Thursday, 31 January 2013

A homage to the sun

This was the view along my road last week. Snow hit the UK in the first (and most likely last) big way this year, and as usual, the country underwent a mini meltdown over a few inches of the soft stuff.

I love the cold - the fresh brush of an icy wind against my face; the cool blue of an early twilight; tiny icicles hanging from ripe red berries on bushes lining the roads. But even I can only take so much of constantly grey skies filled with thick clouds before I crave a little sun.

To take my mind off of the encroaching gloom, I pour over photos taken in warmer climbs...

Milky water along the Kenyan coast
Crystal clear coves in Turkey
Crashing waves at Bondi Beach
A walk along the beach in Tunisia
The island of Palawan had the most stunning coastline
Walkway down to the Dead Sea in Jordan
A view over Belize from above
Electric blue skies over Greece
Standing at the shore in Peru
The Philippines boasts soft sand and warm waters 
If I close my eyes I can almost imagine myself back at any one of these beautiful places. Having said that, you can place a pretty safe bet that come July, I'll be posting a wistful homage to snow...

Monday, 28 January 2013

Monday photo - 28th January

Catching my first glimpse of Machu Picchu emerging from the mist after days scaling mountain passes on the Inca Trail was one of the most exhilarating travel moments I've ever experienced. Exhaustion mingled with sheer joy as we quietly cheered, breaking the early morning silence. It was a beautiful sight, made even better by the hard work it took to reach it.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Tallinn: Do's and Don'ts!

Tallinn is definitely a little European gem, and one that is fast rising in popularity. Perfect for a short city break or a jumping off point for a longer Baltic adventure, the Old Town is a beautiful piece of medieval history in Estonia, whereas the rest of the city, whilst not quite as picturesque, reflects a more recent era of Soviet rule.

We loved exploring the winding streets and filling up on mountains of delicious food, and for a budget destination that's compact and easily accessible, it's hard to beat. Here's some advice on how to spend a few days in the city...


- Put away the guidebook for a while. Tallinn is an extremely walkable city, and whilst the cobbled roads, passageways and alleyways can become confusing, you'll never be far from the centre, and may discover some hidden treasures along the way. We discovered high viewpoints, historical buildings and artisan workshops just by following paths that seemed interesting.

- Consider staying in an apartment if you plan to visit for a few days or more. There are many advantages to having your own little corner of the city for the duration of your trip - many of the apartments available are historical, with original features and a cosy feel. Having your own kitchen helps to make a budget stretch further, and the price is very often less per night than a hotel would be, particularly if you shop around and look out for deals. Plus, who would ever turn down the opportunity to have their own at-home private sauna?!

- Brave the below freezing temperatures and stay during the winter months. The beauty of Tallinn's Old Town is accentuated by a dusting of powdery snow, crunching under your feet as you walk within its walls. Steaming bowls of meat broth and glasses of warm berry juice taste all the sweeter if they are also helping to defrost you from the inside out, and candlelit pubs are all the more atmospheric when darkness falls early. All this aside, there are also more practical reasons for choosing the low season. Prices for accommodation and flights are a considerable amount lower, and there are far fewer tourists.


 - Miss out on a medieval feast at Olde Hansa restaurant. It might look and sound a little tacky at first glance, but when we were there the place was packed with locals, and the food really is second to none. There's even a small shop if you fancy taking a piece of the restaurant home with you in the form of rustic bowls and glasses. Whilst on the subject of food, seek out some of the smaller pubs and cafes as well - a number only have one or two dishes on offer, which is often an indication of high quality (we certainly found that to be the case!).

- Miss the little quirks and features that Tallinn hides. Tucked around corners, down passages and high on buildings are beautifully decorated clocks, stone archways, small courtyards, carved animals...I could go on and on. Keep your eyes open and wander without intention, and it will all open up to you.

Find my other Tallinn posts here:

The winding streets of Medieval Tallinn
Stepping back in time in Tallinn: A photo-blog


Thursday, 24 January 2013

Stepping back in time in Tallinn: A photo-blog

Walk through the Old Town in Tallinn, and it really does feel like a step back in time. Cobbled streets and hidden stairways are surrounded by old buildings, most with original features. Gateways lead to merchant's courtyards, and the tall spires of churches stretch into the sky. It's a beautiful place to get lost in.

The church in the central square stand high above the surrounding buildings
Olde Hansa, the Medieval restaurant, draws customers with bright customers and music
Despite Estonia being a relatively non-religious country, churches such as this Russian Orthodox reveal its history
Pastel colours adorn buildings along the cobbled streets
Climb high through winding passages to find view-points over the city
The city walls still stand strong
The medieval gates mark the entrances into the Old Town
There are little features everywhere...

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Snow, ice and reindeer soup: A day in Helsinki

With five days in Tallinn, we had plenty of time to thoroughly explore the city and also take a day trip elsewhere. One of our already planned trips this year is to Finland, but as a result of various circumstances and a changed flight, we won't have much time in Helsinki. When we realised how easy it was to nip across from Estonia for the day, it was a done deal. We could enjoy a leisurely day strolling around the capital, and when we return this year, can really make the most of our time elsewhere in Finland.

Ferries connecting the two cities are numerous and frequent, and easily booked online through the websites of the providers. After comparing prices, we snagged a cheap return, and dragged ourselves out of bed just after 5am to walk to the ferry terminal, conveniently located less than 20 minutes away from Old Town. An easy self check in later, absolutely no passport checks involved, and we were settled in the on-board cafe for the duration of the two hour trip.

Helsinki was warmer than Tallinn (only -9!), but the wind howled along the streets and bit through my double layer of gloves. We aimed straight for a different part of the harbour, where we jumped on a much smaller ferry across to the connected islands of Suomenlinna, originally developed in the mid-18th century and full of fortress walls and sturdy cannons overlooking the city sitting just across the water. The ice was already beginning to creep out from the dock, and we bobbed past huge, thick ice sheets as we approached. The time of year meant that the museums and restaurants dotted around the islands were all closed for winter, but the desolate mood was very atmospheric, and we enjoyed wading through the thick snow to walls of icicles and shielding ourselves from the fierce wind. Luckily, the tourist information centre stays open year round, so we were able to warm through on our way back to the dock.

Returning to town, we spotted an indoor market, and with our stomachs leading the way, found ourselves crammed into a tiny stall, along with hordes of others, squashing on long benches for one of the best bowls of soup I've ever had the pleasure to taste. There were three choices, all steaming in huge pots behind the counter, accompanied by never-ending baskets of fresh, thick-cut bread on the tables. F chose the seafood option - a watery, flavoursome broth packed with fish and various crustaceans, whereas I opted for the reindeer; thick, creamy and delicious. Topped off with a slice of cake from one of the many bakery stalls, and we were set for the afternoon.

A walk through the centre eventually brought us to the national history museum, where an incredibly friendly ticket seller directed us on a route through Finland's past, from pre-historic to modern. The armoury was particularly interesting, and I was impressed with the detailed explanations, all in English.

A little more walking, and the sun was already hanging low in the sky. By the time we returned to the harbour, and to Tallinn, darkness had fallen, and we wished we'd had a little more time to see what else Helsinki has to offer. But we'll be back again soon, if only for a flying visit...


Monday, 21 January 2013

Monday photo - 21st January

This week's Monday photo comes from New York City - one of those places I wasn't sure if I'd like, and ended up loving. The fast pace, bright lights, busy roads - it's everything I usually avoid. Yet something drew me in, and I enjoyed every second of my time there. So much so, that I'm hoping to return in the next year or two, dragging F along with me this time.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The winding streets of Medieval Tallinn

After yet another extremely intense period at work, F and I were both ready for a short break over the Christmas period. We only had a few criteria: a short plane journey, relatively inexpensive, and cold. After the constant heat of most of our travels during 2012, we were ready for a change. Tallinn had been recommended to us before, it met all our criteria, so after a quick search for cheap flights, we were booked up and on our way!

We had five days in the Estonian capital, and with temperatures hovering around the -15 degree Celsius mark, it certainly was colder than we have been used to. Memories of Budapest a couple of years ago floated around in my mind - thick snow, below freezing days, and returning to a perfectly nice, but chilly and sparse hostel room each evening. We decided to treat ourselves. A quick search online, and I'd found exactly what I was looking for - a small apartment, just off the central square in Old Town, with a kitchen for making our own breakfasts, and a private sauna. Yes, our own sauna. No problems with defrosting after hours outside this time around. As is often the case, the price for renting an apartment was cheaper than most hotels, and travelling during the low season enabled us to get a fantastic deal.

We arrived to a bustling Christmas market, familiar songs pumping through large speakers, and the scents of hot wine and sausages wafting through the air. The Old Town is beautiful, a walled part of the city retaining original medieval buildings and features. Our apartment was located in one of the merchant's courtyards, tucked just back from the cobbled streets, the building thick with heavy (and, most likely, deadly) icicles hanging in rows above our heads.

Hugely popular with tourists, particularly during the summer months, the town plays on its historic origins, with pub and restaurant workers decked out in costume, and themed menus abounding. I certainly can't complain about any of it - the food was incredible, and at this time of the year, there were more locals partaking of the warming meals than fellow travellers. We spent our days wandering the streets and passageways, visiting the craft workshops and nipping inside the large variety of churches to warm through. The stone walls surrounding Old Town are magnificent, and for a small fee you can climb inside and walk along part of their length.

Although Old Town is both picturesque and charming, it was worth leaving the walls and spending some time in the newer parts of the city - the contrast between the trapped-in-time medieval section and the influence of a distinctly Soviet style of building elsewhere was stark.

The real highlight, however, was the food. Market stalls piled our plate high with sausage, sauerkraut and fried potatoes, washed down with numerous varieties of hot wine. We slurped elk stew in an underground pub, drank tangy cups of berry juice and sampled thick hot chocolate in a small cafe. Not able to resist the draw of Olde Hansa, the famous medieval feasting hall, we shared their Christmas feast - a banquet with 22 different dishes that we worked our way through over a number of hours, candlelight flickering around us. Every item seemed better than the last, with sweet rustic breads, juicy sausages, berry sauces, pork glazed with pear and salmon pie just a few items that arrived in terracotta bowls. We ate until we couldn't force another mouthful in, at which point we rolled back to the apartment, grateful for its central location. 

The thick snow added to the overall effect, although it was bitterly cold when the wind swept through the alleys and caught us high on viewpoints overlooking the city. You could see much of what Tallinn has to offer in a couple of days, although we found that our time there was the perfect length - we slowly explored different areas, allowing ourselves to really relax and soak up the atmosphere.


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Greece: Do's and Don'ts!

Now that I've finally travelled to Greece, I can't believe it took me so long to get there. I knew that I would love the archaeological sites, the museums and the food. What I hadn't anticipated was how incredible driving through the diverse landscape would be, with huge mountain ranges, valleys dominated by lines of olive trees and gentle, blue coasts. The people were incredibly friendly and helpful everywhere we went, the whole country feeling laid-back and warm. With so much still to see, I hope to return one day. Here are my usual tips for visiting this spectacular place...


- Drop the diet and eat until you pop. I've already written a whole post about some of the food we ate regularly in Greece, so I won't go on too much again, but every meal we ate was fresh and absolutely delicious.

- Consider visiting outside of the high season. Careful timing is key - leave it too late, and many restaurants outside of Athens will have closed for the winter (a number of owners we spoke to told us they usually leave for their own holidays towards the middle/end of November), and the museums and archaeological sites work reduced hours. But by hitting a shoulder season, you can avoid the majority of the huge numbers of visitors to Greece each year, escape the relentless sun, and benefit from a sharp decrease in accommodation prices.

- Drive yourself around if you can. Many visitors base themselves in Athens and take day trips our to the most popular sites. This is a good plan if you prefer not to be sleeping somewhere new every night, but it limits which areas you can visit, and with the travelling time involved, chances are you'll hit the entrance at the same time as the large coach groups (and there are many of these in Greece). Hiring a car and setting your own schedule allows you to either visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and get a feel for a range of local towns and villages. Road conditions throughout the country are far better than we expected - there are a number of brand new toll roads that were virtually empty of other cars, and for a few euros they can save hours.


- Judge the atmosphere in Greece by the media. I haven't touched on the recent political and economic troubles the country has experienced in my posts, as it did not affect our travels in any way at all. But we did speak to a number of restaurant and guesthouse owners, as well as locals we met in bars and cafes, who were saddened by the impressions presented by the international media. One restaurant manager told us that only a week previously, he'd had a group arrive for dinner, who asked if he could set up some tables indoors (many restaurants in smaller towns offer predominantly outside seating) as they were afraid that they might get robbed/caught in in a riot. He was gobsmacked.

- Forget to check opening days and times when planning your itinerary. My only grumble during our whole trip was how early archaeological sites and museums closed in late October, despite the long days and continued good weather. During the summer season, attractions stay open until 8-9pm, but as soon as October hits, you'll be lucky to get in past 5pm, with a number of museums we visited closing at 3pm. If you are intending to explore the monasteries of Meteora and have a particular list in mind, then remember that each monastery has a day every week when it is closed to visitors.

- Be too rigid with your plans. Although some degree of forward thinking is required if you have a list of 'must-sees', leaving time to stop off for a walk, have lunch in a small town, or spy some smaller ruins to explore will make every day interesting. Some of our favourite moments were driving into a lay-by to take photos and sit admiring the incredible views, stopping off at an attractive looking restaurant for a snack and following a stream through autumnal woodland that we stumbled across by accident. Alongside our own list of 'must-sees', we also dropped by several fortresses and small archaeological sites that we'd never heard of before, many of which were well worth a short stop.

Want to catch up on our adventures in Greece? Here are the links...

On our way to... Greece!
This is Spartaaaaaa - exploring the ruins of Mycenae, Mystras and Sparta
The birthplace of the Olympic games
The Monasteries of Meteora
Battlefields, oracles and temples
Why I loved the palace of Knossos
Views of Athens: A photo-blog
The food of Greece
Our Greek archaeological extravaganza: A 10 day itinerary


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Our Greek archaeological extravaganza: A 10 day itinerary

Our trip to Greece was fuelled and dominated by a love of ancient Greek history and archaeological sites, but ended up being a whole lot more. Hiring a car allowed us the opportunity to drive through some of the most diverse and spectacular landscape I've seen in Europe, and the food... well, I've already waxed lyrical about that element of our travels. The road conditions in Greece are generally excellent, with some newly built toll motorways that will shave hours off a journey for just a few euros and are worth going a little off-course to hit.

If you are interested in an self-driven, archaeological extravaganza of some of the major sites of mainland Greece and Crete, here's the route and itinerary we followed (I've excluded the short stops we made and only mentioned the 'bigger' sites we visited - we also detoured to find good viewpoints, stopped at some smaller fortresses and archaeological sites on the road, and also took breaks in towns and villages for snacks and a walk-around, all of which I highly recommend!)

Day 1 - Pick up car and depart Athens early in the morning. Drive to Mycenae via Corinth, then to Larissa Fortress and Ancient Sparta. Finish at Mystras.

Day 2 - Leave Mystras and drive over mountain passes towards the coast at Pylos. Take the coastal road north, stopping at Nestor's palace and finishing at Olympia.

Day 3 - A long day of driving, from the Peloponnese over the bridge into Central Greece and north to Meteora (approximately 6 hours total driving time). Arrive Meteora mid afternoon.

Day 4 - From Meteora, drive east to Larissa and then south, past Lamia, stopping at Thermopylae. From there, continue on to Delphi.

Day 5 - Leave Delphi and hop on the motorway down to Athens. Without entering the city (driving in the centre is not the best idea), follow the motorway to the south coast and Poseidon's temple. Return to Athens airport and return car. Fly to Crete.

Days 6 - 8 - Three full days on Crete. Explore Knossos and other Minoan sites if desired. Spend time in Heraklion. Fly back to Athens.

Days 9 and 10 - Athens.

Here's how our driving route looks on a map:

View Larger Map

The distances themselves are not huge - aside from the long drive from Olympia to Meteora we averaged out at around 3 hours per day, but I would recommend factoring in potential traffic hold-ups when journeying on non-toll roads or motorways or navigating within one-way cities.

Hiring a car was definitely the best decision we could have made - it helped us to make the most of our limited time and resulted in some unexpected adventures along the way.


Monday, 14 January 2013

Monday photo - 14th January

Bangkok is a wonderfully vibrant city, full of temples, palaces, delicious street food and futuristic shopping centres. It's a place of contrast, balancing old with new. It's also one of the hottest places I've visited. Of our five days in Bangkok in 2011, my overwhelming memory is of being more sweaty than I've ever felt in my life. But it only takes a few glances through my photos to remind myself that it was all worth it...

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The food of Greece

I don't really have the words to describe the food in Greece. Delicious? Too weak. Scrumptious? Still not there. Mouth-watering? Close, but still not good enough. I think I'll settle for quietly drooling in the corner.

Every single mouthful of every meal was satisfying, comforting and incredibly tasty. From cool dips paired with soft, warm bread, to fresh fish and meat cooked to perfection. In many small restaurants we visited, the owner took our order then dashed off to the local market to buy the ingredients for us. Admittedly, this may have more to do with being there at the end of the tourist season (when the restaurants are far quieter) than any regular practice, but nevertheless we ate like kings. Unfortunately, I was often too busy stuffing myself silly to remember to take out my camera, but here are a few options that graced our plates on more than one occasion...

Whatever else we ordered, we always ensured that a big bowl of Greek salad accompanied it.
Along with the salad, the classic dip Tzatziki was scooped up daily with wads of fresh bread
These courgette fritters were incredible - particularly when combined with Tzatziki to dip
It would be a crime to stay near the coast and not sample the catch of the day...
Greek kebabs - a soft pitta, tender meat, fried potatoes and lashings of... you've guessed it, Tzatziki!

And to wash it all down, local Retsina, uniquely Greek wine

Gosh, what I would give for a plateful of all of that right now...