Eclectic, dirty, quirky and – for a European capital – surprisingly scruffy. This city reminds me of a bric-à-brac shop, where a precious artefact, a piece of useless junk, an item of modern tat and a neglected masterpiece lie side to side on a moth-ravaged, dusty piece of felt. Dust being the one substance that binds rubbish and treasures together. Dust seems to cover every street with a yellowish powder that stings the back of my throat.
The cobbled streets are strewn with food wrapping, plastic bags, the occasional sack of rubbish, and a myriad of cigarette buts that makes you wonder if news of the widespread European smoking ban ever reached these shores.
For a Nanny-State accustomed Brit, the nonchalant attitude towards health and safety measures is also initially shocking. I have walked along stretches of street that are totally unlit – because of works or some other reason – and there are no security lights or warning signs to stop you tripping over. I guess this is a city that assumes its inhabitants have enough common sense to find their own way in the dark, just as it takes it for granted that train passengers can see for themselves the wide gorge between the carriage and the platform, and feels no urge to warn anyone to “mind the gap”.
When you first walk across the city, you feel as though you’re entering a junk shop where, at first glance, there is nothing but the smell of damp, dust, and the colour of all the merchandise a kind of uniform, weary sepia-grey. It’s up to you whether you turn on your heels and walk straight out again, or if you sneeze, wince, venture in, and start picking up one object after another, rubbing some of the dust off with your hands, and examining it carefully. Someone once told me that this city was “Europe’s best-kept secret” so, like all secrets, you need to dig through cobwebs in order to uncover it.
Look up from the grimy, uneven pavements towards the hazy sky and you will notice that every single building has an architectural detail that distinguishes it from its neighbours. You’ll see a row of Art Nouveau apartment blocks that look identical from a distance but, if you walk up closer, you’ll see that every balcony has slightly different ironwork, that every window has a slightly different frame, and every rooftop a quirk of its own. Every building is crafted to tell a story – and a unique one at that. Suddenly, a stone Virgin and Child smiles down at you from an alcove on a street corner, or above a doorway. The gothic spires that rise above the skyline seem amused rather than arrogant about their status.
Every street is a distinct individual here. There are hardly any anonymous chains. Every brasserie, restaurant and bookshop is a character in its own right, and quietly proud of it.
There is quiet pride and obvious care in the way food and drink are served. Every hot drink comes with a biscuit or a sliver of cake. Hot chocolate generally arrives at your table in two parts – a glass of hot milk, and a cupful of chocolate chips next to it, with a long spoon for you to mix to your taste. Or else, you’re given a kind of solid chocolate lollipop on a wooden stick, for you to immerse into the milk and stir until melted. Every glass of ice-cold beer (and, after sampling the Trappist monks’ nectar you’re unlikely ever agree to drink another pint in England) comes with a small bowl of pretzels. Moreover, every beer is served in its own specially appointed crystal-clear, gleaming glass.
We have six months to try out this city. My hands may get filthy from digging but I have the feeling there’ll be a treasure chest at the bottom.
* Please also see last year’s posts.