After my epic trip to Cuba and Mexico, my next adventure was a low-key mini break to Madrid. I have been to beautiful Barcelona and spent time in Andalucia, which I love, but I heard that Madrid is perfect for a short break with great weather, good food and cheap flights. I was sold. I am keen to do as many mini breaks within the EU as possible, before Brexit, in case the ease of travel and no visa restrictions change forever, something I think my generation has sadly taken for granted. But this is not a politics blog, so I will try not to rant! We managed to get flights direct from London to Madrid with Ryanair (from Stanstead) for £60 return (hand luggage only), cheaper than most train fares within the UK! The only thing to be warned about is that even if you pay for a hand luggage only flight, if you end up at the back of the boarding queue, Ryanair will make you put your luggage in the hold as there is not always enough room in the overhead lockers. So if you are in a rush and don’t want to hang around the baggage carousel at your destination, bear this in mind.
One of the first things we noticed in the taxi drive from the airport to the city centre was how grand Madrid felt, with all the hallmarks of a European capital city i.e. grand buildings and lots of wide boulevards. We had chosen to stay in the city centre, as I always feel that when on a short break somewhere, staying within walking distance of the main sights means you can maximise how much you can squeeze in to a mini break! We choose to stay in Hotel Catalonia Las Cortes in Las Letras, and it was the perfect location, a 10 minute walk to El Prado museum with lots of beautiful squares and cobbled streets on our doorstep. I have to give a shout out to the hotel itself with spacious, clean rooms and really warm and friendly staff who were happy to help with recommendations and patiently put up with my attempts to speak Spanish. They also had free snacks in the lobby area every day for tourists like us who were not used to the late eating hours of the Spanish people, just to keep us going throughout the day! Continue reading →
24 hours on a plane with four flights across four time zones – this was my next big trip as I hit the US of A in October. I have always wanted to give America more of a chance than I have done in the past. I have friends and family in various locations in the States and yet I have only been once since my big road trip across America when I was five, of which I remember absolutely nothing other than being terrified of Goofy in Disney World. The last trip was for a wedding in Seattle five years ago where I also added a long weekend in New York on my way home. So I decided I was going to return to New York but would also explore San Francisco with a stopover in Texas to break the journey up on the way. My very own West to East US city adventure.
I was really excited about seeing San Francisco in particular because I studied American History at University and the best bit was learning about the counterculture hippy scene of the 1960s which was all rooted in San Francisco. So I already had a picture in my head of what it would be like but then I wanted to see it before the tech companies completely took it over, which is what I had been reading a lot about before my trip there. Continue reading →
Even though I was in Portugal to have a proper summer holiday with friends and the idea was to just spend time hanging out in Sintra, eating, sleeping and relaxing, I really wanted to spend a day or at least half a day in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, seeing as I was so close – and not necessarily sure at this point whether I would return to Portugal.
I decided to look into what day tours were available. My first choice was to try out another free city walking tour, as these seem to be popular and available in most capital cities and I do find them really good for getting your bearings, meeting people and gaining some local knowledge. In my research for that, I stumbled across a couple of food tour options, which were even more up my street, and especially as I had decided I was not blown away by Portuguese cuisine – perhaps I needed to be guided to see what I was missing. I then remembered that Intrepid, who I have toured round Latin America and Vietnam with, also do day trips, which I had never tried before. When I looked into the description of the Experience Lisbon Walk, it seemed to be a combination of food and history, all with a local guide and was a reasonable 3-4 hours long, so I could get back to Sintra and spend the last evening with my friends. Continue reading →
The best part of the Vietnam trip was getting the chance to escape the hustle and bustle of city life to experience 24 hours in the Mekong Delta, a rural area dominated by rivers and canals. Hence, much of our time was spent on a boat. We started the day going through a floating market with lots of boats scattered around selling fruits and vegetables.
Next stop from Hue was three nights in Hoi An, a chance to stop somewhere properly and relax a bit and it could not have been a better place to do so. The morning after the night before, I was feeling delicate (an understatement) but I managed to survive the four hour bus journey. We stopped on the way to take in the view of China Beach with another break to take a look at an American bunker left over from the war.
After the dramas of Halong Bay, it was time to head to Hue which would involve an overnight train. On the way, we stopped off at a herb farm on the side of the road where they have plots of land and grow everything from lettuce to basil to sage to spring onions. I later discovered that after the Vietnam War, the country was quite poor and many families existed on rations using government coupons. Growing herbs like these was one way where they could try and supplement their diets and their incomes and the tradition of keeping such plots has continued.
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. The harbour is home to around 2000 limestone islands jutting out of the water – similar to the landscape you see in Thailand, but the sheer scale of this bay makes it spectacular. This was the part of Vietnam I was most excited to see and it did not disappoint – it really does look picture post-card perfect.
After my stopover in Singapore, it was time to head to Hanoi, Vietnam for two nights. I booked myself on another Intrepid food tour, following the success of the Mexican trip. I have always loved Vietnamese food and there is a big Vietnamese community in East London so I have tried my fair few dishes, love the fact that it is rice-based and largely gluten free, and have always wanted to see the spectacular scenery of Vietnam, especially Halong Bay. Also, I have never visited a communist country so was intrigued to see how different it would be.
I was given some fast facts about Hanoi by my taxi driver. There are 7 million people and 4 million motorbikes (yikes). The airport was shiny and new and only about a month old and the old airport was going to be used for domestic flights. The bridge linking the airport to the city centre was also new – 27 days old to be precise. The driver had been married two years and had a four month baby boy called Bun (meaning beautiful boy).
I am currently in Bangalore, India for work purposes. I have been here for 5 days and because I am here for work, not a holiday, life has been pretty similar to doing the 9-5 in London. Except, in Bangalore, I am doing 9-6; my accommodation is literally on the other side of the road to the office, which cuts out the commuting time, and there is a shopping mall/restaurants/bars all within the same complex. As a result, I have not left my little “bubble” all week!
I was beginning to feel like I need to get out and see the “real India”, so I did some research online to see if I could find any group/city tours for the weekend. Given the large and growing expat community here, I thought this would be easier than it was and it took me a while to find something that took my fancy. It seems that most people just get a driver and a car from their hotel to take them round the main sites.
I decided to contact Bluefoot Culture Tour, which came out a clear winner in terms of reviews on tripadvisor. Kaveri, who manages the tours, was exceptional in her responses from the word go. Sadly I was unable to access their website as the link seemed to be broken but Kaveri answered all my questions very patiently. At first I was a little hesitant, as the price seemed quite expensive compared to what I am used to – I was also worried about the fact that I needed to organise my own transport, which I found a little daunting being a woman alone in India, but Kaveri understood this and took care of everything. Continue reading →
After some downtime in Ilha Grande, we hit the road and ferry back to the mainland and made our way to Rio. It felt like an achievement when we got there as we had made it by road all the way from Santiago, Chile in nearly a month’s travelling. My time in Rio was pretty hectic as there was just so much to cram in. The first thing we did was to do spend the afternoon doing a city tour to see all the main sites. We started off by seeing the Christ the Redeemer statue, the iconic Art Deco landmark of Rio. It was amazing to see it up close to see how huge it is and also surprisingly simple as well as taking in the view of Rio itself. I particularly liked the area where there is a big lagoon in the middle of the city. I believe Rio was named when the discoverers thought it was a big river so named the city Rio and also because it was discovered in January, so the city is effectively called the river of January.