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December 2, 2016

Historic sights: 48 hours in Rome, Italy

Historic sights: 48 hours in Rome, Italy
The Trevi Fountain - 48 hours in Rome - photo zoedawes

The Trevi Fountain

“It’s like travelling through history… The people are great, they’re very friendly, which makes a difference.” Dany, concierge for Citalia Holidays in Rome, was introducing me to his favourite city, sharing some top tips and insider secrets to help make my 48 hours in Rome a big success.

‘Live’ video of Dany, Citalia Concierge, talking about Rome

I’d never visited Rome before; it had been on my Dream Destination list for decades. Arriving mid-afternoon, I was picked up from the airport and whisked to The Ariston, a chic hotel very close to the railway station in the city centre. Here is my itinerary and suggestions for a truly memorable time in the Eternal City. NB: I didn’t go inside all of the sights so take that  into account in planning.

 48 Hours in Rome

Take a bit of time to get your bearings. If you have a concierge, do use them or whoever is local, to get an idea of what is possible in a short stay. You’ll want to see the main sights, but be realistic. They are simply awe-inspiring and you may want to spend quite a time at each one. There are usually BIG QUEUES so it’s worth doing research and booking tours or tickets in advance. Public transport in Rome is not brilliant; the Metro only has two lines which barely touch the major sites. Trams and buses go all over the city but traffic often slows it down.

Day 1 – late afternoon and evening

Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica - 48 hours in Rome - by zoedawes

Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica

One of Rome’s greatest basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore, is not far from the station and my hotel, so I walked up to see it. Its nave and splendid mosaics date back to the 5th Century AD. It towers over the busy piazza, and its ceiling is a stupendous gold avenue that showers light into its cavernous interior. There are some beautiful paintings and sculptures and beneath the alter is a crypt with a statue of a Pope and a crystal reliquary said to contain wood from the Holy Crib. St Jerome and the superb Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini are buried here.

Italian Dinner and Rome by Night

A tour of Rome by night gives you a chance to see the city’s magnificent monuments lit up, giving a whole other perspective. I went on Gray Line’s ‘Panoramic Rome Bus Tour by Night with Traditional Dinner‘, with hotel pick-up and guide, Sandra, whose in-depth knowledge and enthusiasm for her city added to the enjoyment of the evening. A small group of us started out with a 3-course meal at Fontana di Venere, a pleasant restaurant in the city centre.

Dinner at Ristorante Fontana di Venere Trastevere Rome

Dinner at Ristorante Fontana di Venere

We were joined by a larger group and went to see the Trevi Fountain, recently revealed in all its refurbished glory. The marble glowed brilliant white and the turquoise water glittered as a steady stream of coins cascaded into its curved basin. Completed in 1762, Taming of the Waters is the theme of the gigantic Trevi Fountain and the statue of Oceanus dominates the scene.

Throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain - 48 hours in Rome - zoedawes

Three coins in the Fountain

Sandra said, “Stand with your back to the fountain. Throw a coin from your right hand over your left shoulder and you’ll return to Rome for sure.” I threw three coins in the fountain, just like in the song, as I had already fallen deeply in love with this city and definitely want to return.

The Colosseum at night - 48 hours in Rome

The Colosseum at night

Then it was on the coach to the Colosseum. It really is breath-taking in size, architecture and historic significance. We drove round it as Sandra gave us its story then walked up to it via the Arch of Constantine. It was wonderful to finally see it. We drove on round many sights and then across the Tiber to Trastevere, where we wandered the narrow streets and enjoyed the friendly, lively atmosphere amongst restaurants, bars, shops and charming buildings.

Trastevere at night - 48 hours in Rome

Trastevere at night

I got back to the Hotel Ariston at 11pm, tired but very happy, having already got a flavour of this magical city.

Day 2 – Morning: Roman Rome

The Colosseum and Horse Sculpture - Rome

The Colosseum and Horse Sculpture

Getting the Metro to the Colosseum means coming out directly opposite – a real WOW moment. Even if you’ve seen it in the evening, it’s still impressive. Pay extra to get a ‘jump the queue’ ticket to avoid the queues or, if time’s limited, walk around it just get a feel for its magnificence. The ticket includes Palatine Hill, where Romulus founded the city and Emperors built their palaces and the Forum, ancient Rome’s centre of temples, basilicas and public spaces. This could take you all morning or afternoon, to really enjoy at your leisure. I got a great view of the Forum from behind the Capitoline Hill, along with a very photogenic seagull!

The Forum - and seagull! Rome in 48 hours

The Forum – and seagull!

From here you can walk through the lovely Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo in 1538, with an impressive statue of Marcus Aurelius overlooking the city below, between two huge statues of Castor and Pollux. the Capitoline Museums house one of Italy’s finest collections of classical sculptures. Again, if you want to visit the museum, make sure you leave plenty of time to enjoy it.

Capitoline Hill from Cordonata Staircase - 48 hours in Rome - zoedawes

Capitoline Hill from Cordonata Staircase

Just round the corner, in Piazza Venezia is Il Vittoriano, or Altare dela Patria. This mish-mash of ornate styles in honour of Victor Emmanuel, first king of united Italy, is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and has one of the best views of Rome from the top.

Il Vittoriano - 48 hours in Rome

Il Vittoriano

By now you’re probably hungry and need to refuel for your 48 hours in Rome so head towards Historical Centre and the Pantheon where you’ll find plenty of restaurants and bars. Or do what I did, which was to grab a pizza slice and make my way over the Tiber to Vatican City.

Day 2 – Afternoon: Vatican City

The Vatican City - 48 hours in Rome

Vatican City

Book a tour for the Vatican Museum. It reduces queuing time and there’s so much to see your guide will help you through the fascinating maze of world-class artworks here. Ancient Greek sculptures, Roman statues, priceless votives, intricate tapestries, beautiful mosaics, early maps, religious icons, gilded ceilings, paintings by renowned artists …

Vatican Museum Treasures - 48 hours in Rome

Vatican Museum Treasures

Every room and corridor was crammed with people gazing in awe at the every surface, being gently chivvied along by guides and we only scratched the surface of the Vatican Museum. Finally we came to the Sistine Chapel. It is simply breath-taking. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with colourful frescoes by Michelangelo and his acolytes. We had twenty minutes to take it all in – and, in spite of the crowds, I’d have happily spent all afternoon there.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling - image wikipedia

The Sistine Chapel ceiling

The final part of the tour was to St Peter’s Basilica and, because Pope Francis had declared a Jubilee, we were allowed in through the Holy Door, along with thousands of pilgrims from around the world. At the end of the nave Bernini’s ornate Baldacchino towers above the High Altar. Michelangelo’s Pietà draws the crowds, but every inch of this enormous church demands attention.

Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's Basilica - Rome - photo zoedawes

Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica

As we left Vatican City I looked back at it lit up and knew I’d have to return another time to spend more time uncovering its cultural treasures.

In the evening you’re spoilt for choice where to eat. I returned to Trastevere, in a quieter corner and had an excellent meal at Le Mani in Pasta. (More on this in a future article on Food and Drink in Rome.)

Spaghetti Carbonara at Le Mani in Pasta - Trastavere Rome

Spaghetti Carbonara at Le Mani in Pasta

Day 3 – morning: Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo and the Pantheon

You’re probably a little tired by this stage in your 48 hours in Rome but there’s still so much to see. There’s the Pantheon, Piazza Novona, Aventine Hill, Castel Del Angelo, more museums, art galleries, shops, restaurants … I got the Metro to the Spanish Steps, which were relatively quiet early on a Sunday Morning. Children played and drank from the quirky boat-shaped fountain, a chestnut seller kept warm over his brazier and horses snorted as they waited for tourists to show round town.

The Spanish Steps - 48 hours in Rome

The Spanish Steps

It’s like Montmartre in Paris at the top of the steps; artists paint popular scenes and cartoonists encourage you to look ridiculous. I wandered off along the path towards the Villa Borghese. There are wonderful views across the city here. I didn’t have time to visit the Villa but went down into Piazza del Popolo just as midday bells rang out across the square from at least three churches …


I walked along Via del Corso past huge churches, fashionable shops and people enjoying the late autumn sun. My final stop on was the Pantheon. Formerly a Roman temple c 126AD, it’s now a church on the site of an earlier temple commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus. Sadly I couldn’t go inside as it was time to leave. However, I am most definitely coming back; 48 hours in Rome just isn’t enough to see it all!

The Pantheon - 48 hours in Rome - zoedawes

The Pantheon

Many thanks to Citalia, leading specialist in Italian holidays, who organised this 48 hours in Rome weekend. Winners of the title of ‘Best Tour Operator to the Italian Peninsula’ for seven years in a row.  The Citalia team are friendly, expert and knowledgeable in all things Italian and have local concierges in each destination for personal recommendations, advice and help with day trips, car hire, or restaurant bookings. For more information visit the Citalia Rome page.

This trip was a Travelator Media world-wide campaign. Find out more about Travelator Media here.

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48 hours in Rome with The Quirky Traveller

September 20, 2016

Enjoy 24 hours in Calgary, Alberta

Enjoy 24 hours in Calgary, Alberta
Calgary Stampede Sign - image zoe dawes

Calgary Stampede Sign

The large red sign on the highway summed it all up; ‘Horses always have Right of Way. It’s a Stampede Thing’. The Calgary Stampede is Calgary’s USP. Billed as the Largest Outdoor Show on Earth, it attracts over 2.5 million visitors every July (plus lots of horses) and brings a wild-west tang to the city. Originally a small agricultural fair started in 1886 to promote Calgary and lure farmers to move from west to east, it quickly grew in popularity. The exhilarating covered-wagon races were a huge draw in the 1920s and still attract big crowds today.

Covered Wagon exhibit in BMO Centre Calgary Stampede Park - image zoe dawes

Covered Wagon exhibit – BMO Centre

I was in Calgary just a week before this epic festival kicked off and the whole city was ablaze with all things Stampede-related. It was the final day of our Canadian RV Road Trip through British Columbia and Alberta from Vancouver via the Rocky Mountains. We’d left the iconic mountains to cross the ‘endless’ prairies, so very flat after the spectacular ups and downs of the majestic Rockies. The sun shone and the heat increased as we reached Calgary, the sunniest city in Canada.

Cruise Canada RV Calgary

Cruise Canada Calgary

My fellow traveller, photographer Alison Bailey, and I had driven our Cruise Canada RV (Recreational Vehicle = motor-home), nicknamed Rocky in honour of our route, over 3,000km and were very pleased to have arrived in Calgary, not only unscathed, but having had an absolutely wonderful trip. We dropped Rocky off at the Cruise Canada RV depot on the outskirts of the city and had 24 hours to explore Calgary before we returned home to the UK.

Calgary City Centre Alberta - photo zoe dawes

Calgary City Centre

We stayed overnight at the Lakeview Signature Inn, close to the airport. Our comfortable suite of rooms seemed very luxurious after 2 weeks in our RV (though I am a total convert to motorhome travel now). The helpful receptionist gave us a map and suggested we got the C-Train (Light Railway) into the city centre, where we could see all the main sites within a fairly small area. Skyscrapers soared above the Alberta prairies as we got nearer, crossing the Bow River, which we’d last seen winding sinuously through Banff in the heart of the Rockies. We got off the train near the Town Hall and headed to the Calgary Tower, which my guide book said was home to the Tourist Information Centre.

Calgary Tower - image zoe dawes

 Not any more. It’s a dedicated tourist attraction, selling tickets to whiz you up 190m, 62 floors, in just over minute, but no sign of the Tourism Office. Never mind; Calgary city centre is built on the classic North American grid system so it’s very easy to get around. Everyone seems to gravitate towards Stephen Avenue, a pleasant walkway, lined with cafes, bars and restaurants and some attractive older buildings.

Stephen Avenue Calgary Albert - photo zoe dawes

Stephen Avenue

 The Tourist Information Office is now situated on Macleod Trail and they suggested visiting the Glenbow Museum, on the corner of Stephen Avenue. It’s one of Canada’s largest museums and hosts a number major temporary exhibitions as well as having over 20 permanent galleries. They chart the history of Canadian West with First Nation exhibits, with a special section on the Blackfoot people and displays from the 19thC pioneering era. It’s also home to contemporary art and militaria from around the world. Or so the marketing blurb says; unfortunately it was closed the day we visited …

Glenbow Museum Calgary - Alberta - photo zoe dawes

You might imagine, in a place famous for its ‘frontier’town’ atmosphere, there would be ‘cowboys’ sporting stetsons all over the city. No. There were plenty of people dressed for work in shirt sleeves, dresses, suits and more casual tourists, but hardly a stetson in sight. I saw one guy on the train; that was it. However, we were told that as soon as the Calgary Stampede started, “everyone thinks they’re a cowboy” and everyone dresses up. But fear not, you can buy the iconic headgear on street stalls and shops all over Calgary, with prices varying from a few dollars to much more, depending on the quality of the hat.

Stetson stall Calgary - photo zoe dawes

Stetsons for sale

As the sun sank down behind the skyscrapers, we decided to have a meal in town before returning to our hotel. We chose Milestones on Stephen Avenue, as it was Happy Hour and their cocktails looked great. I can highly recommend their Original Bellini; very colourful and moreish. We had a selection of small bites including crisply perfect Asian Chicken Bites, followed by Steak Frites; melt-in-the-mouth fillet steak, golden Parmesan fries, delicate buttermilk onion rings and truffle aioli. Perfect meal for our last night in Canada.

Meal at Milestones Calgary - photo zoe dawes

Milestones meal

The next morning we checked out of our hotel, leaving our luggage to be collected after lunch. We got the C-Train back into Calgary, where we split up. I wanted to visit two major sights, whilst Ali wanted to do some photography. I got another train to Stampede Park, home to the famous festival, which was gearing up for opening the following week. I wandered into the BMO Centre (Bank of Montreal) where I found a perfect little gem of a museum; the Grain Academy. Volunteer and enthusiastic raconteur Gordon showed me round the quaint exhibition which tells the history and importance of grain to Canada and the rest of the world. There’s a very big model railway showing the journey of grain from the Alberta prairies through the Rockies to Vancouver. (If you travel through this part of Canada you can’t miss the VERY long trains transporting this valuable commodity for global distribution.)

Grain Academy Painting - Calgary

Grain Academy Mural

On the main corridor outside the Grain Academy is the wonderful Calgary Stampede ‘Parade of Posters‘. There is one poster from almost every year since 1912 to the present day. Not only does it give a fascinating summary of the way the show has grown over the decades, but it also illustrates the history of art and poster making.

Historic Calgary Stampede Posters - photo zoe dawes

The most famous is the 1923 poster. The sketch of a cowboy on a bucking bronc by Edward Borein, called I See U was designed vertically so the poster would fit on a telephone pole. This image has been immortalised in an electrifying bronze sculpture at the entrance to the Park.

I See You - bronze sculpture Calgary Stampede Park - photo zoedawes

‘I See You’ sculpture

There’s a really excellent Art Trail which takes you round all the Public Art works on display here. They illustrate the history of Alberta and reflect an aspect of Canada’s heritage in an original and entertaining way. ‘By the Banks of the Bow’ is one of the biggest sculptures in North America.

There are a number of stadiums which host events and entertainment. You can visit the Stampede Ground any time of the year.

By the Banks of the Bow sculpture - Stampede Park Calgary - photo zoe dawes

‘By the Banks of the Bow’ sculpture and Saddledome

The last place I went to was Fort Calgary, It was built by the North West Mounted Police in 1875 due to its strategic position where the Bow and Elbow Rivers meet. Reconstructed in modern times, Fort Calgary now houses an award-winning interpretative centre telling the story of Calgary and its pioneering past. There are some interesting recreations including a carpenter’s workshop. I didn’t have time to walk beside the river, but it looks like a nice way to end your day.

Fort Calgary and Colonel McLeod statue - photo zoe dawes

Fort Calgary and Colonel McLeod statue

Ali and I met up for a quick bite to eat; we only had time to grab a sandwich from a street cafe, before we got the C-Train back to the hotel, picked up our luggage and headed off to the airport. Even though we’d only had 24 hours in Calgary, we’d managed to get a really good feel for this vibrant, historic city of contrasts.

Cocktails at Milestones Calgary - zoe dawes

Cheers from Ali and Zoe

I travelled to Calgary as a guest of Destination Canada on the Travelator Media RV Road Trip from Vancouver to Montreal. More articles about our trip:

The Quirky Traveller – Top 10 Memorable Moments from a Canada Road Trip

Travel with Kat – The Sunshine Coast

On the LuceWaterfront Toronto

Heather on her TravelsA perfect day in Montreal

Watch out for more articles on this amazing adventure across Canada.

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Calgary in 24 hours - zoe dawes

 

July 1, 2016

Menorca; a haven for culture lovers as well as beach fans

Menorca; a haven for culture lovers as well as beach fans
Binibeca Beach Menorca - image zoedawes

Binibeca Beach

With more beaches than Majorca and Ibiza combined, it’s not surprising that Menorca is a popular Spanish holiday destination. But there is much more to this tiny island on the edge of the Balearics. With a convoluted history due to its strategic position and a Mediterranean landscape, Menorca has inspired artists, writers, photographers, artisans and other creatives to produce a treasure trove of cultural gems.

Torre d'en Gaumes Menorca Spain - image zoedawes

Torre d’en Gaumes

The island is strewn with archaeological remains telling the story of Bronze Age people who made simple pottery and delicate jewellery. Islamic rulers left beautiful buildings decorated with exquisite tile-work. European powers took it in turns to occupy Menorca, with Spain, France and Britain adding their own distinctive taste in architecture, art and culinary style. Religion continues to play a big part in daily life; Catholic churches and cathedrals may not have the opulence of Italian churches but are home to some very fine paintings and decoration. A relatively new phenomenon is the flourishing of quirky street art, reflecting a global recognition of this art form.

Victori street art Mahon Menorca

Victori street art

In both Ciutadella and Mahon (Mao), the old and new capitals of Menorca, there is evidence of this rich cultural mix to be seen round every corner. Magnificent palaces are home to a number of fine museums and galleries showcasing both classical artifacts and contemporary artworks.

Ciutadella – West Menorca

Placa des Born Ciutadella Menorca - image zoedawes

Palaces on the Plaça des Born Ciutadella

Castell de Sant Nicolau, an octagonal tower on the Passeig Maritim, has occasional art exhibitions, with great views of the island from its roof. Higher up in the main town, a maze of narrow streets and elegant squares including the Placa des Born, are lined with Gothic palaces, high-walled churches and shady arcades of attractive shops. Situated in a former convent, the Museu Diocesa de Menorca tells the story of the island’s history, has a collection of modern and older artworks and religious art, gold and silver (it’s very close to Ciutadella Cathedral). On a recent tour of the city, we passed Eglesia del Roser; in its entrance was a huge head woven from twigs – very striking.

Roser Church art gallery Ciutadella

If you get the chance, visit one of the palaces open to the public. Palacio Olivar, opposite the Cathedral, recreates the 18th c lifestyle of Menorcan nobility and Palacio Salort is crammed  with antiques, tapestries, paintings and furniture and a grand ballroom with elaborate frescoes. On almost every street in the city centre you’ll find shops and galleries selling local art and pottery; just wander about and keep your eyes open for unusual sights.

Window Street Art Ciutadella

Window Street Art

Mahon – South East Menorca

Mahon city centre Menorca

Mahon city centre

The capital of Menorca has a wide range of options for cultural exploration. One of the newest attractions is the Centre D’art I D’historia Hernandez Sanz, which recently moved to Carrer Anuncivay 2.  Within the cool, beautifully restored of the Palau Can Oliver, is an eclectic display of drawings, painting, pottery, maps, lithographs and other objects that reflect the island’s history.

Roman pottery and paintings Hernandez Sant Museum Mahon

Many are part of an original collection by polymath Hernandez Sanz, who published a compendium of Geography and History of Menorca in 1908. There are also prints of significant figures involved in the British occupation. In the basement is a display of archaeological finds and excavations. (Could do with some signs in English for overseas visitors.) 

Talayotic etchings - Hernandez Sant Museum - Mahon

I loved these little etchings of Talyotic monuments that Hernandez produced on his travels around the island.

Mahon Museum of Menorca

Museum of Menorca

The massive walls of the 17th/18 c Franciscan Convent loom over the long harbour of Mahon. It is home to the Museum of Menorca, a relatively small, but interesting selection of the human occupation of the island. It was being renovated when I visited, but there was a small exhibition on display. Check opening times.

Museum of Menorca

Museum of Menorca Mahon

One of the oldest cultural centres is The Scientific, Artistic and Literary Centre (Ateneu Cientific Literari I Artistic de Mao). For over a 100 years, it has been hosting exhibitions of renowned and newer Menorcan artists as well as giving a platform for writers and scientists to share their work. Basket-weaving and shoe-making are traditional crafts; you can find plenty in the market in the Cloisters del Carmen next to the Fish Market in Mahon city centre.

Baskets, shoes and local produce Mahon market

Local crafts and produce in Mahon Market

Check out the Fiesta calendar for impressive horsemanship and colourful processions. The Teatro Principal, built in 1829, is the oldest opera house in Spain and regularly puts on concerts, operas and dramatic performances. During the summer months there are music recitals in Mahon Cathedral, which has one of the biggest organs in the world.

Around Menorca

Torre d'en Gaumes Menorca - image zoedawes

Torre d’en Gaumes

There are a great many pre-historic Talayotic sites around the island. Monuments including boat-shaped burial chambers (navetas), megalithic sepulchres, cone-shaped towers (talayots) and stone enclosures with T-shaped pillars (taules). These sites date from c 1000 BC up to the Roman conquest in 123 BC.  My favourites include the Naveta d’es Tudons, Torre d’en Gaumes, Talati de Dalt and Trepuco.

Trepuco - Es Castell Menorca

Trepuco at sunset

British artists in Menorca includes Graham Byfield, who specialises in landscapes and architecture and has a gallery in the small town of Es Migjorn Gran, exhibiting his work and selling his books and cards.

Graham Byfield - image artistspartner.tumblr.com

Graham Byfield – image artistspartner.tumblr.com

Liz Spooner, known as ‘The Poppy Lady’ for her gorgeous big flower paintings, has outlets in both Mahon and Ciutadella.

La Mola - street art in Mahon, Menorca - image zoedawes

If you like military history, Menorca has many places to visit. The most significant and impressive is La Mola. Covering over a kilometer, at the entrance to Mahon Harbour, this huge fortress was built to protect Menorca against invasion. It has Vickers guns (never fired in anger) and plenty of militaristic buildings and equipment to see.

Es Castell Parade Ground - image patrimoniommm2.wordpress.com

Es Castell Parade Ground – image patrimoniommm2.wordpress.com

Es Castell was founded by the British during their second occupation in the late 1700s. The main square has been renovated to give a better idea of the original army Parade Ground, surrounded by Georgian buildings, including the excellent Military Museum. It includes guns, flags, maps and a model of nearby Fort Sant Felip, which is also open to the public.

The charming Hotel del Almirante has a very personal collection of naval and local historical items, especially about Admiral Lord Collingwood, who used to live there. Once a week the owner gives a guided tour – check website for details.

Hotel del Almirante near Mahon Menorca

Hotel del Almirante

Finally, Menorca is famous for its cheeses, loved by Spaniards and appreciated by connoisseurs throughout Europe. Still produced in traditional method, Hort Sant Patrici is an interesting Cheese and Wine Making Centre, near Ferrerias.

Hort San Patrici cheeses Menorca

Hort San Patrici cheeses

Their cheese is made from pasteurized cows’ milk, produced with rounded edges and ranges from , from a light 21 day cheese to mature cheese aged over 8-9 months. You can also see how they make their wines and in the grounds there is an exhibition of unusual sculptures amongst the vines.

Hort San Patrici artworks in the vineyard

Hort San Patrici artworks in the vineyard

 

Visitor Information for Menorca

To plan your holiday in Menorca visit the Menorca website and www.Spain.info or follow them on social media: Twitter @Spain_inUK | Facebook | Instagram. If you need a guide to show you the sites of Menorca, I can highly recommend Menorca Guides Luis Amella.

Luis Amella tour guide in Cuitadella Menorca

Tour Guide Luis Amella with Travelator Media in Cuitadella

Thanks very much to Menorca Tourism for hosting my stay in a Travelator Media project in partnership with Spanish and Menorca Tourism.

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April 10, 2016

Top 10 places on the Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland

Top 10 places on the Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland
Dunluce Castle and Giant's Causeway on Irish Coast NI - zoedawes

Dunluce Castle and the Giant’s Causeway from Magheracross Viewpoint

It’s not often that a place truly exceeds expectations, is it? Often we’re a bit disappointed, having heard good things about a book, film, restaurant or place, which then struggles to live up to our imagination. The Causeway Coast on Northern Ireland not only exceeded my expectations, it totally blew them away.

Giants Causeway Boot NI - zoedawes

The Giant’s Causeway – Finn MacCool’s Boot

Having recently seen a re-run of an episode of BBC Coast featuring the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim Coast, I knew it was an interesting coastline, but nothing prepared me for the reality of its spectacular beauty. I spent a long weekend in Northern Ireland, driving from Larne to Bushmills along the famous Causeway Coast. Even on a blustery day, the rain-swept beaches and wave-lashed cliffs had a dramatic beauty, and when the sun came out, this stunning coast simply took my breath away.

Portballintrae Causeway Coast NI - zoedawes

Portballintrae Harbour from the Bay View Hotel

There were so many things to see and do that a weekend was not nearly long enough. However, I did manage to pack a lot in so here are my:

Top 10 places to visit on the Causeway Coast

1.  The Giant’s Causeway

Giants Causeway County Antrim Ireland - zoedawes

The Giant’s Causeway

The hexagonal basalt blocks and columns of the Giant’s Causeway, Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, are scattered all around. And not just hexagons but four, five, seven and even eight-sided shapes form a jig-saw of geological complexity. Formed about 60 million years ago, it is an astonishing place of myth, mystery and natural wonder. Make sure you take enough time to explore. Join one of the walking tours that start from the excellent Visitor Centre, with its interactive displays, Finn MacCool film and gift shop. The guide points out quirky rock formations such as The Camel, The Giant’s Boot and The Organ, explains how the Giant’s Causeway was formed (volcanic activity) and tells the legend of Finn MacCool. There’s a regular shuttle bus up and down the hill. Wander over the rocks (slippery at times so take care – sturdy shoes recommended) and take a seat to watch nature at her dramatic best.

The Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland - zoedawes

The Giant’s Causeway

I can highly recommend lunch at the Causeway Hotel – the Caesar Salad was delicious.

2. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge on Causeway Coast Ireland - zoedawes

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Not far from the Giant’s Causeway is Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. A narrow network of ropes stretches across a dizzying gulf from the mainland to the rocky outcrop known as Carrick-a-Rede. I must admit I wasn’t really keen to go across (vivid memories of my young son bouncing up and down on a rope bridge across an even bigger drop in New Zealand to make Mummy scream …) but had been persuaded by the encouraging National Trust attendant that it really was very safe. Apparently they replace the bridge every 3 years, and it is certainly much more robust than the single handrope the 18th c fishermen first strung across the water. They were after the abundant Atlantic salmon that swirled around these waters on their annual migration. Once over the bridge (my advice is hold on tight and don’t look down) you can still see a tiny fisherman’s cottage, near to where the salmon fishery was situated. The water is clear with irridescent shades of green and blue; it looks more like a Caribbean island than the UK coast.

The Causeway Coast from Carrick-a-Rede Ireland - zoedawes

The Causeway Coast from Carrick-a-Rede

Thousands of seabirds, including fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills and guilllemots, wheel and squeal around the islands and cliffs, providing a noisy soundtrack to this unique experience.

3.  Bushmills Distillery

Bushmills Distillery whiskey - Northern Ireland zoedawes

Bushmills Whiskey Tasting

After all the adrenalin rush of Carrick-a-Rede you may need a drink and where better than the world’s oldest whiskey distillery? Bushmills Old Distillery, licensed in 1608) is home to Irish Whiskey at its best. I can say that with a certain degree of authority, having had an extensive whiskey-tasting with Bushmills expert Ben, after a fascinating tour of the distillery. You learn everything about the whiskey-making process, from use of the finest ingredients, through fermentation to distillation (3 times, once more than Scottish whisky), maturation in sherry, port, bourbon and madeira barrels for up to 21 years, and bottling.

Bushmills Distillery whiskey barrels - Northern Ireland zoedawes

Bushmills whiskey barrels –

I was given a bottle of their ‘Distillery Reserve’ 12 year Single Malt – and very fine it is too! Situated in the attractive village of Bushmills, the Distillery is one of the main tourist attractions along the Causeway Coast, and well-worth a visit.

Bushmills Inn Sunday lunch Northern Ireland - zoedawes

Bushmills Inn Carvery

I had an excellent Sunday Lunch (Kilhorne Bay prawns and Irish crayfish followed by roast Tamworth pork and Belted Galloway beef) at the historic Bushmills Inn, a haven of elegant dining.

4.  Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island Harbour seals NI - zoedawes

Rathlin Island Harbour and seals

Take the ferry from popular Ballycastle across the Sea of Moyle to Rathlin Island and slow down … It’s a cliche to say it’s like stepping back in time – but on Rathlin Island it’s a fact. With few inhabitants, even fewer cars, a sleepy harbour, old-fashioned pub, quaint Visitor’s Centre and a hotch-potch of lanes and stone walls, the island appears to be in a sleepy time-warp. I spent a couple of hours exploring the village and surrounding countryside. There are three Lighthouses, one of which, the West Lighthouse, is home to the Rathlin RSPB Seabird Centre. Rathlin is home to Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony. Puffins, very rare choughs, lapwings and many other birds nest here. Fishing boats still go out every day and the baskets add a colourful note to the scenery.

Fishing creels on Rathlin Island NI - zoedawes

Fishing creels on Rathlin

There are spectacular views back to the Antrim Coast and over to Scotland; the Mull of Kintyre is only 13 miles away. Seals wallow in the shallows Mill Bay and the refreshing air of tranquility is most relaxing.

5.  Portstewart Strand

Portstewart Strand at sunset Northern Ireland - zoedawes

Portstewart Strand at sunset

It is almost impossible to choose a particular beach for this list, as there are so many. From long sandy beaches to tiny rocky bays, the Causeway Coast is a seaside treat. However, watching the sun go down on Portstewart Strand and having a big bowl of moules mariniere at Harry’s Shack was a perfect way to end a day out. Families, couples, dog-walkers, joggers, kite-flyers; it’s popular with all and sundry.

Portstewart at sunset Northern Ireland - zoedawes

Portstewart at sunset

Apparently there are rare orchids amongst the sand-dunes and the National Trust organises regular walks and activities all year round.

6.  Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne

Mussenden Temple Downhill Demesne N Ireland - zoedawes

Mussenden Temple

From Portstewart Strand you can see the rounded outline of Mussenden Temple, precariously perched on cliff at the edge of Downhill Demesne (estate). Built for the niece of the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, Mussenden Temple was designed as a library and is now a famous landmark on the coast. Downhill House was built by the Earl Bishop, Frederick Hervey, in the 1770s and became derelict in the 20th century. The Demesne includes a walled garden, dovecote and summer house and extensive grounds with beautiful views along the coast.

7.  Hezlett House

Hezlett House Northern Ireland - zoedawes

Hezlett House and the Spanish Chestnut Tree

Going from the landed gentry to more ordinary folk, a short distance from Dowhill Demesne is Hezlett House, in Liffock village. Home to a farming family, the timber-framed, thatched cottage dates back to 1690 and is furnished in a traditional manner. It’s a warren of little rooms and low ceilings and quaint nooks. There’s a collection of marble artefacts from Downhill Demesne in a shed by the garden, where grows a large Spanish Chestnut, known as the ‘Hanging Tree’.

8.  Portrush

Portrush Harbour Northern Ireland - zoedawes

Portrush Resort

Every coast needs a proper seaside resort and Portrush is Northern Ireland’s premier family destination. Here you’ll fnd a lively funfair, plenty of bars and restaurants, lots of shops, a sandy beach, aquarium, cinema and golf course.  I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around the town with friends, had a Guiness at a waterside pub and an excellent meal at the Mermaid Restaurant overlooking the busy harbour.

9.  Game of Thrones locations

Ballintoy Harbour Game of Thrones location Ireland - zoedawes

Ballintoy Harbour

You will no doubt have heard of, and very possibly watch, the blockbuster TV series, Game of Thrones. What you may not know is that most of it is filmed in Northern Ireland. I took McCombs Game of Thrones Tour to some of the ‘Westeros’ locations; they are quite splendid. OK, I have to admit to never having seen an episode of the series, but that doesn’t matter … honest. You can just enjoy the scenery. My guide Derek was a big fan and explained the significance of each place. We went to Cushenden Cave, birthplace of the Shadow Assassin, charming Ballintoy, where Theon Greyjoy cames back to Pyke Harbour, Larrybane Quarry, scene of Renly’s death and I posed in a cape and sword (well, you have to, don’t you?) and the evocative Dark Hedges, where Arya Stark makes her escape down The Kings Road.

The Dark Hedges - Kings Road - Game of Thrones tour N Ireland - zoedawes

The Dark Hedges- ‘Game of Thrones’ King’s Road

Here I had my photo taken by American tourists who thought I was a TV star … great fun!

10. Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle on Causeway Coast NI - zoedawes

Dunluce Castle

One of the most impressive sights along this impressive coastline is Dunluce Castle, a medieval ruin teetering on the edge of Antrim cliffs. There has been a castle here since the 1200s and this building is documented in 1513. The McQuillans and then MacDonnells owned it until their loss of fortune after the Battle of the Boyne. Dunluce Castle is thought to be the inspiration for Cair Paravel in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. You can get a great shot of the castle and the Giant’s Causeway from Magheracross Viewpoint, and The Skerries and Portrush in the other direction.

The Skerries and Portrush from Magheracross Viewpoint Causeway Coast Northern Ireland - zoedawes

The Skerries and Portrush from Magheracross Viewpoint

I stayed in the Bay View Hotel in pretty Portballintrae, a few minutes’ drive from Dunluce Castle and Bushmills, for the weekend. Many thanks to Trevor, Laura and team for a warm welcome and lovely stay. I can highly recommend their Rathlin whiting and chips; best battered fish I’ve had in a long time!

Portballintrae from Bay View Hotel bedroom

Portballintrae from Bay View Hotel bedroom

I visited Northern Ireland courtesy of Visit Causeway Coast and Glens. They provided a Hertz hire car which meant getting around the area easy and I’m very grateful for their recommendations of places to see, eat and drink. I fell in love with this beautiful area and do hope you get to visit the Causeway Coast someday soon …

Zoe Dawes Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland

Zoe at the Giant’s Causeway

September 11, 2015

Stonehenge: the secrets of the Stone Circle

Stonehenge: the secrets of the Stone Circle

“Before you feel even slightly patronised, I do use this for everybody. In fact, a whole load of Post-Graduate Archaeology people from Oxford University were subjected to this a few weeks ago.”  Stonehenge guide Pat Shelley started his talk with these words.

Pat Shelley Stonehenge guide - photo zoedawes

‘This’ referred to The Amazing POP-UP Stonehengea children’s book that explains how Stonehenge was built, who built it and why. There is a wonderful 3D image of the Stone Circle, as it probably looked 4000 years ago. Pat went on to explain exactly how the stones we could see all around us were originally configured. You can see his excellent description in this short video of Stonehenge at Dawn.


He also told us that there were two different types of stone used. The tall ‘sarcen’s stones were brought a relatively short distance from Marlborough Downs but the ‘blue stones’, which make up the smaller inner circle, came from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, about 7 days’ walk from Salisbury Plain.

Amazing popup Stonehenge book - photo English Heritage

Pop-Up Stonehenge – photo English Heritage

With the aid of the pop-up model Pat enabled us to visualise just how impressive this monument must have been.  (I bought a copy of the book from the English Heritage shop by the museum, as I loved the simple way it explains everything. If Pat rates it then it must be good!) ‘The biggest stones at Stonehenge weigh more than a bus full of people. So how did they move something that heavy when they hadn’t invented the wheel? They probably used a wooden sledge running on rollers made of logs.’ However, it seems that no-one is certain how Stone Age man managed to get the top stones in place. ‘We think they probably built a wooden platform and levered the stones up one at a time, putting more and more wood under them as they rose higher.’

Salisbury Plain - photo zoedawes

Sunrise over Stonehenge

I was with a group of travel bloggers and media specialists on a Dawn Tour of Stonehenge, having travelled from Salisbury where we had been attending the Social Travel Britain conference. The previous day we’d been given a private showing of the Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral, and now we were having a personal tour of this very special World Heritage Site in Wiltshire, in the south west of England. It was a real privilege to have time to see these two truly impressive sights at leisure and with such informed guides.

Stonehenge and guide Pat Shelley - photo zoedawes

Stonehenge and guide

After the pop-up book discourse, Pat took us all round the Inner and Outer Circles. You can only go inside Stonehenge on a ‘special access tour’ (apart from the winter and summer solstices). Numbers are limited as the site was being worn away with all the visitors. Guards watched us all the time to ensure we didn’t touch or damage anything. Pat showed us the different stones, the graffitti, repairs done in the past and more recently; we took photos and tried to assimilate this enormous site.

Stonehenge stones - photo zoedawes

Stonehenge

Pat finally answered the age-old question, “Why was Stonehenge built?” In spite of a strong supposition that it was a temple to the sun, he says we really don’t know. Standing in the middle of the henge on Midsummer, June 21st, the day of the year with the most sunlight, the sun rises directly behind the ‘Heel Stone’. On Midwinter, the shortest day, December 21st, the sun sets between the two uprights of the tallest ‘doorway’. It is thought that this solstice was important to ancient people to pray to the gods to bring back the vital sunshine and end the cold winter nights.

Stonehenge at dawn - photo zoedawes

Stonehenge at dawn

As the sun rose higher we were treated to a beautiful sky of pink, blue, purples and threads of turquoise. The stones changed colour and the shadows shifted. It was easy to imagine just how significant this place must have appeared in 2000BC. Jackdaws cawed to each other and squabbled over bits of twig for their nests. Pat told us they steal from each other’s nests all the time so it must take them ages, to finally get a home for their eggs.

Stonehenge Jackdaw with nesting material - photo zoedawes

Stonehenge Jackdaw

Finally it was time to leave. Pat addressed a point often raised by visitors. “The Druids had NOTHING to do with Stonehenge. These priests lived over 1000 years AFTER it had stopped being used, the earliest reference to them being about 200BC.”  Seeing it today, there is no need for such romantic imagery; Stonehenge is magnificent just as it is.

Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain - zoedawes

Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain

Many thanks to Visit Wiltshire for arranging this tour and to Pat Shelley for his highly enteraining and informative talk. He brought Stonehenge to life with his quirky pop-up book and fund of historical insights.

August 1, 2015

Become a Parisian during your trip to Paris

WOP Logo - We Own Paris

WOP Logo - We Own Paris

When it comes to Paris, the most romantic city in the world, you probably want to know everything about it. No doubt you’d love to grasp the authenticity of its secrets, enjoying your trip through the eyes of Parisian people. We Own Paris (WOP app) travels with you to make you appreciate things fully, while experiencing a dash of Parisian daily life.

homepage we own paris WOP appMuch more than a simple mobile application, it is your personal interactive TravelMate to help you get away from the traditional flow of tourism. According to your mood and needs, WOP always gives you personal tips; restaurants, bakeries, art galleries, etc.  Thanks to its private transporting services, WOP will also help you discover unique attractions around Paris, vibrant capital of France.

Visiting Paris through Parisian eyes is a special experience. Two Parisian friends, passionate about their city and soul travellers, depict Paris, the one they really love, in all its charm. They’ve personally reviewed the best addresses and conjured up Paris as you have never seen it, immersing travellers in a unique journey: the perfect combination of tradition, culture, leisure and authentic vibes.

The WOP App gives you useful tips about daily Parisian life. On your arrival you receive goodies to use during your stay. Through an integrated e-boutique, you have the possibility to extend your Parisian experience while enjoying trustworthy French products, selected on the base of different themes such as gastronomy, fashion and wine. As a souvenir of your visit, WOP can send you a personal photobook with all the photos you took with your phone during your stay.

WOP shows you unknown places and perspectives in and around Paris, far from fixed schedules. Off the beaten track, beneath all of that, an incredible ambition is hidden: to help travellers get to know each other, creating a community of WOPers who will share activities and spend time together!

Want to experience Paris the way WOP does? Download the WOP app for FREE and join the community!

This post is in collaboration with CUDLINK, a young and dynamic company operating in the Tourism sector in France. Aware of this country’s attractiveness to tourists worldwide, CUDLINK aims at improving quality service offered to visitors. Parisians by birth and travellers in the soul, CUDLINK’s founders have created WOP to help tourists visit Paris as if they were living there.

June 16, 2015

Plan your trip to France the easy way

Plan your trip to France the easy way

My very first trip to France was with school to Paris many years ago, where the boys went off and got drunk in a bar that was perfectly happy to serve 15 and 16 year olds. The girls kept wandering off to look in shops and giggle at the handsome French guys. The teachers struggled to herd pupils round sights they weren’t that bothered about seeing and at night went to each other’s rooms to drink cheap plonk and try to unwind … I know that because I was one of those teachers and I vowed one day to return to Paris and see the sights properly, without playing the role of reluctant sheep dog.

eiffel-tower-paris-france

Eiffel Tower – photo France-Voyage.com

It was 20 years before I got back to Paris and this time we did all the sights without student distraction. The Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, the Louvre, the Tuilleries Gardens, Notre Dame and even out to the glorious Palace of Versailles – all magical and beautiful even with lots of other tourists around. Another time we took the car over and explored charming Northern France, with its lush pasturelands and historic towns. More recently I went to see World War One sites in the footsteps of WW1 poet Wilfred Owen.

wilfred owen house maison forestiere france

Wilfred Owen Maison Forestiere

If you plan a trip to France, you may be wondering how on earth to organise what to see, when to go and where to stay in such a diverse and big country. There are lots of guidebooks and websites, blogs and articles for you to trawl through, but ideally what you want is a one-stop solution, where everything you need to know is all in one place. Well, I came across France-Voyage.com recently and it’s perfect for planning every aspect of a trip to France, whether it’s French chateaux, ancient cathedrals or to follow the Tour de France.

Chateau la Rochefoucauld - photo France-Voyage.com

Chateau la Rochefoucauld – photo France-Voyage.com

As well as lots of information on all the regions of France, it’s a goldmine of practical and cultural tips to help make the best use of time on holiday. Other plus points include:

  • Complete, detailed content for tourists covering the whole country;
  • Daily updates in cooperation with official organisations;
  • Multiple illustrations and virtual tours;
  • Easy planning with creation of tailor-made itineraries and mini-guidebooks;
  • Ease of access via an intuitive, user-friendly interface that works on all devices, from smartphones to desktop computers;
  • Geolocated, personalised mobile interface;
  • Multilingual information giving easy access to foreign tourists;
  • Completely free for holidaymakers.
Cannes beach, cote d'azur, france

Cannes beach – photo France-Voyage.com

My favourite trip to France was staying with my boyfriend on a yacht in Cannes; we spent three weeks exploring the south of France. Antibes, St Tropez, Villefranche, Monaco – evocative names on the French Riviera. The smell of lavender takes me back immediately to that lovely holiday. I’m hoping to return for a long weekend on the Côte d’Azur in the autumn  so decided to use the site to plan a long weekend in the Alpes Maritime. As a foodie I love the tips on regional food as well as recommendations for places to eat and drink. There are helpful suggestions for coastal and inland walks and so much info on each village and town that I think we’re going to need a lot more than a weekend to see it all.

villefranche-sur-mer cote d'azur france

Villefranche sur mer – photo France-Voyage.com

This article was written in collaboration with France-Voyage.com.

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