Sunday, 19 January 2014

Holiday Wishlist 2014

It's January, it's cold and that last sunny holiday seems so far away. But don't despair, it's time to think about where we want to go next! As I have a full time job too, I have to work my way around how many vacation days I have but I'm hoping over the coming months I will be doing less work in an office and more in the sun! That's the plan anyway.

So now is the time to think and plan where we want to go, ohhhhhh the possibilities are endless! For some reason, I'm all about the Middle East recently. Istanbul introduced me a whole new culture and I am now hooked. So here is my wishlist 2014:

  1. Turkey - I only spent a short amount of time in Istanbul but it was magical, I was amazed by just about everything. This time, I want to see more of Turkey, namely Oludeniz, Cappadocia, and Pammukale. Why? Because they look awesome and that's the only excuse I need!
  2. Italy - Rome. Why have I not been here already?! Your guess is as good as mine...
  3. Montenegro - All of it! Quite small so shouldn't be difficult. My second love is the Balkans. In fact, I will extend this to most of the Balkans!
  4. Jordan - Specifically Petra. I've been seeing some articles on Petra recently and it looks beautiful. I need to see it for myself!
  5. Isreal - I'd like to visit Tel Aviv, Nazereth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Again, I have mostly been looking at articles and been inspired to visit these places, but I also have some friends that have recently moved there so it would be nice to visit them.
  6. UAE - Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Bahrain. OK, these have actually been on my list for a while but due to the expense have never been fulfilled. Perhaps 2014 will be the year?! Let's see!
  7. Australia.... OK OK, this is getting a little out of hand for someone who only has 25 days holiday a year so I'm going to stop here!
And now I realise that I need to quit my job and pack my bags! Hmmmm....

So what is on your holiday wishlist this year?! I would love to hear / see / get insanely jealous at your suggestions!!!!

Have you already been to any of the above destinations? What would be your advice?

And as Morrissey (another famous Manc expat!) once said:

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Dos and Don'ts of Prague

Travelling to Prague and want some advice from an expat who lives in Prague? You're welcome...

DO buy a transport ticket from the arrivals hall at Prague Airport. I find the ticket office in Terminal 2 is open longer than the one in Terminal 1, so if Terminal 1 is closed, it's a 3 minute short walk to the next terminal. Transport is cheap in the Czech Republic. A single ticket will cost you 24Kc for 30 minutes or 32Kc for 90 minutes. 1 day is 110Kc and there are various other lengths available (Please note that prices are subject to change. Prices are correct as of January 2014).

Public transport is cheap, efficient and the best way to get around Prague.

DON'T be an idiot and use the transport without a valid ticket. There are plenty of inspectors and fines aren't that cheap anymore (800Kc, reduced to 400Kc if you pay on the spot), plus, if caught, everyone will know what a cheap ass you are. It's not cool and if I see you, rest assured I will be the first to point and laugh at you! And don't forget if you have luggage there is a 13Kc fee to be paid (If you're caught not paying this, the fine is 200Kc).

DO use public transport for the duration of your stay, it is by far the cheapest and best way of getting around the city. Trams, buses and metros are frequent, quick and reliable.

DON'T waste your money on taxis. Even if they don't try ripping you off, it's still a waste of money in my opinion, unless you have money to burn, in which case, go ahead.

DO drink Czech beer. Not only is is it good, it's also cheaper than bottled water! Now, I must say, I have never liked beer until I moved here. If you really like it, go visit one of the many breweries!

DON'T pay more than 45kc for a Czech beer, in fact, I haven't paid more than 35Kc. Either you're right in the centre or you're being ripped off.

DO travel outside of Prague if you are staying for more than a weekend or have been here several times and seen most of it. Karlstejn and Kutna Hora are both cheap to get to and stunning to see. Both will cost you around 4/5 GBP for a train ticket.


Kutna Hora

DON'T just stick to Prague 1 (the very centre) for the duration of your stay. It's the most expensive part of the city geared towards tourists and relieving them of their money. Pubs and restaurants outside Prague 1 are cheaper and just as good.

DO drink in a beer garden if it's warm weather (Letna park and Riegrovy park are both good and offer great views). If it's cold and there is snow, consider going to the mountains for a day or 2 and check out the skiing.

The view from Letna Park on a cold winters day.

DON'T be ripped off in restaurants and pubs. ALWAYS check your receipt and mentally count what you have had to drink. I've had many an argument with waiters who like to add extra things I didn't consume onto my bill.

DO stand there and make a big fuss if more is added to your bill than it should. Czechs are not ones for arguments and in my experience, back down quickly. I'm not trying to scare you off here, but it can happen, not just here but anywhere. It happened to me in London 2 weeks ago, we threatened to call the police, they backed down, simples. I know a lot of people don't like making a fuss, but I refuse to pay for things I haven't had, period. If you do it to me, bang goes your tip too, so be warned!

DON'T miss out on Prague's less popular sights, such as Troja. In my opinion, this is the nicest part of Prague, situated in the hills to the North West of Prague. Not only is there a really nice zoo, there's a Palace, botanical gardens and a vineyard with a cafe where you can sample the produce. On a nice sunny day, it is perfect and there is a great view over the river, Stromovka park and the rest of Prague. This is my little gem, where I go to chill out.

Troja Palace, Prague.

The vineyard in Troja, and St Claire's Chapel.

DO use your legs and walk. Prague is a very walkable city. Most of the main sights are within walking distance of each other, the new town, old town, Charles Bridge, the castle etc. If you do struggle to walk, the tram number 22 covers most of these sights to some degree.

DO be careful. Whilst Prague is a safe city compared to some European countries, there is still some petty crime about. Pick pocketing if rife, and they're increasingly sneaky about it. Just don't get too drunk and be aware of dodgy looking people being overly friendly towards you. If you're a guy and a girl in a skimpy clothes decides to publicly show you affection, she probably has her hand in your back pocket at the same time, sad but true.

DON'T be taken in by scams. If you're a group of guys, possibly on a stag weekend, I can tell you now, you're likely to be targeted. Listen to your instincts and the old adage 'If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is'. Oh, and if someone offers you drugs on Wenceslas Square, it's likely to contain not much more than paracetamol crushed up or some clippings from a bush in their garden! And no, the police can't do anything about it because they can't exactly arrest them for paracetamol or hedgerow dealing! Usually if someone approaches me I tell them bluntly to F off or some Czech equivalent (straight to the point and usually effective!).

The view from Petrin, the castle can be seen to the left.

Again, I'm not trying to scare anyone off, Prague is a very safe city. I have lived here for 3 and a half years and encountered no problems whatsoever, mainly because I have just used my common sense. I come from Manchester, it's much worse there so I know all the tricks of the trade. I keep an eye on my bag, and if I'm alone at night (which I do regularly without problems) and someone approaches me that I don't like the look of, I just tell them straight to go away, no one will argue with you or try to start a fight like they do in England. Stand up to anyone here and they will back down.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Hogmanay in Edinburgh

The title may have given it away but yes, I was in Edinburgh this year celebrating Hogmanay, that's New Year to the uninitiated. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, located in Lothian close to the Firth of Forth and attracts nearly 1 million visitors per year, of which approximately 80,000 were at the Hogmanay celebrations! And I must say, it was delightful! I had many recommendations to go and visit but only now had I actually gotten around to it, and boy am I glad I did. Arriving on the 29th meant I had time to familiarise myself with the city before the 3 day celebrations began.

The Accomodation
After having spent Christmas at home in Manchester, I travelled up by train, taking roughly 3 hours. Once there we had a short stroll to our accommodation, which was absolutely stunning and much better than it looked in the pictures, I was really impressed.
Built in 1854 and renovated in 2008, the bottom floor of this historical house was very cosy and homely. As the family who own it stay there often, it has everything you could possibly need, and I mean EVERYTHING. There were even films, books and board games to pass the time. It was more extensively stocked than my own flat! The owner had even switched on the heating before we came and bought us some bread and milk etc to welcome us.  The flat never seemed to end. There was a reasonably sized double bedroom with a walk in closet, a huge second bedroom with 3 beds in, a fireplace and a good sized cupboard, a long hallway leading up to a well stocked bathroom, a utility room in complete with washing machine and various household cleaners, the biggest lounge / diner I have seen in a while with another cupboard full of items and finally the kitchen, with cupboards filled to the brim. Not only is there a pretty garden to the back of the apartment, but also a private gated garden across the road leading down to the river. A nice walk down there and into the town was a lovely way to start off our stay there.

The City
What surprised me was the proximity of the city, everything was in walking distance. There was absolutely no need for the use of public transport or taxis at all. There are plenty of amenities in the area that you would expect of a city. Lot's of restaurants / pubs, small supermarkets etc. I am told there is also a leisure centre nearby and even an 18 hole golf course!
Walking around the city is a pleasure. The sights are spectacular. Most of the buildings are historical, intertwined with the occasional modern building and you can feel an almost electric atmosphere here. There are many historical sights here, Edinburgh castle, perched on top of hill, as well as the new town and old town, both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Edinburgh Castle at night.

A close up.

An alternate view of the castle, taken from Princes Street, this time during the day.

Princes Street.

The old Town, taken again from Princes Street.

Looking up to Calton Hill.
An alternate view of Calton Hill taken from the Old Town.
The most shameless photobombing I have seen. No idea who this couple are, or why they felt the need to pose in my picture, oh well. Arthur's seat is in the background, taken from the tourist office.

The Food
The food was both delicious and at times, very interesting! But never bad. Of course Haggis, tatties and neeps made it on the menu, well, it would be rude not to. This is the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep minced with onions and a few other things stuffed inside a sheep stomach (tasty!), served with potatoes and turnips, just in case you were wondering!
I also found chips, cheese and gravy being served, which brings back fond childhood memories! I was addicted to this as a teenager.
The next food I describe should come with a health warning! Be warned, the chip shops fry EVERYTHING! The menu included fried mars bars, fried pizza, even fried Christmas pudding! Oh mon dieu! It was too much of a muchness, as I like to say! Hesitantly I tried the fried mars bar. Expecting to regurgitate it any second, I closed my eyes and took a bite. And do you know what? It was bloody delicious! So delicious, I had to avoid the chip shop for the duration of my stay in case I couldn't help myself again and succumb to the warm, chewy, caramel laden delight! Weird eh?

The fried mars bar delight!

Haggis, tatties and neeps.
Do not forget to have a wee dram of whisky!
Do indulge in coffee and cranachan (a traditional Scottish dessert made of whipped cream, whisky, honey, raspberries and toasted oatmeal).

Day 1 - 30/12/2013 - The Torchlight Procession
Nearly 8,500 people bearing large torches made their way around the city, me being one of them. It's a great way to introduce yourself to the city as you march along down the mound, along Princes Street and up towards Calton Hill for the spectacular finale of the firework show and big bonfire, known as the Son et Lumiere. Along the path is various spectators, street entertainers, food and drink stalls and music, apparently with a fire theme! Nice touch! This event alone attracted 35,000 visitors this year.

My torchlight and I during the procession. WARNING: Do not wear a brand new coat you had just received for Christmas to this event, you will get wax all over you.... like me. Sigh.

The torchlight procession.

The Vikings prepare for the torchlight procession.

The fireworks on Calton Hill at the Son et Lumiere.

The fireworks on Calton Hill at the Son et Lumiere.

The fireworks on Calton Hill at the Son et Lumiere.

Day 2 - 31/12/2013 - The Street Party
The penultimate part of the celebrations involves a massive street party, filled with music, food and drinks stalls, and horrendously long queues and fights for the toilets (definitely not my highlight of the night). Pay more and you can get in to the garden party. I opted for the 20 GBP wrist band which I think was sufficient. You must buy a wristband to enter as there is a fenced off control zone put in place after one year when something like 300,000 revellers showed up and destroyed the place in the 90's! I do think it's a little on the pricey side but I do believe some goes to charity so it isn't that bad. Come midnight we were inevitably and drunkenly wailing to non other than Auld Lang Syne. To be honest I don't remember much more of the night, the rest was hazy :)

Happy New Year!

Day 3 - 1/1/2014 - The Loony Dook
What is this you ask? Well, let me explain. It's a tradition where a load of absolutely insane people have a splash around in the ice cold waters of the Forth all in aid of charity. Was I there? Was I hell, I was in bed nursing the mother of all hangovers, like a normal person!

So lets cheer on Scotland for 2014, who have a lot to look forward to. The impending referendum in September, the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup to name but a few. This year will be something to look forward to for all Scots and I for one, will drink to that!

Playing the bagpipes.

 Happy New Year everyone!!!!