The Baltics Are Waking Up: Vilnius, Lithuania

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Friday 9th September Cont…
I mostly napped on the long drive with a bit of writing for this blog thrown in just so I could try to convince myself I hadn’t totally wasted the long drive. The journey was however nicely broken up and with proper tourist sites to keep it interesting and not just stops at service stations as provided by some tour companies on their “long drive days”.

Our first stop was the ‘Hill of Crosses’, and El explained it was a Busabout tradition to leave a cross on the hill. The site has become symbolic of the endurance of Catholicism in Lithuania, especially as a way of peaceful resistance during Soviet Occupation and Pope John Paul II visited shortly after the country regained independence. It is difficult to describe the scale of the site and stating that there are approximately 100,000 crosses on the hill just doesn’t do the place justice. The site had a powerful feel about it, especially once on the hill and surrounded by crosses on all sides of different sizes.

Our second stop was at Trakai which is most famous for Trakai Castle Island. We had lunch at Kybynlar where I had fried bread with cheese and a cold cucumber soup both of which were nice. The fried bread in particular was very moorish especially with a Svyturys beer however I’m not so sure it was good for my arteries. There was a “Head in the Hole” cardboard cutout which meant Christine and I were able to get a particularly funny picture.

Christine and I decided to hire a peddle boat whilst Matt and El hired a row boat however negotiating a price with “The Captain” proved more humorous than expected. He seemed to get quite irate and I honestly thought he was going to push El in to the lake. We started having a race towards the castle which Christine and I decided we comfortably won because it appeared the other two had ended up stuck on a bank. We navigated our way around the outside of the island where we saw Jayde and Giulia before we returned the hire boats no doubt to the relief of the captain.

We arrived in Vilnius and outside the hostel a large group of bikers appeared to be taking part in a religious ceremony. We could hear the ceremony up in our room as it was incredibly loud and so I was unable to nap any further. Eventually there was a huge roar from the engines and they all sped off. Later on El explained that these had been the Gates of Dawn which contains an icon of “The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy” which has become a shrine as it is said to have miraculous powers and the bikers were probably wishing someone a safe journey.

Our Orientation walk walk started outside the Gates of Dawn where the bikers had been when we’d arrived. We then made our way in to the main square where on the Town Hall there was a plaque unveiled by George Bush (Junior) which stated that the USA was a friend of Lithuania and that if they were attacked, the attacker would become the enemy of the USA (which has recently been re-affirmed). We saw other sites including a couple of churches before we saw a piece of artwork called Writers Wall which had an object representing various famous Lithuanians.

El said she had a surprise for us, and after making our way down a road which was being relaid we arrived at a bridge which had a sign
Republic of Užupis. The border sign also contained 4 symbols underneath including a Smiling face and a picture of the Mona Lisa. El told us that the residents of the area declared independence on 1st April and therefore it is unclear if it is a joke however the republic does have it’s own constitution which is displayed in most languages.

After the walk we made our way to a restaurant called where I had a Lithuanian pancake and then we continued to a England themed pub called Portobello. I convinced Matt to try a pint of England’s finest ale, Fullers London Pride. Alas it hadn’t traveled well and not only that it was served chilled like a lager. There were quite a bits of English memorabilia including a Red phone box and a Mini which we used for photos.

Saturday 10th September
The following morning I had no option but to get out of bed because there was a commotion outside the hostel due to a large group singing outside the gate. Jayde, Christine, Matt and I had arranged to explore the old town together and after eating some of the basic breakfast provisions made our way outside.

Jayde and I had planned to get a bagel from the market for breakfast but we were told to try Holy Doughnut instead. In addition to bagels they sold an incredible selection of doughnuts, one of which had maple cured bacon on the top. Whilst from a novelty perspective I was tempted I eventually opted for one that was covered in chocolate cornflakes.

We walked to the Cathedral via the President House and the Courtyard of Vilnius University and when we arrived in Cathedral Square it was evident that a marathon was being organised. Opposite the Cathedral and a short distance away, was the tall Cathedral’s bell tower which may once have been one of the towers of the old medieval castle. We had a quick look inside the Cathedral which had various art works hung on the walls and after leaving saw the Stebuklas Tile (Miracle Stone) marking the start of the Baltic Way the human chain from Vilnius to Riga and Tallinn that El had previously mentioned in Tallinn and Riga.

We continued to the Gediminas Tower. Those that have followed my recent travels know I seem to love nothing more than tiring myself by climbing a tall tower to get a view and so I paid the small price whilst the others waited for me below. As usual, I needed oxygen when I reached the top and other than a lovely panoramic view of the city there was a small display on the Baltic Way, where I finally saw some pictures of the event. It’s incredible feat really sunk in and it was awe inspiring to appreciate, how in an age before social media, the National Fronts could organise for two million people to join their hands in a peaceful demonstration for a distance of 675.5 kilometres (across the three Baltic states without a single gap.

After leaving the Cathedral we walked back past the President House but couldn’t find the alley leading to the Alumnatas Courtyard public garden. Instead we continued to the Barbakanas Bastian, a remaining piece of the old 16th Century city wall which also provided a nice view of the city in the distance. Jayde and I then said goodbye to Christine who needed to get her flight home and to Matt who had to check in to his next accommodation though we agreed to meet up for a drink that evening.

We were staying with the same hostel but at a different address and the room wasn’t ready so we walked to the Hale Markets which were located in a building which looked more like a train station from the outside. We had a quick look around and I had a bagel from Hales Bistro though in truth the markets hadn’t been as impressive as we had expected. Jayde had planned to go to the cinema, whilst I had planned to go to another KGB Headquaters, now called the ‘Museum of Genocide Victims’. The cinema in the Old Town didn’t have anything showing in English, or even with English subtitles, so she decided to come with me.

The walk we took wasn’t the most direct route however eventually we arrived at the grand looking building which from the outside, like in Riga, appeared perfectly innocent. We made our way around the different displays on the top two floors which focused on the impact that events during the Soviet Occupation had on the day to day lives. There was a lot to take in, some of the displays focused on the resistance of the local population whilst another more harrowing display focused on the victims.

We made our way downstairs in to the basement and saw the remains of the prison and the execution room. Some of the cells represented how prisoners would have been treated and displayed items such as straight jackets whilst objects that had been found in various mass graves were displayed in glass cases located under the floor of the execution room.

We returned back to the main hostel and then continued on to our new room which was a short walk away. Our new accommodation was more in the style of an apartment block however it was a rather odd set up with a downstairs communal kitchen next door to our room and further more, whilst we hadn’t necessarily expected en-suite we were disappointed to discover that there were only two showers in the whole building.

I’d been growing a beard for a month having been challenged to do so my my housemates Jess and Orla. I had asked if there were any recommendations on where I could get it trimmed because I wanted to return to work looking less scruffy, I thought it would be memorable to have my first beard trimming experience abroad and ultimately I thought it would be cheaper than London. I was given two recommendations and as the first was fully booked I ended up at Herr Katts €7 which was in Užupi. I felt a bit nervous and vulnerable as I sat down, wondering if I’d end up in a Sweeney Todd/Mrs. Lovett, meat pie.

As I walked back through the town I had a quick glance at the football scores and saw Watford were losing 2.0 though I was determined not to let the score affect my mood. By the time I got back to the room it was 2.1 but I didn’t anything more as it was half time so I went up for a shower. By the time I returned it was 3.2 and amazingly the final score was Watford 4 West Ham 2. Whilst I wouldn’t have let defeat upset me, victory had me practically doing cartwheels.

That evening Jayde and I went to a Restaurant close to the accommodation called Forest where we enjoyed a final evening dinner including a starter of more fried bread with cheese. After we’d finished we walked a short way to a bar called the “King and Mouse” which was one of the oldest and popular during the time of Napoleon. It really only sold whiskey which neither of us fancied drinking so we continued to a bar El had pointed out the day before called “Who Hit John?”

Matt joined us for a small beer having randomly bumped in to a friend from another tour before we said a final goodbye to him and returned home. Due to the time difference Match of the Day was still playing and I managed to catch the Watford highlights which was a bit of a bonus.

Sunday 11th September
Jayde and I had quite a lazy start because our flight was quite late in the day and we had explored quite a bit of the old town but didn’t have the appetite to explore other parts of the city. It had been quite an intense trip as I thought it would be visiting 5 capital cities in such a short period of time. We were quite hungry by the time we were ready to leave but first we had to drop our bags out at the old hostel.

After a very lazy start we walked to a Chaika a Soviet styled coffee shop however unfortunately they didn’t really have any breakfast or lunch options. Fortunately we were fairly need a main street so we soon found another restaurant and we then continued on to Doughnut Lab however by then I had no space in my stomach so I resisted the temptation.

We then spent a bit of time looking around souvenir shops and at a local market before we made our way back to Holy Doughnut where we took a seat and watched the marathon whilst I ate a doughnut as I was feeling peckish again. There was at least one runner that looked longingly at me as they ran by and I admit I felt rather cruel. We returned back to the hotel, picked up our bags and made our way to the train station and arriving at the airport.

After 5 capital cities in 10 days our Scandi-Baltic adventure was finally over and whilst it had been an intense trip which meant both of us were tired by the time we arrived back at Gatwick we were already planning where to go next so watch this space…

Posted by Travels and Rambles in Europe, Lithuania, 0 comments

Wild World – Riga, Latvia

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Wednesday 7th Cont…
After disembarking from the ferry we waited in the arrivals area whilist El went to order us two taxis. After a while it appeared everyone had left and although we weren’t told by security we had to move, someone came along and started to turn off the lights so we quickly moved to a different area near the main exit. El returned and we made our way to the taxis which took us to our accommodation which was a large apartment style room. Chris took a bed in the mezzanine which Matt decided to sleep on a sofa in the lounge area and the rest of us took a bed in the main room.

Once we had sorted ourselves out we went back downstairs so El could take us on a short walking tour of the city. We started off at the House of the Black Heads (I’ve explained the significance in my Tallinn blog), before continuing on to the Catherdral had a Rooster rather than a cross on top of the spire which signified it was Lutheran, but also had the purpose of being used as a wather vane.

Opposite the Cathedral was the Latvia Radio Broadcasting house which played a part in the modern independence of the country. In January 1991, following an attack in Vilnius by the Soviets, the Popular Front used a broadcast to call for people to gather in Cathedral Square and to build barricades to protect the city from another Soviet invasion.

We passed the Power Tower, once part of the cities defensces before we reached the Freedom Monument where the Guard of Honour was just taking place. El explained that the Monument honoured soldiers killed during the 1918–1920 Latvian War of Independence and that the Soviets had threatened to demolish the momument after occupation in 1940 because it represented freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia.

After the walk El, Chris, Matt and I went to a traditional Latvian dumpling restaurant called Pelmini XL for lunch called. There were a variety of types so I took a sample of each and then paid based on the weight of the food I’d taken. Matt had jokingly said he craved a burger so once we had finished we then went to Hesburger. At the time I’d assumed this was a Soviet Union equivalent of McDonald’s, especially as the cheese burger seemed no different however I later learnt it was a Finnish chain.

Later in the afternoon, all of us but Jayde went to a KGB Prison which had been turned in to a museum. From the outside “The Corner House” appeared an inconspicuous building from 1912 as did the Reception Area, where the public could make enquiries about the fate of individuals. Even the interior of the main entrance hall which could be seen from the street was adorned with chandeliers and large mirrors.

Once we were inside however and turned the corner from this hallway the atmosphere changed dramatically as we saw the chilling decor of the corridor to the cells and the true horrific nature of the buildings purpose during Soviet Occupation became obvious. Our first stop was the interrogation room, where it was possible to stand behind the window which would have appeared to be a mirror to those being interrogated. It was scary to think how normal the building looked from the outside in comparison to what went on inside.

Everything about the prisoner experience was designed to break the human spirit. Sitting in an example of a cell, which were always over crowded, we learnt that the prisoners in the cell were allowed nothing but a bucket to use as toilet and this was only emptied daily. During the tour we visited the Registration Room where prisoners were completely stripped in order to degrade them, the exercise yard where prisoners were allowed 20-30 minutes day light as an armed guard sat above and the kitchen where food was made from spoiled and unwashed products.

Finally we went in to the main closed court yard where there was a moving display dedicated to those that were executed. As part of this there was a graphic 3 minute video clip from the 2007 movie Katyn which portrayed how the executions probably occurred. As the prisoner was shot in the back of the head the engine of a truck was left running (to hide the sound) and then the bodies were dumped in to it. Various sound proofing techniques were also used within the chamber and there was a hole in the corner of the floor to drain away the blood.

El had told us about a good view from the Skyline Bar of the Blu Hotel which we passed on the way back to our hostel. I ordered a small beer and we took some seats by the window over looking the Freedom Monument. After we left Chris and I walked home through the Bastejkalna Gardens and via a Soviet Statue which had not been demolished after independence. We deviated slightly more than planned however we arrived back at the hostel in time to meet the others for dinner.

That evening we went to a buffet at a traditional Latvian restaurant and then on to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs which initially felt like a stereotypical Latvian bar for tourists, a bit like an overly English themed pub in London. It was however a genuinely traditional bar still also populated by locals where I tried a couple of the beers and we watched the locals doing their lively folk dances.

Jayde and her friend Paul met us at the bar. We got chatting and as he had worked as a guide told us some of his tales. He then asked if I’d been on any other tours and I casually mentioned I had and had broken my arm, arm wrestling. At this point he exclaimed “So your ‘Arm Guy'”? and proceeded to explain to me how I was a scenario for new recruits though our joking about it was all good natured.

Shortly after Christine joined us as she had finished dancing and couldn’t find the others so the four of us decided to leave and go to a small club called Rock Cafe. Despite the size it was quite lively and whilst the music wasn’t necessarily my style it was still fun to pull off my (now ancient) dance moves. My phone had run out of battery just after we took a selfie which meant Christine had to guide the two of us back to the hostel and to message Matt who had tried to contact me.

Jayde and Paul had decided to stay at the club but as Christine and I returned to the hostel we saw Matt, El and El’s friend who worked there standing outside. The others were about to go to a secret rooftop view and easily convinced we decided to follow along. We climbed up the stairs to the top floor of the hostel, then up a ladder in to the attic where finally there was a hatch we had to haul ourselves through which led on to the roof. We enjoyed a couple of plastic cups of wine and admired the view of the Cathedral Square below. It had been a thoroughly random night and I can honestly say I had never expected to end up on a roof over looking the city at the end of it.

We probably spent just under an hour when Christine, Matt and I decided we were ready to go back to our room. On our return I discovered Jayde was back and after she’s expressed concern at where we had been she then immediately asked if I’d brought her food. I hadn’t and the message I’d received which apparently asked me to bring food simply read “The”. We were both slightly drunk and there was a lot of laughing especially when I told her to respect her elders when she was teasing me about something.

Thursday 8th September
It was hardly surprising that I was initially feeling slightly tired and hungover the next morning however as I was due to fire some quite powerful guns I quickly sobered up especially after a shower and some breakfast. We arrived at the Shooting Range and once inside got to choose which target we wanted to use. I opted for one that is best described as a damsel in distress, being held hostage by a villain.

The first gun was the Glock and even with ear protectors, I have to admit I still jumped out of my skin when the first shot went off and jumped again as what I assume was part of the casing ricochet off the wall and landed near my foot. I was filled with nerves as I lined up my shot convinced the gun would in a Murphy’s law way backfire. It didn’t and as the 6 rounds progressed I became more steady but was still relieved more than anything when I was done. We looked at our progress and rather unfortunately I’d hit the girl in the neck and leg, and the villain appeared unscathed. Clearly I was not James Bond.

Next up was the AK-47 which had been the one I was most excited to try. It ended up being a slightly disappointing experience because when we looked at our targets after we’d finished I realised I’d totally missed on all 6 attempts. The final gun, the Winchester 1300 Shotgun was the most powerful of the three and the motion and sound of it reloading did feel me with a bit of adrenaline and this possibly resulted in what was also arguably my best round as I finally only hit ‘the villain’.

I needed a drink to settle my nerves so it was a bonus that a free drink at the Funny Fox Bar was included in the deal. I’d taken a liking to the Estonian cider Kiss so ordered a pint of that before Matt, El and I went back to Hesburger for lunch where I tried the Big Mac equivalent. After we had finished we all went in different directions.

I walked to the central market which is situated in 4 German Zeppelin hangars and is apparently the largest market in Europe. Unfortunately when I got there I didn’t fancy really anything to eat, not even one of the cheap dessert pastries, so after taking a few photographs I returned back to the city. I continued to to a row of old houses called “Three Brothers” the oldest of which is dated back to the late 15th century.

From there I planned to visit the ‘Museum of the Occupation of Latvia’ however when I arrived I realised it had temporarily been relocated. I was feeling a bit tired and couldn’t contemplate another 20 minute walk so returned to the hostel where I planned to nap. I hadn’t been there long when Jayde and Giulia seemingly full of energy burst in and the three of us decided to walk to the district renowned for the Art Nouveaux style.

Ironically on the way to the Art Nouveaux district we passed the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which meant in hindsight I could have visited and met Jayde there. Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world however it is Albert Iela that tourists visit where most of the buildings were designed by the Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. This included Alberta iela 8 which was a rather stunning example of the Eclectic Art Nouveau, the earliest style.

Some may have decided to head back at this stage but Jayde and I wanted to visit another district called Agenskalns that Paul had also recommended. It was a long walk but quite pretty especially crossing the river and from the bridge on the waterfront we could see a large Riga sign that we planned to visit on the way back. Whilst we did explore Agenskalns we were never really sure if we reached the area Paul had recommended and if we did then it wasn’t worth the strain my feet were feeling. The walk through Uzvaras park was pleasant and eventually we reached the Riga sign which, whilst vandalised did not prevent us from getting some pictures before we power walked back to the hostel.

That evening we had another burger this time at a gourmet restaurant called “B Burger” before we continued to the Kaņepes Kultūras Centrs (Culture Centre) which as the name suggested had a decor that was quite alternative. On the way back Chrstine and I decided to get some night pictures of the House of the Blackheads and were then drawn towards a 50s style American band performing at a lively looking open air bar called Egle which was located in the market by the hostel. Whilst Chrstine managed to get two seats near the front I got the drinks and then we chilled to some Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and others though we were equally impressed at the dance moves from some of the older generation audience members.

Friday 9th September
Unfortunately with a long drive ahead there was a rather unpleasant surprise when first down to breakfast I realised there had been a misunderstanding and the hostel hadn’t provided our supplies. Jayde and I walked to a nearby supermarket to buy some cheap pastries and shortly after we arrived back El successfully resolved the issue. The stay in Riga had been brief but action packed. Far from only being a cheap party city, which is what I’d been led to believe, it was also rather pretty and packed full of interesting architecture.

Posted by Travels and Rambles in Europe, Latvia, 0 comments

Knowing me Knowing You: Stockholm

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Sunday 4th September continued
We commenced the long walk along the gangway to the M/S Silja Serenade which appeared even bigger than the ferry from the day before. Once inside I gasped at its scale. Whilst I’d been on a small Nile cruise ship and numerous ferries to France I’d never experienced a proper cruise ship with cabins. Apparently there were 37 different nationalities on board and I read that the ship had a capacity of 2,800.

The promenade deck (that we entered on) contained all the main shops and restaurants whilst cabins hugged either side of the ship all the way to the top deck. This meant that as we were placed in a non sea facing cabin we had a view of the promenade deck below. Jayde, Giulia, Christine and I went up to the Boat Deck so we could get some pictures of us leaving. I stayed until we past the island with the fort then explored a bit on my own before returning to the cabin I was sharing with Matt and Chris to have a lie down.

We had all agreed to spend a little extra to participate in the “all you can eat/drink” grand buffet but first we sat in the Atlantis Club where El gave us some information about the history of Sweden and in particular Stockholm. I was hungry by the time we sat down to eat and felt suitably prepared to stuff myself.

As usual I was like a kid in a sweet shop, and found it an exciting novelty to pour my own beer. Whilst initially I stuck to the foods I knew I’d like I did eventually try a number of the fish dishes for example the herring which put me outside of my comfort zone though turned out to be incredibly tasty. Finally I went to get a number of the small dessert treats which included a mango flavoured mousse that Chris in particular had taken a liking to. Unfortunately an ice cream chocolate brownie Sunday I created for myself was the final straw for my stomach and I realised I’d over eaten.

Matt, Chris, El and I went to the New York Bar where karaoke was taking place expecting the others to join after they’d freshened up in their room. Matt and I got a cocktail however the karaoke was dominated by a group of school aged children who I believe were taking part in a hockey tournament and it therefore felt a bit like a school disco. The others still hadn’t arrived so we left and went to their room.

We sat listening to music before Chris and I went to get seats for us to watch the midnight entertainment show. It was already busy when we arrived and our seats weren’t the best up near what appeared to be a group of over excited lads on a stag do. I’d never seen a cruise show before but some of the music and dances got the crowd going. Christine joined up about half way through and Jayde, Giulia and El caught the end at the back where we joined them standing.

I was too tired to stay up much later for the live band and was feeling a bit unsteady from my large dinner and the gentle sway of the ship / vibrations from the engine. Fortunately lying down helped and I was soon asleep.

Monday 5th September
Whilst It hadn’t been my best night sleep I at least awoke no longer feeling bloated or sick. After a shower a took a little stroll on the boat deck to see our approach to Stockholm as we weaved through the archipelago. It was quite overcast and windy so I soon made my way inside and back to the Grand Buffet to meet the others for breakfast.

We arrived in Stockholm and due to a construction site around the new ferry terminal had quite a long walk before we actually reached land. It was another long journey for us to reach the underground station and as I’d also been carrying some of Giulia bags I felt like the kids toy Bucking Bronco. Eventually we arrived at the hostel however only one room was ready which it was agreed the girls could use.

Matt, Chris and I sat in the lobby all on our phones. I sat finalising plans to meet up with Victoria and gratefully accepted her invitation for me to stay in her accommodation because it meant we could spend longer together and because I didn’t have to worry about getting back to the hostel on my own. As a result I quickly packed an over night bag and left the bigger bag with Jayde so she would still have everything she needed.

Matt then suggested a trip to Ikea just to get the three of us out of the hostel and to actually explore Stockholm in the little time we had available. Taking street directions from El we just made it on to the free bus in time. The buses were not that frequent so once at the store we worked out how long we had to do the ‘circular tour’ and to eat the infamous Kottbullar meatballs. Obviously in truth it wasn’t any different to any other Ikea but I did end up buying a new inflatable travel pillow and the meatballs didn’t disappoint.

The three of arrived back at the hostel in plenty of time and I got changed and reorganised my overnight bag. We then left to take part in a walking tour. Until this point El had taken them all however the one around Stockholm was hosted by an external company. Whilst I wanted to do the tour I felt like a child on Christmas eve because I couldn’t wait to see Victoria.

We met our guide in the main square outside the Nobel museum. Our guide arrived wearing a Viking costume complete with a helmet with horns. We were asked what was wrong with the costume and I played the role of class know-it-all by correctly saying the helmet shouldn’t have had horns. We were then all given plastic coloured helmets to wear for the duration of the walk.

We made our way through the paths of Gamla Stan (the old town) and our first notable stop was the Royal Palace where we stopped and were told about the Royal Family who like the British Royal Family now only really perform ceremonial duties of state and attend official engagements. Our guide provided us with some information about the Hanseatic League, a way for tradesman to protect their economic interests and which sounded a bit like a medieval version of the EU to me.

There were a number of other highlights and a particularly small statue of a boy which was meant to give good luck if rubbed however we used it to get selfies and Matt even tried to do a face swap on snapchat.We also passed a statue of Olaus Petri, largely responsible for the Protestant Reformation in Sweden out Storkyrkan (St Nicholas Church) and Mårten Trotzigs Gränd,a steep narrow alley of steps. My personal highlight though was a Viking runestone which it appeared had been rather randomly built in to a wall on one of the main streets.

I waited in the square after the others had left and then made my way to the train station where I was finally reunited with a dear friend. Victoria kindly provided me with a SL card to get around the city and we then got a train and had a brief walk to Monteliusvägen a really nice lookout over the city where we had a beer.

We chatted for a while and enjoyed the view before catching the ferry to Djurgården. Victoria told me Djur meant animal and Djurgården was the hunting ground. It was quite a pretty island and home to the Grona Lund Theme park however perhaps because it was slightly outside the summer season it was closed. Instead we walked part of the way around the lake and found ourselves outside the Abba museum where we got a quick picture.

Next we caught the tram and then walked around the Waldemarsudde gardens which surrounded next to a museum which had formerly been home to a Swedish prince. The gardens were still in full bloom and we got some photos in the pavilion and some sun flowers. It was nice to know where Victoria has been spending a lot of time and I can see why she enjoys walking around the island.

We returned back to the city and after discussing the two options Victoria had suggested we eventually decided on a Vegetarian buffet at Hermans Vegetariska Restauran. There were lovely views from the balcony of the restaurant (though we didn’t have a window seat) and the food was fresh and delicious. I also ordered myself a beer but we resisted trying any of the delicious looking desserts.

We made our way back in to the old town and went to Aifur Krog & Bar which was Viking themed. We ordered two mugs of mead and made our way in to the Great Hall. We asked one of the waitresses if we could sit on the side and saying yes we climbed up on to a ledge which made us feel like the King and Queen of the hall. It then became apparent we weren’t actually allowed to be up there so we jumped down and took our seat at a normal long table.

It was dark by the time we got back and in order to take a short cut back to the apartment we had to walk through some woods though the apartment itself wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. We sat in the lounge for a short while but I think we were both feeling quite tired so went to our separate rooms.

Tuesday 6th September
I woke up when I heard Victoria leave to get breakfast. After we’d eaten the breakfast she prepared us there was a bit of discussion as to where I should explore. Unfortunately the City Hall tours were not running so we decided to visit Vaxholm an island in the archipelago which had the added benefit of being a new experience for Victoria as well.

We had to walk along a pavement next to the highway to reach the Bus stop and whilst the weather had initially appeared cloudy it was glorious by the time we boarded the bus. The bus took just under an hour and was fairy pretty. We arrived in the town/island of Vaxholm, nicknamed the capital of the archipelago then caught a short ferry ride across the water to the fort.

We spent an hour or so exploring the island, starting with a pleasant wall around the fort and then walked on the the walls. Vaxholm Fortress was built in 1544 and the stretch of water it defended had originally been the main way to enter Stockholm. We decided to skip the actual museum and as it was approaching lunch caught the ferry back to the main town.

From there we walked to Hembygdsgårds a little cafe by a pretty little harbour that Victoria had wanted to visit with someone. I enjoyed my Toast Skagen (basically a prawn cocktail on toast) and pastry, possibly to the disappointment of a watching crow who appeared to be eyeing up scraps. Eventually it was time for us to return to the city so I could join my tour before our ferry to Riga. We said our goodbyes and even though we knew we were seeing each other within a month still felt sad to be parting.

El had explained that the M/S Isabelle had been a particular nice ferry and not to raise our expectations for our final overnight journey. Boarding the M/S Isabelle it was evidently older and smaller however it was still grand compared to the steerage conditions I had anticipated. Whilst our cabin was smaller and a bit cramped even for three people (it could apparently hold four) we did at least have a sea view.

Jayde, Chris, Matt and I explored some of the upper outer decks however unlike the M/S Silja Serenade there was no promenade deck full of shops and restaurants and the duty free wasn’t open. Jayde and I returned to the back of the boat, found a seat and rested with a coke as we departed and slowly meandered through the archipelago. Christine joined us and we stayed until the sun began to set and I waited until we had passed the island I’d visited with Victoria earlier in the day.

I quickly got ready so I could meet the others for dinner. After we’d finished eating we continued to sit at the table chatting and eventually it was suggested we play some cards. Matt provided the cards and Christine, Chris, El and we proceeded to play multiple rounds of the card game “Asshole”. The jovial competitive nature kept it fun and after a while we decided to move the game to our room after first calling in to duty free to get snacks and cider.

As it approached midnight, Christine, Chris and I decided to catch the evening show however in my opinion it was slightly odd and wasn’t as good as the one on the M/S Silja Serenade. Rather unfortunately for the dancers the highlight was probably a member of the audience jumping on to the stage and joining in with the act which initially looked part of the routine. He soon got escorted off the stage.

After leaving the show we continued up to another bar where we planned to take part in karaoke. The bar was pretty empty however there was one person singing and he sounded professional compared to the drunken attempts we had expected . El, Chris, Christine and I took the stage for the penultimate song of the night, a wonderful rendition of “Take Me Home Country Roads”. El and Christine sang “The Winner Takes it all” for the final song as I provided backing vocals and dance moves.

Wednesday 7th September
As with the previous cruise, I had started to feel slightly unsteady by the time I had climbed in to bed but I woke naturally. The ferry had noticeably rolled a bit more though the vibrations from the engines were less obvious. I had a quick shower and made my way to breakfast where the others soon joined. Soon we caught a glimpse of land and about an hour later we were in the crowd of passengers waiting to dis-embark.

Posted by Travels and Rambles in Europe, Sweden, 0 comments

Mr Blue Sky: Tallinn and Helsinki

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Friday 2nd September
I’d met Jayde after work on the Thursday and we’d booked a night at the Holiday Inn hotel at Stansted airport. Waking up at 4.20 was still a struggle but had prevented the need to wake up at 1.45 as I had the previous week when I’d had to get to the same airport for a similar departure time. We arrived at the airport shortly after 5.15 and we were quickly through the baggage drop off and security.We arrived in Tallinn and caught the bus from the airport to the city. The bus dropped us off at the main bus terminal by the port and we walked about 15 minutes from there to our hostel in Old Town. After checking in, we were told that our room wasn’t ready so we ate at a nearby vegan restaurant called Kohvik Inspiratsioon recommended to us by the receptionist. I was satisfied with my lentil burger but Jayde wasn’t overly keen on her lentil soup.

We returned back to the hostel and went up to our twin room which looked quite cosy. We spent an hour or so resting before getting ready to go out as we had booked a local run tour around the old fortress/prison Patarei Merekindlus. The tour began from a nearby hostel also in the old town so we got to see more cobbled streets and old buildings en-route. There were more people on the tour than I expected and after a brief introduction our guide led us on the 15 minute walk to the prison.

At the entrance he showed us a model on the wall which showed how the site had looked and to point to the areas we were visiting. He also explained that whilst part of the prison is open to the public for them to explore, his tour had permission to take us to areas normally closed off to the public. The prison was originally a fort completed by 1840 however whilst it was in a good strategic location it was never used in battle. It was converted in to a prison in 1919 which is how it remained until it closed in 2004.

The prison has basically been abandoned and suffered years of neglect, suffering badly from damp in particular. The building is (apparently) listed so it cannot be demolished however there is not currently the funding to restore it. Even the areas reopened for the public are dark and eerie and cannot be described as restored. Most of the rooms had been emptied but one room still had the abandoned beds intact as well as a large painting on the wall which had been created by one of the prisoners.

We went outside, looking at some of the cells that were slowly being taken over by nature before going through a metal gate which had been pad locked. This was the building not normally open to the public and it had even less lighting and we were required to use the torches on our mobile phones to see. We saw a few more cells and climbed some staircases before we arrived at the area executions were carried out.

After the tour was over our guide explained his personal interest in the prison and then pointing out some aspects we could explore alone. I briefly climbed in to the old watch tower which looked over the yard below. Jayde and I then walked the scenic way back to Tallinn which took us past the front of the Prison and along the beach. It had been quite an unusual experience and it was refreshing to see somewhere that hadn’t been restored.

We arrived back in the old town and made our way through the cobbled streets to a restaurant called the Kompressor. which is apparently popular with locals and tourists because it sells cheap pancakes. I had mine with smoked cheese and bacon but couldn’t finish it all because it was so big and possibly because we’d been a bit greedy by also ordering some Potato balls. I also had my first Estonian beer A Le Coq which was refreshing.

It was starting to get dark when we left but we spent a little longer walking around the old town knowing we would have a proper tour with our guide the next morning. The hostel had given us vouchers for a nearby local bar called Ükskoik. Upon entering we should have left but we didn’t and I ordered a Saku (another Estonian beer) and Jayde ordered a cocktail. Neither drink tasted good and it was a typical, seedy looking backpackers bar with overly loud music considering it was just us and one other person.

We returned back to the hostel and decided to get a relatively early night so we were refreshed as possible for the start of the tour.

Saturday 3rd September
We couldn’t get breakfast at the hostel so after waking up we went to a local shop to get a pastry for breakfast. We left our luggage at the hostel and waited outside the hostel for our guide and the rest of our tour group. There were only 6 of us, Christine from Liverpool, Matt and Giulia from Australia and Chris from the US.

It is always nice to have a local guide and our guide Elo (El) didn’t disappoint as the passion for her country came across as she gave us some interesting information about the history of Estonia. Estonia like much of Eastern Europe experienced a turbulent 20th Century and was eerily similar to that of Czechoslovakia which i’d studied at University. Estonia had gained it’s independence from Russia in 1920 however the German–Soviet Nonaggression Pact meant it fell under Soviet Occupation (remaining occupied until 1991) except for a brief period in the second world war when it was occupied by the Nazi’s.

El took us to some of the main sites in the Old Town and we started at an example of a Merchant House along what had once been the main street through the old town. She explained how in Medieval times there were different guilds and told us about the House of the Blackheads, a professional association of merchants and later we saw a building with a face on the door belonging to the brotherhood. Much of the medieval architecture had been preserved

Other sites we passed included the oldest coffee shop, St Peter & St Paul Cathedral and St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest buildings in Tallinn which was destroyed during the reformation and parts were used as a warehouse in the Soviet Union as the state fought against Religion. Eventually we stopped off at the coffee shop Pierre Chocolaterie where we started to get to know each other a bit better. As we were a small group, names were easy to remember and there was less need for some of the small talk.

After a coffee we explored more of the old Town passing the town hall and climbing some steps towards the city walls which were surrounded by some rather creepy looking monk statues before we continued past the Estonian Parliament Building, to Pikk Hermann, Big tower. The Estonian flag was raised at the top and El explained the symbolism of the colours, the blue representing loyalty, and the seas & lakes; the black representing fertile soil and past oppression and finally the white representing virtue, snow, and the struggle for freedom and independence. We continued past the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which was built in the typical Russian style before we reached the Patkuli Viewing Platform which provided a beautiful view of the city and a fitting place for us to get our first group selfie.

We returned to the hostel and after collecting our bags got a taxi to the ferry terminal and boarding the boat from Tallinn to Helsinki. The M/S Star was a lot bigger than I expected considering it was only a two hour journey. We found a spot in the bar and El gave us a rundown of the itinerary for the next week. Jayde and I then got some food from Burger King before we re-joined the others and listened to the band in the bar.

The weather had been dry and sunny in Tallinn however it was quite cloudy in Helsinki and the rain was threatening though just about held off. We caught a tram from a station near the ferry terminal to the hostel where I planned to have a Finish sauna. Unfortunately the one for the men wasn’t working so I had a nap instead and met the others in reception.

Rather than a passing shower the rain that was threatening had now been unleashed. El decided to start our orientation walk and our first stop was an old prison which had been turned in to quite a fancy hotel in 2000. It made me wonder why they didn’t do the same with the one in Tallinn which would also have been able to offer pleasant sea views. To avoid standing in the rain unnecessarily El gave us some details before we made a dash. We sought shelter in an alley way before passing the home of the author of the Moomins, obtaining a umbrella from an Italian coffee shop. and finally reaching the Uspenskin Cathedral.

Eventually we sought shelter a view of the harbour where we needed to get the ferry to Suomenlinna Fort and the market which El recommended did good Salmon soup. From our shelter we could also see the Presidential Palace with a guard outside, though fortunately for him he was standing under a large metal umbrella. By the time we reached the Cathedral the rain had eased off slightly so El could talk to us under the umbrella. It seemed a festival was going on for a midnight run, and the band rather fittingly performed Purple Rain.

Rather than continuing the walk we caught a tram to the main street and from there it was only a short walk to the restaurant.As soon as we arrived we began peeling off our drenched coats and left them on the coat stand to dry. I ordered the Elk steak on flat bread with a Kantaja porter which was nice but perhaps a little expensive however that is what I had expected from Finland. As it was the first night of the tour, the meal was a good opportunity for us to get know each other.

After dinner, Jayde, Matt and I quickly went to a nearby supermarket to grab some snacks (I got cheesy puff balls and some moomin jelly sweets) for the trip ahead. Fortunately we left and made it just in time to catch the tram the others were about to get on. Unfortunately a ‘night fun run’ meant our tram took a different route to usual and in the end we were forced to walk all the way back to the hostel in the relentless rain.

Sunday 4th September
After waking, I opened the curtains and realised that the sun was shining and there was barely a cloud in the sky. I went straight to the Sauna but rather than feeling a sense of freedom, admittedly felt quite awkward as I removed my towel and sat down totally in my birthday suit as is the Finnish way. There were 2 other guys already in there and 2 others joined shortly after me which meant we were all a little close for comfort. After about 30 minutes I felt I’d spent enough time cleansing my pores?! and left. I had a quick shower and then made my way to meet the others for breakfast.

Christine, Matt and Chris and I had agreed to visit the UNESCO listed fort Suomenlinna built across 6 small islands Kustaanmiekka, Susisaari, Iso-Mustasaari, Pikku-Mustasaari, Länsi-Mustasaari and Långören . We made our way to the pier however we just missed the boat so took the opportunity to re-visit some of the sights from the night before in the much more pleasant conditions as well as a marina with yachts. We returned for the next ferry and the short journey was relatively smooth uneventful.

We arrived on the island and the maps we had been given highlighted the main sites. We therefore started off with the Prisoner of War Camp memorial which also provided us with a good view of the bay before walking through the gate of the Jetty Barracks. We then continued through the Great Courtyard and past various sites including Suomenlinna Church and the dry dockdry dock, the oldest in Finland and one of the oldest operational dry docks in Europe

We eventually arrived at the actual fort Each of us then got a photo sitting on one of the cannons which Chris said reminded him of the iconic frame from the movie Dr Strangelove. We thoroughly explored the site with Matt and I even exploring one of the tunnels. We were unable to leave using the other ferry from the King’s gate built in 1753–54 as the entrance gateway to the fortress so we slowly returned to the main harbour via the second world war submarine Vesikko .

Once we had returned to dry land Chris and I got a salmon soup, recommended to us by El, from market. The 4 of us then walked to the Cathedral and had a brief look inside. We then began the walk back to the hostel, returned the umbrella to the Italian cafe, walked past the moomin House and finally the prison. We arrived back in plenty of time, met up with Jayde, Giulia and Elo and caught the tram to the ferry terminal.

Posted by Travels and Rambles in Estonia, Europe, Finland, 0 comments

A Design for Life: Tuscany

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Friday 26th August
My alarm went off at 1.45am which I think was even earlier my normal early starts. I made my way to the bus stop and as I’m now used to the bus didn’t show which meant the buffer I’d built in evaporated instantly. I had to change buses at Marble Arch but no longer trusted them and as the minutes ticked by I decided to get an Uber Taxi to Liverpool street. My driver asked if I’d had a good night and I explained I’d only just woken up.

The journey to Stansted was fine and the Uber had meant I’d gone from potentially missing my flight to arriving at the airport with enough time to get breakfast. I found a free table at Wetherspoons and asked the couple next to me to save the table whilst I went to the bar to order. On my return to the table they seemed overly sympathetic that I was travelling alone and I had to reassure them I was meeting friends in Italy.

I was ‘upgraded’ to the emergency row because the people on that row were too young to be seated there unsupervised. Some probably like the extra space but I was the opposite, my short legs didn’t know what to do and because I had the aisle seat it took me longer than usual to fall asleep. We landed on time and my e-passport meant I avoided most of the long queues through the airport.

A shuttle bus arrived shortly after I joined the queue and I we arrived slightly early so Edwina and Lauren were still sorting out the paperwork for the hire car when I found them. During the time I’d been in the air they’d been on a whistle stop walk through Rome. Our hire car was bigger than expected and after a quick inspection for scratches we were on our way.

Lauren successfully navigated us through the 6 level multi story car park which can be daunting at the best of times but no doubt worse when driving on the opposite side of the road to usual. Fortunately most of Rome seemed to be one way and it wasn’t long before we had left the city and we were on the main road. We made fantastic progress using the toll road but then a quest to find a grocery store put us behind schedule.

First we missed a turning, then at the next town I caused us to double back on ourselves before we arrived at where the shop was meant to be only to find an empty space. Luckily the town had two coops and once we found the second store we were able to stock up on fruit, veggies, snacks, coals for a bbq, nutella and wine.

We started making our way back to a main road but whilst we’d been in the shop a lorry had caused an accident on a side street which blocked the road. We turned around just as another lorry came down the hill which for them was a bad life choice. Meanwhile we found another route and after a while we were on the final long twisty approach to our accommodation. There was a mixture of delight and relief when we came over the final crest and saw the swimming pool with two brightly coloured inflatable lilos.

Jess, Steph, Charlotte and Erin met us on our arrival as they had arrived the day before and Jess took us on a guided tour. The accommodation, an old tobacco factory looked amazing from the outside and maintained the rustic atmosphere inside. In total it was made up of 3 apartments, each with a kitchen, bathroom, dining room and bedrooms. Instantly it was obvious that Jess had found us somewhere pretty brilliant.

After a refreshing dip in the pool we opened a couple of bottles of wines so we could enjoy the peaceful surroundings (besides a fair few irritating flies). Then after a quick shower we regrouped on the balcony for various home made pizzas, more wine and to listen to some music. I automatically felt overly comfortable with “the girls” and at one point when we were talking inadvertently said without flinching “if I was a guy…” All in all, there are worse ways to end a day when you’ve been up for 20 hours.

Saturday 27th August
We had a relaxing start to the morning and all we really had to do was make sure we were ready to leave by around 10am to visit the wine cellar Jess had booked us in to. The booking included a 4 course lunch and so I just had a light breakfast. Charlotte wasn’t joining us however kindly offered to drive one car and Edwina and I were again incredibly grateful to Lauren.

We arrived at Avignonesi and had a glass of prosecco whilst we waited for the tour to start. This was my 3rd of the year after visiting Champagne and Bordeaux however it was perhaps the most interesting. Our guide told us that the vineyard was certified organic and that they used the patterns of the moon. I was impressed. The vineyard was also spread over two valleys. In Montepulciano they could only use a particular local grape however in the other, just across the road they could make international mixes.

We explored a couple of the parcels in the Le Capezzine vineyards and tasted the grapes. The first Vigna Tonda was in a circle with a tree in the centre and quite unusual however the layout of La Stella was slightly more orthodox. Next we were taken on a tour to the cellars where the barrels of wine are stored

I think we had all built up a bit of an appetite by the time we were seated at our table which provided a lovely view of the surrounding valley. We were given a glass of chardonnay to go with the “Chefs Welcome” which was a mix of bread and salad before the red wine flowed. Despite being from a wine region and living with Jess for over a year, Steph had never sipped red wine. Lauren captured the historic moment and ended up with the best sequence of photos from the holiday as a result.

We had a number of options for our second course and I opted for the home made tagliatelle with a glass of La Tonda and Grandi Annate. Steph had ordered a parmesan and tomato sorbet which I was allowed to finish. Whilst It was nice, it confused the taste buds because it looked like vanilla and strawberry ice cream.

Admittedly my third course “Patata Novella al cartoccio con fonduta di parmigianio” was a bit simple and was basically just a jacket potato filled with parmesan cheese. Whilst it was tasty (and I don’t think I can only have cheddar again) the chicken and lamb dishes also looked particularly good and the others were surprised by my choice. The Grifi, 50/50 and Desiderio red wines were also good though I still prefer white wine.

Finally the dessert was selection of sweet treats, such as flavoured chocolate and biscuits all thoroughly delicious. This came with two vin santo’s (one black and one white) a type of Italian dessert wine. I’m still not sure if I can claim to be any good at establishing what drinks (especially wine) suits what foods, but I certainly enjoy both!

Once we had paid, Lauren, Edwina and I travelled straight home whilst the others called in to a supermarket to grab some more supplies. Once we were back it was late afternoon and as it was still got we all had a refreshing dip in the pool. The others joined us and we lazed around until early evening.

Edwina, Lauren and I prepared bruschetta for the others with various toppings my favourite being Pesto with tomato and mozzarella. A few more bottles of wine were drunk as we listened to music without needing to worry about the neighbours.

Sunday 28th August
There were no plans, except to relax, but eventually I hauled myself out of bed so I could nap by the pool rather than in a dark stuffy room. I got up and made myself a banana, grape and yogurt breakfast before eventually bumping in to Edwina and Lauren who had both put me to shame by going on a short run. We then sat in the kitchen area eating the nutella we’d brought, though I had it with a fresh peach and watermelon in a feeble attempt to balance out the unhealthiness.

I spread out on a sunbed and tried to get a tan, rather than going straight from white to red as tends to be my normal experience in the sun. I’d put a “Soulful Sunday” playlist and whilst I only recognised the occasional song it felt quite appropriate. The hours ticked by and eventually I decided to get in the pool to cool off. I’d struggled to get on the inflatable lilo at first, looking like a rather humorous hippopotamus trying to climb on to a piece of wood and flipping over however by now I’d mastered it. Charlotte joined me and we decided to have a race whilst sitting on the lilos and agreed that it should be added to Olympics if not for comedy value alone.

Once we were done Charlotte tipped me in to the water but she misjudged her momentum which caused her to flip in to the water as well much to the amusement of Jess who had caught the whole event on camera. The three of us then relocated to the balcony where Steph, with a bit of help from Lauren and Erin had used up all the unused food to create a almighty buffet of burgers, sausages, pasta, mini pizza and a salad.

After a number of plates I waddled back to the deck chair where I felt like I resembled a beached Whale. Edwina had been napping but joined Charlotte and I back in the pool for more Olympic Lilo Swimming competitions before we used the go pro to try and get some underwater profile pics. I then used what was left of the sun to dry out and to check the football scores. In fact, whilst realising Watford had lost on the previous day it had had resulted in no impact on my relaxed mood.

Eventually we all made our way back to the balcony where we all probably over ate. More music and wine. There were no more days to drink the latter however I don’t think any of us were overly drunk once the final bottle was finally finished. Edwina, Lauren and I had brought some exciting looking ice cream on the first day and whilst Steph wasn’t looking (because she wouldn’t let us have dessert until we’d finished “all the dinner”) we quickly broke in to the tub. Despite it being a chilled day I was exhausted when I finally climbed in to bed.

Monday 29th August
We had an early start (compared to recent days) because we wanted to visit Siena before commencing the final leg to Rome. I was in my own annex and I wasn’t sure how early the others had got up but eventually I wondered over at 7am to grab a light breakfast and to help with any outstanding errands, which mainly included taking the rubbish away.

The drive to Siena was uneventful as Lauren successfully followed Charlotte however once we were in the city we had to navigate through small winding streets and narrow gates. Both did an absolutely sterling job and whilst it was no doubt stressful it was rather exciting. We thought we’d found a street car park however a local explained it was for residents however thankfully the multi story wasn’t far.

Siena itself was rather pretty. First we visited the cathedral (Duomo) built in 12th Century and considered a masterpiece of Romanesque Gothic architecture. We then continued on to the Piazza del Campo which is overlooked by the Palazzo Pubblico. On our way we each got a coffee at II Bargello, and I was impressed with the cafe latte I ordered. Once we arrived in the square I got a mix of berry and mango gelato.

Edwina, Jess, Charlotte and I then climbed the tall tower, Torre del Mangia, where we had a stunning view of the city and surrounding area. It was quite obvious why it is UNESCO listed and reminded me of Bordeaux which had also surprised me at its beauty. Afterwards we briefly stopped at the fountain, Fonte Gaia before we ordered some food from a restaurant in the main square and I had a pizza with a beer

Siena never a city I’d contemplated going to, my only knowledge coming from the football team, however it had been perfect for a half day visit to break up the long car journey. On our exit from the city there were a number of different routes and I inadvertently caused us to lose about 10 crucial minutes. Once we joined the main road the rest of the journey to Rome was uneventful and we successfully found a petrol station to fill up the hire car. Some of the Rome streets were narrow and smart cars kept cutting us up and despite a potential mishap on the final street Lauren successfully returned the car unscathed though rather dusty.

We made our way to airport and after reuniting with the others it was clear we were all rather exhausted. As Steph shortly leaves us all to move back to Australia the holiday seemed a fitting way to send her off and to make some final happy memories.

Posted by Travels and Rambles in Europe, Italy, 0 comments

World in Motion: Bordeaux

facebookThursday 9th June
The TGV accelerated out of Paris and when I looked at the distance we’d travelled in the first hour I was staggered to realise we’d already covered roughly half the total journey length. After the first hour we slowed though we were probably still probably fast by British standards. During the journey we passed some pretty towns and the scenery was nice without being spectacular. After passing some possible vineyards John caught a glimpse of the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux and we knew we were on the final approach to Bordeaux.

We walked the short distance from the train station to our hotel and I admit I warmed to Bordeaux straight away although I was surprised they hadn’t been able to finish the building work at the train station in time for the football. We checked in at the hotel which was fresher looking than our accommodation in Paris. The staff were very friendly and keen to help us and the general vibe seemed good.

We ate a late lunch and a wine at a restaurant near the hotel and I finally had the French steak I’d been craving for a few days. Once we were refueled we were ready to explore the UNESCO listed part of the city. Admittedly the opening stage of the walk wasn’t through the nicest setting but the sun was at least shining. Eventually we took an inadvertent diversion when we mistook a church spire for St Michael’s Tower and took the opportunity to look inside.

We arrived at the St Michael’s Tower and initially made our way to the crypt where a documentary on the building was playing in French. There were no subtitles so we didn’t stay down there long however we had been given a information sheet in English so we looked at that whenever we paused at the different levels as we made the journey up approximately 200 steps. On the way up we saw the bell and eventually we arrived at the top. The view was pretty spectacular in the mid afternoon sun and it was clear just how preserved the centre of the city was because there were no modern sky scrapers.

We continued through the pedestrianised old streets before we came to the Cathédrale Saint-André and noticed the freestanding belfry Tour Pey-Berland opposite. As we were only probably going to be in Bordeaux once and the weather was good we decided to climb the second tower as well. The view from the tower gave a better view of the Cathedral and there was a statue at the top but when we got to the bottom we agreed “no more towers” We then had a look around the Cathedral and a bit of quiet contemplation in the peaceful surroundings

After all the walking we decided to sit down and to enjoy an ice cream at Le Café Français. The banana split that I had was huge and any weight I’d lost from climbing the towers was put back on, if not doubled. We left the café and briefly had a look at the
Rue de l’Hôtel de ville with Euro 2016 flags flying outside. We wondered who was there but the security were strict and sent John on his way when they felt he’d been loitering near the gate for too long.

We continued our walk to the Le Palais Gallien, the Roman Amphitheatre remains which in any other city would have probably have been a major landmark but in Bordeaux could almost be overlooked such are the number of historical buildings to see. Whilst now it is known it is an ampithreate, during medieval times people that Charlemegne had buildt it for his wife Galiene. I was expecting to only see the foundations so was impressed at the height of the ruins.

We continued our walk through Jardin Public a pleasant park where we had a walk past a pond before we finally reached the Fan Zone at Esplanade des Quinconces (the largest public square in Europe). The fan zone still appeared to be under construction and there were still men at work and quite a few unfinished tasks which was slightly concerning because the opening match was due to kick off 24 hours later.

We sat for a while at its entrance marked by a monumental fountain honouring a group of politicians during the French Revolution before we started our journey back to the hotel. We’d decided to walk along the river and the route also took us past the Place de la Bourse which had been recommended to us by the two German receptionists. It was quite a wonderful scene as a musician played music outside the grand building whilst opposite children were running and sliding across the Mirror d’Eau a water area whilst other families relaxed in a garden area.

We returned to the hotel and after freshening up went back to the row of bars near the hotel. We noticed one of them was showing the live concert from the Fan Park in Paris and settled down to watch it with a glass. Eventually we decided to move on but the next bar we tried was closed so we returned to the hotel to discover they were no longer serving alcohol. We had a soft drink before deciding to have a relatively early night so we were fresh for our trip to the Médoc wine valley and the sand dune Dune du Pilat

Friday 10th June
We woke up in good time and made our way down to breakfast which had a much better selection than the one in Paris. We had booked a taxi to take us to the tours meeting point however not only was our driver late he seemed to take us on a particularly long, busy way. We arrived on time but that was because of the buffer we’d built in and we both felt slightly resentful about paying what seemed extortionate but accepted it probably included a ‘Euro 2016’ surcharge.

There were only 6 people on our trip to the largest/tallest sand dunes in Europe Dune du Pilat. Neither John or I had checked the weather before leaving and had left our rain coats back at the hotel. As a few drops splattered against the dashboard, the dark grey clouds looked ready to unleash their fury. Meanwhile we chatted to out flow passengers, a couple from Birmingham, and two ladies one from American the other from Hong Kong.

After driving for over an hour we parked up and made a short walk to the foot of the Dune by which time the rain had stopped. The Dune had steps leading up to the top which made it much easier than the one I’d attempted (and failed) to run up in Wadi Rum in Jordan. Once at the top our guide poured us some wine. Fortunately the rain held off and whilst the view wasn’t as clear as it could have been the Dune itself was still spectacular.

After leaving the sand dune we continued to a small harbour where we were taken to a restaurant called La Baraque a Huitres. As it was quite windy we were in a slightly sheltered, covered section but it didn’t prevent a few serviettes blowing away. This was my first opportunity to have oysters and all I could think about was the Mr Bean episode when he got food poisoning. I’m not a huge fan of fish or shell fish so rather as I expected I wasn’t overly keen but I ate them all (and I didn’t get food poisoning).

We returned back to Bordeaux where we were provided with lunch before we joined up with another tour group for our wine tour around two chateau wineries in the Médoc valley. On our way our guide told us about the “appellation d’origine contrôlée” (AOC) rating however I admit I was being told one of those in jokes that are meant to test how gullible tourists are when she told us about the anti hail system. Amazingly it seemed to be true and it is possible to scatter the clouds so the hail from falls as rain, which rather begs the question why we can’t pump money in to developing something that is better than an umbrella.

Our first Château was Siran. This one had not been classified in 1855 and the current owner explained the family hadn’t agreed with the Imperial Governments Introduction of the clarification system because they supported the monarchy. Despite that we were assured that the quality was equal to many of the competitors that were classified and were told the rankings will never change. Our guide showed us some of the memorabilia collected by the family and company over the years before we were taken to where the barrels were stored and were told each held a staggering 300 bottles of wine.

We were then given a brief wine tasting introduction course where we were told to: See, Sniff, Swirl, Smell and finally Savour the wine. First we were also given 4 mini bottles of scent and using a card with the different options listed we had to identify what they were. John and I failed quite miserably but it had been quite interesting. Next we got to try 3 different types of wine and had to try and establish how old it was by the colour and how much of a body it had. The second was probably my favourite and I suppose analysing it gave me an added level of appreciation.

We briefly had a photo stop at Chateau Margeaux however my knowledge of wine is rather limited so I didn’t quite appreciate the significance. Apparently it was one of four wines to achieve Premier status in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 and a bottle of Château Margaux 1787 insured for $225,000 is the most expensive in history.

We continued on to the next Château winery Gruaud Larose. The site was made up of some historical buildings and there were some very pretty gardens. There was one building it was impossible not to miss, a tower offering panoramic views of the region which really didn’t fit in to the surroundings. The view from the tower was however pretty spectacular and we could see fields upon fields of vines.

We had a brief tour through the cellars which almost felt like like crypts of a church and saw the owners personal collection of wine and the bottles from previous harvests that were still available for sale including a couple from 1815. The most expensive bottle was estimated to cost €12,050 without tax however I can’t remember which vintage it was from.

Finally we were given a cheese and meat board to accompany our wine tasting. I think the intention was for us to compare how certain foods went with the wine however I just saw bar food snacks. I also don’t remember much about the wine I tried and can’t really say whether it was better or worse than the first Château.

John and I had always planned to watch the first match (France vs Romania) and the opening ceremony in the Fanzone and fortunately the tour finished right outside. The security services were out in force in preparation to deter any kind of attack, a painful reminder of the age we live in. After the awful atrocities that took place Paris in November I felt quite proud that I and millions across Europe were united in watching a football match and effectively sticking our fingers up at those who committed them.

Once inside we sat down to get some food at one of the temporary restaurants where I had another steak and chips (and some more wine). Once we’d eaten we made our way towards the front of the big screen where a DJ and compere was trying to get the crowd going. Whilst the crowd were lively I noticed very few people were holding beers and I can only think that shows a difference in the drinking culture. The match itself wasn’t great but there were wild celebrations when Payet scored the winner with minutes remaining.

We stayed for a bit after the match enjoying the general atmosphere and even made our way to the front of the stage. The organisers had arranged a bit of a light display to “officially” open the fan park and to show some goals from previous tournaments including “that” Gazza goal against Scotland Eventually we left the fan zone and then I got us lost on our way back so we walked nearly 30 minutes longer than needed.

Saturday 11th June
After having breakfast we walked through the city to get the tram stopping off at a couple bars on the way. In Marseille England and Russian fans had mixed with French locals to create a war zone where as in Bordeaux Welsh and Slovakians sat in the Cathedral square drinking in separate groups but side by side. Eventually we decided to eat and get a final pre match drink in the fan zone which was mostly a sea of red Welsh fans. The sun was shining and it seemed like the perfect day to watch a game of football.

John and I arrived at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux early before the crowds were too large so we could get a quick picture with our flag. The Welsh and Slovakian fans were already having a giant street party aided by a French brass band. They danced to the French Cancan and various other high tempo tunes. Each time the band stopped the crowd howled for more and each time the band delivered. Eventually John and I briefly entered the fray before I went in to the stadium because I was feeling slightly dehydrated and needed some water.

The atmosphere inside the ground was electric from both sides but the Welsh fans heavily outnumbered the Slovakians. When the Welsh belted out “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (Land of My Fathers) the hairs on my neck rose. They then sang a song “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home, I just don’t think you understand, I want to stay out here, Drinking all your beer, please don’t, please don’t take me home”. I joined in, I wanted to stay out in France as well. The match itself wasn’t the best in terms of quality but was quite exciting.

John and I had hoped to see a Bale free kick go in and got our wish in the 10th minute. Slovakia were the better side for much of the second half and got a deserved equaliser. Wales were crumbling but then the fans sung the National anthem and the players found an extra 1%. Robson Kanu scored the winner with minutes remaining and the stand went crazy. There were nervous looks as the seconds ticked down and an almighty cheer (and a number of tears of happiness) when the referee finally blew the whistle.

Eventually we arrived at the fan park and even though it was busy we were able to get a table at the same restaurant which just about gave us a view of the big screen showing England vs Russia. We only really got to see the second half and as the minutes ticked away England seemed devoid of ideas. Eric Dier scored a free kick and some lads stood on a table and I relaxed to such an extent I allowed John to order a second bottle of wine.

We started to chat to the Welsh fans on the table next to us and just as I thought we’d scraped a win Russia equalised. The place went wild. I sat stunned. The lads that stood on the table could do nothing but take the flack they fully deserved. As a football fan it had been a great day, as an England fan it had been one of the worst and I felt sick especially after I read about the trouble some of our fans had (jointly) caused in Marseille.

I had an early start and went home as soon as we finished the wine whilst John stayed out. I returned home angry. Angry at the players, angry at the England fans, angry that my hopes had been dashed yet again. I’ve seen England win the Ashes, I’ve seen them win the rugby world cup, I’ve seen a Brit win Wimbledon and I remember “London 2012”. But football has been a constant disappointment. In fact the pinnacle for me in terms of international football is arguably still Euro 96 when we were a stud away from the final. But to end on a high, it had been a fantastic couple of days and Bordeaux in particular entered the list of cities that have pleasantly surprised me.

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All Together Now: Paris and Versailles

DSC_0434Monday 6th June
4 years ago during London 2012 my mate John and I had discussed seeing a football tournament abroad. We’d discussed Rio in 2014 and whilst he visited South America when the tournament was on I stayed at home having only recently returned from my 5 month “walkabout”. Euro 2016 in France was much more doable and whilst we both applied for two sets of tickets in different cities we were ultimately only successful with one selection in Bordeaux however we decided to start our journey in Paris.

My flight from Gatwick wasn’t until lunch time so I cannot use the excuse I was tired once I reached the airport. Perhaps the early starts I usually put myself through force me to focus more because at security I forgot to take my belt off. The flight was scheduled to take 85 minutes however the actual time spent in the air was only about 40 minutes and the majority of the ‘flight’ was therefore spent on the runway at Gatwick during which time I had a peaceful nap.

Once I’d arrived at Charles de Gaulle I made my way on the bus to the city centre. The journey took a lot longer than the 50 minutes advertised and seemed to spend ages on the approach to the Stade de France. It did however mean that I got a good view of the stadium that was to be used in the opening ceremony for the 2016 European Championship.

I met John at the Grand Hotel opposite the same shopping centre I’d said goodbye to Victoria only 6 days earlier. The weather couldn’t have been any more of a contrast, where as a week before I’d been cold and soaked on this occasion I was overheating. Luckily John had a beer waiting for me and it was very pleasant sitting outside the bar with a nice view of the Opera House.

Eventually we made way to the hotel which was simple enough to find, hung our Euro 2016 flag up (just as a bit of fun), unpacked, freshened up and finally made our way back out to get dinner. We eventually set upon a restaurant called The Crêperie Framboise Champs Elysées which offered a deal which included a main crepe, dessert crepe and a drink.

Some may have relaxed at a local bar whereas we went straight in to exploration mode. We made the most of our location and walked up the Champs Elysées to the famous Arc de Triomphe. The queue to get in was long, no doubt because it was the first sunny evening since the previous Saturday but we persevered. We made it to the top just in time for the wonderful pink sunset and then in the distance John noticed a thunderstorm with flashes of lightning which looked quite spectacular. We stayed until it was dark and security started to clear people off.

Once we were back on ground level we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower. Due to its size and the beam of light we knew what direction to head in and it was a fairly simple journey. We arrived at the same bridge Victoria and I had passed under a week before when we had desperately tried to catch our cruise. The path we had walked along was still quite a few feet under water due to the recent floods and the river was running incredibly fast.

We watched a bit of the famous light display which was impressive and although vendors tried to sell us some beers we politely declined. It seemed everyone else in the park had taken up the option and there was a good relaxed vibe, although a lot of litter. Eventually we decided to go home and opted for a taxi rather than public transport. We’d certainly made the most of our first evening and once we were back in the hotel we both fell asleep almost as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Tuesday 7th June
The next morning I was up first and once we were both ready we went down to breakfast. We were in good time when we left the hotel to get the train to Versailles which was good because the mainline station was on 2 levels and there was no central departure board showing which level or platform we needed. The usual, more simple route recommended for tourists was suspended due to the floods and due to a national strike there were less trains on the route we intended to use which meant the train was also particularly busy.

We arrived in Versailles and without seeing any signs made our way in the direction which seemed most direct however it meant we accidentally bypassed the main street through the town which would probably have been a more interesting walk. Once we arrived John got a photo with his Yorkshire flag however it hadn’t escaped the attention of the security team who promptly removed it from him as soon as his bag was searched.

The queue to get in to the palace was quite long however moved fairly quickly. We were given a free audio guide which provided an interesting commentry of the different room. I had expected the rooms to look grand however I was utterly stunned by the decoration of some, particularly the Room of Mirrors. I’ve been fortunate to have visited Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra however I think the decorations and luxury of the rooms in the Palace of Versailles beats all three.

After we left the Palace rooms we looked down on to the Gardens before making our way to the the Grand Trianon. The gardens at the Alhambra had been impressive and Hampton Court has its maze but the fountains and scale of Versailles knocked both out of the park. It was utterly staggering and seemed to grow in grandeur once we picked our way through past the different fountains as classical music gently played in the background.

Eventually we took the main path down the centre, past numerous statues towards the huge 3km man made canal the start of which was marked by a modern man made waterfall dominating the skyline. We took the wrong path to the Grand Trianon but we weren’t in a hurry and had explored an area we might not have done otherwise.

The Grand Trianon was built as the private retreat for Louis XIV, later the residence of Napoleon and still used to host foreign officials. It didn’t appear quite as grand as the main Palace but it still had some interesting rooms and lavish furnishings. We walked around the house relatively quickly before walking around the gardens and then towards the Petit Trianon via the

The Petit Trianon was Marie Antoinette’s private residence. History has given her a reputation for spending money and whilst there were hints of heavy spending many of the decorations had been sold after the revolution to raise funds. It is likely our senses had been spoilt by the main Palace and perhaps we were also feeling a bit tired because the rooms didn’t quite have the same impact as those we had seen earlier. After leaving the Petit Trianon we briefly rested under the Temple de L’Armour Pavilion before we continued to a historical “Village”, Hameau de la Reine.

The village was built around a lake and was meant to represent how rural France appeared on the eve of the revolution. When we arrived it seemed a bit too neat, almost resembling a historic Disneyland and I therefore assumed it was a modern creation. It wasnt, it had actually been commissioned by Marie Antoinette in 1783. The money that was clearly spent on such a folly when most of the population was in poverty was staggering. It was however good for the modern tourist and it was a very pleasant and pretty place to stroll around.

By now we had seen all the main sites but decided to explore the gardens and the water fountains in greater depth as we made our way back to the Palace and exit. The gardens were quite simply unreal and the more we walked the larger the area appeared to become. We watched a display at the Mirror Pool which was in time to classical music before we continued to the modern Theatre Grove. Along the way we saw other grand fountains including Apollo’s Bath Grove

We retrieved John’s Yorkshire flag on our exit and decided to have dinner in Versailles rather than trying to find somewhere in Paris. We found a nice looking bar/Café on the main street and it was nice to relax outside in the sun. I had a croque Monsieur which was really good and we stayed for a couple of wines before making our way to the station.

Finding the train back to Paris was easier and whilst it was initially busy by the next station we were each able to find a seat and eventually I dosed off. We made our back to the hotel and both perhaps relaxed slightly longer than we should have which meant we were in a slight rush to get ready.

We arrived at the iconic Moulin Rouge, shown to our seats which weren’t the best, and were presented with a complimentary bottle of champagne. Even so it was more about the experience and the show was stunning. A particular highlight was two dancers on roller skates who performed a number of moves which looked impossible and The Can Can which predictably got the crowd going. The set and costumes were spectacular and it was definitely an unforgettable experience. After the show we decided to have a drink at the café across the road whilst we pondered our next move. We didn’t have to be up early the next day and perhaps because of the adrenaline from the show we weren’t quite ready to head home. As a happy compromise we found a nice bar near the hotel where, because we’d developed a taste for it, decided to continue with a couple of glasses of Champagne and stayed out for a further hour or so.

Wednesday 8th June
The next morning we both woke up tired, dehydrated and mildly hungover. We were both in need of a fry up but the only offering at the hotel was the standard continental breakfast. John and I were doing separate sightseeing days but prior to going our own ways we decided to take our flag to the Stade de France.

We walked to the metro station via the Grand Palace in a park just off from the Champs-Élysées. We arrived at the stadium and got a couple of pictures but it didn’t have the vibe of somewhere that would be full of colour and noise in 2 days time. The graffiti on the giant Euro 2016 sign was also a reminder that parts of the Saint Denis area of Paris are still a bit edgy and a football tournament will not gloss over that fact.

John and I then headed off in separate directions though my simple looking journey to the Catacombs involved more walking than anticipated because the route around the stadium was fenced off (understandably) for security reasons. I’d known since being in Paris with Victoria that I wanted to visit the catacombs but it hadn’t occurred to me that I should book tickets. I was therefore somewhat horrified when I arrived and saw the length of the queue. I must have spent well over an hour and 15 minutes in the line and whilst I patiently waited I read a very moving article about how it is hoped football can unite the divided French society following the recent terrorist attacks.

Just walking down in to the catacombs felt errie, even more so than the ones I’d visited in Rome which these were named after. Whilst I looked at some of the information boards I preferred to rely on the audio guide as I slowly made my way through the different tunnels. Originally a mine system, the tunnels fell in to a state of disrepair and some collapsed in the 18th century. The solution was to reinforce the walls and to turn them in to a mass burial site because the main cemetery was also full. Overtime they then became a tourist attraction and the chambers even hosted classical music concerts.

I spent longer than planned and still had a lot I wanted to see before meeting back up with John. As I made my way to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, arguably the most visited Cemetery in the world I suddenly remembered that my friend Emily had recommended I visit the Sainte Chapelle. I just happened to be at the nearest station when I remembered so I quickly jumped off the train just as the doors were closing. It was a great recommendation. Recently I’d felt a bit blasé about visiting churches and Cathedral’s but the stained glass windows at the Sainte Chapelle had even me gasping at their magnificence.

I looked around for a bit, hunting for the “Rose Line” thinking it was the church from the Da Vinci code but eventually after looking on different tourist websites, some which said it was at Sainte Chapelle realised it was elsewhere. Rather than going directly to the cemetery I went on another detour to the Republic Square which was very moving because it had been turned in to a makeshift memorial to those that were killed on 13th November 2015.

Having had quite a macabre day I felt quite sombre when I did eventually turn up at the cemetery. I only had an hour to look around before it closed but I felt that was all I needed. It was quite sobering, and despite being in the city, very quiet. I started by visiting the Communards’ Wall a memorial to 147 victims of the revolution. I then continued on to Oscar Wilde’s grave before reaching the one for the Lizard King Jim Morrison which had friendship bracelets attached to the barricade.

Security were keen to ensure everyone left on time so I and a group of Americans were hurried out just before the official closing time. Due to a particularly loud barking dog I had no intention of disobeying the orders. I then walked down to the site where the Infamous Bastille had stood. Now a column commemorating the July Revolution of 1830.

It was slightly later than I planned when after catching the metro and train I finally arrived at the Invalids Hotel. Effectively I’d done the revolution backwards because they’d broken in to the Invalids Hotel to collect weapons before storming the Bastille and blowing it up. It now housed a military museum but my intention had just been to see the famous building from the outside.

I made it back to the hotel slightly later than planned and as we had both had a busy exploring the streets of Paris decided to go for a meal and drink locally. We opted for Le president where we sat on the seats outside with a couple of drinks and I finally had French onion soup followed by a salad. We planned to go in another bar on the way back to the hotel but it was shut so we won’t straight home.

Thursday 9th June
We had packed the night before so once we had showered we went down for breakfast and after checking out made our way to Paris Montparnasse. This was the same station we’d used to get to Versailles so we were familiar with the layout. We arrived shortly before the platform was announced and found out seats on the famous TGV without any difficulties. Our next stop was Bordeaux.

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Don’t Let it Bring you Down: French Open Weekend

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Friday 27th May
After leaving work I made my way to St Pancras so I could catch the Eurostar. I had misread a message from Victoria which nearly caused complete chaos on my arrival. It was 23.30 by the time I arrived at the station and as it was late I decided to get a taxi. Fortunately the queue was long because by the time there were only a handful of people ahead of me I heard someone shout my name. I looked up and to my surprise saw Victoria standing there. Victoria had told me she would meet me at the station but I’d not read the message properly and had therefore nearly gone straight to our accommodation.

I briefly met her friend Omar and we then got a taxi together. We walked the final section because the driver got lost even though we could both see where to go on Google maps. The streets smelt of urine and it was very late by the time we arrived at our Airbnb. It was quite a small bedsit in need of some (a lot of) tlc, especially the bathroom. With a bit of work it could have made a pleasant studio for an artist. Instead once we had made our beds (a sofa bed and a single mattress) it looked like a squat.

Saturday 28th May
As my alarm went off it felt a nice change to have woken up in the country I was visiting but after just over 5 hours sleep it was still a bit of a struggle. The shower helped to revive me a bit and Victoria got up once I was done. We’d booked a day trip to explore the Champagne Region and had no difficulties in finding the pick up point which was near the Louvre. Once we had checked in, we even had some time to wonder down to the Seine

We grabbed seats at the back of the mini bus and I promptly fell asleep as Victoria successfully captured on video. When I did eventually open my eyes the scenery was very pleasant with wheat fields on one side and vineyards on the other. Occasionally there were large cemeteries and it wasn’t until our tour guide pointed them out that I realised they were for soldiers from First World War.

Our first stop was the lovely village of Hautvillers. We wondered along what appeared the main street, passing various “Champagne Houses” as we made our way to the small church which contained the Grave of Dom Perignon. Our guide explained how Dom Perignon had mastered the technique for creating champagne which is still used by most companies.

We continued on to Verzenay so that we could visit a Lighthouse which had been built to promote the local champagne. First we visited the museum which explained the work carried out in each season and whilst the audio guide was good I skipped a lot of the sections because some were quite repetitive. Next we climbed the 100 steps to the top of the lighthouse and then wondered around the gardens.

Our next destination was Reims where we had the opportunity to get some food before a visit to the Cathedral and then ultimately the whole reason we’d done the tour, a trip to one of the Champagne Houses to sample their Champagne. We had lunch at Le Grande Café and were joined by two others. I opted for the tagliatelle with snails in a cheesy sauce and I have to admit it was really tasty though I’m still unsure what snails actually taste like. We made our way back to the coach and briefly stopped off at the Vranken Pommery Champagne House.

We continued to the GH Martell Champagne House which is now a museum as the production has moved to a site with more space. First we were given a tour around the cellar and our guide gave us a history about how Champagne is made and explained some of the techniques that were used in the past. I was aware that Champagne was created using different blends of grape however I didn’t appreciate how much the Champagne can vary. After the tour we were taken to an elegant lounge and got to sample three different types including a rose. Whilst it was good to try the different styles we believed we were going to the famous Moët Champagne House and it was disappointing that the information we had on our itinerary differed from our schedule. It would also have been nice to have tried Champagne from other companies rather than only experiencing one

We arrived at the Cathedral which had been severely damaged during the first world war. This included the smiling face of one of the angels at the entrance, which was faithfully reconstructed after the war and the roof which has also been repaired. European Cathedrals whilst grand all now feel much the same to me now and there wasn’t an obvious draw so Victoria and I left to look around the souvenir shops and were able to try a free sample of the pink biscuit that is often dipped in Champagne.

Pretty much everyone on the bus fell asleep on the way back and eveb though one of the passengers had been 20 minutes late we arrived in Paris earlier than expected. On our way back to our accommodation we stopped off at a creperie called Crêperie A l’Etoile d’Or and both inadvertently ordered the same dish but were both happy with how good it was. Unfortunately (or rather fortunately for my waistline) I didn’t have room for one of the Nutella filled chocolate crepes.

Once we were home I realised that the Champions League Final between Real and Athletico Madrid was on the free sports channel, and felt very content as I watched it with a beer. Victoria went to bed so I turned the commentry down which made no difference to my enjoyment because I’d not fully understand what the French commentators were saying. I was getting in to bed when Athletico equalised towards the end but despite feeling tired stayed up to see Real Madrid eventually win the match on penalties.

Sunday 29th May
Victoria was up first and after my late night from watching the football I initially struggled to get out of bed, not that I was feeling overly snug as the mattress I was on wasn’t the best. Once we were up we found out Victoria’s friend Omar, who had volunteered to drive us to Monet’s house, was running over an hour late because he’d set his alarm for the wrong day.

We therefore decided to walk to a nearby bakery called Horaires where I ordered a Pain au Chocolat and returned back to where we were staying. Shortly after Omar arrived and we made the hour long journey to the village of Giverny where Monet’s house and garden were located. By the time we arrived we had long missed a tour Victoria had organised for us around the gardens and it hadn’t been possible to book us on a later tour.

We saw that there was a free tour through the house and it seemed there were others waiting. The lady was from America and despite speaking in clear English said something none of us quite caught about the group being small. Ultimately it meant we ended up sitting on the sofa for an hour as she described the tour of the house, without actually taking us on it. Some of what she said would have been interesting if we had been in the house but instead it meant nothing and all felt a bit weird.

Before going in to the house we decided to walk around the flower garden and arguably the more famous Japanese garden which was used in a lot of the art work. Both had been designed by Monet and we saw and walked over the bridge famous from his painting now “Bridge over a Pond of Lilies” and saw other aspects of the garden immortalised in his paintings.

After we had explored the gardens we walked around the house and some of the facts the lady had told us had stuck in my brain. Most of the house had been left how it had been in Monet’s time but the paintings he had once kept in his study and in other rooms have now been replaced by copies. Perhaps we would have spent longer in the house and the gardens with a guide but as it was we seemed to have seen everything quicker than I expected.

We had a late lunch at one of the restaurants near the house before calling in to the tourist information centre to decide where else in the area we could visit. Ultimately we decided on the ruins of a castle called Chateau Gaillard, one of the oldest Norman castles and a historic village called Venables which Victoria wanted to visit because she had a work colleague whose family was historically from there.

Chateau Gaillard was in a particularly stunning location on top of the hill and the ruins added to the dramatic scene. Victoria and I explored the grounds which were free whilst Omar moved the car and eventually joined us. We then drove down the hill in to the village which looked pleasant but rather than getting out decided to continue the journey to Venables.

We arrived in Venables and aside from a small church it didn’t appear there was anything else to see. The village didn’t even appear to have a shop so after walking to the Welcome sign so Victoria could get a photo we returned back to the car and started the journey back to Paris. The traffic was particularly heavy and so we didn’t arrive back until quite later than planned.

Victoria and I then walked to a sushi restaurant which was relatively close to where we were staying but by the time we had finished the rain which we’d seen forecast on our mobiles in the run up to the holiday finally struck with avengement. We held off leaving the restaurant as long as possible but it was clear the rain wasn’t going to pass so we ran. Once home we were both soaked and put the heading on full blast to dry out. This time it was my turn to fall asleep first as Victoria had to finalise her future travel plans.

Monday 30th May
Visiting Roland Garros had really been our whole reason for meeting up because we had previously done Wimbledon and Melbourne together and I was excited when I woke up (despite the rain) because we were finally going. After showering I went to the shops to buy us ingredients for baguettes and to give Victoria space to get ready because our apartment was very cosy (small).

My phone indicated that there would be a clearing of the clouds and so once we were ready we made the journey to the historic venue. By the time we arrived it was raining harder than it had been when we left and we huddled under my umbrella as we waited in the queue to get in. Once we were we made way to Court One because that was where one of the singles matches we had tickets for was being played.

We made our way up the steps and entering the arena saw that the covers contained huge puddles. We huddled in the gangway as we waited for news and as the official app was giving no information besides sales of towels and other tat I started to look on Twitter. Eventually we decided to leave the court when it was clear play wouldn’t be starting anytime soon and went in search of a cafe.

On our way we stopped of at Suzanne Lenglen Court where a gangway had been opened to allow non ticket holders to get a photo. We were desperately trying to stay warm, especially Victoria whose finger had gone numb due to the cold and we were also both feeling quite tired and bitterly disappointed. We weren’t allowed in Philippe Chatrier to take photos and so visited the shop and then the museum. The museum was fairly interesting and contained items collected over the years but the trophies had been removed. It was whilst we were in the museum that the Twitter account announced that for the first time since 2000 there would be no play all day.

We made a fairly hasty exit and on our way home stopped at the Eiffel Tower which was shrouded in fog. We eventually got in, cold and wet. Neither of us had much enthusiasm to do anything else in the day but as it was our last evening together I suggested a dinner cruise. I still hoped that to some extent the day could be salvaged and we rested in our accommodation for a few hours until it was time to leave.

We arrived at the meeting point in plenty of time and at the same time as two other couples. One guy was standing there and explained to is that due to the rain the pick up point had been changed. We had no chance of getting to the new location in time which just added to the disappointment of the day. We made the journey anyway and rather cruelly saw the boat pass us just as we arrived on the river bank. We followed it for a while but eventually accepted there wasn’t a second pick up point.

It had been raining continuously for 24 hours and now hungry as well as wet, cold and drained ordered a starter from one of the restaurants on the river bank. Slightly more energised we returned to the pick up point so we could join a later cruise. It seemed the whole day had been against us and I think we both half expected to get turned away however we were allowed on and given a seat.

Shortly after we took our seat a group joined with a small dog which shook its wet body over the seats. I like dogs but this was probably the final straw for me. I found an attendant and pointing at the dog going woof woof and then imitating sneezing I got us moved to the other side although unlike some tables we were still not even given a bottle of water (some had champagne) and no one took any drink orders.

Even though it didn’t do the full route it was a really lovely experience and we still got to see the Eiffel Tower lit up and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The 3 course meal had been good and I was able to add foie gras to a growing list of French foods I’d had over the previous few days.  The journey home was, fortunately uneventful though we still required the heater on full blast once we got home. It had

Tuesday 31st May
Neither of us wanted to get out of bed because we could hear the rain still pattering against the window. With chores to do such as laundry and posting some items back to Australia Victoria eventually made the first movements. I shortly followed. Rather than waiting at the launderette we went to another local bakery to get breakfast before I went back home and Victoria went back to the launderette.

We then both spent quite a bit of time sorting out all our clothes before we left together for the final time. The plan was to go to a roof terrace cafe in the Galeries Lafayette shopping centre and we went via the post office. We arrived at the shopping centre and to my horror I realised I’d left my train snacks at home. Whilst Victoria did some shopping I dashed back and we met up again an hour later. The hardest part of my journey had been finding my way out of the huge shopping centre.

The lunch was average, but more importantly it was nice to spend some time together when both of us were relaxed, not wet and not in a hurry to get somewhere. We walked to some of the shops together before eventually I had to say “see you soon” without knowing when that will be. I was sad to go, part of me wanted to stay but as Victoria rightly pointed out I should have been glad to be leaving. It is true that it was only our companionship which had been any type of light or joy by the end of the trip and I hope Victoria has better luck on the rest of her travels. As for me, I return to Paris in less than a week before going to Bordeaux for Euro 2016.

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Living for the Weekend: Milan

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Saturday 14th May

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jayde said “Hey Johno, do you wanna go to Milan for the weekend?” I couldn’t say yes quick enough even though it meant I’d miss the last Watford match of the season. During our first meeting in Athens I’d rather unsocialably cradled my phone as Watford hung on to beat Newcastle so it was slightly reassuring that travel can on occasions trump Watford.

The early morning journey to Gatwick was as painful as ever as I forced myself up at 3.15 and walked to the bus stop where I waited for a bus which never came. Whilst I wasn’t exactly running late it meant I could have had an extra 30 minutes in bed though as it was Jayde and I both arrived at the airport at a similar time. We even had time to grab a bite to eat. There was mild drama when as we boarded it emerged that the plane was smaller than expected (which meants our designated seats were outside) so we and a few others were both separated though thankfully weren’t put on another flight.

We caught the bus in to the city centre and as it was late morning decided to find somewhere for lunch. Trip adviser suggested a pizza place called Mister Panozzo which had a good rating, was cheap and didn’t appear to be that far. We had expected thunderstorms however the sun was shining so we decided on a walk which took us past the Piazza Duca D’Aosta near the Grand looking Central station and a small local market. We had a brief look around the busy market before escaping the crowds and continuing our journey.

Mister Panozzo looked like a chain with its mascot however it appeared to be one of its kind. The staff were really friendly and even gave us a free starter of cheesy garlic pizza bread. I ordered the chef’s special (chef decided what ingredients to use) which came with loads of mushrooms and whilst I ate a few, I picked the majority off and hid them under my napkin. It was however, despite the mushrooms, very good.

After leaving Mister Panozzo we made our way to the hostel. When we arrived we were told the room wasn’t ready but we were able to check in and to leave our bags in storage. We left the hostel and walked towards the part of the city centre that included most of the historical buildings.

First we arrived at the Duomo (Cathedral) and walked around the outside towards the Piazza del Duomo. The queue to go in to the Cathedral and up to the roof terrace was particularly long so we made a conscious effort to return early the following day. We walked across the Piazza and made our way towards the famous shopping centre Quadrilatero d’Oro. Near to the Quadrilatero d’Oro was a place called Cioccolati Italiani selling gelato which came in flavoured cones or in between a bun. We were still full from lunch but checked the opening times so that we could make time to return later in the day.

Next we walked towards the castle (Castello Sforzesco) however a combination of me and Google maps meant we didn’t quite take the most direct route. It was possible to walk through the castle grounds for free so we walked through the castle court yards and the Parco Sempione gardens to the Arco della Pace. We then took a slightly different path back to visit the Santa Maria seller Grazie which we believed contained the iconic “The Last Supper” painting.

It didn’t cost anything to enter the church so we entered and hunted around. The artwork and decorations were quite ornate however each was greeted with a underwhelming “hmm must be in the next section” reaction. Eventually there were no sections left to explore and asking in the shop realised it was in the building next door. We arrived at the ticket office and were told there was a 3 month waiting list to enter so made our way back to the hostel.

On our way Jayde noticed to a large crowd and pointed. I had somehow missed the mass of people and before I could respond the crowd were making high pitched screams in excitement. We wondered over and saw an elderly guy neither of us recognised come out of the shop but obviously realised he wasn’t why a huge group of school girls were so excited. Next we saw a sign saying Antony Di Francesco but were still none the wiser though when we googled him he appeared to be Italy’s Justin Bieber.

We returned back to the hostel and quickly realised that whilst the reception looked fancy and the website implied it would be as good as the 180 Hostel in Berlin the reality was very different. Firstly there were no locks on the dormitory doors but also building work meant our dorm was partially separated from the next room by a large net curtain. Our other room mates, a young couple from Canada who understandably freaked out when they realised their belongings would have no protection because the advertised lockers were also far too small for their luggage. I rested on my bed and waited for Jayde who advised the shower facilities were tight on space which I then discovered for myself.

We walked back in to the city centre to get gelato from the parlour we’d seen earlier and which just happened to be on a website I’d stumbled across when I was looking for recommendations. I ordered it as a kind of ice cream sandwich with Nutella, salted caramel and chocolate with hazelnut however I’d been severely tempted by the cone filled with melted milk chocolate.

After we’d gorged ourselves on the gelato we waddled to the underground and caught a train to the San Siro. Considering it was the last match of the season and a match between AC Milan and Roma two Italian heavy weights I was slightly surprised by the lack of numbers making their way to the ground though that did make it a more pleasant journey. I got goosebumps when I caught my first glimpse of the famous ground and brought a scarf as a memento. I think Jayde was excited for me though was no doubt bemused by my reaction.

We climbed many floors of steps and took our seats just in time for kick off. I had expected the ultras to generate an intimidating atmosphere but they were relatively placid and smoke bombs and flares were kept to a minimum. The match itself was pretty comfortable from a Roma perspective and AC were rather painfully a shadow of their former glories. Their defending was so calamitous they even gave away an indirect free kick after the goalkeeper foolishly picked up a back pass. It’s quite rare these days and as far as I’m aware not even Watford have done it in the past 15 years.

Totti came on and got a standing ovation from all 4 sides of the stadium but there was little for us to cheer and with Napoli winning Roma couldn’t sneak 2nd their small number of traveling fans were rather quiet. We decided to leave when Roma made it 3.0 around the 85 minute shortly after AC missed a chance to grab a consolation. As soon as we were outside the ground we heard a cheer followed by overly loud celebratory music considering. It’s a shame the “I Rossoneri” (red and blacks) hadn’t scored earlier in the match because it would have ignited the atmosphere.

After leaving the ground we followed the crowd and went slightly off course but found the train station. When the train came in the platform was busier than when we’d arrived and the we somehow squeezed on to the train. Fortunately the stops were close together and we were able to generate some space after the first stop. We walked back to the hostel via the Cathedral though both agreed it didnt look as spectacular as we had expected. We arrived back at the hostel and I fell asleep

Sunday 15th May
There had been occasional loud conversations in the corridor and the room next door, which was hardly a separate room because it was only partially separated. Both had woken me up and even though I’d had so little sleep the day before I just couldn’t get back to sleep so got ready and waited for Jayde who got up a little while later. After leaving our bags in the stored luggage area we had the free hostel breakfast before catching a tram to the city centre.

The queue moved quite quickly and we had a look around the inside. A service was taking place which gave it a moving atmosphere and it was grand as I’d expected however I was more interested in climbing the steps leading to the roof terrace. Unfortunately both of us had seen different signs and ended up walking around the Cathedral before finding the entrance. Luckily the queue was shorter than the one to buy tickets and we were quickly climbing the tower.

I had expected one viewing platform however instead we were able to walk all over Cathedrals roof and therefore got good views of the city from both sides though my attempts to spot the San Siro failed. It was certainly something I’d recommend doing and it was obvious why it is one of the highlights of Milan.

We took the stairs back down and as we were in decent time stopped to get a final slice of pizza from a nearby restaurant. The slice itself seemed as big as a normal pizza and I imagine i had the look of a kid in a sweetshop. We decided to walk back to the hostel and after collecting our bags caught the underground train to the central train/bus station.

Throughout the day we had done a good job of going at a relatively relaxed pace whilst ensuring we weren’t running late and preferably staying well in the Green, ahead of time zone as we were when we reached the bus. We were therefore able to catch an earlier bus to the airport and I napped on the uneventful journey doing the same on the flight.

When people asked what I’d done at the weekend, they probably didn’t expect me to say I went to Milan. It had certainly been an unforgettable weekend and did feel slightly surreal. I had 5 blisters on my feet and after walking 40,000 steps on the Saturday alone my legs were aching but I’d do it all again. It is so quick to get to some historic places in Europe from London and rather ludicrously some can cost much less than a train I once caught to Liverpool.

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What a Wonderful World: Snowdonia

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“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” or so the saying goes. It certainly feels very appropriate as I attempt to write a piece about “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth” to me. I’ve been to some wonderful countries and have had many unforgettable experiences in some beautiful locations however I’d never truly considered this question until now because they were all wonderful for different reasons.

On reflection there does appear to be one place that always gets my spine tingling and that I get passionate about whenever I talk about it. . Wherever in the world I have been I always hear it calling me back. It may not be as glamorous a choice as Þingvellir in Iceland or Milford Sound in New Zealand but to me Snowdonia in North Wales is the most beautiful place on earth.

The Snowdonia area takes its name from its centrepiece Mount Snowdon (“Snow Hill” in Old English) the second largest mountain in the United Kingdom. An extinct volcano Snowdon was formed by volcanic activity over 450 million years ago. The Welsh call the mountain “Yr Wyddfa” (translated as “The Tumulus”) and believe the mountain is the burial mound of the giant Rhitta Gawr who was defeated by King Arthur and whose grave is marked by a cairn.

As you enter the region, where ever you are, you’ll be able to see the range of mountains with the distinctive point of Snowdon (sometimes capped in snow) dominating the already picturesque landscape. As you travel along the twisty mountain roads on clear sky days the views are stunning and as your ears pop due to the altitude it is impossible not to feel small.

If you decide to venture up one of the many foot paths to the summit of Mount Snowdon (or decide to catch the historic steam train) you will be greeted with fine panoramic views of mostly unspoilt beauty. In the distance you can clearly see all the way to the picturesque harbour town Porthmadog, Portmeirion and beyond that, if you’re lucky Ireland.

But travelling through Snowdonia in less favourable conditions can be equally exhilarating for the senses. The grey clouds make a contrast to the greens of the hills and blues of the lakes. As you rise ever higher eventually passing in to the low hanging clouds, the mountains become even more dramatic. The mist adds to the mystical lure and try not to imagine passing through and pretending you’re not part of a ancient Celtic tribe.

Yes it is true Snowdonia can suffer from rain however this helps ensures that on those beautiful hot sunny summer days the lakes such as the alluring Llyn Padarn are full and water still cascades from Swallow Falls as well as numerous other waterfalls. The environment means that the vegetation of Snowdonia is always rich with life and it is home to rare flora and fauna which includes the “Snowdon Lilly” (Gagea serotina) and the rainbow coloured “Snowdon Beetle” as well as a host of birds rarely found in the rest of the UK.

Sometimes man made structures can ruin a scene however in Snowdonia I would argue they have enhanced it. The simple, yet effective dry stone walls, the lovely churches and the small cottages with their locally produced slate roofs, not to mention the occasional coastal castle. If you’re after something older there are ruins dating back to the Romans. Then, finally there are the “Great Little Trains of Wales” which look like miniature model trains as they slowly meander through the landscape leaving a trail of smoke in the gentle breeze.

The world famous Ffestiniog Railway still carries passengers from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. At Blaenau the man made slate slag heaps tower over the little town with their industrial monuments long out of use sitting at the top of disused inclines. The Welsh Highland Railway also departs from Porthmadog carrying people through the Aberglaslyn Pass to the charming village Beddgelert, on to Rhyd Ddu where hikers can climb the route to the summit of Snowdon. Finally the train arrives at Caernarfon which is dominated by its mighty castle, arguably one of the finest in Wales and used as the investiture for Charles, Prince of Wales.

If you fancy seeing the beautiful landscape from a different view you can go White Water Rafting along the Tryweryn river, fly above Penrhyn Quarry on Europe’s longest zip line or hang off Snowdon whilst mountain climbing. If you somehow get bored of the stunning views you can discover the beauty inside the mountains by exploring the disused slate caverns of Blaenau Ffestiniog or perhaps even bounce on a giant trampoline if you want to get close to the ceiling!

As I said at the start, beauty is in the eye beholder. Snowdonia may appear a random choice but it seems this is still an area slightly off the main UK tourist trail. If you want to see variety and scenery rivalling parts of New Zealand, I urge you to stick on some dramatic sounding Celtic music and take a drive through Snowdonia.

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Posted by Travels and Rambles in Europe, Wales, 0 comments