Tag Archives: Round Up

Georgia Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Georgia?

Julie, Jo and I in the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, Tbilisi, Georgia

Julie, Jo and I in the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi

As our long-time friend, fellow adventurous traveller and occasional guest-blogger Jo joined us once more, the photo that takes us all back to Georgia is this one of the 3 of us at the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi. The museum has examples of the older buildings we’d go on to see as we travelled around (specifically the Svan towers of the Caucasus), two giant clay urns called qvevri for fermenting grapes into the wine for which Georgia is famed, and that deep blue sky reminds us of the (mostly) fantastic weather.

Summarise Georgia in three words.

  • khachapuri – if wine is the national drink, then this is the national dish. We planned many a hike so that we could indulge in the cheese, meat and bean-filled deliciousness-es as often as possible
  • mountains – the scenery in Georgia was breathtaking, and before we’d left we were already talking about wanting to return to experience a summer season
  • cable-car – I think Georgia’s fondness for cable-cars is a legacy of their ex-Soviet mining industry as well as the mountainous landscape. We went on 2 in Tbilisi but the ageing ones in Chiatura were the highlight

You really know you’re in Georgia when…

…you’re eating aubergine and walnuts. Yes, we’ve mentioned the khachapuri a few times but the food throughout Georgia was excellent. Julie found an immediate fondness for the side dish of spicy walnut paste spread over roasted aubergine and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds (I think that’s the real reason she wants to go back again!)

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Georgia?

A shot glass! Once the Georgians have made wine, they distill the skins into a grappa-like spirit called cha-cha and some of our fondest memories are making toasts with the happiest, most warmly welcoming hosts we’ve had the pleasure of befriending. Georgia really does have it all!

Armenia Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Armenia?

Us at Zorats Karer

Us at Zorats Karer. Just one of the many spectacular sights that we had to ourselves in Armenia.

Summarise Armenia in three words.

  • Khachkar – the carved stone crosses are everywhere in the country, especially in graveyards and on church walls
  • Pothole – we really enjoyed having a car to explore some of the out of the way corners of Armenia but driving required a lot of concentration as even the main roads had some impressive potholes!
  • History – we found the depth and breadth of history in this small country staggering – from ancient standing stones to medieval monasteries to 20th century tragedy and politics

You really know you’re in Armenia when…

…your guesthouse seems to be doing their best to overfeed you! We didn’t know much about Armenian food before we arrived so it was a pleasant surprise to find something akin to a mixture of eastern Mediterranean and northern European cuisines. Just as well as our hosts regularly plied us with more food than we could possibly manage.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Armenia?

Your thermals. Pretty much the whole country is at high altitude so if you’re travelling in the winter or early spring as we did you’ll need some warm clothes – it gets bitterly cold.

Cuba Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Cuba?

Trinidad Plaza MayorCuba’s architecture was a highlight for us and the colonial Plaza Mayor in Trinidad was a great example

How much does it cost to travel in Cuba?

Excluding our return flights from the UK, we spent £3,165 during our 45 days in Cuba – a daily average of £70.35 for two people (remarkably close to our two year trip budget!). The Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is pegged to the US dollar and the average exchange rate that we got in April/May 2016 was CUC$1 = £0.73.

We took the majority of our money in cash – either GBP or Euros are exchanged everywhere, US dollars have a 10% exchange surcharge so I wouldn’t recommend carrying those. Some money exchanges rejected notes which had writing on or were torn, but in the end we had them all accepted – the offices in more touristy cities (Havana, Trinidad) seemed to be less fussy. At the end of the trip we had to withdraw some cash on our credit card and discovered that Cuban ATMs don’t accept Mastercard (I think Visa is fine) and so we had to get an over the counter cash advance which was charged to our card in US dollars and hence was subject to the 10% surcharge.

Cuba expenses pie chart

Cuba budget info

  • We stayed in casa particulars (guesthouses) for every night of our stay, except one night spent in the shelter on Pico Turquino. The rate was a pretty consistent CUC$25 per night (room only) across the country except in Havana and Varadero where we paid CUC$30).
  • It’s not really possible to exist solely on street food in Cuba and so, in addition to taking breakfast in our casa particular (CUC$5 each) we often had dinner there as well which cost CUC$8-10 each. Restaurant meals were comparably priced though Havana was often much more expensive and we found that high prices rarely translated into high quality.
  • We found both the Viazul and Cubanacan intercity bus services to be a comfortable and reasonably priced way to get around the country.
  • Within cities we tended to walk everywhere so the relatively high spend for local transportation is taxis to and from bus stations which we found to be quite expensive (possibly because the scarcity of cars pushes up the price but no doubt we were charged tourist prices as well). This category also contains a few day trips that we took by taxi as there was no public transport option available.
  • Visas – we paid CUC$25 each to extend our 30 day tourist card (included in the cost of our flight) for another month.

Summarise Cuba in three words.

  • Dilapidated – from the buildings to the classic cars, it seems like a lot of Cuba has been barely maintained since the Revolution in 1959
  • Rum – made from the sugar cane which generated early wealth for Cuba, the national drink is everywhere and the base of many a cocktail!
  • Music – upbeat and very danceable, Cuba’s musical heritage is rich

You really know you’re in Cuba when…

.. your taxi is a 30 year old Russian model that needs a jump start!

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Cuba?

Plenty of patience for all the queues you’ll have to wait in – to exchange money, in shops, at the bus station…

Brussels Round Up

From Amsterdam we decided to spend a few days in the heart of the European Union before we hopped on the Eurostar for the final train journey of our two year trip.

Brussels surprised us, maybe because as it was the last stop on our long journey and we were fighting the wind-down and possible post-travel blues, or perhaps we thought the whole city would be little more than a wrapper for the European Parliament – i.e. not much else to do or see.

Guild Halls, Grand Place, Brussels

We loved the detailed Guild Halls with their gold accents in the central Grand Place

Instead we found a vibrant, walkable city with a comic-book heritage and a cheeky, laid-back sense of humour. And because it’s Belgium the waffles, chips, chocolate and beer are superb – 4 days and we’d decided we could live here!

Comic Walls

Tintin comic wall, Brussels

Comic book wall #1 is Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, obviously!

Neither of us were big comic readers or collectors as kids, but I do remember a fondness for Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin and I had quite a few of his large format comic books. Brussels is home to a number of famous European cartoonists, including Hergé (the pen name of Georges Remi) Maurice De Bevere, André Franquin and Maurice Tillieux. Not that we’d heard of any of these except Hergé mind you!

Cartoon wall collage, Brussels

Cartoon walls are typically just a few blocks apart, and the artwork styles are as different as the characters themselves. Left to right: “La Vache” by Johan de Moor; “The Scorpion” by Marini; “Blondin and Cirage” by Jijé; and “Olivier Rameau” by Dany

That didn’t hinder our enjoyment of the street art as we explored Brussels. There are about 80 public comic frescos throughout the city, and while the suggested routes are marked on the tourist maps available in the city, we often had to go an extra block to find the work, and one of them was inside a hostel which we’d never have found if it wasn’t for the Visit Brussels app, which has more accurate locations, offline maps (yay!) and a short informative paragraph that gave us a little context or history.

The comic book walls are varied and delightful, and were a great way to join up the other sights we wanted to see in Brussels.

European Parliament

European Parliament, Brussels

The European Parliament in Brussels. There’s another one in Strasbourg, and also representative offices in most of the member states too

As I may have mentioned before, I’m really intrigued by how things work, and that includes social structure and governance, so when in Brussels we took a free guided tour of the European Parliament.. we got the full European experience too as we joined the tour in French!

European Parliament, Brussels

It’s possible to visit when the parliament is in session, but it was empty on our visit. The morning of our visit I read that the EU were voting on the re-labelling of alcoholic drinks to include nutrition information such as calories, which we thought was a good idea and so did they because they passed it! It’ll take a few years to filter through into members’ law though

Julie understood a little more than I did, but we both got the gist of the introduction to how the European Parliament works and how it’s made up. I think we’d have gotten more out of it had the tour been in English or if they hadn’t run out of audio guides, but we’re definitely pleased we went.

Manneken Pis, Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis

Manneken Pis, Brussels

The Manneken Pis is one of the most visited sights in Brussels and every time we walked past it there were crowds of admirers!

We didn’t know that the official mascot of Brussels is the almost 400 year old Manneken Pis – a small bronze statue of a little boy urinating! There are many legends for why the statue was built and put on display just around the corner from the main square in Brussels, but we found the stories of its various abductions over the years more interesting!

Pis statues, Brussels

The tinkling trilogy: Manneken Pis – the boy; Jeanneke Pis – the girl; and Zinneke Pis – the dog

The little boy is now one of a trilogy – his cheeky behaviour has been copied by Jeanneke Pis – a small girl locked away down a back alley in the restaurant district, and Zinneke Pis – a dog relieving himself against a bollard a few more blocks away! They’re all light-hearted and adorable, especially the original Manneken Pis because a few times a week he gets to dress up! And he has over 900 costumes!

Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg

Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg, Brussels

The impressive art-deco Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg

The “Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg” or National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg was just a few blocks from our lovely apartment in Brussels, and it’s both the largest Art Deco building and the 13th largest church in the world.

Stained glass, Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg, Brussels

The stained glass in the Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg

It’s so big that it holds celebrations in two languages, has an exhibition space, a restaurant, a theatre, a radio station and two museums! We though the exterior was more impressive than the understated sparse interior, with the exception of the wonderfully detailed stained glass panels.

Atomium

Atomium, Brussels

The Atomium science museum still looks futuristic to us after 60 years!

Also just outside the city centre is the site of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which is home to another iconic sight on the Brussels skyline – the Atomium.

It’s a really striking building that plays with its own perspective. Somehow to us it looked bigger from further away, and when we were stood underneath it the spheres didn’t seem big enough to be exhibition spaces as it’s now a museum and viewpoint.

Atomium, Brussels

We didn’t get to the museum inside because we enjoyed taking photos of the outside too much!

We weren’t sure if the arrangement of the spheres were significant, but I looked it up and it’s a unit cell of iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. As we arrived the grey cloud dissipated a little and made a spectacular backdrop for the reflective steel of the structure. We took far too many photos. Again.

And on to the round up of our short city stop in Brussels..

What photo takes you right back to Brussels?

Us with the cheeky Manneken Pis, Brussels

Us with the cheeky Manneken Pis, the mascot of the city

Summarise Brussels in three words.

  • Diverse – as we wandered through the city we noticed a very rich mix of ethnicities and languages. It’s also the meeting point of the two native languages in Belgium, French and Flemish
  • Relaxed – there’s an easy-going, laid-back atmosphere which we really enjoyed. Lots of little cafes and bars with people spilling out into the streets
  • Comics – as well as the large comic book murals, there are several museums dedicated to the art

You really know you’re in Brussels when…

.. you’ve just had moules-frites (mussels and chips) for lunch, washed down with a Trappist ale or two!

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Brussels?

Your sweet tooth – the waffles are fantastic and with so many different and inventive toppings we had to try a few, though we’re glad we always shared one as they’re very sweet!

Amsterdam Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Amsterdam?

Keukenhof, Holland, Netherlands

The week that Dan, Clare, Scott and Emma visited was the highlight of our time in Amsterdam and our day at Keukenhof was a perfect start to their stay

Summarise Amsterdam in three words.

  • Canals – the canals and the architecture of the buildings along them are a distinctive feature of the city
  • Bicycles – they’re everywhere!
  • Tolerant – Amsterdam is a multicultural place and the locals seem to have a pretty relaxed attitude to most things, be it the customs of others, the waft of marijuana smoke from the coffeeshops, or legalised prostitution.

You really know you’re in Amsterdam when…

.. there are fresh flowers everywhere. The Netherlands is the world’s biggest exporter of cut flowers and the locals like to brighten up their lives too. Pretty much every cafe and bar has bud vases with tulips or gerberas on each table and it is common to see larger bouquets in museums or shops, not to mention poking out of the bags of ordinary shoppers (much like baguettes in France!).

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Amsterdam?

Something orange to wear if you’re planning to visit on King’s Day!