City Break: 48 Hours in Toulouse

Taking advantage of the bank holiday weekend and a cheap return flight (bargain at £25), I found myself jetting off to France’s southern Occitane region. 48 hours in it’s capital of Toulouse.

Known as La Ville Rose, (“the Pink City”) this charming location offered a idyllic whistle stop break away.

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On arrival at Toulouse-Blagnac airport I jumped on board the tram located right outside the arrivals hall. For a reasonable price of just under two Euros for a single journey, the transfer from airport to the city centre was simple and stress free – setting the tone for duration of my visit.

Albi

My first port of call was a trip to the small town located on the Tarn River, just an hour by train from Toulouse, Albi.

This UNESCO World Heritage Centre, offered bags of charm. With picturesque views from either side of the river, quaint streets, red bricked architecture and Saint Cecile cathedral standing glorious.

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If you enjoy spending an afternoon wondering old city streets, taking in historic monuments and simply enjoying some local wine in one of the many bistros or cafes, then this is the place for you.

My time was spent doing just that.

Taking in the impressive cathedral that dominated not only the skyline, but the centre of town. The largest brick build cathedral in the world and the largest painted cathedral in Europe, offers a rather impressive Gothic sight. For a small fee you can spend time inside taking in the colours and geometric patterns painted within.

Jardins de la Berbie was my favourite spot in Albi. Located between Palace de la Berbie and the Tarn River, the terrace offered a perfect view point across to the northern areas of Albi and the beautiful bridges spanning the river.

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Pont Vieux, one of France’s oldest bridges dating back to the 11th century provides quite the photo opportunity of the cathedral across the River Tam. Enchanted by this spot, I could quite happily have sat, taking in the view for hours.

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Toulouse

Back in the city centre of Toulouse there was plenty to keep me occupied. Working my way through the narrow cobbled streets and along the River Garonne, admiring the mix of architecture and enjoying the relaxed, friendly vibes.

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Heading to the heart of the city, I found myself reaching the Place du Capitole and it’s name sake building, Capitole – Toulouse’s town hall. Dated back to 1750 it’s pink marble columns provide a rather impressive facade.

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As one of the many buildings within Toulouse that is free to enter, you can spend time enjoying the artwork and painted ceilings of Salle de Ilustres.

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A short walk from this main square you will stumble across Basilique St-Sernin. With it’s prominent bell tower and distinctive organ playing, it would be hard to miss.

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Toulouse offered a multitude of religious buildings of significant interest. Couvent des Jacobins was by far my favourite.

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Wonder through this elegant structure, admiring it’s ornate stained-glass windows, before heading to the rather tranquil Cloitre des Jacobins. For a very small entrance fee you will be able to enjoy its russet-brick columns surrounding a green courtyard, providing an overwhelming sense of calm.

Before I knew it it was time to depart from the beauty of Toulouse.

The city of colour, with it’s warm climate, had provided a perfect location for a 48 hour break away from home – re-instating my love for the South of France.

Travelling as a solo woman.

If you told me several years ago I would be booking flights to travel solo in years to come, I would not have believed you. I presumed that the only way to experience the joys the world had to offer was to have a companion.

It is funny how moments in life completely change the way you think and the way you live. Being made redundant almost two years ago brought a heightened level of anxiety and stress. The numerous job interviews and applications, along with the redundancy process itself was taking it’s toll. So, I simply had to get away.

With many friends and family working, or otherwise occupied, my only choice was to book a getaway alone. So I booked a flight to Edinburgh; the first flight out and returning on the last flight the same day. It was by no means far, but it gave me the time out I needed.

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The day trip did the job and as a result I was back on the job search the moment I returned. Soon after, accepting a job offer.

A short few months later I took advantage of a cheap flight to Bordeaux. My reasons for getting away this time were somewhat more heartbreaking. After a family member took their own life I needed time away to deal with my grief alone.

Yet again, travelling solo did the job.

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Whilst some may argue travelling alone as a woman is dangerous and lonely, I can argue the complete opposite. There is nothing more liberating than taking yourself away from all of your life’s stresses (including your loved ones) and enjoying your own company.

That is not to say I would no longer travel with a companion. I take great pleasure in travelling the world with others and sharing my experiences, in particular with my other half.

However, as many other travellers can relate, this does come with its own issues. As someone who craves adventure, a eternal wanderlust, I get excited about locations that my partner does not. By restricting my travel to only the destinations he wants to visit would mean a huge percentage of the world would be left unexplored. Huge parts of Asia, Africa and even France does not entice him, but are places that rank highly on my bucket list. This is where travelling solo comes at great advantage.

Already in 2019 I have travelled alone twice, spending long weekends in France and Inverness, simply enjoying my own time, exploring the sights and, back at my hotel taking advantage of the large hotel bed by reading a book uninterrupted.

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Solo travel also allows you to do whatever you want, without having to consider another person. Some may call it selfish, I like to call it indulgent. You don’t have to wait for others to get ready, you don’t need to worry about rest stops and you actually end up spending less money than you would have if you had a companion.

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Travelling alone has become a great pastime of mine. Not only has it given me great freedom and independence, it has also given me the confidence to work through the bucket lists. Destinations I would usually have second thoughts about have suddenly been added to a “must do” list.

In September, I will be jetting off to Morocco to climb the Atlas Mountains. Something I would never have considered before, thinking I would need someone to travel and complete the challenge with me. I will be heading off alone, sharing a room with another like minded woman – who I will not meet until I arrive – with an adventure that will be my most exciting yet.  

For those thinking of travelling alone, I would thoroughly recommend it. Plan a trip, pack light, take a book and simply enjoy your own company!

A Weekend in Inverness & the Isle of Skye

Fellow wanderlust’s will understand the itchy feet travellers get once they touch down on home soil. Add in offer emails from numerous travel companies and you quickly find yourself on another flight jetting off to discover another corner of the world.

I did not hesitate booking a cheap flight to Inverness in the Boxing Day sales, having always wanted to visit the tranquil areas of the Scottish Highlands.

Having visited the bustling cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow on numerous occasions, I was rather looking forward to exploring this smaller city located in Scotland’s north east coast.

With stress free links to the city, via a 30 minute bus journey from Inverness airport, I was quickly transported into the centre and checked into my comfortable room. Booking the Premier Inn on the river Ness meant that I was a stones throw from the amenities of the city, with lovely views of the castle.

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I did not waste any time with exploring and, to be quite honest, with the city being rather smaller than others in Scotland I quickly saw everything that was on my list.

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After wandering along the banks of the River Ness, visiting Inverness Castle and strolling around numerous shops, I was ready to retire early for my day trip to the Isle of Skye.

Booking at day trip to the Isle of Sky with Viator proved to be fantastic value for money. Visiting in early March I expected the excursion to be rather quiet. What I did not expect was to end up having a private tour of the Isle and the surroundings.

When discovering I was the solo traveller on a day trip in excess of seven hours I imagined being told that it would not go ahead. I was rather delighted to be informed it would not be cancelled and soon enough we were heading off on my own tour if the Isle of Skye.

Our first stop was the infamous Loch Ness, home of the legendary Loch Ness monster. Sadly there was no sighting of Nessie herself, but the views were to die for.

Back on the mini bus we whizzed along taking in the picturesque views, taking advantage of the lack of tourists in the off peak season.

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We stopped for a break in Invermoriston, taking in the Thomas Telford Bridge before continuing through Glen Moriston and the Five Sisters Mountain range.

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Our next stop was the Eilean Donan Castle, taking time to explore the ruins along the banks of the Lochs.

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Continuing on we headed to the capital of the Isle of Sky, Portree. Stopping for a hearty lunch with fantastic port views.

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The perks of being the solo passenger here on out continued. Unrestricted by other travellers meant we were able to venture further into the Isle of Skye, allowing more stops. The knowledge of my guide was second to none. Despite not originating from Scotland, he provided a wide education around the area and it’s history.

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We saw numerous stops from Portree to Culnacnoc, back to Carbost and Kyleakin, all providing scenic views for which the camera does not do justice.

Before we knew it, we were heading back to the city with plenty of facts relating to the local areas en route.

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It was a long day with so much to take in. Without a doubt, it was one of the best experiences I have had to date. The private tour allowed me to appreciate an uninterrupted and peaceful tour of the Island.

Despite spending several hours on this glorious Isle, there was so much left undiscovered. We barely touched the surface of what this Island had to offer. So despite the tour being fantastic, offering many highlights, I feel there is a return trip on the cards to explore further.

City Break: Venice and Verona

After returning from the beautiful region of Tuscany last summer I quickly found myself missing the beauty of Italy. So I got set on planning my next adventure to the one country that captures my heart over and over.

The wondrous floating city of Venice was my destination.

After booking my trip I was rather sceptical after many friends and family advised the city was busy, smelly and often flooded.

I am never one to be put off by another person’s review or opinion. However, I made the decision to pick a date off season, to avoid the crazy tourist season and any extremities in weather. Early February proved to be spot on.

From the moment I landed at Marco Polo International Airport I was not disappointed. Whilst the weather in the UK was cold, wet and windy, I had arrived to blue skies, blazing sunshine and temperatures in double figures (though a jacket was still required now and then).

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Staying just outside the city in the Best Western Tritone, Mestre proved to be the perfect base to visit Venice and it’s surrounding areas.

Day One – Murano & Burano

No visit to the Venetian lagoon would be complete without a visit to these two remarkable islands. Booking a half day boat trip was a great way to experience what they had to offer.

Murano, renowned for a long tradition of glass-blowing, was the first port of call with a live demonstration at a glass blowing factory. The secrets of glass have been closely guarded for years. Even today, there is no official glass school – the skills can only by learned by apprenticeship to one of the glass masters.

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Wonder beyond the numerous glass shops and you can stroll along the tranquil Canal Grande with its 19th century iron bridge or the parish church of San Pietro Martire.

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A short sail away from Murano, is the explosion of colour that is Burano. According to tour guides, fishermen who live on the island painted their houses in bright colours so that they could recognise them from afar whilst out fishing.

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The cheerful island and its charming canals makes for a striking Instagram photo. Without a doubt, Burano has become one of the happiest places I have visited to date.

Day Two – Verona

When I knew I was visiting Venice I had to ensure a trip to Verona was included. Within easy proximity of our hotel base – the city best known as the home town of star crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet was a must!

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The medieval town has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO due to its urban structure and architecture. On visiting, it is clear to see why.

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We spent the day gently strolling around, taking in the sights of Castle San Pietro, Ponte Pietra, the Roman Arena and Ponte di Castelvecchio, to name a view.

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We climbed the 83 metre tower of Torre dei Lamberti, for exceptional views, and spent time at Juliet’s house marvelling at the sea of love letters and taking in the visitors from the famous balcony.

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Day Three – Venice 

On our final day it was the perfect opportunity to take in the sights of the main attraction itself. Jumping on the Vaporetto we cruised down the Grand Canal, taking in the floating city, we took the lift to the bell tower of Campanile di San Marco to marvel at the sights from up high and we stopped for pictures on the Ponte dell’Academia.

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With its famous gondolas, waterways and picturesque views I struggled to understand how anyone could not fall in love with such a beautiful location.

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From San Marco Square with its impressive Basilica to the multitude of bridges – including Ponte di Rialto – there wasn’t a moment I didn’t enjoy. Come off the beaten track and you will find the perfect pizzerias, quiet alleyways and a general sense of peace.

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As I reflect back on my trip to the floating city and its neighbours, it is clear to see I was at an great advantage visiting out of season. Had it been at peak, when cruise ships docked in the height of summer, I don’t see how I would have been able to navigate the tiny alley ways and bridges without feeling frustrated.

Without a doubt, Venice has become one of my favourite locations. To see it all, to take it all in would take more than a few days. I was simply happy navigating the canals, enjoying the view and soaking in the culture, to put down the map and relax with gelato beside the water.

 

City Break: Berlin

Berlin, Germany’s capital and largest city, has a somewhat turbulent history. Badly damaged after World War Two and broken apart by the Cold War, recent years have seen the city rebuild itself – especially after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

Despite Berlin now being known for it’s lively nightlife, cafes, bars and street art, the references to its tumultuous history can be seen throughout the city.

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Growing up learning about the events around the World War and remembering the fall of the Berlin wall, it was always a city that was on my bucket list. So, when I discovered a few free days between Christmas and New Year I quickly booked in a bargain break to explore the sights Berlin had to offer.

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With our base being in the lively, shopping area of Alexanderplatz – one of the best-known squares in Berlin – we were right in the hub of the city. Not only was the famous TV Tower (The Fernsehurm) visible from our hotel window, but the hive of the Christmas Markets were a stones through away. The TV Tower was on the top of our list, it’s views were reported to make a visit top of the list of things to do whilst in the city. Due to foggy, cloudy weather obstructing any views, we sadly decided to save this for the next trip.

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The area of Alexanderplatz had numerous sights to explore, including the World Time Clock, and due to the season, the Christmas markets offered plenty of traditional German treats and Eggnog.

A little further East (a good walk if you are up to it) is the East Side Gallery. The open air gallery consists of numerous murals painted on to the remaining Berlin Wall and is now a heritage protected landmark.

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The Berlin Cathedral Church is a sight to be seen. Nestled along the banks of the River Spree this elaborate 19th century cathedral is one of Berlin’s main landscapes.

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Twenty minutes east of the cathedral you will stumble across the iconic, and most famous landmark in Berlin, Brandenburg Gate. The gate has come to represent German unity and peace since the end of the Cold War, with hundreds of thousands of people celebrating here when the Berlin Wall fell. Today, thousands of visitors flock to the landmark as part of the city’s New Year celebrations.

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Minutes away from Brandenburg Gate you will find the Reichstag and the most significant historical buildings. Visitors can enter the building for free, when booked in advance, and explore the new roof dome with fantastic views of the city. If you want to visit the the dome and take in the views from this modern adaptation of this historical building make sure you book at least three days in advance. Our visit left us rather disappointed when we discovered that advance booking is imperative after a series of terrorist threats in 2010. Sadly, this meant that we missed out visiting this impressive building.

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe is located on the other side of Brandenburg Gate. The outdoor memorial consists of 2,711 concrete slabs arranged on a sloping field. Designed to produce an uneasy atmosphere, many visitors have noted it resembles a graveyard. When visiting and taking in the scope of the area I found the memorial rather harrowing and somber. It is hard to imagine the suffering of the victims and the immorality of those that caused this.

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After visiting such a saddening sight, Tiergarten offered peace and tranquillity. The picturesque paths and ponds was a runners dream (just a shame that I did not bring my running gear). The huge park is home to the Berlin Zoo, Victory Column and forms part of the Berlin Marathon route.

On our final day in the city we found ourselves fully immersed in yet more of Berlin’s gloomy history.

A visit would not have been complete without visiting the famous “Check Point Charlie,” the name given by the Western Allies as the well known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.

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The Berlin Wall Memorial on the border strip in East Berlin, is an open air sight commemorating the division of Berlin by the wall and the deaths that occurred there. Nearly 80 people were killed trying to cross from East to West Berlin between the years of 1961-1989, all of which can be seen at the memorial. It is estimated that around 5,000 people made a successful escape from East to West Germany during that time.

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It is safe to say that, despite enjoying our visit, taking in the sights and culture, our trip left us feeling rather melancholy. Whilst the city offers a lively energy in parts, the depressing monuments and gloomy weather left me wondering what more Berlin had to offer.

Exploring Pompeii, Sorrento & Capri

Venture to the southern area of Italy (into the “Italian Boot”) and you will find yourself surrounded by a mixture of history, culture and culinary delights. Several years ago I found myself immersed in Italian charm and sunshine, found in the south.

Known in Italian as the “Mezzogiorno” or “Midday” region, it is home to some of the most historical towns, tranquil bays and stunning coast line.

With only a few days to make most of the area I settled slightly south of Naples in Vico Equense – a quiet coastal town – in the historical farm house “Astapiana Villa Giusso.” High up in the hills, away from the hustle and bustle you would normally experience this farm house offered an idyllic break away with nothing but charm and tranquillity.

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Far from the mainstream hotel, this family run gem allowed an escape from everyday life. If you are looking from a break from Wifi, TV and luxury amenities then this is the place for you. Its remote location offers exactly that, whilst providing amazing views over the bay of Naples and being a great base for many attractions in the area.

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Pompeii

I could not visit the region without taking time to absorb the remains of Pompeii. The ancient Roman city that was obliterated when Mount Vesuvius erupted back in 79AD is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracting over 2.5 million visitors every year. You can easily spend a day wondering the ancient cobbled streets taking in the ruins as they stand today.

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The site can get extremely busy, especially in the summer months, so if planning a visit it is advisable to book in advance or plan a trip during the off peak season. I visited in September, when the weather was still pleasantly warm but had less of a crowd.

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Sorrento

This southern coastal town facing the bay of Naples offers a great combination of culture and history. Not only is it convenient for visiting nearby Pompeii, but also provides a gateway to Capri – just a short ferry ride away. Here you will find copious numbers of restaurants with sweeping water views offering gourmet cuisine, tasty Limoncello and of course Gelato! A day spend it in Sorrento is pure delight.

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Capri

We did not get much time in Capri, but the time spent was enough for me to fall in love with its rugged charm. If you have time it is advised to visit the Blue Grotto – only accessible by boat.

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Sadly with only a few hours to spare, we did not get to visit this waterfront cave but spent a great deal of time at the marina, swimming (or floating) in the crystal clear waters and riding the funicular railway to Piazza Umberto – the centre of the island which offered breathtaking views of the island below.

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A few hours on this stunning island was not enough – so much so that a return trip is on the cards.

My visit to the region was a whistle stop tour filled with culinary delight, stunning landscape and an abundance of Italian charm. I hope to return to explore more of what Southern Italy has to offer in the near future.

 

 

Time Out in Zante

With the heavy rain and wind we have been experiencing over the last few days it is hard to remember that a little over one week ago I was basking in thirty degree heat, with my toes in the sand and a nose in a book.

It had been a while since I had a complete “beach break.” Time to simply to nothing but rest and soak up the sun. Don’t get me wrong, we always ensure we get our holidays. It just seems that it has been a while since a holiday revolved around the beach. I expected our trip to San Diego the previous year to have a little more relaxation, however with so many things to see and do – it just did not work out that way. Plus with some great running routes around Mission Bay I could not resist a few early morning runs to get the day started.

Fast forward to Summer 2018 and after a good eight months training and racing, amongst other stresses of daily life, I was well and truly ready to worship the sun for nine days. And for a good five days, it was the perfect opportunity to do so. Until I ran out of reading material. So from the sun lounger I enquired with my trusty Trip Advisor app to allow us a few days exploring.

The first trip on the agenda was a Turtle Spotting Cruise. A cruise that promised a little wildlife as we cruised the bay of Laganas in an attempt to spot the loggerhead turtles swimming in their native environment.

We managed to spot one turtle as it came to the surface. However visiting in September, when it was coming towards the end of the season, meant that this was the only one we could spot whilst on the cruise.

The boat continued on from Laganas bay, cruising the coast of Zante, past the small island of Marathonisi (otherwise known as Turtle Beach due to its uncanny resemblance to the sea creature), before stopping around the Keri Caves for an opportunity to swim in the crystal clear waters.

With a sea temperature of 24 degrees we did not hesitate. Leaving many members of the tour on board we jumped straight in and was rewarded with one of the most pleasant swims I have yet to experience.

On our second day trip, having already had the pleasure of a tour on around the coast by boat, we decided to book the Zakynthos Island Tour by Coach and as a result saw some of the most beautiful views to date.

Starting early we met our coach and tour guide towards the north of the island, quickly making our way to one of many stops – views of the neighbouring island of Kefalonia.

Back on the coach, our tour guide continued to delight us with facts about Zante in an extremely entertaining manner until we arrived at our next stop – Agios Nikolaos.

Here, you would find the opportunity to take a small boat and visit the glorious Blue Caves. Sadly, on the day we took our trip, the sea was far to choppy to risk a small vessel. Therefore we simply took in the views of the small town before heading off again to our next location – Navagio Beach. Otherwise known as Shipwrecked Beach.

The views to be had on the cliff edge overlooking the beach were breathtaking. Luckily, due to the choppy waters, there were very few boats visiting the beach itself that day. So we were treated to unspoilt views of the cove, the shipwreck and the stunningly aquamarine blue waters that surrounded it. For me, this was the highlight. I had never seen such a sight in all the time I have been travelling. It is clear to understand why it is known as one of the most photographed beaches in the world. Some even risk their lives (against the advice upon the cliff top) to get a better view and picture to take home. I stuck to the guidance of our tour rep and was simply memorised.

Our time at the top was rather brief, as coaches tend to find themselves in a bit of a pickle getting back down the tight roads if they linger too long. So we were off before we knew it. If the tour had ended here I would have returned home happy – it was the view I had been waiting for.

But our tour continued on. Visiting the quaint Monastery of St. Dennis in Anafonitria and the village of Exo Hora, well known for it’s 2000 year old, gnarled olive tree – which is still producing olives today.

After so much excitement everyone on the tour was ready for a spot of lunch. And the spot for lunch could not have been more perfect. Nestled on the cliffs in Kampi, we enjoyed a fantastic meal at a traditional Greek Taverna, whilst offering cliff top views that would please the most seasoned traveller.

After a good week of all inclusive hotel food, I could not have been happier with the vegetarian offering this venue had for me. The dreamy location was just icing on the cake. A perfect end to a fantastic tour of the island, as after our lunch it was back to our resort for the last few days.

The resort itself, though not the best in terms of accommodation and cuisine, offered us a fantastic, quiet get away with great views and sandy beaches.  The perfect place to recharge your batteries and make friends an adorable litter of kittens!

As the post holiday blues set in, it’s hard to imagine I was actually in such a picturesque location.

Zante proved to be one of the most beautiful, unspoilt and tranquil places I have had the pleasure of visiting.

A place I would happily visit again in the future.

A Tuscan Adventure

There is nothing like getting away from it all, by taking a quick break and exploring a foreign city. I like to make a habit of picking a mix of sunny beach holidays and cultural city breaks.

This year I chose the area of Tuscany as one of my cultural adventures. Three days and three nights in the northern region of Italy. With so much to see and do I did not waste a minute – flying into Florence I had a jam packed few days to ensure I got to experience as much as possible.

DAY ONE – Wondering around Florence

A very early morning flight from London City meant that I arrived in Florence long before check in was allowed. The Hotel B&B, outside the city centre, were extremely accommodating – happily keeping my bags and directing me into the centre. Though I required very little direction. Drop me in any city, with a map, and I will very quickly find my feet. Florence was no exception.

I quickly found the centre, with the iconic Duomo taking my breath away as soon as I set my sights on it. The area around the attraction was buzzing, with it being the height of the tourist season queues to enter the impressive building were too long for me to entertain. So I simply found the best place to take it all in, from a nearby roof top bar. Robiglio provided the perfect escape from the growing crowds, enjoy a relaxing view whilst having a few refreshments. It was the perfect find. Plus a great place to meet friends (who happened to be in Tuscany at the same time).

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Down back on the Tuscan streets I wondered along with the crowds, across the famous Ponte Vecchio distracted by the numerous shops sparkling with stunning jewels. It is easy to get distracted by the beauty on this bridge, a bridge like no other I have seen before. Views along the river were not to shabby either.

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More wondering ensued to get the best view of the city – from Piazza Michelangelo. I could have happily sat here for hours with the Duomo so stunning in the skyline, the view down Ponte Vecchio, watching the sun go down. Like many areas of Florence in the height of the season, the area was thriving – with couples, friends, school groups galore. Everyone made the climb to get one of the best views the city had to offer.

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DAY TWO – Siena, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and Chianti

With so much to see in the region I thought booking an excursion with Viator would be the perfect way to get around. Obviously if you were to hire a car all of these areas would be easily accessible. However, I did not want the stress of finding my way in a foreign country so a tour was a perfect option for me.

It was a long day, covering many beautiful locations, so if you do book this trip expect to be on and off the coach covering a lot of ground.

First stop, the medieval gem that is Monteriggioni. Built in 1203, the walled town offers fantastic views of Chianti from its castle walls.

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Second stop was the beautiful town of Siena, distinguished by it’s medieval brick buildings. Here there is plenty to see and with the package with Viator you have the option to take the walking tour. I decided against doing so, the group was rather large (around 50 people on the bus itself) and I knew I would enjoy seeing the town alone, making my own way and wondering the beautiful streets of Siena.

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The first stop was Piazza del Campo – the square popular for public celebrations and known for hosting the Paliohorse race. Here I stopped and took stock with a little Pistachio Gelato, taking in the atmosphere and soaking in glorious sunshine.

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Just a few streets away you had the impressive Siena Cathedral, with its exterior an interior constructed of white and black marble in alternating stripes. Like the Duomo in Florence, the queues were exceptionally long. Rather disappointing for me, as this was one Cathedral I wanted to visit completely. Sadly, with booking the tour I was time restricted so I had to move along.

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After a spot of lunch, with wine (which was included in the tour price) we made our way to a local vineyard. Visiting the region of Chianti without doing so would be criminal. At Famiglia Mazzarrini we tasted a range of local products including Chianti Classico, Spumante, truffle oil and balsamic vinegar.

With the wine tasting leaving most travellers sleepy it was time to head to our final stop off – San Gimignano. Recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1990, the medieval town offers its visitors a chance to step back in time, to wonder its cobbled streets, soak up the views over the surrounding countryside and enjoy its local products – including its Gelato. Yes! I did have two helpings of Gelato on this trip, but you cannot help but taste the local produce on a hot, Summer’s day.

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The tour was due to end, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. The long day saw us cover some amazing sites and we were able to experience so much from the Tuscany region.

DAY THREE – Florence and Pisa

The final day saw me wonder the streets of Florence for a final time, eating a bit more Gelato and tasting more vino!

I took the time to visit the Boboli Gardens after reading some good reviews. If there was one entry fee I would advise not paying it is this one. Only ten euros, but with all the free views you can get in Florence, it was not even worth that.

Shortly after visiting the gardens I hopped on the train to Pisa. Just an hour from the centre of Florence, on a pleasant air conditioned train which runs through the Italian countryside.

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Pisa is a region of Tuscany that is better known for its Leaning Tower. The 56 meter tower is located in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles). It is a iconic site that I have wanted to visit since childhood. Seeing the landmark close up and climbing the spiral staircase was one of the highlights of my trip.

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Within the Square of Miracles you will also find Pisa Cathedral and the Battistero – all of which you can enter for a fee. My advice – pick the attraction that you most want to enter and stick to that. Unless you have the budget to visit all within the square of course. Personally – climbing the Leaning Tower was more up my street, so the rest I was happy to take in from the outside.

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Soon enough the whirlwind break was coming to a close. With my belly full of Gelato, Chianti and my fast growing affection for Italy trying to prevent me from returning home I was already thinking about my next trip.

Tuscany is by no means finished – there are many areas I am yet to explore – and there will be many more Italian regions to follow I’m sure.

Letting go of a bad race.

When you have trained for months on end, clocking up hundreds of miles to prepare for race day and ironed out numerous issues with kit en route – the last thing you want is for the race to not go as planned. There is no doubt in your mind, especially if you have trained for the event, that the number one goal is finishing.

That was my goal for the Isle of Wight challenge. Yes, it would have been nice to achieve a great time too. But the number one aim was to finish, to fight my way through the whole 106km course.

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I never imagined a scenario where it would not happen. I had trained, I had great company to keep me going, I was feeling great.

But as detailed in my Isle of Wight challenge write up, it went terribly wrong through no fault of my own. An unseasonal heat wave on the island saw us trek in 26 degree heat, that felt like 30 degrees plus! All day in the sun, with no shade and no breeze saw me suffer more than I ever have done before.

The winter months prepared me for the long distance, for all kinds of weather. But for a heat wave – there was no way we could have prepared for that in our unpredictable winter months.

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To say that I have given myself a hard time since would be an understatement. It has been constant – believing that I had failed, that I had not prepared enough and complete devastation.

I’m sure many of us have experienced this. The bad race. The one that you had prepared for but the one where your body just would not co-operate.

It has taken weeks and weeks to let it go. And despite many people telling me achieving just half of the distance is simply amazing – you just don’t quite believe it. Your worst critic is yourself and I have certainly been that

So how do you get over that bad race?

  1. Wallow! Allow yourself to have time to mope, cry and vent about your performance. After all – there has been a serious investment into training. So if it does go wrong disappointment is natural. You should be allowed have a little vent. I’m sure many have done so at some point or another.
  2. Look at the positive aspects. Think about what you have achieved and the lead up to getting there. Despite crying from 40-53km I managed to find the strength to get to the half way point. Many times during this distance all I wanted to do is quit – but I didn’t. And I had to think about all the training miles. The Sunday mornings hiking through Epping Forest and the Hertfordshire countryside, with my team mates, and developing a stronger faster stride in the process.
  3. Analyse your performance. Once the emotions have subsided you will be able to think about what went wrong on a rational level. As weeks have passed I know the main factor that was detrimental to my performance was the heat – something I have no control over. What I did have control over was my intake of fuel. I drank litres and litres of water, so my fluid was not a problem. However, due to the heat the thought of food was making me nauseous. So I did not take on much fuel and became weak as a result. Next time round I need to tweak this to ensure I have enough energy to aid performance.
  4. Set new goals. After allowing myself some time off to relax and reflect I am now in the right head space to look at my goals, adjust them and prepare for them. The week after the Isle of Wight I had a 10 mile race scheduled, but knew I was not in the right mind to take part – so I didn’t. Instead I focused beyond that, to Nuclear Races on the 19th May, and decided that would be the event where I would get my focus back. Bar some cuts, bruises and an extremely achy body the next day, it did the trick. And this weekend (now my body is healed from Nuclear), I am ready to get back into a training schedule.
  5. Manage your expectations. It is all well and good training for months and months, but if something happens that is beyond your control: if there is a heat wave, if you pick up a cold; you have to be realistic – on those days you will not be at your best. You will most likely not be looking at a PB. So manage that, prepare for that and enjoy the race anyway. See it as another training opportunity.

Despite many weeks passing, going through a long process of analysis and generally moping about, I now know what I achieved was more than the average person could achieve.

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Yes, I am still disappointed. But the challenge was extreme, the conditions were on the same level and at the end of the day I made the right decision for how I was feeling on the day.

So if you are feeling that post race disappointment. Shake it off, re-focus your energy on the next challenge and get moving again.

A day trip to Brussels

With the wonders of Eurostar one can jump on the train and within a couple of hours be in one of many cities in Europe.

A few years back I decided to catch the first train to the picturesque city of Brussels for a day of exploring, culture and waffles.

The day started early, picking up the first train out of London St. Pancras and travelling through the English, French and Belgian countryside. Within a couple of hours I was stepping off the train in the centre of Brussels.

With only a few fours to spend exploring the city I had the sights I wanted to see planned out ready on foot.

The first stop was the Grand Palace – the central square in Brussels. Surrounded by the city’s Town Hall and the King’s House containing the Museum of the City of Brussels. Considered one of the most beautiful places in the world, the square is well known for it’s decorative buildings and it did not disappoint. With the bright blue skies in early May the UNESCO world heritage site was something to be seen. Surrounded by chocolate shops and cafes – the square was simply bustling with activity and certainly the centre of the city.

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A very short walk away from the square you will stumble across St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, rather impressive with its Gothic architecture inside and out. Free to enter, visitors can wonder inside taking in the beauty of the stain glass windows, organise a guided tour or join one of the Holy masses.

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Just a few minutes away from the cathedral you can wonder into the beautiful parks of Parc de Bruxelles – the largest urban park in the centre of Brussels. The 32 acre rectangular park offers a tranquil space away from the main hub of the city. Here I spent some time soaking up the sun whilst enjoying an ice cream and taking in the various surroundings within.

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If I was visiting for longer than a few hours I would have simply picked a spot with a good book and a bottle of wine and spent the whole day soaking up the sun without a care in the world.

13164316_10156996567775604_6471930074454933876_nFurther afield I stumbled across yet another beautiful space – Parc du Cinquantenaire, a national landmark in Brussels. The impressive arches of Cinquantenaire, home to an art and army museum, can be found outside the inner circle of the park. If time is on your side you can climb to the top of the arch for free to see a great view of Brussels and the European Quarter. For those who are just interested simply wonder around the park itself, take pictures of the beautiful surroundings, run, walk or simply sit on one of the many benches with a good book.

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The Royal Palace of Brussels situated at the front of Brussels Park, the official palace of the King and Queen of Belgians. Open to the public for free in the summer visitors will have access to certain rooms of the palace, like the Mirror Room with the artwork “Heaven of Delight” – artwork consisting of a thousand beetles stuck to the ceiling. Sadly, I visited on a Monday when the palace was closed to visitors. So I only got to admire it from the outside.

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The smallest sight I saw on my day trip to Brussels was the Mannequin de Pis – the small bronze statue depicting a naked boy urinating in the fountains basin. Of all the sights to see not only was this the smallest but also the one that seemed to be attracting most visitors.

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No trip to the Belgian city would be complete without a visit to one of the many chocolate shops or a pit stop for a waffle or two before jumping on the train back to London.

Despite being in the city for a short few hours I managed to clock a good few miles and many impressive sites.

If you ever have the opportunity to take a day trip on the Eurostar I would thoroughly recommend considering Brussels as your destination. With its beautiful architecture and culture it makes for a wonderful day trip.

 

City Break: Barcelona

Barcelona. The cosmopolitan capital in the Catalonian region of Spain.

With it’s Mediterranean charm, glorious climate and lively beach culture it is hard to picture Barcelona as a city. With cities you usually imagine a mass populated area at a fast pace.

When I visited Barcelona three years ago, I found the city a far cry from this expectation. Instead what I experienced was a laid back culture, no one was in a rush. Days were filled with Sangria and Siestas, and I instantly fell in love with the culture of the city. Who could not fall in love with a city that requires you to fall back into an easy, carefree way of life.

As with most city breaks, there is never enough time to see everything you want to see. But in my true style I tried to cram in as much of the culture and atmosphere as humanly possible.

Today I reflect on my highlights:

Sagrada Familia the monumental church devoted to the Holy Family. Construction on this iconic building began in 1882 by plans that were drawn up by Fransisco de Paula del Villar. Gaudi was then commissioned to continue the project in 1883. To this day the construction is yet to be completed. This is heavily evident as the two sides of the building look miles apart and, when I visited cranes still framed the impressive sight.

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Many people who visit the city don’t take the time to venture inside. A big mistake. For the rather ugly looking building from the outside, comes alive on the inside. The stain glass windows, filling the church with colour and beauty. If you are able bodied, take the time to walk up the towers of the church. Views from the top were simply stunning.

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Parc Guell

To visit Barcelona and not take the time to visit Parc Guell would be a criminal. Opened as a public park in 1926, it was designed to the work of Antoni Gaudi and provides its visitors with a exquisite display of colour and tranquility. In 1984 UNESCO declared it a world heritage site under “Works of Antoni Gaudi”.

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Tibidabo, the mountain that overlooks the city of Barcelona. Not only does it offer fantastic views of the city below, but also a day of amusement for those who wish to enjoy it.

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As it is here you will find the charming theme park that all the family will enjoy, as well as Tibidabo church. A day to be enjoyed in the Spanish sun.

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Casa Batllo, the renowned building in the centre of the city is one of Gaudi’s master pieces. The detail within the building showcases the work of this genius architect. Patience is needed to visit this sight, the queues can be long and some may say expensive.

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However, the wait and money to enter is well worth it. The work of this man is extraordinary – one of the most memorable and stunning pieces of architecture I have had the pleasure of experiencing to date.

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As with most cities, there is always plenty to see and do. Barcelona does not disappoint. From watching a football match at Camp Nu (not high on my list) and taking in the display of the  Magic Fountain to strolling down Las Ramblas and visiting Montjuic Castle – there is enough to keep everyone occupied for several days.

And with Barcelona’s laid back culture, you can spend those days sipping Sangria and eating Tapas whilst soaking up the atmosphere and the sun.

City Break: 4 days in Boston

When I planned a short break to Boston eight months ago, I expected a city much like others in the USA – busy, loud and fast paced. What I actually experienced on arrival was so much different.

A smaller city to explore in comparison to the likes of New York, you can easily take four days at a leisurely pace and manage to fit in everything you want to see.

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I made no set plan in the lead up to my trip. It was probably the least organised I have been when planning a holiday. Usually I have lists of sights to be seen and daily itineraries. Maybe I sensed the more relaxed city pace, maybe I was just happy to be away enjoying the company of the other half or maybe it was a mixture of the two.

Either way, I have never come away from a break to the USA with my head filled with so much culture and history.

As I mentioned, I did not plan out our days as I usually would, other than a half day trip. My other half had things he wanted to see, being a big sports fan, and restaurants he wanted to eat at after watching numerous episodes of Man vs Food! So we took each day as it came – we tried to get sights further away from our hotel ticket off first so we had more time to enjoy the area around our hotel – The Boston Park Plaza.

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Day one was filled with a leisurely walk down to Fenway Park, which was obviously closed for the season, as this was one of the sights furthest from our hotel.

On our way back we strolled down Newbury Street, checking out what the shops had to offer. If you have been to Boston, you will know it is one of the most beautiful shopping streets you will encounter. Known as the “Rodeo Drive” of the East the street is simply enchanting offering a mix of designer and high street stores to coffee shops and restaurants.

By the time we had got back to the main hub of the city it was approaching the afternoon, so we took time to take in Boston Public Gardens and Boston Common. I had read reviews about spending a leisurely amount of time around this area, enjoying the sunshine, perhaps taking a Swan Boat onto the pond. At the beginning of February, although the sun was beaming, the opportunity to linger was not there. The pond was heavily frozen over and there were no Swan Boats in sight. That did not make a difference, as it was just as stunning to take in during the colder months as a imagine it would be in the Summer. Many adventurers were even walking across the frozen pond and making patterns in the ice – definitely not something I was prepared to risk even with my adventurous nature.

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My favourite part of the Common was the “Make Way for Ducklings Statue.” Inspired by the children’s picture book by Robert McCloskey the ducklings were clearly feeling the sub zero temperatures as they were donning some rather fetching wooly hats to keep their heads warm.

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After lingering on the Common a little too long it was time to defrost ourselves and we did so by heading over to the Harpoon Brewery.

Located on the Boston waterfront, the transformed warehouse space offers a fantastic tour, including tastings for $5. Here you can learn about the history of the brewery, the process and the opportunity to obviously taste the majority of their produce. Not a massive beer fan myself (I much prefer the rolling hills of a winery), I tentatively tasted a few of the offerings – preferring the ciders or fruit tasting beers they had on tap. The other half was in his element – I believe tasting every beer they had on offer during the tour.

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His tasting did not end after the tour either, stopping at the bar for a few more tasters (paid for of course) before having to drag him away for a light dinner and early bed (we were still on London time after all).

After a restful nights sleep it was my day to drag the other half to the sights that were on my agenda, mainly Harvard University.

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We took the T Train just a few stops to the prestigious Ivy league university to take in the beautiful architecture and history. Interestingly – we would find out the next day – the university itself is actually made up of 70% international students.

The university buildings, the surrounding architecture and the neighbourhoods in the vicinity were simply divine, I was quickly trying to work out which houses we could purchase as a holiday home – throw in the snow that was starting to fall and we found ourselves in one of the most picturesque spots in the USA.

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We decided (well me) to walk all the way back into the city centre rather than take the train, so we could get more feel of the area – and I wanted to loop round to the Bunker Hill Monument. However, the beautiful gentle falling snow we saw at the beginning of our walk in Cambridge quickly turned into a snow blizzard in the space of twenty minutes. When they say snow is forecasted in Boston – they mean the snow is coming!

So we took a pit stop in a sports bar, just in time for the other half to watch the football game back home.

Eventually the snow blizzard turned to heavy rain and we decided, that night, to not stray too far from the hotel, get another early night so we were refreshed and ready for the half day trip booked for the next day.

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Day three was our bus trip to Lexington and Concord, via Harvard.

From the get go the tour we booked with Viator was superb. The driver and guide was clearly passionate about Boston, its surrounding areas and all the history it had to offer. We were bombarded for the whole trip with interesting facts and timeline of the American revolution and the Civil Wars.

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We drove along the famous battle trail, following the same path Paul Revere took in 1775.

At Lexington Green the guide unfolded history, going into detail about the battle that took place here – where the opening shots of the American Revolution were fired.

We then continued along the path taken by British soldiers and the road Paul Revere took to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that “the British were coming.” Though this was not the phrase shouted, as legend leads us to believe.

The tour continued into Concord, stopping by Old North Bridge – the historic site in the Battle of Concord, the first day of battle in the Revolutionary war.

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Along the tour we also passed the house of the famous Louisa May Alcott – the author of Little Women (a sight I was particularly interested in seeing) and the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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Soon enough our half day tour was coming to an end, so we were off down the pike back to the city centre.

Just in time for a spot of lunch at Cheers – “where everybody knows your name”.

Well they did not know my name, but I had the dish I had been craving for since arriving in the USA – Mac ‘N’ Cheese! I don’t know if it was freshly made or out of the box, but it was just what I needed after our morning tour.

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The day concluded with more wondering round the city, trying to spot the things we had not managed to see, taking roads we had not walked down and generally working off the Mac ‘N’ Cheese on my part.

We briefly passed the Boston Celtics, but was rather disappointed with not being able to see anything without a tour. We passed the Massachusetts State House in all its glory, we wondered around Quincy Market – picking up souvenirs to take home – and generally strolled through the city back to the hotel.

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Our last night in the city, we headed for Maggiano’s Little Italy for dinner. A stones thrown from our hotel, it had mixed reviews. But for us, we saw no fault. The service, the ambience and the food were simply excellent. It was just what we needed for such a jam packed day.

Day four, our final day. As with all final days you do feel at a loose end. Hotel check outs usually are around 12pm and flights back to the UK not until later that evening. So filling your time, but at the same time being conscious that you cannot venture too far, means you have to fill your time wisely.

So we simply spent the last remaining hours at the Samuel Adams brewery. This free tour must feature on your list. Like the tour with Harpoon Brewery, you will discover information about how the brew is made and the history of the company itself. But what stands out here is the way it is delivered. The insightful, friendly staff have bounds of energy (or perhaps beer) and are clearly passionate about what they do.

With the free tour they offer tastings, which in our group being so early in the day meant plentiful amounts of beer and root beer for those not so keen like me. In addition for me, I discovered that there are beers in the world (obviously Samuel Adams) that I actually enjoy. It’s just a shame that they are not distributed to general sale – only at the brewery itself.

The tour was a fantastic way to end what was a whirlwind, culture infused city break.

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Boston you have fast become one of my favourite places!

If you are thinking about visiting. Don’t think about it – just book it!