Day out in Gloucester

Dear travellers,

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels and stay tuned,

Mr Wander & Ms Lust

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Wander and Lust’s first anniversary

Dear readers and followers,

We are proud to say that our blog is one year old today and we would like to thank all of you who have been following our adventures in these last 12 months. For our newer readers, here is where it all began with our introductory post.

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If you already follow us, you may have noticed we have been slowly modifying the style of our blog in order to keep it interesting, and we will soon bring you a few surprises that we hope you will like.

You may also have seen that we are experiencing a few changes ourselves, leaving Cambridgeshire as our base and going to explore a new shire in this beautiful country. I feel like this move is taking forever, and it is, probably almost three months now, but we cannot complain, so far it hasn’t been as bad as we expected.

All these changes and the one-year anniversary made us think that what better way of celebrating than taking you down memory lane and sharing with you our favourite posts and trips of the past year?

Egypt

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We’ll start with our trip to Egypt, which for me was a real tale of two halves. We immensely enjoyed seeing both the buildings and artefacts left behind by the ancient Egyptians in their original location, and the wonderful and varied marine life of the Red Sea. However, the way that tourists are treated by the locals left a bitter aftertaste to the whole experience, as we really felt like we were nothing but walking ATMs to them. It’s fair enough for them to want to capitalize on the flow of tourists that flock to this country for the reasons mentioned, but to be so relentless and aggressive with their sales techniques made dealing with them very stressful and tiring. Looking back now, we try to focus on all of the incredible things that we saw during those ten days, from Karnak Temple and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, to swimming and snorkeling with dolphins and turtles. Here you will find our posts about Luxor and the Red Sea, in which you can find out more about our adventures in Egypt.

Malaysia

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This is the most recent of our trips and we wrote a series of four posts (plus a supplementary page about food) about how we spent two weeks travelling in the Malaysian peninsula, from the capital city to the tea plantations and the islands. This country captivated us with almost every aspect of its culture: The people, the hospitality, the food, the nature and the wildlife, and the language just to name some of them. Read our posts about Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands, Penang, and Langkawi, and the page about Malaysian food.

Scotland

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This trip was Ms Lust’s birthday treat and it lived up to expectations. The weather was rainy, no surprise in that, the landscape was breathtaking, the food was scrumptious, and to that you must add whisky and swimming with the fairies. There, no need to say more. Read all about five days in the Scottish Islands and Highlands here.

Cornwall

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We had been making plans for this trip for a while, which unfortunately the weather didn’t play along with. We tried our best not to let the wild conditions get in our way, and still managed to see most of the places we had planned to. There was just a lot less time spent on the beach than we would have liked! But with plenty of old mine buildings, stately homes, and small coastal towns to explore, we were able to fill this time in other ways. So if you’re looking for ideas on how to spend wet, windy days in Cornwall, here you’ll find our post about when we spent five days doing exactly that!

Thank you all for following us over the last twelve months and stay tuned for our next travels. Here’s to another year of wonderful adventures and unforgettable experiences,

Mr Wander & Ms Lust

 

A Viennese whirl – Our day trip to Vienna

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned,

Ms Lust

‘Tis the season

Dear readers,

Well it’s that time of year again, and the festive season is well and truly upon us. For some of us the build-up to Christmas Day brings images of endless days of present and food shopping, for some it conjures memories of wonderful feasts and indulgence, we all have our own personal take on what Christmas means to us and how we like to celebrate it. In the Wander&Lust household we choose to enjoy the more traditional activities and events that are part of the Christmas period, while trying our best to avoid the pitfalls of over-commercialism and over-eating (although we are not always 100% successful in that!). That means we prefer to go to a Christmas market rather than spending our evenings trudging around vast shopping centres, and a carol concert or a Christmas play opposed to watching the same old repeats on TV. So for this post we thought we’d share with you all our favourite Christmassy places that we have visited over the last couple of years, both locally and while travelling in other countries.

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Christmas markets – Bratislava

Christmas markets have blossomed in popularity over the last ten years or so in the UK, however in continental European countries the Christmas market is a long-running tradition and an important part of the festive celebrations. With this in mind we booked a short break to Bratislava last year, to coincide with the opening days of their Christmas markets. Although we had both been to similar markets in the UK, this was going to be a new experience for both of us. We also planned a day in Vienna to see the markets there as well, and to compare them with one another.

There were two big markets in Bratislava, one in the main square and one running along one of the roads close to the river, as well as a number of smaller ones dotted throughout the city. The markets seemed to be aimed more towards food and drink rather than shopping, although there were still a few stalls selling handmade arts and crafts. As such they seemed to act more as a meeting place rather than a shopping destination, and they were usually full of groups of friends that had met for lunch or dinner. Always keen to experience new cultures and traditions, we indulged as much as we could (all in the name of research of course!). We usually started at one of the many drinks stalls where, alongside the traditional mulled wine and Glühwein, there were a multitude of options for some festive spirits. Hot punches and wines were available in all manner of different flavours, mostly fruit based, as well as ciders and hot spiced spirits such as rum and brandy. Best of all were the mugs that these drinks were served in. Each stall had their own uniquely shaped or decorated (or both) mug which was either included in the price of the drink as a refundable deposit or could be bought separately for a small fee. We couldn’t help ourselves and had to keep each different one that we found, and we now have quite a collection at home!

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The other stars of the show were the food stalls, which were mostly quite similar yet with each having quite extensive menus. Never entirely sure what we were ordering, we tried almost everything that was on offer and we were at no point disappointed. There was a whole range of meats available in bread rolls, from hog roasts to traditional sausages and grilled steak. Soups and stews were also a common sight, as well as something similar to a potato pancake called zemiakové placky which are fantastic with cheese. Our personal favourite was one of the desserts available, trdelník. This is basically dough wrapped around a spit, then grilled and covered with your choice of topping such as cinnamon, sugar, or nuts. Due to the way it is cooked, the finished product is cylindrical and hollow, and commonly now filled with a range of fillings from whipped cream to nutella and ice cream. These were freshly made to order and absolutely delicious warm, they certainly helped against the cold weather!

All in all the atmosphere was excellent, with everyone enjoying their favourite treats from the market, and the markets looked like scenes from Christmas cards, especially when it snowed! The wooden cabins were all decorated with lights and tinsel, and the old city hall provided the perfect backdrop to the market in the main square.

Christmas markets – Vienna

Our day trip to Vienna wasn’t planned to be for visiting Christmas markets, but to see the main sights and attractions of the city. As it turned out, every single tourist attraction and important building seemed to have its own market and it was inevitable that we would spend the day visiting those as well. We will come back to talk to you about the sights and sounds of Vienna in a forthcoming post, but for now I’m going to focus solely on the Christmas markets we found there.

The first market we came across was situated around St Stephen’s Cathedral, and it was immediately obvious that these markets would be very different to the ones we had gotten used to in Bratislava. With the exception of the mulled wine (which was served in even cuter mugs!), the food and drink available had changed to a more Austrian/German offering. Pretzels and bratwurst were the order of the day here, and we were soon indulging in both! There also seemed to be a lot more arts and crafts on offer as potential presents and decorations, in particular traditional wooden items. But we weren’t in the mood for shopping just yet, we still had a lot more sightseeing to do, so after a quick look around the stalls, and a pretzel and hot Glühwein to keep ourselves fuelled, we left for our next stop on our tour of the city.

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The next market we came across, apart from the odd stalls that were dotted all over the city, was at Maria-Theresien-Platz, a square nestled between two of the city’s major museums; the Natural History Museum, and the Art History Museum. This market is a lot bigger, with a greater range of products available. It is still very traditional although there are signs of commercialism creeping in, with sweet stalls and tacky souvenirs finding their way into the mix. The best bit about this market is the setting. All of the markets we saw in Vienna were situated alongside the most beautiful buildings, and this was no exception. Sitting between the two identical museum buildings, and with the statues and fountains of the park providing a wonderful greeting and breaking up the lines of cabins, it was hard to keep your concentration off of the surroundings. The whole area was adorned with lights and decorations, and with traditional Christmas music in the air it was impossible not to get into the festive spirit. Again we still had plenty to do, so after our obligatory Glühwein tasting we set off for our next stop.

We spent the rest of the day sightseeing but, once the night had drawn in and everywhere had started to close, we decided to have a look around Vienna’s biggest Christmas market, the Wiener Christkindlmarkt found in front of the Rathaus (city hall). This market is huge and the atmosphere is wonderful, partly thanks to it being busy but not crowded when we were there. The Rathaus is lit up and provides a spectacular backdrop, while the decorations and lights of the the cabins finish this fantastic scene.

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The first stalls you are likely to come across are the Glühwein sellers, and it is impossible to resist, especially once you see the mugs it comes in and if it is as cold as it was there for us! From here you will see a great variety of stalls as you head towards the Rathaus, and you’ll find even more inside. There is certainly a better selection of goods on offer than at the other markets, however the sheer size of it guarantees that there will still be a fair amount of repetition. The traditional stalls are all here as well, selling the decorated gingerbread hearts and wooden crafts that this region is so famous for. Again it’s not all strictly traditional, and the pick ‘n’ mix sweets and souvenir stalls have found themselves at home here as well.

There is certainly enough here to keep you busy and interested for a good hour or so, and once you’ve had your fill of shopping there are endless possibilities for food and drink. We opted to have a bowl of soup, where the bowl is a large hollowed-out bread roll, but there is so much to choose from that you’re sure to find something to fit your appetite. And as for drink, well the Glühwein stalls will look after you in this respect, with plenty of other options such as hot spiced rum and schnapps if Glühwein isn’t to your fancy.

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Before we left Vienna and made our way back to Bratislava, we found time to visit one last market. This decision was made more for seeing the building rather than the market, as it was situated in front of the beautiful Belvedere Palace. The market itself wasn’t huge, maybe of a similar size to the one at St Stephen’s Cathedral, but it serves its purpose and the opportunity for one last cup of Glühwein before we left was a welcome one. There wasn’t really anything here that we hadn’t already seen at the other markets, it’s more aimed at capturing attention from visitors to the palace rather than the main draw itself. Still if you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a quick detour to see it.

Christmas markets – UK

This year we’ve been visiting a few Christmas markets in the UK, and I have to admit that they are on general a little disappointing. There is usually very little reason to describe them as traditional or authentic, as it seems to me that they are the same market stalls that can be found at markets all year round, with a bit of tinsel and decoration to make them seem Christmassy. It is possible to find a few unique stalls and products however, and it is still worth going for the chance of finding a gift that is a bit different to the norm.

The one market that stood out for me is the one at St Albans, which has been running for a number of years and is now fairly big compared to most in the UK. It is however very popular and can get quite crowded, especially if you go on one of the last Saturdays before Christmas as we did! This market seems to have focussed more on local and artisan traders with handmade products that cannot be found elsewhere, and there didn’t seem to be too many stalls selling the same tut as you usually find. It’s actually the first UK Christmas market where I have bought something other than mulled wine or food! Added to this is the main reason that we went on a day that we knew was going to be busy and crowded, and that is the carol concerts held in the nearby cathedral. Held on the hour, every hour, on one Saturday during the market’s trading period, this year it fell on 16 December. It’s a wonderful chance to not only see the cathedral, which is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain, but also a great way to escape the crowds for a little while and enjoy some traditional Christmas carols. This carol service has been running for ten years now, and I imagine it will be going for the foreseeable future.

Stately homes

A lot of the stately homes in the UK are closed to the public over winter, while cleaning and restorations are taking place. Some however do stay open all year round, and some open for just a few days during this period for special Christmas-themed events. Most of these give the chance to see the homes decorated for Christmas and some also provide the chance to see what life would have been like at Christmastime during the home’s heyday.

This year we have taken advantage of these events and we went to Holkham Hall in Norfolk for their candlelight tours. The house has been decorated from top to bottom and the tour consists of a guide taking you around the home and giving information about the decorations, as well as how the rooms would have been used during Christmas when the house was still used as a residence.

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The main entrance and reception hall is simply stunning, with the grand staircase adorned with Christmas trees and lights. From here we were guided into the rooms of the house, with each having been decorated according to individual themes. The first had a nautical theme, to reflect the home’s location and history on the North Norfolk coast. There was also a Mexican-themed room, a Russian-themed dining room, a woodland walkway, as well as rooms themed around wonderful creations such as huge gingerbread houses and flower arrangements. Every room has something to offer, from the nativity scene in the chapel through to a room containing a huge Christmas tree and a plethora of presents underneath.

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The tour culminated in the kitchen, which was last updated in the Victorian era, where some Christmas desserts of the period were on show. With two volunteers dressed as Victorian cooks on hand to tell interesting stories about the dishes in front of us, it was an excellent and informative ending to what had been a wonderful tour of the house.

Christmas plays

Christmas is a busy time for theatre thanks to the ever popular Christmas pantomime, but Christmas theatre doesn’t stop there. With plenty of other Christmas-themed plays out there, you can be sure to find something to go and see if, like me, you’re not a fan of pantomime. We stumbled across a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed by a local youth theatre group, which had been retitled as A Midwinter Night’s Dream and given a wintry twist to it. Although I was a little sceptical at first, it turned out to be a fantastic performance and a wonderful night out, certainly better than the Christmas plays we used to put on when I was at school!

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We also found another local production, this time of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, held in an abandoned church in a nearby village. Although this performance actually took place after Christmas, the setting and the excellent acting brought the Christmas atmosphere rushing back. The story is a Christmas classic itself, with many adaptations and versions out there, and they did it proud with their performance of a traditional version of the story.

So have a look and see what’s on in your area, local productions are a great way to discover something new and usually a lot lighter on the wallet than a West End show! We’ve found a number of local groups now that always deliver great entertainment, and we think it’s a perfect way to celebrate the festive season.

I hope you have enjoyed reading our take on the Christmas period, and that you may have been inspired to see what events and activities may be on offer in your area during the festivities. All that’s left for me to say now is to wish you all a very merry Christmas, and that it is everything that you are hoping and wishing it to be. We’ll be back for one last post before the new year, stay tuned!

Merry Christmas,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

Many people who have met me in the last few years believe that I am a Scrooge who hates Christmas and would like to abolish it, but this is quite far from reality. I have nothing against Christmas, I just don’t like consumerism and presents. But then there are many things about Christmas that I find sweet and pleasant. Christmas markets are one of those things and, although sometimes they may look as part of the industry of compulsive shopping and they are starting appearing everywhere, they usually still keep their traditional taste in the countries where they first appeared. Let’s see if I can take you around a few that I have visited.

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England

Winter Wonderland – London

As I am from Sardinia, when I was a kid they were not at all a thing in my region and I actually had my first contact with them when I arrived in the UK. London has a few famous Christmas markets and the most known of all is definitely the one in Winter Wonderland. This is an amusement park that takes up a good bit of Hyde Park starting on the last week of November and up to the first weekend in January. Roller coasters, haunted mansions, and an ice skating rink are among the attractions you can find in the park, but then you have a wide area dedicated to food and drinks, with a few big tents in which to enjoy your mulled wine and your German sausages. The food stalls are also scattered all around the amusement park while the wooden houses with the artisanal objects are usually all gathered around the entrance next to Wellington Arch.

It is nice to visit but prepare yourself for long queues for drinks and an extremely washed out experience, it is more of an amusement park than a Christmas market and there is no authenticity in it.

Covent Garden – London

Once again, a bit of an impersonal market, here you will find more stands with the usual objects and less food stalls as the location is already partly a food court. I would recommend to have a walk around as the decorations are always nice and you can enjoy some nice music performances while there.

Huntingdon

This market was on just for three days last weekend but it was a nice way of starting our season. It was located in Market Square with some exhibitors also inside the Town Hall. Due to the reduced size, there were not many repeated stands of the same thing but some very interesting ones, from the local spirit company to the stand with bags and accessories made from recycled tyres. We had a quick walk through it and we enjoyed our sandwich and mulled cider and I definitely enjoyed how different it was.

Peterbourough

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I have to admit that the website makes it sound a lot better than it actually is. If you visited Peterborough (or if you read our post), you will know that the cathedral is actually separated from the rest of the city centre and that the gates close in the evening so you cannot access the area. The market is just outside the cathedral’s gates and wrapped around a modern, cone-shaped Christmas tree that looks like it’s made of baubles. There are very few stalls, about ten in total, but the products seems quite good, with winter clothes and artisanal products such as woodcraft, beers, liquors, Russian dolls, and cheese. There is the unmissable stall with German bratwursts and mulled wine. Well, thumbs up for that, they will ask you to repeat your order five times because they can’t remember it, but the food was nice and the wine very tasty!

St Albans

Yesterday we spent the day in St Albans and that is why we are posting this on a Sunday, but we couldn’t avoid adding one of my favourite markets to the list. I had visited it once before as I was in town for a business lunch. There I met a translator from Germany and we decided to go back to the station together but first we walked through the market. We had a glass of mulled wine and she said that it was not bad, and if a German person gives the approval to mulled wine is a guarantee for me! So, when Mr Wander asked if I wanted to visit the market and go to the carol service in the cathedral I saw that as an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The market occupies the park between the cathedral and the shopping arcade and offers not too many stalls but with good quality products. You have the usual ones with sausages, with doughnuts, with chips, and with pork and stuffing rolls, the one with mulled wine and cider that also sells pints of beer because we are in the UK. Luckily, there also was a stall with roasted chestnuts, the most Christmassy thing to have when shopping (at least for me). Then we had a walk around the artisanal products and we found some very nice cheese and homemade jams and chutneys and you have a few stalls dedicated to personalised Christmas decorations. As a bonus, on Wednesday and Saturday you also have the town market and plenty of choice there as well. As we love cheese, we got some more from a very nice Italian man that had a huge variety of products, including a few Sardinian types of pecorino.

As I said, yesterday was also the day of the carol service in the cathedral and we popped in for the one at 3 p.m. The cathedral is huge, as you would expect, but it fills up completely for it.

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Bratislava

If you read our previous post about Bratislava, you will know that our trip there was focused on Christmas markets and we were not disappointed. The city has a few markets in its main squares, each with their peculiarities.

Main Square and Frantiskanske Square

This is probably the main one due to its size and the location. You have the majority of the stalls in the Main Square but then Frantiskanske Square is just on the side and the markets basically join in one that is L-shaped. Here you have a great choice of artisanal objects, food and drinks. This is your chance to taste all the traditional Slovak food: Lokše (thin potato pancakes that look like crêpes and can be sweet or savoury, the one with poppy seeds is quite typical), cigánska pečienka (chicken or pork meat, served on a bread roll with mustard and onion), other things to have on your roll are klobása (sausages) or hermelín (grilled cheese that is served with cranberry jam), langoš (deep fried raised dough, it comes with several toppings but one of the most typical is sour cream), Mastný chlieb (a slice of bread with fat, and you can add onion to it),  kapustnica (traditional soup with sauerkraut and spicy sausage), zemiakové placky (potato pancake that looks like an omelette), strudels (you have plenty of flavours, but again the one with poppy seeds is quite typical), trdelník (sweet pastry shaped as a cylinder and covered in sugar and cinnamon, cocoa, coconut, you choose), oblátky (round wafers that can be plain but are usually filled with different flavours in the markets), korbáčik (plain or smoked cheese shaped like strings), and plenty more. Of course, with the cold you will also fancy some mulled wine, varené víno, or punch, punč, and you can find countless flavours in the different stalls: Plum, cherry, raspberry, strawberry, and elderflower are just part of those we tasted!

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Old Town Hall’s court and Primacial Square

Next to the Main Square, this market is smaller with some stalls around the square court of the old town hall and you need to make sure that you check it out as well for more food, drinks, and handicraft. More stalls are then located on the other side of the courtyard, in Primacial Square. On the way back to the Main Square, make sure you get your kiss when passing under the mistletoe!

Hviezdoslav’s Square

This one is not too far from the Main Square and is also quite big. Located in the square facing the Reduta Bratislava Concert Hall and it is mainly dedicated to food and drinks with few other stalls. Here you can also see a tent with trained birds of prey. The trainers tell you some facts about the animals and their behaviour, and you can hold them and take pictures with them. We skipped this part but it is nice for kids to learn more about these animals.

Bratislava Castle

Last year was the first year that the Castle hosted a Christmas market and this was a bit small and less traditional with modern gazebos, and it closed a bit earlier than the rest, but definitely it was nice to sip a bit of mulled wine while walking around the snowy grounds of the castle!

Vienna

Vienna Christmas Market on Rathausplatz

One of the most famous ones in Vienna, this market is located in the park in front of the City Hall and offers you all the traditional food and drinks you can expect, and plenty of artisanal objects. You also have an ice rink and you can take a break from the cold going inside the building, where you have toilets and a busy café.

You will find plenty of places to have any kind of food and we took our chance to try gulasch im bröt, the soup served in a bread bowl. You have several soups to choose from and make it your main meal as it fill feel you up!

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Christmas Village Belvedere Palace

We visited this market at the end of our day in Vienna, just before getting on the train, and it was extremely quiet, but it definitely is the most impressive one, as you have to walk a long way in the park to reach it and you have the majestic fountain in front of you and the market between that and the beautiful building. The market itself offers a few nice stalls with original objects and the usual ones with food and drinks but it is simply beautiful to see.

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Christmas Village Maria-Theresien Platz

Once again, the market gets its fame from the location. Three important museums open in the square, the Natural History Museum and the Art History Museum in two identical buildings mirroring each other, and the Modern Art Museum in what originally where the Imperial Stables. The products are the usual ones you expect but it seemed to me that they are mainly focused on Christmas decorations with many stalls dedicated to them.

Stephansplatz

We visited the St Stephen’s Cathedral as well, but that will be the subject of another post. Around the cathedral, though, you have a small market where you can warm yourself up with a bit of Glühwein and a freshly made Brezel of your choice.

 

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Stately homes

As you may know if you read our posts about stately homes, many of these manors close for winter, but most of them also plan special opening days during the Christmas season. This year we decided to visit Holkham Hall for the candlelight tour and the house really was a magical place. The owners definitely plan ahead as they travel to Europe for a Christmas fair in January and buy new decorations every year both for the house and to sell in the gift shop, and you can see how the house transforms for the season.

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The main staircase was all golden and brown coloured as it was dedicated to autumn, but then you proceed to the first room where the theme is the seaside and you have a beach hut and trees decorated with seagulls and whales. The two chimneys have Santa Claus and a mermaid stuck while they try to escape. Following the tour, you have the statues gallery decorated as an enchanted wood and a few rooms with different Christmas styles: A Mexican-themed room with palm trees and beach chairs, a peacock-themed room with green and blue decorations, and a four-metre tall Christmas tree with red and white decorations before you catch a glimpse of the chapel with a real size nativity and then pass to the lower floor. Here, you have a few gingerbread sculptures from the past years guiding you to the kitchen.

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In the kitchen, the table is set for a Christmas meal with a few Christmas puddings. In the olden days, Christmas puddings had charms like the French and Spanish Christmas desserts, and the lord of the house decided that all guests had to have one and asked for them to be tied to a ribbon. Before being rushed out (see blurry picture), we had the chance to pull one each. I say rushed out because that was the main thing of the tour, the house was beautiful, but the guide was extremely rude and cold, rushing everyone about and being annoyed about answering questions; she even rushed the ladies impersonating the cooks in the kitchen while they were trying to explain the traditions. Thumbs up for the house but definitely a low score for the organisation, if 15 minutes gap between tours is not enough, don’t be greedy trying to book as many tours as you can, just allow a proper experience, you are charging £18 after all!

Well, this is all for this year’s list but, especially if you are going to Bratislava and Vienna, the best advice we can give you is: go with an empty stomach, a big bag, and dirt-proof gloves. The bag is for the mugs the mulled wine comes in, as you can get your money back if you give them back, but you almost always end up keeping them, and you will be constantly trying food and your choices are either to make your gloves dirty or to freeze your hands if you eat without them! Merry Christmas,

Ms Lust

A winter break in Bratislava

Dear readers,

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

City centre and Old Town

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

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

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

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Bratislava Castle

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

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

Devín Castle

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

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

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

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The Blue Church

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

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

Honorable mentions

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

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

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

Food

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

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

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

Music festival

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

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

Vienna

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

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

Happy travels!

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bratislava Castle

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

Devín Castle

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

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

Michael’s Gate

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

Churches

St Martin’s Cathedral

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

The Church of St Elisabeth

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

Nový most or UFO Bridge

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

Statues

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

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

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

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

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

Theatres

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

Food

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

One day… “In Bruges”

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

Brussels

Dear readers,

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

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

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

Wall mural city walk

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

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

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

Manneken-Pis

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

Grand Place

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

Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert

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

Parc de Bruxelles

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

Parc du Cinquantenaire

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

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

Museum of Musical Instruments

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust