The countries dotted along the Adriatic coast have some of the bluest waters and unspoilt beaches. What makes them even more appealing is the ancient history, with fortresses, lighthouses, ruins where you walk through a beautiful part of the country with history on one side and the sea on the other. I must admit that I was not very excited about heading to Dubrovnik for a long weekend as my first trip to Croatia. My initial plan was to fly to Split, explore the islands there and then head to Plitvice Lakes National Park. To my surprise, the air fare to Split was twice of what we paid for Dubrovnik. In hindsight, I am so grateful that we managed to visit Dubrovnik, which was still busy in its off season.
We landed on a Saturday morning in early October and got a bus to the centre from the airport. After a few winding roads along the coast, I can’t forget the first sight of the city. I knew immediately that this was going to be an amazing trip. I don’t know if it was because we were visiting Dubrovnik for the first time, but I can vouch for the fact that a sense of awe never fails to descend when you set eyes on the beauty of this Old Town.
What we didn’t realise when the bus dropped us at Ploče Gate was how this city has more stairs than roads. We climbed nearly 250 steps from here onto a hill where we had booked our apartment. After an exhausting climb, dragging our suitcases, pointing in the direction of the Old Town to fellow tourists who were walking towards it and meeting a few cats along the way, we finally made it.
The view from our apartment (photos below) was breath-taking. We had the sea, the red tiled rooftops of the houses whose parking lots were laced with grapevines (how amazing is that!) and a few islands that were visible at a distance. As we were still tired, we decided to head to the harbour on our first day and try some local wine. Down those 250 odd stairs again, we went to a veggie friendly restaurant overlooking the sea and had some burgers and dessert wine which I fell in love with. It was crisp and not overly sweet.
After taking it easy, the next day was an adventure. Tickets to the Old Town walls cost 200 Croats each, can be purchased on the spot and are valid for four days. The town itself is absolutely stunning. Yes it’s touristy and crowded with many cruise ships docking here, but well worth it for the views. As we walked along the walls, there were ever-changing perspectives over the terracotta rooftops of the Old Town and the sea. Here's a tip: to dodge the crowds, check how many cruise ships will be in Dubrovnik on any particular day on the Dubrovnik Port Authority, and then pick what looks like the quietest date.
Wanting to make the most of the day, we also managed a visit to the 13th-century Fort Lovrijenac (Od Tabakarije). Lying outside the Old Town, it affords superb views of the city walls, has fewer people and appears to be a favourite photo spot. We climbed up its 175 steps, to reach the upper level, complete with canons and a small chapel. Fun story here, it closes at 6pm and not realising the time, we got locked in with a few others and were told that the officials were coming back to let us out. In a span of those ten minutes, I’d struck up a fun conversation with a traveller from New Zealand who was also locked in with us and exchanged a few travel stories.
Finally, after walking past many Game of Thrones filming locations, we rounded off this fun-filled day with some Mexican food as most of the restaurants serving local delicacies were packed with tourists and one Bosnian restaurant that I had in mind did not have any vegetarian options. We then ended the evening by the sea at Bar by Azur. What was amazing was this very moment – the bright full moon and its reflection on the dark Adriatic waters. It was somewhat relaxing, yet romantic. As we walked back, climbing those stairs to our apartment, I kept turning back to see the moon, and every glimpse of it overlooking the city was absolutely spectacular.
On our third day, we decided to cook and eat in our apartment and then head over to the suburbs of Lapad and Babin Kuk to catch the sunset. These are very popular areas dotted with upscale hotels that overlook the sea. We walked all the way past harbours, local houses and came across many pomegranate trees. We reached Sunset beach which was lovely but crowded, so we decided to walk along the rocky coast to find a more peaceful spot. We found various points offering stunning views of the sea and finally with a cocktail at hand at On the Rocks bar, we watched the sun go down over the Adriatic. We decided to get an Uber back (cost us about 5 Euros) as we did not have the energy to climb those stairs again and also got a glimpse into Dubrovnik's glitzy nightlife as the streets were buzzing with many bars and restaurants.
On our last day, I woke up feeling like I needed to visit the Old Town once again and this time, have a more leisurely stroll than a historic walk. I also couldn’t get enough of the wines here and this was surprising for me, being a whisky girl. I’d heard about some fantastic local wine bars and decided to end our trip with an amusing and informative Dalmatian wine tasting at D'Vino wine bar in the Old Town – it was mellow and cosy, with several outdoor tables in the narrow side street. We also managed to get some time by the pool at our apartment to relax completely before heading back to London. Aboard our bus back to the airport, we drove past the nearby coastal town of Cavtat that was founded by the ancient Greeks. This huddle of old stone houses are built on a pine-scented peninsular sheltering a pebble beach to one side, and a natural harbour to the other and if we had more time, we would probably spend a day here.
I can now say that Dubrovnik lives up to the hype. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone not smitten by the city’s cobbled stone streets, baroque buildings, and the endless shimmer of the Adriatic, or failing to be awe-struck by a walk along the ancient city walls that protected the capital of a sophisticated republic for centuries.
George Bernard Shaw was enchanted by this beautiful city, about which he said “those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik”, as well as, famously, describing it as “the pearl of the Adriatic”. I agree with the wise Mr. Shaw. If an opportunity presents itself to visit, especially in the off-peak season, it shouldn’t be missed!
My love for Poland, its food and history go back several years. I read Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel where one of the titular characters (Abel Rosnovski) is from Poland and have been fascinated ever since. Back in 2011, when I was a writer at a magazine in Hampstead, the only decent spot for lunch was a family run Polish cafe. Taking a break from the usual sandwiches, I decided to try the pierogis here and instantly fell in love. Pierogis are steamed, pillowy dumplings that are popular in Poland and Eastern Europe. Typical fillings for the savoury version are potato, sauerkraut, cheese, ground meat and mushroom. There is a fruit filling for the sweet version. The dumplings are served with a topping, such as butter, sour cream or fried onions. I also knew back then when I first tried these pierogis and experienced the hospitality of the staff that visiting Poland would be one of my most rewarding trips and it certainly was.
Every year in January, I have a tendency to book my holidays for the entire year during this month when everyone else is recovering from the Christmas break. I ordinarily have a quiet Christmas as I see my family over the summer and this is why I am able to save up a little for my trips. It's a sort of here's to new beginnings feeling, something to look forward to in the year ahead, no matter how it pans out. British Airways was offering flights for £65 to visit Krakow for a weekend. Naturally, I was very excited to book this right away, but the tickets were for early February which is not ideal weather to visit Poland but then again, I love travelling in the off-peak seasons as there's shorter queues, fewer people and better deals on hotels. I went ahead and booked my three day weekend trip.
My flight landed late on a Friday night, at 11pm and I had arranged a taxi to pick me up from my hotel beforehand. I met my taxi driver Miko at the empty, ghostly airport. He was perfectly amiable, however, as he led me to the taxi rank, the atmosphere outside the airport felt very eerie. It was a cold, clear night and the light from the waxing gibbous moon on the snowy empty streets felt very other-worldly. What snapped me back to reality was when Miko handed me some local (liqueur soaked cherry) chocolates (a welcoming gesture) before we headed to our hotel. To top it all, he played some jazz music to make the creepy, tall tree-lined roads appear less intimidating.
I booked my two night stay at the Hotel Grodek in Krakow's charming Old Town and as we approached the hotel, I caught a sight of the lit up Wawel Castle, standing proudly atop the Royal Hill. Miko bragged about its grandeur and double checked that it was on my list of places to visit in my short trip. As he handed my luggage when we reached the hotel, he said that the city would make me laugh and cry. I was puzzled by this remark and he said he'd return to drop me back to the airport at the end of my trip and that I would be able to relate to what he meant.
My itinerary was simple - Wawel Castle, Old Town tour, Schindler's Factory, Auschwitz and then wander on my own to have my fill of pierogis and some local vodka here. After a gorgeous breakfast with local cheese such as oscypek, twaróg and traditional sourdough rye bread known as Chleb Zwykly na Zakwasie, I headed out and walked along the slippery, snowy paths of the city to explore Wawel Castle. The exteriors and interiors of this castle are absolutely enchanting and boasts impressive views over the Vistula River. To my luck, there were very few people around, so I had plenty of time to admire the Gothic-Renaissance vaults, frescoes and their National Art Collection.
After a quick stop for a coffee, I walked in the light rain (I live in London, so the rain doesn't really phase me anymore) to the charming parts of the cobbled stoned Old Town. I had the main square to myself, which again, was a breath of fresh air than having to battle selfie sticks in the summer. In the central square, the elongated medieval Sukiennice Cloth Hall is a reminder of Kraków’s historical place as a hub of trade and commerce in Eastern Europe. Today, there are stalls of local tradesmen selling handicrafts and cloth products that echo the oriental imports that were once toted under its roof.
I noticed the difference in height of the two towers of St Mary’s Church in the square. I asked a local tour guide (who had just completed a tour) for a quick explanation behind the different heights of the towers and he kindly narrated the gory legend behind this. Under the reign of Duke Boleslaus, a decision was made to add two towers to the body of the church standing by the main market square. Two brothers embarked on the task. When the younger realised that his tower was much shorter, he murdered his brother out of envy, and the construction stopped. However, the murderer was filled with remorse and on the day that the church was to be consecrated, he stabbed himself with the same knife that he used to kill his brother, and dropped dead from the top of his tower to the ground below. Once again, I was left feeling eerie after this tale, still looking at the two towers and the tour guide sensing this, recommended that I try some local vodka before heading to the last leg of the activities for the day - Schindler's Factory.
I decided to have some local pierogis instead and walked past an unnamed cafe that had a drawing of pierogi on a board. This appeared to be an 18th century quaint house that was converted to an eatery. There was no menu, only a blackboard with about three options for pierogi. This was the ideal, no-frills local place right up my alley. There was a friendly woman and her grandmother who talked about Polish food and said how much they would love to try authentic Indian food someday. I also couldn't help but admire the various old family photos on the walls which added such a personal touch. I had the potato and mushroom pierogis and they were absolutely delicious. Given my love for these dumplings, the plate of about ten pierogis garnished with chives and sour cream felt like a hug on a plate.
After my lunch, I was ready to take in everything Schindler's Factory had to offer and was keen on walking through an integral part of war history. The factory tells the gripping history of Krakow during World War II – the Holocaust, the inhabitants who were fed Nazi propaganda, the Jews who were forced to live in a ghetto and all the victims of the war terror. The factory managed to capture many levels of difficulties that people had to deal with at that horrifying time. After a stroll through the Jewish quarter, I knew I had to be stronger and come to terms with what to expect the next day on my trip to Auschwitz.
It felt inappropriate to venture into town for a drink that night, but the receptionist Agnieska at my hotel said that I need to stay in the present and take the best of what Krakow had to offer and this meant embracing the old and the new. She recommended a fantastic family run bar nearby specialising in local vodka. Now, I'm not a vodka person at all, but I also believe in trying the local tipple. I had tried the Palinka in Budapest, Pilsner in Prague and the Killepitsch in Dusseldorf, so off I went to the small, yet airy, modern Wodka Bar (Vodka is spelled Wodka in Polish). The bartender/owner and I had a chat about me being a tourist and his smile turned into a frown when I told him that I live in the United Kingdom. "Please don't tell me that you are here for a bachelorette party!" he said, almost worrying that I was going to say yes. I assured him that I was merely a history buff, travelling solo which both he and his wife found fascinating. They offered me sweet, fully flavoured vodka flights such as fig, wild rose, elderberry & pear. This was a new experience for me and he said that vodka is meant to be enjoyed slowly much to the contradiction of many consumers who take it as a shot. I echoed this sentiment as a whisky drinker, I drink my spirits slowly and in very limited quantities to enjoy and savour them properly.
Just as I was finishing my last sip of the fig flavoured vodka, a group of six loud girls barged in and demanded a table. The couple very politely told them that they were fully booked and that this bar was not a place for bachelorette parties. This conversation happened outside and seemed very animated as the girls from the hen-do were clearly inebriated and not pleased. As Krakow is relatively cheaper than many of its European counterparts, it's a hot destination for many stag and hen-dos.
After a good night's sleep I headed to Auschwitz the next morning. The drive was an hour and when I arrived, the skies were dark and moody and the grounds still filled with snow as I passed through the gates of Birkenau, a part of the concentration camp. This was a life-changing experience for me and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Krakow. It is haunting, but absolutely necessary for people to learn about the nightmares of the Holocaust and the events that unfolded less than a hundred years ago.
As I walked passed the gate across this huge, bleak stretch of land, a cold wind whistled by somewhere in the distance and it honestly felt like there were ghosts all around. It was a faint but unsettling feeling that can drive anyone into introspection and I couldn't help but think how man can be incredibly innovative and send a person into space, yet can be awfully destructive too, especially in times of conflict. What made it even more disturbing was reading the phrase 'Arbeit Macht Frei' meaning 'work sets you free' at the entrance, leaving so many questions unanswered. As the wind howled past the barbed wires and over the ruined buildings, I was filled with tears and was deeply mournful. All I can say is that walking through those gates of Birkenau also known as the death gate, sent a shiver down my spine, yet made me grateful more than ever, to have been born decades after the tragic war. I prayed for those millions of souls and left with a heavy heart and an experience that I know I can never forget.
Poland as a country, has endured some of the most difficult times in modern history, yet the locals are the friendliest people I've met and have immense respect for. As I prepared to depart from this beautiful country, I narrated my bittersweet experience to the same taxi driver Miko, understanding what he meant when I first met him. I promised myself that I would return someday, to have more fruity vodka, more pierogis and perhaps include a visit to the legendary salt mines and Bialowieza forest.
Disclaimer: As Covid-19 has brought all our travel plans to a standstill, there are a lot of elements in this piece below that will be updated shortly. As it stands, the possibility of air travel looks unlikely for the forseeable future.
Many of my friends have asked how or why I tend to travel so often and make various assumptions. Well, like everyone else in the world, I have had to work for everything I've wanted and about five years ago, I just chose to make travel one of my priorities in life. In order to make this happen, I have had to save and plan meticulously.
I learned the art of saving since my first solo adventure back in 2010 and can definitely say that it is an art and not everyone is willing to do it. I also tend to let other bits take a backseat in my life such as shopping, going to the cinema (which is awfully overpriced in London), buying the latest gadgets as these do not hold any priority nor my interests in comparison to my travels.
If you find yourself wondering how others are able to save for travel, you may be able to benefit from a few of these money saving tips.
The Solo Traveller:
Personally, my solo travel adventures have always been very fulfilling experiences, where I’ve learned a great deal about both the destination and myself. Nothing gives you the same chance at self-discovery as travel, and when you’re setting off by yourself, consider it as an opportunity to see how you function by yourself, outside your comfort zone. Solo travel does not mean that you’ll be lonely, it may mean that you will be facing every little hiccup and challenge by yourself, but relying on your own intuition which also means realising how strong you really are! Keep these tips in mind to help you discover your best self on the road.
Make a list of the countries or cities you would like to visit.
Next to each, write-
Start with a travel fund this year. This does not mean opening any actual account, just a piece of paper or an excel sheet to work this out will suffice. Calculate the bare minimum you need to live (rent, food, bills etc) giving yourself a small buffer for any emergency (around £100-200). From your savings, take about 40 to 50% and deposit this into your travel fund. The moment your salary comes in, deposit this amount, no matter how big or small into your travel account. DO NOT touch your travel account.
Is your destination accessible by road? If so, can you drive there? Calculate the fuel costs along with parking and toll charges and compare this with public transport to help you make a decision on getting there. For example, it is easier and cheaper for me to get the Eurostar train from London to Paris than fly with an airline to Charles de Gaulle airport.
If flying is your only option, do some research when choosing your airport as sometimes, with low cost airlines, getting to the airport may cost you the same amount as choosing an airline which flies from a more central airport in your city.
Resources and essentials:
Chargers, converters and adapters (take more than one charger, converter and adapter, you’ll thank me, honestly) are what can make or break your trip. It’s worth buying more than one as you do not want to be hunting for a suitable charger on your holiday. Also, a world adapter / converter found in most airports is a life-saver.
I also believe that travel insurance is essential. While many of us underestimate repatriation, don’t go to a destination without insurance and it is always better to be safe than sorry. An annual world travel insurance from companies like Insure and Go will do just fine. These cost around £44 per year.
You can find some reasonable sales on almost every airline's website which you can keep a tab on. You can also look into deals on booking.com for hotels, skyscanner.com for flights and consider the amount it will take to get to the airport from your home as well as to the hotel in your destination from the airport.
So now that you’ve identified where to go, how much it is going to cost you, let's focus on planning your trip.
Have a Plan:
While it’s not necessary to fully chart out every little detail of your vacation, it is good to do your homework and know your basic itinerary in advance.
Make sure you know important data like flight information, your hotel name, address and phone number, and any emergency contact information beforehand. Be certain that you have access to one or more copies of this data. Store the information in your phone. Print a copy and keep it with your important documents. Being prepared now helps avoid complications later.
Contact your hotel or Air BnB host on a regular basis prior to your trip and inform them of your plans or any changes. Save the numbers on your phone and verify with your phone network provider if your roaming is enabled.
Your hotel or host may even help with how you can get to their address from the airport. This was very useful to me when my hotel in Krakow offered a taxi to pick me up when I informed them that my flight was delayed and was going to land very late at night. If you find yourself in a similar situation, request the hotel to provide the taxi driver's name and the car that he / she will be using to pick you up just to be cautious.
For added support and security, give a copy of your itinerary and contact information to a loved one at home and check in regularly by phone, whatsapp or email.
Don’t Panic When the Plan Changes:
Chaos, language barriers and unforseen circumstances are all a natural part of travel. There are times when flights will be delayed, the hotel room will be disappointing, the weather will be unpredictable and your suitcase may break open. You may even get lost in the maze of unfamiliar streets. Test yourself to see if any of the landmarks or street names ring a bell at such times to find your way around.
Just remember that millions of travellers have experienced this and as long as you have your passport and some emergency money with you, it is going to be alright.
Take a deep breath, find somewhere to calm down, sit and think (preferably with WiFi access) and come up with a new plan. You’ll eventually get there when you have figured this 'plan B' out and it will still be enjoyable.
The difference between a travel nightmare and an exciting adventure to share later is all in your willingness to adapt in the moment.
When using public Wi-Fi, don’t log into your bank account, it can wait till you’re back at your hotel. Always let your bank know about your travel plans (especially overseas) well in advance.
Eating street food in developing countries can be a slight risk, especially with consuming anything with water. If you are drinking juice from a street food stall at a local market, ensure that there is no ice as you cannot be sure of the water that has been used for the ice.
Verify the place that you will be staying at with various websites. For example, if I am staying in a hotel, I check booking.com, tripadvisor and google reviews to trust it fully before completing my booking.
If it’s late at night and you’re wandering about and a street looks dark and dodgy, don’t go there. Take the longer, noisier, safer, main road route instead where there are people.
Always have your map ready before leaving a restaurant or a museum and heading back to your hotel so that you know exactly how to get back safe.
If you are using your debit / credit card everywhere, please ask for a receipt and keep these receipts handy. Check every time (it takes only a minute) if you have been overcharged for anything.
Ensure your phone battery is full when you start your day at your destination. As you will be taking photos with your phone throughout the day, it is worth investing in a phone power pack which acts as a back up if and when your phone battery runs out.
Remain Open to New Opportunities:
One of the biggest advantages of travelling alone is that you don’t have to stick to the itinerary and you’re free to change your plans if something better comes along.
This can be something as simple as deciding which activity to pursue in the moment, whether it is exploring the city centre or chilling by the beach, checking out of a hotel early, or even taking a day trip elsewhere near the destination chosen which has been highly recommended by the locals.
Just make sure to adjust your itinerary’s important information and to let anyone who might be expecting you know about your change of plans.
Always Carry Important Documents and Essentials with you:
Always carry your emergency documents hidden somewhere on you. Hidden travel wallets or bags with inner zipped pockets are perfect for this purpose. I also keep a photo of my passport bio page on my phone and in my email, just in case.
Include identification (your passport or a photocopy), emergency cash or a debit / credit card (make sure it will be compatible with local currency or ATMs), and contact information for the hotel where you are staying, as well for anyone who you might be checking in with regularly.
This will not only help you in case of a minor trouble (pointing at an address is much easier than trying to speak a foreign language if you end up lost) but can also be used to keep your loved ones informed in case of an emergency. You may also want to pack your toothbrush, an extra underwear, t shirt, any minimal jewellery and all your chargers in your carry on / cabin baggage.
Enjoy that one special moment:
Lastly, you are out there to enjoy and have a trip of a lifetime. While the photos you are taking now will remind you of these wonderful moments in the years ahead, for at least ten minutes, put that camera
or phone away, get off social media and sit down. I do this on every trip - take a deep breath, close my eyes and soak in the moment. I also remember to smile and be grateful to have come this far.
Remember, you chose this destination for a reason, you are present and witnessing everything you read about this place (the good and the bad) so give yourself a pat on the back for the very fact that you made the effort to plan, save and go there.
There’s a welcoming air about Budapest, right from the grand palace sitting atop the Buda hills to the bridges that lead to quirky Pest.
The city is very picturesque offering beautiful views of the Parliament and other landmarks and I particularly love cities with hills and viewpoints. I still have the happy image of me holding a nice warm cup of mulled wine watching the river and the bridges on a cold February night - simply delightful.
Hungary is steeped in more than a thousand years of history, right from the Roman era, full of battles, kings, invasions by allies, the World Wars, communism and finally, its share of peaceful years. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy of the Danube came into being and the history of Budapest the year 1872 stands out as a milestone, for it was then that the three separate settlements of Pest, Buda and Óbuda (literally "Old" Buda) were united into one city.
Food: There's a lot more to Hungarian food than goulash. There’s so much to savour- from the local version of the Weiner Schnitzel to the Langos which serves as a quick cheesy snack. I was in Budapest when it was extremely cold, but, popping into one of the local cafes and having a hearty soup did the trick. There’s also stuffed cabbage (usually stuffed with pork) chicken paprikash and the incredible array of desserts. I don’t understand why many have not talked about the nutty cakes and dessert wines in Hungary, because they are one of the best I have tasted. I could go back to Budapest just for the dessert and the wines! I would highly recommend Café Gerbaud for the Som Loi Galuska – raisins soaked in the delightful Tokaj Aszu mixed with walnuts and served with whipped cream.
Drink: Budapest boasts a list of excellent wines – from Villány’s full-bodied reds and Somló’s fruity whites to honey sweet Tokaj. There’s also the killer apricot brandy – pálinka that dates back to the Middle Ages and goes down very well after any dish. What I found fascinating was the number of ‘ruin pubs’ in Pest. These are derelict and abandoned buildings occupied about ten years ago and kept the old charm of these buildings without much renovation.
My friend, the lovely Vitor Hugo, recommended the oldest and possibly most popular ruin pub- Szimpla Kert, which is possible the quirkiest of them all. There’s hairdryers and old rocking chairs hanging from the ceiling along with art and graffiti adorned all over.
The beauty and grandeur of the city has evolved significantly over the decades. Architecturally, the city is a treasure trove, with enough baroque, neoclassical, Eclectic and Art Nouveau buildings to satisfy everyone. Most of what you see today was built during the capital’s ‘golden age' in the late 19th century. The three main sites in the Buda hills are The Citadella with the proud Liberty Monument (the lady with a palm frond proclaiming freedom) perched on Gellert Hill, The Royal Palace and the Fisherman’s Bastion that is in front of St Mathhias Church.
During the 14th century, the Angevin kings from France established Buda as the royal seat of power. They built a succession of palaces on the Várhegy (Castle Hill), reaching its peak during the Renaissance under the reign of king Mátyás with a golden age of prosperity and a flourishing of the arts. Hungary's colossal defeat in the Battle of Mohács in 1526 against the invading Turks paved the way for the Ottoman occupation of Hungary. After their victory at Mohács, under Sultan Süleyman I (the Magnificent) many churches were converted into mosques, fine bathhouses constructed and defensive works modernized. Buda became the seat of a Grand Vizier.
Soaking the troubles away:
Budapest is known to have an abundance of thermal baths. As a result, ‘taking the waters’ has been a Budapest experience since the time of the Romans. Here, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to bathhouses– Turkish-era, Art Nouveau and modern establishments. Some people come seeking a cure for whatever ails them, but the majority are there for fun and relaxation. The best and oldest of them all are the Szechenyi Baths, where I felt strange, yet, wonderful using the outdoor pool. The temperature of the pool water was 38 degrees and the air outside then was probably -2 degrees.
Apart from being very friendly, the locals love telling the tourists their bit of the city's history and landmarks. The taxi drivers in particular, will recommend some fine restaurants and must-see places with a warm smile and a sense of pride.
I was up against time, but managed to get a taxi that drove past Margaret Island, Obuda, Erzsebetvaros and the Jewish Quarter, which are all certainly worth a visit. There’s also the Holocaust Memorial, Hungarian State Opera House, Heroes Square, house of Terror and Budapest’s stunning great synagogue.
Flights operate on a daily basis to Ferec Liszt International Airport.
Currency: Hungary’s currency is the Forint (Ft) and prices in most shops and restaurants are in Forint, but some state and accept the Euro as well. Though card payments are accepted everywhere, it’s best to carry some cash for the taxis, markets and pubs.
Stay: There are numerous choices for hotels and hostels, but I decided to stay at the Hilton in Buda overlooking the Danube and Pest for a more peaceful trip. Pest is certainly a more vibrant part of the city and better connected, yet, I found it slightly overcrowded with various groups celebrating their stag-dos.
I have always wanted to visit the South of Spain. I imagined what it would be like to befriend the locals and eat traditional food. I was lucky to befriend Lola, a former colleague and now a good friend who is from Gualchos - a delightful town at the South Eastern tip of Spain.
When I told her how much I would love to visit the region, she was kind enough to let me accompany her on one of her trips back home as we both currently live in London. I will also shamelessly admit that certain movies featuring road-trips across Spain also made me want to experience all that floss portrayed for myself.
We were hosted by Lola’s sister, Alicia in Granada. This city is the capital of the province of Granada, in the autonomous community of Andalusia, Spain. Granada is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains which are clearly visible as you land in Granada. It’s also only an hour by road from the Mediterranean coast, Costa Tropical.
The city's symbol: Everywhere we walked in Granada, we saw pomegranate imagery: in drawings and paintings; on signs, pottery; as statues, fountains and embedded into pavements and the road. While I thought this was some intricate design in this delightful, buzzing city, Lola told me that the pomegranate (in Spanish it's known as Granada) is the heraldic device of Granada and hence a proud symbol.
The Alhambra palace: As much as the word' must-see is debatable in my travel dictionary, the Alhambra, a Moorish citadel and palace, sits on a hill proudly in the heart of the city. It is the most renowned building of the Andalusian Islamic historical legacy with its many cultural attractions that make Granada a popular destination among the touristic cities of Spain, therefore, a must-see indeed.
The Alhambra is Granada’s love letter to Moorish culture, a place where fountains trickle, leaves rustle, and ancient spirits seem to mysteriously linger. Part palace, part fort, part World Heritage site, part lesson in medieval architecture, the Alhambra has long enchanted a never-ending line of visitors. For me, spending the day here was like walking through a pleasant dream.
The Alhambra takes its name from the Arabic al-qala’a al-hamra (the Red Castle). The first palace on the site was built by Samuel Ha-Nagid, the Jewish grand vizier of one of Granada’s 11th-century Zirid sultans.
This palace is a soothing arrangement of pathways, patios, pools, fountains, tall trees and, roses of every imaginable hue. Climb the steps outside the courtyard to the Escalera del Agua, a delightful bit of garden engineering, where you will find roses of every colour, Spanish orange trees and water flowing along a shaded staircase. Ensure you book your tickets ahead of your trip to avoid disappointment.
People: The people are very friendly and those in the market will try their best to win you over with their grand and unique designs of lanterns, tea and various moorish influenced souvenirs. The city is also well-known within Spain for the University of Granada which is why it has many students and possibly the reason for growing vibrant bars and restaurants.
Food: I let Lola and Alicia order for me as there’s nothing better than eating what the locals recommend. On our first night in Granada, we were offered croquettes (chicken, béchamel and parsley) on the house while we waited for the mains. The concept of a large main is very rare in Spain.
The numerous small dishes (tapas) are usually shared and go well with a pint of the local cerveza (beer). Boiled or fried quail’s eggs and potatoes are very popular on the tapas menu in Southern Spain.
Unfortunately, the only street snack I had, thanks to limited time was a Pionono. This is a custard based dessert that’s quite smaill, fresh and has a pleasant, zesty aftertaste.
The simple breakfast is what won me over – pan con tomate. This is fresh tomato puree spread over crusty bread with a splash of olive oil and black pepper. I had every morning for the four days that we were there! such humble ingredients creating pure magic.
Lola’s mother was wonderful and made a delightful tortilla (Spanish omelette) with aubergines. There was homemade avocado puree with a hint of garlic too.
Overall, it was a simply beautiful and peaceful experience for me- right from strolling about the markets in Granada, to picking oranges and almonds from trees with Lola's mother one summery, breezy morning while watching the Mediterranean Sea at a distance, accompanied with the snow capped Sierra Nevada range on the other side of Gualchos. I am also glad I visited these non-touristy parts of Southern Spain as compared to cities like Malaga, which are flooded by tourists every summer with a few chippies near the beaches.
Getting there: Flights operate from London City aiport to Granada 3-4 times a week. Renting a car to get around is recommended, although we got the bus from Granada to Motril to get to Gualchos which was only a 1.5 hour journey.
A day trip to Lake Bled and Bohinj from Slovenia's capital city Ljubljana using public transport
Lake Bled and Bohinj - I decided to travel to Slovenia, one of the more underrated European countries and it is an amazing place to visit. I arrived early in the morning after an overnight journey from Lindau, Germany to Ljubljana.
Bled and Bohinj were the places in my mind and decided to do a day trip there. I took a local bus from Ljubljana Main Bus Station to Lake Bled. This beautiful lake is located 475 m above sea level in the Julian Alps in the north-western part of Slovenia. Getting to Lake Bled by bus was quite easy, from about 6am to 10pm you more or less have hourly departures from the main bus station in Ljubljana. I took the bus at 7am. The journey itself to Lake Bled is a treat as you pass through the most scenic views. The first thing I did was to visit the tourist information center. They are quite helpful and they give you a good insight about the place and places to visit nearby. I would recommend to visit it before you go off exploring Bled.
The best way to see the lake is to walk along the shore or hire a boat so you can paddle around the lake itself. I decided to walk around it. The first view of Lake Bled is like it came out of a fairy tale and it is pure magic- from the emerald green lake, the church on an islet to the castle up on top of the hill. I found it to be a very romantic and special place to visit. The light drizzle of rain made it even more beautiful. There is a church, a castle and a museum in this tiny islet. I skipped seeing the Bled Castle on top of the hill (viewpoint) as I also wanted to visit Bohinj and was short of time. Lake Bled was a perfect place and a sight to behold all year long and make sure you stop by here on your visit to Slovenia, it is well worth the journey.
Hiking in Bohinj:
My next stop was Bohinj, which is further 45 min journey from Lake Bled. To all the people who love hiking, this is the place for you. I was mind blown seeing the gorgeous Julian Alps that shimmer and form the backdrop of Lake Bohinj. The weather was also perfect as it was not very hot making, it ideal to hike. I was conquered by this amazing beauty that will surely captivate anyone who visits Lake Bohinj. I just wished I had my swim gear and I could jump right in the water. From Lake Bohinj I hired a cycle to visit my next destination in my mind, Savica. It’s just 10kms away from Lake Bohinj and it is gorgeous. I was on cloud nine after I came across the spectacular waterfall, hidden amidst the steep walls of the Komarča. Cycling to Savica was totally worth it.
You get to see and feel the Julian Alps on one side and the greenery on the other side. I had to trek for about 30 min to reach Savica waterfalls. The path is well maintained and the steps regular for the most part, so it is not too difficult. They have built steps almost the entire way to the waterfall. There is enough space to cross path with people going in the other direction making it easier for cyclists and hikers alike.
The Savica Waterfall is the source of the Sava Bohinjka, known under the name of Savica to the spot where it flows into Lake Bohinj. It is one of the must-see sights for Bohinj first-timers, and it is possible that you will join those who visit Savica each and every time they come to Bohinj. Savica is very unique among world waterfalls – its watercourse is divided into two parts in the hidden undergrounds. The famous A-shaped waterfall normally comes into sight at an altitude of 836 m and is 78 m high. It is fed by the waters from the Valley of the Triglav Lakes and Pršivec that flow to it through a horizontal cave tunnel. The Karst cave with the source is full of syphons and lakes and is only accessible with a guide and proper equipment.
It was evening by the time I was done exploring these gorgeous places and it was time to head back to Ljubljana. Travelling back to Ljubljana was easy. I reached late night at 10 pm and checked in to a Hostel (Kva Hostel) back in Ljubljana to end my day trip to Bled and Bohinj in Slovenia. This was my first solo trip and it was entirely worth it. Yay! :)
Do check out my photos from my trip.
I can’t help but smile now as I pen down my adventures in Iceland as I’m listening to Ludovico’s Elegy for the Arctic, it’s quite fitting.
It was my 30th birthday a few days ago and I wanted to celebrate this milestone by taking it up a notch with my partner this year instead of having an intimate dinner at home with Christmas leftovers.
I wanted something a little awe-inspiring, a little extraordinary from what we do every year. When I looked at the map of Europe, Iceland seemed to be the answer. I knew instantly that it required meticulous planning as we would have poor weather and the holiday season prices to handle. I started putting money aside and making tour reservations as early as April in the year. In a nutshell, this was a remarkable trip and yes, we had a very snowy, white Christmas right next to an active volcano named Katla where our hotel was located.
I have always loved Iceland, not just for its natural beauty from the photos I’d seen, but also with Geography being my favourite subject, I knew that this country was the one place closest to my heart where I could witness geysers, hot springs, volcanoes, glaciers, ice caves and most of all, the place where two tectonic plates of the earth meet. Continental drift as a subject, is very close to my heart as it takes me back to the days where I sat up all night for a science project when I was 14 years old in high school. The plan was to visit the capital (it's only place where the flight would land anyway) and then head out to the southern and eastern coast. I booked our small group tour with Arctic Adventures for this.
Reykjavik: As were there during Christmas, the city, like many across the world was brightly lit up and was very festive. It was dark and stormy when we arrived on Christmas eve. We used the Flybus Shuttle service that took us to Reykjavik’s city centre. Our apartment was very close to Harpa Music Hall.
Reykjavik has a lot of character, every street boasts a series of independent shops, mainly clothes- knits, outdoor hiking wear and gear etc. I bought the iconic handknitted Iceland sweater. This sweater is so symbolic to Iceland, I imagined the traditional patterns being handed down from generation to generation, like a family heirloom. The yarn from Icelandic sheep is unique because the breed has been isolated from other breeds for centuries. All those years of exposure to the sub-Arctic climate has produced wool with two distinctive fibers. There’s warm, soft, insulating fibers close to the body and long, water repellent fibers on the surface which explains why you can wear these sweaters without jackets.
On our way to see the Sólfar (Sun Voyager) a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason, which is at the seafront, we stumbled across a bakery Brauð & Co.which is really famous and after trying the snúður - a soft cinnamon bun (much like the Danish Kanelsnegl or the Swedish Kanelbulle) I can see why people would queue here in the freezing conditions. Every bite of the this bun is warming, both to the body and the soul.
Standing tall and proud in Reykjavik’s skyline is Hallgrimskirkja, the modern Lutheran cathedral where there are some striking views of the city and the seafront atop the main tower. This impressive church is visible throughout the city and is one of the prominent landmarks.
Reykjavik is one of those cities in Northern Europe where you can easily just wander and enjoy the million independent shops by the locals without seeing the chains of Starbucks, H & M’s and other brands, much like Helsinki, Gothenburg and Copenhagen. Reykjavik is more special because at every turn, you find something scenic and picture perfect.
There are abundant vegan restaurants here, more of a trend and was a boon to my husband and I who are both vegetarians. A special experience was at a local bookshop where we were offered cognac by the owner to keep warm.
More on this trip coming soon, do have a look at the photos below in the meantime. :)
This capital city of Czech Republic in all its Bohemian splendour is a paradise for the urban explorer.
Nearly every hidden street in Prague boasts cobbled lanes, ancient chapels, century old pubs and more. What is the most rewarding moment is watching the sunset over its church domes with a pint of Europe’s best beer.
First impression: Prague is simply beautiful. There are possibly more words to describe this city, but what struck me instantly, was the view of the castle from the stunning Charles Bridge- a memory that will live with me forever.
The City: I couldn’t get enough of the spectacle of a 14th-century stone bridge, a hilltop castle, the astronomical clock which is an architectural wonder and a lovely river that seems to change its colour every hour – the Vltava. It is the same river that inspired Smetana’s Moldau - one of the most beautiful pieces in classical music.
Highlights: Undoubtedly, Charles Bridge which is adorned with baroque statues, numerous artists and buskers. Try to walk from the old town square all the way up to the castle for breathtaking views of the city. A visit to the Jewish museum and synagogues are haunting with a deep insight into the history of the great wars.
Food: I eagerly wanted to taste Bramboraky- potato pancakes shallow fried and seasoned with garlic and onions. I also savoured the Smažený sýr – batter fried cheese which all went down incredibly well with a large pint of Pilsner Urquell. To try some of the street food in the Old Town Centre, I had the Trdelnik- a sweet cinnamon flavoured Slovak-Czech hollow pastry bread roll that smells and tastes heavenly.
What made my visit even more fantastic was trying the pan fried barley with shallots and gherkins at a pub which opened in the year 1466! There is also a large variety of hearty cream-based soups and smoked meats that many will love.
People: Ethnic Czechs were referred to as Bohemians in English until the early 20th century. I saw friendly faces everywhere, right from the taxi driver, to the staff at my hotel and the artists I managed to speak to. Getting around is easy, but I still didn’t hesitate to ask a local for directions. Some even went out of their way to guide me to the Rudolfinum and let me know what’s on, when I expressed my love for classical music.
Truly Unique: The beer pubs made me laugh with their weird caricatures on the walls and menus. You can simply place a beer mat on the table and a pint is followed almost immediately after. There’s also street art across the city and cubist lamp posts that makes this century old city quirky, yet classic.
Getting there: Flights operate on a daily basis to Vaclav Havel Airport.
Gothenburg or Göteborg is the second largest city in Sweden with great character.
There is an air of charm and quirkiness in the city that's often considered Stockholm's shadow.
The harbour, the 17th-century canals of the city, botanical gardens and the Volvo Museum were all certainly worth wandering through.
The main adventure was visiting the Archipelago of Gothenburg /Göteborgs Skärgård.
As I was short of time in this magnificent city, I managed to explore only the islands of the Southern Archipelago.
Sweden undoubtedly has a great variety of seafood - I ventured on smoked salmon with potatoes at a local cafe along with my camera by the sea. What's even nicer was sitting by the canal with a Kanelbullar (Swedish Cinnamon Roll) and watching the trams rattle past on the cobbled pathways.
There are many friendly faces everywhere, so I did not hesitate to ask them if I could experience a small part of the culture and even have a Fika (Swedish Coffee break) with one of the locals.
It is amazing how the archipelago is completely car-free and the usual mode of transport is by foot, cycles or mopeds. A fisherman even said he gets his local supplies every Sunday from a 'portable supermarket' that arrives on a ferry every Sunday.
Flights operate on a daily basis to Goteburg Landvetter Airport.
Getting to the Archipelago:
The southern islands are car free and you get there by ferry from the boat terminal Saltholmen. To get to the northern islands you take the ferry from Lilla Varholmen on Hisingen. It is easy to get to both Saltholmen and Lilla Varholmen from Gothenburg, either by car or public transport.
Good to know:
Cash and all major credit and debit cards are accepted in most shops and transport hubs. While the Euro is widely accepted, exchanging a few Euros to Swedish Krona.
Check out the slideshow below with the photos that will hopefully justify my thoughts on this beautiful city.