Culture

How to Have European Mini Break without Leaving London

Coronavirus has cancelled our holiday plans. Could I recreate a trip to Amsterdam, Paris or Lisbon from home?
21 July 2020, 8:15am
graffiti in london
The author, posing with some graffiti, like a tourist

Thanks to COVID-19, the UK Foreign Office is advising against all but essential travel, and no one should be heading abroad this summer. Sorry to be glib, but it’s true! Holidays as we knew them before the pandemic are over. No more galavanting around Europe, sloshed on red wine and al fresco pasta. Those pizza-flavoured crisps you can only get on the continent? Cancelled. Bye bye. C'est la vie.

But what if there was another way?

Since travelling is off the cards this summer, I wondered if there was a way to recreate the holiday experience without actually leaving London. Would it be possible to recreate the atmosphere of the Costa Del Sol on the banks of the River Thames? Absolutely not! But attempting to live out the closest experience as possible to several different European cities would make for a far more cultured summer than slopping around my lounge, debating whether to watch another TV show or maybe a movie this time on Netflix.

What Your Pandemic Holiday Says About You

I had several cities in mind – and in advance of heading out to “experience” them, I asked residents of the cities for their tips on how to recreate the ultimate tourist experience, without doing any non-foot travel. Think of this like a travel guide, but for those in London who are bored and yearning for more, and don’t mind doing some walking or cycling to live the closest thing possible to culture.

First up, Amsterdam.

AMSTERDAM!

Amsterdam postcard

Some fun facts about ‘Dam:

– It’s one of the quickest flights to a European capital from London, clocking in a little over an hour.

– Amsterdam got its name from the Amstel River, which is the name of a good (fight me?) beer.

– Because much of the Netherlands is extremely close to sea level – and Amsterdam itself is built on clay – the city is supposedly supported by 11 million wooden poles, helping the buildings stay up.

fritessaus_!!! (See below)._

Photographer Bob Foster and I headed out bright and early to Carpe Diem the shit out of our European holiday experience. I wanted to recreate the feeling of being awake for hours, but still lugging yourself around the city on little more than sandwiches – and so I walked the distance from my house to Holland Park, in west London, which took over an hour.

Holland Park is London’s best park (again: fight me??) because it is a) fucking gorgeous; and b) has a live-in, and also fucking gorgeous, peacock. There is no relation whatsoever to Amsterdam, which is in North Holland, beside the name – but hey, so it goes. We keep on living.

Flowers, Holland Park

Flowers that are not tulips in the Holland Park flower garden.

Activity-wise, my Dutch pals suggested “cycling, smoking a joint and sitting outside a bar on a terrace to have a beer.” They also said: “Maybe go to a field of tulips and pretend you're there?” And so, this is how I landed in Holland Park’s flower garden, among fauna that are ostensibly not tulips, but could be, if you imagine hard enough.

Amsterdam, Holland Park

The author enjoying Holland (Park).

After tooting on the shredded lettuce, it came to me that being shadowed by a photographer with no outward purpose, in boujee west London no less, probably signposted me as some weird, grinning influencer. This was an insight into the mildly interesting introspection you have after smoking some weed, which is what people go to Amsterdam to do when they still haven’t moved out of their parents' house.

Dutch food

Next stop on the Amsterdam culture tour was food. A Dutch colleague suggested picking up some “Dutch pancakes, stroopwafels, drop (a sort of liquorice), (Gouda) cheese and of course space cake.” Couldn’t find the first or last one in Whole Foods sadly, but managed to get a variation on the rest, which I ate on the side of the road.

Dutch food

The author enjoying an array of Dutch snacks, sadly missing a space cake.

To the haters out there, I seriously recommend reviewing your standpoint on liquorice because it bangs. It’s also good for the stomach, relieving symptoms such as acid reflux, upset stomach and heartburn. On this snack, Amsterdam rules. But it still wasn’t enough. I wanted more. More culture.

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And so, like every tourist in Europe looking for culture but ultimately failing, I ended up in the local McDonald's. It’s a good bit of kit – McD's. You know what you’re getting, and yet there are slight territorial differences. In Finland, they do wings. In Australia, frozen coke. The Netherlands speciality is fritessaus – a type of mayonnaise and basically joy in a pot. Love it. Obviously, we couldn’t get fritessaus in the UK, but the point is: if you want to do Amsterdam but in London, all you need to do is get stoned, look at some flowers, get a McD's and then have a nap.

LISBON!

Lisbon postcard

Some fun facts about Lisbon:

– This lad is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the second oldest European capital after Athens.

– In the olde days of yore, all the coal merchants owned a pet crow (?) which was named Vincente (?) after the saint. The crow has since become the symbol of the city, appearing on its flag.

– There’s a Jesus Christ statue that is essentially a rip-off of the same one in Rio De Janeiro

From Amsterdam, we headed to Lisbon, capital of Portugal. For this round, we stayed in west London but ventured north east, toward Notting Hill, then further down Portobello Road toward Ladbroke Grove.

Though the area is known for its celebration of West Indian and Black British culture during the annual Notting Hill carnival, it’s also home to a couple of European communities. Back up toward Notting Hill gate and you’ve got a smattering of Italian owned and run cafes and restaurants.

Jarritos

Jarritos, a Mexican soda.

On Portobello, there are a couple of things straight from Spain – like the Spanish supermarket Garcia’s, where I purchased Jarritos (a Mexican soda which comes in many, many flavours) and a bottle of Cholula hot sauce in a flavour that you’re not gonna get from Tesco. I’d recommend coming here when you’ve got some free time – perhaps as a special trip, to get some bits for dinner.

However, among the many different vibes, we were ultimately here to experience Lisbon and by extension Portugal. To do this, you can head to Portobello Road (i.e., Porto, as in Porto, as in the city in Portugal). But the best place you really need to head is Golborne Road. Golborne Road is full of Portuguese restaurants, shops and cafes, with names like Cafe O’Porto and Lisboa Delicatessen.

chocolate milk

Portuguese chocolate milk – not to be mixed with sangria.

A friend suggested we try some Portuguese manufactured chocolate milk, which I picked up from Cafe O’Porto. It was nice, but it would probably have been nicer if a shop down the road wasn’t selling sangria – one of the national drinks of Portugal and Spain – which I also “sampled”.

Sangria

I was shattered from spending the last four hours traversing both Amsterdam and Lisbon, via Italy and Spain. Heat blasted down on us, on one of the hottest days of the year, and so I retreated home for a sleep, vowing to return to Europe later in the week for one more visit. After all, as any seasoned city break traveller knows, a weekend away usually involves one full day, and then one semi-present half-day, hungover mooching around somewhere else. And so, that’s what we did.

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PARIS!

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Some fun facts about Paris:

– You can get a beer in McDonald's.

– The city’s “motto” is ‘Fluctuat Ner Mergitur’, which means "rocked, but does not sink”.

– There are five (five!) Statues of Liberty in Paris.

For the final instalment of my Euro break, I headed to La Ville-Lumière – the city of light – Paris. Kicking things off once again in west London, I headed to what Vogue has described as Little Paris. Situated in South Kensington, it’s home to the French embassy, French Lycée, and several French shops and cafes .

On a normal day, you could probably get a bit of French leaning tourism in here. But in COVID times, everything was shut and the French flag above the embassy was rolled up, and so was the EU flag – a sign of the times.

France

Struggling for stuff to do, we asked a French colleague for some suggestions of how to recreate the true Parisian experience, but in London. They said: “Watch videos of Parisian monuments: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower. Drink Pastis and play pétanque [a lawn game similar to boules] in the sun and eat snails or frogs' legs, of course.”

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This bottle of wine was the closest thing we could find to Pastis in Tesco. Pastis is a traditional French aperitif, and wine is wine, so not very close at all TBH, but the wine was French, and it did taste better than Echo Falls vinegary piss.

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Bob and I drank the bottle while indulging in some high-brow thinking from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre – bliss!

And with that, my Euro tour was over. Of course, visiting London's continental corners was no substitute for experiencing culture firsthand – the atmosphere of touching down in a new city would never be the same. But it is possible to sample Europe from London, through the medium of snacks and drinks, if you want it enough.

With museums and cinemas locked off, as well as restaurants on the day I “flew out”, my Euro experience was relegated to a few things, like cycling, walking and indulging in food and drink outside. But aren’t those the components of the European holiday experience anyway? Some wine on a pavement; a random snack from a supermarket, a little bit of tête-à-tête in a park in a slightly warmer climate than usual, before grabbing an Easyjet flight home on Sunday eve.

The adventure would never fully replicate the countless number of holidays that have been cancelled this summer. Of course it couldn’t! But what else are you going to do with the next few weekends?? The world is closed, and remains mostly shut. These little pockets of London are all we have right now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you haven’t been to them, then go. Don’t tell me you don’t have the time.

@ryanbassil