Travel review: Bologna, Italy

If you’re looking for a quick 48-hour jaunt look no further than Italy’s gastronomic heartland, where the buildings glow red, the gelato is plentiful and just a two hour flight stands between you and a stroll down Bologna’s 38km of intricate poritcoes – Aperol in one hand and phrasebook in the other.

Its reputation for melding history and belt-busting food has earned it not one but three nicknames – la dotta, la rossi and la grassi; or the learned, the red and the fat, for those without the language skills. But do its walls painted in sunset hues, mosaic walkways and riches of mortadella, cheese and Prosecco live up to the hype?


We made a quick pit-stop at the Art Hotel Novecento before hitting the main square, Piazza Maggiore, for the evening. Though Bologna is just a short train ride from nearby Florence, this is a city where the mood is unfailingly polite and even in its central courtyard, there are no pushy waiters on street corners trying to entice you into the nearest tourist trap.

In fact, on a Tuesday afternoon the streets were practically deserted, leaving us to pick an osteria – cafes serving wine and snacks – quite undisturbed. At Zerocinquantuno 051, we raised our first Spritzes and ate salty slithers of Parma ham, roast belly pork and sundried tomatoes tucked into tigella – small, round-shaped bread made with olive oil.


Then, to the first of many ice cream stops – the much-lauded La Sorbetteria Castiglione, where in keeping with tradition, gelato is stored under the counter to keep it the perfect temperature and texture. We chose velvety scoops of salted caramel, rich dark chocolate and vanilla before chasing them with strong coffees and venturing out in the unforeseen evening drizzle.


Winding our way back to the hotel through a gloom of alleyways, fresh fruit and veg stalls punctuated the darkness with bursts of colour. We paused at a cheering window display of loose tortellini at one of Bologna’s most famous pasta-makers, Paolo Atti and Figli, where signs promised their wares were so authentic it would “fool your husband you made them yourself”.  A nightcap at Mercato di Mezzo also saw us tick off the city’s first indoor market, a three-storey pavilion that dates back to the Middle Ages and now hosts a handful of vendors serving cocktails and street food.


With only 36 hours left, we were out early on day two with a hit-list of eateries, churches and backstreets to visit. Our first stop was Via de’ll Indipendenza, a wide avenue of high street shops bordering the former Jewish ghetto. Veering into its maze of passages, we stopped to read about the fascinating history which saw a community forced by the Papal State to live within borders that were opened at dawn and closed at dusk.

img_3348Now home to an artisan crowd of independent retailers, cafes and bars, one of its greatest features is the network of canals running through its core. The guidebooks suggest peering through the window of a graffitied wall on Via Piella, but perhaps the best view of this not-so-hidden stretch of the Canale delle Moline is over the road, where its deep green water looks all the more vibrant for the golden buildings at its edges.

Leaving the corner of the city known as Little Venice behind, we made our way to one of Bologna’s top sights, La Torre Asinelli. We fully intended to climb its spiral staircase of 498 steps to take in rooftop views but restoration work has closed the tower until the summer. Instead we got our cultural fix at the basillica of Santo Stefano – a cluster of seven churches with mysterious origins. Thought to date back to 430 AD, the complex houses a labyrinth of ancient graves and a Benedictine cloister fronted by a suntrap made for idling in the midday sun.


In keeping with the religious theme, we toasted a successful afternoon of sight-seeing in Le Stanze – a former converted chapel in the student quarter. With its impressive frescoes duly appreciated and wine imbibed, we stopped for pick-me-up espresso martinis at the Jukebox Café before making our reservation at top gluten-free restaurant, Franco Rossi, where the service was faultless and the wheat-free pasta as good as its glutinous parent. Dessert at Cremeria Santo Stefano hit peak gelato, with unspeakably delicious custard cream and speculoos flavours on offer for just a few euros.


Our final morning was spent ducking into delicatessens with hams hung high in the windows to pick up souvenirs. Wedges of Parmesan and aged bottles of balsamic vinegar were high on the list of take-home treats and were gelato airline friendly, the stracciatella flavour from our last parlour stop, Cremeria Funivia, would have made the cut too. Bidding farewell to a city brimming with beauty and history, we returned home no redder given the intermittent sunshine, but we did come back slightly more learned and quite a bit fatter.

New York you’re perfect, don’t change a thing

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I wrote this blog post weeks ago in the darkest hour of a sleepless night and left it, unsure whether it would ever see the light of day. Publishing it today is a reminder to myself of my love for America, at a time when many are feeling shaken and confused about the country’s future. 

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A lot has changed since I first stood, wide-eyed, outside Port Authority at 19 years old. I had just stepped off my first flight and until that point, only ever experienced the bustle of Manhattan’s streets through cinema’s lens. Though that initial visit was only long enough for me to buy a Schnapple and gawp at Times Square before heading upstate for the summer, it set in motion a decade-long love of the city that never sleeps.

Since clapping eyes on that famous skyline in 2004, I’ve returned a further three times – an homage to how fond I’ve become of the Big Apple and how lucky I’ve been to have natives who have been generous enough to blow up the air mattress whenever I’ve been in town.

My second visit in 2005 ticked off the typical tourist haunts – the Empire State, the Chrysler Building and the Rockerfeller Center. I walked up and down Fifth Avenue, wishing I had more dollars in my pocket. I took the Staten Island ferry and said hello to Lady Liberty as we sailed past. I snapped a picture of the former Domino sugar factory – sadly no more.  

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During the freak heatwave of 2012, I sat in Central Park and melted like a true English Rose. I walked along the High Line, sharing it with just a handful of people because the secret wasn’t yet out. I lingered over coffee in Williamsburg’s cafes, half expecting to bump into the cast of Girls. I went to flea markets, used the toilet in Katz’s and went to a record launch attended by some of the coolest kids in the LGBTQ scene. I was very uncool by comparison.

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Four years later and I was back again. Having been fortunate enough to have seen so many of New York’s popular attractions already, my trip in September gave me the chance to explore even more corners of the city, punctuated at timely intervals with eating and drinking in places the guidebooks try to keep quiet.

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Day one saw us take in an unobstructed view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers at Brooklyn Heights before hopping on a ferry and taking a waterside tour of the island’s neighbourhoods. At Greenpoint we took a punt on lunch at an unassuming taqueria, where I rediscovered frozen magaritas for the first time since the tequila-riddled Spring Break of 2007.

Stuffed with black beans and avocado, we ambled into Williamsburg where we bought thyme and olive oil chocolate from Mast Bros, made like magpies in Catbird and ran our hands through racks of $100 shirts in high-end boutiques. Later, our 90-minute commitment to the line at Pies and Thighs was rewarded with juicy chicken pieces and smoky pulled pork served with a side of creamy, cheesy grits.nyc3

Day two began with breakfast cocktails at brunch spot Rose Water in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighbourhood, which were the perfect accompaniment to our poached eggs and sweet potato falafel combo. We then headed into the city, passing through Grand Central station and its whispering walls, before embarking on some much required retail therapy.

Laden with bags and giddy after spotting Kim Sears and Baby Murray in Bryant Park, we headed to La Esquina, where I had made reservations the required month in advance. The darkened bodega basement stole our hearts with its tapas-style plates and Mezcal drinks in a variety of sweet and sour flavours, but it was the rich and sticky heap of rib meat which left us raving.

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With room for dessert, we found ourselves at Morgenstern’s indulging in salted chocolate ice cream garnished with shards of sesame honeycomb. We leisurely ate as we walked towards the Woolworth Building, where we had secret access not only to one of the sets of Ugly Betty, but views of the city’s countless flickering lights. 

The evening’s finale came in the form of a wildcard trip to the night courts, where the wheels of justice creaked into the early hours. We watched as a trickle of defendants were casually dealt with by a judge who waved them away with court dates and fines – a far cry from the stuffy tradition and procedure of England’s magistrates’ courts. nyc7

A final day wandering the streets of the Lower East Side saw us lazily pinball between cafes, bars and shops. In need of culture, we took in a tour of the Tenement Museum to learn about some of the neighbourhood’s former residents, before heading back to Williamsburg. A goodbye dinner at The Four Horseman – brainchild of LCD Soundsytem frontman, James Murphy – left us all crossing forks over the last mouthful of a sublime sugarsnap and cashew salad. 

On the way home, the remenants of Hurricane Hermine – which had threaten to rain down the whole weekend – finally rattled through the night, as if it had politely waited for my trip to end. I dozed off, wondering how soon I could impinge upon my friend’s kindness again and whether it was possible to every really be ‘done’ with New York. I decided not and went about plotting my return. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Budapest: a tale of two cities

A room with a view – Art’otel, Budapest

ITS reputation precedes it as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – rivalling the likes of Paris and Prague with its promise of romance and bohemia.

But from the rolling hills of Buda in the west to the vibrant nightlife of Pest in the east, this former Soviet city has far more to offer than passionate embraces on the banks of the River Danube.

My boyfriend and I booked our Jet2 flights from Leeds to Budapest – mindful of its agreeable September weather – and flew just two hours before checking into the four-star Art’otel for a three-night escape, a mere stone’s throw from the water’s edge.

A quick sweep of our stylish double room revealed a picture-perfect view of Matyas Church, its landscape backed by cyan skies and terracotta roofs, so we clambered up the sprawling streets of the medieval district to explore the city’s former seat of royalty.

From the summit of Varhegy (Castle Hill) are striking views of Pest’s skyline which are dominated by the towering spires of its grand parliament building. We dodged the tourists posing for pictures in archways and strolled through the castle district for a visual history lesson.

Castle Hill, Budapest

At the heart of Buda’s enchanting courtyards and passage ways is Szentharomsag Ter (Holy Trinity Square), its most prominent feature being the colourful church.

An amble to the southern side of the hill took us past Baroque houses in dusty shades of orange to the city’s palace and castle complex – demolished and rebuilt in the wake of several battles.

Retiring to our hotel after an exhausting trek through Buda’s winding hills it was lights out once my head hit the super-comfy, foam-topped mattress, but an eight-hour kip and superb buffet breakfast later, we were back on track.

The Danube, Budapest

Leaving the leafy ‘utcas’ of Buda behind for the day, we ventured towards Margaret Island via one of the many bridges straddling the Danube.

Sitting pretty between Buda and Pest, this peaceful island is home to verdant parks made all the more striking by the golden autumn leaves crumbling underfoot.

Luscious stretches of green space are peppered with flower gardens and a musical fountain, making Margaret Island a quiet retreat in the midst of the city.

From there it was a short amble into Pest to take in one of its most famous attractions – the thermal baths.

Szechenyi’s numerous pools are housed in an elegant Baroque building and it’s clear tourists and residents alike enjoy wallowing in its toasty waters. A dip in the outside pool – at a steamy 37 degrees – was a thoroughly relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

Szechenyi Baths, Budapest
Photo credit: Seeuinhungary.com

But it’s the indoor saunas and herbal baths which provide the real entertainment as gnarled Hungarian men play water chess.

Sufficiently shrivelled after an afternoon splashing around, we strolled into the centre of Pest down its iconic boulevard, Andrassy Utca, which is topped and tailed by the monuments at Hősök Tere (Heroes Square) and the city’s infamous ‘ruin bars’.

The 1.5 mile stretch is lined with Neo-Renaissance mansions, cafes, restaurants, theatres, and luxury boutiques, but a meander through the side streets will take you to one of Pest’s most famous bars, Instant.

The venue is a maze of surreally decorated rooms featuring taxidermy owls and the drinks are generously poured. The same can be said for the neighbouring waterholes serving cheap wheat beer and strong cocktails.

But a word of warning to unsuspecting tourists after a tipple or two – check your change. Somewhere in Pest we were slipped an old Romanian note instead of Forints (Ft), meaning we lost the equivalent of £27.

Ditto taxis. We had heard horror stories of shady street cabs but we learnt a hard lesson when a 90 second ride cost us £30.

Esceri flea market, Budapest

The safest – and most economical – way to cover large distances is to pre-book taxis through hotel reception, which was no trouble for the super helpful staff at Art’otel. A 9,000 Ft ride took us 20 minutes out of town to the Esceri flea market with an hour’s wait and return journey.

Budapest is not without its dark side –its history is etched with communism, revolution and unrest, and its legacy is for sale on the market’s stalls. An unnerving selection of gas masks, Nazi memorabilia and muskets were readily available for the right price, nestled alongside austere looking teddy bears and discarded dolls.

Back in Pest we followed the sound of our growling stomachs to a street fair selling Hungarian grub.

Pay-by-the-kilo street-food, Budapest

The country’s cuisine does not cater much for the vegetarian palette with its traditional menu of goulash and veal or pork stew. But I for one enjoyed tucking into a hearty portion of unidentified gamey meat spiked with Hungary’s signature spice, paprika.

For a more glamorous culinary experience head to Gerbeaud – a lavish tea room serving delicious cake and sundaes near to the tourist trap of Vaci Utca. Try the sublime dark hot chocolate or the apple strudel topped with cinnamon ice cream for complete indulgence.

Memento Park, Budapest

Finally, if you have any energy left, take a trip to Memento Park and see the ghosts of communist dictatorship. The venue is filled with Soviet statues which were removed from the city after citizens revolted in 1956.

These gigantic monoliths of oppression are both fascinating and creepy but are well worth the short journey and admission fee for a glimpse into Budapest’s chequered past.