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

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

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

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

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.

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

4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Last summer we spent a week in the spectacular Bernese Oberland in Switzerland.  There’s a lot to love about this mountainous region, but it’s also a funny one.  The towns are neat and pretty and very Swiss, but they’re not all packed with character.  It’s an area that’s been welcoming tourists for well over a century, but in places feels a little like its heyday has been and gone.  There seems to be few people visiting to walk, camp and discover it’s wild wonders, yet many arriving to tick off photo opportunities and railway stations.

You could look at this and wonder, is this really somewhere to come and explore the mountains?  The answer is an emphatic yes. It doesn’t matter if the majority don’t fancy treading the mountain trails – you can adventure without crowds and enjoy the peacefulness of the alpine pastures.  It doesn’t matter if camping isn’t the most popular choice here – you can enjoy great campsites, in stunning locations, without steep prices and often without having to book ahead.  There’s an awful lot of reasons to give this region a chance.

Exploring Staubbach falls, a spectacular waterfall in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

For me, exploring the walking trails of this alpine region were the highlight of our trip.  And to be fair, one of the main reasons for coming here in the first place.  Nothing makes this spectacular landscape feel more alive than the crunch of stone underfoot, the heady scent of pollen from pasture flowers, the gentle lolling sound of bells around grazing cow’s necks and the feel of sun on your back.  Travelling slowly on foot gives you a chance to take it all in, spot the details and soak up the grandeur of it all – from the granite coloured peaks to the tiny alpine flowers peppering the meadows.

You can read my itinerary for a perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland here, but today I’d like to share my four favourite walks from our trip – and share the much-underrated side to this popular part of Switzerland.

A note on walking

This post tells the story of some our hikes – but isn’t intended as a guide or map to help you reach these locations.  If you’re planning on walking in this area, seek advice from the helpful folk at Interlaken Tourism who can point you in the direction of recognised routes.  You’ll also find many well-signposted paths with distances estimated in hours rather than kilometres that will help you plan your own adventures.  We’re experienced road and trail runners who were tackling challenging paths in good weather, it might not be possible to replicate these routes on your visit.

Hiking trails in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

1: Schynige Platte from Interlaken

There are dozens of routes that can be tackled from Interlaken, but this one is special thanks to the panoramic views over some of the iconic peaks and villages of the Bernese Oberland. At 2,076m, the climb to the top is not to be underestimated but is well worth it for the views over the Eiger, Monch and Jungfraujoch, and the valleys below.

From Interlaken we took a relatively gentle walk to Wilderswil, a small village 2km out from the town at the foot of the mountain. It’s a surprisingly pretty little village with considerably more charm than Interlaken itself, and an old centre dotted with ornamental chalets and a fantastic covered bridge. Wilderswil is worth a visit in it’s own right, but if you’re planning to tackle the mountain, it’s best to get started in plenty of time.

Wilderswil near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

A small path leads up into woodland from behind the church, and very quickly begins to steepen. At first, it weaves in and out of lush woodland and lowland pasture grazed by goats, ponies and the odd llama. Soon enough, you leave the meadows behind and the real climb begins under the cool dark trees. The woodland is ancient and impressive, but nothing compared to what you’ll find further up beyond the treeline. Occasionally, the mountain railway will cross your path as you head steadily up.

When we tackled this route the day began wet and overcast, but after an hour or two of climbing, as the trail headed upwards at a considerable rate, the sun began to break through the trees and cast dappled light across our path. We could tell that the forest was thinning, and before long the path ahead rose out of the tree line and into high alpine meadow.

While not an accurate half-way mark, the journey up is broken by the delightful discovery of the small railway station at Breitlauenen. The station is nestled between a dairy farm and a smattering of chalets, high in a meadow. It’s the most wonderfully idyllic spot, with breathtaking views down over both lakes Brienz and Thun, and the gentle low-pitched ring of cow bells from cattle grazing all around. The station master spends much of her time chasing chickens and sleepy cats from the line whenever a bell rings and a distant rumble warns of an impending train.

View over Interlaken and Lake Thun on a hike to Schynige Platte in the Bernese Oberland

From here, the climbing is less steep but you pass in turn through woodland, meadow and along rocky paths that increasingly test your courage as you encounter a few vertiginous drops to the side of the path. You move more slowly, but the views more than make up for it. All of a sudden you round a corner and find yourself at the station and the summit. You’re now looking down on the Grindelwald valley and the mighty Eiger at it’s head.  It’s a nice spot to stop at and simply take it all in. There are alpine gardens to meander around near the station and a cafe if you’re in need of something cold and refreshing.

It is possible to complete the climb and make it back down within a day, but for us an impending storm was closing in. The scurrying clouds and dark skies looked incredibly dramatic from this mountaintop viewpoint, but we needed to take the safe option this high up, so descended quickly to Breitlauenen just as rain started to fall, and sheltered in the wonderful quaint waiting room of the station until a train came along to take us back down to valley floor.

2: Lauterbrunnen – Stechelberg – Gimmelwald – Mürren – Lauterbrunnen, a circular route

This walk is a good way to get a feel for the magical valley of Lauterbrunnen.

Starting just outside Lauterbrunnen, we steadily meandered our way along the flat valley floor and through lush green fields in the direction of Stechelberg, at the head of valley. A quieter access road runs parallel to the main road (that mostly serves the Trummelbach Falls and gondola lift at Stechelberg), and you’ll find it largely empty aside from a few other walkers and the odd farmer. This alone is a beautiful walk, with some of the highest and most spectacular waterfalls in the whole valley as you approach to the small hamlet at Stechelberg. Between the crescendo of falling water and the roar of the river there’s quite a dramatic atmosphere.

Hiking in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Once in Stechelberg you have the choice of taking the gondola (cable car) up the mountain (services run throughout the year) or taking the old path up through the forest. We opted for the latter and began to scramble up the winding rocky path alongside a crashing waterfall. The path widens out after a short but steep climb and heads steadily uphill. After a couple of kilometres, the path emerges from the trees and chalet roofs start to pop up through the pasture. You’ve reached the edge of Gimmelwald (where you can also jump out at the mid-station of the gondola).

Waterfalls in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Gimmelwald is one of the most unspoilt alpine villages in the Bernese Oberland, in part because it’s one of the least accessible – it’s car-free, and mostly little farms and a cheery hostel. The village is perched on the edge of a hanging valley facing the imposing Breithorn mountain – which can be seen the length and breadth of the Lauterbrunnen valley. It’s a peaceful spot, with just other hikers and few goats for company.

Many of the farmhouses here sell produce from their front doors, so we indulged in fresh milk and the local Alpkäse cheese – thick and creamy and delicious beyond belief after our climb.

From Gimmelwald a paved road leads gently uphill without much of a view to hint at what’s beyond. What lies ahead is the picturesque and affluent ski resort of Mürren – a paradise of immaculately-presented Swiss chalets with balconies laden with cherry-red geraniums in August, cosy restaurants peddling hearty cuisine and jaw-dropping views across to Wengen (on the opposite side of the valley). We stopped and spent a little time exploring, and enjoying the welcoming atmosphere and an Alpkäse sandwich or two.

The pretty village of Gimmelwald, high up in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

You can return back down to the valley by mountain train or on foot from Mürren. The little train brings visitors and their luggage up the mountain from the main station in Lauterbrunnen and takes a scenic route winding through woodland. We took the forest road down on foot – a considerably longer walk than our route up but the road was much gentler as it wove between pastures and dense forest. As you head back down into the village below, views open up towards Wengen, high on the opposite side of the valley and also towards the far end of lake Thun, glistening in the distance.

The last part of the descent back down into Lauterbrunnen is steeper, but the sound of cow bells and the spire of the village church in the distance guides you into town. Put your feet up and enjoy a well-earned coffee and slice of cake at Airtime, a vibrant little cafe at the heart of this pretty but quiet village.

3: Kleine Scheidegg and Männlichen via Wengen

Truth be told, we weren’t blessed with good weather on our trip to the Bernese Oberland, in spite of it being summer. But the day that we tackled this route the sun finally came out, blazing all day long and leading, inevitably, to moderate sunburn and excessive photographing of alpine pasture. I just can’t help myself sometimes.

This route was probably the one I enjoyed most during our week here, as it climbs out of the Lauterbrunnen valley and into the Grindelwald valley, tucked away behind high peaks. It brings you unbelievably close to the Jungfraujoch and Monch – craggy rock faces topped with snow fill the horizon whilst you stroll short-sleeved through warm, flower-filled meadows.

Looking down the Lauterbrunnen valley near Interlaken in Switzerland as the morning sun comes up

As with the previous routes, there’s the option to take the mountain railway almost all the way to the top here, with stations at Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, so you can adapt the route to suit your fitness and enthusiasm.

Starting in Lauterbrunnen, we tackled the first path of the day, steeply, up through the trees to Wengen. It’s not a long walk but it was one of the most strenuous. Eventually you’ll be rewarded by the arrival of Wengen on the horizon, with it’s panoramic views and cheerful atmosphere. Like Mürren, Wengen is a ski resort with a long heritage. It hosts one of the most prestigious events in the World Cup series, and has a younger and more vibrant feel than it’s neighbour on the other side of the valley. You’ll find more chocolate-box chalets and grazing cattle here, but also a lively main street with cafes, bars and shops.

After you’ve explored Wengen, it’s time to head higher for the serious views. A forest road takes you up and away from the resort centre, heading towards Kleine Scheidegg at the col which sits between the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys. The climbing isn’t too hard here, and before you realise it you’ve risen out of the trees and are facing towards the snow-capped Jungfraujoch in all it’s glory. Kleine Scheidegg is a couple of kilometres from Wengen, sitting atop a little lake with a railway station and cluster of hotels and restaurants. It’s a real little community and meeting point for hikers coming up from both Wengen and Grindelwald, and well as tourists exploring on their return from the Jungfraujoch.

Alpine cattle at Mannlichen, above the resort of Wengen in Switzerland

But if you stop here and head home, you’ll have missed the chance to experience one more stunning views over the valleys – from Männlichen. A winding but largely flat path heads from the station in the direction of this peak that sits directly above Wengen. From here you can see not only see where you’ve come up from in Wengen and the valley, but also look down over lake Thun. The Männlichen gondola makes for an exciting descent back into town after a long day on your feet.

4: Grindelwald to First and Bachalpsee

The last hike of our trip to the Bernese Oberland was from the luscious Grindelwald valley up to First. It gives you a chance to view the magnificent Eiger and it’s glaciers as you climb higher, and there are hidden treats in the form of high alpine lakes and glaciated landscapes to capture your imagination.

Walking from Grindelwald to First allows you to discover fantastic views of the majestic Eiger

A trail rises up from centre of town at first on quiet road, and then on path and forest road, roughly following the route the gondola takes to First. The gondola crosses over the path high above your heads in places, whilst you weave between pasture and deep green woodland. About midway, you reach the little hamlet of Bort, where the path suddenly widens and emerges into a bowl with a deep blue lake crowned by a couple of mountain restaurants. You’re edging closer to the Eiger here, and the trail breaks out of the trees for the remainder of the route.

The last part of the climb is hard work with tired legs, as ours were after a week of hiking. But the views were breathtaking, and stone water troughs spouting little cascades of cold, fresh spring water meant that we could refill our bottles in an attempt to keep cool. As you approach the summit the mountainside gently rolls away to your right, with curious shapes and hummocks in the landscape a legacy of glaciers working their magic over thousands of years. This is the most peaceful part of the walk, as most visitors choose to take the gondola all the way to the top from Grindelwald.

Mountain goats at Grindelwald-First in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Reaching the peak at First in itself is impressive – views open up across the whole of the Grindelwald valley with the Eiger to your left, Kleine Scheidegg with the pass over to Wengen and the Lauterbrunnen valley ahead, and Schynige Platte to your right. Into the bargain, you’ll find a skywalk to explore, letting you circle the cliff faces below the lift station with nothing but glass under your feet. But the real reason for coming is to see Bachalpsee, a gentle walk of a couple of kilometres from the summit.

I could describe how beautiful Bachalpsee is, the peaks all around are reflected in deep turquoise waters, but I think the pictures go someway to doing it justice.

Bachalpsee, high up in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland at Grindelwald-First

Whilst most walkers choose to head back to the lift station at First from here, or onwards to Schynige Platte, we chose to take a combination of footpath and forest road back down into Grindelwald. The path down from Bachalpsee to meet the forest road was one of the most glorious areas of pasture I’ve ever explored. Little streams trickle down from the lake, babbling amongst the stone and meadow flowers, whilst cattle and goats graze quietly, obvious to the majesty of their home. Once you hit the forest road it’s a steady, easy to follow route that soon plunges back down into woodland and dense forest in places. It eventually brings you out just above the centre of Grindelwald, where you can meander back into town.

We were exhausted.  After a week of walking almost all day, every day, we felt we’d packed in as much as we absolutely could.  But there’s still room for more – a week felt more like an appetiser for the region.  It might not be any time soon but I’ve no doubt we’ll be back, ready to spread our wings a little wider and discover some more peaks.

P.S. Don’t forget that you can find out more about what we got up to on our alpine adventure in The perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.

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With huge thanks to my ever-patient other half for his photographs featuring yours truely.

4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

3 unmissable stops on a road trip in Wales

I love a road trip.  There, I’ve said it.  You can take the glamour of air travel and the speed of train travel, but for me there will always be something magical about travelling on four wheels.  It cries out for spontaneity, for exploration and for taking that next turn “just because it looked interesting…”.

A road trip is an exhilarating way to explore a long way from home, but it’s also a brilliant way to see what’s just outside your door.  Being based in the south of England, for me this means that wonderful Wales is only a few hours away by car.  This pretty little country, home to breathtaking mountains, rugged coastline and colourful towns, is virtually on my doorstep.

Aberaeron, a fishing village on the Welsh coast

So I thought I’d share my three favourite locations perfect for a Welsh weekend getaway. Or, if you can manage a longer stay they’re only an hour or two away from one another (so you can sandwich them together for a week or more of adventures).  Wales may be close to home, but it still feels like an adventure.

The Gower

From the vintage charms of the seaside resort of Mumbles to the glorious expanses of golden sand at Rhossili, there’s plenty to keep you occupied on the Gower peninsula.  Just a short skip and a jump from the bustling city of Swansea (where Saturday night on the town is quite an experience), you’ll find this peaceful corner of the Welsh countryside.  Within a short drive of city centre you’ll find hidden coves, lush heathland, ancient castles and windswept clifftops that’ll take your breath away.

It’s a surfers paradise, and a walkers one too.  You can spend days exploring the many miles of coastal path, or bask in the glory of a British summer with a day at the beach. Oxwich bay is a gem that’s tucked far from the madding crowds between heather-carpeted headlands.

Coastline of the Gower, Wales

For something a bit different, make your way to the small village of Rhossili. Don’t be put off by the rather extortionate parking charges – I promise it’s worthwhile. Head off along the seemingly unexciting grassy headland until all of a sudden the landscape opens up in front of you.  To your right, a breathtaking stretch of sandy beach extends into the distance – it’s been rated one of Europe’s best beaches, and it’s not hard to see why.  To your left, at the far end of the headland sits the Worm’s Head, an oddly-named but ruggedly beautiful tidal island that adventurers can reach by scrambling across the rocks at low tides.

Rhossili beach on the Gower, Wales

Where to stay

Base yourself in Swansea – there’s heaps of good value accommodation and the Gower is only a twenty minute drive away.  It’s a great stop en route to Pembrokeshire if you’re taking a longer trip.

Pembrokeshire

Head west as far as you can go in Wales and you’ll reach Pembrokeshire. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of South Wales it’s home to stunning sandy surf beaches that rival anywhere in Europe, and charming fishing villages where the way of life has changed little in the past one hundred years.

It’s perfect country for hiking and cycling, so to make to the most of your visit you’ll want to explore on two feet or two wheels. The coastal path, close to the picturesque village of Trefin and ports of Abercastle and Porthgain, is spectacular and makes a great day’s walk.  Sandwich with a pub lunch and a little meandering inland to make it a circular route.

Abercastle on the Pembrokeshire coast, Wales

If sand and surf is more your thing, Whitesands bay is only a few miles away and one of Wales’ best-kept secrets.  There’s fantastic camping on the headland with views over the expanse of silver sand below.

At the end of the day, head to Solva harbour for sundowners and to watch fishing boats and yachts make their sedate way up the estuary for shelter overnight.  Alternatively St. Davids, Britain’s smallest city, is only a few miles away.  It’s a cosy little market town packed with picture-perfect cottages and pleasant pubs for whiling away an evening – just what you need after a long day on your feet.

Where to stay

For a truly magical getaway, try Lottie the Lorry tucked away in rural Pembrokeshire. Having travelling the world, she’s come to rest on an idyllic farm near St. Davids.  This bohemian, converted lorry is a comfortable, cosy holiday home for two with breathtaking views over the Welsh countryside.

Watching the sun rise over the misty fields beyond, and the stars overhead as we barbecued on our own terrace was beyond wonderful.  We stayed in the lovely Lottie for two nights in August 2015 and booked through Quality Unearthed.

Lottie the lorry in Pembrokeshire, Wales

Snowdonia

Snowdonia is the holy grail of hiking in Wales.  Aside from it’s namesake Mount Snowdon, there are countless peaks and valleys that you could spend a lifetime exploring and never tire of.  Whether you’re visiting for the first time, or returning for new adventures, I’d recommend seeking out some of the less well-known mountains and walking trails.

My favourite is Cader Idris to the south of region. A steep path winds through the wooded hillside above the valley floor and eventually opens out onto pasture high above the treeline.  Here you’re greeted by babbling streams running through the vibrant coloured heather underfoot, steep rock faces and tumbling stone paths than climb higher and higher.  The crowning glory is the stunning tarn that sits surrounded by jagged peaks.  It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to the Alps at home.

Cadre Idris, Snowdonia, Wales

Where to stay

We chose the remarkable St. Curigs Church, a few miles from Betws-Y-Coed, for a stay with a difference.  A converted stone church, St. Curigs Chapel offers bed and breakfast as well as a bunkroom in one of the most spectacular buildings I’ve ever been lucky enough to stay in. The four-poster bed and hearty Welsh breakfast aren’t bad either.

St. Curigs Church, Capel Curig, Gwynedd, LL24 0EL

Of course, there’s much much more to Wales that just these three regions.  But they’re a great starting point for any adventure, and places I’d happily return to again and again.

And as for other days on the road, where do you recommend?  What are your favourite Welsh wonderlands?

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3 unmissable stops on a road trip in Wales

Eating your way around Madrid: One tapas at a time

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 San Anton. 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. 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.

Twenty four hours in Toledo: A city guide

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 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 foothpaths 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

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 as I show you how to spend 48 hours on the Emerald Isle.

Day one:  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

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 Two:  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 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

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


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

Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border

The Milky Way – or Via Lattea as it’s known in Italy – hugs the French-Italian alpine border, taking in the resorts of Montgenevre, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx in one easily navigable ski area.  Not only is it perfect for more experienced skiers and boarders looking for a huge number and diversity of pistes, some of the prettier villages that dot the Milky Way offer beginner and family friendly slopes set in a stunning landscape.

Confession: I’ve fallen a bit in love with the Milky Way.

I’ve just returned from my second trip within a year, and keep finding reasons to recommend it.  Basing ourselves at opposite ends of the Via Lattea on each visit, we’ve explored the vast majority of this surprisingly budget-friendly ski area.  But I’m still looking for excuses to return.

So, if you’re a lover of mountains, snowsports, perfect pistes and plenty of cheese, read on for my guide to making the most of the Milky Way;

The resorts

The Via Lattea comprises seven resorts, six in Italy and one in France.  But don’t let the border worry you – you can ski and board back and forth between the two countries to your heart’s content, with several routes to choose from.

Starting on the French border – Montgenevre

This purpose-built French resort delivers everything you’d expect and more.  It’s situated high up meaning that good snow conditions are almost guaranteed for most of the winter.  The large ESF-run ski school is great for beginners and improvers, there’s a good selection of restaurants and cafes (it is France after all) as well as a smattering of useful shops, plus it’s easy to access the piste from anywhere in town.

Montgenevre is a fabulous location for mixed ability groups.  You’ve got a huge range of pistes on your doorstep, from pretty tree-lined green runs that everyone can enjoy to challenging reds and blacks that’ll get the blood pumping and help you explore every inch of the mountain.  And at the end of the day, you can warm up on the way home with a vin chaud at one of the many bars along the main street.

Looking down over the French resort of Montgenevre

 The best bits: The pistes up at Les Gondrans are a dream.  They’re varied and easy to access from four lifts, making it perfect for those who want to spend some time finding their ski legs, practising their technique or having some fun.  There’s something for everyone here – and Cafe Les Anges is ready and waiting once the hot chocolates are a’calling.

 Be aware: If you’re hoping to explore the whole Milky Way, it can take a long time to get across from Montgenevre.  You’re best off taking a bus – or heading to nearby Serre Chevalier (separate lift pass required) if you’re after some variety.

Claviere

This traditional little village sits on the Italian border just 3km from Montgenevre, with easy ski links between the two.  Smaller than its French neighbour, it’s a great spot for families and those who want the pistes to themselves.  We based ourselves here at the Grande Albergo Hotel Claviere, a budget friendly hotel that was great for groups.

Claviere is quiet, but well-served with a small Italian supermarket, bakery, the recommendable Gallo’s bar and a couple of delightful pizzerias and restaurants both in town and on the piste at La Coche.

The small ski resort of Claviere in Piedmonte, Italy

The best bits: Claviere is well located for exploring the whole of the Via Lattea and we could get across to Sansicario, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx from here if we moved fast enough.  This makes it a good strategic base for more experienced skiers.

Be aware: It’s not a party town, so if you’re hoping to hit the après or aperitivos you’re better off considering Sauze d’Oulx or Montgenevre.

Sansicario and Cesana

A venue for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, Sansicario is largely purpose-built and one of the smaller towns on the Milky Way.  It’s close to the valley town of Cesana, a functional hub in the centre of the ski area that’s home to more locals than tourists.

What Sansicario lacks in size it more than makes up for in enjoyable piste, with sweeping reds and blacks that are the perfect playground for boarders and experienced skiers.  Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere are only a few lifts and pistes away if you want cover as much snow as possible.

Views of the Monti della Luna from Sansicario on the Milky Way

The best bits: Sansicario is a sun trap on a clear day, so slap on some suncream and head over to make the most of the open upper pistes and cafe terraces (because when in Italy, have your fill of Italian hot chocolate. It’d be rude not to).

Be aware: The lower slopes were in relatively poor condition this winter (2017), so I wouldn’t recommend as a ski-in/ski-out location – you’ll be spending a lot of time carrying boards and skis if you base yourself here.

Sestriere and Pragelato

Synonymous with world-class skiing, Sestriere – and nearby Pragelato – sit in a bowl towards the southern edge of the Via Lattea.  This upmarket resort might not be the prettiest you’ve ever visited but it’s heritage as a host of world cup skiing tells you everything you need to know.  You’ll find spectacular, challenging pistes right on your doorstep as well as mountain restaurants galore.  A gondola offers a speedy link to Sauze and Sansicario, giving you the opportunity to ski a massive area each day.

The best bits: The central location and wide variety of accommodation and eating options.   As with Montgenevre, you’ll also find the elevation here (2,000m) means that Sestriere is pretty snowsure throughout the season.

Be aware:  Sestriere isn’t a great recommendation for budget travellers – base yourself in Sauze d’Oulx instead and head across early in the morning.

Sauze d’Oulx

Sauze has a bit of a split personality – part traditional Italian alpine village, part party town.  Whichever side you’re most interested in, it’ll be outshone by the meandering tree-lined pistes that make Sauze a joy to visit in its own right.

It’s one of the larger resorts on the Milky Way, meaning you’ll find a good variety of accommodation and eating options on and off the slopes.  It also offers the best value for money I’ve come across in this area for both – especially when it comes to enjoying food up on the mountain.

Pistes in Sauze d'Oulx, Piedmonte, Italy

The best bits: Take a little time to stroll around the old town without your boots on – the narrow cobbled streets, overhanging eaves of hundred year old chalets and arched stone doorways make you feel more like a visitor to an Italian village on the plains than a ski resort.  There are some great budget eats too – try the fantastic Famelica Pizzeria in the old town for the best takeaway you’ve ever eaten (bonus points for enjoying it out in the snow), and the cafe at the top of Col Basset offers fantastic paninis made fresh in front of you for a little over €5.

Be aware:  As with Sansicario, the lower pistes can struggle with snow cover if conditions are warm.  Unseasonable weather in 2016, when we based ourselves in Sauze, required some serious efforts from the piste-bashers and snow cannons to keep the returns into town open.

Lift passes

Depending on where you base yourself, and how much of the Milky Way you intend to explore, there are several options when it comes to lift passes.

The international pass covers you for all resorts on both the Italian and French sides of the border. Given the size of the ski area and the amount of time taken to get from one end of the Milky Way, this represents good value for money only if you’re a very experienced (and ambitious) snowsports enthusiast, or if you’ve got your own transport to move from one resort to the other.

For most skiers or boarders, the Via Lattea or Montiluna Montgenevre passes are a better fit.

The Via Lattea pass gives you full access to all Italian resorts, and one day in Montgenevre (if you go for the 6 day pass).

Alternatively, if your base is in Montgenevre or Claviere, you can opt for the Montiluna Montgenevre pass that allows you to explore these two resorts to your heart’s content, and spend one day in six in the other Italian resorts.

The Via Lattea and Montiluna Montgenevre passes offer great value for money as they cover substantial areas.  Take the opportunity to make the most of a day’s skiing elsewhere in the area by taking a coach transfer – usually easy to arrange through your reps in resort – to Montgenevre, Sauze or Sestriere (this should get you there for lift opening, and return once the pistes have closed).  It is possible to take lifts all the way across, but expect to need a little bit of patience and ability to shuffle in ski boots if you go for this option.

You can find out more about lift passes on the Via Lattea website.

Skis on the Via Lattea. Italy

The practical bit

The Milky Way is just over an hours drive from Turin airport, making coach transfers and fly-drive options a breeze.  Sauze d’Oulx is closest to the fast motorway links, with Montgenevre and Sestriere taking a little longer to reach.

If you’re travelling from the UK you’ll find a wide range of tour operators offering good value packages to this area – we’ve travelled here most recently with Crystal and Neilson.

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation with hotels, catered chalets and apartments in abundance, although pick your resort carefully if you plan to self-cater and shop in town.  Some of the Italian resorts including Sauze d’Oulx have a real lack of any good food shopping, however Montgenevre and Claviere have much greater choice.

We opted for the Neilson Hotel Edelweiss in Sauze d’Oulx in 2016, which gave us easy access to the Jouvenceaux lift to get onto the mountain, generous food and stylish rooms.  For contrast, we headed to the opposite end of the resort in 2017, staying at the Grande Hotel Albergo Claviere in the centre of the village.  This hotel is run by Crystal and pitches itself as family-friendly, but it’s a good choice for all budget travellers.  It’s got fantastic ski links, a friendly bar and a plentiful – if not gourmet – menu.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely. There’s something for everyone here, and with another eight weeks left of this ski season there’s still time to book a quick getaway. The Milky Way has been blessed with great snow conditions so far in 2017, and coupled with it’s sunny slopes it should be perfect this coming Easter.

And don’t forget, if you’re looking for some more Alpine inspiration, try  Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season for my favourite European resorts you’ve not yet heard of.

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Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border