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Where to go to get away from London
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Where to go to get away from London

Cat rat race cartoon

I was recently exhibiting symptoms of stress – waking up early after anxiety dreams, not enjoying things I usually enjoy – despite everything being great on paper, and reasoned that London might be part of the problem. (My reasoning was probably partially inspired by Paul Graham’s great article, Cities and Ambition – I concluded that the message London sends out is, you should be part of the Establishment). So I sent out a group email to friends asking them for recommendations as to cheap places to get away to in Europe. Their responses were sufficiently useful and entertaining that I felt I should compile them into a blog post, so here they are.

But first, my original 4 a.m. email, entitled Getting the **** out of London:

Hello better-travelled friends,

I’m coming to the conclusion that London is driving me crazy (I know what you’re thinking: I’ve always been crazy), and am looking to make a few short trips to Europe in the next few months with a view to finding somewhere I could spend a longer period of time in the future. Any recommendations for locations very welcome, e.g. a friend recently went to Lisbon and is waxing lyrical about how chilled it was, but it wasn’t particularly on my radar beforehand.

The criteria are:

a) A cultural antidote to London, i.e. where people aren’t rushing to get somewhere because they’re in competition with each other because house prices are through their own roofs.

2) Cheap to get to and to stay in. So Iceland sounds lovely but if you want a coffee they literally saw your leg off as payment. Literally. Not ideal.

Bear in mind that if I do spend an extended period of time somewhere I’m likely to try to learn some of the language, so please think twice before sending me to, e.g., Hungary. Köszönöm.

I have a passive income, now, and a shit ton of writing to do (I’m rewriting the entire score for my show), and feel that I’d get more and better work done somewhere less busy. I suspect I’d also sleep better, rather than do unhelpful things like go to bed at 23:30, wake up an hour later, not be able to get back to sleep, and so write deranged emails to friends.

Yours insomniacly,

Benedict

P.S. Also single and totally sick of dating, so if anyone knows a woman with a nice big house who’s really good at back massages that would be even better. Own teeth optional. [Ed.: You might be thinking this is a bit much to ask, overlooking the own teeth bit, but someone texted offering exactly this, and the lady has a piano.]

Here are the responses I got, in the order that I got them:

It was fun reducing friends to a nationality and a profession (if I had include myself I’d put international serial genius). For context, I should say that I and most of my friends are in their 30’s, but a couple of people on the list are in their 20’s or 40’s.

Lebanese construction company CEO

From what I gather Lisbon is the place to go, its chill, warm, cheap, charming, laid back, and young.

I have not been yet and plan on going very soon. I recently spent a month as a quasi-monk in an ashram in India, it was a transformative experience.. away from all the madness 🙂

Do let me know what you end up doing.

Lots of love from [beautiful village overlooking Beirut]

English computer person

To be honest, I’ve never really understood what it is this guy does, but I think it involves The Cloud. At any rate, he gets paid a lot for talking to people and gets to work from wherever he wants as a freelancer, which he makes the most of.

I’m going to suggest Kraków, though it maybe trips up on the language front, not to mention the winter weather front(s), and somewhere in Spain, though I haven’t decided where yet. Maybe Toledo or Valencia or Seville.

I’ll keep thinking about it.

Later:

I can also recommend Cadiz and Santiago, though it might not have enough to hold your interest for months. I should disclose that my relationship with Spain has recently improved, so I could well be overshooting and over-recommending it on the basis of my earlier low opinion. I took a trip to Barcelona in winter with a depressed friend in 2004, and didn’t really enjoy any of it, and I spent a decade imagining Spain as little more than an oversized beach littered with arrogant and ignorant British tourists indulging on the very finest the Costa del Sol could offer them. [Ed.: This description reminds me of the excellent film Sexy Beast.] And that’s not to mention the abomination that is one half of the island of Ibiza.

And it turns out to be nothing much like that. I’ve visited Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Cadiz, Santiago, Seville and Valencia in the last year and found them all to be warm, charming and relaxed. I prefer Barcelona over Madrid, but both are perhaps bigger than you would want, so I would suggest one of the medium-sized cities would strike a good balance between supporting enough interesting culture, diversity and food (and this is important, as cheese, bread and cured meat get tedious after a while), without being too overwhelmingly London-like.

I also started learning Spanish on Duolingo, and was 7% fluent in a week. [Ed.: Check out the Twitter feed, Shit Duo Says.] That’s 1% of fluency a day. In a hundred days you could be entirely fluent, and if anyone disagreed about that, you could show them the figure on the phone app. But the language is pretty easy if you know some French.

Anyway, I hope that helps. I’m hoping to spend more time in Spain this summer.

When I later asked for permission to publish his thoughts, he wrote:

I might have been more verbosely rude about British tourists if I’d known it was going anonymously into a blog!

Dutch private equity person

Mother lives in France somewhere.

Lisbon is lovely, go there
I like France, Lyon, Bordeaux, etc
South of Italy, i.e. Puglia and Tuscany
Copenhagen
Stockholm in summer
Madrid
Bruge and Ghent

Tuscany makes me think of this sketch from The Armando Iannucci Shows. I’m worried that all my references are comedies featuring cockney thugs. Another one.

Hungarian counsellor/interior designer

Fluent in Hungarian, German, Russian, English, Italian, Spanish, and maybe some other languages.

Hmmmm, if you so carefully excluded the Budapest suggestion (which is cheap, absolutely beautiful, in the very middle of europe and sooo easy to get to by air, danube or any means on land, and has a decent cultural and music scene, lovely people and amazing food….just saying) then i would say northern italy (especially Bologna – soo underrated!!!!!!! – or Milano) or my favourite place in the world, florence. For Florence, i would strongly recommend a back-up plan for the summer tourist season. Anyway, Italy is unbeatable ( seriously, just forget Spain, Greece and Portugal….real art and life is Italy!). My other european fav is Munich; whilst coffe prices arent icelandic it is an expansive city (e.g. property, still quite a bit cheaper than london though). Hamburg is quite cool. [Ed.: I have an ex who lives in Hamburg, so maybe not.] I dont like Berlin, but its a polarising place. Stay away from bratislava (its tiny and dead boring after a day) and i find prague maddeningly touristy and Vienna awfully pretentious and burgeoise (dont even get me started on switzerland….literally everything, including pizza-delivery closes at 6 pm). As far as Spain or the Netherlands go, i am the wrong person to talk to, can bear it for a week, but dont like it, brhhhhh, really-really don’t like it. Nobody honestly likes Brussels [ed.: true], and other belgian towns tend to be tiny. Salzburg is nice but small, very desirable if you can ski…. My mother fell in love with Madrid and we usually like the same things (god only knows how she picked my father…), but i have never been. I personally wasnt mad about Lisbon or Barcelona (people always suggest Barcelona, especially the English [ed.: this is borne out by the rest of this article], guess they like the name). If you can pick up a light Balkan beat, Split is amazing (Dubrovnik again is too much of a tourist facade only). I guess St Petersburg (lovely) and Moscow (no big improvement in terms of pace of life compared to london, but well, my 2nd hometown and i love it…and the music…) is out due to visa issues.
Your faithful comrade in insomnia,
[Y]

German artist

Good morning! A conversation better had in person I feel but hey! It’s 6am and I woke up with a nightmare about [redacted for comic effect] so answering your email seems propitious. The following are my thoughts on the subject which I have naturally had on my own account and are therefore to be taken with the proviso that I am of course German.

Less urban locations or smaller less metropolitan cities are significantly less expensive for all things and if the goal is peace to work and there is no necessity to find immediate high quality employment I would consider the possibility of a beautiful small town such as Cadiz or another place on the Spanish or Portuguese coast such as the algarve. I have visited Lisbon three times last year so fair to say I did like it, however it is not an easy place to make friends [ed.: especially if you’re German], people tend to have friends from childhood and stick with them and at our age they are usually married with children. [The German artist is 3 years older than me and I resent being put into the same age bracket as her.] But this aside there’s always foreigners to meet and over time one will make friends. This problem is to a greater or lesser extend the case wherever you go. So this will be somewhat mitigated by going to Berlin or even Munich but the latter is expensive for housing. Berlin offers the benefits of an easy going life style with close countryside and all the urban pleasures with cheap rents and a whole cohort of recent arrivals to befriend. German women also have the hots for a nice English accent so that might stand you in good stead. [Ed.: Noted.] Stranger places are available such as east Brandenburg and parts of Saxony where you can buy a house and grounds for 10K. But you would certainly require a car and a high degree of tolerance. [Ed.: I have neither.] Other cities I have enjoyed are of course Barcelona and more recently Bilbao which is a stunningly beautiful place with all the culture you could want and a recently collapsed housing market making renting affordable. The Spanish people there appeared warm open and helpful and I don’t imagine making friends there would prove difficult. You are also very close to the beach and some beautiful countryside. Cantabria nearby has more cows per head of population than any other place in Central Europe. [Ed.: I’m sold.] So there, that’s my contribution. Though I would say that spring is coming and you’re bound to feel better about things soon…

English artist/photographer

Hey Sir!

That’s a really wonderful and incredibly understandable email type message.

I think Lisbon will be very much worth exploring ( even though I’ve never been ). But also……. I just came back from Torino ( Turin ) and it was bloomin very very great. Also!!!!!!! I just realised that they have a massive secret palace, [ed.: maybe not so secret now that I’ve published this blog post] in the Center of town, which is set up permanently as a club just for writers to write in all day ( I shit you not ). My good friend [Mr. X] runs the entire cultural world over there and could set you up with every kind of good thing. I’m not joking it is really worth checking out.

Also, I can connect you to a whole host of incredible ancient beautiful villas and castles, just outside of Torino.

It is a good thing.

Let me know if you would like me to put you in touch.

( below is an iPhone snap of a spare castle of a friend of [X’s] that we visited )

Castle in Torino

I wrote back, saying that this all sounded great.

Hey,

But, actually, it is true, they have allocated a whole big chunk of a proper palace, just for writers to write in.

It used to be for artists, but they kicked them all out and now allocate it to writers. Because they, more often, tend to be far better human beings.

Its very glorious and right in the middle of town.

As another English artist friend commented when I read him the email, Gosh a spare castle, always good just in case the first one breaks.

German interior designer/gallerist

WhatsApp conversation.

ID:

Benedict love

Just read your email

Didn’t I tell you about my plan this year, to find my second place outside of London

Here’s the list of places I want to visit so far:

Argentario, Tuscany
Lanzarote
Sardegna
San Remo
Alassio
Genova
Andalusia
Napoli
Amalfi coast
Lisbon
Olhao
Zahara de los Atunes

Also discussed Puglia with [Lebanese consultant and Italian banker]

I’ll try to go on short trips to these places this year. Feel free to come along

Much love from Berlin

me:

No, you didn’t mention it! Zwei Dumme…

That’s quite a long list. I’ll Google them one by one.

Hadn’t even heard of Olhao.

ID:

I’ve just asked around and that’s what people tell me

me:

My friend [German artist], who you met at my party, said that I’d be more likely to make friends in Berlin than in Lisbon, and that German women have the hots for guys with English accents [ed.: told you I’d noted it], but I’m guessing Berlin is not the best place to unplug.

ID:

It’s also not warm

Think of old age

It’s either Southern Europe or Florida

me:

Fuck Florida.

Scottish big data consultant

… of Chinese descent who has a Croatian boyfriend (that should narrow it down).

Zagreb is lovely. Way before I met the boy I went there and thought it was the perfect place to stay for a few months and write. Croatian is hard but lots of people speak English.

Edinburgh/Glasgow – biased but I love Scotland. So good on many levels and v not London. [Ed.: No-one else suggested Scotland. Just saying’.]

Tallinn – gorgeous, affordable, hipster, English.

And totally agree on Lisbon – amazing.

Spanish psychiatrist

Barcelona

In explanation of his short answer, he and his partner have just had a baby and he’s taken over his partner’s work in addition to his own, as his partner’s another Spanish psychiatrist. I believe their baby is also a Spanish psychiatrist.

English academic

Lives in Edinburgh, and has never lived in London, in fact, so is semi-disqualified from having an opinion. The fact that he’s an academic makes him fully disqualified. Note that he doesn’t recommend Edinburgh, Scottish big data consultant.

Sorry to hear that you’re out of sorts. (In terms of recommendations I’d probably opt for Barcelona, or perhaps a Greek island at this time of year.)

He added more later:

I agree with Split over Dubrovnik; it feels like more of a living city. I would go there to write (although I’d probably just end up sitting in a harbourside cafe eating ice cream). I like Ljubljana but I’m not sure I’d want to spend months there. I was less keen on Zagreb, which I thought had a relatively poor ratio of interest to size.

Dutch finance person

Yes I second Lisbon – amazing, nice weather, great food and not expensive.
Of course I also have to recommend Amsterdam – v easy to get to (tons of flights!), everyone speaks great English.. you’ve been right?‎ [Ed.: Wrong.] For prolonged stay you could even consider Haarlem, small town nearby which is supposed to be cute + cheaper than Amsterdam (but don’t know it that well)

Bosnian big data consultant

By text:

A friend of mine in Sarajevo lives in a 3 bedroom flat by herself. And she also has a piano and takes piano lessons. She also sent me a photo of a baby goat this morning from her parents’ cottage [Ed.: Baby goat!]

Baby goat

She says you’re welcome to stay at hers in Sarajevo 😊

This is her instagram – probably easiest to connect that way if you fancy a host with a piano and baby goats in Sarajevo. [Ed.: Yes and yes.]

Chinese-Malaysian consultant

She studied in Boston and last year abandoned London to move back there where she recently bought a house.

Oh dear. What happened?

As you know, you are always welcome in Boston. But it probably fails your cheap to get to criteria. Though I’d argue you need to consider total cost of getaway.

In Europe, it depends on the season. Summer is inordinately expensive everywhere, so a cottage in English countryside (or perhaps Irish?). [Ed.: My parents are Irish, which is probably why she suggested this. However, food prices in rural Ireland are higher than they are in Central London.] I personally think staycations are underrated. Devon is beautiful, and you can often find bed and breakfasts at reasonable cost. [Ed.: The English artist also suggested Devon in conversation, where he’s from.] Otherwise Eastern Europe is not a bad option – most people do speak English there, still relatively cheap, and lots of cheap flights. Coast of Croatia, e.g. Pula, Roving, etc on the istrian peninsula. Bulgaria on the Black Sea, I’m personally fond of ex Yugoslavia, so Belgrade, and I hear Ljubljana in Slovenia is beautiful.

In the shoulder seasons, more classic locations are cheap, e.g. Majorca. Portugal (Lisbon, Porto) are really nice. Mainland Greece (avoiding expensive islands also cool – meteora was a favourite – you can go visit the Byzantine monasteries when you get bored of writing. Cyprus I hear is like Greece but cheaper, and also on an island. I also loved the Dalaman coast in turkey, and it’s really cheap there. You may be able to find some kind of school or summer camp where you teach English for a small length of time and write the rest. [Ed.: I can’t be bothered to teach English.] Also good for vegetarians (Eastern Europe not so much…). [Ed.: Good point. I’d forgotten about this.]

But really, your best bet is to come visit me :). Spring is beautiful here.

Boston is full of Americans.

German innovation consultant

Amalfi coast

Rome … ?

English cycling consultant

Yes, that is a thing. Also an ex-finance guy and chair of a charity. Fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian.

When you’ve cracked the code please let me know !

I tease myself with thoughts of Tuscan / provencal escape from time to time , imaging an apartment in Avignon or Florence and the fields of lavender / vines etc in clear sight

I’d be tempted by the warmer climates , but that’s obv a personal thing . Some German cities my sources tell me are just the ticket – actually been to Hamburg a couple of times recently and if you were born there you’d probably stay . [Ed.: Ex.] Which has generally been my view that lucky those born outside london who have somewhere to return with affordable houses and not daft commutes & no need for a city of londons size

Madrid is an obvious one to try , a little chilly for my taste long term but I gather they have heating so I guess one shouldn’t overly worry . Other northern places like Bergen seem to be full of smiling types [Ed.: Not sure if this is meant to be a good or bad thing.]

Spain is jolly but they do like to fry their food rather

And generally I’d stick with europe , rule of law, basic functioning infrastructure, that sort of thing

V interested to know which cities win the poll !

I wrote saying that I was considering publishing the responses in a blog post.

You should !

I have a good friend in Copenhagen, Danish, she’s gone back there after 10 years in london and predictably is bored misses london etc

Actually one more I suspect up there is Amsterdam. Shilly akschentsh but otherwise not a bad spot [Ed.: I still associate the Dutch language with this TV clip.]

When I remembered I’d met the Danish friend:

She is slumming it in an absolutely stunning apartment in Copenhagen, vast, beautiful, right in the centre, for the price of a london cupboard

Lebanese consultant and Italian banker

Goldman Sachs/McKinsey couple. Not as terrible as that makes them sound. From a conversation in the back of a taxi:

Palermo and Catania. … Catania is falling apart but has great energy.

When I told them I was going to Barcelona:

Don’t go to Barcelona. It has great culture and nightlife but is very money-driven, like London.

And when I mentioned the idea of rural areas being more rooted in tradition that cities:

Apparently inland Sardinia is like that.

Derek Sivers

Derek is a writer, founder of CD Baby, and veteran traveller. He wrote the article on Iceland linked to in my email. I sent him this blog post and these were his thoughts:

Depending on whether you feel your life needs more variety or has enough variety already, it might be interesting to find one town somewhere that you return to regularly and stay at the same AirBNB. I think we often look for novelty but forget about the benefits of having another place that feels like an alternate home – and getting to know it well. Because cities tend to homogenize, a small town would be a better contrast to your London life. Like imagine flying to Faro Portugal, and catching a train to the far west or far east Algarves, and making that your regular getaway.

British investment person

I don’t entirely understand what this person does for a living, but he makes a fair bit of money and knows a hell of a lot about things like robotics and blockchain. After reading this blog post:

I’d have suggested get a VR headset and go away in between the pixels. Leave London without leaving it!

Canadian consultant

Another late addition

I just read the entire post and am fascinated. Your writing reminds me of how lucky I am to know your / our friends and could instantly pick out [X, Y and Z] … it can’t be all bad for London if that’s where I met them all!

[…]

I would have suggested Strasbourg, Liechtenstein and Lausanne. Places near mountains are good for the lungs and the heart.

Final, unscientific tally

Romance countries

Italy

Spain

Portugal

  • Lisbon (about 8 up-votes, and 1 down-vote, and 1 neutral, although a couple of people hadn’t actually been there and this is all skewed by me mentioning it in my email)
  • The Algarve (incl. Olhão) (3 votes)
  • Porto

France

Northern Europe

Holland

Belgium

Denmark

Sweden

Norway

  • Bergen (if you like smiley people)

Central Europe

Germany

Austria

Switzerland

Hungary

Poland

Lichtenstein

The -ia’s

Croatia

Russia

Bosnia

Bulgaria

Estonia

Serbia

Slovenia

Eastern Mediterranean

Greece

Cyprus

Turkey

English-speaking places, and Glasgow

Scotland

England

Ireland?

The Interwebs

VR

Closing thoughts

In summary, Italy and Spain got the most votes, followed by Germany and (to my surprise, at least) Croatia. Portugal and France didn’t do that badly either. Barcelona and Berlin win prizes for being most controversial cities. I’ve been to both but that makes me want to explore them more. Some places never really passed the inclusion criteria (e.g. Moscow is miles away and costs a bomb), but others sound like they might be pleasant discoveries (e.g. Tallinn).

So what am I going to do with this information? Well, I had to say yes to the (no longer) secret palace in the centre of Turin which is a set up as a club for writers, and I also said yes to a friend who invited me to join her on a trip to Barcelona for Easter. Apart from that, I’m now even more intrigued by Lisbon, I feel like I could spend a summer travelling through Spain, and I have a new list of Eastern European cities to check off. Plus that baby goat is really cute.

I also got some insight into why I was feeling so bad when I sent that email when I went on a walk with a friend the other day. There are the obvious global problems with London – Brexit means that the economy is tanking, and rising inequality means that creatives are getting priced out of the capital – but there’s also the personal issue that I was in a long-term relationship in my 20’s and am now single. We were both working towards goals, as a couple, actually achieved all of them, but they didn’t turn out the way we expected, of course, and now I’m reflecting that a large part of what makes a city liveable is hope. I need to hang around more young people.