Friday, 28 August 2015

A very Roman weekend at Hadrian's Wall

I have made no secret of the fact that I love anything to do with archaeology. Pair up this interest with the Roman era, and you'll have me travelling ridiculous distances for a chance to peer at some ruins.

So, when the opportunity to not only see Roman ruins but to simultaneously catch a glimpse of what living in this era would look like, I found myself preparing for a weekend up near Newcastle.

Newcastle is known for many things: the Geordie accent, the lack of winterwear even in the coldest conditions, architecture, amazing bridges and PLENTY of stag and hen dos. Apart from all of these noteworthy characteristics, the city also happens to be located near one of the most impressive structures of the ancient world.

Stretching over 117 km (73 miles) long, Hadrian's Wall was impressive in its own day. Stretching from one coast to the other, this was the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. And, as with any frontier, the main focus was defence.

Started in 122 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the wall had taken only six years to complete. And, during the weekend of our visit, English Heritage had planned a series of events that not only highlighted Hadrian's Wall but also provided a real look back at the people who had constructed it.

After a train journey from London, we met up with our group before heading straight to our first stop along Hadrian's Wall.


Chesters Roman Fort and Museum

I had actually visited the Wall a little more than a year previously. Chesters Fort had been one of the stops on that excursion but the conditions couldn't have been any more different.


Chesters Roman Fort ruins
Chesters Roman Fort... in the sunshine this time!

My first visit had occurred during the tail-end of winter and it was cold. This time, though, the sun was making its presence known and, given the fact that this particular fort is located in some pretty countryside, my photos ended up looking like postcards promoting English rural life.

The other main difference to my previous trip? Well, you know, all the Roman soldiers and gladiators walking around.


Roman soldiers at Chesters
The Romans are here!

Views from Chesters Fort
Visitors to Chesters get spoilt with magnificent views like this one.

We had arrived at Chesters just in time for their Romans & Gladiators event, and there were plenty of people who had come out to see the Roman re-enactments.

Before we got to those, however, we took the time to get acquainted with the fort itself.

The name 'Hadrian's Wall' implies just that - it's a big old wall. But what you may not know is that this wall was punctuated by a large number of forts along its entirety. Chesters, or Cilurnam as it was known to the Romans, was built in 124 AD as a cavalry fort and was active for about 300 years.

During that time, the fort was filled with soldiers, much like the ones marching around at the time of our visit. While the site fell into ruins over the years, many key buildings in the fort are well preserved.


Commandant's House at Chesters
The well-preserved Commandant's House.


Chesters impressive bathhouse
And the most complete Roman-era bathhouse in the UK. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Getting pedal-happy in London's iconic parks

After my recent visit to Amsterdam, I made a vow to invest more time into getting back into cycling. Luckily, I didn't have to wait very long to make good on that promise.

On Sunday last weekend, we decided to brave the weather (which looked rather gloomy) and headed out into central London. Our purpose: to explore the city from the comfort of a bicycle seat. 

Santander Cycles had invited us out to do just this, so we decided to embrace the last of the English summer and explore London's most famous parks. 

Planning a route that stretched out from South Kensington to Buckingham Palace, we were all set to see the many attractions found within London's green spaces. It may sound like a vast distance, but, in reality, many of London's central parks are located right next to each other.

Before we could get going, we had to find our trusty steeds for the day. There are plenty of Santander Cycles docking stations in London and we found a number of these on Kensington's Exhibition Road.


Santander Cycles docking station
A Santander Cycles docking station.

Santander Cycles docking station
And the adjoining console/pay station.

Now if you, like me, had always noticed these stations but had never hired one of the bikes yourself, I'm happy to inform you that it's incredibly easy to do so.

Santander Cycles - or Boris Bikes, as they're affectionately known - were thought up as a public bicycle hire scheme. The bicycles are ideal for short journeys; if you dock your bike back within 30 minutes, your trip will be completely free. Even if you want the bicycle for longer, the charges are minimal, where £2 gives you bike access for 24 hours, and then you'll be charged £2 for every additional half-hour.

After inserting my debit card and specifying what I wanted, it was just a matter of adjusting the seat and then hopping onto the bike.


Out on a Santander Cycle
Back on the bike! Whizzing around Kensington Gardens' cycle-friendly paths.

Luckily, the first park we wanted to explore was close by, so, after no time at all, we were in the spacious and leafy Kensington Gardens.

I can't say that I'm the most confident cyclist out there, especially when it comes to dealing with busy roads, so exploring the parks was the perfect compromise. There are plenty of traffic-free bicycle lanes and, given that some of London's parks are truly massive, the bikes offer the best way to see everything in a short space of time.

Despite the fact that Kensington Gardens alone spans a total of 242 acres, we were hoping to see some of this park's best monuments before the rain started up.


Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens
The Albert Memorial stands tall...

Royal Albert Hall
...While the grand Royal Albert Hall appears just across the road.

Jumping off the bikes to take photos, we took in the Albert Memorial, which was commissioned by Queen Victoria in commemoration of her husband's passing. The Royal Albert Hall, a host of many musical performances, appeared just opposite.

From there, we carried on with the theme of royalty by cycling over to Kensington Palace, which was once the home of Queen Victoria and, in later years, it was inhabited by Princess Diana.

This is one of my favourite royal palaces in London, because it looks like it was a place in which people actually lived. If you haven't been inside, it's well worth a visit - watch out for the elaborate painted ceilings!


Queen Victoria statue in front of Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace, with Queen Victoria standing guard.

Friday, 21 August 2015

How to spend two perfect days in Amsterdam

Have you ever looked back upon a trip and thought that it was absolutely perfect? You scratch your head, trying to think of a single flaw, an activity you could've exchanged with something else, but you come up with nothing? 

This is how I feel about my most recent trip to Amsterdam, which is now officially one of my all-time favourite cities. At the end of July, my sister and I took the short flight to the Dutch capital. What followed were two days of exploring, eating and, I daresay, a fair bit of being active too.


Canals in Amsterdam
Hello again, Amsterdam!

I had actually been to Amsterdam before, back when I first moved to London. I had gone there on my own for my birthday. Maybe it was the combination of it being a birthday and Amsterdam holding a status of an extremely social place, but I left the city feeling sad and lonely. I remember vowing to go back when I was in a better headspace.

And I'm so glad I got the chance to do this in 2015.

While I never pretend to have the *only* guide to anything, I can guarantee this: If you do even one or two of the itinerary items below, you'll have an unforgettable time in Amsterdam.


DAY ONE


- Hire a boat -

Yes, there are plenty of boat cruises on offer, and these will be great if you just want to sit back, relax and snap the occasional photo, but there are other water-friendly options too.

Before this trip, I wasn't even aware that you could hire your own boat in Amsterdam but we found this out via our lovely local hosts and friends, Lara and Peter. 


On a boat in Amsterdam
We're on a boat! (Note how we made Peter take the responsibility of steering said boat.)


Colourful bridge, Amsterdam
One of the many gorgeous views seen from the boat.

For 79 euros, we got a boat for three hours from Boaty.nl; that's the total price for the boat, which can take up to six people. During those three hours, we were free to explore Amsterdam’s canals. Before you set off, you'll get a safety briefing and a map. There are a few restrictions, as some bridges are too low to pass under or some canals are far too busy with more important traffic, but – and this is a promise – you’ll have so much fun exploring the city in this unique way.

As we set off, drinks were distributed, sunglasses were positioned and hundreds of photos were taken. After all, what could be better than viewing Amsterdam from the canals – these cover a distance of over 100 km, making them an all-too-important part of daily life here.


Boating is made much better with the addition of bubbles.

Canal in Amsterdam
The canals before us.

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘I DO not want to be put in charge of any boat’, put those fears aside. The boat goes as fast as what can only be described as slightly above-average walking speed – you’re not going to capsize!


- Take a stroll -

Bicycles on a bridge, Amsterdam

There are plenty of ways to see Amsterdam and although I’ve just enthused about the charms of exploring via the waterways, I still think that this extremely walkable city should also be discovered by an exhausting amount of walking.


For the shoppers, there are the Nine Streets, where you’ll find hipster cafes, quirky shops and boutique clothing stores. Although we had just intended to window shop, we ended up buying some matching jewellery. The perfect traveller souvenir? We thought so!


Feather jewellery


Snapshots of Amsterdam
Spotted near the Nine Streets.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A crash course in Korean barbecue at SuperStar BBQ

London is one of my favourite cities for so many reasons: the sights, the huge amount of nationalities in one place and the fact that there is so much to do on any given day. 

Another reason, of course, is London's food scene. As added appeal, for a traveller, this city seems to have a cafe or restaurant for every type of cuisine out there in the world.

Whether you want to rekindle memories of that particular dish you tried in that Greek port town, or that seemingly basic, yet packed-full-of-flavour pad thai, or even that quick boerie roll you grabbed while on a night out in Cape Town - you name it, you'll be able to find it somewhere in London.

For me, though, food also helps me to get a glimpse of places I haven't yet visited. And this is certainly the case with our recent outing to SuperStar BBQ.

I've wanted to visit South Korea for a long time. When the opportunity to visit SuperStar BBQ arose, I couldn't pass up the chance to make my first foray into the aforementioned country, albeit through its food and the flavours present within.

Exterior, SuperStar BBQ

Inside SuperStar BBQ
The pretty interior of the restaurant.

Inside SuperStar BBQ
Snapshots of Korea on the walls. 

Located near Tottenham Court Road, you can find SuperStar BBQ in Central St Giles. The modern setting of the courtyard surrounded by sleek buildings of glass continues into SuperStar BBQ.

Stepping inside, everything looked clean and modern, with splashes of colour thrown into the mix thanks to the bronze lampshades hanging at irregular lengths throughout the dining area. On one wall, we found a series of black and white photos, all displaying the dramatic landscapes present in South Korea.

But weren't we here to try traditional, authentic Korean cooking? The answer to this is in SuperStar BBQ's appearance - this is Korean cuisine, but with a modern twist.

The vision of this restaurant is unique: it wants to bring the food of Seoul to London, but in the updated form that is actually consumed by the people currently living in Seoul.


Barbecue, SuperStar BBQ
Ready for the barbecuing to commence.

Cocktails at SuperStar BBQ
Summery cocktails, complete with little umbrellas.

When we spotted our table, we knew we were in for a unique dining experience.

Each table comes equipped with a small barbecue. While there are plenty of other dishes on the menu, the Korean barbecue menu is the restaurant's specialty so, of course, this is exactly what we went for.

Since we were at SuperStar BBQ for lunch, we chose the barbecue special. This comprised of one choice of meat, a soup, a salad and some rice - all for under £15! 

To wash it all down, we chose two items from the Super Sonic cocktails menu. I went for a colourful passion fruit number, while Chris chose the lime. Striking a nice balance between sweet and bitter, these drinks were rather perfect for the summery afternoon of our visit.


Korean barbecue at SuperStar BBQ
All the pieces for our barbecue lunch.


Korean barbecue at SuperStar BBQ
The flavourful soup and salad acting as the sides.

Monday, 17 August 2015

LfCT: Cape Escape

Dear Kasha,

I know you miss Cape Town – I do too! Now, I don't confess to knowing lots about CT, having only spent 10 days there, but it was quite possibly, the best 10 days of my life. 

I swear, throughout my life I am always going to have links with South Africa. My Grampy was SA (and therefore I can make a claim to be 1/4 South African!) and therefore there are some familial links there. When I was working at a boarding school, I met 2 Gappies, who originated from Cape Town, who would eventually land up as my hotel/tour guide/general lifeline while in the Mother City. One of my colleagues that I work with now came from CT and was so excited when she found out that I was visiting her country.

I just can't escape the place, and, quite frankly, I don't want to!


Kalk Bay

The first part of my trip was exploring some of the beautiful towns in the Cape Peninsula. We stopped off at Brass Bell in Kalk Bay and I was in heaven, sat at the table with the sea right beside you. Such a wonderful, relaxing spot by the sea!


Boulders Beach

Because who wouldn't want to spend the day watching penguins on the beach? Nothing more needs to be said really – I could have spent the entire day watching these little guys run and jump into the sea.


Table Mountain

You go to Cape Town, you can't not go up Table Mountain. This was done on Day 1 of my trip and I was so excited! The views were spectacular and I loved looking down at the city that I was ready to explore. Seeing CT from that high up is pretty incredible.


Clifton

I was constantly told by the friends I was visiting that I must see Clifton and Camps Bay as there are some beautiful beaches. Every time we drove in that direction I was greeted with a thick blanket of … mist. The view from Table Mountain was that of … mist. The view from Lion's Head was… mist. One day we decided we had to get some beach time in before I ventured back home, so we sunbathed on the beach despite the fact that we couldn't actually see the sea!

One place that we did love to visit was Bungalow. We came here to be wined and dined on lunch and cocktails and it was divine. Apparently there were some spectacular views but I couldn't quite make it out through the mist…

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