Day Trips from Kotor Bay, Montenegro

IMG_5890

When we took a chance on booking flights to Tivat, Montenegro earlier this year, we had no idea where it was on the map. A brief google search ensued and we found it made sense to stay a 10 minute taxi ride away, through the other side of the mountain and in the UNESCO world heritage region of Kotor Bay. As I wrote in my blog post about Kotor Bay earlier this year, there is a lot to explore in this ancient walled town, but its position on the Adriatic Coast and its access to regular and inexpensive bus routes, means that its easy and cheap to use Kotor as a base to see more of this young Balkan country and that we did. So where can you go for easy day trips from Kotor . .  read on –

PERAST – Only 15-20 minutes along the main road north towards Croatia, every visitor to Kotor should make the short but scenic trip along the bay to this small town. Blue Line buses leave regularly just outside the old city walls of Kotor, its easy to pick up the bus, even though there is no physical bus stop, just look for the white bus sign painted on the road, close to where the market stalls set up. There will more than likely be people waiting around to board and there are benches close by to sit and wait, buses are regular and cost €1.

IMG_5593 Riding the bus to Perast

Perast itself is a small town with only one main road, but there is a whole heap of history here, including gorgeous interesting buildings, stunning views across the bay and 2 unique small islands a short boat ride away. Its colourful historic past vast outways what appears at the surface just a picturesque coastal town, its position along the Adriatic meant that the town was involved in important wars with the Venetians as well as schooling many Russians sailors in the 18th Century at their aclaimed naval academy. This has allowed a lot of wealth to flow into Perast and is responsible for the many elaborate churches and palaces that stand here to this day.

 

 

 

You can easily explore this little town by foot, the Church of St Nicholas is by the main square and the Tower Museum is located inside the Bujovic Palace. These are popular sights, but many arrive here to visit the two islets situation a short boat ride away. Both are incredibly unique with widely varying histories, despite their close proximity to one another. One islet, Sveti Đorđi or the Island of St George is home to a 12th Century Benedictine Monastery and has been owned by the Venetians, the French and Austrians, before eventually returning to Montenegro. The 2nd Island – Gospa od Skrpjela or Our Lady of the Rocks is actually a man-made island, and was formed with rocks that were left there by the sailors for good luck before a voyage, locals starting dumping rocks too and eventually a small island was formed. A small chapel was then built on the island to which captains passing through would offer a silver gift, all of which are now displayed inside the chapel which has expanded to become a small church and museum. Its a fascinating place and well worth a visit, boats leave regularly for the islands for a small fee, and with us visiting just out of season, we had a boat to ourselves.

 

 

 

There are quite a few places to eat and drink here too, with many offering bayside outdoor seating with spectacular views, we started with a coffee mid morning at Cafe Armonia and ended up returning for a delicious lunch and glass of local wine in the afternoon.

BUDVA. This Adriatic coastal town is well worth the 30 minute trip south, not only is it a busy seaside town with beaches, shops and restaurants, there is also a fascinating well preserved medieval old town that is over 2500 years old! You can easily split your day by eating/walking/shopping around the modern ‘Miami of Montenegro’ as well as steeping yourself in the captivating history and buildings of the old town.

Buses leave regularly from the main bus station in Kotor and Tivat, taking about 45 minutes, with tickets costing between €3-4 euros direct.

 

 

 

 

Located along a peninsula, there is a stunning shoreline of around 17 beaches, glistening blue waters, offshore islands and limestone mountains serving as the backdrop. A great selection of cafes, bars and restaurants line up just back from the beach, where you can order a coffee or glass of wine, sample some local cheeses and soak up the views whilst watching the locals walk their dogs and prepare their boats for the next trip out.

The newer area of Budva is developing into a modern bustling town, with plenty of shops, restaurants, nightclubs and markets. In the summer months it becomes known as the Montenegro party capital, so if Turbo Folk is to your liking, you’ll want to at least stay one night to hit the cocktail bars and clubs.

But if that is most definitely not your thing, don’t be put off, there is a lot more to Budva than just its nightlife and shops. It’s just a short walk to the old walled town, with its enthralling citadel, churches, passageways, sunlit squares and breathtaking views of the terracotta rooftops and Adriatic from up high. Take time to just wander and get lost in the paved alleyways with many shops selling local crafts, making sure to explore inside of the Church of St John, the Church of the Holy Trinity and Church of St Mary in Punta. The City Museum is a charming small museum and really gives context to how important and well preserved Budva is and I was glad we made time to visit that too. In the summer months there are often concerts and exhibitions up here inside the walls, so its worth checking online if there is anything worth seeing before planning your visit.

 

 

 

 

There are a few islands just off shore, with water taxis easily available to take you there or you could hire a canoe and make the journey yourself. We didn’t manage to squeeze that into our itinerary, but its something we would have liked to have done, popular and picturesque islands that are highly recommended by locals include Sveti Stefan, and St Nikola Island.

You will be spoilt for choice for places to eat and drink among the many beach front cafes and restaurants all offering prime seating with perfect views across the peninsula. We stopped for a coffee at a lovely place on our way to the Old Town and then had a delicious Serbian meal right by the beach at Jadran on our return, before catching a bus back up to Kotor in the evening, watching the sun set as we travelled up the coastline.

IMG_5868 Serbian food and wine with beautiful Budva backdrop.

CETINJE is the old historic royal capital of the country, and high up in the mountains. Taking just over an hour on the bus from Kotor, its what can only be described as a breathtaking, but heart in mouth mountainside bus ride.

 

 

Once you have recovered from the bus journey, and have landed back on terra ferma, there is a lot to explore here, its all well signposted and the centre is a short walk from the main bus station. Although the capital of the country is Podgorica the president actually lives here in Cetinje and its here where many government and cultural events take place.  The town has a really vibrant, busy feel that although it seems on top of the world, doesn’t feel too far removed from it.

A good place to start is the central square where there are lots of little shops and outdoor cafes, once hydrated, walk a short distance North to the Vlaska (Vlah) Church on Baja Pivljanina. This plain looking church is only small, but take a look inside for the most beautiful interior and we found a very helpful elderly volunteer who also gave us mints as we explored inside, check out the guard rail outside aswell, which is made of ottoman rifle barrels.

 

 

We then headed back towards the main square and explored the only pedestrian street in the town, this is where the main restaurants, cafes and shops are to be found, its worth a wander especially for postcards and souvineers and a chance to try some local food and wine.

Probably one of the main tourist sights here in Certinje is the Cetinje Monastery, it was demolished in the late 1600’s by the Venetians but rebuilt with the original stone. Located a short walk from the main square and easily signposted, you can visit the grounds as well as the inside where several relics are to be found, including what is said to be John the Baptist’s hand, which I admit wasnt completely sure about. Where the original monastery stood is now a lovely little church called Church of the Birth of Our Lady which is worth a visit to see the beautiful golden iconostatis from Russia.

 

The Chipur Church is short walk across from the Monastery, but if its locked, just head back over to the Monastery ask around, and you will be given a key to venture inside.

 

 

The National Museum of Montenegro actually comprises of a few small museums dotted around the town, and you can get single or joint discounted tickets depending on what you fancy seeing. We made time to see the Archaeology Museum, the Historical Museum and Art Museum, which are all located close to one another in the Vladin Dom.

 

Before heading back down to Kotor on the bus, we had a bite to eat, I originally didn’t want to try what I would term ‘Italian’ food which seemed to be on the menu everywhere. Soon though, I rather ignorantly realised that pasta and pizza dishes are pretty standard and local here too, with its close history to Italy. So we went for Pizza and beer at Obelisk on the main street sitting outside outside, a lovely end to our day trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing US immigration in Ireland.

Ive just done my first ever US Pre Clearance and it was a revelation! I have been aware of it for a while but only just got round to trying it out and I’m not sure I can ever go back now. Any none US travellers who have visited the United States must have experienced that fun 30-90 minute wait, filling in the white arrival cards and being sternly instructed to GET IN A LINE. Then undergoing 20 questions about where you’re going, who you’re staying with and for how long, whilst being jet-lagged, confused and forgetting the name of your accommodation, then missing your connection to Nashville? No, maybe it’s just me then.

There are actually 6 none US countries from which you can now go through all the immigration and customs checks, before you board your flight when you are still fresh faced and excited for the journey ahead. The particular airports are located in Aruba, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Canada and where I boarded, Ireland. Sweden and the Dominican Republic are next to join the list I believe.img_2388

The main reason I believe these pre-clearance centres have been set up is to reduce the risk of terrorism and identify potential criminals before they even board the plane to the US. The other advantages for everyone else, is these airports potentially gets more traffic, it reduces the numbers and waiting times for everyone else at border controls in the US and makes it easier for travellers to leave their destination airport quickly and easily without delays on arrival. Basically a win win!

I travelled to Newark, New Jersey from Manchester, UK via Dublin this month (Nov 2017) with Aer Lingus and it was smooth sailing or should I saw flying, the whole way. I was then heading onward to Philadelphia, so it was refreshing to get straight off the plane and to the train station, potentially catch an earlier train than I would have if i’d had to queue in customs.

On arrival in Dublin there are loads of staff on hand to direct and advise all passengers who are travelling onward to the US, the Pre-Clearance area is easily signposted with a small US flag, making it hard to get lost. Before going through customs though, you end up in the main departure lounge, so unless you immediately need to head to your next flight, stick around here for a while. There are coffee shops, restaurants, bars, shops and a currency counter, although there are a few places to eat once you pass the pre-clearance area, they are limited. If you are vegetarian there are quite a few options, but the only place I found accommodating vegans was coffee express which had a falafel wrap, all coffee shops did seem to offer soy milk though.

I chatted to a member of staff who said at times the Pre-Clearance area can get busy, so don’t leave it too long to go through, but there were also announcements advising when passengers should clear the customs area for each US flight. When I heard an announcement for a different American flight, I left it 20 minutes and decided to take my chances and go through.

img_2387.jpg

First there is small x-ray security area to pass through with your bags, there was no queue! So I quickly moved on to stage 2, which was the customs machine. Here you answer the questions that are on the white arrival form, it is push button answers so it’s much easier, then you scan your own passport and fingers, again no queue. A clearance form was printed off and it was on to final stage 3, speaking to an official. Third time lucky, there was no queue again, and after a friendly chat, my passport was stamped and I was welcomed to ‘America’, the whole process maybe took a little over 5 minutes.

There is a separate departure lounge for all those who have passed clearance and are travelling on to the US, which like I mentioned has some facilities, a small bar, small restaurant, coffee kiosk, charging points, toilets and free but temperamental wifi, but its not as extensive as the main departure lounge, so just be aware. Once I landed in New Jersey, we exited as though we were on a domestic flight, straight out into arrivals, I had carry on luggage only, so headed straight to the Air-train onward to the main railway station.

img_2666

I would definitely consider travelling via Ireland (Dublin or Shannon) again, especially if I had a considerable amount of travelling to do once I had landed. It just means you can get a stress free head start on your onward journey and don’t need to factor in for an unknown wait at customs. In fact, I’m already looking at flights to Boston for next Autumn maybe . . . .

Philadelphia- City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection

State No 6

I’m just back from a trip to Philadelphia, but as it was over 10 years since my last visit to this historic, vibrant East coast city, I was excited to return and explore more parts of the city I never managed too last time. I was there attending a workshop, but made sure I put aside time to visit some sights aswell.

Arrivals. You can fly direct from London, Manchester or Dublin, which takes around 8hrs. If you go via Dublin you get to experience Pre Clearance before you board the plane, which as I mentioned in my previous post is a revelation! I didn’t fly direct to Philadelphia this time, I went from Manchester (via Dublin) to Newark in New Jersey. There are lots of options to get yourself straight to downtown Philadelphia from other East Coast destinations, so don’t be put off if flights are super expensive direct to Philly as they were for me. If you fly straight into Philadelphia and are not hiring a car (if you plan to stay solely in and around the city you wont need one) then get the inexpensive, handy SEPTA, straight from the airport to downtown, the most central stations  to get off at will be 30th, Suburban or Jefferson.

If flying in from Newark your best two options are; get the Air Train to Newark Airport Train Station, then either board the Amtrak straight to 30th Street Philadelphia which is direct but can be expensive, or get the NJ Transit train to Trenton, then change to the SEPTA straight to downtown Philadelphia. If you fly into New York, you can get the train or Bus from Penn Station, while Washington DC also has direct buses (taking around 4 hours) and trains from its gorgeous Union Station direct to downtown Philadelphia.

Getting Around. A lot of sights are easy to walk too, especially if you group a few of them in the same neighbourhood together during your visit, the SEPTA (buses, trolleys and subway) runs all over the city and is super easy to use, while taxi’s, Uber and Lyft are also available everywhere.

History Bit. The city was founded by an English entrepreneur and Quaker called William Penn in the late 1800’s after he was gifted some land from King Charles II. Prior to this, the area of land that eventually became the capital of Pennsylvania was inhabited by the indigenous people of the Lenape. There is so much history here in this city, whether you want to learn more about slavery, the declaration of independence or even its religious past, it is all richly reflected here in a lot of the popular sights visited today.

What to see. Independence National Park and of course the star of the park, probably the most famous broken bell in the world, is the Liberty Bell. There is a lot to see in this area, all the sights are located close to 5th and Independence Mall which is a SEPTA stop handily enough. There is the huge Independence Visitor’s Centre which is the perfect place to start your historic day trip, open from 8.30 daily and free, there is a shop, cafe, theatre as well as exhibitions which illustrate and inform all visitors on the importance this city has had on the rest of the country. Across the street is the Liberty Bell centre, which is also free and open from 9am, its first come first served, so time your visit well to avoid the queues. If its busy and you can’t face waiting for a B’elfie (Bell Selfie?) then walk towards the Independence Hall past the Liberty Bell centre and take a look back and to your right, you can see the Bell through the glass wall. Visiting the Independence Hall is also free, but you need to book onto one of the tours in advance, there are also free gardens and outdoor exhibits all around this area making it a must do whether you have a passing or keen interest in the history of the USA.

One block north of the Independence visitor centre is the National Constitution Centre this is open daily, costing just under $15 per adult for a ticket. This includes access to the Signers Hall, lots of museum exhibits, an interactive We The People show and a theatre production which runs every 30 minutes depicting the history of the signing of the constitution, fascinating stuff!

This area is part of the oldest neighbourhood of Philadelphia, so just wander around and you will constantly find places of interest and historical significance, the oldest street is here Elfreth’s Alley in fact it is known as the oldest residential street in the US. Christ Church Burial Grounds is located close by, where you can take a fascinating leafy green walk through the churchyard where Benjamin Franklin was buried amongst other figures important to US history. This church ground is situated on Arch St and Independence Mall, and if you continue East down Arch, close by is the Betsy Ross House which is where the first US flag was made by Betsy herself, see there is history around every corner.

A short walk west along Arch St you pass the African American Museum, I couldn’t get to visit this time due to the workshop I was attending, but I definitely want to schedule in time to go next visit. Keep walking along this street and next up is the Chinatown Friendship Gate signally the start of Chinatown, like any Chinatown across the world there is a great colourful vibe, tonnes of shops, restaurants, cafes and a monthly Night Market. I headed away from Chinatown though this visit to Arch and 12th St and what may become my most favourite farmers market that I have ever visited, the loud, vibrant, assault on all the senses that is the Reading Terminal Market.
img_2595 img_2593

Over 100 years old and open from 8am-6pm daily, you must plan a visit to explore the 80+ stalls of food, drink and crafts. Definitely give the place a once over before deciding where you sit and eat and what to buy, there are Amish stalls serving home made cheeses, butchers and fishmongers selling their fresh produce as well as places to buy kitchen supplies and flowers as well as the many restaurants. Stay for something to eat for sure, whether its a vegan corn dog at Fox and Son, a Philly Cheesesteak at Carmens or comfort food at the Dutch Eating Place you can easily spend an hour here, I even spotted peanut butter chocolate bacon for sale, but gave that a miss!

The architecture in Philadelphia is amazing, with a range of styles both old and new, from the art deco railway stations of Suburban and 30th St to the 60 storey Comcast Tower (due for completion in 2018) and its even higher neighbour One Liberty Place, it can make for a dizzying but fascinating wander. If you head West from Reading Terminal Market towards the skyscrapers of downtown, dominating the skyline is the Masonic Temple. Taking 5 years to construct and then another 15 years to finish the interior, you cannot fail to miss this beautiful elaborate granite building, taking up a whole block of its own. Tours are available but limited and cost $15.

Right opposite the Masonic Temple is the largest municiple building in the US City Hall, its another huge impressive building, that proudly stands in the heart of the city and makes a good point of reference when exploring this part of town. Although it never became the tallest building in the world as it had been hoped, it did hold the record for tallest building in Philadelphia up until the 80’s. If you have a head for heights ascend up the tower for what I can imagine are insane panoramic views of the city, tower tours finish at around 4pm though, so dont leave it late, I couldnt fit it in this time with it being a work trip, so have pencilled it in for next time.

IMG_2673 The great city hall peaking out at the end of Broad Street

The next big attraction on most peoples itineraries when visiting Philadelphia will probably be the Museum of Art and even if you arent an art lover and dont want to pay the $20 entrance fee, still head over so you can run up the famous Rocky Steps and get a photo by the statue. You can get there by bus or on the metro to 30th St station and from there its a 20 min walk along the Schuylkill River, but if you fancy walking from downtown, head down the gorgeous tree and flag lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Even if you dont visit inside the art museum, head round to the back of the building and visit the sculpture and landscaped gardens with gorgeous views along the Schuylkill River, I only found them after a tip from my Lyft driver, who I gave 5 stars too of course!

There are so many more museums that are worthy of visiting, but as I was over for a work trip, I just couldnt squeeze as much in as I would have liked.  On my hit list for next time is the Franklin Institute, Rodin Museum, Please Touch Museum, The National Museum of American Jewish History and The Eastern State Penitentiary as well as the African American Museum that I mentioned earlier.

There is so much outdoor green space in Philadelphia, lots of parks, squares and river walks, which makes for a nice contrast when you have got your fill on museums and other indoor sights. Fairmont Park is the big one, with over 9,000 acres to explore, but there is also Franklin Sq, Love Park, Washington Square and the Schuylkill River Trail to name only a few.

Food and Drink – Philadelpahia does great coffee, with some unique independent coffee shops that also side hustle as clothing shops, creative spaces and music venues. Some gems I visited during my latest stay included Rival Bros and United by Blue and next time I really want to visit Grindcore Coffee which is a vegan coffeeshop.

Speaking of vegan food, I visited Hip City Veg twice during my stay, its a 100% plant based diner that serves the most delicious meat-free food including chick’n fajitas and tempeh burgers that even the most hardened carnivore would love and the green drink below is the insanely amazing kale lemonade.

 

Hot Tips –

  • A single fair on the Septa costs $2.50 or a 1 day convenience pass (max 8 rides) is $9
  • On the first Friday evening of each month there is a Art Walk in the Old City District.
  • Known as one of the best beer cities in America, there are more than 60 brewing companies in the Philadelphia region alone with many local companies organising brew pub tours.

Other sights

  • Six Flags Theme Park is only around 90 mins away on the train (change at Trenton)
  • Jump on the Septa to Wissahicken and hike the Valley Park Trail and then eat and drink along Main Street afterwards in the Manayunk district. Manayunk is Native American for ‘Where we go to drink’ by the way!
  • Shop, eat and drink along South Street in the heart of the city.

Always be polite – If you buy a $10 cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market then a tip would be around $1.50.

Coffee, Kombucha and Dairy Free Ice Cream – LA Style

A slight change for this post, writing up my last visit to LA I was conscious it could have turned into a War and Peace type epic if I had included all the places I have enjoyed eating and drinking over the years here as well. So this post is just that, a collection of some of the spots that I have enjoyed visiting in Los Angeles for breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee and late night drinks. Cheers!

Mornings – I will start with breakfast and coffee as any good day should start and at the famous and original Los Angeles Farmers Market on 3rd and Fairfax. Originally a large ranch in the late 1800’s, it wasn’t until the 1930’s when the idea of starting a small village for farmers to sell their wares came to fruition and the Farmers Market was born. Open from 9am-9pm (different on weekends) you could easily visit for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but I think its a nice way start to the day before the tour buses arrive. As well as food stalls there are also vendors selling clothes, candles, flowers and even a dog bakery. With over 30 different places to buy fresh food, coffee and alcohol, its worth doing a full tour of the place before deciding where to eat, last time I had French toast and my friend had an Armenian breakfast.

 

Marmalade Cafe is a small chain with about 7 locations in the LA area, open from 9am till late they serve breakfast lunch and dinner, with a decent range of coffee, teas and champagne cocktails. There is one squeezed in between the Farmers Market and the gorgeously designed Grove Shopping Mall should you fancy a sit down between shopping. The Grove is definitely worth a visit if you are close by, as well a great mix of shops and a cinema, there is a real diverse spread of restaurants and bars, although the shops don’t open till around 10am, some of the cafes and restaurants open up at 9am for breakfast and are open till 11pm for late night food and drinks. I haven’t tried Umami Burger yet, but it’s on my list for next time.

Another place with 2 locations in LA that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner is Swingers. I find a lot of breakfast places in the US are really heavy on eggs, but as I don’t eat them this place was perfect, as they had a great selection of egg free vegetarian and vegan options and the coffee was pretty good too.

 Swingers on Beverly Blvd.

The International House of Pancakes or IHOP is maybe not a place you would associate with health conscious LA, although it is a chain that originated in California. Even though I have been visiting the USA for over 20 years, I hadn’t visited any IHOP’s until 2015 when I visited the one on Sunset Blvd. As well as burgers, sandwiches and soups, they serve an extensive mouthwatering list of pancakes, waffles and French toast, if you’re jetlagged, hungover and hungry (I was all three) it definitely ticks all the boxes as a cheeky one off treat.


Heading towards the coast, if you are in and around Santa Monica, you can’t go wrong exploring the length of Third Street Promenade which is full of cafes, coffee shops and restaurants and if you still can’t find something you like, head to the food court at Santa Monica Place grab a protein bowl or breakfast wrap with a smoothie from the Fresh Healthy Cafe and sit outside in the sun.

You are spoilt for choice for great breakfast and coffee places in Venice Beach, and there are many websites out there giving you detailed instructions for finding that perfect latte or cold brew. On my recent visit I enjoyed an almond cappuccino at Espresso Yo Self just by venice boardwalk and an interesting green tea latte and delicious pastry from Cafe Cielo. One final breakfast recommendation is the cafe/restaurant Rose, housed in a gorgeous space with both indoor and outdoor seating, its own bakery, a fresh Californian menu, a coffee bar and cocktail area, I’m definitely returning for dinner next time.

    

Afternoons. Many of the places I have mentioned for breakfast are suitable for lunches too, but one particular gem I found last month was Lemonade. Focussing on fresh Californian seasonal ingredients, you create your own mixtures of salads, and there is a great choice of meat, vegetarian and vegan options and not surprisingly, delicious thirst quenching lemonades.  We visited the one in West Hollywood, but more and more are popping up around LA, including one in Venice and one in Santa Monica, I remember the kale and tangerine salad being majorly tasty.


If you’re heading up towards Warner Studios for a tour, it will be hard to miss Bobs Big Burger the quintessential 1950’s coffee shop/diner. We stopped here for lunch before heading to the taping of a show one year, I ate meat a lot more back then, so had the big boy burger, but nowadays the menu is more vegetarian friendly I’m pleased to report.

This last visit to LA, we made a wonderful discovery of the organic natural supermarket Erewhon, I could have easily spent a good hour wandering the aisles of the stores of which there are 3, one on Beverly Blvd, one in Venice and one up in Calabases. Full of freshly made salads, sushi and sandwiches to go, a juice and coffee bar, fridges filled with the latest in kombucha and activated charcoal lemonade (yes I tried one!) protein bars and even shots of clay (had one of those too). We visited a few times last month to stock up on cold drinks and made picnics to take to the beach and the hills.

  

My last lunch recommendation is basically anywhere with outdoor seating that doesn’t completely break the bank in Bel Air or Beverly Hills, the people watching will be amazing. My friend and I still talk about our lunch that we had a Momed two years later where we sat right by the pavement, with paparazzi and celebs walk past and overhearing film deals taking place. The food was pretty good too, but it was all about our location and the stories we came away with.

 

Dairy free – Ice Cream. As I don’t tolerate dairy very well, enjoying ice cream is few and far between nowadays when travelling, but dairy free ice cream is pretty easy to come by in LA, so here are two epic recommendations.

Little Damage Located in downtown, we took a trip here specifically to try the ice cream which is made daily with local ingredients. They always have one vegan flavour and are served in the most delicious chewy black charcoal cone. Well worth a visit!
  Little Damage
Kippys Ice Cream Is a 100% none dairy ice cream parlour in Venice Beach, all ice creams are made with 5 organic ingredients or less, and come with a range of toppings such as bee pollen, cacao nibs or goji berries. Open till 11pm, it made a great post taco tre  Kippys None Dairy Ice Cream Parlour

Evenings. I always enjoy a night out on Sunset Blvd, so many bars, cafes, hotels and restaurants, I think the best approach is see where the winds takes you, thats always how we end up finding somewhere. If there is such a thing as an iconic burger bar, then In-n-out must qualify, its good to remember that they stay open till 1am on Sunset, which was around the time when we visited whilst waiting for our uber at then end of a boozy night out. During another visit to the strip, we found ourselves in the Pink Taco, great music and friendly vibe with a menu chocked full of tacos, enchiladas, and a daily happy hour featuring frozen margaritas! Last month, my friend and I just fancied some beers and a few small plates and ended up in The Den on Sunset the food was to die for, especially the cauliflower wings and with a happy hour and fire pit in the outdoor courtyard, it ticked all the boxes.

 Spicy Cauliflower wings on Sunset.

If you fancy a meal out along Hollywood Blvd, then you can’t go wrong creating your own burger at 25 degrees, situated inside the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, I visited it about 10 years ago and I’m pleased to see its still going strong, looking at the updated menu, I may need to return when I’m next over for sure.

Over in Santa Monica I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find somewhere nice to eat along Third Street Promenade or along Ocean Ave. There are many places covering all budgets, from small Italian cafes, English pubs, Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean and fresh local American restaurants. If you fancy viewing it from above, take the lift up to the Cheesecake Factory in Santa Monica place and get a seat on the terrace, as well as ginormous cheesecakes, they serve cocktails and small plates, I’d recommend the Korean fried cauliflower with a glass of prosecco!

Down the shoreline in Venice you have a whole range of options along the boardwalk, some touristy and loud, but not all and despite the beach front location, they aren’t all overpriced either, so it’s worth a wander. Last time we chose Venice Beach Bar and sat upstairs overlooking the beach, watching the glorious sunset, listening to the drum circle, while drinking cold beers and sharing a platter of kale and sweet potato tacos.

Late Night. If you fancy visiting the newest and hippest bars in town, then don’t use this blog as a reference lol, use Time Out LA instead, I’m just all about casual, friendly inexpensive places that serve local beers and play decent music. The Rainbow Bar and Grill has become a bit of a tradition when on a night out on the Sunset Strip even though I’m not particularly into rock music, I’m more of an indie girl (Women? Now I’m 42).  There’s no denying its historic past, a who’s who of rock and movie stars have drunk here since the early 70’s some pretty much living here, and you can’t help but feel the past tales of debauchary seeping from the walls. You can sit outside by the iconic strip, or head inside and pick a booth and since Lemmy past away, there is now a dedicated Lemmy Lounge with a statue of the great man himself, which is fast before a tourist spot in its own right, I can’t wait to return again, a brilliant night out is always guaranteed.

  
Saddle Ranch Chop House describes itself as a ‘destination restaurant’ which I think means as well as serving food and drink, due to its loud music, outdoor fire pits, big screen tv’s, huge bar and oh yeah a mechanical bull which you can ride, diners end up having a great night out in and of itself here. I haven’t eaten here or ridden the bull (honest!) but have grabbed a booth with the idea of staying for one drink and ended up staying a lot longer. One last place we found last time on the Strip was a restaurant/bar called The Everleigh, we saw a gorgeous outdoor courtyard all lit up, looking a little fancier than the places we usually visit, but it still gave off a welcoming vibe, so we ventured in and spent a good hour putting the world to rights with the friendly bartender, whilst sampling the Rose wine at the bar.

Although I have stayed in downtown LA on previous trips, I haven’t really many recommendations for bars in this area, as I think we tended to gravitate towards Hollywood and the coast. One place we did visit though, was the Standard Rooftop, which had entered my radar after I had stayed at the Standard on Sunset. Its Downtown relative is famous for its bar not surprisingly on the roof of the hotel, with insane views across the downtown skyline, a pool, waterbed pods, a dance floor and fireplace. Definitely a place to dress up for, and be prepared to spend some time and money queuing with the beautiful people at the bar, but it was fun for a one off.

  Waterpods and Milkshakes.

A great way to finish the night is to head to the iconic Mels Drive-in, there are 7 locations around the city, but the one on Sunset is open 24/7. Of course you can go for breakfast or lunch, and it’s great during the day, but I love the atmosphere in the early hours, when everyone is slightly drunk, ordering sliders and milkshakes whilst deciding whether to call an uber home or to carry on to another bar.

Finally, if British pubs are more your thing, there are a few gems in LA. I wouldn’t normally visit anything remotely modelling themselves as a British pub when abroad, but these three – The Cat and the FiddleThe Pig & Whistle and Ye Olde Kings Head have real character with unique back stories and have firmly planted themselves in the history books of this city.

Before you go – Tipping is an essential but potentially confusing component for anyone visiting the US. I believe it’s acceptable to pay $1-2 in a bar for wine or beer, increasing if you’ve ordered a fancy cocktail that’s taken time to prepare. In a cafe or restaurant it’s between 15-20% of the bill, so if you spent $20 you would tip an extra $3-4.

My love affair with LA

State No 5

My favourite place on the globe is Los Angeles, my first ever visit was around 15 years ago, and I have just landed back from my 5th trip last month, so its now officially my most visited city outside of the UK. I know a lot of people who pass through, maybe having a day or two as part of a layover on the way to Hawaii or New Zealand and hate it, the noise, the traffic, the fact that actual downtown Hollywood isn’t glamourous at all, but I absolutely adore it and its much more complex and fascinating than just a few busy tourist streets with stars on the pavement and a sign up in the hills. 

There must be a million blogs out there featuring this the City of Angels, and with the actual county of Los Angeles covering 88 cities, there is no way that I could ever begin to cover in a single blog post a comprehensive list of what to see and do when visiting this part of Southern California. So I am just going to write up my favourite places to visit, with my must do list already growing, and my 6th visit already mapped out in my head. But with beaches, hills, museums and art galleries, flea and farmers markets, high end boutiques and dive bars and juice bars and nature trails and biking trails the list goes on and on, I cant believe anyone could not find something to love. 

History Bit.  Originally this part of California was inhabited by 4 coastal groups of Native Americans, the Tongva, the Tataviam, the Chumash and the Ajachemem, then in the late 1700’s the history books report that Mexican and Spanish missionaries arrived and started to set up the first community that is now close to Olvera Street in Downtown LA. Of course Los Angeles is much more than its most famous area, Hollywood, but it is a huge reason for its fame and the draw for people of all walks of life. The movie industry started to move here in the early 1900’s due to its great climate and close access to all kinds of perfect movie settings such as the desert, the hills, rivers, beaches as well as the urban areas and for me that is the big reason I keep returning, the diversity in both the people and the landscape. 

   
Arrivals. I have flown direct to the main airport LAX a couple of times and if you’re flying in from the UK, you have a number of airlines from both London and Manchester taking around 10 hours. If you don’t mind changing along the way, you will be able to fly from any other airport in the U.K. for example you could go Cardiff via Amsterdam or Liverpool via Dublin. I have also driven in from San Francisco along the famous coastal route 1, this can take around 8 hrs none stop, but the route is so beautiful, so we took a couple of days to enjoy it. Amtrak trains also travel in from across the country, finishing up at Union Station as do the greyhound buses, and I once travelled in from Yosemite, via train and bus. 

The public transport is still being developed in many parts of LA and due to heavy traffic, taking the bus can be a real adventure, but it is doable, the metro covers an extensive area of LA, but not to a lot of the tourist areas as yet. If you are on a budget, as I always am, an inexpensive way of getting to your accommodation on arrival from LAX is by Fly Away bus which costs $8 to Hollywood or you could order one of the shared shuttle buses such as Prime Time or Super Shuttle for around $15-20 depending on where you want to go. Driving is often said to be an essential when being in LA, but with taxis, Lyft’s and Uber’s it’s becoming easier to get around without having to hire a car if you’re only here for a short holiday, and not planning to go out of the city.

Sights. Hollywood is no doubt on most tourists hit lists when visiting for the first time, and it’s definitely a fun experience. The main sights are based around the famous Hollywood Boulevard and it’s here where you can find your favourite star on the walk of fame, visit the famous TCL Chinese Theatre where many film premiers take place, there is the Disney owned El Capitan Theatre across the street and the Dolby theatre where the Oscars are held. There are a whole bunch of museums situated here as well, including the Wax Museum, Madame Tussauds, the Hollywood Museum, Guinness Book of Records Museum and a Ripleys Believe it or Not. The Hollywood and Highland shopping mall is located, not surprisingly on the corner of Hollywood Blvd and N Highland Avenue, where you can shop, catch a movie and grab a bite to eat, and look out for a view of the Hollywood sign from up top. It’s also here on Hollywood Blvd where you can join one of the many stars homes tours and grab a photo with one of the  many characters dressed up as famous faces patrolling the pavements! 

  

Make sure you get yourself up to the Hollywood Hills too, which is actually part of the Santa Monica mountains, the views are iconic, and you can either grab a map and drive up yourself, one of the many tour buses will always include it as part of their itinerary, or you can take the Dash Observatory Bus (from Sunset and Vermont) up to Griffith Park. I’ve done all three over the years, how you decide to do it depends on your time and budget. You cannot drive straight up to the actual Hollywood Sign, but there are many vantage points for that perfect photo op, depending on how you are travelling up there, a tour bus will take you to a popular photo spot, but a quick internet search will throw up lots of self drive suggestions. 

 

Griffith Park is a great day out and perfect for when you want to get out into nature, pack a picnic and leave the traffic and city behind. The views are amazing looking down across the skyline and you are spoiled for choice for things to do, there are lots of hiking trails, a museum, a zoo,  mini railroad, caves, and of course the world famous Griffith Observatory. The observatory was closed for renovation during my first 3 trips to LA, but I finally visitied last month (Oct 2017) and it was worth the wait. The views up here for one are mesmerising, hazy downtown skyscrapers and dusty mountains, rare butterflies, birds and maybe even the odd coyote, but a visit to the observatory itself is full of a different discovery. Entry is free and you get 3 levels of space, and astronomy to explore, including the jaw droppingly exciting Tesla Coil which had multiple live demonstrations daily. The only time you need to pay is if you fancy watching one of the shows in the dome shaped planetarium, between $3-7 a ticket it’s well worth it, we experienced the Water is Life show and there are repeated showings throughout the day. As the observatory is open till late for night time viewings and monthly star parties, it doesn’t open until 12.00 daily, so we took a picnic and hiked one of the trails first before it got too hot, and then headed inside, it was a perfect day out.

 

Downtown LA This is the central business area of LA and the place responsible for that famous cluster of skyscrapers seen so often on TV and in films. It’s definitely rough around the edges, and there are certain areas I wouldn’t recommend walking around, but stick to the main streets and use taxis in the evening and you should be fine. There are some great reasons as to why it would be worth a visit to this part of town in the daytime though and some superb bars and restaurants too that would make for an unforgettable night out. My first ever visit to LA was to catch up with a Mexican friend, and he took me to Olvera Street  and the El Pueblo Historical Monument which is where the first Mexican settlers set up encampment, so it’s basically the birthplace of Los Angeles. Olvera street is an amazing tree lined Mexican Marketplace that hits all the senses, here you can buy all kinds of crafts, clothes and food, as well as the host of many festivals, you can take a free walking tour and visit some of the oldest buildings in the city. History, tacos and music, something for everyone! 

Union Station deserves a look in if you’re in the area, built in 1939 it’s the largest passenger terminal in Western US, a combination of Spanish Colonial and Art Deco the interior is outstanding. Even if you aren’t travelling on to somewhere else, it’s across from Olvera Street and has a couple of bars and a restaurant inside, so it could easily fit into someone’s downtown itinerary. 

  

Downtown is also where you can find Little Tokyo and Chinatown both fun neighbourhoods for great food, temples, museums and shops, I once stayed in Little Tokyo for a few days, before relocating to the beach. For the few days we were there, we would would grab breakfast or lunch at some cute little Japanese place and shop or visit temples before heading off to see more of the well known sites. My final recommendation for downtown is a great bookshop if losing yourself in books and comfy chairs is your idea of heaven, located on South Spring St is The Last Book Store a huge 2 floor loft space full of books of every description and is laid out like a living breathing art gallery of books, magical!

    

Beverly Hills. A city to the west of Hollywood with one of the most famous postcodes in the world 90210, it’s an experience to drive through, people watch and window shop for sure. You will see lots of familiar sights from tv, music and film, ultra expensive blacked out cars, paparazzi and shops that you need an appointment or A list status to enter. All the LA tour buses will drive you down Rodeo Drive and the surrounding area, past restaurants like The Ivy or the Beverly Hills Hotel, all places that are far too expensive for us mortals to shop, sleep or dine in, but exciting to see nonetheless. Close by are places such as The Grove, the Beverly Centre and my favourite The Farmers Market which are all far more accessible the average visitor, so I’d recommend people watching, walking a couple of blocks past all the fancy stores, but then head to shop and eat in one of the neighbouring malls instead, for a more thrifty way of experiencing Beverly Hills.

  

Every visit I have made to LA, I have never stayed in the same place for the entire trip, I spend time staying in the heart of Hollywood and then head across to the coast. This is partly because I usually never hire a car, so it saves on travelling (it can take 30-40+ minutes to get across town on a good day and you are looking at an hour+ on public transport) but I also like to have a few days exploring the shops, bars, museums in and around Hollywood, and then head to the coast as its a completely different vibe, and mindset.

Santa Monica is a city in itself, situated on the Pacific coastline, its a very walkable and bike friendly place, full of juice bars, shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants, spas, yoga studios, theatres and coffee shops. With palm trees spanning the famous Ocean Drive that you will have seen thousands of times before in the movies and of course the celebrated Santa Monica Pier, it feels a world away from the neon filled, billboard lined busy streets of West Hollywood. As well as exploring the famous Pier which has a ferris wheel, aquarium, restaurants, arcades and shops, spend time along Third Street Promenade where you will find more affordable shopping and restaurants than in Beverly Hills for sure and even a British Pub. Bike lanes and rental shops are everywhere, and you can easily travel up and down the coast line on designated bike lanes, south to Venice Beach or north towards Malibu, maybe try some surfing or paddleboard lessons, or if you are me just chill on the beach with a smoothie.

   

Venice Beach. It’s only a 30 minute walk from Santa Monica or a 10 minute car journey, but definately strap in for a completely different scene down here.  It’s the quirkier, eclectic, bohemian neighbour and always worth a visit, the world famous boardwalk is full of unique people, stalls and events. Keep an eye out for The Boardwalk Busker, along with the man who has a huge albino snake wrapped around his neck, mixed in with local musicians and artists showcasing their talents. The beach front is full of restaurants and bars, and its an experience to just sit down and witness all the craziness from behind the safety of a cold beer and some tacos. Make sure to walk as far down as Muscle Beach, to witness the bare chested weighlifters pumping iron in the sun, then head back a few blocks past the famous Jim Morrison mural to the quietly scenic canal area. Take time to wander the entire length of Abbot Kinney and explore Rose Avenue and Main St, which are full of coffee shops, boutique stores, and lots of original and unconventional restaurants and bars.

 


Others sights
– So much more to recommend, head up to Malibu for surfers, more beaches and great restaurants, take in the art and amazing views from the Getty, take a bar crawl at night along Sunset Strip and visit the incredible Universal Studios theme park afterwards watching a film and enjoying a meal at the Universal City Walk and maybe even book a studio tour at Warner Brothers the list goes on. . . . 

Bratislava and beyond 

Back to Europe for this post and my most recent trip, as I just got back a few days ago. I started visiting Europe more extensively a couple of years back, when I didn’t want to travel too far and for too long with dad being so ill, and so I became interested in the central and eastern regions of Europe, with its rich interconnecting histories, fascinating cultures and breathtaking landscapes. Slovakia is known as the country at the heart of Europe due to its geographical position, it is surrounded by Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Ukraine and Poland, and as I have already visited all of Slovakia’s neighbours, it was about time I paid a visit to the country in the middle connecting them all.

History Bit – The capital of the Slovak Republic is Bratislava but due to the history of the country and the fact that Slovakia only amicably split from Czechoslovakia in 1993, makes Bratislava one of the youngest capitals in Europe, but one with a long and interesting history that goes back beyond the 2nd century BC. This is definitely reflected in the sights dotted around the old town area of the city, that has a distinctly different feel than the rest of the capital.

  

Arrivals. We arrived at Bratislava airport late on a midweek evening, so armed with a telephone number from the hosts of our apartment we rang The Green Taxi company, who arrived quickly and dropped us off in the old town for €10. There are public transport options too and from the airport as well and we used them on our return the following week. Bus number 61 is the airport bus and takes around 20 mins to get to its final stop of the main train station, which is about a 20-25 min walk from the old town, if you don’t fancy the walk with your suitcase from the train station, the no1 tram goes from the train station & stops just outside the periphery of the historic centre. Catching the bus or tram is easy, you purchase a ticket prior to boarding (valid on both buses and trams) from a machine by the stop, and you purchase it according to the duration of trip, ie a 15 minute (0.70€) 30 (0.90€) or maybe a 60 minute trip (1.20€) and just validate the ticket using the machine on board.

Bratislava itself is very close to the Austrian, Hungarian & Czechia borders, and so you could easily travel in by using the extensive Train network that is all around this area. From Budapest a direct train takes about 2hr 40 minutes, from Brno in Czechia it takes just over 90 minutes and from Vienna in Austria around an hour. 

There is plenty to do over a long weekend here, with cathedrals, castles, churches, a clock tower, museums, the Danube river, an observation tower, & some really unique friendly coffee shops and restaurants as well as lots of pubs serving local beer and all the dumplings you can eat.

   Views from top & bottom of St Michaels Gate.

Sights. We stayed in an apartment close to St Michaels Gate, the only remaining gate left of this once heavily fortified city and this made a good base in which to visit the old town, but we were a close enough walk to the sites outside the walls.  As soon as you walk outside the mainly pedestrianised old town, there are lots of signposts helpfully directing you to the other sights and conveniences with lots of available tram and bus stops. Staying close to St Michaels Gate meant that it was one of the first sites we visited, you can visit the inside of the tower and climb to the top, to do so, the main entrance is to be found on the right of the gate from inside the old town.  As well as the not too strenuous climb to the top, there is the Museum of Arms spread over each floor on your way up, once at the top, there is a great view of the old town and a chance to get your bearings. Also, dont miss the zero kilometre plaque underneath the gate showing how many KM it is from Bratislava to other places on the globe.

One of the oldest buildings in Bratislava is the The Old Town Hall located on the largest square in the town, Hlavné Námestie. Inside is the large, informative Bratislava History Museum, which has really unusual artefacts including the shooting targets which are basically oil paintings on wood, and the building itself in which the museum is situated is grand and beautiful, be sure to check out the thick vaulted doors and intricate ceilings as well as climbing to the top of the tower, which provides a great vantage point to look over the square and towards the castle. 

   Looking up at the Old Town Hall on our sunny day and looking back down from the top of the tower on our rainy day.

Visable from all over the city is the spire of St Michaels Cathedral located in the south west of the old town, next to some of the original wall and across from the castle up on the hill. Quite a simple and gothic interior, it’s nowhere near as colourful or extravagant as some of the other cathedrals I have visited recently,  but it’s simplicity is part of its charm, as long as you time your visit to avoid the crowds arriving from the Danube cruise boats. As well as some impressive alters, you can also head downstairs to the crypt, and don’t forget the memorial to the now demolished synagogue outside in the square. 

 

Opposite the front door of the cathedral was a little alleyway with a sign advertising tea, if you follow the sign up along the historic wall you will find the most delightful outdoor Tea Bar selling hot and cold drinks, including Slovak Tea made with linden flowers. We ordered hot Slovakian tea and sat and watched the world go by for a good half hour here, a definite recommendation for when you need a little pause in your sightseeing, there was even little blankets ready for if the weather turned cold. 

 Hot Slovakian tea with linden flowers (squint and you can see St Martins spire top right)

Another place we stumbled upon whilst just exploring the streets, squares and small alleyways, was what turned out to be the Oldest Souvenir shop in the town with a small museum in the back. Well worth a look in, located just off Františkanske Namestie on Biela, close to the Old Town Hall, keep an eye out for the small sign out front leading you down a small side alley.

     

About a 10 minutes walk east outside the city walls, is the uniquely decorated, bright blue church of St Elizabeth. The walls, the roof, the shiny mosaics are all blue, I’ve never seen anything like it before, and it’s curved lines and colours reminded me of Gaudi. When we arrived, we were disappointed to find it was closed and only open for services, so check online when you are there for the worship times, we returned during the Sunday morning service and was pleased to find the interior is just as beautiful and unique as the exterior. 

    

Another place initially closed to visitors when we got there was The Palffy Palace,  although advertised as open, there seemed to be a private function happening which was a shame. The palace is home to the Bratislava City Gallery, but the real reason we wanted to visit was to see the Matej Kren Passage, an art installation comprising of around 15,000 books and looks surreal, we never got chance to return during our stay, but you always have to leave a reason to return right?

Towering up on a hill, looking down upon the capital over in the west of the city is Bratislava Castle, its impossible to miss and is a short but uphill walk from the old town walls and the Danube. The interior of the castle is currently undergoing a huge renovation project, so its not open to tourists, but the Museum of Slovak History is still available to visit, and the impressive grounds of the exterior are open and free and with its elevated position, there are superb views across the whole of the capital and beyond.

    

There is another castle that should be on anyone’s itinerary when visiting Bratislava and that is Devin Castle, which is a short and easy 20 minute bus ride from the Novy Most bus station, which is located under the Most SNP, this is the huge cable bridge with the observation tower on. The bus you need is the 29 (28 also goes there I believe)which when we caught it, left from the main road under the bridge on the old town side and not inside the actual station. This bus takes you straight into Devin and although there is a bus stop right by the castle, when we visited on a Saturday and in October, the bus only stopped on the main road and its then a short walk to the castle, I am presuming in summer when its busier, the bus has an extra stop right by the castle carpark. 

There are two main things to do when visiting this part of town, the castle and the ruins for sure, but there are some really nice and well signposted walking trails along the junction of the Morova and Danube rivers, this section of river also becomes the countries border, with the opposite shore being Austria. We made time to do both, but started with the castle and the museum that is situated inside the castle grounds, the upper part of the castle is closed for extensive renovations, but there was still a lot available to explore. The castle grounds are pretty big and encompass a field with donkeys, an excavation area with archologists hard at work &  leafy footpaths taking you to various medieval ruins along the way, including an amunitions store, a chapel & a workhouse. The castle itself is built high into the surrounding rock and well worth taking time to explore, the views from the top are magnificent and keep a look out for the many caves dotted into the cliff face. There are a few stalls selling souvenirs outside the main entrance, as well as a hotel and a few restaurants should you fancy a meal before heading back to the centre of Bratislava.

     

Eats and Drinks. Restaurants serving local beers, wine and traditional food are plentiful in the old town. We heard about a traditional place just outside the old town walls with great reviews on TripAdvisor called Bratislava Flagship Restaurant as we fancied at least one night sampling some regional dishes. The restaurant is huge, the largest in the capital, but friendly, casual, and suitable for large groups and solo/small groups, housed in a former cinema the building has a great atmosphere and is connected to a monastic brewery, so be sure to try the beer too. The menu covers all bases when it comes to Slovakian food, I had the garlic soup served in a bread bowl and then shared a dumpling platter for two with mum.  The majority of traditional Slovak dishes feature pork, it is possible to get vegetarian options but they will more than likely feature a lot of sheeps cheese, although there were some none traditional places we ate at that had great vegetarian and vegan options on the menu and the food was outstanding.

Enjoy Coffee was an absolute delight, we visited daily and sampled dishes from their breakfast, lunch and dinner menus as well as having coffee to go. The menu was fresh, healthy, with creative dishes such as buckwheat muesli, homemade bread with avocado spread, celery fries and courgette pasta, they had a great selection of coffees, teas and smoothies and served alcohol too. There was outdoor and indoor seating, with a children’s play area towards the back and friendly multilingual staff who always made us feel welcome. 

We stumbled upon Fach by accident as we were wet and cold once we returned from Devin and fancied some soup. This coffee bar, cafe, bakery and restaurant was a real surprise, their menu was really interesting, unique and simple, focussing on 15 seasonal dishes at a time. I ordered carrot soup, but it was actually carrot velouté, fermented ginger and hazelnuts, it was outstanding, it came with the dried, fermented and cooked ingredients in a bowl and then the waitress poured the warm soup on top, and priced at just over £5 it was probably the best soup I have ever tasted. It was only when we investigated afterwards that we realised the main chef trained and worked in Michelin starred restaurants prior to opening Fach, and it truely shows from the decor, the presentation and of course the food, but most of all it was friendly, inviting and perfect for 2 wet sightseers to warm up.

     

The final eating place I will rave about is Mondieu, there are 4 in Bratislava and we visited the bistro situated on Laurinska for our final brunch before heading to the airport. They specialise in coffees and chocolate but also have an extensive breakfast and lunch menu with lots of crepes, salads and sandwiches, I had the beetroot, hummus and avocado open sandwich and mum had the avocado and poached egg open sandwich both were fresh and delicious. They have a huge selection of speciality coffees, I had an espresso with raw cacao and mum had a beautifully presented coffee with chocolate, but the star of our last meal here was the dairy free lavender and blueberry ice cream from their vegan ice cream bar, it was to die for! Our mains cost around £5 each, the ice cream and coffees around £2 each and the staff were helpful and happy to let us sit with our suitcases and not feel in the way. 

   
Hot Tips –  

  • If you have an hour or so to kill with large bags and suitcases, then visit the Old Town Hall Tower and the Bratislava History Museum as there is a free bag store by the ticket desk.
  • Ice cream lovers head to the Laboratorie branch of Mondieu,  located on Laurinska down the road from the bistro, here they have an ice cream bar where you can design your own flavours and toppings.
  • Keep a look out for the many bronze statues dotted around the old town, including the old man peaking out of the drain, the paparazzi statue has been removed though, so dont spend a good hour wandering aroundlookimg for it like we did.
  • If you are into your “metal” there is a Metal Megastore close to Palffy Palace.

Other sights – UFO Observation Tower – Museum of Pharmacy – Museum of Clocks – Slavin War Memorial, a walk along the Danube or river cruise.

Always be polite 🙂 –  Thank you in Slovak is pronounced something like Dakujem (Da Qui Em) 

A weekend in Ukraine – LVIV

I never intended to visit Ukraine, or at least last summer anyways, although it has always been on my list. I had originally planned to travel to Belarus, via Lithuania, but there was an issue with my visa payment and then my passport got lost in the post. So 4 days before my flight to Lithuania with my passport back but no visa, I quickly planned a trip through Poland and into Ukraine overland and then back to Poland where I already had a flight home booked from Warsaw.

Arrivals. I chose to visit Lviv as it was close to the Polish border and on the train line from both Krakow and Warsaw, so it made sense to do a round trip and visit all three. There seemed like there was enough to do for a weekend with it being a UNESCO City and I could get the overnight sleeper from Krakow (and then on to Warsaw) it meant I had two nights of accommodation which I wouldn’t need to budget for. Although you can fly direct from many UK airports to the capital Kiev, currently there are no direct flights to Lviv from the UK, so you could fly via Kiev and get an internal flight to Lviv (takes just over an hour) or you can fly to a different European city first and then get another flight on to Lviv. Popular budget airline Wizzair fly to many European destinations from the UK and also fly into Lviv from Berlin and Wroclaw. 

Of course you can enter the Ukraine overland like I did & again there are a few options if you are coming from the direction of Poland. Bordered by  Belarus from the North, you will have to arrange a visa in order to travel through that country, which is where I failed (although check the embassy website, controls are being slackened for short trips), to the East is Russia, another country with strict visa controls and an unstable border around the South East. The Western border stretches along a few countries, so with a bit of planning I’m sure you could drive, bus or train in from Moldova, Hungary or Slovakia, but the closest country and closest foreign cities from Lviv are Poland and either towns Lublin (132 miles) or Krakow (200 miles).

I travelled in from Krakow, as there was a direct overnight sleeper train and as I had never visited Krakow before, I could do the sights there first. 

 At Krakow train station about to board to Ukraine.

Although no visa is needed for EU nationals to visit Ukraine, it isn’t a Schengen area, and so as you cross the border you are rudely awakened by a serious looking female border guard (or at least I was). Half asleep after having a torch shone in my face and passport taken off me, our train continued off in the same direction, I felt that this was a good sign, and 20 minutes later my passport was returned to me with a shiny new stamp and I settled back to sleep.

Border check at 01.01am
New passport stamp!
 

I booked my train tickets online before I left the UK using Polrail and then picked up the tickets from their office close to the station in Krakow on arrival. The overnight from Krakow to Lviv took just under 8 hours and I booked a bed in a shared sleeping compartment for around £47. Polrail were super helpful and sent simple easy instructions via email, but be aware of local spellings when choosing your intended destinations, Lviv is also spelt Lvov and Warsaw is also spelt Warszawa.

I arrived in Lviv early Sunday morning at around 6am, so the city was still waking up, and so was I to be honest. It was about a 40 minute walk to my accommodation the Old City Hostel which cost me around £14 a night, but first I needed money. It is pretty hard to get your hands on any Ukrainian money in the UK, your local Thomas Cook will definately not have any behind their currency exchange counter, but I told my bank of my plans before I left and the first ATM I popped my card into on the main street (Horeodotska St) worked, SUCCESS!

Early morning view of train station
First views of Ukraine

As my hostel wasn’t technically open until later that morning they still kindly let me dump my bag, charge my phone and freshen up, then I headed back outside to find breakfast. Not too much was open early on the Sunday morning, but I was glad of the walk to get my bearings and I stumbled upon a lovely little friendly cafe selling juice, coffee and crossants, I managed to point and smile and successfully order my breakfast at the aptly named Lviv Croissants.

History Bit. People have inhabited Lviv since the 6th century and this region of Ukraine has been part of many different countries/states over the centuries including Poland and Hungary. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that Lviv became the centre of a new Ukrainian national movement and so retained its importance when the country became indepedant during WW1, WW2 and then again after Soviet rule in 1991 and is currently the 7th largest city in this compelling country. 

Sights. The unofficial centre of this city is in and around Rynok Sq. Here is where you can find the tourist information centre, so I stocked up on a tourist map and got the opening times of the local sights. You can spend the best part of a day around this Historic Square, and it is the reason for its UNESCO status, so be sure to visit the town hall, which if you have the stamina, climb to the top of the tower inside to admire the views. Also around the square are many other fascinating buildings, including the Black House, which is one of the oldest houses in Lviv, built in sandstone that has blackened over the years hence the name and now is home to the historical museum. 

  

As well as museums and historical architecture, there are 4 fountains – Diana, Neptune, Adonis and Amphitrite, shops, restaurants, bars, as well as a large LVIV sign that always had a small cluster of people waiting for a photo beside it. It was especially busy and bustling the weekend I was there, due to a Jewish food and drink festival taking part in the square and there was a great mix of stalls selling food, drink, souvenirs and even Putin toilet paper.

More than once over the weekend, I sat outside one of the bars dotted around the periphery of the square to soak up the atmosphere, listening to the music and watching the locals engage in traditional Jewish dancing, the stress of my visa and passport woes from the previous week eliminated.

 Putin toilet paper for sale  Beer in the Square

It wasn’t just in the main square where there was dancing, stalls and festivals, a short walk opposite my hostel was the City Garden a long expanse of lawn, benches, fountains, statues and walk ways, which was always full of locals morning, noon and night. For the two days I was there, it played host to a strong man competition, a singing competition, traditional dancing and loads more, it was always full of life and perfect for people watching.

    Lviv was certainly full of life!
One of the standouts of Lviv for me, other than just the wonderment of watching the locals take having fun, very seriously whether it was a weekend or work day, was the cathedrals and churches. There are many to visit and all easily walkable, the most impressive I felt was the Armenian Cathedral, only small, but the interior was outstanding and should be a must on any visit to this city. There is also a Latin Cathedral, the Church of Holy Communion, the Bernadine Church and a Carmelite Church just to name a few, but it is by no means a full list of all the places of worship which are all walking distance from the main square. 

 

If you fancy a good walk and getting out in the fresh air, then head east from Rynok square to the well signposted High Castle Hill, an artificial hill built on the summit of the now ruins of  Lviv Castle. Though you could take a taxi half the way up, its only about a 2km walk from the city centre, with lots of vantage points and walking trails to follow, and I really enjoyed just taking my time along with many other locals and their dogs in what is obviously a popular local afternoon out and you are rewarded with great views once you reach the top.

 Hiking to the top

On my way back down, I didn’t head straight back to the centre, but took a road west, initially back towards the train station and then turned right up Vicheva Street, as there was a stretch of interesting buildings along this route. First up is a Benadictine Monastery and church, there are a number of little cute shops, a small square, a museum and two more churches, which made for a great detor on my way back to the old town. 

I spent another good afternoon just seeing where the wind took me, stumbling upon the national opera house, with a rather refreshing fountain, more gardens, more churches, a market and there were lots of dairy free friendly coffee shops as well as people dressed in traditional costume and traditional dancers, the streets were always alive.

Food and Drink. Speak of coffee, as well as the croissant place I found on the first morning, I had some brilliant other finds for coffee, cake and local dishes, all inexpensive and friendly, not all with English translated menus, but that’s all part of the fun isn’t it! Lviv is known as the coffee capital of Ukraine, and you are never too far from somewhere selling you a hot or cold caffeine drink. Some real jems I visited included The coffee shop company with a great selection of cakes, the adorable Mocco Coffee and cheesecake is a must at Brown Tea and Coffee Shop & they all seemed to offer soy milk. As for dumplings and local beer, even eating & drinking on the Square isn’t expensive, as in other European cities that maybe are further west, so take your pick.  I spent time sipping the beer & sampling dumplings at Atlas opposite the LVIV sign and another one that didn’t seem to have an English translation, which was just off the square to the west, but I do remember the borscht was delicious, I even found a vegan restaurant on Brativ Rohatyntsiv St called Green

 This restaurant just off the square had helpful photos of the food on the menu.

It was an adventure, and has just whetted my appetite to see some more of this captivating country, sample more of the food and learn more of its history, I hope to return!

LVIV tip – if arriving or departing by train at the main station, there is one ‘foreign language’ kiosk who can advise on trains, correct platforms etc in English, a lifesaver if you don’t understand the Cyrillic notice board like me. Also, for a small fee there is a fancy waiting room with comfy seats and wifi, perfect if you have a long wait for your train.

Always be polite 🙂 The translation for thank you is pronounced something like Dyakuyu 🙂