Greece #Santorini

After spending four full days in Santorini, I wish we had booked 2-3 weeks off to Island hop around Greece – recommend that you do the same.

Every May, it’s custom for us to go away and celebrate my birthday in a new Country. It takes away the hassle of knowing what to do when home and makes an excellent present to myself. I had planned on going to Lisbon for city and culture and then travel down to the Algarve, but it was proving a bit more complicated and I was quickly running out of time to get something booked. Where else was on the Bucket list? It’s endless but I didn’t want to exhaust myself, I needed a TLC relaxing break to recharge so why not one of Greece’s stunning super model islands.

DAY ONE

We landed in the afternoon of 31st April to probably the smallest airport I have ever been to. Yes, I know it’s a small island, but the airport hasn’t grown with the expanding tourism number. I had pre-booked a hotel transfer, well I thought I had, but on checking my print out I had actually booked it for the day before – Doh! Slight admin error aside it’s really easy to either hire a car or book a hotel transfer at the airport, ours being €10 euros each.

We researched the main towns for hotels, Fira, Oia, Imerovigli, and Firostafani. We opted to be central and booked Ikastikies Suites which was on the Caldera rim in Firostafani. Our transfer dropped us off in a local car park (no door to door service when your hotel is on a cliff edge). We were greeted by our lovely hotel staff (I’m really sorry that I cannot remember your names) who very kindly took our bags and explained the area we were in. Some 77 steps later we were at our Suite, amazing views of Caldera and Oia in the distance, not to  mention the pool and the marvellous suite we were staying in – our very own Hobbit Hole.

Hotel Suite
Our Suite

After settling in we headed to Fira town to figure out our bearings, Fira was full of beautiful shops and the windy pathways.

After dinner at our local Mamma Thira’s we decided to head for a few Saturday drinks, we discovered Kira Thira Jazz Bar, jazz music, quirky drinks menu on a newspaper and vintage decor – right up my street. I recommend that you check this place out for at least one cocktail.

 

DAY TWO

Sunday: Church bells ring out as our hangover alarm clock. Maybe one too many cocktails (or was it the wine?). To our delight an amazing breakfast was bought to our room, at a time you can request. We’d decided that today would be a good day to hike to Oia – a 11km route recommended by our suite manager and every other blog/trip advisor site I’d read up on.

I would recommend hiking Fira to Oia and setting off early, the sun is on your back on the way there and you can walk back, or take the local bus back for a 20 minute journey.  The views of all of the hike were amazing, all in all it probably took us well over the average as there were endless photo opportunities.  I recommend that you divert to Skaros Rock, 300 stairs till you reach Skaros base and 200 till Theoskepasti church, and yes you do have to hike back up those steps. It is worth it I promise you, passing through each part of the Island, amazing views.

 

 

 

 

We hiked on, wondering how long it would take for the speck on the horizon that was Oia to be a stones throw away. We also enjoyed part of our hike with dog, following us a part of the way, I wanted to adopt him, he looked like my Jazz; black and tan, he certainly made me miss my pooch.

Oia is definitely honeymoon capital of Santorini. Firostfani’s cobbled streets had changed to Glossy Marble floors,  designer shops and boutiques galore. The food and drink are a little bit more expensive here so we grabbed a panini and a drink before further exploring pathways before catching our public bus home to Fira. Tip, keep your bus ticket, someone sells you the ticket, and then another person checks it, it does state this on the ticket but some might just screw it up and bin it.

DAY THREE

Monday: Another lazy yummy breakfast – so much choice and have you ever had a croissant hot dog? Today feeling a little bit tired from our previous days hike we decided to see the Old Port of Fira. We took the steps down, probably wouldn’t recommend this in flip-flops, cobbled steps and donkey mess/hay all the way down. There will be men offering you a donkey ride down to the port and I implore you to please do not ride a donkey down… or back up!

To be quite frank, walk down it, see if you find it easy on a hot day, and then imagine doing it with a weight on you, even if it’s a child’s weight on you and the odd whip to keep you moving.  I cannot advocate that in this day and age it’s not needed for a tourist attraction.  A few loops down there are more donkeys, tied, no visible food or water. They became a blockage that I couldn’t get past, I daren’t pass behind for fear of being kicked or pooped on.  The views as you keep walking down the endless steps are stunning, but the state of some of the donkeys I saw was deeply upsetting and the Port? Well it’s an old Port. It has some restaurants and is a little rustic.

Now with midday sun we decided to take a romantic cable car back up (€6 each). Why is it you can never get the best cable car and what we thought would be just us in this cable car we were then joined by some local Greeks, shouting in Greek! How romantic!

We decided to then visit the pre-historic Thera museum, if you’re short on time in Santorini I would recommend that you perhaps skip this and make sure you see the excavations at Akrotiri. The museum itself is small, there are some visual descriptions to understand where the collections of collection of pottery, statues and some paintings. My favourite part of the whole museum were the murals.

We were recommended the oldest restaurant on the island; Aktaion. It’s in a great spot for the sunset with a great view if sitting outside. Given we weren’t in season it was a bit too windy and cold for us to sit outside (and they didn’t have tables) so we sat inside, its a small family run restaurant (since 1922) and would recommend you make a reservation. The food was yummy!

DAY THREE

Tuesday: A familiar walk into Fira again, got to get those Fitbit steps up! We also wanted to look for some art for our bare living room wall back home, sadly we weren’t successful in bartering to a cheaper price. We grabbed some lunch, Matt at this point is really addicted to Santorini tomato balls, I’d recommend them. Matt also bought me a necklace and some really cute Turtle earrings as a birthday gift, we did barter the price down this time – success!

For the evening we had booked a yacht (Caldera Yachting). I often went on yacht/boat trips to see whales/dolphins when I visited my grandparents on holidays in Tenerife . No whales or dolphins to see in Santorini but it was Matt’s first experience on a catamaran and we were hoping for an amazing sunset. We were picked up from our local car park began our sail along the graceful coastline, seeing the Black Beach, Red Beach, White Beach and the Akrotiri lighthouse.  We stopped off at the hot springs, warm volcanic water spots and were given swimming aids as the current just pulls you back in to the volcano. Whatever you do, don’t wear your best white bikini, the hot springs turn it a nice shade of brown and it will also destroy your jewellery/smart watches.

We continued sailing along the Caldera, to Thirassia island for a swim and a gorgeous meal of BBQ meats, Greek Salad and a lot of local Santorini white wine before sailing back to our hotel transfer. I’d recommend a sailing trip (€100 euros each, more in peak) you get amazing views of the island and yes we did get that amazing sunset. Off to the local bar for yet more wine.

DAY FOUR

Wednesday: Killing two birds with one store, we hired a car for us to drive around the Island for our last full day and then to return us to the airport for our flight home. Hiring a car for 24 hours was only €30 euros and a return to airport is around €15 – €20 euros each.  We were totally pimping the Peugeot 1 litre, whilst Matt failed to remember that the gear stick and handbrake were on the right hand side of the vehicle.

Our first self-drive destination was the Akrotiri Excavations, which were a lot bigger than I had expected. The settlement  was destroyed in the Theran volcanic eruption I’m told in 1627BC, this has preserved the remains and have since been excavated since 1967. The settlement could also be the one and only lost city of Atlantis. The site itself has a series of walkways where you can see the excavations, but there’s only one section when you can walk among the ruins, whatever you do don’t touch the ruins. There is minimal literature about each excavation so I’d recommend getting a tour guide.

We then took our pimp mobile to the Akrotiri lighthouse, amazing views of the Island but you’re not allowed to peek inside the lighthouse. We had wanted to go to the the traditional Greek Village of Akrotiri but didn’t fancy a hike in the heat and the roads were apparently very windy and single lane only. We decided to skip Red Beach and head straight to the Black Beach. Now, I say beach, it’s more like walking on hot rocks, the black volcanic sand is quite coarse and gets really hot – I couldn’t cope with more than 5 minutes of being bare foot. Many of the bars along the strip allow you to use their loungers in exchange for buying drinks so we made use of this.

We then headed back to our suite, had a lovely fresh fish that we shared with yummy greek salad and of course local Santorini wine, taking in the sunset for our final night in Santorini.

I loved Santorini and even though I say never again (the World is a big place and we are on a mission to get the rest of Europe ticked off) I feel like we definitely saw one of the best places in Greece. It sets us up well for some more island hopping in a future trip. I’d wholeheartedly recommend Santorini for a relaxing break, major attractions can be easily completed in 3 days.  Try to avoid busy towns when the Cruise Ships days, you’ll enjoy it more without them. 

TazTips:

  • Weather: We visited during late April / May – perfect out of season
  • Transportation: To get the best of Santorini sights and sounds, it’s best to rent a (small) car
  • Pack: Pack some comfy shoes you’ll need them for the steps / hikes and general exploring
  • Food: All of it! Tomato balls,  surprisingly good local wine, Santorini salad, Moussaka, it’s all yummy!
  • DO: Say hi to the Donkeys
  • Don’t: Ride them!

Thank you for reading, now to get planning the next European trip.

Love,

Taz – who scribbles

xXx

 

 

Iceland

So I am a little bit late on writing this, we actually returned from Iceland last month but then it was straight back in to that thing that pays for my trips – work.

Did you know that I have never really done a Winter holiday? Yeah I’ve been away in Winter but to hotter places. Iceland was my first experience of a “cold holiday”, then as luck would have it, I then returned home for the UK to be hit by two freezing storms named the “Beast from the East” and “Storm Emma”. Good to know that monies spent on snow boots and the most expensive thermal leggings I’ve ever purchased have been still earning their keep this past month! 🙂

Anyway, back to my blogging about Iceland. Prior to 2010, Iceland probably really wasn’t even on the tourism map, then Eyjafjallajökull erupted, grounded flights everywhere and all of a sudden every blogging and travelling website is raving about Iceland as the pace to be. I don’t disagree with them, it’s a fantastic place and thankfully, for my trip, wasn’t the most tourist-crowd heavy place I’ve been to. That said, how will a population of 332,000 with an area of 39,768.5 mi² – which is barely accessible, cope? I loved the natural aspect of Iceland and I hope that tourism will not spoil it.

ARRIVAL/DAY ONE

Our flight from LHR left later than planned so we didn’t land till 3pm. We had been told time and time again how expensive Iceland was, so at the Duty Free we purchased a 6 pack of beers and a bottle of wine for 2,500ISK – £18!

We then caught our Gray Line bus to the only city in Iceland; Rejkjavik. Whilst travelling to our hotel, I received an email that our first excursion of the trip had been cancelled. Turns out the Northern Lights really are a mystery.

On a bit of a low, we unpacked and headed out to explore our City. You can’t compare Rejkjavik to other city breaks, torn between an industrial looking fishing port and an idyllic little skiing village, you really won’t need more than a day to see the sights and the best bit is it’s all easily done on foot. It’s clean, full of plenty of places to eat, gift shops and retro gift shops. But the City is certainly not what we came to Iceland for.

DAY TWO:

Winter in Iceland, not very light long days. In Summer months there is continuous light, I’d love to come back to experience this. We left our hotel after breakfast at around 9am, feeling more like 9pm as it was still pitch black outside. We thought it would be a good idea to head to Hallgrímskirkja to watch the sunrise around 11am from the tower at a height of 75.5 metres. The Hallgrímskirkja one of Rejkjavik most known landmarks, their church built between 1945 and 1986, sadly our sunrise photo opportunity was blocked by a closed tower. (We went back later in the day as some fantastic view from top).

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We plodded on through different streets and roads in the centre to the harbour to see The Sun Voyager. Our outlook was sea and mountains and blue skies, to within minutes strong winds and sleet/snow, it’s amazing how quickly the weather can change. We battled the winds and continued along the Sæbraut Road to The Harpa; Modern Honeycomb glass concert hall/theatre. We admired the modern building and took shelter from the elements. Onward to unexplored areas of the City with frozen lakes and ducks galore.

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We then headed for some recommended soup served in a roll at Svarta Kaffid, super tasty and for both of us with two beers 5,800, a mere £41. Not cheap, but it was tasty!

I’d pre-booked a trip to the Blue Lagoon for our 2nd day with GrayLine Tours, due to our first attempt at the Mystery tour being cancelled we’d re-booked the mystery tour for our second night and moved our Blue Lagoon pick up forward to squeeze both in.

We arrived at the Blue Lagoon at 5pm, wrist bands sorted (which acts as your locker key and credit card for purchases) and an upgrade to some robes you head to the changing rooms, private shower cubicles, prior to entering the Blue Lagoon you’re meant to partake in a full body shower (no bathing suit!), as recommended I did follow the rules and soaked my hair in about a gallon of conditioner before stepping out into the coldness of a spa in a lavafield. The Blue Lagoon itself is man made, but the warm (lovely and toasty) waters are fed by the water output of nearby geothermal power plant. Superheated water is vented from the ground below and is rich in silica and sulfur. Don’t worry you’ll be over the smell within minutes whilst you indulge in a face mask and all the facilities The Blue Lagoon has to offer. It was so relaxing, worst bit is getting out and braving the cold again!

*Travel Tip* Pre-booking is essential. Note, the Lagoon itself isn’t too far from the airport, if you’re short on time and have a late flight home or an early flight in, book a transfer to/from Airport straight to the Lagoon. Allow at least 3 hours for a been there, done it, tick in the box experience.

We caught the 7pm transfer back to the Terminal ready for Attempt Two of Mystery Lights Tour.

Many travel to Iceland for the sole of intent of seeing the Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis.

To my disappointment the tour was a Coach, what a romantic way to experience the natural phenomenon with 40 other people, organised tours are a quick win when your short on time, but anyway they call it a Mystery Tour for a reason, after a few hours waiting at one site we didn’t see any lights, we headed to a second check point and sadly no luck either there. It’s quite exhausting sitting on a coach, all cramped up for about 4-5 hours with no lights especially after a spa day.

Would we ever see them?

DAY THREE:

Golden Circle Day! An early start of 8am on limited sleep but nonetheless this was going to be an 8 hour tour of history, culture and iconic attractions that I had seen so many others rave about when visiting Iceland.

The Golden Circle covers about 300km (180 miles) and it a giant loop from Rejkjavik to Southern uplands of Iceland and back. Our coach road trip started at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This is famous partly because of it’s Alþing ((Althing)) – Iceland’s Parliment from 10th to 18th Centuries but mainly because the National Park sits in a rift caused by the separation of two tectonic plates, North America and Eurasia – you know the one where you can stand on either side and touch both tectonic plates? LIE! You can’t, you really can’t. Unless you’re Stretch Armstrong but he might struggle too!

I wish we could have walked through the pass and explored on foot, see some more of the largest Lake, but sadly it was a hop off and hop on tour, to squeeze in everything into a 8 hour duration.

We drove through Mosfellsbaer, our Tour Guide told us folk tales and stories of “Stefan” the young boy who trekked across Iceland, founder of geo-thermal pools and the wealthiest man of Iceland, and past a place where they bake bread in the hot soil. Yum? We didn’t try it but it probably wouldn’t smell nice!

Our next stop was Gullfoss Waterfall, 107 slippery steps later we were greeted to where the river rushes and turns sharply and flows into a wide stair case before having two plunges into a crevice 32 metres deep. Stunning!

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We then headed on to to see the Geysir Geothermal area. Strokkur, a very active Geyser erupts every few minutes we were lucky to watch several eruptions with boiling water being pushed high up into the air. Fascinating.

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We were meant to stop off at Faxi Waterfall on the way back but for reasons I cannot recall we didn’t. We headed to our last stop of an historical Church – Skálholt, cultural and political centre of great importance for Iceland. We went down into the underground tunnels, we even got an Icelandic song sang to us by our tour guide.

We were so lucky with the weather, as you can see from the pictures it was a clear sunny “warm” day, no rain, no snow, our drive back we were told local tales of Elves and Trolls. With beautiful sunsets filling the sky with a remarkable red, snow still on spruce trees, some houses still had Christmas lights on, to symbolise that Winter was still here. In my somewhat sleepy state I think I might have even seen a troll on the lava field rocky landscape.

 

 

So night three, it was our last chance to try again for the Mystery Tour, Matt really wasn’t keen but I convinced him we’ve come all this way that we should try again, last chance. (After all you can keep re-booking for two years at no extra cost). We again headed to the Bus Terminal after our long 8 hour tour and running on sugar with lack of sleep.

What can I say! BOOM! Third Time Lucky! Do not give up! Try, try and try again! There was excitement from our tour guide as we neared what I’ll call the Truck stop in the national park cause I’d now frequented it so many times, there was a faint glimmer. We positioned our camera and watched the mountain, then we saw it this green glimmer. Now we didn’t get the all signing and dancing, ionisation of protons and electrons but it was still magical and what a sight to tick off the bucket list.

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Sleep – with a subtle “I told you so!” smile gleaming across my face! 🙂

 

DAY FOUR:

Our last full day in Iceland, so I booked us another tour as well there wasn’t much more to see in the City. There’s plenty of tours and excursions to choose from and whilst I wanted to hike a glacier, we also wanted to see more landscape and a Glacier so we booked South Coast & Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. Gluttons for punishment we had a 7.30 am start for a 14 hour tour duration.

Now, most of the tour is sitting on a coach looking out of a window, but take that all in and look at the views, my only regret is just not hiring a car and driving ourselves so we could stop when we wanted to for photos, or just to stand there and go “wow”.

The journey is long but striking. Snow covered mountains with a glacier in its backdrop, then after a few further miles no snow. Suddenly there are green mountains with native sheep and some horses. It’s remarkable how quickly landscapes can change through some rain melting all the snow.

I must add, our Tour Guide was fantastic on this trip, he was factual but also had a great sense of humour. We drove through Black Sand fields, to Lava Fields, lumps of Lava (aka Trolls) for miles and miles. Icelanders have been planting crops to bring back vegetation for farming and you can see this in patches. We drove through one of the biggest lava fields, with 2,110 pseudo craters. It’s just not describable.

 

We arrived at Skógafoss Waterfall, stunning. Legend has it that a settler hid his Chest of Gold behind it – well there is pretty much a rainbow near it most days. Matt waked up the very icy steps to view from the top – 15 metres whilst I ice skated at the bottom looking at the drop of 60 m.

As we carried on our journey you see other smaller waterfalls. mostly frozen awaiting Spring/Summer.  The Breiðamerkurjökul glacier (outer edge of Vatnajökull glacier) now edging closer, albeit it is slowly decreasing at 50 m per year.

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We arrived at the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon – Magical. Broken parts of the Glacier swimming in a lagoon of water, edging out to the sea, further smaller parts on the Black Sand Beach, not to mention the seals flirting with the camera in the background.  Breathtaking. 

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After a stroll around we then headed back on the coach for our long drive back to the City, we stopped of Seljalandsfoss Waterfall but the weather had turned, we couldn’t really see anything, and it was now pitch black.

Word from the tour guide was that the two main highways, that were also mountain paths, were no closed due to the severity of the weather. I don’t really know how Matt managed to sleep through it but our coach on numerous occasions had a number of slips, slides and balancing on side wheels with the stormy winds. Our emergency exit roof also blew open and many passengers had to endue a somewhat cold and soggy journey. Our poor driver also last his windscreen wiper, and the engine bonnet also popped open. Quite a trepidation’s journey home but nothing that an Icelander cannot handle. It does make you question the farmers who would always be cut off by the closed mountain path due to extreme weathers, and those who settled on an active volcano. As our tour guide said, it’s been a lovely time with you, albeit a bit too long – back to our hotel at midnight instead of 22:00.

I won’t forget that experience for all the right reasons, what was I saying before about coach trips, I take it all back! 🙂

Home time…. Breakfast and then back to the airport with it’s 24 check in desks. Sadly the storm didn’t disrupt us flying home to Heathrow. 😦

 

I don’t know how best to describe my experience of Iceland. The geologically young island maybe small and somewhat remote but it just packs so many punches,  picturesque and just spellbinding in its vast landscape. It really is the land of Ice and Fire. Vikings, Elves and Trolls.

A colleague asked prior to me leaving saying “Iceland, why would you want to go there, there’s nothing there?” My answer “Precisely”.

The vast nothingness, the open spaces, the endless possibilities of driving/hiking miles is exactly what I thought I didn’t need out of a City Break. I’d love to go back in Summer months and take on some horse riding, whale watching and Puffin Spotting.

Go! Hire a car, take good hiking gear and warm layers with you, and plenty of spending money on card, minimal cash needed. Do keep trying to see the Mystery Northern Lights. Icelanders are friendly and helpful.

Hopefully see you again in a Summer time Iceland!

 

Excursion Costs FYI Prices correct Jan 2018.

  • Hallgrímskirkja 1,000 ISK for tower
  • Blue Lagoon Bus/Base Admission 10,500 ISK
  • Northern Lights Mystery Tour 6,400 ISK
  • Golden Circle 9,400 ISK
  • South Coast & Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon 19,900 ISK

Montenegro #Day Trip

So this is really a sneakily add on to my previous post about Dubrovnik.

The Croatian holiday was meant to be a bit more of a hop and a skip around Croatia, we knew we could explore Dubrovnik in a day or two so we also wanted to head up to Split. Despite best efforts, lack of time and just boring life taking over I never really fulfilled the one thing I am superb at – Organising! I left it too late to organise and so our 7 day Croatian tour turned into 5 days of Dubrovnik. Well 4, as given that Montenegro is literally closer than what Wales is to me now, we just had to go.

I have to be honest and I say that I didn’t really know much about Montenegro. I knew a bit about the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1992, Serbia and Montenegro established a Federal Republic of Yogoslavia before then in 2003 becoming simply Serbia and Montenegro. Montenegro claimed it’s independence in 2006. Oddly Montenegro’s currency is the Euro, yet not a member of the EU.

To make the most of a singular day in Montenegro we booked a Full day trip on Trip Advisor. We were picked up from our hotel at 7.30, a painless border crossing into Montenegro by 9.  Our tour group was 2 Brits (on their honeymoon) and four American travellers. A small enough group for me to cope with.

Our first stop was Budvar – a port with an old walled city with cobbled streets. Apparently it’s 2,500 years old, one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic coast. It’s also apparently the place to be for beaches and night life. A mix of the old with the new and some very expensive looking boats. We paid the €2.50 to enter the Citadela for further views of the bay and beaches, enjoyed a beer and then headed back to continue our road trip.

We continued passing through beautiful villages, passed Aman Sveti Stefan, before we arrived at Perast, a lovely town at the base of St Elijah Hill – not that we really had enough time to explore it sadly. We all decided to take the optional boat ride to Our Lady of the Rocks island – we didn’t get to go inside the church as there was a wedding. Nevertheless the story of the Island is very interesting (but I won’t spoil it for you!).

Last stop was Kotor – The Old City of Kotor is UNESCO listed “World Natural and Historical Heritage Site”. Built between 12th and 14th Century, the entire ancient city the buildings and churches are criss-crossed with narrow streets and squares. I loved it, hard to get pictures to capture the images that your eyes see.  A Old City, next to a beautiful bay with a limestone cliff backdrop. I’d say it’s a new fav…

Matt headed up to one of the churches on city wall – if we’d had more time we would have completed the over 4 km hike and hiked the 260 m climb to complete the City Walls.

I stayed near the Old City with the “cats” Kotor even has its own Cat Museum – how cute is that?! Kotor is full of cats – somewhat so that they have become a symbol of Kotor. No one really knows why but there are a lot of feline companions that probably got off a boat and then never left.

Then sadly it was home time!

National Geographic Traveler features Montenegro a month the “50 Places of a Lifetime” and I cannot wait to go back. It’s also crazily cheap compared to Dubrovnik.

After learning more about Montenegro it also has one of the World’s deepest canyon’s (Tara River 1300m, The Grand Canyon a mere 200m deeper). We have to go back and see more of this beautiful country – and visit Bosnia and Herzegovina when we’re there!

x

Croatia #Dubrovnik

Wow! It’s been so long since I’ve had a holiday that involved a plane as a mode of a transport (OK just over a year, NYC 2016 involved a plane). The Bucket List of places to go just keeps growing and now that I’m somewhat “old and boring” with a mortgage to pay and a puppy that depends on me we’re just not striking the countries off as fast as we’d like to, nor can afford to! Nevertheless, this trip to Croatia was for Matt’s birthday, over a month ago!

ARRIVAL / DAY ONE:

I’d pre-booked a private car to take us to our hotel – very unlike moi! The short 30 minute drive along the coastline offered some amazing views, with the Island’s and Dubrovnik old town in the distance. Upon arrival to the hotel, we were unable to check in earlier than 3pm so we changed into swimwear and headed down to the hotel’s beach bar for a couple of local draught beers and a very cold dip in the not so heated blue waters of the Adriatic.

DAY TWO:

By day two my hayfever wasn’t hayfever it was turning into a full bloom summer cold, come what may we caught the number 6 bus for a short journey to the old town, determined to not allow it to ruin our holiday.

Dubrovnik is described as one of the world’s most magnificent walled cities. Now, a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s also a popular filming location with of course Game of Thrones and Star Wars: Episode VIII. We paid 150 Croatian Kuna entrance fee for the City Walls, you can walk the entire length of the walls which is about 2 kilometres long, taking in views of Old Town, Bell Towers and Fortresses as you walk towards the sea. I’d definitely recommend taking a stroll along the city walls but best to start early to avoid the crowds and the heat.

I’d also look out for the scattered evidence of shells around the Old Town, a reminder that Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, and after the break-up in 1991 Dubrovnik suffered significant damage. Repairs and restoration works in 1990/2000 leaves little evidence of the chaos caused.

The downside of Dubrovnik’s Old Town is of course the tourism curse when these places become the “number one place to visit”, the number of tourists has increased exponentially (there’s even talk of limiting the number of people who can enter during peak season) and then in hand the number of people permanently residing has decreased – meaning alongside tourist shops, bars and restaurants a lot of the remaining buildings are now holiday let apartments. Of course this pushes prices to double of what I expect the rest of Croatia is. None the less you can walk every little street and alley of the Old Town and explore the harbour in a day.

We then decided to take on the best views of Dubrovnik from top of the Srd Hill where the Dubrovnik Cable Car was built back in 1969. On a clear day you can see up to 60 km. Don’t expect a romantic cable car journey, it’s pretty busy but at 130.00 Kuna round trip it beats a very hot walk. From the top you can see the terracotta-tiled rooftops and islands and see.

DAY THREE:

I’m sorry but I’m dying. Today is nothing much more to report than a “beach day” and exploring our nearby areas (Lapad) as we stayed out of the Old Town, I’d recommend taking the bus as meals and drinks are somewhat cheaper and less busy than Old Town.

DAY FOUR:

We decided to head to the Island of Lokrum, a 10 minute boat ride (return 120.00 Kuna each) from the Old Harbour, a hit of the locals and tourists alike to escape the busy Old Town. The Island has a lot to offer from walks, swimming and even a little hike up the Fort Royal.

We were told that the Botanical Gardens were wonderful, sadly for us they weren’t what we expected, after a storm a lot of the plants were damaged. None the less, exploring the Island, seeing all the rabbits and baby peacocks was worth it.

Dubrovnik a beautiful quaint old town, plan a short weekend there. A lot you can cover in a small amount of time.

Now on to Montenegro…

Belgium #Brussels

Our trip to Brussels was a rather short and bleak one. Despite gorgeous weather in Bruges, Brussels greeted us with grey skies and then a lot of rain.

We boarded a train from Bruges to Brussels and then hopped on the line 6 metro to the Belgian Comic Strip Center.

The Belgian Comic Center building itself is pretty fab, designed in 1905 by Victor Horta it has the art nouveau style that I love and apparently it once served as a textile department store. On the ground floor there’s a restaurant and a comic store (there was little point trying to keep Matt away) and then there’s three further floors for the museum itself. The first floor boasts original comic book pages by various artists, taking you through the history of comics from the monks to modern marketing and political scandal. The second floor is more specific to Belgian comics, of course Tin Tin and an area for Smurfs.

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After Matt purchased a few French Astrix comics we headed on foot through Brussels to the Grand Palace – and how very grand it is. Before this Brussels had seemed very grey and well run down and to be honest I felt like I was in a bit of a location deja-vu with Coventry – hidden through six sideways with cobbled streets is this massive square that boasts this palace. You just cannot fit it into a picture.

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We walked around the square looking at each point, the spired 15th century city hall and the gilded statues. We then sat in a cafe listening to the big band and rock band play in the square.

Then back to the train station to catch our Eurostar home.

Tazscribbles and Belgium out.

x

 

 

Belgium #Bruges

In Bruges? The 2008 dark comedy film, have you seen it? No, neither had I until Matt made me watch it a few nights ago before we departed for our latest weekend getaway in Bruges.  To quote the film;

Ray: “After I killed them, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through. “Get the fuck out of London, youse dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was.”

Second Ray: “It’s in Belgium.”

So Belgium, a county in Western Europe, another Europe country ticked off our ever growing Bucket list, it’s supposedly known for it’s medieval towns, my favourite renaissance architecture and it’s also the headquarters for the EU and Nato (not that the EU counts for much now with good and bad Brexit).

It’s also a country that some might say doesn’t really know what it is, mainly because it’s a very multilingual speaking country with regions in the North speaking Dutch, others French and then German in the East and of course you could not be in Europe if you also didn’t speak English. Nevertheless, Belgian chocolate and Belgian beer – perfect excuse to getaway.

ARRIVAL:

We decided to take the Eurostar from London to Brussels, 2 hours and 1 minute, we then hopped on another train that took us from Brussels to Bruges. Always liking to get the steps up we walked from Bruges train station to our hotel, a mere 25 minute walk along cobbled streets delighting in what I’d like to describe as a Gingerbread town! We checked into our rather nice hotel at about 4pm, a quick unpack and freshen up before exploring our surroundings.

Our first tourist things to do was get the boat along the dreamy canals, now it’s no Venice, for one it’s not your own private gondola, two you’re with about 20+ other tourists and three well it’s very cheap at only €8, but lasts about 30 minutes. We dodged the loud and brash boat full of German men and boarded a more family friendly boat. I’d recommend a boat trip, as despite Bruges being a very good walking city you get to see a lot in less time from the boat.

Bruges by Canal

After our short boat trip we continued exploring along the canal and grabbed a beer at 2be (The Beerwell) and watched the remaining tourist boats come up and down the canal.

Not wishing to be too drunk with the 8% beer we headed to a nearby restaurant for the dish that you won’t be able to miss – Moules-frites before heading back to our hotel for a steam room and sauna.

DAY ONE: (Friday 9th September)

After a rather lovely breakfast we walked 5 minutes to the Belfry to enjoy some panoramic views of Bruges. Unquestionably, no holiday in my books is  fully read without a view from the tallest building or climbing a tower. The Belfort van Brugge has a rather narrow staircase of 366 steps leading to the top of the tower at about 272 ft (83m). The Belfty was added to the market square in 1240, a fire later it was rebuilt and the octagonal upper part of the belfry was added around the 1400’s, with it’s wooden spire then added, to then being destroyed by a lightning strike in 1493, before another fire…

In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the town. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Nevertheless, some stunning views of Bruges, the clock stroke 11 and the bells started to chime and sing, wonderful and loud and thankfully no fire!

View from Belfry

A coffee stop and a delicious waffle in the square before exploring more cobbled streets, past Sint-Annaplein church, a church that has a street of houses around it but is called a square… Odd but everything about Bruges has a wonkiness quirk feel to it.

We then headed to see the Windmills, of which there are now four, as well as seeing some of the old city wall boundaries, Coelweymolen is the most popular but unfortunately for us, none were working or open for us to see. Totally worth leaving the main city tourist area for a walk along the canal to see these.

Windmills

Following a tip from a friend we headed to the olderst pub in Bruges; Herberg Vlissinghe since 1515, an olde worlde true pub off the tourist track but worth a visit and with a gorgeous garden.

After our beer we headed to Choco-Story – Chocolate Museum. Did you know there’s also a Frietmuseum? Yes a museum in Bruges, devoted to the history of potatoes and the production of Belgian fries..! Anyway choco-story a slightly educational tour of the history of chocolate and you also get to watch some chocolate being made. Interesting but needed a bit more chocolate making and devouring.

Afterwards we headed to St. Salvator’s Cathedral, the most impressive thing about the cathedral is as you walk in, look backwards at the organ (built by Jacobus Van Eynde), rather impressive.

Continuing our wandering we popped into some art shops, pondering at how expensive some pieces were, we didn’t buy any.

We then headed back past the markets before enjoying another meal out and stopping off at another recommended bar – De Koninck which had so much choice of beers I really didn’t know where to start. Then of course an ice cream on the way back to the hotel.

DAY TWO :

So Bruges really isn’t that big. It’s a perfect weekend getaway, you can squeeze a lot in and still drink quite a few beers but wow, today is Saturday and after pleasantly saying how lovely it was yet not crowded full of tourists… Bam! We headed on our normal route to be greeted with thousands of tourists and the charm of gingerbread houses and cobbles blocked by thousands of people slowly annoying me – I would definitely recommend going but if you can maybe avoid a weekend!

We headed to Minnewaterpark, also known as Lover’s Lake – a lovely little place in Southern Bruges with attractive buildings, of course a lake filled with swans.

Lake of Love

We continued our walk back around the canal and heading into Begijnhof, from the French béguinage, a complex to house religious women. We didn’t partake in a tour but the grounds and building and especially the archway over the bridge are wonderful to look at. Outside you’ll find the horses on much needed rest breaks and well as tourist- priced terraced restaurants.

We then headed for some beer.. In the Beer Museum. Not your normal museum, you’re greeted with an iPad Mini of which you scan in QR codes that take you through the history of beer to the present day, as well as having quiz questions, which I think I got about 7/20 on! Clearly do not know enough about beer… After the Museum you can then head up to the bar area with fantastic view of the market with a beer or three.

We then headed to Koningin Astridpark, a very small park (albeit Bruges is small), a nice bandstand and a little pond but very quick to walk around it.

Of course with it being our last full day of Bruges we then headed back to the centre for some chocolate shopping, on returning the chocolate to our room we headed out for our fill of Moules again, we then went for a 2 hour evening stroll around Bruges, seeing the Windmills at night and hidden streets we hadn’t uncovered.

Loved Bruges, it is a fairy-medieval town, it has picturesque buildings, boasts lovely canals and a fabulous beer selection – what’s not to love!

France #Paris

I remember reading an article in the Telegraph of the Top 10 European city breaks earlier this year – and I’m quite lucky that I have travelled a lot of Europe and crossed most of the cities off the ever growing bucket list, yet I’ve never really “done” one of the World’s most popular tourist destinations that really is on my doorstep, well a door step down from London that is.

Having said that this city break did have a little twist on our normal Europe jet-setter experience, in that this trip was mainly planned around a visit to Disneyland Paris, a gift to my not so little sister for her 18th birthday.

ARRIVAL / DAY ONE:

Our trip started with a train ride into London, with a hop, skip and tube journey to London St Pancras to catch our 11.01 Eurostar departure, due to arrive at Paris Nord Railway for at 14.17 local time, we arrived a fair bit later with good old delays.

Paris is divided into 20 districts or arrondissements, our hotel was based in the 18th, a little further out from the centre but also on the doorstop of Gare du Nord train station, a metro line and the Sacré-Cœur.

We walked to our hotel, checked in and then headed out to the summit of Montmarte – the highest point in Paris to see Sacré-Cœur basilica – also known as The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris.

History wise, Montmarte has been a place of worship from the Druids of Ancient Gaul, to Roman temples and now the Church with the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur. Though I am not religious I have an interest in all beliefs and a passionate amazement and love for the architecture of these histrionic buildings. We walked around inside and then headed up the 300 steps to see even more impressive views of Paris.

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We then headed to Barbès – Rochechouart to catch the metro to Les Halles, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Gay Pride festival – sadly we were a bit late so pottered around the area (9th arrondissements) getting a feel for the city, our surroundings and seeing a few of the many bridges along the River Seine. Surprising art works on display to entice, or amuse you. After, our feet were in need of a rest so we grabbed an all French cuisine of Pizza and beer before heading back to the hotel. 🙂

DAY TWO:

Sunday, like most of Europe, Paris too seems to “sleep”. Now contrary to most believes, there are still plenty of tourist places open, alongside plenty of bars and cafes but no carrefour shopping market for us to buy a baguette and some fillings for a cheaper lunch.

We headed across the road to a Cafe/Bar for a morning coffee and croissant before getting the metro to Denfert-Rochereau to visit Les Catacombs.

We arrived at 10.50 and we finally made it in to purchase our tickets at 13.40 – a rather timely queue but one the catacombs are worth it and two because no matter where you are in Paris there is always a patisserie that will sell some delicious pastries. Dellen and I opted for a fruit tart and I chose a mini doughnut for Matt who was holding our place in the queue.

The Catacombs holds many remains and although I’d read up on it, I genuinely wasn’t expecting to see that many skulls and bones on display, throughout the walk through the catacombs, every step saw these remains. The underground ossuaries/mines hold the remains of over six million people.

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After the Catacombs we took a ponder down to Notre Dame de Paris – being a Sunday there was a mass and not being a French speaker I couldn’t understand a word of it.

The Cathedral itself is stunning inside and out, the north transept rose is stunning to look at and outside you can admire the famous gargoyles, designed for draining water off and the chimeras – hard to believe all of this architecture was essentially completed in 1345. Modern buildings have a lot to answer for.

Unfortunately we were unable to climb the narrow 387 steps to to top to enjoy some more Paris views as it was closing for the day. 😦

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It was turning a bit drizzly so we headed to a local cafe for a warm drink and a crepe before exploring more Parisian areas, along Rue Dante, where we stumbled across comic book store galore – and my favourite (though not open) a TinTin store.

Home time – well time to sit in our local bar and watch France beat Iceland in the Euros.

DAY THREE:

Dellen’s day – Disneyland Paris!

We walked to Gard du Nord, caught the RER to Les Halles and then boarded another RER A line train to Marne-la-Vallée – right outside Disneyland.

We headed to Walt Disney Studios Park first – what a drama that was. We queued for two rides, both rides broke down when we were literally at the front to go on the ride. It was dampening the fairytale experience so we left this park and headed to where Dellen really wanted to be – Disneyland Park.

Cue an excited face at the magical buildings… 🙂

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A few rides later, a few Disney purchases later and a little wait to meet Mickey Mouse we headed home.

 

DAY FOUR:

Our last day in Paris and still a lot of fit in, first stop the iconic landmark that is the Eiffel Tower. Eiffel tower facts; build by Gustave Eiffeel for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, originally only intended to last 20 years, it’s 324 metres tall (1063 ft), the square base alone is 124 metres (410 ft). During it’s construction the Eiffel Tower overtook the Washington Monument to become the tallest man-made structure in the World, a title it held for 41 years until the Chrysler Building in NYC was finished in 1930.

Plenty of touts lurk around all tourist spots in Paris, Dellen and Matt got collared by ladies asking you to sign a petition for helping the disabled and then refuse to leave you until you hand them over some cash – don’t get caught by them.

We headed through security and then went for the first entrance in sight – the North entrance, also a lift entrance. We purchased a ticket to the summit and waited in line for the lift up.

It’s a regular trip past-time to view cities/places from the best vantage point and seeing all of Paris from the tower was as splendid as every other view, from the 2nd floor to the summit, panoramic views of all of Paris – You can even enjoy a spot of champagne from the bar if you like.

We descended by taking the 704 steps down to ground level, marveling in the awesomeness and the intricacies of this impressive structure.

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We then headed along Avenue Kléber, one the twelve avenues leading out of the Arc de Triomphe.

And what a colossal triumphal arch it is – built between 1806 and 1836. A fantastic ensemble of decorative sculptures in honour of those those who fought in France.

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We then walked down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées – (8th arrondissement of Paris), filled with shops and grandiose buildings. I’d recommend walking the avenue to Place de la Concorde and taking in each personality that the districts has. We then walked through Jardin des Tuileries (gardens) towards The Louvre; a lovely grand garden that could have been thoroughly enjoyed on the summery day.

Sadly we didn’t research well when it came to visiting the Louvre museum, as The Louvre is closed on Tuesday’s – no Mona Lisa for us 😦

We continued to explore more of the area on foot before heading back to Gare Du Nord for our Eurostar home.

Paris is a beautiful city, with many things to love although it’s a small city, it has a big feel and is easily accessible on foot, or the metro gets you everywhere! Each district has it’s own unique sense of place, packed full of cafes, bars, monuments and unique urban arts on display and it’s a hugely international and diverse city. Though densely packed, you can find smaller pockets of intimate areas and still feel in the breath of the historic part as well as the intensely lived in areas.

The football didn’t ruin our weekend either! 🙂

Time to work on finishing off rest of Europe – Belgium is up next for the latest installment of TazScribbles.

Much love

x