House of Terror, a stroll through Budapest’s bloody history

Budapest’s glorious setting astride the Danube, its beautiful architecture and fantastic cultural life belie a simple truth: this is a city that has witnessed true horrors. While its history is stuffed full of turmoil and violence, like most of Europe, Budapest’s mid-20th century history is a litany of monumental barbarism. The seeds of which were planted centuries earlier, only bearing their terrible fruit in the 1940s.

There are regular reminders of these horrors across Budapest. Whether the Second World War or the Communist repression that followed it, Budapest wears its history on its sleeve. However, not all memorials to 20th century conflict are well received. Especially when they are part of attempts by Viktor Orban’s thuggish government to rewrite history, in nationalist overtones that are a bit too reminiscent of that earlier history for comfort.

Controversial World War II memorial, Budapest, Hungary

Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary

Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary

Shoes on the Danube Bank, Budapest, Hungary

In Liberty Square, close to Parliament, is an ugly (politically and aesthetically) statue to victims of the Second World War. It’s controversial because people see it as an attempt by the Fidesz government to distort Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. Like the Polish government before it, they’re trying to obscure the very active role of both citizens and government in the deaths of more than 600,000 Jews during the German occupation of 1944-45.

The Nazis didn’t occupy Hungary at the start of the Second World War, they formed an alliance with the more than willing Hungarian government instead. In 1940, Hungary joined the Axis and its armies participated in the invasion of Russia. Only in March 1944, when the German military was in full retreat and defeat was inevitable, did the Hungarian government attempt to end its pact with the Nazis. Hitler ordered Hungary occupied.

Despite being subject to racial laws modelled on the Nürnberg Laws, Hungarian Jews had largely been ‘protected’ from the Holocaust. The Nazi occupation established ghettos and deportations to death camps began. In only a year, some 437,000 Jews would be deported and murdered. It’s said that trains ran day and night from Budapest to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Yet, there were only 150 Germans in charge of this task.

Without the full cooperation of the Hungarian government and tens of thousands of its citizens, it would have been impossible to organise mass murder. Cooperate they did, the entire apparatus of state was put to work. The deportations continued until the Soviet army liberated Hungary in early 1945. Rich in irony, in the same park stands a memorial to the Soviet ‘liberators’, as well as to former US President, Ronald Reagan, slayer of the communism dragon.

Nearby is a far more poignant memorial. Along the Danube are sixty pairs of iron shoes that tell a heartbreaking story. In late 1944, the fascist Arrow Cross came to power in Hungary and began mass executions of Jews and others in Budapest. Thousands were brought to the Danube and shot. Their bodies dumped into the freezing waters which, contemporary observes reported, ran red with blood.

We walked through the former Jewish ghetto, visiting two of the city’s synagogues, to reach the House of Terror, which tells the story of this journey into madness in grim detail, often using contemporary film. It’s a haunting experience, especially the descent into the cellar where the torture cells and hanging post are still found. A lift takes you into the bowls of the building as an audio recording explains the terrible history of this building.

Shoes on the Danube Bank, Budapest, Hungary

Kazinczy Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary

House of Terror, Budapest, Hungary

Soviet Russian memorial, Budapest, Hungary

The museum also tells the story of the post-war period, the Russian occupation and the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. But there is another story, one I’d not heard before, it tells of the terrible fate of ethnic Germans living in Hungary following the liberation of the country. Around a half a million ethnic Germans were persecuted, striped of their rights, had lands confiscated and were ultimately expelled.

Ethnic Germans had lived here for centuries, many were encouraged to settle the land after the Ottoman Turks were defeated in 1686 – this diaspora was one of the Nazis’ main arguments for their territorial claims in Eastern Europe. Ethnic Germans would pay the price for their real or imagined complicity in Nazi crimes. Tens of thousands were sent to Russia and East Germany as slave labourers, many more were expelled to West Germany, a country they’d never previously set foot in.

Sell Art, Buy A Yacht … Budapest Street Art

It’s no surprise that a city like Budapest, with its cutting edge cultural attractions and a long history as an artistic centre, should have some impressive street art. Yet, I was still surprised by the wealth of building-sized art that is scattered across the central part of the city. Their approach is somewhat different to Berlin, where street art still feels a bit underground. In Budapest, the walls are more curated, deliberately transforming the city into a colourful canvass.

This is largely the result of the annual Színes Város Festival, or Colourful City Festival. Since 2014, they have been commissioning artists to brighten up the cityscape, and the festival has endowed central Budapest with some magnificent public artworks. While many of the invited artists are international, the festival has provided a shop window for homegrown talent. The Neopaint collective are particularly well represented.

Laura by Vilmos Aba-Novák, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Woman in Red Hat by Vilmos Aba-Novák, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Rubik’s Cube by Neopaint, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

6:3 by Neopaint, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Polish-Hungarian Friendship Tree by Neopaint, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

October by Károly Ferenczy, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

There are pieces of art all over the city, but the epicentre is the Jewish Quarter. Here, the many dilapidated buildings that once typified the area have seen a rebirth in recent years, street art has helped. It’s just a shame that the very first artwork I spotted was an enormous piece commemorating an epic (for Hungarians) football match of 1953. Known as the Match of the Century, this was a stunning and unexpected 6-3 victory over England at Wembley Stadium.

Over the road is an artwork commemorating another epic Hungarian success, the Rubik’s Cube. The 1974 invention of sculptor and professor Erno Rubik was a form of torture to people of a certain age. I must have spent days of my life trying to crack the secret of Rubik’s Cube as a teenager. They were the ‘must have’ accessory of an entire generation. I can’t say I ever managed much success against the fiendish Cube, but the artwork was a welcome reminder of more innocent days.

A few streets away, we came across a giant painting of the cover of Time Magazine. I hadn’t known before but, in January 1957, Time announced the ‘Hungarian Freedom Fighter’ as Man of the Year for 1956. This followed the violent suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by its own Communist government and the occupying forces of the Soviet Union. It’s an interesting reminder of some of the terrible things that these streets have witnessed.

Another poignant reminder of the history of Budapest’s District VII  can be found on Akácfa street. A giant mural of a seamstress looms over pedestrians below, the Hungarian word Szabómesterek, or master tailor, ‘sawn’ on the wall below. Tailoring was one of the major Jewish professions in pre-Second World War Budapest, and this piece in the heart of the Jewish Quarter is a reminder of the huge human and cultural loss experienced in Hungary between 1941 and 1945.

The Great Wall by TransOne and Fat Heat, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Miss KK, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Miss KK, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Miss KK, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Miss KK, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Seamstress by Neopaint, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Further down the street are a number of other artworks that look like watercolours of master painters. There’s also an large piece depicting a cycle race. My favourite, a few streets away and next to the excellent Kőleves Vendéglő restaurant, is of a massive cow in a purple tracksuit eating a forkful of grass. I couldn’t find much information on it, but it has something to do with traditional Hungarian foods.

The giant murals may be the most impressive part of Budapest’s street art scene, but I came across a number of fun, thought-provoking ‘dolls’ made as collages from fashion magazines or Instagram pictures that I really loved. These are the work of a fashion designer and street artist known as Miss KK. These witty pieces are worth looking out for if you’re wandering around Budapest.

Curing the “Cat’s Wail” at Budapest’s Gellert Baths

Budapest has a bathing culture dating back thousands of years. Today the city remains home to dozens of thermal spas and public bathhouses. Slipping on the flip flops and bath robe to while away half a day in indoor and outdoor pools of varying sizes and temperatures, is one of the quintessential Budapest experiences. This region is blessed with thermal springs, and they have been put to good use ever since those bathhouse devotees, the Romans, arrived in the 1st century.

It’s no surprise that the Romans called this Aquincum, or that Budapest’s reputation for thermal baths would be further enhanced by the hammam-loving Ottomans, who captured the city in 1541. Some thermal spas can still trace their history back to the Ottoman period. For the modern visitor who may have enjoyed a few too many ruin bars, there’s a more important fact about Budapest’s baths: legend states they cure the “Cat’s Wail’ or macskajaj, Hungarian for a hangover.

Gellert Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Gellert Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Gellert Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Statue, Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Statue, Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Choosing which bath to visit is tricky, everyone has a favourite place. We decided on the Gellert Thermal Baths, part of the art nouveau hotel of the same name. Founded in 1918, it has pretty turquoise-tiled pools, and is a relaxed place for the novice bather. The outdoor thermal pool was particularly exciting on a chilly autumn day. Our visit to Gellert allowed us to walk along the river to the Central Market Hall and then explore Újbuda, Budapest’s Bohemian District 11.

We strolled along the waterfront close to the Hungarian Parliament. Built in 1896 to celebrate the 1,000th birthday of the founding of Hungary by the invading Magyars, it is the third largest parliament in the world, rumoured to have 20km of corridors and stairways. After strolling around it, we followed the river to the  Liberty Bridge. On the far side of which are the Gellert Baths. First, we made a visit to the late-19th century Central Market Hall.

Made out of dried and ground red peppers, paprika is Hungary’s most popular spice. A visit to the stalls in the market might give the impression that it’s Hungary’s only spice. Paprika stalls proliferate amongst the fruit, vegetable and cured meat stalls, attracting a steady stream of locals and tourists. Each year, Hungarians consume half a kilo of paprika per person. That’s quite an undertaking, but it does find its way into a large number of traditional dishes.

Anyone who has never seen a lot of vegetables in one place before will no doubt love the market, but it’s not a patch on markets in other parts of the world. The real show-stopper is the market’s own metalwork architecture. Upstairs you can buy hot food and souvenirs. It was crammed with tourists. We decided it wasn’t worth the crush and set off across the Danube for the baths. Minutes later we were bathing in a thermal pool in chilly air under a blue sky. It was fabulous.

Crossing the Danube, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

It was well after lunch when we emerged from the fantastic interior of the baths and headed into nearby District 11 in search of food. This is an up and coming area, that will likely have completely changed in a few years due to gentrification. For the time-being it’s a low-key, youthful neighbourhood that has a number good restaurants and cafes. We ate in Béla, with an interesting art collection on the walls, but this district is blessed with good eating options.

We walked off lunch with a meander through the area, passing traditional bakeries and trendy art galleries until reaching Budapest University of Technology and Economics, home to 20,000 students. This explained all the bars and pubs we’d been passing. Too tired to walk back, we caught the metro to central Pest and discovered the intriguing architecture of Budapest’s metro stations – some of which are truly remarkable.

Exploring Budapest’s medieval Castle Hill

If you want to experience the peaceful atmosphere of the medieval streets that make up Budapest’s glorious Castle Hill, you’ll have to get here early. By mid-morning, tour groups swarm through the narrow lanes, crowd around the beautiful 14th-century church named for King Matthias and the nearby 19th-century fortress of Fisherman’s Bastion, and make a visit to the Budapest Castle and museums an endurance test. In the early morning light the views alone make it worth the effort.

Views over Budapest from Castle Hill, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest Castle, Budapest, Hungary

Matthias Church, Castle Hill, Budapest, Hungary

Castle Hill is a special place despite mass tourism, especially if you do the lung-bursting walk through pretty Király lépcső park. We discovered the old funicular that does the same climb in a fraction of the time only after reaching the top. The terraces outside the castle offer magnificent panoramas over the Danube and Pest. Buda and Pest were joined as one city in 1873, their historic differences are no less obvious today than in the 19th century.

The castle’s main attraction is the Hungarian National Gallery, with its collection of Hungarian artists, and a couple of smaller museums. Nothing was open this early, so we’d have to come back and face the crowds later. Instead we wandered around the castle grounds – there are several areas of ruins testifying to some of the conflicts this hilltop has witnessed – and then into the streets of the old town.

The current palace is from the reign of Empress Maria Theresa in the second half of the 18th century. Repeatedly damaged over the centuries, it was mostly destroyed during the Battle for Budapest in 1945. Defended by Hungarian and German troops, and besieged by Russian armies, there was only ever going to be one result. Hitler refused to allow his troops to retreat or surrender, so Castle Hill was pulverised. Thousands of trapped civilians died needlessly.

As you walk around the surrounding streets, the patchwork of buildings is testimony to the reconstruction undertaken by the post-1945 communist regime. Historic buildings now rub shoulders uneasily with ugly late-20th century structures, the communist authorities lacked money or materials to do a full and faithful reconstruction. Recently, the European Union subsidised more reconstruction and the area surprisingly retains its atmosphere.

We walked along a pretty escarpment that overlooked Buda and the Buda Hills, before diving into cobbled streets lined with pastel-coloured houses. Reaching the Military History Museum we were greeted by a Russian T34 tank, the workhorse of the Soviet armies in World War II – Berlin has a couple parked outside the Soviet Memorial in the Tiergarten. The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene towers over this area and, when it’s open, the tower offers spectacular views.

Castle Hill is a compact area that doesn’t take too long to explore on foot. We found ourselves outside the Matthias Church, which, with its coloured tiled roof and a history dating back to the 11th century, is one of the most interesting churches in Budapest. Legend has it that during the 1686 siege of Budapest – when Christian armies were attempting to end 150 years of Muslim Ottoman rule – artillery fire hit the wall of the church.

The wall crumbled to reveal a statue of the Virgin Mary, bricked up after the Ottoman conquest of 1541. This allegedly disheartened the Ottoman defenders to such an extent that they immediately surrendered. Today, it’s as if the church has surrendered to tourism. Close by is Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers glorious views over the city if, that is, you can squeeze onto the balcony past the tourist hoards invading the modern city.

It was time for lunch, but not in this touristy area. We walked to Budapest-Deli railway station from where a tram whisked us back over the majestic Danube into the centre of Pest for an excellent modern Hungarian lunch at Kőleves Vendéglő.

A Budapest Weekend

A few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, I found myself stepping off a train in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia’s second city. This was the time of Mikhail Gorbachev, and political reform, known as glasnost, was having a thawing effect across Eastern Europe. My train carriage from Prague was full of young conscripts, not much older than myself, heading home for the holidays. We didn’t share any common language, but by the time we arrived we were firm friends.

How a capitalist student and a bunch of communist soldiers managed to hit it off so well, is probably best explained by the amount of beer and fiery plum brandy, slivovitz, that we’d drunk along the way. The Danube flows through Bratislava on its way from Vienna to Budapest, my first sight of this majestic river was through a drunken haze. A few days later I had a dilemma, follow the river East to the Hungarian capital or, against the flow, West to Austria.

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Castle District across the Danube, Budapest, Hungary

Millennium Monument, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Probably under the influence of British New Wave band Ultravox’s Vienna, I chose to go west. It has taken me slightly over 30 years to finally discover whether that was the right decision or not. While I’ll never truly have an answer for my teenage self, I’d have loved to have seen Budapest before mass tourism changed it forever. We visited in late autumn, outside the main season, but tour groups still flooded the castle district and Jewish Quarter. Summer must be hellish.

These were minor irritations when set against the magnificent mix of history, culture and culinary delights that Budapest offers in abundance. If the city has a feel of Prague about it – cut in two by a river with the castle on one bank and the town on the other – set amidst the Buda Hills, it has a more beautiful location and feels more cosmopolitan. Plus, there seem to be far fewer British stag parties roaming the streets, which is only ever a good thing.

We had four days to explore the city, by the end of which we realised that another four days would be needed to do it justice. I had a list of things to see, do, eat and drink from two Hungarian colleagues, many of which remain to be ticked off. We stayed close to the Hungarian Parliament, minutes from the banks of the Danube, and spent most of our time in the central areas of Pest and in the Castle District across the water in Buda.

An excursion to the Gellért Thermal Baths (it’s illegal to visit Budapest without visiting one of the many baths), left us with half a day to explore District 11. Known as Újbuda, it’s close to the university and filled with good cafes and restaurants, as well as trendy bars and galleries. This felt like a real Budapest neighbourhood, well away from Pest’s nightlife and the mass tourism of the castle. There are twenty three districts in the city, we saw only a handful.

Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Szimpla ruin bar, Budapest, Hungary

Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Gellért Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Gellért Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Castle District across the Danube, Budapest, Hungary

We arrived days before local elections, and Budapest was covered in posters for the ruling Fidesz and a multitude of opposition parties. Once a leader amongst post-Soviet democracies, Viktor Orban’s decade of autocratic government has severely damaged the rule of law and democratic norms. Orban himself describes this as “illiberal democracy”, but let’s call it what it is: autocracy mixed with far right and racist rhetoric and policies.

Orban remains popular (and populist) but his hold on power may be slipping. Shortly after we returned home, Fidesz lost control of Budapest and several other urban areas. Overnight, Budapest became a more ethical place to visit. That’s good news, because we really want to go back and explore more of this city and country.

2019, a German year in review

Berlin has now been home for 18 months and, as 2019 trundles towards its inevitable conclusion, reflecting back on the previous 12 months this has been a year dominated by discovering more about Germany. We’ve interspersed our time with trips to other places, but mostly we’ve been trying to make sense of the place in which we live. This has not been without its challenges.

Even amongst Germans, Berlin is considered a grumpy, often hostile, city. At a micro level, it still feels like we’re scratching the surface of understanding this city. A little contradictorily, at the macro level it’s a welcoming and inclusive place. As the Brexit deadline rapidly approaches, that’s something for which we may soon be very grateful.

Berlin, Bowie’s ‘cultural extravaganza’

In the 1970s, for David Bowie, Berlin was “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” A divided city at the centre of the Cold War, it fostered an alternative, Bohemian culture. Thirty years after unification, that legacy continues to inspire the modern city, but today ‘Bohemian’ has been replaced by ‘Startup’, and gentrification is everywhere. This though remains no ordinary city, and one that it takes effort to know … a journey we’re still on.

Berlin Street Art

I’ve posted many times about the street art scene in Berlin. I don’t pretend to know it well, I just see it everywhere. There are signs of creeping corporatization in street art, but the sheer number and diversity of street artists is extraordinary, and something to celebrate. As I’ve said before, when it comes to street art, Berlin is the gift that keeps on giving.

Celebrating a centenary of Bauhaus in Dessau

100 years of Germany’s most celebrated artistic movement seemed like a good reason to make the trip to Dessau, the home of Bauhaus. Despite the anticipated celebrations, this former GDR city felt unprepared for the predicted tourist onslaught – several of the houses were being repaired and the new museum was scheduled to only open after the anniversary year was over. The idea of German efficiency died that day.

Phoenix from the flames, Dresden

Dresden, famed capital of Saxony, is a place where the ghosts of its legendary history are never too far away. It’s near-miraculous that the city built by Augustus the Strong is still standing – or rather, was rebuilt, Phoenix-like from the flames of the devastating bombing raids of 1945. A fantastic trip was crowned with a visit to nearby Meissen, home to Augustus’ porcelain factory.

Spreewald, the spiritual home of the gherkin

The Spreewald, an hour or so south of Berlin, is famous for its watery landscapes and the quality of its pickled products – pre-eminent amongst which is the gherkin. They are one of the few East German products to survive reunification. The epicentre of the gherkin area is the attractive village of Lehde. Known as the ‘city of punts and pickles’, it comes with a fabulous open air museum to Sorbian history and culture.

Tbilisi

I’d been planning a trip to Georgia for as long as I can remember, but I was still blown away by its capital, Tbilisi. An ancient city at the crossroads of cultures between the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia, all these influences have combined to create a fascinating and vibrant capital. Decades of communist rule – the birthplace of Joseph Stalin is nearby – may still haunt the city, but this is a place firmly looking to the future.

The High Caucasus

Breathtaking in every sense of the word, Georgia’s High Caucasus region is one of the most dramatic and beautiful places ever I’ve visited. A unique culture exists amongst mountains and valleys dotted by ancient villages with their iconic watchtowers and isolated monasteries. The Kazbegi region, an area of myth and legend, is a perfect place to first experience this culture – it’s easily accessible from Tbilisi.

Exploring the streets of Amman

It was a case of third-time lucky for me in Amman. I’d passed through the city twice before but had failed to spend any time there. This time I only had a day at my disposal, but it was enough to explore some of the ancient wonders that have survived centuries of civilisation. Not only that, I got to eat some of the best food the city has to offer, and discovered the street art boom that is transforming the bleak cityscape.

A Warsaw Weekend

I’ll be the first to admit that I was surprised by just how vibrant modern-day Warsaw was. I may still have had images of the bleak communist city, but by the time I left after an incredible few days exploring its neighbourhoods and visiting its museums, my opinions had been completely changed. It’s made me want to explore more of Poland which, given that it’s only 80km away from my front door, should be an easily kept New Year resolution.

Galicia’s ancient vineyards and wild coastline

Galicia was a revelation. A region of Spain that felt a million miles from the flamenco and Mediterranean beach resort stereotype. The wild Atlantic Coast, with its historic towns, rugged beaches backed by forested hills, and world famous seafood, combined perfectly with the mountainous interior of the Ribeira Sacra – on the steep limestone hillsides of this spectacular region are ancient vineyards first planted by Romans.

A Sierra de Francia hideaway

If there’s a place in Spain where I could happily drop out of society for several months, it would be the gorgeous Sierra de Francia. Rolling wooded hillsides dotted with red-tiled villages connected by walking trails are accompanied by legend and myth in a region that is just being discovered by the outside world. The tradition of St. Anthony’s pig is just one reason for a visit.

Tunisia, a desert road trip remembered

I had a serious car crash in Tunisia, which resulted in me hanging upside down, the car on its roof, in the middle of the desert. This though wasn’t the most remarkable thing that happened. Out of nowhere three Tunisian men appeared and pulled me from the wreck. They called the police and an ambulance, one even came to visit me at my hotel to check that I was OK – I was fine, if a little bruised. That’s everything one needs to know about the hospitality of Tunisians.

Pilgrims and Roman history in ancient León

León’s Cathedral is extraordinary. If you saw nothing else of the city, this massive hunk of stone standing in the centre of a huge square would alone be worth making the trip. Impressive from the outside, it’s when you step through the arched doorways that the building reveals its true glory. Nearly 1,800 square metres of stained glass await inside, most of them originals dating back centuries. Illuminated by a powerful sun, the light in the building is spellbinding.

The €6 entry fee was worth every cent, and came with an audioguide. Even before we entered though, the exterior carvings of devils doing terrible-looking things to earthly sinners helped get us in the right mood. The cathedral dates back to the 10th century, although most of what you see today is 14th and 15th century, with some add-ons. It’s remarkable the cathedral has survived, especially when you consider that ill-judged additions in the 16th century almost brought it crashing down.

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Convento de San Marcos, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Town Hall, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The cathedral’s history dates much further back than the 10th century though, all the way to 74 AD. In that year, a Roman legion founded León, and on the current site of the cathedral they built baths. Making this a spot that has been used to ‘cleanse’ humanity, one way or another, for close to 2,000 years. Keeping with the religious theme, we set off through the new town to the equally impressive-looking Convento de San Marcos.

Now a luxury hotel, it was undergoing restoration so we admired it from the outside and then took a stroll along the river. It was August and there was hardly any water, but the landscaped river bank was shady and cool. I imagine that’s a relief for all those who traipse through the Plaza de San Marcos en route to Galicia on the French branch of the Camino de Santiago. There is a nice statue in the middle of the square of a pilgrim, shoes off, gazing at the convent.

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Street art, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Basílica de San Isidoro, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Convento de San Marcos, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

León is an important staging post on the pilgrim route, and receives thousands of sore-footed travellers every year. A tradition established centuries ago which now seems to appeal as much to outdoor enthusiasts as the devout. We did see a couple of people for whom devotion seems to have slipped into mental illness. Jerusalem syndrome may be alive and well on the Camino. It certainly appeared that people in the town understood the symptoms, helpers were quickly called.

Back in the centre of the Old Town, Barrio Húmedo, we found an outdoor table with views over the 11th century Basílica de San Isidoro for lunch. This former monastery is built on the ruins of a Roman temple and, while the church is still a church, it’s now also an upmarket hotel. Here, in a city where people rest after trekking across Spain as part of their religious devotions, religious institutions are being preserved by converting them into hotels for those same people.

Casa Botines, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Gaudí statue, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Street art, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Casa Botines, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The Basílica is the final resting place to numerous Kings and Queens of León, it’s also where Saint Isidore of Seville’s relics were buried. Much more importantly though, this was the home to the Cortes of León of 1188, believed to be the first example of a parliament in modern European history. All of which has led the local authorities to brand León as the ‘Cradle of Parliamentarism’.  After lunch we wandered around the streets until we came to the Casa Botines.

This odd looking building was designed by Antoni Gaudi, whose famed architectural style was really toned down for this project. Despite his relatively short time in León, Gaudi’s fame has warranted a statue outside Casa Botines. He sits sketching, while above him St. George slays a dragon on the facade of the building.

León and the legend of ‘Saint’ Genarín

León is a city that sticks in the memory. In my case, less for its monumental cathedral or glorious Plaza Mayor, than for the traumatic experience of trying to park a car in our hotel’s underground car park. I’ve experienced Spanish garages before. They seem to follow a universal design: small, cramped and intended to separate you from your hire car rental deposit. It’s no way to introduce yourself to a new city, especially a city as fascinating as León.

León was the final stop on our way back to Madrid from Galicia. It wasn’t a particularly convenient stopover, but we’d heard glowing reports and made the detour. I’m glad we did. The long drive from Pontevedra meant we arrived in the late afternoon, just as temperatures were beginning to drop. It was perfect for a stroll through the narrow streets of the old city – the Barrio Húmedo – with stops for a drink and tapas in a couple of lovely plazas.

A Lion in Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Plaza del Grano, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

This is a city of squares. The most splendid is the Plaza Mayor with pleasant cafes and bars. Nearby is the Plaza San Martin, so chock full of tapas bars a substantial bar crawl is possible without ever leaving the tiny square. A short stroll away is the picturesque, Plaza del Grano. An ancient cobbled square, it’s also home to the 12th century Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Mercado, the oldest church in Leon named for the market that once took place here.

Today, you’ll find a few tapas places. We sat down and ordered a couple of drinks as we watched the comings and goings in the square. There was a hostal on one side, and periodically ‘pilgrims’ from the hugely popular Camino de Santiago passed through on their way to rest up after an arduous day of hiking in Spain’s fierce August heat. As I sat with a cold beer, I reflected on the madness of hiking at this time of year regardless of your faith.

The sun was starting to set by the time we wandered, a little unsteadily, out of Plaza del Grano. We made for the town’s outstanding sight, the Catedral de León. We planned to visit the following morning when sunlight would do justice to its monumental stained glass windows. There was a vibrant buzz in the square surrounding the cathedral as people headed out for an evening stroll and some tapas – this is a town that prides itself on both its nightlife and food.

We joined the throngs of people meeting, greeting and eating, and ended up in a web of narrow streets surrounding the Plaza Conde Luna. The town was pulsating and the tapas bars were heaving. We squeezed in where we could to try the local specialities, including a morcilla (blood sausage) stew. It looks like something you might cross the street to avoid – you’d definitely avoid stepping in it – but it is absolutely delicious with a glass of Tempranillo.

Plaza del Grano, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Mercado, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The carnival atmosphere helped explain one of León’s most famous tales. This relates that, after a night of revelry on 30 March 1929, a very drunk local man named Genaro Blanco was relieving himself against one of the city’s ancient walls when he stumbled in front of León’s first ever garbage truck. He died instantly. The truck was the pride of the town and the incident became famous. So famous, that it’s still celebrated today.

In March, revellers parade the streets carrying a statue of Genaro in vague mockery of Semana Santa. Cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of orujo brandy in his hand, the procession circulates through the city to arrive at the very spot where he died all those years ago. Here the crowds perform the “Burial of Saint Genarín”. It may sound crazy, but 15,000 people show up for this event. I like the idea that an early contender for the Darwin Awards is suitably honoured.

Pontevedra, Galicia’s pedestrian paradise

We didn’t have enough time to do justice to the vibrant and historic city of Pontevedra, but in the time we did have it quickly became clear that this was not a typical city. Not because of its glorious medieval old town, or its picturesque 18th century district, not even because this was where Christopher Columbus’s flag ship, the Santa Maria, was built. The thing that sets Pontevedra apart (and which plenty of other cities could learn from), is that the heart of the city is car free.

The pleasure of strolling Pontevedra’s centre contrasts sharply with almost any other similar sized city I’ve visited in Spain (or most other countries). The air smells fresher; absent of engines and horns the historic core is unusually quiet; and the many public spaces are relaxing places for people, not for parking cars. The benefits of this forward-looking urban planning extends way beyond pleasing tourists. After years of decline, Pontevedra’s centre is thriving as people move back to live there.

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Napoleonic memorial, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

We’d arrived early after driving along the coast from Cambados. The route is beautiful but the narrow roads around the peninsular were heaving with traffic. A colleague who is originally from Pontevedra tells me that in the peak summer season things regularly grind to a halt along these roads. We parked in one of the underground car parks that have replaced on-street parking, and set off to explore, popping up in a park next to a monument commemorating the resistance to Napoleonic France.

We wandered into Pontevedra’s old town, where several attractive medieval squares are linked up by narrow streets blissfully free of traffic. There are numerous churches dating from the medieval period, including the lovely Basílica de Santa María a Maior, which was built by the donations of fishermen and shellfish collectors to protect them from the perils of the ocean. Many of the other churches were built by medieval guilds, including ironworkers and shoemakers.

So much for the devout though, Pontevedra was also home to pirates, most famously, Benito de Soto. It’s hard to take this feared pirate seriously given that his ship was called Burla Negra, or the Black Joke. That name belies the ruthless and bloodthirsty reputation of De Soto, even to his contemporaries. Most notoriously, he captured the English ship Morning Star and, to cover his tracks, murdered its crew and locked others in the hold to drown as the ship sank.

Luckily, some of the survivors managed to escape, repair the Morning Star and make it to safety. This would come back to haunt De Soto when his ship ran aground and he was captured entering Gibraltar. Aged 25, he hung from the gallows in Cadiz. Legend, or at least the tourist board, would have it that his former home in Pontevedra was a hiding place for treasure. As we walked around, the legends of the city seemed to still be alive as we passed old palaces and historic town houses.

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Napoleonic memorial, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

When we’d first arrived, the streets were very quiet, but as it approached lunchtime the town started to get busier. Small squares were converted for al fresco dining and there was a buzz in the air. We were driving to Leon the same day, a journey of over four hours. We found a table under an umbrella in a small square and ate a leisurely lunch before one final stroll through the ancient city. Like everywhere else in Galicia, Pontevedra was a place we decided we’d need to visit again.

Galicia’s wild Atlantic Coast to Muros

The wild, wind-swept Atlantic coast of Galicia is a truly exhilarating place. It’s home to some of the finest beaches in the entire country, often with a backdrop of forested hills. The waters that crash into the rocks and cliffs are clean and clear, but also chilly, going on frigid. Perfect for cooling off in fierce August temperatures. Best of all though, this coastline is dotted with picturesque port towns and fishing villages, that serve up some of the finest seafood in Europe.

We’d lost track of time while watching dolphins on Playa de Lariño, and had to make a quick dash towards the bustling fishing town of Muros in search of lunch. This historic little place was crowded with people all converging on its restaurants with much the same idea. We were late and a couple of places had already stopped serving, but we eventually found an outdoor table in the main square amongst Spanish families happily enjoying their summer holidays.

Playa de Larino, Galicia, Spain

Playa de Larino, Galicia, Spain

Harbour, Muros, Galicia, Spain

San Pedro Church, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Harbour, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Pulpo Gallego, Muros, Galicia, Spain

We ordered up some specials of the day, traditional local dishes fished out of the cold Atlantic waters: razor clams, scallops and Galicia’s most famous food, Pulpo Gallego. Galician octopus cooked with olive oil and sweet Spanish paprika, served with potatoes and fresh bread, is simply delicious. Especially washed down with a glass of Albariño. It was one of those perfect lunches, and it ticked off one of my foodie bucket list items: Pulpo Gallego served on a wooden board on the Galician coast.

Despite the influx of tourists, Muros still feels like an authentic Galician port town. We strolled down the promenade alongside a harbour housing fishing boats and pleasure boats, their brilliant colours illuminated under a hot sun. Away from the water, narrow alleyways climb up the hillside between tightly packed houses. We wandered aimlessly amongst the deserted streets, until we emerged close to the 13th century Church of San Pedro.

The port is still deep enough for fairly large boats and fishing remains one of the main industries of the town. We were there on a Sunday and most boats were very firmly in port. Muros is a tiny place that would be a perfect base from which to explore further along this beautiful coast, but after an hour of wandering the streets and harbour we’d run out of areas of town to investigate. We jumped in the car and set off back towards Cambados.

Deciding to take the long route back, we followed the winding coast road to Noia. A typical Galician fishing town, Noia boasts a massive road bridge that cuts across the estuary, providing great views over the water before depositing you onto another peninsular. We passed numerous horreos, traditional grain stores that have become a symbol of Galicia. It’s remarkable so many have survived into the 21st century, but they are topped with crosses for extra protection.

Muros, Galicia, Spain

San Pedro Church, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Muros, Galicia, Spain

Horreo gain store, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Harbour, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Galician coast, Galicia, Spain

We realised that if we continued along the coast as planned, we’d arrive in Cambados sometime around midnight. We didn’t want to miss more delicious seafood and wine tasting at the Vinoteca Ribeira de Fefiñans, so took a quicker route back. The next day we’d leave for Pontevedra, our final Galician destination before heading inland to the cathedral city of Leon. It would be hard to leave the glorious Galician coast behind, but we were already planning our next visit.