Prague, Czech Republic, March 2014

“Prague is the Paris of the ’90s” – Marion Ross.

View of Old Town from Charles Bridge

View of Old Town from Charles Bridge

I am European and I have seen alot of Europe over the last 12 months, but this was my second visit to Prague in Czech Republic within a 6 month period. Why? Well my first Prague visit was a whistlestop business trip (and a very indulgent trip I might add). I mean, I was staying in a fit-for-royalty bedroom in the British Ambassador’s residence (whose next door neighbour is the infamous Prague Castle) and I accompanied Ministers to a couple of swanky roundtable lunches in extremely posh pockets of Prague. So my first impression of Prague was one of great beauty and tranquility. And I fear this initial one-sided perspective put some very rose-tinted spectacles on my nose.

My second trip was a weekend break in March with my friend Jo. We’d been to Tokyo together and fancied a little European break somewhere interesting and exciting. I banged on about how picturesque and unspoilt Prague was. And so we picked Prague over Budapest and Vienna.

We were staying in Nove Mestro which was about 300 metres from Wenceslas Square (well more of an oblong than a square but hey-ho).  We were staying in a four star hotel that was both gothic and antiquated in its appearance. I quite liked that as it blended in well with the Prague vibe. Afterall, who wants to stay in a lifeless, cold, minimalist hotel with no character?

The Clocktower in Old Town Square

The Clocktower in Old Town Square

On our first day we decided to go wherever our feet would take us and to just explore this magical gothic city. It wasn’t long before we were in Wenceslas Square and bobbing in and out of the countless gift stores in and around the Square. It was ok, but the purpose of our journey was to find ‘Old Town’ – the little hidden gem of Prague where everything is to be frozen in a timewarp. Well, at least that’s what we were expecting.

We accidentally stumbled across Old Town Square and it immediately felt like we were in the heart of Prague. It’s a large square dotted with unusual street performers, ranging from an insane man dressed in an elephant suit, to an even more insane man pretending he was a baby in a cot.

Man in cot

Man in cot

There was the usual scatterings of street performers who were fully spraypainted in gold and standing there pretending to be statues (you know who I mean). Although the Czech’s added a twist to it and stood there sprayspainted in gold with numerous real-life parrots hanging from their forearms. So it was a little bizarre here, but entertaining, and the Square certainly oozes culture and makes you feel you that are in an extremely quintesential European city.

It’s therefore a shame that there is another side to Prague that literally hits you in the face like a ten tonne train as you arrive in the main tourist areas – it’s seedy, loutish and bursting with Brits (and before you all kick off I’m a Brit and I’m not ashamed to admit that our reputation abroad is not over exaggerated). Okay, so thinking about it, Prague isn’t that far from the UK and it’s DIRT cheap and fairly warm. So needless to say that it attracts the Stags and Hens.  But it was a bit too loutish in places and it’s hard to fully absorb the beautiful Prague scenery.

That night we spent a couple of hours in a rustic old Czech bar and had 3 glasses of wine each (much to the surprise of the barman who seemed startled when we confirmed that a 3rd glass of wine was exactly what we wanted please). Hmmmm **contradicts my paragraph above about Brits abroad**.

On our way home we stumbled across these shed-like wonders in Old Town Square that sell lovely little food and alcohol things including hot wine, beer and crepes. So we had a crepe each. They were so huge that I was sitting there for minutes not realising this disaster had happened to my face. See for yourself. I’m not drunk at all *wink wink*.

Nutella face!

Nutella face!

After a roasting hot sleep with no working air-con (I can’t bear to speak about it right now), we woke the next day feeling rather rough. But we had a plan of action – to walk about 45 minutes up to Prague’s highest rated ‘tourist attraction’ –  Prague Castle.

The Castle was a bit of hike but it took us through some lovely Prague scenery. We walked over the Charles Bridge and had magnificant views of Old Town and New Town. When we eventually reached the top of the hill towards the Castle we were surprised to find ourselves in the middle of a soldier’s march – it a bit like a low key Trooping of the Colour.

Royal March at Prague Castle

Royal March at Prague Castle

I have to mention our final night in Prague because it was such an omnishambles. We went back to our favourite rustic bar and ordered another glass of cheap wine. I drank it quickly. Super quick infact. Within 10 minutes I started to feel very strange and nauseas, to the point were we had to leave and walk all the way back to the hotel. Poor Jo was gagging for a quality pizza, was wearing sandles, had no jacket, and then it started to pelt it down with rain. She was calm and reasonable though as we waded through the rain to get back to the hotel.

Thankfully, I felt better within the hour and we were able to go out for that pizza. Then, all stuffed and tired and with the prospect of an early start, we went to bed early. Then BANG – the heating comes on at 1000 degrees celsius and the bar next to the hotel starts playing cheesy mexican-style music at stadium gig volume. It wasn’t long before I had it out with the hotel manager (a literal full on argument which resulted in the pointing of the finger at each other) which led to the music eventually being turned down and our air-con being turned on. Poor Jo was exhausted but thankfully managed to sleep through most of the drama whilst I was running around the hotel in my PJs like a mad woman.

So my summing up of Prague is actually quite simple. Visually, it’s a stunning city. It’s probably one of the cheapest cities I’ve ever visited. I only went with £130 and I came back with £20. It can be unfriendly and unwelcoming and very seedy in certain pockets of the city. That said, if you’re after a classic European city with culture, history and a lively atmosphere then this is probably the place for you.

I feel OD’d on Prague right now, and even Europe to an extent, so I probably won’t be returning again but I’m glad I visited this historical and visually overwhelming city.

Sbohem!

Jo and Bex drunken selfie

Jo and Bex drunken selfie

 

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Venice, Italy, February 2014 – The Lagoon City

“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go” – Truman Capote.

 Italy – the world’s largest producer of fine wines, founder of the pizza, creator of the Roman Empire and, most importantly, the maker of some pretty sexy ice-cream.

I was understandably very excited to visit Italy for the first time in my life.

Me at the foot of the Grand Canal

Me at the foot of the Grand Canal

So we arrive in Venice – a city made up of 118 small islands connected by a complex system of canals and over 400 bridges. A city built on the Venetian Lagoon, sat between the Po and Piave Rivers in Northeastern Italy. It all sounds pretty wonderful already doesn’t it? It gets better believe me.

Venice is not like the rest of Europe. It’s like a time warp. It felt like I had stepped into a time machine and gone back 400 years. I mean, it’s not touristy in ANY way – there are no tourist attraction signs anywhere, no bars selling English food, no fancy lighting on the bridges and no modern structures in the slightest. Venice is an unspoilt historical city and if you come here as a tourist then you’re pretty much on your own.

Classic Venice Buildings

Classic Venice buildings

We were staying in a nice little hotel in Mestre, just outside the city. There were no canals here, nothing really historical. So we were in awe when we jumped on the Italian commuter bus and arrived the heart of Venice. We walked over our first bridge (of very many) and saw the wonderful sight of the Grand Canal. This vision has such an impact. It really tickles the senses and makes you realise that you’re in a really special, unique place.

Grand Canal

Grand Canal

We walked (alot) through many streets, alleyways and over bridges. There are so many little streets that it’s difficult to comprehend. Every street, every alleyway, every nook and cranny has something worthy to look at, whether that be a cute little restaurant, a gelato shop, venetian masks or a quirky sweet shop (there was nougat everywhere we went). There is literally something to see on every tucked away street.

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Diavola Pizza and Italian Wine

In the evening, we stumbled across a lovely little restraunt called Caffe Saraceno which is situated just under the Rialto Bridge on Grand Canal.

We sat under hallogen lights, put blankets over our laps, and supped on some Italian pinot grigio whilst we feasted on our gorgeous diavola pizzas.

What a view we had of Grand Canal. Pizza, wine, water lapping and perfect company. A wonderful first evening in Venice.

….But on the way back we got lost. I started to panic a little (ok, alot). It was dark and we were walking down little deserted alleyways and into dead ends – with no street lighting! It was literally a maze with no way out and we were lost for about two hours. Yet, it was perfectly safe. If this had have been anywhere else I would have no doubt that the city would have been heaving with crime. Thanks to a calm and collected Sharon (and lifesaving technology called GoogleMaps) we were able to find our way out!

Day two. Ok, so we’ve walked all over San Marco and Rialto but there were three important things left for us to do – experience a Gondola ride, visit the infamous St Mark’s Square and eat gelato. We did all three things before the end of the day. But, as standard with me, we got lost again trying to find St Mark’s Square in San Marco (about a two mile walk). I was initially really peeved off about this until we accidentally stumbled across Venice University which sat on the edge of this spectacular view. Check out the Alps in the background.

View from Venice university out towards The Alps

Two delicious Gelatos for lunch

Lunch – rich, creamy Gelato (icecream)

Pure heaven in a cone. Quality lunch.

We found a little gelato store tucked away under St Mark’s Square (rather bland tourist attraction). This was our lunch so we had to make the right choice here. I had a salted caramel cone and Sharon went crazy and had a duo coconut gelato with cookies and cream in a chocolate cone!

So that’s two down. All that’s left to do was the Gondola ride. This was a personal highlight for me. It was part of a two hour tour we had booked (the tour sucked but the 35 minute Gondola ride was great). We drifted through the ‘back-streets’ of Venice and saw the real Venice. Gondolas are very popular and you get to see parts of Venice that you would never see on foot. Well worth the Euros.

Gondola ride through Venice

Gondola ride through Venice.

On our last night we stumbled across a discreet restaurant in one of the San Marco alleyways. We had spaghetti and meatballs. Yumballs! We decided to stay for a couple of drinks in the bar and quickly got intoxicated on quadruple servings of vodka and lemon soda. We jibbed off the two mile walk back and decided to jump on the commuter water bus. I enjoyed the 30 minute boat ride back to North Venice and it made me realise how far we had actually walked that day. Insane amount of walking.

I really have to mention a place called Quanto Basta on our final morning in Venice. We walked past this place everyday and saw HUGE slices of pizza in the window, next to Kit-Kat icecreams and the promise of Nutella crepes. It was cold and rainy so we sat indoors (twice that day) for a slice of pizza and more gelato. What a gem of a place. Cheap eats and quality food. Check it out if you ever go to Venice.

Gelato at Quanto Basta

Gelato at Quanto Basta

So this was a wonderful trip to Venice. I’d always wanted to go, Sharon had always wanted to go too, and it surpassed both of our expectations. We were a little raged that we didn’t go in the summer as it must be so incredible to be out by the water in the Mediterranean heat.

Even though we were exhausted, our feet extremely sore, consumed so many calories that I seemed to have put on 5lbs in 3 days, we will never forget how amazing this place was. It rates as my top European city so far.

Me and Sharon on the Gondola

Me and Sharon on the Gondola

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NEW YORK, September 2012

NEW YORK, NEW YORK….AT LONG LAST
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I had dreamed of going to New York since I was a child. I don’t know why but I always felt magically drawn to the city, like there was an invisible connection there just reeling me in.My fear of flying had actually stopped me from traveling for a number of years. I’d had enough. I became brave and booked a 4 day trip to New York at the start of September in 2012. So off I went…all on my own. “Wow you’re so brave” everyone would say to me. I was glad of the freedom and peace.
Luckily my flatmate worked for Virgin so I was able to get into the Virgin Clubhouse in Heathrow. I met a banker at the bar and we drank cocktails and ate curry until my flight was called. I then sat in economy slowly sobering up over the 8 hour flight and experienced a mini hangover. That said, I was that drunk that I didn’t even notice the plane taking off. Result.I didn’t stay in a hotel in NYC. Instead, I rented a room in a trendy apartment in Upper West Side overlooking Central Park. I stayed there with a lovely couple who made me fresh orange for breakfast and told me tales of the hundreds of travelers that have stayed with them over the years. It was a fascinating collection of stories.Now this trip was planned down to the last detail. After all, I was on my own and wanted to make sure that friends and family back home knew my whereabouts.

Day 1 was the most action-packed – I embarked on a 5 hour bus and walking tour of New York. I thought this was a good introduction to the city and I got to see all the places I wanted to – 9/11 Memorial, Empire State Building, Times Square and a complimentary ferry trip.

The Empire State

The Empire State

Then that evening came the highlight of my trip! I slithered into a little Irish pub just off Times Square and sunk about 4 glasses of wine (I know but I’m a scouser) where I got talking to a strange but interesting American guy called Ricky. He was drunk, I was drunk but I’m sorry, I had plans and needed to leave.

I then made my way over to Union Square and met fellow travelers for a jazz tour of Harlem. What a treat. Our tour guide took us around 3 amazing jazz bars; one with a 12 piece brass band, one classy cocktail jazz bar and a backstreet jazz bar with some of the best musicians and singers I’ve ever seen. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t pay that much attention during the last bar but I was severely jet lagged and the wine had knocked me out. A cracking night that will live with me for a long time.

12 piece jazz band in Harlem

12 piece jazz band in Harlem

On day 2, with a sore head, I took a ferry over to the Statue of Liberty. I knew it was coming into view, and I was excited to see one of the most famous sights in the world, but when I actually gazed at the Statue of Liberty for the first time I was just blown away. It was one of those moments that I’ll never get to live again….even if I tried to re-invent it. I then ate pizza, had a Slush Puppie, bought a t-shirt and made my way back to the city.

My next adventure: although the Empire State Building looked appealing, I’d read many reviews that the Rockefeller Center brought better views of NYC from the sky. So I bit the bullet and went to the top of the Rockefeller Center in a lift that went up as fast as a lightening bolt. As soon as I got up there I felt dizzy and like I was walking on a boat and sliding from side to side. I wasn’t sure if that was the height or the fact that I was still struggling with jet-leg. Needless to say, I took this amazing photo and then got out of there as quick as I possibly could.

View of Manhattan from top of the Rockefeller Center

View of Manhattan from top of the Rockefeller Center

I then took a ‘stroll’ (AKA the longest walk in human history) to the New York Library for a look around. It’s just a library. Nothing too special. But it felt kind of good to be walking around one of the most famous libraries in the world. Grand Central was equally mesmerizing – indeed a grand piece of architecture with busy commuters flooding in and out of archways. I was jealous that this wasn’t my home station back in London.

On my last day, I took a lovely stroll through Central Park. I got lost which was a welcome outcome. I wish I’d have had the time to explore it more and regret not getting lost in it earlier in my trip. If you get a chance, take the time to walk around this beautiful park. It’s well worth the effort.

I’m writing this blog entry about 18 months after this trip and I still remember it as clear as day. It was, without a doubt, my favourite holiday of all time – despite being on my own. I met some incredibly interesting people and the four days will be forever imprinted in my mind.

View of lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry

View of lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry

I’m still being drawn back there. The connection I have with the city is as strong as ever.

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TOKYO, July 2013

MY FIRST TASTE OF TOKYO
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What started as a long and draining business trip quickly turned into an incredible 4 day holiday with my colleague, and now good friend, Jo. It was mid-July in Tokyo and it was hot. Burning in oil kinda hot.

Breakfast at the British Embassy, Tokyo

Breakfast at the British Embassy, Tokyo

We had visited the Tokyo Skytree at the end of our business trip, where I had an almost panic attack when I saw the clouds floating by. That said, the view was breathtaking and I don’t think I’ve seen a view anywhere like it. I recommend you go up there if you can brave the height of it for a few minutes.

What struck me about Tokyo was the dramatic change in auditory surroundings; all I could hear was loud cricketing-type sounds from all around me – in the trees, in the sky, on the ground. I heard from an Embassy colleague that these were ‘insects’ called Secadas. Secadas live in the trees and will only harm you if they land on your arm and think you are a branch. I felt calm at this prospect until I saw an authentic Japanese woman scream for her life when one flew out of a tree. Avoid them at all costs I thought!

On our first night we went to an Italian restaurant in Ginza (not very Japanese I know but I’m not a massive fish fanatic). What surprised me is that there is no smoking ban in resturants in Japan. So I found myself eating a pizza in a very smoky underground cave. Still, we had fun.

The next day we experienced the real Tokyo. We landed in Shibuya. This is where we saw the famous intersection and Japanese stalls and markets.

The Famous Tokyo Intersection

The Famous Tokyo Intersection

It’s a wonderful area filled with atmosphere, lights and a constant buzz. We shopped alot, ate more Italian food, had cheesecake which actually tasted like cheese, and (almost) bought a kimono. We rounded off the evening by raiding the local grocery store for Japanese rice crackers (had a rude encounter with one of the embassy’s interpretors who accused us of drinking all day in the hotel bar) and then had an Indian meal in the local area.

During our little adventure we also visited the old temple and had a stroll around one the Japanese gardens. The Secadas were not in the trees here and were flying around all over the ruddy place. I felt like I was on the set of horror movie and couldn’t wait to get out.

Wonderful Japanese garden

Wonderful Japanese garden

On our last day we walked for over an hour to find a TGI Fridays we came across a few days earlier. Why? Because we fed up of Italian food and the Japanese food was a little too authentic looking for our taste. Besides, we craved a good ole steak. We eventually found one tucked away on a back ally in Shibuya. It was the nicest steak I had ever tasted – a flamegrilled quality piece of meat caked in sticky Guinness sauce. We had more wine as well. Great memories.

This was an amazing trip. I am now an avid Asia fan. I will return!

さようなら

さようなら

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SEOUL (SOUTH KOREA), July 2013

SOUTH KOREA – THE UNDERDOGS OF ASIA?

I didn’t have any expectations of Seoul. I’d never been to Asia but I’d heard on good authority that the South Koreans were extremely accommodating, approachable and about to take the world by storm. “They’re the Asian underdogs” the Minister would tell me on the plane. I was intrigued to meet these South Korean ‘underdogs’. Little did I realise that I would fall in love with Seoul despite being there for only one night.
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For starters, the landscape is stunning – mountains with a misty mirage and long roads full of bustling traffic. There was an sapphire blue sky that remained in the sky all evening and it felt rather magical. There was something intensely modern about the city, but also something ancient and under-developed.

Seoul is like a very laid back, slower paced, Tokyo. The streets were very clean and spaced out and there weren’t oodles of crowds pushing into you from all angles. All in all, it was as chilled as it could be and a good way to start the evening.

When I arrived with colleagues we took a stroll around the town centre and found a bar called the Texas Bar (not very South Korean but the Minister had been there before and wanted familiarity). The beer was good, the food menu didn’t look so glam. So we supped a couple of beers and made our way to a little pizza place near our hotel. I was tempted to eat the Chocolate Pizza, and was under severe peer pressure, but I resisted and went for a run-of-the-mill pepperoni classic. A storm had brewed outside so my colleague asked the waitress for a clear plastic bag to shelter her brand new Prada bag from the rain. How bemused that waitress looked!
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Now, I won’t bore you with details of my meetings the following day but I will let you know about the sit down lunch with had a South Korean Government Director and his cronies. We removed our shoes, crossed our legs and sat at a long table in a cave like room – apparently the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK had been there the week before (must be good then I thought). Then out came a series of small dishes containing rather unusual and unrecognizable delicacies. I kept prodding the food with my chopstick (which quickly turned into a fork) trying to suss out what it was. To this day, I have no idea what I ate. Some of it I liked, some of it was far too ‘out there for me’. I did like the sticky rice though.
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We ended the day running from car to meeting rooms in the epicentre of a tropical storm before heading to the airport to fly to Tokyo for the next leg of our trip.

I loved the vibe of Seoul and would love to explore it more one day. I give it a 9/10.

annyǒnghi kaseyo! 

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