Scenic Salzburg – From Mozart to Maria

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Just over a 2 hour train ride away from Vienna or Munich makes Salzburg a picturesque and easily accessible city to pair up with these destinations. Birthplace of the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the setting for the musical of all musicals, the iconic Sound of Music and the inspiration behind the song, ‘Silent Night’, we just had to squeeze time into our Christmas market break to see what is so special about this place. The first thing that hit me about Salzburg after coming from Vienna was just how cold it was. The city is high up in the mountains so you feel an instant chill when stepping off the train and even my tights-under-leggings-under-jeans display failed in sheltering me from the chill.wpid-img_20140822_222618.jpg

The Size of Salzburg

The pace of life is slower here. If Vienna is a brisk walk, then Salzburg is most certainly an amble. The demographic seems to include a higher proportion of elderly people and it’s a really small city in comparison to the capital, making it quite easy to do all the touristy things on foot. Even if you’re not staying right in the heart of the old town, you’ll most probably only be a 10-15 minute walk away so consider this before paying premiums for more “central” hotels.wpid-img_20140824_184339.jpg

The Sounds of Salzburg – Mozart Recitals and Sound of Music Tours

The presence of Mozart and Maria are everywhere. There are countless companies advertising Mozart recitals and Sound of Music Tours, where you are taken to many of the locations shown in the film, given opportunities for singing and participating with costume-clad guides and the like. I’ve loved the Sound of Music ever since I was a child and my Mum first showed it to me so I’ll admit I was tempted. Pumpkin, however, is a dis-liker of musicals in any form (can’t sing, won’t sing?) so trying to persuade him to Edelweiss his way around the Salzburg hills would have been a near impossible task. So we compromised (you learn to pick your battles) and walked around the Mirabelle gardens ourselves but not without my rendition of ‘These are a few of my favourite things’ providing the soundtrack for the afternoon.

If classical music is more your passion, then try and watch a concert in one of the grand music halls here in Salzburg. There is a venue at the top of the Festung fortress, which is a stunning location to see some live music. For either the Sound of Music Tours or the Mozart recitals, you’re looking at ticket prices of approximately 40-50 Euros per person.DSC_0308

The Sights of Salzburg

If you only have a day in Salzburg, don’t miss out on the Mirabelle Gardens and the funicular ride to the top of the Festung Fortress, where bizarrely, you get excellent free wi-fi if you want to sacrifice the tips of your digits to de-glove and get online. I speak from experience – mine went purple and I’m not sure it was worth it just to try and get in that real-time tweet.

The ride itself takes just about 2 minutes and there are no seats but once you reach the top, you are afforded beautiful views of the Salzburg architecture. Try to go up about an hour or so before anticipated dusk to see the peachy sunset glazing the whitewash buildings.Ticket price includes an audio tour with individual audio guides in different languages. The tour takes about half an hour and provides a bitesize chunk of history to take home upon your descent. The funicular ride, if you are going at Christmas time, boards right by the site of the main Salzburg Christmas Market.

The Senses of Salzburg – cake, coffee and lovelocks

In the vicinity here, you will also find one of Salzburg’s most famous and frequented cafes, Cafe Tomaselli. We shied away from this after one glimpse at the crowds and instead headed across the bridge towards to see if Cafe Sacher or Cafe Bazaar were looking any roomier.wpid-img_20140824_184610.jpg

With the buzz of the small Christmas market and the elegant horse-drawn carriages, you feel as if you have been transported back in time but for me, the most picturesque moment was not the panoramic viewpoint or the Sound of Music locations; it wasn’t even the view of the perfectly formed and seriously chocolatey Sachertorte. For me, the most beautiful moment in Salzburg was the view of the Marketstag lovelock bridge in Salzburg at sunset, with the mountains in the background, padlocks showering the Danube with ripples of emotion and the night lights casting their colours onto the water.DSC_0357If you are pushed for time, you could get away with just spending a day or two in Salzburg to see its main attractions but it has a quiet charm that you may find difficult to resist.

A Spa Break Hen Weekend in Winchester

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For centuries, groups of women have gathered together to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of one of their own. In Indian culture, which has influenced my upbringing, this is known as a Ladies’ Sangeet, literally translating to a group of ladies singing together to rejoice. My trans-Atlantic friends speak of bridal showers and bachelorette parties and here in England, us girls have christened the occasion a hen do. If you’re one of those ‘quirky-anecdote’ sorts, perhaps you can tell me why.hen party balloons pink fizz

When the bride to be announced her engagement last summer, I was as excited as an energised bunny plied with sugarcane. As bridesmaids, we were tasked with putting together a classy and relaxing affair. Actually – we stole the task. We had to, as she was insistent she didn’t need a hen do. But that’s just the sort of humility we would expect from someone who spends her days nursing cancer patients. And that’s exactly why we were adamant that she deserved a weekend of pampering.

Arranging a spa break hen weekend

The logistics though are another issue. Our group were travelling from Manchester to Cornwall and everywhere in between; booking a package inclusive of spa treatments, meals and accommodation whilst keeping it affordable is not so straightforward. Cue Spa Breaks, who provide tailored spa weekend packages for groups like ourselves at highly competitive prices. With a selection of hotel spa packages across the country, we opted for the 4* Norton Park Hotel (part of the Q Hotel Chain) near Winchester in leafy Hampshire.

Our deal included an A La Carte dinner, buffet breakfast and lunch, two spa treatments each, accommodation and a bottle of pink fizz in each room. For approximately £130 / head , this was an absolute steal!

The ladies working at the spa were so professional and friendly, providing utterly relaxing treatments. Quite often with large group spa packages, the quality of the treatments can be mixed but here, while the masseuse kneaded the knots in my back, my stresses bubbled away and the invigorating facial cleansed away the pollen of the British summer.

The staff at Norton Park overall in fact were astoundingly friendly – I speak as a Londoner but do people just get more friendly the further away you get from London?!

The buffet lunch was satisfactory, though I can’t say I loved it. Dinner on the other hand exceeded expectations with ample choice on the menu and outshining most party menus I have tried in the past. I opted for a creamy goats cheese and caramelized onion tart, tandoori chicken and chickpea salad for mains before finishing with sticky toffee pudding, perhaps a mistake considering just a couple of hours earlier, we had all tucked into a hen party cake made by my sister. But can a lady ever have too much cake? Ask me when I’m in my diabetic coma.

The theme for the night was “little black dress and pearls” – very classic, very elegant, very Audrey Hepburn and most of all – very easy! The day ended with a fun-filled evening of games, some handmade gifts courtesy of the most creative bridesmaid, a Beyonce “Single-Ladies” dance routine and a rather bizarre recording of the groom singing.

I think my only feedback to Spa Breaks would be that that after we made the payment for the booking, we had to do a bit of chasing to get a response from our agent to a couple of emails. We did get through in the end after we nudged customer services and all the arrangements were smoothly in place upon arrival so I would certainly be happy to use their services again

I had never really known if a spa weekend was up my street but just a fortnight later, I’m already plugging the concept of a hen do anniversary. What? It’s a real thing. wpid-img_20140806_215021.jpg

After an evening of oestrogenic silliness, we polished off a lazy Sunday brunch before heading out to Winchester on a clear and bright morning –  half of us did anyway, the half who were quite happy to put off the inevitable ironing piles, laundry loads and hungry husbands waiting for us at home!

 

 

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Spa Breaks but I am an opinionated (and now very relaxed) little lady and all views, good or bad, are honest and entirely my own.

A North Norfolk Weekend Break – Activities, Sights & Seals

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More than twenty years have passed since my first day at secondary school. I was a chubby but chatty child, excited if a little daunted to be starting a new chapter and wondering if I would settle in and make friends. Little did I know that two decades later, some of the ladies I met in that classroom would go on to become my nearest and dearest. And whilst life has carried us to different corners of the country, we have maintained a tradition to reunite, at least annually, to share our updates from the preceding twelve months over a few glasses of wine, a feast of food and a LOT of giggles.North Norfolk coast view sunlightFour Ladies and Four Lads they picked up along the way

Once upon a time, these weekend escapes used to take place in the form of girls’ weekends in Manchester, where one of our clan resides. Questionable nightclubs, stiletto heels and moaning about the cold, Northern weather would feature highly. And the men (where there were any) were left at home.

One by one, Cupid cast his spell on us and the city weekend with four girls evolved into a countryside break with four ladies and their four respective others with dinner parties and board games replacing bars and nightlife. And this is the contented platform we’ve been on for the last three years. This year, with four of our cohort planning a bigger day in their lives, I was quite happy to take charge of the arrangements. If you’re planning a a UK country weekend break, you can find all my tips here.North Norfolk coastline dinghy

A Weekend Break in North Norfolk

Initial discussions had considered a return to the previous year’s destination of Malvern, a retreat to the Cotswolds, where I had once taken Pumpkin as a surprise but ultimately we opted for Norfolk, which most of us were eager about, having never really explored it. I exclude Pumpkin, whose excitement was weightily muted by the prospect of spending money to return to the very place where he spent most of his youth. We live in a democracy though and 7:1 was victory enough so we got in our cars after a long week at work to arrive in the village of Bale, North Norfolk.North Barn Bale NorfolkOur property was booked through English Country Cottages. North Barn, a huge property with four large bedrooms, a brilliantly-equipped, open-plan kitchen and an airy, spacious living room with high-beamed ceilings provided the perfect setting for our weekend. If there were ever any doubt that we had crossed into rural terrain, the sheep we spotted just a few yards from the cottage and the caramelised expanses of golden rapeseed field helped remind us just why the English countryside is so darn appealing.rapeseed field norfolk yellowOur Saturday began with a leisurely but sizeable brunch at home followed by a freshly-baked batch of brownies (kudos to Pumpkin for getting involved in brownie-baking on what was supposedly a big football weekend of the year.) We aren’t usually in the habit of eating brownies for breakfast but as there were enough hands involved in eggs and bacon, I got my elbow grease stuck into desserts to provide snacks for the weekend. Needs must.

Holkham Bay North Norfolk

Holkham Bay and Blakeney Point

On a semi-cloudy but dry day, we headed towards Holkham Bay, voted best beach in the UK in a recent poll. This is the first time we’ve done the weekend away in a coastal region so we were keen to explore England’s easterly stretches of sand. I loved the varying consistency of sand across the bay, white, deep and fluffy in some parts, coarse, gluey and grey in others and with wild, overgrown grassy tufts splayed across the shoreline. I thrive on spotting little details on the beach, idly waiting to be discovered, signatures to the individuality of the sands upon which they lie. Here, we noticed this collection of rocks and shells but my most treasured find was this small pool of what we assumed to be oil in water, the light refracting off it to yield a magical pearly sheen.oil water refraction sand

A short drive away, we engaged with our inner nature-lovers and took a boat towards Blakeney Point to look for seals. Various different companies offer trips onto the water; it is approximately a one and a half hour round trip and we saw countless grey seals, playfully splashing in the water. I hadn’t realised they originate from the dog family but once this was pointed out, it became abundantly obvious. They had that same endearing and affectionate nature.

After stocking up with delicious, locally made goodies at the Back to the Garden Farm Shop, we retired to our property for tea (my choice), football (Pumpkin’s choice) and some unwinding before we joined in a valiant team effort to prepare a five course evening meal. I learned several things that night: (1) When preparing a dessert for the first time for a group of  eight, always ensure the calmer spouse is around to save the day (not me), (2) Cards against humanity may give you a harsh insight into the fact that you’re not nearly as funny as you thought you were (3) either I was drunk from the Baileys in my own pudding or it is entirely possible to be in a laughing fit of hysteria over the silliest of things.

The King’s Head, Letheringsett

The King's Head Letheringsett Norfolk

Sundays in rural England are for one thing and one thing only. Lazy pub lunches. And we stayed true to form at The King’s Head, Letheringsett, ordering a variety of English classics including fish and chips and Sunday roasts. I was just a bit too full to stomach anything more than a sandwich and had no complaints about my choice. The starters and sea bream main course were well received but some of the group had felt the meat in the Sunday roast was rather overdone but as far as a pub venue goes, this was homely and cosy with rustic bookshelves, an open fire, the Sunday papers and full of families enjoying the Easter holidays.sailing boats North Norfolk

Exploring Holt, Norfolk

If you are in that area, the quaint, market town of Holt is worth a visit, although it may be better to avoid going on a Sunday like we did, as most of the town was shut. This was actually my second trip to Holt – I last went in 2009 and to see the town come to life, head there on a weekday or Saturdays.pebbledash architecture NorfolkThe Byfords cafe is a charming place to have a traditional English afternoon tea or one of the most English ice cream flavours I’ve ever seen – Bakewell tart.

Most of the small jewellery shops, antique book stores etc that I remembered from my previous visit were closed on the Sunday but we managed to find a deceptively big antique shop with room upon room full to the brim with trinkets. It was the most exciting antique shop I have found since Aladdin’s Cave in Brockley, South London and a few of us found some treasures to invest in.

It seems Pumpkin had been guilty, like many of us are, of ignoring the beauty right on his doorstep and despite seven years of schooling in Norfolk, he hadn’t discovered these stunning areas of natural scenery. With it being only a two to three hour drive from London, we hope to return again and see the Norfolk Broads next time.

Have you visited Norfolk? What are your tips for must-see sights?

The Dulce De Leche Diaries – Argentina’s Sweetest Treat

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For most visitors heading to Argentina, the eagerly anticipated culinary objects of desire are undoubtedly steak and Malbec with most people grasping their carinvorous molars into a plump slab of meat within hours of arrival. As a lady who neither drinks alcohol nor eats beef, however, what was left for me to lust after on my trip? The truth is, I am a confectioner’s dream target market and had been salivating for weeks about trying Dulce de Leche on a continent that devours it. Pumpkin’s oh-so-inaccurate claim it is in fact just “caramel with a fancy name” fell on deaf (and unimpressed) ears.

Dulce De Leche bannerDulce de Leche – Argentina’s candy of milk

When he made the suggestion that I write an entire post on Dulce De Leche, I think he was in fact joking, poking fun at my mission to sample just about anything that contained it. Sarcasm aside though, I thought it was a moment of sheer genius. Dulce de Leche, which literally translates to “candy of milk”, is  circulating in the blood of the Argentinian people, so prevalent is it in whichever direction you look. So after a calorie-infused fortnight in Argentina, I present to you:

The Dulce de Leche Diaries:

wpid-img_20140811_124559.jpgThe original Dulce de Leche sauce

Where it all began. This can be eaten on toast, in desserts, used in other recipes or quite frankly, just by the tablespoon. As a dentist’s nemesis, it is so naughty that it should be illegal. The San Telmo Market had several stalls featuring 0.5 – 1kg jars, starting from 3USD but as this was the freshest and creamiest stuff, it had a short shelf life, which even I would have struggled to bypass. Instead, I opted for a smaller jar with a longer shelf life from a deli in Puerto Madero – only time will tell whether I need have bothered with the long life.

Dulce de Leche crepe

Another fabulous San Telmo street food find and just two days before pancake day, the rumbles in my tummy drew us like a compass towards this crepe within hours of landing. At only 20 Argentinian pesos per crepe, this was made in front of my eyes by an elderly local with a smile even sweeter than the indulgent crepe he was serving.crepe stall San Telmo Market

Dulce de Leche Icecream

I wasn’t a total novice to this flavour, having sampled it at Freggo London, which is the closest I have discovered to Authentic Argentinian icecream (helado) in London. But rarely have I seen one flavour sub-categorised into so many offshoots. Most ice cream shops (heladerias) will serve the original but also offer a tempting range of twists including Granizado (chocolate chips), brownie pieces, chocolate, coconut and meringue to name but a few. After a few scoops of the classic, I persuaded myself to branch out.

dulce de leche chocolate flavour menu choicesAlfajores 

Where do I begin?! These crumbly, melt in the mouth , shortbread-like biscuits are sandwiched together with a layer of Dulce de Leche to form perhaps the most moreish sweet bite I’ve had in a long time. It’s light enough that you don’t feel sick, sweet enough to leave you craving more and small enough to delude you into a guilt-free bubble. Hence, it became a daily fixture on the holiday menu and as it’s really more a biscuit, I exempted it from the daily dessert count. Naturally. The first picture is one I had in Argentina and the second is one I made in my kitchen back in London a few weeks later! (And mine tasted almost as good – hurrah!)

Dulce de Leche Breakfast Tart

Sandwiched between two layers of tart and topped with dessicated coconut, these triangular nuggets of heaven were to be found on the daily breakfast buffet menu (and on my plate) at the Esplendor Hotel in El Calafate, Patagonia. There is something deeply dangerous about spotting an item so tantalising in a buffet environment.dulce de leche hotel breakfast

Dulce de Leche waffle

Another breakfast find, this time at the boutique Bobo hotel in Palermo SoHo, Buenos Aires, this waffle promised red berries, whipped cream and Dulce de Leche. Although the waffle batter was bouncy and light, not overly sweetened and overall a good choice, I was barely able to taste the Dulce de Leche. Or had I just become immune?waffle dulce de leche breakfast Bobo Hotel Buenos Aires

Chocolate & Dulce de Leche dessert 

Finally, the one to beat came in the form of a moist chocolate sponge with layer upon layer of silky Dulce de Leche precision hidden seductively inside. My sweet trophy of the trip (of 2014 in fact) went to this round of decadence, which I found at the Smeterling Patisserie in Buenos Aires. I wish wish wish I had paused to take a photo of the creamy layering on the inside but some delights are too divine to stand still for the pressures of blogging, Instagram and social media. Some moments are just to be enjoyed. And that’s exactly what I did.Dulce de Leche cake Smeltering Patisserie Buenos AiresSo there you have it – a mini tour of Argentina through a Dulce de Leche lens, a treat we indulged in so frequently that Pumpkin abbreviated it to “DDL”. Time to hit the gym.

Where in the world have you enjoyed the sweetest delicacies?

El Calafate, Patagonia – Beries, Birds and The Best Restaurants

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El Calafate

If I were to tell you about a city named Strawberry, you’d be forgiven for your mockery and sniggers. And yet, when a name has a Spanish flair, rolling emphatically off the tongues of proud Patagonians, it sounds altogether more intriguing. The adorable little town of El Calafate serves as a base for most tourists heading towards the impossibly splendid Perito Moreno Glacier. Its name is derived from the Calafate berry, a local traditional berry, blue in colour and slightly tart. Myth suggests that those who eat the Calafate berry will one day return to Patagonia and this was all the evidence I needed to start sampling.

Perito Moreno Glacier Patagonia Argentina

The novelty that this quirky anecdote has for tourists has not gone unnoticed by local traders with shops on every corner selling everything from Calafate jam and ice cream to Calafate chocolates; after an initial taster, my suitcase quickly went from overweight to obese, stuffed with these souvenirs. It is becoming a bit of a ritual of mine to buy specialty teas from my trips – this is entirely unintentional as I drink tea occasionally rather than habitually but I think it was the tea factory hotel in Sri Lanka that was the turning point. I honestly didn’t think it would be an issue on this trip as I’d never known of the Argentinians or Brazilians being famed for tea. But in Patagonia, tee manzana (apple tea) is almost more prevalent than water and the rest is….well the rest is sitting in my larder. You had me at apple.

The Best Restaurants in El Calafate

The town itself is quite small with a disproportionate number of restaurants all aimed at the tourist market. With little, wooden, rustic buildings, it had a similar feel to Zermatt, Switzerland, if a little more man-made. I cannot stress highly enough how helpful it is to book ahead if there is a specific restaurant you have in mind. The popular ones are easy to spot (as are the bad ones) and considering most people are returning from the same excursions at roughly the same times, you can see the potential for waits.

Pumpkin knows better than to risk the wrath of his wife when she is cold and hungry so all our bookings were done in advance with the exception of the fabulous Viva La Pepa Crepes, where the sugarcraft artwork really hallmarks the crepes. We kept things local by opting for a Patagonian lamb crepe with cream cheese, honey, rosemary and mint to share for mains and a delicious apple crepe with Calafate ice cream to finish.

La Tablita and Isabel – Cocina al Disco are great options for those looking for delicious food with an informal atmosphere minus the price tag. The “discos”, which are the specialty of the house, are essentially huge casseroles – the honey mustard chicken was our choice and we couldn’t even finish one between the two of us. It comes with a generous half loaf of bread with a knife wedged in the middle. No seriously.

La Tablita is an excellent-value parilla (Argentine grill-style restaurants,) serving authentic cuisine. My Patagonian trout was nice enough with perhaps one too many bones to fish out (sorry for the awful pun) but I enjoyed my Pumpkin mash (the nickname’s now so engrained that I forget it was an actual vegetable long before my husband got tagged with the label.) Pumpkin himself highly recommended his grilled lamb and fries with white wine, parsley and garlic.

El Calafate signs

The Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary

A stroll along the main street in El Calafate on our first day took little more than a meagre 20 minutes, allowing us ample time to browse the Laguna Nimez bird sanctuary. One of my good friends, a biology teacher, will tell me off for feeling almost embarrassed that we were bird watching. But for 45 Pesos per person and an afternoon to pass, it seemed worth a punt.

bird sanctuary El Calafate Laguna NimezAs it turned out, we could count on one hand the number of bird species we saw – perhaps they just weren’t there that day or perhaps our binoculars need upgrading, as we spotted some fabulous close-up bird photos on the laptops of fellow travellers the following evening. The lakeside scenery, though, was in itself worth a visit, the ambience so serene that we had actually forgotten it was about the birds. The lucent blue waters glistened under the low sun, pristine and with tones of jade that took me back to the Maldives.el calafate bird sanctuary scenery

The terrain beneath our feet varied rapidly in texture from small, gravely and superficial to a thickened, dense, yellow sand by the edge of the lake, where my calves met with resistance. The grass, where there was any, was barren with scanty tufts of long straggly wheat-like crops, as if shaving brushes had been embedded in the soil, doted around the sanctuary. Some interesting foliage and fauna can be seen here with numerous daisy bushes resembling lollipops, where the delicate “loves-me, loves-me-not” petals had been swept away by the blustery winds that were commonplace in Patagonia.el calafate photograph

Thinking I could get away without a pair of trainers at the sanctuary was an ill-thought out move, as the varying textures of soil commanded a more sensible shoe. Patagonia in Autumn was not much different to a cold October day in England but you need at the very least, a scarf, sunglasses, ,a sensible pair of shoes and a waterproof. In the distance, we spotted flamingoes, ducks and a large vulture. If you own a super zoom lens, this would be the place to bring it.

The bird sanctuary is just a brief walk away from the main town area and quite reasonably priced so once you have tired of your share of jam and wool shops, venture down here to be at one with nature.

Have you come across any cities or towns with unusual names?

 

Part of the #SundayTraveler Link Up

Why I started Travel Blogging – Reflections One Year On

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Early to rise and early to bed. I fail to master it. Always more a creature of the night, I am consistently at my most productive at 1am on a quiet night but this is not conducive to a regular routine so one tries one’s best to adapt. Earlier this week was no different. It was a balmy midnight in London town, our tower fan making a whimpering effort at relieving us of our heat intolerance; Pumpkin fast asleep, not quite snoring and me on smart phone responding to a couple of blog comments. Ironic really considering that it was just then that WordPress reminded me that it was my 1st blogiversary (blogiversary is another term I have come to learn in the last year.) Reminded, in actual fact, is too strong a word. It implies I knew it in the first place. I didn’t – which is uncharacteristic since I’m a sentimental sap 90% of my life.

I promised myself I wouldn’t write a post about “what I’ve achieved in a year of blogging.” I suppose I kind of felt I should reserve that for bloggers bigger and better than myself but then I started to reflect, always a dangerous endeavour for those of us who express ourselves best in prose. I am fully aware that my humble, little travel blog is a small fish in the expansile blogosphere ocean. I am Nemo. Except that I don’t feel lost.Patagonia coast

You hear of travellers heading abroad to “find themselves”, a term I’ve never fully grasped. I’ve been trotting around the globe for years but it’s only here, since putting the proverbial pen to paper, where I hasten to say that I’ve found a creative space for myself. When I started the blog, I told nobody for four months (except my parents and Pumpkin, who took a lot longer than 4 months to forgive me for the nickname). I suppose I was shy and a bit self-conscious about it and whilst dipping my (rather wide) foot into the overwhelming social media world, I cringed at having to share my own posts. Self-promotion and patting yourself on the back are painfully awkward exploits for those of us totally unfamiliar with the worlds of sales, marketing, advertising or performance.

I started the blog up for myself. I had no agenda, no entrepreneurial thoughts and no expectations. I thought it would be a nice travel journal for Pumpkin and I to reminisce over in future years, simultaneously giving me a chance to write about travel, which I love. Anything else and I mean anything was a bonus. What I never expected were the wonderful readers, the accommodating and welcoming travel blogger community, the kind-hearted comments, the new friends, the meet ups and tweet ups, the odd perk, the new knowledge (I’d never even heard of a widget this time last year) and most of all, the boost in self-confidence.

I spend much of my working life reassuring people that opening up about their feelings is not only acceptable but actually necessary and encouraged. It has been cathartic to take a wafer-thin leaf out of my own book today by doing just that but I apologise if the spiel has been a little heavy for the end of a working week. I feel privileged to have made it to 11 countries in the last 12 months, a personal record that I doubt I’ll be able to reproduce but to end, here are the blog posts that have (perhaps) left the deepest thumb prints – it’s hard to pick just a few; it would be like choosing the favourite of your children. So without further ado:

The original blog post

The unique, rugged scenery of Iceland (with the most rainbows I had ever seen) was the original inspiration for the travel blog.

iceland rainbowThe most viewed blog post

Ever the hopeless romantic, I wrote about the Salzburg love-lock bridge on a complete whim, whilst feeling loved up on Valentine’s week this year and was totally stunned to find out it has been my most viewed post!Salzburg love lock bridgeThe most quirky blog post

This peculiar little red, phone box library is packed full of heart and soul and encapsulates everything that is great about community spirit. Found completely by chance one Saturday morning, I’m delighted so many of you have warmed to it as much as I did! Lewisham micro-libraryThe country my fellow travel bloggers inspired me to visit

It is a hand-on-heart truth when I say that this was entirely inspired by reading so many wonderful travel blog posts about it. I’ve always thought that Italy was my favourite European country but after discovering this little gem of a land, I no longer know where I stand! From the beautiful Lake Bled to the tasty treats on tour in Ljubljana, I remain infatuated with mesmerising Slovenia.Lake Bled SloveniaAnd last but not least – the post I enjoyed writing the most (I’m as predictable as they get)

Pumpkin has actually travelled far more than I have – if he were on the blogosphere, he’d be my biggest competitor! But he also happens to be a quite perfect travel partner  Blogging about our honeymoon in the remote African bush (my first trip to Africa) brought back so many special memories that it just had to win my vote for favourite post.Selous Tanzania

What have you loved most about blogging?

10 Tips for Planning a British Countryside Cottage Break

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I used to wonder if I fell into the group of Type A personality – I always love to have a project on the go, I like to think I’m proactive and I do have lots of ambitions, which hopefully I’m working my way through achieving – but then I resorted to Wikipedia to look up the definition of Type A personality. “Obsessed with time management” and “rigidly organised?” ERR. NO. These are not traits I possess. So let’s forget typecasting personalities and stick to facts. I am hopelessly tardy and the mountain of lost umbrellas on the London Underground, once belonging to me, would argue with whether I am organised but I really do love having a good project to plan.

When the opportunity arose to sort out our annual countryside reunion with friends, I jumped at the chance to get my teeth stuck in; looking at destinations, properties, reviews and activities – all the things I love doing anyway and it gets a task done. And then I started to hit the stumbling blocks and it went from being a fun project to being a royal pain. All’s well that ends well but I learned a few lessons along the way which I hope you’ll find useful.norfolk country cottage barn

Planning a UK country cottage break

  • Avoid school holidays (unless you have school-aged children obviously). Unfortunately, by the time, I clocked onto this nugget of knowledge, we had firmly set the date but availability is hugely limited, many cottages have a minimum one week stay policy and prices are inflated compared to other times of year. If you do need to book during school holidays, start searching well in advance.
  • Compare and contrast websites – I searched Cottages 4 you, Sykes Cottages, English Country Cottages and Holiday Lettings and I noticed that it is sometimes possible to find the same property appearing on different sites but with marginal price differences.malvern countryside horse
  • Carry Cash – a tip aimed primarily at the urban folk among you but us Londoners are hopeless at carrying cash. We pay for our morning coffees on card, we pay for our meals on card, we pay for our groceries on card and we assume that when we need cash, there will be an ATM within arm’s length. Clearly, this is not the case out in rural villages. The nearest cash point is likely to be a drive away and whilst most restaurants and pubs do take card payment, there is nothing more embarrassing than queuing in the local village shop with a punnet of organic strawberries in hand and having to hand over your Mastercard. Trust me.
  • Be flexible with rooms. Most cottages are designed to cater for parties of both adults and children so if, like us, you are travelling as a group of adults only, you will have far more options if you are prepared to entertain twin rooms (two years ago, one of the couples in our group even accepted a bunk bed, graciously taking one for the team!)
  • Consider activities. Our countryside breaks have involved clay pigeon shooting, hill-walking, visiting beaches and most recently seal-spotting. We are reasonably flexible so tend to select property first and then see what’s around but if there are specific outdoor activities you are interested in, try and pre-determine your location accordingly.
  • Check the layout of the cottage – sounds obvious but the point of a weekend like this is to socialise and relax with your friends and family so it follows that a nice open plan kitchen/living room, ample outdoor furniture and large, accommodating living rooms facilitate this. In the cottage we stayed in this year, we noticed what a huge difference it made having open-plan, spacious, communal areas.country cottage malvern
  • Country cottages or country hotels?

    – We have always opted for self-catered cottages but there are pros and cons with both. The cottage experience feels like a home away from home and is more private and cohesive. But this does mean you often need to bring your own food and drink, potentially cook your own meals and clean up after yourself. If you prefer a country break with spas, room service, buffet breakfasts and leaving the cooking and cleaning behind, then a self-catered cottage is not for you but there is no shortage of beautiful countryside resorts and hotels.sheep peak district yorkshire dales

  • Check what amenities are provided. It’s the staple items like washing up liquid and dishwasher tablets that can get forgotten but try and find out how much kitchen equipment is stocked, such as cooking utensils and crockery. This helps you prepare what you need to bring if you are planning to cook up a storm and although most places ought to provide basics, it is not uncommon to find places that don’t.
  • Don’t rely on your GPS (hugely hypocritical coming from me, considering how much I rely on mine) but it was Pumpkin’s pearl of wisdom that we should print out paper maps because in the depths of the English countryside, you are often faced with dark, quiet, winding, rural roads and a GPS that doesn’t pick up any signal – which the clueless Londoner in me hadn’t even considered.
  • This is an ideal time for a supermarket delivery – I’ve still never ordered groceries to be delivered to my home. I have no objection to it but I know that once I cross that boundary, I’ll venture into a dangerous level of laziness. But on occasions like this, it worked a treat to wake up at the cottage on Saturday morning and have all our rations for the weekend delivered straight to our door.

What are your helpful tips for planning weekend trips and have you had any mishaps that you have learned from?

Porto Bay Rio Internacional Hotel, Copacabana Rio de Janeiro

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For someone who frequently proclaims that she hates “to sound cheesy”, it is alarming how often I do. But sometimes, nothing lights up your day quite like a warm, welcoming smile. It was exactly what was needed to diffuse my frustration and moodiness after a long day of travelling, an airport transfer that failed to show and a two hour futile wait at Rio De Janeiro airport (none of which were related to the hotel I must add). I for one was not smiling upon arrival but it seemed the day had not taken its toll on the bubbly and sincerely friendly lady at concierge who checked us in.

The Porto Bay Rio Internacional

night time view Rio de Janeiro

Rio skyline with Christ Redeemer statue twinkling in the distance

Here at Porto Bay, they start as they mean to go on. Bubbly offers us some bubbles but after our day, we just need water – ice cold to drink and warm  enough to shower in. She spots the frazzled look on our faces and extends her sympathy by offering us a superior room on the 18th floor. We are promised a view of Copacabana to our left, a view of the Christ Redeemer statue to our right.We arrive to mini chocolates on our bed – how did they know I needed chocolate?

Pumpkin calls me onto the balcony, captivated by the view. It was no empty promise. I forget what we were annoyed about. We bask in Rio’s dusky humidity and we are in a dilemma about which way to look. Pumpkin starts playing with his camera to see how he can capture the twinkling stars – we are Londoners living in smog and the only starlight we see at home comes in boxes, stacked on shelves in hardware stores so we decide to grab a bite and aim to head back early to spend the night gazing at them. We want to dine somewhere shamefully nearby, cheap and cheerful. We feel hungry and lazy. Once again, the hotel staff put forth some suggestions on the Copacabana, which do not disappoint. We are soon to learn how large portions are in Rio.Copacabana view Rio de Janeiro

Porto Bay have turned this day around for me – I feel excited and happy to be here and my grumpy mood has lifted well above the Corcovado; for this I am thankful. Pumpkin is intrigued at their skill, making a mental note of their formula – he is all too aware of the challenge of dealing with my moods!

The following morning, breakfast is a feast. I have read good things about it and still, I am impressed. I am most taken by the array of brightly coloured, diverse tropical fruits. Today, I will be good and cleanse with the detox juice – it is green, which means it must be good for me (or so I tell myself). It is a nourishing fusion of spinach and ginger, fennel and apple. Despite all my reservations, it is not only palatable but actually hugely refreshing. I try pink guava and custard apple for the first time and experiment in the spongy coconut tapioca pudding.

The prime seats at breakfast are those with the panoramic window view of the beach – I will shuffle my way forwards over the next few days to grab these front row tickets. The waiting staff are warm-hearted, offering to take our photo, engaging in conversation (and fluent in English, which makes us feel less embarrassed about not knowing more than two words of Portuguese).

Room service is 24 hours but I won’t be needing it. I have found my late afternoon snack for the trip. The Churros stall is a stone’s throw away. The room is cosy and comfortable. I don’t normally like fixed-head showers but this one has sufficient pressure for me to look past this. Porto Bay Rio bathroom amenities

rooftop pool Porto Bay Internacional Rio

The luxury rooftop terrace pool

Shampoo, body lotion, a shower cap and a hair dryer are stocked. This is all I need. (My hair in the humidity is no picnic, believe me). But the robes and slippers are always nice. As the trip progresses, we start using the phrase “shall we go home first before we head out for dinner”. For me, this is always a sensitive test for a good hotel – whether or not you inadvertently start referring to it as home.I find the heat a little stifling and this calls for the rooftop pool – the crowd up there is large enough to give it an atmosphere, small enough to avoid feeling cramped.

At the pool bar, I order my virgin Caipirinha – a teetotaller needn’t miss out. My shins dangle in the warm pool water, notepad in hand ready to start blogging the old-fashioned way and the Copacabana in the distance. These are the rare moments in which you really feel in your bones what it means to unwind. On a clear day, you’ll see a nice sunset from here and guests come up for pre-dinner cocktails.

The hotel can call you a taxi to most tourist sites, which we do on the first day. It is a professional and comfortable car but we soon learn it works out more cost effective for us to hail one from the street. We tip the hotel staff but it becomes apparent from the glint of gratitude in their eyes that it was not expected and was clearly appreciated. I already know I will be sad to leave. Hotels populate the Copacabana densely like a property tycoon on a Monopoly board and it can be hit and miss knowing which one to go for. I hate pretence and there is none at Porto Bay. Only genuine hospitality, high quality service, fantastic breakfasts, great views and an undeniable location. They tell us off playfully for spending more time in Argentina than Brazil – we had that coming. They tell us we will have to return again and spend more time in Brazil next time. And you know what? We just might.hotel view Copacabana Porto Bay Rio Internacional

Honeymoon Beach Lunching in Romantic Zanzibar

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Indecision is an energy-sapping and highly time-consuming malady, one which I am frequently afflicted by. Whether it has served me well to over-analyse every one of life’s important (and trivial) choices is up for debate but when I’m standing at a sandwich counter for twenty minutes because I just can’t make my lunch selection, that’s when I wish I was that wee bit more decisive.

My favourite travel photo

When Kelly got in touch asking me to ponder over my favourite travel photo for this month’s travel blog link up, you can imagine how engorged the rivers of ditheriness became. It was bank breaking. And I’m not talking about money.  Where on earth do I possibly start? Favourite country? Can’t decide that. Favourite sight? Can’t decide that either. Favourite photo? Nope. 3rd time unlucky.romantic beach lunch Brrezes resort Zanzibar

So I thought about some of my favourite moments instead and I carved ever deeper into my subconscious to remember some of the days that left me feeling as fuzzy as a wild dandelion. And a few musings later, unsurprisingly, honeymoon memories bubbled up from that box in my grey matter labelled ‘Africa’, the one I cherish so deeply.

A Romantic Beach Lunch at Breeze’s Beach Club, Zanzibar

This photo was taken on the marshmallow-soft, dove-white sands of the Breezes Beach Club Resort. Twigs, bamboo and palm leaves were interwoven to form a shady gazebo with exotic and illuminating flowers marking the contours like a child’s felt-tip pen. The eternally smiley staff spent a couple of hours erecting it prior to our lunch.

We had opted for one seafood platter with fresh lobster fit for a king and one vegetarian platter with generous chunks of mixed vegetables and paneer, highlighting the influence of Indian flavours in Zanzibari cuisine.beach lunch seafood vegetarian platter Zanzibar

We ate lunch with our feet cocooned in the sand and our palms interlocked. The low tide kept us dry but the breeze that lends its name to the resort was palpable. The private lunch left us feeling pampered on a stretch of coastline untouched with the exception of one couple passing by, transiently turning their heads with curiosity. flowers palm leaves gazeboWhen we returned to the beach that evening for the final time before flying home to start our new married lives, the gazebo was gone with no evidence of its existence. Was it all a figment of our imagination? It was certainly the stuff of dreams. But that’s where technology asserts its role and two matrimonial years later, the photos give our memories the clarity to live out those idyllic moments once more.

The Ljubljananjam Food Tour, Slovenia

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You cannot grow up in an Indian family and not be interested in food. As an integral part of the culture, marriages have been known to end over the thickness of a Chapati. As I grew up though, I realised that there were many other nations all over the world, equally passionate about their food. And yet, it has taken until 2014 for me to discover the concept of food walks – undoubtedly one of the best ways to simultaneously explore and learn about a place whilst discovering its best traditional cuisine. My first experience was at a London Food Tour earlier this year and I am now a total convert to the notion.DSC_1414

The Ljubljananjam Food Walking Tour

Ljubljana side streets

The charming side streets of Ljubljana

When I started reading about Slovenia, it didn’t take too much delving to discover that the Slovenes LOVE their food. And perhaps none more so than Iva, the brains behind the Ljubljananjam Food Walk, a fellow foodie, born and bred in Ljubljana and with a background in journalism; but Iva’s most inviting attribute is that long before any of these measurable achievements, she was the go-to person for her friends and family when it came to uncovering Ljiubljana’s food scene. After reading wonderful reviews, I knew she would be my passport into the gastronomic world of Slovenia.

One of the charms of this food tour is that each one is unique and flexible, depending on your tastes, dietary requirements, budgets and time. The details of the walk remain a surprise right until you are on it, (despite the tweets I sent digging for clues!) This retains an air of mystery, which is increasingly challenging in an era, where we turn up to restaurants all too frequently, having already made our menu choices at home. I liked the “not knowing” and it is for that reason, I’ll endeavour to keep the locations a secret. If you are heading to Slovenia and are intrigued by what you see, try it out!

Joining us on the tour was one half of travel blogging duo A Couple Travelers and the founder of Ljubljana by Bike. And so we started – with a dessert?! Iva and I clearly sing from the same hymn sheet. The Torta Ljubljana (a cake made from buckwheat flour, chestnut, almond, honey, fig and chocolate) has both a sweetness afforded by the chocolate and honey and an earthiness carried by the nuts and seeds, giving birth to little cubes of delight in our mouths. I liked it so much that I went back and bought a larger one to take back to England. Predictable much?

We met one of the original founders of the recipe and her welcoming nature and humility was apparent. But their business extends further than cake. The Slovenes love their gelato and here, it is creamy & full of flavour; we tried Kremsnita (a gelato version of the famous Bled cream cake with actual bits of pastry in it), Aztecana (chocolate with a tickle of chilli in the aftertaste) , cinnamon and a dreamy black sesame that you’ll either love or hate. BIG LOVE from me.

Much of Ljubljana’s tourist-heavy restaurants are located at the waterside, where the quality of the food can be mixed and prices inflated but on a nearby side street lies a little Bistro, run by a couple and only serving approximately 30 meals every evening before they move on to drinks and nibbles. This bistro, which is also a performance venue for musicians, has a loyal following and each day’s menu is different and fresh. It was here, where we had one of the best pork belly dishes I have ever eaten, tender and bursting with flavour with a side serving of artichoke with garlic and herbs, barley risotto and potatoes with mustard seeds and pumpkin seed oil. Pumpkin seed oil, I came to learn, is something of a staple ingredient in a Slovenian store cupboard. We washed down our meal with some refreshing, homemade elderflower juice.

Repete bistro Ljubljana pork belly artichoke, barley risotto

Ljubljana’s best coffee?

Cafe Cokl Fairtrade best coffee Ljubljana coffee shop

I think most nations in the world can be divided into tea drinkers or coffee drinkers with perpetually blurry margins. We Brits are mostly still a tea nation but the Slovenes? They swear by coffee all the way. We visited Ljubljana’s only fairtrade coffee shop, where the coffee connoisseur Tine had a boundless passion and wealth of knowledge about both coffee and fairtrade in general, even giving talks to school groups on these topics. His conversation was as engaging as the aroma of the coffee was inviting. Tine is a purist. Purists drink coffee the way God intended; there is no place for milk and sugar, cappuccinos and machiatos. But he was sympathetic to my modernised ways and accommodated my request for a latte. I daren’t ask for the sugar and to be honest, the flavour of the coffee bean was so intense that it wasn’t needed.

The shot of caffeine propelled us back into turbo mode for our next stop, where we were getting down to deli business with traditional meats, cheese and zucchini flowers. The Kajmak, a Serbian soft cheese, was a creamy sponge, soaking up the olive oil from the plate on which it was served. It was so exquisite that the rest of the group could have walked off and left me and I wouldn’t have noticed and in fact, while they made their way to the door, I could still be spotted in the corner, cleaning the plate to pristine perfection. Someone’s got to do it…

I may be a teetotaller but this is no reason for Pumpkin to miss out and he was more than happy to swig my share of Slovenian craft beer including the famous Union beer from a local brewery, which is more than a hundred years old. A little word of advice – according to Slovenian customs, when you lift your glass to say cheers, you must make eye contact to avoid being considered rude!

Wine-tasting in Ljubljana

We ended the night with a wine-tasting session in an offbeat, underground wine cellar, a place which would have completely fallen off the radar had Iva not taken us there. Hosted by a sommelier, the space felt more like someone’s (very plush) apartment with a stylish interior, dim lighting and sociable, square dining table. This was just as well because aside from ourselves, we had picked up a few friends along the way – Iva seems to know just about everyone in Ljubljana and the more the merrier, especially on a Friday night!Hedonia wine tasting Ljubljana

Our evening had started as a food walk but by the time it ended, we felt like we had just left a dinner party with friends. But wait – wine tasting is about the wine right? Numerous varieties were offered including Slovenia’s national wine – Cvicek, Teran, which was Pumpkin’s favourite and a unique orange wine. Opinions were divided, each new sip generating its own controversy but the supplies were endless with as many glasses being offered as requested.

By the end of the night, I had forgotten we were even on a food walk. We had talked culture and food, politics and wine, travel and history and we had gelled like old friends. And five hours later, we finally called it a night. I felt a pang of anxiety, wondering where dessert was (had we peaked early with the Ljubljana cake?) But I need not have harboured any doubt because the surprise treat to end the night was a delicious, creamy, white chocolate and raspberry mousse cake. The pace of the tour reflected a perfect equilibrium of fine food, carefully-considered portion sizes, diverse range of dishes and plenty of “rehydration” with local produce.

DSC_1406Iva’s philosophy is that the key tourist places will be sought out without needing her assistance. What she does though, with a deep-rooted affection for Ljubljana’s best eateries, is to take you to those hidden gems, the ones you wouldn’t notice or know about, the ones that use quality ingredients, source ethically and have a story behind them. We meet the faces behind the food and learn about their lives, passions, visions and of course, we sample their divine creations. I dabble in no hyperbole when I say that this was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have experienced on my travels. If you are heading to Slovenia and are interested in food, this is an experience not to be missed.

Practical Points

  • Food walk prices start at approximately 35 Euros upwards depending on preferences and duration
  • Payment is made in cash at the end of the walk
  • Walks usually commence at 5pm but timings may be adjustable if required
  • Group sizes are usually restricted to 5 people but private food walks can be arranged
  • The walks be customised to include any specific dietary requirements or preferences
  • Each walk is individual, exhibiting the best of seasonal ingredients

Have you been on any food walks around the world? Let me know your recommendations!

 

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Ljubljananjam Food Walks but I am an opinionated, little lady and all views, good or bad, are entirely my own. I would like to thank Iva for such a wonderful evening of fine food, wonderful chefs and great company!

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