Sunday, 23 November 2014

London invasion: The Paddington Trail

If you've happened to stroll around central London in the past few weeks, I'd be surprised if you said you hadn't spotted one of these yet.

'Shakesbear' - designed by Michael Sheen; found by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

And if you've walked around central London A LOT... Well, you wouldn't be blamed if you thought some sort of invasion was afoot.

From left to right: 'Fragile' - designed by Ryan McElhinney; found outside Tate Modern; 'Special Delivery' - designed by Ben Whishaw; found in Covent Garden Market; 'Paddington is GREAT; designed by Stephen Fry; found by Downing Street, Whitehall.

'Paddington Who?' - designed by Peter Capaldi; found by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

Paddington Bear has well and truly arrived in London - 50 of him to be precise.

The reason for this 'invasion' stems from the fact that a new movie featuring this lovable character is about to be released. Ahead of the 28 November premiere date, Paddington Bear statues have been placed throughout the city as part of an official Paddington Trail

I remember reading stories, penned by Michael Bond, about Paddington Bear as I was growing up in South Africa. Given my love for travel, which grew into a full-blown obsession later on in my life, it should come as no surprise that I immediately took to this character - a (super-)polite bear who travels from Peru to London.

So, when it came to my recent wanderings around London - without really meaning to - I couldn't help snapping a photo of a Paddington Bear statue every time I spotted one. 

A rather festive location - 'Rainbow' - designed by Darcey Bussell; found near Covent Garden Market.

To another spectacular spot - 'The Bear of London' - designed by Boris Johnson; found in Trafalgar Square.

I really love the creativity behind the Paddington Trail. Each statue has been designed by a celebrity or personality, and each statue has a title. Many of the film's actors have taken part, and there are statues designed by Ben Whishaw (who voices Paddington), Hugh Bonneville and Nicole Kidman.

Actually, Kidman's design was the first I came across. Paddington Bear-meets-gold, this creation is called 'Blush' and it sits right in the heart of London's film scene: Leicester Square.

'Blush' - designed by Nicole Kidman; found in Leicester Square.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Enchanting Evora: A top choice for a city break

As our bus wound its way around another corner into a street lined with buildings, I peered through the window and wondered, 'is this Evora?'

It was about the fourth time I'd asked myself this in the past 20 minutes, looking desperately for any signage that could supply a definitive clue.

My anxiety most likely stemmed from the fact that, unlike most of my other trips, our December-time trip to Portugal had been a last-minute decision. We had stayed in Lisbon for a few nights, with a day trip to Sintra. Keen to experience more of the country's offerings, I had read that Evora was a feasible distance from the capital. With that information in mind, we booked two nights in Evora and jumped on a bus to make our way there.

While on the bus, I used the time to acquaint myself, thanks to my guidebook, with the city we'd soon be staying in.

I learned that Evora is the capital of the Alentejo region and that the city has a history that spans two millennia; Celts, Romans and Moors all called this place home in the past. The standout fact for me, however, was that Evora, in its entirety, is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Partially surrounded by medieval city walls and containing attractions that date all the way back to Roman times and beyond, I now couldn't wait to get to our destination.

Quite suddenly, our bus pulled into a parking lot, and we were told that we were in Evora. The arrival was a slight anti-climax, as there were no medieval walls to be seen. It was only as we got into the taxi and made our way to Evora proper that we glimpsed these for the very first time.

From this visual encounter to the last, when we departed from the bus parking lot once more, we went on to discover the many reasons that make Evora such a popular travel destination in Portugal.

Medieval Evora

Entry into the city via Evora's medieval walls.

Despite the looming, formidable city walls that encircle central Evora, the city is easy to navigate and compact, making it ideal to cover on foot. We walked everywhere during our stay, and, with the numerous cobble-stoned alleyways and beautiful buildings, churches and squares around every corner, Evora encourages the act of getting purposefully lost. 

Every day, we began our wanderings from Giraldo Square, the main open space within the city. It's here that we found the official tourism office, as well as signs pointing us in the direction of all of Evora's major attractions. Incidentally, the square is a great spot for people watching, thanks to the cafes and bakeries that dominate here.

Giraldo Square.

I couldn't get enough of the architecture in Evora. White and yellow buildings dominate, but the city features vestiges from all of its past inhabitants, sometimes leading to a startling juxtaposition of architectural styles. 

Connected by streets, some impossibly narrow yet still used by cars, often only lit by large lamps suspended by wires, each attraction seemed more fascinating - and more photogenic - than the next. 

Handpainted signs in central Evora.

A Roman temple

Without a doubt, this was my favourite sight in Evora.

As a former university student of Roman and Greek history, I can't help but be drawn to destinations that have a link to those times. Evora was conquered by the Romans in 57 BC, and there are several related attractions to see within the city today. While many of these are housed in museums and buildings, there's one that's completely out in the open.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The ruins of Waverley Abbey

One of my favourite aspects about living in and travelling around the UK has to be the fact that history can be found everywhere. 

Whether it's the origin of a street name in London, a famous attraction like St Paul's or Shakespeare's Globe Theatre or something far less obvious, I am often left feeling that everything here has a story. The lengths of the stories may vary, as do the entertainment levels of said stories, but I'm convinced that the former phrase is entirely true.

So, when I found out that we were visiting Waverley Abbey in Surrey, I was accordingly excited. After all, as far as long stories go, this place has it made.

Managed by English Heritage, Waverley Abbey is free to visit. It's easiest to access the property by car, but the nearest train station, Farnham, is not too far away (two miles).

We left the car and followed the signposts to a riverside path. Even though we weren't so far away from central, skyscrapered London, the scenery couldn't be more different. With the river to one side and open fields on the other, it was undeniable that we were in the middle of Surrey countryside.

Following a bend, our destination was soon in sight. From afar, Waverley Abbey may not look like much.

These first impressions notwithstanding, the remains of the abbey only get more photogenic the closer you get.

As we wandered past the crumbling walls and foundations, we were given greater insight into their history thanks to the many information boards located across the property.

Waverley Abbey once joined the other monastic buildings here as part of the very first Cistercian monastery in England. It was founded in 1128 and, even though it may be difficult to imagine given the state of the buildings now, monks lived at this site for 400 years.

This all came to an end during the 1530s, when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, which led to many sites, including the more famous St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, falling into ruin. 

Much of Waverley Abbey and the surrounding buildings were dismantled, with the stone being used for a nearby house instead. The ruins that you can see at Waverley Abbey today were the fragments that were left behind.

Even though the tail-end of Waverley's story may be a sad one, it's impossible to not get a sense of the grand scale of the church and monastery buildings just from seeing the ruins.

The abbey itself was over 90 metres long; you can still clearly see the foundations of the church. 

The remains of the lay brothers' quarters.

Monday, 10 November 2014

London Lately #1

So, over the past week, I've been in stealth mode whilst preparing a section that has been hovering on my blog for a while: A London Life.

Last month, I celebrated the two-year anniversary of my big move to London, and it felt like now was the right time to launch A London Life, which is really a celebration of the city I've come to adore.

I'm happy to report that the page is now live, and I shall be adding more content to it as I go along. 

There will be a little bit of something for everyone: things to do, my favourite spots for eating out, the best day trips out of London, as well as some of the quirkier places and activities in the city. For anyone who's visited it, you'll know that London is an incredibly varied city and I hope to capture that quality in the posts to come.

For anyone who has been reading this blog for a while, you may have seen some regular posts called 'In the past seven days', which summarised some of the recent happenings in my life. To coincide with the launch of A London Life, from now on, I'll be writing these: London Lately. 

The London Lately posts will be about just that: the recent places and events I visit/attend in the city, as well as London-related developments that I'm excited about.

Without further ado, here is the very first London Lately...

World Travel Market

This week happened to be the biggest week for anyone involved in the travel industry. For travel bloggers, this didn't just involve trips to the actual World Travel Market event at the ExCel centre; it meant a load of networking and parties too.

From a fun Traverse Mingle at the DoubleTree by Hilton - West End (complete with a photo-booth sponsored by Three) to a full house at Monday night's Travel Massive hosted at Barrio East to the official WTM festivals on Wednesday evening - it was a full itinerary of events.

I went along to WTM on Tuesday and attended some great talks by the likes of Buzzfeed and Travel Bloggers Unite, while visiting the many stands and exhibitions within ExCel's halls.

The highlight - apart from just getting an overload of travel inspiration from the tourism boards represented at WTM - for me was getting to see and chat to fellow travel bloggers, both familiar and new.

Monday, 3 November 2014

A tour of Kensington Palace with City Wonders

On a rather gloomy-looking Sunday afternoon, we stood waiting by the large statue of Queen Victoria. Normally, I would be having a good old moan about the weather, but I just couldn't that day. Why? Because excitement was the reigning emotion of that moment; after all, I was finally going to visit a place that I had passed by dozens of times.

As a frequent visitor of Kensington Gardens and the adjoining Hyde Park, Kensington Palace had become a familiar sight over the past two years that I've lived in London.

Kensington Palace, with a statue of Queen Victoria, a former inhabitant.

The official gateway to the palace - iconic as the place where flowers and tributes were laid down after the death of Princess Diana.

I remember always passing by, taking in the grand building and groups of people surrounding its entrance doors, and vowing to go there too. It may have taken the whole two years to do so, but thanks to City Wonders, I was finally getting to fulfill my promise.

Our guide, Alison, arrived and our group, which numbered six people in total, was ready to begin our tour.

Before we went indoors, a little context was necessary. Although Kensington Palace is most well known for its inhabitants - such as Queen Victoria and Princess Diana - its history stretches back all the way to 1605. This was the year that the first house was built on this piece of land, which was, at that time, considered to be 'out in the countryside'. 

The palace only truly took on this status later in the 17th Century when Mary II and William III chose this property as their residence upon assuming the throne as joint monarchs. William had poor health due to asthma so the countryside location was considered to be the perfect remedy.

Unlike many other royal palaces, this building wasn't continuously occupied. It was, however, the birthplace of a key figure in the UK's history: Queen Victoria. It was also here, in 1837, where she was awoken, at age 18, to be told that she was now the queen of England.

With this introduction in mind, we moved into the palace to begin our tour of the rooms in which all of this history actually took place.

The palace itself was extended and redecorated several times. The most lavish redesign was commissioned by George I, who had William Kent decorate the state rooms. One of the more extravagant examples of this time can be seen at the Grand Staircase, which is surrounded by paintings (including a likeness of the artist Kent himself - as well as his mistress!).

The richly embellished ceiling above the Grand Staircase.

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