Tag Archives: travel

Summer holiday adventures

Age: 14 1/3 months
I like: Rice cakes, peaches, ice cream, stealing biscuits, pointing at the door and shouting, “go”, boobs, putting random stuff in the washing machine.

It’s been a bit quiet over here as the entire O clan has been in Menorca for a week on our summer holiday. Menorca is one of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain and is well known for beautiful beaches and balmly weather. This has made it a favourite holiday destination of the O’s in years gone by but this was their first trip in 10 years and my first ever.  Read more…

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 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.

A visit to the city of Bath

Paul and I spent most of last week on a little adventure to the lovely city of Bath in the South West of England. With it being only an hour and a half on the train from Paddington, it’s the ideal staycation if you’re based in London. You even get to check out this little fella from deepest darkest Peru.

We stayed on what appeared to be guesthouse row in a lovely B&B called, Brooks Guesthouse. We had done a cheeky upgrade to a king size room, which was absolutely lovely – very well decorated, spacious and with a nice bathroom. I was half tempted to nick the light on the mirror since it bathed one’s face in an ethereal glow that somehow seemed to take ten years off. I also have to credit the delicious and sumptuous breakfasts. My only, very small, complaint was that they seemed to have hired the most self-satisfied receptionist in England. We quickly, and possibly rather cruelly, nicknamed him Captain Smugnob.

Bath is a really compact city so it’s perfect for meandering on foot. In some ways it’s similar to Brighton in that it’s comprised of lots of little lanes with quirky shops and a foodie’s paradise worth of little restaurants, coffee shops and gastropubs. I think you could be there for a month and not sample them all. I would suggest staying off the recommended list that the guesthouses give out though. We had the worst burgers ever at The Marlborough Tavern, which is supposedly Bath’s premier gastropub. For decent cheap eats I’d recommend Café Retro and Yum Yum Thai and if you feel like a mulled cider and a game of cards check out The Westgate. We ended up there everyday!

On our second full day in Bath we decided to go for the standard cheat orientation and catch the sightseeing bus. Unusually Bath has two different sightseeing routes covered by one ticket. The first takes you around the city where you can learn about how Bath became the centre of British recreation in the eighteenth century and about its Roman and Celtic roots. The other route is called the “skyline” and takes you around the top of the basin, in which Bath sits. The view from the latter is spectacular and makes it easy to understand why Bath is the only city in the UK which has been granted world heritage status.

Our sightseeing tour inspired us to do some wandering, so on our third, and only, sunny day we took a wander around the botanical gardens, which were in magnificent autumn bloom.

From there we took some snaps of the Royal Crescent, which features some lovely Edwardian buildings, before heading for the Fashion Museum.

With clothing from the mid seventeenth century onwards, the Fashion Museum is a must for anyone who has any kind of abiding interest in clothing or fashion – especially if you like a bit of Jane Austen and might want to pop yourself into some kit from the era. I think it rather suits me.

At the moment the exhibition features a special Olympics inspired sports fashion section and the ever popular dress of the year, which has an iconic designer outfit for every year since the museum opened.

From there we headed to the Roman Baths. I tend to be a bit rubbish at “museums” but this one is not to be missed. The baths have been restored to an impressive standard, which really enables you to get the feel of what it might have been liked during Roman times. They’ve also made an outstanding use of projections and virtual reality to make the experience of the baths wholly immersive and make you marvel at how ingenious the Romans were. There were strict instructions not to touch the water but the temptation to test whether it really is bubbling out of the earth at a toasty 46C was not only irresistible to Paul and I…

If you do decide to go to both the Fashion Museum and the Roman Baths, bear in mind that you can get a combined ticket at a considerable discount, especially if you’ve been on the sightseeing bus because that gives you an additional 10% off.

Our last day was designated as the day of relaxation and we got up early to go to the Thermae Spa, which consists of two awesome heated pools, including one on the roof top of the building giving a view over the city and one that is filled with water from the actual Bath hot spring. It also has a sauna section and offers both conventional and unconventional spa treatments. Paul and I opted for a couples massage, which soothed me to a slightly snorey sleep and amused Paul to no end, and something called a Kraxen Stove. Apparently it’s a German therapy but it involves sitting in kind of tub, covered with a big bit of plastic and then having boiling hay scented steam bubble around you for sixteen minutes. Needless to say by the end of the day we were very relaxed. Be warned though, the food at the spa café is bordering on inedible and for reasons unknown the showers and changing rooms are two floors apart.

We left Bath feeling relaxed and culturally enriched and with the idea that we’d definitely be back… maybe for some Sally Lunn cakes, which we never got around to trying.

Diamonds are forever

I spent the last week of my holiday totally in the family zone. My family is pretty scattered so it’s rare that so many of us get together but I had two of my cousins, their partners, my mum, my aunt and my uncle all in one place. Although very little actually happened, it seemed like endless chaos. We ate way too much and talked ridiculous amounts of rubbish and reconnected. It was wonderful.

I also got a particularly amazing gift from my aunt. She wore my great grandmother’s engagement ring for years and I have always wanted it. It’s a gold and diamond ring in the shape of a flower from the 30’s that my aunt had made into a pinkie ring when my uncle passed away. This year she decided to pass it on and since I’m the only girl in the family, it’s been passed on to me. I haven’t taken it off since. Although I live in the constant terror of losing it since it’s just a little too big.

My trip home was the trip of doom. I will never attempt to fit in so many different legs of journey into one go. On Saturday morning we left Queenstown at 7am and drove two hours to East London, which is the closest airport and coincidentally where I was born. From there I flew to Johannesburg, where I had a good seven hours to fill before the next flight. Fortunately I was not confined to OR Tambo International and got to have lunch with my dad before popping into B and Dave’s housewarming party for a quick strawberry daiquiri and to return everything I had borrowed (from the photos it looks like it got a lot more rowdy after I left).

When I did get to ort (as my late uncle’s brother calls it), I had the fortune of getting to see Taigh who was also en route to London for an internship in Hertfordshire. I haven’t seen her in two years so it was a very noisy and excitable reunion. That was when the good stuff ended.

I got stuck next to a husband and wife and two small children in a four seater, which they’d expected to have to themselves. I managed to move a row forward and leave them to their chaos but I lost my aisle seat and ended up next to whisky boy, who managed to drink solidly for about 6 hours of the flight before snoring like a tank. Not that that mattered since not only the kids behind me but everyone of the about 20 kids on the plane wailed incessantly for the entire flight.

Arriving in Doha I attempted to sleep in a chair and woke up from my light doze to find a man staring at me as if he had never seen a human female in his life before. He did not break contact for a second. I probably should have told him to fuck off but the fight was out of me, so I moved. It was already a five hour layover, which I wasn’t excited about but when the flight was delayed by an hour and a half I briefly considered suicide.

Flight two would probably have been okay if I had slept at all in the last 24 hours but everything hurt and I could not get comfortable at all. By the time I arrived at Heathrow at 7pm, I felt and looked like someone who had been travelling across Eastern Europe by camel for six months. It was not pretty. Needless to say I slept like a corpse last night and spent most of today roaming around my house in my PJ’s and catching up on Doctor Who and Being Human. (Doctor Who… exciting but seriously, Russell one fucking concept at a time, okay? You can’t write everythingthateverhappenedincreation into a two hour special. Being Human… whoa dark! Not sure if George needs to be naked ALL THE TIME though. I mean he has a nice ass but the man must be getting cold!)

It is wonderful being back. Wonderfully cold and dark and London and since the city is pretty much my boyfriend, it’s good to be back in his arms. And I missed my little family here almost as much as I miss my family in SA when I’m away. It really is time for the invention of teleportation so I can be in two places at once.

Tomorrow work. Yay… well kinda. I mean I actually do miss working but somehow when I’m away I panic that I’ve forgotten something important and am returning to a mess. I’m sure this won’t be true… will it?

If I take Sydney as my mistress, London will drown me…

In the spirit of getting some serious sightseeing done, Jen and I were up, dressed and on the train into the city at 9 this morning… yawning and dazed, but filled with enthusiasm. Of course serious sightseeing needs serious fuel and we started our mission with massive pancakes (and coffee… biiig coffee) at Pancakes On The Rocks, which apparently one has to go to. I’d certainly recommend it…

After that it was onto the Sydney Explorer bus for a whirlwind view of the city from Opera House to Anzac Memorial and every museum in between. We took a short break and a bit of a wander at the Botanical Gardens where I took this sign way too seriously.

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Of course if you take me anywhere where there is an aquarium, I will insist on going. There is nothing on earth I like more than an aquarium. I instantly regress to the age of four. For the sake of the other visitors, Jen was probably not the best companion for me. We shrieked and squealed our way through turtles, glow in the dark coral, dugongs, sharks and crocs, pulling faces and doing impersonations of everything from pig-nosed turtles to moon jellyfish. Jen particularly liked the crocs.

croc
Next to the aquarium is the Wildlife Centre so we popped over there too to check out a series of very creepy creepy-crawlies (is it weird that I was more afraid of the twig and leaf bugs than I was of the giant spiders and snakes), some fascinating and adorable nocturnal creatures and of course this cuddly koala, who appeared to be a little stoned on blue gum leaves.

koala
On exiting the Wildlife Centre we discovered it was raining as if the ark was about to arrive at any moment. I honestly believe that the city gods where attempting to drown me for cheating on my beloved London with the beautiful Sydney. There was nothing to do but buy some ponchos from the gift shop (they have a little shop… I like it when there’s a little shop) and brave the storm. We looked like escapees from a bad horror film. There are no photos of that… it’s too wrong for visual documentation.

We will be heading back to the city to check out some of the hotspots in more detail and to do the Bondi Explorer bus tour so we can see all the beaches… well once it stops raining anyway!