Instagrammers Anonymous: Back to Normal

Aaaaaand breathe…

For about the first time in a month I sat down last night and did absolutely nothing. I sat watching reruns of various BBC panel shows on Dave. There was no rushing about searching out last minute holiday essentials, no reading up on destinations, no being on holiday, no post-holiday chores like washing or writing excessively long blog posts (over here, if you want a look – I know I sell them so well). I took the dog for a bit of a walk and that was it. Life is clearly back to normal. If life is back to normal that means it’s high time for the weekly addiction round up – Instagrammers Anonymous!

First off we’ve got the dog, and the attention I got whilst eating chocolate cake which she wants in the worst way, but obviously can’t have.

Following all of the high winds and rain that have been battering the UK this week, I noticed  that the benches in Princes Street Gardens appear to be sinking!

I also upgraded this week to iOS6. It’s caused me a few problems (don’t even get me started on the maps – although this has been my favourite website this week) but, much more excitingly, I discovered that I can now take panoramic photos on my phone! And embarrassingly they’re as good as (if not better) than the ones I can take on my actual camera.Panorama of Princes Street Gardens and Edinburgh Castle

Hope you’ve had a good week and are looking forward a weekend that’s as lazy as mine is going to be!


Doors Open Day – Ambitious Plans, The Scottish Parliament and Cake

Sometimes I feel my life is a little too rock and roll. In between watching Downton Abbey or the Great British Bake Off, spending my Sunday afternoons walking the dog and deciding how best to lace various types of food with alcohol whilst listening to Classic FM, I sometimes feel that I need to do something a little more middle aged (let’s be honest, we all know how hard the life of a twenty-something year old is). And that’s why this weekend I took part in Doors Open Day.

If you’ve never heard of this excellent idea before then here is the basic principle: buildings that are of interest in a city, but are not usually open to the public (or have areas that aren’t normally open) open their doors and let people have a look around. Let’s be honest, it’s not hard to grasp. Edinburgh’s – which is organised by the Cockburn Association – is, I think, quite late in the season (because of the festival) and so it doesn’t take place until the end of September – or last weekend, if you’d prefer.

Last year was the first time I’d really heard of the day, but armed with a leaflet my friend Mel (of Sharky Oven Gloves fame) and I went to explore a few places. We went to the Royal Society of Edinburgh – we’re totally not science geeks at all – and I got to the sherif court that day was well. We’d also intended on going to the City Chambers, but due to an administrative cock-up they were closed.

I’d said afterwards that I would look out for it next year and be organised so as to be able to go see lots more, but between my recent holidays and my general lack of personal organisation the weekend appeared before me and I’d barely read the online brochure.

So as I sat mid-Saturday morning eating breakfast, looking at the online guide I made a shortlist of places I’d like to go: The Scottish Parliament, The City Chambers, the Old Edinburgh Uni Vet School, an Anatomy Museum, Hermitage house (out at the Hermitage of Braid) and perhaps the museum of Edinburgh. I also realised that the National Museum’s storage facilities were doing tours, but sadly they were fully booked.

It was quite an ambitious list, bit I thought it was just about possible. It wasn’t.Outside of the Scottish Parliament

We didn’t start out until after an early lunch – that’s just the way we roll – and then it took us an hour to get into town. It doesn’t take me half of that to get there for work in the mornings, even at rush hour. But through a combination of weekend bus timetables and Lothian buses’ usual levels of utter incompetence (and they wonder why people still drive into town…) it took a very long and frustrating hour to get to the bus stop. That still left us the length of the Royal Mile to get to parliament and then security to get through there before we even saw anything!

By the time we eventually got in to the building of many hairdryers (the ‘art’ on the outside resembles hair dryers) it was after 3pm, so we decided to take the place at a fairly easy pace. I’d never been inside this colossal waste of money before, but I’m pleased to say that it looks a lot better on the inside than it does on the out – although that’s a bit like finding out that you were narrowly pipped to the post in a competition to find the ugliest person…

I was actually surprised by how small it felt. Some of the hallways are actually quite narrow, and the gardens that look quite big if you ever see them on TV are actually really small. Even the main lobby isn’t overly large, and I imagine would feel even smaller if it weren’t for the wall of windows out to the garden and the giant skylightsArthur's seat and dynamic earth from the Scottish Parliament

One of the main attractions they were pushing was the Donald Dewyr Library – never normally open to the public. If I’m honest, I was utterly underwhelmed. Far from being some high-ceilinged, post-modernistic masterpiece, it was little more than a broom cupboard with a couple of impractical so-called ‘bookcases’ in it. And some oddly shaped desk that you weren’t allowed to “operate” unless you’d had “prior training in its safe use”. Uhm what? You mean to tell me that I’ve been using a desk incorrectly all these years?

Scottish Parliament staircaseThe main attraction is, of course, the debating chamber. Leading up to it are the stairs where the BBC like to interview ministers and politicians, and again I was a bit surprised by how small they were – they look quite grand on TV, but in reality they’re, well, just a set of steps. I also don’t think the security man appreciated me turning round to my mum and asking how many politicians she thought had stood on these steps to tell bare-faced lies to a camera – he did not look amused (good job he didn’t hear the other unsavoury sarcastic comments that I made). In the chamber itself we were told about the various features it contains – an electronic voting system, desks with flip-up lecturns so MSPs who are going to ramble on for a while have somewhere to put their notes, and Debating Chamber, Scottish Parliament, Hollyroodthe pivoted lid of the Mace’s case (meaning that it doesn’t have to be taken away and stored elsewhere when not in use). If I’m honest though, the main thing I noticed was that you get a great view out over Dynamic Earth to Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags from the public gallery – something I imagine comes in handy if you’re there for a long debate.

By the time we left parliament everywhere else was either closed or closing, so we decided to leave the rest until Sunday and went for chocolate brownies in a little cafe on the Cannongate (it’s called Cafe Vivo) opposite Cannongate Kirk – they’re AMAZING, I go for one every time I’m down that part of town.

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that I was incredibly disorganised on Sunday morning. In fact, I was making my mum’s birthday cake (here’s last year’s; this year’s will be here on Thursday) and it took, well, rather longer than I anticipated. The long and the short of it was that I didn’t end up going anywhere on Sunday – I guess the City Chambers will just have to be put on hold until next year. Again.


A Tale of Three Cities: Bratislava

Parachuting down onto the platform of Bratislava train station I entered a totally different world from Vienna. I’d only been on the train an hour, but I’d experienced my first border crossing by rail – who said I don’t have exciting holiday tales – from the top deck of the train (another first) and entered a different world.

The Novy Most bridge and tower,BratislavaThe soviet-era utilitarian train station was just the first glimpse of this city’s communist past – outside the historic centre the dull grey concrete of post-war tower blocks line many streets. But alongside these it’s plain to see that Bratislava is modernising at quite an astonishing pace. Tram lines are being relayed, a large modern glass/steel concert hall has been built and they’re getting in to Tesco in quite a big way (although not quite as big a way as they are into advertising Seal’s November gig in the city – who knew he was still around?).

I hadn’t originally intended on extending my trip to include Bratislava, but as you can’t fly directly from Vienna to Edinburgh I thought I’d see an extra city and fly direct from there (I half expected Ryanair to call it ‘Vienna East’). It was only after I’d sorted it all out (with many simple questions, like do they use the Euro? – they do – and other things I probably should have known) that I started to wonder if an afternoon and evening in a city was really enough. I needn’t have worried, the centre of Bratislava is not exactly what you would call large. I dropped my bags off about one and by half five I’d explored most of the main sights. And sat down for a relaxing coffee (sadly without cake).

Cobbled street, BratislavaIf the outskirts were mainly grey soviet concrete, then the medieval centre looks as though it could easily be a suburb of Paris or Vienna. Its narrow, windy cobbled streets are a labyrinth, hemmed in by white or pale yellow buildings (virtually all firmly standing, unlike Moscow). It’s quite easy to get lost – especially with the world’s worst map, given to me by the hostel as though it was god’s gift to humanity – in this maze, but thankfully the centre is so compact that just as you are starting to wonder if you are lost you come out onto a square or courtyard that you recognise.

Town sight seeing train and the national theatre, BratislavaJust like Vienna, this city has some wonderfully ornate old buildings. Be it one of the many (many many many) churches scattered throughout the city, or buildings important to the people – like the town hall or the Slovak national theatre – they have all been beautifully restored (Bratislava suffered massive amounts of bombing during world war II). Clearly you’d never be out of work here if you were a painter or in the restoration business. The biggest of these buildings sits on top of the steep little hill on the banks of the Danube – the castle, Bratislavský hrad.Bratislava Castle

It was once, apparently, a castle in the traditional sense, but during the rein of Maria Theresa (one of the Hapsburgs from Austria) she decided to remodel it into a renaissance/baroque palace. It was destroyed by bombings and fires during the first half of the 20th century, and since 1953 it has been in a restoration limbo. Since Slovakia’s independence in 1992, however, lots of work has been done and the main block was officially reopened in 2010.Bratislava Castle at night

From its lofty position you get a great view out across the city. It’s like looking through an ice core where you see each of the different stages of the city through time laid out before you. Immediately below the castle is the town centre, with its many spires and history stretching back through the centuries; beyond this is the concrete utilitarian years of Moscow rule and sitting out at the back are a few modern skyscrapers, topped by the names of banks which bring the city very much into the present. Cutting through all of this, the waters of the Danube permeate every one of these eras, all of which watched over by the imperious eye of the castle.Bratislava from the Castle

Sunset on benches by the banks of the DanubeSitting on the bank of the river the city was lit up by a fire-y sunset and I had a moment of peace to reflect on a very bizarre holiday. I’d been shouted at by angry Russian policeman, seen a preserved figure from history in a creepy mausoleum (I’m still not convinced it was real), found myself ushered through diplomatic customs, eaten almost my own bodyweight in cake, drunk a rather larger amount of beer and Sturm, watched an opera in a language I don’t understand and visited a city I’d never really considered going to.

Sure, I could have gone to Greece or perhaps Egypt and chilled out on the beach for a week, and sure that would have probably been more relaxing, but I’ve ‘experienced’ history and have lived more than the few select stories I’ve shared here – isn’t that really what going away is all about? Well, for me it is. Now, where is my cake?


A Tale of Three Cities: Vienna (II)

Yesterday’s post – the first part of my trip to Vienna – mainly featured the Ringstraße and all the buildings associated with it. Today is much more relaxed, much like the majority of my time in Vienna. If Moscow was all about exploring at speed, then Vienna was a much more sedate affair, the relaxing part of my holiday.Schönbrunn Palace gardens and the Gloriette, Vienna

Vienna may be famed for its history, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this means it’s dull and boring once the sun goes down. With beer, beer, more beer and the ‘seems a good idea at the time’ expression “let’s have Jäger shots!” – I was pleasantly surprised that we were up and ready to go by half eleven the following morning, having only staggered back at half four. We decided to walk off our hangovers on a more relaxed day front of the Schönbrunn Palace, Viennaof sightseeing out at the Schönbrunn Palace, the summer home of later Hapsburgs. This enormous rococo palace is quite unusual in that it’s not necessarily obvious which side is the front and which is the rear, the main building is almost identical on both sides. On one side the gigantic courtyard leads down to road, flanked by several (pretty grand) outbuildings, but the other also has a flowing grand staircase and an elaborate facing all looking out over the formal gardens. The centre of the garden is planted to be seen from above, which ordinarily might seem odd, but here all paths lead towards the steeply rising slope behind the grand fountain where you can look down on the shaped beds and planted flags. Perched at the top of this hill is the Gloriette – where the palace was originally going to be built, but now just stands this rather grand, albeit superfluous, structure.The Gloriette, Vienna

The next day, suitably recovered and somewhat tanned we embarked on our biggest adventure: out to district 19 and up into the hills surrounding the city. Aloft the hills of this district you get the best views of the city and can enjoy a slow wander down through the Vineyards down to the Danube, ViennaKahlenberg area. These hills, which lead down to the Danube below, are home to the vineyards of Vienna and consist of fields after fields of grape vines – this makes Vienna the largest wine-producing city in the world (not that, I imagine, there’s a huge level of competition). Throughout these vineyards are scattered little ‘resting stops’ where you can sit out in the sunshine with a large glass of local wine, however, it appears that by September you can only do this Thursday through to Sunday, so we had to settle with having a bottle over dinner the following evening. I’d never really come across Austrian wine before, but I’m pleased to report that it’s rather tasty. Our bottle of white (I can’t be more specific, the evening got hazy quite quickly) was fruity, smooth and far too drinkable, and although slightly sweeter than I prefer, it wasn’t quite as sweet as I was expecting.

When we’d finished our ‘trek’ down the hill (we took it quite casually) we made our way to the little suburban village of Grinzing (where we were getting the tram back into town from). It was here that I was introduced to one of Vienna’s best secrets – Sturm. Very seasonal, this drink is available only in September and early October; it’s best described as an alcoholic form of grape juice – but it’s not wine. In fact it is fermenting right up until you drink it (leaving a delightful deposit at the bottom of every glass). This incredible beverage is both delectable and deadly in equal measure, and I can tell you from experience that it is quite easy to sit back and have a few glasses without realising the consequences until you stand up.

After our late afternoon casual sturm-drinking session we headed back into town for dinner. Continuing the theme of local nourishment I opted for the house speciality, Wiener Schnitzel. This traditional dish (which my inner ten-year-old still finds entertaining) is a Viennese speciality made with pork hammered down a little and made into a sort of escalope, coated in breadcrumbs and fried (or baked); in this case, however, it was made with a cider-like batter. It was utterly delicious, but sadly too large for me to finish (when combined with a few glasses of the pub’s home-brewed beer). In case it’s not already apparent, beer played a fairly large part in my Viennese adventure and I was lucky to have a friend who knew several bars around district 4, all of which brewed their own light and dark beers (or the mix, which combines the two). Is there anything better than kicking back at the end of the day with fantastic beer to make a truly relaxing holiday?

The only thing that comes close is, of course, the other delicacy that Vienna is famous for – CAKE! Lots and lots and lots of cake. All rounded off with some strong coffee, and a bit more cake for good measure. There was not a single day I was in Vienna that we didn’t have stop mid-afternoon for some cake-shaped nourishment. The most famous of which is the scrumptious sachertorte – a dense chocolate cake made up of two sponge layers with apricot jam in the middle (and on the top in one case) which are then covered on the top and sides with a rich dark chocolate icing. It is of no wonder what-so-ever that this one of Vienna’s favourite treats, it is utterly lip-licking-ly delicious. So much so that it was only sitting back after finishing off a slice that I realised I’d forgotten to take a picture of it…Café Sperl, Vienna

Alongside these cakes there is a big ‘cafe culture’ in Vienna. The famous streets are Café Royal, Viennascattered with cafes in every shape and size; some are new and some that celebrated their centenary several decades ago. Our out-of-date guidebook made a lot out of these cafes, although for the Cafe Spiel – one of the city’s most famous – it more of the fact it was one of a certain Austrian cum Nazi dictator’s favourites, something which completely misses the point that it has a beautiful sachertorte and a wonderful old-world interior. However, its inside is not a patch on the hugely elegant Café Royal, which boasts many columns under its vaulted ceiling, surrounded by mirrored walls, taking those inside back to the golden age of the 20s. It also boasts the most mesmerising cake cabinets I have ever seen – it took me a long time to actually decide which cake I wanted the most.

And that is Vienna in a sturm glass. If I was quite taken with Moscow, then I completely fell for Vienna. Its mix of history and contemporary culture easily makes it one of the most fun places I’ve ever been and the amount of life that is given over to delicious food and drink makes me want to move there right now. Apart from the large groups of tourists, I don’t think I found anything that annoyed me about this city (quite a feat); the pace of life is both sedate and bustling, you can run for a tram or stand around listening to a cellist busking the evening away in a square, there really does not seem to be a right and wrong. I would visit again even if they had awful food, but since their cake stands can’t eat themselves nor can the beer drink itself I feel I’m obliged to return someday. I think it’s safe to say that Vienna and I have not seen the last of each other, but in the meantime I’ll just have to try creating my very own sachertorte at home.