Tag Archives: lonely planet

Christmas in Seville: Day 2 – The Alcazar

So today is the day that we were going to discover the Real Alcazar aka the reason behind Seville being on my radar as a place that I really had to visit. Now that I am here, I have to say that I am really loving most of what I have seen so far. This may be coloured by the gorgeous Christmas lights, but that’s by the by.

A trip to the Alcazar demands a good breakfast and the one that we had La Cacharreria really helped to set us up. One large toast with Serrano ham, one with old cheese and a mug of vanilla rooibos tea. Truly a delicious breakfast and so reasonably priced, little wonder that this place was completely packed by the time we left.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 94/100Sight: Real Alcázar
Location: Seville, Spain
Position: #235

Filled it was time to venture to the Alcazar, which was even more extraordinary than I had imagined. Given its position on the Lonely Planet list, the mind boggles at how much more extraordinary the Alhambra would be. That’s a trip for another time though, so let’s focus on the Alcazar.

In total we spent about four hours here, it could have easily been longer but limited time and all that. The majority of the time being spent navigating the many rooms of this royal palace. The way that the tour and audioguide is organised is clever because you could easily end up in the most impressive rooms straight away and everything else would slightly pale in comparison.

That isn’t to say that these earlier rooms aren’t beautiful to look at, because they are. The Hunters’ Courtyard featuring the front facade of the main building is a gorgeous piece of architecture unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s just that beyond that door lies the The Maidens’ Courtyard and that’s where suddenly you need to adjust your expectations.

The Maidens’ Courtyard is stunning and, like a lot in the Alcazar, there’s no real way that you are able to get it onto camera. So much of what makes it the landmark it is is the general feeling as you are surrounded by such grand pieces of fusion architecture. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been a foreign dignitary waiting there for an audience with the king, but it probably did the job of intimidating a lot of them.

The other massively impressive room in the Alcazar is the Ambassadors’ Hall, which also has the nickname of the ‘half orange’ room because of the ceiling. The ceiling alone is enough to make this room worthy of note – this massive dome with gold and star features is an absolute stunner. The rest of the room, with its portraits of past Spanish kings, tile-work and gorgeous archways is no slouch either, but it’s everything together that make it noteworthy.

Once we’d finished with the main buildings it was already over two hours in, which meant time for coffee and sweets at the really reasonably priced cafe. I mean, what cafe in a major attraction does a 2 for 1 on their donuts? This one apparently, so we were there with lemon cream custard donuts looking at the gardens and dodging the many peahens who were using the cafe as a thoroughfare.

Not to be outdone, the gardens of the Alcazar are also very beautiful and expansive. To get some of the best views of these, you have to go up the Grotto walkway which gives you a high up view of most of the grounds directly next to the palace. The styles of the gardens vary widely with some taking on Italian, French or even English influence. They all fit well together with meticulously maintained grounds, although the English garden does feel rather sparse in comparison.

As with the rest of Seville, some of the stars of this garden were the various citrus trees. Also, the smell that you get when you have rows of citrus trees intermingled with a number of other species. When in the gardens it’s worth tracking down the hydraulic organ and try to be there for when it’s actually performing. We managed to come across it when it was playing and later saw that this is one of only four in the world, so is worth finding.

Truly I could spend a long time talking about the Alcazar. It’s why I came here to Seville and it’s going to be the way I try to sell this to other people when talking about places to visit.
When we left it was about 2:30, so we really wanted a late lunch. Specifically one of the really gorgeous looking ham sandwiches that we kept seeing on our way to the a
Alcazar. Could we find one when we wanted one? Hell no, it took us 40 minutes to track one down. Pretty damned gorgeous though and this search ended up being a mixed blessing.

Turned out that Seville Cathedral was closing their doors to visitors two hours early today – so it saved us from the aggravation of a visit cut short. Guess we’ll have to cross our fingers for Monday that we’re able to get in before having to leave for the airport.

As a last minute replacement activity we swapped something scheduled for another day by visiting Casa de Pilatos. Where the Alcazar was a peak example of a Spanish royal residence, this is the same but for dukes. This is still technically a residence for the Dukes of Medinaceli, but the current holder currently resides in Madrid. The price for access is about the same as the Alcazar, so feels a little bit steep but it’s a really interesting house to visit.

We probably spent longer than expected here as the audioguide was incredibly verbose. The flip-side of that is that it forced us to look at each room in detail in order to kill time. So, ironically, we got more out of this visit because of the overly long guide. During this visit there are two big highlights and one strange curiosity to be found. First there is the main courtyard, which feels like a more attainable version of the Alcazar’s Maidens’ Courtyard. Just instead of needing millions to copy it, you’d need a few hundred thousand.

The other big highlight is the tiled stairway to the upper level , which we didn’t visit as the accompanying tour doesn’t operate on any sort of schedule in the off season. It was still worth a visit up the stairway because of the beautiful honeycomb domed ceiling and the extensive vibrant tile-work. This brings me to the curiosity, of a portrait of a topless bearded woman with a baby and her husband in the background looking on, as the guide said, with “resigned bitterness”.

We had a bit of an explore of the surrounding Santa Cruz before heading back to the hotel for a rest. En route we found a place with a queue and gigantic churros with chocolate sauce. We shared this box between the three of us as it was massive – God knows how some of these small children were able to have a whole box to themselves. Hot, fluffy and delicious.

By the time we left the hotel again, it was dark and the streets were filled with thousands of people. As the Christmas markets here have been, to be blunt, disappointing we paid a visit to the largest El Corte Ingles I found nearby to check out their Christmas stuff. I was amazed at how much I wanted and left with a new star for the tree and some new tree ornaments. There was a statue of a carol singing elephant that I liked, but we’re drastically running out of room in the flat as it is.

We walked around admiring the lights and visited another Christmas market – which was a bit like the first one we saw yesterday before venturing back to the nativity market near the cathedral where we caught a rather strange procession of bored looking bugle players and some overly zealous drummers. Never did find out who they were, but it was too weird a thing to not document.

Dinner was at a place a few streets away where, after sharing a nice plate of calamari, we all had various cuts of pork grilled medium rare to the point where it was melt in the mouth and utterly delicious. I opted for the presa, mainly because I hadn’t heard of it, and was wowed by the flavour and the tenderness. Definitely something I would want to try again when I am back in Spain.

Then it was a quick hello to the amazing angel lights before heading back to the hotel via a bakery where we bought some cookies for dessert. Tomorrow will be a day where we learn more about the history of Seville by visiting the archaeological museum and by venturing over the bridge into Triana. For now though, it’s late and time to rest after another long day with plenty of walking.


Paris Je T’Aime: Day 1 – Arrival

Spring has truly sprung, which can only mean one thing – a holiday in the middle of March so I can use my carried over vacation days before they lapse. Previous destinations of this weird happenstance have included Singapore, Barcelona and now Paris. Despite it basically being on the doorstep thanks to the Eurostar, I’ve not done a proper Paris trip since I was 6 or 7… even then I think it was just one day I actual Paris (then again I don’t actually remember this trip). Seeing how myself and the hub recently hit 10 years together, now felt like the perfect time to do Paris properly.

An early and breakfastless trip on the Eurostar (thanks lack of food at Ebbsfleet station) can leave you feeling a little blue and a bit jittery. Boy, can those feeling be alleviated by that first glimpse of Paris as you come out of the metro. Now, I, staying near Les Halles station, so this is one of the nicer parts of the city, but damn this is a beautiful neighbourhood. Blue skies and sunshine lighting up the distinctive Parisian limestone buildings help too.

We freshened up at the hotel and started making our way towards Île de la Cité, but first it was time for lunch.

Nothing quite says ‘welcome to Paris’ like sitting on a table of a Seine-adjacent restaurant with a faint vision of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. For my first Parisian meal I had steak hache (which my French teacher used to describe as “poor man’s steak, rich man’s hamburger”) with frites and for dessert, a caramel custard.

Living in the UK, I always forget that free bread is a standard in many European nations. Of course, this is France, which means that the free bread is really nice French bread that is better than most of the bread you get in the UK. Then again, I do find it hard to think of food that the UK does best, so bemoaning the bread is probably a moot point by now.

From here we crossed over to Île de la Cité, spied our first protest (after all, this is France) and got to crossing off the first of five Lonely Planet sights off of the list.

Note: This post was originally written at the end of March, a few weeks before the fire that destroyed large sections of Notre Dame. Looking back, I can’t quite believe I managed to see it before this happened. Goes to show that you should visit these places of interest, even if they are close by, as they may not be there forever.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 85/100Sight: Notre Dame
Location: Paris, France
Position: #55

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Notre Dame in media. It’s everything from Quasimodo’s home to the place where Amelie’s mother dies in a freak accident involving a suicidal tourist. As much as I was wowed by the massive double bell towers, what I was not prepared for was the incredible wealth of detail in the carvings and sculpture on the exterior.

Of course we went inside, it’s free and is one of the essential Parisian sites. Sadly, being a Friday in Lent, we were there during a Mass. This meant that we couldn’t get a proper look at the main Rose window because of all the worshippers lining up to receive a blessing, but we still had access to all the other areas of the church. It really is a beautiful and huge Gothic building with some beautiful pieces of stained glass. The way that the light shined through the glass and began to colour the interior really reminded me of a less audacious version of the Sagrada Familia.

Whilst Notre Dame was beautiful, it did not take my breath away like the Saint-Chapelle did. It’s a 13th century church built within the Palace of Justice that may rank as one of the most awe inspiring places of worship that I have ever been inside. The lower chapel has beautiful blue and gold ceilings with painted columns and some stipend glass. This alone made me think that the Saint-Chapelle was a must-recommend. Then you go upstairs…

I have never seen so much stained glass in my life. The only phrase that I can think to describe it is “a splashgasm of stained glass”, which is kinda gross and I don’t think ‘splashgasm’ is a word. So often you spend money to enter a church and it feels a bit like a write-off because these buildings need to be supported – but the 10€ I spent on these tickets was definitely worth it. Go here!

Once I recovered from the splashgasm, we went north and circled round so that we could cross the Seine using the iconic Pont Neuf – so famous because of just how old it is. Also, it’s a pretty bridge that gives you some beautiful views of the Conciergerie and other buildings along the river.

We walked a bit more around the island, where we came across a lot if locals playing pétanque, and made our way to the southern bank of the river. Because of how lovely the weather was, we had a nice long walk along the river before having a nice sit and chat as we watched the boats go by. I guess things are a cliche for a reason, like the seemingly impromptu tango dancing group that were having fun on one of the riverside outcrops.

Around the Austerlitz bridge, we left the riverside to have a brief walk through the Jardin Des Plantes. It’s a lovely free garden next to the Natural History Museum and the Menagerie. Not a lot of the garden was in bloom, but the small bits that were had crowds of excited Parisians around them taking photos. Considering some of the stereotypes people have of Parisians, this was such a cute thing to see… then again I started acting like them when I saw the beautiful poppies that were blooming.

This brought an end to the main part of the day because we had tickets to see an opera out in the suburb of Bobigny. We grabbed some Orangina and a ham-cheese croissant for a quick dinner to eat in the nearby park… which was nice until someone came over and asked if we were in the market for some cocaine or some meth. Takes all sorts I guess.

Since the opera is part of the classical list, I am going to cover it in a separate post like I did with Spartacus. This, therefore brings me to the end of the first day in Paris. Aside from being offered drugs, this has been a really great first day and I am so looks forward to seeing what the next five days are going to bring. It’s nearly 1 am, so it’s time to sign off.

The Great EU Quest: Poland – Salt Mines and Ermine

It’s already come to the final day – it’s sad to be leaving such a lovely city, but I think I’ve fit in a lot of things over this extended weekend.

After a breakfast cobbled together from random delicious things we found at Carrefour, we headed off to the main focus of the day: the salt mines at the nearby town of Wieliczka. Honestly, this is probably not a place I would have booked prior to the holiday if it wasn’t for its placement on the Lonely Planet list, but when in Kraków.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 79/100Sight: Wieliczka Salt Mine
Location: Wieliczka, Poland
Position: #213

It was another scorcher of a day, so spending a few hours underground in 16 degrees felt like a nice sojourn. I didn’t quite expect how much I would enjoy listening to the guide talk about the history of the mines or the fact that I would be given the chance to lick the walls (since the walls in most places are made of rock salt, and are therefore anti-microbial).

I also didn’t quite expect just how beautiful a lot of the chambers would be. Some contained artificial brine lakes (which were very well lit), many contained sculptures carved out of the grey rock salt and most had marble-like floor tiles that (again) were made from the rock salt.

The biggest shocker of them all was St Kinga’s chapel. This monumentally large chapel was carved of rock salt with statues, friezes, floor tiles and chandeliers all made from the rock salt found in this very mine (some of the pink salt sculptures were made form salt from a neighbouring mine). Some of the most impressive elements of this chapel included a carving of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and a weirdly lifelike statue of Pope John Paul II.

Honestly the 2-3 hours underground just flew by about as swiftly as the lift that took us back to the surface and I am thankful for the Lonely Planet list for giving me the proper push to something a bit different. It’s been too long (probably 17 years) since I last saw such impressive underground structures although, being completely man made, this was a different experience.

Lunch was brief and was decided the moment we got to the salt mines and I saw a man cooking kielbasa for 10zl a pop. I cannot believe that it has taken me until Day 4 before I had a proper Polish kielbasa, but boy did it not disappoint with some mustard and a kaiser roll (side note: I wish you could get kaiser rolls in the UK outside of speciality stores, it really is the perfect all purpose roll).

After finishing lunch and enjoying some of the midday sun, we made our way back to Kraków to visit the National Museum. Why? Well, as the Uber driver correctly deduced, we were here to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Lady with an Ermine. This is a painting I’ve always loved and it’s a privilege to see it up close.

I can really see how this is considered one of Poland’s National Treasures (above: a picture of the poster outside as, for obvious reasons, photographs of the real painting are forbidden). If there had been a bench in the room, I would have been able to stare at it for at least 15-20 minutes. As it is, it was just my husband and I (and two guards) alone with the painting in a darkened room. It just felt like one of those special moments where I could have as long as I wanted to appreciate an art object and there was no one around to hurry me along.

Since we’d already paid for the museum it only made to spend a lot of time in,their permanent collections. Doing a museum like this on the final day really works as it helps to contextualise a lot of things that you pick up about the local history via osmosis. It also helps that I have been devouring the ‘In Our Time’ and ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ podcasts as I was able to play some fun games of historical detective with certain exhibits.

This was typified by a long time that I spent just analysing this chess set that was on display. Not only unpacking the history behind its depiction of a battle between Poles and Ottomans on the board, but also knowing the cultural reasons why the queen piece was replaced by a vizier/advisor. I felt like a proper clever clogs and it felt great.

There were also galleries featuring modern art by Polish artists and one containing a wealth of armour and weapons. At this point, pretty much anything we saw was a bonus seeing how the main reason for us to come here was for a single painting. There was also an exhibition on Polish comics, but we had to miss it as we forgot to include there in our ticket.

By the time we left the museum it was early evening and, seeing that Kraków old town looks it’s prettiest under the bubblegum sky of sunset, we went on an extended to explore the streets we’d yet to visit. Did we get a lot of guys coming up to us and telling us about the beautiful girls we could see at their employers strip club? Sure, but that didn’t detract from the beauty of the town, just from the respect that I have for my own gender.

We saw so many new churches and other places of interest on this route. There are surely countless buildings that we missed, but it was time for dinner and boy were we ravenous.

It was a long walk to tonight’s restaurant (one that was stupidly close to the hotel) and it was exactly the place we wanted. Proper Polish food and am interior that was decorated like some sort of ski chalet. The sour soup that I had to start was exactly what I was looking for, even if it wasn’t served in a bread bowl.

The star of the show was the main – a huge platter of Polish things that, between the three of us, we struggled to finish. On it there was two types of sauerkraut, pierogi, grilled kielbasa, potatoes, a cabbage roll, pork knuckle, pork steaks in a tomato sauce and bigos (a sauerkraut stew with meat). This is exactly the sort of food I was looking to find and I made sure to make the most of it.

Stuffed like thanksgiving turkeys we did a final tour of Rynek Główny to say goodbye, ice creams in hand (mine was rose flavoured and I feel inspired to make my own once I get home). I couldn’t help but linger as long as I could – this is definitely one of the loveliest squares that I have ever seen.

We are technically leaving tomorrow afternoon but, since it really is just a case of getting up and leaving for the airport, I guess that it is goodbye to Poland – for the moment at least. I have so enjoyed my time here and felt so at home in the culture that there will be a return visit in the next few years. Maybe it’ll be Warsaw or Gdansk or some place I haven’t event thought of yet; I just know that this is not my last time in Poland.

The Great EU Quest: Poland – Auschwitz-Birkenau

There are cities around the world that bear scars of their troubled past. I’m thinking along the lines of Hiroshima’s Peace Park, The 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the former site of the Berlin Wall. For Kraków, and the surrounding area of Southern Poland, there is no scar deeper or more visible than the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. No one goes here as part of a holiday to find enjoyment, but to learn and pay tribute to what happened to over 1.1 million people some 70-odd years ago.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 78/100Sight: Auschwitz-Birkenau
Location: Oświęcim, Poland
Position: #104

The trip out from Kraków doesn’t take too long, especially if you book a tour that picks you up from your hotel. The advantage: you don’t have to think about getting there and back as everything is sorted for you; the disadvantage: the driver put on a short documentary about the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau which meant half of the journey there was spent watching footage of the camp – including what looked like the autopsies of a newborn baby and a young child. I get why the ride there might be spent learning some history of the camp, but that was a lot to see at 8:30 in the morning.

It’s hard to talk about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau as so much of it is about the feelings. By now we all know what happened from TV, books, films and school – but it’s a profoundly odd place to visit, especially on a beautiful sunny day in May. For a lot of the tour the closest analog I can find from my own experience is when I went to Herculaneum as a student. In what is now actually quite lovely surroundings, something devastating and unthinkable happened. It’s trite to say this, but it really does feel haunted.

This is all surface stuff when walking around Auschwitz’s immaculate brick barracks. Once you go inside and see the conditions of the cells, the piles of belongings that were recovered (including a whole room of shaven hair… which I cannot find an adequate word to describe) and, eventually, the gas chambers – everything suddenly becomes incredibly real.

Honestly, I didn’t feel right with the idea of taking pictures inside the buildings – especially the gas chambers/furnaces and rooms containing the possessions. I know that lots of people around me were snapping away, but in certain places The feeling of it being disrespectful outweighed my own morbid curiosity.

So that was Auschwitz. Birkenau, due to it being mostly destroyed, feels incredibly different. I have seen those famous train tracks in so many films (like Shoah and Schindler’s List) and even listened to a classical album about makes reference to the train journeys (Different Trains), which makes it incredibly weird to see in real life. It’s a similar sort of haunting feeling that I got from the Peace Pagoda in Hiroshima.

The big thing for me at Birkenau, rather than the remains of the demolished gas chambers and the memorial, was all the chimneys. A massive field containing a sparse forest of brick chimneys that are the remaining parts of the wooden barracks that were burnt down in the vain attempt to conceal the war crimes that were occurring.

Like I said before, it’s difficult to put into words just how this visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau made me feel. It was only a few hours after leaving that I made the contesting that this was where Anne Frank died, which means I have now seen her home, read her diary and seen the place she was killed. That human connection there is probably what ended up affecting me the most.

On the way back I slept on the minibus. After that morning it was probably my brain feeling the need to refresh itself so I could compartmentalise a bit and enjoy the afternoon.

For the afternoon we took the opportunity to visit St Mary’s Basilica in Rynek Główny. After all, I’ve already spent part of an evening watching the swallows hunting for insects in the dusk, so I might as well see the inside.

Well, the inside is beyond beautiful – especially the main alter piece by Viet Stoss. The level of detail in the wood carvings depicting the many sufferings of Mary (especially the work put into them beards) are beyond a lot of what I’ve seen before. Considering this is the minor church of Kraków compared to Wawel Cathedral, it surprises me how St Mary’s is the more impressively decorated. Some of the portraiture feel like something I have seen in Orthodox churches, but maybe that’s more the Baroque style coming through.

Sadly the tower was closed when we went, so we exited and headed to the Cloth Hall to do some souvenir shopping. Honestly there is so much that I wanted to buy, but regrettably we only brought hand luggage – meaning that I’ve had to stick to a few items that are not breakable (which ruled out a lot of Christmas decorations and ceramics). Still, I found a bunch of nice things before I we headed back to the hotel to have a bit of a chill before dinner.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 741/751Food item: Roe Deer

When I want to try roe deer in the UK, it’s likely that I, going to pay £75 for the meal, in Kraków my share of the meal came to about £20. Just stunning. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like 70 zloty is too much for a main meal… which shows just how much I have started to adapt to the pricing.

The roe deer medallions themselves were seasoned with herbs and a generous amount of pepper. The accompanying sauce was flavoured with sour cherry and the meat was accompanied by whole sour cherry and there are a generous number of wild mushrooms. All flavours worked in perfect harmony in this zloty dish. The meat itself was tender with a slight gaminess to it, which puts it on par with hare. The way it was cooked makes me want to refer to this delight as a ‘wild steak’.

For dessert we all had the apple pancakes where the star of the show was the vanilla-caramel sauce. It’s one of the few times where I’ve had someone turn to me and ask what I was having. So yes, a good time was had by all at Miód Malina.

Tomorrow we will be off to the salt mines at Wieliczka for what is our final full day. After the last few days in the heat, I am looking forward to some time in a cold cave.

The Great EU Quest: Poland – The Many Faces of Kraków

It’s one of those travelling truths that whenever you want to properly get to know a city, you need to find and experience a number of its different personalities. This is even more important when you are in a city that is at least 500 years old. I think that, with today’s packed itinerary, I have gotten to know a few of the many sides of Kraków.

After a small breakfast at the hotel, composed of a bunch of things we found in the local Carrefour Express, we made a beeline straight for the second of the four Lonely Planet sites that I plan to see whilst in Kraków.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 77/100Sight: Wawel Castle
Location: Kraków, Poland
Position: #487

It’s located at the southern tip of the old town and is at the top of Wawel Hill, overlooking the city and the river. The whole complex is huge and also contains Wawel Cathedral (more on that later).

Now if there is one piece of advice that I want to pass on, because no one told me, it’s this: do not buy your tickets from the ticket office on the slope – instead head inside and buy it at the ticket office near the tower. Why? More open windows, it’s inside away from the blazing sunshine and the visitors come in ones and twos rather than large groups buying conflicting tickets. We wasted nearly an hour because we did not know this, so you are welcome.

I can see how people can spend pretty much an entire day here. There are plenty of things to see, do and eat – all at the typically inexpensive Kraków prices (I mean 3zl for a scoop of ice cream in a castle café is loving the Kraków dream). Since we had no desire to be led around by the nose, we went for most of the things that did not require a guided tour (except the Oriental art exhibition, because timing and money).

For good views of the surrounding city, you’ll want to pay a visit to the Sandomierska Tower (and for 4zl it’s a bargain) – but that’s hardly one of the big ticket items here. For that you’ll want to head to the State Rooms, houses a large number of tapestries, paintings and come of the most interesting ceiling work that I have seen in a European stately home. It’s a real shame that, throughout the castle complex, they are militantly anti-camera – otherwise I’d have posted a picture of one the weirdest ceilings I ever saw (imagine a bunch of heads peering down at you and you’ll get an idea).

This trip around the State Rooms really made me wish I knew more about Polish history before coming to Kraków (aside from the story of St Hedwig and her many water glasses). At least today I’ve managed to pick up a few stories about King Stephen Bathory and some of the other monarchs that came before him.

After the State Room was a visit to the ‘Lost Wawel’ exhibition that contains archeological remnants from excavations. This is fine enough, but the real point of interest is near the end where you descend down a ramp and see parts of the first church built on Wawel Hill, which dates to around 1000 AD. Utterly astonishing and so well preserved considering how much restoration work is having to be done on other areas of the castle.

Before leaving the hill, you have to pay a visit to Wawel Cathedral. The ticket includes a trip around the cathedral itself, a bell tower (where you get to see the heaviest bell in Poland) and the royal tombs (which lacked the grandeur of Vienna’s Habsburg coffins, but were still good to see). The interior of the cathedral itself is a real mix of different styles with a large number of chapels to different saints – the largest being to St Hedwig herself. Again, wish I could have taken pictures.

We left the castle via the Dragon’s Den, which is a small limestone cave that is the best way to exit. It’s one of the most famous caves in Poland because it is attached to the myth of the Wawel dragon… which explains all the dragon paraphernalia in the Kraków souvenir shops.

It was already getting to the mid-to-late afternoon so it was time to march on to Kazimierz (aka the Jewish Quarter) and pick up some lunch along the way. We ended up in a pub-restaurant en route and, between us, had a pile of three types of pierogi (meat, cabbage and Russian) and a plate of bread, lard and pickles. Honestly I am falling more and more in love with the food in this city/country plus any restaurant that allows three guys to order a carafe each filled with different fruit juices (mine was blackcurrant) is alright by me. Also, these pierogi and that lard was delicious. Hopefully I can find more of this before I leave for London.

We roamed the Jewish Quarter for a bit before reaching the Galicia Jewish Museum. It’s not that big, but it houses some really interesting photographic exhibition is about Jewish life in the Galicia region (which included Kraków) pre and post Holocaust. The photographs and the initial exhibition about the importance of blood in Jewish lore really helped open my eyes and my heart in preparation for tomorrow’s devastating visit to Auschwitz. I’d really recommend the Galicia Jewish Museum if you need a bit more context of you need a bit of a history lesson about how Jews were seen in Europe before the Holocaust happened.

From here the idea was to pay a visit to the Oskar Schindler factory, but they had sold out of tickets by the time we got there – so we stared at the outside before slowly making our way back to the Old Town. After all, I booked us tickets to a concert.

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 36/501Title: Ballades
Composer: Frédéric Chopin
Nationality: Polish

Despite having nothing to do with the city of Kraków, there is an hour long Chopin concert every day at 7pm for the low price of 60zl (which comes with a free glass of sparkling wine). It starts with a short talk about the life of Chopin before moving into an hour long recital of a number of Chopin pieces – including some mazurkas, a nocturne, a waltz (which was mesmerising) and enough of his ballades for me to consider is crossed off.

Aside from loud Italians in front of us, the experience of seeing a piano virtuoso playing these pieces live completely beats listening to them via headphones. It’s utterly breathtaking to see someone with so much talent and has worked so hard to learn this skill. He was also easy on the eyes, which helped to make the waltz he played just that extra bit dreamy.

After this was dinner at a steakhouse across the road called Ed Red. It’s one of the higher rated restaurants in Kraków and sometimes you just want to have steak. It also helps that it had two food items on the menu.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 739/751Food item: Bull’s Testicle

I’m really getting through the offal at the moment aren’t I. Since I didn’t want two starters to myself, I managed to convince my husband to order the plate of assorted veal offal whilst I order the ‘mountain oyster’ for myself.

Just to start off, this ‘oyster’ was served with a smoked white chocolate sauce – which may be one of the more unusual and delicious sauces that I have ever had. It really went well with the ‘oyster’ which was surprisingly delicious. I has expected something more chewy and gelatinous, when it was actually very delicate and tender with a vaguely beefy taste. It’s a bit like if leberkase contained puréed steak alongside the pork. At least that’s what I think. It’s weird to say this, but I would happily have bull testicle again in the future.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 740/751Food item: Veal Sweetbread

On my husbands plate was veal sweetbreads (which is thymus gland or pancreas), brain, tongue, cheek and liver. First and foremost, the veal brain was so much nicer than the lamb brain that we had because it had been seasoned really well. But that’s by the by – the best veal offal on the plate was the sweetbread. It was like eating a very subtly flavoured white sausage that took on the flavour of the mustard underneath it. It’s one of those pieces of offal that I have been very curious to try it with different sauces.

As a main we all had some excellent Polish sirloin steak with a a number of different side dishes in the middle. For the price of the whole dinner (£24 each) we had some really good food and tried some really interesting things. If I am ever in Warsaw, I might have to hit up the other Ed Red location.

So tomorrow is going to be a trip to Auschwitz. It’s a long return journey and it’s looking to be a harrowing day. Will podcasts for the bus journey and a good meal take the sting out of it? Who knows, I guess I’ll just find out tomorrow.

The Great EU Quest: Poland – First Night in Kraków

Despite only being two months ago, it feels like forever since I last went away. So the anticipation in the build up to this trip to Kraków has been very high. However, before we get to that…

List Item: Visit all EU countries
Progress: 19/28

Despite having some genealogical roots in Poland (more specifically the Silesia region in the South West) this is my first time visiting. This really has been a long time coming seeing how I enjoy eating Polish food, watching Polish movies and, more importantly, it’s a pretty cheap holiday. Then again, after my last new EU country (Sweden) anywhere is going to feel pretty cheap.

Country: Poland
Year first visited: 2018

The journey to Kraków itself was pretty uneventful, although we did have a fantastic breakfast where we polished off the extra Belgian waffles that I had in the freezer.

I know I have said it already, but it is worth repeating, as a Londoner I cannot get over how inexpensive everything is over here. We had some problems with getting an Uber to our hotel (turns out that it was because of our hotel’s proximity to the Old Town and Uber drivers are not allowed to operate there) and we just missed the train (the next was in 90 minutes) so were getting a bit annoyed because we ended up splashing 89 zloty in a cab. Please note – this is about £20 between three people, it’s just that 89 feels like such a high number.

Our hotel is in the perfect place. It’s like having our own little apartment 5 minutes walk away from the old town and we’re close enough to some small supermarkets that I am going to be able to make breakfasts with some local ingredients as I actually have a kitchen to play with!

At about 6 in the evening, we set out of the hotel to get a first impression of the nearby areas of Kraków. The first thing that really struck me was just how much greenery there is, in fact the entire central part of the old town is surrounded by a park that also happens to contain statues and a number of water features. It would have been rude if we hadn’t taken a slight detour to get to know this area a bit better before heading to the main attraction.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 76/100Sight: Rynek Główny
Location: Kraków, Poland
Position: #197

This main market square of Kraków is huge. It’s one of the largest medieval squares in Europe, to the point where the middle contains the large (and old) Cloth Hall, which now houses a small museum and a lot of small shops. Being so large and existing in 360 degrees, it is really hard to take pictures of the square at ground level that do it proper justice.

Size and impressive architecture aside, the energy you get from this square feels pretty unique. Its like a larger and less crowded version of Covent Garden that also has a lot of historical significance. It was the moment that I first stepped onto the square where I realised that Kraków feels like a special place. Also, this square is going to be one of those places that we keep finding our way back to during our stay.

Being out first night, it only made sense that we did the really touristy thing and had dinner on the square itself. So, we went to Restauracja Sukiennice which is actually attached to the Cloth Hall in the centre. Honestly, it was the pictures of the schnitzel on their menu that won me over.

In any other city, the mark up would be so horrendous that we’d have to get one of the cheaper things on the menu to prevent us from losing all our currency. However, this is Kraków where we ate like kings and it only cost £10-12 each. I mean we all had huge (and really well done) schnitzels, a few drinks and we shared this huge and amazing meat and sauerkraut thing that came in a huge bread bowl… and it was still so cheap. Part of me wished that we had room for dessert, but I don’t think we stood a chance after the sauerkraut bread bowl.

As the sun began to set, we started to walk off dinner with a bit of an explore of the southern parts of the old town. It really does feel like a less imposing version of Vienna, or at least a Vienna that never became an important imperial capital. There really is something about the architectural style and the ever present theme of classical music that makes Kraków feel grand and cultured, yet it feels remarkably young at times as well.

Already I can also see that we’re going to be having surprises around every corner. For example, on this walk, we randomly came across a small market (with many many food stalls selling everything from smoked cheese carvings to alligators made from nougat) that has been temporarily set up to celebrate a big football match (that Poland has no stakes in).

We headed back as the stag nights began to start. On the walk back to the hotel we began to get a lot of people coming up to us with the promise of cheap beer and attractive women. Seeing how I am gay and teetotal, they could not have picked a worse mark. We also began to see some of the stag and hen nights begin to drag themselves into town… to do whatever it is they do. It kinda sucks that, because we’re three guys and none of us look native, the assumption is that we’re here to get drunk and objectify women. Whatever, it’s Sunday tomorrow and that means we can be fresh for our first full day.

So that’s the end of the first day where, already, I have been able to tick off one of the four (yes, four) Lonely Planet suggested sites that I plan to visit whilst I am in Kraków. What are the other three? See you next time where I’ll be visiting the second of four.

Off To Singapore: Day 3 – Singapore’s Many Zoos!

Today begins and pretty much ends at Mandai. An area in the north of Singapore that is home to:

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 75/100Sight: Singapore Zoo
Location: Singapore
Position: #236

That’s right. As the title of this post suggested, today was a zoo day where we spent time in, and got to know the residents of, three different zoos in Singapore. The Lonely Planet only mentions the first main zoo as part of the countdown, but since they’re all right next door to each other… why not just buy a multi-park pass and see them all in one day? I mean, that’s what we did and I think we made excellent use of those 11 hours.

Still, you don’t start an all day zoofest without breakfast, so we tried some kaya toast. Seems like one of those regional things and is, essentially, toast with salted butter and some sort of coconut jam. It’s nice, although this could have had more kaya on it for my liking.

Anyway, time to enter the first zoo of the day: Singapore Zoo. Before going in I did have a flash of worry about what if it was more like Himeji that San Diego. This worry quickly melted away when I saw the first animal – a monkey that had been taught to stay in certain clusters of trees, but otherwise had free reign.

This became a common thread throughout the zoos with many of the primates being able to freely move in areas outside of their main enclosures. Quite amazingly, this same freedom was given to their group of orangutans who, whilst having a central island enclosure, also had many ropes to clamber about the place. Thanks to this we were able to watch a mother teaching her baby to climb, as we stood underneath looking up. Sure, we had to jump out of the way when the baby went to the bathroom, but it was still cool.

It’s also fair to say that even the animals without such free rein as the primates are still incredibly well treated and have enclosures that make great use of the beautiful jungle setting of Mandai. The elephants are especially well treated and we were lucky enough to catch the keepers interacting with them after the daily feeding show.

Other highlights of this first zoo included some time with the baby Pygmy hippo and a fantastic walk through called Fragile Rainforest where you were immersed in an enclosure with toucans (and other birds), some flying foxes, some local rodents and a rather photogenic sloth.

So this was a great start to the day and it was time for a late lunch at one of the places just outside the zoo. As I wanted to remain of the area (i.e. no hot dogs) we had some fried noodles and…

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 712/751Food item: Honey Jack

Yup, I found a fruit from my list! This might be the only one I end up getting as I’m not having much luck in finding unusual fruit of this region like salak, but still this is still a win and provided a delicious accent to this chenol that we shared for desert. I’m not entirely sure if I get the inclusion of kidney beans in a frozen dessert, but I sure do love the syrups that they added.

After this it was time for the River Safari. Whilst not as large as Singapore Zoo, because of the river focus, it still has some real big ticket animals on display.

Me being me, the real highlight of this visit was the manatee tank at the end. I have a minor obsession with manatees, which meant that I spent about half an hour sitting at the tank and just watching them gracefully swim around. Also, there was a baby manatee there which we saw interacting with their mum. Seriously cute!

Also on display are Singapore’s two pandas (which means that between this, Tokyo and Vienna, I have now seen six pandas) in a special enclosure next to the red panda (who I swear was on cocaine). I do love pandas, even if they are a ridiculous animal.

There was also an immersive exhibit containing spider monkeys and mara. I’m loving that this zoo sets up opportunities to get this close to the monkeys. Also the mara, who I want to adopt immediately as they are like a small capybara mixed with a rabbit.

Finally, we did one of the River Safari boat rides, which allowed you to pass by a number of different animals from the comfort of a boat on a track. Honestly, we weren’t going to do it because it could have been a little bit lame, but it was well worth the time.

By the time we left the River Safari it was only an hour before the Night Safari opened, so we bought our souvenirs and got in line for the tram ride… after the downpour stopped. I know that it is meant to rain hard in Singapore, but wow that was a lot of water.

As the name suggests, the Night Safari is a zoo that only contains animals that are active after the sun goes down and is only open between 7pm and midnight. This means that my photo taking was pretty much reduced to a minimum, but we make do.

The first thing we did, which is the same as nearly everyone, was take a ride on the park tram. It’s a cool way to showcase as many animals as possible, keeping in mind that the lighting is limited to what what would be expected during a full moon. Some animals (such as the tapirs) could only be seen via the tram ride, so this really is an essential part of any visit.

Even if you don’t do the tram ride you still have the chance to see about 70% of the animals in this zoo. Since it is dark, everything is done along a designated path and your ability to see a number of the animals comes down to a bit of luck. Sadly this meant that I was unable to see the tarsiers or the flying squirrels, but we managed to get good views of the hyenas, babirusas, servals and other nocturnal creatures.

Of all the animals in the Night Safari the highlight for me was the wallabies. Mainly because we were there at the same time that the keeper was doing some training with them and we got to know more about the individuals in the enclosure, plus we also has pointed out to us a wallaby who was expecting!

So by the time we left the Night Safari it was super late and, rather than take the long way home via public transport we took a taxi, where we paid both with money and with awkward laughter to some awful dad jokes.

Still this was an absolutely excellent day. It’s a lot of zoo-hopping, true, but that’s never a bad thing if they’re so close together. More rain is forecast for tomorrow, so I guess we’ll see what we end up doing.

Off To Singapore: Day 2 – Chinatown and Gardens By The Bay

The jetlag almost got me! I was awake at 4:30 this morning and it took me an hour to go back to sleep again. Take that jet lag… please don’t get me tonight.

So, today was the first full day in Singapore and it feels like we got an awful lot done, which I’m very pleased about because it’s very hard to do anything when it is 32 degrees and the air feels so thick that you might be able to bite a chunk out of it. Still, this is a holiday and this beats the -2 degree weather that we were having in the UK as as left.

To start off we took a walk up to Clarke Quay to try and find something for breakfast. Sadly most of the things were closed, but we still had a nice walk around the closed up shops and used this as a reminder that Singapore is a city state that draws its life from the water. A lot of the restaurants looked pretty touristy anyway, so it was probably for the best that we bought some pastries in a nearby shopping mall.

The first main thing on the itinerary was to finish off our exploration of Singapore’s Chinatown. This possibly the nicest of all the Chinatowns that I have seen (thus taking the title from Toronto) because of how well maintained it is. I mean, the New Years decorations help, but the Food Street and the main market street are so well done that, for the first time, I really enjoyed having a peruse through some of the stalls.

Chinatown is also home to two impressive temples – the first being the Sri Mariamman Temple. This is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore and the first Hindu temple that I have been into, which means:

List Item: Enter a house of worship for the main world religions
Status: Complete

I hadn’t even thought about this goal for ages! Nice to know that some of these can occur without me even really thinking about it. Anyway, this temple had a lot of beautifully painted carvings of Hindu deities. You can tell that this was recently renovated as the colours are still incredibly vibrant.

After this we walked down the street to visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Just by stepping into the courtyard everything felt just that bit cooler than the outside world (this felt like some kind of miracle), and then we entered the hall of the 100 Buddhas.

The amount of gold and statues on display was astounding. Also, since we are in Singapore and this temple is only 11 years old, they are a lot more free with people taking pictures. It’s not a huge temple (you can see more floors if you’re on a pre-booked tour), but the ornamentation really does pack a punch.

From here it was onto a small bit for brunch (we had a lot of small shared meals today) at a nearby hawker centre (a different one from the day before). Why? Because I have been researching places where I could find foods from the 1001 list and I found a place that did this rather unfortunately named crustacean.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 710/751Food item: Moreton Bay Bug

So this name is the Australian name, but this is also known as slipper lobster or (in Singapore) crayfish. Looking at the shells on the crayfish, I am satisfied that this is the correct seafood for the list. It helps that this ‘crayfish’ tasted great, with meat so tender that I could just whip it out of the shell using chopsticks. It tasted like sweet lobster tail meat and this went very well with the peppery sauce. Considering the price, this is something that I would seek out if it was available in the UK.

From here we began our walk to the Gardens by the Bay. In total it is only about 40-45 minutes to walk there from Chinatown. It would be faster to use the subway, but where’s the fun in that? By doing this walk we started to get to know the Marina Bay region with fantastic view of the Singapore skyline plus a first sight of the weird and iconic Marina Bay Sands building. It was on this walk where I really began to think that Singapore could be an ideal place to live – if it was an average of 5 degrees cooler that is.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 74/100Sight: Gardens By The Bay
Location: Singapore
Position: #187

This is the first of two Lonely Planet places in Singapore and it is the one that I have been looking forward to the most. I do love gardens and areas of green within a city, but I don’t think there is any in the world quite like that Gardens By The Bay. The first things that demand your attention are the Supertrees. They are of varying size, but are all very tall and covered in climbing bromeliads.

Of course we had to walk along the Supertree Grove walkway. It helped give a better view of the surroundings and allowed a closer look at some of the orchids that were flowering near the top. It’s a little bit steep at $8 a ticket, but the majority of the garden is free, so I really cannot complain.

Due to the long walk and the increasing temperature we were in need of refreshment, so we shared this pile of flavoured ice (called ice kacang) as a small lunch. This pretty much solved my dehydration problem whilst also being really delicious. The fact that, beneath the multicoloured flavoured ice, there were sweet beans, grass jelly cubes and other things just added to the enjoyment.

With enough water to keep me going for a while, we went to the Flower Dome. Sadly the Cloud Garden was closed for maintenance, but there was more than enough to see in the Flower Dome to keep us happy. The temperature in the dome is set to be an eternal Mediterranean spring day, which means that it was ideal.

This enclosed garden houses plants from a number of different regions of the world that exhibit a Mediterranean climate. Amongst the plants were carvings and some sculptures (including an incredibly impressive wooden dragon) which helped to add to the flavour of the garden. We were technically there at a time where thy were dismantling a flower exhibition on dahlias to make way for a future exhibition, but most of it was thankfully left in tact.

It was with much reluctance that we left the cool temperature of the Flower Dome, but we took this as the opportunity to go to the hawker style area called Satay by the Bay to eat, well, satay.

10 sticks of assorted satay for $7 – and people were telling me about how expensive Singapore is. I guess it’s a perspective thing, also knowing where to get the cheap eats.

We wandered around the garden a bit more after this, making visits to the Indian Garden, the Chinese Garden and the Web of Life (which contains topiaries of a number of local species including the orangutan and the fig wasp). We spent a good 4 hours in the gardens and it was time to visit the building that towers over them: Marina Bay Sands.

With Singapore’s big Ferris wheel out of commission the best place to get an aerial view of the island is from the Marina Bay Sands Skypark on its 56th floor. It’s priced a bit steeply at $23 each, but this is a once in a lifetime thing and it really paid off once we were up there.

This must be one of the few viewing platforms in the world where you can see three different countries – in this instance: Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The views that you can get of the surrounding are are excellent, plus there is plenty of room on the deck to sit in the shade and just admire the view. Something we did for quite a while.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 711/751Food item: Silver Pomfret

For our final stop, we walked to the nearby Marina Link Mall where I had this beauty for dinner at a restaurant called Pappamia. Past me would have been initiated by the presentation of an entire fried fish, but now I’m in there scooping out flesh with the best of them. In terms of taste… I always have trouble differentiating fish. From eating it you can tell that this whitefish is an ocean fish because of the slightly mineral taste in the flesh. It’s also worth noting that this fish didn’t really have a fishy tast.

Could I identify this in a blind taste test? No, but that doesn’t stop it from being delicious.

Now, this this was to going to be the end of the day whereby we would walk back to the hotel and admire the city as it was all lit up (which, as you can see from the pictures, is beautiful) but luck had a different plan for us.

We were walking by the Event Plaza of Marina Bay and we saw a huge crowd gathering. Turns out it was for the nightly water and lights show (called Spectra) and we were bang on time. Over the next 15 minutes I was completely taken in by the synchronised fountains, lasers, music and superimposed images of mandalas, animals and other cultural icons. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit this, but this show managed to move me to tears in its third act. Amazing considering that this was free!

So yea, for a day that was going to be a bit of a slight lean into Singapore in order to get over the jet lag, this became a bit of a mega day. We got lucky that we had no rainfall, but I don’t think we’ll be as lucky tomorrow as we visit Singapore’s many zoos.

The Great EU Quest: Sweden – Vasamuseet and Skansen

As is the tradition of my trips abroad, today was a museum day! The itinerary itself crystallised around the second of two Lonely Planet locations and I am very happy with how it turned out.

To begin the day we had more of the food that we purchased for yesterday’s dinner. Although we were still unable to finish off all the remaining kavring and limpa bread… so I know what’ll be for breakfast again tomorrow!

One thing I really love about the city of Stockholm is that it is built on 14 islands. We spent most of today on Djurgården since that appears very much to be the most fun island in Sweden. This island houses many museums, a theme park (sadly closed during our entire trip to Stockholm), a zoo and many other attractions. It’s like the real world equivalent to Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island… just without the weird donkey curse.

Because we are cheapskates we decided to walk from our hotel to Djurgården. It was only 25 minutes away since we’re staying just north of Gamla Stan so we had a nice leisurely walk along the waterfront before reaching our first stop.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 73/100Sight: Vasamuseet
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Position: #206

The Vasa Museum is one of two ship museums on the Lonely Planet list; the other being the Titanic museum in Northern Ireland. It’s one of those things I would have probably missed out otherwise as I’ve never been interested in boats or pirates.

It just takes that first moment of walking into the museum itself to get why this could be on the list. As museums go, Vasa Museum is pretty unique because of the story of the Vasa itself. A 17th century flagship built for great expense and decked out with beautiful carvings and paintings… only to sink less than 30 minutes into its maiden voyage and become the ultimate example of hubris.

What you see in the museum itself is the salvaged ship that has been brilliantly preserved and restored after being underwater for 333 years. All this and get the museum boasts that the boat you see is still 95-98% original. How? Well, because the water and the silt itself were favourable enough to prevent the ship from completely disintegrating.

I’d recommend getting onto one of the free museum introduction tours and making use of the free 17 minute movie that the museum offers. We ended up watching the movie in Japanese with English subtitles… which was interesting in of itself.

After leaving the Vasa Museum we made our way to Skansen – the worlds first open air live museum, which was founded in 1891. It is absolutely massive and I could see us having just spent the entire day here. The entire attraction is split nearly 50/50 between a zoo containing Scandinavian animals and buildings that have been relocated from other areas of Sweden for the sake of education and preservation.

Being a living museum, a lot of the relocated buildings have people inside dressed in traditional garb to explain things to the visitors. You also have onsite blacksmiths, woodcarvers and glassmakers who you can watch as they make their crafts which can, of course, be purchased in the gift shops.

The layout of Skansen really does help to breathe new life and give a new purpose to these buildings that would have been demolished otherwise. The wooden church is one of the more popular as people can actually get married in it. The yard also features some old gravestones… which really gave me the creeps.

For me, I loved the old farmhouses…but that might just be because they housed some of the farm animals from the children zoo. I mean, who wouldn’t be enchanted by a litter of piglets snuffling around looking for food. These piglets pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip to Skansen (where we ended up skipping lunch because I didn’t feel like spending £17 on a burger).

So yes, the zoo at Skansen. It contains many local animals such as lynx, wolves and wolverines… that is if you are lucky enough to see them, which we did not. We were far luckier with other animals, however. We managed to see the brown bears being fed and got very well acquainted with some moose.

The highlight of the zoo itself was a tie between the reindeer (including an almost pure white one) and the bison/wild boar enclosure (also containing baby animals). I don’t know what it is about the water in Skansen, but it appears to be really good for making baby animals.

After the zoo we engaged in the very Swedish custom of fika… or at least my husband did. I just opted for fizzy water because I don’t really like coffee. I’ll take the pastries though. I’m only human after all and we skipped lunch.

A final farewell tour of Skansen later and we boarded a ferry to get back to Gamla Stan from Djurgården so we could have a quick sit down in the hotel before heading out for dinner. The ferry ride itself went way too quickly at about 7 minutes. Wish I could have had more time to appreciate the views.

Dinner itself was at a restaurant called Nomad. Dinners out are expensive in Stockholm so we searched around for a place that felt reasonable in price but still had a good reputation. I hadn’t expected a fairly hipster restaurant, but there’s a first tome for everything.

Being in Sweden, I wanted to have some fish. To start was herring dressed in three different ways (my favourite was the one on the left, which was actually the plainest and yet was still very flavourful and sweet) whilst the hub had chanterelle mushrooms and cheese on sourdough toast. Both dishes were gorgeous.

For the main I had some salmon (because I keep seeing it everywhere) with dill potatoes and a mustard sauce. Again, this was delicious. The salmon didn’t always need the mustard as it was great just the way it was, but options are always appreciated.

And there we are the end of Day Two. As of writing this I’m not sure what I’ll be doing tomorrow. We have plenty of options; it’s just that we have to round them down. Hopefully we’ll cobble together another great day.

The Great EU Quest: Sweden – Exploring Stockholm

List Item: Visit all EU countriesProgress: 18/28

Välkommen till Sverige!

Country: Sweden
Year first visited: 2017

After my first full day in Stockholm I am just so full of excitement at what I am going to be seeing on my remaining time here. Looking back at my other travel posts, it feels like I fall for cities pretty easily. But hey, rather this than spend money to be disappointed.

So yes, this is the first full day in Stockholm. We only made it to the hotel at about 11pm local time because our easyJet flight was delayed by about an hour. The only thing worth reporting is that the announcement on the shuttle train between Arlanda Airport and Stockholm Central was done by Björn from ABBA. Ain’t that just the coolest!

Having arrived so late the previous day we both basically slept through our alarm and ended up waking around an hour later than we hoped. That made it a bit of a rush job getting ready in the morning as there was a 10am walking tour I wanted to do.

Here’s the thing. If you told me a few years ago that I would be doing walking tours around a city I was visiting… I’d probably think future me was a bit sad. Sod it though, I’m in a new place and I want to learn as much about it as I can. Did I overdo it today by doing two of these walking tours in one day? Obviously, but my head is full of new useless trivia and my feet are glowing – so that’s a day well spent.

Anyway, we started the day doing a 2 hour free walking tour of the city north of the old town with Free Tours Stockholm. It really is one thing to be walking around the city and another to know some of the stories that go along with it.

For example, we walked past the gym where Swedish Crown Princess Victoria met her commoner husband. We also walked past the former bank building (pictured) whose bungled robbing led to the term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. What can I say, those two hours went by in a flash.

At the end of the tour we were deposited on the border of Gamla Stan (the old town) in time for the changing of the guard. We didn’t stick around for this as we’ve seen it happen once before in Copenhagen and I couldn’t image this one being all that different. Instead we made our way straight to Storkyrkan (Stockholm Cathedral).

There’s been a church on this spot for ~700 years and it has been growing ever since. In the current incarnation the exposed brickwork of the vaults and columns make for a beautifully patterned interior. Unlike the rather sparse cathedral in Helsinki, there were some really notable pieces of ornamentation to see here.

Firstly there’s the alter which is a vision in ebony and silver. It’s very striking and unlike anything I’ve seen before in a church. The colours did make me think of the grim reaper, but I’m not sure that was intentional. You also have some extravagant royal pews and an insanely old statue made of elk antlers and oak which depicted the slaying of the dragon by St George.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 72/100Sight: Gamla Stan
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Position: #99

Much like with Tallinn, the Old Town of Stockholm is the big thing to see. The whole thing is on an island and it doesn’t take that long to navigate across. There’s a lot of little alleys and offshoots, which means multiple routes are necessary to appreciate it.

Before we explored, however, there was a desperate need for lunch since we skipped breakfast. Things being what they are with exchange rates (thanks again Brexit), Stockholm is a fairly expensive city. However, if you’re like me and are coming into this being used to prices in London… it isn’t too much of a shock. Also, it’s worth finding ways to make things cheaper. For example, look for lunch deals – some places offer substantially cheaper lunch options.

We found such a restaurant in Gamla Stan. Don’t get me wrong it still felt expensive, but everything is relative. Between us, my husband and I shared some Swedish meatballs and some elk meatloaf in a chanterelle sauce. I am happy that these were suitably Swedish food choices.

So we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Gamla Stan. With the brightly coloured houses and the sheer sense of history, I can really see how this is the most popular part of Stockholm for tourists. I plan on returning here on later days for some souvenir shopping and maybe breakfast on our final day.

We mooched a bit at the waterfront watching German cruise passengers being ferried onto dry land and made friends with some oddly cute seagulls before looping back to start the next walking tour at 4.

Now, was it a bit weird to have the same tour guide for both tours? Yes. Didn’t it matter? No, because he’s really good at what he does and was fairly easy on the eyes. Two more hours of history and stories passed by in a flash. I still vividly remember how an event in Stockholm led to the coining of the term ‘bloodbath’ and how some of the Americans in the group were getting a bit rankled every time our guide talked about the benefits of living in Sweden (e.g. paternity leave, free university fees, universal healthcare etc).

After this tour broke we walked across to the Southern island to checkout a larger supermarket and to get some good views of the Old Town from a higher vantage point. I don’t know if I am high enough to do the city true justice, but I think it’s a nice enough picture.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Food items: Limpa Bread and Kavring
Progress: 674/751

Coming to Sweden, there were three food items I wanted to look out for. Having read stories about the third I will not be trying surstromming here in Sweden. Instead, I will try this when I get home and can get some proper ventilation going. There would be a fourth if you count moose cheese… but I doubt I have enough in my bank account for some of that.

We did, however, find the other two items. Both of them are types of rye bread that can be found in Sweden. These formed our dinner tonight and breakfast for the next day. Trying to be Swedish we also bought some salami, cream cheesed infused with chanterelle mushrooms and a tub of shrimp salad with surimi and dill.

Starting off with the limpa bread. The name itself conjures up something a bit pappy to the point where I was expecting something akin to the Jamaican hardough. Instead think rye bread, then think malt loaf. Combine these flavours, give it a lighter texture and you have limpa.

It’s a rye bread with the hint of molasses and orange zest. It feels like it’s on the verge of being cakey, but the crumb texture isn’t right for that. We found this went really well with some chanterelle cream cheese. The woodiness of the mushroom really complimenting the bitterness of the zest and molasses.

The other bread from the list is called kavring. The initial whiff as you open the bag and the reassuring heft as you hold it definitely points to this as a rye bread. Darker than the limpa, but lighter and less dense than a lot of rye breads you can get. It’s like they remembered to add yeast to give it a bit of a rise.

Both of these are breads that I would happily buy if they were available in the UK. The fact that these both look near mass produced makes me weep when I think that, back at home, there’s no real equivalent widely available.

We finished off the evening with a cinnamon bun, because they are everywhere in Stockholm and they were on offer. Who can say no to a pastry swirl that moist with cinnamon sugar. I like these better than their American counterpart because they aren’t drowning in icing.

So yes, that’s he first day. Tomorrow will be my ticking off the other Lonely Planet site here in Stockholm: the Vasa Museum. Should be a special day.