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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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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Lebanon is a really compact country. It’s easy to get pretty much anywhere from its capital, Beirut, within a couple of hours. Lebanon is about half the size of Wales (the standard international unit for country size), has the most fantastic Mediterranean coastline and, moving inland, also boasts wonderful mountain ranges and beautiful valleys. It has a long and fascinating history and some spectacular sites to visit. Here are some ideas for where to go in Lebanon.
The great thing about Lebanon is that it’s possible to visit most of the attractions from Beirut within a day so it is possible to stay there as a base. Another option would be to tour the country and stay in some of the locations that you visit. We would recommend the latter as some of the attractions are a couple of hours’ drive away which would leave less time to explore the sites.
There are good accommodation and restaurant options close to the popular attractions. And you can be assured of a very friendly welcome.
For full disclosure, it has been some years since we visited Lebanon. However, this post aims to show you some of the many places that visitors can enjoy.
Many of Lebanon’s major towns and cities are located along its coastline. It has settlements dotted along it every 50km or so from north to south, or indeed from south to north; this distance apparently being about a day’s journey for sea traders in ancient times.
Lebanon’s capital is the obvious place to start exploring this fascinating country. Beirut has a long and troubled history and is a city that is changing all the time. It was a prosperous trading city since the time of the Phoenicians and was the site of a famous law school in Roman times. Its location has ensured its position as a centre of commerce. Once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East” in the middle of the 20th century, it gained a reputation as a place of glamour and decadence.
However, it suffered greatly during the Lebanese Civil War that took place between 1975 and 1990.
The city has a waterfront promenade called the Corniche, with two remarkable rock formations rising from the sea. They are called Pigeons’ Rock, which seems wildly inappropriate given their splendour. Rock of Raouché, for the neighbourhood they are located near, feels like a more suitable moniker.
The National Museum is definitely worth setting time aside for. It is located on what was the Green Line during the Lebanese civil war and was significantly damaged as a result. However, it was renovated and restored to its former glory – a grand and imposing building. These days it hosts fascinating displays that exhibit Lebanon’s long and rich history.
The Beirut Art Centre hosts regular exhibitions of Lebanese and international art.
Beirut has changed dramatically in the days since the war. The scarred buildings have been replaced with modern constructions. Sadly, a huge explosion at the Port of Beirut in 2020 damaged a significant part of the city. The Lebanese economy was in crisis at the time, and the blast has exacerbated this. But we have no doubt that this resilient city will rebuild once again one day.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cites in the world Tyre was founded in about 2750 BCE. The centre of the Phoenician civilisation, it was later conquered by the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslims, Christian Crusaders and Mamluk civilisations. It is located around 85km south of Beirut, around 20km from the Lebanese border with Israel.
Many cities have thrived on their ability to produce a highly desired commodity and Tyre became famous for the Tyrian purple dye, derived from a type of mollusc, that was so expensive and exclusive that only royalty could use it. (Our own city of Coventry became famous for its blue dye – known as Coventry Blue which held fast and coined the phrase, ‘true blue’.)
There are extensive Roman ruins to explore in Tyre – the UNESCO heritage sites of Al Mina and Al Bass.
At Al Bass the hippodrome is enormous in its scale, and considered to be one of the largest and best preserved in the world. It was primarily used for chariot races – you can imagine the excitement of the crowds cheering the horse and carriages thundering round the track.
Al Bass also boasts a triumphal arch and necropolis.
Al Mina is located close to the sea and you can walk along the colonnaded street.
It is interesting to see the ruins continue into the Mediterranean, a legacy from when sea levels were lower.
Another city with a long history, Sidon is located around half-way between Tyre and Beirut. It is thought to have been inhabited as early as 4000 BCE.
Its main attraction is the sea castle, built in 1228 by Christian crusaders, on a small island which is connected to the mainland via a bridge. It is thought that it was built upon a Phoenician temple – there is evidence of a Phonecian settlement under the sea nearby. It has been partially destroyed and renovated over the years. There is a small domed mosque, built during the Ottoman era, that sits atop the castle.
The medina is another essential place to visit – a labyrinth of alleyways in the old stone city, it’s perfect for exploring and getting lost in. There is a soap museum which was originally a factory. You can see the ingredients and understand the techniques used to make soap. And, of course, buy a bar or two.
Beiteddine is located south-east of Beirut and is easy to visit as a side trip when seeing Sidon. It is an Ottoman palace built between 1788 and 1818 and set in a lovely valley close to Deir el Qamar. The palace itself is a place of very great beauty – with gorgeous architecture throughout it is adorned with mosaics and has serene courtyards and fountains.
Many of the interiors are carved with cedar wood. It is also the location of the Beiteddine Art Festival which is held every year and showcases the work of local and international artists.
North of Beirut, Byblos also has a claim to being the world’s oldest continuously inhabited town. The Phoenicians developed their alphabet there and it is thought that the word ‘bible’ is derived from Byblos. It is a fascinating town to explore with its castle and museums.
The Crusaders arrived in 1103. They called the town Gibelet, after the Lords of Gibelet, members of the Embriaco family from Genoa. They built a castle which was sacked when Saladin attacked the town in 1188 and parts of the walls were taken down.
The town was then recaptured in 1197 by the Crusaders and the castle’s fortifications reinforced. They remained in power until the 13th century.
Byblos boasts an excellent beach and also has number of bars and restaurants by the harbour area where you can enjoy a drink or mezze watching the sun set over the sea.
Further north up the coast Tripoli was a town where we particularly enjoyed exploring the souks. Everywhere we went we were welcomed warmly. One of Tripoli’s main attractions is the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, a crusader fortress originally constructed in 1103 which has been rebuilt over the centuries.
It’s a great place to explore and you can climb onto the walls to get spectacular views of the city.
Qadisha Valley and Bcharre
The Qadisha valley is a beautiful area at the foot of Mount al-Makmal and is home to a number of Christian monasteries. Qadisha means ‘holy’ in Aramaic and the river, Nahr Qadisha, flows through the valley. There are some lovely walks in the area.
It was here that we discovered Kahlil Ghibran, a Lebanese poet, artist and philosopher, who was born in Bcharre. There is a fascinating museum dedicated to his life and works in the former monastery of Mar Sarkis. His book, The Prophet, a series of 26 fables in the form of poems, is one of the most translated books in history and has never been out of print since its publication in 1923.
The source of the Nahr Qadisha lies in a cave and is located very close to the Cedars of Lebanon. These are known as the Cedars of God and comprise hundreds of trees, some of which are thought to be over 1000 years old.
These trees are so important to the country’s heritage and culture, Lebanon’s flag features the cedar at its emblem.
Crossing the Lebanon mountain range into the Beqaa Valley we arrived at Baalbek.
There are many spectacular ruins throughout the Middle East, including in Lebanon and also the Roman city of Jerash in Jordan. But the ruins at Baalbek, a UNESCO site, are astonishing in their scale.
Baalbek was known by the Greeks as Heliopolis, which means ‘Sun City’, and was the place where the Phoenicians worshipped the sun god Baal.
The Temple of Jupiter is the largest complex and, even though it has suffered extensive damage over the years, is still hugely impressive. It is thought that construction started in around 16 BCE.
The temple comprises a main plaza set upon a large base comprising foundation walls and a podium. It holds many archaeological mysteries, notably the enormous monoliths from which the walls were constructed – they weigh between 300 and 1200 tonnes. The stones came from a nearby quarry but it is not fully understood how they were placed as it is believed that known Roman construction equipment of the time would not have had the capacity to move them. It’s possible that a bespoke crane was constructed for the purpose or the stones may have been rolled downhill from the quarry.
Originally the temple was encircled by 54 columns, but only 6 remain intact.
The Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved of all the temples as it had been partially buried and hence was protected from multiple earthquakes over the centuries. It was thought to have been completed in 190 CE by Septimius Severus.
It’s a splendid structure with remarkable details in the stonework showing vines, poppies and wheat, symbols of Bacchus and highly appropriate for the god of wine and festivities. Sometimes you can get lucky and have the whole place to yourself!
The final temple is the Temple of Venus, also known as Nymphaeum.
A special mention has to go to the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek, a glorious, decadent building that was built in 1874 and has remained open ever since. Filled with original Jean Cocteau paintings it has hosted artists, musicians, writers, celebrities and even royalty over the decades. It has most definitely seen better days but was a fabulous place to stay.
Anjar is a fortified town that is completely different to other sites in the country. It was a city developed during the early 8th century CE and is the best example of an inland centre of commerce in the region. The Umayyads, the first hereditary dynasty of Islam, created an empire from around 660 to 750 CE. They were highly skilled in planning and development and the empire prospered until they were defeated by the Abbasids.
It’s a fascinating site to explore. Umayyad Caliph Walid I commenced construction in 714. Based on a Roman layout , Anjar had over multiple shops, a Grand Palace, a mosque and thermal baths. However, the site was later abandoned.
The Grand Palace is one of the best preserved ruins. It has an impressive courtyard that is heralded by magnificent arches.
Lebanese Food and Drink
A trip to the Middle East wouldn’t be complete without a mezze. Mezze is often described as middle-eastern tapas – a selection of small dishes shared by everyone at the table. It’s a lovely, sociable way of eating and you can get to try a variety of dishes.
Amongst the many dishes on offer we had creamy hummus heavily laced with tahini and drizzled with olive oil, smoky baba ganoush (aubergine dip), crispy falafel (deep fried chickpea fritters), foul (bean stew, pronounced ‘full’, not ‘fowl’!), spicy, herby kibbe (small meatballs of lamb mince and cracked wheat), cauliflower tarata (a sauce of tahini sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley), multiple salads, including fattoush, which has lots of bread to soak up the lemony olive oil dressing. All enjoyed with delicious flatbreads and sometimes chips.
Grilled meats are popular for main courses – they are delicately spiced and very juicy. Lamb and chicken are likely to be the meats on offer.
And you can’t go to Lebanon and not try the street food. Shawarma is a flat bread filled with grilled meats and chips!
Alcohol is freely available in Lebanon. The spirit of choice is Arak – a distilled aniseed flavoured drink. It’s a bit of a love-hate thing, Colin loves the flavour and could easily drink it all day, Mitch really can’t bear aniseed and shivers at the thought of it.
It’s a little known fact that Lebanese wine is absolutely awesome. Lebanon is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world (along with Georgia and the Caucasus region in general). Vineyards are mainly located in the southern part of the Beqaa Valley and they produce delicious and very quaffable fruity reds. Chateau Musar is one of the most famous wine producers.
Chateau Ksara is Lebanon’s oldest and largest winery and it is possible to visit the vineyards and winery. Dating from 1857, Jesuit monks planted French vines and stored their wine in local caves. Their wine is absolutely delicious. They do export it so try to get hold of a bottle or three if you can.
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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.
It’s not often that we use the word ‘unique’ because very often things described as such usually aren’t. Unique, that is. But there are some villages in rural Japan that are the only examples of their kind and they offer a fantastic glimpse into traditional life in the Japanese countryside.
The historic mountain villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama have been designated as UNESCO heritage sites and were historically quite isolated from the rest of the world. The villages Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go, and Ainokura and Suganuma in the Gokayama region are located in central Honshu, on the Shogawa river valley, across the borders of the Gifu and Toyama Prefectures.
Ogimachi is probably the most famous of the villages and is known for its light-up events, where the whole village turns their lights on in winter-time and visitors come from far and wide to marvel at the beauty of a snowy wonderland. These are scheduled events and hugely popular. Reservation is essential, not only for staying in the village but also for attending the viewing and some transportation options.
Initially when planning our winter trip we thought that Ogimachi would be the obvious place to visit but unfortunately everybody else thinks that too. It was impossible to find accommodation in this lovely village, even when trying to book several months in advance. But we had a Plan B which worked very well indeed. Ainokura is smaller and quieter but similarly delightful.
Getting to Ainokura in Rural Japan
We had been staying in a business hotel in the lovely city of Kanazawa on the western coast of Japan and, as we planned to return there, left our main luggage at the hotel and just took an overnight bag with us. We then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) from Kanazawa to Shin-Takoaka. It is possible to catch a bus to Ainokura from Shin-Takoaka – the journey takes just over an hour or so – but we caught possibly the cutest train ever to Johana and caught our bus from there.
Ainokura can also be reached from Toyama. The shinkansen goes to Toyama and it’s possible to catch a bus from there. It is feasible to visit the village as a day trip from both Takoaka and Toyama but we recommend staying overnight.
Our bus to Ainokura left from Johana station and we embarked on a pleasant journey through the Japanese countryside. A short walk from the main road took us into the village.
A word of warning: If you are visiting during the winter the area can experience a lot of snowfall – 2-3 metres on occasion. This may mean that occasionally buses can’t get through and are delayed until the roads can be cleared. It’s worth bearing this in mind when planning your onward journey.
Staying in a Gassho Farmhouse
The farmhouses are called ‘gassho’ which means ‘joining hands in prayer’ due to their very steeply pitched thatched roofs. Because the area experiences such heavy snow in winter, the roof design ensures that snow falls off the building quickly and this helps prevent the structure being crushed by its weight.
The houses have three or four levels – the top levels are not living areas but used for various industrial or farming purposes, such as making washi paper or rearing silkworms.
The front and back have a large gable with windows to let the light in.
We booked a room at Yomoshiro ryokan, a delightful family run house.
On arrival we took off our shoes and were offered an array of indoor slippers to wear. This is very common in all Japanese households, it’s considered very rude to wear outdoor shoes inside a house.
Our hosts were lovely and very welcoming. We were offered a cup of warm tea and a biscuit in the living area.
The living area has a sunken fire with a kettle suspended above the embers. The room was warm and toasty.
Our room was in traditional style with tatami (reed) mat and futon bedding on the flooring. Usually the bed is laid out while you are enjoying dinner.
The bathroom and toilet were shared with other guests and one thing that you need to remember in Japan is to change your indoor slippers for bathroom slippers when you use the bathroom or toilet. And change them back – it is really easy to forget to change the slippers back and walking on the tatami in your bathroom slippers is like walking inside in your outdoor shoes.
Exploring the Village
We visited the day that our hosts reopened their accommodation after the new year holiday so unfortunately some of the attractions in the area weren’t yet open. There is a museum of traditional industries which demonstrates the paper making and silk activities of the region.
The village also has a folk museum that showcases traditional utensils, tools and musical instruments from the region.
There are a number of walks in the area. One of these is essential – a viewing area close to the village entrance where you can climb up the hillside to take that perfect shot of the village, nestled amidst the mountains.
Back to the Gassho for Dinner
The costs of our stay included dinner and breakfast and this was a highlight of the visit as the food on offer was locally sourced, some even grown by our hosts. We dined with the other guests in the living area.
Our home-cooked dinner was utterly delicious. Char, a fish a bit like a trout, was salted and roasted on a spit in the fire.
We were also served koi sashimi, vegetable tempura and a home-grown spaghetti squash, mountain greens, and simmered bamboo shoots, mushrooms and sweet potato.
Rice accompanied the meal and we also enjoyed some local sake.
After dinner we were entertained with a documentary about the villages and then our hosts played some music using traditional instruments.
A lot of these are percussion, notably the sasara which comprises many wooden clappers which are strung together.
A Cosy Night’s Sleep
At bedtime we were provided with hot stones to put into our futons.
These stones had been heated in the fire and were placed inside ceramic boxes then wrapped in a thick cloth.
These were better than any hot water bottle we’d ever used, they retained the heat so well – they actually felt as though they were getting warmer through the night.
Breakfast the following morning was a traditional Japanese meal and also delicious. There were lots of fresh vegetable dishes, rice and miso soup.
We were given the choice of a raw or boiled egg. We always choose raw egg. You mix it into the rice, which partially cooks the egg, add a bit of soy sauce to your taste and then scoop up the flavourful mixture with a piece of nori seaweed. You usually get a sour and salty umeboshi plum – a real wake-up call!
Staying in a gassho is a delightful way to spend time in rural Japan and is highly recommended. But… make sure you plan your trip and book early!
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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.
Oban is a town in Argyll and Bute located around a pretty bay on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a popular place to visit and also has a ferry port from which it’s possible to travel to some of the western islands and as such is often considered the gateway to the Hebridean islands. But there are plenty of things to do in Oban itself and the surrounding area.
A Towering Folly
McCaig’s Tower is the town’s most prominent landmark, set on a hill looking over the bay. It was funded by John Stuart McCaig in 1897, a local banker who wanted to ensure employment for local builders and stonemasons as well as to leave a monument dedicated to his family. But he died before his plans fully came to fruition and, although he left a legacy for its completion, his family contested this and work stopped.
McCaig had apparently wanted a grand design based on the Colosseum in Rome, which would have been impressive, but it was not to be. It is a folly, but is nice to climb the hill and walk around the tower to have a look at the design and also to get a panoramic view of Oban below.
Visit Oban Distillery
Oban has one of the smaller whisky distilleries in Scotland. In fact the town developed around the distillery which was established in 1794. Hence it’s very conveniently located right in the centre of Oban. Because of its location the distillery didn’t really have the opportunity to expand so it remains small but perfectly formed. Also, because it’s town-based, there are no issues with someone having to drive to the distillery if you want to indulge in a tasting and are staying locally.
Of course they offer tasting tours. It’s definitely worth making a booking. You can tour the distillery itself or enjoy a tutored tasting. On arrival you are shown to a table and presented with some samples in little glasses and a tasting card.
It was really useful to have some guidance as to how to taste whisky. The advice was to sip and don’t sniff the whisky on the first taste. Definitely don’t quaff the shot or you will just get a burn at the back of the throat. Sipping again, your mouth is now used to the whisky, so let the whisky lie on your tongue for 15-20 secs to let the saliva glands release saliva and savour the flavour. You don’t expect to get a peaty whisky in Oban, the water is sourced from a local loch, about three miles away.
When whisky is first distilled it is a clear liquid. Its colour and flavour derives from the barrels it is stored in and the length of time the whisky is aged. There are some interesting techniques – the whisky can be aged in bourbon or sherry barrels but the casks can only be used a certain number of times (around five). Some barrels are charred inside, then the burned timber is scraped away to expose new timber and this offers a new flavour. Some whiskies are tripled matured in three casks. We tried the 14 year old whisky, which had a light, citrusy flavour; the 14 year old (charred barrel); the Distiller’s Edition which had been aged in a bourbon and then a sherry cask, which had a sweeter, more caramel roundness; and the triple matured Little Bay, which had a great complexity of flavour.
Of course, there are lots of bottles of whisky available to buy. We were quite taken with their Game of Thrones special edition.
Things to Do Around Oban – Day Trips
We recommend using a car to get around Scotland if you can – the driving is generally easy, the routes are guaranteed to look beautiful and it gave us flexibility to explore the wider area. However, there are public transport options if that is preferable.
Easdale Slate Island
Easdale is a tiny island located around 25 km from Oban. It’s easy to reach but first you have to cross the Bridge Over The Atlantic – possibly the cutest bridge in Scotland. Clachan Bridge joins Seil Island to the Scottish mainland so it really does cross the Atlantic – sort of! It’s a darling humpbacked bridge, built in 1792. It’s on a single track road, so take care when crossing.
From there head to Ellenabeich, which has a large car park and the ferry port for the three minute journey across the sea to the island. It costs just a few pounds to make the crossing.
On arrival at Easdale you discover that there are no cars but it is the most delightful place to go walking. There is a café/reastaurant and a folk museum.
Easdale was once the focal point of the Scottish slate industry. As such it has a number of slate quarries, many of which are now flooded. Despite the industry, the island is really beautiful. Skimming Quarry holds a national stone skipping competition every September.
It’s very easy to walk all the way around the island and sometimes you get lucky with perfect weather.
Kilmarten Glen and the Standing Stones
Driving further south towards Kilmarten it’s possible to explore some of Scotland’s prehistoric monuments, including cairns and standing stones.
Stopping in Kilmarten itself there is a museum which gives a history of the area, and the church next door, which has a collection of early grave slabs.
Further down the road there is a car park and, after crossing the road into the field, it’s possible to see Nether Largie Stones. The stones, believed to have been erected 3200 years ago, align with the midwinter sunrise and the autumn and winter equinoxes.
Temple Wood is a stone circle which has a cairn in its centre. It was originally a wood circle, dating from about 5000 years ago but the wood was later replaced with stones. Cremated remains, dating from around 3300 years ago, were found inside the centre of the circle.
Another short walk just down the lane takes you to the Nether Largie South cairn, a Neolithic chamber tomb. It is thought that it was constructed around 5600-5500 years ago. It’s believed that it was used for burials in the early Bronze Age as well.
Seafood and Eat It!
On our return to Oban we discovered plentiful restaurants, many of which offer seafood. Blessed with a long and beautiful coastline, Scotland’s seafood is fantastic! If you want the very best, which is also incredibly good value for money, there is only one place to go: Oban Seafood Shack, also known as The Green Shack, located by the harbour on the railway pier.
It’s so good, there will almost certainly be a long queue, but it’s emphatically worth the wait as you can order a huge variety of fresh seafood. It is literally a shack – a tiny hut – where you place your order. There’s not much seating, just a small covered area next to the shack and some tables for standing. It’s not the place for an intimate dinner but who cares when the food is this good? We ordered the seafood platter which was just divine: lobster, crab claw, langoustine, mussels, prawns, scallop in butter sauce, hot smoked salmon, pickled herring, crab sticks, squid rings. It was served with simple bread and butter, Marie Rose and sweet chilli sauce.
There was so much we needed a platter for the debris. We ate standing up, using our fingers (they have a wash station), although forks were provided to pick crab and lobster meat.
The seafood shack offered food as it should be – fresh ingredients, perfectly cooked, friendly service, no pretension whatsoever. Perfect. (It’s worth noting that at the time of our visit they only accepted cash as payment.)
The following day we skipped breakfast at the hotel in favour popping down to the shack to pick up some prawn and crab sandwiches. Absolutely delish! It set us up for the day to continue our journey through Scotland and onto the Isle of Skye.
Other Attractions in the Area
If you like castles, there are a couple close by: Dunollie Castle is located about 1.5km north of Oban. You can visit the castle, a museum and the grounds. There’s also Dunstaffnage Castle & Chapel, one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland which stands on an enormous rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn.
Oban is also gateway to some of Scotland’s marvellous Hebridean islands via the ferry port. It is possible to enjoy trips to Mull, Lismore, Coll, Kerrera and Barra, some either as day trips or to continue your journey through Scotland. Check the Calmac website for information and timetables.
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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.
An ordinary driving licence was fine for driving in Croatia but we needed to obtain an International Driving Permit (1968 version, available from Post Offices in the UK for £5.50) in order to drive in Bosnia Herzegovina. It was also important to ensure that the car hire company provided the car’s registration and insurance paperwork as we could have been asked to show it to police or customs officials at any time, particularly in Bosnia.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dining Out in Mostar
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.
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.
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.
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We visited Osaka (pronounced O-saka rather than o-SAR-ka) on our very first trip to Japan many years ago. We had already spent time exploring Tokyo, Hakone and Kamakura and it was following an afternoon and evening in Osaka, exploring the neon arcades and playing video games, taking silly photos in the print club booths, riding the Hep 5 big wheel and singing our socks off in a karaoke bar (where you get a private booth rather than have to sing in front of complete strangers), that we realised that we had fallen in love with Japan. The following day we visited the Dotonbori area in the Namba district and discovered Osaka’s restaurants. We decided that Osaka was our favourite place in the world.
We’ve returned to Osaka many times over the years and we always make a beeline for Dotonbori. We’ve often stayed in business hotels close by. It’s a short walk away from the JR Namba Station Exit 14 (Yamatoji line), which is especially useful if you are using your JR Pass. Be aware that Namba is a big station. If you are arriving on the shinkansen (bullet train) you can get there from Shin-Osaka using the subway Midosuji line to Shinsaibashi Exit 4-B. (N.B. you can’t use your JR Pass on the subway.)
Osaka is known for being one of Japan’s centres of commerce, indeed there’s a phrase that many salarymen use as a greeting: ‘mokari makka’ which means ‘are you making money?’ The residents of Osaka speak Kansai Ben, the dialect of the region. It’s quite different to the Japanese we’ve learned in classes. For example, Osaka residents will say, ‘okini’ as thanks instead of ‘arigato’; although arigato will absolutely be understood you may well receive a big smile if you use ‘okini.’
Dotonbori means ‘Doton Canal’ and the history of the area goes back several hundred years to 1612 when Yasui Doton, a local merchant, started constructing a canal system in the area to link the Kizugawa river to the Umezu river. However, he was killed in 1615 during the Siege of Osaka and his cousins completed the canal project, naming it after Doton. Following completion, the area thrived, trade increased due to the better transportation along the canal and Dotonburi became an entertainment district, with theatres, teahouses and restaurants. It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially for foodies!
The district is defined by street between the Dotonboribashi Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge. Probably the most iconic image of the area is that of the Glico running man – and it’s essential to see him at night, brightly lit in neon. Glico is a sweet manufacturer established in 1922 and famous across Japan. They are probably best know for those delicious Pocky coated biscuit sticks.
Dotonbori is one street, but actually the surrounding streets are also full of excellent bars and restaurants. We’ve had some of our best nights out in Osaka by wandering into random bars in the area. Locals and tourists alike are very friendly and we’ve often just started chatting with people. There was one particularly memorable night when a pair of airline pilots decided to buy Jagermeister bombs (a Jagermeister shot inside a glass of Red Bull) for the denizens of the entire bar which resulted in a highly caffeinated boozy evening and us sleeping in so late that we missed much of a planned excursion to Kobe the following day!
The word ‘kuidaore’ means to go bankrupt by extravagant spending on food and Dotonbori would be a place where you could have a really good attempt at achieving this as it is chock full of excellent restaurants.
One thing to remember when visiting cities in Japan is to look up! In the UK most shops and restaurants are located at ground level but Japan is a country with high rise buildings. Very often shops and restaurants will be located on multiple levels within the same building. You will often see boards outside the building advertising various emporia: F1, F2 etc to go up, B1, B2 etc to go down. (N.B. floor levels in Japan match the American model where the ground floor is called the first floor, unlike in the UK where the ‘ground floor’ is at street level and the next floor up is the ‘first floor’.)
Essential Osaka Restaurants
Takoyaki – The Best Street Food
Takoyaki is quintessential Osaka street food. It comprises spherical octopus pieces in a batter which are cooked en masse in a griddle.
The takoyaki maker expertly and deftly turns each octopus ball by hand so that they are cooked evenly.
Served with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (which is similar to brown sauce) and bonito flakes (skipjack tuna flakes shaved to wafer thin slices – which are rich in umami and are often used to make Japanese dashi stock), which undulate gently in the heat of the takoyaki. You just have to wait a little while before scoffing because they will be extremely hot as soon as they come out of the griddle.
Okonomiyaki – As You Like It
Okonomiyaki, which translates as ‘as you like it’, is often described as a cross between a pancake and a pizza. It’s a cabbage based batter (but don’t let that put you off – it’s really delicious) with multiple fillings and toppings. Some establishments have a chef prepare the okonomiyaki, others will let you sit at the griddle and you can cook it yourself.
The basic batter mixture is prepared and cooked on the griddle.
Then you have a choice of toppings – meat and prawns are popular choices and veggie options, such as kimchi are also available.
The okonomiyaki will be garnished with a variety of yummy things, including mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (similar to takoyaki sauce/brown sauce), flakes of nori seaweed and those delightful undulating bonito flakes. Chilli sauce may also be available. The chef will embellish your okonomiyaki in the most delightful way. And of course, when the chef asks you what garnish you would like, the correct answer is EVERYTHING!
Fugu – Dare You Try Puffer Fish?
Fugu is the fish that has a formidable reputation – it’s the puffer fish, parts of which are deadly poison particularly the liver, the ovaries, eyes, and skin. The toxin basically paralyses you and you asphyxiate while still conscious. Not very nice at all.
But fugu is also a prized delicacy. The non-poisonous bits are fine to eat but absolutely can only be prepared by a licenced chef who has trained for several years. You can eat fugu all over Japan but it was at Zubora-ya, with its highly distinctive sign comprising a giant pufferfish lantern outside the restaurant, that we first tasted this fearsome fish.
We thoroughly enjoyed a set menu at Zubora-ya – sushi and sashimi is the conventional way to enjoy fugu. It has a mild flavour and a firm texture that is something like a cross between squid and monkfish. It was delicious. And we survived!
Sadly, Zubora-ya had to close during the pandemic and has not reopened.
Kani – Crab Heaven
Kani Doraku is another distinctive restaurant which has a model of a giant crab waving its pincers on the outside wall, beckoning you inside (well, that’s our interpretation!).
We have eaten here several times and always had a hugely enjoyable meal. Again, it’s a multi-storey building and, depending on how busy it is you may eat within the restaurant or be taken to a private room with tatami mat flooring and a telephone. The telephone was a bit daunting first time around but we picked up the phone and said, ‘kite kudasai,’ (please come here) and someone came along to take our order – which largely involved pointing at a picture menu. Even though it’s a large restaurant it’s very popular these days so it’s worth booking. There are actually multiple restaurants of this chain along Dotonbori, so check out the others if the first one you try is full. (The most popular is closest to the Glico Man.) The set menus aren’t cheap but they are good value and the food is utterly delicious.
We’ve enjoyed crab sushi and sashimi, crab chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), crab tempura and crab gratin with a clear soup and matcha ice cream for dessert. Utterly delicious.
Other Dotonbori Establishments
There are loads of other restaurants along Dotonbori and the surrounding area. Kuidaore was an enormous eight storey restaurant founded in 1949. It was recognisable by its iconic Kuidaore Taro Clown, a vaguely creepy mechanical drumming puppet at the entrance. Sadly it closed some years ago but the building was populated by different shops and restaurants in what’s now known as the Nakaza Cui-daore Building.
If you like ramen noodles (and who doesn’t?) there are three Kinryu restaurants along the street. Kinryu translates as ‘golden dragon’ and the restaurants can easily be found by their distinctive dragons on the hoardings above the shopfront.
And even the standard restaurants on Dotonbori, those without the amazing neon signs, are worth checking out. One of the great things about dining in Osaka – and indeed throughout Japan – is that you don’t need to speak or read Japanese. Many restaurants will have an English, Chinese or Korean menu and those that don’t will often have a picture menu or, better, realistic models of the food in the window, usually with prices. You can take a photo of your desired dish or even take your food server outside and point to the dish you want.
The models of the food are surprisingly realistic and many are made in Osaka. We managed to find a shop that sold them but they are hideously expensive, so we treated ourselves to a couple of sushi fridge magnets as a souvenir.
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The Island That Inspired The Setting of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke
Anyone who is familiar with the delightful animations of Japan’s Studio Ghibli will that know that its founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, created very distinctive locations for the settings of their films. Princess Mononoke was one of the first Ghibli films really to break into public consciousness, albeit largely with animation fans, in western countries in 1998 (the smash hit Oscar winning Spirited Away in 2001 ensured that the studio’s fame was assured). Princess Mononoke’s setting was inspired by the island of Yakushima, located around 60km from the southernmost point of Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island, which is part of the Osumi chain of islands. The island is almost perfectly round and mountainous. It’s also very beautiful indeed. And even if you aren’t familiar with the films of Studio Ghibli there are all sorts of things to do if you visit Yakushima.
Getting To Yakushima
Being big fans of Studio Ghibli and, having visited the fabulous Studio Ghibli museum on previous visits to Japan, we decided that we definitely wanted to visit Yakushima for a couple of days. On this trip we had decided explore Kyushu. We flew into Osaka and then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagasaki and then across to the southern city of Kagoshima. Kagoshima is a lovely laid-back city set in the shadow of the active volcano Sakurajima, which regularly emits rumblings of ash and smoke. It’s possible to visit the volcano by crossing the picturesque bay on a ferry.
In Kagoshima we chose a business hotel that was close to the port. The staff were happy to look after our luggage for a couple of days, so we just packed a small bag, which meant that we could travel light. The excellent YesYakushima company helped us to visit Yakushima – they booked ferry tickets, car hire and accommodation for us. (This isn’t an affiliate link but we’ll happily recommend their free booking service which was absolutely excellent.) We were happy to explore for the island for ourselves but YesYakushima do offer guided tours if desired.
We caught the mid-morning Toppy/Rocket hydro-foil from Kagoshima port. It’s a picturesque journey as you sail across the bay. There are other options, such as a car ferry, but this was the quickest means of transport and it took around 2.5 hours.
Our boat stopped off at Tanegashima island before arriving at Yakushima. (Some boats go direct, so check the timetable.) When we arrived at Anbo port our hire car was waiting for us, so we picked it up and were on our way. Driving was mainly very easy but if you don’t fancy getting behind the wheel buses are available.
Visit Yakushima – Staying On The Island
We treated ourselves to a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Usually when we plan our trips to Japan we use a combination of cheap business hotels and then splash out on a few nights at a ryokan or two, which is more expensive but definitely worth the extra cost. The traditional inns usually have tatami (reed mat) flooring and you sleep on a futon, which is usually laid out for you while you eat dinner. We stayed at Tashiro Bekkan at Miyanoura.
The ryokan had a large tatami room, private bathroom and balcony with a view across the crystal clear Miyanoura river.
We chose to stay on a half-board basis, so ate the most exquisite food which included local ingredients such as seafood, mountain vegetables and, of course, kuro buta (black/Berkshire pork), a speciality of the region. The staff were delightful and we managed to have a few conversations with them in bad Japanese (our Japanese was bad, theirs was fine!)
The ryokan was also able to offer us a bento lunch box – we simply placed an order the night before – and then picked it up before we went hiking the following morning.
Hiking In The Shiratani Unsuikyo Park
This park was the inspiration for the forest in Princess Mononoke and it is very clear to see how the artist Oga Kazuo used the stunningly beautiful landscape for the setting of the animation. It has ancient cedar trees and mossy paths as well as streams and waterfalls running through it. There are multiple trails from the car park and the walking is generally easy, although you need to take care of large tree roots that have grown across the path.
Visit Yakushima – Circumnavigate The Island
On our final day we decided to circumnavigate the island in the car before heading back to the hydrofoil. It’s largely a very easy drive but on the Seibu Rindo Forest path on the western part of the island the road narrows through the forest and becomes single track in some places, so you have to take care. We narrowly avoided a minor collision with a coach coming the other way.
From Miyanoura we drove north, stopping at the Shitoko Banyan Tree Park. Banyan trees are a complete contrast to the cedars of Shiratani Unsuikyo. These trees grow by dropping roots from the branches which eventually reach the ground and embed themselves in the soil creating additional roots to support the tree. They can also form around other types of tree and can eventually kill them as they choke the existing root system.
Isso Beach and Isso lighthouse on the peninsular.
Swimming is only possible on the beach in the summer months when lifeguards are available. Also, turtles nest here during May and June, so care must be taken so as not to disturb them.
Then it’s a beautiful drive through the Seibu Rindo Forest. The road can be narrow and very winding as it wends its way through the mountain forest.
There’s an excellent chance of seeing Yakushika (native deer) and Yakuzaru (the Yakushima macaque) – and indeed we did.
Yakushima has a number of waterfalls to explore. The falls are usually well signposted from the main road and there is usually a car park close by.
At 88m high, Ohko no Taki waterfall in the south west corner of Yakushima is one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls. Sadly we didn’t have time to hike to the falls but even from a distance, it’s an impressive drop.
There are a number of outdoor onsen (hot springs) by the coast, which are worth a visit. Some of these are tidal, so are only accessible at low tide. There are a couple of neighbouring villages on the south cosast, Yudomari and Hirauchi, accessible by single track roads off the main circular route on Yakushima. It’s important to note that tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan as they are associated with gangsters, so is it worth covering any with sticking plaster. We enjoyed a warm footbath whilst looking out across the sea. (There are other onsen resorts at some hotels on the island if hot spring bathing is your thing.)
There’s an honesty box for payment (N.B. the price has increased to 200 yen since we visited).
Sempiro-no-taki is another impressive waterfall which falls across an extensive granite gorge.
Toroki falls are just downriver from Sempiro and can be seen after walking a short distance from the road. You can see the vermillion bridge in the background.
Then it was time to head north towards Anbo port. There was a convenient petrol station right by the turn off to the port’s car park so we filled up the car and experienced the best in Japanese service – a full tank of fuel, windscreen cleaned and, best of all, the attendants running out to the road to stop the traffic so that we could exit the petrol station. Then it was a hop onto the boat to return to Kagoshima.
Yakushima is a destination that is off the beaten track but it is a beautiful island with plenty of walking, terrific food and delightful people. It’s a bit of a journey to get there but if you manage to visit you will not be disappointed.
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