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Exploring Wales

Exploring Wales

Wales is a country full of  physical beauty with serene mountain ranges, lush valleys and ragged coastline mixing with old-fashioned market towns and ancient castles.  Wales isn’t as internationally renowned as the rest of the UK, and as such has retained much of its diversity, not bowing to tourism like areas of Ireland and Scotland – so you’ll find there are plenty of fascinating places to visit – many of which still speak the native Welsh language and range from the beautiful to the quaint.

If you’re crossing the border from England into Wales, the differences in appearance and culture are immediately clear. Wales shares similarities with the other Celtic lands such as Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall in the south of England. The landscape is rocky and mountainous, predominantly green with a largely rural population and a culture rooted in folklore and legend. Though the most obvious difference between the two countries is the Welsh language, and you’ll note as you drive through the terrain, Welsh village names and bilingual signposts marking your route. Don’t fear though as everyone in Wales speaks English. 

There are a wealth of places to visit in Wales, from prehistoric sites and crumbling castles to wild landscapes and rocky but beautiful coastline. The cities throughout the country are vibrant and offer lots to the traveller. The capital Cardiff is of course a good place to start with its impressive architecture and buzzing nightlife, but the university town of Aberystwth can be beautiful too – tucked away on Cardigan Bay, it’s home to a mix of cultures – with cheap bars and restaurants mingling with a traditional pier, and quaint backstreets lined with boutiques and cafes as well as pastel coloured Georgian houses and the castle which dates back to the 1200′s.  If you feel like getting into Wales’ renowned countryside then head to Snowdonia – home to beautiful green hills and the highest mountain in Wales – Mount Snowdon. You can climb the mountain by taking one of 6 dedicated pathways that range from the easier Llanberis path to the Watkin Path which takes around 6 hours to complete.

It’s not all about seeing and doing though, instead you may find that interactions with the Welsh people will remain in your memory the longest – whether just sitting in a cafe listening to the ancient British language being spoken all around you or standing amongst a throng of people in a pub – screaming at the Rugby.

A weekend in Dubrovnik

A weekend in Dubrovnik

The calm blue waters of the Adriatic sea leading upwards through beautiful white sands, baroque architecture sliding down emerald hills and marble streets that fade into the brick of the old city wall, set the pace for what is one of the world’s most beautiful intact walled cities. You’ll find it the south of Croatia and once there – you will find a beautiful historic city in perfect condition – in thanks to the resort being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What’s more – the weather in Dubrovnik is perfect for an early spring break and thanks to the Mediterranean climate – you can safely visit for most of the year.

The pedestrian only old city is of course the highlight with its Baroque churches and eye-candy red roof houses. It’s a pleasure to just walk around here, spotting nice cafe’s and centuries-worth of fascinating architecture such as the fascinating Gothic Sponza Palace, the Bell Tower and the historic pharmacy, which is actually one of Europe’s oldest, and it dates back to 1317 and is still in use to this day. Trace Dubrovnik’s, and indeed Croatia’s history in the museums and then head to the harbour for a Mediterranean lunch and watch the world go by at a decelerated pace – for the Mediterranean atmosphere in Dubrovnik is chilled to say the least.

If you feel like taking to the beach while you’re in Dubrovnik then you’re in luck as it’s home to several beautiful beaches including Lapad Beach, which is a  sandy beach area on the Lapad Peninsula, just a short way from the old town, Banje Beach, which is a pebble beach with a great central location.  There are two part to this beach: one with an entrance fee, and a public part – take the paid option for something a little quieter.  Finally you can also take a ferry to Lokrum Island,  it takes just 10 minutes by boat – but be careful as the last ferry is at 8pm during summer. There are a number of charter agencies too – so if you feel like sailing the coastline in a yacht – head to the harbour!
If you intend to drive into the city from the airport with your car hire, then take advantage of the wheels and head into the Croatian countryside that surrounds Dubrovnik – a drive over the coastline is sure to unravel some fascinating treasures, lost beaches and intriguing villages.

King’s Day in Amsterdam

King’s Day in Amsterdam

This year mark’s the first King’s day (Koningsdag) in the Netherlands’ – now taking the place of what was the annual Queen’s day, which, celebrated since 1885 on the 31st of August and later on the 30th April to coincide with the appropriate monarch’s birthday, is a nationwide celebration of the King’s or Queen’s birthday. This year the celebrations will be held on Saturday the 26th of April and will see the people of Amsterdam head to the streets, the canals, the parks and everywhere in-between to help Amsterdam become a giant party of colour, alcohol and flamboyance.

There’s an awful lot that happens during King’s day – not just merriment, there’s also a free market or vrijmarkt, which give everyone the opportunity to head to the streets of the city to sell their wares – expect second hand goods and homemade foods to take centre stage. The celebrations that last the entire night are of course the main event – with all night club nights, gigs and street celebrations. Perhaps the best place to head is to one of Amsterdam’s canals where you’ll find literally thousands of brightly decorated boats all packed into the narrow waters with streams of revellers dancing and drinking in celebration. Even the bridges are packed out on King’s Day – head to one to watch the boats slowly bustle by and join in the fun.

One thing you’ll notice when you’re there is the vast armies of orange-wearing people. Orange is of course the national colour and Amsterdammers don’t mind donning it when the occasion presents itself. You’ll find plenty of markets in the city selling costumes and orange Amsterdam t-shirts – in particular around Waterlooplein and Vondelpark,  just incase you find your wardrobe is bereft of the right colours. If you want to experience one of the huge concerts in the city then head to Museumplein or Rembrandtplein, though if you want something a little more chilled out, then head to the urban oasis of Vondelpark or to one of the (few) open museums which often put on special events.

King’s day isn’t limited to Amsterdam of course – just head to any of Holland’s city such as Rotterdam or Utrecht  and you are sure to find a party as well as lots and lots of orange.

SONGKRAN: New Year in Thailand

SONGKRAN: New Year in Thailand

There are a lot of things that Thailand just gets very very such as the paradise beaches found at places like Koh Kood, Phuket and Krabi or the wonderful views afforded over the jungle in Chiang Mai and the delicious foods that set your taste buds alight. But where Thailand truly excels is in it’s new year celebrations – Songkran this year starts on the 13th of April so there’s still time to book tickets!

The festival turns the streets of Thailand into a water-based battleground for what is easily the worlds largest water fight. You will be soaking wet as families perform drive by soakings from their cars, you’ll get buckets of water over your head as you head onto the street and feel the colds explosion of water-bombs on your back as you try to escape, but the best way to enjoy it is grab a water gun and join in. Thailand’s new year festivities are enjoyed anywhere from 2 days to up to a week – so check the dates of celebrations around the country – we suggest heading to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand which has some of the best celebrations in the country.

The ancient traditions associated with Songkran are of still observed too such as when the younger Thais pour scented water over the hands of their elders in a ceremony known as rod nam dum hua – in a bid to gain their blessings. Another part of the celebrations is to release birds and fish from captivity and one of the best places to see this is by heading to Phra Pradaeng in Phuket where the winner of the Miss Songkran beauty contest is given the responsibility of letting the first of the fish go free. However, celebrations happen all over the country – from Khao San Road and Banglamphu (which generally has a nice mix of performances to enjoy) in Bangkok to the islands of Koh Chang and Koh Phangan.

However we think that the best place to join in the revelry is in Chiang Mai, where in addition to the pandemonium of the water fights that are generally centred around the moats of the city, you’ll have a chance to be witness to the enthralling Songkran procession of Buddha images and floats that pass through the town as well as celebrations around all the city’s temples that include offerings of food. But for those that just want to get to the fun, or ‘sanook’, you’ll find literally thousands of people ready for the fight!

A Weekend in Istanbul

A Weekend in Istanbul

The capital of Turkey, Istanbul is the urban home to a maze of palaces and bazaars, perfect to lose yourself in amongst intoxicating scents and mesmerising sights. The Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques in the city provide a striking backdrop to escapes in the city, a city where romance is heightened as the sun sets behind the Blue Mosque, casting shimmers of light over the sea.  These days though, a wealth of trendy bars, clubs and restaurants have sprung up around the city – making Istanbul the ultimate destination city for throngs of travellers – both young and old.

There’s a lot to see in Istanbul,  but if you’re heading to Istanbul for a weekend then make sure that you see the Sultanahmet old city district – which is home to the Blue Mosque, the Tokapi palace and the former Greek Orthodox basilica Hagia Sophia, to name but a few. Another must see here is the underground Basilica Cistern – one of the cities most romantic attractions. This sixth century construction once brought water to Istanbul from Thrace in the Balkans but is now an enchanting underground maze of Byzantine intrigue. The soft notes of classical music that plays inside compliments the beautiful interior excellently, itself made up of some 336 columns and plinths scavenged from ruined buildings from eras past. Look out for the two columns that are supported by Medusa heads (relics from the Roman Empire) – one upside down and the other on its side, and the ghost-like fish that have found their home in the water lining the cistern.

Nightlife in Istanbul is on the rise – and it’s one of the most eclectic parts of city life – you can catch a live band at the notorious Babylon or the student favourite Araf, which has it’s own resident Gypsy band, or dine and dance in the ultra-chic Ulus 29, but if you just want a good place to dance into the early hours – then head to the Indigo club, which generally has an impressive roster of guest DJ’s. An ideal way to spend an evening in Istanbul is to take a trip through time, on an evening cruise on the Bosphorous – travelling past the Old City and to the new – you’ll pass under vast lit bridges and see castles, palaces and the opulence of the beautiful Ottoman villas that jewel the coasts of the two continents.

Istanbul is quickly gaining in popularity – many new bars, clubs and hotels are springing up around the city and it’s quickly becoming a firm favourite with travellers the world over – but it still retains the charm and grandeur that first made it appealing – 2014 is a perfect time to head to Istanbul to see the transition in action.

The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

The Boat Race between Oxford University Boat Club and Cambridge University Boat Club is a much loved annual event that takes place on the River Thames at the beginning of April. First launched in 1829, the race now attracts thousands of visitors who all hunt for great spots to watch along the River Thames and its bridges.

Whether you’re just visiting England or you’re a resident – you really should make it your mission to catch at least one of these exhilarating events This year, the race falls on Sunday April the 6th and  the four and a quarter mile course that runs from Putney to Mortlake is littered with great places to watch from. Just a little down river from Putney bridge, you’ll find spectators in droves hoping to catch the two teams as they warm up – and ultimately begin the race, while The Dove Pub or the Old Ship pub are nice places to head for both views of the race and for a nice light refreshment. Elsewhere in Bishop’s Park there will be a ‘Boat Race in the Park’ event with screens showing the race, beer tents, food and live music or you could simply head to the banks of the (usually very crowded) Thames with friends and a bottle or two of wine and find a spot of your own.

It doesn’t matter if you have no particular allegiance to either team – as this is a social event as much as anything, though if you’re wondering who to shout for, then consider the facts: Oxford have won 77 races to Cambridge’s 81 – so perhaps the underdogs Oxford would appreciate the moral support.

 

Food and Wine Festivals

Food and Wine Festivals

Food and Wine festivals are great opportunities for foodies and wine lovers to experience a thrilling international gathering, all set on experiencing the finest fare and most colourful of personalities from the world of food and wine. The world is full of them – though England is a great place to explore with festivals like the Artisan Cheese Fair in Melton Mowbray, The London Coffee Festival and Eat Cambridge food festival right in the heart of historic Cambridge.

In history, these festivals were to celebrate the best picking of the season and in some cases to give thanks to Gods for high yields. But now, they are for the adventurous food and wine lovers, seeking out the finest local and international delicacies. Of course the kinds of foods you’ll be sampling depends heavily on where exactly you go – think traditional for Europe and a little more obscure in countries like America and in the smaller regions of England, so think carefully as the experiences on offer range from the glorious and famous, like San Francisco’s cavernous Street Food Festival, all the way to the more specialist like the Bugfest in North Carolina and the Garlic Festival on the Isle of Wight.

The festivals are all year round – though your best bets come in autumn and springtime – the latter especially as the weather is perfect for wandering through stalls sampling the assorted delicacies on offer. You’ll find stalls full of cheeses – hard and soft, goats and cow, wines from the cellars of the best and the biggest to the most obscure Vineyards from England, France, California and beyond, and meats that are aged to perfection.

If you’re in the UK are just visiting, we suggest taking a peak at these in 2014: The London Coffee Festival in April – where coffee addicts the world over gather at Brick Lane’s Old Truman Brewery to sample the very best of artisan blends and learn how to make their own perfect coffee’s at home; British Asparagus Festival in Vale of Evesham (Worcestershire) which as well as having plenty of fresh produce, also hosts several events such as the The Great Asparagus Run – where entrants run…with asparagus; and last but in no way least – the English Wine Week which lasts two weeks from the end of May to the beginning of June and is a vast celebration of English wine which takes place all over the south of England with  plenty of wine tastings and Vineyards to explore.

Explore Sicily This Summer

Explore Sicily This Summer

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, known for its exquisite cuisine, sleepy Italian charm and beautiful wildlife, and with more and more direct air routes to the main cities now operating from the UK, travelling to Sicily is easy. Sicily is home to a plethora of beautiful cities, many featuring Baroque architecture freely flirting with Greek and Roman influences and all worth exploring. The cities of Siracusa, Catania and Ragusa are all within close proximity to each other and you’ll find that navigating the rest of the island is a breeze.

Sicily’s capital is Palermo and is usually the first port of call for many visitors. The architecture here is a little dishevelled in places, not too dissimilar to Venice in the old city (without the canals), and the streets are often full of locals and somewhat chaotic with mopeds speeding down quaint cobbled back alleys. There are plenty of markets in the city where you can get a taste of authentic Sicilian life and grab a bite to eat – remember Sicilian food is considered to be some of the tastiest in the world and the markets are a great place to try it. While you’re in Palermo we suggest a visit to the Norman monastery of Monreale that can be easily reached as it’s on the outskirts of the town. If you enjoy exploring the historical side of the island then head to the ancient city of Akragas and visit the oldest remaining temple in Sicily: Temple of Concordia Agrigento. The temple was built by the greeks somewhere around 440BC and is considered to be one of the finest examples of ancient Greek architecture in the world. Next you could visit the ancient Siracusa city which was founded in 734 BC by the Greeks and is a hotbed of amphitheatres and impressive architecture. If you don’t have much time there – visit the ruins of the Temple of Athena, and Ortigia – the historical centre of the city.

Sicily is home to some 620 miles of coastline or 931 miles if you include the smaller islands around the mainland, though the Aeolian islands are the place to go if you feel like heading to the beach. This volcanic archipelago is a picturesque haven of rugged coastline, thermal resorts and water sports – a perfect place to unwind after you’re done exploring the cities. Back on the mainland – a visit to Etna, located on the east coast of Sicily is a must. Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe and a visit to the volcano will open up exquisite view out across the entirety of the Eastern part of the island. After that you can explore the enchanting landscapes that are to be found all over the island – charming in their simplicity yet beautiful and wild.

Sicily is a must visit for 2014 – you’ll find no shortage of attractions: with the rustic charm of the countryside and the ancient cultures clashing in the major cities taking the centre stage. The climate is fantastic, with year round sun while in Spring time it is as if the entire island is in full bloom, and the food? The food is simply divine – dominated by seafood and Arab influences and perfectly complimented by the local wines.

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