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One Kick Ass Road Trip Through the South of France

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Cannes

7 days, 6 friends and 1 kick ass road trip through the South of France!
Bienvenue! Je suis perdu. Je m’appelle Mia. Voulez-vous coucher…no, no wrong phrase.

I am an adventure lover so sometimes I take chances, get my car on the road and make an unplanned trip become an awesome experience. That’s exactly what I did when I decided to taste the French vibe again through a seven days road trip through the south of France. Here’s how we did it and how you can do it too.

Although I have been to France quite a few times, Paris is one of those cities I can always get back to. It’s the city where friends, architecture and culture make you believe there’s so many things to learn that you should definitely try to get the most out of it, no matter how tired you are.

So I started with convincing two friends in Paris to join me, charged my batteries, hired a car, bought some reasonably warm clothes and we started off the adventure that is now on my top five list of things I’ve done in the past 10 years.

How to make the best of a French road trip

We wanted to experience both cities and countryside so we drove all the way through to Lyon, stopped there for one night, where people have recommended us to go to Saint Etienne.

The challenge of being on the road with just a map and without a fixed itinerary is what I believe makes people who travel adventurers and if you sometimes like being more like that, you’ll see things start happening for a reason.

In Saint Etienne we went to La Rotonde, a place to go if you’re passionate about science and art. This is where Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez Monastery and Museum of Modern Arts gave us a bit of both.

On our way from one to another, we made a new friend Pierre.

He was from Saint Juste Saint Rambert. He was heading back to his village and yes, you got it, this is how we sorted our next destination!

Getting with the locals in Saint Juste Saint Rambert

That was a fantastic chance for us to get to know more about the French family life and values.

Pierre had a great family with two beautiful kids. He moved there to get away from the city life a few years ago and still thinks that the village offers him what he always wanted – to work with small communities on cultural projects and contribute to communities’ development around the world.

Things to do in a small French village: camp fire and family barbecues, tree climbing and a short trip with Pierre’s private helicopter.

Easy enough to do, maybe except the helicopter part, but it’s worth a shot at the rest.

South is the way: Avignon

Our way to the south continued with Avignon.

The city has fantastic scenery and stories dating back in the 14th century. You can read the story of the bridge, the song and some other practical info on Marvellous Provence.

If you’re not familiar with those, you should go on a walking tour. It was one of the best ones I did as we ended up dancing on the Avignon Bridge and learning the famous “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (On the Avignon Bridge) and the Saint Bénézet legend.

We looked like this guy:

The funny thing is that I have never imagined myself doing this in a completely new city, on a song in French that I actually got to sing all the way to Marseille and Nice.

Even if you’re not a road trip type of person, I can guarantee that no story would ever convince you that this is exciting.

You have to live it!

Unplanned, unforeseen and in the moment!

And as long as you have the right friends with you, it is a brilliant way to get some adventure in your life.

Stuck on the road to Cannes

So my next challenge was to find my way around toward Nice and Cannes. Driving is one of my passions and getting lost on the coast of France was probably the tipping point of our road trip experience.

We were left without fuel and this made it even funnier. Staying on the side of the road with an empty bottle was the first thing that came to our minds so we’ve done it! Figured if it works in movies it can work for us too.

Music on with funny moves and within one hour we got the fuel we needed to get to Cannes. We spent the night in our car, as it was too late to continue driving, so we even got to explore Cannes by night.

As you already know, Cannes is a city where when Cannes Film Festival is on, high-class, fashionable outfits are all around you, not to mention red carpets and famous actors walking past.

Lesson learned: Have a posh dress on every road trip through France, just in case you get to see Tom Cruise and want to take pictures without wearing your travel jumpsuit :)

Isn’t this Nice! Get it? Get it?

In Nice we were lucky enough to have some friends host us for the last two nights. It was the time and place to go for drinks, bars and great food and most importantly, to get some sun on the beach while sipping a brilliant cocktail along with some really good French music.

For more on the bars there is a great article on the nightlife in Nice by the Telegraph. Worth a read if you want to be prepared. We winged it and went to Le Ghost and La Suite. Not overly priced but you are in Nice so be prepared.

Would I do it again?

My experience on the road in South of France was filled with great stories, people and places that could not be captured by a camera.

Both sides of the trip – Saint Just Saint Rambert and Saint Etienne, as well as Nice and Cannes have offered us both the city and countryside vibe along with the history and landscape of the places you can see while driving through.

It is definitely an itinerary to remember if you’re planning a road trip to south of France. It is something that must be done.

All in all, don’t plan in detail, just make sure you’ve got your friends, a car, good mood, great music and be ready to feel the adventure! So yes, I would do it again a million times over.

Have you danced on the Avignon Bridge? Or have you found any other adventures worth doing on a road trip?

Don’t be shy and let me know in the comments. It’s easy as well.

Extras

On every road trip you need a kick ass playlist so make yours before departure. You have plenty of French songs to choose from here.

We were lucky and didn’t pay for accommodation but for those that don’t have that I suggest to look at homestay.com where you can pay as little as £28 per room per night with breakfast included for an apartment near the sea for Nice.

Alternatively, check out airbnb.com to rent an apartment. You might end up going for a combination of both.

I am usually a hostel fan but we were six and if you are a big group I find the above two options work best in terms of price and comfort.

We got a car from Car Hire Market and read a few of the posts on their blog to see how they are as a brand. Everything was sound and Talon from www.1dad1kid.com actually wrote for them so it’s defo worth checking out. You can read his post here and see his itinerary of a road trip in France.

Food wise, we cooked a bit and/or were fed by friends. #winner for our pockets.

We all know this type of road trip is not budget friendly but you can make it if you have the right info.

If you have any additional advice on how to not spend a lot and sell a liver to do this trip, I would love to hear from you in the comments.

When in Prague: Important Things to Know

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Prague at Sunset

You know what people say about Prague – that is one of the most romantic cities in the world, that its architecture will invite you into a world of fantasy, that the cultural activities are endless and the shopping is unmatched , that the beer is delicious and the parties unforgettable and most of all cheap. Now if you are waiting for me to deny any of these statements you’re going to wait for a long time. Prague is all of the above and more.

The Accommodation

I found this amazing offer on Hostelbookers.com for Plus Prague Hostel that was about £3 a night. At this price you expect no doors to your room, no bathroom and for it to be situated in the worst area of Prague. It was completely the opposite. It was so clean and nice you couldn’t believe it. I was in the girls’ area in a six bed room with an en-suite bathroom and had access to their sauna, pool and free laundry cleaning service. Bloody awesome I say.

Receptionists were so helpful and patient with me. As this trip was more about exploring the area once I am there, I didn’t really have a plan from the get-go and found that asking the locals for recommendations is the best way to find top places in each city.

Only problem is that I am the worst person in the world with directions and maps and I got lost every time for the first four days when I tried to discover where Charles Bridge is. Yes, I am THAT bad. On the plus side, I uncovered some cool things to see and I now know all the streets and shortcuts in the Prague centre area.

The only problem I found with Plus Prague Hostel was the Wi-Fi. There was Wi-Fi only in the lounge area and it was a bit slow at times. Not a major issue for most people but still a small glitch in the system.

It wasn’t situated in the heart of Prague but the tram was 5 min walking distance and the metro 7min away. Very good connections to the city centre and even a night tram that took you straight to the hostel. And for the price I paid, I say staying there was the best decision.

What I absolutely adored about the hostel was the directions they gave me to get to there. It was so detailed that not even I could get lost. Absolutely perfect and a high-five for that! Here’s how the guide looks like on their site so that you can see for yourself: http://www.plushostels.com/plusprague#gettingthere

The food

I make a point of whatever city/country I am in, to try the local traditional dish. And Prague was no exception. I had Svíčková na smetaně – sweet version of Goulash, Utopence – pickled sausages and Vepřoknedlozelo – some kind of pork dumplings (I wrote these down from the menu, don’t worry I still don’t know how to pronounce it) and I got a recommendation from Leah from Leah Travels  to try the Tartarski (beef tartar). When you think about it, it’s just raw meet with a raw egg and some toasted garlic bread and it doesn’t sound very appealing. But I swear I never expected it to be soooo delicious. And they also gave me a free Slivovice shot at the end.

Next to the hostel at about 10 min walking distance there was this amazing restaurant where I went with the Irish stag party (more about them in the fun part). We spent 400 Koruna for 10 people (about £14). And trust me the food was mind blowing.

The cultural part

When in Prague you are expected to do the touristy things as well. On my things to do in Prague bucket list there was:

  1. Charles Bridge
  2. The Prague Castle
  3. The old town centre (with the famous clock)
  4. Kafka’s Museum

And from the hostel recommendations:

  1. The Dali exhibiton
  2. Torture Museum and/or chocolate museum
  3. Alternative things to do in Prague – Wenceslas statue, cubic lamppost, baby TV tower, rollerblading in Ladronka Park.

As there are so many things to do and see as a tourist in Prague, I decided to write a more detailed post with the cultural side of my trip. A small Prague guide including where I’ve been, how to get there, fees and details for each of the above mentioned bucket list.

The fun part

My first four days in Prague were a bit quiet. Met two nice Italian girls that were in the same room as me and we kind off roamed around the streets together. After they left it was just me and a bunch of Russian old dudes. I swear no one spoke any English for 3 days (except me and the employees of the hostel). Main reason: it was during the week and March which means off season for the travel industry. Quiet was good for a while but by Thursday I started to go a bit coo-coo. So decided the best thing to do is go check out the pool and sauna.

And there I met the girls. Rachel, Sophie and Charis were there for four days, on a small trip from Bologna where they did their Erasmus Exchange Program. Rachel and Sophie are Australian and Charis is British, from the lovely land of Oxford. Best people I met while travelling and we are still friends five months later making plans to go to Edinburgh and Dublin this autumn. Plus, they invited me to go see them in Bologna. Which I did in June for 10 days.

With them I discovered Lucerna Music Bar. The main theme seemed to be 80s-90s video party for 100 Koruna (£3.50) entry fee. The best fun we had in years. Felt like I was 14 again. Danced till 4 am and could’ve done it till 7am. To make up for it, we went there twice. Lucerna Music Bar is in Lucerna Palace, on the right hand side of the passage that connects Vodičkova and Štěpánská streets near the historic Wenceslas Square. Cheesy music and a great night out all in all!

The Beer Museum is a must go/see/taste. The area of the pub is called Staré Město. To get there, you can take the metro to Staromestska Metro Station then walk for a bit across the Old Town Square till you reach Dlouha Street (another option might be to take the yellow line to Namesti Republiky. Or if it is easier take the 8, 14 or 26 tram to Dlouha Trida. This is the place where I fell in love with Chocolate beer. Don’t judge till you try it. I tasted about three types and then stuck to that. Super cheap as well (£3 aka 70 Koruna)!

After the two consecutive nights out (Friday and Saturday) I decided to have a quiet Sunday and just relax, catch up with some writing for the blog and get ready to leave to Bratislava in the morning. But guess what? It was Saint Patrick’s Day and there were 15 Irish guys at a stag do in the hostel. We started talking and amongst other things I told them I never properly celebrated St Patrick’s Day as something else always crumped up. After that, the pointing and shock from the group became endless. And they made it their life goal to show me how to celebrate that day. And that’s how I became (probably) the only girl that went on a stag do. I caved in under the peer pressure and went out for a third night to see how St Patrick’s Day should be celebrated. And to be fair, there was no better way to do it. They adopted me instantly and I never had so many big brothers at once. I couldn’t make a move without them keeping an eye out to see if I am alright. Great bunch of people and I know have an invitation to the wedding as well.

Needless to say I slept all the way to Bratislava on the train.

I talked a lot about Prague as it was one of the best cities I visited on this five month trip of mine. It had everything: good fun, sight-seeing, a bit of trouble (you’ll see in the guide to Prague post), loads of friends and amazing memories.

A World of Tapas: Cerveseria Catalana

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Cerveseria Catalana Barcelona

Spain’s traditional meal, tapas, is one the most delicious variety of appetizers, or snacks you can ever taste. And when in Spain, there is no excuse to not have some tapas and some Sangria.

Everywhere I’ve been in Spain I did my outmost to go to a restaurant recommended by the locals and try the tapas. So when I found myself in Barcelona, everybody was talking about Cerveseria Catalana. A bit pricey they said, but more than worth it. Let’s see the finest tapas in Barcelona.

Location

Located on Carrer de Mallorca, between Rambla de Catalunya and Balmes, the restaurant is always busy whether on season or off season it doesn’t really make a difference. I was there in late September and had to wait for 30 minutes to get a table for two so you can imagine how it must be in summer time. They take reservations but you can also turn up on the fly a grab a table too. It’s not as busy before Spanish eating hours so it may be easier to get a table straight away before 9.

Service

The place was crowded even at lunchtime but once we got the table everything moved quite fast to be fair. The waiter was polite and helpful with the selection of tapas and I was really happy that he gave recommendations on what to go for on the menu. I am not much of a wine connoisseur but my friend said it really complemented the taste of the food. Can’t really argue with that!

Food

Just one word: DELICIOUS. Everything tasted divine, from the Patatas Bravas to the Spanish Omlette and the seafood you just couldn’t get enough.

As the variety of Tapas is immense, you can either choose to put your trust in the waiter and get this:

Or go up to the bar and choose for yourself. We got this from the bar:

Another good thing that made me want to go back to Cerveseria Catalana , besides the exquisite food, is that it’s full of locals, which is always a sign of a great place.. There is no better recommendation than that: locals know their own food so why not trust them? Admittedly the price of the food was not for the budget traveller but you would be more than satisfied once you taste the food.  Considering the central position of the restaurant and the great food, I would go there again and enjoy traditional Spanish Tapas.

Insider’s Tip: If you choose to stay on the terrace, the prices are up to 15% higher because of the view (to Gaudi’s works, and the centre of Barcelona). And this applies to all restaurants for either tapas in Barcelona or anything else.

For anenchanting meal for two for 40 Euros my advice is to take a table at one of Barcelona’s finest: Cerveseria Catalana.I like to think I know my stuff when it comes to tapas because I am a tapas maniac and tried over 30 Spanish restaurants and pubs If you have any preferred Spanish place for tapas in Barcelona and any more recommendations  when I go back there ….let me know in a comment below.

Going With the Flow in Uganda

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Uganda Parks

The Lonely Planet proclaimed it the top destination in 2012, yet Uganda is still a hidden pearl, writes Geoff Power.

WITH a month in Uganda, we anticipated a wide variety of accommodations. We could not have predicted, however, that this would include everything from a borrowed tent at a campsite shared with a roving hippo, to the family home of one of Idi Amin’s former cabinet ministers.

This country, in central-east Africa, cannot boast the huge national parks of, say, Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana. Nonetheless, you will see the same large mammals, but in less-crowded reserves. Furthermore, with 1,000 species, Uganda is a bird-lovers’ paradise.

It is a hidden pearl, albeit one that the Lonely Planet proclaimed its top destination in 2012.

Yoweri Museveni has been Uganda’s president since 1986. He led the country out of a horrifically violent period. Seven years after the removal of Idi Amin, Museveni ushered in democratic rule, and a period of economic growth and stability followed.

However, despite the huge improvement in tourist facilities, the country remains an unstructured delight.

There are the unorthodox transport options: taxi drivers who will sit on passengers to squeeze an extra body in; busy-but-courteous bus companies that tear along rutted dust-roads; or hop-on and hazardous boda-bodas (so named because bikes used to smuggle goods from ‘border to border’).

The adventure begins in the capital, Kampala, where ramshackle streets are crammed with traffic and people. Your first road navigation turns into a spine-tingling joust. The corrugated stands and shelters around bus and taxi depots house everything from delicious, seasonal fruits to mannequins with enlarged rears (only in Africa could the question ‘does my bum look big in this?’ demand the answer ‘yes’).

We in the West try to control the environment; in Uganda, nature flows on past — you are another animal in a fragile kingdom. Our first night in Murchison Falls National Park made that very clear. Our guide was a hapless, loveable fellow called Achilles.

The Murchison Falls National Park is Uganda’s largest protected area. To reach the eponymous waterfall, take a three-hour boat trip past pods of snorting hippos and keenly-located crocs. Upstream, the Victorian Nile surges through a narrow cleft with thunderous rage. A further half-hour hike will see you at the top of this wonderful, rocky juncture.

Afterwards, Achilles took us to a deserted campsite on the northern bank. There, we collected firewood and put up a tent. We ate chappatis and omelettes at the rangers’ lodgings, where we were the only white people (‘muzungu’). It is impossible to go a day without eggs or bananas in Uganda.

When we returned, we had to shoo away a large hippo, grazing 10 metres from where we were to sleep. Once the fire was lit, though, we felt relatively safe in our flimsy, two-man tent.

Within half an hour, the wispy clouds above turned dark and heavy, and a shattering storm raged overhead. Each time the lighting trembled, our bodies were x-rayed against the tent’s fabric, and the torrential rain snuffed the life out of our protective fire.

We could hear panicked animals wandering past. We imagined the hippo returning and using the tent as a seat for his massive behind. We did not sleep well. We were still awake when the alarm went off at 6am. To compound matters, our vehicle got stuck in the rain-churned mud and we had to hitch a lift. Despite this, we got to see elephants, giraffes, an eagle-owl, and a cool-as-cucumber leopard lounging on a distant tree.

In 2012, revenue from tourism in Uganda rose to $805m, pushing agriculture into second place. From our camp, beside the Nile, however, we caught sight of the future: oil pylons. Achilles fears that ongoing exploration in the area will disturb wildlife. “I have a fear in mind the noise will harm animals so that they are not near the road when we drive tourists past.”

Every aspect of Ugandan society was shattered by Idi Amin’s brutal regime, yet its people are a joy: both warm and welcoming.

And, like the economy, the wildlife has made a remarkable recovery. Visitors have the opportunity to stand next to mountain gorillas, catch sight of prehistoric shoebills, sleep next to countless crater lakes, and climb Africa’s tallest mountain range.

Nonetheless, regional instability remains a concern. During our stay in the Fort Portal region, the Allied Democratic Forces overran a town in the nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo, causing a flood of refugees from that country to spill into Uganda.

Professor Edward Rugumayo lives in Fort Portal with his wife, Foibe, and one of their five grown-up children, Edgar. Rugumayo’s first foray into politics was with Idi Amin’s government, in 1971. The professor, made minister for education, resigned in 1973, when he realised what Amin was doing to his country. Rugumayo was forced into exile.

When we booked accommodation at the guest-house, Eriiba (meaning ‘Dove’), we had no idea that we were entering the home of such a prominent man. Sitting at the breakfast table proved a rousing experience. On the television set, there was a photo of Rugumayo with Nelson Mandela, from the professor’s time as Uganda’s ambassador to South Africa.

As mentor to Museveni, Rugumayo believes that a sensitive balance can be struck that sanctions oil development, yet preserves Uganda’s vital wildlife. He anticipates further investment in infrastructure, with a broad sweep of accommodation. “Big hotels do not benefit the ordinary people,” he says.

His son, Edgar, is contemplating a career in politics. “We are surrounded by hostile neighbours,” he says, grimly. “The only one not hostile is Tanzania. When your neighbour’s house catches fire, you are not going to be immune.”

During your stay, you will see your money directly benefiting locals. Strong eco-tourism credentials abound and there are many rewarding projects, such as the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, where you can see up to eight primate species, or guesthouses, such as Lake Mutanda Eco-Community Centre, with its stilted, lopsided cabins, managed by the wonderful and dexterous do-it-all, Deus.

Our highlight was a three-day hike in the Rwenzori Mountains. We stayed at the Rwenzori Unique Eco-Tourism Campsite, where we ate with Elisha Mutungwanda and family, of the Bakonjo tribe — expect drop-pit toilet, a watering-can shower, and stunning views across lush, forest valleys.

Everything served up to us during our stay was cultivated within 100m of Elisha’s home; the only items purchased were salt and cooking oil.

We ate African Black Nightshade, groundnut sauce, organic honey, tropical fruit, and prodigious amounts of matoke — a dish made with cooked banana. And we had fabulous herbal teas served to us.

We also had potatoes. In Uganda, they are commonly known as ‘Irish potatoes’; the missionaries introduced them to the region in the 19th century. If you are Irish and need to explain to Ugandans where Ireland is, don’t bother saying U2 or Roy Keane, just say “Irish — you know, like the potatoes”.

Flights

Geoff Power travelled with Turkish Airlines from Dublin to Entebbe, via Istanbul. Return flights with lastminute.com, €690

Activities

* Chimp tracking at Budongo Forest, in Murchison Falls National Park, at Kibale Forest National Park, or at Kyambura Gorge, in Queen Elizabeth National Park. See www.ugandawildlife.org for details.

* Hike the Rwenzori Mountains (right) with Kabarole Tours, a locally-run, eco-tourism tour and safari company ( www.kabaroletours.com ). Ph: + 256 4834 221 83, Mobile: + 256 774 057 390, or email: ktours@infocom.co.ug  or rtooro@yahoo.com

* Explore the crater lakes around Fort Portal, also with Kabarole Tours.

* Water rafting in Jinja and, whilst there, find the source of the Nile — for more details, see Nile River Explorers on www.raftafrica.com

* Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, a good example of conservation and tourism working at local level — see www.bigodi-tourism.org

* Do a walking safari at dawn, accompanied by a ranger, at Lake Mburo National Park — www.ugandawildlife.org  for details.

* See abundant wildlife at close quarters along the Kazinga Channel, in Queen Elizabeth National Park — www.ugandawildlife.org  for details.

To see/shop

* Nommo National Art Gallery, in a converted colonial residence on Victoria Street, Kampala

* ‘1000 Cups Coffee House’, Buganda Road, Kampala

* Crafts Market/Village, behind the National Theatre, Kampala

Accommodation

* Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge ( www.naturelodges.biz , e: booking@naturelodges.biz ). The Bush Lodge is next to the Kazinga Channel but technically outside the boundaries of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Consequently, you do not have to pay an additional park tariff to stay there.

* Arcadia Cottages, Lake Mburo National Park ( www.arcadiacottages.net )

* Eriiba Guesthouse, Fort Portal. A B&B with two rooms, ph: +256 777 635333, +256 772 451662

* RuwenZori View Guesthouse, Fort Portal ( www.ruwenzoriview.com )

* Rwenzori Unique Eco-Tourism Campsite, ph: +256 772 986235, e: elishamutungwanda@yahoo.com

* Lake Mutanda Eco-Community Centre ( www.lakemutandacamp.com ).

3 Unexpected Things to Do in Birmingham

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I’ll be honest – I’ve never really thought there’s much to do in Birmingham.

Yes, it’s got one of the UK’s biggest shopping centres, the Bullring, but other than that, there’s not much there right?

Wrong!

A few weeks ago I spent the day in Birmingham with one of my uni friends and our original plan was to go to Cadbury World in Bourneville – just 12 minutes on the train from Birmingham New Street.

But devastatingly, it was sold out on the day we wanted to go and we were faced with the daunting prospect of planning a day in actual Birmingham itself.

I’ll be honest, I did think we’d have to spend the day wandering around the Bullring.

But thanks a combination of frantic Googling, Foursquare and following our noses to see where a certain path led, we managed to have a surprisingly great day out.

In fact, I’ll certainly never say there’s nothing to do there ever again. Here are just a few unexpectedly cool things to do Birmingham you probably don’t even know about!

Go backstage at the BBC

Have a go at presenting the weather in front of a real green screen with a real auto-cue? Errrrr, yes please.

BBC Birmingham is just around the corner from New Street Station in a leisure complex called The Mailbox. It has attractions that the public can access for free, including the green screen, as well as a paid tour around the studios.

We were lucky enough to have the green screen to ourselves so we spent ages having a go presenting the weather, Newsround and even a nature programme.

Following an auto-cue is surprisingly difficult but it’s hard to resist taking a few pics of yourself ‘on the telly’. Trust me, this is too much fun to miss out on.

Explore the swanky canal network

Head down to the canals behind The Mailbox and you’ll be pretty surprised how nice it is down there.

It all looks like it’s been done up and it’s a great place to go for a walk and then a drink at one of the pubs afterwards.

If you like it that much you could even move into one of the stylish young professional-style apartment blocks along the canal!

Eat home-made cake at an independent cafe

Since most of my previous trips to Birmingham have been spent at the Bullring, I’ve always had the impression that most of the cafes and restaurants there were part of chains.

But I much prefer eating or drinking at places that are unique to the city you’re visiting – after all, you could be anywhere in the UK at a Nandos or a Starbucks. There’s nothing individual about them.

I recently joined Foursquare and I’ve found it to be a pretty good way to find places you’d only find otherwise by word of mouth.

Yorks Bakery Cafe

Both of us had a bit of a craving for coffee and cake so we looked up nearby coffee shops and found Yorks Bakery Café. It had good reviews and was only 0.9km away from where we were.

It turned out to be in a fairly quiet area but it was fairly busy, which is always a good sign if people will make a special effort to go there.

All the cakes were home-made and delicious and the assortment of sofas, arm chairs and tables gave the café a very laidback feel. So laidback that we stayed there for two cups of tea and extra cake.

Perfect.

So there you have it – just a few of the unexpectedly good things to do on a day trip in Birmingham. But it’s such a big city, I bet there’s more – if you’ve got any recommendations, let me know!

Climbing Kilimanjaro – How to Tackle the Beast

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Kilimanjaro Trek

Climbing Kilimanjaro – Diary Guide and Tips

Jambo, (which is Hi in Swahili 🙂

At 6pm on day two, snuggled by my ski jacket in the tent, I decided this was as good of a time as any to start writing a diary while climbing Kilimanjaro. I made the conscious choice to climb ‘the beast’ at the beginning of last year.

The Flightathon

It all started with a proper ‘flightathon’ to get there which involved two Qatar Airways flights from Manchester through Doha to Dar es Salaam and then an internal flight from Dar is Salamander onto Kilimanjaro followed by a 45 minute taxi ride to Moshi where the hotel was.

Been there done that tip:

If your flight to Kilimanjaro isn’t included in your long haul flights, try to book a flight with FastJet (who are owned by Easy jet). The other main carrier for internal flights can be unreliable.

I stayed at the Spring Land Hotel which was surprisingly good and much needed considering the conditions for the next days. With a pool, a buffet, laundry service, TV and Wi-Fi and very friendly staff this was a great place to help prepare for the challenge ahead

Let’s get climbing Kili – Day 1

Me and my friend decided to go on the Machame route. After an hour drive to the Machame Gate we were on our way in what was a nice walking climate equivalent to a nice British spring day. This didn’t last long though. As we got deeper into the rainforest it started pouring rain.  The rain became heavier and heavier and it was now we started to realise we were not in Kansas anymore and that this would be common in our trek.

The rainforest terrain was muddy uneven and very steep in places. After 7 hours we got to Machame camp and we were soaked through despite our best efforts and preparation with waterproofs. It was at this point I started to gain an obsession for drying stuff.

Some of the more creative attempts were:

–       putting a candle under a chair and draping clothes on top of the chair

–       wrapping hand warmers in underwear

–       putting talc in hiking boots

Our main topic of conversation over dinner was to create a list of items we should have brought with us, the top ones included:

–       A rain poncho

–       A day sack rain cover

–       A wetsuit

–       Swim shorts (as a replacement for underwear)

We woke up the next morning to find that all our drying creations were a #fail. Oh the joy!

If you have any tips that helped you through your climb give a shout in the comments. Would love to find out what else I could’ve done.

Thanks to Lloyd for sharing his journey in this Guest Post series.

Climbing Kilimanjaro – Trek to the Lava Tower

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Kilimanjaro Mountain

After rock climbing to Shira Camp (which you can read about here) I was in very much need of some sleep. But sometimes things just don’t go as planned and whilst I loved the food we had for dinner, the food didn’t really love me back which resulted in me spending the few hours that I had reserved for sleep, throwing up everything and anything. Brilliant…

So after an intensive night of snoozing and “screaming at the bushes” of around four and a half hours it was time to get on the trail again for what was supposedly the easiest day with a relatively flat trek. Let me just say it wasn’t.

The trek took eight hours including six hours up to a ridge to acclimatize to the altitude to the Lava Tower where we had lunch.

We then descended 800 metres for the last couple of hours. This was the ascent part probably as we had to scale down very steep rocky waterfalls for a start.

Since the difficult night before and the non-stop cold rain throughout, I started to have quite a few “FML” moments. The guides are great at helping you through it though. They are incredibly knowledgeable – as most do the tour to the summit twice a month, and quite funny as well! They really kept me going that’s for sure. One more thing and I don’t know if everyone else noticed but the porters are machines. They carry so much up the mountain by mainly balancing heavy bags and equipment on the top of their heads. We even saw one guy balancing a big heavy bag on his head wearing converse trainers! Best ad for Converse ever made and it definitely beats this one.

Day 4: From Baranco Wall to Base Camp

It was an early start as usual, the morning challenge was to scramble “the wall”. I’m not a morning person at the best of times so traversing across a slippery almost vertical wall with significant drops was not the start I had in mind.

As it was going to get colder later the ski jacket was out for the first time. The risk here was that if it got wet then this could provide problems for future days, and guess what: it got soaked because just like every other day it rained big time.

We stopped for lunch after about four hours which was in the mess tent at a half way camp. It was warm and yummy and it didn’t mess up my stomach as well. Winner!

As the rain was coming down in stair rods, the guides had to get me out of the tent kicking and screaming. I was finally and reluctantly ushered out and the ascent continued for another four hours where for the last part of it we started to encounter light snow. It was a fairy-tale sight and it kinda hit me why I wanted to do this in the first place. I like to push my boundaries and see what I can achieve and this was definitely a challenge.

Barafu Camp

We arrived at base (Barafu) camp cold and wet, the mess tent wasn’t up yet so I decided to stay at the sign-in hut and sit on a bench shivering, breathing into my ski jacket to keep warm and attempting to dry out.

When I finally made it to our tent to get into some dry clothes, I frantically started to think of the best way to get my ski jacket dry for the next day. The best solution I came up with was to but it underneath a towel underneath my sleeping bag where my head was. Genius? Not really, but at least I got a good night sleep.

The (almost) final Kili Climb

At this point I thought we had another day’s trekking to go. However, our guide came into the tent and said we would start the summit climb that very night. I was half ecstatic that I didn’t have to do another days trekking before the summit and half nervous that the summit climb was in 5 hours’ time.

After eating just spaghetti (to be on the safe side) around 7:30 I managed to get about two hours sleep before we started to get ready for the summit climb.

What do you think? Did I make it to the top?

This is the third partof Lloyd’s diary guide to tackling the beast – aka: Climbing Kilimanjaro.

The #TBEX Dublin Effect – first time I wasn’t lost

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Europe Tbex

I have been struggling for a week to try and put into words what going to TBEX meant to me and my blog. Good news is instead of focusing on writing what the TBEX effect is, I focused on implementing all the good advice and lessons learned from the conference.

So I’ve been a busy bee working on the new logo, new theme and restructuring categories and SEO. Yeey! No, really, Yeeeeeeeeeey! I love every minute of it. I even ordered business cards.

For those who haven’t been to TBEX before and are not quite sure if it’s worth your time or your money, let me just say it is worth both and even more. And this is why:

The seminars

I read a few posts from other bloggers on the talks that said there were only a few quality seminars.

I have to say the seminars were quite varied in terms of topics and interests which were meant to appeal to the different needs of the participants. I chose the ones that fitted my needs and I did get the most out of all of them.

Ian Cleary’s talk was one I enjoyed very much.

From his “21 Tools and Technology Tips to Dramatically Grow Your Following Online” talk, I did already use a few like Mention.net and Feedly with Buffer to add blogs, keep up with all new content, comment and share…and maybe a couple more like Twtrland and Google+ (yes, I am still preaching the power of G+).

Don George’s talk was again extremely useful in terms of copywriting skills and Michael Collins on “Best Practices:  Bloggers, Travel PR & Tourism Boards” from which I learned a lot, like:

  • You are the editor, publisher, designer and distributor: it’s all in your control but you have to be good at all of the above as a blogger
  • To promote yourself and be successful: Tourist boards and PRs are the way to go
  • If you have your niche that’s good. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not: don’t try to write for everybody (excellent point for me – plans are in motion to set the niche and refocus the UK Travel Room)
  • Measurement is key for bloggers and marketers. What marketers ask: Where did the money go?
  • Do you have a niche that is relevant to the tourism boards? Engage with the tourism boards so they know you exist and get press trips
  • Extremely important: Choose your social niche. It can be either FB, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter but never all

And I did miss a good one: Gary Bembridge’s talk on “How to Write a Blog Positioning Statement” and I am truly gutted…but I am patiently waiting for the slides.

There were some seminars that were pretty basic but keep in mind that maybe 20% of the participants have never used Social Media Analytics tools like SumAll or have barely touched their Google Analytics account – or even their Facebook page.

Besides that, there were probably another 20% like me there: I opened the blog in February this year but was so busy travelling and getting lost (or into trouble) that I barely found the time to write all about it.

Or perhaps I didn’t quite know how to write them down – and let’s be honest the theme was all over the place!

You could say I’m ‘building it up too much’ but for me, personally, TBEX finally gave me the GPS I needed to find my way around this blogging thing. It gave me focus, inspiration and a goal – besides getting better at dancing on tables *cough cough*. Which leads me to my next point…

The people

Before I got on the plane I was extremely nervous.

I was by myself and about to meet some of the best travel bloggers that I’ve been following (not in a stalker-ish way, just reading their blogs, following their Twitter, seeing their check-ins….ok, this is not helping.)

You know what I mean.

I had as a goal to talk and meet a few like: Ed (RexyEdventures), Auston (Two Bad Tourists), Kash (Budget Traveller) and Turner (Around the World in 80 Jobs). Luckily for me, I did meet them and a couple more that helped me immensely.

I owe a lot to Peter Parkorr (Travel Unmasked), Alastair McKenzie, Nick Huggins (Nick’s Travel Bug) and Chris Williams (Real Man Travels) for taking the time to talk to me and help me find a purpose and focus to my own blog.

Also Helene, Dylan, Chris, Steve, Valerie and Sylvia are brilliant, brilliant people. And I will be forever grateful to TBEX for putting them all in one place.

Well, that was a lot of name dropping wasn’t it?

The fun

There really is no proper way to describe how much fun we had.

A million thanks is owed to Expedia for the party and sponsoring, to 37DowsonStreet for the Jaeger bottles and dancing on tables, free pass and to Fáilte Ireland for the Guinness Storehouse opening party. Simply awesome!

There is no party like a travel blogging party. Fact.

All in all, the TBEX Dublin Conference of 2013 had everything it needed: good seminars, good speakers, amazing people and even better fun.

Will I go to the next one in Europe? Definitely.

Did it make me want to be a better travel blogger? Yes.

And this is why I am doing my best to better prepare for the World Travel Market in London. **

Depending on your own needs and interests in the travel blogging industry, you can decide to attend the next one or not. But honestly, even just going to learn from the bloggers is worth it all. Take a chance; I am sure you won’t regret it.

**PS: the Traverse pre-WTM mingle and getting to see all of the above awesome people surely is an incentive to work harder.

See you all there!

The Tour de France Winner Prediction

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I am going to make my début on the UK Travel Room with a post about the Tours de France.

From the stunning heights of the Alps and the Pyrenese to the cultural metropolis of Paris, the Tours de France is a traveller’s dream. For 100 years, cyclists have been travelling the length and breadth of France to watch out for the coveted yellow jersey; I am one of them. I arrived in France last week mostly for the TDF. If you really want to feel the race and be a part of it there’s no better place to do it then in France.

So while reading about the tour and making preparations for my ‘tour of the Tour’, I found a Ribble Cycles infographic that wants to take you back through a century of champs and chumps and predict this year’s cycling greats. Are they right? Probably! As it happens my own predictions are on the same page as Ribble’s this year. What are yours?

If you’ve got the travel bug and are a cycling fan(atic), join me or tune in and watch this year’s competitors ride all the way from sunny Corsica to the Champs-Élysées – and if you’re lucky enough to be here we’d love to see your photo’s.

Ps: Mia is not going to be happy my first post is more about cycling rather than travel. But hey, I warned her J

Berlin Trip A Different Experience – The ‘Funny’ Part

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Berlin City

How I ended up in a porn star’s apartment and got familiarized with the German XXX industry

As I told the story of my first day in Berlin in the post Berlin trip a different experience, I realized the first day wasn’t as bad as the next. Even though it wasn’t what I expected I certainly didn’t foresee what was about to happen.

My friend was supposed to leave on Friday morning back to Manchester to be at the office. That meant I had to go meet the Couch Surfing (CS) guy, which I will call D, who agreed to be my host for 2 nights. So after the conference we thought we should meet him for a coffee to see if he is a nice person or not. My friend didn’t want to leave me all alone with some stranger.

The Pornstar meeting

We met D. Friday night and he seemed like a good normal guy. On the Couch Surfing website he had about 15 recommendations from girls so it was a great reference. He was a music teacher, travelled a lot in the past few years and now was saving money for another trip to Latin America.

All good right?? Wrong! Friday morning I met him at his apartment. After a bit of work and rest he offered to show me the Berlin Wall and the Bundestag but we only had to make a small pit stop at the doctors. He said he has to do some blood tests for his other job.

Fair enough I thought to myself while asking what exactly is this other job. He only told me when we got to a dodgy part of East Berlin, where the doctor’s cabinet was a small 1 bedroom apartment: He was a German porn star! :O

Shock? Yes! Fear while the man in the apartment kept asking me in German if I want to play in the next movie on Saturday? Hell yeah! Apparently, my CS host played in over 200 movies in Germany and he is working with some of the best XXX agencies in Berlin.

After we left the “doctor’s cabinet” he kept saying that he had sex with over 400 women and that everyone falls in love with him. To keep the conversation flowing he said we should go on Saturday night in Kit Kat club. But for me to get in I had to wear fishnet stockings, extremely high heels and basically be topless as per his suggestions.

Admittedly Kit Kat club is one of those Berlin clubs where anything can happen and it certainly isn’t for the faint hearted.

But when you just find out that your German pornstar host wants to take you to a quirky Berlin club semi-naked you tend to freak out.

Run, Forest, Run!

When we got back to D.’s apartment I knew I had to get out of there before Saturday. So I went to see when the next train to Prague was, booked it and then emailed Plus Prague Hostel to extend my stay with 2 nights. Have to say the guys from Plus Prague are amazing: they replied immediately and helped me out, but more about Prague in the next post.

The only problem was what to tell D. about my sudden departure. So I did what any respectable person that ends up in a pornstars house would do. I lied! Told him “my boyfriend” organized a surprise weekend getaway so I had to be at the airport at 1 pm (which was the time my train left actually).

Didn’t sleep all night and the next day I was breathing again while on a beautiful train to the city of world-class architecture and beer: Prague.

Lessons learned:

  • Never stay with CS in Germany again! And I say that because in Prague one of the girls at the hostel told me in Nuremberg a family with kids drugged her and stole all of her money.  And I am not joking.
  • Berlin hates me: everybody keeps saying Berlin is amazing. I didn’t get that vibe at all. Maybe I need to go back with friends and give it another try.
  • Whenever in trouble say your bodybuilder boyfriend is going to pay you a surprise visit the next day and run as fast as you can.
  • If you find yourself in an apartment with a music teacher/pornstar don’t fall asleep.

And last, but not least, if you ever go to Berlin DON’T DO what I did. It’s a shame I got this impression of Berlin.

Even though I had this experience I still managed to do a bit of sightseeing and you can read all about the cultural side of the Berlin trip in next week’s post.

A Berlin trip has to be as amazing as everybody says it is and don’t be shy to leave some tips of how a real Berlin trip should be like in the comments bellow.

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