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Places to Visit in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

We have recently returned from a holiday travelling through Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, two countries that we have long wanted to visit. We decided to take a fly-drive trip, flying in and then hiring a car so that we could have flexibility touring through these two beautiful countries.

Driving in Bosnia and Croatia

We flew into Dubrovnik in Croatia (as that worked best for our flights from the UK) and then hired a car at the airport. It’s always worth pre-booking the hire car. Driving in both countries is pretty easy – the roads are generally good (they are better in Croatia which has a more established tourism infrastructure) and, even better, usually free of traffic. Due to the mountainous nature of region dual carriageways were rare and the drives were leisurely but the scenery throughout each drive was spectacular. We kept to the speed limit – and be aware that there are speed cameras, particularly close to schools in towns – but were overtaken on quite a few occasions.

Border crossings were generally easy – we just needed to join the queue for cars and simply hand over our passports at the first check-in booth and then answer any questions as the next one, the customs booth. In Bosnia Herzegovina proof of Covid vaccination was needed (at the time of travelling). We had printed our Covid passes out so they were easily to hand but a mobile phone app would have been just as good. Our itinerary took us in and out of both countries. After an overnight stay in Mali Ston we headed into Bosnia Herzegovina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s History

Bosnia Herzegovina has a long and complex history. Its location in the Balkans is often described as the crossroads between south and south-east Europe. Populated by south Slavic people it was annexed into the Ottoman Empire, who brought Islam to the area, in the middle of the 15th century. Hence the population comprises Serb (Orthodox Christians), Croat (Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) peoples. This is reflected in the multitude of churches and mosques that can be seen throughout the region.

Mostar is the main (in fact, the only) city in Herzegovina. (The northern region of the country is Bosnia, with Sarajevo as its capital, and Herzegovina is the south.) Mostar is located on the Neretva river, surely one of the world’s most beautiful rivers, with its crystal clear turquoise water. The city is most famous for the Stari Most bridge that crosses the river. It was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and completed somewhere between 1566 and 1567.

It was the widest constructed arch in the world at the time at 30 metres long and 4 metres wide. The drop to the water is around 20 metres depending on the river level. The Ottomans were clever in that this was the only bridge spanning the river for several centuries – the word Mostar derives from ‘mostari’ – bridge keepers – so that the authorities could impose tolls on the traders who needed to cross as they moved their goods through the region. The bridge is flanked by two impressive towers.

Place to visit Mostar

Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire and then the annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in 1929 after World War 1. This became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, following World War 2. The region remained stable until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Following Slovenia and Croatia’s respective secessions from Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina held an independence referendum in February 1992. The outcome was in favour but, while most Bosnian Croats and Muslim Bosniaks had voted, the referendum had been boycotted most of the Bosnian Serbs, a significant proportion of the population. A series of events following this led to war breaking out between the different groups. It lasted until December 1995.

It is incredibly difficult to summarise – let alone truly understand – the complexities of the war but what is undeniable is how horrific it was. This was a war that happened during our lifetime – we remember from seeing news reports on the television at the time. We spoke to a number of local people – from all ethnicities – during our time in Bosnia Herzegovina and they told us about their experiences living through the war, notably the Siege of Sarajevo. Following the peace declaration, the government structure in Bosnia Herzegovina has become incredibly complex with representatives from each ethnic group holding positions of power. For example, the country has three presidents: a Bosniak, a Serb, and a Croat.

One of the consequences of the war for Mostar was the destruction of the Stari Most bridge in December 1993. It was not only considered to be a strategic bridge (the other bridges crossing the river in Mostar were also destroyed) but also a cultural icon. The bridge was rebuilt after the war using funding from a variety of sources and many different countries contributed to the fund. The aim was to reconstruct the bridge in identical style and using similar materials (some salvaged from the original bridge where possible). It was reopened in 2004.

Places to Visit in Mostar – A Walking Tour

When visiting a new city, particularly when we are touring and short on time, we enjoy taking a walking tour. There are usually lots of options available but we especially like the ‘free tours’ which are run by local guides (who will expect a tip at the end of the tour and absolutely deserve one) who can show you the main places to visit in Mostar, explain the history of the area and give some personal insight into the country. They are also the perfect people to recommend local food and restaurants.

We started at the Spanish Gymnasium, which is the first public school in Mostar (the word derives from the European term for high school rather than being an exercise centre). It’s about a 20 minute walk from the centre of the city and is a good meeting point as its orange colour is very easy to spot. It is a working school so entering the building isn’t possible.

The gymnasium is located next to the Zrinjevac City Park, which is a pretty park that has a rather unusual statue. We really weren’t expecting to see a life-sized (well, apparently it’s 4cm short of life-sized) statue of Bruce Lee. Apparently he was chosen as a symbol of diversity and couldn’t be perceived to have an affiliation with any of the local ethnicities, but rather represented “loyalty, skill, friendship and justice.”

places to visit Mostar

When walking around Mostar the scars of the war remain. We walked through the former financial district – many of the buildings are still shells. Our guide explained that while reconstruction work had taken place following the war, the capital Sarajevo had received more money to rebuild. There was still a lot of work that needed to be undertaken throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Walking across the Most Musula bridge we could see good views to the hills above. Although walking up to the summit would ensure a magnificent panorama of the city, the area sadly still contains land-mines.

We then headed towards the older part of the city. The Karadoz Bey Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the region and dates from the same year as the Stari Most bridge.

Karadoz Bey Mosque mostar

It is possible to visit the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. It is located on a side street just away from the main street.

Outside is a fountain traditionally used for washing before entering the mosque to pray.

For visitors it costs 4 Euros to enter the mosque and a further 4 Euros to climb the minaret. Photos were allowed and, although we asked if they would like us to remove our shoes and cover our heads, we were told that it wasn’t necessary.

The interior of the mosque itself is quite compact and the climb to the top of the minaret was fairly claustrophobic.

However the view across the river to the bridge was spectacular. The balcony of the minaret was pretty narrow so we were lucky that there was only one other visitor there. You can also enter the small garden adjacent to the mosque for more river views.

Places to visit Mostar

Wandering through the old town, there are lots of shops and restaurants. It is very touristy and can get crowded during the day. There are also a couple of museums in this area, The Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995 and also the Bridge Museum, which we were keen to visit, but sadly it was closed. There were reminders of the war as we walked through the streets.

Approaching Stari Most again we crossed the river over the old bridge. The steps can be quite slippery.

Places to visit Mostar

One thing that is very popular is watching locals who dive from the bridge into the crystal clear water below. You’ll see them hanging around at the top of the bridge, sitting on the top railing, and they will usually dive once they have raised enough money – normally in the region of 50 Euros – from tourists. You will be able to tell when they are ready to dive when either one of them dons a wetsuit or they start splashing themselves with cold water because the temperature of the river is extremely cold, especially in spring and early summer. We were some distance from the bridge, upriver, when we saw a diver preparing to go. Despite the camera being focussed and on full zoom, we only managed to capture the splash! There are diving competitions held in Mostar each year.

Places to visit Mostar

It’s worth noting that the bridge is a focal point for tourists and, because the city is only a couple of hours’ drive away from Croatia, it gets very busy during the late morning and afternoon as day trippers arrive in their coachloads. The surrounding streets and bazaars will be teeming with people. So staying overnight to explore the area and view the bridge when it’s less busy is definitely recommended.

Our walking tour concluded by another stone bridge – the Crooked Bridge – just a five minute walk away from Stari Most. It dates from 1558. It was strategically important because it allowed traffic to be controlled from the towers of the old bridge. This, too, is a reconstruction – sadly the original was destroyed during floods in 1999, but it was rebuilt in 2002.

Places to visit Mostar

Places to Visit in Mostar, Dining Out

There are loads of eateries offering tasty food in Mostar. The restaurants closest to the bridge, or those with a good view of it, are likely to be more expensive than those in the surrounding streets. Mostar was our first introduction to Bosnian cuisine. The national dish is considered to be cevapi – little meaty sausages/kebabs served inside a bread called somun which is a flatbread like pitta but has a really nice focaccia-like spongey texture. It’s served with chopped raw onions, which are quite sweet in flavour rather than being too pungent. You usually get a choice of a small portion (5 little sausages) or larger portion (10 little sausages). Many of the dishes we tried in both Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia were accompanied by ajvar, a condiment made from red peppers (it isn’t spicy).

There are plenty of sweet dishes on offer as well. Baklava is a familiar dessert, a sweet, filo-based pastry, filled with layers of nuts and a sweet syrup, popular across the region and the Middle East. We particularly enjoyed hurmasica, a pastry doused in lemon-flavoured sugar syrup. It comes in an oblong shape and is very sweet but really delicious with a nice gooey cake-like texture.

hurmasica dessert

And a meal wouldn’t be complete without a cup of incredibly strong, rich, sweet coffee. Coffee culture is very important in this part of the world.

Places to visit Mostar

There was also a very good craft beer emporium in Mostar,on Gojka Vukovica, close to the Crooked Bridge. It had a wide variety of local beers on offer, brewed in both Mostar and Sarajevo. We particularly enjoyed Marakuja, an American Pale Ale, Onano Maze, a rich porter, Darkness, a dry Irish Stout and Kukambera, a cucumber-infused lager which was really refreshing on a hot spring day.

And if you’re after something stronger, rakija is the local brandy made from fermented fruit. Its alcohol content can range from around 40% to 60%. It’s not uncommon for local people to make their own rakija. One of the guides we met told us that it was the cure for all ailments! What’s nice about it is that, even though the alcohol content is strong, you don’t just get a blast of booze, the flavours of the base fruit really do come through – it’s a pleasant tipple.

After dinner, when the day trippers have melted away, it’s lovely to wander through the city at night. The bridge and local buildings are lit up beautifully and Mostar becomes a much more peaceful place.

Places to visit Mostar
Places to visit Mostar

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RECIPE: Salmorejo

Andalusian Cold Tomato Soup

In Spain, cold soups are perfect for a hot summer’s day. Gazpacho is probably the most well known – a blend of fresh tomatoes and other vegetables, such as cucumber, peppers and garlic. Salmorejo is another cold soup, which also originated in Andalusia. We first tried it in a tapas restaurant when we visit Seville and absolutely loved it. It is a blend of tomatoes but has the addition of bread which thickens the soup. It’s a great soup that also helps to avoid food waste as it works really well if the bread is slightly stale.

In the UK tomatoes aren’t that great. Supermarkets often sell perfectly round, perfectly red tomatoes that basically taste of water. We go to our local market for our toms or grow our own. (And home grown always taste better.) What is great about Salmorejo is that even if the tomatoes are a bit insipid, the flavourings ensure that the dish will be delicious.

Our recipe for salmorejo is really easy to make but you will need a blender. This will serve four if part of a wider tapas meal/starter or two hungry people. Also, it’s the sort of soup that you can make first thing in the morning and let the flavours infuse during the day. It even tastes great after being in the fridge overnight.

INGREDIENTS

About 10 ripe tomatoes

3 slices of stale white bread

Clove of garlic (or another if you like garlic but we prefer subtle garlic here)

Good slosh of extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 boiled egg per 2 servings

Couple of slices of ham

METHOD

First of all the tomatoes need to be skinned. The easiest way to do this is to cut a cross at the end of the tomato (the opposite end to the stalk). It doesn’t need to be precise and it doesn’t matter if you cut into the tomato’s flesh -it’s all going to be blended anyway.

salmorejo recipe tomatoes

Pour boiling water over the tomatoes and let them sit in the water for a couple of minutes. Then transfer them to a bowl of cold water.

tomatoes

Grab a corner where the slice was made and the skins should just peel away. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get all the skin off.

peeled tomato

Put the tomatoes in the blender and give them a quick whiz.

Then tear the bread slices and add those, along with the garlic, oil, salt and pepper.

ingredients in blender

Blend again until you have a smooth, thick soup.

recipe for salmorejo

Pour into a jug then put into the fridge and let the flavours infuse.

Serve into individual bowls and garnish with chopped boiled egg and/or chopped ham.

recipe for salmorejo

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Visit Guernsey – Art and Literature Activities

The channel island of Guernsey is the second largest in the tiny archipelago in the English Channel and the largest in the Bailiwick of Guernsey (which also includes the islands of Alderney, Sark, Herm and Jethou). It’s a fabulous place to visit, is easily accessible from the UK and has a fascinating history. If you visit Guernsey there are loads of things to do, especially if you like outdoor activities. There are lots of beautiful walks along spectacular cliff paths, and the island is perfect for spending traditional seaside time on pristine beaches.

Visit Guernsey

There are a bunch of museums and forts to visit and it’s definitely worth investigating day trips or short breaks to the other stunningly beautiful islands.

Guernsey also has a lot to offer if you’re interested in art and literature, and some of these activities are perfect if the weather isn’t on your side for a day at the beach.

Visit Guernsey – The Renoir Walk

The impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited Guernsey in 1883 and created some fifteen paintings during his stay. They were all based around the charming Moulin Huet. You can take a walk along Moulin Huet to view its beautiful bay where Art for Guernsey have cleverly set up some picture frames at five locations so that you can see the precise spot where he worked on his pictures. Each site also have a display showing a picture of the original painting so that you see how the landscape has changed over the years. Most of the frames are located close to the beach but there is one that is slightly further out and it’s a climb along the path to the cliff-top to capture the view across the bay.

There’s a small car park at the end of a narrow road and just along the path from there is a map showing where each of the frames is located.

Visit Guernsey

La cote du Moulin Huet.

Visit Guernsey Renoir Walk

Our version of Enfants au bord de la mer à Guernsey should have been entitled Chien au bord de la mer à Guernsey as our shot was photobombed by a very friendly dog.

The foliage had changed over the years since Baie du Moulin Huet a travers les arbres was painted.

It’s a short climb and walk along the cliffs to see Vue de Guernsey.

Visit Guernsey Renoir Walk

Victor Hugo’s Hauteville House

The French author Victor Hugo spent some 15 years on Guernsey from 1855 to 1870, when he decided to live in exile from his home country following Napoleon III’s coup d’etat in 1851 (Hugo lived in Belgium and Jersey before moving to Guernsey). He wrote extensively while on the island and many believe that his time there was his most productive period, indeed Les Miserables was published during his time on the island. He dedicated Les Travailleurs de la Mer to ‘the rock of hospitality and freedom.’

Visit Guernsey

If you visit Guernsey you can tour his former residence, Hauteville House, in St Peter Port

Hauteville House offers a fascinating glimpse into his lifestyle because Hugo decorated the home himself.

Visit Guernsey
Hauteville House
Hauteville House
Hauteville House

We were particularly taken with the dinner plates on the ceiling!

Hauteville House

It is also possible to stroll around the garden of Hauteville House.

Hauteville House gardens

Guernsey Sculpture Park

Another artistic activity when you visit Guernsey is to walk around the sculpture park in the grounds of Sausmarez Manor. It’s located on Sausmarez Road in St Martin, a short bus ride away from St Peter Port.

Visit Guernsey

You can follow the ArtParks trail through a lovely woodland and view a couple of hundred sculptures from artists all over the world. You can even buy some of the sculptures if any take your fancy.

Sausmarez Manor sculpture park
Sausmarez Manor sculpture park
Sausmarez Manor sculpture park
Sausmarez Manor sculpture park

Visit Guernsey – The Candie Art Gallery

The Candie Art Gallery is small but perfectly formed. It has a statue of a striding Victor Hugo in the gardens.

Visit Guernsey

The gallery is part of a wider arts and museum complex, which also includes exhibitions on the island’s history and a highly interactive folklore exhibit which features a recreation of an early 19th century Guernsey cottage (complete with appropriately creepy mannequins) and stories of local legends. Some of the stories are fascinating.

There is also a permanent exhibition art space.

The teeny gallery presents a number of paintings depicting the Bailiwick in chronological order as you circle the exhibition space.

It also hosts some temporary exhibits and there were a couple of very famous names on display when we visited in 2018 – including a Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama.

Saumarez Park has a fascinating National Trust Folk & Costume Museum which features a number of exhibits from Guernsey’s history. And there are a number of art galleries on the island, including the Coach House Gallery in St Pierre du Bois as well as Iris And Dora in Ruettes Brayes, St Peter Port. St James The Less, a 200 year-old former church in College Street, St Peter Port, also has a variety of cultural events on offer, including visual art exhibitions and musical performances.

Potato Peel? In a Pie? Literary Guernsey

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a 2008 bestselling novel that was adapted into a film directed by Mike Newell in 2018. It is a historic drama set during the occupation of the Channel Islands in World War 2. It is possible to go on a tour to see some of the locations mentioned in the book. And if you are interested in the history of the occupation there is the German Occupation Museum which is located close to the island’s airport.

Guernsey also has a Literary Festival, this year running from 11th May to 26th June. It offers plenty of events running throughout the duration of the festival, with lots of guest authors visiting the island to give talks, as well as a writing competition for students in the Bailiwick.

Visit Guernsey – The Art of Dining

Guernsey also has a fantastic food scene. While there are great restaurants all over the island, the pretty capital St Peter Port has a plethora of excellent eateries.

Visit Guernsey

Every October the island has a Tennerfest whereby restaurants, hotels, pubs and cafés will put on a special fixed priced menu and offer people the chance to eat out for a much cheaper price than normal. Make sure you to get a reservation, though, the event is really popular and the best emporia will be fully booked. Being an island, the seafood is superb.

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Lobster macaroni cheese
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Lobster and chips!

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RECIPE: How To Make Wild Garlic Pesto

Spring is a fantastic time of year for walking in the English countryside. The weather is often warmer and the blossom on the trees provides a wonderful backdrop. We even get a bit of sunshine sometimes! It’s also a great time for foraging for the spring greens that start growing – there’s nothing like picking free food whilst on a walk. At the moment, nettles, ground elder, three cornered leek, garlic mustard (aka Jack-by-the-hedge) are all flourishing and they can all be used to create and add flavour to delicious dishes. Wild garlic is our favourite and we have a fabulous recipe for wild garlic pesto.

There are some basic rules to foraging in the UK. You are allowed to pick flowers, fruit and leaves but you are not allowed to dig up roots (e.g. horseradish) unless you have the landowner’s permission. We never take more food than we need.

Wild garlic is an invasive plant and when it grows it spreads wildly, which is fantastic for a forager. It’s usually easy to recognise and has a very definite garlicky smell.

Wild garlic pesto recipe

A few weeks after the leaves show through, delicate little white flowers will appear. These are edible too and have a very mild garlic flavour – they make a fantastic edible garnish. The buds can also be pickled and can be used as substitute for garlicky capers.

wild garlic flower

If you are foraging it is really important that you are 100% sure of what you are picking. Never eat anything if you are not certain about what it is. Many plants are poisonous and some can look very similar to edible species. Beware: there is a plant which looks very similar to wild garlic when it’s young and just peeping through the soil. 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 sometimes 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.

lords and ladies toxic
Young arum macularum (lords and ladies) – BEWARE
Wild garlic
Young arum macularum (lords and ladies) on the left, growing alongside wild garlic – BEWARE

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.

Whenever we gather wild garlic we go through a process of washing it thoroughly and checking each leaf when we get home.

Recipe for Wild Garlic Pesto

This is a recipe that is not at all accurate – it’s one where you can fling the ingredients together and end up with something delicious. Our wild garlic recipe uses cashew nuts instead of pine nuts. They are a lot cheaper and add a lovely creaminess to the pesto.

Ingredients

Bunch of wild garlic leaves

Handful of cashew nuts

Chunk of Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese

Slosh of extra virgin olive oil

Squeeze of lemon

Pinch of salt

Method

Roughly chop the wild garlic leaves and place into a blender. Throw in the nuts. Roughly chop the cheese into chunks and add these. We recommend adding the leaves first – to the bottom of the blender – so that the weight of the nuts and cheese ensures they get chopped up more finely.

Wild garlic pesto recipe

If you are planning to eat the pesto right away, add the oil, lemon juice and salt. The pesto freezes really well but if we are planning to freeze it we don’t add the oil or seasoning; instead we stir it in once it has defrosted.

Blend together until you get the texture you like – smooth or nutty – both work well.

Wild garlic pesto recipe

If you are planning to freeze the pesto, decant into containers and pop into the freezer. We recycle plastic takeaway containers as they provide the perfect portion for two people.

Wild garlic pesto recipe

We’ve tried variations using pistachio nuts and nutritional yeast, which can replace the cheese in order to develop a vegan version. Pistachio are more nutty in texture and their flavour is more pronounced in the finished pesto.

The great thing about this recipe is that is so easily adaptable – 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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RECIPE: How to Make Stinging Nettle Hummus

If there’s one thing that can ruin a walk in the lovely English countryside it’s stinging nettles. If you brush past them with bare skin you can get a painful sting which usually isn’t harmful for most people but hurts for a while. But you can exact revenge on them by eating them! Nettles are not only edible, they are highly nutritious – they contain iron, calcium and magnesium, as well as vitamins A and B. They are great in soup, can be dehydrated to make crisps, can be used like spinach in a variety of dishes such as stir fries and stews, and can also be used in dips and sauces. The process of cooking with them renders them harmless by getting rid of the sting. One of our favourite things to make with them is stinging nettle hummus and we have a recipe.

Stinging Nettle

Despite them being found all over the British Isles nettles are not native plants, they were introduced by the Romans a couple of thousand years ago. Some stories suggest that they were used by Roman soldiers who would flog themselves with the nettle plants in order to use the stings to warm their skin in cold northern climes.

If you do get stung by a nettle there is a plant that you can use that helps soothe the pain. The standard view is that a dock leaf rubbed onto the sting will help. Actually it’s a plantain leaf (which used to be called dock in bygone times) which is more likely to help. Rubbing the sting with a dock leaf won’t harm but plantain will provide more relief.

It is the perfect time of year to go foraging for spring greens. We are already keeping an eye on our local patches of wild garlic, ground elder, mustard garlic, sorrel and three-cornered leek to see how they are growing, and also to plan lots of recipes for them. Stinging nettles are absolutely ready right now.

PREPARING STINGING NETTLES FOR HUMMUS

Go foraging for nettles. Try to find a patch where it’s unlikely that dogs may have been walking (just in case they have used that area for a toilet). Hardy foragers pick the nettles with their bare fingers but we use gloves to save ourselves from the stings. It’s best to pick in early spring to get the most tender leaves (the leaves will become quite tough as summer progresses). You need around half a carrier bag’s worth but you don’t need to be precise.

A word of warning – nettles are generally one of the easiest plants to identify but please be 100% sure that you have identified the correct plant. If you have the slightest doubt, don’t eat it. Plant identification apps aren’t always reliable either.

Wearing gloves, wash the nettles and have a look through them to see whether there are any leaves that should be discarded and look out for any insects to brush away. You can also make sure that no extraneous leaves from other plants. It’s quite common for grasses to end up in your bag as well.

Stinging Nettle Hummus Recipe

Place the nettles into a saucepan and pour boiling water over them to cover them. Stir for a minute or so. They will start wilting. This process gets rid of the sting and you can handle them with your bare hands from now on.

Stinging Nettle Hummus Recipe

While they still have their lovely green colour, using a slotted spoon, transfer them into a bowl of cold water for a few minutes.

Blanch Stinging Nettle

Keep the hot water from the saucepan and pour it into a mug – you can enjoy a nice cup of nettle tea, which has a mild, refreshing flavour and tastes a bit like green tea or coca tea. Then drain the nettles and let them dry naturally. They can then be used in our stinging nettle hummus recipe.

Stinging Nettle Tea

STINGING NETTLE HUMMUS RECIPE

INGREDIENTS

Bowl of blanched stinging nettles

1 can of chickpeas, drained (if you’re keen to avoid food waste, you can keep the liquid, which is called aquafaba, which can be used to make vegan meringues)

1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic

Juice of 1 lemon

1 dsp peanut butter (you can substitute tahini, or omit completely if you can’t eat nuts)

Slosh of olive oil

Pinch of sea salt

METHOD

In a food processor or blender, combine the lemon juice, garlic and peanut butter. Give them a whizz.

Stinging Nettle Hummus Recipe

Add half the chickpeas and half the nettles with a slosh of oil and blend again.

Stinging Nettle Hummus Recipe

Scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the remaining nettles, chickpeas and a pinch of salt, and blend again.

Have a taste – does it need more lemon or salt? Add seasoning as necessary. We tend to like sour flavours so added  the juice of an extra half lemon. You can decide how much you would like your blend depending on whether you prefer a smooth or chunkier texture.

Stinging Nettle Hummus Recipe

Decant into a bowl and serve with warm pitta bread.

Stinging Nettle Hummus Recipe

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Sent To Coventry

Visiting The City in the Midlands – Things to Do in Coventry

When you see travel guides to the UK Midlands they often mention the buzzing metropolis of Birmingham or the country towns of Warwickshire such as leafy Leamington Spa, historic Warwick with its castle, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon, but the city of Coventry is often ignored, which is a shame because it has a lot of history and plenty of things to do and see. It is also the current UK City of Culture. Coventry has great transport connections and is easy to reach from all parts of the UK. It’s just an hour away from London on the train.

History of Coventry – From Capital of England to Ghost Town

Coventry has a long and rich history but little is known about its origins. It is thought that a settlement was established around a nunnery to St Osburga in Saxon times. The name is thought to have originated from the phrase ‘cofa tree’ although no one really know what a cofa is.

Coventry’s most famous legend is that of Lady Godiva who was the wife of the Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who had founded a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Leofric was one of the most important people in the country and imposed crippling taxes on the citizens of Coventry. Lady Godiva took pity on them and asked her husband to reduce the burden but he refused… unless she agreed to ride through the city naked. Which she did. And, in gratitude, the people of Coventry averted their eyes… except for one person: the Peeping Tom.

There is a statue to Godiva in Broadgate and Peeping Tom can also be found in the vicinity if you look carefully.

Coventry Lady Godiva

Coventry became an important trading location between 1150 and 1200 when merchants were allowed to visit the city and trade freely. The agricultural land surrounding the city was perfect for sheep grazing and wool production became an important industry. Textiles, weaving and dying in particular were very important and the Coventry’s blue coloured cloth (blue dye being a difficult colour to develop) was considered to be highly prized because of its ability to stay fast, coining the term ‘True Blue.’

Due to its importance as a centre of commerce a wall began to be constructed in the mid-14th century. Sandstone was quarried from the local district of Cheylesmore and a 3.5 km, 3.7m high wall was built around the city centre. It had twelve gatehouses located on the main routes into the city.

By the 15th century Coventry’s main churches had been constructed. St Michael’s Church, Holy Trinity and Greyfriars (Christ Church) all had magnificent spires which could be seen from miles away. The city actually became the capital of England, temporarily, on a few occasions. It was a wealthy city and considered to be hugely important by successive kings and queens of England.

During the English Civil War, Coventry was a stronghold of Parliamentarians and was attacked by Royalists on several occasions but the king’s soldiers failed to conquer the city walls. The city was used as a prison for captured Royalists and those incarcerated were not just treated with disdain – they were ignored completely. It is thought that this is the origin of the term, ‘being sent to Coventry.’

As the industrial revolution started Coventry, with its central location, became an important city of industrialisation. It was renowned for manufacturing textiles and ribbons, watches (many of watchmakers lived in the Chapelfields area of the city), bicycles and cars. The first British series production motor car was made in Coventry, by Daimler, in 1897.

Despite the industrialisation, the city centre retained a lot of its mediaeval buildings. However, because of the industrialisation, the city was a target during World War 2. On the night of 14/15 November 1940 Hitler ordered a bombing raid on the city. Most of the city centre was destroyed, including the interior of St Michael’s cathedral, and over 500 people lost their lives. Coventry has since become a city of peace and reconciliation and has twinned with some 23 cities across the world, including Dresden and Volvograd (formerly Stalingrad), both cities which also suffered devastating attacks during World War 2.

Following the war the city was rebuilt and was designed to be a modern city – it included one of Europe’s first ever pedestrianised precincts. The city thrived thanks to the car manufacturing industries during the 50s and 60s. Famous names include Jaguar, Standard-Triumph, Talbot, Peugot, and Alvis. London taxis – the iconic black cabs – were constructed in the city from the 1950s until 1994. However the industry – and consequently the city – suffered serious decline in the mid-1970s and 1980s due to industrial disputes and competition from other countries. One by one the car factories closed down. In the early 1980s Coventry band The Specials wrote the song Ghost Town about the decline of the city. Bands such as The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat were part of the 2Tone movement which developed in Coventry and was defined by their members being multi-racial and a musical style that combined punk/new wave music with Jamaican ska.

Coventry Music Museum

These days, Coventry is a lively city. With two universities, it’s also a young city with a diverse population which has an average age of 33 years. It is also the 2021 UK City of Culture, the start of which was slightly delayed due to the pandemic. As a result there are lots of events happening up until May.

Places to Visit

Although much of mediaeval Coventry was destroyed it is possible to see some older buildings in the city. Mediaeval Spon Street is largely comprised of old buildings although not all of these were originally built on the site but were relocated from other parts of the city.

Ford’s Hospital was constructed in 1509, as an almshouse.

Ford Hospital Coventry

Some parts of the original city wall can still be seen. Swanswell Gate is the best preserved of the city’s gates.

Swanswell gate

Dating from the 12th century, the old grammar school is now a conference or wedding venue which occasionally opens up for pop-up art events. You can see the original school chairs, carved by their previous occupants centuries ago.

Coventry Cathedral – old and new

St Michael’s Cathedral was largely destroyed during the Blitz raid but its outer walls and spire remain. It was decided that it should remain in situ. It contains a number of symbols of reconciliation, including a charred cross which was constructed from two fallen wooden beams.

A new cathedral, constructed alongside the ruins of the old, was consecrated in 1962 as a place of worship. Both cathedrals are very much part of the community. There are often concerts and plays held, both indoors and outdoors. The old cathedral even became an ice rink during the winter Christmas season.

Things to do in Coventry
Coventry new cathedral window
Gaia at Coventry cathedral
Luke Jerram’s Gaia in the cathedral ruins

St Mary’s Guildhall

Currently being renovated, St Mary’s Guildhall dates back to 1352 and is considered to be one of the finest guildhalls in the country. Despite being located right next to the cathedral, it survived the bombing. It is home of the Coventry Tapestry, which is over 500 years old. The renovation is due to include a mediaeval kitchen.

St Mary's Guildhall Coventry

Coventry Music Museum

Located just outside the city in the Ball Hill district, the Coventry Music Museum is a small but perfectly formed museum dedicated to the musical history of the city.

Things to do in Coventry Music Museum

You always receive a friendly welcome. With a plethora of exhibits and memorabilia, including the original Ghost Town organ and a reproduction of a Two-Tone bedroom, it also looks to Coventry’s earlier music history including an exhibit looking at the work of Coventry born Delia Derbyshire, the pioneering electronic musician (who arranged the Dr Who theme tune). Deliaphonic is an annual celebration of her life and work which takes place in venues around the city.

You can also use the music room there – just pick up an instrument and play. Opposite the museum is the Two-Tone café and the excellent Simmer Down Caribbean restaurant.

Coventry Transport Museum

Located on Millennium Place, Hales Street and celebrating Coventry’s motor history, this is a fascinating museum which has the largest publicly owned collection of British cars in the world.

Things to do in Coventry

The museum offers a brilliant history of transportation and also of the city. It has lots of interactive exhibits and you can see an extensive variety of vintage vehicles as well as two of the fastest cars in the world: Thrust SSC and Thrust 2. Fun fact: part of the famous car chase from the film The Italian Job was filmed in Coventry. While the Mini Coopers enter and leave the tunnel in Turin, the actual tunnels were Coventry sewers which were being constructed at the time.

The Weaver’s House (Spon End) is a fascinating listed building which is quite unusual because it was the home of a poor person. Historic buildings are normally preserved because they are great big stately homes owned by important people. The weaver’s house is a remarkable construction because it has an internal jetty for the weaver’s loom, which is very rare. The weaver’s house is located close to the river Sherbourne before it enters the city, so the water would have been clean for washing and dyeing the cloth. The house doesn’t have regular opening hours, but check the website for the next open day when you can learn about its history and also visit its mediaeval garden.

Coventry Weavers House

Watch Museum A small but interesting museum dedicated to Coventry’s watchmaking heritage.

Culture

Herbert Art Gallery

A fantastic space, the Herbert has a permanent collection and regular temporary exhibitions. It’s located next to the cathedrals. With free entry to most exhibitions, it also hosted the 2021 Turner Prize.

Things to do in Coventry

Fargo Village

Located to the east of the city, around a 15 minute walk from the city centre on Far Gosford Street, this is the Coventry’s creative quarter. With some quirky shops, great restaurants, venues and an on-site brewhouse it regularly hosts a variety of events.

Theatre and Music The Belgrade Theatre and Albany Theatre have a great programme of theatrical productions. There are lots of venues for music gigs, including the tiny but excellent Tin Music and Arts venue in the coal vaults at Coventry’s canal basin. Warwick Arts Centre, located a few kilometres out of town at Warwick University, has a full programme of music, theatre, film and arts events.

Coventry Biennial This festival of art is held every two years. What’s great about it is that it uses multiple venues around the city and also in some of the surrounding towns.

Litten Tree Building (until late 2022). This is a pop-up art venue in a disused space above a pub. (Just enter the Litten Tree pub in the Bull Yard, on the way in from the railway station and climb the staircase). It’s totally shabby-chic inside but offers a variety of exhibitions and gigs – just feel free to explore the building discovering fabulous art along the way.  

Eating -Where to Eat in Coventry

Coventry has its share of the usual chain restaurants but there are a number of excellent independent restaurants.

The Pod Café – this is located on Far Gosford street and is one of our favourites. A vegan café it sources local ingredients, 70% of which are grown on its Food Union (a social activism initiative run by the local council) allotment on the other side of the city (and one that we volunteer at, so we may even have helped grow your lunch). The café also runs evening supper clubs with live music. And, naturally, the food is absolutely delicious.

Gourmet Food Kitchen – one of the most difficult restaurants to get a table at for chef Tony’s monumentally delicious gourmet evenings (you have to get lucky when slots on the website are released) this teeny restaurant located in Fargo Village also offers the best cooked breakfast in the land (which you can usually just show up for). Everything is home-made and utterly scrumptious.

Earlsdon Supper Club (secret location in Earlsdon – you’ll find the location when you book). This is a supper club where you join chef Tobias who cooks you a delicious tasting menu and describes his inspiration behind each dish.

Hello Vietnam (Smithford Street) offers a wonderful array of Vietnamese dishes.

A-Sushi (Hertford Street) – best sushi in Coventry, this Korean restaurant also offers a variety of Japanese and Korean dishes.

tonkotsu ramen

Shin Ramen (Priory Place) is a Japanese restaurant that serves izakaya style food, notably its authentic ramen noodles. The tonkotsu and champon ramen are particularly good.

Jinseong Korean BBQ (Priory Place) – meat eaters can enjoy Korean BBQ where you can cook a variety of meats over a charcoal fire. Their KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) is also delicious.

Pickles (Spon End). There are so many excellent Indian restaurants in Coventry (as there are all over the Midlands) but we’re big fans of Pickles where you get a warm welcome and delicious curries.

Tamils Taste of Asia (Foleshill Road) offers superb and authentic South Indian cuisine. Great if you are hankering after dosas, biryani and idli.

Anatolia (Earlsdon Street) offers amazing Turkish food with great mezze and succulent kebabs.

DrinkingWhere to Drink in Coventry

Hops D’Amour – is a lovely micropub on Corporation Street serving craft beer, real ale and a variety of ciders. You can be sure of a friendly welcome and that you will have a different and interesting beer or cider experience every time you visit.

Broomfield Tavern – great beers and a huge variety of ciders are to be found in this small pub just outside the city centre, close to the Butts rugby ground. Teddy, the huge St Bernard dog, will offer a warm welcome, even if he sometimes pinches your seat.

Twisted Barrel – a brew-pub located in Fargo village. They offer a great variety of home-brewed and guest beers. They also have a mail order service so you can order their excellent beers online.

The Old Windmill – one of Coventry’s oldest pubs, located on Mediaeval Spon Street, this building has all sorts of nooks and crannies to sit in while enjoying your pint. It offers a great variety of beers and also locally sourced pork pies, ploughman’s platters and cheese boards.

Beer Gonzo (Earlsdon Street)  – located in the suburb of Earlsdon this beer shop and tap room offers a wide variety of interesting beers from around the world. They regularly run “meet the brewer” events which result in a fun afternoon or evening enjoying a variety of beers. They too have an online shop.

Dhillons Spire Bar (next to the Bull Yard) is located within and around Christchurch spire, the third of Coventry’s three spires. You can sit in a personal booth (which has a heater when it’s cold) and drink locally brewed beer such as Ghost Town lager or Red Rebel IPA.

Green Spaces in Coventry

While Coventry has a reputation for being a dull concrete city, it actually has a huge number of green spaces, some close to the city centre and some a bit further out.

Lady Herbert’s Garden is located next to Swanswell Gate and the transport museum.

Lady Herbert's Garden Coventry

War Memorial Park is the city’s largest and best known park. Established in 1921 following World War I, it is absolutely huge and has tennis courts, football pitches, bowls green, footgolf course, an outdoor fitness trail and a cricket pitch. There are play facilities and skateboarding ramps too. It hosts the excellent three day Godiva Festival every year.

Coundon Wedge – about a mile down the Holyhead road leading out of the city towards the A45 and Birmingham, Coundon Wedge is a delightful slice of actual countryside. Coventry’s lovely little river Sherbourne flows through it.

Charterhouse Fields – Opposite the cemetery on the London Road, the Charterhouse of St Anne is a Grade 1 listed building. It was founded in 1381 and is currently being refurbished. It is surrounded by green fields which are located adjacent to the river Sherbourne after it has emerged from flowing under the city.

Coombe Abbey – a bit further out of the city on the way to Brinklow this is a historic hotel set in around 500 acres of parkland. The park is lovely to walk around – with woods and a lakeside to explore and they have also recently opened up a Go Ape venue. The hotel itself offers popular afternoon teas and bawdy mediaeval banquets (the banquets are available for pre-booked groups only).

Shopping in Coventry

Coventry hosts all the major retailers that you would expect from a city. As foodies living in a multi-cultural city, we love that there are all sorts of supermarkets or mini-marts from Asia, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. And we are pretty sure that you can buy anything at Coventry market. Located inside a circular building (it took us about 5 years to work out how to leave it at the exit we wanted and we still get a bit lost on occasion) there are stalls for fresh food at great prices and pretty much anything else you might want.

The Best – Or Worst – Road in the World?

Talking of circular things, Coventry’s ring road is one of the world’s smaller ring roads. Indeed it’s so tiny that you can circumnavigate the entire city in less than two minutes. Because the ring road is so teeny cars both enter and leave on the same section of junction, which is usually quite a short distance. This means that it’s something of a challenge for novices to drive on. In fact, we know several people who will drive several miles out of their way to avoid using it. (If you want to avoid it there is a Park and Ride service at War Memorial Park.) But it does work and is hugely convenient. There is a convention: Once on the ring road move to the outer lane unless you are planning to leave at the next exit. When planning to leave at the next junction, move across to the exit lane and exit. If you are about to exit and a car ahead of you is on the junction and planning to enter, slow down and let them enter. Conversely, if you are planning to exit and the car planning to enter is behind you, they should give way. And the same etiquette applies if you are joining the ring road. If you miss your junction you can just go round again – it won’t take long.

Visa-Free Travel to Russia

Rushin’ Around Russia

It had long been an ambition to travel to Russia but the convoluted and lengthy visa process did put us off. It can take several weeks to apply and the authorities will need a vast quantity of information not only about you but also a fair bit of family history as well. The embassy is also likely to retain your passport for the time that the application is going through its processing. So we were delighted to discover that you can actually travel to Russia visa-free. You can’t stay for long – just three days – and the trip can best be described as full-on but, for us, it was a brilliant opportunity to see the highlights of this amazing country.

So, deep breath, this is the itinerary:

Fly to Helsinki – catch a tram to the port – board a ferry – sail overnight to St Petersburg – arrive St Petersburg – tour St Petersburg in morning – lunch – travel out to Summer Palace and tour Summer Palace and surround – drive back to St Petersburg – free time to explore and eat dinner – pick up to train station – overnight train to Moscow – arrive early morning Moscow – transport to hotel for breakfast – pick up for Moscow tour – tour Red Square and Moscow metro – lunch – tour Kremlin, back to hotel in afternoon for a quick shower – pick up in evening for train station – overnight train back to St Petersburg – breakfast in St Petersburg – explore St Petersburg until Hermitage opens – tour Hermitage and marvel at the art, realising you could actually spend days in there – pick up for ferry port – catch ferry – sail overnight to Helsinki – arrive Helsinki – tram to airport – fly home – collapse.

Visa-Free Travel Rules

The Russian Federation foreign visa-free conditions state that:

  • You must arrive at the port of St Petersburg aboard a St Peter Line ferry.
  • You must leave Russia from St Petersburg aboard a St Peter Line ferry.
  • You must leave Russia within 72 hours. The clock starts ticking as soon as you cross border control.
  • You must be a part of an organised travel group and follow the tour itinerary
  • You must have a valid passport and be able to enter Finland after leaving Russia.

You have to travel with an approved agency. This meant that we would be joining a group tour, which is our least favourite way to travel, but it was something that we were prepared to do. As things turned out, however, Anglo-Russian relations weren’t particularly good at the time of travelling and a number of other guests decided to cancel. Amazingly, we got a private tour! And while politicians often have very public spats in the media, ordinary people are usually lovely and everyone we encountered on our trip to Russia was very friendly and helpful.

The trip was brilliantly designed. One thing to note is that your bed will be moving for four nights running – ferry, train, train, ferry. As someone who is prone to travel sickness, particularly seasickness, this was initially a concern but the Baltic sea was very calm and the boat was very large so there were no issues at all. There are several classes of ferry and train transport available from basic to luxurious – the cost varies accordingly.

Breaking the trip down…

Day One – Start at the Finnish: From Helsinki to St Petersburg

On arrival at Helsinki we caught a tram to the port and boarded the St. Peterline ferry Princess Anastasia. There was plenty to do on board and there was a reasonable choice of restaurants to dine in.

We decided to get a cheap cabin without a window view, mainly because it was an overnight journey so we were planning to be sleeping and didn’t really need a port-hole to look out of while it was dark. It comprised twin beds and a shower room – basic but perfectly functional. As we wandered to the dining room for a buffet breakfast the following morning we could see the ice floating along the river as we headed into port.

Day Two – A Day in St Petersburg

Instructions were issued for debarkation over the ship’s tannoy. We had been given visa-free arrival and departure cards, which we kept with our passports. We joined the queue for non-Russian visitors and eventually got through immigration.

We travelled in mid-April, ostensibly spring, but the weather was still pretty cold – it had risen from around -30⁰C during winter to around 0⁰C. However, St Petersburg’s river Neva was still frozen and not navigable. This meant that unfortunately we couldn’t undertake a planned boat trip, so the itinerary was shuffled around a bit. It was a disappointment not to be able to do this but it meant that we had more time at the Hermitage on day three.

First on the itinerary was a St Petersburg City tour and a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress. This is effectively the birthplace of the city, its citadel. It is located on Zayachy Island (Hare Island), across the Neva River. You will see lots of hare sculptures around the island. It was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and built as a star fortress between 1706 and 1740. Curiously, while it was constructed secure Russia’s position on the River Neva, it was never used as a fortress and its cannons didn’t fire a single shot for over 200 years… until the 1917 Revolution.

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is a remarkable construction and the oldest church in St. Petersburg. It is home to the graves of nearly all of Russia’s rulers since Peter the Great. Of particular interest are those of the Romanov dynasty, the last of the Tsars.

The fortress was also a prison and it is possible to visit the cells and learn about its grim history. Its more famous inmates included Peter the Great’s son Alexei, Lenin’s brother Aleksandr Ulyanov and renowned writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Outside the walls of the fortress are the “polar bears” who sunbathe in sub-zero temperatures.

After a brief lunch we headed out of the city to Tsarskoe Selo (Pushkin) located 25km away, to the south. We spent some time exploring the Catherine Palace which was named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great who ruled Russia after her husband’s death, for just two years. The original building, commissioned by Peter in 1717, was a modest construction. It was their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who decided that Tsarskoe Selo would be her primary summer residence and she commissioned the extravagant and opulent building.

The ballroom and Amber Room (the only place that photos are not allowed is the Amber Room) are astonishing in their magnificence and you can imagine the sheer decadence of life in the palace. We visited out of season and it’s worth noting that this is a very popular tourist attraction and there are often long queues in the summer.

We also visited the exterior of the Alexander Palace which was the residence of Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar, and his family. Its location outside St Petersburg meant that it was considered to be a safer residence than the Winter Palace in the heart of the city. However, it was the place where the family were initially held under house arrest immediately following the Russian Revolution before they were relocated to Tobolsk and eventually executed.

On our return to the City, we had a few hours in the evening to explore on our own and get a meal. Then we were picked up and taken to the railway station. As part of the tour our tickets had been pre-arranged and we were taken to the platform to ensure we caught the right train.

To contrast with our basic ferry cabin, we treated ourselves to a bit of luxury on the train. We caught the 23:40 ‘Grand Express’. It has been described as hotel on wheels. Our cabin’s seating converted to almost a double bed width and also included a table where we could dine and had a private shower room and toilet. A TV was available too. Breakfast was included (pre-ordered as we checked into the train via the carriage’s steward) so that we could dine the following morning as we made our way into Moscow.

The ‘Grand Express’ train also has standard compartments carriages of 1st (2 berth) and 2nd (4 berth) class which are still very comfortable and somewhat cheaper. Some of the other cabins classes do not include breakfast but this is arranged on arrival in Moscow if needed.

Day Three – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Moscow

Our train pulled into Moscow Leningradskaya station at 08:30 the following morning, bang on time.

We were greeted and taken to a local hotel, the Katerina City Hotel Moscow, which had been booked for us for the day. This was a great idea. It meant that we could keep our luggage there and could also use the facilities. Breakfast is available if wanted. We were instructed to meet our guide for a city tour at 10am.

Our guide loved Moscow. She emphasised her passion for her city by declaring that, “St Petersburg is the head of Russia but Moscow is its heart.” With only a day in the city, the aim was to visit the major sites, so she bought us Metro tickets and we set off on a walking tour. Many of the stations on Moscow’s underground system are stunningly beautiful and, as we had a Metro pass to travel freely, we explored some of the more interesting stations. It’s not unreasonable to assert that some of these glorious stations are art galleries in themselves.

Then we made our way to Red Square. It is one of the world’s most iconic public spaces, bordered by the eastern red walls of the Kremlin, the colourful onion domes of St Basil’s cathedral and the megastore GUM.

It’s worth noting that Lenin’s tomb is not open on Fridays, so you need to take that into account when planning your trip if you wish to visit and see the preserved body of the founder of the Soviet Union.

St Basil’s Cathedral, aka the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, and officially Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, is so very, very beautiful and it was a special place to visit. Ivan the Terrible (who our guide insisted should have been named Ivan the Awesome) commissioned the building and it was constructed between 1555 and 1561.

We had imagined it to have a vast interior but in fact it comprises several chapels: eight chapels located around a central chapel. An additional chapel was built some years later over the grave of the Saint Vasily (Basil), a local saint who was highly revered. The Soviet Union had a policy of state atheism so the cathedral was secularised during this time and is now a museum, although Orthodox Christian services with prayers to St. Basil now take place on a weekly basis.

We also visited GUM, an enormous department store, and enjoyed its amazing architecture.

We had lunch at a restaurant a few streets away and enjoyed a warming bowl of borscht soup.

In the afternoon we visited the Kremlin. Security is tight and you will need to be prepared to have your bags checked and walk through a metal detector. If you are likely to set the alarm off (if you have metal limbs, for example), let your guide know – they will talk to the security guards and get you in via an alternative system.

The Kremlin (citadel) is fortified complex with Red Square to the east and the lovely Alexander gardens to the west. Inside its walls are five palaces and four cathedrals amongst other buildings such as the Grand Kremlin Palace that was formerly the Tsar’s Moscow residence, the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation and the State Kremlin Palace.

The State Kremlin Palace (also known as the Kremlin Palace of Congresses), was built inside the Kremlin between 1959–1961. It was commissioned by Nikita Khrushchev for the purpose of holding Communist Party meetings.

Two of the most popular attractions are a cannon that has never been fired in a war and a bell that has never been rung.

The Tsar Bell, the largest bell in the world, is also made of bronze but developed a large destructive crack and its sound has never been heard.

The Tsar Cannon was cast in 1586 by Andrey Chokhov who was renowned for his work with bronze. It was never used in a war and is largely symbolic. (Although there is apparently some evidence to suggest that it has been fired once.)

Cathedral Square is the most beautiful area of the Kremlin; it’s surrounded by a number of buildings, including three cathedrals.

The Cathedral of the Dormition was where all the Tsars were crowned and is considered to be Moscow’s primary church. It was designed by Aristotele Fioravanti and completed in 1479.

The Cathedral of the Annunciation was completed in 1489 but was reconstructed over the years.

The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael was constructed later, in 1508.This contains the final resting places of most of the Muscovite monarchs from the 14th Century until Peter the Great moved the Russia’s capital to St Petersburg.

The Ivan the Great Bell Tower, located next to the Tsar Bell, reputedly marks the very heart of Moscow, the precise centre of the city. It is 81 metres high (it was the tallest building in Moscow until the Russian Revolution) and was completed in 1600. It was commissioned by by Grand Duke Ivan Kalita, the Grand Duke of Moscow from 1325.

Around the corner from Cathedral Square are further buildings, including the Arsenal and the Armoury buildings.

The latter is a museum which contains a plethora of objects from across Russia’s history. Of note is the collection of ten Fabergé eggs, the largest single collection of these jewelled Imperial eggs, Easter gifts from the Tsars to their wives and children. The eggs are astonishing in their design and intricacy and it was wonderful to be able to see them up close.

After our Moscow tour we went back to the hotel for a short time to relax and grab a bite to eat at a local café, before being picked up late evening to be taken to the station for our train ride.

Day Four – Return to St Petersburg

We caught the Grand Express overnight and arrived at St Petersburg the following morning.

We visited the Church of the Spilled Blood, an Orthodox church, adjacent to the Griboedov Canal, which was constructed during the reign of Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II, who was assassinated by anarchist conspirators on that very spot in 1881.

In order to construct the cathedral the canal needed to be narrowed so that the road that the Tsar had been driving on could be located inside the walls of the church.

Our final visit in St Petersburg was to the Hermitage Museum, one of the world’s most important art museums. It was a real treat to be able to spend time in this fascinating place.

Because we had missed the boat ride a couple of days earlier, we had more time to spend inside this most magnificent of buildings. It is, apparently, the world’s largest art museum by gallery space and contains over three million works of art from some of the world’s most renowned artists. It’s not an understatement to say that you could spend days exploring it. It had occurred to us that we could do another visa-free trip and just spend the entire 72 hours inside the Hermitage.

The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along the embankment of the Neva river, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian Tsars, commissioned by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. It was Empress Catherine the Great who initiated an art collection in 1764 after purchasing a number of paintings from Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. It seems as though what Catherine wanted, Catherine could purchase. The museum has been open to the public since 1852 and following the Revolution, the palace now houses works of art as well.

After a thoroughly wonderful few hours exploring the Hermitage the clock was ticking and our time in Russia was running out. We were whisked back to the port to board Princess Anastasia to return to Helsinki.

Day Five – Finnish Where We Started

We arrived in Helsinki early in the morning and found our way back into the city via the efficient tram system. There was a restaurant in town where we could grab a light bite for breakfast. Our flight timings were such that we didn’t have too much time in Helsinki so we headed back to the airport via the train link and flew home.

This trip was one of the most intensive we have ever undertaken. But travelling to Russia visa-free was a fantastic opportunity to visit this most remarkable of countries which has such a rich history and so many treasures to explore.

SinterKlaas – Not Even A Pandemic Can Stop Him!

The Feast of Sinterklaas (a contraction of St Nicholas) is celebrated all across the Netherlands, and also in Belgium, on the 5th and 6th December. St Nicholas was the patron saint of children. While he has a similar appearance to that of Santa Claus (who is derived from Sinterklaas) with his red robes and fluffy white beard, his attire reflects St Nicholas’ historic occupation as the Bishop of Myra (now in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century, so he wears a bishop’s mitre and holds a crosier.

Sinterklaas

Like Santa, he knows which children have been naughty or nice, as he has all that information recorded in a big red book. Traditionally, nice children receive presents but naughty children were packed up in a sack and taken to Spain. Not-quite-naughty-but-not-quite-nice-enough children might have received a bundle of birch twigs or a lump of coal instead of presents in the past. But that doesn’t happen so much these days…

Festivities connected with Sinterklaas start in mid-November (on a Saturday, three weeks before the 5th December) when he ‘arrives’ on a boat from Spain – each time to a different port – and parades through the city on a white horse. Thousands of people turn out so see him and the event is televised. Sinterklaas’s helper is known as Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), in fact, multiple Pieten also join the parade and carry bags to throw sweets and other treats to children in the crowd. There has been some debate over the depiction of Piet in recent years in the Netherlands and he is Schoorsteenpiet (Chimney Pete), from the soot in the chimneys, in many cities these days.

Although there is an official arrival, most Dutch cities have a Sinterklaas parade. During the weeks that Sinterklaas is in the Netherlands tradition dictates that he rides over the rooftops and children put out a shoe with a treat for the horse, such as a carrot or sugar cube, by the chimney (or the radiator if there isn’t an open fire in the house). During the night Piet climbs down the ‘chimney’, takes the horse’s treat and replaces it with a present.

The 5th December is the day that the Dutch give each other gifts, rather than on Christmas Day, which is usually a time for a quiet family celebration. Known as pakjesavond after the Dutch word for present, the family will sit together and hear a knock at the door. Children will open the door to find a bag of presents for them. Older children and adults give gifts and also have a custom of writing irreverent poems to family and friends.

SINTERKLAAS SWEETS AND TREATS

Traditional sweets are pepernoten (mini biscuits), speculaas (spiced biscuits), marsepein (marzipan).

Pepernoten are little spiced biscuits made from rye flour and sugar with anise, cinnamon, and clove flavourings. Sometimes they are coated in chocolate.

Dutch marzipan is awesome – it is often beautifully crafted in a variety of guises: marzipan fruits, a packet of pigs and even chips, presented Dutch-style, with (sugar) ‘salt’ and (white chocolate) ‘mayonnaise’.

Dutch marzipan

Best of all are the chocolate letters associated with Sinterklaas – it’s a massive bar of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of your name. You don’t have to worry if your name begins with an ‘I’ instead of an ‘W’ – you get the same amount of chocolate!

Colin is half-Dutch and has long enjoyed the tradition of Sinterklaas. And no matter how old you are, nor the fact there has been a pandemic raging for the last 20 months, somehow if Sinterklaas can post you a chocolate letter, your day is guaranteed to be filled with joy.

PS – Thanks, Mum!

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A Walk Around Alderney

Alderney is the third largest, or indeed, third smallest of the populated Channel Islands, an archipelago in the English Channel, which are closer to the coast of France than to England and a crown dependency of the UK. Alderney is a small island, around 8 square km, and has a population of just 2000 people. It is also very beautiful. One of the loveliest things you can do when visiting Alderney is to walk all the way around it. There are plenty of good footpaths and, although it can be a bit hilly in places, it’s an easy walk that affords the most splendid views all the way around.

Braye is the obvious place to start a walk around the island. If staying in the pretty town of St Anne, let gravity guide you to the beach along the main road, passing the railway station. Braye Bay is the largest bay on the island and is characterised by its breakwater, a construction that stretches about 1400m into the sea, shielding the harbour and beach from the treacherous currents of the Swinge tidal race. It’s a beach with a broad sandy area on the western shore and rockpools to explore at the eastern end. It’s possible to walk the length of the breakwater but make sure the weather is fine – it is dangerous to do so on a windy day as waves do crash over it. It can be spectacular during a storm.

A Walk Around Alderney

On an anti-clockwise tour, walking west, past the inner harbour and electricity generator station, lies the tiny rocky inlet Crabby Bay before the coastline stretches to the sand flats of Platte Saline. Despite its inviting appearance, the tidal currents are swift and it is not safe to bathe on this beach.

A Walk Around Alderney

Heading towards Fort Tourgis, one of the many Victorian fortifications on the island, the coastline becomes rockier. Clonque (pronounced ‘clonk’) is a wonderful beach for walking and exploring. The bay overlooks the tiny uninhabited island of Burhou, a puffin colony, which is a protected site, and, further out to sea, the big oval rock Ortac, and Les Casquets with its automated lighthouse.

A Walk Around Alderney

About two thirds of the way along the beach is a chair-like rock, known as the Monk’s Chair. Legend has it that a monk fought the devil there and, having vanquished his opponent, the monk sank onto the rock, whereupon it transformed into a chair to provide some comfort.

At the far end of the bay is Fort Clonque, another Victorian fort located on an island and accessed via a causeway, which is cut off from the main island at high tide. The property is owned by the Landmark Trust and it is possible to stay there. If you are travelling with a large group (it can sleep up to 13 people) it represents really good value and is a tremendous place to stay.

A Walk Around Alderney

A WALK AROUND ALDERNEY – ALONG THE CLIFFS

Continuing the walk around Alderney The terrain climbs rapidly and it is not possible to continue along the shoreline, so following a zig-zag up to the south-west end of the island it is possible to walk along the top of the windswept cliffs. Along the Giffoine you can look out to the Garden Rocks where a noisy gannet colony has made its home. 

A Walk Around Alderney

In this area there are several German fortifications from World War 2 when the island was occupied during the war and the local people evacuated. (The larger islands Jersey and Guernsey were also occupied and the residents remained under Nazi rule for five years.)

A walk along the undulating paths of the south coast is always a delight especially in spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom and the area is scented with the coconut smell of gorse.

It used to be possible to climb down steps cut into the cliff to reach the charming Telegraph Bay but the beach is now only accessible from the sea. The walk is adjacent to farmland so it is likely that you encounter some beauties such as these.

They are not Alderney cows, even though the breed is quite famous, having appeared a number of times in literature, from Jane Austen’s Emma to AA Milne’s poem, The King’s Breakfast:

The King’s Breakfast
The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
“Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?”
The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
The Dairymaid
Said, “Certainly,
I’ll go and tell the cow
Now
Before she goes to bed.”

The Dairymaid
She curtsied,
And went and told
The Alderney:
“Don’t forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread.”
The Alderney
Said sleepily:
“You’d better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like marmalade
Instead…”

Sadly the breed was lost during World War 2 when the animals on Alderney were sent to Guernsey to help the islanders stave off starvation. But while the cows that graze on the lush grass may not be Alderneys, they do produce the most amazing dairy products. Alderney has its own dairy and produces a variety of delicious products including the creamiest milk and butter so yellow it rivals the colour of buttercups. It is absolutely delicious and a real treat to eat. Forget the marmalade, it’s best on bread, spread so thickly that you can see your teeth marks when you bite into a slice.

The journey continues past the airport along the cliffs to Essex Hill.

A Walk Around Alderney

A WALK AROUND ALDERNEY – DESCENT TO THE BEACHES

The Hanging Rock (far right of the picture) overlooks The Race, another treacherous tidal stream across a reef of sharp rocks and the cause of many a shipwreck over the centuries. There is a legend that the people of Guernsey tried to pull Alderney to across the sea by throwing a rope over the rock and having a really good tug… to no avail, of course.

A Walk Around Alderney

Then the cliffs fall away and you can stroll downwards to Longis Bay, Alderney’s original harbour. It’s a popular bay for bathing, the sandy beach shielded from the inevitable Alderney breeze by a concrete wall that spans the length of the bay, again built during the occupation.

A Walk Around Alderney

Raz Island, with another fort at the end of the causeway marks the limit of the bay. There used to be some tourist attractions at the fort but it’s no longer possible to visit Raz, although some work is currently being undertaken to open it up again. A gentle stroll along the coast brings you to Houmet Herbe, a ruined fort again constructed on an island and only accessible at low tide.

A Walk Around Alderney

Remnants of a basic causeway remain and, if you’re willing to scramble over the rocks, it’s possible to explore the fort. On a clear day you will get a fantastic view of the French coastline and Cherbourg, around 11km across the sea. Keep an eye on the tide, though, you will get cut off and have to wait a few hours for the tide to turn again.

A WALK AROUND ALDERNEY – FROM THE LIGHTHOUSE BACK TO THE BEACH

Continuing along the coastal path you will arrive at the island’s lighthouse. It’s fully automated these days.

A Walk Around Alderney

Opposite the lighthouse is Fort Les Hommoux Florains, which has largely been destroyed – each year battered by relentless winter storms. It is possible to get out there to view but you may need to swim across a small channel if the tide isn’t especially low, which probably isn’t worth the effort.

A Walk Around Alderney

Close to the lighthouse, and overlooking Mannez quarry is a German fortification known locally as The Odeon. It is one of the most distinctive buildings on the island; an enormous concrete tower that was built by forced labourers 1943. It was planned to be used as a range-finding location to observe enemy ships. It was derelict for many decades but it is now possible to visit The Odeon.

A Walk Around Alderney

Also at Mannez Quarry is the end of the line for the Alderney railway. Yes, those are London Underground carriages! The railway was originally constructed to bring stone from Mannez to the harbour for construction of the breakwater. It is now open as a tourist attraction for passengers to enjoy a delightfully scenic journey to the quarry from Braye station.

Further on (and don’t tell anyone) are the very best beaches for bathing: Corblets, Arch and Saye (pronounced ‘soy’). Overlooked by private residence Fort Corblets, the eponymous bay has a broad sandy beach and is popular for an energetic and invigorating swim. It’s worth bearing in mind that the sea temperature can be pretty cold, even in summer, but the water is crystal clear and it’s an absolute delight to swim there. (You do warm up!)

A Walk Around Alderney

Arch is also sandy but has a steep incline. It affords a good view of the lighthouse and Odeon.

A Walk Around Alderney

Saye can be found by walking underneath Arch Bay’s arch, past Château à L’Etoc (another privately owned fort) and beyond the dunes beside the island’s campsite – again it’s sandy but the enclosed geography of the bay ensures that the sea is much calmer than on Corblets.

Saye Bay

To complete the walk around Alderney it’s simply a walk around the grassy headland upon the top of which Alderney’s largest Victorian fort is located, Albert, originally designed to protect the harbour, and the familiar view of Braye, the harbour and the breakwater come into view. Burhou, Ortac and Les Casquets can also be seen in the background.

A Walk Around Alderney

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Go With The Sloe – How to Make Sloe Gin

It’s autumn in the UK, which means it’s the perfect season for foraging for fruit and mushrooms in the countryside. We are lucky to have many sloe (blackthorn) bushes in our local area and one of our favourite things to do at this time of year is to make sloe gin. It’s a really easy process but just needs a little patience. Here’s a flow chart – or, if you will, sloe chart – to show you how to make it:

This is what the colour of the sloe gin will look like after around three months.

Cheers!

Postscript – sloe gin is also great if you pop the bottle into the freezer for a couple of hours. The alcohol doesn’t freeze but becomes slightly syrupy. It’s delicious.