There are two big topics that seem to dominate the tours of Portugal, the first (and most important), is fighting the Spanish. This is not surprising, the history between the two neighbours has been long and bloody. Independence was hard fought for and the Portuguese didn’t hold back when it came to moving forward, generally killing as many Spanish as they could in the process. The second is nostalgia for the golden age of Portugal. Back in the 1400’s when most of the world was trying to work out which leg to put in their trousers first, Portugal had established themselves as the most important nation in the world by exerting a stranglehold on the trade out of Europe.
LADS LADS LADS! LADS ON TOUR! LADS LADS LADS! As the chant echoed through the narrow streets of Barcelona, I reminisced briefly about the heady days of my youth in Spain; at the time, I never paused for very long to consider the many and varied stains of unknown origin which were ever-present on the bed sheets in the more cost effective hotels that I frequented. Similarly I don’t recall worrying about the potentially tetanus filled scratches which I seemed to mysteriously collect on random body parts each night when ‘out on the strip’. But perhaps the most potent non-memory of all is the immediate and visceral muscle memory reaction I retain to this day when offered tequila in any form. Ah, those were the days.
OK, let’s get this out of the way from the off, I feel there is a need for full disclosure here; in this trip I have not, repeat not, given Cyprus a fair crack of the whip. We have friends of ours that adore the island and I know that there are thousands more who find their time there enormously relaxing and enjoyable. They love the atmosphere, the warm waters, the perfect sand and the consistently good weather all brought together with as many home comforts as you can wish for. In many ways it’s a dream destination and they are not shy in telling me so.
I’m happy for them, I really am. I’m overjoyed that that have found a place that they can go where they feel they can leave the stresses of daily life behind, sit on the beach and roast away to their hearts content. I wanted to experience that joy, I wanted to see what Cyprus has that brings hundreds of thousands of Brits here every single summer. I wanted to understand, but in this trip, at this time I fully admit that I can’t and there are several reasons for that.
Driving down from Slovakia into Hungary the scenery changes in a subtle way. Well I say subtle, if your idea of subtle is going from a beautifully mountain fresh 15 degrees to a humidified, Mediterranean 27 degree-d, slick-backed swamp of sweat in a matter of hours then you probably wouldn’t even have noticed the difference. But I did. Oh yes, you bet I noticed.*
It started, as perfectly as it could, with an email. You may have seen Pasta Evangelists popping up on your TweetBook and InstaFace feeds recently promoting some celeb connections with Giles Coren, Pru Leith and William Sitwell to drop a couple of famous foodie names. The premise is as simple as it is delicious; they make fresh pasta and sauce, then they send it to you in the post. You cook it, mix it, eat it and love it. They offered to send me some pasta and follow those very simple instructions. I, of course said yes, so what could go wrong?
I know that things have been a little quiet around here on the food front recently. Mrs P and I haven’t been managing to keep up with the usual standard of restaurant related shenanigans that you have come to expect from us, primarily because we’ve been gallivanting around Europe for the best part of the last eighteen months. But with only a few more countries left to tick off, we’re back home now and the invitation to take a look at the new and improved Black Horse at Great Linford arrived in the inbox at just the right time.
I can’t lie to you. Travelling to all twenty seven EU countries, while awesome in almost every way, has also proved to be pretty tough. Perhaps I never thought it was something that could become real and yet here we are in the final five. But the truth is that we’ve paid a price for all the experiences we’ve managed to gain; not just in the financially crippling stakes, but also the constant travel planning, plane delays and pure stress involved with two years of almost constant travel with a moody pre-teen! But I can’t complain. From Ireland to Lithuania, and Sweden to Malta, we’ve seen almost everything Europe has to offer. Almost everything. But the truth is that almost 2 years of travel has left us a little weary. We needed a rest to recharge before the final furlong and Slovakia was just the ticket.
The Czech Republic has some lovely memories for us, as Mrs P and I spent so many happy hours as newly weds wandering across and along the Vltava river in the sunshine. We wanted to revisit those old haunts but a couple of days into our trip across Poland we realised that despite our usual standard of fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants style planning there was no way we could get over to Prague and back down to Bratislava in Slovakia without an extra couple of days. And so, in the best Family P tradition – a new plan (if the very loose description of what we were ever actually doing could be called a plan) was born.
Fresh off the back of a nice easy drive down from Estonia, through Latvia and into Lithuania, Mrs P and I decided that perhaps The Child could handle something a bit more extreme. This next run started in the heart of Poland and we cut west through the country to the Czech Republic. Then we took a sharp turn south into Slovakia and finished in Budapest, Hungary. It gave us some incredible experiences as we visited the spectacular Wieliczka Salt Mine Cathedral in Poland which is 135 meters underground, a Slovakian ski village with no snow, an enormous rip-off of the Houses of Parliament in Budapest and ate one of the best pastrami sandwiches I’ve ever tasted in Brno in the Czech Republic. This was all put into stark and definitive perspective when we visited Auschwitz because this focused centre of such unimaginable cruelty and suffering was harrowing, incredibly thought provoking and very emotional for all three of us.
Following on from Estonia and Latvia to complete our trio of Baltic nation states is our jaunt into Lithuania. We drove just a few short miles on from Riga to see what awaited us in the home of Hannibal Lector. Well, it might be fair to say that Lithuania struggles for world recognition as they don’t have any inventions that changed the world, any deep archaeological secrets to be uncovered or even any Sports personalities on the world stage (with the exception of a disconcertingly high quantity of quasi-famous basketball players). But do they care? No, of course not because despite all of that Lithuania is the Spiritual home of one, very specific, thing…
Driving out of Estonia from Tallinn and through their seaside escape town Parnu, the Family P. headed south into Latvia the second largest of the Baltic North European States after Lithuania. We loved Estonia and the record breaking summer of 2018 continued as we hit the Latvian countryside. We’ve swam in some pretty cold waters in Finland so we were braced for the worst on the North European coast but to hardened English sea swimmers such as the Family P, the beaches were as warm and balmy as any tropical Island and let’s not forget the beach volley ball courts in the centre of the city – how often do you stumble upon those in a country that can pick up a Finnish television broadcast signal?! You can keep your over touristified Greek Islands, thankyouverymuch this is our kind of beach holiday.
Let’s just take stock for a moment. We are eighteen countries in so what have we learned about the EU? Well, I think we can safely say that it likes a celebration, a dance and maybe even a modest drink. Visits to Finland, Germany, France and many others can attest to that, but it’s clear from our time in Estonia which was the first of a triple Bulkan run down to Lithuania that the EU also very much likes to change the name of things. Everywhere we went in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania we were told that we were in what the EU now designates ‘Northern Europe’. Continue reading “Did you know that the Karaoke capital of Europe is Estonia? Me neither!”