Relaxing Geneva

The Budgies who are responsible for this wondrous blog have surprisingly few things in common (which each of us fervently believes is for the best), however we are all currently experiencing varying levels of stress we are simply not accustomed to (which isn’t much to be honest, we generally have no upheaval in life). And so, pondering philosophically our various situations, my mind turned to travel, which is one of the few things we all agree on as being a good thing. Travel can also be stressful, but once you have reached a new place it is wondrous to feel the stress rinse off you. Travel, simply, is a cure for many problems.

So, following this line of thought, my mind went back to my visit to Geneva in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Geneva is probably the most relaxed, calm and reassuringly untroubling place I have ever been. Its setting is perfect; the grand buildings arching lazily around a large pristine lake, surrounded by dreamy alpine scenery and the snow-glazed mountains of the Alps. Just being outside is an excellent way to unwind and forget your troubles.
Now, avid readers will no doubt recall that I have a thing for mountains (which is not uncommon), and Geneva nestles snugly among those colossal structures, so of course I find it more endearing for that. But the lake which patiently laps at the city’s feet is Geneva’s great source of serenity and beauty. I spent many hours walking along the shoreline, staring out over the sparkling waters and appreciating the almost sensual beauty of the place. In summer you can even take a dip in those glassy, placid waters. The lake also boasts a giant fountain which casts a glorious rainbow when the light hits it, creating a 140 metre jet of disco light colours crashing through the crisp Swiss air. It’s glorious to creep as close to it as you can, feeling its cool spray biting at your face as you stare up in awe. If you want an escape from hustle and bustle then Geneva’s glorious lake is an ideal place to start.

Geneva does not just offer the lake and the mountains which are studded around. The city itself is prosperous, elegant and refined, and offers a range of museums and galleries in which to lose yourself. The streets are lined with expensive, tasteful shops boasting the pinnacle of refinement and class (as the prices clearly show). The more historical centre also has some lovely, warm and cozy cafes to enjoy some crepes and Swiss mulled wine, while warming yourself from the chill of outside. I really enjoyed walking around the beautiful streets and salubrious buildings until I could no longer feel my face, and then ducking into a small corner cafe for some hot spicy wine and a bite to eat (boiling melting cheese with bread is highly recommended).

Geneva’s downside is unfortunately the price of things. I paid €20 for some brioche and a cup of coffee (both delicious I admit) which was quite steep, and when I innocently asked about a short train journey to a nearby town I was told it was €180, which is a bit much for a half hour train ride for a day trip. Geneva is relaxing, but if you are trying to forget your money problems maybe try somewhere else.  Poland, for example. Krakow is calm, beautiful and cheap.

Most of all though I like Geneva because it feels authentic, and proud of what it is; a calm, sophisticated place that takes itself seriously. I love that. So many places try and be cool”, and have an edge, or have something that’s new and exciting to put in their brochures. Geneva didn’t build a load of clubs or put jet skis on the lake, they built a jet fountain that makes a rainbow in the light, for people to enjoy the spectrum of colours and the pretty splash. How can you not love a place like that?

“When in Rome…

…see the sights, and then write a blog about it.”

By Al

Rome is a fantastic short-break idea for Europeans, and perhaps my favourite city in Europe (thus far). This article explores some of the reasons why I hold Rome in high regard, but also some of the less good things. Every silver lining has a cloud. Perhaps.

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The Roman Stuff

Rome has lots to offer, and if you’re a history aficionado, then you must visit Rome. The Colosseum, for a reasonable fee of €10 (make sure you buy in advance to avoid LONG queues), is breath-taking. Literally breath-taking, there’s quite a few steps.

You can buy entry to the Colosseum, and then explore the stadium at your own leisure. Walking out into the stands, looking down into the arena, you begin to truly appreciate the spectacles which took place here almost 2000 years ago.  The steep banks of the stands filled to the rim with up to 80,000 blood thirsty Romans, watching as men fought animals and each other. Modern day entertainment is positively tame in comparison. Unlike many pieces of historic architecture, you can get very close and personal with the structure of the Coliseum. Touching the walls, I felt a charge of excitement knowing that people for almost 2000 years have touched this structure. I wondered about these people, who they were, and how they lived. You can truly live and breath history within the  Coliseum.

Also check out the Roman Forum, and The Pantheon.

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The Religious Stuff: The Vatican City

I’m not religious. I’m not arty. I’m not particularly cultural. So, visiting the Vatican for a second time didn’t particularly fill me with much joy – particularly when I had to part with €30. Not budget friendly, but necessary to appease my girlfriend. Small price to pay for an easy life!

I’ll be careful here to avoid upsetting those readers who may be religious. So, I’ll review it from my girlfriend’s perspective. As a non-practising Catholic, she loved it. She loved the art, the history, the sculptures, the tour guide, the buildings. Everything. Like a love-struck puppy, she stood there doughy-eyed, lapping up the knowledge being shared by the rude – but in an endearing kind of way – tour guide.

I have no doubt that the Vatican is an amazing place, but I have visited once before. The art is very beautiful, so much so, and so plentiful, that you begin to take it for granted by the end of the tour. “Oh yes, another marble sculpture of a well built, but not particularly well-endowed man, interesting hmm hmmm”.

We ended the tour in the Sistene Chapel – the room tightly packed with people looking at the ceiling. Again, the art is pretty good. The atmosphere wasn’t very serene though. Police officers in the corners ‘shush’ the crowd every couple of minutes, others patrol the floor looking for people attempting to take photographs, before being swiftly expelled. I presume they’re taken to the Pope’s office, before being given a verbal reprimand. Perhaps detention after school too.

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Other Stuff

Fontana di Trevi – the famous fountain is ruined by all the people, selfie-sticks and dictatorial Fountain Police*. Fancy a seat on the fountain wall? Want to stick your hand in the inviting blue water? You’ll have to be quick, because the fountain police are watching YOU. The Fountain Police don’t allow you to do these things, and to show their disapproval, they will BLOW THEIR WHISTLE at you. Fancy a risky game? Do some stretches, throw your loose change in to lighten your load, and take a seat on the wall. The Fountain Police will come for you from both directions – how long can you last? Before they get to you, flee into the crowds. Forever gone, like a true Machiavellian.

*They aren’t really called Fountain Police, I think. Just Police.

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Palace of Justice – the seat of the Supreme Court of Cassation – the highest court in the land – this is an impressive building. The building screams money and power, rather than ‘the rule of law’.

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Summary

Rome (including the Vatican) is the 3rd most visited city in Europe. It is clear why. The city is teeming with things to see and do. Avoid July-August if you don’t like crowds, but you won’t go wrong if you take the plunge and come on a short break here.

BB Rating

4.5/5

 

 

 

 

 

Edinburgh: The Grey City

By Jamie

When I think of how best to describe Edinburgh, it is hard not to simply say “grey”. From my experiences of this city, the first thing you really notice is the absence of colours: the walls are grey, they sky is grey, the wintry, haunting fog is grey, the sea is definitely grey, and most of the people aren’t too far off grey either. But this plethora of greys, while undeniable, doesn’t paint the true picture of this noble, cultured, buzzing city of castles, hills, churches, pubs and history. The grey mist is swirled in mystery, the grey castle glows with pride, and the people obstinately sprout orange hair beneath their grey wooly hats. You quickly come to realise that Edinburgh isn’t grey, it’s a whole palette of wondrous colours and intrigue. And once you finally spy a break in the clouds, every stone in the city shines with excitement.

Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities. From the castle which lords over the city atop an extinct volcano, to the wilderness of Holyrood Park left unexpectedly untouched in the middle of the city, to the New Town in all its ordered rigidity, it is a city which can offer most things to most people. There are some world-famous attractions in Edinburgh, one of which is the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. The two festivals, which coincide in August, are stupendously popular these days, and it would be quite some achievement to find a place to stay in the city during August. It is the biggest arts and cultural event in the world, and every venue in the city has some form of music, comedy, theatre or dance performance. During the festival weeks, the city is deluged with culture, and the place is awash with people from all over the world. Should you have the funds and the opportunity, it is definitely a great event.

Edinburgh Castle is physically the most imposing attraction the city has to offer, as it rises high above the city and can be seen for miles. The views from the top, over the city and across to the sea and the distant mountains, are really worth the effort expended in getting up there. The castle itself is packed with museums of varying quality, and, though quite pricey, it is something that should be visited. I found its mix of views, history and bold architecture to be quite an intoxicating mix. The castle is also the site for the Edinburgh Tattoo, a kind of military music and flag-waving event that takes place during the Edinburgh Festival. Expect lots of kilts, drums and bagpipes.

This leads me to my inevitable section of complaint, a small moment where I can tuck away my natural positivity and general sunny outlook on life to reflect upon those things that annoy me ever so slightly. Previous editions have been about appalling airports or Alan’s toddler tantrums and general annoyingness, but Edinburgh, and sadly all of Scotland, has something even worse: bagpipes. I hate bagpipes, the impossibly loud sound of a cat being deflated by the engine of a steam train, a sound that doesn’t vibrate through the air to your ear, but pierces through the screaming atoms of the atmosphere to crash into your terrified ears and crawl up inexorably to your brain, which in turn desperately wishes to cease all functions if it means ending that horrible noise. In Edinburgh, especially when there are many tourists, the sound oozes around the city like a plague from the Old Testament, seeking innocent victims as they walk unsuspectingly around. The sound is worse than a baby crying, Matt singing or a nail scratching down a blackboard. So, if you have any kind of refined taste (as I’m sure you do, dearest reader) then beware the bagpipe lurking on every corner, especially on the Royal Mile.

The Royal Mile, while we are on the topic, is the road leading from the castle at the top of the hill down to Holyrood Palace at the bottom. On this stretch there are many shops, cafes and restaurants, as well as street performances, a wool mill, a cathedral, and the impressively ugly Scottish Parliament building, which must have been designed by a very angry child who just scribbled aggressive lines randomly on a piece of paper. It is here you can find a chip shop that sells deep-fried mars bars (delicious), and, if you fancy something quite quaint, baked potato shops, both of which I would recommend because they are not something you find everywhere. The palace at the bottom is grand and brimming with history: it was built in the 16th century, was the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots, and has a ruined 12th century abbey in the grounds to wander around.

Beside the palace is something wholly unexpected in the middle of a city: a large expanse of wilderness left almost untouched that forms Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. The park boasts rugged cliffs, dramatic hills, romantic ruins and mini lochs, and showcases the raw, aggressive beauty of the Scottish countryside, just a short walk from the Old Town. There are several pathways that can be explored for a refreshing walk, although as the weather is quite often rubbish in Edinburgh the paths can be slippery and muddy, and the blustery winds add some drama as you get higher. To escape the confines of the city for a while, and to get a taste of Scottish countryside it’s certainly worth exploring. The beautiful, wild landscape locked so unexpectedly in the middle of a city, with views of the buildings, sea and country stretching in all directions from the top makes it one of the real highlights (except for the mud, which I hate, bit it’s a small price to pay). There’s also an ice cream van bravely positioned at the bottom regardless of the weather to offer refreshments, which I think goes some way to show how ice cream really isn’t just for summer.

 

Just walking the streets and taking in the iconic architecture is a good pastime, and the different areas of the city feel quite distinct. The Old Town is grand and brimming with history, while the New Town is ordered and regal, and has a range of pubs and restaurants to enjoy. There are several museums and art galleries around the centre, so there are great options to sooth your cultural yearnings. A climb to the top of Carlton Hill will reward you with several monuments to see, and some good views too.

Scottish cuisine also offers some interest. Aside from typically British food like fish and chips (with especially fresh fish as the fishing boats are based in Scotland), there are endless pies, pastries, the previously-mentioned deep-fried mars bars (did I mention they are delicious?) and of course haggis. Despite being made from parts of a sheep I would prefer not to think about too much, haggis is a strange, oddly spicy parcel of deliciousness which is particularly nice if you don’t think about what’s in it. While I am far from the bravest person where food is concerned, I liked it from the first moment, and even went to sample a deep-fried variety, which is one of the most stereotypically Scottish things one can do. While Scottish food is generally quite heavy, it does serve to keep you warm, for which you will invariably be grateful for in a country that doesn’t warm up. I concede, though, that I live in Madrid so everything is cold to me, but it really is cold all year, honestly.

Pursuing the culinary theme a little more, Scotland is also the home of all the greatest whiskies, so I’m reliably informed. Having never warmed to the drink, I can’t vouch for the truth of this, but as whiskey is stacked high in every shop it must have something about it that’s good. I tried some, but apparently I’m too young and too unsophisticated to appreciate any real differences, except in price.

Edinburgh then has the feel of a friendly, cultural place that also knows how to enjoy itself. It’s a city crammed with things to see, tastes to be suspicious of and then enjoy immensely, and wildernesses to roam. I would definitely recommend it, especially as part of a longer journey around Scotland (on which Matt will soon elaborate in a future post). If you don’t mind the weather it is a place that can be visited any time of the year, and who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky and see those grey clouds rolling away and the riot of colours Edinburgh has to offer will sparkle in the Scottish sunshine while you feast on its many pleasures.

Budgie rating: 4.8 / 5

 

 

 

 

Corfu: The Emerald Island

By Jamie

As we are fast-approaching summer and minds start to turn towards where to escape to this year, I thought it would be the perfect moment to review one of my favourite summer destinations. A few summers ago I had the pleasure of going to the Greek island of Corfu, a hot but surprisingly green island snuggled up against the shores of Albania in the Ionian Sea. Corfu has traditionally been an escape of the mega-rich, and still caters for people with outrageous wealth to the north of the island. However, if you are not among the ultra-wealthy (and as you’re reading Budget Budgie we can safely assume this) there is also a wealth of options for a more palatable budget.
Before I begin my praise of Corfu’s serene landscapes, exquisite food and general excellence, I shall come in quick and hard with my big complaint, and that is with the airport. While I accept that all airports are similarly boring, involve queuing and waiting, and are not exactly the kind of place you voluntarily spend vast amounts of time, Corfu Airport is frankly awful. It is tiny, old and completely unfit for dealing with the number of people that head to the island. My personal experience is of being told to queue outside in the sun with no shade, to then join a queue for check-in, witness a poor woman in her first day in the job do everything wrong, to then join a queue for security, again outside at first, then join another line of happiness and love to have your passport checked, realise how pointless it was when the person behind you gets through holding the wrong passport, and then see the plane is delayed and have nowhere to sit for the next five hours. And, finally, your flight almost leaves without any passengers because the announcement system is broken. Do bear in mind I’m an inherently unlucky person, the kind of person who hangs his washing outside after three months of no rain to then witness a deluge, so maybe your experience will be better. The airport, however, is awful.

Aside from the airport, Corfu is a real island gem; a glistening, starry jewel surrounded by warm azure seas. I went in August and the weather was perfect: hot, but not so oppressive that you can’t do things during the day. There is a refreshing sea breeze that provides moments of coolness and the evenings, though humid, are not unbearable. Despite the constant sun the island is a luscious dark green and is covered with 3 million olive trees, many of which were planted during Venetian rule of the island 400 years ago. They are left to grow to their full height, and create a welcome canopy of shade. The island is beautiful, with rolling mountains, a turquoise coastline, with idyllic golden beaches dotted with rocky inlets. The colours of this island are really something: it is like an eccentric artist simply threw some paints at an olive-green canvas. Sunrises and sunsets should not be missed either (you can nap in the day if you find yourself missing sleep to see them, it’s worth the effort). It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.

Besides the climate and the natural beauty, the food is very impressive. I have found that islands have a very understandable tendency to have mainly fish and seafood, and Corfu has a noble range of former sea life for your pleasure. It also offers a delicious range of typical Greek cuisine, like meat kebabs, moussaka (my favourite), pitas, cheeses and everything a person could want. I happily ate my way into the night and, after an excruciating waddle up the hill to get home, eagerly anticipated repeating the meal the next day. Travel should involve sampling good local food, and I took this belief to heart (and to my stomach). This was the first time I had tried Greek food, and I was an instant convert.

On the subject of delicious food, I also came to the realisation that I am utterly irresistible. Well, when I say that, I do of course mean irresistible to the mosquitoes that unfortunately plague the nights. The various buzzing things were generally annoying, some were quite frightening, like the hornet that I watched attacking a swarm of wasps, successfully, and of course my mosquito chums, who took quite a liking to me. Insects come with the warm territory, but I found they were more belligerently bitey and brave than anywhere else I’ve been. I honestly think it’s because I tasted better as a result of the amazing food I’d been having, but for whatever reason they were a pain, so if you go there try and find a way of scaring them off, like burning anti-mosquito incense or standing next to me to be safe.

Generally speaking, the north of the island is where the mega-rich congregate to trade gossip and compare the size of their enormous, cosmetically-stretched super-yachts (and whatever else they do), while the south is more focussed upon package holidays and modestly-priced hotels. I stayed somewhere between the two, in a small village called Nissaki. it was a basic place, with a small shop, a local beach and some tavernas of various quality. It was quite a peaceful place, although you need a car to get there (and it is probably advisable to have one to get around the whole island to appreciate it fully).

The main lure of the island is the beach, of which there are mainly delightful ones, and the sea, which is warm, calm and lovely to soak in. There are, however, many other things to do, thanks partly to its tumultuous history, and partly because of its natural beauty. Taking a drive to the centre of the island, where life has remained relatively untouched by tourism, is a great experience (as is picking up a friendly hitchhiker and having no idea what he says to you or where he wants you to take him.), and the old villages and surrounding olive groves are serene. There is also Pantorcrator (great name) the highest point on the island. You can drive or hike up to it to enjoy the sensational panoramic views from the top. Perched right at the summit is an old monastery which still has a solitary monk living there, but, right next to and actually in the grounds of the peaceful monastery is an array of masts and pylons which give the island communication signals. There is even one that stretches high above the monastery, and looks strangely reminiscent of an Eiffel Tower that has been built by someone who has never seen it but had it described to them by a child: similar, bit at the same time really missing something. Depending on your viewpoint, these communication masts either ruin the monastery or add something quite unique and memorable. I’m undecided whether I liked it or not. It had a weird cold-war, Bond-villain feel to it, and is probably more memorable than it would otherwise have been. It’s worth going to just for the views.

Another thing to do is to explore Corfu Town, the capital. Corfu has a rich history of invasion, occupation and cultural upheaval, and as a result there are several forts, ruins and museums to visit. The Old Fort, built on a rock right on the seafront, is good, exhibiting military buildings and fortifications, as well as an old lighthouse right at the peak of the rock, which provides great views across the town and the coast. There is also the New Fort, which, despite being the newer of the two is also the more decrepit. It has decent views at the top although it is mainly empty, but is free so worth visiting. There are also several local museums, such as the museum of Asian Art. Corfu Town also has bustling shops and narrow streets, and it is fun to get lost in the labyrinthine network.

You can also find several other forts, towns and castles scattered around the island. There are byzantine castles, venetian buildings, palaces and ancient ruins to be found and explored, so culturally there is a whole history to explore. The sea also provides entertainment if you wish to scuba dive, take a boat trip, water ski or any other of the usual activities.

Overall I loved Corfu, despite the airport and the mosquitoes. It was beautiful, warm, delicious, interesting and very relaxed. It was an ideal place to escape for summer, and offers so many different things for different people. I would highly recommend.