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!