England is gearing up for a great patriotic battle this summer. No, not those tedious EU trade negotiations, but something far more important: the UEFA European Football Championship, aka Euro 2020.
The World Cup may be more glamorous, but team for team, game for game, the Euros is a better contest. The World Cup includes a lot of also-rans and the winners are always big hitters. In the Euros, anyone can beat anyone and anyone can win it: Denmark in 1992, Greece in 2004…
Like the World Cup, the Euros are usually hosted by one nation (remember Football’s Coming Home, when England were hosts in 1996?) but this year, for the first time, UEFA have shared out the matches between a dozen cities in a dozen countries.
There are always a few lager louts at England games but, having trekked along to countless matches over the last forty years, I’ve found most football fans are eager to explore new places – not just the bars and nightclubs, but the cultural attractions too.
So if you’re going to one of these cities for the football, what else should you see while you’re there? Here’s my pick of the top host cities for sight-seeing:
Forget the Coffee Shops (full of backpackers) and the Red Light District (full of stag parties). Why waste your time smoking dope or gawping at bored women in shop windows when you can marvel at some of the greatest artworks ever made? Check out the Mondriaans in the Stedelijk Museum, the Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum, the marvellous Van Gogh Museum and the atmospheric Rembrandthuis, where Rembrandt lived and worked. If you’re feeling robust, pay a visit to the Anne Frankhuis, where Anne Frank hid and wrote her diary. It’ll lift your spirits and then break your heart.
Everyone raves about the Guggenheim and they’re quite right: Frank Gehry’s futuristic gallery is one of the wonders of the modern world. But although the building is an amazing artwork, it’s usually swarming with sightseers. Locals prefer the Fine Arts Museum, a sedate gallery in a pretty park with paintings by Spanish masters like Goya, El Greco, Murillo and Ribera. Even if you’re not into art, Bilbao is a super city – less touristy than nearby San Sebastian and a lot more gutsy, the perfect place to sample Basque culture and cuisine.
A century ago Bucharest used to be nicknamed Little Paris, but it was on the wrong side in the Second World War and ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Allied bombers began the demolition and Ceausescu did the rest. However the historic city centre is lively and attractive and although the Romanian capital is still a work in progress, since the end of the Cold War it’s enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. There are Old Masters in the Royal Palace and modern artworks in Ceausescu’s Palace of the Parliament – a monstrosity well worth seeing, the biggest parliament building in the world.
‘Where East meets West’ may be a corny cliché, but in the case of Budapest it happens to be true. It’s only a few hours drive from Vienna and today it’s an easy journey, but when I first came here in the early Eighties it felt like another world. I never thought that, just a few years later, the border between Hungary and Austria would open up again, signalling the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Twin capital of the Habsburg Empire, Budapest is just as majestic as Vienna. Take a walk along the Danube to get a flavour of the city, then sweat it off in one of Budapest’s magnificent thermal baths.
Copenhagen isn’t a spectacular city and nor does it pretend to be. It doesn’t seem to feature on anyone’s bucket list of places to see before they die. Yet I’ve never been anywhere where I felt so at home, so envious of the folk who live there. It may be an illusion, but everyone looks so comfortable, so contented. And even if living there remains a dream, it’s still a wonderful place to spend a weekend. The place I like best is the National Gallery, with its mesmeric array of Danish and Nordic artists, artists you rarely see in Britain. Look out for the haunting paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi.
Like the worst sort of travel snob, I used to turn my nose up at the Guinness Brewery, mainly because it was so popular. Finally, I went along and had a fantastic time. The building is extraordinary and the food and drink are excellent: the best oysters I’ve ever tasted – and of course the Guinness is first rate. However there’s lots of other stuff to do in Dublin besides sinking pints of stout. The Gate and Abbey theatres are bastions of Irish drama, and there are loads of superb museums scattered around the city, most notably the Museum of Archaeology with its exquisite Celtic and Viking artefacts.
Fine Art probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Glasgow, but Scotland’s biggest city boasts some of Britain’s best galleries. The one I like best of all is Kelvingrove, located in a leafy park in the West End of the city. The building is flamboyant but the ambience is friendly and informal. The collection is stunning, everything from Scottish Colourists to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Don’t miss Joan Eardley’s tender portraits of Glaswegian street children, and Dali’s hypnotic Christ on the Cross.
Avoid the city centre Bierkellers, especially when there’s a game on. They’re generally full of coach parties. If the weather is fine, head for the Englischer Garten and sink a few Weissbiers at the Chinesischer Turm. If you fancy something more cultural try the Lenbachhaus, a grand old villa with a fabulous collection of German Expressionists. The café in Norman Foster’s new extension is a fashionable rendezvous. However, the best thing about Munich is its proximity to the foothills of the Alps. Catch a local train to Hersching for a stroll beside the Amersee, one of Bavaria’s loveliest lakes.
St Petersburg is a strange, intoxicating city – a seductive, disconcerting place, like the landscape of a dream. Founded by Peter the Great as his ‘window on the west,’ it still feels stranded between two worlds. From a distance it looks palatial, but up close the glamour seems superficial – an enormous film set, built for the greatest epic never made. The must-see sight is the Hermitage, with its incredible collection of old and modern masters: Impressionists, Post Impressionists, Picasso’s Absinthe Drinker, Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son… To escape the city take a trip to the Peterhof Palace with its waterfalls and fountains, Peter the Great’s florid equivalent of Versailles.