Two Castles and a Kayak

I was invited the other weekend to go kayaking in Llanberis, a small town just on the western edge of Snowdonia National Park.  It wasn’t until the Sunday afternoon, so with no other plans booked in that weekend, I decided to make it into a little overnight road trip, finishing up Sunday lunchtime in Llanberis for a kayak with friends.

A Unesco sites that I had been meaning to visit, but was just a bit too far for a day trip, were 2 of the 4 world heritage castles on the west coast, in the county of Gwynedd; Conwy and Caernarfon. I had visited Beaumaris previously over on Anglesey and the 4th, Harlech is a lot further south, but Conwy and Caenarfon are only about 35 minutes apart, so seemed doable in the same day.

It’s super easy to get to Conwy from where I live and I didn’t even need to use my maps to get me there and 90 minutes later I was parked up at the main long stay carpark.  It sits behind the castle walls, easily signposted and payment is by app or card, so no fumbling for money needed!

Conwy Castle is an incredibly well preserved Medieval fortress, over 700 years old. Built by Edward I, Edward Longshanks to his friends, Edward was born in England, but was intent on conquering Wales. The four castles along the coast with their imposing walls, were all part of his successful takeover plan and sent out a very strong message to the Welsh that he meant business!

I have to say, Conwy Castle is one of the most impressive castles I have visited, for sheer size and how it has retained its features. You really do feel transported back in time as you explore the many chambers, climb the spiral staircases up to the towers and walk along the high walls. The views of the Conwy Suspension Bridge over the River Conwy and Snowdonia’s mountainous skyline in the distance, is spectacular, I can’t think of a more perfect location for a castle.

Having been to Conwy before, I just had a short walk along the harbour, and sat and had my packed lunch, watching the tourists queue up to visit the ‘smallest house in Britain’ while a vicious seagull attempt to eat a families bag of chips, quite entertaining really. Then I took the long way back to the carpark, via the main high street for a bit of window shopping, before heading down the coast, to Castle no. 2.

Just over half an hour later, I was pulling into the carpark down by the waterfront, staring back up to the imposing castle walls in the town of Caenarfon. Although the building of this castle started the same year as Conwy, this castle took over 40 years to completion, compared to Conwy’s quick 7 year build.

It’s an ideal spot if you’re going to build a castle, as it sits at the tip of a peninsula, edged by the Menai Strait and River Seiont, affording great views and lots of protection.

Unlike its neighbour in Conwy, Canaerfon isn’t in as good a state of repair inside, but the walls and main structure are still none the less impressive. Much of the interior hasn’t survived that well and some of the buildings weren’t ever fully finished. That said, I preferred this castle to Conwy, it takes a little more effort to get too, and was nowhere near as busy, and for me that gave it its charm. There is still lots to explore here though, spiral staircases to climb and outstanding views from the top, as well as a museum inside too. Part of the castle was in the process of being renovated during my visit, leaving a few spots out of bounds, but all us visitors got a free guidebook as compensation instead.

Highlights for me included, the dark atmospheric passages taking you through the basement and up the Well Tower, the narrow stone spiral staircases winding you up to the 2nd floor for epic but windy views from the Chamberlain Tower and a surprising single stone glass window.

Once done, I took a short walk through the town centre, but as we are still in Covid times and with some places still closed and restrictions in place, I decided to power on and head to my final destination for the day, Bangor.

I only knew of Bangor from my University days, as they used to have a school of Podiatry there, but I knew absolutely nothing else. The reason I chose it as a place to stay the night was it’s a University town, so I knew there was a good chance of there being some affordable hotel options as well as probably some plant based food for sale somewhere, and it was only a 20 minute drive from my meeting spot the next day.

But I was pleasantly surprised, once checked in I headed to Yugen coffee house, to pick up an oat latte and some vegan cheesecake, then headed to the coastline located a nice bench and then just sat and took in the breathtaking views, of the Menai Straits and Anglesey to the front and Snowdonia behind.

After a quick check of maps on my phone, I could see what looked like a pier, stretching almost all the way to Anglesey, so I continued to walk south, until I arrived at a place I had no idea existed, Garth Pier. A Grade II listed Victorian Pier, there are 2 colourful Kiosks to welcome you, and a small fee to enter. Then its a lovely walk right out across the Menai Straits, with local crafts, ice cream and art work being sold, as well as a coffee shop right at the top. I had just filled up on coffee, so I just sat on a bench completely taken in with the surrounding views of the Welsh landscape, texting family and friends about this new (to me) discovery and recommending it to everyone.

Finally, all my plant based dreams came true and my bet on Bangor being vegan friendly paid off, the first fully plant based restaurant in Wales happened to be a 5 minute walk from the pier. Called Voltaire although they were fully booked, they were happy to let me have some take-out, so with one of their signature burgers and fries bagged up, I hotfooted it back to my hotel, and tucked in, it’s pretty much a whole reason in itself to return.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, I took the short drive to Llanberis and found myself a nice free parking spot by the lake. I arrived an hour early, so did a loop of the town, remembering the places I had visited previously, investigated the lake we would soon be sailing on, and watched admiringly the sweaty, tired looking hikers who were returning from Snowdon’s summit, which I had done a year earlier.

After a hearty breakfast with my fellow kayaker’s at Pete’s Eats we headed down to Snowdonia Watersports and got our kit. For £25 we got full kit hire and 2 hours out on the lake, you also get access to indoor changing rooms, a locker and hot showers, so absolutely worth it.

Of course I fell in, whilst the others gracefully climbed into their kayaks, but I regained my composure and tried again with my second attempt being successful, all while keeping my hair dry!

Then we were off, for a glorious, peaceful sail around the lake, with incredible 360 views of the lakeside steam train, the welsh mountains and the sun reflecting off the rippling water. It was a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon.

Once back on dry land and warmed up with a hot shower, we all headed back to Petes Eats for a hot drink, then it was time to load up another podcast for the drive and head back home to have that kind of deep rejuvenating sleep you can only have after a full day out in nature. Wonderful.

Mongolian Adventure – Part 1 – UB life 🇲🇳

Top of my bucket list for 30 years, maybe before I even really knew what a bucket list was, was Mongolia. Why? Well, I remember seeing a travel programme in my teens, I think it was a Michael Palin one, and the desert, the gers, the camels, the smiling singing faces, I never forgot it. As I grew up and my interest in travel increased, I always connected with any documentary or book on this far away country of just over 3 million people, landlocked inside China and Russia.

For many years it was just a dream, too far away and too remote to see in a week, it would take planning and a longer than usual break from work, not to mention the expense. With limited public transport and vast swathes of desert and countryside to navigate, it’s a brave (or stupid person) who would try and navigate the roads and tracks without a local guide or expert driver. But in 2019 all the stars had aligned, I had booked myself on a tour, got my flight booked via Beijing, and with the visa in my passport, I was off on one of my greatest adventures to date.

I arrived a bit overwhelmed, I was finally here! Plus, the time difference and the fact that my luggage was still in Beijing didn’t help. So after finally getting advice and translation from a man in the American peace corps, I was reassured that if I returned the next morning, my bag should have arrived on the first flight in from China. There was nothing else to do, but get to my hotel in the centre of the capital, and go and explore.

It was early evening once I was ready, so I made it to enormous Sükhbaatar Square, in the heart of the capital, decorated with large statues erected in honour of many notable Mongolians, with the most famous and largest statue of all being the founder of the country, Genghis Khan. With benches all around, I just sat and took it all in, not quite believing I had made it, it was then I realised I had to get some money and sprung up to find an ATM. Although the Mongolian currency the Tögrög, isn’t a closed currency, most banks around the world don’t stock it, so it’s highly unlike you will be able to get your hands on some prior to your arrival. The capital is full of banks and ATM’s, both on the street and inside shops, it took me 3 goes, but I finally found one that recognised my UK card and dispensed some cash, there are also lots of currency exchanges too, so you could just bring your own money from home, if you don’t want to rely solely on your bank card. Feeling tired but with money in my pocket, I bought the most vegetable based snack I could find, well it was green coloured, and slowly meandered the streets, mentally making notes of places to visit the following day, before returning to my hotel and collapsing into a deep jet-lagged sleep.

The next morning, I pretty much jumped in a taxi and headed straight back to the airport to collect my newly landed rucksack, and then only getting slightly ripped off by a taxi man, returned back to the city centre. With a couple of hours before my hotel check out, I had enough time to change my clothes and head out to find some breakfast as I suddenly realised how hungry I was. I needed something hearty and vegan if possible and a quick internet search took me to Millies Espresso for black coffee and some stodgy carbs, perfect to keep me going for the rest of the day. Then I returned to collect my bags and dropped them off at the hotel that was to be the start of my Gadventures tour that evening.

The official start of the guided tour was the following morning, but we were to have a meet & greet that evening, so I pretty much had the full day to hit the main sights of the capital and do a few museums that I knew weren’t covered in the itinerary.  Ulaanbaatar is a fast growing city, with old and new merging as more people move away from the nomadic ger dwelling life, for city living instead. You have the Sükhbaatar Square with its proud statues of its past, but with new skyscrapers towering down above it, you can visit temples and a monastery, alongside shopping malls and hipster coffee shops, as well as watch a performance of traditional throat singing, or experience the laid back sounds of the UB Jazz club. It can be quite chaotic, noisy, overwhelming and frustrating, and sometimes all at the same time, but that in itself it’s part of its charm.

I already had the itinerary of where day 1 of my tour was visiting in the capital, so I decided to visit the main places not featured, as well as just some general wanderings to get a feel of the city, before we escaped out to the countryside. I stumbled upon some cool street art that I had to get a selfie with, to remind myself that it wasn’t a dream, but I had absolutely made it after all these years.

I then found myself across the street from the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Mongolia, instantly recognised due to the pink neoclassical building and white pillars, as well as another UlaanBaatar sign to get a photo with of course.

From here, it was only a short walk to the Choijin Lama Temple, its no longer a working temple, so you are free to explore the whole grounds inside and out, which includes 5 temples, statues, a stupa and traditional thangka paintings, it was a lovely tranquil place, to take a little respite from the busy city centre.

Next up, it was time to hit the National Museum of Mongolia pretty much a must see, even if you aren’t a fan of national museums, I would absolutely recommend this place as a history 101 of the country. You really get a sense of the incredible story of the country and the journey of its people so far & its got a good gift shop too, with inexpensive local crafts and postcards complete with stamps.

Starting to feel a little hungry, I ventured down Peace Avenue to Ulaanbaatar Department Store one of the largest shopping malls in the city, which along with loads of shops, has a number of cafe’s and restaurants inside, so I sat down to rest my feet, hydrate and grabbed a late lunch.

One of the more unusual sites you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Mongolia, is a statue of Liverpool’s finest, The Beatles. It’s only a short walk from the department store to a little square where people used to gather when the country was communist, to listen to music and discuss politics. For someone who has both lived and worked in Liverpool, it was a must see.

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The remainder of the afternoon, I window shopped, explored a few gardens & squares with interesting statues and people watched over coffee, fighting my jet-lag before my evening meeting with my fellow travellers officially started. That evening, not all our group had arrived, heavy winds had delayed some of the flights in from China, so a bunch of us went for dinner and a beer in the hotel, before all getting a decent sleep, excited for the adventure ahead. UB Part Two to follow . . .

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The Microstate of Liechtenstein 🇱🇮

When I took a month off to travel, pre-pandemic (ah those were the days) I made it my mission to visit Liechtenstein as it was my final European microstate that I had to visit.

It was a destination that had flummoxed me a few times, as I had been to or near to towns in Austria or Germany that appeared to be on a train line close by, but in actuality it wasn’t as simple as I had initially thought, and I never quite made it.

But, in 2019 I gave myself 2 weeks to travel across Europe, visiting a few new places, ending up at a music festival in Spain, so I had the luxury of time to plan a trip specifically to visit Europe’s 4th smallest country & I am so glad I made the effort.

I took probably the easiest route in, which involved a train from Zurich with gorgeous views of the lakes and mountains, (definitely get a window seat if you can). Taking just over an hour, you get off at the Swiss border town of Sargans, minutes from the border. There is only 1 train line in Liechtenstein, but it doesn’t pass through the capital, it crosses further north, starting in Buchs, Switzerland over to Feldkirch in Austria.

The 12 E bus was perfect for me, you get it outside Sargans station, and takes about 15 minutes to get to Vaduz the capital, costing about £2 if memory serves.

Once I arrived in the capital, it was a short 10 minute walk from the bus stop to the one and only Youth Hostel in the country, taking in the stunning mountain views all around.

 

Once refreshed, I set back up the road to explore the capital, feeling a little tired from my journey I took it easy for the rest of the day, exploring the shops, cafes and trying the local beer. I would leave the popular castle for day 2 & made an obligatory stop at the tourist information centre to get a local map. It was nice not to have much of an itinerary, but wandering, taking photos, window shopping (its an expensive country!) & constantly gawking at the incredible surrounding scenery.

Being on a budget, and only a few days into my 2 week journey, dinner was bought at the local supermarket and cooked at the hostel. But this tiny country sitting between Austria and Switzerland is surrounded by breathtaking mountainous views, which I could luckily enjoy from my hostel window, so I most definitely could not complain.

That evening, I picked up a walking trail close to the hostel and headed South towards the Swiss border. I found myself at the famous Rhine River, which acts as a border between the two countries and I had a lovely walk as the sun started to set. I crossed over bridges between the two countries, with a line marking the spot of the border half way across the river. Of course I couldn’t resist getting a couple of photos of me standing in both countries at the same time.

I had pretty much a full second day in the capital, as I was catching the night train to Slovenia at around 9PM that evening. Once I had checked out of the hostel, I stored my rucksack in the lockers located in the centre of the town. I can’t quite remember exactly where the lockers were, but they were on the east side of the main road right in the heart of Vaduz.

My first stop was up to see Vaduz castle, I headed there first, as its location on a hilltop, is 120 metres above Vaduz, so thought it best to avoid hiking up in the midday sun. A fortress initially in the 12th century, it gradually expanded to become a proper residence, with the royal family moving there in the 1700’s. Although it did become abandoned many years later, the royal family renovated it and moved back in and still live there today, meaning that you can’t actually visit inside. Don’t let that put you off making the trip though, the hike up is lovely, with some incredible views all around.

If you have had your fill of window shopping and cafes the Kunst Museum is an airy, interesting, artistic space. Built across two levels, the museum houses both modern & contemporary art from worldwide artists, a cafe and of course the all important gift shop. If an entire art gallery is too much to handle, you can still get your fill of cool, unusual sculptures dotted around the city centre, like the Colombian Reclining Women.

Next up was the Neo Gothic Vaduz Cathedral or Cathedral of St Florin. Quite a simple, peaceful place, I had it almost to myself, I must have timed it just right. It had some lovely stained glass inside, and made for a cool, quiet rest stop.

Due to the mild climate and south west facing slopes, vineyards are a common sight along with the ever present mountains, so it’s no surprise that there are many companies offering wine tasting trips. That wasn’t something I had the time, money or inclination to do, but I still had a wander out of the main centre and into the countryside to explore the rows of grapes vines, and I even came across some grazing goats.

It was another supermarket late lunch, as not only are the cafes and restaurants expensive, the plant based options were limited, but I didn’t quite mind as I found a bench in the shade, and took my last views of the surrounding landscape.

Although my night train onward wasn’t till late, I fancied a look around the Swiss border town of Sargans, which is where I boarded the bus to Vaduz and would be boarding the train to Slovenia. So, feeling refreshed, I grabbed my rucksack and only had a few minutes to wait to get the bus back over the border to continue my adventure.

Would I return, actually yes I would, it’s a bit of a faff to get too, and the only way in is via expensive Austria or Switzerland, so it’s never going to be a cheap trip. But if I got the opportunity, I think I would fancy Schaan, the largest city in the country and this time I would bring my walking boots and head up some of the many walking trails. You can never get enough of those incredible mountain views and fresh alpine air.

EATS – Brasserie Burg is situated in the pedestrian area in the heart of Vaduz, it has lots of outside seating, so you can sit down and watch the world go by whilst sampling a local beer and maybe trying a vegan pi“zza.

COFFEE AND CAKE  – The American Bagel & Coffee Company had delicious coffee, and a good range of sandwiches and cake, with really good vegan options too.

TOP TIP – Liechtenstein isn’t the cheapest of countries and its also landlocked by Austria and Switzerland, two other countries not known for being budget friendly either. If like me, you stay at the Schaan/Vaduz youth hostel, it’s close to a decent supermarket, which I visited a couple of times for breakfasts and one evening meal, to help stay save the pennies.

ALWAYS BE POLITE – ‘Hallo‘ – Hello, ‘Danke schön’ Thank You, ‘Bitte‘, Please.

 

Skopje – city of honey, statues and Mother Teresa 🇲🇰

I was back in the Balkans for another birthday trip, this time in 2019. It was a two country trip, flying into the capital of North Macedonia for a few days, before catching the bus up to Kosovo and flying home from there.

To make the trip, I had to first travel down to Luton, where I flew with Wizz Air direct to Skopje, the capital of the newly named country of ‘North’ Macedonia. As opposed to its previous name of plain old Macedonia, which was changed due to an argument with Greece, who wanted to ensure it was separate from its own Macedonia region in the south.

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From the airport, it’s dead easy to get yourself to the city centre of Skopje, with shuttle buses leaving pretty regularly from outside the terminal. A single ticket costs around £2.60 and drops you off right at the international bus station in the centre. From there, at least for me anyway, it was a short walk to my hotel.

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I had an early morning flight, so I still had pretty much the entire day left once I arrived and was lucky enough that I was able to dump my bag in my room, despite being far too early for check-in. So fuelled on a 20p pastry from a nearby stall,  I headed out and up to the fortress, as I felt it would give me a great view of the city as well as being a great introduction to the history of the place.

 

The highest point of the city, its a great place to get your bearings, from here you can see the impressive River Vardar below with its many ornate bridges, of which I was to explore later on, as well as the main square, which is the biggest in the country. The fortress dates back as early at the 6th century AD, and then modified and extended in the many years afterwards, until an earthquake partly destroyed it in 1963.

Back down below, I meandered through parts of the old bazaar, which I would window shop and lose myself in again and again during my stay and crossed over the famous Stone Bridge to explore the main square. Stretching across the entire area was a local honey market, where you could buy all manner of honey related products, not just jars of the sweet stuff, but body lotions, creams, teas, jewellery and the popular health supplement bee pollen. Overloaded with ideas for presents to take back, I made a mental note of stalls I wanted to return too and headed further into the centre.

Although, I’m not the least bit religious, I love a good visit to a religious building, regardless of the god it is dedicated too. Here in N Macedonia, the majority of the population are Eastern Orthodox Christian, with Islam second, so there are a great selection of churches and mosques to add to any itinerary. The main one I wanted to visit in the capital was Cathedral Church St Clement of Ohrid an amazingly shaped church full of domes and arches. I got there during a service, so with a little time to kill, before I could go and explore, I grabbed a coffee across the street at the aptly named Coffee Time while keeping a keen eye on the front doors for the service to end.

It was well worth the wait, the sun was pouring in through the windows around the large dome in the centre and lit up the golden frescoes of which I have become such a fan of from my travels around the Balkan region. The smell of the musky incense and candles from the newly finished service really added to the atmosphere. Despite being fuelled from coffee, it was nice to just sit, pause and reflect on my busy day so far, oblivious to the busy streets just outside the front door.

Next up, it was time to visit the memorial house of Skoje’s most famous daughter, and roman Catholic nun, Mother Teresa. Originally known as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, this Nobel Peace Prize winning Saint, spent her first 18 years in Skopje, before moving to Ireland and then onward to India, where she took her religious vows. I confess, I didn’t know much about this famous little lady, other than remembering iconic photos of her walking the streets in her blue and white robes and meeting influential figures such as Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan, so I was keen to visit the house set up as a reminder of her life and learn a little more. Although unsurprisingly the tourist attraction steers clear away from the more controversial aspects of Teresa’s life, its a lovely little museum, in an unusually shaped house with a small chapel, lots of photos of young and older Teresa as she made her way around the globe spreading her message, as well as one of her unmistakable white and blue sari’s on display.

The rest of the day I just wandered, stopping for more coffee and maybe another pastry, I mean at around 20p each, it would be a shame not to take advantage, and I had easily passed 10,000 steps by lunch time already. There is so much to explore around the bazaar that its best just to put your guidebook in your back pocket and lose yourself in the smells, sights and general balkan bustle that you would associate yourself with any large market place.

One wonderful little place I did come across was the Church of the Ascention of Jesus, this small mid 16th century church is pretty hidden close to the fortress and has some amazing icons and wall paintings inside. If I can remember correctly, there was no photos allowed inside in order to preserve the artwork, and as I had the place to myself, it felt like I had discovered a little local secret.

Other highlights of the city were the Art Bridge, featuring statues of noteworthy and famous Macedonians, I took a serene walk along the river, whilst dodging the impressive number of weekend joggers, and explore the area around the Grand Theatre building.

For dinner, I wanted something hearty, warm and traditional, so I went to the well recommended Old City House Restaurant for a bean casserole, lots of bread and a local beer, before I hit the sheets as the full days events caught up with me. For the next day, I was off on a day trip to the breathtaking Lake Ohrid on the border with Albania.

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