West Country wanderings

Dear readers,

Our most recent trip was one that we had been looking forward to for quite some time, and we had been planning it in one way or another ever since we arrived back from New Zealand. Partly because the West Country is by far my favourite area in England, and partly because Ms Lust was keen to explore more of that area after having visited Devon previously. So, in order to take Ms Lust to an area that she hadn’t seen yet, we settled on Cornwall and in particular the far southwest tip, an area that I had yet to venture into either. We found our accommodation on AirBnB (click here for a signing up discount) and immediately started planning surfing lessons, cream teas, beach visits, and all the other wonderful things that Cornwall is famous for.

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We had planned our trip for just after the school summer holidays, in the hope of avoiding the busiest periods while still catching some sunny, summer weather. For the most part we achieved the first of those goals, and there wasn’t really anywhere we went that was overwhelmingly busy. On the second point we were less fortunate, and the wind and rain that met us on the M6 (under an hour into our six hour journey) was destined to be the main feature of our holiday. Undeterred by the inclement weather (since when has a bit of rain ever managed to dampen an Englishman’s spirits?!) we drove on and before we knew it we had arrived in Painswick, a small village in the Cotswolds that I had earmarked for our lunch stop. We were running a little behind schedule and didn’t stop for too long, just enough for a drive around the village and a short walk around the village church and its famous yew trees. There are 99 yew trees throughout the church graveyard, each sponsored by a local inhabitant or business, and it is reported that any efforts to grow the 100th tree have all been unsuccessful. The village itself is a typical Cotswold village, with romantic stone houses and narrow lanes, yet close enough to the M5 to allow for a quick stop without too much hassle, definitely worth a visit if you are going past. Suitably refreshed, we got back on the road and began the next leg of our journey through the wind and rain, to our first destination in Cornwall, Newquay.

One of our absolute ‘must-do’s’ while we were in Cornwall was to visit one of the Fat Willy’s Surf Shack stores, to buy a replacement car sticker for my sister and for Ms Lust to see where her acquired hoodie had come from! As it is the original, we decided we would go to the store in Newquay and also have a quick tour of the town and beaches. With our shopping finished (Fat Willy’s t-shirts and Cornish pasties, diving straight into local culture!) and my pilgrimage to the Walkabout bar completed, we took the short walk down to Towan Beach to complete Ms Lust’s first Cornish experience. With it still not being particularly beach weather, we only stopped long enough for a quick paddle and a walk around the caves before deciding to head back to the car. I have to say that I was a little disappointed by Newquay, and it seems to have lost a lot of the charm that it had when I last visited. Maybe it was because of the miserable weather, or that I have remembered it in a better light that it actually was, but the town seems to be suffering from a distinct decline. Add to that the ever-present stag and hen parties that are attracted to Newquay’s ‘party-town’ reputation, and it no longer seems like such a great place to visit, for me anyway. In saying that, I’m sure I will return again next time we visit Cornwall, if only to visit my favourite surf shack!

On arriving back at the car we discovered that the surfing lesson we had booked for the following morning had been cancelled due to the weather, so it felt like an appropriate time to complete the last section of our journey to our accommodation so we could start planning what we would do instead. We stayed in Mount Hawke for the first three nights, a small sleepy village just a few miles from St Agnes. There really wasn’t anything to keep us in the village for anything other than eating, as we had found a nice restaurant just around the corner from our accommodation. The village was a good base location for exploring the area though, as it was not too far from the coast yet also within easy reach of the main road through Cornwall, the A30.

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We decided to start off by exploring the immediate area, and found a National Trust tin-mining site just 15 minutes away. With further research I also found out that the cafe there was famous for its ice creams dipped in clotted cream, and with that I was convinced! Although I had been to Cornwall four times previously, I had never been to the area known as the Tin Coast which is named for the old tin mine buildings that are found there. So with two excellent reasons to visit, we couldn’t say no and, after breakfast, we made the short journey to Chapel Porth beach. Again, it wasn’t really beach weather, so we began with a short walk up to the mining buildings of Wheal Coates, perched on the cliffs, in order to earn our ice creams. The walk was easy enough, although it became very windy when we reached the top of the cliffs, and we were soon rewarded with the well-preserved engine house to explore. Unlike some of the National Trust engine houses in the region, this one is not in a working condition, yet the building is fully intact albeit minus a roof. Further up the cliff were some more buildings that were obviously also part of the mining complex, however these were not in such good condition and the wind became too strong for us to linger too long. We retraced our steps back down the cliffs and to the cafe, where we eagerly ordered our reward, their famous ‘Hedgehog’ ice creams. This is a vanilla ice cream cone, with a dollop of clotted cream, and then rolled in roasted hazelnuts. I’m sure its calorie content requires a more strenuous walk to burn off, but we felt we deserved it anyway! With the weather improving, we decided to go onto the beach to enjoy our ice creams and for a bit more cave exploring. Almost every beach in this region has at least a few caves, which is what made it a haven for smugglers. We didn’t find any contraband, but that didn’t stop us checking every cave we came across, just in case!

Despite having just eaten a month’s worth of calories in one go, it was now lunch time, so we decided to go to St Ives to find more Cornish pasties. I’d never been to St Ives before, and I found absolutely nothing that would make me want to return. The town is built on the side of a steep hill, surrounding a typical Cornish harbour and its complement of fishing vessels. Seemingly the destination of every tour coach in the county, the place was overrun and incredibly crowded, and what was more worrying was that this seemed to be the norm. Undeterred, we set about battling our way through the crowds to find some pasties, which we then took down to the harbour to eat while enjoying the view. This was probably the biggest mistake we made during the entire trip, as anyone that has been to Cornwall will know, and we were barely halfway through our pasties when Ms Lust was attacked by one of the local seagulls. These are not your normal seagulls, they are huge and the abundance of unwary tourists with food has made them very intimidating and most definitely not shy! After fighting them off and finding a safer place to finish our lunch, we returned to the town to see what all the fuss is about. St Ives is a beautiful little town, yet there isn’t really anything that sets it apart from any of the other harbour towns in the area, they are all beautiful. Maybe it’s because of the poem, or because of the Tate gallery that has opened here, but for whatever reason St Ives has found fame and this is its biggest problem. As I said before, it is overcrowded with tourists, and as a result it has become very commercial in order to capitalise on its popularity, which has in turn destroyed much of its charm. Unless you are on a coach holiday and have no choice, I would definitely avoid St Ives in favour of some of the less famous towns such as Port Isaac or Boscastle. However our trip wasn’t all bad, and we managed to find a great place for a cream tea, much to my surprise! Due to the popularity of St Ives, I was expecting the cafes and tearooms to be geared towards quantity rather than quality. However we spotted that 57 Fore St was surprisingly quiet as we walked past, and decided to trust our instincts and give it a try and we were not disappointed. The place is a little quirky, and it almost feels like you’re walking through someone’s home, but the view of the harbour from upstairs is fantastic and the cream teas were delicious. If you do go to St Ives, definitely check this place out!

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It was then time to leave St Ives and we set off towards another popular tourist destination, Land’s End. The original plan had been to park at Sennen Cove and walk along the coast to Land’s End, but time and the weather forced us to alter this and to drive straight there. This was another place I had wanted to go to purely because of its reputation, and again I was left a bit disappointed. Land’s End is privately owned and a mini village full of shops and attractions, all designed to deprive tourists of their holiday money, has been built separating the car park from the main attraction. So you are forced to walk through this avenue of tackiness (fortunately everywhere had closed by the time we arrived) to reach the famous signpost and the views out to sea. It is nice to be able to say that I have now been, yet it isn’t a place I would never think to come back to. The views are very dramatic and rugged, especially if the weather is as terrible as it was when we were there, yet it isn’t any different from so many other places along the Cornwall coastline. So we took our photos of the signpost, and quickly retreated back to the car to find refuge from the wind. As darkness approached we began our trip back to our accommodation, and started looking forward to the following day. I felt like our Cornish holiday hadn’t gotten off to the best of starts, however that just meant there would be plenty of opportunity to improve!

The weather had disrupted plans for our surfing lesson again, so we changed plans and moved forward our visit to St Michael’s Mount. This is another National Trust property, and the counterpart to Mont-Saint-Michel in France. It comprises of a small island just off of the beach at Marazion, and accessible at low tide via a man-made causeway, on the top of which a castle has been built. Subsequently more buildings were added around the harbour on the island, and a small community was formed. There are still people living on the island today, both in the castle and the surrounding houses, most of which are employed in the running of the property and the island. Visits can be made either by foot at low tide or by boat, however the boat is subject to weather conditions.

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When we arrived at the car park on the mainland, we were informed that the boat would not be in operation due to the weather and that we would need to wait until 1pm for the causeway to open. Marazion is also home to a wonderful, long, sandy beach, so we decided to spend the extra time that we had strolling along it in search of a shipwreck that had been uncovered in the area. The shipwreck never showed itself to us, yet it was still an enjoyable, although at some points quite bracing, walk up and down the beach. Arriving back at the causeway in time for the opening rush to have subsided a little, we joined the train of people making their way over to the island. The causeway has been recently relaid and is quite easy to walk on, however we were warned that some of the paths on the island were quite steep and, as they are all cobbled, treacherous in some places. This is mostly likely why the castle was shut on the day of our visit as well, as the wind and the threat of rain made the walk up to the top of the island too risky. We wouldn’t be able to tour the castle after all so, determined not to have come here for nothing, we went straight to the cafe for a cream tea (do you see a pattern emerging here?!). Just as good as the one we had had the previous day in St Ives, but with the added bonus of an extra scone, again we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the cream teas in such a busy tourist hot-spot. By the time we had finished, the weather had improved, although we were still not allowed to venture up to the castle, and it made for a pleasant walk around the harbour and the island village. It is a wonderful little place to visit, although I am sure it takes on a different light during the storms that frequent this area and there is a small exhibition that gives a glimpse into that side of island life. We stayed on the island almost until the causeway had to be closed for the incoming tide, and by the time we arrived back at the car it was starting to become late. It also seemed like we would finally be able to have our surfing lesson on the following morning, which meant an early start, so we called it a day and went in search of dinner.

After an early breakfast we set off for Gwithian beach for our surfing lesson, albeit still a little dubious of the weather conditions. It was certainly less windy than it had been the previous two days, however it still felt like a storm was never too far away. Nevertheless we changed into our wetsuits and carried our surfboards down to the beach, where we stayed for a little while for some tuition and instructions before getting into the water. This was something like my tenth surfing lesson, which have spanned over seven years in both Australia and previous trips to Cornwall, and I was yet to manage to stand and control the board. The closest I had gotten before were a few lucky moments on my feet, before the board quickly tipped me back into the waves a second or two later. So as the lesson seemed to be coming to a close, and I hadn’t managed to do any better, I resigned myself once again to the fact that I will possibly never get the hang of surfing. Ms Lust had already gone back to the beach at this point, and I have her partly to thank for what happened next. With only a few chances left to grab a wave, and the instructors wise words echoing around in my head, I looked up to see where Ms Lust was and that was all it took. I was up! Not only up but controlled and balanced as well, and able to ride the wave all the way into the shore. I could hardly believe it, all I had needed all this time was to have a beautiful woman waiting at the beach for me to grab my attention. I’d been told countless times by every instructor to keep my head up and never followed their advice, and now I saw where I had been going wrong all this time. I managed to catch one more wave before the lesson ended and, proving it hadn’t been a fluke, repeated my new found surfing skills and rode the wave once more to the shore. Ms Lust hadn’t enjoyed her first surfing experience all that much, but for me it was the best lesson I had had and why I highly recommend Gwithian Surfing Academy if you are looking for lessons in this area. I will probably never take up surfing seriously, I may never even have another lesson, but I am so glad to have finally mastered the very basics at least so I know it wouldn’t be completely pointless to go again.

The surfing had tired us both out quite a lot, so we dialled back our plans a bit and decided to find somewhere for lunch before heading to our new accommodation for the last night. We found a great fish and chip shop in Hayle and drove to the beach there to eat them, although we had learnt our lesson and stayed in the car! The accommodation was a bit of a drive away and we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, where we were met with a beautiful cabin to stay in and even some gin and tonics to welcome us! Another AirBnB find, and definitely one of the best we have stayed at, you can find it here. We got some well-earned rest in before going for dinner, and then on to our theatre plans for the evening. I had come across Minack Theatre in an article online, and as soon as I saw it I knew we had to book tickets for whatever show would be on while we would be there. That show turned out to be Cyrano de Bergerac, a play I had studied a little at school and one that I knew we would enjoy. So I booked the tickets well in advance and as a result, most of our holiday had been planned around this visit.

Minack Theatre is an open-air amphitheatre that has been built on the cliff top near Porthcurno. Resulting from the vision and hard work of Rowena Cade, she built the theatre with her gardener, Billy Rawlings, by carving it from the cliffs at the end of her estate. The first performance, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, took place on 16 August 1932 and there have been performances here ever since. The backdrop of the roaring sea crashing into the cliffs below adds to the drama of the performances, it really is a wonderful place to watch a play. There seems to be a new play every week, with two performances a day on weekdays, so you are sure to find something that interests you. The tickets are not expensive either, which is what surprised me the most as it is such a famous attraction, and I think I would be there every week if I were to live in the area!

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After a good night’s rest we found ourselves facing the prospect of the long drive home, as our holiday was drawing to an end. That in no way means that we had finished exploring however! The route had been carefully planned to include a few more stops along the way, and after breakfast we set off in the direction of home. As is so often the case on an English holiday, the weather seemed to be returning to a more summery disposition just as we were leaving. We didn’t feel too upset about this though, as there was still some rain about as we arrived at Lanhydrock Estate and we had had an excellent time over the last few days despite the weather. Lanhydrock Estate is a stately home owned by the National Trust (you’d never guess that we’re now members!), just to the south of Bodmin Moor. As such, and also because this post is long enough already, we’re going to save our views on our visit here for our next stately homes post, which will be out fairly soon.

After Lanhydrock Estate we went for a short drive to the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery and Cafe, for what would be the most disappointing moment of the entire trip. Prior to leaving, I had a spent some time researching the best places in Cornwall for Cornish pasties and cream teas. One of the places that came up in almost every list for cream teas was the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery Cafe, and with a name like that who can resist? So there we were waiting for our cream teas, and when they arrived I couldn’t help but to feel devastated. The scones resembled rock cakes more than scones, the teapot didn’t look like it have ever been washed, and worst of all was the cream. It was clotted cream, so at least they got that right, but it was the amount that was the issue. Sitting in a miniature plant pot was a scoop of cream barely big enough for one scone, and certainly not enough for the two scones we had been given. Naturally we asked for more and to be fair it was given without any issue or question (I imagine they get asked this a lot), so we carried on in hope that looks can be deceiving. They weren’t and the scones tasted as bad as they looked, the tea was ok but nothing special (you had to pay extra for anything other than English Breakfast!), and we realised that this place gets by on its name alone.

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Our final stop was another short drive away, the small harbour town of Polperro. Situated at the bottom of a steep hill, you are greeted by a huge car park and a deep sense of dread that you’ve been tricked into driving to another St Ives. Maybe it was because we arrived just as everything was closing, or maybe the town is a bit too far off the beaten track to attract too many coach tours, but it seemed relatively quiet and peaceful. A tourist tram made from an old milk float will take you to the harbour for a nominal fee, along with tales of the torrid journey that awaits you if you decide to walk back (we did it and it really wasn’t bad at all!). The harbour is small and pleasant, with a small beach and some caves to explore. The houses and shops are all still very traditional and it seems like tourism hasn’t affected these too much so far. All in all it was a nice place to have a final pasty and a stroll before leaving Cornwall, but I didn’t find anything to make me linger for too long. Well worth a visit if you are in the area, probably not worth the hassle if you’re not. So with our tour of Polperro complete, so too did our Cornish adventure come to a close. We walked back to the car and began the long drive home, already promising to return again soon.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Dear readers,

You may have seen a few of our pictures from our road trip to Cornwall, but here we are to tell you more about it, follow me around the south west coast for a tour of pasties and cream teas!

This is our itinerary, a bit planned and a bit modified by improvising and by the forces of nature, and I’ll take you through it in case you want to follow it in your trip. As the posts are usually very long, here is the short itinerary and here is the longer version if you are up to read more about the places.

We have a great tendency of always leaving later than planned, and this time was no exception. We were on the road at about 9 a.m. on Saturday, our day one.

Day 1

This first bit was quite plain, with a long drive through counties until our first stop, which was also our lunch break. Mr Wander had planned to stop in Painswick, which ended up being a nice decision. We initially stopped at the Rococo Gardens but we immediately decided not to visit them as it would have added two hours to our already delayed schedule; if you have time or are on a more relaxed schedule, you may add it to your itinerary.

Include a stop at St Mary’s Church. Again, if you are not on a tight schedule as we were, save some time for it as it is worth the visit. The churchyard is said to only be able to host 99 yew trees because the devil would always destroy the hundredth, although the count of the trees is always different depending on the source. In 2000, every town in the Diocese of Gloucester received a yew tree to plant for the millennium and the church was confronted with the dilemma of planting it and defying the legend. It seems that the tree is still there and healthy, as you can read here in the 100 reasons to love the Cotswolds.

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After Painswick, choose your next stop accordingly to your interest, whether it be the beach, food, or shopping. We drove straight to Newquay because we wanted to pop into Fat Willy’s before it shut. You have two shops in Newquay, but the one in Fore Street also has women’s t-shirts and we went there.

If you are hungry and it still opening time, Jamie’s Pasties in Central Square is your place. It is hard to miss, with a yellow front and canopy. Apparently, the shop has been renovated recently and is now also selling memorabilia such as t-shirts with their logo. The choice is quite good and even going at closing time we still had five or six flavours to choose from. I totally recommend the chicken and chorizo one it if you like spicy food because it hits you quite hard towards the half of the pasty. Have it by the beach for a nice sight of the house with the bridge and of the surfers.

Our AirBnB place booked in Mount Hawke, we went back on the road. The place was not bad but could have benefited from a bit of hoovering. Mount Hawke is a small town with very little to do but we were just a few metres away from the Old School Bar and Kitchen and we decided to try their menu for dinner. The place is very nice and so is the food and the music, and the pub is dog-friendly, in case you are interested, and their breakfast choice is also pretty good although only available Saturday and Sunday.

Day 2

We were supposed to go surfing but the weather was not so favourable and the lesson was cancelled, so we decided to head to Chapel Porth and have a walk around the beach and the tin mines. The beach is a National Trust location and has a little kiosk from which you can get some food and drinks. It is not the best for breakfast, the website is not very clear on that. You have a few tables outside but the options for breakfast are just some baguettes.

The walk from the beach to the Wheal Coates engine house is a short, easy walk on the cliff but the wind can make it quite difficult reaching the second half. The engine house is not in use anymore but it is just nice to have a walk around and see the scenery.

Not to miss at Chapel Porth is its famous ice-creams called hedgehogs, basically a waffle cone with vanilla ice-cream, clotted cream, and roasted hazelnuts. Another version is the foxy, which has flapjack crumbs instead of hazelnuts. Definitely thumbs up! There are more walks on the cliffs and along the beach, and we decided to explore that a bit, with the coves that make it quite impressive and give for very nice framed pictures (this is me, courtesy of Mr Wander).

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Full from the hedgehog and willing to explore more, we headed to St Ives. The town is much about tourism and it seems to be a favourite stop of bus tours, which makes it busy and chaotic. The fact that there is car park for thousands of cars at the top of the hill should give you an idea. There is a bus service to and from the car park but if you are not tired you can do what we did and walk to town and just get the bus on the way back as the road is quite steep.

If you think that a pasty by the harbour is a good idea, think twice and read the full version of the post to find out why. As it was late and all the pasty shops were closing, we got ours half price in Warrens Bakery which, quoting their website, is “one of the UK’s top three craft bakeries and the World’s oldest pasty maker”. Chicken and asparagus is a debatable choice and probably not the best combination but the quality was good. 

If instead of a pasty you fancy a cream tea (or you can have both as we did), you can walk to the end of the harbour and then back up Fore Street to stop at 57 Fore Street. It is a very nice bar with the tasty and incredibly sweet décor of a summer house. When we arrived, they were not serving food anymore but they serve cream teas all day. We sat upstairs and got our order. Definitely thumbs up, the scone was only one but soft and fresh, buttery and delicious, with our individual pot of clotted cream and jam for an average price.

If you are not tired of travelling, you can do what we did and drive to Land’s End, bearing in mind that the shopping and amusement area is going to be closed by the time you will arrive, which is all positive in my opinion. We arrived when the rain and the wind were increasing and it was honestly quite hard to even hold the phone still at all for pictures. Do not miss the model village just outside the entrance.

Despite a lunch of pasty and the cream tea, we still wanted to go for some dinner and we decided to check out the Miners Arms pub in Mithian. The pub is quite renowned in the area and serves local food. Mr Wander was not impressed with the Sunday roast but my salad with brie was nice, just too generous in brie if anything, which is not bad at all. The pub itself has a varied history and the building still shows the original structure, with low ceiling and wooden beams. Unfortunately, we were too full for giving the desserts a go but the list was definitely interesting.

Day 3

Something to say is that if you want some breakfast during the week, especially Monday, you should plan ahead and have some food at the accommodation. We tried with no luck to find somewhere open for breakfast in Portreath, in two cases despite the fact that the information online on Google and on the place’s website clearly stated “open”. After a few failures and a full coffee shop, we decided to go for something fresh from a bakery and I had a bacon and cheese pasty at Portreath Bakery. When Mr Wander told me the history behind the Cornish pasty (check it here), it made sense, but when I had the pasty for breakfast I understood the power of this whole meal in a pastry case.

After this stop, we were ready to head to St Michael’s Mount. Something to keep in mind if you plan to visit Cornwall, apparently, is the wind, as our plans were shaken or cancelled a few times because of it. In the case of the Mount, if the day is too windy, not only the boat doesn’t operate, but the castle is not open to visitors either.

The rock is the British version of the French Mont-Saint-Michel and was built by the same monks that were living in the French monastery, or at least the chapel and the church that preceded the castle. The castle belongs now to the St Aubyn’s family who still lives there. The rock is part of the National Trust’s network but you have to park in Marazion and you will have to pay £3.50 even if you are a member. If you decide (or the weather decides for you) to walk, you have to wait for the tide to uncover the path. We tried to find this shipwreck that I read about, but we couldn’t, we don’t know whether because it was still covered by water as the tide was not out completely, or whether because sometimes the storms cover it again in sand. Let us know if you manage to find it on your visit.

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The walk to the Mount is pretty short but you better wear comfortable shoes, especially because the small streets to reach the castle are also of cobblestones. If you visit on a day in which the castle is closed, you have the café and the harbour to visit, which is not much, but the Island Café is nice and the food not bad at all. We had a cream tea, as you could guess, and we loved it. Two scones, with a delicate butter scent, soft and fresh, really delicious, accompanied by a pot of jam and a pot of clotted cream each. All washed with an individual pot of tea that was just perfect. Trust me, it is worth but it is a good idea to have it as a meal.

There is also the Island gift shop that sells many nice items and especially cruelty-free hand-made soaps and candle by Sapooni. We couldn’t resist a soap bar called “Wanderlust”! We left at about 5 p.m. as the tide was going up again and everyone had to leave the rock by 5:30.

You have a few choices around for dinner, and we decided to give The Unicorn a go, mainly because of the name and the fact that the sign was at the junction we turned every single time and we became curious. The place is a hostel and pub and must be pretty busy during high season; it was actually pretty busy even now that we went, at least for dinner. The menu is pretty simple but not bad, I had the vegetarian burger and I really loved it, it didn’t destroy after a bite like they usually do, and the chips were not bad at all; what you don’t want to eat, though, is the slaw. The pub also has a pool table, in case you like playing, and it is dog-friendly.

Day 4

Tuesday was the day of our surfing lesson. We booked with GAS Surf School and I believe we can recommend them (Mr Wander is the expert here as for me it was the first time). The guys kept us up to date moving our booking (originally for Sunday, day 2) due to the weather. We started at 10:30 and the lesson includes wetsuits and boards also a little after the lesson. You may know me or may have understood by now that I am happy as soon as I am in water, but you will find my opinion about surfing in the extended post.

Our instructor was definitely nice and helped me a lot. I stress on myself because I was the only one at her first intent, the rest had tried a few times before and were pretty good already. Well, he helped me with the right waves and telling me when to stand and so on, so I definitely recommend you book with them if you want to try as well. If you want, they obviously also rent the gear.

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If you are hungry, fish and chips to go at Sanders is a good idea, maybe a bit greasy, but that is exactly what you expect it to be! We had our last night booked near Praa Sands and I have to say that Lynne’s place is the best I have been in all my AirBnB accommodation, and it is so by far. The annex is just delicious and elegant, with all details taken care of and an incredible level of cleanliness. If to that you add that the host is just lovely, definitely it is a not to miss if you are unsure where to stay, just bring some coins because she has a little bookshelf and you can buy the books for charity.

We went for dinner at Sandbar in Praa Sands to have a quick bite before the theatre that we had booked and we liked it so much that we went back for breakfast the day after. Sandbar is a bar and restaurant by the beach and offers traditional pub food. The big windows open to the beach and there is an open terrace that must be lovely in summer but that night was pouring. Their soup and calamari were really good and their focaccia definitely deserves the best score, both for the soup and as garlic bread. The place is also dog-friendly, at least up to the arch that divides the dining area.

If you are in the area, definitely do your best to fit Minack Theatre into your schedule. The theatre itself is worth the effort, as it is carved into the cliff, as you can see here and it was created by the lady who lived in Minack House, Rowena Cade, for the performing of The Tempest, which would have suited the weather very much. Dating from the ‘30s, this theatre is majestic and scary at the same time, as the stage seems to be just directly over the sea and the seats are very steep. The acoustic is somehow complicated, especially in a very windy day like we had on Tuesday, and we were lucky enough to be sitting in the front rows on the left side, as we were close and a bit sheltered from the wind anyway but, mainly, we were sitting on stone and not on grass. We had our rain jackets and our blankets, but you can also get a rain kit from the theatre for a small fee. We watched Cyrano de Bergerac, as you have seen from the picture, and it was very nice, although a bit unsettling for me sometimes as I am used to both the original French and the Italian translation and I somehow missed the lines and rhymes that Rostand is famous for.

Day 5

As day 5 was the day we were coming back, we were not supposed to leave too late in order to do some visiting and manage to be home at a decent time. It didn’t happen. Our first stop was Lanhydrock, a country house managed by the National Trust. Just a glimpse of the chapel here, but we will tell you more in our post about stately homes.

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As per our plan, we left after a quick visit to the chapel and we went to The Duchy of Cornwall Nursery for afternoon tea. Do you remember when I said that I am not a big fan of fancy and trendy places because the quality and service are never up to expectations? Well, this is exactly the case. Two dry, rock-hard scones, a plain one and a raisin one, and jam and cream that was barely enough for only one scone. The tea was nice, but even the milk jug was not happy to be there, as you can see here! The service was ok but nothing to be happy about, even before we asked for a double dose of cream. Definitely not worth the little detour!

The last stop was Polperro, a nice fishing village with a heritage tram service that takes you from the car park to the actual town as cars are not really allowed in the narrow streets near the harbour. The journey is £2 return but, if you get the last tram and have to walk back, don’t be scared by the driver making it sound terrible, it is not a long walk and definitely it is not steep either, you will enjoy it. The tram journey gives you a discount on pasties at the shop next to the stop, but it seemed all sold out when we arrived, so we kept walking a bit further and got one at the Polperro Bakery. As it was late already, the terrace was not out, but the bakery has a door also to the rear square and it is nice to sit there if you have a chance. As we didn’t want to walk down to the harbour with a pasty, we just sat in the square benches until we finished. I got a vegetarian one and I enjoyed it, although I find it a bit more doughy than the ones I got the previous days. If you manage to arrive early, visit the museum and stop for cream tea in one of the nice tea rooms you find on your way, we would love to ear your feedback as we arrived after closing time. With low tide and at the end of the day, the harbour was very quiet but still nice to walk around, and the beach was covered in seaweed but also nice, especially because the sky started clearing again and gave us a perfect postcard for the end of the holidays with no need for a filter.

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We left with this sight and we got back home at about 11 p.m. but once again feeling so tired and so rich. Although these words did not bring Ulysses to a happy journey, allow me to quote Dante:

“fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.*

Keep travelling, keep exploring, and keep pushing your boundaries,

Ms Lust

*“Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,/ But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.’” (Inferno – Dante, translation by H. W. Longfellow)

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Our side of London

Dear travellers,

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

Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tower of London and Ceremony of the Keys

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

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

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

Food and drink

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

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

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

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

Now a few tips before leaving you:

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

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

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National Gallery

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

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

Natural History Museum lates

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

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

Ceremony of the Keys

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

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

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

Hyde Park

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

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

Battersea

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

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

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

Waxy O’Connors

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

Tardis

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

Scottish fairies, Islands, and Highlands

Dear readers,

If you have read the post about our trip to Rome, you’ll know that we like to buy holidays for each other rather than presents for our birthdays. So in June, I have the pleasure of planning and taking Ms Lust on holiday for her birthday. As I did in January, Ms Lust had given me a shortlist of three destinations, and it was then left to me to choose which of these we would go to. Although they had been given in no particular order, it was clear that Ms Lust’s top choice was to go to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. This was more due to a particular place on Skye rather than the island itself, but we’ll come back to that later. I’d wanted to visit here myself for a long time too, so it was an easy decision to make in the end and I was soon looking into our options for visiting the Isle of Skye.

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As it would just be me driving, I had decided to book a flight to Glasgow and then hire a car to drive the rest of the way. It didn’t really make it any quicker or cheaper, but I didn’t fancy 10 or 11 hours of driving each way, especially with only a few days to make the most of or in which to recover. So we arrived in Glasgow after our morning flight from Stansted, and went to pick up the hire car. I was pleasantly surprised that we didn’t have to wait too long, but my delight soon faded. Why is hiring a car in the UK such an arduous and complex process? I don’t want to start moaning already though, we had a fantastic time and I’d rather be talking about that!

With the hire car sorted, we set off on our way to Skye. We still had approximately five hours of driving before we would get there, but we also had plenty of time to stop and go exploring along the way. I’d planned a rough route to take, not the most direct in order to take in as many sights as we could. After leaving Glasgow, we first made our way through Loch Lomond National Park. I had visited here before on holiday many years ago as a child, and was curious to see how much I would remember. We found a place where we could park and eat lunch, and we were able to walk down to the loch from here.  In all honesty it reminded me of standing by the lake in Queenstown more than anything else, the landscapes are so similar although I have to say that Loch Lomond is a lot more peaceful!

As we drove further through the national park, we then found an unexpected treasure, the Falls of Falloch. Located on a river that feeds into Loch Lomond, a short walk from the car park past some smaller falls led us to this amazing place. I always prefer places which require a little bit of effort to reach, rather than simply parking the car, stepping out to take a few photos, and then getting straight back on the road again. I feel that it makes you appreciate it more and that the destination is somehow improved by the journey to get there. Definitely worth the walk, the falls erupt from the surrounding woodland and provide some stunning views. A viewpoint has been constructed at the end of the track, but there are plenty of other spots which give spectacular views of their own.

Back on the road and continuing our journey north, there were so many places that we wanted to stop at but it simply would not have been possible to stop everywhere. The weather was also beginning to turn on us, with the frequent showers becoming heavier and heavier, and we didn’t want to risk getting caught in a downpour so early in the holiday! We did manage to fit in a few quick photo stops before reaching Glencoe however, where we would also stop to see the famous Three Sisters.

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At this point I realised that we would be unable to complete part of my planned route, which created more decisions to make. Although we weren’t going to be staying on the Isle of Skye itself, I had wanted to take a ferry from Mallaig to the island and to drive through the Sleat peninsula on our way. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our side and strong winds had meant that the ferry had been cancelled. As for our route, this now meant that we would have to stay on the mainland and leave Skye until the following day. However this meant we would not now be going past a couple of places that I had wanted to visit, and we had to decide whether to take a detour to still be able to visit them or not. In the end we compromised to make sure we wouldn’t be arriving too late at our accommodation, and we would drive out to Glenfinnan and back but the coral beach at Morar would have to wait until our next trip to this area.

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Glenfinnan is originally famous for being the site where the Jacobite uprising began, when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard here in 1745. The Glenfinnan Monument was built in 1815 to memorialise those that lost their lives in the battles that ensued, and it is still standing today by the banks of Loch Shiel. Today however, it seems it is more famous for its viaduct, used as a filming location for the Harry Potter films. Fortunately the two sites are a stone’s throw from each other, and we were able to see both in between the increasingly frequent rain showers.  Now time was starting to run out and we set off for the last leg of the day’s journey to our accommodation in Craig, near Plockton and a 10 minute drive from the Skye Bridge onto the island.

Another one of my AirBnB finds (click here for a signing up discount), we were staying in a lodge on a farm that seemed to be used more for tourism purposes rather than agriculture. We didn’t have much time to see the animals, but the setting was incredible and made for some fantastic views as we were leaving and returning each day. We arrived with time to spare and took the opportunity to freshen up before heading out again to find somewhere for dinner. As I mentioned before, Plockon was the nearest town and we had been told that it has a good reputation for food. This was to become our destination for dinner a couple of times, and we were never disappointed. Most of the restaurants in this area take advantage of the local produce available, especially seafood, and we were able to try some wonderful Scottish dishes during our stay (including the odd haggis here and there!).

The next day would be the start of our explorations of the Isle of Skye, and also the first of two days that I had planned more thoroughly. For this day, we would be travelling around the most northern peninsula of Skye, the Trotternish peninsula. A huge, 30 km long landslip here has created some of Skye’s most famous and dramatic landscapes, and it was our intention to try and see as many as we could. Our first stop was the Fairy Glen near Uig, probably the least well-known of the day’s excursions and therefore the least crowded. Located a few kilometres down a single-track road unsuitable for tour buses (hence why it was so quiet!), I was glad I had looked up directions before leaving as there were no signs for this attraction until we actually arrived and I would never have found it otherwise. Fairies feature heavily in Skye’s folklore, and there are many sites on the island that are attributed to these magical creatures. The Fairy Glen doesn’t really have its own story, it is simply named due to the landscape found there looking like something straight out of a fairy tale. Everything in Skye, and the Scottish Highlands as well, is incredibly green. The mountains, lochs, and waterfalls make the scenery so beautiful anyway, but I guess living in New Zealand had made me a little less awestruck by this than I otherwise would have been. What is different to New Zealand is the greenness that covers absolutely everything. It may have been because we visited at the start of summer, but it really does make every landscape look magical. And with the unique shape of the land at the Fairy Glen, it really is easy to see how it got its name.

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This was our only stop on the west side of the peninsula, so we made our way eastwards to our next destination, the Quiraing (I have yet to find out how this is pronounced, any help is greatly appreciated!). This is the first of the landscapes created by the famous landslip, which has exposed some wonderful geological features. When seeing the sign directing us over ten miles down a single-track road to such a well-known tourist spot, I had horrifying images of having to stop every two seconds to let the constant convoy of hire cars and tour buses past. Luckily I was worrying for nothing, and the road was reasonably quiet. I had been tempted to continue on the main road around the top of the peninsula, in retrospect I am glad that we didn’t as I would probably have missed the Quiraing altogether! There is a car park just on the side of the road, with a walking track starting on the opposite side. How far you go and how long you stay here is entirely up to you. The main features of the Quiraing are actually visible from the car park, and after walking approximately 200 metres down the track the landscape really opens up into some stunning views. For the more adventurous the track continues, and there are walks of various lengths and difficulties that can be completed from this starting point. For us, our itinerary was too busy to stay for too long, and we were content with just completing the first section of the walk before heading back and continuing down the east coast.

Our next stop was our first real experience of how busy Skye can get, and the car park at the Kilt Rock viewing area was jam-packed when we arrived. Kilt Rock is a cliff where the unique geology has created a sheer face that resembles a kilt. Also just in front of the cliff is a small waterfall called Mealt Falls. There isn’t much here to keep you too long, just a couple of viewpoints which are only about 20 metres from the car park. So after taking a few photos from each, we were soon back on the road and feeling like it was time for something to eat. My biggest piece of advice for anyone travelling to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is this: plan everything as well as you can. Unfortunately in terms of when and where we would eat, I hadn’t done so and left us with very few options. Skye is a very rural area and although it has become a busy tourist destination, some things still operate at their own pace. As such, not realising that everything would be shut on Sundays, we were left with nowhere to have lunch until finishing our trip around the peninsula and returning to Portree.

So we carried on and proceeded to our next stop, Rubha nam Brathairean or Brothers Point, another often overlooked beauty spot. Again this is probably due to the lack of signs, we also only found it due to my earlier research. Basically just a layby on the side of the road with a footpath on the other side, it would be easily missed. I even missed it on the first pass, noticing the footpath sign just as it was too late to stop and we had to turn around to go back. We were very glad that we did go back, as after a walk along the footpath we were rewarded with some great views of the Skye coastline. It would have been easy to have spent a few hours here exploring, but our stomachs were becoming angry and encouraged us to head back.

The last stop on our itinerary was possibly the most disappointing, the Old Man of Storr. Similar to the Quiraing, this is a landscape formed by the landslip. The Old Man of Storr itself is a natural obelisk that was left protruding from the landscape. This is another of the main tourist spots in this area, and even when we arrived late in the afternoon it was still very busy. The footpath up to the Old Man of Storr is a long, steep slog which we were told would take two hours to reach the top and back. With no time nor inclination for a walk of that length, we decided to start and see how far we would get or if we would find a good viewpoint on the way. The truth is, the view from the footpath is particularly disappointing. The whole way up you are directly in front of the ridge and the Old Man of Storr, which makes it very hard to identify where it actually is. To be completely honest, the views from the road both before and after the car park were much better, thanks to being able to view the landscape from a different angle. It may be that it is truly wonderful once you reach the top, but we weren’t prepared to spend so much time and effort to find out and after about fifteen minutes of climbing we decided to head back down.

After this we really did need to find somewhere to eat and we parked up in Portree, unfortunately it seemed that everyone else had had the same idea. Every restaurant we tried was full, with waiting times all being about an hour, so in the end we gave up and drove on to the next town, Sligachan.  Here we were more fortunate, and we found somewhere to satisfy our haggis cravings on only our second attempt. It had been another very long day, but we had seen some fantastic landscapes and we were ready for more!

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The next day was Ms Lust’s birthday, so she was in charge of what we would do. I had made some suggestions but there was one place that was absolutely non-negotiable. The place that Ms Lust had wanted to visit, and basically the whole reason we were visiting Skye, was the Fairy Pools. Another of Skye’s enchanted areas, this is a cascade of waterfalls on a stream of incredibly clear water that has run down from the mountains. Again this isn’t very well signposted from the main road (I think the locals are trying to keep some of these spots to themselves!), it really is worth doing your homework beforehand to be able to find these places. The Fairy Pools really are spectacular, and one pool is particularly beautiful. Two pools, one with a waterfall dropping into it, connected by an underwater arch, provide reason enough for the name. These were the pools we had also earmarked for a swim, which we had brought wetsuits along for. The climb down to the pools is fairly dangerous, especially once the rocks have become wet and slippery, but the advantage of this is that you get the pool more or less to yourself if you are willing to make the descent. We did, and instantly were thankful that we had. It is such a beautiful place and, despite the water being so cold, swimming here is something I will remember forever.

After our swim, we dried off and continued a little further up the path. It is possible to walk all the way back to Sligachan, marked as a 4.6 kilometre walk. We didn’t go that far, even just a few hundred metres further gave us the chance to see so many other pools that were equally as beautiful. Plus we hadn’t started the day as early as planned so we now needed to get back on the road. Our next stop was to be Dunvegan Castle, after Ms Lust had decided she would prefer a cultural stop to break up all of nature and landscape stops we had been making.

Dunvegan Castle was originally a medieval castle built in the fourteenth century, and the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan. Since then, various clan chiefs have made their own additions and, although they have been made in the same style as the castle, it now seems more like a stately home. The castle sits on the shores of a loch and offers great views of the loch and the surrounding countryside. Inside there wasn’t too much to see, the main draw is the infamous Fairy Flag which is said to bring good luck. An heirloom of the MacLeod clan, it is said to have been raised in battle at times when defeat seemed inevitable, and every time the clan have gone on to be victorious.

Included with the ticket is access to the castle gardens, which we had a short walk around. With neither of us being particularly interested in horticulture, we were there mainly for the views it offered of the castle. As a result, the price of the ticket seemed a little expensive as we were only there for about an hour, but it was an interesting visit nonetheless. Once we had finished at the castle, we only really had time to head back to our accommodation to prepare for dinner. Naturally we made a couple of quick stops along the way, one of which was to finally take a photo of this bridge that we had passed so many times already! As we made our way back, we said our goodbyes to the Isle of Skye as the next day we would be heading back south.

After going for breakfast at our new favourite cafe in Kyle of Lochalsh, we set off on the road back towards the lowlands of Scotland. We hadn’t gone too far however before it was time for our first stop of the day, at Eilean Donan Castle. I had found out about this castle while researching the holiday, and as soon as I saw it I decided we had to go. I instantly recognised it as the castle from The World Is Not Enough, and later found out it had been used in the filming of Highlander as well. A truly iconic, typically Scottish castle, it just had to be worth a visit. And it really was, a lot more of the castle is open to the public than at Dunvegan Castle, and it is wonderful to be able to explore both the inside of the castle and the ramparts. I guess the fact that it costs only just over half as much to get in as well is what makes the ticket for Dunvegan Castle seem a lot.

The location of Eilean Donan Castle is just perfect, protruding into the water at the meeting point of three lochs. The piper playing by the shore to greet visitors finishes off this perfect setting, it felt like a true Scottish experience. We spent a lot longer here, but we had to be wary of time to make where we would have enough spare for some stops on our way to Stirling. So after exploring the castle to its extent, it was time to continue heading south.

I had made a slight detour in order to be able to see Loch Ness, which didn’t really live up to my expectations. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it really is just like all the other lochs we had seen on the trip. I guess I was always going to be disappointed unless I had actually seen Nessie’s head poking out of the water! With my curiosity satisfied, our next port of call was one we had been putting off since the first day on Skye. We had decided we should visit a whisky distillery while in Scotland, and our first choice had been to visit the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye. With all the other visits we wanted to make here we simply hadn’t had the time, so out next choice was to stop at the Edradour distillery near Pitlochry on our way to Stirling (I came here with my parents and it has been my father’s favourite whisky ever since, so felt I needed to get it for myself!). Unfortunately we weren’t going to make it here before closing so we had to find another option, which turned out to be the Dalwhinnie distillery. I had never heard of this whisky before, but I’m certainly glad we stopped here. After a tour around the distillery and the storage sheds it was time for the important part, the tasting session. I personally prefer the pasty taste of west coast whiskies, and after smelling the malts of both Dalwhinnie and a west coast whisky I wasn’t expecting too much. I was pleasantly surprised and have certainly found another whisky to add to my drinking list, it is very smooth and flavoursome, give it a try!

After a brief stop in Perth for dinner at a great restaurant, we finally arrived in Stirling and found where we were staying. I had some reservations about the place I had booked, as I knew it was part of the university’s halls of residence, but it really was a great place to stay for the night. Considering it was also basically free as a package with our flights to Glasgow, I can’t praise it enough!

So our final day in Scotland was to be spent in Stirling, and I have to admit I hadn’t planned too much. Apart from the National Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle, I didn’t really know what else there was to see here. So we began the day at the National Wallace Monument, a huge tower that was built in 1815 in memory of the great William Wallace. It sits on top of a hill overlooking Stirling Bridge, the site of Wallace’s famous battle with the English, and there are fantastic views to be had of Stirling and the surroundings after climbing the 246 steps to the top of the monument. We were also lucky to have gone on a day when they have presentations to explain more about William Wallace and how he came to be the symbol of freedom in Scotland. Another very interesting visit, I really thought I would only be taking memories of fantastic landscapes away from this trip, however I learnt a lot about Scottish history and whisky as well!

After getting a bit lost waking back down through the woods from the monument, we had to decide where to go next. Stirling Castle seemed a bit expensive, and warranted more time to visit than the couple of hours we had left before having to head back to Glasgow for our flight home. So we ended up exploring the old part of Stirling city, and discovered some more interesting places to visit. Unfortunately the Old Jail was closed, but we had a look inside the Church of the Holy Rude which is the only church in Britain to have held a coronation other than Westminster Abbey. We also walked up to the castle for a walk around the grounds, and then by this point it was time to be grab some lunch and head to Glasgow.

So after battling our way through Glasgow’s rush hour traffic to reach the airport, it was time to say goodbye to Scotland for now. We have seen so many amazing places while we were there, and also so many more that we need to come back for. But by this point we really were weary travellers, trying to fit so much in to only a few days had left us very tired and, although we had had a fantastic time, the call of home was becoming very strong!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

Or should I say travellers? I guess I should, I take you on a new trip with me, so… dear travellers, today I want to tell you about our most recent trip, so I want to apologise for overwhelming you with details, but everything is incredibly fresh in my mind. Two years ago, in July, I read one of those articles about holiday destinations, you know, one of those “10 holiday destinations out of a fairy tale” or similar. There I saw the Fairy Pools and I started dreaming of visiting them. As they are in the Isle of Skye and not too easy to access, I postponed the visit until now. I know, there are tours available, but I honestly could not find the information about them. I actually emailed some of the touristic websites and was basically discouraged about doing it without a car. The situation might have changed in the last two years, but now there were groups exploring Skye, so I cannot understand why this lack of information.

Anyhow, when I said that to Mr Wander, he started looking up our options and planning everything. Living in Cambridgeshire, driving up to Skye would have taken about ten hours, so we decided to fly to Glasgow and then rent a car there. The time was about the same, but a lot more relaxing. Also, with all our love for our Delilah, a brand new car, even of the same size, was a much better experience for a trip like ours and all the hours of driving involved. Not to mention that I have no idea how much we would have spent in souvenirs and memorabilia if we had not had the limit of a hand luggage allowance to keep us at bay!

So, landed in Glasgow and collected our car, we immediately headed towards the Islands. The weather was not great but it was so quintessentially Scottish that we cannot complain. Actually, it rained a lot while we were driving, which made it perfect for exploring during moments of rest. Monday, the day we had planned for the Fairy Pools, was dry and nice, and our experience was perfect, but I will go back to that soon. On Saturday we drove from Glasgow to our accommodation in Craig with a few random stops on the way, first of all in Loch Lomond for a quick bite, we got our lunch at the airport but we were anxious for being in the road so we hadn’t eaten yet. It was only about 11 a.m., but we were up since 4 a.m., so it was more than fine to have lunch then, and that spot was a perfect excuse for a stop.

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Soon after that, another unplanned stop came up when we saw the sign for the Falls of Falloch. We had no idea what was there (well, falls, of course, but what to expect) but we had a nice surprise, as you can appreciate from our shots. As this was at the beginning, just after a bit of rain, the paths were a bit muddy and required a bit of care sometimes, but some people were there with simple trainers, so our beloved trekking shoes that accompany us since Australia were not afraid of sinking in there. Something we realised there was that the water in Scotland has a distinctive yellow-reddish colour, not just there but in the other waterfalls and rivers we saw during our five days there.

Something we wanted to do on our way to our accommodation was to see the steam train going over the Glenfinnan viaduct as this is the one that was used for Harry Potter’s Hogwart Express, but we were a bit late. We still managed to take a shot of the viaduct from the National Trust parking as then is when it started raining heavily and we decided to give the walk a miss.

We arrived fairly early in Craig and we had a bit of time to settle in before going for dinner. We were staying in a farm that has a few cabins rented through AirBnb. The place was overlooking the sea and it was beautiful to look out of our terrace every day. They had plenty of animals that we could feed. I don’t find this activity so incredible because of my origins, so we gave it a miss as well. Coming from a small town in Sardinia, it is nothing special for me, as we always had farm animals at home. Hens and rabbits were always there, and we often had geese and turkeys; we even had a baby goat and a lamb for a few months.

For dinner, we went to Plockton, one of the bigger towns near us, and we had some haggis and fish at the Plockton Hotel. I was not too keen on haggis, but as a starter, and accompanied by whisky, I decided to give it a try, and I was not disappointed. The fish was obviously good, as there is always fresh supply around there. As a matter of principle, I don’t really trust a British pub that doesn’t include sticky toffee pudding in its menu, and  I was happy to see that all the places we chose for our dinners had it at the top of their list. Of course, as a result, we had had it every night apart from Sunday. I am sometimes disappointed when they warm it up too much and the sponge becomes a bit bitter because it is slightly burned, but I have to say they were all quite good there. If I had to choose, I would probably say that I preferred the first one, because the sponge was quite soft and not dry at all and there was so much caramel sauce. Here is a collage of the three, sorry for the bad quality of some pictures, when tasty food is involved I can’t focus (pun intended!).

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Sunday was all dedicated to exploring the natural beauties of the Isle of Skye and we were lucky enough to arrive at the different locations in between rain showers, although it was quite windy the whole day. Our first stop was in Kyle of Lochalsh for breakfast at Hector’s Bothy, a place so nice and with such a good quality of food that we repeated on Tuesday as well, while we got take away cakes on Monday. We then headed to Fairy Glen, where there actually was a girl dressed like a fairy posing for a photoshoot, or something like that. All we know is that it took her and the photographer half an hour to choose the spot and then they were gone immediately, I didn’t even see her without a coat, but maybe they only needed one shot and I missed that exact moment. We went hiking a few hills and I started climbing this rock that from a certain perspective, looks like Harry Potter’s sorting hat. Of course, when I arrived to the top I realised that the path was very narrow and I had to look down to climb down and I regretted my choice. When I pointed out to Mr Wander that I am an idiot and he shouldn’t follow an idiot, he wisely said that at least he is not afraid of heights. Taking in all the wisdom of that reply and realising that I am actually a bigger idiot than I thought, I started climbing down pretending I was fine.

Our second stop was the Quiraing, a mix between the Monument Valley (from what I can see from pictures) and the Sella del Diavolo in Cagliari. Then it was really windy but we fortunately only had planned a short walk to see it from the distance and we were not planning on going through it and doing the whole walk. All along the way there are several scenic spots that were on our list, so we stopped at Kilt Rock (you can easily guess the reason behind the name just by seeing the photo with the layers of rocks and sediments), Brother’s Point (Or Brothers’ Point, can’t find a definitive spelling), where we went on a short hike down to the rocky beach surrounded by sheep eating grass and seaweed, and the Old Man of Storr. Here is where I gave up, the walk is too long, I am not fit at all for walking up a mountain, and all we could see from there was a rock blending with the rocky slope behind it and disappearing to our eyes. It was actually a lot more impressing from the side of the road where it was distinctly visible.

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Dinner time saw us in Portree, where the restaurants were all booked and the waiting time for a table was one hour. When at the last place we were told that we could sit at the bar and grab a table when someone got up, I had two seconds to imagine myself fighting with people to sit down first as in musical chairs and I just walked out with a frowned face and a scorned “No, thank you!”.

Monday was the day we had planned for the main thing of our trip: Swimming with the fairies! We had a quick breakfast at home and we headed towards the Isle of Skye once again. The walk to the Fairy Pools is short, but then we had to climb down a little cliff to reach the famous location. I was not pleased with that, but there are worst things done for a lesser reward, so there I went, screaming while sort of jumping down, but immediately happy when down. As always when I see water, I have to rush, so I put on my wetsuit as fast as I could, I tried to rush Mr Wander to stop taking pictures and to come, and I went in. The water was freezing, so much so that I had to go in twice and go back out before actually finding the strength to go to the end. As I explained in an earlier post, I don’t know why my body floats so much, but between that and the freezing water, I didn’t feel too comfortable going under the arch, so I decided to climb on top of it, and there I was, swimming with fairies under the waterfall. The legend says that, as I am clumsy and I had a mouthful of water while swimming, I am now slowly becoming a fairy as well, or so I like to tell myself.

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Call it hypothermia or nice weather, getting dressed again and walking back to the car was not half as hard as I expected it to be. I forgot to mention that, on our way to the pools Mr Wander managed to take his longed for picture of a Highland coo in all its beauty and fluffiness, see his profile here for it. After the pools, we headed to Dunvegan Castle, a building that is a mix of an actual castle and a stately home. As it is still inhabited by the owner, just a small part of it is open for visits. It is very nice, with some interesting pieces of furniture and the fairy flag. This is a piece of silk that, according to the legend (not one I just made up, a real legend, forgive the oxymoron), was used by the fairies to cradle the baby of the chief of Clan MacLeod when the nanny left him in the room to go partying. The gardens are also very nice with different styles in different parts of it, but I have to admit that half hour is more than enough for the visit, which makes the price of £13 a bit too much for a ticket.

Back home, after a quick shower, we headed to Plockton again for a delicious dinner with langoustines, seabass, and salmon cakes… and sticky toffee pudding, of course! Only bad side was that we thought we had to wait half hour for our table and we got a beer for the wait but our table was available in five minutes and we had to stick to our beer instead of wine to accompany our seafood.

Tuesday we left our accommodation and we headed to the Highlands as we were going to spend our last night in Scotland in Stirling. On our way, we stopped in Eilean Donan Castle, the castle that featured in Highlander and 007 – The World is not enough. Totally in love with Queen and Sean Connery, you can imagine how happy it made me to be able to visit this place. As in Dunvegan Castle, photography is not allowed inside, but there are plenty of beautiful spots outside for great shots, and the visit is absolutely worth the price. You can hear about the reconstruction, as the castle was in ruins until the beginning of the XX century, and of the history of the MacRae, the owners of the castle, and their allied. Outside, you can see Lea MacLeod playing the bagpipe and it is wonderful with the castle as a background.

Driving to Stirling, we quickly stopped in Loch Ness for a few shots, and then we tried to arrive on time for a whisky tour at Dalwhinnie Distillery. As it closes at 5:15 p.m., the last tour starts at 16:30 and we were spot on. I have recently discovered whisky as a nice drink, because I finally tasted some good ones. As any other alcoholic drink, when we are young, we start with the cheap, commercial stuff and we decide we dislike it a lot. It happens with beer, initially too bitter for young taste buds, especially when confronted with common lager (that was my experience). I had a similar experience with wine, hating red wine for a long time, until I realised that it is not just about pairing it with food, which is extremely important, but also about finding the ones you like. In my case, it is mainly Cab-Sauv. With whisky it is the same, Jack Daniel’s is cool, and it was the one the guys I liked in school liked, but it is nothing special if not mixed with something else. I know, JD is whiskey, but that makes little difference, both words were used in the beginning and then whisky settled in the UK while whiskey is the one used in the US and Ireland. Anyway, in this visit I found out something else: Mr Wander and I totally disagree on whiskies, as he likes the more peaty ones (the one from the West Coast, we learnt at Dalwhinnie), while I like the smoother ones, like Dalwhinnie itself for example, but we both enjoy the visit greatly and we loved the tasting with chocolate truffles. We learnt the dos and don’ts when drinking whisky and we also got our tasting glass as a souvenir, so we happily headed to dinner.

We stopped in Perth in a fancy restaurant called The Bothy in which we were not ashamed at all of walking in with our hiking shoes and our gym bags. The service was a bit slow, but the food was of incredible quality, so we had more haggis with neeps and tatties, some meat, and our beloved dessert, of course. Dinner was quite relaxed and gave us time to plan a bit what to do the next day in Stirling before heading to the airport. Our accommodation was a room in the halls of residence of Stirling University, a compact, brand new room that was perfect for the night.

Wednesday morning we had a filling breakfast at Café 33 before going exploring. check this place out if you are around, it is small but the food is delicious and the staff very friendly, like everyone else we encountered in these days in Scotland. The walls are covered with motivational and funny messages that are for sale and it feels kind of crammed, but the place was not too busy. After breakfast we went to the National Wallace Monument, where we learnt more about the Battle of Stirling Bridge and William Wallace. If you watched Braveheart, you must know what I am talking about. Every 45 minutes on specific days, you have an actor in costume telling you the history of the battle and then you can climb up the monument. There, confronted with one of my not so natural enemies, a spiral staircase, I climbed up all the levels up to the crown to enjoy the view of the actual battle grounds. There are four levels in total, with history boards, memorabilia, and activities for kids (and us). To reach the monument we took the complimentary bus shuttle, but we walked down through the parks before doing some final shopping.

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As it was still a bit early, we headed to the city centre and we visited a few more spots, the Holy Rude Church, where you can find an interesting panel about King James’s Bible, Mar’s Wark, a building in ruins in front of the cemetery, and Stirling Castle. As we didn’t have time to visit this one, we just enjoyed a quick walk around the entrance and one of the guards shouting: “GET OFF THE WALL, SIR!” to someone that we couldn’t identify.

Our time was over, not just the parking ticket, but in general, and it was time to go back to the airport and fly back home. I have to admit that this trip was a wonderful treat and that Mr Wander spoiled me more than he usually does, so I will always treasure these memories, but the celebrations were not over, as my self-present was a ticket for Shakespeare’s Comedy of errors in the forest on Thursday, so the holidays may have ended on Wednesday night, but partying was still on the rest of the week!

Thanks for travelling with us, see you in two weeks,

Ms Lust

When in Rome…

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

Attractions and architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

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

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

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

Cuisine

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

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

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

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

Happy travels!

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

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

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

Rome

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

Things you absolutely want to plan ahead:

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

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

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

Main suggestions on what to be prepared for:

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

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

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A presto,

Ms Lust