Christmas With an Old Friend

When considering somewhere to take your Southern European girlfriend between Christmas and New Year, there are a couple of approaches which are possible. As I’ve noted on my other blog, Lisbon is a surprisingly chilly place to be in winter, so I’m increasingly tempted to head south, in search of a bit of warmth. But this year, for better or worse, I thought it might be nice for her to experience the frost and cold of a northern European festive period. It didn’t take long looking at the myriad low cost flights available through skyscanner to settle on a place that is dear to me and one that I felt I knew sufficiently well to be able to show her around. We were off to Hamburg, Germany.

So it was that on Boxing day, we found ourselves at Lisbon’s terminal 2, waiting for a gently scheduled afternoon flight with the masters of all things cheap and nasty and cheerful – Ryanair. Due to a French ban on flights going over its airspace if they weren’t scheduled to land in France, it was a long, three hour flight, but nonetheless pretty much eventless. We landed and, this being Germany’s second largest city, we were quickly and seamlessly onto the metro system. Our hotel was located next door to the  Lohmühlenstraße metro station on the U1 line, so within 15 minutes, we were looking up at the hotel – the Novotel Suites Hamburg City, which I’d managed to get a quite ludicrous 45% off of, by booking direct with accorhotels.com . The walk from the metro stop to the hotel – all of 3 minutes – was enough to remind us that this place was going to be A LOT colder than back home in Lisbon. We ducked inside, checked in, found our room, wrapped up VERY warmly and dashed back out to find some food. We were famished!

I was staying in much the same neighbourhood as I had on previous visits, just beyond the Turkish quarter. This is huge in Hamburg, as a great many Turks moved to Hamburg as part of the rebuilding project, after the destruction of the city towards the end of World War II – more on that later. I’ve always found this quarter to be a lot of fun, with mini markets packed with interesting exotic produce, great Turkish restaurants with excellent value food, and Turkish barbers – something I greatly miss from my time living in Turkey. We walked through all of this, looking for something to eat. Ana was not especially feeling like a Turkish meal, so we ended up arriving at the Hauptbahnhof – the main train station. We ummed and ahhed about this restaurant and that, before realising that many kitchens were already closed. When we found that the pizza restaurant was still cooking, we decided to take a seat. It ended up being a great decision, and I quickly found myself with a top class pizza, covered in anchovies and a mug of Duckstein beer – one of my favourites in the north of Germany.

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After this, it was pretty late and many things were closing up, but we decided to see what was left of the city’s extensive Christmas markets. As it turned out, it was really quite a lot! In front of the ‘new’ town hall, there was a small market area, as well as a few others, only selling food on the way there from the station. At the Alster lake, there was a huge expanse of market, draped in eye catching white tents, which we were pleased to find was to remain open for another week. So we could come back later in our visit.

After the brief look around, the travelling – and the cold – were taking their toll and we strolled back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep. It’s worth mentioning at this stage that the Novotel Suites are really well kitted out. The standard of the rooms is very high, particularly for a chain hotel and the breakfast – while it takes place in a somewhat cramped area for the number of guests – is a really good offering. It sets you up really well for the day, even with the harsh weather of a north German winter. With breakfast done, we again dressed up as Arctic explorers before hitting the road. The first stop on the first day proper of our trip was a harbour tour. Hamburg’s harbour is a huge place and still remains on of the main centres for shipping of goods in Europe. We had decided on a particular tour company to use, from our city guide map. When we arrived at the harbour, however, we were already too late. So, seeing that there were hundreds of boats doing similar tours, we began to walk up and down the harbour front. We eventually settled for one which was just a little more pricey than the original idea and off we went.

If I had to choose 2 adjectives to describe the harbour experience from a boat they would be ‘enormous’ and ‘bloody freezing’. It was an interesting trip, nonetheless and seeing the cargo ships up close can actually feel pretty daunting. You only have to imagine the effect of a container slipping from one of the cranes and crashing into the water to feel pretty unsettled. The tour also involves a good look at some of the architecture, new and old, as well as the beach section at the edge of the harbour, with its luxuriant houses facing the water.

After the trip, we decided to walk back in to the city to find some lunch. We were grateful to be off the water, away from the biting winds it brought with it and sheltered by the huge buildings of the centre. As we walked down Willy-Brandt Strasse, I realised we were close to perhaps the most poignant monument in Hamburg, the St Nikolai church monument. At the end of July of 1943, the Allied forces began the bombing of Hamburg in what was called ‘Operation Gomorrah.’ The St Nikolai church, which sat at the heart of one of the largest residential areas in the city, was caught in the bombings and all but one tower was destroyed. The monument to this horrific event is the tower, standing amidst the ruins of the church. Underneath, in the crypt, there is a small collection of artefacts, such as stained glass windows, which were removed prior to the bombing, as well as a fascinating permanent exhibition explaining the effects of the operation on the city, as well as the enormous rebuilding projects. I sadly don’t have any photos, as cameras are not allowed in the permanent exhibition below, and the tower, which you can go to the top of in a glass elevator, is being renovated and so the spectacular views of the city are currently obscured. Nevertheless, this is something that I feel no visitor to Hamburg should miss. You can find more information here.

Despite this altogether sobering experience, it was time for lunch and so we meandered our way back into the city centre and happened upon, by total coincidence, a local burger joint, with good quality ingredients and a seriously intriguing menu. So we went in and for the price of just about 8 euros each, we got seriously well fed. I had a bacon and cheese burger, smothered in jalapenos and barbecue sauce with a side of thick cut, home made chips. They had Fritz cola too, which made for a great combination. If you’re in town and feel like a bite, check them out.

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From here, the light was rapidly fading, such is winter in the north, so we decided the last thing to do for the day was to go to the town hall. There was an English tour for us to take in the rooms in what is still the active parliament building for the city state of Hamburg. We had an hour to kill before the tour started, so we wandered around, catching a glimpse of this masterpiece in the city’s main department store:

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One tall glass of delightfully warming gluhwein (mulled wine) later and we were back at the town hall where we found out some interesting facts about the construction, the smart plan to cut the lights across the neighbourhood during the aforementioned bombing campaign that preserved the building from destruction during the war and the fact that the UK’s own Queen Elizabeth II has been the only person to date who has been met on the ground floor and shown up the stairs by the city’s president. Everyone has to climb them alone, to find him! Ana wanted to take one of the chandeliers home until she realised that they weigh four and a half tons each.

After this, still feeling bloated from the burger we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel to shelter from the cold with a bottle in bed, so as to be ready for our next day.

The next morning, after another hearty breakfast, we were off to find out if there were English language tours of the Chocoversum chocolate factory tour. As luck would have it – indeed there were! But we had to wait for an hour and a half. So we took the opportunity to visit the city’s largest Lutheran church – the Cathedral of St Michael. It had a beautiful whitewashed interior, and some very interesting artistic features.

A steaming cup of coffee and a cake later and it was time to go and learn about chocolate. If it sounds like a highly compelling area of study, it’s because it is. It’s a fabulous museum, set up in such a way that you get to see, touch, smell and, yes, taste every stage of chocolate production from the slightly odd, chewy texture of the cocoa bean scraped fresh from the husk to the rough textured but delicious cocoa solid and sugar paste, right the way through to a freshly pressed bar of high quality plain chocolate. You also learn about just how little chocolate is involved in many high street ‘chocolate’ brands, and of course you have the chance to set your own chocolate bar, decorated – in my case badly – with a wealth of ingredients, such as fruit, coffee beans, nuts and more. What really made the event for us though, was our guide. Her English was superb throughout, she dealt with the kids in the group expertly and she clearly had a passion for her work and communicated it to her audience highly effectively.

We left the factory armed with a heavy bag of spoils to take back to Portugal for family and friends and then headed over to the Christmas market for a light snack. We picked up crepes from a stall and strolled back to our hotel to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was a set menu affair at a rather swanky restaurant called the Nordlicht. It’s located across the river in a dockland area called Harburg. As we arrived on the metro, everything was a little bit deserted and it didn’t look like the nicest neighbourhood. But we had a reservation, thanks to a rather excellent deal with http://www.groupon.de whereby we got a 100 euro fine dining set menu for half the price. I’m not sure I would’ve paid 100 euros for it, but at 50 euros for two people, it was a bargain. There was an amuse bouche of beetroot foam with artisan bread and baby tomatoes, followed by a creamed pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds on the top and then a main course of seared rare beef, with vegetables and potato dumplings. Dessert was also excellent as was the accompanying wine. Coffee came with petit fours which we just about managed to get through after eating so much delicious rich food. It’s a place I’d definitely recommend looking up, if you’re in the city.

The next morning was a bi more hurried, with breakfast closely followed by checkout. We’d decided to head off to the botanical gardens for our last morning in the city, so we headed on on the metro towards the neighbourhood known as St Georg. We stepped off the train and found ourselves immediately in the shadow of the Orthodox church, with its highly distinctive architecture. Across the other side of the road, in the direction we were going, was the TV broadcasting tower, dominating the skyline.

A few minutes later and we found ourselves in the huge park in the middle of this neighbourhood. Before heading off to the botanical gardens, we had a walk round the Japanese garden and its lake. It was beautifully laid out. We would have stayed much longer, were it not for the bitter cold.

Arriving at the botanical garden meant a glorious blast of heat as the temperatures are elevated to keep the many exotic plants alive. So we managed to take off our coats for the first time (besides bed time and meal times) during the whole trip. The collection was not the most impressive I’d ever seen, but it certainly had its moments.

And just like that, the trip was over and we were on our way back to the airport. There was just time for a quick movenpick ice cream in the terminal before flying back out to Lisbon. By no means is this everything that Hamburg has to offer, as we missed out the famous reeperbahn and it’s crazy, heady mix of drinking, partying and go-go dancers and more, but if you are considering a place to visit for a long weekend, you could do a lot worse than check out Germany’s second city!

2 Capitals, 4 Days – Part 2 – Lisbon

Waking up to grey skies in London is something that feels kind of different to everywhere else, particularly where we were staying, in the heart of the city. It was a Monday morning, so at least everything had come to life, with suits walking hither and thither, trying to look important (or just awake – it was 7am!) I was not short of sympathy as, at 7:05, with our train tickets to the airport bought, we trudged to the Sainsbury’s Local and grabbed a couple of cinnamon danishes and coffees. Then it was back to City Thameslink, under the ground and onto the platform to wait for the train to Luton. The 10 minute wait gave us time to ingest breakfast and generally wake up/stop feeling sorry for ourselves.

The train rumbled in, and we boarded, still toting the dregs of our coffees. Sitting down at the table, I realised I had managed to cut my hand open on something and was dripping blood on our table. This was not a stupendous start to the next stage of our journey. As luck would have it, the ticket inspector of all people showed up fully armed with plasters and, with a cheerful bit of chit chat, I was patched up and feeling so much the better for a bit of customer service – and on a British railway service, too! Exiting the tunnel under the city, speeding north towards Luton, it immediately started raining. That classic, British spitting, which looks like nothing, but renders everything soaking in a matter of minutes. Lisbon could not come soon enough.

The train journey was swift and eventless and, before long, we were on the bus chugging up the hill to Luton Airport, with all of its hideous orange livery, as the home of Easyjet. Of course, the orange livery is the only thing not to like about Easyjet, especially when you are as unfortunate as myself to be more accustomed to flying Ryanair these days. With a couple hours to wait, on arrival, we opted to head to the observation deck and watch the planes defying the drizzle, trying to second guess where the bronzed passengers, clinging to their coats for dear life might have been a couple of hours ago. After that, it was time for a sandwich and then time to fly. The flight was smooth and short and before long we landed in Lisbon. Clambering down from the plane onto the Lisbon tarmac, my Polish winter coat felt immediately superfluous. Damn.

Lisbon is one of those airports where you have to wait for a bus to take you to the terminal building. Nothing annoys me more than when the bus journey takes 3 minutes, when a walk would have taken… 3 minutes… so it was nice when we realised that the landing area for low cost airlines is actually about 3km from the terminal. The driver sped around the roadway on the bendy bus, with all the passengers standing in varying states of calm and alarm. But everyone made it in one piece and the passport control process was mercifully swift. From here, there was a surprisingly common sense connection to the metro, ticket machines which spoke English and, in half a jiff, we were speeding down the metro track to the centre.

Like most things in Lisbon, the metro is a beautiful set up. The lines have colours and names, just as they do in London, Paris, or anywhere else, but they also have beautiful symbols associated with each:

The interior of the metro stations is also often quite ornate, as well as modern and practical. After a quick change from red to green, we arrived at our destination in Baixa-Chiado, right in the heart of the Lisboa district. We jumped out and found ourselves in a bustling street, full of people and the temperature at a happy 14 degrees. A welcome change from blustery 5s and 6s in London and Bydgoszcz’s minus 10!

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From here it was a remarkably short walk to our hotel: Duas Nacoes (2 nations) themed around the partnership of Brazil and Portugal. It was a simple place, but in a truly excellent location and they did a mean breakfast, too. We had a small juilet balcony, looking out to the street.

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Putting our bags down reminded us that we’d barely eaten at all so far that day, so it was time to find something to eat. The sandwich place opposite seemed pretty easy to negotiate and so, to get something fast, we walked in. I managed to ask the lady behind the counter in Portuguese if she spoke English. The response was laughter from her and her colleague and a flat “no”. I ordered a chicken sandwich (chicken is ‘frango’ in Portuguese – where the hell does  that come from?!) and a drink and sat and waited. Food showed up promptly, was cheap and really tasty, so we evidently made the right choice. Then it was time to explore! Turning left at the end of our street, we could see an enormous arch at the end of the road, so we decided to investigate. We were really unprepared for the grandeur that awaited us there.

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After this quite spectacular triumphal arch, you find yourself in a truly enormous square, facing out to the river Tejo, in front of you. And of course, Lisbon is the gaping mouth of this huge river, flowing out into the Atlantic, beyond. It’s quite a sight. I was also impressed by the signs for “The world’s sexiest toilet” – but I didn’t have go. Sorry.

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In spite of the menacing-looking grey skies in these images, it was a warm day, with a gentle breeze coming in off the river. It felt most un-February-like for a pair of northern Europeans. After marvelling at the square, the monuments and the water for a while, we decided to head back inland and to explore the city a bit.

I was told two things about Lisbon before going there. The first is that you really should explore without a map, as it’s an excellent place to get lost. This is absolutely true. We stumbled upon countless gardens, artworks, pieces of remarkable architecture, without ever really trying. The other thing I was told about was that when people say Lisbon is built on 7 hills, they are SERIOUS hills. This is also absolutely true. I cannot imagine how slippery some of them would be in the rain. If you come here, prepare for a leg workout!

Walking up Avenida de Liberdade (freedom avenue to you and me) we walked past some fountains, museums and hotels. Lost of which was very grand. Then, over to our left, we spotted a stone stairway, tucked away, leading up to one of these famous hills. We decided it was worth investigating.

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Once at the top of these stairs, the only way to go was up. So, 10 minutes later and we had walked perhaps 200 metres up this oppressively sheer hill. Once at the top though, we were on the edge of one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city – Principe Real. We walked around the large church there and then up to the very top of the hill and to the Jardim de Principe Real (a public garden). Not only was the garden itself quite beautiful, it also had a spectacular view out across the city to the hill of Alfama, and St George’s castle.

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And a picture without my mug stinking the place up.

From here we walked past the historic hill climbing tram, the undercarriage and support stilts of which may give you some idea of just how steep these hills really are.

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From here, we walked down Avenida de Liberdade, back into the city for cake and then a short rest and freshen up in our hotel. In the evening, we went for a walk to find dinner and happened upon a quite huge seafood specialist restaurant. Tragically I can’t remember its name, but all they seemed to sell was seafood and I ate a quite sublime whole sea bream, washed down with a cold beer. After that, we decided to turn in.

The next morning started with my real reason for being here – a job interview. So, shortly after breakfast, I donned my smart clothes and left Ania to do some additional sleeping – she’s a professional, where this is concerned – and trudged back up Avenida de Liberdade to Cambridge School, where I was hoping to get my next teaching job. Situated next to a huge cinema, it was quite a grand building. The security guard waved me in and I went to reception, where I was to fill in a formal application form and some other papers. Then the interview started. A 4 man panel of interviewers took turns to ask me questions and it seemed to be going ok, if not spectacularly. Then they started talking about contracts, which confused me. Finally, all became clear when they offered me a position for the next school year. I was delighted, accepted the position and left with a huge smile on my face.

When I got back to the hotel, Ania was still asleep, so I crept into the room and changed out of my smart clothes, before waking her up and telling her we were going to see the castle. We left our hotel and turned right, walking up to the ominous hill of Alfama. But all was far less ominous when we realised there was a completely free of charge glass elevator up to near the top of the hill. We shuffled in with an old woman ahead of us, who was sure to speak to us in rambling Portuguese, which we naturally understood none of. We waved her off and began walking in the direction of the castle itself. Walking through the gate, you begin to get some idea of how old this place is!

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The weather was really nice, despite some threatening clouds approaching across the horizon and, with little time to explore the inside of the castle, we simply made our way around the perimeter, taking in the sights of the narrow streets, some of which are about 800 years old.

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After much meandering around the streets, we turned a corner and a great vista opened out in front of us. We were standing above rooftops, as the steep slope led out in front of us to the water. We were at the portas do sol (gates of the sun). This is supposedly the most breathtaking of all the views in this city of landscapes and, even with all the cloud cover, it didn’t disappoint. I can only imagine how glorious this will be with the full glare of the summer sun.

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After stopping to take in the spectacular views – and rest our hill weary legs – we wound our way round the hilly road and began to feel very hungry. We must have walked past 30 coffee shops and closed Angolan restaurants, orange trees, schools, dodgy old electronics shops, but nothing passing for a restaurant. Then, as all hope was fading and we rounded yet another winding cobbled hill street, we saw the Cantinho do Fatima. It really looked just like any other small, inconspicuous restaurant, but we were starving and went in.

Once inside we were presented with the options for the EUR 7.50 per person lunch menu of the day. I ordered something with veal and Ania something with turkey in a cream sauce. I was relieved to speak French, as the lady serving us knew no English at all. We sat and were presented with our starter of soup and bread along with a half litre jug of wine. The soup was a simple garden vegetable affair, but quite tasty; the bread soft and fresh. The wine too was quite palatable and the main course, when it came was enormous, comprising a large portion of meat with sauce, chips and rice. We eventually turned down our dessert and simply had the coffee. But for 15 Euros, we’d eaten more than we could (or probably should) have at an ordinary lunch. The fact that the place was rammed with locals when we arrived, I always like to think, is a sign of a quality place.

From there we descended from the hilltops of Alfama back down to sea level and walked along to one of the main train terminals of the city Santa Apollonia. Also one of the main hubs for metro connections, it was a big, grand old place.

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And that’s when it started raining. And when I say raining, I come qualified to identify serious rain, as a Brit. This was serious rain, the kind of rain where you could barely see about 15 metres in front of you. The only positive we could find was that this was an excellent excuse to dive into a café opposite the station and try our first tarte de natas. It was a custardy masterpiece, with the café owner handing us a cinnamon shaker to sprinkle the spice to our tastes. 

We decided to wait until the rain stopped. Then until the rain simply slowed down. Then we realised we were going to get soaked, and so we went out into it and tried to hug the walls, and canopies of grocers and cafés, all the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, there are days like this in February, and the rain didn’t let up until we had gone to bed in the evening. It was a shame not to see more of the city, but there would be more opportunities for that. In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we were greeted by sunshine as we headed down to the metro for our return to the airport. The 4 hours of flights and 6 hours of transfer time at Stansted ahead of us was not very appealing, but it had been an excellent trip.

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2 Capitals, 4 Days – Part 1 – London

Travelling, as a tourist, to 2 capital cities in 4 days is, some would say, stupid. How can you possibly aim to see anything of such places in such a short time? Bear in mind, also, that we’re not talking about the capitals of Liechtenstein and [insert name of small country here] either. We’re talking about jolly old London and Lisbon. Big places. The two trips had to happen together though, for reasons that will become clear later, and so set off we did to my former home, and capital of my home nation, London.

“Can a trip to a city you lived in for nigh on half a decade actually be called an adventure?” you may also ask. Well, in this case, yes, for a couple of reasons. The first of these is that I wanted to see family and friends in a short space of time. The second is that I was taking my Polish girlfriend who had as yet never set foot in the UK.

So, after a huge kerfuffle of a last day of work, a further nuisance with a delayed bus to Poznan, in a very snowy, breezy -8 degree evening, and finally a heavily interrupted night’s sleep, at the hands of some monstrously whiney student person, I found myself sitting at Poznan airport at 9am, staring into this beautiful object, which was the only thing keeping me going at the time:

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Once the caffeine was roaring it’s way through my veins, my good lady and I headed to our departure gate and waited for our flying bus, or Ryanair plane, to board. In no time at all, we were boarded and airbourne. The views of a frozen Poznan were quite delightful, too.

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After a couple of hours broken up by attempts to nod off and catch up with sleep, we arrived at London Stansted, perhaps the most boring airport of its size on planet Earth. While making our way from disembarking the flight, we noticed lots of new posters from the UK Border Force, threatening that we may be kept waiting longer than usual, due to Britain’s increasingly unpleasant attempts to reassure foreign types that they are unwanted. Or something. And so it transpired that we were left standing in a closed corridor – more of a doorway between corridors really – for about 15 minutes. After this delightful experience, we were allowed to join the queue for passport control. Naturally, at midday on a Saturday, this was pretty hectic, and we had to wait for another 45 minutes here.

But once that dreadfulness was over, we were swiftly led around to the waiting column of National Express coaches, heading far and wide across the country. We immediately hopped onto one and were whisked into London, via the East. We swept past the Olympic village from the 2012 games and the great stadia, still waiting for their conversion. Past the new shopping leviathan of Westfield Stratford and finally into London Liverpool street. Famished, we walked over to Shoreditch and walked into the first restaurant we found (in this case a “Las Iguanas” – yes I know!) and stuffed our faces. After the meal, we decided to go straight to our hostel and ditch our bags.

Taking the tube to St Paul’s, from Liverpool Street, took a matter of minutes and, as a Saturday afternoon tends to be in this part of the city, all was fairly quiet. When we arrived at the hostel (YHA St Pauls, strongly recommended), we realised just how close to it we were. This was the view from the end of our road, about 50 metres from the front door:

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We were really in the heart of the city, which was great news. The view from our room was somewhat more modest:

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Still, I couldn’t have expected anything else from a room that cost less than 23 quid each, per night, in this part of town.

After a bit of a rest and a drink, we headed out into the early evening, deciding to stroll down the north bank of the Thames towards the London Eye. Walking down the Thames at night for the first time in a long time reminded me of just how blessed the centre of town is for remarkable architecture.Of course the view from the riverside paled in comparison to the views from up in the Eye. As luck would have it, my sister works for the folk who run the London Eye so, having met her outside, we were all able to have a ride on it for free. I’ve been on it a couple of times before, but not for about a decade. It was amazing how much the skyline had changed since then.

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After the jaunt on the wheel, it was time to get some food and, first of all I suggested visiting a tiny French restaurant next to Embankment tube station. So we wandered along the South Bank and then up over Charing Cross bridge. Except, when we arrived, we realised that the restaurant had closed. A great shame. I’d had some of my favourite ever pancakes and delicious tarte tatin in there. But in an effort not to dwell on it, we realised that, as we were very close to the Strand, we would take a walk and find something appetising soon enough. After a few hundred yards, we happened upon the Strand’s branch of Leon. Something that was very much in its infancy when I lived in London and now seems to have popped up just about everywhere. We strolled in and sat down, my sister and I getting through a couple of their burgers, while Ania chose an aloo gobi with rice (after I’d explained what ‘aloo’ and ‘gobi’ were). It was a great meal, washed down with Sagres (Portuguese beer – ominous!) for us and a hard vodka cocktail for my hardcore sister.

After a meal and a chat, the lack of sleep and travel-based exhaustion was getting to us and so we said our goodbyes to Fi and returned to our hostel and were asleep very quickly.

Morning broke in what seemed like a few seconds and we leapt out of bed, eager to begin the new day (and positively starving). We rushed out to the main street, wondering where we might find breakfast on a Sunday in the heart of the city. Almost nowhere, it seemed. Pretty much every restaurant and café was closed. We walked up the road until we stumbled upon the master of evil – McDonald’s. We went inside and ordered breakfast and I rapidly began to realise that while McDonald’s is never a particularly fantastic option, Ania was experiencing the opposite of what British people experience when they visit a McD’s abroad. Namely that the menu is less expansive, less imaginative and generally less good. Anyway, the coffee was decent enough and it didn’t cost us much. So we ate our underwhelming breakfasts and set off for the day.

Thanks to my sister’s working for the Merlin group who run almost everything in London, tourism-wise, we were able to go and ask for a Thames sightseeing cruise free of charge. Not bad at all. We crossed the river at the Millennium footbridge and walked down the embankment towards Waterloo and the boarding point for the cruise. Once again, somewhat miraculously, the weather was pretty excellent. We took in some lovely views as we made our way.

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We didn’t have to wait very long for our boat. It came along, moored up and some VIPs boarded before the rest of us. We made a bee-line for the front/back rows and took our seats. We quickly set sail and were entertained by spectacular views of the ever changing Thames landscape and also by a quite witty guide, who pointed out titbits of information I’d never heard as a resident of London, such as the origin of the boat on top of the Royal Festival Hall and a few other things. Ania also pointed out that the VIPs were none other than Penelope Cruz, her husband and children. I was largely unmoved by this information, but there we go. The boat basically sailed all the way down to the Tower and back again. these were some of the highlights:

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Once the cruise had come to an end, we disembarked and I asked Ania what she wanted to see on this, our last day of her first visit to London. The first mission was the Queen’s house, Buckingham Palace. From Waterloo, there’s no better way to get to it than going right through the heart of Westminster, so we set off across Westminster bridge, taking in a variety of sights on the way.

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What the devil is the London Necrobus? Anyone?

 

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He was a friendly little fella. Though my lack of nuts (no pun intended) curtailed his interest.

 

Walking through St James’ Park on a crisp, sunny winter’s morning reminded me strongly of the time, as an 8-year-old that my brother and I were chased on multiple laps of the pond by a small army of violent geese, hell-bent on our destruction. Fortunately, this day was much calmer and we instead enjoyed the sound of the non-goose birds chattering around the place and small squirrels begging for peanuts from passers by (and often getting them). As we came to the edge of the park, the splendour of Buckingham Palace appeared in front of us and, in spite of its rather ugly architecture, it was a treat for Ania to see it in the flesh. We stopped to take some photos and then headed out across Green Park to take in Piccadilly Circus, the next stop on our tour. A short stop on the way in Pret for a sandwich lunch, led to the discovery of a new addiction for my girlfriend – ginger beer. That most British of drinks which is totally unavailable, at least in our region of Poland was a bit of a mind blowing experience – and rightly so!

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After Piccadilly and so on, we headed past the Sherlock Holmes Museum and London Zoo over to Camden, where I used to live a few years back. Here we met a friend of mine at the ever busy lock. At the 3rd attempt we managed to happen upon a bar with a free table where we could sit and drink a coffee and have a good catch up (after about 3 years!). The final stop on our long and winding route was, mercifully, taken on a London bus. From Euston station out to Stoke Newington, where we were greeted by one of my closest friends who led us off for a top class fish and chip supper (with ginger beer). We stuck around, laughing and joking on Stoke Newington High Street, having a pint – Ania trying her first “real” cider and being quizzed by the locals about why we live in Poland, and so on. After a couple hours there, it was back to our hotel and to bed before the next day’s early flight to Lisbon.

Waking up at 5 is always a horrible task, never more so than on holiday. Luckily for me, as there’s no hope for my face, I don’t need make up or anything like that, so I slept for an extra hour while Ania got ready. But at 7, bleary eyed, we went out to the mini market on the edge of the City Thameslink station and bought some cinnamon whirls and coffee to sustain us through the pleasant train journey to Luton. Almost the instant the train left London though, the rain started. It was going to be a seriously grey day. Still, we arrived at Luton with 2 hours to wait for our flight. We sat. We watched. We talked and, finally, we boarded and took off to our next destination.

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 1 – Zadar & Around

So, many months after the event, I decided that it might be a nice idea (as I originally planned) to blog about my Croatia trip from August of 2012. So here goes:

It was the 15th of August. The United Kingdom was, predictably, spattered with a light covering of irritating rain; everyone was in a foul mood. Thankfully, I was leaving! I boarded the Ryanair flight from Stansted Airport at ten past five in the evening to the warm, exotic port city of Zadar, in Croatia, after a cheeky pint in Stansted’s soulless airport lounge. The flight was uneventful. I read my travel guide and gleaned precisely no information from it, as I was too excited about visiting a new place. I constantly peered out of the window, unnerving my neighbour until, finally, we began to descend over the bay of Istria.

As we queued in the fading sunlight of dusk in the small, clearly-not-built-for-tourist-use airport at Zadar, I was refreshed by the lack of obvious idiocy from the British passengers. I came to security, smiled (but not too much) and went to find out how the buses worked.

After a 20 minute wait and a number of “jokes” with the bus driver, where I had no idea what he was on about,  we were on our way. During the 20 minute ride, I was positively permeated by the heat of the place. After spending the past 6 weeks in the rain-sodden UK, it was a welcome and very distinct change.  The bus arrived at the main bus station and I took the opportunity to venture into a cafe and ask for directions. Thanks to the utterly atrocious nature of my Croatian, I was quickly moved on to a very accomplished English speaker. She quickly pointed me in the direction of my hostel and off I went.

Amongst the palm trees, which I was familiar with from the previous summer in Turkey, were the classic eastern European buildings that have become my home in Poland. An eccentric combination of pre 90’s cuboid concrete and the all-new walls of glass and steel. It’s fair to say the area around the bus station lacked any real identity. I could be anywhere, I thought. This was all to change, I was about to realise.

I found myself meandering around a residential area which reminded me more of the Turkish backstreets of Fethiye than anywhere else I’d been. When I got to the point on the map where my hostel ought to have been, there was nothing of note to be seen. Only residential gardens, a chemist and a few barking dogs. I walked further, up to the main road and then back again. Finally, I noticed some teenagers outside one of the houses. I approached them and asked them if any of them spoke English. A couple of them did, so I asked them if they knew about this hostel. Predictably, this WAS the hostel. A girl quickly put down her drink, and led me to a bedroom/dormitory conversion and told me which bed would be mine. She told me I would have to pay right away and offered me a map of the city. I paid her, dropped my stuff and immediately headed out to Zadar’s old town. Apart from anything else, I needed to eat!

Within 5 minutes of the unremarkable residential zone, I arrived at the edge of the harbour. Immediately I was struck by the grandeur of the place. To the left are the high city walls, restored from their original medieval splendour, still some 8-10 metres tall, housing a myriad of tourist-focussed restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs and museums. To the right are an array of boats, large and small, as well as the highly decorative, illuminated bridge to the other side of Zadar’s harbour and its many hotels.

 

I walked through one of the gates into the old city and was overwhelmed by street sellers, entertainers, musicians and a swathe of tourists walking in all directions. I walked along the main path, taking it all in and was finally lured to a wonderful smelling pizza restaurant. I ordered a slice and a beer and sat at a table near another guy who was by himself, watching the football. The game was Croatia vs Switzerland; the inaugural game for the Croats’ new stadium in Split. “You like the Croatian national team?” he asked me, in perfect English. “Yes,” I replied. “They play really attractive football.” “We are losing 4-0 to the f*@%ing Swiss!” he said. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but luckily he started chuckling so I followed his lead. We toasted to the next time these teams would meet and he (Ivan) started to tell me what I should make sure I see, while in Dalmatia. I love such meetings. Once the pizza, beer and conversation had dried up, I walked down the old streets of Zadar, back to the harbour side, and made my way back to my hostel. I hit my bed and was immediately overrun by a powerful wave of sleep.

At 9am my alarm shook me, and, with Ivan’s advice, I was heading back to the bus station within an hour, with a plan to visit Sveti Filip i Jakov. A tiny town on the coast, some 30km South east of Zadar, Sv. Filip i Jakov is known for a busy harbour in summer, beautiful surroundings, a religious festival in August & very little else. Time to check it out and get some photos, I decided.

Once inside the bus station, I found a wide selection of bakeries from which to choose my breakfast. After negotiating my way to a cheese and spinach filled croissant, I meandered around to the ticket office with my camera and my money and quickly and easily purchased a ticket to Sveti Filip i Jakov for 9 kunas – about £1.15 or 6 Złoty. Excellent. I went to the appropriate bay and found a modern, attractive, air conditioned bus waiting. “Sveti Filip i Jakov?” I said to the bus driver, in my best questioning tone. “Yes, yeeeees,” the driver replied. “Can you tell me when we are there?” I asked further. “Yes, yeeeeees,” he replied again. Evidently, he had very little idea of what I was talking about.

As those that know me well will be aware, I am a great advocate of the train as the best way to travel to take in the scenery of a place. But the Dalmatian coast is a place where the roads are so well knitted in to the coastline that you invariably have a deep blue ocean on one side, dotted with beaches, coves, harbours, fishing villages and islands; while on the other side there is a combination of towns, cities, mountains, lakes, and more. It’s really a wonderful way to travel there and the standards and kitting out of the coaches really makes it as comfortable as a coach trip is ever going to be (thank god for the air con!). The moment you leave Zadar and get on the southern road to Split, you begin to see the islands for which Dalmatia is famed and the magnificent coastline. Every kilometre or so, you will find a family or couple, parked up in their cars at some space in the trees, taking a dip in the deep blue, fishing, perhaps sunbathing, or some combination of the above. It’s really very appealing to simply stop and join the party. But continue down the coast I did, gawping at the views from the window. ‘Sveti Filip I Jakov’, said one of the signs, as we sped past. Shit. I had missed my stop.

 

Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long for the next one. About another 7 km down the coast road the bus lurched at a roundabout and began a slow descent along a shady, tree-lined, quite steep lane. At the side of the road, leather-skinned flat owners sat in garden chairs with handwritten cardboard signs, detailing their spare rooms and how many Euros they wanted for them. After a few moments, we had arrived at the bus station of Beograd Na Moru. Time for me to get off. The first thing I saw, after leaving the tiny, island-like bus station was a man with an ox-pulled plough, made of straw. No, really.

 

DSC_0014From here though, it wasn’t far across the road and over a small wall to find the breathtakingly blue sea. I walked down to the water’s edge and marvelled at the azure water gently lapping at the rocks and – even at 9:45am – the hustle and bustle of small boat traffic, gathering for island tours, fishing trips and, in one case, even a submarine voyage. This idyllic view is one that you can easily get used to in Dalmatia, as I would come to learn, but by no means should it ever get boring.

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Realising that it was mid-morning, and I’d yet to imbibe any caffeine whatsoever, I decided to rectify the situation and took a seat at a harbourside cafe bar. A waiter quickly attended to me and brought me a strong cappucino and a long glass of iced water to follow and I just sat back and people watched for a while, soaking up my first real sunshine in 11 months.

Once suitably caffeinated, I paid my bill and decided to have a walk through the old town of Beograd, away from the harbour. What I found were lots of irregularly shaped houses, awkwardly, but beautifully packed in together, with ornate flower gardens, wrought iron balconies and aromatic wafts of coffee, bread, cakes and other foods, almost visibly drawing you in, like the vapours in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. As I approached the small, old church in the heart of the town, I came upon a beautiful square, furnished with someone’s unattended bicycle, which was to be one of my favourite scenes of the whole adventure.

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After wandering around, I realised that time was getting on and that I still had to get back to Sv Filip i Jakov and then to Zadar for its fabled sunset. So back to the bus station it was. A bus was handily ready and waiting to take me back up the coast road, so I paid my money, boarded and we set off. Within 10 minutes, I was dropped at the sign on the main road for my target village. I descended from the bus, and it sped off, throwing up a great cloud of dust. As it cleared, I looked around. Where on Earth WAS this village?! I walked up to the crossroads and took a punt that it might be down the hill, towards the sea. Fortunately, I was right.

Here was an even steeper slope, under a denser canopy of trees. As the miniscule turn off to the village had threatened, it was a seemingly very small place and eerily quiet. At least it was, until I got to the water’s edge. There, as far as I could see to the left and the right were scores of cafe bars, restaurants and rows of beach side camping plots, with young people, families and couples, all mingling in the glorious morning sun, overlooking the Sea of Dalmatia. I had a really good feeling about exploring this place, but decided that I could really not do anything until I’d had some lunch. I found a grill in a plush spot and pitched up at a table. The waiter addressed me in Croat, then German, then Polish (which I responded to with little skill) and finally in English. I asked what he recommended for a hungry carnivore who has just arrived in Croatia. He had no doubt, it was time for my first Cevapi.

One thing I had managed to take in about Croatia, was just how much of the folklore was focussed on their successful spurning of any attempts by the Turks to invade during the early expansion of the Ottoman Empire. So, imagine my surprise when the Cevapi turned up and was, quite clearly, a reworked kofte. Regardless, it was delicious, freshly grilled, accompanied by fresh balloon bread and a variety of delicious salads and olives. You can find more information about this highly recommended meal here.

After eating, I decided to explore a bit. Once again, the main sights of note were the wonderful sea and a small old town, in which I found a beautiful, humble church. Here are a few images of the place.

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Finally, as the afternoon wore on, I decided I ought to head back to Zadar and find a spot for this sunset. For the next day I’d be on my way down to Sibenik and a quite different backdrop for adventures.