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 €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 €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 €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 Milošević started 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 Dorćol 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 (€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 (€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 Manjež 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 🙂

** 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 Dorćol 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 – Hvala vam  Hello – Zdravo  Beer – Pivo 

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 (€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 Løkkeveien 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 (€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 €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 €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 €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 €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

 

 

 

 

Day trip to Kaunas

Arrivals – Lithuania’s second largest city and just over 60 miles from the capital Vilnius, trains regularly leave the capital and take between 60-90 minutes, costing less than €6. You can easily buy your ticket on arrival at the station and there are lots of daily options, but if you have a particular journey in mind or are travelling in from other towns or countries such as Poland, you could book online – Lithuanian Railways.  There are great inexpensive bus routes all across the Baltic countries, so you can travel into Kaunas from many other cities and towns, such as Riga in Latvia or Warsaw in Poland. I have used Lux Express to travel in this region, but other bus companies in the area are Eurolines and Ecolines.

IMG_0059

History Bit – Legend has it that the Roman duke Palemon fled Rome with his 3 sons -Barcus, Kunas and Sperus. After his death, the land he inhabited was split between his 3 heirs and Kanas got the land which became known as Kaunas. This part of Lithuania has been important for hundreds of years though, mainly because it is located at the spot of the 2 largest rivers in the country, the Nemunas and the Neris. Many wars, uprisings, the Black Death, great fires and for a while during the early 19th century, it was the temporary capital of Lithuania while Vilnius was under control of the Russians and Polish.

Sights – Full of green spaces, long leafy streets full of shops and cafe’s, beautiful orthodox churches and a historic old town with a picturesque castle at the heart, I am definitely glad I layered up and caught the train from the capital for the day.  Heading straight out of the train station, I stuck to the main road and headed up Vytauto Prospektas towards the Cathedral of the Annunciation, then past the Ramybes Parkas a snow covered park (well, it was January) full of interesting and undecipherable monuments due to my poor  (none existant) Lithuanian language skills. Continuing up the same street I excitedly came across a very interesting orthodox church known as St. Michael the Archangel’s Church unfortunately it was closed, which was a disappointment as the more chance I get to explore these ornate religious buildings and see the insane golden fresco’s inside, the more I want to visit them. But by this time I was starting to lose the feeling in my fingers as I had spent quite some time wandering outside, so it was time to head on and I ventured down what appeared to be the main pedestrian street of the city, Laisves Aleja.

It was indeed pedestrian, regardless of the fact that in the UK, the amount of snow on the roads would have rendered it impassable anyway, and I was pleased to see my favourite Baltic coffee chain – Coffee Inn in the distance. I made a beeline for its orange sign and warmed up over a coffee and probably, maybe some cheesecake as well. There are lots of shops, cafes and restaurants along this street, so you can easily spend an hour meandering down it, exploring whats on offer, if like me you still like sending postcards (I know!) the main post office is located here too.

Walking straight down this long pedestrian street takes you to the center of the medieval old town, its well signposted, so its not hard to get your bearings and find your way around without too much trouble. There are lots to keep you occupied in this part of town, with the castle, town hall square, churches and the Kaunas National Cultural Centre all close together and all worth visiting. The gothic Kaunas Castle, stands proud on the bank by the river and when I visiting in the winter it was absolutely picture post card perfect. As well as exploring the castle there is an art gallery inside the round tower, but its worth noting, it’s closed on Mondays.  Also visit its neighbour the gothic St George the Martyr church, although its not much to look at, because of the distruction it has been subjected to over the years, it plays a long and important part in the history of this town and is luckily being renovated.

Photo 23-01-2016, 13 28 26

Before you get to the castle though, you’ll more than likely walk through the town hall square, you wont miss it, as right in the heart is the town hall itself with its 53 metre tower, known as the white swan. This building has had an interesting history since the original hall was burnt down, reconstructed in 1542 its been a trading post, prison, ammunition store, home for Russian Czars, a firemans office and theatre. Nowadays its a popular place for weddings, as well as being home to a ceramics and history museum. It was a busy place when I arrived and I saw at least 2 couples pull up outside to get married and take pictures, which made for some great people watching.

Photo 23-01-2016, 13 58 04

If you need a place to shelter from the cold, or want to learn more about the history of this town, then the Kaunas City Museum is a short walk from the town hall, also closed on Mondays! If art is more your thing, then the National Museum of Art which is one of the largest and oldest art galleries in the country and close by too. There is also a lovely park called Santakos Park which I only briefly explored due to the freezing temparatures, but can imagine in warmer times its a great place to picnic and admire the views of the 2 rivers which join here.

I stopped for some traditional food as I made my way back along Laisves Aleja, I cant quite remember the name of the place, but they did big plates of dumplings for about €3.50, before I grabbed an upstairs seat on the early evening train back to Vilnius.

Photo 23-01-2016, 16 23 12

Always be polite  – Thank You is Ačiū! (pronounced almost like Achoo)  Please is Prašau (prasow)

 

Vilnius two ways . .

I have experienced the capital of Lithuania twice, once in the freezing -10 snowy conditions in January after scoring some rediculously cheap Ryanair flights, and then again in the summer months, when I was going to use it as an inexpensive gateway to Belarus. If you only plan to visit the capital once and you want to make the most of its outdoor spaces  and dont have any thermals, then I would recommend the summer option, but if you like adventure, empty museums and warming up with coffee every 40 minutes, then take a chance and head over during the winter, it made for some amazing memories.

IMG_0007

Arrivals. You can fly direct from many UK airports to the capital Vilnius (VNO), including Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and Belfast. From Edinburgh and Bristol you can fly into Kaunas, which is a beautiful city in itself and only a short direct train journey from the capital. If you are already over in mainland Europe a great way to see this part of the globe is by bus, as well as flying into Vilnius I have used the overnight Lux Express Bus from Warsaw, and have also flown with Air Baltic for other trips in the region. Trains aren’t that great at the moment in this part of the Baltics, but there is a direct train from the Belarus capital Minsk to Vilnius that leaves daily.

Getting into the city centre from the airport is easy too, there is a airport train that travels 16 times a day between the airport and the main train station in Vilnius, from there its a short walk or taxi journey to your destination. The translation of airport is Oro Uostas which may be handy if you plan to use one of the  local buses that regularly leave between the main bus station (Stotis) and the airport, you could hop on the 1, 2 and 88, all costing €1 or another more direct bus option is the Micro Bus that also costs €1.

History Bit. The area that is now Lithuania has been inhabited by tribes in the Baltic region for thousands of years with the first king of Lithuania being crowed in the 1200’s. By the 1400’s, Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe as it encompassed parts of present day Belarus, Russia, Poland and Ukraine.  Many wars and famines caused unrest, migration, uprisings and coups pretty much off and on until 1991 when it gained its independance from the Soviet Union after WW2. The capital Vilnius itself was first recorded in the history books in 1323 and has always played an important role in the history of the country. It was here that over 200,000 people demonstrated against Soviet rule in the late 1980’s culminating in a bloody battle that resulted in the Republic of Lithuania finally being recognised as an independant country once again, free from foreign rule.

Sights. Awarded UNESCO status in 1994, the Old Town is a great place to start with the beautiful Cathedral Square making a central point in which to visit a lot of the historic sights.

 

Here you can find the impressive Bell Tower which acts as a beacon across the old town ringing out every 15 minutes, and you can climb to the top for a small fee for an even better view of the city. Opposite the Bell Tower is the most important catholic building in Lithuania, The Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladislav, definately pop inside to see the stunning interior, frescos and the crypt, guided tours are available on certain days too, should you want to learn more.

The other important and must see building here in Cathedral Square is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, now a national museum. The original palace was demolished in the 19th century, but its now rebuilt and hosts official and public events, with the museum part of the building showcasing the history of the country including architecture and folklore.  When I visited in early January, I pretty much had the museum to myself, but it is a v popular tourist attraction and looked a lot busier when I walked past a few months later, so time your visit well, again guided tours are available. Cathedral Square itself is a lovely place to explore and people watch, surrounded by benches and green spaces, notable highlights are the markets that spring up at various times of the year like at Christmas, the statue of Gediminas the famous ruler of Lithuania and the lucky stebuklas tile that is said to grant wishes. Its also here where the New Year Eve celebrations take place.

IMG_0037 Sunny day chilling by Cathedral Square

Gedinimas Hill and Tower – You cannot fail to miss this impressive 15th Century tower looking down on the city and with 360 views afforded from the top of the hill, its the reason I have been up in both in the winter and summer. It is definately easier to walk up the path in the summer than in snowy conditions, but a €2 funicular ride is available around the back should you fancy a more sedate journey upward. Once on the top there are ruins to explore, a history museum inside the tower (currently closed for renovations) and just epic views across the capital.

 

Summer and winter views.

Gedinimas Avenue – If you head across Cathedral Square away from the hill and bell tower and cross over the road, you walk down what is essentially the Oxford St of Vilnius. The main street of the city is full of shops, restaurants, theatres and government buildings, if you walk far enough you end up at the Parliament. Keep an eye out for the Feast of Muses sculpture outside the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre and Vinco Kudirkas Square which is named after the author of the National Anthem, as I was travelling on a budget I bought some food from a local supermarket, then found a bench and ate here watching the locals pass by.

 

Ausros Vartu Street – Where Gedinimas Avenue has all the shops and cafes, Ausros Vartu Street has the history, religion and architecture. There are lots of churches to explore here, St Cazimir, St Teresa and the Holy Trinity as well as the original city defensive, the Gate of Dawn built in the 1600’s, its even more important now that the other 9 gates have been destroyed. I really enjoyed just wandering up and down here and peeking my head inside the various churches and interesting buildings.

 

The Republic of Uzupis – Not long after the country gained its independance and freedom back from the Soviets, a small bunch of artists wanted to test the idea of independance to the max and so in 1995 decided to set up a partly tongue in cheek republic of their own, so they did and 15+ years later, its still going strong. Uzupis means ‘other side of the river’ and its only a short walk over a small bridge (over the river!) about 10 minutes from Cathedral Square to this quirky, neighbourhood inside the capital. There are cafes, restaurants, some really cool bohemian shops and art galleries as the place is still inhabitied by many local artists. Make sure you visit the angel statue, the multilingual welcome sign as you enter and pick up a copy of the constitution which includes – Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat and Everyone has the right to be happy, which I think should be on everyones constitutions dont you?

 

 

The Museum of Genocide Victims. Housed inside the former KGB headquarters this haunting building and reminder of past atrocities will stick with me forever. I am not sure if it was due to the winter weather so I pretty much had the place to myself that made it more eerie, but im pretty certain due to the subject matter, its most definately is a place for stark reflection due to the horrific nature of what occured here. The museum serves as a living reminder of the terror from when the Nazi’s and then Soviets took over this imposing building that once was a gym. Spread over a number of floors, the museum takes a no holds barred approach to telling its story. Culminating in the cells, torture and execution chambers, I needed some quiet time to take it all in once I left the museum, but I’m glad I visited as I learned a hell of a lot, but be prepared to need a little recovery period afterwards.

 

Ensemble of St. Anne and Bernardine Church. Standing out due to its red brick exterior, St Annes church at over 500 years old its worth a visit as is its neighbour the Bernadine Church. I visited these on the way to the Bernadine Garden, which when I visited in the January was a snowing wonderland of children sledging and ducks skating on the frozen river, quite beautiful, there is a botanical garden, fountains and a monastery here too, so make sure you give it enough time.

 

Once I had explored the park, I was still feeling energetic and not too cold, so I crossed the River Vilnelė and climbed the many steps up the Hill of the Three Crosses for spectacular views across the snow covered city. Originally at the summit were 3 wooden crosses said to be the site where Franciscan Friars were beheaded hundreds of years ago. These crosses eventually perished, were rebuilt, only to be torn down during Soviet rule, with a new and improved version finally being erected in 1989 once the country became independent again. Now a prominant monument of the city, its a popular spot for both locals and tourists and i’m glad I made the effort to climb up to the top, it involves a bit of a climb and a lot of steps, so bare that in mind first.

 

Town Hall Square, Vokieciu Street and Pilies Street are all areas I explored at length, both in my summer and winter visits. The tourist information centre is located inside the Town Hall Square, which was one of my first stops to load up on a local map and grab a few tourist leaflets, off from here are loads of shops, cafes, interesting buildings and intriguing alleyways. In the winter is was definitely quieter but there were still outdoor market selling wooly hats and local crafts, returning in the summer the cafes opened their doors and put tables outside and there was much more of a buzz, understandably as it wasnt -10!

 

Coffee and Cake – Coffee Inn located on Didzioji and Laisves al are just two of many locations from this Baltic coffee chain, but don’t think because its a chain its all sterile tasteless coffee and uncomfortable seating. Im pretty sure each Coffee Inn is run independently and each one has a unique vibe and style, one I visited had a bookshop inside, another a record store, and all seemed welcoming to a solo English traveller, they serve soy milk and their cheesecake was insane! Another caffeine gem I found was Second Cup which is also a chain, although this one goes further than just the Baltics, with cafes in Iraq, Ghana and soon the UK apparently. Again, friendly comfy seating, with plenty of places to charge devices, they had a really great menu of regular and flavoured coffees with soy milk options too and lots of cake!

 

Eats – For my first night I wanted to eat Lithuania 101, so I headed to Amatininky uzeiga a friendly restaurant serving local beers, delicious beetroot soup and stodgy potato Zeppelins which I devoured after a snowy sightseeing afternoon, then followed it by the recommended and ginormous apple pie. If you fancy something slightly less meaty, but still with massive portions, the vegan restaurant Gyvas Baras was a place I visited for lunch and dinner and then returned for another meal on my summer return. I found it a really friendly place, relaxed, and not just serving the typical falafal, but the menu included amazing burgers, mexican food, insane desserts and local beers.

IMG_0052  Cheers!

Other sights to see – Explore the Jewish ghetto around Dominikonų and Vokiečių Streets, head out of the Old Town to the tallest building in Lithuania, the TV Tower for epic views of the city, and take a train for a day out in Kaunas the 2nd largest city and less than 90 minutes by train (thats a whole other blog post!)

Always be politeHello is Sveiki and Thank You is Ačiū! (pronounced almost like Achoo)

 

 

 

Weekend in Bristol

tumblr_o2j7gat6YC1tapupdo5_540

Consistently being voted best place to live and study in recent years, this South West English city, located by the River Avon is just short train ride from the Welsh border and packed full of things to keep you busy over a weekend for sure. There is the pretty waterfront at the Harbourside, beautiful cliffs and Georgian houses in Clifton, the eclectic and graffitied Stokes Croft, the historic old part of Temple Meads, as well as a vibrant city centre full of shops, bars and restaurants. I probably visit twice a year due to having friends here and with so much going on in the city, there is always a reason to return.

Arrivals – Around a 2 1/2 hour drive from London, and 3 1/2 hour drive from Manchester and Liverpool, it may be better to take a train instead of fighting the motorways especially if you are travelling on a Friday.  Bristol Temple Meads is the main train station, and its possible to get direct trains here from a lot of the big UK train stations, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, London, Portsmouth, Cardiff and its one change if you travel from destinations such as Liverpool or Swansea. There is also a National Express bus station for those on a tight budget but have time to spare.

A lot of the sights around Bristol are walkable, but there is a good system of buses that stretch all across the city and lots of taxi’s and uber’s. The tourist information centre also sells tickets for the hop on hop off tourist bus and its here where you can book onto one of the walking tours aswell.

History Bit – There has been evidence of people living in the Bristol area since the Stone Age, no doubt the River Avon playing being an important factor over the years. During the Roman Era, Sea Mills (a current suburb of Bristol) was recorded in a registry and a road was created from here, linking it with Bath. It was in the 13th Century that Bristol really developed into a busy port and by the 14th Century was said to have become Britain’s 3rd largest town. By the mid 1500’s Bristol became a city, but in the 1600’s the city was damaged badly during the civil war. Prosperity returned in the 17 & 1800’s as it became an important part of the slave trade between Africa and America. By the 1900’s the main industries were tobacco and cigarette manufacturers, the now large empty warehouses converted into modern apartments, art spaces and cafes such as the one in Southville.

Sights – Temple Meads is the largest train station in the city and the first train station built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel so seems a good place to start, as many people arrive from here. Isambard’s particular part of the station is no longer operational, but still present and now a grade 1 listed building. About a 5 minute walk in the direction of the city centre is where you come across Temple Church, a grade II listed building which was built on a site originally housing a church of the Knights Templar. It is definitely  worth an explore on your way in, but wrap up warm, as all that is left now is the exterior walls and a leaning bell tower. The Quay area around is a new developing part of town full of cafe’s, bars and restaurants and makes a good stop off if you’re about to board a train onward.  If you have just landed though, ignore that growling stomach and wait until you make it into the heart of the city.

Harbourside – This riverside area is a great place to explore whether you want history, ships, culture, entertainment, or just good food and drink. Probably the most visited site here is another one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s creations, the SS Great Britain. Although £14 per adult, the ticket allows you a full years access, and this includes touring the ship from the hold, to the steerage and up out onto the weather deck. There are different talks on different days, so check the online calendar to see if you can time your visit with something of interest and a Victorian dressing up area complete with photo booth is also included in the ticket price. The surrounding dockyard is also worth a wander, full of grade II listed buildings it really gives a sense of how it must have been like during the busy days, when it was full of sailors and merchants ready to set off and explore the seas. Anyone interested in Isambard Kingdom Brunel may want to visit the Brunel Institute to get a greater understanding of Britain’s most famous and prolific engineer, the institute is free but closed on Sundays, Mondays and the middle two Saturdays of each month.

M Shed is part of the Bristol Museums group and is located here at the Harbourside inside a 1950’s transit shed. Celebrating all things Bristolian, its free and well worth an hour of your time in this part of the city, as it tells the tale of Bristol from prehistoric times to present day, featuring videos, photographs and artifacts as well as the obligatory cool souvenir shop and coffee bar. More and more of the old buildings are being regenerated into quirky art spaces, restaurants and theatres around here, so if more art and less history is your thing, visit Arnolfini or Spike Island, regardless; a visit here to the harbourside should be on anyones Bristol itinerary.

 

City Centre – This is where most visitors will be spending the majority of their time (and money), and with good reason. There are brand new shopping centres jam packed with shops, restaurants, cinemas and cafes, loads of live music venues and theatres too and I always tend to time my visit with a gig at the Academy or Bierkeller. Venture towards the old part of the city centre too, taking time to explore St Nicholas’s Market with its vibrant food markets and beautiful Georgian buildings and Queens Square which used to be the city rubbish dump back in the 17th Century, but is now a gorgeous tree lined park. Park Street and College Green have a great selection of boutique shops, bars and restaurants as well as more stunning Georgian buildings and last time I walked through they had a Sommes of the Shroud display to remember WW1. Oh and keep a look out for the Cary Grant statue who although went on to find fame and fortune in Hollywood, was actually born in Bristol.

 

 

 

Those wanting a more eclectic, bohemian experience head up North to Stokes Croft, the road is named after the mayor in the 1300’s John Stokes, but the side streets and surrounding area has now also taken on the nickname as well. In the early 19 Century it was a busy thriving part of the city, but the whole area had to be rebuilt after WW2 and has now developed into a centre for arts, music and food. If you want an alternative history of the area then you must visit the Stokes Croft Museum Hungry? then visit the first Pieminister to be opened in the UK, or if you fancy a local cider and live music (it’s also a hostel should you need an overnight stay) then head to the Full Moon.

tumblr_o2j7gat6YC1tapupdo1_400 Trying the local cider always leads to a good night out

Heading a bit further north on Stokes Croft, you’ll end up on the Gloucester Road, known as one of, if not the longest street of independent shops in Europe, I havent had the chance to explore it yet, but will report on it next time!

Clifton is an area I only just started to explore on my latest visit to Bristol which was earlier this month (Dec 2017). As well as Clifton Village the main draw is yet another Isambard Kingdom Brunel masterpiece, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. On the Leigh Woods side there is a visitors centre, when I visited there was limited parking and I was tired and cranky from my 3 1/2 hour drive. With the rain starting to fall, my anxiety got the better of me and I ended up driving to the other side of the river via an A road to admire the bridge from afar. Although its only £1 to cross if you are driving but take note, the toll machine didn’t take notes, and although you can get change from the visitors centre, I couldnt find anywhere to park, so ended up doing a 3 point turn and heading off. Frustrating!! But I shall return to walk or drive it next time with my £1 ready!

IMG_2840

So close, yet so far, I’ll try again next visit.

A cool local area I discovered on my latest visit was the area around North Street in Southville and Bedminster where my friend now lives. Full of small independent shops, cafes, organic supermarkets and art spaces, it makes for a good wander, look out for the amazing street art too, the John Lennon mural made me feel like I was back home in Liverpool 🙂

 

Speaking of street art, you cannot fail to ignore the impact that Banksy has had on the art world and even if his identity is still largely a secret, it is known that he is a Bristolian. His art can be spotted in many places around the city and a quick google search will give you some good tips on where to spot them, or you could tailor your trip to Bristol around a Bansky Walking Tour.

 

Eating and Drinking in Bristol would need its own blog post and as I often stay with friends when visiting the city, we don’t always eat out, so I would say just head to the city centre or Harbourside and explore, there are so many cool little finds. A couple of gems I have found during my trips are the epic cat pub (Yes cats!!) called Bag o’ Nails which as well as lots of cats and kittens just chilling around the place, has a great selection of ale, board games and a decent amount of vinyl. Close by is a great little organic cafe that serves delicious brownies and coffee with none dairy options too, called the Salt Cafe. If you fancy a bit of a different night out, I can recommend Thekla which is a live music venue, club and bar on a cargo boat. Moored in the Mud Dock not far from Queens Square, its the first time ive been to a gig on a boat and loved it.

More to see. . . . Step aboard Concorde at the Aerospace Museum, get hands on at the We Are The Curious science museum and go on a treetop walk at the Westonbirt Arboretum.

Always be polite -Alright my luvver? is basically Bristolian for Hello!