Van Gogh, prostitution and beyond…

Continuing my 2016 tradition of visiting Europe’s most desirable city breaks (better get them in now before visas become part and parcel of European travel) I headed to Holland for a post-uni treat.  Although the student loan entered the red weeks ago and I am now as dependent on my mum for financial support as a twelve year old, this holiday proved to be a pretty cost effective way of seeing another country.  I stayed with my friend Ant in his father’s home in Schoorl, a small coastal village about an hour outside of Amsterdam.  Removed from the tourist hub, with its glamorisation of prostitution, abundance of coffeeshops and museums, and canal-side photoshoots, I was given the chance to see a side to Holland usually experienced only by those who know the country for more than its vices.


In true Netherlands style, our first port of call was the local bike rent shop.  With the decision to opt for a cheaper old fashioned back-pedal bike and my fitness levels at an all-time low, I was a little daunted by the prospect of living like the Dutch and travelling everywhere by bike.  My fears were soon allayed however by the total awareness and respect for cyclists even beyond the major cities.  Cycle paths take priority over pavements and cars stop for you at almost every crossing.  The brilliantly flat ground also meant that a lack of gears didn’t come as too much of a hardship.  Travelling by bike meant that I was able to experience some memorable places.  Amid Holland’s leafy countryside, there are impressive sand dunes which people from all over the Netherlands come to visit year-on-year, something which I would not have experienced if I was just a tourist hunting out legal highs in Dam. With perfect weather, the light dappled beautifully over the scene and made for wonderful pictures.  The beach, too, came as quite a surprise.  As with the rest of Holland, the beach is perfectly kept, with fine sand, clear (albeit very chilly) waters and a shoreline running for miles.  Idyllic is the only word suitable here.


Travelling from the train station at Alkmaar to Schoorl, I was struck by the wonderful architecture, characteristic of the Dutch.  Lining the roads were houses of all shapes and sizes, some with thatched rooves, others with daring modern designs and my favourites looking like they had come straight from the pages of a child’s fairytale book.  The odd windmill along the way convinced me that I wouldn’t have been eccentric in thinking that everyone still wore clogs too.  Traditional markets, far more impressive than the acclaimed flower market in Amsterdam (which I would deem commercial and repetitive), offered a variety of products, the best being the cold sausage and cheese.  The produce was local and it was nice to see the face behind the business which is difficult in a city like Amsterdam when there is a ‘Cheese and More’ shop on every street corner.  Ant introduced us to one of his favourite restaurants ‘Duinvermaak’ for some of the best savoury pancakes I have ever tasted – a cross between the fluffy American and a crêpe.  The atmosphere was relaxed, friendly, and by calling in advance, they produced a vegan pancake for my friend; the personal touch really counts.


In many ways, I was able to equate the neighbouring town Alkmaar with my own English hometown St Albans in its proximity to London yet relative peace and quiet from the frenetic madness of a major city.  Although walking the streets felt very similar to treading the cobblestones of Amsterdam, our day in Alkmaar had its own character and charm.  The canal cruise took us on a forty minute journey around the local area, the guide offering historic information in both Dutch and English.  Interestingly, all of the bridges are particularly low so each time we approached one, every passenger on the boat ducked to the floor to avoid banging their heads, revealing another small yet interesting quirk of the town’s development.  Their cheese market weighing ceremony is not one to be missed if you want a bit of traditional entertainment and are a cheese fanatic like myself!


Schoorl and Alkmaar do not cater to tourists in the same way as Amsterdam.  They do not have signs pointing you to the nearest sex museum and they can be pretty quiet in the evenings.  But they do offer something different, with a special, unique charm.  Although I love Amsterdam, there is something to be said for the suburbs too.


Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’ @ The Old Vic

Named “a wild comedy of deluded misfits” by Michael Billington, this most recent revival of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’ is a gripping and intense piece of drama which carries its audience from absurd moments of comedy to desperate scenes of loneliness and despair.   Set in one location – a dilapidated, crumbling apartment in a set of flats which are threatened by demolition – a hobo (Timothy Spall) finds charity in the form of reserved handyman Aston (Daniel Mays).  This simple kindness, however, becomes a long term commitment as Davis (Spall) establishes himself as a tenant, his determination to reach Sidcup in order to claim his papers becoming less and less believable as the play progresses.  With the introduction of Mick (George MacKay), and his strange yet fierce protectiveness over Aston, the dynamics become confused as Davis attempts to play off the two brothers, ultimately revealing him to be a disloyal and scheming fraud.  However, Matthew Warchus has worked wonderfully to ensure the complex depiction of Pinter’s characters: Davis is not just a wheedling con artist; he is also a vulnerable and lonely old man, although admittedly one in need of a good wash.

It is the detail of the production which makes it memorable, through the nuanced facial expressions of all three characters, and particular comedic moments.  When Davis finds himself the proud owner of a fabulous new (only to him) velvet smoking jacket, he is also astonished to notice the handkerchief which comes as a freebie.  Pulling it majestically out of the jacket, ready to puff it up and place it in his top pocket, he draws the hankie apart, the sound of its crusty age being audible to the audience and producing a disgusted, collective intake of breath.  Of course, Davis continues to strut about like a peacock, as oblivious to the ridiculousness of his dated and dirty outfit as the pungent smell which follows him about the stage.  He is a brilliant and confusing mixture of pride and poverty, giving off the impression of astute and wise elder, comfortably swinging his crossed leg and eating a cheese sandwich whilst listening to Mick discuss the horrors of the work shy.  The irony of this moment could not have been driven home more clearly unless Warchus himself walked on stage with a sign labelled ‘work shy’ and an arrow pointed straight at Davis.  It is impossible not to draw associations between Spall and his previous roles, his grasping hands, rat-like mannerisms and peasant’s lurch being flagrantly reminiscent of Peter Pettigrew.

George MacKay’s verbal gymnastics, spitting out his words (‘Putney’ holding particular venom) at rocket speed, produced more than one round of amazed applause from the audience.  Dressed all in black and strutting about the stage like a 50s rocker in his leather, with slicked back hair, he is a rather jarring addition to the play.  However, his clear protectiveness over Aston suggests a kinship which serves to illuminate Davis’ nomadic existence, the old man repeatedly refusing a ‘friendship’ with Aston.  Only on the close of the play, when all avenues have been shut to him, is the true vulnerability of Davis exposed: he stands centre stage, jaw wobbling with lost puppy dog eyes, desperately seeking recognition from Aston yet receiving only his turned back.

Aston’s troubled past, hidden beneath a composed and withdrawn exterior, pushes through in certain moments, yet Daniel Mays always maintains control over his character.  Sitting on his bed, with a sleeping Davis opposite him, a spotlight illuminates Aston in the gloom as his monologue recounts the vicious injustice done to him in youth.  The speech is lengthy yet Mays handles this beautifully, revealing just enough anger without losing control on stage.  The play is full of these highs and lows, from the slapstick snatching of Davies’ bag, to the smashing of Aston’s prized golden Buddha.  In a space which is no more than a glorified junkyard, it is the combined genius of these three actors which truly brings Pinter’s play to life.

5 stars! (and I rarely give this rating)

Bratwurst and beers in Berlin

Reaching the grand old age of 21, I decided it was time to take a trip which demonstrated my maturity and interest in all things cultural (and I also wanted to get really rat-arsed on a bar crawl).  Continuing the holiday theme of 2016 which seems to be top cities in Europe (see my previous blog post looking at Lisbon), I set off with six of my best friends to Berlin for a few days of jam-packed sight-seeing and alcohol-fuelled nights.

As my last trip was so successful using Air B&B, we plumped for the site again and stayed in Anna’s lovely apartment in Mitte.  Wanting to be right in the heart of things (Mitte translates to ‘centre’), we knew that Mitte was our best option and we were well located.  However, we definitely underestimated how sprawling this city is – and how hidden some of its best spots are!  If you decide to try and take on the city, be prepared to use the metro… a lot.  Being an avid walker and relatively experienced when it comes to other European cities (Amsterdam, Barcelona, Lisbon…), I optimistically thought that a good deal of the sight-seeing could be covered on foot.  Whilst the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Jewish memorial and Berlin’s park were all in the same area, many other parts of the city could realistically only be reached by the metro – unless you plan to pull a Jesus and walk forty days and nights to reach the East Side Gallery.  There is the option to get a 24, 48 or 72 hour metro pass but we realised that dependent on the zones you want to cover, it worked out cheaper to go day by day.


Slightly undermining what I’ve just said, on our first day we went on a free walking tour which was definitely the best way to hit the main historic sites in Berlin.  Our tour guide was wonderfully comprehensive (my friend is a history student specialising in German history, so she was able to check his facts) and within a couple of hours we had already been shown the iconic parts of Berlin.  The Brandenburg gate is as magical as its pictures but for the full experience you should visit at night.  The soft, orange low lighting majestically illuminates Victoria in her chariot on top of the gate and makes for great pictures.  The Reichstag too is impressive, its dark impressive exterior and large German flags making it quite an imposing image (the rainy weather probably added to this).  German architecture, in general, proved to be a real eye opener.  Due to the large division of wealth between East and West Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall, huge reconstruction and building work is happening in the eastern part of the city.  You can’t walk more than a couple of blocks without coming across a piece of scaffolding or a crane.  In this respect, the city can’t exactly be called beautiful.


It is, however, very honest.  The Topography of Terror – a museum recounting in depth the persecution of groups during the Nazi regime – objectively described the horrors which took place in this city, taking its visitors on a painful journey of discovery.  The shocking images, documents and accounts on display brought the history to life in a way that put my history textbook during GCSEs to shame.  For a more moving experience, the Jewish and Holocaust memorials (right next to each other, with the Holocaust memorial being below ground) must be visited.  As I walked through the Jewish memorial, with the huge concrete blocks growing larger and my surroundings more maze-like, I gained a sense of what the artist was trying to achieve.  Pictures really don’t do it justice.  Whether you interpreted his work as a journey through the gas chambers, placing you in the position of a Jewish prisoner, the blocks symbolising the oppressive officers, or they became the faceless graves of those who lost their lives (the artist chose a random number of blocks, perhaps to indicate the unknown number of those destroyed by the regime), the memorial was powerfully emotional for everyone who walked through it.  The Holocaust memorial too had a disturbing effect.  Split into five sections, from timeline, to final words of victims, personal family stories, accounts in the concentration camps and, most upsetting of all, a room listing the names of all those recorded dead because of the regime (it would take seven years to sit and listen to all of them said aloud), my group left with tears in our eyes.


The Concert House was also really spectacular.  Two of my friends are classical music buffs so it was a must-see on our trip but even if you don’t know your Wagner from your Chopin, it is worth a visit just so you can climb the red carpet to the top and look over the square.  A little further from the centre, we visited the East Side Gallery and the amazing graffiti still intact on part of the Berlin Wall.  Although some more recent (and less artistic) graffiti has been slapped on top of this wonderfully, expressive work, efforts are being made to clear it up (sadly metal fences currently shut off certain parts of the wall).  We were headed straight for ‘The Kiss’ and it didn’t disappoint.  We immediately knew its location because of the group of eager tourists clustered around, desperately trying to push themselves to the front of the crowd so that they could be the next to take a selfie with the wall.  I had my moment when me and a friend staged our own little recreation.  It is difficult cramming in the whole of Berlin in three days and when I return, I’m going to spend more time in this area, looking at the art work for the entire stretch.  On the day we showed up – Easter weekend – an impromptu party had sprung up along the river front, with beers flowing and music wafting through the air.  And this is the other side to Berlin.  Whilst there is so much history to explore and attractions to visit – from the obligatory picture at Checkpoint Charlie to the jumping shot in front of the Brandenburg gate – it is worth spending some time in the districts a little further from the city.  I’ve heard that Kreuzberg is great for traditional food and Friedrichshain should be visited for some nice bars – again, we didn’t have time to cover them!


Of course, as this was a girls trip abroad to celebrate my 21st, nightlife has to feature somewhere.  Although you have a map and plenty of signs to direct you to the main tourist sites, finding the nightlife hot spots proves a little trickier.  So much is hidden: from underground clubs to ‘in-the-know’ ways of getting into the exclusive clubs.  If you’re planning a trip to Berlin, chances are you’ve heard of Berghain (we were googling ways to get past Sven the bouncer before we arrived).  It’s only open on a Saturday (the day we left), however, if you aren’t fortunate enough to get beyond its doors, there are plenty of other places to try out.  My favourite club was Matrix, near both Watergate and Berghain, and hidden beneath the bridge next to the metro.  It is surrounded by no other bars and it was quite the victory when we found it after searching for something ‘happening’ for over an hour.  The music was great – a remix of commercial music with a heavy baseline.  The two predominant styles are techno and hip-hop in Berlin, but this club is proof that there is something for everyone.  Mein Haus am See is a great little bar with more of a club atmosphere downstairs and it can be found by catching the metro to Rosenthaler Platz.  You can have a dance or just relax in some of the spectator seats next to the edgy bookshelves lining the walls.  And of course, no trip to a capital city in Europe would be complete without the notorious bar crawl.  Sadly, however, despite what I had heard, this didn’t live up to expectations.  Yes, I had to expect the grotesquely drunken Englishmen on their stag-dos, and the feeling of being shepherded like a five year old.  But unlike, for example, the red light district bar crawl in Amsterdam, there was no sense of mingling within the group.  Perhaps some body shots would have helped.


As my last post would suggest, I am a HUGE foodie and was excited to sample the Berliners’ cuisine.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get much beyond bratwurst and currywurst – both dishes being the same but the latter with a strange, unknown curry sauce on top.  I felt like a true German but I don’t know if I can enthuse about currywurst in the same way that I lusted over the cheese platters in Lisbon.  Perhaps Bavarian dishes just aren’t my cup of tea.  One thing is for sure, currywurst or not, I will be returning to Berlin.  This time ready to tackle Sven.

There are no words…IMG_7704

Tales from Lis-burn

With my mother approaching the grand age of 60 (and her first ‘age-hurdle’, as she puts it), my sister and I decided to throw a fabulous surprise trip in honour of her entry into the next decade.  Considering her Irish roots, we thought we would take her back to her native homeland and get in touch with our own Irish heritage.  There were, however, a few problems with this plan…

  • Mum’s birthday falls in February so chances of rain in this part of the world were between 95 and 99%
  • Mum was born in Belfast, aka very far from Dublin and all things interesting for a weekend break

Realising that our sentimental plan threw up a few difficulties, we realised it was time to reconsider and, despite the drawbacks of taking a holding in February, took a gamble and aimed for somewhere a little more exotic.  After much dithering and discussion, we decided on Lisbon, as none of us had visited the city before and we believed that its position nearer to the equator might increase our chances of sunshine.

With nothing more than a vague note about waking before 6am on a Friday morning, my hyper-organised mother was forced to confront the reality that, for once in her life, the decisions were all down to her daughters and she had to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.  Not until we arrived at Luton airport was she finally allowed into the big secret, opening her large birthday envelope to reveal a small Lisbon handbook tucked inside!

Our plane having landed, driving into Lisbon was quite the experience (particularly because, only the day before, I had been sat in a lecture learning about censorship in theatres in the 20th century).  The familiar sights were there, typical in any European city: signposts for Maccy Ds and KFC, giant versions of our Holiday Inn.  But as we travelled deeper into the heart of this magical city, our taxi driver speeding through the tiny, cobbled streets (causing my mum to literally grip onto the edge of her seat whilst sending Sophia and I panic eyes), I realised that we were in for a brilliant cultural experience.

This was our first time using the accommodation site Air B&B, and we were not disappointed.  After searching through several apartments, we finally landed on Helena and her property nestled right in the heart of the city.  It is difficult to find an apartment in the Bairro Alto district (this is definitely the place to stay if you want fun bars and restaurants, and perfect access to other parts of Lisbon) which is soundproofed, most of the negative reviews of properties in this area complaining about disturbances at night.  Helena’s apartment promised close access to all attractions, despite being situated on a quieter street in the city.  Although the location was perfect, we were disturbed on two of the three nights that we stayed there – once due to a house party, and the other time because of a rather loud dispute between neighbours at 5am!  This issue, however, paled into insignificance when we were confronted by the beauty at our doorstep.

The cobbled streets (which, after a while, have a bit of a negative effect upon the feet) add such character to these interconnected winding streets, so sprawling that it is easy to get lost only a couple of streets from your own apartment!  The iconic and colourful washing which hangs from almost every apartment in this area only serves to add character to a city already bursting with it.  The iron railings supporting the balconies and the beautiful patterns adorning the tiled walls of every building, once again, specific to Lisbon’s architecture, completely disconnected me from the grey buildings of Nottingham – my university city.  Even archaic gas lights could be found in a few of the older streets, transporting me to another time entirely (I’m thinking Victorian London).

Being active walkers, we made it our aim to see as much of Lisbon as was humanly possible in the three days we were there and, now speaking from experience, I can tell you that it is easy to cover a lot of ground when you have a map and a passion for hills.  Initially making our way into the Chiado district, we quickly realised we needed to walk further afield to access the Lisbon advertised in the guidebooks.  Chiado is perfectly pleasant, but only if you want to experience the commercial and walk past the shops you would find in any city in England (admittedly, there was a focus on the more European) with Zara and Mango being a couple of examples.  We were set on making it to Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon, and a close contender to Bairro Alto for our favourite part of the city.  We began the steep incline and passed countless fado and wine bars, hidden among the tiny winding streets.  Even the doors to these houses are worthy of comment, some being so tiny and brightly coloured that they wouldn’t have looked out of place in a child’s doll house collection.  We passed wonderful churches, Catholicism being evident in the architecture, the murals and the rich, ornate church collections.  The reward for our work out eventually came when we reached the very top and paid to enter the grounds of Castelo de Sao Jorge (bring your student card and you’ll get a discount!)  Arriving nearer the end of the day, at about 5 in the afternoon, the light was beautifully dappled through the trees, a warm, rosy filter covering everything in the vicinity.  The ruins are wonderful to explore but the real treat is experiencing the views of Lisbon.  Purchasing some wine from a little cart – named ‘Wine with a View’ – we sat down on the wall and looked out over these views as the sun turned from bright yellow to a golden orange.  The place is so magical, even peacocks can be found wandering through the ruins!


That evening, we made it our aim to hunt out a seafood restaurant which had brilliant reviews both online, and from our host Helena.  Knowing that Cervejara Ramiro was near-ish to our apartment, and not afraid to do a little searching, we set out again with renewed energy.  About an hour later, we were still searching.  Completing what felt like endless loops of Rossio square, and after asking more than one confused Portuguese local, we eventually found the restaurant (I would advise getting a taxi unless you are certain it is near, or understand the area better than we did).  But our wait for food did not end there – apparently we weren’t the only ones who knew this place was a real find.  After queuing solidly for half an hour, we were eventually given a seat in this popular fish restaurant.  Almost immediately a tablet was thrown at us with the lists of fish on offer and, not having been to a traditional seafood restaurant before and our sense of quantity being very confused, we struggled to gage how much we should order.  Eventually settling for the crab, prawns in garlic sauce, king prawns and buttered bread with mayonnaise (eating the seafood med-style), we sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.  This is not the place to come if you want lighting with ambience (we were sat under what can only be described as hospital lighting) and personal service (although our waiter did help mum with a hammer to get into a crab leg at one point)!  The food was insanely delicious, and you could tell it had been captured straight from the sea that day.  For brilliant quality and a fun experience, I would definitely recommend this restaurant.  Just don’t expect to get in quickly unless you opt for a lunch service, as they don’t even offer a bookings option!  Face the queue or expect disappointment!


The next day we finally decided to experience the historic tram 28 which takes you on a tour of the Bairro Alto, Chiado and Alfama districts.  The rickety tram attracted a fair bit of attention from passers-by and it was nice to temporarily put my feet up before another long and exhausting day of walking.  We headed to Praça do Comércio for a light lunch – avocado and cheese toasties and coffee with cream (Sophia had coffee with Nutella ice cream!) – and enjoyed relaxing in the sunshine, doing a spot of people watching.  We then embarked on our biggest challenge of the holiday – walking along the beach front for an hour and a half in the blazing sunshine, in order to reach our final destination: Bélem.  The walk itself was brilliant as we passed lots of different cafes and restaurants, a particular cluster by some docks being perfect for lunch as people relaxed on balconies, soaking up the sun rays.  We passed lots of fishermen and cyclists and as we were entering Bélem, we approached the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument celebrating maritime explorers.  Bélem Tower is absolutely stunning in the sunshine and we sat back with some of Lisbon’s famous custards tarts, listening to a local guitarist playing by the attraction.  Although Bélem has some interesting sites – the Jerónimos Monastery and lots of museums, beautiful gardens and palaces – for me, it was nothing on the Bairro Alto and Alfama districts; although, this is perhaps because we didn’t spend enough time here.  After all this walking, it was time to collapse with a glass of red and some of the local sheeps cheese with bread rolls.  The night spontaneously turned into a strange, rather sophisticated, bar crawl as we made the journey back.  We hit one of Lisbon’s amazing sky bars, with stunning views over the waters and the statue of Christ the King in the distance (think Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio), which was brilliantly lit in the darkness.  Although none of us are particular fans of beer, we ended up in the Museu da Cerveja, once again in the Praça do Comércio, and feasted on mussels and the region’s favourite dish, cod fish cakes, which are a must-try!  As the clock struck 12 and we drunkenly sang happy birthday to my mum, glasses of champagne magically appeared.  The perfect finish to a perfect day.


On our final day, we decided to sample every cuisine Lisbon had to offer us in one venue: the Mercado da Riberia.  This can be reached on tram 15 which connects Bairro Alto and Bélem, or you could just walk, like us!  Feeling a little worse for wear, mum opted for a mango juice drink but Sophia and I went straight for the sangria, made refreshingly with prosecco and red berries.  From goat’s cheese crepes, to prosciutto, steak sandwiches and a variety of sweet treats, it is safe to say we gorged ourselves on everything the market had to offer – apart from seafood; we were still recovering from Cervejara Ramiro!  From our walk the previous day, we returned to a sun trap beside the waterfront, with deck chairs laid out looking over the waters and the Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge, which looks something like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.


For our final night we decided to explore the restaurant options in Bairro Alto, deciding against a fado restaurant (we experienced a little of this and realised that two hours of the music would be enough to have us all weeping) as these are often overpriced and are designed purely to draw in tourists.  Instead we came across a packed out restaurant, down one of the tiny side streets, and were lucky enough to take the last empty table.  It was by far my favourite meal in Lisbon and I would recommend it to anyone hoping to visit.  The place is called Artisan and we had a mixture of cheeses and hams (definitely try this), along with potatoes in spicy sauce, prawns in garlic and, to round off the meal, we ordered more sheeps cheese!  Add a couple of bottles of red and the evening was perfect, with ambience lighting and very attentive service.  Just down the street was a wonderful jazz bar, the sounds of a saxophone escaping through an open window luring us into the vibrant and exciting atmosphere.  The musicians were all extremely talented and I only wish we had longer to explore the area, and come across more hidden gems.


Lisbon was a brilliant choice for a weekend retreat and, as you can tell, we were able to explore so much in a relatively small amount of time.  My top tips from the holiday would be:

  • Steer clear of their cabbage soup
  • Eat as much cheese as possible
  • Drink as much wine as possible
  • Walk everywhere and be prepared to get lost

Thanks for reading – Liv xxx