Tag Archives: travel

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!

Spending a day in Liechtenstein

12 Mar

If you have been following my blog, you might recall me saying back in February that my next trip to another European country would be in May when we go to visit Poland. I had a feeling that I would be getting itchy feet long before then and I was right. So I decided to visit Liechtenstein for the day.

Liechtenstein is the fourth smallest country in Europe and is only 1 hour and 20 minutes from Zurich by train. I was surprised when I got there to see that there was so much snow on the mountains and the temperature was a lot colder than it is in Zurich.

As the country isn’t big, everything in the city centre is easy to get to by walking and there are plenty of museums. Here is what I go up to:

Vaduz Castle

I hiked up to the castle, which is on the top of a  hill looking down on the city. I’m not exaggerating by saying ‘hike’. It’s a pretty steep path up to the castle. Unfortunately, the castle isn’t open to the public because it is the permanent residency of the Liechtenstein royal family. I thought that was a bit of a shame. There are 130 rooms in the castle so I would have thought that it would be possible to open it up to visitors for time to time. They can’t possibly use all of those rooms all at once. Even the Queen let the public into her residence when she was skint. Perhaps that’s the fundamental difference between the British royal family and their European counterparts – money. However, the castle is still impressive even if you can’t see it from the inside.

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The Stamp Museum

This is only a small museum but it is free to visit. There are some cool interactive tools, like being able to browse through the whole of the back catalogue of Liechtenstein’s stamps. I also didn’t realise that stamps used to be printed by engraving the design onto metal and then these engravings were used to make the individual stamps. Some of the examples on display showed how detailed the engravings are.

There was also an exhibition about the history of postcards which was interesting, especially as people don’t send them these days. Did you know that the stamp didn’t always used to be in the top right hand corner? Sender used the position and orientation of the stamp to communicate secret messages to the recipent.

Sculptures in the Street

As I was walking around the city and taking photographs, I noticed that there was a lot of art in the street. There is a large contemporary art museum (which I wasn’t in the mood to visit) so the city has a feeling of being quite arty. I like art and sculptures being in the street – I don’t see the point of things being locked away behind closed door rather than been enjoyed by people.

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Liechtenstein is the 29th country that I have visited in Europe which means that I have another 11 to visit before I can tick Challenge #8 off my 40 Before 40 list. Plus I now know how to spell it properly!

We have decided to have a few long weekends in different places this year rather than two weeks somewhere. Our next planned trips will be in Poland (May 2019), Luxembourg (July 2019), Serbia (September 2019) and Ukraine (October 2019). It could be that I end up being spontaneous and book a few more trips in the meantime but I will try to restrain myself.

A Day in Ticino

3 Mar

I decided to make the most of the good weather this week and escape to Ticino for a day. From the main station in Zürich it’s about two hours on the train and I was more than happy to spend that time alternating between having my head in the book that I am reading and admiring the stunning landscape that I was passing through.

I was welcomed in Lugano by incredible weather and headed to the Funicular for Monte Bre, one of the mountains near the lake that has exceptional views from the top. I was excited! The weather was so good that my photos from the top were going to be crystal clear and amazing and I was early enough that the place wasn’t already crowded with tourists. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the funicular to go up, it wasn’t working due to renovations. The following day it was going to reopen! Worst luck!

As I have been to Lugano a few times and my main reason to go this time was to go to the top of the mountain, I decided to head back to the station and head to Bellinzona, a place that I have wanted to visit for a long time.

On my arrival, I could see that the streets were decorated and ready for the start of carnival. There was already music playing, loud cheering and people dressed in costumes. The festivities wouldn’t start until after I had taken the train back home but it was good to get a feel of the place and the atmosphere in the warm-up stages.

I had to have a pizza for lunch: I have decided that this is the law when visiting the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. After refueling and getting my daily dose of Vitamin D, I decided to go and visit the three castles in Bellinzona. All of the castles and from different time periods and all are really well preserved. Because it is still winter season, the castles were virtually deserted and it was nice to walk around and enjoy the peace and get some nice photos as well. This did mean, however, that the museums at the castles weren’t open, which was a shame. I also under estimated the distance to walk between the castles. I ended walking over 17km during the whole day. But it was worth it for the views and the little bit of exercise.

I was so pleased that I made this trip, even though at the beginning I was disappointed about not being able to do what I had intended. The weather was great and I managed to get some good photos. Of course, getting to the top of Monte Bre during nice weather is still on my list and I hope to do that sometime later on in the year. I will be checking the transport up there is working first though!

Sightseeing in Vaud

26 Feb

With the weather being so nice for this time of the year, I decided to take some time out last week and head to the French speaking part of Switzerland to do some sightseeing and touristy things.

A friend of mine, Mark, recommended that I go to Chateau Chillon, a medieval castle that lies on the banks of Lake Geneva. I was very surprised to see how well preserved the castle was and there was a special exhibition on at the time about food during the medieval times that was really interesting. The weather was a perfect accompaniment to the trip, as the clear blue skies complimented the white stone walls and the earthy red roof of the castle.

The castle has also been producing wine since 2011, after a long hiatus. The profit from the wine is invested into the maintenance and upkeep of the castle so I decided to buy a bottle. I have no idea what it tastes like as there was no opportunity to “try before you buy”. I guess it will be a nice surprise when I do end up drinking it.

Afterwards, I headed to the Charlie Chaplin museum. I have only become familiar with some Chaplin movies over the past 6 months and I was excited about going to visit the place where he lived for the last 25 years of his life. The house he used to live in now houses a museum dedicated to his life and there is a small film studio that is dedicated to the films that he made.

I must admit that I didn’t like the wax works that were dotted around the place. It seemed like you turned the corner and there was someone staring at you. A few of them gave me a bit of a fright. But the museum overall was great. It was well-thought out, personal and you could get a good impression about what it would be like to live there. There were also displays of costumes from the films as well as the two Oscars he received and from the Writers Guild of America.

I discovered that Chaplin wrote a lot of the music for his films and was a very accomplished musician. I am constantly surprised at how talented some people are; not satisfied with being a successful and mastering one thing, they have to go on and master two or more things.

I also found the statue of Chaplin, which is in a very nice spot in the centre of Vevey overlooking the lake.

In the museum, I found this quote from the man himself:

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And with the weather as glorious as it is at the moment, I am inclined to agree with him.

 

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.

Winter Sun and Snow

4 Feb

Last week I did something I have never done before: I made the decision on Monday to fly on 6 days later to the sunny climbs of Tenerife. It’s not quite as extreme as waking up one morning, going to the airport and taking the next available flight but it felt like it to me because I’m normally so organised that my flights are booked more than 6 months in advance.

It was getting so cold here in Switzerland that I decided a few days in the sun would help to thaw out my bones and might even put some colour into my pale skin (but that was definitely a long shot!)

As my mum was already holidaying in Tenerife, I just had to get a bus from the airport and meet her just outside where she was staying. It was so much warmer there and I did get a few strange looks from people wearing my big winter coat, which I assure you I needed for the journey back.

We spent a lot of time walking, drinking in English bars and eating English food. It was great to relax and just enjoy life without any time pressures. We also visited La Caletta, which is a fishing village, and had a great fish and chips there.

All too soon it was time for me to come home, but not without some Chorizo sausage and olives as edible souvenirs.

Of course, I landed back to a very wintry and cold Switzerland. I did wonder if it was worth going for such a short space of time and now I feel like it’s even colder here than it was before I left. The 25+ degrees difference hasn’t been a very welcome gift but at least it looks pretty.

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.