FIRE IN THE SKY

In San Sebastian, you know things are about to kick off when Jesus goes out. I am just back from the firework contest there, which involves manufacturers from several countries (this year, Spain, Italy and Austria) setting off thousands of pounds’ worth of explosives every night at 22.45, an event signalled by the illuminated on the ‘Sacred Heart’ statue of Jesus that overlooks the town being switched off. I’ll write about it further nearer the time next year, no doubt, but it is spectacular and, although busy, a great time to be in one of the best seaside cities in Europe.

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We stayed on the Gros side of town, near the Zurriola surf beach, which has a great selection of pintxos bars (Hidalgo 56, Bodega Donostiarra, Senra) and good value restaurants (especially along Calle Zabaleta) that don’t suffer from the scrum afflicting the Old Town. You can see the fireworks from the beach here, too. You also get very generous G&Ts hereabouts (these below at the Ondarra Bar almost opposite the Kursaal conference/arts centre), which help the evening go with a different kind of bang.

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A CITY OF TWO HALVES

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BUDAPEST
Arrive
Rogue-ish taxi drivers tend to hang around Keleti station, especially after dark. Call City Taxi (00 36 2 111 111) as you approach and it’ll have a driver waiting at a pre-arranged spot. The metro is easy to use and there are manned ticket offices. A day ticket costs £3.90, 72 hours is £9.80. A pass is valid for metro, tram, trolley bus and cog railway, useful to get up the slopes on the Buda side. A Budapest Card which offers transport and museum discounts costs £16 for 48 hours – see http://www.budapestinfo.com.

Sleep
Situated above a dance school, the bright Casa de la Musica (www.casadelamusicahostel.com, beds from £13) has a mix of private bedrooms and dorms – ask for rooms in the ‘new wing’ – and in summer an open-air bar with inflatable pool. Sitting on a square in the grand and mostly tourist-free Palace District of the city, the Hotel Palazzo Zichy (www.hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu, doubles from £68 B&B) combines a beautiful old building with sharp, contemporary Milanese style. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel wasn’t actually filmed in the city, but if it had been it would have been at a place like the Fours Seasons Gresham Palace (Széchenyi István tér 5-6 00 36 1 268 6000, http://www.fourseasons.com, doubles from £228) which is right opposite the Chain Bridge, with views over to monumental Buda, and it does feel like you have entered a gilded cage from another age.

Eat/Drink
Bors GasztroBár (Kazinczy utca, 10, dishes/wraps from £3.50) is a fast food outlet run by ex-sous chefs from top restaurants around the world, using fresh local ingredients in soups, pastas and baguettes. For more grown-up experience head for the brick-vaulted-ceilinged Doblo Wine Bar (Dob utca 20, 00 362 03988863, http://www.budapestwine.com), where the garrulous owner David Popovits will teach you the finer points of the very good Hungarian wine he sells (which will banish any memory of Bull’s Blood). It can be sampled with plates of cheese and charcuterie – four wine samples and a platter of food costs £12. On the same block, El Rapido (Kazinczy utca 10) is a Mexican burrito place that has a thrumming late-night, bric-a-brac-stuffed tequila bar underneath it. Plain but funky Mak Bistro (www.makbistro.hu, set lunch £8 for two courses) is in the vanguard of the new wave of modern, lighter, dumpling-free Czech cooking using guinea fowl, hake, local vegetables and some subtle Asian influences. The maze-like Instant (www.instant.co.hu) is both a recommended ruinpub and a hip late-night dance club, not far from the Opera House.

Instant pleasures

Instant pleasures

Three to see
Central Market. The huge, neo-Gothic triple-level building is located on the Pest side of Liberty Bridge. Dating from 1897 it is very beautiful destination in itself, but make sure you get a pizza-like deep fried langos (£1.70) from one of the stalls on the upper levels.
The Veli Bej. Also known as Császár Baths, these date back to Roman times, but the bulk of the recently renovated building are of Ottoman vintage and those are Turkish domes you’ll be looking up at from the octagonal pool. Steams, saunas, massages – £4 for 15 minutes- are all available and there’s a cheap café on site (Árpád fejedelem útja 7, £7.50 or £5 with Budapest card, see above).
Lotz Hall (below). The building at Andrassy ut 39 says Párizsi Nagy Áruház on the facade and is no great shakes externally but inside is a fantastically ornate Neo-Renaissance-ballroom-turned-café sitting above a bookshop. Also known at the Lotz Café or the Alexandra Bookcafe, it really is a tucked-away piece of gilded magnificence and hot chocolate is the drink of choice.

Not your usual cafe

Not your usual cafe

Moving on
Zagreb (6.5 hours, for onward access to Croatia’s beaches at Split or Istria) or Venice (13 hours overnight – or break journey in Zagreb – for onward travel to Florence, Rome etc). If heading home and don’t want high-speed supplements, take Venice to Milan (two and a half hours), then on to Ventimiglia on the border, along to Nice and then up to Paris (11 hours in all from Milan).

* Robert Ryan travelled as a guest of Voyages-sncf (0844-848 5848, voyages-sncf.com). The Man in Seat 61 website (seat61.com) has a good country-by-country guide to railpasses, supplements and restrictions.

InterRail 4: VIENNA

VIENNA

 

Vienna back in the Third Man's day

Vienna back in the Third Man’s grim day

..and now

..and now, in living colour

ARRIVE
Not where you might have expected. While the main station is being tarted up, trains from the north pull into out-of-centre Wien Meidling. This is a £12-14 cab ride from the centre, so its best to buy a metro/tram ticket at the station. A 24-hour card is £5.56, 48 hours is £9.70, a week £12.45 or there is the Vienna Card which offers discounts to museums (of which there is an excellent range – there’s no shortage of culture ancient and modern in Vienna) and free travel for 48 or 72 hours (£15.65/ £16.50). You will need one of them, as the trams/metro are the best way to get around. For more city information see http://www.wien.info.

SLEEP
Some of the rooms at Wombats at Naschmarkt (www.wombats-hostels.com, beds from £13) have a scuffed, lived-in feel but it’s a perfect location, the staff are helpful, there’s a big breakfast buffet for £2.90 and there’s a cheap and therefore busy bar. The family-owned Hotel Harmonie (www.harmonie-vienna.at, doubles from £96, B&B) is in a quieter part of town, but well served by the D tram, and has a subtle ballet theme, very comfortable rooms and charming staff.

The artwork at the Harmonie is derived from ballet dancers performing over canvas covered in paint

The artwork at the Harmonie is derived from prima ballerinas performing over canvases covered in paint

Terence Conran re-did the interiors of the iconic Café Drexler at the Naschmarkt and his team is also responsible for the very calm and tasteful The Guesthouse (Führichgasse 10, 00 43 1 512 13 20, http://www.theguethouse.at), perfectly located for the opera and the Albertina museum. Doubles from £156, room-only, but complimentary mini-bar.

EAT
Sly & Arny (www.foodbar.at, pizzas £4.60) is functional but fun – there’s a young crowd, excellent pizzas, cheap cocktails, it’s open till 2a.m and smoking is allowed. Café Phil (Gumpendorfer Strasse 10-12, 00 43 1 581 04 89,  www.phil.info) – that’s Phil as in Philosophy – is a retro-furnished hipster hangout, full of books, CDs, vintage vinyl, which does excellent coffee and simple meals (from £4.50) and will even sell you a single cigarette for 30p – you have to smoke it outside though (it yellows the books). Also go to the Naschmarkt, for both street snack stands and sit-down restaurants. I liked the mezes (from £5) at Neni (Naschmarket 510, neni.at) whose owners also run the lively Danube-side Tel Aviv Beach Bar (Obere Donaurasse 65) in summer.

One of the beach bars on the Danube Canal - they get livelier than this, honest

One of the beach bars on the Danube Canal – they get livelier than this, honest

THREE TO SEE
Vienna State Opera. Standing tickets are available at the box office 80 minutes before curtain up at this famous – Mahler conducted here – and glamorous 19th century hall (www.wiener-staatsoper.at, from £2.50-£3.40).
Giant Ferris Wheel. Have a Harry Lime moment with a ride on the British-designed “Reisenrad” at Prater Park. Note that the Third Man Museum, a good companion piece, is only open Saturday afternoons (www.wienerriesenrad.com, £7.50; http://www.3mpc.net, £6.25)

Entrance hall of the Palace of Justice. The cafe is on the roof.

Entrance hall of the Palace of Justice. The cafe is on the roof.

Palace of Justice. For the finest almost-free view in the city, take your passport to the Palace of Justice at Schmerlingplatz 10, go through Spooks-like security pods, admire the soaring hallway, take the lift to the top floor and you’ll basically find the staff canteen with fantastic view over the skyline for the price of a cup of coffee (www.justizcafe.at).

MOVE ON
Salzburg (3 hours) or Budapest (just under 3 hours).

 

Thanks again to Voyages-sncf (http://uk.voyages-sncf.com ) and http://www.wien.info

InterRail 3: CZECHING IN

PRAGUE ESSENTIALS

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Prague Castle seen from the Mandarin Oriental

ARRIVE
First call at Praha Hlvani station is the information booth in the booking hall, opposite the main exit, where you can buy tram, trolley bus and metro tickets (70p single, £3.30 a day). You must validate the ticket on the tram/bus/metro – there are hordes of ticket inspectors and fines are hefty. See http://www.czechtourism.com. If you want a taxi call the English-speaking operator at AAA (00 420 222 333 222, http://www.aaataxi.cz).

SLEEP
It may have paper thin walls and some mattresses to match, but the labyrinthine Charles Bridge Economic Hostel (Mostecka 4/53, 00 420 257 213 420, http://www.charlesbridgehstel.cz) has a brilliant location right on the bridge. The staff lead nightly drinking tours and there’s soon to be a nightclub in the basement – this is a place for those who see sleep as a weakness. Dorm beds from £14. Almost opposite is the recommended Domus Balthazar (Mostecká 282/5, 00 420 257 199 499, http://www.domus-balthasar.cz). Don’t be put off by the pokey entrance and desk, apart from the ones in the attic, rooms are huge, double-glazed, full of amenities and the prices (doubles from £69) include breakfast. One warning for both hostel and hotel – you don’t get lifts in this part of town. You do at the Mandarin Oriental (Nebovidská 459/1, 420 233 088 888, http://www.mandarinoriental.com), a bright and airy conversion of an old monastery on the quieter side of the river, where doubles are £219, room-only. Its restaurant Essencia offers a welcome respite from the heavier side of Czech cooking (tasting menus from £47pp exc drinks). The hotel has a Prague Resounds With Music package to mark 2014’s year-long celebration of the city’s musical heritage, which includes breakfast and a half-day music tour (from £810 for two people for two nights).

EAT/DRINK
Linger over a cup of coffee at the Literary Café (tynska.cz), with its austere, dark wood interior and the feeling that Kafka has just popped out. Il Tri Ruzi (www.u3r.cz, mains from £6) is a relatively new brewpub with a selection of muscular beers (£1.70 for 0.4 litre) to go with the big portions of sausages, wiener schnitzel or ribs on offer. You don’t have to be a jazz fan to enjoy a late subterranean drink at Jazz Club Ungelt (www.jazzungelt.cz), set in the bowels of a house with a 1,000-year-old history. They still mix the best cocktails in town – and do it till 3am – at the flashy-but-friendly Tretter’s (www.tretters.cz).

THREE TO SEE

Strahov Monastery. A location for the movie Casino Royale, this combines a series of elaborate historical buildings with a brewery, an astonishing 17th century library and first-class views over the city and up to the castle (www.strahovskyklaster.cz, library £2.40).

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Smetana Hall. Don’t miss a concert at this grand Art Nouveau space, with a famed stained glass ceiling, in the Municipal House (1912). You can get seats from £3 for the Prague Symphony Orchestra (www.fok.cz or yearofczechmusic.cz/projekty for all 2014 concerts).
Petrin Hill. The funicular cable is closed this summer, so walk (actually a bit of a hike) up through the park and the monastery gardens from Mala Strana to the top of Petrin Hill, where a squat mini-Eiffel sits, and enjoy the fresh air and the views from its first-floor cafeteria (www.muzeumprahy.cz, £3.60).

MOVE ON
České Budějovice (two and a half hours), Krakow (eight hours overnight), Bratislava (four hours) or Vienna (just under five hours).
Thanks to SNCF (http://uk.voyages-sncf.com) and Czech Tourism (020 7631 0427, http://www.czechtourism.cz)

NEXT: Vienna.

InterRail 2: BERLIN

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ARRIVE
You come into the shiny new Berlin Hauptbahnhof, where, at the Tourist Information Centre at the Europaplatz entrance, you can buy single tickets to use the city’s excellent U- and S-bahn systems for £2.16, day tickets for £5.50 or the Berlin Welcome card which is £15.30 for 48 hours or if you add entry to the Museum Island collection, 72 hours is £32 (see http://www.bvg.de).

SLEEP
The ever-reliable Generator hostel chain has two examples in Berlin, but first choice should be the newer, more intimate one at Mitte (www.generatorhostels.com, beds from £12), with a mix of dorms and private bedrooms beds.

Generator, Mitte

Generator, Mitte

The lobby of the new 25 Hours Bikini Beach Hotel (www.25hours-hotels.com, from £68) near the Zoo might look like a child’s romper room, but the well-run hotel delivers the goods at a decent price. Slightly more conventional is the equally new ‘boutique’ Hotel am Steinplatz (Steinplatz 4, 00 49 30 55 44 44 0, http://www.marriott.de), near Ku’damm, which has very bright and comfortable doubles from £122, room-only.
EAT/DRINK
You’ll find the city’s best wursts, curry or otherwise, at the end of the inevitable line at Curry 36, which has outlets at the Zoo and Kreuzburg (www.Curry36.de, from £2.50). Volta (www.dasvolta.com, £7.50 for mains) is a buzzy gastropub in Wedding, part-owned by the Cookies & Cream crew, that dishes up substantial steaks, ribs, burgers and salads, along with a good choice of beers. Later, lounge in the gold padded banquettes and sip cocktails at the very OTT Liberate (www.theliberate.com) in Monbijou or slip through the anonymous door under the arches to ultra-cool neo-industrial bar/club Trust (www.trust-berlin.com). Street Food Thursday is a gathering of vendors at the rescued and revitalized Markthalle Neun (Eisenbahnstrasse 42, Kreuzberg) that puts quality fast food of every stripe in one place, although the hall does have a regular bakery, café, brewery and a BBQ on site on Fridays and Saturdays – see markthalleneun.de.

THREE TO SEE
GDR museum. It’s 25 years since the Wall came and down this museum reminds people what life was like in the east before that, documenting the daily routine, complete with a restaurant serving East German favourites, including the dangerous sounding “Jägerschnitzel” – actually a breaded sausage (www.gdr-museum.de, £5)
The Olympic Stadium. This arena has seen a lot of sporting history, from Jesse Owens to Usain Bolt, and the grounds still contain chilling sculptures from the ’36 Olympics. It’s now home to Herta BSC, of course (www.olympiastadion-berlin.de, £5).
Pergamon Museum. If you only have time to do one museum on Museum Island, it should be this one, which contains such huge antiquities as The Market Gate of Miletus (Ancient Greece), the Ishtar Gate (Babylon) and the Pergamon Altar (smb.museum, £10 or free with the three-day Berlin Welcome Museum Pass, see above).

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Also, later in the year, there are plans to recreate, over the weekend of November 9th, the 25th anniversary of its fall,  the exact route of the Berlin Wall (above, Checkpoint Charlie) in tethered, luminous balloons, which be released to at the climax of the celebrations, to float out over the city.

MOVE ON
Warsaw (five hours), Munich (six) or Prague (just under five), the latter with lovely Elbe River scenery as you cross the border.

 

NEXT: PRAGUE

Thanks to VOYAGES-SNCF (http://uk.voyages-sncf.com) for organising the rail travel

BELGIAN INTERLUDE

Berlin InterRail will be along shortly; meanwhile, here is some music….

There was a moment during Melanie de Biasio’s performance at the Purcell Room on the Southbank the other night when, as a fan of light framed her uplifted face, I felt as if I was watching Ingrid Bergman playing Joan of Arc re-incarnated with the voice of Abbey Lincoln fronting a Belgian version of The Necks.

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Certainly anyone who popped along because of the tag ‘the Belgian Billie Holiday’ that she is often saddled with was in for a surprise. This was strange fruit all right, a cross pollination of jazz, blues, trip-hop, post-rock and late Talk Talk and it certainly wasn’t a singer showing off her chops with a succession of torch songs or standards. If anything, she used the power of her spine-tingly voice too sparingly, often simply breathing out phrases or single words to wrap around the repetitive, sometimes languorous patterns created by a band consisting of piano, keyboards (clavinet, synths) and drums. But that meant when she did let rip, it counted, and hairs stood up on necks.
In a short, intense, one-hour set she played most of new (also short) album No Deal (Play it Again Sam records) with parts of A Stomach Is Burning, her less minimal debut from a couple of years ago. It was effectively one single, stripped-down sixty-minute song, building to the wonderful I’m Gonna Leave You. The two keyboards players added mostly texture and a skeletal framework for the tunes – no long noodly jazz solos here – while drummer Dre Pallemaerts ably supplied the rhythmic heft (and the singer added smoky stabs of flute). It was an unsettling – on a good way – monochrome show, a little like the drawings that come with the album, and was brilliantly lit, creating a close, clubby atmosphere in the sometimes sterile Purcell Room.
It’s all too rare to come away from a gig thinking: well, I haven’t seen anything like that recently, but Melanie De Biasio (who is highly rated by Jamie Cullum and Gilles Peterson) will leave you scratching your head and producing weird combos of artists to explain her to those who don’t yet know her sound. Although possibly none as odd as Joan of Arc.

http://www.melaniedebiasio.