Sometimes it seems like COVID will never end, with constant lockdowns, online learning and working from home becoming more grating by the day. International travel is nigh on impossible, and when it is possible, it can feel like more hassle than it’s worth. Whilst it’s important to stay home and drive infections down right now, an end is in sight with the rollout of a vaccine in many countries. So what will we do with our newfound freedom when it finally arrives, this spring, summer or the next? I don’t know many people with the budget for Dubai and the beaches of Europe aren’t too sunny at the moment. Thus, it looks like we’ll be exploring the more metropolitan areas while we wait for the sun to put his hat on again (but that’s not say you can’t visit in summer too!) Here are 3 of my favourite cities I’ve visited and what I recommend doing there.
If you are a history or politics buff, Berlin is your nirvana. Like a lot of European cities, Berlin has a complicated relationship with the former Soviet Union, which has provided it with a hugely interesting mix of ornate prewar architecture and the more brutalist styles of the Soviets. It’s not all boxy though as East Berlin (administratively part of the GDR) was the closest part of the USSR to the Western Bloc, so contains a lot of interesting phenomena intended to extol the virtues of the USSR to Westerners. The square in Alexanderplatz contains an ornate ‘world clock’ which rotates corresponding to the different time zones of the world and once had an inbuilt weather station beneath it. The famous TV tower, completed 1969, was intended as a monument to the success of the communist movement and can be ascended today to visit the bar and restaurant with stunning views across Berlin.
More sobering reminders of Berlin’s past can be found in its modern cultural institutions, such as the vast Holocaust Memorial in the city centre constructed of 2711 giant concrete slabs. The huge size of them is meant to convey the unimaginable amount of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, with the slabs dwarfing anyone who stands next to them. It is a sobering juxtaposition when you consider its proximity to what was once Hitler’s Führerbunker. Whilst it is a difficult visit, it is thought provoking and you will be glad you went. The DDR (GDR) Museum nearby also gives an insightful look into the economic, legal and social difficulties experienced by ordinary people living under Soviet communism. An even bleaker look into this are the difficult conditions endured by many prisoners at the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, a secret Stasi prison which has changed little since the the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Tours run in English and German regularly. The Wall itself runs throughout the city and portrays the divide citizens of East and West Berlin must have felt – the Checkpoint Charlie museum details some of the ways people tried to make that fateful crossing.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, many German cities have wonderful botanic gardens and Berlin is no exception. Being the capital, their example (opened 1889) is one of the grandest I’ve seen and contains what the owner intended to be a whole world of plants inside its giant glass dome. You can also get a tour of the German parliament, known as the Reichstag, one of the most significant parliaments in the EU. If you want to treat (or challenge) yourself, there is a company that will rent you one of East Germany’s famous Trabant cars for the day to explore Berlin the old fashioned way. There is so much more about Berlin to talk about, but the best way to experience it is to visit!
Yeah, it’s expensive and yes, it’s a bit of a tourist trap. But so is literally everywhere that has appeal to tourists in the end. Just know what you are looking for (non-uniformed people standing outside tourist attractions promising fast track entry or selling dodgy wares like wooden bracelets or singular dead flowers) and steer well clear. If you can look past that, you have one of the most historically and culturally significant cities in the world at your fingertips, and over 2000 years of the world’s most attractive architecture. Going outside of summertime means you escape some of the bustle that is inevitably attached to Italy’s most famous attractions at the height of the season.
Staying in the city centre is either really expensive or means hostelling, so when we visited, we went for a more isolated site with little chalets at the end of a train line out of Rome near a village called Prima Porta. The surrounding countryside is filled with little hamlets like this which will provide you with good quality restaurants, more private accommodation and (hopefully) a pool for a much lower price than in the city centre. The public transport infrastructure is decent so getting into the city shouldn’t be a problem , and if you do opt to rent a car, Italy’s driving roads are among the best in the world (just don’t expect to have masses of room as Rome’s streets were designed with the horse and chariot in mind.)
When you’re off exploring, there’s virtually no need to visit any of the attractions, as the whole place is an eclectic mix in itself. The Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps are marvels of Renaissance engineering while on the main drags modern high fashion brands vie for a place in one of the medieval storefronts. For me, the highlights were the myriad Roman remains dotted about the city, with remains both of the Republican and Imperial eras – a statue of Julius Caesar looks sternly over the Tiber next to Trajan’s Column and Markets. These are probably the best insight on the planet into what life in Roman times was actually like. The Colosseum is mightily impressive in the flesh and I recommend going to look, even if venturing inside isn’t for you. It’s central location makes it an easy part of your Roman holiday. Other grand buildings like the Pantheon are not far away and are even more impressive to me when you consider that they were built years before any type of motorised machinery was invented.
Virtually every side street has a pretty cosmopolitan cafe selling the typical Italian fare; pizza slices, quick pasta dishes, coffee. If you pass by a gelateria, make sure you try a lemon granita – it’s a simple concoction but a must when you’re about to conk out from the masses of walking that Rome entails. When it comes to restaurants, a lot of gentrification has happened over the past 50 years, so it can be hit and miss. All the standard supermarkets and European fast food outlets are available, as well as Italian chains, but if you want the best, venture to the parks on the city’s outer reaches. This is where the more traditional restaurants tend to survive better and cater for Italian tastes rather than the unsuspecting tourists. The first one we went to had a Ferrari 308 outside it, which was enough praise for me. If you’re a fussy eater like me too you won’t struggle in Italy, you can be as bold or as timid as you like and there will be something to your taste.
The island of Malta occupies an intriguing position between Europe and Africa, yet when you get there, the first place you think of is the UK. There are red telephone boxes, everybody drives on the left, they even have WHSmiths! The pleasant sun, heat and volcanic beaches are a quick reminder you ain’t in Kansas anymore (figuratively speaking of course.) When we visited a few summers ago, the worst weather we had was a couple of mid afternoon grey skies, which is nothing to write home and complain about. The fortified port city of Valletta is a 16th century paradise, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, and carrying stories from the prehistoric period right through to World War II and beyond.
As is the way with a lot of small island territories doing not much harm to anybody, Malta has been under near-constant occupation since it has been a state. The earliest occupiers were Arabs; a family hailing from the area giving their name to the grand mountain Valletta sits at the foot off (Mount Scibberas.) Spanish occupiers had built a small lighthouse on the coastline in 1488, dedicated to St Elmo, a preacher persecuted by the late Roman Emperors. The Knights Hospitaller (you might know them as the Order Of Malta) soon did away with this and built Fort St Elmo, which is still a primary attraction in Valletta you can visit. It is even named after the Order’s Grand Master, Jean de Valette. It contains a medieval chapel and more modern apparatus used against the Ottoman Empire, France and later the Third Reich. The fortifications luckily survived proposed demolition during the period of British colonial rule beginning in the 1800s. Like always, there’s far too much history to write about in one poxy article, but there’s mountains available online about the history of Fort St Elmo and the Order of Malta.
Today, Malta is an independent state, an EU member, and Valletta is the administrative capital. The island is fairly small so if you don’t fancy staying there (many opt for the nearby St Julian’s for its idyllic beaches and designated swimming areas,) public transport is easy by bus into Valletta. Take care to avoid peak times as they do get crowded, though if we’re travelling in a post-COVID world, perhaps social distancing is here to stay. There is a metropolitan area from which most of the legal administration is done; this is the more modern and artisanal part of Valletta with sleek metal furniture and sculpture adorning the landscape, as well as several galleries where you can see the modern artists of Malta at work. This area also contains a lot of ornate gardens which create a great sense of serenity as a respite from the busy city. This is pretty much the limit when it comes to gentrification however, aside from the odd Costa Coffee, don’t expect many chain restaurants around every corner. They are there, but not quite as apparent as a massive city like Rome!
Instead, craft restaurants celebrating local produce are the order of the day. Being such a small island, the seafood there is fantastic, with the culture influenced a lot by Italian cuisine but also having its own unique twist on a lot of the standard Mediterranean fare. When it comes time for a tipple too, the island brews its own beer, known as Cisk (pronounced Chisk) and Sangria virtually flows from the taps. It is a quite fantastic place to eat, my only advice is be careful with the pop-up restaurants in the middle of Valletta’s old main street. Not all of them are quite as fantastic as they could be – go for the ones with pretty tableware and a waiter on station who will take care of you the whole time. Seafood with the sand still in it is a big culinary turn-off for me!
One of the calling cards of a visit to Valletta is a jaunt down to the harbour to catch one of the many boats that comes in and out each day. Malta might be the country, but the archipelago also contains the islands of Gozo and Comino. You can put your car on a ferry for barely anything as it’s used by island residents daily, though if you fancy relaxing, plenty of passenger boats run serving food and drink throughout the short journey. These can be quite popular with stag dos, so if partying hard isn’t your thing, a travel agent in Valletta can advise you on what’s the best option for you. Gozo is very similar to the main island, however, Comino is virtually undeveloped, home to the famous Blue Lagoon. The water here really is almost completely clear and a refreshing Mediterranean cool rather than the icy waters you find off the coast of the UK. Again, it is something of a party hotspot at some points, so try to avoid peak times if you want to visit but prefer to take it easy.
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