At the risk of sounding like a Eurovision host… greetings from Latvia!
I don’t have the sparkly outfit or the slightly dodgy English accent (although some may disagree with that), nor am I looking for my five minutes of fame. So perhaps less Eurovision host, more lazy wanderer.
Riga has become a ‘must see’ for many a traveller, a mid-point on the popular route between Tallinn and Vilnius.
The time difference is +2 GMT and it’s a little surprising to find the sun rising at 3 in the morning when the evenings draw in much the same time as they do in the UK.
The temperature is actually like the best bits of the UK summer and sometimes hotter, but that can be significantly reduced by the wind.
The currency is the euro, the prices are relatively cheap, the local supermarket is Rimi.
Everything is pretty central and the airport is accessible by little more than half an hour by bus for around 2 euros.
So, that’s the stats and stuff.
So what’s Riga really like?
Well, if you’ve been to Budapest, it’s quite similar. A lot of the cities over this way are like that: where communism still flavours the architecture yet the need for growth and change is evident in the modern buildings that have sprung up amongst them.
The main thing you’ll realise about Riga on arrival is the parks. Everywhere you look there are beautiful parks, with statues, floral sculptures, sailing boats, cafes, and sometimes a ‘summer stage’ where I’m told there are free performances. If you’re a park-bencher – book, beer, cake, coffee – this place is beyond perfect. You could probably do a full tour of all the benches and be here for months!
It’s a ‘shoes off’ culture so be prepared to bare feet the moment you arrive in a hostel or home. Also be prepared for the supermarkets to stop selling alcohol around 7:30. Stock up, early!
The traffic lights can be very quick changing so do not dawdle. You’ll be alerted by a series of beeps. When the beeper beeps, get going!
There is a great central market and if you go inside there are a lot of stalls selling local fare. Prepare to put on weight. It is pastry-central here. I haven’t tried savoury Latvian food yet, but that day will come.
Whilst English is not spoken everywhere, the locals are used to the poorly multi-tongued English speaker, and are patient and on the whole very kind.
It’s too soon to tell but I imagine a week would be an adequate length of time to see everything there is to see of Riga. But, since I’ll be here for a while yet, perhaps I can provide a little more detail on that in the near future.
But until then, and until I sample the local beer… Priekā! (cheers)
When I first started planning my trip to Stockholm, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I’d heard from everyone that went there that it’s a beautiful place, but had no specifics so I thought I’d do a bit of research – I’m an avid planner so I enjoyed the planning of the trip every bit as much as the trip itself. Below are 10 reasons why you should consider this great Scandinavian city as your next holiday destination.
1. Gamla Stan
This is the first thing you’ll find online about Stockholm. It’s the old centre of the city and is located on a small island. Actually, Stockholm is formed from more islands split by canals but they are very well interconnected. This district is a really special part of the city with colourful architecture, narrow streets paved with cubic rock, tall churches and last but not least, great cafés and restaurants. Just put down the map and get lost on the lovely streets, looking everywhere around you. When you get tired, have a break at Fabrique – amazing coffee and pastry.
Oh, Swedish pastry. I intoxicated my Facebook friends for the whole length of my trip with photos of the delicious pastries that this country makes. If you have to try something from the Swedish cuisine, ditch the IKEA meatballs and go for the great, cinnamon or nutty tasting pastry. Have it at breakfast, with a creamy coffee (what the Swedes call ‘fika’) – guarantees a great start of the day. What am I talking about, have it any time you want and try ALL the varieties.
For a nice view over the city, go to Observatorielunden – it’s a park on a hill next to the Old Stockholm Observatory. From there, take a nice walk through Norrmalm’s streets, it’s a lovely area with shops both local and international. For a coffee break, go to Espresso House on Drottninggatan, one of the best decorated places I’ve ever been – great coffee and tea too!
4. Hammarby Sjöstad
Roughly translating as Hammarby Sea City or Hammarby Lake City, this is a very modern and new area of Stockholm and is part of the Södermalm district. Go there in the morning or even afternoon, perhaps to see the sunset as the area is surrounded by water and canals. You can then take the boat to return to the centre.
Skansen is the world’s first open-air museum, founded in 1891. Here you can stroll through five centuries of Swedish history, from north to south, with a real sense of the past all around in the historical buildings and dwellings, populated by characters in period dress – according to their website. It was a really great place to see, especially as it started snowing while we were there – a very good reason to refugee in an old style café and have home-made pastry and sweets.
6. Swedish people
They have a lot of style, that is for sure. That reflects in their clothes, shoes, bags, decoration and anything that involves design, really. They are discreet, not very outgoing but friendly. If you are the kind of person that likes to get to know the locals you will have to put some active effort into it – try renting a room in a flat hosted by locals.
7. The Stockholm City Hall
The City Hall has an interesting building (with an interior garden) and location, next to Stadhusparken, which is a park surrounded by water. As long as you are there, check out the Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel; it looks very cool.
8. Rosendals Trägård
Next to Skansen is Rosendals Trägård (Rosendal’s Garden) – an open garden, which wishes to present biodynamic (organic) garden cultivation. We didn’t get to go there, but apparently they have a café, plant shop and bakery, so what’s not to like?
One of the hipster districts of Stockholm, with a creative and relaxed vibe, offering a variety of Swedish fashion shops, vintage stores, galleries and design stores as well as well decorated cafés and bars. Here are also two of the best viewpoints in the city: Fjällgatan and Monteliusvägen.
All around the city, I never laid my eyes on an ugly building. The Swedes have a great sense of what looks good and that reflects in everything. Interesting colourful buildings, wonderfully refurbished old ones. We particularly found the roofs worth a look at so if you are into that, be careful not to trip while looking up all the time.
Blend in with the locals – learn Swedish with uTalk so you can order pastry and coffee or even just to say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. Everyone in Stockholm speaks very good English, but nothing compares with the feeling of seeing that smile on their faces when you use the local language in a casual conversation.
A couple of months ago, I visited Barcelona in north-east Spain. The city has something for everyone – history, architecture, beach and mountains. We were only there a few days – and on a bit of a budget – but we had great weather, and managed to explore the majority of this amazing city on foot. Here are my top ten reasons to visit Barcelona.
Barcelona loves its fountains; they’re everywhere. My favourite of these was the stunning display stretching from the Plaça d’Espanya to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. It’s quite a steep climb, to the point that they’ve actually installed outdoor escalators to help you out, but well worth the effort for the view from the top.
The work of architect Antoni Gaudí is everywhere in Barcelona – from the imposing (and still as yet unfinished) Sagrada Família to the popular tourist attraction, Parc Guëll. But you can also find examples of his work in the centre of the city, in houses like Casa Batlló and La Pedrera. If you like your architecture traditional, it may not be your cup of tea, but I loved the modernist designs; there’s so much to look at. And I think the Sagrada Família may be one of my favourite places of all time.
3. The metro
I’ll be honest, Barcelona airport is pretty confusing. When we arrived, I confidently assumed we’d be able to just jump on the metro and find our hotel. It turned out to be not that easy at all, as we had to first get a bus to another terminal, then pick up the overground train, before finally arriving at the Sants Estació, which turned out to be the main railway station in the city. But from there it was dead easy – like the London Underground, as long as you’ve got a map of the network, you can’t really go far wrong. Unlike the London Underground, the trains are air-conditioned, which was lovely after hauling our bags halfway across the city. And the 10-trip tickets, which you can use on any form of transport, were perfect for our three-day stay.
Ah, churros. We took a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter and La Rambla, during which our guide pointed out a café, which she said did the best churros in Barcelona. Afterwards, it seemed rude not to take her advice, so we retraced our steps to the café she recommended – Granja La Pallaresa in Carrer Petritxol, just off La Rambla – and asked for the churros y chocolate. I don’t know if they were the best in Barcelona, but they were pretty amazing.
5. La Rambla
Barcelona’s famous tree-lined shopping street, stretching from the city centre down to the sea. It’s a pity that it’s become known more as a place where you’re likely to get robbed, but it’s still well worth a visit – just remember to hold on to your handbag. And don’t feel you have to stick to the main street; some of the little back streets have more choice and are a bit cheaper too, and you’re more likely to be offered free samples of turrón (if you’re offered, take it – it’s yummy). Check out La Boqueria too – it’s a huge food market selling just about everything you can imagine: fruit, fish, meat, sweets, tapas, paella, sangria… You could easily get lost in there, but at least you wouldn’t starve 😉
6. The seaside
My friend and I had been to Barcelona on a school trip years ago, and pretty much the only bit we remembered was the sea front. Cross the bridge to Port Vell, where you’ll find restaurants and a very modern shopping centre (I had to be physically dragged out of Desigual), an aquarium and an IMAX cinema, or keep walking along the shore to get to the funfair and, just beyond that, the lovely sandy beach. Once you’re there, be prepared to say ‘no, gracias’ repeatedly to the guys trying to sell you overpriced sangria; they’re not at all pushy but there are a lot of them.
7. Olympic Stadium and Montjuïc
The Olympics were held in Barcelona in 1992, and you can now visit the stadium for free (well, I say ‘visit’ – you can walk in, have a look and leave again). It’s looking a bit old and tired these days, but it was easy to imagine it filled with a cheering crowd just over twenty years ago. While you’re there, head around the corner from the stadium to check out the impressive Torre de Comunicacions de Montjuïc, and – you guessed it – more fountains. On a clear day, the views from up there are incredible.
8. La Sagrada Família
Possibly one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even finished yet. Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, is one of Barcelona’s biggest tourist attractions – we had to queue for 45 minutes just to get our tickets, and then we had to come back two hours later to actually get in. But it was so worth the wait. From the astonishing detail on the outside to the breathtaking stained glass inside, I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It somehow manages to be both modern and timeless at once, and the sheer size of the place is enough to leave you speechless. I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished; I think it’s going be pretty spectacular.
9. Current affairs
This might not sound like a very interesting reason to visit a city, but there’s a lot going on in Barcelona just now. My friend and I got chatting to two stallholders in La Boqueria, who, on discovering we were English, were keen to know what we thought about the Scottish independence referendum, which had taken place the week before. Catalonia’s currently engaged in a debate about this issue for themselves, with a recent poll showing 80% of people are in favour of independence, but the vote itself being ruled unconstitutional by the Spanish government. It’s hard to know what will happen, but it’s definitely an interesting time for the region and the country.
10. The weather
Well, sort of. On our first three days in Barcelona we had amazing weather – despite being late September, it was well over 20 degrees and we enjoyed gorgeous sunshine. And then on our last day, it rained. And not just a little bit of rain; it poured, all day, to the point where we eventually gave up trying to sightsee from under our umbrella and set off for the airport early. Where our flight was delayed, because of the rain. I guess you can’t win them all.
One word of advice – although Barcelona is in Spain, and everyone speaks Spanish, you’ll find on arrival that many of the signs are in Catalan, and you may be greeted in Catalan too. So even if you speak Spanish, I’d recommend picking up a little of the regional language before you go as well. Or if you really want to impress the locals, take uTalk with you and greet them in both languages.
I had an amazing few days in Barcelona, and would love to go back soon, if only to eat more churros and visit the Sagrada Família again (seriously, I can’t shut up about it).
Have you been to Barcelona? Any tips for my next trip? And most importantly, have I really had the best churros in the city, or is there somewhere better?
I must admit that Algeria does not feature highly among people’s bucket list destinations.
While most tourists visiting the region flock to Egypt or Tunisia, Algeria is still very much off the beaten track. Nor does it help that it has attracted a rather bad press over the last year or so: much of the country is a security risk and the FCO advises against all travel to half of the Algeria, and all but essential travel to much of the rest.
Chickened out? Well, there is always its next door neighbour Morocco, which admittedly has done much to develop its tourist industry over the years.
‘Ah but I’ve been there already’, you say, ‘I’ve stayed in a posh riad, I’ve had a ride on a camel and I’ve stocked up on more of those pointy slippers than I’ll ever need.’
Quite. So you’re looking for the real deal, are you? Well, the good news is that Algiers, the capital, is very much worth the detour, untouched by Easyjet, and better still, firmly in the ‘OK to visit, but be careful’ bit of the country. I was lucky enough to go twice, and here I am writing this: all bodily parts present and correct, wallet intact, and dignity unscathed.
As it happens, I was working on a project with one of the government ministries. This meant that I was fortunate enough to be met at the airport and whisked through immigration and customs in seconds. I also benefited from a security detail which picked me up and accompanied me wherever I went: a pair of friendly enough goons, wearing shades and Blues Brothers suits (sans hats), constantly tailing us in a slightly scruffy VW Polo – not a Bluesmobile.
So here are my ten reasons to visit Algiers (and a bit of the surrounding area):
1. The city centre
Algiers has a faded, run down beauty. The centre of the city is full of white stuccoed buildings in the French colonial style and you’ll love exploring the up-and-down streets and avenues. Pack a pair of stout walking shoes though, as it’s a hilly place. And as you take a break, sipping a coffee and people watching at one of the many excellent cafes dotted around town, you may be wondering where all the tourists have gone. Don’t worry: the last ones left circa 1962, so you really will have the place to yourself.
2. The view
You may find yourself in accommodation higher up and somewhat away from the city centre, with the city stretching out below you. Not for nothing is the city called ‘Alger la Blanche’.
3. Public transport
I found a little cable car that takes you down the hill (i.e. from the residential suburbs to the city centre) to the sea and Botanic Garden in just three minutes. There’s also a one-line metro that crosses the city, which, when I used it, was virtually empty. I wondered whether people had in fact been told it had recently opened – or maybe they simply refused to pay the 15p fare.
4. Cheap fuel
Petrol in Algiers costs only around 10p per litre. No, this is not a misprint for 110p. Algeria is, after all, still one of the world’s leading oil producers.
5. No retail chains
Should you require a fix from KFC, McDonalds, Zara, or any other global retailer for that matter, please leave Algiers immediately. To remind you, this is not Morocco. However, with your 4 X 4 filled up with 10p petrol you could probably drive there.
6. The food
If you enjoy your French food, you might like Algiers’ version of it. The seafood is excellent, especially when washed down with a glass of Oran wine, which is not bad at all. Alternatively, if you enjoy your coucous you’ll love the Algerian varieties. Do not expect Michelin star joints: most eateries are small and family run.
By the way, you will need to hone either your French or Arabic speaking skills when you negotiate your way around town, as very few people speak English. I strongly suggest a purchase of uTalk prior to departure.
7. The treats
Do you have a sweet tooth? There are countless well stocked patisseries wherever you look, with everything from tiny sugar dusted and intricately decorated almondy cakes to classic croissants on display.
8. Le Jardin d’Essais du Hamma
The botanical garden, Le Jardin d’Essais du Hamma, is lovely: classically designed, it is formal, tropical and a respite from the heat, especially if you’re visiting during the summer.
One day we were taken along the coast to the sleepy little seaside town of Tipasa, which goes back 2,000 years, and where it is possible to visit the remains of the Roman city. In fact Tipasa became one of the most important ports in Ancient Rome.
10. Notre Dame d’Afrique
If you are determined to venture high enough in the city you’ll find Notre Dame d’Afrique, a 19th century Catholic church, which is an official monument and commands views of the Bay of Algiers and the harbour. Its architecture is fascinating: a successful blend of Eastern and Western influences.
I can’t end my snapshot of Algiers without a quote from one of its best known sons. In his 1936 essay, ‘A Summer in Algiers,’ Albert Camus wrote: ‘In Algiers one loves the ordinary places: the sea at the end of every street, a certain volume of sunlight…’ What more can you ask for?
Have you ever visited a city that managed to change your mind?
I visited Bruges earlier this year. Unfortunately, I’d accidentally timed my visit to coincide with the enthusiastically named ‘Amateur Arts Festival’, and consequently spent Saturday night with tissues rammed in my ears and arms clenching pillows to my head, as my hotel room shook with the relentless noise of amateur bass. I thought then that the chances of coming up with ten reasons to visit Bruges were pretty slim. Yet on Sunday morning, with the loudspeakers in the square finally silenced and the sun out, I became enchanted with this town that everyone always refers to as a peaceful haven of canals. These are the things which managed to turn my opinion around in the space of just one morning.
I get a bit excited about foreign trains, I know, but going to Bruges presented me with a new wonder: the double decker train. True, this is not localised to Bruges alone but most of the IC trains from Bruxelles seemed to be two storeys high, giving a fantastic view of the very flat countryside (and occasional windmill!) from the top deck. The trains are smooth and cool, and the conductors wear an amusing flat cap as part of their uniform. If you’re just planning a short visit to Bruges, you can get the Eurostar to Brussels and travel on from there (it’s about an hour on the fast train, two hours on the slow train).
2. Canals and boat trips
I wouldn’t say the town is riddled with canals in the same way Venice or Amsterdam are, but they linger in the backstreets and circle the centre so that you stumble across them when you wander off the main street. Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be any locals drifting around on pleasure boats, although there were a few promising houses whose main doors seemed to lead out directly onto the canal. Activity on the waterways instead seemed to be wholly dominated by the tour boats, taking cargoes of visitors on half hour drives up and down the canal, streaming off fluent speeches in three languages as they went. If you’re only there for a short time, I’d advise a boat trip to get your bearings on the town, and to see some impressive buildings from otherwise undiscovered angles.
Belgium is world-famous for chocolate and there are lots of chances to sample it in Bruges. Having been there just after Easter, lots of independent chocolate shops were still displaying elaborate chocolate rabbits and chicken-shaped Easter eggs, as well as the usual array of picturesque truffles and pralines. It being the weekend, there didn’t seem to be anyone around making the chocolates, which was a pity, but I imagine that in the week you’d get a good look at the chocolatiers at work. I was particularly impressed with a small boutique called Stef’s, which sold chocolate tools dusted with cocoa to make them look rusty – I was entirely taken in until I decided it was highly unlikely that a food shop would fill its window with rusty tools.
Bruges, although it also has lots of famous sights, is perfect for the lazier tourist who just wants to meander and drink in the tranquil beauty. Cobbled streets with broad flat pavements and gentle bridges over canals provide a little haven to lose yourself in, and since the whole town is very small you soon enough stumble upon some familiar street or building to set you back on route. Horse drawn carriages trot past every so often, carrying bands of eager-eyed tourists, A particularly pretty walk turned out to be the wide promenade from the station into town (a very short stroll and definitely not worth getting the bus unless you have heavy luggage), which passes a beautiful pink-flowered war memorial and glides into the centre of town and some pretty little cafés.
5. Houses and architecture
The typical Flemish façade presides here, and people seem to take enormous pride in their property, keeping every gate neatly painted and every tile in place. With a maximum height of 30m for any building in the city, the scenery is all low-lying and the views from any high points are panoramic. Some interesting and very modern architecture brings a new sense of style to the traditional steep-roofed old houses.
At one point home to over 50 breweries, Bruges now has only one active one, De Halve Maan brewery, which runs daily tours around its compact factory in the heart of the city. The tour, in Dutch, French and English, is definitely worth going on as it is stuffed full of information and lots of insights into why beer is healthy (an argument I always like to hear). They’ll also tell you that back in the ’50s the breweries would do home deliveries – you just had to ring a bell for the cart to stop and dispense beer to you directly. I imagine it’s no longer feasible to re-introduce this practice, but we can always dream… Having climbed right to the top of the factory and experienced the lovely view, you are released at ground level to claim your free beer in the spacious bar-restaurant, where one beer can easily turn into a happy afternoon sampling all the brewery’s many offerings.
7. Bike pumps
I’ve seen these around a little more recently – the free foot-operated bicycle pump – and I’m always impressed with a town that spends its money on something as practical and helpful as this.
and cake. This doesn’t need much explanation really: in Bruges, you can sit at a table on a cobbled pavement outside a bakery with exquisitely executed cakes and sip a small cup of intense black coffee. Although waffles seem to be the thing to have in Belgium, my favourite snack is the florentine – not a native Belgian sweet but nonetheless available in every cake shop.
9. Beers and beer glasses
Almost as attractive as the idea of sitting in a bar all day trying all the different beers is the idea of trying out all the different glasses. That may sound geeky but there are some really fun ones, including the absurd Kwak beer glass whose bulbous end makes it impossible to put down without the proper stand, and the La Corne drinking horn (which you can clink with a fellow Viking over a drinking toast and which, again, cannot be propped up except with the stand it comes served in). Good bartenders, the Belgians will tell you, will never serve a beer in the wrong glass, and each beer has its own glass, most of which are shaped like a chalice or a tulip.
If this is what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed in Bruges. With a long, meandering high street full of clothes and chocolate shops, as well as a large market and side streets offering endless souvenirs, you could spend a day just in the shops. And if you’re looking for a bigger centre, Brussels is only an hour or so away by train, and Ghent is neatly stuffed in between the two, to make a weekend of it.
Have you been to Bruges? What were your highlights?