Christmas cheer in the ‘Paris of the East’

Budapest, Hungary

It was a smooth and quick flight from London to Budapest – probably due to the fact that my friend, Sue, and I had not seen each other in ages and had far too much to say. I am convinced the people on the plane where thankful when we landed and they didn’t have to hear us jabber away. Our excited chit chat did however get us more food on the plane!

We arrived at our apartment around 11pm and were pleasantly surprised it was so fantastic. At a bargain of £10 a night each we were not expecting it to be so modern and comfy. We settled in with a cup of coffee before heading to bed in anticipation for exploring this unknown city which is often referred to as the ‘Paris of the East’.

Our first morning the sky was dull and grey but having been informed that that weather was unseasonally warm for this time of year, we could not really complain that it was 8 degrees when it is normally minus 10. Having flicked through the guidebook we decided to head out of town to Statue Park. This historical site displays mementos from the communist era that were once actually displayed around the town. These gigantic symbolic statues are rather impressive and oppressive at the same time, put together with the misty atmosphere it certainly was a chilly reminder of the dictatorship that ruled this country for many many years. It is here that you can see the ‘hero’s’ of the communist world such as Bela Kun, Marx, Lenin, Engles as well as the famous replica of Stalin’s Boots.

After a freezing couple of hours we were more than happy to jump on the bus and head for the Castle District on the Buda side of Budapest. A very picturesque part of the town with beautiful views over the Danube River – even with the mist over the river you could still make out the impressive Parliament Buildings and the Chain Bridge that connects Buda and Pest. The Fisherman’s Bastion was my favourite building on this side of the river followed by the multi coloured glazed roof of Matyas Church.

By 4pm it was starting to get dark so we headed off to the Christmas Markets which was the main reason why we had come to Budapest. The shopping street of Vaci was beautifully lined with Christmas lights leading up to Varosmajor square. The square was decorated with a large Christmas tree and lines of wooden sheds that housed all sorts of Christmas goodies. We got in line at the mulled wine counter to warm up our hands and then leisurely took a stroll around the market looking at the all the local crafts.

There is so much to see in Budapest that we were up early again the next day – this time we got on a hop off hop on bus so we could hear a little bit of the history of the town. I will be honest and say I was disappointed as they had limited buses running and we heard more music on the headphones than we did interesting facts. The scenery made up for it as we took in the Vajdahunyad castle which is a bit of a mismatch of architecture but with it’s medieval looking towers you could see why they refer to it as ‘Sleeping Beauty’s’ castle and the impressive figure of the Archangel Gabriel at Hero’s square.

Included in our hop on hop off ticket was a river cruise along the Danube. Not the biggest boat on the river it meant that some of us had to go and sit on the top deck and gosh was it cold. We grabbed a glass of mulled wine to keep us warm but I don’t even think I was half way through before it got cold. The views were good and the commentary muffled. Keen to warm up it was back to the Christmas market for some more mulled wine and a Hungarian treat – Langos. Langos is like a flat bread covered in onions, bacon and cheese and baked in a pizza like oven. You then get given sauces such as sour cream, ketchup or spicy chilly to paint (yes with paint brushes) on — very yummy.

After looking at the Christmas markets again we got tired of the crowds and headed back to our apartment for dinner before heading out for the evening. There was a bar directly opposite our apartment called the ‘Old Man’s Bar’ which we decided did not look appealing and so we headed for Liszt Ferenc Square where there were numerous bars and cafe’s to choose from. The atmosphere was quite and we had to laugh out loud when we walked back to our apartment and straight into the doors of the ‘Old Man’s Bar’. It’s name was totally deceiving and we throughly enjoyed our evening with new found friends and great tunes!

It did take us a while to get moving on the Sunday morning but I must admit we might have made more effort if we had known that there was going to be hundreds of half naked Santa’s running through the town (I guess we had to make to do with reading it in the Metro when we got back to the UK). The town was very festive being Santa Claus day and we left Budapest wishing we could stay longer.

 

Champagne Celebrations

“…this year my birthday was no exception with the extra bonus of being taken away for a mystery weekend to celebrate…”

Reims, France


Birthday times are always exciting. It is generally an excuse to hang out with friends you have not seen in a while and have a few celebratory drinks. This year my birthday was no exception with the extra bonus of being taken away for a mystery weekend to celebrate by my two friends, Kerry and Martin. I had no idea where I was going and it was very exciting when I was told that I needed to bring my passport!

Having received my packing list I was all ready to go, wondering where they would be taking me. I was like a little child at Christmas when I was told we were off to France to the Champagne region. What a great way to carry on celebrating my birthday — with lots of sparkles in my glass 🙂

We effortlessly crossed the channel in our car through the Channel Tunnel Within 35 mins of having driven our car onto the train we were in France. To be fair the first entrance to France is not the most scenic but it gets better as you get on the motor way and start to see some of the countryside. It helped that it was a gorgeously sunny day with only a crisp wind. You could see that Autumn was on the way as every now and then trees and bushes had a sprinkling of light gold and orange, making the drive seem more beautiful.

By lunchtime we had reached Reims our destination for the weekend. Reims is considered the champagne capital of France and lies in Champagne-Ardenne region (the official name) in northeastern France some 129km northeast of Paris. The architecture of the city is very Gothic in some parts and modern in others. Unfortunately the city is full of road works as they are currently building the new light train in the city. It is only due to be finished in April 2010, so if you are planning a visit I would make sure it is complete so you can fully appreciate the beauty of the city.

We stopped for some lunch before exploring the city at Ernest Hemingway’s on the main shopping street. A lovely atmosphere bustling with people we spotted the huge hamburgers and made it our instant choice. To be fair with my non-existent french it was the safe choice but word of warning for those not familiar with french cuisine – the hamburger is made of mince meat and generally does not come cooked. So a little disappointing especially as the middle was a bit cold – yuk.

It was then off to explore the city and of course see how champagne is made. I did find it bizarre that a lot of the bigger Champagne house were in the main city as I had expected it to be like most of the wine farms surrounded by vineyards, but here we were in a city walking around unknowingly at first above some of the most expensive champagnes that are stored in the underground tunnels of the abbey. Our first champagne house was Taittinger where we heard all about the art of Champagne making. Made from the Chardonnay grape it can only be classed as Champagne if made in the specified region and according to a set process called ‘methode champenoise’. Their cellars are some 30m below the ground surface and are kept naturally cool due to the chalk rock sediment. Our tour ended with a delicious glass of Taittinger Brut Reserve.

In to the swing of things now, we freshened up at our hotel before making our way to the balcony of Le Lion to relaxingly sip some Canard-Duchene while watching the Golden Angel of the Sube fountain glisten in the sunlight. Dinner at Bistrot de Boucher was a great end to the evening as we sampled Foie gras, honey coated duck and peppered steak but not before starting our dinner the french way with a glass of Kir Royale.

It was our last day in France and our Champagne exploration was not over. We headed off to Epernay the next Champagne capital in France to visit the famous Moet & Chandon, explore the cellars situated on Champagne avenue and of course get a picture with the famous Dom Perignon. No not the prestige cuvee of Moet and Chandon but the Benedictine Monk who doubled the size of the Abbey’s vineyard while it was under his stewardship. Although he has been erroneously credited with being the founder of champagne he must have done something right to get his statue placed just outside the Champagne House.

After tasting a few glasses of champagne after our tour it was off back into the countryside to start to make our way back to Calais and then finally England. We meandered along the country roads and found a picnic spot which looked back on the town of Epernay and the surrounding vineyards to have our lunch.

It was soon after lunch that Ernest Hemingway came back to haunt us. One by one we fell victims to food poisoning and all pointed to those dodgy hamburgers. The drive back to the Channel Tunnel was a bit stop start and I felt sorry for Martin who had to drive us all the way home. We naturally got to see all the service stops on the way back and had further entertainment when rushing into one of the service stations to find police with guns. We were told in French by a policeman that the service station was closed. I of course had no idea what he was telling me and must have wrinkled my eyes in confusion as it was quickly translated into English. It was only then did I spot the four people sitting on the floor handcuffed – I guess that was the reason why it was closed then!

The channel tunnel trip back was not as smooth as the crossing over as we were delayed for a couple of hours – made worse by the fact that all we wanted to do was have a cuppa tea, slice of marmite toast and climb into a warm bed.

Was it a good trip? Naturally – selective memory is a great thing, especially when my most fond memory is watching those delicate bubbles escaping to the top of MY champagne glass 🙂

Accommodation: Hotel Porte Mars – 2 Place de la Republique, Reims, France

No wellies in Wales

Gower Peninsular                               Swansea, United Kingdom

 


One of my good friend’s birthday falls around the time of the May Bank holiday weekend – and it seems to have become a tradition that a group of us go camping. Good weather in the UK is never a sure bet but out come the tents and the barbeque’s in anticipation anyway.

This year we decided to explore a little bit of Wales and it was off to the beautiful coastline of the Gower. The Gower Peninsular is located in the south of Wales and is about an hour and a half drive away from Cardiff. The drive from Swansea onwards if very scenic and can be a bit hair-raising as cars squeeze past each other on the country lanes and in some cases come face to face before deciding who has to reverse first. I think we lost the stare down every time and our little Corsa got very used to moving backwards.

Our base for the weekend was the most southerly point of the Gower – Port Eynon. Port Eynon is a quaint little town full of character and cute cottages and offers some great cliff walks where the views are just spectacular. The beach is a little bit rocky but that did not stop us from having a game of rounders before exploring the rock pools in search of starfish. The weather remained good to us and we all enjoyed our first camping barbecue along with some tasty local Gower potatoes.

The next morning the weather was good to us again and I woke up to gorgeous sunshine. I had the perfect view of the campsite and ocean from my tent and was quite content to have my breakfast while watching the antics of the campsite.

As much as I liked Port Eynon it would be a waste of a weekend not venturing around the other parts of this dramatic limestone coastline. So we hopped in the car and drove to Rhossili Bay. This area is largely owned by the Natural Trust to preserve its beauty and you can see why with it’s 3 mile sandy beach and the prominent Worm’s Head. Access to the causeway to reach Worms Head is only possible 2.5 hours either side of low tide. As we arrived in the morning we decided to venture what we thought would be an easy walk across but turned out to be a bit of rock scrambling. It was worth all the effort just for the views.

I never did get to the tip of Worms Head though as it was the birds nesting season. I was happy enough to sit near a bird watcher and let him tell me what birds he could spot through his binoculars. A real big shame that hundreds of other people ignored the sign and went marching on. Lets hope nature has a way of coping with the disturbance and maybe the National Trust will monitor people’s walking around nesting season more closely.

I could not believe how packed the town of Rhossili had become while we were at Worms Head. Which was a shame as it took away the eerie feeling of the skeletal remains of the Helvetica ship wreck on an almost deserted beach. It also meant that I could not try some faggot at the local shop. No, is not a rude word but a traditional dish found mainly in the midlands in England. To sum it up it is like a meatball but made from meat off-cuts and offal. (I guess not everyone’s taste!)

After having enough of the crowds we went searching for a more quite spot to have our lunch. We chose Llangennith beach, known as a surfing beach and apparently a frequent haunt by young party people the locals would say it is far from quite! But if you find a spot amoung the dunes everything becomes still and you can watch all what is happening unseen.

When I eventually caught my £5 Megabus back to London, I reflected on how lovely my weekend was and what beautiful scenery Wales has to offer. I was also grinning to myself thinking Wales without the wellies was a good experience and it just goes to show that contrary to everyone’s belief the sun does shine in Wales.

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Nominated for the Visit Wales Blog Awards 2009

Between the shipwreck

Durban, South Africa


I waited breathlessly one eye focused on the water and one eye focused on my camera screen. Wondering where this graceful creature would break through the water into the air and thrill us all with it’s perfectly executed somersault. I missed the shot but was given the opportunity to view this lovely bottle-nosed dolphin in action on the replay screen.

I felt like a kid all over again sitting on the stairs at uShaka Marine World in Durban watching the Dolphin show. These graceful creatures always seem to entertain through their displays of speed, high jumps and sometimes squeaky noises. It was also fantastic to see Gambit – the oldest Dolphin in the park and the largest bottle-nosed dolphin in captivity to perform his tricks and it was weird to think that some 20 odd years previously I had watched the very same Dolphin in action.

uShaka Marine world is the the sea world of South Africa. Centered around a 1920s recreated shipwreck it brings together a number of things to do from visiting the huge aquarium, snorkeling the in the lagoon, taking wild water rides to sampling tasty cuisine next to the Shark tank. I was fascinated with the perfectly reconstructed shipwreck and how it magically contained all those marine animals you are only lucky to see in the wild.

The park is well laid out and gives you information on the marine life and how you can best preserve them through looking after your environment. This is doubly emphasized by the big recycling bank at the entrance where you can throw away all your rubbish in the correct bins.

The water rides where not working the day I arrived but with so many other things to see and do it did not matter too much. Anyway with the beach right on the door step, you could always venture off for a swim in the warm Indian ocean and return to the park for more action.

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Featured on TravelPod
The 15 best places in South Africa

Ruta 40

Bariloche, Argentina
“Running parallel to the Andes mountain range it brings together some of the most amazing landscapes”

Ruta 40 is one of the famous drives in Argentina, running parallel to the Andes mountain range it brings together some of the most amazing landscapes. It was between Christmas and New Year that I travelled this route and enjoyed some wonderful experiences. Starting with Christmas in Bariloche, the chocolate capital of Argentina, and ending in El Calafate on New Years Eve with the bonus of getting to see one of the most famous glaciers, Perito Moreno on New Years Day – as one of my friends said “What a way to start 2008”!!

Bariloche
A special time of the year for most people, it was great to spend Christmas in such a scenic place where everything faces the lake. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, around 25 degrees and sunny. I must say it did feel odd to Kayak on the lake in the hot sun and yet still see snow capped mountains. Christmas Day I spent relaxing, walking about 7km into town and eating a picnic lunch under a palm tree with Ruth and Karen. It was only the evening when the party started when I met the rest of the over landers for a great Christmas Dinner and steak and mushroom sauce and of course the best part of exchanging Secret Santa Gifts!!

El Chalten
Alternatively known as the windiest place ever known in my opinion – I don’t think I have ever been blown around so much!! It did make the thought of camping for 2 nights in the rain, wind and cold not too appealing and the opportunity to bunk up with 5 others in a tiny weeny cabin a total luxury.

It was here in El Chalten that I got my first glimpse of a glacier and all I can say is Wow! I even got the chance to walk on Glacier Viedma which for me was a great but slightly scary experience. Walking down a 70 degree slope in just shoes with metal clips was a tad overwhelming – but you know me, not shy at asking for help especially when the tour guides were so cute. The bonus was I didn´t have to ask twice they willing fought over who was going to help me – aaahhh Argentinian men 🙂

On our second day five of us woke up and put on our beanies and gloves in order to take a small hike for a glimpse of the Fitz Roy Glacier – at first we couldn´t see it but once the clouds lifted it was well worth the walk – I do however think the hot chocolate at the end was an even better end to the day.

El Calafate
New Year celebrations started on the 31st with a glass of vino in town to celebrate the end of 2007 and all good things I am about to see in 2008. Having got to bed at 6am in the morning the Perito Moreno Glacier on the 1st still had the wow factor and it was very exciting to watch some of the glacier break off into the water.

I hope all of you had an exciting holiday season and are enjoying a good 2008!

Cap Classique

Cape Town, South Africa


I spent only a few days in Cape Town visiting family and friends. As per usual Cape Town’s scenery was just beautiful from Mountains, to oceans to vineyards.

Thanks to friends and family for a great week of fun on the beach, sipping champagne at the pool side, having cocktails at the 12 Apostles and simply catching up.


 

Stillness in the african bush

Rust de Winter, South Africa


The one thing I love about going back home is having the luxury of staying at my Dad’s lodge in the middle of the Pride of Africa Nature Reserve. Is situated in the north-west of the Gauteng Province of South Africa roughly one hours drive from my hometown of Johannesburg.

What attracts me is the peacefulness, the sweet smell of the bushveld, the intensity of the rain when a typical highveld storm hits and of course the animals. Filled with a range of antelope, warthog, jackals and giraffe it now forms part of a government initiative to bring together a host of private game farms to form the Dikoneng Big Five Nature Reserve. So the next time I can be sure to add Rhino and Lion to the list!

This little peace of heaven has the ability to bring all my family together and this weekend was no exception. We spent every evening watching the beautiful sunsets and throwing bones onto the fire so that we could get the jackals to howl. During the day we drove around for hours looking for game and enjoying the fresh air only Africa can give you. Occasionally we spent some time at the pool where we could lie and gaze up at the sky and the big Soetdoering trees watching for butterflies or trying to avoid those nasty wasps.

I can only say that this is the true African lifestyle – beautiful surroundings and peacefulness!

 

Wildlife of Hluhluwe & iMfolozi

iMfolozi and Hluhluwe Game Reserve, South Africa


I had not visited the Hluhluwe (pronounced ‘shoeshloee’) game reserve since I was a little child. All I could remember from memory was that it was very hilly and filled with Giraffe. It is amazing what your mind can retain and for the most part the game reserve is hilly and it does have lots of giraffe but how I did not remember the abundance of rhinos is beyond me.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve lies in the heart of Zululand, South Africa. It is one of the oldest game reserves in the country and is well known for its conservation of the white Rhino. The reserve is set in two the Hluhluwe part which is the hilliest part of the reserve and the iMfolozi section which is flatter and makes it easier for wildlife spotting.

I travelled with my family from outside Durban just for the day. Yip it was a long drive but well worth it in photographs and admiring the beautiful wildlife in their own habitat. It took us about 2.5 hours driving to get there. For the most part we travelled along the main coastal road before turning towards the Mtubatuba village which is some 48kms from the central Nyalazi gate. It was a slow drive along these parts as you drive through remote villages and you need to keep an eye out for the goats wandering across the roads.

The Big Five are said to be around but we were only lucky enough to spot Elephants, Buffalo and Rhino but I guess 3 out of 5 is not too bad. I enjoyed the lazy drive around the game reserve and was very intrigued to follow a big Secretary bird while it strutted it stuff in the bush and looked for food in the form of snakes by stomping on the dry shrubs.

We took a break from driving half way through the day to have some lunch at the Mlipa camp site. Even while having a picnic lunch you can be entertained by families of warthog walking through the camp or by watching the hard working dung beetles roll their supplies down the hill.

Our day ended off by looking at the rolling hills from the Hilltop camp and wondering how that Rhino managed to make its way up the hill so fast…

 

Hand signals in Shanghai

Shanghai, China


I did not know what to expect when I landed in Shanghai. I knew in general most people did not speak English even though this is the city where countless people come to teach English. I guess with a population of 17 million learning English is the last thing on the average persons mind. This communication problem I was faced with meant my first few hours in the city was interesting and I will admit a bit stressful. The public transport was the easy part and I navigated my way from the airport on the Maglev and the Metro to the closest stop to where my friend was staying with just a few head nods and smiles.

It was upon leaving the Metro that the fun began partly due to my own fault of relying on my mobile phone working – it worked at the airport and when I really needed it it just would not connect. To cut a long story short I managed to get someone to translate the address into Shanhainese so that I could at least get a taxi (apparently only 5 mins away). After 30 minutes I thought I was going to be stuck in the cab all night when I eventually signalled to the cabbie that I needed to use his phone. He kindly handed it over – all I could think of was ‘Wow’ in London this would not have happened.

Shanghai is made up of about 10 neighbourhoods and is certainly a city of contrasts. I loved the fact that you could wander from upper class shopping malls,to sci-fi towers (in Pudong) to streets with local markets (in the Old town) and find between it all beautiful temples and gardens where you could sit and relax while watching old men fish in the local ponds.

My favourite of all the temples was the Jade Budda Temple which stands out with its yellow painted wall in a normal residential street. It was the architecture that impressed me and the fact that it has been around since 1882. As the name indicates it is home to many Buddha statues. For a small fee you can visit the Jade Buddha where in general most of the tourists proceed but hidden away towards the back is a much more spectacular hall, Hall of a thousand Buddhas. I have never seen so much gold in one place and was amazed at the details on the literally thousands of Buddhas placed around the hall.

I explored Shanghai mostly on foot so that I could discover the unusual places tucked away from the main roads. But did find that I had to be alert constantly as road signs have no meaning for bicycles, taxi’s and cars. I realised very sharpish that just because a little green man is telling you it is safe to walk doesn’t actually mean it is. The only comforting thought was that the local people would get severely fined if they hit a tourist – you just had to hope they had good enough brakes!

One of the safest places to explore on foot and a photographers dream was the Taikang Road Art Center in the French Concession neighbourhood. Here you could walk around for hours admiring the local arts and crafts, art galleries and stumble across unique findings such as bicycle bar stools – fantastic!!

The last few days in Shanghai saw me enjoying the Shanghai nightlife. It was not complete without a visit to M on the Bund for some seriously good cake and cocktails at the Glamour Bar all while admiring the night lights across Pudong and the Oriental Pearl Tower. Having made friends with ex-pats in the region I can well understand their liking for staying in such a trendy city. My top picks: French Concession backstreets Taikang Road Art Center Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar Jade Buddha Temple Fuxing Park Entertainment Value: M on the Bund Glamour Bar Walking around with 3 other blondes having our pictures taken by passers by 🙂

 

 

Sun, Sand and Sydney

Sydney, Australia

 


Sadly my Australian journey has come to an end. It has taken me approximately 17555km of travelling to get back to Sydney. Most of it was on the road and I only cheated twice by flying from Perth to Cairns and then from the Gold Coast back down to Sydney – pretty good going hey? I have collected so many of my own stories and have had so many unique experiences yet I was still pretty excited to finally get to Sydney to see the city for myself. But first let me tell you about a few adventures along the way.

After Airlie beach I slotted right back on the typical tourist route with my next destination being Fraser Island – the largest sand island in the world. But to get there I first had to master the art of cracking a whip at the Kroombit cattle station before lassoing and catching goats. These sneaky little creatures obviously have had more practice in dodging the rope than I have had at throwing one so it took a little time before success. Filled with adrenaline I then climbed up sunset hill to get a good look at the outback. Stretching for miles and miles I could quite well understand how people could get lost here and think how amazing the story of the Rabbit Proof Fence was where three aboriginal children walked over 1500 miles through the outback to get back home.

Leaving the outback behind I headed back to the coast to explore the World Heritage Fraser Island. I explored Fraser Island the budget way by going the 4×4 route with a bunch of strangers – having a mixture of nationalities on board meant there were a few sticky moments generally caused by communication problems but all in all we had a good time. And we were a great team when it came to pushing our 4×4 out of the soft sand. Fraser island was a beautiful place where the beaches extended for miles and miles. The sea did look rather tempting from time to time but what with rips and sharks circling around it was best to stay away (actually warned to do so) and rather swim in one of the many freshwater lakes. The 75 mile beach was great to drive on, you just had to watch out for the dingoes and make sure there were no aeroplanes landing as we were effectively driving on their runway.

On my last day we had a long drive up to Indian Head which is a famous place to go and look down at the clear waters below to see sharks, turtles and if you lucky whales. Unfortunately the weather was not kind to us that day but it was still an exceptional view.

After spending three days on this island I was still not tired of beaches so when leaving Fraser Island I made my to Mooloolaba and Byron Bay to spend some more time relaxing on the beach and swimming in the sea. Both were beautiful places and it was nice to be out in the sunshine every day.

It was now onto my final city in Australia, the Harbour City, Sydney. What a great way to end my Australian part of my journey in such a vibrant and exciting place. The Sydney Opera House certainly stands out at the edge of the harbour and it is just one of those city sights that you just could not stop taking photos of – during the day, at night, at sunset… I think you get the picture. I did as much on my list as possible in the 5 days that I was there which included a ferry trip across to Manly and a bus trip out to Bondi Beach The water was much colder here than further up the coast. I found this out after making a dash for it between the waves – I think it took me about 2 hours to warm up again. Along with all the must see sights I was lucky to spend time with some friends who took me to the some cool eating places and bars.

I was sad to leave Australia but I am sure one day I will return – after all I left out the south west and Tasmania. Tactical? Maybe.

Accommodation:
Backpackers Inn on the Beach at Byron Bay – 29 Shirley St, Byron Bay, Australia
Mooloolaba Beach Backpackers – 75 Brisbane Rd, Mooloolaba, Australia
Frasers On Rainbow Beach – 18 Spectrum Ave, Rainbow Beach, Australia