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

  • Best boutiqueValentina, St Julians Bay

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 ice-cream for just 1.65 Euros!

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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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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.  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 Euros 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 – 9.30 Euros per person (this is with a discount for having 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 Euros per person – the Welcome Card allows for a discount if you get the ticket to the top and guide – it’s normally 6.5 Euros just for the ticket to the top.

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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Fassbender & 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 – 5 Euros per person with the Welcome Card.

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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 Euros 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!

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 our £2 day ticket (for parking) 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 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

Iceland: Your 5 Night Winter Getaway

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Day 1

It’s an early start!  Depart the UK on an early flight (we chose to fly Easyjet from Luton as the prices and flight times suited us) and arrive in Iceland in time for lunch.  As you venture outside for the first time, the place feels grey and almost of another time.  It’s cold, quiet and eerie but very intriguing.  You can buy your return bus ticket into town in advance or at the airport although it’s not easy to find the bus once outside and so be prepared to ask.  If you pay a little bit extra you get dropped right to your door (fully recommended given the small extra fee and because you may well be feeling too tired to navigate with a suitcase trailing behind you).

We chose to stay at Center Hotel Thingholt which is very central, reasonably priced and very contemporary.  The lobby is decorated with dark glass masks representing the hidden people of Iceland and a small waterfall trickling down over them.  There is a small bar area just off reception which serves great value cocktails in the evening.

Head to the Laundromat for lunch.  Opened in March 2011, this little café is a stroll from the hotel and combines the practicalities of completing the week’s laundry and replenishment.  You can pick up light bites or something more substantial if the early start has left you hungry (including good vegetarian and vegan options).

Afterwards, take a walk to the nearby concert Hall, Harpa, to see what is on in the week.  In the winter look out for free Christmas concerts which are short, mostly in Icelandic but immerse you in the Christmas (and Icelandic) spirit.

Wonder back to your hotel via the water front and side streets, not forgetting to take in the Sun Voyager Sculpture and Höfði, and then (after a siesta) spruce up for an evening out.  Cocktails in the bar, possibly a bite to eat and then relaxing listening to a live band.  Try Kaldi for its local beers and homely feel, or if you fancy a night on the town (if you have any energy left!) try Club Solon and for live music go to Kaffi (Klapparstigur 25, Reykjavic, Iceland).

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Day 2

A day exploring the capital.  Start by visiting the Settlement Exhibition by the Tourist Information office.  It doesn’t open until 10am and so if you’re up before that, head to Landakotskirkja beforehand (a little church nearby).  This is a small museum but gives you a good understanding of how Iceland has developed over time.  It’s a good place to start as it doesn’t get light in the winter until about 11am and so it won’t matter if you’re inside.  Tourist Information is a great place to go to book all your trips for the week and so pay it a stop afterwards.

Explore Hallgrimskirkja and don’t forget, if you want daytime shots, go between 11am and 3pm.  Cafe Loki just opposite is well worth a stop.  If you fancy trying the local delicacies, this is one of the places to go and even if not, it’s a good place to try Skyr.  If you fancy something a bit more traditional, try the oldest coffee shop in town (Cafe Mokka) which serves up the best waffles and most warming hot chocolate on a cold winter day.  If you’re out and about, don’t forget to stop at the Bernhoft Bakery not far from the hotel which sells wonderful cakes and pastries for that much needed sugar boost.

Explore the art galleries (Hafnarhus was our favourite although if you love art, make sure you give yourself time to see all 3 included int he entrance fee) and don’t forget to take a walk around the small lake Tjörnin and if you’re brave enough and if it’s cold enough, get your selfie on the ice.  Not far from here you can explore The National Museum of Iceland  which makes your realise just how far this place has come is such a very short space of time; remarkable.

Looking for somewhere to go for your evening meal?  Try Café Paris which offers lots of choice and is very reasonable.

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Day 3

Take a trip to the Blue Lagoon to relax after a hard day of sight seeing.  You can catch a bus from the main bus station which is about a 20 minute walk from the hotel.  You can buy your entry tickets from Tourist Information which means when you arrive you can walk straight in.  Set away from the capital and close to the airport, many travellers will choose to do this trip on the way from or to the airport but others may want a more relaxing experience.  If you go early in the day and before sunrise, you arrive to coloured lights illuminating the power station next door which provides the lagoon with its warm water.  It’s a very unique experience running over sheets of ice in the darkness to plunge into warm waters and not be able to see more than a foot in front of you for all the steam.  The lagoon has boxes silica mud situated around the edge for you to apply to your face and body which you leave on for 5 minutes and wash off in the spa water.

Head back into town for an afternoon coffee and to sample another local favourite, dried cod or haddock.  It doesn’t sound too appetising but try it with cocktails if you’d prefer and you may well go back for seconds.  If you like lobster, you will love the very sweet cafe Saegreifinn which serves a lobster soup near the harbour.  The seats are cushioned barrels and it’s very cozy but just what you want on a cold day.

Try the local fish and chips at Icelandic Fish and Chips (it has recently moved from the harbour) which is almost self service but you can’t get it fresher.  It’s a basic set up but the taste is everything but.  Head on our for an evening boat trip to spot the northern lights (we chose Special Tours) and keep warm with free tea, coffee and hot chocolate and keep fueled with biscuits).  You can go in land although that is a 4 hour trip as it involves a 1 hour bus journey either side.  The boat trip races you out to sea in a matter of minutes although be warned, this is a cold trip and so wrap up warm.  Also, if you’re there for photos, try the land trip as the boat can get quite rocky.

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Day 4

Early start today!  Head out on a pre-booked golden circle tour (we picked Iceland Guided Tours because it was a tour by mini bus and so much more efficient and also, it was the cheapest).  Get picked up from your hotel and take in Gullfoss, the geysirs and Thingvellir Park.  If you are going in the Winter, you may find Yaktrax useful!  Gullfoss is one of the coldest places we have ever been and taking your gloves off for just a minute can be very painful.  If you’re there for photos, you will either need to be very brave or take a pair of well insulted and thin paid of gloves.

After a long day exploring just some of Iceland’s most beautiful sights, you will deserve a very nice meal out.  We tried Fiskfelagio Fish Company which offered a 3 course meal plus a gift from the chef, bursting with flavour.  We did not expect Iceland to offer so much from a culinary perspective but we loved every meal there are were very impressed.  Treat your tastebuds to anything on the menu and you will not be disappointed.

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Day 5

Your final day.  Spend this walking across glaciers, exploring more of the capital, taking a walk to Perlan (also a restaurant) just on the edge of the city for some wonderful views, go snowmobiling, horse riding or take a jeep tour (see Reykjavik Excursions which run a number of day tours).  The choice really is endless.

Take a quick bite at Hamborgarabulla Tomasar near the waters edge.  You can’t miss this tiny round restaurant which radiates light from within in the lead up to Christmas and the burgers are good and brilliant value.  It’s small and so be prepared to wait for a space.

If you want to, take another tour out to see the northern lights as this may be your last chance.  We were lucky enough to see them in the capital on our last night there which is unusual due to the light pollution and so another trip out to the darkness may well be your best bet.

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Day 6

Another early start to catch your plane home (Icelandic chocolate and alcohol are very reasonably priced at the airport).  A final bus ride through the middle of the night morning and you’re back at Keflavik Airport with a thousand memories and a desire to return.