Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Dubrovnik - Croatia

Our second departure from Stanstead airport and we were on our way across the channel, tracking over Germany, Austria and into Croatia. On our descent into Dubrovnik, the skies were clear and the views of the Dalmatian coast were stunning. Small villages nestled on the waters edge, a bit of beach here and there and a backdrop of mountains. These looked surprisingly quite dry and rather barren, but it didn't take away from the overall beauty of the area.

The warm air and sunshine was a welcome change from what we had left in England, where the sun of late has just been a pretence. We caught the shuttle bus from the airport and in no time had reached the coast. Our first impressions were of turquoise blue waters and pebble beaches, not sand, and then the impressive walls of the old town walls came into view. Dubrovnik harbour with lots of little boats bobbing around on their moorings and tourists boats coming and going - a hive of activity. What a pretty place.

There are 3 main gates into the walled town. Our shuttle bus dropped us at the Pile Gate - the main one where all the various tour sellers are vying for business. We made our way passed them, under the arch and into the old town where the streets are made of beautiful marble stone, all gleaming in the sunshine. We walked the length of the Stadun, the Main Street and found our way to the Ploce Gate which was the start of the road where our accommodation was located. A short 3 minute walk and just past Banje Beach we were at Franca Supila 27 - a lovely apartment overlooking the water across to the island of Lokram. It also had a lovely private garden for our use with resident tortoises and we just knew we would have to buy some local wine and spend the late afternoons there.

                          The view from the street outside our apartment in Dubrovnik

As it was still early in the day, our room wasn't ready, so after a refreshing glass of iced water and change into lighter clothing, we deposited our backpacks and headed back into the old town for our first real look at Dubrovnik. We spent the next few hours zig zagging our way through marble (hard limestone) paved squares, steep cobbled streets, tall houses, convents, churches, palaces and museums, all made from the same light-coloured limestone. The alleyways were filled with restaurants and cafes, again all touting for our business. There were buskers, men dressed as pirates with exotic birds - parrots, macaws and sulphur crested cockatoos on show, elderly women dressed in traditional Croatian costume selling various knock knacks and tourists everywhere.

                              The Stradun or Main Street with shining marble pavers.

                                                              Alleyway restaurants 

We made our way for a drink in the Buza Bar which we had read about, nestled into the cliff face and with an amazing view over the Adriatic. The sun was strong and we were finding the heat was taking its toll on us, so a cold beer was a welcome relief. After our pit stop, the remainder of the afternoon was spent walking, down around the harbour, up and down alleyways and climbing hundreds of steps. It was time to head back and officially check in, shower and change for dinner. Our hostess Emica had recommended a small bar/restaurant on a tiny beach only a short stroll out of town and away from the throngs of tourists. It was a lovely spot, the 163 steps down to the water just a continuation of what we had been doing all afternoon. The return trip a little slower with stops along the way to take in the view.

                                                   The small harbour of Dubrovnik

       The Buza Bar, cut into the cliff face and capitalizing on the view across the Adriatic.

              Dinner for 2 looking back along the coastline to the walled city of Dubrovnik

Next morning, we decided to purchase our Dubrovnik cards which gave us free entry to walk the walls of the old town, all museums and 10 free bus rides each. The trick is to get there early before the bus loads of tourists arrive, as the majority of paths are narrow and wide enough for only 1 person at a time. We knew it would be busy as 2 cruise liners had docked overnight and would be shuttling hundred of passengers ashore. It took about an hour to do the circuit, stopping to appreciate the views over the city and the Adriatic. We then caught a bus over to Gruz port where we will be catching the ferry in July to Bari in Italy, familiarising ourselves with the ticket office and the boarding procedures.

Clocking up the kilometres on foot, we headed across to Lapad where all the large hotel complexes are, and followed the path along the waterfront back towards Dubrovnik. By now the heat was really getting to us and decided the only way to cool down was with a dip in those turquoise waters. So with bathers, towels and flip flops, we headed down the 50 steps to Banje Beach, calf muscles strengthening with every step, across the stoney beach and into the water. To say it cooled us quickly was an understatement. To say it took our breath away was also one. To say it was almost a heart stopper was probably closer to the point - but we had our 'very quick' swim in the Adriatic. Stopping to purchase our wine and chips, we headed home to savour the view from our little garden, and thaw out in the warmth of the day.

    Pete with feet up enjoying a chilled wine and the view with the island of Lokram in the distance.

The next day was the trip to the top of Mount Srdj. The serpentine footpath takes about 90 minutes and zig zags its way up the mountain with amazing panoramic views over Dubrovnik. Pete had decided to walk both ways - up and down the path. I declined the uphill slog preferring to catch the cable car and meet him at the top, but was happy to do the return downhill route. So setting off at 7.00am before the day started getting too warm, he left me in bed to snooze an extra hour before I caught the first uphill car at 9.00am. Not being a fan of heights, it is always with trepidation that I climb into one of these things, but I must admit the trip itself was very quick -  413 meters in 3 minutes, and the quietest cable car I have ever been on. Then there was the view!!! Breathtaking doesn't really describe it.

  Pete after his long trek up to the top of Mount Srdj with the walled city of Dubrovnik behind.

At the top we visited the museum which told the history of Dubrovnik's War of Independence from 1991 - 1995. So recent yet we didn't know much about it, and it was interesting to learn the reason behind it - the Croatians wanting independence from Serbia. After viewing photos of the fighting, it is amazing that such relatively little damage was done to this beautiful city and thankfully what was done has been restored so that we can all enjoy it.

Once back in town, we grabbed bathers and towels and headed down into the harbour to catch the ferry across to the island of Lokram for a few hours. It is only a 15 minute trip and you arrive at a tiny harbour with aqua water surrounded by rich pine woods. The locals call it a treasure island as it contains natural swimming holes and has an grand historical heritage. Apparently Richard the Lionheart sheltered there on his return from the third crusade. Gravel paths criss cross the island through olive groves and tall straight pine trees with peacocks everywhere. One path leads up to the top of the island where the remains of an old fort offer views back across to Dubrovnik. Another leads to a 15th century Franciscan monastery where scenes from Game of Thrones were shot. There are no cars on the island, the only sounds are the lapping of water against the rocks and the call of the peacocks. 

                                       Pete inside the monastery on Lokram Island.

                                 The gravel paths and tall pine trees of Lokram Island.

       The Dead Sea swimming hole - said to be warmer tha the Adriatic but debatable !!!!

Our last night and we returned to the Buza Bar for a sundowners with a view. We started chatting with a couple from NZ - Marg and Derek, and ended up in one of the small alleyway restaurants off the Main Street, having a great meal with them and exchanging travelling tips for Europe. Always great to receive  info on places that you are yet to visit, and compare notes on where you have been. And half of the fun of travelling is the people you meet, some you know you will never see again and others who you feel there is every chance of crossing paths some time in the future.

As the sun set on our last evening in Dubrovnik and we made our way home, we had to take one last photo of the old town. We have never taken so many photos on our weekends away - around ever corner was another opportunity to try and capture the magic of this place. I had been here 35 years ago on a Contiki tour around Europe, and so glad that I had the opportunity to return and share it with Pete.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Beautiful Bruges

Its the weekend again and Friday afternoon we head down to London for an evening with the family. always a hot pot of conversation with everyone around the table, and with a country election only a few days ago, it was a lively dinner.

In the morning before anyone was up, we headed to St Pancras International station - only a 5 minute walk from Keystone Crescent to wait for our train. Eurostar is the high-speed railway service connecting London with Brussels and then a local train to Bruges, the latter our destination for a night. It is a change from taking a plane, and I just have to not think about the time we will be under the English channel. We had booked a table area with seating for 4, and by the looks of the people waiting to board, it was going to be a full train. As it turned out, a group of 5 had 2 people pull out at the last minute so we had empty seats next to us giving us room to stretch out. We called it 'business class'.

Once out of the greater London metropolitan area, the scenery is lovely racing through England's south-east towards Dover. In no time at all we are plunged into darkness and have entered the tunnel. The train is very quiet, hardly any noise and putting my thoughts into a jigsaw on my Ipad, the 20 or so minutes that it takes to cross the tunnel is over before I know it and we are back up in the glorious sunshine. Countryside France looks much like England, the only difference is the cars are driving on the right hand side of the road. Crossing the border into Belgium, we are soon arriving into Brussels where we caught a domestic train to Bruges.

Bruges is a beautiful medieval city, similar to Amsterdam and Venice being set on canals. Many of its cobbled streets are pedestrian only, so a great place to walk around. Following our Ipad maps, we locate our accommodation for the evening - B & B Ambrogio. It's a small premisis with only 2 rooms to let, but a great location with a view overlook the canal, and the friendliest welcome we have ever experienced. Philippe and Katrien show us over their newly renovated property, complete with sauna room in the basement and bicycles for our use. We drop our backpacks, and with the sun shining, decide to go for a ride. I can't remember the last time I was on a bike, but riding is one of those things that you never really forget.

                                  The view from our bedroom at B & B Ambrogio, Bruges



Pete and self on our bikes. Spent a couple of hours each day riding along the cycle paths following the canal that encompasses Bruges Old Town. I was a bit wobbly to start with, but it all came back to me. I was however a little sore the following day - too long in the saddle or maybe it was the tough going over the cobbles.

Bruges, a world heritage site is one of the best preserved medieval cities of Europe, suffering only minor destructions in the world wars. Located in the city centre is the  Markt (Market Square) covering a hectare and surrounded by Gothic architecture. Imposing is the enormous Belfry Tower and Cloth Hall. The belfry seems to chime all day long starting 5 minutes before every quarter of the hour to announce that the quarter is about to strike, and for 5 minutes after, they announce that the quarter has struck. Just as well it is a beautiful sound.

                                   An evening shot of the Belfry Tower located in the Markt

                           The Markt empties out over dinner time. A good time for a romantic walk


        Our bike riding took us through many parks, trees coming to life after winter and more tulips!

                       Wisteria growing outside many homes - even purple painted doors to match.

Before finding somewhere for dinner, we decided to have a drink at Bruges International Beer Café - La Trappiste. It is located in an 800 year old cellar with spectacular vaulted arches, and boasts having 17 varieties of beer on tap and more in bottles. After our beers, it was off to dinner. We hadn't booked anywhere and it took us 3 restaurants to find somewhere who had a table free. Bruges is a very popular destination, and it isn't even high season yet.

Pete at La Trappiste with a beer paddle with 5 different flavours

                                        Vaulted arches of La Trappiste Beer Café

                                          Our street - or should I say our canal after dark.

Next morning, breakfast was served in the dining room set with just 2 tables.  Just squeezed orange juice and fresh fruit salad, followed by smoked salmon, cream cheese and chives. A basket of croissants and pastries baked fresh that morning sat on our table tantalizing our taste buds. We had to decline a cooked breakfast, we would never fit it in. All served on navy/gold edged crockery and linen napkins - like no other B & B we have ever stayed at. Philippe and Katrien enquiring as to how they could help us plan out day or could they get us anything more. This accommodation has only been opened less than a year and has already been awarded a 9.9 rating from, and we could see why. It should have been a 10!

It was time to check out, but not say goodbye just yet. As we had an evening train trip home, we still had the whole day to explore. We were free to use the bikes again, so leaving our backpacks there, we headed off again in glorious sunshine for another circuit of the town. The drivers are extremely courteous towards cyclists and as well as the numerous cycle tracks, the main roads all have bike lanes. We recovered much of our tracks from the previous day, completing the perimeter of the old town, then cutting through the centre and out again. Bruges is known for its chocolate and lace, with shops and market stalls everywhere you turn. There are also museums for both, the chocolate museum having the longest queues!!

We cycled down to the Beguinage - a semi-monastic community of Benedictine sisters. A artist has been granted permission to build these 'tree houses' in the grounds - meant to represent a place for 'reflection'......... A purely symbolic structure as there are no apparent means to get up into the lofts.             

Beautiful cycle ways throughout the town. Green everywhere with just a touch of red. 

Some of the roads were closing in preparation for a running race soon to start. We still had a canal cruise to do, so we returned our bikes, thanked our hosts and headed to one of the boat departure points.

It is a leisurely way to see the town, a 30 minute meander up and down the canals, ducking under bridges low enough that you could touch the roof and picturesque scenery around each corner. The skipper gives a running commentary on the architecture and points of interest, jumping from English, to French and Flemish. These boats run from 10.00am - 7.00pm every 30 minutes carrying up to 25 passengers, and we never saw one that wasn't full. Below are some shots taken on the boat ride.

                       Approaching a pretty 'dead end' on the canal - a U-turn point for the boats.

                          Vine clad walls of some of the private homes along the canal.

                                  Brick Gothic architecture for which Bruges is so famous.
                                                                     The Belfry Tower
The race was on and there were literally thousands of competitors - men, women and children. The highest competitor number we saw on their shirts was around 4600 - that's a lot of runners. The sun was shining and it was warm, the scarlet faces of the runners telling the story.
A quick stop in one of the chocolate shops to purchase some goodies and it was time to head back to the train station and start our journey home. Another amazing destination to add to our list, so glad we came.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Lake District

Trying to beat all the traffic on the M6, we push off at 5.15am for our weekend away in the Lake District and have a great run right through to Lake Windermere. Already there are coaches parked on the outskirts of Windermere, the districts most popular spot, so we push on up the road to Ambleside at the top end of the lake. After our early start and a 4 hour drive to get there, it was time for breakfast and coffee so we stopped at the little Ambleside Pier, content to sit and watch the ferries loading their passengers for a circuit of the lake, and the seagulls ever hopeful for a morsel of food before they depart.

Picking up a map of the various walks around the area, we head for Tarn Hows, reputed for being the most photographed of all the lakes. Even though the weather is overcast and inclined to be drizzly, it is still a very picturesque spot with a man-made 1.75 mile circular path through beautiful countryside with majestic mountain views. It is maintained by the National Trust, and our steep fee of 4.5 pounds for 2 hours parking. Belted Galloway cattle are grazing in the car park, unconcerned with the nearness of people.

                    Tarn Hows in the Lake Districk of UK. Still pretty despite the English weather !!

      Belted Galloway cattle - apparently a rare breed. These ones very used to tourists visiting them.

After our amble around the tarn, we head into Coniston looking for another walk. Parking is often scarce in these villages and once again parking is about 5 pounds for an hour. So as the rain has started to get heavier, we opt for a pint of cider in a local pub (with free parking for customers). Just over 5 pound for a pint of cider and beer, but then we leave the car in the car park and head up on one of the designated walks, climbing up through paddocks of sheep and brightly coloured gorse bush. The walk is all on private property but designated as public footpath - just asking that you leave all gates and openings as you found them. It is still drizzling, but with wet weather gear and umbrellas, we make the most of the day.

          Paddocks with lots of new lambs with their mums - many of them black, and set of twins.

                            Amongst the gorse bushes - making the most of the weather conditions

What better place for a baby to shelter from the rain than under mum !
We still have an hours drive to Alston where we are staying for the weekend. It is a small town in Cumbria set on the South Tyne river and lies with the Pennine mountains, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Our accommodation is the Lovelady Shield Country House, an elegant Georgian hotel set on 3 acres and with the River Nent running 20 meters from the front door. The hotel is renowned  for its 7 course degustation menu which has been awarded 2 AA rosettes consistently for the past 5 years. After all our walking, we are really looking forward to dinner.

                                        Lovelady Shield Country House - Alston UK

                                             The view from our bedroom window

The meal was amazing - 3 hours spent leisurely enjoying each course with accompanying wines, and yet at the end we didn't feel like we had eaten too much. Chef's amuse (pate), Butternut squash risotto, Carrot and cumin soup, Pan fried salmon, Sorbet, Roast loin of spring lamb, Selection of local cheeses, Passionfruit cheesecake, Coffee to finish - 4 of the courses served with French or South African wine. No wonder they have won their awards.

Next morning after a hearty breakfast we opt to drive for a while as the rain has set in. Narrow lanes link the small villages in the valley, hair pin bends and high hedges - hoping that any oncoming cars are travelling as slowly as we are. We park the car in Alston village and start alongside the road running parallel to the South Tynedale Railway on Isaac's Tea Trail. Passing Kirkhaugh station we continue until we come to the bridge that crosses the line and takes us up onto Alston moor, joining the Pennine Way. Following the yellow arrows defining our path, we walk through some very boggy patches after all the rain, cross a few creeks, and the River Nent before making our descent back into Alston village. It took us nearly 3 hours and a 7.5 mile circular route, helping to walk off last night's wonderful meal.

Next morning, it is time we bid farewell to our hosts and head south towards home. Choosing to avoid the M6, we head east through rolling hills at the top and paddocks of yellow canola (rape) below in the valleys. It's not raining, and the forecast is better than yesterday, the sun trying desperately to burn off the cloud. Its a good run home despite being a public holiday - the best part is it is now a short week. out time here in the UK is quickly coming to an end, and I am glad we made it up to this area for a visit before we depart.

                                           The rolling hills and dales of the Pennines

                           Everywhere there are paddocks of canola growing, a glorious sea of yellow

Friday, 1 May 2015


Our special weekend has arrived - we are off to Prague to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. It starts with an hours drive to Stansted airport as EasyJet don't do a Luton-Prague route. Stansted is a much larger and much nicer airport than Luton, more modern and spacious. Valet parked the car and time to check in. With a nearly 2 hours to wait, what better way to start the weekend than with a bottle of champagne at one of the airport bars.

Another smooth flight in clear skies, a Mercedes Limo (special occasion!) to meet us at our destination and soon we are arriving at our accommodation for the 2 days - Residence Agnes. A small boutique hotel renowned for its service, 5 minutes walk from the heart of town. We are greeted by Mikayla and whilst completing our reservation, we were offered complementary drinks and nibbles, so far the friendliness of the staff living up to its reputation. Up on the 4th level of the hotel, we have an attic room with complimentary wine and fresh flowers awaiting us, and a complimentary mini bar - it was a lovely welcome.

Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, and is nicknamed "the City of a Hundred Spires". The heart of its historic core is the Old Town Square which we reach in a short stroll. It is surrounded by Gothic churches, baroque buildings, cafes and people everywhere. We hadn't realised it was such a popular tourist destination. On one side of the Old Town City Hall is Prague's medieval astronomical clock - first installed in 1410, making it the 3rd oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still working. On the hour as the bells ring out, it performs "The Walk of the Apostles" - a clockwork show for the hundreds of tourists gathered below.

Old Town Square - packed with tourists by day ..... 

                                                              .... and long into the night.

                                                     6.00am - while most people are still sleeping

We walked from the square to the Vltava river which has numerous  bridges joining the Old Town and the New Town. The Charles Bridge is the most famous, an old stone Gothic bridge adorned both sides with 30 statues of saints and with towers at both ends. It is a pedestrian only bridge and by 9.00am, you can hardly move for the tourists crossing the river. Along with the masses of people, there are numerous artists, performers and vendors selling their wares and entertaining the crowds. It is an interesting walk across, somewhere you could just sit and people watch for hours. It is beautifully lit up at night, the saints giving an ethereal effect and a lovely romantic stroll  with fewer tourists around.

                        The Charles Bridge in the background - Pete and I stopping to watch the swans.


                                       Horse drawn carriages down the pretty tree lined streets

Essential for a few days in Prague is a good pair of walking shoes as many of the streets and pavements are cobbled. It is no place for stilettos (and yet we saw a few gingerly making their way along)!! Horse drawn carriages are a popular way to see the Old Town, clip clopping their way down the cobbled streets, as well as vintage car rides. And Segway tours are all the go with dozens of locals touting for your business. We opt to pound the pavement as we usually do and spend the rest of the afternoon zigzagging the alleyways and bridges enjoying the sunshine and our new surroundings.

        One of the largest statues and close up of the bottom half - amazing detail

                                        Lovely archways leading down to the cobbled streets of Prague

Next morning after a hearty breakfast, its time to head back across the river and up to the top of the hill to Prague Castle. It's a good constant uphill walk but we follow the crowds and are soon at the top for the best views over the city. It is the official residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic so therefore has 24 hour guards at the entrance with a change of guard ceremony daily at noon. After a few hours wandering around the cathedral and beautiful gardens, we stop for a well deserved drink at a small café perched on the side of the hill with a view to beat most. Looking down across blossoming trees and green gardens, you can see the river and its bridges and across to the Old Town.

       Different views of Prague Castle.                        The decoration is etched into the stucco.

       Our chilled beer stop with a view back from Prague Castle looking back across to the Old Town

The way down is a lovely shaded meander through the Petrin Gardens where I have to stop at the biggest magnolia tree I have ever seen. Prague has many pieces of sculpture scattered throughout the city, some modern, some old, some funny and some very serious. A thought provoking one we came across was a monument to all those who were repressed under the communist regime.
"The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism"
                                      An interesting and somewhat different fountain ......? We all know what sort of contest they are in!
                                                          Now that's a magnolia tree!
                           Not sure what this one was representing either - certainly a talking point.
We had a lovely dinner out that evening to celebrate our anniversary, a restaurant on the banks of the river overlooking the Charles Bridge and watching the various cruise boats meander up and down the river. We opted to forego the dessert and look for one of the pastry vendors in town to try a Czech speciality - Trdelnik - a pastry rolled in sugar and spice and roasted over coals. But the weather had changed, the drizzle had started so we headed for the hotel - the pastry could wait till tomorrow. On arrival back at Residence Agnes (as with each time we walked in the doors) we were greeted with the offer of a drink - water, beer or wine. Declining, it was off to bed.
Our tableside view
Today was our anniversary and breakfast was great as usual made even more special with a bottle of Piper Heidsieck. We had a celebratory drink with our host Frank, who then offered us a complimentary airport transfer as a gift. We checked out of the hotel leaving our backpacks for storage for the day. It was spent walking through the markets, watching the various entertainers, smelling the wonderful aromas of ham being cooked over the coals, and the dessert. We finally got our pastry - not too heavy, not too light, just sweet, and we didn't even take up the offer to have the inside lined with chocolate!! The weather was changeable and went from sunshine that was burning our skin to heavy showers with everyone running for cover. Even when we returned to the hotel mid afternoon to get a brolly (this is after we had checked out in the morning), we were still greeted like family and offered a drink. I have never known of this level of service before.

                                       A Czech speciality - Trdelnik - roasting over the coals
                 An interesting busker at the Sunday markets ! Yes - there was a clear gap between them
As we had a late flight out of Prague back to Luton, we found ourselves a lovely little restaurant just down the road from our accommodation. We had walked passed it many times on our way home and it always seemed to be packed with diners, so figured the food had to be good. Chez Marcel - it was only 5.30pm and we were the only patrons so far that evening. The meal was the best we had taken in Prague (and the others were very good), beef and lamb that melted in your mouth. As passer byes stopped to read the menu outside, we kept giving them the thumbs up sign and soon had a few other diners joining us. As a result of the walk-ins, we were given a glass each of traditional Czech liquer -  Becherovka. Wow - Slivovitz on steroids!! As Pete had an hours drive to Luton at the end of the flight, I drank his as well as my own. What a way to end an amazing weekend in Prague. It has topped our list of all the destinations to where we have travelled this past 12 months.  

               Now that's a bottle of red. Pete at Chez Marcel - our last dinner in Prague. 

A shot from the Charles Bridge looking south
We had been looking forward to Prague for a long time and it didn't disappoint in any way. The city, the people, our accommodation, the service - it will long be a favourite spot of ours.