Day out in Gloucester

Dear travellers,

If you are in the area and want to add a day trip, Gloucester should be top of your list. We chose it because it was just half way to meet a friend who was staying in Bristol and we were more than positively surprised.

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The city has a long history dating long back to Roman times, when it was already important. It is a place that can easily be visited on foot as all the points of interest are quite close. The cathedral is probably the main attraction and it was originally an abbey that survived Henry VIII’s repossession of places of worship, thanks to the fact that one of his ancestors is buried there.

 

The entrance to the cathedral is free but you are requested to donate £3 for a photography permit. We suggest you go for it as the building is impressive. It is a good visit also with kids because you have several interactive activities on the upper floor, but let’s go by order. As you walk in, on your left just after the shop you have the entrance to the cloister, but also the toilets and the café. We were not hungry yet but the cakes looked scrumptious, so stop there if you want a bite. The cloister is part of the old building belonging to the abbey and it is beautiful, especially if you are lucky enough to have a beautiful, sunny day as we had. You may recognise the two vaulted corridors around the cloister as they were used for some scenes in a few Harry Potter movies.

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Coming inside the church again, you will find yourself near the organ, a very elegant wooden instrument with gold leaf decorations on the pipes. From here, you can access the choir and the altar before you walk around the apse. On the left still, before accessing the altar, you have the treasury and the access to the balcony. The spiral staircase is absolutely fine, wide and comfortable, with a handrail that you can trust (you know my bad relationship with spiral staircases, so you can really trust this one if I was not afraid); moreover, it is only one way, so you won’t have people coming down while you try to climb up.

Upstairs you will find some costumes that you can try and dress up like a knight, a noblewoman, a bishop, and so on. Guess who tried some stuff on. After this, you will see some of the construction materials and tools explained, and you will then learn a bit of the history of the cathedral and how it survived the dissolution imposed by Henry VIII.

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One of the main features of the cathedral are its stained glass windows and you can admire their beauty all around the building, but you will also learn how they used to repair them with different techniques and sometimes not getting it exactly right. You can also admire some more modern stained glass windows that are incredibly beautiful and will remind you of more modern painters.

Outside of the building, on your left is the town centre, but if you decide to go straight before heading towards the other attractions, you won’t be disappointed. On the right you have more ground belonging to the cathedral and you can see some ruins of the original abbey. Not far from there are the ruins of St Oswald’s Priory, already falling out of use in the XI century and later completely abandoned. It is interesting nonetheless to see the changes in style and use in the wall that is still standing.

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Gloucester was a real surprise for me, as I hadn’t been expecting too much and it actually turned out to be a very nice city to visit. The area that surprised me the most was definitely the historic docks, which have undergone an extensive redevelopment and regeneration project. These words often bring out a great deal of cynicism in me, as I often find that either the redevelopment has left the area with barely any resemblance to its original state, or that it has barely scratched the surface and the area is just as dilapidated as before except it now has a few cafes and restaurants struggling to stay in business. In Gloucester they seem to have found the perfect balance between redevelopment and restoration, and all the original buildings remain although they now look like they could have been built yesterday. The moorings and the entrance lock to the canal both appear to have been completely renewed, yet still keeping in with the original style, and it is pleasing to see a great deal of marine activity going on. As a result of the environment that has been created, the cafes and restaurants that now occupy the ground floor of most of the waterside ex-warehouses seem to be doing a roaring trade, and the whole experience of dining by the docks is very pleasant.

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Some of the old warehouses now house the local council offices, and if this was a council-led project then I have to say it is by far the best one I have ever seen! If you’re in Gloucester for any length of time I highly recommend coming to the docks for a spot of lunch or an afternoon drink, it’s easily close enough to the city centre to walk there and you certainly won’t be disappointed. And if you are interested in this sort of thing, the entrance lock at one end of the docks and the cantilever bridge at the other end are both great opportunities to see the docks still working today. There may not be big steamers unloading their wares anymore, but the surroundings make it very easy to imagine what it would have been like when they were.

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Anyone that grew up in the UK should be familiar with Beatrix Potter’s stories, especially The Tale of Peter Rabbit which has just also been made into an animated movie. This is the children’s story that started a whole series of similar tales featuring the lives of various small creatures. One of the lesser-known stories is The Tailor of Gloucester, and now you know how this fits into this post! Beatrix was inspired to write this story after hearing a legend about a local tailor during a visit she made to Gloucester. I won’t divulge any more details, as the story follows the legend quite closely and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone. You’ll just have to read it for yourselves!

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During her visit to Gloucester and after having heard the legend, Beatrix Potter visited the tailor’s shop and it features in the original illustrations for the book. The building is found down a quaint little side-street close to the cathedral, which is decorated with bunting and filled with wonderful little shops selling all kinds of local arts and crafts. It is no longer a tailor’s shop however, but has instead been turned into a Beatrix Potter museum and gift shop which is definitely worth a visit. The back room of the shop has been turned into a scene from the book, with every detail attended to right down to the mice hidden in every nook and cranny! Upstairs is the museum part of the shop, with displays of items relating to Beatrix Potter and The Tailor of Gloucester in particular, as well as information about the story and Beatrix’s life.

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The gift shop is found back downstairs and has all the Beatrix Potter products you would expect, but our favourite section has to be the collection of books available to buy. They had all of the stories in the same style as those I remember from childhood, along with limited edition and foreign language versions. We couldn’t resist buying a limited edition of The Tailor of Gloucester as a souvenir, and it wasn’t at all surprising when we were told how popular that particular release has been! And that brings me on to the last thing I’d like to say about the shop, and that is how interesting and helpful the owner was. He was happy to explain and demonstrate the relationship between the building and the story, and made us feel incredibly welcome. There is no entrance fee and they must make their money from the gift shop alone, yet it is the most relaxed environment you could expect. There is no feeling of an obligation to buy anything, and I wouldn’t have felt guilty leaving empty-handed, they simply let the products sell themselves. Even if you have never read a Beatrix Potter story and know absolutely nothing about her, this place is definitely worth a visit. You are sure to learn a lot while you are there, and if you are already a Beatrix Potter fan then there is no need for me to try and sell it to you any further!

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These are the highlights of our day in Gloucester but the city alone is worth a visit, with plenty of old buildings and parks to enjoy. Especially, if you go during the week, the old library buildings looked like interesting places to visit.

Happy travels and stay tuned,

Mr Wander & Ms Lust

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Malaysia – Penang

Dear readers and travellers,

Welcome back to our Malaysian adventure, and our next instalment in which we take you through our time on Penang Island. We only spent a couple of days here, and in truth it wasn’t enough and we really should have stayed for an extra day or two. However this wasn’t the case and we had to try and cram in as much as we could, and we still managed to do quite a lot in the short time that we were there. So here’s what we did for two days on the island, and some tips for other places that we didn’t have time for.

 

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Part of this was written on the ferry from Penang to Langkawi just after spending a few days in Penang. The experience has been a blast although a bit messy for food as many places seem to only be open for lunch. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of food stalls and restaurants serving at night, but it seems that the city is a lot more active up to 6 p.m.

We arrived by bus on 2 January from Kuala Lumpur and I can’t avoid thinking that three nights there were just too many, you might have read our post (if not, you can find it here) and may understand why I say so, but it is not just for that. The city is interesting, but this country has so much to offer outside of the capital that I keep feeling that we should have stolen one of those days for either Cameron Highland or Penang, probably Penang.

Getting there and around

There are many options available for getting to Penang from all over the Malay Peninsula, and also from other islands on the west coast. The most popular form of transport, and the most readily available, is by bus, with very frequent arrivals from all over the peninsula. We took this option also, and our bus from Kuala Lumpur took approximately five hours including a refreshment stop along the way. When taking the bus there are two options for points of arrival, Butterworth or Penang bus terminals. The terminal on Penang is about 8 km from George Town, the main city on the island and most popular place for accommodation, and will require getting another bus to take you into the city.

You may want to do what we did and get off at Butterworth to get the ferry there. It will take less time and it will get you to the jetty where all the buses are. There is a free shuttle bus that takes you from Butterworth bus station to the jetty, which is not far away but just hard to reach. The ferry takes about 15 minutes and payment is not required for your return journey. This was the option we took, and seeing the city grow as the ferry chugged ever closer was a nice introduction to the island.

It is also possible to take a train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth, although it takes just as long as the buses yet at around double the cost. Normally I would say it might be worth the higher cost for a more comfortable journey, but in this case I can’t find any fault with the long-distance buses we used in Malaysia and therefore can’t think of any reason not to use them. As the train terminates at Butterworth as well, a ferry trip across to the island is again necessary.

Penang also had its own international airport, so flying here is another option. Although flights here are cheap, both domestic and from neighbouring countries, I feel it should only be considered when time really is a scarce commodity. It is possible to see so much more of the country when travelling by road, albeit out of a window, and I would much rather spend an extra hour or two to get there and not miss out on the views. The final option is to arrive by ferry, which can be taken from Langkawi Island and Belawan in Indonesia. These ferries arrive at Swettenham Pier, located at the northern end of George Town.

Once you have made it to Penang by whichever means of transport you have chosen, the next task is to get to your accommodation and around the island. If you don’t have your own car, the bus network on the island is an excellent substitute. There are buses heading out to all corners of the island, the vast majority of which originate from one or both of the bus terminals in George Town. These can be found near to the jetties at the eastern side of the city, and underneath the Komtar building at the western side. They are frequent and cheap, just make sure you have plenty of small notes and coins as the drivers are not able to give change. The buses run until 10pm on most routes, although the frequency is much reduced after 8pm. There is also a free bus that takes a route around George Town, which has CAT displayed instead of a route number. Taxis are your only other option, although we found that the buses were able to satisfy our needs very well.

We booked at the M Hotel and that was a pleasant change after the nasty place in KL. The hotel is small but seems quite new. The room is nice and of a decent size. You can choose a Hello Kitty or a Doraemon themed one for a higher price, but we just got a normal one with window. You don’t get bottles of water or breakfast but the bathroom is nice and clean, and has a comfortable shower. All the bedding and the towels are clean and the guys at reception are very friendly. The bus 101 takes you very near to the hotel and you are not too far from Komtar, where most of the buses stop.

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As our accommodation didn’t include breakfast, we went both days to a Chinese pastry shop that serves delicious pastries, Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Delights. You have a few in town and luckily one was near where we were staying. They are famous for their egg tarts as they started their business selling them on a rickshaw in the ‘70s, but many pastries are just wonderful, the Pandan Kaya Puff is definitely my favourite.

George Town

Now that we’ve covered how to get to Penang and how to get around once you’re there, it’s time to move on to what to see on the island. For almost all travellers, George Town will be the first place you will see on Penang. This is the second largest city in Malaysia, dwarfed only by Kuala Lumpur, and a true melting pot of cultures that have shaped and changed the city over time. George Town achieved a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the buildings and history from its colonial past, as it was the first place in Malaysia to be settled by the British. Although Malaysia is now independent, many of the buildings remain and its foundations as a far-flung outpost of the British Empire is not forgotten. This is most evident in the northeastern corner of the city, where many of the old administration buildings are although we didn’t find time to explore this part of the city fully. We did see the Jubilee Clock Tower on our way back to the ferry terminal, which is found on a roundabout. Built in a Moorish style in recognition of the local culture, it was commissioned in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The tower is 60 ft tall, one foot for every year of her reign, and it serves as a wonderful reminder of the city’s colonial past.

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The Jubilee Clock Tower, also called Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, is not the only monument in the area. Next to it is a modern sculpture that looks like an avocado but is actually a betel nut. This sculpture, the Pinang Fountain, symbolises Penang Island as its names comes from pinang, Malay for betel nut.

Further south, it soon becomes apparent that you have entered the Chinese quarter of the city. The best way to explore this area is by a self-guided walking tour of the local street art, which can be found all over Chinatown. Most tourist maps show the locations of the most popular murals, and we also found a map dedicated to these alone. Many of them use props to bring the artwork to life, such as bicycles or swings that have been attached to the wall. Seemingly a more recent addition, there are also a lot of wire sculptures in the same area, which have been placed just in front of the walls to allow for their silhouettes to be projected onto the masonry. As I said, this is a great way to explore the area, so it’s important not to focus too much on the murals alone. The area is full of wonderful oriental temples and Kongsis, which are Chinese clan houses that are often just as ornate as temples and can be easily confused for them. Khoo Kongsi is the largest of these in George Town, and Malaysia, as can be visited for a small entrance few. We didn’t have time as it was on our last morning before leaving that we came across it, but it was certainly impressive from the outside and I imagine the interior is no less stunning.

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Our first night on the island we just went exploring the city centre following the street art map and we found most of the murals and the steel rod street art. The murals were painted by different artists, but some of the most famous are those commissioned to Ernest Zacharevic in 2012. The steel rod street art is a set of iron caricatures describing the life of the city. You can find a comprehensive guide here. Unfortunately, due to the light, our pictures of them are not the best as the shadows are in the way of the image. At some point, we stopped at an Indian street restaurant before keeping exploring. As I said, the streets are a lot quieter at night and most of what you see is other tourists going around with their map, until you go back near the pier where you have more bars and the food stalls stay open a lot later.

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We only spent a few hours exploring George Town and it certainly wasn’t enough, we could have easily filled another day or two just in visiting some of the temples and seeing more of the colonial side of the city. However we also wanted to see what the rest of the island had to offer, so we had to split our time to accommodate this as well. So please learn from our mistake, and give George Town and Penang the time they deserve if you are planning to visit.

Penang Hill

Penang Hill is situated just to the west of George Town and, as the name suggests, it is a large hill overlooking the city. There are hiking tracks that can be taken to the summit, but the much more popular option is to take the funicular railway to the top. If you are taking the bus from the city centre, route number 204 terminates just outside the bottom station of the railway. The ticket for the railway costs RM30 for non-Malaysian residents, and the trains seemed to run approximately every half hour.

The weather when we visited was much less than ideal, with monsoonal rain that seemed like it would never end. Because of this, we didn’t venture outside when we reached the top and the views were somewhat limited. The ride up the hill was still fun however, and I imagine it would be quite scenic in better conditions. The trip back down was less enjoyable, as we caught one of the last ones of the evening and we were crammed in like sardines! At the top is a large building that houses the visitor centre and many businesses such as food outlets and souvenir shops. We had dinner at one of the last few stalls to remain open, and I’m not sure if it was due to the tastiness of the dishes, our sheer hunger, or both, but we had to go back for seconds!

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There seemed to be quite a lot to do at the summit, with the attractions all connected by walking tracks. We didn’t have time, nor the inclination to get absolutely soaked, to explore any of these, our main reason for coming had been to see the views of the sunset over the city. The weather made sure that this would also not be possible, and the city only came into view through the clouds as the lights started to come on after sunset. It was still a nice view however, despite the rain, and it was easy to see that it would be incredible with clear skies. I’d definitely recommend coming up here, just choose the timing of your visit carefully to coincide with good weather, and I can see that it would be easy to spend half a day exploring at the summit.  

Penang National Park

The northwestern corner of the island is home to Malaysia’s first, and smallest, national park, Taman Negara Pulau Pinang (Malaysian for Penang Island National Park). Again it is quite easy to get here using public transport, as bus route 101 terminates just outside the park entrance and can be taken from either the Komtar building or the terminal by the jetties. The national park is mainly an area of dense forest, which leads right up to the ocean and some wonderful beaches. The two most famous of these beaches are Turtle Beach on the western edge of the park, and Monkey Beach at the northwestern tip. Their names give subtle hints to why they are so famous, yes you guessed it there are turtles that can be found at Turtle Beach and Monkey Beach is a popular hangout for the local macaque population!

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These two beaches are understandably the main draws of the park, and there are two options for getting to them. Walking is one, although the tracks are pretty serious and not for the faint-hearted. The track to Monkey Beach was closed when we visited as it had become unsafe, so our choice was limited to one! We started the walk, which quite quickly became a scramble up a steep wooded incline with only broken, and very unstable, steps to aid us. With the high humidity adding even more to the challenge, it wasn’t long before the reward of seeing wildlife and a couple of lakes along the way just wasn’t enough and we turned back. Even though we only completed a small section of the walk, we still saw some beautiful creatures such as a huge butterfly that stopped for a photoshoot and the ever-present macaques.

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So this leads us on to the second option that is open to you, and the one that we now fell back on. That is to take a boat, which will speed you around the headland and drop you at whichever location you desire. Although you won’t get to see the lakes that are hidden within the forest, the views of the coastline are impressive enough not to be disheartened. It is a fun trip as well, as they certainly don’t hold back and you’ll be bouncing off of your seat as the boat launches itself off of the waves. The boats are, like almost everything in this country, cheap, and they will take you and pick you up and whatever location and time that you request. There are plenty of people offering boat trips at the park entrance, and they’ll definitely make themselves known to you do there’s no need for me to tell you where to go!

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The boat ride to Monkey Beach cost us RM80 and, when we booked, the captain asked us at what time we wanted to be picked up to go back, which was quite nice. I would suggest something between three and four hours but no less. The beach has a few huts that serve food and drinks and we stopped at the Lazy Boys for a relaxed drink before hiking a bit more. The water was definitely cleaner in the afternoon when we left, but keep in mind that if you also want to have a swim you will need a bit more time. From the beach you have a 35 minutes hike to the lighthouse. This is also a pretty demanding trail as, of course, it takes you up the hill. The lighthouse is not big but you can visit it and it offers a pretty view of the coast. You have to leave your shoes outside and climb a pretty nice spiral staircase (I am serious, it is not bad at all) but then you have something like ten steps up a wooden ladder and those are pretty demanding if you are acrophobic, although I believe being barefoot made it a lot easier as I felt I had more grip. Once out I was still pretty shaken but I managed to go around the whole balcony to get you this video. The way back was also a bit demanding as the path is quite natural and the steps pretty worn out when they are there, but a rain shower kept us a bit cooler.

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As Mr Wander said, you have a few monkeys going around on the beach but they seem pretty wild and not interested in humans. Other animals you will find for sure are some crabs that are the same colour as the sand and, at the beginning, they just look like dust moving around as they move so fast. We were lucky enough to spot a few eagles flying around as well. If you want to visit, the bus 101 also takes you up to the National Park and back. One thing to remember if you decide to go to Turtle Beach is that it is not allowed to swim in it, or it wasn’t this time of year at least.

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That was all we had time for at the national park, and after our boat ride back it was time to catch the bus back to George Town. Despite being the smallest national park in Malaysia, there seemed to be a lot more to explore than we managed and it would be easy to spend a lot longer here. Just bring plenty of energy!

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So that’s about it for our time on Penang, but there’s certainly a lot more to the island than we saw. We didn’t even manage to see everything that we had planned, mainly Kek Lok Si Temple and the Snake Temple which are both situated just south of George Town. We could, and should, have spent an extra day or two here, but now we have the perfect excuse for a return trip! So for now it’s goodbye once again, but we won’t keep you waiting too long for the final instalment of our Malaysian trip, living leisurely on Langkawi!

One last tip before leaving: If you book with Easybook like us, you will have to print your boarding passes at the office before you board and that is just behind the corner from the entrance but it is not clear or indicated. Once there, and before entering the terminal, you will receive a pass with your seat number. The trip is not long and it is comfortable enough, but the screens show “Need for speed” in a loop, so you may want to head out and enjoy the view for a while.

Happy travels and stay tuned,

Mr Wander & Ms Lust

A Viennese whirl – Our day trip to Vienna

Dear readers,

As promised, we have one last post for 2017 for you, and we have chosen to write it about our day trip to Vienna. We took this day trip while on holiday in Bratislava at the start of December last year, as a chance to see two different cities and their individual takes on Christmas celebrations. We have already discussed this aspect of the trip in our last post however, so for this one we will be focusing on the sights we discovered in Vienna that can be visited at any time of year.

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Vienna and Bratislava are the two closest capital cities in Europe, and a short one-hour train journey will whisk you from one to the other. The trains run every half hour, from the central stations of both cities, Bratislava Hlavná stanica and Wien Hauptbahnhof. The tickets are reasonably cheap as well, which makes it the perfect excuse for a day trip if you are holidaying in either of these cities. There is also an add-on that can be purchased with your ticket that allows you to travel on all of Vienna’s inner city public transport on the day of your train ticket, which I would highly recommend buying. We were staying in Bratislava so it was Vienna that we would be travelling to, and which we needed to cram into one day. So for that reason we had to stick to the main sights in the city centre, as we wouldn’t have enough time for too much travelling about.

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Our first stop was St Stephen’s Cathedral, the largest church in the city and a true icon of Vienna. The cathedral was almost destroyed at the end of the Second World War and it had to be rebuilt during the years that followed, although such a great job has been done that you wouldn’t notice without being told. The building is very Gothic in style both inside and out, and it is definitely not as ornate and decorated as you would expect a catholic cathedral to be. You are given a few choices if you would like to take a guided tour of the cathedral, with tours covering the bell towers, catacombs, and the main cathedral body available. We chose to take the lift up the North Tower to the Pummerin, the bells of the cathedral. The views of the city from here were incredible, as well as being able to see the bells up close.

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We then went on a bit of a self-guided walking tour of the city, as we made our way to the next stop that we had planned. There’s always something interesting to see in this wonderful city, such as the carillon clock that we discovered, so it really is worth walking between places whenever possible, especially if you go around Christmas time when the whole city seems to be decorated for the occasion. Our destination was Hotel Sacher, in order to indulge ourselves with a traditional Sacher-Torte. This is a chocolate cake with dark chocolate icing and apricot jam, invented by Franz Sacher in 1832 for Prince Wenzel von Metternich. It has now become a Viennese icon and a culinary speciality of the city, and Hotel Sacher has become a tourist mecca for this reason. Luckily there wasn’t much of a queue when we arrived, and we were soon seated inside and served our Sacher-Torte and drinks. It’s not much different to any other chocolate cake, but it was still very tasty and a great experience. The restaurant area of the hotel is beautifully decorated and makes a perfect setting to enjoy tea and a cake. I also managed to converse with the waiter using my limited German, and I even seemed to be mostly understood!

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The rest of our trip was centred around visiting the Christmas markets, which are fortunately all located next to the most famous sights of the city. The first we went to was at Maria-Theresien-Platz, which for 11 months of the year is a landscaped square housing some of the city’s biggest museums, most notably the National History Museum and the National Art Museum. During December however, the whole area is taken over by a large Christmas market, although it is still possible to see the magnificent statue which stands as the centrepiece of the square. This statue is of empress Maria Theresa, surrounded by four horsemen, and it has stood in this spot since it was unveiled in 1888. This whole area is filled with beautiful and important buildings, and on our way along the Ringstrasse to the Rathaus we passed by the Austrian Parliament Building and the Burgtheater, both very impressive and wonderful to look at.

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As I mentioned, our next stop was the Rathaus, the city hall. This is a huge building reminiscent of the city hall that dominates the Grand Place in Brussels, and at the time of our visit it was also home to the largest Christmas market in the city. Parts of the building were open in order to house some of the market stalls, but we weren’t able to explore further than this. All I can really say is that it is a magnificent building, and the perfect backdrop for the Christmas market. Looking like something out of a fairytale, it really does complete the Christmas scene.

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Lastly we went to Belvedere Palace, which was completely unplanned and we just happened to stumble across it as it was near the metro station that we needed. We were certainly glad that we did though, as it was a fantastic place to finish our tour of Vienna. The palace is spread across the back of a large lake, and this creates a wonderful scene especially at night when the palace’s lights are reflected by the water. Likewise it was home to its own Christmas market, although much smaller in scale than the those at the Rathaus and Maria-Theresien-Platz. This really had to be a fleeting visit for us, in order to catch our train, so we only had a quick look around the market, but the palace façade is beautiful enough to have made the detour worthwhile. We’ll certainly take time to visit here more thoroughly when we come back to Vienna at some point, but with only a day to spend here it really did have to be a bit of a whirlwind tour! So for now, there’s nothing left to say other than to wish you all a happy and prosperous 2018!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

You may be planning the last details of your New Year’s celebration around the globe, and so are we. We are going to welcome 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, but we thought we could not skip our post this fortnight, so we decided to give you our recipe for half day in Vienna.

We usually try to do a mix of conventional and unconventional places, but for that we will take you on our next trip to the Austrian capital city. I have always wanted to visit Vienna, and Mr Wander had a great idea including it in our trip to Bratislava as the two cities are extremely close to each other, just over an hour train journey between the two. As we told you already in our previous post, our visit was mainly focused on Christmas markets and we visited a few more bits around them but, considering that Mr Wander already talked a bit about the rest, I will just focus on the two places that were my not-to-miss.

As soon as we arrived, we took the metro to St Stephen’s Cathedral, Stephansdom by its Austrian name. This was one of the two spots that I didn’t want to miss. It is obviously one of the city’s icons, with its façade and its rooftop, but for me it was something else. I often plan my visits around novels that have marked my life or simply that I liked, and Vienna makes no difference. This time you may have a bit of a hard time to find the book I am talking about, as it an Italian historic book that is out of print if I am not mistaken. It is called Grandi peccatori, grandi cattedrali and it talks about some of the main Catholic churches in Europe and how behind these majestic buildings there are stories of big sins and big sums of money paid by powerful people to clean their own souls. In the case of St Stephen’s, the sinner is actually the architect of the bell tower who made a pact with the devil to be able to complete the job in time.

Well, I was extremely excited about seeing this place and the locks that cost the guy’s soul. The cathedral is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic due to the four major projects between the XII and the XV century, but there has been a church in the same place since the first centuries of the Christian era. The tour takes you to the roof where you can enjoy the sight of the city from the heights, see the famous bell known as Pummerin in the north tower, and have a close sight of the tiled roof that is one of the emblems of the city. The current version of the coloured tiles feature two eagles, symbol of the Habsburg family, one with the Austrian flag and the other with the Viennese flag. It is extremelly cold and windy if you go at the end of November, but it is worth it.

The main entrance, known as the Giant’s Door, or Riesentor, features a fossil bone found during one of the enlargements. This part belongs to the original Roman church and it is basically all that is left of it together with the two Roman towers.

The second place I wanted to visit was the Hotel Sacher. I know Vienna is much more than that, but with only a day there and almost all the time dedicated to Christmas markets you have to make choices. I have said more than once that places with a big fame are usually not up to expectations, but let me tell you that the Hotel Sacher still keeps its original elegance and quality. You may have to wait for a bit as it is quite popular and there usually is a queue, but it didn’t take us too long to have a table, probably because we arrived between lunch and afternoon tea and quite a few tables left at once. The hotel is famous and high range, so you may feel a little intimidated wearing travel clothes, but you will soon see many others like you. The prices are not at all prohibitive as you may expect, which was a nice surprise. The menu gives you quite a choice, especially considering that almost everyone goes there for the Sacher-Torte, and you also have a good selection of drinks, many of them chocolate based. I was really positively surprised by the whole experience, the place lived up to expectations and everything was delicious. Definitely make it a stop in your list if you are planning to visit the city.

Hoping to go back soon with more time on our hands, I will now leave you here as it is almost New Year’s Eve and Kuala Lumpur awaits us.

Stay tuned,

Ms Lust

A winter break in Bratislava

Dear readers,

The festive time of year has finally arrived, with the sights, smells, and sounds of Christmas seemingly all around us. For the majority of people this also means that the dreaded Christmas shopping period is also upon us, with the silver lining being a trip to the increasingly popular Christmas markets for a well-deserved glass of mulled wine. These markets seem to be popping up in almost every town and city this year, but their origins are from Germany and Eastern Europe and this is what prompted our trip to Bratislava last year. Eager to visit some traditional Christmas markets, and with a few days holiday left to use up, we found a great package to visit this beautiful city that I had wanted to see for a long time, and that was all the reason we needed! Although the Christmas markets were the main reason we chose to visit Bratislava, we’re saving that for a special Christmas-themed post coming soon. So for now, we’ll take you around all of the other wonderful places and sights that we discovered in Bratislava, and share our tips for a short stay in this fantastic city.

City centre and Old Town

Bratislava has an excellent public transport system with bus and tram networks linking all areas of the city. The city centre itself is fairly compact, and it is easy to get around on foot. Reminiscent of Italian and Spanish cities, there are a number of squares throughout the city, normally located by important buildings, with the largest and most notable of these just in front of the city hall. This was the site of the main Christmas market at the time of our visit, and it seems that it plays host to a number of other events throughout the year as well. These squares are great places from which to acquaint yourself with Bratislava, and to use as a guide for navigating your way around.

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Unlike many Eastern European cities, Bratislava’s city centre has grown within and around the traditional Old Town, rather than separate from it. This means that the newer shops and developments are interspersed with some beautiful old buildings, mostly in the Gothic style famous throughout Eastern Europe, which makes for a wonderful variety as you explore the city. St Michael’s Gate is a large gated tower which once served as an entrance into the city walls, and the perfect place to begin your tour. The road then leads down and round to the left, eventually bringing you to the main square I mentioned before (Hlavné námestie). From here your options are endless. You can carry on in the same direction to find your way down to the River Danube, turning left will bring you to the Primatial Palace (Primaciálny palác) and a more shopping orientated area of the city, and turning right will take you to St Martin’s Cathedral (Dóm sv. Martina) and in the direction of Bratislava Castle. There really is enough just in the city centre to keep you busy for days, and with it being so easy to walk around and between places it really is a joy to just go wandering about to discover the wonders of this city.

Throughout the city centre are a number of quirky statues that have been created by local artists. I’m not going to list each one, but my favourites were definitely Čumil and Schöne Náci. Čumil is a statue of a sewer worker taking a quick break to watch the world go by, and literally translates as “the watcher”. Schöne Náci is based on a resident of Bratislava, or Pressburg as it was then known, around the turn of the 20th century. Driven mad by unrequited love, he was famous for his hat and his habit of presenting flowers to women he saw walking through the streets. His statue is of a very cheerful fellow, waving his hat in a welcoming gesture to all passers-by. It’s great fun to hunt for these statues around the city centre, which also makes for a great way to discover and get acquainted with the city.

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Bratislava Castle

A true icon of the city, and visible from almost anywhere in the vicinity, Bratislava Castle (or Bratislavský hrad to the locals) sits proudly overlooking the site it was once built to protect. The castle has origins going back as far as the 9th century, although there have been many renovations and additions made through the centuries. The castle certainly doesn’t appear to be ancient at all, with perfectly painted white masonry and no signs of wear or damage, and there is a good reason for this. A fire completely gutted the castle in the early 19th century and, after sitting in ruins for nearly 150 years, the castle was restored to its former glory during the second half of the 20th century. This is ongoing and perpetual work, which has saved the castle from demolition and brought it back to the excellent condition that it is in now.

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The castle is easily reached from the city centre, either by public transport or on foot. The climb up the hill is reasonably steep, so be mindful of this, but there are plenty of cafes along the route for a rest stop if needed. Once at the top, the views of the city and the River Danube are worth the climb alone. These are best seen from the small lookout just in front of the castle, to the right of the main gate. A lot of the castle grounds were being used for a Christmas market when we visited, and the castle itself didn’t appear to be open to visitors. It usually is however, and the museum housed inside showcases many of Slovakia’s treasures. There is also a small landscaped garden to one side which makes for a pleasant stroll, although it was a bit cold for us to enjoy it fully! When you have finished enjoying the views and the architecture, it’s time to head back down the hill. There is a much smaller side-gate that can be used to exit the grounds, giving the opportunity to see a slightly different area of the city. We followed this path and ended up finding some excellent views of St Martin’s Cathedral and the UFO bridge, so it was definitely worth a little blind exploring!

Devín Castle

Devín Castle, or Hrad Devín, is the ruins of a 9th century castle that once stood guard over the point where the Danube and Morava rivers meet. This is the furthest from the city centre that we travelled, around 10 km, although it is still served by the city’s public transport system and getting here by bus is very easy. The bus will drop you in the town of the same name, and a short walk will bring you to the site of the ruined castle and the mighty River Danube. Nowadays, this also marks the border between Austria and Slovakia, and from here another country really is just a stone’s throw away!

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The castle was ordered to be destroyed by Napoleon, hence its ruined state, and it has been necessary for some restorations to be made to make it accessible for visitors. Even so, some areas of the ruins still remain unsafe and were not open to the public at the time of our visit. Admission is cheap and grants access to the castle ruins and grounds, which includes some recreations of even older settlements that evidence has been found of. The ruins are not overly huge or extensive, but with a bit of imagination it is possible to envisage what a domineering structure it would have been when fully intact. It is also obvious to see why they chose this location for a castle, with steep cliffs and rock faces down to the river preventing any meaningful attack taking place from this approach. The views of the rivers and the surrounding landscape from the castle are also truly spectacular, and the ruins add a sense of drama to the scene.

From the ruins there is a path that leads down to the river bank, where you will find a monument commemorating those who lost their lives fighting against the Iron Curtain of Soviet occupation. The bullet hole-riddled section of wall is a poignant reminder of the oppression that people faced during this time, while the plaques show just how big a sacrifice some people made to fight this oppression. The path then continues alongside the river and provides a pleasant route back to the bus stop. There isn’t much else to keep you in Devín, most places were closed when we visited anyway, and a short bus ride will soon bring you back to the city centre.

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The Blue Church

The Blue Church, or St Elisabeth Roman Catholic Church to use its official name, is a wonderful little church situated just east of the city centre. Reachable by tram or on foot (it’s about a 20 minute walk from the main square), this hidden gem is a must-see for anyone who visits Bratislava. The beautiful baby blue walls with white edging and decoration make the building seem like an oversized novelty wedding cake, and it is kept in a perfect condition to maintain this appearance.

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Judging by images on the internet, the interior certainly doesn’t disappoint either, although you will need to time your visit well to be able to see it (we didn’t!). The opening hours are very limited, most days just a half hour early in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening, and there is usually services on during these times so absolute silence and discretion is a must if you do decide to visit. The morning opening is extended on Sundays, due to the increased number and length of services. Nevertheless the exterior is the real attraction and you will not be disappointed even if you can’t visit inside as well.

Honorable mentions

A few of the sights in Bratislava we didn’t have time to visit, or we only managed a fleeting one. I still felt I should mention them however, as they should be on your list and deserve a visit. If only the mulled wine tastings hadn’t taken up so much of our time! The first of these is the UFO bridge, which is exactly as it sounds, a bridge with a UFO on it! The observation deck and restaurant perched on top of the bridge is reminiscent of the flying saucers that are so famous in conspiracy theories and comic strips. I would imagine the views from the observation deck are impressive, and if we return to Bratislava then we will make sure to visit it and see for ourselves. Even if you run out of time like we did, it’s still an impressive structure in itself and worth a few photos and a moment to appreciate it. Also, a short trip across the bridge to the southern side of the River Danube will reward you with stunning views of the city, with Bratislava Castle, St Martin’s Cathedral, and the UFO bridge all playing starring roles. Definitely worth the effort!

St Martin’s Cathedral is the biggest church in Bratislava, situated on the western edge of the city centre overlooking the main route into the city. It is built in the Gothic style which is found commonly throughout Eastern Europe, with a steeple that is very similar to St Michael’s Gate. It is free to visit and, unlike The Blue Church, it is open throughout the day. As it is a Roman Catholic cathedral, the inside is very grand and ornately decorated and well worth half an hour or so to visit.

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Lastly we come to Grassalkovich Palace, the largest of the many palaces found in Bratislava and the seat of the president of Slovakia. It is only open to the public on one day of the year, so you have to be very lucky to see inside, but there is plenty to see from the outside anyway. If you are coming from St Michael’s Gate (it’s only a short walk away), you will first come to the fountain in front of the palace. It is in the shape of a globe and was designed to symbolise freedom. Behind the fountain is the palace itself, gated off with a gate and fencing reminiscent of those found at Buckingham Palace, yet it is still possible to get some good photos of the building. Once you have finished enjoying the fine architecture, head to the rear of the palace where you will find the Presidential Garden. This is now a public park and access is free at all times. A wonderful area to walk and enjoy nature, and along one side of the garden are trees planted by each head of state that has visited, searching to find the one from your country happily fills a few minutes and adds a little extra to the visit.

Food

One thing is for sure when you visit Bratislava, you certainly won’t go hungry! There are plenty of restaurants in the city, some more touristy than others, which all seem to serve a great selection of Slovakian cuisine. We didn’t visit too many as we ate at the markets most of the time, but the places we did visit were excellent. The food is typically quite filling and heavy, with an emphasis on stews and meat-based dishes. If you’re visiting in winter as we were, this is perfect to help stave off the cold weather but maybe not such a blessing during the summer.

We also found a unique tearoom, with the strangest decor I have ever seen. The walls would not have looked out of place in an art museum or a stately home, painted top to bottom with portraits of mediæval characters. Even the toilets were decorated beyond anything I have ever seen before, with the most ornate urinal imaginable. They also surprised me with the food and drink, with tea and cakes that would be fit for even the fanciest English tearooms. The service was excellent as well and, although it may not be a truly Slovakian experience, I would highly recommend a stop at Konditorei Kormuth on Sedlárska.

The food and drink at the Christmas markets was also wonderfully filling, tasty, and cheap! You’ll have to wait until our next post to hear all about it, all I’ll say for now is that it definitely kept us fuelled and helped us cope with the cold!

Music festival

One of Bratislava’s biggest festivals, and Slovakia’s as well, is the Bratislava Music Festival, held over a two-week period usually in September and October. Happily last year this changed and it coincided with our trip and the opening of the Christmas markets, being held at the end of November and start of December. The festival is a showcase of the finest classical music and orchestras from the region, with many performances being held throughout the city both during the day and in the evenings. We were fortunate to be there for a concert by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, held in the wonderful Slovak Philharmonic concert hall. This extravagant building is worth a visit just in itself, with rooms and corridors adorned with beautiful decoration, chandeliers, and furniture. Just being in this luxurious environment makes the experience special, and the concert hall itself is a feast for the eyes.

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In keeping with the appearance and ambience of the setting, the concert was also a fantastic experience which really made me feel privileged to be there. The orchestra were excellent, the music was beautiful, all in all a perfect combination. If you are in Bratislava during the festival, I would thoroughly recommend getting tickets to at least one of the performances. We were tempted to try and catch a second one after the wonderful evening we had here, but unfortunately time wasn’t on our side.

Vienna

Just as a quick side note, Bratislava and Vienna have the prestigious title of being the closest capital cities in Europe, being approximately 60 km apart along the River Danube. As such it is very quick and inexpensive to travel between the two by train or by boat (not in operation during the winter months), which makes a day trip to Vienna easy while staying in Bratislava, or vice versa. We did just that while we were there, and shortly we’ll be bringing you our post all about it, stay tuned!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, we’ll be back with more from Bratislava and elsewhere, with a special Christmas-themed post coming very soon.

Happy travels!

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

Although I have always been fascinated by Eastern Europe, I had never really made a clear plan to visit that area of the continent. When we were invited to the Slovak Embassy in London for European Day of Languages last year, though, Mr Wander started looking into Bratislava more and more as one of our next destinations and he ended up booking our remaining holidays for 2016 to explore the city and get the most of the Christmas markets, but that will come later.

The city is the capital of Slovakia, no news in that, but what you may not know until you visit or you plan your visit is how close it is to its neighbours. Slovakia shares borders with Austria to the west and Hungary to the south, and Bratislava being on the border makes it extremely easy to visit the neighbouring states. We stayed for five days and we decided to make to most of it by just spending one day away to visit Vienna (also featured soon) which is one hour away by train.

The city preserves most of its past but also sees modern buildings now being part of the landscape and becoming icons of the city. As I said, we went mainly because of a good combination of Christmas markets and well timed, affordable flights, but we ended up having one of the most memorable holidays so far (not just because of the bomb scare near the Christmas markets one afternoon) and falling in love with the food. Check the tourist website here. By the way, the bomb scare was just an abandoned backpack.

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I have to admit I am becoming quite lazy when it comes to booking and planning, but maybe it is not only my fault. Mr Wander spent a while with a lot of free time to book and plan our holidays, and he did a great job, and now I am a bit used to it. Well, Bratislava started it all. He decided that we were going to stay in a hostel called Freddie next to Mercury and it was a great choice, no sarcasm in that. As you may guess, there is a Mercury hotel in Bratislava, and the hostel is just behind it, and it is mainly dedicated to Freddie Mercury but in general to many famous people called Freddie or Frederick, including a little bookshelf filled with books with the name in the title or written by a Frederick. 

Just a bit about the hostel itself. I guess we were lucky as we booked a double en suite and we ended up in a 6 dorm en suite with kitchenette all for ourselves. In general, we only saw the common kitchen as we were out and about all day and our room was on the ground floor just after reception and we didn’t explore too much. The kitchen was not big but the included breakfast was our fun start to the day. Continental breakfast as you may expect, it also included our favourite bit, a hot dog machine, and we ended up having hot dogs for breakfast every day, not sure whether more for the energy to tackle the day or for the fun of using the machine. Probably not the cleanest accommodation, it was not too bad, with a comfortable bed and a boiler that we had to turn on ourselves before having a shower.

We found Bratislava quite easy to navigate on foot despite the cold, but public transport is quite good, with a network of buses, trolley buses, and trams, with one of the stops a few minutes away from the hostel. The trams are very modern but there are some heritage ones as well. Several main attractions are in or around the main square, that hosts one of the Christmas markets and inevitably ends up being the centre of your interest if you go this time of year.

Bratislava Castle

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Due to its strategic position on the top of a hill overlooking the city, the rivers, and reaching up to Austria and Hungary, the castle has always been important for the city and there has been a fortification on the same location for thousands of years. Destroyed and damaged, the castle that we see now has gone through a huge restoration after having been abandoned for almost 150 years up to the second half of the past century. The building is a square castle with four main gates, an internal court, and the gardens. Inside you have several exhibitions and, during the Christmas season, a nativity inside the court and a Christmas market just outside. The bus will take you to the castle and leave you just outside the walls but it is not too far if you decide to walk back to the city instead.

Devín Castle

Another strategic building towering the confluence of the rivers Danube and Morava, these ruins date back to the V century BC. They are in the outskirts of the city and easily reached by bus, which will leave you in the little town of Devín from where you can easily walk to the site. The ruins are well preserved and host exhibitions during the summer months, but you can still wander around them in winter and enjoy the views from the ramparts.

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You can also walk along the river (the above picture was taken by Mr Wander from the river walk) and visit the Curtain Memorial, a monument that represents the Iron Curtain and has been placed where the border once was with Austria. The monument is a gate covered with bullet holes to commemorate those who were shot trying to escape to Austria and also features quotes by Winston Churchill, who used the name Iron Curtain for the first time in one of his speeches.

Michael’s Gate

It is the only surviving gate of the four that the city originally had and it was first built in the XIV century but it was then reconstructed in the XVIII century to what it is now. Originally, a drawbridge over the moat would allow the entrance to the city but now there is a stone bridge. This is still the main way to reach the city centre. The tower now hosts the Exhibition of weapons.

Churches

St Martin’s Cathedral

This Gothic church is another one of the easy to spot landmarks of the city with its green spire. This beautiful building is encased in a quiet neighbourhood near the main square and is not far from the castle and the so-called UFO bridge. Actually, due to this proximity with the modern bridge and the main roads, the cathedral’s structure is suffering from vibrations and it is deteriorating. The cathedral has been used for the coronations of the Hungarian Kings and, as all churches, has been built over a cemetery and several crypts and the catacombs have now been uncovered. The church also houses the remains of St John the Merciful in a dedicated chapel.

The Church of St Elisabeth

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This peculiar example of Art Nouveau is most commonly known as The Blue Church due to its walls, roofs, and decorations all being in shades of blue. A bit out of the city centre, this building was built at the beginning of the XX century and was initially part of the secondary school next door. The entrance is free but the opening times are a bit strict and you really have to plan it in advance if you want to see the interior as well.

Nový most or UFO Bridge

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Its real name is Most SNP, the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising, but it is commonly called UFO Bridge due to the shape of the restaurant, also called UFO, on its pillar.

Statues

While you walk around the town centre, you cannot miss some of the iconic statues:

– Man at work – Čumil; this bronze statue of a man coming out of a waterhole takes its English name from the “Man at work” sign next to him and you can find it at the junction of Laurinská and Panská Streets.

– Napoleon’s soldier; this statue is behind a bench in the Main Square but it is hidden behind stands during the Christmas markets, so we could just see its back but not take a picture with it.

– Schöner Náci; this is the only silver statue and represents a real person, a man who, not reciprocated in his love, lost his reason and used to give flowers to random women. The statue is in Sedlárska Street.

– Paparazzi; this statue used to stand outside of the restaurant by the same name but was removed when the restaurant closed and is now at the UFO restaurant.

Theatres

You have two main theatres in Bratislava, the Reduta Bratislava Concert Hall, now permanently used by the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, and The old Slovak National Theatre. We were lucky to get tickets for the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Reduta Bratislava Concert Hall and not only the concert was a wonderful experience, but the theatre itself was a joy for the eyes, white stucco and gold decorations with long corridors covered with mirrors.

Food

As you can imagine, most of our food came from the Christmas markets and we will tell you more about them in our next post, but I would like to suggest two places that are not to miss:

Konditorei Kormuth, a tea room with a delicious choice of cakes, a Renaissance décor that will make you feel like you are eating in a Florentine mansion in the XV century, and an incredibly decorated ladies’ room that looks like a cave with porcelain fixtures. You cannot miss it, it is the one with the puppets in the window and it is in Sedlárska.

– Kvadriga Sro, a restaurant that we visited with no expectations. The place is in Michalska 7, just after St Michael’s Gate, has one of those tourist menus outside with fake colourful pictures that look nothing like the real food, but we tried nonetheless as it was cheap and it seemed to offer typical food. Well, I loved it. The place itself is beautiful, a cellar with dim light, with brick walls and a low barrel vault. The menu allows you to choose three dishes and it is even too much, as Slovak food is quite rich and scrumptious. The gnocchi with Slovak sheep cheese and bacon (Bryndzové halušky s oravskou slaninkou) are to die for!

Well, I am hungry now and I want to go back to Bratislava, so I will leave you here, but we will be back soon, stay tuned!

Ms Lust

One day… “In Bruges”

Dear readers,

For our last post we took you to our favourite spots in Brussels, from our trip there last year. For our visit there this year, as we had seen quite a lot of Brussels already, we decided to take a day to see another part of Belgium that we had heard so many good things about. So it is our pleasure now to share with you the sights of Bruges, and our recommendations for spending a day there.

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If you’re coming to Bruges by public transport, you are most likely to arrive at the main train and bus station just to the southwest of the city. Bruges isn’t a particularly big city and from here it is possible to walk to the city centre and back, while passing by all of the most popular sights along the way. So that’s exactly what we did and, using this map from Visit Bruges as a guide, the city was a breeze to get around and explore. There are other options for discovering the sights of the city, one which we would recommend and one that we definitely wouldn’t, but we’ll come to those shortly.

After crossing the busy road that runs past the train station, look out for signs directing you to Minnewater. A short walk down a couple of residential streets brings you to Minnewater, or the Lake of Love, a beautiful small lake perched on the outskirts of the city. The lake is crossed by Lovers’ Bridge, an equally beautiful bridge with its own mediaeval gunpowder tower, where legend says ‘If you walk over the bridge and kiss your loved one, it will become eternal love’. This seemed to be the most popular place for photos and selfies and, although it wasn’t too busy at the time of our visit, I imagine it can become quite crowded during the peak season. On the other side of the bridge you will find Minnewaterpark, a small park leading towards the city centre. The lake is most certainly the highlight of the park, but it is still a lovely place to continue your stroll towards the centre of town, just take the path which runs alongside the lake. There are a few spots with some fantastic views of the lake and the bridge, so keep an eye out for these on your way through.

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The path through the park brings you out into a small square, where we came across the first option for a tour around the city. If you don’t like horses, which Ms Lust certainly doesn’t, then this is definitely not a good place to be. It seemed like this was the main place from which to take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the city, and there were horses and carriages constantly barrelling their way around the square at a fair speed. It didn’t take too long for us to decide to take a less popular route into the city centre, away from the path of the horses, and we ducked down Arsenaalstraat to find a more tranquil part of town. For those that are less bothered by horses or being run over, the more popular route is to pass through the square and continue north to a small bridge over the canal, and then follow this road into the tourist centre of Bruges. As the carriages were ultimately heading to see the same sights as we were, it was inevitable that we would find ourselves sharing the roads with them again.

We came out onto Katelijnestraat which is where some of the sights of Bruges come into view, as well as an abundant array of shops all aimed at tourists. I have to admit that Bruges was certainly not as ‘touristy’ as I had been expecting, and by touristy I mean crowded, tacky, and expensive. Bruges is none of these things, although I have heard that it can become quite crowded in the summer months, and although there are a lot of shops aimed at selling to tourists, they are all of good quality and reasonable prices. There is very little advertising as well to detract from the beauty of the city, simply normal shop signs as you expect in any town. This was a very welcome sight for me, as all too often popular places can become ruined by their own greed, yet in Bruges this is by no means the case. We noticed a small waffle shop and, as I was yet to get a fresh Liège waffle and we needed a distraction from the carriages trundling by, we couldn’t help but to give them a try, especially at only €2 each! They were absolutely delicious and it was from finding somewhere to stand out of the way to eat them that we noticed a place where our second option for a tour of the city could be taken.

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This option is the one that we did take, and one that I would recommend to everyone that visits Bruges, a boat cruise of the city. Bruges has many canals and waterways throughout the city, and this means that it is possible to see all of the main sights from the water. It also gives you the opportunity to see some of the less-explored areas and hidden gems that may not be accessible other than by boat. There are a few cruise operators, with their mooring points at various locations throughout the city centre, but not too many for the canals to become crowded with boats. The operator we used is called Stael NV and they depart from Katelijnestraat, just before reaching the bridge in front of the Church of Our Lady. The tour was €8 each and lasted approximately 30 minutes, with our guide giving an interesting and informative commentary on our way around the city’s waterways. We passed within view of a number of the most popular sights, including the Belfort, the Church of Our Lady, and the cathedral, as well as seeing some of the lesser known areas such as Jan Van Eyck Square. Along the way we also passed under a number of bridges, with our guide pointing out the oldest unrestored bridge in Bruges and reminding us to duck for the lowest bridge during the cruise! It really was a wonderful way to see the city and I would highly recommend it, although I imagine it may lose some of its charm in busier periods.

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After our cruise, we set about getting a bit closer to the sights we had just seen. The closest to us were two great churches of Bruges, the Church of Our Lady and Saint Salvator’s Cathedral. Both churches date from the 14th century, and have huge Gothic towers which dominate the skyline. The first that we came to was the Church of Our Lady, famous for its statue of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Unfortunately most of the interior of the church was closed to the public at the time of our visit due to restoration work being carried out, with just a small area, big enough for services to continue, still open and free to look around. A short walk from here is Saint Salvator’s Cathedral, which is very similar in style and appearance. We weren’t having much luck on the day of our visit and this church was closed completely, but judging from online reviews it is worth a visit if you can.

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Feeling a little disappointed at this point, we made the last leg of our walk to arrive at the first of Bruges’s main squares, the Grote Markt. This square is home to the most iconic image of Bruges for me, mainly because most of my previous knowledge of the city had come from the film In Bruges, the Belfry or Belfort. This huge tower dominates the square and can be seen from all over the city. It contains a carillon of 47 bells which can also be heard throughout the city, playing wonderful tunes. It is possible to climb the tower for views of the city, however we decided that the 366-step spiral staircase was a bit much to tackle on that day. The tower is impressive to see without having to climb it, and really is the highlight of the square, which was otherwise filled with carnival rides and horse-drawn carriages waiting to ferry people back to Minnewaterpark.

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We then moved on to the nearby Burg Square, the second of the city centre’s main squares. Burg Square is home to the city hall, or Stadhuis, an incredibly ornate 14th century building which would not look out of place in Brussels’ Grand Place. We didn’t go inside, had we have known at the time that it was possible to visit the building’s interior we would probably have done so. That is the only problem with the lack of advertising in Bruges, while it helps to retain the beauty of the city it also means that some things can be missed. Likewise, it was only after consulting the map that we realised we were standing almost next to another famous church in the city, the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

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This is not like the churches I mentioned earlier in the post, but simply a small chapel housed in an ornate, yet understated, building tucked into a corner of Burg Square. It is quite easy to miss, and we would have done so too if we hadn’t checked the map at the opportune time. This church is famous for the ancient relic that it holds, a vial of blood reputed to be that of Jesus Christ. It is free to enter the chapel, which is incredibly beautiful and ornate on the inside, and there are venerations most afternoons during which the relic is open to viewing and worship. The chapel itself is worth the visit alone, I have never seen a room so lavishly decorated while still remaining sombre and not overwhelming. One point to mention is this, there are signs everywhere telling you to be silent in the chapel, and they will tell you off if you don’t follow this simple rule!

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Following this, the cold was starting to take its toll, and the train back to Brussels was looking increasingly tempting. So we checked the map for any obvious sights that we may have missed, and planned a route back to the train station to include these as well. The first of them was somewhere we had seen during the boat cruise, that I was also keen to see from land. Jan Van Eyck Square is situated to the northeast of the city centre, and features two rows of traditional Flemish-style buildings lining a branch of the canal. At the head of the square is a statue to Jan Van Eyck, a 15th century painter and resident of Bruges. Overlooking the square is the Poortersloge, a beautiful building that has the appearance of a church, but was in fact a trading house for the merchants bringing their goods into the city via the canal.

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We then began our walk towards the train station, via Geldmundstraat and Noordzandstraat, a retail area with the usual city shops and seemingly aimed more at the city’s residents rather than tourists. I grabbed the opportunity for another waffle, and we continued walking in this direction until we came to Smedenstraat and the reason we had taken this route, Smedenpoort. This is one of four remaining city gates, which has been restored to a very good condition. Still used as a entrance and exit point for the city, it made a perfect end to our sightseeing for the day. From here we took a path alongside the river which led us almost all of the remaining way back to the train station.

We had a fantastic day in Bruges and it is definitely possible to see the main sights in just one day. However it would have been nice to have had a bit more time to spend at some of the attractions, so maybe a weekend would be more suitable. It really is a beautiful city, wonderfully preserved as a mediaeval masterpiece, and definitely worth seeing.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

It happened again, I longed to visit a place for so long and I ended up being disappointed by it. I have been to Brussels four times now and we decided that we had to go to Bruges as well this time. As we were going to stay in Belgium from Saturday to Tuesday, the initial plan was to spend a night in Bruges and two in Brussels but then we found a good offer for three nights in Brussels and we decided to go to Bruges for the day. That was lucky! Now, I am not agreeing with Ray, honestly, the city is pretty and there is stuff to do, but the ratio of horse-drawn carriages to humans is not to my liking, so much so that for a good five minutes I thought I would have to walk back to the station and get on the first train back, but let’s see what the city has to offer that is not a carriage ride. For a handy website about the city, Visit Bruges is your best choice, and all the places that have not their own websites are still listed there with all the visiting information you may need.

The city is easy to reach from Brussels for the day as there are two trains every hour and the journey takes just over an hour. When you arrive at the train station, you can take a bus to the city centre or simply walk through the park up to the river and then follow that to the city centre. You can take the path along the park up to the Minnewater, the Lake of Love. This place offers you the first glimpse of the beautiful landscapes that you can feature in your pictures. You can cross the lake through Lovers’ Bridge at your own risk. Don’t get me wrong, the bridge is totally safe, but if you kiss your lover on the bridge, the legend says it will be forever! From the other side of the bridge, you have a nice view of the Powder Tower, the Poertoren, a tower that was part of the original fortified wall and was initially used to store gunpowder.

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On the side of the lake you have a restaurant but you can take the path on the side and walk to town. You find yourself next to Beguinage of Bruges, or Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde, a place that is now a Benedictine convent but that was founded in the XIII century as a beguinage. I would love to tell you more about it but that was where all the carriages were parked and I didn’t hang around for long.

We followed our steps back a bit to walk along Arsenaalstraat and then Katelijnestraat. The road is very touristy, with plenty of souvenir shops, chocolate shops, and similar. With a past as a waffle specialist, I noticed a tray of waffle dough on the window of a place called Chip and Ice and I stopped to show Mr Wander my expertise. Tempted by it, we had a gaufre liégeoise (read more on waffles in our previous post here) and Mr Wander loved it so much that we had another one later in the afternoon at Oyya. I had no idea he had never had a freshly made one before but I am glad he saw the difference and liked them as well, it may not be the easiest thing to eat on the go (also because I had it with whipped cream), but the plastic knork they gave us with the first one made it easier.

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Happy and fed, we decided to do a boat tour. Although it sounds too touristy, it is a great way to see most of the city and its canals if you are only staying for a day. You have many companies and five different starting points, but the one we used is Stael NV. The tours last half an hour and show you the city from a completely different angle and allow you to take good shots if you are fast enough. These tours are not available in winter so make the most of it from March to mid-November. The price is generally €8 and it is worth it, or so I think as we had a chilly but sunny day and it allowed me to stay away from horses for a while. From the boat you can admire all the city’s landmarks and the typical architectural style, and you can make a mental note of the places that you then want to see on your walk.

If you keep walking along the same road, you reach St Salvator’s Cathedral, Sint-Salvatorskathedraal, a beautiful building that, unfortunately was closed on a Sunday afternoon and we could not visit. I have to admit that, despite Michelangelo’s sculptures and Van Eyck’s paintings, we hadn’t planned any indoor visits but it would have been nice to pop in the cathedral to see the nave.

Walking back to Steenstraat, you arrive at the Market Square, Markt, the one where all the action of the movie happens. As in Brussels, this square is quite impressive, with a quadrangular shape and many famous buildings surrounding it. In the square you can also join one of the free tours of the city. Here is probably the most famous building in Bruges, the Belfort, which is the belfry of Bruges. 366 steps and a carillon are the main features of the visit together with a stunning view of the city from above. This time we skipped it but next time we may find our strength (and the right shoes) to do it. The belfry is slightly leaning towards one side, as you learn in your visit and as you see in my picture that I desperately tried to straighten before realising that it was straight already!

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In a corner of the square you find the Historium, a building in typical Flemish medieval style that is part of the impressive architecture that makes Market Square. The Historium is a virtual reality experience that allows you to explore the Golden Age of the city, but the building also hosts the information centre and a bar called Duvelorium with a panoramic terrace from which to admire the square.

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A short walk from the square you can find the City Hall, or Stadhuis, a beautiful building that is also one of the oldest city halls in the Low Countries. In this square we found a gazebo with a debate in favour of the EU and we joined in for a little while, ending up with European flags popping out of my handbag for the rest of the day (and hanging on our bookshelf at the moment). Next to the City Hall is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed. The church hosts the relic of the blood of Christ which is taken on a procession in May by a brotherhood of knights in a ceremony that is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage. Knowing all these very medieval aspects, I was not expecting what I found. From the outside, the church looks more like an aristocratic house as you would expect in Italy. The basilica is actually the lower floor, while the relic is in the upper chapel, a Gothic addition of the XV century that you reach after climbing a short but wide spiral staircase. The Holy Blood is on display on a raised platform, constantly supervised, but at specific times you are invited to walk up and admire it. There is a strict no-photography policy and you are asked to keep quiet (a lady who whispered something was told off while we were there), but I suggest you visit even just to admire the beautiful paintings all around that made me think more of the Byzantine style with more vibrant colours. The stained glass window that you see also on the web page is possibly the most incredible feature and gives the paintings even more nuances and power.

As I have mentioned at the beginning, the city walls and gates are not there anymore, not in their entirety at least, but four gates and the defence tower still remain, along with the ramparts that once were the city walls and you can include them, all or some, in your walking tour. We went to the Smedenpoort as it was easy for us, after a walk along the canals, to make our way back to the train station heading that way. Each gate is different and peculiar, although Smedenpoort and Ezelpoort are quite similar as they were built in the same period. Smedenpoort was modified several times, with the addition of an upper floor at some stage; partially destroyed by an explosion during WWII, it was heavily restored immediately after the war to how it is now.

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To close on a more positive note compared to the opening one, as we only planned this day trip as a stroll around, we have missed some of the main cultural spots that Bruges has to offer, with a long list of museums. You can choose some of the more traditional ones such as the Groeningemuseum and its collection that includes Jan Van Eyck’s masterpieces, or the Gruuthusemuseum, the house of a rich family transformed into a museum with its furniture and tapestries; this building includes a tower that was definitely my favourite sight with the ivy covering it in beautiful autumnal colours. You also have more peculiar museums dedicated to typical Belgian food: Frietmusem, a museum about chips, Choco Story, all about chocolate, and The Beer Museum, all about beer making and beers as you could guess. If you are more interested in history, apart from the Historium, you also have the Torture Museum “Oude Steen”.

To conclude, there is one more church that is definitely worth the visit, the Church of our Lady, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, a majestic building with its tower, known to be the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. The church is famous for hosting the “Madonna and Child” by Michelangelo, one of the few masterpieces by the artist known to have left Italy before his death. The building is undergoing a huge restoration and one of the side naves is accessible for worship, but you can visit the museum for €6 (reduced during the renovation).

As you can see, there is enough to fill a nice weekend if you want and if you have more patience with horses than I have, but I guess we will still be back, for now it is a goodbye. Stay tuned,

Ms Lust

Brussels

Dear readers,

As you join us for this post, we are away from our home in Cambridgeshire and enjoying the Belgian capital, Brussels. This is fast-becoming an annual tradition for us, as Ms Lust comes here to attend an EU translation conference and I tag along for the frites! So while we’re tucking into a few too many waffles than is good for us, read on to find out about our highlights from our first trip together to Brussels last year.

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Before I get into Brussels itself, I wanted to add a short section about getting there in the first place. We travelled by Eurostar and, as I had always preferred to cross the channel by ferry, this was my first time using the service. I have to say that in one journey it completely changed my view on Eurostar, although I haven’t entirely abandoned the faithful ferries that chug relentlessly back and forth across the English Channel. If you are travelling to Brussels, Paris, Lille, or any other of the multitude of cities served by connecting trains, then Eurostar is hard to beat. It is quicker than the ferries and subsequent road travel, and much more comfortable and effortless than air travel (unless you’re lucky enough to have your own private jet of course!). Before you know it, after leaving the hustle and bustle of St Pancras station in London, you’ll be sipping on French wine in Paris or digging into a portion of frites in Brussels. I think I would still use the ferries for trips to northern France or if we were taking our car, but other than that I’ll be taking the train from now on.

Now onto the real purpose of this post, Brussels. I have to be honest and say that Belgium had never been very far up the wish list of countries to visit, and Brussels most certainly wouldn’t have been my natural first choice. Yet due to the conference that Ms Lust was attending being held by the EU, Brussels was where we were heading and it was up to me to make the most of it. Well I was definitely surprised and the city greatly exceeded my low expectations, which is why this year I am looking forward to our return visit a lot more than I was 12 months previously. I learnt a great deal about the city and the country during those few days, and it is my pleasure now to bring you my favourite places to visit in Brussels.

Wall mural city walk

I came upon this self-guided city walk online prior to our trip, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. With the first day and a half to myself while the conference was running, I had to find a way to discover the city and the main sights which Ms Lust had already seen in previous visits. This walking route seemed like the perfect way to do it, while discovering some of the more hidden sights as well.

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The walk is a circular route around the city centre, which can be started and finished at any point along it. Brussels is famous for its comic strip industry, amongst other things, and there are many comic-inspired murals that can be found on buildings all over the city. This walk leads you to the best examples of these, with murals depicting Tintin and the Manneken-Pis statue among them. The murals really are fantastic and well-conceived, with many of them using features of the buildings as props for the created scenes. The instructions for finding the murals are good, however some are easier to spot than others, just don’t forget to look behind you every now and then!

Not only a great walk for comic strip lovers, the circular route around the city also provides an excellent chance to see and familiarise yourself with the main sights. The route includes the Grand Place, Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the Manneken-Pis statue, the Place Sainte Catherine, and many more less famous yet no less impressive attractions. The walk is not too long, but with a few stops along the way for photos, sightseeing, and lunch, it can soon take up most of a day.

Manneken-Pis

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The statue of a little boy relieving himself has become world famous and a Brussels icon, as you soon find out when you see images of him everywhere you look in the city! He is found on the corner of Rue du Chêne and Rue de l’Etuve, and as you would expect the area can get quite crowded so you may have to fight your way through the crowds to get a decent look. The statue is everything you would expect a statue of a boy having a wee to be and not really anything more, so you won’t need to factor in too much time spent here. However if you are lucky enough to go on a special occasion, you may get to see him dressed in one of his many costumes. The costumes are themed to be relevant with the day in question, and true Manneken-Pis fans can find the full collection on display at the GardeRobe museum nearby. If you have trouble finding it, it’s in the building with the huge Manneken-Pis mural painted on one of its side walls. Just one note, be careful of traffic as you take your photos of the statue, as the crowds often overflow from the pavement into the road.

Grand Place

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The Grand Place is the huge market square situated in the centre of Brussels, and the perfect place to get yourself acquainted with the city. The square is surrounded on all sides by the most wonderful buildings, with so many gothic façades and their gold decorations lighting up the whole area. This is a pedestrian only area, so it really keeps its traditional feel and it’s easy to imagine how it would have been throughout the many centuries that it has been Brussels’ centrepiece. It is usually a hive of activity with people coming and going, and there is always something going on. If you want to relax and little and watch the world go by, then the numerous cafes and restaurants that encircle the square make a great place for a quick meal or coffee. The prices may be a little bit higher than in less touristy parts of the city, but the quality still seemed good and the view more than made up for it. A few of the buildings can be visited as well, such as the town hall, and on some days the square is still used for its designed purpose of holding a market. Just one word of warning, during the busier periods there are groups of women begging and pestering tourists for money, usually by thrusting young children in your face to try and make you feel guilty. They’re harmless and are not too pushy, it can just be a bit annoying and uncomfortable for some people.  

Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert

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This is a wonderful shopping arcade in the middle of the city, just to one side of the Grand Place. It is a superb example of a nineteenth century arcade, with tall glass ceilings and beautiful architecture. All of the shopfronts are the same design, with only the most modest branding, making it an incredibly pleasurable environment compared to the glaringly bright and noisy shopping centres that we are forced to endure nowadays. The shopping available mostly consists of art, fashion, and chocolate, which is exactly what I had been expecting as soon as I walked into the arcade. There are a few cafes at either end of the arcade as well, and in my opinion this location is second only to the Grand Place for enjoying a coffee or lunch. Even if you’re not interested in shopping, it really is worth taking the time for just a stroll through this magnificent building and marvelling at how life used to be.

Parc de Bruxelles

There are a number of parks in and around Brussels, and this is the largest of those in the city centre. The park is a perfect rectangle with large fountains at either end, and a network of paths criss-cross its entirety. The park itself is fairly plain, mainly made up of open grass areas and wooded paths. There’s none of the ornate landscaping that can be found in some city parks, this one has been built for function rather than form. It is still a great place for a picnic or a stroll, and to escape the noise and commotion of the city. And with the Royal Palace at one end and the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula at the other, there’s plenty of beautiful architecture around to provide that ‘wow factor’.

Parc du Cinquantenaire

As the main purpose of our visit was the EU conference that Ms Lust was attending, we spent a lot of time in and around the EU quarter. I have to be honest here and say that I didn’t find the area very interesting at all, and the buildings are what you would expect from any governmental institution. Most of them are not accessible either, the only notable exception to this is the European Parliament building, however you need to time it right to catch a session as they are mostly held in Luxembourg. I’d just like to point out now, what with Brexit being the hot topic at the moment, that I’m not against the EU in any way, I just don’t find that government buildings make for interesting viewing.

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So the discovery of a large park holding a number of museums in the area was a sight for sore eyes, and a much needed break from the surrounding environment. The park is about the same size as the Parc de Bruxelles, but it has had to provide the architecture itself. The centrepiece of the park is a huge colonnade with a grand arch in the middle of it, which now serves as the entrance to the main museums in the park. These are the Museum of Cinquantenaire and Autoworld, which are housed in two almost identical buildings facing each other. I didn’t have time to visit either of them, but they are at the top of the list for our visit this year. Behind the museums is a large fountain, much bigger than those found in the Parc de Bruxelles, and the seats dotted all the way around the perimeter of it serve as ideal places to stop and relax.

Museum of Musical Instruments

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Brussels is home to many museums, with an eclectic array of subject matters ranging from antiquities to beer, and fine art to modern-day comics. We only had to time to visit one unfortunately, and after reading leaflets and reviews we decided on visiting the Museum of Musical Instruments. Housed in the quirky ‘Old England’ building, which looks like it was lifted straight from a Jules Verne novel, this museum has a vast and wonderful collection of instruments from all over the world. The collection spans across many centuries of musical history as well, including some of the more unusual modern instruments. The museum is spread across a number of floors, with each floor dedicated to a particular group of instruments (woodwind, percussion, etc.). The museum isn’t too big, but the exhibits are very interesting and well-presented that we must have spent at least a couple of hours making our way around. On reaching the top of the building you will find a rooftop restaurant, famed for its wonderful views of the city. As is too often the case in places like this, they seem to think they can get by on this reputation alone, as the staff were so rude that we decided not to hang around to find out how bad the service must be. It seems to be just a buffet restaurant, so I wouldn’t hold high hopes for the quality of the good either. Thankfully you can still walk out onto the rooftop to enjoy the view even without staying to eat, and I would thoroughly recommend this option instead. Don’t let this put you off however, we still had a great time in the museum itself and would recommend it to everyone.

So that about covers what we managed to visit last year, but stay tuned because as you read this we’re already exploring more parts of the city. Now that we’ve seen the usual tourist sights, we’re planning to get off of the beaten track a bit to bring you some of the lesser known places to visit in this wonderful city.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

If you are planning a city break for a long weekend, Brussels should be one of your top choices. I know, I am biased because I have good friends there and because I always go for nice events, but there’s more to it than that.

From London, Brussels is incredibly easy to reach while avoiding the hassle of flying, and you also have extremely cheap options. I am a big fan of Eurostar as it leaves from St Pancras, a station that is easy to reach on the day and surrounded by cheap accommodation if you want to spend the night there before travelling. The tickets are very cheap outbound early in the morning and inbound late in the evening, which is perfect even to do just a day trip. Their punctuality is impeccable and, if not, their compensation is also fast and easy, and you have one year to use your discount. If you are not in a rush but really want to save money, you can go by bus. The trip takes about 7 h but you can find a return ticket for about £20-30.

As I have visited several times for a couple of days, and I am back right now as we publish the post, I will try and offer you a little itinerary that is a mix of my first three visits.

Brussels is one of the capitals of Europe as it hosts several of the EU institutions, and I would suggest you visit the European quarter, maybe take a couple of hours to do that if this is not the main focus of your trip. The Parliament can be visited and it is quite interesting as it gives you a good insight on the European history. Near the Parliament you can also see some of the segments of the Berlin Wall that are now scattered around Europe.

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The area is a bit dependant on the institutions for the rest, and you may have a bit of trouble to find a place open for breakfast, especially on weekends, but Exki is a good option, as this chain offers nice quality food on the go or to stay, and the staff seem nice, which is not a given in general in bars and restaurants in Brussels. Le Pain Quotidien is another quite famous chain that is also known around Europe and it is also a good option for breakfast, brunch or lunch in the city. Accomodation prices also depend on the work of the EU institutions and it is cheaper to book a room for the weekend than it is for weekdays, especially Mondays.

A place I really like in the area is Piola Libri, a bookshop and bar where you can have a nice Italian aperitivo while listening to music (there is a piano and sometimes live music) or a literary chat. Definitely a good place to enjoy a Spritz!

Brussels, and Belgium in general, are famous for some specialities that you should not miss. If we talk waffles, gaufres in French, you have two main recipes, the one from Liège (they are thicker and crispy as they are made with dough with a thin coating of caramelised sugar, their shape is irregular and they definitely are my favourite) or the one from Brussels (softer and spongy as they are made with batter, they usually have a perfect rectangular shape) . You can try both at Aux gaufres de Bruxelles and you won’t regret it. This place is quite famous and is not far from the city centre. You can either sit down and enjoy your treat there or get a take-away one from the side window.

Other famous dishes are chips and mussels with chips or, in French, frites and moules et frites. You may hear of many places to buy frites, but some don’t live up to their fame. You know I like British food, but sometimes I miss good, crispy chips and Brussels is your place if you can forget that what makes them so yummy and crispy is that they are cooked in pork fat! Maison Antoine is one of the best friteries, if not the best, and you find it surrounded by a few pubs that allow you to sit at their tables with your frites and just order drinks. Actually Maison Antoine’s website tells you which places accept frites, but in general it says in big letters on the canopies. Another famous place is Fritland but don’t be fooled by the reputation it has, it is now going down in several online rankings for a reason. Frit Flagey is also a famous friterie and it is in our list for this time!

The Grand Place is the touristic centre and definitely one of your main stops. The rectangular square is surrounded by beautiful buildings that have bars and restaurants on their ground level. Stopping for a coffee or a bite to enjoy in this beautiful place is tempting and you may do it if you are ready for a display of rude customer service. We had breakfast and lunch there on our last day and the food was not too bad but the service was up to Fawlty Towers’ standards!

One of the iconic sights of Brussels is Manneken-Pis, the bronze statue of a little boy urinating in the fountain. You will find it on a side street on the left of the Town Hall in the Grand Place, in the junction of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. This statue is often dressed with different outfits depending on dates and special events. The Order of Friends of Manneken-Pis also takes a reproduction on a procession around the Grand Place and up to the fountain during the day and you may be lucky enough to see this procession or unlucky enough to be close to the boy and be reached by his blessing. We were having our moules et frites so we could enjoy the show from a safe spot. If you want to follow sort of a path on the same subject, you should also visit Jeanneke-Pis, the female counterpart, in Impasse de la Fidélité / Getrouwheidsgang. She is a lot more recent, just from last century, while Manneken-Pis dates back to the XVII century. Last but not least, Het Zinneke is the statue of a urinating dog wrongly called Zinneke Pis dating back to the end of last century.

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If you are in the area, near to Het Zinneke, go for lunch or dinner to Fin de siècle. You cannot book but it is worth to wait if there is a queue. The décor has some reminiscence of Art Nouveau and the place is extremely busy. If you are not used to Belgian beers, put yourself in the barman’s hands and he will suggest something for your taste. The food menu is on the board behind the bar and you have a good choice, although the rabbit seems to be one of the most famous dishes. Despite it being extremely busy, the service is quite fast and the food is very good, you won’t be disappointed.

I know Mr Wander already took you around for a tour of Tintin’s graffitis, so I won’t repeat it as I have only done part due to my working commitments. If you are up for a walk away from the usual touristy places, get lost in the little streets in Ixelles until you reach Rue Keyenveld 48. The place is not open for visits but a plaque outside informs you that it is Audrey Hepburn’s birthplace and a big fan of the baroness as I am, I could not miss this spot after three visits!

Together with Mr Wander we visited the Musical Instruments Museum and we enjoyed the visit quite a lot. The building is beautiful from outside and it is quite big, with several floors that host musical instruments from around the world, modern and ancient. The beauty of the objects will leave you speechless. After that, you can try your luck for a drink or a bite at the rooftop restaurant but the staff didn’t seem too happy about us being there. We were one among three couples who left after a rude waiter refused to let us sit, we heard him saying to one of the couple that they were closed although they clearly were not! The views were nice but it didn’t seem worth the effort.

Bruxelles has a few lovely big parks if you enjoy a long walk, mainly Parc de Bruxelles and Parc du Cinquantenaire, and many smaller ones, you can find a pretty exhaustive list of green areas here. Something I have always missed is the Royal Palace as it only opens during the summer, see times here.

As I said, I am always there for trips that are a mix of pleasure and business and I always make the most of the little time I have to visit, so I guess we will discover more this time as well, and we will get to the wrong platform on the metro, another tradition that I seem to respect religiously every time I am in Brussels. So, what can I say? Stay tuned for more!

Ms Lust

Our side of London

Dear travellers,

One year ago, we were just coming back from New Zealand and for me it was finally the chance to show my London to Mr Wander. There were a few places that I loved and a few from where I used to chat to him while relaxing on a stroll. Little by little, we managed to tick the list and we want to share our favourite spots with you. London is so big and full of offers for things to do to suit everyone, and you can find countless lists. If you are visiting for the first time, you may still want to do the usual things and I am not going to tell you not to, although in all my years here I still haven’t been to some of the not to miss places and I don’t feel like I am missing anything.

Museums

The main museums in London are free and you can spend hours in them. The temporary exhibitions are separate and you have to buy the tickets. The Natural History Museum is my favourite because of all the animals and natural things to learn. The building itself is nice and, when at full capacity, the main entrance is mind-blowing, with the giant skeleton of the diplodocus welcoming visitors before they meet Darwin on the main staircase. Dippy, as it is called, went on tour for a while and the building is undergoing some refurbishment, so at the moment the visit may be slightly disappointing. Also, there were talkings of replacing Dippy with the skeleton of the blue whale that is currently in one of the rooms. The plan is to sensibilise visitors on the species that are in current danger of extinction. Maybe, this will be what will greet you when the refurbishment is over. The section with stuffed animals is interesting although slightly disturbing. Due to the change of laws since taxidermy started, most of the specimens on display are fairly old and faded because of the long years on display under strong lights. One of the most recent is the panda near the cafeteria, a famous guest of the London Zoo, Chi Chi, that was stuffed when she passed away in 1972. 

If you happen to be in London on the last Friday of the month, do not miss their Lates. After regular closing time, part of the museum opens again at 6 p.m. and you can enjoy a drink while walking around the rooms in a dim light and have a slightly quieter experience. Another chance to see the museum under a different light is Behind the scenes tour. This visit will take you through the Darwin Centre and you can see some of the specimens not on display, such as the giant squid and specimens collected by Darwin. You need to book for this visit but it is definitely worth to do it.

The NHM is in South Kensington together with two other major museums, the Science Museum and the V&A. I am not a science geek, therefore I have never enjoyed the Science Museum too much, but I would still dedicate it a bit of time if I were you, most of the people I know love it and totally recommend it. The V&A is a difference story. I have not visited for the first three years, I was not curious at at all, and when I finally did, I regretted my previous decision. The museum is incredible, with splendid artwork from Asia that will totally seduce you. I had the chance to be invited to a talk after closing hours and those ceramics and silverware in dim light are incredibly beautiful, and so is the building itself.

I am not a big fan of the British Museum and I know that it is a debatable opinion, but I can’t think otherwise. The building is beautiful from outside, but once inside it feels completely different, too open, modern, and too similar to a warehouse. The collections are impressive, that is not the problem, but something is not right, those high ceilings give an idea of openness and space that is not actually reflected on ground level, the museum is too crowded, constantly, and feels oppressive. The Rosetta Stone is not to miss but easily missed. The symbol of translators, it is always surrounded by so many arms with phones trying to focus from every angle that it is almost impossible to see the stone. The same is said for the Egyptian section, it is hard to walk through and it feels as we were about to knock some precious artefact on the floor. They are basically all behind glass but the feeling is there nonetheless. If you have seen the Egyptian Museum in Turin you won’t miss too much.

The National Gallery is probably the most accessible because it is in Trafalgar Square. It is absolutely worth the visit. It covers some of the main artistic currents and it is a pleasure to walk in, both for the building and for the art exposed. Some paintings are the most famous and are always surrounded by many people with smart phones again, but most of my favourites are not among the most wanted, so I am lucky. One of my favourite paintings of all time is Leonardo’s Virgin of the rocks and for that there is no chance, cornered as it is in a small room, it is luckily big enough to overlook smartphones and reaching arms. The same can be said for Van Gogh’s section. I have often claimed Raphael as my ancestor, a bit joking but not with a bit of hope that the common surname and region of origin may mean something. Well, uncle’s paintings are often surrounded by enough quiet for me to always enjoy at least Pope Julius II’s portrait. As I love Caravaggio’s work and it is too dark and gloomy, I usually don’t have to fight too much so pop in to enjoy his masterpieces and say hi to Saint Jerome in the same room. You know, he is the patron saint of translators, I feel a visit is the least I can do when I am there. 

On the actual square, there are a few permanent things to see and a few that change, like the sculpture on the fourth plinth. For a long while, I remember a ship in a bottle, then a blue rooster. Currently, it shows a sculpture called Really Good by David Shrigley.

Walks

Embankment is my favourite spot, for a long time I went back there in the evenings to walk along the Thames and relax. It was a sort of therapy to reconcile with the city because, no matter how hard the day had been, the immense beauty of the landscape could soothe me and would remind me of why I loved the city. Start at Westminster station or Charing Cross and walk along the river on the north side, seeing the London Eye on the other shore. Reach the boundary dragons and then walk back a little to then walk up to Strand and pop in to the Twinings shop in 216 Strand, a narrow shop that has been there since the XVIII century and offers a wide selection of teas and coffees, tasting and recipe ideas, and some classes to be booked in advance. You can buy single bags of many varieties and find some exclusive ones that are not available in shops. You won’t regret it!

As I said, I love walking along the river, and the other shore is equally good, just more crowded. If you prefer, instead of starting at Westminster Bridge, walk a bit along Embankment before and cross on the following bridge to avoid the crowds around the aquarium and the London Eye. You should arrive just in front of some of the restaurants and, if you keep walking, you arrive at Waterloo station. There are so many things to see and beautiful spots to capture in your photographs along this side. You can walk up to Tower Bridge and get a few good shots of all the landmarks around there: HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge itself, and the Tower of London. At the moment, you also have some open bars near the bridge and if the weather is good you can enjoy a drink there. You will always also find a soft ice cream van and the little kiosks that sell caramelised peanuts, my favourite treat during the long London walks. 

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I have to admit I walk a lot, so maybe you don’t have to follow all my suggestions if you get tired very easily. If you are an explorer, instead, remember that it is said that you can walk around all London just hopping from one park to the other. Well, I have done a fair bit of that starting in Hyde Park, from Marble Arch or Wellington Arch, and ending up either in Hammersmith on one direction or in Vauxhall on the other. If you want more ideas, check out this article with some great walks. I have done most of the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Walk and I love it.

Walking or not, there are two things I would tell you to visit in Earl’s Court if you are a fan:

Doctor Who’s Tardis is just outside the station, behind a kiosk. It is not open to visit (you would get lost), but you can take a picture before the Doctor leaves again;

– Freddie Mercury’s house in Logan Place. You cannot visit it, you can just see the wall with the love messages and the flowers. I cannot explain why, you just need to have grown up with Queen and will understand. I have been there several times and met nice people and bitter neighbours, but I love going back. As last time with Mr Wander we didn’t take a picture, here is a shot from 2015.

Tower of London and Ceremony of the Keys

The visit to the Tower of London is definitely worth it despite the high price of the ticket, but it takes a long time. If you decide to go, give it priority because it will take up most of the day. I am not a fan of jewels at all, and all those displayed there, all at once, are quite disturbing, but there are so many more sections of the tower that have so much story behind them, that it makes up for it. An alternative visit you can do is the Ceremony of the Keys. You can do both, as they are pretty different from one another, but you really need to plan the second one a lot better and in advance. The first time I went, it was not that known and the waiting list was three months, but last time I checked it was over a year!

It is something that stayed as it has been for hundreds of years, which means that photography is not allowed but that you can enjoy it fully. The Tower used to be a castle, then a prison, and is now a museum with incredibly valuable items to be preserved. Every night, the tower is locked by the guards and a small group of people is allowed to watch from a small distance and escorted by one of the Yeoman Warders. The protocol hasn’t changed apart from the monarch’s name and it is humbling to witness it. Before and after, the guide will explain a bit about the history of the tower and of the main (free or forced) visitors. That part is the same that you also have for the day tour, but the rest is nothing similar to it or any other tours. 

Check availability and save your confirmation because you will lose it if you have to wait one year before you use it! The ticket is free and there is just a small booking fee to pay online.

Food and drink

Don’t worry, this section won’t be an all Italian list, not only I am not a big fan of Italian cuisine over the rest, but I am able to cook fairly decently myself, therefore I prefer to have Italian food at home or in Italy and to enjoy other flavours when in the big city. If you follow my Instagram, you will know that I am a big fan of British pubs and their food, therefore I will give you my top three places in London.

It is no surprise that my favourite pub is along the Thames and near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the views are among the most beautiful you can have (and London is not short of them), the food has always been good, and they even accept bookings for groups. I never had problems when I tried to celebrate something there. Oh, wait, I haven’t given you the name yet! I am talking of the Founders Arms. On the side of the Tate Modern and a short walk from St Paul’s through the Millennium Bridge, the pub has an interesting menu that has changed a few times since the first time I went, and a good choice of beers; you won’t find my favourite, but their stout is not bad either. If you book, the table will be inside, but if you find available tables outside just go for them, few things beat relaxing with a pint looking at the beautiful skyline. Even I willingly sat outside for dinner in winter, that says it all!

If you are in the centre and fancy a bit of Irish atmosphere, my second favourite pub is your place: Waxy O’Connor’s. Just next to Piccadilly Circus, this pub is a huge wooden maze with several levels, countless steps, and furniture that recalls a gothic cathedral (including a confessional!). I booked there a few times as well, and it takes a while to find your table when you arrive, both because no one has any idea and whomever is sitting there usually takes the signs away hoping to be able to keep the table. The pub usually gets pretty busy and you will struggle to enjoy your drinks if you don’t have a table. The prices are what you can expect in central London and the food is average, I just love the actual ambiance and decor of the place, especially the huge tree climbing several levels along the staircase.

If you are going for a more elegant night, the Madison is the place for you. It is the sort of place where you won’t be allowed in if you are wearing trainers, so plan your outfit accordingly if you are thinking of going there. The prices are not scary as you can imagine for a rooftop bar overlooking St Paul’s. You have the main bar and restaurant with sofas in front of floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, the terrace with the incredible views, and another bar with no seats inside mainly to serve the terrace.

Now a few tips before leaving you:

– Register your Oyster card (or your contactless card if you pay with that instead) on the TfL website or you are likely to be charged extra. I have used my Oyster all the years I have been living in London, but now I only go once every 6-7 weeks and I use my contactless card. Before registering, Mr Wander and I got charged different amounts a few times, but the refunds were immediate when we finally remembered to register.

– Walk or use the bus when you can. At peak times, some stations are so crowded that it takes ages to even reach the train, let alone getting on it. Also, some stations are so huge that you may end up walking for almost ten minutes inside the station itself, so you may as well do it outside.

– It may seem obvious but few people seem to keep these two things in mind: use bags that you can close and remember to fasten them against rain and pickpockets, and stand on the right and walk on the left in escalators.

Looking forward to our next trip to London to discover more places, stay tuned!

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

When we were originally planning our return to the UK, it seemed like the obvious choice that we would return where Ms Lust had been living previously, London. As it turned out, this wasn’t to be the case, and we ended up living in Cambridgeshire instead, but we still travel down to London regularly to see friends. I’d never been a fan of London, it has always seemed too crowded for me, but I have to say that I have enjoyed it a lot more having Ms Lust to show me around her favourite spots. So, here are some of our favourite places that we have visited in the past year in London, in no particular order.

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National Gallery

This was the most recent of our visits, and was only decided upon in the spur of the moment, on the tube on the way there to be precise! We were travelling to London for some chores and to meet friends, but we had a few hours spare in between to fill. As we were going to be near Trafalgar Square anyway, the National Gallery seemed like a good choice. I’m not much of an art aficionado and I honestly didn’t think I would enjoy it that much, however I was very mistaken and the two hours we spent there just flew by. I’m glad I had Ms Lust with me to act as my guide as the place is like a maze, I would definitely have been lost in there for days if I had been on my own!

I’m not going to try and describe the works that are there, as I would only end up embarrassing myself and it’s probably better if you look it up or, even better, go and see it for yourselves. Anyhow, I’m sure Ms Lust will provide a brief commentary on the main masterpieces. To begin with, it seemed to be just portrait paintings, mainly of a religious vein, which were not too dissimilar to those that we had seen in the Vatican City and not really my taste in art. I’m more of a landscape art fan and happily these types of paintings began to feature more and more as we worked our way through the museum. The museum is set up so that if you follow the suggested route, you will be working your way through history and the associated periods and styles of artwork. We missed the first section and possibly a chunk in the middle, but we still managed to see at least two-thirds of the museum in the couple of hours that we spent there. I was also quite glad that it wasn’t too busy, despite it being a rainy Saturday during the school summer holidays, and there was only a few crowds of people near the most popular artworks, such as the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. Elsewhere there was plenty of visitors, but it was quiet enough that you could still make your way around the museum in comfort. If you’re looking for something to do for a couple of hours, whether on a rainy day or just to fill some time, I’d definitely recommend giving the National Gallery a go. Who knows, you may even surprise yourself like I did!

Natural History Museum lates

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The Natural History Museum has always been on my wish list of places to visit in London, and when I found out about their late night openings I was even more determined to go. Occurring on the last Friday of every month, the museum stays open beyond its usual closing time and the doors aren’t shut until 10pm. I’m still yet to have visited the museum during the daytime so I cannot make any comparisons between the two, all I can say is that it was a lot more relaxed and quieter than I would expect it to be during the day. Drinks and snacks are available for the evening session, which adds to the relaxed atmosphere as people stroll around the exhibits whilst enjoying a glass of red.

Our visit was just a little too late to be able to see Dippy the Diplodocus before he embarked on his nationwide tour, and his temporary replacement, Hope the Blue Whale, had not yet been given her new home. Nevertheless there was still plenty to see and do and we ended up spending a good couple of hours exploring the museum, and we now have a perfect excuse for a follow-up visit! It isn’t quite Night At The Museum, but it’s close, and it’s a fantastic way to meet with friends for a drink or two and hopefully learning a few things along the way.

Ceremony of the Keys

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Until only recently, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where in the city you would find the Tower of London, so I certainly had never visited before. Almost as soon as we had decided that we would be leaving New Zealand and returning to the UK, Ms Lust jumped on the internet and started looking into booking tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys. This ceremony is an ancient tradition that has taken place here since the 14th century, in which the keys of the Tower of London are brought out for the gates to be locked for the night. Nowadays it is possible for members of the public to witness the ceremony taking place, and a limited number of tickets are made available each day. The tickets are free (with just a small booking charge applicable) however it is necessary to book well in advance, especially if you are planning to include it as part of a holiday to London. We booked in July 2016 and the earliest tickets we could get were for February 2017, the website currently advises that the ceremony is fully booked for almost a year!

The ceremony is not particularly long, the entire event takes just over 30 minutes and includes some storytelling about the tradition, and it takes place entirely outside, so it is necessary to wrap up warm and to be prepared for rain (this is the UK after all!). I won’t go into describing the ceremony itself too much, photography is not permitted in order to preserve its heritage and uniqueness so I think describing it in detail would be just as damaging, all I will say is that it is a wonderful experience and a taste of true ‘Britishness’. Reputedly one of the oldest surviving ceremonies of its kind, having been enacted every night for over 700 years, you won’t find many more chances to witness history like this.

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As we had booked tickets for a weekday and had to come to London after work, we only had time to arrive in time for the ceremony itself. Due to the nature of the ceremony, all the guests are subsequently escorted out of the Tower of London via a side gate at the end so I still need to come back one day to visit properly!

Hyde Park

We’ve been here together a number of times now, for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason for mentioning Hyde Park comes before any of those. It was a photo that Ms Lust took in Hyde Park, while enjoying a day off work, that really ignited our existing friendship and led us to where we are now. I was still living in New Zealand at this point and it was from this photo that we started chatting a lot more and I eventually convinced her to come and join me. The rest of this story has already been told, you can find it here if you need to fill in the gaps!

Ever since my first trip to London with my family when I was young, Hyde Park has always been my favourite of London’s parks. I’m not sure if it’s the size that impressed me, the variety of landscapes, or both, but whatever it was has stayed with me and, if anything, is stronger now than it has ever been. The park is vast and provides an excellent area for walking, running, cycling etc., while the kiosks beside The Serpentine are great places to grab a quick lunch to enjoy by the water. There really is something for everyone here, it’s the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for an hour or two.

Battersea

Battersea always conjures up two images in my head, the power station that became a national icon after the campaign to save it from demolition, and Battersea Dog’s Home which found fame as one of reality TV’s early stars. Despite this, I had never been to Battersea or even seen the power station from across the river, so when Ms Lust asked me to choose where we should go in London one day, Battersea sprung to mind. After a bit more research we discovered that Battersea Park is also well-renowned, so we added that to the list as well.

After getting off of the tube at Vauxhall, and taking a few clandestine photos of James Bond’s London office, we opted to walk along the river to Battersea. This turned out to be a mistake, as the power station is currently being redeveloped and a lot of the walkway has been closed due to the associated construction work. Forced to walk through back-streets and housing estates instead, I have to say that I was very disappointed with the power station. Swathed in scaffolding and construction site fences, while the famous chimneys battle with cranes for air superiority, it’s certainly no longer the symbol of industry that it once was. Destined to become expensive apartments and a swanky new shopping complex, a small part of me wishes Fred Dibnah had had his way all those years ago. In my mind this wonderful building should have been turned into a museum, preserving its dignity and honouring its past, not degraded into becoming a showpiece for the privileged few.

We continued on to Battersea Park, however after our long walk to get that far we weren’t in the mood for exploring too much more. So we sat for a little while by the lake and had a bite to eat before catching a bus back across the river. The park was pleasant and seemed to be a popular place to visit, but Battersea had already been ruined for me and I won’t be hurrying back there any time soon.

Waxy O’Connors

We’ve been to a number of pubs in London but this is the one that has really stuck in my mind. An Irish bar located in Soho, this place is truly unique. The inside is a maze of bars, rooms, and staircases, all appearing as if they had been carved out inside a tree. I would not have been at all surprised to have seen a few Hobbits or Goblins enjoying a drink, it really did give the impression that it is straight out of a movie. I’m again thankful for having had Ms Lust as my official guide, it is possible I could have been lost here for days as well! We only stopped for a quick afternoon drink, however I would love to come back here for St Patrick’s Day, the atmosphere must be incredible.

Tardis

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For all the Doctor Who fans out there, London is home to a must-see. Amongst all of London’s quirky police paraphernalia, such as Britain’s smallest police station on Trafalgar Square, remains one of the last few surviving police call-boxes. That’s right, if you want to see a real-life Tardis all you have to do is pop over to Earl’s Court, and take a short walk out of the tube station. I was expecting it to be more popular than it seemed, anticipating a small queue of fans waiting for a photoshoot, but we were the only ones there that seemed to be even vaguely interested in it. Definitely worth a quick stop or a detour if you are in the area.

That’s all for now, but with more trips to come there’ll be additions to the list in the near future.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander