A Magical Visit to Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

As part of my commitment to seeing a bit more of the UK since my Year Abroad (which now feels like a distant memory), I visited Alnwick Castle in October. Home to the Duke of Northumberland whose family have resided there for an incredible 900 years, it is a stately home better known as Hogswart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as it was a magical film location for the Harry Potter films. And more recently, the Downton Abbey 2014 Christmas Special!

As a lover of all things Harry Potter and Downton, Alnwick was like a dream come true.

The trip was organised by the Student’s Union and we took a coach up from Sheffield which took three and a half hours without stops. I’d recommend buying a ticket for both the Castle and the Gardens. You do not want to miss out on the interior of the castle, nor walking round one of the most beautiful contemporary gardens in the country.

The Poison Garden is a one of a kind in this country; you get up close and personal with some of the most deadliest natural killers in the world and learn all about them from an expert guide.

12140694_10156076759120447_5147441830771174422_n

They are not kidding!

11148220_10156076758975447_3506206835821056415_n

Belladona – so beautiful but so deadly

Some plants have to be caged for security!

Some plants have to be caged for security!

The castle has responded positively to its involvement as a filming location for Downton Abbey. This was the first time the interior of the Castle had been used as a film set. They have installed a short documentary in the Coach House about what it was like to have the Downton Crew filming there. Not to mention, each of the state rooms used in the filming have information points about what happened in there in the episode, some have the outfits worn by the actors on display and the dining room for example, has kept the name placards for each of the Downton characters for where they sat for dinner. As a huge fan of this television series, it was hugely satisfying to find out all these small details.

There really is so much to do here in a day. There are many exhibits on local history, archeology and artifacts and war history, aside from the main rooms. There are daily activities for childen (and adults), involving broomstick flying (Harry Potter themed), archery, guided tours of the cellars, etc. and the Castle has it’s own café and picnic areas. It is also in close proximity to Alnwick town, where you can visit the famous Barter Books (which I regret not visiting!).


12106826_10156076757825447_1499142820178526436_n

Before boarding the bus back to Sheffield, we visited the Alnwick Garden’s Treehouse area, which is one of the largest treehouses in the world. It has a cosy little coffeehouse, the Potting Shed, where we sat for for a quick hot drink and a slice of cake. There is also a restaurant which looked very tempting. All of this is decorated with very atmospheric outdoor fairylights which make it look magical and homely.

12140566_10156076758700447_6804871394530041907_n 12109011_10156076758805447_8885915580874181258_n

Although quite a drive away, our day trip exceeded my expectations and I would highly recommend a visit to Alnwick Castle to anyone. Next on my ‘Castle list’ to vist will hopefully be Highclere Castle, also known as the wonderful Downton Abbey! Untitled

The Beautiful Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Beach

After completing our Glacier Hike in Skaftafell at 3pm, having lunch and a brief rest at the Visitor’s Center café, we went straight to the Skaftafell camp site (just behind the Visitor’s Center) to set up our tent.

After we were fed, watered and relieved to have a roof over our heads for another night of camping, we jumped back in the car at about 4:30pm to drive the easy 45 minutes down the Ring Road to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, somewhere I was extremely excited to see for myself!

Jokulsarlon Glacer Lagoon

Jökulsárlón Glacer Lagoon

The Glacier Lagoon, along with the Golden Circle, is considered one of the top ‘must-see’ places in Iceland. Many travellers who don’t have a car opt to take a day-trip from Reykjavik straight to the Glacier Lagoon, and there are many tour companies that offer this. At a whopping 4h30 minute drive straight from Reykjavik, it sounds crazy, but many choose to visit Jökulsárlón for the day, with 9 hours on a coach. My personal hell as I get travel sick! Luckily for me, I had a car, and had several days to drive the same distance with plenty of stops along the way.

On arrival at the Glacier Lagoon however, you instantly understand why people choose to sit on a coach for hours and hours just to come here; if I were in their position, I would do the same thing, travel sickness and all. It is simply incredible! No matter how many pictures you find online of this place, you will still be astounded that somewhere like this can exist.

IMG_2555With floating icebergs (broken off from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier nearby) and the occasional seal bobbing around, it is one of the most mesmerising, other-wordly places I have been to – and one of the coldest!

There is the option to pay for a boat ride, to get up close to the icebergs in the lagoon, but we were told that the last boat had already left for that day. We were disappointed but felt we didn’t miss out on much, as we were still able to see the icebergs from the shore, and even saved 4,000ISK!

IMG_2549After being transfixed by the ice-cold beauty all around us, we were somehow able to tear ourselves away from the Glacier Lagoon, to drive across the road towards the black sand beach.

View of where the icebergs come from the Glacier Lagoon, towards the beach

View of where the icebergs come from in the Glacier Lagoon, towards the beach

Some of the icebergs get washed up here on their journey from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and it’s a place where you can get up close and personal with the ice – for free!

The Glacier Lagoon is where most people go, but the beach, although still popular with photographers and other tourists, is like a hidden gem. Personally, we agreed that the beach is even better than the Glacier Lagoon! The beach isn’t sign posted, so it would be easy to miss if you hadn’t read up about it before your visit. It is easy to find, when you know what you are looking for…

IMG_2594IMG_2637Iceland has so much natural beauty and each place we went to seemed to be just as good, if not better, than the last. My visit to the Glacier Lagoon and black sand beach at Jökulsárlón is a moment I will treasure – it’s an extremely special place behold.

Me at Jokulsarlon beach

Me at Jökulsárlón beach

Untitled

The Best of The Golden Circle, Iceland

The Golden Circle is one of the most popular travel destinations in Iceland, especially for those who are only in the country on a short lay-over. It has in fact become compulsory for any Iceland itinerary; it combines history, natural wonders and incredible sights in a very concentrated region, which is perfect for people who want to see a variety of things in a short space of time.

Thingvellir

Thingvellir, only an hour’s drive from Reykjavik is the first stop en route. It is a site of historical, cultural, and geological interest. It is remarkably, the sight of where the Icelandic Parliament was established all the way back in 930. It seems so strange as it is in quite a remote and desolate location when you get there!

Walking down from the Visitor’s Center, you find a large rift valley which you can walk through, which marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is incredible to marvel at the geological formations there.

Rift Valley at Thingvellir

Rift Valley at Thingvellir

IMG_2407IMG_2405The Visitor’s Center has some interesting videos and you can learn all about the area, the natural wildlife which resides there, how the rift valley came to be created and the founding of the Parliament.

Gullfoss

Jumping back in our car, we heading straight to Gullfoss waterfall which took about an hour’s drive. We decided to bypass Geysir which is situated between the two and visit there last, as that was where our campsite was that evening.

The mighty Gullfoss

The mighty Gullfoss

Gullfoss area was extremely windy, wet and cold when we were there, and our Lonely Planet travel guide advised that Gullfoss can be ‘disappointing’ in bad weather. We neared with low expectations as visibility was quite bad, but we were blown away by the sheer awesomeness of this waterfall!

It was a bit cold

It was a bit cold and wet

There are several paths to take; one where you can see the waterfall from above and another one to go down by the water and see it up close, with the danger of getting very, very wet! We of course, took both paths. It was great to see the waterfall from different perspectives, but it was quite exhilarating to go so close to the waterfall and get splashed.

IMG_2424

Geysir

We drove back towards Geysir, which was a 30 minute drive from Gullfoss. As it was my first day driving, I was relieved to have survived Day 1 intact without too many problems. We did end up getting lost at the beginning as we took the wrong road. But after getting an Icelandic SIM and connecting to my phone’s GPS navigation, we were back on track in no time. There was a slight problem with the car not starting, but we were saved by our Icelandic hero, who I only know as Titi who got it working again. He was so helpful and friendly and I’m so grateful for his help. He works in the Gullfoss shop, so if you see him, say hi from the distressed English traveller who didn’t have her car properly in the ‘Park’ mode on the automatic gearbox… 

Geysir is the best place along the Golden Circle route, in my opinion, to go for a meal. There are more options here than at Thingvellir or Gullfoss. Thingvellir Information Center, a five minute drive from Thingvellir Visitor’s Center (more on this in the snorkelling post!), has a café and Gullfoss also has a café. Geysir has a hotel restaurant and two cafés, one has a little tuck shop for snacks, both adjacent to the souvenir shop.

Before even considering seeing Geysir, we located the café and enjoyed a very tasty Lamb Soup in the warm. We also asked where the campsite was located, and it was literally across the road which was very handy. We took the car across and decided to pitch the tent while it wasn’t raining, before walking across to Geysir.

Geysir is the most exciting stop on the Golden Circle, as although we know Stokkur is active and erupts every 5-10 minutes, it is difficult to time exactly when it will happen! Everyone is standing there, poised with their cameras ready and their fingers on the shutter, waiting to shoot this natural wonder.

IMG_2465

Waiting patiently

Waiting patiently

It all happens so fast and before you know it, there is this massive jet of boiling water about 20m into the air!

Stokkur erupts

Stokkur erupts

Then all of a sudden, it is over, and there is just some steam floating about in the air. And you find yourself waiting for it to happen all over again, and again!

IMG_2475This was the final stop of our Golden Circle tour that day but the best was yet to come…

Silfra

The next day we drove to Silfra, near Thingvellir, to experience snorkelling between two continents in clear, icy water with DIVE.is (I will be doing a separate post just on this). It was an incredible experience and was an massive highlight of the trip!

Kerið

We also drove to Kerð (Kerid), a volcanic crater lake, 30 minutes drive south of Thingvellir. There was an entrance fee for this (400ISK), but it was worth paying to see it.

Kerid volcanic crater

Kerið volcanic crater

We were pressed for time, as we still had to drive to Vik that evening, which is a two hour drive south and it was already 4pm by then. Still, we stretched our legs briefly and walked around the top of the crater which takes about 15 minutes. You can also walk down to the lake which takes 5 minutes. The water is a beautiful shade of blue.

Being awesome

Being awesome

Our drive through the Golden Circle was a fantastic start to our Icelandic Road Trip to get a taster for Iceland’s magnificent nature and variety in landscapes, more was sure to come! My favourite region however, was in the South, when we visited Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón in the Vatnajökull National Park (1 hour 30 minute drive east of Vik). If I could only go back to one or the other, it would have to be Vatnajökull National Park, for reasons you will have to find out about in a coming post…

Where’s your favourite place in Iceland? What do you want to see the most?

Let me know in the comments below.

Untitled

Purple Heather carpets the landscape: Snake Pass, Derbyshire

The infamous ‘Snake Pass,’ is a twisting road in the Derbyshire region of the Peak District, between Glossop and the Ladybower Reservoir and is a drive to love and hate; notorious for its frequent icy conditions in winter, it is often closed! Its many blind bends make it challenging enough at times to drive when the conditions are good.  Yet when the sun is shining and it’s warm enough to roll the windows down, the Snake Pass turns into an incredibly scenic drive.

Since I started studying in Sheffield for my degree, I have driven back and forth on the Snake Pass many times. It is my favourite part of the drive from the Wirral to Sheffield when the weather is good due to its fantastic scenery. I have been driving to Sheffield most weeks this summer, but my drive on my weekend to York was particuarly enjoyable for one reason…

Driving into the moorland area, I noticed the purple heather was out in full bloom! It may sound like a small thing, but it was truely spectacular to behold. Admittedly, it was incredibly difficult to concentrate on the road because the views were so amazing! I had to pull over to take some photographs and absorb the natural beauty for a few minutes before I could jump back into the car, to only continue with “Oooh! Aaah! Awww it’s so pretty!” with each turn in the road opening up to more incredible scenery.

Of all the times I have driven this route, this is the first time I have decided to pull over, so that is something! .

I’d have loved to drive somewhere into the Peaks to go for a walk and see more of the purple wonder, but I didn’t have the time. I’d really recommend walking in the Peak District/Yorkshire moors, mid to late August, as this way, you can appreciate the purple heather adorn the landscape with its vivd colour.

Maybe next year?

Purple heather on the Snake Pass

Purple heather on the Snake Pass

Beautiful views on the Snake Pass

Beautiful views on the Snake Pass

Untitled

Sintra: An Enchanting World

After focusing my three previous posts on Lisbon, Belém and fado, I’m excited to finally share with you the ultimate highlight of my weekend in Lisbon – a day trip to Sintra. Filled with beautiful sights, colours and textures, surrounded by nature and many opportunities for adventure, Sintra encapsulates my version of perfection.

Me in the forest /Pena Palace gardens

It is such a picturesque and beautiful place, despite the fog and overcast sky on the day we visited, it just made Sintra all the more magical. It felt like we had stepped into an other-worldly place. All of the buildings you walk past seem to have been lost in time, with moss crawling all over them. I would happily go back there, I didn’t really want to leave in the first place…

After arriving at the train station in Sintra from Rossio (45 min journey, 4€ return ticket), we hopped on a round-trip bus (5€) to head to the Pálacio da Pena. It felt a bit pricey, but as we had a limited amount of time to see everything we wanted in a day, it was a better option than walking, also bearing in mind that the palace is on top of a very big hill!

The gardens of the Pena Palace

The gardens of the Pena Palace

Pálacio da Pena in the fog

Pálacio da Pena in the fog

We were very disappointed that there was no reduced entry fee for EU students to the Pena Palace and had to pay the full rate of 11.50€. You can pay a reduced rate to just enter the gardens and outside of the Palace, but you do not have access into the interior. However once inside, it felt like the cost of the entry fee didn’t even matter because it was so beautiful and worth the money. The palace showcases a mix of styles of Romanticism and it is basically a very colourful, fairytale castle.

IMG_0683

Me in the gardens

IMG_0698

The exterior

IMG_0704

Moorish arches

IMG_0713

IMG_0706

Courtyard inside the palace

Courtyard inside the palace

Courtyard inside the palace

Before it became the beautiful palace as it is known today, the site served as a monastery, however it was in ruins after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Despite this, the chapel avoided serious damaged and if you pay to enter the palace, you can see it for yourself.

Afterwards, we got the bus back to the town centre and walked to the second place we wanted to visit in Sintra: Quinta da Regaleira. There was reduced entry fee for students here (4€) which made me happy.

If there is one thing you must do whilst in Sintra, it is to visit Quinta da Regaleira. It is simply not possible to go to Sintra and not go here – the highlight of the highlight of my trip. We explored the caves, tunnels, pathways, towers. Every way you turn there is a photo opportunity. What has been created here is very special and it is easy to spend all day exploring the estate.

There are many more things to see in Sintra, such as the Moorish Castle, Monserrate Palace and the Sintra National Palace but you need several days if you wish to see more of Sintra. I’ll leave you with some pictures of Quinta da Regaleira, which will hopefully show some of its magic:

IMG_0752 IMG_0757 IMG_0767 IMG_0783 IMG_0787

IMG_0805

Was this inspiration for Pan’s Labyrinth or something?!

IMG_0817 IMG_0828 IMG_0857What are your thoughts on Sintra?

Untitled