Anyone who has ever conducted their travels along railway lines has learnt not to read too deeply into the first impressions they get of any sizeable city, with the area surrounding the train station generally being equally dull, grey and characterless wherever it happens to be. Many a disembarkation has been followed by self-reassuring thoughts of how it will all look a whole lot more picturesque once the city centre has been sought out. On some trips, the judgement shouldn’t stop there. Rail and Write’s article on Milan details a fine example of how a tourist can go to bed on the first night feeling grumpy about their choice of destination only to find it winning them over a day or two later. Here are some other cities which have taught me not to form an opinion too quickly.
Gazing out of the window of the cross-city tram as the rain forlornly dripped its way towards the pavement, my initial thoughts were that the capital of European politics might be more of an administration centre than a city of aesthetic beauty. Exploring the area in close proximity to Hostel Louise (which was cheap, and for a reason) didn’t exactly raise my spirits, with the buildings on display matching the overhead conditions in terms of greyness. As I rested my head at the end of an eventful day which had started with a bus trip out of and a bike ride back into Amsterdam before boarding the last train of my Interrail adventure (which you can read more about here), I couldn’t help but feel that my final stop on my tour of Europe might be a bit on the anti-climactic side.
With its array of museums and the postcard-picture scenery of its centre, it didn’t take long for Brussels to overcome my initial scepticism. Seekers of knowledge can immerse themselves in European politics in the Parlamentarium, a combination of history, military paraphernalia and airplanes in the military museum and a vast range of sound sources in the Musical Instrument Museum, the former two being completely free of charge and the latter costing no more than €8. The Atomium, a large sculpture made of metal balls containing a science museum, is something you won’t see anywhere else, while the nearby Expo Centre hosts some fantastic exhibitions which run for several months at a time.
For any who like chocolate and beer a bit too much, they won’t lack opportunities to indulge. With shops specialising in satisfying sweet teeth abounding throughout the city, and bars offering all sorts of local brews no less prominent, worrying about one’s health can be put on the long finger whilst in Belgium’s capital! Delirium Tremens is a particularly enjoyable spot in which to enjoy guilty pleasures of a liquid nature, with a vast array of beers and an atmosphere that is both laid-back and vibrant at the same time.
Initial misgivings weren’t entirely misleading, as a certain greyness does exist in this city. But along with the shades of grey flashes of brighter colours can be seen in the flower-decorated centre, while the internationally-minded atmosphere keeps the city ticking over to a healthy pulse. Above all, it’s a case of museums and exhibitions galore, making Brussels a fantastic port of call for any with curious minds.
Upon ascending from the Stephansplatz metro station in the heart of the city, I found myself in the midst of a plague. As plagues go, people wearing ridiculous costumes that are presumably supposed to look like something eighteenth-century classical musicians would have worn is a fairly mild one, it must be admitted, but their presence was irritating nonetheless. Not only because of their ludicrously silly dress sense, but also due to the pushiness of their efforts to sell concert tickets. Much as Vienna’s famous music scene had played a key role in luring me there in the first place, having hordes of would-be-Mozart lookalikes trying to extract my credit card from my pocket in exchange for the chance to see a lavish performance of Mozart classics and Johann Strauss party-pieces gave the impression of a certain lack of authenticity.
Away from the tourist-pestering hordes one can walk quite freely, the city hardly lacking in impressive buildings and monuments. The Rathaus and Imperial Palace are particularly worthy of bouts of snap-happiness, while the music museum and the Jewish museum give fascinating insights into two idiosyncratic features of Vienna’s history and identity.
Even if the intense pushiness of the ticket-sellers is deeply annoying, the performances on offer are good. Taking in a flamboyant Mozart-and-Strauss-centred orchestral show on the first night, a calmer and more intimate string quartet recital in Stephansdom cathedral the following evening and a large-scale orchestral-choral combination giving Mozart’s famous Requiem their all on the eve of my departure from Vienna, it didn’t take long for the Austrian capital’s classical music scene to win me over. The surprise package of my stay was an unforgettable jazz club, which you can read more about here.
For culture-vultures and sightseers, the home of the waltz offers plenty to delight both the eyes and the ears. It does receive tourists en masse, and the city does make quite a big deal of itself (prices will reflect as much), but both are fully justified. So don’t be put off by initial impressions of gaudiness and artificiality, only a small amount of surface-scratching will uncover a vast array of historical, musical and cultural adventures.
There is one thing that people who have never lived in northern Spain seem incapable of either understanding or believing: not everywhere on the Iberian Peninsula is permanently illuminated by sunlight. Sitting on the bus as it rolled into the Basque country’s largest city had me seeing grey all round, both in the overhead conditions and in the urban landscape.
Wandering the streets didn’t do much to life the gloom, the lack of notable sights to see leaving the city centre looking like a rather dull suburb. Bleak, dreary and industrial would be the first words that come to mind when exploring Bilbao, first impressions strongly suggesting that photo opportunities would be hard to come by.
A flamenco show (relatively rare in this neck of the woods; I had the fortune of visiting in the middle of an annual festival dedicated to the southern Spanish musical genre) in Teatro Campos Elíseos was the first indication that the city boasts more attractions of an indoor variety. A venue that combines traditional grandeur with modern trendiness and comfort, a room outside the main auditorium also hosts interesting art and photography exhibitions.
The much-hyped Guggenheim modern art museum is generally seen as Bilbao’s crowning jewel, with its elaborate building providing a rare landmark in the otherwise plain aesthetics. However, its interior is likely to leave visitors wondering what all the fuss is about. More in keeping with the theme of internal exhibits outshining external appearances are the Basque Museum and the Maritime Museum. The former cleverly combines interactive displays and relevant artefacts to give an intriguing insight into the city’s history of flooding and rebuilding, the importance of its port and the passion invested in the local colours-of-the-Basque-flag-clad football team, while the latter is arguably the most interesting port of call in town (no pun intended) with its details on the local harbour and the various vessels which sail up its wide river.
If brutal truth be told, I wouldn’t rush back to Bilbao, but it certainly merits a first visit. Despite coming across as being as dolefully grey as the sky often is in this part of Spain, there are things to see and learn that are of historical and cultural interest. This appeal is further heightened by the unique identity which comes with being the largest city in the politically-controversial and proudly-distinct Basque region.
With beauty being in the eye of the beholder, fully appreciating cities like Milan, Brussels, Vienna and Bilbao might necessitate giving the eyes some time to adjust to their surroundings. My experiences in all four aforementioned destinations have taught me not to judge too quickly, whilst also stimulating a desire to return to places in which I’ve felt underwhelmed on short visits in order to give them a second chance.