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

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Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

Dear readers,

It has been almost a year now since we returned to the UK from New Zealand, and in this time we have spent many wonderful weekends and holidays exploring the island that we now call home. The bank holiday weekends are a perfect opportunity to venture a little further away from home without having to take any extra days off from work, and this post is all about our trip to Portsmouth and Winchester during the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in May. It was only about a week before the actual bank holiday that we realised that we hadn’t yet booked anything, and I quickly went about searching for places we could visit. Originally we set our sights on Durham, I had found available accommodation and knew that it is a beautiful city to explore. However, on the very next day, the news headlines were full of stories claiming that the bank holiday weekend was set to see some excellent sunny weather, and the weather forecasts were all similarly upbeat. So that was all it took, the plans were quickly changed, and we found and booked accommodation in Portsmouth instead, ready for our first British seaside weekend. Unfortunately, with about two days to go, the outlook changed and it seemed that the prospect of an early start to summer had been a little optimistic. The weather forecasts, as they invariably do, had made some swift u-turns and were now predicting a very wet weekend. Still, it was now too late to change our plans again, so we prepared for the worst and devised some plans for making the most of the weekend.

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A final check of the weather report before we left home showed that the wet weather wasn’t due to hit the south coast until mid-afternoon, so we had a brief window to try and fit in as much “seasideness” as possible! A trip to the British seaside could never be complete without tucking into some fish and chips on the beach, ideally without being washed away! As we would be arriving around lunchtime, that looked like the perfect way to start the weekend. After much research, a suitable fish and chip shop had been found and we made a beeline straight there after having checked in at our accommodation. Only a short walk to the seafront, it gave us plenty of time to arrive at the beach before the storm, which was now visibly approaching on the horizon. Although I’ll never turn down the opportunity to have fish and chips anywhere, it always seems so much better at the seaside. I’m not even sure that the quality of the fish is any different, it is the smell and sounds of the sea that just makes it seem like a more authentic experience. Juggling the tasks of eating and guarding your food from greedy seagulls, accompanied by the soundtrack of screams from individuals brave/stupid enough to go into the sea, brings back so many memories from my childhood, and I was extremely happy to be able to now share this experience with Ms Lust. We managed to finish our lunch on the beach without any sudden downpours or unwanted attention from the local seabird population, but it was now very clear that the rain wasn’t far away.

South Parade Pier was just a couple of hundred metres further along the beach so we decided to head there for another British seaside tradition, the amusement arcades. Happily we are both suckers for the two-penny machines and we were content to spend an hour or so playing with these while the weather battered the coast. Once we had become bored of the amusements, we ventured back outside to find the rain still coming down heavily. As there was an ice cream shop conveniently located next door, and under the same canopy so there was no need to go out into the rain, we popped in here for an ice cream, we were determined to stick to seaside traditions even if the weather wasn’t! It was clear by the time that we had finished our ice creams that the rain wasn’t likely to stop any time soon, so we donned our waterproofs (another British tradition, never leave home without them!) and walked back to where we were staying. Both tired from the day spent travelling and a heavy lunch, we ended up falling asleep for a few hours and were delighted to find the sky a lot less foreboding when we woke up.

Up until this point, having spent all of our time in the suburb of Southsea, Portsmouth hadn’t felt any different to me than just another generic British seaside town with nothing to really set it apart from anywhere else. However, as we walked along the seafront to Portsmouth harbour, and its plethora of bars and restaurants, it was clear to see that I had been wrong. The first glint of hope had come as we walked past Southsea Castle, a coastal fort dating back to the 16th century. We didn’t have time to visit the castle but the walk past was pleasant enough for it to stick in my memory, the surrounding parkland provides an excellent distraction from the nearby reminders of the tackier side of the British seaside. The real treat was still yet to come, and as Portsmouth’s harbour came into view I immediately realised I had been too quick to judge. The area has clearly been recently modernised and redeveloped, into a vibrant waterside complex. There are bars and restaurants everywhere, but not in any way overwhelming, and the most impressive of these is the Spinnaker Tower, which must have incredible views from the viewing decks and restaurant at the top. We also weren’t able to enjoy this ourselves as we had a dinner reservation to get to, and the weather still wasn’t great and would have limited the view, but it is definitely something I would like to do if we went back to the area. As I said, we had reservations, at the Loch Fyne restaurant. Being a national chain and fairly well known, I won’t go into too much detail about it, all I will say is that we had a fantastic meal and would definitely eat at Loch Fyne again whenever we get the chance.

After dinner, we went for a bit more of a stroll around the harbour before deciding on a suitable place for an after dinner drink. Although we weren’t too sure whether it was a pub or a brewery from its outside appearance, we decided on The Old Customs House and we couldn’t have made a better choice. The exterior was fairly plain and unimpressive, hence our confusion, yet the interior felt more like something that should be found in a stately home. A large double staircase greeted us as we entered and we made our way through to the bar. The bar area is separated into a number of rooms, each resembling a library or a drawing room. The room we chose had only four tables in it, with armchairs and stools dotted around, which made it feel very cosy and homely, and it was the perfect place for a relaxing, after-dinner drink. As we left, we had to decide whether to walk back to our accommodation and brave the weather, or to see if we could figure out where and when to get a bus back. In the interests of simplicity we decided to walk, and fortunately it only rained lightly during the half hour or so that it took. We took a more direct route back, through Portsmouth’s university area, which gave an interesting insight into the nightlife of Portsmouth. I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, but it actually seemed like a really cool place to go for a night out, and there didn’t appear to be much trouble or fighting going on. Certainly not what I had anticipated from a naval town such as this!

The following day, we decided that we had probably seen the best of Portsmouth already and that, as it still wasn’t ideal beach weather, we would head to Winchester after having had breakfast. We looked up where would be best for breakfast in Portsmouth, and on arrival to The Parade Tea Rooms the queue suggested that it had a well-earned reputation. Unfortunately, the food didn’t live up to the hype and I can only really judge it as satisfactory, certainly not anything to write home about. This wasn’t helped by being seated directly under the air conditioning and next to a very loud, large group, and we were quite happy to be leaving once we had finished eating. Refuelled, we then hit the road again and made the 50 minute journey to Winchester, of course taking the more scenic route through the South Downs National Park.

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On arriving in Winchester, we found somewhere to park and set about exploring the city. There are a number of suggested self-guided walking tours of the city and we initially began with one of those. The first stop was the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, which houses the equally magnificent Winchester Bible. Believed to have been commissioned in 1160, it is considered to be the greatest Bible ever made in England. Each page features vivid, detailed illustrations and historiated initials, although the illustrations were never completely finished. At the time of our visit, the area of the cathedral where the Bible is usually housed was undergoing restoration, and a temporary home for it had been provided. It was still possible to see the Bible behind its glass casing, and some of the most colourful and impressive illustrations had been recreated on wall banners around the room. Its new home, when completed, will provide visitors with even more information about the Bible and a better viewing platform for it, while the Bible itself is also undergoing restoration and rebinding.

The cathedral’s other claim to fame is that it is the final resting place of Jane Austen, she passed away in July 1817 after travelling to Winchester to seek medical help. At the time of her death, she was mostly unknown as a writer and many of her novels were still yet to be published. Because of this her funeral was a very low-key affair with only four attendees, and her original gravestone makes no mention of her writings. This has now been resolved with a brass plaque on the wall opposite her grave, paid for by her nephew in 1870 from the proceeds of his memorial to his aunt. Above this, a stained glass window was also erected in her memory in 1900, which was paid for by public donations.

The one feature of the cathedral that has really stuck in my mind is the crypt, one of the earliest sections of the cathedral which would have been built in the late 11th century. The crypt itself isn’t open to visitors, but there is a small viewing platform which can be reached via a few stone steps. You are then presented with an eerie scene, as a sculpture of a man looking into his hands has been placed in the middle of the crypt. Due to the cathedral having been built on land which is very prone to waterlogging, the crypt often floods during rainy periods and the water can reach as far up as the waist of the sculpture. Fortunately it was dry when we visited and it was possible to see the full extent of the crypt, despite the rain that had scuppered our beach plans! In the early 1900’s, the cathedral was in danger of being completely destroyed due to it’s waterlogged foundations, and is only standing today due to the immense efforts of a diver named William Walker. Brought in to help with work to underpin the cathedral’s foundations after large cracks started to form throughout the cathedral, he spent six years working underwater to excavate the existing foundations and to place concrete sacks to strengthen and seal them. Only once he had completed this task could the water be pumped out and further work completed to safeguard the cathedral from subsidence and subsequent collapse. In honour of his efforts, there is a statue of William Walker in the cathedral along with his diving helmet.

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On leaving the cathedral, we had a quick walk around the Dean Garnier Garden. Situated just beside the cathedral, it was a pleasant distraction for about fifteen minutes but as neither of us are particularly horticulturally-minded we didn’t linger for too long. We continued our stroll and then came across Wolvesey Castle, also known as the Old Bishop’s Palace. Built for one of the old Bishops of Winchester, it has now been reduced to ruins and is in the care of English Heritage. Entry is free and there are some information panels dotted about to help understand the functions of each room. There isn’t too much to see here, but it’s definitely worth spending an hour to visit.

Following this we felt that we had managed to see the major attractions in Winchester, so we continued our walk along the river until it brought us back into the city centre. All that walking had given us an appetite, so it was definitely now time for lunch! We found a nice pub for lunch, which was then followed by a final walk through the rest of the city centre to bring us back to where we had parked the car.

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So that basically brings us to the end of our trip to the British seaside. Unfortunately it wasn’t as ‘seasidey’ as we would have liked, but I think we’ve both been in the UK long enough now to not rely on the weather too much. We still managed to have a great weekend despite the rain, and I’m certainly looking forward to returning to this part of the country again at some point, hopefully with the sun shining!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

A very famous Italian song says something like “winter at the beach is an concept that the mind cannot conceive”. I find my strength in water, but I have never understood the beauty of visiting the seaside in winter and I have always quoted this song to those that claim that the beach in winter is extremely romantic. If you go to the beach, you need to be able to dive, snorkel, pretend you know how to do synchronised swimming, and all those things of the same style that tell everyone that you are an adult only according to your passport.

With this introduction, please feel free to ask what on earth I had in mind when I suggested to go to the seaside for May bank holiday when I knew it was going to rain. The answer will be that I have no idea. The previous week was incredibly hot and that, in a Sardinian brain, equals going to the beach, and so we did. We packed our flip flops and sandals, our strapless tops and dresses (or whatever Mr Wander’s version of that is), and we drove down to Portsmouth for the weekend to have a full British seaside experience. Of course, that also includes torrential rain. Anyway, let’s not go that far yet.

As usual, Mr Wander took care of the booking and found one of the best places we have been in so far. According to AirBnb, it was a lucky find as it is usually booked. The room was huge, with a very tall but comfy bed and all one can wish for, namely a dresser with mirror and a majestic bow window. The bathroom was tiny, more reminiscent of the ones that you find in a boat than of anything else, but it was brand new and with a decent size shower enclosure, so no problem at all. There was also a small separate kitchen with all the essentials and, in hindsight, we should definitely have had breakfast there, as the place we choose was disappointing to say the least.

As we arrived just before check-in time, we just left the car there and left for exploring. Lunch was sorted, if we want to say so, as we were planning on having fish and chips on the beach just before the storm. We headed to the Southsea roundabout where our research said we could find one of the best fish and chip places in town. Well, all I can say is that:

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While waiting for the food, just in front of the shop is a mural with the map of the city. it is an interesting project that was unveiled in 2012 and uses the technique of the trompe l’œil (literally, trick the eye). From a balcony at the top, a few people unroll a map of the city with some of the business listed. Around the map, more characters that are famous for the city (the founder and other renowned people), pop in from the windows or the street. Some important British people, such as most recently Henry VIII and Robin Hood, are painted in the likeness of Portsmouth residents. I say most recently because the peculiarity of this mural is that it is an ongoing work of art, with characters and places added every year.

We got our lunch and we headed to the sea, as the sky seemed to be holding off for the moment. We had time to enjoy our fish and chips while trying to understand what the huge platforms were that we could see offshore, but we had to leave soon after as it was starting to rain. We went to the arcade, the seaside quintessential attraction. We tried to win a cuddly toy, we played at the 2p machines for a while, and we left with some tokens in our pockets that were not even enough for a Chupa Chups. At this point, it was raining without mercy and we just walked next door to have a handmade ice cream at the Ice Cream Emporium. We chose it because we didn’t want to get wet but we didn’t regret it. The place is tiny, with a decent choice of flavours. All in white and aquamarine tones, it is decorated with ropes and boat-like gizmos that make it quite happy. At the back there are a few tables in perfect 1970’s American diner style. We could have probably stayed there for a while longer but the rain was not showing any sign of wanting to end soon, so we gathered all our courage and left anyway. We were less than 10 minutes walk from the accommodation and we tried to be as fast as we could. We were a bit tired after the trip and the undesired shower and we just fell asleep for the whole afternoon. We may have not explored too much, but we woke up to a sort of clear sky.

We decided to try our luck again and we walk to the harbour for dinner, also because we wanted to see a bit of this island city. Oh, yes, do you know that Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city? We hadn’t planned any cultural visit, we are not ashamed of admitting it, but now we feel we should go again for a bit of visiting rather than just relaxing. We just went for a walk along the coast and had a glimpse of the castle while walking to Gunwharf Quays. We had booked a table at Loch Fyne and we had plenty of time. The Quays are pretty distinctive, as they are modern and crammed with restaurants and pubs, but the most surprising feature is the Spinnaker Tower that makes you feel like you are in Dubai for a moment. Almost in front, is a huge figurehead from the HMS Marlborough. This figurehead represents the Duke of Marlborough and was used on the ship built in the second half of the XIX century. After being the flagship of the fleet for many years, the ship passed to be used for training engineers and then for the Torpedo School. When the ship was broken up in 1924, the figurehead was placed in its current position and, with the Spinnaker Tower on its side, it provides a perfect shot in perspective.

I have to admit that I often avoid restaurant chains and I usually prefer to go to local pubs. Probably because I have worked in a few places of this kind and I know that quality doesn’t come automatically with the name of a chain, I’d rather try small businesses and independent restaurants. For this reason, I had never been to any Loch Fyne in all my years in the UK. I am glad I trusted Mr Wander this time, because we had a really nice dinner. As it had stopped raining and it was not supposed to start again before 10 p.m., we wanted to sit outside, but we had to go inside anyway for dinner, and that was the only downside of the night, I would say. Before actually ordering for dinner, we had a Spritz outside enjoying the nice quiet between storms.

The dinner was good in general, but I have to say that my happiness arrived with dessert. By rule, you know, I don’t trust pubs that don’t offer sticky toffee pudding, but I am more flexible with restaurants, they can offer Eton Mess instead. Well, they did and I loved it, the cream was simply scrumptious! Mr Wander opted for whisky instead, in preparation for our tour of Scotland.

After dinner, hoping for a longer truce from the weather, we went for another drink at the Old Customs House, a pub just in front of the restaurant with a huge terrace and also plenty of space inside, definitely our choice as it was starting to become quite chilly. The building was used as the administrative headquarters of HMS Vernon until the late 1980s and dates back to 200 years earlier. When it was acquired by Fullers, it was not refurbished until 2012, when it went through a massive renovation in record time. As it is now, the place shines without having lost any of the old style fashion. With a huge double staircase to go to the toilets and a few small rooms with comfy sofas and armchairs apart from the main rooms with the bars, the pub makes you think of one of those gentlemen clubs that you imagine when reading Sherlock Holmes adventures. The atmosphere, together with their selection of beers, made us immediately agree that we made the right choice, judge for yourselves:

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The walk home was not bad, even if it started raining, as it was not much. Despite the cultural offer, we were not keen on staying in Portsmouth the following day after breakfast, and we decided to go to Winchester. Before leaving, we stopped for breakfast at The Parade Tea Room and we regretted it quite a lot. The place was full with a queue at the door but, as everyone was waiting for big tables, we could sit down immediately because they had one for two people. After all my work in restaurants I should have known better: If a place is full, don’t stay, the service and food will be bad. I didn’t listen to my experience and we ended up with a horrible breakfast. The room does not receive enough fresh air, therefore the air conditioning was trying to compensate by blowing cold air in the corner. The result was that the quality of the air was still bad and we had to eat with our jackets on. The wait was as we were told but the food was far below average. I had the vegetarian breakfast and the sausage was dry and tasteless, probably reheated a few times, definitely not fresh. The toasts came already buttered, which is a horrible habit. I understand you don’t want to waste your butter by putting some on each plate, but I don’t want butter on my toast, so I should be informed and given the choice. The egg was dry and overcooked. The cutlery was dirty, with old food stuck all over it, and after changing two knives and a teaspoon from the self-service desk, we gave up. To complete the picture, the need for tables was so bad that they were obviously trying to take stuff away as soon as possible to make people leave. Overall, definitely a thumbs down and I place I would never suggest!

We drove to Winchester without really knowing too much because, as I said, we didn’t really plan to go there. The place was a great surprise, I loved it very much and I was quite relaxed at lunchtime when we chose a pub that seemed not too bad but, as the rest, seemed to have suffered from a shortage of staff during the bank holiday. The main feature of the city is the Cathedral without any doubt, and a visit to it won’t disappoint you in the least. The cathedral is undergoing some major refurbishment but even with some parts being closed, it still takes your breath away. Pure Gothic style, the building dates back to XI century and is the longest Gothic Cathedral in Europe. The stone vault is more recent as it replaced the wooden ceiling in XIV century and it creates an incredible perspective that goes from the main nave to the choir, a beautifully chiselled wooden structure that, at the time of our visit, was used by the Danish choir for practice for the evening concert. We sat for a while, listening to them, before resuming our visit. Several famous people are buried in the cathedral, but no one deserved in my eyes more interest than Jane Austen. The author moved to the city hoping to find a solution for her condition but passed away soon after and was buried there. Her nephew, later, dedicated a plaque to her recognising her talent and her work.

One of the most important features of the cathedral is the Winchester Bible, a precious copy of the Bible in four volumes that dates back to XII century. Written by a single scribe, it was decorated by several artists with illuminations, which are decorations made with gold and silver leaves, and precious stones. For the fact of being the largest and best preserved example, the specimen is extremely precious and it is kept in special display cases that keep constant temperature and light. To protect the volume on display, photography is not permitted, but you can find out more about it and the rest of the cathedral on their website. The Bible is usually on display on the right side of the transept but that area is currently closed for refurbishment and the book now has its installation on the left, near the crypt. Here, a modern exhibition features a life-size statue of a man looking at the water in his hands. The crypt gets submerged during rainy months and offers a peculiar mirror effect.

Next to the cathedral and offering a beautiful view of it, there was a monastery and what was the monks’ dormitory is now the Dean Garnier Garden, a walled garden maintained by volunteers and open to the public. A short walk away from the cathedral is Wolvesey Castle, also known as Old Bishop’s Palace, a medieval castle that was the residence of the Bishop of Winchester for a few centuries up to the English Civil War. The building doesn’t exist anymore and the ruins of the ground floor are now an English Heritage site that can be visited for free. As the ruins are near the river, a short walk along the water will take you to the city centre again and took us to our late lunch at about 4 p.m.

That was all for our first trip of the year to the glorious British seaside and we are still waiting to repeat the experience. I am actually longing for some sea water on my feet but the weather doesn’t seem keen to cooperate. Will we be able to repeat before we go to Cornwall? Stay tuned to our profiles to find out!

Ms Lust

WPC – Bridge

Dear readers,

It’s time once again for the weekly photo challenge, and this week’s topic is ‘Bridge‘. Having just come back from our trip to the Isle of Skye for Ms Lust’s birthday (which you can read all about here), it seemed too much of a coincidence not to include a photo of one of the many beautiful old bridges that are to be found on the island.

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However, it’s unlikely that anyone will be going to Skye just to see the bridges, as the landscapes themselves are the main draw and the bridges simply add to the aesthetics. 

That’s not quite the case for my next subject, which is also my favourite bridge. The Sydney Harbour Bridge may not be the main attraction in Sydney Harbour, as it is next to the famous Sydney Opera House, but it certainly was for me. 

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This is the first photo (of many!) that I ever took of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, after having walked through the city in order to see the Sydney Opera House. I hadn’t even given the bridge a moment’s thought, but as soon as I saw it dominating the views of the harbour I was instantly awestruck. Ever since then, this has become my favourite place in Sydney and I always try to visit no matter how short my stay in Australia is. 

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This photo was taken during Vivid Sydney, a light festival which sees many of the city’s famous sites being lit up at night. At this time of the year, the bridge really does live in the shadow of the opera house, which is lit up with colourful artwork projected onto the famous sails. However, the bridge does get a light show of its own and it is still a part of the festivities. The bridge’s time to shine comes at New Year’s Eve when it becomes the showpiece of Sydney’s New Year’s firework display, and then it really does get a light show to be jealous of!

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I couldn’t find any good quality photos of the bridge during the firework display, so I chose this one of the last sunset of 2012 forming a beautiful backdrop for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I never get tired of this wonderful view, and I can’t wait for our next visit to Australian shores and to this fantastic piece of engineering.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

As a translator, the concept of the bridge is something important. For those of you who don’t know, the etymology of the word “translation” is the latin for “bearing across”, and a bridge is the perfect image of what a translation does, because it bears the meaning of a text from one language to the other. It is not surprising then that, when I needed to clear my thoughts while living in London, I would go walking from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge and just make sense of things, or at least try to.

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Tower Bridge is impressive both from a distance and from up close. If you are lucky enough to be walking on it when a tall boat is passing, you can see it opening in front of your eyes. You can also visit it and walk through the history of its construction. I enjoyed the visit a lot and I even managed to look like I am not regretting standing on the glass floor on top of the road!

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In our post about Rome, you may have noticed not only my love for the city, but also how strongly I feel the internal contrasts of this capital. There could be many examples of this, but just think of how the metropolis, capital of the Italian State, contains in itself another capital city, actually a city-state, the Vatican City. Many bridges are famous and impressive in the Eternal City, but the sunset starting to paint Saint Peter in pink behind Ponte Sisto makes this spot and this bridge one of my favourite sights of our trip.

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Thank you for travelling with us, see you soon!

Ms Lust

 

 

WPC – Order

Dear readers,

As our regular readers will be aware, we like to include some of our own photography in our blog posts. So when I came across a weekly photo competition by The Daily Post, it seemed like a great opportunity to exhibit more of our shots.

This week’s topic is ‘Order’, very relevant during a general election week but we’ll leave the politics to the newspapers. In keeping with the spirit of our blog, all of the photos that we post for the competitions will have been taken on one of our trips together, whether locally or further afield.

As soon as I saw the topic for our first week, the image that immediately spring to mind was the columns at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City. There are 142 columns on each side, which were placed in such a way so that they all appear to be perfectly aligned when viewed from a particular spot in the square. You can check out our post about our trip to Rome here for more details.

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After a little more thought, and with the current events in the UK playing on our minds, we then remembered a photo taken of the EU’s Berlaymont building in Brussels on our trip there in October last year (more details to come later in the year!). The façade of the building is a very utilitarian affair, constructed of a mass of identical looking offices made up of nothing but straight lines. Outside there are 28 flagpoles flying the EU flag to represent each member state, orderly standing evenly spaced in a row. We couldn’t think of anything that would represent ‘Order’ better than this, especially when considering the purpose of the building as well!

We hope you have enjoyed our first entry for the weekly photo competition, as there will be plenty more to come!

Mr Wander and Ms Lust

Egypt – Luxor

Dear readers,

We left you last time with a gap about what happened on Friday. Well, Friday was the day we booked for Luxor. Before we go back to our trip, a few notes in the interest of housekeeping: As I only did half of the visits, this time my post is exceptionally preceding Mr Wander’s, so I could give you some historical details before you enjoy his photos and his stories from the temple; also, there is a slight change in colours in Mr Wander’s post to create some contrast and hopefully make your reading easier.

Now, back to business! With our private car picking us up at 4 a.m., it was obviously going to be a hard day. Almost five and a half hours drive before we met our guide, and a lot of different sights, from the confusing roads in the middle of the desert with police check points from time to time, to the lively towns along the Nile and scenes that, with different outfits, seemed to be straight out of De Sica’s movies such as Pane, amore e fantasiaWe left the hotel when it was still dark and we drove along the coast for quite a while, with the sun that slowly rose on the sea creating beautiful strokes of orange and pink on the horizon. It is that kind of thing that you don’t even try to capture in a photo from a moving car, or maybe just we don’t. We chose not to, it was too early and we were too sleepy, we just wanted to take mental images because real pictures cannot be that beautiful.

We arrived to our last town before turning inland, El Quseir, to pick up our second driver, and we started our way into the desert. It is a lot of the same scenery and yet it is incredible, hypnotising, to see how empty it is. I don’t say quiet, New Zealand is quiet and you can drive for hours without seeing another car. Our road was surrounded by the emptiness of the Egyptian desert, but it was not quiet. Many buses were going towards Luxor, and trucks were going both ways. We started encountering several police check points and we almost got used to them. In the end, although we could not understand the conversation between the driver and the policemen, we started hearing the same words repeated and we got what they meant: a quick check of the papers and the confirmation that we were British.

Once we reached the Nile, the scenery changed completely, with little towns one after another. It was already past 9 a.m. and everywhere was extremely lively. As in all places that have such a hot weather and where the main activities are related to field work, life starts early in order to avoid the heat of midday. Egypt is not different, and this last part of the trip was a real window into day-to-day life in the country. With speed bumps every 200 m, the last 30 km took forever, and we had time to catch a glimpse of the little shops by the road and the colourful driving rules that are a mystery to us but that everyone seemed to respect by following a code of flashing lights.

We arrived to the city at about 10 a.m. and we had to find our guide. I was surprised because our drivers had no idea where they were going, but I got to see later that it was their first time there as well, and the guide ended up explaining many things about the ancient history and the monuments to them as well. We met the guide and we were immediately immersed in history and symbolism with all his explanations along the way. We were still on the east side, the City of the Living, and we were heading towards the west, the City of the Dead, where the sun sets literally and figuratively. Crossing the Nile by car, you can appreciate the surrounding fields mainly of banana trees. The presence of the Nile is the main reason behind the greatness of Ancient Egypt, but the dam now prevents the flooding that used to provide the soil with all the nutrients, and now the agricultural production is not enough for the population.

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When we arrived near the Valley of the Kings, we started seeing how things were different from what we were expecting. A big fan of Agatha Christie, Wilbur Smith, and more commercial Christian Jacq in my teenager years, and with my best friend who wrote a novel about Tutankhamun’s wife, Egypt has always fascinated me. I have always admired many aspects of the culture of Ancient Egypt and I had a very romantic image of the diggings and everything about them. It is quite different from that. Before entering the Valley, there is a stop to admire the Colossi of Memnon, two impressive sculptures that were made of one single block of stone (one cracked during a earthquake) and represent Amenhotep III. The name Colossi of Memnon,  was given later because of the sound that is sometimes heard coming from the statues at dawn. When the guide explained this, he was quite vague, so I had to look this up when we got back, and I found this page that gives a clear explanation. Driving further, leaving on a side the alabaster workshops, is the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. The most surprising thing about the Valley is that people are still living there, with their houses built on top of the pharaohs’ tombs and with little wish to move. Apparently, there is a relocation plan that hopes to move everyone to new houses in five to ten years but it is encountering a strong resistance by those who have always lived there and who feel that it is their home.

The entrance to the Valley feels like a long way to visit a mine, and the site is pretty much that, a huge mountain in which the ancient Egyptians have been digging their tombs and the archaeologists have been digging again to uncover them. Arriving to the site there is nothing to see, just slopes of stone and Carter’s house on the top of a hill. It is only after passing the gates and walking a short distance towards the entrance of the tombs that we were presented with a beautiful sight, a mountain the shape of a pyramid that may be the reason why they chose that location, which reminds of the actual pyramids in Giza, or so our guide said. Photography is not allowed in the Valley of the Kings, you are kindly asked to leave your cameras in the bus and not to take pictures with your smartphone either. It seems fair, those paintings have survived millennia and need to be preserved; also, the official photographer somehow needs to sell his photos+DVD. Again to preserve the paintings, the guides are not allowed to give explanations inside the burials in order to avoid excessive breathing and condensation, so they do it outside, using the same photos+DVD that, to be honest, are very cheap. Bear with me while we visit the three tombs included in our ticket and we see the beautiful paintings of Nut, the starry sky, the Book of the Dead, and the Pharaohs cartouches, all seasoned with a bit of history. The three tombs we visited were those of Ramses IV, Merenptah, and Ramses IX. We decided to skip Tutankhamun’s tomb, which is only £3 extra but apparently very disappointing, in our guide’s words. The child pharaoh didn’t have time to build a majestic tomb in his year of reign. Again in our guide’s words, the paintings are just sketches and the treasures are mainly in Cairo. What is sure is that Tutankhamun only reigned for a short period of about ten years and died when he was 19, suddenly, of what is probably a complication of a fracture worsened by his constant health problems, and that the burial was hurried, in a tomb originally built for someone else. His father was Amenhotep IV, also remembered as the heretical pharaoh, who abandoned the old gods to worship a single deity called Aten, changed his name to Akhenaten, and moved the capital to a new city called Akhetaten. Tutankhamun’s wife was his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten, daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti (here you can see a picture of their statues taken by Mr Wander). At the beginning, he was called Tutankhaten (Living image of Aten) but changed his name to Tutankhamun (Living image of Amun) when he abandoned the cult of Aten to go back to the old deities. In the same way, his wife Ankhesenpaaten became Ankhesenamun. These changes meant that the short interlude in Akhetaten was also terminated and the capital moved back to Thebes. Due to Tutankhamun’s young age, it is possible that Ay, grand-father-in-law and Grand Vizier, was actually the one ruling the kingdom. Tutankhamun died without an heir and Ay married Ankhesenamun, becoming the next pharaoh.

Going back to Tutankhamun’s tomb, KV62, we have to say that this one is the only one ever discovered sealed and untouched. Worshipped as a god on Earth while still alive, that was not the reason: Thieves could not find the tomb because it was buried under the debris caused by the construction of KV9, the tomb shared by Ramses V and Ramses VI. Of course we should have visited it, but now, in the tolerable heat of a British spring, everything seems a lot different. Back then the heat was affecting us quite a lot, I am not sure I was making too much sense at that point and I definitely was not making any sense at all by the time we arrived to the restaurant two hours later. I found myself too unfit for Egyptian spring. Born in hot Mediterranean, I am now too used to British weather and I didn’t resist an afternoon in the Valley of the Kings and Queens.

Although it may seem obvious, I should maybe say that what we call Luxor is actually Thebes, capital of Ancient Egypt. During the First Intermediate period, Thebes was the capital of Upper Egypt while Lower Egypt had Herakleopolis. When the two kingdoms were reunited, Thebes became only capital. Probably, the best known time of Egyptian history is the New Kingdom (XVI-XI century BC), also the time in which the Valley of the Kings was used.

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Going back to what we visited, Ramses IV’s tomb (KV2) is a wonderful example for paintings. Beautifully preserved, they feature all the traditional images: The sun and the scarab, the starry sky, the curly snakes that would prevent a dirty soul to cross the river and achieve peace, and Nut, goddess of skies. It is said that the sun would travel over her starry body during the day, to be swallowed by her at sunset, then travel down her belly during the night to end up being born again every morning. Her image was often painted on the vault of tombs over the sarcophagus. There is an interesting virtual reality video here that shows you KV2 if you want to have a look.

Merenptah’s tomb (KV8) has a different structure. The corridor is extremely steep, with the first chamber half way down. This room was probably sealed and laced with traps to prevent grave robbers. Apparently, skeletons probably belonging to thieves have been found in the pit surrounding this chamber. Going further down, we reach the burial chamber and its four annexes. Paintings are more damaged in this case and there is not too much to see in the burial chamber, while the ones on the walls of the corridors are still pretty well preserved.

Ramses IX’s tomb (KV6) has a simple structure, if I may say so, compared to many others, a wide entrance, and beautiful paintings according to the tradition: Rituals, life of the king, litanies, the books, and so on. The colours are incredibly lively, as if painted recently, although often a lot darker than those found in the previous tombs, especially in the case of the starry sky and the painting of Nut in the burial chamber. You can appreciate them in this video.

After leaving the Valley of the Kings, we drove a short distance to the Valley of the Queens. What we visited here is basically only Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple, an impressive building that is undergoing a huge restoration by Polish workers but that already gives an idea of the beauty of the original structure. The second female pharaoh in Egyptian history, Hatshepsut reigned for a long time and gave the kingdom stability and peace. Her temple is majestic, the structure that we can appreciate outside is just part of it. Badly destroyed, with a handful of columns still standing, it is now going back to its ancient glory thanks to the restoration process.

The country has limited funds and relies mainly on foreign countries and associations to finance the works needed to discover more tombs and to restore what time has damaged. Of the over 150 pharaohs buried there, only about 60 tombs have been found. According to our guide, the EU and Japan funded some of the works in the Valley of the Kings, while the UK donated machinery for the works needed in Karnak temple. An interesting project is the mapping of the Valley by the Theban Mapping Project, where you can also find technical information about each tomb as well. The codes I indicated for the tombs will help you find them in there, KV stands for Kings’ Valley while the number corresponds to the order in which the tombs have been uncovered. As I said, over half of the Valley has not been uncovered yet, and the projects aims to protect this treasure from natural and human destruction.

After leaving the valley, we were forced to take a little detour to an alabaster workshop with the most abusive, annoying salesman encountered to date (and in these ten days we had plenty to choose from!). Just before arriving to the restaurant, we did a quick stop at the Nefertari Papyrus Institute, where we had a demonstration of how papyrus sheets were made in ancient times and still are (although many souvenirs are instead just banana leaves that crumble very soon) The guy there was extremely friendly, which felt quite refreshing compared to the horrible experience at the alabaster workshop. We arrived to the restaurant shortly after and at this point I was completely dehydrated and sick, and I didn’t touch anything. I had to lie down on our boat trip on the Nile and I called it a day. I could not risk visiting Karnak Temple and feeling even worse. So I stayed at the visitors’ centre while Mr Wander and the guide went exploring.

I left Luxor with a bittersweet feeling for not visiting something that I dreamed of for so long, but it is always like that, even completing that visit we would have still missed Luxor Temple because one day is not enough. Nonetheless, it was an incredible experience and it left me with a desire to visit more, although maybe not that soon. When I heard about the cruise on the Nile down to Abu Simbel I had already decided that we had to go back in the future, so I left with a bit of sadness but knowing it is only a goodbye for now.

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

Following on from our last post about our trip to Egypt and the Red Sea, we now bring you the final piece of the puzzle – our day trip to Luxor. Barely into the day following our quad-biking tour, we awoke in the early hours and waited for our 4 a.m. pickup. Luxor is a considerable distance from Marsa Alam, taking approximately five hours to drive there, so the early start was necessary to give us enough time for exploring once we were there. The journey itself was fairly boring and uneventful, just a lot of desert broken up by a lot of checkpoints along the way. Once we got nearer to our destination, the road turned and run alongside a river which seemed too small to be the Nile. Now this part of the trip really did seem to go on forever. Every crossroads with a road coming from over the river, and they were incredibly frequent, was accompanied with speed bumps on both sides. Egyptian speed bumps really aren’t like anything I’d seen before, they are absolutely everywhere and more like speed mountains than bumps, so negotiating them requires a lot of care, time, and patience. Eventually we arrived in Luxor and, once our drivers had figured out where to go, we picked up our Egyptology guide and set off for the Valley of the Kings.

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Any of our regular readers will know that I’m a sucker for ancient architecture, especially if it’s particularly grand, and Luxor was the perfect place to indulge that side of my personality. Not only surrounding the city but within it as well, there are huge statues, obelisks, and temples everywhere. Bearing in mind that most of the statues and obelisks were carved from single pieces of stone, the craftsmanship and ingenuity of their creation is just as impressive as their enormity, if not more so. Our first stop was at the Colossi of Memnon, two huge statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III that have been standing in the same spot for 3,400 years. Admittedly they are a little weathered and earthquake damaged, but hugely impressive nonetheless. The statues are 18 m tall and are estimated to weigh approximately 720 tonnes each, bare that in mind when considering that the blocks used to create them were transported overland from a quarry near present-day Cairo, a journey of around 420 miles. Mind boggling isn’t it! With my archaeologist appetite suitable whetted, we were back on the minibus and about to discover another equally impressive feat of Ancient Egyptian craftsmanship and construction.

After passing the home of Howard Carter during his discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, we entered the Valley of the Kings. Dug into a natural pyramid, over 60 tombs have been discovered although there are estimates of up to 150 tombs possibly having been created here. We were able to visit three of these tombs, after deciding not to take up the option to add on a visit to Tutankhamun’s tomb as well. We were advised by our guide that the tomb is small in comparison to the others we would see due to his short reign, and also that all of the treasures found within it have now been removed and are housed in museums. The tombs themselves are tunnels dug into the mountain, with numerous chambers along the way to the burial chamber where the sarcophagi were placed. Two of the tombs we visited still had the sarcophagus inside, although almost all of the tombs in the valley have been victims of grave robbers over the years. The things that really caught my attention in all of the tombs were the carvings and paintings that covered every inch of wall and ceiling, and how well they had been preserved. Unfortunately photography isn’t allowed in the Valley of the Kings, so you’ll have to go and visit yourself to see them!

It was beginning to get very hot, and our exertions exploring the valley were starting to take their toll. However there was plenty of places still to visit and no time to rest, so we made our way to the Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Hatshepsut. In a completely different style to the tombs we had seen just previously, this was a temple designed not only to house the dead but to worship them too. The temple is currently being excavated and reconstructed by a Polish team of archaeologists, who have been working at the site for over 50 years. As a result of all their hard work, the two lower levels are now near completion and work has started on the third, top level.

As soon as you disembark the small tourist train that brings you to the temple, the view is simply awe-inspiring. The temple is greatly impressive just on its own, even if it has not been fully reconstructed yet, and the backdrop of the mountain it was built in front of adds even more magnificence. Most of the statues in the grounds have yet to be excavated or replaced into their original positions, so the temple itself really is the main draw. The two huge ramps provide a focal point (and a decent workout on a hot day!), splitting the temple down the middle. As was most often the case we didn’t have a lot of time to linger at the temple, in hindsight a two-day trip may have been a better choice, but we were able to have a look around the upper level, which is still under reconstruction, and to admire the architecture of the two lower levels on our way up. As would be expected, the temple is full of an incredible array of statues, obelisks, and columns, many of which are in extremely good condition for their age. On the way back down the ramps our guide pointed out to us what looked like an Ancient Egyptian scrapyard just over to one side, a collection of statues and pieces of the temple that have been excavated but have not yet had their original location discovered or decided.

It was now time to leave the temple and, despite our guide’s best efforts, we made it through the obligatory market parade unscathed. He told us at the start of our tour not to talk to or even make eye contact with the market vendors, as we didn’t have time to get stuck negotiating with them or trying to get rid of them. There seemed to be different rules for particular vendors though, and our guide corralled us into a shop where we were forced to go through the usual motions of being offered almost every single item in the shop before being allowed to leave. This was annoying, that our guide had done the complete opposite to his advice just to get a few extra tourists into his friend’s shop, but what was to follow really made my blood boil.

On the way to the Valley of the Kings, our guide had shown us some of the local alabaster workshops as we drove past. Now on the way back, we were told that we would be visiting one of these workshops to see the traditional methods that are still being used today. After an awkward sideshow purely intended for tourists, with old men demonstrating various parts of the process on command like puppets, we were ushered into the shop for what would be the worst experience of the entire trip (including getting food poisoning!). The workshop employee quickly turned from a reasonably amicable, informative guide to the pushiest, rudest, and most aggressive salesman I’ve ever met. At this point, Ms Lust was starting to feel the effects of having been walking around for too long in the heat, and my main focus was making sure that she was ok. This was made especially difficult by our salesman friend constantly trying to drag me away to look at his wares, with absolutely no regard or compassion for the fact that she obviously wasn’t well. It soon became apparent that I was going to have to either get very rude and aggressive or cave in and buy something, otherwise we were never going to be allowed to leave! I was also starting to feel exhausted from the heat and was in no mood for a confrontation, so in the end I purchased a small item so that we could escape. Still not satisfied, the salesman still kept dragging me away from tending to Ms Lust to try and coerce me into tipping him, needless to say he remained empty-handed. Eventually, once he felt I was adequately angered and annoyed, we were allowed to go and we set off for our lunch appointment at a local restaurant, and I have to say that my excitement for the rest of the tour was really beginning to wane.

The lunch isn’t really worth writing about, a simple all-you-can-eat buffet with similar offerings to the resort, in a back-street restaurant overlooking the River Nile. Neither of us really felt like eating at this point but I forced myself to one plateful, a decision I was going to regret later that evening as I spent the next few days being incredibly unwell. We had been told that we would be taking a boat across the river to return to Luxor, and we could see the small jetty just at the end of the restaurant’s grounds. Soon we saw a boat ambitiously named Titanic and made jokes that it was probably for us knowing our luck, and as we finished lunch we found out that it was in fact waiting for us and the jokes started to seem a lot less funny! So, boarding the Titanic, we hoped and prayed for an uneventful crossing of the Nile, and that we wouldn’t end up like the many sunken boats that were visible on both banks. Crossing the Nile wasn’t as romantic as it had originally sounded, however it was a nice change from being driven around in the minibus. It was surprisingly quiet, I don’t remember seeing any other boats crossing nearby, and quite possibly the most relaxing part of the tour. Happily we made it across without incidence, and made our way back to our minibus for the journey to our last stop, Karnak Temple.

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Unfortunately by the time we got to Karnak Temple Ms Lust was really suffering with the heat, so it was decided that I would go for the guided tour while she stayed behind in the air-conditioned visitor centre. Karnak Temple is one of the largest ancient religious sites in the world, second only to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, so it’s really not the kind of place to explore if you’re not feeling 100%. Unfortunately this does mean that you’re going to have to rely solely on my memory for information here, so I will apologise for that now! Building at this site went on for approximately two millennia, with each pharaoh adding their own temples and monuments, and as a result the area covered by the temple site today is around 200 acres, depending on the source. This is split into many smaller temples dedicated to various gods and pharaohs, surrounding the great Hypostyle Hall. This is a 5000 m² room filled with 134 columns, all of which are completely covered in hieroglyphics carved into the stone. The most impressive of these are the 12 central columns, built to resemble the papyrus plant.

Before you even enter the temple itself, your way is paved with incredible statues and the larger monuments from inside the temple are already visible. The entrance way is lined with an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, leading up to the impressive, yet unfinished, first pylon. Each sphinx holds a miniature statue of Ramses II, who ordered their construction, and this is a good introduction to what awaits inside. Once there, everywhere you look there are statues of pharaohs and their wives or other family members. This even went as far as Ramses III building an elaborate temple, lined with statues of himself on both sides. Two fine examples of these are the statue of Ramses II and his daughter Bent’anta, and the statues of Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun (see Ms Lust’s post for a photo of these ones). To be honest, I was just happy to have seen a likeness of Tutankhamun that isn’t his famous golden funerary mask.

Obelisks

After exploring a couple of the temples here, we progressed through into the Hypostyle Hall. The largest, and most impressive, area of the whole temple, this room really does highlight their dedication and skills in constructing such an awe inspiring place. As I mentioned before there are 134 columns making up the hall, with huge blocks placed on top. These blocks weigh approximately 70 tons each and there is still speculation over how they managed to place them onto the columns. Areas where the carvings have been protected from sunlight have kept their original colour, although not as bright and impressive as the paintings in the tombs at the Valley of the Kings it is incredible nonetheless. We moved through the hall to an area behind where three great obelisks once stood. Unfortunately only the base of one of these remains, but the other two are still intact. For me, these were the most impressive monuments in the temple. The largest of these two was constructed for Queen Hatshepsut and still remains in excellent condition. Originally two obelisks were constructed (the other one has fallen with only the base still in situ, as mentioned above) and they were the tallest obelisks in the world at the time of their construction. Standing at over 28 metres and weighing over 340 tons, the one that remains intact is the tallest surviving ancient obelisk on Earth. Carved out of one piece of stone and likely to have been quarried in Aswan, it is still a mystery how the ancient Egyptians would have transported and raised this huge monument.

As we made our way further through the temple, we came to the Sacred Lake. This is a man-made lake used by priests for ritual washing, and still remains in the same condition today as it would have been when it was first built. Daily sound and light shows take place in this section of the temple, in various languages to satisfy most visitors. This was the point at which we turned around and started to head back through the temple. One interesting fact that our guide explained on our way back was that after the Romans conquered Egypt, many of the temples were used as stables or barracks as a way of demeaning and eradicating ancient Egyptian religion and traditions. Karnak Temple was no exception, and there are sections of the temple where evidence of this is still apparent. Holes drilled into columns to be used for tying up horses and deep grooves carved into blocks as soldiers sharpened their blades, are all reminders of this disrespect.

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Walking back out of the temple, I was still in total awe of everything I saw. This place is so huge that it’s impossible to see it all in one go, so we have a perfect excuse for a follow-up visit so Ms Lust can also see it for herself. Our guide and I hurried through the obligatory marketplace (I think at this point he had realised how irritated we were getting) and I was reunited with Ms Lust, who I am glad to say was already feeling much better. As I said before, Karnak Temple was the last stop on our tour, so all that was left to do now, after driving around for what seemed like ages to find water and an ATM, was to make the long drive back to Marsa Alam. Again this was fairly uneventful, especially as there were not too many hours of daylight left. Arriving back at the resort, tired and incredibly weary, I think I was still trying to take it all in. With so much history and magnificent architecture all crammed into or around one city, it becomes easy to imagine what it may have been like when it was originally constructed but still so difficult to comprehend how it was achieved in the first place. So on these thoughts we drifted off to sleep, and that seems like the perfect place to leave you now as well.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

When in Rome…

Dear readers,

When Ms Lust asked me to make a list of places I would like to visit for my birthday, and knowing that we would be going for about four to five days, Rome was an obvious choice for inclusion which came to me without any need for thought. I’ve wanted to visit Rome for a long time, it just never seemed the kind of place to visit alone. So, now that I’ve found my perfect travel and life companion, I couldn’t think of anywhere better to go (Paris came in joint first place). I was drawn to Rome by the rich history of the city and the legacy of the Roman Empire, and the romantic atmosphere added another element I was sure to enjoy.

Castel Sant'AngeloWith that in mind, all the bookings were left for Ms Lust to make, and she did an excellent job. Our hotel was within easy reach of the city centre, which made exploring and reaching the main sights a breeze. She even managed to find a great restaurant in the neighbourhood which provided an excellent birthday dinner, but more on that later.

With my birthday being in the middle of winter, the weather was an important factor for Ms Lust when deciding where we would go. Being Sardinian she naturally didn’t want to go anywhere too cold (Bratislava had burnt that bridge already, more on that later in the year!), which is one of the reasons Rome was chosen over Paris. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the weather didn’t play along and we found ourselves once again exploring a city in the freezing cold. And when I say it was cold, I don’t mean that it was cold for Rome, it was during the ‘big freeze’ that caused so many problems in Central Europe and it was cold for pretty much anywhere! Most of the fountains were frozen to some degree, and the Sun did little to provide any respite from the biting wind. And there is the silver lining, yes it was very cold, but it was also sunny and dry for most of our stay and this allowed us to explore to our heart’s content (well wrapped up of course!).

When visiting a place as famous as Rome, it’s often difficult to deviate too much from the main tourist trail and therefore our itinerary was mostly chosen for us. Places such as the Colosseum and the Vatican City, albeit very crowded and touristy, just have to be included in any first-timer’s plans. So the places we would try to visit were more or less decided, however there was more to Rome that I wanted to experience than just the buildings. The first World Cup I can remember was Italia ‘90, and the sound of Pavarotti belting out Nessun Dorma will always bring those memories flooding back. I just had to experience my own slice of Italian culture first-hand, and I started looking for operas or concerts we could watch while we were in Rome. I also wanted to indulge in some true Italian dining experiences, and with my own personal guide there was no time like the present! So I guess this is how I’m going to split this post up, with my experiences of Roman attractions, culture, and cuisine.

Attractions and architecture

Most people would be able to name and describe the main sights in Rome, without even having to visit there. This is true of most major cities and tourist destinations, but I firmly believe that no amount of photographs or videos can compare to seeing these ancient wonders with your own eyes. As I have mentioned in previous posts, thinking of how these grand, ancient buildings were constructed all those years ago really does astonish me. In Rome, I felt like this from the moment the airport shuttle bus took us to the city centre right up until the moment it brought us back again. Everywhere you look there are buildings and ruins from the days of the Roman Empire, interspersed with magnificent Renaissance artwork and architecture. No matter how modernised and commercialised Rome may get, I don’t think it will ever feel very far removed from the Rome that the great emperors once knew. There is history in every street, and I wouldn’t be surprised if every building in this city has a fascinating story to tell.

The first major attraction that we visited was the Vatican City, and the Vatican museums. Unfortunately we were unable to visit the Sistine Chapel due to an early closure for the day, but it was incredibly impressive nonetheless. I haven’t visited very many art galleries previously, and I am far from being knowledgeable about anything art-related, and the galleries in the Vatican museum have probably ruined the experience of any I may visit in the future! The walls and the ceilings are absolutely covered with fine paintings from the most famous artists, accompanied by Greek and Roman sculptures and finished with more gold than I have ever seen in my life. Whilst a little extravagant for my taste, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale, history, and magnificence of their collection. I truly recommend it to everyone that visits Rome, and I’m sure we will come here again to finally see the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s masterpiece. The exterior is no less impressive, with St Peter’s Basilica dominating the square. However we had arranged to have lunch with one of Ms Lust’s friends, so this would have to wait until another day.

Via della Conciliazione

The following day was dedicated to the ancient Roman part of Rome, namely the Colosseum and the Forums. I am so glad that these places, although major tourist attractions, have not become too commercialised and have managed to remain authentic. With the exception of a few educational boards at the entrances and directional signs to stop too many tourists getting lost, very little seems to have been added to these ancient constructions. Even though they are obviously in a worse state of repair now than when they were first built, it really is easy to imagine yourself in ancient Rome while exploring here, especially in the Forums. I’m very glad that the institutions that look after these sites have decided to let the buildings themselves do the talking and ignite imaginations, and I sincerely hope it remains this way. Whilst the Colosseum didn’t take a huge amount of time to visit, the Forums were another story. You really should set aside a whole day just for this part of the city, to avoid the risk of missing out on the whole experience.

On our last day in Rome, we really only had the morning for further explorations before needing to head back to the airport. After some deliberation, we decided this would be ideal to return to the Vatican City in order to see the interior of St Peter’s Basilica. Despite not being religious, I couldn’t help but to be impressed with the rich history of this area. Added to this is the fact that everything looks so pristine and well-preserved, certainly not as you would expect for their age! This really isn’t like any other church or cathedral you may have visited, and worthwhile even if you are not that interested in the spiritual aspect of it.

But this was by no means the only places we managed to visit in Rome, just the major attractions that took the most time. The Trevi Fountain was the only fountain we saw that wasn’t frozen to some degree, and we fulfilled our tourist obligations by tossing a coin over our shoulders in accordance with tradition! Whilst it wasn’t too busy at the time we were there, I have been warned that it can become quite crowded and to be wary of pickpockets in this area. However it is well worth a visit, just be sure to take some coins with you!

The Spanish Steps were completely different to my perception of how they would be, and I was glad for that. Based on descriptions from friends that had visited previously, my imagination conjured up images of a grand, wide, outdoor staircase, so crowded with street traders shoving roses in your face and men proposing to their partners that you may not even be able to see they were there. Maybe it was due to visiting after dark, but fortunately this was not the case. Sure there is a grand staircase, and there are many couples embracing each other in one way or another, but it wasn’t too crowded and had many other beautiful features to compliment the steps as well. There is a lovely, small fountain resembling a boat at the base of the steps, which themselves lead up to a wonderful looking church that unfortunately we didn’t have time to venture inside.

I could go on a lot longer about all the wonderful things we saw in Rome, but this post is already becoming incredibly wordy! My advice is this, take some time to just wander around the city and take in the sights as you go. Even if you don’t plan it at all and just walk aimlessly around, there are amazing things to see absolutely everywhere and you will be astounded at every turn.

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Culture

If you’re looking for an in-depth cultural analysis of Rome, I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed. Ms Lust’s post is likely to be a lot more informative, as her knowledge of Italian culture is unsurprisingly a lot better than mine! However as I have mentioned already, another part of the reason I wanted to visit Rome is to experience some authentic Italian music. After a bit of researching on the internet, I came across a church called St Paul’s Within the Walls which hosts musical concerts frequently. The concert that really caught my eye was called Tre Tenori, and if you visit Rome I would highly recommend it if it is still playing. As the name suggests this is a Three Tenors styled concert, with an accompanying string quartet, and in an amazing setting. The venue is small so you won’t have to worry too much about getting a good view or being able to hear, however my advice is still to arrive early to secure the best seats, and tickets are not expensive either. With regards to the show itself, these guys certainly do not disappoint, and you’ll be listening in awe to some well-known classics in no time. I’m not going to spoil it by listing all the songs that were performed, I’ll just say that my wish for some Pavarotti themed entertainment was most definitely fulfilled.

After this I couldn’t help myself not to check their website to see if any other concerts were playing while we were in town, and as a result we ended up returning to the same venue a couple of days later. This time it was for Luminaria, a piano recital and soprano performance which was equally as impressive as the Tre Tenori concert and the church was made even more impressive when lit by candlelight. However the songs were less famous (to me anyway!), and I can’t help but to favour our first visit overall. It would seem that any concert in this fine setting is worth seeing, so even if neither of these concerts are running I’d still recommend seeing what’s on and giving something a go.

The other stars on the cultural front were the Italian public themselves. I don’t mean to make fun of them, but in certain situations they are so entertaining! I had heard about the Italian style of driving before, so I was already expecting to be run over at least three times during our stay and to hear nothing but the sound of car horns for the entire trip. But I didn’t expect them to be so innovative in their driving practices. What should you do if there is a left lane and a right lane, but you want to go straight ahead? Well you simply drive half way between the two and create a lane of your own of course! And if you ever have to chance to witness Italians queueing for a bus, please do not pass it up as you won’t find anything more entertaining elsewhere!

Cuisine

With all this exploring and sightseeing we certainly worked up an appetite, and you don’t have to ask me twice when Italian food is involved so this naturally became a bit part of our trip. It began in a small restaurant near our hotel with a coffee and a sfogliatella (a lobster tail shaped pastry), and I was already hooked. We ended up coming back to this restaurant for my birthday meal, not only for the food but for the great service and friendly atmosphere as well.

Obviously pizza and pasta were the main dishes of the holiday, and there were good ones and some not so good ones. Unfortunately some places in Rome cater solely for tourists, and as such are less concerned for the quality and authenticity of their food and their establishments. My advice for choosing where to eat in Rome is this, avoid the city centre and take advice from locals if you can. With the exception of the restaurant I mentioned above, all the good restaurants we visited were suggested by friends that either live or have lived in Rome, and they were all outside of the main city centre. Try a small, back‑street trattoria, you’re more likely to find a true Italian experience here than anywhere else.

Also, don’t be scared to try something new. A margherita or a pepperoni pizza isn’t going to taste all too different than it does at home, neither will spaghetti bolognese, they will just be made with fresher ingredients and in the traditional way. Take the opportunity to try some traditional Italian recipes, you’ll be surprised what can be good as a pizza topping (I even had one with salad on it!!). I also discovered a wonderful, new dessert as well, forming a new love for pannacotta. So much so I even managed to find a recipe and recreate it myself back in the UK. I also had the chance to have breakfast as the Italians do (imagine a French breakfast, but with a complete disregard for diabetics!), which although it hasn’t convinced me to change my normal habits, it’s an experience I am grateful for and would recommend.

I had an unbelievable time in Rome, and every moment was filled with discovery and wonder. There is so much to see and do here that we just couldn’t fit it all in, but that just means we have a great excuse to go back! We already have another long weekend’s worth of places to see and things to do on the wish list, so stay tuned for our return visit at some point. But for now, I’m going to leave it here and I hope you have enjoyed reading about our experiences in the Eternal City.

Happy travels!

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

Have you ever had any dream places to visit? That kind of places that make you decorate your room with posters and have a piggy bank with stickers of the city to save money and go? Maybe not, maybe I am that kind of weird, but I did. I had two places that were like that in my dreams. When I was a kid, that place was Rome, while as an adult the dream city was New York. There is a big risk in doing that: You end up idolising the place so much that it will be utterly disappointing once visited. It is what happened to me for New York, but then the company was the reason for that, so I am looking forward to going back to make up for that. As per Rome, it seems strange to think that I made a big deal of it considering how close it was to me. Well, I said already in the introduction that travelling was not a thing at home.

Anyway, for a long while I dreamt of visiting the Eternal City but I didn’t have a clear plan to do it.  The culture, the ruins of the ancient civilisation, the allure of a capital city were extremely seductive but I never managed to visit properly until now. I had the chance to go twice before, always for one night, once on the way back from Tuscany, and another time for Pope Johann Paul II’s funeral. They were both very peculiar experiences, but none of them allowed me to enjoy the city at my pace. The first time I stayed in a mansion with one wing all to my parents and myself, because there is where my aunt was staying at the moment, but a lot of ceremonies would not allow for too much time out. The second time, having graduated a few days before and with a huge need for a change of air even if just for a few days, I just booked the boat ticket and went. That time, I slept on the cobblestones of Via della Conciliazione with thousands of other followers and tourists that converged there in an extremely surreal atmosphere. With this as a background, you can imagine why, when Mr Wander shortlisted Paris and Rome for his birthday, the reduced budget directed me to an obvious choice: We were going to visit Roma Capoccia!

Rome

As it was all on me to plan as a treat to Mr Wander, I had some flexibility. Not happy about that, I planned very little. It doesn’t make sense to go to a place like Rome for four days and have a tight schedule that falls into pieces if one time slot moves. We downloaded a Rome in 4 days itinerary to have an idea of what we could include, but we immediately decided to discard the general idea of ten minutes slots for lunch and mad ideas like that.

Things you absolutely want to plan ahead:

  • Book your bus to/from the airport, queueing is a nightmare in Italy and, even with a booked seat, you will be scared of not getting on the bus on time!
  • Book your visit to the Vatican Museums and allow at least 4-5 hours before closing time, we ended up in one of those last minute tours because everything was booked already (we went on a Bank Holiday weekend!) and we missed the Sistine Chapel, epic fail! Nonetheless, we saw so many masterpieces that have been covering the walls of my room in ancient times, The School of Athens by uncle Raphael above all.
  • If you go in winter, pack extra layers, we ended up there on the coldest week of the year, with frozen fountains and sights that were uncommon for locals and tourists alike, but in general the buildings are not planned for a cold weather and everywhere is chilly and full of drafts, restaurants and bars in particular.
  • Walk as much as you can, we got four 90-min bus tickets to start with and we used them the last day to go back to the  station; it may sound like a stereotype, but there is so much to see in every corner and every street that the vast majority of works of art would be missed if travelling by bus.

Food in Italy is a must and we had awesome lunches and dinners everywhere apart from the first night. I never thought Rome could be so cheap but, trust me, we ate scrumptious meals and paid ridiculously cheap bills. The Roman specialties are so many that we could not even cover a tenth of the basic list. If you are staying near the UK embassy like we were, two places are not to miss: Da Gianni (Via Montebello 130), not only is the food amazing, but the staff are incredibly nice, you are not a customer, you are immediately part of the family, and the waiter will tell you want you want to order… trust me, let him do it, he knows his stuff! Pizzeria Bella Napoli (Via Alessandria 13) was suggested by a local and we are glad we gave it a shot, superb pizza, a full belly when walking out, and only the regret of not having ordered the chard like the couple next to us did! Also not to miss is Trastevere, the neighbourhood across the river that made the Roman food scene so famous thanks to its trattorie. We were lucky enough to have a local showing us around and taking us to a delicious hidden place called Dar Poeta. This was a special treat for us, Jenn, our local guide, is one of the best persons I have ever met, and to have the chance to spend a few hours with her and to  introduce her to Mr Wander would have been special enough without adding all the rest. After the meal we just wandered in the little streets of Trastevere and breathed in a little of the Rome that Cinecittà celebrated in its works of art. As it was January, the sunset was early enough and we managed to see it when while crossing the river again.

In a way, we tried to follow a path that was related to movies and TV series, or at least I did. We went to Fontana di Trevi to throw our coin, but we didn’t get in like Anitona did in La Dolce Vita; we went to Trinità dei Monti and Piazza di Spagna to see the famous place that gave the name to an Italian TV series that may have had only me as an audience when I was a kid; we visited the Colosseo and the Fora to see the Circo Massimo from Ben Hur. Of the things in our list, we left out the Mouth of Truth from Roman Holidays, which will be the first one next time.

Main suggestions on what to be prepared for:

  • Chaos, everywhere, it is in our genes, from boarding a bus to defiantly crossing the street in front of an ambulance with sirens on;
  • Disturbing breakfasts, from croissant-inspired pastries that taste more like stale bread than actual pastry, to tea and juices that don’t help you start the day with the right foot;
  • Uneasiness, with tank-looking military cars and two soldiers with rifles outside every metro station, the city seemed more like a war-torn territory than a peaceful city celebrating the end of the Christmas season.

I could spend hours talking about the sculptures, the fountains, the monuments, and the ruins, and maybe I will in another post, but for this time I just want to tell you one thing that is easy to miss and you should not miss at all. You may know what a genius Bernini was, and that nothing he would do was casual, every piece of art is charged with symbolism and is mathematically perfect. When he planned the colonnade of St Peter’s, he wanted it to look like the arms of the basilica reaching out to the believers and enclosing them in a hug. When he laid out the columns, he lined them so perfectly that if you stand in a specific spot you don’t see them all scattered as they usually do, you just see the rows all perfectly aligned. People always stand on that spot without knowing what it is and they miss out something incredible. When we arrived, a group of guys were standing on top of the tile and had no idea. We told them and they were amazed when they saw what we meant. Next time you go, watch out for this:

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A presto,

Ms Lust

Bath

Dear readers,

Thank you so much for the fantastic reception our blog has had so far, I really hope you are enjoying the content as much as we are creating it. Now that we have gotten the introductions underway, it’s time for us to start talking about our travels and it seemed fitting for our first post to be about our most recent trip. So please, sit back, relax, and let the journey truly begin!!

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A few weeks ago, Ms Lust and myself took a weekend break to the wonderful city of Bath. We planned this short trip in order to break up the time we had between bigger holidays, five months just seemed far too long to stay in one place! Originally without a clear idea of where we should go, Bath was suggested among others that I’m sure we’ll get to later in the year. The reason we finally settled on Bath is really down to one thing, the Thermae Bath Spa. Ms Lust had visited this on a previous trip to Bath, and she was very keen to take me as well. However, on checking their website, we initially postponed the idea as the steam rooms were closed for renovation. But every cloud has a silver lining as they say, and on further inspection we realised that if you visited while the steam rooms were closed you would receive vouchers for a free visit later in the year. This was all the incentive we needed (who can say no to free stuff??), and we immediately began planning our trip, and the follow-up trip to use our vouchers of course!!

As with any trip, especially when there aren’t flights involved, finding accommodation is the first item on the to-do list. I had recently been introduced to the world of AirBnB, and was eager to try it and use my introductory discount (click here for an introductory discount for yourself if you are also new to this). I knew Ms Lust had used AirBnB a few times previously, and I had a vague understanding of how it worked. Basically, people open up their homes to visitors as temporary lodgings for short-term or long-term stays. The accommodation itself can be anything from a basic room in someone’s home, to an apartment or annex to yourself, and there are even lighthouses, castles, and stately homes available for rent. The sheer variety available is astonishing, and you’ll soon find yourself searching for the quirkiest or most extravagant stays possible! There are places to suit all budgets too, and you’ll find AirBnB stays practically anywhere.

All I can say is that the AirBnB stay for this trip was nothing but perfect. Located in a residential area near Bristol and just a short drive to the Bath Park and Ride services, we had an annex all to ourselves with everything we could have needed for our stay. Our host was incredibly nice and helpful also, providing coffee and tea making supplies and plenty of tips to make the most of our time in the area. If I had any concerns about using AirBnB before, they were certainly put to rest and I cannot fault it at all.

Before we get into the details of Bath itself, I should give a quick mention to where we stopped for dinner on the way there. On the recommendation of my family we stopped at a Sardinian restaurant in Reading, called Pepe Sale. I’m always keen to try the cuisine from Ms Lust’s origins, and she always manages to suggest excellent dishes for my taste. This occasion was no exception, and the food was superb. Sure the waiting staff never seemed to be in too much of a hurry to take an order, but the food turned up quickly and we were happy to relax and enjoy dinner rather than rush anyway. So all I can say is this, if you’re in the Reading area or find yourself passing by, pop in and give Pepe Sale a try. If you like Italian or Sardinian cuisine, you won’t be disappointed.

Now onto Bath itself, and instead of boring you all with every minute detail of our visit, I’ve decided to provide my top tips for a visit to Bath. Some of these we didn’t actually have time to do ourselves, mainly because we wanted a relaxed break and we knew we would be returning. Don’t feel you have to tick everything off that you will read below to make your trip worthwhile, we certainly didn’t and we had a fantastic time. Just pick out whatever grabs your fancy and fits your schedule, or just wing it like we did and see what happens! So here we are, Mr Wander’s top tips for visiting Bath:

  • First of all, some advice for getting around Bath. Unless you’re staying in Bath itself, you’ll need some way of getting to the city centre. For us, as we had driven our own car there, the Park and Ride service seemed the obvious option, and it really does work well here. There are three locations to choose from depending on which direction you are coming from, all of which have frequent, quick connections to the city centre from early morning until well into the evening. At just £3 per person (at the time of writing), it really doesn’t seem to make sense not to use it!
  • Once you’re in the city centre, it’s time to figure out what to see. My advice is not to try and fit too much in, plan a relaxed agenda to give yourself time to appreciate the surroundings. There is a lot to see in Bath but, unless you are on a very tight schedule, there should be no need to rush around in order to do everything.
  • As for the actual attractions to see, there are some that definitely shouldn’t be missed. Ironically, the first of these I will mention we actually did miss, but this was intentional as we are already planning to go back soon. This is the Roman Baths, and I mention it now because it seems to top almost every list I have seen on Bath attractions. It really does seem to be well worth a visit, my only advice is to be prepared to queue to get in. There was a lengthy queue at the time of our visit, the main reason why we decided to postpone this particular attraction until next time.
  • We decided at this point to visit Bath Abbey, and I recommend this for everyone. Even if you are short on available time, it’s worthwhile just to go in for ten minutes to see the interior. As with most cathedrals in the UK, it is truly impressive to see and to look up and wonder at how they managed to build something so grand and magnificent all those centuries ago. If you have a bit more time available to spend here, then I would encourage you to join one of the Tower Tours which seemed to take place every half an hour. This tour gives a great insight into the inner workings of the abbey, mainly focused on the bells and the clock. The pinnacle of the tour is the view of Bath gained from reaching the top of the tower, it is wonderful to see the whole city beneath you although it would have been nicer to be given a little more time here to admire the view and take photographs. Just one word of warning if you do decide to join one of these tours, the staircases up and down the towers were built a long, long time ago, long before anyone had come up with the concept of health and safety, and as such they are steep, narrow, spiral staircases which are not for the faint of heart. There are no handrails to speak of, although they have provided a bell rope hanging down the middle for support, and the odd piece of protruding stone or ironwork to be careful of, so please be aware of this before booking. We didn’t think of this, and Ms Lust is a sufferer of acrophobia, but she was very brave and made it all the way to the top and back down again without any issues.
  • An absolute must for those that like to relax is the Thermae Bath Spa, a spa complex in the heart of Bath with thermal pools, steam rooms, and a spectacular rooftop pool. You may ask “What makes it spectacular?”, and there could be many possible answers, but one really stands out above the rest. Is it the very pleasant, warm temperature of the water, the jacuzzi area built into the pool, or the pure pleasure of seeing unsuspecting people getting blasted by the water jets? Well yes, all of these certainly contribute, but the jewel in the crown is the view of Bath itself from the rooftop, especially around sunset and into the evening when the skyline is lit up by illuminations, both natural and artificial. This was the main reason we went and we certainly weren’t disappointed, even with the steam rooms being closed for renovation at the time. Just be aware of the size of the entrance queue, we had to wait for approximately 90 minutes to get in, and factor this into your schedule as well. But don’t let this put you off though, if you have the time then it is definitely worth the wait.
  • Take some time to just wander and discover the city’s beauty. Bath exudes history and it really does feel like nothing has really changed too drastically since Georgian times. Now of course it must have, but any development that has occurred has been done subtly and doesn’t take the focus away from Bath’s historic qualities. My advice would be to walk north from the city centre, via The Circus until you reach the Royal Crescent. These are beautiful examples of Georgian architecture which have been well preserved. From the Royal Crescent, Royal Victoria Park is perfect for a short walk back to the city centre with plenty of friendly squirrels to keep you company along the way!! The other park I would recommend is closer to the city centre, a small green space just behind Bath Abbey. This is a great place to enjoy a bit of lunch, with some interesting sculptures to look at, and offers a great view of the historic Pulteney Bridge.
  • My final tip for Bath itself, and this is one for literature fans, is the Jane Austen Centre and Regency Tea Room. This is housed in the very building where Jane Austen used to live, and although we only visited the tea room, it looked like a very interesting place to visit. As for the tea room, I would highly recommend it to anyone that enjoys an afternoon tea. With the only exception I can recollect being the Wi-Fi password on the mantelpiece, everything felt very authentic and you could even imagine Jane Austen enjoying afternoon tea in this very room. The tea was good, the food was excellent, and our waitress was very friendly and welcoming. I can’t fault it at all, which was a welcome change after a less satisfying visit to another tea room in the city on the previous day (I’m sure Ms Lust will provide more details!). I would definitely suggest that you book in advance, especially if you are planning to have afternoon tea. This is a very popular tea room in Bath and can get very busy during peak times. As it was for us, we had to have our afternoon tea at 1pm as the whole tea room had already been booked out for a large group at 3pm. We were fortunate that we booked, otherwise we would have shown up in the afternoon hoping for a table and have been very disappointed to be turned away. Although the timing wasn’t right in the traditional sense, I’m very glad we booked ahead and secured a table beforehand.
  • Finally I just want to offer one piece of advice with regards to travelling, not only to Bath but in relation to any trips you may take, this simply came to mind because of our return journey. This may sound a little cliché, but take your time and enjoy the journey. Due to having to leave straight after work and not wishing to keep our AirBnB host waiting too long, our journey to Bath felt very rushed (with the exception of our dinner stop in Reading). So on the way back we wanted to take things a little slowly. For the combined reasons of wanting to take Ms Lust past Stonehenge on the way, and the fact that the Bath Half Marathon was taking place that weekend, this would have been forced on us anyway! But thanks to a few diversions to avoid the worst of the traffic, we discovered some quaint, little villages which have certainly caught our attention for a longer visit when we come back to the area. We also stumbled across Highclere Castle (where Downton Abbey is filmed) on the way, although it wasn’t open for the season yet and it was already dark by the time we got there. The journey itself felt like it was part of the holiday, taking small roads through countryside and farmland, giving us the chance to see even more of this part of the country. My point is this, you never know what you may come across if you take the less beaten path every once in a while. You’re unlikely to find anything too breathtaking on a motorway, why not take a bit longer over it and discover some hidden gems that may entice you to return and explore a bit more!

Well that’s about it for me about Bath, we had an awesome time exploring this wonderful city and I would encourage anyone that has never been to find some time to visit and discover the city for themselves. I can’t wait to get back again later in the year, not only for another visit to the spa, but also to tick off all the things we couldn’t manage to fit in the first time around.

Until next time, happy travels!!

Mr Wander

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Dear all,

Thank you so much for the warm reception of our blog and our profile on social media. We are back today with our most recent weekend away and a few tips about it. At the beginning of March we went to Bath for a few days and we have to admit it was a real treat.

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It all started with an afternoon at the spa in January when we realised we really need that time off in which we take care of ourselves in body and spirit at the same time. I had been to Bath in 2011 and enjoyed the modern spa a lot, so we started browsing options about what we could do.

If you have never been, the city, as the name says, was created around a natural thermal complex in Roman times, and still conserves the original Roman Baths. Due to the fact of being the only place in the UK with natural thermal water, the place is still very renown for thermal treatments, and Thermae Bath Spa is the modern thermal complex that offers all the usual treatments of a spa with some extra points that are unmissable. The steam rooms have undergone some refurbishment and were closed, which, strangely enough was the reason why we decided to go in March. But before we dive into that part of the trip and I get too excited, let me just go back to our planning and arrangements.

We often book our trips with Expedia for various reasons, maybe we should dedicate some space to talk about that soon. Anyhow, this time we could not find anything that could fit our needs and our budget, especially the budget, as we were saving for our beach holiday, and we went back on our slightly forgotten friend, AirBnB. I enjoyed it a lot several times, especially in France, and I know it is quite reliable (if you are new to it, you can find our invitation link here and on the right side and you can receive a discount on your first booking, ask away if you have any doubts!) Anyway, a few places seemed quite nice; we ended up in a nice house in the suburbs between Bath and Bristol and I can’t stress enough how cool it was, we are going back to Bath with our spa voucher and I am hoping it is available because it is perfect for a couple, and the owner is friendly and really helpful with tips and directions.

We arrived late on Friday night, mainly because we stopped on the way there to a Sardinian restaurant in Reading, Pepe Sale, that we wanted to check out and we are not regretting the stop, see for yourselves here! Saturday was mainly focused on the spa, I had been there before long time ago, as I said, but I didn’t stay for the sunset on the rooftop pool, and we really wanted to give it a try. There was a 90 min queue (yeah, keep that in mind, we were not expecting that) but that worked out in our favour or we would have missed sunset.

We went out and about a little in the morning after a good breakfast and we had time to visit the Abbey and do the tower tour. It is worth, but you have to be aware of what it is. I am acrophobic and I tend to forget it until I see the beginning of a spiral staircase and then it is too late. It is not a problem for me because I like pushing my limits and trying to overcome my fears but, if you are not like me, maybe you should think longer about it. The stairs are fine, there is a bell rope along the middle, but holding to it is not easy. Strangely enough, I was wearing heeled boots and that made it easier, I have a size 39 and my feet hardly fit in those tricky steps unless the heels make them shorter. The views and the tour are very good, you can see how the bells work and go inside the tower clock, but if you are not comfortable in small spaces maybe you should give that a miss, you will end up in tiny 50cm long room with a door behind you and just the clock in front.

After the tour, we decided to have a quick bite as we still were going to wait a few hours before being able to plunge in the pools. We had a quick walk around but went back to the Georgian tea room because it looked quite nice, but I can’t feel it deserves a great score, I will tell you more on our review of afternoon tea experiences.

All was soon forgotten when we headed to the spa. The queue was still long and the waiting time 90 minutes, but we had the dinner and the whole Sunday still to plan, so time sort of flew away. That was the cool moment, we were not sure if the offer was still valid, but yes, with a two-hour session we received a voucher for the same amount to compensate the fact that the steam rooms were still closed. Guess what? Can’t wait to go back! The rooftop pool is a great experience even with a cloudy sky; the sunset was covered, but to see the towers of the abbey lighting while the pool also gets its distinctive cobalt blue colour you can see in the pictures is something to take your breath away. You can’t take pictures, it is pretty clear everywhere on the premises but still someone manages to miss the message. Anyway, to give you an idea, here is the link to the official spa Instagram. What do you think?

Between the rugby in the afternoon and the half marathon the day after, the city was not too busy at dinner time, and the pub food and the cider definitely managed to compensate the afternoon. The Park and Ride in Bath is pretty good, with city buses that take you to the parking way after the Park and Ride buses have stopped at around 9 pm. Just remember to always keep some spare change for these things, it is not always the best idea to wait until the last minute to get cash out, at that time of night you will have to wait another half an hour or more if you miss the bus!

As I said we were between Bath and Bristol,  so on Sunday we had a quick detour to see Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol and then we headed back to Bath, which was not a too bad idea as we managed to miss the congestion due to the half marathon both to arrive to the city and inside Bath itself. We honestly gave the Roman Baths a miss because we had the afternoon tea booked and the queue was too long, but also we are going back soon with our voucher. If you are there just that once you may want to plan it ahead and queue to see them, we will tell you our opinion in our second visit. If you are planning to go to the Regency Tea Room in the Jane Austen Centre for afternoon tea, send them an email to book, we did and we are glad, because they had a reservation for the whole tea room for the time we wanted to go and we were booked for the only available slot instead. Without a booking, we would have missed it! I insisted to go because I went already in my previous visit and I love the place. The museum gives you some insight on Austen’s life and her production, and how Bath influenced her literature; after all we cannot forget Bath is a city she never really liked due to the life she was forced to live there.

The afternoon tea was up to my memory and our expectations, maybe just with a low score on the scones. For you to understand how good it was, Mr Wander (here with the whole stand) ate the whole cucumber sandwich without any kind of pressure, and who knows him can understand how incredible this fact is! Everything try to represent the style of the period, and the staff is very friendly and helpful. To complete the experience, Ms Lust bought yet another copy of Emma, but how to resist the new hardback edition with golden edges?

The afternoon was very sweet and we completed the visit with a walk around the Circus and the Crescent, but the trip back was a holiday itself. I must admit Google Maps is often annoying and has a peculiar idea of “fastest way”, but this time it took us through two country roads to avoid traffic jams and basically helped us planning our second visit there, with cute, little villages lost in time with their inns and their pubs that for some reason reminded me of Chimes at midnight. I don’t know you, but I am from Sardinia, and when I think of country roads I have the image of abandoned roads full of holes and with no vertical or horizontal signs at all, raised a metre from the surrounding fields, which are desolated yellow or brownish patches. Here it is different, you are surrounded by trees and green in general, the branches intertwine over the road and create beautiful arches, and the trip feels a lot more peaceful and relaxing like that.

It is good that we went there already with the idea of going twice, because we would have ended up doing that anyway, so we don’t feel we missed anything just because we took it easy this time.

Ms Lust