Postcards from Troyes: A brief encounter in Champagne

Pretty half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, fantastic food – Troyes is the perfect place to break a journey or stop for a weekend if you’re travelling in France.

This past month has taken us on a bit of a French adventure.  Living in the UK means that travelling to France by road can be just as easy – if not easier – than flying, and besides which, it had been a while since I’d last been on a proper road trip.

So we packed up the car for a jaunt to the continent.  As we had a long road ahead of us, it made perfect sense (or rather it was the perfect opportunity) to make the most of our journey and weave in some interesting stops along the way.  The curious traveller in me loves pouring over a map and picking out places that sound interesting … which is precisely how we ended up in Troyes.

Troyes happened to be the perfect half-way point between our channel crossing and our final destination in the Alps, but also sounded enticingly interesting.  I’d heard that it was beautiful, but a bit of exploring online left me none the wiser when it came to the city’s charms.  Rather than letting this put me off, there was only one thing to do – go and find out more.

Beautiful buildings n Rue de la Monnaie in Troyes, France

Tell me about Troyes

Troyes is a historic town in the heart of France’s Champagne region.  It’s a region littered with well-groomed vineyards, perfect sandy-coloured hilltop towns and decadent Champagne houses. But Troyes adds a colourful juxtaposition, with an old town centre full of teetering half-timbered medieval buildings that wobble three and four storeys high in winding little streets packed with cafes, restaurants and shops.  The river Seine winds languorously through the town, with colourful flower boxes topping every bridge.  It’s undeniably pretty, and a surprising contrast to it’s surroundings.

Rue Emile Zola in Troyes, France

It’s not a huge city, and you can comfortably explore in just a few hours.  This makes it a great stop if you’re travelling south to the Alps or the Mediterranean from the UK or northern Europe.  It’d also make a great base to discover the surrounding area which includes the Fôret d’Orient national park, home to vast lakes as well as diverse woodland that’s perfect for walking and cycling.

With only a quick overnight stop for us to make the most of, we embarked on a whistle-stop tour (of sorts, invented on the spot) of Troyes’ highlights.

What to do in Troyes

The old centre of Troyes is loosely ringed by the Boulevards Gambetta, Victor Hugo and du 14 Juillet, and by the river Seine as it snakes it’s way through the city.

(At this point I’d like to clarify that I didn’t make these names up or steal them from a school French textbook – Troyes really does have the most quintessentially French sounding street names!)

Place Marechal Foch, Troyes, France

The very centre is largely pedestrianised, and I’d recommended navigating your way to the Place Maréchal Foch to begin your explorations.  From here, enticing winding streets disappear off in all directions, beautiful buildings look down on your from every angle and there’s a vibrant, lively feel with the street-side cafes full – in the early evening – with locals and visitors enjoying a last coffee of the day or a sneaky apertif.

The streets east of Place Maréchal Foch are amongst the prettiest, with ancient buildings and characterful restaurants and cafes woven amongst little squares and upmarket shops.  Alongside Boulevard Gambetta you’ll find the verdant Jardin du Rocher and Jardin de la Vallee Suisse, a pair of pretty parks lush with vegetation in contrast to surrounding buildings.

Head west towards the river and you’ll find the delightful Mairie with colourful formal gardens laid out in front of it.  Keep going in this direction and you’ll stumble across the monumental Cathedral of St. Pierre and St. Paul, a cluster of stunning gothic churches including the Basilica of St. Urbain as well a some of the city’s oldest university buildings.

Wooden tower on medieval building in Troyes, France

There was plenty to keep us occupied for a few hours.  Troyes in a town that’s best explored slowly, and on foot.  There’s great architecture details to be found, an attractive riverside and an abundance of lively cafes in which to soak up the traditional French atmosphere.

Where to eat in Troyes

Much as I could quite happily have spent our short visit munching my way through as many of this city’s establishments as possible so that I could share them with you, sadly common sense prevailed and instead I’m making one outstanding recommendation.

Restaurants on Rue Urbain VI in Troyes, France

You’ll find plenty of smart-looking looking restaurants around Place Maréchal Foch, Rue Urbain VI and Rue Champeaux. They mostly offer typical French dishes, with appetising menus du jour advertised on chalkboards where the resturant tables spilled onto the street.  But we were looking for something a bit more unusual that a bit of online research had hinted at.

Just before 7pm we headed to Les Halles, the old covered market building close to the town centre.  In the square outside was just what we were hoping for – a big, red double-decker bus.

Claire et Hugo, the burger bus of Troyes, France

Claire & Hugo rolls into town most weeknights, and some lunchtimes (check their Facebook page for more details as their schedule seems to vary occasionally). They park up, put up pretty little cafe tables and umbrellas outside and proceed to cook incredible hand-made burgers, desserts, and quite determinedly, no chips.

We couldn’t have wished to find anything better.  Their menu was genuinely interesting, with fantastic burger toppings (Parmesan on a burger just happens to be the greatest thing I’d never tried) and delicious side salads that outshone most burger joints I’ve ever visited.  No chips meant oven-roasted, local Charlotte potatoes with just a touch of salty butter.  Home-made pannacotta with ginger, nectarine, raspberry and mint was an absolute delight.  And all this, for less than €30 for the both of us, including drinks.  I’d go back to Troyes just to try it all again.

Classic burger at Claire et Hugo, Troyes, France

We only had a few hours in Troyes before heading off to our Airbnb a few kilometers out of town, and then on towards the Alps.  But this delightful little city really charmed me, and felt surprisingly alive and very French even during the peak of the European-summer-holiday-season.  There’s a great feeling when leaving a place you’d be happy to return to again, and would even go out of your way to revisit – and that’s how I felt about Troyes.  I’ll be back one day, and I hope to enjoy it just as much.

Have you discovered any hidden gems en route to other destinations? I’d love to hear your stories (and borrow some inspiration) below.

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The practical bit

If you’re travelling by road, as we were, Troyes can be reached from junction 23 of the A26 autoroute.  It’s about a ten minute drive to the city centre.  Parking can be found on Boulevard du 14 Juillet at a rate of about €1 per hour.  If you’re heading back to the autoroute, you’ll pass through a commercial centre on the outskirts of town – fill up on supermarket petrol here to save a generous amount compared to motorway service stations.

Troyes is also served by high speed rail services from Paris, with direct trains from Gare de l’Est taking as little as an hour and a half.  Check out the SNCF website for more details.

Postcards from Troyes: A brief encounter in Champagne and a city guide

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A beginners guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi

With it’s fairytale turrets, ancient stone walls and commanding views over the vineyards of southern France, the fortified medieval town of Carcassonne is steeped in history and an unsung Mediterranean hero. But there’s more than meets the eye – fantastic food, an enchanting city centre and the Canal du Midi add to the rich patchwork of this spectacular French town. My travel guide shares the highlights and lesser-known gems of this region that I’ve tried and tested.

There’s something timeless about the south-west of France, where it feels like the narrow, winding streets of sleepy market towns have changed little in centuries, and the Canal du Midi snakes languorously through vineyards and fields sheltered from the heat by ancient plane trees.

At it’s heart you’ll find Carcassonne, a medieval fortified town that crowns a green hill perched above the river Aude.  With it’s soaring towers, imposing gateways and panoramic views there’s plenty to take your breath away.  But its fairytale appearance is just the start, as a labyrinth of ancient streets and warm stone houses lure you in and invite you to explore.

I first discovered Carcassonne as a eight-year old … a highlight of summer holiday adventures in the Languedoc.  A couple of summer’s ago I decided to head back, not quite sure what to expect, but curious to see if it had changed.

Returning to somewhere you loved as a child requires a bit of optimism and crossed fingers, and I’d had my doubts when we booked our trip. Would two twenty-somethings really love a city that had captured my imagination all those years ago?

Thankfully, the crossed fingers worked.  The delights of the castle – known as la cité – hadn’t diminished at all since I was half the height I am now.  Carcassonne today is just as awe-inspiring as it was twenty years ago – and the surrounding city and region is blooming.  Architecturally, it’s fascinating, but it’s also great fun. Whether you’re into vineyards, history or pretending you’re a medieval knight for the day, there’s something for everyone in this magical French town.

A potted history of Carcassonne

The area around Carcassonne has been inhabited since neolithic times.  But the first major construction in the region began under Roman rule, when a hilltop castle was built on the site of the current fortified town. A small settlement grew up around the castle, but things didn’t really get interesting until the Visigoths came along in the 5th century.

Building on the footings of the now decaying Roman stronghold, the Visigoths constructed a substantial and strategically-located fortress and thus, the medieval city of Carcassonne was born.  Despite the rise and fall of the Visigoths and many attempts to take the fortified cité, Carcassonne not only managed to survive but also sustain a community both inside and outside of it’s walls for almost a thousand years.

The fortified walls of the medieval city of Carcassonne, France
The walls of Carcassonne are built on Roman foundations but the crenellations and turrets are more than a little creative licence

It wasn’t until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 that the state of Rousillion, of which Carcassonne and it’s surrounding lands were a part, was ceeded to France and much of the city’s military importance diminished. From this point onward, without a substantial military presence, the town fell into disrepair and was largely abandoned.

All wasn’t lost though. The Ville Basse, which had grown up around the foothills of the castle, began to flourish as a market town and a burgeoning industrial centre as the nineteenth century arrived. Two other arrivals were to prosperity to the city: the Canal du Midi in the late eighteenth century, and architect Viollet-le-Duc.

A nostaglic interest in medieval France and it’s architecture started to bloom in the early nineteenth century, and Viollet-le-Duc was hired to undertake restorations of some of the country’s most iconic buildings.  Alongside Notre-Dame de Paris, Mont St. Michel and Fougere, he tackled the crumbling remains of Carcassonne, bringing la cité back to life (and embellishing slightly as he went, die-hards will tell you the pointed turrets are not original – but I rather like them).

In the last hundred years or so the Ville Basse has continued to grow into a lively, vibrant city, and the castle on the hill has flourished.

La Cité

There’s more than enough to keep even an intrepid visitor occupied for a day in the fortified cité.

Medieval towers in the fortified city of Carcassonne, France

My best advice is to follow your feet and happily explore.  If you have the chance, come back at different times of day to experience atmospheric evenings and enjoy cool, quiet mornings.  To get you started, here a few of my favourite things to do;

  • Get lost in the labyrinthine streets.  Explore beyond the main street and find hidden alleyways, cosy squares, beautiful houses as well as monumental gates and doorways.
  • Walk the walls.  In parts, you can walk between the two outer walls of la cité (between the Porte Narbonnais and the smaller gate near Place Saint-Nazaire) looking up at the imposing towers and fortifications.  Or, to escape to a part of the medieval city without any crowds, head out the Porte de l’Aude to the west and wander the rugged little footpaths that hug the outer walls, clinging on between the castle and vegetable gardens below.
  • Discover the Château Comtal.  Or rather the outside of the château.  Confession: I’ve never actually been inside (it’s worth noting you’ll need to buy tickets if you want to look around the interior).  But the building is one of the most impressive you’ll see within the fortifications, and if you take a little side street to the right of the entrance, you can stroll around the little ornamental garden at the foot of the castle walls.
  • Find stunning stained glass in the Basilique Saint-Nazaire.  The extraordinarily colourful windows in this medieval church are believed to be the oldest in southern France.
  • Soak up a panorama or two.  Head out towards the walls and you’ll find spectacular views opening up.  To the south, look out over a vista of vineyards as far as the eye can see, and to the north take in the town centre with it’s own city walls.
  • Eat.  Yes, I’m predictable.  But you might think that somewhere this popular isn’t the best place to find delicious local food.  However, I’m happy to report that with a little judicious decision making there are some great restaurants to be found in la cité.  Plus, the atmosphere on a summer’s evening can’t be beaten – grab yourself a table on a terrace and a glass of delicious local wine.

The fortified walls of Carcassonne, France

Whilst during the summer months you might have to negotiate the winding streets with crowds during the day, don’t be fooled into thinking Carcassonne is just for show.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 356 days a year the town is alive.  Beyond the château, shops and restaurants, real people live here too and one of the charms of the place is spotting to the signs of everyday life that pepper the streets.  And for more local flavour, head towards the Ville Basse beyond.

The Ville Basse

Whilst most visitors stay within the walls of the castle, you’re missing a trick if you don’t explore the rest of the city.

Step away from the entrance of the Porte Narbonnais and you’ll find a few winding streets weaving their way down to the river Aude.  Here you’ll find the old bridge, now pedestrianised, that invites you to explore the other side to this remarkable city.

The Ville Basse (also known as the Bastide Saint-Louis) is the living, breathing heart of the modern city of Carcassonne – but it’s all relative. The town grew up in the middle ages and the majority of buildings now occupying this space date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thanks to flourishing industry over the past few centuries and a location at the centre of a prosperous winemaking region, the town has thrived.

City gate in Carcassonne, France
Gateway leading to the Ville Basse in Carcassonne. This lovely street is packed with elegant shops and bakeries

The old centre is loosely ringed by old city walls – not in the same league as the castle on the hill, but reminiscent of the bastide towns you find in this part of the world. Enter through one of the old city gates and you’ll find yourself in a warren of cool, shady streets that criss-cross and intersect with one another. Whilst you’ll find a few local cars here, it’s best explored on foot.

At the geographic and metaphorical centre you’ll find the main square – Place Carnot, home to the Saturday morning market that explodes weekly in a riot of colour, scent and sound. Any other day, you’ll find it a quieter spot to enjoy coffee under the shade of the plane trees or an early evening aperitif. There’s a nice selection of shops to explore and a fantastic old-fashioned covered market building just off the main square is home to the traditional butchers, cheesemongers and fishmongers of the city.

Old shop signage in the bastide town of Carcassonne, France

I love the streets of the Ville Basse best early in the morning, on my way to pick up fresh bread and pastries for breakfast from the boulangerie on Place Carnot.

Beyond the centre

Carcassonne might be a city, but that doesn’t mean green spaces don’t abound. Aside from the rolling countryside and farmland of the regions, two of my favourite places to walk are alongside the river Aude and the Canal du Midi which weave their ways through the city centre.

The river crashes it’s way down through Carcassonne from its source in the Pyrenees en route to the Mediterranean coast. In summer, it’s quite gentile, and it’s river banks are a cool and shady spot to stroll and escape the heat of the day. You’ll also find some great campsites along its banks as you head out of town.

Canal du Midi in Carcassonne, France

The canal may be more sedate but it’s no less beautiful. Join the towpath near the railway station and walk in either direction. We hired mountain bikes and headed out discover the countryside, and followed the canal as far as Trebes – about 10km out of town – before heading off into the vineyards and sun-soaked farmland beyond. Cycling alongside the canal is glorious, and the shade of the plane trees offers a little relief from the sun on a hot day.

Although the Mediterranean coast is only an hour or so away by car or train (and that’s a story for another day), there’s a refreshing alternative nearer to town. Lac de la Cavayere is where the locals go to cool down.  A short bus ride or drive from town brings you to this pretty little lake – set in a midst of a Mediterranean pine forest.

Lac de la Cavayere started life as a reservoir before becoming a beach and the spot where Carcassonne locals come to escape the heat and crowds and make the most of the summer (it’s surprisingly common in south-west France even if it feels a little alien to us Brits).  It’s somewhere you can swim, sunbathe and stroll to your hearts content.  Family-friendly, it’s also great for active folks with trails all around the lake and nearby woodland, watersports and picnic-spots galore.

The city of Carcassonne in the south of France
Looking out over the modern town of Carcasonne from the walls of La Cite

Have you visited Carcassonne, and found any hidden treasures I’m yet to uncover?


The practical bit

We flew direct to Carcassonne from Bournemouth with Ryanair. From the airport, it’s a short bus ride (services run regularly) or taxi to the city centre.

We booked a fantastic apartment (Apartment Massena to be precise) right in the centre of things from the incredibly nice people at Carcassonne Apartments. Beautifully restored and comfortably furnished, it was the perfect base for a week’s stay and only a few minutes walk from the highlights of this small city. It’s located on Rue du Pont Vieux, halfway between la cité and the Ville Basse, and only a minute or two from the river Aude.

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A beginners guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

A beginners guide to Carcassonne: Medieval magic in the Midi, France

Eating your way around Madrid: One tapas at a time

There are a hundred and one reasons to visit Spain’s elegant, exciting capital city. My favourite? Eating and drinking. From street-food markets to traditional cafeterias, incredible Spanish produce to the sweetest treats there’s something for everyone – and much, much more. Authentic tapas, cafe con leche, market life. Madrid’s a delight for the senses.

Madrid might just be my favourite city to eat in.

There are plenty of other reasons to visit the Spanish capital, and there are plenty of other cities reknown for great food, but there’s something about this place I just love.

It’s informal, it’s fun and it’s delicious.

Eating in Madrid is all about enjoying food with friends, embracing Spanish classics and sampling some of the best quality produce you’ll find anywhere in in Spain. When we spend a few days in this beautiful city last spring, we couldn’t help but stumble across fabulous food wherever we went.

Here’s my guide to off-piste eating in Madrid, one tapas at a time.

But first, coffee.

Madrid’s old fashioned cafeterias

There are are many wonderful breakfast treats to be enjoyed in Spain, from sharp freshness of pan con tomate to pillow-like tortilla. But the most indulgent of all is a plate of steaming hot churros straight from the the fryer, accompanied by a cup of thick, dark chocolate and a sweet cafe con leche. These crisp little fingers of dough, liberally sprinkled with sugar, taste divine and – for me – will forever taste of Spain.

You can enjoy churros from stands all round the city but nothing beats the authentic way, sat at the bar of a cafeteria on a chromed stool watching the ebb and flow of regulars popping by for their morning coffee. These little cafes can be found all across the city, and whilst they might not always be glamorous they’re about as real as it gets.

Coffee at La Bicicleta cafe, Madrid, Spain

La Bicicleta

Don’t be put off if you’re not on two wheels, and the names on the wall don’t mean anything to you. This charming cafe may just be the answer to every cycling fan’s dreams, but it’s also home to the best coffee I tasted in Madrid. Pitching itself as a cafe/workspace/bar it’s actually a cosy bar and lounge with a menu that leaves the mind boggling (Lance Armstrong sandwich anyone?).

We popped in for morning coffee a few times – it’s a wonderful place to idly sit in the front window and watch the world go by in the little square outside – and on an evening for beers. Whether you happen to be a pro-cycling enthusiast (less likely) or just a lover of coffee (more likely), I’d rate La Bicicletta as one of my favourite stops in Madrid.

La Bicicleta, Plaza de San Ildefonso, 9, 28004, Madrid

Best for authentic Spanish groceries

Mercado San Anton

If you want to sample Spanish delicacies and pick up some of the highest-quality produce you can find in Madrid, you’ll love the San Anton market. Spread across several floors with a central atrium, the building alone is a good reason to visit. You’ll find delicatessens on the first floor, regional tapas from around Spain on the second and a rooftop restaurant on the third. We stopped here for tapas and a drink, and wished we had a kitchen to enjoy more of the mouthwatering cured meats, cheeses and rainbow-coloured vegetables on display.

Mercado San Anton, Calle de Augusto Figueroa, 24B, 28004 Madrid

Mercado San Anton in Madrid, Spain

Mercado de la Paz

Situated in the upmarket district of Salamanca, la Paz is a taste of authentic Spanish market life. It’s packed with stalls selling every imaginable grocery as well as great value cafes and bars. It’s not instagram-worthy and it’s not tourist-friendly (we had to practice our best Spanish here) but it is a wonderful slice of real-life, real food. Towards the back you’ll find a little cafe specialising in empañadas. Now I’m not entirely sure what was in mine, but they tasted heavenly – so if you find yourself nearby and hungry, it’s well worth stopping by.

Mercado de la Paz, Calle de Ayala, 28, 28001 Madrid

Best for tapas

Mercado de San Miguel

Just a few moments walk from Plaza Mayor, you’ll find this beautiful building. Recently restored, the brick archways are packed with high-end food stalls, stylish tapas bars and seductive cafes and patisseries. Yes, it attracts much of the tourist crowd, but don’t let this put you off as it’s still a delight for the senses. Head here early in the morning or later in the day to miss the crowds and sample some of the diverse tapas on offer.

Mercado de San Miguel, near Plaza Mayor, 28005, Madrid

Mercado de San Miguel Madrid Spain

Mercado de San Ildefonso

Our absolute favourite. Less traditional, more street food market slash entertainment space. Once you’re up the stairs, the market opens out into large entertainment space, with little tapas stalls forming a perimeter around the central area packed with tables.

It’s best on an evening when you can enjoy a beer or two, take your time to try different tapas cooked fresh in front of you and take in the atmosphere and entertainment. When we visited, we were delighted/amused/confused (in equal measure) by a stand-up comedy night taking place in the central space whilst we devoured endless plates of jamon, brochettes and more.

Mercado de San IldefonsoCalle de Fuencarral, 57, 28004, Madrid

Mercado San Ildefonso street food market in Madrid, Spain

Calle Baja, La Latina district

When we weren’t eating our way through the delights of Madrid’s markets, you could find us on Cala Baja in La Latina district. This area has a reputation for being the one of the best spots for tapas in Madrid and we couldn’t begin to find a reason to disagree.

The busy street is packed full of bars, ranging from the slightly touristy to the very local. We found some great little places – the sort with nowhere to sit down and packed with locals – and we’d happily go back to time and time again. Pick the right place and the beers are cold, your tapas is free (and delicious), and the atmosphere lively.

Calle Baja, 28005, Madrid

Tapas in Calle Baja, Madrid, Spain

We didn’t head to Madrid with the intention of making our trip an edible adventure – but it’s hard not to when there are incredible places to eat and mouthwatering displays of produce around every corner. The real joy of the Spanish capital is breaking free from restaurants where we might otherwise have eaten and seeking busy little bars, old-fashioned cafes and cavernous markets. It’s a little bit exciting, a lot of fun and whole lot of delicious.

Where are your favourite places to eat off the beaten path?

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Eating your way around Madrid: One tapas at a time

With special thanks for my ever-patient travelling partner and other half @benrunsuk for sharing some of the photos above.

8 ways to make the most of your travel budget

Whatever your budget, I’ve got 8 tips to help you make the most of your trip – and make travelling and experiencing a new location easier and more enjoyable.

Travelling can be expensive, there’s no bones about it.

The good news is that this doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of ways to make sure you’re getting the best value for money.

Being able to travel often is a balance of finding ways to get away that don’t cost the earth and being willing to explore off the beaten track.  A budget trip doesn’t mean going without, rather it’s all about trying new things, getting out of your comfort zone and learning what the locals love.  Some of my best travel memories come from discoveries we’ve made over the years that we might have missed if we’d opted for the easy (and more expensive) option.

As it’s always better to share, I thought I’d put pen to paper and offer my favourite ways to make the most of travelling on a budget.  Here’s my top eight;

1. Be flexible with travel times

Think outside the box when it comes to when you want to travel. My other half is a teacher, so we’re often limited to school holidays – which can be pricier, especially when it comes to getting away to the sun. Our solution? Make the most of less popular times of year to travel. We love visiting northern Europe in the autumn half term, which usually falls at the end of October. Flights are cheap, cities are less crowded and you can enjoy the stunning displays of copper-coloured foliage that this time of year brings.

Make the most of off-season prices in June and September and delight in exploring without the crowds if you want to head to southern Europe. April and May are fantastic for city breaks as you can spend all day on your feet without sweltering or needing to pack your thermals. And try to book well in advance to make sure you get the best prices.

Want more suggestions for off-season travel? Try my city guides to Vienna and Bratislava for some autumnal inspiration.

Bratislava, Slovakia, city skyline

2. Bag a bottle

Something that stacks up pretty quick when you’re away? Bottled water. A few Euro here and there on every trip soon adds up. If you’re happy with tap water, grab yourself a travel bottle and top up for free in hotels and airports to save a pretty penny (that I like to consider a contribution to my beer and pastry fund). I’m obsessed with my Platypus bottle that has traipsed around Europe with me for the past couple of years. It folds completely flat and rolls up to squeeze in a handbag or pocket when empty, but can hold enough to keep me hydrated on a day’s hiking.

Platypus collapsible water bottle

3. Ah, the Easyjet cheap flight finder

Not limited exclusively to Easyjet – most budget airlines have online tools to help you find their best value flights. If you know when you want to travel, use a cheap flight finder to pick your travel dates and set your departure airport – then let it suggest the best value for money flights available at that time.

It’s a novel way to solve the age old problem of “where should we go next?” and can throw up some suggestions you might never have otherwise thought of.

Find the Easyjet cheap flight finder here, Ryanair route map here and Norwegian’s low fare calendar here.

Wing of Ryanair aircraft

4. Don’t pay for baggage!! (unless you can help it)

Max out your hand luggage, and carry everything with you if you can. It might not work for everyone, or for longer trips, but you might surprise yourself with how much can be carried in your hand luggage allowance (check with your airline first, as this can vary).

If you need to take more, consider buddying up with your travel companions (easier, admittedly, with a partner than with mates) to share the allowance for checked in bags. Share a suitcase half and half – and remember that for most airlines you can carry up to 20kg, which coupled with your hand baggage allowance might be more than enough.

5. Plan your whole journey

I love an irresistibly cheap flight. But before you get overexcited and grab your wallet, take a few minutes to plan your whole journey, including the cost of travel to the airport and parking if necessary.

It might cost more to fly from your local airport, but if you can get there by public transport, or get a lift (and offer lifts in return to your kindly lift-giver) you might find your travel costs far less overall.

Don’t forget to consider alternative travel options too – Eurostar, long-distance coaches, and road trips by boat or Eurotunnel can be amazingly good value. And slow travel can be a fantastic way to soak up the atmosphere and see more of the world as you travel along at ground level.

6. The best things in life are free

I know, it sounds cliché. But it’s so true. Exploring the streets of Paris? Free. Watching the sun set over the Mediterranean in Korcula? Free. Meandering around the canals of Bruges? Free. I could go on.

I love to walk and get a feel for a place more than checking into museums and attractions. But if that’s more your cup of tea than mine, it pays to do your research. Many museums and galleries in London are free, the Prado in Madrid is free provided you arrive after 6pm, or 5pm Sunday (it’s a great way to spend an hour or two before seeking out drinks and tapas) and if you’re under 26 or a student (it’s always worth carrying your student card with you) you’ll find you’re entitled to a discount in most continental galleries and museums. Check prices and opening hours in advance and work out how to squeeze in a visit at the right time.

Gamla Stan - the old town of Stockholm, Sweden

7. Don’t dismiss hostels

The budget traveller’s friend, hostels often can’t be beaten if you’re looking for a bed for a bargain price.

But don’t underestimate them if you don’t fancy spending your trips in a packed dorm full of snoring Australian’s on a gap year.

Some of the larger hostel chains, such as Generator, now offer high-quality accommodation in locations that can’t be beaten. There’s dorms if that’s your thing, larger private rooms that are ideal if you’re travelling with a group of friends or private, ensuite double rooms that are great for couples or families. I like the laid back atmosphere, the friendly staff and no-fuss approach of hostels which feels perfect for shorter trips.

My favourites? Generator in Paris can’t be beaten for quality, no-frills accommodation in a city where the hotel market is decidedly dicey. And for tapas lovers, the Oasis Hostal Toledo, Spain, has a secret roof terrace with stunning views, lovely cafe next door and beautiful double rooms with French windows opening onto the cobbled street outside.

Find out more about where you can find these views in my guide to 24 hours in Toledo.

View from Oasis Hostal Toledo in Spain

8. Branch out for breakfast

If you’re booking hotels through a comparison site, such as booking.com, chances are you’ll be able to choose whether or not to include breakfast in your booking.

Now, if you’re staying in a more expensive location, and can manage three plates of food before 9am, book the breakfast! Fill yourself up and save on snacks later. My personal record: four full plates in the Comfort Hotel Malmö, a stunning hotel in Sweden’s glorious third city, that included hot options and hot waffles.

But, if you’re in southern Europe, think twice before you click ‘add’. For the 5 or 6 Euro it’ll cost for a hotel buffet, you could enjoy a coffee sitting on a sun-drenched cafe terrace watching the local market set up, and follow it with an irresistible buttery pastry from the bakery down the road. It’ll probably cost you less too.

Emmerys bakery for breakfast in Copenhagen, Denmark

If you’re visiting central and eastern Europe, supermarkets tend to be considerably cheaper than at home and we’ve enjoyed going to town on juices, granola and fruit for little more than a euro or two a day. It’s a great choice if you’re staying in an airbnb, and even better if you’ve got a terrace you can eat it on.

Rookie error: Don’t carry a bag of granola around Croatia for a week. You’ll be finding bits of granola in your clothes for weeks to come. I learned the hard way…

So there’s my eight top tips for making the most of travelling on a budget.  What are your suggestions?  Have you found any fantastic things to do for free, or recommend any great budget options?

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8 ways to make the most of your travel budget

Twenty four hours in Toledo: A city guide

Less than an hour from the Spanish capital, Madrid, there’s fortified town crying out to be explored.  With winding cobbled streets, majestic churches, rugged countryside and authentic tapas, it’s a perfect for an overnight stay.  My travel guide shows you what to do, and most importantly, where to eat.

Spring has well and truely sprung this week in southern England.

I love this time of year.  Warmer days, brisk April showers, longer evenings, trees bursting forth into leaf and blossom dusting the pavements of my hometown.  It’s a beauty to watch the transformation a little sunlight and warmth can bring.

Last year, Easter fell this week and we headed south to Spain for a few days.  The magnolias were in bloom, the trees lush with fresh new foliage and skies blue.  It was the perfect antidote to the grey winter months we were only just leaving behind.

We spent a couple of nights in Madrid (you can read our visit in Eating your way around Madrid: One tapas at a time) before jumping on the train to medieval Toledo for our last two days.  Baking in the spring sunshine beside the river, and within the old stone walls, Toledo seemed glorious.  Although we only spent twenty four hours in this little slice of Spanish history, I couldn’t have been happier that I picked this location for our last night.

So, if you’re looking for some spring delight, you’ve found it here.  It’s my guide to exploring the fortified town of Toledo, one tapas at a time.

Tell me about Toledo

Toledo is a ancient yet lively walled town situated in the region of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain.  It’s only half an hour from central Madrid by train, making it the perfect addition to a trip to the Spanish capital.

The station alone makes quite the architectural statement, with nods to the some the Moorish style buildings you’ll find within the town.  But, situated a little way from both the newer town and historic walled centre, it feels quite an innocuous arrival.  Follow the signs from the station and you’ll be wondering what the fuss is all about for a moment.  There’s a main road and some modern buildings in the distance, but nothing to write home about.  Suddenly the road bears round to the left and the old town, in all it’s glory, arrives in front of you perched above the river on a rocky outcrop.

Getting into the old town means crossing an ancient fortified bridge, then trekking up a couple of narrow, stone walled alleys.  There are easier ways to do it (look out for the extraordinary sight of escalators criss-crossing the outer walls in places), but they’re not quite as fun.  Eventually you’ll arrive in the centre of town, in the Plaza de Zocodover.

Old streets of Toledo, Spain

At this point in your journey, you’ll have to accept that Toledo – even out of season – is a very popular tourist destination, especially for coach trippers staying in, or visiting, nearby Madrid.  We arrived at midday and were slightly dismayed to find that the square was packed full of school kids and chain restaurants that contradicted the fabulous entrance we’d experienced.  But don’t let this put you off.  And let me share our secret for making the most of a visit to this little town.  Stay for the night!  As the sun goes down, the crowds melt away and a new-old city emerges – atmospheric, alive with locals and full of quiet corners to enjoy a few drinks and tapas.

Where to explore in Toledo during the day

Head outside the city walls when the streets are packed.  Our favourites? Exploring the riverside footpaths encircling the city, and Toledo’s Roman past.

Take a walk along the river

From the Puente de Alcantara you can get down onto a waterside path that tracks around the old town.  It gives you a different perspective on the town – you’ll see views you just won’t find by road, and stumble across unexpected picnic spots and pretty houses aplenty.

The Rio Tajo in Toledo, Spain

Follow the path to the Puente de San Martin (a bridge that’s worth a visit in it’s own right, for it’s panoramic views) and cross over, away from the old town.  Take a left turn and head up the hill for a couple hundred metres.  On your left you’ll see a signpost and path leading to the chapel of La Cabeza.  From here, you can look down on old Toledo from a completely different angle – it’s a great way to get a feel for where the largest, monumental buildings sit within the walls.

View of Toledo from La Cabeza chapel

Take a walk back in time

Toledo began life as an Roman trading town, with strategic importance at the centre of the Iberian peninsula.  It was a focal point for the many farming communities that surrounded it, and sported as it’s pièce-de-resistance a phenomenal arena or ‘circus’ that hosted sporting events and markets with crowds tens of thousands strong.  Incredibly, substantial parts of this vast structure still remain, peppering a little park that’s sandwiched between the new and old town.  They give clues to the vastness of the arena – as well as it’s impregnable construction.

Roman amphitheatre in Toledo Spain

Where to explore in Toledo on a evening

The early evening is the perfect time to stroll the cities meandering streets.  Pop your head inside cavernous churches, soak up the sun with a beer or two in a streetside cafe, and seek out hidden squares and courtyards tucked away within the old city walls.

Sunset over city rooftops in Toledo, Spain

Take in the monumental buildings of Toledo – the Alcazar, the Cathedral, the many churches – like the locals do, on an evening stroll.  And with gift shops and tourist cafes shuttered up for the day, look out for signs of life that have remained unchanged for decades, even centuries.  Hand-painted signs on the rendered exterior of town houses hint at the traditional industries and trades that have contributed to Toledo’s wealth and success over the years.   Pretty little trees in blossom bore signs of the summer that was to come.

Hand-painted signs in Toledo, Spain

Where to explore in Toledo on an early morning

This little Spanish city is especially magical first thing in the morning when the streets are quiet, but the sun gives Toledo and the surrounding hillsides and plains a glow you won’t see once it’s fully risen.  Get up early and circumnavigate the city walls at first light, and enjoy the fresh air by the river.  It’s a wonderful place to run, if that’s your thing.  Or enjoy breakfast whilst watching the world go by from an old-fashioned cafe – tasty suggestions coming up.

Rio Tajo in Toledo Spain

Where to eat and drink in Toledo

Toledo is a curious place.  As it metamorphoses from day to night, the somewhat generic restaurants and eateries packing the main square largely disappear as the evening approaches.  It makes finding food more of a challenge, but I like a challenge.  Fortunately, Toledo doesn’t fall short and there’s plenty to find if you’re willing to explore.

If cooking is your thing, head straight to Calle Coliseo (better earlier in the day than later) to scout out the traditional market that’s home to butchers, grocers, pescaterias and a handy supermarket.  You won’t find better for authentic ingredients in town, and it makes a good stop if you want to grab a few indulgent essentials for a picnic lunch or breakfast.

If you’re hoping for someone else to do the hard work in the kitchen, make like a local and head to the Mercado de San Augustin just off Calle Silleria.  More of a streetfood market, this recently renovated building is home to a handful of bars and restaurants across three floors offering up tapas, drinks and more on an evening.  We found it packed with students (Toledo has a university campus nearby, and students are usually a good sign of fun and inexpensive food) forming a great long queue at Show Burguer.  Not wanting to miss out, we joined the queue and tucked into gourmet burgers topped with local specialities.

As the night was still young, we meandered our way through the warm streets looking for somewhere to quench our thirst.  We happily stumbled across La Maquerida de la Trinidad on the corner of Calle Trinidad.  Charmed by the looks of it’s cosy interior, we retreated inside to enjoy a few beers and some of the most delicious complementary tapas I’ve ever enjoyed.  Just don’t tell the owner we’d already eaten – we were enjoying woofing down delicious mouthfuls of homemade tortilla and little pinxos.

Lastly, if there is one meal I love most in Spain, it’s breakfast.  We popped to the charming La Papa next door to our hostel to fill our boots.  The very reasonably priced €3.50 ‘energetica’ breakfast left me comfortably full of pan con tomate, tostada and tortilla, and their cafe con leches tasted as good as any I’d savoured in Madrid’s more upmarket coffee shops.

Where to stay in Toledo

I can’t recommend the hostel where we stayed in Toledo enough.  Even if you think you’re not into hosteling, think twice before you decide this gem isn’t for you! (and I don’t use exclamation marks lightly).  The Oasis Hostel Toledo was simple but perfect.  The central location is fabulous, and our room was comfortable, beautifully presented and had two rather-romantic french doors looking out onto the sleepy street below.

Oh, and the best bit?  This view from the roof terrace;

View from Oasis Hostal Toledo in Spain

A private room with en-suite came in at just under €50 per night (for two guests) in April.  The stunning views? Priceless.

The verdict

Toledo is worth a day of any traveller’s time, with it’s wealth of history, charming streets, sleepy cafes and panoramic views. But to see the real Toledo, time your trip right. Soak up the morning sun as the city slowly comes to life. Sip a cold beer and nibble tapas outside a cafe as the sun sinks golden below the spires and rooftops of this ancient town.  And step beyond the streets well-trodden to see signs of centuries of life in this atmospheric little place you’ll be glad you discovered.

Have you visited Toledo? What hidden gems did you stumble across?


The practical bit

We flew to Madrid in April 2016 with Easyjet and travelled to Toledo by train with Renfe, the Spanish rail network, from Madrid’s Atocha Station.  A return ticket cost €20.60.

Our bed for the night was at the beautiful Oasis Hostal Toledo, one of the most recommendable hostels I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in.

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24 hours in Toledo,, Spain: A city guide

Dublin in a weekend: A city break at the heart of the Emerald Isle

Dublin is a crowd pleaser when it comes to weekend breaks – it’s great value, architecturally beautiful and astonishingly good fun.  Whether you’re looking to soak up the local culture, explore the fantastic selection of eateries and restaurants or want to catch a breath of fresh air by the sea, the Irish capital has it all.

Choosing the perfect location for a weekend break can be hard.

As you start juggling travel time, convenience and cost amongst other things, you can pretty quickly realise you’ve killed the magic by picking a location just because it was practical.

Fortunately, I think we’ve found the answer to the question “Where’s fun and easy to visit in a weekend?”.  It’s Dublin: a compact city packed full of culture, good craic and glorious architecture that’s also less than an hours flight from London.  There’s a plethora of airlines flying daily to the Irish capital from airports large and small across the UK and Europe – and you’re right in the thick of things as soon as you arrive.  With no long transfers or complicated transport networks to negotiate you can crack straight on with the job of enjoying yourself.

We headed across the Irish Sea for a long weekend at the end of February and surprised ourselves with how much fun (and good food) you can squeeze into three days.  So, jump on board with my city guide as I show you how to spend 48 hours on the Emerald Isle – where to go, what to do and what to eat in Dublin.

Day 1:  Barbecues, Temple Bar and the river Liffey

We spent our first day getting to know central Dublin, and the banks of the river Liffey.

After checking into our hotel we crossed the Ha’Penny bridge (a pretty wrought iron number that is one of several pedestrian bridges spanning the river) and headed to Temple Bar.  It’s a good place to start exploring, with inviting cobbled streets and bustling venues whatever time of day you arrive.  Ignore it’s reputation as party central (unless you’re here just for the craic, in which case dive straight in) if that’s not your thing, as the Georgian buildings, cafes and restaurants makes it worth a wander.

From here, it’s an easy stroll to some of Dublin’s central landmarks that are worth a look – St. Patrick’s cathedral with it’s formal gardens, St. Stephen’s Green (a centrepoint in Ireland’s political history) and the graceful quadrangle of Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest university.  Grafton Street leads you back towards Temple Bar along the city’s main thoroughfare, a busy shopping street with plenty of places to grab a coffee (or a doughnut at the Rolling Donut – you won’t be able to resist) if you need a bit of sustenance.

View of the docklands along the river Liffey, Dublin

If you’ve not had enough of pounding the pavements, head out of the centre and along the river a little way.  The docklands have seen substantial redevelopment over the last fifteen years, and striking modern offices and apartments jostle for space between renovated warehouses along the waterfront.  Follow the northern bank of the river and pause for a moment to take in the famine memorial, a poignant reminder of a heart-breaking period in Ireland’s history.  Cross over the eyecatching Sean O’Casey bridge and explore the Grand Canal basin, keeping your eyes peeled for some great murals along the way.

Running wolf mural along the river Liffey in Dublin, Ireland

Now, if you’re like us, you’re probably pretty hungry by this time.  It might seem tempting to head to Temple Bar or retreat to somewhere close to your hotel if you’re after something to eat.  Instead, go a little further south of the river to the area around St. Georges Street and George Street Arcade to find a cornucopia of cafes and restaurants.  You’ll be spoilt for choice, because if there’s one thing Dublin knows how to do it’s amazing food.

We made a beeline for the highly recommended – and highly recommendable – Pitt Bros BBQ.  It’s one of those magic places that you know must be good, because you can’t make reservations and service ends “when the meat runs out”.  It’s a cracker of a restaurant, serving up barbecue favourites with succulent sides and an imaginative drinks menu.  We opted to try the  Pitt Bros. original ribs and the St. Louis ribs with a bucketload of sides, and tucked in for a feast.  We loved it.  And, as if it couldn’t get any better, once we finally finished our plates we got to go and help ourselves to a big old Mr Whippy from the in-house ice cream machine.  What more could a girl want?

Pitt Bros. BBQ in Dublin, Ireland
Pitt Bros. BBQ in Dublin

After dinner, stroll the streets awhile to get feel for Dublin alive at night.  Dublin castle is particularly picturesque lit up, but lets be honest. You’re going to want to head to a pub.  We nipped into the Brazen Head, allegedly the city’s oldest pub, to nurse a pint by the fire.  I hate to admit it but it felt a little packed full of tourists and lacking in atmosphere.  So we embraced a little of Temple Bar spirit for the rest of night, ending up more through luck than judgement in the quirky Buskers on the ball.  Walk through the doors and into the basement to discover it’s definitely not your average watering hole.  Instead it’s quite wonderfully home to a vast number of table tennis, fussball and air hockey tables in place of your average bar furniture.  Grab a drink, challenge your travelling companions to a game and enjoy – we thought it was great.

Day 2:  Brunch, botanicals and stand-up comedy

We got going on day two with brunch at the Art Cafe, nestled under railway arches to the north of the river.  A little way out from the centre it meant fantastic value for money, with hearty food and plentiful tea and coffee for less than €7 per head.

Art Cafe in Dublin, Ireland
Art Cafe, Dublin

Art Cafe features an ever-changing collection of works from local artists.  But it doesn’t stop here.  If you’re here on a Sunday morning like us, head over to Merrion Square for art by the armful.  The railings around the outside of this pretty garden become an impromptu gallery once a week where local artists display prints and original pieces for sale.  It’s a great way to see to see Dublin and the Irish landscape through the eyes of some wonderfully creative sorts.

If the weather has got the better of you, don’t despair, explore the delightful Dublin City Gallery instead.  Behind the picturesque Georgian townhouse facade you’ll find an impressive collection that includes stunning local works, Impressionist masterpieces and the Francis Bacon studio, dedicated to one of the city’s most famous sons.  It’s also free of charge, so it’s a worthwhile trip even if you’re tight for time.

With a full day to play with, take the opportunity to explore a little farther out from the city centre.  Looking for a little splash of spring on a cloudy winters afternoon, we optimistically headed to the National Botanic Gardens, about 3 miles north of the river.

Bird of paradise in the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin

Even when the weather’s not on your side you can potter to your hearts content around the graceful glasshouses, the sweeping lawns or explore the native woodland.  Look out for the collections of tropical plants and orchids on a grey day, or warm up with a brew in the cafe just inside the gates.  The palm houses were a joy (and a good place to warm up!).

Having trekked a fair few miles over the course of the day (we walked to the Botanic Gardens, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you’re feeling pretty intrepid.  There’s helpfully a bus that will do the hard work for you), we decided that we’d earned ourselves some afternoon tea.  Brother Hubbard was a chance to get to know Capel Street, with it’s brightly coloured buildings and eclectic mix of shops, as well as what might be the best scones known to man.  Pop in for a ganache hot chocolate (yup, that tastes as good as it sounds) and stay for a cheeky slice of cake, brunch or dinner.  It may be a little on the upmarket side, but the cosy atmosphere and fabulous aromas make it worth the while.

Umbrellas on display in Temple Bar, Dublin

We meandered back into the thick of things as darkness started to fall.  Close to George Street Arcade you’ll find Jo’Burger – the sort of place dreams are made of after a long day on your feet.  We retreated into the warmth to fill ourselves with juicy burgers topped with magical combinations: mushroom, cheese and bacon for Mr, sweet beetroot and horseradish for me.  Oh, and trust me when I say try the lemonade.  Their home-made citrus-y combinations are ridiculously good, and the lime and ginger was winner for us.  All in all, another thoroughly recommendable spot to eat that promised and delivered delicious food.

To finish off our day, we had one of life’s lucky moments.  There are plenty of things we plan when we travel, and plenty that we don’t.  Sometimes we just go for a wander and see what we find.  Fancying an after-dinner drink we found ourselves in the Stags Head in Temple Bar, a stunning building with an old fashioned bar and stained glass windows.  This in itself made it a good find.  What we hadn’t banked on was discovering that they host free stand-up comedy gigs every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night in their basement.

One thing led to another (or one drink led to another, something like that) and we ended up spending our evening with a front row seat for some of Ireland’s best comedians.  I couldn’t recommend it enough.  We laughed, drank, laughed even more, and somehow managed to get a free ice cream, again.  If you’re in Dublin don’t miss The Comedy Crunch – it’s wonderful!

Day 3: Cafes, coast paths and chippies

We wanted to venture a little way out of the city on our last day.  As with any good plan, it started with a good breakfast – this time at The Woollen Mills, close to Ha’Penny Bridge.  This cafe is a Dublin institution, even if it’s hipster interior belies it.  We tucked into huge plates of delicious food over a morning cuppa and watched the world go by outside.

Breakfast at The Woolen Mills, Dublin
Breakfast at the Woollen Mills, Dublin

Suitably filled, we headed to Tara Street station and hopped on a train to Howth.  Less than half an hour away from the city centre, Howth is a pretty fishing village perched on a windswept peninsula, looking out across the Irish Sea.  Dubliners love this place and it’s not hard to see why.  The colourful terraced houses, restored waterfront warehouses now home to fish restaurants and oyster bars, the views across to water to the pretty little offshore island of Ireland’s Eye: it’s everything you’d hope to find by the sea.

Happily, there are miles and miles of coastal path leading to, from and around Howth.  We occupied a pleasant, if a little windy, couple of hours exploring the coastline and taking in the views across the water.

Sea views from Howth near Dublin, Ireland

Contented after a few hours of walking, we warmed ourselves up with chips on the seafront before returning to the quaint little station.

If you can squeeze in time, make sure that you’ve explored the area around St. Georges Street by day before you leave.  Georges Street Arcade is a fabulous brick and iron structure packed with quirky shops and market stalls and some fantastic places to grab a bite to eat if you’re about to make a dash to the airport.  We stopped at Lolly And Cooks for homemade takeaway hotpot (divine) and to gaze longingly at their sweet treats – a happy end to a happy trip.

St. Georges Arcade, Dublin
Pretty cafes and florists dotted outside the entrance to Georges Street Arcade

Have you visited Dublin?  Let me know your recommendations – and what you’d include in a travel guide for this happy city.


The practical bit

We flew to Dublin with Ryanair in February for less than £30 per person – proof that great value flights are out there!  From Dublin airport it’s an easy bus ride on the Airlink Express into the heart of things.  A return ticket cost €10 and appears to be open-ended.

Normally, I’d let you know where we stayed – but we didn’t love the place and therefore it wouldn’t feel right.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a comfortable enough roof over our heads on Lower Gardiner Street, but I’d love to hear your suggestions if you’ve visited Dublin and found somewhere great to stay.  Hotel?  Hostel?  What would you recommend?

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Dublin in a weekend: A city break at the heart of the Emerald Isle

Beautiful Bath: The jewel in Somerset’s crown

The Georgian city of Bath might be best-known for it’s graceful architecture and Roman heritage, but it’s also a city break location that’s packed with contemporary cafes, regional food and quirky shopping streets that’ll keep you busy for days.

I’m the first to admit that I’m terrible at exploring my home country.  Somehow, making the most of where I live can pale into insignificance when I get excited about planning another trip abroad.  So, I’m making a definitely-not-a-new-years-resolution-because-it’s-only-December.  I want to better know my own little piece of England.

First on the list?  The beautiful city of Bath.

What’s so great about Bath?

Bath is a picturesque little city in rural southwest England whose petite size means that it’s just right for exploring in a day.  Packed with independent cafes, local restaurants, stylish shops and stunning Georgian architecture, it’s a delightful getaway that offers something for everyone.

Set in the heart of the lush green county of Somerset, it’s also surrounded by idyllic countryside.  Old-fashioned market towns full of cream-coloured sandstone cottages pepper the local landscape and make Bath feel a million miles away from London.    That said, it’s also surprisingly easy to reach by train from Bristol, Cardiff or London – or by road from much of the southwest.

The Royal Crescent, Bath, UK
The Royal Crescent, Bath

The city is best known to many for its Roman baths (the reason for my only previous visit, almost twenty years ago) and Georgian thermae spa – where you can still indulge in the authentic spa experience.  But, these weren’t on the cards for our visit one misty winter morning.  You only need to step into the warren of streets lined with higgledy-piggledly sandstone shopfronts and Georgian arcades to know that there is much more to see.

So, what can I do in Bath?

Shop, eat, explore, repeat.

I’m not a big shopper, but Bath has a delightful mixture of high-end stores, quirky independent retailers and British high-street stalwarts.  Look out for the Corridor – an elegant glazed gallery of shops and restaurants – and Bath Market, which is still home to a quintessentially British mixture of old-fashioned market traders.  The facades alone are worth seeing, even if the stylish window displays aren’t enough to lure you in.

As someone who rates drinking-coffee-whilst-eating-pastries pretty highly on my list of favourite activities, we found that Bath spoilt us rotten.  Independent coffee shops and bakeries seem to be on every street corner, tempting us with sweet and savoury delights.  We started our day by heading straight to The Thoughtful Bread Co where we grabbed coffee and a most delicious apple crumble pastry.  Had we been staying in town longer it would have been a perfect stop for a lazy brunch or to stock up on their artisan breads for a gourmet picnic.

On the opposite side of town is Made by Ben, where you can enjoy your coffee and pastries (in this case homemade sausage rolls: mine was packed with flavoursome, roasted butternut squash and goats cheese) sitting next to the coal fire in the snug, looking out over the rooftops from the window.  And if you want to grab something caffeinated and locally roasted, stop at one of two Society Cafés in town.  Pull up a stool at the window to watch the world go by, and order a hot chocolate made with luscious Willie’s Cacao.

Once you’ve had your fill of deliciousness, simply stroll the beautiful streets and passageways.  Soak up the timeless views of the Royal Crescent, find picture-perfect townhouses, circumnavigate the circus.  Georgian Bath is quite simply stunning.

And you should go, now

There’s three excellent reasons.

One. You can avoid the crowds.  Yes, Bath is busy at any time of year.  It’s a bustling University city.  But away from the peak summer season you’ll find far fewer coach-trips and spend more of your time sharing streets with the locals.

Two. Winter time is beautiful.  From the twinkling lights in glorious shop window displays to the artful-lighted Abbey, the city has incredible charm after the sun has set.  But before this time arrives, the late afternoon sunshine and golden hour can be spectacular.  Watch the sun set behind Pulteney Bridge or over the Royal Crescent to see Bath bathed in it’s best light.

Bath's Georgian streets at sunset

Three. It’s full of Christmas cheer.  Whilst we tend to think of Germany and other northern European countries when it comes to Christmas markets, Bath proves that the UK can more than compete.  Hundreds of market stalls selling everything from beautiful handicrafts, local preserves and gifts galore can be found clustered around the Abbey and Abbey Green.  Yes, it’s packed, but it’s also packed with atmosphere and Christmas cheer. When you’ve had your fill of browsing, head to the après bar for some faux-Alpine festivities or tuck into a delicious gourmet burger or pie from one of the many streetfood stalls.

Bath Abbey UK at sunset
Bath Abbey at dusk

Bath is practically perfect at this time of year.  It’s bewitching charms are timeless and season-less.  So, by all means come and enjoy a day, week or more in the summer sunshine – but if can get here now, do.  Embrace the season of hot drinks, warm hearts and frosty mornings in the wonderful southwest.


The practical bit

Bath is easy to reach by road or rail.  Bath Spa station is on the London – Exeter mainline with services running early until late seven days a week.  If you’re travelling by car, take advantage of the city’s Park & Ride services.  They’re cheaper and easier than parking in the city centre, and you get a chance to take in the view over the city as you approach by double-decker bus.

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Beautiful Bath: the jewel in Somerset's crown

Bratislava in a day: Cobbled streets and cafes, Slovakian style

Old town charm and 20th century brutalist architecture collide in the east-meets-west capital city of Slovakia. With a burgeoning creative scene and delightfully good food, my city guide shares what not to miss in a day in Bratislava.

Last month we spent a fantastic few days in Vienna (you can read all about it in Oh, Vienna! Coffee, castles and craft beers in Austria’s capital if you’re curious).  Not knowing much about this part of Austria, we were excited to discover just how close the city is to the border with Slovakia – and it’s capital, Bratislava.  Once I’d realised it was less than an hour away by train, I was sold.  Two capitals in one short break?  Irresistible.

So, one hazy October morning, we found ourselves at the main station in Vienna, with coffee and pastries in hand, hopping on the intercity train.

Bratislava Hlavna station feels worlds away from Vienna Hauptbahnhof in spite of the short journey.  Bustling, lively and filled with the sweet scent of pastries, it has a slight sense of faded grandeur that’s rather charming.

The station doesn’t land you right in the midst of things, which gives you a chance to get a feel for the place.  Arriving in Bratislava feels like you’ve arrived in Central Europe, the streets are lined with a mismatch of elegant Viennese-style townhouses – some more threadbare, some more opulent – alongside mid-twentieth century brutalist office buildings and hotels.  But the city immediately felt like it had a warmth to it, and a pleasant fifteen minute walk took us to the edge of the old town.  Seemingly out of nowhere, a towering verdigris spire appeared and a cluster of colourful buildings lured us in through the old St. Michaels city gate, and into a world of narrow cobbled streets.

Archway in Bratislava old town

Bratislava old town

The old town is undeniably pretty.  We were lucky enough to visit on day when Bratislava was largely quite expect for a few tour groups and another British couple we bumped into.  So, we had many of the streets to ourselves, and joyfully meandered our way toward the castle, the focal point of the city.

Bratislava castle

The castle itself is fascinating for a number of reasons.  First of all, it’s a good starting point for any visit to Bratislava, as it’s elevated location gives you a birds eye view of the city below.  It’s got plenty to explore inside and out, with little gardens bridging the divide between the old town and castle itself.

But what intrigued me most was that its appearances are somewhat deceptive.  Back in the early part of the twentieth century, the castle was essentially a ruin.  Years of neglect had left it a pitiful state, and it sat next to one of the poorest communities within Bratislava – old photographs that can be seen along parts of the city wall mark it almost unrecognisable.  Then, during the 1950’s inspiration struck and the city began a restoration project to bring it back to life, with a few creative flourishes of course.  Today, the castle is the icing on the cake to the fairytale old town, but peer into it’s history and it’s even more interesting than you might expect.

Church in Bratislava old town

After orientating ourselves and exploring the castle walls, we headed back into the old town.  There’s plenty to keep you occupied for a few hours here.  Two squares mark the epicentre of town, Hlvana namestie and Hviezdoslavovo namestie, and both are lined with colourful buildings and cafes.  Wander the nearby narrow streets to find lots of tempting places to eat and drink, many with comfy chairs and cosy blankets outside calling us to make the most of the fine October weather.  There are a pretty churches, fountains and old gateways to be found – and we happily followed our feet for a while.

Eating and drinking in Bratislava

Deciding that some refreshments were in order, we headed just outside the old town to the well-recommended Urban Space – a coffee shop cum bookshop cum workspace that was packed with locals rather than tourists.  Aside from the supremely cool interior, they served super coffee and we enjoyed browsing their substantial English language books selection.

Urban Space coffee shop Bratislava

Fortified, we continued on towards Obchodna, one of the cities main streets leading away from the old town.  Mostly pedestrianised, it’s lined with high street shops, restaurants and takeaways, and feels much more like the real Bratislava.  We’d heard of a vegan canteen here, and intrigued, we thought it would make a refreshing change for lunch.  We weren’t disappointed, Veggie was tucked away in a glass-roofed galeria just off the main street and offered the most delicious spread.  Once we’d worked out how it worked – you grab a tray, pick and serve your main dish such as lasagna or quiche, add salad and sides and then pay for your lunch based on the weight of your plate – we tucked into heaps of delicious food for, incredibly, less than €4 each.  The menu changes through the week, but if you’re there and spot the roasted pumpkin quiche – go for it!

Out and about

Before heading back toward the old town, we took a stroll through nearby Freedom Square and the Presidential Gardens.  They juxtapose each other oddly perfectly.  Freedom Square was created in the 1980’s and reflects the socialist era architecture of this time, whilst the formal Presidential Gardens are over a hundred years old.  They frame the beautifully restored Presidential Palace – look out for the President’s Honor guard standing to attention throughout the day at the front of the building.

Cobbled streets in Bratislava old town

Of course, it’s possible to spend a whole day pottering around the pretty streets of the old town, stopping for a coffee here and there and a spot of lunch.  But we wanted to get a different perspective on the city before we left.  Heading out of the old town behind the castle, we followed city streets for about ten minutes before turning off into a quieter residential area.  From here, an uphill walk of about fifteen minutes takes you to Slavin, a monumental memorial to soldiers of the Soviet Army who fell during the liberation of Bratislava.  It’s a tranquil, if sobering, spot that overlooks the city below.  Even on a hazy day, you can see for miles – the castle perched atop the old town, the snaking river Danube spanned by the anachronistic UFO bridge and a patchwork of homes, churches and woodland below.  It’s well worth the walk.

View of Bratislava castle

So, would I recommend a visit?  Absolutely.  Bratislava the perfect size to explore in a day or two, with the old town as a base.  And it’s location makes it so easy to incorporate into a break or travel around Vienna, Prague, Budapest or even Krakow.  Hold on a moment – let me find my passport, that sounds like it could be a plan…


The practical bit

A day return from Vienna Hauptbahnhof costs €16, and the journey takes less than an hour.  Trains depart hourly throughout the day.  Grab yourself a pastry from the station bakery and go get yourself a seat.

You can read more about our city break in Vienna in Oh Vienna!  Coffee, castle and craft beers in Austria’s capital.

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Bratislava in a day: Cobbled streets and cafes, Slovakian-style

Oh, Vienna! Coffee, castles and craft beers in Austria’s capital

Sophisticated, stylish and utterly enchanting, Vienna is the perfect city break location for food and drink fans and architecture aficionados. It’s also surprisingly budget friendly.

I love getting away in the autumn.  There’s something peaceful about cities where normality has resumed after a summer of visitors and visiting.  It’s a time of year that’s cold enough for seeking out hand and heart-warming hot drinks, yet warm enough to explore.  And streets and spaces are alive with the bold colours of turning leaves, just before the first frosts step in.

Vienna hadn’t been on the cards, but with plans to get away this October we stumbled across some great value flights and something piqued my curiosity. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of Austrian après ski in the past, but if I’m honest it hadn’t crossed my mind to explore the country’s cities before. Delightfully, Vienna turned out to be fantastic little city for a short break – packed with great places to eat and drink, stylish architecture and graceful green spaces.

We spent four nights in Vienna at the end of October, when the weather was cool but comfortable enough to be outside all day.  Two days were about right for exploring the city streets, another was spent walking in the vineyards close to the city limits and strolling the gardens of the city’s spectacular palaces, and on our last remaining full day we visited nearby Bratislava.

Where should I wander in Vienna?

In a new city, I love to get started by finding by bearings. Vienna’s easy to explore, with the old town – Alt Stadt – the metaphorical and geographical heart of things. Circumnavigating the Alt Stadt is the ring road, or Ringstraβe The name doesn’t do it justice, as here you can find Vienna’s grandest palaces, parliament, town hall and museums. Just follow the road, or hop on the tram for grandeur in abundance, as well as the real life workings of a major European capital city.

Buildings on Vienna's ring road
Glorious buildings on Vienna’s Ringstraβe

Within the ring road you’ll find a living, breathing city centre. Winding cobbled streets jostle for room amongst patisseries, high street and high end stores. Cathedrals sit next door to cafes. The city centre isn’t the preserve of tourists, there’s a little bit of Vienna here for everyone. Take a couple of hours to meander your way around. You’ll find the stables of the Spanish Riding School a few doors down from department stores, craft breweries round the corner from offices. We found ourselves in the Alt Stadt several times during our few days in Vienna and loved soaking up the changing, but always enjoyable, atmosphere at different times of day.

Kunst museum Vienna
Kunst museum, Vienna

And whatever you do, follow your feet to the Cafe Alt Wien. With the walls plastered with posters for art shows and waiters with old fashioned aprons, this place oozes charm and a sense of the real old city. It’s not a get up for show – the décor really is stuck up with sticky tape – it’s a proper cosy, smoky, cafe that serves beer in steins and real coffee. Oh, and their hot chocolate’s not bad either.

Should I stop for a drink?

Whilst we’re on the subject of coffee, Vienna is the place to come if that’s your cup of tea. Whilst the French and Italians might be the first place you think of when it comes to something to wake you up in the morning, but it turns out the Viennese know a thing or two. Add into the equation a coffee shop on every corner and you’ll be looking for an excuse to visit when it’s cold enough to curl up indoors at any given opportunity (this was my plan).

In all seriousness,Vienna has an amazing number of cafes – from the old fashioned like the Alt Wien, to hipster coffee roasters and even a cycle cafe in between (Give the cycle cafe a go, the owner seems a terribly nice man in spite of our best attempts to confuse him). Four days wasn’t enough to even scratch the surface, but I enjoyed enough cups of coffee to be confident there’s no such thing as a bad coffee in this city.

And when something a little stronger is needed, Vienna turns out to be a craft beer pleaser. Maybe we just hit the jackpot, but we found several amazing little brauhauses, each of which were brewing their own beer within the city limits. We enjoyed gulasch with our weissbiers and bocks at 7 Stern Brau, a scaled down version of a Bavarian bierkeller. Looking for a little more local atmosphere, we found great beers (and pretzels) at the 1516 Brewing Company in the old town. From the outside it looks a little like a generic restaurant chain, but step through the door and it’s the opposite of what you might expect. Rammed with locals on a Wednesday night, it’s dark, loud and brimming with people having a good time – expect to fight for a seat, but it’ll be worthwhile.

Looking for the perfect compromise? A little further out from the centre we found The Brickmakers (nope, never got to the bottom of the English name). They brew their own beers, and always have at least 20 craft beers and ciders on tap. Plus they do barbecue. Really good barbecue. I know it’s tempting to want to try some beerhall classics, but don’t underestimate how much some good pulled pork, slaw, mashed potato and Austrian-brewed beer can be after a long day exploring. I’d visit again in a flash.

How about further afield?

Wonderfully, there is more to Vienna than just city streets. Grab a travel card and take tram out to Nuβdorf, a suburb on the outskirts of the city. Here, the houses dissipate into rows of vineyards as you enter Austrian wine country. If I’ve led you astray to think that beer is always the beverage of choice for the Viennese, I’d be very wrong.

vienna_28_e

Small family-run vineyards dot the low hills surrounding the city, and are beautiful to explore. In the autumn sunshine, we were greeted by a cacophony of golds, coppers and greens. We followed the Stadtwanderweg 1, which weaves for 5-6 miles along largely paved routes through the vines to the top of the Kahlenberg and back to Nuβdorf. From here, you can look down over the city and the river below – unless of course, you manage to visit on a distinctly hazy day like us which necessitated a game of guess where Vienna is!

Vienna skyline and vineyards

If time is short or you’d rather stay central there are plenty of green spaces closer to the city centre worthy of investigating. The Prater park is one of the largest, squeezed between the languid river Danube and the Donaukanal. With it’s long, straight avenues of trees drizzling autumn leaves on us, it was a good spot for running or just a stroll, although it’s famous pleasure park was a bit of a damp squib in October.

For something rather more sophisticated, the gardens of Vienna’s two largest palaces – the Schönbrunn and Belvedere – make for an ideal spot for a promenade or picnic. Schönbrunn may be a little further from the centre but more than makes up for this with it’s vast scale. We spent a pleasant hour or so getting lost in the gardens, and following the crowds to the Gloriette glasshouse for a panoramic view of the palace. The Belvedere is only a few minutes walk from the city centre, and was one of my favourite spots in all Vienna. What it lacks in size compared to Schönbrunn, it more than makes up for in elegance. If you’re an early riser, head here for a morning wander or run to see first light falling on the city below.

Schloss Belvedere Vienna
Belvedere Palace in the early morning

We also headed to Vienna’s Slovakian neighbour, Bratislava, for a day – it’s less than an hour by train and a colourful, chaotic little city that we loved.  You can find out more in my city guide Bratislava in a day | Cobbled streets and cafes, Slovakian style.

Anything I’ve missed?

On any trip, no matter how much being out and about is my favourite way to spend the day, there’ll always come a time when it’s too cold or dark to be out any longer. My recommendation? Enjoy the Albertina. It’s a stunningly beautiful gallery from an architectural perspective (visit the staterooms on the first floor for a glimpse of what life was like for previous residents of the palace), but I was blown away by how well curated the exhibits were – every floor told a story.

And finally, breakfast

I beg your pardon, I hear you say. One of my favourite things we did in Vienna? We enjoyed breakfast out. Most cafes offer breakfast, ranging from a simple croissant and coffee to a more continental affair with eggs, cheeses and meats, usually with some sort of healthier granola-type of affair thrown in. But on our last day, we went to town (literally) and treated ourselves to breakfast at Josef’s bakery in Wien-Mitte. Josef’s is an organic bakery and food store that also has a sit-down breakfast menu – if you can find a table. I could wax lyrical about how amazing the food was, but to give to give you a better idea, it came with a steak knife and looked like this;

Italian breakfast at Josef's backerei, Vienna

Now I’m sure it’s not traditionally Austrian (actually, it was called an Italian) but it was delicious and set us up for one last day pounding the streets. If we’d had room after our huge breakfasts we’d have grabbed a sweet treat to take away for munching whilst exploring.


The practical bit

We flew to Vienna from London Gatwick with Easyjet, and stayed at the smart and comfortable NH Hotel Belvedere which is handily located a ten minute walk from the Alt Stadt and slightly more from the Wien Hauptbahnhof main station. It’s also a hop, skip and a jump from Renwegg station and a minutes walk from the beautiful gardens of the Schloβ Belvedere.

Getting from the airport to the city is easy – take the non-stop CAT train to Wien Hauptbahnhof or the regular suburban stopping service for a fraction of the cost. We mostly explored Vienna by foot, but a 24 hour travel pass is handy for exploring beyond the city centre.

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Oh, Vienna! Coffee, castles and craft beers in the Austrian capital