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…

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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.

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.

Just Back – from a great discovery (for Telegraph Travel)

With the washing piled high and the unused emergency sewing kit still to put away, I know the holiday’s over.

The planning and hopes, the time we spent together getting dusty, muddy, and wet is over, and now we are left with just our thoughts and some wonderful photos to remind us of the really good time we had together.

We’re just back from Namibia. It was just like being young again. We did crazy things, things we shouldn’t have, and best of all we spent time laughing. That’s what life used to be like, fun, free, and time spent doing things you wanted to do, even if it wasn’t what everyone else expected.

We’ve never been compliant, and no doubt at 5am when we were still in our tent and everyone else was heading out on safari, they thought we were missing the best experiences, but we weren’t. We had our own experiences, and we still managed to see that illusive leopard right near the camp. The others had missed her because she wasn’t there earlier, she knew it would be quiet now; the tourists were long gone. We saw the incredible sight of thousands of seals at Cape Cross, we saw the dunes at Sossusvlei, and we did all those other ‘must do’ things, but in our own kind of way.  We also got to do one of the best and most unexpected things; we got to talk to Connie.

Connie runs a restaurant at Klien Aub, the middle of nowhere, and for 27 days she hadn’t seen another soul. She opens at 8, and closes at 5 every day. She waits for people to call, normally she bakes cookies, but for a few weeks she hasn’t bothered because nobody comes, but today is different. Today she still looks a million dollars in her lilac two piece and perfectly combed hair, but today she also makes coffee for her ‘special guests’. We sit and talk, we talk to her, we talk to her cat, and we read the postcards and letters that’s she’s received from all over the world from previous customers she’s made coffee for. They say what a wonderful hostess she is, include pictures of themselves with her, and say they’ll see her next time.  She’s so proud.

Travel is all about exploration and discovery and one of the best places to discover is yourself, that’s what we did on our trip to Namibia. As well as discovering a diverse country with wildlife and desert, we discovered ourselves again, and what a wonderful discovery it was. And, when I look back tomorrow, and in the future, what I’ll always remember is that it’s the little unexpected things that make you smile.

La Bella Vita

La Bella Vita – is what you will find here in Abruzzo.  This is the ‘real’ Italy. Beautiful hilltop villages, unspoilt seaside resorts, wonderful food and wine and some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.

Whichever season you choose to visit there is always something new to see and do. During the spring the National parks are filled with wild flowers and the weather is mild, the summer brings high temperatures down at the coast but if you prefer cooler temperatures head for the mountains where you can stroll or hike through magnificent scenery and discover natural waterfalls and pools to cool your aching feet.  Autumn is a spectacular time to visit because the area is full of forests and the colors are a photographers dream.  Winter sports are also very popular here.  Unlike the larger resorts in the Alps you will rarely find queues for the ski lifts so you can enjoy more time on the piste, the resorts here are among only a few where you can ski and have views of the coast on the way down.

If you are a lover of food and wine you will not be disappointed.  Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is produced here along with many other varieties.  Many of the wineries are small family run affairs but none the less produce delicious inexpensive wines, they are always happy to offer guided tours with some tasting afterwards of course.  Pasta and meat lovers will also be in heaven.  Lamb graze on mountain herbs so produce tender, sweet and ready seasoned meat; pasta is always homemade and exquisite.

One of the most memorable parts of your holiday however will be the people.  They are extremely proud that people choose to visit the area, so the welcome here is one of warmth and kindness.  Even if you only speak the very basics of Italian you could spend hours talking together with the help of your hands.

If you love peace, tranquility and good company you will be coming back here again and again.