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Paris

Rooftops

I had a final stop in Paris before going home.

Originally I was hoping to spend time meeting up with the teachers from BTL for drinks, getting a last chocolat chaud with Mr Frog, and maybe a drink with Manuela.

But when I sent out texts, I discovered that neither Mr Frog nor Manuela would be in Paris. And of the seven teachers that I considered to be the core of our group at BTL, two had already left Paris, two were flying to Toulouse on Friday, and I didn’t have one’s number.

D was going back to London after Rome and I panicked – how could I spend four days alone with nothing planned?

Eating out has always been a social activity for me, so it was off the list. After two and a half months of being a tourist, I didn’t want to see museums and monuments. Especially not ones I’d already seen.

I didn’t want to spend the next four days agitated, especially with one of the world’s longest flights ahead of me!

So I changed my flight home and breathed a sigh of relief. I would only be in Paris for two days now (or one and a half, if you subtract airport time).

Then I reached my hostel, on a beautiful street in the 18th at the top of a tree-lined staircase, neighboured by a brasserie and an up-market boulangerie, with a chocolaterie, a couple of bars, and several fruit shops down the road. Out the window of my dorm room was a vista of lead roofs, brown chimneys and dark windows.

I felt that familiar thrill.

Oh why had I worried?

My one and a half days ended up being plenty of time, and it was probably better that I spent them alone, as I was deep in thought and my emotions rocked in waves.

When I reached the buoyant crest, I felt that Paris had revitalised me. I had a real croissant for breakfast instead of the horrible packaged equivalents from the hostels in Italy. The round tables of brasseries spilled onto the streets, with patrons lighting cigarettes over coffee in the morning, to be replaced by wine in the
afternoon. As I walked I could smell the perfumes of pungent cheese and dark chocolate when I passed open shop doors. The market produce shined brightly, colours ripening in the sun. It all seemed so familiar to me.

Whenever the breeze rose, I felt as though I was swept into a lover’s arms and waltzed down the street. I could travel for another month. Even two! There was so much more I wanted to see!

At Place des Vosges I ate a light and sweet strawberry mille-feuille and one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in Paris (courtesy of Boulangerie St. Antoine) – no need to toasting here, as with many of Italy’s day-old paninis – the bread was crunchy and the ham, gruyere and salad so fresh that no dressing was necessary. I returned the phone that a former student, Marie Maud, had lent me when mine broke in February, and learned that she was engaged and planning to move to London. When I closed my bank account, the ease of the process made me so jubilant that I did a little dance on Boulevard Haussmann once I’d surrendered my carte-bleue.

Then my mood would start to descend. When I came upon Rue du Pot de Fer and wandered down it for the first time, I wondered how many more streets like this the city was hiding, just waiting for me to discover. I turned down Rue Moufftard and decided that I liked it even better than Rue Montorgueil, my previous market-street favourite.

Paris beckoned me. She had seduced me time and time again, and now it was my turn. She smiled coyly, flashing a bit of calf as she crossed her legs, leaving her skirts below her knee. Stay a little longer – give me a look, a smile, a touch. Pause a moment, and I’ll tell you my secrets. The leaves whispered as they rustled in the wind, and I debated whether I was leaving too soon. After nearly nine months in Paris I was still an outsider – was I walking away from my chance to get in? My chance to sample a French life?

Then I would sink into the troughs, tormented by worries about going home, and haunted by ‘what ifs’. As the afternoon crawled in, I started to feel as though I was losing a loved one and at some moments the grief was so acute that I ached to curl up and lick my wounds.

And then I would be happy again, soaring on the crest of another wave.

That day I walked around Montmartre, down to the Parc Monceau then Boulevard Haussmann, past Madeleine and Place de Concorde to the 5th and 6th arrondissements, then to Bibliothèque François Mitterrand and Parc de Bercy before heading back through Bastille, Le Marais, Les Halles and up Rue Montorgeuil and Rue Montmartre. In the evening I left for another walk around Montmartre.

That night I collapsed into bed exhausted. And I worried about my return to Australia.

When I returned from London in 2009, it took me some time to find work, and then I’d only done it with help from my mum and her contacts. I’d never imagined that I’d have trouble finding a job – it shattered my confidence, and this affected several areas of my life.

I was determined that this wouldn’t happen again, and formed a plan of attack as I fell to sleep.

The next morning I woke, feeling at peace. In the few hours before my flight I strolled. Yes, Paris was still alluring, but I didn’t feel as I’d felt the previous day. I was no longer torn.

Paris and I had had a brief and beautiful affair. But it was over.

And I was ready to go home.

Rome

Foro Romano

“Is not possible.”

This could have been the slogan for our stay in Rome.

Wifi in our hostel? “No.”

Directions to a supermarket and Laundromat? “Sorry, I’m not from this area.”

We weren’t having much luck.

Foro Traiano

I first went to Rome three years ago. On my second visit, the impressions left by the first were still fresh – I remembered the graffiti (though Rome was sparkling clean in comparison to Naples), the dismissive attitude of sales girls and the persistent men. I remembered how relaxed life seemed to be here, and felt as though Rome was a coastal city. I fell in love with the city when I sat reading on a patch of grass in front of the Foro Traiano and a man told me I had skin like mozzarella.

Colosseum

I remembered being blown away by the size of the monuments – I’d never seen anything as large as the Colosseum, each of the arches in the walls at least three or four times my height, and the walls metres thick. Surrounded by parks and the Foro Romano archaeological site, I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t on an empty, sandy plain.

Saint Peter's and Piazza

This time we sat outside the Colosseum (the line was too long to go in, and we didn’t want to pay for one of those ‘skip the line’ tours) and an old New Yorker sat next to us. Apparently he and his wife visited Rome 45 years ago – back then the Colosseum was free, the arches were completely open (now bars line them) and there were about ten people there feeding spaghetti to 300 cats.

Pompeii scavi

Saint Peter’s Basilica was the largest church I’d ever seen, sitting behind Rome’s largest piazza, walled by a colonnade and with fountains and an Egyptian obelisk in its centre. Like Saint Paul’s on steroids, it was beautiful with elaborate mouldings of angels on the walls and ceiling, and light streaming in through the arched windows lining the top of the walls and circling the dome. The cavernous crypt below the basilica was like a maze – each pope’s tomb housed in a separate arch, and each unique.

I loved the history. Europe abounds in history, but this was the first time I’d seen ruins, both in Rome and a day trip I did to Pompeii.

Foro Romano

The ruins of ancient Pompeii cover an area of about 70 acres, which means some places have large tour groups standing around, and other places where I could be completely alone. I spent four hours getting lost there on my first visit, never before having realised that this was a fully functioning city with streets, houses, spas, arenas, a brothel, parks and a beautiful villa. I loved that I could get so much closer than in any museum – being able to walk around the houses and under the arches, to touch the marble pillars and the fossilised furniture.

So my favourite part of Rome was the Foro Romano, Rome’s own archaeological site.

I was curious to see whether D would be as awestruck as I was.

To be honest, he didn’t seem to be (though he might just express it differently – after all, we can’t all walk around with our jaws hanging slackly and our eyes as wide as saucers). Not having internet had put a damper on our stay, and in Italy we’d started feeling swindled by entrance fees and the limited access they provided (can we see the Vatican City? Is not possible. Can we skip the line to look at prices? Is not possible. Is there a youth price? No).

However, the main objective for this trip to Rome was to eat well, and that we did.

True, we had some unfortunate supermarket food, and an old Panini, but when we ate out it was always a pleasure.

I bought gelato at L’Ourso Bianco, where you can get three flavours for €2.50, catching dribbles of the melting ice-cream running down my cone on my tongue. The biscotti flavour was divine. It was so much better than Rome’s oldest gelato shop, Palazzo del Freddo di Giovanni Fassi, in business since 1880. There the flavours weren’t labelled, and I felt rushed by the impatient sales girl who gave me strawberry sorbet when I wanted strawberry ice-cream.

Piazza del Popolo

When we searched for a decently-priced restaurant near the Spanish steps, we walked past Piazza del Poplo and found a place near Flaminio, which didn’t seem to have a name.

Flaminio Restaurant

We entered and, immediately sensing we were tourists, the barista pointed us upstairs. We reached a restaurant filled with square tables covered in red and white checked tablecloths, the patrons largely Italian – a group of elderly ladies behind me, and a group of business men who could have been the mafia in a US television series behind D.

The bread was served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We were seated on the second floor, surrounded by tables of locals. D ordered a mozzarella and prosciutto appetizer, a tomato salad, and a penne arrabiata. I ordered a spaghetti carbonara and decided to see how I was feeling afterwards before considering the home-made tiramisu.

I’m so glad I did – it was the best carbonara of my life. The bacon was salty, smoky and crunchy. The spaghetti was still chewy in the middle. And the sauce was scandalously runny, steam escaping whenever I stirred the pasta. My mouth sang as I ate, and I tried to decipher the recipe, wondering how something so simple could taste so good.

D’s mozzarella was wonderful and the tomatoes were a deep, sweet red. And his pasta served the same dilemma as mine – I dipped some bread into his sauce and tried to figure out the ingredients . . . “tomato?” I suggested weakly. “Salt, sugar, chilli?”

The tomato sauce was as sweet as the salad and, although I didn’t get any chilli flakes in my sample, the spiciness had bled through the sauce in its cooking.

Halfway through my dish and I was stuffed, and mournfully declined the offer of dessert.

Realising that the cheapest restaurants were near the Colosseum, on our final night we returned to a small restaurant called Luzzi’s. The first time we were drawn to it by the blackboard on the street advertising their €5.50 lasagne (I don’t recommend it – picture a stack of cooked lasagne sheets with a tomato and meat sauce poured on top). However, D had an incredible beef Carpaccio and we decided to try it a second time before we left.

“Can I get the Bacala?” D asked, the one dish he wanted that he hadn’t found so far in Italy. It was on the menu, but last time it hadn’t been available.

“Is not possible. Only on Tuesdays.”

“Okay, then I’ll take the minestrone soup and the beefsteak,” he said.

“The minestrone is not possible,” the waiter opened the menu and pointed. “Only the soup of the day – is a bean and pasta soup.”

“Okay,” D shrugged, “I’ll have that then.”

“And can I get the prawn and cream risotto?” I asked.

“Is not possible. There is no rice today.”

“. . . okay,” I frowned at D. “Then I’ll have the spinach and ricotta ravioli.”

The waiter nodded and left.

Later I paused, my fork halfway to my mouth, “isn’t today Tuesday?”

D looked up as he thought, “yes, you’re right.”

“I thought he could only do your fish on Tuesdays.”

D shook his head with a grin, “I think we can safely assume, is not possible!” he cried in an accent that was closer to French than Italian.

I later ordered a tiramisu and, despite the lack of possibilities, it was blissful. Instead of using sponge, like I’m used to, they used some sort of biscuit – cake-like in the centre and crisp around the edges, like Madeleines, but thinner. The contrast between the crispy biscuits and the creamy mascarpone was heavenly.

As D finished, the rain bucketed down and we schemed a way to stall as the people waiting for tables glared at us.

“Coffee?” I suggested, as I’d promised to try it before we left Italy (as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a hot chocolate person.

But when we ordered: “is not possible. The machine is broken.”

We left laughing in the rain, me sheltering under my suede cap and D using our plasticised tourist map for cover, crying “is not possible!” at regular intervals.

An umbrella-seller approached us and sold D a baby pink umbrella for €5.

A few minutes later, the rain stopped.

So clearly, some things are possible.

View from the Spanish Steps

Naples

When we left Naples Central Station at 10pm, the soundtrack of my life played two deep notes of foreboding.

What have I gotten us into?

Before us stretched a large square. Half construction site and half dump, black rubbish bags piled against the inside of temporary wire fences like reinforcements. The streets were awash with trash – white shopping bags blew along the pavement as it started to spit and brown pieces of cardboard grew soggy around the edges. The ground was awash with foil and plastic food wrappers, cigarette butts lined the creases between concrete slabs, and dented cans lay in the gutters.

We waded through the sea of waste as I wondered what I’d done.

Unfortunately for Naples, the impression was made. Although I enjoyed walking through the old town and we visited Pompeii, the image that will stay with me is me dragging our suitcases past the transvestite prostitutes on the first night, hoping that my expression was one of polite indifference.

Florence

Florence was crammed with people. At first I thought it was just Easter Monday. But Tuesday was almost as bad. And Wednesday. Even the pedestrian areas needed traffic lights.

As always, turning down the streets away from the main monuments was when I really got to taste Florence (admittedly, the entire historical centre is quite touristy).

Duomo

The Duomo (main cathedral) was beautiful, and so big that, even at the opposite end of the square, I couldn’t fit it all into my camera. Made of white marble and decorated with stripes of pink and green, reminiscent of the Italian flag.

Piazza of the Duomo

Street scenes

Street scenes

However, we had more fun after turning away from the Duomo to Via de Martelli, where we discovered Lombardo’s, one of several shops in the area that sell traditional Tuscan food. The shop was divided into three sections – the first had one wall of wine, one wall of sliced meat, and a central table filled with Italian cheese and sausages; the second had a wall lined with jars of sauces, olives, roasted capsicums, stuffed bell-peppers, marinated garlic and other mysterious things I couldn’t identify with labels I couldn’t translate; and the back of the store was filled with chocolate, dried pasta coloured in ribbons of white, red and green, and biscotti that smelled heavenly through its plastic bags. On the central table in the first section, there were two cake stands with clear plastic covers. One held five saucers with cubes of different cheeses, and its neighbour displayed samples of different salamis and a cured ham. Like children in a chocolate shop, we went crazy on the samples, tasting every type of meat and half the cheeses. When the saleswoman came to help us, we were all ears (tongues?) as she told us about a traditional sweet balsamic dressing, and poured the black syrup into teaspoons for us to taste – like the tang of balsamic vinegar mixed with the sweetness of honey, it was divine with a mild cheese and she also recommended it for salad and ice cream. Later she recommended wines, and we tried one white and three reds before walking away with a bag of goodies for dinner.

So when we strolled through the centre we avoided the huge churches, instead navigating streets lined with shops and restaurants. D kept having to drag me away from the Easter displays with 50% off signs in the windows (even the Lindt store had 50% off! Unfortunately all of their Easter eggs were so big that I don’t know where I would have packed them), while we both slowed whenever we saw interesting cheese and salami, or to compare prices on menus. The restaurants were predominately self-service places and, although the pasta, pizza and salad looked like they’d been sitting for a while, the desserts looked scrumptious – glasses held individual servings of tiramisu, fruit salad, or layered fruit, cake and cream topped with wafers. And the gelato! Yes, you can find it everywhere in Italy, but here giant creamy mounds towered in their tubs, and all of the fruit flavours were topped with slices of fresh fruit – cantaloupe, pineapple, strawberries, banana – while other flavours were drizzled with sauces or sprinkled with crushed biscuits. My criteria for a good gelato place became whether or not I could smell waffle-cones cooking, and then I found myself drawn to the shop by my nose.

Ponte Vecchio

It was the same thing when we walked around the colonnades of the Uffizi Gallery (where Michelangelo’s David now rests, and which we avoided due to the discouragingly long line) to the river to see the Ponte Vecchio. Although Ponte Vecchio was charming – a patchwork jumble of pink and yellow houses stacked on top of a bridge, reaching from the Uffizi to Via de Guicciardini, a large street of shops, mostly jewellery boutiques and gelatarias aimed for tourists – my favourite part of going to see the bridge was being on the river and looking at the buildings on its southern side. Many of them were painted in warm yellows, oranges, reds and pinks, some of them peeling around the edges and others vibrant in the sunlight. In the evening sun the hills were an invitation to explore more of Tuscany.

Night-time was quieter – the stone streets glowed in the warm lights and smaller crowds gathered around street performers – one a busker who destroyed Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and one a magician with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and a costume to match. We must have joined the audience after he finished a trick, because he was making a yellow balloon animal for a tiny, blonde girl standing with him in the centre of a square of people. He held it out to her, and then snatched it away as she reached for it. She lowered her arms and he lowered it to her, and snatched it away again. When he finally gave her the balloon dog, he held out his hat to her, and she tried to hand the dog back. He shook his head, tweeting a whistle for emphasis and pointed into the hat. She held out the dog again. He gently pushed the dog back to her and pointed to the hat with a tweet. She held out the dog.

Then her sister strode into the arena and gave the little girl a coin. The magician followed her back to the audience and pointed to his hat with a shrill squeak. The sister gave him a coin. See? He displayed his hat to the audience with all the polish of a Wheel of Fortune woman.

He returned to his assistant, the little girl, and whistled at her to put the money in the hat, and she happily obliged.

He then patted her on the head and blew the whistle, pointing her back to the audience. She began to walk and he blew the whistle again – I think it was supposed to be a cue for applause – and she took this as a summons and walked back to him. He shook his head, smiling around the whistle, and pointed her back to her family. She turned, and he whistled again! She marched back and forth as he squeaked and pointed, starting to look a bit dizzy. Eventually he pointed her back to the audience one last time. She stared at him uncertainly – was it another trick? He whistled and pointed, stamping his foot. She stood still. He whistled and gently pushed her away, and prompted the audience into another round of applause.

The next day we left and, looking over my map as I write this, I can’t believe how little we saw. Although we walked around most things in the centre, I can’t identify them by their names. And despite staying right near the enormous Ex Fortezza da Basso, I never saw what was inside its walls. Oh for one more day in Florence! Maybe even two.

Suitcase

 

Suitcase Update:

On the train between Florence and Naples, one side of the top handle came out. Ironically, the other side is clinging on with such determination that I can’t even cut it out.

Le meilleur chocolat chaud à Milan?

Bar Manhattan

I may have found it. On my first (and only) try.

The afternoon after we arrived in Milan, my friend D and I stopped for a late lunch at Bar Manhattan, a bar/café on Corso Buenos Aeries.

With shiny walnut counters, little down-lights in the ceiling, and red backed chairs and table-tops, the café was the embodiment of understated European elegance. Burgundy-vested waiters didn’t bat an eye when we asked for some menus in English, and frequently checked in on us.

I was served a hot chocolate in a glass, the top half piled with whipped cream and dusted in cocoa. At the first teaspoon I was won – the cream was sweet and velvety, not like the airy stuff you spray from a can. I dipped my long-stemmed spoon lower and was delighted to discover a thick goo, the same colour of the one at Café de la Paix. It was delicious and dark, like a block of 90% chocolate.

I stirred in some of the cream, as with Angelina’s hot chocolate, sweetening and slimming the beverage (though I couldn’t resist lapping up spoon after spoon of it plain – like pillows on my tongue, I felt as though I was burrowed deep into a cocoon of feather-light mattresses and doonas).

Unlike the chocolat chauds de Paris, this one wasn’t served with a glass of water, and I slowed as I sipped, struggling to finish as I grew tipsy on cocoa. The chocolate began to solidify around the circumference of my glass, globular as it rested in my silver spoon somewhere between a liquid and a solid. Soon I would have to chew it!

At €4.20, it’s far better value than any of Paris’s famed hot chocolates, and is the main thing I’d recommend to anyone going to Milan.

Ode to Madrid

Street in Madrid

Paris in Madrid

Plaza Mayor

Templo de Debod

Crystal Palace

Palacio Real

I love Madrid.

I love the bright pink and yellow buildings. I love how much everything east of Puerto de Sol reminded me of Paris, yet the wide main roads and squares make it easier to breathe. I love the concrete squares that dot the city, even though they felt like frypans in once the mercury hit 30ºC.

I love that the graffiti seems to be restricted the metal roller doors in front of shops, so it completely disappears in business hours, and then transforms the streets at night.

I love the beautiful designs on the tiled street signs.

I loved my hostel – Musas Residence, with dorm rooms and ensuites that seemed more like apartments than a backpacker’s squat. And I loved their free sangria night (what did you expect? I’m an Aussie!).

I loved Plaza Mayor and the mosaics on the buildings.

I loved the Templo de Debod – a genuine second century Egyptian temple transported to one of Madrid’s gardens. I loved Plaza de España, with market stalls under little white marquees selling clothes, accessories, souvenirs and other knick-knacks.

I loved Gran Via, a big shopping street that leads from Plaza de España to another palace . . . dedicated to the post office. And I loved the cheaper, grungier shopping streets that turned south off Gran Via.

I loved Mercado de San Miguel, one of the oldest covered markets in Madrid. The original metal construction now has glass walls and the rather posh market has bars selling sangria filled with freshly chopped apples and oranges. Other bars sell delicatessen products, tapas, fruit, cheese and baked goods, and they surround café-like benches that run down the centre of the hall.

I loved the enormous Parque de el Retiro and the Crystal Palace, which twinkled like a star in the sun. I loved the gardens around the Palacio Real, though the palace was no Versailles. I liked the Prado museum . . . but I prefer the Louvre (look at that – the French must have rubbed off on me).

I don’t even know why I loved it so much, but I did. Even when I was wandering around lost.

Especially when I was wandering around lost.

Tirso de Molina

My favourite place in Barcelona . . .

Gothic Quarter

Mercat Boqueria

Mercat Boqueria

I turned into the Mercat Boqueria on my first morning, torturing myself at the chocolate stalls as I tried to swindle free samples for myself. Fish, tapas, dried fruit and nuts, and colourful fruit and veggies are on display, and they sell tubs of fresh fruit salad for €1 or €2, while the Carrefour down the road sells them for €3.50. The produce all smelt remarkably fresh and watching the locals haggle made for a popcorn-worthy

Cascada - Parc de la Ciutadella

performance. But get in early – by midday the market is crawling with tourists.

Parc de la Ciutadella

Surrounding the Catalan Parliament, on the weekend this park was bustling with joggers, dog walkers, roller-bladers and chatter. On a Monday afternoon, however, the predominant sound is birdsong and people stroll in the sun or doze on the grass.

Park Guell

Parc Guell

Parc Güell

One of Gaudi’s creations, knobbly pillars, colonnades and steps look like they’ve been excavated from a goblin realm and preserved here in some sort of museum. On a hill to the north of the city, when I reached the top all of Barcelona was laid at my feet. I felt a heady rush of power, and understood for the umpteenth time why some people never stop travelling.

When I left I turned out a different entrance (the main one, as it turns out). There was a large, wavy terrace under a roof supported by white columns, all decorated in mosaics where a cellist and violinist played. The sighs of their instruments echoed through the space, seeming to bounce off the mosaic tiles. At the foot of the double staircase are two buildings that looked like they came from a Dr Seuss book – brown with long windows, white and mosaic patchwork roofs, and little towers at their peaks. Down here, two people were playing steel drums in the cave-like area under the terrace which gave the area a summer, island-holiday feel.

Montjuïc Gardens

After visiting the castle of Montjuïc, on the top of a hill to the south-west of Barcelona, I descended through the gardens on the hill. My favourite was the Jardines de Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer – wide central steps are framed by water terraces covered with waterlilies, surrounded by 2800m2 of flowerbeds, which have all just bloomed in an explosion of colour.

Gothic Quarter

Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter

I’m not even sure if the area I liked was the Gothic Quarter, but it was between the Gothic Cathedral (its walls fence an internal garden of green plants, water and geese, for some reason) and the Arc de Triompf.

This area used to be a Roman village, and is still filled with old buildings and tiny streets, some of them so narrow that I think they must always be in shadow. Every time I stumbled onto one of the main roads, my heart sank with disappointment and I quickly turned back into the maze.

People are often standing on the street in front of their restaurants and shops, and the men readily called out “hola guapa!” when I walked past. And all of the bakeries now have chocolate displays in their windows in preparation for Easter – I kept finding myself stopping to admire the intricate castles and cartoon scenes.

La Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia - Nativity

Sagrada Familia - Nativity

Sagrada Familia - Passion

I visited this church on my first day in Barcelona and, upon discovering that the entrance was €12.50 (€10.50 with a student or youth card) and that the line stretched around the block, I turned away. It was impressive enough on the outside – one facade is dedicated to the nativity and another to the Passion of the Christ, including all the stations of the cross. I loved the Passion facade – the statues are more modern, simpler and slightly abstract, and feel more in tune with Gaudi’s designs than the more classical nativity sculptures.

So was it worth going inside? I went back to the hostel and started asking people. The conversation usually went like this:

Me: “Have you been to the Sagrada Familia?”

Them: “No, not yet.”

Me: “Oh, okay. I just wanted to find out if the entrance was worth it.”

Them: “How much is it?”

Me: “€12.50.”

Them: “For a church!?”

And one that isn’t going to be finished for another thirty years.

On the last day I gave in – how could I come to Barcelona and not see the inside?

Nearly all of my travels have been in Europe, so I’ve seen a lot of churches. And, after a while, the big cathedrals start to look very similar to each other.

Not this one – it was the most amazing church I’ve ever seen. Pillars stretch into the sky, breaking off into smaller branches as they reach the ceiling, so it feels like you’re walking through a fantastical white forest. The stain-glass windows are coloured in bright reds, yellows, blues and greens and don’t seem to depict one design, but are more like a celebration of colour and are so much more vivid than their gothic counterparts.

Afterwards you can learn about the architecture and construction in the museum below the church.

Gaudi’s creations are like nothing I’ve ever seen. I knew nothing about him before I came to Barcelona (I still don’t, for that matter), but his buildings are instantly recognisable. Either earthy and organic, mimicking the structures of plants and looking like fairy kingdoms from fantasy stories; or wavy and colourful with different shapes all over the place, like a Dr Seuss creation. No one else thinks like that.

Sagrada Familia

Hmm . . . I seem to have more than one favourite place. But that’s what it was like walking around Barcelona – almost every time I saw something new, I thought about how it must be the most enchanting part of the city, only to think the exact same thing about the next place I visited. Maybe it’s just the perfect place to have a ramble.

Lisbon

Rua Augusta Arch

I hadn’t been to Lisbon before, and it was only after I’d arrived that I realised I was searching for Porto.

I went to Porto in the summer of 2008, when I was living in London. I loved it – I arrived on a balmy night and the air smelled like leaves. For the three days I was there I was caught up in a wave of sensations – the smell of sausages sizzling down near the riverbank, the heat radiating off the pavement, the coolness of the port wine cellars, and the dizzyingly sweet taste of glass after glass of port.

Some cities seem to have such a strong gravitational pull that it drags you into the life-force of the city. Porto was one of them. On this trip, Istanbul is probably the best example.

In other cities you can see the potential, but you really need a local to show you around. And some cities never truly touch you.

At first, Lisbon seemed to be in the second category. I spent my first two days enveloped in wet, grey clouds. Whenever I returned to my hostel in Baxia, the city looked so beautiful out the windows that I kept going out for walks, but without a destination I was overcome with a feeling of vague dissatisfaction – was I missing something?

After a week of sun in Dahab (and the freckles to show for it) I had no patience for clouds. And after all of the smiles of Istanbul and Dahab, the people in Lisbon seemed grumpy and unsociable, and some of the men had pouts that could rival a parisienne.

My third day, Tuesday, looked like it was going to be another grey day.

Belém Tower

I returned to Belém (having walked there in the rain on Monday only to discover that everything was closed) and, when I was on my way to Belém Tower, the sun came out!

A man was playing a pan-flute by the river, where people leaned back on the benches by its banks. The smell of jasmine wafted over from the parks and I began to get a sense of Lisbon.

Jerónimos Monastery

The three areas where I spent most of my time were Belém, Baxia and Alfama.

In the sun, Belém was very peaceful, with beautiful manicured gardens near the river and pink, yellow and white buildings with terracotta roof tiles. The buildings there are some of the oldest in Lisbon, because the area didn’t suffer much damage in the 1775 earthquake. Sights in the area include Belém Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Palace, Ajuda Palace, The Monument to the Discoveries, the Botanical Gardens and the Coaches Museum.

Baxia - Rua Augusta

The next area was Baxia – where I was staying in Lisbon. With white marble streets, large squares, expensive shops, and tourists with shopping bags, this is the main shopping and baking district of Lisbon. After the earthquake of 1755 it was completely rebuilt, and is now a uniform grid of neoclassical buildings, with a pedestrianised central thoroughfare and a network of yellow buses and antique trams bumbling through the area. Here are some of the most impressive squares in the city and the 45m

Restauradores

tall Santa Justa Elevator, designed by Raoul de Mesnier du Ponsard (an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel), from which you can see views of the city.

Neighbouring Baxia is Alfama, a labyrinth of narrow streets with black paved roads paved and white footpaths. Home to Castelo de São Jorge and the National Tile Museum, steep stairs and winding streets lead up the hills to the castle, lined by churches and beautifully tiled or painted buildings with wrought-iron balconies. Blossomed trees are just starting to sprout green leaves, and when the wind picks the pavement is frosted in a shower of purple flowers.

This area also survived the 1755 earthquake, and getting lost in the medieval maze is a pleasure. At the end of my last day I returned to Alfama to wander around, and stumbled upon a church. I popped inside to have a look, only to realise that I’d walked into a mass.

The priest began to break the bread in preparation for communion, speaking in Portuguese. I was surprised to find the voice of Father Joe, the priest from my primary school parish in my head, reciting the English version – ‘. . . Christ broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said: “Take this, all of you, and eat it: This is my body which will be given up for you” . . .’ The words must have been burned in my childhood and adolescent memories.

Although I didn’t take communion, I stayed until the end of the mass. When I left my mind was still.

And the sky had clouded over once more.

Istanbul – sights

The Hagia Sophia

Inaugurated in 360CE (though the current version was built nearly 200 years later) the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, and then was converted into a mosque, before becoming the modern-day museum. After it became a mosque in 1453, it was a model for many other mosques in the same style, including the Blue Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque.

The last time I saw the Hagia Sophia they were doing some renovations, so it was covered in scaffolding and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go back. However, as it’s a ‘must see’ in Istanbul, I obligingly went along with Madeline, Tom and Amir, smiling like a parent taking her child to the zoo for the first time.

Then I entered, and I was the one who gasped. It was breathtaking.

Lights hang from the ceiling on wire frames shaped like flowers, bathing the colossal central nave in a golden glow. Large black disks decorate the pillars on the second level, each inscribed in gold with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandchildren of Muhammad. Without meaning to, I broke away from the others as I tried to inhale the essence of the building, my eyes as wide as a child’s and my heart beating furiously. At several moments I was moved to tears – when I saw the gold religious mosaics on the upper gallery, when I wandered through the quieter, cooler stone corridors, and when I looked back towards the entrance from the opposite end of the mosque, I was overwhelmed by the Hagia Sophia’s size.

The Blue Mosque

The only mosque in the world with six minarets, the Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful things I saw in Istanbul, and I wish I had a photo that did it justice. Its name comes from the blue tiles that decorate the interior, which form intricate patterns around the arched stained-glass windows. Apparently more than 20,000 tiles line the interior, and rings and rings of lights hang from the ceiling in bell-shaped cups of glass.

Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this is still an operational mosque, which means that you need to remove your shoes in the courtyard before entering (though they weren’t that strict about women covering their hair), and you also aren’t allowed in at prayer times. However, there are tourists rushing in and out almost constantly, snapping photos as they balance the plastic bags carrying their shoes on their wrists. I really wish some of them would have been more reverent – I felt a bit like they were letting the mosque down.

Topkapi Palace

After buying my ticket for Topkapi Palace, I stopped to take a photo of the gate.

A man approached me. “Would you like a tour in English?”

“No thank you, it’s too expensive for me,” I said.

“But it’s free for you!” he exclaimed.

A slow smile spread across my face as I asked, “why?”

He shrugged, “because you’re a beautiful girl, and it’s always nice to have a beautiful girl on the tour.”

Half-an-hour later, when he had found a Swiss couple who wanted a tour, I tagged along for free! We entered the first courtyard, and he took us to a model of the palace and began telling us about its history. I didn’t hear much, though, because a school group of about fifty children came up and started calling out “hello!”

“Hello!” I replied with a smile.

One girl introduced herself and asked my name.

“My name’s Jolie.”

“Where are you from?”

“Australia!”

They giggled amongst themselves and the girl lifted her camera in question. I nodded and we had our picture taken. Suddenly there were fifty cameras out! I stood next to child after child, unsure about which camera to look at, and hoping that the cosmetic-free shots would look decent.

“Jolie,” the tour guide called as he moved away.

 

After four more snaps I untangled myself from the group and rejoined the tour. I could finally enjoy the palace – though I kept a safe distance from all children thenceforth.

Although the tour was interesting, I really preferred wandering around alone. One thing I did learn was that in Islam, simplicity is considered to be beautiful, so most Islamic architecture is very simple. However, in the 18th century, European styles came into fashion, so the palace now has many French-style embellishments that were added in that period. He also said that Islamic architecture is always asymmetrical – as only Allah is perfect, they didn’t build symmetrical buildings. This means that many doors are off centre, with a different number of columns on each side and quite often the columns are in different colours. And this is something you can see everywhere – the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, so is quite symmetrical, but when the four minarets were added, three of them matched and one of them didn’t. The Blue Mosque is also an example with the six minarets containing different numbers of galleries (I think four have three galleries and two have two, but couldn’t find anything online to confirm this).

So the palace is very simple (in comparison to European palaces) and beautiful. Divided into a number of courtyards with large gardens, it’s very soothing and open and feels a world away from the city. Because many of the palace buildings are surrounded by colonnades, they don’t intrude on the gardens, but seem very airy. And the walls of the final courtyard extend out to the water, affording wide views across the Bosphorus.

Some of the buildings house museums, or items from the treasury (including the second largest diamond in the world), or porcelains or the Sultans’ kaftans, while others are furnished as they would have been when people lived in the palace.

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is an underground cavern of 9,800m2 capable of holding 800,000m3 of water. Rows and rows of stone pillars run up and down its length, all 336 of them 9m high and 4.9m apart. People walk over the water on raised wooden walkways. The only lighting is from the bottom of the pillars, which were lit by amber lights shining up from their feet – they illuminate the sides of the pillars and reflect against the water. It’s really magical.

Süleymaniye Mosque

I stumbled onto Süleymaniye Mosque by accident. Having gotten a bit turned around between the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, I found the second largest mosque in Istanbul when I was trying to get back to the hostel. The Süleymaniye Mosque was designed as a complex consisting of the mosque, a hospital, a primary school, four Qur’an schools, a medical college, a school for the learning of hadith (narrations about the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), a public kitchen, a road-side inn and a hamam.

I feel so privileged that I was able to see it – with cream walls, red carpet and little arched windows, it’s completely different to the cool, cellar-like stone of the Hagia Sophia, and the mosaic tiles of the Blue Mosque. Excluding the warm floral designs on the central dome, and the small signs in Arabic, the only decorations were red or blue strips around the arches between the pillars. The simplicity only drew attention to its size, so big that the rings of lights hanging in the centre of the mosque seemed like a solar system.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Built from 1843 to 1846, Dolmabahçe Palace is on the European side of Istanbul, and was the first European Palace built in the city.

Unlike Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace was very ornate with fourteen tonnes of gold-leaf gilding the ceilings and countless chandeliers made of English crystal. The largest hall in the palace is stunning – with moulded pillars, beautifully painted walls and the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the world, weighing in at 4.5 tonnes. The central dome has been painted to look as though it is a part of another building, so it resembles stone arches that look out onto a garden or courtyard.

Unfortunately you could only see the palace as part of the tour, and you weren’t allowed to leave the group due to security concerns, so it often felt like we were being herded around like cattle. I much preferred Topkapi Palace, where I could roam as I pleased.

Istanbul

Blue Mosque - view from Hagia Sophia

This is my second trip to Istanbul.

My first was two years ago. Having just broken up with my first serious boyfriend, I spontaneously booked a trip to Istanbul to get away from London and to get him out of my mind.

Big mistake. Everywhere I turned, I saw things that he’d love and I wished that he was there. A couple of Turkish men offered to show me around and, when one of them commented that the Basilica Cistern was “very romantic”, I burst into tears.

I knew it was time to leave and, 25 hours after I landed, my return flight took off.

So I was really curious to see what Istanbul would be like without baggage.

It was amazing – I joined forces with three Americans (Madeline, Tom and Amir) from Cordial House Hostel and I spent the first day and a half with them in a state of euphoria. Because I’d been here before, everything was familiar, but it all seemed to be sparkling new.

The Blue Mosque was stunning, the Basilica Cistern was eerie and mysterious and the Hagia Sophia was so beautiful that I grew teary as I walked around the golden corridors.

Then I broke away from the Americans for a bit and started accepting offers of local hospitality – I sat down in carpet stores, souvenir shops, travel agencies and laundry back-rooms for apple tea and conversation. I saw Whirling Dervishes, ate seafood and went dancing with one local, and had a home-cooked dinner with another. I was given food samples, a pair of earrings and an evil eye pin for free.

And all of this was because I was open to these offers. I think so many tourists shut down when a local shows some genuine interest in them. All I had to do was accept, and I got to hear about people’s relatives in Australia, or what I should do before I left Istanbul. True, some of them were interested in more than a smile and a conversation, but they were all completely honourable when I refused.

I was staying in Sultanahmet, between the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. Sultanahmet is always what comes to mind when I dream of Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque mirror each other across a large garden area with curving paths for pedestrians and a fountain that is lit in different colours at night. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a two lira pastry from one of the nearby patisseries, and the mosques are an awe-inspiring sight at any time of day.

The Grand Bazaar is worth visiting once, but it’s not really my cup of tea. A covered maze of shops selling scarves, leather bags and jackets, jewellery, and trinkets for tourists, the vendors can be quite aggressive. Although it’s entertaining, it makes it difficult to window shop. And as it’s a popular tourist destination, you’ll be paying tourist prices.

However, if you venture onto the surrounding streets and head towards the Spice Market, the prices come down and the people are much less intense. I loved the Spice Market – stalls display pyramids of spices, tea leaves, dried fruit, nuts and Turkish delight and the vendors are happy for you to try before you buy.

Madeline and I got stuck tasting Turkish delight in Develi Baharat Spice Centre, and I left with a kilo of it – cubes of sugar-based Turkish delight dusted in icing sugar and coconut, and rolls of honey-based Turkish delight that they cut into cubes with scissors. There were two vendors working, one who spoke English and one who didn’t. Osman, the one who spoke English, battled with Madeline over prices for half-an-hour (I’m a pushover – give me free samples and you have me) while the other one insisted on calling us both Jennifer, no matter how many times we repeated our names. In the end, Madeline and Osman locked horns over one lira, and Osman said he would drop the price for a kiss on the cheek – I happily obliged.

The European part of Istanbul is across the river – when I crossed the Galata Bridge there were dozens of fishermen lined up on each side, with buckets containing their catches. I inhaled the scent of fresh fish, tickled that I could actually see where the ‘fresh fish’ I’d eaten the night before had come from. I took a short hike to the Galata Tower then walked to Taksim Square along Istklal Caddesi.

Spice Market

Istklal Caddesi

Karaköy Güllüoğlu

Asian side - market

This may seem obvious, being the European side and all, but I was shocked by how European it was! Istklal Caddesi is a long pedestrian shopping street full of brand-name shops in late 19th and early 20th century buildings with an old-fashioned tram running its length. On the way back I popped into Karaköy Güllüoğlu. This is like the Ladurée for Baklava – shiny walnut tables with gold bars and rows and rows of Baklava on display in shiny glass cabinets. I was served by an adorable boy with braces who selected 400g of Baklava for me, and also gave me an extra chocolate piece (mmm!) as a gift after I talked to him about kangaroos.

I also visited the Asian side of Istanbul, taking the 20 minute ferry from Eminönü to Kadiköy. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a map for the area, so didn’t really know what there was to see, but still enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours. It was like a completely different city (though I couldn’t say which one) – large streets filled with modern shops selling clothes and accessories, and smaller streets with punk shops and some selling household goods like Tupperware and balls of wool. Near the water, there is a group of market streets selling fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and olives. What I liked about this section was my relative anonymity – having been in Istanbul for five days at this point, there were a number of men in Sultanahmet who knew me and would stop me in the street to talk. Although this was fun, it was nice to have a break from it all.

I think my favourite part will always be Sultanahmet, but the entire experience was exhilarating. If you get a chance, go to Istanbul.