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Top Five Fairytale Destinations, Europe Style

Anyone who’s ever read a Terry Pratchett, JRR Tolkien, or JK Rowling (before she went all bleeding-heart-pinko and grown up on us) has fantasized about traipsing through misty snowcapped mountains and enchanted forests, encountering endearing local folk and mythical creatures and being held captive in imposing, multi-towered castles (or if it floats your boat – a boarding school).

The good news is, all this can be easily found in Europe if you know where to look (except for the mythical creatures). Here are my top 5 Fairytale destinations, Europe style…

5. Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Nestled in the Bavarian Alps and built by Mad King Ludwig, Neuschwannstein is the epitome of camp Fairytale kitsch.  It was inspired by the castles of the Loire Valley and in turn became the inspiration for Disney’s ‘when you wish upon an star’ castle.

If you can stand the hoards of Japanese tourists and eye-watering parking fees, it makes a nice day trip from Munich.  While you’re here, you can stop by at Hitler’s secret mountain lair at Berchtesgaden for a spot of ghoulish Boy’s Own-style sight-seeing.

The castle is currently undergoing renovation and its fairytale factor is therefore slightly diminished by it being entirely covered in scaffolding.  Hence its position at number 5.

4. Bialowieza Forest, Poland/Belarus

Welcome to the dark heart of Eastern Europe.  If those magical creatures were discovered to exist after all, it’d almost certainly be here.  Bialowieza is the  largest primeval  forest in Europe and home to bison, bears and wolves. Travel advice: if you see a house made of gingerbread, probably best to avoid.

3. Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

More like something out of Discworld than Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is a… erm… giant causeway in Northern Ireland.  The crashing waves of the tempestuous Irish sea are vaguely reminiscent of the lighthouse scene in Harry Potter 1.

Likelihood of actually seeing a giant is slim, but after a few Jameson’s, who knows. If all the Caspar David Friedrich-esque Romanticism gets a bit much, for a light-hearted add-on, you can do the open top bus tour of the Falls and Shankill Roads in Belfast and wave at the chavs sitting outside Rangers and Celtic Supporters’ pubs.

2. Tintagel, Cornwall, England

Did King Arthur and Merlin and Gwynevere really live here?  Is this where Arthur pulled the sword from the stone?  Did he rule his Kingdom wisely with a proto-democratic round table on this rocky outcrop in Cornwall?  Probably not, but it makes a nice excuse for the locals to open crystal shops and sell homeopathic remedies in ‘Merlin’s Tea Rooms’ and ‘King Arthur’s convenience store’, so who cares?

1. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Anyone who feels himself to be imbued with the Elfish gene…  Anyone who ever applied to go on Knightmare…   Anyone who has ever lost his girlfriend, job and flat due to their addiction to World of Warcraft (it happened to my friend’s brother)…  Anyone who knows what The Gathering is…   will like it here. And just about anyone else, to be honest.  It’s a lovely little town in Southern Czech Republic that just screams “Hobbit!”.  It’s great. Good beer, too.

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A Road Trip From Heaven: Europe in 5 weeks

The route:

Bavaria – Austrian Lakes – Slovenian Alps – Ljubjana – Zagreb – Istrian Peninsular (Croatia) – Venice – Verona – French Alps – Aix En Provence – Avignon – Languedoc – Pyrenees – Bilbao – San Sebastian – Dordogne – Rhone Valley – Brittany – Normandy – UK.

Here are some of the best snaps I took en route with my phone.

The Konigsee, Bavarian Alps, Germany

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Hitler’s mountain lair, the ‘Eagles Nest’ at Bertchesgaden, Germany

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Kobarid, Slovenia

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Dragon Bridge, Ljubjana, Slovenia

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Gondola Drivers, Venice, Italy

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The Cathedral Cloisters, Verona, Italy

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Pope’s Castle at Avignon, France

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Carcassonne, France by night

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The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

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The destroyed village of Oradour, France

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Mont St Michel, Normandy, France

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Here Be Hipsters: A Stroll Through Kreuzkölln, Berlin.

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Apply instagram filters here.

The Maybachufer Fleamarket.  All your mid-century formica needs are met here.

The Maybachufer market. All your mid-century formica and post-ironic shell suit needs are met here.

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Gentrification: Replace real graffiti with hipster graffiti. Flush out urban dwellers through rent hikes. Sell “urban” shoes to newcomers.

Have your photo taken in an old black and white photo machine.   Because Instagram is soooo 2013.

Have your photo taken in an old black and white photo machine. Because vintage.

Pavement cafe.  Pretty self-explanatory, really.

Graffiti? Check. Ethnic passers-by? Check. Fritz Kola? Check. Here shall be my office for the day!

Vintage coffee?  What the actual?

Not sure which is worse:  The idea that coffee can be ‘vintage’, that salad is now classed as ‘raw’, or that the entire shop front is in English.

Come, marvel at the bonkers Turkish tat.

Come, marvel at the bonkers Turkish tat.

Getting Away From It All in Suffolk (Pictures)

The beach huts at Southwold

 

If you’re looking for day trip ideas from London, the Suffolk coast provides a little bit of olde England, just an hour or so by car or train. The charming resorts of Southwold and Aldeburgh transport you back in time to bucket and spade holidays of the 1950s, with their easy-going atmosphere, locally-sourced food and superlative fish and chip cafes. The Suffolk coast makes an up-market and far more peaceful alternative to the likes of Brighton and allows you to really feel like you’ve got away from it all.

Here are some iphone snaps I took on a recent Redpig road trip. A long weekend was ample time to recharge the batteries, sample the local cuisine and seek out a few ‘secret’ beaches.

 

The fishermen return with their catch at Aldeburgh

The fishermen return with their catch at Aldeburgh

The Medieval church becomes a farmhouse at Leiston Abbey

The Medieval church becomes a farmhouse at Leiston Abbey

Leiston Abbey: Used to be a monastery, is now a music school

Leiston Abbey: Used to be a monastery, is now a music school

The 'secret' beach at Covehithe

The ‘secret’ beach at Covehithe

The woods at Covehithe

The woods at Covehithe

Even as a vegetarian, I have to say these pigs look pretty content with their lot

Even as a vegetarian, I have to say these free range pigs look pretty content with their lot!

Southwold pier and us!

Southwold pier and us!

After sunset, the best entertainment is to head to the beach for candle-lit drinks!

After sunset, the best entertainment is to head to the beach for candle-lit drinks!

European Roadtrip #3: Travels in a Red Pig

In March this year, my husband and I drove down to Italy in our camper van (the van is affectionately known as The Red Pig).  We saw bits of France and Belgium on the way there and back.  As you can see, the weather was pleasant most of the time, and lots of places were completely deserted.

Going out of season was great, as it cut out queues at nearly all the museums.  It also allowed us to pull up and snooze in the van more or less wherever we liked.  Below are some iPhone snaps I took en route.

 

The city walls at Boulogne Sur Mer

The city walls at Boulogne Sur Mer

Tournus, Burgundy

Tournus, Burgundy

The banks of the Saone, Burgundy at sunrise

The banks of the Saone, Burgundy at sunrise

The Ardeche gorge, central France

The Ardeche gorge, central France

The picturesque Provencale village of  Gordes

The picturesque Provencale village of Gordes

Lavender fields in Provence

Lavender fields in Provence

The Verdon Gorge

The Verdon Gorge

Lac de Saine Croix, Verdon Gorge, France

Lac de Saine Croix, Verdon Gorge, France

A bit of the old vin rouge

A bit of the old vin rouge

The Verdon Gorge

The Verdon Gorge

It was a bit chilly at that altitude

It was a bit chilly at that altitude

Alpine villages in the Alpes Maritimes

Alpine villages in the Alpes Maritimes

Overlooking Antibes in the French Riviera

Overlooking Antibes in the French Riviera

If you can't afford a yacht, you can always walk around the port in a stripy jumper instead!

If you can’t afford a yacht, you can always walk around the port in a stripy jumper instead!

Villefranche Sur Mer from above

Villefranche Sur Mer from above

 

 

The aptly named Beaulieu (trans = beautiful place)

The aptly named Beaulieu (trans = beautiful place)

Dolceacqua, Liguria

Dolceacqua, Liguria

The benefits of travelling out of season - Beachside sleeping spot in Cinque Terra

The benefits of travelling out of season – Beachside sleeping spot in Cinque Terra

One of the ports of the Cinque Terra, Italy

One of the ports of the Cinque Terra, Italy

The pretty streets of Cinque Terra

The pretty streets of Cinque Terra

Some flowers and me!

Some flowers and me!

The Etruscan tombs of Tarquinia

The Etruscan tombs of Tarquinia

Rome

Rome

The Vatican

The Vatican

The Pantheon - Europe's oldest church

The Pantheon – Europe’s oldest church

Beautiful Piazza Navona

Beautiful Piazza Navona

Inside the Vatican

Inside the Vatican

Inside the Vatican again

Inside the Vatican again

Monte Cassino - another WW2 battlefield

Monte Cassino – another WW2 battlefield

The view from Monte Cassino

The view from Monte Cassino

The deserted beaches around Baia Domizia, near Naples

The deserted beaches around Baia Domizia, near Naples

The Redpig sees Capri, but mercifully doesn't die

The Redpig sees Capri, but mercifully doesn’t die

The Amalfi coast

The Amalfi coast

The Ancient Greek colony of Paestum, Campania

The Ancient Greek colony of Paestum, Campania

The beaches at Salerno.  WW2  happened here, apparently

The beaches at Salerno. WW2 happened here, apparently

The Redpig chillin on the beach

The Redpig chillin on the beach

Yet more deserted beaches.  Italians don't favour beaches in winter, it seems

Yet more deserted beaches. Italians don’t favour beaches in winter, it seems

Yet more beautiful deserted beaches

Yet more beautiful deserted beaches

Assisi, home to St Francis and St Clare

Assisi, home to St Francis and St Clare

The view from Assisi

The view from Assisi

Kids play football in the square outside the church of Santa Chiara, Assisi

Kids play football in the square outside the church of Santa Chiara, Assisi

Chasing the route of Hannibal's  Elephants at Lake Trasimeno

Chasing the route of Hannibal’s Elephants at Lake Trasimeno

 

Chianti, formaggio and focaccia in Tuscany.  Basically, heaven.

Chianti, formaggio and focaccia in Tuscany. Basically, heaven.

 

Florence by night

Florence by night

 

...and day

…and day

 

Lake Annecy.  When I retire, just drop me here, please

Lake Annecy. When I retire, just drop me here, please

 

The town of Annecy.  Check out how clear the water is

The town of Annecy. Check out how clear the water is

 

The fort at Verdun, a site of WW1 stuff

The fort at Verdun, a site of WW1 stuff

 

Trenches at Vimy Ridge

Trenches at Vimy Ridge

 

Beautiful Bergues

Beautiful Bergues

 

If you've seen the film, Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis, you'll know why this is pure comedy gold.

If you’ve seen the film, Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis, you’ll know why this is pure comedy gold.

 

Yet more proof that Nord Pas De Calais has at least some refinement

Yet more proof that Nord Pas De Calais has at least some refinement


The Best Time To Visit Europe

September and May have always been my favourite time to visit the Mediterranean, as scrambling over Roman ruins, drinking red wine, sunbathing – all the good stuff – are clearly best done without fear of heatstroke.  It’s also well-known that August is the worst time to visit Europe, as many cities such as Paris and Madrid effectively close down.  On top of that, you have the school summer holidays calendar which means just about everywhere with a patch of grass from St Petersburg to Dublin will be mobbed by screaming kids.  Don’t even think about visiting an open-air swimming pool in late July.

Of course, the ski season lasts from mid-December to Late March, but the winter is otherwise a pretty miserable time to visit Europe, where winter means either -40 in the North or grey skies and inadequate central heating in the South.

I’ve just got back from an epic three-week trip down to southern Italy and back in the camper van and I have to say that mid-March is in some ways an ideal time to ‘do Europe’ if you are interested in culture rather than beaches. There were no queues for museums, no reservations necessary at restaurants, easy parking and sleeping wherever we liked in the van.  The coast roads were traffic-free, which is also a huge bonus in places like the French Riviera and the Italy’s Amalfi coast, where there is enough local traffic to cause headaches at the best of times.

The weather was extremely varied, ranging from bright sunshine in Lyon to freezing hail in Naples, to snow in the Alps and April Showers in Belgium.  It really felt like we got a unique insight into a side of Europe we hadn’t seen before.

Most importantly, of course, there were none of those insufferable other tourists ruining our tourism by doing touristy things and being all touristy.  Which was great!

A Beginners’ Guide To… Belgium

It’s a truism that Belgium is the dullest country in the world. The weather would give the UK a run for its money; skies of the slate grey variety and endless drizzle compete for room with bracing wind and fog which comes in off the north sea much as in, say Glasgow or Morecombe.

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The people, so we are led to believe, are a dull bunch of quasi-French bureaucrats who love nothing more than creating rules about the bendiness of bananas and tending to their ironically waxed moustaches.

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Of course, there is a grain of truth in all these stereotypes, but if you are willing to go the extra mile – most notably away from the tourist traps of Brussels and Bruges – you will discover an open-minded and dare-I-say, hip country that warrants a week of anyone’s life. The fact that (just about) everyone speaks English and it’s only two hours from St Pancras also adds to the feeling that a trip to Belgium is a trip to ‘another Britain’, but a bit more continental.

Travel Pictures Ltd

Ever been to Amsterdam and thought, “well, this could be a nice place if it wasn’t for all the narcotourists and sex shops?”… Welcome to Ghent. Ghent manages to be both a picture-postcard medieval town with canals and cobbled streets and also a lively student city with a nightlife famous for its outrageous music scene (the infamous clubnight Breakcore Gives Me Wood was founded here) and its all-night pub crawl marathons.

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Competing for the prize of ‘capital of Flanders’ is Antwerp, a slightly more modern, sophisticated city with some of the finest art nouveau architecture in the world and a pavement cafe and restaurant culture which is some of the finest in Europe. On top of this, Antwerp’s fashion scene is still very much at the cutting edge, with students travelling from places like Japan and New York to study with the greats of Belgian design.

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Belgium’s history of weaving, architecture and art goes right back to medieval times, when the low countries were the richest seafaring nations in the world. The modern artists and fashion designers are continuing a legacy which stretches back from the bande dessinee of Tin Tin through to the Northern Renaissance and the guild houses of the high Middle Ages. Not only were Magritte, Rubens, Van Dyck and Bruegel all Belgian born, but the rich merchants of Antwerp and Bruges were also the main collectors of fine art from Holland, too. Some of the the innovations which Belgians contributed to fine art include the artist’s self portrait, the use of oil paint and even the idea of secular art itself.

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No guide to Belgium is complete without the mention of the cuisine. While the seafood delicatessens of Antwerp and the haute cuisine restaurants of Brussels take some beating, I’m quite content with some (double fried) Belgian chips washed down with a strong (trappist) beer.

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Just as the art, textiles and beer industries in Belgium have a long and illustrious history, so too, it turns out, does the European Union.  Charlemagne was born in Liege in the 8th Century and went on to unite Europe as the leader of the Holy Roman Empire he created.  The rest, as they say, is history.

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