A day in Dubai

Dear readers,

Happy New Year! We’re getting stuck into 2018 already, and I hope you’ve had a great start to the year. Those of you who have been following us over the holiday period will know that we spent it travelling around peninsular Malaysia, and we had a fantastic time exploring that wonderful country. This post isn’t about Malaysia however, but a different part of the same trip which is the 18-hour stopover that we had in Dubai on the way to Kuala Lumpur. It was partly through choice that we had such a long stop, as we thought it would be a good opportunity to see some of the city, as well as a way to keep the cost of the flights down. So after landing at Dubai airport just after 3 a.m. on Boxing Day, we set about exploring as much as we could and we’re pleased now to bring you our guide to making the most of a long stopover in this totally unique place.

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Dubai airport

If, like us, your flight arrives in Dubai in the early hours of the morning, you may wish to try and catch a few hours sleep before heading into the city. Our flight arrived around 3 a.m. so we planned to do just that, as we thought there wouldn’t be much point in exploring while the city is still asleep anyway. Dubai airport is open 24 hours a day so you won’t need to worry about being turfed out onto the street, unfortunately the good news stops there. Apart from in the departure hall (after security checks so only accessible once you’re ready for your departing flight), all of the chairs have armrests between them making it impossible to lay down and forcing you to try and sleep sitting up. You will also need to bring warm clothes or blankets as the air conditioning is always on full here, and the airport is generally very cold. On a positive note, at least you won’t sweat too much, which is a very good thing as the only showers in the airport are also located near to the departure gates. These may all sound like good reasons to pay to use an airline’s lounge, which I’m sure are a lot more comfortable, but it is still possible to get some rest before heading off to the city. We managed to sleep for at least a couple of hours, and we didn’t encounter any problems in doing so.

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Once you’re suitably refreshed, it’s time to make your way towards Dubai city centre. There are plenty of people and kiosks offering taxi and minibus fares to the city, but I can’t recommend the Metro highly enough. It was only AED 22 each (approximately £4.50) for an unlimited use day pass, and the metro station is just outside the terminal building, above the car parks. It’s fast and efficient, and the two metro lines should be sufficient to allow you to see the main sights. The pass can also be used on the city’s buses, providing you with even more flexibility, but they can get stuck in traffic during busy periods. There really isn’t any disadvantages I can think of in using the public transport in Dubai, they’ve managed to make it very user and wallet friendly! There is just two things to note, the front carriage of every metro train is Gold Class only and you are only allowed to travel in this carriage if you have paid the premium price for a Gold Class pass. Also, both buses and metro trains have designated areas for women only (the front section of buses and two carriages in the middle of the trains). It is allowed for men to pass through these areas, although one bus driver wouldn’t open the front doors because I was in front of the queue, but please be mindful of where you are sitting or standing in order to comply with this rule. Women are not confined to these areas however, and can choose to sit or stand anywhere on the bus or train.

Gold Souk area

The first area we visited is also the closest to the airport, about ten minutes on the Metro and just a few stops. This was the market, or souk, area located in Deira. The closest metro station is Palm Deira and, if you’re also coming from the airport, you’ll need to change lines at Union station. This area is the traditional trading area of Dubai, with many marketplaces selling all kinds of goods. The two main marketplaces are the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk, and there are also many others specialising in different products. We wanted to visit both of these, but in the end we only went to the Gold Souk which is the closest one to the metro station.

As soon as you step outside it is obvious that this is a trading area, as the merchants spot their favourite prey (tourists!) and the hard sales techniques begin. This brought back some unhappy memories from Egypt of similar behaviour from shop-owners, and I was already determined not to be coerced into anything! The streets are full of shops, mainly selling jewellery or spices, but there are the usual convenience stores thrown in as well. When you reach the souk area, it becomes more focussed on jewellery and every shop window is filled with huge, extremely decorative, gold necklaces. Neither of us are particularly interested in gold jewellery, and this style is most certainly not to our taste! So we walked through without really stopping, just taking in the atmosphere. To me, every shop seemed to be selling the exact same things, so I’m a little dubious about the quality of the items, but I am definitely not an expert!

Satisfied with the visit, we then walked back to the metro station to continue our journey into Dubai city centre. Personally I wish we had gone to the Spice Souk instead, as it would have been more to my taste and more interesting to see. We still wouldn’t have bought anything as we would have had to carry it around with us for the entire holiday, but it would have been nice to experience. However the heat was already making us weary and we weren’t entirely sure where it was, so we decided to move on. That’s probably my top tip for anyone planning a similar visit; make sure you know how to get where you want to go in advance, this city is huge and not the place to be wandering around aimlessly, especially if you don’t have a map or internet connection!

Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall

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The main sight to see in Dubai is the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. This was our next destination also, and it is easily accessible using the Metro. Helpfully, the station needed is called Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall so it’s quite hard to get it wrong! If you’ve been looking out of the window during the train ride, you’ll already have noticed the Burj Khalifa from a distance and been able to see how much taller it is than the buildings around it. Once you’re standing right underneath it, this is partly lost due to the perspective and it doesn’t seem to tower over the other buildings quite so much. Nevertheless it is still very impressive, and the sun glinting off of the windows gives it a very clean appearance. Just try not to spend too much time looking up at it, unless you want a very sore neck! It is possible to visit the Burj Khalifa and to go up to one of the top floors for views of the city, but it is quite expensive (like most things in Dubai!) and we decided to give it a miss. I imagine the views are incredible of the famous sights of Dubai such as The Palm and the Burj al-Arab hotel, although I have no idea how well you would be able to see them from so high up!

To give our necks a bit of a break, and to enjoy some air conditioning again, we went to the Dubai Mall which is situated almost next-door. Dubai is quite famous for its huge shopping centres and Dubai Mall, along with the Mall of the Emirates, is one of the largest. As I said before, we weren’t very keen on buying anything that we would have to carry with us for the next two weeks, so we didn’t spend too long looking at the shops. There seemed to be the usual stores that you would expect to find in shopping centres throughout Europe or North America, just on a bigger scale than usual, with local souvenir and craft traders occupying the shops along the entrance and exit routes of the mall. We had come mainly for lunch though, and we made our way to the food court. Here you can find places selling cuisine from all around the world, we opted to go to a Japanese stall which was opposite one selling British fish and chips. There is a great deal to choose from and there are also the usual fast food chains, so you should be able to find something that takes your fancy!

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Once you have satisfied your shopping cravings, there is one more thing to see in this area that shouldn’t be missed. Just outside the mall, and in front of the Burj Khalifa, there is a small lake with a traditional style bridge crossing it. At frequent intervals during the afternoon and evenings, there are water fountain shows here with fountains coordinated to ‘dance’ along with a music and light show. I was a little sceptical before seeing it, thinking that it would be a huge disappointment, but in fact it was very impressive and we even stayed to watch another performance. It would have been nice to see it in darkness as well, as I have read that the lights make the show even more spectacular, however it was still worth the time to see during the day. It has been choreographed wonderfully to match the music, and having the Burj Khalifa in the background finishes off the scene perfectly.

Burj al-Arab/Jumeirah Beach

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The last stop on our itinerary was one I had insisted on, to see the Burj al-Arab hotel. Despite the Burj Khalifa being the most famous building in this city, probably because it can be seen from almost anywhere, it is the Burj al-Arab building that springs to my mind whenever I think of Dubai. This is the sail-shaped hotel that was completed in 1999, built on an artificial island jutting out to sea. There are a number of options for getting to the area, all of which require taking a bus from the metro station. We arrived at Sharaf DG station and then took the 81 bus to the stop bearing the same name as the hotel. From here you can see the hotel through the entrance gate, but I personally think that the best view is from the beach just a short walk along the road. This is called Jumeirah Beach and would make a great place to relax by the sea in its own right, but the view of the hotel perfects the location. The beach isn’t too long, but it seemed clean and not too busy. The water also seemed to be clean and suitable for swimming. Unfortunately only paying guests are allowed to enter the hotel and witness the decadent interior, and the cheapest way to do this is to book an afternoon tea at one of the hotel’s restaurants. I wasn’t interested in the inside of the building though, and, content with having seen the hotel and enjoying the beach, we decided to start heading back to the airport.

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On our way back to the bus stop we also came across the Marhaba mosque, a beautiful building that also overlooks the beach. This was a great reminder of Dubai’s heritage and history, and proof that there is more to this city than just skyscrapers and shopping malls. We’ll definitely be back to Dubai soon to discover more of what it has to offer, and to explore the rest of the city. But for now we had run out of time and our day trip had come to an end, and as Dubai gave us a beautiful sunset for a send-off we took the Metro back to the airport. I cannot say enough how easy it was to get around Dubai and to see so much in one day, and if you find yourself with a long stopover here it really is worth heading out of the airport. You won’t see everything but you’ll definitely get a good feel for the city and a taster of what it has to offer.

Stay tuned for more from our trip to Malaysia, next we’ll be talking about the other major city that we visited, Kuala Lumpur.

For now, happy travels!

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

When I wrote this post, we were at Dubai Airport waiting for my brother to pop in and say hi before we boarded our plane back home, and the nostalgia for the wonderful time spent in Malaysia was starting to kick in. Are you one of those who never has enough of holidays or are you glad when you arrive back home to your familiar things? This time more than ever I would have stayed for a lot longer, repacking my backpack with less and less clean clothes on the top and more and more dirty stuff at the bottom, washing a few things on the go, and taking another bus to another breathtaking location.

But enough melancholy, there is so much to tell you that it is hard to start and focus on a subject without wandering around with my memories. If you followed our Instagram, you will have realised that our first stop was Dubai where we managed to spend almost a whole day before boarding our plane again. As my brother was also on holiday, we had the city to ourselves, no family time but also no private guide. We had a walk around and we will give you our ideas for how to spend your half day stop in Dubai. We arrived at 3 a.m. but we had a bit of a rest before leaving the airport as nothing really opens too early in the city, 10 a.m. according to my brother’s instructions.

The metro has two lines, the red one is the main one with all the most known spots, and the green is a smaller one with few stops; with the help of monorail and buses, it is quite easy to move around. Remember that public transport has dedicated areas for women only, a few carriages in the metro and the front area in the buses; these are usually respected, especially by locals, while tourists often suddenly forget how to speak and understand English when they end up in these carriages. On the bus it is easier because the driver doesn’t even open the door in the front if men are queuing. Apart from carrying a scarf and something for your shoulders if you plan to visit places of worship, always carry a light jacket for the public transport as the air conditioning, although quite pleasant from time to time, is quite strong.

As I said, the red line takes you from the airport to the main sights of the city. We started with the markets, or souqs, just on the left when you get out of Palm Deira Metro station. This area is part of Deira, originally the commercial centre of the city and here you will find the gold souq, the perfume souq, and the spices souq. While you walk almost along the river from the station to the main part of the gold souq, you already start seeing some of the shops and to smell the beautiful aromas of the spices. The main part of the gold souq is a maze of streets covered by a tall canopy. This place is just impressive to see, although a bit disturbing if you don’t like jewels and definitely if gold is the one you like the least. As this is my case, I didn’t find the place interesting in itself but I definitely recognise the enchantment that such a place has in a traditional and cultural way. In a matter of moments you cross some invisible, permeable border and all at once the shop windows with gold necklaces are fewer and they are replaced by deep baskets full of powders, seeds, and flowers. The actual perfume and spices souks are a bit further away but you can already see the transition just by turning the corner. Trust me, it is a feast for your senses, and it will be hard to resist shopping next time we visit! If you want to stay a bit longer, you can also visit the textile souq on the other side of the creek, in Bur Dubai. The abra, a traditional boat, is the easiest way and it is very frequent, all just for one dirham per person per trip.

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As for us this time, we just had our little backpack with essentials and a whole holiday ahead of us so we decided not to start shopping already; also, we were a bit tired by the night flight. This is when we decided to head towards the Dubai Mall for a bite and to enjoy the water show outside the Burj Khalifa. This is similar to the one we later found in Kuala Lumpur as well, with water jets moving choreographically to follow the music, you can see a short clip here. The heat was a bit strong at 1 p.m. but you have several locations from where you can enjoy it, both in the shopping centre and outside, including some benches in the shade. You can visit the tower if you want to spare some time to do that. Personally, I am not a big fan of visiting modern buildings as they are not usually interesting inside and the only good thing is the view of the city, which is usually an annoying experience if you are pushed around by tens of people taking selfies. The shopping centre is exactly what you would expect, big, shiny, new, and full of known brands: Not very interesting for us. One little note, there is quite a walk between the station (Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall) to the actual shopping centre but along the way you start finding shops and stalls with food and drinks and that makes the walk a bit more interesting than just walking between tube stations for example.

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The weather was not extremely hot and dry but definitely tolerable, but a quick trip to the beach was still a refreshing change in every sense, so we headed to Jumeirah public beach to have a quick look at the Burj Al Arab. We got off at Sharaf DG and from there took bus 81; you have two choices for getting off, either the Burj Al Arab Hotel 2 stop, which leaves you almost in front of the hotel complex, or to keep going for one or two stops. We stopped at the first one and crossed the road in front of the water park. From the road, you have a good close view of the building from the front, but if you keep walking along the hotels for about 15 minutes, you reach the beach and you can see the sail-like structure from the side. The beach was extremely quiet, which surprised me because the afternoon was lovely to spend there, and we just took some time to take some photos, have a chat with a nice couple from Colombia, and to refresh our feet in the warm water. Just in front of Jumeirah beach you have a beautiful mosque called Maharba Mosque, the one that gives the name to your bus stop if you decide to make your way back from there. The beach is actually nice and if you are wearing your swimming gear you may even have a quick swim before you head back. You have showers available at the airport in the departures area, and extremely clean and comfortable toilets, so you may want to keep that in mind and pack a change of clothes if you are going to spend the day out and about in the heat like we did, swimming or not. I was definitely glad I did!

I was supposed to visit Dubai once before and I had to cancel last minute but I have to admit that I have never been extremely interested in it as a holiday destination if not for visiting the family. In my head it was just fake and all that I consider non environmentally friendly. I guess we always have some kind of stereotype about places. This short stop has now showed me a different side of the city, a more human side that somehow I was not expecting but that I am glad to have seen. As my brother keeps inviting us, I guess there will be a more in depth post soon but for today this is all. Stay tuned,

Ms Lust

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A Viennese whirl – Our day trip to Vienna

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned,

Ms Lust

A winter break in Bratislava

Dear readers,

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

City centre and Old Town

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

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

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

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Bratislava Castle

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

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

Devín Castle

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

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

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

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The Blue Church

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

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

Honorable mentions

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

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

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

Food

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

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

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

Music festival

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

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

Vienna

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

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

Happy travels!

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bratislava Castle

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

Devín Castle

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

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

Michael’s Gate

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

Churches

St Martin’s Cathedral

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

The Church of St Elisabeth

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

Nový most or UFO Bridge

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

Statues

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

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

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

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

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

Theatres

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

Food

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

One day… “In Bruges”

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

Brussels

Dear readers,

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

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

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

Wall mural city walk

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

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

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

Manneken-Pis

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

Grand Place

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

Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert

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

Parc de Bruxelles

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

Parc du Cinquantenaire

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

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

Museum of Musical Instruments

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

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

West Country wanderings

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

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

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

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

Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 4

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

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

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

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

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

Day 5

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

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

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

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

“fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.*

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

Ms Lust

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