World in Motion: Bordeaux

facebookThursday 9th June
The TGV accelerated out of Paris and when I looked at the distance we’d travelled in the first hour I was staggered to realise we’d already covered roughly half the total journey length. After the first hour we slowed though we were probably still probably fast by British standards. During the journey we passed some pretty towns and the scenery was nice without being spectacular. After passing some possible vineyards John caught a glimpse of the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux and we knew we were on the final approach to Bordeaux.

We walked the short distance from the train station to our hotel and I admit I warmed to Bordeaux straight away although I was surprised they hadn’t been able to finish the building work at the train station in time for the football. We checked in at the hotel which was fresher looking than our accommodation in Paris. The staff were very friendly and keen to help us and the general vibe seemed good.

We ate a late lunch and a wine at a restaurant near the hotel and I finally had the French steak I’d been craving for a few days. Once we were refueled we were ready to explore the UNESCO listed part of the city. Admittedly the opening stage of the walk wasn’t through the nicest setting but the sun was at least shining. Eventually we took an inadvertent diversion when we mistook a church spire for St Michael’s Tower and took the opportunity to look inside.

We arrived at the St Michael’s Tower and initially made our way to the crypt where a documentary on the building was playing in French. There were no subtitles so we didn’t stay down there long however we had been given a information sheet in English so we looked at that whenever we paused at the different levels as we made the journey up approximately 200 steps. On the way up we saw the bell and eventually we arrived at the top. The view was pretty spectacular in the mid afternoon sun and it was clear just how preserved the centre of the city was because there were no modern sky scrapers.

We continued through the pedestrianised old streets before we came to the Cathédrale Saint-André and noticed the freestanding belfry Tour Pey-Berland opposite. As we were only probably going to be in Bordeaux once and the weather was good we decided to climb the second tower as well. The view from the tower gave a better view of the Cathedral and there was a statue at the top but when we got to the bottom we agreed “no more towers” We then had a look around the Cathedral and a bit of quiet contemplation in the peaceful surroundings

After all the walking we decided to sit down and to enjoy an ice cream at Le Café Français. The banana split that I had was huge and any weight I’d lost from climbing the towers was put back on, if not doubled. We left the café and briefly had a look at the
Rue de l’Hôtel de ville with Euro 2016 flags flying outside. We wondered who was there but the security were strict and sent John on his way when they felt he’d been loitering near the gate for too long.

We continued our walk to the Le Palais Gallien, the Roman Amphitheatre remains which in any other city would have probably have been a major landmark but in Bordeaux could almost be overlooked such are the number of historical buildings to see. Whilst now it is known it is an ampithreate, during medieval times people that Charlemegne had buildt it for his wife Galiene. I was expecting to only see the foundations so was impressed at the height of the ruins.

We continued our walk through Jardin Public a pleasant park where we had a walk past a pond before we finally reached the Fan Zone at Esplanade des Quinconces (the largest public square in Europe). The fan zone still appeared to be under construction and there were still men at work and quite a few unfinished tasks which was slightly concerning because the opening match was due to kick off 24 hours later.

We sat for a while at its entrance marked by a monumental fountain honouring a group of politicians during the French Revolution before we started our journey back to the hotel. We’d decided to walk along the river and the route also took us past the Place de la Bourse which had been recommended to us by the two German receptionists. It was quite a wonderful scene as a musician played music outside the grand building whilst opposite children were running and sliding across the Mirror d’Eau a water area whilst other families relaxed in a garden area.

We returned to the hotel and after freshening up went back to the row of bars near the hotel. We noticed one of them was showing the live concert from the Fan Park in Paris and settled down to watch it with a glass. Eventually we decided to move on but the next bar we tried was closed so we returned to the hotel to discover they were no longer serving alcohol. We had a soft drink before deciding to have a relatively early night so we were fresh for our trip to the Médoc wine valley and the sand dune Dune du Pilat

Friday 10th June
We woke up in good time and made our way down to breakfast which had a much better selection than the one in Paris. We had booked a taxi to take us to the tours meeting point however not only was our driver late he seemed to take us on a particularly long, busy way. We arrived on time but that was because of the buffer we’d built in and we both felt slightly resentful about paying what seemed extortionate but accepted it probably included a ‘Euro 2016’ surcharge.

There were only 6 people on our trip to the largest/tallest sand dunes in Europe Dune du Pilat. Neither John or I had checked the weather before leaving and had left our rain coats back at the hotel. As a few drops splattered against the dashboard, the dark grey clouds looked ready to unleash their fury. Meanwhile we chatted to out flow passengers, a couple from Birmingham, and two ladies one from American the other from Hong Kong.

After driving for over an hour we parked up and made a short walk to the foot of the Dune by which time the rain had stopped. The Dune had steps leading up to the top which made it much easier than the one I’d attempted (and failed) to run up in Wadi Rum in Jordan. Once at the top our guide poured us some wine. Fortunately the rain held off and whilst the view wasn’t as clear as it could have been the Dune itself was still spectacular.

After leaving the sand dune we continued to a small harbour where we were taken to a restaurant called La Baraque a Huitres. As it was quite windy we were in a slightly sheltered, covered section but it didn’t prevent a few serviettes blowing away. This was my first opportunity to have oysters and all I could think about was the Mr Bean episode when he got food poisoning. I’m not a huge fan of fish or shell fish so rather as I expected I wasn’t overly keen but I ate them all (and I didn’t get food poisoning).

We returned back to Bordeaux where we were provided with lunch before we joined up with another tour group for our wine tour around two chateau wineries in the Médoc valley. On our way our guide told us about the “appellation d’origine contrôlée” (AOC) rating however I admit I was being told one of those in jokes that are meant to test how gullible tourists are when she told us about the anti hail system. Amazingly it seemed to be true and it is possible to scatter the clouds so the hail from falls as rain, which rather begs the question why we can’t pump money in to developing something that is better than an umbrella.

Our first Château was Siran. This one had not been classified in 1855 and the current owner explained the family hadn’t agreed with the Imperial Governments Introduction of the clarification system because they supported the monarchy. Despite that we were assured that the quality was equal to many of the competitors that were classified and were told the rankings will never change. Our guide showed us some of the memorabilia collected by the family and company over the years before we were taken to where the barrels were stored and were told each held a staggering 300 bottles of wine.

We were then given a brief wine tasting introduction course where we were told to: See, Sniff, Swirl, Smell and finally Savour the wine. First we were also given 4 mini bottles of scent and using a card with the different options listed we had to identify what they were. John and I failed quite miserably but it had been quite interesting. Next we got to try 3 different types of wine and had to try and establish how old it was by the colour and how much of a body it had. The second was probably my favourite and I suppose analysing it gave me an added level of appreciation.

We briefly had a photo stop at Chateau Margeaux however my knowledge of wine is rather limited so I didn’t quite appreciate the significance. Apparently it was one of four wines to achieve Premier status in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 and a bottle of Château Margaux 1787 insured for $225,000 is the most expensive in history.

We continued on to the next Château winery Gruaud Larose. The site was made up of some historical buildings and there were some very pretty gardens. There was one building it was impossible not to miss, a tower offering panoramic views of the region which really didn’t fit in to the surroundings. The view from the tower was however pretty spectacular and we could see fields upon fields of vines.

We had a brief tour through the cellars which almost felt like like crypts of a church and saw the owners personal collection of wine and the bottles from previous harvests that were still available for sale including a couple from 1815. The most expensive bottle was estimated to cost €12,050 without tax however I can’t remember which vintage it was from.

Finally we were given a cheese and meat board to accompany our wine tasting. I think the intention was for us to compare how certain foods went with the wine however I just saw bar food snacks. I also don’t remember much about the wine I tried and can’t really say whether it was better or worse than the first Château.

John and I had always planned to watch the first match (France vs Romania) and the opening ceremony in the Fanzone and fortunately the tour finished right outside. The security services were out in force in preparation to deter any kind of attack, a painful reminder of the age we live in. After the awful atrocities that took place Paris in November I felt quite proud that I and millions across Europe were united in watching a football match and effectively sticking our fingers up at those who committed them.

Once inside we sat down to get some food at one of the temporary restaurants where I had another steak and chips (and some more wine). Once we’d eaten we made our way towards the front of the big screen where a DJ and compere was trying to get the crowd going. Whilst the crowd were lively I noticed very few people were holding beers and I can only think that shows a difference in the drinking culture. The match itself wasn’t great but there were wild celebrations when Payet scored the winner with minutes remaining.

We stayed for a bit after the match enjoying the general atmosphere and even made our way to the front of the stage. The organisers had arranged a bit of a light display to “officially” open the fan park and to show some goals from previous tournaments including “that” Gazza goal against Scotland Eventually we left the fan zone and then I got us lost on our way back so we walked nearly 30 minutes longer than needed.

Saturday 11th June
After having breakfast we walked through the city to get the tram stopping off at a couple bars on the way. In Marseille England and Russian fans had mixed with French locals to create a war zone where as in Bordeaux Welsh and Slovakians sat in the Cathedral square drinking in separate groups but side by side. Eventually we decided to eat and get a final pre match drink in the fan zone which was mostly a sea of red Welsh fans. The sun was shining and it seemed like the perfect day to watch a game of football.

John and I arrived at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux early before the crowds were too large so we could get a quick picture with our flag. The Welsh and Slovakian fans were already having a giant street party aided by a French brass band. They danced to the French Cancan and various other high tempo tunes. Each time the band stopped the crowd howled for more and each time the band delivered. Eventually John and I briefly entered the fray before I went in to the stadium because I was feeling slightly dehydrated and needed some water.

The atmosphere inside the ground was electric from both sides but the Welsh fans heavily outnumbered the Slovakians. When the Welsh belted out “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (Land of My Fathers) the hairs on my neck rose. They then sang a song “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home, I just don’t think you understand, I want to stay out here, Drinking all your beer, please don’t, please don’t take me home”. I joined in, I wanted to stay out in France as well. The match itself wasn’t the best in terms of quality but was quite exciting.

John and I had hoped to see a Bale free kick go in and got our wish in the 10th minute. Slovakia were the better side for much of the second half and got a deserved equaliser. Wales were crumbling but then the fans sung the National anthem and the players found an extra 1%. Robson Kanu scored the winner with minutes remaining and the stand went crazy. There were nervous looks as the seconds ticked down and an almighty cheer (and a number of tears of happiness) when the referee finally blew the whistle.

Eventually we arrived at the fan park and even though it was busy we were able to get a table at the same restaurant which just about gave us a view of the big screen showing England vs Russia. We only really got to see the second half and as the minutes ticked away England seemed devoid of ideas. Eric Dier scored a free kick and some lads stood on a table and I relaxed to such an extent I allowed John to order a second bottle of wine.

We started to chat to the Welsh fans on the table next to us and just as I thought we’d scraped a win Russia equalised. The place went wild. I sat stunned. The lads that stood on the table could do nothing but take the flack they fully deserved. As a football fan it had been a great day, as an England fan it had been one of the worst and I felt sick especially after I read about the trouble some of our fans had (jointly) caused in Marseille.

I had an early start and went home as soon as we finished the wine whilst John stayed out. I returned home angry. Angry at the players, angry at the England fans, angry that my hopes had been dashed yet again. I’ve seen England win the Ashes, I’ve seen them win the rugby world cup, I’ve seen a Brit win Wimbledon and I remember “London 2012”. But football has been a constant disappointment. In fact the pinnacle for me in terms of international football is arguably still Euro 96 when we were a stud away from the final. But to end on a high, it had been a fantastic couple of days and Bordeaux in particular entered the list of cities that have pleasantly surprised me.

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All Together Now: Paris and Versailles

DSC_0434Monday 6th June
4 years ago during London 2012 my mate John and I had discussed seeing a football tournament abroad. We’d discussed Rio in 2014 and whilst he visited South America when the tournament was on I stayed at home having only recently returned from my 5 month “walkabout”. Euro 2016 in France was much more doable and whilst we both applied for two sets of tickets in different cities we were ultimately only successful with one selection in Bordeaux however we decided to start our journey in Paris.

My flight from Gatwick wasn’t until lunch time so I cannot use the excuse I was tired once I reached the airport. Perhaps the early starts I usually put myself through force me to focus more because at security I forgot to take my belt off. The flight was scheduled to take 85 minutes however the actual time spent in the air was only about 40 minutes and the majority of the ‘flight’ was therefore spent on the runway at Gatwick during which time I had a peaceful nap.

Once I’d arrived at Charles de Gaulle I made my way on the bus to the city centre. The journey took a lot longer than the 50 minutes advertised and seemed to spend ages on the approach to the Stade de France. It did however mean that I got a good view of the stadium that was to be used in the opening ceremony for the 2016 European Championship.

I met John at the Grand Hotel opposite the same shopping centre I’d said goodbye to Victoria only 6 days earlier. The weather couldn’t have been any more of a contrast, where as a week before I’d been cold and soaked on this occasion I was overheating. Luckily John had a beer waiting for me and it was very pleasant sitting outside the bar with a nice view of the Opera House.

Eventually we made way to the hotel which was simple enough to find, hung our Euro 2016 flag up (just as a bit of fun), unpacked, freshened up and finally made our way back out to get dinner. We eventually set upon a restaurant called The Crêperie Framboise Champs Elysées which offered a deal which included a main crepe, dessert crepe and a drink.

Some may have relaxed at a local bar whereas we went straight in to exploration mode. We made the most of our location and walked up the Champs Elysées to the famous Arc de Triomphe. The queue to get in was long, no doubt because it was the first sunny evening since the previous Saturday but we persevered. We made it to the top just in time for the wonderful pink sunset and then in the distance John noticed a thunderstorm with flashes of lightning which looked quite spectacular. We stayed until it was dark and security started to clear people off.

Once we were back on ground level we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower. Due to its size and the beam of light we knew what direction to head in and it was a fairly simple journey. We arrived at the same bridge Victoria and I had passed under a week before when we had desperately tried to catch our cruise. The path we had walked along was still quite a few feet under water due to the recent floods and the river was running incredibly fast.

We watched a bit of the famous light display which was impressive and although vendors tried to sell us some beers we politely declined. It seemed everyone else in the park had taken up the option and there was a good relaxed vibe, although a lot of litter. Eventually we decided to go home and opted for a taxi rather than public transport. We’d certainly made the most of our first evening and once we were back in the hotel we both fell asleep almost as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Tuesday 7th June
The next morning I was up first and once we were both ready we went down to breakfast. We were in good time when we left the hotel to get the train to Versailles which was good because the mainline station was on 2 levels and there was no central departure board showing which level or platform we needed. The usual, more simple route recommended for tourists was suspended due to the floods and due to a national strike there were less trains on the route we intended to use which meant the train was also particularly busy.

We arrived in Versailles and without seeing any signs made our way in the direction which seemed most direct however it meant we accidentally bypassed the main street through the town which would probably have been a more interesting walk. Once we arrived John got a photo with his Yorkshire flag however it hadn’t escaped the attention of the security team who promptly removed it from him as soon as his bag was searched.

The queue to get in to the palace was quite long however moved fairly quickly. We were given a free audio guide which provided an interesting commentry of the different room. I had expected the rooms to look grand however I was utterly stunned by the decoration of some, particularly the Room of Mirrors. I’ve been fortunate to have visited Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra however I think the decorations and luxury of the rooms in the Palace of Versailles beats all three.

After we left the Palace rooms we looked down on to the Gardens before making our way to the the Grand Trianon. The gardens at the Alhambra had been impressive and Hampton Court has its maze but the fountains and scale of Versailles knocked both out of the park. It was utterly staggering and seemed to grow in grandeur once we picked our way through past the different fountains as classical music gently played in the background.

Eventually we took the main path down the centre, past numerous statues towards the huge 3km man made canal the start of which was marked by a modern man made waterfall dominating the skyline. We took the wrong path to the Grand Trianon but we weren’t in a hurry and had explored an area we might not have done otherwise.

The Grand Trianon was built as the private retreat for Louis XIV, later the residence of Napoleon and still used to host foreign officials. It didn’t appear quite as grand as the main Palace but it still had some interesting rooms and lavish furnishings. We walked around the house relatively quickly before walking around the gardens and then towards the Petit Trianon via the

The Petit Trianon was Marie Antoinette’s private residence. History has given her a reputation for spending money and whilst there were hints of heavy spending many of the decorations had been sold after the revolution to raise funds. It is likely our senses had been spoilt by the main Palace and perhaps we were also feeling a bit tired because the rooms didn’t quite have the same impact as those we had seen earlier. After leaving the Petit Trianon we briefly rested under the Temple de L’Armour Pavilion before we continued to a historical “Village”, Hameau de la Reine.

The village was built around a lake and was meant to represent how rural France appeared on the eve of the revolution. When we arrived it seemed a bit too neat, almost resembling a historic Disneyland and I therefore assumed it was a modern creation. It wasnt, it had actually been commissioned by Marie Antoinette in 1783. The money that was clearly spent on such a folly when most of the population was in poverty was staggering. It was however good for the modern tourist and it was a very pleasant and pretty place to stroll around.

By now we had seen all the main sites but decided to explore the gardens and the water fountains in greater depth as we made our way back to the Palace and exit. The gardens were quite simply unreal and the more we walked the larger the area appeared to become. We watched a display at the Mirror Pool which was in time to classical music before we continued to the modern Theatre Grove. Along the way we saw other grand fountains including Apollo’s Bath Grove

We retrieved John’s Yorkshire flag on our exit and decided to have dinner in Versailles rather than trying to find somewhere in Paris. We found a nice looking bar/Café on the main street and it was nice to relax outside in the sun. I had a croque Monsieur which was really good and we stayed for a couple of wines before making our way to the station.

Finding the train back to Paris was easier and whilst it was initially busy by the next station we were each able to find a seat and eventually I dosed off. We made our back to the hotel and both perhaps relaxed slightly longer than we should have which meant we were in a slight rush to get ready.

We arrived at the iconic Moulin Rouge, shown to our seats which weren’t the best, and were presented with a complimentary bottle of champagne. Even so it was more about the experience and the show was stunning. A particular highlight was two dancers on roller skates who performed a number of moves which looked impossible and The Can Can which predictably got the crowd going. The set and costumes were spectacular and it was definitely an unforgettable experience. After the show we decided to have a drink at the café across the road whilst we pondered our next move. We didn’t have to be up early the next day and perhaps because of the adrenaline from the show we weren’t quite ready to head home. As a happy compromise we found a nice bar near the hotel where, because we’d developed a taste for it, decided to continue with a couple of glasses of Champagne and stayed out for a further hour or so.

Wednesday 8th June
The next morning we both woke up tired, dehydrated and mildly hungover. We were both in need of a fry up but the only offering at the hotel was the standard continental breakfast. John and I were doing separate sightseeing days but prior to going our own ways we decided to take our flag to the Stade de France.

We walked to the metro station via the Grand Palace in a park just off from the Champs-Élysées. We arrived at the stadium and got a couple of pictures but it didn’t have the vibe of somewhere that would be full of colour and noise in 2 days time. The graffiti on the giant Euro 2016 sign was also a reminder that parts of the Saint Denis area of Paris are still a bit edgy and a football tournament will not gloss over that fact.

John and I then headed off in separate directions though my simple looking journey to the Catacombs involved more walking than anticipated because the route around the stadium was fenced off (understandably) for security reasons. I’d known since being in Paris with Victoria that I wanted to visit the catacombs but it hadn’t occurred to me that I should book tickets. I was therefore somewhat horrified when I arrived and saw the length of the queue. I must have spent well over an hour and 15 minutes in the line and whilst I patiently waited I read a very moving article about how it is hoped football can unite the divided French society following the recent terrorist attacks.

Just walking down in to the catacombs felt errie, even more so than the ones I’d visited in Rome which these were named after. Whilst I looked at some of the information boards I preferred to rely on the audio guide as I slowly made my way through the different tunnels. Originally a mine system, the tunnels fell in to a state of disrepair and some collapsed in the 18th century. The solution was to reinforce the walls and to turn them in to a mass burial site because the main cemetery was also full. Overtime they then became a tourist attraction and the chambers even hosted classical music concerts.

I spent longer than planned and still had a lot I wanted to see before meeting back up with John. As I made my way to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, arguably the most visited Cemetery in the world I suddenly remembered that my friend Emily had recommended I visit the Sainte Chapelle. I just happened to be at the nearest station when I remembered so I quickly jumped off the train just as the doors were closing. It was a great recommendation. Recently I’d felt a bit blasé about visiting churches and Cathedral’s but the stained glass windows at the Sainte Chapelle had even me gasping at their magnificence.

I looked around for a bit, hunting for the “Rose Line” thinking it was the church from the Da Vinci code but eventually after looking on different tourist websites, some which said it was at Sainte Chapelle realised it was elsewhere. Rather than going directly to the cemetery I went on another detour to the Republic Square which was very moving because it had been turned in to a makeshift memorial to those that were killed on 13th November 2015.

Having had quite a macabre day I felt quite sombre when I did eventually turn up at the cemetery. I only had an hour to look around before it closed but I felt that was all I needed. It was quite sobering, and despite being in the city, very quiet. I started by visiting the Communards’ Wall a memorial to 147 victims of the revolution. I then continued on to Oscar Wilde’s grave before reaching the one for the Lizard King Jim Morrison which had friendship bracelets attached to the barricade.

Security were keen to ensure everyone left on time so I and a group of Americans were hurried out just before the official closing time. Due to a particularly loud barking dog I had no intention of disobeying the orders. I then walked down to the site where the Infamous Bastille had stood. Now a column commemorating the July Revolution of 1830.

It was slightly later than I planned when after catching the metro and train I finally arrived at the Invalids Hotel. Effectively I’d done the revolution backwards because they’d broken in to the Invalids Hotel to collect weapons before storming the Bastille and blowing it up. It now housed a military museum but my intention had just been to see the famous building from the outside.

I made it back to the hotel slightly later than planned and as we had both had a busy exploring the streets of Paris decided to go for a meal and drink locally. We opted for Le president where we sat on the seats outside with a couple of drinks and I finally had French onion soup followed by a salad. We planned to go in another bar on the way back to the hotel but it was shut so we won’t straight home.

Thursday 9th June
We had packed the night before so once we had showered we went down for breakfast and after checking out made our way to Paris Montparnasse. This was the same station we’d used to get to Versailles so we were familiar with the layout. We arrived shortly before the platform was announced and found out seats on the famous TGV without any difficulties. Our next stop was Bordeaux.

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Don’t Let it Bring you Down: French Open Weekend

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Friday 27th May
After leaving work I made my way to St Pancras so I could catch the Eurostar. I had misread a message from Victoria which nearly caused complete chaos on my arrival. It was 23.30 by the time I arrived at the station and as it was late I decided to get a taxi. Fortunately the queue was long because by the time there were only a handful of people ahead of me I heard someone shout my name. I looked up and to my surprise saw Victoria standing there. Victoria had told me she would meet me at the station but I’d not read the message properly and had therefore nearly gone straight to our accommodation.

I briefly met her friend Omar and we then got a taxi together. We walked the final section because the driver got lost even though we could both see where to go on Google maps. The streets smelt of urine and it was very late by the time we arrived at our Airbnb. It was quite a small bedsit in need of some (a lot of) tlc, especially the bathroom. With a bit of work it could have made a pleasant studio for an artist. Instead once we had made our beds (a sofa bed and a single mattress) it looked like a squat.

Saturday 28th May
As my alarm went off it felt a nice change to have woken up in the country I was visiting but after just over 5 hours sleep it was still a bit of a struggle. The shower helped to revive me a bit and Victoria got up once I was done. We’d booked a day trip to explore the Champagne Region and had no difficulties in finding the pick up point which was near the Louvre. Once we had checked in, we even had some time to wonder down to the Seine

We grabbed seats at the back of the mini bus and I promptly fell asleep as Victoria successfully captured on video. When I did eventually open my eyes the scenery was very pleasant with wheat fields on one side and vineyards on the other. Occasionally there were large cemeteries and it wasn’t until our tour guide pointed them out that I realised they were for soldiers from First World War.

Our first stop was the lovely village of Hautvillers. We wondered along what appeared the main street, passing various “Champagne Houses” as we made our way to the small church which contained the Grave of Dom Perignon. Our guide explained how Dom Perignon had mastered the technique for creating champagne which is still used by most companies.

We continued on to Verzenay so that we could visit a Lighthouse which had been built to promote the local champagne. First we visited the museum which explained the work carried out in each season and whilst the audio guide was good I skipped a lot of the sections because some were quite repetitive. Next we climbed the 100 steps to the top of the lighthouse and then wondered around the gardens.

Our next destination was Reims where we had the opportunity to get some food before a visit to the Cathedral and then ultimately the whole reason we’d done the tour, a trip to one of the Champagne Houses to sample their Champagne. We had lunch at Le Grande Café and were joined by two others. I opted for the tagliatelle with snails in a cheesy sauce and I have to admit it was really tasty though I’m still unsure what snails actually taste like. We made our way back to the coach and briefly stopped off at the Vranken Pommery Champagne House.

We continued to the GH Martell Champagne House which is now a museum as the production has moved to a site with more space. First we were given a tour around the cellar and our guide gave us a history about how Champagne is made and explained some of the techniques that were used in the past. I was aware that Champagne was created using different blends of grape however I didn’t appreciate how much the Champagne can vary. After the tour we were taken to an elegant lounge and got to sample three different types including a rose. Whilst it was good to try the different styles we believed we were going to the famous Moët Champagne House and it was disappointing that the information we had on our itinerary differed from our schedule. It would also have been nice to have tried Champagne from other companies rather than only experiencing one

We arrived at the Cathedral which had been severely damaged during the first world war. This included the smiling face of one of the angels at the entrance, which was faithfully reconstructed after the war and the roof which has also been repaired. European Cathedrals whilst grand all now feel much the same to me now and there wasn’t an obvious draw so Victoria and I left to look around the souvenir shops and were able to try a free sample of the pink biscuit that is often dipped in Champagne.

Pretty much everyone on the bus fell asleep on the way back and eveb though one of the passengers had been 20 minutes late we arrived in Paris earlier than expected. On our way back to our accommodation we stopped off at a creperie called Crêperie A l’Etoile d’Or and both inadvertently ordered the same dish but were both happy with how good it was. Unfortunately (or rather fortunately for my waistline) I didn’t have room for one of the Nutella filled chocolate crepes.

Once we were home I realised that the Champions League Final between Real and Athletico Madrid was on the free sports channel, and felt very content as I watched it with a beer. Victoria went to bed so I turned the commentry down which made no difference to my enjoyment because I’d not fully understand what the French commentators were saying. I was getting in to bed when Athletico equalised towards the end but despite feeling tired stayed up to see Real Madrid eventually win the match on penalties.

Sunday 29th May
Victoria was up first and after my late night from watching the football I initially struggled to get out of bed, not that I was feeling overly snug as the mattress I was on wasn’t the best. Once we were up we found out Victoria’s friend Omar, who had volunteered to drive us to Monet’s house, was running over an hour late because he’d set his alarm for the wrong day.

We therefore decided to walk to a nearby bakery called Horaires where I ordered a Pain au Chocolat and returned back to where we were staying. Shortly after Omar arrived and we made the hour long journey to the village of Giverny where Monet’s house and garden were located. By the time we arrived we had long missed a tour Victoria had organised for us around the gardens and it hadn’t been possible to book us on a later tour.

We saw that there was a free tour through the house and it seemed there were others waiting. The lady was from America and despite speaking in clear English said something none of us quite caught about the group being small. Ultimately it meant we ended up sitting on the sofa for an hour as she described the tour of the house, without actually taking us on it. Some of what she said would have been interesting if we had been in the house but instead it meant nothing and all felt a bit weird.

Before going in to the house we decided to walk around the flower garden and arguably the more famous Japanese garden which was used in a lot of the art work. Both had been designed by Monet and we saw and walked over the bridge famous from his painting now “Bridge over a Pond of Lilies” and saw other aspects of the garden immortalised in his paintings.

After we had explored the gardens we walked around the house and some of the facts the lady had told us had stuck in my brain. Most of the house had been left how it had been in Monet’s time but the paintings he had once kept in his study and in other rooms have now been replaced by copies. Perhaps we would have spent longer in the house and the gardens with a guide but as it was we seemed to have seen everything quicker than I expected.

We had a late lunch at one of the restaurants near the house before calling in to the tourist information centre to decide where else in the area we could visit. Ultimately we decided on the ruins of a castle called Chateau Gaillard, one of the oldest Norman castles and a historic village called Venables which Victoria wanted to visit because she had a work colleague whose family was historically from there.

Chateau Gaillard was in a particularly stunning location on top of the hill and the ruins added to the dramatic scene. Victoria and I explored the grounds which were free whilst Omar moved the car and eventually joined us. We then drove down the hill in to the village which looked pleasant but rather than getting out decided to continue the journey to Venables.

We arrived in Venables and aside from a small church it didn’t appear there was anything else to see. The village didn’t even appear to have a shop so after walking to the Welcome sign so Victoria could get a photo we returned back to the car and started the journey back to Paris. The traffic was particularly heavy and so we didn’t arrive back until quite later than planned.

Victoria and I then walked to a sushi restaurant which was relatively close to where we were staying but by the time we had finished the rain which we’d seen forecast on our mobiles in the run up to the holiday finally struck with avengement. We held off leaving the restaurant as long as possible but it was clear the rain wasn’t going to pass so we ran. Once home we were both soaked and put the heading on full blast to dry out. This time it was my turn to fall asleep first as Victoria had to finalise her future travel plans.

Monday 30th May
Visiting Roland Garros had really been our whole reason for meeting up because we had previously done Wimbledon and Melbourne together and I was excited when I woke up (despite the rain) because we were finally going. After showering I went to the shops to buy us ingredients for baguettes and to give Victoria space to get ready because our apartment was very cosy (small).

My phone indicated that there would be a clearing of the clouds and so once we were ready we made the journey to the historic venue. By the time we arrived it was raining harder than it had been when we left and we huddled under my umbrella as we waited in the queue to get in. Once we were we made way to Court One because that was where one of the singles matches we had tickets for was being played.

We made our way up the steps and entering the arena saw that the covers contained huge puddles. We huddled in the gangway as we waited for news and as the official app was giving no information besides sales of towels and other tat I started to look on Twitter. Eventually we decided to leave the court when it was clear play wouldn’t be starting anytime soon and went in search of a cafe.

On our way we stopped of at Suzanne Lenglen Court where a gangway had been opened to allow non ticket holders to get a photo. We were desperately trying to stay warm, especially Victoria whose finger had gone numb due to the cold and we were also both feeling quite tired and bitterly disappointed. We weren’t allowed in Philippe Chatrier to take photos and so visited the shop and then the museum. The museum was fairly interesting and contained items collected over the years but the trophies had been removed. It was whilst we were in the museum that the Twitter account announced that for the first time since 2000 there would be no play all day.

We made a fairly hasty exit and on our way home stopped at the Eiffel Tower which was shrouded in fog. We eventually got in, cold and wet. Neither of us had much enthusiasm to do anything else in the day but as it was our last evening together I suggested a dinner cruise. I still hoped that to some extent the day could be salvaged and we rested in our accommodation for a few hours until it was time to leave.

We arrived at the meeting point in plenty of time and at the same time as two other couples. One guy was standing there and explained to is that due to the rain the pick up point had been changed. We had no chance of getting to the new location in time which just added to the disappointment of the day. We made the journey anyway and rather cruelly saw the boat pass us just as we arrived on the river bank. We followed it for a while but eventually accepted there wasn’t a second pick up point.

It had been raining continuously for 24 hours and now hungry as well as wet, cold and drained ordered a starter from one of the restaurants on the river bank. Slightly more energised we returned to the pick up point so we could join a later cruise. It seemed the whole day had been against us and I think we both half expected to get turned away however we were allowed on and given a seat.

Shortly after we took our seat a group joined with a small dog which shook its wet body over the seats. I like dogs but this was probably the final straw for me. I found an attendant and pointing at the dog going woof woof and then imitating sneezing I got us moved to the other side although unlike some tables we were still not even given a bottle of water (some had champagne) and no one took any drink orders.

Even though it didn’t do the full route it was a really lovely experience and we still got to see the Eiffel Tower lit up and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The 3 course meal had been good and I was able to add foie gras to a growing list of French foods I’d had over the previous few days.  The journey home was, fortunately uneventful though we still required the heater on full blast once we got home. It had

Tuesday 31st May
Neither of us wanted to get out of bed because we could hear the rain still pattering against the window. With chores to do such as laundry and posting some items back to Australia Victoria eventually made the first movements. I shortly followed. Rather than waiting at the launderette we went to another local bakery to get breakfast before I went back home and Victoria went back to the launderette.

We then both spent quite a bit of time sorting out all our clothes before we left together for the final time. The plan was to go to a roof terrace cafe in the Galeries Lafayette shopping centre and we went via the post office. We arrived at the shopping centre and to my horror I realised I’d left my train snacks at home. Whilst Victoria did some shopping I dashed back and we met up again an hour later. The hardest part of my journey had been finding my way out of the huge shopping centre.

The lunch was average, but more importantly it was nice to spend some time together when both of us were relaxed, not wet and not in a hurry to get somewhere. We walked to some of the shops together before eventually I had to say “see you soon” without knowing when that will be. I was sad to go, part of me wanted to stay but as Victoria rightly pointed out I should have been glad to be leaving. It is true that it was only our companionship which had been any type of light or joy by the end of the trip and I hope Victoria has better luck on the rest of her travels. As for me, I return to Paris in less than a week before going to Bordeaux for Euro 2016.

What a Wonderful World: Snowdonia

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“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” or so the saying goes. It certainly feels very appropriate as I attempt to write a piece about “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth” to me. I’ve been to some wonderful countries and have had many unforgettable experiences in some beautiful locations however I’d never truly considered this question until now because they were all wonderful for different reasons.

On reflection there does appear to be one place that always gets my spine tingling and that I get passionate about whenever I talk about it. . Wherever in the world I have been I always hear it calling me back. It may not be as glamorous a choice as Þingvellir in Iceland or Milford Sound in New Zealand but to me Snowdonia in North Wales is the most beautiful place on earth.

The Snowdonia area takes its name from its centrepiece Mount Snowdon (“Snow Hill” in Old English) the second largest mountain in the United Kingdom. An extinct volcano Snowdon was formed by volcanic activity over 450 million years ago. The Welsh call the mountain “Yr Wyddfa” (translated as “The Tumulus”) and believe the mountain is the burial mound of the giant Rhitta Gawr who was defeated by King Arthur and whose grave is marked by a cairn.

As you enter the region, where ever you are, you’ll be able to see the range of mountains with the distinctive point of Snowdon (sometimes capped in snow) dominating the already picturesque landscape. As you travel along the twisty mountain roads on clear sky days the views are stunning and as your ears pop due to the altitude it is impossible not to feel small.

If you decide to venture up one of the many foot paths to the summit of Mount Snowdon (or decide to catch the historic steam train) you will be greeted with fine panoramic views of mostly unspoilt beauty. In the distance you can clearly see all the way to the picturesque harbour town Porthmadog, Portmeirion and beyond that, if you’re lucky Ireland.

But travelling through Snowdonia in less favourable conditions can be equally exhilarating for the senses. The grey clouds make a contrast to the greens of the hills and blues of the lakes. As you rise ever higher eventually passing in to the low hanging clouds, the mountains become even more dramatic. The mist adds to the mystical lure and try not to imagine passing through and pretending you’re not part of a ancient Celtic tribe.

Yes it is true Snowdonia can suffer from rain however this helps ensures that on those beautiful hot sunny summer days the lakes such as the alluring Llyn Padarn are full and water still cascades from Swallow Falls as well as numerous other waterfalls. The environment means that the vegetation of Snowdonia is always rich with life and it is home to rare flora and fauna which includes the “Snowdon Lilly” (Gagea serotina) and the rainbow coloured “Snowdon Beetle” as well as a host of birds rarely found in the rest of the UK.

Sometimes man made structures can ruin a scene however in Snowdonia I would argue they have enhanced it. The simple, yet effective dry stone walls, the lovely churches and the small cottages with their locally produced slate roofs, not to mention the occasional coastal castle. If you’re after something older there are ruins dating back to the Romans. Then, finally there are the “Great Little Trains of Wales” which look like miniature model trains as they slowly meander through the landscape leaving a trail of smoke in the gentle breeze.

The world famous Ffestiniog Railway still carries passengers from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. At Blaenau the man made slate slag heaps tower over the little town with their industrial monuments long out of use sitting at the top of disused inclines. The Welsh Highland Railway also departs from Porthmadog carrying people through the Aberglaslyn Pass to the charming village Beddgelert, on to Rhyd Ddu where hikers can climb the route to the summit of Snowdon. Finally the train arrives at Caernarfon which is dominated by its mighty castle, arguably one of the finest in Wales and used as the investiture for Charles, Prince of Wales.

If you fancy seeing the beautiful landscape from a different view you can go White Water Rafting along the Tryweryn river, fly above Penrhyn Quarry on Europe’s longest zip line or hang off Snowdon whilst mountain climbing. If you somehow get bored of the stunning views you can discover the beauty inside the mountains by exploring the disused slate caverns of Blaenau Ffestiniog or perhaps even bounce on a giant trampoline if you want to get close to the ceiling!

As I said at the start, beauty is in the eye beholder. Snowdonia may appear a random choice but it seems this is still an area slightly off the main UK tourist trail. If you want to see variety and scenery rivalling parts of New Zealand, I urge you to stick on some dramatic sounding Celtic music and take a drive through Snowdonia.

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The Irish Rover: Belfast and Giants Causeway

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Thursday 17th March
Growing up just outside of London in the early 1990s it was impossible to escape “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland. I remember the bomb at Canary Wharf, I remember Euston being closed on a day in to Lomdon and I remember all those awful scenes on the news. Therefore, Belfast, the birthplace of Titanic a subject that has captured my imagination since the early 1990s (before the movie) was psychologically a no go zone even after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. I knew how important it was I put those childhood memories to bed and ultimately I decided what better time to visit than St Patrick’s day when (mostly) the whole city comes together.

My journey to Stansted was utterly uneventful and went so smoothly I actually arrived early. There was quite a bit of fog and whilst no delays were announced we were on the tarmac for 30 minutes which was mildly frustrating because I was hungry and looking forward to my Ulster fry up at Maggie Mays Café. We only arrived in Belfast slightly late and because I’d done passport control at London I pretty much stepped directly from the plane to the city centre bus.

When I arrived at Maggie May Cafe there was a small queue and as traditional Irish folk music pumped out it seemed like a number of locals had decided to start St Patrick’s Day with a cooked breakfast. The wait was worth it. I’ve eaten a lot of ‘traditional’ fry ups from each corner of the UK and this was definitely up there with the best. 2 eggs, 2 bacon, 2 sausage, beans, hash browns standard, soda bread, potato bread and finally…chips. Genius. I was treating the breakfast as lunch and planned to do a lot of walking which is how I (wrongly) justified my gluttony.

After breakfast/lunch I made my way back in to the city centre and planned to see the start of the St Patrick’s Day Parade. I’d passed the city hall 2 hours previously and saw the floats being prepared and the streets had been empty. By now they were unsurprisingly really crowded and although I saw a marching band containing some bagpiper’s practising behind the city hall I realised I’d have no chance of seeing the actual floats going down the streets.

Due to the crowds I couldn’t cross the road which I needed to do if I was to reach the Titanic museum in time for my tour. I was forced to walk in the wrong direction and slowly became a bit alarmed as the seconds and the then minutes ticked away. Worse I’d passed a taxi rank when I thought I’d been in plenty of time. I escaped down a side street away from the parade and eventually managed to flag a taxi down. We started to drive down one street when a policeman knocked on the window saying the road ahead was closed. The taxi driver wasn’t impressed but luckily the diversion didn’t add on much time and I just about arrived in time for my pre-paid for a guided tour of the old slipways.

The tour started off outside the old offices and I was slightly disappointed to learn that not only are the public no longer allowed in the historic rooms but they are being turned in to hotels. The whole Titanic Quarter site cost about £5 billion and I accept that hotels will be a way for the developers to make money back whilst ensuring the offices are restored. The guide also explained the symbolism of the museum building e.g that it is built to look like the bow of a ship and is as tall as the decks would have been. Perhaps I’m overly used to tall buildings but I’d always imagined it would be taller.

Next we walked on to the site of the old slip yard. Only the start was original and whilst historically it would have sloped in to the sea it had been levelled off. A line marked where Titanic and Olympic had been positioned under the Giant Arrol Gantry which had long been removed. Rather than rebuilding the gantry it was represented by metal poles. Back inside the museum we looked down from above, and the guide explained the benches are spaced out to represent the Morse code signals that were sent.

After the tour had finished I entered the Discovery museum which was separated in to a number of sections. The first part focussed on the history of the dockyards and had a ride which sought to demonstrate how Titanic was built. There were also recreations of a first class room and a 3rd class cabin. The part representing the sinking with voice overs from those involved in the tragedy was obviously moving and finally there was a under water film in a big auditorium. In hindsight I’d paid to much time at start but overall I was fairly impressed with the building though it was a bit light on artifacts, certainly compared to the travelling museum at the o2 a few years ago.

The Nomadic was one of the Tender ships that carried passengers boarding at Cherbourg from the docks to Olympic and Titanic. We can only imagine how big a tourist attraction Olympic would have been now in her own right if she’d been preserved but in 1935 scrap metal was in demand and the preservation movement barely existed. Nomadic was a lot smaller and survived to 2005 as a restaurant on the Seine in Paris. To cut up something of historical significance is now almost unthinkable and thankfully the Northern Ireland Government brought her so she could be put on display in the Titanic Quarter which was then still just a concept to rejuvenate Belfast. Every now and then I’d check on progress and by 2014 I realised Nomadic had finally opened as a museum.

I had held off visiting Nomadic until it had been fully restored and I wasn’t disappointed. Located in the Hamilton dry dock the boat looked splendid in the late afternoon sun and as I stepped on board I could still smell the fresh paint, much as it would have tickled the senses when it was first used for Olympic. Like with her big sisters no detail in the first class section had been left forgotten. The interior oak panel’s and furniture featured designs similar to those used on Olympic and Titanic and it was the first tender boat to use electric lighting with small ceramic light bulbs. I looked up through one of the portals and imagined how someone must have felt leaving Cherbourg approaching the giant liners.

Next I stepped up on to the deck, and explored the Stern and Bow though refrained from having a “I’m King of the World moment”. The staff were particularly friendly and I could sense their pride and enthusiasm at having the boat back ‘home’ and fully restored. The Hamilton Dry Dock also included something I initially thought was a part of rusting boat. It was actually the iron caisson which was used to stop sea water entering the dock so the nearby pump house could control whether to empty or fill the dock.

After I left Nomadic, I decided to take time to walk around the area which had once been the old slipways. It was a very sombre experience. The Titanic slipway had the ships main features marked out for example the funnels and lifeboats whilst the Olympic slipway had a memorial garden. For each category of class on board, including crew there was a section of grass representing those who passed away and concrete representing those who survived. From the Bow end I had a minutes silence as I looked across the Lagan. As I was leaving the site I chanced upon a sign called Titanic Dock and Pump House so walked up Queens Road with the old Harland and Wolff office’s on my left. By the time I arrived the Pump House museum was closed and the site was locked up so I booked a taxi to the Guest House.

The driver was very friendly and as we approached the city I saw the lines of people to get in to the pubs and bars. I arrived at the guest house and the owner was also very friendly. My twin room was surprisingly nice and as a bonus I was told it included breakfast. I hadn’t paid any more than I did for an Australian hostel and it was nice to know I’d be in a comfortable bed and have no annoying room mates. After freshening up and getting changed I called a taxi to take me back in to town.

I decided to start at the Duke of York which had been recommend to me. I thought some London pubs looked old however just walking down the cobbled Street I knew I was in for a treat and I wasn’t disappointed due to the mirrored whiskey bar and historic advertisements. The only drink to start with was a Guinness however it seemed to be full of locals and I was slightly more introvert than I had hoped. I was standing near a group and just as I was considering moving on we got chatting so I ordered the Guinness lager “Ice Harp”, a Jameson whiskey and some packs of Taytos due to the minimum spend.

I made my excuses and after failing to call a taxi due to the number being constantly engaged I found the website for Belfast’s transport system. I had a look and it contained a “journey planner” to rival Transport for London. I should add I would normally use Google Maps to get me around but it doesn’t currently provide information for Belfast and neither does City Mapper. I walked towards the City Hall which was lit up in Green and after successfully navigating my way to the bus stop was home for 1/4 the price of a taxi.

Friday 18th March
I woke at a fairly modest 7.45 and after getting ready made my to breakfast. A coffee, orange juice and a fry up later and I was ready to roll. I caught the bus in to town and waited at the bus stop. I quickly identified 6 other people waiting and all seemed in relatively good spirits despite what had probably been a late one the night before.

We thought maybe it was just us but once the large Paddywagon coach arrived we realised it had come all the way from Dublin. They’d been on the road since before I’d woken up and unsurprisingly most looked very hung over especially the person adjacent to me who needed two seats. He had to relinquish one when another couple joined and I volunteered to move so they could sit next to each other. Coincidentally this meant I was moved to the seat at the front which gave a great view but before we departed the driver joked saying I was the new tour guide so I jokingly played along and introduced myself.

The weather the day before had been wonderful and whilst it had been expected to continue there was a mist which was determined not to shift. Our first photo stop was at the “Dark Hedges” which were planted in the 18th century and over the years the branches have grown over the road an entangled which give them a mystical appearance. Our guide explained that they have since become famous due to Game of Thrones however I hadn’t seen enough of the show to recognise them. Perhaps the crowds from other coaches on their way to the causeway meant the scene lost some of its magic which meant pleasant as they were, they just looked like a row of trees.

Despite the low fog I enjoyed my undisturbed panoramic view as we drove along the Giants Causeway coastal route. Our first main stop of the day was the Carrick-a-Rede Swing Bridge. Fortunately the mist wasn’t so bad so the views were good and although it was overcast it didn’t rain. The walk to the bridge took longer than I expected and there was a large queue.

Once I was on I started filming my journey across and looked down. I saw the waves crashing on the shore below and even though I have no issue with heights normally even I was made to feel slightly nervous as the slight breeze caused the bridge to creek and sway. There wasn’t anything to see at the other end so I made my way back across the bridge and up along the cliff back to the coach. As I was on the front seat there was no point in me getting on until everyone had boarded which was mildly annoying because the guy who had taken up two seats that morning (and the group he was with) were 15 minutes late back.

The highlight of the day was of course the Giants Causeway. It is a relatively unique Natural Phenomenon with the only other example in the world in Scotland and both were part of a great volcanic plateau and was caused by a lava cooling rapidly. Our driver told us the legend that it was originally a bridge connecting Ireland to Scotland and that the Causeway is the remains of a feud between the Irish giant Fionn and his Scottish rival Angus

As mum is a geologist I decided I’d start my listening to the Geology commentry but perhaps in hindsight I should have listened to that on the way back. I saw the Camel and the Shoe, which looked particularly random and walked along what I thought was the Giants Causeway. The site is most famous for the Basalt columns however aside from the Giants Gate, the best example was the Organ which I could see in the distance but didn’t have time to walk to.

On our way back to Belfast we passed through Bushmills, famous for the Irish Whiskey and had a photo stop at the ruins of Dunluce Castle. After arriving back in Belfast I made my way to The Crown Liquor Saloon one of the famous bars in the city. Work hadn’t quite finished so I was able to find a seat at the bar and enjoyed a pleasant Guinness in the former Gin Palace. After leaving “the Crown” I made a reservation at “Made in Belfast” which had been recommended to me before continuing on to the Morning Star. By now there was the usual Friday after work energy and I enjoyed another Guinness whilst watching some horse racing highlights.

By the time I returned to Made in Belfast there is a possibility I was mildly drunk so declined another Guinness but I was certainly hungry. After searching the menu I decided on fish and chips which I’ve said before would be my food choice if I was a food critic. I was not disappointed in my decision and along with the mushy peas it also included a boat of curry sauce. I returned home via Tesco where I brought 3 multi packs of Taytos for work without thinking how I’d actually get them in my hand luggage. I considered going back out but had failed to meet anyone on the tour who was staying in Belfast and content with the day I’d had opted for an early night.

Saturday 19th March
I managed to get all the Taytos in my hand luggage but I still had another backpack for the day and as EasyJet only allow one piece I knew at some point (once I was at the airport) I’d have to address the issue properly. First I went to breakfast and then waited for my Black Cab Taxi Tour to the political murals and Peace Line.

As we drove along through the city centre my driver Tom showed me a black and white picture of a large building which had been bombed out and pointed to a building just to our right. He continued to tell me that because when he was growing up he’d never left Belfast he thought the constant threat of bombs was normal daily life. Staring out of the window and at the book my brain couldn’t comprehend the scenes and I was lost for words.

Our first stop was to the loyalist murals in the Shankill. The first was made up of small pictures and simply said “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” referring to the Good Friday Agreement. The next we saw was a depiction of William of Orange who has become a symbolic figure for the loyalists and my driver Tom told me the tensions the infamous Orange Parades can still cause. The final mural in the area was dedicated to Stephen McKeag who was responsible for many Republican deaths but considered by the Unionists to be a hero and regardless of the rights and wrongs a sign referring to him as daddy made it more personal.

We continued to the huge wall dividing the communities known as the Peace line and drove through one of the gates/barriers which are kept locked at night so no cars or people can get through. The attitude of locals it seems is the wall and gates remain whilst people want them and ultimately both are still required to help people feel safe. Again as a tourist I couldn’t comprehend it because I was sure people of both sides must mix in the city centre. I sincerely hope that future generations will be able to overcome the physical and and theological barriers.

Our final stop was the Republican area around Bombay Street. On our approach I noticed a number of Tri colour flags and stickers in windows expressing support for Palestine which the driver explained was the locals supporting any group that is repressed. Tom told me that despite the height of the wall, bottles are still thrown over by Loyalists and I could see each house had a metal mesh backing on to the wall to protect the garden. He then showed me the Memorial Garden which gave the name of Republican victims (listed as Martyrs” and Civilian Casualties. Those in the latter category far outweighed the others and he pointed out a few names of individual stories he’d told me about including the Chemist Philomena Hannah. We continued along the main road where there was an International Wall where murals supported issues outside of Northern Ireland and saw the first stages of a new mural dedicated to 1916 Easter Rising.

I was feeling quite sombre when Tom dropped off at the town centre. It would have been thought provoking enough in a group but a one on one tour had been particularly intense. Once I’d collected my thoughts I made my way to the Titanic Pump House and Dry Dock which had been closed by the time I realised it existed on my first day. On the way I looked at the display boats trying to imagine how the Queens Road looked just over 100 years ago. I also saw the Navy ship HMS Caroline which was mostly covered under a tarpaulin in preparation for a multi million pound restoration however despite being of such historical importance I’d initially mistaken it for an asbestos filled ship awaiting the scrap yard.

From the outside the pump house looked like a typically grand Victorian building. Inside the machinery was all in place and there were various displays and videos showing how the massive pumps could drain the dry docks in 100 minutes. The Dry Dock itself was huge, I walked from one end to the other – over 800ft before reaching the Caisson. The original from over 100 years ago is still in place but has been retired and a modern one now protects it from the sea. I climbed down the steps and stood next to the keel blocks which alone came up to just below my head. I thought it was really good, and I arguably enjoyed it more than the Titanic Quarter Museum but it seems to have been forgotten by most of the crowds.

Returning to the City I walked past the gently leaning Albert Memorial Clock and on to St Anne’s Cathedral. Continuing on to the City Hall I saw a Loyalist protest which included BNP flags which I just found very odd. I was starting to feel hungry and so decided after some internal deliberation to walk to St George’s Market where eventually I opted to have a beef burger with spinach, cranberry and brie which the person serving agreed was a good choice. It was a good atmosphere and someone was playing some live music and I found a seat so that I could watch them perform whilst I ate.

After leaving the market I caught a bus to the Botanical Garden so that I could have a quick look around Ulster Museum. I had a look at the display on “The Troubles” which handled the period delicately and neutrally. I then continued to a section on the sinking of the La Girona during the 1588 Spanish Armada which contained treasure that was recovered from the wreck.

I returned to my Guest House and after grabbing my bag I said goodbye to the owner. Once back in the centre I had one stop before making my way to the bus station. I returned to the City Hall to see the Titanic Memorial Gardens and then made the short walk to the bus station. I arrived at the airport and squeezing the contents of two rucksacks in to one, I was forced to wear my trousers over my jeans as they had an elasticated waist a T-shirt, jumper and shirt which meant I resembled the Michelin man.

I’d had an amazing time in Belfast, I’d been made to feel welcome and whilst i’d done a lot, I would have liked to have climbed Divis Hill and to have visited Crumlin Road Gaol. Despite its rather horrific recent history Belfast seems to be on the right path and I felt safe which gives me hope that future generations will be able to live peacefully regardless of religious beliefs.

Here I Go Again: Granada

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Saturday 20th February
Watford seems to be the link with my travels so far this year. They are currently owned by the Italian Pozzo family who own similarly sized clubs in Italy (Udinese) and Spain (Granada CF), taking them to the top league in their respective countries and keeping them there. Udinese thrived becoming a regular Champions League team (though are struggling this year) whilst Granada always seemed to be bottom, somehow often inexplicably surviving on the last day (last season by 1 goal).

I’m not entirely sure when I first heard of the Alhambra but it was over 10 years and likely to have been just after my aunt moved to Spain or when I’d studied the Islamic conquest of Spain at university. It could even have been Age of Empires (as per Istanbul, Turkey). It’s obviously an iconic destination in its own right but really it was only with Granada CF looking particularly vulnerable again this season that I decided it was now or never if I wanted to see them in La Liga.

I left the house at 3am and the journey to Gatwick was uneventful but I had to get a dreaded night bus to Victoria and there was a fairly long connection before the Gatwick express which meant the journey took around 3 hours. I fell asleep on the train and my alarm failed to wake me so it was a good job Gatwick was the last stop. Security was hassle free and once on the plane I swapped with the person who had been allocated the window seat and fell asleep for another 2 hours.

As far as I am aware there are no direct flights to Granada so I’d had to book a flight to Malaga. From there I planned to get a bus to Granada which took another 2 hours and again I slept most of the journey. Arriving in Granada I then I to get another 2 buses before finally over 10 hours after leaving the house I finally arrived at the Oasis Hostel, recommended to me by my flatmate Steph’s friend Hannah.

After checking in I wanted to make sure that I was familiar with how to reach the Alhambra because I needed to collect the tickets at 8.30 the following morning and didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I started following signs and soon came to the river and took photos of a church, Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo, Casa de Las Chirimías and paseo de los tristes. I had followed signs and it had been a pleasant walk with the Alhambra in the distance on my right however had taken 20 minutes (the time it was meant to have taken). Eventually I powered up Google maps and realised I had taken the scenic route.

Crossing the river I began powering up the hill but by the time I reached the top the visitor centre was closed but at least I’d experienced a pleasant river walk along the Carrera del Darro. I returned back down the path and once at the bottom crossed the bridge and followed the path to the Mirador de San Nicholas. Another steep climb ensued but the views of the Alhambra and the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada were worth it. Unfortunately I hadn’t timed it to coincide with sunset but it was already getting quite busy.

I returned back to the hostel where I quickly changed, said “Hola” to a couple from Seville staying in my room before joining a free walking tour that the hostel had organised. There were 8 of us in total, 4 Americans, a couple from Austria and a girl from Taiwan. The guide was from Argentina but was living in Granada as that’s where his family was from before they had fled Spain prior to the Second World War.

He was very knowledgeable and provided lots of facts and pointed out various observations that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed or considered. The architecture of the old city is particularly interesting because Granada had been the Islamic capital of Andalusia for 800 years. After it was reconquered by the Christians most buildings were handed over to those that fought so adapted and Mosques were converted in to churches one of which we visited.

Overall the walk was three hours and we saw a lot and had to take in a lot of information. I’d only been in Granada a quarter of a day but I quickly understood why it was UNESCO heritage listed in the centre because nearly every turning was followed by a structure of interest. We passed an old cistern, which was heritage listed because the importance of ablutions for the Muslim culture made water a key element in daily life. For the second time in a day I climbed to the top of Mirador de San Nicholas and I also got my first glimpse of the Cathedral which wasn’t that memorable but our guide and others had told us as much.

Back at the hostel we all decided to visit Poe one of the Tapas bars the guide had recommended. A few more Americans staying in the hostel joined us and they started ordering in Spanish. I was starting to regret not knowing how to do the same when I realised the barman was actually from London. It seemed exceptional value, for every beer ordered the Tapas was free so for under €7 I’d drunk and eaten as much as I needed for the night.

When I got back to the hostel another couple were already in bed though none of us said anything. Shortly after the Seville couple returned and perhaps thinking everyone was asleep became somewhat loved up. One of the others snored loudly, the other coughed most of the night and finally to really make it the room from hell someone stumbled in around 3am and made retching sounds though as far as I am aware weren’t actually sick.

Sunday 21st February
I woke before my alarm from what had been perhaps my worst hostel nights sleep that I can remember. Rather than snoozing I jumped out of bed showered and left as quickly as possible. The shorter length walk to the Alhambra was equally as steep as the day before and by the time I reached the top I had started shedding layers even though it was 8am and quite cold. I ordered some breakfast from the cafe and at 8.30 collected my tickets as soon as the office opened. I had expected my allocated entrance to the famous Nasrid Palaces to be later that morning but instead they were for 9am so I was relieved I hadn’t wasted any time earlier in the morning.

I entered the Alhambra and after 20 minutes reached the queue for the Palaces. In hindsight I probably could have walked slower and taken the experience in but I knew I had the rest of the day to explore the other areas and I don’t like feeling in a rush. Once my ticket had been successfully scanned I finally relaxed though I was made to wear my rucksack on my front which felt odd and uncomfortable especially with my camera hanging to my left and the audio guide to my right.

The Nasrid Palaces are the centre piece of the Alhambra and I was glad that I had an audio guide to help me fully appreciate what I was looking at. I wondered through the elaborately decorated rooms even obediently sitting on the floor in one as the audio guide instructed me to in order to fully appreciate the patterns. Some of the most spectacular rooms included the Hall of the Twin Sisters (due to the marble columns).The outside patios and fountains were equally stunning in the early morning sun and perhaps the most famous of these “The Patio of Lions” didn’t disappoint.

After leaving the Nasrid Palaces I decided to have a stroll at my own pace around the Alhambra’s gardens known as the General Life. My expectations had been unfairly low for the General Life and I found it more interesting and enjoyable than I’d anticipated. Whilst the architecture was quite simple compared to Nasrid Palaces it was interesting to know the area predated the rest of the Alhambra although changes to the layout has meant it is not known how it once looked. The vegetable garden was the oldest part however I particularly liked the Water Stairway and whilst it wasn’t a hot day in summer I could imagine why it was important for the Sultan to be able to transfer water from different levels.

The Palace of Charles V initially looked quite grand due to the inner court yard however I quickly realised it was just a facade. Building began in 1527 and it was meant to be the palace for or the Emperor and his family following the reconquest of the city by the Christians. A lack of finance meant the Palace was never completed or lived in so unlike the Nasrid Palace there were no decorated rooms to explore. There was a museum in the basement however the signs weren’t in English and it wasn’t covered by the audio guide. I walked through in case something caught my eye but it didn’t and I was more interested in exploring the rest of the Alhambra.

The Church of Santa Maria the Alhambra was closed so I passed through the “Wine Arch” and made my way to the Alcazaba, the Fortress of the Alhambra. First I walked through the Arms Square which contained the foundations of houses used by civil population. Next I made my way on to the edge of the Arms Tower which was the main entrance to the Alhambra. From there I climbed the Watch Tower the highest point of the Alhambra and had some particularly good views of the city but couldn’t see the football stadium.

After leaving the Alcazaba I walked through the Square of the Cisterns visited the church and tried to find the bath house/Hammam of the old Mosque but it wasn’t well sign posted. What I found (which may have been it) was underwhelming however I was starting to feel a bit tired so decided not to search further despite feeling a little frustrated. I’d had a lovely morning and felt I’d fully experienced the Alhambra but I knew it was time to leave to experience some other Granada sights before the football match.

It had been a fascinating morning but I was drained when I left the Alhambra. I returned back down the hill from that morning and entered the town through the Gate of Elvira. I ate at another place recommended by the guide which the Americans had also eaten at the day before. Eventually I realised I could sit down and be served so I ordered a beer and a kebab/salad combination which I believed I had earned from all my walking. All in all it came to €8 which seemed ridiculously cheap.

After leaving the restaurant I knew I had a few hours before I needed to collect my tickets for the football so I decided to visit the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel). I could have done with an audio guide because everything was in Spanish so whilst I saw a lot, aside from the coffins of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II I’m not sure what was of particular significance.

Next I went to the Cathedral where I was given an audio guide but whether I had pre match tension, had overdosed on culture at the Alhambra or just found the descriptions and details boring I’m not sure but I just couldn’t take it in. It was pretty on the inside especially the Altar but unlike Valencia which had the “Holy Grail” there was nothing of note which I thought was interesting. I walked to each section and listened to a summary of the descriptions before leaving and feeling slightly guilty at my apathy to the experience.

This may sound badly planned on my part but I hadn’t actually established how to reach the ground in advance of arriving in Granada. Knowing it was quite small, and there was only one team I had assumed it would be easy to find. It actually turned out it was a long way out of the city centre and eventually I found a random football site which gave bus details because Google maps normally so reliable for transport abroad had only proposed a 45 minute walk.

As it was I ended up walking the entire route and after successfully collecting the tickets and buying a shirt I began to soak up the pre match atmosphere. First I saw the Granada ‘Heroes’ wall which featured two players now at Watford so I took a picture of me posing with Ighalo. Then the team coach arrived and I caught my first glimpse of three Watford players on loan at Granada who should arrive next summer. Personally though if I was a player I’d stay at Granada which is undeniably more picturesque and warmer than Watford. Entering the ground and finding my seat I saw that they had left out free programmes.

I could write an entire essay on the match. It was a weird experience not understanding what people were singing or shouting though I got the gist of the latter. Granada started off well but the defence looked determined to throw all the good work away and basically looked overly relaxed even though those around me were probably on the verge of having heart attacks. It didn’t help the Granada strikers missed some relatively easy chances. Bad defending and a toothless attack is a toxic mix and a recipe for disaster.

At half time it was 0.0 and Gary Neville randomly, recently appointed Valencia manager was looking tense and I think Granada fans were taking delight in that. All of a sudden though a calamitous piece of defending (I’ve seen similar at Watford) saw Valencia’s number 10 smash the ball in from close range. Granada fought back and missed another two easy chances and had a goal ruled out before in the 90th minute more calamitous defending saw Valencia score again. Granada did then score but there were no celebrations because the final whistle went straight away. They look dead and buried to me and I think I’ll only be returning to that ground if they play Watford in pre season.

During the match I’d decided to book tickets to a Flamenco show in the infamous Sacromonte District. This is the area of the city where gypsy’s had traditionally lived and they had built houses in to the surrounding caves. At the final whistle my legs felt ready for the one hour walk from one side of the city to the other which partly included the river path I’d taken the day before in the day. I hadn’t planned to stop for pictures but it was a good opportunity to take some night shots of the Alhambra lit up in all its splendour on top of the hill.

After a short steep climb I finally reached the venue and even though I’d only booked for a drink I managed to upgrade to get dinner included. It was quite pricey by Granada standards but I was hungry. The show was good and really felt the perfect way to cap off my final evening. The dancers, (especially the male who was visibly sweating at the end) had shown so much energy. The guitar player in contrast looked ridiculously laid back and made the quick playing rhythm look easy.

At the interval I’d got chatting to two Australians in the row in front. Having just spent two hours unable to express myself at the football it was a relief to speak to people that understood me. They were on a tour along with everyone else in the room which spoilt the illusion that I’d stumbled across a genuine venue. Still it was a good evening and we shared travel tips, particularly recommendations in Granada.

I had walked 40,000 steps by the time I arrived back at the hostel just before midnight. As I slowly opened the door I could hear the bathroom extractor fan but the bedroom was deserted and the beds were not made. I turned the light on and as there was no luggage I became overjoyed when I realised for the first time I had a whole hostel dorm to myself.

Monday 22nd February
At 8.30 I woke from a particularly good night’s sleep feeling refreshed. I hadn’t decided what to do on my 3rd day and whilst the hostel ran a day trip to the Sierra Nevada it didn’t return to Granada until the time my flight left Malaga. I looked on Trip Adviser and Lonely Planet briefly considering a visit to the Monasterio de la Cartuja and the Basilica San Juan de Díos. But remembering my feelings at the Cathedral I wasn’t convinced I would be overly enthralled.

In the end I decided to book a Arabic bath and massage because my legs were aching from the day before and I got a discount from the hostel. The girl at the hostel booked me in and after checking out I made my way at a fairly quick pace to the venue.

I had been expecting a Hammam experience similar to those I’d had in Morocco and Turkey. Instead once changed I entered a large room with 7 different swimming pools, six of which were hot and one which was cold. I wasn’t sure how long to spend in each and if I’m honest I got a bit bored getting in and out. In the end I decided to sit on the side and drink some sweet mint tea and waited for the massage.

I had opted for a leg massage because my muscles were in need of some serious TLC after the strain I’d put them through the day before. I probably needed a sports massage but instead this was a relaxing massage which did very little except to cause me to very briefly fall asleep. After the massage I briefly switched between the hot and cold swimming pools before I decided I’d had enough and it was time for lunch.

I still had plenty of time before I felt I needed to get a bus to the Granada bus station. I briefly considered walking to the Monasterio de la Cartuja however remembering my feelings after the visit to the Cathedral and Royal Chapel I decided not to. I realised that despite it being high on the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet websites I probably wouldn’t appreciate it. I had come to Granada to see the Alhambra, to watch football and eat Tapas. I had done all 3 and was satisfied I was ready to leave.

I ate lunch at a bar/restaurant near the hostel, deciding against another walk along the river to a bar recommended to me by the two Australians from the flamenco night. The deal was ridiculously good but for one reason or another the bar staff took a distinct dislike to me and pretty much refused to serve me after the food had arrived. It took an age to get the bill but I was still feeling relatively stress free when I returned to the hostel and collected my bag.

I made my way to the bus station and along with many other people with suitcases boarded a bus which arrived almost instantaneously. It was crowded but I got off at the right stop so I could get the bus to the bus station and on to Malaga. What happened next I had a chance to reflect on for over 3 hours.

I knew I needed to go to the “estación de autobuses” (Main bus stop) and to get two bus numbers went there. One of the two buses came in so I jumped on and as it was busy thought nothing of it. Gradually people got off and a seat became free. I relaxed. It didn’t even occur to me to check the map. After quite a while, we passed the football stadium and I became anxious because I knew that was south of the city and I needed to be north. I looked at the map and it suggested I was only 20 minutes away if we suddenly took a turning on to the motorway. I clung to the thinnest of straws.

Unsurprisingly we didn’t take the turning. Instead the bus stopped and the driver turned off the engine and I got off. If all went to plan I could still get the 3pm bus from Granada which would give me 30 minutes to get through security and I was checked in I was still relatively calm. I got back on the bus and over 45 minutes later arrived at the bus terminal with plenty of time to get a ticket. Unfortunately I wasn’t thinking straight and made another error of judgement.

I knew I had to get a ticket to the airport and searching Malaga it only came up with the bus station. There were only 3 tickets left (it hadn’t even occurred to me the bus would be full) so I booked it, hoping I could resolve the issue. Rather than finding a help desk I tried the departure gate and I spent 20 minutes waiting for someone who could help to magically turn up. They didn’t and of course I was unable to explain my predicament to the driver and my fellow passengers probably thought I was trying to cheat the system.

For over two hours I was in a state of panic. I researched other ways to get home concluding the next direct flight was 3 days away, I researched getting a bus from Malaga bus station to Malaga Airport and tried phoning the bus company. The latter hung up when I assume they didn’t understand my Spanish. Half way in to the journey we pulled over in the middle of nowhere so the driver could check the wheels/have a smoke, neither of which were reassuring. I arrived at Malaga bus station and rather than arguing my point ran off to the taxi rank I’d seen on our approach. As it was I beat the bus I’d been on and as security was quick I made it to the gate as priority passengers boarded.

Ironically I was one of the first to board the plane. This was because we were ferried on to a bus to take us the length of a bus up the runway to the plane and I had been the last person to board the bus and so was first off when the doors opened. During that time I completed a survey and the prize was a Caribbean Cruise. At the time I wondered if this had been a test and I would be rewarded but on my flight I realised I’d actually had good fortune, or at least it could have been a lot worse.

Aside from a screaming baby on the flight there were no further dramas. I landed in Luton and made my way to Ealing where I ironically arrived at South Ealing station minutes before Steph who had been in Stockholm and landed at Heathrow. We exchanged stories on the walk home. For me Granada had been everything I had hoped and more. I thoroughly recommend it. The Alhambra is stunning, the food is great and I desperately hope the football team stay up because I would love a chance to see another La Liga match there.

Yellow: Swansea and the Gower

20160118_195940Sunday 17th January
I had not initially planned to write a blog about my weekend to Swansea with dad, Jenny and some old family friends. It wasn’t the best time of year to visit the Gower Peninsular but then ultimately the usual reason for a holiday as the main purpose for going was to see a football match between Watford vs Swansea. Watford occasionally have a cameo appearance in these blogs and whilst just under 10 years ago I used to keep a football blog (hereif anyone is interest) they faded out in February 2010. I started them to document my feelings on our journey in the 2006/2007 Premiership campaign and then continued as hope gradually turned to despair for the next few seasons. Watford are now back in the Premiership but during that time travel has muscled in to become an equal passion which defines me as a person as much as being a Watford fan has in the past (and admittedly still does).

One of the advantages about being a football fan is that you have the opportunity to go away matches and therefore over the years i’ve visited quite a bit of the UK and been to towns and cities I may not have done if I’d never been a Watford fan. I’d have never been on the Grand National Rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach or to Plymouth for a weekend of drinking cider and eating pasties. Ultimately an away match can be a lot of fun if everything goes well but even if your team loses it still feels more memorable than a home match but I digress this is not my old football blog.

The night before i’d been to a house warming party so as dad had said we were leaving Berkhamsted at 10.00am I had a very early start to ensure I got to the house in time. Opening the door I saw the remains of a slight snow shower but nothing to get me concerned my journey would be disrupted. Fortunately it didn’t however as I left the suburbs of London, countryside began to replace houses and the scene became more picturesque as the snow got deeper. I arrived in Berkhamsted with time to spare so went on a mini walk from the Castle to my dads via the canal taking some pictures mainly to send to Victoria and others I knew would appreciate the scene more than most of the locals who were treating it in the typical ‘what a nuisance;

After arriving at the house Rob, Sue and Tony soon arrived and after loading our bags in to the car we set off for South Wales. The journey consisted of talk about the upcoming match, the season so far, memories of our trip to India which was sadly pre blog and dad, Tony & Rob discussing one of their upcoming cycle trips through Europe. If there was some way I could convince myself to get on a bike again I can see numerous advantages, I’d get to see more countries, experience the real culture and get fit. Unfortunately I haven’t since a bike ride in Devon went wrong when I was about 12. They say “you should just get back on the bike” but I didn’t.

Our first stop was Bristol somewhere i’ve been two times before without actually seeing any of the tourist sites or indeed any of the city. The snow of Hertfordshire had been replaced by rain and puddles which meant it wasn’t the greatest introduction to the harbour which must be particularly pretty on a warm summers day. We walked along the harbourside up to the SS Great Britain however disappointingly due to the regeneration of the port it wasn’t possible to see it without paying to go round the museum which we didn’t have time to do. Instead we walked where we had come and found a cafe where we had a coffee to warm us up and I had a bacon sandwich because I hadn’t come prepared with lunch like the others.

We got back in the car and I probably fell asleep at some point though not before we crossed in to Wales. We arrived in Swansea and after laughing at the Satnavs attempts at pronouncing Welsh place names we eventually found the Travel Lodge we were staying at. We had an hour or so to freshen up and after discussing some potential walks along the Gower made our way to a Wetherspoons in one of the local suburbs. After enjoying a Sunday Roast and a few ales which were brewed locally we made our way back to our service station located hotel (think Alan Partridge Travel Tavern).

Monday 18th January
After waking up and getting ready we drove to the Wetherspoons for a breakfast. The weather wasn’t particularly inviting but eventually we left and made our way to Worms Head on the coast. By the time we arrived it had at least stopped raining but when we checked the tide times we realised that there would be no opportunity to cross the causeway so instead we did a looped walk which took us along the coast and through farm land. It was certainly picturesque but it was really cold and quite windy so I was glad that I was wearing my big coat.

We arrived back at the car and drove to the ‘Mumbles’ which I had heard of, or at least I thought I had because the walk from the car to the pier was nothing like what I had expected. I had expected a mile packed of pubs/bars and perhaps they are more noticeable at other times of the year but during a cold January the area seemed deserted. Despite it not being what I had expected and the Pier being closed due to I assume the high winds it was a very quaint and nice area though the the old life boat station needed some tlc.

We returned back to the hotel passing the Liberty Stadium on the way so that we could look for some places to park the car. Once back at the hotel we had some time for nap and to get ready for the football but first stopped off at the Wetherspoons again for a pre match beer and some food. It was the beginning of celebrations for Burns night and after trying to work out what to eat, torn between being healthy or not I ended up placing an order for perhaps the most unhealthy burger ever.

Rob and Tony dropped Sue, Jenny, dad and I off at the bottom of a street not far from the ground and we agreed to meet again inside. Swansea fans would have been feeling low on confidence pre kick off and the closure of the steel works would have done little to life spirits. Perhaps knowing this the club had announced the new manager would be in the crowd just before kick off (which always causes the players to step up their game) and had the ball brought to the pitch by some marines abseiling from the top of the stand I was in.

This was my first away match since Everton a game where we had shown energy and hunger. Even during the recent defeats against Man City and Tottenham we had given it a go and been unlucky to lose so I was surprised and slightly horrified that Swansea a team which should have been low on confidence were made to look world beaters. Normally away matches can be fun due to the crowd ‘having a party’ but on the whole we seemed to have as little energy as the players and this was summed up by the lady next to me trying to engage in conversation. The guy in front was in meltdown throughout the first half and ended up turning on the fans for not showing enough passion. Much as I tried to remain optimistic that we would just ‘ride out the storm’ it was little surprise when Swansea took the lead and not long after the Watford players trudged off for half time.

I was able to move up to sit with the others for the second half and we came out with more intent however the only real chances of note fell to Juardao, one of which I thought had gone in. On another night we could, if not should have got a draw but it seemed to be one of those nights all football fans experience which was bitterly disappointing. I went to bed feeling quite disillusioned at how Watford had done and on the back of losing 3 other matches I started to have the fears of relegation which had seemed a distant memory just two weeks before.

Tuesday 19th January
Watford losing can interrupt my sleep, and I kept turning the match over in my head and the next morning I felt particularly groggy. As per the previous day we went to Wetherspoons for breakfast and perhaps spent longer than expected before driving to a village/suburb of Swansea called Bishopton where we planned to walk to the headland. We parked near a small Norman church (St Teilo’s Church) which dates back to a church built around 460-490 AD making it one of the earliest Welsh Christian settlements.

The walk itself was less successful because the route was not well sign posted and the map/directions we were using were older than me. We also kept chatting to locals which reminded me of my time in Aberystwyth where no one was in a hurry, however we kind of were because I needed to be on the train home by mid afternoon. After walking for about 30 minutes we didn’t appear to be any nearer to the headland so Rob, Dad and I returned to the car and met the others on a main road so that we could drive nearer to the coast.

We walked down a single track road and it wasn’t long before we were out of civilisation despite still not being far from Bishopton. Eventually we hit the coast and the sun was shining so the views from Brandy Cove of (I believe) Mumbles Head and Caswell Bay were good. I’ve explored a lot of Wales, especially Mid and North West Wales and the Gower in the South did not disappoint. We were lucky that despite travelling to the Gower in (potentially) the UKs worst month weatherwise not only did we still get to do some lovely walks but we had the views people would have been happy with in the summer.

We returned to the car and drove back to Swansea. I didn’t actually see much of the actual city (besides the football stadium and the train train station) so as I left I felt I had unfinished business and I would definitely return to the Gower. Hopefully Watford and Swansea both stay up and the match next season is the August bank holiday

Walking in Winter Wonderland: Copenhagen

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Saturday 28th November
I can’t remember if I’ve said this before so if I have I apologise. When I’ve spoken to Australians and New Zealanders it’s become a running joke that after initial enthusiasm they gradually tire of the castles scattered around Europe. Likewise when I was in those countries for just under 5 months my enthusiasm for waterfalls waned. Whilst they are both undeniably fantastic destinations, with some stunning natural landscapes, travelling across the vast distances with fellow Europeans made me appreciate the different landscapes, histories and cultures that were on my own door step.

I had made it a mini goal to have lots of mini breaks to see the different cultures of Europe in 2015 rather than a trek to a far flung corner of the earth. As a child I was desperate to go to Denmark due to Lego. It never happened and by the time it opened in the UK I was at the stage in life guys go through when they deny their imagination any pleasure beyond believing they may play for their favourite football team one day.

All this back story explains why, despite being emotionally drained after Germany the trip (explained in the previous blog) some advice from Kim in Greece had sowed a seed in my brain. As I quickly settled back in to my “old” Ealing life I got itchy feet. Searching skyscanner using a flexible destination and sorting by cheapest returns Dublin came up first then Copenhagen for £59. It wasn’t Lego land but it was close enough.

The flight was at 6.40am but I only had hand luggage and checked in online so I left it as late as possible before getting to Heathrow airport. There were only 7 people on my flight so I took over the entire and row and slept some more and had a complimentary coffee. All of that meant by the time we arrived in Copenhagen 2 hours later I was feeling fairly refreshed and eager to explore.

First stop was breakfast and as I wondered towards my hostel even though I knew I couldn’t check in I noticed La Glace, the oldest bakery in Copenhagen. The display of cakes had me drooling and so I stepped in for a treat. I ordered ‘La Glace Tea’ which had a vanilla flavour and the Sportskage which was their special, consisting of crushed nougat, cream and caramelised profiteroles. I can only imagine it’s called ‘sport cake’ because you’d have to do a lot of exercise to burn off the calories. It was as delicious as it looked, though incredibly sweet.

It was raining when I arrived and rather than clearing it gradually became heavier. A queue of tourists had built up outside and as I had been there quite a while I felt an obligation to give up my seat even though I knew Emilie was 20 minutes away. I had a look at a very touristy shop which had a display of polar bears playing instruments. Eventually I walked back to La Glace and stared at the wonderful displays of cakes and chocolates until I was woken from my daze by Emilie calling my name.

We walked to the end of the street and I saw my first Copenhagen Christmas Market. Naively I had assumed there was just the one at Tivoli but I was wrong. We walked around the city and there were 5. The second market we visited had a big Ferris wheel though the rain meant it was running empty.

We walked to the opposite end of the city and saw the Hotel D’Angleterre with its impressive Christmas display. It was at the Christmas Market opposite that we brought some of the famous Glogg (similar, if not identical to mulled wine) which was well received due to the rain. Next we walked to Nyhavn where we stumbled across another Christmas Market.

Emilie managed to talk one of the traders in to giving me a few samples of some Danish biscuits to try along with two types of honey one of which contained cinnamon. Emilie had told me about Apple slices, originally apple slices in batter, now just fried batter balls served with jam and caster sugar and as we went to leave Nyhavn she saw a pub selling them.

We ordered some more Glogg and the Apple Slices which were unsurprisingly delicious before we walked to the Hans Christian Andersen Christmas Market where someone dressed as Hans Christian walked around. Next we got some food and whilst the traditional Danish Christmas dinner sounded a culinary treat I was full on all my desserts so I opted for the Danish meatballs.

Emilie Had to go so we said our goodbyes and I made my way to the hostel. As I did so I walked past the Rundetarn and noticed it was still open and as it had stopped raining thought the views of the city would be nice lit up. So despite carrying my backpack I made my way up. I feared it would be all steps but it was mostly a ramp until the final section and the view of the Christmas lights didn’t disappoint.

I checked in to my hostel before heading to the Tivoli Gardens which were jaw dropping pretty and everything I had hoped. It would have been nice to walk around with someone and to ride the rollercoaster but it was still very pleasant and the light display to the swan lake music was stunning. I think I explored every inch of the site and even the biggest Christmas Grinch would have warmed to the atmosphere.

Even though I knew it was only 5.30 back home I stupidly checked the Watford score. We were leading 2.1 but there was still 15 minutes to go. As has become recent holiday tradition I found a quiet area and with rapidly decreasing battery cradled my phone. Deeney made it 3.1 a few minutes later and with victory seemingly assured I turned off my phone and went back to exploring. I checked the score 15 minutes later and to my horror the match was still going and it was 3.2. Eventually I got confirmation it was over and I could release a little ‘get in’.

I returned back to the hostel and met my housemates, a couple from Madrid. After the usual language barrier conversation I asked if they supported Real or Athletico. It didn’t really matter, either way I knew I’d proudly declare Sanchez Flores was manager of Watford and as he has God like status with both clubs I knew I’d make a good impression. Long may he continue helping me make Spanish friends.

I had planned to do a pub crawl but my battery needed charging and by the time I left I’d missed the start. I headed to the first bar but when I entered I knew it wasn’t right for me. Emilie suggested a few places the other side of the Queen Louise’s Bridge however I couldn’t find the main one she recommended and realising I wasn’t in the mood for a late night decided to get some food from a place called Spisestedet FEED before returning home.

I fell asleep reading my book and the Spanish couple were as surprised to see me in bed as I was to be woken up by them returning. There was still an empty bunk and just as we had decided it wouldn’t be filled a German girl from Bonn came in who had been separated from her friends due to a mistake with the booking. We spoke limited Deutsch before she went out with a her friends and the rest of us went to sleep.

Sunday 29th November
The hostel was pretty poor, certainly compared to the one in Berlin and the bunk was pretty uncomfortable. I woke up a number of times and when the nearby church bells rang early next morning I realised I wasn’t going to get much extra sleep. I hoped someone else would stir first but they didn’t so I got down, had a shower, packed my bag and took off my bed sheets.

The receptionist at the hostel was incredibly helpful by printing my boarding pass for free and she became particularly excited at helping me find out what time the Crown Prince and Princess would be lighting the Christmas tree. After that I stocked up on a good continental breakfast including the triangle cheese and Nutella (not mixed together).

When I left the hostel for my walked towards the Little Mermaid there were grey clouds but it was dry and I didn’t think it would rain. As I wondered along I saw the Royal Danish Theatre and the French Embassy with a memorial of flowers to those killed a few weeks before and poignantly reflected on how even Copenhagen had been a victim of a terrorist attack earlier in the year.

At Nyhavn a couple asked for me to get their overheard them asking about canal cruise and realised one was about to leave. The canal boat tour had been recommended to me by a few people and it ended up being perfect timing because as soon as we left Thor unleashed a thunderstorm which included hail. I was thankful I had taken a break from walking and wasn’t in the rain.

The tour guide was also really good and had a good sense of humour and did well to disguise his frustration when people on the deck outside ignored his warnings about low bridges and refused to sit down. One guy came very close to being de-capitated because although the guide said sit down low bridge in 5 langugaes including Russian, the guy just smiled back. Despite the rain it was a pleasant journey and I got my first glimpse of the Little Mermaid where a small crowd had braved the elements.

Amazingly when we arrived back in Nyhavn the clouds had been replaced by blue sky and a golden sphere which wasn’t radiating much heat. I dashed over to Amalienburg slot, home of Royal Family for the changing of the guards at 12.00pm. I imagine it must be very busy in the summer months and whilst it felt fairly busy in the centre by the statue of Frederik V on Horseback I still got a front row standing position looking towards Frederik’s Church, the Marble church. By complete luck on my part this was the street the Royal Guards came up.

As the guards passed me I walked in the opposite direction to most of the crowd who ‘followed’ them. I stood facing the arch and the guards I assumed were being replaced. My hunch was correct so again I had a great spot for the actual ceremony where the band played various tunes and the soldiers went through their various drills one of which involved them shuffling over very quickly which caused a few people in the crowd to snigger loudly.

After the ceremony was over I continued my walk to the Little Mermaid but first had a walk around Kastellet the old fort which is one of the best preserved star fortresses in Northern Europe. It was free to enter and I ended up more of the site than I had expected and climbed to the top of the mound so that I could get a good view of the site however unfortunately the Commander’s House, the main centre piece was covered in tarpaulin.

I finally arrived at the Little Mermaid which was crowded but it must be utterly horrendous in summer when there are loads of coach and cruise tours lining up. The Little Mermaid disney movie is one of my earliest childhood memories so I was glad to make the effort to see it and I was prepared for it to be as small as it was. In fact if anything because I had been warned to lower my expectations, I was actually quite impressed with it.

I walked back towards the Rosenborg Slot which is home to the Danish Crown Jewels. The group in front of me were turned away because it shut at 2 and the ticket office had closed 1 minute before they arrived (at 1.45). I used some English charm and the lady kindly relented, let me in and then even looked after my backpack for free. I wasn’t fussed about viewing the apartments and I had ample time to view the Crown of Christian IV and the other items.

I continued my walk this time heading for Christiansborg Palace, the seat of the Danish Parliament but walked via the Rundetarn and the Cathedral of Copenhagen the Vor Frue Kirke (Church of our Lady). There appeared to be a small gathering outside the Parliament and continued to Christianshavn to see the famous spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of our Saviour). I didn’t have the time to see the eco settlement Christiania however I wanted to see the lighting of the Christmas tree by the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark.

I hurried back to the Københavns Rådhus (City Hall) to see the Christmas tree and on the way I got a famous kanelsnegl (a danish pastry but not the type we have here) from a bakery before passing the parliament where the small gathering had turned in to a big demonstration about climate change. I arrived in plenty of time and had a fairly good view despite the big crowds which had gathered and waited in anticipation with locals and tourists.

Mr and Mrs Clause arrived on a fire truck and due to my ignorance I thought they were the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark thinking they had thrown down the gauntlet for William and Kate. I wasn’t alone in thinking this and after they had shaken hands with members of the crowd and waved regally to the crowd, the actual Princess Mary stepped out of the City Hall however Frederic was not with her so I still believe he was the one dressed as Santa Clause.