Category Archives: Travels

A weekend in Lisbon in pictures

A couple of weekends ago Mr O, Little O and I headed off to Lisbon for a long weekend. A few months ago we had watched a travel show featuring the city and we liked the look of it so much we decided to plan a break there. It was the first time we have travelled abroad with Little O without either extended family joining us or where we were going to see our extended family.

Read more…

Adventures in Berlin

A couple of weeks ago I went to Berlin for a work conference where I was “fortunate” enough to get to present to almost 2,000 people about innovations in Instant Notifications. Let’s just say it was nerve-wracking. It did give me the opportunity though to stay on in Berlin for a couple of days though and explore the city.

I decided to stay in the Meininger Hotel right next to Hauptbahnhof, which is the largest station in Europe. I have stayed in a Meininger Hotel before and I like the fact that they’re a bit of a hybrid between a hotel and a hostel and ultimately very good value for money. It was also a perfect location for getting around because it was so central and there is a direct train from both airports. Read more…

And I’m off…

So tonight I am flying to South Africa to visit my family. I am spending a few days in Somerset West, near Cape Town with my dad, where I will also get to see my brother, his partner Nikki and my furry nephew, Colby. I will also get to see my friends, Emily and Oli get married in Franschoek on New Years Eve.

Then I am heading off to Queenstown for my Ouma’s (grandmother) 90th birthday and to see my mom, aunt and cousins.

And finally four days in Johannesburg with my friends.

While I am very excited to see everyone, I am also feeling a bit apprehensive. Mr O is not coming along as it’s a very busy time at work for him. It’s been quite some time since I did a long trip on my own and since I am flying Kenya Airways I get to stop off in Nairobi both ways… at 14 and then 16 weeks pregnant. I have been feeling quite emotionally fragile over this last part of my first trimester and I’m hoping the travelling won’t set me off.

But anyway… I am going to be using the time to take a little break from social media and the Internet in general. So if you don’t hear from me much or don’t see me popping up on your blog or liking your Facebook posts… I’m not dead. I am just taking a breath.

Happy New Year!

Adventures in Tallinn and Helsinki

Because Mr O and I had two weddings we didn’t really have a honeymoon. So for the last three years (and hopefully all out future  years together) we’ve been taking a little trip over our anniversary. This year we decided to complete our tour of the Baltic States by visiting Tallinn in Estonia and then hop on the ferry and check out Helsinki in Finland.  Read more…

A trip to Hampton Court Palace

It’s not often Mr O and I have whole days off at the same time. He mostly has to work at the weekend and I have a 9 -5 weekday type job. When we do have weekends off together they often end up being more about Netflix and less about adventures because we’re in our 30’s and we’re tired. Last weekend we decided to buck the trend, get our asses off the couch and go to Hampton Court Palace. Read more…

A brief adventure in Paris

I travel on the Eurostar quite often for work so I have joined their frequent traveller programme, which opens you up to a whole bunch of interesting special deals and flash sales. One of these happened November last year and I managed to bag return tickets to Paris for Mr O and I for only £40 each! Of course with that kind of ticket there are always limited times when you can actually travel so I ended up booking for the middle of the week just for a quick one night visit. I haven’t been to Paris for ten years so it was all really exciting.

We arrived at Gare du Nord, Paris’s biggest mainline station at about 4pm. There was a massive queue for travel tickets so we decided to walk down to our hotel in the Latin Quarter. It took about 45 minutes but it gave us an interesting look at the city and we got to take a couple of pictures of Saint Jacques Tower en route. The Gothic tower is almost 600 years old and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998.

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We stayed in the Hotel Agora Saint Germain, a cute, cosy little hotel really close to the Notre Dame, which was our first stop once we’d dumped our bags.

The Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the most well-known Paris landmarks and considered one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture. The Cathedral is free to visit but as it is a functioning church one is expected to be silent and respectful indoors. While the outside is pretty impressive the inside is even more amazing, filled with some of the most beautiful stained glass I have ever seen as well as many interesting statues. My favourite was one of Joan of Arc.

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Of course once you’re outside you can pretend that you own the place and pose on one of these bollards. Although be warned they’re not that easy to climb on and if you’re as clumsy as I am you might end up with some serious shin bruises #justsaying.

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By this time it was starting to get dark and we were getting hungry so we wandered in towards the Louvre and found a cafe for coffee and a snack. Mr O went straight in for a salami baguette and I picked a traditional crepe with butter, sugar and lemon. It was delicious.

On the way back we passed Hôtel de Ville, the Paris town hall, which had an ice rink set up outside. As everyone knows, Paris was the victim of a terrorist act a couple of weeks ago and the town hall was still wearing it’s Nous Sommes Charlie banners. It was really touching to see.

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It was freezing so we headed back to the hotel to warm up a bit before dinner. There were loads of generic restaurants near our hotel but we wanted something a bit more authentic so we headed down a few side roads until we found, Beaurepaire Café Restaurant which serves traditional Basque food. While everyone claims that Parisian service is terrible and everyone is really rude, we found our servers to be charming and the food was delicious. Mr O had pork and I had a stew that contained the best duck leg I have ever had, a giant country sausage, bacon and vegetables. We couldn’t resist finishing off with some traditional French cheese which was gloriously stinky and served with unlimited fresh bread. Like everything in Paris it wasn’t cheap but it still felt like good value for money.

In the morning we headed to the Paris Opera House to join the walking tour we had booked in advance, through Discover Tours. Because we had limited time we went for the Paris Landmarks tour. In the end we were the only ones who turned up. Our guide, Astrid, suggested that it was probably because it was the middle of the week and 0 degrees. We weren’t complaining though because it was great to get a private tour.

This statue at the Opera House represents the art of dance and was highly controversial at the time

This statue at the Opera House represents the art of dance and was highly controversial at the time

Astrid, who was born and raised in Paris showed us around some of the city’s most famous sites while sharing tidbits about the French revolution and Paris’ place as a centre of culture throughout history. The most interesting part was learning more about the Parisian spirit and how the residents of the city mounted several rebellions against anyone and everyone who tried to control them regularly tearing down and rebuilding their own landmarks. She showed us some of Paris’ most opulent shopping areas and hotels as well as the Tuileries, The Louvre Palace and the Eiffel Tower… which was built as a temporary installation for a technology fare. Parisians hated it and it was supposed to be torn down but it never was and has become Paris’ most famous landmark.

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After the tour we stopped off for lunch before heading to Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, which was the one place Mr O desperately wanted to visit in Paris. The cemetery was built in 1804 on the site of a former Jesuit retreat and is today one of the world’s largest and most famous cemeteries. It houses the graves and monuments of a number of famous artists, scientists, writers and inventors including Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, which we particularly wanted to visit. Wild’s grave is a popular site for pilgrimages and so many people have kissed his monument that a glass barrier has been erected around it to prevent it from being eroded. Whether you are interested in particular graves or not, the cemetery is a fascinating place to visit and some of the monuments are spectacular. Below are some of my favourites.

Jim Morrison's grave

Jim Morrison’s grave

Mr O at the entrance of Pere-Lachaise

Mr O at the entrance of Pere-Lachaise

Voldemort?

Voldemort?

Is he trying to get in or out?

Is he trying to get in or out?

This is where Avenged Sevenfold got their inspiration

This is where Avenged Sevenfold got their inspiration

Mr O kissing Oscar Wilde's grave

Mr O kissing Oscar Wilde’s grave

By the time we had finished investigating the cemetery it was almost time to head back to Gare du Nord but not before we found a patisserie to buy some snacks for the journey back. After all Paris is known for it’s amazing bakeries and cakes so it just wouldn’t be right not to indulge.

Mr O calls this his "posh cake face"

Mr O calls this his “posh cake face”

Yum!

Yum!

Although our time in Paris was very brief, Mr O and I loved our trip and wouldn’t definitely go back again – next time probably in Summer or Autumn because it was so cold! I still want to see Versailles, make a return to Musee d’Orsay, check out Musee Rodin and many more. Several people warned us about the rudeness and arrogance of Parisians but we found everyone to be friendly and welcoming but focused in the way that people in a big city generally are. It definitely helps though if you can muster a teeny bit of French and not assume that people speak English, so get out the phrase book and brush up before you leave!

Adventures in Riga

Last week Mr O and I continued our great love affair with Eastern Europe by taking a trip to Riga. Riga is the capital of Latvia, which is the middle Baltic state (in terms of both size and location). It’s a particularly interesting place to visit because in its 800 year history as recognised “territory”, Latvia has only been independent for a total of 55 years. Outside of that the Germans, Swedish, Polish and Russians have all had a go at ruling it, mostly because it has such excellent connections to the Baltic Sea, particularly via Riga. All of this makes for a city packed with vibrant and mixed cultural influences and fascinating architecture.

Mr O and I stayed in the Maritim Park Hotel, which was about 15 – 20 minutes walk from the old town on the opposite side of the Daugava River. The hotel has a tram and bus stop within seconds from the front door but we’re Londoners so we chose to walk instead. We generally found the staff of the hotel very friendly and welcoming and our room was comfortable and large. Definitely a bargain at only €55 per night. The hotel will happily arrange an airport transfer for you at only €10 each way – there are probably cheaper ways to do this but for me that price is definitely worth not having to figure them out, especially if there is more than one of you. We were also allowed to check-in three hours early at no extra cost. Good work, Maritim Park!

We arrived about midday on Sunday so after a little break to freshen up and dump our bags we decided to head into the old town to find some food and get the lay of the land. One of the definite upsides of walking into the old town was getting to see the very distinctive Riga skyline from a distance. Check out all those cool spires!

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It also gives you the opportunity to pose with the Riga city sign.

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We stopped off a Egle right in the town centre where we ate a kind of a tapas platter of cold meats, pickles and salads washed down with local beer. Being a Baltic country, Latvia takes beer seriously and there is no shortage of indigenous brews to sample. Not long after we sat down to eat a pianist and singer started performing. We soon realised that Riga loves live music.and you can expect some kind of musical accompaniment in most open air venues. This is great for giving the city a real buzz and everyone we heard play was really good.

After lunch we decided to take the city sightseeing tour which leaves from the old town centre. You can’t miss it because it’s right by the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams), a massively ornate building that was originally the home of a guild of merchants who never married and spent all their money on booze, parties and shiny stuff. Interestingly their patron saint is Maurice who was a gentleman of colour and represented how exotic their travels were.

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I am normally a big fan of a sightseeing bus but I have to say that the Riga one was a bit of a letdown. The commentary was not particularly well synced up with the sites, the English commentary was poor and mostly it moved either too fast or too slow. It helped us get some direction as to where to go but as a whole I would say it’s poor value for money and there are better ways to see the city, which I will come to.

After our lacklustre tour we were thirsty again so we did some more wandering of the town centre and discovered the Rockabilly House, which became our kind of base of operations. Whenever Mr O and I travel to we like to find a bar or pub where we can just hand out when we feel like a little relax. We loved that there was a 50’s themed bar right in the middle of Riga. It was somehow perfectly out of place and in its perfect place in one go. I think we were mostly served by the owner who was simultaneously grumpy and charming, which I liked. The only thing I didn’t love was that, like many of the open air bars/restaurants in the town centre,  Rockabilly House does not have its own indoor toilet facilities and you have to use the public portaloos if you need a wee. Some are better than others and the Rockabilly House ones were particularly grim. We did pop in for a beer and a game of cards at some point on every day though.

Our final stop for the day was dinner. which accidentally ended up being back at Egle. We had no idea how big it was and didn’t realise it was part of the same sprawling bohemian open air restaurant until we had menus in front of us. In the end we were too tempted by their mussels to move on and shared an absolutely delicious plate of the saffron flavoured seafood. I have an amazing picture of Mr O tucking into them but he would prefer me not to share it because it looks like he is having some kind of otherworldly experience.

The next morning we decided to check out some of Riga’s seemingly endless temporary art installations. Mr O really liked this egg, which depicted all the seasons of Latvia.

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I really liked this snail, which was one of a few we saw around the city. We all know I love an art photography project so I got excited about the idea of spotting them all but overnight they seemed to vanish into thin air. It was hard to find information about then but apparently it had something to do with protesting how slow the restoration of one of the art museums is going.

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After that we headed to the Esplanade region of Rigs, which is situated around what was the city wall, moat and defensive fort. Originally this was where battles took place but after military defences changed and moats fell out of use the area was transformed into beautiful parks and canals for the residents to enjoy and they are absolutely breathtaking.

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We weren’t just there to check out the ornamental fountains, love bridge and stunning flower beds though. I had managed to find a free guided walking tour online and it left from the statue of Rainas, who is considered the father of Latvian culture, right in the middle of the Esplanade. With Latvia being colonised so many times and its citizens being treated by its overlords as peasants and farmers its culture has often been subsumed by those in charge but as a writer and poet, Rainas made Latvian people believe that their voices, opinions and culture are important hand he is highly revered.

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The tour we did was arranged through Travel Jam and is completely free, although tips are welcomed and after this fabulous two and a half hour guided walk if you don’t feel like you owe your guide something, you are a dick. Our guide was an artist and art history student called Dauga and she was fabulous. Not only was her knowledge of the city excellent and her English perfect, her enthusiasm and passion for the city was infectious and almost everything about the history of the city that I have mentioned in this post I learned from her. If you have a choice between doing the bus tour and the walking tour it’s absolutely no contest.

One of Dauga’s favourite places that she showed us was her her school, the academy of art, which is built in a neogothic style. What I liked about it was the absolutely awesome disco ball sculpture that stands outside it which was created by a former student and is inspired by the Venus of Hohle Fels, which is the oldest sculpture ever found.

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One of the best things about Riga is it’s rows of art nouveau buildings just outside the old town.

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Art nouveau is a philosophy of art, style and architecture, which is all about the combination of beauty and function with a strong focus on nature. There are a number of rules within the movement with it being essential that things are not just beautiful but also functional. With this in mind it is interesting that Riga’s most well known art nouveau “architect” is someone who broke most of the rules. In fact he wasn’t an architect at all. Mikhail Eisenstein, was a Russian civil engineer who loved all of the pretty flourishes of art nouveau but wasn’t particularly bothered about the “story”. He had no trouble finding people to put his facades on the front of their buildings despite the fact that the leaders of the movement were horrified by his actions. I doubt most amateur observers would be able to tell the difference, especially from the outside though. I really liked this particular building. Apparently the two lions are said to represent Eisenstein and his son Sergei, who did not see eye to eye. Interestingly Sergei was a pioneer in the theory and practice of film montage.

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After exploring the art nouveau area we headed into the rabbit warren of the medieval old town, which tells the tale of Latvia’s colourful past through its array of different architectural styles particularly around the cathedral in Dome Square and the spire of St Peter’s. I really liked the three brothers though, which are the oldest medieval homes found in the city. This is one of them.

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I think my favourite place was our final stop though at the monument to freedom. This magnificent statue was built when Latvia first got its independence after the First World War. The lady at the top represents freedom and in her hand she is holding the three regions of Latvia brought together as one nation. When Latvia became one of the Soviet States, the USSR wanted to tear the statue down but through some clever deception and administrative jiggery pokery it survived the occupation and still stands tall overlooking the city now celebrating Latvia’s current and hopefully permanent status as an independent country since 1991. If you hang around the statue long enough you might just be lucky enough to see the guards that protect it marching or changing over.

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In the afternoon we decided to visit the war museum, which lives inside what was once the main tower of the fort that protected the city. You can see the tower ahead in this picture with lots of foliage growing on it.

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In some ways it’s a really cool museum with interesting exhibits and it’s free. However all the information is only in Latvian, which is obviously the museum’s prerogative being the Latvian war museum. There are some printed guides in English but it makes it challenging to enjoy the museum to its fullest. The kids that were in there on a school trip were clearly having a whale of a time though and Paul quite enjoyed getting to play with this gun.

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That night we had dinner at the Key to Riga, which serves traditional Latvian food accompanied by Latvian folk music. We both had ribs, which were delicious but there were a lot more exotic things you could try out including bull’s testicles. We sat outside because the weather was lovely but the inside would be absolutely beautiful in cooler weather since it was jammed with candles casting a magical romantic glow.

After two days of unseasonably warm weather we woke up on our final day to rain and mist, which was unfortunate as we had set this aside as our day to go up St Peter’s spire for a view over the city. Their seemed little point since the visibility was so bad but you have to admit it’s a pretty impressive spire… even though it has been rebuilt numerous times since it keeps getting hit by lightning. (This picture was obviously taken the day before the rain arrived).

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We used the weather as an excuse to go an wander the markets inside the disused zepellin hangars along the docks. If you want to buy any kind of food, souvenirs or general tat this is the place for you. We were only after one thing though. Mr O loves a bit of Soviet memorabilia and he’d heard there might be some medals up for grabs. You really have to scour the market and be persistent but eventually if keep going there are some stands selling what basically looks like stuff from house clearances where we found these, which made Mr O really happy.

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We celebrated our findings by having a cup of coffee at what must now be my favourite coffee/tea shop in the world, Apsara. Situated in the Esplanade in what looks like a kind of hexagonal pagoda it serves a wide variety of teas, coffees and cakes. This is not what makes is special though, it’s the fact that you can climb up to a kind of mezzanine level where no shoes are allowed and you can lie around on cushions looking out over the park. Not only do they serve your coffee with love but you can utterly relax.

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In the afternoon we went to one Riga’s most well-known sites, The Occupation Museum, which chronicles Latvia’s 800 year history of being occupied by someone else. The majority if the museum is dedicated to the Russian, Nazi and Soviet occupations of the twentieth century. I don’t want to describe the museum in too much detail because I wouldn’t want to do it an injustice but it’s a heartrending place that is likely to remind you that Earth would probably be a better place if human beings were wiped off it with all the disgusting things we have done to each other. That said, it’s definitely something you should explore to remind yourself of how lucky you are to be free. Entrance to the museum is free but donations are most appreciated and will be taken in any currency.

We had our final dinner in a restaurant called Pete’s Brewhouse, which I can unfortunately find no information about online. It doesn’t sound very Latvian but the food was traditional and amazing. We stumbled upon it and it was the best food we ate in Riga… and everything we ate in Riga was good. If you do manage to find it I would highly recommend the slow-cooked beef cheeks.

Without question Riga further ignited my desire to explore Eastern Europe and I would recommend it for a city break. It’s a small, compact city which is easily walkable and benefits from friendly, welcoming people, delicious food and beer and very reasonable prices. Now all we need is Tallin to complete our Baltic collection!

A trip to Centre Parcs

You might have noticed that this blog has been a little bit all over the shop recently. Some of the regular features have gone on pause, I’m behind on everything and the posts have been sporadic at best, not to mention how little time I’ve been spending on all of your blogs. The fact of the matter is that I’ve barely been in London over the last two weeks, which has kind of thrown my schedule off track. The good/bad news is that I have now run out of vacation days before Christmas so I’ll be around a lot more and I’m committed to catch everything all up over the next week including my long overdue Shitfest acceptance post, but first I wanted to tell you about a trip I took with my family.

Having not grown up in the UK, I never went to Centre Parcs as a child but apparently this “holiday camp” is an absolute family staple so when Mrs O Senior suggested that we spend a long weekend, I was right up for it.

There are five Centre Parcs locations throughout the UK. We visited Centre Parcs, Elveden Forest. The park has two “sessions” per week. You can either arrive on Friday and leave on Monday or arrive on Monday and leave on Friday. Mondays and Fridays are cross over days, which are the only days cars are allowed out of the car park. Basically you drive down to your chalet, drop off your things, park in the car park and don’t see your car again until the day your leave. After that the best way to get around is by bike. The park is definitely walkable but it’s quite big and if you want to get around quickly cycling is much easier and with no cars it’s pretty safe. You can either bring your own bike or hire one for the whole weekend for only £20. If, like me, you’re a bit useless can’t ride a bike it’s not the end of the world since they have a range of speciality bikes including adult tricycles and a variety of kid friendly ones.

Check me out

Check me out

We hired a two bedroom chalet, which was bright, airy and had all the mod cons you’d hope for. It’s clearly set up for mum and dad and two kids since Paul and my room had two single beds in it but it was quite fun sneaking in and out of each other’s beds. We also had a lovely view of the lake and the collection of bonkers bird life that occupy it. The ducks, geese and swans in Elveden Forest have clearly figured out that there are friendly humans with lots of tasty food hanging out in the chalets and they’re not averse to coming and pecking on the glass doors.

The activities you can do around the park are staggering from water sports (get your mind out of the gutter, IPC readers), to cake decorating, dance classes, tree climbing, paintball and everything in between. You can book either in advance or while you are there. Some activities are definitely more popular than others so it’s probably worth having a look online for what you want to do and book anything you’re especially keen on. The cost of the activities varies but everything is relatively reasonable.

We spent most of our first day settling in before attacking the water park with vigour. I am a really water baby and I cannot get enough of water slides, wave pools, jacuzzis or anything of that ilk. The Elveden Forest water park is inside a dome, which means its perfectly temperature controlled and usable no matter what the weather. It has an impressive range of fun pools and rides for all ages but nothing tops the Cyclone. To be honest when Mr O and I lined up for the Cyclone we had no idea what it was, we just figured with that long a queue it must be good. It ended up being totally crazy. Basically between two and four of you get into a clover-shaped rubber ring and then disappear down a tunnel which sees you take a 45 degree drop before entering a massive chamber where you are flung from side to side, almost tipping out. It is awesome. We probably went on it about forty times over the weekend. The best thing about the water park is that it’s totally free.

In the evening we had dinner at Bella Italia. The park has a number of restaurants mostly concentrated around a central plaza but chalets are also fully equipped for self-catering and braais (BBQs). We followed it up with tenpin bowling, which I was utterly horrible at, however I improved the more I drank.

Bad, bad bowler

Bad, bad bowler

On day two we were up early to play badminton, which I was even more horrible at than bowling. Seriously, I think I managed to hit the shuttlecock about twice. Both Mr O’s were pretty good though and it was a fun way to spend 45 minutes.

The opposition

The opposition

After that both Mr O’s and I had planned to do an “aerial adventure”, which involves climbing through the treetops of Elveden Forest, battling a number of obstacles before finally ziplining across the lake. I am pretty scared of heights so I saw it as a way to try and conquer my fears, especially since a bunch of ten year olds seemed to be tripping along with zero apprehension. Unfortunately I never got to find out since they wouldn’t let me participate unless I took out my nose ring and since it’s a spring-loaded ring held shut with a ball that requires a piercer with a pair of pliers to extract. It wasn’t happening. We got a refund but I was really disappointed and unable to see any real health and safety risk that it would have caused. The Mr O’s had a fantastic time though.

Tree warriors!

Tree warriors!

In the afternoon Mrs O senior and I did a Bollywood dancing class where we learned a routine over the space of an hour. It was fun, challenging and got us good and sweaty. You can also do Zumba classes.

On our last day we started with some more badminton, followed by archery, which I absolutely loved despite managing to keep catching the bowstring on my forearm. Apparently if you end up with a mark from this it’s called a warrior bruise. I feel like with some practise I could actually become alright at archery. Another step towards my plan to basically be in Game of Thrones.

The afternoon was a real challenge for me though. Mrs O senior had signed up for a Segway challenge, which she didn’t feel up to and so she suggested that I join the Mr O’s and do it in her place. For those who do not know what a Segway is, it’s one of those electric vehicles which has two big wheels and a platform you stand on where you steer with a long stick. Like this. I found mine an absolute nightmare to operate. It has no off switch so the only way you can make it stop is by standing absolutely upright and dead still, otherwise you will find yourself teetering forward or back and if you don’t hold the steering stick dead straight you will find yourself turning in a circle. Everyone else seemed to find this an absolute doddle but I was all over a shop and throughout the tour we did of the park both on and off-road I was petrified. The Mr O’s had a great time but if I never see another Segway again in my life I will not feel sad.

I then convinced everyone to go down to the lake for some boating. We hired a katakanu, which is halfway between a catamaran and a canoe. I had a great time but the whole experience was a bit fraught since we were all a bit rubbish at paddling and we had possibly arranged the level of strength within the boat badly. Next time more practicing.

Boat times!

Boat times!

We finished up the day with a braai and quiz over at Paul’s brother’s chalet. He was spending the weekend with his friends at the same time. It was so much fun.

Fire kings!

Fire kings!

When we had to leave the next morning I was really quite sad. It was just about the right level of nature for me, it was fun tearing around the park on my trike and the activities and water park were brilliant. Although we were a group of adults, I can imagine it must be wonderful to bring children for a holiday and all the little people we saw seemed to be having the best time ever. If you’re looking for a UK staycation, I would highly recommend a Centre Parcs trip!

Game of Thrones Tours AKA Abbi and Jen go to Westeros

As I mentioned in my recent Film Friday Dance Movie Marathon post, my friend Jen is visiting from Australia. Now if there is one thing that Jen and I love even more than dance movies, it’s Game of Thrones. Throughout season 4 we had a regular date to watch it together and I can honestly say the only way I got through the red wedding was with her beside me, even though she was howling like an injured direwolf throughout the whole episode. Anyway, when I found out there was a Game of Thrones tour you could take to check out some of the Northern Ireland filming locations I couldn’t resist booking it as an outing for us.

There are two options for the tour, one leaving from Belfast and the other from Dublin. Tours from Dublin cost €55 and tours from Belfast cost €50. We opted for the Dublin option because it was a lot cheaper to fly to Dublin from London than Belfast, arriving the night before and staying in the North Wall Quay Jury’s Inn, which is where the tour departs from in the morning. We are creatures of convenience the two of us.

We were met at 830 by the shiny black tour bus, although our departure was slightly delayed by some American tourists who were at the wrong Jury’s Inn. Clearly the Irish are more patient than I am because I would have left them behind.

Yes, Jen is wearing chain mail leggings...

Yes, Jen is wearing chain mail leggings…

On our way to our first stop our tour guide Dorothy told us more about how Game of Thrones came to be filmed predominantly in Northern Ireland and showed us some behind the scenes videos showing how the filming locations were digitally enhanced to create the what we see onscreen. We were also entertained with a quiz that tested our knowledge of the show. We managed to came first and third which meant that we both given the privilege of wearing appropriate gear during the first leg of the tour. Jen got a full Stark uniform where I got a cape with a badger on it… a real badger,

Hand of the Queen

Hand of the Queen

Queen in the North

Queen in the North

Those who were not lucky enough to win their outfit for the day were given the opportunity to hire full or partial outfits if they so wished. Out first stop was at Castle Ward, which forms the basis for Winterfell, the Stark family stronghold. A lot of Winterfell is digitally added but one of its main towers is part of Castle Ward and if you look carefully on the right is Tyrion’s brothel of choice.

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There are several other filming sites at Castle Ward, which are explored through a guided walk or if you don’t fancy that you can practise your archery at the very site where Jon Snow attempted to help Bran improve his skills before he was bested by Arya.

We chose to go on the walk, as it seemed the best way to show off our outfits. The location is absolutely stunning and we were unsurprised when Dorothy told us that lots of people come on the tour without knowing anything about the show just to enjoy the scenery. At each stop Dorothy showed us stills or video so we could compare the scenes from the show with the location and explained in detail how each location was used.

Audley Castle - where Catelyn found out that Ned had been beheaded

Audley Castle – where Catelyn found out that Ned had been beheaded

The spot where Jamie and Brienne came ashore in season 4

The spot where Jamie and Brienne came ashore in season 4

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Badger, Hand of the Queen, Queen in the North

Badger, Hand of the Queen, Queen in the North

After we finished our walk we had lunch in the stately home on the Castle Ward grounds, which was included in the tour. The meal comprised of delicious home made soup, sandwiches and cakes, which were most welcome because we’d worked up such an appetite from the walking.

Our next stop was the amazing ruin of Inch Abbey where Robb was declared King in the North. It is also the spot where the tree that Robb hacks at when he finds out his father is dead, but this has been cordoned off by a farmer. Guess he wasn’t enjoying the fan reenactments.

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Our final stop for the day was at Tollymore National Park, which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It definitely conjures up the concept of a magical storybook forest, which is why it was used to film several forest scenes around Jon Snow’s journey to the Wall. It’s also the place where the discovery of the direwolf pups was filmed. We weren’t the only people enjoying the park though as it’s a popular camping, walking and picnic spot.

Where the direwolf pups were found

Where the direwolf pups were found

Our journey back to Dublin went by swiftly as we got to rewatch episode one and two of season one and see many of the spots we had visited onscreen, which added to the awesomeness of the tour. Whether you are a Game of Thrones  mega fan, an occasional watcher or have barely heard of the show I would highly recommend the tour not just because it’s an excellent way to see some of the beauty of Northern Ireland in just one day but because everything is well-organised and fun and the information that is shared during the tour will definitely enhance your enjoyment of the show. Book it now!

Adventures in Amsterdam

Last week Mr O and I went on a little trip to Amsterdam. When we were in South Africa earlier this year my friend, Bronwyn, suggested that we come and meet her and her husband, Dave for a couple of days in the city where they were stopping over en route to a Roundtable conference. I have really strong ties to Amsterdam because both my dad and my Oupa (grandad) were born there so I jumped at the chance to see it.

We flew out really early on Monday morning from Gatwick airport on Easyjet, which actually wasn’t bad at all. It’s only a 45 minute flight from London and it’s perfectly plausible to spend two nights away from home with just hand luggage. Although I can’t say I had the most cheerful face on after getting up at 4am.

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Our hotel, The Meininger was in the Oud Wes region of the city. It’s a little bit away from the main touristy bits but it’s right next to Sloterdijk station, which means it’s only 10 minutes by train from both Schipol Airport and Central Station. The number 12 tram stops right outside and there are a few bus routes that service the hotel. I have to admit that Paul and I were surprised that our room had a bunk bed in it as well as a double but as we spent more time there we realised it’s kind of halfway between a hotel and a youth hostel. There were loads of lively young guests but we never found them noisy or disruptive and we quite liked its buzzy vibe. Our room was big, clean and comfortable and excellent value for money.

Bronwyn, David and some other Roundtable friends were staying next door so we met up with Bron and headed down to Museemplein on the tram to check out the famousRijksmuseum. It houses an impressive collection of Dutch Golden Age masterpieces as well as an extensive collection of European art. We were able to buy three day tram cards for only about €16, which was a great deal and enabled us to get pretty much everywhere we needed to the in city.

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Outside the museum is a massive installation which spells out I AMSTERDAM, which is a great place for posing for photos. We couldn’t resist.

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We probably spent a good couple of hours exploring the museum and we could definitely have spent more. I particularly enjoyed the Rembrandts and Van Goghs as well as the amazing pottery,  18th Century photography, epic library and the slightly creepy dolls houses. As per usual I couldn’t resist recaptioning some of the photos… these were my most popular.

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The mystery of who ate all the pies has been solved

Behold Napoleon's camel toe

Behold Napoleon’s camel toe

If you get a chance the museum has an absolutely beautiful manicured garden, which is lovely to relax in.

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There is a fountain in the middle of it where the water drops and rises and gives you the opportunity to run in and stand in the centre without getting too wet. Guaranteed to bring out anyone’s inner child.

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By then we were starving so we went on a wander to find some food. Walking the streets of Amsterdam can we a bit hair raising especially if you’re used to the traffic being on the left hand side of the road. If that wasn’t enough to contend with there are also trams and buses… and bikes. The Dutch are seriously big fans of cycling and bikes take precedence over just about everything. I learned very quickly that if you have to ask yourself the question “am I in the bike lane?” the answer is almost guaranteed to be, “yes”! There is something very cool about how they get around by pedal power especially when you see when you see parents with little wagons with kids in them and dogs in baskets and couples riding on the back of each others’ bikes as long as you make sure you get out of the way before they start angrily ringing their little bells at you.

Bikes outside Sloterdijk Station

Bikes outside Sloterdijk Station

After some delicious sandwiches we jumped back on the tram and headed to the floating flower market. The market is home to a row of stalls set out on floating barges, which sell every possible kind of fresh flower you can imagine as well as cuttings, seeds, bulbs and kits to grow flowers, vegetables, fruit, trees and pretty much anything with leaves. Of course the most popular item is tulips, especially sold in clogs. It’s a little touristy but a must-see if you enjoy gardening or just beautiful plants.

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After Bron bought some “shoelips”, as we decided to call them, we took some pics in Dam Square, marveled at the Royal Palace and posed for this absolutely epic photo in a clog before taking a short walk to the Red Light District.

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Amsterdam is particularly well known for this area where sex workers ply their trade legally and there are loads of bars, strip clubs, adult cinemas and  to sex shops. I have to admit that I found seeing women standing in windows in their underwear quite unpleasant. Although I realise that everyone has the choice to do whatever they like with their body it made me a little sad and I didn’t want to stay long. We did pop into the Erotica Museum, which was less of a museum and more of a random personal collection. Probably not worth the €7 entrance fee but at least we kept it classy.

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By this stage we were tired and a bit hot and bothered so we headed back to the hotel to cool off and relax before catching a tram into the main part of Oud Wes where there are loads of cute little restaurants along the canals. Away from the hecticness of the main tourist area it’s an atmospheric and relaxing place to spend an evening without the hyped up prices. We decided to have dinner at Cafe Thuys where we had a great view of the water as well as excellent service and absolutely delicious food. I would highly recommend the veal burger.

Tuesday morning took us to Leidseplein where we had breakfast pancakes at Pancake Corner. Although the pancakes were nice they weren’t amazing and the service was a bit crap. I would recommend walking five minutes down one of the side roads to find something better.

If you did want to visit an Amsterdam coffee shop for some traditional recreational activities the ones just off Prinsengracht near Leidseplein are a lot nicer and more chilled than the ones in the red light district and that’s all I am going to say about that.

After we’d had our breakfast we decided to do some market shopping and headed to the Albert Cuyp market. Unfortunately it was a big disappointment akin to Romford Market on a Saturday. Unless you really want to buy budget bog roll or the most plasticky of souvenirs I really, really wouldn’t bother. However the Waterlooplein Market is worth a visit if you’re interested in vintage clothing or accessories. Paul and I both made purchases but our spending spree was cut short by a sudden shower. We did spot this very cool former warehouse with its striking red shutters.

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After all the shopping we were really hungry so we went back to Oud Wes to find dinner. This time we stopped off at Van ‘t Spit (which means “from the rotisserie” in Dutch). Here they just serve chicken. You can buy a quarter or a half and then pick from a selection of about four side dishes. It is perfect for the indecisive. We ordered a full chicken to share, thinking we’d struggle to finish it but it was probably the best chicken I have ever eaten and as you can see below, we made light work of it.

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I got chatting with the manager afterwards and he told me that it’s a relatively new concept only open for a few weeks but it’s proving really successful. I am not surprised with such beautifully seasoned food. He was the epitome of the residents of Amsterdam, all of whom are effortlessly cool and stylish, while always appearing friendly and approachable… as long as you aren’t standing in the bus lane.

On our last day we decided to go an a canal boat cruise to get a view of the city from a slightly different angle. Amsterdam has over 100km of canals, which give it an almost coastal vibe without being near the sea. We arranged our tour through our hotel and were able to get tickets for a 75 minute cruise, which included the harbour for only €10. It was less than half of some of the prices we saw advertised so it’s worth shopping around. Our cruise was provided by the Blue Boat Company and left from Leidseplein. The commentary is a bit cheesy but it gives a great overview of the history of the city.

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It’s also a good vantage point for checking out Amsterdam’s beautiful and very unique architecture. I loved all the different styles of gables as well as the “wonkiness” of the buildings. Apparently some of them lean because their foundations are rotting but others were built pitching forward because it supposedly makes them look bigger.

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This tilty house has a bell gable as well as a “gevelsteen”, which is the decorative plaque between the windows. These plaques sometimes displayed the name of the occupant but other times their profession as well. They’re everywhere once you start looking for them.

Of course a trip to The Netherlands wouldn’t be complete without purchasing a little (read so much it’s hard to fit it into the suitcase) cheese so after our cruise we headed to the Cheese Museum, which isn’t really so much a museum as a shop. It does have a basement where you can check out some information about how cheese is made and take a stylish photo of yourself in traditional Dutch dress.

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The very friendly staff are happy to let you taste all the cheese so if you want to get an idea of what The Netherlands has to offer in terms of dairy, this is definitely the place for you.

Next up was Rembrandtplein where a reproduction of the great master’s Nightwatch lives in statue form.

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Presided over by the man himself. It’s an excellent place for photos and there are also some lovely bars and coffee shops nearby to relax with a drink and do some people watching.

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Our final adventure for the day took us to NSDM-werf, a derelict shipyard, which has become a kind of hispter haven complete with weird graffiti, junk art and houses that seem to be made out of storage containers. You can catch the ferry for free from behind Central Station and it’s a fun way to see a different part of the city. There are some really cool bars at the wharf, one of which had deck chairs where people were chilling out in their bathing costumes. We decided to get a couple of ice-creams and enjoy the sun, which was a lovely way to say good-bye to the city.

As we caught the ferry back to collect our luggage and head back to the airport, I snapped this picture which I think totally sums up our experience in Amsterdam. Definitely a must-visit kind of place.

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What I did in South Africa…

… a story in pictures. While I was in South Africa I got to…

Look out over the Highveld just before a thunder storm

Look out over the Highveld just before a thunder storm

Stay in an utterly amazing and bonkers house in the Cape Quarter

Stay in an utterly amazing and bonkers house in the Cape Quarter

Where I got to pose on the balcony with my brother's beautiful gilfriend

Where I got to pose on the balcony with my brother’s beautiful girlfriend

And watch Mr Osbiston hanging out in a plant pot

And watch Mr Osbiston hanging out in a plant pot

Drink Savanna at the Texas themed Manhattan Cafe (??) and get asked by the waiter if we were experiencing "happy vibes"

Drink Savanna at the Texas themed Manhattan Cafe (??) and get asked by the waiter if we were experiencing “happy vibes”

Drink a cappuccino at Vida that came with a piece of Lindt chocolate

Drink a cappuccino at Vida that came with a piece of Lindt chocolate

Marvel at the amazing genes I am blessed with (My mum and my aunt... both in their 60s!)

Marvel at the amazing genes I am blessed with (My mum and my aunt… both in their 60s!)

Utterly surprise my brother.... look at his white face

Utterly surprise my brother…. look at his white face

Be amazed by even more good genes... my dad is almost 67

Be amazed by even more good genes… my dad is almost 67

Watch some real life actual firemen go topless down Long Street on a fire engine as part of the Cape Town Carnival

Watch some real life actual firemen go topless down Long Street on a fire engine as part of the Cape Town Carnival

Look at old family photos. This is my Oupa, Granny and my dad when they immigrated from The Netherlands to South Africa in 1951

Look at old family photos. This is my Oupa, Granny and my dad when they immigrated from The Netherlands to South Africa in 1951

Meet but not shake hands with some penguins at Boulders Beach

Meet but not shake hands with some penguins at Boulders Beach

Watching Paul and and penguin contemplate each others' hair

Watching Paul and and penguin contemplate each others’ hair

Remember just how beautiful Cape Town is

Remember just how beautiful Cape Town is

Wish I could adopt a penguin

Wish I could adopt a penguin

Observe penguin love in action

Observe penguin love in action

Have dinner at my brother and his girlfriends' favourite restaurant, the beautifully decorated Kitima

Have dinner at my brother and his girlfriends’ favourite restaurant, the beautifully decorated Kitima

Drink a chilli and pineapple cocktail (spicy!)

Drink a chilli and pineapple cocktail (spicy!)

Watch my dad's dog, Billi, chilling out

Watch my dad’s dog, Billi, chilling out

Have breakfast with my "step-mum"

Have breakfast with my “step-mum”

Have high tea at The Saxon Hotel

Have high tea at The Saxon Hotel

Drink Shaka Zulu tea picked out for me by a tea sommelier

Drink Shaka Zulu tea picked out for me by a tea sommelier

Finally meet my friend Candice's angelic little girl, Laena mae

Finally meet my friend Candice’s angelic little girl, Laena mae

Watch five little monkeys each ice-cream

Watch five little monkeys each ice-cream

Lose at wrestling to a 5 year old

Lose at wrestling to a 5 year old

Eat Wakaberry frozen yoghurt

Eat Wakaberry frozen yoghurt

Help one year old Skyla rearrange her bears

Help one year old Skyla rearrange her bears

Watch Mr Osbiston get bossed around by Charlotte (not quite 2 yet)

Watch Mr Osbiston get bossed around by Charlotte (not quite 2 yet)

Take multiple "selfies" of Charlotte, who basically thinks a smart phone is a "mirror on demand"

Take multiple “selfies” of Charlotte, who basically thinks a smart phone is a “mirror on demand”

Catch up with my dade's friend, Ian, who I haven't seen in 25 years

Catch up with my dade’s friend, Ian, who I haven’t seen in 25 years

 

Passport league table

Ever wondered just what your passport was worth? Regular readers of this blog will know that I hold dual South African-British nationality. I was born and grew up in South Africa but moved to the UK in 2004 and eventually gained British citizenship last year. I hold passports for both.

Of course anyone who has citizenship from somewhere outside the “first world” will know not all passports are created equal. If you come from anywhere in Western Europe, North America or Australasia most countries will welcome you, at least as a tourist, without any kind of pre-qualification. However those who don’t, will know all too well the joyous hoop-jumping thrill of applying for a visa… for everywhere.

Recently residence and citizenship planning advisors, Henley & Partners published their annual passport league table, ranking 219 territories in order of “ease of travel” I suppose. According to the league table the maximum points total a nationality could get is 218, as a point is subtracted for traveling to your own country, except for countries where nationals have to have a visa to reenter their own country. It seems that this only applies to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (has anyone else noticed that the minute you add democratic to the name of your country it’s normally a signal that it’s the exact opposite). A point is then subtracted for every country that requires you have a visa to visit.

It’s unsurprising that a UK passport ties for number one with Sweden and Finland with a whopping 173 points, followed closely by the USA in second place with 172 (tied with Germany, Luxembourg and Denmark). South Africa comes in at a rather pitiful 42, with only 94 points, tying with Turkey and St Lucia – slightly better than Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania and the Solomon Islands but not quite as good as Serbia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or El Salvador.

However one must be satisfied with one’s lot. At 42 Mzansi is still the highest ranked of all African countries. You also wouldn’t want to come from Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan who come in at joint 91st, 92nd and 93rd at the bottom of the table. Afghans are only able to enter 28 countries without a visa. Bizarrely even citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea are more welcomed worldwide at 85 with 41 countries not requiring a visa… maybe because you can’t actually leave the country without an exit visa anyway. They’re hardly likely to deluge the French Riviera.

I guess this proves once again that there is a very distinct divide between the two different halves of the world… those who are welcome and those who are seen as a threat!

You can see the whole league table here, so let me know… how does your passport rank and do you think it’s fair?

Passports

Adventures in Istanbul

Mr Osbiston and I decided to spend our second wedding anniversary in the Turkish city of Istanbul. Istanbul is a very special city, having existed in some format or another since 660BC and spanning across two continents. It was the jewel of both the Byzantium and Ottoman empires and with a vast sprawling area of over 5,000 square kilometres and a population of almost 14 million, it is one of the biggest cities in the world.

After catching a late night flight from Stansted to Istanbul’s outlying airport, Sabiha Gocken, we were picked up by a pre-arranged transfer to our hotel, Ipek Palas and arrived in the Sirkeci area at about 7am. You can however easily catch the HAVATAS bus from the airport to Taksim Square right in the centre of the Old Town for only 10 TL.

As we could only check into the hotel at 1pm, we decided to go for a wander around the Old Town. Our first stop was the Basilica Cistern, which is the largest of several cisterns below the city, built in the 6th century during the reign of the Byzantium Emperor, Justinius. The multi-coloumned cistern still has water (and fish!) in it and has a really atmospheric feel, which is added to by the red lighting and haunting music.

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Inside the Basilica Cistern

One of the major attractions of the Cistern is the heads of Medusa placed at the bottom of two of the columns at the back of the cistern. One is set upside down and the other is set sideways. No one is entirely sure why they were set like this but it appears to be intentional.

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Medusa upside down

There are lots of legends around Medusa, one being that she possessed the power to turn people to stone by looking at them. This is a very popular mythology in Turkey and many things are decorated with talismans to ward off the evil eye, including this column inside the Cistern.

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Beware the evil eye

After that we took a stroll up to the spectacular Blue Mosque and The Hagia Sofia. We didn’t go inside, with the exhaustion having gotten the best of us, but even from the outside both were pretty amazing.

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The Blue Mosque

We are both big fans of a city bus tour so we decided to jump on a bus and get our bearings. City tours leave from Taksim Square and make multiple stops at all the major sites. I’ve taken similar tours all over the world and found them a great way to see a city quickly but unfortunately this was not the case for Istanbul. The traffic is notoriously bad, which means the tour is very stop start, the commentary (which is very dry) isn’t synched up very well with the route and if you’re planning on any other guided tours you will get all the same (if not better) information from your guides.

By this time it was close to twelve and we were both starving so we popped into one of the cute local restaurants near our hotel for lamb shish kebabs. This was my first introduction to Turkish food in Turkey and I have to say I was not disappointed by any food I ate throughout the entire trip. Everything we ate was well-cooked, flavourful and spicy without burning. Overall the food is also really healthy, which is an added bonus. Of course you will have to resist feeding the legion of stray cats who will shamelessly pop up at your table.

My what a big chilli you have!

My, what a big chilli you have!

After lunch we could finally get into our hotel so we decided an afternoon nap was in order. This was a bit of a challenge since our hotel was directly next to a construction site that gave off an enormous amount of noise about 18 hours a day. It wasn’t the hotel’s fault but it made sleeping throughout the trip very difficult. It might have been more bearable if our hotel had been really plush but Ipek Palas has definitely seen better days and everything was falling apart.

We did manage to get some respite though and that set us in good stead for a bit more of wander around the Old Town and eventually dinner at a rooftop restaurant called Class Kardelen Restaurant Pub, which offered a great view of the hustle and bustle on the street below and served a cheap and very tasty mezze.

Mixed mezze... so goood!

Mixed mezze… so goood!

By this time we were knackered so we called it a night and went to bed early.

I had preplanned a tour to the Prince’s Islands through She Tours so we were picked up at 8.30 on our second day and shepherded to Kabataş to catch the boat across the Sea of Marmara, which is the smallest sea in the world.

A great view of Istanbul from the boat to The Islands

A great view of Istanbul from the boat to The Islands

There are nine islands in the group, only four of which are populated. During the summer wealthy Istanbullus head to their holiday homes on the Islands to enjoy the sun swelling the population from a couple thousand to up to 100,000. We visited Büyükada, the largest island. Our boat trip was about 90 minutes but we definitely weren’t bored. The Turkish will take any opportunity to try and sell you something and an elderly crewman soon gave us a sales pitch for both walking sticks and some kind of orange/lemon juicer that even I was tempted to buy despite the pitch being in Turkish.

No cars are allowed on any of the islands, so we headed off on a horse and cart tour, giving us the opportunity to see some of the beautiful houses and flora on the island before having lunch overlooking the sea at The Milano restaurant. Unfortunately during the tour we discovered that I am allergic to horses. It’s not massively surprising since I am allergic to everything but it was a pretty unpleasant realisation.

Paul looks way too comfortable

Paul looks way too comfortable

We spent the afternoon chilling out drinking Turkish coffee, enjoying the people watching and keeping an eye on the ice-cream wranglers. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen it but Turkish ice-cream is kind of solid and the guys who sell it put on a whole show of softening it for you to eat.

An ice-cream wrangler at work

An ice-cream wrangler at work

The boat ride home definitely gave us an appetite so we headed out to for dinner, once again near our hotel. All the restaurants are in competition with each other which means that each one has one or two greeters who pop out into the street and try to convince passersby to pick their particular eatery. All the menus are very similar so often you end up just picking the one with the most charming greeter and trust me, they are very charming but not in an uncomfortably pushy way, which to me was one of the great quirky positives of the city.

On this particular night we picked a restaurant (whose name I never got) that had a little garden with a fountain, which housed two cute turtles, much to the excitement of every child in the place. I really do wish I got the name though because it served the best humus I have ever had.

On our third day we decided it was time for some shopping, Istanbul style and headed to the Spice Market (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) , which specialises in Turkish delight, tea and spices.

Welcome to the Spice Market

Welcome to the Spice Market

The shop owners in the Bazaar are just as enthusiastic for your custom as the restaurant greeters, which makes shopping there a real blast. They are also definitely up for and expectant of a haggle and I’d like to think I gave as good as I got. In the end we bought apple tea (probably my favourite flavour experience of Istanbul), lemon and ginger spice tea, Turkish delight and a delicious Ottoman spice mix all from different stores. I particularly enjoyed chatting to a tea shop owner about interesting things to mix traditional South African rooibos with to make a good blend.

I wish you could smell this picture

I wish you could smell this picture

From there we headed to the famous Grand Bazaar, which sells every kind of craft you could imagine, from jewelery to leather, silks, scarves, carpets, cushions, lights, ceramics, the sky is the limit. All of it beautiful. In the end I only bought a scarf after much haggling but the quality is outstanding. I just wish I had had a few extra Lira (and luggage space) to buy the big ceramic serving plate I had my eye on.

Adventuring into the Grand Bazaar

Adventuring into the Grand Bazaar

In the afternoon we had another guided tour, this time in a boat down the mighty Bosphorus River. This expansive deep-blue river divides the European side of Istanbul from the Asian side and is flanked by some of Istanbul’s most impressive sights, including several former Ottoman royal residences, breathtaking mosques and homes of the rich and famous.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace

One of the most impressive sights is the massive Bosphorus Bridge, which spans across the two continents as the main crossing point. There is no land connection between Europe and Asia in Istanbul so the bridge is nothing short of an architectural marvel.

Cruising down the river with the Bosphorus Bridge behind me

Cruising down the river with the Bosphorus Bridge behind me

After our cruise we took a bus ride up to Pierre Loti Hill. Pierre Lot was a French naval officer and novelist who was a great supporter of the Turkish War of Independence. The Turkish were so taken with his novels and his love of their culture that they named a hill after him. The top of the hill is one of the best vantage points to get a real idea of just how absolutely massive and spectacular Istanbul really is… and then catch a cable car back to the foot of the hill.

Looking down the Bosphorus from the top of the hill.

Looking down the Bosphorus from the top of the hill.

Obligatory self portrait

Obligatory self portrait

Our final dinner took place in the cute Salute Pub and Restaurant, where the head greeter had been trying to lure us in from day one. We definitely weren’t disappointed by the food and we were rewarded for our eventual custom with free tea, coffee, watermelon and grapes.

Paul loves Turkish coffee

Paul loves Turkish coffee

After such a lovely trip, I am afraid to say that I was the cause of it ending on a somewhat sour note. I booked our transfer to Sabiha Gocken airport and we happily arrived two and a half hours before the flight… and then I realised that our flight was actually out of the more central, Ataturk Airport. I am a very organised traveler so it is probably easy to imagine my absolute horror at the discovery. At one point we foolishly believed we could make it across the city in time to catch our actual flight but we had forgotten the terrible Istanbul traffic and it was not to be. We did eventually make it home on a later flight thanks to the generosity of the lovely British Airways staff who agreed to change our no change, no cancellation for a hefty fee… but nowhere near the fee for new tickets. And the village was saved. But please, if you learn anything from my folly… always, always check your flight confirmations. Always.

See you in a week

Tomorrow is Mr Osbiston and my second wedding anniversary so we have decided to spend a few days in Istanbul. We didn’t really have a honeymoon, so we’re trying to make up for it with lots of little romantic breaks. This means I might be slow to reply to comments and visiting all of your blogs less.

But fear not, in the spirit of boyscoutery and such things, I have pre-scheduled some blogs for this week, so anyone who doesn’t think they can make it through without reading the sound of my voice will not have to suffer too much.

Here we are on our wedding day.

Damn confetti gets everywhere!

Damn confetti gets everywhere!

Great British Tours: Cupcake & Macaron Tour of London

There are few things I love more that cake, London and bargains (maybe Mr Osbiston, but that’s a different kind of love). So you can imagine that I jumped at the chance to take up a recent Time Out London deal to go on a guided Cupcake & Macaron walking tour around Soho and surrounds by Great British Tours. And it wasn’t particularly difficult to convince Jen to come along.

The tour kicks off outside the M&S in Covent Garden and is led by (in our case) a very handsome young Scottish gentleman named John. I am not sure if he is the only guide doing this particular tour and his, er, aesthetic appeal is hardly relevant to his ability to shepherd a group through Covent Garden market (challenging at any time but especially in summer) but I feel I must mention it in case anyone is considering this as a hen party option.

Our first stop on this decadent adventure was the Cupcake Bakehouse, which is former model and TV baker, Lorraine Pascal’s bakery.  En route John explained the origins of the market and the area and how it influenced the surrounding areas. Who knew it was once all arable land? We were each offered a mini-cupcake to taste, with Jen going for red velvet and me trying out cherry crumble. Both were light, moist and absolutely delicious.

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From there we crossed the market, learning about Punch & Judy shows, to sample macarons at Ladurée, a stunning French tea house. Apparently in order to check the freshness of a macaron, you should hold it between thumb and forefinger and press gently on it. If it springs back it’s at optimal freshness. Ladurée takes macarons very seriously and insists on maturing them for 8 days. Their flavours tend to be traditional and mine was a delicate pink rose water. Really, I shouldn’t eat macarons because I am allergic to nuts but I survived the post indulgence migraine and itching so I figure it was all worth it.

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Our next cupcake stop was Sweet Couture on New Row, a cute compact shop, where we were able to pick out our own full-sized cupcake. I went for Oreo, which not only had Oreo icing and a mini Oreo on top but also crushed Oreos in the actual cake!! Cookie/cupcake heaven! Probably the lightest cupcake of the day. All cupcakes at Sweet Couture are baked on the day for the same day so some flavours are not always available but the freshness really shows. Will definitely be back!

Dim Sum and cake are not usually two things you would put together but Yauatcha on Broadwick Street pulls together the concept of a dim sum teahouse with contemporary patisserie. It is an absolute feast for the eyes, never mind the belly and I would love to go back and sample some of the gorgeous things that were on display.

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This time we were sampling macarons with some more unique flavours available. I went for an intensely yellow popcorn one, which I ate later at home because I was feeling a little bit stuffed after my giant Oreo cupcake. I was surprised by just how much the popcorn flavour came through.

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By this point everyone was ready for a drink and little sit down, so we were grateful to get both at Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street. Contrary to popular belief, Patisserie Valerie is Belgian rather than French and operates cafes all over the UK. This time I went for the ultimate classic macaron – vanilla. Simple and satisfying, although possibly without the wow factor of some of the cuter independent places we visited.

After having Louie Spence’s house pointed out to us, we headed to the most well-known Soho cupcake bakery, Hummingbird. I will admit to being a bit of a fangirl of this American inspired cupcake bakery. I have the original cookbook and I swear by a lot of the recipes in it, including the brownies and the best chocolate icing in the world, ever! I am obviously not the only one and the funky pink shop was packed with people trying out a wide variety of treats. We were each presented with a red velvet cupcake in the iconic hummingbird box. As you can see, I was very impressed.

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The cupcake itself was an absolute beauty and I hesitated for a whole ten seconds before devouring it at home. The cream cheese icing was absolutely delicious and you can definitely see why everyone wants a nibble.

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Our very last stop was the iconic Fortnum & Mason, traditional home of fine foods and teas for over 300 years. Right now the store has an amazing topiary on top of it in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the coronation of her maj. It’s so irresistibly British in the way that Americans imagine British things are.

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We were able to choose our own macarons from a range of traditional and more unusual flavours on display at the impressive cake counter. I went for passion fruit and chocolate, which I also saved for home. In hindsight it was a bit of an odd flavour combination and although the macaron was beautifully made, it wasn’t a patch on Yauatcha or Laduree.

By the end of the tour we were knackered and full of cake, historical information and a list of places to revisit. If you are a fan of baked goods, this is an excellent way to spend an afternoon and get even the most reluctant of ramblers to go for a wander through Soho.

Tours take place from Thursday – Saturday for 2 ½ hours starting at 3pm and must be advanced booked. Tours normally cost £40 but we bought ours on a deal for £19.

Adventures in Barcelona

Anyone who knows Mr Osbiston will know that he wasn’t particularly excited about turning 30, so I decided to help soften the blow with a surprise trip to Barcelona.

Paul finds out where we're going

Paul finds out where we’re going

Unfortunately our trip got off to a somewhat inauspicious start with a four hour delay caused by an air traffic controller strike in France. Not the fault of our airline, Vueling, however the communication could have been a little better.

By the time we eventually did arrive, we didn’t have the energy to try and navigate our own way to our hotel just off La Rambla so we splurged on a cab, which cost €26 and didn’t seem too over the top. The Barcelona Metro is very easy to navigate though and unlike the sweaty London tube, air-conditioned and cheap at €2 for a single journey with unlimited stops.

We stayed in the Tryp Apolo, which is right next to Para-lel Metro Station and well situated for exploring the city. The hotel is somewhat rundown and probably in need of a refurb but no amount of modernity can make up for things like a working aircon, decent sized towels, friendly staff and the most impressive array of complimentary toiletries I have seen in a while.  Bear in mind for all Barcelona hotels you will be expected to pay the city tax at checkout of about €1 per person per day.

After popping into a local restaurant called, Restaurante Candela Raval for tapas and the best mojito I have ever had, we headed into the labyrinth-like Gothic Quarter, which stretches from La Rambla to Via Laietana, and from the Mediterranean seafront to Ronda de Sant Pere.

Lunch at Candela Raval

Lunch at Candela Raval

This fascinating area comprises of endless little streets packed with  a dazzling array of boutiques, shops, restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Anything you could possibly want to buy is on sale from complete tat to designer originals. In between the traditional medieval buildings, you’ll find cool bits of street art and many balconied blocks of flats with ornate decorative facades.

Balconies

Balconies

Star child

Star child

We had so much fun, that after a wander down the marina, we headed back into the Gothic Quarter for dinner at Orio, a unique restaurant that lets you pick out your own tapas from selection on display, as well as choosing from exciting items offered to you at your table. You then pay based on the number of toothpicks left behind. I suppose it’s kind of like a tapas version of Yo Sushi! Everything was so pretty, Paul and I struggled to resist and ended up with nineteen sticks between us – probably because he had a ham one every time he went up. Delicious!

The first bite is with the eyes

The first bite is with the eyes

On Thursday we were up early to make sure we saw as much of the city as possible. We went for our usual failsafe and jumped on the tourist bus. Initially I thought it was a bit on the expensive side at €26 but Barcelona truly is massive and this particular bus has three different routes and you can hop on and hop off as much as you want so it’s actually pretty good value for money. We didn’t even get as far as the green route so if you have more time to spend than we did, getting a two day pass for €32 is probably a good idea.

Our first hop off was at Sagrada Familia, which was our first real introduction into the overwhelming influence the architect Gaudi has had on the city. Antoni Gaudi (25 June 1852 – 10 June 1926) was the leading light of the Catalan Modernista movement, with his particular style focused on organic elements of nature and religious mysticism. Sagrada Familia is his greatest work. Construction of the cathedral started in 1882 is only expected to be completed in 2026! It is hard to explain just how breath taking this incredible monument is but it has to be seen. We did think of visiting the inside but the queue appeared to be hours long and our time was limited so we were forced to move on.

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Our next Gaudi-tastic stop was Parc Güell, originally a housing complex designed by Gaudi based on the idea of an English country garden estate. It was never commercially successful as a housing complex but it has now been turned into a municipal garden that is free to visit. The Park has a fantastical fairy tale appearance with two gingerbread house like structures at the front and a dazzling terrace at the back that rises up in layers unto the hill behind it. Every element has been thought out and reflects a connection with nature. I fell in love with the undulating patterned roof.

The ceiling at Parc Guell

The ceiling at Parc Guell

It also provides a spectacular view of the city, if you can handle the heat. Definitely a good opportunity for a mojito flavoured ice lolly.

Enjoying the view

Enjoying the view

Another great way of seeing the city is to take the cable car up to Montjuïc, which is home to an eighteenth century fortress, beautiful gardens and a musical fountain. Impressively you can catch the funicular from the metro station at the foot of Montjuïc all the way to Para-lel Station.

On the way up to Montjuic

On the way up to Montjuic

I find it very difficult to resist any kind of aquarium, so after a quite break to cool down in our hotel, we headed to the marina to visit L’Aquarium Barcelona. It’s nowhere near the best aquarium I’ve ever been to but it has got some great features, the most impressive being the underwater shark walk, which avoids the usual bunching up with a little travelator and sports some pretty large sharks. It also has penguins… and who doesn’t love penguins and huge iguanas. Unless you’re an aquarium addict I probably wouldn’t bother though.

The Marina

The Marina

It did put us in a great position for dinner though as there is a great strip of seafront seafood restaurants just around the corner from the aquarium. We decided to head to Emperador for black squid ink paella and sangria, both of which were delicious.

Mmm... sangria

Mmm… sangria

On Friday we left our luggage at the hotel and headed for the Barcelona Erotica Museum, which was Paul’s chosen birthday outing. This compact museum features erotic artefacts and facts and information from different cultures past and present on their attitudes to sex and the erotic arts. And for those who need a bit of a relax, a roof terrace featuring pictures of er, erotically shaped fruit and veg.

Who says size doesn't count?

Who says size doesn’t count?

All the eroticism made us hungry so we headed across the road to Mercat de la Boqueria, which has been a food market of some variety since 1200. It is a riot of colours, smells and flavours and sells every kind of food you could possibly imagine. I decided on a big bowl of fruit and Paul went for an envelope of ham.

What could be better than an envelope of ham?

What could be better than an envelope of ham?

Our last adventure if the day took us to Casa Batlló, one of Gaudi’s key modernist designs. It looks like some kind of magical underwater castle but was actually commissioned as a residence by textile industrialist Josep Batlló and lived in by the Batlló family. Nowadays it’s a museum that will absolutely blow your mind. Despite being built between 1906 and 1908, it is breathtakingly modern and the detail of the design elements has to be seen to be believed. My favourite part was the light well decorated with uncountable different shades of blue tiles that make it look like you’re underwater if you view them through the bevelled glass stairwells.

Casa Batllo

Casa Batllo

The light well at Casa Batllo

The light well at Casa Batllo

The courtyard

The courtyard

The roof is supposed to resemble a dragon's spine

The roof is supposed to resemble a dragon’s spine

Unfortunately we then ran out of time and had to jump on the train back to the airport to head back to London. Despite the fact that we were on the move non-stop it felt like we barely scratched the surface of Barcelona and we will definitely be back to this vibrant city.

Adventures in Lithuania

When Paul and I told people that we had decided to go to Lithuania on holiday most appeared baffled, but to me the slightly exotic appeal of Eastern Europe – particularly the former Soviet states – is undeniable in that it’s just so untouristy.

Vilnius

We decided to base ourselves in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. This incredibly green city, with over 30% park and green spaces, is made up of two parts – a modern business district and a charming medieval old town, which is a UNESCO heritage site. We stayed on the newer side in the Vilnius Holiday Inn, a modern hotel with excellent facilities including spacious rooms and a relaxing bar.

Green Vilnius

Green Vilnius

Although our hotel was on the opposite side of the River Neris from the Old Town, it was a quick walk across the Green Bridge straight into the action. Vilnius is serviced by a somewhat confusing network of buses and trolley buses rather than a metro system but the city is very compact and easily explored by foot.

Cathedral Square

Cathedral Square

We were fortunate enough to have gorgeous weather throughout our stay, which gave us ample opportunity to take advantage of Vilnius’ café culture. From restaurants to bars and coffee shops, every venue spills out onto the wide sidewalks and cobbled streets, which makes it a great place to explore at a leisurely place with lots of pit stops for a cocktail or cappuccino.

The vast majority of Lithuanians are Roman Catholics and religion plays a big part in their culture. This is very evident in Vilnius, which boasts over fifty churches including the stunning Church of St Peter and St Paul with over 2000 statues inside it, and the Gothic Church of St Anne.

Inside the Church of St Peter and St Paul

Inside the Church of St Peter and St Paul

The Church of St Anne

The Church of St Anne

It’s worth jumping on the tour bus to get a grounding of the layout of the city along with some history and culture and to get an idea of what areas you want to investigate further. You can also explore the River Neris by taking a boat ride down the river. Because of all the trees it’s not the best vantage point for the major sites of the city but it is very relaxing and and if you’re lucky enough to arrive when there are no other people waiting to go on the tour, you could end up like we did – taking a romantic pontoon journey for two.

Pontooning

Pontooning

The River Neris

The River Neris

The KGB Museum

Also known as the Museum of Genocide Victims, this museum is housed in the former Vilnius KGB building. It comprises of two main exhibitions: one on the partisans who fought against the Soviet occupations and were exported in droves to the Siberian Gulags, and the other about the actions of the KGB during the occupation. The section on the “genocide” is an odd one. Although it is very tragic that Lithuanians lost their lives defending their freedom, it doesn’t seem fair to call it a genocide. The KGB section is quite something else. They have kept the cells, torture rooms and even the assassination room intact, complete with bullet holes in the walls. It’s a disturbing but interesting place to visit and again reminds you that these atrocities happening in living memory.

Gediminas’ Tower

Alongside the Lithuanian National Museum, proudly overlooking Vilnius from the hill is Gediminas’ Tower, once the city’s defensive fort. You can reach the tower either by taking the funicular or by walking. I would strongly suggest using the funicular both up and down. The hill is steep and cobbled and a bit of a danger zone. Paul and I made the mistake of walking down and almost rolled down the hill on several occasions. There are some exhibits within the Tower but the real beauty is the incredible panoramic view of the city. It is quite breathtaking and on a clear day you can see for miles down both sides of The Neris.

Gediminas' Tower

Gediminas’ Tower

The view from Gediminas' Tower

The view from Gediminas’ Tower

Trakai

About half an hour outside of Vilnius is the Island of Trakai, which sits on Lake Galve and is home to the fairy-tale like, Castle Trakai. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and a popular holiday resort for locals. Although we could have caught a bus to Trakai really cheaply from the bus station, we decided to shell out for the guided tour. This was definitely the right idea. Our tour guide, Justyna, was amazing. Throughout the tour she shared an impressive array of facts about Lithuania in an engaging way. It also hit home to us just how recently the country gained its independence as she shared her own memories of the Singing Revolution.

Castle Trakai

Castle Trakai

The castle itself was mostly destroyed during the wars between Russia and Poland (which Lithuania was then part of) in seventeenth century. It was rebuilt between 1929 and the early nineties but unfortunately very few of the original fittings exist so the castle is now a museum of Lithuania and hosts artifacts from its rich history.

The Island is also interesting because it is the home of the Karaime people, who were relocated from the Crimea to Trakai by Grand Duke Vytautus in the late 1300’s to act as his body guards. The Karaimes live in cute little wooden houses with three windows at the front – one for god, one for the duke and one for family and friends – and follow a religion similar to Judaism but without the Talmud. They also have a delicious national dish called a kibinine, which is a little crescent shaped pie with filled a range of fillings, but most commonly lamb. We tried some out at a restaurant called Kybynlar and they were fab.

Karaimes House

Typical Karaimes House

It’s also a pretty good place to buy souvenirs and Paul got this great Soviet soldier’s hat.

Aye aye, Captain!

Aye aye, Captain!

Grutas Park

Another interesting day trip is to head to Grutas Park, which is near the town of Druskininkai, about two hours from Vilnius. Catching the bus from the central bus station in Vilnius is a bit of an adventure. Rather than being a coach, it’s more of a minibus with no shock absorbers that picks up and drops people off seemingly at random in the middle of the forest. On arrival in Druskininkai, you can catch a bus to Grutas Park but they are very infrequent and if you can find someone else who is heading to the park, it’s not too pricy to get a cab, as we did with the middle-aged Finnish couple we befriended.

A row of Lenins in the forest

A row of Lenins in the forest

Unsurprisingly while Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union it was packed with giant intimidating statues of Soviet “heroes” like Lenin and Stalin. Just as unsurprising is that these were all pulled down when the country became independent. What is surprising is that eccentric entrepreneur, Viliumas Malinauskas, gathered them all up and put them in the forest, creating what is probably the world’s most bizarre theme park. Not only can you stand in awe of these frankly terrifying relics, but you can also check out propaganda posters and an array of badges, uniforms, insignias and pretty much anything you can possibly imagine from the Soviet era. It is both creepy and fascinating. Take insect repellent. We got eaten alive.

The sheer scale is unbelievable

The sheer scale is unbelievable

Užupis

On the opposite side of the River Vilna from Vilnius Old Town is the Republic of Užupis. Declared independent by its largely artist/musician population on All Fool’s Day (1 April) in 1997, it boasts it’s own constitution. The constitution includes some great clauses like “A dog has a right to be a dog” and “A cat is not obliged to love its owner but must help out in a time of need.”

The Constitution of Užupis

The Constitution of Užupis

One of the main features of Užupis is the Angel, which stands on a egg in the main square and represents the revival of artistic freedom in Eastern Europe.

The Angel of Užupis

The Angel of Užupis

On the day Paul and I visited Užupis, there was a street music festival going on throughout Vilnius, with a couple of mad (we think) Finnish musicians playing half English, half Finnish (?) songs on homemade instruments. Brilliant. There were also loads of people having their wedding photos taken in the main square and surrounds. We think it might have had to do with the bridges in the area since a groom is apparently supposed to carry his bride over no less than seven bridges on their wedding day!

Who doesn't want to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit in Finnish?

Who doesn’t want to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit in Finnish?

Eating and drinking

Lithuanian food features a lot of potatoes, mushrooms and pork, with their specialties being potato pancakes and a kind of heavy, stuffed potato dumpling called a Zeppelin. They also love soups and cold beetroot and dill soup is a staple at every restaurant that must be tried. Paul and I visited two “authentic” restaurants during our visit.

The first was Lokys, which as a menu based on the Lithuanian tradition of hunting and serves things like venison, boar and er… beaver stew. The food was divine and our meal ended with complimentary shots. I have no idea what was in them but whatever it was I think my head briefly left my body.

Will Paul have the beaver stew?

Will Paul have the beaver stew?

There was a bear!

There was a bear!

Directly after post-dinner shots

Directly after post-dinner shots

On the more touristy side was Forto Dvaras, which serves meals certified by the Gastronomic Heritage Foundation, but was a little tacky for Paul and me.

The traditional food can get a bit heavy but Vilnius has an array of restaurants from all over the world so it’s easy to find a bit of salad once you’re all potatoed out. I would definitely recommend both the Rib Room, which was inside our hotel and Vynine Franki near Pillies Street.

Lithuanians are also very keen on beer with Svyturys being the most popular lager. Added to this we found the widest range of non-alcoholic beer we’ve ever seen. Most bars and restaurants have a special section on the menu for beer snacks, which normally includes pig’s ears and fried bread. Paul became quite a fan of the pig’s ears, which were tasty although of rather an odd texture.

Loving the non-alcoholic beer

Loving the non-alcoholic beer

If you want to combine a love of beer with a love of food, Aula, offers delicious food and an extensive beer menu, including beer cocktails.

Beer pina colada

Beer pina colada

It’s worth bearing in mind that while service is efficient, it tends to be slower to what you might be used to in Western Europe, so food and bills take a while to arrive. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. Once you get used to it, it means that meals become leisurely and relaxed. If you’re in a hurry just ask for the cheque as soon as you order.

The People

Lithuanians have a powerful drive for freedom, which is evidenced through their tenacity of spirit throughout several occupations. They are also wonderfully quirky. Anyone who is working can come across as a bit surly, from waiters to cab drivers and hotel staff but the minute they leave work they are full of fun and energy and every place we went to buzzed. The quirkiness is further evidenced by their unwavering belief that nothing tops being Lithuanian. We were told that it is a running in-joke that all famous or important people must have some Lithuanian in them. There is a statue of Frank Zappa in Vilnius. He has no known connection to Lithuania but he is a bit of a national hero so it’s kind of assumed that he must be somehow Lithuanian… along with the queen of England.

From a tourist perspective, almost everyone speaks English, which makes it easy to get around and although you’re unlikely to get a smile from anyone serving you, the intention to help is there and people are essentially very welcoming.

Just one of the cool examples of street art around the city

Just one of the cool examples of street art around the city

Adventures in Budapest

Adamant to make use of the Schengen visa I recently got for a work trip to Germany, I convinced Jen to accompany me on an adventure to Budapest last weekend.

We were lucky to get an outstanding deal through Secret Escapes and book a room at the Aquincum Hotel for only £47 a night along with some cheap flights in Wizz Air, the sort of Sleazy Jet of the east. In many ways Wizz Air appears to be a bit better than Easy Jet or Ryan Air, but be warned, their luggage policy means only bags about the size of this one, fly free.

My bag for three whole days away!

My bag for three whole days away!

We started our journey at the ungodly hour of 5am, before the tube even opened.

Waiting for Pimlico Station to open

Waiting for Pimlico Station to open

It was my first flight from Luton, which is small but functional. Just make sure you bring your own plastic bag for liquids because they will charge you for one. Yes, really.

We had pre-booked a taxi through the hotel so we were greeted by a small, gruffly spoken Hungarian man, who was to be the first demonstration of the absolute friendliness of the people of Budapest. He cheerfully pointed out sights to us on the way to our hotel, which was about 40 minutes from the airport.

On arrival we were pleasantly surprised about how plush the hotel was. Our room was spacious with gorgeous modern furnishings and all the cons you’d expect from four star accommodation, with the added bonus of free access to the basement spa and gym (obviously we did not go to the gym), uber helpful and friendly staff and free super-fast wi-fi.

By the time we had unpacked we were ravenous so we did a bit of googling and headed to the nearby Kéhli Vendéglő, which has been serving traditional Hungarian food since 1899. It being a holiday we couldn’t resist a glass of wine and this was where we realised that in Budapest, they serve wine by the bucket and food portions that would stop a giant in its tracks.

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Not that we were complaining because the food was delicious. Jen had goulash with potatoes and cottage cheese and I had Ox Back with cabbage and mashed potato, which came with this awesome little story.

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Our early start had left us somewhat knackered so we decided to get an early night and save ourselves for a Sunday of sightseeing. But not before we spent a good hour soaking ourselves in the hot pools and Jacuzzi in Aquincum. The hotel provides robes and towels so there’s no reason not to indulge. The whole of Budapest is built on a natural hot spring and the water is known to be packed with minerals that have healing powers.

In the morning we took full advantage of the generous Aquincum breakfast, which offers a staggeringly wide variety of food, including loads of healthy options and… er couscous.

Aquincum is a little outside the town centre so we caught the train into Buda. It took about fifteen minutes. You can buy a twenty-four hour ticket for only 1600Ft, which allows you to use trains, the metro, buses and trams. All of which are reliable, regular and easy to navigate. If you were to get lost though you’d have no problem finding your way, since everyone is happy to help and surprisingly we didn’t encounter anyone who didn’t speak English.

Our first stop was Buda Castle, the historical palace and complex of the Hungarian kings, built in 1265. The castle complex is at the top of a hill but unless you severely unfit don’t waste your money on the train up. It’s an easy enough walk with a lovely view of the city. There’s loads to see at the top of the hill, with several beautiful buildings and structures, including the fairy tale like castle, the magnificently roofed Matthias Church, and some very cool statues.

Beautiful Buda Castle

Beautiful Buda Castle

Apparently this is Jen's future home

Apparently this is Jen’s future home

Matthias Church

Matthias Church

If you’re feeling brave, you can venture down into the Opera themed labyrinth, which is part of a system of caves below the castle. It has been decorated with exhibits from major operas, stonework excavated from the city and historical information about Hungarian royalty, as well as the various occupations of the city. The caves are misty and badly lit, which kind of adds to the atmosphere but it’s definitely not for the claustrophobic.

King Matthias has nothing on me

King Matthias has nothing on me

On making our way down from the castle we felt a bit peckish, so we were thrilled to come across the Szamos Gourmet Ház stand, which sells a variety of cakes and hot drinks on the other side of the chain bridge in Pest. It was here where we discovered the joy of mignons… or booby cakes as I choose to call them… along with Hungarian hot chocolate, which is basically just liquid chocolate.

The famous booby cake

The famous booby cake

Full of chocolate, we were ready for our sightseeing boat cruise down the Danube. The Legenda offers several different types of cruises, including evening ones with dinner, but we went for the basic option, which was perfectly satisfactory. They have commentary in 30 languages, providing an insight into the history of Buda and Pest and their unification into one city. If you pay a bit extra you can check out the Margaret Island in the middle of the river but Jen had been before and I was happy to chill out and take advantage of the free wifi. The most amazing sight from the boat is definitely the stunning Budapest Parliament building, which is apparently somewhat inspired by the Palace of Westminster.

Budapest Houses of Parliament

Budapest Houses of Parliament

Following our cruise we headed into the centre of Pest on what became the  “great lotion hunt”. I had not had time to buy a small body lotion before we left and all the spa wallowing was making me feel itchy. We discovered that most shops are closed on Sundays but there was still enough to keep us amused, especially when we happened on the Wamp Design Fair, selling a range of home crafted products. I bought this awesome fox cameo and Jen bought some cool Lego earrings. There was so much unique stuff that if we’d have had any more luggage space we probably would have brought home half the market.

Nothing like the foxes that go through my bins on rubbish day

Nothing like the foxes that go through my bins on rubbish day

Finding somewhere to have dinner was a bit of a challenge with so much closed, but we managed to track down the Mozsár Kávézó near the Opera House, where we both had delicious duck dishes and another bucket of wine. Hungarian food tends to be hearty and spiced with cinnamon and paprika, featuring a lot of potatoes and cherries – all of it delicious and very good value for money, Mozsár being no exception.

The Opera House by night

The Opera House by night

Our evening then lead us to Instant, one of the many bars that have popped up in ruins around the city. A lot of them are closed in the winter or on Sundays but Instant seems to be open until 6am seven days a week.  Buoyed up by wine and duck, we decided to have Long Island ice teas. These were nothing like London Long Island ice teas. They were basically a high ball glass filled up to 7/8th white spirits and a shot of coke.

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The world’s strongest Long Island Ice Tea

Needless to say, while we enjoyed the very eclectic décor and clientele in Instant, by the time we had finished our cocktails we were barely able to stand and tumbled back onto the metro to catch the last train home.

Inside Instant

Inside Instant

We awoke on Monday with some challenging hangovers but after another hearty Aquincum breakfast we were ready to hit the Széchenyi Fürdő, the first thermal spa to be built in Pest and one of the largest in Europe. The spa features a variety of indoor and outdoor pools of different temperatures, all filled with healing mineral water. It may seem mad to sit outside in water in two degree heat while it’s snowing but the water is so warm that once you’re in, you barely notice the outside temperature… well until you want to switch pools. I definitely believe that the water has healing powers since it seemed to melt away our hangovers. If you decide to visit the baths, do take your own towel if at all possible. You can rent one cheaply but the deposit is 4100Ft per towel and they only accept Hungarian cash.

Széchenyi Fürdő

Széchenyi Fürdő

Not far from the baths is Vajdahunyad vára, a castle in the Budapest City Park, which was designed to house copies of several famous Hungarian landmarks, including the Hunyad Castle in Transylvania.

Vajdahunyad vára

Vajdahunyad vára

So pretty!

So pretty!

It now houses the Agriculture Museum, which was unfortunately closed, as many things appear to be in Budapest on Mondays but the buildings and grounds are nonetheless beautiful to explore. They don’t call Budapest the Paris of the east for nothing. I particularly liked this cheeky little nod to Dracula.

Draculaaaaa!

Draculaaaaa!

You can continue your explorations by heading to Heroes Square, which is on the other side of the park. The monument was built for the 1896 Millennium celebrations when Hungary celebrated the 1000th anniversary of its ancestors finding a place to settle down in the Carpathian Basin. Every part of the monument plays tribute to determining parts of Hungary’s history. Also their statues look like a cross between wizards and the residents of Winterfell. Awesome.

Heroes Square

Heroes Square

WINTERFELL!

WINTERFELL!

All our soaking and exploring had left us pretty hungry so we headed down Andrássy Avenue to the beautifully decorated and very modern Menza, where we couldn’t resist the goulash soup – yet again delicious and at a cost of only 990Ft with about half a loaf of bread each on the side.

By this point it was absolutely chucking it down, but not quite enough to stop us from going back to Szamos for just one more booby cake and hot chocolate.

It was however enough to scare us off heading back out in the evening, so we found our way back into the Aquincum Spa and restaurant before lulling ourselves to sleep with Hungarian telly… it appears their main soap is called Titkok. I have not made this up.

When we arrived back at Ferenc Liszt Airport at the bleary hour of 4am on Tuesday, I was genuinely sad to leave. Budapest is an absolutely brilliant city for a break – beautiful, cheap, friendly and packed with fun things to do. I will definitely be back.

Bournemouth in the winter

Faced with no passport for a month, Mr Osbiston and I were forced to abandon plans to visit Amsterdam in February and pick something a little closer to home. Something by the sea, within two hours train of London and public transport friendly since we don’t drive. And so we came up with a weekend break to Bournemouth, where neither of us had been before.

We stayed near the town centre and seafront in a small hotel called The Blue Palms, which absolutely lived up to its name in terms of blueness. Everything that could possibly have been blue was blue. Our hosts were super helpful and friendly, to the point of being slightly worrying for London-types but definitely handy if you want some help finding your way around. Our room was huge but oddly the bathroom was minute and unheated. The shower was very small and devoid of any power, making washing your hair into a trial. All the furnishings could probably do with a refurb but it was spotlessly clean, excellently located and very good value for money at £129 for two nights.

On wandering down the very steep hill to the beach (And it’s worth noting that Bournemouth is very hilly. If you don’t like walking up and down hills, you might want to look away now), we came to the realisation that coming to Bournemouth in mid-winter is probably not the best idea ever. It was bitterly cold, the tour bus wasn’t running and it was too windy for the sightseeing balloon to take off. Bum.

However, the beach did have a certain windswept charm and it was the first time I’d ever seen children playing in the sand in coats and mittens.

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We decided to spoil ourselves on our first night and headed to The Print Room, a gorgeous fayn dining restaurant in the former premises of the Bournemouth Echo newspaper decorated in pink and black art deco. We were lucky enough to get a booth, which had newspaper snippets from the early 1900’s in it, amusing us to no end until our food arrived.

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Everything was delicious, especially my deconstructed prawn cocktail.

After an impressively greasy breakfast, which we skipped on day 3, day 2 was spent exploring. I am absolutely aquarium mad. I will go to any aquarium anywhere so I was insistent on going to the Bournemouth Oceanarium.  As aquariums go, it’s pretty small and doesn’t have a huge amount of wow factor, but what it does have is otters, which might be the cutest animals in the world. We were around for the otter feeding and completely fell in love with them. They’re pretty fast moving little rascals so it was hard to take a good snap of them but I think this says it all.

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We also had a wander down the pier with requisite amusements. I hit some moles with a hammer. It was great. Avoid the coffee though. It was not great.

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After that we headed up yet another hill to check out The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, which is an eclectic collection of art works and other treasures from around the world, assembled by Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes on their travels in the late 1800s to 1900s housed in their former home.

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It’s hard to sum up just how amazing both the house and the items in it are. It has to be seen to be believed. Of course the jewel in the crown is Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rosetti but even if you just went for the view it would be worth it.

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Our last dinner was eaten in Lolita’s, initially chosen for its red and white polka dot décor and what a great choice it was. Not only is the décor fab but the food is delicious and very good value for money. It also has a charmingly ramshackle atmosphere that makes you feel like you’ve popped into a friend’s house for dinner. Without question, Lolita herself is likely to make a stop at your table to tell you in detail about the food, give you a cuddle and shout at the cook, who appears to be her husband. There is not a single thing I didn’t like about it. Go there. Go there lots. Eat all the things.

We were slightly at loose ends on our last day and somewhat accidentally ended up in Westbourne where it turns out the hipsters of Bournemouth reside, along with all the cute cafes and little boutiques. I do wish we’d found it sooner since the sea front and town centre offer little in the way of decent coffee shops and pubs and we struggled to find anything edible for lunch on either of the days we were there.

Overall it was a lovely little break but I’m not sure I’d go back… except maybe for Lolita’s and definitely not in winter.