Mooching around Madrid [Part 1]

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Eight weeks long, the first and also the longest half term in the school calender finally came to a close last week. The first 2 months as an NQT have been tough,  but having my little trip to Madrid kept my head above water.

I booked cheap flights on a whim earlier in Spring, knowing very well that neither J. nor any of my friends would be able to accompany me. The Ryanair scare of thousands of cancelled flights did not affect me and I was still able to go.

This was not only my first time back in Spain since my Year Abroad and but also the first time I have done solo travel in two years. I visited Madrid on my own before flying home two years ago; three days in summer was not enough to make the most of the city, so this time I booked 5 days to make the most of my time off.

I have travelled alone so many times over the last 5 years and really enjoyed it: Paris, Madrid, Porto, Wroclaw, Warsaw, Lisbon… but admittedly, it was something that took a few days for me to get re-accustomed to. I chose my hostel in particular as from the reviews, it was very sociable and friendly, but unfortunately it was anything but. Frustrating, as when I have travelled alone in the past, the hostels have really been a highlight of the trip.

Even after having spent a total of 8 days in the Spanish capital, I cannot say I have done everything, but that was not my intention. I did what I wanted in my own time. I saw some museums, slept during siesta, did some shopping, did the day-trip I wanted, splurged on that opera ticket, went to a spa, went to the cat café. I actually did quite a bit but it was not rushed. That is the beauty of going to a place and having the time to do it slowly, you don’t have to rush and cram everything in.

So I am home now, mentally preparing myself to go back to work tomorrow and also for the next seven weeks before the Christmas holidays. At least it is Bonfire Night tonight!

Stay tuned for Part 2

Weekly blog posts about my South American adventure published every Sunday!

Robyn

Travel Update: Autumn in Madrid

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My travels from South America this summer are still making their way onto the blog but I am also looking ahead at my upcoming adventures! 

The next trip will see me going back to Madrid for 5 days during half term. I haven’t set foot in Spain since completing my Year Abroad – which feels like a million years ago by the way!

I am going back to the Al-Andalus baths to relax on my first full day – wash away the stress from work – at least for a few days.

I will be catching the high-speed train to Córdoba another day, somewhere I have been dying to visit for too long. Then, for my final night I have managed to snap up a ticket for my favourite opera, Carmen! It was too perfect an opportunity to miss. I bought some opera glasses in an antique shop this weekend so I’m glad to be getting use out of them so soon. 
There will still be plenty of time for delicious food, shopping and hopefully I will make it to some museums and the Royal Palace which I skipped last time. 

I haven’t travelled solo for quite a while now, so it feels a bit strange, but I am excited to do whatever I feel like doing, having some me-time and more Spanish practice!

Any recommendations for Madrid/Córdoba? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Robyn

Adventures at Home: Pembrokeshire, Wales

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It was the first weekend after school broke up in July and I was geared up for a nice, weekend break in sunny South Wales. Of course, things didn’t go to plan! First, J. and I were planning a weekend camping together, but this soon became a group thing with a few of his old coursemates and housemates. Luckily we are all good friends…

I spent a lot of my childhood exploring North Wales, living only a short drive away in Merseyside. Many memories were made getting lost in Snowdonia on expeditions for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, so it was good to go south for a change.

We stayed at a campsite only a short drive away from nearby Pembroke which has an impressive castle and a high street with some shops, pubs and restaurants. A little further along was Tenby; with its pastel-coloured houses along the harbour, it is a picturesque little seaside town, which we enjoyed going to on both Saturday and Sunday morning for a stroll along the narrow streets and get a spot of breakfast.

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J. and I arrived early on Friday afternoon to the campsite, well before the rest of the group. We were welcomed by nothing less than torrential rain. Looking forward to a ‘summer holiday’, and definitely too optimistic in our choice of clothing (jeans – what was I thinking?!), we were very unprepared to put up our tent and regretting everything.

Sitting in the parked car for a few minutes we agreed we were not going outside. A lady knocked on my car window and asked me to meet her in the reception to check-in. Poor thing had got soaked for that! J. said he was staying put, so it was up to me to brave the weather. It’s not like we don’t have the equipment – I have waterproofs and everything but didn’t bother to pack them. Definitely the wrong decision.

The rain was not subsiding even after quite a while, so we agreed we would just have to put the tent up and get soaked. Get soaked we did. Two hours passed and still the rain was hammering down on the tent. We were getting hungry so it was time to once again get wet, just when our clothes were starting to dry! I called my mum and said suggested we just put the tent down and go find a B&B. It was so tempting but we were too stubborn for that!

There was not much parking in Pembroke. But by the time we got there, we found some free parking only available after 6pm (hooray!). Unfortunately, the main pubs and restaurants were about a ten minute walk away – of course! Walking down the street, we were turned away by a few places as they stopped serving at 7pm and were closing up. So odd as it was a Friday night! Eventually, we found a pub/restaurant/hotel which did food, so we sat down at last. We looked out the window from our table, jaws dropped – it had stopped raining the second we found shelter – typical!

After being well fed, our clothes were drying quickly and one of our friends finally arrived to join us. We were waiting for three more, but after horrific traffic all the way from Sheffield and 2 hours of stagnancy on the roads, they arrived in the thick of night at 11pm. Car lights were useful in helping to put the tent up!

After the nightmare of the rain on Friday afternoon, we were grateful that there was no more for the rest of the weekend! We spent Saturday afternoon relaxing on Stackpole Beach which is known as the best beach in Wales! The walk along the clifftops makes for a dramatic arrival to the beach, but because of this, it is not very accessible for those with restricted mobility. There were a lot of sand-flies as well which wasn’t great, but the views were spectacular.

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On the way back to the campsite, we stopped in Pembroke to pick up food for a BBQ which was a great way to spend our only real proper night together there.

Pembroke is a beautiful, little corner of Wales which has some lovely villages and beaches to visit. Luckily, after a terrible start weather-wise, we were treated more kindly for the days that followed, with some sunshine. Although, this is Wales, we should have known better! Next time though, I think we will rent a cottage together, or at least go glamping/book a B&B. I think my DofE days are past me!

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Jewish Heritage in Prague

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As mentioned in my previous post, Czech-ing Out Prague, the Jewish Museum was one of the highlights of my trip and cannot be missed in any trip to the city.

The Free Walking Tour showed us around the area and gave some information about Jewish life in Prague over the course of history, but this is just a starting point. Grab a ticket from one of the ticket offices to really appreciate the rich Jewish heritage in this city.

There are several ticket options with discounts available. We chose the second one where we had access to all but the Old-New Synagogue. There is A LOT to see. What is great is that your ticket is valid for one-entry to all the sites but you can use it over the course of two weeks (check your ticket just in case though). This was great for us as we were able to spread out seeing the sights over two days instead of packing it all into one.

We had access to and visited: Maisel Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, Old Jewish Cemetery, Klausen Synagogue, Ceremonial Hall and Spanish Synagogue. Many of these sites are Shoah memorials and religious buildings, so it is important to be respectful and wear appropriate clothing.

The Spanish Synagogue is by far the most beautiful Synagogue I have visited. The wall and ceiling decorations are remarkable. I overheard a tour guide say ‘this is the most beautiful synagogue in Central Europe’ so it is not just me! In a separate entrance you will find the permanent exhibition on ‘The History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, Part 2.’ It’s special focus is on the Shoah of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, and the Terezín ghetto.

Pinkas Synagogue was a very solomn space. Much older, built in the 16th century, it is now a memorial to the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah (Holocaust) from Bohemia and Moravia. It is one of the earliest memorials of its kind in Europe, it is the work of two painters, Václav Boštík and Jiří John who painted the names of the victims on its walls. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, the memorial was closed to the public for more than 20 years. It was fully reconstructed and reopened to the public in 1995 after the fall of the Communist regime.

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A heart-wrenching exhibition, located on the first floor, gives us a glimpse of the fate of Jewish children who were incarcerated in the Terezín ghetto during the Second World War. It is based on the children’s drawings that were made in the ghetto between 1942 and 1944 under the supervision of the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The pictures document the transports to Terezín and daily life that these children faced, as well as their dreams of returning home and of life in the Jewish homeland. For many, these dreams remained just that. Very few survived, as the majority of the children perished in the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Old Jewish Cemetery is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world. It is fascinating to see the old tombstones and see nature take over this place. It was founded in the first half of the 15th century with the earliest tombstone dating all the way back to 1439! There are about 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery. However, as this was the only place where Jews were allowed to be buried for centuries, space was extremely scarce and bodies were buried on top of each other, with graves layered up to 10 deep. Now the cemetery is quite built up from street level.

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Czech-ing Out Prague

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Our three night stay in Prague felt like the right amount of time to visit the city. Enough to do what we wanted to do but not rush it. In hindsight I would have extended my stay if possible, but only to visit other parts of the country that we didn’t make time for.

We were hoping for some nice, sunny weather. Had we gone this week, we would have been in shorts and tee-shirts. Instead, we went last week, when the weather was the same as back home – pouring with rain mostly and very overcast. This didn’t ruin the trip though and we just put our waterproof jackets on and made the most of it. Luckily the final day brightened up nicely!

We stayed at the Caesar Hotel which was in a great location – a ten minute walk to the centre and right next to the river with some cracking views of the bridges and Prague Castle. It was just lovely to take the longer route into town along the river to soak up those views day and night. I was dubious as there were some quite mixed reviews of the hotel online, but our room was amazing (spacious, clean and a great shower) and breakfast was good.

Top Things to Do

  • A Walking Tour

We went with Sandman’s Free Walking Tour – currently ranked the best on TripAdvisor. The tours do fill up though, so get there early to get your name on the list. They do have multiple groups each time, so it isn’t too crowded. Our group had about 25 in it. I learned so much I would not have read about in a travel guide and we saw parts of the city to orientate ourselves with for the rest of the trip. Tijo was a great guide, mixing in interesting facts and info about Prague and the Czech Republic with a good amount of sarcasm and jokes to compliment. It was four hours with about one hour as a refreshments break and sit down which was quite appreciated.

  • Visit the Jewish Museum

During the tour, we were taken to the Jewish area of the city and had a peek at the Old-New Synagogue, the Ceremonial Hall and Cemetery but it really is worth buying an admission ticket to have access to all the sites. I will do a separate blog post on this as there is so much to talk about. It was definitely a highlight of the trip!

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  • Prague Castle

Set aside a morning/afternoon/all-day to do this. It is the largest castle complex in the world and yep, there is a lot to see! I recommend choosing the type of ticket you want before going in as they do not have this information easily visible when you are queuing and try to arrive early to beat the crowds. We paid a bit extra to climb the tower of the cathedral – it was so worth it for the fantastic views over the city, You can see the mass of tourists walking along the Charles Bridge too, which is a horrific sight to behold…

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  • Charles Bridge

You have to go here, it is so symbolic of Prague. Early morning or late evening is the best time as in the day it is packed solid of tourists and everyone is stressing over getting a spot for that perfect photo. One guy told a woman to move as she was in his shot, while she was just enjoying the views of the river. Rude.

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Prague is a beautiful city, but I could not stop comparing it to my experiences in other parts of Eastern Europe – especially Poland. I fell head over heels in love with Wroclaw and Kraków, that even three years on I am still raving about it! Prague just cannot compare in my eyes. Still, it was a lovely break – great to explore somewhere new, walk 25,000 steps a day (my FitBit and my legs were loving life) and learn about a different city and it’s rich history. I would love to go back to see other parts of the country.

Can you recommend anywhere else in the Czech Republic for me to visit? Let me know in the comments…

Stress over Holiday Mess

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-Can you turn around? I forgot my bank card!

The taxi driver looks back at me, nodding, as we are about to pull into the train station.

-I’m usually so organised…

-Well you’re not today! He chuckles.

-Definitely not. I say this half in agreement, half annoyed at myself. I plan everything meticulously. I don’t need my bank card as I have my travel money card and foreign currency, I explain. I just forgot I needed it to print my train tickets at the station.

I run back into my house, grab the card and jump back into the taxi. Luckily, I make sure I am always early for things, so there was enough time for two trips to the station!

Feeling very rushed, I print the tickets but notice I still have ten minutes before my train departs. So lucky. Lucky enough to even buy a toastie from the Costa on the platform before I find my seat on the train.

We’re on the train. It’s destined for Manchester airport and that is enough drama for this holiday, thank you. Sinking into the not so comfortable seat, tucking into my toastie and listening to the new Lana album, I receive a message on our group chat. I’m going to Prague with two of my school friends and they should be driving to the airport soon. My friend has forgotten her passport! She is in Liverpool and it is in Bristol. Even by my calculations, it’s not going to happen. Music off, cue a few frantic phone calls. Reluctantly accepting the situation, our group of three dwindled down to two.

Has this ever happened to you? Let me know in the comments.

 

Adventures at Home: Winchester, England

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I have really been exploring the South recently! This time, it was to the quaint, historic center of Winchester for a lovely day out.

The city reminded me of York, but what puts Winchester on top is that it is the city less-traveled. There is plenty to see and do but you do not have to push through the hoards of crowds to get around – my kind of place!

From the train station is a short walk to anywhere in the city. Our first stop was the famous cathedral. Your ticket includes a free tour and remains valid for the rest of the year should you wish to return; we didn’t do the the tour but the guides who we spoke to were very knowledgeable and happy to answer our questions. The cathedral is perhaps most famous as Jane Austen’s final resting place – of course we paid her a visit, but it is also home to a 10th Century Bible. A very impressive book, huge and detailed. Written on velum, it has been impeccably preserved.

Only a few days earlier, I was watching a TV documentary about Jane Austin’s life in Winchester and Bath and then it just so happened that that weekend, I was walking on the same streets I saw in the documentary. History in action.

Our next stop after a pub lunch was Wolvesey Castle. A free English Heritage site, and well worth the visit to get to know the Bishops of Winchester who made this their home during the Medieval period. The bishop was the most influential and powerful man in the city and our visit here gave much more context to how important Winchester was at the time, second to London! Nowadays, the site is a ruin, next door though, the new residence of the Bishop of Winchester can be found.

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After a bit of window shopping on the busy High Street, we had a tea and cake stop at the nearby Winchester Café. On offer was a superb selection of cakes and teas. Spoiled for choice with regards to the tea selection, the waitress recommended the apple and mint tea – wow, it was so good. On the menu I read that it had won awards, so it was no surprise really.

From there, it was a short but uphill leisurely walk back to the station to catch the train.