Tag Archives: explore

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.

Long weekend in Krakow

8 May

I’ve wanted to visit Poland for a long time. Poland is now the 30th country in Europe that I have visited. I am aiming to have visited 40 by the time I reach my 40th birthday. I do have quite a bit of time left to achieve this!

Here is what we got up to on our weekend away:

Wieliczka Salt Mines

After almost missing our pre-booked tour because of Uber drivers consistently cancelling on us, we finally made the 20 minute drive to the Salt Mines.

All of the mines are underground and we only saw a fraction of the mines that have been excavated. The sheer size of the place was mind-blowing. I didn’t realise that salt in its purest form is grey and not white. Without having a guide it would have been impossible not to have got lost.

Some of the chambers inside the mine had salt sculptures in them, like this guy here,

who was important in establishing Krakow as a city, and Pope John Paul II.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

This was perhaps my main motivation for wanting to visit Krakow instead of any other city in Poland, which sounds sick and morbid. But after learning so much about this period of history in school and more recently reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz I wanted to experience the place itself.

This was another guided tour that we had booked in advance. It is possible to walk round yourself and see the camps but having a guide meant that we got detailed information and could learn more in a short space of time.

I’ve visited a concentration camp before in Dachau, outside Munich but I wasn’t prepared for the scale and the horror that this place revealed.

I wonder if the human race has learnt anything about this awful time in history when equally horrifying genocides and displacement of people is continuing to happen today?

Free Walking Tour

Free Walking Tours are always a must for us on any city trip. The city itself isn’t very big but the tour took us on some less well-trodden paths. It was interesting to hear about how the city grew and developed, the legend of the dragon and more recent history, such as John Paul II training to be a preist at the start of the Nazi German era and later returning as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Boat trip

We took a small boat trip on the Vistula River which gave us great views of the Castle and parts of the city that we wouldn’t be able to see by foot.

Food

I very seldom complain about food and there were certainly no complaints about anything we ate in Poland. I had some good recommendations from Polish friends and we also stumbled on some great, small local places.

There was even a street food festival (where isn’t there one?) and we tried some meat, pierogi (dumplings) and sheep’s cheese.

I was surprised by two things. Firstly how clean the city was. Normally everywhere seems dirty to me after living in Switzerland for so long. But the streets were really clean and well maintained. Secondly, I think I heard more English being spoken on the streets than any other language. One evening we were treated to a rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone as we walked past a English bar.

I hope that the next 10 destinations that I visit for my challenge are as good as our trip to Krakow was!

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.

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.

Day Tripping

23 Sep

My blog has taken a backseat for the past week but for a very good reason. My mum has come to stay for two weeks, which means that we have been busy doing some day trips in and around Switzerland. Unfortunately, this means that I haven’t had a lot of time to do any writing.

I really enjoying having people to come and stay because I get to go out and visit places. Even if I have been there before, the day is always different and I possibly wouldn’t make a This is what we have been up to over the past week in Switzerland and the surrounding areas.

Schwarzwald (Black Forest), Germany

As we live close to the border, we decided to drive to the Black Forest in Germany. It only took about 45 minutes in the car and we visited Tannenmühle. There is a huge trout farm there and we were able to sample some of the fresh produce in the hotel restaurant. I don’ often eat fish but it was worth it to eat there knowing that the fish were freshly caught. There are also a lot of attractions for children, such as a petting zoo, a big playground and a water playground. I was tempted to sit there a play in the sand myself but I was advised not to by my fellow day-trippers.

After a look around the gift shop and a short walk, we continued our journey to Rothaus brewery, which is the largest brewery in the region. We didn’t go on the free brewery tour because we have been on so many brewery tours before and they all tell you the same process of how the beer is made. Instead we sampled some of the beer at the bar and bought some beer to take home with us.

Konstanz, Germany

We took the train to Konstanz, Germany for some retail therapy. Quite of a lot of the shopping just over the border is cheaper than it is in Switzerland. I rarely go to Germany to get shopping because of the time involved it takes to get there and back but it has come to be a bit of a tradition to go there when my mum comes to visit. The weather wasn’t so great in the morning and it was really misty but the weather soon perked up so that we could sit outside and have something to eat and drink in the sunshine.

Mount Rigi, Switzerland

I have been to Rigi about five or six times since moving to Switzerland and it is one of my favourite places. The last time I visited I went with my friend, Jenny, who was visiting in January. The weather then was cold, icy, snowy and with poor visibility until we finally got to the top of the mountain and the weather cleared completely for 40 minutes. The weather this time couldn’t have been more different. The skies were completely clear, there was no snow and we were treated to beautiful views of the surrounding areas.

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After a hot chocolate at the restaurant at the top of the mountain, we headed down to Weggis on the train and on the cable car and then took the boat back to Luzern. We had a walk round Luzern and did a bit of shopping and then headed back to Zurich on the train.

We haven’t yet made a plan of where we are going to visit in the upcoming week but we are not lacking for choices. I have a huge list of places  that I want to visit again or for the first time. I will, of course, let you know what we get up to!

Spain and Andorra

29 Aug

Last weekend we went to visit some of my boyfriend’s friends just outside of Barcelona. It was a nice short break and we managed to eat, drink and see a lot.

After collecting our rental car, we drove to Montserrat, a mountain range just outside Barcelona. The views from the top were nothing short of stunning. It is possible to walk to the top but we took the cable car to save our legs!

There is an impressive Basilica at the top and even more impressive queues to go into the church and pray to the Madonna at the top of the High Altar. Because of the heat, we decided not to wait but to go and have some lunch.

Later we drove to Manresa, where we would be staying. We found an amazing jamón shop where we tried some jamón, tomato bread and red wine. The wine was only 1.50 Euros and I was expecting it to taste like vinegar but I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. When we met up with our hosts, we got ready to go for evening meal and then onto a club where there was a jazz festival. It was a great atmosphere but after food and an early flight we were happy to go home for some rest.

The next day we went to Andorra. If you have been reading my blog for a while you will know that I have a #40Before40 challenge, in which I have challenged myself to do 40 challenges before I turn 40 (I have a few years to go yet!). One of my challenges is to visit 40 European countries and Andorra is one that I haven’t been to before.

Andorra wasn’t what I expected. It is a shoppers’ paradise because there are no taxes on the goods. It felt like every shop sold tobacco, booze, perfume and shoes and nothing else. I thought it had a bit of a weird atmosphere – like a place that’s in between here and there. I can’t imagine living there. It also took a long time to get in and out because so many people were crossing the border to get a bargain. However, I have been and it’s one less country to visit.

The next day we went to Sitges, a coastal town near to Barcelona. I had visited once before as part of a business trip but it was nice to go back again, especially for the delicious paella! I think Sitges is a bit like Blackpool for Spanish people. It was packed with lots of people who were just there for the weekend.

And then it was time to come home to Switzerland. I’m sure that weekends go quicker than weekdays – the secret is then to enjoy the weekends more!