Eastern Australia

Eastern Australia

Australia’s east coast is over 15,000 miles long. People spend six months or more travelling from Melbourne in the south to Cairns in the north or even further.

For my trip I had 10 days and I knew I would have to cherry pick. My original plan was to do a road trip from Melbourne to Sydney but when I started looking into it, the cost of hiring a car one way was prohibitive as I would have to pay for the car to be driven back. The journey between the two cities along the coast would need at least four days to do it justice and that didn’t really leave much time to see the cities.

I decided to fly between Melbourne and Sydney and that left me wondering what I could do to get out of the city for some of the trip. I decided to go out on the Great Ocean Road west of Melbourne as it is spectacular but I didn’t want to hire a vehicle so I booked on a coach to go as far as possible.

Arriving in Melbourne I booked into a small hotel at the end of Little Bourke Street on the other side of Chinatown. It was walkable from Southern Cross Flybus terminal where buses arrived from the airport.

I was pleased I had picked a hotel by Chinatown as it was an interesting area, certainly more interesting than the Central Business District I walked through to start with. There were side lanes off Little Bourke Street that were good to explore and some interesting restaurants from a wide range of Asian countries not just China.

I found my hotel and dropped off a bag as it was still early in the morning then found a cafe round the corner for a bacon sandwich and coffee.

I had no plan for the day so I just started walking. The buildings were low rise at this end of Little Bourke Street and I found this less claustrophobic than the hi-rise of the CBD though the sky scrapers would look good in photos from a distance.

I headed towards the Yarra river which cuts through the center of Melbourne. As I walked I saw the huge arena of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I did a lap around it but it was shut up and I couldn’t go in. As I walked round I found a door I could look through so I could get a glimpse of the hallowed turf.

I then walked across the William Barak bridge towards the river. I couldn’t understand it at first but I could hear music as I walked. I realized the music was coming from the bridge. Speakers along the side of the bridge were playing aboriginal singing. It was quite cool and surreal.

The city I had walked through so far had been quite empty. As I came down the waters edge I saw there was an event going on on the river. It was a water skiing competition and many people had gathered to watch. I had arrived in the Moomba Festival, I would see water sports, carnivals, fun fair and a very long Chinese dragon parading the streets. I was lucky to arrive just as it was happening.

I spent the rest of the day walking around the river side inner city, there was plenty to see. I walked 10 miles that day.

The next day I decided to do something different. I went to the Fitzroy district. This was close to the hotel and I had read it was more alternative and edgy. I headed up Smith Street and it seemed very different to the parts of the city I had already seen. While it has undergone gentrification since the 80’s, it seemed a much poorer area than the city center. There were many street murals and the shops were much more varied with more artistic leanings. There were alternative clothes shops and some interesting looking pubs. It had a more community feel to it and the housing was quite varied from elegant road side houses with small gardens in front of them to city tenements.

I got a bit lost coming down the end of Brunswick Street and found myself in a park. Fitzroy Park. It was attractively laid out with some interesting buildings to photo and I spent quite some time there.

In the afternoon I figured out the Myki card for local transport and headed out to St Kilda. I had heard that this was a bit dodgy but it was a beautiful late afternoon and I walked out to Elwood and back along the coastal path then back to St Kilda’s beach strip and pier. I got a cone of very nice chips with some special seasoning and went out onto the pier for sunset. It was quite stunning and didn’t seem dodgy at all.

The next day I had read about an area of Melbourne called Yarra Bend. It was a preserved area of bush land along the side of the river near Victoria Park station. It was a short walk from the station and I headed up the far side of the river to get an experience of some bush in the city. It was quite wild and the paths narrowed the further I went into the bush arriving at a weir in the Yarra where the brown water cascaded over. On my way back I encountered an Australian fellow with a big stick. He warned me he had just seen a ‘dirty big snake’ and I should ‘watch my feet’.

The next day was my trip out onto the Great Ocean Road. I walked to Southern Cross early and figured out where to catch the train to Geelong. I had left so much time I was able to get an earlier train and then an early bus onto the Great Ocean Road. The day was beautiful and from the coach I could see glimpses of the coast through the road side trees. It looked gorgeous.

I had thought the furthest I could get by coach was Lorne, but it turned out the bus went through to Apollo Bay. I had booked a room in Lorne though so I got off there. There was a lot more of the Great Ocean Road that I wouldn’t see but at least I’d seen some of it. It would have been better by car, motorbike, or even bicycle as you could pull off at the overlooks to see the coastline.

Lorne is a small coastal town with some tourist shops and a decent beach. I headed to the fish and chip shop and got a very tasty Grenadier fish. I had a quick look at the beach and headed to my comfortable sea view room to chill and write some postcards. The next morning I woke at 6.30 am and decided to go down to the beach. There was a fantastic sunrise and I walked along the beach out to the Lorne Jetty. I woke a sleeping seal lying on the rocks under the jetty and it flapped very agitatedly into the sea. Lorne had scored and I was very glad I’d stopped off there.

The next day it was raining and I retraced my steps to Melbourne. I was staying near the CBD this time and I looked for things to do in the rain. I got some interesting Vietnamese food and headed to the aquarium. One of the better aquariums I’ve been to and not too busy at around 4pm. As well as many smaller tanks it had a large tank you could walk through and see many larger fish including sharks and rays as well many colorful smaller fish.

The next day I flew to Sydney. The weather was atrocious flying in and I only got the briefest of glimpses of the harbour. Not much point getting a window seat.

I had booked two nights at the famous Bondi Beach. The guesthouse was very nice and much better than the rough place I’d stayed in the night before. It was quite a walk from the beach though and by the time I got there it was evening. The beach was lit up and looked good but no one was on it so I headed back.

My feet had recovered from the pounding on the first two days in Melbourne, and I decided to do the Bondi to Coogee beach walk. The weather was quite changeable, sometimes sunny and sometimes raining. The storms coming across the sea were making the sea quite impressive and there were many surfers out enjoying the conditions. You could see the rain clouds coming across and I found gaps between the rain to walk round the next headland before sheltering from the next rain storm. Some of the smaller beaches were really pretty and I didn’t mind not being on Bondi as it wasn’t really a beach day. There were great open air pools next some of the beaches and the sea was breaking over the rocks into them.

I reached Clovelly and I was starting to feel hungry. The Seasalt Clovelly cafe was packed but up in the back streets I found Clovelly Social House. They did me some pasta and it tasted really good.

I finished off the walk to Coogee and found a bus that was heading in my direction to rest my tired feet.

The next day I was moving again – to The Rocks. I caught the train to Town Hall station and came out of the station to torrential rain. I ducked into the nearest shop. It was the Queen Victoria Building. I’m not a fan of shopping centers, but this one was gorgeous. I hung around in there having breakfast until the rain stopped.

I walked down to my hotel in The Rocks and checked in. It was a great old pub and I got an excellent room overlooking the street. All the windows were open and it felt very fresh. In the late afternoon I wandered down to the quay side and behaved like a tourist checking out the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Even though I’d seen these places many times in photos it is still cool to see them for yourself.

The next day I went to Circular Quay and got the ferry across to Manly. The ferry journey was amazing through the harbour. I always like boat trips and this one was pretty special. The weather had turned good and I arrived in Manly in warm bright sunshine. There was another coastal walk here but I didn’t feel like doing this as it was so warm. I just hung out at the beach and found a good beach restaurant for something to eat. There were many runners going up and down the seafront. I’d expected to see beautiful girls in bikinis in Sydney but these girls were athletes. I walked round the coast to Shelly Beach and got an ice cream. It was a chilled last day, maybe I’d saved the best till last. Manly was a really nice place and a good way to end.

Hossegor

Hossegor

The tricky thing about Hossegor is figuring out how to get there if you’re not driving from France. It’s situated between Bordeaux in the north and Biarritz in the south. Biarritz is much closer and Bordeaux means an almost certain car hire to get there.

Biarritz though only has a small airport with a few flights a day. I did manage to find one though from Paris and found a good hook up flight to there from Manchester in the UK, both on Easyjet who performed very well.

Once you’re in Biarritz, how do you get to Hossegor which is 50 miles away? There are a couple of buses per day, there is a train that takes you 6 km away with a taxi or two hour walk along unknown roads, or again car hire.

I was going to Hossegor to watch the Roxy Pro / Quicksilver Pro surfing competition in October. I didn’t know how far the competition would be through by the time I got there, but before I flew the women’s competition had reached the semi’s and the men’s the quarters. I decided to hire a car.

I picked up the car at the airport and had a very fraught half hour driving a strange car in a strange country in the dark. I didn’t miss any more of the competition though.

Hossegor on the French Atlantic coast

The competition was on hold for a couple of days as they don’t surf unless conditions are suitable, and this gave me time to look around the beach and resort. I was staying centrally at the Oskar Hotel which was very good and not too pricy. The beach is beautiful, with gorgeous yellow sands and waves of differing sizes depending on which break you’re at. La Gravière where the competition was held had the largest waves with breaks further out and an amazing barrel close to the beach. The whole of this Atlantic coast has great beaches stretching from Biarritz north to Messanges. There are campsites in the woods as you go north which are great for family holidays by the dunes.

The resort has a number of restaurants and bars in a small square by the beach with a large TV screen to keep track of the competition and show other surfing related videos. It is really well set up for surfers.

Further back from the beach there is a small town center over the canal which has more shops, cafes and restaurants. If the weather isn’t so good or you need a break from the beach you can chill out here for a couple of hours.

Hossegor is next to Cap Breton and you can easily walk here where two rivers meet at the old port. There is a marina to look round and you can hire jet skiis. There are restaurants around the port and out to the other side along the waterfront.

The southerly side of the pier seemed to be popular with paddle boarders while the north side was more for surfers on the easier waves south of La Gravière. Fishermen were fishing off the harbour walls and jetties on each side of the river.

I’m not sure as a solo traveler you would want to spend more than a few days at Hossegor if there was no competition going on. Probably not enough to do unless you wanted to join a surf school or were already a keen surfer. If you’re with a group hang out there as long as you want, it’s a beautiful place and the sea is fantastic.

Bratislava

Bratislava

Bratislava was previously known for stag and hen parties. Now those are much rarer and the city has much more to offer the general traveler. On our weekend we only saw two stag parties, one of which seemed very low on numbers with only two guys from Blackpool. There was a couple of places catering to these groups but most of the bars were just fun places to have a drink.

Our flights from the UK were super cheap being Ryanair but both flights coming from Yorkshire and Manchester had 3 hour delays so one guy arrived at 3.30 in the morning. The rest of us got there before midnight and had time to have a look round the town at night coming back around 2am. The nightscene wasn’t too busy but there was enough to keep us amused. Our favourite bar being the Goblin Pub which was down some steps in a cellar, and was full of young people having fun, with live music.

There were plenty of bars to look round and food to eat. We found a good cheap pizza place in the old town and there were lots of takeaways as well as bars and restaurants offering both cheaper options and sit down meals.

central Bratislava

The next day we explored the old town some more. It has some beautiful old buildings, then did a loop to the castle, over the river to the UFO bridge, through the park on the south side of the Danube, then back across the next bridge east on the river and back into the old town.

We went into the castle because it was raining and the entrance fee wasn’t too bad. The castle had been extensively refurbished and the was lots of information on this process in the lower galleries. As we went up the floors, the middle floors were pretty empty, but on the top floor there was an exhibition by Slovakian artist Martin Benka. He died in the 1970’s, but made a large body of work with paintings from both his time in Slovakia and travels abroad. The castle now seemed more interesting and then we discovered the lower floors with roman archaeology, went to the top tower up many steps and tried the cake from the castle shop which was really good. We spent a few hours in the castle and overall it seemed good value.

Leaving the castle we spotted a restaurant Modrá hviezda going down the steps to the river which we returned to for our evening meal. The game casserole and complimentary Slovakian spirit was my personal highlight of the trip.

We crossed the river to the UFO restaurant and went up the lift to the main room at the top of the tower. There is a bar and restaurant and above this a viewing platform which has fantastic 360 degree views of the city. The river goes to the east into central Slovakia and west out to Austria. North there is the old city and south many Soviet era looking blocks of flats which we didn’t get chance to visit.

From high on the platform one of our group spotted that there was some men fighting with swords in the park below and smoke from gunfire. We went down to have a look, and there was a large war reenactment going on in the park, with soldiers firing cannons at each other dressed up in period costume and generally having a good battle! It was all free and totally unexpected. Brilliant!

We then walked to the east side of the park and headed back across the large green bridge to the old town. We had spent most of the day doing this loop and had found plenty to do and were ready for food.

There are lots of other things you could do in Bratislava – there were bikes you can hire to cycle round the city, or you could cycle to the Austrian border which isn’t far. We found things for five guys but there are other options if your companions have other interests.

It’s really a very good looking city, with lots of pleasant outdoor spaces, shopping, nightlife and good eating to be had.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik

Croatia has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world since it became an independent country in the early 90’s. Its beautiful coastline and many islands drawing visitors both international and domestic. Its warm Adriatic climate is pleasant from spring though to autumn.

Dubrovnik in the far south of the country receives a good share of tourists with its walled city and beautiful surrounding islands and beaches. Its international airport and cruise liner port bringing in 1.3 million tourists a year.

The city has a population of around 40,000 people but in the summer months this can swell until the old city can suffer from serious over-tourism. In fact even in May when we visited the old city was full from 9 am to 6 pm and we chose to enter the city before and after these times for a more relaxing experience.

The authorities have had to limit the influx from cruise ships as each of these can dump 3000 tourists at a time on the city often in large tour groups. At its worst the city was receiving 13 cruise ships at a time, but now they have been staggered to lessen their impact. The new international airport also seems stretched by the amount of travelers with long queues when leaving the country.

Many of the hotels where tourists stay are situated to the north west of the old city on the Babin Kuk and Lapad peninsula and when they come into the city in bus loads the traffic can really snarl up.

Having said that, the tourists are there for a reason. The city is a really beautiful place, often referred to as the jewel of the Adriatic. If you time your visit to the old city well and spend the busy time outside the walls you can really enjoy your visit.

During the day time we visited Lokrum island, walked down the coast to Sveti Jakov beach (pictured), and walked on the top of the hill behind the city enjoying the panoramic views from the top before walking down the zig zag path back to the city.

If you have more time you can take boat trips further to the islands to the north of the city with half and full day trips running from the old port.

The walls of the old city are one of the main attractions of the old city and you can walk the circular walk in around an hour. There are kiosks to buy drinks if it is hot, and the views across the city and out to Lokrum are really good. The walls cost 200 kr when we were there but it was well worth it. There are passes for the city that might make it cheaper. We went on them 8.30 am when they opened, and at that time they weren’t too busy and you could get photos without feeling you were holding a queue of people up. Hang on to your ticket as you get asked to show it further round the walls.

Our favourite time in the city was early in the morning when the streets were empty and you could wander around the passageways and flights of steps without anyone walking into your photographs. In the evening there were many swallows flying above the city zooming down the canyons of the city walls. Sunset at the port was nice too as there weren’t too many people left by then and you could enjoy the golden colours over the boats and waters.

If you are wanting to get out on the sea, there are many boat trips and you can rent canoes to paddle around the city walls and out to Lokrum which isn’t far.

Lokrum has a regular ferry service from the old port and the island is much quieter than the city with walks around the island and to features such as a beautiful pool called the Dead Sea, a monastery with botanical gardens, and a fort at the top of the island.

Walking in the pine forests with cypress and olive trees in amongst is very relaxing and you can spend a happy few hours here and have a swim at one of the rocky beaches.

If you want to get a view of the city from up high you can go up the hill behind the city to the centuries old Fort Imperial . There is a cable car that used to run, but this was out of service when we were there, so we caught a number 17 bus to the village of Bosanka high on the hill. From here it was a short walk to the top of the hill with stunning panoramas across the bay and beautiful views inland across to the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the top is a pricy but good restaurant where you can stop for a meal before walking down the path back to the old city. Alternatively you can get a taxi or mini bus up to the top from the city.

If you want beaches, there are beaches out on the Babin Kuk peninsula if you are staying there, or closer to the city such as Banje Beach just south east of the old walls which has a good beach bar, or you can walk further to Sveti Jakov for a small beach by a ruined hotel complex.

Dubrovnik convinced me that I want to spend more time in Croatia, to hunt out some of the beautiful parts along the coast and spend more time on the islands. This is without even considering the inland parts of the country with its varied landscape and national parks.

North Wales

North Wales

North Wales has a lot to offer. Beautiful beaches, ancient castles, fantastic mountain and coastal scenery, and lots of great places to stay.

Coming from England the usual route is via the A55 along the north coast of Wales. If you are coming from the Midlands or South you may come via Shrewsbury, or there are several roads up from South Wales.

If you are coming to Wales to see heritage, there are great castles at Harlech, Caenarfon, Criccieth and Conwy to name a few. There are over 100 castles in Wales still standing with a good number in North Wales. On our trip we stayed at Harlech so spent the most time visiting this castle. It has fantastic coastal views from the ramparts and also across to Snowdonia. You can make out the Snowden horseshoe on a clear day. It is in a good state of repair and if you have kids they will love exploring the turrets and passageways.

Caenarfon castle is also in good repair and is sat between Snowdonia and Anglesey so if you are exploring that part of North Wales is worth a look. Caenarfon is situated on the Menai Straight and you have good views across the water to Anglesey. We had a meal at the Black Boy pub while in Caenarfon which had good food with a roaring fire.

If you are looking for beaches the Llŷn Peninsular has some good ones with seaside villages and resorts to visit with sea cliffs and beautiful coastal paths. Harlech beach is a great beach to walk on. You can go down some steps near Llanfair two miles south of Harlech and walk up the beach for several miles, then combine this with a visit to the castle. This was one of our best days, the beach is really nice and there are plenty of places in Harlech to get something to eat.

The north coast of Wales has a more developed coastline between the resorts of Rhyl and Llandudno. Llandudno has a good beach and a long pier to walk out onto. There are many hotels along the seafront and you can stop here for a night before going on into Snowdonia or it would be possible to base yourself here for longer.

We also stopped at Colwyn Bay for an ice cream and to view the coast with out to some sea wind farms and Liverpool off to the east. Locals were exercising along the long promenade and you can see the Little Orme hill off to the west. Great Orme is further to the west by Llandudno. They are both of historical and natural interest as well as being of interest to tourists. There are rare wild flowers and butterflies and moths on Great Orme as well as a herd of Kashmir goats and colonies of rare bats. It has walking paths or you can catch the tram or cable car from Llandudno.

North Wales caters very well for walkers with stunning panoramas in Snowdonia National Park centered around Snowdon the highest mountain in Wales. It is higher than any mountain in England. Many visitors will focus on climbing Snowdon but this has lead it to become very busy, so you may wish to walk by one of the other peaks in the area. The Snowdon railway increases the visitors right at the top of the mountain, but if you are not walking too well these days may be a way to see the panoramic views going up the line and from the top.

The Wales Coast Path is another alternative walking route that passes through North Wales. It goes around the coast of Wales for 870 miles, and you may wish to walk stretches near to where you are staying in North Wales. Sections in the north include the Anglesey Coastal Path, the North Wales Coastal Path and the Llŷn Coastal Path.

If you are a fan of heritage railways Wales has a number of these. There are two going from Porthmadog – the Festiniog Railway and the Welsh Highland Railway. The stations for these have now been combined into one so you can link up between the two lines. This means you can travel 40 miles from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Caernarfon via Porthmadog. We traveled on the Festiniog Railway leg with some great views across the estuary at Porthmadog and a glimpse of Snowdon before heading up the valley by the Afon Dwyryd river to the former slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

The Llechwedd Slate Caverns are a popular tourist attraction at Blaenau Ffestiniog , and if you get an early train you can visit these before heading back to Porthmadog. They are 5 minutes away from the station by taxi. Also here is Zip World Titan for Europe’s largest zip wire area.

For somewhere quite unlike anywhere else I’ve seen in the UK, Portmeirion is an Italian style village set on the estuary banks of the River Dwyryd. The architecture is the brainchild of designer Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and is somewhere you have to see if you are in this part of Wales. It has featured in a number of TV shows most famously 1960’s tv show The Prisoner.

You can easily spend a week in North Wales without running out of things to do, in fact you will probably only scratch the surface.

Kyoto

Kyoto

Why pick Kyoto when travelling to Japan for the first time? Kyoto survived the Second World War largely intact as it wasn’t made a target for many American bombing raids. The temples, houses and important city buildings didn’t need to be rebuilt following the war. This is lead it to remain a center for Japanese culture, especially older culture, and this can make a wonderful introduction to Japan.

It can be visited on its own or if you have time, it can easily be included in a longer Japanese tour. It is only an hour from Osaka by train and about three and a half hours from Tokyo by bullet train.

If you decide to focus on Kyoto, the most likely entry point is Kansai Airport south west of Osaka. From here you can catch the Haruka JR train via Osaka to Kyoto main station. Generally this is direct with two stops in Osaka, but it is possible you may have to change train in Osaka if there are any train works occurring. If you have bought a Japanese sim card in the airport, you can follow your journey on mobile phone.

Kansai was hit by one of the unexpectedly high number of typhoons to pass over Japan in 2018 and was out of action for a few weeks while it was repaired. The international runway was underwater for several days and many flights were cancelled. Also a ship drifted into the causeway connecting the airport’s man made island to the mainland, cutting off road traffic for several days and impacting rail traffic. This hadn’t happened before but is a sign of the changing weather patterns across the world.

Fortunately for our trip the main runway had reopened, and the causeway had trains running again, but not a good time for the airport or its staff.

Arriving in Kyoto, you come out of the train station on the north side to see the Kyoto Tower high above the city. Going up this to the observation deck is a good way to get your bearings in the city. You can make out the line of the Kamogata River on the eastern side of city and the station complex below to the south, with the main railway line snaking off to the east. The city lies in a plain or basin with wooded hills to the east, west and north. Looking to the south west is an urban landscape stretching to Osaka.

The observation deck has information boards and telescopes so you can pick out landmarks, but looking down to the north you can see there is a large temple close to the station. This is the Higashihonganji Temple, and entry to the temple grounds is free. A good place to start your exploration of the city. Opposite it to the east there is a garden with a lake – Shosei-en Garden, which you might want to look at before heading off to your hotel. Also in the station area there are many restaurants where you can eat if you are hungry after your journey.

Many of the temples in the city are free to look at the grounds, but you pay to go into the buildings. Also there may be separate gardens which you often have to pay for. With so many temples in the city, you will need to choose which you want to pay for, or the costs can mount up.

Rather than catching taxi’s around the city, or figuring out the local transport straight away, we chose hotels that were within walking distance of each other,  (see the hearts on the map). Obviously this depends on how much luggage you bring – we choose to travel as light as possible. We picked three hotels that allowed us to see different parts of the city over the ten days we were there.

Our first hotel, or in this case Japanese guesthouse, was in South Higashiyama on the other side of the Kamo river from the station. It took about thirty minutes to walk there, and as it was quite a hot day, we were glad to find a beautiful little restaurant near to the guesthouse to wait until check in time.

The Kamo river is a popular spot with the locals for walking and cycling, and has an impressive variety of bird life for a river in the middle of a city, evidence for what a clean city Kyoto is. There isn’t a huge traffic problem either as many of the locals cycle around the city, and you should be able to hire bike. The grid like nature of the city means you can easily cycle down one of the quieter parallel streets off the main roads.

Higashiyama is next to a range of wooded hills running north to south and here you can find some of the best temples of the area. Start off with the Kiyomizu-dera temple early in the morning. This as well as the main temple has a Shinto shrine and a short walk through the woods to the Koyasu Pagoda. It is a pleasant way to start the day before the crowds. There is a small cafe for a drink and snack if you get there early enough by the Otowa waterfall, which the Japanese believe can bring success, love and long life from drinking the waters.

From a base on this side of the river you can explore the sights of Higashiyama and spend time in Gion, where you may catch sight of Maiko or Geiko. Gion is busy by day, but quietens down at night and walks in the area are quite pleasant in the evening before getting something to eat. Gion centres around Shijo Dori street, which has good people watching when strolling under the green canopies of the shops. Starting from the river and heading to the Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park. Nearby is the temple of Chion-in which is one of the major Buddhist temples and has two Japanese Gardens in the grounds (you have to pay). If you are lucky you may catch a Buddhist ceremony in the main temple conducted by the monks, and don’t forget to check out the huge bell before you leave.

Going further north into Higashiyama there are more major temples and museums and galleries, but it depends how close you are staying to these as to how far you want to walk. By bike you can get further into the area. There are also many beautiful old streets in the area to explore, the Yasaka Kamimachi area is good with its beautiful pagoda and there are canal side walks in north Gion that are pleasant.

We also stayed on the west of the Kamo River near Imperial Park. By now we had figured out the trains and were able to make journeys to the edge of the city to places like Kibune and Kurama in the north. These have beautiful shrines in the woods and you can walk between the two villages on a woodland path. Kibune has some pleasant restaurants to eat at by a noisy stream, and Kurama has hot springs to bathe in.

We went out to Arishiyama, to see the famous Bamboo Forest, which is mobbed with tourists. Arishiyama though has quite a few places to visit and you can walk more pleasantly away from the crowds by the river. If you like you can hire a boat to punt you up the river. We walked up the west bank and found a tiny shrine in the woods with a good lookout. If you like monkeys there is a monkey park you can climb up the hill to, and make some simian friends.

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without visiting the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine south of the city on the train line at Inari. It’s 10000 vermillion Torii gates stretching to the top of the 764 foot hill are something to behold. If you don’t like being in crowds, get there early in the morning, or you can even go up at night for a somewhat spooky experience. The statues of stone foxes and Japanese gargoyles are sure to make you jump in the dark. You may even see a few cats out for their nightly prowls.

Our ten days gave us a good taste for the city, and we hope this blog gives you some ideas. It would definitely be possible to stay for longer – there is so much to see, and with Osaka being so close, you could even make day trips there to sample its food and vibrant street life.

Kyoto photobook
Photographs from the beautiful city of Kyoto.
Available for purchase.
Salzburg / Munich

Salzburg / Munich

If you have a few days to spare and you are looking for a reasonably priced break in Europe with some variety to it, you can do worse than a two city tour to Salzburg in Austria and Munich in southern Germany. Both cities have a Germanic feel though Salzburg is more baroque, whereas Munich’s architecture is more eclectic.

The two cities are around 2 hours apart by regular train or slightly less by car or high speed train. Salzburg is very close to the border of Germany and Austria so most of the journey is in southern Germany in the Upper Bavaria region. The train skirts the lakes of Chiemsee and Simssee and there are views of the alps to the south. Bavaria itself is quite picturesque though part of the journey will be through urban parts of Munich and Salzburg.

We decided to start our trip in Salzburg, flying into the airport which is 3 km from the city, and caught the train to Munich rather than the other way. We managed to get a pretty cheap deal on the flight which is why we did it this way. Our guest house was quite a way from the center so we traveled in during the day.

Salzburg’s historic center is one of the best preserved examples of Baroque architecture and is a world heritage site. Mozart was born here and you will find references to him throughout the city. The Salzach river runs through the center of the town. There are beautiful views of Saltzburg’s castle from the river with the domes of the old town’s historic buildings and churches laid out below. We enjoyed sitting on the banks of the river on the other side with this panorama across from us. The city is set in the foothills of the alps, and you can see mountains as you walk around the city. If you like walking, it is easy to get into the hills to spend some time in nature. The nearest mountain is only 10 km from the city and you can get up above 1500 meters without too much trouble.

There are examples of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and modernist architecture as well as the Baroque architecture the city is known for.

While you might expect beer drinking in Munich, we found our favourite beer hall in Salzburg. It may not have been as large or rowdy as some of the German beer kellers but it had everything we were looking for, and soon our idea of only having a couple of steins went a bit awry.

The city is well connected to other cities in the region and you can easily get further into Austria, to Switzerland and other parts of Germany as well as Munich if you have more time.

After a few days in Salzburg we decided to move onto Munich. Remembered fondly (by me) from an earlier rail trip round Europe in summer, the weather was less good this time, and the city didn’t wow to quite the same extent. The city has a rich cultural history, with music, festivals, architecture and the arts being strongly represented. While you may think of the city mainly for classical music, it has also contributed to more modern styles of music such as Krautrock, electronic music and even some disco.

The squares of the city center are flanked by impressive buildings such as Marienplatz which has the old and new town hall, and you can climb the tower for a birds eye view of the square. The oldest church in the city is Frauenkirche and there is nearby renaissance Michaelskirche. Munich as well as Salzburg has examples of baroque churches. There are castles, museums and mansions to explore depending on your interests.

By the time we had spent a couple of rainy days in Munich after our time in Salzburg in similar weather we were ready for some time in the outdoors.

We decided to get out into Bavaria and visit one of the lakes. We chose Königssee near Berchtesgaden.

Königssee

The weather was still not great, but we walked to the lake and around around its shore in the woods and after a while found a beautiful panorama of the lake set in the surrounding rock walls of the mountains around. There is a chairlift up to a small ski run but it looked like it was closed so we didn’t get the view from higher up which would have been nice.

We would definitely have had a better time on this trip with better weather but the region generally has lots of things to do and you can tailor it to your tastes, just find at least one small beer keller for a couple of steins.

Image (cc) Flickr : Alessandro Caproni

Lagos

Lagos

Lagos is situated on a beautiful stretch of Portugese coast. Gifted as a birthday surprise to me, the trip was a great choice and a welcome end to the British winter. In early April the weather there was good for exploring, not too hot for walking but not too cold for the beach.

Accessed from Faro airport, it is a 1.5 hour train ride from Faro. The Algarve coast has several resorts but Lagos stood out for us as the one with the most natural beauty.

Algarve

As you go further to the west from Lagos the cliffs get higher and the the landscapes more wild till you reach the headland of Farol do Cabo de São Vicente with its lighthouse guarding the busy shipping lane out to sea.

Between Faro and Lagos there are a number of resorts with beaches that can be stopped off at on the way to Lagos. Faro itself is set back from the sea behind an island, but there are beaches just to the south of the city not too far away. It’s worth spending a couple of hours there to just look round before catching the train. It’s the biggest city on the Algarve and there are a number of historic buildings to see.

You arrive in Lagos by train on the opposite side of the estuary from the town near the Meia Praia / São Roque beach. You may want to head straight to your hotel to drop off your luggage but it’s worth heading back to this beach at some point. It’s pretty nice and has a couple of beach bars and restaurants so you can spend some time there.

There is a footbridge across the estuary channel so you don’t have to walk all the way round, and you can use this to reach the main town. The port has a number of boat tours around the coast and there is also canoe hire close to the seaward end of the channel.

Lagos

On the south west side of the channel runs the Avenue dos Descobrimentos, a long boulevard heading down to the river mouth. At the end of the avenue there is the small fort by the sea, and the Castelo de Lagos is a larger castle on the other side of the road.

Our best days were walking south of the city out to the Ponta da Piedade area which has amazing cliff formations and beaches and coves getting there and more beaches out to the west of the headland. There are many boat tours that will give you a sea view of the cliffs and beaches, and will land at some of them for swimming. Canoes are also a great way to see the cliffs and are highly recommended as the sea views are spectacular.

The beaches have beautiful golden yellow sand and the cliffs also are yellow sandstone. There are nooks and crannies to explore in the cliffs and some of the beaches are linked by natural tunnels in the rock formations. You reach the beaches from the top of the cliffs down a fair number of steps. You can snorkel around the rocks, but you may not see too many fish.

The town is picturesque, with lots of alleyways to explore between the white painted houses. We were there close to a week and there was plenty to see and do with lots of nice bars and restaurants to hunt out. Lagos has kept its charm perhaps because it is right out at the end of the Algarve and has to be one of the top places in Portugal for a visit.

Main image by Jerome Bon at Flickr (cc).

Stockholm

Stockholm

When a friend has a friend who lives in Stockholm and is prepared to let you stay in her flat for a week for very little, you are truly in luck. Stockholm is known as an expensive place, but any accommodation that’s reasonable value close to a Metro station is going to be worth looking at. The Metro system is extensive with over 100 stations and lines going out in around 10 directions and that gives you lots of options for a place to stay.

Main image (cc) : ezioman flickr

The city is located within an archipelago of hundreds of islands with fourteen larger ones which are built on. It includes many waterways, parks and green space. With this and the pastel coloured buildings, it really is a beautiful place to visit.

I first visited the city on an Inter rail trip from Norway, through Sweden and down through Denmark – but Stockholm was the Scandinavian urban highlight for me. When I was invited for a longer stay five years later, I was very happy to go back.

Many of the Metro stations are underground, and I was delighted that the station close to our apartment had a replica life size moose in a showcase in the tunnels. Even more of the tunnels have art in them now, and it’s a lot of fun to find new pieces as you travel around.

You can start a tour of the city in Gamla Stan. One of the smaller islands in the city center, it has some of Stockholm’s oldest medieval buildings. The colour scheme of the houses is very pastel, with oranges, reds, yellows and pale browns common. From Gamla Stan you can walk across to nearby islands which include palaces, museums, parks and amusement parks.

We chose the Skansen open air museum. This contains many traditional Swedish buildings from the 1700’s to the 1960’s and you can learn much about the history of Sweden. It also houses a conservation area for animals, and you can see brown bear, moose, reindeer, european bison and many types of endangered birds.

Stockholm’s restaurants are known for not being cheap, but you should eat out at least once on your visit. The most novel dish on the menu where we ate was elk, and I was encouraged to try this. It was the most difficult meal I’ve ever tried to chew. Each time you thought you had chewed the meat enough you realised it still wasn’t chewed enough to swallow and you had to keep chewing some more.

A fun excursion in the city is to catch a ferry to one of the islands for a day or overnight stay. There are a wide variety of islands to choose from, each with different characteristics. We caught a ferry to Finnhamn, quite a way out in the archipelago. We were on the boat a few hours and saw some of how the waterways functioned, for example calling at a boat fueling station along the way.

Finnhamn was a beautiful place by day, and the forests were lovely to walk through, encountering animals, gorgeous views over the islands, with rocky beach spots to go for a swim. We slept overnight on the island in our sleeping bags and this was when the island showed another side. The island was infested by mosquitoes from dusk onwards, and it was impossible to sleep. They were even biting through the sleeping bags. We were glad to get back on the ferry the next day and go back to our comfortable apartment.

If you are worried about the cost of Stockholm, there are many things you can do there which are free or budget friendly, and the Visit Stockholm has a list of these.

Seville

Seville

Seville was the first truly exotic city I visited. I was 20 years old and had just started travelling around Europe. Arriving in 40 degree heat on the train and walking across the city the first thing to amaze me was the beautiful parks. We walked down the gorgeous terraces into a panorama of colorful flowers and bushes framed by very tall palms.

With full packs we quickly were looking for shade and an outdoor cafe to get some liquids to refresh our dry palates. We were there to meet one of our parties school exchange student and after a while she showed up and it was time for a welcome beer in the beautiful sunshine. Later that week she took us to meet her family, and they put on a meal for us. It was my first experience of Spanish culture and it stuck in my mind for the next five years.

So when I bought a motorcycle capable of reaching Spain, Seville was top of the list of places to revisit in Spain. I was there for my birthday and that made it a special one.

Looking through photos on the internet now, I can see why the city had such an impression on me. There are so many beautiful buildings there. I remember first seeing the amazing Plaza de España with its moat in front, the moorish Alcázar Palace, the huge gothic Cathedral with its Giralda bell tower and the Archaelogical Museum, all stunning buildings.

We stayed in a small pension in the Santa Cruz barrio, getting lost in the maze of narrow streets, hoping we would get back there before it got dark. The streets too narrow for cars and every now and then finding a beautiful church or square as we wandered through.

I discovered a love for Tortilla, a traditional Seville dish made with potatoes and eggs, and always looked for it when I returned to Spain but never finding any as good as I remember in Seville.

On that first trip we were limited to where we could walk, but for a few days in the city this was fine. The Alcazar, Plaza de Espana, Cathedral and Santa Cruz are all an easy walk from the train station. And returning there on motorcycle, I kept the bike at the pension I was staying at and again explored the city on foot.

When I did leave, I rode through the city sharing the streets with horse drawn carts carrying beautiful senoritas enjoying the sun in their gorgeous airy dresses while I was sweltering in my leathers and helmet.

Seville is somewhere I have to go back to, and this time stay more than a few days. Inland Andalusia has to be my favourite part of Spain and it deserves a much longer look next time.

Image by Kaja Kozłowska (cc) : flickr