4 lovely things to do in York

1. Wander around the pedestrianised city centre

Admire the famous medieval buildings overhanging the Shambles,  browse Newgate Market’s 110 stalls (open every day except 24-25 Dec and 1 Jan), rest your feet in a tearoom or cosy pub, and buy sweets or tasty deli treats from any number of cute shops.

Medieval buildings

2. Window shop on Fossgate

There’s a cluster of second hand bookshops and vintage fashion shops on Fossgate. One of the bookshops has a large collection of Folio Society hardbacks upstairs which is pretty darn cool. There’s also a great foodie shop and cafe called The Hairy Fig which is a very nice spot for lunch.

Tea at The Hairy Fig

3. Walk along the city wall

It’s free! There are various points along the wall where you can climb up to start walking along and it’s open every day from 8am until dusk (unless there’s a bad risk of ice or slipperiness due to bad weather).

York city wall

4. Admire York Minster

Especially spectacular if you’re lucky enough to see it against a beautiful blue sky.

York Minster

We only had two days in York and spent most of our time catching up with friends visiting from Australia. Some other things we could have done:

[more photos]

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To rail pass or not to rail pass?

Is a European rail pass worth it? Always wanting to get the most value for my money, this is a question I agonised over in the months leading up to our 4 month journey in 2010.

We knew we wanted to travel by land wherever possible and mapped out a rough circuit which ended up taking this shape:

Map of Europe

At the time I was researching it, a 15 day pass (for use over 2 months) was going to cost AU$1,100 per person.

Cons:

  • We wanted to travel for 4 months so we would have required two passes. But…
  • The first 2 months were going to be interrupted by Morocco (where the EU rail pass doesn’t apply) and we didn’t plan on making 15 trips before Morocco.
  • The second 2 months were going to include Italy (cheap rail anyway) and the Balkans (better to travel by bus) so we wouldn’t have gotten our money’s worth there either.

In other words, our plans didn’t include 2 solid months of travel in countries covered by the pass.

I briefly considered a French-and-Spain-only pass but again, we weren’t planning on making enough trips in those countries for that to be worthwhile.

In the end I decided we’d be better off just buying point-to-point tickets and I budgeted AU$3000 per person for 4 months. We ended up making 41 trips (mostly by rail, but some by bus and a couple by ferry or plane) which cost a total of AU$2440 each. This works out to be an average of AU$59.50 per trip – the rail pass would have averaged at AU$73. (And 13 of the trips we took wouldn’t have been covered by a rail pass anyway.)

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So for us, buying individual tickets worked out to be cheaper – and more convenient – than a rail pass.

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Some points worth bearing in mind:

  • It really depends on where you’re going, how long you’re travelling for, and how quickly you plan to move on from each place. There are other rail passes available, such as the 15 or 21 continuous day passes (you can travel as much as you like within 15 or 21 days), which if you were planning a 2 or 3 week blitz of Europe would be great value… although the pace might not suit your plans.
  • Different countries offer different rail pass options. Since I was coming from Australia I was only looking at the options (and prices) available to Australians.
  • Obviously, all my prices are 1.5 years out of date (I should have written this earlier :P). Rail pass prices have since dropped, but this is probably the result of today’s better AU-EU exchange rate. I think point-to-point travel still would have worked out cheaper for us given our chosen itinerary.
  • Rail travel was most expensive in France, Spain and Germany. If you were only planning on travelling in these countries a select pass (or individual country pass) would probably be worth it.
  • If you’re not pressed for time, it’s significantly cheaper to travel by bus in Spain than by train. This is great for shorter distances (eg Seville-Granada) but probably not worth it for long journeys such as Barcelona-Madrid.
  • Rail travel was cheapest in The Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. A rail pass is probably not worth it for travel in these countries unless you plan on making a LOT of trips.
  • Even if you have a rail pass some countries (such as Spain and Italy) require mandatory seat reservations which reportedly can cost more than buying a single one-off ticket.
  • Also, in Italy you can often save a lot by taking slightly slower trains – from memory you could save something like 50% by taking a 30 min longer journey. (I noticed this particularly for trips between Rome and Naples.)
  • Rail links are not brilliant in the Balkans (eg Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia) but the buses are convenient, efficient, cheap, comfortable, and I think sometimes even faster than the trains!
  • It’s not relevant to the EU rail passes, but as a side note: train travel in Morocco is extremely cheap. (But very slow.)
  • We bought all our tickets at the relevant station a few days before or on the day of departure and never had any problem with getting seats (although we had to sit in separate carriages from Lisbon-Porto).
  • We tended to find the ticket prices were pretty standard and didn’t seem to fluctuate like UK train tickets or airline prices.
  • However, if you’re prepared to book in advance you can save significant money on German trains by buying online. (You can even do it while on the road, you’ll just need to find access to a printer to print your tickets.)
  • Often you can buy tickets from machines (which always had an English menu option), otherwise we usually found the people behind the ticket counters very helpful. We were usually able to use English (except in Toulouse, but we got by in limited French), and when we had a slightly complicated request for the ticket office in Barcelona we wrote all the details down on a piece of paper with the help of a phrase book and handed that over. (The guy that served us was amused and somewhat chuffed we went to the effort.)
  • The only tickets we bought online in advance were our bus trips in Spain, which I think was worth doing because from memory those buses were pretty full. (It would also be worth buying any high-speed train, eg Eurostar, tickets in advance because those prices do get more expensive the closer you buy to your date of travel.)
  • We always travelled second class. Personally I always found this perfectly comfortable and the times I have ridden first class there wasn’t enough of a difference to justify paying extra. (The exception to this would be overnight trains where I do think it’s worth paying more for a private cabin.)
  • If you’re planning on doing a lot of rail travel in Europe I highly recommend buying a copy of the latest Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable before you set out – ours was invaluable for planning ahead. (In the case of buses in the Balkans, your best bet is just to visit the station and look at the timetable posted on the wall as any info you find online might not be accurate.)

For any more info about rail passes or rail/bus/ferry travel in general I can’t recommend The Man in Seat 61 more highly.

If you’re curious how much each of our point-to-point tickets cost click the link below!

travel costs table »

Homemade okonomiyaki

Tonight we made okonomiyaki following this recipe with a few tweaks:

Ingredients

  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 10g sachet dashi/bonito powder (dashino-moto)
  • ~180ml water
  • 2 eggs
  • half a Chinese cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 2 spring onions, sliced
  • 150g cooked shrimp (bought frozen and thawed naturally)
  • cooking oil (we used sesame)
  • Kewpie mayonnaise
  • okonomi sauce
  • seaweed flakes (aonori)

(We couldn’t get bonito flakes! The shops were only selling giant bags and it’s not worth us buying that much.)

Method

  1. Whisk flour, dashi powder, eggs and water together in a big bowl until smooth and runny (add a little more water if you need to to get the right consistency).
  2. Mix in cabbage, onion and shrimp.
  3. Oil and heat a non-stick pan.
  4. Add half the mixture from the bowl and flatten with a spatula to form a pancake about 1.5cm thick / 30cm across.
  5. Cook for about 3 minutes, flip, cook for 3 minutes on the other side, then flip back to cook for about 2 more minutes.
  6. Pop the pancake on a plate and drizzle with Kewpie mayonnaise, okonomi sauce and sprinkle with seaweed flakes (and bonito flakes if you have them!)
  7. Repeat steps 3-6 for the second pancake.
  8. Serve with a crisp Japanese beer!

Homemade okonomiyaki

They were so huge we couldn’t finish them. Next time we might just make one and serve it with a a salad with yuzu dressing and some salmon sashimi. Mmmmm.

Challenge: A to Z of Travel

Two posts in as many days? What’s going on! Travel blogger Andrew Petcher inspired me to partake in the same A to Z of Travel challenge he shared on his blog, so here we go!

A: Age at which you went on your first trip abroad

22, when Alex and I spent 3 weeks during the cherry blossom season in Japan visiting Tokyo, Gero, Tsumago, Kyoto, Okinawa and Osaka. I had an amazing time and my only regret is that I didn’t keep a travel journal. I’ve done so on almost every other trip I’ve ever taken, from when my Dad and grandparents drove my brother and I to various parts of Australia to every day since we left Australia in July 2010, I guess I was so overwhelmed by all the sights and activities we encountered in Japan I didn’t have the time or energy to capture them in writing, which is a real shame.

Asakusa, Tokyo

B: Best foreign beer you’ve had and where

Probably Suntory Malts in Japan, although I also greatly enjoyed Sagres in Portugal.

Photo cheat - if the glass is correct this is Super Bock ;P

C: Cuisine

This is a tricky one because one of my greatest joys is trying different foods in different places. We enjoyed some amazing food in Budapest, but we also found the food excellent in Singapore because of the variety.

Indonesian dinner, Singapore

D: Destinations, favourite, least favourite, and why

Favourite is another tricky one! If I had to pick just one I think I’d choose Croatia for the stunning beaches, tasty cheap food and drink, lovely people and beautiful national parks. Following very closely behind would be Portugal, Budapest and Japan.

Least favourite would be Morocco. We saw some amazing things in Morocco but in the end the country wore me down. I didn’t like standing out like a sore thumb – you can’t move or look at anything without someone jumping on you doing their best to part you from your money, and unfortunately I found I can’t really copy with that. I felt like I always had to have my guard up and as a result couldn’t relax, so on the whole I didn’t find that trip particularly enjoyable.

E: Event you experienced abroad that made you say “wow”

The first Christmas market I ever experienced was in Budapest and it was simply magical. I think I wandered around the whole evening with my facial expression alternating between a look of wonder and a beaming great smile.

Budapest Christmas market

F: Favourite mode of transportation

Definitely train! You can arrive at the station shortly before the train does, just hop on when it appears, then sit back and relax and watch the view go by without the stress of navigating maps and traffic, or wasting time getting to and from airports hours before your flight. There’s a great passage by Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel which says:

“Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best to aid thought. … Every time the mind goes blank, having hit on a difficult idea, the flow of…consciousness is assisted by the possibility of looking out of the window, locking on to an object and following it for a few seconds, until a new coil of thought is ready to form and can unravel without pressure.”

19:18 to Harwich

Overnight ferries are great too – two of the best days I enjoyed in 2010 were early arrivals into Rotterdam (ferry from the UK) and Zadar (ferry from Italy) where the early morning start gave us a longer than usual day to enjoy.

G: Greatest feeling while travelling

Possibly planning…! I’m an organisational nerd and while it might sound silly, I think I get the greatest thrill from planning an upcoming trip. Apart from that it’s probably the moment you arrive in a foreign place and explore the area near your accommodation, trying out your “hellos” and “thank yous” in the local language, and visit a supermarket to see what kinds of juice, chocolate and beers you can get there.

Map and scroggin

I also find the first time I work out how to use the local bus network is a nice moment of quiet triumph. :)

H: Hottest place you’ve travelled to

Since it’s gone past 40°C more than once in my home town of Melbourne, the coldest place I’ve been is probably a more pertinent question. ;) That would be Poland in early December when it reached -14°C.

This is snow

I: Incredible service you’ve experienced and why

Alex fell ill during our big Europe trip in 2010 and while we bought medicine in each country as we passed through Spain, Morocco and Italy, by the time we reached Croatia he still had a horrible cough that simply wasn’t going away. So, we called our travel insurance company who advised us to visit a local doctor and retain all receipts for reimbursement. When we asked Mark, the owner of the guesthouse we were staying in Dubrovnik, where to find an English speaking doctor he looked at us for a moment then said, “Come on, I’ll take you.” He locked up the building (it was the low season and we were the only guests) and walked us up to his car. He drove us to a nearby hospital where Alex was able to walk straight in and see a doctor immediately (and this was on a Saturday) who prescribed some antibiotics and cough medicine. As Mark walked us out of the hospital Alex asked where he was supposed to pay and Mark just smiled, shook his head and patted Alex on the back. Mark then drove us to a nearby pharmacist and waited while Alex had his prescriptions filled, then took us back to our accommodation. Absolutely brilliant.

J: Journey that took the longest

The train we took from Krakow to Berlin in December 2010. It was supposed to take 10 hours and ended up taking 13 due to snow.

Sunset on the way to Berlin

K: Keepsake from your travels

My travel journals and photos are the best record of my travels and pretty much the only keepsakes I have from our 5 month trip in 2010. (We were backpacking and didn’t want to accumulate too much stuff along the way.) Pretty much the only things we bought were due to necessity, such as warmer clothes as the weather turned colder. I bought a tunic in Budapest with owls on it which has turned out to be my most complimented article of clothing. I rather like the black zip up jacket, striped arm warmers and purple beanie I bought in Sorrento, Italy, as I wore them almost the whole time we were in Croatia so they’re bound up in fond memories. I also like that the bath towel I currently use is a cheap beach towel Alex bought for me when we wanted to go to the beach in Barcelona. :)

Said towel in use in Portugal

L: Let-down sight, where and why

Before we set off to spend the second half of 2010 in Europe I asked most people I knew what their favourite place in Europe was to help plan our itinerary. Lots of people said Barcelona so I had high expectations when we arrived there. I liked certain things about Barcelona, most of all Gaudi’s architecture, but overall I found the city somewhat disappointing. Probably partly due to the overly high expectation, and partly due to the fact I’m not interested in clubbing. :P

M: Moment when you fell in love with travel

My parents and grandparents used to take my brother and I on trips to various parts of Australia when we were growing up and I think it must have given me a taste for it. I can’t remember ever not enjoying the ideal of travel.

Hello Heathrow!

N: Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in

Quite a tricky one as we’ve stayed in lots of great places! There’s less choice if I take the question literally because we usually choose hostels or guesthouses over hotels but if I had to pick a hotel I’d probably say Hotel Des Abassadeurs in Toulouse, France. It’s only two stars but it’s such a nice family-run place and the owners were so helpful and fun. To answer the question more broadly:

Nicest hostel: Very difficult to narrow down, but probably Majdas in Mostar, Bosnia.
Nicest B&B: Lorgill B&B on the Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Nicest traditional inn: Yunoshimakan in Gero, Japan.
Nicest accommodation in general: Maison 1400 in Paris, France. (Courtesy of Alex’s dad!)

Maison 1400

O: Obsession – what are you obsessed with taking photos of when you travel

I do like taking photos of anything that contrasts well against a beautiful blue sky, whenever that kind of sky is available. ;)

Chapel, Santorini

P: Passport stamps, how many and from where

37 in total from (in the order they appear in my passport): Australia, Japan, Singapore, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Greece, Montenegro, France, UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Morocco. (There are stamps from a couple of others but I can’t make them out!)

Q: Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where

I can’t think of anywhere that was overwhelmingly quirkly, but some places that might fall into that general ballpark are the Turtle Museum in Sinagpore, the Cube houses in Rotterdam, Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro, the Typhlological Museum in Zagreb, Memento Park in Budapest and the Wieliczka Salt Mine outside of Krakow in Poland.

Cube houses

R: Recommended sight, event or experience

Ahhh so many to choose from – that’s half the reason I started this blog, so I might eventually get around to listing them all! But if I had to pick one I’d say Bata’s tour of Mostar and its surrounds: it lives up the rave reviews on Hostel World that claim it as a life-changing experience. A close second would be We Hate Tourism Tours “X-Day Trip” of sites around Lisbon.

We Hate Tourism Tours

S: Splurge – something you have no problem forking out money for when travelling

Hmm. I generally have trouble splurging as I’m naturally budget-conscious (that’s the polite way of saying it). I generally find I enjoy something even more if I get it for a bargain price. The only two things I can think of where I did splash out are 1) two nights accommodation at a beautiful onsen in Gero, Japan, and 2) a three day trek from Fes to Marrakech (the best thing we did in Morocco). So I guess if there’s anything I’m willing to splurge on it’s once-in-a-lifetime style experiences.

Camel ride in the Sahara Desert

T: Touristy thing you’ve done

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in London. It’s awful. Overpriced, dated and tacky. Not recommended!

Giant chair

U: Unforgettable travel memory

I’m going to take my lead from Andrew here and pick a kind of stressful one. I’m going to pull it straight from my journal:

Had a scary moment at the Croatia/Montenegro border though! We stopped and a policeman got on the bus and collected all our passports. He took them away to be processed at a little booth. That was a bit uncomfortable, it being so drilled into me never to let your passport out of your site. But he was in a pretty damn official-looking uniform and there was no doubt it was the border, so, ok.

The scariest part came 10 minutes later, when the bus just drove off, leaving all our passports behind!!

Several people said, “But, our passports,” but there was no explanation from the bus staff. So we spent an agonizing 5 minutes or so driving down the road until we got to another border control point. We stopped there for a while and I wondered whether a new policeman was going to come on board and ask to see our passports – at least we were all going to be in the same boat if that happened!

Aaanyway, finally the bus driver started handing back our passports. I have no idea how they got transferred from the first check point to the second one though. Still – what a relief!

In retrospect I guess it doesn’t seem so scary, but at the time when we didn’t know what was going on I was on the verge of panicking.

Montenegro ticket stubs

V: Visas – how many and for where

Only one at the moment, a Youth Mobility visa which enables me to live and work in the UK.

W: Wine – best glass of wine while travelling and where

The wine I most enjoyed drinking were the carafes of house red we had in Croatia. Cheap, authentic and delicious!

Konoba Stomorica, Zadar

X: eXcellent view and from where

One of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen was from the top of a mountain in Lovćen National Park, Montenegro.

Lovćen National Park, Montenegro

Y: Years spent travelling

The earliest journey I can remember taking was to Tasmania with my Mum (and baby brother?). I’m not sure exactly how old I was then but if my brother was a baby then I would have been about 3 or 4. In a way though I feel like I became a real traveller in 2010 when Alex and I left Australia to explore Europe and base ourselves in the UK with the aim of travelling as much as possibly as long as we stay here.

At Melbourne airport

Z: Zealous sports fans and where

I don’t pay much attention to sport and to be honest the most zealous fans I can remember were back home on Johnston Street in Fitzroy, Melbourne, when Spain won the World Cup in July 2010. There’s a sizeable Spanish community based near Johnston Street and they went crazy when Spain beat Holland.

Your turn!

A guide to Paris

When to go

I’ve been to Paris once in winter (January) and once in autumn (November). Both were lovely times to go. I think the city is particularly beautiful in the cooler months. Winter provides short-to-no queues (walk straight into the Louvre) and autumn covers the city with pure blue skies and colourful leaves. Paris seems to be one of those places that divides people and I suspect those that don’t enjoy it as much perhaps visited in the crowded summer.

Paris metro sign

Seeing the sights

The Metro is a fantastic way to get across town but Paris is also very walkable. You can see many of its iconic sites in one continuous stroll starting at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), crossing Pont d’Arcole to reach the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine river. Walk past the Notre Dame and cross another bridge to reach the Left Bank. Continue west past the bouquinistes along the Seine, crossing back over the river at the Pont Neuf so you can walk through the grounds of the Louvre. Continue through Tuileries Garden up to Place du Concorde which signals the start of Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and if you follow this to the end you will reach the Arc de Triomphe. Depending how long you take to stop and take in the views this route will take you about 1-2 hours.

Another lovely place to wander is the winding and hilly backstreets of Montmatre, particularly around Place du Tetre.

Montmartre

The best view

You’ll probably want to do it anyway, but the two disadvantages of going up the Eiffel Tower are: 1) It’s expensive, and 2) The most famous sight in Paris, the tower itself, can’t be seen from the top because you’re already on it! Personally, I think the best the best view of Paris is from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

If you decide not to go up the Eiffel Tower it’s still worth passing by to take some classic photos, and it lights up at night which is very pretty.

Cathedrals and churches

Sacre-Coeur. One of Paris’s many icons and particularly stunning sandwiched between blue sky and bright green grass on a clear day. Just keep your arms crossed when you’re climbing the steps out the front and don’t let anyone grab your hand! There are lots of scammers that will try to put a thin, thread bracelet on your wrist then demand money for it. You can refuse and say no, but some people find them a bit intimidating. (While we’re on the subject of scams, if anyone pretends to find a ring nearby you on the street and offers it to you, decline. This has happened at least once to someone I know and twice to us personally – we laughed at the guy the second time it happened because it was exactly the same routine from a different person almost 3 years later!)

Sacre Coeur

Sainte Chapelle. I think Sainte Chapelle is prettier than Notre Dame. It’s smaller but boasts stunningly beautiful stained-glass windows. There is a fee to enter though, while the Notre Dame cathedral is free. (There’s a fee to climb the Notre Dame tower where all the gargoyles and grotesques are.)

Paris Catacombs. Go underneath the city and see walls and sculptures made from human bones.

Museums and galleries

Louvre. The Louvre is MASSIVE and it would be impossible to see everything in one day even if you ran past every exhibit! Pick a couple of specific areas you’re interested in and spend your time in those rather than trying to see everything. The audio guide is very worthwhile – it has some highlight tours built in and I found the additional info on various artworks very interesting. Be prepared to queue to get in (unless you visit in winter) and note that it’s open late on Wednesdays and Thursdays but closed on Tuesdays. You could spend a whole day at the Louvre but my feet couldn’t take any more than 5 hours!

Musée d’Orsay. A lovely museum housed in a beautiful old train station, focusing on impressionist and post-impressionist art. Open late on Thursdays but closed on Mondays. Allow 3-4 hours.

Centre Pompidou. Modern art is not for everyone but it’s worth at least passing by the Pompidou to marvel at its famously unusual, inside-out architecture: it was designed with all the functional aspects, pipes, etc on the outside to maximise the exhibition space inside. The Pompidou audio guide is also very good as it helps to explain some of the more unusual art and why anyone should be interested in it. Open until 9pm every day. 3 hours is probably enough.

Parks and gardens

I’ve already mentioned Tuileries. The Luxembourg Gardens are a beautiful spot to grab a metal chair and scribble in your travel journal, Les Halles is a nice green place to munch on a lunchtime baguette or crepe and the Palais Royal gardens would be great to see in spring or summer. (Still nice but a little bare in autumn/winter!)

Jardin du Luxembourg

Food

If breakfast isn’t included with your accommodation buy treats from a local bakery/patisserie or clay-potted yoghurt from a local super/minimart.

You’ll find wonderful baguettes all over the city for lunch around the €3-4 mark or sweet and savoury crepes for €2-6 (depending on your proximity to tourist hotspots). Rue Rambuteau is an excellent spot for boulangeries, patisseries and fromageries (particularly between Rue des Archives and Rue Beaubourg).  I particularly recommend Pain de Sucre.

If you’re going to splash out on food I’d do it at dinner. Mathusalem and La Tartine are two great bistros offering hearty, traditional French cuisine with mains around the €17 mark.

Shopping

Across the river from the Notre Dame on the Left Bank is a famous second-hand English bookshop called Shakespeare and Co.

There are some very cool and trendy design or “concept” stores in Paris. I’ve collected their addresses, website links and opening hour info on a Google Map so you can where they’re located at a glance. I haven’t been to them all but out of those I have visited I liked uah^, Artoyz, Colette and Fleux best.

Marché aux Puces Saint-Ouen de Clignancourt is your place for antiques and random odds and ends. Head north from metro Porte de Clignancourt to find a sprawling collection of flea markets (surrounded by stalls selling tacky imitation brand name products – don’t give up when you find those, continue on to the proper markets). A great place to wander even if you don’t plan on buying anything. Stalls sell everything from retro plastic keyrings and old pieces of kitchenwear to samurai suits and eggshells from extinct Madagascan birds. Many of the shops look like little rooms from people’s houses. When we were there we passed one that contained an old grand piano and someone who had sat down at it to play tunes to entertain passers-by. Avoid the three card monte scammers on the outskirts of the market.

Note that the flea markets are open on Sundays but most other shops are closed.

An evening in Paris

[more photos 2009 / more photos 2011]