5 essential places to enjoy a mojito in Cuba

Habana Vieja, Cuba

Habana Vieja

As a firm fan of a mixed drink (and rum in general), one of the things I day-dreamed about prior to my visit to Cuba was enjoying an authentic  mojito or two.

What I found was a succession of warm, gritty-with-undissolved-sugar disappointments. I am not sure whether it is because cocktail making has become so sophisticated elsewhere in recent years, or Cuba just got lazy with their national beverage, but most of the mojitos I tried – and I tried a few – were average at best.

dsc_7073I soon realised pure enjoyment of Cuban mojito was highly dependant on location –  atmosphere, the view and sense of history being as integral to the mix as the quality of the rum and the freshness of the limes.

So here are five wonderful places, serving knock-out mojitos, that I am instantly transported back to whenever I get a whiff of some muddled mint.

1. The historic celebrity haunt – The Nacional Hotel, Havana
Nacional hotel from the Malecón

Nacional hotel from the Malecón

 

Sitting on Havana’s famous Malecón waterfront boulevard, the historic Nacional Hotel was a playground for wealthy Americans before relations with the neighbours soured.

Purpose built during US prohibition in the 1920s, it is an eclectic architectural mix of art deco, neoclassical, neo-colonial – with some moorish influences thrown in. Essentially it is a summary of Havana’s pre-revolutionary architectural history in one building. 

The 40s and 50s were the heyday of The Nacional when it was frequented (and briefly part-owned) by the mob and the hotel and its casino attracted the great and (not so) good of American and European society. In more recent decades it has welcomed notable visitors sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.

Several suites are now named in honour of former guests. This diverse call-list includes Frank Sinatra, Jean Paul Sartre, Alexander Fleming, Errol Flynn, Walt Disney and an oddly generic ‘Mafia’ suite. Former guests who, it appears were not deemed worthy of such recognition include Sir Winston Churchill (although there is a creepy portrait of him in the presidential suite), Yuri Gagarin, and, briefly during the Cuban missile crisis, a selection of anti-aircraft emplacements.

The lush, palm-lined gardens at the back of the hotel offer a rare green sanctuary in a densely built city. The waterfront location provides a peaceful place to enjoy a cooling mojito before heading onto the Malacón to enjoy the sunset over the ocean and watch Cuban night life play out before you.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Calle 21 y O, Vedado, Plaza, La Habana

2. The one with the view – Inglaterra Hotel, Havana

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The Inglaterra is one of many Havana institutions frequented by writers Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene – although you will be hard pressed to find a bar standing in Havana that notorious lush Hemingway didn’t prop up at some point.

The Moorish influence in the lobby of The Inglaterra makes for a grand entrance and it is the perfect place to enjoy a morning coffee and a pastry before a days’ sightseeing.

But to enjoy a cooling sundowner – and the best views of the city – head to the roof where the waiting barman will promptly furnish you with a long, refreshing mojito. From this shady vantage point you can trace the history of the city through its architecture – from the both crumbling and restored wedding cake stylings of the old towns colonial and neoclassical buildings through to the post revolutionary tower-blocks and plazas.

Hotel Inglaterra, Paseo del Prado, No. 416 esq. San Rafael, La Habana

3. The perfect retreat -Salón 1720, Holguin

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Although Holguin, Cuba’s fourth largest city, is a charming destination in its own right,  many visitors are just passing through. As a hub for long distance buses and the gateway to the regions popular beach resorts, it is a place that many find themselves with a few hours to kill before the next leg of a journey.

The perfectly restored colonial  mansion house, Salón 1720 is the ultimate sanctuary for the weary traveller. Its bright courtyard is perfect for a revitalising drink, and the cool, white table-clothed restaurant the ideal place to enjoy a restorative meal. You can also store your bags here, stock up on cigars and even hire a car.

The mojitos are icy cold and punchy with fresh lime – no ready-made mixes here.  They are perfect aperitif to some of the best food I have eaten in Cuba – buttery fish and seafood and the most vegetables I had seen in ten days in the country. It is often said that the best Cuban food is to be found in Florida, and that is probably not far from the truth.  With most establishments government owned and with limited access to fresh produce, the food quality can often be underwhelming.

This is beginning to, and will continue to change. The growth of Paladares – privately owned restaurants, usually in peoples homes, is inspiring more creative and innovative cooking. Menus are usually limited and constrained by the availability of ingredients. How this will improve following the normalisation of relations with the United States is an exciting prospect.

Salon 1720, Frexes, Holguín 80100

4. The best soundtrack : Casa de la Trova – Santiago De Cuba  

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The Southern city of Santiago de Cuba is half distance from neighbouring Haiti that it is to Havana, and it definitely has much more of a recognisable Caribbean feel than the northern cities.

 Haitian immigration from the late 1700s onwards has created a unique cultural melting-pot in Santiago – the Afro-Caribbean influence contributing to making it home to Cuba’s biggest carnival, its best rum and most celebrated music.

Son music, made world famous by The Buena Vista Social club, was born here – alongside Trova, a style which originated from the Trovadores – lone guitarist who would sing their own poetic compositions whilst wandering the streets. Modern Trova follows some of the original rules – the music is poetic storytelling – sometimes political or satirical, but now groups of artists commonly perform together.

The ultimate place to experience Trova, is the Casa de la Trova which after 50 years continues to attract Cuba’s best musicians, as well as international stars.

Here  you can enjoy a pleasingly strong mojito – spiked with rich local rum, and (if you feel inclined) take to the dance floor. Alternatively you can pull up one of the heavy monogrammed chairs and watch as local hustlers fulfil the dance fantasies of a hundred frustrated suburban European salsa teachers. If you have had your fill of mojitos, you will also find one of the best daiquiris in Cuba mixed here.

Casa de la Trova, Bartolomé Masó, Santiago de Cuba

5. The literary classic – Casa Granda, Santiago de Cuba

dsc_7174 Built in 1914 and featuring in Grahame Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana,’ this grand old dame is also where the British author wrote much of his spy farce. Beautifully restored to its former glory,  the Casa Granda boasts atmospheric public spaces that are the perfect place to while away a few hours and escape from the summer heat.

The shady terrace is a wonderful place to watch the comings and going in the adjacent Parques Cespedes whilst enjoying a generously minted and icy-cold mojito – probably the best of my trip. It can become crowded though, as the ubiquitous upturned guide books on the tables attest – it is Lonely Planet recommended.

If you are staying here, or willing to pay a 2CUC cover charge – you can jump in the lift to the roof to enjoy some of the best views of the city and beyond. The drinks (and service) are marginally better downstairs, but it is quieter on the roof and a great vantage point to get a close up view of the intricate architectural detail on the cathedral next door and the other historic building that surround the plaza. At night you can unwind with your mojito and enjoy the strains of Trova bands drifting on the breeze from the nearby Casa de la Trova. Bliss.

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View from the roof of the Casa Grande

Hotel Casa Granda, Calle Heredia # 201, esquina San Pedro 90100 Santiago de Cuba

Inspired by….

Cuba had been on my to-do list every since I saw The Buena Vista Social Club on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Dublin over 15 years ago. It finally moved to the top of the list  following the announcement of the normalisation of relations between the US and Cuba, made it a ‘must do now’ destination, before it changes forever.

On the trail of Saint Patrick in Northern Ireland

Mary's view from Saul, Co. Down

 

Where I go in search of Ireland’s patron saint in the ancient city of Downpatrick……

As it turns out, he’s really not that hard to find, standing as he does on the top of Slieve Saul in  County Down, surveying all below him in sweeping vistas across the Mourne mountains, Strangford Lough and out into the Irish Sea.

Statue of Saint Patrick on the crest of Slieve Saul, County Down

Saint Patrick, Slieve Saul, Saul, County Down

“What’s at Saul?” I idly ask no one in particular as we pass a road sign I somehow had not noticed before.

“The giant Saint Patrick statue.” Replied someone, I am guessing my husband as I appear to be laying the blame at his door for keeping this local attraction from me for so long.

He knows how much I love a statue. Especially a giant one, and as it turns out, this is the biggest statue of the patron saint of Ireland in the world.

My annoyance is tempered by the fact we don’t have any plans for the day, so it is agreed we will climb up to see him, something I am surprised to discover neither my husband or either of his parents, who have lived locally all their lives, have ever done before.

Quite how, as a regular visitor to this locality for almost 20 years, I didn’t know he was here, or had never spotted him perched atop his hill is a matter for postmorterm some other time, and says a little about the understated way this part of the country acknowledges a man who is celebrated internationally with much noise, colour, pageantry and alcohol, once a year, at least.

Standing here on the rarest of things – a warm, dry, blue-skied Northern Irish afternoon, I contemplate instead the joy of finding something new, somewhere you thought there were no fresh discoveries to be made. Especially one with a 360 degree panorama like as this.

This particular representation of Patrick, erected in 1932 to commemorate 1500 years since his return to Ireland, is a physical amalgamation of the characteristics of the then catholic and protestant bishops – a symbol of unity in recognition of the man that bought Christianity to all of Ireland, centuries before the divisions that followed.

Sitting below him on the hillside set against the vivid green of the Irish countryside is a stark white stone depiction of the crucifixion, an arresting sight as you commence the steep final few steps to the crest of the hill where Patrick stands.

My unscheduled encounter with ‘Paddy’ has inspired me to delve a little deeper into his story, and there is a lot of delving to be done in these parts. Dedicated Paddy-hunters can now follow the 92 mile St Patricks Trail which takes on 15 key sites related to his time on the island, but in the short time I have, I focus on the keys sites in and around the ancient city of Downpatrick where he lived and died – all of which can be easily navigated in a day.

The obvious place to start, for background, is the St Patrick’s Visitors Centre in the centre of Downpatrick. Built as a millennium project, this multimedia mix of text, film, art and artefacts gives a broad  summary of Patricks journey from his childhood in England, his enslavement in Ireland, his escape back to the mainland and subsequent return to Ireland to spread his faith, all set against the cultural context of Ireland at the time. It includes plenty of one of my favourite features of the provincial museum – the low budget historical reenactment film – so I come away generally satisfied.

From the front of the centre, steps curve up hill taking you up to Down Cathedral, where in the small graveyard, his resting place is marked fairly unceremoniously with a simple stone bearing the word ‘Patrick’.20150925_153733

A short drive away in Saul, where the giant granite St Patrick keeps watch, sits the pretty and immaculately kept Saul church. It was on this site in 432, in a barn gifted by the recently converted brother of the then king, that Patrick founded the first church in Ireland. This unassuming, but atmospheric, stone church built in 1933 to commemorate the 1500 anniversary of Patrick’s arrival, replacing a simple structure that existed on the site, continues to be used as a local parish church.

There are a number of other sites nearby with connections to Patrick’s story, including the holy wells and bath houses at Struell, and St Patrick’s Roman Catholic church, but for my final stop I head to Inch Abbey.

Inch Abbey, Downpatrick

Inch Abbey, Downpatrick

This  often photographed monastic ruin nestled in beautiful Irish countryside boasts an excellent uninterrupted view across the Quoile river back to Downpatrick where the spires of Down cathedral and St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church can both be seen.

It was here at Inch Abbey, in medieval times, that many of the myths of St Patrick were first committed to paper, including, it is said, the legend of the the banishing of the snakes from Ireland.

It is fitting then, that my journey for today, ends looking across the river at the town that bears his name, on the site where the stories of St Patrick began.

Inch Abbey

5 amazing shark dives in killer locations

As a huge shark fan, I had been eagerly awaiting the new  big-budget BBC series ‘Shark’, which started last week and continues tonight. The film crew spent two years capturing different species of shark in all five oceans in order to dispel some of the myths surrounding these much maligned creatures.

Episode one included some incredible footage, most notably of the joyless existence of the Greenland shark, an animal that spends its solitary life (which can last as long as 200 years) under the ice, often in permanent darkness thanks to a parasite that burrows into its eyes, rendering it blind.

This first instalment very much focused on the traditional image of shark as predator, so I am hoping the rest of the series, as promised, gives a broader picture of these ancient, misunderstood  and threatened creatures.

One of the reasons I learned to scuba dive was to see sharks in their natural environment, and the thrill of first time I saw one elegantly glide into view is something that stays will me (just as the little underwater dance I did when it happened will stay with everyone who had the misfortune to witness it). The first sight of their perfect form cutting silently through the water never gets old for me.

If the BBC series has convinced you to take the plunge with these amazing animals, here are my recommendations for five incredible places to make it happen.

1. Aliwal Shoals, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

South Africa features heavily in the BBC series, and with good reason. Aliwal Shoals, and Sodwana Bay, on the east coast of the country are considered two of the finest areas for diving in the world, not least because of the abundance of big fish.

Tiger sharks are found here, easily identified by their distinctive stripes, and there are plenty of black tips cruising around, but it is the ragged tooth shark that is king. They are everywhere. Although their alarming, haphazard dental work may make them look vicious, they are incredibly timid.

Aliwal Shoals are located just South of Durban, and if diving here has given you a taste for spotting big stuff, it’s a great starting point for a picturesque road trip, via some breathtaking vistas to Kruger National Park, to go in search of the big five.

elephant, kruger national park

Elephant, Kruger National Park

 

2. Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth, Western Australia

This 26okm reef stretching down the northern west coast of Australia is often overshadowed by its bigger counterpart on the other side of the country, but its accessibility from the shore, and lack of crowds make it a much more relaxed place to visit. The reef here has also suffered much less degradation than the Great Barrier Reef.

There are enough reef sharks to satisfy your need to see big stuff here, but it is the whale sharks that draw the crowds. During the winter months these giants of the sea migrate north and are seen in numbers along the west coast.

Even if you aren’t lucky enough to be joined on your dive by a whale shark (and we weren’t) humpbacks, dolphins, dugongs (if you are very lucky) and an array of colourful reef fish will soften the blow.

For those who can’t bear to leave without catching a glimpse of a whale shark, there are plenty of operators offering ‘money back guarantee’  boat trips to view and swim with them.

If you have some time on your hands (you will need at least 10 days), then Exmouth is a great starting point (or stopping point if you start in Broome) for an epic road trip down the beautiful west coast to Perth, starting with Coral bay, an excellent spot for snorkelling the reef.

dolphin in Monkey Mia

Friendly locals in Monkey Mia

Heading south to Monkey Mia – home to a pod of friendly dolphins, and Shell Beach, a beach made up entirely of, well, shells, you can stop at Hamelin Bay, in Shark bay world heritage area, one of the only places on earth you can see living marine stromatolites.

Before you reach Perth, stop near Cervantes to see the Pinnacles and ponder  the how and why of thousands of limestones pillar rising from the dessert ground. This existential questioning is best enjoyed at sunset.

The Pinnacles, Western Australia

The Pinnacles, Western Australia

 

3.  Semporna,  Sabah, Malaysia

The islands off Semporna in Malaysian Borneo hold a special place in my heart, as this is where I saw my first shark.  The first descent was like dropping into an aquarium.

Here you will find white tips and grey grey reef sharks, casually criss crossing turtles (green and hawksbill) giant wrasse and bat fish and schools of angel and butterfly fish, in clear waters where the colour of the marine life is matched by the vibrancy of the reef itself.

Resting Turtle, Sipidan

Resting Turtle, Sipidan

Visiting this marine paradise early in your diving career has the potential to taint all possible future dives, however good it might seem, it might never be as good as this. You will frequently remember this, and sigh wistfully.

There is a wide range of dive sites in a small geographic location, from huge drop-offs and beautiful coral gardens off Sipidan to great muck diving at Mabul, perfect for seeking out the little stuff – juvenile fish, shrimps and a myriad of tiny colourful nudibranch.

 

4. Drop Off, Sipidan, Sabah,  Malaysia

One dive location deserves special mention for its shark spotting potential. The island of Sipidan is considered to be home to some of the best dive sites in the world.  Now a protected area, you can only go ashore with a permit, of which only 120 are issued a day, in order to protect the endemic wildlife. Not that you would want to stay on land for long.

White tip shark, Sipidan, Borneo

White tip shark, Sipidan, Sabah

From the beach you can see what is in store for you – the way the sand extends into the water for about 20 metres, and then disappears, and the water turns inky as the sea floor plunges hundreds of metres.

The coral wall at along this drop off is so bursting with life and colour, its easy to get caught up in the minutia, but the keen shark spotter really needs to be looking outward into the big blue. From the nothingness suddenly a shape will take form, sharpening into focus and gliding disinterestedly by. Sharks love the deep waters, and here, alongside the many reef sharks, you may get just spy some hammerheads emerging from the deep.

Beyond the extraordinary diving, the islands off Semporna – Mabul and Kapalai,  also offer divers incredible accommodation – the kind of private island, beach front and over-water villas that are usually the preserve of luxury travellers. Here you can take limitless shore dives, straight from your front door.

If you fancy something a bit different, then the old Russian oil rig that has become an artificial reef and popular dive site over the years, has now been converted into a hotel, which even offers the lazy diver an elevator direct to the sea floor.

Orangutan, Sabah

Orangutan, Sabah

 

It’s also worth remembering, you are on Borneo, one of the world biodiversity hotspots, but also one that is under serious threat, so now might be a good time to take an eco-tour into the jungle to spot some orangutan, before they disappear forever.

 

 

5. Saba, Dutch Antilles, Caribbean

Not to be confused with (or pronounced like) Malaysian Sabah this tiny volcanic island 15 miles from Saint Martin is not for the faint hearted – or the weak legged. The only flat land on Saba is the landing strip – which juts out into the sea like the deck of an aircraft carrier. And as the world’s shortest commercial runway, is about the same length. Be prepared for a hairy arrival and departure. From here, as Yazz once told her Plastic Population, ‘the only way is up’.

View of the Bottom from halfway up, Saba

View of the Bottom from halfway up, Saba

This is no palm-fringed beach Caribbean idyll, in fact there is not a single beach to speak of. There is just one road – called ‘the road’, starting at the Bottom (that is actually the name of the town) that goes steeply up to the main town Windwardside where most of the shops, tourist accommodation and restaurants are.

People come to Saba for four reasons – to hike, to study medicine (the island inexplicably has a medical school), to run away from something else, and to dive.

The volcanic nature of the island makes for a particularly interesting seascape, from near-shore coral ridges to giant pinnacles formed by spewing magma. There is abundance of healthy coral and sponges, attracting over 150 species of fish, including Caribbean reef, nurse and black tip sharks in abundance. There have also been sightings of hammerheads and occasional tigers, and with unparalleled visibility, you may just be lucky enough to spot them in the distance.

A visit to Saba is a unique experience, with a population of less that 2000, everyone knows everybody’s business, stay more than a couple of nights, and you will too.

Although numbers are increasing, the island remains unaffected by mass tourism. This means you may often have a dive boat to yourself, and you certainly won’t be sharing dive sites with other groups.

mount scenery under cloudIt also means accommodation is limited, generally to eco-lodges and simple dive hotels, and there are only a handful of eating options, of varying quality, and prices are fairly high as everything has to be shipped in.

You will always be walking steeply uphill or downhill to get anywhere, but you are generally rewarded with a very warm welcome and an incredible view, especially if you make it up the 1064 steps to the top of Mount Scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinco de Mayo: Postcard from Islas Mujeres

Isla mujeres sunrise

Isla Mujeres sunrise as recommended by local restaurateur, Rene

Sometimes confused with Mexican independence day (which is in September) May 5th is the anniversary of the 1862 defeat of French occupying forces by the Mexican army at the battle of Puebla.

The anniversary, which is no longer even a public holiday in Mexico, has become a day to celebrate Mexican culture, identity and cuisine, initially in the U.S, that in recent decades has spread across the world to include events in Canada, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Australia.

Now, I need little excuse to celebrate to Mexican food, the only time I ever considered getting one of those Amazon subscriptions was for the crates of Cholula hot sauce that are liberally doused over the stream of chilli, enchiladas, tacos and huevos rancheros that leave my kitchen every month.  So, tonight we will celebrating Cinco de Mayo with  fish tacos.

These are not the fried breaded fish style ones that are found on most British Mexican restaurant menus (although I am partial to those too – Thomasina Meirs’ restaurant chains serve very agreeable versions – with cheaper canteen style DF Mexico pipping those at Wahaca for taste, although Wahaca has far superior accompanying margaritas), but flaked marinated white fish on little corn tortillas adorned with beans and red onions.

Tonight’s meal will be another attempt to recreate the perfect little gems we found at Rene y Renee –  tucked on a side street away from the seafront on the sleepy  Mexican island of Isla Mujeres.

This husband and wife team provide a proper, home-style eating experience, with Rene the avuncular host, gesticulating wildly whilst extolling the virtues of the island’s sunrise, shuttling back and forth across the room to where his wife, Renee deftly whips up  corn tortillas to order.

The tacos that arrive are tiny and perfect. Little three-bite sized corn tortillas, topped with savoury refried beans, soft fish and red onions rendered a vivid pink by lime juice.

 Che Guevara house front , Isla Mujeres

Che Guevara house front, Isla Mujeres

 

I still dream about those tacos, and the island itself;  it’s slow pace and quiet colourful, narrow streets and rickety seafront bar shacks are a blessed relief from the noise and bustle of nearby Cancun.

 

 

But there is something else about Isla Mujeres, that I find my thoughts returning to frequently, and it lies beneath…..

Despite the near thirty metre visibility, they somehow still manage to take you by surprise. Appearing out of the blue, their arms outstretched as if reaching for help. The scale of it is astonishing – four hundred silent sirens pulling you closer.

Some of their faces are ravaged by time and tide, gnarled by coral growth, or eaten away.  Perverse seaweed hairstyles ripple from their skulls. Others are inexplicably untouched by the time that has passed – their sharp features frozen clearly in expressions of happiness, pain or acceptance.

A heavily pregnant woman cradles her belly, eyes closed, face upturned to the warmth from the bright light that penetrates from the surface. Beside her, another raises her arm in front of her face, shielding her eyes from its glare.

Just a few minutes boat ride from the day-glow hum of Cancun’s beach-front with its spring  breakers, weekenders  and all-inclusive honeymooners; down here, where the only sound is the metronomic rhythm of your own breath, the MUSA  underwater museum are an arresting, colourless exercise in stillness.

Silent Evolution underwater sculpture, Mexico

Sculpture and Photo © Jason deCaires Taylor

 

The four hundred drowned souls of ‘The Silent Evolution’ are just one exhibit in a fusion of contemporary art and environmental science designed to protect and rejuvenate the Mesoamerican barrier reef off the coast of Mexico.

Made from a special porous concrete that encourages coral growth, the sculptures are designed to  create an artificial reef whilst also providing a distinct attraction designed to alleviate some of the impact on the fragile natural reef from the 750,000 visitors a year to the stretch of water between Cancun and Isla Mujeres.

Every single one of the almost 800 and growing figures that are now litter the sea floor  is a life-size likeness of a real person, created by James deCaires Taylor, a Mexican based British artist and conservationist.

The scope and detail of deCaires work is made all the more remarkable in that its ultimate destruction is not only inevitable, but also necessary. The more coral growth disfigures his sculptures, the greater marine life is attracted to them, enhancing and regenerating the eco-system.

Spread across two sites, the sculptures are sunk at different depths, so the museum can be enjoyed by both divers and snorkellers.

Snorkellers have to wear life vests and are not allowed to duck dive the shallower exhibits, so to really interact with the sculptures, to look them in the eye, and get amongst them, you need to be a certified diver.

In recent years Mexico has made great strides in protecting its vast natural heritage, undertaking a number of measures to slow environmental degradation. Whether they will continue to be prioritised, as investment floods in to develop coastal areas, remains to be seen.

As we approach the end of the dive, a curtain of vibrant angel fish passes to reveal ‘The Banker’. Dressed in a suit, his briefcase discarded at his side, he kneels on the ground as if in prayer. As I slowly drift overhead, it becomes apparent that his head is literally buried in the sand.”

 

'The Banker' photo and sculpture © Jason deCaires Taylor

‘The Banker’ photo and sculpture © Jason deCaires Taylor

Getting there: Isla Mujeres is easy accessible by a  ferry  from Cancun or Puerto Juarez.

A number of local dive operators both in Cancun and Isla Mujeres offer packages for divers and snorkellers to visit MUSA.

 

When will you realise, Vienna waits for you?

vienna snowglobe

The snow globe was invented in Vienna by Erwin Perzy in 1900

 

When Billy Joel wrote the 1977 song ‘Vienna’  the ‘waiting’ city was a metaphor for all life’s possibilities rather than a plea to visit the Austrian capital. But he might have been on to something had he been more literal.

Packed full of picturesque buildings, steeped in complex history, clean and easy and cheap to navigate, Vienna rarely makes the annual ‘must see now’ lists, despite being voted the world’s most liveable city for the sixth year running , and once again making Wanderlust’s top 10 cities in their annual readers poll. It doesn’t seem to shout out to be visited with any sort of urgency, perhaps somehow aware that we will get round to it in the end, and then wonder why we didn’t come sooner.

It was a resolution to take more shorter trips, the desire to see a favourite musician in an interesting location, and a friend who has made a life for herself in the Austrian capital that motivated me to make the trip now.

St Stevens Cathedral, Vienna

St Stevens Cathedral, Vienna

So, with my trusty local guide, and only two and a half short days to spare, I set about the sights with a sense of purpose.

Up the 343 steps of the colourfully-tiled St Stephens Cathedral we head for a bird’s eye view of the city, then across town to the (rather sad and deserted at this time of year) Pratar amusement park to step aboard the famous Weiner Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, noted location of Hollywood intrigue (The Third Man), espionage (The Living Daylights) and romance (Before Sunrise), where we enjoy the view of an alternate if slightly rickety bird.

We circumnavigate the Ringtrasse, on foot under the cover of darkness. Here we gawp at the sympathetically lit, ornate edifices of the Imperial Hotel (headquarters of the KGB during the post war occupation) the State Opera House, The Parliament Building, Stock Exchange, Academy of Fine Arts, and Ministry of Justice, as we make our way around the famous inner ring road.

Veering a little off the Ringtrasse, and finding the Judenplatz deserted and bathed in an eerie orange glow, we are alone in silent reflection at the national holocaust memorial. Designed by British artist Rachel Whiteread and completed in 2000, the Nameless Library stands in memory Austria’s 65,000 holocaust victims.

Tucked in unceremoniously amongst the buildings on a nearby street we find the city’s (disputed) oldest church, St Rupert’s, which dates back as far seventh century. It seems there is some sort of monument, statue or significant building at every turn in this city.

Messing about on the Danube

All this history and walking is thirsty work so we step down off the Ringstrasse in search of some refreshment and modernity, which we conveniently find in the form of Badeschiff, a converted boat moored on the Danube canal.

The main body of the boat is given over to a bright airy restaurant and bar serving country-inspired modern Austrian cuisine – and very agreeable gin and tonics. At weekends the tables and chairs are cleared for club nights, including a popular swing night. But on a cold spring Thursday night we are the only customers, so the barman happily agrees to leave his post and give us a tour.

We go downstairs to view the bowling alley, before heading out onto the deck (passed the ‘three person’ sauna) to discover Badeschiff’s big selling point – the swimming pool and sun deck sunk into its hull.

Even on a chilly spring night it’s not hard to imagine what a lovely spot this would be in the intense summer heat of a city hundreds of miles from the sea.

For those wishing to extend their time aboard once the weather picks up, the roof of the boat boasts a number of architect-designed  camping pods, offering an affordable alternative to the usual bog-standard city centre hotel.

If guests fancy some honey on their toast the following morning, then it comes truly ‘locally sourced’ thanks to the resident bee hives – part of an urban bee keeping project.

Bandeshiff, Donaukanallände, 1010 Wien

www.badeschiff.at

Ludwig goes Pop

It would take weeks to take in all the galleries and museums Vienna has to offer, but I have just a paltry afternoon. Figuring the permanent collections will still be here next time, I opt for a visiting exhibition and head to MUMOK – Vienna’s slate grey modern art gallery, which is currently showing a vast Pop Art exhibition over four floors.

roy

Cloud and Sea, 1964 by Roy Lichtenstein

Ludwig Goes Pop brings together over 100 works owned by German industrialists Peter and Irene Ludwig, holders of the largest private Pop Art collection outside of the USA.

The Ludwig’s seem to have understood the significance of  the movement early on, quickly amassing a significant collection including multiple works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper John, Peter Blake, David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg.

The sheer scope of the collection is jaw-dropping – there’s an iconic image at every turn, and with many of the works on permanent or temporary loan to galleries and touring exhibitions, this is a rare opportunity to see them brought together, not only highlighting the diversity of the movement but also creating a neat snapshot of an era of space exploration, rock’n’roll, and growing mass consumerism.

Ludwig Goes Pop runs until 13 September 2015 and costs €10 euros (or €8 for concessions, including the Vienna card).

Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Wein.

Why visit now? On the 23rd May the eyes and ears of Europe (and inexplicably Australia) will be trained on Vienna as it hosts the 2015 Eurovision song contest.

If questionable euro-pop is not your thing May 1 is 150th anniversary of the opening of the Ringstrasse, and there are a number of events and exhibitions taking place to mark the occasion.

Before I left : I watched The Third Man and Before Sunrise and learned some German words with the Dualingo app.

travelled: with Easyjet from Gatwick  to Vienna and then sat on the top deck of the CAT train into the centre of town.

I stayed: with friends in the 13th district, home to Vienna Zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn) and the Schönbrunn Palace (A UNESCO world heritage site) which provide a wonderful backdrop of sights, sounds (and smells when passing the zoo) to a morning run.

I ate: applestrudel, topfenstrudel, much cake, Eiernockerl (egg dumplings) Karamellisierter Kaiserschmarren (chopped, sugared pancake) and some very tasty Israeli food at Neni in the Naschmarkt.

I drank: ‘Big John’ – a tasty Austrian red, and the delicious crystal clear, alpine filtered Viennese tap water.

I saw: Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando perform solo under the arches at @B72 whilst trains rattled overhead.

evan

Evan Dando @B72

 

Getting around: Vienna is simple to navigate, the integrated tube, train and tram service is clean, uncrowded, reliable and cheap enough to make the average Londoner weep. You also only have to validate your ticket once, after which there are no barriers, or routine ticket checks. If you do get caught without a ticket during a random inspection there are steep fines, but with an annual pass costing less than a monthly 9 zone London travelcard, why would anyone bother.

For long weekender the 48 or 72 hour ‘Vienna Card’ (€21.90/€18.90) offers unlimited transport, plus discount off museums and some shops and restaurants. The museum discount usually works out at about 10%, so if you are not planning to visit a lot of paid attraction then it might be worth considering the transport only card – €16.50 for 72 hours or €13.30 for 48.

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