Archives for category: Travel

It’s not easy coming down to earth with a huge bump when you’ve had a great time, but I’ll always treasure the magic of Christmas shopping in one of the world’s most popular destinations, Prague.

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Although Kat and I were only in the Czech Republic from 1st-4th December, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We stayed at the excellent Hotel Merkur in Tesnov, where the free breakfasts were to die for – delicious meats, sausages, pancakes, eggs and little bite sized cakes, as many as you could possibly eat. The staff were lovely and most spoke English.

The Old Town itself was a short walk away, and despite this being our first visit to Prague, we found it easy to navigate (with the help of a good map, of course!). Aside from the main market square, there were lots of other little Christmas markets dotted around. They even had a representation of a manger in one.

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The stalls were heaving with festive goodies; baubles, warm winter hats and souvenirs of every description. It wasn’t quite as cold as we’d expected during the day, although the evenings were certainly chilly and I was glad I’d brought my thermals with me.

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I wanted to buy something typically Czech, so we visited Moser, a shop specialising in crystal. Prague has several of these outlets, including one in the Black Rose shopping centre, in Na Prikope 12 (The pic below is of the one in the Old Town Square).   Kat bought herself a crystal cat, and I bought myself a pair of crystal dogs. Each piece cost 1170 koruna (£39 GBP), cheaper than you’d pay back in the UK.

Crystal Cats

Crystal Dogs

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Some things in Prague are fairly cheap, others aren’t. Our taxi fare from the airport to the hotel was 860 koruna (£29 GBP), for example, and a half bottle of Snow Queen vodka set me back 333 koruna (around £11 GBP). A sandwich from the local Billa supermarket cost 149.90 koruna (£1.98 GBP) and a box of chocolates was 149.90 koruna (£5.12 GBP).

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As I discovered  for myself, Czech architecture is truly magnificent. I fell in love with the astronomical clock tower and surrounding buildings – they were so unique and majestic looking in the flesh, I was in total awe as I gaped open mouthed. This was Gothic/bohemian paradise!

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I can see why Prague is such a popular destination with many. The Czechs are warm, friendly people; some even mistook us for locals (perhaps it was the hats!) so it was a bit of a shock when they spoke to us in their native language. I speak Polish, and although Czech is similar, it’s still different in its own way if that makes sense.

I’m off to indulge in some Snow Queen.

Na zdrowie!!

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After ten long years, Phil and I finally got to revisit The Lake District, the ultimate haven for peace and tranquility.

We stayed in Ennerdale, at a place called Bankend Cottage. On our first morning I drew back the curtains and spent ages just watching the sheep grazing on the hillside opposite. It was a welcome change from seeing row upon row of houses and washing lines back home.

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The Lake District has become more touristy in the decade since we last visited. I was surprised to see a mother attempting to push a  young child in a buggy across the rocky terrain, and the local eateries were full of noisy youngsters who were behaving worse than any of the visiting dogs there.

 

Construction.JPGEnnerdale under construction

Our favourite pub in Ennerdale was The Fox And Hounds. Situated in a quiet location, the ales were excellent (I drank lots of Swan Black!), customers were well treated and the delicious food was reasonably priced. I highly recommend their steak and ale pie which is heaven on a plate 🙂

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I can’t say the same for the nearby Shepherds Arms Hotel. When Phil popped in to check out their opening times and menu he found the staff rude and unhelpful; so much for shepherds looking after their flock, then.

Shepherds Arms Hotel.JPGUnwelcoming – don’t bother stopping here

 

The Lake District scenery was as breathtaking as we remembered it. No matter what the weather, I could have sat by the lakeside all day and drank in the wonderful views.

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Another reason for our week long visit was a view to perhaps moving up to this idyllic part of the world in the future. Armed with the sort of prices we could afford, Phil and I investigated places such as Workington; unfortunately our budget didn’t spread beyond grey, dismal, rabbit hutch estates where weary housewives were pegging out their washing and the local kids were hanging out. I’d rather throw myself under a train than live in such an environment.

Chaucer Road Workington.JPGChaucer Road – the nicer and more expensive part of Workington

 

We also visited Buttermere and Cockermouth, searching for suitable souvenirs. Having traipsed up and down a few hilly roads, Phil and I realised just how unfit we both were. Even our dog Skye was struggling.

The Black Bull Cockermouth.JPGThe Black Bull, Cockermouth – our local’s namesake 🙂

 

DSCF5405.JPGWalking around Buttermere

 

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On the day of departure we were on the road by 7.30am, and we stocked up on our favourite ales along the way as we braced ourselves for the long drive back.

As my dear old Dad used to say, ‘Everywhere’s great …. but home is the best place to be’.

 

 

I’ve just got back from spending a wonderful week in Krakow, Poland, with my daughter Kat. As both Mum and Dad were Polish, I felt I had to visit the Motherland at least once in my lifetime, and being fluent in Polish helped a great deal, too.

We stayed at the Hotel Santorini, a lovely place in the suburb of Nowa Huta, about half an hour’s taxi ride from Krakow Balice Airport. The fare was PLN 11.09 (in Polish zloty), which was the equivalent of about GBP £10.50.

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Kat outside hotel

Hotel Santorini was family and pet friendly, offering guests the use of a Finnish sauna, currency exchange (kantor), wi fi facilities, conference areas and clean, comfortable rooms with complementary mineral water. The only (small) gripe was that there were no tea or coffee making facilities in the rooms themselves, but for a budget hotel with lots of other things to offer, it wasn’t really an issue.

The nearest tram stop was a 10 minute walk away, directly opposite Lidl. Trams were frequent – every 10 minutes or so – and although usually packed, they were clean. There was also a local supermarket, Lewiatan, a short walk away from the hotel, in the opposite direction.

The local su[ermarket

Krakow itself was awesome. I stood agape at the plethora of shops, cafes, niche boutiques and stalls, not to mention the street entertainers, commemorative statues and fascinating architecture. Every street, nook and cranny had something enticing to offer, no two shops were the same.

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Stret entertainers 1    Silver man blog 1

Silver man blog 2    Horse and carriage 2

Public toilets are marked ‘toalety’ and you pay around 1 zloty per person (10p) to use them. Some have symbols; triangles for men and circles for women. Watch out for crazy, zig-zagging cyclists who expect you to get out of the way for them – you really do need to be vigilant at all times, especially when crossing roads where cars hurtle around corners with wild abandon and trams appear from nowhere.

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Poland is steeped in history. We sat beside the fountain outside Mariacki Cathedral (St. Mary’s Basilica) where every hour, on the hour, a bugler played a tune known as the Hejnal Mariacki which ended abruptly before completion, at which point he waved to the crowds below, and they waved back. This abbreviated version of the tune is in honour of a bugler who, in the 1200s, was shot with an arrow whilst playing.

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Mariacki Cathedral  (St. Mary’s Basilica). The bugler plays the shortened Hejnal Mariacki from one of the towers.

Me fountain blog    Kat fountain 2 blog

The Lajkonik (hobbyhorse man) is a symbol of Krakow and celebrates the triumph of a brave bargeman over Han, head of the invading Tatars in 1287. When the remaining Tatars heard of Han’s death, they fled Krakow. To celebrate his victory, the bargeman dressed up as Han and, together with his men, rode into Krakow, where he was named Lajkonik. Every year since then, the Lajkonik and his procession ride through Krakow, celebrating and dancing in the streets. The Lajkonik touches people with his mace, which is said to bring a whole year of good luck.

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Some of our souvenirs. The Lajkonik is in a transparent box in the picture at the top.

We were planning on visiting Wawel Castle, home of the infamous Wawel Dragon (smok Wawelski), but unknown to me, visitor numbers are strictly limited and tickets MUST be booked in advance. We were hoping to go ‘on the fly’, as it were, especially when I checked the internet before our trip, only to discover that tickets were a massive £40.00 per person. Another drawback was that you have to pay separately for each part of the castle you wish to visit. With hindsight, I suppose I could have asked the hotel staff to arrange a trip for us as it would have been cheaper (at the time of our holiday, one British pound was the equivalent of 10 Polish zloty).

Wawel Hill 1 blog    Wawel Hill 2 blog

Wawel Hill

The legend of the Wawel Dragon goes thus: Long ago, the townsfolk became fed up with the dragon devouring their sheep, so they devised a plan: they stuffed a sheep’s corpse full of tar and left it lying around where the dragon would find it. Sure enough, the dragon gobbled it all up, but the tar inside made it very thirsty, so it went to the River Wisla to quench its thirst. As the dragon gulped the water, the tar inside its belly swelled up so much that eventually it burst – and that was the end of the dragon!

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Kat enjoying a makeover at one of Krakow’s Inglot stores      Some eye candy snoozing in the sunshine 🙂

One place the travel itineraries don’t seem to mention is Jordan Park, a truly wonderful oasis of greenery full of busts of famous Poles, including the late Pope John Paul II and Maksimilian Kolbe, who switched places with a family man destined for the gas chamber during the war. Jordan Park, which can be found along aleja 3 maja (3rd of May alley), has lots of water activities for kids, including giant balls  they can float in down what looks like a huge outdoor swimming pool. In the middle of the park is a statue of Wojtek the bear. Wojtek was found as an abandoned cub by a group of Polish soldiers during World War II. He became their beer drinking buddy and carried their ammunition for them. When the war ended Wojtek was transported to Edinburgh Zoo, where he was regularly visited by his soldier friends who threw beer cans and cigarettes into his enclosure for him to enjoy. Wojtek died in 1963, aged 22.

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Statue of Wojtek the bear and his plaque (below)

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If you’re after an inexpensive holiday full of interesting places to visit, the Poland’s the place to go. I’d recommend downloading a map from Google before you go as they’re more accurate and up to date; the shop bought one I had was hard to read, and we got lost several times.

Na zdrowie!

Cheers!

Iceland 2013 054 Somehow I’d managed to reach middle age without ever having been abroad – sad, I know. So I decided to do something about it, and after a year and a half of judicious saving, my good friend Nicola and I headed off for a few days to Iceland, that little place in the Frozen North 🙂 Iceland 2013 009 We stayed at Fosshotel Baron, about an hour’s drive from Keflavik Airport. The hotel was close to the beach, as well as a short walk away from Reykjavik town centre. The flight took just three hours from Heathrow, and there was no time difference. We did notice, however, that it was still dark at eight o’clock in the morning, which was a bit of a shock to the system! Iceland 2013 015 Iceland experiences up to 300 earthquakes each day, although we were totally unaware of them. The sulphur in the hot water emits a ‘rotten egg’ type of smell, but if you let the taps run long enough the worst of it soon dissipates (I’d still recommend using a dry shampoo, though – just in case!!) Iceland 2013 007 Icelandic Fish & Chips We spent the first day pottering around Reykjavik, looking through the gift shops as well as some local sights such as the church and statue of Erik The Viking. In the evening we checked out the Icelandic Fish & Chips eaterie, although we almost missed it as the logo resembled Barclays Bank and was right next door to another bank, anyway – how confusing!! The fish was divine, the chips not quite so but we ate them anyway, and washed them down with half a Gils lager each. This had a really clean, refreshing taste 🙂 Iceland 2013 028 Our original plan for the second day was to go whale watching, but all trips were cancelled due to the choppy sea conditions (a few people had experienced sea sickness), and the local weather reports weren’t very good anyway. Daytime temperatures in October varied between 3-7 degrees centigrade, but with the storm force winds coming across from the UK, all the outdoor tourist attractions were bracing themselves. Iceland 2013 039 Iceland 2013 040 Iceland 2013 047 Instead, we went on a Golden Circle Tour which took in a visit to the caves, Gulfoss Waterfall, Geysir hot springs and Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament Althingi was founded in 930. Here, the slowly diverging tectonic plates of the US & Europe meet (Iceland is being gradually split into two parts at a rate of 1cm a year). Iceland 2013 051 Iceland 2013 056 Iceland 2013 058 On our final night we went on a Northern Lights Tour. Yes, we did see them, but they were incredibly difficult to photograph, and even though I must have taken between thirty and fifty shots, I had no joy. The Japanese tourists standing beside us, however, had more success. Every time one of them took a picture, the rest would crowd round, squealing excitedly and clapping as they jumped up and down. They even went so far as lying down on their backs in the middle of the road to take snaps – not a good idea considering we were on a busy but dark main road; the tour operators kept reminding us to watch out for oncoming traffic. After what seemed like an eternity, everyone piled back into the coach and were dropped off at their respective hotels. Iceland 2013 076 Iceland 2013 077 Iceland 2013 082 Iceland 2013 083 Iceland 2013 086 Afterwards, as we sat watching the world go by from our balcony on that final night, a bright green wisp of light slowly curled under the rooftop as if to say ‘hello’. We’d just travelled outside Reykjavik to see the Lights, and now they’d decided to come to us!! I smiled as I thought of the reviews I’d read which were adamant that Reykjavik wasn’t a good place to see the Lights … and now here they were, right under our very noses 🙂 Iceland 2013 092 There’s so much to see and do in Iceland that a couple of days really isn’t long enough; next time we’ll be back for longer, and we WILL go on that elusive whale watching tour 🙂 Oh, well, better start saving for the return trip right now …