Christmas decorations bring simple joy and delight; if you don’t agree, BAH HUMBUG to you! Unpacking the boxes of colourful baubles, bells, angels, stars, Father Christmas, candles, tinsel, fairy lights and wreaths is a magical experience. Many objects bring back memories of childhood, family, friends and places visited. Last year I wrote about the joy of a REAL Christmas Tree. This year I’m featuring 5 of my favourite Christmas decorations from around the world that have a special significance.
Caribbean Lace Decoration
Lace Christmas decoration
With dainty white lace threaded with lilac ribbon, this is not a traditional Christmas decoration, but one that means a lot. My brother worked on yachts for many years and often didn’t get home for Christmas. In the summer he sailed around the Mediterranean and in the winter around the Caribbean. Even though he’s not a big fan of Christmas he often brought back lovely decorations from his travels. This one, made by Heidi, was from St John in the US Virgin Islands.
Quirky Kangaroo from Australia
Kangaroo bauble from Western Australia
Earlier this year I visited Western Australia and finally got to see kangaroos in the wild. They were feeding beside the road at dusk and we got really close to them. So when I saw this bauble in a shop in Perth I just had to get it. VERY quirky!
Mickey Mouse from Disneyland
Mickey Mouse from Disneyland USA
I bought Mickey Mouse from Disneyland in Los Angeles in the 1980s. I was staying there with my American boyfriend and we went to Disneyland for the day as I had never been; it was brilliant. Along with Mickey Mouse I also bought Donald Duck and these have been two of my son Alex’s favourite Christmas decorations since he was little. He finally made it Disneyland Paris a few years ago and got to meet the real Mickey Mouse …
Dunster at Christmas
Dunster Christmas Bauble
This beautiful hand-painted bauble is of the medieval town of Dunster in Exmoor. Every year they hold Dunster by Candlelight, a magical Christmas festival of light. Hundreds of people visit to see the candle-lit procession, the market stalls, Dunster Castle, the shops and street performers. I was there this year (see Stargazing and Winter Joy in Exmoor) and bought this bauble from the very festive Christmas Shop on the main street as a special souvenir of a magical experience.
Nativity Scene from German Christmas Market
Nativity Scene from Bavarian Christmas Market
This tiny Nativity Scene, inside a walnut shell, is from the Rottacher Advent, aChristmas Market on Tegerness Lake in Upper Bavaria, Germany. I bought it last weekend on my first visit to a German Christmas Market and it means a lot. Not only does it represent the true meaning of Christmas, but is a reminder of that special trip and the resilience of people in the face of tragedy. This week there was a horrific attack on the Berlin Christmas Market. 12 people died and many were injured. Yesterday the market reopened and there was a positive spirit of defiance, in spite of the grief. This is one of my favourite Christmas decorations because it reminds me of what Christmas is really all about. Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All …
Star Trails; Exmoor – image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk
“Starry, starry night …” Don McLean and Vincent Van Gogh would love Exmoor at night. I have NEVER seen such a star-studded sky in the UK, as the one I saw whilst staying at West Withy Farm Holiday Cottages. On arrival on the edge of Exmoor, the night sky took my breath away. Ablaze with a myriad of sparkling lights, it looked as if a child had thrown a huge bag of glitter up into the darkness. It was almost impossible to make out familiar constellations such as The Plough and Orion because they were embedded within so many others. The Milky Way arched overhead in a whirling mass. With virtually 360° visibility in this area and very little human habitation, it’s not surprising that Exmoor was named Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve.
Stargazing in Exmoor
Telescope in Upton Cottage
Ian, owner of West Withy Farm, showed me round Upton Cottage, a converted haybarn, which sleeps 5 in homely comfort. In the lounge a large telescope sat waiting to be used; you can hire it by the day here and the garden has a plinth on which to use it. On the second night, astronomer Seb Jay of Dark Sky Telescope Hire came over to give a talk on astronomy and the skies overhead. It was cloudy so we didn’t use the telescope, but he had a ‘live-sky’ programme on his laptop to show the constellations, asteroids and planets that had been so clear the night before. It was a fascinating evening and I learnt a great deal about our amazing universe …
Astronomer Seb Jay
Over the weekend I visited a number of interesting places in Exmoor: here are a few highlights.
Dulverton, Exford and Simonsbath
Signpost in Exford
The pretty village of Dulverton has got a number of independent retailers, including boutiques and antique shops, plus a good variety of pubs, cafes and restaurants. I had dinner at Woods Bar and Restaurant; a warm ,welcoming place, combining a pub atmosphere with quality dining. Owner Paddy is passionate about seasonal local food, sourcing much of it off his own farm, and wine; he has over 400 to choose from. (It’s been National Wine Pub of the Year for 5 years running.) I can highly recommend the confit of lamb shoulder; meltingly delicious.
Confit Shoulder of Northcombe Lamb
The next day I set off to explore more of Exmoor, going through a number of quaint villages with thatched roofs and attractive pubs. At the White Horse Inn by the bridge in Exford a horse and rider trotted by as Christmas decorations were being put up.
In Simonsbath, a tiny hamlet, the smell of sawdust filled the air as a young man cut up logs beside the River Barle. The moor spread out all around as I headed towards the coast and two of Exmoor’s most well-known towns.
Lynton and Lynmouth
Lynmouth and Cliff Railway
I remember visiting Lynmouth with family on a hot, sunny day a few years ago. It was really busy and delightful. In winter the museum, chippie and souvenir shops may be closed but you can wander along the jetty overlooking the river mouth and get a real feel for its historic and literary past. In the early 19th C the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed here briefly with his young wife, Harriet. The Rising Sun Hotel is a picturesque sight with its thatched roof and excellent position overlooking the boat-bobbing harbour. Above the excellent Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre is the Pavilion Dining Room with great views over the Bristol Channel.
Lynton Town Hall
The Cliff Railway, open between February and mid-November, connects Lynmouth to Lynton. It fits the ‘eco-traveller’ remit as its two carriages use the weight of water to pull them up and down. Lynton has a genteel Victorian air with some decent touristy shops and a splendid Town Hall, somewhat larger and fancier than you’d expect in such a small town. Not far away is the Valley of Rocks, a fairy-tale collection of rocky towers and hillocks with a splendid cliff-walk. It’s exhilarating and uncrowded in the winter months.
Apparently Coleridge was interrupted in the composition of his epic opium-induced poem Kubla Khan, by a ‘person from Porlock‘. On the day I visited, the people of Porlock were more intent on getting ready for Christmas, than visiting poets. It’s the heart of Lorna Doone country, as the local hotel indicates, and Porlock Bay Oysters are in great demand. They are the first Pacific Oyster site in England & Wales to achieve the top A classification. Sadly none were available when I was there; a good reason to go back.
Dunster by Candlelight
Possibly the most famous festival in Exmoor, Dunster by Candlelight is a glorious event held over two evenings in the run-up to Christmas. The medieval town opens its doors to visitors from around the world. The shops are brightly-lit, candles decorate the streets, performers entertain the crowds and a procession of costumed revellers carries a stag shoulder-high, accompanied by musicians and enthusiastic participants. I got the Park and Ride from nearby Minehead and spent a magical few hours watching the fun, wandering round the shops and enjoying carol-singing in Dunster Castle.
No visit to Exmoor would be complete without seeing the hardy Exmoor Ponies. Living all over Exmoor National Park, there are particular places you’re more likely to find them. I saw them on Haddon Hill, overlooking Wimbleball Lake and also at National Trust Foreland Point, on the rolling moorland road between Lynmouth and Porlock. They roam freely across the moors, but are not truly wild, being owned and looked after by various people. You can get fairly close but don’t try to touch them. In winter their thick coats give them extra protection against all weathers. Exmoor also has herds of wild red deer and plenty more interesting wildlife.
Exmoor National Park
Many thanks to Visit Exmoor for hosting my weekend, and to Ian and Lorena of West Withy Farm for their warm welcome, hospitality and invaluable advice on what to see in this beautiful area in south west England. Check out their website for details of stargazing weekends – a whole new world could open up for you …
Home of spices, cocoa, rum and a taste of Creole, Saint Lucia has an infusion of flavours to tempt any palate. The small island packs in a punch into its cuisine as well as entertaining food celebrations including the Friday night Jump Up street party and the Anse La Raye Fish Fry.
We've picked out our top reasons why Saint Lucia is THE Caribbean island for you if you're a foodie fan!
1. Saint Lucia is a chocolate lover’s paradise.
Tempt tastebuds at Boucan by Hotel Chocolat
Cocoa plantations are scattered across the island and a handful of resorts offer a mouth-watering Tree-to-Bar experience. The much-loved Hotel Chocolat has actually set up camp amongst the cocoa groves of Saint Lucia and Boucan, by Hotel Chocolat is one of the resorts with the Tree-to-Bar experience. Involving the careful selection of ripe cocoa pods, the experience allows guests to roast the cocoa themselves to create their very own velvety chocolate bar. Saint Lucia even holds its own Chocolate Heritage Month in August celebrating all things cocoa-centric.
Cocoa pods – Boucan Hotel Chocolat St Lucia
2. Saint Lucia food embraces Caribbean, West African, French, British and West Indian influences
Taste a world of flavours on Saint Lucia
What makes these flavours really unique is the natural sourcing through sustainable agriculture. The island's fertile soil and clean waters make delicious ingredient sources as recipes include home-grown fruits, spices and fish to name a few. Learning about the wide spectrum of locally-sourced foods has never been easier as nature trails such as Tet Paul, based in the farming community of Chateau Belair, offers not only spectacular views of the island, but a tour guide will explain the nutritious and medicinal purposes of tens of exotic fruit trees. Head to Castries Market where natural spices and flavours surround visitors. The Rum Distillery also offers a sneak peek into the makings of the Saint Lucian delight, offering the chance to see the procedure from the fermentation to tasting.
3. Saint Lucia knows how to host a foodie party!
Fish Friday on St Lucia
The Jump Up street party is held every Friday in Gros Islet for locals and visitors. Music blares through speakers which frame the street, weaved between food stalls, bars and dancing crowds. The carnival-vibe party celebrates local cuisine amongst other cultural ambiances. Barbecued meats, fried bread and local street foods fill the street with enticing aromas. The Anse La Raye Fish Fry offers another celebratory environment, based in one of Saint Lucia's fishing villages. Fresh seafood is available in an authentic environment where you can even spot local fishermen bringing back their catches of the day.
4. Saint Lucia has an array of fine dining options
Delicious food and beautiful setting at Ladera Resort Dasheene Restaurant
Stunning resorts such as Ladera indulge their guests with their Dasheen restaurant which offers a taste of luxury. The fine dining is diverse across the island including family-owned authentic restaurants such as Coal Pot, The Edge (Bobo Bergstrom's innovative cuisine), and flavour-bursting delights such as Orlando's, which is ran by top chef, Orlando Satchell. Private dining is also available at a large number of hotels which can include a romantic beach meal or even in the midst of a tropical setting, surrounded by flora and fauna.
St Lucia sunset from Dasheene Restaurant
This post is brought to you by Saint Lucia Tourist Board. To discover more about Saint Lucia and to check out the amazing offers, visit www.stlucia.org
You've saved, scrimped, studied and finished your exams â€¦ so what are you going to fill your hard-earned three-month break with? Holidays in Europe are becoming increasingly cheaper, with varied accommodation options which range from hostels to couch-surfing attracting more travellers than ever before.
Madrid Post Office and fountain – image via laterooms.com
Flight operators such as Flybe offer cheap flights to some great destinations that will keep you entertained over the summer or even throughout the rest of the year. We've compiled some of the best and cheapest European destinations for inspiration when booking student holidays on the continent.
Budapest – image irenne56 via Pixabay
The beautiful capital of Hungary combines incredible sights, including one UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the top nightlife you would expect from a capital city. Modern, underground pubs in hidden courtyards and hip rooftop clubs make the nights in Budapest unique and there are so many activities and places to squeeze into your visit that you're guaranteed never to be bored.
Try and schedule your visit to coincide with the Sziget Music Festival if you can. As one of Europe's largest music and cultural events (held every August in the north of the city) it's a great way to experience the local atmosphere.
Ibiza beach – image Andre30c via Wikimedia
Ibiza is one of the default holiday destinations for students and it's not hard to see why. You can revel in the sun by day and enjoy an array of music at an abundance of bars and clubs by night. The island also boasts beautiful beaches and a mass of pools to relax by on those lazy afternoons.
An abundance of clubs with the biggest and best DJs, combined with long nights watching the sunrise on the beach are the type of features which make an Ibiza break in the Balearics ideal for those who have worked hard and are looking to blow off some steam.
Madrid Plaza Mayor -image Jean-Pierre Dalbera via Fotopedia
Grab a cultural fix before heading back to university by visiting the cultural centre of Spain. Madrid is still one of the cheapest European getaways you can get and combines rustic Spanish life with modern, cutting-edge developments.
The city is hectic yet relaxed. The downtown area can be easily explored by foot with a mass of things to see and places to go and plenty of culture and art to experience along the way. You don't have to give up the nightlife either – with Madrid nights possessing a vigorous character that could see you carrying on until sunrise. Its location is perfectly placed in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula so it is easy to use Madrid as a base from which to explore other parts of Spain.
Amsterdam canal – image Jean-Pierre Dalbera via Fotopedia
A list of top student holidays wouldn’t be complete without Amsterdam for several reasons. The city remains cheap enough to fly to with plenty of reasonably priced accommodation options helping to keep core costs low. It is also renowned for its relaxed attitude towards certain matters, whilst holding an incredibly rich cultural side with attractions including Anne Frank's house and the Van Gough Museum.
Amsterdam is certainly a cultural experience with its world-famous cafes and canal trips. So, what are you waiting for? Get on a Flybe flight and enjoy one of these beautiful destinations; you won't regret it!
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters” In the same spirit, I believe that as life goes by so fast there are only a few moments that you really live to the max. Walking the Camino de Santiago, as opposed to bullfighting which is not for me, was one of those times where I felt truly alive. For a few days, weeks or months, I was able to extract myself from my day to day routine and focus on myself.
Camino Frances sign – photo c/o Follow the Camino
Lately, I walked the Camino Frances from St Jean de Pied to Pamplona with a company called Follow the Camino, which organises accommodation, meals, maps and heavenly luggage transfers. They have added a twist to the Camino that really attracted me and made my journey so much easier. This twist was to link one of my favourite authors, Ernest Hemingway, to the Camino. The American author based his first and most celebrated novel The Sun Also Risesq during the Pamplona Festival, the San Fermin, which he used to attend regularly.
Bull-running Monument in Pamplona – photo by Ð’Ð»Ð°Ð´Ð¸Ð¼Ð¸Ñ€ Ð¨ÐµÐ»ÑÐ¿Ð¸Ð½
The storyline follows a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of San FermÃn in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. The setting was unique and memorable, showing the seedy café life in Paris, and the excitement of the Pamplona festival, with a middle section devoted to descriptions of a fishing trip in the Pyrenees and end sections in San Sebastian and Madrid.
Follow the Camino therefore launched a new walking holiday called the Camino Heming-Way where you walk in the footsteps of Jake and Bill, two of the main protagonists of the book, from Saint St Jean de Pied in France to Pamplona in Spain. It is undoubtedly one of the most scenic, challenging and rewarding of all the Camino routes and a unique journey through time and literature.
Vierge D’Orisson in French Pyrenees – photo c/o Follow the Camino
The Camino Operator booked me into charming 2-3* hotels along the Way, which was a very welcom comfort. The staff were simply lovely and so typically French and Spanish! I did not want to try walking the Camino without pre-booking hostels etc. Although this option might suit some, I find it difficult to cope with the stress of not knowing where I am sleeping and if I will find a dorm before arriving in a town. Not to mention the snoring, little levels of comforts and the smellâ€¦ No, I was more than delighted to pay the tour operator services so I had my own room, bathroom and all I needed to rest and refresh after a hard day’s walk. And then was I ready for a few tapas and vino! I never had to use their 24/7 emergency phone, thank God!
St Jean Pied de Port – photo c/o Follow the Camino
The route departs Saint Jean Pied de Port, a quaint French market village in the heart of the Pyrenee. There are lots of things to see including the ancient bridge, historic buildings, full of history and a lovely old Church for pilgrims. In only five days, I crossed the Pyrenees (tough but so exhilarating having achieved it), experienced French gastronomy – think yummy cheese, locally-produced charcuterie and traditional baguette, discovered the legendary Basque country and finally arrived in beautiful Pamplona. En route I stayed in the small quiet village of Burguete, on the Irati River where the two friends (from the book) fished.
Hemingway’s house at Burguete – photo by Phillip Capper
In Pamplona, they treated me to a Heming-Way style city tour. Thanks to Mickel, our lovely Spanish guide I found the Cafe Iruna and had a drink beside Hemingway’s statue. I also had the chance to try a special Hemingway favourite: trout stuffed with chorizo. I recommend this tour to Hemingway enthusiasts and anyone looking for an alternative to the last 100km of the French Way, the most popular section. So why not follow this route and take the walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Pamplona? And if you are able to make it for the San Fermin Festival in July, you’ll be able to celebrate this famous Festival in true Heming-Way style!
Hemingway at Cafe Iruna Pamplona – photo c/o Follow the Camino
This post is brought to you by Follow the Camino, a world-wide leading tour operator specialising in organising walking, cycling and horse riding holidays along the Camino de Santiago since 2006. They created a new approach to this ancestral pilgrimage, respecting its spirit and enhancing its values, whilst making it more accessible, enjoyable and achievable for all. Find out more about the Camino Heming-Way here.
Via de la Plata Santiago de Compostela – c/o Follow the Camino
In the fifth of our series of interviews with holiday homeowners from around the world, Martin and Christine Drew talk about how they fell in love with a less known spot in France, the Lot et Garonne.
When Martin and Christine Drew finished a self-build project for their own home in the UK, they decided to look for a renovation project in France; an old barn, farmhouse, or other ruin that they could slowly bring back to life and restore to its former glory. Little did they know that they would end up buying a ‘little piece of France’, a building plot in Lot et Garonne with stunning views over a gently sloping valley and build Valmar Gite a beautiful 2-bedroom house with swimming pool that was completely different to what they had anticipated and which they now love to share with holidaymakers.
Valmar Gite, France
1. What first made you fall in love with Lot et Garonne and why should people come here?
We had holidayed in various parts of France, the Riviera, the North Coast, Languedoc, but we found the North to be a little too much like home back in the UK and the South to be a little too hot and arid for our liking. So, when we visited the Lot et Garonne and discovered the beautiful green rolling hills, quiet country lanes, almost free of traffic, vineyard after vineyard and fields full of cheerful sunflowers, we really did fall in love with the area.
2. What's the â€˜best kept secret' you would tell any visitors not to miss?
3. Where's the place to go to just hang out, people watch and generally soak up the atmosphere?
Night Market at Pujols
There are 152 villages classed as â€˜Les Plus Beaux Villages de France' (the most beautiful villages of France) and two of them are in the Lot et Garonne. One is called Pujols and is an ancient village perched high on a hilltop. Once occupied by the Romans who fortified it, Pujols has superb views towards Villeneuve-sur-lot. It is only a 15 minute drive from Valmar Gite and a favourite of ours to visit for either lunch or the fantastic weekly â€˜Night Market'. By day you can stroll around the quirky little side streets and alleys, before sitting down for a spot of lunch and to take in the superb views. Then by night you can bring along your own food, or buy at the night market in the central square and experience great live entertainment and join in the fun family atmosphere, whilst experiencing a taste of the ‘real France’.
4. What would you recommend visitors either treat themselves to or take home as a souvenir?
5. Finally, what are the most â€˜quirky' things to do, see, eat, visit or experience in this place?
If you're looking to do something a little unusual, then how about a bit of prune stone spitting. There is an annual event that takes place in a nearby small town, Sainte Livrade-sur-lot. Each year, normally the last Saturday in July, the 6,000+ inhabitants of the town, along with entrants from just about anywhere, gather together to compete in the prune stone spitting world championship. Around 100 participants take part and there are separate competitions for adults and children. If you don’t fancy having a go at this somewhat quirky event, you could always just join in the fun as a spectator!
Valmar swimming pool & countryside
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