York

When I stepped out of the train station in York, I was stunned – not by the city itself but by the icy wind mocking the bright blue sky and every daffodil pretending that winter was over. Once I had pulled my scarf a little tighter and put on a cap, I could see what the cold had hidden until then: York is beautiful. Almost like a dream.

To take as much of York’s beauty in as possible, I decided to join one of the free walking tours leaving outside York Art Gallery. My train had arrived early enough to give me plenty of time to get a coffee, eat a banana and frighten a few pigeons who thought they had a right to approach and pester me. Randomly stomping my feet whenever they got too close wasn’t as effective as I had hoped, though. I was quite glad when it was time to meet up for the tour and leave the little feathered beasts behind.

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York is so full of history, I’d have felt almost ridiculously young even if my tour buddies hadn’t been a group of 60-somethings visibly shocked to see a 23-year-old interested in things that existed hundreds and thousands of years before she was born. So much about prejudices. Apart from that, the walking tour was fun. While the oldies needed to rest, completely out of breath after walking the city walls, I could take my time to look for odd little things nobody else seemed to notice, like the tiny owl sculpture sitting outside a windowsill and mice carved into an old wooden door.

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Tiny owl is watching you…
The tour ended on Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. This isn’t a joke shop or anything, it’s a proper street name. Imagine having this as your address. From there, it’s just a few steps to get to The Shambles, the most famous place in the maze of twisting medieval lanes and alleys at the heart of York. It’s probably also the narrowest street in there: in some spots, it’s possible to touch the houses on both sides of the street with your arms outstretched, and many of the houses are so crooked that their upper part leans dangerously far towards their opposite neighbours. This must be the muggle-sibling of Diagon Alley – I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to find a wand shop amidst all the tiny boutiques and chocolate shops.

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No wands to be found there, sadly. Instead, I probably found the best sandwich ever, stuffed with slow-cooked pulled pork, fresh slaw and an amazing honey mustard sauce leaving bright yellow stains all over my fingers. If you’re ever in York (and you’re not a vegetarian), go to Shambles Kitchen. The guys working there are passionate about what they are doing – you should have seen the look on their faces when they took a large piece of roasted beef out of the oven, cut off a slice and saw that it was perfect: juicy, a delicious shade of pink at the centre, and so tender the knife went through without the slightest effort. It was a look of pure love. And you can taste this love, the food is absolutely amazing.

As is York Minster. I wasn’t sure whether it’d be worth paying £9 just to enter a cathedral, but I did it anyway. And I’m glad I did. The Minster is the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe, and it might well be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Whatever one might think of the Church, these guys definitely knew how to build magnificent places. I’d definitely take advantage of the free guided tours – this way, you get to see all the highlights, and the guides quite literally know everything about the cathedral’s history, whether it’s about a specific statue, one of the gorgeous windows of stained glass or about anything else.

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Chapter House at York Minster
Still in awe, I went to York Art Gallery, which has some great exhibitions on at the moment. One is dedicated to the depiction of flesh, from the naked human body to animal carcasses and fruits (with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Edgar Degas, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Circle of Rembrandt and Francis Bacon) , while another one celebrates British ceramics. Afterwards, I strolled through the museum gardens, where squirrels were chasing each other through the daffodils and crocuses defying the cold. Did I ever mention I like squirrels? Well, I really do.

 

Since my train back wouldn’t leave for another few hours, I used the time to go see Hidden Figures at the City Screen Picturehouse. That was a good decision – the movie is great, and the cinema is much nicer and more comfortable than the Odeon in Lincoln. It was the perfect ending for quite a perfect day.

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City of Beards

Nottingham, the city of Robin Hood.

Or the city of beards?

Ever since I went to Nottingham two weeks ago I tend to believe the second option. I saw a Robin Hood food truck in the city centre, and there was a small exhibition about him at the castle, but that was all; compared to the mass of stylish little shops full of bearded men, that’s nothing. Robin Hood, make place for the true symbol of Nottingham: the well-groomed, bearded gentleman. (I don’t want to claim that facial hair and gentleman-like behaviour are related in any specific way; “bearded gentleman” just has a much nicer ring to it than “bearded bastard”, although the alliteration certainly has its appeal…)

Anyway, enough about beards.

I honestly didn’t know much about Nottingham before I went there, and if it hadn’t been for a concert I desperately wanted to see I probably wouldn’t have gone there any time soon. People tell you to go to London, Liverpool, Manchester, York, but no one ever seems to recommend Nottingham. That’s a shame — it’s a fun city with lots of really cool places to discover.

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Cappucino at 200 Degrees Coffee Shop
For example, 200 Degrees Coffee Shop. My Couchsurfing host Jake (a bearded barber, by the way) suggested this as a meeting point, and since I could really do with some caffeine and a croissant after the rather tiresome train and bus ride, I gladly let Google Maps take me there. The café is housed in a gorgeous 17th century coaching inn, and it’s just about as cool as a coffee shop can get. There’s dark wood panelling on the walls and a massive old fireplace, and there are a lot of simple wooden tables all over the place where hipsters and a few normal people sit around with their laptops or simply enjoy a cup of coffee with friends. And the coffee and the food are absolutely delicious.

Anyone who likes pancakes should stop by at The Pudding Pantry. It’s a cute, bright café with white and pastel coloured interiors that serves amazing pancakes in every variation you can think of: Classic with maple syrup and butter, with blueberry compote, with peanut butter and banana, with bacon, with chocolate, with cream and fresh fruit. The scrambled eggs and zucchini fritters also looked great, and everything is prepared freshly and with love.

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Super fluffy pancakes with blueberry jam and cream.
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The Pudding Pantry
 

There are also some pretty amazing art galleries. The fabulous P Spowage Art Gallery is — surprise! — next door to a barbershop on Byard Lane. It spreads over several floors and 10 rooms, each of them with a different style or theme: one room is full of simple, powerful img_8565paintings showing silhouettes of people on white canvas, the next one shows bright, colourful animal portraits, and another one showcases impressionistic watercolour cityscapes. Most paintings are by Pete Spowage, but he also rents out rooms to other artists. That day, two of them were just working on their latest pieces and told me about their art while letting me watch them, which was really fascinating.img_8569

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Nottingham Contemporary is another great gallery. At the moment, it shows Marguerite Humeau’s brilliant exhibition FOXP2. In a way, it is one of the strangest art installations I’ve seen so far: the first part is a sound installation in a dark corridor simulating the moment when the gene FOXP2 mutated and triggered the development of language, while the second part can be described as a luminous “biological showroom” full of huge white sculptures of mourning elephants, the only colour in the room being a pastel shade of pink here and there to make it feel a bit less sterile and laboratory-like. That sounds weird, I know, but it doesn’t feel weird at all when you hear and see it.

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Biological Showroom FOXP2
Hockley, the creative and “hip” part of Nottingham, is great for strolling around without aimg_8593 plan. There are loads of brilliant vintage shops, small galleries, lovely cafés and weird pubs. Additionally, there’s Broadway Cinema, one of the best independent cinemas in the region (I wish we had something like that in Lincoln). And, just a few steps down the road, there’s Rough Trade, the legendary independent record store originally from London. I don’t even have a record player, but there’s something about record stores that magically pulls me towards them. Rough Trade is especially dangerous because they’ve got a tremendously nice selection of books there, too.

Since I’ve already mentioned books: There’s a multi-storey Waterstones in the city centre, but even better is Five Leaves Bookshop, a small and charming independent shop specialising in politics, psychology, LGBT and international literature. You’ll find classics and bestsellers there alongside carefully selected quirky and little-known fiction and non-fiction works, and it’s by far too easy to forget the time in there while browsing through the shelves.

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Nottingham Castle
Last but not least, there’s Nottingham Castle, easily the most famous attraction of the city — and that even though the castle no longer exists! The original castle (built on orders of William the Conqueror in 1067) was destroyed in the 17th century, but shortly afterwards the Duke of Newcastle had the Ducal Palace built on the site. This then was set on fire during riots in 1837 and later remodelled into a museum for fine art.

 

The permanent exhibition of portraits and landscapes shows a beautiful selection of artworks from local, national and international artists living and working between the 12th and the 20th century. Additionally, there’s an exhibition about Robin Hood and one about the riots, and there are a number of temporary exhibitions displaying contemporary art and historical artefacts. It might not be a real, big, Game-of-Thrones-like castle, but it’s a lovely place nonetheless.

All these things easily filled my two days in Nottingham, and from everything I’ve heard and seen, there’s a lot more to see and do there. Watching ice hockey or taking a tour down to the caves below the castle, for example. And Nottingham is supposed to have some amazing clubs, bars and live venues.

If I’ve learned anything about Nottingham, it’s this: there’s a whole lot more to this city than Robin Hood. Or even beards.