Europe, Trips

Malta: The City Break

Many people think of Malta and think of a week or two long holiday but we love Malta for a city break.  We spent 3 nights and 2.5 days on the island discovering just some of its jewels and look forward to returning again soon.

Where to stay

What to do and how to get there

If you don’t fancy driving, the Hop on/off bus is an easy option.  Just remember to pick up a timetable and note the departure times.  There are North and South tours and on some days, these are combined and so check with your hotel or with the tour company to see which tour is running.  We took the combined tour on day 1 and took in Valletta, Mdina and a tour of the island.  On day 2 we took the South tour and saw the 3 Cities and Marsaxlokk.  You can save money if you buy the 2 day tour and so have a think about what you would like to achieve before you buy:

Valletta

  • St John’s Cathedral – The most stunning cathedral we have ever visited.  Every inch has been decorated with a thoughtful touch and no picture can do it justice.  Take the free audio guide and be absorbed in the beauty of this cathedral.
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  • Wander the historic streets – They undulate, they are characterful and they host a fine mix of eateries and great opportunities for shopping.
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  • Lower Barrakka Gardens – Situated towards the far end of Valletta, you can start at the Waterfront and ascend to the Upper Barrakka Gardens via the Barrakka lift in just 25 seconds which saves those muscles for later on!  From here, it’s a lovely walk to the Lower Barrakka Gardens where you will find a tree planted in April 2012 to mark the 70th anniversary of the award of the George Cross to Malta by King George VI for its bravery in the Second World War.
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Mdina

  • Wander the historic streets – Mdina is like a maze.  Around every corner there is a beautiful building, a stunning old wooden door, pretty flowers climbing the walls or a quirky shop selling Maltese produce.  It’s a fun maze to get lost in and explore, eventually winding your way to the viewing point out towards the sea.
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  • St Paul’s Cathedral – Make your way through the narrow streets and you will find that they open up into a large square where the sheer size of the cathedral will leave you with a wow moment, its size having a greater impact due to the small avenues you have just been travelling through.  You may notice the clocks on the outside give you different times.  It was thought that this would confuse the devil who may attempt to attend mass and sway people from the right path if he could be sure of the right time for mass!
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3 Cities

  • Beautiful boats – Take a stroll to see the Grand Harbour Marina, Vittoriosa.  You will see an array of boats you could only dream of owning or even sailing on.
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  • Gardjola Gardens – A reasonable walk from Vittoriosa over a bridge and right at the end of Senglea but worth the walk for the views across to Valletta.
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  • St Lawrence’s Church – a stunning church right next to the hop on/off bus and so no excuses not to take a quick peek!

Marsaxlokk

  • This is a pretty place to wander and there is a market every day where you can stock up on local honey, figs, biscuits and nougat (as well as some very touristy souvenirs).  Even better, if you visit on a Sunday morning you will be treated to its main market.  You will see hundreds of beautifully and brightly decorated boats here, fisherman mending their nets and repainting their boats.  It’s a lovely brief stop or take a little longer and have lunch here.
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On our last day we visited the Catacombs in Rabat and took a local bus.  It took about an hour and 15 minutes to get to Rabat from St Julians Bay.  On our return the speedier bus which was timetabled did not show and so we had to wait 40 minutes for the slow bus which then took an hour and a half to get back to St Julians due to traffic and so do plan well and allow for the unexpected.

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Hire a car and see more!  The Maltese drive on the left making it much less daunting.  You can get around the island far more quickly by car and see what we did on our hop on/off bus plus a few more attractions which we’re saving for next time including the Blue Grotto, the Tarxien Temples and the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples.

You could also try a day trip to Gozo (or even a few nights in Malta followed by a couple in Gozo) and snorkelling around Comino Island.

Where to eat

  • For ice-creamL’Accademia Café in Valletta – a VERY large scoop of delicious (and incredible value!) ice-cream! 🙂
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  • For fishZeri’s Restaurant in Paceville.  We had a starter of octopus, calamari and fishcakes, a main of red snapper, brown meagre and seabass all with potatoes and vegetables, a bottle of wine and water and a dessert each of Chocolate melt in the middle pudding with Bailey’s cream for 60 Euros each with a nice tip included.
  • Lunch stopThe Three Sisters, Marsaxlokk.  Run by……yes…..three sisters……with most fish served having been caught by their husbands……terribly romantic we know!  A sense of community draws you in to eat at this perfect lunch spot overlooking the harbour which bobs away with brightly coloured boats.
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Europe

Our Further Italian Wonders

We visited many other locations on our Italian road trip this summer and it’s difficult to include them all within just one week and so in addition to the wonderful Alberobello and surrounding areas, Volo Dell’Angelo, Maratea and Matera already mentioned this week, here are a few of our further favourites:

Craco

This is one of the most interesting places we stopped off at on our travels.  We headed here after our trip to Volo Dell’Angelo where we met Azeem, a travel writer from London and previously a city lawyer.  We had lunch with him in Castelmezzano and told him all about our plans to visit Craco.  He actually knew the guide there, William, and made a call to him to arrange a tour for us.  He also told us about the city that must not be named which we later passed on our travels!

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We met our guide, William, who took us on a private tour of the abandoned town which lies about an hour west of Matera.  Once beautiful with a stunning palace at its apex, it now lies empty, crumbling and divides those who still own properties here and government bodies.

You must book on to a tour to visit this site and hard hats are worn at all times and at just £15 per person, this tour is great value.  You learn all about the history of the town, its links to the mafia, its brilliant water system and how water came to be its downfall.  You get to see empty buildings that used to have purpose such as bakeries which now sit empty but for the large ovens which stopped serving up delicious loaves a long time ago.  You learn about the demise of the town, how people fled with the promise of a better life, how traditions fled with the residents, how the lifeline to this town declined and about the hopes of those that still claim ownership to the properties.  It is quite sad to visit the palace which sits at the top Craco.  Paintings are still visible, beautiful tiled floors still partially there (and partially removed by thieves) and the views from this incredible building are breathtaking.

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It’s not a surprise that many advertisers and film makers chose Craco or nearby to shoot their work.  It’s peaceful, extensive and brimming with character.  It’s also known as the ghost town and there are rumours that it is haunted.  Stop in your tracks for a second and you will hear doors/shutters moving, crows crowing and underneath that, an eerie silence of a town still clinging on.

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William, a former priest, is fascinating, knowledgeable and was very generous with his time.  We made the last visit of the day as the sun was starting to fade, the perfect time to take some fabulous photos.

Metaponto Ruins

If you like history this is for you.  This attraction is split into three parts: 2 sites of ruins and 1 museum.  The first site we came across was a set of Greek columns which once formed part of a temple dating back to the 6th Century (Tavole Palatine).  It is located just off the motorway in Metaponto and does not take long to stop off and view.  With its picnic benches set behind the bougainvillea lined path which leads to the columns, it’s also a perfect place for lunch stop.

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We then headed to the museum to understand more about the sites and it was also a useful place to then discover the exact location of the second site which spans a much larger area and is home to the ruins of several temples, a tomb, agora and a partially reconstructed amphitheatre.  Wear good shoes as this area is beautifully wild and full of grasshoppers, a few bees and lizards rather than set in a manicured landscape.  This is about 5 minutes away from the museum and first site.  It was very quiet when we visited and it was only towards the end when a small coach party arrived we realised just how peaceful this place was!

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Allow about 1.5 hours to visit all 3 attractions plus travelling time and the only entry fee payable is for the museum.  This is a perfect stopping point on the way to Maratea.

Monopoli

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Take a chance (!) on this pretty place on the way back to Bari airport for your flight home.  Walk past the locals making the most of every inch of its tiny beach, down the brightest white washed street I have seen, along the water side via a mini fortress and through to the harbour.  At the end you will find an archway which leads to a quaint piazza, the perfect place to have your last Italian supper.  We chose a typically Italian restaurant and dined on seafood topped off with prosecco and found it was incredibly cheap.  We enjoyed ice-cream here from the friendliest ice-cream man before wandering off to explore the surrounding streets.  Monopoli was pretty, friendly and the prefect way to end our Italian road trip.

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Europe

Matera

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Once the embarrassment of Italy, this is now the jewel in its crown.  Steeped in history, this is possibly the world’s longest living civilisation, having been occupied since the Paleolithic era.  In the 1950s this place had an open sewer running through the streets; Matera was a problem but now it’s a symbol of hope, beauty and strength.  It truly is an inspirational place to be.

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Accommodation here is in caves.  We stayed at Le Dodici Lune which has a display in reception of how this hotel looked just a few years ago and it is remarkable how far this place has come in such a short time.  Our room was very large and was comfortable although you do have the slightly damp feeling when you’re there as you are staying in a cave after all!  This hotel has a wonderful restaurant which sits in the sunken courtyard.  Candles line the stairway up to the passing pathways making this a romantic place to dine.

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Many visitors just pass by and you could probably get a feel for the place on a day trip.  We spent 3 nights here exploring and it was a great decision as we felt a part of Matera and enveloped by its hospitality by the time we left.

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Do away with all maps…..you will not be able to use them here.  Streets are alleys which merge and wind up, down and around.  You will feel lost without a map in this maze but be patient and you will soon learn your way around.  You have to remember that the cathedral is the centre and at the top of the sissi and then just let your feet wander and explore the delights of Matera.  One discovery I made which sounds obvious now I write this is that I expected Matera to be the sassi and so it was a bit of a shock to arrive to the busiest city we’d encountered on our trip and a bit of an alarm clock to our living dream.  However, once we’d found our way to the sassi, we discovered the beauty and peace that existed within.

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A big tip for those staying here is to bring a small case.  I had travelled with a large suitcase and a small carry on suitcase and before leaving Maratea, I had transferred all my things for our 3 night stay into the smaller case.  This makes a big difference if you are staying anywhere other than the hotels just off the main street (‘ground’ level).  Also, take shoes with excellent grip and do away with heels for evenings as this place is super slippy underfoot due to the well worn limestone.

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The best way to start your stay or your day trip here is to take a tour.  One of the best tours we have ever had was here in Matera.  A husband and wife team run tours in English and Italian with great skill, knowledge and energy.  Learn about the history of the area, the architecture and hidden symbolism with Matera Tour Guide.  I would also suggest a visit to Casa Noha at the start of your time in Matera which gives you a great understanding of its history.  This is located not far from the Cathedral but is not necessarily the easiest place to find.

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Matera is the setting for many films, most famously, The Passion of the Christ.  Explore the Madonna delle Virtu and see the Monastery where Mel Gibson chose to film.  This is one of the most interesting spots as it’s hidden away on the outer part of the sassi and has various levels to explore.  Don’t miss Casa Gotta (a reconstructed cave house), La Raccolta (a remarkable water filtration system and now a UNESCO site) and the churches Santa Maria de Idris, San Pietro Barisano and Santa Lucia Alle Malve.  Possibly the most famous of the churches is that set in one of the squares near to the ‘main road’ through the sassi, Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo al Sasso Caveoso.

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We never usually return to the same place to dine twice as we like to make the most of the experiences whilst staying somewhere.  However, Malatesta’s hypnotic trance had us returning for a second night.  On our first night, a guest stood up and treated us to an hour of opera and on our second night, we met a lovely group of Finnish artists.  The food was plentiful, home cooked and served with a genuineness you will struggle to find elsewhere.  This place lives in the moment and is open to all, a real taste of Matera.

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Europe

Maratea

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A hidden corner of Italy harbours a beautiful secret that is Maratea.  I inadvertently stumbled across this treasure in a fictional novel; reading about the pomegranate tree, Christ the Redeemer Statue and the homely Villa Rosa.  To discover just a few months later that this place existed meant there was only one thing for it…….I had to see it for myself!

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Maratea was the third stop on our road trip around Italy this summer.  We chose to stay at Villa Cheta Elite nestled away in the hillside at Acquafredda just 10 minutes away from Maratea.  It’s located on a coastal road which winds around the cliffs with stunning views out to sea and so walking around this part of Italy is not really an option.  However, Maratea itself is completely walkable.

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Our hotel was a stunning Italian villa beautifully kept and oozing understated luxury.  Our room had a dual aspect view of the turquoise waters below and we could see the outdoor restaurant between the pretty branches of bougainvillea.  This for us was the prefect base for our next adventure.

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Maratea is a small hillside town with narrow cobble roads, a broad selection of cafés and even more churches.  It’s a great way to spend a day taking in history, architecture and enjoying good Italian food.  Stop for lunch at La Caffeteria in Piazza Buraglia which is a tiny piazza full of character.  High above the town and a car ride taking in a few hair pin bends is the Christ the Redeemer statue with its back to the town below it.  In the novel I read, its back was toward the sea as the fishermen had no interest in the statue and the funds it was consuming and therefore, it was decided the statue would not look down towards the fishermen.  In reality, the statue stands atop this wonderful town offering a more protective arm and blessing this historically impoverished part of Italy.  When we visited, the sky was grey with rain and created a moody atmosphere allowing for great photos.

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The harbour hosts several wonderful restaurants which enjoy fabulous views out to sea.  Enjoy the most delicious Italian food and great value wine as you watch the sun set.  We visited Lanterna Rossa perched on the first floor with an almost concealed entrance which is up some steps and around to the left and certainly worth looking for!

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Beaches here are plentiful but don’t expect the sandy beach found in Castellaneta Marina.  This area is home to more pebble beaches but don’t let this discourage you.  We enjoyed La Secca beach for a day to recharge our batteries in advance of our remaining tour of Italy.  You pay a fee to park and to hire a sun bed but it’s all reasonable and there’s a great value beach bar on site which serves up good lunches.  This beach is located in a quiet cove and is family friendly.  Take a dip in the clear calm waters or hire a pedalo to take you further out.  We enjoyed a peaceful day here and would certainly return despite being lovers of sandy beaches.

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If you have time, don’t miss the White Horse restaurant which is very nearby La Secca.  There is a warm welcome and great pizza awaiting you!

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This is not something that is usual but we were lucky enough to watch the release of a turtle on the day we left Maratea.  Before arriving in Maratea, we’d stopped off at the WWF centre in Policoro and had learned that the turtle would be released at midday on the day we were due to leave.  We therefore headed to the beach and waited and waited until the moment finally came.  We felt incredibly lucky to have captured this memory.

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Europe

Volo Dell’Angelo

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We booked our flight on the internet in advance of our trip to Italy and opted to begin our journey in Castelmezzano, over to Pietrapertosa.  We parked on the side of the road in Castelmezzano and walked to the tourist office to collect our tickets.  It’s about a 10 minute quick walk through the town to get there and so leave some time.  You then trace your steps back to the entrance to the town near to where you park your car to catch a minibus to the hill you need to climb to reach Volo Dell’Angelo.  At the top you are given your equipment, then get hooked up to the zipline and you’re away.

Soaring at over 120m above the towns of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa, the Volo Dell’Angelo reaches speeds of up to 120 km per hour.  Imagine trekking up a winding steep hill and looking out over the valley beneath you in all its glory, knowing you will be flying above it very soon.  Strap yourself into a body sling and stand beside your partner as you line up horizontally with the waiting platform.  You will hear the words ‘have a nice flight’ before you are launched off the platform and out into the open.  You will hear and feel the rush of the wind, you will feel as though there is little to keep you suspended there above the caverns below and yet the fear leaves your mind as you are blown away by the thrill and peace the flight of the angel delivers.

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Time races by just as quickly as you feel your body is gliding through the air and it is brilliant fun.  At the end you can snap up souvenir pictures capturing that adrenaline rush. A minibus then takes you to the town.  Take a walk past the homes, shops and venture down to see the church as the bottom of the hill and at the end, you will climb about 100 steps to the return flight.  We went further and passed the return flight centre to see the fort on the hill before returning which has terrific views.  Castelmezzano is probably one of the most stunning towns that we had the pleasure of visiting in Italy.  Its yellow and terracotta homes glow in the sun and on the return flight, generated a real wow moment, a memory imprinted for good.  It’s a fun place to explore and provides a perfect lunch stop (just around the corner from the church square on the left hand side there’s a café with the nicest Italian owner serving great paninis!).

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A trip to this region is incomplete if you have not set eyes on Castelmezzano.  The best view is flying towards it; an angelic flight that is!

Europe

Alberobello

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About an hour south of Bari airport you will find this gem of a town, partially sleepy and partially buzzing with tourists.  The old whitewashed funnel-topped trulli houses sit nestled in the hillside basking in the Italian sunshine and are symbolic of this region’s past.  Previously built to be easily dismantled, these now sturdy buildings are cute homes and hotel rooms.

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We made Alberobello our first stop on our tour of Puglia and Basilicata this summer.  It was easy to reach late evening and we were warmly greeted by Francesco from Trulli Holiday Resort.  The trulli are spread out across the town and are mainly in two parts – the Rione Monti and Aia Piccola.  The latter is where we stayed and was far quieter than the tourist honey pot!

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Spend your day wandering the streets of Alberobello, collect a bag of cherries from the discreet shop on the corner of Piazza Mario Pagano or an ice cream from one of the many vendors along route (they will all taste heavenly!).  Don’t miss Alberobello Cathedral, the trulli church in Rione Monti, take a peek inside a real trulli dwelling, spot the symbols on the trulli rooftops, learn about the region’s history and see a masterpiece of workmanship at Museo del Territorio.

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When you have walked your socks off, head back to your trulli to get ready for dinner.  The Italians do not eat until 8pm at the earliest and so there’s plenty of time for a drink before dinner.  Head to Paco wines and take in the scenes around you on the way.  Old men sitting on a bench catching up on the events of the day, women gathered together watching over grandchildren playing in the Piazza……typically Italian and wonderful to see.  Have dinner at Trattoria Amatulli where you will be hosted by a friendly and proud owner who will serve you delicious home cooked food for half the price of an ‘Italian’ meal back home.

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We spent 2 nights here as there is plenty to do around and about too.  We visited Ostuni (the place to pick up your olive oil), Cisternino (a great lunch stop – you must try the bombette and egg and cheese balls slightly fried at Le Chicche di Zia Rosa), Locorotondo (the best ice cream on our travels can be found at Café Dolce Passione by tourist information – take it to the park just across the street to enjoy in peace) and Martina Franca (one of the pearls of Puglia – you can get seriously lost here if your wander the maze of streets and so take some water with you and head to one of the Piazzas for lunch).  Do be mindful that the Italians do observe the afternoon closure and so it’s a great time to head for a lunch stop or a wander.

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Europe, Trips

Our Rough Notes: 2 Nights in Berlin

To us Berlin is about history.  It’s also about other things….club culture for example…..but that’s another blog.  We have focused on a short city break taking in some famous sights and hopefully a ready-to-go guide for anyone thinking of visiting.  Berlin is a great city break because it’s not too far away, most sights are free and if your German isn’t up to standard, you will still be able to get around….in a very efficient fashion!

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Our Top Tips 

  • Get yourself a Berlin Welcome Card which covers your transportation in either zones A & B or A, B & C for 48 or 72 hours (you can get a card for up to 6 days if staying longer).  It makes life so much easier when hopping on and off public transport and saves you money not only on the transport but also on entry fees in shops and restaurants.  When you get your ticket you will need to validate this (yellow machines on buses and near the ticket machines in U-Bahn stations).
  • If flying into Schönefeld, get the X171 or X7 to Rudow U-Bahn (about 10 minutes in duration) and then you can get to your hotel from there – it makes it a very cheap transfer and the public transport is so reliable and frequent.
  • When flying back, make sure you top up on water before the airport as the water there is expensive!  It was about €4.5 for a bottle that cost £1 in WH Smiths at Stansted!  Duty free for spirits is excellent though.

Things to do

We managed to pack a lot in to our 2 night stay.  We caught a 06:30 flight from Stansted to Berlin on Monday and arrived at our hotel at 11am.  On our return just 2 days later, we left our hotel at just after 14:00 for our 17:05 flight home.  We managed to see everything listed below and we have listed everything in the order we did it to show you what is possible in such a short visit.

Day 1

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The museum sets the scene for the Berlin Wall – it summarises the war and then details what happened after, mainly focusing on the divide, and looks at the escape methods used.  The museum contains lots of information (too much in all honesty) but allow about 1.5 – 2 hours.

Cost – €14.50 per adult (discounted with the Welcome Card).

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There are exhibitions inside and outside.  We loved the outside exhibition which mainly looks at the rise of Nazism and what happened when the party came into power.  The inside exhibition repeats this a little but has interesting boards on the Nuremburg Trials and other historical happenings such as the death marches.  Again, a little too much information inside; allow about 2 hours and if running short of time and the weather is good, just see the outside.

Cost – free.

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One of the least busy and best views in the city!  Located on Potsdamer platz (red brick building).

Cost – €7.50 per adult – the Welcome Card allows for a discount if you get the ticket to the top and guide

Not far from Brandenburg Gate and now just a little information board on the site which is now a car park (at the top of the street “In den Ministergärten”).

Cost – free

Day 2

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This is adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate and it well worth a visit.  You will either love it or hate it.  We loved it but we like our modern art and we can see the symbolic nature of its position and formality.

Cost – free

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Symbolic of German Unity since the wall came down in 1989.  Stop here for a quick picture and to learn more about the history of this grand gateway.

Cost – free

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The home of Germany’s Parliament.  You can stop for a quick picture or if you pre-book, you can visit the roof terrace and glass dome.

Cost – free

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One of the best museums in Berlin.  It tells the story of the divide between East and West with real life accounts in the station which allowed limited passage between the two sides.

Cost – free

  • Chocolate shops
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Rausch (if only for the chocolate sculptures and displays – luxury chocolate at great prices) AND Ritter Sport (you can create your own chocolate and it’s quite cheap to buy and tastes very good) – both not far away from Unter den Linden which is where you can find the Brandenburg Gate.

Cost – it depends on how much you like your chocolate!

A pretty square with lovely buildings and cafes for drinks just off Unter den Linden and by Fassbender & Rausch.

Cost – free if just browsing

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Book burning square just off Under den Linden.  There is a plaque to see and it’s on the way to the Berliner Dom and so worth a stop.

Cost – free

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The great cathedral with stunning views inside and you can ascend to the walkway at the top (which eventually takes you outside) for some wonderful views.

Cost – €7 per adult.

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This is a huge site and we only managed sections A and B which easily took an hour and a half to do.  You can see what the death zone would have looked like, the chapel of reconciliation, more information on the war and the divide and a memorial of those who lost their lives as a result of the wall.  We got transport from Berliner Dom to here.

Cost – free

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A symbol of freedom and the largest remaining section of standing wall covered in art work on the East Side (never permitted until after 1989).  It’s lovely to just walk along and enjoy the messages behind the art.  We got the U-Bahn from Berlin Wall Memorial to here.

Cost – free

Day 3

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A bombed church which sits between 2 new sections, much like Coventry Cathedral, and it has a memorial from Coventry there too uniting the two cities.

Cost – free

From Kaiser Wilhem Memorial Church, it’s a 20-25 minute walk, partly through Tiergarten park.  The Victory Column is in the middle of a busy road but you can access it by a subway.

Cost – free to view but if you want to go up the victory column it’s €3 per person

A bit like Selfridges but with a better food court!

Cost – free to browse!

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If you don’t fancy packing as much in and want just a selection from the above, try:

  1.  Palace of Tears
  2. Jewish Memorial
  3. Topography of Terror (outside)
  4. Berliner Dom
  5. Panoramapunkt
  6. Berlin Wall Memorial
  7. East Side Gallery

If you want the tick list…….add the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag of course!

Europe, Trips

Day Trip to Paris

Is it really possible?  Worthwhile?  A waste of time, money or sleep?

Let me tell you what we got up to and see if this helps you decide whether a day trip to Paris is something to consider.

We set off at 5am from Warwick one cold Saturday in February for our day trip to Paris on Eurostar.  I hadn’t been on Eurostar before and so was looking forward to the experience.  We drove to a tube station on the outskirts of London and paid a small fee for all day parking (on street FREE parking may also be available) and used our Oyster cards to hop on the tube to Kings Cross.  We headed straight to check-in and found there was no queue.  Our boarding passes were scanned and bags put through a security scanner and then within minutes we were in the boarding lounge.  This area is nothing to write home about but it has lots of refreshments and a reasonable amount of seating.  We only arrived half an hour before our 8:30am train left and so hardly any waiting time before being allowed to board.

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The journey itself is about 2.5 hours.  You reach the tunnel in no time and within 15 – 20 minutes you reach France.  We travelled in standard coaches and found them to be comfortable with lots of leg room but a little tired in places.  They will also try and sell you metro tickets and other passes on board which are actually more expensive despite them mentioning a saving.  The only thing they will save is time queuing up at the Gare du Nord and so you may consider an extra £5 or so worth it.

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We arrived just before midday and walked to our first stop of the day, Brasserie Julien, a restaurant we’d found online.  I had been quite fussy with my requirements.  I had searched for a long time for a restaurant which was traditionally French looking, had a good menu and at a reasonable price; we chose well.  The food was delicious and typically French and the restaurant interior was stunning with a ceiling that reminded me of a Tiffany lamp, angelic paintings and large mirrors everywhere.  There were a lot of locals dining and a few British accents audible.  We spent 2.5 hours there enjoying the food and atmosphere and chatting to two local French women in broken French about our day trip.  They actually bought us a glass of champagne at the end of our meal breaking at least one French stereotype.

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With our bellies full of food and wine, we decided to walk this off at Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (although we did catch a metro to the park to save time of course!).  We spent a good half an hour strolling around the park…..well, strolling between the hiking – it’s a very hilly park!  You are rewarded with beautiful and unique views across the city and you really feel a million miles away from the tourists.  This was our third trip to Paris and so we were happy to steer away from the tick box attractions and we loved this park.  It reminded me of Central Park and Hawkstone Park….something different around each corner – a suspension bridge was one of the highlights though.  Sadly, a key viewing spot was closed when we visited but do trek to the top…..the views will be worth it.  If you have more time, bring a picnic here in the summer.

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After a bit of fresh air, we were ready to hit the galleries.  We have visited the usual suspects but there was one gallery I had wanted to visit for a while as my love of modern art has grown – Centre Pompidou.  It’s not necessarily a cheap gallery to visit but I loved it.  It’s wacky, makes you stop and think and it’s fun to look at.  We spent just under 2 hours here smiling, being creative with our photos and deep in thought and I would recommend this to anyone who like modern art or something a bit different.

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At this point, we didn’t have much longer in Paris before we had to be back for our 8:10pm train home.  As the sun was setting we made a mad dash to Notre Dame and headed under the bridge, down to the river to catch a sunset photo of this stunning church from a different angle.  This is one of my favourite areas of Paris and so it felt almost homely to be back again.  Heading back to the Gare du Nord we felt happy and content and felt we’d squeezed every last drop out of our day.  The alternative…….a day cleaning at home or watching TV?  I know what I’d choose every time.  Yes, the early start and travelling is difficult (especially the drive back to London at 10:15pm after such a long day!) but the rewards far outweigh it and we got to have a lie in the next day.

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What I learned

  1. If you’re travelling to Paris, go by Eurostar rather than plane – almost certainly if you’re going for the day.  The security process is quicker and more efficient, the cost is much less, there are no weight limits and it’s so easy to use.  Make sure you book in advance as far as possible to get the best rates.
  2. If you have a few minutes, buy your metro tickets at the Gare du Nord and buy a ‘carnet’ of 10 tickets between 2 if you’re there for the day.  We like walking but we also had some things we wanted to see and do which weren’t close together and the metro was very handy.
  3. You can achieve a lot in a little time by planning well.  We have the advantage of knowing Paris a little but we know from past experience that whenever visiting somewhere new, you get to know a city better by looking at map, getting familiar with what there is to see and do, when things are open, entrance fees, tube stations etc.
  4. Day trips like these are fun.  They are different to the run of the mill Saturday.  You don’t need to pack.  You can feel like you’re a million miles away in just a short time.  It doesn’t have to be expensive but you can splash out if you want to.
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 Toni Sharp

Europe, General

How to pack light and avoid checking in your case

When you are heading off for a short break, you don’t want to be taking a lot of luggage with you, especially as this is likely to lead to pricey checked luggage charges.  I am terrible for taking too much with me and no matter how hard I try to scale my luggage down, it’s always a close call.

I headed to Berlin and Malta a few years ago for 2 and 3 night breaks and I am still so pleased with my packing, I still talk about it now!  I decided to challenge myself to taking hand luggage only.  At the beginning, my only concern was the weight limit……how to scale down my 20kg load to just 10kg.  That actually turned out to be the easy part!  What I found really tough was only being able to take a single 20 x 20 cm bag for all liquids.  I took facial scrub, cleanser, various moisturisers, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, body lotion, contact lens fluid, toothpastes, sun lotion, foundation, mascara, eye liner……you get the picture (quite literally….below)!

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I am pleased to say that I managed, comfortably, to pack light for both breaks. It was liberating to be able to head straight to security rather than stand in the check-in line and even sweeter to walk out of the airport the other end without waiting for my bag to make an appearance on the carousel.

I thought it would be useful to give my top tips on packing light to save you time and money.  Just be mindful that you could actually arrive at the airport and be asked to check your bag in and so take a padlock with you just in case or if you forget and happen to have a hair band or elastic band, these come in useful as ties (potentially more secure as they can’t be tampered with as easily).

My top 5 tips

  • It starts with the case.  Invest in a lightweight case which takes your little finger alone to lift it.  We used the IT case.
  • Make a list of what you want to take and then think about what you need to take.  Take a second look at everything.  Do you need to take a full bottle of shampoo for 3 nights?  What does your hotel already provide?  Do you need 3 pairs of shoes?  Everything can be scaled down!
  • Be creative – I used a spare contact lens case for my cleanser which continued to last long after I got home; I can safely say that it would have lasted 10-14 nights (morning and night use).  Think about using sample sachets of body lotion and conditioner and samples of perfume (which lasted more than my 3 night stay).
  • Packing light means packing light clothing.  I took lightweight dresses which didn’t crease for the evening……better than heavy jeans.  I appreciate my sunny destinations helped with the light weight packing but even in Iceland a couple of years ago where it was very cold, I could pack a light dress and tights for the evening and I was already wearing my heavy coat to the airport which I would have worn over the dress.  Men could pack linen trousers as an alternative or, if jeans are a must, find some light weight ones.  You can always wear your heavier items!
  • Plan your wardrobe.  Usually, I just pack a lot of things and decide what to wear when I arrive.  For these short trips, I planned out everything, making sure I took items which I could mix and match.  Use a particular colour palette to make this easier.  It’s tedious I know but it will mean you don’t waste your valuable packing space, leaving room for souvenirs (non-liquid ones of course unless you have room for a small one in your 20 x 20 cm bag!).  It also means you get dressed more quickly as you have already decided what you are going to wear!

Toni Sharp

Europe

Bristol’s Top 5

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1. Clifton Suspension Bridge

Free

Open all year round at all times of the day with the visitor centre opening from 10 am until 5 pm.

  • Amazing views and a real appreciation for engineering can be had from visiting this site. You can snap some wonderful pictures at any time of the year.
  • Don’t forget to visit the Clifton Rock Slide which is free and fun! This can be found just below the path that leads to the Camera Obscura, another attraction to visit whilst in the area.
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2. Bristol Ferry Boats

A round trip costs £5.10 per adult (concessions £4.10)

Depending upon the tour you want, departures are between 09:56 with the last boat at 18:15 but you will need to check the timetable to plan.

  • Enjoy a 40 minute tour of Bristol’s floating harbour and many of its sites including SS Great Britain. There are 5 boats in the fleet with 3 of these containing heated cabins for those cooler days.

3. Street Art Walking Tour

£9.80 for adults and £5.50 for under 16s

Saturday and Sunday at 11 am with occasional extra days added at certain times throughout the year (e.g. half term).

  • With Bristol being home to Banksy, there are a number of his creations on display all over Bristol. Let this walking tour take you right to them amongst many others during your 2 hour discovery of the city.
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4. Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Entrance is free

The dates for 2019: 8-11 August

  • Enjoy ‘Breakfast and Balloons’ at 6am every morning where the hot air balloons rise with the sun….worth getting up for! If that’s too early, head to the evening ascent at 6pm but be there by 3pm to get a good viewing spot (you could take a picnic with you to enjoy the wait).

5. SS Great Britain

£17.00 per adult and £10 per child aged 5-16 and free to those aged 4 and below)

Open 10am until 4:30 pm (until 6pm April to November)

  • Marvel at one of Brunel’s finest creations and take in not only the sight and sounds of life on board but even the smells. Head first to below the waterline to see the hull of the ship before then taking a journey on board the world’s first great ocean liner.
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