Saturday, 10 November 2018

Malta - October 2018


Venerating Valletta

The Guinness


Choosing a destination to have my Guinness in Valletta was one of the simplest decisions of the whole challenge.  Google search 'pub', 'Valletta' and 'Guinness 'and only one place pops up, and pops up a lot - that's partly because it is actually amusingly called 'The Pub' and the only bar in the small city selling itself as a British or Irish type watering hole.  The other reason to visit is so that you can share in their claim to fame as being the place where the actor Oliver Reed died after an all day drinking session with British sailors who, so the story goes, goaded him into drinking and arm wrestling competitions.

Enjoying a Guinness at The Pub in Valletta with Bojan picking out my next destination.

 Bojan, the barman, quickly understood my challenge and joined in the fun. I asked him to pick my next destination out of the hat.  This took a bit of explaining as there was only one destination left - Reykjavik in Iceland.  I'm sure it didn't look suspicious at all - offering Bojan a box with a little straw in it.  Luckily, when the bit of paper that was inside the straw was unwound, it did indeed contain Reykjavik in Iceland and not somewhere else. 

The originally named pub 'The Pub'.

The Guinness tasted good but we needed to check its consistency so stayed for a couple more and came back the next two nights just to make sure we hadn't just happened to hit it on a good night.  The Pub is a convivial place, with a mix of Maltese, ex-pats and visitors as customers, a cosy bar with lots of memorabilia, an outside street patio area and one of the weirdest toilets you could imagine.    


Team make up


My travelling companion for this trip was Kay, an old friend from university days, when college pranks and alcoholic hazes were more the order of the day.  Nowadays we wear our sensible heads and tut at any misdemeanors but can still reminisce about the good old days.   . 

Kay ensuring the Guinness quality is up to par.

Sightseeing


Valletta isn't huge but it has lots of charm, sited as it is on a small hilly peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean.  Malta has had a turbulent past with many countries conscious of its potentially advantageous geographical position in the mid-Mediterranean and eyeing it up as a military base.  Everywhere you look there seem to be fortifications built from the manila coloured sandstone.  It made me wonder where all this rock came from.  Is there the mother of all quarries hiding away somewhere in the middle of the island.

Valletta parade puppets 


We took a trip on a small ferry across the harbour to Cospicua, one of what is grandiosely described as 'three cities' nestling on peninsulas across from Valletta.  If ever you go there we've a recommendation - don't just explore the bit around the harbour.  Instead climb the hilly narrow lanes up into the heart of Cospicua and prepare to be wowed by its hidden charm.  Remember - you read it here first.  After that, cross the narrow habour on the footbridge and go up into the next town of Senglea.  You may be getting tired of all the historical stuff by now so head to the western side of the town wall and pop you head over into the dockyard.  Fascinating.    

Cospicua - steps, narrow streets and bags of atmosphere. 



Food and Drink


One thing for sure is I will never make a food blogger - I don't ever remember to take pictures of my food.  That's probably a relief to the restaurant owners and the people travelling with me.  There is a heavy British influence on Maltese life, so in honour of this on the first night we ate in Tuk Tuk, a southern Indian restaurant and I had chicken tika masala.   Looking back I think my other meals were all Italian, a spaghetti dish, a pizza and calzone.  The later looked very tempting when I saw some being made but wasn't the wisest choice on my part.  We were in Is-Suq Tal-Belt, the Valletta Food Market, a food hall in a Victorian building surrounded by many food outlets giving us choices from all around the world.  It was also the night of the big parade in town so the place was heaving.  Here's a hint - when you see a very busy pizzeria, don't order the one item that takes four times as long to cook as a simple pizza.  It was however very nice. 

Siege Bell, Valletta



Accommodation


I didn't spot anywhere in Valletta at reasonable cost using booking.com so instead stayed in a very nice apartment in Msida which was a short bus ride out of the capital.  Fortunately the bus service in Malta is pretty good and I could enjoy an evening out in Valletta before getting a late bus back. The apartment I was staying had three rooms so occasionally I would bump into other guests, though luckily not in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom - it's an age thing.  When I arrived I was warmly welcomed by the efficient owner who made sure I had all the information I required about the apartment and locality and places of interest though I wasn't quite sure why I was being told about nearby schools.  

Centre Point in Msida, Malta.


Kay on the other hand had managed to book through Airbnb and had found a very quirky basement room in the heart of Valletta with a seventeenth century grave headstone embedded in the rook adorned with skull and crossbones, apparently synonymous with the Order of St John.


Getting there and around


A Ryanair flight from Bristol got me to and back from Malta with little hassle.  After that it buses using the five day bus pass that also included a couple of free ferry rides across Valletta harbour and a free day on the hop-on-hop-off tour bus.  there was so much to do and see in Valletta that I didn't us the tour bus option so swapped bus passes with Kay on leaving enabling her to make use of the tour bus.  Unfortunately a pickpocket helped themselves to the bus pass apparently so its left to our imagination if they ever went around the island on the open-topped bus. If they did then I hope it poured with rain and the bus broke down.  

St Domonic's Church, Valletta - the whole city is this colour!

Outside Valletta


We had a day-trip by bus to Mdina, an ancient walled town, once Malta's capital, in the middle of the island with narrow streets.  I got the feeling that visiting this tourist honey pot out of season and in the morning had its advantages as we could still get a prime seat in the rooftop cafe with great vistas and equally good cake. Just as we began to tire of being tourists an idea of tackling a geocache dawned.  It involved collecting clues form locations around the compact town which kept is well enthralled for an hour.  The nearby town of Rabat, a short walk away was equally charming but in a different way. 

A splash of colour in Mdina

 Quirky Moments



I have been uploading my photos of my  Guinness trips onto Flickr in the vague hope that a Guinness executive will spot them and offer me sponsorship.  Somebody did contact me regarding a Malta photo but it wasn't Guinness, it was Superyacht Times.  They had seen a picture I'd taken of a strange stubby-nosed vessel Olivia O in dry dock in Senglea and wanted to use it for an article.  At least I got to find out what the vessel was called which is something I'd been wondering.  Still waiting for the free ride on it though. 
A surprise place to find one of my photos


  Also in the dock having a refit was the enormous Superyacht 'I Dynasty'  measuring over 100 meters in length,   You are left wondering whether you should be appalled by the decadence or admiring of the engineering and craftsmanship.  This was contrasted later in the day when back in Valletta when we witnessed a rusty Maersk container ship Sealand New York, gently being pulled by tugs into the harbour, presumably for a much needed repainting job.    It looked ancient but it was only built in 2000.  Seawater is a corrosive beast.  Best use a good undercoat next time I think.   

Superyacht  'I Dynasty' , a passing cruise liner and Sealand New York


Not everywhere serves Guinness in Valletta

More photos of the trip can be found on Flickr

Thanks for visiting! 

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Edinburgh - August 2018


The Guinness


You would have thought that after getting a Guinness in countries such as Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia then Edinburgh would be a doddle.  Well it wasn't.  All we needed was a pub that served Guinness, oh, and food, and allowed dogs, and was somewhere between the train station and Arthur's Seat.........  After quite a bit of research we found one, told people who were travelling from different places and sat back confidently.  The only problem was that it didn't quite work out.  As we battled our way along the crowded streets of Edinburgh and arrived at the pub we found another dog in residence outside.  It was quickly evident that our dog and the pub dog were not going to see eye to eye so an alternative venue had to be sought.  The stress had definitely begun to build by now.  Oh, and I haven't mentioned yet that my wife fell coming down Arthur's Seat and broke her arm!  Luckily, very close by was McSorleys with Guinness signs everywhere.  No dogs allowed though but fortunately we were able to shoehorn into their street seating area and down a welcome Guinness or two. 

Edinburgh -  my 50th European Capital City.  Only two more to go to complete the challenge.
Dylan doing a great job in picking out my next destination - Valletta, Malta.

Team make up


The highlight of the day for me was being able to catch up with some great friends who I hadn't seen for a while.  As the Guinness began to hit the right spot the stress began to dissipate.  Some of those in attendance were drinking Guinness for the first time and enjoying it.  Two stalwarts of this Guinness challenge, Kevin and Ian, who have traveled with me to various Easter European countries were here and both made epic journeys of their own to be here.  Others may not like their names plastered all over my blog without me checking so shall remain nameless but thanks for being there everyone.  Oh, and our dog Shadow for making this his first Guinness trip.



Sightseeing


We were actually only in Edinburgh for the day so sightseeing was somewhat challenging especially with a canine companion.  Going up the classic Edinburgh Hill Arthur's Seat therefore seemed a natural choice.  What I hadn't imagined was that every other tourist in Edinburgh would do the same.  There was some admirable navigating from one of our party to get us through the heaving streets full of festival goes and to the base of the hill.  For some reason we seemed to be at the steep side.  Not to worry, I'm sure those people using ropes and crampons are only doing it for the fun of it.  Actually, the path was a lot more gentle than it initially looked.  The views from the summit were great and there was a trig point to keep me happy too.

Arthur's Seat - we were not alone

  All we needed o do now was to get down.  I know, let's go down the gentle way.  Gentle it may be but pretty gravelly too and Margaret took a tumble whist being distracted by the dog.  We weaved our way down slowly and the near feinting episode didn't happen till near the bottom. 

The Edinburgh skyline


There's me getting sidetracked.  Edinburgh - what a grand looking city.  Full of fine architecture.  Full of atmosphere too in August with the Festival.  Must come back again to explore it more thoroughly. 

Food and Drink


This is where I normally write about the fine national cuisine I've eaten on the trip.  So what did I eat in Edinburgh?  Nothing!  Not even a boiled sweet.  Our plan to have lunch somewhere was naturally overtaken by events, namely distal fractures of the wrist.  After that, Guinness drinking took priority and before we knew it we had to catch the train.  I lie, I think I did manage a third of a packet of crisps and very nice they were too and Scottish. 

Harvest time in the Borders

Getting there and around


We stayed the week in dog-friendly accommodation near Coldstream in the Scottish Borders, topping in Liverpool on the way up and Coventry on the way back.  What a fine area the Border region is and no doubt often overlooked by people tearing up to the Highlands.  At this time of year the Borders is a busy place with harvesting in full flow.

Stationary dog

Outside Edinburgh


 From our base near Coldstream we got to explore the local rolling countryside, forests as well as the expansive Northumberland coastline and the historical town of Berwick-on-Tweed.  And yes, there was some fine food too, a meal cooked by some goof friends and some good meals out too. 

Our dog Shadow trying to complete the Northumberland coast in a single day


Quirky Moments


"I'll just pop into this pharmacist to see if they have a support bandage for my wrist" said my wife in Berwick, two days after we'd been to Edinburgh.  "It's a bit sore".  Sorry, explained the pharmacist, I think you need to go to the hospital.  Where would that be?  Next to the long-stay car park we were already parked in.  That's lucky!  Thank you EU/NHS.  Margaret  -  born in Ireland, lives in Wales, injured in Scotland, treated in England.  Glad it was this year and not next.


Every NHS treatment in Berwick comes with a free seagull.


Friday, 15 June 2018

Latvia - May 2018

Riga

The Guinness

I realised as I was drinking my pint of Guinness in Paddy Whelan's in Riga that I had now drunk Guinness in every mainland European country.  I haven't completed my project because I sill have Scotland, Malta and Iceland to go - but they are islands. 

Cheers - A Latvian Guinness is ready to be drunk.

A bit of internet research before leaving told me there are a few places serving Guinness in Riga which meant that our last minute hiccup of not being able to bring hold baggage and my 'emergency can' didn't concern me too much.  Even before visiting Paddy Whelan's we had found Guinness on sale in a shop in Riga so my fears were allayed.   What I wanted mainly however was a pint of draught Guinness and therefore it was with great relief when we stumbled across Paddy Whelan's and found they were indeed serving the black stuff.


Paddy Whelan's in Riga

We had a good welcome from Helmut the barman who quickly caught onto what I was doing and gladly picked out my next destination and we had a good chat about life in Latvia and learnt a lot.  Thanks Helmut. 

Helmut kindly picks Scotland out of the hat

Team make up

It was fantastic to team up with my old buddy Paul on for this trip.  Paul last joined me on a Guinness trip back in 2005 in the Faroe Islands so we had a lot of catching up to do.  Paul's influence on me was even evident in my packing - I think it's the first time I've taken a tie on a Guinness trip.

Canal cruising in Riga
Sightseeing
There was plenty for us to see and do during our four nights in Riga.  The fantastic weather helped a lot. 




Art Nouveau - A building on Alberta iela by Mikhail Eisenstein
Food and Drink
Our taste of Latvian food and drink came in the form of a fine lunch that consisted of food and drink from the four regions of the country. 



Our hotel deal included half-board which meant that our breakfast and evening meal were an adequate buffet fare. The Latvian beer needed to be sampled on a nightly basis to ensure it maintained a consistent high standard.  I mustn't of course forget that the trip got off to a quality start with a champagne in the executive lunge at Gatwick airport - travelling with Paul certainly has its advantages! 

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Valdemars not far out of the city centre.  The hotel has an interesting history in itself.


Getting there and around

We met up at Gatwick airport and flew with Air Baltic to Riga.  That meant I started my journey travelling by Great Western Railways from Cardiff to Gatwick via Reading. Our flight out to Riga was in a Bombardier aircraft and on return in a Boeing - is that important, probably not. Then there was the luxury of taking a taxi to and from the airport in Riga to our hotel - I must be going soft. Things returned to normal later in the week when we caught the train from Riga out to Jurmala for the day on the beach. 


The train that returned us to Riga from Jurmala

Outside Riga

As we were there for four days I fancied a trip out of the capital just to see some of the rest of the country.  Well going to Jurmala less than an hour away on the coat by train isn't that adventurous I admit but it was enjoyable.  For the short walk from the station down to the beach we were joined by many other day-tippers. The beach itself seemed to go on for miles in each direction and was pretty  quiet. Eventually we had to give up on the ladies beach volley ball team turning up and head back to Riga.

Paddling in Jurmala

Quirky moments

We met quite a few people on our trip not from Latvia; there was a provocative Pole, a group of golfers from Sweden and a host of other nationalities but the most thought provoking conversation I had was with a non-citizen, someone who resides in Latvia but cannot vote, and originates from another country, often Russia.  
Quirky, no, but certainly unusual, me in a tie (note its a Guinness one)
A night at the opera - Rigoletto - enjoyed it so much I may even go on a voluntary basis next time. 
A full collection of photos from this trip can be found at: Riga photo album

Friday, 10 November 2017

Czech Republic - November 2017

Prague

The Guinness

I think there are more Irish bars in Prague than any other non-UK capital city I've visited so far.  I didn't therefore envisage there being a problem sourcing a Guinness there.  So confident was I that I didn't even bother taking an 'emergency can'. 

I hadn't planned on visiting Rocky O'Reilly's bar even though it was quite close to where we were staying.  It sounded a bit like a large sports bar but when we poked our heads inside it seemed ideal.  It was cosy, nicely full and turned out to have a lovely atmosphere and friendly staff.   And what's more, the Guinness was excellent.

Enjoying a tasty Gunness at Rocky O'Reilly's in Prague

I explained to the waitress Lucie my challenge who quickly understood things and kindly picked out my next destination of Riga, Latvia.  To celebrate we had another Guinness poured by the cheery barman Eric. 

Lucie picking out Riga and Eric recovering from pouring a Guinness.


Team make up

Prague was high on Margaret's list to visit so the team sort of chose itself for this visit. 

Margaret wearing a cathedral hat.


Sightseeing

I'd visited Prague once before some 11 years ago and had quite forgotten how full of sightseeing opportunities it is.  In eleven years lots of other people seem to have got to hear about the beauty of this city.  It's now a very popular destination, crowded in certain parts but not spoilt.  Our stay was relatively brief but there would be plenty here to fill a much longer stay we felt.  Some of the roads were very busy at certain times of day but it was possible to avoid these by walking the side streets. 

There are probably three sights virtually every tourist to Prague goes to, the Old Town Square, the Charles Bridge and the Castle.  No to be left out we naturally did the same.

In the Old Town Square sits the large austere Jan Hus memorial sculpture.  Jan was a guy who didn't like the control that the Vatican had over the church and and fought for reform.  He was rewarded by being burned at the stake.  He's become a symbol of Check reform ever since. 
The incredibly old Astronomical Clock, still working and performing its tricks on the hour.  Somewhat tricky for telling the time though. 

One of the many statues that lines the Charles Bridge.  Obviously nobody has told him it is rude to point. 
Prague Castle, sits on top of the hill across the river from the Old Town.  It's not just a castle but a large collection of historic buildings, many religious or presidential in nature.  If you find out where these two workers are you win a free meal in a restaurant of your choosing (sorry, that's me telling porkies again). 


Getting there and around

We flew with easyJet from Bristol then caught the Airport Express Bus into the centre (30 mins / ~£3).  The central area is compact so we didn't use any other form of transportation though I was tempted by the look of the trams. 

Rather weirdly, the city seemed to be full of what I can only suppose are faux vintage cars.


Food and Drink

Margaret did some sterling work researching some good restaurants.  U Sumavy was our choice on the first night.

Some traditional Czech food served up at U Samavy bar and restaurant.  The beer was good there too!
The well stocked bar at U Samavy.  So many beers to choose from!

 The second night we ate in Lemon and Leaf, a Thai restaurant.  And very tasty that was too.


The Accommodation

Something else my wife must take credit for finding, the Salvator Boutique Hotel .  And top notch it was too - with a spacious, clean and quiet room.

The Salvator Boutique Hotel on Žitná.

Quirky Moments

Seemingly very few on this straightforward whistle-stop sightseeing trip, though a few of the attractions were somewhat bizarre.

The 42 individual moving layers of Franz Kafka's head in this 39 tonne sculpture are designed to illustrate the multilayer nature of the human personality.
The Dancing House or Fred and Ginger as it is sometimes known, designed by Vlado Milunić and on the banks of the river. 



Lasting memories

Of a beautiful but somewhat crowded city.

See, I told you it was ugly here.


Monday, 18 September 2017

Moldova - September 2017

Chișinău

The Guinness

Would there be Guinness in Moldova?  I'd been asking myself that question for months.  I was so worried there may not be that I took an 'emergency can' with me - not a cheap option as it meant paying for hold baggage on the flight out.  I needn't have worried though.  The Dublin Pub had what was needed.  



Enna kindly picked out the next destination I have to visit - Prague.

It's the only Irish pub in the country and the only place serving Guinness that I could find.  It's a pleasant quiet pub well off the main thoroughfare but was well worth the hunt on this hot evening.  I explained what I was up to and Enna kindly picked out my next destination of Prague.  We also met Andree, the owner, who showed up around the pub and kindly gave me a bottle of Tullamore Dew whiskey, one of my favorites.  



We liked the place and wanted to prove to ourselves that we could find it again so went back the following evening for food and jolly edible it was too.  We had the local soup which included noodle and chicken followed by some excellent medallions of beef.  


Team make-up

By that I mean who traveled with me rather than what type of mascara did I wear.  This time Ian came with me again as it was one of the countries he wanted to visit as part of his challenge to try and ride a train in each European country.

Ian enjoying the rest in Călărași 


Sightseeing

When people ask me about my memories of my visit to Moldova it will probably be the people that top the list and not the sightseeing.  There are some elegant sights but maybe not more than to occupy a day or two.  No doubt there were a fair few we missed given our lack of any guidebook or leaflet.

Belfry of Nativity Cathedral, Chișinău
If you like markets then you'll be happy here.  I think the Chisinau market is the biggest I've ever seen.
Anyone for cabbage leaves?


Getting there and around

It's not an easy country to get to.  There is a cheap flight once a week from Stansted at very uncivilized times so instead we flew Lufthansa out of Birmingham via Frankfurt and Vienna and then via Munich on the way back.  On the plus side there is a trolleybus from Chisinau airport into the centre costing  just 10p.  In fact there are trolleybuses galore and we had a lot of fun riding them at 20 Lei a ride, paid in cash on-board.



And of course there was the train trip.  That's not easy when there are so few trains per day and many of them are long distance trains.  With the help of our friends at Hidden Europe we did manage to find a suitable couple of trains and went out to the town Călărași for the day.  The train back was the Moscow to Chisinau sleeper train full of couchettes and yes I did grab a quick snooze.



Food and Drink

Whereas sightseeing probably was a little disappointing, the food and drink turned out to be above expectations.  I wouldn't say we ate much traditional Moldovan food but what we did was lovely.

A selection of deserts and  some local cognac to wash it down.


Outside Chisinau

We chose to go to Călărași more because it was accessible by train rather than anything else.  After grabbing some breakfast and exploring the market we were trying to find the museum we had read about but without much luck.  We ended up outside the town hall and who should come up to Ian and offer assistance but the Mayor himself.  He broke the news that the museum was unfortunately closed for repairs but arranged for someone to meet us there.  That led to an excellent afternoon in the company of Marianna and Corina who gave up their time to explain the history of the town, the Jewish history and show us around and used their contacts to enable us to see places we wouldn't have otherwise found.  

A lovely day out in Călărași including a visit to the fire station and police museum.


The Accommodation

We hired an apartment on the main street, the aptly named Chisinau Central Apartment, again not that easy to find but worth the effort.  

Central Apartments in Chisinau


Quirky Moments

Having realised that I would not be able to take the bottle of whiskey home as we would not be allowed to take it trough airport security we were left with a choice - either drink it in two days and spend most of the holiday with a hangover or give it to a worthy course.  I chose the later.

I am a fan of the comedian, writer and philanthropist Tony Hawks.  In one of his books he is set a challenge by a friend to play each of the Moldovan football team at tennis.  If he looses he has to strip naked in the street and sing the Moldovan national anthem.  If he wins his friend has to do so.  After leaving Moldova Tony felt he wanted to put something back into the country so helped set up a centre for children with after became to Tony Hawks Care Centre in Chisinau.

The most inappropriate gift ever given to a children's centre - a bottle of whiskey.


Lasting Memories

I left with many pleasant memories of this small and rarely visited country.  A country where the people ate proud and trying hard to improve themselves but where maybe the politics is somewhat hard to overcome.  
Moldovian hero Stefan cel Mare 
A full collection of photos from the trip can be found at: Flick album