Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A day amongst Roman ruins at Italica

The idea of taking a day trip out of Seville may sound ludicrous... at first. After all, after spending just five minutes in the city, I knew that my mum and I would have a jam-packed itinerary waiting for us.

Cathedrals, churches, museums, tapas bars, villas and gardens; with so much to do and see, why would we ever want to leave Seville with its wealth of attractions and other temptations?

The answer: Italica.

This isn't just any old day trip and, once the lovely man at the tourist office hinted at just how amazing this destination is, we couldn't pass up on the opportunity.

Luckily, Italica is located only 9 km from Seville, in the city of Santiponce. There are regular bus services here (although these are much more irregular on Sundays and public holidays) from Seville's Plaza de Armas bus station.

So I've confirmed that we caved into the temptation to see the place, but what is Italica? 

Italica was once a grand Roman city, founded in the south of Spain by Scipio Africanus in 206 BC. Although it may not be as well known as Roman ruins found elsewhere in Europe, by the end of our day there, I was convinced that Italica is one of the best preserved Roman cities I've visited so far.


Italica
The entryway of Italica, the Roman city.

And don't be fooled by the modest entrance, either - this is the birthplace of Roman emperors. Indeed, Trajan was born in Italica in 53 AD and, accordingly, visitors to Italica should be prepared to see displays of ancient grandeur.

Admission is free for EU citizens (remember to bring proof), and costs 1.50 euros for everyone else.

Once through the gates, all paths seemed to force us straight ahead, where we could just make out a mass in the distance.


Roman amphitheatre, Italica

This would turn out to be the structure that Italica was most famous for - both in the Roman times and now.

Although much of it lies in ruin now, with walls eroded by time and steps that have almost completely disappeared, the sheer scale of Italica's amphitheatre instantly gave us insight into how spectators (and gladiators) must have felt when seeing it for the first time.


Inside the Roman amphitheatre, Italica
Italica's amphitheatre in all its glory.

Inside the Roman amphitheatre, Italica
Inside the arena (thankfully, not as a participant of the ancient competitions once carried out here!)

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The countdown to BlogStock 2015

Can you believe that it's already June?! I feel like the months of this year have just zipped by so it's almost with disbelief that I admit that one of my favourite blogging events is just around the corner.

Now, we all know that there are plenty of blogger conferences out there. While I try to attend as many of the UK-based ones as I can, the blogging event covered in this post is extremely unique.

Why? Because BlogStock is a blogging FESTIVAL.

From 4-6 September, bloggers will be assembling at Aldenham Country Park in Elstree for workshops, panel sessions and talks organised by the same team behind Traverse.

I attended the first BlogStock last year, and I can't wait to see what's in store for 2015's festival.

A snapshot of BlogStock's festival vibe.

And, if you haven't bought a ticket yet, I have some excellent news.

Readers of Lines of Escape will get a 15% discount when buying BlogStock tickets. All you have to do is pop in this code - LOE15 - before purchasing. 

If you're still on the fence about BlogStock, you can read about my experience there last year. If that's *still* not enough, here are my top five reasons to attend this year's festival.

1. It's a FESTIVAL

On the agenda... Image by Macca Sherifi.

I know, broken record, right?

But I can't overemphasise the point. I mean, I love conferences, but, after a while, you're guaranteed to get a bit restless after sitting in a highly air-conditioned hall for an entire day.

At BlogStock, you get to be outdoors for most of the day, with tipis and marquees acting as the 'halls' for the talks.

When you're not in the 'halls', you're outside, listening to music and lounging about on a beanbag chair. All of the knowledge gained from a normal conference, but with all of the relaxed vibes and perks of a festival!

2. It's not just for travel bloggers

If there's one word that summed up BlogStock last year, it would be 'variety'.

The subject areas of the talks and workshops range from social media to inviting revenue to writing tips. Unlike many blogging events out there, BlogStock's talks are relevant to all bloggers, whether you're in travel, lifestyle, food or beauty.

2015's line-up looks set to replicate this aspect, with a wide range of speakers from all sorts of blogging disciplines.

3. Interactive and dynamic

One of the tipi sessions at BlogStock '14. Image by Macca Sherifi.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Why Belfast needs to be your next city break

When Chris and I were trying to pick a destination for a last-minute city break, I can't say that Belfast immediately sprang to mind. To be fair, I felt like going on a city break abroad, and Belfast simply felt too close given that it was still in the UK.

Thankfully, the cheap flights found through Skyscanner and a bit of initial research helped change my mind.

After additional reading and the habitual perusing of travel blogs, I soon got into a state of embarrassing travel excitement, as I knew that we were in for a few action-packed days.

And this all turned out to be true. Belfast provided one of the most memorable, varied and fun city breaks we've ever been on.

Since good travel karma is important, it's now up to me to convince you that Belfast needs to be YOUR next city break too.

It may sound cocky, but I don't think I'll have a tough time persuading you.

Be impressed at City Hall

There are many impressive buildings and attractions in Belfast (some of which I detail below), but it feels right to start with the first one that we came across: Belfast's City Hall.

City Hall, Belfast
Belfast's grand City Hall.

Built in 1906 on the site of a linen exchange hall, the City Hall assumes a proud position in the centre of Belfast. The grand building looms over the park surrounding it, which was filled with workers enjoying their lunch at the time of our visit.

If looking at the exterior isn't enough, you can take a free guided tour of City Hall from Monday to Friday (at 11am, 2pm and 3pm) or Saturday (2pm and 3pm).

Three bits of trivia for you: 

1) Visit City Hall at night - it lights up, and effectively became our guiding landmark for finding our way back to the hostel every night. 

2) There's an almost-exact replica of Belfast's City Hall back in my home country of South Africa. You can find this in the coastal city of Durban.

3) The exterior is made out of Portland Stone, the same type of limestone you can see at Buckingham Palace and St Paul's Cathedral.

City Hall, Belfast

Step into the past at the Titanic Belfast Exhibition

The Titanic disaster of 1912 has been covered in numerous films, books and even in music. While some of these may stretch the facts, there's a place that tries to cover the full story of the ship - from the moment it was planned to the aftermath of its sinking.

And what could make more sense than having a permanent exhibition on the Titanic based in the city where it was built? 

Titanic Belfast
The eye-catching Titanic Belfast.

Titanic Belfast

Set within a shiny masterpiece of a building, the Titanic Belfast Exhibition pulls out all of the stops, including interactive displays, top-of-the-range technology and even an indoor cable car ride. You can also visit the site of the Titanic's shipyard, where it was assembled and launched.

The admission price may seem a little pricey at £15, but I can guarantee that a stop here is completely worthwhile.

Not convinced yet? Read about our Titanic Belfast visit.

Titanic Belfast
The shipyard where the Titanic was built.

Take a trip to the Giant's Causeway

Wait, isn't this post supposed to be about what's in Belfast?

Bear with me - this is a day trip you don't want to miss!

If you, like me, have had the Giant's Causeway on your bucket list for some time, then I'm very happy to report that Belfast is the best location for a day trip to the aforementioned natural wonder.


Giant's Causeway
Just one small glimpse of what awaits you at the Giant's Causeway.

There are many different day trip offers from competing operators, but most will include stops at a number of unique and beautiful coastal spots, such as Dunluce Castle, a rather scary bridge at Carrick-a-Rede, the Old Bushmills Distillery and, of course, the causeway itself.


Carrick-a-Rede
One of the other sights you'd see on a causeway day trip - Carrick-a-Rede.

Dunluce Castle
And Dunluce Castle.

Friday, 12 June 2015

An escape to the countryside at Polesden Lacey

It's summer, you're in London and you want to make the most of the sunny weather (before it inevitably changes once again). This is the moment when the idea of an escape to the countryside becomes particularly appealing.

Yes, you could go to London's staple for this, Richmond Park, but I think I've managed to stumble upon another amazing spot for a day trip from London.

Polesden Lacey.

Located near Dorking in Surrey, it's easy enough to get to Polesden Lacey via train, but we had an even simpler journey by driving there ourselves.

We arrived and, once we looked at the map of the grounds, we knew that we were in for something special. After all, the Polesden Lacey property spans a whopping 1,400 acres!

As with many other National Trust properties, the centrepiece is a house; in Polesden Lacey's case, it's a rather grand one at that.

There have actually been several houses on this site, with the first being built here all the way back in 1336. The current house was constructed in the 19th Century but was completely remodelled for its most noteworthy inhabitants, Ronald and Margaret Greville.

Our first sighting of the house was accompanied with the appropriate amount of jaw dropping and admiring looks. I mean, this sight totally justifies the reaction, right?


Polesden Lacey


Polesden Lacey
A different angle of the house, with fellow daytrippers at their leisure.

From the grounds to the house to even those rounded shrubs - every detail seemed intended and every detail seemed absolutely perfect. 

Wide and bright yellow, complete with its own mini observation tower, this Edwardian building still turns heads just as it did in its heyday.

And that was the intention; despite its grand, formal exterior, this was a party pad. When Ronald Greville passed away in 1908, Margaret set out to become one of the best hostesses of the time. Many important people passed through the front doors to experience luxurious hospitality. 

Indeed, even royalty. At the request of Mrs Greville, the future Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and George VI enjoyed their two-week honeymoon at Polesden Lacey.

All of this context made us keen to explore the interiors that were designed solely to impress.

As with most National Trust houses, much work has been put into trying to recreate the atmosphere - at least visually - of what the house may have been like in a certain period. In this case, it's the Edwardian era. 


Interiors of Polesden Lacey
Spacious corridors...

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

First impressions of Malta: A day in Valletta

After flying over open water for some time, Chris nudged me when the endless blue finally gave way to something else. 

Land!

Immediately feeling like some sailor who had been lost at sea, I squinted at the masses in the distance. We got closer and flew over one, two, three islands. Later, I would know that these were - in order - Gozo, Comino and Malta. But, even from all the way up here, the clear water of the bays seemed overwhelmingly inviting.

It was when our plane rounded the coast of Malta that we were close enough to see a cluster of peninsulas. Tiny, irregular and needlelike, I could see that these were heavily fortified by thick walls.

A day later, we got to visit the largest of these peninsulas - Valletta.

Before I get to what we did and saw within Malta's capital city, I'm sure you're wondering why this tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea needs such robust fortification?

Location (location, location). Perched midway between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, this stretch of land has been a strategically desirable one for hundreds of years. 

Make that thousands, as some of the world's oldest manmade structures can be found here. Indeed, Malta was inhabited as early as 5200 BC and the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Normans have all called this place home. In the 1500s, the Knights of Malta turned their attention to increasing the defense infrastructure of the islands - and these fortifications can still be found all over Malta and Gozo.

All of these former inhabitants left their mark on modern-day Malta - and it's this mix that made me fall (hopelessly, head over heels) in love with the country during my time there.

And the love affair began on day one, when we spent a full day discovering Valletta and its many treasures.


Triton Fountain, Valletta
The Triton Fountain just outside Valletta's main entry point.

Getting our bearings

When it comes to navigating Valletta, you'll need to leave some expectations at the City Gate. 

Capital cities are big, you say. Not this one! In fact, Valletta is one of the smallest capitals in the world, measuring a total of 600 metres by 1000 metres.

Malta may have been inhabited for thousands of years, but Valletta only came into being in the 16th Century. It was named after the Grand Master of the Order of St John (another name for the aforementioned knights), Jean Parisot de la Valette.

When it comes to planning a day's itinerary for Valletta, I know that there probably is enough to do to have a jampacked day, but that's not the approach we took. Instead, we decided to take our time wandering the city, set out in its grid-like pattern.

Nowadays, Valletta is a mix of old and new - and this can be seen from the moment you arrive. Unlike the traditional city gateways found elsewhere in Malta, Valletta's entrance is modern - a Renzo Piano design completed in 2014. 


Valletta City Gates
Valletta's City Gate.

The architect's influence has also extended to the new Parliament House, as well as the Royal Opera House. The latter is a unique entertainment venue, as it's formed out of the ruins of the grand opera house that once stood here but was subsequently destroyed by a German air raid in the 1940s.


The new Parliament House.


Standing on our own pedestal outside the Royal Opera House.

Beyond these contemporary, impressive buildings stretches Triq ir-Repubblika, Valletta's main thoroughfare. It's along here that we found the first of this city's major attractions.


St John's Co-Cathedral


On the day of our visit to Valletta, the small city was packed. Everywhere we looked, we could see large red banners hanging down between buildings. At intervals of every few hours, bells would ring all over the city.

We soon learned that Malta was busy commemorating the anniversary of the Great Siege of Malta, which took place in 1565. The Ottoman Empire unsuccessfully attempted to invade the islands and, in the aftermath, the victorious Knights of Malta turned their full attention to the creation of Valletta.





St John's Co-Cathedral
St John's Co-Cathedral.

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