Travelbunny Highlights 2013

Travelbunny Highlights 2013

What started out looking to be a lean year travel-wise has somehow turned out to be totally epic!  As well as travel highs there were personal highs too – Mister and I had a wonderful day with family and friends when we married in October – and we’re still on cloud nine :)

Travelbunny Highlights 2013

So where did 2013 take me?  There were moments of discovery with visits to three new countries; Amsterdam in The Netherlands, San Marino as part of the Blogville project and finally Bruges, Belgium.  Ten countries, seven capital cities and eleven cities I’d never encountered before.  I’ve pretty much eaten Italy, taken thousands of photos and made some wonderful memories to treasure.

The first trip of the year in February was to Paris for a work trade show but I managed to squeeze in a couple of hours to check out St Gemain’s chocolatiers. Yum!  February brought a trip to The Shard in London on opening day and a stay at the historical Renaissance St Pancras hotel for Mister’s birthday – Marriott points well spent!

St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

March saw a cheeky week in Agadir for some sunshine, flying goats and a visit to the Tighanimine Womens Fairtrade Argan Oil Co-operative.   This post was one of my most popular of the year and I’ve put the co-operative in touch with a few people wishing to buy the oil commercially – I hope something positive has come out of this.

In April I went to Belfast on a work trip and got sent to jail!  The Crumlin Road Gaol can be hired for conferences and adds a whole new meaning to ‘breakout’ rooms! We visited the Titanic Exhibition and stayed at the Lough Erne Hotel in Fermanagh where the G8 conference was held the following month.  Colin Farrell was sat at the next table to me at breakfast (!!!) and I even got to experience my first trip in a float plane.

Lough Erne and Float Plane

May arrived and with it another work trip where I was tour leader to a group of 30 incentive winners on a trip to Sorrento.  We spent a day in picture perfect Positano and soaked up all Sorrento had to offer including the beautiful sunshine.

June – my first new country of the year and a trip with a girlfriend to Amsterdam where we laughed for three days solid, explored Amsterdam’s Canal Life, learned about the gabled buildings and Alison was reprimanded by a prostitute…

I Amsterdam Sign

July and August were spent at home enjoying a fantastic British summer and a week’s dog-sitting saw us exploring our local countryside and the gorgeous Seven Sisters Country Park.  There was also a wedding to plan…

The Coastguard Cottages at Seven Sisters, East Sussex

September saw me back in Italy for Blogville based in beautiful Bologna.  I learned how gelato is made at The Gelato University, took a pit-stop at Casa Museo Enzo Ferrari in Modena, gasped at the stunning views of San Marino and was amazed by the mosaics in Ravenna.  Lots more yet to share with you from this year’s Blogville…

Ravenna's Mosaics

Ravenna’s Mosaics

October and a very special wedding day was followed by a month jam-packed with travel.   I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Venice even though it was wetter than we expected and we waded through water.

Venice Canal

Venice Canal

Cambodia and Angkor Wat entranced and the Khmer food was as impressive as ever.  The bustle of Bangkok left us ready for the clear waters of Krabi and some much-needed relaxation.

Monks at Tonle Sap Lake

Monks at Tonle Sap Lake

November came and so did my first cruise with Celebrity Cruises as a #destinationblogger visiting Kotor and Budva in Montenegro, Matera in Italy, Corfu and Valletta in Malta.  The ship, Silhouette, was a destination in herself and warranted a thorough exploration especially where the cuisine was concerned.  A diet ensued.

December and a work conference for 300 saw us back in Morocco but this time Marrakech and barely time to step outside the hotel.  Such a tease! Another work trip, this time to Bruges and a chance to explore a little; chocolate shops and Christmas markets fuelled a festive feeling.

So what’s in store for 2014?  The annual ski trip is brought forward to January this year and we’ll pack the car at the weekend and head for our friends’ place in The Alps.

Ski Lift Portes du Soleil

Ski Lift Portes du Soleil

At the end of January I’m heading for Iceland which has long been top of my travel hotlist and I’m excited beyond words…!  I don’t even dare hope for a glimpse of those lights.    Iceland is followed by a work trip escorting 18 incentive prize-winners to Lanzarote and hopefully a chance to thaw out.  In March I have a ‘big’ birthday.  Nuff said.  July we’re off to France again to our friends near Poitier so lots of exciting times to look forward to.

I’m incredibly grateful for your support and friendship and would like to end this post by saying a huge thank you to all you readers and fellow travel enthusiasts.  Every view, comment and like is much appreciated.   I hope you’ve had an amazing year and that 2014 brings health, happiness and fun times. So what travel plans do you have in the coming year? Come on spill the beans…

A Morning in Valletta

A Morning in Valletta

It’s 7:15am and we’re on Silhouette’s bow; keen for our first glimpse of Valletta.  The sea is calm and as the sun creeps higher in the sky, on a surprisingly warm November morning, we edge our way into The Grand Harbour.  The rising sun paints the sixteenth-century bastion walls gold and we can see small cube-like buildings interspersed with honey-coloured domes, spires and arches.  Valletta may be small but it’s steeped in history and it’s incredibly easy on the eye.

The Grand Harbour, Malta

The Grand Harbour, Malta

The city covers an area of less than one square kilometre and its grid system makes it easy to get around on foot.   It’s a pleasant place to wander so, in the two hours we had, that’s exactly what we did.  We disembark and take the five-minute walk to the 20 storey lift which will deposit us at The Upper Barrakka Gardens.  At €1 return it’s worth every cent to avoid the knee-crunching hike up the steep 280 steps.  The gardens are the perfect spot for enjoying the panoramic views across one of the world’s largest, deepest natural harbours and we watch as cannons are prepared for the midday salute.

Upper Barrakka Gardens, Valletta

Upper Barrakka Gardens

Valletta takes its name from its founder, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette and owes its existence to the Knights of St John, who planned the fortified city as a refuge for injured soldiers and pilgrims during the 16th century Crusades.

 Auberge de Castille

An Auberge is where the Knights lived. During their first years in Malta, the Knights served once a week in the hospitals – in return they lived in their Auberge for free. Of the original eight Auberges only five remain, the finest being the Auberge de Castille and Leon; severely damaged during WWII the building’s been restored and now houses the office of the Prime Minister.

Auberge de Castille

Auberge de Castille

The Great Siege Monument

Fortitude flanked by faith and hope – this bronze monument commemorates the Great Siege of 1565 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island.  The Knights, helped by 400 Maltese men, women and children and about 2,000 foot-soldiers won the siege against the Turks, one of the most fiercely fought, bloodiest battles in history.

Great Siege Monument, Valletta

The Great Siege Monument

Malta has a solid British connection and played a key part in the Mediterranean campaign in WWII.  It was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war and suffered terribly during during The Siege of Malta where the enemy were determined to either bomb or starve the Maltese into submission.The people were rewarded for their bravery when George VI awarded the entire island the George Cross.

Plaques on the Grand Palace, Malta

Plaques on the Grand Palace, Malta

We were in Valletta on Remembrance Sunday and could hear catches of music from a military band and glimpse them passing by the end of the street.  The flash of a scarlet poppy could be seen on many a lapel and on the iconic British telephone and post boxes which are still used.  We felt quite at home!

Valletta with telephone box

Valletta

A walk through the quiet, narrow back streets gives a taste of everyday life and an opportunity to meet some interesting characters.

This is Gerry…

Gerry Fluffy Cat

Gerry

…and these are Gerry’s friends…

Cat watching pigeons

Not so brave Gerry

His owner told us how his furry friend will go after a pigeon if it’s alone – when there’s a few he’s not so brave and just glares!  The old man would have liked us to stay and chat for longer – they’re a friendly bunch, the Maltese.

The sun-bleached buildings of Valletta’s streets are adorned with galleriji; the city’s traditional balconies.

Valletta Street with balconies

Valletta Street with balconies

We pass the fort of St Elmo on the far end of the promontory and walk back along the quiet quay towards the ship.  Some Mods on Lambrettas buzz by and we pass fishermen casting lines for their lunch – there’s a chilled Sunday vibe about the place.

The Grand Harbour, Malta

The Grand Harbour, Malta

Too soon we’re back at Valletta Waterfront which sits just below the city’s fortifications.  It used to be called Pinto Wharf before being beautifully renovated and is home to some vibrant bars and restaurants – the dining options in Valletta are good and varied.

Valletta Waterfront

Valletta Waterfront

Malta is saturated in history and needs at least a week to delve into its vibrant past and then maybe another week just to relax and enjoy its food, wine and hospitality.  But we’ve had a taster which will do for the time being; now we must board, pack and leave for the airport as this is where our cruise ends; but I shall return one day to explore properly and immerse myself in Malta’s rich history.

Photo Tour of Valletta

Many thanks to Celebrity Cruises UK for hosting me on my first cruise. As always views and opinions; good, bad or otherwise are entirely my own.

San Marino – Micro-State Massive Views

San Marino – Micro-State Massive Views

San Marino might be the smallest Republic in the world at 62 sq k but it punches well above its weight where ridiculously spectacular views are concerned.  I took a day trip from Bologna to see what surprises the third smallest state in Europe had in store.  I wasn’t disappointed and, be warned, the camera went into overdrive!

Guaita tower, San MarinoFrom Bologna I took the train to Rimini and from there the bus to San Marino.  The bus climbed higher and higher as the road twisted upwards – Mount Titano towers 739 metres above sea level and my ears actually popped on the way up.  I knew for sure I’d arrived in a new country when my mobile pinged a ‘Welcome to San Marino’ text – cool!

We arrived at the coach park and as I climbed off the bus I turned and caught a glimpse of the first of the day’s views – the sun was shining, it was a clear day and miles and miles of lush green Emilia Romagna countryside stretched ahead before rolling into the distant Apennines.  Just gorgeous!

The view from San MarinoI tore myself away from the epic panorama and made my way upwards towards the town; I only had a few hours and wanted to see as much as possible of this tiny enclave bordered on all sides by Italy.

Mount Titano is a balcony of rock offering a panoramic view of the Upper Marecchia Valley and Montefeltro across to the Romagna coastline and the Adriatic which I soaked up as I walked the boundary of the city.

The view from San Marino  to Rimini's Coast

San Marino Stamp of Approval

First stop was the tourist office where I got a brand new and very pretty ‘San Marino’ stamp in my passport and a new country chalked up on the list.  San Marino is big on postage stamps and claims to have one of the the best postal systems in the world so drop into the Post Office if you’re a collector and take home some stamps and a San Marino Euro coin – both collectors’ items.

San Marino Passport Stamp

San Marino Passport Stamp

 

San Marino Old Town

Onwards and upwards I climbed through San Marino’s criss-crossing steep streets to the old town centre on the top of Mount Titano, a full 750m above sea level.  It’s closed to traffic and contained within medieval stone walls.  The old town is full of welcoming cafes, street artists and boutiques selling handbags, clothes, ceramics and, surprisingly, firearms and knives. Banks are plentiful – San Marino is one of the wealthiest countries per head with a population of just 30,000.   Many goods are tax-free so the shopping attracts tourists on the hunt for bargains.  The prices for food and drink were reasonable and  lunch was a tasty ham and cheese piadina (flatbread) with a beer for €4.50.

The Guaita Tower

The high point of my visit were the fortresses of San Marino; turreted, castellated, fairytale towers reaching skywards into the bluest of skies and linked by a winding path that runs the entire ridge of the mountain.  The towers were built to protect the small state from Emilia Romagna’s Malatesta family and the first and oldest tower, Guaita, is surrounded by two circles of city walls one of which can be walked.  The tower was originally a watchtower and housed prisoners right up until the 1970s.

The pathway connecting the towers “Passo delle streghe” means Passage of the Witches – more than appropriate in this fairytale scene but sinister in that it’s where those accused of being witches were hanged. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see winged monkeys in little blue waistcoats swooping down on me Wizard of Oz style from the castle atop the craggy rock had the day been dark and overcast.  But it wasn’t and the blue skies were the perfect backdrop.

Cesta Tower, San Marino

The Cesta Tower

The pathway is the one of the best places to photograph both the first and second towers and has some of the most gorgeous countryside views.  But the view from the top of Cesta back to Guaita is the one that totally took my breath away.  It’s possible to climb right into the roof of this tower although you’ll need to negotiate a steep step-ladder and a small trap-hatch but the views back to Guaita Tower from the lookout windows are worth the effort. Stunning.  The Armoury Museum containing weaponry and armour is housed in the Cesta Tower.

Guaita tower, San MarinoAbove a picture postcard shot of Guaita Tower seen from the top of Cesta Tower and below Cesta Tower seen from the “Passo delle streghe”

Cesta Tower, San MarinoI became so entranced by the views that I totally lost track of the time and had to dash back to the bus park missing a stop at the Houses of Parliament, Palazzo Pubblico and the third, smallest, tower.  I’d love to have had more time to spend in San Marino the tiny state with the big, big views and if I return I’ll definitely stay for sunset which I’m told is spectacular.  Can you even begin to imagine?

View from Guaita Tower, San MarinoHow to get there:  Trains don’t go to San Marino so the easiest way to visit is to take the Bonelli bus from Rimini’s train station.  The ride takes about 50 minutes and costs €4 each way.  Get your ticket opposite the railway station just to the right of Burger King.    You can do this as a day trip from Bologna, as the train from Bologna to Rimini takes 60-90 minutes and costs €10-20 depending on the speed – allow yourself at least 4 hours in San Marino itself.

How much: Combined entry to Guaita and Cesta Towers is €4.50

For more information check out the Visit San Marino website.

The apartment in Bologna was provided by the Emilia-Romagna Tourism Board as part of the #BlogVille campaign created by iAmbassador. As always views and opinions – good, bad or otherwise – are entirely my own.

Pictures from Pamukkale

Pictures from Pamukkale

Pamukkale means ‘Cotton Castle’ in Turkish and perfectly describes the white terraces, known as travertines, which tread their way down the hillside. Each pool is created from startling white limestone deposits and are filled with water from 17 of the hot water springs in the area.

The travertines, Pamukkale

The terraces are like hundreds of mini infinity pools that hug the hillside leading down to the town below.  The shallow water reflects the cobalt blue skies above.

The travertines, Pamukkale

The travertines, Pamukkale

People have bathed in the pools for hundreds of years and at one time hotels at the top of the travertines used the water from the pools. This took a serious toll on the site which was in danger of being damaged beyond repair. The hotels have since been demolished, visitors are no longer allowed to wear shoes in the pools and the water is now chanelled in rotation as there is not enough to fill the whole site at any one time. The travertines are now slowly recovering.

The travertines, Pamukkale

We spent a couple of hours exploring the remains of Hieropolis, the ancient town built at the top of Pamukkale, before paddling in the travertines and people watching as whistles were blasted at offenders not removing their shoes before walking on the limestone – yes some tourists still do this – but not these women…

Travertines, Pamukkale

Up close the limestone was a miniature version of the travertines themselves and just a little rough to walk on – by the time we got to the bottom my feet felt really soft after the buffing they’d had.

The travertines, Pamukkale

As the sun slowly started to sink the light reflected off the limestone giving it a soft golden glow and the moon appeared in the sky above.

The travertines, Pamukkale

The travertines, Pamukkale

Travertines, Pamukkale

Travertines, Pamukkale

DSC_0453-001

Sunset at Pamukkale

Pamukkale was the second stop on our mini-tour of Turkey. From Goreme we travelled eight hours on the night bus to Dinizli and then by Dolmus to Pamukkale itself arriving in the town at dawn.