A Weekend in Andorra

fullsizeoutput_ea9

Starting 2019 as I mean to go on, by exploring the world! ¬†I have done some travelling since dad died, but havent felt up to writing, I am still figuring stuff out and looking at ways to combine more travelling and earning a living now I don’t need to be based in the North West UK anymore. But since last summer I have been back to Greece, also to Albania and Jordan, so I will aim to write those travels up soon. For now though, I have just landed back from Country 51, Andorra!

Arrivals

Andorra is one of 5 countries I believe that doesn’t have its own airport, so travelling in by car or bus is your only option, as there aren’t any trains either! The nearest airports are in either Spain to the south or France in the north, I flew in with Easyjet to Barcelona in Spain and I flew home from Toulouse in France. Most airports in the UK have regular and inexpensive flights to Barcelona, and you can fly into Toulouse from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and London, so lots of options.

It’s so easy to then get yourself to the capital Andorra la Vella as Andbus provides regular direct services from both airports to the main bus station, taking around 3 hours and around ‚ā¨33 each way. Andorra is located high up in the Eastern Pyrenees, so the views as you make your way up to the capital are pretty spectacular if it’s not too foggy! The Andbus’s were on time, clean, USB ports everywhere and although there was supposed to be WIFI, they do warn you it could be temperamental, and I wasnt able to connect at all during both journeys. Other departures that I saw on the board at the Estacio Nacional d’Autobusos d’Andorra were Madrid with¬†Alsa Bus,¬†Lleida (also in Spain) with¬†Montmantell¬†and I think Eurolines do an overnight bus to Porto in Portugal too. Both border crossings in and out of the country were quick, we didn’t stop at all, which was great, meaning no delays, but also no stamp in your passport either. The bus station itself is clean and modern with toilets, vending machines, lots of seats and plenty of lockers, great if you’re only staying a short while, it was ‚ā¨3 for 24 hours use.

History Bit

I have to admit, I had zero clue about the history of the country before I got here, so I had some research to do. Settlements have been found in this region high up in the Pyrenees mountain range as far back as 9,500 BC, as hunters found places to rest whilst exploring the often inhospitable surrounding landscape. The area that is now Andorra was¬†originally created as a buffer to keep the Muslim Moors out of France by the then leader Charlemange in the late 700’s AD. By the 1300’s the 16th smallest country in the world, decided to share allegiance to both the Spanish and French princes. ¬†This role goes to whoever is the Bishop of Urgell in Spain and whoever is President of France, at the time of writing this, its Emmanelle Macron. ¬†In 1993 the result of a referendum decided to reduce the power of the co-princes and establish separate branches of government and it also joined the United Nations. The only country in the world with Catalan as its official language, the total population is around 77,000, it’s never had its own currency, and although not part of the EU, it does use the Euro.

Sights

It has to be said, that unless you are mad on duty free shopping or skiing, there isn’t one outstanding must see building, church or museum. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth a visit by any means. The capital Andorra la Vella is friendly with lots of quaint little back streets, surrounded by epic mountain views and lots of duty free shops, so if you fancy a bargain on a go pro or iPhone this is the place. I was on a tight budget as usual, so I just fancied a wander along the streets, to drink good coffee and find a few places of cultural interest. A good place to start is at the Tourist Information Centre, a modern stand alone building where the shopping street¬†Avinguda Meritxell¬†meets the Place¬†de la Rotonda. Here you can get free maps of both the capital and the country as a whole, pick up some souvenirs, book a tour or get bus timetables, the staff speak English and are really helpful too.

Casa de la Vall¬†This is the place to visit if you want to learn some history about Andorra, this 16th century building is one of the oldest and most continuous seats of parliament in Europe. It is open Mon-Sat, closing at midday but opens again at 3. Unfortunately, even though I got there at 3 on the dot, it never opened on the day I visited, when I asked at the Tourist Information Centre, they very kindly rang as they presumed it should have been open, but it was indeed closed for the day, despite the sign outside saying differently. So I never got to explore it during my stay. Even if you don’t want to visit inside, still head over as there is a great viewing area out front.

Staying in this historic area a short walk from Casa de la Vall is a small but beautiful Romanesque building, otherwise known as the Church of Sant Esteve.  Quite a simple and calm interior, the outside is pretty impressive and worth a visit.

Avenue Meritxell¬†is one of the main shopping streets in the capital, lined with clothes, gadgets and jewellery shops, if you’re in the market for a bargain, spend some time window shopping along here. Andorra is exempt from excise duty¬†tax, so you’ll find things much cheaper than at home. Also along this street are lots of restaurants, some souvenir shops and the large Pyrenees shopping mall.

img_2421

Heading East along the Avenue Meritxell, you will eventually come to a junction and if you turn right the shopping street, becoming a pedestrianised area, with more malls, restaurants and bars. Whilst I was here, it was 12th night, and the avenue was converted into the Three Kings Parade all covered with sparkly Christmas lights and floats. It was memorable for maybe some of the wrong reasons, as the children threw boiled sweets from the floats preceding the three kings arrival, they were like missiles flying through the crowd, I’m sure there will have been a few black eyes the next morning, gosh they hurt!

The Salvador Dali clock called ‘Nobility of Time‚Äô is found here too at the point where the Avenue Meritxel crosses over the river (Pont de la Rotunda) as well as the impressive Andorra La Vella sign, where you must get a photo as proof of your visit, of course! (especially if you didn’t get a passport stamp).

Exploring the capital with a stop for some tapas and coffee pretty much took up day one, so on day two, armed with a bus timetable I headed off to another town nearby.

Encamp – One¬†of the main ski resorts in the country, its only a short 20 minute bus ride from the capital. ¬†Bus L2 leaves regularly and costs ‚ā¨1.85 for a single trip or if you plan on visiting more places, a ‚ā¨4 ticket will give you a day pass. ¬†Catch the bus on Avinguda¬†Pr√≠ncep Benlloch, there will be a yellow bus sign painted on road, or just keep a look out for skiers stood at the bus stop, as the ski resort at Encamp has real and artificial snow, so attracts skiers 365 days a year. If you are already staying in Encamp, then there is a free Funibus¬†that travels through the town, taking skiers direct to the cable car station.

You don’t have to be a skier at all to enjoy a visit to Encamp, there are still enough things to fill a couple of hours. The small town has a few museums such as the¬†Casa Cristo Ethnographic Museum¬†a 3 story refurbished rural house, giving visitors a real in site into Andorran life at the end of the 19th century. If cars are more your thing, there is also the¬†National Automobile Museum¬†all walkable from the bus stop.

A real delight though, was the area in the town called¬†Les Bons¬†a historical village with amazing views across the valley, it’s a bit of climb, so have some decent footwear on. There is a 12th Century Church the Sant Roma up here with a small altar with beautiful murals and an impressive defense tower too.

The big draw to the town though is the stomach clenching (if you’re not great with heights that is)¬†6KM Funicular and one of the longest cable cars in Europe. Its ‚ā¨12 for a return journey taking just over 15 minutes each way and transports you to the top of the snowy mountains and the Solanelles ski area. ¬†It does stop half way, but I wasnt quite sure what was there, other than the option to hop off half way to go hiking, as there wasnt any snow there or a rest area, so I stayed on with the other skiers till it terminated at the summit. ¬†As well as skiing and snowboarding, there is a coffee shop and restaurant area both with outdoor seating, so none skiers like me can grab a hot drink (or beer), wrap up and enjoy unbelievable views. Well worth it and was probably the highlight of my trip to the country.

With only a few daylight hours left of day 2,  I decided to walk to the village of Santa Colomba, to the west of the capital, it was only a 25 minute walk from my hotel, although I did see the L1 bus driving along the main road, if your hotel is a bit more central than mine was. The reason tourists head to this village is to view the Pre-Romanesque Santa Colomba Church with its unusual circular bell tower the only one of its kind in the country and the multi coloured wooden bust inside.

If you are visiting between 1 June to 31 October and are short on time and car-less, a good idea would be to board one of the various Tourist Buses. They offer 6 different routes with audio commentary in Catalan, Spanish, French and English.  They cover all areas of the country, including the epic landscapes, the best of the Romanesque architecture and the main museums, I think I would have used this had I not visited in January for sure.

Coffee and Cake

Fleca Font appears to be a bakery chain, as I spotted a few dotted around. They are simple, nothing fancy, but they seemed friendly, the waitress spoke English and they had a good selection of pastries and decent coffee and free wifi.  There is one right by the Church of Sant Esteve, it was a handy place to rest my feet, upload some pictures and recharge with an Americano. Another coffee shop in the capital that provided a good caffeine fix was Santagloria and although not the best coffee in the world, its worth grabbing a drink at the coffee bar atop the mountain if you take the cable car in Encamp.

Eats

Although a german burger joint wouldn’t normally be high on my list for places to go eat when visiting a, well, none German town, I was drawn to Frankfurt Chester¬†because I could see it served local Andorran beer which was on my list of things to try. The place looked inviting too, with lots of seats by large windows, so I ventured in, ordered a bottle of local beer and a delicious huge plate of Patatas Bravas, I spent a good hour people watching, the total cost being just over ‚ā¨7. I really fancied visiting¬†La Birreria¬†for some local beers too, but once again, it was closed on Sundays.

Another place I really wanted to visit was¬†Veggies World¬†in the city centre, it didn’t open until 7PM, so I held off eating and made my way there for just after 7, but on arrival, the place was still closed. It didn’t look like it was opening any time soon, there were no lights on and the chairs were all stacked up, I was too hungry to hang around, and never had time to make it back during my stay. To stick to a tight budget this time, I bought lunches from the big supermarket SuperU in the city centre and stocked up on the impressive and large breakfast I was served at Hotel Cervol where I was staying for the weekend.

Others Sights – I really wanted to visit the one and only Andorran UNESCO site¬†Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley.¬†9% of Andorra is a designated world heritage area, covering forests, lakes and mountains and promises spectacular scenery and wildlife. Buses are reduced in the winter months, and none were running close to the start of the valley on the Sunday when I was there. I also read that some of the hiking trails were more suited to the summer months and as I wasnt really kitted out for all-weather hiking, I didn’t venture over, but I have definitely put it back on my list for a possible return.

Andorra is a unique little place, it absolutely cannot compete with its neighbour Barcelona for architecture, cathedrals, museums and nightlife, but it does have its charm and the mountain landscape is breathtaking. I am really glad I visited and wouldn’t rule out a return in the summer months with my hiking boots to see more.

Always Be Polite – A few phrases to go armed with – Hello ‘Hola’ – Thank you ‘gr√†cies’ – Yes ‘s√≠’ – Goodbye ‘ad√©u’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highlights of Herzegovina

fullsizeoutput_703

I rarely book organised tours for a bunch of reasons, usually I am on a tight budget for one and I like to explore places on my own, occasionally joining a free city walking tour if I want to learn more. If I am somewhere a little more off the beaten track or there is a unique experience that I can budget for though, then sign me up.  In the past I have done an organised hike up a glacier in New Zealand, a bike tour down the outside of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii (pre current eruption of course!) and a trip to see the Pandas in Chengdu in China.

With mum and myself only having 48 hours in Bosnia Herzegovina last month (Sept 2018), sandwiched in between Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia, we wanted to get the most out of our stay and see as much of the country as possible. I researched online and kept seeing the same company pop up with really good reviews, a local company operating out of Mostar called Mostar Travel. They offered a range of tours based around Mostar, as well as day trips across the region, so we booked on the Discover Herzegovina in a Day Tour as it seemed like exactly what were looking to experience, at 8 hours in length and about 7 stops on the itinerary, with a 10am pick up time too, it meant we had time for a nice early morning walk and coffee around Stari Most beforehand.

Our guide Vedad picked us up right on time by our hotel in the old town and that’s when we learned we would be the only people on the tour that day, as the others booked in had decided they wanted only to visit the Kravica waterfalls, so Vedad’s brother who started the company was going to take them there instead.

Once casual introductions were over with, Vedad took us for breakfast on the outskirts of Mostar, to a popular restaurant called Dva Fenjera for a massive breakfast burak and coffee. Once refreshed (stuffed!) we all headed back to the car and our trip began following the Neretva River south.

fullsizeoutput_85b

First up, not the most glamorous of sights to start with, but certainly an interesting stop was the¬†Secret Yugoslavian Military Base. Mum and I found it fascinating, regardless of whether you have a historical interest or not, it’s located close to the small Mostar Airport and completely hidden from the main road. ¬†A short walk off the main track though and you realise that tunnels have been carved into the local countryside to house airplanes, equipment and people, its dark, dank and full of rubbish, but was a compelling place to explore thinking of what activities must have happened here less than 30 years ago.

 

 

Back out in the sunshine and on the road, our next stop was supposed to be the town of Blagaj to see the¬†Dervish¬†house. Unfortunately so did 10,000 other people, as it was the one day of the year that a festival hits town, after trying to negotiate our way in to park, along with hundreds of other cars and large tour buses, we decided that even if we made it into the centre of Blagaj, the likelihood of getting to the Dervish house was slim. Although it was somewhere we really wanted to see, we admitted defeat and Vedad promised to take us somewhere else later in the day to make up for it, happy with the compromise, we did a quick ‘U’ turn and continued heading south into the heart of Herzegovina.

So our next stop was Bunski Kanali, a pretty countryside spot where the River Neretva which is the one that flows through Mostar meets up with the River Buna. It was on our way here that I began to notice the large numbers of vineyards everywhere, and made a mental note to research (or sample) some local wine on our return back to Mostar.

 

Once we had got the layout of the land, we continued to head south following the flow of the Neretva river until we arrived at the medieval town of Pocitelj. This fortified complex of houses, a mosque, a fort and a tower have been here since the 1400’s but was severely damaged in the Bosnian war. Since being placed on the list of one of the most endangered cultural heritage sights¬†in the world though, many buildings have been renovated and it’s on the road to recovery. Vedad took us to the top by the tower and then gave us about an hour to explore on our own, we took our time admiring the views across the valley, peered inside the houses and the mosque, carefully negotiating the stone paths and buying fresh pomegranate juice and a bag of cherries from a lovely local lady.

 

Then we were off, back on the main road south, passing even more vineyards and beautiful scenery until we made it to¬†Kravice Waterfalls¬†a popular waterfall and nature area, with places to swim, eat, drink and sunbathe. Although many visitors were being brave and entering the cool but dazzlingly green waters, we decided to stay on dry land, and once Vedad had taken us down to the water’s edge, mum and I headed off along one of the walking paths for a bit of a nature hike. As it was approaching mid day and the sun getting rather hot, we spend our second hour back by the waterfall under the shade of one of the local restaurants, with a lunch and a local beer.

 

Ahead of the normal schedule because we had to miss out on¬†Blagaj, Vedad decided to take us to the Catholic pilgrimage town of¬†Medjugorje¬†close to the Croatian border. The reason that so many people come here and specificially The Lady of Medjugorje Church, is that in 1981 a group of teenagers reported seeing the Virgin Mary in the town and the church ‘our lady’ refers to Mary herself. Since then, there have been a whole lot of other sightings, although none verified and some reported as hoax’s and the Catholic church itself is still undecided about giving it official pilgrimage status as yet. Although that hasn’t stopped the many bus loads of tourists visiting this small town, there isn’t much to see here other than the church and visiting the many many souvenir shops selling prayer beads, candles, key rings, t-shirts and whatever else you can print a picture of Mary and Jesus on.

IMG_0104

Our final stop was a windy drive up the side of Hill Fortica, where we sat and enjoyed the immense views across Mostar as our guide Vedad told us the story of the war and pieced together the story from his perspective.  He was only very young when the war was in progress but it was an event that effected his whole family and it made for a poignant ending to our wonderful day and has only whetted my appetite to visit more of this fascinating country. I must plan a visit to Sarajevo next!

 

Just an update . .

Dad died back in the summer, so I have been resting , figuring out what to do next and trying to make sense of the last few years since he became ill.

It has been a good 7 months since I updated my blog, but it has always been on my mind to continue writing up my travels, but I just havent had the energy or focus.

But I still have been travelling, not as much as I would have liked, but hopefully that will change soon, and I am now up to 50 countries, with number 51 happening this coming weekend, yay!

Anyway, I am planning to start writing my travels again, and look forward to posting more of my adventures.

Emma x

 

 

 

Weekend in Mostar

fullsizeoutput_838
Bosnia and Herzegovina¬†or BIH to those in the know, ¬†was a place that I had been curious about ever since I developed an interest in the Balkans. It’s also a place that I associated with terrible news stories of the Bosnian war which appeared on the TV news in my late teens. On my return from Montenegro last year, myself and mum started looking at other countries in the region, and before we knew it, we had booked flights into Croatia and buses onward to this beautiful, mountainous war warn country.
ARRIVALS If you are planning to travel from the UK then you will have to get creative, as there are currently no direct flights into BIH from any airport in the UK.¬†Sarajevo Airport¬†has a number of daily flights from Istanbul, Munich and Vienna among other places, so you could go via there, the smaller but developing¬†Mostar Airport¬†has flights coming in from Dusseldorf and Stuttgart with more destinations being added soon I believe. Most people will travel overland like we did, coming in from the neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia. The country is set up well for bus travel, with many daily options available from popular places such as Dubrovnik, Kotor and Llubjiana. You will be crossing land borders, so make sure you have some spare change if you want to put your bag in the hold and have your passport ready for the border crossing. I have used¬†Get By Bus¬†a number of times now without any problems and this was no exception. On this trip we based ourselves in Mostar, which is not too far from the Croatian and Montenegro borders, we took the bus from Dubrovnik to Mostar for ‚ā¨16 taking 3 1/2 hours (not including the 2 hour delay on departure) and then went home via Split in Croatia (it left on time!) which took just over 4 hours. Trains are limited in BIH, but it is possible to travel between the capital Sarajevo and Mostar,¬†rail cc website¬†is probably your best bet for further research. Both the train and bus stations are a short 10 minute walk from the old town.

 

HISTORY BIT¬†Phew, well, its complicated that’s for sure, and I am definitely no expert on the region. Visiting Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia prior to this trip I have learnt many different perspectives on who did what and why regarding the recent wars and I’m still pretty confused even now. ¬†Located along the Balkan peninsula, the Bosnia Herzegovina area has had settlements here since 10,000 BC, its been part of the Roman and then Ottoman Empires with Germanic and Slavic tribes all laying claim at some point. It was in 1929 that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed of which Bosnia and Herzegovina were a part of, and remained until 1991 when the country started to fall apart and the many resulting conflicts started. The Bosnian war lasted from 1992-1995 and from what I can tell speaking to locals and visiting a few museums in the area, the Serbians and Croats both tried to lay claim to the region with the Bosniaks stuck in the middle, a peace agreement was finally agreed and signed in Paris at the end of 1995.

There is still a complicated political structure set up today, and while BIH functions as one country, its kind of divided up into 3 provinces with the 3 presidents rotating duties every 8 months, or at least that is the current situation but elections are due later in 2018, so it could all change again.
SIGHTS The star of the show has to be without question the Stari Most or the Old Bridge, rightfully it has been given UNESCO¬†world heritage status and is the reason for the name of the city as ‘most’¬†means bridge. Originally built in 1557 this stone bridge took 9 years to build, connecting the two sides of the Neretva river with massive towers or ‘bridge keepers’ flagging either side. An iconic image of the country, in 1993 the Croatians blew up the bridge and it became an even more important landmark once it was rebuilt in 2004, using the traditional Ottoman techniques with local stone. We walked over the bridge many times on our explorations of the town, taking care not to trip over the staircase like steps that are built into the walk way and the views of the valley and surrounding hills are stunning. There are many restaurants and bars that line the side of the river, affording great views of the bridge day and night as well as a great picture and vantage point a short walk south on the west side of the river. We got stopped by an ‘official guide’ on our first morning, who showed us his tour guide laminate, so he must have been official right? He took us to a scenic photo spot, gave us some ‘facts’ about the bridge, took our picture and then promptly wanted about ¬£20 from us, luckily my mum firmly told him no, gave him some change and he reluctantly walked away, next time we should just bring our selfie stick! That was the only time on our trip to BIH that we ever had any issues, everybody else was friendly, welcoming and not trying to make a fast buck. There is also a¬†Museum of the Old Bridge¬†which is spread over 5 floors inside the Tara Tower on the east side of the river, covering the stories of both the original and restored bridges.
The Old Town of Mostar is just a joy to walk around, full of history, beautiful repaired buildings, lots of cafes, restaurants and shops selling lavender, clothes, pottery and gorgeous copper tea sets. I really had to resist my usual restraint of not buying souvenirs, but did weaken to buy a BIH Football shirt, which I am wearing proudly as I write this. There are lots of restaurants and cafes serving inexpensive local dishes and the most amazing thick Bosnian coffee which you can drink right by the river as you take in the breathtaking views and soak up the atmosphere.  Whereas some popular tourist spots rip you off for having the experience of a glass of wine or coffee right in the heart of the action, the cafes and bars along the River Neretva especially those with great views of the bridge were all decently priced and we never felt rushed to finish up and move along. Just wandering along the cobbled streets, drinking coffee and chatting to the local shop keepers was a real highlight of our trip.
You cannot fail to hear the many calls to prayer that calmly ring out across the city 5 times a day from the 30+ mosques in the city. ¬†The most prominent and¬†largest being the Karogoz Bey Mosque which is open to the public, as is the 2nd largest Koskin-Mehmed Pasha with a tower you can climb up for epic views across the city. Although we managed a good look around the grounds, the mosque was closed for prayer when we arrived to climb the tower and we¬†didn’t get time to return, at least on this visit . Both mosques are situated in the old town and easy to get too by foot, just a short walk from the bridge.
fullsizeoutput_6f7
However you enter Mostar, via train, car or bus, one thing that is bound to catch your attention, are the war torn ruins of the many buildings that have either so far failed to be rebuilt or¬†are purposely left as a stark reminder of the war that only finished less than 30 years ago. It makes for a thought provoking walk that’s for sure, there are free walking tours that can take you to many of the important sights, but you only need to walk a few streets away from either side of the river to get a good idea of just how ravaged this beautiful town was not that long ago.
Sniper tower is hard to miss, a former 8 storey bank, this pointed granite building looks out across the city, look for the hole blasted into the wall right at the top, this was the snipers look out point. Across the road from the tower is Spanish Square, now a popular meeting place, it was built in remembrance of the Spanish troops who died in the war, the impressive Moorish gymnasium on the corner of this main street provides some colourful relief from the other burnt out buildings nearby. A few streets back from this busy intersection is Santica Street which was the front line of the Bosnian war, Croatians on one side of the street and the Serbians were on the other, there is evidence everywhere of the full destruction of the past, but it also shows just how far this country and its people have pulled together to rebuild.

Biscevic House is one of many traditional Turkish Ottoman houses of which there are many throughout the region. This particular house is held in high regard in the country and even mentioned in poems and songs. ¬†Dating from the 1600’s this house is now a museum and national monument and open to the public daily, we missed the opening times due to a packed Bosnian schedule, but its on my list if I am lucky enough to return some day.

Crooked Bridge As you wander through the town, look out for the mini Stari Most, which was built as a prototype about 8 years before the main bridge. ¬†Overlooking the Radobolja River, locals set up stalls nearby and there are some nice little bars and cafes alongside it, it’s the perfect place to stop and chill.

If you fancy some more history about this wonderful country, its archeology, costumes and customs, then head to the Museum of Herzegovina open daily until 2pm. I have yet to visit a traditional Hamam (maybe when I finally make it to Turkey?) but if you want to learn more about this Turkish tradition of bathing, then the Hamam Museum is the place to do your research (closed on Mondays).

Coffee and Cake.¬†Our first morning we sat outdoors at the¬†Koski Basta Caffe¬†in the fresh morning light right by the entrance to the Old Bridge as a sign advertising ‘Bosnian Coffee’ caught our eye. Located on the west side of the bridge, we were served the most delicious thick coffee with a small pastry, on a traditional copper serving dish all for about ‚ā¨3. Our second morning in the town we were tempted by the ‘sweet bosnian breakfast’ on the menu of¬†Moon Star Cafe and Pizzeria¬†right by the Hamam Museum. It was delicious, and a little cat came to join us for some of the bread we were eating. It had comfy outdoor seating with great views of the hills in the distance. For cake, on our first night we visited Caffe Amir as it was close to our hotel on the south end of Adema Buca Street. A lovely family run cafe that has been there since 1978, they do a great selection of coffee and teas and an amazing array of cakes with lots of outdoor seating, it was a great introduction to Mostar life.

 

Eats¬†Our first nights choice was given a glowing report by our Herzegovina tour guide who used to work there, so we headed over to¬†Hindin Han. This restaurant is based inside a restored mill, with an outdoor terrace overlooking a little stream. They offer local Mostar beers and wines and a great selection of cheeses served with delicious bread, there is a good selection of traditional dishes and its inexpensive and friendly, it was a good decision. We also visited Restoran Lagero¬†this place has an outdoor terrace looking over the River Neretva with a great view of the Stari Most, we ordered a bottle of Bosnian wine and had home made date cake, although rather rich, it didn’t stop either of us from eating the lot.

Extras If you like an adrenalin rush (so not me then!) you can pay ‚ā¨25 euros to dive off the Stari Most, or if you just prefer watching other people doing daft stuff, then¬†Red Bull¬†hold a bridge diving competition in Mostar every year. Mostar is surrounded by hills, many accessible by road,¬†Hum Hill¬†is easily spotted from all across the town as it’s the one with the large cross on the top and can be hiked if you have the stamina. We were lucky to be driven to the top of Hill Fortica by our Herzegovina tour guide, which I will write more about in my next post, but the views back down to Mostar, the historical significance of the hill top and hair pin bends up the side of the mountainous road where rather unforgettable as was the whole Mostar experience and I can’t wait to return.

IMG_6179

Always be polite ‘Thank You’ – ‘Hvala’ ¬†‘Hello’ – ‘Zdravo’ ‘Please’ – ‘Molimo vas’ ‘Beer’ – ‘Pivo’

Belgrade birthday trip.

After successful trips to Montenegro and Greece, I’ve started to develop at taste for the region known as the Balkans. Often when travelling into smaller airports, I like to take note of the onward destinations available, places that I wouldn’t normally think of. Whilst in Tivat (Montenegro) I noticed that other than Moscow, the other place you could fly onward too was Belgrade. Before long I had booked a return flight back to Tivat and then with only a 4 hour wait between flights, I booked a connecting ticket to Serbia for country number 46!

fullsizeoutput_654

Arrivals¬†I live in the North West of England, and so there are no direct flights to Serbia from here, or anywhere in the UK other than London. The direct flights are offered by Wizz Air and Air Serbia, but if London isn’t convenient, you may need to get inventive if you still fancy a trip. Due to a previous trip to Tivat with Easyjet, I knew that Air Serbia made multiple daily flights to Belgrade from Tivat that only took about an hour, I landed mid morning from Manchester and so booked on the afternoon flight to Belgrade, just enough time for a Montenegro lunch.

Otherwise, its worth checking the Belgrade airport website to see which other cities you could fly to Belgrade from, such as Prague or Sofia, so if you can get a cheap flight there, you could then book an onward flight to the Serbian capital. There is always a way!

Buses are a great option too, I couldn’t get a flight from Belgrade that would get me back to Montenegro in time for my return flight to Manchester, so I booked an overnight bus with¬†Get By Bus¬†which allowed me to arrive back in Tivat in plenty of time for my flight home. Just a quick search shows direct buses from Budapest and Zagreb, but im sure there are more. Trains could be an option too, your best bet is to check the best train website there is¬†Seat 61.¬†One word of warning, it’s not particularly recommended to cross the Kosovo – Serbian border, as its unstable and some reports say a Kosovo passport stamp isnt looked on too favourably, so if you are planning to visit many countries in this region, maybe leave Kosovo till near the end.

You can’t get Serbian Dinar from the UK, but don’t worry, there are lots of cash machines at the airport and there are banks and currency exchanges all over the city, so as soon as I passed through immigration I withdrew money with my UK bank card. Getting to the city centre is easy and you have a few options, there is the A1 bus which leaves from downstairs outside the arrivals area, but I took the 72 bus which leaves from upstairs by departures, purely because its final destination was the closest to my hotel. You can buy a ticket beforehand if you can find the kiosk, but I paid about ¬£1 from the bus driver and the journey took about 40 minutes. The main bus and train stations are pretty close to the city centre and so if you arrive this way, it shouldnt be too far to walk to get to where you are staying.

History Bit¬†The origins of the country are somewhat disjointed and confusing for a novice to the region like myself. Descended from the Slavs¬†tribe, they migrated to the region now known as Serbia from at least the 6th century. The current country and its borders within the Yugoslavia region, have only existed since it separated from its neighbour Montenegro in 2006. The whole area has been ravaged by war and internal conflict for many years, most recently when the Yugoslavia communist leader Tito died in 1980 and regions started to split apart. By the mid 1980’s¬†Slobodan MiloŇ°evińᬆstarted to gain influence and by 1989 he was the President of Serbia and in 1997 became President of the Republic of Yugoslavia. By the end of the civil war, the only countries left in ‘Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ were Montenegro and Serbia, until they too went their separate ways.

Translated as the ‘white city’, people have been found to inhabit the area known as Belgrade since 7000 BC. It has been an important area especially due to its position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers but this has meant its been involved in 115 wars and been destroyed 44 times. ¬†It was the capital of Yugoslavia for the entirety¬†of its existence¬†and then retained its role as the capital of Serbia once it became a solo country.

Sights I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and was to depart late Tuesday evening, upon realising that most of the museums were closed on Mondays, I planned my Monday daytime around all the free and open sights, leaving museums until the Tuesday.

Kalemegdan Park¬†was an absolute delight on a bright Monday morning as it was full of dog walkers, joggers and friendly stall holders lining entrance at the east end. Situated at the top of the old city, right where the rivers Sava and Danube join together, the park affords great views as you climb upwards toward the fortress that has survived many attempts to be destroyed over the years, but still stands proud toady as an important landmark of the city. There is a lot to discover here within the park, there are fountains, a zoo, restaurants, coffee shops, memorials and one of the most popular tourist sites the¬†Belgrade Fortress¬†. Built into what looks like a cliff looking out across the park, I spent a good hour wandering up and down, peering around the walls, crossing interlinking bridges and getting a selfie with a tank outside the military museum. But the real surprise was accidentally finding the most beautiful little chapel built into the fortress walls close to the Charles VI gate, Saint Petka’s chapel a tranquil little orthodox place of worship, full of beautiful mosaics inside, definitely seek this out when you visit.

Next I headed down to the water’s edge where the rivers Danube and Sava meet. There is a nice promenade you can walk along, and although it was quiet and peaceful on the Monday morning, there were signs of life, like some bars and restaurants and I can imagine at weekends and at the height of summer it’s a really cool place to hang out.

After a break for lunch I decided to visit one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, the¬†Church of Saint Sava. Like most orthodox churches both the inside and outside are spectacular and this one is no different, and make a point to look up high at the glistening dome inside. There are at least 2 other churches that should be on your itinerary¬†St Mark’s Church¬†with incredible fresco paintings and¬†Church of Alexander Nevsky¬†which was once was a hospital and built in honour of Russian soldiers, again its interior is breathtaking.

The remainder of the day and the previous evening was spent exploring the pedestrian area around Knez Mihailova Street, around here you can find souvenir shops, cafes, coffee and cake shops, tourist information, bars, restaurants as well as craft and high street stores.

fullsizeoutput_6a3

Up early the next morning, I set off for a nice birthday walk and breakfast in the¬†Dorńáol¬†region. It’s the oldest part of town, and a really interesting neighbourhood has developed, with a good choice of cafes, shops and cool street art dotted around every corner. Dont miss Salvador Dali corner, recognisable by the curved street sign, it’s a place where an art collective used to meet, in fact there is lots of art to see around this part of town and if I had more time I would have booked onto an¬†art tour, but you always have to have a reason to return to a place right?

Next up I wanted to explore the green market Zeleni Venac, which is where I had gotten off the bus a couple of days before. It has a great atmosphere, a place where you can mix with the locals for a real taste of Serbia whilst shopping for produce such as nuts, baked goods and fresh juices. Close to here are the main bus stations too, so I did some research and located the platform where my bus was to leave later that evening whilst I was still fresh after my breakfast and coffee.

So as it was Tuesday all the museums in the city were open and there were two that I had set my sights on visiting. It’s a bit far over on the South side, but I really wanted to learn more about the history of this region, so I headed over to the¬†Museum of Yugoslav History. It’s about a 45 minute walk or you can catch trolley bus 40 or 41 for about 90p (‚ā¨0.75). Located around a park full of statues and great views across the city, there are 3 main areas to visit here, the House of Flowers, the ‘May 25th” museum and the Old Museum, all for the entrance fee of just under ¬£1.50 (‚ā¨1.69). A large area is dedicated to the memory of Josip Broz also known as Tito, the communist Yugoslavian leader who is buried here and where visitors can pay their respects at his mausoleum, as well as a room full of gifts given to him from dignitaries all over the world. ¬†There is an exhibit hall full of artifacts collected from all over this historic region that was once consisted of 6 separate socialist states, it’s really fascinating stuff and it was here were I also learned about the¬†Blue Train, which Tito had built to travel all across the region whilst hosting visits from many important politicians and heads of state from all over the world.

After a well-earned break for lunch, I negotiated the ridiculously busy area around¬†Slavija Square, where trolley buses, cars, buses, trams and pedestrians all try to negotiate themselves safely¬†across this huge interesection, centered around a large roundabout and fountain. My afternoon was to be spent learning about Serbia’s favourite son and for whom the city’s airport was named after – Nikola Tesla. The museum¬†opened in his honour is a small but informative place, filled with clothes, letters, drawings and diagrams from the engineer as well as small working models of many of his inventions. Every hour there is a free guided tour in either Serbian or English depending on the visitors, luckily I got an English tour, which includes a short video on the life of Tesla and then live demonstrations of some of his experiments, I was there around 3pm and it was very busy, so get there well before the hour if you want a good view.

fullsizeoutput_5bd

I then wandered back slowly towards the centre of town past¬†ManjeŇĺ Park¬†and the¬†Yugoslav Drama Theatre¬†towards the pretty cool modernist style skyrise known as the¬†Albania Building. This was the first skyscraper to be built in Southeast Europe and it is from this point that all distances are measured within Serbia and interesting fact, a 2 million year old mammoth skeleton was found buried beneath the building, and is now housed in a museum in the city.

I¬†still had time for some birthday cake in one of the many gorgeous cafes back around¬†Knez Mihailova Street and a glass of local wine, before heading to the coach station for my overnight bus across the country and into Montenegro for my flight home. Perfect birthday trip ūüôā

** If you are travelling by bus from the main Belgrade bus terminal, you need to get a separate ticket first from the ticket office (as well as your bus ticket) before you are allowed to enter the platform to board your bus.

Coffee and Cake. To start with there is a pretty decent coffee chain called¬†Coffee Dream, they are dotted all over the capital and offer none dairy options as well as a selection of cakes and pastries. ¬†Like most places in Serbia you can smoke indoors which felt gross as I sat there with my morning coffee next two a couple puffing away, urgh. It only takes a quick internet search to find many unique independent coffee shops all across this city and for my birthday breakfast in Dorńáol I found a cool coffee place called¬†Aviator Coffee. It’s a nice big space, comfy seating, none dairy milk options, and a good selection of teas and pastries, the only downside, smoking indoors again. If you love cake, you’ll love Belgrade, there are some really modern cake shops dotted around the city, on my first evening, I was tempted into the ground floor of the Art Hotel to the¬†Avgustin Waffle and Ice Bar¬†I resisted the hot Belgium waffles though and treated myself to what can only be described as a giant orange pill, which was actually a biscotti mouse cake and was to die for! The other dessert cafe I visited was located not far away from Avgustin and was called¬†Edisan Pastry Shop¬†with its huge windows and tonnes of seating its perfect for people watching across¬†Republik Square, there is free wifi too, which you can cheekily log into even from the outside, which I did on my first afternoon when I needed to use my map to locate my hotel.


Eats There are loads of traditional places to eat in and around the pedestrian area Knez Mihailova Street and Republik Square, but not many options for the vegetarian and vegan travellers. One place I did find one though for lunch and I went to twice in my 3 day visit, was a place called Jazzayoga, an almost vegetarian cafe serving delicious sandwiches, soups, cakes and juices. One visit I had the Tantra sandwich which was pumpkin seed, celery, sunflower seeds, carrots, cabbage, hummus and more, and it was delicious and cost about £1.10. For dinner one night I had a veggie pizza sat out in Republik Square and the 2nd night I made it to the much recommended veggie/vegan place Mayka its got super cosy seating, friendly staff and an inventive menu with many local dishes reinvented meat free. One charm about Belgrade is the many small bakeries dotted around the place selling traditional sweet and savoury fare for as little as 40p, so of course I bought some for snacks on my overnight bus ride and they went down a treat. As it was my birthday I fancied a little treat before I left the city, so spent my final hour in Il Grappolo wine bar, sampling some local Rose wine, I found a window seat with handy USB sockets to charge my devices and savoured my last bit of time in this intriguing, memorable city.


Extras-¬†Serbia’s 2nd city is Novi Sad, it’s about 90-110 minutes on the¬†train¬†from the capital, so totally doable as a day trip. There are lots more museums in Belgrade such as the¬†Ethnographic Museum¬†and the¬†Aviation Museum¬†and if you don’t get seasick head to¬†22/44¬†a nightclub situated in the middle of the Sava River.

Always be polite Thank You РHvala vam  Hello РZdravo  Beer РPivo 

Budget Oslo

I have travelled through Norway before, but i’ve never actually spent a night in this Nordic land of the midnight sun. I once flew in but then immediately borded a train and then ferry onward to Sweden, I’ve hiked over from a national park that straddles both countries, as well as driving in from Sweden to a border town for coffee and cake. So when Ryanair cancelled one of my flights last year, they sent me an ¬£80 voucher that I had to use before the end of March, and as I like a challenge, ¬†I searched until I found a return flight for under ¬£80 that was close to a weekend, so I would only need 1 day off work. So ‘Oslo’ Torp it was . . .

IMG_4286

I say ‘Oslo’ as Torp airport is actually about 75 miles from the capital, but many budget airlines fly into this small airport instead of the main Oslo one. I would say the majority of the people on my flight and probably the majority of Torp users head onward to Oslo, so the public transport too and from the city is frequent, not too expensive (it is Norway remember) and well-managed. ¬†As long as you realise you will have another 90+ minutes of travel after you have landed, I wouldn’t be put off if you want a budget Scandinavian trip.

Arrivals –¬†Scandinavian airlines do provide direct flights from Manchester, Edinburgh, and London to the main¬†Oslo Airport¬†known as Gardenmoen. But for those of us on a budget there are cheaper options from both Manchester and London, to the smaller Torp airport but not much else from the UK that goes direct.

Norway is bordered by Sweden, Finland and Russia, but Oslo is situated on the far south of the country, and therefore only close to Sweden. It’s just over an hours drive to the Scandinavian border and a 3 1/2 hour drive from Gothenburg the nearest Swedish city. You used to be able to get the ferry from the UK to Kristiansand a large port south of Oslo, but this route has now been stopped. Oslo itself has a ferry port, but again no direct sailings with the UK, you do have options of sailing in from other Scandinavian locations though. Trains¬†and buses¬†are plentiful into Oslo, and from many Scandinavian destinations such as Tromso, Lillehammer, Stockholm and beyond and something I would like to explore further at some point, I bet the overland scenery is breathtaking.

Getting from Oslo’s main airport into the city centre is easy as there are frequent buses and trains to the main stations in the city, and its the same from Torp, which organises buses too and from the capital according to the flight departures and arrivals, so don’t worry if your flight is delayed, more than likely the bus will delay its departure to suit. I bought a return Torp Ekspressen¬†bus ticket online for ¬£44 before I left the UK (you can also buy on the bus), otherwise you can take a shuttle bus to Torp train station and then board the hourly train¬†to Oslo centre.

History Bit. People started to migrate to the coastline that is now Norway around 10,000 BC as it provided the perfect environment for shelter, fishing and hunting as well as being warmer along the coastline. In the 1300’s Norway, Sweden and Denmark were joined together under one union and ruling monarch, Sweden left this union in 1523, but Norway and Denmark remained together until 1814, Norway then ended up in another union with Sweden until 1905 when it finally gained its own independance. There have been settlements in Oslo since the middle ages, and it has been regarded as the capital since 1299 when King Haakon V set up residence here.

Sights.¬†I wanted to do Oslo on a tight budget, it was easy to think I was having a cheap weekend because my flights were free, but then I didn’t want to break the bank exploring the city once I got there. The thing that surprised me about Oslo, because it’s not a place I readily think of for a weekend trip, nor do most of my friends, is that its packed with so much to see and do, boat trips, museums, parks, a castle, a cathedral, and great cafes and restaurants, I think the expense puts people off, which is understandable, but a shame.

As I wanted to keep the cost down, I decided to limit the fee paying things I did, but decided to choose just one of the many museums in the city, and boy are there loads. Some of the many on offer included Nobel Peace Centre¬†(¬£9) ¬†Munch Museum¬†(¬£11) Ski Museum¬†(¬£13) Viking Ship Museum¬†(¬£9) Norsk Folk Museum¬†(¬£12) Polar Ship Museum¬†(¬£11) Jewish Museum¬†(¬£4.60)¬†Museum of Oslo¬†(¬£8 but free on Saturdays!) and the¬†Kon TIki Museum¬†(¬£8). There is also a 241 offer for those wanting to visit both the History Museum¬†and viking ship museum as long as you visit within 48 hours. ¬†As you can see, for most of the museums you wont be getting much change from ¬£10 (‚ā¨11 $14) per person, so choose wisely.

I decided to visit the Nobel Peace Centre, this museum unsurprisingly tells the history of the famous award given out for peace¬†and is the only Nobel medal given out in Norway. ¬†All the others awards for economics, physics etc are given out in Nobel’s home country of Sweden. As well as a timeline of the awards given out for peace, there are other permanent and temporary exhibitions whilst I was there, a really thought-provoking exhibit was on¬†the nuclear bomb and another one called¬†Generation Wealth. Take a peak inside the museum shop, its full of eco-friendly, handcrafted, unique and rare products, I could have easily have bought 2 or 3 things, the whole centre is well worth a visit and I’m so glad I spent my minimal budget here.

For the remainder of my trip I stuck to the free things, and this easily kept me busy for the whole of the weekend, so what did I do . . .

A short walk to the north west of the city is¬†Vigeland Park¬†the worlds largest sculpture park, mainly featuring a variety of nude statues in all kinds of interesting poses, the most famous one being the angry boy. You enter the park by a large gate and I headed straight ahead towards the fountain, over a bridge and up to the large monolith. There are about 200 statues, along with footpaths, a cafe, shop and museum, it’s a popular jogging spot and dog walking route, so if you’re lucky like me, you’ll find lots of dogs to cuddle. Open 24 hours and free, it’s a must do on any Oslo itinerary.

From the park, I headed back towards the waterfront along L√łkkeveien and Dronnings Mauds Gate, an upmarket area with nice cafes, coffee shops and really interesting architecture. At the end of the street you arrive at the Nobel Peace Centre, but beyond this, its worth exploring the waterfront, which is full of more cafes and restaurants and beautiful views out across the Fjord. One thing I wished I had budgeted for was a fjord cruise, ¬£30 for 2 hours, there were a couple of companies offering daily trips, and if (when) I return, I am definitely going to book on one. That said, I still had a nice time wandering along the water’s edge and taking in the scenery.

Opposite the Nobel Peace centre across the water stands the Akershus Fortess looking out across the Oslo fjord. Its open from 6am-9pm and although guided tours are available, you can just wander and explore the impressive buildings yourself whilst enjoying the beautiful views across the waterside for free, perfect for my frugal weekend.

Next I walked my way back into the centre of the city towards the spire of the Oslo Domkirke or Cathedral. Its another free attraction you can visit in the city, open daily for the public to visit and there are also guided tours you can book on as well.

I then followed my way through the curious looking¬†red bricked passageway which is the old bazaar. Once to be demolished but now a protected building, it houses shops, restaurants and cafe’s, realising I was now cold and in need of something to eat, I stopped for a soy cappuccino and some ‘Norway National cake’, how could I refuse!

The cake was ¬£10 (‚ā¨11) and one of the cheapest things on the menu, ¬†so I slowly took my time sat outside under a blanket, watching the many locals and tourists windowshop. Once replenished I explored the immediate area of Karl Johans Gate and Dronningens gate, with Karl Johans being the main street of the city, its full of shops and cafes and leads to further attractions within the city. I didn’t stay too long exploring here, as I knew I would have time the following morning, so after picking up some cheap snacks & water from a food shop that would have to last me till dinner, I headed in a North East direction.

My plan was to break the budget and visit the Munch museum located just by the¬†Botanical Gardens¬†but I took too long just having a great time exploring the streets, little churches and craft shops. Realising that it closed at 4pm, I wouldn’t have made it in time, so I inadvertently stuck to my budget after all.

As it approached evening, the temperature dropped, so I headed back to the hotel, warmed up, rested, then grabbed dinner as a local recommended vegan place. Main meals costed between £16-20 which seemed the same as an average traditional place to eat as well, if it had been my first trip to Norway, I may have hunted out some more local dishes, but felt I had ticked that box with my £10 cake!

I then spent a pleasant evening just wandering the main streets around Karl Johans Gate, past the national theatre, parliament, Eidsvolls plass and stopped to watch families ice skating, dealing with the cold weather much better than I did! The streets were pretty quiet despite it being a Saturday evening, but it was in the heart of winter, and from what I could tell, most people seemed to be enjoying theatre, cinema and the warmth of indoor bars and restaurants.  Lots of places did have outdoor seating, so I can imagine its a whole different world once the temperature increases, another reason to return for sure.

The next morning with a few hours to kill before my bus back to the airport, I was up early for my breakfast (banana and cereal bar brought from Manchester) and a discounted coffee via a voucher from my hotel. Feeling brave I sat outside the cafe with my soy cap in the minus 5 weather, under a patio heater and wrapped in a blanket, having the most glorious time watching dogs play in the snow and joggers carefully negotiating the icy paths, feeling a little blue that my time in the Norwegian capital was almost over.

I still had about 2 hours to spare, so headed across the street from the coffee shop through a park which turned out to be the palace park and by sheer coincidence I arrived as they were changing the guard, so stopped to watch for a while. The park itself was really nice, full of dogs in jumpers going for morning walks, and the little colourful sculptures dotted around the snowy park really added to the atmosphere.

I then took the main route back into the city centre down Karl Johan’s Gate getting to explore more of the most famous street in the city, past some of the buildings I had walked past in the dark the previous night, such as the Stortinget¬†(parliament). ¬†I¬†then made a slight detour South past the impressive City Hall building to take in the views of the Oslo Fjord for one last time.

It would have been great to have had at least another full day in the capital to see another museum or two and take a cruise out across the fjord, but as time was limited due to the availability of flights and my budget, it wasnt feasible this time, but its one of my most recent visited capital cities that I want to return too, I’ll just have to get saving!

Coffee and Cake I had my National Cake probably in one of the more expensive cafes around, right inside the bazaar at the Cafe Cathedral but the service, food and views were worth it.  My morning coffees were at Espresso House the one by my hotel offered guests a discount, plus it had great views across the palace park opposite, as well as offering heated outdoor seating, as well as a cosy indoor space too.

Eats I ate both nights at Nordvegan a delicious plant based restaurant, serving warm dishes as well as home made desserts. Offering both seated and take out options, the chef has worked in Michelin starred restaurants and the food doesnt disappoint, hence returning on my second night too.

Extras Ski Museum and Tower with the stimulated ski jump ride, take the bus from Oslo to Norways largest amusement park Tusendfryd and take the ferry by City Hall to the Norway Folk Museum

Always be polite – Thanks ‘Takk” ¬† Hello ‘Hallo” ¬† Good Bye “Ha Det”

 

 

 

 

Fascinating Athens

I finally visited Greece last week, the first trip to the country known as the crossroads of Europe, a first for both me and mum. We chose Athens, not only because of the cheap flights (we were flying off-season)  but because we fancied a city break, full of none stop sights, history, legends and great food, and with us going in February, it had a better chance of reasonable wandering weather than say a city break to Paris or Porto.

fullsizeoutput_45d

Arrivals. All the main budget airlines fly to Athens from a good portion of the UK, regular flights leave from Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol, London and although nothing from Belfast, you can fly from Dublin, all taking approximately 3 – 4 hours. Once you have arrived, its easy to jump on Line 3 of the metro to the city centre. Many people though travel into Athens via boat, with Greeks largest port Piraeus only a short 10km ride away, so it’s easily accessible via cruise ship or if you fancy, a trip from one of the Greek islands. Once you arrive at Piraeus, hop on line 1 of the metro to Athens city centre. It is also possible to head into Athens from the neighbouring countries via train, but Athens is quite far south on the mainland, so you will be looking at quite a long trip from say Sofia in Bulgaria or Skopje in Macedonia.

Once you have arrived its super easy to get around Athens, most places are easily walkable, but if you need a helping hand or are short of time, then the metro is really easy to navigate, with stops directly by some of the main sights such as the Acropolis, Kerameikos and Syntagma. Lots more Athens transport info can be found on this helpful website but to be honest, other than getting too and from the airport, my 71 year old mum and I walked everywhere quite easily.

History Bit. Wow, I mean what can you say about this country that is at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa, and has had people living here on this part of the globe since 270,000 BC. Greece is said to be the birthplace of the first advanced civilisation of Europe, they created a new way of living, that ended up being copied and replicated all over the world. They started the first democracy, with a model that was developed in Athens, spreading out across the country, allowing citizens to vote on the laws of the land. They started the Olympic games and produced some of the worlds greatest ever thinkers, scholars and philosophers, bringing new ideas to light about science, art and philosophy.

Athens itself is said to be named after the goddess of wisdom Athena, with the site of the original centre of the city, which was founded in 3000 BC, atop the rock where the Acropolis stands. This makes it one of the oldest cities in the world and has been continuously inhabited for 5000 years, resulting in a city break brimming full of things to see, do, learn, eat and drink.

Sights¬†– I better start at the ancient fortress situated high up a rock, visible from most parts of the city, otherwise known as The Acropolis. This collection of remains atop the hill was the original centre of Athens, with the star of the show being the former temple, known as the Parthenon. We visited in February, and so had a dry, clear day with a light breeze accompanying our climb up, affording us the time to just wander, take in the views and visit the Theatre of Dionysus, but I could imagine at the height of summer full of crowds, it could be quite tiring and overwhelmingly busy. We entered via the south-east corner, close to the Acropolis Metro Station, pretty much opposite the newly built, modern looking Acropolis Museum. There is a larger entrance to the west with a car park, meaning bus loads of tourists arrive via this route and so it can be a lot busier, therefore I’d definitely recommend the smaller side entry gate. Back on lower ground, the recently constructed Acropolis Museum is well worth a visit, at ‚ā¨5 you can view many of the retrieved finds from all over the archeological site, including tools, columns and statues and jewellery.

If you are staying in Athens for a few days and plan to see as many of the historical sites as possible, then it’s well worth investing in a 5 day multi ticket pass, for ‚ā¨30 (reduced depending on the season and discounts available for children & seniors) you get entry to around 10 of the best archeological wonders dotted around the city and you can get the pass at any of the ticket offices that are part of the deal. The main museums and the Panathenaic Olympic stadium are not included, but we still felt it was worth it.

The Acropolis is situated in the Plaka area of Athens, which is the picturesque, colourful, old centre of the town, full of tiny streets, cafes, craft shops and traditional restaurants. We stayed in this area and it was perfect for being central to explore the whole of the city, as well as having a decent choice of places to eat each night. Like everywhere in this city you will stumble upon some kind of the historic ruins at every corner, so take your time, grab a seat outside a cafe, order a greek coffee and just soak up the atmosphere.

Ancient Agora was the heart of ancient Athens, with people living here as far back as 3000 BC. Its part of the multi-pass ticket and you can easily spend a couple of hours exploring. We had a long walk all over the area, constantly stopping to investigate the many many things on show. Highlights included the museum in the Stoa of Attalos, the Statue of Hadrian, the incredibly impressive Klepsydra or water clock, the remains of the ancient main road that lead to Piraeus, and make sure you walk up to the Temple of Hephaestus as the views across the city are breathtaking and perfect for a selfie with the Acropolis in the background!

fullsizeoutput_448

About a 15 minute walk from Ancient Agora past the Thiseio metro station is¬†Kerameikos. One of the lesser visited archeological sites I believe, but if you have time to spare, I would recommend a visit and it’s also included in the multi-ticket. Within this large and still being excavated site, is a museum, a burial ground, the ancient walls of the city and it was the area of town where the majority of the pottery was made, some of which is now displayed in the on site museum.

fullsizeoutput_447

As you walk back from Kerameikos towards the centre of the modern city, you will more than likely pass through the bustling neighbourhood of Monastiraki.¬†Lots of restaurants, cafes and tourist shops line the streets, and there is a famous flea market here too to peruse although we found it quite loud and hectic. You wont be able to avoid the area though, as there are far too many sites located around here, including the fascinating¬†Hadrian’s Library. Originally built in 132 AD the famous Roman Emperor¬†built a massive complex for people to read and learn, which included study rooms, reading rooms and a garden to relax in.¬†Roman Agora¬†is just a 2 minute walk from the library which you enter via an imposing gate, the whole area was financed by Julius Caesar with the highlight here being the¬†Tower of the Winds, an ancient time and weather station, so cool! Both Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library are included on the multi-ticket too, see told you it was worth it.

For a breath of fresh air and some greenery, we spent an hour away from the ruins, and climbed up Philapappos Hill to the monument on the top. You can easily find the signed entrance to the hill and the various paved trails, close to the South West entrance of the Acropolis. With water and snack bars, we slowly made our way to the top for some outstanding views, it’s a popular spot for the locals and tourists alike and a nice getaway from the hustle of the streets below.

Heading east away from the main sights in the centre and across the busy main road, you cannot fail to notice¬†Hadrians Arch.¬†This ancient marble gateway used to cross one of the main roads from the centre of Athens and although quite a lot is missing, it still makes an impressive image. Behind the arch we could see another vast area of columns and other remains, so we followed the pavement round to the left and came across the entrance to¬†Temple of Olympian Zeus. This¬†gigantic temple was erected in honour of the god of sky and thunder himself, although construction was slow and took over 600 years to build from start to finish and then fell into disrepair about a century after it was built. It’s worth a visit to appreciate the sheer scale of the place, which was the largest temple in Greece, and you can put your purse away, as its also part of the multi-ticket deal!

fullsizeoutput_5ad

Opposite the grounds where the temple is located is the National Gardens, a place we walked through a number of times on our trip. Of course there are ruins dotted around here, but there are also busts, including one of Lord Byron who visited Greece and fell in love with the country. There are beautiful palm tree-lined paths, ponds, colourful trees, cafes and if you pass the Zappeion exhibition building, climb up the steps and peek inside to the pretty atrium.

Visiting the national gardens may not be top of anyones list visiting the city for the first time, but as you exit the gardens from the south-east you are instantly greeted with a spectacular view of the¬†The Panathenaic Stadium¬†so its worth taking the scenic route to the stadium instead of the dusty pavement for sure. ¬†Originally it was built in 330 BC for the Panathenaic games which involved nude men competing in various athletic events as well as horse and music competitions, which I can’t imagine getting an afternoon slot on BBC TV nowadays. It was abandoned after the 4th Century when Christianity came into favour and naked bloody duels were no longer seen as entertainment, but it was refurbished and brought back to life as the venue of the first international Olympic games in 1896 and most recently used in the 2004 Olympic games that were held in Athens. All that alone should be enough reason to visit this magnificent piece of history, but it’s also the only stadium in the world made entirely of marble. Although it’s not included in the multi-ticket its only between ‚ā¨2.50-5 to visit and for this you get full access to the stadium, the stands, the competition floor, a museum and obligatory giftshop as well as the chance to climb upon the medals stand, so its definitely worth it!

If you fancy a quiet reflective walk whilst you are over in this part of town, then the First Cemetary of Athens is a 15 minute walk away. Many notable Greeks are buried here,  few small churches on the grounds to see aswell. Close by is Varnava Square where there are lots of nice cafes, restaurants and bars which appear to be visited more by locals than tourists, which is always a good sign and we had the most delicious falafel for lunch at the Baba Ganoush Falafel Shop.

Heading back towards the centre, and close to the Stadium and National Garden is Aristotle’s Lyceum, which was a secondary school or gymnasium and the first of its kind in the world. ¬†Although we read the opening hours as 8am-8pm, it was most definitely closed when we arrived around 4pm one day, ¬†and we weren’t the only ones who seemed to have been misinformed about the opening hours, but we were still able to glance through the surrounding gate to get a sense of the place and its history.

Pretty much round the corner from here is the Parliament building and Syntagma Square, the central square of the city, site of many protests and celebrations over the years. There is always stuff going on, including lots of cafes and restaurants, while across the street at the Parliament building is the tomb of the unknown soldier with a changing of the guard every hour (official ceremony is every Sunday at 11am). ¬†Look out for the rather unique slow walk and check the soldiers uniforms complete with pom poms on the shoes, it’s a strong but¬†culturally significant look.

Probably the most important museum in the city is the¬†National Archeological Museum of Athens¬†and its jam-packed full of historic finds from all over the country. It’s a little stuck out to the North of the capital, but a short walk from Omonia and Viktoria metro stations. Not having quite made our 10,000 steps for the day, we walked from Syntagma Square up along Omonoia to the museum, as there were some pretty impressive and historic buildings along this route. The Academy of Athens is a hard to miss neoclassical building with statues of Plato, Socrates and Apollo out front, next door is the National University of Athens another neoclassical building and one of the largest universities in Europe and next door to that, the National Library of Athens, the third neoclassical building in a row, so its makes for an interesting walk and really brings home the scale of history around every corner of this city.

fullsizeoutput_442

Coffee and Cake. Our first taste of thick dark Greek coffee was at Aioli Cafe Snack Bar, super friendly, with outdoor seating in the Plaka area, it was a great place to rest our weary feet. Attika Aptonoieia¬†at¬†the bottom of the busy shopping street Ermou was another great place we found for coffee with the most delicious selection of sandwiches and cakes, offering a soya milk option, with outdoor seating opposite the¬†Panagia Kapnikarea Church¬†and its well worth sticking your head inside this tiny church whilst you’re there. Round the back of the Acropolis museum is the delightful Little Tree and Books Coffee Shop, friendly service with none-dairy milk options and to die for cakes and brownies, I would have returned here had we the time. Another find was the¬†Bread Factory¬†no none dairy options, so I had an espresso, but the sticky lemon cake was so good!

Eats First off we tried to visit Ariston as any quick internet search will tag it as probably the best place to try the traditional pies, unfortunately it was closed when we eventually located this small bakery, we aimed to return but we never quite made it back. Yiasemi though, we did make it too, and had our first taste of Greece sat by the Plaka steps, devouring a crumbly, juicy spinach pie with a ¬†local beer, be warned though, this place is very popular and you may need to wait a while for service. We ate quite a few times around Kidathineon Street in Plaka on recommendation from our hotel, here there are lots of little cafes, ice cream parlours and restaurants, all offering deals ¬†for 3 courses and a glass of wine (or beer) for under ‚ā¨20. ¬†We had great local dishes and friendly service at Acropolis Taverna, Byzantino Taverna and Trattoria as well as another 3 course meal deal with great portions at Scolarchio also in Plaka, all with vegetarian options too. None dairy ice cream is no problem for the Greeks with dairy free ice cream and iced lattes on offer at Ice Queen Gelato opposite the Acropolis Metro station and one night we sampled local dishes at¬†Ydria¬†close to Hadrians Library in a lively little square and then had a glass of wine and cake sat in the window at¬†Meliartos¬†for our dessert, perfect.

 

Extras: Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, Catching a Funicular up to the top of Lycabettus Hill and the Benaki Museum of Art, Culture and History.

Always Be Polite:  Thank you : Efharisto  Good Morning: Kalimera  Hello: Yassas