‘Tis the season

Dear readers,

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

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Christmas markets – Bratislava

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

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

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

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

Christmas markets – Vienna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas markets – UK

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

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

Stately homes

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

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

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

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

Christmas plays

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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England

Winter Wonderland – London

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

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

Covent Garden – London

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

Huntingdon

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

Peterbourough

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

St Albans

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

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

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

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Bratislava

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

Main Square and Frantiskanske Square

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

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Old Town Hall’s court and Primacial Square

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

Hviezdoslav’s Square

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

Bratislava Castle

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

Vienna

Vienna Christmas Market on Rathausplatz

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

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

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Christmas Village Belvedere Palace

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

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Christmas Village Maria-Theresien Platz

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

Stephansplatz

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

 

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Stately homes

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

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Our side of London

Dear travellers,

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

Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tower of London and Ceremony of the Keys

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

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

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

Food and drink

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

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

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

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

Now a few tips before leaving you:

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

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

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

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

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

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

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National Gallery

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

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

Natural History Museum lates

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

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

Ceremony of the Keys

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

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

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

Hyde Park

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

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

Battersea

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

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

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

Waxy O’Connors

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

Tardis

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

WPC – Bridge

Dear readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear travellers,

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

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

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

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Thank you for travelling with us, see you soon!

Ms Lust