Snow in Spring

The snow storm ‘Beast from the East’ made its way here on Tuesday night. We had dinner at Pizza Express and the snow starting falling…and well, it didn’t stop!

Result? 1.5 days off work so far (fingers crossed Friday too)! It was nice to turn off my alarm this morning when I heard the news and get some extra ZZZs.

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I do feel bad that I am off work when for most people it is ‘business as usual,’ but it was quite (read: very) chaotic with the kids yesterday!

I spent all day yesterday marking and planning on the sofa, so I am finally feeling on top of things. However, this was gladly interrupted when my housemates came home and the snowball fight with everyone on the road commenced!

Today has been a chilled day; lie-in, watching day-time TV, finally hoovering my room and doing some exercise videos (no way am I driving to the gym in this!).

Hope my UK-based readers stay warm and safe while we ride out the storm!

Robyn

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Winter Walks: Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire

I was amazed by the beauty of the changing landscapes and the variety of wildlife on my walk around Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire. What truly perplexes me is how I have been living in the area for quite a while, yet I had not heard of the place until recently.

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A wave of my bright orange National Trust card at the park gate gave me free access to a huge expanse of woodland – 3,800 acres to be exact. The guy at the park entrance said ‘park wherever you want’ but there are designated car parks dotted around to use as well. The ‘free-for-all’ parking is great though as you can park in the perfect spot if you want to jump out for a photo. The park is so extensive, so there is no way you can see it all in one day.

There was once a country house on-site, which has since been demolished, but there remains many traces of its existence thanks to the Gothic-style chapel and walled kitchen gardens which you can visit.

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The chapel in the background

Despite receiving a map and some basic directions to the main Visitors’ Centre, I admit I did get a bit lost, but all roads loop around thankfully. After getting some help from a helpful walker, I managed to find where I wanted to go. I parked up near the walled kitchen garden as I wanted to take a peek in there first of all, before I made my way to the chapel and lake.

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Walled Kitchen Garden

I decided to do the Lakeside Circular Walk, which is roughly 4 miles (6km). Navigating the walk is easy as it is one large loop of the lake, but it did take me longer than expected (possibly due to all the photo opportunities!). It is a quite a big lake.

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The Lakeside Circular Walk © AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

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It is an accessible walk and all paths are signposted. I did it easily in trainers, but others were suited up in wellies or walking boots. There is the option to hire bikes near the Visitors’ Centre if that is something you like – I may do that next time. It was a cold, overcast day in January but many families were out walking their dogs and out with kids.

 

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The Low-Down:

Cost: See the National Trust website for opening times and prices for entry to the park

Don’t forget: your camera for some great snaps of the countryside and wildlife

 

Clumber Park: photo slideshow

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Atacama Desert: is Geiser del Tatio overrated?

Alarm ringing at 4am, it is freezing in our desert-home abode with no heating. I have thermals which keep me from being unbearably cold, J. decides he doesn’t need thermals and will be fine (that goes so well….).

The geysers are at the highest altitude yet of the trip, this means two things – freezing and altitude sickness. Unpleasant.

This tour is considered one of the most popular, so guesses are it would be the best. However, in comparison to the incredible geysers in Iceland (which are free by the way), I felt a bit disappointed – especially after the amazing Piedras Rojas tour the day before. The cost was considerable too (10,000 pesos each!).

We spent an hour at the hot springs area however the hot springs have been closed for the foreseeable future due to a health and safety issue. So we were stuck, waiting around in the cold for an hour doing nothing, as there was no alternative. You would have thought they would have considered an alternative arrangement?

Anyway, it was absolutely freezing, even with thermals, so I don’t know how J. survived. (note: he wore thermals for the days after this…).

The tour only lasted for the morning, so we had time to have lunch before our other tours. However, due to a sandstorm, they had to be cancelled, a real shame. Unable to reschedule as it was our final day in San Pedro, we were at least able to get our money back.

However, it gave us time to stock up on water, snacks, warm clothes and mentally prepare for Bolivia, which everyone kept advising us was going to be freezing, isolated and crazy – we couldn’t wait!

Vamos a Bolivia…

Celebrating your birthday in the Atacama Desert

We scheduled our South America trip for August. It was the summer holidays meaning I had the whole month off from work but also my birthday. I did not want to be on a bus/train/plane on the day, but rather doing something different.

The day was spent in the Atacama desert on the Piedras Rojas tour. This was the best tour of the trip, a whole day thing which was tiring but worth it.

We left at 7am, early but not as early as some other tours we did! Our first stop was the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons which are home to three different types of flamingo. However, in the deep mid-winter, the majority of the flamingos had gone off to somewhere a little warmer, while the remaining few decided to hang out as far away from the humans as possible! (Entrance fee of 2,500 pesos).

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It looks warm but actually it was freezing!!

After a warm breakfast of eggs, coca tea and bread, we headed into the mountains to another lake. No flamingos this time, but it was spectacular. Surrounded by snow, it was freezing, but worth it (2,500 pesos entry again). Here James very kindly put snow down my back, what a nice thing to do on my birthday…. (hmmm…).

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Caught in the act!

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So much snow!!

The next stop was by far the coldest and most windy – las piedras rojas – which is where the name for the day trip comes from. This lake, so high in altitude, was frozen, and we spent half an hour jumping up and down on the ice.

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On the frozen lake!

After lunch, we visited a little church and stopped on the side of the road to take some pictures with a sign showing we were on the Tropic of Capricorn which was pretty cool! I was not expecting that to happen in the tour!!

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I made a wise investment in some baby alpaca wool gloves in Tacapao village, which would help me survive the cold days and nights in the Bolivian Salt Falts.

Dinner was going to be a fancy meal, but San Pedro was just a little too expensive. I was happy with our usual 5,000 pesos meal deal. Altitude sickness meant loss of appetite and I didn’t feel like I was missing out.

It was an incredible birthday, packed in with so much to see. It was really special. Exhausted but the alarm was set for 4am the next day for the Geyser tour…

How I fell head over heels for Berlin

After 5 months of zero travel, it felt strange packing my bags and heading to the airport for February half term to the German capital. A week away was refreshing, and I had missed that sense of adventure, discovering a new city and all it had to offer.

In this post I am going to give an overview of my trip, sharing the best of accommodation, transport, the costs and the wonderful food. Next post: Berlin Highlights

 


 

Meeting me at the other end was one of my closest friends who I hadn’t seen since our Graduation last July, and also my boyfriend who arrived on a separate flight.

My friend Kam has been studying in Berlin for the last six months, learning German and exploring Berlin, which is much more exciting than what I have been up to, training to teach. We were lucky enough to visit restaurants, bars and sites we would never have found had we been traveling without her – even with our beloved TripAdvisor app.

Accommodation

My boyfriend and I booked an Airbnb apartment for the trip and we were both thrilled with it. At £30 each a night, we had our own flat with full amenities, steps from the tram, in the hip area of Prenzauer Berg in what was part of ‘East Berlin’ – I can’t get over how hipster this area is! We booked the accommodation ourselves but fate happened that we were staying on the very same street as Kam Albeit, it was a very long street and she was 5 stops away on the tram. Still, this was great as we could co-ordinate meeting up much easier than if we were staying on the other side of the city.

Berlin is not pretty

it is intriguing, has a profoundly interesting and distressing history, it carries a sense of being liberal and slightly rebellious. It is a city of contrasts and its streets are museums in their own right.

6 days in the city gave us enough time to ‘see’ the sights and also to begin to get a feel for the place. At the start of the week, I decided that Berlin was not for me; grimy, so hipster at times that I couldn’t cope, it even reminded me a bit of Budapest which I enjoyed but was not my favourite city, and it was cold. After a few days it really grew on me though. It is a very livable city.

There are three aspects which we enjoyed most about Berlin; it is affordable, the public transport system is great and possibly the most important thing – the food was so good.

It’s an an affordable city

Aside from the cost of flights, accommodation and a 42€ Berlin transport pass, six days in Berlin only cost 100€ for all food, drink and touristy things. We were not very thrifty as we ate out every lunchtime and evening. I came back with quite a few euros to spare which hardly ever, ahem, never happens.

Transport

We paid the 42€ for a 6-day transport pass for all tram, bus, U-Bahn and S-Bahn travel in Berlin. This I would highly recommend as we relied heavily on public transport to get around. The transport was always punctual and even had services which run through the night. Moreover, there are no ticket barriers or staff checking passengers for valid tickets. So different to what I know in the UK. There is a sense of trust that people do not abuse the system, however I am sure that there are those that do. Of course, I could have got away with buying no ticket for the entire trip as I never had to show mine, but it is not worth it as you can be charged a heavy fine. Also, as the transport is of such good quality, its worth buying to ensure that this continues.

Delicious food and drink

The three of us agreed that we did not eat one bad meal all week. We discovered wonderful homemade pizzas for 3.90€ that were so good, we went back to the Pizzeria for more on our final night. We discovered a chic cocktail bar in West Berlin, where you have to ring a doorbell to be let in. Berlin does excellent burgers, as we found at Shisho. Beat the queue and spend an hour at the Monkey Bar in the early afternoon and have a birds-eye view over the Berlin Zoo. Or for a more affordable option, visit Bikini Berlins rooftop view next door for a free showing!

Is Berlin on your bucket list?

Budapest: New Year’s 2016

Hi everyone, it’s been a while. Things have been busy since I last posted – busy in a good way. The Christmas holidays have flown by and uni starts again on Monday for my final ever semester at university; I cannot believe I just said that!

Not only have the holidays happened, but I have accepted an offer for Teacher Training starting in September to teach Modern Languages. I had originally intended to spend a year working in Spain but it turns out I will be sticking to South Yorkshire for a bit longer instead! Quite a few of my friends are making plans to do Masters programmes abroad, so it will be an amazing excuse for me to travel to new far-flung places in the near future. I also passed my Literacy and Numeracy Tests required for my course; passing the Numeracy Test was such a relief, as I had not studied Maths in over 5 years and calling my Maths skills ‘rusty’ was an understatement! I even found a place to live starting in July AND booked an exciting 4-week trip with my boyfriend to South-East Asia in the summer! It’s all a-go at this end as you can see, now I just need to keep my head down and get my degree in the run-up to all this excitement.

One word to describe my trip to Budapest at New Year would be: freezing! Well, it was more than that as it was below-freezing. It would have helped if it had been slightly warmer, but we knew what we were getting into when we were going. At least our hotel offered free hot drinks until 5pm, so we drank copeous amounts of delicious hot lemonade every day! We thoroughly enjoyed the trip however I must admit that it was not as good as my three weeks in Poland in 2014. Poland has a special place in my heart and I could not help but compare the two destinations. We also found that the locals were not too friendly with tourists; very polite but they would not go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Also, despite researching what to expect for New Year’s Eve, we were disappointed as we found very little had been organised (edit: nothing had been organised). We ended up returning to the hotel before 1am in time to watch London’s firework displays on the BBC! A bit of a disappointment? Totally.

Despite all this, what stands out in Budapest is its fascinating history and architecture in its two distinctive sides – Pest and Buda -it is great walking around the city and soaking up the grand buildings all around.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica, Pest

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Mattias Church next to The Fisherman’s Bastion

We especially enjoyed the Jewish Quarter for its mazing restaurants and visiting the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. It is a beautiful building, however it is a harrowing place to visit; the Synagogue carries strong Holocaust links which are impossible to ignore. Next to the Synagogue is a cemetary which holds 2,000 victims from the Budapest Ghetto. The area where the cemetary now stands was originally intended to be used as a park where people could relax; the local community had such high hopes for the future and yet it would never come to fruitition, just despair and pain.

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Dohány Street Synagogue

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Night at The Opera (we went twice!)

One of the major highlights was going to the Opera twice (we love the opera) to see La Bohème and Die Fledermaus (The Bat). The Opera in Budapest is significantly cheaper than the one in London and was a major reason why we wanted to visit Budapest in winter rather than the summer. We have become accustomed to sitting at the very back, watching the stage, squinting our eyes through opera glasses, but in Budapest we were able to book our very own box for La Bohème and seats in the Stalls for Die Fledermaus – a luxury we had not indugled in until this trip! I was looking forward to La Bohème as I love the musical RENT which is based off this particular opera, but it was impossibly depressing, to be honest. Die Fledermaus was not my choice of opera as I did not know much about it, but it turned out to be the better of the two and was absolutely hilarious. The sets were so impressive that the audience clapped just for their grandeur – they were that good! It was also sung in Hungarian which was special as it is normally sung in German outside of Hungary.

The Terror Museum was our museum of choice after Buda Castle and I would recommend all who visit Budapest to come here to better understand the city’s difficult past. It is absolutely harrowing to visit and frustrating to learn that very little aid was given to the Hungarians before, during and after WWII. To learn about the insufferable misery and pain that the Nazi and Soviet occupations had on Hungary is difficult to take in. Post-war Europe was not ready or prepared to take on Russia after the war, and left the Eastern block helpless for decades of surpression. Each room provides A4 print-outs with detailled information on various parts of life in Hungary during the Occupations with many audio-visual documentaries and objects. The building itself is significant as it was used as the SS Headquarters during the War which then passed over to the Soviets for a similar purpose.

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After staying out late in the cold on New Year’s Eve, it was absolutely wonderful to go to the Szécheny Thermal Baths on New Year’s Day! However, it seems the entire population of Budapest had the same idea, so we were lucky to have pre-booked online or we would have been refused entry. The thermal pools were so soothing on our achey, cold bones. When visiting Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, I had complained that I felt the changing rooms and seating areas were lacking as there was so much overcrowding – well, since going to to Szécheny Baths, I retract that statement and can confirm it was even worse in Budapest. Firstly, upon arrival, there are so many queues around the building and very little information as to what you are queueing for. As we had Fast-Track access, we had to join a smaller queue (thank goodness!), but were there signs anywhere for this? Of course not. I would recommend paying for the Private Cabins as you can change in privacy and keep your belongings in there instead of getting a locker, but you may have to wait a while for one to become available. Not only this, but there is no a one-way in and out system. So where everyone walks in with their muddy shoes, you have to walk back through in bare feet/flip-flops. Gross. Bring flip-flops! I really regret not bringing any. Walking around outside between pools was freezing as it was, and then there was the grit they had thrown everywhere on the floor which made it even worse! Nevertheless, you cannot come to Budapest and not go to the Thermal Baths. In the outside pool, we found a lazy river, and spent so much time whirling around in there which was fun.

On our final day we spotted a Cat Café where I accidently spent two hours with the cats. Great place; I turned out to be very popular with two particular felines and everyone on neighbouring tables was jealous as one sat on me twice!

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All in all, hats off to Budapest, a fascinating city and a great start to 2016.

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