of his neighbour and lover Margot Begemann as well as the De Roosdonck windmill which was featured in no less than seven of the prolific Dutch artist’s paintings.

We even had a stroke of luck as the now privately owned windmill is still operational today and open to visitors on Saturdays. We may have missed out on seeing two of da Vinci’s works during our stay in Milan however our fortunate timing here meant that we got to experience the inside of one of the iconic facets of peasant life in Nuenen which van Gogh so admired.

Inside we were shown around by a worker at the windmill who described the work as his hobby which he did voluntarily. From the remarkable, hands-on experience we learned a little bit about windmills and gained a huge new appreciation of the less celebrated work from van Gogh’s time in the rural town.

A peaceful sight in rural Nuenen

The walk which the route takes you on passes by a tranquil lake distrubed only by a family of ducks, a park area with statues erected in tribute to van Gogh and his work and through the calming countryside which defines the area to this day. Eventually we had to leave the sanctuary of charming Nuenen and return to city life in Eindhoven.

Here we continued our culture trip with a visit to Sint-Catharinakerk. A Roman Catholic church which has remained part of the community since as far back 1240 despite suffering damage and destruction through several centuries of war. The current neo-Gothic version of the church has stood since 1867.

Inside is an impressive cathedral with brilliant artwork, colourful stained glass windows and even a section dedicated to archaeological finds from digs at the site. Bones and artefacts dating back to the medieval origins of the building are all on show so even if you have no interest in churches or architecture, it’s worth a visit for the storied history of the building and the exhibits within.

Designed by Peter Cuyler, the architect behind the Rijksmuseum and Central Station both in Amsterdam

There’s not much to tell from the final evening of our two day stay, mainly because I dragged Kirsty to a crammed Irish bar to catch the final of the Champions League. However we did get another opportunity to immerse ourselves in the vibrant nightlife within the city and look forward to visiting another Dutch city famed for it’s nightlife, Amsterdam.

Prague, Czech Republic: The beauty of old Bohemia resonates throughout the Czech capital

Dates: May 22nd – May 24th

Distance walked: 55.99km

Steps: 82,657

Temperature high: 27°C

Walking from our accomodation in the Žižkov district into the old town was a real eye opener. Having been to cities the length and breadth of Europe this one truly stands out above them all due to it’s unique beauty.

The neighbourhoods away from the tourist infested centre are filled with rows of buildings each differing slightly in architectural design and colour patterns but maintaining an equal elegance. A welcome change from the uniform looking, grey appartment buildings which seem so prominent in many major cities today.

When we arrived in Old Town we were keenly looking forward to seeing the fascinating astronomical clock, in fact I made it the home page of www.theeuropeexperience.blog as it was the sight I was most excited for before we had even left at the start of April. Alas, as luck would have it when we walked through the winding, narrow streets and under the archway into the main square we were met by the Old Town Hall fitted with tiers of scafolding and a printed imitation of the clock draped down the side of it.

I’ll see the real thing another time perhaps

My loss however may well be your gain. The clock designed and built originally by Mikuláš of Kadaň and Jan Šindel in 1410 is currently undergoing renovation work to repair parts and restore it to it’s former glory after mistakes made during previous restorations. It is set to return in summer of 2018 so for anyone with an upcoming trip reading this and panicking, the clock should be ready soon! The closest we came to seeing the historic timepiece was an admittedly impressive chocolate imitation a few streets away.

Prague is a city with countless wondrous sights fortunately. Thus, not to be deterred, we regrouped in a nearby Czech restaurant Mlejnice with some traditional cuisine and cheap liquor and set off in search of the cities many other attractions. First up was Charles Bridge, the oldest and most famous of Prague’s bridges. The bridge has 16 arches, 30 Baroque statues and is only open to pedestrian access. Here you will find little jewellery stalls, caricature artists and local musicians pawning their CD’s and filling the air with sounds from a multitude of musical genres.

It’s easy to see why the area is so popular with filmmakers with an all encapsulating view of Old Town sights such as the Bridge Tower and the St Francis of Assissi Church as well as Malá Strana sights including the Prague Castle, all accompanied by the relaxing sound of the Vltava River flowing underneath. Add to this that Prague offers a cheaper location to shoot than closing a bridge in the likes of London, New York or Venice without sacrificing an iconic backdrop.

You may even get a sense of déjà vu when walking across the bridge or nearby the surrounding canals as they, along with other locations in the city, have featured in the likes of Mission Impossible, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, The Illusionist, Casino Royale and Amadeus. The filmakers behind these famous flicks all decided that the city, and in particular Charles Bridge, was the perfect backdrop to use during their principal photography.

Charles Bridge as seen from Old Town

Once we had navigated our way accross the hectic bridge we found ourselves in Mala Straná or Lesser Town as it’s known. Don’t let that name deceive you, these narrow, cobbled streets are home to some of the most historic sights in the city. Previously a quiet fishing town, it burnt down in 1541 and was rebuilt in the Baroque style and today is a glorious spot to discover within Prague. Located on a steep incline which seats the Prague Castle at the uppermost point within the hilltop Hradčany area, we hiked up street after street to get a night time view from the top.

On the way we passed U krále Brabantského, a medieval tavern that claims to be ‘the oldest pub in Prague since 1375’. I haven’t been able to find anything that legitimizes this claim however on popping our head in it certainly felt like we had travelled back in time. Dark, dingy stone walls barely lit up by flickering candles entrap lively groups of tourists who flock here for the medeival shows on offer in this ancient boozer.

A 643 year old drinking den

We didn’t stay for a drink instead carrying on with our mission up to Hradčany. Our reward was the best seat in the house as far as views in this picturesque city go with the area offering a glimpse of the castle complex, comprehensive views of the townscape below and directly across to Petřín hill on which the Eiffel-esque Petřín Lookout Tower stands. An utterly intoxicating view and the perfect note to call an end to our first evening in the splendid Czech capital.

Day two in Prague began much the same way as the previous night had ended, with a long walk between our accomodation and Prague Castle. Those who make a morning or afternoon journey up through the steep streets of Malá Strana and climb the stairs leading up to the castle are rewarded with a mini-marketplace. A collection of wooden huts selling touristic trinkets, refreshments and alcoholic beverages and local cuisine cooked up in front of you in deep woks sits in front of the main courtyard of the castle complex.

It’s worth the trip there alone however we found it to be a welcome pit stop to grab some breakfast before exploring the castle grounds. Inside these grounds there are no less than ten different points of interest, you can pick and choose which ones you want to visit and buy a ticket accordingly. We opted for circuit B which grants entry to St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, the Old Royal Palace and the Golden Lane all for 250 Czech koruna (around £8).

This Gothic masterpiece had a profound impact on architecture in Central European countries at the time

Visually, the cathedral is the most stunning structure within the complex and perhaps even Prague itself. Inside the Gothic building are intricate and colourful stain glass windows, beautiful zig-zaging Parler’s vaults (named after the pioneering sculpter and architect who designed and built much of the cathedral) as well as the bodies of many Bohemian kings, most notably Wencelaus I.

The former Duke of Bohemia died in 935 and was elevated to sainthood and posthumously declared king due to the magnitude of his legacy as a good natured and righteous man. After being murdered by his younger brother, his remains were eventually transported to St. Vitus Cathedral where they remain today entombed in St. Wencelas Chapel. The room is not open to the public however you are able to see inside from an open doorway.

A resting place befitting of a Saint

After roaming inside the grandiose chapel we toured the other sights which whilst they may not be as impressive, are also steeped in a rich history. For instance, house number 22 in the Golden Lane is where the sister of celebrated author Franz Kafka once stayed and the writer used the location for his work for several years.

We returned to the streets Malá Strana where our tour of historic sights continued. We visited Lennon Wall, a monument to the Fab Four frontman which has been graffiti laden since the 1980s, at the moment the wall is mostly expletives and indecipherable layers of scribbles however there are still glimpses of Lennon-inspired artwork near the top. Next we visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious which is home to the Infant Jesus of Prague, a wooden figurine depicting baby Jesus holding an orb with a cross. A famous, diamond encrusted sight which is much beloved among locals and much sought after by tourists.

Worshipers congregate to pay tribute to this opulent shrine

In the late afternoon we returned to Old Town where we spent the evening. We gawped at the peculiar and well hidden Sigmund Freud statue which hangs high above the heads of oblivious passers by. Artist David Černý designed and created the provocative piece in 1996 and the work has allegedly caused concern among people unaware that it was a statue. Should you spot the precariously perched psychoanalyst, hang around with Freud and take some time to ponder the meaning behind it.

The famed Austrian was born in the town of Příbor in modern day Czech Republic

On our final morning we started the day with a brief trip to the farmers market which pops up four times a week in the Žižkov district where our accomodation was situated. Unfortunately we had largely ignored the spirited district, which is full of dinky cafés and trendy bars, only passing through on our daily treks to the city centre.

However today we were compelled to linger a tad, attracted by the alluring smells effusing from various succulent meats cooking within the myriad of stalls. We staved our appetite for now instead feasting only with our eyes within the pop up market which appears in front of the unique Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord.

An intriguing church building seen from the morning market in the heart of Žižkov

We made our daily hour long march to the Hradčany district where we snacked on more delicious food from the wooden food stalls before about-turning for the banks of Vltava. Our intention was to enquire about a cruise on the river, always a fun activity to lazily pass some time in a city which sits on the banks of a major river.

Prague Venice cruises were the company we opted for, small mahogany boats which hold around 15 passengers and provide an hour long cruise of the Vtlava and Devil’s Canal along with a drink and snack for 340 Czech Koruna (a little over £11). Our captain and guide was actually from Bournemouth, England however was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the river and Prague itself.

One of the most interesting tidbits was that the river used to freeze every winter and locals would swarm on the surface to skate and play ice hockey. This continued until the 1950s when weirs and dams were built making freezing much less likely. Furthermore we discovered that the area known as Devil’s Canal used to be a place of squalor where sewage would flow into however is now the most affluent area of Prague with canal side real estate commanding high property values.

The Venice Prague boat tours begin beneath a monastery

After a relaxing and informative hour on the river we grabbed a local favourite, the trdelník on our way back towards the main square. A sweet tasting delicacy popular among Central European countries which is made from dough wrapped around a stick and cooked over hot coals whilst coated in sugar.

Prague is rife with trdlo stalls selling these delicious snacks which have a subtle cinnamon flavour and can be filled with ice cream, chocolate, caramel or fruit. If you do not have a sweet tooth then you can even buy a savoury trdelník filled with anything from pulled pork to mozzarella and tomato.

If the captivating cooking method doesn’t draw you in, the sweet scented aromas will

Our final evening in the city was spent getting a taste of the famous nightlife. Stag and hen do’s are abundant in Old Town helping the locals contribute to the record for highest beer consumption per capita in the world, a record which the Czech Republic holds. We hung around only for a few hours though dipping into Irish pubs, jazz & blues joints and even the discrete top floor apartment-style bar, Unijazz. We called it a night before it really came to life as we had an early flight to catch the following morning for our next stop, Eindhoven.

Bologna, Italy: Pilgrimage for the Madonna di San Luca, stay for the heavenly food

Dates: May 19th – May 21st

Distance walked: 35.5km

Steps: 52,414

Temperature high: 26°C

It was a balmy summer evening when we arrived in Bologna on Saturday for our second trip to Italy as part of our travels. The city is classically Italian with artistic influence permeating the streets and architecture, bustling piazas lined with lavish basilicas and a deep passion for cuisine which is evident in the abundance of high quality restaurants.

Ravenous after yet another long days travel, our first stop, of course, was at one of these acclaimed eateries. The centuries old tradition of osterie is alive and well in Bologna and their prevelance here means that you are never more than a street or two away from one. Traditionally an osteria was a small establishment which typically catered to men and served only drinks however over time their popularity has only increased and now they vary greatly in clientele and facilities however are still generally small restaurants which serve simple food and a selection of wines.

It was one such place that we dined in on our first evening in the city, namely, Osteria Dell’Orsa. Exactly as you may imagine it this is a busy little place with no frills and plenty of heart. It would be sacrilege to come to the food capital of Italy and not try tagliatelle al Ragù which is one of my favourite dishes and the cities most iconic, so much so that generally in English-speaking countries we refer to the popular bastardized version with spaghetti simply as bolognese.

It’s a classic for a reason and a mainstay of Bolognese restaurants

I’ve always thought it strange that despite the ingredients being the same no matter where a dish is made, it always seems to taste better in the place where it originates. Whether it was the feeling of authenticity or just that I wanted it to be so, it was no different here. For anyone looking for a simple and delicious take on the local culinary classic you can do no better than Osteria Del’Orsa.

The streets of Bologna are designed in such a beautiful manner that you could happily walk for hours just enjoying your surroundings. Something we were very grateful for after our wholesome dinner. Arcade-style colonnades seem to line every street, sheltering the residents and providing sublime walkways from which to navigate the city.

We caught sight of the Le due Torri (The Two Towers), traversed the lively Piazza Maggiore in the heart of the city and took time to appreciate the unique and permanently unfinished facade of the San Petronio Basilica, the main church within the city as well as the stunning Fountain of Neptune sculpted by Giambologna.

An unfinished building which isn’t flooded in scafolding is a refreshing sight
Dark clouds swarming above the water deity

Eventually we put the brakes on the sightseeing and grabbed a drink at the uber cool upscale bar, Casa Minghetti at Piazza Minghetti. It’s a vibrant night time spot where you will find the fashionable residents of the Emilia-Romagna metropolis mingling and nibbling on the complementary finger food provided. After trying a few of the interesting ‘select cocktails’ in the relaxed outdoor seating area within the piazza, we called it a night.

At this point, we are seasoned veterans when it comes to scaling the great heights of Europe, thus far ascending the Rheintrum in Düsseldorf, the Belfry of Bruges and hiking to Santa Barba Castle in Alicante. As such we wasted no time getting in line for Torre degli Asinelli, one of the cities famous ‘two towers’ which stands a whopping 97 metres. Whilst not as outwardly aesthetically pleasing as the more famous tower in Pisa, Torre Asinelli, which also stands off-kilter, beats it for height making it the tallest leaning tower in Italy.

Our initial overconfidence caught up with us somewhere around the halfway mark of the 498 steps, making our efforts climbing the 366 steps in Bruges seem pitiful. We were rewarded eventually with a beautiful view of la rossa (the red) which stretches out to the surrounding hills and forrestry and permits one to appreciate the sea of fiery orange and red buildings which give Bologna it’s nickname. If you don’t mind a physically challenging climb up a precarious stairway and some mild claustrophobia at the top then this a fun and essential activity.

Reds, greens and whites on show in Italy’s tallest leaning tower

Our efforts provided us with the perfect excuse to try another of our food favourites, pizza. Only a ten minute walk from the centre we found MozzaBella – Pratelo, a gourmet pizzeria which uses high quality ingredients to provide unique and interesting flavours at reasonable prices. For pizza purists there are hundreds of alternatives in the city which will adequately provide what you are looking for, however for those yearning for a little adventure with their slice you need not look further.

We walked next to the Quadrilatero area, an energetic market comprised of several intertwining streets packed with shops selling cheeses, wines and meats and restaurants offering antipasti selections, seemingly packed with an even mix of locals and tourists no matter the time of day. We would return on our last day for a more hands on experience however, for now it was just a passing visit.

Instead we returned to the iconic two towers, more specifically a bar which sits nearby on via Zamboni, Bar Lime. We treated ourselves to a few zesty cocktails at the foot of the towers with a more grounded yet no less impressive view than we’d experienced above earlier. We rounded off the evening with more pizza for dinner (please don’t judge us) and chilled out in some laid back bars in the area near Piazza Maggiore.

Both towers are leaning, though thankfully the taller of the two is not quite as extreme

The final days main activity was an hour long trek to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca however we were in need of a pick-me-up before undertaking such an endeavour so we stopped in at Mercato di Mezzo (The Middle Market). A historic three-storey indoor market which was saved from years of abandonment by a 2014 restoration and is now choc-full of locals from 0830 until midnight seven days a week. A cappuccino with a cream-filled cornetto pastry accompaniment provided the perfect kick to set us up for our pilgrimage.

A selection of sweets and pastries inside The Middle Market

The Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca is a basilica perched atop a hill on the outskirts of Bologna keeping a watchful eye over the city. It’s a popular voyage for catholics all over Italy and indeed visiting tourists and it is easy to see why. It’s a half hour walk from the city centre to Arco del Meloncello, an impressive arch marking the beginning of another of Bologna’s trademark portico walkways which runs all the way up the hill leading to the basilica.

Originally built for the protection of the icon of the Virgin Mary which is kept within the sanctuary and is paraded to the city once every year using the arcade, we appreciated the sentiment and welcomed the shade it provided us on the gruelling climb.

On the way up we passed through some 666 archways many of which are adorned with holy murals depicting the rise, fall and ascension of Christ. The gaps between columns offer brief glimpses of the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, home stadium of local football team Bologna F.C. 1909 as well as stunning views of the city through the surrounding foliage.

A view from halfway up the hill

Inside the sanctuary the main attraction is obviously the icon itself. It is reputed to have been painted by Saint Luke and brought to the city in the 13th century by a pilgrim when it was then taken into the care of two nuns. We were able to get up close and personal to this little slice of divine history stored in befitting grandiose manner within the hilltops of Bologna.

Madonna di San Luca

From the pious isolation of the church in the hills we bounded back down the path whence we came and journeyed to the comforting humbleness of the Quadrilatero marketplace. Here we sampled an abundance of antipasti for lunch in La Baita, a deli which puts together breadboards of cheeses and meats assorted and presented loosely based on their region. The atmosphere is always buzzing, the quality of service and food beyond question and the experience is about as Italian as you can get.

The remainder of our final day was quiet, having squeezed in a pilgramage before noon we decided to unwind before our early rise the following day to journey to Prague. We did however have time to savour one last delicious taste of Bologna at Ristorante Da Cesari with another take on the symbolic dish we tried on our first evening, tagliatelle al ragú.

The exquisite looks on the outside are complimented by the tasty food inside

Valencian Country, Spain: An infinitely picturesque region on the Costa Blanca

Dates: 14th May – 18th May

Distance walked: 51.17km

Steps: 75,588

Temperature: 27°C

Having spent a week back at home in Aberdeen, a pre-planned pit stop arising from circumstances equal parts frustrating and unavoidable, we were longing for a return to warmer climates. Thankfully next up on our conquest of Europe was a trip to sunny Spain.

Our accommodation was a tranquil appartment complex within the unassuming municipality of Jacarilla, located in the Valencian Community in Eastern Spain. Here we stayed at the only place during our travels which is equipped with a swimming pool. As such, on our first morning we hastily got into our swimming kit and spent a cool forty five in the shaded, though sharply refreshing, water.

The pool design does not facilitate much exposure to the sun, however provides a great way to shock the system awake

After a crisp start to the day in the chilly pool, we decided to heat up by dousing ourselves in Spanish sunlight whilst exploring the village of Jacarilla and nearby town Algorfa in the Costa Blanca region. Whilst the towns themselves are pretty sleepy the area is certainly not without its charms. The true beauty around here is captured on the walks between the residential areas.

Countless rows of fruitful orange trees stretch all the way to the foots of the hills which rise jutting out from the horizon. It’s a truly serene backdrop for squeezing in a round of golf at the La Finca Golf resort in Algorfa or discovering the grounds of the disused palace in Jacarilla, an amazing and unexpected feature of the small village in rural Spain.

Serenity in agrarian Spain

After a lazy first evening in Costa Blanca we quickened the pace with a trip to the popular port city of Alicante the following day. Perhaps more known for its nightlife however it is also an excellent daytime excursion with a beach, marina and a scenic old town to discover. If you happen to be on a particularly tight schedule then I’d recommend forgetting all of those suggestions and heading straight for the true gem of Alicante which is Santa Barbara Castle.

The highest point in the city provides a stunning view for miles in all directions for those who dare make the trek up Mount Benacantil. We hiked our way to the summit however fear not, if that is not your thing then there is a road which leads directly to the top and free parking when you get there. Upon arrival there is a café and kiosk where you can grab a refreshment before touring the castle grounds.

The beach and marina below look even more glamourous from this height

There are a host of archaeological finds discovered at the site from throughout the ages, coats of arms from noble Spanish families and truly spectacular 360° views. All of which make traipsing up the gruelling Mount Benacantil well worth the effort.

Descending the hillside proved considerably more enjoyable than the steep route to the top and below the castle lie more beautiful sights. The beach and the marina made for dazzling eye candy as we took a leisurely stroll by, ice cream in hand, before spending some time in old town. Here there are plenty bars and restaurants to kill time in before the city comes to life at night. We opted for an early night instead and caught the train back, not before a few tall drinks by the marina though.

A view from the marina bay

What trip to Spain is complete without a day spent at the beach? Luckily our appartment was only a 25 minute drive from the coast so a lazy day at Guadamar Beach was next up on our agenda. Sprawling coastline, golden sands and sparkling blue water adorn the coastal town of Guadamar del Segura and we spent the best part of our third day sunning ourselves and strolling along the 11km stretch of beach in the municipality.

Only a twenty minute train journey from Orihuela (the closest train station to Jacarilla) lies the gorgeous city of Murcia, the destination for our penultimate day in Spain. From the train station we walked towards the centre passing over the Segura river via the reassuringly named Puente de los Peligros or ‘Bridge of Dangers’ and past the lovely pastel-peach town hall making our way to the remarkable Murcia Cathedral.

The employees of City Hall can enjoy a flowery view whilst conducting their business

A Roman Catholic church in the Plaza Del Cardenal Belluga exhibiting beautiful architecture from its masterful Baroque main facade to the Renaissance and Neoclassical bell tower and the Gothic interior. It’s free to enter and inside one can behold the marvellous artwork and holy relics on display whilst those of a religious persuasion can observe or partake freely in a ceremony within the chapel.

Murcia Cathedral and bell tower looming over the square outside

With neither of us being religious, after such an ecclesiastical experience we felt the urge for something a touch more sinful. In the square directly outside, we found exactly the kind of indulgence we desired in the form of chocolate a la taza, the Spanish take on hot chocolate.

After drinking, or perhaps more accurately eating, a cup of the sickly sweet treat we had not quite been deterred from seeking out some more Spanish cuisine for lunch. The restaurant, Tapas Los Zagales is a 92 year old establishment which exudes authenticity and specialises in the tradition of tapas, small and inexpensive dishes perfect for sharing a light lunch.

We shared plates of bite sized sandwhiches, croquettes, meatballs, pork and patatas bravas within the rustic eatery and then set off in search of a place to continue our spree of indulgence with some alcoholic beverages. Plaza de las Flores, named so because of the flower market which runs through the day, provided the ideal setting for us to take in the city known as Europe’s orchard over a glass of strong liquor.

Murcia has a prevelant yet understated elegance

One last must see area within Murcia lies in the tiny region of Monteagudo, an hours walk or 15 minutes by bus from the city centre will take you to one of Spain’s lesser known, but quietly impressive castles. A statue of Jesus which bares semblance to the famous Christ the Redeemer monument in Rio de Janeiro sits atop a hill to create a powerful scene contrasting with the quaint hamlet below.

Unfortunately those charged with looking after the site have neglected to maintain it so much so that the monument is in a state of disrepair, making access difficult as the visitor centre is closed and climbing to the summit is dangerous. There is however a museum at the foot of the hill and stopping by even if just for the view alone is more than worth the bus fare there and back to central Murcia. A quiet evening back in Jacarilla wrapped up a busy day discovering Murcia.

Monteagudo Castle as seen from Monteagudo

Rather than a dip in the pool to start the day, on our last morning we travelled to the nearby seaside town of San Pedro del Pinatar for a dip in the mud. The warm water lakes at the Las Charcas mud baths are reputed to have healing powers for damaged skin and arthritic pain. The method involves walking out into the lakes until the sand below turns to a slick, black surface at which point you scoop some up and apply to your skin, thereafter letting it dry in to work its magic.

Even if you don’t fancy covering yourself head to toe in slimy mud for the potential dermatological benefits, it is a good bit of fun to watch others going to great lengths to do so. Alternatively, opposite these lakes is the Mar Menor lagoon and another beautiful stretch of Costa Blanca beach should you wish to cover yourself instead with some sun tan lotion and soak up the rays.

The shallow salt water lagoon of Mar Menor

Before leaving San Pedro we shared a paella of mixed seafood and meat at Don Giovanni, one of the many beachside restaurants offering up fresh seafood and on our last evening in Spain we unearthed a hidden gem in our own back garden, La Cueva (The Cave).

Burrowing down through the opening of a stone wall on the outskirts of the village leads you to a charming outdoor bar complete with stone huts, a water feature and plentiful foliage. Here we sat well into the night sipping drinks and speculating on what Bologna would have in store for us the following day.

Manchester, England: Savouring the nightlife and exploring the wonderful Manchester Museum

We arrived in Manchester on Friday evening, just in time for May Day weekend and the bank holiday celebrations were already in full swing. Needless to say, we wasted no time in donning our glad rags and heading to the lively Northen Quarter area of the city for our first taste of what Manchester had to offer.

The gridiron style here links one street filled with bustling bars and bistros to the next, each one mobbed at the weekends with merry patrons spilling out on to the pavements drinks in hand. Before joining the festivities our first stop was at Solita’s, a bar & grill where we were fortunate enough to be squeezed in for a table in the much sought-after restaurant.

This diner serves up an imaginative variety of American style burgers and hot dogs including the ‘KFB’ with monterey jack cheese, BBQ sauce, jalapenos and Kentucky fried bacon and the ‘Manc-hattan’ a mix of British black pudding and Lancashire cheese with pastrami and Coney Island mustard mayo. Needlessly indulgent and every bit as satisfying as it sounds, the food here is a must for anyone looking to fill their stomach before a night on the town.

Buttermilk fried chicken burger with a pot of chicken gravy.

For the remainder of the evening we checked out the famed Manchester bar scene. We hit up Affleck & Brown to sample the happy hour cocktails and then moved onto the Black Dog Ballroom. Another cocktail den with an upbeat vibe, this bar is known for its late nights staying open till 4am all week and 5am on Saturday’s.

The atmosphere was buzzing and the bar already fairly crowded around 10ish. We were only planning on staying for one and then venturing somewhere else, however the staff invited us to try out the newly opened Jameson lounge. Hidden under the stairs we discovered the swanky room fitted with secluded booths, it’s own bar area offering a selection of exclusive cocktails and a pool table. It’s a nice contrast to the main bar and a great spot for couples to relax or groups of friends to chill out and knock a few balls in. The drinks are strong which makes racking up and playing a few frames all the more fun.

I sneaked a win this time however Kirsty is getting better at a worrying rate

Having spent much of the past month in the chic, trendy bars popular in mainland Europe, we decided to change the pace and end the evening in some good old fashioned British pubs. Tucked away behind the shopping distric we found exactly what we were looking for. The Shakespeare is not quite the epitome of your cosy, archetypal British pub however it does fit the mold better than most bars in the city centre.

One of the many Northern Quarter bars bursting with patrons in the evening

Kitted out with the obligatory pub quiz machines, an upstairs restaurant serving fish & chips and apparently haunted by the ghost of a female barmaid, pubs of this ilk are becoming less and less visible on the streets of Britain. If you want to take a break from your shopping and experience a traditional British public house, The Shakespeare is the ideal spot and it had the perfect homely vibe to round off our first night back in Britain.

In the morning we fought off the urge to stay in and shield ourselves under the covers from the sobering sunlight and instead decided to do a little exploring. We found some fantastic sights nearby the Victoria train station including the oldest public reference library in the United Kingdom, Chetham’s Library.

Unfortunately the library is not open at weekends so we could not explore the Hogwartsian interior, however there are plenty more iconic sights to enjoy in the area. The National Football Museum sits directly accross from the ancient library and the magnificent Manchester Cathedral lies adjacent with the beautiful town hall not too far away either.

Not your average town hall building

As much as we would have loved to have spent our last day wandering around Manchester in the 26°C heat and enjoying the historic buildings from afar, we couldn’t pass up the chance to spend some time inside Manchester Museum.

A collection of 18,000 ancient Egyptian & Sudanese artefacts, an in house vivarium with a lively reptile population, innumerable important archaeological finds from a diverse selection of cultures, scores of fossils, minerals and meteorites, painstakingly recreated skeletal remains of our ancestors, a zoology section with mounted animals on display and even a T-Rex kept in the basement. All this merely scratches the surface of the myriad of intriguing objects to uncover within this wondrous world of relics.

The museum is free to the public, however after seeing the fascinating displays which lie within I would have had no qualms handing over some hard earned cash had there been an admission fee. I cannot say exactly how long we spent inside, though I can say with confidence that it is easy to lose entire afternoons in the complex with so much to see and do. Rather than revist old ground and tell you about the rest of our day which was spent enjoying more of the Mancunian nightlife, I’ll simply leave you with some of the photographs we captured inside this must visit museum.

Burmese Buddha statue
The skelton of Maharaja, an elephant that made the incredible journey from Edinburgh to Manchester on foot
Preserved remains of a young Egyptian female in her coffin
Sarcophaguses of the famous Two Brothers
A scarily lifelike mounted tiger
The piercing stare of a hawk
Monkey skulls of varying sizes alongside a gorilla skeleton
Yellow-banded poison dart frog
An audacious amphibian climbing the vivarium glass
A curious emperor penguin
Head of Roman Emperor Vespasian, dated 70AD-90AD
Cast of ‘Stan’ the Tyranosauraus Rex, one of the most complete t-rex fossils

We’re currently back home for a week however leave again on 13th May for Alicante. After which the blog will return!

Milan, Italy: Chasing da Vinci, discovering architectural wonders and visiting a Wes Anderson designed café

Dates: April 30th – May 3rd

Distance walked: 53.89km

Steps: 78,022

Temperature high: 25°C

Art, fashion, cuisine, wine, football, opera, architecture, exploration, cars, science and philosophy. What do these all have in common? Italy has excelled at them all. On our travels so far Italy has etched it’s way into the culture in each and every one of the places we have visited, be it their cuisine or architectural influence, it is perhaps the most celebrated of all European countries having given so much to the world across so many different fields.

If you have read this blog previously you may have noticed that both my partner and I love all things Italy. As such, when we arrived in Milan for the sixth leg of our trip we could barely contain our fervid desire to discover one of Italy’s most famed cities.

We took the metro from our accommodation into the city centre and the first sight that we were greeted with was the spectacular Duomo de Milano. Also known as the Milan Cathedral this church is the biggest in Italy and third biggest in the world. The exterior gothic architecture is quite unique as the building was built over hundreds of years so incorporates many styles of varying quality. Nonetheless it made for a fittingly flamboyant icon to welcome us into the fashion capital of the world.

If shopping is your vice then you don’t have to look far in this city to find your fix. Immediately to the left of the Milan Cathedral as you look at it is the Galleria Vitorio Emanuele II, Italy’s oldest shopping centre. Housed in a four story, 150 year old grand arcade this elegant and lavish building has long been a meeting point for the Milanese bourgeoisie. Today it retains popularity among locals and tourists with many expensive restaurants and cafés inside as well as iconic high-end boutiques such as Prada, Gucci, Swarovski, Armani and more.

A glamourous backdrop for a shopping spree if you are feeling flush

We took the opportunity for a spot of window shopping in the magnificent structure and whilst doing so observed a strange and amusing local tradition. On the floor in the centre of the galleria is a mosaic depicting the bull of Turin. The bull was originally painted in all it’s glory and it was said that by standing on a certain area of the bull and spinning thrice on your heels, you would be granted increased virility. Over time the ritual damaged the mosaic and there is now a plain stone circle preserving the bulls modesty, however tourists still carry on the quirky tradition with gusto.

For the remainder of the day we explored the streets of Milan’s centre, browsing in some of the many, many shops. We also visited the grounds of Sforza Castle for a passing glance (more on the castle later) and then stumbled across a statue of Italy’s most prominent historical figure and the universal genius that is Leonardo da Vinci. A man that would prove incredibly elusive for the remainder of our stay.

The master painter’s influence can be seen all over Milan

Having satisfied the necessary sightseeing for the day, in the evening we pursued what we had truly come to Italy for, pizza. A ten minute walk from our accommodation in the Calvairate district of the city lies the PepeNero pizzeria. A modern restaurant with an open plan kitchen in the dining area where the ingredients are all fresh and prepared to order. There is a vast selection of pizzas to choose from, each painstakingly crafted before being cooked Neapolitan style in a huge wood-fired pizza oven.

Thankfully Milan delivered what we were looking for and we enjoyed some of the best pizza either of us have ever eaten. If you’re planning a trip to Italy and long to try some great, authentic pizza then PepeNero’s in Milan certainly has to be in contention as one of the best pizza restaurants to go to outside of Napoli.

Salami (top) and the chef’s ‘nduja speciality (below)

Prior to leaving on our travels we had read about boutique shop turned café/restaurant, 10 Corso Como and decided to book a table for lunch during our stay. Whilst making our way there in the morning of our second day we happened upon some more of the cities striking architecture, Bosco Verticale or Vertical Forest.

Designed by architect Stefano Boeri this environmentally friendly structure consists of a pair of office buildings sprouting a plethora of lush trees from it’s exterior high into the sky. The buildings perhaps look off-key standing tall in the Porta Nuovo district however they certainly strike a pleasing note for anyone with a passing interest in quirky architecture or even those just looking for an Instagram-able shot of Milan.

Modern eco architecture on show

On arrival at 10 Corso Como we were welcomed by a bucolic setting. A thriving forest of plant life and the chirping of the tiny chickadee-like birds which flutter around in abundance within the outdoor seating area makes for a delightful scene that you would happily lounge around in all day, if only the prices were a little more modest.

That said the restaurant is definitely value for money, I ordered the ’10 Corso Como’ risotto and Kirsty ate the garganelli pasta with zucchini, mint and prawns and both dishes were delicious and presented in a manner befitting of the picturesque setting. Beginning in Milan in 1990 the establishment now boasts locations in Seoul, Shanghai Beijing and New York so if you have the fortune of visiting any of these cities, check it out for some high quality dining in a gorgeous setting.

10 Corso Como is likely the most scenic café in Milan

We walked off our lunch through the streets of Milan, meandering our way back to the centre via an ice cream parlour. Another field which the Italians have perfected into that of an art form is making ice cream and so we simply couldn’t visit without partaking in some. Vendors are commonplace on the street corners of the city centre and you need not worry about finding one that’s good, as far as we could tell (and we ate a lot of the stuff) they are all fantastic.

Our walk led us to Parco Sempione, a 38.6 acre park which is home to the Sforza Castle grounds and the monumental Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace) as well as a museum, bars, fountains, sculptures, a pond and even a stadium. Locals and tourists alike flock to the park during pleasant weather and we joined them for the better part of the afternoon, enjoying the sights and sounds on offer in these sprawling city gardens.

A view of the pond in Parco Sempione

Much to our delight, although to the shame of our waistlines, we spent little time deliberating on what to have for dinner inevitably settling on pizza. Again. We opted for a typical, cosy Italian place named Baja Sardinja which again served up authentic pizza dishes however is primarily a seafood restaurant. Another great spot for dinner in Calvairate area.

Milan’s most famous artistic possession is the original Last Supper mural by Leonardo da Vinci which is kept within the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Unfortunately however, it is infuriatingly hard to witness the iconic painting in person as it requires advance booking and when we looked into it every single slot was booked up, not just for our visit but for the entire two months for which booking was conceivably available. If you are an art lover and plan on travelling in hope of seeing the painting, be wary and check the availability before booking up flights etc.

Luckily Italy’s proverbial boot is filled to the brim with masterpieces from the innumerable famed artists which the country has produced. As such, on our second last morning in the city, we headed back to Sforza Castle which has a host of museums containing artistic works by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Mantegna, Caravaggio, Canaletto and hundreds more. There is also a museum of musical instruments, a museum of furniture, an armory and a collection of Egyptian artefacts.

Antique armchairs which belonged to Milanese royalty

With all this available to view for a €10 admission fee, we happily spent our entire afternoon in the castle grounds marvelling at masterpiece after masterpiece contained deep within the castle walls. Unfortunately da Vinci eluded us again here as the Sala delle Asse (Room of Wooden Boards), a room decorated by Leonardo himself, is currently undergoing restoration work.

We did however have the fortune of getting some alone time with one of Michelangelo’s notable works, the Rondanini Pietà. Worked upon into his dying days, this was the artist’s last sculpture and now has a hall to itself inside Sforza Castle. When we entered the room in which the sculpture is stored it was empty bar us, a stroke of luck which was long overdue after missing out on two da Vinci’s.

Michelangelo’s final work of art

In the evening we headed to what remains of Milan’s Navigli canal system. Originally built for transportation of goods including materials for the construction of the Duomo, the area is now a booming nightlife spot. Awash with chic bars, cafés and restaurants aplenty this is the ideal spot to unwind away from the hectic centre. We spent hours knocking back cocktails in the relaxed and elegant Mag Café and visited the cosy diner Vetusta Insignia for some delicious pasta. For the remainder of the night we explored the many bars which sit on the banks of the canals and eventually called time on a fun filled evening.

Our architectural love-in in Milan was far from over and on our final day we woke ourselves up with a trip to Bar Luce for a coffee. Designed by film director Wes Anderson for Fondazione Prada, a museum of contemporary art and culture, this café is a fantastic spot to relax in the afternoons and was the perfect scene for our last morning in the city, both being lovers of coffee and Wes Anderson.

Even if you have little interest in either of these things, it’s worth stopping by for a look at the supremely aesthetically pleasing interior design. Taking inspiration from 50’s and 60’s style Italian decoration whilst striving to maintain the quintessential Milanese café vibe, Anderson has avoided creating a soulless movie set and succeeded in bringing to life a vibrant, hip coffee shop.

Inside the pleasant Bar Luce

We spent the later part of our final morning into the early afternoon sipping cappuccinos in hipster paradise and in general we had a pretty chilled out final day. In the evening however, we couldn’t help but return to our favourite pizzeria, PepeNero for one last taste of Italy before embarking towards our next destination.

Not quite as glamourous as Milan, we will be leaving the mainland of Europe and returning home to British shores next for a two day stay in Manchester, England.