Spend a Day in Tantalizing TALLINN…

Spend a Day in Tantalizing Tallinn…

Surrounded by medieval walls, the UNESCO old down of Tallinn is a sensational display of the historic Baltic Sea. The capital of Estonia is steeped in Russian, Finnish and even history of the Huns.

There are several points in the wall were you can climb the stone staircases into the turrets. The fort is a museum open to tourists, where you can see the old battlements and even stone drop toilets.

Tallinn’s Churches

Home to 4 major churches and numerous small chapels, Tallinn shows a variety of different denominational places at their most beautiful.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the most iconic church in Tallinn. It symbolizes the time of the Russian Occupation in the 1800’s.  The architecture is fabulous, and the orthodox icons are spectacular.

St Mary’s Cathedral is a must see, although it is plain and white it is filled with the real coats of arms of the important families in Estonia, dating back to the medieval times.

St Nicholas’ Church at the center of Tallinn is full of ecclesiastical art, and features an amazing museum with artwork dating back to the 13th century.

There are many more old chapels dotted around, some hard to find. They are full of old wooden panels with painted iconography.

The Vibe of the Town is Terrific!!

This is a town where culture, food and drink come together in a market town square. Cobble stones bounce laughter and clinking glasses with the buildings creating a noisy and atmospheric energy, making the afternoon and evening into a really lively event. The beer is cheap, the food is fulling – I tried an Estonian delicacy of bear stew with a beer. Yes there are a few stag nights, but sometimes this adds a good vibe… even if you have to cringe inwardly on occasion!!

Tallinn has so many hidden alleys offering cafe’s and wine bars so you don’t have to stay in the town center. We found an amazing wine bar off an alley that was lined with old tomb stones dating back to 1500’s!!!

Tallinn is a jewel in the Baltic’s crown. It really does offer history and culture!!

 

‘TRANSPORTATION TO THE COLONIES’

Celebrating 230 years of My Australian History

10th January 1787 – The day that made me Australian

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Australians are very disappointed when they find they are not from convict stock. But, for those who have the privilege of descending from the founders of the British Colony of Australia (even if it wasn’t by choice) we can celebrate a proud heritage.

At the time Captain Cook claimed the southern land of Terra Australis for King George III in 1770, there were a lot of European noses sniffing around this vast and inspiring land. The French were hovering in Polynesia and Vietnam, the Dutch East Indies Trading Company was stretching their trade into the close by islands of Indonesia, and recently a kangaroo was found in a Portuguese Bible pre-dating the first documented discovery of Australia.

In fact, Encounter Bay in South Australia is named after an interception between Napoleon’s favourite explorer, Captain Baudin and Matthew Finders in 1802. Such a vast and impressive country was prime land for colonisation and domination by powerful European Empires.

A Time to Steal Aprons and Demand Gin…

3rd January 1787 – Soho London, on a Washing Day.

Poland St, London
Poland St, London

It can’t have been a particularly cold day because Mary Hayward was going to hang her washing outside to dry. Mary and Francis Hayward were cheese-mongers at 35 Poland Street, London. Francis Hayward sold their wares at the closely situated John St, Golden Square, which is near Carnaby and Regent Street. My Ancestor Elizabeth Bruce and her mate, Elizabeth Anderson, were having a day ‘up town’ – a far cry from their day job of selling soap on the street in the slums of Spitalfields. They were on an ‘inventory’ hunt, deciding to add to their items ‘for sale’. But…. they got caught!!

'Gin Lane' by William Hogarth
‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth

Mr Hayward spied them perusing the offers inside his wife’s washing basket, selecting 2 aprons and 2 tablecloths. I can only imagine how the following events unfolded as it all seems too convenient! According to the sworn testimony of Mr Hayward, Lizzy A knocked on the door (after just nicking the aprons) and ‘Demanded Gin’.

I’m not quite sure how this went down: “Please sir, can I have some Gin?’, ‘Got any Gin Sir?’, ‘Hey! Gimme some Gin!’ or my suspicion – ‘Would you like some Gin? (because I just caught you stealing my wife’s washing and I need to distract you while I call the constable)’ Either way Lizzy A was ecstatic that she was getting Gin and followed Mr Hayward into his parlour! My Ancestor, Lizzy B, wanted a drink too; She demanded beer instead, and having trapped his linen thieves in the front parlour, Mr Hayward fetched the constable.

Trial by Jury at the Old Baileyold-bailey

Justice Wilson was charged with a task: American Independence was won in 1776 and England’s jails were filling up again as they could no longer send their convicts to the Americas. Since 1740, the population of England had increased considerably, with London full of unemployed people and a never-ending supply of gin. The Crown needed a solution to three problems: where to put new criminals when the jails were overcrowded; How to curb the unemployed gin-drinkers pilfering the streets of London; and how to populate, develop and defend the new-founded British Australia.

On the 10th of January 1787, in my opinion, my fortunate ancestor and her best friend, Elizabeth Bruce and Elizabeth Anderson – gin and beer drinking, unemployed petty-criminals – got to participate in an event forever marked in history: they were first passengers on the First Fleet of Convicts, sent to found the colony of New South Wales.

After hearing the sworn testimonies of Mr & Mrs Hayward, the Constable of Poland Street, and the pitiful defence of the Lizzies, Justice Wilson had an easy task… ‘Transportation and 7 years hard labour in the Colonies’.

The First Fleet of 11 ships left Portsmouth on the 13th of May 1787. The Lizzies were on the Lady Penrhyn. 

A Toast – to Elizabeth Bruce

On this day, after 230 years, I am toasting you from the steps of the Old Bailey, London. I am holding up a nip of GIN in your honour.

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A Cruising day in Copenhagen

A Cruising Day in COPENHAGEN

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Get that Hygge Feeling…

Copenhagen is right up there of popular places to visit in Europe – and we can see why. On a sunny day (which are apparently on the rare side) Copenhagen has a warm an vibrant feeling. I’m sure it has the same feeling on a rainy day, but be sure to rug up!! As the first stop of our Baltic Cruise we docked into the port and our first stop was the ‘Little Mermaid’. I think as tourists we are expected to overwhelmed with every national icon and memorial, but I am standing tall and announcing that we were underwhelmed with slightly compact statue that, if it wasn’t on our path into town, we would have been slightly miffed. It is a bit of a schlep along the docks.

Nyhavn

It’s the central focus of the waterways in Copenhagen. With our luck in the weather department on this cruise, we were able to enjoy it at its finest. The colours of the building lining the dock, as well as the old fishing boats create a really cool atmosphere and there is plenty of icecream to be had!!! In fact every second shop along the dock is an icecream parlour. It seems to be a bit of a Copenhagen specialty.

 

Palaces and Gardens

Copenhagen is home to the oldest royal family in Europe. Amelienborg Palace makes one of the main squares in Copenhagen, home to the current day queen, Margrethe II and Prince Henrik. In a similar set up to Buckingham Palace in London, there is a changing of the royal guards at 12pm every day.

The Royal Library and Gardens are a lovely courtyard garden to have lunch or coffee at the cafe. The gardens are situated between the Christianborg Palace and the Royal Library.

The Tivoli Gardens is a famous amusement park situated close to the town hall. It was opened in 1843, making it one of the world’s first amusement parks. This is a great place to visit at Christmas time.

Rosenborg Castle is one of the oldest castles in the town of Copenhagen. It has extensive gardens and art installations. Fortunately, it is on the walk back to the ship, and leads towards the old Fort of Copenhagen, which is worth looking at too. It features windmills and military barracks, dating back to 1664 it was created in the shape of a star with a moat at high earth mounds.

 

Verona

Verona

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Day 7 & 8 – ‘Central European Alps by Train’

I have to say that the train ride from Innsbruck to Verona was one of the most picturesque of the trip! We wound through mountain valleys, past spectacular waterfalls and emmerged trough the alpine into the Dolomite Mountains with their foothills covered in old grape vines and apple trees.

Verona is a friendly and relaxed city. If you want to get away from the major tourist centres of Italy, this old Roman town offers food, shopping and historic architecture, and a spectacular view from the top of the Castel San Pietro.

Our apartment was in the centre of the old town, and we can highly recommend it. Corte Realdi was contemporary, yet keeping with the renascence these that heavily features in Verona. And what more so than the Casa do Giuletta, inspiring Shakespear’s story of Romeo and Juliet.

The atmosphere at Arena do Venrona is buzzing during the evening. A large crescent of eateries offer traditional Italian food. We dined at Restorante Liston 12 and ate spaghetti di vongle. If you are looking for something slightly off the beaten path, I can recommend Di Trentin Agostino in Via Fratta near the Castelvecchio. They prepare a mean platter di mare!

We are sad to be leaving the land of Aperol Spritz, as I think we could recommend staying and exploring new the region of Verona and its neighbouring countyside full of medieval castles.

Salzburg and Hallstatt

Day 4-5 of the Central European Alps Train Journey


imageWe took the train from Munich and arrived in the picturesque city of Salzburg in under 2 hours.

Day 4 – Salzburg Cruise, Dinner and Concert

Before our very cultured evening we strolled around the Mariabell Palace taking in the immaculate gardens and spectacular view over the fortress in the distance.

Our cruise on the river Salzch took is past the medieval old town. We were guided along the river with interesting points of history, identifiable buildings and of course the reason behind the rivers name- Salt and the mining of it over the centuries.

Our dinner was delicious and featured spectacular views over the city from the panoramic terrace of the fortress. We had a divine bottle of Austrian white wine- a Weißburgener.

The Mozart concert was held in the Golden Hall of the Salzburg Fortress. The octet with a featured pianist pliers through Mozart’s better known pieces. It was a slightly surreal experience Bing in the birthplace of Mozart and listening to his music played high above the city!

Day 5 – Leopoldskronschloß and Hallstatt

Leopoldskron Schloß is the external film set for the von Trapp family in the sound of Music. You know the bit where the Countess is having drinks and telling Ct. von Trapp to send the kids to boarding school after they are married? Well it’s that bit. It’s situated at the back of the fortress and the walk is about 2 hours round and back over the fortress to the city.

Hallstatt is 1.5hrs drive from Salzburg. It was really the jewel in the crown of our time here in Austria. It is UNESCO- and from the pics you can see why! It isn’t easy to reach by train; you have to change trains and the station is on the opposite side of the lake- so you have to catch a boat. But….maybe this place is worth a bit of hassle!

Insight Vacations | The Treasures of the Balkans

A Luxury Guided Bus Tour

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Sean and I are very good organisers when it comes to travel around Europe. We are not scared to use the public transport systems or venture off the beaten track. When it comes to the Balkans there is a whole new kettle of fish to consider- ‘interesting'(!!) border crossings, lack of public transport and Cyrillic writing. So, we branched out to a new and unfamiliar form of holiday: The Guided Bus Tour.

Insight Vacations is not really aimed at our demographic. That being said we certainly didn’t feel on the outer dying out trip. In fact we were not the youngest on the tour by far!

Insight Vacations looked after us from the beginning; we were very happy with their updates and attention to detail. As we arrived in Bucharest we were greeted by the tour leader, who had last easy contact d us by email with a welcome introduction.

Staying in great hotels and eating specially selected and local food really made our experience better. There was no guessing- it made the tour so much more relaxing!

Our tour took us through the majestic mountains of Transylvania, across th plains of southern Romania to the old capital of Bulgaria: Veliko Tărnovo.

The new capital of Sophia was surprisingly cosmopolitan and then we were absolutely floored with the newly built Skopje in Macedonia.

Lake Ohrid was spectacular, with the old Byzantine chapel stretching out to the sparkling water.

Albania was a real experience- not to mention the border crossing!

Montenegro and Croatia never fail to please- and with three days to ourselves we had a well needed rest after some packed travelling days.

Bosnia was a real eye opener- we had an amazing experience with a local family in one of the shelled tower blocks. We were able to discuss the siege of Sarajevo with some actual survivors.

Serbia and Belgrade offered some interesting history and we looked over the conference of the Sava and Danube rivers from the Fort.

Finally we made it to Budapest. This was a real Jewel in the crown of our tour, with a Danube Dinner Cruise and an evening at the Gundel Restaurant.

We had a fantastic and unique experience with Insight Vacations, and would not hesitate to travel with again if an itinerary took our fancy!

Sean and I would like to thank Judit (tour leader) and Dario (driver) for making our trip so unforgettable. And we would also like to thank our fellow travellers for being awesome companions!

Sarajevo

Sarajevo | Ready for Tourists

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Most people think of the Balkans War when they think of Bosnia Herzegovina and Sarajevo. I knew nothing about the city itself apart from the shelling and siege of the city.

Sarajevo has a rich and ancient history running all the way back to the Ilyrian tribes who were conquered by the Romans.

The Ottoman Empire was one of the major influences over the eastern architecture with mosques and baths lining the city streets.

Sarajevo is in the area of Herzegovina- and as a present to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor from the Sultan in Istanbul he gifted Bosnia in the north of the country. But, as a clerical error Herzegovina was added to the paperwork and Sarajevo ‘accidentally’ fell into the hand of the Austro-Hungarians in the 18th century. It was, of course, the location of the assassination that sparked the First World War.

The western part of the city is full of Viennese buildings and Catholic Churches, making Sarajevo one of the most interstates cities we have seen in a religions sense.


The city of Sarajevo is littered with what the locals call ‘Roses’. Createds in the streets filled with red paint as a reminder of where the grenades and shells fell during the siege of Sarajevo between 1992-5. Building still have bullet wounds and shell marks, but slowly slowly the city is being repaired and rebuilt from the disaster of war.

The tunnel of life is situated on the side of the airport. It was a 800m tunnel under the UN controlled international airport that was dug and used to provide the struggling citizens of Sarajevo with food, water and fuel supplies. Today you can visit 25m of the tunnel at the Tunnel of Live museum.

Veliko Tarnovo

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Somewhere in the middle of Bulgaria is a city that resembles something out of Star Wars. I am sure that on the green leafy planet there are hanging houses on the side of the cliff with a meandering river below. Well, I can show you that there is such a place in Europe and it is here- in Veliko Tarnovo.

Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the second Bulgarian Empire; wedged in-between the Byzantine and Ottoman occupations of 1100-1350’s. The fortresses surround the beautifully reconstructed fort, church and still house the evidence of an even earlier occupation of the Roman Empire. They even used the old Roman tomb stones to build the walls of the fortress.

The new city- built in the 18th century, is situated on the cliff sides of the Yantra River. The winding streets and authentic houses offer this town such a quaint and picturesque setting conducive to long periods of drinking the local beer and eating gelato! Every now and then there is a gap in the building offering a spectacular view of the Monument Asenevti.

I can recommend the Yantra Hotel– it affords spectacular views of the fort. If you are lucky and it is a holiday in the region there is a light show at night, portraying the history of Veliko Tarnovo and the Bulgarian Kingdoms.

Castles of Transylvania 

 

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Bears, wolves and mountain lions couldn’t keep us from the beautiful Carpathian mountain in Transylvania. In the foothills of the mountains stand two of the most stunning castles of the region-  Bran Castle (home o Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula) and the former summer residence of the King of Romania Peles Castle.

Bran Castle

Built by the Tutonic Knights, a Saxon order from the conquests of Palestine, started the foundations of the castle in 1211. It was used to defend the region from invading Ottomans from the east. Later the castle was home to the Princes of Transylvania including Vlad of the order Draganus and his son Vlad the Impaler. The Castle was rebuilt in the unification of Romania in the mid 1800’s.

 

Peles Castle

Set in the picturesque town of Sinaia, a ski resort in the Carpathian Mountains, is Peles Castle. This castle was built by the first king of Romania in the 1880’s. It is an intricate display of the best of European turn of the 19th century style. It features rooms from the German, French, Italian, Moorish and Turkish styles.

 

A Weekend in Krakow

A Weekend in Krakow

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Krakow is really a hidden treasure only just being discovered by tourists. Despite being only 90mins from Auschwitz, it  has only recently become a must on the European travellers path.

We came to Krakov in May which can be a beautiful month to visit. Everything is green, there are lovely flowers out everywhere, but it can rain a little. The old town is very small and easy to walk around, with plenty of cheap eats, and well as good quality restaurant meals.

Food in Krakow

We ate two very different meals in Krakow. Our first night I had heard about an amazing restaurant that had been open in Krakow since 1364! As we walked in the waiter was slicing the neck of a champagne bottle with a sword! Restaurant Wierzynek is set not far from the main square. It features centuries old wooden beams, painted in old Slavic decorations. The menu is seasonal, with a quality that would match the poshest in London or Paris. I think we paid around £80 for 3 course and a bottle of wine. Really worth it for the experience! (Pics to the left)

Our second evening we found Pod Wawelem is a typical Polish restaurant come pub. If you don’t book you have to wait in a line, and the line is very long. Given the size of the dining area and the length of the line gives you and indication of how popular, but really great it is! The beer is plentiful and the plates full of food are more than generous. AND it is super super cheap!

Krakow Old Town

Krakow has some very distinctive architecture. Similar to many of the Baltic countries, the buildings are plane and ‘blockie’, but the churches, castle and walls of the city are unique. We really loved the Cathedral at the top of the hill. As you can see above it looks like a mish-mash of buildings added onto each other. There is quite a catholic influence in the churches, with some renaissance facades. The main church in the town centre of Krakow is very iconic, with its tall thin towers. There is a trumpeter that still plays some weekend to mark the time. Getting around the old town is relatively easy. There are lots of carriages to take if you get tired, but the beautiful cobble streets and the parks surrounding are so delightful to walk through.

Activities in Krakow

There are two main activities on offer in Krakow; They are the Wieliczka Salt Mines, and Auschwitz. We chose to pre-book our tickets to both of these through Viator ahead of time, allowing us to be picked up from our hotel and taken in small minibuses to the locations both about an hour away.

The Wieliczka Salt Mines are an amazing look into the older history of Krakow, and more currently workers still using the mines for concerts and art sculptures. The most amazing aspect is the chapel of St Kinga, in the heart of the mine. It is over 100m under the ground and the workers had to remove all the salt rock that filled the space. It was consecrated by Pope John Paul II, and a statue of him made from salt rock also stands in the chapel.

Auschwitz is not everyone’s cup of tea, but like us, many just want to see it and experience what the hell went on in this dreadful place. It gave us a little perspective; reminding us of how a peaceful field can hold such a dreadful past. There is not much left of Auschwitz 2, with only mangled concrete where the two furnaces were. But i think that is enough to chill your bones and gain an insight into the suffering of the Polish Prisoners and the horror the European Jews during WWII.

I’m sorry to end on a slightly depressing note, but not all travelling is beaches and city breaks. History is not all royalty and castles. Sometimes it is about learning about what we never want to happen agian.