Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A week in Fes, Morocco




Early yesterday morning I arrived back in London from a week long stay in Fes, Morocco. So whilst I'm mourning the loss of warm weather for the next three months, I now get to write about my trip! Before leaving London, I really didn't know what to expect from Fes, or Morocco for that matter. I try to do some research before visiting a place so that I kind of know what I should do and what to be aware of. However, when trying to research Fes I couldn't find too much about it aside from the main attractions to see! I didn't know whether the location of my accommodation was any good, how safe it was or if any of the health horror stories were true. In a way though it is better sometimes if you don't know what to expect, as you end up pleasantly surprised, which I was!

There is a couple of days worth of sights to see in Fes itself, and also a couple of worthy places to visit on day trips. You could easily see Fes in a weekend, but as I was there for a week I got to see some spots outside of the city and also go nice and slow seeing Fes.


For the week I stayed in a Riad, which is a traditional Moroccan house (or in some cases palaces). They all have an inner courtyard or garden, and often have pools and fountains. I would say they are the most popular accommodation option in Morocco as they are beautiful buildings and are usually at a fairly reasonable price. The Riad I stayed in was almost 700 years old and the courtyard walls were covered in intricate wood carvings. The decor was beautiful with all sorts of old interesting decorations, as well as big lounges to relax on and a chess board to use. There were massive wooden doors on either side of the room, one leading to the breakfast dining room. During my stay there, I spent a lot of time in the courtyard playing chess & reading books, not to mention drinking amazing mint tea!



When I managed to pull myself away from the peace of the riad, I found myself walking through the streets of the old medina. The medina (Fes el Bali) consists of over 9000 narrow streets, which twist and turn in all different directions. Because I visited in winter (despite it still being warm), most of the people passing through the bustling streets were locals, along with many donkeys, mules and hand pushed carts. A few times I found myself facing a large mule which had pushed through the people almost silently. The owner on the other hand had been shouting "Balak!" which is "watch out" in Arabic. That's one word I learnt pretty quick!

There are so many things to buy in the various stores and souks in the medina. I didn't know where any particular souks were so I just wandered around seeing what there was. Haggling and bartering got a bit tiring, but I felt a sense of satisfaction after beating the price down by a third or half. I was probably still paying heaps more than I should have, but oh well! I ended up coming home with plenty of souvenirs, including a porcelain bowl, Moroccan teapot and an amazing scarf (which was a bargain £2.50!). 

My least favourite part of the medina would have to of been the meat section. It is only a very small part, but because it is near the entrance to the medina (the start is The Blue Gate or Bab Boujloud) it is one of the first parts I walked through. Walking through here for the first time I saw a camel head, bloody goat heads lined up along a stall, some unidentifiable things which I still have no idea what body part they are, and a stream of blood running down a gutter. I was very happy to get through this section and into streets with rug and teapot sellers!

However, even though seeing camel heads isn't really my cup of tea first thing in the morning, it is these kinds of things that make a place special and authentic. If everything was to 'western' taste, the world would end up looking very much the same. The medina is so untouched by western modern-ness which is why I loved it.


Only a couple of days in the medina are required until you have seen everything you need to see, so I headed out for a couple of day trips. I highly recommend getting out to see some of the places such as Meknes, Azrou and going into the Middle Atlas Mountains. It is easy to organise a driver and also fairly cheap considering the fact that you will have a person driving you anywhere you want to go for the whole day. 

Fes really is a special place and one I would love to visit again and again. The people are so genuine and friendly, the food delicious and the atmosphere is a world away from anywhere I've been before. I was very upset to be leaving and as I was watching my last sunset there I started dreaming about when I could return!


Have you been to Fes or Morocco? What did you think?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cornwall - one of the most beautiful places in England


"England doesn't have any good beaches!", was my occasional whine soon after I moved to London. After growing up on the beach, the hardest part about leaving Australia was saying goodbye to white sandy beaches only to be replaced by what I thought were just miles of pebbles or if I'm lucky, course gray sand. I heard people telling me about white beaches around England, but since no one ever told me an exact location I dismissed their bold claims. 
Well, I was wrong. England does have white sandy beaches, and some of them - yes I'm being really daring here - are more beautiful than some of Australia's beaches. The Cornish coast is stunning and after being there twice, I would still happily go back again. Besides beaches, there is also so much more to do in Cornwall.

St Ives






Probably one of the most popular spots in Cornwall, this town definitely has a English sea side feel. The white sandy beach is nice and long and the water on a sunny day (although likely to be freezing) is stunning shades of blue. The town is quaint and good for a little walk around. I was very amused by several people very seriously warning me about seagulls. Although I didn't have a problem with them, apparently they are some serious kleptomaniacs. I thought Australian seagulls were pesky, the ones in England are twice the size and they know it!

Marazion






After a short drive from Penzance or a pleasant 1 hour stroll along the beach, you will find yourself in Marazion. Another one of Cornwall's most popular spots, Marazion is the home of an island in the sea. With a castle. But wait for it...that you can walk to! I thought (well I still think) this was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. When the tide rolls out, a cobblestone path is revealed, leading to St Michael's Mount. I was far too eager the first time and went over before the water had fully receded. It was a freezing March, and so as you can imagine pretty cold with soaked shoes and socks! 
Lesson: Always wait for the tide to fully recede!
The castle itself is like any other castle inside, but offers some fantastic views from various points around it. When you're done, although there is not too much in the town, there is a couple of pubs (the Godolphin Arms is nice) or a good old fish & chips shop.


Porthcurno Beach & Minack Theatre






Porthcurno Beach was my favourite beach in Cornwall. Although quite small, it is sandwiched in between cliffs and is made of soft white sand. I managed to go on a sunny day and the colour of the water was stunning! Once you're done at the beach, you can climb up the cliff to get to Minack Theatre. Built in 1932, it is a granite open-air theater overlooking the Atlantic. Even if you are not seeing a show here, it is worth a visit for the incredible panoramic views. There is a small cafe there as well if you want to enjoy the view for a little bit longer away from the wind.

Land's End

Land's End to me is one of those things that you should do at least once but isn't all that amazing in itself. Land's End is the furthest point east you can go in England. The little town-like place is a little tacky, and they've taken the "first and last whatever it is" a little too far. The first and last pub, the first and last post box, the first and last garbage bin. Okay I'm kidding about the last one, but it was getting a little ridiculous. 

You can get a picture with the famous Land's End sign for a price and get your name put on it. Or you can just try to pose in front a few meters away when no one is there. There was also some Dr Who phone booth when I went. I've never seen Dr Who so have no idea what that was about. The town has some cool little 4D movies if you like that kind of thing, but the food is pretty theme parky. Unless of course you go to the first and last inn...sigh... Wouldn't the first west coast town in England also consider themselves first and last? What about the last town until the Scottish border or the most southern town in England? I could really go on and on about the inaccuracy of this "first and last claim"...
All in all, if you've got time to go here, then it's probably worth a little look, but if you're on a tight schedule I wouldn't bother.

The above are just a few things you can do in Cornwall. There is also the Eden Project, Lizard Peninsula, Mousehole and the stunning train ride between St Erth and St Ives. There is at least a weeks worth to see, and it is beautiful all year round, even if it is too cold to swim!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Charles Bridge - the most magical bridge in the world


Every now and then, moments come along when you think, "Yep, this is as magical as a Disney movie." I've found most of these moments happen to me when I'm travelling, which is one of the reasons I love seeing new places as often as possible. My last "Disney" moment was in the beautiful city of Prague.

I've found that many of the very popular places in Europe have been affected badly by mass tourism. Although the original attraction is still beautiful and worth seeing, all you can think about is how to get away from the hoards pushing you whilst snapping their camera sloppily above their heads. Once you get away from them you're usually confronted with many souvenir stalls selling cheap plastic items. Now I love souvenirs as much as the next person, but I would rather spend more than a pound and get something a bit more special that hasn't been produced in the millions (if not billions!). 

Charles Bridge is one such extremely popular tourist attraction, that draws thousands and thousands of people each year. However, despite the crowds, to me it didn't feel so horribly touristy. It may have been because I visited in October, so the summer crowds were long gone, or it might just be because Prague doesn't get the amount of tourists that Paris and Rome get.

I first saw the Charles Bridge during the day. I was walking into the Old Town on my first full day in Prague, all ready to discover the city. It was pretty crowded, but I still had my personal space. There were people busking, begging, drawing portraits for people and selling jewelry. The blackened statues stared down ominously, watching the bustling crowds push towards the end of the bridge. It was certainly a beautiful bridge, however it was still just a bridge.

The Disney moment was still to come, and happened to be whilst I was walking along the bridge at night. It was around 6pm and already pitch black. It was cold but not freezing, and I walked along with steaming Gluhwein in hand. It was still busy but not overly crowded and the buskers were playing some pretty good jazz music.


As I got towards the end of the bridge, I looked around at the statues and the shiny cobblestone reflecting yellow lamp light. I could have been standing there at any point in the last few hundred years and the bridge wouldn't have looked very different at all. The only thing that could set apart this moment in time from any other previous time period was how people dressed and the flashes of cameras going off. 

Standing there in that moment was nothing short of magical.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Segwaying in Prague - the coolest uncool thing I have ever done

One of the many beautiful views from our tour

When I think of Segways, the first image that pops into my mind is the cheesy family movie Mall Cop. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, just see the below image.


Source
Yep, so that basically means that I have never thought of Segways in a "cool" way. 

This all changed though during my recent trip to Prague. One of the first things you will notice if you visit the Old Town is the amount of Segways. They are everywhere! After a few days in Prague, and after lots of giggling at some serious looking Segwayers on tours I decided I couldn't mock people unless I had tried it. This proved to be the best decision of my trip. 


My group and I found someone in the Old Town on a Segway offering tours. I can't actually remember the name of the company, but I can imagine that they all follow the same or similar route. The options were for a 30 minute, 60 minute or 90 minute tour, the latter also included Petrin Hill. They all included a ride around the Old Town. We decided on the 60 minute tour as we thought 30 minutes was too short and weren't sure if we would like it enough for 90 minutes. The original price for 60 minutes was around 1 500 Czech Korunas (around £40 or $75) per person, however we managed to haggle it down to a bit under 1000 Koruna (£30 or $50) which was a much better deal! As there was five of us, we were a large enough group to get a private tour.



The guy on the right sold us our tour. I have no idea which square this is!
The man selling us the tour was very friendly, and whilst we were waiting for people to bring our Segways he let us on his one and taught us how to use it. He made sure that we were comfortable on it before giving another person a turn. They are very easy to get the hang of and even those in our group that weren't really comfortable at first were speeding around within a couple of minutes!

Our Segways arrived with our tour guide who was very friendly and also had great English. We all got our helmets, hopped on our Segways and away we went! Segway tours aren't like typical tours where the guide is explaining things along the way. As you can imagine, that would be very difficult when everyone is on a moving vehicle! We could go at our own pace and if anyone fell too far behind the guide would stop and wait. She also let us know that we could stop at any time to take pictures.


After already spending a few days in Prague walking around the Old Town, I was amazed by how much I hadn't seen. We went along a path right beside the river which I would never had known was there if not for the tour. We also went through all different beautiful parts of the Old Town which I also didn't realise I had missed!


The Segways were so fun to ride and there was never a boring moment during the tour. Everyone with me was very sad when our tour ended and all of us wished we had picked the 90 minute tour so that we could go through the park as well. A side effect we all noticed after being on the Segways for an hour is our ability to walk had been impaired temporarily, like having sea legs. I felt so short all of a sudden, and felt like I was just stomping along the cobblestones. I missed being so tall and powerful on my Segway!


If you are visiting Prague and like me have a bit of a giggle about the un-coolness of Segways, I highly recommend you give it a go! It is so much fun, and for me it was absolutely the best way to see the city.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A day trip to Poland from Prague






With my week in Prague almost complete, I decided to cross the border for the day and visit Poland. Prague is very close to Germany, Poland, Austria and Slovakia but as Poland was the only one I hadn't been to yet, I decided to hop over there. (Not literally of course)


In the past, I have had some pretty bad border town experiences. A couple of years ago I visited a town in France which borders with Spain. It was a complete dump. All the shops were shut when it was only about 1-2 pm. (None of them looked half decent anyway) Of course I had held out on eating lunch in Spain because I was hoping for an amazing salad and an eclair. 

After walking around for a bit I found a McDonald's"Why have an amazing French salad when you can have a Big Mac", said no one, ever. Already very disappointed, I managed to get sworn at in French because I didn't order my McChicken in a French accent. Well pardon me. 

So after that unfortunate experience of a border town, I was desperately trying to find out about a nice Polish border town. It seems though, that Google did not have many answers. I found a few old forums saying that the drive was horribly boring and I would need to drive a few hours further to see anything nice. I also found lots of suggestions about train journeys, but as I was going by car none of that helped.


Despite this, I decided to go anyway and had an idea of a town I wanted to visit. It is usually a bad idea not to at least have a general destination in mind when driving around. I love finding amazing little places that are off the beaten track, but at the same time it's good to have a back up place in case you never find that. Jelenia Gora was my back up town, which I never actually ended up visiting. I found my little hidden town instead, called Szklarska Poreba.


Don't ask me how to pronounce it, I have no idea and will probably just make a fool out of myself. Szklarska Poreba is on the edge of the Karkonosze National Park, and is a popular ski resort in winter. There is a small fun park place with an awesome looking toboggan run, tree climbing/zip-lining thing and other assorted fun activities. Once I arrived, I got lunch at a nice restaurant in the town where the bill came to around £25/$46 for 5 drinks, 4 meals and two desserts! (It wasn't all for me of course, who do you think I am?) It was so incredibly cheap, and considering just a drink, meal and dessert in London would be at least £25 for the same quality it was a pleasant surprise.


After lunch I wandered around the town for a bit which is very quaint and the surroundings are gorgeous. I then walked around in the forest part of the fun park for a bit, which has an amazing view of the surrounding forests and mountain/hills. The autumn leaves were vibrant shades of orange and yellow. I could have walked around there for hours admiring the view. 



From a practical point of view now, if you are worried about money you don't need to be. The restaurant I went to took credit card and a souvenir shop and a cafe I visited took Czech Korunas. There is no border check as you are passing from EU to EU. If you blink you might even miss the sign with a big PL and not realise you have just crossed into Poland. No one I found in Szklarska Poreba spoke English, however if you have a bit of German it will really help you. The menu I got was in Polish and German, and because I can read a little bit of German I managed to (mostly) translate the menu. The waitress couldn't actually speak German, but at least I could point at what I wanted on the menu. Of course, it would have been ideal to speak a bit of Polish but I managed to get by. It's amazing how well you can communicate just with body language and gestures!

That day in Poland was one of those instances where the internet should not be trusted completely. If I had trusted all those opinions, I would have missed out on visiting Poland and seeing beautiful forests and a quaint little town which was only a 2 hour drive away from Prague. If you have a free day in Prague and want to hire a car, I highly recommend visiting Poland. I really loved the little town I found and although I was only there for a couple of hours, I really felt like I had experienced Poland. Plus, I didn't get sworn at! Although, since I don't know a word of Polish I wouldn't actually know would I...


Friday, November 7, 2014

A perfect week in Prague


Returning to London is always a bittersweet moment. I love London, but when you've been away, especially to a beautiful European city, things don't seem so shiny. This is how I felt returning from Prague to drunk people wandering the streets in all sorts of Halloween costumes. My room isn't very well sound proofed so I heard the shouting and screeching all the way through to 4am... But that's enough of my sleep deprived rant! Moving on to what I got up to during my week in the beautiful city of Prague!

Wandering around the Old Town


I prefer not to travel too fast paced and like to get to know a place outside the tourist hubs. The best way to do this I find is by wandering around the city. I was staying about a half hour's walk away from the Astronomical Clock, in Prague 5. This gave me a chance to walk through nice parts of Prague and really take in the surroundings. Like with most European cities, sometimes the best way to enjoy a place is by getting lost in it.

Seeing all the sights


There is so much to do and see in Prague, and even with a whole week there are things I didn't get to. Climbing up things seems to be pretty popular, and I ended up climbing three different towers around Prague. These were Petrin Tower, Astronomical Clock Tower and the Astronomical Tower which is part of the Klementinum. All offered amazing views, but if I had to pick one favourite I would say it is the Astronomical Clock Tower in the center of the Old Town. I unintentionally turned up at around 5pm so managed to see the beautiful sunset with an amazing view all around Prague. It was incredibly crowded up there at that time, but so worth it to see the sun set on a clear night. Petrin Tower offers views from further away, and the Astronomical Tower in the Klementinum also offers great views of Prague.

If I could recommend just one thing to do in Prague aside from going up a tower, it would be to visit one of the beautiful libraries. The library in the Klementinum was the one I visited and it was absolutely amazing. Despite the fact that most of the books were missing to be digitally recorded, it was still such a beautiful room. Of course, you might hate libraries and old books, but if you are a lover of these things like me you will thoroughly enjoy it! There is also a great library in Strahov Monastery, however I didn't manage to see that one.

Eating all the food


For me, an important part of travelling is trying the local cuisine. I feel that if you don't try the food, you really can't say that you have experienced that culture or place. My diet in Prague consisted of lots of goulash, bread dumplings and trdelnik, which is a kind of pastry dessert. My favourite goulash was the traditional Czech kind and I also liked the goulash in a hollowed out bread roll. Beer goulash was also on many menus, but I found that one to be far too rich. Most places also have the classic pizza, pasta and meat dishes if you don't like goulash.

After having my fair share of trdelnik, I determined that it has the potential to be great. It is basically dough wrapped around a stick/pole which is then covered in cinnamon, sugar and optional walnuts or almonds and then grilled. It is traditionally cooked over an open flame, but many places have taken to a more modern approach. To cut things short, trdelnik is delicious. However, I found so much inconsistency with them. The first one I tried did not have much sugar on it and was cold, the second one I tried was still raw in the middle, and the third one I tried (wait a minute, I sound like Goldilocks here) was overcooked and too chewy. They were all still great, but I just wished that they were made a little more carefully and not just made sloppily for tourists. After three times trying to find the "perfect" Trdelnik I gave up, although slightly happier in the knowledge that I could finally pronounce it. 

Prague is an amazing city, and one certainly worth visiting. There is so much to do, and I did a lot more that I will save for other posts (I don't want to bore you with a 5 000 word essay now do I!). I really enjoyed staying there for more than just a weekend to really enjoy and embrace Prague. The scales have also enjoyed telling me I embraced Prague too much...darn you delicious food! 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Paris - the easiest city to fall in love with


Ah Paris. The city that apparently you must go to when visiting Europe. I haven't met one person who has done a proper trip through Europe and has not visited Paris. It is the place that anyone dreaming of Europe is drawn to as their introduction to it. Of course, that doesn't mean that experienced travelers shouldn't love it. There is so much to do, and if you ever get bored you can just sit back and people watch with an eclair in hand. Carry on reading then if you want to hear about what I loved and recommend to do in the "City of Love". 

What to do

As I said above, there is so much to see in Paris. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Montmartre and the Louvre just to name a few. Paris is a massive city to walk around. I learnt the hard way after walking for hours between Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower thinking that it wouldn't take long. At least there was lots to see along the way which softened the dagger looks from my friends. (It was my decision to walk all that way...)

- Mont Matre has an amazing atmosphere, and watching the talented artists at work is mesmerising. You can even get a lifelike portrait done in about 10-15 minutes!

- If you are headed up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, there will most likely be long queues. If you can possibly book a ticket online, it should save you a lot of time. I wasn't able to go up last time I was in Paris because of the queues and wished I had of booked. 

- If you are an art lover you will have a field day visiting the Louvre, Musee d'orsay or the Musee de l'orangerie. I have only been to the Louvre but I hear the other museums are incredible as well. On a non-important side note, the Mona Lisa is much smaller than you think.


What to eat

Baguettes. Lots of baguettes. And cheese, and macarons, really anything that you can get. There is something about French food that doesn't make me feel like going and sleeping for hours. Maybe it's preservatives that are used here in the UK and Australia, but the food in France is just that step up. Therefore, I have compiled a short list of my favourite foods to get in Paris:

- Eclairs. Need I say more? Eclairs are the most delicious, sugary, fattening things in the world. I have not yet found a match for French eclairs, and make sure to tuck into one at least once every time I visit France.

- Cheese. Like many people in the world I love cheese. And it's healthy right? Don't answer that. Whilst in France (or any Western European country really) cheese becomes an integral part of my diet and I find myself eating it at any time of the day. Brie for breakfast, Emmental for lunch and Mimolette for dinner...ah perfection.

- Salads. What's that I hear? Finally I have chosen something healthy to eat in Paris?! Now, I can tolerate salads and will have one as a main meal every now and then but I am by no means a salad lover. I discovered however, that the French own at making salads. They are so delicious and varied that you don't even feel like you are eating one!

If you get bored of Paris

If you manage to see everything you want to see in Paris, there is even more to see outside of Paris. It's a short trip to Giverny where Claude Monet's house and garden is. Even if you aren't an art lover, the peace and tranquility of his garden by the pond is something special.


The Palace of Versailles is another short journey away. It is pretty spectacular and the gardens are large enough to spend hours wandering through without getting bored. They sell sweets (lollies for us Aussies) in the gift shop that are made from apples picked in the royal gardens. They are amazing!


The people

I found that the Parisians are mostly friendly. The best way to get on their good side is to speak French, even trying to is better than speaking English. I remember going to a lady in a tourist information booth at Montmartre to ask for directions only to be told that she didn't speak English. What, no English in a tourist information booth? That was when I realised that asking in French would have been a better option. However, most other people don't seem to be bothered if you speak in English or not.


To sum it all up, Paris is a beautiful, vibrant city and I can see why so many people go back time and time again. If you are planning on visiting Paris anytime soon, I'm sure you will not be disappointed. The best part about Paris is that it is beautiful all year round, whether in the sun or the snow!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Edinburgh - a special city


Before my first trip to Edinburgh, I really didn't know what to expect as I hadn't visited any part of Scotland before. All that I could conjure in my mind was images of windy grey days and people with accents so heavy I wouldn't be able to understand them (the latter at least proved to be untrue). In fact, I ended up loving Edinburgh, and I would most happily put it up there in my top 10 favourite European cities.

As soon as I arrived in Edinburgh on a very windy and cold March day, I realised that the people were extremely friendly. Coming straight from London where you can annoy people simply by smiling at them, it was a welcome surprise to find so many cheerful, open people. I also received correction on my earlier point that the Scottish people would be difficult to understand because everyone I met was perfectly easy to understand. I am now ashamed of my obvious ignorance (even though I have Scottish heritage!), but from my experiences in Northern Ireland where I honestly could not understand a word from some people I wasn't sure what to expect in Scotland.

There is so much to do in Edinburgh, and my week there wasn't enough to see all that I wanted to see. I could have spent hours just walking around looking at the Gothic architecture and finding out about the historic buildings dotted around the city. But seeing as I only had a limited amount of time, I made sure to see as many "tourist" sights as possible.



Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous sight in the city, with its ominous grey buildings overlooking the centre of Edinburgh. With only a short time to go through the Castle I felt a little rushed as there is a good few hours worth to see. The Crown Jewels are stunning, and seeing where King James VI was born was really interesting as well. The 1 o'clock gun I could have missed seeing without being too upset. I waited for over half an hour, and was a little disappointed. I guess you can't expect too much aside from hearing a cannon fire and seeing a guy walk around very formally in uniform. If you are there at 1 o'clock go see it, but you don't need to make a special effort to go at that time.



Palace of Holyroodhouse

The castle is definitely worth a look, but personally I preferred the Palace of Holyroodhouse. There is a lot of history in the palace, and it was interesting and unnerving to see the exact spot where David Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scots' private secretary was murdered by her jealous husband almost 450 years ago. As it wasn't peak tourist season, I was able to walk around most of the Palace on my own which is a pretty rare thing. The Abbey attached to the Palace is very peaceful as well.



Arthurs Seat

If you don't mind a bit of walking, then Arthur's Seat is a must do. It can be a bit of an effort to get up there (somehow though I think I took the longest way possible) but the view and the journey up is pretty spectacular. You wouldn't think when walking up that you are in the middle of a city. In March the wind is pretty ferocious up the top, so hold onto your hats!

There is of course so much more to see in Edinburgh such as the Whisky Experience, Natural History Museum and the Botanic Gardens. I managed to see the Botanic Gardens and the Natural History Museum, but the Whisky Experience is on my list to do next time!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Off the beaten track in London

Since moving to London almost two years ago, I have been trying to hunt down things to do that are a little off the beaten track. Yes all the tourist sights are great, but there are only so many times you can see Big Ben (well that's actually the bell inside) before you want to find something that hasn't had millions of pictures taken of it. Below are my current hidden things to do, some of which are not exactly hidden but in my opinion they just don't get the attention they deserve.



Secret rooftop Flamingo garden 

I found out about this a couple of months ago by chance, and immediately made plans to go. Flamingos. On a rooftop. In central London. You could say I was more than intrigued. The gardens are located in Kensington and are free to enter. There is also a restaurant/bar at the top with a view over the gardens and London. There are 1.5 acres of garden where you can walk around or sit and relax in, with a few resident (and very curious) flamingos that roam around freely. It really is a unique place!

Go here for more information




Ride a bike along Regents Canal

This one isn't exactly secret since anyone can hire a bike and ride around. However, the ride along Regent's Canal, especially on a sunny day is pretty special. Hire a bike in Camden and head down to the canal in the direction of Regent's Park. Along the way you cut in between London Zoo where you can see the aviary and then end up in Little Venice. If you take the bikes up along the road you can then meet up with the canal further down if you're feel especially adventurous. The bikes are really cheap to hire and you only need a credit card.

Source

See the city from Primrose Hill

For one of the best views of London and in a beautiful park you have to head up to Primrose Hill. Once at the top you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Bring a picnic!




Climb up Elizabeth Tower

This is my favourite one, but unfortunately I haven't even done it yet! Sadly if you are only a visitor the UK, you won't be able to do this as it is only open to UK residents. If you are a UK resident and book far enough in advance you will be able to get a tour 62 metres up to the top via 334 steps and hear Big Ben strike the hour. This is on my firm "to do" list at some point in the next year.

Go here for more information


Monday, October 6, 2014

Zagreb - the unappreciated city


If you ask anyone what kind of picture appears in their mind when you say Croatia, it will probably be an overwhelming response of "beaches and diving". You may also get a response about Plitvice Lakes. However, Zagreb has none of these and it is over 2 hours from the coast. Wait right there though and don't write off this city just yet, because it really is worth a visit and is a perfect base for exploring the surrounding countries.

Prior to going to Zagreb, I had visited the most tourist trodden places in Croatia. Dubrovnik, Split and Plitvice. The prices in these places were sky high and I didn't get a chance to say a word in Croatian because everyone automatically spoke English to me. When I went to Zagreb, people weren't fluent in English everywhere I went and I actually had to learn to say thank you in Croatian! The restaurants and general cost of everything was much cheaper, and I felt like I had arrived in "real" Croatia.

Although Zagreb isn't a hot spot for any particular attractions there is still quite a lot of interesting things to do and see. Walking through the city's old town is lovely, with banana coloured buildings and the architecture and atmosphere reminiscent of Paris, Budapest and Helsinki all in one.



St Marks Church is worth a look, with its brightly tiled roof or you can visit Dolac Market for a massive variety of fresh fruit and veggies. If you head down the escalators on the edge of of the market you will end up in the fresh meat section. Here you can also buy some other bits and pieces as well as try Cvarci. This is a variant of pork rind, and although not my cup of tea, definitely worth a try.


There are some very intriguing museums in Zagreb, including the Museum of Broken Relationships. It houses a collection of items from around the world with stories about the owners relationships and eventual break-up. Or if that's not quirky enough for you, you can always visit the Olive Oil Gallery.

If you think you have seen everything in Zagreb itself, you can head out to visit some neighbouring countries. After a 40 minute drive you will find yourself in Slovenia, and an hour after that you can be in the capital city, Ljubljana.

Or if you want to head to Hungary it's only about 1 1/4 hours to the border, and under 3 1/2 hours to Budapest. If both these options are way too mainstream for you, you can hop over to Serbia 3 1/2 hours.

Zagreb was one of my favourite places in Croatia, and definitely worth a visit. Although not visited as much as other places in Croatia, that's what makes it so much more authentic and special.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Tips to travelling on a budget



When considering travel, one of your main concerns might be money. After all, most people won't want to spend their whole life savings on a short trip. However, travel doesn't necessarily have to be expensive and you can still have an awesome trip on a budget without cutting out too many comforts.

Plan ahead

If you are on a really tight budget, find out approximately how much it will cost for your time away. Even if you get a budget flight, the prices in that country could be incredibly high compared with another country where flights are more expensive but food and accommodation are dirt cheap. It's pretty easy now to search for average prices for a particular country or city and it will really help in preventing too much overspending. Make sure to factor in extra cash for transfers, shopping and always allow for some extra over what you are expecting.

Budget flights

Use budget airlines wherever possible and keep an eye out for deals and offers. You can grab some amazing deals every now and then, especially if you're not fussy about the dates or destination. Even though you forgo comfort and service for some of these airlines, it's still worth it for the savings. Besides, for a few hours does it really matter if there isn't those extra few inches of legroom?

Accommodation

Make sure you spend time searching around for a good deal on accommodation. Don't book the first thing you see because chances are it won't be a good price and might not be the best location either. I've found the cheapest option is usually self-catered apartments, and they also tend to be in better locations than hotels. Having an apartment also means you can eat in for some meals, and therefore save some money on restaurants. Saying that, with popularity for B&B's and apartments on the rise, there are also some budget hotels around that have good deals.


Hopefully these tips have been helpful, but remember as well that travel is about discovering new things and enjoying a new culture. Be reasonable with yourself. If you really want to do that camel ride around the Pyramids but hadn't budgeted for it, do it! It is highly likely that you will only be there once, and in 5 years time you will be glad you had that unforgettable experience, not mourning the loss of a few pounds.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A short guide to Venice



Ah Venice, the fairy tale place where people sing from boats and you can stroll through alleys and over bridges for hours without getting bored. I have been twice now and have a bit of a love hate relationship with it. I love Venice itself. The architecture, canals, Italian food and Venice's amazing history endear me to it. However, the result of massive tourism is pesky buskers, extortionate prices and an all round feeling of fakeness. Therefore, I have come up with a few short tips to keep in mind when travelling in Venice so that you can fall in love with it instead of leaving with a sour taste in your mouth.

Food

Italy is renowned for its simple, fresh and delicious food. Venice can be a bit hit and miss with food. You can find really, really good food or you can find really, really bad food. My best friend when travelling is Tripadvisor. If you don't have a particular restaurant in mind and are just wandering around, Tripadvisor can be an amazing tool. Of course, you can't take every single review into account when choosing or you will never end up eating anywhere, but you can get a pretty good idea of what the restaurant is like. 

If there is someone poaching for business out the front it is likely they are overpriced and the taste will be meh. After all, if they were amazing they would have enough customers already. I fell for this during my last trip to Venice without checking Tripadvisor and ended up arguing with the waiter because he shortchanged me about 20 euros and then acted dumb. This was after getting terrible service and mediocre food. When I checked the reviews after, they had 2 stars and lots of bad reviews.

Tripadvisor is your best friend in Venice.

Buskers

Anyone who has been to a popular European city will know about buskers. Venetian buskers are particularly aggressive and rude. One busker called me over all friendly and nice and although I didn't really want a picture with him he was pushy so I wandered over. I got a picture after which he demanded the person I was with take a picture with him. After getting that picture, we put in 2 euros which we thought was a reasonable amount for a two second pose. Just after we put in 2 euros which he seemed happy enough with, he changed and demanded 5 euros for each photo! I stood my ground and said he hadn't stated his price up front and should have told us. 

Don't be afraid to stand your ground.

Getting connected

This is one of my most loathed tasks to do when travelling. I long for the day when you can travel anywhere without buying another SIM or paying extortionate roaming costs. There are a few options to get connected depending on your preferences:

- WiFi at restaurants
If you don't need to make calls or send texts, many restaurants will have free WiFi for customers. If you only need to access the internet a few times a day, you might as well use restaurant WiFi when buying a drink or some food.

- Find out what roaming offer your provider has
Three now has free roaming in several countries including Italy for plan and pre-paid customers, which makes getting data seamless. Other providers also have roaming deals for varying costs. If you are only in Venice for a couple of days it might be worth paying a couple of extra pounds a day, but it isn't the cheapest option for a longer holiday.

- Buy a new SIM card
If you are in Venice for more than a few days, it might be worth buying a SIM card and getting a top-up with unlimited data.

Do some research and pick the best option for you.


There is probably loads more that I can say, but I think these are basically the main things to keep in mind. I would happily go back to Venice and for me the positives outweigh the negatives. It truly is a magical city and one that I would recommend everyone visit at some point (before it sinks anyway!). 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Plitvice Lakes - a (possibly) turquoise gem of Europe


On my recent trip to Croatia, I managed to head to Plitvice Lakes National Park for a few hours. I got a coach from Split to Plitvice which took about 4.5 - 5 hours. Plitvice Lakes has been on my bucket list for a while now, ever since seeing a picture like the one below whilst scrolling through Pinterest's endless amazing travel images.The beautiful turquiose water and the lakes flowing down one to the next looked like Paradise. I wasn't quite sure however, whether Photoshop had a part to play in these amazing images.

This image can be found here
After walking from my hotel I bought an entrance ticket and jumped on the free shuttle bus up to the upper lakes. It had been raining heavily in the morning and the weather forecast threatened a storm, but amazingly the sun came out just for the few hours I was there.
The upper lakes are a series of lakes and waterfalls that flow downwards, and it is an easy 1-2 hours journey back down to the start via boardwalks and dirt track. Thank goodness the rain had stopped and most of the track had dried otherwise it just would not have been possible to see anything.



The lakes and waterfalls were absolutely beautiful, although none of them matched the brilliant turquoise which I had seen so much. After walking back down to the bottom I got on the boat shuttle across the lake which drops you at a picnic spot. The boat ride was packed, but still managed to be serene, cutting through the still water with waterfalls splashing down into the edge of the lake.


By this time, it was too late to go to the "Big" waterfall which also happens to be where the first (and most popular) image was taken. So unfortunately, I can't really confirm nor deny whether those lakes are genuinely turquoise. The parts that I saw were lovely, despite the water colour being, well, the colour you would expect from a normal clean body of water. I'll just have to go back and check for myself whether the other lakes really are turquoise!


Despite not seeing the part that I desperately wanted to see, I have no regrets about visiting even just the part I saw. The park truly is beautiful and I would recommend a visit if you are travelling around that end of Croatia. Just make sure you try to go on a sunny day!