Tuesday, 24 September 2019

A week in Crete (with Instagram photoshoots happening all around us...)

You do have to wonder if, in years to come, people will look back on this period in time and say: "Do you remember when you'd go to the beach on holiday and see couples doing ridiculous photoshoots for their Instagram feed? What was THAT all about?"

Having recently spent a week in Crete, marveling at the absolute lack of self-awareness some people display when perfecting that hair tossed casually about, slight pout, poke arse out photo, it does make you think humanity is in a weird place right now.

But hey, each to their own, we've all got to have hobbies, right? Maybe me writing this and posting it on social media is just as self-indulgent as if I splashed about coquettishly in the water on a beach making someone take hundreds of photos of me. (Maybe that should be the next blog post?)

But I digress. I'm supposed to be telling you about Crete. It was my second visit to Greece, after a trip in October 2015 that took in Athens, Amorgos, Naxos and Koufounissia. This time, it was just one island and one week but Crete is Greece's largest island so there is plenty to explore.

We landed in Heraklion and the plan was to spend a couple of days there, then rent a car, drive into the middle of Crete to stay in a house in the countryside and then onwards to Chania.

The main draw around Heraklion is supposed to be the archeological site of Knossos, which had a palace built on it around 2000 BC. The only problem is, the English archeologist who excavated quite a lot of it in the early 1900s decided to rebuild certain parts of it and these additions looks a bit crap to be honest.

If you're going to Crete and you're a bit short of time, I'd give Knossos a miss, because as the island's big tourist attraction it's also pretty crowded and expensive. And there are so many beaches to explore!

I'm not normally one for a lot of beach time on holiday but when they're as spectacular as the ones in Crete, it's time to get your book out and slap on the suncream. We spent time on Elafonisi, Balos, Seitan Limania and Kalathas. Would recommend them all, but if you're there in summer, don't expect any of them to be deserted hidden treasures. Still, you can usually find a quieter patch somewhere.

One place we didn't factor in enough time for was Rethymno. We only spent an afternoon here but it would have been well worth stopping overnight here. And we certainly should have skipped a town called Bali on the way there. Not sure what I'd read that made me want to visit Bali but it's a packed tourist trap with very little of note.

What I would highly recommend is getting into the countryside and spending a couple of nights away from the busier coastal areas. We stayed in Natura House near Limni, where the owner greeted us with her mother who had made dinner for us and left it in the oven for when we arrived at 9pm! Cretan hospitality is the greatest. (I've hyperlinked the name because we liked it so much.)

A couple of nights in an Airbnb near central Chania gave us time to explore the city's charming Old Town and Balos beach, before catching an inevitably late Easyjet flight back to London.

Now the pictures. I apologise in advance for total lack of Insta-photoshoot material. Next time eh?

Knossos - an example of the kind of bad rebuilding work Arthur Evans inflicted on the site. Even the information boards around Knossos sounded a bit unsure about what the hell he was actually doing.

Boat next to the pool in our hotel near Heraklion. Don't think it's been a seafaring vessel for some time.

Went to a great Cretan restaurant in Amoudara called Mourelo Cretan Food & Drink Philosophy, where we had snails, which is a local speciality. Despite a silly name it's a fantastic restaurant.
Stopped for lunch in a small town called Bali and this cat was probably the highlight.

Would have liked to spend an extra day/night in Rethymno, but half a day here gave us a feel of the place and its narrow winding streets. This is the lighthouse in the town's Venetian Harbour.

Elafonisi Beach was well-worth the drive to get there through narrow, twisting mountain roads. It wasn't quite the hidden gem I was hoping for (everyone knows about it) but beautiful nonetheless.

Balos Beach - If you go here, take a ferry from one of the nearby towns rather than bumping your way along the mountain road that leads to the beach. Our rented Nissan Micra got there in the end but it was a real test for the suspension. Plus, if you arrive by car you've then got about a half hour trek to the beach, although you will to see the whole beach from above.

Chania's harbour at night. If you find yourself having to decide between Heraklion and Chania (that's where the main airports are), go for Chania. It's got more going on, is nice to wander round and is more Greek-picturesque in my opinion.

Another beach reached by a zig-zagging walk down a cliff, this one's called Seitan Limania. It's a small beach at the bottom but swimming between the steep cliffs was one of my highlights of Crete.

At Seitan Limania, inquisitive goats are on the lookout for any food beachgoers might be willing to part with. Harriet's keeping a low profile and hoping they don't guess what's in the rucksack...

"What ya got? Come on, I know you've got some food, don't be holding out on me." 

St Francis of Assisi in a courtyard in the old town area of Chania. 

A floral doorway in Chania

Some of the buildings in Chania reminded me a bit of Havana, especially this one with paint peeling off the facade.

Monday, 6 May 2019

9 days in Slovenia and a taste of Trieste

Welcome back for another installment of my travel blog. I've been writing this for long enough that I probably should be an 'influencer' by now. But for some reason there aren't any companies getting in touch asking me to flog products for them on my Instagram account with 200 or so followers. Must try harder.

This trip took in Slovenia, starting in Ljubljana, where we hired a car and headed to lakes Bled and Bohinj for a bit of hiking. Then northwards to the Vrsic Pass, an amazing mountain road that reaches an altitude of 1,611 metres. Back down the other side of the mountain to Bovec for a bit of white water rafting, followed by the Skocjan Caves, Portoroz and Piran. Then home from Trieste.

Joining me for most of this trip was my parents' second-born, Jason (also known as my brother). Other than a trip to Bruges for our mum's 60th, we've never really been on holiday together, so it was time to put our sibling relationship to the test and see if we could handle several days on the road together.

Highlights of the trip included:
  • Wandering around Ljubljana and it's pedestrianised Old Town, stopping for a coffee here or a beer there
  • Eating a horse steak in Lubljana. Very tasty and barely distinguishable from beef, so I can see how that whole horsemeat "scandal" happened in the UK a few years ago. The only scandal is that I didn't know how good horse tastes until now
  • Exploring the area surrounding Lake Bohinj despite a day of nearly non-stop rain. It's much less crowded than Lake Bled, which has built a lot of hotels and restaurants around the lake
  • Driving over the Vrsic Pass in Triglav National Park. Non-stop incredible scenery for a couple of hours. Saw a few people cycling it too, crazy bastards
  • The Skocjan Caves in south-west Slovenia. Enormous cave network with a giant canyon running through it. Looks like something out of Indiana Jones or that place the goblins live in The Hobbit. They won't let you take photos down there, which is actually quite refreshing and it's so dark they probably wouldn't come out well anyway
  • Renting an e-bike in Portoroz and cycling along Slovenia's small stretch of coast to Izola and Koper
  • Exploring Piran and getting caught in a massive hailstorm while at the top of the town's clocktower

If you're thinking of visiting Slovenia yourself, I'd definitely recommend it. Ljubljana is ideal for a long weekend break and if you have the time to go further afield, the lakes at Bohinj and Bled are only about an hour's drive away. If you go in April like I did, it helps to have flexible plans if rain makes exploring the great outdoors more challenging!

Ljubljana Castle sits on top of a big hill overlooking the city. It's free to have a wander round the castle and its walls, you'll only need to pay if you want to see the museum inside.

The slightly terrifying door of the Church of St Nicholas. Looks like the bishops are coming out of the door at you.

Continuing the theme of doors, this one caught my eye in the Old Town, just by the river. Ljubljana's a great city to wander aimlessly around if you're in a picture-taking mood. 

Multi-coloured buildings on the northern side of the Ljubljanic River which dissects the city.

Bled Island in the middle of Lake Bled. This is about as close as we got on a very drizzly day, although boats were taking plenty of umbrella wielding groups out to the island. In my opinion, Bled's a bit too built up with hotels and various ways to extract money from tourists, whereas Bohinj is a bit more relaxed and nature-y. (Don't try and tell me nature-y isn't a word, I'm a journalist.) 

It's hard to get that 'hey look at me in front of a waterfall shot' when the waterfall is running so powerfully (caused by snow melting and rainfall) that you get soaked standing anywhere near it.

An illustration of just how powerful the waterfall was that day. 

A fisherman trying to catch some dinner on the shores of Lake Bohinj. We got so wet that day we might as well have joined him in the lake. 

Jason goes for a wander near the top of the Vrsic Pass in Triglav National Park. I do have a photo where he's facing the camera but I'll spare you the horror in case you're eating dinner while reading this. 
 The Russian Chapel on the way up the Vrsic Pass, which was built by Russian prisoners of war during WW1.

With the steel cables and metal posts you'd think this bridge was pretty solid but you'd be wrong. Some of the wooden planks looked like they'd give way to a heavier man than myself. Pretty though.

This is the small town of Kanal, which spans the Soča River, about an hour south of Bovec. Don't know if there's much here other than a photogenic river and bridge. The milky-blue colour of the river was certainly something I hadn't seen before.

Salt flats at Strunjan near Portoroz. Back in the days of the Romans, Piran and Portoroz made their money exporting salt and are still doing so today. There's also a much bigger salt farm at Secovlje with a museum, spa and shop if you're a big salt enthusiast.

Nice little courtyard in Izola on the coast of Slovenia. It's a small town that probably gets overlooked in favour of Koper or Piran by a lot of tourists, but definitely worth a detour.

An olive grove near Portoroz. Some areas of western Slovenia are covered in vineyards and olive trees, which makes sense as it borders Italy and shares a similar climate. It also means that in some places you can get a glass of good wine for €1. Yes please. 

The town square in Piran. If I'd visited in the traditional summer months, I'd have got a lot more blue sky in photos but then it would also have been heaving with visitors, so on balance the mixed bag of weather probably wasn't such a bad thing.

Climbed the clock tower in Piran to get this photo just before a full on hailstorm kicked off. Thunder, wind, the lot. Made for some very dramatic views until the weather got so bad I had to abandon my position and head back down to shelter.

A video illustrating just how much rain and hail there was. According to Google Translate,  Slovenian for 'raining cats and dogs' is 'dežujejo mačke in psi'. (Chances are it doesn't actually translate into Slovenian and that phrase is gibberish, but I'm trying to educate AND entertain).

Old guy fishing on the end of a small pier in Piran after sunset. In case you can't see his fishing rod and it looks like he's just staring wistfully out to sea, I can assure you he was fishing.

Piazza Unita d'Italia in Trieste. Only got to spend a day here but it seemed like there was plenty to do if I'd had more time. Loads of good restaurants for a start, plus museums, galleries and the nearby town of Prosecco.

The famous Irish writer James Joyce lived in Trieste twice back in the early 1900s, so he must have been charmed by it. The city claims he wrote part of Ulysses here, but then every cafe in Edinburgh will tell you JK Rowling wrote part of Harry Potter there, so believe what you want to believe.

Fun fact: Slovenia was my 52nd country. I use an app called Been to keep track of where I've been - you can get it for Android here or iPhone here. Because, for some unknown reason, I'm still not an influencer, I won't be getting any money for telling you about Been but you might find it helpful too.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Three days in Budapest leaves me Hungary for more

Budapest is one of those cities I feel like I should have visited ages ago but just hadn't got round to. It's like that list of films everyone has that they haven't seen yet, but feel like they probably should have. For example, I've never seen Gremlins or Gone With The Wind... there, I've said it. Don't judge me.

I flew in from Copenhagen (after a three-day work trip there) and made my way to a slightly shabby but excellently located Airbnb right in the centre of Budapest, about five minutes walk from the Danube. Historically, Budapest is two cities merged into one, Buda on one side of the river and Pest on the other. Pest is where most of the action is for tourists, with St Stephen's Basilica, the Jewish district and all the best bars and restaurants.

It also has the Széchenyi thermal baths, the highlight of my visit. Around 30 or more pools of varying sizes and water temperatures, it's a wonderful way to spend a few hours in Budapest. I took the advice I was given to get there early (6am-10am) or late (6pm-10pm) to avoid the crowds in the busiest part of the day, and I was relaxing in one of the larger outdoor pools by 8.45am. Let's face it, I wasn't going to get there for 6am, this was a holiday after all.

On my first morning in the city I went full tourist and joined one of the free (but not really free because you tip the guide afterwards) walking tours. It's one of the best ways to orientate yourself in a new city, learn a bit of history about the place and spot some things to go back to later.

I was only there for three days and could easily have spent another day wandering about the city. But on the other hand it was enough to be left wanting to back again to check out the things I didn't have time for and eat some more tasty Hungarian Goulash.

Budapest's not a bad looking city at night, especially down by the Danube, with bridges and buildings on both side illuminated. This is Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

The Hungarian Parliament Building. The spotlights used to light up some of the buildings attract loads of bugs/moths, which in turn attracts a lot of birds who want to eat them. That's what all the white dots above the building in this photo are.

Standing in front of the Parliament Building.

Matthias Church, over on the Buda side of the river. Photo taken from the Fisherman's Bastion, one of the shortest tourist attractions I've ever paid for. A quick walk round a wall and you're done.

Can't remember where this was (somewhere on the Buda side of the river) but I liked the look of it.

Central Hall Market is busy but you can get some proper Hungarian Goulash in there for a few quid, as well as endless stalls selling paprika-related gifts. Hungarians love the paprika.

I tried out Airbnb 'experiences' and went to see the Secret Swing Concerts of Budapest, with a band that played swing jazz and a lot of Django Reinhardt. Would absolutely recommend if you're in Budapest on a Thursday night.

One of the outdoor pools at Széchenyi thermal baths. There are plenty of thermal baths to choose from in Budapest, and I heard the Gellert is good too, but this is the most famous one.

Another shot of the baths. It was warm and sunny when I was there but the baths are open all year round. It would be cool to go back again on a colder day and see the steam rising off the water.

Chimney cake - a Hungarian speciality. A long cone-shaped cake sprinkled with cinnamon.

The Liberty Statue was erected under Soviet rule in 1947, but when Hungary gained independence in 1989 the locals decided they wanted to keep it.

Shot of Budapest at night from the Liberty Statue's viewpoint, on the Buda side of the Danube.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Tickle my Baltics: A journey through Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Two weeks, four countries, four capital cities and so many  delicious Baltic beers.

We started out in Helsinki, staying with Rob (thanks Rob!) for a few days. A fine city, especially at the end of a sunny May with super-long days to spend outdoors. One particular highlight was an all you can eat sushi buffet. I'd never put to the test how much sushi I can eat before and am happy to report it's quite a lot.   

After Helsinki, it was on to Tallinn, Estonia, by ferry. It only take a couple of hours and the ferry has a band playing slow waltzes and foxtrots which prompted a lot of the older passengers to take to the dancefloor.

I liked Tallinn a lot, it was probably my favourite of the cities we visited. As well as an Old Town you could happily spend a couple of days exploring it has a fun hipster district called Telliskivi, with some great places to eat. We also had a look round the Estonian Open Air Museum, a real must-see if you're a fan of Estonian rural history. I mean, who isn't? (Seriously though, it is worth a wander round.) 

A couple of days in Laheema National Park was next. Renting a car is fairly essential to properly explore Laheema as buses looked scarce and the park is huge and sprawling. Plus, driving on Estonian countryside roads is a lot more fun than British road because there are hardly any cars getting in the way slowing you down. The highlights of Laheema for us were Palmse Manor and a 15km hike through woods and along the coastline. 

Once we'd had enough greenery and fresh air, it was back to Tallinn to catch a coach to Riga. I liked Riga but on a Saturday night it has a strong stag/hen party vibe and does court those groups with a mixture of the good, bad and ugly of bars and pubs. Still, like Vilnius it has a picturesque Old Town and isn't short on places to explore beyond the more touristy areas. Such as Saulkrasti, a beachy getaway to the north.

Vilnius was our last stop on the trip through the Baltics, but with a couple of planned day trips out of the city. One was to Trakai, a large expanse of lakes and woodland with an amazing castle right in the middle that you can row your way out to (or just walk there over a few bridges). The other excursion was to Ukmerge (pronounced uk-mer-ge), a small city I'd never heard of but was a pilgrimage of sorts for Harriet, as her grandmother's family emigrated from there in the late 19th century. It's not somewhere you'd be likely to visit on a trip to Lithuania unless you had a reason to, but it had a certain charm of its own.

I'd say the end of May into June is a pretty great time to visit these four countries. It's warm but not overly hot; it's not high season for tourists yet and there are a lot of local festivals happening to celebrate the beginning of summer.

Onto the photos...

Impressive greenhouse in the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden, Helsinki

Helsinki Cathedral and its big green domes

Looks like the start of one of those "why isn't this hosepipe working" slapstick sketches. But with a cannon instead of a hosepipe. One of many cannons on Suomemlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage island off the coast of Helsinki.

One of the three monks Ambrosius, Bartholomeus, and Claudius in Tallinn. Look a bit like the Ringraiths in Lord of the Rings

The church in the main square of Tallinn's Old Town

We were in Tallinn during the festival Old Town Days, when they have lots of live performances popping up around the Old Town, like this chamber choir

 One of the stranger bits of the Old Town Days festival was the appearance of Joseph Stalin during a musical retelling of Estonia's history

I love slightly creepy animatronics, like these in the Estonian Open Air Museum near Tallinn. This scene was meant to be telling the story of how, in days of old, men in the countryside would try to impress the local women by telling them jokes and playing some music

The doorway of the House of the Blackheads in Tallinn. It was the former headquarters of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a group of medieval travelling merchants

Inside Palmse Manor in Laheema National Park

Totally unplanned and casual rock-sunset pose

When we arrived at our AirBnB in Laheema National Park, we were greeted by some very loud barking from a very big dog who turned out to be a complete softy within 10 seconds of us getting out of the car
One of Estonia's best art galleries is hidden away in a small town on the coast in Laheema National Park. And this was one of my favourite paintings. It's certainly got a message

Onward to Riga in Latvia and Harriet is stood in front of the Three Brothers in Riga - three houses built 200 years apart, from the 15th to the 17th century

Inside the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. All the lamps told stories of residents of Riga that lost their lives during WW2

The Brotherhood of the Blackheads also had an HQ in Riga back when they were trading their way round the Baltics, earning the big bucks

The beach at Saulkrasti. Really beautiful long stretch of sand about an hour north of Riga by train. We had pretty much nothing but warm sun up until the day we went to the beach, when a gale came out of nowhere and forced us into a retreat

As mentioned above, Baltic beer is excellent, and the brewery bar Labietis in Riga has plenty to try

Just outside Vilnius Cathedral, when a group of Hare Krishna came by singing and playing their drums and bells. Just out of shot, a nun was lurking nearby, keeping an eye on them. Probably wondering whether to call for backup in what would have been a street-fight worth watching

The 'Feast of Muses' on top of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre
This statue of the Vilkmerge (wolfmaiden) wins the award for best statue in a random office car park. She's the emblem of Ukmerge, formerly known as Vilkmerge

Trakai Castle, about an hour from Vilnius. Well worth a day trip here, where you can rent a boat, pedalo or many other kinds of water-bound vessel
Working the guns hard on holiday

The immaculate gardens of the Presidential Palace, Vilnius

And a shot of Vilnius Cathedral and its adjacent bell tower to finish with. Thought you might like to see what it looks like without a menacing* gang of Hare Krishna in the foreground
(*Not very menacing at all)