A Viennese whirl – Our day trip to Vienna

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned,

Ms Lust

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One day… “In Bruges”

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

Brussels

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manneken-Pis

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

Grand Place

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

Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert

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

Parc de Bruxelles

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

Parc du Cinquantenaire

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

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

Museum of Musical Instruments

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

Our local area

Dear readers,

For this post we’ve decided to focus on an area that we often overlook, probably because to us it doesn’t feel too much like travelling, which is the area that we currently call home. We’ve been living here for over a year now, so we’ve had a good chance to explore and now we’re happy to bring you our tips for places to visit in Cambridgeshire, our own little slice of England.

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To try and avoid creating two almost identical accounts, I’ve decided to arrange mine by the activity rather than the location, however the places are all still in Cambridgeshire. For a more geographically based post, see Ms Lust’s which follows mine.

Museums

St Neots’ Museum – This small museum is a wonderful way to spend an hour or so, and conveniently located in St Neots’ town centre. The museum is housed in the old police station and town jail, and the first part of your visit will be exploring the original cells and prisoner’s facilities. Some of the cells have been made into dioramas and, combined with the information boards on the walls, it really gives you a good impression of what it would have been like to be imprisoned here. Following this is the main part of the museum, a series of rooms filled with artefacts from the town’s long and varied history. Starting with items from prehistoric times that have been found in local archaeological digs, the age of the exhibitions become more and more recent as you work your way through. The biggest collections are from the Victorian period and the two world wars, with recreated street scenes and rooms from these periods. The museum finishes with the obligatory gift shop, with some nice local craftwork and a second-hand book section which provided me with some new travel literature to enjoy!

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Oliver Cromwell’s House, Ely – This whole area has a strong connection with the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, with Ely having been his hometown. His former home has been restored to how he would have recognised it and turned into a museum of the great man’s life. Each room tells a story of daily life in the 17th century, as well as information and artefacts more personal to Oliver Cromwell and his family. Most of the items seem to be replicas rather than original, but they create a setting that is both educational and interesting. There are also activities in the rooms for kids, both big and small, ranging from brass rubbings to dressing up. All in all it’s definitely an interesting visit, and engaging enough to spend an hour or two here.

Stately Homes

This area seems to be very rich in stately homes and historic buildings, with many of them sharing connections with one another. Catherine of Aragon spent her final years in this area after Henry VIII announced their marriage null and void, and she stayed at both Buckden Towers and Kimbolton Castle. Kimbolton Castle is now used as a school, as is Hinchingbrooke House, yet it is still possible to visit both of these houses on their open days. See our posts on our stately home visits for more information on these and other homes, you can find them here and here.

Churches and Cathedrals

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Ely Cathedral – Ely is one of the smallest cities in Britain, and is probably most famous for its cathedral. Built on the site of the former abbey, this majestic building stands over the city and dominates the skyline. Inside, the cathedral seems even bigger, with a huge vaulted ceiling way up in the heavens. There are stained glass windows seemingly everywhere and the central octagonal window feature is spectacular. The ceilings are also a masterpiece in their own right, with magnificent paintings covering almost all of them. After exploring the full extent of the cathedral, the Lady Chapel is your next destination. The chapel is accessed by a corridor leading from the cathedral, and you enter into a large open room. Much less decorated and lavish than the cathedral, the chapel is more what you expect at an abbey. Aside from the altar which dominates the room, there is no furniture or seating. The walls have been adorned with decorative masonry and some small statues, many of which were damaged during the Reformation. This chapel was obviously designed purely for worship rather than show, and it is a clear contrast from the cathedral next door.

Peterborough Cathedral – I cannot tell you too much about Peterborough Cathedral, despite having visited on two separate occasions, as we have been unable to explore it properly due to ongoing services at the time of our visits. From the outside the cathedral is huge and imposing, standing guard over its wonderful grounds. The cathedral is walled off from the city centre, with huge doors that are closed after hours to deny access. We have only caught a few glimpses of the inside of the cathedral, but I can tell you that it looks very impressive. The nave seems impossibly long, made to look even longer by the vast vaulted ceiling above it. Stained glass windows feature throughout the front façade, and I imagine there are a lot more to be discovered in the body of the cathedral. Unfortunately I can’t say much more than that, and that we’ll definitely be trying again to visit on our next day in Peterborough.

The great outdoors

Cambridgeshire isn’t really renowned for its countryside, with the Fens taking almost all of the publicity that the area does get. There are some wonderful parks and nature reserves all over the county however, and here are some of our favourite ones:

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Grafham Water – This Anglian Water owned reservoir is just a stone’s throw from the bustling A1, yet it is such a peaceful area and great for getting away from the noise and commotion of urban life. Grafham Water is one of the biggest reservoirs in England, so the recreational areas are vast. All kinds of activities are catered for, from lazy afternoon strolls around the lake right through to watersports and rowing. There are also barbecue stands dotted around for using disposable barbecues, make sure to bring one with you to take advantage of them! Barbecuing by the water in summer is a real delight, and I for one am already looking forward to next year’s visits. We haven’t noticed too much in the way of wildlife ourselves, but I’m sure the different environments here are all teeming with wonderful creatures both big and small. Being just around the corner, our visits haven’t been too long, but it would be easy to spend a whole day here enjoying the surroundings.

Hinchingbrooke Country Park – This is a more recent discovery of ours, and one we plan to make much more use of in the future. A large parkland area just outside of Huntingdon, this park really has a bit of everything. The car park and entrance are situated within a small woodland, with a network of walking paths throughout. After this you reach a large open area, with a small cafe, children’s playground, and outdoor gym facilities. From here there are a number of options, depending on what your recreational desires are. The park has a number of small lakes located just alongside the river, and a walk along this section provides an excellent opportunity to spot squirrels and waterfowl. Another route takes you through a wildflower meadow and wide open spaces perfect for a picnic or a stroll. Lastly there are more woodland areas, one of which is reached after passing by another lake. Here you will find a birdwatching hide with views across the lake, with a keen eye and a bit of patience you may even see a kingfisher (like we did!). So no matter what brings you to the countryside, you can be sure that Hinchingbrooke Country Park has it!

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Paxton Pits – This is a nature reserve just outside of Little Paxton, that has been created in areas excavated by quarrying. This has resulted in a number of lakes, which have become a haven for migrating birds. There are two options for walks, as well as the connecting Ouse Valley Way, which take you around either the smaller lakes at the southern end of the reserve, or the larger Heron Lakes at the northern end. Both walks have birdwatching hides available for use, where you can relax for a while and see if you can spot any of the current residents. As well as the birdlife, an area has been created especially for otters and there is reported to be a colony now living at the reserve. Also, if you visit around dusk, keep your eyes peeled for foxes and badgers, which also live in the reserve. This is a great place for birdwatchers, wildlife enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys a nice stroll through the countryside. Just one word of warning, parts of the reserve border the ongoing quarry works and also share some access routes, so be careful and watch out for any quarry vehicles.

Riverside Park, St Neots – The main park in St Neots runs alongside the River Great Ouse and it is a great place for relaxing and recreation. The area north of the town centre is mainly large open fields so perfect for ball games and other sports, and it is also where most of the park’s events are held, such as the annual Dragon Boat Festival. On the other side of town, the park becomes more wooded and more suited to walks along the river and finding more secluded spots for a picnic. The main walking track passes alongside the river, through a camping and caravan park, and brings you to the river lock at Eaton Socon. Here there is the River Mill Tavern, which we would definitely recommend for a spot of lunch or a well-earned drink! The paths continue to follow the river as part of the Ouse Valley Way, and you can walk as far as your heart desires. Following the path in the other direction from the town centre would lead you to Paxton Pits, and onwards towards Huntingdon and St Ives.

Another area that is great to get out and about in is the stretch of river between Huntingdon and St Ives. Encompassing the villages of Hemingford Grey and Hemingford Abbots also, there is a wonderful circular walking route that will take you to all the best spots. Starting in the town of St Ives, the walk takes you across the river and through a wildflower meadow. From here the river is always a welcome companion as you make you way to Hemingford Grey, where you are met by a quaint parish church. A short walk through the graveyard brings you back to the riverbank and the path continues past some houses with possibly the best view from their front gardens in the area. Don’t forget to look back as the river bends round to the right, as there is a fantastic view of the river passing by the church. As you reach Hemingford Abbots you will walk through the village centre and past a typical village pub. We didn’t stop, but it looked like a great place for a drink or food stop. After the village the walk brings you back across the river at Houghton Mill, which again is worth a stop if you arrive during its opening hours. Turn right here down Love Lane and the path winds through a wooded area until bringing you back to St Ives, where a short walk through the town will bring you back to your starting point. This walk can be started and finished at any point along the route of course, and the five mile circuit took us a couple of hours to complete. Great for a relaxing walk on a lazy weekend, it would be easy to make a few stops and make a whole morning or afternoon of it.

This brings me to the end of my post, and you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Cambridge at all in a post about Cambridgeshire. Well, we thought Cambridge deserved a post of its own so we’ve added that to our list of upcoming topics. Stay tuned!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

As you may know, although we try to be out and about as much as we can, we are based in Cambridgeshire and we’ve just realised that we haven’t really taken you around in our area, so we have decided to dedicate some time to this before we go exploring Europe a bit more in the following weeks. This post is about some activities and visits you can do in the area, but we will soon take you on a different tour with our favourite places to eat in our neighbourhood.

Cambridge itself is fairly well-known and we won’t include it in this post, it will have one of its own.  Just to give you a brief introduction, Cambridgeshire is now formed by different districts that were once separate because in the 1970s Huntingdon and Peterborough joined Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely to form the current country. Follow me around a few towns in this area that we call home.

St Neots and neighbouring villages

St Neots is one of the main towns in Huntingdonshire and, although it doesn’t look as big, it has a population of around 40,000 people because it includes several neighbouring villages such as Eaton Ford, Eaton Socon, Buckden, and Little Paxton. The town is well connected with London by train and some people commute daily to the capital.

After being in the area for over one year, we finally managed to visit St Neots Museum and we definitely recommend it. Located in the old police station and law court, this museum offers you a good variety of exhibitions. The visit starts with the prison and you can see the cells and learn a bit about the old punishments and local convicts. After this initial section, the museum opens to the collections, starting with some prehistoric findings such as mammoth bones to include also some findings of the period of the Benedictine priory in the village and an exhibition about life in the Victorian era. The main feature of the museum is probably the Kimbolton Coin Hoard with coins dating from the Iron Age and found in the neighbouring village of Kimbolton.

The ticket costs £3 and there are some additional activities that you can find on the website. There is also a small bookshelf with secondhand books that are very interesting and in mint condition, so you have plenty of ways to support this local museum!

Something I really like about St Neots is the Priory Centre, as they always offer nice theatre shows, mainly thanks to the Riverside Theatre company, their actors are extremely talented!

St Neots is crossed by the Great Ouse River , which also gives the name to a famous walk that takes you around for 150 miles, the Ouse Valley Way. In St Neots, the river is surrounded by a big park, The Riverside Park, that sort of splits the town in two. The size of the river offers many activities, and rowing is definitely popular, with a rowing school as well. In August, the town hosts the Dragon Boat Race, if you are interested in a day of family fun while cheering your favourite team. One of my favourite walks takes you from St Neots starting the the Riverside Park and finishes in Eaton Socon passing through the lock just next to the River Mill.

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As I said earlier, many neighbouring villages are part of St Neots, and Buckden is one of them. The village offers a few interesting things, starting from the Buckden Towers, a building that has seen many famous visitors and residents during the centuries and is now part of the Claret Centre and belongs to the Claretian Missionaries. There is an open day in September and then private visits can be organised according to its website. For more details about this, you can read our previous post on stately homes here, where you can also read about Kimbolton Castle.

Just outside Buckden, thanks to the River Ouse, you have Buckden Marina, a small marina with a leisure centre just on the side. You can enjoy a river cruise or exercise a bit. The gym is not extremely big, but the swimming pool is definitely the most accessible one in the area for swimming.

If you are interested in parks, though, one of the most interesting in the area is Paxton Pits, near Little Paxton. The different walks are of medium difficulty and are extremely enjoyable, and you can also enjoy a drink in the café before or after you start. The visitor centre offers a nice insight of some of the specimens that live in the reserve and also shows some ancient findings and fossils. If Paxton Pits is the best place for an immersion in the nature and wildlife, another famous park is Grafham Waters, a big reservoir and park. If you are planning a barbecue, this is definitely your place.

Huntingdon

We have already talked to you about Hinchingbrooke House in Huntingdon in our second post about stately homes (check it here), but the town has a few more spots that may be interesting. The town centre could be a lot nicer if it didn’t give the impression that the shopping area is slowly swallowing the old buildings, but the surroundings are definitely worth a visit. If you like parks, something more on the line of Paxton Pits is Hinchingbrooke Country Park. This is a nice park both for families and people who want to train outdoors, and for people who like more exploring. The parking is quite small and may discourage you, but it seems to be easier to park there after 6 p.m., when it is actually free. You have a café and an area with an outside gym and it is very popular among runners. The paths are quite easy and offer a nice break. Among the elusive wildlife, you may be lucky enough to spot a kingfisher.

Peterborough

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One of the most famous towns in Cambridgeshire, apart from Cambridge, of course, is definitely Peterborough. Since we have sort of traced Catherine of Aragon’s steps from when she was sent away by Henry VIII, first to Buckden, then to Kimbolton Castle, we cannot forget to talk about Peterborough Cathedral, her final resting place. This gothic building is of extreme beauty and it seems actually something separate from the city despite it being in the centre. The cathedral is surrounded by walls and after the evening service the gate is closed down as to separate this building from the mundane life. We have never managed to visit it properly as we always popped in during services or choir sessions, but we are planning to go soon, probably for one of their tours by candlelight, check their website to know more.

Ely

If we talk about cathedrals, we must talk about Ely, the Cathedral City. Once called the Isle of Ely due to the fens surrounding it and making it an island, Ely is now not an island anymore as the fens were drained in the 1970s. The cathedral is majestic, built initially by the Benedictine monks even before the town. The cathedral has gone through some major refurbishment in the past decades as most of it was becoming unsafe, and you can now appreciate the beautiful ceiling and the gothic structure in all its beauty. Several activities and concerts are organised regularly and I would recommend you check out what is on.

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Ely is also famous for being the hometown of Oliver Cromwell and, just a few minutes walk from the cathedral you can visit his house. It is extremely interesting, both for all the historic information about Cromwell, and on a more general cultural level as it shows many details about the life in the XVII century. It is definitely worth a visit!

St Ives

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While we have visited the Cornish St Ives quite well, we didn’t really dedicate too much time to the one in our area. We went there to do one of the walks suggested by the National Trust, a route that is part of the Ouse Valley Way and starts and finishes in Houghton Mill. We actually started and finished in St Ives but we suggest you follow the original itinerary as it seemed quite hard to find a pub that would serve food in the afternoon when we arrived back in St Ives. The walk is easy and takes about 2 hours to be completed and takes you through some very nice bits of land. Just keep in mind that you will be crossing meadows and there are farm animals, in case that is an obstacle for you, it definitely was quite challenging for me, but walking through Love Lane kind of paid off!

I hope you enjoyed walking with us around our local area, stay tuned for more in the following weeks!

Ms Lust

Stately homes and castles – part 2

Dear travellers,

Although the main season of Stately Homes sees many of them closing for the winter season, many stay open all year, especially those who are part of the National Trust circuit. We have done our best to fit as many as we could in the summer months and we are planning to visit more of those that stay open over the winter.

You may have read our previous post dedicated to the beginning of our tour. If not, or if you would like to refresh it, here is the link. Today, we are going to take you on another tour, I hope you are ready!

Hinchingbrooke House

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Similar to Kimbolton Castle (featured in part one) this stately home is now owned by and used as a school. Hinchingbrooke House is open more often though, and visits are possible on most weekends throughout the school summer holidays. Also like Kimbolton Castle, its current primary use means that most of the rooms have been redecorated and re-furnished, yet the house’s history has still been well maintained. The library is still kept in its original state, including the stained glass windows (although one has been damaged by an errant cricket ball, which is the reason ball games have now been banned!), and it is probably the most elegant exam room I have ever seen! The drawing room has also been maintained in its original state, which is where you will be served your complimentary tea or coffee and cake at the end of your tour.

As for the rooms that have been converted into classrooms, some original features have been retained and preserved. A fireplace with graffiti from dates throughout the house’s history stood proudly in one classroom, while in another an original window that had been discovered during renovations is framed as would be any wonderful work of art. The building has had many previous uses, and started out as a nunnery. There has also been many modifications and additions made to the building at various points during its history, and it is very interesting to be able to see where one style finishes and another starts.

This was one of the most enjoyable tours I have had of a stately home, entirely thanks to the volunteers that provide them. £5 a head for a guided tour from an enthusiastic former student with a real passion for the house and its history, with tea and cake at the end, really was a bargain and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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This is a small stately home that we have seen so many times on our way to our regular food shopping and never really paid attention to. When we finally looked it up, we realised that it is now a school but that it opens to visits on Sundays during the summer school holidays.

The building is a mix of Tudor style and earlier architecture that belonged to a nunnery dating back to the XIII century. The entrance leads immediately to a former banquet hall with a fireplace showing the crest of the family. The Montagues were in the navy and the crest represents this activity with the motto Post tot naufragia, portum (after so many shipwrecks, a haven).

The house belonged to the Cromwell family before passing to the Montagues but it was with the Montagues that it started being the centre of British naval history, as the Earl was not only an admiral himself, but he was also patron to James Cook. Hinchingbrooke House is said to have hosted the first recorded barbecue in history when one of the guests was a Polynesian man, Omai, who roasted mutton on heated stones in the grounds as it was traditional in his land.

Another food related story is the one about the creation of the sandwich. The Montagues were the Earls of Sandwich and the Fourth Earl, John, used to have salt beef between two slices of bread when he was on admiralty duties and this food then took the name of sandwich from him.

Apart from the legends, also including some ghost stories, the building itself is in incredible shape and I was surprised to see that the furniture and paintings are very well kept despite the fact that the house is in constant use for the school. There is a clear distinction between the part that belongs to the nunnery, with narrow spaces, and the Tudor part, more open and with straight walls.

The library is beautiful, with bookshelves all around the room and big, bright, tall windows decorated with stained glass. The grounds are not extremely big but very nice, and you can enjoy a tea and cake there, as you have them included in your ticket at the end of the tour.

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Highclere Castle

This house is probably the most famous as, for those of you that haven’t watched the series, Highclere Castle is the stately home featured in Downton Abbey. Naturally this makes it a very popular place to visit, and therefore tickets must be prebooked well in advance. We managed to secure tickets for the bank holiday in August, and endured the months of waiting for the day of our visit to arrive.

Save for the first episode (which Ms Lust made me watch so I would recognise the main parts of the house) I have never watched Downton Abbey, so the link between the two was a little lost on me. I was clearly in the minority however, and it seems that Highclere Castle has tried possibly a bit too hard to try and appeal to its popular fan base. Almost every room contained large prints of previous filming taking place in it, along with many other photos and artefacts from the series dotted around the house. This spoiled it a bit for me, as I wasn’t interested in Downton Abbey and would have much preferred to have seen Highclere Castle as it was originally intended.

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The house itself is very impressive from the outside, and one of the largest stately homes that we have visited. The rooms inside are still very beautiful and adorned with many extravagant paintings and ornaments, once you can see beyond the more recent paraphernalia. I was particularly impressed with the Ancient Egyptian exhibition in the basement. One of the previous owners of Highclere Castle was Lord Carnarvon, who is remembered most famously for backing Howard Carter’s excavations in The Valley of the Kings, namely those that led to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Naturally this features heavily throughout the house, and is the reason for the exhibition. The first room contains actual artefacts recovered from digs in The Valley of the Kings, including jewelry items and an almost complete sarcophagus. The following rooms use replicas to recreate scenes from inside Tutankhamun’s tomb, with a burial chamber and a room built to allow visitors to see what Howard Carter’s first glimpse of the treasures buried inside would have been like. I found the whole exhibition really interesting and actually enjoyed that more than the tour of the house, it almost even made up for not having visited the tomb when we were in Luxor earlier in the year (click here for our post about that trip).

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Tickets are allocated for morning or afternoon entry to the house, and as we were driving down just for the day we opted for an afternoon ticket. Arriving a little early, this gave us time both before and after the tour of the house to explore the grounds. Compared to a lot of the stately homes we have visited, the grounds at Highclere Castle were a bit plain and disappointing. There is a small temple which offered great views of the house, yet unfortunately this seemed to be a popular place for picnics and it was full of people for most of the day. The gardens were well kept, if not a bit disorganised and poorly planned, but for the most part the grounds seemed to be nothing more than open fields. All in all I’m glad we went, not for anything to do with Downton Abbey but for the Ancient Egyptian exhibition and the house’s connection to one of the greatest discoveries in modern history. But in saying that, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to return.

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This castle is probably more famous as Downton Abbey as it has been used as Lord Grantham’s mansion in the TV series. Despite this, the castle has its own history that has little to envy of the fictional story. The property belongs to the Carnarvon family and part of the basement is dedicated to the Egyptian expedition that discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Remember our post about Luxor? That same one! Anyway, let’s go back to the castle for now. The visits are not usually scheduled on weekends but you have access on Bank Holidays. Due to the fame of the place, I recommend you book before you go. You can choose the morning or the afternoon visit and decide to include or not the Egyptian exhibition.

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The castle from the outside is a lot less majestic and impressive that you may expect from the TV series but the grounds are extremely pleasant. Photography is not permitted inside, which makes it a wonderful experience, as otherwise it would all be crammed with people trying to take pictures with the characters’ life-size reproductions. The visit follows a one-way path and is extremely enjoyable, both for Downton Abbey’s fans and not, as the rooms are lively and it can be seen that the current Lord and Lady Carnarvon still use the house to entertain despite usually living in a nearby cottage. Check out her blog about real life in Downton Abbey.

Lanhydrock

During our trip to Cornwall (our post can be found here) we stopped in at a National Trust property on the way back, Lanhydrock Estate. Situated just south of Bodmin Moor, this stately home boasts huge expanses of outside space as well as the home itself. From the carpark, a short walk down a tree-lined avenue brings you to the gatehouse, now used as a ticket booth and information point. Passing through this imposing and impressive structure brings you to a wonderful view of the house entrance and the pathway and grounds leading to it.

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Once inside, as with many National Trust properties, the rooms have been furnished using items from the same period as the house, if not having been left with the house as well. In this case, the decor is mainly from the Victorian period, and each room shows obvious signs of this. I’ve always found the Victorian style of artwork and decorating to be slightly disturbing, with harsh features and a sort of dark quality about it. Here was no different, with most of the rooms containing stuffed animals as hunting trophies and eerie cardboard cutouts of the long-departed residents. Nevertheless the rooms were still impressive, I particularly enjoyed the library and long gallery, and every area of the house is open to visitors, right down to the servants quarters and the kitchen.

Back outside we had a quick look around the sculptured gardens surrounding the house, which are wonderfully understated. They are by no means grand or extravagant, yet they are very well taken care of and a nice place for a short stroll. At the back of the gardens is St Hydroc’s Church, a small parish church that serves the estate and the local community. The church is situated very close to, and is the focus of the views from many rooms in the house. There is nothing particularly grand or spectacular about the church, it is much like any other small parish church in England, but there are some connections between the church and Lanhydrock’s residents that are nice to discover. We didn’t have time to explore the grounds outside of the gatehouse, all I will say is that they seemed very extensive and well-maintained. That was the end of our visit here, as we had to continue our journey home, and I would definitely be keen to return, if we are in the area again, in order to explore further.

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You have already seen some images in our previous post about Cornwall but we still have to tell you almost everything about this visit. The house was destroyed in a fire at the end of the XIX century and it was rebuilt as a family home. Some of the rooms really show this aspect, especially the kids’ rooms with all their toys.

The access to the house is granted by a gatehouse that looks more like the ones you expect with a drawbridge, but the garden inside and the house are very different. The Drawing Room is very peculiar, looking immense from one side thanks to the big window at the end, on the opposite wall; if you just stand in front of the window, though, the optical illusion disappears and the room just becomes a big room divided in two by some folding screens and too full of pieces of furniture and decorations to feel homely and comfortable.

The library definitely is my favourite space, as usual. The room is big, with books covering all the walls and an empty central space that, together with the wooden walls and the majestic plaster ceiling, makes it feel peaceful and embracing. Some of the most important books are kept in glass displays covered by thick fabrics embroidered with literary quotes. They are beautiful to see, and one of the main features of the library is a book that belonged to Henry VIII and helped him obtain the annulment of his marriage.

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Probably the most disturbing aspect of the house is that it is filled floor to ceiling with examples of taxidermy, a very common practice in the past centuries. The rooms are decorated with carpets made out of tigers, head trophies, and full dioramas with stuffed animals and gives you a strange feeling of oppression in some rooms.

The servants’ quarters and the kitchens are probably among the most interesting I have visited to date, with plenty of rooms dedicated to different functions and real objects and food to clearly explain the use of each space. The fridges and freezers were a big advance at the time and you can admire how they would keep their food fresh, you can see cakes, jellies, cheese and butter on the table ready to be taken upstairs, the oven and the utensils to prepare the bread, the sugar and the spices in their storage place, and plenty more.

The estate includes the grounds and a chapel just on the the side. The grounds are famous for their colours and decorations, with the perfectly shaped trees and the carefully kept flowerbeds.

Wimpole Estate

Wimpole Hall is one of our local National Trust sites, and one that had been on the wish list since we first joined. When we heard that there was to be a local produce fair held in the grounds, it seemed like the perfect excuse to finally tick it off the list! And we were certainly glad that we did as it turned out to be a delightful place to visit. The house is not as big or as extravagant as some that we have visited, but it has been incredibly well preserved both by the National Trust and the previous owner. A lot of the furnishings are not original as the contents were once sold off separately to the house, yet a lot of them have been recovered and, where that hasn’t been possible, replacements from the same period have been used.

The tour of the house gives a full impression of what life would have been like here in its heyday, with all areas of the house open to the public. The tour begins in the reception rooms, with the Yellow Drawing Room being the main attraction. This huge room was a late addition to the house, but instead of an extension being butted onto the building, walls and ceilings were ripped out to create a space for this wonderful room. In total seven rooms were destroyed to make enough space available, and Queen Victoria was suitably impressed when she was received here on her visit to the estate.

As you work your way around the house, you will come to the largest library owned by the National Trust. Visitors aren’t allowed to enter the library fully, but you can step inside the doorway and view the vast collection of books. The reading room just at the entrance to the library is accessible, where some of the collection can be seen a lot closer. My other favourite rooms were the gallery and the chapel, the latter of which you can catch a glimpse of at the entrance to the house. The gallery is not as long as those we had seen before, but that made it no less impressive and the grand piano is always a welcome sight in my eyes. The chapel is ornate, but not oppressively so, with fantastic artwork covering the walls and ceiling.

I have to say that I found all the rooms at Wimpole very charming, and a nice change from the usual style found in stately homes. They aren’t filled to bursting point with ornaments, paintings, and statues in order to show off the wealth and taste of the owners. They are all decorated, still with very fine and expensive things, in a much more restrained style, with the decorations used to enhance the features of the room rather than as focal points themselves. This for me is more impressive, as it shows a more sensible and less egotistical approach, and I found it much more enjoyable. It may just be because a lot of the contents of the house have yet to be recovered or replaced, but in my opinion it is all the better for it.

After finishing the tour of the bedrooms and reception rooms, it is also possible to explore the lower levels and the real working rooms of the house. The kitchen, larder, and preparation rooms are all open for viewing, along with the produce and artefacts that would have been used. Also the servants quarters have been preserved and are free to walk around, giving a real insight into how life would have been for them. Wimpole Hall really felt like we were in a grand home that was still in use, but the family were on holiday and had taken their staff with them. A lot of stately homes feel more like museums, with the collections that the house contains being the main draw. Here was completely different, and it was obvious that the National Trust had wanted to showcase the way of life rather than the treasures they had obtained, and they have done a wonderful job of just that.

Near the end of the tour, just before entering the servants areas, was a real surprise, a bath house that had been built into the house rather than as a separate building. At the end of a small, plain corridor was this huge room made completely from marble, yet painted in parts to look convincingly like wood, and the huge bathing pool seemed to come out of nowhere. Using state of the art technology to heat the water and even to run a heated shower, this really must have been the talk of the town! I thoroughly enjoyed walking around Wimpole Hall and I can’t wait to go back nearer Christmas when the house is turned into a Victorian Christmas setting. We also didn’t explore the grounds too much due to the weather, so I’m sure we’ll be back there very soon.

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Another building managed by the National Trust, this home seems to be the favourite of the neighbourhood as it was full of families that seem to know the estate pretty well. I have to admit, the estate seems a place that offers something for every age, more than some others.

The last owner of the estate before the National Trust was Elsie Bambridge, Rudyard Kipling’s daughter, and probably this literary background is part of the magic I found in this house. The library is a dream for any booklover, with the only downside that you cannot walk around it but only admire it from the door. Apparently, the library was bought by the Bambridges with the estate from the previous owners, while most of the furniture and decorations were added in style at the end of the XIX century by the Bambridges.

The bedrooms are quite modern compared to other stately homes, with an adjacent bathroom for both main rooms. Yes, the lord and the lady of the house preferred to have separate bathrooms, we can but support their choice! Despite having a fully functional bathroom, though, the lady of the house seemed to prefer to bathe in front of the fireplace in her bedroom. I can’t understand this, but I guess old habits are hard to die.

The estate is vast and in front of the house is a 2.5 m long parkland that looks like an immense driveway. It is not something that was not completed, it was created like that to offer a long, undisturbed view from the house.

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We went the week of one of the produce fairs and I would suggest you do that if you can, as you can find local produce of extremely good quality and the price is ridiculously cheap. The estate also includes a farm and the folly in the distance. Having grown up in the countryside, the farm is not interesting at all for me, but the folly seemed nice to explore, although the rain prevented us from doing so.

Hatfield House

Hatfield House was our most recent visit and, with it being just around the corner from my workplace, one that we had overlooked for quite some time. This is the house that Queen Elizabeth I had stayed at during her sister’s reign (Queen Mary I) and it was where she was informed of the death of her sister and her own ascension to the throne. This was obviously a reason to visit in itself, but we’ll get back to that later. The estate consists of many buildings, with the visitor centre, ticket office, gift shop, and restaurants being housed in what appeared to be the old stables. These are all gated off from the main part of the estate, and it isn’t until you proceed through the gates that the house comes into view.

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Rather than the stone façades that most stately homes exhibit, Hatfield House is built from red brick and more reminiscent of Hampton Court Palace (understandable as they both were built at a similar time). A long driveway leads up to a large fountain in front of the house, which at the time had been replaced by a modern sculpture that I hope is not a permanent feature (it would be wonderful in a more suitable setting). The house itself is very grand and this continues to the interior as well, which is evident from the very first room. The walls are filled with portraits and other fine artworks, mostly of royalty and nobles from the Tudor and Stuart periods, and grand, old staircases ferry visitors between the different areas of the house. There are a few dining rooms along the way, each presented as if an extravagant meal will be forthcoming, and the usual bedrooms and drawing rooms which are all filled with wonderful artworks, statues, and furniture. This house also has a fantastic and extensive library, brimming to the rafters with ancient books on all manner of subjects. Whenever we go into a room like this, I always wish I could cosy up in one of the fine armchairs for a few hours with a book from the shelves, unfortunately I think this may be frowned upon!

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On this visit we had more time to explore the grounds after touring the house, and we were also fortunate to have fairly decent weather. The gardens surrounding the house make for a nice stroll, with fountains and statues dotted amongst the flower beds. A part of the gardens was not accessible due to a wedding at the time of our visit, yet we could still see into the garden if not actually enter it. After this came the main reason for our trip, the spot where Queen Elizabeth I is reported to have been told that she was now queen. This is a short walk from the house, along the tree-lined driveway, where the gardens give way to more open parkland. The original tree is no longer there, but the spot is still marked by a tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1985.

There are a number of walking paths around the grounds, and we chose to continue our walk and see what else we could discover. We first came across a castle folly, built on the bank of the river. It isn’t possible to go inside the folly, however there are no doors, just gates, and it is still possible to see what it is like inside (fairly spartan to be honest, it didn’t look like it gets much use anymore). Then we walked down to the river bank and walked along for a short while, which was a really pleasant place for a walk despite the motorway noise in the background. By this point the path swings back round to begin heading back towards the house and, starting to feel a little tired, we took its advice and decided to return also. A small French market being held in the grounds provided us with some well earned treats to enjoy, and with that we went back to the car contented and having thoroughly enjoyed our day at Hatfield House.

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This beautiful mansion just closed for the season and is probably one of my favourites. It is part of the Treasure Houses circuit and you won’t be disappointed. Don’t forget that you have a 2×1 voucher for your next visit to another house of the circuit and that the entry to the house is free for the whole season after the first time. It is famous for having been the place where Queen Elizabeth I was residing when Mary died and she was proclaimed Queen of England.

Parking is a slow process but there is plenty of space. A little train takes you around the farm and crosses the parking area. Before arriving to the house, you have to cross the food court. The entrance to the church is also under an arch before this area. When we visited, part of the grounds were occupied by the French produce market and I have to admit that you find products of very high quality, it is worth a stop. The garden this year also hosted an exhibition of big top hats that were decorated by local groups.

In front of the main entrance there is a contemporary water sculpture by Angela Conner. The house is majestic outside and inside, with wooden stairs and decorations. The Marble Hall welcomes you with its marbles, of course, and a beautiful wooden balcony. In this room you can already guess the incredible amount of art that will await you in the rest of the house. At the end of the room is the famous Rainbow portrait in which Queen Elizabeth I holds a rainbow in her hands. The tapestries are slightly damaged by the passing of time but the paintings and furniture pieces are incredible. Another famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I is on display in King James Drawing Room along with many other precious paintings and a life-size sculpture of King James I. This portrait is called the Ermine portrait, as it features a little ermine on the queen’s sleeve.

The Winter Dining Room is another impressive room with four tapestries representing the four seasons. As for the library, you already know my love for them and this picture can explain to you a little how much I loved this one.

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On the ground floor you can admire several examples of weapons and armours along the armoury and then enjoy the sight of a full working kitchen on the lower level.

The grounds are quite vast, as it is to imagine, with the oak tree under which it is said Elizabeth received the announcement. It is not the original tree, but one that Queen Elizabeth II planted in 1985 to commemorate the event, but it is the same spot. Further along you can see the folly (with the highest amount of ladybirds ever seen by human eyes… well, by me!) and apparently the vineyard. We could not find it but we still enjoyed a good stroll through the woods.

* Bonus feature – Twilight at Burghley House*

Burghley House featured in our first Stately Homes post, as it was one of the first homes that we visited. On hearing about their Twilight Tour evenings, held over a long weekend in October, we couldn’t resist a return visit. This turned out to be a spectacular way to see the house and the organisers did a superb job. As usual, we entered through the kitchen and the change in atmosphere was immediately apparent. The low level lighting and quieter, more relaxed ambience was the perfect start to the tour, as we enjoyed our welcome drinks before moving on to the main body of the house.

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The bedrooms and reception rooms were even more impressive, as the light dimmed further and seemed to enhance the beauty of all the exquisite furniture and artwork. A even nicer touch were the musicians that were playing in some of the rooms, really making it feel like we were a guest there for a night of fine dining and entertainment. It was definitely worth the return visit, not only for the change in ambience and mood, but also for a second chance to see the little details that we may have missed on our first visit.

They saved the very best until last, and the final room definitely left us with some very happy memories. This was a large hall, possibly a banqueting hall, that had been completely cleared to make a huge open room. The large fireplace at the far end of the room had been lit, and it was the perfect environment in which to enjoy another drink while listening to the harpist playing beautiful music. It was a wonderful experience and one which I am incredibly grateful that we decided to try. The evenings have finished now for this year, but if you live in the area I would highly recommend going for an evening during next year’s event.

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You probably have read everything about Burghley House on our previous post about stately homes but, if you want to catch up, you can find it here.

The house offers a twilight event for a few nights and you can enjoy the house in dim light and with live music and readings in different rooms. The tour starts with a glass of prosecco to enjoy in the kitchen before heading to the upper level. The staff are available in the rooms to help you exactly as during the day but you have no audio guides. The connection is not the best but you may still be able to access the website and check out some of the paintings as they are all listed in there.

Among the live activities, I have particularly enjoyed the Baroque Choir in the Pagoda Room and the harp music by Soraya Vermeulen. Check her out, she is amazing and really lovely to talk to, you should keep this in mind if you want to hire someone for your event!

The Twilight events are over for this season but you still have some events for Christmas in the grounds. The house itself will close to the public on 29 October, so you still have a few weeks to visit if you want. We may go back, but we still have a few more houses to visit. Stay tuned!

Mr Wander & Ms Lust

Wander & Lust’s Australia

Dear readers,

For this post we’ve decided to do something a little different, and while we are both writing on the same subject, we are describing different places. This is because we have decided to write a post about our favourite places in Australia, a country that we have both spent a considerable amount of time travelling around, albeit before we started travelling together. Australia is also the country where we first met, on a tour of the Red Centre, which you can read all about in our post here. So, as we spent our time travelling around different parts of the country, our choices for our favourite places are naturally different also. I’ve always had a list in my head of my top five places in Australia, which are, in no particular order, Sydney Harbour, The Blue Mountains, Katherine Gorge, Uluru and the Red Centre, and The Whitsundays. They are all very different to each other and I’ve never really had a definitive favourite, so I have decided to write this post about The Blue Mountains as it was the first of these places that I visited, and one of those that I have visited the most.

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The Blue Mountains National Park is in New South Wales, approximately 80 kilometres from Sydney. The national park covers over 1,000 square miles, and it is a section of the much larger Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. The area is actually a large plateau that has been intersected by erosion from rivers, and not a mountain range as the name suggests. As such, the prominent features of the area are large flat plateaus divided by deep river valleys, all of which have been covered in thick vegetation. This made it a formidable barrier for the early European settlers in Australia, and it wasn’t until 1813 that the area was first successfully crossed and the lands to the west opened up for settlement. Rich resources of coal and shale were also discovered in the Blue Mountains, and activity soon started to extract these resources from the environment. The desire to settle and farm the land to the west of the Blue Mountains, coupled with the mining activity within the area, resulted in the origins of the roads and infrastructure that allow access to today’s visitors. Easily accessible from Sydney either by road or by train, the Blue Mountains is the perfect destination for a day-trip or weekend away from the city.

Whenever I had a weekend free, or even just a day, the Blue Mountains was always right up there at the top of my list of options. It is such a contrast to the city environments of Sydney or Newcastle, and a fantastic place to get in touch with nature. Despite it being a hugely popular tourist destination, it is still easy to find peacefulness and tranquility, and an escape from busy city life. Even from Newcastle, where I was living, the area is easily and cheaply accessed by the NSW train network, although it isn’t the quickest and takes about four hours each way. So I was quite happy to jump on a train to Katoomba, via Sydney, and spend a day or two hiking and exploring the area, and I’m also happy now to show you the wonderful places I found.

The Three Sisters

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This is the most famous and iconic Blue Mountains landmark, found just on the outskirts of the township of Katoomba. The Three Sisters are a rock formation of three pillars that have been carved from the sandstone by erosion, which now overlook the Jamison Valley. They are particularly striking as they catch the light from those typical Australian sunsets, and unsurprisingly this is when the lookout is busiest. Despite this, the lookout at Echo Point has been built large enough to accommodate this surge in visitors and never seems too crowded. Still, if you are looking for a bit more solitude and tranquillity, then it’s better to go earlier in the day. The lookout also provides a stunning view of the Jamison Valley, and I always found looking out into that vast wilderness very relaxing. It was always nice to just stand there and listen to the calls of the local wildlife, it’s far enough out of town that urban noise isn’t much of an issue here during the quieter times of day.

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If the view alone hasn’t quenched your appetite, it is possible to get up close and personal with Meehni, the first of the three pillars (her sisters are called Wimlah and Gunnedoo). Just behind the information centre is a walking track that takes visitors, via another lookout, to the Giant’s Staircase, a set of over 800 steps that have been carved into the rockface to take visitors down to the valley floor. Just a little way down the steps is a short raised walkway which ends at a small platform perched on the side of Meehni, and this is your chance to touch and feel the rock for yourself. You then have the option to either carry on down to the valley floor to walkways at the base of Scenic World (more on this shortly), or to retrace your steps back to the information centre and Echo Point.

Scenic World

Also just on the outskirts of Katoomba is Scenic World, another popular tourist destination. Here you can choose between three modes of transport (or do all three!) to explore the valley floor and nearby Katoomba Falls. The Scenic Skyway is a cable car that travels across the valley past Katoomba Falls, allowing a unique view of the waterfall that isn’t possible any other way. The Skyway also has a glass floor giving more unique views of the valley floor and the forest it holds. The trip across the valley is fairly short, after which you then have the choice to disembark and walk back or to continue on the Skyway for the return journey.

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Following this, the other two activities have been built to transport visitors to the valley floor and back up again. The Scenic Railway is your best bet for getting to the bottom, the steepest passenger railway in the world with an incline of 52 degrees! It really does feel like you are about to be lifted from your seat as you head down the steepest sections, and it was hard not to end up hanging onto the net covering the carriage as it sped through the trees. The train has been upgraded since I visited, the new train now has a fixed roof and seats which can be inclined through 20 degrees so that visitors can make the experience more or less terrifying to satisfy their thrill-seeking needs! Once at the bottom, and when your heart has stopped racing, there are walkways which take you around the valley floor and explain what it would have been like here during the mining days. The railway is also a relic from the mining activity here, originally constructed to haul the coal and shale up that had been mined out of the valley. These walks are also a great chance to get close to the local wildlife, in particular the elusive Lyrebird which can be spotted rummaging in the undergrowth. To get back up, the last of Scenic World’s options is the Scenic Cableway which is another cable car that takes visitors back to the visitor centre. On the way up it passes a large outcrop of rock quite closely, and allows one last chance for some spectacular views of the Jamison Valley.

Grand Canyon Track

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The Grand Canyon Track is a reasonably challenging walk that winds its way around the valley floor near Blackheath. It begins at Evan’s Lookout, which is worth a visit anyway for the views across the Grose Valley, and meanders for about four miles alongside Greaves Creek. The walk is definitely not for the inexperienced, yet not too challenging to deter most walkers and the rewards are certainly worth the effort. It really feels like you have been transported back to prehistoric times as you make your way past, and sometimes through, the dense vegetation that has flourished in the damp environment.

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Probably due to the amount of time required to complete the walk, allow at least four hours, there aren’t many other walkers about and I think I saw more wallabies than people on my hike! This adds to the feeling of isolation and tranquility, and it’s easy to form a good connection with nature here. Along the way there are a number of waterfalls and overhangs to further ignite your imagination and intrigue, and the creek is never too far from the track. Climbing back up to the lookout at the end of the track is easily the most challenging part of the walk, make sure you’ve saved some energy for this!

Wentworth Falls

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The last place on my list is Wentworth Falls, a spectacular waterfall near to the town of the same name. An easy walking track provides access to the waterfall from the car park, with fantastic views of the waterfall plunging into the valley below from Fletcher’s Lookout, about halfway along the track. The surrounding rock has been eroded in such a way that has created a natural amphitheatre, with the waterfall centre stage as the main attraction. Carry on to the end of the track, and here it is possible to get very close to the falls. A series of cascades that precede the waterfall itself lead into a natural infinity pool, all of which can be accessed and enjoyed to your heart’s content. If you’re lucky, you may even find some yabbies in the river as I did! The views of the river disappearing off of the end of the cliff are simply breathtaking, not to mention the cascades and the views of the valley as well.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed my tour of The Blue Mountains, and that it may have encouraged some of you to visit this wonderful place. I wish I were still able to visit whenever I wanted, as there is so much more to this area that I have yet to explore, but I am sure we will visit again next time we are in Australia and tick a few more items off of the list!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

As Mr Wander said already, this is a bit of a different post from our usual. Maybe because we are a bit nostalgic of Australia or maybe because we want to share a bit about our time before Wander met Lust, we decided to write a post in which we talk about different places, our favourite place in Australia. I have to be honest, for me it is extremely hard to choose my favourite place in this wonderful country, although I guess my soft spot for Uluru will make my heart slightly favour this place over all the rest. As we have already talked about this magical place in one of our previous posts that you can read here, I thought I would tell you about the city that was my home for three months: Adelaide.

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Adelaide is the capital of South Australia and it was named after King William IV’s wife. The territory chosen for its settlement, near the River Torrens but not close enough to the sea, was criticised but its founder, Colonel Light, had a clear plan, he wanted a rectangular layout with perfectly perpendicular streets and he wanted the city to be completely surrounded by parklands. This plan is perfectly visible even now that the city has grown outside the parkland ring.

After a month in Sydney and one in Melbourne, Adelaide was my last chance to find a job, but I have to admit that I didn’t work too hard to find anything until then. Once we arrived in South Australia, my partner found a job in Gay’s Arcade and introduced me to his employers. I was lucky enough and they hired me as well, so we both ended up working there for a few months. The Arcade is quite interesting with nice places to eat and shopping, and the Caffè L’Incontro where we worked is a nice place to taste some good quality Italian food if you are around.

I was lucky to spend the end of summer and beginning of autumn in Adelaide and I could enjoy its beaches a bit and its parks a lot and I am totally in love with basically everything. The city itself is easy to cross on foot, probably only taking 30 minutes at the most from one corner to the other. The transport is quite nice as well, with a tram crossing the city vertically and arriving to the beach in Glenelg. Other nearby locations can be reached either by train or by bus, with also long distance connections by train, bus, and plane.

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There are so many places I would like to talk about, please forgive me if I end up talking about all of them on a very long post! Let’s see a bit what the city centre and its surroundings have to offer.

Museums

  • South Australian Museum. This museum is extremely interesting, with some very different exhibitions. From time to time they offer tours of specific sections and I was lucky enough to get into one and learn a lot about Aboriginal culture, not just through artifacts but also through language facts, which are always interesting for me. There are some recordings of lost languages as well and it is sad but wonderful to be able to have that kind of proof.
  • Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute. This art museum promotes Aboriginal art and gives space to contemporary artists who mix traditional and modern techniques to express the wonderful culture of the Kaurna, the people of Adelaide. The name of the museum comes from the name the Kaurna used to call the Adelaide plains, the land of the red kangaroo.
  • Adelaide Botanic Gardens. A beautiful mix of flora and architecture, this park is, in the website’s words, “a living museum” and it is jaw-dropping. You can have a self-guided tour with the information available online or you can join a free tour that is on almost every morning at 10:30.
  • Adelaide Gaol. Adelaide is one of the few Australian cities that has no convict history, but the old jail is still worth a visit, on a normal tour or, I guess, for a ghost tour, if we consider that the prisoners executed there were also buried in the grounds of the jail. No longer in use, The Gaol is still a modern structure because, after all, the city was only founded in 1836, less than two centuries ago. It is not far from the city centre, but you may want to add it to your bike ride, as you can hire free bikes in Adelaide, here you can find all the information you need on Adelaide free bikes.
  • Aboriginal walks. The original culture seems still very strong in Adelaide and several activities can guide you to learn more about the Kaurna people and their culture. You can find some information here to take part in one of the walking tours, or you can do a self-guided tour by following these instructions to follow the steps of the Kaurna people.

Parks

  • Belair National Park. My favourite place to go to after a few hours of work, this place is half hour by train from Adelaide and it is nice for walking and exploring with different kind of tracks, but you also have a wide space for family activities, barbecues, horse riding, and celebrations. The access is free and allowed during daylight, although once I took the wrong path on my way back to the station and I found myself at dusk a couple of metres from a red kangaroo. They are cute and all, but wild kangaroos grow a lot taller than those you find in parks, which are also often females and therefore smaller. It was impressive and he was as startled as I was I guess, but he didn’t move at all, and rightly so, I was in his house. Let’s just say that after that evening I remembered exactly when to leave.
  • Hallett Cove Conservation Park. Another incredible park in the suburbs of Adelaide is Hallett Cove, inhabited for centuries by the landowners, the Kaurna people. Many artefacts were found and are now in the museum, but the park is not only famous for its archeological importance. Discovered by chance by a farmer who was looking for his sheep, the park is of great geological importance of different eras. Dating back to 600 million years, some rock folds are all that remains of an old mountain range.                                                                                          Hallett Cove Park (15)More recent but of inestimable value, is the Permian glacial pavement that dates back almost 300 million years, when Australia was united with Antarctica. This pavement shows the presence of the glaciers and their retreat. Last but not least, the Sugarloaf is a mountain that looks exactly like a sugar mount, hence the name. Its layers, now exposed by the erosion of the winds, tell the whole story of the area and the geological changes. This park is easily reached by bus and a short walk from the bus stop.
  • Waterfall Gully to Mount Lofty Summit. Mount Lofty is part of Adelaide Hills and what is left of the mountain range created in the Precambrian era that we have seen in Hallett Cove. Its summit is quite popular for its views of the city and now includes a modern café and visitor centre and some television towers. The walk from Waterfall Gully is also quite popular and a steep 4 km return hike. If you are not too confident of your capacity to complete it, you can do what I did and just reach the summit by bus and walk down. As I said, it is quite steep and you notice that even on the way down because your muscles will have to make a good effort anyway. The waterfall is worth the hike and it is a nice spot to stop and have a snack while you watch the wildlife going about.
  • Morialta Conservation Park. One of the most known parks in the area, Morialta is not only famous for hiking but also for climbing. Only 10 km away from the city centre, it is easily reached by bus. The park is also part of the same mountain range as Mount Lofty and has three falls and Fourth Creek and its name comes from the Kaurna word meaning “ever-flowing”. The views are incredible and the scenery is breathtaking to say the least, especially from the top and seeing the whole drop. I went in May when the rain has not given the falls all their strength and still I loved it!
  • Port Adelaide or Semaphore. Not really a park, they are nice coastal suburbs that can be reached by bus and offer the usual beach activities with a plus for my taste: boat tours of the bay and the chance to see the dolphins. Nearby is the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary and it is a nice experience. It is not guaranteed that you spot these beauties during the trip but it is interesting to see the uses of the harbour and to learn a bit more about the area. Of course, when we spotted some dolphins on our way back we were all a lot happier.
  • Himeji Garden. This small Japanese garden is inside the city area and it is a present from the Japanese city of Himeji when it became Adelaide’s sister city. If you have visited other cities’ Japanese Gardens such as the ones in Sydney (or in Japan, of course!) you won’t be too surprised but this garden is quite beautiful in its simplicity and definitely worth a visit.

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Extras

  • Hahndorf. Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement, this town is one of the top tourist attractions in the area. Built by Prussian emigrants, it guards its original architecture and has several restaurants serving German cuisine. I stopped at the German Cake Shop for strüdel and I highly recommend it, not only the cakes are scrumptious and all the food looks as good, but the place is also extremely nice, crammed in cuckoo clocks and decorative plates and beer steins. You will feel like the place is going to fall over you but it is also cozy at the same time. Walking about in the town you will find some extremely curious shops and attractions such as the fairy garden, try to make the most of your visit!
  • Glenelg. It is another suburb of the capital and a beach town. Close to the city, it is at the end of the tram journey from the city centre and it has quite changed over the years. I have to admit that I mainly went for the beach and nothing else, but the town is quite modern and vibrant and offers much more to see and to do. Just a geeky addition: Maybe you know it has been named after the Scottish name, but have you noticed that the name is palindrome? Yes, you can read it from both sides and it reads the same!
  • Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary. This park is currently closed but I am glad to find out that it will reopen in 2018. It was my favourite place and I used to take the bus to Aldgate, as I had no car and no other way of reaching it, and then walk for 45 minutes. I have to admit it was worth the effort every time and I ended up making friends with a grey kangaroo that was extremely cute, you can see our farewell chat here. The first time we ended up there it was because it is supposed to be one of the few places in Australia where chances to see a live platypus are around 75%. Platypuses are quite shy and not easy to spot, and I have to admit I was not successful at the first try, but the park used to offer a night package with accommodation, dinner, and walk at dusk and then we spotted them. The package was a great experience, sleeping in cabin in the woods, having a nice meal at the restaurant and being able to enjoy the park before opening time the morning after, not to mention waking up and finding a wallaby on your doorstep at dawn. Yes, the kookaburras were quite noisy but it is a fair price to pay. I hope the new owners keep the spirit of the park and I can’t wait to repeat my visit and, maybe, meet my kangaroo friend once again!

Now, dear readers, I am too nostalgic and I have to leave you or I will end up booking a plane ticket to Australia, but stay tuned!

Ms Lust

Our side of London

Dear travellers,

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

Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tower of London and Ceremony of the Keys

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

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

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

Food and drink

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

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

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

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

Now a few tips before leaving you:

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

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

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National Gallery

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

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

Natural History Museum lates

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

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

Ceremony of the Keys

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

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

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

Hyde Park

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

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

Battersea

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

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

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

Waxy O’Connors

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

Tardis

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander