San Pedro de Atacama: the final frontier 

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Descending into Calama airport in Northern Chile, the Atacama desert lay before us. A dramatic landscape of mountains and endless desert – otherworldly.

Calama is the smallest airport imaginable, but it is extremely modern and efficient. We grabbed our backpacks and were out of the airport doors within minutes, a relief when we compared it to the hours of queues upon arrival at both Lima and Santiago.

We had organised a shared transfer to San Pedro by ringing our accommodation that morning, and we spent the 90 minute ride chatting to our new Brazilian friends who we would bump into for the next few days. Chile was full of Brazilian travellers, so it was great to practice speaking Portuguese!

Our accommodation was on the main road, however it was the last house at the very end of town, right by the edge of the desert. It did not take more than 5-10 minutes to walk to the main restaurants and bars; but at night, with no streetlights and only our torches, it did feel a bit unnerving. Luckily San Pedro is very safe, so I shrugged off that feeling and allowed myself to be amazed by the incredible views of the stars instead!

On the Friday, San Pedro was hit by a sandstorm and so,  with regret, our tours to the Valle de la Luna and stargazing were cancelled and we did not have time left to re-book for the next day. As we were staying on the edge of town, we had less protection from the storm. Walking back from lunch, face entirely covered by my sunglasses and neckerchief, I made it back, but not without sand all in my hair, nose, ears and eyes! After a good shower, it was time to go out again, for it only to happen again! It’s hard to live in the desert…

Food was a challenge at times in San Pedro as you are limited for options and therefore prices for a decent meal in a restaurant were costly. However, if you walk around the corner from the main square, we found several places offering a main and a soft drink for 5,000 pesos. We didn’t eat amazing meals, but were well fed and it didn’t break the bank.

Definitely shop around for tours, as we found that if you book several tours with the same company they will give you incredible discounts than if you were to book separately.

In the next blog… find out how I spent my birthday in the Atacama Desert!

 

Robyn

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Adventures at Home: Pembrokeshire, Wales

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It was the first weekend after school broke up in July and I was geared up for a nice, weekend break in sunny South Wales. Of course, things didn’t go to plan! First, J. and I were planning a weekend camping together, but this soon became a group thing with a few of his old coursemates and housemates. Luckily we are all good friends…

I spent a lot of my childhood exploring North Wales, living only a short drive away in Merseyside. Many memories were made getting lost in Snowdonia on expeditions for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, so it was good to go south for a change.

We stayed at a campsite only a short drive away from nearby Pembroke which has an impressive castle and a high street with some shops, pubs and restaurants. A little further along was Tenby; with its pastel-coloured houses along the harbour, it is a picturesque little seaside town, which we enjoyed going to on both Saturday and Sunday morning for a stroll along the narrow streets and get a spot of breakfast.

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J. and I arrived early on Friday afternoon to the campsite, well before the rest of the group. We were welcomed by nothing less than torrential rain. Looking forward to a ‘summer holiday’, and definitely too optimistic in our choice of clothing (jeans – what was I thinking?!), we were very unprepared to put up our tent and regretting everything.

Sitting in the parked car for a few minutes we agreed we were not going outside. A lady knocked on my car window and asked me to meet her in the reception to check-in. Poor thing had got soaked for that! J. said he was staying put, so it was up to me to brave the weather. It’s not like we don’t have the equipment – I have waterproofs and everything but didn’t bother to pack them. Definitely the wrong decision.

The rain was not subsiding even after quite a while, so we agreed we would just have to put the tent up and get soaked. Get soaked we did. Two hours passed and still the rain was hammering down on the tent. We were getting hungry so it was time to once again get wet, just when our clothes were starting to dry! I called my mum and said suggested we just put the tent down and go find a B&B. It was so tempting but we were too stubborn for that!

There was not much parking in Pembroke. But by the time we got there, we found some free parking only available after 6pm (hooray!). Unfortunately, the main pubs and restaurants were about a ten minute walk away – of course! Walking down the street, we were turned away by a few places as they stopped serving at 7pm and were closing up. So odd as it was a Friday night! Eventually, we found a pub/restaurant/hotel which did food, so we sat down at last. We looked out the window from our table, jaws dropped – it had stopped raining the second we found shelter – typical!

After being well fed, our clothes were drying quickly and one of our friends finally arrived to join us. We were waiting for three more, but after horrific traffic all the way from Sheffield and 2 hours of stagnancy on the roads, they arrived in the thick of night at 11pm. Car lights were useful in helping to put the tent up!

After the nightmare of the rain on Friday afternoon, we were grateful that there was no more for the rest of the weekend! We spent Saturday afternoon relaxing on Stackpole Beach which is known as the best beach in Wales! The walk along the clifftops makes for a dramatic arrival to the beach, but because of this, it is not very accessible for those with restricted mobility. There were a lot of sand-flies as well which wasn’t great, but the views were spectacular.

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On the way back to the campsite, we stopped in Pembroke to pick up food for a BBQ which was a great way to spend our only real proper night together there.

Pembroke is a beautiful, little corner of Wales which has some lovely villages and beaches to visit. Luckily, after a terrible start weather-wise, we were treated more kindly for the days that followed, with some sunshine. Although, this is Wales, we should have known better! Next time though, I think we will rent a cottage together, or at least go glamping/book a B&B. I think my DofE days are past me!

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Santiago: I loved the Wine Tour, just not the 🍷 

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I don’t really like wine and spending $14~ on a wine tour just seemed like a waste of money for me. But I went anyway and it was great! Let me tell you why…

Summer is the best time of year to go to a vineyard, as you can see the vines and all that. However, we went in the Chilean winter – not much point in going to a vineyard when the branches are empty,  is there?

So we didn’t go to a vineyard. We went on a wine tour only a few metro stops from Santiago city centre – way easier to get to than most wineries! That winery is called Santa Carolina, and it is one of the top wineries in the country. They export all over the world.

We were a bit disorientated on the map coming out of the metro exit but some friendly road workers shouted us across to them to offer us some assistance. When we said ‘Santa Carolina’ they said that it was ‘the best wine in all of Chile’ and that they were proud of it, before pointing us down the correct street.

Basically, Santa Carolina’s original set up was right here in Santiago. They have kept the original colonial buildings and cellars for events and tourism but have moved the vineyards further out of the city. It was fascinating to learn the history of the company and see how it has expanded. There is a palm tree in the colonial house which was planted by the founder in the 1880s – it is still there and is the most incredible thing to behold. Just like the company, the palm tree has stood the test of time!


Our hostel had called up to reserve a place on the English-speaking tour at 11am. Out of 20 people, we were the only two English speakers – everyone else was Brazilian! So the tour was done in Portuguese. I was not so fluent in my translation so I don’t think J. would have been able to put up with it for the entire tour. Luckily the guide also spoke English. After giving all the info in Portuguese, everyone would move on and she would do a little private English tour for us two which was great.

The views of the snow-capped mountains nearby was breathtaking.


On to the wine! So, we had three tastings – one white and two red which went up in quality/price each time. Quite frankly, the wines were not for me, but I was not the only one to not finish my glass in the group. There is never any pressure to drink the wine anyway which is good. I was actually asked if I was 18 so I could participate…. I just had to answer that it was my 23rd birthday in two days…

We finished in the gift shop where we paid for our tour and you could purchase wine. However after paying, we were offered two small bottles of red to take as a gift! So James carried these wine bottles for three weeks of our trip around South America.

The low-down:

booking: book through your hostel/hotel to reserve in advance. Tours in English, Spanish, Portuguese

how to get there: the Santa Carolina winery is a short walk from the Rodrigo de Araya metro stop

Jewish Heritage in Prague

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As mentioned in my previous post, Czech-ing Out Prague, the Jewish Museum was one of the highlights of my trip and cannot be missed in any trip to the city.

The Free Walking Tour showed us around the area and gave some information about Jewish life in Prague over the course of history, but this is just a starting point. Grab a ticket from one of the ticket offices to really appreciate the rich Jewish heritage in this city.

There are several ticket options with discounts available. We chose the second one where we had access to all but the Old-New Synagogue. There is A LOT to see. What is great is that your ticket is valid for one-entry to all the sites but you can use it over the course of two weeks (check your ticket just in case though). This was great for us as we were able to spread out seeing the sights over two days instead of packing it all into one.

We had access to and visited: Maisel Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, Old Jewish Cemetery, Klausen Synagogue, Ceremonial Hall and Spanish Synagogue. Many of these sites are Shoah memorials and religious buildings, so it is important to be respectful and wear appropriate clothing.

The Spanish Synagogue is by far the most beautiful Synagogue I have visited. The wall and ceiling decorations are remarkable. I overheard a tour guide say ‘this is the most beautiful synagogue in Central Europe’ so it is not just me! In a separate entrance you will find the permanent exhibition on ‘The History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, Part 2.’ It’s special focus is on the Shoah of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, and the Terezín ghetto.

Pinkas Synagogue was a very solomn space. Much older, built in the 16th century, it is now a memorial to the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah (Holocaust) from Bohemia and Moravia. It is one of the earliest memorials of its kind in Europe, it is the work of two painters, Václav Boštík and Jiří John who painted the names of the victims on its walls. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, the memorial was closed to the public for more than 20 years. It was fully reconstructed and reopened to the public in 1995 after the fall of the Communist regime.

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A heart-wrenching exhibition, located on the first floor, gives us a glimpse of the fate of Jewish children who were incarcerated in the Terezín ghetto during the Second World War. It is based on the children’s drawings that were made in the ghetto between 1942 and 1944 under the supervision of the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The pictures document the transports to Terezín and daily life that these children faced, as well as their dreams of returning home and of life in the Jewish homeland. For many, these dreams remained just that. Very few survived, as the majority of the children perished in the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Old Jewish Cemetery is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world. It is fascinating to see the old tombstones and see nature take over this place. It was founded in the first half of the 15th century with the earliest tombstone dating all the way back to 1439! There are about 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery. However, as this was the only place where Jews were allowed to be buried for centuries, space was extremely scarce and bodies were buried on top of each other, with graves layered up to 10 deep. Now the cemetery is quite built up from street level.

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Czech-ing Out Prague

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Our three night stay in Prague felt like the right amount of time to visit the city. Enough to do what we wanted to do but not rush it. In hindsight I would have extended my stay if possible, but only to visit other parts of the country that we didn’t make time for.

We were hoping for some nice, sunny weather. Had we gone this week, we would have been in shorts and tee-shirts. Instead, we went last week, when the weather was the same as back home – pouring with rain mostly and very overcast. This didn’t ruin the trip though and we just put our waterproof jackets on and made the most of it. Luckily the final day brightened up nicely!

We stayed at the Caesar Hotel which was in a great location – a ten minute walk to the centre and right next to the river with some cracking views of the bridges and Prague Castle. It was just lovely to take the longer route into town along the river to soak up those views day and night. I was dubious as there were some quite mixed reviews of the hotel online, but our room was amazing (spacious, clean and a great shower) and breakfast was good.

Top Things to Do

  • A Walking Tour

We went with Sandman’s Free Walking Tour – currently ranked the best on TripAdvisor. The tours do fill up though, so get there early to get your name on the list. They do have multiple groups each time, so it isn’t too crowded. Our group had about 25 in it. I learned so much I would not have read about in a travel guide and we saw parts of the city to orientate ourselves with for the rest of the trip. Tijo was a great guide, mixing in interesting facts and info about Prague and the Czech Republic with a good amount of sarcasm and jokes to compliment. It was four hours with about one hour as a refreshments break and sit down which was quite appreciated.

  • Visit the Jewish Museum

During the tour, we were taken to the Jewish area of the city and had a peek at the Old-New Synagogue, the Ceremonial Hall and Cemetery but it really is worth buying an admission ticket to have access to all the sites. I will do a separate blog post on this as there is so much to talk about. It was definitely a highlight of the trip!

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  • Prague Castle

Set aside a morning/afternoon/all-day to do this. It is the largest castle complex in the world and yep, there is a lot to see! I recommend choosing the type of ticket you want before going in as they do not have this information easily visible when you are queuing and try to arrive early to beat the crowds. We paid a bit extra to climb the tower of the cathedral – it was so worth it for the fantastic views over the city, You can see the mass of tourists walking along the Charles Bridge too, which is a horrific sight to behold…

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  • Charles Bridge

You have to go here, it is so symbolic of Prague. Early morning or late evening is the best time as in the day it is packed solid of tourists and everyone is stressing over getting a spot for that perfect photo. One guy told a woman to move as she was in his shot, while she was just enjoying the views of the river. Rude.

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Prague is a beautiful city, but I could not stop comparing it to my experiences in other parts of Eastern Europe – especially Poland. I fell head over heels in love with Wroclaw and Kraków, that even three years on I am still raving about it! Prague just cannot compare in my eyes. Still, it was a lovely break – great to explore somewhere new, walk 25,000 steps a day (my FitBit and my legs were loving life) and learn about a different city and it’s rich history. I would love to go back to see other parts of the country.

Can you recommend anywhere else in the Czech Republic for me to visit? Let me know in the comments…

Stress over Holiday Mess

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-Can you turn around? I forgot my bank card!

The taxi driver looks back at me, nodding, as we are about to pull into the train station.

-I’m usually so organised…

-Well you’re not today! He chuckles.

-Definitely not. I say this half in agreement, half annoyed at myself. I plan everything meticulously. I don’t need my bank card as I have my travel money card and foreign currency, I explain. I just forgot I needed it to print my train tickets at the station.

I run back into my house, grab the card and jump back into the taxi. Luckily, I make sure I am always early for things, so there was enough time for two trips to the station!

Feeling very rushed, I print the tickets but notice I still have ten minutes before my train departs. So lucky. Lucky enough to even buy a toastie from the Costa on the platform before I find my seat on the train.

We’re on the train. It’s destined for Manchester airport and that is enough drama for this holiday, thank you. Sinking into the not so comfortable seat, tucking into my toastie and listening to the new Lana album, I receive a message on our group chat. I’m going to Prague with two of my school friends and they should be driving to the airport soon. My friend has forgotten her passport! She is in Liverpool and it is in Bristol. Even by my calculations, it’s not going to happen. Music off, cue a few frantic phone calls. Reluctantly accepting the situation, our group of three dwindled down to two.

Has this ever happened to you? Let me know in the comments.

 

Adventures at Home: Winchester, England

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I have really been exploring the South recently! This time, it was to the quaint, historic center of Winchester for a lovely day out.

The city reminded me of York, but what puts Winchester on top is that it is the city less-traveled. There is plenty to see and do but you do not have to push through the hoards of crowds to get around – my kind of place!

From the train station is a short walk to anywhere in the city. Our first stop was the famous cathedral. Your ticket includes a free tour and remains valid for the rest of the year should you wish to return; we didn’t do the the tour but the guides who we spoke to were very knowledgeable and happy to answer our questions. The cathedral is perhaps most famous as Jane Austen’s final resting place – of course we paid her a visit, but it is also home to a 10th Century Bible. A very impressive book, huge and detailed. Written on velum, it has been impeccably preserved.

Only a few days earlier, I was watching a TV documentary about Jane Austin’s life in Winchester and Bath and then it just so happened that that weekend, I was walking on the same streets I saw in the documentary. History in action.

Our next stop after a pub lunch was Wolvesey Castle. A free English Heritage site, and well worth the visit to get to know the Bishops of Winchester who made this their home during the Medieval period. The bishop was the most influential and powerful man in the city and our visit here gave much more context to how important Winchester was at the time, second to London! Nowadays, the site is a ruin, next door though, the new residence of the Bishop of Winchester can be found.

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After a bit of window shopping on the busy High Street, we had a tea and cake stop at the nearby Winchester Café. On offer was a superb selection of cakes and teas. Spoiled for choice with regards to the tea selection, the waitress recommended the apple and mint tea – wow, it was so good. On the menu I read that it had won awards, so it was no surprise really.

From there, it was a short but uphill leisurely walk back to the station to catch the train.