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Notes from Lisbon

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If I could dream up the perfect holiday destination, it would be just like Lisbon. the weather, the food, the wine, the architecture, the people, the sea, the soul of the city – everything was to my liking. This was also the first time that I travelled alone for a holiday and the experience of bonding with myself was extraordinary. Perhaps that’s also why Lisbon was such a personal experience – I spent a lot of time enjoying the mental silence, exploring my thoughts, and “talking” to my notebook. Somehow I feel that, because I was alone, I’ve experienced Lisbon more intensely. There was an honest, raw freedom in being a sole ship and venturing into unknown.

Below are a few reflections I plucked from my notes from the trip. They’re not very practical as a guide but they may provide a feeling for Lisbon if you’re thinking of going. (And you definitely should!)

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Padrão dos Descobrimentos portrays some of the most courageous people in the history of the world. I definitely felt an affinity to them on this trip!

Light – Luz

The very first thing that struck me about Lisbon was the light. From pockets of sunshine above little alcoves at the airport, to the grey-cream grille reflected on the concrete wall at the Cais do Sodré metro station, the city seems to constantly be coquetting with the sun. And, indeed, even I spent my days here performing an intricate dance with the golden orb – alternatively hiding from it and seeking it out.

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Somewhere in Chiado.

People – Gente

The Portuguese seem to lack any kind of airs. In a world saturated by flashiness and vulgarity, the Portuguese are refreshingly normal. They smile without grimacing, they’re relaxed without being sloppy, they’re dignified without being uptight or superior. They’re friendly but not intrusive. They’re just – wonderfully okay.

I made a friend in Lisbon. We hit it off the minute we met, talking about music, Salvador Sobral, movies, books, feminism, PMS, heritage, and relationships. In under one hour, an entire life story was poured out for me to savour, and I tried to remember the last time that I’ve been that open with anyone. I live in a country and work in an environment where we are all very guarded. There may be various reasons for this, but it was valuable to be reminded that I cannot make human connections unless I open up – and not by broadcasting to all the world what I had for lunch that day, but by actually baring my soul before a fellow human being.

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Somewhere in Bica.

Rooftops – Telhados

Lisbon takes dining ao ar livre to a whole new level – literally: up! Somehow, it doesn’t make sense in this city of seven hills to be anywhere but on a miradouro or a rooftop. Thus, I spent most of my time in Lisbon atop its countless peaks, sipping coffee at the ubiquitous Quiosques and staring our into the distance. I didn’t even want to read my book, although I occasionally noted down impressions.

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Portuguese afternoon tea Hotel do Chiado with a view of Castelo de São Jorge.

Trams

I had no grasp of the true meaning of the word “rambunctious” until I rode one of Lisbon’s old trams. You can hear them before you can see them, approaching from behind a corner sounding like Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. They clang and clatter, rumble, rattle, wheeze and sigh, they squeak and squawk (yes, they do) and putter, and I even detected a suck-pop noise, like when something is taken out of a tube with no air. They also shake violently and tremble menacingly, they pull and tug and halt and start… and not infrequently feel like they are on the verge of transforming into a different machine altogether, about to fly off the rails and into another dimension.

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This is actually a funicular (Elevador de Bica), not one of Lisbon’s iconic trams.

Custard Tarts – Pastéis de Nata

Some people will argue, but I will adamantly defend Pastéis de Belém as the best pastéis de nata in all the world. I’ve tried several others – a very mediocre one in an unnamed location in town and a decent one from Pastéis de Nata at Time Out Market, which I was told were better than the ones in Belém but found to be too sweet and corrupted by too much cinnamon sprinkled on top.

Now, the ones at Belém are a whole different story. Here, they are served without the cinnamon (leaving you with the option of sprinkling as much or as little as you like from a shaker placed on the tables), allowing the quietly comforting taste of the custard to wow you. The moment you take your first bite, the delicate, paper-thin crust succumbs to the pressure of your lips and breaks to expose a warm, unctuous custard that carries only a hint of sweetness and an echo of something I identified as vanilla. (But who knows?) One was definitely not enough – but at least I have reason to return.

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Pastéis de Belém.

MAAT

This – the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, designed by British architect Amanda Levete – is my favourite building in Lisbon. It’s an extraordinary example of modern architecture that rises out of the ground and flows along the coast and undulates so organically, like a wave immobilised at its crest. It has an inner dynamic, yet it’s calming somehow – just like the waves of the ocean. I appreciated that I could climb literally all over it and photograph it from all the angles – all of which seemed to be designed with the eager photographer in mind.

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MAAT, by Amanda Levete.

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MAAT, by Amanda Levete.

Silence – Silêncio

The topic of silence seemed to accompany me throughout my stay in Lisbon – and it was quite a coincidence that I came to Lisbon to find the blessing of silence, even though the purpose of my visit was noise (or rather, music). I was introduced to the Portuguese take on silence on my very first evening, at a fado performance.

Fado lives and thrives on the weight of words; it feeds on that poetical charge that fadistas balance and share over melodies often very simple. Breath, pause, the emphasis that every fadista offers to verses sung one thousand times before has to match perfectly with the soul. And for that to happen it is very important what is left to be said: the unspoken word that only can be felt. In short, silence.

This silence must be welcomed with silence, so that this liturgy of feeling can happen in its full splendor. But this respect is mostly for those who are hearing, so they can experience every pause, every phrase, every estilar and let it break into their hearts and leave a mess.

When somebody says “Silence, please. Fado is about to be sung!” (“Silêncio que se vai cantar o fado!”) don’t take it as an order. It is, in fact, the most beautiful of all invitations.

Nuno Miguel Guedes
journalist and fado lyricist

While silence is central to fado, which relies on it for dramatic effect, it also seems to be an important concept in Portuguese zeitgeist. It was mentioned by several people I encountered, and audiences not just of fado were thanked for their silence. I found Portuguese silence very welcome – akin to that moment in yogic breathing where you pause your breath for a moment after exhaling – a soothing break in the wild rhythm, a space for everything to stop… until it all begins again.

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Somewhere on the Tejo (Tagus River).

Saudade

It was Salvador Sobra’ls victory in the Eurovision song contest in May 2017 that made me look up his concert dates, buy my ticket, book the flights, and actually come to Lisbon physically and not just in my mind. My Lisbon experience wouldn’t have been the same without him. Sobral is a phenomenon – exponentially better live than he is on the screen or even on Spotify – insanely creative, playful, touching, exulting.

He talked quite a bit during the concert, speaking of many things and peppering his speeches with little jokes, charming the audience into giggles and applause (I only understood parts of it), but one thing he said (and which I understood perfectly) struck me particularly. He was referring to the skill of his extraordinary pianist – Julio Resende – when he said tht the man could make you feel immense joy as well as immense sadness at the same time. And it occurred to me then that it was the precise sentiment that Salvador Sobral’s music evoked in me and that, incidentally, this sentiment was also, for me, the definition of that quintessential Portuguese state – saudade. Although I did listen to fado earlier during my stay, it was Salvador Sobral who made me grasp what saudade truly tastes and feels like.

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The view from my room at Ribeira Tejo Guesthouse.

Thank you for reading all the way here! A more practical blog post with concrete suggestions for places to see and things to do may – or may not – follow. I’ll see how I feel. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to respond to your questions and comments below!

{all images by Blue Jay & Bumblebee}

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My First Memory of Portugal

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My first memory of Portugal is actually of a person. Ricardo (I hope there’s no harm in using his real name) was my classmate in 7th Grade, which was probably my last year of innocence. (Not in the trivial sense, but rather in that life changed dramatically the year after that – as lives are wont to do around the age of 13 – and I had to start dealing with an abundance of issues.)

He was the one who taught me how to say “obrigada”, because I was already attempting to learn to say “thank you” in as many languages as I could remember. (You can never go wrong with a thank you. I remember being in Albania on business a couple of years ago, and unable to remember anything else in Albanian, said “thank you” when I shook people’s hands to meet them and exited establishments after meetings. It worked somehow.) He also told me that Spanish oranges were in fact Portuguese oranges that the Spanish imported from Portugal and then sold at a premium.

I liked Ricardo, and through him acquired a liking for his homeland, although I knew nothing yet of the rich Portuguese culture. He was a good friend and a cool guy, and he never made fun of me. In fact, sometime towards the end of 7th Grade, every single goddamn day, Ricardo would look at me with his Earl Grey coloured eyes, and plainly say: “Jay, you’re a very attractive girl.” He’d say it so very simply, as if he were commenting on how nice the day was or asking me if I’d done my homework. And he never followed up with a request for a dance at a party or a private audition at the cafeteria. (Most of his compliments were delivered in plain earshot of our classmates.) I never thought much of it. Every single day, I’d look right back at him, and just as plainly answer: “Thank you, Ricardo.”

It occurred to me only much, much later that perhaps Ricardo may have fancied me. But at the time I was – as I’ve already stated – innocent and also platonically (and quite hopelessly) pining after an Italian-American hunk called Joey (no harm in using his real name either, I guess) who had a crush on Pamela Anderson and whose single passion in life was basketball.

Ricardo and I both left the school at the end of that year, moving countries. And, this being the time before emails and mobile phones, didn’t exchange contacts. There was no need for or sense in it, really. Ricardo’s presence, though I missed him, was reduced to the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter.

I’ve long since stopped associating Portugal with my childhood friend, forgetting to think about him even during my recent trip to Lisbon. It was only after my return that his memory somehow snuck into my mind and reminded me of that time when my interest in this beautiful country was first sparked.

So, just in case – because sometimes the world is a golf ball – I would like to say: Thank you, Ricardo.

 

 

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The Hair Thing

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It was quite a while ago that I realised this funny fact – and it’s rather silly unless you just roll along and have fun with it – the funny fact being that all my favourite people in the world also happen to have hair that I LOVE.*

Take one of my oldest and closest friends, L., who has a lush, straw-coloured mane (it’s embarrassing that most of my favourite people are blonde) of untamed, frizzy waves. They frame her round and smiling face like a golden haze, and are light and airy to the touch, like freshly beaten egg whites.

Or F., whose head holds a generous mass of bouncy, sexy brown curls. For a long time, she tried to control them with various products, until she finally found her vibe around the age of 30, and her hair is now a jazzy tune that dances along to her fearless, businesslike strut.

C.’s hair is incredibly thick and strong, like rays of sunshine gold that could easily lift Harry, Ron, Hermione, and a limp Professor Lockhart out from the Chamber of Secrets. It also gets interestingly bushy, betraying a leonine personality, and occasionally just does whatever the hell it damn well pleases.

Then there’s J., a coworker who’s loveliness is only matched by the loveliness of her hair – cappuccino coloured, with the girliest, flirtiest, softest curls. I’m imagining it’s what the hair of Botticelli’s Venus must be like, and it usually makes me happy just to look at it when I’m at work. (Don’t worry, I’ve told her about my creepy affliction, and she’s perfectly at peace with it.)

And there are many others, of course.

But the best hair of all, the hair that eats all the other hair for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, and supper, is my partner’s. The first time I touched it, I think I actually gasped. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since, and if there’s anything I could compare it to, it would be the mythical Golden Fleece. (Yes, it’s so special you can only imagine.) It’s quite incredible, really, and rather unfair for a man.

(At the same time, there’s something irresistible about a man with amazing hair. Right? Of course, it could just be me. I don’t know. I’ve heard that some women appreciate men’s bums.)

Anyway, since I made this discovery, I occasionally play a little game with myself when I’m on the tram or in a queue: I inspect people’s hair and wonder whether I’d like their personalities based purely on that fact.  It’s an amusing pastime, if nothing else.

 

*Just to be clear, I’m not someone who covets great hair, as I’m pretty happy with my own. It’s abundant, strong and has a pleasing, silky appearance that belies its formidable strength and weight Moreover, my hairdresser chops it into a fun bob that looks great and requires only washing and brushing. I have all I could ever want.

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Walking Past A Cute Café

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a metaphor on life

Walking past a cute café, the other dé,
I thought, my-ô-my, but what a charming scene!
The café so quaint, the people so pretté.
Sipping their lattés, chatting merrilé.
They all looked so bécébégé, bon dieu!
I thought, my-ô-my, I must join this tableau!
Sitting myself down, ordering a rosé,
I suddenly realised I no longer saw
The café so quaint, the people so pretté.
Because – héhé! – it is rather sillé…

How to explain. You see, that the café happened to be facing an utterly ghastly petrol station that I somehow completely failed to notice initially.

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Prague: A Succinct Guide for the Classy Traveller

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So, you’re coming to Prague, Czech Republic, are you? How lovely for you! Prague is a charming, vibrant city that you’ll enjoy regardless of your age or interests. Nevertheless, just so that we’re on the same page, this guide is best suited for the childfree wanderer who enjoys food, culture, walking, and poking their nose into secret gardens. If that’s you – let’s polka!

When to Come & How Long to Stay

Your best bets as regards weather (pleasant) and crowds (minimal) are spring (late May) and summer (early September). Honestly, forget about Prague at Christmas – it’s horribly cold, there’s never any snow, and the city is just depressing. Avoid the height of the summer, too, as it tends to get tiresomely hot and crowded. Easter is a hit or miss weatherwise, so if you’re willing to risk anything between arctic hail and tropical heat, by all means book those flights right now.

A weekend (two nights) stay is ideal for Prague. If you give yourself an extra day or two, you can take a more leisurely pace seeing the major sights, visiting museums, and exploring some of Prague’s lesser known (but all the more charming) areas. There’s also the option of taking a day trip outside the city bounds, although I suggest staying put and getting the most out of the city!

What to Pack

The only thing you really need is a pair of comfortable walking shoes, because if you want a genuine Prague experience, you’ve got to go on foot. Prague is wonderfully walkable and you won’t even look like a weirdo in your Le Coq Sportif trainers, athleisure fashion being all the rage. Other than that, you shouldn’t need any special equipment – nobody will want you to cover your knees and shoulders in churches, and you can walk into any theatre or restaurant in jeans and a t-shirt and not feel ill at ease.

What to See

Historical Landmarks

Literally every house in Prague is a historical landmark, and there are so many interesting things to see in the city that they could (and in fact have) fill up a whole book. Here are just the very basic “must-see” places, in order of importance.

Prague Castle & St. Vitus Cathedral: I recommend doing the whole shebang here, that is, buying the ticket granting you access to all the interior spaces (about 10 EUR). For one thing, you’ll get to see some unique architecture (a hallway formerly used for jousting matches, with steps leading up to it built especially for horses, for example), but you’ll also basically walk through a 3D Czech history class. Study the history of Prague Castle, and you’ve pretty much got a handle on the history of the entire nation from its inception in the 9th century to 1918, when the independent Czechoslovak Republic was formed after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I. Also, the gardens surrounding the castle are quite lovely and not as crowded.

Charles’ Bridge: Having been built in 1357, this is Prague’s oldest and arguably most beautiful bridge. Come here before noon or in the evening to avoid crowds, and take your time admiring the views on both sides as well as the 33 majestic statues (depicting various saints) flanking its sides.

Old Town Square: Just to explain, Prague was historically made up of four towns – the Castle Town (Hradčany) and the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) on the right river bank, and the Old Town (Staré Město) and New Town (Nové Město) on the left river bank. The Castle Town and Old Town are the oldest, and Old Town Square used to be the epicentre of life in Prague – with markets and fairs and hangings and beheadings. Today, it’s where the tourists congregate – for good reason, because this is where you get to admire the Old Town Hall and the famous Historical Clock. I recommend climbing the Old Town Hall tower for some magnificent views of the Old Town, which spreads out in front of you as if on the palm of your hand.

Vyšehrad & St. Peter and Paul Church: Vyšehrad used to be a castle surrounded by legends, and although none of it stands today, a magic still permeates this place. Come here on a sunny day to stroll along the old castle fortifications (great views), tour the underground cassemates (where some of the original statues from Charles Bridge are kept!), and admire the exceptional tombstones at Slavín – a cemetery where all the most famous Czechs from the past two centuries are buried. The interior of St. Peter and Paul church is also quite unique in that it is decorated in art deco style. (Think RiflePaper & Co on the walls of a church – reason alone to come to Prague.)

Bethlehem Square: This one’s off the beaten tourist track, but by no means out of the way. The most interesting landmark on this square is the Bethlehem Chapel – scene of the first steps of the Czech reformation movement. I recommend going inside to see the interior as it’s quite extraordinary, and if the Reformation sparks an interest, by all means check out the adjacent bite-sized historical exhibition, too.

Secret Gardens

Prague is lush with greenery and many of its gardens are splendid – with beautiful sculptures and ornate pavillions and tinkling fountains and cool ponds and regal peacocks. Peek into one, or two, or all of them and take some respite from the city in the shade of a tree.

Prague Castle Gardens: These are vast and beautiful and you may not want to see all of them, but do take a stroll in the Royal Garden with the elegant Belvedere and “singing” fountain.

Wallenstein Gardens: They’re located right under Prague Castle and feature the stunning sala terrena of the Wallenstein Palace (check out if any concerts are taking place here) and an impressive grotto, along with a humongous cage housing birds of prey.

Vrtba Garden: This one’s slightly hidden, but it’s glorious and totally worth the modest entry fee. This terraced garden offers some gorgeous and unusual views of Prague castle, and it’s more than likely that you’ll see a couple of weddings taking place here – for understandable reasons!

Kampa Island: Not a garden per se, but a beautiful spot of green right next to Charles’ Bridge. At the end of June 2017, the Werich Villa (which belonged to a famous Czech actor and musician) will open its doors to the public and will include what I suspect is a wonderful cafe, so be sure to check it out!

Vojan Gardens: Again, not that easy to find, but once you do you’ll feel like you’ve entered a completely different world. This garden provides a less manicured backdrop than some of the others, and is a great place to take a short break with a sandwich lunch. Which brings me to the most important part…

Where to Eat  

There is a wealth of great places to eat in Prague that cater to all dietary requirements. Below, I’ve listed my favourites that are all within a reasonable distance to the landmarks I’ve listed above.

Breakfast/Brunch

Café SavoyDo yourself a favour, disregard the temptations of a free hotel buffet breakfast, and come here instead. In a spacious, sparkling art-deco interior reminiscent of traditional Viennese cafés, you’ll be served some of Prague’s most delightful pastries. Try the French toast and, although this sounds odd, pay a visit the bathroom – there’s a glass wall in the hallway that opens onto the bakery downstairs!

Bake ShopThis place can get CROWDED by mid-morning and lunchtime but there’s absolutely no surprise as to why. It’s the Prague equivalent of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery – come here early-ish for the most amazing croissants and pastries, or opt for one of their magnificent, towering quiches if you’re in the mood for something savoury.

Coffee/Snacks

Sisters BistroOne thing you should try when in Prague is chlebíčky [KHLEB-each-key] – open-faced sandwiches piled high with potato salad, ham, pickles, salami, and cheese (not necessarily all at once). They’re usually eaten as a party food (or served at meetings where no one touches them because they’re a mess to eat) and Sisters Bistro makes a modern variant – with celeriac remoulade, beetroot pate, roastbeef, and various other toppings served on custom-made bread. Perfect when you need some fuel between lunch and dinner!

Styl a InteriérThis is a bit of a hidden gem – just steps away from Wenceslas Square lies a peaceful, lush garden with pathways leading to tables surrounded by wicker chairs. The wine is plentiful, the tea is excellent, the cakes moist, and the estrogen level very high.

Original CoffeePrague has become a city of coffee snobs in the past five years or so, which means that specialty coffee shops brewing up all kinds of unique roasts abound. Original Coffee is one of those, offering a calming space for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.

AngelatoThere is some debate as to the best ice-cream joint in Prague, and after trying a few of them, I no longer dare name any one place as the best (and I don’t see any reason why I should, really). Nevertheless, Angelato was one of the first and remains a firm favourite among the top three – don’t be put off by the queues, because service is fast and the ice-cream is worth it!

Lunch/Dinner

KolkovnaThis isn’t necessarily my favourite place to eat, but if you want traditional Czech fare, it’s probably your best choice. And it’s where I take all my friends who crave roast pork knee with horseradish and mustard, or half a roasted duck with purple sauerkraut and potato dumplings, or the famous tenderloin in creamy vegetable sauce that are some of the Czech cuisine staples. Oh, and beer, of course.

MaitreaAlthough this is a vegetarian restaurant, I guarantee you that omnivores will not be disappointed (I’ve tested it on many friends, male and female). Reservations are a good idea in the evening but lunch here can be a quick affair – the affordable menu features a soup, main dish, and water and you can be in and out within half an hour. Considering the fact that this place is a few steps away from Old Town Square, it’s excellent value.

EskaThis place is a revelation on the Czech culinary scene. The concept is back to the roots, which means they bake their own bread (there’s a bakery worth visiting), beat their own butter, ferment their own kefir, and serve traditional ingredients (root vegetables, freshwater fish) in a novel approach. The simplest and most enjoyable way of having the best time here is to just order the tasting menu (there’s a choice between 5 and 8 courses, both very affordable).

Beer & Cocktails

Hemingway Bar: One thing I find annoying about Prague is that it’s hard to get into a bar without a reservation on a Friday or Saturday night. If you really want your nightcap, therefore, call in ahead. If you’re too lazy to call and are willing to go for second (but still exceptional) best, check out the Cash Only Bar around the corner. (And, er, bring cash. Heh.)

Bar and BooksCome here if you want to have a quiet night sipping whisky and puffing on a cigar while reading your book (although maybe bring a reading light – there’s not much to see by in this place), or have a glass of wine (or more) with a trusted soul over deep and serious conversation that you’ll forget all about in the morning.

What to Do

Museums

Anežský klášter: Pop in here if you want to explore some of the luminous beauty of the art of the Dark Ages. The mediaeval period was actually one of prosperity in Bohemia, and this is reflected in the art. You might also be surprised – as I always seem to be – how “modern” some ancient art is – although we may not understand many of the symbolism anymore, some of the works really do speak to viewers in the 21st century, as well.

Mucha Museum: This is worth a visit if you a) are somewhat familiar with Alfons Mucha and his work and/or b) appreciate the ornate style of art deco. The museum’s gift shop is abundant in souvenirs, as well (as a matter of fact, one contemporary Czech jeweller recreates many of Alfons Mucha’s original designs), so it’s a good place to scout for gifts.

House of the Black Madonna: Czech cubism is a world to itself. The style took off in the newly formed Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the 20th century, and permeated all areas of everyday life – not just art! – to create an aesthetic style that had a distinct national identity. (A bit like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue did in musical terms for the USA.)

Other Activities

Should you find yourself with a long minute in Prague, try any of the following activities: visit the Náplavka farmers’ market on Wednesday or Saturday morning, located on the river bank – the atmosphere is lively and neighbourly with kids and dogs running amok, lots of good things to eat, fine coffe, and lovely river views.

If you have lots of time and perhaps the weather isn’t too good, go to the movies! Kino Lucerna on Wenceslas Square has gorgeous interiors and often shows rare films as part of various film festivals. And if you’re a classic cinema buff, then Kino Ponrepo is your place to be. Both cinemas have cafés where you can relax over a coffee and share your impressions. Should you want some classier entertainment, get tickets to the National Theatre (although the value of the architecture is more of that of the performances).

On a sunny afternoon, rent a pédallo at Žofín island and spend an hour admiring Prague from a completely different perspective. I definitely recommend this over a boat cruise – much cheaper and much more fun. When evening falls, try out one of Prague’s ghost tours – it may sound cheesy but it’s loads of fun and you’ll be told many interesting legends about the city.

What to Bring Back

If you don’t fancy shopping for presents too much, I recommend getting the following (all of which can be purchased at the airport): 1) A bottle of Becherovka, a traditional Czech liqueur made from 17 herbs following a secret recipe, excellent on its own as a digestif or in a variety of cocktails. I’ve never known anyone to be offended by a bottle of “the good stuff”, as a friend’s husband calls it. 2) A Studentská pečeť chocolate bar (comes in jumbo sizes for the especially greedy), which is not just any old chocolate bar, but a chocolate bar packed with nuts, raisins, and jelly beans. There are many variations, the classic milk chocolate being my favourite. 3) If you need to get a gift for a child, bring them a toy Krteček – Little Mole. He’s a cartoon character that every Czech kid is familiar with, and what’s great about the cartoons is that there’s no spoken word in them (just music and cute animal sounds).

Should you want to do some shopping, after all, here are my favourite haunts!

One of my favourite places to get gifts for friends who live abroad is Botanicus – a home-grown cosmetics company that grows its own plants (as a matter of fact, you can visit the garden where they grow all their organic herbs and plants just outside of Prague!) and makes its own products. Just the smell in their shops – herby and soothing – puts me in a good mood! I swear by their lotions but they also sell lovely edibles (syrups and teas) and some bath-time accessories.

Another good spot for mindful souvenirs is a store called Lípa, named after the Czech national tree, the linden.  They sell traditional Czech products with a modern twist, perfect accessories for the 21st century’s minimalist aesthetic. Find various products made from wood (something very typically Czech are wooden toys for children), paper goods, and traditional jams and fair trade chocolates – most bearing linden motifs.

If you have a movie fan in your life, visit Terryho ponožky (Terry’s Socks), a cupboard-sized shop selling reproductions of vintage movie posters. (Makes sense, right?) You’ll find a wealth of posters for movies from all over the world, but what I find most interesting are Czech-designed posters for foreign movies. This is definitely a place where you can kill some time at!

Further Research

Spotted by Locals: If you’re not already familiar with the Spotted by Locals website, you should check it out right now! It’s one of the first sites I go to when researching a new city and whilst the quality differs for various locations, the suggestions for Prague are excellent.

Taste of PragueThe only website you need to know about when it comes to researching places to eat in Prague. Whether you’re looking for the perfect place to enjoy a coffee outside or a fancy dinner for two, this is where you’ll find carefully curated, regularly updated information on the best that Prague has to serve.

Prague Up: An excellent website for finding out what’s going on in the city – I like that they show you the main events for each day as well as upcoming recommended events. Visit this website and you’ll be in the know!

Questions? Remarks? Spill your beans in the comments section and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!

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Postcards from Scotland

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Edinburgh

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Back after 10-odd years, and Edinburgh hasn’t aged a day. She’s still the charming, youthful, cultured, witty young woman with a flair for the arts and an affliction for harris tweed. She’s quite the coquette, too, and knows exactly what she’s doing to her admirers. You can see it when you look up at Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street (which is really Princess Street, but don’t tell the boys) and notice how she’s lined up the mediaeval houses just so – haphazardly at first glance, but following a hidden aesthetic order intended to enrapture.

If you ever visit, you must stay at The Balmoral – not that there’s any other hotel in town but some people might try to persuade you otherwise. For dinner, go to the dogs (I’m not being rude), which feels deliciously clandestine: like a moonlighting kitchen fronted by a funeral parlour for canines. (Not as morbid as it sounds, honest.) Here, wash down a bowl of hearty rabbit stew with half a bottle of Garnacha and know what it feels like to be warmed to the marrow.

Inverness

The short version: you needn’t ever visit Inverness.

The long version: Inverness is dodgy. (I might just as well say it, since it’s you.) For one thing, it’s a town possessed by seagulls. (Here, it might be helpful to remember that birds are descended from dinosaurs.) They strut down the deserted streets like masters of the universe – huge beasts, feathers like serrated blades, beaks like daggers – the victors of some apocalyptic Hitchcockian war, laying claim to all discarded food and public statues.

The humans of Inverness, shrunken and sallow, slither around corners like silent shadows, muttering in unintelligible tongues, casting sidelong glances. They look out wistfully at the world from behind the glass windows of empty bars, no doubt dreaming about returning to their meagre dwellings, hanging the noose around their own necks and kicking the bucket from underneath their own feet, and doing away with Inverness once and for all, observed only by the impassive yellow eyes of a seagull, perched imperiously on a lamppost right outside the dirty window.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

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“Technically, it’s just a lake. But add a monster, and it’s marketable!”

I’m certain Urquhart is a character from a P. G. Wodehouse novel, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one or which one. The castle, meanwhile, is just comical. A joke of a ruin perched atop a breathtaking view (on a nice day, anyway), as if it were erected specifically for the tourists to dish out 9 quid apop for a chance to take selfies with a mediaeval backdrop. Somehow, none of it makes sense, not here in Scotland: the view, the castle, the (hi)story. Castles are meant to be menacing and impenetrable bastions, bathed in a past of violence and bloodshed. Urquhart, meanwhile, is more like a Swiss chateau (albeit a cheaper, plainer version of it, because what Scot would splurge on such silly things as turrets.)

But the views are lovely, especially on a nice day, and the photos do turn out fine.

Skye

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“Skye”, in Scottish Gaelic, means “the land where lambs are born”. An old Scottish legend claims that lambs, innocent angelic beings, fall from heaven straight onto Skye, where they spend a few months before being marched to the mainland at 6 to 10 months to be slaughtered.

I’m spinning a yarn here. (Pardon the pun. But it is true that lambs are slaughtered for meat between 6 and 10 months. Did you know that? Yummy!) But it’s a perfect made-up legend, because Skye, in spring, is a heaven of frolicking four-legged angels, skipping across paddocks and being all cute and shy and adorable. There are also some impressive waterfalls on this volcanic island.

Fort William & Glen Coe

Like the bulbous nose of an old man, Beinn Nibheis looms over Fort William, a proud little town dwarfed by the giant squatting in its backyard only in size, but not in spirit. It still feels like a garrison town, where people come to mostly because they want to move on – North-West to the isles or South-East to adjoining Glen Coe.

Glen Coe is not as impressive on a dazzling sunny day, but beautiful nevertheless. The undulating hills and valleys a testament to the greatest master – Mother Nature – standing on display, commanding admiration with a cold nonchalance given by the knowledge that they will still be here after we and our cars have long been devoured by worms and moss.

Onich & Loch Lomond

Hands down, my favourite. This was where I tasted summer for the first time this year. But not the sweltering, palm-tree lined, white sandy beach summer of the tropics, smelling of sunscreen and tasting of sugary fruit. This was the refreshing, rubber sandals on pebbled shores, dappled shade of leafy trees, saline lochs brimming with cockles and clams and crabs and langoustines summer of the north, where the water is freezing and the air tastes like grilled scallops.

Stay nowhere but Camus House, where you will feel like an old family friend visiting for the weekend (and then want to stay forever once you lay your eyes on the view in the breakfast room), and dine nowhere but the Lochleven Seafood Café, but do yourself the favour and disregard any vegetarian inclinations. (Bafflingly, they do have vegetarian options on the menu, for which I will never forgive myself.)

Glasgow

Glasgow is like its accent: edgy, alert, and grunge. Its inhabitants are obviously unused to clement weather: on a warm sunny day, they walk around wearing dark stockings and leather jackets, as if unsure how to deal with the sunshine or caught in the wrong city altogether. But they have rainbows in their hair and patterns on their greenish pale limbs that look strangely out of place exposed to the elements.

Glasgow is Edinburgh’s plainer sister, sullen and pinch-faced, reading Solzhenitsyn in a corner or else planning the demise of the world in a seedy teahouse. But she’s by no means dull – there’s a rich inner world underneath the hard shell, of only you dig a little deeper and peek under the surface.