Tag Archives: citybreak

A day in Bratislava

Bratislava wasn’t at the top of my travel wishlist.
It was there somewhere but it was lagging behind some very strong competitors.

Then suddenly it climbed to the top. Unexpectedly. A dark horse. Thanks to the  UFO Tower, its 430 steps and an international race I wanted to take part in.
And on a mild September weekend I found myself in the Slovakian capital, ready to tackle a stair challenge as well as  explore a new destination.

Slovakia Bratislava "UFO Tower"
UFO Tower

Bratislava – one of the smallest capitals in Europe – gained its capital city status when the Slovak Republic became an independent state on 1 January 1993.
Small but intriguing, I found it really pleasant to visit. With its medieval centre, its narrow cobbled streets and plenty of historic buildings, Bratislava offers many opportunities for your sightseeing day.

Hlavne namestie (main square) is a good starting point for your Bratislava mini-adventure: considered the centre of the city, this square features landmarks such as the Old Town Hall and Roland’s Fountain. I especially loved the fountain at night: the changing lights, with shades from red to green to blue, made it a very magical place!

Do you like wandering around without a set itinerary, like I do? Then lose yourself in the meandering streets, explore the city and its history, try the street cafes, discover the quirky arts and crafts shops, enjoy the views over the River Danube. There is so much to enjoy in such a small place!

And how can I forget Bratislava castle?! Perched on the top of a hill, what we see now is a 1950’s reconstruction of Emperor Sigismund’s fifteenth-century castle, which burnt down in 1811. The box-shaped building and its four towers are particularly fascinating at night. The views over the city and the Danube are something not to miss!

My time in Bratislava was limited so I didn’t get to visit buildings  or museums properly but I definitely recommend this city.

By the way, for those of you who want to enjoy panoramic views of the Slovakian capital from the UFO tower, you won’t need to climb 430 steps: there is a lift that will take you all the way to the top!

Athens Day 3

This was my last full day (+night) in the city. Not tired of walking, I spent the day exploring more of the city on foot. This included a walk up Lycabettus hill (or Mount Lycabettus), the highest point of Athens!

Here are the highlights of the day:

#National Gardens
Located behind the Parliament building, this is a peaceful area where to relax away from the main tourist crowds. I actually visited these gardens on two consecutive days as I really enjoyed walking around and exploring!

#Panathenaic Stadium
I loved it! This is the site of the opening and closing ceremony of the 1896 Olympics and it was also a venue for the Olympics in 2004. Entirely made of marble and with very steep steps, it requires a bit of caution when walking up and down after heavy rain but once you are at the highest point the feeling is amazing! You can also have your photo taken at the podium that is located at ground level.

#Lycabettus hill (Mount Lycabettus)
This is the highest point in Athens and its top can be reached on foot or by using a funicular. St George’s Chapel is located at the top and offers a good viewing point to the rest of the city. The wind can be very strong here so be warned!

#Piraeus
Only a 15-min metro journey from Monastiraki lies Piraeus, largest passenger port in Europe and second largest in the world. I went because I wanted to see the port and enjoy the sunset by the sea on my last night in Athens. The sky was cloudy but the colours were still beautiful!

 

Athens Day 2

My top tip for Athens is: base yourself in the Monastiraki area! This is THE hub. Excellent transport connections to the rest of the city, reasonable walking distance to most tourist sites (I walked pretty much everywhere), plenty of restaurants and eateries of all sorts, plenty of bars for a good night out. And I just loved walking around in the evening, enjoying the view of the Acropolis from below and of the streets full of people. Yes, there are a few dodgy individuals around the train station but, as long as you are not there on your own in the middle of the night, concern should be minimal.

So my second day in Athens started by exploring the area further, and here are some photos.

#Psiri
Next I explored the Psiri district. I spent a lot of time there, fascinated by the rundown buildings, the huge amount of street art (more in another post) and the flea markets.

#Ancient Agora
This is the best known example of an ancient Greek agora, and it remained in use either as an assembly, as a commercial, or as a residential area for about 5000 years. Restoration of this area has been minimal. The highlights are the Temple of Hephaestus,  the best preserved ancient Greek temple from the Classical era, and the Stoa of Attalos, a building of the Hellenistic period that was rebuilt from the ground up based on its ancient appearance.

#Kerameikos
This is the ancient cemetery of Athens and is one of the least visited sites in the city, despite its importance and beauty. Archaeological excavations in Kerameikos started in 1870 and so far archaeologists have found columns of temples, marble statues, remains of public buildings, funeral offerings and thousands of tombs. I spent well over an hour wandering around the area and I definitely recommend a visit.

#Syntagma Square and Parliament
Syntagma Square is the most important square of modern Athens from both a historical and social point of view. In recent years (2010-2012) this square became the site of mass protests related to the economic situation of the Greek government-debt.
At the top of Syntagma Square you’ll find the Parliament building. Crowds gather outside every day to watch the Evzones, the elite soldiers who guard the tomb of the unknown soldier as well as the Presidential palace. While the main ceremony of the changing of the guard is held on a Sunday morning (this is when the traditional white kilts are worn), hourly changing of the guards occur every day on weekdays too. I watched these a couple of times and found them quite entertaining.

 

Athens Day 1

My first day of Athens sightseeing covered quite a lot (I walked around 15Km!) and here is some information and photos on what I saw.

#Acropolis
I couldn’t miss it. Yes I had been there before but 25 years can make a huge difference from the viewer’s end. The Acropolis wouldn’t have changed much but my way of looking at things would have.
To reach the Acropolis you walk up the steps on the hill, enjoying the narrow streets, the small restaurants and cafes along the way, the graffiti murals that seem to cover every wall, the panoramic views of the Athens. The route isn’t really well signposted (there are various routes anyway) and more than once I bumped into other tourists who appeared lost on their way up.

The entrance ticket to the Acropolis is Euro 20 (it drops to  Euro 10 in low season). I walked around the area for a few hours, enjoying the views despite the strong wind of the summit of the hill. A lot of restoration work is going on and sadly the Parthenon was largely covered in scaffolding. Yet just being able to be there in the presence of such majestic monuments of the ancient times was incredible.
The Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Theatre of Dyonisus, the Temple of Athena Nike, and more. You could easily spend half a day there. And the views of Athens from above are pretty stunning too.

#Acropolis Museum
Not tired of archeology yet, I then spent some more time wandering around the Acropolis Museum, which displays a lot of remains that were found in the area. The museum is located by the southeastern slope of the Acropolis hill and the building itself is quite beautiful.

Traditional souvenirs

#Plaka district
If instead you are tired of sightseeing, the Plaka district, just by the Acropolis hill, has plenty of cafes and shops (mainly souvenirs) for anyone’s entertainment.

#Philopappou hill
My first sightseeing day ended with a walk up Philopappou hill to see the Philopappou Monument and enjoy a panoramic view of the Acropolis and of Athens as a whole. Again it was very windy but the view from the top was really nice.

Return to Athens – 25 years later

I had been to Athens before. I had ticked Greece off my list already. It was a long 25 years ago. It was a family holiday. All I remembered of Athens was walking around the Acropolis in the excruciating  heat. And a major public transport strike that made us travel around town in army vans. The latter sounded incredibly cool.

Then suddenly I found myself booking a flight to Athens. Ready to re-discover the city and see how much it had changed. I don’t often go back to a place where I have been before, more eager as I am to explore new countries. But this time was different. Certainly the Acropolis would still be there, but how about the city that had been re-modernised thanks to the 2004 Olympics? How about the impact of the economic crisis?

A desire to escape the UK in search of another connection with my Mediterranean roots was the final push I needed. Not that getting me on a plane needs much convincing…

Keep reading my next posts to see what I discovered in my 4 days in Athens!

Discovering Luxembourg City

The capital city of the small landlocked country of Luxembourg (the only Grand Duchy in the world!) is a mix of old and new. Easy to walk around and with enough to keep you busy for a day or so, it is a good destination for a European city break.

I certainly didn’t expect I would find it so interesting!

My visit wasn’t blessed with good weather, though. Heavy rain and freezing temperatures were my companions during my discovery of the city. Less than ideal but that didn’t stop me!

The UNESCO-listed Old Town (especially the part called the Grund) is the most picturesque area of Luxembourg City. You could wander around for hours exploring the alleys, walking along the corniche – by the riverside – and discovering the old fortress. I must admit that, because of the weather, I quite enjoyed adding cosy pubs to my sightseeing list!

Unfortunately the Casemates, underground galleries used as refuge during military attacks in the past centuries and one of the main attractions of the city, are closed in winter so I couldn’t visit them.

The medieval town core of Luxembourg City is in the Ville Haute. This part of town is home to many historic buildings such as the Palais Grand Ducal and Notre-Dame Cathedral, as well as famous squares like Place d’Armes and Place Guillame II.

There are also some interesting museums. I spent almost two hours wandering around the National Museum of History and Arts, which is spread over several floors and dedicated to displaying artwork and artifacts from all times of Luxembourg history. Another museum hosted an unusual exhibition about football seen as a religion of modern times (“Football Hallelujah!“). Although unrelated to Luxemborg itself, it was quite good to visit.

Tired of sightseeing? Why not stopping at Chocolate House for some sweet treats?

Luxembourg "Ville Haute" "chocolate house"
Chocolate House

A visit to the country of Luxembourg would not be complete without heading out to the countryside and the villages. Look out for my next post for this!

Luxembourg here I am!

How did I get here? Luxembourg had never been anywhere near my top 20 countries to visit…

But when my Emirates airmiles where converted into an EasyJet flight, all I could reach from London was Luxembourg. So I thought: why not?!

And one Friday evening I found myself on a bus from the airport to Luxembourg City, listening to announcements in French and wondering what to expect from the city.

It didn’t take me long to get excited at the idea of a new destination to discover, though! And with the help of a map, a travel app and an ice cream – while relaxing at my hostel – I quickly set my itinerary for the following day.

A new adventure was about to start!

Hippie Copenhagen: Christiania

Christiania is an entirely different world in that Amsterdam-looking part of Copenhagen called Christianshavn.
Surrounded by a long wall completely covered in graffiti, the only external sign that something there is “different”, this hippie community-turned-tourist-attraction maintains a relative amount of autonomy within the municipality of Copenhagen. A sign at the entrance simply states “Christiania”. The other side of it, which you see as you exit, states “You are now entering the EU”.

pusher street christiania copenhagen denmarkSo-called Pusher Street (officially named Green Light District) remains the main drag, with hash and skunk weed on sale in makeshift stands. Multiple signs warn the tourists that taking photographs here is not permitted, as buying and selling hash is still illegal in Denmark.

Creativity dominates in Christiania. Colourful houses built in interesting architectural styles are seen everywhere. Street art, installations, cultural activities, music events. You name it.

Christiania Copenhagen lakeThere is even a lake!

And yes, there are a lot of dodgy-looking characters walking around so I wouldn’t recommend a visit after dark, but I would definitely encourage everyone to experience the spirit of Christiania when visiting Copenhagen.

A short break in Copenhagen

Say “Copenhagen” and everyone immediately thinks of the Little Mermaid.
And admittedly that was the only attraction I had planned to go and see, not having spent a single minute in planning my impromptu citybreak to the capital of Denmark. So unlike me. The TripAdvisor guide I have downloaded on my phone will come in handy once I reach Copenhagen, I thought. And I was right.

mermaid copenhagen denmarkSo back to the Little Mermaid statue. This icon of the city is definitely overrated. Placed on a rock at the far end of the main promenade, a good 25 minute walk from the main tourist sites, it is not as visible as I expected. Swarms of tourists surround it and cause huge amount of frustration to any photographers. Dislike.

But once you have overcome the mermaid disappointment, you will soon realise that Copenhagen is a great city to visit over a long weekend.
The majority of tourist attractions are within walking distance from one another, but if you get tired easily there is a fairly good metro network that will come to your aid. Boat tours on the canals that cross central Copenhagen are another good way to get around, offering a different view of some of the main sights.

Here are my picks, in no particular order:

#Nyhavn: the old harbour area, characterised by picturesque colourful houses and boats. And lots of nice (yet expensive) cafes along the waterfront. Great area where to hang out at any time of the day and night.

#Christianshavn: south of the harbour, this part of town reminded me of Amsterdam, with its canals, boats and colourful waterfront houses. Very pretty.

#Christiania: crazy place but interesting to visit (lots of graffiti and street art too). This is a hippie community that maintains some autonomy and is famous for its Pusher Street (no photos are allowed there!). A sign on your way out advises you that “You are now entering the EU”….

#Climbing to the top of the Church of Our Saviour: great views of Copenhagen from above. Only slim people can make it to the very top as the staircase gets very very narrow.

#Rosenborg Castle: up until 1710 this was the royal summer residence. Beautiful castle with interesting collections, including the Danish crown jewels.

#Amalienborg Palace: the winter home of the Danish Royal family, it consists of four palaces surrounding a central courtyard. The changing of the guard takes place here everyday at noon after a march across the city centre.

#Lego Store in Strøget (Strøget is the main shopping and pedestrian area): a bit of a childhood weakness, but I couldn’t resist entering and buying a little souvenir there…

#Happy Wall in Kongens Nytorv: this is a piece of interactive art in one of the main squares in the central part of town. Brainchild of artist Thomas Dambo, the wall consists of nearly 2000 wooden boards that can be flipped to change color. Everybody who wants can in this way create patterns, animals, words or statements. Great to watch as passers-by stop to let their imagination run free!

#Walking along the waterfront: great way to enjoy the laidback atmosphere (and the great weather I was blessed with).

#Smørrebrød and Danish pastries: yum! Smørrebrød is a traditional Danish lunch and is basically an open sandwich (try the one with smoked salmon and cheese!). Danish pastries are absolutely delicious and come in loads of different varieties. Unfortunately for all my readers, I was too busy eating and forgot to take photo evidence of the food ;-)

More about Copenhagen will follow!

Escapism

What do you do when the pressure of daily life becomes too much? What do you do when you are not happy with all that is going on around you (or inside you)?

Do you treat yourself to a lovely meal in an expensive restaurant?
Do you indulge in chocolate icecream?
Do you go on a shopping spree and buy a new dress/handbag/pair of shoes/latest tech gadget (or all of them)?
Do you retreat in the arms of your loved one?

I will tell you what I do.
I book a flight.
And I go travelling for a few days.
(Well, not always. Or I would be broke)

 I have posted about my love for travels, planes, road trips, and the feeling of freedom they give me (check out Road Trip, On a plane and Boarding Gate). That is what I seek.

Last week I had enough of everything. Work was driving me mad. So I booked to have a Monday off just to give myself some space. A three-day weekend, mmmm, what’s the best use I can make of it???
I suddenly found myself staring at a map of Europe on GoogleMaps trying to identify potential destinations for a city break.
What European country have I not visited before? Where can I get a cheap flight to, at such short notice (i.e. 4 days)? Are flight times reasonable? Is there hostel availability in the centre of town? What currency would I need? Can I pack all I need as cabin baggage? Is my SLR camera ready?

An hour later I had completed my mission. Destination identified. Flight booked. Hostel accommodation booked. TripAdvisor cityguide downloaded on my phone. Bag semi-packed.

Four days later, at 3am, I was on my way to the airport for a three-day city break in Copenhagen!