48 hours in Berlin: A weekend guide to the German capital

When my husband and I decided to embark on our honeymoon trip extravaganza (One trip every month for a year) Berlin was right at the top of our list. Each time we would sit down to plan our next destination, we would weigh up our options and strangely Berlin never quite made the cut. But come Boxing Day 2019 we found a brilliant flight and hotel deal with British Airways and booked up a weekend trip for the end of January.

Ok, so January isn’t the most desirable time to visit any city. But 48 hours of relentless rain and bitter temperatures didn’t dampen our sense of adventure and we set out to take in as much of the city as possible.

Berlin is nothing like I expected. In my mind, I would stroll down wide imposing streets, flanked on either side by a lustrous mix of Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Gothic and Renaissance buildings. Such as I had experienced in Prague, Stockholm or even Munich. My expectation could not have been further from the truth. I guess I thought more of the city would have survived the bombing raids of World War Two or would have been repaired and reinstated post-war. Berlin is a city which wears its history on its sleeve. The startling lack of historic buildings is a testament to the hardships faced by the city during the relentless bombing campaigns of the Second World War. Present-day Berlin is a concrete jungle. It’s not a European beauty. Yet, despite a limited stock of pre-war buildings and monuments the layers and depth of history secreted into every remaining and reimagined crevice of the city more than make up for any architectural shortcomings.

Getting to Berlin

Flights to Berlin Tegel airport operate regularly out of all major UK airports. The flight time is around 1 hour and 45 minutes. More than doable of a Friday night for a weekend break. Our flight left London Heathrow at 7 pm, and we were on the ground and on our way to the hotel by 10 pm. Berlin is 1 hour ahead of the UK. The time difference is worth bearing in mind if you are booking transfers or informing your hotel of your arrival time.

We opted for a taxi straight from the airport which was efficient and reasonably priced at around €35. The taxi ride took a little over half an hour as there were some pretty major road works going on in the centre of Berlin. If you’re after a cheaper alternative airport transfer, then public transport options are in plentiful supply. The TXL bus, S41 finally changing to the U8 will get you from the airport to Alexanderplatz in around thirty minutes.

Where to stay

Hotel location is always a priority when travelling for just the weekend. We wanted to be close enough to walk to the main attractions, hence, we opted for the Hotel Indigo at Alexanderplatz.

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The hotel was clean, quirky and perfectly located for a weekend gallivanting around the city in the rain. Read my full Hotel Indigo review here https://takemefarandaway.com/2020/02/20/hotel-review-4-hotel-indigo-alexanderplatz-berlin/

Where to eat

Café Einstein Unter Den Linden

This was an absolute gem. On our final day, we dashed in to escape the rain and found IMG_0836ourselves stepping back in time. Dark wood panelling, marble-topped tables and a charming feel of an old Viennese coffee house. There was also an eye-watering display of cakes and pastries. After securing a table, we ordered a proper lunch 2 bowls of gloriously rich, thick goulash complete with crispy yet gooey dumplings to soak up all those fabulous juices. I couldn’t resist a slice of passionfruit cheesecake to finish off – it felt rude not to indulge.

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The café serves up breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner and is a real hot spot for German politicians and journalists. With only a short five-minute walk to the Brandenburg Gate or a ten-minute walk to the Reichstag, it’s no wonder Café Einstein has famed popularity with tourists and locals alike.

 

 

Treffpunkt Berlin

If you’re after traditional German food, done well with no frills and good beer then, Treffpunk should be on your list. From the outside, it looks like a distinctly average pub, but don’t let first appearances put you off. Inside there’s a small bar area and around twelve tables for diners. It was pretty busy when we arrived without a booking at 7.30 pm, but we were lucky and snagged a table right by the bar.

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After sampling the delights of pork knuckle in Munich we both opted for this again. The dish came with boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. But, unlike the knuckled served in Munich which was crispy and covered in onion, this was pure unadulterated boiled pork knuckle. The dish isn’t winning any Michelin stars but it sure was tasty. Nothing partners meat and potato better than beer and you’d be pretty safe ordering any beer from the extensive menu. I went for the Schöfferhofer Grapefruit beer which was delicious, very easy to have one too many of these!

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Currywurst

Ok, so this isn’t a specific location but currywurst should absolutely be on our Berlin food buck list. Currywurst is a fried pork sausage smothered in thick spiced ketchup, topped with curry powder and a side helping of chips. This is German fast food at it’s best. To get our currywurst fix we went for a mooch in the behemoth shopping mall. What started out as a roam around the shops to get out of the rain became a hunt for food. Once the food court was located there was no shortage of delicious offerings. But it had to be currywurst. I decided to embrace the opportunity to practise my very rusty German and ordered up two currywurst, chips and drink. What arrived five minutes later was exactly as planned, turns out I remember more of my GCSE German than I thought. Tray laden, we muscled our way onto a long table with ten strangers all digging into a plethora of worldwide cuisines. This multitude of sights and scents didn’t detract from the spicy pork goodness on my paper plate.

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What to do

Holocaust Memorial

Located close to the Brandenburg Gate at the heart of Berlin is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I had seen countless images of the memorial before my trip to Berlin but nothing prepares you for how you feel standing in front of the crude concrete slabs. Each of the 2711 slabs differs in height and as you venture through the narrow passages between you are soon engulfed by their presence. It really is quite overwhelming.

I’m unsure how I felt about the memorial if I’m honest. Whilst the scale of the 19,000 square metres stretching out before you are striking and poignant if you consider the representation of the six million Jews who lost their lives. But does this unmarked, fragmented monument really communicate the message it intended? I cannot help but think that if the names of the Jewish people who suffered were displayed as they are at Yad Vashem in Israel then, maybe a clearer narrative might unfold here. I guess we can only hope that the Instagram, selfie generation might just get a grip, pocket the phone and reflect on the real meaning of this place.

Berlin TV Tower

D2751D06-4478-4E38-838C-147163F86494Opening in 1969, complete with a revolving restaurant and panoramic viewing gallery the Berlin TV Tower was the height of sophistication and a beacon of hope for post-war Berlin. If you’d like to visit the TV Tower, you need to book in advance. This can easily be done online and with less than 12 hours’ notice, I managed to bag tickets for 10.30 on Saturday morning. Tickets cost €17.50 and can be purchased online or at the tower itself.

As you approach the tower, the scale and magnitude of it are impressive. I’m not afraid of heights but that viewing gallery looked an awfully long way up.

Be prepared that the only way up is by lift. I don’t know why this was a shock to me as 200m of stairs really would have been a killer. But I hate lifts, I’m horribly claustrophobic and the thought of ascending 200m in the air inside a concrete tube was daunting. Also, the stewards were clearly aiming to get as many people into the lift as possible. Nerves aside the views from the top are spectacular. 360-degree panoramic sights of the city spread out for miles are quite something.

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Our ticket included access to the bar where we enjoyed mid-morning coffee feeling like we were on top of the world.

Topography of Terror

The Topography of Terror is a must when visiting Berlin. Between 1933 and 1945, the central institutions of Nazi persecution, the Secret State Police Office, the leadership of the SS and, the Reich Security Main Office are located in the grounds of the “Topography of Terror.” The museum is completely free although you can make a donation. The museum houses two permanent exhibitions one indoor and one outdoor there are also a variety of changeable exhibitions.

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We arrived mid-morning on Saturday, the place was heaving with tourists but absolutely silent, it was like walking into a vacuum. My husband and I quickly found ourselves on our own path through the exhibition. The exhibition tracks the institutions of security and police during the Third Reich and the crimes they committed. The exhibition was overwhelming, deeply moving and explicitly detailed. I was appalled by the photographic evidence of the crimes inflicted on innocent citizens. But you cannot shy away from history. It was understandable why the museum was silent. Everyone was completely engrossed in their own personal battle and reflection on the information before them.Snapseed - Copy (19)

It was an odd thing to vacate the building, still in silence, it was like my husband and I didn’t quite know what to say to each other. Outside you can take in the remains of the original building and a section of the Berlin wall. The outdoor exhibition takes you through fifteen stations documenting the history of the original site.

German Spy Museum

Late on Saturday afternoon, I got to unleash my inner 007 with a trip to the German Spy Museum. In short, I loved it. IMG_0774The museum gives a unique glimpse into the veiled world of espionage; following the evolution of the spy right the way from biblical times to the spies we know and love from the world of film. The museum is interactive, well laid out and brimming with quirky information. There was even a laser maze, which was an absolute highlight of the visit, I felt like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment however with none of the distinctive style. Sadly, I think my laser maze skills need some work…

Tickets cost €12 and I would allow yourself a good couple of hours to explore. The museum is conveniently located close to the Berlin Mall just of Leipziger Platz. Get your tickets online to save time:

https://www.deutsches-spionagemuseum.de/en/tickets/online-tickets/

DDR Museum

I love an interactive museum, and the DDR museum certainly delivers an immersive 75AFC6DE-679D-4C2E-9F7A-36C2FBDC0BF9slice of what life was like in East Germany. The museum covers all aspects of life for the average East German from what they drove to how they used their leisure time. A really informative and valuable insight into the past. I would recommend visiting later in the afternoon as it was very busy when arrived early afternoon on a Sunday. Buy your tickets here:

https://www.ddr-museum.de/en/your-visit/online-tickets

East Side Gallery

1.3km of history turned art gallery. Following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, 118 artists from across the world began creating political, social and culturally inspired artwork on the wall. The open-air gallery officially opened in 1990 and has been given protected memorial status. The wall continues undergoing renovation and clean up projects to protect and restore the work. The restoration is critical as the majority of the work has been graffitied, or chipped away by trophy hunters keen for their own litter piece of history.

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The East Side Gallery is easily accessed by bus and is the third stop on the blue route with the Big Bus tour. Alternatively, you can take the 300 bus or the U Bahn to Warschauer street which is a short walk from the gallery.

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I would recommend getting to the East Side Gallery as early as you can. If you want to snap the artwork without having to wait or turn or carefully crop out other tourists, then an early start is well worth it. We arrived at 10.00 am on a Sunday morning and by 10.30 am the crowds had already gathered around the Socialist fraternal kiss image. An absolute must for your weekend in Berlin, I would leave yourself at least an hour to two hours to explore the gallery in full.

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Brandenburg Gate

No trip to Berlin is complete without a visit to the infamous Brandenburg Gate. It is one of those monuments synonymous with the city itself. The Brandenburg Gate which once divided the city quickly became a monument for unity when the Berlin wall fell in 1989. Visiting the Brandenburg gate is recommended at any time however I found that visiting at night when the daytime crowds had dispersed was extremely impressive.

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Reichstag

Another key monument to visit during your trip to Berlin is the Reichstag.

If you want to tour the Reichstag and its beautiful glass dome then you’ll need to book in advance. To register for your visit please follow the link: https://visite.bundestag.de/BAPWeb/pages/createBookingRequest/viewBasicInformation.jsf?lang=en

Sadly, I didn’t get my butt in gear early enough to secure a spot for the weekend of our visit. It is possible to try and book onto the same day tour at the service centre next to the Berlin Pavilion. However, if you choose to risk it on the day then you may end up queueing for some time at the service centre, sacrificing valuable time exploring the city.

Bus Tour

As I’ve already mentioned our trip was plagued by rain and lots of it. Complete with a moany husband due to a hole in his shoe it was time to board a bus tour! Luckily our hotel was situated right outside the first stop for both the red and blue routes on the Big Bus Tour. We bought a weekend ticket for €30.50 which proved to be a good investment. Initially setting out on the red route our bus came complete with a live guide providing us with a historical and social commentary from the front. The live guide made a real difference to our orientation of the city. Also, his anecdotes and vast knowledge of the city aided us to uncover a little more of the ‘real’ Berlin.

Over the weekend we followed both bus routes in their entirety and developed a good sense of the city. A welcome respite from the rain and education at the same time, what’s not to love about a bus tour?

Final thoughts

In spite of the biblical downpours which accompanied nearly every moment of our trip to Berlin, I had a brilliant weekend. Berlin was nothing like I expected but as I boarded the plane home I was left wanting more. There is so much of this historic city yet to discover and so many factions of its history that I am keen to learn about. This 48-hour trip was a tantalising glimpse at a city which is so much more than the infamous wall, it’s wartime destruction or the seat of power for the Nazi party. Modern Berlin is characterised by art, food, culture, and an outward-facing acceptance of it’s past. I’ve got my eye on a food tour and an art tour, complete with DIY graffiti for my return visit.

Happy travels

Jess

Book & hotel pairings: Top 5 reads and where to stay for a UK weekend away

With the world in lockdown, I thought I would write something a little different. I am hoping this post will inspire you to take seek out some UK weekend adventures when all this passes, and we are free to venture past our own front door. I also hope to steer you in the direction of some fabulous books, because in the words of Mason Cooley “Reading gives us someplace to go, when we have to stay where we are.”

We’ve all heard of wine pairings to accompany your food, so why not the perfect book to bury your nose in during your travels.

One of the most thrilling parts of travel in my mind is the opportunity to get lost in a good book. Life is so busy and despite my worthiest efforts to read every night, sometimes, I just need my bed. However, with all this working from home malarkey, I have to say I am finding more time to read which is a lovely thing. But, in the confines of normality I approach every travel experience as an opportunity to raid the Kindle store, delve into my paperback stocks and consult my personal librarian; otherwise known as my mum.

I am a firm believer that some books better suit certain types of travel or experience. If you are staring down the barrel of a long-haul flight then I’m game for settling down with a good series. Alternatively, a cosy weekend holed up in a country pub definitely calls for an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery.

With that in mind, I thought I would share a few of my favourite titles with you. Books which I feel are perfect for a weekend tucked away at an English country pub; I’ll also throw in a few choice recommendations for fabulously snug country pubs.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson & The Devonshire Arms

After being a devout kindle reader for many years it was this book that brought me back to the joy of reading a real-life paperback. Something about the feel of a real book in your hand is, I think, rather lovely.

IMG_1142A Death at Fountains Abbey is the third instalment from Antonia Hodgson. However, not having read the previous two it didn’t matter or have any disastrous effect on the plot or my understanding. My only caveat to that would be I might have liked a deeper understanding of the protagonist’s backstory. However, understanding and storyline hinge on this knowledge.

The story is set in 1728; John Aislabie is the victim of a malicious campaign to terrorise him and his family. Amidst the murderous threats, Thomas Hawkins and his ward Sam Fleet join the fray. Thomas is led into a lethal game of revenge in a fast-paced page-turner which definitely had me hooked and holding my breath from chapter sixteen.

But where to stay if this delightful thriller is in your bag? I would recommend The Devonshire Arms in Wharfdale. With luxury rooms, spa facilities, exquisitely cooked food and locally sourced produce, this country hotel on the Bolton Abbey Estate has a lot to offer.

The location of the hotel means that it is perfectly placed to offer a range of country pursuits. Activities include a 10-day luxury walking break following The Dales Way to tracing the path of the Tour De Yorkshire. Alternatively, if you want to take things a little easier you can relax on the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway.

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The Devonshire Arms is only a thirty-minute drive from Fountains Abbey where the story is set. I took a wander around the abbey and the gorgeous water gardens at Studley Royal this Christmas. My little jaunt gave me a whole new perspective on the story. It was particularly thrilling to envisage the characters holding whispered conversations in the dark shadowed corners of the ruins. I found myself seeking out narrow paths in the woods trying to find a secluded glade where private conversations might be overheard. In fact, I was absolutely lost in my surroundings and imagination.

The Muse by Jessie Burton & The Methuen Arms

Jessie Burton produces beautiful books. We all know the saying don’t judge a book by its cover. But when it comes Jessie Burton novels the façade is as beautifully intricate and well crafted as the writing. A visual delight for your bookshelves.

The Muse is the second offering from Jessie Burton. The story centres on the hidden tale the museand history of a painting by the Spanish artist Isaac Robles. Isaacs’ work and mysterious death have left the art world mystified for decades. The narrative is split between 1967 where a young typist, Odelle Bastien, who has struggled to find her place and purpose since moving to London from Trinidad has been recruited by the mysterious and enigmatic Marjorie Quick.

The parallel narrative is set in 1936 in a substantial manor house in rural Spain where the truth of the painting is concealed. Olive Schloss, the daughter of famed art dealer harbours secrets, ambition and consummate artist talent. Olive befriends the family housekeeper, Teresa and her revolutionary brother Isaac. As tensions build and the country on the brink of civil war the relationship and secrets between Olive, Teresa and Isaac come to a heart-wrenching climax.

This story entranced me and truly felt as though I was a fly on the wall of this grand Spanish house. My hotel choice for this novel isn’t quite a palatial Spanish manor but a beautiful Georgian coaching inn, The Methuen Arms, Corsham. Don’t be fooled by the cosy country exterior as inside you are in for a luxurious treat. The hotel has 16 luxurious and recently renovated rooms. There is even accommodation for mans best furry friend. One of the main attractions in my view of the Methuen Arms is the food. Home grown and locally sourced produce which is creatively cooked and well presented, it’s hard to go wrong. My top recommendation is the breakfast omelette, with all the added extras. Brunch perfection.

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Image from Trip Advisor

The hotel is situated in Corsham in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside but only a stone’s throw from the Roman city of Bath. With undulating hills and sun-bathed sandstone, it’s not a million miles from rural Spain.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver & The Blakeney Hotel

Yes, it’s another manor house thriller, except Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver is much more subtle than a classic thriller. The story is as much about the protagonist, Maud as it is about the wild and eerie fens where the house ‘Wake’s End’ is located.

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After Maud’s mother dies in childbirth, she is left to the care of her father, Edmund, a strict and tyrannical disciplinarian.

The story tracks the isolation of Maud and the unravelling of her father. Maud gains an wakenhyrstinsight into his rapidly deteriorating mind through stolen moments with his diary. Edmund is stalked by scratching noises. Unseen eyes in the darkness and a religious and significant depiction of hell that draws the iridescent stench of the fen into every orifice of his being. Michelle Paver beautifully blurs the boundaries between reality and the ghostly. This story leaves you hung somewhere adrift with little pieces of the narrative returning to you every so often. I found myself turning those little pieces over and over. The sign of a good story in my view is one that doesn’t leave you after you finish the final page

I took my hotel inspiration here from The Blakeney Hotel. The hotel sits on the edge of the salt marshes and estuary of the North Norfolk coast. The hotel is comfortably and stylishly decorated, very Farrow and Ball chic. Situated right on the coastal path, the views are wild and expansive. On a squally day, you can well imagine you are looking out of the study windows at Wake’s End. The hotel has 60 rooms catering to couples, families and solo travellers. Many of the rooms have picturesque views over the estuary and salt marshes. One very welcome addition to the hotel’s facilities is a spa and swimming pool. I can thoroughly recommend positioning yourself on the sun terrace post-swim, book in hand and a cold beverage nearby. The afternoon tea is also a real treat.

 

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Image from the Honeymoon Project

 

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver & The Rose & Crown, Romaldkirk

I first read this little ghostly delight on a late train from Edinburgh to London. The carriage was empty, rain lashed the windows, individual torrents tracing their own path as we sped through the black. Honestly, it was  ghost story perfection. It’s a story I’ve come back to many times. Each reading grips me within the first, few pages, my consciousness held captive till the last page.

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My very well loved copy…

The Arctic, an expansive tundra full of secrets and possibility. When twenty-eight-year-old Jack gets the chance to embark on an Arctic expedition, he has nothing to lose. A motley crew of five men and eight huskies head north from Norway. As they cross the vast expanse of sea, they reach the bay where they will devote the next twelve months. The land of the midnight sun is enchanting and dangerous. Light fades and darkness reclaims the land. Restlessness, unease and a sense of foreboding grow whilst the escape route of the sea freezes over, something is out in the dark and the crew are not alone. Even revisiting the first pages of this gorgeous thriller gives me goosebumps. Michelle Paver successfully manages to hook you instantaneously all the while reeling you in page by page as the tension builds.

Failing a long winter train journey or a trip to Norway, I would recommend the Rose and Crown at Romaldkirk to hunker down in and bury yourself in Dark Matter. I have chosen the Rose and Crown as a bedfellow for Dark Matter as I remember so clearly driving up to the hotel in the dark and the rain through twisty, turning, lanes. Trees creeping over stone walls and vast expanses of nothing. It’s quite the dramatic drive in the dark. Something about the feel of the place links quite nicely to the book.

Set on the edge of the North Pennines the Rose and Crown is a coaching inn not far from Barnard Castle. The Inn is a family-owned and runs a business with a real focus on being eco- friendly, sustainable and sourcing locally for supplies. The Rose and Crown’s remote location makes it an excellent spot for hiking, biking, sailing, fishing. Classic car hire is even an option for pootling down those country lanes and taking in the view.

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Image from Country Hotel Breaks

Choosing to stay at the Rose and Crown presents you with a range of room options. You can opt for rooms in the Main Inn, The Courtyard or the Monk’s Cottage. All the rooms are well styled with a contemporary take on rustic country charm. With Molton Brown toiletries and good linen, you are guaranteed a relaxing stay and a good nights’ sleep. I also reckon the incredible food, and modern takes on the classics will have you staggering into a food coma.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield & The Old Bell, Malmesbury

My mum is a literary hero and my go-to girl when it comes to reading material. Every Christmas she carefully picks out something she thinks I’ll love. Christmas 2007 was no exception when I tore the wrapping from The Thirteenth Tale.

The story is a rich tapestry of mystery set again a backdrop of Vida Winter’s literary 13thimaginings. Now at the end of her life, Vida wants to expose the truth of her extraordinary life. After hiring a biographer with her own shadowed past the story takes on a gothic peculiarity where the reader is introduced to the Angelfield family, their governess and the devastating fire that altered everything.

The threads of the story flow seamlessly, characters lives intersect and the dialogue cuts from the past to the present. It is a masterclass in evocative storytelling. Now with the setting of a once spectacular house, I would recommend the Old Bell, Malmesbury for a spring week away.

The Old Bell is England’s oldest hotel. Set in the quaint Wiltshire market town of Malmesbury you cannot miss its historic wisteria clad façade on the main thoroughfare. The hotel is a luxurious escape with modern, stylish rooms, well-appointed bar area and exceptional Sunday roasts. The roaring log fire in the sitting room is the ideal place to cosy up with The Thirteenth Tale. Also if you fancy a weekend break with your four-legged friend then the Old Bell is dog friendly.

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The Old Bell – England’s Oldest Hotel

With a 12th Century Abbey next door to the hotel and the world-famous Abbey House Gardens, this place is laced with history and mystery. A faultless match for ‘The Thirteenth Tale.’ Looking around the hotel there are snippets of times long since passed. The hooded stone fireplace in the brasserie dates to 1220 definitely makes me think of the centuries of stories that have been told around its hearth.

Stay safe, keep well.

Happy reading & happy travels

Jess

Dubrovnik: How to devote 4 days to adventure on the Croatian coast

Getting to Dubrovnik

Flights to Dubrovnik operate daily from London Gatwick with British Airways. Flight time to Dubrovnik is around two hours and thirty minutes, making it a perfectly suitable option for a short break. We took an early morning flight and had landed and checked into the hotel by 9.30 am.

Thanks to our hotel, the Scalini Palace, transfers to the city were provided for a small fee. Being greeted at the airport by our own driver made the beginning of our trip wonderfully easy. Transfer from the airport to Dubrovnik Old Town took around thirty minutes.

Where to stay

Before arranging our trip to Dubrovnik, I’d heard how difficult it was to find good accommodation in the old town. Friends had advised me to find somewhere cheap outside of the city walls. Absolutely, accommodation in the old town is limited but, it can be discovered! I stumbled on the absolute gem that is the Scalini Palace. Located on just down a narrow snicket from the Buža Gate you find the Scalini palace. It’s nestled amongst shops, bars and restaurants so, you’ll need your eyes peeled, it’s easy to stroll past. Trying to find the entrance to the correct street after dinner on our first night was like trying to find the entrance to Diagon Alley. IMG_0016

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Despite our early arrival, the hotel was extremely happy to hold onto our bags allowing us to pootle off and check in later. The hotel is quirky in that it provides lovely self-contained rooms with the option to self-cater. There is no restaurant but the Scalini Palace does provide breakfast each morning, delivered to your room.

Our room was well appointed with a double bed, sitting room area, kitchen facilities and a bright clean bathroom. One of the loveliest parts was our little balcony, equipped with table and chairs. There is something quite soothing about sitting contentedly with the morning sun on your face with a peppermint brew.

Where to eat

The Croatian culinary landscape is a real mish-mash of tastes, flavours and traditions from its neighbouring countries. Traditional Croatian cuisine has also been shaped by the varied nations and empires that have ruled the Dalmatian coastline.

With such a broad and varied selection of food on offer, we were definitely spoilt for choice.

We arrived in the city mid-morning, so we quickly located a lovely bar area looking out to the sea where we indulged in a beer and a coffee. The bar was just a short walk downhill from the Revelin Fortress and the Ploče gate.

Gradska Kavana Arsenal

We ended up returning to this prominent restaurant in the old town. The imposing façade of the historic arsenal makes it hard to miss coupled with a long dark stone passage I was utterly beguiled and hungry in comparable measure.

The passage spits you out at the dining area but if you walk through you encounter the IMG_0018loveliest outdoor courtyard area overlooking the old city port. This idyllic vista made for the perfect lunch spot. The food was reasonably priced and the service efficient. Whilst this isn’t the spot for you if you’re after an authentic Croatian restaurant, the one where the locals eat, as it is particularly popular with tourists. That being said when you’ve left freezing cold blighty that morning it’s hard to turn down a seafront table with old city port and fortress views.

At the front of the restaurant is a terrace on the main square. The terrace proved to be the ideal spot on our final evening for a few glasses of Croatian wine.

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Proto

IMG_0076The most beautiful mash potato I have ever seen. Potato wizardry aside, Proto was a slightly more luxurious choice for dinner. However, it was our first night and the food and service were excellent. We were positioned at a beautiful table on the upper terrace overlooking the streets below. I imagine this place is heaving during the summer months. I would absolutely recommend prior booking if you are visiting during this time.

It goes without saying, but the menu was heavily devoted to fish and the bounty of the sea. We both ordered different fish dishes and both were perfectly cooked and beautifully presented.

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If you are looking for a dinner reservation that’s a little bit special then I would absolutely recommend Proto, the mango mojito is rather good too.

Bota Sushi and Oyster Bar

After a long day’s excursion to Mostar, we arrived back in the Old town around 8 pm. We wanted to something quick, easy and tasty. After significantly indulging in the delight that is Ćevapi in Mostar we didn’t require anything too substantial. So, when the Bota Sushi bar fell into tracks just around the corner from the cathedral it was an inspired choice. The sushi was spectacular, locally caught gorgeously presented and I could easily have ordered our entire meal twice. Whilst we bagged a table, no problem, again I feel that booking would be recommended if you are visiting during the summer months. Top tip – the salmon skin roll and the tiger roll were sushi perfection.

Taj Mahal

Meat. Meat. Meat. The Taj Mahal isn’t one for you if you’re a veggie. This quaint little backstreet eatery offers up a selection of beautifully cooked Bosnian dishes. With five or six tables inside and another eights or side on the cobbled street, our meal felt casual and intimate.

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We were left invigorated after our trip to Mostar that we thought we’d give it a try. And I’m sure glad we did. I went for a kebab and flatbread number whilst my husband opted for a no-nonsense lamb kebab and baked potato. Both were delicious and the service was so friendly and efficient.

What to do

The City Walls

Dubrovnik old town is surrounded by 1940 metres of the historic city wall and punctuated by six spectacular fortresses (Revelin, St John, St Lucas, Bokar, Minčeta, Lovrijenac). The views from the city walls are just fabulous, and I thoroughly recommend this being at the top of your list for your first day.

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Entry to the walls cost 200kn; your ticket should last all day, so you’re free to go up and come down as much as you like. I would, however, recommend doing the full circuit at once. I found that taking our time to walk the whole walls gave us a much more coherent sense of the city and helped with orientation.

Just a few things to note, if you are visiting between April and October it’s going to be hot, particularly throughout July and August. Take plenty of water with you. There isn’t any place to stop for refreshments whilst you are on the walls so, be prepared and stay hydrated.

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Finally, footwear, I’m an avid fan of flip flops being the ultimate footwear choice for most activities however the walls are old and uneven. If I was being clever, I might have donned my trainers rather than flip flops.

Day trip to Mostar

After seeing that a day trip to the historic city of Mostar was an option, I set about IMG_0120booking an excursion for our second day. Mostar is located around fifty miles from Dubrovnik and is a two-and-a-half-hour direct drive. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not currently in the European Union, as such your passport is essential on this trip.

I discovered the perfect trip operated by Laus travel which included a visit to the Kravice waterfalls then, on to Mostar. To read about our day trip in more detail check out my post below.

https://takemefarandaway.com/2019/11/02/dubrovnik-to-mostar-a-1-day-itinerary-from-the-croatian-coast/

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The Blue Cave

Although we didn’t visit during the summer months the weather was still gorgeous. So, I thought nothing of booking up a days’ boat trip to the Blue Cave and Sunj Beach. The sea was a little bracing but still warm enough for a dip.

We met our little group of four others and Captain Joseph at the harbour and set sail. Our first stop was the gloriously secluded beach in Sunj Bay on the island of Lopud. Now, I am under no illusion that this slice of white sandy heaven was only deserted due to the time of year we visited. Rocking up mid-morning at the end of October guarantees you free run of the beach and bar area. I am certain this is a vastly different story in the height of summer. The beach is connected to the other side of the island via golf buggy. The buggies run regularly from the beach bar and the trip takes about 10mintues. It is a pleasant twenty-minute walk too if you don’t mind the hilly parts and slightly rough and ready terrain.

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The other side of the island is utterly charming. One long street butts up against the sea, fishing boats gently bobbing in the blue. The scene which greets you is like something out of The Durrells, there is even a 15th-century monastery at the far-right end of the main street. This first stop on our trip was so relaxing I could easily have spent all day pottering around Lopud and paddling in the tepid waters of Sunj Bay.

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Once back on the boat we headed for the main attraction…caves. As the boat skirted round the coastline, I was speechless, the towering cliffs had been carved out by the water into so many intricate and captivating formations. The uppermost parts of cliffs were covered with trees and shrubs, and the whole scene was just filled with bird song. At the first set of caves, Captain Joseph gave us a quick snorkelling what’s what then we flippered up and headed for the water. At the end of October, there is only one way to enter those crystalline waters, jump.

Once accustomed to the water we headed for the biggest of the three caves. The further in you swam the colder and darker it got. Although it was the biggest there was only Snapseed - Copy (16)room at the very back for one or two of us. If you’re feeling particularly, brave the cave at the end of the trio is for you. There is the option to swim to the back, under the rock, into an antechamber brings you out the other side of the cliff. I am unashamed to say this was one step too far for my level of bravery. The thought of having to swim, even briefly under the rock fills me with absolute dread. Also, I’ve seen the film The Decent one too many times…Who knows what’s lurking down in the belly of a cave system. However, despite my disappointing lack of courage, I thoroughly enjoyed the snorkelling at the mouth of the three caves. There were so many gorgeous, alluring fish and technicolour starfish who were totally unperturbed by my less than graceful splashing about.

Last stop was the absolute highlight of the trip, and Captain Joseph did a fabulous job of hyping it up, the blue cave. As we puttered along the coastline, we were all silently scouring the cliffs to see if we could pick out which opening would be the elusive gateway. When Captain Joseph declared that we were there it is safe to say we were all a little perplexed. The bay we had come into showed absolutely no sign of any caves and the cliff faces were unmarked and remarkably crevasse free. Or so we thought, to our untrained eyes we hadn’t spotted the tiny slither of darkness at the bottom of one of the cliffs. The Blue Cave looks like every other cave we’d swum into not fifteen minutes earlier. But its true glory came upon reaching the back wall and turning around. The entire cathedral-like space was bathed in a luminescent azure glow. This phenomenon is caused by the reflection of sunlight through the opening of the cave off the white sandy floor.

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That little gap at the bottom…yep, that’s the entrance to the Blue Cave!

The whole day was absolutely fabulous, and Captain Joseph made the trip. He was knowledgeable, well organised and had a cracking sense of humour. If you are looking to book this trip, we booked the trip through Trip Advisor, the Blue Cave by Dubrovnik Island Tours. Tours cost £51 per person, and it is worth every penny.

Srd Hill Cable Car

This is a must-do. Make a plan to head up the mountain just before sunset because the view of the sun setting over the ocean and the old town is like nothing else. Once hidden the sun burns through the cloud leaving dappled streaks of pink and orange. The multi-coloured ombre perfectly reflected in the water was the most beautiful end to our trip.

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The cable car costs 170kn for an adult round trip or 90kn for one way. There is a path which you can walk down the mountain if you would prefer stretching your legs. We went for the round trip due to timing our visit at sunset there wouldn’t have been enough daylight to take the path down. I didn’t fancy getting stuck on a dark path halfway up a mountain.

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The cable car operates eleven months of the year but is closed throughout the month of February. The last departure from the lower station is thirty minutes before closing. Closing time varies throughout the year from 4 pm during December and January to midnight in the summer months.

If you fancy taking in more than the view, I can recommend snagging a window table or table on the terrace at the Panorama Restaurant and Bar.

 

 

Franciscan Pharmacy

Just before the mighty Pile Gate is a Franciscan Monastery complete with arguable the oldest pharmacy in Europe. Initially built to serve the needs of the Friars it rapidly grew to service the needs of the town and wider population.IMG_0240

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If you have a spare half an hour then I would recommend a visit. The pretty cloistered monastery garden is wonderfully peaceful. At 9.15 am there was an all-consuming quiet which seemed to wrap around and cocoon you. The old pharmacy museum is also open every day from 9 am to 6 pm.

Red History Museum

IMG_0248On our last morning, we breakfasted early and set off for the Red History Museum. The museum presents Croatia’s modern history and what life was like for ordinary people under the Communist regime of Yugoslavia. The more we travel through countries who were occupied by the Soviet Union or experienced socialist movements and communism, the more I am fascinated by these points in history.

The Red History Museum was around a thirty-five to forty-minute walk from the old town. Entry to the museum costs 50hkr and the museum is open from 9.30 am to 10 pm from April to October. If you are travelling during the winter months opening hours do vary.

The exhibition was exceptionally well presented and really hands-on. I am a total child when it comes to museums, I love nothing more than to be able to practically engage in some way with the information being presented. The Red History Museum did not disappoint, learning about the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, its subsequent disintegration and how it affected the lives of normal people was fascinating.

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Final thoughts

Our four days in Dubrovnik was the perfect mix of adventure and time to chill. I am so pleased that we opted for the two days trips away from the city. However, I do feel as though more time is needed to really get under the surface of this magnificent city. I reckon a return visit would see Dubrovnik as a stop on a more multi-centred trip of Croatia and its fabulous islands. One of the best things about our trip was definitely our choice to visit at the end of October. The crowds were diminished, and we got into some of the best restaurants without any prior booking. The weather was still glorious, and the sea was warm enough for an invigorating swim. If you can visit outside of July and August then I would urge you to get booking.

Happy travels

Jess

Hotel Review: 4* Hotel Indigo, Alexanderplatz, Berlin

“I’m only there for less than 48 hours, the hotel doesn’t really matter right?” Wrong!

Weekend mini-breaks are a firm favourite of mine when it comes to travelling. I love the feeling of skipping out of work at 3.15 in the afternoon with a weekend of adventure stretching out before me. However, with less than 48 hours to experience a whole city do not underestimate the importance of selecting a good hotel for your trip.

We chose the Hotel Indigo for our recent weekend jaunt to Berlin, and it proved to be a great base for our weekend.

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Getting to the Hotel Indigo

Hotel Indigo is about a half-hour taxi ride from Tegel Airport. We landed late on Friday night, so a taxi was the easiest option. The taxi rank was located right outside the terminal building with an abundant supply of cars. The fare cost €35, which we were happy to pay for door to door service. However; if you’re after a cheaper alternative then the public transport options are plentiful. The TXL bus, S41 finally changing to the U8 will get you from the airport to Alexanderplatz in around thirty minutes.

First Impressions

Quirky. Clean. Perfectly appointed. I always enjoy staying in a hotel that has given some thought to design. Bright colours, interesting bespoke furniture in the communal areas and the most gorgeous use of old paperbacks behind the reception desk.

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Check-in was quick and efficient; such is the beauty of the British Airways flight and hotel deal. As first impressions go, I was definitely feeling slightly smug with my choice.

Which Room?

IMG_0791There is a choice of four room types at the Hotel indigo; standard, deluxe, executive or suite. Although comfort is IMG_0793enormously important for a hotel room, we always spend so little time in the room on a weekend break I would always opt for a standard room. In this instance, the standard room was just right. A king-size bed, clean en-suite with Aveda toiletries and a killer view of the TV tower. We genuinely couldn’t have wanted much more. I particularly liked the Trevi fountain vibe emblazoned onto the glass wall of the bathroom. Yes, that’s right the back wall of the shower was glass. As I said, this place is a little quirky. However, fear not, there was a carefully placed trident/Roman God thigh covering the sightline from the bed to the toilet. So, no need to avert your eyes whilst your nearest and dearest go about their morning ablutions.

Hotel Facilities

For a weekend break, the need for extensive hotel facilities is to my mind somewhat limited. If you’re looking for a gym, spa or pool then the Hotel Indigo isn’t the right choice for you. But, if you’re all about a good breakfast, somewhere safe to leave your bag after check out, good Wi-Fi and reasonably priced taxi services to the airport the Hotel Indigo most certainly ticks these boxes.

IMG_0795As part of our flight and hotel deal with BA breakfast was included. I genuinely think a hearty breakfast as part of your stay is always worth it. If you’re anything like me, I’m up early plate loaded, tea in hand and itinerary at the ready. Breakfast at the Hotel Indigo consisted of the usual hot selection of bacon, eggs, sausage and pancakes to continental breads, pastries, cold meats and cheese. With less than two days to explore, I always want to cram as much in as possible. Therefore, not having to find somewhere for breakfast or stop mid-morning for a pick me up helps us cram just a little more into the weekend. Opting for an included breakfast is also a great way to keep the additional costs down.

Location

It can be tempting to opt for a cheaper hotel much further from the city centre. HoweveAttachment-1r, this is often a false economy as you could potentially spend that additional cash on public transport in and out of the city each day. For me, weekend breaks are all about getting the base location right. The Hotel Indigo Alexanderplatz is about a fifteen to twenty-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate and only a five-minute walk from the infamous Berlin TV Tower.

If you don’t fancy the walk, the Hotel Indigo is two minutes’ walk from the bus stops for many of the main tour buses. Owing to the biblical downpour, we bought a weekend ticket for the Big Bus Tour which has two routes red and blue. Alexanderplatz is the first stop on both routes making the Hotel Indigo a great choice and starting point for discovering the city.

Final thoughts

Our weekend in Berlin was brilliant in spite of the perpetual heavy rain. By choosing a hotel with a central and well-connected location, it made it possible to squeeze a huge amount into such a short time. If you are planning a weekend in Berlin, I can thoroughly recommend the Hotel Indigo, Alexanderplatz.

Happy travels

Jess

 

Top 15 Unmissable things to do in Scandinavia

Glaciers, fjords, the Aurora Borealis and spectacular natural topography beautifully mixed with a unique sense of identity and culture. It’s pretty clear why Scandinavia ranks highly on people’s travel bucket list. It’s a new year and a new decade, what more reason do you need to get an adventure booked up? I know I am guilty of endlessly perusing the flight and holiday sales…just in case! So, in case you need a little inspiration here is 15 unmissable things to see and do in Scandinavia.

  1. Watch the Northern Lights in Norway:

Without a doubt, the Northern Lights is the main attraction in Scandinavia. The best place to catch a glimpse of these dancing absinthe coloured lights is in northern Norway, in the Arctic Circle.

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But this elusive contemporary dance in the night sky is tricky and highly dependant on weather conditions. For your best chance at spying the lights, I would book a trip between October and February.

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For a luxury lodge experience in the Arctic Circle check out Lyngen Lodge. This gorgeous place has so much more to offer than being a blissfully secluded place to watch the sky dance from the warmth of a hot tub.

Web: https://www.lyngenlodge.com/en/

2. Take a tour of the Oslo Opera House:

Bursting through the waters of the Oslo Fjord rises the sharp angular iceberg of the Oslo

architectural photography of white buildingOpera House. Famous for it’s innovative and creative design the Opera house attracts scores of tourists and locals keen to experience the architecture, world-class opera and dance for themselves. The smoothly undulating oak interior perfectly partners the vast open light-filled entrance. This inspirational space truly feels like a catalyst for creativity. Guided tours encompass the main auditorium, backstage areas, workshops and design studios. Tours are given in a variety of languages. Don’t forget to book in advance to secure your place on a tour; places are limited to 25 people per group.

Price – 120Kr

Guided tour – 50mins

Web: https://operaen.no/en/booking/guidedtours/

3. Experience the joys of Paper Island:

Whenever I travel, I am always on the lookout for fabulous food. I found myself on a freezing cold squally night in Copenhagen stumbling upon the culinary delights which lurk on Paper Island. Paper Island, affectionately named after its history as a paper storage facility for the Danish press is located in the middle of the harbour right next to the Opera House and Royal Playhouse.

Paper Island is a mecca for Danish street food. Your senses can get lost wandering through rows and rows of vendors each emitting scent to make your mouth water. Pulled pork, seafood, Burgers, Burritos, Vegan bowls and more, there is something to suit every appetite here.

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I can thoroughly recommend snagging a spot by the huge open fire, grabbing a beer and a surf and turf burger with cheese sauce for a total foodie win.

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4. Stroll through Tivoli Gardens at Christmas:

If you’re like me, I often struggle to feel ‘Christmassy’ when the festive season comes around each year. After a trip to Copenhagen in the first weekend of December, I came home totally ready to hang my wreath up and get on it with my present shopping. My new found festive feeling was in part, thanks to Tivoli Gardens and their gorgeous festive light display.

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Tivoli Gardens has the charm of an old-fashioned amusement park with the beauty of historic buildings and sprawling gardens. There is something for everyone; a trip during the festive period is a must. Just make sure you grab a warm cup of GlØgg to keep your hands warm as you take in the atmosphere.

Web: https://www.tivoligardens.com/

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5. Visit the Vasa:

Adults, children, old, young, this one doesn’t matter as the Vasamuseet is a Stockholm attraction for all. The Vasa was a behemoth 17th Century warship, who, thanks to some very sketchy calculations and poor measurements managed to sink to the bottom of the Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage. The Vasamuseet is absolutely fascinating and seeing the ship in all its miscalculated glory is mind-blowing. The scale of the preservation is spectacular, coupled with the detailed exhibits you’ll want to make sure you’ve got at least two or three hours for this Swedish gem.

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6. Discover proper Swedish meatballs:

No offence Ikea, but the best Swedish meatballs are best eaten squished up alongside other savvy diners who know the secret eatery that is Bakfickan. Bakfickan is a cosy countertop restaurant serving traditional Swedish cuisine. The restaurant is located just opposite the Opera House. To bag one of the 28 seats, you need to pick your time carefully. Tables can’t be booked online so do consider your plans ahead of time. We went at around 8.00 pm on an evening when there was nothing showing at the Opera House. At this time, we snagged the final two seats at the main bar and those behind us were unfortunately turned away. A meal at Bakfickan was a true highlight of our trip to Stockholm.

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7. Go Husky Sledding through in the Arctic Circle:

FullSizeRenderSitting in a traditional sledge, wrapped in reindeer pelt with only the sound of the dogs heavy breathing and the sledge gliding through the soft powder I found a true sense of wilderness. Despite my husband busily ‘driving’ the dogs and our convoy of four sledges I genuinely felt totally isolated. The landscape was stunning, the sky heavily laden with snow narrow tree-lined paths crisscrossing through the forest only to emerge onto a vast tundra framed by trees and mountains. I was amazed by the speed and coordination of the dogs, combined with an outdoor camp lunch of locally caught salmon and hot sweet GlØgg it was the perfect wilderness activity.

8. Find some Hygge:

Hygge is a Scandinavian word for the mood of cosiness, the art of being comfortable and focussing on feelings of wellness and contentment. I am never more contented than when I’m warm, comfortable and have a hot beverage in hand. Warm cosy independent coffee shops and tucked away tea houses are in no short supply in the Scandinavian cities I’ve visited. So, if you find yourself with an hour or two to spare, grab a good book and hunker down with a hot beverage. My favourite coffee shops are El Fant in Helsinki and Sara’s Art & Coffee in Stockholm.

9. Wallow in the Blue Lagoon:

Chances are that if you’ve booked a trip to Iceland a visit to the Blue Lagoon is on the list of things to do on your trip. Rightly so, however, get in line and plan your visit carefully! All visits must be booked in advance and a trip to the Blue Lagoon can be pricey. The standard package which includes entrance, towel, mud mask and drink of your choice costs ISK 6990 around £43, other more luxurious packages are available must booking is advised with all additional treatments or spa experiences. The Blue Lagoon is open year-round however timings are dependant on the season. With a little prior planning and forethought, an afternoon wallowing the warm milky waters of this man-made lagoon is not to be missed. A note for the ladies…bring plenty of moisture-rich conditioner; the water contains high levels of silica which play havoc with your locks.

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10. Listen to the roar of Gullfoss Waterfall:

Gullfoss is part of Iceland’s golden triangle and is easily visited with any local tour company. Gullfoss is roughly translated as ‘Golden Falls’ and consists of two vast cascades. A trail leads your round the falls, allowing you to experience this magnificent natural spectacle from a variety of different perspectives. The trail can be completed in around an hour. Gullfoss is an easy day trip from Reykjavik and a must-see during a trip to Iceland.

11. Take to the water:

Whatever part of Scandinavia takes your fancy you’ll never be far from water. Where ever I am I always try to experience some part of the city from the water. I often find it gives you a completely new perspective on the city. I would particularly recommend a boat tour around Copenhagen departing from Nyhavn. The boat tour takes you through the canals and city waterways it was even felt like a much more intimate way to view the statue of the Little Mermaid. I would also recommend a Fjord cruise around Oslo, sadly when I booked onto a fjord cruise in March I hadn’t accounted for the -13 degree conditions but, the boat sold hot GlØgg and I just about managed two twenty-minute stints on deck before diving inside to warm up. Boat tours are easily booked from the waterfront.

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12. Relax in traditional Finnish Sauna:

There are few things more traditionally Scandinavian than a hot sweaty sauna. On 26BE607F-C585-4AFD-A488-E6306712E596.JPGvarious trips to the Scandinavian capitals, I have stumbled on small wooden huts on the water perfectly placed for a pre/post-work relaxation. If you’ve ever had a sauna at the gym or spa I can guarantee a proper Finnish sauna is very different. No scented candles, mood music or fancy lighting what you do get is dim lighting, the scent of fresh Birch and natural tar to a perfectly peaceful accompaniment of nothing. Blissful silence. And as if dreamy relaxation wasn’t good enough, I would definitely recommend giving yourself a gentle brushing with the birch twigs, it’s fabulous for your skin.

13. Check out Oslo’s Ski Museum:

Piercing the Oslo skyline is Holmenkollen ski jump and museum. The ski jump is one of my favourite winter events to watch, there is something particularly alluring about those moments suspended in the air… although I’m not sure I’d ever have the courage to give it a go! Dreams of flying aside the museum and tower are open 365 days a year with the latter offering panoramic views over the city. The museum is dedicated to 4,000 years of skiing history and Norwegian polar exploration. A definite must for any winter sports enthusiast or simply enjoy the views from the top. Adult admission is 140Kr and opening hours are between 10 am – 4 pm in the winter months and 5 pm during the summer.

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14. Marvel at Munch’s’ Masterpieces:

We’ve all heard of ‘The Scream’ but Edvard Munch has so much more to offer. If you’re looking for a thoroughly immersive monographic experience then put the Munch Museet at the top of your list for your trip to Oslo. We had visited the collection in Oslo before it closed for relocation to its new home in Bjørvika which is due to open in Spring 2020. A visit to the new Gallery which is spread over a vast thirteen floors is top of my list for a return visit to Oslo.

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15. Explore Suomenlinna Sea Fortress:

Built in the 18th Century by the Swedish this Finnish fortress is easily accessible via ferry from Helsinki’s market square (Kauppatori). There is usually a ferry every fifteen minutes so it is pretty easy to plan your trip. This garrison island offers walking trails, museums, military bunkers and even a World War Two submarine. There is plenty on offer to keep you busy for a few hours, this is definitely one Finnish attraction worth carving out time for.

Web: https://www.suomenlinna.fi/en/

Happy travels

Jess

 

Budapest: A chilled weekend guide for exploring culture and history in the Hungarian Capital

Budapest has been on my list of weekend destinations for some time. It is undoubtedly beautiful, steeped in history, culture and if you ignore the stag parties (Which it’s pretty easy to do!) I think it is a somewhat underestimated European city.

Towering fairy tale spires, romantic gothic churches and the pockmarked buildings bearing their war wounds; Budapest’s architecture, culture and history are enough to rival Paris or Prague. With easy navigation through the cities two halves, Buda & Pest and very reasonable prices all make Budapest a fabulous option for a weekend visit.

Our weekend in Budapest was a much-needed break from our hectic jobs, and I was looking to redress the work-life balance for 48 hours. With this in mind, I wanted a luxurious weekend with a slightly more chilled itinerary and Budapest more than delivered.

Getting to Budapest

As we are bound by our working schedules, we took a late flight, 8.45 pm out of London Heathrow and we were on the ground, transferred to the hotel and checked-in by 1 am. Although it was a late arrival, it meant that we got all day Saturday rather than losing our Saturday morning to travel. Flights to Budapest operate regularly from London Heathrow with carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and Swiss International airlines. We took a taxi from the right outside the terminal which proved no issue as there were plenty to be had. The service was efficient, clean and reasonably priced around 6500HUF (£17-£20). For flights arriving after 10 pm, I would recommend a taxi as there are limited public transport options at this time.

Where to stay

Hilton

We booked our trip as part of the British Airways Hotel and flight deal, which is great IMG_9287.JPGservice allowing you to specify star rating, dates and price for your accommodation. We opted for the five-star Hilton Budapest located in the Buda Castle District. This was absolutely the best choice. Our room was a King guest room was a gorgeous view of Matthias Churchyard. The room was spotlessly clean and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful during our stay. Late check-in, storage for bags and sorting out room keys niggles; there was no problem they weren’t willing and happy to help with.

One of the biggest perks of the Hilton was breakfast. When I have the time, I’m a big breakfast fan. The Hilton offers the usual smorgasbord of continental and hot breakfasts including some phenomenal omelette offerings from the resident egg chef. However, food aside, it’s the view from your breakfast table that can ignite your appetite for adventure. I would advise arriving fairly early between 7.30 – 8.30am to breakfast to secure one of the window tables.

What to do

Bus Tour

This was a new one for my husband and I. Normally we would opt for solely exploring the city on foot. However, after a few hours of exploration in the blistering heat, the kind of heat where you can smell the asphalt, we came across the Big Bus tour. A Deluxe Ticket came with hop on and off for three days, River Cruise, Buda Castle Shuttle return, Night Tour and Guided Walking Tour. With so many options we felt it would be beneficial in helping us see more of the city in a short space of time. The ticket cost €36 and was worth every penny.

The bus stops are easily located across the city and the historical commentary you can plug into was particularly interesting. Driving past seemingly unremarkable buildings to discover they have a detailed and fascinating history. Such things we would never have known by simply wandering past on foot.

River Cruise

Take to the water. As part of our Big Bus ticket, a river cruise was included. We opted for the sunset cruise on Saturday evening. Watching the sunset above the city from the water brought a whole new perspective on our trip. The commentary was detailed and informative and helped to make sense of the history on both sides of the river. Snacks and drinks were also available throughout the cruise.

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Buda Castle – Budapest History Museum

I absolutely recommend a walk around the castle district and Buda Castle itself. Despite various reconstructions healing the wounds of war the whole area and particularly the medieval part is still completely charming. Although Budapest is littered with museums and galleries, we opted for the Budapest History Museum. We wanted to experience a broader history of the city, and the Budapest History Museum was perfect. The exhibitions depict the 2000 years of Budapest’s turbulent history. From the Austro Hungarian empire to the horrors of World War Two.

The Budapest History Museum is open from Tuesday – Sunday between 10 am – 6 pm with an adult ticket costing 2400HUF.

Margaret Island

Imperiously sitting in the middle of the Danube is Margaret Island. Margaret Island is 500m wide and 2.5km long but, despite its small size, this gloriously green public park is packed with things to do. The island is located between Árpád Bridge and Margit Bridge and is easily accessed on foot.

For such a meagre strip of land, Margret Island boasts a varied past. From Royal hunting Snapseed - Copy (13).jpggrounds, the victim of a great flood in 1838 to the site of a Dominican Nunnery where King Bela famously sent his daughter Margaret after the Mongols departure from Hungary. Since that time the island has been known as Margaret Island.

We spent a very pleasant hour or so meandering around the park, taking in the musical fountain and availing ourselves of the various ice-cream sellers.

Buda Tower

Snapseed - Copy (7).jpgOnce part of the 13th Century Church of St Mary Magdalene, this stunning tower is all that remains after the church was heavily bombed during World War Two. A trip to the top is absolutely worth the panoramic views of the city. Be warned it is high, but the areas are enclosed and the steps although steep do have handrails.

A ticket costs 1500HUF but there are significant discounts for students or those who hold a Castle Shuttle Bus ticket. The Buda Tower is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm. Please be aware that opening times are different if you are visiting during January or February.

 

Fisherman’s Bastion

The Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the best-known landmarks in Budapest. It is located inIMG_9290.JPG the Buda Castle district; you simply can’t miss it. Stepping out of the Hilton Hotel, you are confronted with a fairy tale fortress with turrets, spires and mock Bastion features. My initial thoughts were it looked significantly different from the other historical buildings I had seen so far, beautiful, yes, but somehow artificial. The Fisherman’s Bastion was built in the 19th Century to serve as a lookout over the city. The purpose of the Bastion has never been used as an actual fortification for Buda.

As a lookout over the city, the Fisherman’s Bastian more than delivers. Panoramic views sweeping across the skyline in both directions. You’ll be spoilt for choice of which vista to snap.

Parliament

Budapest’s parliament building is hard to miss. It stands as a striking, landmark on the banks of the Danube. Any guesses as to which other famous European parliament influenced its’ design…

I had heard you could tour the parliament so as we circled the imposing spires to find the entrance, we were disappointed to find parliament was unexpectedly closed to the public due to an event. Disappointment aside a tour of the parliament is yet another reason for a return visit.

If you want to avoid our planning blunder then do book your tour tickets ahead of your trip via the Hungarian Parliament website: http://hungarianparliament.com/tours/

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Thermal Baths

So, this one is on every Budapest list of things to do I read. Public baths in Budapest have been around for centuries. Sitting on a matrix of 125 thermal springs, marinating in warm water has been part of everyday life since Roman times. Sadly, an afternoon ‘taking the waters’ wasn’t an option. With time being short and the weather being unbelievably hot we didn’t make it to one of the thermal baths. However, I had read up on which one to visit. My top three choices for thermal baths would have been

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  1. Gellert Baths: These smaller baths were top of my list. I didn’t want to go somewhere that would be completely swamped with tourists. I had also read the Gellert Baths have some of the most beautiful Art Nouveau décor seen anywhere in the city.
  2. Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget on Margaret Island: This was my second possible option. Although this modern spa lacks the old-world charm of some of its more famous counterparts, it does offer an extensive range of spa treatments. Feeling in need this weekend for a bit of pampering I put the Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget up there on my list.
  3. Szechanyi Baths: Finally, although I would have preferred a smaller bathing environment to escape the tourist crowds the Szechenyi Baths boast fifteen different pools and is undoubtedly one of the largest public baths Budapest has to offer. If a large scale, wedding cake experience is what you’re after then the Szechenyi Baths should be on your list.

Hospital in the rock

Everyone I had spoken to before going to Budapest had recommended the Hospital in the Rock. This was one attraction, firmly etched on my list of places to go. The Hospital in the Rock is part of a six-mile system of caves and tunnels used during World War Two. During World War Two it was a working hospital caring for the bombing victims and soldiers alike. The hospital was called back into service in 1956 during the revolution. The hospital was expanded to meet the potential growing threat of chemical and nuclear attacks during the Cold War.

Locating the museum initially felt like a bit of a mystery, and I sure do love a mystery. There were well-labelled maps in the castle complex, shiny billboards informatively suggesting we were but a short walk from the museum, but it did not appear. We must have walked around the uppermost part of the castle complex a number of times to no avail. I blame the 34-degree heat! Anyway, as if by magic on our second day and umpteenth loop we came across a lift shaft and staircase with a small sign indicating we were finally on the right track. At the bottom of the stairs turn right and nestled into the rock as you would assume was the museum, unimposing and humbly fronted it might easily have gone unnoticed if you weren’t on the hunt.

The museum was fascinating, horrifying and completely immersive. Photography is not permitted inside but I was honestly far too engrossed in my surroundings to think about taking pictures. Some images that stay with you without the need to scroll through your camera roll.

Nuclear war preparation films, operating rooms and wards the information and displays were informative and engaging. If you are visiting Budapest then the Hospital in the Rock should be at the top of your itinerary. My only caveat is that the tunnels are cold so take a jumper!

Where to eat & drink

New York Café

Whilst trying to ignore the sweat that was definitely turning my white t-shirt a fetching shade of translucent and listening carefully to the audio commentary on the bus my attention was piqued by the mention of The New York Café. The New York Café was a favourite haunt of writers, creatives, artists and newspaper editors. So, with literary history just around the corner, we decided we would make a beeline to the New York Cafe for dinner.

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I’m unsure what I was expecting but it wasn’t the elaborately decorated, multiple chandeliers imposing themselves on the room and intricate frescos lined walls that greeted us. Visually, it was stunning.

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The New York Café serves a variety of traditional Hungarian cuisine, more modern classics and of course a plethora of simply splendid cakes.

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Mazel Tov

Book. Book. Book. I’ll say it again…book. If you want to enjoy the gastronomical delights Snapseed - Copy (12).jpgof this Jewish Quarter garden party then you’ll need a reservation. We first tried for dinner on Saturday night to no avail but were lucky enough to grab a spot on Sunday lunchtime. Mazel Tov is a Middle Eastern restaurant set in the Jewish Quarter of the city. It has the ruin bar ambience combined with a conservatory. Cascading plants tumbling from the gallery perfectly set against the industrial interior design.

The cocktails and a Shawarma grill plate made for a perfect Sunday lunch.

Ruin Bars

Budapest now boasts a plentiful supply of these quirky secluded bars. Ruin bars litter the Old Jewish Quarter which was left to deteriorate after World War Two. The bars have popped up in the abandoned shells of buildings, shops and factories. Décor in the bars range from car boot sale chic to your nans living room circa 1970, whatever you choose you’re in for a visual and unusual treat.

Sadly, our Saturday night plans were cut short as I succumbed to the slightly less pleasant symptoms of heat exhaustion but a ruin bar beverage is up on my list for a return trip to the Hungarian capital.

Final Thoughts

Our weekend in Budapest was rammed full, blisteringly hot and proved to be a wonderful weekend escape. As with all our weekend adventures I left feeling keen to return and unearth more cultural gems of this glorious city. I would love to return in the winter months. I reckon a marinade in the world-famous baths with snow falling around you would be fairly close winter weekend perfection.

Dubrovnik to Mostar: A 1 day itinerary from the Croatian coast

Stari Most, the Old Town Bridge of Mostar has become a bit of a siren song for travellers in recent years. Admittedly, I had seen pictures of the exquisitely sweeping, half-moon structure with the crystal-clear blue river dancing beneath, but I genuinely had no idea where in the world this beautiful scene was.

Whilst planning my recent trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia I discovered that a day trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was entirely possible. After a little more research on the rich history, culture and what to do in the city of Mostar I was sold.

Mostar is located around fifty miles from Dubrovnik and is a two-and-a-half-hour direct drive. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not currently in the European Union, as such your passport is essential on this trip.

Who to travel with and how to get there

Walking around Dubrovnik you have your pick of tour agencies and companies offering day trips. I opted for Laus Travel. Laus Travel has a comprehensive website, a 2018 certificate of excellence from Trip Advisor and everything can be booked online. The backing of Trip Advisor did give me a little comfort in the knowledge that I had booked a quality and reputable trip. The tour cost £43 which included travel, professional guide and all local fees and taxes.

I received confirmation from Laus Travel within an hour of booking. All the relevant details of our collection point and key information for also provided, notably “don’t forget your passport!”.

Our collection point at the Pile Gate at 7.20 am was a five-minute walk from our hotel in the Old Town. From there we were taken to the main meeting point where we transferred to a larger more comfortable minibus for the day. Our party was a small group of twenty-eight, so it never felt too crowded or chaotic. The early start was, unfortunately, necessary as you never know how long the border crossings are going to take. Thankfully there is a coffee stop around 9 am, then a brief onward journey to our first stop. Despite spending a considerable chunk of our day on the bus, Sylvia was a brilliant storyteller and historian. The time just slipped away as we were all engrossed in our history lesson.

Kravice Waterfalls

First stop of the day was Kravice Waterfalls in the Herzegovinian region of Bosnia. The waterfalls are nature at it’s very best. With twenty falls tumbling over the edge of limestone cliffs, it’s clear why this natural beauty spot has been protected by the state government.

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Entry to the falls cost an additional €5/40Kuna to your tour price although prices do vary depending on the time of year you visit. We visited late October which is off-peak close to the tail end of the season. The primary benefits of visiting in late October were the lack of tourists and the weather was still gloriously warm and sunny. Other than our group of twenty-eight, there didn’t appear to any other travellers visiting. Exploring a place without the buzz of hundreds of tourists is definitely a bonus and made our visit feel a little more intimate.

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Our tour stopped at the falls for around an hour which was plenty of time to experience the area and the falls close up. Boat trips into the lake are available for €5/40Kuna and last around twenty minutes.

Stari Most

Stari Most or ‘Old Bridge’ is probably the most iconic landmark in Mostar. The bridge has connected the two halves of the city since it’s initial construction between 1557 – 1566. IMG_0136.JPGThe gloriously curved half-moon archway, originally commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent stood the test of time until it was brutally destroyed in November 1993 by Croatian artillery. The new bridge, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was finished in 2004. The reconstruction is a delicate, sensitive and accurate restoration using original sixteenth-century building techniques. The final result is an awe-inspiring piece of engineering and every bit as magnificent as it’s sixteenth-century counterpart.

For the best views of the bridge, I would head to any one of the cafes which line the banks just off the main bazaar. Alternatively, amble down to the shores on either side and lookup.

A small word of caution when crossing the bridge – it is incredibly slippery! The beautiful stone which perfectly reflects the golden sunlight will play havoc with footwear with poor grip. My crossing in flip flops had me diving for the side rails just to retain my balance.

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Food & Drink

Before leaving the bus, our guide Sylvia gave us a list of local foods we should try for lunch. Sylvia also recommended trying a traditional Bosnian coffee.

We opted for the first and largest café on the right-hand side of the Eastern side of the bridge. There was a large outdoor courtyard with unobstructed views of the bridge. We were still confident at that point that we might catch a glimpse of some bridge diving. Sylvia was not wrong when she said your money goes a long way when it comes to food in Mostar. We ordered two soft drinks and two plates of Ćevapi and the final bill was under £10.

Ćevapi is a traditional dish, consisting of small rolls of grilled lamb or beef served in pita bread with onions, chips and salad. I’m fairly sure the chips and salad have been added to appease the hungry tourists rather than being a staple part of traditional cuisine. But it did the job and, the whole thing was delicious.

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Before heading back to the bus, we decided to try the coffee, both my husband and I are avid coffee drinkers so this was a caffeine encounter we were willing to try. Sylvia’s tip had been to put the whole sugar cube in the cup then stir, of course, the traditional Turkish option of putting the sugar in your mouth first then drinking is also an option. Liking to keep my sugar consumption to a respectable minimum I thought I’d try the coffee without any sweetener to start…bitter, grainy and oh my life that’s just not pleasant. I opted for the whole cube in the cup, and the result was a much tastier caffeine fix. To sweeten the deal further our coffee was served in an exquisitely worked copper pot with a fabulous Aladdin’s cave vibe and topped off with traditional Turkish delight flavoured with nuts.

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Neretva River

IMG_0116.JPGThe beautiful blue Neretva River runs through the centre of Mostar splitting the town in two. It is possible to swim in the river, but I would recommend visiting in the summer months when the water temperature is a little warmer!

One of the main spectacles on the river is the locals who fearlessly jump the seventy-eight feet into the depths of the river below. Sadly, we didn’t see anyone jumping on our trip but there were several local men in swimming shorts who looked ready and were waiting for the opportune moment. The Stari Most bridge and the Neretva River have drawn worldwide attention with Red Bull using the location for the 2015 World Cliff Diving Championships. Whilst it is an incredible spectacle, jumping from the bridge is best left to the trained professionals that is of course unless you are a hard-core adrenaline junkie and have some seriously good travel insurance.

Old Bazar Kujundziluk

On either side of the bridge are tightly packed, slightly tipsy sixteenth-century buildings jostling for prime position on the cobbled streets. Each building houses different handmade crafts and artisans’ workshops. From intricate works of copper to traditional woven carpets and jewellery, the Old Bazar has a lot to offer. Yes, there are some standard tourist tat offerings but in amongst that are some real gems. During the Ottoman period, there were over five hundred workshops occupying these small streets, making the Old Bazar a real hive of historical commerce. So, if like me you love a good nose around take a trip into some of the shops and workshops to really soak up the history or snap up a bargain.

Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque

A short walk down the Eastern side of the bridge you come to the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. The Mosque dates back to 1618 and is accessed from a small courtyard. Sadly, the Mosque was significantly damaged during the war but has been carefully restored whilst still leaving some signs of the devastation which befell it during the 1990s. Entry to the Mosque is 12Kuna and is available to anyone of any faith. The only time when access to the Mosque may be restricted is during prayer times. Additional layers of clothing for legs, shoulders and heads are provided for both men and women at no extra charge.

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We opted for the Mosque, Parapet and Minaret ticket at a cost of 12Kuna. Inside the Mosque the main prayer room is simple yet beautiful. Botanical motifs decorate the domed ceiling and bright coloured glass windows interrupt and juxtapose the plain whitewashed walls.

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I am not someone who is anxious about heights. However, on all our trips we end up climbing some sort of tower. I guess I’m a sucker for a panoramic view. So, climbing the Minaret seemed like an excellent idea. The inner staircase is tight, twisty and peppered with the faint scent of claustrophobia and danger as there is no handrail. This part I could handle. Upon emerging from the staircase, you are greeted with the most spectacular view of the city. East and West sides connected by Stari Most, Church spires and Minarets punctuating the horizon, a stark reminder of the multicultural origins of the city, it truly is breath-taking. My issue lay in that the parapet we had emerged onto only came to around thigh height. With no barrier or handrail I was suddenly struck by how high up I was. In the interests of safety, I would advise hugging the interior column to take in the vista. The parapet is only wide enough for one person so it’s worth checking that you are the only ones taking the trip up. After composing myself for a moment crouched on the floor of the parapet, I was fully able to embrace the view and the experience. A trip to the top is at the top of my recommendations for your trip to Mostar.

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Finally, we ended in the private courtyard behind the Mosque. This small area was a gorgeously secluded place away from the buzz of the main bazar to take in the views.

War Photo Exhibition

As we ambled back to the West side, my attention was piqued by a small sign announcing a war photo exhibition. Carefully picking my way across the slippery stone, I made my way up a wooden staircase tucked into the side of the Westside entrance. Entry to the exhibition was 6Kuna. The exhibition was laid out over two floors of the West Tower. Although there aren’t hundreds of images on display, my husband and I didn’t speak for the thirty minutes it took to go around. We were so engrossed in the stories and moments captured during the Bosnian war.

It was so easy to see geographically how Mostar became a target. Surrounded on all sides and sitting at the bottom of a valley. It must have been horrific. The photographs on display show various facets of life during the conflict; from people washing, salvaging car parts to an aid worker thrown into a gutter by the force of a snipers shot, thankfully she was wearing a bulletproof vest and walked away unharmed.

The whole exhibition although modest was incredibly powerful and thought-provoking.

Old Bridge Museum

Although our time in Mostar was limited, we didn’t get an opportunity to visit the Old Bridge Museum. The museum is dedicated to the story of the bridge including the pre-Ottoman archaeology all the way through to the devastation of November 1993 to the reconstruction after the war. This was on our guide Sylvia’s list of recommendations, so it will be firmly at the top of my list when I return.

Our day trip to Mostar was fabulous. I learnt so much about a place and time in history that I knew relatively little about. Sylvia our guide was knowledgeable, friendly and made the time spent on the bus thoroughly enjoyable. After learning about the history and troubles of the not so distant past, I am keen to explore more of the Balkan region, so will definitely be booking some visits in the future. I would absolutely recommend a day trip to Mostar if you are travelling to Dubrovnik and have time to explore.

Happy travels

Jess x

 

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Making travel more affordable: 6 Top Tips for earning Avios points

Avios points have, for me become a bit of salvation and a slight preoccupation. On long rainy days when I’m stressed out with work and desperately need something to look forward to; there is nothing more satisfying than realising a sneaky warm weekend break will only cost me a fraction of the price due to my Avios squirrelling.

Here a few top tips for earning these fabulous little travel nuggets which might help you maximise your collecting potential and help you get that next trip booked.

Flights

Interestingly flights are not the most lucrative source of Avios collection for me, 529F1DA7-8839-4AC4-966D-9A568CF88BA6.JPGhowever, they are of course a great way to collect points. Flights additionally offer you Tier points which are important for members of the BA Executive Club to help you move through the loyalty tiers. Each loyalty tier offers its own perks whether that’s access to the lounge or priority boarding. Regular flights are the key to keeping your loyalty tier. I have even been tempted to book a flight simply to bag the all important tier points.

Avois points can also be collected from flights taken with airlines in the One World Alliance. Carriers like Cathay Pacific, Iberia, American Airlines and Quantas to name a few allow you to find the most suitable flight whilst keeping your Avios points rolling in.

For more information on how many Avios points, tier points or tier bonuses are available with the One World Alliance airlines check out BA’s page https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/executive-club/collecting-avios/flights

Hotels

British Airways has an extensive range of hotel partners who you can collect Avios with without having to be a member of their specific reward schemes. Their partners include Airbnb, Shangri La Hotels & Resorts, Booking.com and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group amongst others. Earning Avios through hotels has lots of potential and is definitely one option I need to exploit further.

For more information how you can convert your hotel points to Avios the BA website offers a comprehensive guide https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/executive-club/collecting-avios/hotels/convert-your-points

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Holidays

This source of Avios income is definitely one of my favourites. I can often be found, mostly on a Sunday afternoon; because no one wants to think about work on Monday morning busily scrolling through the BA Holiday Finder. With 1 Avios point available for every £1 spent the BA package deals can be a good option for collecting points.

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BA holidays are an easy go-to when I’ve been looking for weekend city breaks. With hotel and flight included in the price, I am free to focus my efforts on planning the activities rather than trying to sort flight and hotel logistics. Check out the BA Holiday Finder here https://www.britishairways.com/travel/holiday-finder/public/en_gb

Credit Card

By far and away the BA American Express Card is for me, one of the best ways to earn Avios points. I am not really a credit card person however we invested in the BA American Express card at a time when we were renovating our house and paying for a wedding. Naturally, neither of those things come cheaply and we had some large outgoings. With this in mind, we thought to earn Avios through our payments was a win-win.

We opted for the BA American Express Premium Plus card. This offers 25,000 Avios as a 5B5BC3CE-BB14-4BE5-963D-0B83D6F2B282.JPGwelcome providing you spend £3,000 in the first three months. The card has an annual charge of £195. However, for every £1 spend you get 1.5 Avios and with every £1 spent on BA flight and holidays you get an additional 3 Avios. We have absolutely identified this as a brilliantly easy way to earn Avios to fund our itch to travel.

One of the biggest perks has been the BA Companion Voucher. A 2 for 1 travel voucher award when you spend £10,000 with your BA American Express card. The voucher entitles you to a second seat on the same flight and class as another person. Taxes, fees and charges still apply, but you do make a great saving. We have just booked up a return business class trip to Croatia with our Companion Voucher for a mere £80. With another voucher in the stocks, I’m already eyeing up something a little more long haul!

If you are in a position to pay the annual fee and pay the balance of your credit card monthly then this is an excellent option. To find out more about the BA American Express please see their website https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/executive-club/collecting-avios/credit-cards/uk

Shopping

1F45F6FF-ECE6-4141-8A06-D1E160F24AC6.JPGThis option is fantastic. If you’re an online shopper, you can connect with your favourite brands via the Avios EStore where you can shop over 800 brands as you normally would. You can collect up to 30 Avios for every £1 however there are always deals and offers. As of August 2019, you can snap up 10 Avios for every pound with Selfridges & Co or 4 Avios per pound with John Lewis. You’ll be surprised how quickly the points can accumulate…maybe try this one out with some of your online Christmas gift shopping?

Fuel

From June 2019 there were some changes to how you can collect Avios when purchasing fuel. However, you can still cash in the Avios with fuel purchases at Tesco, if you have a Tesco Clubcard. Scan your Clubcard to receive 600 Avios for every £2.50 in Clubcard vouchers which you then exchange to Avios. A genuinely good option if you are a Tesco shopper and are already a Clubcard holder.

Happy travels,

Jess

 

 

Fire, Plague, Rebellion and Roman ruins: A Walking Tour of London

All too often we never actually explore the cities we live in. When we think of travel and adventure, we tend to neglect what’s in our own back garden. So, with a couple of hours to spare and after some speedy internet research, I opted for a walking tour of London with London Walks. I chose a two-hour walk encompassing London’s Roman history, through the ages of great fires, plague, uprisings and rebellion to a sneak peek at London’s most modern architecture and the stories behind the buildings.

All walking tours with London Walks are £10 and there is no need to pre-book, you can simply show up.

On arrival at Tower Hill tube station, you couldn’t fail to see the meet point. Around eighteen eager and well-equipped individuals stood poised for the off around the Tower Hill Tram coffee stand. Our guide for the afternoon introduced himself as Ian, completed the expected pleasantries of where we were all from and with that, we hit the road.

Why we build the wall…

Our first stop took us through a small entry connected to the City Hotel, a few hundred metres from our start point. Unless you were clued up, one would never know that nestled at the back of the courtyard stands a section of the old Roman and Medieval city wall. The original Roman city of ‘Londinium’ didn’t originally have a city wall but after Boudicca attacked the city in the year 61 AD the Romans upped their defence game.

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The distinct layers of the wall clearly show the Roman foundations with the later, Medieval additions. The wall outlined the boundary of the City of London which today is marked by the black bollards. We were certainly off to a promising start.

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London’s burning!

IMG_9635.JPGFamed for his diary, our second stop took us to a commemorative bust outside the Four Seasons Hotel. Just off the appropriately named Pepys Street. It was at this point, Ian, our guide regaled us with the tale of the Great Fire of London. Thanks to Pepys our knowledge of this point in London’s past is so detailed.

As an official in government at the time, the diaries of Pepys which of course he wrote in code; have significantly helped paint a vivid picture of London life for well to do Londoners and the poorer classes during the years 1660 -1669.

The Great Fire of London represented a pivotal moment for the city and Ian’s gripping and engaging storytelling held the group captivated.

If you were lucky, they would hang you….

Moving forward from 1666, we headed up to the top of Tower Hill to Trinity Square Gardens. This picturesque city lunch spot with an unobstructed view of the Tower of London was home to the gallows from 1381 – 1747. Public executions were a big deal. Executions drew crowds from all over the capital and organisers even built grandstands to host the masses baying for blood.

The tower hill scaffold saw high-profile executions of Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell, and even the Arch Bishop of Canterbury in 1381 Simon Sudbury. The latter being executed by a frenzied mob.

Our guide was keen to describe how prisoners were detained in the tower, tortured then brought to Tower Hill for execution. If you were fortunate, you’d receive a swift death by hanging or execution. Unluckier prisoners had to endure being dragged through the streets to the gallows, hung until near death, disembowelled and finally you were quartered! Things were pretty gruesome back then. Even if you were granted quick execution there’s a good chance that the axeman was drunk, so getting a clean cut first go wasn’t always guaranteed.

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Looking at the lists of executed men it is clear that this spot played a bloody yet important role in London’s past.

‘Ring a ring o’ roses……..we all fall down.’

Sticking with the more unfortunate fates to befall Londoners, we made our way to St Olaves Churchyard. A year before the Great Fire took hold London was hit by a devastating bout of bubonic plague. The disease swept through the city and no amount of wealth or piety could keep it from your door, 15% of the London population died.

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St Olaves Church is noteworthy for three reasons, initially, it was the final resting place for many plague victims. Second against all odds the church dodged the Great Fire and finally although significantly damaged it withstood the worst of the Blitz during the Second World War.

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A plucky little church, with a considerable history and well worth half an hour of your time.

French Ordinary Court

As our tour meandered through the city, we passed through a particularly nondescript passage called French Ordinary Court. Our guide explained the passage had taken its name from a restaurant once on the site called the French Ordinary. Frequented by the French ambassadors and diplomats during the 1700s the French Ordinary was apparently the only place in London where you could find top-notch French cuisine; certainly not a problem for London foodies today.

As we wandered past countless other street names I mused on the backstories and origins. I would love to uncover the reasons behind some of the name choices. If you’ve got a good story, please let me know.

It’s all about shipping

It had never occurred to me that London had such a rich background in shipping. Ian, our guide was keen to direct our attention to a behemoth glass structure with all the industrial elements pulled from the inside out. The building at 71 Fenchurch Street is the Lloyds Register and is the architectural triumph of Richard Rogers.

Ian explained in some detail the history of the Lloyds Register and how the insurance of ships has been big business for London throughout the centuries. Lloyds even insured the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic.

Gherkin vs. The Romans

Without doubt an architectural triumph, however, the Gherkin site we learned has a Snapseed - Copy (2)much older past. The building on the site survived not only the Great Fire but the Blitz. However, an IRA bomb destroyed the area making way for the Norman Foster masterpiece we see today. During its construction, the body of a Roman girl was found. In 2012 the authorities felt it right to give her a formal funeral and rebury her as close to her original resting place as possible.

This stop was another reminder of just how extensive London’s history is and that the Roman settlement of 2500 years ago really has shaped the city we live in today and is always there just underneath our feet.

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Inside out monstrosity or architectural genius?

Ian, our guide was incredibly well informed on the architecture of the city and after leaving the mighty shadow of the Gherkin we were then introduced to another of Richard Rogers bizarre inside out structures, the Lloyds building. However, as Ian explained the Lloyds building is not all exposed metalwork and bare corkscrew shafts snaking their way up the building exterior, no, the top floor holds a secret. Apparently, for those lucky enough to be invited, there is an original Robert Adams 18th Century dining room occupying the top floor. Our guide sadly wasn’t able to tell us how to snag a dinner reservation.

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Meat, Butterbeer and Victorian opulence

Next up on our adventure into London’s past was the Leadenhall Meat Market. An opulent Victorian structure with gilded wood panels painted in rich primary and secondary colours. All very elaborate for a meat market. Outside each shop front, the old hooks for hanging the meat still remain and are even in use by one of the restaurants. Sadly, its meat market days are over but you can enjoy a decent meal and a little bit of shopping in this fabulous building.

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One of the highlights of the tour came as we were leaving the market when Ian directed our attention to a thoroughly inconspicuous section and shop which Ian informed us was, in fact, the entrance to Diagon Alley and the humble opticians was the Leaky Cauldron. This little fact nugget left my heart racing and has inspired me to check out on to the Harry Potter walking tour also offered by London Walks. Maybe my own lost owl will catch up with me over a butterbeer? Who knows?

Dickensian glory and Hellfire…but make a reservation.

The restaurant that never opens. If it’s a swift pint, you’re looking for in the City of Attachment-3.jpegLondon then the George and Vulture is not the establishment for you! But if you find your self on Lombard street between the hours of 12 pm and 2.30 pm, then get yourself to the George and Vulture. Dickens was an ardent fan, citing the restaurant over twenty times in his novel The Pickwick Papers. But the Dickensian link is not the George and Vulture’s only claim to fame. Once the home of Sir Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hell Fire Club the George and Vulture was the meeting place of London society whose who during the 1740s & 1750s.

Rum, Sugar & Slaves Jamaican trading fuelled by coffee

Turning the corner from the George and Vulture, you come to the Jamaica Wine Bar, once the Jamaica Coffee Shop. Today it’s fairly normal to have a working lunch or a breakfast meeting then return to your desk to crack on with the ‘real work.’ However, during the 17th and 18th Century, businesses didn’t always have their own office so, naturally business had to take place elsewhere. Elsewhere ended up being coffee shops. Each coffeehouse had an affinity with a particular business or trade. The lost world of the London Coffee House is definitely I am going to read up on. However, for the Jamaica Coffee House it was all about the business of the West Indies.

Fancy retailers, purveyors of alcohol and upmarket merchants

Attachment-2.jpegOur next stop brought us to The Royal Exchange which endured on the same site since Queen Elizabeth the First’s reign. Ian explained it was Queen Elizabeth the First who granted its ‘Royal’ status. The building has existed in three different guises. The Royal Exchange mark one burned during the Great Fire of London. Mark two again succumbed to fire and the third offering was rebuilt in the 1840s, still standing in all its glory today. In terms of its use, The Royal Exchange has come full circle in its lifetime. The current building is the perfect city spot for a glass of bubbly and snapping up a box of Fortnum and Mason’s finest tea and biscuits. Sadly there wasn’t built in shopping time on the tour but there was definitely a Fortnum and Mason box of Earl Grey with my name on it….one for another day.

An impregnable fortress at the heart of British finance

One of the best stories Ian told was undoubtedly the story of a ballsy sewage worker. In the 19th Century he wrote to the bank explaining that their gold vault was not secure. If they didn’t believe him, he would meet them there at a specified time and date. Never the less, when they appeared, he was waiting for them due to easy access via the sewers. Such a security oversight led the bank to sure up its defences. You certainly can’t leave the world’s second-largest gold bullion sore vulnerable to theft.

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Pray the right way or face the fine….

Our penultimate stop was Mansion House. I genuinely hadn’t realised there was an actual Mansion House and the tube stop was, of course, named after it. The Mansion House is home to the Lord Mayor of the City of London. A post which has been in existence since the 14th Century. Ian explained that the House itself now a Grade 1 listed building; was essentially, built with funds provided by non-elected city officials who were fined because of lack of attendance at the appropriate churches for prayer. Wealthy individuals were suddenly elected to the lofty position of Sheriff of the City of London regardless of their Christian denomination; therefore, they were required to either take communion in an Anglican church or pay up. As anticipated most officials ended up paying the fine, leaving us with quite the building to admire today.

St Pauls Cathedral – Version 1

We parted ways with Ian at St Stephen Walbrook church. This domed church was designed by Christopher Wren and is the precursor for his grander designs at St Pauls Cathedral.

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Once again there is a Roman connection as under the church runs the Walbrook River, a primary reason for Roman settlements position. The church site has maintained its Roman heritage as it was once the site of a Roman Temple of Mithras. In recent years the church has seen the creation of the Samaritans thanks to the vision of Rector Chad Varah.

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Inside St Stephen Walbrook there is a stillness and heavy sense of history. The main body of the church is filled with light and space and your eye is drawn to the wonderful Henry Moor alter. The church is a harmonious juxtaposition between traditional and modern. It was the perfect place to finish our tour as the church perfectly encapsulates the full breadth of London’s past and present.

The Roman Cult under our feet

After a tantalising introduction from our guide before we headed into St Stephen Walbrook church, it would have been remiss of me to forgo a visit to the Roman Temple of Mithras located underneath the new Bloomberg building just across the street from the church.

The entrance to the exhibition and Temple is just to the left of the underground sign on Walbrook Street so it’s not too tricky to miss. Upon arrival I was asked if I had a booking, of course, I didn’t but this was no issue and entrance to the exhibition was free. I was duly provided with a booklet and information on the next Temple viewing. Temple viewings take place every twenty minutes, allowing you time to digest the information before you descend to the Temple itself.

The exhibition is split over three levels. Street-level is dedicated to some of the Roman archaeological finds from the construction. Standing in front of a meticulously organised display case I was completely lost in the fragments of human life on show. But with only twenty minutes before the Temple tour, I needed to educate myself on the Cult of Mithras. I headed downstairs to the second part of the exhibition which provided a clear explanation of the Cult of Mithras and drew your attention to specific imagery which would be present in the temple. At 4.20 PM I made my way down again to the temple. It was eerily dark as I made my way along the glass walkway encircling the temple. The preservation is excellent and the way in which light and sound have been used really gives you a sense of the temple in action during the Roman period.

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If you have a spare hour during your trip to London or even a lunch break, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Temple of Mithras and even better, it is completely free of charge.

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Final thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon peeling back the layers of London’s streets. I loved that the tour gave a real insight into the intricate and varied history of London’s past. As a typical teacher, I love learning and found the walking tour a great interactive way to soak up some knowledge of my home city. It definitely didn’t feel like I was just ticking off the big attractions. Ian, our guide was knowledgeable, had a great sense of humour and often had a personal story to help paint a more vivid image of the area or building we were looking at.

Without question, I will be stepping out with London Walks again soon. I’ve got my eye on the Jack the Ripper Walk!

Happy travels,

Jess

 

How to beat the winter blues: Top 7 destinations for winter sun

I don’t know about you, but it seems that the need for my summer wardrobe is coming to an end. I have definitely started to notice night’s drawing in and the allure of PJ’s, brew, book and bed pre 8.30 pm is a sure sign that winter is coming.

For many of us, winter can be a really depressing time. Going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark and enduring weather that feels relentless and utterly miserable. So, in my opinion, the only way to beat the winter blues is with some sunshine and an adventure to look forward to.

1.Oman

Without a doubt, Oman is growing in popularity as a holiday destination. With temperatures during the winter months sitting comfortably around 25 degrees Celsius, it makes a wonderfully attractive winter sun option.

Muscat is a vibrant and cultural city, one which I barely scratched the surface of when I visited in 2017. With the Opera House, Museum of Modern Art, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the fierce assault on the senses that is the Mutrah Souq; Oman offers a wealth of cultural activities and adventurous excursions. However, if your winter sun trip is all about recharging and rejuvenating your tired self, then head to the beaches.

For unadulterated luxury and a true adult-only paradise check out the Shangri La Al Husn or the Al Baleed Resort Salalah. For a more detailed review of the Shangri La Al Husn see my full review; www.takemefarandaway.com/2018/11/23/hotel-review-5-shangri-la-al-husn-muscat-oman/

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  1. Tenerife

I can’t extol the glories of this Island enough. Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, boasting beaches, mountains, vastly contrasting terrain and excellent food. The imposing Mount Teide and the surrounding National Park oversee proceedings on the island. The volcano and National Park are easily explored on foot, bike or cable car. However, if it’s a quick fly and flop break that you need then Tenerife is a very reasonable four-hour flight from London airports. With temperatures rarely dipping below 20 degrees Celsius what’s not to love? Tenerife is still blighted by a few rainy days in the winter. Best winter months to avoid the rain are October, January and February where only around 8-10 days during the month might experience rainfall.

For a proper beach break check out the Costa Adeje or Los Gigantes. My recommendation is the Ritz Carlton Abama, Guia De Isora. For an extended review of this spectacular hotel check out my earlier post; www.takemefarandaway.com/2019/08/14/hotel-review-5-ritz-carlton-abama-tenerife/

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  1. Barbados

Barbados has long been a firm favourite among travellers seeking year-round sunshine. December through to March sees the lowest rainfall so chances of long warm sunny days sipping cocktails are almost guaranteed. With a flight time of eight and a half hours from London airports, it is well worth the trip. That kind of flight time is a recommended full nights sleep, so what better way to start your trip than catching up on those lost Zzzzzz’s to arrive in paradise feeling refreshed.

Surely the winter months are for eating right? Us not so hardy Brits need the extra layer to keep warm! If you’re a foodie (like me!) then Bridgetown and the West Coast offer a variety of spectacular restaurants. My favourites are Lone Star (good portion sizes),     Cin Cin By the Sea, The Tides and The Cliff.

As for accommodation, I would recommend the Coral Reef Club, set in gorgeous gardens or The House for a more boutique yet luxurious stay.

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  1. New Zealand

Stepping off a flight to New Zealand on the 24th of December 2018 was fabulous. We had boarded in four degrees of drizzly rain and thick low cloud. So, arriving at a comfortable 18 degrees was the ideal tonic for my deeply entrenched winter blues.

New Zealand starts to hit its stride with long warm sunny days in November and temperatures peak around 26 degrees. If you venture farther north to the Coromandel and Bay of Islands, however you can see temperatures of 30 degrees and higher.

New Zealand offers a blissful escape and summer is a great time to sail, surf, kayak, mountain bike or lace up your hiking boots and take to the Franz Josef Glacier. A trip to New Zealand is well worth it if you’re an active soul seeking an adventure.

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  1. India: Rajasthan

Rajasthan; India’s vibrant, colourful, fort laden land of Maharajas. A winter visit is sure to quicken your heart rate and captivate your senses. Rajasthan is located in the North West of the country and is an eight-and-a-half-hour flight from London airports. Rajasthan enjoys temperatures between 25 and 33 degrees Celsius and minimal rainfall from October to February, so the winter months are the perfect time to book a trip.

Rajasthan has a huge variety to offer the winter sun seeker, I would say this trip is best for those seeking a cultural adventure. Whilst the beaches of the south are fabulous, a trip to Rajasthan is a different animal entirely. With forts, palaces and shrines in abundance coupled with rare wildlife in the Ranthambhore National Park and technicolour festivals to rival any 1990’s psychedelic rave, a touring trip to Rajasthan is your best bet.

I would recommend a trip with Intrepid Travel; their 15 days classic Rajasthan trip covers all the highlights of this spectacular region. With the tricky logistics and planning taken care of by the Intrepid team that leaves your free to take in the experience.

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  1. Florida

Florida will always have a place in my heart, as a young girl we would spend summers visiting our Grandparents apartment in St Petersburg. So many of my earliest family holiday memories are in this sunny corner of the Gulf of Mexico. Whether it was sitting on the dock fishing for catfish, long walks along the beach, creating my own synchronised swimming routines or playing ‘noodle warriors’* with my sister Florida will always be a happy place for me.

The affectionately named ‘Sunshine State’ sure does live up to its name. With temperatures hovering around 18-20 degrees Celsius between October and February and balmy 25-degree sea temperature, you are sure to find some sunny solace.

Orlando and its theme parks are, of course, a draw for any holidaymakers, but, if you are looking to slow the pace during your winter break then check out the beach resorts at Clearwater, St Petersburg and St George Island State Park.

I would recommend the Don Cesar in St. Petersburg. A luxury pink palace right on the beach.

* Noodle Warriors is an exceptionally competitive game whereby you sit on a pool noodle like a horse and try to knock your opponent off their noodle…simple things.

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Photo by Valentina Rossoni on Pexels.com

  1. Bali

A not so undiscovered gem in the Indonesian archipelago, but despite its popularity with tourists it is, however, a fabulous place to catch some winter rays. Bali boasts extensive sandy beaches, luscious plant life, mountains, temples and sapphire blue seas brimming with coral and multicoloured fish.

Bali is often found on many peoples list as an epic adventure destination. Having travelled there twice I still don’t feel as though I did everything. It is firmly on my list of countries to return to. If you are looking for a winter adventure then Bali has a lot to offer. Whether it is exploring the Sacred Monkey Forest, immersing yourself in Balinese culture and craftmanship with a tour of the temples, water sports in the sparkling azure sea or simply basking in lagoon beach at Nusa Dua. Bali has something to entice and ensnare the senses of all.

November heralds the start of the wet season in Bali, but, despite the rain, average temperatures remain a very pleasant 28 degrees Celsius with sea temperature around 29 degrees Celsius. January experiences the most considerable number of rainy days so if you are looking for the sunshine then October and November are your best bet.

I would recommend the Ritz Carlton, Bali, Nusa Dua for a slice of luxury perfect, for blowing even the darkest winter blues away.

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Photo by Aron Visuals on Pexels.com

Happy travels,

Jess