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Everything posted by Clare

  1. When we woke up this morning it was a bright sunny day in Burgas. We headed downstairs to investigate what our hotel's breakfast buffet had to offer. It seemed like quite a small breakfast buffet after the extensive one we'd enjoyed at BA's expense in Madrid on Tuesday morning, but we did get a pancake each which was good We didn't need to check out of the hotel until midday, so we decided to go for a stroll into the centre of Burgas. It seemed like a good idea in theory but in practice, because our hotel was so far away from the main centre, we pretty much needed to turn around and come back as soon as we got there It was nice to have a walk by the sea in the sunshine, though. The beach was a lot busier this morning than it had been yesterday evening! As we walked through the seaside park, we found the little church which we'd passed in the dark last night. The park itself was really pretty. It stretches for several miles along the coast and so we could walk almost the entire way from our hotel to the town centre without having to go out onto the road. The Black Sea looked a beautiful shade of blue this morning We made it back to the hotel on time to pack up our things and check out, before setting off back towards the town centre again. We just had time to get lunch in town before catching a bus to Plovdiv at 3pm. My original plan had been to take the train to Plovdiv, which would have involved departing at around 9am and being in Plovdiv for early afternoon. Unfortunately, after investigating the Bulgarian trains website in more detail, it turned out that although you can buy tickets for some trains in advance, the daytime train we wanted to take between Burgas and Plovdiv wasn't one of them. I thought about just turning up on the day and trying to buy a ticket, but it wasn't 100% clear whether a reservation was needed for the train or not, and various things I read online suggested that this was going to be a really busy weekend to travel, with some trains completely booked up, due to it being the last weekend of August and lots of Bulgarians needing to head back home from the coast. In the end I decided not to risk it and to book us two online tickets for the bus instead. I think it was a good decision, because when I eventually did buy the bus tickets, I got two of the last four seats on this particular bus. We ended up eating at the same restaurant as last night, because there was plenty of space to sit outside with our suitcases, so our first two meals in Bulgaria have been Greek Tim had fish with Greek potatoes, while I had chicken souvlaki with pitta bread. The entire meal only cost around £18, including Tim having a pudding of walnut cake and me having a much-needed espresso Then it was time to find the bus station, which wasn't too far away, just around the corner from Burgas train station. I was a bit apprehensive about whether we were going to get our assigned seats or not and, when we got on the bus, we did indeed find other people sitting in them. The good news is that they moved when Tim insisted that they do so and in general, there seemed to be a lower tolerance towards people sitting in the wrong seats compared to other south-east European countries that we've travelled in. Two other people who found someone else sitting in their seats caused a minor commotion, which ended with the bus driving back to the bus station and the conductor making the people move to the seats they were supposed to be sitting in. Our bus left Burgas at 15.00 and was due to arrive in Plovdiv at 19.30. We had an air-conditioning vent above our heads and for the first few minutes of the journey we enjoyed some beautiful cool air... before the lady sitting behind us asked us to re-position it because it was blowing on her. The rest of the journey was rather warm, although some other people on the bus were wearing coats I'm guessing Bulgarians must suffer from the general Eastern European fear of draughts! Our journey took us through miles and miles of sparsely populated Bulgarian countryside. Parts of the interior of Bulgaria are quite mountainous and for a lot of the journey we could see mountains in the distance. We arrived in Plovdiv more or less on schedule and set off to find our apartment, which was less than a mile from the bus station. I'd had a message from the owner telling us to call his mother when we arrived and that she would let us in. Tim navigated us to the correct road without too many difficulties, but once we got there we struggled to find the correct building. We were just starting to feel confused, when a lady came up to us and asked if I was Clare; the owner's mother had come out to look for us, which turned out to be really helpful because I'm not sure we would have found the building otherwise Once we got inside, we found we had a lovely apartment which seems like amazing value for the £29/night that we're paying! There's a nice bedroom... ...a large living area with a kitchenette... ...and a little balcony outside. We even got a little present each - the lady makes things out of felt as a hobby and gave us two little decorations which she said we could hang on our Christmas tree It's dark now, so exploring Plovdiv properly will have to wait until tomorrow, but first impressions are positive
  2. We've been contemplating the idea of travelling to Romania for several years but, as it felt like it could be a potentially difficult place to travel, decided that it was contingent on Tim learning to speak some Romanian. Having dabbled with the language a bit over the past couple of years, he decided that 2019 was going to be the year he committed to studying it seriously, and so at the start of this year we decided it was finally time to book a trip to Romania. After our really positive experiences in Macedonia a few years ago, I was also keen to see some of Bulgaria, and so we decided to combine visiting the two countries for the first time into one two-week holiday this summer. Our trip got off to a very early start, with a 07.15 flight from Gatwick to the Bulgarian city of Burgas. Burgas, which is situated on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, is not somewhere which we particularly wanted to put on our itinerary when we were initially planning the trip. But, when we were researching flights at the start of the year, we found that flights to Bulgaria were much more limited than flights to Romania, and we found really cheap flights to Burgas with Thomas Cook. I was a little bit apprehensive about flying to the Bulgarian coast, having heard a lot of stories from people who have visited the notorious Bulgarian resort of Sunny Beach (which seems to cater to people who aren't classy enough for Magaluf!) but in the end the price of the flights made the decision for us and we decided to give Burgas a go. It would definitely be exciting to see the Black Sea if nothing else It turns out that the sort of people who go partying in Sunny Beach don't fly with Thomas Cook, and our flight turned out to be made up of a fairly sedate group of mostly older people. But, after our experience of checking in, I don't think either of us would ever fly with Thomas Cook again! Having left home shortly after 2am and deposited the car at the airport parking, we arrived at Gatwick's South terminal around 04.50 and joined the Thomas Cook queue. Along with everyone else in the queue, we'd already checked in on line and were just queuing for baggage drop. How long could that take?! It turns out that it could take 1 hour 25 minutes There were several Thomas Cook counters open for baggage drop but they were serving multiple flights, and so there was an enormous queue of people which snaked around six times before getting to the desks. It was like queuing for a roller-coaster, except there weren't those helpful signs telling you that you were 30 minutes away from the front at this point. There were several members of Thomas Cook staff organising the queue, and every so often one of them would shout out to ask whether there was anyone queuing for a flight to Majorca, which was obviously just about to start boarding, and then a handful of people would put their hands up and go to the front of the queue. This wasn't a problem and over the course of the next hour we made our way towards the front of the queue, until we were in a position where we only had one more loop of the queue left to do before depositing our baggage. Unfortunately, at this point the staff member called out to ask whether there was anyone waiting for a flight to Antalya in Turkey. It turns out that there were in excess of a hundred people in the queue waiting for that flight, most of whom were after us. We were held back while the barriers were opened up and anyone who claimed to be flying to Antalya was allowed to push ahead of us. "Claimed" to be going to Antalya is the key phrase, because no one actually looked at anyone's boarding passes before allowing them to push in, and I later saw at least two people who had pushed ahead of us on our flight to Burgas! To say we were annoyed would be an understatement Never mind the fact that our hopes of a Wetherspoons breakfast before the flight were gradually slipping away, our boarding passes said that our flight was supposed to start boarding at 06.15 and there didn't seem to be much hope of us depositing our baggage before then. We essentially had to wait until all the Antalya people had checked in, before the staff member decided that Burgas was the next most urgent flight and allowed us to go to a desk. It was after 06.15 by the time we finally checked our bags in and were able to progress to security. By the time we'd got through that, our flight was showing as boarding and we had to go straight to the gate The flight itself was delayed by air traffic control congestion at Gatwick, so it was around 07.35 before we started taxiing out to the runway. We were absolutely starving by this point - and hadn't had any coffee yet - so couldn't wait for the in-flight food service to begin. Our tickets said that we were entitled to a "standard meal", whatever that meant, which I hadn't booked deliberately but had a vague recollection of acquiring as a result of booking checked baggage. Once we'd finally taken off and the cabin crew started making announcements about food, there was no mention of meals though. Instead there was an extremely limited catalogue of snacks to order from the trolley. In desperation, we bought some shortbread biscuits and a bag of chocolate fingers to eat for breakfast (this was honestly the best choice from the menu ), as well as a cup of coffee each. We'd just finished eating those - and were flying somewhere over the middle of Germany - when a flight attendant suddenly popped up and handed us a meal It turned out that we were getting an entire breakfast, which included sausage, bacon and scrambled eggs, as well as yoghurt and an apple and cinnamon muffin. I didn't exactly feel like a cooked breakfast after chocolate fingers, but now that we'd been handed it we kinda had to eat it and it was actually quite nice. Plus we got a free coffee Having flown over France, Belgium and Germany, the flight proceeded across the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, before finally reaching Bulgaria. I fell asleep somewhere over Hungary, only waking up again when we were close to landing in Burgas. Bulgaria is two hours ahead of the UK, so despite the very early start it was after 1pm local time when we landed. I'd struggled a bit with researching how to get from Burgas airport to Burgas. There didn't seem to be a lot of information online and everything I did find linked to the website of Burgas airport, which seems to be permanently down. I've come to the conclusion that there probably isn't much demand for this kind of information, because virtually everybody who was on our flight either got into a taxi or a Thomas Cook coach. When we found the public bus stop outside the terminal, there was literally no one else there (which is pretty unusual for an airport bus stop!). Bus number 15 runs between the airport and Burgas and tickets cost 1.50 lev each, which equates to 69p. It was like St Petersburg, in that we had to purchase the tickets from a lady walking up and down the bus. What I hadn't realised was that buses going in both directions stop at the same airport bus stop and, oblivious to this, we'd got on a bus heading in the wrong direction. After 10 minutes or so it reached its terminus, turned around and proceeded to drive back to the airport to pick up more people. From there, the journey took another 20 minutes or so to reach the main bus station in Burgas. The hotel we are staying in tonight is about 2.5 miles from the bus station and we'd decided to walk. We should perhaps have taken a taxi, but with it being our first day in a new country we didn't really know how much anything should cost, and it was a nice sunny day so we didn't really mind walking. Our first impressions of Burgas was that it seemed pleasant, although Bulgaria doesn't seem to go in for street signs in a big way, which made navigating slightly more difficult. We found our hotel without too much trouble though and have got a nice room, for which we paid 71 lev (£33) for the night; a bargain, which includes breakfast! By the time we got the hotel, we were exhausted after the early start and needed a nap. My nap went on slightly longer than intended, and so it was early evening by the time we set out again in search of food. From the hotel we walked through a shady park towards the coast. There were various seaside attractions in the park; ice-cream stalls, people selling religious icons, and an exhibition of enormous sand sculptures From there we weren't far from the coast, and a few minutes later we got our first view of the Black Sea Although it was a warm day, it was quite breezy by this stage and we could see a pair of enormous Bulgarian and EU flags blowing in the wind. The beach itself seemed really sandy A little further along there was a pier, which we walked out onto to get a few back down towards where we had been. We weren't far away from the centre of town now, which was pretty busy as it was Saturday night. We managed to track down a restaurant where the menu had pictures and English translations. The waitress explained that the restaurant had two menus - one for sushi and one for Greek food - so we decided to go with Greek Tim ordered beef with Greek vegetables (Greek vegetables turned out to be potato and spring onion)... ...while I had strips of beef in a tomato sauce. Both were really nice. We also had a large bottle of water, two beers and 375ml of Bulgarian wine, which in total came to around 48 lev (£22). I think Bulgaria is going to turn out to be good value for money! By the time we'd finished eating, darkness had fallen. The park was well lit at night, so we walked back through it towards the hotel. We passed a small church... ...a musical performance... ...and a colourful fountain display ...before making it back to the hotel I started the holiday with low expectations for Burgas, but it's actually been really pleasant and our first impressions of Bulgaria so far are really positive Tomorrow we'll be leaving the coast behind and travelling onwards to our next destination: Plovdiv.
  3. The weather forecast had warned that there could be storms today and sure enough, when we opened our curtains in Segovia this morning, things looked rather grey and damp. We got slightly wet on our walk from the hotel to the bus station, where we were due to catch a 10.15 bus to the town of Ávila. Ávila is only about 40 miles southwest of Segovia but the two towns aren't connected by rail, so when we were doing our research it seemed that to get to one from the other by train it was necessary to go via Madrid. There are only a handful of buses between the two towns, so we'd booked tickets in advance on the only bus which was leaving Segovia for Ávila this morning. We arrived at the bus station ready to fight our way onto the bus, but it actually turned out to not be a very popular route and the bus was almost empty I guess that's why they don't run very frequently! It's not a very long journey, and within an hour we were stepping off the bus in Ávila. I'd hoped that when we got to Ávila it would be fairly obvious in which direction the historic town centre was, but there turned out not be many signs so we walked in the wrong direction initially and had to resort to Google Maps to get back on track. We knew we were finally in the right place when we got our first glimpse of the town walls. Ávila is a world heritage site, because it has a complete set of medieval town walls, built between the 11th and 14th centuries. It's also home to a lot of beautiful churches, including the basilica of San Vicente. The walls looked incredible and reminded me a little bit of Carcassonne. I knew it was possible to walk around about half of the walls, but initially we struggled to find the way in. Eventually we located the tourist information office, where we picked up a map. There were also some impressive models there, both of the walls... ...and the cathedral. We realised that the walls are illuminated at night as well, which must be spectacular to see. Maybe on a future holiday we'll have to come and stay overnight in Ávila! With the help of the map, we walked alongside the walls for a while and managed to find the ticket office. It only cost €5 each to get in. The entrance to the walls was close to the cathedral and once we'd climbed up into the open we had some amazing views of it The cathedral was built partly as a fortress and its apse forms one of the turrets in the walls. Our route led away from the cathedral and we could soon see down towards the basilica. Once you were up on the walls the path was pretty flat, but every so often there were little staircases you could climb up for better views. They were usually worth the effort! We could see for a long way out over the countryside... ...and towards a rather strangely shaped church in the distance. There were other people on the walls, but it was nowhere near as busy as walking around the walls of Dubrovnik! I guess it helps that Ávila is a long way from the sea We were able to walk for about an hour before the accessible part of the walls came to an end. In the distance we could see the walls continuing around the far side of the town. If you were able to walk the entire way round I think it would be several miles! I'd expected Ávila to be quite small, but the town within the walls is actually pretty large. Eventually we'd got as far as we could go and it was time to climb down. We walked along some pretty streets in the old town... ...before coming to a square where there were several restaurants. We chose one which had a menu of the day for €14. This include a starter, main course and pudding, as well as bread and a glass of wine. I had pasta bolognese as my starter, while Tim chose a caesar salad. For the main course, Tim had croquetas caseras, which seemed to consist of melted cheese with potato, while I had fingers de pollo, which were like chicken goujons. Pudding was chocolate mousse. The consistency was a bit like Angel Delight which has been made with too much milk to set, but it actually tasted really nice It was a lovely meal and seemed like really good value for the amount of food we had! Once we'd finished eating, it was time to head in the direction of the train station to begin our journey back to Madrid. When we were booking our train back from Ávila to Madrid, we'd had a choice of two different trains. One would have got us to the airport too early - over three hours before our flight was due to depart - and the other would have got us there with just under two hours. I deliberated over the options for a while, but in the end we decided to play it safe and book the earlier train, which left Ávila at 15.47. The trains between Ávila and Madrid aren't quite as fast as the high speed trains between Madrid and Segovia, and so it was a fairly leisurely train journey. We arrived into Madrid's Príncipe Pío station around 17.30. The plan was that from here we would catch the suburban C1 train directly to Terminal 4 of the airport. This was the same train which we had caught to Madrid Chamartín on Saturday, but a slightly longer journey, because the Príncipe Pío station which the Ávila trains arrive into is situated further south in Madrid. Príncipe Pío turned out to be a rather confusing station and we walked around for a while before finding the correct platform for the suburban trains. Things were confused further by the fact that both C1 and C10 trains seemed to depart from this platform, with only C1 trains going as far as the airport, but eventually a C1 train was advertised as being the next train on the departures board. The only problem was that its destination wasn't shown as being the airport, but a station called Delicias, which was only a couple of stops along the route. We figured that maybe this was a C1 train that was terminating early for some reason, but decided to get on it anyway and change at Delicias if need be. We sat on the train and within a few minutes we had arrived at Delicias. The train did indeed terminate there and we had to get off. We progressed from being slightly confused to extremely confused when we walked along the platform and found that the entire station seemed to be out of service, with no trains running towards the airport at all. Eventually, with the help of Tim speaking to a staff member in Spanish, we managed to establish that there were repair works on the line and therefore the C1 wasn't running between this station and Chamartín. In order to get to the airport, we therefore needed to catch a bus from Delicias to Madrid's Atocha railway station, another suburban train from Atocha to Chamartín, and then rejoin the C1 from Chamartín to the airport. Wow At this point I was extremely glad that we'd decided to hedge our bets and catch the earlier train back from Ávila. It was pouring with rain in Madrid by this point, but luckily the bus stop we needed wasn't too far away from the station and we managed to get on the correct bus almost straight away. The tickets we'd bought for the C1 journey worked on the bus, which was good, but once we got to Atocha and tried to get through the gates to catch the train to Chamartín, we found that they were no longer functioning. Tim spoke to yet another staff member in Spanish, who explained that they had expired. He wasn't able to do anything about it and said that we'd need to go to an official desk. We found the desk but there was an extremely long line of people, so in the interests of actually getting to the airport we decided it would be better just to buy another ticket! €6 and two more trains later, we eventually made it to Terminal 4... only to find that once we'd checked in and gone through security, we had to catch yet another train from Terminal 4 to Terminal 4S where our (delayed!!) flight was departing from. All in the all it hasn't been the easiest journey home, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that we've had a really nice relaxing weekend in Spain and visited some beautiful places
  4. We went out for a meal in Segovia last night and by the time we were walking back to the hotel, darkness had started to fall. The aqueduct looked beautiful against the night sky. So did lots of the little squares and streets in the old town As we walked back towards the hotel, we caught a glimpse of Segovia's cathedral in the distance. The cathedral is situated in the town's main square. It looked absolutely stunning illuminated like this. Once we got back to the hotel we could see the illuminated castle from our balcony too When we woke up this morning it was another beautiful sunny day. There was even a hot air balloon floating over the town We set off to explore Segovia properly in the daylight. We soon came to the cathedral, which looked just as beautiful as it had done at night. The cathedral was built between 1525 and 1577, replacing an earlier cathedral which had been destroyed in a siege. We noticed these strange gargoyles on the side of the cathedral which seemed to be sticking their tongues out! From the cathedral we continued walking through the narrow streets of the old town. It was a lot quieter in the early morning than it had been last night! One of the things we've noticed about Segovia is that lots of the buildings have beautiful patterned facades. From a distance they look like tiles... ...but when you get up close you can see that they're some sort of plasterwork. The cathedral isn't the only impressive church in Segovia. This is the church of San Esteban, which originally dates from the 12th century. By the time we got close to the aqueduct, the streets were getting busier. The aqueduct looked beautiful in the morning sunshine. It is thought to have been constructed in the first century AD and is one of the best-preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. Amazingly, it was used to bring water to the city until the mid-nineteenth century. We walked alongside it for a while and reached a point where it turns a corner. From here, we could get a glimpse of the cathedral through its arches. Once the aqueduct turns the corner it becomes lower, running alongside houses, down the middle of a street. We continued to stroll along it for a while, enjoying the shade, before eventually turning around and walking back to the centre of town. From the square outside the aqueduct we could see up towards the old town walls. We climbed up a staircase that looked like it was going to lead to promising views. Sure enough, we could soon see out over the town and towards the countryside beyond. We were right up by the highest part of the aqueduct now... ...and had a great view over the newer part of town. At the top of the walls we walked along some really narrow streets... ...past some more beautiful patterned houses... ...and came across this enormous tower. I'm not sure what it was, but the tower was covered in patterns too This part of town was colourful, with brightly painted houses. The road we were on eventually took us back towards the cathedral and main square. From there we walked back towards our hotel, which is in this pretty building. We were heading towards the castle, the Alcázar, which is on the far side of town from the aqueduct. From a little square outside the castle, we had some great views over the countryside. In the distance we could see a church... ...and a monastery. It's free to walk into the grounds of the Alcázar. To go inside the castle itself costs €8; €5.50 for the palace and €2.50 to be able to climb the tower. Throughout its history the castle has been used as a royal palace, a prison and a military academy. We bought our tickets and went inside the palace first, saving the tower for the end. There was lots of armour on display. There were also some beautiful stained glass windows. The most impressive thing about the interior though were the ceilings. This one in the throne room was my absolute favourite... ...but this one was also pretty spectacular... ...and this room, known as the Hall of the Kings, not only had an amazing ceiling but also statues of monarchs all the way around the walls. Once we'd finished exploring inside, it was time to climb the tower. We had a slight glitch as somehow we'd managed to lose our ticket, but luckily we still had the receipt and the nice man on the gate let us through. At the ticket office there had been several signs warning that there were 152 steps to climb to get to the top of the tower. We thought that didn't sound too bad... but they were up quite a steep, winding staircase, so we were both pretty tired by the time we got to the top! The top of the tower is a big viewing platform. There was a big Spanish flag on the top, blowing in the breeze... ...and we could look out across the roof of the palace, towards the smaller turrets of the castle. The most impressive views, though, were in the other direction, towards the town. We had a fantastic view of the cathedral, which really shows how enormous it is. It was definitely worth climbing all the stairs for The afternoon sun was quite hot by this point though, so after a quick drink in the castle cafe, we decided to go back to the hotel to enjoy the air-conditioning and shade for a bit before heading out again in the evening once it was cooler. Segovia is a really beautiful place and it's been a great choice for a relaxing bank holiday trip
  5. This weekend feels like a holiday which has crept up on us, because for quite a long time we didn't think we'd be going on it. We booked (reasonably!) cheap flights to Spain for the August bank holiday back in November 2018, flying to Madrid from Heathrow. The plan was to visit Segovia, a town recommended to us by a Spanish friend last time we were in Madrid in 2017. But as we got closer to summer 2019, the news was full of threats of strikes at Heathrow and the bank holiday weekend was one of the dates which was announced for strike action. It was only in mid-August that the airport announced that the strikes for this weekend were being delayed, to give unions more time to vote on a new pay offer, and so suddenly our Segovia trip was back on the cards By our standards it wasn't too early a start this morning. Our flight was at 09.15, so we left home just after 04.30 and drove down to Heathrow. Tim had booked a slightly unusual airport parking at a golf club in the general vicinity of the airport (it was cheap!) and we arrived there to find a car park and a couple of portacabins, one of which looked like it was the reception to check in and one of which looked like it belonged to the security guards. We were slightly confused to find the reception one was locked, but we were invited to sit in the other portacabin by one of the guards, who assured us that the staff would be back soon... A staff member did indeed eventually appear and the situation became clearer when, after we'd handed over the car keys etc, he led us out of the portacabin, locked the door and proceeded to drive us to the airport in his car It seems like it's a rather low-budget operation, without even a shuttle bus, and just one staff member to do both the admin and the driving! Luckily the drive down had taken less time than I'd expected, so we still arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. While eating breakfast in Wetherspoons, I realised that last time we'd been here we'd been about to fly to Russia! This weekend should hopefully be more relaxing The flight to Madrid took just over two hours. It was a sunny day but for a lot of the journey there were just views of the sea as we flew over the Bay of Biscay. We landed in Madrid at around 12.30 local time and we could feel a blast of heat as soon as we stepped off the plane. It was definitely warmer here than at home! We had landed in Terminal 4 which was convenient, because Terminal 4 is home to the airport's train station. For around €3 each, we were able to catch a train straight from the airport to Madrid Chamartín, one of the capital's main train stations. Madrid Chamartín was where our train to Segovia was due to leave from, but not for a couple of hours. After the experience we had when trying to get to Toledo in 2017, when we couldn't travel on the train we wanted because it was already sold out, we had booked our train tickets in advance for the 15.40 train. This gave us some time to kill in Madrid, but there doesn't seem to be a lot you can do in the area around Chamartín station. When we arrived here from Salamanca in 2014, we got so confused in the mass of roads and bridges outside the station that we eventually gave up on trying to find our apartment on foot and had to take a taxi instead! So our plan for today was to stay in the vicinity of the station and get something to eat. We ended up finding a nice cafe and had a very nutritious lunch of a pizza slice and a doughnut, accompanied by a much-needed cup of coffee Spanish stations are similar to Russian ones in that you have to pass your bags through airport-style security before you can get near a train. We were travelling on a high speed train to a station called Segovia-Guiomar, which is several kilometres outside the main town of Segovia itself. The display on the train indicated that the outside temperature was 35 degrees, but the train itself was beautifully air-conditioned and we had a pleasant journey, arriving in Segovia-Guiomar just before 16.15. A lot of the train journey had been through tunnels and as we stepped out of the station we got a glimpse of the mountains we must have travelled through. The internet had made catching a bus into the centre of Segovia sound quite confusing, but in reality it couldn't have been simpler. We walked straight out of the station and crossed the road to the bus stop, where a bus was already waiting to take us into the town. It cost about €2 each and took around 15 minutes to deposit us at the edge of the old town. This was the view we got when we stepped off the bus! One of the attractions of Segovia is that it's home to this amazing Roman aqueduct The hotel we're staying at is about 1km away from the aqueduct bus stop, so we had a short walk through the old town (which looks absolutely beautiful). The hotel room is small, but comfortable. The only thing that's a little bit odd is that the air-conditioning is controlled from reception, so you have to call them if you want it turned on or off! The real bonus is that we've got a little balcony with amazing views In one direction we can see the mountains... ...and in the other direction we can see the Alcázar of Segovia in the distance. It's been quite a long day of travelling, so we were glad to get to the hotel room for a bit of a rest before heading back out into Segovia in search of dinner
  6. It was another beautiful sunny day in Sicily when we woke up this morning. We had breakfast outside on a terrace slightly lower down in the same building as our apartment. As we had some time before we needed to check out, we tried to sit and read a bit in the sun. It soon got too hot though! Our plan for today was to drive from Castelbuono to the seaside town of Cefalù, which is on Sicily's northern coast. We had a beautiful drive through the mountains and then along by the sea. When we arrived, parking in Cefalù was a bit tricky, with lots of narrow streets to negotiate. It looked like a really pretty place though. We could see a fortress on the hill behind the town, but didn't fancy climbing up to it. We walked through the streets of the old town... ...getting some more great views up towards the fortress. Down one of the side streets we passed we could just get a glimpse of the sea. We passed the church of St Stefano, which looked very old... ...before arriving in a large square which is home to Cefalù's cathedral. A cathedral was first built here in 1131 by the Normans, in a fortress style. It certainly looked very big and imposing. From the cathedral we walked down more colourful little streets... ...until we got to the sea I read in the guidebook that the beach at Cefalù is one of the most popular in Sicily, because it's very sandy. It certainly looked busy today! It was lovely looking out to sea... ...and back inland towards the town. When we got to the end of the pier, we could just make out the twin towers of the cathedral in the distance. We walked back into the town in the hope of tracking down somewhere to get lunch. After so much meat yesterday, we had a vegetarian day with a margherita and four cheese pizza After lunch we had a long drive along the coast toward the B&B where we are spending the night. Because this seaside part of Sicily is so popular, I couldn't find anywhere affordable to stay along the coast at all, so had booked a place which is a few miles inland from the town of Tindari. We've got a lovely room... ...and our own terrace to sit on There are amazing views, both of the nearby vineyard... ...and of the mountains behind. We couldn't have hoped for a more beautiful place to spend our last night in Sicily
  7. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up this morning. From the window of our room, we had a view of Enna's main street where we'd seen the lights last night. We didn't take any photos of breakfast this morning, but it was the biggest selection we've had on this Sicily trip. A selection of cheese and meats, as well as an impressive array of cakes When we'd finished eating, we went out to see some of Enna by daylight. In one of the squares we found a viewpoint from which we could see down towards the lower town. We'd left our car somewhere down there We continued walking up through the town... ...until we got as far as the castle, which sits at its far end. This is Castello di Lombardia, which was built here in 1076. We walked around the edge of the castle, admiring the views out across the surrounding countryside. In particular, we caught sight of a large mountain in the distance. Could that possibly be Etna? As we came around the far side of the castle... ...we saw a large rock which looked like it might provide an even better viewpoint. We climbed to the top of it and wow, the view was really amazing! In one direction we could see the little medieval village of Calascibetta, perched on the top of a hill. In the other direction, we had a really clear view towards Etna. When we looked back, we could see the castle too. Meanwhile the big wide road we could see cutting across the countryside was the motorway to Palermo. We'd be driving on it a bit later (though not as far as Palermo!). Climbing down from the rock was a little bit harder than climbing up. We made it down though and got back to the B&B on time to check out at 10.30. It was really good value, at just €60 for the night. Then we just needed to walk back down the steep and narrow roads which Google Maps had made us try and drive up yesterday. We retrieved the car and set off towards our destination for tonight: Castelbuono. As we left Enna on the nice wide main road, we could see back up towards the upper town where we'd been staying. Soon we were driving far below the town. There were some beautiful views as we made our way towards the motorway. We were driving towards the hilltop town of Gangi, which became famous a few years ago when the mayor started giving away abandoned houses for a Euro (on the condition that purchasers spent lots of money restoring them). It was difficult to get a good photo from the car, but you can make Gangi out on the right of this photo. When we arrived we found that the driving was crazy, even by Sicilian standards, and it was quite difficult to park, so we only had a quick look around. It looked like it would be an interesting town but we felt too hot to climb all the way up this hill. Soon we were back on the road. To get to Castelbuono, we were driving on little roads through the Parco delle Madonie. This is a nature reserve, which is home to some of the highest mountains in Sicily. There were some amazing views as we drove, but unfortunately there weren't very many laybys or places to stop, so most of the photos are taken from a moving car. A lot of the time the landscape looked very dry and barren... ...but in other places it was greener At times Tim had to drive rather slowly because we got caught behind the local traffic It was around 2pm when we began to approach Castelbuono, which is situated to the east of the national park. We were a bit early to check into our apartment, so decided to get lunch. The only difficulty was trying to find a restaurant! We walked around the town for a while, failing to find anything, and eventually found a sign pointing towards a pizzeria. That sounded promising, but when we tracked it down the waiter told us that the pizza ovens weren't switched on yet so pizza was off the menu. That was a shame, but I was hopeful that I could have some pasta instead... until I looked at the menu and found that all the pasta dishes either involved fish or mushrooms In desperation we looked at the meat section of the menu (which was quite small compared to the fish section!) and ended up ordering a large steak to share. And when the waiter said it was large, he meant large! After we'd ordered it, it occurred to me that we hadn't been asked how we wanted it cooked ... and my worst fears were confirmed when Tim cut into it and we found that it was the opposite of well done It was actually really delicious, if you closed your eyes and tried not to think about what you were eating! By the time we had finished we were extremely full, so I was glad that we didn't have to walk too far to find our apartment. When we arrived and checked in, we found it was one of the best places we've ever stayed We've got a large living/dining room with a kitchen... ...a spacious bedroom... ...and, best of all, a roof terrace with amazing views Not bad value for €70 - it's a shame we're only staying in Castelbuono for one night!
  8. We were woken up at 07.30 this morning by the bells of the church outside our apartment ringing rather loudly! The price of our room included breakfast, which had been arranged for 9am. Promptly at 9, our hosts arrived with a tray for us. We had a big croissant each, plus some sugary little pastries which are a local speciality, and more coffee than we could drink After breakfast, the lady who owned the apartment had promised to give us a tour of Naro. Although it was only about 09.30, it was already extremely hot when we stepped outside. We started with the church just opposite where we were staying. This was the Chiesa di Maria Santissima Annunziata and it was really beautiful inside. It had a really old baptismal font, I think from the fifteenth century. Our guide Francesca was speaking in Italian with Tim translating for me and there were a lot of dates, so I may not have them all right. The font had previously been in another older church before it was brought here. Once we'd finished admiring this church, we stepped outside into the sunshine again. We passed this balcony, which has four masks carved on it, looking in different directions to ward off evil spirits. We walked down from there to a second church, which Francesca had the keys for to let us in. This was the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. It's normally only opened for weddings, so we were really lucky to be able to see inside There were some beautiful scraps of frescoes on the walls here. Apparently the entire church had originally been covered in them, but that style of decoration went out of fashion and at some point the church was white-washed. Years later, people have scraped the white paint away in the hope of finding frescoes underneath. The church was also home to a chair which Pope John Paul II had sat on when he visited Sicily. The third church we visited was the Chiesa di San Francesco. The church is situated in a square called Piazza Garibaldi, but apparently the locals aren't too keen on Garibaldi (because they would have preferred to keep their independence rather than be unified into Italy), so locally they refer to the square as San Francesco rather than Garibaldi. Although we have seen a lot of baroque buildings on this holiday, this church is very special because - unlike most of the other towns we have visited - Naro wasn't destroyed by the big Sicilian earthquake in 1693. Whereas most of the other churches we have seen were designed and rebuilt after that date, this church was built before then and survived. This means it is older than all the baroque architecture we saw in Noto earlier this week. It was really stunning inside. The most exciting part of the visit was that Francesca had keys to the sacristy and opened it up for us. It was very grand, with the most amazing paintings on the ceiling... ...and lots of intricate wood carvings around the walls. It was such a fascinating tour and we learned so many things that we definitely wouldn't have done without the benefit of a local guide There was more that we could have seen in Naro too; we didn't have time to visit the castle, for example. That means we'll have to come back one day and stay at Casa nel Barocco again. We couldn't have hoped for more helpful hosts; when it was time for us to leave, Francesca's husband even volunteered to drive ahead of us and show us the best route out of town to the main road. We would have been completely lost without that, because some of the roads in Naro were closed today for a market. Our ultimate destination for today was a town called Enna, but on the way we wanted to stop off and see some mosaics outside a place called Piazza Armerina. There was about an hour or so to drive from Naro, but as we progressed through the hilly Sicilian countryside we realised that there was a problem with the rental car. Ever since we picked it up, an intermittent warning had been flashing up about us needing more of something called "AdBlue". Tim realised while driving today that the warning was actually a countdown, telling us how many more kilometres we could drive before our lack of "AdBlue" meant we would no longer be able to accelerate. Neither of us had any idea what AdBlue might be, so when we next passed a petrol station Tim decided to pull in. Our rental car runs on diesel, and the people in the petrol station (who thankfully knew what AdBlue was!) explained that it's some sort of fluid which needs to be poured into diesel cars. Having now googled it, it seems to be some sort of diesel exhaust fluid. Luckily they managed to find some and poured litres of it into the car, after which the error message went away and we were able to continue our journey. We had to pay €13 for it though, which we'll be taking up with the rental company when we return the car, because according to the car instruction manual (which we had some fun reading while we tried to figure out what the error message meant!) the warning about AdBlue first appears when you've got 2,400 kilometres left to drive, and then when you've only got 1,000 kilometres to go it pops up every 20 kilometres, which is what was happening to us. We'd only driven about 400 kilometres on this trip so far, so the notification had clearly been showing for ages and the rental company should have sorted it out before giving us the car. Anyway, with that problem solved we continued towards the mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. Villa Romana del Casale is fourth century villa, with one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. We parked, bought our entrance tickets for €10, and then made our way along signposted paths towards the mosaics. As we got closer to the entrance to the villa, there were some beautiful pink flowers We passed through the entrance gate... ...where we could see the remains of some frescoes... ...and then we were inside, getting a glimpse of our first mosaic. We followed a series of constructed walkways, from where we could look down towards the mosaics. Sometimes the walkways were constructed in a way which meant we were looking at the mosaics from slightly odd angles, but they were still really impressive. I thought there would be a few mosaics here but I was completely unprepared by how many there were! Some had geometric patterns... ...while others depicted really elaborate scenes with people. Some of the larger mosaics depicted hunting and, specifically, the capture of exotic animals to bring back to Rome. In this scene I think the animals have been caught and are being loaded onto the boat. It was fun trying to work out what the animals were. This one was definitely an elephant... ...and I think this one may have been a rhino. Another of the most famous mosaics is the so-called "bikini mosiac". This one depicts a number of scantily-clad women engaging in various sports, like throwing the discus... and something which looks remarkably like beach volleyball I think the encounters with wild animals were probably more exciting There was so much detail! Though sometimes it was hard to work out exactly what they were showing. A carriage drawn by pigeons? This mosaic was showing an aquatic scene... ...and I was rather excited when I spotted a mosaic duck There was so much to see, we could really have spent all day looking at mosaics. The reason there are so many and they are so well-preserved is that the site was covered by a landslide in the 12th century and only rediscovered again in the nineteenth century. I think any other mosaics we go to see are going to be a disappointment after these! It was late afternoon by this point, so eventually we headed back to the car to find somewhere to get lunch. We'd passed a restaurant not far away from the entrance to the mosaics so we headed back there. It was a lovely location to sit outside and eat We both had a dish of tagliatelle ragu with some of pork in it. The sauce was really tasty and it was a nice big portion From there it wasn't far to get to Enna. We were supposed to be staying in a B&B near the centre, but I'd had a message from the owner a couple of days ago saying that due to a technical problem she was going to have to relocate us to a different B&B that she owned. We didn't have a lot of choice in the matter, so said okay, but we weren't quite sure what we were going to find when we got there. We also weren't sure where we were going to be able to park. Enna is a hill town and we ended up having a bit of a nightmare, with Google maps trying to direct us up some very steep and narrow streets, which ultimately proved to be too narrow for our car. Some rather stressful reversing later, we found some flat ground to park the car on and climbed up the hill on foot! When we eventually arrived, the room turned out to be really nice and spacious The lady explained that there was a problem with the plumbing at the other property, hence the change. She was slightly horrified at the way we'd tried to get here, as apparently there's a big wide road we should have taken. I guess Google Maps must have decided that the steep and narrow way was shorter We were rather hot and bothered after our exertions, so decided to sit in the air con and do the blog, saving our exploration of Enna for tomorrow!
  9. The place we were staying in in Ragusa last night was a bed and breakfast, but we weren't entirely sure what was happening with the breakfast. When we woke up this morning, we found it had been laid out for us in the communal kitchen outside our room. It was a very sweet breakfast, featuring croissants and chocolate cake Once we'd finished stuffing ourselves, we went out for a walk to see Ragusa in the morning sunshine. The view towards Ragusa Superiore was much better in this light We walked along the narrow street towards the cathedral again. The cathedral looked beautiful with the blue sky behind it. We hadn't realised when we booked to stay in Ragusa that some of the Montalbano TV series is filmed here. We found one of the views from the show, but I don't think I can quite pull off Montalbano's look We had time before we checked out to walk a bit further through the town, towards the gardens. We passed Ragusa's other church, San Giuseppe. It was already another hot day, so it was nice to get under the shade of the palm trees for a bit... ...and enjoy the views out across the countryside again Then it was back up through the town for a final look at the cathedral before setting off towards our next destination. The main place we were visiting today was Agrigento, but as that was over a two hour drive away from Ragusa, we were planning to break our journey in a seaside town called Licata. As we set off in the car, we had a good view up towards Ragusa Superiore. As you can see in this photo, we managed to get stuck in a queue behind Ragusa's tourist train, so we ended up having longer than expected to admire the view It took about two hours to get to Licata in the end and there wasn't much of a view of the sea because there was a port in the way, but it turned out to have a pretty old town. We walked through some gardens... ...where I found an impressively large cactus... ...and then we caught sight of the town's main church in the distance. The church had a beautiful dome, although like everything in Licata it looked a bit faded. Once we were at the church we weren't far from the main street. We had a view from there up towards the castle above the town. We came to a square, with what I assume must have been the town hall. As we'd been walking around we'd been looking for a restaurant to get lunch, but failing to find anything more than a cafe that was open. We eventually found a place just past the town hall, where the waitress told us that they were the only restaurant open in Licata today. We'd just started looking at the menu when she reappeared to say that there was a smell of gas in the kitchen and so they were only able to offer a handful of items on the menu. Luckily this included pizza, so we were fine They didn't have much on offer in the way of pudding, only something called "semifreddo" which we didn't really understand what it was. Tim decided to be brave and order one anyway; it turned out to be a bit like ice-cream, but not quite. As we were walking back to the car after lunch, I caught sight of a thermometer on a pharmacy which confirmed that it really was very hot! From Licata, we continued onwards towards Agrigento, which was another half an hour or so drive. We didn't actually want to visit the town of Agrigento itself, which according to the guidebook isn't terribly attractive, but an archeaological site outside of the town called Valle dei Templi. Although the name suggests a valley of temples, we soon discovered it's actually more of a hill with temples on it After paying €12 each to get in, we climbed a sandy path uphill and soon got our first view of (part of!) a temple. There were originally seven temples at the site, which were constructed by the Greeks in the fifth and sixth centuries BC. Today they are some of the best preserved examples of ancient Greek architecture outside of Greece, although not all of them are still intact. We followed the path past several ruins, with views in the distance towards the modern town of Agrigento. After a while we came to the remains of the temple of Heracles. This one is believed to have been built in the sixth century BC. From there the path proceeded steeply uphill towards the best preserved temple. This is the temple of Concordia. As we got closer we could see how absolutely enormous it is. Here's a picture with me for scale In the distance we could just make out the tantalising remains of another temple, the temple of Juno. Unfortunately it looked like a bit of a trek and we didn't really have time because we'd arranged to be let into our accommodation at 5pm. We turned around and began our walk back down to the car park. I'd definitely like to come back here one day and explore further, although maybe in October when it might not be 35 degrees! As we started driving back onto the main road, we got a final view of the temples Because the guidebook wasn't very complimentary about Agrigento, we're staying overnight in a nearby town called Naro. It took us about 20 minutes to drive there and another 10 minutes to drive around very narrow streets trying to find our apartment! We found it in the end and it's nice and comfortable inside There's a cosy area with a table/chairs and a fridge... ...which then leads into a bedroom that features a bunk bed as well as a double bed. It's got great air con and the wi-fi is working okay. The lady who owns it was very friendly and gave us a bowl of cherry-flavoured granita to cool us down, which was a really lovely surprise We seem to be right next door to the local church and have already heard the bells ringing a couple of times. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they don't start ringing really early tomorrow morning
  10. Today it was time for us to leave Catania behind, picking up our hire car and exploring some more remote bits of Sicily. We'd booked to pick the hire car up from the airport, mostly because it will be convenient to be able to return it to there at the end of the week, and so we set off to catch the airport bus back there this morning. We'd realised when walking outside our apartment the other day that the airport bus actually has two stops on our road, so the good news was that we didn't have to walk all the way to the station to catch it. The bus wasn't as busy as it had been on Saturday morning and we had a relatively pleasant journey, arriving at the airport just before 10am. 10am was the time we had booked to pick up our hire car, so I expected that we'd just be able to walk in, show the documentation and drive off. Every time we've hired a car previously it's taken about 10 - 15 minutes to sort out the formalities. It turns out hiring a car in Catania takes a lot longer When we got to the hire counter we found we had to take a ticket to wait to be served. We got number 83 and they were currently on 72. I've got no idea why, but dealing with each person seemed to take an extremely long time and we stood there for what felt like forever while the numbers edged slowly forward. Some people must have either given up or taken several tickets, because a couple of times they'd call a number and there would be no one there, so we were able to skip forward a bit. In the end we stood there for over an hour and it was after 11am by the time Tim finally had the hire contract. When I was researching hire cars in Sicily prior to the trip, they all seemed like quite good value but the thing which really made us nervous was the level of the excess which the rental companies wanted to hold on our credit card. I think the most we've had before was €800 in the Azores, but it seems that hire companies in Sicily routinely ask for €1,200 and sometimes even €1,500. Because Sicily felt like it had the potential to be a challenging location in which to drive, we ended up taking out a separate insurance policy which we can claim on if we end up having to pay any of the excess to the hire company. That added on to the overall cost, but gives us a bit more piece of mind. When we eventually located the place to pick up our car from and got the keys, it turned out that we'd been given a Polo; a bigger car than I had expected! The rental desk was so chaotic that we definitely weren't going to go back and question it There was plenty of space in the boot for our suitcases and soon we were on our way, only about 90 minutes later than I'd expected. Our first stop of the trip was a place called Cava Grande del Fiume Cassibile, which our guidebook had described as being like the Sicilian version of the Grand Canyon. It was included in the list of the top 18 things to see in Sicily at the front of the guidebook, so I'd deliberately worked it into our itinerary for today. When we got there, we ended up being a bit underwhelmed by it. There was indeed a canyon, but because the weather is so hot and dry there wasn't very much water to see. We could just about make it out if we zoomed in Luckily the canyon hadn't been too great a diversion, because it was only a few miles outside the town of Noto, which is where we were heading next. Noto has existed since Roman times, but the original town was destroyed during the Sicilian earthquake of 1693. The town was rebuilt, but in a completely different location about 8km from its original site. Today Noto is one of the best examples of Sicilian Baroque architecture and a World Heritage Site. The most impressive building is undoubtedly Noto's cathedral. The construction of the cathedral was completed in 1776 but part of the building, including the dome, collapsed in 1996 and had to be rebuilt, opening again in 2007. You wouldn't be able to tell that by looking at it today We walked around Noto for a while, admiring the views. We stopped to have lunch at a restaurant under some shady trees. We both had penne with ragu which was really nice, but not the largest portion in the world, so we ended up ordering pudding as well There was a bit more of Noto to see before heading back to the car to travel onwards to our ultimate destination of the day: Ragusa. Ragusa is located about 30 miles inland from Noto, so it wasn't the longest drive in the world. What did take us a while was trying to track down our B&B once we'd arrived! We did several circuits around the old town before I got out of the car and tracked it down on foot. It turned out to be exactly where Google had said it would be, but the sign was very small Our room is in a B&B in Ragusa Ibla. In what seems like a familiar theme, most of Ragusa was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake and a new town, called Ragusa Superiore, was built higher up the hill. The original town, Ragusa Ibla, was also eventually reconstructed, and when I was researching places to stay this definitely seemed like the most scenic location. Once we'd settled into our room, we went out to explore. The sun was in the wrong location to take good photos, but we could see Ragusa Superiore in the distance. We soon got a good view of the Duomo of San Giorgio. We'd already driven down this narrow road and seen it once when we were looking for our B&B! We came around the side of the cathedral into a square. Again, the sun wasn't in the best possible position, but from the end of the square we could look back towards the cathedral. Further on we found another beautiful church too We walked towards the edge of the town where I'd read that there were some gardens. Sure enough we found them and walked down a beautiful alley lined with palm trees. From the far edge of the gardens we had views out over the surrounding countryside... ...in several directions We'd walked as far as we could now, so we turned around and set off back towards the B&B to make a start on the blog
  11. Our plan for today was to take a daytrip to the town of Siracusa, located about 40 miles south of Catania. There is a regional train service connecting the two towns, but the trains don't run very often. We had a choice between 08.45 and 10.45 this morning, so decided to have a leisurely start to the day and take the 10.45. We left our apartment around 10am and walked towards Catania's main train station. It was already baking hot, even in the shade. We got to the train station with plenty of time to spare and bought our tickets from the machine. As ever in Italy, the regional trains are really cheap and the trip to Siracusa - which takes just over an hour - only cost €6.90 each. It turned out that we needn't have hurried to the train station because every single train on the departures board was delayed, including our own, which was due to arrive on platform 1. When we stepped out onto platform 1 I was surprised to see how busy it was, only to later realise that most of the people were waiting for a train to Rome... which was delayed by an hour and 50 minutes We were quite lucky in comparison that our train was only advertised as having a 10 minute delay, although that was gradually extended to 15 minutes and then 20. We had a change of platform, to accommodate a train from Messina which was also delayed, and eventually, around 11.10, our train finally appeared. Hooray! There was no attempt to make up for lost time, as the train sat in the station for a bit and then made other, seemingly random, prolonged stops along the way. The journey took us through some countryside, then along a bit of coastline which seemed quite industrial, before finally arriving in Siracusa around 12.30. Better later than never I guess! Siracusa, also known as Syracuse, is famous for having been an important Greek city in ancient times and was the birthplace of Greek mathematician Archimedes. Most of the sights of the town are located on the island of Ortigia where Greeks from Corinth originally founded the city. Today the city has spread out onto the mainland, which is where the train station is located, so we needed to walk from there to Ortigia. There weren't many helpful signs to follow, but we knew we were on the right track when we came to a bridge across a small body of water. On the far side of the water, we came to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo. The temple is believed to have been built by the Greeks in the sixth century BC. We walked through a pretty square with a fountain... ...and then began to make our way through the narrow streets of the old town. It was a really beautiful town We soon came to a huge square... ...which is home to Siracusa's cathedral. The cathedral was built on the site of a Greek temple to Athena, originally in the 7th century, but significantly rebuilt after Sicily's big earthquake in 1693. From the cathedral it wasn't far to the edge of the island. The beach looked incredibly stony, but there were still a fair few people sunbathing on it. The water was beautifully clear... ...and we had some great views, both of the town and out to sea. We found a lovely walkway to follow along by the coast. Once again we found some really pretty flowers, which seemed to be flourishing despite how hot the weather was. After a while we came to a little park which provided some welcome shade. It was home to some enormous trees, which looked very old. By this point we'd managed to do a circuit of the island and were back at the bridge where we'd started. We headed back into the old town, now on the lookout for a place where we could get a late lunch. After a bit of walking we eventually found a place with scenic views out over the sea. We had some delicious pizza... ...followed by an americano, which came like this: an espresso, with hot water to dilute it After lunch we walked back along the coast... ...crossing back over the bridge towards the newer part of town. Our regional train back was supposed to be just after 4pm but guess what, it was delayed! It actually set off more or less on time, but after a few unexplained stops somehow still managed to arrive in Catania over half an hour late It was also incredibly hot and sticky, which made me glad that we're not relying on public transport for the entire holiday. Tomorrow we will be picking up our hire car and leaving Catania behind, heading towards the town of Ragusa.
  12. After a good ten hours of sleep, we felt a lot more energised this morning than we did last night Our plan for today was to visit a town called Taormina, which is located about 30 miles north of Catania. While you can take a train directly to Taormina from Catania, it's not a very good idea; the station is at sea level, but Taormina itself is a hilltop town situated around 200 metres above that. Our plan was therefore to travel by bus, which takes just over an hour and costs €8.50 return. The guidebook had warned that the bus station was a bit confusing, and indeed it was. The ticket office isn't located within the bus station itself but on a separate street around the corner, which is a bit odd. Tim got directions from a taxi driver and we found it in the end, just on time to catch the 10am bus. Sadly, the 10am bus itself wasn't on time. We waited in the bus station while numerous other buses came and went and an increasingly large horde of people began to congregate, all of whom seemingly also wanted to go to Taormina. It was around 10.25 by the time it eventually showed up and we managed to battle our way on to get seats. The delay setting off, combined with traffic on the way, meant that it was getting close to midday by the time we got off the bus in Taormina. The bus station seemed to be on the outskirts of the town and there were no obvious signs pointing to the town centre, so we walked uphill in what we hoped was the correct general direction, and soon had this confirmed when we arrived outside what looked like an old town gate. We passed through the gate and onto a narrow street. As you can see, it was quite busy. The main attraction in Taormina is an ancient theatre, so we started following signs towards that. As we got closer, we walked down a street with the most amazing purple flowers. They looked like some sort of creeper. Whatever they were they had completely taken over the trees they were growing on. It costs €10 each to go into the theatre, which I'd included in my holiday budget, only to forget to add the extra money to the pile which we were taking out today. I was just lamenting this fact when we walked through the entrance of the theatre and found that it was free to get in today Not sure whether it was because it was a Sunday (or maybe because it was the first Sunday of the month?) but it was very good timing The theatre is slightly confusingly described as being Greek, although it's actually Roman Apparently the style and plan of it is Greek, but the fact that it's mostly built of brick means that it's Roman in origin, although it may have been built by the Romans on the foundations of an older Greek theatre. It was really huge anyway As we climbed higher up around it we had some brilliant views of Mount Etna in the distance... ...and of the sea We came around the corner to another view point, where we could see down towards a coastline that looked quite rocky. This way we were looking northwards rather than south towards Etna. We were level with the top of the theatre now and walking around the outer edge. From here you could really appreciate how enormous the theatre was. And how enormous Etna is! The theatre was so high that I was too scared to walk around the top steps (it was quite a steep drop!!), but Tim did and took some photos of the amazing views From here we could also see what seemed to be a castle on one of the hills above Taormina, but it was far too hot today to consider exploring it any further. Instead, we climbed back down to the bottom of the theatre... ...went back past the purple flowers... ...and started to explore the town a bit more. In the distance we soon caught sight of a clock tower. This was located in Piazza IX Aprile, which is Taormina's main square. It was a lovely square, with views down towards the sea... ...and trees with beautiful pink flowers. Given how hot and dry Sicily is, the flowers are really exceeding my expectations! We continued further along the main street... ...before emerging in another square. This was Piazza Duomo. The church is Taormina's cathedral, originally built in the thirteenth century but reconstructed several times since then. We found a restaurant by the side of the square where the prices seemed surprisingly reasonable and sat down for our first proper Italian meal of the holiday We both had pizza diavola, which was absolutely beautiful, and some local wine. Then it was back through the town, in the direction of the bus station. We took a diversion to some signposted gardens, which were free to enter. They were really beautiful We had views up towards the castle on the hill above the town... ...as well as down towards the sea... ...and we could still see Etna looming in the distance. There were some pretty amazing cactuses too We got to the bus station on time to elbow our way onto the 15.45 bus and were soon on our way back towards Catania. So far Sicily has been amazing
  13. We have booked a fair few early flights over the years, but I think today's may be one of the earliest ever: 06.20 from Gatwick. Once we worked it backwards, this meant airport parking was booked for 4am and, as the drive to Gatwick takes 2.5 hours even in optimal conditions, this required leaving home at 01.30. It was a painful feeling last night when we set our alarms for 1am... and I have to confess that when mine went off, I gave serious consideration to just going back to sleep and not going on holiday at all I did drag myself out of bed in the end though, and we set off to Gatwick in the darkness. The journey went well until we realised that the M1 was completely closed for overnight roadworks between two junctions, which necessitated us following a somewhat long and torturous diversion. That added a bit on to the journey time, so it was closer to 04.15 when we ultimately arrived at our airport parking. Tim had booked the cheapest possible parking, which turned out to be at a hotel in the general vicinity of Gatwick. We had to pay an additional £3 each per direction for the privilege of using the airport shuttle, which was a little bit unusual, but otherwise it was fine and we got to the airport more quickly that I expected. Our destination for the coming week is Sicily and today we were flying to Catania with Norwegian. Check-in was extremely efficient, as was security, and by 5am we were sitting in the airport Wetherspoons eating breakfast It felt a bit weird to me to be flying with Norwegian to a sunny destination, as it's an airline we've only ever used in the past for flying to cold places (Norway and Finland), but the planes are more spacious than most budget airlines and we had a nice flight. After such an early start I fell asleep pretty much during take off and only woke up again once we were over the Alps. From there the plane flew down the coast of Italy but we were on the wrong side of the aircraft to see anything except for a lot of sea! It was around 09.30 when we caught our first glimpse of the coast of Sicily. Catania is on the eastern coast of Sicily, and so we flew across the middle of the island as we came into land. We will be exploring some of the interior of the island later this week with the help of a rental car. First impressions are that it doesn't look very green! Ironically for a day when we weren't in a rush to be anywhere, our plane landed slightly ahead of schedule. As we taxied towards the terminal building, I got my first view of Mt Etna. Any time which we gained on the flight, we lost again while waiting for our bags to be unloaded from the plane Eventually they arrived though and we stepped outside into the baking heat to track down our airport bus. Catania airport is only a few kilometres outside of the city centre and there's a regular bus service to the main train station, which costs €4 each. Unfortunately it was one of those airport buses which isn't really designed either for large volumes of people or for transporting luggage, with the result that it was rather full and we had to stand. The journey into Catania was fairly short though, and within 20 minutes we were disembarking outside the train station. The apartment we are staying in for the next three nights is located about a mile away from the station and I had booked it mainly on the basis that it was possible to check in at midday. That still gave us a bit of time to kill, so we took a slow walk in the general direction, stopping for an ice-cream when we were in danger of arriving too early. We've got a lot of different accommodation booked for this trip so I couldn't really remember what this place was like, but it turned out to be quite spacious We've got a large bedroom... ...which has a little balcony overlooking the street... ...and a nice kitchen/dining room. It's worked out as a about £48/night which seems like good value, especially as it's quite centrally located I was in definite need of a nap by this stage, so it was several hours later before we headed out to explore Catania. The guidebook wasn't terribly complimentary, describing "a traffic-choked city centre" "largely constructed from suffocating black-grey volcanic stone". While there were some dark-stone buildings, first impressions were that it was a much prettier city than the guidebook had given it credit for. Our apartment was a short walk away from the church of St Francis of Assisi. Not far from there is Catania's cathedral, which is dedicated to St Agatha. The cathedral is situated in a beautiful square... ...which is home to a rather unusual monument featuring an elephant. Elephants have historically been a symbol of Catania and in ancient times, the locals apparently venerated a statue of an elephant which was said to have the magical power of being able to predict when Mount Etna was going to erupt. Today's elephant statue is made from lava stone and was erected after a serious earthquake in 1693 which destroyed much of the city. We strolled through various squares in the city centre, trying to stick to the shade to avoid the baking heat. It was well over 30 degrees in the sunshine. It was about 4pm by this point which meant that we'd napped through the Italian restaurants' definition of lunchtime, and the owner of our apartment had given us the impression that 8pm might be an early time to try and get dinner. We hadn't eaten since Gatwick and I was absolutely starving by this point, so we did something we're not proud of and followed signs to McDonalds from one of the central squares. We have tried and failed before to get proper food in southern Italy outside of official meal times, most notably in Campobasso, and come to the conclusion that it just isn't possible, so McDonalds was an opportunity not to be missed McDonalds was actually not far away from a square where there were supposed to be some Roman remains. We weren't initially blown away by them... ...but later realised that if we walked to the opposite side of the square, there were more obvious remains of a theatre on display. The owner of our apartment had recommended that we walk down a road called Via Crociferi, which he said had some of the best examples of baroque architecture in Catania, so we set out to try and find it. It turned out to be a street completely dominated by churches... ...many of which were so big that we couldn't get far enough back from them to take decent photos. It was really beautiful though And overall Catania definitely seems more attractive than the guidebook led us to believe I was expecting to find the same level of chaos as in Naples, but so far it seems comparatively calm (and the streets aren't full of uncollected rubbish, which is a huge improvement over Naples!) We were feeling tired again by this point so went to the supermarket to pick up some food for tonight and then headed back to the apartment for an early night. (The photo below is our apartment building. It's a lot nicer inside than it looks from the outside ) So far first impressions of Sicily are good and we're looking forward to exploring more tomorrow
  14. After our big day of travelling yesterday, we decided to have a more leisurely start to today. We arranged to meet for breakfast at 9am, although I ended up being slightly late because I was trying to write up yesterday's blog, and then we agreed to leave the hotel at 10.15 and head straight to Red Square in the hope of being able to see Lenin. From the sign we'd seen on Thursday, we understood that the mausoleum was going to be open between 10am and 1pm on Saturday. We caught the metro to Okhotny Ryad and probably got the world's best view from a metro station as we walked up the stairs to exit. When we saw how close to Red Square the metro was, we felt a bit silly for not having been able to find it on Thursday. But it really wasn't obvious - we had emerged from an underpass which had no red "M" sign on it or any other indication that it was leading to a metro. It was busy in Red Square this morning with more tour groups than there had been earlier in the week, but for some reason there weren't any security bag checks to go through today. There had been a book fair in the square on Thursday, so maybe that had required increased security. It was great to be in the square again. And, of course, brilliant to get another opportunity to see St Basil's. Unfortunately, when we got to the place where we were expecting the queue to start for the mausoleum, the gates were closed. There were lots of other tourists standing around looking confused. We overheard one of the guards saying that the mausoleum was closed today. What a shame We got to see it from the outside anyway, and then we had more time to enjoy the views of St Basil's. Helen suggested that we walk around the side of it, which was a really good idea because we got to see this beautiful pink and white dome which we hadn't noticed the other day. All the famous pictures of the church are taken from the other side, but it's actually really pretty from the back too And as we got further away we could see both the blue and pink domes We walked away from St Basil's and past a succession of other, smaller churches. I don't know what the bright red one is called, but it was a really striking colour. We were heading towards Moscow's newest park: Park Zaryadye. As we began to climb up through it, we got some wonderful views back towards St Basil's. It was a struggle to keep my eyes open with the really bright sunlight, hence me looking a bit startled in this photo Tim somehow managed to keep his open! The views of the entire Kremlin were great from here too. We could also see down towards some of the churches we'd just walked past. The park, which was built on the site of a former Soviet hotel, has a "floating bridge" which extends out over the Moscow river. From here we were able to look out across the river and see some of the sights we'd noticed on our boat trip the other day. We could also see the other way, towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with its huge golden dome. The bridge was quite busy with tour groups, but other parts of the park were quite peaceful. I only realised when we were partway around it that the vegetation was divided into different zones, I think representing different regions of Russia. Overall it was a really fun park to explore, and much bigger than I expected when I'd seen it from the boat the other day. Our second plan for the day was a slightly unusual one: a tour of some of Moscow's most impressive metro stations. This was something we'd read about in the Lonely Planet Moscow book and deliberately saved for Saturday in the hope that the metro would be less busy then. Mom and Helen had taken notes of a route for us to follow, which started at the Komsomolskaya metro station. This was a really grand station, with some impressive pillars at platform level. The station is named after youth workers who helped with the construction of it. You can see the Komsomol emblem at the top of the pillars. As we walked through the interchange between one line and another, there were also some very pretty tiled pillars. We passed a military-looking decoration on the wall... ...walked down a lovely tiled corridor... ...and emerged onto an absolutely beautiful platform for the circle line. It looked more like a museum than a metro station! At the end of the platform we even found a little bust of Lenin From this station we got onto the circle line and travelled one stop to our next destination: Prospekt Mira. The guidebook told us that this station would feature porcelain depictions of people planting trees, bringing in the harvest and generally living in harmony. That did indeed seem to be the case. Another stop further on took us to Novoslobodskaya. The highlight of this station was a mosaic called "Peace in the whole world". The white doves in the mosaic have been added in later, replacing what was formerly a portrait of Stalin. The other beautiful thing about this metro station was the stained glass. The walls of the tunnel between the platform were lined with these colourful stained glass panels. There were too many to take pictures of them all, so we had to pick our favourites From Novoslobodskaya we travelled one more stop to Belorusskaya. Just the platform itself was impressive at this station! In the passage outside, the ceiling panels depicted different scenes relating to Belarus. Again, there were too many to take a photo of so we had to pick our favourites At this station we had to leave the brown circle line and switch to the green line. As we were travelling between different parts of the station, we passed this rather imposing sculpture. It was amazing to see how in this part of the station, even the lights and pipes were decorated with patterns. A little bit blurry, but our first stop on the green line was Mayakovskaya. The guidebook seemed to think this was the metro station to end all metro stations, but it wasn't my favourite overall. There were some cool features, like these little stars and hammer and sickles which were decorating the light fittings. The ceiling also featured little mosaics, which seemed to be depicting military themes. Some of them were a bit dark so it was hard to make out what they were. From Mayakovskaya we skipped a stop and went two stops down to Teatralnaya. The porcelain figures which decorate this station depict people from other Soviet republics wearing their national dress. The overall effect was quite grand Our next stop was a very exciting one: Ploshchad Revolyutsii. This station is full of sculptures which depict the different roles people played in the revolution. Some of them were quite scary-looking characters! This was definitely the station with the best statues Moving on again, we came to Arbatskaya. This station was described as having a baroque atmosphere. It did indeed have a rather elegant feel. We were getting towards the end of our tour now. The next destination was Kievskaya. This station was decorated with friezes of life in Ukraine. Lots and lots of friezes of life in Ukraine This seemed like quite a busy interchange station though, so we had to be careful not to get in people's way as we were taking our photos. There is a big fresco at the end of the hall which celebrates Russian-Ukrainian co-operation. As Tim and I had been in Kiev quite recently, this was exciting to see. We recognised the cathedral in the picture The final station on our tour was Park Pobedy. I've lost track of how many stations we visited, but this felt like excellent value for 55 rubles (67p). I was quite excited about getting to Park Pobedy, because apparently it has the longest escalators in the world. They certainly felt very long; I timed the journey up and it took approximately 5 minutes. Once we got to the top of the escalators, the exit walkway was decorated with a military mural. When we came up above ground, we found ourselves outside a triumphal arch, celebrating Russia's victory over Napoleon. On the other side of the road, we found a flower display spelling out the name of the city It was mid-afternoon by this point and everyone felt starving. My parents located a cafe just around the corner and we all sat down for some much-needed lunch. The weather wasn't great by this point and it was starting to spot with rain a bit. After lunch, Tim and I explored the park a bit while my family went to look for a post office. Park Pobedy, or Victory Park, was created in the 1960s as an open-air museum to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon. Since then it has been expanded to commemorate the Russian victory in WW2 also. There were some very impressive statues here. There were also a lot of fountains, although they weren't quite as impressive as the ones we'd seen at Peterhof In the distance we could also see a church with a huge golden dome. The rain started to get a bit stronger while we were walking around the park, so we headed back in the direction of the metro station. Before we set off back for the hotel, we stopped off to buy some souvenirs. I've never seen so many matroyshka dolls in one place When talking about the Park Pobedy metro station, the guidebook had said that there were enamel panels at both ends of the hall, depicting military victories in 1812 and 1945. We hadn't been able to locate either of them when we were coming out and going up the escalators, but on the way back down we found the 1812 one We also found another Lenin monument. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped off at a nearby cafe for a coffee. Well, I had an iced coffee and Tim had a beer Tim suggested that we order some cake as well and when it came it was absolutely massive! I had Prague cake again, which was extremely chocolatey. Tim had a Moscow cake, which we've never heard of before, but which seemed to involve nuts and red icing. It was a fun end to what had been a very busy day (and a very busy holiday!!)
  15. We had quite an adventure planned today, travelling to the small town of Suzdal which is approximately 150 miles east of Moscow. The guidebook advertised it as a day-trip from Moscow, but it's just about at the limit of the distance which you can do there and back in a day. Our journey was going to involve travelling to the nearby town of Vladimir by train, before attempting to catch a bus to Suzdal itself. The first step was to get to Moscow's Kursky train station. We left the hotel an hour before we needed to catch our train, but things still ended up being a little bit frantic when we couldn't find the entrance to the metro station we needed (only the exit!). We got there in the end, passed through the train station security and found our platform with a few minutes to spare. Boarding the train was a complicated process; we had bought tickets online in advance, so we had allocated seats in a specific carriage, but trying to find the correct carriage was a bit of a nightmare. In the end we realised that there were small signs with the carriage number stuck on a window in each carriage, but they weren't very prominent. Everyone who wanted to get on at that carriage had to join a queue to have their ID checked by the conductor and then be pointed in the direction of their seat. You have to give your ID number at the time of booking and then it seems like no one wants to see your actual ticket; the conductor was just typing the ID numbers into a little machine to check that we had a reservation. Eventually we got on and the train departed promptly. The journey from Moscow to Vladimir took around 1 hour 45 minutes on a Lastochka train, which only made one intermediate stop. As on our journey from St Petersburg the other day, the vast majority of the view which we saw consisted of forest. Russia definitely has a lot of trees We arrived in Vladimir around 11.15 and made our way to the bus station, which is helpfully situated just across the road from the train station. Neither building is particularly scenic. Once we were in the bus station, the next challenge was to buy tickets to Suzdal. The bus station had all manner of different counters, some of which seemed to be for buying specific types of tickets or tickets in specific directions. Unfortunately I couldn't understand what all the signs meant, so I chose a counter which I hoped said could be used to purchase all types of ticket and decided to give it a go. Luckily, in answer to my question as to whether it was possible to buy tickets to Suzdal here, the lady behind the counter said yes and sold me five. Phew The tickets turned out to be very good value once again, costing around 100 rubles each. We had just missed a bus at 11.30, so had been sold tickets for the next bus which was at 12.00. That meant we had some time to kill in the bus station, which was an interesting experience as it was lined with all manner of strange stalls selling everything from passport covers with the face of Putin to Transformers. The one thing they didn't sell was a spare screw for Helen's sunglasses, although she did look up the word and give it a try! The bus tickets had what looked like a seat number on them, though it wasn't 100% clear whether this was really a seat number or whether this was just the number of tickets which the lady had already sold for this bus. When the bus arrived, we joined the queue and decided to attempt to sit in our numbered seats anyway. It worked, although I'm still not sure whether this was luck or because everyone was really obeying the numbering system. The bus quickly became very crowded anyway, with more people joining at stops within Vladimir once we had left the bus station, and it was full to standing as we eventually made our way our of the town and onto the main road towards Suzdal. Vladimir felt like a big place and it took us a while to get to the outskirts of it, but we weren't actually sure how large it was. Having now looked it up, it turns out the population is around 345,000 which is indeed a significant size. Once we left the city behind, the views became much more scenic. We could see splashes of purple in lots of the fields that we passed through, but initially weren't sure what they were. Eventually we realised that they were wild lupins. How beautiful The journey to Suzdal took around 50 minutes. We arrived at the bus station and went inside to take a photo of the times for the return journey. The bus station is located about a mile outside of the main town but it's quite an easy walk, all along one main road. As we walked along, we got a view of our first church. The road was lined with beautiful wooden houses. Some were brightly coloured... ...some were more traditional... ...and some were really grand. We also passed some rather unusual floral displays housed in old tyres! As we got closer to the centre of the town, there was a children's play area with some rather spectacular wood carvings. And then we were in the centre of town, and could see the trading arcades and resurrection church. It was definitely lunch time by this point, so we decided to investigate the trading arcades to see whether we could find something to eat. We eventually settled on this restaurant, which was serving traditional Russian cuisine. Some of us had soup, others had pelmeni (Russian dumplings, a bit like ravioli). The thing I was most excited about though was the fact that Helen and I got an entire litre jug of cranberry juice to share Cranberry juice seems to be really popular over here! Once we'd eaten, we went out to explore Suzdal. The reason we wanted to come here is that it is one of the "Golden Ring" towns and also one of the oldest towns in Russia. The town avoided industrialisation because it wasn't on the railway, and so is still home to lots of churches and historic buildings. This red building is the Assumption Church. We went inside and I think it must have been the coolest place in Suzdal today It was absolutely baking outside and stepping into the church was like going into a fridge! We walked past a park, heading towards the Suzdal Kremlin. The Suzdal Kremlin dates from the 10th century. The most impressive building which is housed by the Kremlin walls is the Cathedral of the Nativity. The cathedral was originally constructed in the 11th century and today is a World Heritage Site. The blue roof with golden stars was absolutely stunning You can buy a ticket to go into the Kremlin, but today we didn't have time. Navigated by Helen, we pressed on through a field... ...and crossed a river. On the far side of the river was the main thing which we had come to see; the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life. It cost 400 rubles each (around £4.85) to buy a ticket to get into this open-air museum, which is home to examples of wooden architecture from all around the region. The first building which we saw when we entered was this absolutely stunning wooden church. That was the wooden Transfiguration Church and next to it was the equally beautiful wooden Resurrection Church. It was incredible that something so intricate had been built completely out of wood. The museum was also home to a couple of peasant houses which you could go inside to see what life would have been like for Russian peasants. There was one for a well-off peasant and one for a peasant that was less well off. The house for the well-off peasant in particular didn't look too bad, although I wouldn't have fancied sleeping on this bed-shelf right up by the ceiling! The thing which I was most excited about seeing was the wooden windmill! There was a map showing how many water mills and wind mills there had been in Suzdal. It looked like they had a lot of windmills in the past! We could definitely all have stayed in the museum longer, but Tim pointed out that we needed to start making tracks back towards the bus station if we wanted to catch the 5pm bus to Vladimir. And so we went back across the river and through fields to get back to the bus station. Tim and I went ahead to buy bus tickets and before too long we were sitting on the bus back to Vladimir. It wasn't as crowded as it had been on the journey out, but it was still extremely hot! When we arrived in Vladimir we had a slight problem as we weren't sure where the centre of the town was. We could see what looked like an enormous cathedral perched on the side of a hill and figured that the town must be in that direction. While my parents tried unsuccessfully to get a taxi, Tim and I began to climb up towards the cathedral. Our strategy was partly just to walk towards it and partly to follow the directions on my offline map. This led to us taking a very strange route, up some extremely steep steps which were overgrown with nettles and along some dirt tracks, before finally emerging at the top of the hill outside the cathedral. This is the Assumption Cathedral, which is also part of a World Heritage Site. Vladimir was one of the medieval capitals of Russia and a cathedral was originally built here in the 12th century. For over 300 years it was the biggest church in Russia, and it still looks pretty big today! The golden domes on the roof were absolutely beautiful We'd just got around to the front of the cathedral when my family rejoined us, having found a much more civilised route up the main road towards the town centre In front of the cathedral we found this cool "I love Vladimir" sign We didn't have loads of time in Vladimir before we needed to catch our train home, but there was one more thing I wanted to see. Tim and I raced off down the main street in search of the Golden Gate. The gate was constructed between 1158 and 1164 and survived the Mongol destruction of Vladimir in 1237. It was reconstructed in 1795 after being damaged in a fire. We rejoined the others, who had found a nice restaurant to get pizza. We all had time to eat, before heading back to the train station and setting off on the long journey back to Moscow. As we passed by a park outside the cathedral in Vladimir, I was slightly surprised to see a small child driving a toy tank On the way to the station we also passed another beautiful church... ...and this pretty yellow building which looked very official. It was a long journey home, but all in all we had a brilliant day It would have been nice to be able to spend longer in both Vladimir and Suzdal, but I'm really glad that we got to see at least part of them today
  16. We woke up this morning excited to explore Moscow... and also to explore the breakfast buffet of our new hotel It's smaller than the one in St Petersburg so the buffet wasn't quite so extensive, but it was still pretty good. There were proper pancakes, in addition to the unusual deep-fried ones. And the coffee was very nice once someone showed me how to use the machine! After spending some time consulting our Moscow guidebooks, we decided that we were close enough to Red Square to walk. We hadn't got very far from our hotel when we caught sight of this striking church. It turns out this is the Conception Convent. The doors were open so we decided to go inside. The views were even better from inside the walls. Tim had shorts on, so he stayed outside while the rest of us went into the church. We had dressed ourselves to look suitably modest The interior of the church was as beautiful as the exterior. It was decorated with all kinds of icons, although we struggled to work out who most of them were depicting. After this unexpected diversion, we continued on our route towards the river. We emerged opposite a huge statue of Peter the Great. From there we were able to stroll along the river for a while and, very excitingly, we got our first glimpse of the Kremlin. Before we went there we had something else we wanted to see, though: the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This is the tallest Orthodox church in the world and as we got closer to it, we could indeed see that it was enormous! If you think that the cathedral looks really new, that's because it is. There was an older church here, built during the 19th century, but it was destroyed by Stalin in 1931. Today's church was rebuilt on the same site between 1995 and 2000. While Tim waited outside on a shady bench, the rest of us ventured inside via this little door. We passed through security then ended up in what seemed to be a smaller chapel. From there, we followed signs which led us up a winding staircase and into the main cathedral. The inside was absolutely stunning, with beautiful paintings and more icons, but no pictures were allowed. Once we'd finished exploring the cathedral, we had to retrieve Tim. That took a while, as we came out of a different door from the one where we'd entered and had to figure out a way to get back down and round to where we'd started, which was complicated by the fact that there were some works going on outside the cathedral. We succeeded in the end, then made our way back across the main road. We were getting closer to the Kremlin! We needed to cross the main road again, but got stuck for a while because there seemed to have been an accident. The traffic police turned up to sort it out and eventually we managed to get across. The Kremlin walls were very imposing. We walked past a square with a huge statue. At the time we weren't sure who it was of, but it turns out to be a monument to Vladimir the Great. This is quite a new statue and was only erected in 2016. From there we walked into the Alexander Gardens, which stretch alongside the Kremlin walls. There were all kinds of things to see here. We think this monument was commemorating the 1812 war. We recognised the picture of the cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan which we'd been into in St Petersburg on Sunday As we strolled along we enjoyed wonderful views of the Kremlin towers. We found an obelisk, celebrating 300 years of the Romanov dynasty. Poignantly, the original was erected in 1914 by which point the dynasty wasn't going to last much longer. We liked this grotto, although we'd not sure what it was for. Helen and I climbed to the top and got some good views There was a row of monuments commemorating towns where battles took place during the Second World War. Coincidentally, considering I've just been to both places, the blocks for Kiev and Leningrad were right next to each other. From here we just had to pass through a security check and we were in Red Square. Most excitingly, we finally got our first glimpse of St Basil's Cathedral Once in the square, it was hard to know where to look first. In one direction we could see the historical museum... ...and in the other we could see the Kremlin and the cathedral. We also got a glimpse of this smaller pink church, which is the Kazan cathedral. One of the things we'd really wanted to do was see Lenin. We got to his mausoleum, which you can see to the right of the photo below, but couldn't see the way in. Eventually we figured out that we had to go all the way back to where we'd been at the entrance of the square and join a queue for another security check. Unfortunately, the mausoleum is only open until 1pm and at this point it was around 12.54. We got to the point where the queue started but the gates were closed and they weren't letting any more people in Never mind, maybe we can come back on Saturday! There was lots to see in the square, but St Basil's was definitely the thing I was most excited about It's such a beautiful building, and so unique! We all experimented with taking selfies We could have stood and admired the cathedral all day, but it was a very hot day and we were hungry, so we decided to go into the GUM department store. It was a really beautiful building, although all the shops seemed very posh. We ate at a canteen called Stolovaya 57. We had to join a long line to queue to get in, with a couple of aggressive ladies behind us who seemed intent on pushing in. Once we had trays we were able to pick from a very varied selection of food, some of which we could help ourselves to and some of which had to be served. Slightly bizarrely, the first food we came to were the deserts. I took a large slice of chocolate cake, just in case I didn't like any of the main courses But the main courses actually turned out to be really good and I ended up with one of the nicest chicken kievs I've ever eaten! There was no dill in it, which was a good start I had "macaroni" (actually penne!) with it, and a beautiful glass of cranberry juice. Our next challenge was to find our way out of GUM, which is easier said that done. There seem to be escalators going up, but only stairs going down. It was all a bit confusing. We found an exit in the end and emerged outside the pink cathedral. It looked really beautiful here, but we were suddenly in a bit of a rush because we'd booked tickets for a boat tour and there was a departure we'd wanted to catch at 3pm. We were looking for the metro station Okhotny Ryad and Helen managed to navigate us to approximately the right area, but we couldn't see the entrance to the metro anywhere. We were running around in different directions in the hope of spotting a red "M" somewhere. Mom asked a person who suggested it was to the left, so I suggested that she, Dad and Helen go on ahead to find it. Tim was out of sight at that point in time, but I was hoping that he'd return shortly and we could catch them up... He was quite a long way away though, so it took longer than I expected for us to be reunited and when he did return, it turned out that he'd also asked someone who had shown him a route through the shopping centre I was standing outside. So we decided to go that way, quickly bought tickets and got on the metro in record time, getting off a couple of stops down the line outside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. I phoned Helen to see where they were, hoping they might have beat us to the boat! Unfortunately, they'd been directed to a different metro station to the one we actually wanted and so were still on their way. We were going to have to give up on the 3pm boat! The good news was that there was another boat at 4pm so we all sat and had a drink while we waited for that. The boat felt rather old and rickety and had a very loud engine which meant that we didn't stand much chance of hearing the commentary. But we were able to buy drinks on board and sit and watch the views go by We passed the cathedral... ...and the Kremlin. From here we got a much better view of the churches inside the Kremlin walls We got to see St Basil's again... ...and we saw the new Park Zaryadye. We also saw this really unusual building, but I'm not sure what it was! The boat took us around in a circle, returning us to where we'd got on outside the cathedral. From there, we were able to walk back along the river towards our hotel, where we could relax a bit before going out again for dinner in the evening.
  17. Today has been a day of travelling! It was around 3am this morning before Tim and I got to bed and as a result I was rather tired this morning. I accidentally managed to dismiss rather than snooze my 08.30 alarm, with the result that we were slightly late for our prearranged 9am breakfast time. After enjoying the hotel's breakfast buffet for a final time, we went back to our rooms to pack and - in Tim's case - write up last night's blog. We checked out of the hotel around 11.30 and set off on the metro towards St Petersburg's Moskovsky railway station. After our issues with getting to the hydrofoil on Monday, we weren't taking any chances and left with plenty of time to spare. It wasn't actually that far away, and so we arrived with plenty of time to get through security and board our train. We were travelling on a train called the Nevsky Express, which covers the approximately 445 miles between St Petersburg and Moscow in around 4 hours. We had booked five seats out of six in a compartment and were pleasantly surprised when we found that a sixth person didn't turn up to claim the spare seat The train set off punctually and soon we were on our way, speeding through the suburbs of St Petersburg before emerging into the forested countryside. My impression from the views today is that there isn't a lot between St Petersburg and Moscow except trees Some aspects of the train journey were rather confusing. An official-looking lady came into our carriage and I assumed she wanted to check our tickets. But it turned out that she just wanted to tell us that a sandwich was included in our ticket and that we could buy tea and coffee from her. A bit later another lady turned up with the sandwiches. We all chose chicken, but I couldn't eat mine because of a combination of carrots, gherkins and mayonnaise! Luckily Mom had been out shopping in the morning and picked up some bread so I didn't starve We also got some free chocolate, which was a nice surprise, and it was great to be able to have a coffee, although it felt like we got served our hot drinks at one of the bumpiest parts of the journey. Tim and Helen ordered tea, which was served in these amazing Russian railway mugs. Tim was so impressed by his that he bought one The train was beautifully air-conditioned, so it felt like the journey passed quite quickly. Every so often there were gaps in the trees and we got glimpses of lakes and rivers. The train was mostly going too fast for us to see the names of the places we passed through but most of them looked quite small, with the exception of Tver. We arrived in Moscow right on schedule and then had to negotiate our way to the hotel. I had been dreading this slightly as I thought the metro would be dreadful in rush hour, but either we were going on a really unpopular route or rush hour starts later than I expected, because the journey turned out to be absolutely fine and we got seats with no problems. The Moscow metro is different to the ones in St Petersburg and Kiev in that it doesn't use a system of tokens. Instead, we bought cardboard tickets for a certain number of journeys out of a machine. It was 55 rubles (66p) per trip, which is more expensive than St Petersburg but still nothing compared to the minimum charge on the London Underground (which I think is about £2.40). We checked into the hotel and I was impressed by the size of my room As well as the bed, we've got a desk and sofa. By this point we were all tired and hungry so we set out to find food, eventually tracking down an Italian restaurant where we could get pizza. So far we haven't seen anything of Moscow, but we're looking forward to exploring after a good night's sleep tomorrow
  18. We spent a while this morning debating where we were going to go today, before finally deciding on Tsarskoe Selo. It felt like a potentially difficult place to get to, requiring several changes of public transport, but the town is home to the Catherine Palace, which was formerly a summer residence of the Russian tsars. We didn't want to go into the palace, but we knew it was surrounded by some beautiful grounds and we were keen to see those. After a bit of post-breakfast research, we decided to go for it and brave the public transport. The first step was to catch a metro to Pushkinskaya, which is next to St Petersburg's Vitebsky railway station. I didn't expect the station itself to be anything special, but it turned out to be absolutely beautiful inside This was the first railway station to be opened in Russia in 1837, and it still feels very grand. Buying tickets in the station could potentially be a confusing experience, because there are two places to buy them; one ticket hall sells tickets for long-distance trains, while the other sells tickets for the suburban trains. The research we'd done on the Internet paid off at this point, because I knew we needed to ignore the long distance counter and follow the signs for suburban trains. We were able to buy the tickets we needed from a machine, and a return fare to Tsarskoe Selo turned out to cost the bargain price of £1.14 each! The train we wanted to catch was already waiting on the platform, so we were able to get straight on board. It was good that we were there well ahead of the departure time, because it turned out to be an extremely popular route. The train itself was pretty basic, with hard wooden seats like yesterday's. And the journey itself was a rather surreal experience! We were only on the train for around 30 minutes, but in that time we had two separate people busking in the carriage and a man with a microphone who was trying to sell all manner of strange things from tape measures to rucksacks. No one else on the train seemed even remotely surprised by any of this, so I guess it was all perfectly normal! We got off the train around 11.30 and then it was time to negotiate our final bit of public transport: the bus. This was the part I was most worried about, because it felt like catching a bus when you don't know where you're going is something which has the potential to go a bit wrong. In the end it was fine though. The bus arrived almost immediately, the fare only cost 48p each and Helen had a list of the bus stops we were supposed to pass through, so we just about managed to get off in the right place, a few hundred metres away from the main entrance to the Catherine Palace. We knew we were on the right track when we caught sight of some golden domes on the horizon. We found the correct ticket booth and I managed to buy us tickets for the park. The lady was very nice and gave us all a free map; much better than Peterhof yesterday, where we only got a map because Mom bought a guidebook! Entrance to the park was another bargain at 150 rubles (£1.81). Although we hadn't come to go inside the palace, we had to admit that it looked beautiful from the outside. Slightly frustratingly, after having had quite a torturous journey to get here, we found that the area outside the palace was absolutely swarming with large groups on guided tours. But, once we turned our back on the palace and struck out into the gardens, things instantly became a lot quieter. We walked down tree-lined alleys, then crossed a little canal. This took us towards the hermitage pavilion. It was such a beautiful shade of blue We were able to walk all the way around it and peer in through the windows, getting glimpses of the equipment which was used to host dinner parties in days gone by. From here, we also had a view back towards the main palace. It was a baking hot day by this stage, so we were glad to soon get back onto some shadier paths. We were heading towards the park's main lake. We came to a brick tower which said it housed a restaurant and decided to investigate. Unfortunately, the menu wasn't great and seemed to involve a lot of trout. Mom, Dad and Helen bought some piroshki to eat from a stall instead. Unfortunately, they didn't have any meat ones left (only either cabbage, or chicken and mushroom). Tim and I didn't fancy either of those, so we set off to see whether we could find another restaurant instead. We had seen one signposted, so felt hopeful. Unfortunately, the hope turned out to be misplaced! The first restaurant we found was closed, the second one was only accessible if you left the park first, which we didn't want to do, and then when we walked halfway across the park to a third one, we found that was closed as well It looked like we needed to give up on the idea of lunch! We rejoined my family and began to explore a different bit of the park. There was an amazing display of tulips; it felt so unusual to be seeing them in June! This side of the park was really peaceful. In the distance we caught sight of a rather unusual building. This was labelled on the map as the Creaking Summerhouse. That wasn't the only strange monument round by the lake! We assume this one was a sort of grotto. This one was definitely a pyramid. And this one was a gothic gate. The most striking building was this one, which looked very much like a mosque. It turns out it was a Turkish bath, which had indeed been designed to look like a mosque. The reflection of the building in the water was beautiful We crossed the water via this lovely marble bridge. By this stage we'd walked around the majority of the park. We contemplated trying to take a ferry to the island in the middle of the lake, but no one seemed to be operating it from the side of the lake we were on. We carried on instead and soon we were back to where we had started, outside the main palace. From there, we had to repeat our journey in reverse order. First of all the bus to the station, then the train back to St Petersburg, and finally the metro. I had to buy us a new ticket for the train, because all the upcoming departures seemed to be for the "comfort" class of train which our tickets weren't valid on. When the train arrived, it did indeed seem to be more comfortable, with big upholstered seats and plenty of legroom We made it back to St Petersburg for around 5pm and so were early enough to miss the worst of rush hour on the metro. In the evening, we went out for a meal at the restaurant we'd eaten in on Sunday night which was really nice and really good value yet again. The only strange thing about Russian restaurants is that it doesn't seem to be normal to bring everyone's food out at the same time, with the result that when you're in a group, some people have almost finished eating their dinner before other people's has even arrived. Other than that it was good, and we have more excitement to look forward to this evening with a drawbridge boat tour... if we can manage to stay awake until midnight!!!
  19. We made an early start and were eating breakfast at 07.30 this morning, because we had a big day ahead of us. We were planning to visit the gardens at Peterhof, around 25 miles outside St Petersburg. There are various ways that you can get there, but we'd chosen what seemed the most fun: hydrofoil. We'd already booked our tickets online, reserving seats on the first hydrofoil of the day at 10am. The hope was that that would get us to our destination early enough to see the famous fountains being turned on at 11am. We left the hotel around 08.45 and walked to our local metro station, from where we were planning to travel to a station on the river close to where the hydrofoils depart. We'd got up so early that it felt like nothing could possibly go wrong... and then it did! The doors to the metro station were shut. How confusing! At first we thought that there must be another entrance somewhere and started walking around the building, hoping to find a second door. But there wasn't one, and when we eventually returned to where we had started, we realised that there was a sign outside the door saying it was going to be closed in the mornings for repairs. Oh dear! By the time we had figured all this out, we had about 50 minutes until our hydrofoil. We seemed to have three options: to jump in a taxi, to try and find the next nearest metro station and continue by metro, or to walk down to the river. We checked an offline map, which suggested that the walk was 48 minutes. Tim and I were confident that we could shave a few minutes off the predicted walking time, so decided that we would risk the walk. My family decided to try the next nearest metro station, and so we set off in opposite directions, hoping to see each other again at the boat. I was a little bit stressed about whether choosing to walk was the best decision and whether we were going to make it on time, but Tim was relaxed enough to take photos. In fairness, today was a good day for it because there was a beautiful blue sky behind all the buildings where there had been clouds yesterday. We crossed over the Fontanka river... ...jogged down an avenue of trees... ...got a glimpse of the amazing church from yesterday... ...and unexpectedly ended up outside the Winter Palace again. From there, it wasn't too far until the Admirality building, which was near where we needed to catch the hydrofoil. We arrived at the boat with 10 minutes to spare, but until we boarded we couldn't see whether the others had made it as well. I held by breath as we got onto the boat.... and found that they weren't there Never mind, there were still about eight minutes; maybe they would still turn up! We waited and waited but there was no sign. At the point the boat was due to depart I tried texting and calling, but there was no response. And then just as the hydrofoil started pulling out into the river, I got a text from my sister saying that they weren't going to make it So, Tim and I were accidentally off to Peterhof on our own! The hydrofoil sailed past the Winter Palace, and then past the Peter and Paul Fortress. After that, the scenery became more modern. We got a good view of the Lakhta Center, which - with 87 storeys - is apparently not only the tallest building in Russia, but also the tallest building in Europe After about 40 minutes, the hydrofoil arrived at Peterhof. Luckily the others had managed to get tickets for the next hydrofoil, which departed St Petersburg at 10.30, so we wouldn't have too long to wait for them. While they were still en route, we needed to get up to the top of the canal as soon as possible if we wanted to witness the fountains being turned on at 11am. We could soon see the Peterhof palace in the distance. The enormous set of fountains in front of it is known as the Grand Cascade. We weren't the only people who wanted to see the Grand Cascade being turned on, and the closer we got to it the busier it became. We eventually managed to find a space where we could watch by on the staircase along one side of the cascade. Then it was just a case of waiting until the water was turned on It seemed like we were waiting forever but it was only a couple of minutes and then the water started along with the music Wow! That was really impressive As soon as the show was over, people started to disperse a bit and we made our way back down along the canal towards the waterfront to wait for the next hydrofoil to come in. Within a few minutes we were all reunited, and we were able to have a more relaxed stroll back up along the canal together. It was still busy as we got closer to the palace, but not as bad as it had been. The palace at Peterhof was commissioned by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century and designed to rival the palace of Versailles. The palace itself was closed today but that was fine by us, because we mainly wanted to explore the grounds. We started by climbing up the staircase beside the Grand Cascade. From here we had some amazing views. We were now able to look down on the Grand Cascade from above I got very excited when I realised we could see a rainbow in the water. It was also exciting to be able to see all the way back down the canal to the sea! Once we'd finished admiring the views, we carried on across the top of the cascade and onto what looked like it might be a quieter path. We walked around the edge of a pond... ...passed what was described on the map as a "memorable bench", although we suspect in reality it was supposed to be a "memorial bench".... ...and then emerged beside a colonnade. This was full of fountains too When we left there, we passed a surprising patch of tulips... ...then found another, smaller, cascade. We found ourselves beside a huge lake. There was a series of little white bridges to walk across to get to this white palace. We climbed up an embankment on the far side of the lake. From there, we could see back out across the Gulf of Finland. And, of course, we had a great view of the gardens, including the cascade on the opposite side of the lake. We stopped at a self-service restaurant, where we were able to try a variety of Russian food - including piroshki and kvass - for lunch. After we'd eaten, we crossed the canal to explore the opposite side of the Lower Park. There were lots of fountains here too We also found a statue of Peter the Great himself. Mom told us that he had installed "trick fountains" in the gardens, to catch and spray people unawares. Sure enough, we soon found one - and plenty of children waiting to try it out We passed the Sun Fountain... ...and found a pair of beautiful, marble fountains. They were below the final cascade, known as the Chessboard Cascade. We hung around here for a while, waiting to see another trick fountain which signs warned would be activated at 15.00. Some people had come well prepared to run through it After we'd seen the trick fountain alley, we began to climb back up towards the Upper Gardens. Unlike the Lower Park, which you have to buy a ticket for, the Upper Gardens are completely free. But if you exit the Lower Park to enter the Upper Gardens, you can't get back into the Lower Park without buying another ticket, which is why we'd left it until last. The Upper Gardens turned out to be flatter and more... gardeny There were some wonderful fountains here too, though. This one was particularly imposing Meanwhile this one was a little bit creepy! At least, if you don't like fish. Once we got to the far end of the Upper Gardens, we emerged out onto the main road in the town of Petergof. We knew there was a station here, called Novy Petergof, and we began to navigate our way towards that. It turned out to be a longer walk than expected! A system of suburban trains passes through the station, running into the Baltiysky station in the centre of St Petersburg. There were machines to purchase tickets at the station, but it was a bit confusing because we were trying to buy tickets on platform one, but the only timetable shown here was in the opposite direction to St Petersburg. I bought us tickets for the elektrichka train, which seemed an absolute bargain at 60 rubles each (72p!). However, when we eventually found the correct platform on the opposite side of the tracks, I realised that these tickets weren't valid on the next train arriving at 16.54 because it was a "lastochka" train. Not entirely sure what the difference is; it seems like the lastochka trains make fewer stops so are probably more expensive. The first train our tickets were valid on was 17.12, so we had to hang around until then. I experimented with an americano from the station coffee machine, which was once again a bargain at 35 rubles (42p!), but was very sugary. It helped pass the time until the train arrived anyway! The platform got quite busy, but when the train eventually did come we managed to manoeuvre our way on and get seats. It felt like it was quite an old train and the seats were very hard and wooden. It made its way very slowly towards St Petersburg, eventually arriving at the Baltiysky station around 6pm. After that, all that remain was a metro journey back to our hotel. It was rush hour though so the metro was a bit of a crush. We had done a lot of walking today so decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. There was a slightly confusing incident when we ordered a bottle of chardonnay and brought it to us, then reappeared a few minutes later to say that he couldn't sell it to us because it wasn't in the system. Several of us ordered chicken kievs, which felt like they should have been a safe bet food-wise, so it was slightly disappointing when it arrived to find there was more dill in it than garlic It was a slightly frustrating end to what has otherwise been a really lovely day!
  20. Today was our first proper day exploring St Petersburg. It started off with an exploration of the hotel breakfast buffet, which turned out to be for more extensive than any of us had anticipated. As well as the normal things you would expect, there was salty(!) porridge, pancakes which tasted somewhat like they had been deep fried, and an entire buffet table of cakes. It felt slightly unbelievable that so much breakfast was included in the price of our rooms, which already seem such good value! After breakfast we had time for a quick consultation of guidebooks and maps before we headed out to see the city. Unfortunately the weather wasn't forecast to be great today, so there was a somewhat cloudy sky behind the beautiful red church which we'd spotted yesterday. It was Sunday morning and we could hear the church bells ringing really loudly. Then we realised that we could actually see two men inside the bell tower ringing the bells! We stood watching them for ages It looked like really hard work! We passed all kinds of amazing churches and buildings as we carried on walking through the town. Sometimes we just couldn't work out what they were. This beautiful building, which we found while walking through a park, was the Russian Museum. We were headed towards one of St Petersburg's most iconic churches, the Church of The Saviour on Spilled Blood. Unfortunately part of it was under renovation, but it was still really stunning. The church was constructed on the spot where the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by anarchists in 1881. The building ceased to be used as a church during the twentieth century, being used alternately as a morgue for those who died in the Siege of Leningrad, as a warehouse for potatoes and vegetables, and today as a museum. We were going to go inside, but either we were too early and it wasn't opened yet or it was being used for a church service because today was a Sunday. Either way, we couldn't get in and there was just a large queue in front of the closed ticket desks. It didn't matter though, when the exterior was so beautiful Unfortunately the weather started to take a turn for the worse at this point and things started to become a bit damp. We took shelter inside a bookshop in the very unusual building to the left of the fountain in the picture below. By the time we'd finished browsing books, the weather had cleared up a bit, but not completely. We found that we were close to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. As it was still raining a bit, we decided to go in and have a look. Because it was a Sunday morning there was a service ongoing, which was fascinating to see. There was lots of incense and singing and kissing of icons, and because there were no pews it felt quite anarchic, with people coming and going, walking around as they pleased. At least that meant it was easier for us not to be too conspicuous as tourists! The interior of the church was beautiful as well, but no photos were allowed. The day began to brighten up as we walked down Nevsky Prospect towards the Winter Palace. It was amazing to be standing in front of such a historic place On the opposite side of the square from the palace is the General Staff building, with its huge triumphal arch. The arch commemorates the Russian victory over Napoleonic France in 1812. We didn't want to go into the museum which the Winter Palace now houses today, but we were able to go a bit further into the courtyard where the ticket office is. It was really beautiful in there too The next item on our list after the palace was the Admiralty building. We walked through a small park until we found it, topped by this amazing gold spire. If we'd approached it from this direction with the fountain in front, the first view would have been even more impressive There was just one more thing we wanted to see before we went to get some lunch; the Bronze Horseman. This is the famous statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great. By this point we were down by the river. As we were feeling hungry, we decided to walk back towards Nevsky Prospect. On the way, we got some great views of another huge church; St Isaac's Cathedral. We found a restaurant and sat down to have lunch, with varying degrees of success. I had some pasta, which was very nice, but other people ended up with soup which seemed to just be a bowl of water with vegetables in it. It was better than nothing, and soon we were off again, en route to a boat trip which we had booked for 3pm. We had some difficulty locating the exact part of the Fontanka river that the boat was supposed to be depart from. We asked a lady, who sent us off across a bridge to a boat on the opposite side of the river, only to be told there that we needed to go back across the bridge to where we'd started. We got there in the end, with a few minutes to spare before our boat set off The boat started off by cruising down the Fontanka, and we had some wonderful views of the buildings lining it Then the boat moved out onto the main Neva, and for a minute it was slightly scary as the river was so choppy. The boat couldn't do its full route today because the water level was too high for it to fit under all the bridges. We sailed past all kinds of interesting sights, helpfully explained to us by an English audioguide. One of the most spectacular things was definitely sailing past the Winter Palace It would have been nice to be here on a sunnier day, but the views were wonderful regardless. Too soon, we were back to where we had started! When we got off the boat, we had a tantalising view of a church with an amazing blue roof in the distance. We didn't get to the blue church, but on our way towards a metro station we did stumble across another church with beautiful golden onion domes. When we got to the metro, the station itself was quite impressive. And, of course, the escalators were very, very long! We'd taken the metro to Lenin Square, which is next to Finlandsky station. This is the station at which Lenin arrived back in Russia after his exile abroad, in order to take control of the Russian revolution. In front of the station there's a square with a huge statue of Lenin. While we were standing there, admiring the statue and the fountains, we were approached by a man who asked whether we wanted to join a Communist walking tour. We decided to give it a miss As we went back into the metro station to catch the train home, we found a mosaic of Lenin too. After a brief rest at the hotel, we went back out again in the evening to find something to eat. That proved to be a bit difficult, as there aren't loads of restaurants in the area around our hotel. Dad had googled and found a restaurant nearby on the internet, but we struggled to track in down and then when we eventually did, it looked like it was somewhere designed for people a bit younger and cooler than us. We were so hungry we decided to brave it anyway though and it was a good decision, because the food turned out to be really nice. Again, it seemed unbelievably cheap; we all had a main course and drinks, including a bottle of wine, for what worked out as just over £6 each It's been a very exciting. though somewhat tiring, first day in St Petersburg
  21. Our first week-long holiday this year is one that has required an awful lot of planning. Hours of research, hours more attempting to learn a rather difficult language, plus a visit to London to be finger-printed for a visa. Our holidays aren't normally quite so challenging, but this isn't just any holiday; this is our first ever trip to Russia! And it's not just Tim and I travelling alone this time; joining us are my parents and my sister, Helen The journey for Tim and I started this morning at around 4.45 when we left home to drive to Heathrow. I was quite looking forward to the journey, on the basis that it ought to feel significantly shorter than our journey to Gatwick last weekend, but unfortunately that turned out not to be the case. There had been some sort of accident on the M1, which resulted in traffic jams, lane closures and ultimately us having to leave the motorway entirely to circumvent it. And then when we finally got to the general vicinity of Heathrow, the SatNav failed to take us to the correct location for the airport parking, so we had some fun and games driving around in circles trying to locate it. My family arrived at Heathrow ahead of us, having travelled down the night before, but we eventually all managed to meet up in Wetherspoons and have breakfast together before it was time to board our flight. Everything went remarkably smoothly with the flight, compared to the delay when we flew to Kiev last week. At over three hours it felt like quite a long flight to us, although the pilot referred to it as "a short hop to St Petersburg"! As we began to come in to land, we got our first view of the city and initial impressions were that it looks absolutely enormous! We landed slightly ahead of schedule and got off the plane to go through passport control. This was the most nerve-wracking part of the day, waiting to see whether our visas were correct and we were actually going to be let in But in the end it was all really straightforward. We got our passports stamped, were given our immigration cards (which we mustn't lose if we want to be allowed out of the country again!) and then we were in. Phew!!! We retrieved our bags without any problems and emerged into arrivals. St Petersburg airport is a bit outside the city and it isn't on a trainline, so we needed to catch a bus towards the nearest metro station. There was a bus waiting when we stepped outside, which was good, although we weren't 100% sure how we were supposed to buy tickets. There was a conductor lady who appeared to be selling them, so we assumed we needed to give her our money before we sat down, and it was all a bit difficult trying to hold our luggage, get some money out and figure out how much we needed to pay. Afterwards, we realised that we could just have got on and sat down and she would have come to sell us a ticket. Never mind! The good news was that the fare was amazingly cheap at 40 rubles each, which translate to 48p! The less good news was that it turned out to be a bus without a luggage rack, so we had to balance our luggage in somewhat uncomfortable positions for the duration of the trip. Luckily, the journey turned out to be quicker than I'd expected and it can't have taken more than 20 minutes for us to get from the airport to the metro. The metro was slightly more expensive at 45 rubles (54p!). We bought tokens from a machine and then made our way down to the platform. It was a very unusual metro station, in that you couldn't see the track at all from the platform; it was hidden away behind big metal doors, which opened once the train arrived. We had about five stops to travel on our first metro, after which we had to change to a different line and go another few stops before we got to the vicinity of our hotel. Considering it was our first day in Russia and we only had a vague idea of what we were supposed to be doing, it all went rather well I'd tried to download an offline map of St Petersburg to help us navigate, but when I got my phone out it seemed to assume I wanted a map of a place called St Petersburg in Florida instead, which was a bit frustrating! Luckily it didn't matter, because there was a map on the wall of the metro station, and Tim and Dad managed to navigate us to the hotel using that. The hotel is posher than we expected and comes complete with a slightly disconcerting porter, who insisted on carrying our bags for us. We managed to check in, half in Russian and half in English, and the porter led us to our rooms. We definitely can't complain about how spacious this is; we've even got our own sofa! And all for less than £60/night Once we'd unpacked and settled in, we went for an initial stroll into the town. The first interesting thing we came to as we left our hotel was this beautiful yellow church. It turns out this is the Transfiguration Cathedral. We didn't have to walk much further before we caught sight of another colourful church on the horizon. I'm not sure what this one is called, but it was a really beautiful shade of red We were walking in this direction because we wanted to get to the river. Before we reached the main river Neva, we crossed over the smaller Fontanka river, which is a branch of the Neva. The sides of the river were lined with pretty buildings... ...and the river itself was full of boats We found ourselves in the Summer Garden, which was founded by Peter the Great. It seemed like a lovely park, but it was really busy; there seemed to be some sort of festival for children going on. We walked down a long avenue of trees... ...and admired the various statues we found on our way. There were fountains too Eventually, we emerged from the park and we were at the river It was huge and looked really choppy; more like the sea! Everyone was hungry by this point - and the porter had warned us against going out in the evening without coats - so we decided to retrace our steps back towards the hotel. On the way, we passed Peter the Great's Summer Palace from the opposite side of the water. We also got tantalising glimpses of all kinds of other interesting buildings in the distance. There will definitely be lots to explore tomorrow! In the meantime, we all needed an early night. But not before we'd had dinner in the hotel restaurant. It turned out to be unbelievably good value; five of us had a main course and a drink for the equivalent of £30 I'm sure we will find ourselves in more expensive places over the course of the next week, but at about £1 each for transport and £6 each for food, today has been a very cheap day!
  22. Another day, another breakfast! Today's was remarkably similar to yesterday's, except for the fact that my pancakes were filled with forest fruits rather than cherries. Our flight wasn't until 20.05 this evening, so we had another full day in Kiev. Once we'd checked out of the apartment, we set off to explore a part of the city which we had only seen from a distance yesterday; the Motherland monument. Our route took us along some of the streets we had followed yesterday, passing the war and famine memorials. We also passed the monastery which we had visited yesterday afternoon. Before long we got our first glimpse of the statue which we were walking to see. The statue is part of the national museum of the history of Ukraine in the Second World War, and as we walked towards the statue we passed by all sorts of guns and armoured vehicles. We also had views back towards the golden roofs of the monastery. The closer you get to the statue, the more apparent it becomes how absolutely huge it is. The scale is quite well demonstrated in comparison to this guy mowing the grass! We entered the museum complex and walked past a series of sculptures depicting the defence of the Soviet border from German invasion. Some of them were rather scary! Others showed the peasants assisting with the war effort. When we emerged at the front of the statue, we found another large monument which depicted the Battle of the Dnieper in 1943. From here we had the best view of the statue. The entire structure is over 100 metres tall! Apparently you can climb part of the way to the top, but we decided to give it a miss! Instead we strolled around the park, enjoying the views back towards the monastery.... ...and particularly the views of the bell tower which we had climbed yesterday Afterwards, we decided to retrace our steps from yesterday and walk back into the centre of Kiev. We walked through the shady Mariyinsky Park... ...stopping to admire the palace again. From there we made our way towards the main square, Maidan Nezaleznosti. It was so much quieter here today than it had been yesterday! We had an unobstructed view of this monument to the founders of Kiev. We didn't take any photos, but the square and the surrounding area where full of little stalls selling souvenirs and the most popular souvenir on sale appeared to be a roll of toilet paper with Vladimir Putin's face on it Once we'd finished looking around the square, it was time to find somewhere to have lunch. This probably wasn't the cheapest part of town, but with Ukrainian prices it didn't really matter! I had a huge pizza, with a glass of Georgian wine. I've never tried Georgian wine before and it's main feature seemed to be that it was really, really strong! It smelled more like rakija than wine and Tim couldn't even bring himself to try it, deciding to stick with beer instead Tim had ordered his meal off the basis of a picture we'd seem outside and the menu. When it came (about 20 minutes after my pizza!), it was complete with a rather alarming piece of purple cabbage. Once we'd finished lunch we went back through the square. On the opposite side of the road there was a monument which gave the distances to different cities around the world from Kiev. London was 2 135km away! We walked back in the direction of St Michael's monastery to have a better look. We'd been rushing past here yesterday because we were late, so hadn't taken many photos. From here it wasn't far back to St Andrew's church, which was definitely one of my favourites yesterday. Today we were able to enjoy the views with far fewer people around There was just time for a final view out over Kiev before we needed to head back towards the train station to catch our bus to the airport. It was Kiev's rush hour by this point and the bus took twice as long to get to the airport as it had on Saturday evening. That, combined with the queue at passport control, meant that we ran out of time to finish the blog at the airport. That slight annoyance aside, we had a really great weekend in Kiev It's an exciting place with lots to see and our accommodation definitely made this visit a lot more comfortable an experience than our first trip in 2011
  23. When we checked into the hotel last night, we had to choose our breakfast from a picture menu. The options all looked much of a muchness, the main difference being whether you wanted your eggs scrambled or fried. We made a split second decision and asked if we could have it at 9am, but by the time it got to this morning I wasn't entirely sure what it was we were going to receive. 9am came around and our door bell rang - breakfast was being delivered to us! It looked... interesting. I definitely don't remember there being so much greenery in the photos on the menu! Once my salad was safely in the bin, I was left with some very dry sort of bread, scrambled egg which had a very odd feathery herb through it and what was allegedly sausage, but tasted more like a hot dog. The pancakes were nice; mine were stuffed with cherries and drizzled with chocolate sauce, although one of them was slightly contaminated by the unnecessary slices of orange. At least the coffee was good Once we'd eaten what we could of breakfast, we set out to explore Kiev. Not far from our hotel we found the Mariyinsky Palace, which is the official home of the president of Ukraine. The building with the big dome next to the palace is the Ukrainian parliament. There were armed police on guard outside. When you get closer to the building, you can't see the dome any more. Across the road we found what looked like another large government building. This one caught our attention because it had the EU flag flying outside it as well as the Ukrainian one! From here we began to walk into the centre of the town, towards the main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Unfortunately, when we got here we found it was rather busy! There was some sort of festival going on in Kiev today and it seemed to involve a marathon or something similar. There were thousands of people in the square getting ready to take part in a race. We just about managed to push our way through the square, resolving to come back tomorrow when it would (hopefully!) be emptier and take proper photos then. We walked down what seemed like a main shopping street, before coming to a place which looked familar... but different. This is where the statue of Lenin used to stand before it was toppled in December 2013. This is what it looked like when we were here in 2011. We walked uphill, towards Kiev's university, which is based in this rather striking red building. Behind us was a park and statue dedicated to the Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. We had come in this direction in search of a church which I remembered from our previous visit. This is St Volodymyr's Cathedral. It's a beautiful yellow building. I particularly love the blue roofs on the little towers We walked all the way around it to get the best views From the cathedral we walked through a square... ...and came to a little road where there were people in national costume, singing. We were now standing outside the Golden Gate. This is the site of the original gate into the 11th century fortifications of Kiev. The gate was dismantled in the Middle Ages and rebuilt in 1982 for the 1500th anniversary of Kiev. The large statue outside the gate is of Yaroslav the Wise. From here it wasn't far to St Sophia's Cathedral. I remembered its beautiful blue bell tower from last time we were here. In the square outside the cathedral, Tim paid 20 hryvnia (60p) to have his photo taken with these rather odd-looking doves. They sat on his shoulders... ...and his head Meanwhile I was on the other side of the square, taking photos of the bell tower The square itself is very pretty... and you can see lots of little domes in the cathedral complex behind the walls. In the other direction, we could also make out St Michael's Golden-Domed monastery. There's certainly no shortage of striking churches in Kiev. We didn't have to walk much further before we found St Andrew's. The church is surrounded by a park, from where we got tantalising glimpses of it through the trees. Nearby we stumbled across a sculpture park, which looked like it wouldn't have been out of place in Barcelona Some of the sculptures were really cute... ...while others were slightly more bizarre! As we left the sculpture park, we had a beautiful view back towards St Andrew's church. We began to follow a path that led downwards... ...giving views of some very impressive buildings, some of which seemed to be embassies. We reached a viewpoint from which we could see out over the city. I really loved these colourful roofs The path then became increasingly busy and it felt like the entire population of Kiev had chosen the same place to have a Sunday walk We managed to push our way through the crowds and eventually emerged at the base of the church again. It was around 2pm now and we were running late, because we were supposed to be meeting our Esperanto friend Kalle, who we last met in Malmo, at 2.30 outside the Arsenalna metro station. We were about a 50-minute walk from there at the moment, so needed to find a metro station if we stood any chance of not being completely late. As we could see from this viewpoint next to the church, Kiev is huge and finding a metro station wasn't necessarily going to be straightforward. Having consulted the map, we decided that the best bet would be head back to Maidan Nezalezhnosti. On the way, we got a better view of St Michael's Monastery. From here it wasn't far to the square, but once we got to the square it took a while to find the metro station because everywhere was still so busy with the festival/marathon thing. The Maidan metro station was on line number 2 and Arsenalna is on line number 1. When we consulted the metro map, we thought we could go one stop on line 2 and then change to line 1, but once we got down to the platforms that turned out not to be the case (as in, the station we wanted to go to wasn't listed as one of the stops), so we were quite confused. In the end we had to go back above ground, walk to a different station on line 1 and take the metro to Arsenalna from there. By the time we arrived we were a good 30 minutes late, although almost 10 minutes of those had been spent on escalators trying to get out of Arsenalna Luckily Kalle had waited for us! We had lunch together in the restaurant of this rather Soviet-looking hotel on the left of the picture. For lunch we had pelmeni, little dumplings filled with minced meat. They tasted a bit like ravioli After lunch, we set off to explore some of the surrounding area. Not far from Arsenalna is a memorial park which commemorates the victims of famine in Ukraine. The obelisk commemorates victims of WW2 and there's an eternal flame burning underneath it. The candle-shaped monument is dedicated to famine victims. Millions of people in Ukraine died of starvation between 1932 - 1933, as a result of Soviet collectivisation policies. We were walking through the memorial park on our way to one of Kiev's most famous sites: the Pechersk Lavra monastery. We bought tickets and passed through the main gate, to be confronted with a large silver egg (no idea what it was for!) and our first glimpse of the Dormition Cathedral. The cathedral was originally built in the 11th century, but destroyed during WW2. It was restored in 1995, following Ukrainian independence. The other striking building inside the monastery was this huge bell tower. We bought tickets to climb to the top. There weren't actually as many steps as I was expecting, and before too long we made it to the first balcony. We were able to look down at the cathedral And we could see for miles out across Kiev... ...including getting a great view of the Motherland statue, which we remembered from our previous visit to Kiev. We climbed a bit higher, to the part of the tower where the bells were. The views were great from here as well. And Kalle took a rare photo of us together Then it was time to climb back down. Underneath the bell tower was the grave of Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian minister who was assassinated in Kiev in 1911. We strolled around the monastery for a bit longer, enjoying the wonderful views. Then there was just time for some coffee and cake, before we went our separate ways By the time we got back to the hotel we were both exhausted. Tim's Fitbit shows we got quite a few steps today!!
  24. As I mentioned in the blog about Cinque Terre, we've really struggled to find cheap flights for bank holidays this year. We struggled in particular with the second May bank holiday, which seemed to be more expensive than the first one; probably because it coincides with school half terms. After a lot of research, the only place to which I managed to find what I would describe as a truly cheap flight was Kiev, from Gatwick with Ukraine International Airlines. Could we go to Kiev for a weekend? It felt like potentially a very long journey for a short trip, but then we are the people who went all the way to Tenerife for a weekend in 2017 More to the point, did we want to go to Kiev for a weekend? We spent a very memorable week in Kiev in 2011 when we attended an international Esperanto youth conference. The event itself was very badly organised and the quality of the accommodation was absolutely dreadful, so Kiev hadn't necessarily been high on our list of places we wanted to return to. But I remembered the city itself as being beautiful, and I figured that if we were able to stay in a proper hotel that had luxuries like power sockets and curtains this time, we might enjoy the experience more. I decided to go ahead and book Our flight today wasn't until around midday, so we had a rather relaxed start to the trip by our normal standards, not leaving home until after 7am. Gatwick wasn't as busy as I thought it might be considering it was school holidays, and by around 10.30 we were sitting in Wetherspoons enjoying a large breakfast. Gate information for our flight was given at 11.30 and it seemed like everything was going to be plain sailing. Until we got to the gate, that is. First of all there seemed to be a delay with boarding. Then when boarding was announced, the staff were trying to get people to board based on row order, but some of the passengers struggled to understand this and chaos ensued, with people queuing up with their boarding passes and then being sent to the back of the queue if they had the wrong row numbers. We made it onto the plane eventually and were pleasantly surprised to find that it was quite spacious and comfortable. Tim even managed to fit his bag in the overhead lockers for a change It's a good job that the plane was comfortable, because it turned out that we were going to be sitting on it for a long time. The cabin crew began to make the usual announcements - firstly in Ukrainian, then repeated in English and Russian - but then the plane just sat on the runway and didn't move. Eventually the pilot made an announcement to say that our departure was going to be delayed by at least an hour because of air traffic congestion over Poland That was rather unexpected! We sat there and we sat there and we sat there. In the end it was around 14.30 before the plane took off, which was over two hours late. How frustrating! It was already a long flight (3 hours) so this meant it was going to be pretty late by the time we finally landed in Kiev, especially taking into account the fact that Ukraine is two hours ahead of the UK. The weather was good for most of the journey, but the view wasn't very exciting as we flew over incredibly flat Polish and Ukrainian countryside. It was only as we began coming in to land around 3 hours later that we got an interesting view of the enormous river Dnieper that runs through Kiev. We could see lots of islands in the middle of the river Once we'd landed we had to get through passport control. This gave us a vision of our post-Brexit future, as we had to join an "All passports" queue and wait in line behind all kinds of nationalities, some of whom seemed to be getting very tough questioning by the Ukrainian border staff. Some people were led off in separate directions to be questioned, while others had to have their fingerprints recorded, so I was slightly apprehensive by the time we got to the front of the queue! Luckily our passports didn't seem to present any problems; the border guard just asked if I'd come from London, stamped my passport and waved me through. Phew! Next step was to acquire some Ukrainian currency. You can't buy hryvnia in the UK, so we had brought Euros with us to change. The arrivals hall was home to some sophisticated looking machines where it looked like you could feed in Euros and get hryvnia in return. We were just in the process of trying to figure out how to use one of these when we got accosted by a random man. To start with we couldn't understand what he was saying, but it transpired that he ran a small stall nearby and said he would give a better exchange rate than the machine. His rate was indeed slightly better, and so we changed 40 Euros. All that remained now was to find our way into central Kiev. You can travel into the city centre by train, but when I researched it the timetable seemed quite infrequent. The other option is to take the airport bus, and we were luckily that we stepped out of the terminal building and saw one waiting right in front of us. The fare was 100 hryvnia (about £3) which seemed quite good value. As we drove out of the airport and along the main road into town, guess what one of the first things I saw was?! The bus took us across the river and towards the main train station. From there, we needed to find the Vokzalna metro station and catch the metro to a station called Arsenalna. The metro in Kiev is an absolute bargain, with a token for a single journey costing 8 hryvnia (24p!!!). We tried to buy tokens at a machine but it didn't work, so we had to go to the ticket desk instead. The lady behind the counter didn't look terribly impressed that we were trying to buy two tokens with a 100 hryvnia note. The metro in Kiev is incredibly deep underground and this means that the escalators are enormous. As in, you get on the escalator and it's so big you can't see the other end of it. Arsenalna, where we were getting off, is the deepest metro station in the world according to our guidebook. It certainly felt like it; we came up one long escalator, assumed we were at the top, then found there was a second equally long one still to go! The aparthotel we are staying in is only a few hundred metres from Arsenalna station. By the time we emerged from the metro, darkness had fallen so it was a little bit harder to find it than I expected, but we got there in the end (and just about managed to check in in Russian!). When we stayed in Kiev in 2011, our room looked like this: Our bedroom this time around is considerably nicer In fact, we have a choice of two bedrooms in case we fall out And we have a little kitchen too It's worked out at about £60/night and that includes breakfast as well, so it feels like pretty good value It's a lovely apartment but overall it's been a rather tiring day of travelling! Let's hope that we get to see more of Kiev tomorrow
  25. When we woke up this morning and looked out the window, we were relieved to see that the weather seemed to be a bit brighter When we went to the viewpoint round the corner, we could see Manarola much more clearly than yesterday... ...and we could just make out what we thought was Monterosso in the distance as well. We went to the same cafe as yesterday to have breakfast... ...and then set off down the stairs towards the train station in Corniglia. In the sunshine, the views were even more spectacular than they had been yesterday. We got almost halfway down the stairs when we were passed by some girls climbing upward. They explained that they had got to the bottom and been turned away by a man who said that the path was closed for works and they needed to go around on the road. So they were having to climb all the way back up to the top again to find the road! We weren't terribly impressed by the thought of having to climb back up all the way that we had just come down, but on the other hand it was better to have to climb up a part of the stairs then get right to the bottom and be told to turn around again, so we followed the girls back up to the top of the staircase. Sure enough, when we got there we found a workman sealing the entrance to the stairs off with red tape. Luckily he didn't object to us climbing underneath it to get out! We walked down to the station via the main road and bought another Cinque Terre day pass for the trains. We had had an alternative plan for today which involved visiting a nearby town called Portovenere, but when we saw that the weather was so good we couldn't resist the temptation to try and re-do the villages which we had seen yesterday, in the sunshine this time Our first stop was the northernmost village of Monterosso. As soon as we arrived, it was obvious that it was considerably busier here than it had been yesterday. The sea definitely looked a lot calmer today. In fact, it was so calm that someone seemed to be climbing on this rock which we had seen the waves lashing yesterday morning. We walked along the seafront, towards the centre of the village. Everything looked a lot better with the backdrop of a bright blue sky. Without the rain, we were able to explore a bit more of the village, and found this beautiful stripy church. We had to be careful not to spend too long in each village though, if we were going to fit them all in before we needed to catch a train towards the airport at around 2pm. So soon it was time to say goodbye to Monterosso... ...and hop on a train towards our next destination: Vernazza. Vernazza looked stunning in the sunshine too We walked out towards the harbour to get the best view back towards the town. The sea seemed incredibly peaceful compared to yesterday. Believe it or not, this was the point from which Tim got splashed by his wave yesterday It was tempting to spend longer in Vernazza, but we had more villages to see! Our intention had been to go to Manarola next, but when we got to the station we found that the train we needed was delayed. Rather than lose time waiting for it, we decided to jump on an express train which didn't stop in Manarola, but went straight through to the southernmost village, Riomaggiore. We had been absolutely soaking wet by the time we got to Riomaggiore yesterday. Today felt very different. It was a lot easier climbing up the steep main street when there wasn't water pouring down it We explored the village for a while... ...and then headed back to the station. Believe it or not, this was our view from the platform as we waited for our train to Manarola. When we got to Manarola, we decided to be really boring and go to exactly the same place that we had had lunch yesterday. In fact, we even ordered exactly the same meal. But today we remembered to take a photo of the lasagne The reason for going there was not just that the lasagne was amazing, but also that we knew the service was quick and efficient. We didn't have too long left before we needed to start our journey to the airport and we wanted to make the most of it. Manarola was really gorgeous in the sunshine We climbed up to the church tower we'd visited yesterday... ...and were rewarded with the wonderful view back out over the village. Definitely better without the rain! Sadly, then it was time to start heading back down to the station, because we needed to catch a train to La Spezia. From there we were due to make a connection to Pisa, which is where we're flying back from this evening. We'd calculated it so that we just had enough time to change in Pisa... and then our train to La Spezia was delayed, with no explanation or apology. We had a nervous few minutes in the station as we waited for it, wondering whether we were going to get to La Spezia on time to make our second train. It was a close-run thing, but we made it with about a minute to spare and were soon on our way towards Pisa airport. Phew! The weather yesterday might not have been quite what we would have ordered, but overall we have had a wonderful long weekend in Italy. The views were fantastic even in the rain, but it was brilliant to be able to return to the same places today and see them in the sunshine too
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