Tag Archives: city trips

A weekend in Kiev

15 Oct

Over the weekend I was visited my 33rd European country – Ukraine. It seems that there are always political news stories about Ukraine and I confess that I don’t read enough to know 100% what all the implications are.

A few people gave me raised eyebrows when I mentioned where I was spending the weekend but that didn’t stop me from having a great weekend in Kiev.

Kiev city

Kiev is a very smart modern city. I loved the old style buildings from the Soviet era mixed in with the new. The city was vibrant and full of life. All of the churches we saw were incredibly stunning. We didn’t realise that it was the start of a long public holiday when we arrived and on Saturday the Main street was closed to traffic. Being able to stroll down the street of a European capitol city and enjoy music and fire-eaters is something special.

Monuments

I love that many Eastern European countries have lots of monuments and memorials to people and battles that we’re not so aware of in Western Europe. I think one of my favourite monuments was in Kiev. It was called the People’s Friendship Arch. It’s beautifully made and commemorates the 1’500th year since the city of Kiev was established.

Chernobyl

The highlight of the trip was a full day tour of Chernobyl. I haven’t seen the HBO series and before going I didn’t know a great deal about the disaster and what actually happened. The tragedy happened during my lifetime but I was only 4 so I don’t remember news reports at the time.

You can only visit Chernobyl if you have a guide because specific areas are still dangerous and there are no road signs so I can imagine it would be easy to get lost if you don’t know where you are going.

We joined a group tour and our tour guide was fantastic. She could answer all the questions we put to her and had a great sense of humour which, in a case like this, must help to keep you sane.

The videos and photos that you have seen of creepy dolls, abandoned school buildings and former inhabited places overgrown by weeds and vegetation are true. I think my overwhelming feeling was of sadness. Not only did people leave a thriving new city which had the very first supermarket in the whole of the Ukraine but they thought that they would be coming back to their homes in a few days. The land we visited will never be inhabited again because, on a long-term basis, it’s not safe for human habitation.

We were regularly checked for radiation poisoning but I felt this was more a bit of entertainment than anything else. We had a dosimeter with us the whole time that told us how much radiation we had been exposed to. For the whole day we had been exposed to the same amount of radiation as you would be exposed to on a one hour flight. Also if you were contaminated, what could you do? You can’t take a pill to change it. What’s done is done.

 

 

Food and drink

No trip away is complete without sampling the local food and drink. We stumbled upon a local microbrewery and decided to have a beer tasting which included 6 beers.

We also tried borsch – a traditional beetroot soup, khachapuri – originally a Georgian dish and delicious dumplings! Now I’m back home it’s definitely time for a few salads to compensate for how much I ate.

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Passport Stamps

Of course, one of the most exciting things about visiting a country that isn’t in the EU is that I got another two stamps in my passport.

In November I will be heading to Tenerife for some winter sun and then to Nice and Monaco, which will become the 34th country I have visited in Europe.

A long weekend in Belgrade

26 Sep

Last weekend I was experiencing the delights of Belgrade in Serbia with a group of friends. Serbia is the 32nd country that I have visited in Europe, which means that I am slowly inching towards my goal of visiting 40 countries in Europe before I turn 40.

I was expecting Belgrade to be similar to Bucharest, where we visited in February this year but I was pleasantly surprised. The city is very modern and clean. I would even argue that it is nicer than many cities in the UK. I was glad that we had a Serbian native in the group; it meant that it was easier to communicate (though I am sure it would be ok to visit even if you didn’t know any Serbian) and we went to some cool places that weren’t crowded with tourists.

Here are some of the highlights from our trip:

Food

I felt like all we did was eat. Serbian cuisine is very hearty, full of meat, potatoes and general deliciousness. I was surprised that it was allowed to smoke in the restaurant that we ate in on the Friday night. It has been so long since I have eaten indoors at a place where smoking is allowed. The atmosphere was great, especially as there were musicians going from table to table throughout the evening. Luckily, they didn’t come and seranade our table! In Serbia there is a type of salad that is basically just cheese. So I am now a reformed salad dodger.

On Saturday morning we had a traditional Serbian breakfast which is savory pastries with spinach, cheese and meat, as well as a yoghurt drink. Somehow the breakfast didn’t fill us up and we decided to have a unlimited mezze-style lunch. The idea was that they bring you small plates of food until you tell them to stop. We managed to eat everything from the list and then ask them for more. It’s important to get your money’s worth on holiday.

We had an impressive all you can eat brunch on Sunday which left us completely stuffed and was, compared with Swiss standards, incredibly cheap. We definitely didn’t go hungry.

Drink

Serbian beer is very tasty and I was happy to try several different brands. We also managed to find a Serbian cider which was a bit too sweet for me. It reminded me of Kopparberg.

Schnapps are also popular but I’m not a fan of drinking schnapps in general so I avoided partaking whenever possible. We also did some late-night drinking in a couple of trendy places.

Churches and architecture

Churches seem to be everywhere in Belgrade. I love looking around churches and those that we saw at the weekend were some of the most ornately deocrated buildings that I have ever seen. One small chapel in the Belgrade fortress also sold bottled holy water, famed for its healing properties but I decided not to purchase one.

There are some incredible-looking administrative buildings in the capital and they are all lit up at night which I think makes them look even more stunning.

Markets

We visited a market, which was a fresh produce market but also incorporates a flea market. Thankfully, we had already eaten by the time we walked around the market so we weren’t tempted into buying anything. I found it interesting that there were meat stalls or butchers where you can order your meat and they will prepare it and cook it for you so it can be picked up later in the day. It seems like a really good idea.

Escape rooms

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you might have noticed that I love an escape room. We managed to do two while we were in Belgrade. We finished the first one so quickly that we had time to do a second one. The employee was very impressed that we managed to solve both of the rooms so quickly. We almost beat the record for both of the rooms. She even suggested that we enter the Escape Room World Championships which I am sure would be great fun and would possibly be the only way I will be able to claim that I have competed in a World Championship! We’ll have to see if anything comes of that in the future.

The Beach

I was shocked that there was a beach in Belgrade but there is. Of course, the beach isn’t on the coastline to the sea because Serbia is a land-locked country. The beach is a man-made beach on a lake. The weather was beautiful and I would have definitely gone for a swim if time had allowed. It was just nice to relax in the sun with a cold drink.

Thanks to Stefan (translator and organiser extraordinaire), Mark, Araz and Markus for being great travel companions on this great weekend.

I will soon be visiting my 33rd country in Europe in two weeks when I go to Kiev for a long weekend.

A weekend in Bucharest

11 Feb

I know that it seems as if I am constantly on holiday (and most people who know me tell me this on a regular basis) but this is all in aid of Challenge 2 on my 40 Before 40 – visit 40 countries in Europe. My trip to Romania means that I have now visited 28 countries in Europe.

Here are some of the things that we got up to on our long weekend in Romania.

First Impressions

Arriving when it is starting to get dark and trying to navigate yourself around an unfamiliar city is not one of my favourite activities. Large cities always look unwelcoming, dangerous and dirty at night. But it was clear that the Old Town was liveliest place to be in the evening, even if there were enough massage parlours to make you think that you might have ended up in Amsterdam by mistake.

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But during the day, the place was transformed with blue skies and busy streets. Some of the buildings are quite run down but the city has a certain charm to it and it is cleaner than a lot of Western European cities that I have visited. The influences of Communism can still be seen in the architecture and other parts of life.

Food and drink

If you are vegetarian or vegan, you might have trouble finding dishes to eat in Romania. The main ingredient in almost every dish seems to be meat, meat and meat. You can by huge mixed grill platters, slow-cooked pork knuckle and different sausages and stews. We were keen to try the local food and beer and even tried the local shots called palinca, which definitely warmed us up on a cold February morning.

We also tried mici, which are small sausages, as well as a cold meat platter which was excellent. There were quite a few dishes that I didn’t get to try because all of the food was so filling.

Free Walking Tour

It is second nature for us to find a free walking tour as soon as we arrive in a city that we were visiting. More than 75 people turned up for the tour and we were split into two groups. The guide that we had was one of the most entertaining guides I have ever had and the 2.5 hours we spent standing with the cold wind on our faces in various parts of the city flew by with his interesting spin on things. We learnt a lot of surprising things about the city, the history and what life was like under Communist rule. I still find it mind-blowing that people living not so far away from us were being suppressed by dictators during our lifetime. It doesn’t really seem possible.

Thermal spa

A friend recommended a thermal spa to us, as he had discovered it on his trip to Bucharest a few years previously. There were an awful lot of people there but it was a great experience. There was an indoor pool, where you can enjoy a cocktail or beer in the pool, an outdoor pool with jacuzzis, aromatherapy pools, massage beds and saunas. The disadvantage of so many people being there was that people were queuing for the saunas, so we didn’t wait for them. It was great fun but not really the type of spa that I had expected – people drinking, smoking (outside) etc.

The Romania Parliament Building

The Parliament in Romania is the second largest administration building in the world, after the Pentagon. We had heard that visitors are able to take tours inside on production of a passport or ID. When we arrived a security guard stopped us at the gate and said that the tours had been fully booked out. The tours are less frequent from now until June 2019 because Romania currently holds the presidency of the EU and the building is being used more frequently for meetings for EU specific topics. It was disappointing as there are not many parliament buildings that are open for the public to view but if I ever go back to Bucharest that will be the first thing on my list to do.

Overall, I really enjoyed the trip. It was relaxing, with plenty of walking and fresh air and some nice food and drink.

I have already planned my next trip to another European country – Poland in May. It seems like a long way off but it will give me some time to do some research so that we can maximise our time there.

New Year in Belgium

6 Jan

We rang in the New Year in Brussels. Belgium is one of the European countries that I needed to visit as part of my #40Before40 challenge, and as we would normally be sat at home waiting for the New Year to arrive, it seemed like a good excuse to visit.

We had a total of three full days there, so we had plenty of time to see the sights and enjoy our time there. Overall, I thought Brussels itself was unimpressive and dirty. Admittedly, when you live in Switzerland, everywhere isn’t quite so nice in comparison. But we did get time to visit Bruges which is a beautiful city that we both enjoyed.

Here is what we got up to on our long weekend away.

Brussels

We (somehow) found ourselves in the Brussels Beer Museum at 10am sampling some of the local ales on the first day. There wasn’t a lot to see in the actual museum and I think the main attraction of the museum is the free beer that you can have after the tour. I certainly wasn’t complaining. And the surroundings were pretty cute as well.

After having a beer so early in the day, we also treated ourselves to one of Belgian’s most famous exports… no, it’s not sprouts! We went to one of the many fries restaurants in the city. I was expecting thin chips but the ones that we were served were more like chip shop chips from back home. I was impressed. It turned out that this “snack” was a staple for most of the trip and we are now certified Belgian chip experts.

We also went on a free walking tour, which are always worth the two and a half hours. We learnt a lot about the city, the history, the best places to eat waffles and the best place to drink beer. We also saw the Mannekin Pis, the small statue of the boy peeing and discovered that there are two other statues (minus the historical significance) in the city – a peeing girl and a peeing dog. Naturally we hunted down both of them to collect the set.

We sampled a lot of other beers in the local brassieres and bars, ate waffles, had some amazing moules et frites for our New Year’s Eve dinner and walked around the Christmas markets which were available until 6th January. We also went for a tour of the European parliament, which I found interesting considering events which may or may not be happening at the end of March, as well as a visit to a comic museum, which I thought was overpriced.

We did go in search of fireworks. We were told that there was a big firework display put on by the local government which was free to enter. The display was accompanied by music, DJs, food etc. The venue wasn’t in the city but a bit outside. After two police search we were inside and so were a lot of other people. The problem was that there were only two chip stands, one bar, one churros stand and a waffle van. The queue for the bar was about 200 meters long (no joke) and after a while we decided that it might be better for us to go back into town and find a bar to welcome in the New Year without fireworks because at least then we would be able to get something to drink and eat. So, that is just what we did.

Bruges

Bruges is less than one hour from Brussels if you take the direct train and I was so glad that we did because it is such a charming city. Its atmosphere is completely different to Brussel. It is noticeably cleaner and has lovely little canals and small streets and bridges to get lost in. It is also noticeably colder because it is near the coast.

Here we also took a free walking tour. I personally think the guide was the best guide that I’ve ever had on one of these tours. She was so passionate about the city, knowledgeable about the city and history and had a great sense of humour. She gave us some good hints about where to go and what to do and I was disappointed that we were only staying there for a day. I could have easily wasted hours sat in coffee shops, watching the world go by and eating fistfuls of chocolate.

img_3398We visited the Brugse Zot brewery and ate a very hearty lunch there before visiting the city hall, a beer museum and another brewery, where we tasted six of the beers on tap. After that we just had to try the chips to see if they were as good as the ones in Brussels and a waffle for dessert before heading back to Brussels and later heading home.

I’m glad we spent some time away for New Year. I would recommend it to help you ease back into the next year after an over indulgent Christmas.

It was doubly pleasing for me because now I have visited 27 countries in Europe! I now only need to visit another 13 countries to complete my challenge. With trips to Romania, Poland and Luxembourg planned for later this year (plus a few others), I should be able to complete this challenge soon.

 

Tour de France

21 Oct

I’ve just got back from a week’s holiday in France. I don’t think I have ever been on holiday to another country by car so this was a bit different because we drove 1’000 kilometers to Bordeaux. The main reason was because we wanted to bring back some wine and that isn’t possible when you fly. It also gave us the opportunity to stop off in a few places on the way back.

Here is a bit of what we did while we were away:

Bordeaux

I went to Bordeaux last year and one of the conditions of going back there was that I could go back to eat crab at Le Crab Marteau. Dinner is basically a huge crab served with potatoes and sauces. Delicious! The couple on the table next to us were also British but she obviously hadn’t come face-to-face with a crab before eating it and actually hid the crab under a napkin so that she didn’t have to look at it!

We went to the Dune du Pilat, the biggest sand dunes in Europe. This was an incredible place to go to. The sand dunes are huge and great fun to climb up. It did start to rain a bit while we were up at the top and I can imagine getting caught up there in the rain wouldn’t be a great idea.

We visited Le Cité du Vin which I hadn’t been to before. It’s a museum about the history of wine and has lots of interactive exhibits and information about the importance of wine in French culture. A free wine tasting was also included in the price.

We also visited Musée du Vin which had exhibits about the history of wine in Bordeaux and information about how bottles are corked and how wine barrels are made. There was also a tasting at the end and we were able to learn more about how the wines in the Bordeaux area differ in taste.

St Emillion

We stopped at this small village for a day. I found the whole place fascinating. We took a tour of the underground church and learn so much about the origin of the place and who Saint Emillion was. Of course, the village only really exists today because of the wine industry and it isn’t uncommon to see buses full of tourists arriving each hour before rushing onto the next place. I might write another blog about St Emillion in the near future because I enjoyed it so much.

Lyon

We only had a bit of time in Lyon. It was a shame because there are lots of things to see here. Our time in Lyon was mainly to break up the journey on the way back. However, we did get to see the Roman ruins and to the Basilica at Fourviére which is spectacular. You never need to worry about going hungry in Lyon as there are restaurants on literally every corner. Once again the weather was kind to us and we could enjoy a long walk along the side of the river.

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Burgundy

We spent two nights staying at a chateaux in Burgundy. It was a great location to be based to visit some other towns. The village of Beaune was only a 20 minute drive and we visited Hotel-Dieu, a Medieval hosptial that was sent up help the sick and dying by a wealthy couple and was in use until the 1980s to look after the elderly. The ticket for this museum was also valid for entry into the Musée du Vin, which was another museum about wine.

We also had some time to visit a mustard factory. The Edmund Fallot museum still uses traditional methods to make their mustard and the tour was interesting. We could also taste some of the various mustards (curry mustard anyone?) that they produce and we got a few free samples to take home with us.

Staying with the mustard theme, we drove the next day to Dijon. By this time, we had seen enough wine degustations and mustard shops! They have a owl trail that you can follow around the city and see the main sights. So, we did that before heading to a wine expo that we had been invited to by the owner of the chateaux that we had been staying. All of the sellers at the wine fair were small, independent people and it was interesting to see how many different wines were produced in the region that we had been staying in.

All in all, a very successful trip. I personally learnt a lot about wine and mustard. It was nice to have a small break from reality and to be able to try some new wines and foods along the way.

Swiss Trips

30 Sep

The last week has been packed with even more trips around Switzerland. Here is what we got up to:

Regensberg 

We went to visit the Tower at Regensberg, a little village that isn’t that far away from where we live. The views at the top of the tower were spectacular and we were lucky that the weather was nice and dry. I didn’t get too close to the edge of the tower because it was blowing a gale up there. After collecting some conkers from a nearby tree, we had a look around the village and had a drink at a local cafe sat outside in the sunshine.

We then went to Runway 34, which is an airplane-themed restaurant near Zurich airport. There is an old Russian plane inside (which doubles as a cigar-smoking lounge) and most of the seat are old airplane seat. I was really impressed by the food but it was more expensive than I thought it would be – certainly more expensive than what you would pay for something similar in the city. I felt a bit sorry for the waiting staff because their uniforms were what you might expect a cabin crew member to wear but, of course, they never go to fly anywhere. That would be my idea of a nightmare!

Thun and Bern

I have only been to Thun once before and that was about two years ago, so it was nice to show my mum around and explore a few more places. The town itself is a lot bigger than I remember it being. But it still retains a certain charm about it. The place was packed because it was the day of a local festival. I looked it up online and I still can’t work out what it was that they were meant to be celebrating. This meant that the streets were full of people with instruments and people dressed in traditional costume. It was a nice atmosphere and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

We stopped off at an Irish pub and had a drink and some chips. I have to say that they were the best chips that I have ever eaten while I have been living in Switzerland. They weren’t the thin types of chips that are normally served here and they had sprinklings of rosemary on them which made them extra special.

As we had to come back through Bern to get back to Zurich, we decided to stop off there for a few hours. We had hoped to go inside the parliament building but as Parliament was in session it wasn’t possible. We still enjoyed a walk round a large market and a hot chocolate in a great cafe that we went time last time we were there.

Jucker Farm

It is now pumpkin season and I have been meaning to visit Jucker Farm for as long as I can remember. I thought it would be something different to see and do. There were huge pumpkin exhibitions which were so creative. I have no idea how you would even begin building one of these structures, so hats off to the people who made them. I never knew that there were so many different types and colours of pumpkin. It felt like autumn had arrived, even though the sun was shining.

Of course, we sampled some of the goods at the farm restaurant and I bought a pumpkin to bring home. I want to make a pumpkin soup and maybe a pumpkin pie as well so I will have to look up some recipes in the next week. The pumpkin was only 2.5kg but I have a feeling that it will make quite a few dishes so I will need to make sure that we have some space in the freezer for things I make.

Anyone for Tennis?

20 Nov

For the fourth year in a row, I was at the ATP World Tour Finals on Sunday. What started as a one-time thing now definitely signals the start of the run up to Christmas. Basically, the top 8 seeded men in the world compete in the last tournament of the year.

In the first year, I was so excited because Roger Federer had made it to the final. Federer versus Djokovik – it was like a dream come true until it turned into a nightmare. Roger had injured his back in the semi-final and wasn’t able to compete in the final. I would have been annoyed but he did come out personally to apologise. Then the tournament directors managed to organised an exhibition match with Djokovik and Murray which actually wasn’t that great. Then Murray played doubles with Henman, Cash and McEnroe. We ended up getting 60% of our ticket refunded but I still hadn’t seen Federer play live and that was my dream.

The next year was a repeat of the final of the previous year but this time Federer played but got trashed by Djokovik. Last year Murray and Djokovik were battling it our for the world number one position. Murray won and, for the first time in ages, Britain had the number one ranked player in the world.

This year I was hoping for a Federer-Nadal final. That went straight out of the window, when Nadal pulled out of the tournament on Monday night because of his knee.

Since then I had been watching the games with baited breath, willing Federer to get to the Final at least. Part of the excitement of having tickets to the Final is that you aren’t quite sure of who is going to be taking part in it. As it is the Top 8 in the world who qualify, you can be sure of seeing some talent. The questions really is if your favourite is going to make it there?

So, we found a pub and watched the semi-final there. All was going great – first set was won by Federer who looked like he hadn’t even broken into a sweat. Then Goffin won the second. Hang on this wasn’t in the script…

Then Goffin broke Roger in the third set and someone in the pub decided it was time to put the rugby on. Seriously??

As we had a dinner reservation, we had to leave anyway. By the time we had WiFi again, it was all over and our favourite wouldn’t be playing for us the next day.

It was disappointing but we still had the doubles and singles final to look forward to. The seat were really fantastic. We had paid a lot but the view was great and it was worth every penny.

The doubles was a straight forward game won by Kontinen and Peers, who I had seen win at the same event last year.

I wasn’t sure who I wanted to win the final: Goffin or Dimitrov. From the beginning it was clear who the majority of the crowd wanted to win. I have never seen so many Bulgarian flags in all my life! However, I’m not sure how many of the supporters there were real tennis fans. Shouting out to put off you opponent when they are about to take a free kick is fine in football but shouting out when someone is about to serve is not fair at all. It had the potential to spoil the game.

The game itself was end to end, with beak points all over the place. For the neutral (as I live in Switzerland, this is definitely me now) it was thrilling stuff. The game went to three sets and Dimitrov was the eventual winner.