Riga – the city of old and derelict

A few years ago I came up with this rule that I have to visit a new country every year. When I booked my trip to Riga in Latvia it was to not break that five-year-streak coming up.

I have probably never prepared as little for a trip as I had done with this one. I had checked how to get from the airport to the city centre though – with bus number 22. Off course the first thing I did after having arrived in Latvia was running around the airport like a lost possum looking for the bus stop. Eventually I had to google it and found out it was on the other side of the parking lot. Somehow I had missed the big sign just outside the main exit.

I made it into the city centre without any more confusion and as I had two hours to kill before I was allowed to check into my holiday apartment, I got off next to the Riga Central Market.

Riga Central Market

The Riga Central Market is the largest market in Europe at 72,300 square metres and the main structures are made out of five old German Zeppelin hangars. It was finished it 1930 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As I got there I saw market stands outside as well, but since it was freezing I decided to head into one of the hangars. Of course as a non-meat-eater I chose the one that would have put a shark into a feeding frenzy if it had legs and could breath air. The smell of it was too much for me though and I had to head back out into the cold. I did not want to risk heading into another hangar in case there were more than one hell. I had a quick look through the outside stands instead. I had wanted to find somewhere that sold ready-to-eat food but saw none so decided to just keep walking to see where I would end up.

I found my way into a shopping centre and had a look through to see if there were anywhere I could grab some food. There were a few places, but nothing I wanted so I went for the backup option and headed into the supermarket where I also picked up two days’ worth of breakfast, lunch and dinner. The rest of the time I killed over a coffee.

Derelict Riga

When it was time to finally get to my apartment I got lost again. This time though I blame the lack of correct signage. I was staying in a really derelict neighbourhood where every second building had the windows boarded up. The ones that people actually lived in looked like they were about to fall into a pile of rubble at any moment. Ok, a slight exaggeration, but only slight. My apartment building was really nice though with fencing around. The reason I had “missed” it was that the sign over the entry had a different name than that on my booking.

A6 and A8

After dinner and some laziness it was time to head out and explore. I decided to head straight for the river and then walk towards the city centre from there. It was now dark outside and the derelict houses looked kind of spooky in the shadows of the street lights.

As I got closer to the river I realised there was a heavily trafficked motorway blocking my route. It was the A6. I followed a couple of people walking on a grass path along it and found a dark narrow tunnel going underneath. After a few moments of hesitating I went for it and made it out alive on the other side. I had still not reached the river though. The path led up to the bridge where another motorway was crossing the river. This time the A8. I almost turned back around, but decided to go and stand on the bridge for a second first. It was lucky I did because there I found a path leading down to the river and under the A8. I had made it to the river side.

River Daugava

The river running through Riga is called Daugava and it flows through Latvia, Belarus and Russia. The path running along it was really nice to walk and the lit-up bridges in the distance was a stunning sight. There were a few places along the path that did not have a fence so I kept a safe distance from the edge as the dark river water looked rather scary in the cold. The bridges looked awesome up close as well and I walked until I reached the last one that was next to Riga castle.

Latvia anniversary

Riga Castle was quite a nice-looking building where the President of Latia holds residence, but I did not linger as I had decided to find the city canal and follow it back towards the central square. On my way I came across an artwork with a digital clock counting down to Latvia’s 100th anniversary. In 1918 they gained independence from the Russian empire, which does sound like it is worth celebrating. With my lack of pre-trip-research I had missed that, but the Latvia 100 signs I had seen everywhere suddenly made sense.

Freedom Monument

I found the canal easily and followed it until I came across the Freedom Monument. It is a 42-metre high memorial honouring the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence that took place between 1918 and 1920. The monument was unveiled in 1035 and is an important symbol of Latvia’s freedom and independence.

Before I reached the central square there was a bit more canal to walk along and there was another lit up bridge heading over it. This time it was the underneath of the small walking bridge that was lit up with rotating colours. It looked magical and I stopped to get photos in every shade.

Old Town

My second day in Riga I woke up exhausted and eventually had to force myself to leave the house before noon. My agenda for today was exploring the Riga Old Town and my starting point was the Freedom Monument which I now got to see in the day light. I crossed the Riga City Canal which location once upon a time held a wall protecting the Old Town. The area is called Vecrīga and it is also a UNISECO protected site.

I aimed to first find the statue called the Bremen Town Musicians and because it is more fun I chose the backstreets to get there.

Bremen Town Musicians

Having a tourist map at my disposal I found the statue without problem. The statue is a rooster on top of a cat, on top of a dog, on top of a donkey. It depicts the Town Musicians of Bremen which is a fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It basically tells the story of the four animals scaring off a band of robbers on their way to Bremen where they plan to retire as musicians. The statue was a gift from Riga’s sister city Bremen in 1990 and I thought it rather cool.

St Peter’s Church

The statue stands in front of the St. Peter’s Church were you apparently can take a lift up the spire of the church to a panorama viewing platform. Off course I managed to miss that. When I went inside I got as far as the ticket office. Since I could see into the church from there it felt unnecessary to spend money on a ticket. Had I known about the tower it had been a slightly different story. Yes, I do have a tower-climbing-obsession.

The church was first mentioned in records 1209 but it has gone through three construction phases and two reconstructions since. The first reconstruction as a result of lightning hitting the tower and setting fire to it in the 18th century and then the second from fire during the 2nd World War.

Buddy Bear

I continued walking pass the nice-looking Old Town buildings and soon found my way to the Town Square where I also found a Buddy Bear. In the summer of 2018 there was a United Buddy Bear exhibition at another Old Town square with more than 140 of the colourful 2-meter-tall bears. They were there to set an example of tolerance and international understanding. The one I came across was designed by Latvian pupils. Though I had not come to the square to see the bear. I was there to visit the House of Blackheads.

House of Blackheads

This time I went further than the ticket desk at the entrance. I paid the entrance fee and headed down into the historical cellars. The House of Blackheads was built in 1334 and the original structure of the cellar still remains intact even though most of the building was bombed to ruin during World War II. The reconstruction of the building was made between 1995-1999.

But who were the Blackheads? The Brotherhood of the Blackheads was a guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners and foreigners in Riga. They used the cellars to store their goods and the historical cabinets at the first floor is where they would have held their meetings. Now there is an exhibition of silverware in of one the rooms which I had a quick look through. The cellar had been more interesting.

I walked upstairs to the second floor where I had a look at the Halls and Gallery of Composers where concerts are now being held. Without the music it was not much to see so I went back out to have a second look at the building from outside. The design is rather spectacular.

Riga Cathedral

My next stop was Riga Cathedral that also goes by the name Dome Cathedral. It was built in 1211. I decided to have a look inside as well as it was not very expensive. The church’s interior was really nice, but my favourite part was the walk around the courtyard with the arched openings from where you could see the statues of men in various poses scattered about.

Outside the cathedral there was a playground where you could find a dragon, a unicorn and for some reason an armadillo.

The Three Brothers

It was time to go and search for the Three Brothers. They are not actually people, but the three oldest dwelling houses in Riga. One of the buildings date back to the late 15th century.

When I found the houses I saw a woman walk into one of the doors, first thinking that maybe she lived there. I decided to have a look and saw there was the Latvian Museum of Architecture inside. I headed in and asked another woman at a small desk how much is was and she told me it was free. It was basically just two rooms with information on the walls but considering it did not cost anything it was worth a visit. Plus it felt kind of cool just to open the door and being able to go inside.

Swedish Gate

Just next door is the St. James’s Cathedral and the Parliament building which I passed on my way to the Swedish Gate. It is the only surviving gate which was built into the city wall in 1698 during the Swedish rule. Having Swedish roots myself it was on my must-see-list.

I also passed the 18th century Jacob’s Barracks and the Powder Tower where I saw there was a museum inside as well. It was the Latvian War Museum, but I was not up for that, so I went in search of the Cat House instead.

The Cat House

Yes, there is a place called the Cat house and no, it is not a house filled with cats. It is a building with two angry looking cat statues on the roof top. Their tails are turned towards either the house of the Great Guild or the Riga Town Hall because the man who commissioned the building had a dispute with one of them depending on which story you believe to be true.

That was it – I needed a break. I found myself a hipster coffee shop where I had a nice hot drink and had a think about what to do next. I decided to tick off a few more things before I headed back to my apartment.

Nativity of Christ Cathedral

I walked to the fancy looking Nativity of Christ Cathedral where I saw you could go inside as well, though only as a woman if you covered your head. I did, hoping I was not breaking any religious rules by just covering it with my knitted hat that I was already wearing.

The interior was quite grand with a theme of gold, but I decided not to pay a ticket to have a walk through. I was still not sure my knitted hat was enough, plus it felt like a bit too much after my long day so I headed back out again. On the other side of the park is the National Museum of Art, but I did not even try to go in there. I was on information overload already.

Home sweet home

My last stop was the St. Gertrude Old Church, which was not really worth the detour, but the area was nice to have a walk through with lots of great architecture to look at. It was better than my derelict part of town. Though to be honest I kind of loved staying there as it gave me a better view of Riga and it was definitely time to head back to my run-down part of town. I was exhausted and luckily at the time not knowing that the fire alarm would go off in my building at 4 am. It was a false alarm, but it took over an hour until the few of us staying there found out. Half asleep I made it to the airport the morning after with the same bus I had taken two days earlier.

Riga had definitely been alright, but London is where my heart lies and I was so happy to be going home.

  • October 2018

Good to know

The currency in Latvia is Euro.

Bus 22 will take you from and to the airport. The buses in Riga costs 1.15 € per journey if you pre-buy it in a ticket machine or 2 € (cash only) from the driver. The ticket machines take card and there was one at the airport bus stop as well as several around the city.

There is a dress code at the Nativity of Christ Cathedral.

There are toilets available at the Riga Central Station, though you have to pay for them. The House of Blackheads have free toilets once you are inside.

Links

Riga buses timetables

Riga Central Market opening hours

Riga Old Town info

Latvian Museum of Architecture (Three Brothers) opening hours

Advertisements

Hiking (and trespassing) in London’s Colne Valley Regional Park

Who have said that you can’t go hiking in London? Maybe no-one, but it is probably not the first thing you think about when you are planning a day out in the capital.

Sure, there are a lot of big parks in London and I already wrote about a couple in “Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common – two giants in one go”, but this one I think is lesser known as everyone I mentioned it to had never heard of it. I found it by looking at a London map where I saw this big green area with lakes around Heathrow Airport. It is called Colne Valley Regional Park and after some quick research I was intrigued to explore it more.

Uxbridge Station

I gave it as an option to my friend when we had decided to go hiking a nice day in the summer. She picked that one and we jumped on the tube to Uxbridge Station. It is the last stop on the Piccadilly Line so going from Putney it took us about an hour to get there, so longer than it would take us to take the train to go hiking in the country side. We did not mind.

Uxbridge was a really cute little place with a country town feel to it and we had a little walk around to find a coffee place before we headed to the park. My friend took out a map on the phone and led the way to the Grand Union Canal where we started out hike.

Grand Union Canal

We followed it north and passed a lot of those long canal boats that people live on as well as a lot of nice looking houses with their back gardens facing the water. There were also two guys on kayaks paddling north. We outwalked them quite quickly and eventually reached the Denham Deep Lock where two people seemed to be trying to open it by spinning a wheel by hand. I have no idea how they did in the end as we kept walking.

Break

Now we had trees on both sides of the water and a bit further up we decided to stray from the canal and head into the greens. We started to get hungry and tried to find somewhere to sit down to eat our packed lunch. Without success we headed back to the canal and sat down next to the water.

As my friend took an afternoon nap I enjoyed the calm of my surroundings. The two guys on kayaks finally caught up with us and a lot of canal boats passed with nearly everyone saying a friendly hello. I loved this place.

The Pyghtle

An hour or so later we headed back into the trees and following a path on random we ended up crossing a little bridge that must have been over River Colne. Not long after we saw a bridge a lot bigger in the distance from where we could hear traffic. To avoid it we headed west and found ourselves on a street called The Pyghtle. We followed that to a cute little village where we decided to stop for dessert at one of the pubs. It really did feel like we were in the county side.

Blocked path

Though we had not walked a very long distance for a hike it felt like it was time to head back towards the station. We passed the cute village church and I offered to take over the map from there. I found what seemed to be a shortcut walking along a lake. As we reached the other side of the lake our path was blocked with a fence. That is what you get for having me as a map reader.

Trespassing

It looked like we had walked upon the club house of a golf club or something of the sort. According to google map the road would continue on the other side of the building and as there was an opening next to the fence we headed on. Bad idea. On the other side of the “club house” was an Indian temple. Where had that come from? As I am taking a picture a guy comes up talking to my friend and what he told us was that we were on private land and that we were trespassing. Whoops. He was really friendly though and as we left the church grounds through the main gate we saw the big sign that said: “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” That could have ended up a lot worse than it did.

We had to walk along the narrow path along the highway for a bit to make it back onto the route along The Grand Union Canal that would take us back to the station. Though we had only explored about a tenth of the massive Colne Valley Regional Park it felt like a good start. Next time would hopefully hold less illegal accidents.

  • August 2018

Good to know

Toilets would be available at the visitor centre in the park, or at any café or pub.

Links

Colne Valley Regional Park

Ruins, caves and waves in beachside Hastings

I thought it was about time that I visited another UK seaside town, since my last coastal visit (that was not Brighton) was my trip to Broadstairs a couple of years back. I managed to find a cheap roundtrip train ticket to Hastings for one semi-sunny Tuesday in August. It was just at the end of that “bad” spell of weather in the middle of the summer heatwave.

Town center

When I arrived at the Hastings train station I got off and headed in the direction of the ocean. On my way I passed a little square with shops that had put up some summer activities for the younger ones. I continued pass some coffee shops and debated whether or not I should stop for the coffee I was craving. I decided I wanted to be closer to the beach and took my chances that there would be another coffee place available at the seafront.

The Old Town

I passed under a tunnel from Hastings & St. Leonards to the Old Town. I did not see any old looking buildings indicating any kind of Old Town – just a roundabout with a parking lot behind it and behind that the beach and the ocean. The parking lot was a disappointing sight. It ruined the view of a perfectly good beach. You would have thought there would be somewhere else where that parking lot could have been placed.

I stayed on my side of the road and walked along the sidewalk where I saw a place selling coffee. Sitting next to the road was way less appealing than the coffee shops in the little town center. Instead I found a side street that did look interesting. The buildings looked old so I assumed that I had found the Old Town. It was a cosy little street called George Street made with cobblestones and lined with little shops, pubs and restaurants. I found a little square with animal shaped artwork which seemed popular with the little kids hanging around. I liked them too, which makes sense since I am still part kid.

Coffee

When I reached the end of the street I decided it was time to change the course back to the ocean. I crossed the road and passed an amusement park called Flamingo Park. It only looked half open with hardly anyone around. My coffee dreams felt crushed, but at least I was close to the sea. Then to my surprise I saw a little building that seemed to be selling ice cream just next to the beach. I went there and was in luck. They did sell filter coffee. I opted for a takeaway one without the plastic lid and tried to keep the liquid in the cup as I was walking along the beach for a good spot.

The sea

It was quite windy and not warm at all, but I had already decided I was going for a swim. As soon as my coffee was finished I got changed and jumped into the water. The waves were high and I had to keep an eye on them as I was floating in the water so I would not get dragged along and pulled under. It happened to me once when I was around 12 years old – a wave got a hold of me and then I got pulled along the bottom out towards the open sea. It was really scary, but luckily I managed to stand back up after a few horrifying seconds. I have always respected the water after that.

The next thing on my list was the castle ruins. I could see them up on the hill from my spot on the beach, but how did I get there? I took out my google maps that led me back under the tunnel to Hastings and St. Leonards where I got confused. The directions made no sense so I decided to wing it.  Winging it led me to someone’s back garden and did not seem to hold any hidden shortcuts so I went back down to the main road and headed upwards.

West Hill

I was at the top when I saw a little path called Wallingers Walk that finally took me to the top of the West Hill. I could see the ocean and the East Hill with the funicular riding up the side – but there were still no castle ruins in sight. I knew they had to be to my right and had a feeling I had taken a long detour up the hill to get there, especially when I saw a sign for the castle pointing down. It felt as though it was wrong. The other path leading up surely would be the correct one. I decided to trust the signs this time even though a couple of people behind me turned back around thinking it was the wrong way as well. It was not. I made it there and paid my £4.95 to get inside.

Hastings castle

As I walked in among the castle ruins of Hastings Castle there was a nice break from the cold wind and the sky was at the moment cloud free. I imagined what it must have looked like in the 11th century when it would have been newly built on orders by William the Conqueror.

Originally the castle was built in wood, but after the victory of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 it was rebuilt in stone. There was a storm in the 13th century that ruined Hasting’s harbour and had most of the castle fall into the sea. Without the harbour the town had no more military importance and the castle fell into decay. There was a 20 minute documentary that came with the entrance fee, but since I would have had to watch it with fifteen or so school kids around the age of nine, I opted out. I am not that much of a kid.

The castle ruins were nice to have a walk through, but I would not recommend it for bad weather.

Smuggling caves

After eating my packed lunch I headed for the Smugglers Adventure at the St. Clements Caves. I stepped into what is basically an underground museum focused on the smugglers that used the caves for smuggling in luxury goods like tobacco to avoid paying the expensive royal tax otherwise required. It was interesting, but felt very children focused. There was also a bit of a scary touch to it and after the intro warning about ghosts a little girl around three years old turned around and headed back for the entrance. It took her parents some convincing to get her to come along in the end telling her ghosts are not real  – but are they really sure about that?

Later when I sat down to watch an informative video the same fifteen kids from Hastings Castle poured into the room. I had chosen wisely avoiding spending 20 minutes shut into a room with them earlier. Luckily this video was a lot shorter.

Funicular

Back in the daylight I went for a coffee at the café on top of the hill to enjoy the view and relax for a bit. After I took a stroll around the building and  found what looked like some other sort of attraction. I headed inside and found myself at the West Hill funicular hidden underneath the café. There was just a carriage about to head down the hill so I was asked if I was getting on. I said yes without having planned to do so. I paid the £2 at the bottom and saw that I head 10 minutes left before the one heading up the East Hill would close. I decided to see if I could make it there, figuring I could walk down after.

I passed the tall black wooden sheds called the Net Shops which were built to be weather-proof storage for fishing gear. One is now a museum.

East Hill

As I reached the East Hill funicular I paid £2 again to get up. The price actually gives you a return journey, but I could unfortunately not use the ticket from the West Hill for the East One.

I made it up onto the big flat grass area on top of the East Hill. Not really sure what to do up there I went for a walk to explore a bit. I walked quite far and found a little path leading pass a house and then downhill. I made to a place with an incredible view of a seaside cliff. The path ahead was closed off with a gate, so curious me went to have a look at the sign attached to it. It said that the path was closed due to landslides. Let us hope no-one was standing there at the time.

I headed back up the hill instead, but chose I different route. I knew I could not get lost as I was following the fence and the bushes lining the cliff edge. It led me back to the flat grass area and the steps leading back down to the town.

Butcher’s bike race

As I reached the bottom of the steps there was something going on. A lot of people were standing or sitting down along a narrow street. I asked a man with a big camera that looked like he could be local press what was going on and he said it was the Crown Lane Bike Race that wad held in memory of local fisherman Jimmy Read killed by a hurricane in 1987.

I stayed to catch one guy struggling up the street on a butcher’s bike. Apparently you have to keep a £10 between yourself and the saddle. If you lose the note you are out of the game. That would have been my tenner gone.

New friend

I headed back to the beach for a last swim and got back up freezing. So walking back towards the station I looked for anywhere that I could buy a hot drink, but everywhere were already closed. To my relief the little shop at the station sold tea and as I drank it on the platform waiting for the train I made a new friend in the shape of a seagull. It might have had something to do with me eating a brownie, but he got up on the bench next to me and kept me company until the train arrived about fifteen minutes later.

As I got home about two hours later I was exhausted, but in a good way. It had been a long day, but I am sure I will be back in Hastings at some point in the future and if I am lucky I might even see my friend again – my new  bestie the seagull Seamus.

  • August 2018

Good to know

You can pay for the funiculars with card as well as cash.

Free toilets where available next to the beach parking lot and behind the West Hill café. Plus also inside the Smuggler’s Adventure if you have paid to get inside.

Links

Smugglers Adventure & Hastings Castle

Hastings tourist information

Six days in Prague with a local

Prague is probably my favourite city in Europe after London and that is saying a lot after only having been there twice. My first time was a bit over three and a half years ago when I visited a friend that had moved back there from London. Now it was time to visit that same friend again.

Public transport

When I arrived at the Prague airport this time I hoped taking public transport to the city center would be as easy as I remembered. Minus the trouble I had buying a bus ticket last time as the ATM would only give me big notes that the bus driver would not take. It did not help that all the shops where closed as it was late either. Luckily a friendly lady in a Money Exchange window – that even though it was closed – gave me smaller notes for one of my bigger ones. Sometimes the help of strangers can save the day.

So when I saw a self-service ticket machine on my way out from the airport this time I did not hesitate and in a few moments I had bought a 90 minute ticket with my debit card. This time public transport was going to be trouble free. I got on the bus just to have a tiny scare that the next stop was the last one and I had gotten on the wrong bus. Luckily it was the right one and kept going to Nadrazi Veleslavin, which was the last stop towards the center. From there I jumped onto Metro Line A with my still valid 90 minute ticket. I almost felt like a local.

I got off at the station Malostranská where I decided to eat the sandwich I had bought at the airport in London. I found a beautiful little square just next to the station with a fountain where I could enjoy it in the hot May-day. 

World War II monuments

Afterwards I did a bit of exploring of my surroundings and found a little green area across the street with a beautiful monument to fallen soldiers from World War II and the Winged Lion Memorial which is dedicated to the Czechoslovak airmen who served in the Royal Air Force at the same time.

Livin’ it local

Then my friend called to let me know he had finished work and he explained which tram to get and where to get off. Luckily my ticket was valid for 10 more minutes so I jumped on the tram and got to my location without problem. I definitely felt like a local now. It was great to see my friend when he showed up a few minutes later. As with all good friends a few years apart feel more like a few months and we headed off to his place where I was lucky enough to stay for my visit. Less money on accommodation meant more money to spend on food and Czech beer for both of us – definitely a win-win situation.

The hazardous car

As we got to my friend’s flat I found out that his car needed repair and that he needed to drive it to a guy an hour away that was going to fix it for him. Only problem was that he was scared it might explode and wanted me to come with him. So was I really up for an hour in a hazardous car without air-con on a 25-degree day?

Sure, why not. Only problem – correction – third problem was that when we were ready to leave the car would not start. After some troubleshooting and googling my friend went with the simplest solution. Call the insurance company. We were in luck and they sent a guy out to kick start the battery free of charge.

Czech village

After about an hour of driving without explosions we reached a small Czech village with the tiniest church I have ever seen. We were not in the right place. The GPS seemed slightly confused. Eventually we found our way and dropped off the car before heading to the nearby train station. We crossed a river with a beautiful view to get there. I would not mind seeing more of the county side next time I am around.

As we waited for the train we had a well-deserved beer at the platform pub. What a genius idea to put a pub at the train station. The train back only took about half an hour and we decided it was time for dinner.  We found a place that was not overly crowded and after we headed to a little bar on a side street to enjoy some traditional liquor called Becherovka made from a secret recipe of herbs and spices.

Day 2 Friday

The following morning we decided to see where the day would take us by starting to tick off a few things on my things-I-want-to-see-list. As we were not far from the John Lennon Wall we headed there first. My friend had not been there in years and we got a bit turned around finding it. So as we strolled around the streets in the area we came across a little courtyard with a church in the back where we had a look in through the barred gate. I have no idea what it was called. Then a few moments later we found our wall.

John Lennon Wall

The Wall has been covered in John Lennon inspired graffiti since the 1980s and when it was painted over by the authorities it was covered in poems and flowers already by the next day. In 2014 it was painted white by a group of students with the text “wall is over”. Now that is changed to “war is over” and the wall is once again covered in graffiti representing love and peace and it is a popular tourist attraction. I thought it was kind of cool.

Wallenstein Garden

After that my friend took me to the nearby Wallenstein Garden that was designed in the 17th century. We had a look inside the sala pavilion, a kind of stage with three walls and ceiling that are covered in da Vinci-style art.  The garden itself is filled with neatly cut hedges, statues, fountains and peacocks. There is one peacock there that sticks out among the others as it is completely white.

The east side

After the tranquility of the garden we headed back on the noisy streets again and crossed the Mánes Bridge to the east side of the Vltava River that runs through Prague. By now we had reached lunch time so we went for food at Café Louvre, a really nice place that is not overly expensive.

When we were finished with lunch my friend wanted to buy a new book to read so we hit the second hand book shops. Lucky for me all of them had an English section and there were some interesting antique books. I almost bought one until I decided I do not actually need it. Then we met up with a friend of my friend and went out for a few drinks. When it is holiday, it’s holiday.

On the way home we passed the eye-catching Dancing House building that was completed in 1996.

Day 3 Saturday

As we had not been overly touristy so far we decided to start the day with another thing of my list – the Petřín Lookout Tower. To reach it there are a steep walk up the paths in the park called Petřín Hill, or you can take the funicular up to the top. As my friend just lived at the bottom of the hill we took the more exhausting option. It did not help that it was still 25 degrees Celsius outside, but somehow we made it up there. We passed the Mirror Maze that looks like a castle out of a Disney movie from the outside. I decided to skip it as it felt more like a kid’s place.

Petřín Tower confuson

My friend sat down with a book in a nearby park as I parked myself in the line to climb up the tower.  I did not have to wait very long and soon I had bought my ticket and was climbing up the steps of the tower. Half way up you could get out and have a look at the view, so I did.

When I got back onto the stairs I somehow missed the fact that there was two of them, one for up and one for down. Of course I was heading up the one that meant to take you down again. I met a group of people that kindly told me I was heading the wrong way. Thanks, but there was no way I was heading back down to climb more steps up again. I really hoped they would not deny me access at the top. Luckily there was no one paying attention to the exit stairs and I sneaked in as quickly as possible trying to blend in. The view was amazing and you could see all of Prague below.

Heading back down I took the correct stairs and at the half way exit I noticed the sign with a crossed over upwards pointing arrow that I somehow had missed before. Whoops. I went to find my friend in the park and we headed towards the castle district. From there we took the less populated back streets to find an international food festival that was in town.

Food festival fiasco

As we finally tracked the food festival down it was about to close with half the stands already packing things away. Every stand was a different country that sold a local dish or drink. Can you guess which one that sold tea? We did not get any tea, but bought a coffee in a coffee wagon and I was surprised to find dairy free milk options, as the last time I went to Prague I could not find decaf coffee anywhere and milk options felt like a step up.

After we bought some food and unfortunately my friend got some uncooked meat so after his refund we got ourselves some comfort ice cream at a nearby ice cream place instead. I had an amazing sorbet that tasted like blueberries. By then it was time to head back home to rest, refresh and change before heading out for drinks with a couple of other friends of my friend. This time it was at a bar on a boat – perfect for a nice summer evening.

Day 4 Sunday

The next morning I headed out to explore on my own as my friend had some things he needed to do at home. I had planned to visit the castle district and to actually go inside the buildings. I found my way easily and made a stop at the Belfry Tower that my friend recommended I head up.

Belfry Tower climbing

Heading up the tower only cost 100 CZK (about £3.50) so I got my ticket at the bottom and started climbing up the steps. The Belfry Tower is part of the St. Nicholas Church that was built in the first half of the 18th century by the Jesuits on the spot where a former 13th century gothic church stood. From the 1960’s the tower was used by the State Security to keep an eye on the American and Yugoslav embassies as well as the access route to the West German one.  The tower was also used by the Secret Police until the 1990’s.

On the way up I passed a few old one-room flats with simple furniture inside and once I got to the top I had a great view of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle as well as a lot of Prague roof tops. It was great.

Castle District

Back down on the ground I started heading up the hill towards the castle. It is virtually impossible to get lost as all roads leading up will take you there. Prague is actually not very big and you can walk most places. I passed a lot of little cute shops, cafés and restaurants on the way before reaching the gates at the top.

Once inside the castle grounds I decided to do some mandatory exploring of the castle grounds. I found a café and a path free from tourists, but not much else so I decide to go proper tourist and headed to the ticket office. I went for the Circuit B ticket that included St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, Golden Lane with the Daliborka Tower as well as a separate ticket to climb the Great South Tower. I do love my towers.

Old Royal Palace and St. George’s Basilica

I decided to start with the Old Royal Palace as I wanted to save the St. Vitus Cathedral for last. After struggling to open the heavy door and getting help from another girl I manage to get inside. I entered into a big hall that was rather impressive but completely empty. The building dates back to the 12th century but there was not much else to see inside. I went onto St George’s Basilica instead which looks awesome from the outside as it is all pink. It was founded in 920 and is the oldest surviving church building within the Prague Castle area. I walked around that one quite quickly as well so when I got outside I was in explore mode again.

The 0.5 km South Garden

I found my way to the South Garden that runs almost 500 meters along the castle and overlooking Prague. It is the garden I had seen from atop the Belfry Tower and it was a perfect spot for a nice hot day. The place was renovated in 1912 to look like it originally did in 1920 and it holds three different gardens: Paradise Gardens, Garden of the Ramparts and Hartig Garden. It was a lovely place to stroll through and I even came across a couple taking wedding photos. I got some great photos myself – of Prague and the South Garden, not the couple.

Speeding up the South Tower

I found a shortcut by a staircase leading from the garden back up to the castle courtyard which I took. All that walking had my legs feeling exhausted and I decided it was time to climb the tower before they were completely dead. After about two minutes up the tower I had the brilliant idea to run up the steps just to get it over with and though it kind of worked I was so out of breath when I got up to the top that it took me five minutes to recover.

Wow. The view from South Tower had been the most impressive one yet. I could see everything from up there and my favourite bit was the people below looking like tiny ants. I snapped a few more hundred photos before taking the easier route down.

By now I was starving and had to settle for one of the tourist traps for lunch as I figured my only other option would be to leave the castle grounds. At this point the less-walking-option was the only option.

Golden Lane

My next stop was the Golden Lane. It was originally built in the 16th century to house Rudolf II’s castle guards. The street got its name after the goldsmiths that lived there a century later and also went by the names Street of Alchemists or Alchemists’ Alley, even though alchemists never worked or lived there. The houses were painted in bright colours in the 1950’s and are now a really cute looking street which houses holds museums showing medieval armour and weaponry, as well as displays of old workshops and homes. Of course there are also the obligatory souvenir shops.

The next time I go back I have to pay more attention to number 22 as apparently Czech author Franz Kafka’s sister used to live there and Kafka himself spent two years writing there between 1916 and 1917. How did I miss that?

At the end of the street was the Daliborka Tower which was used as a dungeon.  It had some nasty looking torture devises inside and I would not want to spend a night there if I could avoid it.

St. Vitus Cathedral

One stop to go – the impressive looking St. Vitus Cathedral. As I got inside I was met with an ocean of tourists snapping photos of the ceiling. I realised I had not needed a ticket to see that bit and felt a bit cheated. Though it gave me access to take a lap around inside so I gave my ticket and tried to walk slowly to get my money’s worth. It took me about five minutes. Luckily the tickets had not been that expensive, and I had enjoyed the Golden Lane so it had not really been a waste of money. The free South Garden and the 150 CZK South Tower had been my favourites though and I recommend them together with good shoes and good legs.

Day 5 Monday

Monday morning we tried to come up with a plan for my last full day in town. My friend decided to take me back to the Vyšehrad Cemetery and the area around there. We had visited last time I was in town, but it is a really nice place to relax with less tourists so I did not mind going again.

Getting there we had to take a bit of a detour as the awesome railway bridge we had planned to cross was closed for renovation. Luckily we found ourselves some fuel in an ice cream shop nearby and I had my second awesome Prague sorbet.

We made it to the cemetery and passed the St. Peter and Paul Basilica. Three years ago we went inside to have a look, but I felt that once was enough. Now we just sat down outside in the shade for a bit before having a stroll around the area and taking a few photos.

Astronomical Clock restored

Last time we also visited the nearby Botanical Garden which is also a nice less touristy spot in Prague if you want a little peace and quiet. The two busiest places would probably be Charles Bridge and the street in front of the Astronomical Clock. We did not visit the clock this time around as it was being restored, but I would not mind paying a visit again next time. The oldest part of the clock dates back to 1410 and it celebrated its 600th anniversary with a spectacular light show 8 years ago that my friend had been lucky enough to go to.

We did not do a lot else that day except heading out for lunch and then chilling out a bit at the island that you reach from the Legion’s Bridge. It felt like a much needed do-nothing day.

Day 6 Tuesday

My last half day in Prague had arrived and after breakfast I got off on a little adventure by myself again. I wanted to visit Charles Bridge and climb that tower at the end of it, since I do love my towers. Plus there was a little café next to a canal near there that I had visited last time that I wanted to find again.

As I walked along the river I passed the Museum Kampa which looked interesting with odd looking artwork outside. I decided I might pay a visit there on my way back from Charles Bridge. Just after the museum I saw a street that looked familiar so I headed up that way in search of my café. It was right there next to the canal and not as hidden as I had remembered it. Though it might have changed name to Piknik Park. There was a little green space next to it as well with a statue of a naked lady I did remember, plus some graffiti of Pikachu that probably was new.

As I headed back towards Charles Bridge I came across a really nice area with a hotel and a few restaurants with outside tables. It was surprisingly not very busy, but maybe the tourists get too distracted by Charles Bridge to actually see the steps leading down to this nice little oasis.

Charles Bridge

From there I walked under an arch to the other side of the bridge where I came across the same canal that my café had the view over further down. There was a little bridge over where a few love locks where attached.

A bit further up there where also a Film Special Effects Museum. I did not enter, but thought it was time to take on Charles Bridge under the now dark and gloom looking sky.

I managed to make my way forward and passed people selling paintings and touristy trinkets. As I made it to the middle of the bridge the sky suddenly opened up and buckets of water started pouring down upon us. Most people started hurrying away from there as the vendors covered their stalls with plastic sheets. I kind of liked getting a bit more space, but got a bit worried that more people would want to climb up the tower to escape the weather. As I got to the other side of the bridge I realised that the tower does not have tourist access and from what I could see not even an entrance.

There was nothing to do than be satisfied with the three towers I had already climbed on this trip. I decided to skip the Kampa Museum as it was quite expensive just for a quick visit. Instead I headed back to catch my friend for lunch before it was time to hit the airport.

Back home

It had been a really nice holiday and as I looked out the airplane window I got my last view of Prague from this trip. I decided that I will come back next year to visit my friend and this lovely city again. Next time I plan to feel even more like a local, and for that it always does help to have that local friend about.

  • May 2018

Good to know

I took bus 119 from the airport to the last stop Nadrazi Veleslavin where you can take Metro A to the city center. You can also take bus number 100 to Zlicin (not the last stop) where you can take Metro B.

Links

Prague Castle prices and info

Petřín Lookout Tower opening hours

Belfry Tower opening hours

Prague public transport

Prague metro, tram and bus maps

Café Louvre Prague

Piknik Park

Thames Path from Kingston to Richmond at high tide

For some reason I have never been to the riverside in Kingston before this walk and it is a shame, because it is a lovely place. There are a lot of trees, boats and houses, which you can find along the river pretty much everywhere, but the Kinsgston path has more of a coastal village feel to it for some reason. At least from where I started which was at Kingston Bridge and from there I was following the Thames Path north. My goal was to make it all the way to Barnes, but as you might have guessed by the headline I did not make it even half that way.

Riverside Walk

I had chosen the perfect day for my walk as it was warm and sunny, but not too hot. It was the first day of the random mid-April-mini-summer that lasted about 5 days until we got winter back. I reached the river just south of Kingston Bridge where I came across the Riverside Walk with restaurants lining the path. They all had outside seating and a lovely view over our favourite London river. I am definitely coming back there one day soon for a drink and some food in the summer sun.

Canbury Gardens

As I walked under Kingston Bridge I unexpectedly entered a park called Canbury Gardens. Not a massive park, but there was a pathway just next to the river where the shadow from the trees made it look slightly surreal and awesome. At the other end of the park there was an interesting looking pub called The Boaters Inn. I kept walking as I had not planned to stop anywhere until I reached one of my new favourite London cafés called Petersham Nurseries that is located just outside of Richmond and a few stone throw from the river (actually quite a lot of stone throws or more like a four minute walk).

Half Mile Tree

I continued past Canbury Gardens and had a pleasant walk from there as I watched the residential houses that lined the other side of the river. I loved the fact that it felt as if I was at the coast, even though I was actually still in London.

After passing a few boats, some more houses and walking along a quiet road for a bit I finally reached a trail that was lined with trees again. For some reason the biggest one was fenced in and had a big sign in front of it. It had me intrigued and upon reading it I find out that there used to be a 500 year old tree at that exact spot that was taken down due to its dangerous conditions and replaced in 1952. Locally it is known as The Half Mile Tree as it marks the distance to Kingston town.

Boundary 

My first few steps onto the tree lined path were met with a floating tire that was attached to a tree that someone had turned into a birdy house boat. Yes, it was filled with twigs and had a carefree looking bird lying on top. Lucky bird to manage securing such an awesome holiday home.

A bit further up I came across a less lucky bird. It was a baby swimming up and down the river’s edge and chirping loudly. I debated whether there was anything I could do, but realised it was better to leave it alone and hoping the parents would hear its calls.

In the same area as the baby bird I also came across the stone that marks the boundary between the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames and Richmond upon Thames. I was one step closer to my café break, but for now I really enjoyed my walk along the Thames.

River Island

Soon thereafter I started hearing roaring water ahead and further up I could see a construction keeping the river at different levels with water pouring over the edges into the lower part in a loud manner. I had reached the Teddington Lock.

Houseboats lined my side of the river and there was a walking bridge to the other side of the Thames, but also to the island in the middle that I felt intrigued to explore. I headed over there and the first thing I did was finding myself an awesome little beach. I sat down for a bit to soak in the sun and enjoy the view. Afterwards I went over to have a closer look at the constructed mini waterfall at the barrage. Water really is impressive and rather scary (says the River Thames kayaker).

Teddington Lock

On the rest of the island there was not really anything else to discover so I headed back over the bridge to my Thames Path and to get a better view of Teddington Lock. It consists of three locks and a weir and was first built in 1810 and then rebuilt in 1857. While writing this post I also found out that the footbridge I had just crossed is one of two footbridges that are Grade II listed and built between 1887 and 1889. Pretty cool, huh?

Obelisk

Next I reached a woodsy area where some of the trees were rather amasing looking as they were standing in the river with its branches hanging out and touching the surface of the water.

I also came across another monument called the Teddington Obelisk that marks something to do with the tidal Thames. It has been there since 1909 and looks like a stone pillar.

Ham Lands

After that the path turned boring. Mainly because I could not see the river anymore – my view was blocked by trees – but also because for some reason they had turned the trail into asphalt. It was probably to make it less muddy and easier for cyclists, but I did not like it. I started daydreaming about my coffee at Petersham Nurseries that were now only about an hour away. To make it more interesting I veered off the path once in a while to have a look if the river was still there or to see what were hiding on the other side of the trees in the area called the Ham Lands. No, unfortunately it was not filled with roaming pigs.

Lost dog

It felt like it had been forever when I finally could see water ahead. I was so relieved to see the Thames again – the beautiful London river. I did not even care that there was a parking lot that was under construction there as well. As long as I faced the river it was picture perfect and there was a beutiful young raven standing in the shallows. I decided to enjoy the view with my packed sandwich, so I parked myself on a bench next to the river’s edge.

As I sat down I could hear how a man shouted for his dog far up the road and a few minutes later a golden retriever appeared from the bushed behind me. I figured it must be the same dog, but the man was already out of sight and there was no-one else around except for a couple sitting inside their car enjoying the view like I did. Funnily the dog did not seem too bothered by having lost its owner. You could tell that she was looking, but she kept getting distracted by interesting smells. I decided that if the dog was still there as I had finished my sandwich I would have to help. But just as I had taken my last bite the owner reappeared around the corner calling out. This time the dog heard it and headed that way. Though not very quickly as she kept stopping to smell things.

Rising tide

This is when I looked down and realised that the river’s edge that had been a couple of meters from me had reached my feet and the water was still rising. Though I knew that the tide in London can come in quickly (just check out Putney High Tide Club) I had never seen it rise like that. Mesmerized I stayed for a couple of minutes and had to jump over the bench backwards to get to dry land.

I tore myself away as I wanted to reach my café before 5 pm when I had a feeling they would be closing. I passed the grand Ham House (again, no pigs involved) where I took a quick detour to say hi to a horse and saw a guy climb over the fence from another horse enclosure with a bike. I soon would find out why.

Just another hundred meters down the road the tide had risen so much that it was covering the whole path. I followed another couple in to the trees thinking that there would be a way around it, but nope, in there it was even worse. It was like a tiny flood crossing the path in front of us that was pouring into a stream on the other side of the fence next to us. I debated whether it was worth taking my shoes off and cross it anyway, but that is when I realised the guy climbing the fence with his bike probably had come from this direction. Maybe it was even a shortcut to the café that was pretty much just around the corner at this point. I decided to give the detour a go.

Inland maze

As I climbed into the horse enclosure I felt as if I was trespassing. When the two horses that were in there did not seem to care that I was in their territory I figured that they were used to people passing and it would be fine. I think I was right because there luckily was a way to get out on the other side.

Unfortnately I had not managed to get around the tide. It was not as bad, but my shoes would still get wet so I decided to head “inland” instead because the pathway heading that way looked intriguing as well. From there I found another narrow path that was between two high wooden fences. It felt as if I was in a maze and that I could end up pretty much anywhere. Luckliy I ended up next to a sign that pointed me to Petersham Nurseries, but by now it was already 5 pm. I went there anyway to check if it was still open, but as I had suspected it was not. I had missed it by a minute. Ok, so that coffee dream was down the drain. If you are ever in the area the place is definitely worth a detour, especially on a weekday when it is less crowded. Just make it there before 5 pm.

Final flooding

Instead I headed back down to the river where of course it was flooded as well. I managed to jump over the water to reach the dryer side where I walked on top of the brick wall to stay away from the muddy ground.

I said hi to the fluffy cows that were grazing and passed Buccleuch Gardens where the tunnel leading to the lovely Terrace Gardens where flooded as well. It really did seem as though someone had forgotten to turn off the tap for the Thames. I continued down Buccleuch Passage as I was amased by the river at full tide extreme.

Once I reached Richmond Bridge I realised that was it. There was no way I would manage to walk all the way to Barnes from there. It had taken me just over three hours to walk from Kingston to Richmond and I really needed a rest and some coffee. This time it felt as if the best place to get both would be at home. I decided that I would be taking on the Thames Path from Richmond to Putney another time instead, or maybe (more likely) I will only make it to Barnes. Kingston to Richmond had at least been an adventure, and I hope we will soon find out if next time will be as exciting as today had been.

  • April 2018

Good to know

There are not a lot of cafés or restaurants on this route unless you count the beginning and the end, but there are places on the other side if you cross the river at Teddington Lock. Just consult google maps first.

If you want to visit Ham House you can get a ticket for £12.20

Links

Riverside Walk Kingston

Ham House and Garden

Petersham Nurseries Richmond

Putney High Tide Club

Hiking from Merstham to Dorking (Box Hill) in winter rain

Hiking when it is cold and raining might sound like a bad idea, but there is (almost) no such thing as a bad idea – just bad execution. It is all about dressing for the occasion. But what exactly do you wear for a rainy cold day in the woods? Well, waterproof hiking shoes and thick socks was a start, as well as a fluffy hoodie and a semi-waterproof jacket. My problem was what to wear for trousers. Having a look inside the sport shop I finally went with a pair that looked both warm and dry, just to have the guy at the cash register tell me it was a really good choice of ski-trousers. Oh, ok, but then again – why not? I decided to stick with them and I also bought myself a thermos. The one thing I did not buy that I regretted afterwards was a rainproof cover for my backpack. It was soaked at the end of the day. I will definitely not make that mistake again.

Inexperience

As you probably have guessed I am not an experienced hiker. I have been for lots of walks in the woods with my parents’ dog, but those walks usually only takes between one and two hours and I never brought a map (though on a couple of occasions I could have used one and had to rely on where the sun was to find my way home). Luckily the friend that had planned the hike is an experienced hiker and together with her and her boyfriend we set off on the train from London.

North Downs Way

We were getting off in Merstham, less than an hour train ride from London and located within Surrey. We were going to follow part of the National Trail called North Downs Way to Dorking and we had calculated it to take us around three to four hours. It took us six and the fact that we started our walk by following the trail in the wrong direction obviously had not helped. But we did get to pass a nice and old looking church twice – first leaving and then back again to the starting point. This time we decided to choose the right direction and soon we were walking across a big grassy field with the tree line visible on the other side. We were on our way for real.

Roadside café

After a short walk through a small wooded area we had to follow a country road for a bit that led to a fancy looking school. We passed it and headed towards more woods ahead. As we followed the path among the trees we could hear the cars from the road nearby and it was not long until we reached a little roadside café. Though we had hardly even started our walk (not counting our poor choice of direction earlier) we decided to sit down for a hot drink. Since I had brought my own in my newly purchased thermos I stuck with that as the other two went over to the café window to buy theirs. But sitting still went cold quickly (even with the hot drink) so after a visit to the facilities we got back onto the trail to get the heat pumping in our veins again.

Reigate Fort

As we were walking we came across a gate with some old looking buildings on the other side so we decided to step through the entrance and have a look. It turned out to be Reigate Fort that was built in 1898 as part of the London Defence Scheme to protect London and the British Empire from invasion. Except for one square brick building the other ones where built into the hill. They were all locked up, but there were not a lot to see in there anyway. As a kid it probably would have been a fun place to play among the semi-hidden buildings.

Nature vs. humans

Even though we still had not gotten far we were already getting hungry and decided to stop and eat our packed lunch at the first convenient location. Soon we reached a perfect place with both seats and a roof. It was the Inglis Memorial on Colley Hill with a great view of the area below. We ate our sandwiches, but once again staying still for more than three minutes got really cold. So soon we were back up and moving and now we started seeing runners with numbers attached to their chests coming from where we were heading. They all had tortured expressions on their faces and they were covered in mud. This was not a good sign. Then we saw one lady covered in blood, but bravely still running. This was definitely not a good sign at all. Soon our fears were realised when we stepped onto a narrow winding path leading down, also now known as the Descent of Calf-Muscle-Hell. It took forever and I tried to trick nature by walking backwards, but obviously that got dangerous pretty quickly so I turned back around. We made it to the bottom so nature had not beaten us just yet, but relief was short lived. The trail had now turned into the Path of Devil’s Mud because it was excessively slippery. No wonder those runners had looked tortured – mud skating and uphill running. I do not think they had signed up for an episode of Ninja Warrior, but that is what they got.

Simply mud

Luckily we were not running and instead of walking in the mud, as my fellow hikers had chosen to do, I took the decision to walk on the grass next to it. Only problem with that was that it was not straight at all being half way up a hill. Plus there were bushes with thorns on them in the way half the time. At least I kept my shoes clean – for about fifteen minutes because walking diagonally got tiring after a while. I took the brave step down into the mud. Two steps later and I slipped and fell. All muddy now you would think, but somehow I managed to land on the grassy side and my backpack that had my backup sweater in took most off the fall. But that was it – walking diagonally was my new calling. That was until I ran out of grassy hillside to walk on. I had no choice but to re-enter the mud. This time I was a lot more careful, but it did not help. I slipped again. Miraculously I somehow avoided landing in the mud this time too, but I did manage to get a thorn stuck in my eyelid. I had my friend pull that out so that I would not blind myself.

Crazy cows

We continued on and this time I stayed on my feet. But a new challenge arose – a gang of cows where blocking our path staring us down with their crazy eyes. They were standing straight in front of a gate that we had to go through. My brave friend took them on by sounding even crazier herself and the cows backed down. 1 point for us, zero for the cows. Luckily they were no sore losers, so we parted on good terms. Bye cows, see you next time!

Photomania

Keeping with the trail we had to cross a trafficked road and pass through a small residential area before we were back in the woods. We had to walk uphill and by now we realised we were really far behind schedule. My friend wanted to cut the hike short as it would be getting dark soon. Since that would have felt like giving up, us less experienced hikers decided we wanted to make it to the end. It meant we had to up our pace and stop stopping every two minutes to take photos. The photo part was tricky to quit though so I compensated by running to catch up when I had to stop to take one. Not the best of ideas since it got exhausting after a while – especially since we were still heading uphill.

Dusk

The plan was to make it to the highest part of the hill called Box Hill, but it was not long until the trees around us started looking gloomy. Dusk where upon us. What my friend had known before and I realised first now was that we needed to make it out of the woods before it got dark. I started to memorise places that we passed that could work as an overnight camping place if things came to the worst: Maybe under that pile of rubble or maybe in those bushes. It did not look promising at all and we took the wise decision to skip Box Hill (even though it was like a stone throw away) and aim for the road that we could follow to Dorking Station. But even that was easier said than done. It was getting darker and darker around us and it felt like the path went on forever. Up and down, left and right. Eventually we did make it out of the now dark woods and onto a residential street. There we met a couple of hiking ladies that had gotten themselves lost and since getting back among the dark trees was a really unwise idea at this time they decided to tag along to Dorking from where they could get a ride back to their parked car on the other side of the hill. Lucky we were there to help.

The end

We crossed a bridge over the River Mole and walked up to the road. There we passed a pub called Watermill Inn where the two ladies decided to head in. The three of us continued onto the station and soon we were in the warmth of the train with our muddy shoes and tired legs. It had been a long day and even though we did not make it to Box Hill it had been an adventure that we all had enjoyed. I had definitely gotten a taste for hiking and could see myself out on a UK trail soon again. Though, I am definitely aiming for less mud the second time around.

  • February 2018

Good to know

You can get a Network Railcard for £30 a year that gives you discounted train tickets to the areas around London for you and up to three friends.

Links

Network Railcard Page

Hiking Madness Blog

Fried dough and Dracula in Budapest

Budapest is the kind of city that has something for everyone, whether you are a hardcore tourist, a vegan or regular foodie, a history lover, a shopper, a chiller, an explorer or a Camden fan.

The reason I ended up in Budapest was because a friend was celebrating her birthday there and having the opportunity to tag along, I did. I was the only one coming from London so we had decided to meet at the airport and take a taxi together. There being four of us it was the perfect taxi number. But if you want to save some coin you can catch the bus 100E that goes to the city center.

Our hotel was in the area Pest – the other area obviously being Buda. Not too long ago they were actually two cities called Buda and Pest divided by the river Danube, but about 150 years ago they decided to become an item. After a failed attempt at Pestbuda they got it all right with Budapest and many bridges are connecting the two, the most famous being the beautiful Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

Public transport

For our first day of exploring we had decided to take the bus, but not being sure where to get the tickets we asked in the reception whether it was better to take a bus or a taxi. He replied “Metro”, so off we went. It was super easy. After a short walk we got to the station Keleti Mályaudvar and bought ten tickets in the machine (since we figured we would need more of them later). Just to be sure we double checked at the information desk and the tickets we had bought could be used on bus, metro or tram. Perfect. We stamped a ticket each before getting on the train and arrived at the station Széll Kálmán tér. After a brief encounter with google maps (up the outdoor escalators and then left) we found our way up the hill towards the castle gates. Outside the gate we were met with a lovely round woman, made out of stone, that was hugging a child.

Castle Hill

Inside the castle grounds we headed towards our first goal – The Fisherman’s Bastion. The castle grounds are also home to some locals so we passed a residential street and popped into an embroidery shop. These needlework items were all over Budapest, so I guess it might be a popular Hungarian thing (or maybe just with tourists).

Fisherman’s Bastion

When we reached the Fisherman’s Bastion the view was spectacular – we could see probably all of Pest beyond the river. We decided to pay the €1 in cost to go up the tower with the café on top to enjoy the view with a hot drink in this cold November afternoon. There were a few towers in the opposite end as well, and when I revisited the place a few days later I found out that you can head up those for free in the evening. The building apparently got its name because the rooftops of the towers look like traditional Hungarian fishermen hats.

Raven Church

Just next door you can find the church Mátyás-templom, or Matthias church, with a rather interesting rooftop design where you can find a raven perched on one of the tower tops. I also found out later that this particular raven, that carries a ring in its beak, was the heraldic animal of King Matthias after one stole a ring he had taken off his finger. He killed the bird and got his ring back, and apparently thought it a fitting symbol for his house.

Inside it looked like most churches – great architecture and lots of crosses – but they also had a little shop and a small museum in a couple of the side rooms.

Buda Castle

After a lunch break with Hungarian potato soup and some goulash we headed in the direction where we thought we would find Buda Castle. But by now it was already dark (even though it was only late afternoon) and people seemed to be heading in the other direction. Where we going the wrong way? Eventually we reached a gate with a raven looming over us as we passed underneath in the gloom of the after-dusk. We knew we had to be in the right place and soon we stood at the castle courtyard with the facade of the building lit up in the dark.

The courtyard held the entrance to the National Széchényi Library and the backdoor to what I think was the Budapest History Museum.

We decided it was time to head back home and after a quick look at the Funicular and deciding it was not worth the money we took the bus back to the metro station. We were really getting on well with the public transport.

Váci Utca

The next day was shopping, market hall and langos day. Langos is a Hungarian dish that consists of a piece of fried dough with toppings like crème fresh and grated cheese. We did not have to take the metro as it was quicker to take the bus this time around. The bus stopped straight onto Váci Utca (Váci Street). We turned right and walked up the street that was lined with lots of familiar looking places like H&M and McDonald’s mixed in with tourist shops and touristy looking restaurants.

Christmas Market

At the end of the street we were met by the pleasant surprise of a Christmas Market. Besides the good holiday atmosphere there were also lots of fun items sold at the stands, like a dragon breathing essence through its nostrils and porcelain flowers. I came back a few days later when they had live music playing as well and I had a Hungarian spit cake called Kürtőskalács. It is made from a sweet dough that is spun around a baking spit and roasted over charcoal. The cinnamon one was great. The market also had a lot of food and of course a langos stand.

Not-so-great Market Hall

But we were saving our langos for the Great Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok in Hungarian) and decided to head to the other end of Váci Utca to get our lunch treat. It was not hard to find and we headed inside.

To be honest we were all disappointed. On the bottom floor you could buy meat, veg and honey and there was not a lot of difference between the stalls. We had to ask about the langos stand and were told it was upstairs. Upstairs it was crowded with people in the narrow path and when we reached the langos place we decided we were not up for eating while standing all squashed up. We found a restaurant with tables instead that also turned out a disappointment with overpriced tasteless food. We had fallen into the tourist trap, but at least we were not hungry anymore.

Budapest cake

After the big lunch failure we decided to treat ourselves to some cake and coffee so we  went in search of a place that would sell the Budapest cake. Eventually we had to give up and “settled” for the place Szamos Gourmet Ház that had lots of lovely looking cakes on display. The only thing I would complain about is the tiny size of their coffees, which actually had been a thing in every place we ordered a coffee so far.  Maybe that was a Budapest thing as well. The Budapest cake though apparently is not a Budapest thing. After some googling we found out that it is Swedish, hence the failed attempt at finding it.

Thermal Bath

The next day it was time for the one thing you really have to do when you are in Budapest. Visit one of the Thermal Baths. We had chosen the Széchenyi Baths since it was the one that was closest to our hotel. It is located in the Budapest City Park (Varosliget) just next to Széchenyi fürdő Metro station. It was about £17 to get inside so not overly pricey.

Once changed into our bath clothes and having our stuff locked away in a locker we went in search of the pools. I have no idea if it was just us, but it took us a while to find them, and I think it was by accident. At least we did make it there and jumped into one of the naturally heated pools. The place smelled a bit funky, but it is just the smell of sulphate, which supposedly is good for your skin. The outdoor bath was the highlight. The air was freezing, but the water was just perfect at 38 °C.

Afterwards we were all hungry and we finally got those langos we had missed out on the day before. Not the best one I have had, but it did the trick. The café next door where we went for a coffee after was a lot nicer and a great place to warm up before heading back to the hotel.

Hungarian folk dance on Danube

In the evening we had decided to take a Dinner River Cruise with a folk dance show to celebrate my friend’s birthday. It was quite pricey at €55, but it included a four course dinner and a drink, plus the food was actually really good.

I did not know Hungarian folk dance before but it was an entertaining show, plus I even recognised some of it from the knee-slap-dance SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star does in the SpongeBob movie to distract the monsters from eating them. A good trick for the future.

The evening view from the river was amazing, especially the lit up Buda Castle, the Chain Bridge and the Parliament building.

City Park revisited

It was now Sunday and I was left by myself, since the other three where heading back to everyday life. I was staying longer and had decided to swop my hotel for a cheaper hostel. Since I could not check in there until the afternoon I had decided to leave my luggage in the reception of the hotel while paying a second visit to the City Park.

There are a lot of things you can do in or around the park. Besides the thermal bath and the castle, there is the Zoo and Botanical Garden, the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum), the Hall of Art (Kunsthalle) and for some reason a statue of George Washington. There is also a circus in the park, but finding out they use animals in the show it was quickly off the list. My first stop was Heroes Square.

Heroes Square

Heroes square (Hősök tere) is a square of famous statues including the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and the Archangel Gabriel. They were all made by the award winning Hungarian sculptor Zala György in the end of the 19th century.

After snapping some photos I crossed the bridge back into the park and had a stroll around before returning to the castle. I wanted to have a look inside this time around.

Vajdahunyad Castle

I passed the Christmas market once more and passing under the castle gate I noticed you could visit the top of the gate for only €1. I was sold and paying my coin I climbed up a lot of stairs to reach a small room that led outside. Up there I had a great view of the castle grounds and the crowds below.

There was also a church on the ground that you could pay a visit to. But as it seemed I could see all of it from just looking in through the open door so I was not too bothered with entering, especially since the garden seemed to be off limits. I enjoyed the coulorful leaves through the  fence and pillars instead.

What I really wanted was to go in and have a look in the main castle building. But where was the entrance? There was a massive queue for the orchid show that was on building of the Hungarian Museum of Agriculture, but I just wanted to see the castle. After a failed attempt and overhearing a couple with the same dilemma being told it was just the building with the flower show that you could enter, I took a moment to deliberate. Queue for half an hour for a show I did not really want to see or go to a café somewhere? I still had over an hour to kill. I placed myself in the end of the line.

Hungarian Museum of Agriculture

I eventually made it inside and paid the entrance fee that was double what I had planned because of the orchid show. It was upstairs and I decided to have a look, sine I had paid for it. There were lots of people and the flowers where beautifully arranged, but I liked the museum parts better and there was one exhibition of horses and there was a bit about dogs – those lovely hairy Hungarians. I have never met a Hungarian dog breed, but I am definitely a fan of the Mudi.

Jewish Quarter

Later when I was all checked into my hostel I headed back out again. I wanted to go see Szimpla Kert. I could not really figure out what it was from reading about it. Was it a bar or a community center or something completely different? It is in the Jewish district and on my way there I passed the Dohány Street Synagogue, apparently the largest synagogue in Europe. It was about to close, so there was no point going inside.

I also passed a place called the Shoah Cellar that seemed to be some kind of Jewish museum. It looked a bit dodgy from the outside so I gave it a pass, but after a google it seemed like it could have been interesting.  It is the first holocaust museum located in an old Nazi bunker. Once a week they hold a movie café showing relevant movies like Schindler’s List, Anne Frank and The Imitation Game.

Street Food Karaván

Next I passed the entrance to Street Food Karaván. It was just next to Szimpla Kert and I decided to have a walk inside and have a look what was on offer. There was coffee, beer and lots of food available, including a place that sold only vegan burgers. I am definitely coming back to this place next time I am in Budapest.

Szimpla Kert

So what was this place called Szimpla Kert? It turns out it actually is a pub, but not in the traditional sense. The place looks like it is in ruin with graffiti all over and a lot of unusual attachments like a bike hanging off the ceiling. There are lots of different rooms to explore over two floors with different places to buy a drink.

There was nothing particular going on while I was there, but they sometimes host community events like film screenings, live music and a farmer’s market. I would not mind coming back to this place either. Definitely a must if you are a Camden fan.

Haunting castle grounds

In the evening I had pre-booked a mystery tour of the castle grounds. I walked over the Chain Bridge to reach the meeting point, but unfortunately it was raining and I had gotten there an hour early. I decided to see if I could find an indoor café since the one next to the meeting point had its entrance wide open and hence the same temperature as outside, which was rather cold by now.

I could not find any café, but walked upon the garden of the Castle Garden Bazaar which I decided to have a look at. Following the steps upwards I saw an escalator and I decided to head up that one as well. By now I had a sudden urge to explore more, as I was on the castle grounds all by myself in the dark wet weather. It was exhilaratingly haunting. I followed the narrow walled streets upwards and checked out every little staircase I could find. Eventually I reached a green area on top where I went to see the view from the other side of the castle.

By now I figured it was time to head back the same way I had come to avoid getting lost. I only had 25 minutes left until I had to be back at the meeting point. Once back on the bigger path I decided it was probably quicker to take a different route back and I passed the Virgin Mary Statue and aimed for any paths or stairs heading down. I also met a few other people taking a stroll in the rain, so my lonesome and rather exciting adventure had come to an end.

Dracula history tour

Back at the meeting point at the Zero Kilometer Stone my tour was about to start. It was called “The Legendary Vampires at the Castle Court (War at the Gates)” and it was held by a Hungarian girl dressed in black that was holding a lantern. While we walked over the castle grounds she told the history of Hungary and Buda Castle.

A long time ago Transylvania was part of Hungary and one of the stories she told was about Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a Dracula. He was held captive by King Matthias I (the ring-baring-raven king) in the labyrinths under the Buda Castle between 1463 and 1475. As you can imagine it is a really bloody story, but if you are interested in history I really recommend this tour. Our guide Fanni had a lot of knowledge and it was even worth the €20 in the rain.

Gellért Hill

The next day I left the hostel with my backpack and after a relaxing café breakfast I started the climb up to the top of Gellért Hill. My first stop was the Cave Church (Sziklatemplom) but as my luck had it, it was not open for visitors at the moment with there being a holy mass in progress. I snapped a few pictures of the statue outside with the awesome horse and climbed up to the cross on top of the church to check out the view. From there I decided to continue with the scenic route along the river edge which meant getting off the paved path quite a bit – much more fun, though rather exhausting climbing fences with a heavy backpack.

For the last bit I had to follow the path to reach the Citadella and the Liberty Statue on top. The statue was erected in 1947 in remembrance of the liberation of Hungary during World War II. The view from there was pretty much all of Budapest, but if you have limited time in the city I would just recommend going to Fisherman’s Bastion while you explore the castle grounds.

I took the other route down and this time the quickest way was to actually follow the path. I passed the Szent Gellért Monument and crossed the bridge back to the Pest Side. By now I was freezing cold and was pretty much out of money so needing somewhere warm to heat up again I opted for budget friendly McCafé on Vaci Street. I am not really a McDonald’s fan, but the café is perfectly acceptable, and for once I got a coffee a lot bigger than the regular Budapest size.

St. Stephen’s Basilica

I had a few more hours to kill before getting on the bus to the airport and I headed back out in the rain. I wanted to walk over to have a look at the Parliament Building up close, but with the weather still being freezing I changed my plans. Instead I walked to St. Stephen’s Basilica and had a look outside. Together with the Parliament Building it is the tallest building in Budapest at 96 meters high. It is named in hounour of Hungary’s first king named, you guessed it – Stephen.

Bus to airport

I did not go inside as I had spent my last cash in the café and was not sure I could bring the backpack in either way. I made the decision to head to the airport early and walked over to the bus stop at Deak Ferenc Tér. I had double checked where it would stop the day before so I found the bus stop with ease and only had to wait a few minutes before I was on my way to the warmth of the airport. I had bought the ticket in one of the machines in the morning to make sure I would have enough money for it.

I had had a great time in Budapest, but it was time to head back home, and I knew I would be back in this fascinating town again soon. I was not done with Budapest just yet.

  • November 2017

DETAILS

Good to know

They have something called tourist tax in Hungary which is added on to your accomodation fee. It could be up to 4% added to your total bill.

To get a taxi from the airport you have to go up to a little kiosk outside where they book a car for you. It will drive up just next to the kiosk with a sign in the window matching the number on your ticket. You pay for it afterwards like with a regular taxi.

The Museum of Fine Arts is closed for renovations until autumn 2018 so the collection can be found in the Hungarian National Gallery in Buda Castle in the meantime.

Links

100E bus from and to Budapest airport

Buda Castle plus Castle Hill sight and events

Szechenyi Thermal Bath

River Cruise with folk dance show

Vajdahunyad Castle

Shoah Cellar Project

Szimpla Kert

The Legendary Vampires at the Castle’s Court (War at the Gates) Tour

Exploring UK and Europe without a car and on a budget