How to spend a winter weekend in Malta

With its gorgeous weather and picturesque spots such as Comino and the Blue Lagoon, the Mediterranean island of Malta, sitting unassumingly between Southern Italy and the tip of Libya, attracts thousands of sun-seeking tourists in the summer months. However, winter is also a great time to visit if you want to skip the beaches and explore the island while avoiding the crowds.

Visit the Silent City of Mdina

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Pretty alleys make for cute photo stops

Mdina is a photographer’s dream. The entrance, an impressive stone archway, was used as a filming location for Game of Thrones and leads through to a fortified medieval city filled with winding passageways with cute doorways and balconies around every corner. While these narrow alleys are crammed full of tourists in the summer months, in January the ‘Silent City’ is just that, making for people-free photos!

Fontanella is the perfect spot to take a break for a coffee and enormous slice of cake. In summer, the terrace has beautiful views across the island to the ocean, but in winter you can head inside and find a cosy spot next to the log burner. The cake menu is huge, but be sure to also grab a couple of pastizzi, a savoury Maltese pastry filled with either crushed peas or ricotta. Delicious and cheap at only 65 cents!

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Turquoise doors set against sun-bleached walls
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Lose yourself in the medieval passageways
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Pretty doors for days

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Recognise this arch? Mdina was used as a filming location for King’s Landing in GoT
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Love the soothing, neutral tones
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Mdina’s labyrinthine passages
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Cake and Pastizzi at Fontanella
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Can I move in?!
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Pretty shutters and balconies overhead
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Hidden corners

 Meander around the pretty little capital of Valletta

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The beautiful Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta

No visit to Malta would be complete without a trip to its tiny capital city. Valletta is set on a hill and its steep, sloping roads lead down to the water, lined with enticing shops and restaurants. There is a church or a palace seemingly around every corner and the tall walls draw your eyes up to the intricate carvings on the corners of buildings or the little balconies and colourful shutters overhead. At the pretty Upper Barrakka Gardens, take in the panoramic view over the harbour and the Three Cities, before heading down a bustling side street for some lunch. Streat Cafe is a central spot that serves up tasty burgers and enormous salads!

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View over the Three Cities
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Colourful little streets in Valletta

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 Visit picturesque Popeye village

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This slightly surreal attraction was originally a film set for the Popeye musical back in 1980 starring the wonderful, late Robin Williams. Perched on a cliff top above the turquoise waters of a secret cove, the set is now open to tourists and is perfect for a family day out. Even without entering the village, the views across the bay are worth the drive over!

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Even in January it’s tempting to jump in that turquoise water!
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Can you spot Olive Oyl?
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This place has an  almost other-worldly feel!

So if you’re planning a quick weekend away for culture, views and some winter sun, Malta should be top of your list!

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It’s more fun in the Philippines! How to spend a blissful, budget-friendly week on Bohol island

The Philippines is one of those places that look too good to be true, with its seemingly endless array of white-sand beaches and lush tropical jungle. There are so many equally beautiful places to visit in this country, spread out over more than 7,000 (!) islands, including hotspots such as Boracay for the beach bums and Palawan for a tropical, ‘off the grid’ paradise. With such a vast choice of islands, and with transport options that are both limited and somewhat archaic, visiting every gorgeous spot in this sprawling archipelago is near impossible unless you have several months to spare.

With this in mind, we chose to spend a week on the beautiful island of Bohol, a few miles from Cebu. Here are 6 things not to miss here!

 

1. Visit a Tarsier Sanctuary

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Bohol is probably most famous for being home to the adorable little creature that is the tarsier. There are two Tarsier ‘sanctuaries’ on the island, though the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in Corella is touted as the best one to visit as its aim is to preserve these tiny, endangered animals. This place is far less busy than the Loboc Conservation Area which is located on the route to the Chocolate Hills near to the man-made forest and is mobbed by tour buses, mostly full of noisy Korean tour groups. At the Corella sanctuary, a lady leads a small group of us into a small enclosed area of dense trees and shrubs and asks us to stay quiet. After a while, we spot several fuzzy little tarsiers dozing and clinging onto branches. We are able to get very close to them to take pictures, which allows us to see just how cute they really are , but I can’t help but think about how the tarsiers probably aren’t enjoying the up close and personal experience quite as much. This place may advertise itself as a sanctuary but, like any attraction involving live animals, the welfare of the creatures is always questionable.

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Adorable!

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2. Take a day trip to Oslob to swim with whale sharks

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From Bohol, it is possible to take a speedboat over to neighbouring Oslob, where you can swim with these gentle giants. Although ‘swim’ isn’t really the best word for this experience; essentially you will hold onto a wooden boat with your face in the water, sucking up mouthfuls of fishy, salty water through your crappy snorkel, while these incredible giant fish circle the water directly below you. Be warned: they are HUGE and actually quite terrifying close up. Their mouths are wide enough to swallow a human if they wanted to, but don’t worry, these guys only feed on fish. (At least, that’s what we were told…) The feeding aspect of this experience is what makes it so controversial, the whale sharks have evidently become reliant on the food tossed into the water by the boatmen and as a result they have acquired unnatural feeding habits and no longer fear the flailing mob of semi-drowning tourists that have come to poke go-pros into their faces and attempt to touch them despite being told not to by the ‘conservationists’.

Although it was incredible to see these creatures so close up, as with the tarsier sanctuary,  I have to admit I have mixed feelings about this experience. The fact that the whales are fed means that their migration patterns have been altered and they are now completely reliant on the food thrown by the fishermen. Despite this, the whales are not caged and so are still essentially ‘wild; and free to swim wherever they please.

 

3. Take a scooter through the manmade forest to the Chocolate Hills

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Like most places in South-East Asia, the only way to truly experience Bohol is by scooter. There is nothing quite like zipping along well-worn roads, past lush rice paddies and through bustling villages wearing a battered old helmet that doesn’t quite fasten properly.  ‘Safety first’ is not really the motto here and we unfortunately managed to acquire some pretty nasty grazes and bruises when our scooter slipped over a patch of wet, uneven ground. Don’t let that put you off though, as we have always hired scooters to travel around and this was the first time we ever had an issue! We’ll still always choose this mode of transport as it allows you so much more freedom to explore! Head through the man-man forest in the direction of Carmen, where you’ll start to see the unmistakable Hershey’s kisses shaped ‘Chocolate Hills’ spreading out for miles. The top of the mini-mountain of a viewpoint offers incredible panoramic views over these iconic hills.

4. Stay at a cute budget hotel on Alona Beach, while still enjoying the perks of luxury accommodation!

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There are plenty of budget options around, and many of these are based on Panglao, a little island in the south-western corner of Bohol. Alona Swiss Resort is an affordable hostel with a boutique hotel feel, just up the road from the gorgeous Alona Beach. Captain’s Lodge is another great option, with its lush, green courtyard serving as an oasis away from the bustling street.

If budget isn’t an issue, the Hennan Resort is the biggest and most luxurious hotel on Panglao Island. Sitting directly on the white sand of Alona Beach, this gorgeous, sprawling resort boasts 3 enormous pools and a bar and restaurant mere metres from the sea. If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to this level of luxury, for a modest fee you can still enjoy the pool with its cocktail bar (hello happy hour!) without forking out top dollar for a room.

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The view from the Hennan Resort pool, just metres from the beach!

5. Zip wire across the Loboc river

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About an hour’s scooter ride from Alona Beach is the Loboc Ecotourism Adventure Park, where you can zipline over the river for a small charge. You’ll lie on your stomach on a piece of fabric attached to the line overhead and before you can wonder whether you’re actually going to be strapped in or how safe this really is, you’ll be pushed out and suddenly you’re soaring almost 200 meters above a gorge of lush jungle and over the serene Loboc river. It’s an exhilarating little ride, with incredible views, and the fee allows you to take the zipline back the other way to return to the entrance! The staff here were so friendly and when they saw we had some cuts and bruises from our little scooter accident, they grabbed a first-aid kit and insisted on cleaning our grazes and bandaging us up!

 

6. Live your best vegan life with a smoothie bowl at Shaka Bohol

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Drool…

I hate to say it, but Filipino fare such as Tapsilog (beef, rice and egg) doesn’t quite live up to that of other South-East Asian countries like Thailand or Vietnam (especially when it’s served at breakfast…) But this cute café, just up the road from Captain’s Lodge, serves up bright and tasty vegan and veggie options, such as these gorgeous acai bowls.

 

Getting there

International flights all arrive into Manila, and to get to Bohol most people first travel to Cebu and then take the ferry to Tagbilaran.  You can also fly directly into Tagbilaran which will reward you with some incredible views!

Why you should include the Coromandel Peninsular on your New Zealand road trip

New Zealand is chock-full of gorgeous scenery and with its epic array of road trip possibilities, the lesser known routes are often overlooked in favour of heading straight down the highway to the main attractions. But the winding back roads of this spectacular country are often as amazing as the destination, after all, you don’t want to miss out on quirky roadside stops like a giant bottle of L&P, the world’s most famous public toilets, or the land of teapots now would you?

The Coromandel Peninsular, to the west of Auckland and just north of the Bay of Plenty, is just out of the way enough to often be skipped in favour of heading further north to Cape Reinga or shooting south towards everything else. And although the quaint, quiet town of Coromandel is not particularly exciting, this trip is more about the journey than the destination. Here are 5 things not to miss on your Coromandel road trip!

 

1. An unusual roadside attraction 

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When heading along the scenic route towards the Peninsula, you can take a slight detour to visit possibly the strangest roadside attraction around: a public toilet. After reassuring our passengers, a couple of nervous, Spanish hitchhikers in the back seat, that these are in fact the most famous roadside toilets in New Zealand, we decide to take a look. The toilets, based in the sleepy little town of Kawakawa, were designed by the quirky Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser and feature a colourful array of tiles, topsy-turvy walls and a tree bursting through the roof. Based on the sheer number of coaches parked outside, and the hoards of tourists stopping for selfies, these must be the most photographed toilets in the world. Which is fine, unless you’re desperate for a wee and the queue is a mile long!

2. Hot Water Beach

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Arguably, Coromandel’s most well known attraction is a beach, of which New Zealand has hundreds. But Hot Water Beach is unique. Every day, as the tide changes, tourists and locals alike grab a spade and flock to a small patch of sand between the rocks and the water. This part of the beach is directly above a hidden hot spring deep below the sand and, as you dig, hot water filters up creating your own hot bath on the beach! Pick your spot wisely though, the closer to the source you sit, the hotter the water gets. In some places you can even boil an egg!

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3. Cathedral Cove

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Not far from Hot Water Beach, at the eastern end of neighbouring Hahei, beach you can take a walking track to beautiful Cathedral Cove for some insta-worthy snaps of that famous arch. (Ignore the signs, the walk takes 10 minutes tops.) You might recognise this spot… the arch was one of the entrances to Narnia in the movie! Bring a picnic, and relax.

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4. The legendary 309 road

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A local secret, many road-trippers miss this sneaky little route. Technically a ‘shortcut’ if you’re heading to Whitianga, this route winds through the bush on a loose gravel road and is not for the faint hearted.  If you aren’t a fan of slowing down for the scenery and cant keep your foot off the accelerator you may want to skip this route. But, you will miss out on some hidden gems.

The road is home to ‘The Waterworks’, a quirky little collection of ‘water powered inventions ‘ which makes for a cute pitstop.  From here, follow the winding road, avoiding the local pigs that amble along the roadside, until you reach the signs for Waiau Falls and the Kauri Grove. A short walk through the bush leads to a picturesque waterfall and swimming hole. Great for photos, but tales of eels and slippery things in the water mean it might not be the best swimming spot!

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5. The Tui Lodge

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The Peninsular is a beautiful stretch of land filled with lush greenery and picturesque beaches, while the town of Coromandel itself is like most small towns in the North Island, quiet and peaceful with not much going on.  We set up camp at The Tui Lodge, a friendly, colourful little hostel with a rambling back yard and laid back feel. New Zealand has so many down to earth, home from home hostels like these, filled with like minded wanderers swapping travel tales.  This place is definitely worth a night or two, before continuing your journey to see what the rest of New Zealand has to offer!

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The ultimate ‘Paris in a day’ itinerary

The route

Belleville – Montmartre – Moulin Rouge – Arc de Triomphe – Champs Elysées – Jardin des Tuileries – Le Louvre – Notre Dame – St Germain des Pres –  Eiffel Tower

With the Eurostar flinging itself into the French capital in less than 2 hours from London, it has never been easier to ‘pop into Paris.’ Short city breaks are a must when you work full time and it’s cheap and easy for us Brits to dash off for a spontaneous day in Rome or a boozy weekend in Amsterdam. Although you could visit these urban hotspots countless times, and still find something new to discover, it is possible to see the best bits in just a few hours. (And without using up any of your precious annual leave!) The City of Light is no exception, so if you are seriously short on time and just want to see the top spots in Paris, then read on for a guide on how to cram all the iconic sights into just one day!

Starting point: Belleville

The hardest part of amy city trip is deciding where to stay. Central Parisian hotels are extortionate so the cheapest option is to find an Air B&B slightly outside the centre and take the tube around the city. This can be daunting for first-timers, but ‘le metro’ is easy to navigate and you can buy a bundle of 10 one-way tickets for 15 euros from the machines inside the stations. We found a great Air B&B in Belleville, an arty eastern suburb, only a 10 minute metro ride from the centre of Paris. This was the perfect base, showing us a ‘real’ side to the city as well as the picture-perfect touristy spots. Not to mention it’s home to the best millefeuille in Paris. (Read about this underrated neighbourhood here.)

 

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Graffiti alleys in Belleville

Metro to Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur

From Belleville we take the metro to Anvers, where a short walk up a cobbled street leads to a grassy hill, at the top of which the impressive Sacré Coeur looks out over the city.

Take a moment to soak in the panoramic view of the capital and, if you’re a fan of French cinema, you can even reenact that scene from Amelie and follow your own trail of blue arrows. Most of the movie was filmed here in Montmartre and there are lots of spots to keep an eye out four, like the Deux Moulins cafe and the famous Maison Collignon Grocery store.

 

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The famous Maison Collignon in Amelie’s neighbourhood
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Take a stroll up to the Sacre Coeur

 

From the Sacré Coeur, follow the winding, cobblestone streets past the cheerful accordion players into the bustling heart of Montmartre, where the streets are lined with charming cafes, pricey boutiques and leafy squares. There are so many little side-roads to explore; great for avoiding the crowds although it’s easy to lose your bearings around here so be sure to have Google maps to hand. (Or one of those big,  fold-out maps if you’re feeling old school.)

 

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Pretty little boutiques dotted around Montmartre

 

Moulin Rouge to L’arc de triomphe

When you’ve finished exploring, head down to Blanche metro station where the historic Moulin Rouge makes for a great photo stop. From here, take the metro all the way to Charles de Gaulle Etoile, where you’ll emerge directly underneath the impressive Arc de Triomphe. Wait for an opportune gap in the heavy stream of traffic before jumping out into the road for a photo, and whatever you do, don’t try to cross the road to the arch! Take the underpass instead and you’ll avoid being écrasé.

 

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Opportune break in traffic at l’Arc de Triomphe

 

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Try your hand at can-can at the Moulin Rouge

 

Walk all the way from the Champs-Elysées to Notre Dame

From the Arc, you can walk all the way down the Champs-Elysées and do a spot of shopping in the designer boutiques. The only way to experience this famous stretch of road is on foot, so wander slowly down, stopping mid-way to take a break to people-watch with an overpriced beer at a café bar. If you fancy indulging, be sure to pop into Pierre Hermé where you can pick up some Occitaine skincare goodies and a box of pretty pastel macarons.

Continue walking until you reach the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries which will lead you to the unmistakable glass pyramids of The Louvre. You can head inside and wrestle your way through the tourists to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, or skip the interior and spend a while admiring the impressive exterior architecture.

From the Louvre, it’s around a 20 minute walk along the river to Notre Dame, where you can pause for photos and then cocktails at one of the surrounding bars. Arrive at dusk to see the lights appear in the windows, slowly illuminating this this iconic medieval cathedral.

 

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Keeping an eye out for Quasimodo

 

Start the evening in beautiful, bohemian St Germain des Prés

If you’re not exhausted from all the walking, you can continue a little further along to the  fashionable neighbourhood of St Germain des Prés, which is filled with chic bars, gorgeous homeware stores and independent fashion boutiques. Don’t miss Les Deux Magots, old-time Hemingway haunt and possibly the most famous bar in the city. Treat yourself to a giant macaron from a nearby patisserie before stopping for a well earned drink on the terrace at the uber-instagrammable Maison Sauvage which is covered in cascading white flowers and foliage.

 

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Don’t leave Paris without trying at least one macaron!
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Check out Maison Sauvage’s Instagram page for swoon-worthy decor and mouthwatering foodie inspo!
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Write your next novel at famed literary spot, Les Deux Magots

 

Save the best til last…

Finally, to finish the day in style, head for dinner and drinks at Cafe de L’homme, which boasts arguably the best view in the entire city. What better way to end a day roaming Paris than drinking a glass of sparkling champagne in front of the equally sparkling Eiffel Tower? Santé!

 

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No better view to finish the day with

(P.S Getting engaged in Paris is not essential but certainly encouraged!)

An alternative side to Paris; discovering bohemian Belleville 

We all have an image of Paris;  long, leafy boulevards lined with expensive stores and restaurants and haughty, impossibly chic women walking designer dogs while chain smoking thin cigarettes as the Eiffel tower twinkles in the distance. And that’s exactly what you see wandering down the Champs-Elysées or around picture-perfect neighbourhoods like Montmartre and Saint Germain des Pres.

But, as locals will tell you, this is not the real Paris. Many Parisians live outside of the centre, in the eastern suburbs. Belleville is an arty, multicultural neighbourhood in the 19th arrondissement, which sounds horribly far away but is actually only a 10 minute metro ride from the Arc de Triomphe. Few tourists wander out this way so there are limited hotel options, but as always, Air B&B is your friend. We found an entire apartment for around 120 euros a night, which was slightly on the pricey side but was perfectly located and absolutely gorgeous, with it’s airy, loft-like feel and cosy mezzanine bedroom. Mathieu’s place is in the heart of bustling Belleville, next to the Metro station and located conveniently next door to a shiny Sephora. (Au revoir hard-earned euros…)

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Mind your head on the ceiling upstairs! This quirky little loft was perfect for our stay.

Belleville is a hub of activity on Friday afternoon with the market in full swing and bars are already full of people fuelling themselves for the day with an espresso or two. There is a thriving Asian community here and we pause to grab a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, or banh mi; a baguette filled with pork, salad, coriander and fresh chilli. Delicious, filling and less than 3 euros!

Belleville is arguably most famous for being the birth place of Édith Piaf; the tragic, yet iconic ‘little sparrow.’ On the main street, at 72 Rue de Belleville, a simple gold plaque sits above a nondescript doorway which reads; ‘On the steps of this house in December 1915, was born into poverty Edith Piaf, whose voice would later move the world.’ Well, that’s my rough translation anyway! She was buried in Belleville in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery along with many other iconic figures, including greats such as Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, whose grave is covered in lipstick kisses, not to mention French literary giants Moliere and Marcel Proust. You can take a guided tour of the cemetery, which is an interesting, if slightly morbid, way to spend an afternoon.

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‘La môme’

Homages to Piaf can be found dotted around the neighbourhood, a large, melancholy mural of her is painted on the wall of ‘Aux Folies’ where she used to sing in the 1920s, This infamous bar is always busy, crammed with coffee drinkers in the morning and, in the evening, the terrace is packed full of people chatting, smoking and enjoying a 4 euro beer or a couple of 6 euro cocktails. No outrageous Champs-Élysées prices here and the punters are mainly locals.

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‘I want to make people cry even when they don’t understand my words.’

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Immediately next to Aux Folies is Rue Denoyez, better known as Graffiti Alley, where the walls, street lamps, even the litter bins are entirely covered in bright street art. Tucked away down this colourful side street is Barbouquin, a little cafe filled with a jumble of books which you can leaf through as you while away an hour so with a coffee or a glass of wine.

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Le Barbouquin; cafe/bookshop/library/super chilled hangout spot

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We can’t leave Belleville without trying what is tipped as the trendiest new patisserie in Paris. Yann Couvreur is a celebrated pastry chef, and at his bright new bakery you can enjoy a 9 euro breakfast of coffee, fruit juice and something delicious like a Breton Kouign Amann or a Pistachio Chocolat Roule. This patisserie is famous for its classic ‘millefeuille’ which is whipped up fresh in front of you. Only 50 of these delicious French clsssics are made daily between 12 and 6, and its first come first served. At 10 euros its an expensive treat but one worth splashing out for, and this place gets top marks for decor and pretty packaging.

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Only a few thousand calories…tant pis!
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Get in quick if you want to get your hands on their signature millefeuille…
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A patisserie with attractive servers AND dangly foliage… win

So if you’ve already seen the picture-perfect side to Paris and are looking for a new neighbourhood to explore, follow in Piaf’s footsteps and head to Belleville to spend a day like a true Parisian.

One Day in Amsterdam

A mere 30 minute plane journey from London, the picturesque city of Amsterdam with its tall, narrow houses overlooking countless canals appears to be the perfect destination for a quick weekend break. Despite being just a hop across the water, somehow I had never visited this cultural capital. So I braved the groups of rowdy lads on stag dos and caught a flight from London Southend, to see if I could squeeze the best bits of the city into just one day.

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From the airport it’s only a 20 minute train ride to Amsterdam Centraal and from here the city hotspots are all within walking distance. Amsterdam is the perfect city to walk around and photograph; the higgledy-piggledy houses, the serene canals, the cosy waterfront shops and cafes. Just remember, cafes sell coffee and coffee shops sell weed. Confusing, I know. But you get used to it, like you get used to the faint but pervasive smell of marijuana that seems to cling to the air. And to your clothes.

It is perhaps due to the city’s tolerant attitude that the locals are so laid back and friendly.  (Although this view is possibly biased by the fact that I work in London where everyone is a miserable wanker.) Yet despite the uber trendy vibe of this capital and its hoards of tourists, everyone is just so bloody nice. People wander at a snail’s pace (literally the most irritating thing ever in London), yet here, no-one ever snaps. I didn’t hear a car horn or a bicycle bell once, a far cry from other European capitals where hardly a second goes by without a long, angry toot of a horn. Even when there are oblivious tourists wandering into the bike lanes and in front of trams. This is a relaxed, easy like Sunday morning kind of city and it’s an infectious attitude. This is reflected in the fashion here, which is casual and almost grungy, which works when you’re the right side of 25. Amsterdam is undeniably cool, an arty student city filled with young, unfairly attractive people.

While there is a huge selection of museums and galleries to choose from, with only a day to play with I had to be choosy. At the most popular spots, the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and Heineken Experience, the queues can be enormous unless you’ve booked a ticket online, so instead I headed to The House of Bols, the oldest distillery in Amsterdam, if not the world. Bols was an early equivalent to gin and the base of many a cocktail back in the 1800s. The 16 euro entrance fee gains you access to the museum and a drink at the bar. We are handed a token and a small bottle of unidentified red liquid and told to drink it only when instructed to do so. Very Alice in Wonderland-esque. This time comes when we reach a dark room and a row of cubicles. Inside each one, a camera films you as you drink your alcoholic concoction while the cubicle vibrates and flashes. It’s a pretty odd experience to say the least.

The tour finishes at the bar, where your token can be exchanged for your desired tipple, various tasty Bols versions of classic cocktails. You can even try your hand at flair bartending in a secret booth. (Be aware though, that while you are flinging plastic bottles around and doing your best Tom Cruise impression, your efforts are being played on a screen outside for all the bar to see.)

From the House of Bols we amble around the town; visiting the floating flower market, to pick up some obligatory tulip bulbs, and the grounds of the famous Rijksmuseum where the i amserdam sign is mobbed by people clambering all over it. Our next stop is the Anne Frank Huis, (buy tickets in advance here to avoid the queues) perhaps the most famous of Amsterdam’s museums. An audio tour guides you around the cramped, dark rooms where the family hid in silence from the Nazis before they were discovered and led away to their deaths. It is an eerie tour, especially at dusk as the light is fading outside, throwing shadows into the corners of the tiny rooms. It’s a sobering visit, but an unmissable experience.

From here we stop at Cafe Schuim, an arty hipster hub in the heart of the city centre, for dinner and drinks. With the feel of an open-plan living room filled with a mish-mash of chairs, the impressively stocked bar dominates the left hand wall, while an enormous disco ball spins in the centre of the room. This is a great spot to sit and mingle with the locals and the food is delicious and reasonably priced.

Our next stop is a hidden gem, touted as the only speakeasy bar in Amsterdam. Door 74 is almost impossible to find, unless you know where to look. The unmarked entrance sits unassumingly between nondescript doorways, tucked down a causal side street. Inside, the friendly bartenders will whip you up any cocktail of your choosing with a healthy dose of flair and banter. The website marks the address as ‘On a need to know basis’ yet despite it’s secret location, this is a popular spot and you should book a seat ahead via their text message service. You’ll have to find a way to locate this place yourself! 😉

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We couldn’t spend a day in Amsterdam without visiting its most notorious area; De Wallen, better known as the Red Light District. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, yet it is still a strange experience to walk past half naked women beckoning from the windows. In order to understand more about the practice of prostitution here, reputedly the oldest profession in the world’, and to feel less like we have come simply to gawk at the women, we head inside Red Light Secrets, the Museum of Prostitution. This is a strange yet revealing experience, in places both funny and uncomfortable. An audio tour guides you around the rooms, which can be privately rented for around 150 euros per day, and lets you experience the view from the other side of the window. You can perch on a stool in a room bathed in red light, while passers by stare up at you from the street below. This experience sheds light on the reality of the prostitution business in Amsterdam which, although legal, is still a risky profession with tales of trafficking, exploitation and even murder.

There is a huge amount to see and do in this vibrant capital, there are enough museums and galleries to keep culture vultures entertained and for a laid-back weekend of ambling along the canals, people-watching and bar-hopping into the small hours there is no better place. It’s impossible to see everything in just one day, but with this intriguing city so close to home, I have a feeling I’ll be visiting again, and again to discover more of what Amsterdam has to offer.

 

 

How to do Rome in a day (on a budget!)

We all know Rome wasn’t built in a day. But believe it or not, it is possible to see the best that this incredibly beautiful city has to offer in the space of only 24 hours. All you need is a decent pair of shoes and a healthy dose of espresso to get you started. (Followed by cocktails. And then prosecco. And then more cocktails.  But we’ll get to that later.)

The key to seeing Rome’s best bits in such a short space of time is to keep moving, or more precisely, to avoid queues like the plague. No standing around in the heat, wedged between hot, disgruntled tourists in a queue that hasn’t moved an inch in the last 15 minutes. You may wonder what the point is in visiting Rome if you’re not going to see the interior of its most famous attractions: St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum. I hear you. I would have loved to have seen inside all of these places and if I were to come back with 2 weeks to spare and all my pre-booked, fast-track tickets ready I would absolutely visit all of them. But I had 24 hours, and tight purse strings, and I did not want to waste the entire day in a queue. Especially when the famous Italian organisational skills (ahem) are hard at work here. There are no signs at the Vatican to indicate which queue you should even be in as there are apparently different lines for people with tickets and those without. At the Colosseum noone seems to know which line they should be in or what they are doing or if they are actually in the queue for the Roman Forum next door, or if they’ll get all the way to the front of the queue only to be turned away for wearing Hawaiian-print shorts. The only people you can ask are the touts and hawkers who will invariably try to sell you overpriced ‘queue-jump’ tickets for various overpriced tours. It’s madness, and the tourists who have actually decided to brave the queues look stressed and miserable.

So, we skipped the queues and did Rome our way. Who needs to actually see inside the Colosseum when you can climb the stairs opposite and take pictures like these?

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Tick that one off the bucket list

When you only have one full day to see the city, the most important thing is to stay somewhere in a good location. We wanted to book a hostel that was both as central and as good value as possible and we found an absolute gem in B&B’s City House which seemed too good to be true. A stone’s throw from the Pantheon and less than a 10 minute walk from the Trevi fountain and Piazza Navona the entrance to this hostel sits unassumingly on the buzzing Via della Maddalena. B&B’s couldn’t be more central if it tried. The dorm rooms are reasonably priced, as are the doubles with shared bathroom. Forget standard hostel bathrooms with grey cubicles and strip lighting, this shared bathroom is as clean and homey as your own and the hostel feels more like a tucked-away boutique hotel, without the price tag.

As for seeing the sights, if you hit Rome’s cobbled streets early enough, you can cover the city completely on foot and avoid taking any public transport. (Always a plus in my opinion, public transport networks in major cities can be majorly confusing!) We are out of the hostel by 8am and in the ancient Pantheon by 8.05, gazing up at the impressive oculus in the domed ceiling. This early in the day there are no queues and we had this incredible place almost to ourselves. Rather than join a tour, we had previously downloaded a free podcast by Rick Steves onto our phones. This gave a bit of context to ‘all the old stuff’, and I’d definitely recommend this to anyone that wants to learn about the history of a place without paying a hefty fee for a guided tour!

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Rome’s oldest building, the Pantheon

Seeing as it’s still early in the day we decide to head over the bridge to Vatican City to see whether the queues are as bad as people say. They are. An enormous, chaotic snake of a queue has already formed at St Peter’s Square.  Rather than even attempt to find the end of it, we wander leisurely around the square, taking in the impressive view of the basilica while dodging large groups of Chinese tourists and disgruntled families who assume everyone is trying to jump the queue. Along the wide street that leads up to St Peter’s you can look inside several churches which are uncrowded and peaceful, such as the lovely Santa Maria in Traspontina, just a few metres from St Peters Square.  If, like me, you’re not at all religious you can still appreciate the incredible frescoes painted on the ceilings, not to mention it’s a welcome break from the tourists and the heat outside.

From Vatican City we walk back across the river in the rough direction of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. (Don’t be deterred by what Google maps may tell you, it’s really not that far on foot!) As we wander down the shady streets we begin to hear the enticing sound of gushing water. A few twists and turns later we suddenly find ourselves at the famous Trevi Fountain, which seems to pop up out of nowhere in a small square filled with kissing couples and coin-tossing tourists.

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The famous Trevi Fountain, try to visit both during the day and after dark!

From here, it’s a short stroll to pretty Piazza Navona where you’ll find not one but three impressive fountains. This popular spot is the perfect place to take an espresso break or grab a slice of pizza and people watch. Or just take a seat and admire the impressively carved architecture… (ahem).

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He works out…
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Nailed it (sort of)

Over at the Colosseum, it’s another hectic swarm of confused queueing and jostling to get inside. We take the steps opposite, away from the heaving crowds and unhelpful hawkers down below, and find a quiet spot to take in the iconic view. The sprawling Roman forum is just next door and Palatine Hill can be seen behind in the distance. This is the ancient heart of the city and it’s an unmissable part of any trip to Rome. Even without visiting inside, it’s impossible not to feel in awe of this giant ancient wonder.

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Take the steps opposite the Colosseum for less crowded views

We continue up the steps opposite the Colosseum, ambling down cobbled streets that lead to small, fountain-filled piazzas, stopping for a cold drink or yet another cup of gelato. We peek inside the countless charming churches that seem to stand on every street, turn a corner to find ourselves in a courtyard filled with orange and lemon trees. This is the best way to see the city, just keep walking and take it all in. (Although Google maps does help if, like me, you have zero sense of direction and want to avoid getting completely lost or going round in circles!)

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A cute spot to grab a quick shot of espresso, down one of the countless cobbled streets
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Oranges & Lemons

Eventually we find ourselves at the very top of the gorgeous Spanish Steps, the traditional meeting place of artists, poets and bohemians. The steps spill out onto the busy Piazza di Spagna below, crowded with tourists, locals and covered in bright pink flowers. A super photogenic photo spot!

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Looking up to the top of the Spanish Steps, these gorgeous pink flowers are everywhere!
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1. Locate pretty flowers. 2.Perch awkwardly on ledge with very steep drop. 3. Take photo and try not to fall off

By this point it is late afternoon and, we have to admit, our feet are feeling pretty tired so we head back to the hostel for a power nap. (Yep, this one day itinerary even includes a nap!) But as soon as the sun starts to go down, it’s time to get up and get back out there because as every Italian knows, 6pm is aperitivo time. The best part of the day and an absolute must if you are visiting the city, aperitivo is the British equivalent of a long happy hour. But here in Rome, it is so much more than that. There is nothing quite like sipping cocktails as the sun goes down, at a busy street-side bar, listening to the buzz of excited, post-work chatter as everyone winds down after a long day in the city. Romans know their stuff when it comes to shaking a good cocktail, and in most bars your drink will be served with a light plate of something delicious to snack on while you sip.

Our evening unfolds slowly, hopping from bar to bar, starting at Gusto which is widely reputed to be the best aperitivo bar in the city due to its fantastic free buffet. The cocktails are delicious and you can take as many trips to the heavily laden buffet table as you like. If you’re on a tight budget but still want to dine in style, this is a great way to enjoy a light meal without forking out at a pricey restaurant.

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Gusto’s free buffet, order a drink, then grab a plate and fuel up!

After drinks at Gusto we head down Via del Pace, one of the small streets that lead off Piazza Navona, and apparently an aperitivo hotspot. The busy bars along this charming street are filled with locals and tourists alike. Make sure you do as the Romans do and order a classic Aperol Spritz, served with yet another plate of something delicious.

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No trip to Italy would be complete without an Aperol Spritz or 2! Or 3, or 4…

Although by this point we have eaten enough to feed a small army we can’t resist tucking into a pizza washed down with a bottle of prosecco at Pummerola, just opposite B&B’s City House back on Via della Maddalena. This place does the BEST pizza, the staff are friendly and it’s fantastic value for money despite it’s great location. (If you still have room after dinner, the gelateria next door serves 150 different flavours of gelato, at just 2.50 euros for two scoops! I can highly recommend the salted caramel and profiterole…)

No visit to Rome would feel complete without a trip across the river to the youthful, vibrant neighbourhood of Trastevere and the hip, late night hotspot that is Freni e Frizioni. This popular bar is always rammed, but you can take your drinks outside and join Rome’s cool kids on the steps that lead down to the river. Try the Green Day cocktail, a refreshing mix between a mojito and a slush puppy. Heaven.

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Thanks for the photo, Google. I’d had far too many cocktails by this point to be capable of working my camera…

At 2 am, after bar-hopping our way around the city and dragging our tired feet back across the bridge, we hear the familiar sound of running water and find ourselves back at the Trevi fountain. Lit up and illuminating the whole piazza, the fountain is almost deserted at this hour. Legend goes that anyone who throws a coin into the fountain will return to Rome some day so I rummage around my purse looking for a stray euro. But I  realise that I don’t need to throw in a coin to be sure of coming back.  I may have seen a lot in just one day, but I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the sights and secrets this beautiful, ancient city has to offer.

Roma, mi manchi già!

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Ciao Roma, ci vediamo presto