Prague Christmas Markets

Christmas time in Europe conjures up images of frosty air, snow, and best of all, the Christmas Markets which pop up in the centres of historic towns and cities. If Christmas is for children, then Christmas markets have to be for adults. The town squares are decorated with twinkly lights, trees are adorned with decorations, choirs sing, and orchestras play festive tunes; the atmosphere is magical. There are traditional toys and mouth-watering produce on sale, tempting hot chestnuts and mulled wine on offer, even if you are not a fan of Christmas this will undoubtedly bring on a festive spirit.

Prague is beautiful at any time of the year, but in winter, it’s even more so. The Old Town Square with its enormous Christmas tree, delivered from the Krkonose Mountains in the north of the republic, is a spectacular sight against the Gothic Týn Church. The 15th century Astronomical Clock which entertains visitors on the hour every hour, the beautiful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, and the mural covered Storch building are surrounded by small wooden huts decorated with pine, fir and twinkly white lights. Stop off at a stall selling svarene vino, hot wine with liqueur for added warmth, and try a traditional slice of Stollen or a sausage, to soak up the alcohol. All around the marketplace are opportunities to buy beautiful Christmas decorations, baubles made from glass and decorated with intricate hand painted designs, wooden toys, and nativity figures made from corn. Along Charles Bridge, the gateway between the Lesser and the Old Town, there are stalls selling stocking fillers, scented candles, handmade jewellery and puppets, a traditional Czech toy.

The centre of Prague is small and easily explored on foot. It’s not just the Christmas markets that make for a festive atmosphere, the shops and restaurants are decorated with traditional decorations, and sights such as the castle come alive. Prague Castle, the biggest and most ancient castle in the world, looks down over the frost covered city and the Vltava River, and nearby St. Vitus Cathedral with its lookout tower is my favourite photo spot. On the way back down escape the cold, and stop off at one of the small restaurants that can be found in the narrow alleyways. Traditionally the main meal of the day in Prague is lunch, which typically consists of hearty pork or beef dishes with potatoes or dumplings, followed by traditional desserts such as ovocné knedlíky, fruit dumplings. These may seem rather heavy, but it beats off the cold and warms your heart from the inside out.

Finally, the highlight of my Christmas market experience in Prague is an evening concert. Nothing can beat a brisk walk through the freezing streets to a venue such as Prague Castle, St Salvator Church, or the Prague State Opera House for an evening of music by candlelight. It’s a totally unbelievable experience.

Written Christmas 2011 for Euroscape Travel, and included here because it’s that time of year again…

Autumn in Venezia

Beautiful, romantic, and fashionable, Venice can also be a little crowded at times; that’s why my favourite time to visit is autumn. Don’t let the thought of anything but blue skies put you off. Dress in a warm coat and elegant sunglasses, and the gentle, warm sunshine, and even a chilly morning, can provide a totally different perspective on the city.

Autumn is when you can find yourself alone in the maze of tiny side streets, or at the canal side with the water lapping gently against the side of a solitary gondola. Early mornings are the most treasured times for me, the atmosphere is calm, sometimes eyrie, as the sun rises and the lagoon’s mist starts to lift. The locals, more relaxed now, make their way to work and have more time to smile and chat, I like to sit and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, or a Prosecco with lunch. I love the Rialto food market where locals buy their produce, the squares where children play football and residents meet up with friends, this is true Venetian living, and a side of the city not every visitor gets to see.

For me, the atmosphere is everything and just as valuable as the sights and activities which prove so popular with other visitors. Having said that, another reason I love Venice at this time of year is the opportunity to discover the city’s ancient paintings and surprising oriental architecture, which have remained unchanged for centuries. The grand buildings of the Doges Palace, once the opulent gothic home of the most powerful elected ruler of the Serenissima Republic, the Piazza San Marco with its magnificent Byzantine-Venetian Basilica, and the pretty Rialto Bridge are much less crowded. The wonderful Gallerie dell’ Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim Collection have shorter queues, as well as opportunities to get up close and see details not always possible at other times. Then there are the glass blowing shops, where skilled artisans craft pieces from designs which have been and hand handed down through the generations, and the silk merchants, with historical connections to the orient where Marco Polo first explored; all of this for me makes Venice an extremely unique and historical city.

Finally, another excellent reason to visit in the autumn, are the reasonable hotel rates. Hotels, usually full during peak periods, sometimes offer promotional rates, so rather than staying on the outskirts of the city, I can enjoy a beautiful, historic city centre hotel for a great price.  My favourites are the small boutique style hotels which occupy the typical 14th century Venetian palaces, furnished with sumptuous traditional, Art Deco, or contemporary interiors. For me, a stay in one of these hotels makes an autumn holiday in Venice my absolute favourite time to visit.

Ocean Beach – live life like a local

If you’re searching for a real, laid-back beach community, a place where the wave’s pound against the pier, where the shops are small and locally owned, and where your best friend is encouraged to dig all day long, then you should check out Ocean Beach, San Diego.

This is the last of California’s real surfing communities; a place where you can buy some fabulous surf gear, eat at tasty restaurants, soak up the sun on the beach, and listen to everything from jazz to rock whilst buying your veggies at the weekly open-air market.

Ocean Beach – Surf it

There are two really great surf spots, OB Pier and Sunset Cliffs.

OB Pier is suitable for everyone, from beginners to experts. The south side has a nice left where you can shoot the pier at high tide. The north side has nice rights and pretty decent lefts, depending on the direction of the swell. So, it’s a pretty good all round spot.

The optimum surfing conditions: Wave height between 3 & 6 feet. Swell direction, west/northwest.

Sunset Cliffs is probably best tackled only by those with experience. The location means that you need to climb in and out, not something you want to be doing on your second or third attempt. The cliffs have both very hard breaking waves and exceptional long, hollow waves. This surf spot provides great rights and lefts.

The optimum surfing conditions: Best conditions are 3-5ft up to 12 ft

If you’ve need to rent a board, want to take lessons, or you just need some wax, check out OB Surf & Skate, these guys offer everything.

4976 Newport Avenue San Diego, CA 92107
Ph: 619-225-0674
http://obsurfandskate.com/

Another great resource: http://www.surfline.com/surf-report/ocean-beach-southern-california_4253/ This give you the current wind speed, tide information, and a surf report.

Ocean Beach – Love it

Love it because your dog can come too. Dog Beach is where your four legged friend can run free off the leash, swim, dig, and romp with friends without you getting a hefty fine. There are a few rules; pets should be vaccinated, obedient, and not too loud. By law you’ll have to clean up after them, and unfortunately, no doggy treats are allowed.

Dog Beach is easy to spot, apart from the number of dogs going crazy, there’s also a commemorative tiled walkway and a welcome surfboard with the name written on it.

Where’s the beach? At the northern end of Ocean Beach, near the mouth of the San Diego River, at the end of Voltaire Street.

Ocean Beach – Eat it

After surfing, food has to be a number the one priority. These are some of OB’s very best establishments:

Newport Pizza – The best crusts in San Diego. This famous local spot has an impressive micro brew beer selection, a no ‘crap on tap’ policy, and you can bring your dog too. Open from 12 – 12 (2am at the weekends) enjoy a loud and lively atmosphere where tunes are courtesy of the duke box. Pick a slice and pay. Simple. Eat in or take out, try The Hulk or the David Hasselhof. Warning: Cash only, no cards.

5050 Newport Ave San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-224-4540
http://www.obpizzashop.com

If you love pizza but you’re in a group, there’s no way you’re all going to fit into the Newport. Try Pizza Port, a much larger place with great beer, pizza, and long picnic tables.

1956 Bacon St, San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619- 224-4700.
http://www.pizzaport.com/

O.B. Noodle House – Home to the best drink specials in OB. Everyone loves this place. It’s loud, but the food is delicious. Vegetarian spring rolls with peanut sauce, char grilled shrimp, and steaks, it’s got the lot. Open from 12- 11 (11-11 Friday to Sunday) this place gets packed after 4pm so put your name on the list, and give the hostess your cell number; they’ll call you when your table is ready. Try the Sake it’s wonderful.

2218 Cable St, San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-450-6868
http://www.obnoodlehouse.com

Hodad’s – If you’ve been surfing at Sunset Cliffs (or even if you haven’t) and you love burgers, onion rings and milkshakes, the only place in OB to come is Hodad’s. Open from 9 (10 at the weekend), the queues will be out the door, but stick with it. It’s loud, but the burgers are juicy, the rings are to die for, and the milkshakes well, see for yourself. Tip: If you don’t want to queue, call in, order take out, and eat on the beach.

5010 Newport Ave San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-224-4623
http://www.hodadies.com

Ocean Beach – Live it

When you’ve surfed out for the day, here are some places to drink, dance, and hang out.

Winston’s is a small, intimate venue with live music open until 2am. This is where you enjoy reggae with the hippy set one night, Karaoke, touring and local bands another. But whatever’s playing, the atmosphere is good, and the bar has a full choice of beers, wines, and spirits. Warning: Cover charge.

1921 Bacon St, San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-222-3802
http://www.winstonsob.com

Gallagher’s is an Irish pub where each night something different is going on -from live music and DJ’s to giant games. Check out the $3 beer of the month and $3 speciality shots from the land of the leprechaun. Open until 2am.

5046 Newport Ave Ocean Beach, CA 92107
PH: 619- 222-5300
http://www.gallagherspubob.com

Tiny’s Tavern is unique – why? Well, most bars are best at the weekends, but Tiny’s is best on Monday’s, Tuesday’s and Thursday’s; it’s also unique because it only serves beer. If you’re looking for a truly local bar with Hawaiian styling, plenty of TVs, and the friendliest staff, this has to one for you. Open until 2am.

4745 Voltaire St San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-523-1002
http://www.tinystavernsd.com/

Ocean Beach – Sleep it

If you don’t have the comfort of your own VW camper, you’ll need a place to crash, here are some of Ocean Beaches best accommodation options.

If you’re one of those ‘comfort’ people who enjoys a nice soft bed, pool and comfortable furniture visit http://www.seabreezevacationrentals.com/ the site to browse upscale houses and condos for rent.

At the other end of the scale, for a place to lay out head without spending big bucks, consider the OB International Hostel. Good points: Curtains on the beds, free internet, free linen, free breakfast, very close to the beach and nightlife. Not so good points: Staff get mixed reviews from REALLY friendly to rude, and it can be noisy; BUT it’s only $20 a night.

San Diego’s Ocean Beach International Hostel 4961 Newport Ave. San Diego, CA 92107 www.CaliforniaHostel.com

If neither a condo nor a hostel takes your fancy, why not try The Ocean Beach Hotel, located in the heart of OB. It has beach views and Mediterranean styling, every room has hardwood flooring, 32” flat screen TVs and air-conditioning units, microwave, and refrigerator.

Ocean Beach Hotel, 5080 Newport Ave. San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-223-7191
www.obhotel.com

Ocean Beach – Try it

Ocean Beach has some unique stores, not the large chain store types, but small independent places where you’re treated like a friend. But as well as all that there are lots of outdoor events, try these:

Wednesday Farmers Market, on Newport Avenue between Cable and Bacon Streets, is where you can buy locally grown produce, art, flowers, and lots more whilst listening to live bands.

OB Street Fair & Chilli Cook-Off Festival, held in June each year; OB Oktoberfest, the German beer festival; and the Annual Holiday Parade with surfing Santa’s, bands and individual floats.

Check out the calendar of events: http://www.oceanbeachsandiego.com/calendar

Ocean Beach – Know it

A few ‘good to know’ tips about Ocean Beach.

Fishing. The pier is one of the few places in San Diego where you can fish without a license. You need to understand the size and catch limits, just ask the locals if you don’t know.

Beach Life. Ocean Beach has supervised swimming and surfing areas, restrooms, showers and disabled assistance.

Parking. Public parking lots can be found at the end of Voltaire Street, adjacent to Dog Beach and at the end of Santa Monica Avenue adjacent to the main lifeguard station. There’s also a large lot in Newport Avenue, adjacent to the Ocean Beach Pier. Street parking is also available along Newport Avenue and the residential side streets.

That’s it, that’s Ocean Beach, now you know it, surf it, love it.

Russian style

St Petersburg in winter, with its snow covered palaces, has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. High art, excellent nightlife, rich culture, and extraordinary history, attracts visitors in search of something just a little bit different.

The image of Russia is often that of the Cold War, grey and unwelcoming, but St Petersburg is anything but. It has beautiful tree lined avenues and gracious bridges which cross the winding River Niva. It has magnificent palaces and great gardens, and although it was only founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, the city is crammed with the history from the Romanovs, and mysterious cultural associations.

The highlights are numerous but perhaps the most well know has to be the Winter Palace which dominates the Palace Square and the south embankment. This was once the elaborate home of Catherine the Great, and today the palace exterior has remained almost unchanged from its appearance in 1762. The Winter Palace is connected to the Hermitage museum, and together they hold over 3 million items from impressionist masterpieces to oriental treasures, which were once all part of Catherine II’s collection.

Other extremely notable sights are:

St Isaac’s Cathedral – Built between 1818 and 1858, by the French architect Auguste Montferrand, St Isaac’s Cathedral was the largest cathedral in Russia until the rebuilding of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Its gilded dome dominates the skyline, and the inside is adorned with incredible mosaics, paintings and magnificent columns of lapis lazuli and malachite.

Peter and Paul Fortress – Almost every Tsar since Peter the Great lies buried here, and that includes Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia. The Tsar, along with his family, servants and doctor, were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Their remains lay undiscovered on the outskirts of the Ural town of Yekaterinburg for many years, but in 1998 the imperial family were buried with a state funeral at the Cathedral, next to the graves of the other Romanovs. 

The Church of Our Savoir on the Spilled Blood – The Resurrection Church and The Church of the Resurrection of Christ are all names used for this church, and although there is some debate about the correct name, there is no doubt that the view from Nevsky Prospect is absolutely breathtaking. The Russian style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated when a group of revolutionaries threw a bomb into his carriage in1881. Both the interior and exterior of the church are decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics.

And as the curtain falls on a trip to St. Petersburg there is still one more thing you simply must do, and that’s to pay a visit the Mariinsky Theatre. This is the home of the Kirov Ballet and Opera, an evening here is an unforgettable experience. One top tip for a visit is to try and get a seat in the first row, as the second row is only fractionally higher, making the stage more difficult to see.

It all began with……

Follow me there and back again didn’t come about by chance, the name stems from my travel philosophy – The best things in life are shared. I believe that dreams should be witnessed because without a witness they will never really have any meaning.

When the person I cherish more than anything else in the world announced that he was going to attempt an Everest base Camp Trek my heart sank. My dream was to visit the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. But how can two people go their separate ways and have two incredible experiences alone? Those experiences would mean nothing.

ilker's everest base camp trek , himalayas , nepal

So, I became probably one of the only people in the world who hated walking, but embarked on a three week trek to the most famous mountain on earth.

After a year of hell – gym training three times a week and weekends spent in the Brecon Beacons, Snowdon, and anything which resembled a large hill, we were as ready as we could be to tackle Mount Everest.

After a few days getting organised in Kathmandu we took a short flight to Lukla and embarked on the first day of walking through the foothills. This was just to break us in. Day one proper started as it was getting light, we walked for 6 hours and this started a pattern which would continue for the rest of the ‘holiday’; my husband up at the front with the Scandinavians and me…at the back with a poor porter who had drawn the short straw. I had ditched my favourite books in preference for a walkman, and thank the Lord I had Lou Bega and Mambo Number 5 to keep me company. Especially when it came to the climb into Namche Bazaar.

The guide books had suggested that this was a terrible climb, I was prepared, but not for this. One step at a time. This was the most terrible afternoon ever, my legs felt like lead, and the thinning air make my lungs feel the same; add to that a splitting headache, and not for the first time in the last few days, I began to question why I was here. The rat in the bedroom eating my half eaten cinnamon roll was another cause for doubt; pulling my bed away from the wall and hiding my head inside my sleeping bag was the only way to survive the night.

An acclimatization day meant a day off, not in theory, but walking around and eating some excellent food at the German bakery rallied my spirits. We moved on again. Up, up, up, always at the back and almost always alone. Tears, anger, and splitting headaches were the norm. Altitude does funny things to the brain, irrational thoughts begin, and garlic with everything is now compulsory. Garlic Soup, roasted garlic, egg, chips and garlic; it helps with the altitude.

Then following another acclimatization day we were off again, only two nights now before the big push to base camp. At this point, to me, the walking seemed to get easier, the ascent wasn’t as steep and things almost appeared flat. Unfortunately, my husband seemed to be suffering. The others were way ahead, but he was not in his usual position, he was right at the back and could hardly put one foot in front of the other. He was disorientated, slurring his speech and walking even slower than me. When we made it to our lunch stop the others had already eaten, it was clear that something was terribly wrong.

He insisted on lying down, just to have a sleep for a while. Our guide insisted he descend, and quickly, but altitude was causing him to become irrational and insist on going on. This is where my philosophy was his saving grace – I was the only person who could get through to him, just before he went into a state of semi unconscious. My short straw porter and I propped up my husband’s heavy body and started dragging him down to Pheriche.

After a terrifying walk downhill we arrived at Pheriche hospital. Thankfully, the drop in altitude had helped bring him back round and there was no need for him to be hospitalised, but I was under strict instruction, “watch him, and if he goes unconscious again come and get us, do not go to sleep.”

I sat and watched, exhausted and scared for what seemed like a lifetime. Then, after a few hours he awoke and said “I’m starving, can we get egg and chips?”

Two days later we waited for the rest of the group to come down. The first person came earlier than expected and kept going; she was on oxygen, and needed to descend further. Then, as we waited, a helicopter came down and a procession of people left the hospital carrying a stretcher. As they passed it was clear that the body wrapped in her sleeping bag was making her last journey, her family behind her. The silence was incredible. She had not been as lucky as my husband, despite everyone’s best efforts, and spending the night in a pressurised Gamow bag, she had died.

Ama Dablam from Pheriche

Things were put into perspective, and follow me there and back again was born – always travel together for memories and for each other.

Tales of a Travel Agent

As a travel agent I took part in some of the most anticipated times of my customer’s lives. They dreamed of going on holiday to a secluded beach, a romantic city, or a hell raising stag or hen weakened to see out their days as a single person. It’s a dream job – or so it’s perceived. What you also get are customers who return from holiday when things didn’t go as dreamingly as predicted.

There are all kinds of customers, customers with no money who know they will end up with something cheap and cheerful, there are also the ones who truly do have enough money to travel round the world in luxury, and then, there are the ones who feel the need to elevate themselves on just a meager budget. They enjoy nothing better than to turn their friends green with envy at their long haul holiday in the sun, what they don’t divulge however, is that they went with a charter airline to a three star all inclusive hotel where they didn’t dare venture outside the complex for two weeks. One such lady took a holiday to the Caribbean with the company that started the travel revolution.

She travelled to Barbados in September, the hurricane season, and although she had been advised about the possible weather conditions, it did rain rather more than she had expected. However, that was not the cause of the compliant letter on her return. The letter arrived in a padded envelope; perhaps she had included a gift of appreciation? No, in fact, it included a pair of socks, blue socks.

The socks were part of the ‘amenity pack’ issued by the airline on her return flight home – you know the ones, they have earplugs, eye mask, wet wipe, and socks. In all my time travelling I’ve only ever seen a handful of people actually use these socks, the one size fits all philosophy doesn’t seem to ‘fit’. But, this lady had used every single amenity she could get her hands on; after all, she’d paid for it. The subject of her complaint wasn’t that the socks had cut off her circulation causing her feet to go blue; no, it was that because her feet were hot and sweaty, the colour had come out of the socks and had stained her feet. She had included the socks so they could be sent away to a laboratory for testing.

She felt that some compensation was in order because of the stress having blue feet had caused her. There were two reasons for the distress, firstly, on her return she had to visit the chiropodist which was terribly embarrassing with blue feet. Secondly, she had to buy a new pair of shoes, because despite scrubbing and using bleach, she had been unable to remove the blue dye from here feet, and the colour simply didn’t go with her pink strappy sandals.

You see, the life of a travel agent is not as glamorous as you think, apart from a shoe shop assistant, who else comes into contact with worn sweaty socks? That wasn’t in the job description.

One hundred and one reasons to visit Rwanda – Part I

Image

In 1994, Rwanda suffered a horrific genocide, Hutu’s and Tutsi’s clashed, and almost one million people were slaughtered in just one hundred days. But despite the past, the people of Rwanda work together with hope and understanding, to make sure an event like this never takes place again.

This understanding and forgiveness is a credit to those who are left behind, and a fitting testament to their cause is the Kigali Memorial Centre, where the bodies of over 250,000 victims are now buried. But, this is not just a burial site, this is a place to learn from the past and bring hope to future generations.

Set on a hillside, surrounded by gardens full of beautiful roses, the Kigali Memorial Centre glistens. The atmosphere is quiet and peaceful, a sense of well being and tranquillity fills the air, and even the chatter of visiting children seems appropriate. Inside, the feeling remains, but a sense of sadness and reality takes hold. The bright sunshine is replaced by three exhibition rooms where spotlights create an atmosphere. Detailed, touching but truthful information highlights key stages in the genocide; the road leading up to the events, the 100 days of the genocide, and the aftermath. This is the first floor, which also houses a photo memorial, a picture gallery filled with photos of the victims from happy times. Times of special family occasions – weddings, birthdays, family get togethers, and proud portraits in best clothes. These pictures, and a collection of clothing, brings home that these people were real people, human beings just like everybody else.

The second floor is also a place for reflection; it is the children’s memorial. Here, along with images of children, their school rooms and pictures of their family lives, fourteen windows each tell the story of one child – their favourite sport, food, drink, best friend, and finally, their cause of death…following this part of the exhibit a balcony overlooks the gardens to allow for a moment of reflection.

Francine Murengezi Ingabire
Age: 12 years
Favourite sport: Swimming
Favourite food: Eggs and chips
Favourite drink: Milk and Fanta tropical
Best friend: Her elder sister Claudette
Cause of death: Hacked by machete

In April 2012, Francine would have celebrated her 30th Birthday, maybe she would have been a doctor or a mother. But today, in her own way, she is a teacher, teaching others that ethnic cleansing is not acceptable.

There is much much more to this memorial and its gardens, and this is not the only one of its kind in Rwanda, there are others. They all tell a story which will hopefully help to demonstrate some unforgettable lessons to the world. To some, this may seem like a reason not to visit Rwanda, but this centre helps local people and visitors to understand what makes the Rwandan people what they are – strong, forgiving and caring. This is an exceptionally compelling reason to visit their beautiful country.

http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/index.html

WOW Milan

Fashion capital and home of some of the coolest people on the planet, Milan is one of those destinations which makes say ‘wow’. There are lots of reasons for this, the incredible designer shops, the architecture, if you’re a woman – the men, and if you’re a man – the women. Everyone is so beautiful, so well dressed, and so very aloof.

Ferrari in Piazza Duomo, Milan.

This is the city which most Italians aspire to be in, even the ones who say it’s too cold, rainy, or busy. This is where the money is made, and it shows. Fine dining, gorgeous cars, and excellent nightlife means that only the most successful can really live here, but as a visitor, you can take a peak and maybe dream about enjoying the lifestyle here.

The Architecture

One of my favourite buildings, and as a visitor one of the places you may pass through, is the magnificent Art Deco/Liberty style Milano Centro railway station. This beautiful old building has arches and high ceilings, and is complimented with modern additions of glass and steel; a truly beautiful station, although not originally designed this way. Today’s grand appearance is thanks to the dictator Mussolini who wanted to show off the power of his fascist regime.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is another building with the wow factor. Formed by two glass vaulted arcades supported by steel, this building dates back to 1865. Its glass domes and double vaulted arches are as exquisite today, as they were when they were built. When you visit, just underneath the dome, there is an additional wow to look out for – people spinning on their heels. Why would such elegant people been seen doing this? When you spin on the bull you will ward off evil.

Milan Duomo

Right next to the galleria is perhaps the most magnificent building in the city, Milan Cathedral, or the Duomo. One of the city’s landmarks, the gothic and baroque cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete, and is the worlds largest cathedral. Napoleon was crowned here, but the highlight is on the roof, from atop the forest of pinnacles and statues the views stretch as far as the snow covered Alps.

The Fashion

Shoes; Via Montenapoleone in Milano

If you’re like me, Piazza San Babila and Via Montenapoleone are places for window shopping only. This is the centre of Milan, the centre of the fashion district – high class and the home of the worlds most famous fashion houses. Exquisite shoes, jewellery, accessories are all on display, its where the rich and famous shop and where tourists wielding copies of the famous names stand and dream about the real thing. If the prices of Gucci, Prada, or Dolce & Gabbana are just a little too much over your budget, quality products bearing the Made in Italy mark make excellent souvenirs.

The Other Side

Italiano: Milano. La "Conca Fallata = Sba...

 There is another side of Milan, missed by many tourists, but a little more down to
earth than the showy architecture and fashion houses, the area of Navigli. The Navigli are a system of interconnected canals in an area far removed from the bright lights of the centre. This is where you can experience rustic Milan, and one of the best places to enjoy an alfresco evening meal by the water’s edge.

The all new Splendour of the Seas

With five new dining experiences, 124 new balcony staterooms, 10 bars and lounges, the new and improved Splendour of the Seas is really living up to her name.

Wendy Liscia, freelance travel writer, was amongst some of the first English speaking guests on board when the ship set sail from Santos in Brazil during her immersion season.

I boarded Splendour when she was three weeks into her new season, following her five week makeover at the Navantia Shipyard in Cadiz. The $50 million spend was well worth it, thick carpets, squeaky clean bathrooms and exquisite sofas in the brand new R Bar; the Centrum’s chic new cocktail bar, were all evident. Unfortunately, the new ipads had not been installed, but the technology behind the interactive information screens gave a taste of what would be in store for other guests.

The large screen Digital Wayfinders, situated on the public decks, help with orientation indicating current deck location, directions on how to get to the restaurants, bars and entertainment venues; but they were especially useful in locating the nearest restrooms. In a choice of languages, these screens also offer details of the day’s activities via the cruise compass. An excellent idea.

Dining is always an important part of any cruise holiday, and for me, this was the best dining I had experienced on any Royal Caribbean ship. The Windjammer, often criticized for buffet style luke warm food, was excellent, but what impressed me the most was the hygiene. In my experience, there may be hand sanitizer stations, but many guests don’t use them. On Splendour the staff are there to see that guest DO use them. A huge plus.

The excellent food and service in the Windjammer continued in the King & I dining room. My Time dining on this cruise is a bonus for guests who prefer to eat around 8pm, unlike the Brazilians and Europeans who consider 10pm ideal. My only regret was that there wasn’t enough time to try out all the speciality restaurants; however, the new healthy eating Park Café had some excellent salads, stuffed breads and biscuits. The Dog House, somewhere I tried to avoid until the penultimate day, was superb; these hotdogs from around the world were tasty, meaty and totally unexpected.

All of the ships staterooms have received a makeover including the installation of brand new bathrooms. The addition of a whole new deck of balcony cabins on deck 6 also means that more guests can enjoy breakfast on their patio.

It is clear that the Centrum is an area where a large amount of the budget has been spent. Comfy chairs and sofas in red velvet and gold hug the small dance floor and the upper levels. The R Bar, with its Italian marble counter, is where the ’mixologist’ creates cocktails from around the globe, whilst entertainers perform at great heights in well choreographed shows.

Many US and European customers feel reluctant to try a cruise where the majority of the other guests are non English speaking, but this experience, in my opinion, was an excellent way to experience a ‘taste’ of South America with the locals.

Quick facts:

What’s New?

  • 124 new balcony staterooms on deck 6
  • All staterooms have been refurbished to include new carpets, bathrooms, and flat screen TV’s.
  • New Touch Screen information points help you see where you are, where the facilities are located and what’s on.
  • ipads in every stateroom
  • New poolside big screen on Deck 10
  • Brand new gym equipment – including a rowing machine.
  • Park Café – serving make your own salads, healthy choices and snacks
  • Dog House – mouth watering hotdogs from around the world.
  • Café Latté-tudes
  • Izumi Asian-fusion cuisine, featuring a la carte sushi selections
  • A la carte dining in the Viking Crown Lounge
  • Chef’s Table – An intimate dining experience
  • R Bar in the Centrum – A combination of ‘60’s style and chic comfort
  • Ariel entertainment

Old favourites:

  • New to Splendour but not Royal Caribbean – Choppes Grill
  • The Vitality Spa
  • Fitness classes from kick boxing to Pilates
  • Solarium
  • Theatre
  • Casino
  • Rock-climbing wall
  • Upper-deck jogging track
  • 18-hole miniature golf course

For Club Members:

  • Concierge club
  • Diamond Lounge

For Families:

  • Royal Babies® and Royal Tots® programming featuring specially designed Fisher Price activities
  • Expanded teen-only hangout areas
  • Family-friendly activities including games, contests, enrichment classes and lectures

Better left unsaid

Review sites are a godsend when it comes to choosing the right accommodation, but now one of the most highly respected sites has being accused of featuring reviews that have been paid for, its hard to know who to trust.

Recently back from Rio, we chose a comfortable B&B based largely on the rating from one such site. Ranked 3rd in Rio, it was not too expensive compared to other places, and its position in Santa Teresa made it quite appealing.

Santa Teresa - Rio de Janeiro

Recent reviews declared the property “Absolutely outstanding, it was the highlight of our trip”, another said “A warm, welcoming, spotless B & B with a great view”, and the other reviews stated that owners were wonderfully helpful, and so on and so on. It sounded perfect.

When we arrived we were greeted by a lovely man who didn’t speak English, but insisted on telling us in considerable detail how everything worked – in Portuguese. He even helped us up one flight of stairs with our suitcase. Unfortunately, he broke the handle, so we decided to take it up the other three flights ourselves. He showed us to our room, still telling us everything we needed to know, and then Bill the owner showed up. Apparently he’d been waiting for us to arrive. We’re not entirely sure where, after all, we’d come in through the front door and passed through the living room, the only way in, or perhaps there was a secret entrance. He continued with the ‘orientation’ and suggested somewhere nearby we might like to try for a meal tonight.

On our way out we met Bill’s wife, Sue, who totally disagreed with Bill’s recommendation for a meal saying it was a horrible place and she didn’t know why he’d told us to go there – perhaps because he hated us? She said we’d be better off in the centre of Santa Teresa. Advice was given on where we might to consider, and that because the hill was so steep we’d need to get a taxi back, unless we wanted thighs like elephants. Already having elephant thighs, I disregarded that comment.

English: Rio de Janeiro slum (right) on hill, ...

Next morning, after tripping up twice on several pieces of loose parquet flooring, we went for breakfast and a word with Bill about a few small things.

  1. In a city like Rio where you are told not to wear jewellery, carry lots of cash etc etc, was it a problem that our patio doors, which opened onto a communal patio, didn’t lock? Bill: Oh no, it wasn’t a problem, and besides they were only aluminium keys which kept breaking.

2. We can’t seem to use the safe in our room. Bill: No, I lost the key.

3. The patio is lovely, but is there any chance of having two chairs which we can actually sit in, rather than ones which are ripped and have screws sticking out? Bill: Unfortunately not. The new ones had been stuck at the port for 5 months. The ones we had were the best ones, but as they’d been out in all weathers they were rotten.

Oh well…

We tried out a couple of Bob’s recommendations, then after spending an arm and a leg on local restaurants, we decided to try lunch in Downtown. We stuffed ourselves on an ‘all you can eat buffet’ for less than the price of a starter at any of Bob’s recommendations. That night, still full to bursting, we picked up a bottle of wine and a few nibbles from a local store and decided to have a picnic by the pool. After enjoying a glorious evening with a sunset over the city, we went inside to make use of the communal laptop and check our emails. Bill arrives and interrogates us as to what we had been doing, and where we were going tonight. We said nowhere; we’d eaten out at lunchtime and were staying in tonight. “You’re on holiday for Christ’s sake”, was the response we got; Basil Faulty springs to mind.

After that, we decided to try and give Bill the slip as much as possible. Maybe we’d upset him when we ‘snuck in’ on arrival, who knows?

It’s time to leave, Bill’s on his laptop. Our two heavy cases are at the top of the stairs. The taxi arrives. Bill carries on working, is he going to help carry the cases? No.

The moral of this story – its not always the good and the bad reviews you need to consider, some people feel that some things are ‘better left unsaid’.