Loire Valley by Public Transport

Cycling in the Loire Valley was one of those things that we’ve always wanted to do and on this year’s bank holiday weekend, we nearly did it. If it wasn’t for the 33°C heatwave.

Tours

Tours was an excellent base as the train station is well served by trains to many cities in the Loire Valley. It was also one of the busier towns with more things happening. We stumbled upon a few delicious places including QG Restaurant Artisanal (this was our favourite), Dagobert (for alfresco dining side by side Parisian style), Bar Les Trois Ecritories (for its salmon tartare and escargots), and Smaak (for an excellent salad after you get tired of eating all the meat).

The Les Halles market at Place Gaston-Pailhou is a feast for the eyes. Great place to purchase fresh seafood, meat, cheese, bread and fruits if you are in a Airbnb accommodation. We bought some delicious cheese and saucisson there to bring back home.

Not too many of those hip cafes you would normally find in London except Le Petit Atelier – we really missed our daily coffee whilst in France! However, there were loads of bakeries around (Honoré Le Boulanger on Rue Nationale did not disappoint!) and we had our fair share of pain au chocolat every day.

Honore Le Boulanger

Visiting Amboise and Chenonceau

Picnic by the Loire

Visit Amboise on Sunday because it hosts the regional market where you will find everything from cheese, bread, meat, fruits to clothing and shoes. We bought some fresh tomatoes, bread, goat cheese and took a picnic by the Loire. Ah, bliss. We then walked around Amboise’s centre which is made of two main streets.

Normally you could get a bus from Amboise to Chenonceau during the summer months but the bus does not run on Sundays. We went to the Amboise tourist office and asked them to order a taxi for us – thankfully most staff in tourist office and attraction sites spoke English. The taxi ride cost us £37 and about 20 mins to get to Château de Chenonceau. It was worth the ride; otherwise, we would’ve had to train back to Tours and take another train back to Chenonceau.

Château de Chenonceau is indeed as beautiful as the postcards. It has some interesting history having once served as safe passage for refugees and a hospital during WW1. The exhibition also shows the influences we may not have recognised from the various wives, mistresses and aristocrats had on its architectural transformation to date.

Visiting Blois and Chambord

Exploring Chateau de Chambord

The other chateau on our list was Château de Chambord. Our original plan was to train from Tours to Blois, then rent a bike and cycle to Chambord. As we were on the verge of a heatstroke, we took the Navette 41 shuttle bus for 6 euros return. Note the bus schedule is infrequent with only two bus on the day that we were there. Check this website for the bus schedule. Technically we could’ve taken the same bus to visit Cheverny that same afternoon but we headed back to Blois instead. Other than the Royal Château de Blois, the town was unfortunately rather underwhelming. The main street was full of old and dusty shops which were mostly closed or shut down. One even appeared to have a signed that said it was closed as of 2004.

If we had more time, we would have…

  • Spent longer in the Loire Valley – we didn’t realise the grounds of the castles were so large that you could spend half a day visiting just one castle.
  • Tried some kayaking along the Loire river starting from Amboise with the option of camping among one of the many secret islands. Check Loire Aventure for details.
  • Took the Eurostar instead of a flight because it would mean we could’ve carried a few bottles of nice Vouvray wine!
Advertisements

Charles, Charles, Charles in Prague

Charles Bridge, Charles Square, Charles University – who would have thought so much of Prague could be influenced by one person. The monuments of Charles, however, were a great addition to the grandness and historic feel of the place and we thought Prague was a romantic setting for a short getaway at a pretty reasonable cost.

Walking around Prague was like being transported to a different era. Imagine cobblestone lanes, centuries old churches and grand halls with chandeliers and gold painted walls. It was well worth a visit to Prague castle and Golden Lane – a toy-town like street with short doors, thatched roofs and colourful painted fronts. Try to go early as it got exceedingly crowded at times!

There was a serious selection of craft coffee outlets for the coffee lovers out there. We really enjoyed EMA Espresso Bar (and what a great start to the day it was). Coffee plus yummy croissant all for 25 czk.

We didn’t realise how many concerts took place in the city. We were lured by a poster for one at the Rudolfinum where musicians played in an impressive private hall. We felt slightly under dressed in our walking shoes as many had dressed up in suit and dress for the occasion. Nonetheless it was a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing experience.

We paid approximately €30 per person for an enjoyable evening of classical music. We were sitting in the last row but we could still see the musicians’ faces.

We found walking through Mala Strana less busy and a pleasure. It was interesting to see emblems (violins, swords, animals) on each building  that historically were used to locate buildings like house numbers and street names today.

Walking past Mala Strana, away from the bridge was Strahov Monastery where you can find an ancient library elaborately decorated in every inch of space. To take a photo of the libraries, you either had to do it sneakily or pay 50 czk.

There were pretty of interesting artwork outside of museums, including the famous Dancing House by Frank Gehry.

Our favourite restaurant was La Veranda , which had a bookshelf wall and looked like some-one’s old living room. Really homey and warming atmosphere and fairly priced. Other places we also enjoyed: Vegan’s restaurant (Vegan) which served Traditional Czech dumplings, Estrella (Vegetarian) and Restaurant Mlynec. Given that historically Prague cuisine was heavily meat based, we were pleasantly surprised to find a number of vegetarian options.

P.S. Don’t buy bananas from a marijuana shop. We paid 40 czk for two bananas which was a total rip!

Split in September

Although this post is long overdue, Split was by far our favourite city in Croatia. It was bustling but not as crowded and touristy as Dubrovnik. It has a beautiful Old Town centred around the Diocletian’s Palace, a spacious promenade, lots of places for swimming, and equally tasty restaurants which provided more value for money compared to Dubrovnik and Hvar.

Split Old Town Croatia

We stayed in a studio which was a stone’s throw from the Old Town – it was nice to be able to walk everywhere. Our host recommended a wonderful cafe called Luka Ice Cream & Cakes which we went to everyday during the three days we were there. It was, hands down, the best place for ice cream on a hot summer day. There were many options for vegans as well.

To burn all the calories consumed, we would recommend the walk up the steep streets in Veli Varoš quarter to a hilltop cafe called Vidilica, where you can have a drink while watching the sun set over the entire city of Split. It looks just like in the movies, except we weren’t fortunate enough to get a table at that hour.

Vantage point Split

Hilltop cafe Vidilica

Hilltop cafe Vidilica

Nevertheless, we did eat at many other great places such as Uje Oil Bar (where you can dine next to the Old City walls and feel like you’re living in the medieval ages) and Galija for Mediterranean/Italian food.

From Split, we joined a local tour for a day trip to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s an impressive park with many terraced lakes, waterfalls and emerald green waters. We debated between renting a car and joining a tour but we were glad we joined the tour because the tour guide gave us an interesting lesson on the history of Croatia. Sights wise, we personally enjoyed the Vintgar Gorge in Slovenia more, possibly because it was less crowded and touristy. At several points along the route in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, tourists were walking so close together such that if you wanted to stop and take photos, you felt you were holding up others. Perhaps this was because early September was peak season?

plitvice-lakes-national-park

Price per person with Portal Travel Agency: €80

If you’re on a budget, time-strapped or want to get away from heavily touristic areas, we think you’ll enjoy Split more.

Day trip to Bath – a bustling city full of character

Looking for a weekend break away, we looked no further than Bath – a mere 1.5 hrs away by train from London. While the city has plenty of luxury and pampering-as-a-service on offer, we were lured by the countless fresh, homely cafes, tea houses.

royal-crescent-bath

pulteney-bridge-bath

Bath looked visually stunning with its beautiful Georgian townhouses and we particularly loved the creamy orange bath stone – much of it from mines in the 1700’s. The city was easily walk-able from one end to the other and full of life. Here’s what we got up to in one day.

8:30 – Train from Paddington (armed with croissant and something a little more substantial for Sharon)

10:05 – Thermae Bath Spa

A visit to to the baths fueled by area’s natural geothermal springs was highly relaxing and surprisingly very warm! (Who knew that temperatures of 31 degrees were possible in UK!). We found the baths modern and in general very clean and organised. On the roof, there is a pool with excellent views of the city and its undulating hills. Be warned though – the Baths get very busy. A queue had started to form when we arrived and by the time we left, they had stretched long across the street.
Price: Two hours access to baths and steam room £38 pp (includes towels, slippers and use of showers)

1:30 – Wild cafe

A lovely cafe serving homely and freshly cooked food right in front of your eyes. We had a very tasty roasted garlic soup and falafel burger.
This was especially welcome as wading in warm baths for 2 hours is exceptionally tiring!.

2:30 – 6:00 – Exploring the city

There are many independent shops here each selling their own crafts.  The main farmer’s market in Green Park stn was closed, but the other stalls were open. There was an extensive selection of antique cutlery and crockery which tempted us hugely. Cast iron pans, while used, looked very sturdy, in great condition and were offered from £12. I think we would have bought one if we didn’t have to lug it back home.

Bath streets and shop fronts

6:00 – Dinner at Bistrot Pierre
A classic french bistrot selling decent value for money fare. The pre-theatre menu was two courses for £14.95 and was more food than we could eat – portions were big.

7:40 – Train home and a thoroughly enjoyable day. We will be back!

Sun, beach, and pizza in Hvar

There are many small islands that one could visit in Croatia. We chose Hvar initially because of its famed lavender fields, except it was not in season by the time we arrived at end of August (apparently June is the season). Nonetheless, the streets were dotted with stalls selling lavender scented goods of all kinds such as essential oils and dried lavender. Hvar is a small island with a population of just over 4,000 but many luxury boats dock the piers, reminding me of scenes from ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. The streets are very pretty and we enjoyed practising our long forgotten photography skills.

Hvar collage

The journey from Dubrovnik to Hvar takes 4 hours and 10 minutes. We bought the tickets on the day but it is probably best to purchase them online beforehand as the ticket office did not open until 30 minutes before our 7am departure.

We started our day at Hvar walking around the beautiful St Stephen’s Square but quickly abandoned our plans as it became too obviously hot to do anything other than swimming. But not without consuming the most gigantic slice of pizza first.

Hvar St Stephen's Cathedral

Our Airbnb host pointed us to Mustaco beach (“the beach where all the locals go to”) which was a convenient 10 minutes’ walk away from our accommodation. The beach was surprisingly clean and water was very clear. Swimming was much needed to cool down. After physically exhausting ourselves, we rewarded ourselves with a massage at Massage Studio Pharos. We were lucky enough to walk up without a reservation.

Hvar Mustaco beach

We had dinner at a family run restaurant called Lungo Mare and then cocktails by the pier. The cocktail was surprisingly strong as after one glass, I felt rather dizzy and heavy. Because Hvar was so relaxing, we opted to cook our own pesto pasta dinner the next day, completed with a glass of wine produced by our host himself. Not without receiving an electric shock from the hob though.

Hvar food collage

To top off our stay at Hvar, we were greeted with a beautiful sunset on our walk back from the Old Town to our accommodation. It was a perfect end to a perfect stay in Hvar.

Hvar sunset