Exploring Edinburgh

Edinburgh is one of the prettiest cities I have ever visited. This historic old town has a wondrous range of activities and things to do, with heritage, culture and festivals. The contrasts of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Sites of the Old Town and New Town has bundles of history. The city was leading the Scottish Enlightenment during the 18th century and retains its cosmopolitan feel with its summer festivals.

Having lived in Dunedin (Edinburgh of the South) in New Zealand, before visiting Edinburgh, it was really extraordinary to see the similarities. Mostly with the street names and styling of buildings and monuments, but they really did attempt to make Dunedin an Edinburgh of the south.

Top Sights to See in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle

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This majestic castle is one of the icons of Scottish history atop Castle Rock in the centre of Edinburgh. There has been a royal palace in Edinburgh since the 12th century, although today it remains more of a military garrison. The castle is steeped in history with the Crown Jewels and Gatehouse, St Margret’s Chapel and Mong Meg. If you are in the city you can still hear the one o’clock gun being fired.

Edinburgh Military Tattoo

One of my bucket list experiences for the UK. As half-a-Scot (my mother is from Glasgow) I love anything with tartan and bagpipes (yes cliche I know!) but I am also a big supporter of the armed forces. This celebration is of the British Armed Forces, Commonwealth and international military bands is performed on the esplanade of the castle. This celebration with music, fireworks and an air jet fly past. The tattoo started in 1950 and has since become renown worldwide, with bands from Australia, New Zealand, Africa and Canada performing. The tattoo has sold out for the last straight 18 years, so book tickets early in advance. There is no overhead protection in the seating areas, so take a waterproof jacket.

Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano, and the hike to the top offers walks, solace, wildlife, volcanic geology and unparalleled vistas of the city from its many vantage points. This hike is not something that you can do with your trainers, you need to be prepared with walking shoes and weather appropriate clothing. The walk can take about an hour depending on the route that you take, just do some research beforehand!

Palace of Holyroodhouse

Holyrood Palace is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II in Scotland. At the end of the royal mile from Edinburgh Castle, this enormous palace has its origins from the 17th century. The Queen spends one week at the start of the summer at Holyrood, which is just opposite the modern Scottish Parliament building. The palace has an admission fee but has quite a lot of history and things to see (about a 90-minute visit).

Royal Mile

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The royal mile extends from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood House. This old town has its narrow alleys and cobbled streets and is worth just wandering up and down, taking in all the history and architecture. This lovely romantic street is what credits Edinburgh as being one of the prettiest cities. Stop off at one of the many pubs on the mile, usually to take shelter from the pouring rain.

Summer Festivals

Edinburgh has to be the UK’s best city for festivals. In August the town is flooded with arts, music, dance, comedy and theatre performances. You cannot move along the Royal Mile without seeing a performer or being handed an invite to a show or concert. The city is fit to burst in August, and the hotels are costly, so either book well in advance or visit at another time of year.

Royal and National Museum of Scotland

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The Royal Museum of Scotland has a substantial vaulted atrium that you can wander. It is filled with light, and when I was there, they were filming an art programme. It is so beautiful and completely unexpected from the outside. The two museums are located next to each, and you could lose the whole day getting caught up in the exhibits. There is a bit emphasis on being interactive, so great for kids.

Scotland Parliament Building

The new Scottish Parliament building is located opposite Holyrood Palace. This was built in 1999 in glaring contrast to the buildings around it. What has heralded as innovative postmodern cost an absolute fortune to make, I personally think is overrated and just not in keeping with the surrounding area. Be your own judge though!

Scotland Rugby at Murrayfield

I was lucky enough to win tickets to see Australia vs Scotland at Murrayfield last year. Murrayfield is the greatest stadium in Scotland and hosts both rugby and football matches (football is also hosted at Hampden Park in Glasgow). Scots are very patriotic, even if their teams are the best in the world. When walking from Haymarket train station to the stadium, bagpipers are busking, songs being sung and all-around laughter and fun that it always associated with rugby. I love watching live sport and was pleased that I was able to see such a cracking game and feel the electric atmosphere (Scotland lost 22-23 to Australia)

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Edinburgh is a beautiful city, family friendly and suitable for a budget (but book hotels etc… well in advance especially around the festivals), prepare for every weather (well it is Scotland after all!) and pack some good walking shoes as there are lots of hills and cobbled streets to cover. Edinburgh is easy to get to by train from other UK destinations, and the tram links are available from the Airport straight into Edinburgh Waverley in the centre of the city.

Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Kew Gardens are the world-renowned botanical gardens based in South West London. It is a bit of a journey from the city centre out towards Kew, but the gardens are well worth a visit.

The commonly used image of Kew is its gigantic Palm House overlooking a large freshwater lake. This Victorian glass palace recreates a rainforest climate for some unusual species of palms (some growing as high as the glass house).

Top Tip: it is hot and humid, so protect your camera!

Kew prides itself on conservation and education, and one of its recent installations in a giant hive. Bumblebee numbers are in decline in the UK, and without these little workers, many species of plant would be in trouble. The installation mimics the sounds and activity of a real hive, and it changes throughout the day.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is my favourite place in Kew, with 10 different zones within the conservatory. There are dry climates replicating deserts, wet rainforest climates, orchid and fern rooms and most interestingly two rooms on carnivorous plants, including the unique Amorphophallus titanum produces a stench of rotting flesh to attract insects in the tropical rainforest.

There is so much to this green space, with water lily ponds and giant redwood trees, to a Japanese pagoda and a treetop walkway.

Spend a few hours, stop off at some of the restaurants or cafes and enjoy learning about some of the most fascinating flora.

Beautiful Bokeh

Bokeh is the soft out of focus effect you get in part of an image. Bokeh comes from the Japanese for blur or haze and can add another element to your image.

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Bokeh is not too difficult to capture if you have a lens with a big or fast aperture. With a lens with a 1/2.8 stop (which is what I use), you have a shallow depth of field, allowing the further background to become distorted or out of focus. The further away the background is, the more Bokeh effect is possible.

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If you do not have a lens with a large aperture, if you move very close to the subject, you can still create a Bokeh effect, if the background is also very far away. Ensure that your item is in sharp focus, and this should blur the background. It may take a bit of practice without a fast lens, but it is still possible.

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Good subjects to utilise Bokeh are portraits, flowers and macros and lights (such as fairy or Christmas lights). Colour or black and white are also useful.

Remember

1. Aperture priority and chose the biggest aperture you can!

2. Get close to the subject (still, keep in mind your composition!)

3. Keep your distance from the background (if it’s too close Bokeh is not possible)

4. Sharp focus on your subject

5. Shoot!

6. Review, Reflect and Re-evaluate – change your settings if you need to, move about

7. Practice and share your images!

 

Flare for Fireworks Photography

Fireworks night is coming up soon, and I always love to get my camera out this time of year. Capturing fireworks can be a bit of a challenge and something that I always try to improve on.

Firstly, you are going to need a tripod! Due to the limited light source (as it is generally dark when you shoot fireworks) you will need to have longer shutter speed and to keep that camera as steady as possible. To keep your camera as still as possible you can also use a remote release, but I do not have one, so I don’t bother.

Top Tip: Always check that the venue is ok with using tripods as well, some places can be quite funny.

Now you have your camera set up, you need to frame and compose your images. If you are going to a public display, it is good to get there early so you know where you should be directing your camera and to scope out a good site. Ensure that you keep an eye on your horizon, if your camera has an internal level, to check that your images are going to be straight.

I usually shoot at a focal length of f/8, but there is no right and wrong answer, just give it a good with different apertures to see what works at the distance that you are working with.

Shutter speed is crucial, and again something to play around with. You do not want to leave the shutter open too long, as can make the image have too much light and overexpose the image but want it open enough to get the movement and light trails of the fireworks. Try between 2-10 seconds to start with and review and adjust as needed.

ISO should be as low as possible to remove as much background noise as possible and give a lovely sharp image.

Don’t be disheartened, so much about capturing fireworks is practising. Give it a go, and you will be surprised at what you end with. Take as many shots as you like as that perfect one will be there.

 

Xanthos-Letoon, Turkey

The two nearby ruins of Xanthos and Letoon nearby Fethiye in Turkey, are listed as UNESCO sites due to the significance in the understanding of the Lycian people. These ruins are close by to the hotel resort that I frequently visit in Turkey, and I have driven past them many times, not realising their cultural significance. We decided to visit the ruins and understand more about the history of the local area. Turkey has a very long history, and the Lycian language started dying out by 546BC!

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As you can see from the images, these sites have a unique intact architectural example of the ancient Lycian Civilisation, and many texts were found at the site of this ancient language.

This site is protected by UNESCO due to its exceptional testimony to the Lycian civilisation, both through the many inscriptions found at the two sites and through the remarkable funerary monuments preserved within site. Given the importance of this site, when we visited, we were the only people there. It is a shame that somewhere so ancient and preserved that more visitors are unaware of it.

Dunner Stunner

From 2005 to 2007 I moved from my home in London to Dunedin, New Zealand to study at the prestigious University of Otago. I was lucky enough to be accepted based on my A-Levels and applied for my student visa and I was on my way! (Obvs there was lots more planning but that is part of a different post!)

Dunedin is a student town towards the south of New Zealand’s South Island, with a student population of about 20% (of its 120000). Dunedin means ‘Edinburgh of the South’ as it originates from the Gaelic for Edinburgh and has a proud Scottish History, with a statue of Robert Burns in the central Octagon. Dunedin is (closely) pronounced ‘done-e-den’ but affectionately called Dunners.

Top Sights

Signal Hill

Located towards the north of the city, on a bright day offers panoramic views of Dunedin and the harbour. It is much breezier than in the town so pack a jacket or coat.

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Larnach Castle

The only castle in New Zealand is found on the Otago Peninsula. Built in the 1870s with a gothic revival style architecture, this stately home is open to visitors with guided or self-guided tours. You can climb the narrow staircase to the battlements (the roof) for beautiful views of the peninsula.

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Wildlife at Otago Peninsula

At the far end of the Otago Peninsula is the World’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony. These majestic birds have a wingspan of over 3m and in Nov/Dec are found carrying for the young. These birds have a conservation status of vulnerable, and there ongoing work at the colony to improve this status.

There is also a Little Blue Penguin breeding colony. These are the smallest penguin species, being only about a foot tall.

It is also possible to have a guided sighting of the yellow-eyed penguin. These intensely shy and nervous creatures are not found in any zoos, as the strain of the situation is too much for them. You will walk along a hide and observe the penguins as they make their way up the beach to their nests. Even Sir David Attenborough recommends a visit to this wildlife capital of NZ!

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University of Otago Clock Tower

This building is the reason why the University of Otago is regarded as one of the prettiest universities in the world. The clock tower overlooking the river Leith, especially in the spring months is very picturesque. Built in 1869 by the Scottish settlers, there are distinct links to Scottish architecture, with its dark gothic styling. The buildings are still in use today (used to home the international students department when I was studying). The building is a symbol for higher education in New Zealand.

St Clair and St Kilda Beaches

These stunning sandy beaches are just a few minutes south of the city centre. St Clair is a hot spot for surfers but the sea is cold! Alternatively you can use the heated saltwater outdoor swimming pool, if the Antarctic sea is a bit too cold (yes we did have an iceberg pass by when I was studying!). St Kilda is located more towards the east, with its long sandy beaches for a Sunday stroll.

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Dunedin Railway Station

This defunct railway station used to serve central Otago during the height of the goal rush. The building resembles the University Clocktower, with the Law Courts on the opposite corner having the same gothic architecture and coloured brickwork. There is now a tourist railway train towards central (Taieri Gorge) but has also been used recently for fashion shows.

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Baldwin Street

Who would have believed that the World’s steepest residential street was located in this small little city in New Zealand. It is located in North East Valley, with has many many steep streets in parallel to one another, but other than standing at the bottom and looking up…. not much else to it.

Rugby

Rugby is an integral part of most kiwis life, and experiencing a live game is a must! Carisbrooke in the south of the city used to be the home to the Highlanders Super Rugby side and Otago Provincial side. Many times I spent on the terraces watching world-class rugby. The stadium has now closed and has been relocated to Forsyth Barr, part of the University Campus. This stadium has a permanent roof (which in the winter is a great thing) and has the student atmosphere. For non-international games (so not the All Blacks) tickets are very reasonable.

Aramoana

I was unsure whether to include Aramoana on this list, as it’s shouldn’t attract tourism due to its tragic past. Aramoana is a small hamlet towards the north of the city, and is the site of New Zealand’s deadliest criminal shooting in 1990. You feel like you are at the end of the world, and the massacre that occurred was so unexpected and out of the blue. 13 people lost their lives on that fateful day, and crushed this small community (four of the victims were children). Visit this little village to appreciate the peace and tranquility found there, embrace the ebb and flow of the sea as you walk the beach/mole and look out for the wildlife around as well (we saw a little blue penguin).

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What Does It Mean to Travel?

Depending on who you speak to, travel can mean many different things.

Typically – or according to my dictionary – travel is to take a journey. This usually is a journey of distance, but for many travels is also emotional and spiritual. A different perspective on your own life, the sincere desire for change or the radical notion of escaping. People travel for health, somewhere sunny to help with mental strength and rest, they move to gain knowledge, to regain their own power and to help others. People go on pilgrimages, seek spiritual enlightenment and to achieve a sense of accomplishment.

Not all those who wander are lost – J.R.R Tolkien

Words that I hear associated with travel are freedom, growth and transformation. Now, these words may all sound a bit cliché, but they all have positive personal development on you as a person, making you stronger, wiser and more compassionate.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness – Mark Twain

I remember speaking with a Canadian lady on the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand, and she said to me ‘if every young person travelled, the world would be a more tolerant place’. Not all of us are fortunate enough to be able to travel when we were younger (I did, my husband didn’t) but it brings people together, allows personal connections and understanding of cultures, traditions and beliefs. With knowledge, there is the beginning of acceptance.

Wherever you go, it becomes a part of you – Anita Desai

I lived in New Zealand for almost three years, not only did that leave me with a slight kiwi twang and kiwi slang (jandals and lollies still part of everyday speak) but made me much more independent and self-confident. I have visited Turkey for quite a few years now not only do I love Turkish food but I have learnt so much about Islam while visiting. I am lucky enough to have friends in countries all over the world from my travels.

We live in a wonderful world, that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have, if only we seek them with our eyes open – Jawaharlal Nehru

Giants and Dragons on the Northern Irish Coast

On Christmas Eve, two of my girlfriends said that they had booked a super cheap flight to Belfast (£25 return flight) for February to see the Giants Causeway. So, naturally, I decided to gatecrash! We were flying out on Friday night after work and returning Sunday lunchtime, so we arranged a guided coach/tour company for our whistle-stop tour of the Northern Irish Coast.

20170121-_1140678Our first stop was the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery. Bushmills is Ireland’s oldest distillery, operating since 1608 and they have numerous different blends available in their store. Being half-Scottish, I am quite partial to a wee dram so upon our arrival, we decided to have a little tasting session, despite it being 11am!

20170121-_1140665Our second stop was Dunluce Castle, only for a photo opportunity. Dunluce Castle is a now-ruined medieval castle sits perched on the edge of a basalt cliff and is one of the most picturesque castles anywhere in Ireland. The first castle at Dunluce was built in the 13th century, and it has a sheer drop on one side, where a landslide in the 16th century took the kitchen into the sea below. It is possible to walk to the castle and explore the ruins, but this is not included in the coach trip.  This castle is used as the House of Greyjoy in Game of Thrones.

Northern Ireland is home to some filming locations for the hit TV series Game of Thrones. County Down is home to Winterfell, The Twins and the Haunted Forrest, Country Antrim is home to the Kings Road and the Iron Islands, and County Derry/Londonderry is home to the Dothraki Sea. Some guided tours can take you round the filming locations, just watch out for Dragons!20170121-_1140787 Our third stop was the Giant’s Causeway. This UNESCO site has been on my bucket list for a very long time. The legend is that Finn MacCool was an Irish Giant who was challenged to a fight by a Scottish Giant Benandonner. Finn MacCool built the causeway after accepting the challenge, but his wife Oonagh realised that Benandooner was actually much more massive than Finn MacCool, so Oonagh gave him a sleeping potion and disguises him as Finn MacCools baby. When Benandooner sees Finn MacCool disguised as a baby, he is tricked into thinking that Finn MacCool is much much bigger than he is and flees back to Scotland, destroying the causeway in the process so Finn MacCool could not follow him. This is the legend that our tour guide told us, but I understand that there are many different versions, as expected in folk tales.

Upon arriving at the Giants Causeway, the visitor centre is at the entrance to the site, and then it is a 10-minute walk down towards the causeway. There is a bus from the visitor centre to the causeway for those who need it. I can’t remember exactly, but it is only a few pounds. I was blown away but the size of the causeway. The stones are quite slippery so take decent shoes with you. I can’t really describe the causeway, but there was a reason why it was on my bucket list, and I am so pleased that I got to visit.

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20170121-_1140794Our final stop was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. I have done a bungee jump and skydive, so I thought that a 20-metre long rope bridge, 1 metre wide, only 30 metres above the sea, how bad can it be?! I was not prepared to feel as shaky and nervous as I did. We did the rope bridge but not sure I would rush back to do it again!

Top Tip: Take good non-slip shoes with you, there is quite a bit of climbing to get onto the rocks so be prepared with a good bag as well!

Northern Ireland and the County Antrim coast was beautiful and scenic and well worth the trip. If you do not have a car, then do a guided tour, I learnt so much about the history of Northern Ireland and Belfast from our excellent tour guide

On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond

O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond

My momma was born in Glasgow, and my Granny moved to near Loch Lomond while my mum was still little. Although my Mum has now lived in London since she was 18 when my sister and I were little we used to spend our summer holidays visiting the Loch and nearby Glens.

I try to go and visit my wee Granny once a year, and I always take my camera to snap around the Loch.

We normally visit a wee village on the west bank of the Loch, where the Scottish soap opera ‘Take the High Road’ was filmed. It is a very picturesque little village, with small cottages that in the winter months have traditional wood burners, leaving that soft lingering smell of burnt wood as you walk across the small pebble beach.

The church at the south end of the village is a very pretty little church, name after St Kessog, who brought Christianity to this area.

There used to be a few slate quarries nearby, and when walking the Luss Heritage Trail (about 2.5km walk) you can see the amount of slate nearby still. As we walk, we skim stones with our cousins (well we did when they were little, they are now 18 and 21!) and walk to the end of the pier at Luss (in the summer have an ice cream from the shop on the pier). I have never been in for a paddle though, far too cold!

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Abandoned Monochrome

Dungeness is located on the south coast of England, about 30 mins from Folkestone. I have heard that it is a bit of a haven for photographers, with its slightly dystopian feel. A nuclear power station overshadows derelict fisherman huts and boats on the biggest shingle beach in Europe. The hamlet is home to mainly old wooden houses, many built around old railway coaches, are owned and occupied by fishermen, whose boats lie on the beach.

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Dungeness is a large nature reserve, given the uniqueness of the habitat, home to many rare birds and vegetation. One-third of all plants found in the UK are seen at Dungeness.

Given the aesthetic and mood of the ‘ness, I decided to shoot/edit in monochrome. I am a fan of black and white photography, and it is something that I am always keen to practice and improve.

Best tips for Monochrome Photography

  • Shoot in Raw and JPEG – when editing you get the best result from a Raw conversion, but if you have the JPEG, then you have the image you also captured to compare to.
  • Look for shape, texture and contrast – these are the critical elements of your image compared with colour (look beyond colour!)
  • Try long exposures – especially for moving water or clouds. If it is too bright, try with an ND (neutral density) lens filter to allow for longer shutter speeds without overexposure. Long exposures give a gorgeous element of texture.
  • Strong composition – pay attention to lines, shadows and patterns for bold composition
  • Chose the lowest ISO possible – noise is difficult to control in colour, it is more pronounced in black and white.
  • Recognise the distinct elements of the image – if you can’t distinguish or find it difficult to distinguish between the details, the image will lack impact, and the viewer will struggle to understand it.

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The estate is beautiful, isolated and peaceful and please remember if you wish to respect the privacy of the residents who chose this way of life.

Capturing Autumnal Colours

Autumn is perhaps the most photogenic of the seasons with all of the colours, those stunning warm gold and copper tones. Can also get those misty and dewy mornings, but I am not so much of an early bird for photography!

Me and two friends heading to Greenwich at the weekend to capture the foliage for Autumn. Greenwich Park is a fantastic location, not just for the trees but the people in the royal park as well.

Our response to colour is sophisticated and used well it can be the most powerful element in a photograph. The sensation of colour is multilevel, evoking a mixture of physical, physiological and psychological components.

To capture colours, we should understand the terminology associated with colours

Hue: fundamental quality of colour, what gives colour its uniqueness, the graduation of colour

Primary Colour: one of the spectral colours cyan (blue), magenta (pink), or yellow that can be subtracted from white light to match any other colour. An equal mixture of the three produces black pigment.

Saturation: is the intensity of the colour or chroma, with pure at one end of the scale and more grey at the other end. Fully saturated colours are rarer, only found in quite localised situations, such as flowers.

Brightness: manipulation of hue for how light or dark the precise tone is. The shade remains the same even when the intensity changes.

Some of the best tips I have for capturing autumn colours are:

  • Slight underexposure increases the intensity of hues, but too much overexposure can make hues paler by reducing the primary colour of the tint.
  • Best to shoot in Sunny or Cloudy white balance to capture the depth of colours and to combat the possible cool tone of the image
  • Shoot in Raw; you get the most out of your sensor
  • Use an ISO as low as possible (around 100 if you can)
  • Look for contrast!
  • Try macro photography, getting close to any patterns in leaves or hanging dew droplets
  • Try shooting from different angles including high and low shots. This type of perspective can make a unique scene
  • Keep an eye on your composition! Remember the rule of thirds, leading lines, symmetry, patterns and balancing elements in mind

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Breathtaking Belfast

My father-in-law is initially from Belfast, and my husband used to travel to see his family over there in the 90’s, but this was during the time of the ‘Troubles’ and he never really got to see Belfast. As things have settled since the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ the city is now a buzz of redevelopment and energy as it really opens its doors to the world. We were invited to a family party in Belfast, we thought it would be an excellent opportunity to visit and explore.

I had been to Belfast before, for work a couple of times, but sadly travelling for work meant I got to see the office, the hotel and the airport!

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We arrived late on Friday evening and got a taxi from George Best airport straight to our Airbnb. Due to the women’s rugby world cup that was going on in August, we struggled to get a hotel. Speaking to the guys in Belfast though, apparently, 49 are scheduled to be built in the next few years to accommodate the influx of tourism to the area (also helped by a little show called ‘Game of Thrones’ which is filmed in Northern Ireland).

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We were staying down by the Botanical Gardens and Queen’s University. After a cracking breakfast at Maggie May’s (avoiding the insane pigeons!), we had a stroll through greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens and then through to Queens University. Maggie May’s was a great little find, with five of us crammed around a tiny weenie table with massive plates of breakfast. Pancakes for me, but black pudding and soda bread for the rest.

The botanical gardens have quite a large glasshouse or Palm House, and as it was absolutely freezing, we thought that we would go inside to warm up a little bit. We didn’t realise that there were two wings, walking into the hot arm first, then into the cool arm. The Palm House is home to mostly palms and succulents. Having been to Kew Gardens, the Palm house is small in comparisons, but it is actually a precursor to the Kew Palm House, being completed a few years earlier by the same Richard Turner. I thought that it looked familiar.

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Queens University gives its name to one of the four ‘cultural’ districts of Belfast, Queens Quarter, and is actually one of the oldest Universities in the UK. The main Lanyon building (who designed Belfast Castle) is really stunning and reminds me more of some other leading University buildings in the UK. The main difference though is the orange brickwork, which is not typically seen in other University towns like Oxford which has a more gold/white brickwork effect.

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We headed towards City Hall and visited the exhibition in there on famous Belfastonians (not sure if that is correct!). It’s a lovely building and prefers these traditional town halls compared to the modern glass builds (such as in London).

IMG_3FFA522BE627-1I had to buy a coat when I was in Belfast as I didn’t pack one and it was absolutely freezing! I didn’t think that in the middle of August it would be so cold. As we headed towards the Titanic Museum, the heavens opened, so we darted into a local pub for a pit stop to let the rain ease off! The Duke of York pub in the Cathedral Quarter is the epitome of a proper old British/Irish pub, covered in Guinness plaques and with a very well stocked bar.

We then walked to the Titanic Museum which is located in the Titanic Quarter towards the north of Belfast (the other quarter is Gaeltacht, which we did not get round to visiting). We crossed the over the River Lagan, passed the ‘thing with the ring’ sculpture (this was the polite version of what our taxi driver called it!) and headed towards the Titanic Museum. This £97million museum, on the docks where the Titanic was built before its final journey, is visually stunning. Sadly, the heavens opened again, and we had to run past the only White Star Liner SS Nomadic and into the main foyer of the museum. We went through the exhibition, which if I am honest I thought was quite pricey at £18 per person, but it was a good 90 minutes that we spent on the display.

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Titanic Belfast also when through the history of Belfast in the early 20th century, which lead to the decision to build the Titanic on the docks of the River Lagan, with the cotton mills and rope manufacturing. I would recommend visiting this exhibition, and gave more information than just the on the ship, seeing the mock-ups of the cabins (how short were people in the early 20th century, no way I could have fitted in even the first class beds!).

Sadly we had just one full day in Belfast, I would have loved to visit the International Wall, the Crumlin Road Gaol and head up to Belfast Castle.

What an absolute gem, a diamond that is shining through a history of difficulty, but the future looks bright for Belfast. I can’t wait to go back.

Top Tip: Be prepared for all weathers, as Belfast docks are very close to the open sea, it gets quite a nippy breeze

Top Tip: Get there early to St Georges Market on the weekend for breakfast, great selection of market stalls but it gets very very busy. Recommend the potato scones!

Surprises in Milan

This July I bought my husband a surprise holiday, not only did he not know where we were going but neither did I! We used the prior Expedia service ‘Surprise Trips’ where one of the grand wizards at Expedia found me a holiday based on my budget, airport and number of nights and people. We were told to get to Gatwick for 7am on the day we flew out, only finding out on the way to the airport our destination.

Milan!

All I knew about Milan was it was famous for fashion, Ferrari’s and football!

I never would have thought about Milan as a destination for a city break, would be more inclined to pick Rome, Venice or Florence in Italy, and I was also convinced we were going to Seville (surprise trips is only to one of over 40 cities in Europe).

We quickly bought a guidebook at the airport so we would be able to get our bearings upon arrival and googled how to get from the airport to our hotel. Yay, another European train journey. We arrived at Milan Central Train Station, the equivalent of New York’s grand central station! The high vaulted arches and the almost Art Deco marble feel to the building was pretty impressive, and I was excited to explore.

After a 20 minute walk, we were at our hotel, a comfortable, cosy little place about 5 minutes from the Duomo. Now, this I couldn’t wait to see. After reading that the Duomo is the third largest church in the world and having been to St Paul’s in Rome and being more amazed at the square rather than the church, I was hoping that this would be spectacular. I was blown away. No wonder it took six centuries to finish! The sheer size and detail of this historic church are unlike anything I have seen, with the fantastic Madonna looking over the beautiful city. It’s free to enter and was exploring the crypt and saw the detailed sculpture of St Bartholomew. We then went up to the roof (we took the lift, not the stairs, we learnt from Bruges!). Being up on the roof, walking around the pinnacles and looking down on the square. Again we went earlier, so it wasn’t too busy, but some areas were closed due the time of the morning.

We also visited Castello Sforzesco, which was the residence to Duke of Milan both the Visconti and the Sforza noble houses. The Biscione emblem is depicted all over the castle, vipers or snakes.

The Castello opens up into one of the leading parks of Milan. Considering there are no rivers or lakes in Milan (one of the few major cities I have been to without a body of water), the parks are very lush, and there is a small pond in the park that backs onto the Castello. We visited the former hospital that is now part of the University. It’s a beautiful campus with a vast green courtyard in the middle, offsetting the red brick facade.

The last thing we did in Milan before heading to the airport was to visit the Last Supper. I am not overly religious or much of an art buff, however, it was a must-see. You have to book in advance, sadly you cannot just turn up, luckily (as we weren’t able to plan in advance) we managed to get tickets (although at a much higher price than if we had booked them online in advance). The mural is on a wall in the Santa Maria Delle Grazie, which is a beautiful little church. The fresco painting is probably one of the most recognisable pieces of art in the world, and like Da Vinci’s other identifiable work I couldn’t believe the size of it. While the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris is tiny, The Last Supper literally takes up the whole wall of the refectory.

I can’t actually say how much pizza, pasta and gelato I ate in three days! Milan is a wonderful city with lots of history, character and charm.

Top tip: when visiting the churches, knee and shoulders should be covered, so take a shawl, scarf or wrap with you if you are travelling in the summer months. You can purchase a ‘coverall’ type thing, but come prepared.

Top tip: there are a number of public water fountains around the city to use free of charge, take a flask or keep an empty bottle to stay hydrated.

 

Chocolate, Canals and Cobbles in Bruges

Last year for my 30th birthday, my husband bought me a weekend away in Bruges. Pretty much all I knew about Bruges before we travelled there was it’s famous for chocolate and its gothic architecture (from the infamous film ‘In Bruges’).

We travelled by Eurostar from Ebbsfleet in Kent for a two-night break. We got the Eurostar to Brussels and with a fifteen-minute change over we were on the train to Bruges. I love travelling by train in Europe as it’s so different from my regular British rail commute to London.

Walking from the train station to our hotel, which was about 15-20 minutes, we passed through lots of cobbled streets and canals (really pleased I didn’t have a mini suitcase as there are really a lot of cobbles!) and felt we had transported back in time to this quaint medieval town.

We first hit up the main square (Markt), which is overlooked by the imposing Belfort, which I remember well from ‘In Bruges’ for having a damn lot of very narrow stairs. We had lunch at one of the restaurants on the square and watched the horse and carts pass by. I was amazed at the number of beers being served and how they were all in different glasses from steins to quarter yard glasses, sod having to wash all them!

We had a short wander around the city, trying to get our bearings, following canals and churches, my Fitbit must have thought what on earth was going on the number of steps! The next morning we climbed the Belfort. I am slightly claustrophobic, and at 5ft 7 I am not short either, crikey was the staircase narrow and winding! I did feel bit puffed out when got to the top. Well worth it though to see the views over the city. Unfortunately, the weather was quite cloudy, but it was worth going so early in the day as meant I didn’t have a horde of people rushing me up and down the stairs.

We then visited the Historium and some other churches and parks, we had to walk off that beer and chocolate somehow! The city is so quaint and pretty. Gothic architecture can be seen at quite harsh, but it just added to the picturesque quality of Bruges. But the night is when the city changes, especially when it rains (we are Londoners, of course, it will rain!). The gothic architecture really comes into its own, creating a more edgy feel to the buildings, but of course, the people are still as warm, friendly and accommodating. We met a young lady who worked at Godiva chocolate and was taking some chocolate covered strawberries to her friend, but she wasn’t in and didn’t want to waste them!

I absolutely loved the city and would recommend a short stay there. We went on a weekend, and it was bustling, especially on the Saturday, so a mid-week might be a better option. Visit the chocolate museum and whirl around the windmills, cruise the canals and walk until your feet hurt (then sleep on the train home!)