Monday, 28 March 2016

Top 6 for 2016: Wales

If you didn't already know, Wales is number 8 on the Rough Guide's list of Ten Countries to Visit in 2016. Anyone who has read the blog before will know that I moved from Scotland to North Wales in May 2015 and have nothing but good things to say about it.

Now that my adopted nation has made it to the Rough Guide, I thought that I'd compile a list of fabulous places and attractions from across the land; with maybe just a little touch of bias towards the North.

These are my top 6 picks for Wales 2016:

Snowdonia National Park, North Wales:
OK, so I actually live within the confines of Snowdonia NP. In a house, though...not out in the wilds in a tent or anything. They don't make tents big enough for my shoe collection and, when they won't make any difference because I don't like camping. Anyway, I digress: Snowdonia is amazing!

If you fancy a bit of hiking, feel free to climb Mount Snowdon, which is the highest peak in England and Wales, and second in the UK (with Ben Nevis in Scotland topping the leader board). Snowdon stands at an extremely respectable 1,085ft above sea level. I have no idea what this actually means, but it sounds like a lot of work to get up there.

There are several routes to the Snowdon summit, which are helpfully graded in terms of just how hellish they are to scale. Me? I'd go for the easiest one every time. In fact, I'd be driving to Llanberis and getting the Snowdon Railway to the top because, well...I wouldn't have to walk AT ALL and I'd still get to stand on the summit and totally take photos for social media to tell everyone just how tired I was.

Apart from hiking, walking, cycling, and all those other Outdoor Things fit people do within the National Park; we are also home to some beautifully picturesque towns and villages. My personal favourites are Barmouth, Porthmadog and Llanberis, which are all full of restaurants, coffee shops, independent stores, beaches, and the obligatory steam railways.

Just to be clear: Wales also has normal railways, like you'd find everywhere else, but the steam trains are by far the most scenic way to get around, provided you're not in much of a hurry. If you need to keep an appointment, you should probably travel with Arriva instead.  

Top 6 for 2016: Cadair Idris
Cadair Idris
Anglesey, North Wales:
The Isle of Anglesey is connected to the mainland via the beautiful Menai and Britannia Bridges and is located at Wales' most north westerly point. Anglesey is the 5th largest island in the UK and sits in the Irish Sea.

A short distance from the bridges is the location of the village with the longest name in the UK, which is a great place to get your photo taken, if you have a wide angle lens. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwilllantysiliogogogoch is a pretty little village, even if you can never tell people you've been because you simply have no chance of EVER being able to pronounce it. Llanfair would be an acceptable shortened version, I would imagine.

The rural coastline of the whole isle has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Beauty and, if you head up to Holyhead on Anglesey, towards South Stack Lighthouse, you'll see exactly why this is.

South Stack is jaw dropping. And not only because you can literally walk along the edge of some pretty steep cliff faces, but also from beautiful colours of the flowers and heather, which provide a gorgeous contrast to the stark whitewashed lighthouse. It really is a fabulous spot for a walk (probably not if it's wet or windy, though, because of the whole certain death thing if you fell), but certainly on a clear day when you can wave to people across the water in Ireland and battle with your mobile provider as you get a text welcoming you to the Emerald Isle and informing you of just how much it’ll cost you to make any calls. 

Top 6 for 2016: Anglesey
South Stack Lighthouse
Newtown & Machynlleth, Mid Wales
Newtown is the biggest town in the Powys region in Mid Wales and lies on the River Severn. It is famous for being the birthplace of Robert Owen, the Welsh philosopher and entrepreneur, and founder of the co-operative movement. Owen's former home, unfortunately, has been replaced by the HSBC Bank, which I'm unsure whether is ironic or not, but there is a museum in the town dedicated to his life.

Newtown is also home to a fabulous chapel and Baptist church, as well as the Oriel Davies Arts Centre. I'm fond of the high street in the town, which has a good variety of old school pubs, clubs and the obligatory Wetherspoons, lots of lovely independent stores and a fair few high street names thrown into the mix.   Also:  the British Red Cross charity shop in the precinct is the best I’ve come across, so far.

There’s also a late night vendor on the main street who serves the best post pub crawl out burger I have ever tasted. Seriously, I'm salivating just thinking about it.

Machynlleth is a charming town, full of lovely independent stores and a quite wonderful old clock tower, which dominates the opening to the main thoroughfare. I've previously written a post about the joys of Mach, so I won't go in to them again here.   However, I will say that there are many.   And please don’t miss Wales’ MOMA, located just off the main street, which is free of charge and absolutely wonderful.  

Top 6 for 2016: Aqueduct

Cardiff, Glamorgan, South Wales:
Cardiff is the capital city of Wales and is the seat of the Welsh Assembly (Parliament). Sitting on the banks of the River Taff and Severn Estuary, Cardiff is a wonderfully multicultural city with so much to offer.

Whether you fancy checking out the unusual lines of the Senedd (Welsh Assembly); taking in a game of football at the incredible Cardiff Stadium; to checking out the Castle or one of the many museums on offer, or simply walking around the pleasant green surroundings of Bute Park, you will not be at a loss for busy, people filled streets or quiet, tranquil spots to relax. Me? I'll literally go anywhere where there are actual Welsh people as they're always lots of fun.  

The regenerated waterfront area is a hub of activity, with a range of options for eating and drinking and is also home to the fabulous Millennium Centre; which will cater for all your concert and theatre going needs.  

For your inner geek, there’s a local Dr Who tour, since the BBC programme is filmed in the city or, if art, geology and natural history are more to your liking, you can while away the hours at the beautiful National Museum in Cathays Park.   This is also free of charge.   

Top 6 for 2016: Mermaid Quay
Brecon Beacon National Park:
Located in South Wales, Brecon Beacons is a national park and mountain range, which includes Wale’s highest peak, Pen y Fan.     The Brecons is one of three national parks in the nation and has also been awarded Dark Sky Reserve status in 2013, making it only the fifth to gain the accolade internationally.  I think that means it’s REALLY dark at night, but I could be wrong.

Much like Snowdonia, Brecon NP is more than just mountains and green space – it also incorporates towns and villages and all the local amenities that those bring.  If you want to get away from it all, you can head off on one of a countless number of walking and hiking trails, take your bike out for a ride, relax with a cold cider (a Welsh one, obviously) in a local pub, or book yourself into a local hotel or B&B and have more cider.  The choice is yours.

Brecons NP has a huge range of different festivals and events organised throughout the calendar year, so there’s always something extra to enjoy on your visit there.  

Top 6 for 2016: Cardigan Bay
Cardigan Bay  
Llandudno, Conwy – North Wales
On the Creuddyn Peninsula of Conwy County, lies the gorgeous seaside town of Llandudno.  Famous for its beautiful Grade 2 listed pier and Great and Little Orme Railways, Llandudno has no shortage to of charm to entice in visitors.

It is a lovely town to wander aimlessly around, as I often do, and sit out at one of the many independent coffee shops and boost your caffeine levels.    When the weather is pleasant, as it often is, sitting out at the patio area at the rear of Venue Cymru, with a cold cider, looking out at the sea, is also a wise decision as the views are fantastic.

If shopping is more your thing, head to Mostyn Street, which is the main money spending area in the town.  There is a great selection of independent stores and national brands to choose from.  

My favourite thing to do in Llandudno, however, is check out the Alice in Wonderland Trail.   Llandudno is famous for its connections with the classic Lewis Carroll book and it is thought that the author visited the town and drew inspiration from its surroundings.    

Because of the connection with the books, there is a trail around the town, where you can grab a map (or download the app) and follow the White Rabbit trail.   There are numerous statues, featuring all the famous characters from Alice through the Looking Glass, including the White Rabbit, Cheshire cat, Alice herself, and the ever terrifying Queen of Hearts.   

The statues are outstanding; carved from wood by some incredibly talented individuals with some really big chainsaws.    

have YOU visited Wales yet?   If not...why??

Suzanne x

Sunday, 27 March 2016

NEW: Caffi Castell Tapas Restaurant, Harlech

I can often be spotted, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, dragging LT out of the shed and up towards Harlech Castle.    This is largely because I love coffee, but also because the views from Caffi Castell are spectacular and, when you walk in, you're guaranteed a warm welcome from the staff.   

We found the original Llew Glas Cafe during our first week living in Harlech and, even though we've moved a wee bit further south, we still go up as often as we can for some Sunday chat and to chill out before the madness of Monday hits us again.  

Caffi Castell Tapas Restaurant: Harlech Castle
This. View. 
This week, however, we found out that Caffi Castell was starting a new evening menu, so we were very excited about that.   We were even more excited when we realised that the food on offer was Spanish tapas...and they have a licence to serve wine.    There are few things that make me happier than gazing at Harlech Castle, with my favourite people, favourite food, and a glass of Rioja.   Muy bueno.      I even washed my hair and changed out of my jamma bottoms for the night.   And that doesn't happen too often.   

The Caffi only opened its doors the previous evening and was already full when we arrived, save our little table for four.    The lighting outside the castle was, as always, beautifully striking and the interior, despite being at capacity, has enough space to make your dining experience feel intimate and romantic.    

Caffi Castell Tapas Restaurant: Menu
I'll have one of everything, please.
Caffi Castell Tapas Restaurant: Drinks Menu
Tres botellas de vinto tinto, por favor.. 
The menu mainly consists of classic dishes, such as patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), albondigas (meatballs), olives (because obviously), stuffed peppers, garlic mushrooms and garlic prawns, to name a few.     There is also a great veggie and gluten free selection for those of you who don't eat meat...or gluten.    

In addition, there was a very tempting cocktail menu, which I'm definitely trying next time.   On this occasion, we stuck with Rioja, because it's my favourite wine and, well...we were eating Spanish food and it would be rude not to.   Not that I need a reason to bust open a bottle of Rioja, you understand.        

The food was glorious and served in authentic terracotta pots, delivered to the table with a smile and satisfaction check (once a VS inspector, always a VS inspector...)  Don't judge me, I can't help it. 

Caffi Castell Tapas Restaurant: Tapas
I'm hungry just looking at this.  

Cheeeeese, Gromit. 
I could live on these, I reckon.
We ate, drank, and became rather merry over the course of the evening, indulging in way too many calories and excellent red wine.      For four people, each ordering three tapas, extra bread (naturally), a lovely bottle of Rioja and three desserts totalled £120.   This was promptly paid for by the boys, so really my dinner was entirely free.     You can't really ask for more than that, can you??

You can contact Caffi Castell to book a table on 01766 780200.    Do it now.   Off you go...

Suzanne x 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

What's On In Wales: MoMA, Machynlleth

beth sydd ymlaen n Cymru

Like everyone else in the world, I lead quite a busy life and often feel that I don't have enough time to fit everything in.    As I work full time hours/write the blog/look at photos of dogs dressed as humans on the internet, it's easy to see just how productive a girl I am.   

To further enhance this, I decided I'd do a spot of lunch time learning and make the most of the hour between 1 and 2pm, where I have successfully completed half a day, but still have another half to go. 

Since there's very little else to do in this time (because apparently it's frowned upon to go to the pub), I thought I'd check out some of the local attractions, shows and exhibitions.

This week I visited the new exhibition at the Wales Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth, 'Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape'.   

What's On in Wales: MOMA
Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape
The exhibition is made up of private and public works of art and guides you through the role that Wales played in the origin and revival of the Romantic art era and is curated by Dr Peter Wakelin.

This is a major event in MoMA's calendar and has taken over the Pulpit Room, Tannery Gallery, Bridge and Owen Galleries within the centre.     

MoMA is a stunning space to wander around and is finished to such a high standard that it rather makes me want to touch everything.   I don't, though - I don't want to be banned from going back.   

What's On In Wales: MoMA
MoMA, Machynlleth
There are guides on hand to answer your questions and some extra ones to follow round at the back of me, making sure I don't hug anything.  I'm joking, obviously.   I prefer licking stuff to show my appreciation.

In addition to the paintings themselves, MoMA also has a host of events taking place throughout the duration of the exhibition, such as Artists' Discussion, an afternoon of readings, a Day School, and Gallery Tour with the Curator.    

The exhibition runs from March 19th through to June 18th.   Admission to MoMA is free of charge and it's open between 10am-4pm Monday to Saturday.     MoMA also has a lovely little tea room on site, where you can rest your weary gallery-pounding feet after you're done.    

Off you go....  Do come back and let me know how you got on, though.

Suzanne x 


Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Things To Do In Denver Before You're Dead, Part 2: Sports

I love my sport (apart from cricket and basketball), and I sporting events in the US are fantastic days out, with really reasonably priced tickets.   Denver has a plethora of quality sporting teams and impressive stadiums, which make for a great atmosphere.

Even if you’re not a sports fan, or are British and therefore entirely confused by the mixtures of soccer and rugby that is American Football and think that Baseball is just a massive game of rounders’, the stadiums are really something to behold. 

If you can catch a game when you’re in town, I’d highly recommend it (people sell you beer from your seat.  Your actual seat, peope!)   Also, the games are lively and fun and there’s no real segregation in American sports, as everyone seems to get on.   On a few occasions, when hearing the Scottish accent, we’ve been invited to tailgate with locals in various states and had a brilliant time learning about life and culture in the US.   

Things To Do In Denver: Sports - Mile High
Get your head in the clouds with a game at Mile High
Sports Authority Field at Mile High:
This is the home of NFL’s Denver Broncos and was right next to the hotel we stayed in, from whose upper floors we had a fabulous view over the field.    

The Broncos have sold out every single game since 1970, so it that doesn’t tell you how much they are to watch, then nothing will.   With a capacity of almost 79,000 people, the atmosphere must be electric and I wished I’d had a chance to catch a game while I was around.     

Coors Field:
This is where all things baseball-y take place in Denver and is the home of the Colorado Rockies and 33,000 of their closest friends.   I love a bit of baseball, although I don’t profess to completely understand all the rules, I have previously enjoyed games in Boston, Seattle and Toronto while signing up for credit cards which came with free towels and plastic cups with team names emblazoned on them.  I have no reason to doubt that the action at Coors would be any less enthralling that it has been anywhere else.   And I bet they also have awesome free stuff.   

Things To Do In Denver: Sports - Coors Field
Take in some baseball at Coors Field.
Pepsi Center:
The PC stages games from both the NHL and NBA, although I can’t for the life of me work on how that might work.    One can only assume they are played under the same roof, but in different areas.   Otherwise, that would just be a nightmare.    Particularly if you got the schedules mixed up and got your Zamboni out to ready the surface for a Nuggets game because you thought they were a hockey team.   You could end up being responsible for a whole new sport called ‘Ice Basketball’, which actually sounds like it might be a lot of fun to watch.  Not so much fun to play in, though.  You’d be freezing in those shorts and sleeveless tops, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, the PC hosts games from the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche (who play on ice) and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets (who do not play on ice).   

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park:
The local soccer team, Colorado Rapids, play their home MLS fixtures at Dick’s to an average crowd of around 18,000 people.    Given it’s not the most popular sport in the US; it draws in bigger crowds and has far superior stadia that most of the places I’ve watched football at home in Scotland (and around the world).  Apart from Tynecastle, obviously. 

Suzanne x 

Monday, 7 March 2016

A Day in Sintra

I first found out about Sintra after booking a week’s city break in Lisbon and doing some on  line research to find out what I could get up to.     LT uncovered the town, which lies around 25km from the city centre, and realised that it is easily accessible from Lisbon's central Rossio station, and is a quick 40 minute trip.

When I looked at the photos of the town’s Pena Palace on line, it looked like something from a fairy tale.  With its yellow and pink turrets and towers, and the fact that it was set on the top of a mountain with a long, windy road leading up, I imagined that Rapunzel might be holed up in there, waiting for a dashing suitor to let her hair down for.   

As well as the hilltop palace, there is a beautiful town centre, with lots of little cafés and quirky stores; a Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros); Sintra National Palace; Sintra Mountains AND Sintra-Cascais National Park.    On top of that, the area is also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   You can’t ask for more than that, can you?   Exactly.  

It also has the most wonderful winding road that snakes through the mountain side and leads you up to the jewel in Sintra’s crown: Pena Palace.   In amongst these gems are other estates and buildings, all of which blend in superbly with the surrounding hillside.  

Sintra’s train station is around 1km from the town centre, but even the walk from here to the town proper is picturesque and the atmosphere on our arrival was one of anticipation at what was in store for the day.   Sintra’s train route is the most congested in Europe, as is the road network between the capital and the town.  That gives you some sense of how popular the area is.  

A Day in Sintra: Sculptures
beautiful old sculptures.
For once, despite the prospect of the walk/hike we had in store for the day, I was really excited about the prospect.    And that’s not my normal response when faced with a day of climbing.    Also, I knew they sold beer in the main town, so I could sit and rest my weary legs later in the evening. 

Sintra Town:
The town of Sintra is as colourful as the Palace, with the main square of Sao Martinho housing Sintra National Palace in addition to a lovely mix of cafés and stores.

It is a charming and historic town, nestled in the foothills of the Sintra de Terra mountain range and has long been a popular retreat of royalty. 
Although not as famous as some of the other sights at Sintra, there is much to see and do here that doesn’t involve the National Palace.    For example, the glorious MonserrateSeteais Palace (which is now a luxury hotel) are equally picturesque and worthy of some gawking.     
I particularly enjoyed working out what on earth was being represented by some of the large sculptures at the side of the road into town.  I didn’t know then and I’m still clueless, tbh.   They were very pretty, though.  

Sintra National Palace:
The palace sits in the main square of Sao Martinho and is the best preserved Royal residence in Portugal.    This is largely due to the fact that it was so well used for such a long period of time, meaning that it was also very well maintained.

After parting with around 8.5 Euros, you can wander around the palace at your leisure, checking out the interior of the gorgeous white washed structure.   Some of the highlights, for me, were working out just what the two massive chimneys were for that I could see from the road (they’re from the Vista de Cozinha or kitchen), as well as the opulent Swans Hall and Magpie and Arab Rooms.  

We visited the Palace in February, so it wasn’t uncomfortably busy and this ensured we weren’t vying for all the good views.  Also: it meant we could take lots of stupid posed photographs without enduring quite so many odd looks.

Portugal is world famous for tile and, once you check out the decoration on display at the Palace, you will immediately see why.  It’s really outstanding and that makes it all the more difficult not to run your hands over it.

A Day in Sintra: National Palace
the iconic chimneys of the National Palace in Sintra town
Castelo dos Mouros:
The Moorish Castle sits on a hilltop in the Sintra Mountains and is at the end of a pretty long walk up a very steep, winding hill.    It is worth the effort, though.   

The North Face of the Castle offers unrivalled views of the valley below its location was key in ensuring the safety of the area and its people from marauding armies.  Plus, to be honest, if you led your guys all the way up that hill, the chances of you having enough energy left to fight were slim and none.   Honestly – it’s knackering – and that was winter.    I can’t begin to imagine visiting in the height of summer.

The castle was built in the 8th and 9th Century during the Muslim occupation of the area and this is very much reflected in the appearance.      It is well preserved, but nowhere near the condition of the National Palace of Pena.   

Today, the Castle remains and has been added to somewhat with the addition of wooden panels, which actually fit really well with the original solid stone building.   You can wander around the site and visit the Chapel, before taking time out to walk along the outer walls and marvel at the view. 

Pena Palace:
The National Palace was the summer residence for the Portuguese Royal Family in the 18th and 19th Century and was constructed on the 16th Century remains of The Order of Jerome Monastery, which might well account for its remote and peaceful location.  I don’t know of many city centre Monasteries.   

A rail track was built between the capital in Lisbon and Sintra in the late 1800’s and, by the mid 20th Centre, the area was a draw for artists (pun intended), authors, musicians, as well as a millionaire or two. 

The Palace sits high above the town, on the mountain side and can be seen, on good days, from Lisbon itself.   I didn’t see it, personally, but then again, I have no sense of direction, so would have no idea where to look.    But moving on…

This really is the jewel in the crown of the entire range of Sintra attractions and still functions as a venue for really posh shindigs.   It is also one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal and an UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right. 

It’s difficult to describe just how surreal the palace looks on approach and, as I said earlier, it’s reminiscent of something from a fairy tale.   Apart from the design and construction, the different colours of the exterior serve to make it all the more special.   The interior is equally impressive, and as with the Moorish Castle, the views from the turrets are outstanding.  

A Day in Sintra: Pena Palace

A Day in Sintra: Pena Palace
this is actually real

Parque de Sintra:
There is a LOT of walking to be done within the confines of the national park, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more stunning setting to do it in.   I knew there would be a few miles in the day, so put on my MapMyWalk app for the duration.   By the time I returned to the train station late afternoon, we’d clocked up 12.5 miles.    And that was just from wandering around the town and making it up to Pena Palace and back.   And, I might have taken a few wrong turns, but whatever… 
On a clear day, the views are breath taking and when your walk ends high in the mountains, at least you know getting back down won’t be half as difficult.  

A Day in Sintra: National Park
Even the swans have impressive castles here

If you can manage it, it’s a great experience and there’s so much to see on the way up the mountain.  It is very steep in parts, though, so do be mindful of it on your way up.    On the way down, you can console yourself, as I did, with the knowledge that there’s a plentiful supply of red wine in Sintra town, just awaiting your arrival.    It’s amazing how much more energy you can suddenly muster up when you know you’re only half a mile from the nearest bar….

If you are travelling to Lisbon, you’d be crazy to be so close to this incredible sight and not take a day out to explore it.   It really is a magical area and I have forgiven LT for dragging me out of bed at the crack of dawn and making me walk 12.5 miles up the side of a mountain.   Almost.  

Suzanne x