Comino Island and the Blue Lagoon.

Today we were shifting away from Gozo life, and heading out to Comino Island, located between Gozo and Malta, it has a population of 3! It’s named after Cumin seeds but it was formerly known as Ephaestia.

We took the bus down to Mgarr early and got a coupe of prices from the guys at the harbour. It cost us about 10 euro each round trip.

So after waiting for a few more people to sign up off we sped to Comino! It’s famous for the blue lagoon, a shallow stretch of water between Comino and a smaller island called Cominotto.

It only takes about 15-20 minutes, and it was exciting as we got our first views of the lagoon heading into the bay.

There’s a small jetty to disembark and a few food and drink stalks dotted around here. There’s actually not much beach and the little there was already filled with people. This is May, so I can’t imagine what it would be like in the height of Summer.

We walked along the cliffs, this is where most people set up for the day so we found a spot and immediately went for the water. It’s so blue, so clear, we couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.

So we swam over to little Cominotto and had a little explore around the rocks there, just watch out as there were a few jellyfish around.

There were some lovely little snorkelling spots around here and we sat enjoying the sunshine and the gorgeous setting.

Back on Comino, we lounged on the rocks for a while and took another dip. Then decided to go explore more of the island.

We headed South, past the beautiful crystal lagoon, with some private boats dotted about the bays. There were even a few people cliff jumping!

Our wandering took us to St Mary’s Tower, an ancient watchtower with panoramic views of the island from the rooftop. It’s 5E to go in and have a look.

We wandered back as we had been given set times to return and we didn’t want to get back too late. So after enjoying the blue lagoon a bit longer we got a beer at the jetty and sat waiting for our boat.

It’s a bit of carnage at this point with lots of boats and different queues, just relax and you’ll be fine. So off we went, back to Mgarr ready to head over to the Gozo capital Victoria.

I had read about a few nice sounding restaurants on culture trip, but after checking 3 of then out, I realised the article was pretty old, 2 of them were closed down! We did get some lovely late evening views though.

Not to be deterred we took the bus back to In-Nadur and found an amazing place just off the main square called The Fat Rabbit.

The wine was amazing, we got a huge free starter of rice salad, bean salad, cheese and bread!

Then we had pasta to start, which were huge followed by pizza which we couldn’t manage most of. Obviously we finished the night with a brownie to share. The service was really friendly too, and the stroll back to the hotel was lovely on a warm night.

Gozo, Island of Wonders. Pt 1

I was so excited to visit Gozo, it’s the second largest island in Malta and is known for it’s more rural lifestyle and scenic hills. We flew in to Malta airport, and easily found the bus that would take us all the way to the ferry on the North coast.

It took us around 2 hours to get there, the scenery was amazing, and the route travels all along the super pretty coast.Once at the ferry terminal it was an easy 30 minutes to cross over to Gozo and it only cost 5E, we celebrated with a can of Cisk, the local Maltese beer.

Leaving the ferry terminal on the other side at Mgarr, we were swarmed by taxi drivers, and the taxis here cost a lot, I think we were quoted about 25euro for a 10 minute journey.

After a quick google I figured out the bus route, and next thing we knew we were in Nadur, our home for the next 5 days. I had found a cute little room with a kitchenette in an old farmhouse called In-Nuffara guest house.

It was nice with a lovely breakfast included every morning but the rooms wasn’t serviced well and it got very damp in the day time. The room wasn’t ready when we arrived so we left our bags and went to explore the local town.

It was ssssooooo pretty! The limestone really gives the buildings a beautiful honey hue, walking up we found the main square, with an amazing church dominating the area. This seemed the liveliest place in a very quiet town, Gozo is very laid back, quiet and peaceful.

After wandering around most of the town, we stopped at the square and got a very cheap beer, I think it was just over a euro! I was very happy with this pricing. It was lovely enjoying the sunshine sat out on the square, we hadn’t eaten much through the day and the lady we were staying with had recommended a bakery called Mekren.

We stopped at a supermarket and picked up the essentials such as wine, cheese and beer and grabbed a pizza from the bakery. The best thing about the apartment was the view from just across the road. There’s a gorgeous terrace overlooking half of Gozo, so we sat with our legs dangling over the wall eating our pizza.

It was still a lovely warm evening so we walked over to Ta’Kenuna Tower, originally built by the British in 1848 as a telegram tower, it is now used as a lighthouse. The views here were stunning, I love the Maltese countryside, all hilltop towns and fields.

We spent the rest of the evening drinking tasty red wine on the terrace watching the sunset, before retiring to our room to snack on cheese and bread. Malta is famous for it’s sheep cheese, particularly ones studded with peppercorns.

The next day we got up early, breakfast was continental with lovely fresh bread delivered to our door, homemade jam and cheese. We were going to rent bikes, the owner had said she’d sort some for us but in the end we were happy she didn’t. It’s a really hilly island and in the heat we think it would get a little annoying after a while.

So off we went to walk around the island, we walked down to Ramla bay a beach that’s covered in red sand, but we were in adventure mode, not beach mode so we climbed up the cliffs on the left hand side to explore an abandoned mansion. There are caves on the right hand side of the beach to explore too.

There’s meant to be some caves up past the mansion too, but they were closed when we walked past, there was a cool natural platform to look out over the bay from though. From here it took us around 45 minutes to walk down into Xaghra, the next town. There are buses that are usually every hour to take you between each town, but we enjoy the walking.

Xaghra is home to Ggantija, one of the world’s oldest monuments, much older than the pyramids! They were built during the Neolithic period and are over 5500 years old. It was pretty amazing that they’re still standing and the buildings themselves were really impressive, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and there’s a small museum where you can learn a little more.

There’s an old windmill nearby which, although not a must see place was fun to look around and cheap to go in. You can climb up to the top and enjoy the views, and each room has a little info about what life in the 1700s was like in Gozo. We stopped at the square for a slice of cake and a beer while we planned our next move.

Craig wanted to check out St John Baptist Church across the valley in Xewkija, unfortunately we had just missed the bus, so we decided to walk over again, it took just under an hour and we passed some lovely golden corn fields, an interesting cemetery before we got to the church.

It’s one of the largest buildings on the island and it dominates the skyline, the inside was really beautiful with marble floors and gorgeous paintings. You can go right up to the rooftop and even climb the steps up to the bell tower. I got to the top and marvelled at how far I could see, and even the view of the church was wonderful.

After so much walking we were finally ready for beach time, so we jumped on a bus from Xewkija which took us all the way to Ramla bay! We got some tasty orange juice and found a spot on the beach. I had been carrying a little picnic around in a cooler, we demolished the cheese and bread we’d brought.

After a couple of beers and a dip in the beautifully clear but cold waters (it warms up later in the Summer, we visited in May) it was time to leave before the sun set, I got an amazing ice cream from one of the little shops that line the path from the beach. The queue for the bus was quite big but we were one of the first stops, I just imagine in Summer it could be pretty crazy.

Our night was spent in a little bar watching the football, with cheap tasty pizza and even cheaper tasty beer! The people working there were so friendly, making sure the right football was on and moving people if they stood in our way!

We couldn’t wait to explore more of Gozo, and even after two days we were already enamoured with the whole place.

Greek Islands – Corfu

Although we had flown into Corfu, we literally just stayed the night there before taking the ferry to Albania, now we were returning from Albania and had a couple of nights here. It was March but the sky was clear and it was around 18°c.

After the ferry dropped us off we took a taxi to Mayor Mon Repos, our hotel. It’s a lovely hotel for the price, we even got a glass of champagne on arrival!

Once we had unpacked and settled down for a bit, off we went to explore. There’s a lovely old windmill right by the hotel, and beautiful beaches with the clearest water.

You can see Corfu fortress from the hotel, so we walked around the bay, trying to spot fish in the water and enjoying the little parks. It’s a beautiful walk and one I would definitely recommend.

Passing the Douglas column we walked up to the monument of Kapodistrias, the founder of the modern Greek state who was born here.

This leads to a gorgeous plaza, with restaurants, statues and a lovely green space. This plaza is right next to the Old Fortress, so we crossed the bridge and entered.

It was built by the Venetians in the early 15th century, who also created the sea channel, turning it into an artificial island. There’s a lot of history here, from the repulsion of 3 major Ottoman sieges, to the Italian siege of Corfu and it was even used in the James Bond film, ‘For Your Eyes Only’.

It’s an amazing place, built on two extremely steep hills, you’re free to wander at your own leisure after paying 6E. There’s not too much remaining but the views are incredible.

Unfortunately you can’t make your way to the top of the hills but there are enough ruins to explore around the main fortress.

From here we headed over to Faliraki, a little peninsula with a cool view of the Old Fortress. The museum of Asian Art is also here, which is a beautiful old building.

We spent the rest of the day walking around the old town, it’s full of little squares and pretty streets. After stopping for a pint of Mythos, the locally brewed beer, we found our way to Corfu’s new fortress.

I think by the time we got there it had closed, as it’s only open until 15:30pm. So we walked back through the lovely streets of the old town to the hotel, where we enjoyed a bottle of Albanian wine we had brought back with us as we watched the sun set.

Dinner was amazing, we walked over the street to Nautilus, where we ate the most amazing seafood platter. The venue is lovely, right on the water with the lights of Corfu across the bay.

The next day I woke up early, and looking out from the balcony, was rewarded for it! The sunrise from the mainland was incredible.

Today we decided to head South, towards Vlacherna Monastery. Google maps said it would only take about 30 minutes but there were a few places along the way we could stop at.

The weather was beautiful as we wandered off, our first stop was Mon Repos palace. Prince Phillip was born here before his family was exiled from Greece.

The palace isn’t actually too big, but the park leading up to it is stunning. With a terrace overlooking the Ionian sea.

Walking along the street, I did my usual trick of using Google maps to find interesting places. That’s how we found ourselves at the monastery of St Theodore and the Temple of Artemis.

The monastery is one of the oldest on the Island, with part of the building from the 5th century. The temple of Artemis ruins date all the way back to 580BC!

Finally we reached the Vlacherna Monastery. It was so beautiful on it’s own little island. The only way to reach it is across the man made pier, but you can wander around at your leisure, there’s even a few nice cafes with outdoor seating here.

The best surprise however was the plane spotting viewpoint! It was a lot of fun standing out on the stone wall with planes flying soooo close. A great photo opportunity too!

There’s also a beach here, it was a little too cold for more than a paddle in March but I’m sure in summer it would be amazing.

After all the walking it was time for a beer, so we trekked up the hill to Kanoni Cafe. The views from here are outstanding!

Instead of walking back we took the bus, it was really easy, picking us up right by the monastery car park and taking us all the way to the Old Town.

From here we just did some more exploring, finding great views of the imposing New Fortress and lovely little stone streets. Obviously we stopped for gelato and another beer.

It was time to head back after an awesome adventure over the last few days. Corfu surprised me as I always had it down as a package holiday type place, but it has so much more to offer.

A Trip to Toledo.

Toledo is a City in Spain about a 45minute train journey South of the countries capital, Madrid. One of it’s earliest mentions is from 193BC by a Roman general, so it’s pretty old! It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site and has cultural influences from Christians, Jews, and Muslims as well as Roman and Visigoth.

Although Madrid is a cool City, we wanted a bit of medieval history and I thought Toledo looked like a great place to take a day trip to. So after having Breakfast at Plenti, a cute little place not far from our hotel.

We walked over to the train station and got our tickets. It was a little pricey as we were taking the tourist train. I’ve since heard you can get the tickets for much cheaper, especially if you plan ahead. Make sure you check out the lovely tropical garden in the oldest part of the station.

The train journey was pleasant as we passed through the dry Spanish countryside, and as soon as we arrived I knew we were going to love it in Toledo! The station opened in 1920 and was designed to imitate the architecture of the City, it was gorgeous and the tiling inside was so pretty.

The walk up to the walled City isn’t too taxing, and the first sight you get is magnificent, Toledo has a river running alongside it, so you see the bridge over to this walled Citadel and a huge palace sat at the top.

After taking a few pictures we ran up to the bridge and crossed, passing underneath a gatehouse. It’s a little bit of a steep walk up but you can stop and take a look back from a huge terrace halfway up.

We carried on and after passing a statue of a very dapper looking gent, we found ourselves on Zocodover plaza, we picked one of the many streets ahead of us and started our exploration.

The shops are filled with medieval antiques, classic spanish food and wine and a lot of souvenirs. Our favourite street was Calle Comercio because of the view down to the cathedral.

Along the way we even found a shop that had roman ruins in it’s basement that you could look at for free beneath a glass floor! The walled area of Toledo isn’t too big so it’s easy to wander without fear of getting lost, which is exactly what we did.

We soon found ourselves at the Monastery of Santo Domingo Real, built and run by Nuns since 1364. It’s a beautiful building with the interior to match.

Our only problem so far was that every church or monastery wanted to charge a pretty large fee to enter, we wanted to climb up the belltower of one church but it was over 10E, I don’t mind donations but charging to enter a church is a bit much.

After reaching the Puerta del Sol or ‘South Gate’ we turned back to stay inside the City walls, following a street along to more panoramic views of the countryside and the river.

Turning into the City we decided to head towards the huge tower that is Toledo Cathedral. Work on the cathedral began in 1226 and it wasn’t completed until 1493! It’s a huge building and very grand with it’s gothic architecture.

It’s so big you almost can’t get it all in to one picture it’s said to be this size to cover the sacred space that the old mosque held before it. It was nice to sit and gawk at it in the square at the front, with it’s majestic stained glass windows and 146ft height! It was early afternoon at this point and we were hungry.

So we found a cute little restaurant off the main streets in a small plaza. We shared a beautiful vegetable paella, olives and a a couple of glasses of Spanish Rioja, the sun was shining and it was a perfect lunch. Obviously we had to finish it off with some churros, the famous spanish elongated donuts with choc sauce.

Once we were finished it was time to check out the Alcazar of Toledo, built up on the highest part of Toledo you can see it from miles around. There was originally a Roman fortification built here in the 3rd century but much of the Alcazar was destroyed in the Spanish Civil war and had to be rebuilt between 1939 and 1957.

The Alcazar is impressive, but we loved the little park just beneath it, where you can stand on the turrets and look out across the valley to the military academy on the opposite hill.

Honestly the views are incredible and it was sad to say goodbye to them, but we didn’t want to get back into Madrid too late as we were checking out one of the art galleries it’s famous for.

On our way back down we noticed a cute little marzipan shop and decided to have a look inside. The lady that worked there was wonderful and let us try a few things, they were so delicious we had to buy some sweets and marzipan ice cream, yum! Once we reached the other side of the river we realised we still had 40 minutes or so till our train, so we took a little stroll along the river bank.

It was nice to get another angle of the City, and there was a cool abandoned building on bank which looked like an old mill house. We slowly wandered back under the bridge and down to the station, on our way we found a fun Toledo sign to take a pic of.

I’m sure there are a few things we missed out on seeing in Toledo, but half the fun is exploring without using a guide or map and seeing what you discover.

It’s so old, Craig loved it as there aren’t any buildings like those in Australia. The train back was nice and relaxing after a full day of walking and we both ended up having a little power nap before arriving back in Madrid.

The Silent City of Mdina, Malta

After exploring much of Valletta, we decided to take a trip over to Mdina, a historic fortified City in Malta. Mdina was founded in the 8th century by the Phoenicians, and served as the capital of Malta until 1530. There are only 300 inhabitants inside the city walls, it’s seen Roman, Byzantine and Arab rulers come and go and still stands today.

I had read that the bus system on Malta was really good, so we decided to travel that way.It would take us two buses to get there and after possibly the worst buffet breakfast I’ve ever seen, we were off! We were staying in Sliema just over the water from Valletta and luckily could take a bus from right outside our hotel!

The first bus took us to Tad-Daqqaq, only when we tried to catch the next bus, it was full and drove right past us! Not to be deterred we tried another bus stop and had the same problem and again and again. Luckily we spotted this amazing looking church at the end of the street we were waiting on and decided to go check it out. Lucky we did as it started to pour down with rain!

We just made it and found out the church was the Mosta Rotunda, a beautiful 17th century church set in a lovely square with cute shops and restaurants around it. Upon entering we found out an amazing story of a WW2 bomb that came through the roof of the church but didn’t explode! You can see a replica of the bomb in a small museum at the back of the building.

The inside was really pretty too, and there’s a small air raid shelter you can check out just in front of the main entranceway. After looking around the rain had stopped and the sun started to come out, after waiting for another two buses that were both full we decided to walk to Mdina as it was only an hour away.

The countryside was beautiful to walk through and the roads weren’t very busy so it felt pretty safe, and then Mdina came into view and it was breath taking. Sat up on a plateau, the walls are made of a lovely honey colour brick. It was a bit of a slog up the steep hill to Mdina, but it’s even more spectacular up close.

We entered through Mdina gate and were immediately on architecture and travel heaven. There are cute churches, alleyways and squares to discover, along with amazing old doorways and steps.

The views from the terrace by Fontanella tea rooms are gorgeous. We were going to stop and have a drink there but it was pretty busy. So we carried on wandering and found this amazing place called Coogis.

We were sat in the courtyard, looking around thinking how pretty it was when the waiter came over and asked if we’d rather sit on the rooftop. Of course we jumped at the chance, it was super pretty up there and we enjoyed a nice Cisk, the tasty local lager while we marvelled at the countryside spread out before us. We had some salad and pizza which was really good.

Nice and satisfied we headed outside of the walls and into Rabat, the surrounding town. I had read about some cute churches and the possibility of ancient Roman catacombs and in the parish church of St Pauls we found both! The actual church is a beautiful building and the little old lady working there who showed us to the catacombs was so lovely.

We got to go down there by ourselves and even though it was spooky it was so cool, I think there are larger ones nearby but we were happy with our cute little one. So it was time to leave, it had been so much fun and luckily this time the bus would take us all the way to Valletta. In Valletta we stopped off at one of the many bars that you can find on the stairways and had a drink. Then it was time to say goodbye!

We got the taxi-boat across to Sliema and grabbed a couple of huge slices of pizza, following it up with our daily dose of gelato. We finished the day sat on our little balcony at the bayview hotel, drinking Cisk and reflecting on Malta being the perfect holiday destination.

A Kiek in De Kok and Dark Tourism in Tallinn.

So today there were more than a few sore heads this morning, I needed food, so a few of us managed to drag ourselves up and out. I had heard of a pancake place called Kompressor and it did not disappoint!

We ordered potato balls, cheese balls to share and pancakes, check out the menu here. It was delicious, the garlic sauce that came with the snacks was amazing, and the pancakes were soooo tasty, just what we needed! Plus the price was so cheap!

Feeling partly refreshed, we were back on the sightseeing game. It was time to visit Kiek in de Kok, the artillery tower from 1475 with the amazing name. The name comes from early German, due to the ability to see into people’s kitchens from these tall towers. I think we must’ve said the name about 1000 times between us all.

The actual tower is impressive, the walls are 4m thick and you can spot cannon balls dating from 1577 stuck in the outer walls! Inside is a museum with some really cool features, lots of interactive moments including a medieval torture device you can test out! You can do a bit of dress up, and the views from the upper floors are immense, especially out of Toompea hill and the cathedral.

After stopping for a coffee we met up with the final members of the group, there’s a cute little train you can take around the town for those that don’t want to walk too much, very handy for a hangover. We checked out the Kalev Marzipan Museum, a very random shop selling every conceivable item made out of marzipan. It’s worth a little wander around and a fun gift for someone back home. They use molds that are around a hundred years old, and claim that Estonia were the inventors of the sweet candy treat!

Our next destination was quite the opposite of a sweet treat, we were heading to the Museum of Occupations and Freedom, I love learning about a countries history and I think it’s important to know what it’s citizens have been through till this point. It was really interesting learning about the occupation and resistance in Estonia. I will always love the story of the Baltic chain, when 2 million people held hands to form a line from Tallinn all the way to Vilnius in Lithuania as an act of peaceful protest against Soviet rule. Read more about it here.

Our last stop was the old KGB prison cells, at only 5 euros it’s small but very interesting and you really get an understanding of the horrors and suspicions that people faced everyday. It had a pretty creepy vibe too, it’s a top destination to visit for dark tourism, and I always find places like this really eye opening.

After this we went for dinner at a bad curry house, but sometimes you make wrong choices hungover! Everyone was up early the next day to travel onwards so after a little night time walk around Snelli park it was time to chill in the apartment together. Snelli park was actually really pretty, the water was all frozen over and couples were taking romantic walks along the banks. Plus the sight of the old castle and buildings up on Toompea was amazing, unfortunately my phone battery had died so I couldn’t take any pics.

The next day I was taking the star ferry over to Helsinki to spend a few days there, while everyone else took the bus to Riga to fly home. The report back that I got of the bus was really positive! Comfy seats, air con and in-seat entertainment for free! The ferry was really easy too, I bought my ticket at the terminal on the day and it was amazing travelling across the Tallinn bay and the gulf of Finland with ice blocks floating past. Apparently the Blatic has a really low salinity so it freezes over much more than other bodies of saltwater.

A Winter Wonderland in Tallinn.

Tallinn had always been high on my list of places to visit. Somehow I had made it to the other Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania first, mainly because they were both easier to get to.

It’s is the capital of Estonia, it’s located on the North coast directly across the gulf of Finland from Helsinki. It has a rich history, and was occupied between 1940-1991 by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union again!

52% of the country is covered in forest, and it has one of the lowest populations in Europe at 1.325million.

To reach Estonia we took a flight to Riga and then on to Tallinn from there. It was actually pretty easy and fun because we met up with our friend Amy in Riga airport. It was January so we were hoping for snow and we weren’t disappointed.

We arrived quite late and took a taxi to our cute apartment located right by the old walls of the City. I used Booking.com and we used daily apartments for 7 of us. It was a beautiful space and great location. After a quick change we headed out for dinner.

We ate at a traditional Estonian place where I tried Elk for the first time! It was pretty good and we had a couple of local beers to wash it down, after another beer or two at a nearby pub we walked through the winter wonderland that was the town square with a huge Christmas tree in the center and everything was covered in snow. There’s a big Irish bar situated here and we took the opportunity to try Vana Tallinn, the Cities own personal liquer!

The next day we got up and headed out to explore properly. It’s such a pretty place and the whole old town is UNESCO heritage, we wandered along the old town walls and through a lovely big park at Tower’s square. We stopped at some cute shops along the way and emerged into the town square again.

The town hall is so cute, it was completed in 1404 and is the oldest in the Baltic/Scandinavian region. I loved all the Gothic and Hanseatic architecture, it feels like you’ve gone back in time hundreds of years.

We walked down Viru Tanav which is pretty touristy but not overly busy. It ends at Viru gate, two big towers guarding the way in and out. For €3 you can climb the walls and explore, the views from here of the tiled rooftops covered in snow was amazing.

Tallinn is a great place to wander the little streets and get lost, and that’s just what we did. It felt like a really safe place too. We somehow ended up back in the main square and stopped at another traditional restaurant for lunch, it was pretty expensive so do some research before you go.

Once we were all filled up we decided to head up Toompea hill. It’s a large tableland piece of limestone that sits right in the middle of the City. It’s believed to be the resting place of King Kalev, an important figure in Estonian culture and folklore. Now it holds Toompea castle and the awesome Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, it also houses the Estonian Parliament.

It’s a fun walk up the hill and not too taxing, and once you’re at the top the Cathedral takes centre stage, big and imposing it feels like it sits right in the middle of the hill. It was starting to get dark already due to the time of year and the temperature dropped a bit, luckily we found someone selling mulled wine which was delicious.

There are some gorgeous buildings here, but the main event for me was thge Kohtuotsa viewing platform. This looks out over the whole of the old town, and as night fell twinkling lights began to appear in front of us and it began to snow. It was an amazing spectacle to witness.

We followed a different path down into the town and passed Kiek De Kok which we’d be heading to tomorrow, and freedom square. Freedom square is a big open space which has the cross of liberty as part of Estonia’s memorial to the war of independence.

After a lot of sightseeing we stopped at a bar we noticed along the way, it was called Labor Baar and was totally science themed, you could order test tube shots and cocktails in science beakers and the whole placed was decked out to the max. We stopped to have some food and then walked up to a fun bar that was completely dedicated to Depeche Mode.

After a few beers we realised we didn’t know as many songs as we thought, so off we went to Satumaa karaoke bar! It was a lot of fun and everyone was pretty crazy there, we sang a few songs and somehow managed to wander back to our apartment feeling pretty tipsy.

48 hours in Kiev, Day 2.

Kiev is such a vast City, the day before I had done a good job of walking around a lot of it, but I still had so much more to see. Read about Day 1 in Kiev

I began the day by walking toward Khreschatyk Street, the main street in Kiev, on my way I passed this beautiful old wooden gate called the Golden Gate, it’s a replica of the original gateway built in the 11th century.

The square it’s located in was also really nice, I got a coffee from a vendor to wake up a little and sat watching the world go by while I enjoyed it. I decided to go into the gate, it only cost 50p and it had lots of history info inside, but the views from the top, looking out over the City made it really worth it.

Afterwards I walked over to St Sophia’s Cathedral, an Orthodox church founded in 1037. It’s an absolutely beautiful building with amazing turrets covered in green and gold.

Entry was super cheap and it was just as lovely inside as out, make sure you climb the bell tower! From here you can walk around the cute Sophia Square, make sure you check out the Bohdan Khmelnytsky Monument, dedicated to the man who led a revolt against the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom in 1648.

Directly across the square is another amazing religious building, St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. Originally built between 1108 and 1113 it was demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s but rebuilt in 1999 following Ukrainian independance.

It’s free to go inside, look out for the statue of archangel michael and the refectory. Also just watch out for people trying to dress you up and hold animals for pictures, in the square they were pretty aggressive to some tourists. Just be firm from the get go if you don’t want a picture.

On my way to the next sight, I passed another Monument to the victims of famine in 1933 and a monument to Princess Olga who acted as a regent for her son between 945 and 960ad.

This area was really pretty with some gorgeous looking buildings. I was heading towards the National History Museum of Ukraine but I got a little side tracked at a booze festival in the Arthall D12 building. It was incredible, I had some mulled wine and tried a couple of local beers, it was really interesting wandering around and checking out the different stalls. I even tried these garlicky blue cheese snails!

Feeling a little tipsy I finally headed over to the Museum and learned a bit more about the Crimean annexation by Russia and a little bit more of the history between the two countries.

It was certainly an eye opener and there was also loads of information about Ukraine’s history. There’s a cute little Tithe Church in the same square as the museum and you get some great views of another big orthodox place, St Andrew’s Church.

I honestly don’t think I would get bored of looking at these, the architecture is amazing.

If you want souvenirs then walk down Andriivs’kyi descent, it’s filled with hawkers selling all sorts of local wares, stop for a coffee and enjoy the vibe. I was pretty hungry so I wandered past Kontraktova Square and the Monument Petra Sagaidachnogo and found myself on a street of the same name.

There were loads of restaurants to choose from but I ended up in Star Burger and it was so tasty. I got the bacon cheddar with fries and coleslaw, delicious!

Powered up I went to explore the Ukrainian Chernobyl Museum to learn a little more about the nuclear disaster before heading there myself the next day, you can read all about that adventure here.

There’s a huge monument to Volodymyr the Great who brought christianity to Ukraine and solidified it as an empire by 980ad back past the Star Burger, and you can wander around Volodymyr Hill one of many green spaces in the City. I did a little wandering around before taking the funicular back up the hill.

It was getting towards evening at this point, so I wandered back towards the national museum and checked out the Park Landscape Alley and Peizazhna Alley to look at some random quirky pieces of art, the missile half buried was a particular highlight! I found some cool pieces of street art around this area too, and loads of cool bars.

So I picked one and spent a couple of hours watching the football and chatting to the locals about current events in Kiev which was awesome. They even pushed me to try pigs ear after I told them my horror story of trying it in Lithuania and it was delicious, it was everything I thought it was going to be the first time.

It was getting late now, and I had to be up really early for my Chernobyl tour, so I half walked half staggered back to my hotel, stopping off at Veterano pizza again before going past the Red House on the way through Taras Shevchenko Park.

Kiev has truly been a complete surprise at how much I’ve loved it, there is so much to see and do and such a rich history. The architecture is unreal, the food and drink good and the people are really open and friendly. There is loads more I saw and did that I can’t even fit into the blog posts, so many cool statues and monuments, parks and the underground/tram systems are cool too.

Albania and the climb to Gjirokaster.

We took the ferry from Corfu over to Sarande in Albania. Albania isn’t high on a lot of people’s lists but it’s starting to make waves as an alternative to the ever popular Croatia.

Sarande is part of the Albanian Riviera along the Ionian sea, and known for white stretches of beach and turquoise waters.

I was excited to see these beaches for myself and experience a new country however on arrival it started to rain! We visited in late march so knew the weather may be against us, so after a little wander around Sarande we stopped and had brunch along the promenade.

Sarande is a small town, the beach is rocky and there’s only a few things to do, such as the old synagogue ruins, the promenade and Lekuresi castle on the hill overlooking the town, though it’s been turned into restaurant now.

Because of the rain and lack of sights we had to think outside of the box, and decided to visit Gjirokaster.

Gjirokaster old town is a UNESCO world heritage sight, dates back to 1336 as part of the Byzantine empire and has a magnificent fortress overlooking the town.

We walked over to the bus station in Sarande and bought a ticket from the office there before being pointed in the right direction to the bus. Buses leave every 30 minutes to an hour and it cost around €3.50.

The bus journey was amazing as we climbed up into the mountains and were rewarded with amazing views of the countryside. We crossed raging rivers and through beautiful flat plains as we approached Gjirokaster. Surrounded on both sides by looming mountains.

The bus took around an hour and 15 mins and drops you off at the main road, so we started our walk with our backpacks in the drizzly rain. It gave the whole place a mysterious vibe with the low clouds.

The first 10-15 minutes aren’t so impressive, but you soon find yourself on windy cobbled streets with beautiful stone buildings lining the road.

We reached the fortress and loved the views over the old town rooftops. The fortress itself costs £1.50 per ticket and houses some interesting statues, a tank and an old plane. A lot of it is in ruin but the main building is still impressive.

After wandering around the fortress and the old town a little more we checked out some cute historical buildings as we descended back down to the main town.

We got some amazing cake and traditional byrek from a little bakery to dry off and recharge. Byrek is a flaky pastry filled with cheese or meat. Even with all the walking Mum was having a great time exploring with me!

We took the bus back with no issues, and arrived back in Sarande in the early evening. We decided to walk along the main road and take a bus to Ksamil, where we would be staying. Unfortunately the bus didn’t turn up, I’m not sure if we got our timings wrong or if it just didn’t run in that hour.

Instead we stopped at a restaurant and had an amazing Albanian red wine and looked out over the bay. We took a taxi to our hotel, which took about 25 minutes and I think we were the only ones staying there! Two older Albanian men greeted us and proceeded to give us a lot of home brewed raki.

Needless to say we got a little tipsy from this, it was a funny experience as neither men spoke much English and we spoke no Albanian. They then drove us to a little kebab place where we ate tasty Greek salad and chips. Funnily enough we were soon sound asleep back at the hotel and looking forward to the next adventure!

48 Hours in Minsk.

Entry to Belarus

Belarus is the forgotten child of Europe, more closely linked with Russia than any other nation, it’s only recently changed the rules for entry. When I visited I had just started applying for the visa, but stopped after they allowed 30 days entry through Minsk airport.

I flew through Vilnius in Lithuania as I couldn’t find any direct flights from the UK to Minsk, and my plan was to take a train to the Ukrainian City of Lviv. Unfortunately I didn’t read the fine print, which stated you had to leave through Minsk airport!

After a 3 hour train journey to the border, I was taken off the train and given a stern telling off and questioned by Belarusian border guards, made to sleep in an abandoned train overnight and shipped back to Minsk where I had to book a flight out to Kiev. I was lucky that one of the guards seemed to feel sorry for me, and came and got me in the morning before giving me instructions on how to get back to Minsk.

Belarus

While this was all a big hassle and meant I missed out on visiting Lviv it was certainly an adventure! I also really enjoyed my time in Minsk, it was such a different place to anywhere I had ever been before and I found it quite charming.

Located as far East in Europe as you can get before hitting Russia. Belarus shares a border with Poland and Ukraine and is the 13th largest country in Europe. 40% of it’s area is forested, making it one of the greenest countries in Europe. I had 48 hours to explore Minsk, the capital. A City that has reportedly been destroyed and rebuilt 8 times!

Minsk

I was visiting in November so it was pretty cold, but i was hoping for some snow to add to the beauty of the place. I arrived mid-afternoon and took a bus from the airport to the City centre which was around 45 minutes.

I decided to walk in the cold evening air to my hotel and enjoy some sights.I was staying at the Yubileiny Hotel which was near to a few of the things I wanted to see. It was very soviet, much like a lot of the City and a little old fashioned, but it was cheap, comfy and staff were very friendly.

My Top Sights

Number one on my list was the Museum of the Great Patriotic War otherwise known as WWII. We get a lot of Western history around the war, but I always fin dit interesting to see what happened in other parts of Europe and the World and the fact that they call it a completely different name intrigued me. So this was the first sight I wanted to look at. It’s also hard to miss, located on a hill in a huge green slice of land called Victory Park.

It’s amazing architecturally looking very modern but also with a hint of soviet in there. I had a wander around the park and then found an amazing statue of a soldier and his wife. It really spoke to me and I thought it was beautiful.

The museum itself is so interesting, loads of good information and everything had English alongside the Belarusian. The final memorial hall is also a must see, towering above you it’s a truly stunning place.

The next place on my itinerary was Minsk Old Town on Trinity Hill. I followed the river South for about 1km and had great views across to the cute traditional houses. Don’t forget to stop at the small island in front and check out the awe inspiring Sons of the Fatherland monument and the crying angel statue.

The old town has a few traditional shops and the cobbled street and pastel houses are nice to see. This area was actually built in the 1980s to show visitors a small slice of old Minsk as over 80% of the City was destroyed in WWII.

Crossing the river takes you over to more of the old town, with a cool statue of citizens using measuring scales, with a beautiful church in the background with it’s distinctive Eastern orthodox architecture.

In fact Minsk seemed to have hundreds of amazing statues dotted across the City. You can also find the Palace of the Republic here with it’s dominating architecture and the Palace of Culture.

I continued my journey down Praspiekt Niezalieznasci to the Belarusian State Circus, another grand old soviet building, you can come here to watch some interesting acts. Though I’m not sure what the animal welfare situation is like so I chose not to go to a show. There are a couple of funny statues just outside too, and Janki Kupaly Park is just across the road. I love how every park has to have some sort of statue mounted in it.

I decided to check out Gorky Park as well, which was just a little further up the road and across the river. There are so many green spaces in the City it’s brilliant, this one is home to an old fashioned ferris wheel and the planetarium.

It was a cold day and suddenly little snowflakes started falling as I walked through the park. It was beautiful so I sat for a moment to enjoy the scenery.

I also realised that Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assasinated John F Kennedy had lived right around the corner from here, so I had to go check it out. I walked around the apartment block but couldn’t really find or see any evidence that he lived there but it’s a cool slice of history hidden away here.

I stopped at the National Art Museum to check out a exhibition on Lenin, the former head of Soviet russia and a revolutionary. This was interesting and apparently there are over 400 Lenin statues in Belarus alone. I love the soviet imagery, it’s so grand and imposing. The City really started to come alive as the sun went down and I headed back out into the streets.

I walked back towards the old town and stopped off at the State Opera house, I tried to buy a ticket but unfortunately the show for that night had sold out so get there early to buy your tickets.

I watched the sunset behind the little houses of the old town and walked back towards Praspiekt Niezalieznasci and Oktoberpl station, nearby is a little pyramid which shows the true centre of Minsk that all roads in Belarus lead to called Kilometre zero.

I walked straight down the street, passing lots of restaurants and shops to see the statue of the Archangel Michael, and a monument to the victims of nuclear war. Further down however was the main reason I wanted to walk all this way.

The statue of Lenin surrounded by these huge domineering communist era buildings. It was all very imposing and I visited in the day time too so I could get the contrast.

My last stop were the Gates of Minsk these resemble two castle towers. I had read that it was impressive at night and it certainly was, the towers are 11 storeys high and the clock weighs 300 kilos! They were built in 1953 at the height of soviet imperialism. I thought it was ironic that there is now a Mcdonald right next to it.

The Statues and monuments in Minsk are really cool, because of my border debacle I had to come back to Minsk and felt like I had seen a lot. So after a quick google I found this website http://tobelarus.com/minsk/64-sculptures.html and decided to do my own little tour. It was really fun and walking around I got to see a lot more of the City and the bas-reliefs are really impressive the best one can be found on Niamiha St.

I really enjoyed Minsk, I hope with the new tourist visas more people opt to come and explore this underrated City.