Malta, New Year 2019/20

To see in the new decade, we wanted a shorter and hopefully less stressful holiday over the new year period. The previous four festive breaks had seen us visit New York, Toronto, Hong Kong and Jordan, so in comparison the small Mediterranean islands of Malta seemed like just the thing this year.

Malta is one of the 28 European Union members and is located between Tunisia and Italy. It has a regular population of under half a million, although I noticed a sign in the airport that they have welcomed 7 million passengers in 2019.

Our flight and four-night hotel package from Expedia cost £460 using EasyJet from Gatwick and the flight took around three hours.

I’ll get the hotel out of the way first… we stayed in the Bella Vista Hotel based in Bugibba. This was listed as a four-star hotel based a good 40 minute bus ride from the capital Valletta, but in the middle of an area popular with British holiday makers.

After a long day travelling from South Wales, we were told that although we booked our trip eight months prior, the hotel was fully booked and we would have to spend our first night in the three-star Topaz hotel (a fifteen-minute walk away). Without anyone in a position to deal with our complaint (apparently the manager is strictly Monday to Friday, 9-5), we made our way to our substitute hotel and fortunately, they looked after us well. We started to forgive the hotel over the next few nights, although once our door card stopped working on our final night – and having to sleep through a continuous beep from the card reader we were not very impressed. With the blog I seldom have time to leave reviews but may make an exception in this case!

Day One

Now we can exclude our bother with the hotel I can focus on the trip itself.

My first thought on leaving the airport was that it was very… beige… beige and blue if by the coast. Nearly all of the building landscape in Malta is constructed from limestone, which presents a not necessarily boring – but rather plain – outlook.

Once we managed to sort our hotel, we had a walk around our base in Bugibba to find lunch. It didn’t take long to notice that Bugibba was a popular tourist spot with the British, albeit more relaxed and less extravagant than the likes of Benidorm. We tried to look for some Maltese cuisine near the main square but ultimately chose “Fat Harry’s” British pub which was showing the early Premier League offering on the TV. The full English breakfast wasn’t quite what one would consider Maltese, even though the country was a British colony up to 1974.

Bugibba itself didn’t offer anything to us worth writing about. It does house the national Aquarium if that’s your thing.

Not feeling our usual adventurous selves given the long day, we returned back to the hotel to weigh up our options for tomorrow and hopefully find somewhere we could catch the bus to in the evening.

After entering several recommended places in to Google Maps we decided to visit a place on the west of the island called Golden Bay. The buses in Malta are very well organised, frequent and cheap. A two hour journey can get you pretty much anywhere on the island and will cost €1.50 before 10pm.

Arriving at Golden Bay in the dark at 8pm told us that if we wanted to get the most out of seeing the sights we would really need to squeeze them in to limited hours of sunlight. Although the bay houses a couple of premium hotels and would no doubt be packed in the summer daytime, we were the only people outside. A walk down to the beach was solely done for a quick photo and to not make it a wasted journey. A long 40-minute wait for the next bus back to Bugibba dropped us off at a small restaurant five minutes from our hotel so we had dinner there and headed back.

We’d have some work to do to get the most out of this trip, having to negotiate public transport and getting things done before 5pm.

Day Two

A welcome early night saw us up and ready for breakfast on Sunday morning. The offerings of an English breakfast trumped what many hotels would offer back home, to the delight of I guess 90% of the hotel guests. It was very Butlins abroad. Borderline The Only Way is Essex plus 30 years, but it was fine.

Now I understand that hop-on hop-off sightseeing tours are not favoured – possibly despised – by the purist of travellers, but with buses being the only method of public transport on the island I did think it was a credible option. We caught the bus from our hotel in to Sliema, one of the busier areas on the island. I say areas, Malta may call Sliema a city but compared to the size of UK dwellings it wasn’t much bigger than a village.

The sightseeing bus offered two routes; one covering the east of the island and one for everywhere else. Once we were successfully targeted by many of the touts by the buses we were hurried on to the bus straight away, not realising that we would have preferred to visit the east of the island. Nevertheless, we settled down on the open top deck as it meandered through small streets, village to village separated by rocky countryside. And the national football stadium. In the middle of nowhere!

We passed Mosta based smack-bang in the middle of the island with its impressive Church, or ‘Rotunda’. I thought the tour mentioned that this was the third largest church in Europe but cannot find anything to back this up – although at one point it did have the third largest unsupported dome in the world so perhaps I heard wrong. It was interesting to hear that in World War 2 a bomb was dropped on the Church during mass but failed to explode. Years later the pilot who dropped said bomb visited Malta for forgiveness, and was remarkably welcomed with open arms by residents.

Another mildly interesting thing about Mosta… its central location was deliberate. The idea was that the villagers could be as far away from the coast – and pirates – as possible, with the streets designed in a way so should unwanted visitors attack they could find their escape through a labyrinth of side streets. How the double decker bus got around some corners defies all science.

Shortly after Mosta we climbed uphill to another popular village called Mdina, a fortified city of just 300 people based in the suburb of Rabat which has a gargantuan population of… 11,000. We decided to ‘hop-off’ the bus here and walk through the gated entrance. I found the fortress really fascinating even though we only skimmed over the history and its offerings.

We headed to the popular viewpoint towards the north of the city that offered probably the best view of the main island.

Bar the Golden Bay that we visited yesterday and our base Bugibba, we had little interest in the remainder of the route. For this reason we decided to board the local buses to the Marsaxlokk fishing village renowned for it’s Sunday market. With such planning using Google Maps we thought we would get there in plenty of time, but could not envisage that once a bus is full, the drivers do not stop and give no indication – just ride past probably with a massive grin on their mugs. Two buses went by whilst we were waiting in the middle of the countryside before we gave up and found any route back to the hotel. I do not like not doing things that I planned and wanted to do!

After finally checking in to our correct hotel, we had a brief siesta and considered the limited options of what to do in the dark evening. We decided on Sliema, the same place where we boarded the sightseeing bus earlier that day, having a short but pleasant walk through the town centre and along the bay before having more traditional cuisine of a Thai-orientated noodle box. An enjoyable dinner but not usually something to write home about.

A lonely stroll back through town to catch our bus back was made just that little bit extra poignant as we spent ten minutes blissfully watching the waves forcefully smash against the sea walls.

Day Three

We actually had a plan for today. Malta is generally considered one island but the Republic is actually made up of three: Malta, Gozo and Comino. We caught an early ferry over to the island of Gozo in good time and again chose to board the sightseeing bus for around €15.

The tour managed to provide sufficient interest but I’ll pick out the top three stops bring the capital of Gozo (Victoria), the Azure Window and what we were told was Malta’s best beach in Ramla Bay.

The Azure window is a natural arch along the limestone cliffs to the west of Gozo. Spolier alert – it doesn’t actually exist anymore. Looking at it now, it’s difficult to see how it existed in the first place as all parts of the arch are now unseen underwater.

The arch crumbled in 2017 and as such doesn’t offer anything special, although still a popular tourist destination. The arch was location for a scene with Danaerys and Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones season one and the rough rocky platform you can scale did provide an uncommon sight – not too dissimilar to Giants Causeway we visited two months before. If you’re in to your GoT stuff be sure to check our Northern Ireland posts from November 2019!

I was aware that the arch wasn’t going to be there to avoid unexpected disappointment, so 45 minutes between bus pickups was enough to take a few pictures of the coast and fascinating Inland Sea, providing the only boat route here in to the sea via a narrow cave in the cliffs.

Our second ‘hop-off’ was at the central capital of Victoria. Agqin a miniscule area, but one that was dominated by a Citadel providing a plethora of Maltese history and panoramic views across the whole of Gozo with the main island in sight. As regular readers will know, I am very lazy when it comes to museums, churches and history in general (Google it if you’re that interested!) and will happily bypass that to climb a few stairs for a good view – and a bloody good view it was!

Lunch was perfectly timed to catch a bus to our third and final stop off point from the 12 stops the tour offered. Ramla Bay was often noted as the best beach located on the worlds 10th smallest country. December 30th was obviously not the best time to visit, it was cold, empty and about to hammer with rain any minute.

We didn’t have extraordinary expectations of a winter beach, but this will be remembered for the first time I have seen with my own eyes the impact plastic has on the planet. We walked hundreds of yards along the beach that was plagued with countless items of plastic ranging from bottle tops, lighters, net remains, lighters… all washed up by the beautifully blue Mediterranean Sea. No doubt this is all cleaned up before the summer influx of holidaymakers but it was a sorry sight to see. Although I can do a lot better with by consumption of plastic, you’ll never hear me moan about a McDonalds paper straw.

Not being able to go to the market yesterday was a bit annoying as things generally fall in to place. A year ago we were in Jordan with no itinerary and we managed to see more than we could have ever imagined. Fast forward a year and I’d find myself unable to do what I planned to do twice in two days! If you look high up to the cliffs surrounding Ramla Bay you can find a gaping hole in the rock called Tal-Mixta Cave. I wasn’t aware of this until checking a few independent blogs one night but as soon as I saw it was “I’m going to do that”.

It was starting to get dark, rainclouds were circulating and it was hard to estimate how long the trek up the cliff race would take… 20 minutes, 90 minutes, who knows. We would have to be there and back within 70 minutes to catch the last bus back to the ferry port so it was just a little out of reach. I have stolen this photo though to hopefully explain my disappointment.

The heavens did indeed open when waiting for the bus back. 40 tourists crammed in to the lower deck of the bus. Nobody cared that the driver skipped the final two or three locations on the route, instead delivering us to the Mgarr ferry port to return to the main island.

As the ferry was at full capacity we were forced on to the open deck in search of a dry chair for the 45 minute rode, then spent twenty minutes waiting for a bus back to our hotel (another hour away) and finished with an uninspiring dinner in the hotel. It may not sound like it but overall we had a pleasant day – Malta isn’t a winter destination.

Day Four

Knowing we were finally going to visit Valletta for the new year fireworks, on our fourth day we were at a slight loss how to spend the day, bearing in mind my tendonitis had been getting increasingly worse since Christmas Day exactly a full week ago.

There were numerous places such as Mosta, Sliema and Rabat that we had briefly visited but could have seen a lot more of, but another few hours round trip didn’t seem the best use of our limitied time left on the island.

After some contemplation we thought going to Valletta in the daytime wouldn’t be the worst idea as certain sights would surely be closed when we revisited later on in the evening. And as good as my phone is, it’s not a bloody owl…

It wasn’t a bad idea. Although hobbling and walking very slowly, it wasn’t far to walk through the festive big wheel, carousel and picture opportunities and in to the City gate leading to a wander around town – the smallest in Europe.

The co-cathedral looks great from photos but the queues put us off so we walked to the sea edge (tablets had kicked in) to the Siege bell tower, erected to commemorate those who fought in World War Two.

Right, it was the last day, and I was stalled in my attempts to visit the market town and that walk up to the cave. One remaining attraction was left on my list, the “Blue Grotto” located on the south coast. We’ll give that a go.

30 minutes by car or 75 minutes by bus meant another slow commute to another very quite tourist spot. We departed the bus and seen the cliff named the Blue Grotto – very pleasant on the eye with endless blue sea in the background – but a bit too long to wait for the next bus, in the summer you could imagine a boat excursion and the few cafes to be bustling. Anyhow, not to our disappointment, the ad-hoc transport took us along the south coast, back to Mdina and home to Bugibba. Time for a rest and possibly a couple too many Zapain tablets.

New Years Eve was upon us after a brief nap. We left the hotel around 8pm to get ourselves some food in Valetta, standing up for 40 minutes on the bus took it’s tole and once again my limb gave me grief.

To waste time we thought we would spend as long as possible having tea, but the only place where we were able to squeeze ourselves in was the Burger King. I spent 105 minutes in Burger King on New Years Eve, and for reasons like this I’ll never make it as a travel blogger!

We ended up waiting around 45 minutes for the reasonable firework display at midnight to mark our 11 year anniversary. She’s a lucky girl I know. Without time for too much sentiment we hurried to the best stop to catch a special service taking us back to the hotel, after what seemed like lapping the island at least 42 times!

Day Five

Our last day was as uneventful as we hoped for. Breakfast, bus from hotel to airport, and home via the flight to Gatwick, train to Bristol, rail replacement coach to Newport and taxi. I’ll chuck you a few tips though.

Malta #HowNot2Life tips.

1. Don’t go in winter. Although the weather was nice enough, it still gets dark at 5pm and it’s not the place to discover at night.

2. Give yourself plenty of time from A to B. The only method of public transport is the bus, which is frequent and cheap, but slow.

3. Stay near Valletta. There are many interesting places but the capital does have the most to offer. Importantly, it does also seem the transport hub, making tip number 2 that little easier.

4. Take your time to appreciate the culture and history. Usually, I think I can get away with skipping these but on this occasion think it would have added a lot more to our trip!

5. It’s a great place for a Wales away game!

Thanks for reading and happy new decade. Regular viewers will be aware I still have to finish our trip to Ireland in November and shamefully our wonderful trip to Jordan this time last year. I’m on it I promise!

Belfast & Dublin, October 2019

It was a pleasure to be invited to our friends wedding in County Slane, Ireland. Booking the trip endured a bit of guesswork as the location was in the middle of nowhere, and Ireland doesn’t make use of postcodes, making the trip itinerary that little more intricate.We did initially intend of going to Venice for our week off prior to that Saturday celebration but a mix of luggage, spiralling costs and a little bit of brexit uncertainty resulted in a really satisfying trip to Northern Ireland and Dublin.

Day One – Belfast

I was fortunate to visit Belfast in 2013 for a stag do so was able to be a poor quality tour guide to Mikayla. Our 8am flight from Bristol took just 50 minutes to arrive in Dublin, and a two hour coach meant we checked in to our hotel just past midday.

This allowed us to have a wander around the city, stopping at Victoria Square shopping centre and the rooftop dome giving panoramic views of the city and famous shipyards, the centrepiece being two huge cranes called Samson and Goliath.Whilst our pursuit for lunch was futile, we did end up walking past the Albert Memorial clock tower and McHughs bar where I consumed a significant amount of alcohol six years prior. The clock tower interestingly slopes 4 feet off perpendicular due to the nearby river upsetting it’s foundations.

You really have to look twice to question the uprightness of the structure and I soon gave up taking a photo that didn’t look equally as puzzling.We were heading to Titanic Belfast, at the scene where the famous doomed ship was built and now the set for its own museum.

The thing I love about Belfast is the amount of small bits of interest around every corner. Within our first hour we had come across the City Hall, Beacon of Hope sculpture, the “Big Fish” that gives you wisdom if you kiss it (I didn’t, sigh), the home of the ice hockey Belfast Giant’s (my local Cardiff Devils nemesis) and the now-defunct set of the King’s Landing gate from Game of Thrones tucked away near the expansive docks area.

This Belfast part of the blog post will feature Game of Thrones (GoT) a lot so please bear with me if you have yet to take interest in one of the most popular TV series of all time.

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the Titanic museum and paid our £19 entry fee. Our unguided tour was spent roughly 80% learning how the unsinkable ship was built by Harland and Wolff, 10% focusing on the posh interior, class of passengers and sailing route, and finally around 10% of the ships demise.

The tour was actually rather disappointing – I’m sure it was more interesting the first time around. It didn’t help half way through; my realisation that there’s a museum built to honour a sunken boat!

The windy walk back in to town was thankfully interrupted by some relatively newer reasons why Belfast is on the map, in the shape of six standalone stained glass windows depicting many scenes from Game of Thrones. We followed the trail and as you can see from the photo below they are wonderful! I didn’t have chance to master camera angles but you can find our more by searching for #glassofthrones or chucking “Glass of Thrones” in to your preferred search engine.

Once we had snapped the sixth and final frame back at city hall, we weren’t far from the hotel so had dinner and a deserved early night.

Day Two – Game of Thrones Tour

The top thing that is likely to be on anyone’s list when visiting Northern Ireland will be to visit Giant’s Causeway, in my eyes one of the natural (i.e. not made by man) wonders of the world.

As the attraction is a good few hours away from the City we initially intended to look at local transport but thought I would have a gander at a Game of Thrones themed trip, just out of interest as neither the Causeway or the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge features in the series. For my previous trip we had enough to hire a taxi along the coast but this was just as the unknown Targaryn’s and Lannister’s and the gang set foot in NI. I came across the Irish Tour Tickets website and once I seen the very reasonable cost of €39 per person and that included the two sights listed above, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I was apprehensive as to how good the GoT element of the trip would be, but within minutes of boarding the comfortable coach and having a good craic with the tour guide and driver I could tell it the decision was a good one.

Game of Thrones is worth £30 million per year to the NI economy and it would good to know our custom was contributing to this.

Throughout the trip we were entertained by clips and interviews with the cast, fun facts about the show and lesser known sights of the country… the tour guide himself had a few cameos in a number of episodes.

Our first stop after passing Carrickfergus Castle and a very small impose of Castle Black, was a small coastal village of Carnlough. A sleepy town you would quickly drive past if not in the know, for a few weeks during Season 6 filming a small set of steps took centre stage. During one episode, Arya Stark got stabbed by the Waif and even though the bridge she jumped off to escape was in Spain, she rose to shore in Carnlough! There was a poster in the local Spar shop showing more of the filming… quite incredible the amount of work that went in to a scene that lasted a minute or two!

A short ride along the coast followed for our next stop at Cushenden. Stopping off at a narrow layby there didn’t seem to be any caves in sight, but after a small walk around the corner of the coast we were heading in to a cave that was the setting for Melissandre giving birth to the shadow assassin, and around another corner of the same cave the scene where Jamie Lannister killed off Euron Greyjoy.

The latter did feel like you were actually part of the set, albeit with fellow tourists taking selfies where a character was last seen spread over a rock bleeding to death!

So far so good. It is important to note that we hardly expected to have a wander through Winterfell or Kings Landing… as you can imagine most of the inside filming was shot in a warehouse (interestingly next door to the Titanic Museum back in Belfast), and other outside locations for the programme include Croatia, Spain, Malta, Morocco and Iceland!

A further drive through the narrow roads flirting with the coast resulted in us arriving at the Causeway Visitor Centre around midday. I should mention that our €39 ticket also included queue-skipping entrance to the two chargeable attractions that would have otherwise cost us a total of €21.

From the visitor centre to the 40,000 hexagonal stones is a bit of a trek so the free audio guide was a welcome addition, giving encouragement to the myth that it was created by a giant called Finn Macool, but sadly it is more likely that a volcanic reaction forced tectonic plates to break and sprout up lava. Still, no idea about the hexagon shape… something I really should have found out before writing!

Somewhat of a dangerous playground, the scene it perfect for a numerous photos and the safety staff are hands off should you wish to climb the structures in any direction you feel fit.

Stop number four was lunch in the Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy, between the Causeway and the next stop Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Lunch was discounted to trip members and for under a tenner I enjoyed a hearty Steak and Guinness pie and chips. The pub also had a Game of Thrones themed room where you could dress up and sit on their own Iron Throne. A good fun way to spend lunch and an opportunity to have a chat with other tourists who travelled as far as China and South Africa.

I should also note the pub had one of ten Game of Thrones doors produced and donated by the producers, I’ll cover these a bit later.

Appetite satisfied we made our way to stop five and what is likely to be the second main sight to see in the country outside of Belfast. The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was first installed some 350 years ago so that fishermen could hop on to the island and be at an ideal spot for salmon fishing. Thankfully it has been renewed and updated a few times since then considering it allows up to half a million people to cross every year.

What they don’t tell you on the advertisement is that the bridge is over a kilometre walk from the car park featuring a number of declines and hills. This is not something that should ever put you off however, as the views along the coast are stunning.

Sadly my attempt to take decent photos of the bridge didn’t come to fruition, and it didn’t help a bloke a few places in front of me got an absolute bollocking from the staff for not holding on the the railings with both hands. The Carrickarede island is nothing special, some manmade steps leading to a grassy mount. At this point I remembered a photo that I took during my first visit in 2013 and trying to recreate it fell straight on my arse to the delight of Mikayla and probably a few others.

I miss those pink Vans so much. Anyway. The long, slow walk back was aided by the sun setting and as we headed to our final destination, the Dark Hedges, I was slightly concerned whether we would be able to see it in daylight, although hoping the dusk setting would in fact provide the perfect ambience.

The Hedges is still a public road but due to the narrowness and popularity coaches had to park in the nearby hotel, another establishment that has benefited from the show. After a small walk the hedges were a tad underwhelming, perhaps due to the number of other people around but it provided a calm end to the tour. A final chance of a toilet stop inside the hotel, we were greeted by another opportunity to have a photo with an Iron Throne, and to walk through the second door, the first I mentioned earlier.

The doors have a significant meaning. When a storm hit the Dark Hedges during filming two of the trees were fell. Following this the production team decided to comission the “dead wood” in to ten carved themed doors that can be seen throughout Northern Ireland, each depicting an episode during season six of the show. These were then donated to local businesses to further encourage the local economy. Nice touch.

As darkness arrived it was time to make the 90 minute ride back to Belfast, during which the clevererer one of us (Kay FYI) won a GoT quiz much to our delight.

To conclude. It was such a nice day. I don’t often book something I think may just be ‘ok’, however when the decision turns out to be much better than expected is a real bonus. The tour host Peter and driver Tony made the trip that extra bit special and their ‘craic’ was priceless… I recommend it to everyone and will share this with the company as my own form of positive feedback.

Day Three – Belfast on to Dublin

So today was our trip back from Northern Ireland to The Republic.

We made the most of the daylight to jump on the sightseeing bus around Belfast. As the hotel was a stop half way around, we didn’t do things in the order that would be recommended. The bus driving through nationalist and republican areas would usually come after a few City centre sights but for us, bar a drive past the national football stadium it was our first port of call.

One could easily write a blog on the area with its countless murals, gardens and commemorations each side of the divide.

The divide being a big 20 foot wall, in which I think the gates are still closed every night to seperate those waving either the Irish green white and orange or the Union Jack.

This was the second time I’ve visited the area and I find it as strange today as I did 6 years ago, you wouldn’t believe it to be on the outskirts of a major city in the United Kingdom. Religion eh?

After the stretch viewed with wide eyes, we headed on to Stormont, the equivalent of what the Senedd is to Wales and Holyrood is to Scotland. At the time parliament had been suspended for 3 years due to policy disagreements between its power-sharing leadership and only sorted themselves out in January 2020. Just get on with each other FFS.

On a lighter note the trip then passed Campbell College. A very well regarded private institution but one that’s considerably cheaper than across the Irish sea. An interesting story from this… Wetherspoons Brexit obsessed owner Tim Martin studied here, once being told by a teacher that he’d never make anything of himself. That teacher, was indeed called…. Mr Wetherspoon.

Back towards the centre to visit the Titanic quarter with some additional Game of Thrones fandom, but most of which I’ve kinda covered unless you’re interested in when Queen Victoria once visited (I wasn’t). We departed the tour once back at the hotel.

After a quick lunch we made our way to our coach that would take us back to Dublin airport and then on to the city itself. The bus picked up near the Europa hotel (The most bombed hotel in the world during The Troubles”) and The Crown Liqueur Saloon. An old Victorian pub that’s undoubtedly the most famous in NI and owned by the National Trust! Always had them down as secret Alcoholics.

We arrived in Dublin, by the Spire to catch the last of daylight and made our way to our Ripley Court Hotel, absolute luxury compared to the ETAP box room in Belfast with a banging breakfast to boot.

We were in Dublin for less than 24 hours so went straight to the sights… Belfast Castle, Temple Bar, Trinity College, and of course the Forbidden Planet store.

I gave Kay an overview of the Castle (you can read about that from my blog in October 2018) much to her delight and walked passed the nightlife that Temple Bar offered and on to Ha’penny bridge.

A rather quick tickbox exercise but given that we had already had a hectic few days we were content in grabbing some fast food and an early night.

Day Four – Dublin on to Drogheda

Making most of the breakfast plus a quick snooze to help it go down, we didn’t leave the hotel until gone 10am, although one reason for this was to try and get resale tickets to Kilmainham Gaol later in the day, in which we were successful. As Mikayla entered Trinity College to have a gander at the Book of Kells, one of the world’s oldest books, I decided to hang around in Starbucks to catch Wales rugby get stuffed by New Zealand in the World Cup bronze match. You wouldn’t see that in the footy!

Once Kay reappeared we made our way to the aforementioned gaol (Irish for Jail) via a brief visit to the Irish Museum of Modern Art opposite and met up with a few pals who were also cramming in the sights (and no doubt Guinness). Sadly our ticket times differed but in our fortune had an icreble tour guide that offered so much passion in his job, if it was an act he should be on Broadway.

Kilmainham Goal is a closed jail renowned for its dreadful living conditions especially during Ireland’s famine and it’s role in Irish independence.

It housed many republicans who fought (and subsequently died) for the Ireland you know of today away from British rule.

The tour took us through the miniscule cells that housed more people than floorspace should allow, the area that the Brits used for their firing squad and where the used to commence public hangings, should anyone else get the idea that living in extreme poverty was wrong.

Without undoubtedly knowing the full story of those times, it wasn’t my proudest moment to be British, yet blessed I don’t think we’ll ever witness anything like it again, within Europe anyway.

That’s kind of it for Dublin. I had already done the Guinness tour but if you go please consider half a day roaming Phoenix Park.

We hurried back to the hotel to pick up our bags and catch a teatime transport to Drogheda, about an hour north of Dublin, or two hours using a public bus in rush hour. As we arrived in Drogheda the groom and I’s mutual friend, and my Wales football companion Peter picked us up to take us to our digs for the night in a place called Donore.

Waiting for us was a collection at Daly’s Inn, a sweet independent pub/hotel, was a bunch of friends who caught the ferry over from Newport that day and we enjoyed a good knees up, but too much food put me in a coma with little room left for cider late in to the night. I dare say the pint before said food in amongst the annual pheasant shooting presentation was enough to turn me vegetarian as I’m writing this in 2020!

Day Five – The Reason

Wedding Day. It’s not my place to commentate on my mates wedding day but what an incredible day it was. Having started on the beer at midday and ending up lobbing 45 euro to one-too-many rum and coke well after midnight, you can tell it was an absolute banger.

The bride and groom have okayed this picture so I can show how lush they are. And you haven’t yet met the groom’s Mum!

To see so many of my friends, so many of my mates (the groom’s) friends, in one place, in a foreign country was such an incredible occasion.

Day Six – Back Across the Irish Sea

Final day! I expected nothing less than to sleep in during breakfast prior to be dropped back in to Drogheda to catch a coach back to the airport. More tired than hungover, we meandered the airport and drove back home, just in time for a kip before work the next morning! Not much more to say to be honest!

Having been to Ireland 3 times in 3 years, and in no real rush to revisit Northern Ireland, it was so pleasing to have SUCH a good trip, with Mikayla accompanying me this time, and one that’ll live long in the memory. To Jack and Eimear! X

Bratislava & Vienna, October 2019

After a 2,600 mile, 10 day train trip to Frankfurt, Zagreb, Budapest and Vienna for my last international football following, a trip to a new country and back within 2.5 days was a welcome return to normality.

Wednesday: Newport, Gatwick, Vienna, Bratislava

Our outbound flight from Gatwick to Vienna plus a Flixbus coach for the short journey in to Slovakia came in under £40, although petrol, parking and a light lunch in Ascot increased the price a tad. I say lunch. It was an appalling attempt…

The coach took no longer than 50 minutes in to Bratislava from Vienna airport, offering a decent first look at the castle through the rainy windows, parking up a minute away from the hotel. Arriving at 22:30 meant that once we dropped our bags off in the hotel room the cuisine was limited to McDonald’s.

I was persuaded to have a beverage in the hotel bar before bed, a high end sisha bar trying to evidence the need to charge €15 for a Corona and a G&T. Not my sort of place, and certainly not with tracksuit bottoms and an Alice band wrapped around the barnet! How the other half live eh?

Thursday: Bratislava, match day in Trnava.

An early start to hit the breakfast buffet, which was ok… I’m still yet to tell the hotel how furious I was – still am – that they mixed kidney beans in with baked beans. Just why!? To this day I’ve yet to realise what purpose kidney beans have on this planet.

Swiftly moving on, we didn’t see any other Welsh fans for a good hour once we had walked the steep incline to the castle. Unsurprisingly the capital city’s number one tourist area, several viewpoints offered cascading views of Bratislava… the old town nearby and the ever growing newer part being continuously constructed further back. No doubt Austria was within the picture too.

We didn’t go in to the castle itself, Pete spent time talking to a few fans who had since appeared while I wandered around taking some photographs.

The stand out structure looking out was definately the Most SNP road bridge that leans accross the Danube. The bridge wouldn’t be too much to write home about if not for the strange UFO viewing platform at the top.

We fully intended to visit this after the castle, but we were more than satisfied with the castle views accross the City, thus we thought it would just be a duplication of where we were.

We walked back down the steep cobbled street, past the Cathedral and in to the old town. It was a shame the trek wasn’t a little longer as before we knew it we were exposed to a number of bars already filling up with red shirts. It would have been rude not to participate so we had a coffee and a beer (guess which one of us had a beer…) in a Georgian restaurant and watched countless worse for wear bucket-hatted supporters who weren’t quite ready to begin the days long session. It was nice to finally meet my new pal Chelle who has taken the jump and has become a decent #hownot2lifer. Chelle goes straight into number one place as my favourite female Cardiff fan… In fact she may be my only female Cardiff fan! Keep your enemies close I suppose…

From here it was another short walk to the main square, miniscule to its capital neighbours and probably smaller than Newport’s John Frost Square!

Nevertheless the impressive architecture and fountain offered a pleasant sight as we made our way to the Soviet monument and a walk back to the hotel along the Danube.

I quickly changed my plan of having an hours rest to try out a few local bars. I just about managed to walk accross the street before camoflaging myself with other reds and at €1.60 a pint, it was mandatory that I purchased two. This soon turned in to four once I met one of another new friend made from Instagram and the blog. I bumped in to Griff at a pre-season friendly between Undy and Newport having first met in Croatia; we simply carried on with conversation as though we were long-time pals. Cute.

As it happened, we both caught the Wonky Sheep-arranged buses to the ground in Trnava located around an hour from Bratislava. An uneventful journey bar the three trips to the loo and completely unecessary police escort.

I would love to tell you all about Trnava, but the truth is that I got off the bus and marched with purpose in to a little cabin that just passed as a “pub”. One does not usually have the opportunity to purchase 5 bottles of lager and a double vodka for under 5 quid, so you have to make the most when the opportunity presents itself!

Once Griff, Pete and I polished off our share of beverage, we walked all of 100 yards in to an Irish bar just around the corner from my entrance gate to the ground. The Irish bar was a really decent, multi level pub with rowdy Celts singing songs with still 4 hours to go before kickoff. The more expensive pints; at 2 euro a pop this time, did little to plug the flow of local lager, by the time I caught up with a few County lads before kick off I was adequetly hydrated.

The Trnava stadium is relatively new but you perhaps wouldn’t have noticed it – a very standard European ground that is 99 parts concrete to one part everything else!

The game was one of the better one’s I have watched this campaign, and how nice was it to take the lead in a very important game away from home! We thought being soaked by some beer in celebration was an ample price to pay. Five pints for 9 quid at half time wasn’t a disaster either. Just ask this guy:

The lead didn’t last for the whole game sadly and we had to settle for a one-all draw and rue the absolute sitter Harry Wilson fluffed in stoppage time. Still, I’ve watched a lot worse and even writing this after another draw with Croatia three days after today, hope still remains.

The coach trip back wasn’t as torturous as expected and we still had time to have a few more beers before the bar opposite the hotel shut for the night.

… Actually, I remembered having a few in the hotel too….

Friday – on to Vienna and home.

… Which is probably why I didn’t wake up to fresh on our last day, choosing to skip breakfast for an extra half hour in bed.

During my absence that morning Pete made the credible decision to catch the boat along the Danube to Vienna. Had I know it would be 5x the price and twice as long as the coach I may have abstained from agreement, but looking back that €30 would have just been spent down my local anyway!

The trip was accompanied by some infrequent commentary on what we could see from the river and, having not eaten since Wednesday night I was desperate for some quality Austrian cuisine.

So, after our McDonald’s, we were ready for our shortish day of tourism, luggage in hand.

We were fortunate to have a stop off in Vienna during out train travels to the Croatia and Hungary games, when we had a walk around the town, and even an amusement park. Today meant we could visit somewhere a little further afield and as Peter has visited the Austrian capital on a number of occasions I was more than happy to go along with the suggestion of Schönbrunn Palace… After a walk past the Cathedral obviously…

What was once the summer home of royalty gone by, today the palace is a tourist hotspot and should abolsultey be included in your plans if you are staying for a few days.

The palace offers a number of tours both inside it’s houses and the expansive gardens, but if you just want to look around “out the back” you can do so at no cost.

I certainly didn’t feel like trapsing through some posh house so we chose to walk around to the gardens, the highlight being a corridor of flowers leading up to an incredible fountain, a hill, pond and finally the Gloriette building where you could see suburban Vienna for miles.

I’m not one for gardens, palaces, churches or museums so take note how impressed I was with our visit here!

Somewhat tiring from the long walk back to the nearest tube station. We had more thing to cover before making our way to the airport.

The Naschmarkt market is not something that will be the highlight of the trip, but how often can you ramble through an outdoor market in the middle of town selling everything from lobster to cheese to baclava to tea?

Around half of the occupants are restaurants closely competing for business and I was starving once more. We were certainly not disappointed by our choice of Italian, indulging in Pizza, chips and even a salad (stop the press) to rule out airport fast food.

Seldom have I gone to a place, seen just two things and be content that I had made the most of the day. We found our way around the underground and – bar a small flight delay – it was “goodnight Vienna” and hello to the long drive home from Gatwick. All in the space of 60 hours!

Next stop… Dublin (again) and Belfast for a good friends wedding. We’re due to cross the NI/Eire border on Brexit day too. What can go wrong?

Thanks for reading,
Chris

Valencia, August 2019

After waiting for an age to visit Europe again after my last visit (six weeks ago) we headed off to Spain for the first time that wasn’t with family as a kid or to consume large amounts of Estrella.

We chose Valencia as Kay spent 6 weeks teaching at an English college there in 2017, and although she seen a few things there were plenty of new things to explore for us both.

Friday

Our 6:30am departure to the home of paella left on time from Bristol, even though there was an evacuation due to a fire alarm, and the worry of boarding a Ryanair flight with hand luggage anything over the size of a pencil case.

Valencia airport has a direct metro in to town that takes around half an hour, and we needed one further stop to arrive at Hotel Expo, located no more than 20 minutes walk in to the centre and plenty of shops, restaurants, bike hire and the main park seconds away. As we were a few hours early we strolled around the shopping centre selling pretty much anything one would need and had some lunch at a cafe between Burger King and McDonalds before being given our room card earlier than expected.

The hotel was a standard 3 star, but it gets the thumbs up for a rooftop swimming pool, BRILLIANT air conditioning and a value for money 10 euro breakfast buffet.

Once settled and cooled we headed out towards the City Centre, that was closer than anticipated when looking at the map. Our first stop was to the Central Market and the smell of fresh fish in 34 degree heat. Even so, we entered to a concoction of colour and bustling locals.

I never quite understand why a market has 20 stalls all selling the same things, but if it keeps them going then great. I lost count of the deli’s selling ham after 20 or so, and even got persuaded in to buying some chopped up fruit, as was the appeal of something fresh to combat the climate.

Unprepared for the glaring sunshine we hopped between shaded areas to reach the Cathedral. Regular #hownot2life’ers know I don’t usually have a major interest in churches of museums but the cathedral had a viewing tower the Torre de Micalet, something I simply have to benefit from, hot or not.

207 giant steps were made a little easier thanks to the family in front of us taking their time, and once we rose at the top (via a breather or two) we were greeted with a view that covered the majority of the city, only recognising a handful of tall buildings interrupting the terracotta landscape.

The first thing I looked for was the Mastella, home to Valencia football club. After a slight struggle I picked out the orange and black uncovered stands and added it to the list of places to visit before the weekend was done.

Back on the ground we wandered to the Plaza de la Virgen square, housing a statue of a naked geezer loving life even with quite a bit of birdshit over him.

Then we made our way to Lonja de Sela. Although not too appealing from the outside, this UNESCO site was well worth a 20 minute visit.

After buying your ticket you walk in to a courtyard full of blossoming orange trees and the building has several interesting rooms, I especially enjoyed the stain glass window that lit up the corridor towards the main room, a silk exchange back in the day.

We had now been out for a few hours and decided to walk back to the hotel before our evening plans.

Kay didnt really sell Valencia to me but one thing she did swear by was the all-you-can-eat chicken place, thankfully walkable distance from our hotel too.

Before a fiesta of food I was interested in seeing where Kay stayed for the 6 week sabbatical. A huge benefit of this was that we walked past the “New” Mestalla football ground.

I say new, building work originally started in 2003 but 16 years later if is still a concrete shell due to the club’s debt issues, a redesign offering hope, and then more financial difficulty.

Arriving at Kay’s apartment I was a bit unsure as to how I would survive spending six weeks there but really please I could finally picture where May spent the longest time away from each other in 10 years.

Enough of that cute crap, dinner time! Wearing flip-flops was taking its role and without Kay having an exact ETA we eventually arrived at the Chicken place, La Parilla. The only thing was, it was closed. fucking closed, Available to rent.

Urgently hoping to see if they relocated I noticed a TripAdvisor review as soon as a week ago, and nothing to say they were closing. But they were definitely closed – I even tried to bloody ring them looking at the shutters and for rent sign!

Flabbergasted and not far away from tears we got the metro the short way along the avenue and decided to have something around the hotel. The American Diner in comparison was a big disappointment and I didnt really appreciate paying 16 Euros for a mouthful of fatty beef. If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor…

I was over it by the time we picked up some snacks and headed back to our room. A sunny Saturday in Spain, AND the start of the football season for the County!

Saturday

Contrary to my luxury spa dates in Hungary, the pool at the hotel didn’t open until ten, which ultimately meant I never made use of it during the whole weekend. Instead we feasted on the breakfast buffet and – amber replica shirt adorned – headed to the BioPark.

What is a BioPark? Well, it was sold to us as this kind of nature reserve that is a lot less cagey than a zoo. At a cost of €25 each the walk around started promising as we passed the flamingos and lemurs who were free to wander wherever they wanted, but as we followed the route my apprehension was validated as we got to see gorillas behind 10 inch thick glass, alligators in an area smaller than my back garden and a number of animals looking incredibly sad. I really didnt want to visit a zoo.

We spent the rest of the tour around discussing our thoughts… do the animals prefer not having to catch their food? Are the zebra better off not being ripped apart by a lion? Are the animals treated well? In fairness to the BioPark I had never been to a zoo that allowed as much space to the majority of the animals. I’m still scarred from an elephant “rescue centre” in 2015 Thailand that forced the need to throw darts and kick a football on the poor creatures.

As much as I hate to admit it the animals were really fascinating. Ultimately however, we felt mis-sold.

Grateful that we actually had an option to escape the zoo, we were ahead of schedule so headed back to the hotel to get her out stuff ready for the beach. Malvarrosa beach is quite a ride from the centre but we arrived around 3pm, allowing an hour in the sea before I tuned in to the County curtain raiser back home in Newport.

The heat of the sand was unbearable and we visited hut after hut hoping to offload some cash in exchange for a parasol. It was peak time so we gave up. I managed to have 25 minutes in the Mediterranean before turning in to the football and then disaster struck. I could only watch the football if connected to Spanish WiFi for rights purposes, not my UK transported mobile data. Fuck sake.

We packed up in two minutes and was fortunate to pick up a taxi within 60 seconds of reaching the main road. I had to listen to our first goal of the season with radio commentary but by the time Padraig Amond doubled our lead I was back in the hotel room. We ended up throwing this advantage away to draw 2-2. But better than the Cardiff result!

The evening that followed was a real quiet one. We popped to the supermarket to get some items for breakfast the next morning and had some food in a Turkish restaurant just outside the hotel. We would be hiring bikes the next day, I’m glad I have my arse a rest!

Sunday

We were up bright and early to hire bikes. I love a Sunday morning in Europe as it means I do not have a hangover. By 10am we handed over €24 for day use of two bikes and headed off in to Turia park.

The park, interestingly was the Turia river that used to flow through the city until 1986. Quite a major step to close off a whole bloody river but an answer to continuous flooding of the city.

Since then (a sign said that) Valencia/Spain has spent 636,000,000 euro converting the river in to a park. Weird and wonderful.

The park is 9.1km long and we simply had to do the full 18.2km lap. First heading west to the BioPark then all the way through the city to the east and the beautiful buildings that make up the Arts and Science park.

I dislike going anywhere twice, but would love another day roaming around Central Park in New York.

Having said that, I’m still trying to think of why Turia park doesn’t compete. Along the route there were a plethora or sporting and exercise opportunities, great facilities and playgrounds, a much better designated cycle route, even the fairground was in town over our weekend.

By the time we reached half way, the Arts and Science buildings, I’m sorry to say my arse was feeling the pain of the narrow saddle.

A perfect time to order my first ever meal via WhatsApp and just off from the park we collected takeaway paella and some chicken.

The paella was enjoyed (minus the snail) outside Gulliver’s playground. I know I’m 31 but proper regretting not having a gander at some of the slides on offer. From the air I’m sure you’d agree how cool the playground looks!

I won’t lie, the remaining 7 or so kilometres back to the hotel were stop-start and literally a pain in the arse. But we made it, rather proud and sacrificed the remaining 18 hours left on our rental deal.

After a brief siesta at the hotel, the evening started once we made the most of our metro cards to visit the home of Valencia football club, the famous Mestalla.

Mikayla wasn’t as impressed I must admit, but I was shocked how a 50,000 capacity stadium can take up so little space. Even though it’s regarded as the steepest in Europe, it still took no more than 5 minutes to walk around the external circumference. I had no interest in watching a game before the trip but left a tad gutted I never had the opportunity.

The one thing the cathedral tower didn’t offer, was a good view of the park. For this reason we headed to a standout Ferris wheel and at just €4 each jumped at the chance for a whirl and a photo. Sadly the panels offering a great view were covered in an orange tint so I’ve had to work some Photoshop magic as best as I can!

The bikes were really handy earlier in the day but you lost that ability just to stroll off path and take in the sights. We timed our revisit to the Arts and Science centre perfectly and although we had little interest of seeing what the insides offered, the sun setting to the west made for some brilliant photos. Just ask this smiling lady!

And then, perfectly timed, was the photo of the trip. No filter required.

Crossing the bridge to catch the bus for some late dinner before bed we enjoyed the sun set, and wondered what we would do for our last morning in Spain’s third city (I think?)

Monday

Aware that we had pretty much done everything we wanted to do before the remaining six hours until we’d have to leave for the airport, it was a bit of a hunt to see how we would make the most of our day.

On the way home last night we passed the main station next to the bullring so thought that would be a good place to start.

I couldn’t get a decent picture of the bullring but had anticipated Instagraming a derogitory post to anyone who thinks that bullfighting is a form of entertainment. Watching the County is rarely poetic but it’s a bit better watching some dicked throw spears in to a helpless animal.

From the main station we walked past City Hall and back to the Cathedral. My back, arse and armpit (of all things) were giving me some jip at this point but we still powered on through to walk towards one of two castle gates and back to the hotel through the park.

Weird how I was in so much pain but was more than happy to swing along chucking a story post on Instagram, huh?

Once we collected our bags it was time to leave for the airport. This was as uneventful as one could hope for and we got home just before 10am. Two days annual leave very well spent!

Trip information:

I think the cost of the flights and 3 star hotel cost £450 for three nights and spending was another €350. By sacking off the BioPark, the County emergency taxi and the shit American diner meal would have reduced that by €100.

The top thing to do would easily be to spend a day in the Turia park but the beach was as good as neighboring Benidorm and there was enough touritsy stuff to enjoy if you prefer a shorter weekend trip i.e. Friday to Sunday.Remember there is so much more to experience than we do!

Next up:

I’ve got a few days in Slovakia in October before brexit and we’re off to Ireland (northern and republic) DURING brexit. So that should be fun. Thanks Nigel, thanks Boris. Wankers.

Thanks for reading,
Chris x

Britain’s Smallest City, July 2019

It’s very rare that we consider a UK destination (especially at home in Wales) for a mini break but as we would be going to Valencia the weekend after, and our inability to find anything cheap on the continent we decided to go as far west in Wales as possible, heading to the UK’s smallest city in St David’s.

We had a really good overnighter in Tenby last October so we were aware that there wouldn’t be endless activities to keep us occupied. For this reason we didn’t set off from Newport until midday on Saturday and although there were a few short queues once we ran out of M4 motorway, the traffic must have been a lot less painful than it would have been travelling in the morning.

Arriving just after 3pm, our hotel was impossible to miss as we entered St David’s. Our home for the night – The Grove – is an SA Brains “speciality” pub/restaurant/hotel and one of less than half a dozen in Wales. Although the pub areas were modern and spacious once we got in our room you could get a jist of how old the building actually is… not a 90 degree angle in sight!

Costing around the £100 mark for the evening, our accommodation certainly wasn’t cheap. Whilst I’m aware that our chosen weekend was about as peak as you can get in the summer, for that amount of cash one would expect a decent pressure on the shower and no tape covering the cracks in the floor tiles. On a really hot afternoon air-con or even a desktop fan would have been a bonus, considering if all 12 rooms were occupied that night they were turning over £1,200 at a guess. That said, the night was comfortable, the food was good (see below) and we would probably book there again – I was surprised how little options for accommodation or dinner there is in the miniscule centre.

Slightly refreshed having dropped the bags off in the room we headed in to town. Should we take the car and park? Don’t be silly. We assumed the hotel was on the outskirts of the city (village) but a quick check on google maps explained that the central point was 0.3 miles down the road. So we walked past the central war memorial, down the hill towards the number one things to see in St David’s, and probably the reason the place exists, the cathedral.

Walking to an archway to enter the grounds, it was a tad surprising to see the cathedral down a rather steep hill. The places of worship I had come across so far on my summer travels have all been magnificent, powerful buildings that dominate the skyline, yet St David’s Cathedral lies quietly in a ditch.

A ditch may be the wrong word. The site is certainly postcard-worthy and it was pleasant to have a walk around having missed maximum heat. Next to the cathedral lies the Bishop’s Palace that has been substantially less maintained than the cathedral but still an interesting bit of stone.

On a side note, it was really interesting to see National Cycle Route 4 running between the cathedral and palace. Route 4 starts in Fishguard and ends at the Cutty Sark ship in east London. How do I know this?? In 2014, I actually cycled 150 miles across two days on route 4 from Bristol to said Sark, raising £1600 and this is still probably my biggest achievement in life. Fast forward to today and I’ve nearly polished off a big bag of crisps writing this. Depressing much…

Anyway, the Bishop’s Palace. We had a quick peak inside and watched a few actors rehearse their play on stage before returning to the cathedral and heading inside. It was a bloody big place, but rather toned down I felt, which I found quite nice and more welcoming. And for some strange reason I LOVED the roof.

It was a slow and arduous walk back up from the site and I was getting a bit frustrated by the narrow pavements. Constantly stopping, saying thank you, trying to curb any danger of tripping over the kerb.

From here we aimed to walk in a few other directions but they all seemed to offer no source of exploration. We’d only been out for a little more than an hour. From here we decided to head back to the hotel, grab the car and go to the beach eight minutes away.

Whitesands Beach was brilliant. There were loads of people still out as teatime approached. I haven’t been to many beaches in Wales for a while but this one was very clean and the water was BLUE, would you believe it? It was a schoolboy error not to bring a change of clothes away with me so I had to make do of walking along the shore and back with Kay. This was pleasant although after an hour I still thought the water was bloody freezing; it’s late July FFS.

Once we purchased the BEST mint chocolate ice cream from the shop (forgot the name sadly) we agreed that the beach would likely be the best part of the day.

We still had a bit more to do though. We had to travel back to St David’s to get a good enough signal to hunt down our next stop.

I didn’t read much in to St Non’s Chapel and Well… as it was Kay’s choice I thought I would give her an opportunity to deliver a history lesson, especially as she is so upset having to suffer through six weeks of no teaching over summer.

As we parked up (we could have walked) it was unclear at first where or what we were supposed to be looking for but before long we followed the footpath to discover a roofed well in the middle of, well, nowhere really. It’ll be much nicer if you read from a photograph instead of me thinking I’m knowledgeable by reading Wikipedia…

The little well also had its own shrine a stone’s throw away…

A little further on we could see the ruins of St Non’s chapel. At this point Mikayla told me that St Non was the mother of St David and the chapel is said to his birthplace.

The views from here were (I’d imagine) some of the best in Wales outside a Newport County match. We continued to walk along the coastal path towards the cliff edge. I found humour in the fact the farm animals in the adjacent fields were worthy of a fence protecting them from the deathly drop but as for us, we were just yards away. Neither of us pushed the other one off. Now if that isn’t love…

In hindsight, we could have and should have stayed here a bit longer as I am already missing the views. It was however tea-time.

I fancied something along the lines of fish and chips but to our amazement we only came across ONE in town and that didn’t offer much in the way of seating. After looking around the restaurants we decided to eat at the hotel that in comparison was reasonably priced. With us having to wait 40 minutes here I doubt there would have been too many options booking tables elsewhere.

A steak, a gammon, four sides (don’t judge) and two cokes came to under £40, we were pleased with that. As a final outing of the day we had a stroll for half an hour to the supermarket, to buy nothing, then back to the hotel room and bed.

Throughout the day on Saturday we were trying to sort out a boat ride that would be the main thing to do on the Sunday. We found Voyages of Discovery on Google and although we were waiting for confirmation for quite a while, on Saturday night we were confirmed on the 8:30am “Whale and Dolphin Voyage”.

The problem with such an early start was that we had to sacrifice our free breakfast at the hotel, but the other option of a 3:30pm departure suited us even less.

We picked up our tickets from the City (lolz) Centre at 8am and made it to St Justinian’s well in time for 8:30, picking up a massive coat and getting our life jackets attached.

Within minutes we were seeing not dolphins, but ‘cousins’ of dolphins called porpoises. These are a lot smaller and less friendly that the main event. Our guide said they spend their whole life feeding and have little time to enjoy themselves or socialise. Now who does that remind me of…

Further out we started seeing an array of birds, some of which we were told would fly to ICELAND and back today to go get some food. Funny as I thought they delivered. OK, that’s the last dad joke.

It was cute to see a few puffins flapping their wings like no tomorrow as we picked up speed heading towards Grassholm. There were 10 of us in that boat but once it picks up some speed and jumps off a wave you don’t half come down with a bang! Great fun for the first 5 minutes then constant pain for the other 85!

I have never heard of Gannets before, but Grassholm holds the fourth largest colony of them in the world. On a small island quite a way out (see map) there are believed to be 110,000 birds… nesting, resting and definitely shitting!

We also saw a few seals doing what they do best (absolutely nothing) and we made our way back, in the hope that we would see the main event, some dolphins.

That hope lasted all of five minutes before two dolphins were swimming parallel to the boat. After deeming it impossible to take a photo giving the bumpy boat and speed of the dolphin leap I gave up with the phone and enjoyed the view with my own eyes. The guide said that dolphins are naturally friendly and come up to the boat to have a nose. The difference between the dolphin and porpoise is that dolphins are loads more intelligent, so don’t have to eat constantly through the day. Once they have eaten they can chill and swim by some boats of tourists. Works for me.

The journey back to shore seemed to take an age but for the first part we were constantly seeing more dolphins approach the vessel. And that impossible photo miraculously was achieved! The last sighting of them was actually a trio swimming within 5 meters of the boat. What a great morning!

This specific boat trip cost £62 each but they start from £25ish, although you can get 5% off if you book 2+ days ahead. Our trip was nearly 3 hours long and they provided super thick jackets that are a must, even in the middle of summer and if you’re my size. You can’t guarantee to see everything but today we were lucky. We both gave the trip 5 out of 5 and would recommend it to anyone. Dolphins a few hours down the road from Newport!

Skipping breakfast and being battered around on a boat for three hours meant we had know built up a bit of an appetite. Dreading the long drive home we decided to start our drive back, stopping off at the Lost Coins Pub in Haverfordwest for some lunch that was just what we wanted. I did notice there was a Premier Inn next door if you possibly wanted to save a few quid and drive 15 minutes in to St David’s… but should probably recommend you use the local services instead.

Considering we were home 25 hours after leaving, we managed to do so much. I really think it would be difficult to do everything in one day but an overnight stay allows plenty of time to check things out, including several hours having a beer in the evening that we decided against.

Thanks for reading… we’re off to Valencia next weekend and I’m still trying to finish the Jordan blog from January!

Chris
#hownot2life

Football: Croatia & Hungary, June 2019

Thanks for visiting if the is the first time! Here is my blog covering my train travels to watch Wales play Croatia and Hungary. If you want to check more pictures of the trip you can follow me on Instagram by clicking here.

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Day 1, Newport to Frankfurt.

A two hour period of non existent overtime in work meant that I was feeling a tad miserable the night before the trip, seeing as I still had packing to do and I didn’t have the opportunity to purchase an extra pair of 1.50 sunglasses from Primark. I did however have a plethora of USB cables, adapters and power banks in addition to six billion hours of Netflix programmes so at least the important things were taken care of.

As planned our taxi collected us at 6:30 and we boarded the 7:10am train from Newport to London Paddington. The miraculous thing about the trip was that our combined first-class train fares across the continent were only marginally more expensive than your normal first class return to London, especially during Wednesday peak hour. The nice lady in a suit tapping away at her laptop opposite hopefully escaped the world of economic pressure that possesses her as she noticed that I was probably (definitely) the only person in the cabin to be wearing shorts and a Newport County football shirt!

Screenshot_20190615_173001I didn’t choose the thug life…

Apart from waiting for about three hours into our two hour journey for a complimentary coffee the first segment of the trip went without fuss, we even decided to walk ten minutes from Paddington to Edgware Road where we caught the tube to St. Pancras.

Having been to Brussels on the Eurostar as little as ten months ago I was a pro going through security with no concerns about how many milliliters my toothpaste was, thanking the lefty loonies and anyone with a bit of common sense that Brexit has yet to occur and it only taking 30 minutes to get through security and customs rather than 42 years as it may after October if that homophobic xenephobe Nigel Farage gets his wish.

Anyway, moving away from Question Time, we boarded the Eurostar and as soon as we set off we were delivered lunch. Peter had the veggie quiche while I went for 3 small slices of chicken with a collection of pulses and a strand of finely chopped pepper. I have to mention it also came with a bread roll and a small bottle of wine so on the whole I was happy. I find the standard (peasant) seats on the Eurostar really comfy anyway and would recommend it you’re popping over the channel to Disneyland, Paris, Lille, Brussels or Amsterdam for a short break. But that’s enough about Mickey Mouse at least until the football starts!

Eurostar nosh

We had a little over two hours in Brussels that was wasted with a 3 Euro (FML) coffee outside the station before we boarded the train that would take us straight to Frankfurt. The coach wasn’t on par with UK first class as you’d expect but the seats were comfortable and the wi-fi was acceptable.

The journey took us through some notable places including Liege, Bonn – which was the capital of the old West Germany and Cologne. It was really nice to visit Cologne/Koln again. I have been there once before on a school trip some 17 years ago as a youthful teenager. It brought back fond but almost forgotten memories of time spent admiring the Christmas market, banks along the Rhine and the cathedral that probably had the same scaffolding ruining its beauty as it did back in 2002!

Cologne brought back some fond memories

We arrived in Frankfurt, the financial capital of Germany 45 minutes late at 8:20pm. This was a little disappointing as top of my list was to visit the Main Tower that had a viewpoint of the city, but we wouldn’t have made last orders in time.

Not to be disheartened, we checked in to our Frankfurt hostel, which was called… wait for it… “Frankfurt Hostel” and with a good hour of sunshine remaining headed towards the river. Populated green riverbanks was a pleasant sight in the summer heat and the walkway bridge was probably the place to have your photo taken. We duly obliged then went off in search of some dinner, fearful of having to settle for anything less than a German sausage.

Main man on Main river!

I left Pete in charge of finding a restaurant, he knowing full well I wouldn’t expect to pay more than a fiver for glorified sausage and chips. True to form he ignored this and I knew I had to increase my budget fourfold as we walked through the financial and fashion streets of the Centre, finally ending up at a busy but welcoming restaurant after twenty minutes or so.

Pleased with the amount on offer for a somewhat fussy eater (quantity over quality) I decided on the pork knuckle with two sausages served with sauerkraut and fried potatoes. I have boycotted sauerkraut since it’s introduction into life during a break Krakow, Poland about 7 years ago and the love for it was still estranged, although I did have a go. The salty selection of swine was however very enjoyable and worth the 25 Euro with a coke. We considered stopping for a beer on the return to our hostel, but the long day had taken its toll. I’ve yet to beg for your sympathy, stating that I walked all day in pain with my tendonitis flaring up the night before, taking too many strong painkillers throughout the day. Thanks, you can put your violin away now. (As I write this on day two it seems to have passed…)

Walk around Frankfurt, looking up at the Main Tower and our decent tea!

So, we walked back to our hostel, past the Main tower, a stone’s throw from the train station and headed up to the fifth floor and our private room. Our 32 degrees, fanless, airconless room.


Day 2, Frankfurt to Zagreb.

After an initial struggle getting to sleep in the heat our period of rest was pleasant enough. Even the early morning shower having to hold the showerhead was not a major problem. A stroll to the station to grab a croissant, coke zero and some ciggies led us to our 8:20am departure that – in thirteen hours – would send us to the Croatian capital.

Frankfurt am Main Hbf station.

As we boarded the EC213 Mimara that would take us direct to our destination through the remainder of Germany, all of Austria and Slovenia, we were treated to a first class cabin with comfortable seats. The cabin, like that you would see on the Hogwarts Express, was fully booked according to the notice, so as the train pulled away we were delighted that we were the only ones in the cabin and I put pen to paper on the day one blog.

Without a recent phone upgrade I would have burst in to tears once realising that there was no on board wi-fi, but no thanks to the Brexiteers amongst you, I enjoyed indulging in to my 15GB of data as I would do at home.

The luxury didn’t last too long though, as a few stops later a gentleman suited up joined us. As I was blogging away it was pleasant overhearing him and Pete discuss their professions and European politics. The gent departed at Munich and once I managed to escape for a cigarette was joined by a couple, then another couple, from the United States.

It turned out our four new fellow travellers, who lived in Oregon and Minneapolis respectively, had just been to a global gathering of Rotarians (those who are members of a Rotary Club) in Hamburg and using it as an opportunity to extend their visit to see the continent.

Sensible Americans we shared our cabin with.

Once we had a brief spell in the restaurant (restaurant… lolz as if) and consumed a welcome chicken schnitzel burger, plus my first beer of the trip I might add, we returned to our carriage and enjoyed conversation, once we established that everyone agreed that their president is a complete fucking moron. This was a good job, as we still had nine hours together!

My mate Pete is secretary of the Newport Rotary Club so was able to hold interesting conversation comparing how clubs operate across the world. It was also appropriate to bring up our past involvement with the YMCA (which is much, much bigger in the US). Today, 6th June 2019 was actually the 175th anniversary of the young people’s movement that provided me with so much opportunity in years passed. Also poignant that the day was the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and we were all too happy to explain to our American neighbours how UK YMCA’s supported troops during wartime.

The first stop inside Austria was Salzburg. The ten minutes it took to separate the train in two have us enough time to step out and admire the surrounding Alps, something that would be a constant feature during our drive through the Western part of the country.

One of 6 million pics I took of the Alps…

Words can’t paint a picture of the countless moments of sheer beauty we witnessed through the carriage window.

Austrian village called Bad Gastein, I think…

Conversation tired a little as the hours went by and we entered Slovenia 30 minutes later than planned. One of our American couples were leaving us at Ljubljana to spend a few days and after we passed Bled train station they promised me that they would visit the beautiful lake-side town, that I had the fortune to visit on a stag do thirteen months prior. As Croatia approached and the sun started to fall we were all ready to get to our destination. Passport control on the Croatian border went without a problem, and the nice grumpy lady stamped my passport, then it took just another 30 minutes to arrive in Zagreb.

Pride prep outside Zagreb station

Our initial intentions of walking to our accomodation for the next three nights were scrapped as we hailed a taxi, then in unison decided tonight we shall spend it in the hotel with a visit to the restaurant and the bar. After my tea of pork and fried potatoes (two nights running) we watched in desbelief as YET AGAIN football in fact wasn’t coming home, England losing three-one to Holland after extra time in the inaugural Nations League semi final. Shame.

The long ass day was brought to an end in our comfortable hotel room, a quick half an our browse planned the next days itenerary around the Croatian Capital city of Zagreb.


Day 3, Zagreb

Waking up in 23 degree heat actually turned out to be one of the cooler mornings of the trip. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast buffet in the hotel consisting of all your continental favourites and the money shot; sausages and bacon.During my rushed plan for the day prepared last night I noticed that there is a horseshoe shape of parks and gardens between the train station and city centre so headed up through the left side of this, passing the impressive (and very yellow) national theatre. We were already hunting down stops of shade as we headed further in to the centre passing boutique shops on our way up the hill to see one of the top sights.

Zagreb national theatre

Our climb up the hill was aided by a funicular, in fact one of the worlds shortest funiculars spanning just 66 metres. When I heard this I did think of the one near Ebbw Vale school but apparently this is a “mechanical lift” and not a funicular – and even then is probably longer than the effort in Zagreb.

What may be the world’s shortest funicular

The four minutes waiting in the full carriage withdrew more sweat than taking the stairs up, however once at the “summit” we were treated to a nice view over southern Zagreb, albeit no real sights to focus on. A brief walk around the cobbles streets led us to St Marks Square that houses parliament and St Marks Church with its spectacular roof design. We were just in time to take a good photo before police cornered the square off – someone important was coming!

St. Mark’s Church

The important person turned out to be none other than Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. He was greeted with Croat soldiers holding guns and a brass band pumping out various anthems. Thankfully no hard brexiteers were seen absolutely fuming that “we” paid for his petrol to the square instead of funding our NHS (citation needed… Boris??)

As Pete wanted to hang around to get a glimpse of the man himself I stood back, had a ciggy and was delighted to overhear a tour guide explain the reason behind the well known Croation checker-board pattern that dons their flag and football kit, and indeed the roof of the Church. Simply, back in the day Mr important Croation person beat Mr important Italian person in chess, and Croation person was SO happy at this he decided to add it to the coat of arms. God knows what he would have done if Croatia had won the football World Cup in 2018!

Once all of the excitement had passed we stopped for a coffee (i.e. lager) and headed towards the busier part of the centre. On the way we rambled past the last remaining stone gate surrounding the old town (then called Gradec) and is now home to a shrine to Mary Magdeline (Baby Jesus’ old girl). It was rather strange walking through the passage with a couple of pews to one side and the shrine on the other.

Stone gate

Grateful for the walk downhill we meandered through the maze that was a colourful marketplace of flowers and fresh food. I did wonder with so many people selling the same things at the same price what one’s USP could be, but everyone seemed content just accepting custom as it arrived.

Dolac market

To be honest there really wasn’t much to see in Zagreb and by lunchtime we had already hit our last port of call, the gianormous Zagreb Cathedral. Once I had uploading a post to Instagram suggesting that Jesus (Joe Allen) should be at training instead of standing atop a statue – perhaps a tad distastefully – we had a wander around inside, Peter giving me some great knowledge of different areas of the church and stories.

Zagreb Cathedral

Another short walk downhill from the cathedral we found somewhere for lunch, passing a minuture scale 3D map of the city that wouldn’t look out of place on the Game of Thrones credits (a lot of which was filmed in other areas of Croatia such as Dubrovnik for Kings Landing). For lunch I went for a tuna steak with sweet potato puree and a side of glazed broccoli (and a beer) whilst Pete went for a rather sizeable burger. As I was planning on having a few beers later I was really pleased with myself for having something healthy… a constant annoyance on the trip was how salty everything was, which really gets me when I’m hot and dehydrating.

*hums Game of Thrones tune*

We stayed in the restaurant for a few more beers, people watching out on Jelacic Square before deciding as the day still had a long way to run, we should head back to the hotel, return later once cooler and in my case a chance to do some laundry! Not your average football away trip when your experimenting with travel wash on a Friday afternoon!

The couple of hours rest refreshed our walking capabilities and after yet another shower it was time to go “out out”.

As our bus to the game tomorrow would be dry (no booze) it was of great importance that I had my allocation at some point! Having had such a good lunchtime at the restaurant earlier, we headed back to Johann Franck and enjoyed a few more beers and a mojito for Peter that I’m glad I didn’t have to donate a kidney for. Now the sun had set we walked back up the hill towards old town where we knew a large contingent of Welsh fans would be. After a quick beer here Pete headed back for the hotel, giving me free rain to talk to various people from Aberdare to Abergele… it’s always nice to get asked about the County – even nice when they’re Wrexham fans! From one pub to another and a quick beer with my friend Craig and his buddies from Newport and it was time to head downhill and start the 40 minute walk back to the hotel. Or it would have been had I not been swayed by a sign promoting Croatian cider! Although it was now heading towards 2am I thought it worthy of another hour in the now peaceful surroundings, finally making at back to the hotel at around 3:30am.

1:40am not the best time to find delicious Croatian cider!

Just don’t remind me that I had to be up at 7 to catch a bus to the game tomorrow….


Day 4, Day trip to Osijek


Day 5, Zagreb to Budapest

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the half way point of the trip!

Having already seen what we wanted to see in the city centre, we identified a nearby lake to spend our last morning, until we would make the treacherous 7 hour train journey to the Hungarian capital.

Pete attended mass at Zagreb Cathedral earlier than planned so we enjoyed breakfast together and caught the tram towards lake Jarun. Another hot day – 33 degrees at one point – tried to persuade me to jump in for a swim but instead we walked the circumference of the body of water, some 1.8 miles. It felt longer, probably due to us stopping for a Coke near the pebbled beach and keeping our eyes to ourselves passing the nudist beach.

A constant throughout the trip was how “off” Google maps was with their estimated walking time. We completed our lap thirty minutes later than suggested to have a waterside lunch. My good effort in not consuming much salt so far went out the window as I went for the mixed grill, only understanding it was supposed to be shared when the waiter brought out two plates prior to the tray of farm.

Impressed that I ate around two-thirds and time ticking on, we called a lazy Uber to take us back to the hotel, collected our luggage and dragged it towards the station.

Not expecting luxury, we settled into our reserved seats, this time without power supply (or lighting that would make departing the train a right menace) and were shortly joined by two ladies originating from the Ecuadorian mountains and a couple wandering around Europe but on the way back to native Australia.

They were again really good company, I didn’t touch Netflix or Spotify and once they laughed at us due to brexit (a recurring theme) we reached another lake, this one slightly bigger and well known called Lake Balaton.

Knowing that a lot of Wales fans enjoyed at least a few hours between their journey here, I was determined to at least get a few good snaps while it was still light outside.

As I stood for 15 miles riding in to the lakes 45 MILE diameter I was just about losing hope, summer homes after resort after caravan park blocked any access to good photographs but as the sun started to flirt with the horizon, perfection.

A brief moment of maybe half a mile opened to give us an unobstructed view of the water as I ferociously battered the camera button. Only when the splendid views were masked once more did I settle and check my work. Whilst most pictures contained a selfish lamppost or railway pillar, about half a dozen, I thought at least, were poetry in motion.

The sun set and we crawled through our remaining dozen or so stops. An hour later than scheduled we arrived at Budapest’s second main train station, looked rather derelict at 11pm. Said our goodbyes and eventually flagged down a taxi.

Grateful that the driver didn’t attempt to rip us off, plus getting a glimpse of the famous parliament building lit up in all its glory we arrived at the hotel. But not any hotel.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”*

*Officially The Grand Hotel, Budapest…. But don’t be picky.


Day 6, Budapest

Late arriving the night before, we were eager to get in to the centre and see some stuff as soon as possible.

As soon as possible… after I made use of the complimentary swimming pools, jacuzzi and sauna at the hotel. Hopefully, the feel good factor of waking up at 6am, doing a few lengths breaststroke before the day truly starts will continue at home (although it hasn’t yet and I’ve been back a week!).

Our final stop before adventure was to attack the breakfast buffet that was impressive, stained by the fact it was missing bacon of all things. This meant it was the only time I paid the 14 quid for the pleasure. What four star hotel anywhere outside of the Middle East doesn’t serve bacon??

Anyway – we made it outside shortly after 9am and this was the first indication of how bloody big Budapest is. We stayed on the biggest Island on the Danube that runs through the city – At Margaret’s Island – and with complimentary map to hand walked to the nearest metro station to get to the centre. What appeared as a centimetre walk on said map eventually took us half an hour before our soggy selves headed underground, purchased 72 hour passes for £12 and negotiated the simple-enough network.

Rising into daylight, with the parliament building in view nearby, we decided that we had already evaporated enough it was time for a sit down, glass of homemade lemonade and a nose at two locals taking their morning game of backgammon perhaps a little too seriously.

Parliament was indeed our first port of call for our sight seeing sesh, and I don’t think I realised at the time how majestic the building was. Budapest and Vienna were huge players during the years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and their respective buildings present this. Several selfies and an explanation from Pete that the pretty water feature outside was 10% water feature and 90% a barrier for any tank attack, we moved towards the shared river side.

Here we seen our only notable and obvious memorial of the trip. “Shoes on the Danube” is a collection of shoes right near the edge in honour of the Jewish community that were murdered by the nazi-like Arrow Cross movement in the 1940’s. They demanded innocent people including children remove their footwear before shooting them, their bodies taken away by the Danube tide. Terrifying that people with so much hatred towards innocents still exist today.

I didn’t perambulate too much to get the perfect photo but spent a few minutes looking through the notes and flowers, then moved on in search of some more items to bulk up my Instagram story. Again going back to the size of the place, we had to rule out everything on the other side of the river that we could see for another day as we would have never have covered it in a day. Budapest is split in to two areas named (believe it or not) Buda and Pest. Buda will be covered on day eight FYI!

As we headed deeper in to the heart of the centre we bumped in to St Stephen’s Basilica, which to be honest was rather difficult to miss! A brief moment to enjoy some local dance occurring on the stage set up for a concert later that evening, we collected some overpriced refreshment from a souvenir shop and headed for lunch via the Dohány synagogue.

As today was a bank holiday in the country a lot of places and indeed the Jewish place of worship was closed, instead settling at a pizzeria opposite.

“No Newport County troublemakers in here” was aimed at me and my black replica shirt as we sat down. It was Craig, a huge County fan who I’ve known for years enjoying a pint on another table. Ironic that I image he’s caused a lot more ‘trouble’ than I have!

The pizza was good (the pint of lager was better) as we discussed our next plan of action. Already tiring somewhat in the heat we found solace at the biggest park in the city. Whilst Pete had another lemonade in the sun I made the trip across the lake to Heroes Square. The main statue in the middle of the square was accompanied by his mates in a semicircle set of columns. Quite impressive; I wish I took time to find out more about who the geezers were (you are welcome to Google it).

After this we made another waaaay longer than anticipated walk to catch the tram and bus back to the hotel, had a few hours rest and headed back out as the sun was setting, grateful that I could safely wear my sunglasses without fear of melting plastic getting engaged to my sunburnt beak.

Dinner was a little extravagant but enjoyable overlooking the Basilica. Knowing how good the parliament building was from our brief glimpse in the taxi last night we strolled over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to take some photos of Budapest at night. The bridge was interestingly one of only two such surviving bridges today, the other based near Maidenhead, so I was told.

The detour for photos was a good idea, whilst walking above the river we were treated to great views of the castle and citadel we would visit after match day.

Another good point was my decision not to have a beer *shuts the front door* and we headed back home before midnight – but only just as that walk from mainland to our hotel was a right pain in the picturesque arse.


Day 7, Matchday Budapest!

The second match in four days was upon us, albeit approaching this one a little different as I didn’t have a ticket. In fact, the only game I have ever been to without one.

The only game out of 10 Champions League away games around Europe, the 2009 Champions League Final, 200 or so Manchester United away games, 300 odd home, a Euro 2016 semi-final, seven other Wales away games, the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley, half a dozen other cup finals and Newport County games easily in to the thousands (albeit 99.9% of these were easy to get a ticket!)

Quite a strange feeling, knowing that I would be locked out come kick-off.

What was going for me though, was that it was known there were going to be around 3,000 others in the same boat, plus at least the game was part of a double header. I didn’t come here for nothing – not that you called call four wonderful days in Budapest ‘nothing’.

I started the day with another visit to the hotel spa, this time with more of a plan as to how many lengths I wanted to achieve before relaxing in the jacuzzi. Chill, I was only getting my monies worth.

Instead of the expensive, baconless offering of breakfast we headed in to the city for lunch and found somewhere nice by the basilica that we passed the night before. It is of vital importance – VITAL IMPORTANCE – that one has a decent, substantial meal for brekkie prior to a day on the beer. VITALLY IMPORTANT.

So, a single croissant and two bottles of cider later, I was ready to go.

We headed back to the Jewish quarter as Peter wanted to have a look at the synagogue, closed yesterday if you remembered. Ready to start drowning my ticketless sorrows we first agreed to walk a little further to the apparently famous “ruin bars” that have been set up inside derelict buildings.

We heard that a lot of Welsh fans were refused entry the night before, so with replica shirt adorned we were grateful to walk up the lane into the yard with freedom.

The place was certainly unique. Kind of a ghetto appearance that made me reminisce of some sights I seen in Ljubjana, it was too early to experience how vibrant the place must be when full but there was one bar open and selling cider. Oh how I missed cider.

I got myself two in addition to Pete’s and admired the grungy decor. In the middle of the courtyard was once an old car, transformed into an exaggerated table and chairs. It was here when we noticed the table next to us were three welcoming Brits and started discussing the football. It wasn’t too long before they admitted that they’re from Stafford and are on a “family-lads” holiday. They were EVER so quick to announce they had family in Ebbw Vale and took a genuine interest in us, our trip, and some finer examples of the Welsh dialect.

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By the time I suggested it was uncommon for an English person to be in a city of an international football game and had yet to throw any garden furniture around the place, I had already been approaching double figures. Pete had already departed to go do some additional sightseeing and museums and churches and the like that I was grateful for. Not that he went – but so I didnt have to go with him. Pete also decided to watch the game later in the hotel. You couldn’t blame him once I realised my consumption for the day.

Now early afternoon me and my new pals from Staffordshire said our goodbyes as I attempted to find the Welsh fanzone for the day. After having to steady my concentration a little to follow Google Maps I reached Anker’t romkocsma, another establishment set up within a half demolished building housing two bars and already a lot of drunk red shirts!

The hours passed meeting new people and even being interviewed for the Welsh Football Fans video blog as kickoff approached as lucky ticket holders started to make their way to the Groupama Arena.

I forgot to mention that the bars ran out of cider within half an hour of opening. For some weird reason they were more than happy for people to pop to the Spar down the road and bring their own! I took advantage of this, going through 16 bottles of 80 pence blueberry and pear Somersby that afternoon. It was hot and I had to keep hydrated.

As the game started being broadcast on the big screen, I headed to an undercover room (space) with my mate Kyle who I only first met on the coach to the County playoff final a fortnight beforehand. He promises he’s County ’til he dies though so it’s fine.

Only then did I notice how many people actually went to Hungary without tickets. This bar alone must have easily housed 1,200 people, resulting in the only way we could get a view of the game was to stand on a dodgy table at the back of the room. Two rather large gents sharing a table that was no more than 1.5 metres wide or long.

The game kicked off once the anthem was belted out with such passion, that extra bit more passion perhaps, to make up for not seeing the real thing a few kilometres away.

0-0 half time, with nothing much to cheer, that was disappointing considering most deemed this a must win game. Worried that my neck would be in two should I remain on the table for another 45 minutes we escaped the fanzone and found another pub full of Welsh fans a few minutes away, settled in there, forgetting I would have to revert back to the local lager.

As a football travel blog, I really don’t mention the football much, do I?

Well, my friends, it doesn’t help when your team throws in another abysmal performance, missed an absolute sitter and then concede with just a few minutes remaining. To Hungary. Fucking Hungary.

As Kyle departed to meet up with mates I managed to force a few more down as I waited for some of my own pals to return from the game, my only solace once I met them was that I got bought a free pint after kicking off at a local for queuejumping.

The night ended with a few quieter beers in a bar enjoying yet more cider. I’m grateful to remember the conversation that we had with some of the Budapest residents. One of whom was a bisexual Azerbaijani girl, which in itself provided plenty of intrigue and interest to fill the rest of the evening before I was lucky enough to flag a cab down to return me to “the island”.

That single croissant was more than enough.

Yet again, another brilliant day watching the football.

Only to be ruined by the football.


Day 8, Buda side of Budapest.

I woke up at the start of our last full day in the Hungarian capital with a rather sore head. This was certainly expected although I did feel a bit better than I thought I would.

Today we would primarily be seeing the sights in the Buda area, west of the Danube.

Another slog of a journey via bus and metro to the base of a funicular that could elevate us up to the sights, we instead opted to pay a little more, a perhaps pricey 8 quid, to jump aboard a tourist caddy shuttle thingy up and around the old town.

The first port of call was the castle. Although boiling and busy it was a pleasant walk around the gardens, with panoramic views of the river and Pest just a glance away. I must admit I had no interest in making the most of the visit by taking a look inside but outside views always trump and this was no exception.

We made our way back to the shuttle drop off and decided to walk to the next stop on the map. By this point I was agitated by dehydration and once we finally found the only shop around, downed my first two litres of water and cuddled a third for accompanying me. Necessary as I finally coughed through my first ciggy of the day gone lunchtime!

Next, I….. Really needed a sit down. I didn’t feel that much of a drunken state but my feet were telling me otherwise. Fortunately my seat was just outside the Matthias Church, as magnificent as the one in Zagreb you DEINATELY took the time to read about on day 3.

While Pete did something useful and had a look around here, I eventually managed to muster enough energy to walk toward the Fisherman’s Bastian, regarded as the number one viewpoint in the city. I disagree but I’ll tell you why later. It was the perfect selfie opportunity, so in true #hownot2life fashion, it appears I didn’t take one.

After more fluid intake, a splendid raspberry lemonade concoction we walked another five minutes to a tower (actually the Church of St Mary Magdalene I’m learning now) that we could climb on another more active day, next time perhaps. From here we caught the shuttle back down the hill, ignoring the final spot that was the gardens (you can see them from the castle) and back to base.

One more thing about the trip back down, the descent was the other side of the hill i.e. not facing the river. For some reason I was fascinated by the normality of the area, surely off the beaten track to 99.9% of tourists even though it would be a five minute walk from the five star Gellert hotel.

It was about time we had some food and as we both fancied a burger I typed burger restaurant into Google Maps and – well – they did the rest. It was back over the river but knowing that food was at the finish line it was bearable.

Lunch devoured I only had one thing on the agenda and that was to head back to the hotel. That was far away at the best of times but at the time felt as though it was in a different dimension. As soon as we got back to the hotel room I crashed, after just about considering what I would do for my last evening, should I wake up!

I did wake up around half 8 and considered my options for five minutes. Pete was enjoying the entertainment on offer in the hotel bar but there was one thing I still hadn’t ticked off the list.

The citadel and accompanying Liberty Statue was in constant view during our time here and I made a great decision to give it a visit.

More cooler and less useless than I had been earlier, the commute from north to south of the main city centre was more of a ride than a chore this time. It was pushing 10pm by the time I arrived at the aforementioned Gellert hotel. Just a bastard 235 meter walk through a bastard park with no bastard lighting separated me and the lady liberty that looked over everything I had seen so far.

Surprised there was so many people were at the summit enjoying a beer or a quiet chat, cheeky bit of flirting going on too no doubt, I took a few photos of the statue and leant over the barrier and took in the scenery. It gave me an enormous sense of well-being (… Parklife!).

What a lovely place and a great few days, even considering our useless attempt at winning a football game.

Strangely the walk back down seemed to take even longer. Torch on, not panicking at all when some random turned up from the nights forest, directing myself by hope over expectation, finally my last supper was due.

I fancied something hot, filling and tasty… and ended up 45 minutes later with a McDonald’s just before closing at midnight. How not to… you get the picture. The impressive quantity of night buses delivered me back to the hotel and that was that.


Day 9, Vienna for an Evening.

Waking up for our last time in Budapest, I preferred an extra 20 minute lie in over a final visit to the swimming pool. That was probably incorrect.

Hot, long way to centre, blah blah blah as I’ve already covered. I’m racking my brains as to what I had for breakfast that day, but conclude that if it wasn’t memorable it hardly deserves a mention in this majestic piece of blogging… “Art” if you must.

I’m writing this three weeks afterwards so my memory is a bit vague… the whole reason I write the bloody thing the first place mind… but apart from picking up a magnet for the mother can’t recall too much before we made our way via metro and replacement bus service (was like being home) to the coach station.

The station was a stone’s throw away from the Groupama Arena, the scene for the game on the Tuesday. Slightly bittersweet passing but looked a decent small stadium and I’m told the atmosphere inside was incredible.

More food, a hotdog that this time I can recall before we caught the coach, late as usual to Vienna.

We used the well-known-on-the-continent “FlixBus” that offered even more comfort than our National Express, and before I got half an hour in to my latest episode of Designated Survivor I was fast asleep. Pete assured me that I neither snored or dribbled but perhaps he was just being nice.

Rather pissed off my nap had been interrupted so soon… three hours later, we arrived on the outskirts of Vienna, having to battle the metro to get to our hostel.

What the hostel did lack in comparison to our 4 start the nights before, it more than made up for the lack of luxury by lobbing a fan in the room. An actual breeze instead of inept air conditioning.You could tell the trip was coming to an end as we headed to see the sights in Vienna. Pete had visited recently and was really keen to show me around but I think by then I was a completely touristed out.

We seen St Peter’s Cathedral, then St Peter’s Catholic Church. Obviously St Stephen was a bit greedy back in the day. They were as impressive as the sights we’d seen in the other capital cities that week, then moved on to The Hofburg and Spanish Riding School buildings. I am disappointed that I didn’t embrace the countless magnificence and architecture of Vienna, but there’s a chance we’ll travel there en route to Bratislava later in the year when I’ll be a bit more fresh and willing.Last stop before food was the 5 star, apparently famous Sacher hotel. The hotel gets the fame from their Sacher Torte chocolate cake… Nope, not free WiFi, that’s so 2007.

We had a glimpse in the shop adjoined to the hotel, but one way not to impress me is by showing me a cake that starts at €40 for the smallest size. What a fucking rip off. Prior to this Pete asked me what is the most famous Viennese food. It turns out it’s not a Viennese Whirl, but give me 500 of those over a doll house sized cake any day. Quantity over quality please chef.

Against the withdrawal any further Euros that would’ve please Ann Widdecombe, the witch, we had McDonald’s for tea (the shame) but that was only the second time of the whole trip – although the second time in 18 hours if you want to look at it that way – and allowed Pete to choose our last itinerary item on the trip. My mate deserves a medal for his work over the previous 9 days, and organising everything. Why he does it, just to let me do as please and give wrong directions I don’t know but appreciative I certainly am!Vienna’s version of Alton Towers wasn’t the first thing I’d have guessed but my eyes didn’t deceive me as we arrived at the Prater amusement park. Just as I was thinking (slightly concerned) that Pete was overly keen to jump on one of the many rollercoasters, we headed to a big Ferris wheel, or Wiener Riesenrad if you like.A little old fashioned, but with good reason as it’s the same ride that features in the 1949 film The Third Man starring Orson Welles.

I have since tried to watch the old classic but I’m definitely more of a Toy Story kinda guy. If the third man included Rex or even Mr Potato Head I may have been swayed.The cycle provided a pleasant panoramic picture of Vienna, maybe not as ideal as you would hope(?) as it’s not a city full of skyscrapers, although even the dominating Cathedral was a long way from here.

Before we left I was allowed to get a little thrill and ride this really high 60 metre swing thingy. I haven’t ridden a fairground ride for years, add that to the uncertainty whether the ride would bear my weight = I won’t die and the sun slowly setting; it was a terrific 5 minutes, the first time I properly smiled all day! Especially as I managed to ignore the 124 signs excluding mobile phones to take a few snaps way up high! #hownot2lookafreryourphone.

Prior to making our way back to the hostel we soaked up the atmosphere, predominantly happy youngsters staying out of trouble, with a drink, passing up the final opportunity of a cider.

I did actually just write, “passed up the opportunity of a cider”. Don’t tell my fans.

A day of travel with a little joy at the end led us to our final day, the short 17 hour commute to follow checking in at the UK, Wales and Newport, home.


Day 10, Back to Wales.

Well the last post will be short and sweet.

My first memory of the day was Pete seemingly furious that during the night I had selfishly moved the fan to chuck a breeze over me. It was a decision I had no regret about, I still lost so much liquid overnight it felt as though I had been sloppily milked.

We started off the 17 hour journey with a metro to the correct train station and a visit to the complimentary lounge with free food and drink. We would be on the train all the way to Frankfurt and this would be the only leg of the trip we would be succumbed to join the peasants in standard class.

The train was long and uneventful, the highlight definitely being a currywurst sausage and chips in the “restaurant” before we arrived in Frankfurt for a quick ciggie.

Next up was a train to Brussels. I was pleased we had two first class seats together in an open carriage rather than a 6 person cabin, not to take anything away from the 4 Americans, 2 Ecuadorians, a Greek and a Dutchman we encountered on the trip in such circumstances. I was running out of chat.

Whilst every journey I remembered arrived behind schedule, it was only reaching Brussels did we worry about the impact. Last Eurostar or one final hotel on the continent?

Sacrificing a much needed smoke we headed straight to the Eurostar terminal as Pete, not at the mercy of nicotine wanted to be sure we’d get through customs. I thought I hid my annoyance quite well as we breezed through a queueless baggage scan and passport check with plenty of time for a day had I pushed for the opportunity.

The freebie meal on the Eurostar was almost identical to the outward menu (day 1) but it was enjoyable after a few days crap food. I’ve still got the complimentary vino in my fridge at home!

Thankfully the offering wasn’t very filling so once we got to Paddington via St Pancras I had plenty of room for some sausage and chips from Peter’s go to a few minutes away.

This was devoured on our Great Western final choo home, funnily enough departing and arriving on time and home at 1am.

There we have it. Sorry for the uneventful last day but cheers for reading if you’ve been with us from the start!

General info: we used Inter Rail for our trains. Unlimited first class travel for 5 separate days with a 10 day period was around £300.

I think the whole trip cost in the region on £950 all in. That’s hotel, food, soft drinks that were more expensive than beer, match ticket etc. I reckon I could get it down to £750 being my usual frugal self but the nicer hotels and occasional cuisine was worth every cent considering out travel and days in the heat.

Fun fact: I would’ve guessed the tap water would be drinkable in Croatia or Hungary, yet apparently the tap water is up there with the purest in the world! This solved a lot of dehydrated moments and a small fortune at the hotel room mini bar!!

I still have my trip to Jordan to cover from January so hope to upload that soon! You’ll know about it when I do!

Chris x
#hotnot2life

Football: Albania, November 2018

Albania… why are you going there? You would think my nearest and dearest would have caught on by now.

An early finish on Friday lunchtime allowed a few drinks in my Newport local before fellow County pal Donna gave me a lift to Cardiff for Wales’ home game with Denmark, with a win seeing us through to the Nations League playoffs. Unfortunately this didn’t materialise and the Danes provided an experienced display in a 2-1 win.

A lot has happened since that home game but I do remember being bitterly disappointed at our ability to create chances, at least until someone pointed out to me we had EIGHTEEN attempts on goal. Afterwards I may have had an extra cider or two than I anticipated to compensate, the up side being that before I knew it my friend Peter and I were at Gatwick airport, boarding the Saturday afternoon, 2h40m British Airways flight to Tirana. Good value for £150 return.

By the time we had arrived in Albania’s only international airport, night time had already set in. Perfect timing to pick up our hire car knowing that the roads and the local drivers may turn our 60 minute journey into somewhat of an assault course!

The main road between Tirana and Elbasan will soon be easy-peasy. As it is now however, there’s a 6km stretch of the motorway yet to be completed that forces you to meander along the mountainside. Anyone catching one of the 20+ coaches on match day would be in for a real treat!! Arriving shortly before 11pm we checked in to our hotel, a four-star five minutes from the ground. I’m reliably informed that our accommodation was Elbasan’s first luxury hotel. Perhaps not what we would expect back home but perfectly adequate and £20pppn. As we’ve had to visit outside of peak season there was no chance of popping in to the attached pizzeria, and the outside swimming pool wasn’t even considered during our stay.

Sunday

After a very basic breakfast we made our way in to the centre. We were surprised how quickly we reached the arena and had a walk around to the grandstand that’s was four to ten times smaller than many other international stadiums I have had the pleasure to visit. A little over ten minutes walk further to the centre we found ourselves at Elbasan castle and clock tower. These were a little underwhelming considering they often top the “things to do” lists I looked at beforehand. Inside the castle walls instead of a bustling market space I had expected it’s filled with a handful of places of worship, run down (derelict?) restaurants and small living spaces. We later found out that the two remaining towers make home to a nice cafe and garden, the other being a 5-star hotel. Chalk and cheese.

Walking back to the hotel along the main boulevard linking the castle to the ground we noticed several bars that would soon be rapidly running out of beer later in the week. I did have concerns about the suitability of boozers but they did indeed create a vibrant pre-match atmosphere during the game on Tuesday.

OK. Elbasan ticked off the list and it wasn’t even lunch time… back to the drawing board. With my travel buddy Pete and his forward-thinking-won’t-cost-you-a-kidney mobile data usage he – somehow – found a small church 25 minutes drive away. This time I was my turn to get behind the wheel, good practice for my New Year travels to Jordan, as the small, decaying Church of St. Nicholas resided remotely up a mountain, inaccessible by your average vehicle, let alone the invasions of Ottoman Turks and atheist communists who wouldn’t have found it as fascinating as we did, thus why it’s still standing today.

Regular readers will be aware that Churches and Museums rarely get my blood pumping, however this was a brilliant find. After a few minutes wallowing outside, an elderly resident at a neighbouring farmhouse came to meet us. The chap spoke absolutely zero English but within five minutes he had shouted his mate to (I can only assume) lob him the keys and let us take a look inside. We were greeted with paintings (frescoes) designed by famous Orthodox painter called Onufri. I was glad to have Pete explain the paintings to me that told the story of the New Testament. The cracks in the 500 year old walls only adding to the unique interior. I was really pleased Pete seemed chuffed about the visit as we took off the handbrake and rolled back down the mountain to the hotel.

Trying to avoid the blog being referenced on an upcoming episode of Songs of Praise, the day was a great start to the trip, so we shouldn’t have been too surprised to get back to the hotel only to be told we would have to leave the hotel to accommodate the Albanian football team. The cheek! Once the surprise and concerns were discussed we were happy to be transferred to the aforementioned 5 star hotel in the castle walls, only then to be told 30 minutes later that we were able to stay! As means of an apology the hotel staff offered us a free lunch, three courses with a tremendous portion of steak and chips.

The remainder of our first day consisted of a few hours siesta (it was a Sunday…) and a walk back in to the centre for a taste of the local beer. With a day in Tirana tomorrow we only had a sensible amount and planned our day in the capital. That, I’m going to bore you with now…

Monday

Pancakes and strawberry jam consumed at breakfast and unexpected sunshine, when I would usually be on the way to work. What a time to be alive.

The commute to Tirana didn’t seem half as bad in daylight and after only an hour although we were negotiating the Tirana side streets about as well as Theresa May has done with Brexit. My first thought of Tirana was that it was a cross of what I would expect a middle-eastern city to look like and an installment of the Assassins Creed video game. With a big sigh of relief we made it to our first port of call, the Dajti Express cable car system up to Mount Dajt. For only 6 quid each we were treated to a fifteen minute incline up some 1,040 metres above see level. As a forced cable-car enthusiast, following similar journeys in Beijing, Hong Kong and Tbilisi over the past 18 months, this was probably the longest, and made the vast amount of multi-storey buildings simply equate to a pixel or two on my substandard mobile phone camera. Even an Instagram filter won’t help the cause – I tried.

Before we made the trip back we bumped in to a family of Wrexham fans and discussed our upcoming second round FA Cup tie. That should be a great encounter but I was honest in saying I will Luis Suarez their hand off for a replay. The amount of Wrexham fans I’ve bumped in to must now be in the hundreds and I’ve always been welcomed in to conversation. Splendid. (Note: we were lucky to draw 0-0 and won 4-0 at the home replay, THEN went on to beat Primer League Leicester in the next round!)

A marginally better trip a few kilometers in to Tirana central, we parked the car (didn’t look AT ALL dodgy mind) and strolled to the most bazaar point of interest I’ve ever witnessed. The Pyramida, that often tops Tirana’s top attraction lists, is located on the main boulevard between the main piazza and Mother Theresa Square. This concrete and glass monstrosity was originally built to honor some communist geezer but when shit hit the fan in 1991 it was turned in to a convention centre, once being used as a base for NATO during the Balkans war. Since then they can’t decide whether it’s best to do something useful with it or demolish it. Whilst I had every intention of climbing up to the top after 10 feet I thought better of it, although was a bit envious to see a half dozen Welshmen complete the climb. Instead we bumped in to yet more people from North Wales, and this gang actually remembered me from a previous trip.

As luck would have it, the group we met were the same wonderful heroes who looked after me in Georgia after way too many beers. I remembered both going for wine in Tbilisi and falling up the escalator on the way to the ground, but less so my drunken conversations and them repeatedly making sure I didn’t get lost – I was very thankful!

Feeling rather sheepish after that we walked to the main square which was adorned in Christmas decorations, fairground rides and German-style market stalls mostly offering beer. It was a perfect time for lunch and the £3/400LEK spicy sausage and chips with a local beer consumed was a delight.

To complete our day in the capital city of Albania we marched to the park to see a collection of war graves before it became too dark. After a good half hour walk we arrived at the small gated area that had 40 or so gravestones remembering those who lost their life on Albanian soil during World War 2. I think there were only three people aged over 30. It certainly made me feel grateful I was here ‘on holiday’.

Leaving the park we were a lot closer to the car than we anticipated and it was only a short, but interesting wander around Mother Theresa square that separated us from the journey home as the sun set. That night we really did run out of things to do in Elbasan so eventually found an Italian restaurant willing to feed us some Ragu and Steak before stopping in one of the many bars offering a glass of wine (or 4), completely unaware that tomorrow would see every one of their tables full, staff unable to keep up with demand and a songs about players they probably haven’t heard of.

Tuesday

Matchday was upon us and again we were given the odious task of trying to find something to do around town before striking beer o clock. A sophisticated coffee at the cafe inside the castle walls was unsuccessful as they were preparing for a private function, one that probably involved a lot of beer and red shirts. So instead we started chatting to a group from Newcastle Emlyn as we headed back to the row of pubs we ended up last night, the “Coffee House” our pub of choice… and here I stayed from 11am to 30 minutes before kickoff! Good work Christopher!

Although I do have solid experience of staying in pubs for 9 hours, it certainly helped when after lunch the majority of the Welsh contingent arrived on buses from Tirana, including my life-long friend and County fan Donna arrived as Peter went back to the hotel for a siesta. It didn’t take too long at this point for the pub to start bursting in to song, aided immeasurably by a cocktail of… cocktails, and wine once I got fed up of the beer. By the time Peter returned we were hassled to start walking to the ground and we arrived minutes before the anthem sounded.

The game itself was really shit for want of a better word. It will go down in history as the game where Chris Gunter became Wales’ most capped player but little else has lasted long in the memory… perhaps two penalties we should have had, whilst the embarrassing Albanian match winning penalty was rather dubious even from the other side of the pitch, plus athletic track.

We said our goodbyes to Donna and miserably sat down to scoff a pizza before returning to the hotel, even meeting Tom Lockyer’s dad and brother did little to raise my mood. Thankfully as far as the trip went the best was yet to come!

Wednesday

The hotel breakfast room was a bit livelier today, populated with at least a few Swansea supporters, as we checked out. Today we would be heading to Berat, which as the crow flies didn’t seem to far away but considering the road system in Albania took a longer than anticipated two hours.

Certainly the number one thing to see in Berat is the castle that sits at the top of the cliff overlooking the houses built during the Ottoman Empire, and that was number one on our list once we settled in to our accommodation for the evening high up a hill outside of the city.

Worries about the road standards reaching Berat Castle lived up to expectations… more holes than a sponge… and after a wrong turn even had the opportunity to stage the first ever Albanian leg of the World Rally Championship! For added hassle we parked a wet, 10 minute walk outside the castle entrance when we could have parked right outside. Thankfully once we were inside it was worth the effort.

The 13th century citadel overlooks the entire city and River Osum and in it’s heyday contained up to twenty churches, most of which has now fallen foul to nature. We were rewarded with tremendous views over the City and scaling the ruins was interesting. Unlike any other castle I have visited (apart from Elbasan funnily enough) there we people who lived in the castle walls, and a wrong turn could well find you tripping over a chicken in a front garden! In one of the photos you can just about make out the remnants of a rainbow. Cute.

After our easier, yet still bumpy descent from the castle to the centre we parked up in the main square. It was pleasant to see in front of us a church and a mosque side by side as we walked along the main promenade before lunch in a decent restaurant mixing Italian and Albanian cuisine, the family business consisted of the son front of house whilst Mum was cooking the food… that reminds me I haven’t left that review I promised them… #hownot2keepreviewpromises…

Sun already setting, we returned to the hotel, had a plethora of dishes for tea and planned our itinerary for tomorrow.

Thursday

A great night sleep meant we hit the road to our final stopover in Sarande in good spirits. Sarande lies on the south-west coast a few miles from the island of Corfu, and is Albania’s most popular seaside tourist destination. We booked our room for the night in a hotel and spa that wouldn’t look out of place along the Costa Blanca and with that came the possibility of going in the sea which was something I was keen to do. In November. Unlikely?

First up though we had to get there, which was straight forward up until the point where we left the main motorway and climbed a mountain that seemed to never end. In fact it was some 300m incline.

An additional stop to the trip was an area that was called the blue eye, just a short 5 minute drive from the main road we traveled on. As we approached the area, that I’m sure was regarded as Albania’s most beautiful place, I became apprehensive as the nearby farm and stream did little to raise the pulses. However, I was pleasantly surprised when a path opened up to the area we were looking for. The Blue Eye is natural spring that pumps up so much water it creates a fast flowing stream running for miles. It is thought that the spring is at least 50 metres deep, but due to the pressure it has so far been impossible to measure how deep the hole actually is. If that was impressive the colour was on par. The blue and greens that emerge from the area that can be no wider than two metres in diameter was something difficult to catch ‘on film’.

The mostly flat, but still bumpy commute from here to Sarande was a lot less adventurous and we arrived at our 4* resort mid-afternoon. What I’m sure would be a packed out (and a LOT more expensive than 48 quid) hotel in the summer was somewhat of a ghost town. One of my defining memories of the trip was when I asked the receptionist if it was OK to go in the sea. The look of “are you having a laugh you daft twat” was impossible to hide as I walked jollily out back towards the grit and the waters edge. It was cold, and a little lonely before Peter came (mildly unimpressed to be seen with me) and took some photos while I was the polar opposite of The Little Mermaid. When is the next time I can say I’ve swam in the Albanian riviera a month before Christmas, or whenever for that matter.

A quick dry off and change and we set off to grab some dinner which would be our last proper meal before home. This was somewhat challenging considering 95% of the shops were shut because it was off-season but we finally managed somewhere on the pier that provided some really nice food watching the sun set, a tad disappointed that I had ordered pizza and chips.

Friday

The morning didn’t get off to the best of starts when we were told breakfast was in room with no tables, people or lights. We were a little pushed for time so saw the positive side, in that we could get going, making our five hour trip back up north, up-and-over the mountain towards the airport on the outskirts of Tirana.

And thank goodness we did! It was all going to plan when we stopped for breakfast (chicken and chips don’t judge) at a services but it we were only about a third of the journey through before we were escorted off the beaten track due to road works. As I have already mentioned, off the beaten track in Albania doesn’t mean a little detour. It would be easier riding a unicycle on the surface of Mars than some of the roads we had to endure for the middle third of our trip. I’m sure at one point I looked in a pothole so deep I seen a sign selling magma. Writing this some two months later it doesn’t seem like a big deal but there were points where us missing our flight was a genuine possibility.

Long story short. We made it to the airport and dropped the car off with enough time to spare to fulfil my allocation of cheap tobacco and an overpriced sarnie.

Thanks for reading, Chris x
#hownot2life