I was recently invited to speak at a conference in Paris, so as I usually do whenever business takes me abroad, I did some combining in order to feed my lifelong lust for travel. (I didn't set aside any extra time for Paris itself because I lived there for two years.)
Prior to Paris, I stopped through Barcelona, a city where I lived for a year back in the 1990s, and where I still have some friends. It was the first time back since I left in 1999, so it was quite the stroll down memory lane for me. I had dinner at the house of one old friend, then dinner out with another the next evening. For the dinner out, we ate at Tragaluz, which is one of my all-time favorite places to eat. The jamón ibérico and cochinillo asado were amazing. Indeed, all the food/wine was just as wonderful as I remembered it, as was the atmosphere (though they had remodeled, so the layout was different). I was only in Barcelona for a couple of days, so I had time for little else. Still, I did manage to take a long walk up from the Rambla to Montjuic, then down to Plaza de Espanya and back again, and to stop at the Fundació Joan Miró and spend some time there, which was a delight. I also squeezed in a quick trip to see my old flat in la calle Entenza, indulging in a bit of nostalgia.
Paris was, well, Paris. Unlike many of the other places I have lived, when I left Paris seven years ago, I was ready to leave. I didn't dislike the city, and I enjoyed living there while it lasted; but it was definitely time to move on. So coming back for the first time in seven years was a mixed feeling, a combination of homecoming and, well, not coming home. I was so busy with the conference that I scarcely had time to enjoy the city anyway, though I did make time the afternoon I arrived before the conference to go for a three-hour long walk around the city. And of course, I made time to have some French comfort food, the Gallic equivalents of hamburgers, fries and pizza: copious amounts of pâté, croques messieurs and escargots.
After Paris, I took two days off work (and the weekend) to try some new cities, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. Normally, I dislike that peculiarly American habit of trying to see a city a day in a whirlwind tour; but I viewed this as more of a scouting trip, just an attempt to get enough of a taste to know if I wanted to come back for a proper visit.
Vienna: To be frank, Vienna was underwhelming. I spent the day walking around the city center and hitting some of the 'must-sees' like the Staatsoper. Beautiful buildings all, but not of any better quality or of particular distinctiveness compared to what one sees all around Europe. (To be fair, I am sure the Staatsoper would have been far more impressive had I had the chance to see an actual performance in it.) And the throngs of tourists were just too much....I felt I was at Eurodisney, not a European capital. (It also felt oddly subdued for a place that was once the center of central European culture and capital of an empire. As someone I know put it so well, it "seems...to be a city of ghosts and repression.")
The place for which I had held out the most hope was the Secession gallery (so named because Gustav Klimt and his fellow modern artists in Vienna in the late 19th century seceded from the mainstream art scene to establish their own showings and, later, their own gallery). I love Klimt's work, and the gallery's most famous work (the Beethoven frieze) centered on my favorite composer. I was therefore expecting quite an experience here. Unfortunately, a combination of not being in the right frame of mind following my less-than-impressive trip to center city, and being in yet another place overrun by tourists, meant that this experience was as little enjoyable as my Vienna stay overall. So by mid-afternoon, I decided to cut my loses and head to Bratislava. Good thing, too: my trip there salvaged the whole day!
Bratislava: Bratislava is very close to Vienna. Even the non-express train only takes an hour and a quarter to get there. But once you alight from that train, you feel like you have entered another world, one far removed from the officious tidiness of Vienna: it just feels 'realer' than Vienna. If you ever get there, I highly recommend a trip to the castle just for the view from the ramparts. St Martin's church is charming and has quite the storied history, so definitely make a stop there. And just generally that whole old town pedestrian area is a quite relaxing area in which to stroll, with minimal tourists.
But to me, the best thing about Bratislava was the hotel where I stayed, the Marrol's Boutique Hotel. Amazing. Great staff, wonderful restaurant with local delicacies and an attentive, professional waitstaff, and even a nice quiet library where one can have a drink and relax.* (And yes, it's an actual, proper library filled with great books....it's not a place with old magazines and wallpaper with pictures of books on it.) The rooms were very comfortable, and even the minibar was included in the price. I know I sound like an advert for this place, but it was just one of the best hotels in which I have ever stayed. If ever you get the chance to stay there and (wisely) choose to eat in the hotel restaurant, I highly recommend the quail as an appetizer, followed by the local rabbit confit dish. For wine, choose one of the hron varietal wines, typical of Slovakia.
Budapest: As much as I wanted to spend the rest of my days at the Marrol's, if it was Friday, it meant Budapest**, so off I went by train to that grand city. It did not fail to impress. I stayed on the Pest side of the Danube at the Kempinski Corvinus, which was an ideal location from which to explore the area. I wandered down the Danube to the Chain Bridge the first evening, just to scope things out. It was a very pleasant way to spend an evening stroll. I dined in a local restaurant and tried my fill of Hungarian fare, including wild young boar.
The next day, I again crossed the bridge into Buda, but this time with the aim of visiting the Hungarian National Gallery and the history museum. (As I want to end on a positive note about the gallery, I'll just quickly say that the history museum was unimpressive, with unsatisfactory notes and context.) The national gallery is simply not to be missed. Cut out whatever else you must to make time for this! I really enjoyed all the post-Renaissance periods of Hungarian art. I simply had no idea how many wonderful artists Hungary had produced. The prominently-displayed Dorfmaisters*** were lovely, but my two favorite artists were Gyárfás Jenő (especially his Ordeal of the Bier from 1881) and Orlai Petrich Soma, whose Sappho was positively haunting. I'd make the trip back just to spend another 20 minutes sitting and staring at those two pieces.
So those were my whirlwind tours. For Western Europe, I now just lack Sweden, Portugal****, Luxembourg, San Marino and Liechtenstein.***** But Eastern Europe is a gem I have only just started to explore. If Budapest and Bratislava are any indications, I have a lot of very rewarding travel left to do in Europe.
*Relatively relaxed. For the first twenty minutes, I was sharing it with a Norwegian couple who spoke in an eastlander dialect of Norwegian, one in which everything sounds terribly insistent. The woman was describing a recent trip to Lillehammer, but by her cadence and intonation, you'd have thought she was pleading for her life.
***Comedic value of this name duly noted. I think he was in 'Fletch'?
***Comedic value of this name duly noted. I think he was in 'Fletch'?
****I find it ironic that the only two major countries I lack, Sweden and Portugal, were right next door to two of the countries where I lived, Norway and Spain.
*****Well, 'lack' is an odd choice of words here, because I don't really consider myself to have visited a place until I have spent enough time there to form real impressions. For example, I still consider myself to 'lack' Denmark, given that all my trips there have been either pass-throughs or for business, those types of trips that leave little time for much besides airports, transfers, hotels and offices.