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

Football: Ireland, October 2018

I’ll say up front that I regarded Dublin as my last choice when the initial Nations League draw was made back in January. Plenty of European destinations to tick off my list but instead we got bloody Ireland. Been there before, expensive, don’t like Guinness, what else is there to do. But bear with me. 

Sky… Ireland… Skyrland? No.

We booked our flights the day after the Denmark loss in September… £55 from Bristol, Monday to Wednesday, some bargain considering you’d have thought that would be the ideal flight time for a large chunk of the 3,000 strong Red Wall. 

Hang on… I have completely forgotten about the Spain game at the Principa… Millennium Stadium. Due to work commitments I wasn’t able to go, which I was quite disappointed about, even though my project won a national award just as kick off time approached. I didn’t miss too much it seems, it would have been nice to go the stadium again since it’s likely to be the last time I visit there for the foreseeable future (… I don’t like rugby). Would love to play there with 70,000 cheering us on should that ever be the case, but the ‘light show’ I came across during the second half was tragic.
 
To make up for booking a non-refundable £150 a night room in Dublin back in January, my travel companion Pete provided me with a Dublin guide book (which I’m guessing didn’t cost £150), so at least we had some things to do, having visited the Guinness Storehouse last March. As far as the first night went though, we had a pricey three course steak dinner and two pints in the hotel, slightly different to the 12-15 pints on the eve of the Danish game!

Waking up fresh on match day was a strange feeling, but not one that I regretted! For some reason when scouring Google Maps I came across Phoenix Park, which I believe is the biggest park in Europe, yet it lay just a 5 minute bus ride from the Ha’penny Bridge. There were a few monuments, Dublin Zoo and the official residence of the Irish President to attract us. It was only when we got to the first stop: Wellington monument did we grasp of how big the bloody place was! It took a good 30 minutes to reach the Papal Cross, which was erected when Pope John Paul 2nd visited in 1979 to deliver mass to 1.25 million people! That’s even more people than I have read this rubbish!

Wellington Monument

Standing at the cross you couldn’t hear – or see – any of the city centre but had a great view of whatever the mountains are called around the capital. I have been lucky enough to visit Central Park in New York and was taken aback how one park could have so many different environments, and this park is similar. Just five minutes after walking from the cross to the main road we were in the middle of a deep forest, topped off by seeing a herd of wild deer chillaxing near the walkway. A quick look on Google will tell you that Central Park is 3.41km2 and Phoenix Park is double the size! Well worth a visit if you go again… I was a bit miffed that it hardly features in any of the ‘top tourist spots’ in Dublin. Apart from one particular free-kick, it was the highlight of the trip!

Back in to the centre, we were making good time and decided to visit Trinity College before the inevitable alcohol consumption. The college is famous for housing the Book of Kells, which my mate Wikepedia tells me, is an “illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts”. That’s great, and the €15 entrance fee didn’t offend, especially considering the end of the self-guided tour ends in The Long Room, containing some 200,000 of the libraries oldest books. For a load of old bookshelves, I thought it was a fascinating area. 

A handful more books than our living room!

Without this turning in to an episode of Antiques Roadshow, you’ll be glad that once leaving the college we were entering football mode, inaugurated by the cheekiest of Nando’s and some fruity cider. After a pit stop at the hotel to collect the flag, we headed to Devitts on Camden Street that was recommended by the Welsh FSF guide, on to a jazz bar and finally to the Beggar’s Bush close to the ground where we were only just outnumbered roughly 20-1 but had a great craic with the Irish fans, who like me were especially gloomy about the game, deeming it impossible to expect anything than a 0-0 draw. 

That 0-0 draw looked a cert 45 minutes after we were shepherded into the ground and belted out the anthem. Gosh, it was dire. I expected ROI to be “a bit shit” but didn’t expect us to play at their level, and we were lucky not to be a goal down after another defensive error that saw Spain run riot. I’m so late writing the blog I’ve forgotten how poor the first half was, so I’ll quickly fast forward to us having a free kick on the edge of the box just before the hour. An ACTUAL chance perhaps? No Bale, and OK the young lad Wilson scored a worldy against Man United recently for Derby but it wasn’t as though he was just going to boot it in to the back of the net, was it?

He did. The first away Wales goal I’ve witnessed in over a year. Arms everywhere. That perfect mix of surprise and celebration. I did check to see if Pete was OK – his ticker isn’t what it used to be! The remaining 30 minutes did little to ease one’s pulse either. All of a sudden we were ripping Ireland apart due to them having no other option than to push forward, and Christ they had their share of chances; a brief highlight during the nerves being James McClean mis-controlling the ball in front of me, not quite justice for concussing my pal Joe Allen a year prior, but something. 
Hold on to win, we did. A brilliant, second half defensive display, including Ashley Williams!

There’s Wally….

Once we walked what seemed like an age from the ground the elation was slightly wearing off so a top up of gorgeous Orchard Thieves cider or 4 listening to some jazz and light-hearted banter with sad Irish people kept me going. I liked the jazz, although it’s not usually my thing. (If ever a geezer does a solo bit, applause is compulsory). Once I was aware that most pubs close in Dublin around midnight, I parted ways with Pete to squeeze another two in, eavesdropping on other red shirted chaps’ versions of events, before heading back via a pizza that was two sizes bigger than necessary. When in Rome…(??)

A welcome lie-in on Wednesday morning started the day, prior to a greasy spoon full Irish breakfast that hit the spot. We didn’t have much of a plan for the day but as we stayed 2 minutes away from the castle decided to give that a once over. Calling the complex a castle is a bit rich, and that’s coming from a Newportonian! Only one corner remains attached to more modern state apartments. The tour itself I found interesting; it included descending to see some ruins of the fort, a disused chapel and the state apartments themselves, where the presidents are inaugurated inside St Patrick’s Hall. The tour guide I particularly liked; he gave a good summary of Ireland’s history without mentioning Bono or Westlife. 

By the time we enjoyed some fish and chips for lunch, we strolled back to the hotel and headed to the airport. What I expected to be a few days void of anything overly exciting became a thoroughly enjoyable trip. 

And we won. 

Next up 6 days in Albania! Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram where I regularly post my crap pictures during trips before my crap blogs!

Football: Denmark, September 2018

A 7am drive to Gatwick on Saturday resulted in our flight landing in Copenhagen at 2pm and we checked in to our hotel, which was rather posh. Whereas I’m happy sleeping in bunkbeds at the cheapest hostel in a 20 miles radius, Pete prefers a 4* establishment… so we compromised and stayed in a 4* establishment. The lengths you have to go to get good WiFi and more than one pillow. 

Once we sorted ourselves out, dumped our bags and checked the County score we headed out. A walk through the park in Christiania, then past Tivoli amusement park led us to the meat packing district (keep the jokes to yourselves), where many old warehouse units now housed cool, alternative dining. Our recommendation to visit Warpigs off a friend didn’t let us down as we enjoyed parts of a pig I didn’t know existed along with a crisp pint of IPA to wash it down. 

When travelling with Mikayla I tend to have a strict itinerary, however this time around my tourism plans for the weekend were held in a single text message I compiled a few weeks prior. The plan for the evening was to walk to Nyhavn but this was the other side of the City and I had friends having a pint nearby both a) promising me a cheap-beyond-belief pint for £2.30 and b) desperate to enjoy my terrible banter and shit jokes. That place was the Old Irish Pub just a two minute walk from the main train station and central square.

What began as an innocent pint soon turned in to an all-night bender, especially once Pete decided to head back after half an hour. The establishment was already full with my countrymen chanting, singing alone with the acoustic guitarist on stage and even ‘borrowing’ his microphone on the odd occasion. Many of us around the table just had just been following Newport win 1-0 away at Oldham making us joint-top of the league, leading us to bellow out numerous tunes the carousel of musicians entertained us with.

I must admit I did have concerns early on if everyone would be able to behave themselves for the duration of the night but fair play, even once the pub filled up with more locals than the Red Wall, everyone behaved impeccably – unless the last 5 or so that were still there when I left at 3am kicked off, but I doubt.

To say I woke up feeling fresh the next day would be… absolute bollocks. 
Remembering the great night experienced and that I had a football game to go to, by the time we made the mile walk to our Wonky Sheep coach I was fully conscious, hydrated and washed. Only when we sat on the coach did it hit me how far we would be travelling. Four hours on a coach is a rare occasion for me nowadays as I seldom go and watch the County away anywhere over three.

The trip was made pleasant by some cracking pieces of bridge architecture, me sleeping for large spells and our driver’s dry sense of humour getting the odd laugh from his passengers. We arrived in Aarhus at lunchtime and had a walk through the town. 

Aarhus seemed nice. Quiet, with a picturesque river alongside countless café bars, albeit making you pay for the experience. The four bottles of Somersby cider at a cost of £22 didn’t fit my frugal agenda and if you’d seen my reaction to the bank balance after the trip you would understand. We sacrificed the option to get a lift to the ground, instead joining the red stream of Welsh and Danish supporters congregating with excitement to Ceres Park.

The decision to move the game from Copenhagen to Aarhus would have upset a lot of Welsh supporters and the associated costs didn’t help matters, but I got the feeling the locals appreciated the opportunity. The ground was basic but adequate and with the reception the Danish players received, you couldn’t imagine they embarrassingly ditched their country over a few extra quid during the week leading up to the evening.

Our anthem was ‘on point’ as one would expect. Win lose or draw it’s always up there with the highlight of the game/day/trip. Wales started the match well, Giggs changed the team more than I had hoped with Gunter starting and Brooks on the bench, but until a mistake led to the Eriksen goal I thought we were the better team, albeit creating little in front of goal. By the time Denmark were awarded their second, a harsh-not-dodgy penalty decision, we seemed to have ran out of ideas without an obvious plan B. The potential witnessed on Thursday wasn’t all there, and as many media outlets labelled it, we came back down to earth. Credit to Denmark though, I personally underestimated their quality and if it wasn’t for three brilliant saves from Hennessey it could have been more.  It was a long trip back to Copenhagen.

After a much better sleep than the night before (I had a lie in whilst Pete treated himself to the hotel breakfast buffet) it was time to tackle some of the sights that I sacrificed on Saturday in lieu of the pub. I still had just a list of places, but Pete during his give or take 8-course brekkie had discovered the best way to get to the famous Little Mermaid statue was via the public boats.

This allowed us to see the national opera house and army barracks before we reached “Kastellet”, a 17th century citadel along the river. I was forewarned that the Mermaid itself is rather underwhelming, and I tend to agree. The statue is only around a metre in height and doesn’t benefit from any particularly beautiful backdrop. The area itself was nice to have a walk around and more importantly than life itself, it was another superficial tick on my superficial list. 

We were making good time so we decided to walk south to Nyhavn, a small harbour area adorned with colourful buildings and countless café bars and restaurants. On the way here we came to Amalienborg square, the home of the Royal family and Frederik’s Church nearby which was a very grand building.

I’m never going to be the ultimate tourist, but feeling the need to force myself in to Churches and boring museums would be enough for me to want to stay home. Get over it. On this occasion however, the church did take my interest and once inside you could see the grandiose artwork inside of the huge dome overlooking the peaceful atmosphere of worshipers and tourists trying (failing) to be silent. 

On to Nyhavn, I think the picture speaks more than words here. I’m quite proud of this picture, not often do I take one I’m pleased with without having to add several newly-found Instagram filters. We passed on the opportunity to grab some lunch, I had very little money left and had a gutsful of considering buying a club sandwich and fries for £18 everywhere we went. Instead we sat down for a drink in a place called McJoy’s… the implied “joy” soon slipped away once I had agreed to a £6 pint of draught sparking water, SIX POUNDS! Without wanting to go ragingly off topic, at home £6 worth of fizzy bloody water would get me 30 LITRES from the supermarket; it’s usually free in pubs! It was a really nice lemon slice though and I was promised the ice was produced using unicorn tears… sigh.

#Watergate over with, we on got chatting to a chap who was spending the day in Copenhagen during his cruise with his wife (who he’d managed to shake off – good work). Once he had introduced himself by boasting about the fact he only paid 20KR for his cup of coffee, we had an interesting conversation around his time serving in Vietnam, all the places we have visited and his current tour along the coast of Europe. It felt like between the two of them there weren’t many stones left unturned… but have they been to Mansfield away on a Tuesday night? As interesting as our brief time chatting away in the sunshine was, once the bloke declined Pete’s offer for a photograph (he don’t believe in those things (mobile phones)) we paid the bill – one kidney lighter – and continued back into the centre wary that in a  few hours we would be making our way to the airport. 

I had devoured a hot-dog that just about fell in line with the Chris’-suitable-prices-to-pay-for-things, so we made a move through the fashion district (boy did we feel out of place) that concluded at our final destination of The Round Tower, or Rundetaarn, that would give us views across the city. As my calves are still recovering from the step climbing in Prague it was a delight to walk up the tower using a spiral ramp – an “equestrian staircase” rather steps. The tower wasn’t huge – Denmark is a very flat country, and the highest natural point in Denmark we actually passed on the way to Aarhus, and that was only 170m above sea-level – so it didn’t take long to reach the summit and enjoy the best views the city had to offer. On the way down we overheard someone say that it is the world oldest observatory tower too, so we’ll take their word for that. 

Following a quick rest for a drink in one of the many bustling courtyards, we caught the metro back to the hotel to begin the journey home. During this point was when I logged in to online banking… 

Ohhh…. Shit. 

Here’s hoping my current eBay sale brings in a few quid before the next game in Dublin on the 16th October! I may even have to drink less. 

Thanks for reading! Why not follow me on Instagram for more babbling rubbish? 

Needs of a Numismatic, September 2018

I have always been tight with money (frugal being my preferred term) but I never thought I would get to the point where I wouldn’t even consider spending loose change!

In the summer of 2016, I attended the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, on the outskirts of Cardiff. Not only the main factory for coin production is housed here, but also a museum and exhibition named the Royal Mint Experience opened in 2016.

Having attended with a friend who traveled several hours from Darlington to attend, it was only after the trip I started paying attention to what is on the opposite side of the Queens head.

Attending the Royal Mint allowed me to not only obtain the uncirculated “last round pound” but to also strike it myself. As special as one may think that is, my spare certainly has a price where I would be willing to let it go.

Thanks to the frequency of both paying for things in cash and going down the pub I made a quick start bulking up my collection. Now well out of circulation, the old £1 coins were the easiest to obtain, thanks to there being not so many variations, not the most sought-after designs and most produced in vast numbers. I managed to collect my final coin, the London cities 2014 coin a couple of months before the round pound went out of circulation in March 2017. Wow, 18 months have gone fast!

Unfortunately that’s where my completion-ism ends. The 50 pence coins are probably the most popular coin to collect at the moment and includes the holy grail Kew Gardens 50p released in 2009. Kew is one of the lowest produced coins at 210,000. Rather annoyingly, I could have picked this up when I started collecting for around £25, but since then everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon and a quick check on eBay will tell you that it can sell for 200 times its face value!

Since starting my collection I have never paid more than face value for a coin and with so many eyes looking at change now it’ll be impossible to get one without paying the ever-increasing going rate. I would have a lot more luck working in a post office, bank or retail (I’ll come on to this later!) but it keeps it interesting.

I also found it hard to find the WWF coin, which if I must choose one would be my favourite. I only drunkenly known I obtained this a few weeks ago so was thrilled the next day! This is frequently deemed the second rarest 50p yet is only worth about a fiver!

Fifty pence’s are regularly split up in to two sections as during the 2012 London Olympics, a set of 28 coins were released in to circulation. I’m half way there, but living on a prayer for the other 14!

The other denomination I collect are £2 coins. With quite a few to collect, when I add to the collection it seems a fortunate achievement. The four Commonwealth coins released in 2002 are the 2nd-5th rarest coins out there. A traumatic experience with the Northern Irish version of this coin… I actually had one once whilst watching Dragons Rugby (again change from a pint!), only to spend it in my local boozer an hour later – never to be seen again! I’m finding the 2017 and 2018 coins extremely hard to find, probably as the number of collectors or those wanting to make a quick few quid are by far outweighing production quantities. There is always hope…
To round things up are some other coins I have come across, mainly non-mainland coins from Gibraltar, Jersey and the Isle of Man. I’m not really passionate about these coins but they don’t hurt to keep.

Finally on to 10p coins, I’m pretty amazed I haven’t got more than ONE A-Z coin at the moment (J for Jubilee) that received so much publicity when released earlier this year. I’m still sticking to not paying over face value so it’s going to be a long wait until I come across another one! I can’t see anyone accepting £2.60 for a full set anytime soon.

Many people are frustrated and angry that so little are being seen in circulation, but I understand. If you’re working minimum wage behind a bar and you have a £5 money bag of A-Z 10p coins – why wouldn’t you swap them with normal ones and sell on for £150?

Today I’ve just received three of the same limited edition non-coin item, with the sole hope that the item sells out quickly and in future I can sell the item on for a profit. As a collector of numerous things be it football figures, POP Vinyls, LEGO minifigures or coins; I tend to think it’s swings and roundabouts.

At the time of writing, I have around 150 spares for sale which are currently on eBay. Anyone local can have substantial discounts and obviously I would be interested in swapping! THAT LINK IS HERE.

The best place to find a full list of coins released is probably the Change Checker website http://www.changechecker.org.

Sprouting up in Brussels, August 2018

At 3am on a Saturday morning I am regularly waiting for a taxi home from a night out, not waiting for the National Express to kick off a 23 hour day that will see us visit the Belgian capital. The trip, a belated birthday gift which cost around £70 each meant that we would only have seven hours in the City so a few hours revision looking at what we wanted to do, when and how we are getting to places was vital.

We got in to Victoria coach station at 6am, three hours before our Eurostar departure. So, full of energy we decided to jump on the tube and head down to the London Eye, for a photo more than anything. I did think about the disappointment on people’s faces when they see Big Ben masked in scaffolding destroying the perfect selfie opportunity. We’ve had a few scaffolding related disappointments ourselves mind, the Capitol in Washington and the Prague Astronomical clock just two weeks prior standing out.

A quiet walk (I have never seen London so vacant) around parliament square, then up Whitehall including two fingers to Theresa May walking past Downing Street to Trafalgar Square and we were ready to head to St Pancras to lose my Eurostar virginity. The security and customs processes were quick and straight-forward (we’re getting used to this!) and caught up on some Netflix whilst we waiting to board the train.

TOP TIP: Whilst security looks like that in an airport, you are free to take liquids through security, so take a big bottle of your favourite refreshment along with you and avoid the expected high prices.

Unfortunately on both Eurostar journeys I slept most of the way, appreciating the sufficient leg room and comfortable seats. From London to Brussels via Ebbsfleet, Calais and Lille took a little over two hours and we arrived in Brussels just after lunch time.

Most of our day would be spent in the central area of the city but our first destination was to visit the Atomium, a unique building based on… you guessed it – an atom. This meant catching the Metro blue line to the end of the tracks to Heysel, but we decided to go one further to Roi Baudouin where I knew was near to the national football stadium.

If you’re a football fan you have probably put 2 + 2 together and worked out this stadium was the location of the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, where 39 people died during the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus. Since then the stadium has had a few additional safety concerns but today, whilst it won’t make any top 100 lists for architecture, it’s deemed safe and hosts the Belgian football team as many of my Welsh supporting pals will know. The name change in the nineties to King Baudouin Stadium probably helps its reputation.

Unfortunately the ground was fenced off about 200m around the perimeter so I couldn’t take a closer look so we continued down the road to the Atomium, certainly one of the tourist hotspots in Belgium. You can go inside the structure; it’s a museum with a viewpoint up top. Whilst I would have liked to get to the top the museum was of little interest – and the clock was ticking.

From here we jumped on the hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus, which at €25 was a bit expensive (a day public transport card was €6) although it did give us the opportunity to visit other places of interest on the outskirts of the centre we wouldn’t have otherwise chosen or have been able to see. The trip in to town went past the impressive Basilica of Sacred Heart and stopped just outside the narrow streets of the city centre.

Next on the agenda was to see the Manneken Pis, a statue of a boy having a wee. I know, right? As we fought our way through the crowds we were treated to a walk through a bustling shopping arcade with countless chocolatiers and waffle outlets, finally caving in and purchasing a chocolate-topped waffle a few yards before we got the statue.

The statue itself was slightly disappointing, standing at around 18 inches high it wasn’t as grand as was advertised and the sheer volume of people blocking any through traffic was annoying. There is always someone who thinks it’s a good idea to force a push chair through these mass congregations. Today the statue was dressed in a uniform with singers in the same attire at the front of the railings that surround it. I couldn’t really tell who they were, probably a charitable group – we didn’t bother to find out more as we departed for oxygen.

Shuffling with the crowds away from the statue led us to the main square, or “Grand Place” that did live up to expectation. Every side of the square stood grandiose buildings with golden highlights focusing on the town hall with a spire that can be seen from practically anywhere we visited during our time there. Thankfully we timed our trip in line with a flower carpet adorning most of the squares surface area, the remainder jam packed with tourists. The flower carpet takes place every other August in which volunteers from around Belgium convene at the Grand Place to weave a carpet-like tapestry. Nearly a million flowers are required to create the ephemeral 1,800 square meter carpet. Good timing.

Moving on along many more narrow streets with the realisation that time was already against us, we emerged out at the Central train station and walked to the hop-on hop-off bus to complete the second route included in the price. I have to admit this coincided with the County kicking off in Exeter so I was paying attention to my phone as much as the surroundings. You can take the boy out of Newport etc… This journey took us past sights such as the Royal Theatre, Federal Parliament and numerous EU buildings but it was the Arcade du Cinquantenaire based in the European quarter that was the highlight, especially the sight of the triumphal arch at the end of the Avenue de Tervuren.

Once travelled full circle we departed the bus to visit some of the sights in more detail, first stopping off at the Palace which was closed off for an impending music concert, can’t imagine Queen Lizzie allowing us common type on the Buckingham Palace forecourt any time soon but hey ho. From here we headed past Place Royale and the Notre-Dame du Sablon church and garden to get back to the federal building where there was a viewpoint across the city, with the Atomium, Basilica and town hall all being prominent. A lift took as back down to city-centre level and once we had walked around to pick up the customary fridge magnet and some chocolates it was time to get the train back to the Eurostar and begin the long journey home.

We returned home at 2am the next morning, with an understanding that for most people, seven hours isn’t nearly enough time to see all what Brussels has to offer. We gave it a very good go and managed to see everything we wanted to without feeling rushed. As we very rarely stop for a sit-down meal and a beer, or explore the contents of most museums and churches, this does give us more time to wander around, albeit after a few hours planning before we go. Ultimately we had an enjoyable day and can confidently tick Brussels off the never-ending list.

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