Tag Archives: travelling

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.

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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…

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!

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.

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.

Adventures in Scotland: Day 4

On the morning of our last day in Glasgow we woke up to the themed alarm we had set in our hotel room. I have to admit I experimented with all the alarms before settling on one. Most of them were a bit weird, especially the one that sounded like a man beating up a dog (??). The best one was definitely the jungle one that starts with the light pod glowing green and yellow and then a series of gentle animal noises. It was time fore my dad and Pat headed off to Ireland to visit her family, leaving Paul and I with a day to explore on our own, so we jumped back on the tour bus and looked for some places to get off.

Our first stop was the Science Centre but despite what they keep saying on the tour bus, it’s not free and we weren’t willing to drop £14 each on an attraction we weren’t completely sure about. Unfortunately this was the point where the rain decided to come down like the Armageddon. So by the time we got to the Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel we were soaked

Generally I find museums are one of those things that I want to love but find pretty boring if I’m honest with myself. The Riverside Museum is a genuine exception to this. With over 3,000 objects on display in its collection, it’s easy to spend a few hours roaming around. But it’s not just the size of the collection that makes it interesting, it’s also how touchable and interactive it is. I especially loved the Victorian Street that they’d set up where you could wander from one shop to another. I can imagine that it would be particularly good for little ones, so if you’re ever in Glasgow, take the kids.

Reminds me of a certain wedding…

By then the rain had stopped so we headed for the attraction I was most excited about, the Botanical Gardens. They have a series of exciting glasshouses, including one room  dedicated to carnivorous plants, where I found this baby.

Pitcher Plant

And they also have rolling green hills covered with stunning flowers. I can promise that if I worked nearby, I’d be there eating my lunch in the rose gardens everyday.

Kibble Palace

Beautiful!

From there we strolled to Byres Road, which forms a nexus for arty independent shops, bars and restaurants. We had lunch in Charlie Rocks, which might seem an odd choice at an American diner in Glasgow, but I can highly recommend the Californian Cobb Salad. Post lunch I felt like something sweet and convinced Paul that he wanted to buy me an ice-cream at 3 Steps To Heaven. I restrained myself and only had two scoops in a cone, but for those of you who have ever been to the States, they offer a cold stone service where they mash up ice-cream flavours with toppings and sauces to create a whole new delicious beast. I will be back…

After a bit more wandering around, another film in the hotel room (that I slept through) and me beating Paul yet again at cards, we had dinner in The Lucky 7 Canteen, which I found the last time I was in Glasgow. It’s another cosy basement tenement spot, with great tunes, quirky décor and delicious food… although I’m a little sad they didn’t have the salad I wanted. Do check out the chowder though if you make it out there. It’s gooooood!

By the end of most holidays I’ll admit to feeling genuinely relieved that I’m going home but I left Scotland feeing quite tragic and definitely keen to come back. The only consolation was that we made our trip back first class as Virgin was having a special. Worth it for the free food alone. I was born to travel this way!

Now, who’s up for Fringe next year?

Adventures in Scotland: Day 3

On day three it was time to leave Edinburgh and the festival behind us and head cross country to Glasgow.

Our Glasgow hotel was the exact opposite of our Edinburgh hotel, being probably the most futuristic place I’ve ever gotten to sleep in. Arriving at the citizenM, you’re met with both these incredible light fittings and an amazing fragrance that gets pumped into ground floor.

Check-in is self-service alongside a twenty-four hour bar and canteen serving everything from fresh fruit, to cocktails, to sushi, all decorated in their signature red colour scheme and funky décor. The bedrooms have colossal king-sized bed along with a bathroom in a pod. The bathroom is lit up by a panel in the ceiling, which bathes the whole bedroom in a gentle glow. The best part is that you can choose the colour of the glow using a remote control which also opens and closes the blinds and blackout screen. You can even choose from themes that provide music to go along with alternating pulsating colours. I will admit that it is slightly disconcerting when someone unexpectedly changes the colours while you’re on the loo but I’ll leave it at that.

Once we’d settled in it was time to venture onto the next exploratory tour bus. I have been to Glasgow before for work but never ventured much further than the sort of Bath Street/Central Station area and I’ll admit that I kind of thought the city was a bit boring. On exploring a bit further I discovered that my opinion was completely wrong. With a stunning juxtaposition of Edwardian buildings like the red sandstone Kelvingrove Art Gallery and recent uber modern developments, the city is both beautiful and exciting, with a rich industrial history. And there is a definite feeling that its inhabitants are very proud of it. Given a week to explore, we definitely could have found enough to keep us busy.

By the time we got to the end of the tour, starvation was imminent so Paul and I made our way to Hummingbird on Bath Street, where we were served, what can only be described as the best burgers I have ever eaten in my life. When I expressed my joy at being given such a wonderful meal, I actually got a hug from the waiter. You don’t get that in London, kids!

The rest of our afternoon was split between checking out the free on-demand films in our room (excellent selection) and playing cards in the bar, where I have to point out that I crushed Paul like a bug.

Dinner took us to The Butterfly and The Pig, a charming little restaurant on the bottom floor, which would have once been a tenement building.  The menu is eclectic and quite traditionally Scottish and my massive prawn salad was delicious. You also can’t go wrong with anywhere that serves little chocolate fridge cakes with the bill.

Adventures in Scotland: Day 2

Day two we decided it was essential to check out Edinburgh’s most famous landmark, the castle. Situated on Edinburgh Castle Rock, which has been a stronghold for over 3,000 years, it overlooks Princes Street Gardens, above what used to be the Nor Loch and it’s the best vantage point to get an excellent view of the whole city.

View from Edinburgh Castle

And also to be inspired by the previous night’s show.

Cannon cock!

Edinburgh Castle has a rich history, having been involved in several different wars… mostly with the English. It’s also where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her treacherous son, James and where the breathtaking Scottish crown jewels live. I suggested to Paul that he might buy me a sceptre, but he wasn’t having any of it. In its later years the castle housed prisoners of war and I particularly enjoyed the prison reconstruction that you could walk around.

With the castle having been explored we headed to the Three Sisters, which houses several venues putting on free shows.

Our first show of the day was Carnival of Crows, starring Molly Beth White, playing Polly, a Victorian girl swept up by a declining carnival. The spectre of ringmaster, Edward B. Friday, a showman with a macabre side, hangs over Poppy and her fellow hanger-on Virginia, as they deal with sideshow freaks, puppets and an inescapable sense of impending doom. If you like a bit of Tim Burton or Edgar Allen Poe, you’ll love this, with the only downside being limited production value. Probably not one for the parents though, as we discovered. My dad and Pat were baffled, with my dad declaring the show interesting.

From there we moved onto Fark, another one woman show, this time starring Madeline Culp, an Australian Meryl Streep lookalike, who apparently believes art is everywhere. To be honest with you, it’s extremely difficult to sum up this show. For the most part it came across as Culp having a nervous breakdown on stage. This might or might not have been intentional, but what it definitely wasn’t, was funny, except in short, awkward bursts.

Our last show of the night was Half A Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths, which was on at The Zoo Southside.  It stars Joe Murray as William, a Smiths-obsessed, directionless drifter, who falls in love with “Salome” at the same time as discovering his best friend is dying. As William stumbles from one heartbreaking situation to another, he pauses to relate his emotions to his favourite Smiths songs, which he sings mostly while standing on a chair pretending to be Morrissey. I found the story very touching and relatable and Murray is quite charming. Probably only for Smiths fans but we enjoyed it rather a lot.

My top tip for Fringe is go to the office in the middle of the Royal Mile, pick up a guide, circle a few things that look good and then just roam around and see what catches your fancy. I kind of wished we had been able to dedicate a whole week to it but even then I don’t think we would have scratched the surface. There is so much going on that if you take the time and effort you could find a something for absolutely anyone.

Adventures in Scotland: Day 1

We set off on our epic journey at sparrow’s fart on a Saturday morning with my father and his partner, Pat in tow. The two of them, being South African residents, were beyond excited at the prospect of a four and a half hour train journey from Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley – Paul and I slightly less so, especially when the family who would be travelling next to us took their seats. Mum, dad and brother were alright, but the teenage daughter was quite possibly possessed. I have never heard anyone moan so much in such a short space of time. I sometimes being less than thrilled with family outings at fifteen but I always found sullen silence effective enough in expressing my displeasure. This girl was so rude, I considered slapping her as a gift to her mother.

The beast slumbers… the relief on her brother’s face is palpable

We arrived to the current carnage that is Waverley station. I think it’s partly under construction. It being, Fringe, the city was absolutely heaving and we were actually somewhat grateful to jump in a cab to the Culane House Hotel, our very homey B&B, alongside Leith Links.

Culane House Hotel

After a tasty lunch at Nobles Bar, where I had a duck and marmalade sandwich, yes really, it was decided that the best way to get an idea of the layout of the city was to jump on a tour bus. Of course, I initially managed to get us a little lost, but it did mean we got to take a roam through the absolutely gorgeous, Princes Street Gardens and check out the Scott Monument.

Princes Street Gardens

The Scott Monument

The tour taught us a lot about Edinburgh, which basically consists of an old town and a later built Edwardian new town, which reshaped the city. It’s built on two levels, with bridges that cut over the lanes below them, everything in the shadow of the glorious castle that sits above Princes Street Gardens. There was no way of avoiding the constant hustle and bustle of the Festival. Every wall is covered with posters advertising the literally, hundreds of shows available and both performers and promoters have spilled into the street trying to convince passersby to come and see what they’re offering.

Tour bus, ahoy!

Paul and I immediately wanted to fling ourselves headlong into the action and I think this was the point where we realised that travelling with two indecisive, passive aggressive pensioners probably wasn’t ideal for an off-the-wall arts festival and it was agreed that we’d split up.

Our first show of the evening was The Brett Domino Trio, chosen because it was the only thing at Pleasance that wasn’t sold out. The trio is actually made up of two chaps from Leeds who play not only their comedic tunes on the keytar, ukulele, kazoo and more, but also cover a wide variety of popular songs. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard SexyBack in a deadpan Yorkshire accent. Combining live performance with YouTube footage, they certainly had us giggling.

We made a brief stop for dinner before heading out to our second show, chosen because of its ludicrous title, Pretending Things Are A Cock. Jon Bennett is an Australian comedian who has spent the last three years travelling the world taking photos of himself pretending various things are his penis. This is funny enough in itself as a concept, but paired with Bennett’s charming and frank storytelling skills, the show is both hilarious and very touching. If you ever get the opportunity, check the show out, we loved it.

Call me Coma Joe

I appear to have accidentally completely erased my jetlag in one simple step… that really shouldn’t have worked. After getting home at about 8am yesterday (after my flight got in an hour and a half early, I queued behind a man in a snakeskin jumpsuit, got let back into the country by an immigration agent who did not say a single word to me including “hello” and struggled to find my pre-booked cab driver since he spoke approximately 4 words of English), I quickly caught up with Kel and Mich and had a shower (oh the redeeming power of the hot shower). That has to be the longest sentence in the English language. Anyway, we had lunch at Sue’s house and then I decided to have a little nap. The plan was to sleep from 5 ‘til 7 and then get up, have dinner, noodle around and then go back to bed at about midnight.

I’m still not sure what actually happened, whether my alarm just failed to go off or I slept through it, but I woke up bewildered at… 1AM!! I seriously contemplated crying, absolutely convinced that I had fucked up any chances of getting over the jetlag in the space of a weekend. So I watched an episode of Doctor Who and mentally kicked myself and thought about physically kicking my CrackBerry. But by the end of the episode I was so sleepy that I figured I’d just sleep as much as a could and see what happened. Cue waking up at 7 this morning… 14 hours in one session. It’s probably the most I’ve ever slept in one go but I appear to be back to London time.

Have spent the day shopping with Dawn. It’s amazing how quickly you get back to your normal routine! On the way to meet her in Earlsfield I passed a group of punks lurking on the Wandle River Bridge (maybe they got lost on the way to Camden). They immediately started shouting at me. I’m still not sure if they were hurling abuse or compliments at me. If anyone knows what, “Jesus Christ she looks like two of your buttons” means, I’d appreciate an interpretation. Bought two amazing pairs of plastic Tom Wolfe leggings from a shop that was going into liquidation. My attempts to look like an 80’s flashback continue unbounded.

Tomorrow back to work and proper normality. I promise normality for the blog as well… flash fiction and skills cloud to follow.

Time travel… and no sight of The Doctor

I’ve been time-travelling. That’s right kids, I’m in LA and it’s technically two hours earlier than I left Sydney, even though I’ve been on a thirteen hour flight. No Tardis required… just a 17 hour time difference.

Of course, since it’s me… it’s been entertaining. Ended up wedged between a woman so fat that we couldn’t really have the arm-rest down (thought about stabbing her) and an American girl about my age who cried for most of the flight. I kept up my usual bizarre ability to get people to unburden their secrets to me (whether I want them to or not) and the girl told me that she was leaving her Australian fiancé after a month-long visit and would not see him again until he visited her in June. She then went on to explain that they met in December and got engaged after a week and their only actual time together has been three visits. He doesn’t want to move to Baltimore. She doesn’t want to move to Sydney. I nodded and smiled quietly thinking that she was setting herself up for a life of drama. Then she asked me for advice. Help!! I’m not even sure what I told her… I was so spaced out.

On arrival in LA, I ended up having a smoke with a very sweet member of the Paparazzi who was waiting for some American celebrity I’d never heard of. I swear I have a stamp on my forehead that says, “talk to me”.

Now we wait to board to return to the glorious Londres. I am surviving only by the grace of the giagantimongous Starbucks frappe thingamagiggy I bought with the last five American dollars I had on me…

San Francisco days, San Francisco nights….

I am in San Francisco airport waiting for a connecting flight to Sydney. I am very confused and my brain hurts. I think it’s about 4.30am for me. Here it is 8.30pm. In Sydney it is 1.30pm… tomorrow. Arghhh!!!

Dawn very kindly offered to drive me to Heathrow this morning. What a debacle. A vehicle of some variety broke down on the M4, leading to two closed lanes and the trip, which normally takes about 40 minutes taking 1 hour and 45 minutes. All of my duty-free shopping plans vanished swiftly but I made my flight with time to spare so all was well.

The flight itself was uneventful… except when I got stuck chatting to some middle aged British man who was trying to convince me that his opinions on South Africa were more valid than mine. Dude, I lived there for twenty-three years, you’ve never even been there. He was so adamant that he tried to follow me into the loo… yes, really…

On arriving at SF international, I was immediately given the shifty eye by border control. The guy would not believe that my route existed until I showed him my itinerary. He seemed to think London to Sydney via San Fran was madness. It probably is. After that the customs guy decided it would be fun to try and guess where I was going without looking at my boarding card. Frighteningly his guess was Vegas. Vegas??? Do I look like someone who gambles? Obviously so.

I feel better after a festival style wet wipe bath in the ladies… also so tired that I am going to be in a COMA on the next flight. Bring it on!