A whole heap of history and a splash of Christmas lights: Toulouse, France

In the second, and possibly last, of our surprise mini breaks to Europe, we travelled to Toulouse in the South of France. I’m sure Toulouse is beautiful in the Spring/Summer or any other time than the middle of winter.

It is not the snow covered Christmas markets of northern Europe nor is it the warmer weather of the Mediterranean, in truth, we had a perfectly grey weekend. Nevertheless, we explored Toulouse top to bottom!

Starting out at the airport, we had hoped to hire a car to take us to the Pyrenees. However, upon enquiring the price we scrapped that idea! So we bought a three day travel ticket – big mistake – and took the tram to the Palais de Justice station. We didn’t even realise that the Palais de Justice was right in front of us, so we wandered down the alleyways and bought lunch in little cafes along the way.

Statue of two people kissing in Jardin les Plantes
Statue of two people kissing in Jardin les Plantes

We took a detour into Jardin des Plantes, where we looked at going around the Muséum de Toulouse. However, we were left waiting to be served for far too long so we decided it wasn’t worth the €7. Leaving the museum, we wandered around the park, which was a little stark in the winter light.

Bridge in the Jardin les Plantes
Bridge in the Jardin les Plantes

There is a lovely river running through with waterfall tumbling down a man-made mound. We enjoyed exploring the meandering paths and looking at the different types of trees. I imagine it is beautiful when all of the flowers are in full bloom.

Waterfall in the Jardin les Plantes
Waterfall in the Jardin les Plantes

Continuing along the street, we came to the Jardin du Grand Rond. In the centre of a busy roundabout, the garden has a beautiful fountain in its centre with a pavilion overlooking. Despite the slight sound of traffic, it was a little nature haven in the middle of the city.

Fountain in the centre of the the Jardin du Grand Rond
Fountain in the centre of the Jardin du Grand Rond

Exiting the park we walked along the Allées Forain-François Verdier to the Monument aux Combattants de la Haute-Garonne, remembering the soldiers who died in WWI.

Monument aux Combattants de la Haute-Garonne
Monument aux Combattants de la Haute-Garonne

We then headed west to the Cathedrale Saint-Etienne. Not quite sure whether we could enter, we cautiously entered the beautiful cathedral. Despite a rather plain exterior, the cathedral’s interior was intricate with amazing stained glass windows. Milan’s Duomo was magnificent but far too ornate and unrealistic, this was a truly old cathedral. Half was under refurbishment, yet we were able to wander freely through the stone walls.

Main altar within the Cathedrale Saint-Etienne
Main altar within the Cathedrale Saint-Etienne

The cathedral is really unique in its’ asymmetrical design and beautiful alcoves with sculptures and various confessionals from throughout the years. It was incredibly peaceful, especially with all of the candles burning.

Cathedrale Saint-Etienne
Cathedrale Saint-Etienne

Leaving the cathedral, we headed on to the Musee des Augustins that has a huge collection of sculpture and paintings from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

Gargoyles at the Musee des Augustins
Gargoyles at the Musee des Augustins

The first room houses the medieval sculpture, which I found incredibly interesting – especially with the depiction of saints and some with the colour still remaining.

The museum also houses a huge hall in which fine art classes take place surrounded by incredible paintings and a beautiful organ at its centre. Toulouse’s famous organ dominates one of the walls and commands awe.

Incredible organ in the Musee des Augustins
Incredible organ in the Musee des Augustins

Upstairs you find an interesting light installation by Jorge Pardo. Inaugurated in May 2014 for Toulouse second International Art Festival, the display houses Toulouse’s beautiful Romanesque art separated into three categories shown by the change in light fitment.

Light installation by Jorge Pardo using Romanesque statues
Light installation by Jorge Pardo using Romanesque statues

These distinguishing lamps separate the set of capitals taken from the cloisters, no longer extant, of La Daurade, Saint Sernin and Saint Etienne. Pardo designed every element of the room, from the pillars to the tiling.

One of the statues in Jorge Pardo's installation, this one shows the story of Saint John the Baptist and Salome
One of the statues in Jorge Pardo’s installation, this one shows the story of Saint John the Baptist and Salome

Continuing up the stairs, you are presented with contemporary statues by artists such as Alexandre Falguiere.

Nymph Chasseresse Statue by Alexandre Falguiere
Nymph Chasseresse Statue by Alexandre Falguiere

You then enter the gallery with famous pieces such as Edouard Debat-Ponsan’s The massage.  Only the red gallery was open, unfortunately, as I would have liked to explore more of the artwork. Nevertheless, the pieces were beautiful. In particular, I liked the artwork of Armand Point and Philippe-Auguste Hennequin with their very different styles.

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Artwork in the red gallery
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Artwork in the red gallery

Time to check in to the hotel, we got settled in for a quick nap before heading out for the evening.

View from window of the Musee des Augustins
View from window of the Musee des Augustins

It was time to explore the Toulouse Christmas market. At the end of the street where our hotel was, we came to a roundabout decorated with a huge Saint Nicholas in his ice carriage next to a festive carousel. It was like being in a fairy-tale. All the streets were decorated with lights and the market looked quaint in the shadow of the Place du Capitole.

Toulouse's Christmas decorations
Toulouse’s Christmas decorations

After looking at multiple restaurant menus as we walked, and not liking anything we saw, we eventually decided to buy something at the market. We had Toulouse sausage with chips, which definitely filled a hole. Then we wandered around the stalls.

Toulouse Christmas market
Toulouse Christmas market

Not quite the Christmas market I had expected, it was noticeably French with the scent of bread and strong cheese, meats and fried onions filling the air. The stalls had various handmade items and Christmas decorations. Despite the lights continually shorting out leaving parts of the market in darkness, we enjoyed wandering whilst drinking delicious Vin Chaud (mulled wine).

Toulouse Christmas decorations
Toulouse Christmas decorations

Feeling cold, we dipped into a bar where we had the worst wine I’ve ever tasted… Managing to drink it, we tried to find another bar but there wasn’t any room at the inn. So, we returned to the hotel’s “bar”, which consisted of a drinks cabinet and three sofas. We were greeted by a very helpful American lady who served us some very nice Chardonnay and pointed us towards the main sights of Toulouse. We would begin to explore more the following day.

Chris with our "Bag of wine"
Chris with our “Bag of wine”
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European Mini Break: Sforza Castle, Italy

Day two, we decided to explore the Sforza Castle. But not before spending far too long in a lovely bakery nearby our hotel, Mr Moussa. We first sampled the croissants: Chris chose plain whilst I had apricot marmalade. It was all of the tastes of Christmas! We shared a few mini tarts before ordering chunks of focaccia. Definitely a feast of Italy.

Sforza Castle, Milan
Sforza Castle

Positioned at Milan’s centre, the Castle was unlike any other castle I have seen with red brick and white details. The area had been massively restored over recent years to reveal the majesty of former times.

Fountain at Sforza Castle
Fountain outside Sforza Castle

The castle was originally a Visconti fortress but later home to the mighty Sforza dynasty, who ruled Renaissance Milan. Like Milan’s cathedral, the castle has undergone many transformations, including the addition of 12 bastions under Spanish command in 1550 and Napoleon’s draining of the moats and removal of its drawbridges during his reign.

Interior wall of Sforza Castle
Interior wall of Sforza Castle

Upon its transfer from military use to the government, restoration works were carried out by Luca Beltrami in the 19th century. Today, the castle houses many specialised museums, including works by Leonardo Da Vinci, who was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza to decorate the castle’s walls from 1494, and Michelangelo’s final work, the Rondanini Pieta.

Inside Sforza Castle walls
Inside Sforza Castle walls

Wandering around the courtyard, we attempted to enter one of the many museums housed in its walls. Turns out you need tickets from the opposite side to which we’d entered. We hurried through a little embarrassed!

Restoration of the interior walls of Sforza Castle
Restoration of the interior walls of Sforza Castle

Unfortunately, the queues were ridiculous for the museums so we decided not to buy tickets and instead head to the surrounding park, Parco Sempione.

View towards the Arch of Peace in Parco Sempione
View towards the Arch of Peace in Parco Sempione

The largest city park in Milan, it houses the Castle, Arch of Peace and Arena Civica. The Arch of Peace is a beautiful neoclassical structure replicating the Arc de Triumph in Paris. It was built in 1807 by architect Luigi Cagnola under the Napoleonic rule. This new gate marked the place where the new connecting road between Milan and Paris would begin, the Strada del Sempione.

Arch of Peace
Arch of Peace

When the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy fell and Milan was conquered by the Austrian Empire, work on the gate was abandoned. Until, in 1826, it was resumed again for Emperor Francis II, who dedicated the monument to the 1815 Congress of Vienna. After Cagnola’s death in 1833, Francesco Londonio and Francesco Peverelli brought it to completion in 1838.

Arch of Peace
Arch of Peace

Standing 25m high and 24m wide, the Arch of Peace is decorated with a number of bas-reliefs, statues and Corinthian columns. These decorations depict major events in Italian and European history, including the Battle of Leipzig and the Congress of Vienna. There are also subjects from classical mythology, such as Mars, Ceres, Minerva and Apollo imagined in the sculptures. As well as allegories of the major rivers in North Italy, for example the Po, the Adige and the Ticino.

Taking the outer path, we meandered through to the Arch of Peace, where we sat and listened to a woman singing for a while. It was definitely a moment of “wow we’re actually in Italy”.

Inside the Arena Civica
Inside the Arena Civica

Continuing along, we followed the neoclassical walls of the Arena Civica, a multipurpose stadium, where sports and concerts are often held. That morning there had been a sponsored run for breast cancer awareness.

Wall of the Arena Civica
Wall of the Arena Civica

The sun was out and we warmed our faces as we took in the scenery. With lots of lakes and trees in their autumn splendour, the park was really beautiful.

Feeling hungry, we walked to the Duomo stopping at Martini Cafe for a final pizza. Not quite as good as the first, but it certainly filled a hole!

Our holiday at an end, we made our way to the airport watching the sunset on our way.

Duomo di Milano
Goodbye Duomo

European Mini Break: Duomo di Milano, Italy

The first of our mini breaks to Europe, we set off for Milan in the north of Italy. With a budget of £200, I thought I’d done pretty well as we caught a €5 shuttle bus to the centre. Arriving at the central station, we headed straight to the Duomo (Cathedral) as we intended to make the most of our limited time.

Central Station, Milan
Central Station, Milan

As you exit the station, your eyes are met with the incredible marble structure of Milan’s cathedral. We made our way to the ticket office, where a rather confusing system was in place. On your visit, I would recommend using the self-service stations immediately rather than waiting an exceptionally long time for your number to be called. Joining the fairly long queue, we gradually made our way into the Duomo.

Duomo di Milano
Duomo di Milano

The Gothic cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete, with many architects and engineers undertaking its building in this time. It is the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world!

Duomo di Milano
A closer view

Construction began under the direction of Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzi in 1386, to celebrate the ascension to power of his cousin Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Three hundred employees led by first chief engineer, Simone da Orsenigo were to embark on the work under the “Fabbrica del Duomo”.

Side angle of the Duomo di Milano
Side angle of the Duomo di Milano

The Duomo was originally intended to be made of red brick in Lombard Gothic style; however, the appointment of French chief engineer, Nicolas de Bonaventure drastically changed plans. Under influences from new trends in European architecture, it was decided that the brick structure should be panelled in marble in a style not typically Italian, but French.

Paintings inside the Duomo di Milano
Paintings inside the Duomo di Milano

Gian Galeazzo Visconti gave exclusive use of the unique pink marble from the Candoglia quarry, from which workers would transport the mountains of marble to the centre of Milan via the waterways. At the death of Gian Galeazzo in 1402, the cathedral was almost half completed. Yet, construction drew to a halt due to lack of money, not picking up again until 1480.

Over the following centuries, many architects and sculptors would be commissioned to produce beautiful marble pieces for the cathedral, yet the exterior would largely remain untouched until the 17th century.

One of the many marble sculptures in the Duomo
One of the many marble sculptures in the Duomo

At the beginning of the 17th century, Federico Borromeo and Pellegrini had devised a new, Renaissance appearance for the cathedral. Its façade largely incomplete, Pellegrini was able to design a “Roman” style one, with columns, obelisks and a large tympanum. However, in 1649 the new chief architect Carlo Buzzi reverted the façade to the original gothic style.One of the many marble sculptures in the Duomo

Finally, on May 20th, 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the façade of the Duomo to be completed by Carlo Pellicani. After a promise to reimburse the expenses, the Duomo’s exterior was complete just seven years later. Napoleon would later be crowned King of Italy at the Duomo, and a statue was placed at the top of one of the spires in thanks.

Duomo di Milano Organ
One of the organs

I was amazed at the 45m height of the ceiling, with delicately engraved pillars and beautiful stained glass windows. Even the floor was audacious.

Floor of the Duomo di Milano
Floor of the Duomo di Milano

We wandered around the space, taking in the information on past popes and archbishops. The statues were incredible, including the below, which is Duomo’s most famous statue: The Saint Bartholomew Flayed (1562), by Marco d’Agrate. You can see how the saint shows his flayed skin thrown over his shoulders, revealing the muscle structure underneath.

St Bartholomew statue in Duomo
St Bartholomew statue

Soon we came around to the back of the cathedral, where we found a life-size cast of the gold Madonnina, which sits atop the cathedral spire.

The Madonina replica in Milan's Duomo
The Madonina replica

In 1762, Francesco Croce, architect to the Veneranda Fabbrica received the commission to build the main spire of the Duomo. He suggested that the Great Spire should be decorated with a statue of the Virgin Mary carried up to heaven by angels.

Main stained glass window in the Duomo
Stained glass window

The making of the statue was entrusted to the sculptor Giuseppe Perego, who proposed several models in 1769, before the current design was decided upon. In June 1769, the work for the model was begun by sculptor and model maker Giuseppe Antignati, while the blacksmith Varino made the supporting framework.

Main stained glass window in the Duomo
Stained glass window up close

The Madonina was raised onto the main spire of Milan’s Duomo in late December 1774 and remains the symbol of the city and patroness of the Milanese people. She is composed of embossed and gilded copper plates, supported on a framework which is now in stainless steel. This framework was originally iron, but had become dangerously corroded. Restoration work in 1967 replaced this with a new stainless steel structure and involved the dismantling of the copper plates and mordent re-gilding.

The main altar in the Duomo, Milan
The main altar

After fully exploring the Duomo, we headed to the attached museum. However, I was a little disappointed in the lack of information. Each sculpture had a name attached but it was almost assumed that you would understand the significance. There was also a significant lack of history.

Gold head of God
Gold head of God

Nevertheless, we were able to see sculptures that sit on and within the Cathedrals walls up close. And for €3 all in, it was definitely value for money.

Miniatures of the statues decorating the facade of the Duomo, Milan
Miniatures of the statues decorating the facade of the Duomo, Milan

The Duomo sits next to Milan’s famous shopping centre, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. With an impressive glass dome and three floors, it is a real show of beauty. With a huge choice of places to eat, we eventually decided upon La Locanda Del Gatto Rosso. Genuinely, the best spaghetti carbonara I have ever tasted and most amazing pizza – but surely that’s what you’d expect in Italy.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

After enjoying our lovely meal, we crossed the road to Venchi chocolate shop. Delighting in their gelato cones, it was then time to head to the Hotel. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn North. Whilst being fairly far out, it was a beautiful hotel and we were spoilt by the views of the city.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II ceiling
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II ceiling

It was then time to get ready for an evening in Navigli. We entered an area filled with shops and restaurants either side of the canal. All the lights reflecting in the water, we sat down to enjoy a few drinks at Luca E Andrea. As it was Italy, you couldn’t go far wrong with the wine!

Navigli
Navigli

Taking in the atmosphere, we met a lovely American couple. We spent the rest of the night picking their brains about New York and the Italy tour they’d undertaken- garnering ideas for future adventures.

We moved on together to an “Irish” pub, which was weirdly a club… We swiftly moved on and headed for bed.

The Journey South from Scotland

Saying goodbye to our lovely cottage, we began our journey south. But not before one last exploration of Scotland.

Ben Lomond
Ben Lomond

Beginning at the tip of Loch Lomond, we drove north along the A82 through Luss and on to Inverbeg. Tight to the loch edge, we got a full view of Ben Lomond and the surrounding mountains standing proud. It was a fantastic feeling to see the mountain we had conquered in front of us.

Loch Lomond
Loch Lomond

Reaching Inverbeg, we diverted off through Glen Douglas. Taking us along a single track road, we were immersed in the mountains. In full autumn colours, it was incredible.

Beginning of Glen Douglas
Beginning of Glen Douglas
Mountains along the Glen Douglas Pass
Mountains along the Glen Douglas Pass
Glen Douglas Pass
Glen Douglas Pass

Passing through some army bases, we came out to the A814, which took us along the edge of Loch Long. Here we could see across to the Argyll Forest with its magnificent evergreens that border the banks of the loch. A place to visit next time.

Across to Arghyll Forest
Across to Argyll Forest

Continuing south, we split off from Loch Long to discover Gare Loch and the more built-up towns of Helensburgh and Dumbarton. Scanning across to the opposite side of the River Clyde, we could see Greenock and Port Glasgow.

Loch Long
Loch Long

Sight-seeing over, we began the long drive down to Newcastle: our next destination. As we neared the city, we diverted to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Chris was especially interested in visiting this outcrop of land as it is temporarily cut off from the mainland at high tide.

Lindisfarne Priory
Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne is one of the areas I often visited on family holidays as a child, so holds a lot of sentimental value. We took a peek at the Lindisfarne Priory before exploring the beach and some of the quaint shops dotted around the village. A yummy carrot cake and coffee was consumed at Pilgrim’s Coffee House.

Holy Island of Lindesfarne
Holy Island of Lindesfarne
Holy Island of Lindisfarne
Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Realising the time, we wandered a short way down to the castle, which was unfortunately under refurbishment, before jumping back in the car for the last night of our trip – an Antarctic Monkeys’ gig in Newcastle.

Holy Island Beach
Holy Island Beach

Our holiday complete. We celebrated my birthday before returning to London and normality.

Struggling up Ben Lomond

Our first full day in Drymen, we decided to go exploring. But, by the time we reached the starting point of the Ben Lomond trail, it was already after 1pm. With an estimated 4-6 hour trek ahead of us, I did warn that we would be returning in the dark.20171026_130617

Undeterred, Chris insisted we climb Ben Lomond. So we set off along the Main Path to the summit from Rowardennan.

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You almost immediately start to climb through the lower trees. It was a perfect day as the sun joined us for short bursts and we were only slightly spattered by the expected Scottish rain. Trees in full autumn colour, the views were spectacular as I stopped every 5 minutes to take photographs.

The path is well-trodden and definitely one of the easier trails I have climbed. Obviously, it is a popular walk. Today, however, we almost had the mountain to ourselves.

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This first section of the walk is fairly steep, with uneven steps climbing the high gradient sides. As with most mountain climbs, we did not immediately begin to climb Ben Lomond, but circled around onto the ridge via its neighbouring mounts.

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Upon reaching the ridge, the trail evened out and became almost easy as we meandered along. Inclining gradually, the views only got better. Every time we turned around, we gasped with the beauty presented before us.

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As the sun broke through and drizzle continued in the surrounding valleys, a weird phenomenon occurred. Not a drop of rain fell on us as we observed an incredible full rainbow that kept us company for the rest of the journey.

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As we got further towards the summit, which loomed through the cloud before us, we met more and more people returning. Only 20 minutes left, 15 minutes, 5 minutes. Their estimations were definitely optimistic as we struggled up the last steep climb to the summit.

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One hundred metres from the top, my legs suddenly gave way – I’m not as fit as I once was! Chris had to seriously use his powers of persuasion to get me that last little bit. I could not turn back now!

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But we made it. Utterly exhausted and now a little wet as the rain drew in. The top of Ben Lomond was soaked with huge puddles everywhere. The view was worth the pain.

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With the light fading, we could not stay long at the top. It now became a race to the bottom before darkness ensued. Our knees buckling as we traversed the steep steps to the bottom, the journey seemed much longer than on our way up.

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At points, we slipped and ankles were twisted, but we continued with the backdrop of a pink and purple sunset. Truly beautiful and something we would not have seen had we not been walking down the mountain at this time.

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Nevertheless, the last couple of hundred metres were attempted in complete darkness. With the aid of our mobile phones, we were able to make out the path and get down safely.

Definitely exhausted and muscles that hadn’t been used in a long time aching, we were very satisfied to have completed Ben Lomond. Absolutely worth it.

Searching for Giant Pandas at Edinburgh Zoo

Saying goodbye to the gorgeous garden room we had been staying at in Edinburgh, we headed on towards Drymen. But first, we took a detour to Edinburgh Zoo.

We had booked before visiting onto the 10.45am viewing of the Giant Pandas. The Zoo is home to the only giant pandas in the UK. The female, Tian Tian (Sweetie), was unfortunately kept inside during our visit. Yet, we were hopeful to see the male, Yang Guang (Sunshine).

View from Edinburgh Zoo
View from Edinburgh Zoo

Both pandas have identical, but separate enclosures as giant pandas are entirely solitary animals that only meet during breeding season once a year. However, it seemed that Yang Guang didn’t want to say hello us to that morning. He was tucked up warm in his bed!

Deciding that we should come back later, we continued onto Penguins Rock. The large enclosure houses three different species of penguin: Gentoo penguin, King penguin and the Northern Rockhopper penguin.

Penguins Rock
Penguins Rock

We enjoyed watching them play in the water fountain and look inquisitively at the humans watching them behind the glass.

Northern Rockhopper Penguins
Northern Rockhopper Penguins
King Penguin
King Penguin

Continuing on, we came across the Rhinoceros enclosure. We were impressed by the size and variety of habitats provided by the zoo, but it was a little cold for him that day. We found him in his home, which is open for the public to walk through. I was amazed at his size! I don’t think I’d ever been as close to a rhino before.

Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros
Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros

Wandering round, we came to the Tapir enclosure, where we saw her asleep with her beautifully striped baby. We passed through the bird enclosures, where we saw snowy owls to rainbow lorikeets, on to the Banteng (an animal between a cow and a deer) and the Visayan Warty Pig enclosure before reaching the otters.

Oriental Short-Claw Otters
Oriental Short-Clawed Otters

It looked empty until the first otter poked his head out of their hidey-hole. Suddenly there were five Oriental short-clawed otters scampering to get a drink at the pool. One curious individual decided to go for a wander away from the group.

Oriental Short-Claw Otter
Oriental Short-Clawed Otter

Making a U-turn we headed towards the Pigmy Hippos, which I absolutely loved. I wasn’t expecting them to look so shinny!

Pigmy Hippos
Pigmy Hippos

Stopping by the Cassowary, who looked at us suspiciously, we carried on to the Egyptian Vulture and Gelada Baboons. We watched the baboons for a while as there were a lot of babies clinging to their mothers. At one point we saw sudden movement and screams as a fight broke out. We have no idea what caused it but it was interesting to see the group dynamic.

Cassowary
Cassowary
Gelada Baboons
Gelada Baboons

Climbing now, we reached the Scottish Wildcat, who was hiding pretty well at the top of a tree. Then we saw some people crowding around an area. When we entered the zoo, we were informed the Tigers and Lions would be cordoned off due to it being their breeding season. I was really disappointed as they are my favourite. Yet, at this point, there was one tigress visible in her enclosure.

Tigress
Tigress

I was over the moon!

Continuing on, we reached the Zebra and Antelope African Plains. It was beautiful to walk out across a bridge into the enclosure and look out at the zebras silhouetted against the Scottish landscape.

Antelopes
Antelopes
Zebras
Zebras
View of the plain with zebras in the foreground
View of the plain with zebras in the foreground

Having watched them for a while, we wandered back down and into the Wallaby Outback walkthrough.

Swamp Wallabies
Swamp Wallabies

Leaving them to sun themselves, we visited the Koalas before making our way to the Small Monkeys Magical Forest. I couldn’t believe how tiny some of these monkeys are. This little guy was a bit of a character.

Goeldi's Monkey
Goeldi’s Monkey

It was time to visit the Squirrel and Capuchin monkeys, who are currently taking part in research by the zoo to understand their behaviour more. Whilst we didn’t get the chance to see an experiment, it was interesting to read about. Plus, the Squirrel monkeys are especially cute.

Brown Capuchin Monkeys
Brown Capuchin Monkeys
Common Squirrel Monkeys
Common Squirrel Monkeys

Realising that it was almost time for the Penguin Parade, we headed back stopping at the Sun Bears, Brilliant Birds and Gibbons as we went.

Sun Bear
Sun Bear
Bali Starling
Bali Starling

Taking a prime seat in the Penguin Café, we enjoyed a pasty as we watched a small group of penguins being directed through the crowd of people. Whilst not quite the “parade” we were expecting, it was lovely to see the children so excited.

After a short break, we took in the Wee Beasties exhibit before rushing back to the Chimpanzees Budongo Trail. Another centre of research, this building housed our closest relative. With many rooms for the chimps to hang out in and lots of viewing platforms for us, the centre is definitely set up well with plenty of information on the zoo’s Ugandan conservation work.

Chimpanzees
Chimpanzees

Content we’d taken in the Budongo trail enough, we moved on to the Lemur Walkthrough and Monkey Walkthrough – except they were all tucked up in their houses! A little too cold maybe…

White-Faced Saki
White-Faced Saki

Moving on, we saw the flamingos dancing and spotted a Red Panda in the top of its tree. We then said hello to the Pelicans and caught a glimpse of the meerkats. The day coming to a close, we decided to try the Panda enclosure one last time.

Flamingos
Flamingos

Though of course, Yang Guang had decided to show his face this time and everyone had had the same idea… There must have been a hundred people waiting. So we dipped into the Monkey House where we saw Drill and Barbary Macaque, Diana Monkeys and more Capuchins.

Barbary Macaque
Barbary Macaque

Ring-tailed Lemur

Drill
Drill

Pretty exhausted, we jumped in the car for the drive to Drymen near Loch Lomond. After a little struggle to find the cottage we headed out to eat.

We found Drymen Inn, which I would highly recommend to anyone in the area. My Chicken Stroganoff was the best I’ve ever had!

Stay tuned for more of our Scotland holiday!

Two Beautiful Cities – York and Edinburgh

Holiday in full swing, it was time for the 5-hour drive to Edinburgh! But not before exploring York in an hour…

Already over an hour into our journey, it was time for a pit-stop in York. And an opportunity to try the “LADBible Famous” Yorkshire Pudding Wrap.

Nestled in the heart of York, we found one of the York Roast Co. shops. With a choice of Turkey, Pork, Ham or Beef with stuffing and sauces, our taste buds were spoilt. Settling on the Pork with applesauce combo, we did a quick tour of the main sights.

York Minister
York Minister

Stopping off to eat beside the Minister, we admired the architecture before trotting back along through The Shambles. A glimpse at the wall and it was time up. Back in the car and on to Edinburgh.

Angel of the North
Angel of the North

The next day presented us with a rainy morning that soon cleared for us to explore Edinburgh. Our host had kindly recommended a parking place half way up Arthur’s Seat, which made the trek to the top a whole lot shorter!

View from Arthur's Seat
View from Arthur’s Seat

The wind buffeting us off the summit, we were greeted with views of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth.

Chris at the summit of Arthur's Seat
Chris at the summit of Arthur’s Seat

Turning west, we could see out towards inland Scotland. Truly a magnificent place to take in your surroundings.

Climbing back down toward Holyrood Palace, we decided not to go in with our muddy boots and instead headed to the tourist information. Chris had been wondering along our way what this large white dome was. We found out. Known as Dynamic Earth, it is a centre for interactive learning.

Dynamic Earth
Dynamic Earth

It was decided, that was where we were heading. But first, we stopped for some official Scottish Hog Roast at Oink. Definitely filled a hole.

Oink Hog Roast
Oink Hog Roast

Dynamic Earth was fantastic. Taking you on a journey through time, the exhibits discover how the Earth has changed, from the big bang to the future of space exploration. The interactive nature of the museum was incredibly engaging and, even as a twenty-three year old, I found it fascinating.

I would definitely recommend for children and adults alike.

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Dynamic Earth

The day wasn’t over yet. We headed back to our apartment to freshen up for the evening. A friend had recommended Bread Meats Bread as a dinner option. We cannot thank him enough.

Genuinely one of the best burgers I have tasted, it was well worth the twenty-minute wait to be seated. With only three restaurants across Glasgow and Edinburgh, this place is wonderfully original. The Maple Sweet Potato Fries are to die for – just thinking about them makes my mouth water! With the burger exceeding expectation, you need to try this.

Bread Meats Bread Chicken Parmigiana
Bread Meats Bread Chicken Parmigiana

Finished drooling, we headed to a local bar: The Beer Kitchen. Intending to try a few bars before a ghost tour of the city, we were side-lined by Scrabble and the ambiance of an open fire.

Naturally, this led to us missing the intended ghost walk. Able to join a later one, we took a late night walk by St. Giles Cathedral and the surrounding streets. Returning to our starting point, we joined the rest of the people on the ghost walk.

St. Giles Cathedral
St. Giles Cathedral

Our tour guide, David, introduced himself and outlined the itinerary. First, it was a visit to the underground vaults.

These vaults aren’t officially underground; they are a series of chambers formed in the nineteen arches of the South Bridge in Edinburgh. Completed in 1788, they were originally used for trade and businesses. However, as the condition of the rooms deteriorated due to damp, these tradesmen moved out, paving the way for Edinburgh’s poorest. Cramped into these tiny rooms, disease was rife and many died. It is believed to be haunted due to a number of stories circulating around the deaths of children.

At multiple points throughout the tour, we were left in these rooms in the pitch black. I won’t spoil it by saying what happened.

It was the third of these rooms when I began to feel a little frightened. We were told the story of a pregnant woman, who had experienced hearing a ghost rasp that she wanted her baby and ran scared through the passageways. In these slums, women (or child snatchers) would profit from the poor by taking their babies and selling them. Could this be a ghost of a child catcher?

Unscathed we continued on our tour of Edinburgh’s most haunted. This time, we were taken to Greyfriars Kirkyard. The graveyard holds many stories, from Greyfriars Bobby (the loyal dog that guarded his master’s grave) to the poltergeist of “Bluidy MacKenzie”.

“Bluidy MacKenzie” was Lord Advocate during the prosecution of Presbyterian Covenanters by order of Charles II. After the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, Mackenzie imprisoned 1,200 Covenanters in the field next to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Some were executed, and hundreds died of maltreatment.

The graveyard was first recorded as haunted after the violation of MacKenzie’s mausoleum. A homeless man broke into the grave, which houses many important figures, with violent ghost attacks being reported thereafter.

We were taken through into the so-called Covenanters’ prison. Our guide divulged stories of these violent attacks and once more we found ourselves in the pitch black. I won’t tell you what happened next.

After a closer look at MacKenzie’s mausoleum, the door of which has almost been kicked in, we called it a night.

A little tacky and maybe a little too political at points, the ghost walk was worth it for the history. If you want to learn more about Edinburgh’s darker past, then enjoy!

Dynamic and Wild: Spurn Safari

It was my birthday week – cause who only sticks to a day?! So, we decided to go on holiday to Scotland making a pit-stop at my parents on the way. This provided the perfect opportunity to finally visit my dad’s workplace: Spurn Point. After over three years as Heritage Officer at the Nature Reserve, my dad was able to showcase his pride and joy to me as we joined one of his Spurn Safaris.

Spurn Point sits at the very tip of the Humber Estuary along the coast of East Riding of Yorkshire. An important habitat for bird migration in the spring and autumn months, Spurn is a key area of conservation. But it is also very susceptible to the elements.

During the tidal surge of 2013, the road to the point was washed away creating what is now known as the wash-over. At certain tide times, this turns Spurn Point into the only island in Yorkshire. With the loss of a road down to the point, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust invested in a Unimog to cross the sandy beach with passengers. This created the opportunity for Spurn Safaris: guided tours of the nature reserve.

Today, it was our turn.

A quick briefing and we were off across the sand. It was interesting to see the difference between the Humber Estuary on the right and the North Sea to the left. I don’t know of anywhere that offers such an insight into coastal diversity.

Spurn Point Lighthouse
Spurn Point Lighthouse

It wasn’t long before we reached the newly refurbished lighthouse: the tallest in the north of England. Here we were given the history of the lighthouse’s use in shepherding vessels through the mouth of the Humber Estuary. As we climbed the spiraling stairs, we found the rooms on each floor displayed the current shipping radar and how the landscape of Spurn has shifted over the years.

View from the top of the Lighthouse
View from the top of the Lighthouse

The Trust also houses an Artist in Resident who is showcased in the lighthouse. This season’s artists had created wild charcoal images of the nature reserve and a group of students had contributed some wonderful poetry. Dynamic, raw and ever changing being a common thread.

From the top, you are granted incredible views of Spurn and the surrounding area. Even on one of the windiest days of the year, the landscape was breath-taking. I fully understand why my dad loves it here so much!

View from the top of the Lighthouse
View from the top of the Lighthouse

Venturing further onto the point, we came to a number of buildings. Some were once the homes of the lifeboat crew and their families, these cottages now only house the on-duty staff since being cut from the mainland. Yet, it was good to see the RNLI still operational at Spurn.

Old army barracks and a VTS Tower also sit at the point but are now disused. A tour around this area revealed the artillery batteries positioned during the First World War as a line of defense. This expanded our understanding of Spurn as a military base, highlighting its position as more than a nature reserve.

Artillery Battery from World War I
Artillery Battery from World War I

Following our guide through the thick shrubbery, we were instructed on the significance of such a military history and Spurn’s importance in securing the Humber as a port. We also uncovered the natural prominence of this place as we spotted redstarts and chiffchaffs beginning their autumn migration.

Earthstar Fungi
We even came across some Earthstar Fungi

Thoroughly tired out, we bundled back onto the Unimog to return to the mainland. On route, a lovely grey seal decided to say hello. We watched him dancing in the waves as we crossed the wash-over.

A quick bite to eat at Spurn’s quaint café, the Blue Bell, and we headed back to the warmth of home.

Another one for the Bucket List – V&A Museum

Life has been a little hectic recently, but you’ll be glad to know that means lots of posts for you! A couple of weeks ago now, we did a mad tour of Northern England and Scotland, so keep your eyes peeled for those blogs. But for now, I will take us back to the beginning of October, when Chris and I explored the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Another one ticked off the bucket list (almost). Entering from the Tunnel Entrance, we found ourselves in the Europe 1600-1815 exhibit. If you’re a fan of the ornate and beautiful, then I would definitely recommend.

17th century dress
17th century dress

We were treated to seventeenth century silver and traditional clothing. I was blown away by the ornate carvings on the below harp and even got to take part in a traditional dance – much to the delight of bemused spectators.

17th Century harp
17th Century harp

The interiors took me back to the Palace of Versailles and its exquisite painted ceilings and gold trimmings. Of course, they are of the same era.

Ornate ceilings in 17th Century French style
Ornate ceilings in 17th Century French style

Taking a short excursion from the museum to find somewhere to eat – which I would highly recommend – we ticked off another bucket list item. Harrods.

Harrods exterior
Harrods exterior

Neither of us had ever visited the famous department store, so it was a little adventure into the unknown. Teaming with people, it has definitely become more of a tourist attraction than a place to buy your bedding from. But, of course, we were adding to that trend. We took some photos with the famous Harrods bears and enjoyed a little early Christmas shopping.

Speaking of which, as we are all already counting down to Christmas, I wanted to draw your attention to a fantastic site I’ve found for purchasing gifts!  Uncommon Goods are working to change the way business is done by making sustainability a part of every decision they make. This doesn’t just mean being “green”. They focus on creating a positive workplace for their employees; only sell hand-made, recycled or organic products; as well as being environmentally conscious in their business practises, such as sourcing paper from FSC certified forests. There is also an option to donate to charity at the checkout. Pretty awesome right?

With everything from ornaments to jewellery, homeware to toys, there is something for everyone. I love some of their Christmas Gift Ideas, Personalised Gifts and Stocking Fillers! Make sure you check them out.

Anyway, overwhelmed by the strong scent of perfume at Harrods, we returned to the V&A. As the museum is so large, we decided to stick to the European displays. A quick visit to Rome, we admired one of the first works of Gianlorenzo Bernini. In Baroque style, the sculpture dramatizes a scene between Neptune, the classical god of the sea, and his son Triton. Fitting since this sculpture was positioned within a fountain.

Neptune and Triton
Neptune and Triton

We moved through the exhibit, taking in the baroque style through to the history of the Thirty Year War and the firearms and armour that were used. I was amazed by the intricate carvings on the rifles. Everything in this era seemed to be over-the-top yet astonishingly delicate.

Engraved rifles
Engraved rifles
Decorated nautilus shell
Decorated nautilus shell

The final area of this section highlighted the interest of 17th and 18th century Europeans in the Asian and “Exotic”. Ming dynasty-styled vases and ornate cabinets, these objects were a sign of wealth and beauty.

Flower Pyramid
Flower Pyramid

Time to head back further in time. Crossing to the opposite side of the hall, we came to the Medieval and Renaissance 300-1500 exhibits.

The first room presented us with beautiful carvings and engravings from thousands of years ago. Stone and ivory were the main building materials. Naturally, religion was a huge part of the buildings and ornaments we uncovered here. From beautiful archways to the first whale-bone ornament, the religious motifs were present.

Medieval Oliphant (Ivory horn) derived from Islamic art
Medieval Oliphant (Ivory horn) derived from Islamic art

In this period, churches and monasteries were increasingly built or rebuilt in stone. Both inside and out, they bore images that were either didactic, with moralising scenes from biblical stories, or decorative.

Column from a raised pulpit with carvings of religious figures
Column from a raised pulpit with carvings of religious figures

In later years, the gothic style would take over. These stained glass windows are from various monasteries in France and depict many of the scenes of the bible, from the Virgin Mary and her mother Anne to St Peter, the Old Testament to King Louis IX.

Stained glass windows with religious effigies
Stained glass windows with religious effigies

At the end of this section, we came to a majestic tapestry. The Boar and Bear hunt is an incredible piece of work depicting the hunting practises of the 15th century. Hunting was popular amongst the aristocracy of the period. Bears and otters were hunted primarily for sport, whilst deer and boars were also prized for their meat. We were fascinated by what we learned when taking it all in.

Boar and Bear Hunt Tapestry
Boar and Bear Hunt Tapestry

We headed home exhausted after only covering a small section of the V&A’s collection. It is definitely a place that requires multiple visits.

Enjoy this post? Tick off more of my London Bucket List with me here.

Mystery Tour of Southeast England

August Bank Holiday, I finally had Chris all to myself for an entire day. And he had planned a mystery tour of Southeast England for us.

With only a slight idea of where we were going, we headed out in search of breakfast. We had hoped to find somewhere along the way, but one hour later (with a very hungry Hazel) we took a diversion into Royal Tunbridge Wells. Suddenly remembering a place he’d been before – which had a café – Chris took us on a wild goose chase. No name and only a slight inkling that it actually had a café, I wasn’t very hopeful. But he came through.

Dunorlan Park Lake
Dunorlan Park Lake

Dunorlan Park was beautiful. The bacon and sausage sandwich very much appreciated. Finishing our breakfast in the gorgeous 27C heat, we naturally headed straight for the ice cream. Then it was time to explore.

Dunorlan Park
Dunorlan Park

Idyllic in the summer sun, we wandered through the gardens spotting the ornamental fountain and impressive trees. Once part of the 78-acre gardens of the grand mansion built by Yorkshire millionaire, Henry Reed, the park is Grade II listed. The gardens contained within were designed by renowned Victorian gardener, Richard Marnock in the 1860s.

Ornamental Fountain
Ornamental Fountain

Another stunning feature is the 6-acre boating lake. Lots of people were out kayaking and playing in the pedalos. Definitely a place to revisit when we have more time.

Dunorlan Park Lake
Dunorlan Park Lake

Having had a nice break from driving, we continued on our journey to the main surprise. I tried to figure out where Chris was taking me. I knew it was close to Hastings, so I had some ideas, but it wasn’t until I saw the brown sign “Bodiam Castle” pop up a few times that I guessed.

Bodiam Castle is your classic castle. It’s the kind of castle that every young child imagines. A picture perfect monument with its symmetrical towers and large circular moat.

Bodiam Castle
Bodiam Castle

Upon arriving, we found multiple groups of people dressed in period clothing. There was an archery section where we watched some young children do worryingly well! As well as a number of tents and workshops set out like a battle camp. We never found out quite why there were these displays of 14th century England, but it definitely made the day more fun.

Battle camp
Battle camp

Crossing the bridge into the castle, we watched the gorgeous Koi Carp – with one rather spectacular orange one catching our attention. We explored the castle top to bottom, from picturesque views of the surrounding countryside to the servant’s quarters.

Koi Carp
Koi Carp

Bodiam Castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a former knight of Edward III, with the permission of Richard II. Its primary role was to defend the area against French invasion during the Hundred Years’ War.

Looking through a window at Bodiam Castle
Looking through a window at Bodiam Castle

However, the structure and details of the castle with its quadrangular shape and position in an artificial watery landscape suggest that it was designed to impress. Attractive as much as it is defensive.

 

 

Well worth a visit, the castle remains in good condition and certainly has lots of history attached.

There was one last stop on our mystery tour. The beach.

Hastings Beach
Hastings Beach

Our final destination was Hastings, a seaside town on the southeast coast of England – and landing place of William the Conqueror. It is most known for the 1066 Battle of Hastings, fought on a nearby field where Battle Abbey now stands.

Hastings Beach with Pier
Hastings Beach with Pier

Arriving around 5pm, we headed straight for the seafront. Met by a shingle beach, it’s not quite your ideal picnic spot, but it was lovely to be beside the sea again. We wandered through the amusements area, eyeing up the Crazy Golf and Go-Karts as we went.

Fishing net shops
Fishing net shops

Continuing along the shore, Chris showed me the old net huts. Originating from the 16th-17th century, these huts were traditionally used to store fishing gear made from natural materials which would rot if left in the open. They have vastly changed over the years, but were recently awarded Grade II* listing and are almost as they were in 1865.

Anchor
Anchor

We also found a huge anchor which had once held centre stage on the pier. It was here that we realised the East Hill Cliff Railway was still running.

East Hill Cliff Railway
East Hill Cliff Railway

Having been convinced it had fallen into disrepair, we had to go up. The funicular railway was opened in 1903 by Hastings Borough Council and originally operated on a water balance principle. The line was modernised between 1973 and 1976 with an electric system and new cars added.

View from the East Hill Cliff Railway
View from the East Hill Cliff Railway

Despite knowing it must be safe, at points you certainly felt like you could fall off! The view, however, was a fantastic distraction. There was a hazy mist hanging over the scene making Hastings appear dream-like as we looked down upon it. At the top, you can explore Hastings Country Park which is the perfect place to relax in the sunshine – there are also steps if you don’t fancy the (almost) vertical railway.

View from the Hastings Country Park

Unfortunately, it was nearly time for the last car down – and we didn’t fancy the steps – so we couldn’t spend too long at the top. Just enough time to take in the view.

Our stomachs rumbling, we headed for the nearest Fish and Chips shop – and it was divine. After incredibly efficient service and enough chips to feed an army, we were definitely satisfied. Thank you very much, Fish Hut. Much better than Wales…

It was getting late, but the lack of people on the Crazy Golf tempted us to stay longer. We couldn’t resist a game, our competitive edges coming out. Far too much fun was had, especially when I managed to hit a hole in one! With only one point in it, I think we were both winners.

The light fading on a perfect day, it was time to head home. But not before a stop at the arcades – and no, Chris did not get me the Iron Man toy…

Sunset on a perfect day
Sunset on a perfect day