Blog

Travel

Worldwide: Festive Friday 2!

We have had some incredible feedback following our first post in the #FestiveFriday series. Today we take you to two countries that are miles apart with different traditions. The things they have in common however are the passion the two writers have for their respective countries and the festival they celebrate! 

We loved learning about Guatemala from Ale’s last blogpost, now we get to indulge in her Christmas traditions!

One of my favorite things of Christmas in Guatemala is the sense of unity and family that is created in the environment. All throughout December, Guatemalans host different types of events in order to spend quality time with people they love. A very common event is a “convivio”, which is basically a party where friends, family, or co-workers (depending on who hosted it) gather and celebrate that the year is almost over and simply spend a fun time together. Most of the time, convivios have different types of games where you can win prizes, food (of course) and/or a gift exchange.
Ale Xmas.jpgSince Guatemala is still a predominantly Catholic country, one of our traditions is having a “posada”; an event symbolising the pilgrimage of the virgin Mary and Joseph on their departure from Nazareth to Bethlehem, awaiting the birth of Jesus. This tradition consists in leading a procession through the streets and at the end, stop by some houses to receive a snack; traditionally, people should offer tamales or chuchitos, sweet bread, and punch (fruit punch is prepared differently in Guate). The procession is accompanied with candles, carols and instruments.
Some big local companies also host free events where everyone is invited. There are two big events in my city; the inauguration of the biggest Christmas tree in Guatemala, the Árbol Gallo (Gallo is the name of the beer company who is hosting the event), and a fireworks show called Luces Campero (sort of like Macy’s 4th of July show in NYC). Both of these events have some acts before the main spectacle begins, such as ballet, national artists, etc.
Apart from events, we also come together by decorating our homes. In Guatemala it is rare to buy a real pine tree; we mostly have the plastic ones sitting in the garage waiting to be decorated. However, one of the traditions is commemorating the birth of Jesus by placing a representation below the tree these are called “el nacimiento”. Nacimientos are decorated with a layer of moss, pine leaves, sawdust of all the colors you can imagine, and little clay characters to represent everyone that attended the birth of Jesus. Personally, this was one of my favourite memories when I was little, since my sister and I had the freedom to decorate it however we liked!
Kathleen thrilled us with her tales of German joke books, now she has a festive story to tell! 
Kathleen Xmas

As some of you might know, I went to Kiel in 2015 as part of my year abroad at university (and those who don’t, I don’t know how because I haven’t shut up about it since). Christmas in Kiel was one of the most magical things I’d ever experienced. There was a huge market by the central station – admittedly, a rat once ran over my foot there, but I was feeling very festive and chose to consider it as more of a Christmas rat – and I was struck by the amount of camraderie and happy feeling around all the people there. No one actually seemed to buy anything from the many little huts around the square, but the Glühwein was flowing and there was almost always some kind of local band playing a Christmas tune or two. When Kate came to visit (namedrop to the editor), we went to Lübeck and marvelled at the marzipan towers on the main square. When other friends came, we went to Hamburg to try the Christmas rides firsthand.

I feel like I should give a short introduction to my former landlady at this point. Her name is Renate, she is the most spritely 67 year old I’ve ever met and she spoils me absolutely rotten. Because there aren’t any young people in my village, she has taken me under her wing. Are we best friends? I don’t know, but we exchange excellent WhatsApp chain mails and she insists on bringing over dinner in a Tupperware every Friday night so I don’t have to cook over the weekend. When I get a call from Renate asking me to go with her on a coach trip to a historic Christmas market, what’s a gal going to do? Obviously accept. So she signed me up with her (other) best friend, Barbara, for a Christmas market tour.

Kathleen Xmas 2The coach came to pick us up from our village centre and we went, via Cottbus, to our destination. I was the only person on this bus under the age of 64. I know this so precisely because Barbara is 64. The bar opened obscenely early on board the coach; the woman next to me had three half bottles of wine for under a tenner and all before midday. The journey took us about three and a half hours, but I was ready; this was going to be the best Christmas market I’d ever been to! A medieval town in Saxony, on the Elbe, totally off the beaten track for non-Germans! There was a distracting interlude in the afternoon which involved eating half a goose and going on a boat trip with the Saxon equivalent of John Bishop, but we eventually got there at quarter to four. Remember this, quarter to five.

“Right everyone, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Time to go and explore the Christmas market! Remember, everyone needs to be back on the coach by ten to six!”
Ten to six? Maybe I’d got the devilish German time telling wrong (who says three quarters eight when they mean quarter to nine??) and they meant six to ten? Oddly specific, but not unheard of in the land of punctuality. But no, she said ten to six. I didn’t really understand why we’d driven for nearly four hours and been subjected to such John Bishopry for two hours in order to stay there for an hour.

I soon understood why. The stalls all fit one of four profiles: Glühwein, baubles, gingerbread, candied nuts. They were all ever so slightly expensive for what they were. The light sleet in the air was making everything damp, but at the same time not damp enough to feel wet. Renate, Barbara and I only actually spent 20 minutes at the market – there was absolutely no Christmas feeling whatsoever. A man was telling me on the bus about how he came a few years ago and there were Czech craftsmen making ornaments for people to take home with them – where were they now?

Unfortunately, this seems all too prevalent in the New Bundesländer (former East Germany). The markets are full of aging adults, with children too old to come to the Christmas markets but not old enough to have grandchildren of their own, and who aren’t willing to shout about how much they love Christmas. That said, I was in Bautzen a few weeks ago and there were children and young people filling up the main squares of the town. But the stalls were all the same, everywhere I went. A true German Christmas experience you’re looking for? Head north. Try out the Lüneborg or Lübeck markets. Say hello to the Christmas rat in Kiel, wherever s/he may be. And bring the enthusiasm with you! Don’t expect the market to do all the Christmassing for you; drink as much Glühwein (or Apfelpunch! Great non-alcoholic alternative) as you can stomach and bully your friend into trying a Feuerzangenbowle – hot wine with a sugar lump balanced on top and set on fire!

Follow both of them on their travels via their social media:

Ale:  http://marialevasquez.wixsite.com/doslunares  http://instagram.com/doslunaresgt/

Kathleen: https://twitter.com/_mrsbruhl  

Advertisements
Travel

Budapest, Hungary: Castles Galore!

You may have seen pictures of Budapest all over Instagram! It has quickly become one of the hottest places to visit in Europe thanks to cheap flights and lots of culture. I was quite jealous when my sister went late last year and was over the moon when Katie from Love Kat submitted her hidden gem!

Editor Kate’s sister! @pip_eats

In December 2018, I travelled to the beautiful city of Budapest, Hungary for the New Year celebrations with my boyfriend. For anyone that has been to Budapest I am sure you will agree it is one of the most beautiful European cities. To anyone that hasn’t been I would definitely recommend that you get flights booked right now!

Throughout our trip to Budapest we visited all of the top places advised on Pinterest and Trip Advisor – But we also had the privilege to find Vajdahunyad Castle. We found this castle by complete chance and the views from the top of it are spectacular. Although it is not as big or impressive as Buda Castle, it is like something out of a fairy tale and is such a nice scenic walk away from the hustle and bustle of the inner city!

I live in Ireland which has over 30,000 castles and castle ruins North and South of the border but I will admit Vajdahunyad Castle is by far the most romantic and picturesque castle I have ever had the pleasure to walk around.

Vajdanhunyad Castle is located in the City Park by the boating lake / skating rink but if you weren’t staying within this area of Budapest it would be so easy to miss. It is also really close to the Szechenyi Baths and Heroes Square so there really is no excuse as to why only a few people visit it when in Budapest!

The castle was built in 1896, and is a fantasy pastiche showcasing the architectural evolution through centuries and styles in Hungary. The castle is the home of several festivals, concerts and the exhibitions of the Hungarian Agricultural Museum. Vajdahunyad Castle brings together some of the finest structures in Hungarian architecture into a single eclectic palace featuring styles from the Middle Ages to the 18th century: Romanesque, Gothic Renaissance, Baroque buildings, from the Romanesque church of the village Jak to the Baroque palace of Prince Paul Esterhazy I.

Because there are so many different styles of architecture you feel like you are travelling back in time as you walk through each section of the castle. The Hungarian Agricultural Museum is also really different and is good visit on a rainy day or if you have nothing planned – it is really well put together between the animal exhibitions, the agriculture section and the historic remains it was really interesting and well spent two hours!

On the day that we visited there was lots of little ice cream and donut vendors within the grounds which was good as you could take a break, have something to eat and relax before continuing to explore. While we were there we were lucky enough to sign up for a tour of part of the castle and to find out a little bit more about the history of Budapest, the tour itself wasn’t fantastic as you couldn’t always hear the tour guide however the views from the top of the castle tower were phenomenal.

This area is about a 15 – 20 minute walk from Central Budapest so there is no need for public transport or taxis unless it is raining, when we were there it was like -2 degrees, freezing, windy but it was dry so walking everywhere allowed us to warm up while seeing the entire city! There are so many places we found that we know we never would have come across if we hadn’t of walked everywhere!

As the castle is built within City Park, you could easily spend an entire day within this part of the city – you could go ice skating on the rink in Winter or have a picnic on the lovely grounds surrounding the castle in Spring. The grounds surrounding the castle are lovely to just walk around as they are so scenic and quiet, this area is perfect for everyone and anyone from couples to families there is something for everyone!

Travel

Warsaw, Poland: The Sweetheart of Central Europe

Ever thought about visiting Poland? If not, why not! Ania from The Filth of the Void has written a comprehensive guide to what to expect in Warsaw!

The year is 1944, Poland is in the midst of a fighting back against a powerful, destructive force, the Nazi army. Although the war began in 1939, it was 1944 which was the year that seemed to have sealed Poland’s fate as the world watched Warsaw burst into flames. Once a city of music, romance and dance now nothing but a pile of ash and brick, an unrecognisable landscape of misery.

So how come is it 2018 and Warsaw is cropping up on travel sites already? What’s with the adverts of cheap flights to Warsaw? Chopin’s city and the birthplace of Marie Curie, two of Europe’s greatest heroes.

Not even 100 years since the war, whilst the world continued spinning for a lot of Western countries, Warsaw was silently rebuilding itself, giving itself a new brand and logo. Progress being escalated by the fall of communism and rise of solidarity and democracy, Warsaw has brushed the dust off its shoulders and opened its arms to the world, welcoming new tourists, businesses and residents alike.

Before travelling to any foreign country, it’s a good idea to do your research and where else to start but the Internet! The trouble with Warsaw is, year after year it is evolving, so it’s difficult to navigate through countless reviews and blog posts as they expire quickly and aren’t usually a viable source of information a year down the line.

So this post was designed to give you some comprehensive tips to modern Warsaw that will not expire within a few years.

Take a full day to experience Old Town

Rebuilt to its pre-war glory, Old Town is a part of Warsaw that was rebuilt from scraps of blueprints and old photographs. This is the little gem of Warsaw that lets you experience the capital without the chaos of glass skyscrapers and constant traffic. Old Town is a world of its own pocketed away near the Vistula River that splits the Phoenix City right down the middle. With narrow alley ways and cobbled streets that break off into quiet areas of greenery, Old Town has an atmosphere like no other part of Warsaw has yet achieved. Although on a map it may seem like quite a small area, I would definitely recommend taking an entire day to fully appreciate this place. Why not start with a trip to the Royal Castle Museum? Rebuilt according to old documents, it has a large collection of artefacts, paintings and historical information worth noting.

When you’re outside of the Castle, I say good luck picking a place to sit down and eat or have a drink! Old Town is packed to the brim with restaurants, cafes and bars, all of which are unique in their own way. Whether you wish to taste some traditional Polish cuisine or stick to the safe side of international dishes, there will definitely be a place for you in Old Town.

It’s very easy to get caught up in Old Town’s central market square but I recommend exploring every little alley and cobble street you can see. A lot of pre-war buildings have stories and art carved into them, differentiating in colour and style. You’ll find a lot of sites remembering those that fought during WW2, painting an incredible picture of the past.

Currency, pricing and shopping

The very centre of Warsaw is a collection of skyscrapers, communist style residential buildings and shops with neon signs, enticing you to spend money. Poland has it’s own currency called Zloty which literally translates to ‘gold’. If you’re looking to change your money over, go to an exchange counter either inside a shopping centre or a random one in a more residential area. Whatever you do, avoid airports and Old Town exchange counters as they tend to lower their rates by two to three zloty per pound.

If you’re travelling from the UK, Poland will seem extremely cheap, as every pound is worth anywhere between 4.50zl and 5.20zl (subject to changed of course). Now don’t get put off with how cheap everything seems. Cheap doesn’t mean bad in this circumstance. You’ll find a meal at a restaurant or street food to take out will cost you what you’d consider spare change. Renting an apartment can also be a cheap alternative to an international branded hotel, so make sure to have a good stalk through booking.com.

You’ll find when it comes to shops and shopping centres, Warsaw definitely doesn’t lack in places to spend your money. Economical growth has attracted the likes of Sephora, Zara, Mac and many, many other international brands to the market. This means they are everywhere and have been popping up all around the place. Definitely go to Golden Terraces shopping centre in the heart of Warsaw for a true, almost Parisian, shopping experience.

Watch out however, because when it comes to international brands, pricing isn’t too different. For example if you buy a scarf in H&M and it seems really cheap, in reality, put it back into pounds and it’s not much different to what you’d pay in the UK.

Museums, monuments and memorial sites

Between the rows of apartments, glossy window displays and countless parks, you’ll find Warsaw to be quietly remembering it’s past all over the city. Although some less noticeable than other, Warsaw is peppered with monuments and memorial sites in dedication to the soldiers and nurses of WW2. This Phoenix City takes a lot of pride in it’s achievements but it will only be obvious if it’s what you’re looking for. If you choose less popular streets to go down, where tourists are less likely to reside, you’ll find plenty of stones, statues and flowers laid down by the residents.

Or on the other hand, you could visit one of many Warsaw’s museums. The Museums of the History of Polish Jews is an award winning museum with fascinating structures that takes at least a few hours to explore. I’d also recommend the Warsaw Uprising museum, which takes you back into the haunting past of the city.

Museums overall tend to be quite cheap in Warsaw, and there are times when they are free or slightly discounted, especially for children, students or the elderly. Try and fit some museums into your trip and see for yourself the magic of Warsaw.

Parks, parks everywhere!

Who says a city can’t be green? A simply google of ‘Warsaw Parks’ is proof in itself that a city can be green and functional. Warsaw has acres of park and forest land that take hours each to explore, each different to the last. Enjoy some free outdoor piano concerts at Lazienki Park or visit a royal castle at Wilanow Castle and bathe in the sun while you’re at it.

If sitting around in greenery is not your thing, have a visit of the Multimedia Fountain Park, where during summer you can watch fountain shows in the dark.

You’ll find that the locals are very respectful of their surroundings and cherish what they have. This will be reflected in the cleanliness of the parks so I suggest keeping your rubbish in your pocket until you see a bin.

Customs and the little details

Did you know, j-walking can get you fined in Warsaw? Warsaw can be a very chaotic city especially during rush hour, and j-walking is very frowned upon and can get you fined if spotted by the police. Always keep to your crossings!

While Polish people don’t expect you to know Polish at all, a simple ‘thank you’ at a restaurant or ‘good morning’ as you enter a shop can completely change the atmosphere and light up the face of whoever is serving you. Little independent delicatessen and cafes are usually family run, and their English won’t be as good as lets say the customer service in Sephora. So a little hello or goodbye is highly appreciated and will definitely go a long way for that person.

When it comes to tipping in Poland, it is expected but not necessary. While your server may not be happy about it, you’re by no means obliged to give a tip when you finish your meal. Also, if you’re in a tourist hotspot, look out for a service charge on your bill, in which case tipping is definitely not necessary.

In family run food businesses, there will usually be a jar by the cash register. In this case, just drop in a coin or too while you’re paying for your food. That is already classed as a tip and you’ll notice it will be greatly appreciated by the business. Personally, I usually try to tip with a one zlote coin or a two zlote coin. In British pound, this translates to around 20p but it is actually a lot more valuable in Poland.

The best way to enjoy Warsaw overall is not to rush. From district to district there will always be something new to discover and something new to enjoy. With the prices of food and accommodation being so cheap, a two week stay is not difficult to plan. Warsaw is always extremely cyclist friendly and has a well thought out public transport system. Getting around can be really easy with those, but if you’re wanting a more private option, Uber has a network of hundreds of drivers around the city, so you’re never far from your next taxi. With the vastness of history and architecture the city hides in the oddest places, it really is a place of wonder that can for some be really addictive.

Travel

Liverpool, UK: Capital of Culture

You don’t always have to venture far from home to have a relaxing break! Liverpool is the perfect place for those culture vultures amongst you.

Ten years on from celebrating its statue as European Capital of Culture 2008, Liverpool has placed itself at the forefront on all matters cultural. As a semi-native (I come from just across the water) I am proud to consider Liverpool as my home city. With a cornucopia of restaurants, bars and museums you could never get bored in this great city.

Currently running in the city is the Liverpool Biennial. The city-wide art event happens every other year; each time with a different theme. This year we are experiencing the artists interpretation of “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” I was lucky enough to volunteer at a partner exhibition called This is Shanghai, which has now ended but celebrated the historic link between the two metropolises. So far on the Biennial crawl, I have checked out the installation at the Tate Liverpool and at the Bluecoat. Both specialising in modern art these two galleries are at the heart of the city centre and provide cultural respite for those wanting to get away from the standard British high street experience.

If you follow me over on Instagram then you will no doubt know that I have a penchant for architecture of all kinds. This love of mine was probably started off at a young age when I saw all the different styles of buildings that Liverpool has to offer. From the modernist Metropolitan Cathedral to the classic Georgian Quarter, you can travel through dozens of styles in a matter of minutes each one as stunning as the last.

By now you might be getting a little peckish. I would if I were you! I’ve recommended it before but I’ll recommend it again. Mowgli Street Food will never disappoint. Recently, I treated myself to a delicious Chip Butty at their Water Street location that satisfied my cravings for fried potatoes, chillies and scrummy carbohydrates all in one go. Liverpool has a fantastic independent scene and you can find out more about that over at Independent Liverpool. In fact, it can be quite difficult to go out to eat in a chain restaurant because the homegrown culinary offering dominates! Other eateries I would highly recommend include Maray, Lucha Libre and East Avenue Bakehouse.

I’ll leave you with one final suggestion. And trust me I’ve left the best until last! The World Museum has the honour of hosting an incredible exhibition of the world-famous Terracotta warriors. The exhibition has been on for a few months now and will wrap up at the end of October so there is still time to go and see a once in a generation event! When I heard that only a few of the warriors were actually being shown on display I was sceptical about how much I would enjoy it but there is so much more to it that just them! If you’ve ever had an interest in Chinese history then I can assure you it is worth the trip.

There are a few negative stereotypes about Liverpool that the citizens are doing their best to dispel, why don’t you make the journey up for yourself and see what it’s all about?

Travel

Bilbao, Spain: Aste Nagusia

More Native Than The Natives is back! After a well deserved holiday, our editor has been inspired to share the delights of her new favorite city…

Trawling the internet for cheap holiday ideas during peak summer season, I stumbled across a gem in Northern Spain. My criteria for a holiday includes good food, nice wine, temperate weather and a smattering of culture thrown in. Bilbao fitted my series of requirements and had reasonably priced flights from Manchester on the dates required. While searching for accommodation however I realised that all of the hotels were booked up. What could be the reason behind this? After a little more digging I learned that during our time in this gem of the Basque Country it was the local fiesta week or Aste Nagusia in the local Basque language. This pushed us into booking an Airbnb right in the heart of the Old Town so that we could be in the middle of the action.

Aste Nagusia translates as Big Week and by Jove do they mean that! If you’ve ever read Hemmingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises then you may have an inkling of what goes on. If not, I don’t blame you the novel takes a while to get going! We arrived a day after the celebrations started and tried playing festive catch up throughout our five days in this fine city!

Along the banks of the Neviron river that splices the city into two halves there were pop up bars, food stands and stalls selling nationalist Basque T-shirts. To truly explore our first taste of the fiesta we decide to order a drink and wander through this cacophony of partying. I plumped for a local wine called txakoli which was served in a plastic cup emblazoned with the logos of the fiesta. During the week, we watched traditional Basque dancing in the main square, followed giant figurines as they paraded through the streets and danced the night away to a ska-punk flash mob that materialized outside a bar we were drinking in! If you have a chance to visit or would like to experience what the locals do during their time off then this is the place and time for you!

My main reason for wanting to visit Bilbao was to pay homage to the famous contemporary art museum, the Guggenheim. This Frank Gehry designed building has captivated me for a while now and the idea of having lots of the most famous sculptures dotted around the outside of the gallery gave this traditional city a beautiful avant-garde feel. My favourite piece was Richard Serre’s The Matter of Time which is the only permanent installation that not only celebrates the history of steel work in the region but has the feeling of the mythological labyrinth where time doesn’t matter. I won’t spoil it anymore as I truly believe it has to be experienced to be understood properly. This year, I have had my own mini-renaissance where I have rediscovered my love of art. I realized that not being the most knowledgeable about artists or art movements didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy experiencing art and my trip to Bilbao has definitely cemented that in my mind. We saw an incredible exhibition at the Bilbao Museum of Fine Art that is celebrating its 110th year with an exhibition of 110 works describing the history of Basque and Spanish art. We saw everything from medieval depictions of the Madonna to contemporary sculptural pieces and everything in between!

Feeling peckish? I am after reliving all of these wonderful experiences I have suddenly started craving some good Basque grub! You will most probably have heard of tapas but in this region of Spain pinchos are at the forefront of the culinary offering. Lined up along the counter of small long bars all over the city you order something alongside your beverage. We tried them all! From sandwiches of local jamon to skewers of olives, anchovies and spicy peppers, there is something for everyone. In fact, we loved this style of grazing that we didn’t sit down for a proper meal for our entire trip! We simply started at one end of the city at around lunchtime and meandered back to our apartment via the quirky little bars that line the streets. Our favorite eateries included the stalwart of the city, Café Iruna and the sublime Victor Montes on Plaza Nueva.

For a city of its size, Bilbao has an incredible amount to offer! The locals are so friendly and love for you to try and speak to them in Basque. The food is out of this world. The art moves you beyond belief. And finally, no one gets up until 11am so you’ll be well rested when you have to drag yourself away!

Travel

London, UK: A Weekend in The Smoke

I have many fond memories of visiting London as a child and now I’m an adult I get to explore and marvel in the unique architecture the city had to offer…

The best bit about moving back to the UK is that I have enough time and money to travel. Luckily, I have a job that isn’t your 9-5, with a boss that’s fab and that gives me enormous amounts of satisfaction! I thought I was living the dream in Paris but actually this is pretty close to it.

My latest trip was to spend some time with my friend who lives in London. Whenever I see a reasonably priced train ticket then I send her a text to see if I’m welcome to crash at hers and to wander around the Capital together.

Lots of other people might sniff at visiting a garden on a trip to London but not me! I’ve recently caught the gardening bug and I have a growing collection of cacti and succulents on my window sill. We went to the Chelsea Physic Garden which is a paradise in the centre of the city.

The garden was opened in the 1600s and continues to be a haven of relaxation, a centre of scientific research and a fantastic day out.

We made the most of the free guided tour by one of the volunteer guides who was so incredibly knowledgeable I could have listened to her for hours.

Whenever I book a train down to London I like to plan on some time to wander around and to scout out some interesting buildings without having to drag anyone else there. I particularly like walking from Euston to Victoria via Carnaby street where I can soak up all of the colours of the city while partaking in some retail therapy.

Another place I like to wander through is Hyde Park. We bought a few cans of gin and tonic and parked ourselves on a bench to catch up as the sunset before checking out the installation on the Serpentine Lido which has to be seen in person to really be admired!