Edinburgh Hogmanay

Yes, it’s a little late now and most people have moved beyond new year’s excitement and into the more dreary mood of January (or at least that’s the general feeling I’m getting around me at the moment)… but I really wanted to share my experience of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh as it was my first Hogmanay.

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Watching the midnight fireworks through the trees on Princes Street

It was my second trip to Edinburgh after visiting in October 2014 (you can read it about it here if you like) and I was surprised to find just how familiar the city felt to me. I also expected Edinburgh to feel slightly intense in the lead up to this huge event, as I’m sure London would, where around a major event I would expect at least an air of anticipation and at most a mad frenzy. However I was pleasantly surprised that the whole time I was there, Edinburgh felt relaxed, chilled and had a really positive vibe. It was as if throwing New Year’s party attended by thousands was a walk in the park.

On New Year’s Eve there were several different events on in the city centre, including the Old Town Ceilidh and Concert in the Gardens (featuring Paolo Nutini). I did wish I had been able to get tickets to the live concert as it would have been cool to hear some live music on the night, but although I booked well in advance (in October) it was sold out even then. The moral is, if you are interested in attending, book tickets really early.

I had tickets to the Street Party which meant that from 9pm to 1am I joined the crowds on Princes Street, sang, drank and danced along to pop music; we even managed to get our photo up on the big screen. Every hour leading up to midnight, there was a small firework display up at the castle, giving a taster of the display to come when the clock struck twelve. I had such a great time street-partying that I didn’t even really notice the time ticking away and the countdown seemed to go by in minutes, not hours. Before we knew it, we were watching the beautiful New Year fireworks at midnight, and one hour later, having danced some more, we were singing Auld Lang Syne before the Street Party finally finished.

It was one of the most chilled, happy, positive New Year’s Eves I have ever celebrated and I would definitely recommend it if you are thinking about doing it. Just make sure you get bookings in early so you don’t miss out.

From London to Australia…

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Today is a big day. Later I will be catching my first ever long-distance flight and will be away for nearly a month. It’s going to be the biggest trip I’ve ever done. I’ve got a huge backpack and my passport. Everything seems ready.

I’m comforted and happy that I am looking forward to this trip and have been more organised with the planning of it than trips I did last year. One of the first blog posts I wrote on here (about 4 years ago now!) was called ‘Travel’ – simply about how I enjoy travelling; at the time I thought travel would always be something that made me feel excited, happy, adventurous.

However in the last year, I lost interest in travel and didn’t feel excited about trips anymore. I felt scared deep down, but on the surface it was like I felt nothing. I didn’t plan trips with anticipation like I had before. I can see now that maybe that is because I had lost interest in everything I had enjoyed. When I realised I’d lost interest in travelling, I felt I had lost a part of myself and I didn’t know if I would get it back again.

But after several months of positive changes (and lots of them, in all different parts of my life, including food, drink, house move, new hair cut, just generally taking more care of myself), it is like the Me That Travels is back!

And here I am, ready to go, I even prepared this map of my trip (it’s quite technical and I think you can zoom in to see things closer). I’ll keep in touch as best that I can, maybe not on here but perhaps on Facebook and Instagram! See you on the other side of the world 😉

Ynys Mon: Old and New Memories

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Last week, on May Bank holiday weekend, I went on a somewhat risky holiday to North Wales.

  • Risk 1: the weather – everybody knows that Britain does not have the best weather… and especially in North Wales it can be very wet and windy. I was just praying it would be dry!
  • Risk 2: nostalgia – should you ever go back to a place you once held happy memories? The risk is that the changes you find from past to present are upsetting, or stirring up old memories could be emotional in a way that you are not prepared for.

This was not a typical British holiday. My sister, parents and I were going to be staying on the Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Mon in Welsh – and sorry for those who know there should be a circumflex on the o but I can’t get my computer to do it!), which we left about 21 years ago, when my sister and I were 7.

Old memories

I have a lot of happy memories from my time there, and nearly all of them involve being in the outdoors, on the cliffs, at the seaside, in the woods and in all weathers, too. Splashing at the windy, cloudy beach, in wellies shaped like frogs; searching the woods for the Three Bears’ house (thanks Mum & Dad!); being pelted in the face by hailstones at school pick up time; a school trip on a life boat; walking past long reeds and grass, thinking of the adders that could be lurking there; picking honeysuckle from the roadside as a gift to a teacher (a little bit of a teacher’s pet, clearly!)

I left a piece of my childhood heart in Wales and I really wanted to go back, most specifically to the South Stack, where there is a lighthouse and where we used to go and look for puffins with Dad. This is a place I always remembered fondly.

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South Stack

New memories

Going back 21 years later, it was time to look back but also to create new memories in the present, being older and wiser and more able to appreciate the stunning scenery around us. We won the gamble we had taken on the British weather as it was sunny and warm throughout our stay, with hardly any wind on our trip to South Stack and Holyhead mountain. It felt like a miracle to see the sea with no white breakers and to be walking around Anglesey in short sleeves… and having to put sunscreen on my fair British skin. I was no longer the child hiding her face in her coat to stop the painful white ice-stones pummelling into me. (As you might have guessed from that old memory, that was the day I learnt what “hailstones” were).

Another new memory I will take with me about Wales is a sense that it holds some kind of spiritual, magical feeling. There were times when we were walking through woods with the sunlight slightly breaking through the leaves, the flowers and undergrowth dappled with light, a peace around us, everything so still but also as if it was somehow waiting to come alive. I’m not sure I am really describing this feeling very well, but when you think about Welsh myth and legend, with the red dragon emblem, it does feel appropriate that this sense of magic seems to live and breathe in the Welsh landscape and countryside.

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a sense of spirit and magic

 

Scenery

I have mainly written this post so that I can let the photographs I took really speak for themselves about the beautiful landscape and scenery of our trip. The sunny weather was the perfect backdrop to show it off, but also, if it had been gloomy, it might have brought out a different “moody” feel to the landscape. Whatever risk there is with the weather, this nostalgic trip has awakened a deep love in me for this part of Wales, this “home” I left, and still carry with me in my heart.

South Stack and Holyhead Mountain

 

Woodland Walks

 

Coast and Beach

 

Snowdon National Park – Llyn Idwal

Abandoned Berlin: A Visit to the Spreepark

A week ago today I found myself doing something I never even imagined I would  do: digging a hole under a fence with a stick… entering somewhere “forbidden”- and that was the old abandoned theme park, ‘Spreepark’ in Berlin.

To find out more about this park’s history you can visit the Abandoned Berlin website here. To summarise briefly, Spreepark was once a major attraction in former East Germany, but after German reunification in 1989 its demise began. There were many problems when new owners took it over, visitor numbers dwindled, and it finally closed in 2001, leaving behind remnants of fun fair rides and attractions.

The remains were weird and wonderful, featuring dinosaur heads, swan boats, mammoths, boarded up houses, train tracks, a Viking boat, to name just a few – and of course there is the iconic Ferris wheel which looms eerily over the empty park.

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Before this trip to Berlin I had never actually heard of the park… but a friend of a friend recommended it to us before we left. Not knowing the extent of security involved in protecting the park, we thought it would be worth a visit as an abandoned fun fair sounded creepy and worth investigating. But when we looked it up online to find out exactly where it was, we discovered the Abandoned Berlin website, and were somewhat shocked to find that there was apparently a high-level security fence, guards and dogs onsite.

On the other hand, the author of Abandoned Berlin made it sound like a lot of people manage to get in, and don’t take this level of protection very seriously. There is even a story about a 90-year-old woman who got in for a ride on the Ferris wheel – but then had to be rescued when the wind carried her up but not back down again. If a 90-year-old woman can get in for a bit of fun, then, well, surely anyone can!

So last Monday my friend and I went to check it out and I have to admit I wasn’t really taking the threat of the fence, guards and dogs very seriously. I mean, it was a Monday afternoon, and I figured there was bound to be more security on a Saturday night (if people try to get in for some drunken hilarity).

But when we saw the fence and the signs reading “Betreten verboten!” we began to feel more nervous… even scared. And even though the Abandoned Berlin website had made it sound easy to get inside under the fence, many gaps under the fence (where other risk-takers had clearly entered before) had been securely concreted up. Not to mention that the fence ran along a main path which was in constant use by runners, and people taking leisurely strolls by the riverside on a Monday afternoon… it seemed as if it would be impossible to a) find a point of entry and b) get in without anyone noticing.

Our plan wasn’t to do anything dangerous – just to get into the park, see the crazy stuff inside, and take a few photos… but it seemed unlikely that it would actually happen. It also seemed a bit over the top to have all this security for something so derelict and forgotten… but there was an incident when other “visitors” set the park on fire, so I guess those people have just spoilt it for those people like the 90-year-old woman who just wanted a last ride on the Ferris wheel.

After walking quite a long way down the path, and some unsuccessful attempts to climb the fence (the gaps were too small for our feet), we decided that crawling under was going to be our best option and kept an eye out for an un-concreted gap underneath.

We had just passed the Ferris wheel on the other side, and the main gate which was securely locked, when a little further up the path, we saw our opportunity. There was a small gap which looked like it could be made bigger so that we could slide underneath. The gap, although it could still be seen by passers-by, was still fairly concealed by trees, allowing us to work on it without being noticed too much.

I surprised myself and my friend by my determination and zealous attempts to make the hole bigger by digging ferociously with a large stick. I was finding it all rather funny and suspected that the talk of guards and dogs was (at least today) nothing to worry about. The only fear I had was that a passer-by would see us and report our antics.

My friend and I made a good team and looked out for people passing by. One old man passed and clearly knew what we were getting up to, but seemed to give us nothing more than a knowing look and slight smile. This seems to be the prevailing attitude to people entering Spreepark.

We were very nearly done with enlarging the hole when a young woman approached us. I wondered what she was going to say… and then she asked us, “Do you know how to get in?” We told her of our plan – she seemed surprised but also keen to follow suit. She told us she had come to Berlin only to get into the abandoned places. She left to fetch her friends who had been scoping out the other side of the park.

Shortly after she left, we decided to try our hole out for size. I went first… putting my legs under first, pressing into the ground, and doing a kind of ground-limbo to get my rather curvacious upper body under the fence. A quick wriggle and I was through!

Haha! I had broken into a theme park! My friend threw her rucksack over, I caught it, and then she was also sliding under the fence. We were both in! We took a photo to celebrate the occasion and then we hurried off through the undergrowth in search of the crazy and creepy remains.

We followed a path, past a pile of rubbish and abandoned huts, which led us to the central attraction area. There was a building made to look like a station, with a train track inside it. There were lots of stinging nettles too which made the photo opportunities slightly painful.

Further on there were some boarded up houses – perhaps formerly fun-houses with play areas, or perhaps a house of mirrors. Now it was all empty and forgotten.

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We came across some swan boats, parked at the side of the central area, next to just one car which looked like a face, wearing a hat and Harry-Potter-style glasses.

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There was a Viking boat, which looked more like a shipwreck, and a lot of tree trunks which looked like they once could have been a seating area.

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Most creepy was the Ferris wheel, which was still turning steadily, making a quiet, metallic creak as it went. “Eeeeeee….. eeeeee” – it was the only background noise we could hear.

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There was absolutely no sign of guards or dogs.

We didn’t stay long – just long enough to have a run around, take a few pictures, and then get out of there!

We headed back to the fence. I had a delirious panic that our gap had already been concreted up… but no, there it was…

A quick limbo under and we were safely back on the other side – with the photos, a few bruises and nettle stings to prove it.

The girl we had met before was there at the gap, now accompanied by her friends. They watched us re-enter the legal side of the fence. We left them discussing their entry, and a few minutes later we saw them running along inside the park. They, too, had been successful.

On a trip to Berlin, this is not the conventional attraction, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are the adventure-seeking type who can cope with a bit of adrenalin and the thought that a guard with a dog might have to escort you out if you happen to get caught.

To be honest, I can’t quite believe I did it, but sometimes the rules are there to be broken 🙂

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Venice: A Feast For The Eyes

Last week I spent two days in Venice, and I was truly taken away by its beauty. I have actually visited Venice before, but the first time around I must have been walking around with my eyes closed, as it hadn’t made much of an impression on me at all. My first visit was several years ago, and I hadn’t thought of going back again (I really must not have been all that impressed…) but as it happens, I went back to attend a wedding in nearby Vicenza, stopping for two days in Venice first. I’m really glad I got the chance to go back, as this time, I had my eyes wide open ready to take in the stunning scenery waiting around every corner and across every bridge!

Venice is a city like no other and I found it incredibly romantic. The romantic cliche of Venice is a ride on a gondola – but actually this doesn’t interest me at all – I find it a bit “cheesy”! The romance I saw was in the architecture in the streets, the canals, bridges, piazzas, fronts of houses with flowers spilling out of window-boxes… everywhere I went there was something simply beautiful to look at.

I’ve included a photo gallery to share some of the beauty with you… enjoy!

Jo

Simple Pleasures: Bruges

Ever since I returned from a lovely short break to Bruges, Belgium, I have been trying to find a spare hour or two to sit down and share my experience, but got totally caught up in meeting friends, planning, teaching, writing reports, partying… I have just been generally very busy, which is great, but I have also been longing for the little bit of quiet me-time that this blog gives me. So here I am, taking the opportunity of a coach trip back to London from Oxford to sit and indulge in this little bit of peaceful self-expression.

Returning home and immediately getting swept up in what seems like a whirlwind of activity only seems to highlight to me just how much my trip to Bruges was a much-needed escape to a tranquil, very attractive little town where it was possible to enjoy the simplest of pleasures. I have decided to compile a list of these things to share with you today…

Simple Pleasure 1: Spending some quality time with Mum

It was the first time that my mum and I had actually gone away together and I had been really looking forward to it. Bruges was a great location for us as we both enjoyed meandering the narrow, cobbled streets and taking in the beautiful scenery of the canals, bridges and distinctive buildings on the water’s edge. We also enjoyed a bit of shopping, sampling chocolates and biscuits in the numerous confectionery shops, as well as going to the more modern clothes shops, and other unique boutiques. And the best part of going shopping with Mum is that she always makes sure to treat me to a few gifts along the way 🙂

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Simple Pleasure 2: Chocolate

Belgium is famous for its chocolate, and in Bruges, there are chocolate shops in what seems like every street, every couple of paces, and, as you walk by, you are not only tempted by the sight of piles of perfect little sweet-treats in different shapes and sizes, but also by the delicious smell wafting out of the stores as you pass by. It is impossible to resist…

Simple Pleasure 3: Drinking beer in the sun

There is something really relaxing about sitting outside by the water, soaking up the sun, enjoying the warmth on your skin and drinking a cool, refreshing, light beer. I enjoyed it when I lived in Spain, and in my summer visit to Amsterdam, and it seems as if whenever I am “on the continent” and it’s warm and sunny, it would be a shame not to. Mum didn’t partake in this… but I enjoyed myself!

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Simple Pleasure 4: Sunbathing in the park

During our visit, the weather was quite changeable and not particularly warm until the afternoons when it was perfect weather for sunbathing in the park. After spending a lot of time on our feet exploring Bruges, lying down in the sun was so relaxing that we both fell asleep (turning our pale British skin a little bit pink… typical tourists!)

Simple Pleasure 5: Fresh Fruit from the Market

Although we were quite touristy on our visit to Bruges (in that we did the whole boat-trip-on-the-canals thing, bought lots of chocolate, and got sunburnt), one of the things we did that the locals do is visit the market place on Wednesday morning, which was filled with different food stalls and flower stalls. I bought a traditional Belgian bun (delicious) and we also bought some fresh cherries, which we took to the park with us and picnicked on them before we fell asleep.

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So that’s the last of my list; it might not seem like the most adventurous holiday, but if you just want a peaceful retreat, where you are guaranteed picturesque scenery, delicious confectionery and tasty, refreshing beer, then Bruges will be your ideal destination. I hope you enjoyed reading and that you enjoy looking at the photos… now I have to get back to being busy again!

Jo

A Tale of Two Seasons: Amsterdam

Hello all,

As promised in my last post I am writing today to explore the delights of Amsterdam, a city I have visited twice now, each time with one of my two sisters. The first visit was in August 2013 with little sis, Jenn (still referred to as little sis even though she is 22…) and the second time was just a few weeks ago during my half term break with twin sis, Cat. Both times Amsterdam has treated me well with its relaxed atmosphere, friendly people, and interesting history and culture, but there were also certain highlights and drawbacks of both visits. So what was better, summer or winter Amsterdam? Travelling with little sis or twin sis? I’m going to weigh up the two trips to decide which one is the overall winner!

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little sis, Jenn
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twin sis, Cat (left)

Winter Weather v Summer Sunshine

Let’s start with one of the deal-breakers to any holiday – the weather. Going on holiday in Northern Europe in February is not exactly going to guarantee sunshine and there is potential for the trip to be miserable and cold. However, Cat and I were lucky to get two days of clear skies and winter sunshine which was perfect for exploring the city, but I have to say I did get fed up of trampling around in my coat, scarf, hat and gloves, and irritated by the gloves when trying to look at the map and guide book! Small things, but in my memory of the summer trip, I had flounced around the famous 9-streets totally carefree, in light summer clothes, and found that experiencing Amsterdam in heavy and cumbersome winter clothing was on the whole not as enjoyable. One of the good things about a winter visit is that Cat and I enjoyed visiting the comfy and welcoming cafes as well as doing more “inside” activities such as exploring the museums.

Jenn and I were also lucky with the weather on our summer trip, as it was wonderfully hot, with only a little rain on our day in the city centre, and sunshine on the days we spent further out doing outdoors activities such as kayaking and cycling. Another highlight of a summer visit to Amsterdam was the opportunity to enjoy a drink (or two) outside, one at a lovely canal-side pub in the city centre, and one at the IJ “windmill” brewery. Visiting this brewery is one of my fondest memories of the summer trip as I enjoyed sitting in the sun, sipping the beer, and eating a side-order of cheese (yes, just a plate of cubes of cheese – it was wonderful!)

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The “windmill” brewery
Jenn, enjoying the beer and cheese cubes :)
Jenn, enjoying the beer and cheese cubes 🙂

Accommodation

So, if we consider the weather, the summer trip would win hands down, but what about accommodation? It’s another big decision when booking a holiday, but what do you go for? Hotel, hostel, rented apartment, tent? It depends on your budget, it also depends on your preferences on location, who you’re with and why you are going.

Considering the summer trip was made a couple of years ago when I had just spent a year studying my PGCE (and before my first “proper” salaried teacher job), and that I was also travelling with student little sis, the budget was low. We also wanted some time in the city and some time being active (cycling and kayaking). In the end, we went for two days in a hostel and two days on a campsite further out.

The hostel – Cocomama – was in a great location and describes itself as “boutique”, somewhere between a hotel and hostel. The building itself also has a “colourful” history as once upon a time, it was a brothel. These days it is an attractive youth hostel with comfortable rooms and a friendly service. Jenn and I enjoyed our two-night stay there, before we went on to the campsite, Camping Zeeburg.  This was further outside the city centre, but was easily reachable by tram and had all the necessary facilities onsite. We stayed in what was known as a “wagonette”, a small, colourful caravan. Jenn and I ended up referring to it as the “tin can” – it was tiny inside, and hot in the summer weather. However, it was good for the budget, and a bit of a laugh, knowing it was only for two nights, and giving us a great outdoors location for kayaking and cycling. Being novice campers, we didn’t bring a lot of things with us like plates, bowls, or cutlery… but all the things we had forgotten were available at a very reasonable price in the campsite shop. There was also a good restaurant onsite so luckily we didn’t just have to fend for ourselves.

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2-bed dorm at Cocomama
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the colourful caravan/”wagonette” at Camping Zeeburg

Despite the fun of hostelling and roughing it in the wagonette, it was much nicer to be travelling to Amsterdam more recently knowing that I would be staying somewhere more comfortable and private. Cat and I joked that we had gone up in the world as we had swapped the hostels of previous holidays for hotels. Our hotel was also in a great location, situated in the Museum Quarter, just a couple of minutes’ walk away from the Van Gogh Museum. It was also a little different to the average hotel, with some quirky decor (think “loud” wallpaper and cushions resembling Girl with a Pearl Earring, complete with sparkly earring!) Overall it was a good choice for a low budget hotel, and for me, the comfort of a hotel makes the accommodation on the second trip the winner, despite the fun Jenn and I had when hostelling and staying in the “tin can.”

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Exploring the city

So the score stands: Summer trip 1: Winter trip 1.

The deciding factor for the overall winner comes down to the other experiences of the trip – what we got up to. It’s a tough decision, as Amsterdam has a lot to offer, and whatever time of year you go, there will be a lot of things for you to do and see. On both occasions I was not disappointed and have certainly got a lot of fond memories from winter and summer Amsterdam. But which one was better?

The summer trip was a lot of fun and as my first time in Amsterdam, I was keen to explore and to get to know the city. I was somewhat surprised to find that Amsterdam had a very laid-back feel to it, and I really enjoyed meandering the 9-streets with their boutique shops, and looking at the beautiful architecture of the canal-side houses. Jenn and I visited the Van Gogh musuem, bought tulips from the flower market, went shopping in the street market at Albert Cuyp Market and tasted freshly made stroopwaffels, ate authentic Surinamese food in de Pijp district, and experienced the beauty of the Dutch landscape when we rented bikes and went cycling in the beautiful ‘Waterland’ to the north-east of the city.  We packed a lot in to a short time but I still left wanting to see more on my next visit.

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shopping in Albert Cuyp Market

So, as the winter visit approached, I was awaiting it with anticipation and was hoping I would have just as good a time second time around. I would say that the only let-down was probably the weather and hence not feeling quite so comfortable and relaxed. However, the one highlight of the winter trip over the summer trip was that this time, I visited Anne Frank’s house. For me, this was a truly inspirational and emotional experience that will stay with me for a long time. I would recommend it to any body; a few people have since asked me if I found it depressing  – well, we all know the story and how it ends – but actually being there, seeing it, visualising it, the experience goes beyond words and is probably deeply personal to each and every  tourist who sets foot inside it.

And the winner is… 

It’s a tough call… and despite having a great time this February… there is a part of me that just loved the relaxing summer I spent in Amsterdam, and if I went back a third time, I would prefer to go when the weather’s hot, the beer is cool, and you can sit in the sun, have a drink and RELAX! I also think that the good weather brings the opportunity to cycle and get active, which Jenn and I definitely had a lot of fun doing.

But whatever you do, if you visit Amsterdam, don’t miss Anne Frank’s house. It’s well worth a visit, but be warned, be prepared for a 2 hour queue (which incidentally is probably more bearable in the summer sunshine than the winter chill!)

I hope you enjoyed reading, and I’m including a gallery of photographs from the winter and summer trips.

Love,

Jo

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