When we were children there was a very popular vinyl record which was comprised of a whole bunch of songs, sung by Danny Kaye, based around Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales. One of these was the song, Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen. We’ve recently returned from a short trip to Denmark’s capital and the song, somehow recalled from many years ago, gave us a semi-permanent ear-worm as we explored the city. But is Copenhagen wonderful? We think so. We spent five days in Copenhagen, and around, discovering what the city had to offer.
Getting to Copenhagen Central from the Airport
We got chatting to a number of people during our trip, some of whom had very different experiences of getting into the city. An elderly couple from the USA were shocked to have paid around 55 Euros for the journey in a taxi. And at the other end of the travelling spectrum – we met a holidaymaker from the UK on his first ever visit abroad who decided to walk the 8km from the airport for free! We recommend the train.
The easiest and most cost-effective way is to take the train or the metro. On arrival at the airport, after exiting the baggage area, follow the signs to the train station. There will be a whole bunch of ticket machines just before the entrance to the platforms. The ticket machines are red.
You can choose the English language option. Just select the destination, number of passengers and time of travel. You will receive a zone 3 card, which covers both passengers, that can be used within an hour and a half time slot. Head down to the platform. Trains are very regular, there will be signs on the platform indicating the destinations and you want to make sure your train stops at København H. The journey takes around 15-20 minutes and costs 30DKK (August 2023).
Accommodation in Denmark is on the pricey side. We chose a small room at the Wake Up, which was just a 10 minute walk from the main station. We were delighted to be upgraded to a larger room on arrival, but it did rather make us wonder what the small room was like because the large room was pretty compact! Still, as with most accommodation, we don’t need anything more than basic facilities – a bed and a bathroom will do just fine.
Planning Your Visit
There are a fair few things that you can do in Copenhagen for free but many attractions have a charge and Denmark isn’t a cheap country to visit. So, prior to taking our trip, we looked into the Copenhagen Card. Depending on what you are planning to see you can make good savings by purchasing a card which offers admission to over 80 attractions and free public transportation within the Copenhagen area. You can select a card for 24, 48, 72, 96 or 120 hours. Download the app onto your phone and you can activate the card at the first attraction/transport option. It will then count down the time until it expires.
You can only visit each attraction once, with the exception of Tivoli where you can re-enter the park on the same day only, if you get a stamp.
For our five days in Copenhagen we chose to buy a 72 hour card.
Five Days in Copenhagen: Day 1
National Museum of Denmark
The National Museum is located on Ny Vestergade. It showcases Denmark’s long and fascinating history with both permanent and temporary exhibitions. Particular highlights include the Viking history exhibition, which feature wooden parts of an extraordinarily long longboat and include an audio-visual opportunity to join a Viking raid, and the modern collection which shows many aspects of Danish culture.
On our visit there was an interactive exhibit about money and finance around the world which was surprisingly fun.
Ride the Rollercoaster at Tivoli Gardens
One of the most delightful things about Copenhagen is that, rather than having a central business district full of corporate offices and commercial buildings, it has a park right in the middle of the city. Directly opposite the central station and just a 10 minute walk from the National Museum, this delightful amusement park is the third oldest in the world and dates from 1843. It is one of Denmark’s most visited attractions and is a lovely place to visit for both the young and young at heart. Set in a very pretty garden, it has a number of stages for performances and white-knuckle rides for intrepid thrill-seekers.
The Copenhagen card will provide entrance to the park but not the rides. If you plan to spend a lot of time in Tivoli and want to enjoy all the rides it’s worth buying a wristband for unlimited access. There are machines all over the park. If you just want to go on a ride or two you can queue as normal then pay for each with your credit card at the gate just before you get on.
We didn’t plan to spend all day in the park but we did want to ride Rutschebanen, a wooden rollercoaster which dates from 1914 and is one of the oldest still operating. It is one of the few left in the world which has a brake operator in a car on each train, manually slowing the cars on the big slopes if needed.
It’s great fun to ride.
If you are visiting Tivoli you can get a stamp which allows you re-entry to the park on that day only. The security guards at the exits, armed with ink, will be able to provide one.
Tivoli food hall is adjacent to the park and has the same opening hours. You don’t need a ticket to Tivoli to visit the food hall. There are all sorts of Danish and international dishes on offer.
The Planetarium, on Gammel Kongevej, is well worth a visit. It has a number of exhibitions on the ground floor and also runs a number of films in the largest tilted dome in Europe, a hugely impressive space. It offered a view of the current night sky and then ran a documentary about the probes that have been exploring our planets over the years. Headsets for an English translation of the commentary are available at reception.
We walked from the Planetarium to the Fredericksberg area. Bus 7A will go there from the city centre if you don’t fancy walking and the Copenhagen card will cover the cost – just show the card to the bus driver. You will need to get on at the front of the bus. There are lots of things to do here, including visiting the zoo. We had some cultural activities in mind.
This is the museum of humour and satire where we received a very friendly welcome.
The downstairs area showcases the history of Danish humour (only in Danish but you can use a QR code on your phone to get a translation) but also has a few rooms dedicated to humour for children – chock full of surreal objects and fart gags.
Upstairs is an exhibition dedicated to the work of Storm P, the cartoonist, illustrator and satirist Robert Storm Petersen. There is a large collection of his artwork with explanations in English as well as a set-up of his workspace.
A fabulous idea for an art gallery, Cisternene used to be an underground reservoir! Beneath the green, green grass of Søndermarken Park this dark, cavernous space hosts an exhibition by a different artist each year. You need to be a bit walking careful inside – it’s dark and damp and you need to keep on the pathway or get wet feet – but it was one of the most delightful and unusual art galleries we have ever visited.
We saw the display from South Korean artist Kimsooja whose light installation was colourful, beautiful and otherworldly.
Evening at Tivoli
The 7A bus (the bus stop is just outside the zoo) will take you back to the city centre to enjoy dinner and a beer. Because the stamps on our arms were just about visible, we popped back to Tivoli. There were performances on some of the stages interspersed with squeals of delight as the white-knuckle rides simultaneously enthused and terrified.
A Day Trip To Hamlet’s Castle and A Fabulous Art Gallery
The Copenhagen card also includes the opportunity to take some day trips outside of Copenhagen. You can take the train from Copenhagen Central to Helsingor to visit Kronborg castle. Just get on the train. If you are asked for a ticket, show the officer the card and they will scan it. If Helsingor sounds familiar, it is more commonly known as Elsinore in England and is, of course, the location of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Castle. Kronborg is a 15 minute walk from the station – you can see the castle from the station.
Originally built as a fortress in the 15th century, it was significantly upgraded by Frederick II between 1574-1585, and again by Christian IV following a fire. A UNESCO heritage site, it’s a highly interactive attraction with actors and jesters throughout the castle as well as guides who can offer information about the history of the castle. You can even meet ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Yorrick’ in the grand ballroom.
Yes, that’s Hamlet and Ophelia just outside Helsingor station.
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
The return train stops at Humlaebek, just 10 minutes from Helsingor, and this is an essential stop for the Lousiana Museum of Modern Art. A 15 minute walk from the station this remarkable modern art gallery, also included on the Copenhagen Card, offers an amazing collection, including works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Picasso, Bourgeois, Bacon, Hockney and Moore, amongst many, many others, as well as temporary exhibitions showing the work of local and international artists.
It has the most wonderful setting as well, a light, airy space for the network of galleries that all surround a sculpture park which looks out to the sea. Highly recommended.
A Boat Trip
We got up early to be first in the queue for a boat trip around the canals of Copenhagen. These are included on the card if you are boarding at Stromma (but not at Nyhavn). You need to show your card at the ticket office then get a ticket to board the broad boat for a journey that takes around an hour. There will be a commentary in English and usually another European language.
It’s a pleasant way to see Copenhagen from a very different perspective.
Visit Christiansborg Palace
Although Christiansborg Palace now houses the Danish Parliament it used to be the palace of the Danish kings and queens.
A visit to the ruins underneath the palace offers a fascinating history of the development and construction of the building and you can also visit the former kitchens and stables. The card covers entry to all these, but you need to show it at each location.
The Round Tower
We then headed to the northern part of the city. The Round Tower was constructed between 1637 and 1642 and is the oldest functioning observatory in Europe. Located adjacent to Trinity Church it was designed to be Denmark’s national observatory. You can climb the tower. One of the great things about this is that there are very few stairs. Like Seville’s Giralda tower, you ascend via a ramp with just a few steps at the top.
The Round Tower’s final staircase is quite narrow but, thanks to Danish efficiency, there is a red light/green light system to allow visitors to go up and down in turns. The view from the top is wonderful.
Another construction built by Christian IV, Rosenborg palace was apparently the revered king’s favourite. Set amidst a large park, this impressive castle is very popular as a tourist attraction, so tickets should be pre-booked (go to the website and select the Copenhagen card option). One of the top attractions are the crown jewels, and apparently the only jewels in the world that are on display and used by the Danish queen.
The Design Museum of Denmark
Highly recommended, the Design Museum of Denmark, on Bredgade, is a brilliant space showcasing art, crafts and design from a number of Danish and international designers. It explains the difference between art and design and also reinforces how important design is within our everyday lives. Thought-provoking and interesting, this was a highlight museum.
On day 4 we sneaked in a visit to the Museum of Copenhagen, during the very last hour of our Copenhagen card. If the card expires during a visit, don’t worry, they won’t kick you out!
Museum of Copenhagen
This interesting museum takes you on a historical journey through the development of the city. It also has temporary exhibitions and we were lucky to catch one about commercial artist and designer Ib Antoni, known as The Great Dane, who created highly distinctive art, much of which was to promote Denmark and Copenhagen.
No visit to Copenhagen would be complete without seeing Nyhavn, the gloriously colourful canal district. The canal was constructed between 1670 and 1675, intended to enable a passage from King’s Square in the city to the sea. It was notorious for being an area of ill-repute, where salty sailors and prostitutes hung out and much beer was consumed – the water not being very conducive to healthy living at the time.
Hans Christian Anderson lived at no 67 between 1845 and 1864. It became less important as ships became larger and these days there are loads of bars, restaurants and tourists. The area is undeniably pretty though.
Visit the Kastellet Fort
Walking further north from Nyehavn is the Kastellet, also known as the citadel. It is a fort designed in the shape of a pentagon. Originally part of the wider ramparts that circled Copenhagen, this is all that remains. It was constructed by Christian IV in 1626 and is one of the best preserved fortresses of its type in Europe.
There is a lovely park to wander through and a number of buildings within the site’s grounds. It currently houses military barracks and offices but some of the buildings are open for visitors with exhibitions to explore.
The Little Mermaid
Located on the shore on the far side of Kastellet is the city’s most photographed attraction. Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale, this bronze statue by Edvard Eriksen, depicts the mermaid as she transforms into human form.
Be prepared for a plethora of tourists surrounding the mermaid, who is genuinely little at just 1.25m tall, climbing over the rocks to snap that perfect shot. A zoom on your camera and a bit of patience is a safer option.
A Quick Trip to Hospital
Okay, so almost certainly not top of anyone’s list of places to visit (or indeed on anyone’s list at all) we just had to check out Rigshospitalet. As fans of Danish cinema and TV, we adored Lars Von Trier’s utterly bonkers and completely brilliant series, The Kingdom. Realising it was set in Copenhagen’s actual hospital, we just had to stop by to take a photo!
A Day Trip to Sweden
Another TV connection with Copenhagen is that of The Bridge, the popular Scandinavian-noir drama series. It was set on and around the Oresund Bridge, a remarkable construction that joins Denmark with Sweden.
There are loads of trains that leave from the central station to Sweden. You can reach the nearest city, Malmo, in around 45 minutes and it’s a nice place to spend the day. If you do take the train, pick up at ticket from the machine at the station and don’t forget to bring your passport. We weren’t asked to show ours but checks do happen.
Malmo is a pretty city with a cute canal, where you can take a boat trip. And there are plenty of squares filled with restaurants.
Lilla Torg is a popular – and very picturesque – square with plenty of restaurants.
Disappointingly they were all serving international food and we really struggled to find a Swedish restaurant in Sweden!
Malmo castle is well worth a visit. Part castle, part museum, part art gallery, part natural history museum and part aquarium, there is something for everyone! A combined ticket for 100 SK will also ensure entry to the science and maritime museum across the road.
Five Days in Copenhagen – ‘Let Us Clink and Drink One Down!’
Copenhagen has a plethora of restaurants and drinking establishments. Chatting to some local people about Danish cuisine we were told that it wasn’t that exciting, largely in the realms of meat and potatoes.
But it’s good, honest, filling grub – meat, potatoes and pickles. Pork is a popular menu item – and the best restaurants deliver crackin’ crackling!
But Denmark is also the land of the smorrebrod – the open sandwich of great deliciousness and beauty!
We enjoyed a lunchtime special of a smorrebrod platter at the Canal Caffeen restaurant. You are provided with bread, butter and a platter of various ingredients. Then you butter the bread (smorrebrod literally means ‘buttered bread’) and combine the toppings to make your own smorrebrod. We were advised about traditional Danish combinations but also told it was perfectly okay to make our up own.
The platter comprised: fried fish fillet with remoulade, herring (to be eaten with the rye spread with lard instead of the usual butter), roast beef with onion, horseradish and remoulade, chicken with mayonnaise, roast pork with cabbage and pickles and brie with radish. It was a feast.
The meat packing district behind the central station (i.e. on the opposite side to Tivoli) is a former market trading area and now home to a large number of restaurants.
Brewpub War Pig not only offers a range of its own beers but the smokehouse has a variety of meaty dishes on offer.
Copenhagen also has many varieties of beer on offer. In centuries past the water supply wasn’t as clean as it could have been so it was safer for the locals to drink beer than water. They developed a taste for it. Denmark may be the home of Carlsberg but there are also lots of (more) interesting craft beers to try. Brewpub on Vestergade offered a tasting flight featuring a variety of their own brews.
Cheap Eats and Drinks
There’s no getting away from the fact that Copenhagen, like many Scandinavian countries, is not a cheap place to visit if you are not from Scandinavia. We found Denmark to be cheaper than other countries we have visited in this region but still more pricey than home. However, we did find a few places to eat and drink that weren’t bank-breakingly expensive and offered good value.
Lilian’s Smorrebrod on Vester Voldgade was our top breakfast location. With a friendly welcome and huge variety of smorrebrod on offer from around 22-25DKK each, plus a cup of good coffee for the same price, we enjoyed breakfast/brunch at Lilian’s almost every day.
Rio Bravo on Vester Voldgade offered typical Danish fare including an all-you-can-eat pork, potato and parsley sauce dish if you’re feeling super-hungry. Well, you have to try Danish bacon in Denmark, right? The plate comes piled high and you are offered seconds – but we couldn’t manage them!
For cheap beer, Heidi’s on Vestergade offers a selection of good beers at what we would term UK prices (probably cheaper than London prices!).
The amusingly named Bastard Café on Rådhusstræde also offered a decent selection of reasonably cheap beer. This sprawling café, sited across multiple rooms within a large building which also houses a deeply cool cinema, has a plethora of board games you can borrow. The beer is good but the food not that exciting – toasted sandwiches and fried things – but you’re not really there for fine dining.
Singing Copenhagen, wonderful, wonderful – Copenhagen for me!
Our five days in Copenhagen were pretty packed and that reflects the diversity of things to do in this vibrant and cosmopolitan city. It really does have something for everyone.
Danny Kaye was right all those years ago. Copenhagen is truly wonderful.
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Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is situated inland and lies in the valley of the Miljacka River in the Dinaric Alps. We visited this lively and cosmopolitan city as part of a road trip though Bosnia and Croatia.It takes a couple of hours to reach there from Mostar and an hour or so from Travnik and Konjic. So is Sarajevo worth visiting? The answer is an emphatic yes! It’s a lovely city with a fascinating history as well as plenty of things to see and do.
Driving in Bosnia is generally a pleasure, but is quite slow in the countryside. The closer you get to Sarajevo the wider and faster the roads become. Driving in the city itself isn’t too difficult either, the traffic was busy but not overwhelming, but make sure you have practiced your hill starts if you’re driving a manual transmission car – the suburbs are very hilly and some of roads are quite narrow.
Welcome to Sarajevo
A walking tour is a really good way to discover a new city, it’s a great means of finding your bearings and discovering places to explore in more depth. Local guides are also a useful resource for getting recommendations for places to eat and drink. We spent our first morning on a walking tour with a small group of international visitors who were also keen to discover what Sarajevo had to offer.
When we first met the guide he asked us, “can you tell me anything about Sarajevo?” Sadly, the only things we could think of were negative – the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the 1990s and the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which led to the commencement of the First World War. Our guide acknowledged that Sarajevo has had more than its fair share of world history, but also that it hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, which was a positive thing. And he also pointed out that Sarajevo is a hugely multicultural city with a rich history.
Our walking tour started in the old town. On the pavement of Ferhadija there is a plate bearing an inscription:
This represents the boundary between the old (Ottoman) and new (Austro-Hungarian) parts of the city. The walk conveniently followed the history of Sarajevo.
Sarajevo’s Ottoman Old Town
Although there had been settlements in the area, Sarajevo as we know it was founded during the Ottoman empire in 1
461 by Isa-Beg Ishaković, who constructed a number of buildings including mosques, a market and bath houses.
It was Gazi Husrev-beg, governor of the Sanjak of Bosnia in the mid 16th century, who developed the city and enabled it to thrive. Importantly, he recognised Sarajevo’s strategic importance along trade routes and set up free accommodation for traders passing through the city. It reflected the hospitality of the time but also ensured that the area flourished. The old city has a large covered marketplace and several mosques.
The city’s clock tower was an important building. It tells the time in an unconventional way – when the hands are at midnight this denotes the time of sunset. This would have been an important way for Muslims observing Ramadan to know when they could start eating.
Of course, sunset occurs at a slightly different time every day, so the clock would have had to be changed manually. In addition, Sarajevo is a located in a steep valley, surrounded by mountains and the city has outgrown the clock. These days, a cannon is fired from the Yellow Fortress to mark an audible sunset alert for all Muslims.
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque is dedicated to the city’s benefactor and was built in 1530. It is an impressive structure, highly decorated.
It is located next to the covered market, which still operates as a market, albeit with more touristy goods on offer these days.
The complexity of the water system that was developed during Ottoman times can be seen in the ornate fountains.
With a clock tower, library, religious schools, bathhouses and a sophisticated water system, Sarajevo was one of the most important and enlightened cities of the Ottoman empire, second only to Istanbul.
It is a delight wandering through the old town. There are lots of streets with all sorts of goods to buy and craftspeople making and selling their wares. Lots of foodie shops and restaurants too! If you want to buy a coffee set or indeed some delicious coffee there are plenty of emporia in the area to choose from.
Like many places it can get crowded, so we were advised to beware of pickpockets, be alert and keep valuables safe.
In the 16th century Christians and Sephardic Jews, who were fleeing persecution, moved to the city and established places of worship. Sarajevo remains a places where people of multiple religions live together.
After walking through the old town we reached the river Miljacka which has carved its way through the mountains over the millennia. By 1878 Bosnia Herzegovina had been annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A series of modern buildings were constructed along the river’s banks. One of these was the town hall. Designed in 1891 it bears Moorish influences.
This impressive building had many functions over the years, including as a parliament building and national library.
It was hit by incendiary bombs in 1992 during the Bosnian War and the library, along with most of the books, was lost in a fire which destroyed the building. However, it was rebuilt and opened again in 2014.
On the other side of the river is a building known as the spite house, which was located on the site where the main building was to be constructed. Despite many financial incentives, the owner refused to sell his house and so the authorities eventually relocated it on the other side of the river. Known as Inat Kuca, it is now a restaurant.
It’s a pleasant walk along the river banks, although the muddy river was very much a contrast to the crystal clear waters of Mostar and other rivers in the region.
Crossing back over the river via the Latinska Ćuprija bridge we reached another location that placed Sarajevo in the history books.
It was on the corner of the street leading onto this bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who was heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, were shot at close range on 28 June 1914 by nationalist Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip. This event led to the start of World War One.
Following the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and Bosnia and Herzegovina was absorbed into Yugoslavia. During World War Two the city was invaded by the Nazis. Of the 12,000 Jewish people living in Bosnia and Herzegovina 10,000 lived in a thriving community in Sarajevo. It is estimated that 8,000 lost their lives in the Holocaust.
Learning About The Siege of Sarajevo
1992 saw the break up of Yugoslavia and, tragically, the commencement of the Bosnian War. Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia but following a referendum, which Bosnian Serbs refused to participate in, the Serbs encircled Sarajevo and blocked all routes to and from the city. Sarajevo remained besieged for 1425 days, the longest siege in modern history.
During our Sarajevo walking tour we learned about how the local people coped during this horrific time. The city was constantly shelled by forces located in the surrounding hills. Our guide told us that when the water and electricity supplies were halted, people would have to risk their lives crossing the river carrying containers so that they could get access to water from the Sarajevo brewery. It is estimated that nearly 14,000 people were killed, over a third of them civilians.
The film Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) by Michael Winterbottom tells a powerful story, which includes real footage of the war. It makes for difficult viewing but offers a compelling insight into a horrible war.
The siege ended on the 29th February 1996. In the years following the war a number of perpetrators and their superiors were convicted for Crimes Against Humanity.
Further Exploration of Sarajevo
We thoroughly enjoyed the small Sarajevo brewery museum. The delightful guide showed us around and told us about the history of the brewery.
However, when we went to the adjoining bar to enjoy some of their beers, we were turned away because apparently we didn’t comply with their dress code. We were wearing t-shirts, long trousers and walking shoes, not tracksuits, trainers and baseball caps. We checked the requirements and confirmed that we were not in contravention. The manager, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, eventually accepted that we were dressed correctly. To be honest, though, we didn’t want to drink where we weren’t welcome. Their loss.
We also visited some of the churches. Sacred Heart Cathedral is a catholic church and the largest cathedral in the country. It was completed in 1887. It was damaged during the siege of Sarajevo but has since been restored.
In the pavement in front of the church there is a square which has a mortar shell crater filled with red concrete, creating a pattern. It’s there to remind people of the war.
Constructed in 1863, the Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos is Sarajevo’s largest Orthodox church.
Beside the Europa Hotel it is possible to see the remains of a caravanserai, known as Taslihan, which was originally constructed in the mid-16th century. It was only discovered when the hotel was being renovated but now the former walls are a part of the garden. In its day it was a large market which also offered accommodation for merchants.
A Bosnian Cookery Course
Aside from city walking tours we also love taking cookery lessons whenever we visit a new country. We were delighted to join Mersiha and Mustapha from Bosnian Cooking Lessons at their home to learn how to cook traditional Bosnian cuisine. There were five dishes on the menu:
Sogan dolma – Onions filled with minced meat, rice and spices
Japrak mangel/spinach leaves rolled and filled with minced meat, rice and spices
Dolma paprika filled with minced meat, rice and spices
Bosnian pita – Phyllo dough rolled with cheese and phyllo rolled with peppery potatoes
We arrived at Mersiha and Mustafa’s home located high in the hills surrounding Sarajevo. It had a lovely view of the city. Mersiha and Mustafa grow a lot of vegetables in their garden and we enjoyed chatting with them about growing food. We were offered some traditional Bosnian snacks and a nice cool beer.
Then it was into the kitchen. Firstly we made the stuffing preparing the minced meat with rice and spices.
We learned how to stuff onions, layer by layer, as well as paprika. We also learned a technique for preparing and filling the mangel leaves. The folding technique was brilliant and we have used it since. These would all be cooked together in a lovely, lightly spiced, tomato sauce. We were impressed that Mersiha made sure that nothing went to waste. Any leftover bits of vegetable went into the sauce to add to its richness.
Next step was preparing phyllo. Mersiha expertly prepared a dough to exactly the right consistency and let it rest. When it was ready it was rolled onto the tablecloth and had another rest while we prepared two fillings: one of soft cheese and egg, and another of grated potato with lots of black pepper. Then we pulled the dough, by hand, so that it covered the entire table! It was so very thin – paper thin – but yet elastic and strong enough to take a filling. Mersiha was an excellent teacher and guided us really well.
After adding the filling in a long line, the phyllo was rolled up to create a sausage shape, then cut into pieces and rolled into swirls before baking.
Both dishes came together at the same time. It was a really fun afternoon which culminated in us all enjoying a delicious dinner together.
Mustapha and Mersiha were delightful hosts and excellent teachers. We thoroughly enjoyed not only cooking and dining with them, but also chatting with them about life in Sarajevo.
Sarajevo for Foodies
We stayed at the Hotel Aziza, which was close to the Yellow Fortress and a short downhill walk from the old town. You quickly find that you get a good workout walking anywhere in the city, especially in the suburbs, and it was a robust walk back up the steep hill every time we wandered into the old town. The Aziza offered a buffet breakfast with all sorts of interesting goodies, while not necessarily typical Bosnian, definitely the best brekkie we enjoyed in Bosnia.
There are loads of restaurants in Sarajevo offering typical Bosnian fare. Bosanski sahan is a dish comprising meat with mixed vegetables in a sauce and sitni cevap is veal meat in sauce. These were served with delicious fluffy Bosnian bread and salad.
It’s essential to try cevapi – little meat sausages inside soft pillowy bread, accompanied with finely sliced onion. Make sure you order a large portion, they are so delicious.
Desserts are luscious and sweet. We particularly enjoyed hurmasica, a gooey, syrupy cake. Coffee culture is also very important and the sweetness of the desserts is beautifully offset by the bitterness of the strong coffee.
If you enjoy a tipple, it’s impossible to visit Bosnia without tying domace rakija – homemade brandy. It is made from fermented fruits which are distilled. The more common fruits that form the base of the rakija are grapes and plums but other fruits such as pears, cherries and raspberries are used as well. Some of the more unusual flavours are honey, quince and walnut.
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It has long been an ambition to see the Aurora Borealis, that strange and ethereal natural phenomenon when charged particles from the sun crash into the earth’s ionosphere and the Northern Lights dance in the sky. We failed to see them on a winter trip to Iceland so thought we would try again in a new country – Norway – a place we had very much wanted to visit. Our plan was to spend some time in the lovely northern city of Tromso from where we could fly up to enjoy a Svalbard holiday.
Svalbard is also known as Spitsbergen. It’s an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean located about halfway between the top of Norway and the North Pole. It is part of the Kingdom of Norway.
The islands were discovered by a Dutchman, Willem Barentsz, in 1596 and were used as a base by whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries. A coal mining industry was established in the early 20th century and people began to settle there. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and has a population of around 2000 people from 50 different nationalities.
We visited Svalbard in winter but many of the activities we enjoyed can also be adapted for summer visits.
Arrival at Longyearbyen
As we flew from Tromso, we could see the sun slowly setting from the window. This would be the last daylight we would see for four days.
It was already night time when our aeroplane landed at 2pm, with only the runway and terminal building lit up in the perpetual darkness. All passengers will have their passports checked before flying in, so we effectively entered Svalbard when we left Tromso. Hence there was no need to go through any form of immigration on arrival at the airport.
Transfers are easy to arrange – there are two buses which each follow a particular route, dropping visitors off at hotels or the university accommodation. Alternatively it is possible to get a taxi.
We were travelling with carry-on luggage so hopped straight off the plane and found the friendly bus drivers who indicated which bus we should get on to reach our hotel. We had to wait inside the terminal until everyone was ready to leave. Well, we didn’t but it was really cold outside! Basically as soon as all the passengers have grabbed their stuff, the staff switch off the lights at the airport and everyone goes home.
The bus fare was 200NOK (Jan 2023). It is possible to pay with plastic everywhere in Norway, we didn’t need the nominal amount of cash we brought. (The bus drivers were happy to take cash as well and even joked that they’d have our boots if that was our only means to pay!) The bus dropped us off on the road by our hotel, The Vault, which was just a two minute walk (five minutes if we were walking on ice without spikes) from the town centre.
(The transfers back to the airport basically follow the bus routes in reverse. Your hotel should be able to give you the bus pickup time for your flight. It’s worth arriving a few minutes early – wrapped up warm, of course. There isn’t a bus stop per se – we just waited on the other side of the road from where we were dropped off and flagged the bus down when it arrived.)
On arrival in our cosy room the TV screen was on. It was counting the days until the sun would appear as well as providing useful weather information and aurora forecasts.
Practicalities for Visiting Longyearbyen
Most shops and restaurants are located along the main road in Longyearbyen. There is a supermarket, booze emporium, various clothing stores, a mini mall and a tourist information centre all within close vicinity. If you have forgotten any items of kit or haven’t brought warm enough clothing there are shops where you can buy suitable outdoor clothes or expedition gear if you are feeling intrepid.
If you are walking around Longyearbyen you must stay within the safe zone. This defined area means that you are safe from polar bears! If you are outside the zone, marked by the polar bear sign, you should carry a gun (eep!) and know how to use it (double eep!). The safe zone is pretty large and covers the main town area.
Hence, as visitors, while it is fine to walk around the safe zone and visit local attractions it is essential to pre-book tours with operators who know the region and know what they are doing in terms understanding the risk.
During winter in Svalbard it is dark all the time. And cold all the time. But it’s a strangely refreshing cold because the humidity is very low. However it is absolutely essential to wrap up warmly because when the wind blows it blows right through you.
Things to do on a Svalbard Holiday
While we travelled in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights, we didn’t plan to sit around waiting for them to appear. It’s largely a matter of luck as to whether they will come out to play when you are there. Longyearbyen has a couple of interesting museums, an lovely art gallery and plenty of excursions to enjoy.
North Pole Museum
This small and friendly museum showcases expeditions to the North Pole. Unlike Antarctica, where the South Pole is located on a land mass, the North Pole is located on top of the sea, so expeditions to travel to reach it were significantly more challenging. Throughout our trip to the Arctic, we discovered the bravery and ingenuity of explorers, who attempted to reach the pole via ships drifting through the pack ice or by airship.
The museum offers a plethora of exhibits, including documents, newspapers, cine-films, letters, artifacts and even bits of airship.
The whole exhibition is fascinating. And, we learned, it wasn’t until 1969 that a British Trans-Arctic Expedition actually managed to reach the North Pole on foot, just a couple of months before humans landed on the moon!
The Svalbard museum has a large interactive room exhibiting all aspects of the archipelago, from the geology and geography to the wildlife and industry.
They also offered a small temporary exhibition about the people of Longyearbyen.
Located on the main road in town a new art gallery has opened recently. It’s a cool space to view art and also has a café.
We discovered the remarkable works of Kåre Tveter, an artist whose minimalist approach to painting perfectly captures Svalbard’s landscapes.
With just a few colours his art conveys the stark beauty of the region.
Husky Sled and Ice Cave Visit
One of the best trips we took was a full day husky sled drive excursion to an ice cave. Nikolas from Green Dog picked us up from our hotel and took us to their base a few kilometres out of town.
Green Dog provided all the equipment we needed so we changed into our exposure suits, mittens, hard hats with torches and boots, and went straight out to the dog yard. Karl was the first dog we met and he was super-keen to have a hug. In fact, all the dogs wanted cuddles.
Huskies have evolved and been bred to enjoy the cold weather. They have two coats – a thick undercoat for warmth and a guard coat with coarse hairs that are water, wind and snow-proof. Each dog has its own kennel in the yard but it had to be really cold for them to actually sleep inside them.
We received a briefing on how to use the sled, how to direct the dogs, how to get them to stop and how to get the sled to stop in an emergency.
Then we fastened the dogs to the harness. They were itching to go, barking excitedly and jumping. As soon as we set off the dogs were absolutely silent, fully focussed on pulling the sled.
We travelled through stark and beautiful landscapes in the dark. As we reached the ice cave we let the dogs off their harnesses and rewarded them with some hunks of meat.
Then it was time to visit the ice cave. The cave is part of a glacier – around 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers. The ice cave changes each year as the glacier melts during the summer months and re-freezes. There are some wide bits and wiggly bits to traverse through. It’s not an extensive route but it’s great fun to slip and slide inside the cave and marvel at the ice formations – you can see rocks sticking out of the sides of the wall and crystal-like icicles.
After a quick lunch of rehydrated food – which was surprisingly tasty – we hitched up the dogs and started the return journey. We flew across the glacial moraine fields back to the dog yard.
We are always cautious about doing activities which involve animals as we want to be sure that they are treated well but we can honestly say that the huskies were the happiest dogs we had ever met.
If you visit in summer it is possible to go sledding on wheeled sleds. The ice cave isn’t available for exploration but the route will take you through some interesting scenery.
It is also possible to visit the ice cave via snowmobiles during the winter. You need a valid driving licence and a good command of Norweigian or English to be able to drive one.
Gruve 3 Coal Mine Visit
We also enjoyed an excursion to Mine Number 3. Longyearbyen was established as a settlement after excellent quality coal was discovered. It might seem surprising that an Arctic landscape with no trees should have coal. But around 65 million years ago Svalbard was located near the equator and the movement of tectonic plates over the millennia has now placed it in its icy position in the world. The seam is very thin – twelve metres of forest turned into just one metre of coal.
We were able to visit the mine and learn about its history, construction, its people and how they mined. There is around 200 metres of mountain above the mine so safety was really important, especially in terms of shoring up the tunnels. Apparently you can hear the mountain creak.
This was also the first mine to employ female workers. They were largely involved with engineering jobs but some women worked at the coal face and were very much respected by their male counterparts.
The miners would crawl along the seam, in a tunnel that was between 38cm and 50cm high, and mine using heavy drills for 8 hours a day. Pay was exceptionally good.
You can borrow an overall (choose one that’s size larger than your usual size as you just wear it over your clothes) and crawl into the seam. It is incredibly claustrophobic. Not sure either of us would last even an hour in there, no matter how much pay we received.
The mine also holds a seed bank and archive for a number of countries.
The trip is easy to book via Get Your Guide.
The world international seed bank is also located near the mine. It stores millions of seeds from all around the world, the idea being to help provide a degree of food security for the world.
Snow Cat Northern Lights Tour
The aurora forecast indicated that our best chance of seeing the lights was on our last day so we booked a snow cat tour to take us out to the countryside, away from the city lights, to see if we could spot them.
The trip is probably more exciting if the Northern Lights are in the sky. You get in a big vehicle with a load of other people, drive to a hut, have a warm drink, wait for the lights, come back.
Sadly, we didn’t get to see the Aurora. With this sort of thing it is pure luck; we had booked the trip several weeks beforehand so there was no real way of knowing how active the sun and how cloudy the weather would be. Ever the optimists, we plan to try again!
Svalbard for Foodies
The great thing about Longyearbyen is that it’s located at 78 degrees north so you can say that you’ve eaten the world’s northernmost food, drunk the world’s northernmost beer and so on. The fish in Svalbard – and indeed the rest of Norway – is excellent quality and highly recommended. Our breakfast at the Vault was a buffet comprising smoked and pickled fish, rye bread, brown cheese and pickles. Perfect!
Svalbard Brewery is located a couple of kilometres out of town (but still within the polar bear safety zone). They are open for brewery tours and some evenings the taphouse is open for drinking but you do need to book in advance.
We enjoyed a tasting flight and then some more of their fine beers. They have a broad variety of styles on offer.
The best was the Gruve 3 stout, inspired by a local miner – bourbon and caramel flavours combine in this delicious 9% beer. Yeah, we caught a taxi back to the hotel. (The brewery kindly phoned for one for us.)
Fine Dining at Huset
We decided to treat ourselves to a dinner at acclaimed restaurant Huset. Set in a former community centre built in the 1950s, it’s located a few kilometres out of town, so we needed to take a taxi to get there. Taxis are plentiful but not very cheap. Still, this was a treat. The ethos of this restaurant is to present food from the region in the form of a Nordic tasting menu.
Our welcome was warm and friendly, each dish was presented beautifully and came not only with an explanation of what we were eating but information about its provenance, sometimes even including the name of the hunter. It was also lovely to see the chef himself serve some of the courses – it’s always nice to be able to compliment the cook directly.
Prices for the tasting menu were similar to tasting menus in the UK.
The lovely staff at Huset also offered us a chance to tour the building and see their astonishingly well-stocked wine cellar. It’s one of the best in Europe and has around 15,000 bottles. We tentatively tiptoed around the cellar, a little bit scared of turning too quickly and knocking over several thousand pounds worth of exceptionally good wine.
The tasting menu can be accompanied by a wine pairing and it is also possible to request a beer pairing to accompany each dish. All the beers are local and supplied by Svalbard Brewery.
The food was exquisite and beautifully presented. It made for a truly memorable evening.
Our hotel restaurant just happened to transform into the Nuga Sushi Bar in the evenings so we felt it would be rude not to partake, especially as sushi is our favourite food in the world. It’s always interesting to see how other cultures present sushi and Norway is one of the largest seafood exporters in the world, so local fish is guaranteed to be very fresh and top quality. We enjoyed a sushi platter. The tuna was – unsurprisingly – not the greatest we have ever tried (tuna not being a fish indigenous to Norway’s waters) but the salmon was fresh and delicious and the scallops were probably the largest and juiciest we have ever eaten.
There are plenty of restaurants along the main street and in the mall. Stationen offered what we would call pub grub. Straightforward honest food and some seriously good fish and chips!
The supermarket in town has a wide variety of products if you don’t fancy eating out. There are all sorts of fresh products and convenience food. You can even buy dried expedition food which you can rehydrate if you have a kettle in your hotel room.
If you enjoy a tipple, alcohol in Norway is expensive. Svalbard is actually less expensive than the mainland due to a different tax regime but it’s still pretty pricey. You can only buy booze in the alcohol store, next door to the supermarket. Keep an eye out for opening times.
There are alcohol restrictions for local people. They can buy as much wine as they like but are restricted on how much beer or spirits they can buy in a month. Residents have an alcohol card to record their purchases. This convention dates back to Longyearbyen’s mining heritage – apparently miners aren’t fond of drinking wine but enjoy beer and spirits!
Tourists can buy as much booze as they can drink but will need to show their airline boarding pass or ticket at the checkout to prove that they are not living in the area. And there will be restrictions on how much alcohol you can take off the island.
What to Bring to Svalbard in Winter
Warm clothes. When we say warm clothes we mean proper warm clothes. We recommend layers and clothing to cover your whole body. We took a base layer (tops and bottoms), several long sleeved tops, thick trousers, double pairs of socks plus hats, gloves, scarves and balaclavas.
Solid outdoor shoes – in winter you will be walking on ice and in snow. You need to have decent walking boots and they need to be waterproof.
Spikes – these nifty little rubber fittings have small metal spikes underneath and can be attached to most types of shoe and boot. They give a massive amount of grip when walking on ice and make the world of difference between slipping and sliding all over the place and walking normally.
Reflective jacket or strips. It’s dark all the time so it’s good to be visible to oncoming cars if you need to cross the road. The tourist information bureau has some that you can borrow if you wish.
Indoor Shoes – Longyearbyen was established as a mining settlement and the miners spent long days at the coal face. When they returned to their accommodation their boots would be covered in coal dust – so there is a convention that people remove their shoes indoors. Our hotel had multiple lockers to put boots in. We did take some indoor shoes to wear but changing them was a bit of a faff so we ended up walking around indoors in our socks, which worked fine for us. But bring some indoor shoes or slippers if you wish.
A camera that works well in low light. In retrospect, our phones and camera struggled with the darkness. Many of the shots we took were wobbly due to the light conditions.
Although some of the shots turned out to be quite arty and cool – quite by accident.
Even though we didn’t see the Northern Lights, we had an amazing time in Svalbard. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming and it was strange but curiously wonderful to experience darkness all day.
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Everything Stops for Tea
Afternoon tea is a very British tradition. The British are, of course, well known for their love of tea.
Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors.
Afternoon tea originated in the early 19th Century. It was a time when tea drinking was becoming extremely popular amongst all classes but this was also a time when people tended only to have two meals a day: breakfast and supper. Supper was usually taken around 8pm in the evening which meant that there was an awfully long gap between meals.
Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria, invented the afternoon tea. She had decided that the gap between breakfast and supper was just too long (who can help but agree?) and she would start feeling peckish mid-afternoon. She solved this problem in around 1840 by indulging in a cup of tea and a snack at around 4pm. The tea was generally accompanied by bread and butter and some cake. She invited her friends to join her and soon enough afternoon tea became highly popular amongst high society.
The elements comprising afternoon tea evolved over the years. Fortunately sandwiches had already been invented by the Earl of Sandwich, who had discovered the joys of putting something delicious between two slices of bread in 1762, so afternoon tea could accommodate this as a menu item as well.
Scone? Or Scone?
Scones are also considered to be an essential element of afternoon tea these days. These are traditionally sweet scones, eaten with jam and clotted cream. The scones are presented whole: they should be cut in half and the jam/cream or cream/jam combination applied copiously. Never reveal whether you put the jam or the cream onto the scone first to anyone from the West Country. Devon and Cornish folk have very different ideas about the order in which the scone should be adorned. We politely suggest that they taste wonderful either way.
As well as disputes about how to eat scones the English also disagree on how to pronounce the word – is it scone to rhyme with ‘gone’ or scone to rhyme with ‘stone’? We’re originally from the south of England so both use the former but have regular arguments with friends about the true pronunciation.
How To Enjoy Traditional Afternoon Tea
The quintessential afternoon tea comprises a selection of sandwiches, a couple of scones served with clotted cream and jam and a variety of miniature pastries, cakes or sweet treats. Served with a cup of tea. This might simply be an ordinary cuppa but it is more likely that you would be offered some speciality teas or herbal infusions. Coffee and hot chocolate are usually available for non-tea-drinkers. The more indulgent modern afternoon teas may also offer a tall glass of fizz; Champagne (preferably) or Prosecco to accompany the treats.
Etiquette suggests that you start with the savouries on the bottom tier. Scones should be eaten next, then finish with the sweet treats on the top tier.
This particular tea had four pastries each, including a fruity pannacotta and layered cake.
Almost a meal in itself, afternoon tea is refined and decadent.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Coombe Abbey Country Park
Coombe Abbey and Country Park is located a few kilometres outside Coventry city centre and is a delightful place to not only enjoy afternoon tea but also to spend time in the extensive 500 acre park, woodlands and gardens.
It’s possible to drive to Coombe Abbey. It takes around 15 minutes from Coventry city centre and parking fees are payable. It is a very popular place to visit at weekends and bank holidays, so sometimes the car park can be full. Alternatively you can catch the bus from Coventry’s central Pool Meadow bus station. The No 53 bus will get you there in about 40 minutes.
Coombe Abbey was originally a 12th-century Cistercian abbey that has now been converted into a hotel.
Afternoon tea is held in a lovely garden room, a light and airy space.
There are a variety of options available from traditional afternoon tea to savoury offerings. There is a wide variety of teas on offer – from great quality black tea to some more unusual options such as gin and tonic tea. If you’re feeling decadent, a glass of bubbly is also available.
The petit fours are beautifully made.
Prices range from £20 to £47 (July 2023) depending on the decadence of your choice of tea and whether you wish to indulge in fizz. The prices also vary depending on whether you are visiting during the week or at the weekend (weekend prices are higher). Afternoon teas at Coombe Abbey are very popular so booking is essential.
Other Things to Do In The Area
The grounds of the country park are delightful for walking in. There are several lakes and an extensive woodland to explore.
If you are feeling adventurous there is also a Go Ape facility where you can exercise your inner child and go climbing in the treetops and enjoy the exhilaration of zip wires and a tarzan swing! (Probably best to enjoy before taking afternoon tea!)
And if you’re still feeling hungry, Coombe Abbey offers mediaeval banquets in the evenings – great food and entertainment guaranteed.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Tales of Tea at St Mary’s Guildhall
Recently refurbished, St Mary’s Guildhall is one of the most important surviving guildhalls in the country, dating back to the 1340s.
Afternoon tea at Tales of Tea is served daily in St Mary’s undercroft, a delightful and historic setting.
On this occasion we enjoyed a savoury tea. Although afternoon tea is delightful we do sometimes find that by the time you have eaten the scones and the first of the petit fours there is a bit of a sugar overload.
The menu does vary regularly but we enjoyed sausage rolls, pork pies, haddock croquettes, mini quiches and cheese scones amongst other savoury delights
And just a little sweetness with an edible flowerpot filled with mousse and dark chocolate ‘soil’.
Tales of Tea is very popular so we recommend making a booking. Prices range from £25-£30 depending on whether you want a sweet or savoury tea. (July 2023) The undercroft becomes a fine dining restaurant in the evening.
Other Things to Do In The Area
St Mary’s Guildhall itself is definitely worth visiting so make sure you pop across the atrium from the undercroft.
It boasts the England’s oldest mediaeval tapestry, a remarkable work that was woven in its original place – it is over 500 years old.
A recent refurbishment has revealed a mediaeval kitchen now restored to its former glory.
The Guildhall is located next to the ruins of Coventry’s cathedral which itself has a fascinating history. St Michael’s cathedral was constructed in the 15th Century but destroyed in 1941 during the Coventry Blitz in World War 2.
A new cathedral was built alongside the ruins of the old. Both are very much living spaces – both for worship as well as art, music and cultural events that are held throughout the year. It is possible to enjoy a guided cathedral quarter walking tour.
The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery is a 2 minute walk away. It hosts multiple free art exhibitions several times a year and has a permanent exhibition space on the ground floor showcasing Coventry’s history.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Telegraph Hotel
Founded in 1891 as The Midland Daily Telegraph, but with a name change in 1941, The Coventry Evening Telegraph was the city’s first daily newspaper. In times gone by it was a tabloid paper located in a large building in the city centre which housed enormous printing presses. But times have changed and the printing presses are no longer needed, so staff have relocated to the Canal Basin in Coventry. The site was opened up to the public in 2017 and temporarily hosted local art exhibitions.
The building has now been converted into a hotel but the decor very much reflects its heritage. Afternoon tea is available. Currently on offer, afternoon tea for two people, with a glass of fizz costs £39.50 (July 2023).
The afternoon tea is more traditional but generous and delicious. The sweet treats included pistachio macarons, chocolate delice with yuzu gel, passion fruit tarts and a strawberry and elderflower cheesecake. The tea was so filling we had to ask for a box to take some scones home with us.
Other Things To Do In The Area
Coventry Transport Museum is around a two minute walk away. It’s a great museum to visit, even if you’re not particularly interested in cars. Coventry was once the city of motor manufacturing and the museum houses a huge number of vehicles from some of the earliest vehicles to land-speed-record breakers.
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Every spring we make the most of foraging for greens in the English countryside. Wild garlic is our absolute favourite and we have a fabulous recipe for wild garlic pesto. But pesto uses cheese! So we also have a recipe for vegan wild garlic pesto.
In the UK you can forage wild garlic for free as long as you just take the leaves, stems and flowers. All these parts are edible. We make it a rule never to take more food than we need as it’s nice to leave some for other people and also ensure that the plant will appear next year. We try to pick one leaf from each stem so as not to disturb the plant too much.
Foraging for Wild Garlic
Wild garlic is pretty easy to recognise and has a very definite garlicky smell. Pick a leaf and crush it in your hand – it has a wonderful scent.
A little later into the season lovely white flowers appear. These have a very mild garlic flavour – we use them to garnish dishes.
As with any foraging, you have to be 100% certain of what you are picking. Poisonous plants can grow near wild garlic. Arum maculatum, also known as Lords and Ladies, is very toxic. Apparently even putting the leaves into your mouth will result in an immediate burning sensation. It can grows worryingly close to the wild garlic. When it’s more mature it develops shiny arrow-head shaped leaves but when young, looks very similar to wild garlic.
Bluebells, or their white-flowered counterparts, which can also easily be confused with wild garlic’s white flowers, can also grow nearby. Bluebells are extremely pretty but also poisonous.
If you are the slightest bit uncertain, DON’T eat it!
Vegan Wild Garlic Pesto Recipe
Just like our standard recipe our vegan wild garlic pesto isn’t precise. We use cashew nuts but you can also use pine nuts (and weep at the expense) or pistachios. You can use a blender to mix everything together but if you’re feeling hardcore you can use a pestle and mortar.
We use nutritional yeast as a substitute for the cheese. It’s a brilliant product that is really good for you – a great source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. More importantly it has a cheesy flavour, perfect for adding that umami element to the pesto amidst the creamy cashew and heavenly garlicky scent.
Bunch of wild garlic leaves (around 150g)
Handful of cashew nuts (around 150g)
Generous sprinkle of nutritional yeast flakes (we recommend couple of tablespoons if you’re measuring)
Slosh of extra virgin olive oil
Squeeze of lemon
Pinch of salt
Roughly chop the wild garlic leaves and place into a blender. Throw in the nuts and nutritional yeast flakes. We recommend adding the leaves first – to the bottom of the blender – so that the weight of the nuts helps with the grinding process.
To take advantage of the season we make industrial quantities and freeze it, so we can enjoy the scented flavour of spring throughout the year. We don’t add the oil, lemon and salt before seasoning but stir it in after it has defrosted.
Blend together until you get the texture you like – smooth or nutty – both work well.
If you want to freeze the pesto, decant it into containers and put it into the freezer. It will freeze well and will last many months.
If you want to eat the pesto straight away (or store it in the fridge for a couple of days) add the oil, lemon juice and salt.
The great thing about this recipe is that is so easily adaptable – you can mix and match ingredients. It’s the underlying gentle garlicky flavour that the wild garlic leaves produce that make this such a brilliant pesto. We’ll be foraging and freezing for as long as the season lasts.
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- Zero Waste Recipes Before Your Holiday
- RECIPE: Vegetable Biryani Tamil Nadu Style
- RECIPE: Vegan Wild Garlic Pesto
- Recipe: Venetian Pasta Sauce
- RECIPE: Biryani Raita Recipe
- RECIPE: How to Make Costa Rica’s Gallo Pinto
- Recipe: Japanese Simmered Pork Belly – Buta no Kakuni
- RECIPE: How to Make Umeboshi
- Recipe: Shopska Salad
When we visited Venice we were surprised to learn that the cuisine wasn’t all pasta pasta pasta – rice dishes such as risotto are more typical of the region. And of course there is lots of seafood on offer.
When we explored the Rialto market we fell for the touristy foodie goodies – from different types of pasta to various herb and spice mix condiments. All wrapped up very prettily and ideal as a souvenir.
We wanted to try to make a sauce that was typically Venetian and came across salsa with bigoli.
This Venetian sauce is brilliant because it has a minimal number of ingredients, is really simple to cook, but packs a real punch in terms of flavour. The predominant flavours are sweet – from the onions which have a natural sweetness (any acrid onion flavour gets cooked away) – as well as salt and umami from the fish. It’s a fantastic combination.
Tinned fish is really popular these days and this recipe is great for using cheap ingredients – just onion and a couple of tins of fish. However, it does require quite a long cooking time, which uses energy, so we recommend making it in bulk and then freezing the leftovers. Then you can always have some to hand – just defrost and reheat.
Traditionally this sauce is served with bigoli, the pasta of choice in Venice. It’s like a big spaghetti, long and with a rough texture to soak up the sauce. We find it quite difficult to get bigoli in the UK, so spaghetti or tagliatelle work well as substitutes.
How to Make Venetian Pasta Sauce
Serves 4 people (or 2 and you can freeze any leftovers). Or double up and make a large quantity to freeze.
2 large onions
1 tin of anchovies in oil
1 tin of sardines in oil
Black pepper to taste and green herb such as parsley to garnish
Pasta of your choice to serve it with (bigoli is traditional)
Chop the onions very finely. When you think you’ve chopped them finely enough, chop them some more. The aim is to cook them to a mush.
Put the very finely chopped onions into a pan and add water – just to the level of the onions. Use a low heat to cook them. Keep an eye on the water and top up a little if it evaporates.
After around 35-45 minutes the onions should be nicely mushy. If there is still water in the pan, turn up the heat briefly to let it evaporate off. Otherwise use a potato masher or a wooden spoon to mash them if needed.
Open the sardine and anchovy tins and chop the fish finely. Retain any oil that’s in the tin.
Add the chopped fish to the onions and stir. Let them dissolve into the mixture.
That’s it. The sauce is ready. Keep it warm on a low heat while you cook your pasta.
We didn’t have any bigoli on hand but we did have some tagliatelle, bought in Venice as a souvenir, in the colours of the Italian flag, which we felt was an appropriate pasta to use.
Cook the pasta. When we cooked the pasta we didn’t add salt to the water because the anchovies are pretty salty, but season to your taste if needed.
Add the pasta to the sauce and mix. We seasoned with freshly milled black pepper and our garnish was some foraged garlic mustard leaves but a green herb like parsley will be fine as well.
- Zero Waste Recipes Before Your Holiday
- RECIPE: Vegetable Biryani Tamil Nadu Style
- RECIPE: Vegan Wild Garlic Pesto
- Recipe: Venetian Pasta Sauce
- RECIPE: Biryani Raita Recipe
- RECIPE: How to Make Costa Rica’s Gallo Pinto
- Recipe: Japanese Simmered Pork Belly – Buta no Kakuni
- RECIPE: How to Make Umeboshi
- Recipe: Shopska Salad
Northern Ireland is blessed with vibrant cities, beautiful countryside and a stunning coastline. We visited this lovely country as part of a road trip around much of the island of Ireland. We flew into Belfast airport and hired a car which gave us maximum flexibility to explore. Here’s a Northern Ireland road trip itinerary for spending two to three days in this lovely country. It can be extended or compressed, depending on how much time you have and how long you wish to spend at some of the attractions.
Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland and is probably one of the liveliest places we’ve visited. The city’s name derives from Béal Feirste which means ‘mouth of the sandbar’. Although there have been settlements in the area since Neolithic times, Belfast town was established in the 17th century by Sir Arthur Chichester. It grew rapidly over the years as a trading centre and industrial hub. Most of Ireland seceded from British rule in 1921 to form the Irish Free State but six counties in the north of the island remained part of the UK and Belfast become the capital city of these.
Arriving in Belfast
We flew into Belfast airport, picked up our car and drove the short journey into the city. We arrived at at 4 pm on a Saturday evening, and the place was already throbbing – bars were full, and everyone was dressed up and ready to go out. A walk through the city was interspersed by raucous mobile bars filled by revellers and fuelled by boozy pedal power.
The following day we spent some time in the city. Belfast is a great place to explore on foot and has a number of impressive buildings:
The City Hall in Donegall Square council building is the civic building of Belfast City Council.
Belfast Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of St Anne, dates from 1899. In the background of the picture below you can see a very thin spire. It’s so slim it looks like a spike. It’s called the Spire of Hope and was designed to be extremely lightweight because the cathedral is suffering from subsidence into the silty mud it was built upon. Hence, with no chance of it having a full spire or bell tower, this elegant, svelte and minimalist spire was installed in 2007.
The Albert Memorial Clock Tower was built in 1869. It was designed by WJ Barre who won a competition to design a memorial to Queen Victoria’s late husband, Albert the prince consort.
Belfast also has an impressive street art scene.
Things to Do in Belfast
The Titanic Experience is Belfast’s most popular tourist attraction. It’s worth setting aside a few hours to spend in this area.
Housed in a gargantuan building located in the Titanic Quarter on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard, visitors can embark on an extensive and highly interactive tour which shows the history of possibly the world’s most famous ship.
The tour depicts the story of the ship from its conception to the discovery of the wreck in its watery grave. It sets the narrative in the social context of Belfast’s history, notably its industries and particularly its shipyards. It also shows the construction process and includes a gentle theme park style ride through a mock-up of the shipyard.
There are detailed displays showing how the ship was fitted out. It was interesting to learn about the facilities that were available for the different classes of passenger.
It provides information about the launch and the Titanic’s disastrous maiden voyage as well as the search for the elusive wreck, which was discovered many decades later, and the depiction of the disaster in the media and on film.
Included in our ticket price was a visit to the SS Nomadic which is located in a dry dock outside the main building. This was another White Star Line ship (the last surviving in the world), built at the same time as the Titanic but exactly one quarter of the size.
She was the tender ship which transferred passengers from the docks in Cherbourg to the Titanic. Because of its size the Titanic itself was moored in deep water away from the shore.
Since our visit, the Titanic Experience has been revamped and the reimagined experience, with an emphasis on telling the story of many of the people involved with the Titanic, launched in March 2023.
While you’re in the area, the Maritime Mile on the waterfront has a lot to discover, from historic attractions showcasing the area’s maritime history, art installations and a bunch of restaurants and shops.
Other Belfast attractions include the Crumlin Road Gaol, a prison that was operational between 1845 and 1996. It has been renovated and is now open to visitors.
Ulster Museum offers an extensive collection of artefacts, covering history, science and the natural world, as well as an art gallery.
Game of Thrones
With so many beautiful locations, it’s easy to see why this country has a thriving film and television industry. Northern Ireland offered one of the primary settings for the filming of the popular TV series Game of Thrones. Producers HBO hired Titanic Studios, a building located just behind the Titanic Experience, for much of the filming and they also used exterior locations dotted all over Northern Ireland.
If you are looking to see all the Game of Thrones locations there are several tours available in Belfast or, if you are driving yourself, you will spot loads of brown tourist signs on the roads indicating where to visit. Just south of Belfast is the Game of Thrones studio tour for fans of the show.
The Titanic Quarter has some Game of Thrones stained glass windows located along the waterfront as a tribute to the series.
Driving To The Antrim Coast
We decided to spend a day on our Northern Ireland road trip driving from Belfast to Derry visiting many attractions along with way.
We headed out from Belfast to the Antrim coast, taking a quick detour to the Dark Hedges. This is an avenue of gnarled and twisted beech trees which were planted in the 18th century, one of many locations made famous by Game of Thrones. The trees are located on the Bregagh Road, Stranocum – follow the brown road signs to a car park which is very close by.
The Antrim Coastline is a place of great beauty and it’s a pleasure to drive along it. There are two locations that are unmissable.
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
The Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge was originally constructed by salmon fishermen over 350 years ago, it links the mainland with the teeny island of Carrickarede. The bridge has been rebuilt several times over the years. The current bridge is 20 metres across and is at a height of 30m above the sea.
The car park is located on the North Antrim Coastal Path, just under a kilometre from Ballintoy village. Visitors need to prebook in order to cross the bridge. There is a car park (a fee applies) and the island is located along a coastal path – just follow the signs.
Sometimes the bridge is closed so it’s worth checking the National Trust website before visiting. Even if you can’t use the bridge it’s a stunningly beautiful walk along the coastline.
Around 11km along the coast from Carrick-A-Rede, the Giant’s Causeway was one of the attractions we had most wanted to visit on our trip. Mitch’s Geography A-level is entirely to blame, as it has been for all sorts of geographical attractions that we’ve visited over the years, from glaciers to oxbow lakes. Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway is a wonder of nature.
It comprises some 40,000 basalt columns, largely in hexagonal shapes, that all interlock. They formed over 60 million years ago following volcanic eruptions which forced the layers of molten basalt to develop and then solidify on the chalk beds. As the lava cooled it contracted to form the columns, the relatively even rate of cooling determining that the liquid basalt settled into the characteristic shapes. But the cooling wasn’t totally uniform, so while most of the columns on the causeway are hexagonal, there are a few with more sides.
The causeway really is marvellous and, unsurprisingly, this is the most Instagrammed spot in Ireland. It’s possible to walk on the basalt columns themselves and there are a number of short hikes in the area that will take you to and from the visitor’s centre. Make sure you wear suitable walking shoes, the causeway can get slippery.
But alongside the geological wonder lies a legend. The giant of the eponymous causeway is Finn Macool who built it in order to take on rival giant Benandonner from Scotland. But Macool later learned that Benandonner was a much larger giant and would have presented a real challenge in a battle. So Finn’s wife had a very clever idea.
When they heard about the imminent visit from his rival she wrapped Finn up in baby clothes and placed him in a giant cradle. Benandonner arrived and was informed that Finn was not at home. And he was so shocked at the size of a ‘baby’ giant, he figured that the adult Macool must be enormous so he fled Ireland, destroying the causeway behind him to ensure that Finn wouldn’t follow.
Further Finn Legends
Finn was also the giant reputed to have scooped out a large portion of soil in Northern Ireland to chuck at his Scottish rival. Unfortunately he missed and it ended up in the sea, forming either the Isle of Man or Ailsa Craig. The scooped out hole in the earth became Lough Neagh.
There are all sorts of other legends about the various rock formations in the area. Finn’s giant camel, which was apparently his only form of transport when he wanted to cover long distances, can be seen on the approach to the causeway. Sadly it was turned to stone. There is most definitely a camel-shaped rock in the picture below.
And apparently he used to play the organ – there are organ pipes on the headland overlooking the causeway, which are also basalt stacks.
The Giant’s Causeway is a National Trust site, so members can visit and park for free. It’s advisable to pre-book tickets online, especially if you want a space at the local car park if travelling by car. The visitor’s centre has lots of information about the site and runs free guided walks for visitors – you are provided with a headset, because it can get very windy, and this ensures you can hear the commentary. We recommend a tour as the guides provide loads of geological information as well as stories of the giant’s legends.
Moving inland, Bushmill’s is Northern Ireland’s best known whiskey distillery and the oldest working distillery in the world. It dates from 1608 when King James granted a licence and is named for all the mills located on the nearby River Bush. It offers distillery tours and tastings.
If you’re looking for a bit of beach time, head back to the coast and then travel west to Portstewart or Portrush which are both popular locations. Portrush offers amusement parks and arcades whereas Portstewart enjoys a long beach with promenade. Portstewart also boasts Morelli’s ice cream parlour, established in 1927, which has a fantastic reputation for really good ice cream.
Continuing in a westerly direction we arrived at Derry – also known as Londonderry. It is the second largest city in Northern Ireland.
This is the only city in Ireland to have retained its original walls and is considered to be amongst the best walled cities in Europe. Walking the city walls is an essential activity in Derry.
The walls were built in the 17th century by the Irish Society in order to protect the city from English and Scottish settlers. The Siege of Derry started in 1689 when apprentices locked the gates against invading forces loyal to James II. Eventually, the king himself arrived to demand a surrender but the citizens refused. The siege lasted several months and the walls were never breached – ships on the river Foyle eventually managed to get supplies to the hungry but stubborn Derry folk.
The city walls are around 1.5km in length and take around 20-30 mins to walk around. There are seven gates: Shipquay Gate, Butcher Gate, Bishop’s Gate and Ferryquay Gate are the four original gates, with New Gate, Castle Gate and Magazine Gate being added later. Many defensive cannon can still be seen.
St Columb’s cathedral is is dedicated to Saint Columba who was an Irish monk who set up a Christian settlement to the area and then brought Christianity to Scotland after being exiled from Ireland. Construction on the cathedral started in 1628 and it is the first cathedral to have been built following the Reformation in the UK.
Derry’s beautiful Guildhall is where the city council meet. Completed in 1890 the design of the distinctive clock tower was influenced by the Elizabeth Tower in London, more commonly known as Big Ben (which is actually the bell of the great clock).
Derry has a history of sectarian tension and is the place where the conflict known as the Troubles began. The Battle of the Bogside took place in 1969 and this area was also the location of the Bloody Sunday incident in 1972. The Museum of Free Derry is dedicated to the struggle for civil rights in the region in the context of the creation of Free Derry in the 1960s and 1970s.
The street art has a political edge.
Free Derry corner is a landmark in the Bogside area where nationalists declared an autonomous area in the 1960s and 70s. Originally graffiti on the gable wall of a terraced house, the houses were demolished in later years but the wall remains.
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 ended a significant amount of the violence associated with the Troubles. It acknowledged that that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom and that a substantial section of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wished to bring about a united Ireland.
The Derry Peace Bridge was opened in 2011. It’s a bicycle and footbridge which crosses the River Foyle and links the Waterside area, which is mainly unionist, with Cityside, which is largely nationalist.
Browns in Town
A recommendation for foodies is Browns in Town, a sister restaurant to the fine dining establishment Browns Bonds Hill, a Michelin-starred restaurant with an excellent reputation. Located on Strand Rd, Browns in Town offers modern Irish cuisine – fine dining at exceptional prices. We enjoyed pan seared scallops with smoked beef, celeriac and a red wine jus, a pork wellington with jus, and pressed beef, served with a side order of champ – an Irish dish comprising creamy mashed potato with spring onion (and lashings of delicious butter).
We visited Northern Ireland as part of a longer road trip where we also followed much of the Wild Atlantic Way in the Republic of Ireland. We can highly recommend this beautiful area with its very friendly people as a great place to enjoy a few days.
Belfast is just a couple of hours’ drive from Dublin. This blog post by faheyjamestravel has a list of things you can do there.
The Azores are a tiny archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and an autonomous region of Portugal. Their location means that they are an absolute magnet for marine life viewing because they have resident whales and dolphins, as well as many migratory species, such as the blue whale, which pass close by to the islands each year. We spent a week on Sao Miguel, the largest island, enjoying whale/dolphin watching excursions as well as some activities on the island, such as mountain biking and kayaking. But we didn’t realise what a great foodie destination the islands are. In between the activities we enjoyed some fantastic food of the Azores.
We stayed in the main town of Ponta Delgada. It’s a pretty place and has all amenities within walking distance.
Cheese – Food of the Gods!
One of the things we noticed when travelling through the beautiful green countryside was the number of cows and also fields of ripening corn. The corn is actually more likely to be grown to feed cows than people.
With mild winters and lots of rain the vegetation is lush and that’s perfect for the cows who produce rich milk that is turned into cheese. We were surprised to learn that around 50% of Portugal’s cheese is produced in the Azores.
Another striking feature of the landscape is the plethora of hydrangeas that line the roads. The cows tend to ignore them so they become natural fences that look glorious in the height of summer. We visited just after they were at their best but they still looked very pretty.
There are various cheese shops in Ponta Delgada – King of Cheese and Prince of Cheese – they aren’t modest about the quality of the product!
It’s fun visiting the shops – you can let them know about your cheesy preferences and they will recommend particular flavours and offer you a sample. We were keen to bring some cheese home and they were able to vacuum pack some very large slices for us so that we could store them in our hotel fridge and get them on the flight home. They survived very well and made sure that we weren’t going to run out of cheese for several weeks.
Sao Michel has a black rind and is the premier cheese of the island we were staying on. It’s a hard, very mature cheese with a lovely sharp flavour.
Sao Jorge cheese is produced on the Azorean island of the same name. It is a semi-hard cheese made from unpasteurised milk. It is milder than the other cheeses, with a nutty flavour
Vaquinha is from the island of Terceira. This one has a surprising initial creaminess for a hard cheese but this eventually flakes slightly. It is very mature, is almost spicy and has a real kick to the flavour!
Cheese is often provided as an appetiser at restaurants but this isn’t matured cheese, it is queijo fresco. It doesn’t have the fullest of flavour, in fact it’s pretty bland, so it is served with pimenta da terra (red pepper paste) which gives it a real pzazz, and it’s eaten with fresh bread. We were able to bring back a bottle of pimento de terra home with us.
What Goes Well with Cheese? Pineapple of Course!
There is a pineapple plantation, located just outside Ponta Delgada, easily within walking distance of the city centre. You can visit the greenhouses and see the pineapples growing.
There are also some displays and videos which show the process for growing these fruit. It’s interesting that they use a smoking process to trigger the flowering of the plant.
And there’s a café on site which offers a complimentary shot of pineapple liqueur and a teeny piece of toast with pineapple jam.
And, as we hadn’t had elevenses or lunch, we thought it would be rude not to enjoy a pineapple gelato, washed down with a caipirinha, a delicious cocktail made with crushed pineapple, lime and rum.
Everything Stops For Tea
The Azores also have a tea plantation, located on the north coast of Sao Miguel. The Gorreana Tea Factory was established in 1883 and is one of only two tea plantations in Europe. It’s possible to visit the factory and do a self guided tour.
There are infographics showing how the tea is processed and you can enjoy a cup of their tea as well as visit the inevitable shop and café. They produce both green and black tea. Both taste good.
It’s lovely to be able to see the original machinery in action.
Volcanic Cozido das Furnas
The Azores are volcanic islands and some areas are still very geologically active. We enjoyed a day trip to Furnas towards the eastern end of the island.
The local town has fumeroles which regularly steam, squirt and belch hot water. The area has a distinct whiff of rotten eggs due to the sulphur. Some of the water has a yellow colour (see the photo below on the right). This is not geological but local people put in bags of corn on the cob to cook.
Taro plants, known as elephant ears, grow in the warm water. These have bulbous corms (like a tuber) which are edible and similar to sweet potatoes.
There are also some drinking fountains where you can taste the local water – it tastes very minerally and is an acquired taste for some. It’s also odd drinking warm water. These fountains are located just metres apart but the flavour of the water is surprisingly different!
Most trips take you to a viewing point to see Furnas lake, and then you descend to the lake itself. You’re not allowed to swim in the lake but it’s possible to go boating on it. And walking around the area reveals some more of the steaming landscape.
There are a number of fenced off areas containing mounds of soil with name tags. On closer inspection these tags bear the names of various restaurants. Lunch!
Every morning the restaurants prepare meat and vegetables and place them in a large pot. At 5am these pots are buried in the volcanic soil. Around six hours later a parade of vans arrive (and that’s the cue to grab a place by the fence if you want to take photos) and each restaurant owner will dig out their pots (or invite a hapless tourist to help) from the perfect slow cooker which has been cooking the food using free energy from the ground. It’s a brilliant system. And the site isn’t restricted to restaurants. Local people can hire a hole and bring their own food for a picnic/meal later in the day.
Back in town, the food is then served in the respective restaurants. A platter of meats and a platter of vegetables. (Vegetarians/vegans – the meat and veg will have been cooked together so if you want a veggie cozido, ask in advance and an unadulterated pot of pure veg can be supplied.)
The meats comprised pork, sausage, chicken, beef and blood sausage (Morcela) – all so soft and tender it could be cut with a spoon. It melted in the mouth.
The vegetables were potatoes, carrots, cabbage (which was served in large chunks so that it didn’t disintegrate during the cooking process) and the elephant ear yams.
Cozido doesn’t have any additional flavours added – the food is served just as it comes out of the pot. But while it doesn’t offer complexity, the juices of the meat provide lots of flavour and you really get to enjoy the taste of the meat and vegetables. And it really is a feast!
All washed down with local wine and a nice honey cake (if still hungry) or a slice of delicious local pineapple (if that’s all you can manage) for dessert, it filled us up for the rest of the day.
A Little Bit of Foraging
While the hydrangeas add glorious hues to the countryside and are very much welcomed, Sao Miguel has a more invasive plant – the yellow wild ginger – which is far less popular. It spreads quickly and does take over the landscape very quickly.
The local university is looking into uses for the plant and it’s looking hopeful that the fibrous leaves may be a useful material to replace use of some plastics in future. It is a good pollinator and inside the long yellow flowers is a drop of nectar. You can pick the flower, bite off the end – by a couple of centimetres – and spit that out. Then suck on the flower and you can taste the sweetness.
Dining on San Miguel – Ponta Delgada
First of all, if you want to dine at a particular restaurant, book! We visited at the end of the busy season and struggled to get a table at the best restaurants for an evening meal. At one of the restaurants we pretty much bagged the last table. We arrived five minutes before opening and people were already queuing for a walk-in but were politely turned away. Another option is to visit the restaurants at lunchtime when it should be easier to get a table.
Our favourites were Gastronomo and Michel. Both are deservedly popular and offered foods of the Azores that were local specialities. We received a very warm welcome in each place.
Gastronomo, R. da Boa Nova
Their queijo fresco and pimenta da terra were freshly made (some restaurants provide you with the cheese on a plate and a bottle of sauce) and served on a ginger plant leaf (one of the uses for the invasive plant) accompanied by home-made bread, including a sweet bread (a bit like a brioche) which was a wonderful contrast to the cheese and chilli.
We shared a starter of black pudding and local pineapple which was an absolutely delicious combination of sweet and savoury flavours. The black pudding – a blood sausage – was one of the best we have eaten.
The Azoreans have a particular way of cooking steak. Bife steak with garlic and pimento and a fried egg.
Bacalhau is not specifically Azorean but is a hugely well known Portuguese dish. It comprises salt cod, cooked with eggs and olives and served on fries.
Michel, Rua Engº José Cordeiro Antiga da Calheta
We tried Azorean limpets and local shrimp to start with. Limpets are shellfish that are incredibly common all over Europe and, although we knew they were edible, had never seen them on a menu before. They have a tougher texture than a lot of shellfish but they were tasty.
Pork and mashed yam (the elephant ears) and vegetables was utterly delicious.
As was the oven roast lamb.
Iceland is a perfect destination for a fly-drive holiday even in the middle of winter. Despite its chilly moniker Iceland isn’t as freezing as you might expect, thanks to the effects of the warm Gulf Stream from the Atlantic. We weren’t blessed with the greatest of weather on our visit, although it was largely dry, it was quite cloudy a lot of the time. But the winter landscapes were still absolutely beautiful. After flying into Keflavik, near Reykjavik, we drove a great big ‘smile’ along the rounded southern coastline from the west of Iceland to the east, stopping and staying at several locations along the way. Here’s our week-long winter Iceland itinerary:
Living in the UK, like most Brits, we are absolutely hopeless at dealing with even the slightest dusting of snow on the roads in winter. It’s because we don’t have seriously wintery weather very often and we’re just not used to driving on snow or, worse, ice. Our Icelandic hire car was a large estate with studded tyres.
Driving on ice? Surprisingly easy. The roads were clear and there were many stopping points along the way offering the opportunity to get out of the car and go walking. All the attractions were well signposted and easy to find. Our flight arrived quite late in Keflavik so we picked up the car and headed to Reykjavik where we stayed overnight.
Day 1 Reykjavik to Hveragerdi – Breaking the Golden Circle
Together, the sites of Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss are known as the Golden Circle as they are all located near to Reykjavik and can easily be visited in a day – handy if you only have a short time in the country. But if you have more time, each site is worth exploring in more depth. Our itinerary was to take us back to Reykjavik so we decided to skip Thingvellir on the way out and visit on the way back. This meant we had more time to see Gullfoss and Geysir.
The word geyser is derived from the geyser, Geysir, located in one of the many geothermal areas that can be found all over the country. The original geyser, which looks a little forlorn, is no longer active…
…but its companion, Strokkur, gushes reliably every few minutes – up to a height of about 30 metres – and is a spectacular sight.
Gorgeous Gullfoss is a two tier waterfall that plunges dramatically into a gorge.
We spent the night at Hveragerdi, which is located just off Iceland’s ring road, Route 1, perfect for getting on the road the following morning. Because the area is so geothermically active, it’s known as a centre for horticulture and has a number of greenhouses heated by hot springs. In fact, many of the buildings in the area are heated using the hot water. And our hotel just happened to have a very nice hot spring bathing pool.
Day 2 Hveragerdi – Kirkjubaejarklaustur
Travelling along the south coast there are plenty of places to stop off, including the impressive waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss.
On arriving at Kirkjubaejarklaustur it was possible to do some walking in the area. There’s a pretty church and we could walk to see the ‘bear rock’.
Day 3 Kirkjubaejarklaustur – Skaftafell
Stopping for a brief glimpse of the delightful turf-roofed chirch at Nupsstadur…
…we then drove across the outwash plains of Vatnajökull, the largest icecap in Iceland. Outwash plains are known as sandurs and develop when glacial rivers wash ash and ice towards the coast. They can be very large and we crossed this one via a long bridge. One thing worth noting is that during the winter the wind can whip up ash and sand and this can damage the paintwork on a car. Be aware of any warnings on the road about windy conditions and also talk with your hire car company about possible extra insurance to cover for this eventuality, if needed.
Skaftafell National Park was merged with other areas in the region in 2008 to become part of the Vatnajökull National Park. We discovered that is a delightful area to go walking in.
There’s a good hike to the waterfall of Skaftafell which is surrounded by black basalt columns. The walking was relatively easy but, due to the snow melting on the day, was a little slippery in places.
About 1km from the crossroads of road 1 and road 998 is a small track which leads to a glacier.
It is the Svinafellsjokull glacier and it’s possible to park up and walk to its snout. Bringing all those geography lessons on glaciation at school to life, it was absolutely wonderful to be able to get so close to a glacier. It was also amazing how to discover that they are actually just like sheep – very picturesque from a distance but really filthy close up!
Day 4 Around Skaftafell – Jokulsarlon
The amazing iceberg lagoon at Jokulsarlon was unmissable and was one of the highlights of our trip. It lies very close to the coast at the edge of the glacier Vatnajökull which feeds the lake with melted glacial water and icebergs that calve off and float on the lake.
If the scenery looks familiar you may have seen this lake in the James Bond films Die Another Day and View to a Kill, as well as Tomb Raider. If you visit in the summertime it is possible to do a boat trip on the lagoon. This wasn’t operational when we visited but we were able to take a long walk along the stunning shoreline.
Because it was winter we had the place to ourselves, except for a few local seals.
Over time the icebergs melt, serenely crossing the lake towards the shoreline before slowly heading out to sea.
Lobsters in Hofn
Later in the afternoon we headed towards Iceland’s Hofn, which is famous for its lobsters. It’s a quiet town with a natural harbour where you can see the fishing boats come into shore.
We found a restaurant which offered delicious local lobsters (actually langoustines). Iceland is an expensive country to visit and restaurant meals are no exception. Hofn is one of the best places to eat good value lobster.
Day 5 Retracing Our Route
It was time to retrace that ‘smiley’ route and head back towards Reykjavik. We had skirted the stunning black beaches of Vik, the southernmost town of the country on our way through, so we made a point of stopping at this tiny town. It was a dark and moody day that showed off the amazing basalt sea stacks located just off the shore.
The Myrdalsjokull glacier is located close by and it is possible to go snowmobiling on it. This is highly recommended as it’s great fun. It was another grey day and as soon as we were on the ice, the weather closed in. We were with a reputable company who were navigating via GPS so even though we were snowmobiling in a white-out, we were safe at all times. It was a very strange experience – not being able to see anything in any direction. But we still enjoyed the thrill of speeding across the ice on the snowmobile, following the tail-lights of the vehicle in front.
We spent another night in Hveragerdi.
Day 6 Return to Reykjavik and Thingvellir National Park
On our journey back to Reykjavik we had a day to explore Thingvellir National Park. It is Iceland’s only mainland UNESCO heritage site and is hugely important both geologically and culturally. Unsurprisingly it one of Iceland’s most visited sites. An advantage to travelling in winter is that the area has fewer visitors at this time of year. (N.B. Thingvellir will be signposted ‘Þingvellir’ – the ‘Þ’ is a ‘th’ sound in Icelandic.)
The Mid-Atlantic ridge is a volcanic belt that goes straight through Iceland, running from the Arctic Ocean southwards along the entire Atlantic. Thingvellir lies on the boundary between two tectonic plates – the Eurasion and the North American. This means you can walk between two continents.
The plates are moving – very slowly – apart. You can see lots of canyons and fissures across the site. Almannagjá is the most notable and quite dramatic.
This area is also the place where the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, was established over 1000 years ago. The name Thingvellir means ‘Assembly Plains’, a fitting title. The Icelandic Commonwealth started in 930CE and ran up until 1262. The Law Speaker, who memorised all aspects of the law, presided over the Lögrétta, the Law Council, meetings. The Lögberg, or Law Rock, was the central point for the legislative assembly, and anyone could speak and discuss issues from this place. The parliament continued to assemble until 1798.
There is a visitor’s centre and plenty of hiking to enjoy. It’s a beautiful area, located on the shore of Iceland’s largest lake Thinvallvatn. The river Oxara runs through the park.
Day 7 Reykjavik and A Quick Bathe Before the Flight Home
We spent the night in Reykjavik and had some time in the morning to walk around.
One of the city’s most iconic monuments is Gunnar Arnason’s Sun Voyager. It is often thought to be a viking ship. But its intention was as a dream boat – a voyager to places undiscovered and a tribute to the sun.
We also visited the Perlan – a fantastic space that features all sorts of exhibitions about natural Iceland. It even has an ice cave!
The Obligatory Trip to the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is located very close to Keflavik airport and, as we had a flight leaving in the late afternoon, it gave us the perfect opportunity to bathe before heading home. If we’re completely honest, we weren’t that taken with the Blue Lagoon. Sure, it looks stunning and it is nice to bathe in lovely warm water (even in winter) but the prices are really expensive and it was surprisingly crowded when we visited. There are all sorts of packages with spa style treatments available but – again – they will be expensive. Like the Dead Sea in Jordan the mud is supposed to do wonders for your skin.
There are lots geothermal pools in the area so we were able to take photos of these to show the beauty of the blue water which is undeniably gorgeous.
What to Pack for Winter in Iceland
Even though temperatures are milder than you would expect, winter in Iceland can still be fairly cold. We recommend packing layers so that you can add or discard depending on how warm it is.
Waterproofs are essential. We took waterproof thermal jackets which provided warmth as well. (Although we were often wrapping them around our waists on a long hike as we warmed up.)
Sturdy shoes/Walking boots. We did a lot of hiking along paths that were icy or muddy, so needed waterproof shoes. We recommend wearing your walking shoes on the plane and packing any other shoes – it keeps the weight of your luggage down and means you won’t lose the important shoes if your luggage gets lost.
Don’t forget your swimsuit gear and towel, especially if you plan to visit the Blue Lagoon. A number of our hotels also had thermal swimming pools which, while not as pretty as the Blue Lagoon, offered lovely bathing. It was particularly nice to swim in a warm pool in the cold night air.
Did We See the Northern Lights?
Another reason to travel to Iceland in winter is for the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. It has long been an ambition of ours to see the Aurora Borealis but, as you can surmise from our photos, the weather was pretty cloudy during our visit. We didn’t see the lights, which was a shame, although it didn’t stop us from having amazing time.
One tip that might be of use: If you are flying to Iceland at night (and it gets dark early at this time of year), get a seat on the side of the plane that faces north. (If you are travelling from the UK/Europe it would be on the right side, if travelling from the US, it would be on the left). On our outward trip the pilot announced that the northern lights could be seen and loads of people rushed to have a look but, well, you can guess which side of the plane we were seated. Hey ho. Can’t win ’em all..
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Ronda in Andalusia is a charming place to visit. It is most famous for being a town split in two – located on either side of a deep chasm, El Tajo, through which the Guadalevín River flows. It is a magnet for daytrippers – at just 60km from Marbella and 100km from Malaga, both on the Costa del Sol, and around 128km from the wonderful city of Seville. Many people take a Ronda day trip from Seville (where there are plenty of tour operators in the city who can offer this as an excursion) but is this the best way to visit?
History of Ronda
Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain with settlements known to have dated from the Neolithic period. Celtic people arrived in the 6th Century BCE, naming the town Arunda. It was invaded by the Romans and became an important city in the region but fell into decline following the fall of the Roman Empire.
When the Moors, led by Prince Musa Ben Nusayr, conquered Spain in 711 the invaders recognised the strategic importance of its location; Ronda flourished as a city once more and became the capital of one of the five districts in Andalusia. The Moorish influence on the buildings remains to this day. Eventually Ronda became a focal point of Christian armies trying to recapture Southern Spain in the early 13th Century and the conquest of Ronda resulted in Christian knights establishing themselves in the city and replacing mosques with churches. By 1570 the city had become a completely Christian town.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the major bridges were constructed across the town’s mighty gorge. The Old Bridge – Puente Viejo – was built in 1616. And the Puente Nuevo was completed in 1793, part of a series of buildings constructed in the town, including the famous bullring.
The city was occupied by the French in the 19th Century which resulted in hardship for many of the citizens. It is thought that legends of the guerrilla fighters, known as bandaleros, originated during this era. (There is a museum dedicated to bandits in the town.) Similarly, in the 20th Century the city also suffered significantly during the Spanish Civil War. Apparently the chamber above the arch on the main bridge was used as a prison and torture chamber by both sides, some unfortunate prisoners being thrown to the rocks in the gorge.
These days the town is thriving and is a hugely popular with tourists.
Jardines de Cuenca
The Puente Nuevo Bridge is the town’s most popular attraction and it’s easy to see why. It’s possible to walk down to the hillside to the Jardines de Cuenca, a serene set of gardens that you can wander through and get a spectacular view of Puente Nuevo and the gorge. But don’t forget to turn around and get some shots of the lovely countryside. We were lucky to visit in early spring, when the blossom was just coming out.
If you want to stay in a hotel or eat at a restaurant with a view of the gorge and bridge, the prices are likely to be higher than in other parts of Ronda. Although the dramatic bridge Puente Nuevo is the main attraction of the town, there are two other bridges in Ronda and both of them are lovely. They are located further down the gorge.
Puente Arabe (also known as the Roman bridge) – is the smallest bridge. Its foundations are Roman but it was rebuilt by the Moors. It is located close to the Arab baths.
Puente Viejo is the “old bridge”, a single arch bridge constructed in the 16th Century.
Puente Nuevo is the “new bridge”, even though it was completed over 200 years ago. The interior above the main arch used to be a prison (you can imagine it being very secure!), was briefly a bar and is now a museum dedicated to the history of the bridge.
The city walls can easily be reached from the Roman Bridge and it is possible to walk along them to see fantastic views.
The Arabian Baths
The Arabian Baths are well worth visiting. They are located at the original entrance to Ronda, close to the Roman Bridge. They were built in the 13th Century by the Moors, who were Muslim, and hence placed a very great importance on cleanliness. But they weren’t just for cleaning, they also offered a social space where people would meet as well as bathe.
The baths are located next to the river to ensure a constant water supply, and were constructed partially underground in order to control temperatures. There are many similarities with the design of Roman baths.
The baths here are remarkably well preserved (in fact they are considered to be the best in Spain) and it is possible to visit the cold, warm and hot bathing rooms as well as some of the sanitary facilities. There is a central room with vaulted ceilings and wonderful star shaped skylights.
Outside the main baths is the water pump tower, known as a saqiya. A donkey would have turned a wheel to pump water from the river, which would flow along an aqueduct towards the boiler room, which heated the water for the baths.
The Water Mine and Garden Palacio del Rey Moro y La Mina
We found this to be disappointing and not very good value for money. The main attraction of interest was the water mine – a staircase that leads from the top of the gorge down 231 steps that have been carved into the rock to reach the river below. The history is interesting: the mine was the only source of water for the city. In Moorish times, Christian slaves, chained to the steps, were used to carry the water in bags up to the top. When a Christian army invaded the city in 1485 the mine was blockaded and the inhabitants of the city lost their water supply. It is possible to enter the mine and walk down the steps.
Beware, though, the steps are well maintained at the start but soon get slippery. It would have been helpful if the warnings about steep, slippery steps had been given outside the entrance, before we paid up, and entered the site. And, what goes down must come up, so be prepared for a long climb back.
The garden of the Moorish King’s palace is pretty but not extensive. Also, it was built in the 18th Century, long after the Moors had gone, and the garden was designed in 1912, which feels like a bit of a cheat.
Ronda is considered the place where modern bullfighting began. At the Plaza de Toros, Ronda has a large bullring, built in 1785, which is one of the oldest in Spain. There is a museum which gives a history Bullfighting is a part of Spanish culture and history but it wasn’t something that we wanted to see. If you are in need of visitor information, the tourist office is located close to the bullring.
Next to the Plaza de Toros is a small park with two unusual statues by sculptor Seville Parra. Film director Orson Welles and author Ernest Hemingway both fell in love with Ronda and Spain. Hemingway wrote about Spain in his novels Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Welles was so taken with Ronda that his ashes are buried close by, in a well on the estate of his friend, bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez. The park itself offers some nice views of the surrounding area.
It’s lovely just wandering through the town. The oranges were already ripening on the trees.
Eating in Ronda
In terms of eating, like much of Spain, Ronda has its fair share of restaurants that offer a menu del dia at lunchtime – a fixed price set menu which is usually good value. Bear in mind that the restaurants are likely to be busy at lunchtime because of the day trippers. Prices in the evening are likely to be more expensive. Sadly some of the restaurants we wanted to visit were closed, so we contented ourselves with tapas followed by churros.
Meats and cheeses in Andalusia are fantastic – with a wide choice available and all delicious.
Churros are cylindrical fried dough delights. They can vary in shape and length – some thicker, thinner, longer or shorter, but they usually have a ridge along the length due to the dough being piped into the sizzling oil using an implement called a churrera, which is a bit like a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle. They may also be coated in sugar. Churros are traditionally dipped into hot chocolate, which is rich, thick and deeply chocolatey.
Churros are usually eaten at breakfast but there were restaurants all over Ronda offering them as daytime snacks. They are popular so some cafes may run out later in the afternoon. They are so sweet! We got such a sugar rush we felt like we could have run up and down the gorge several times after eating them.
While many people do a Ronda day trip from Seville, and other locations in Andalusia, we would actually recommend an overnight stay if possible. One of the reasons for wanting to stay overnight was that we could see the bridge lit up at night. The daytripper crowds will have melted away by this time.
We paid a bit extra for a room with a view of the bridge. It wasn’t quite what we expected – it did include a bit of the bridge but the hotel’s claim that we had a ‘bridge view’ didn’t really meet our expectations. Hey ho.
Much better was eating a traditional Andalusian breakfast in their restaurant…
…overlooking the gorge on a beautiful misty morning.