Saturday, April 29, 2017

5 Budget Friendly Holiday Destinations for Summer

Budget Summer Holiday ideas

Going on holiday needn't cost the earth...

and jetting off on a break when you're on a budget needn't mean lying on a Spanish beach for a week just because you think it's an inexpensive option. The world has tons of reasonably priced destinations, if you know where to look.
Holidays to Eastern European countries have certainly gone up in price over the past decade or so; particularly those who now enjoy membership of the EU. However, in comparison with Spain, Germany and France in the West, they still offer excellent value for money.

Romania is a great option, where decent accommodation, eating and drinking remains extremely reasonable. It, and many other nations in the region, are well served by low cost airlines, like Ryanair, and can offer a bit of culture and history for a fraction of the price you might pay elsewhere.

While neighbouring Thailand can be expensive for a vacation, Cambodia can be really reasonable.  The vast majority of tourists head to Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat Temple is located, and the surrounding area is fairly well developed, with much of the accommodation aimed at the foreign tourist market.

Siem Reap aside, Cambodia has some fascinating history to tell for visitors who like to get off the beaten track, but there's also a ton of beach resorts, should relaxing with a drink and doing very little is more your thing.

The whole EU crisis hit Greece particularly hard and it's still to properly recover.  This makes it a pretty good choice for a cheap holiday as the country has become way more competitive to try to attract visitors it has lost. There are endless flights available from all over the UK to various regions and are generally pretty reasonable.

Whether it be a city break to Athens, or a lazy holiday on one of the islands, Greece has plenty of options for cheap and cheerful vacations. It also has some of the most incredible sights in the world. What's not to love?

OK, so getting there might to pricier than getting to Spain, but the are also some great deals on flights if you shop around. These can be even more reasonable if you end up with a stop between your point of origin and your destination. Unless you're adamant about go straight from A to B, a stop can save you a good chunk of change.

Hotel rooms in the US can be very cheap and eating is also pretty reasonable...

Gas is dirt cheap, so off-season road tripping can actually be a reasonably priced holiday. It's also the kind of trip that has something to offer for every member of the family as you can decide your own route and, should you end up somewhere you don't like, just haul your cases back into the car and go somewhere else.  It's as simple as that.

I include this from a UK perspective, as someone who lives in Wales and has been on several budget breaks to other parts of Great Britain and Ireland. Regardless of where in the country you live, there are tons of options, whether close by or far off, where you can enjoy a budget break.  Granted, the weather isn't always amazing, but that shouldn't stop you from taking off for a trip around your own nation.  

Naturally, I tend to go to Scotland for some of my trips because it's my home and my family and friends are there, but I've also enjoyed exploring sights around the South and East coasts of England, as well as throughout Wales.  One of my favourite spots is around Torquay, Devon and South Wales, where, armed with my car and my AirBnB account, I've stayed in some fabulously quirky places for very little and enjoyed some fantastic budget days out, such as the Agatha Christie Mile in Torquay, Cardiff Bay, and Caerphilly in South Wales. The UK has some truly amazing sights to see and they're literally everywhere. 

What are your suggestions for good budget destinations for Summer '17?

Suzanne x 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Sintra: Fairytale Town

The town of Sintra lies around 25k from the centre of Lisbon, and is just a 40 minute train ride from the city's central Rossio station

When I first looked at the photos of the town’s Pena Palace online, it looked like something from a fairy tale.  With its yellow and pink turrets and towers, and the fact that it was set on the top of a mountain with a long, windy road leading up, I imagined that Rapunzel might be holed up in there, waiting for a dashing suitor to let her hair down for.   

As well as the hilltop palace, there is a beautiful town centre, with lots of little cafés and quirky stores; a Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros); Sintra National Palace; Sintra Mountains AND Sintra-Cascais National Park. On top of that, the area is also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can’t ask for more than that, can you?   Exactly.  

The town also has the most wonderful winding road that snakes through the mountain side and leads you up to the jewel in Sintra’s crown: Pena Palace. In amongst these gems are other estates and buildings, all of which blend in superbly with the surrounding hillside.  Sintra’s train station is around 1km from the town centre, but even the walk from here to the town proper is picturesque and the atmosphere on our arrival was one of anticipation at what was in store for the day.  Sintra’s train route is the most congested in Europe, as is the road network between the capital and the town. That gives you some sense of how popular the area is.  

A Day in Sintra: Sculptures
beautiful old sculptures.
For once, despite the prospect of the walk/hike we had in store for the day, I was really excited about the prospect.    And that’s not my normal response when faced with a day of climbing.  Also, I knew they sold beer in the main town, so I could sit and rest my weary legs later in the evening. 

Sintra Town:
The town of Sintra is as colourful as the Palace, with the main square of Sao Martinho housing Sintra National Palace in addition to a lovely mix of cafés and stores. It's a charming and historic town, nestled in the foothills of the Sintra de Terra Mountain range and has long been a popular retreat of royalty. 

Although not as famous as some of the other sights at Sintra, there is much to see and do here that doesn’t involve the National Palace. For example, the glorious Monserrate Seteais Palace (which is now a luxury hotel) are equally picturesque and worthy of some gawking. I particularly enjoyed working out what on earth was being represented by some of the large sculptures at the side of the road into town. I didn’t know then and I’m still clueless, tbh.   They were very pretty, though.  

Sintra National Palace:

The Palace sits in the main square of Sao Martinho and is the best preserved Royal residence in Portugal

This is largely due to the fact that it was so well used for such a long period of time, meaning that it was also very well maintained. After parting with around 8.5 Euros, you can wander around the palace at your leisure, checking out the interior of the gorgeous white washed structure. Some of the highlights, for me, were working out just what the two massive chimneys were for that I could see from the road (they’re from the Vista de Cozinha or kitchen), as well as the opulent Swans Hall and Magpie and Arab Rooms.  

We visited the Palace in February, so it wasn’t uncomfortably busy and this ensured we weren’t vying for all the good views. Also: it meant we could take lots of stupid posed photographs without enduring quite so many odd looks. Portugal is world famous for tile and, once you check out the decoration on display at the Palace, you will immediately see why. It’s really outstanding and that makes it all the more difficult not to run your hands over it.

A Day in Sintra: National Palace
the iconic chimneys of the National Palace in Sintra town
Castelo dos Mouros:
The Moorish Castle sits on a hilltop in the Sintra Mountains and is at the end of a pretty long walk up a very steep, winding hill.  It is worth the effort, though.   

The North Face of the Castle offers unrivalled views of the valley below its location was key in ensuring the safety of the area and its people from marauding armies.  Plus, to be honest, if you led your guys all the way up that hill, the chances of you having enough energy left to fight were slim and none.  Honestly – it’s knackering – and that was winter.    I can’t begin to imagine visiting in the height of summer.

The castle was built in the 8th and 9th Century during the Muslim occupation of the area and this is very much reflected in the appearance.  It is well preserved, but nowhere near the condition of the National Palace of Pena.  Today, the Castle remains and has been added to somewhat with the addition of wooden panels, which actually fit really well with the original solid stone building. You can wander around the site and visit the Chapel, before taking time out to walk along the outer walls and marvel at the view. 

Pena Palace:
The National Palace was the summer residence for the Portuguese Royal Family in the 18th and 19th Century and was constructed on the 16th Century remains of The Order of Jerome Monastery, which might well account for its remote and peaceful location. I don’t know of many city centre Monasteries.   

A rail track was built between the capital in Lisbon and Sintra in the late 1800’s and, by the mid 20th Centre, the area was a draw for artists (pun intended), authors, musicians, as well as a millionaire or two.  The Palace sits high above the town, on the mountain side and can be seen, on good days, from Lisbon itself.   I didn’t see it, personally, but then again, I have no sense of direction, so would have no idea where to look.   But moving on…

This really is the jewel in the crown of the entire range of Sintra attractions and still functions as a venue for really posh shindigs...

It is also one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal and an UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right.  It’s difficult to describe just how surreal the palace looks on approach and, as I said earlier, it’s reminiscent of something from a fairy tale.  Apart from the design and construction, the different colours of the exterior serve to make it all the more special. The interior is equally impressive, and as with the Moorish Castle, the views from the turrets are outstanding.  

A Day in Sintra: Pena Palace

A Day in Sintra: Pena Palace
this is actually real

Parque de Sintra:
There is a LOT of walking to be done within the confines of the national park, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more stunning setting to do it in.  I knew there would be a few miles in the day, so put on my MapMyWalk app for the duration. By the time I returned to the train station late afternoon, we’d clocked up 12.5 miles.  And that was just from wandering around the town and making it up to Pena Palace and back.  And, I might have taken a few wrong turns, but whatever… 
On a clear day, the views are breath taking and when your walk ends high in the mountains, at least you know getting back down won’t be half as difficult.  

A Day in Sintra: National Park
Even the swans have impressive castles here
If you can manage it, it’s a great experience and there’s so much to see on the way up the mountain.  It is very steep in parts, though, so do be mindful of it on your way up.   On the way down, you can console yourself, as I did, with the knowledge that there’s a plentiful supply of red wine in Sintra town, just awaiting your arrival.  It’s amazing how much more energy you can suddenly muster up when you know you’re only half a mile from the nearest bar….

Suzanne x  

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Prague: Six Sights Saturday

Prague: Six Sights Saturday

Prague is one of those cities in which it's virtually impossible to run-out of things to see and do. However, if you, like me, often take short breaks across Europe, you'll need to identify the things you literally can’t live without seeing and then squish 'em in. If you have a day or two to spend in Prague, these are my suggestions on six must-see sights:

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Top 10 Things To Do in Riga's Old Town

Top 10 Things to do in Riga

The entire area of the Old Town in Riga is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and, by any standard, is a must-see if visiting the Baltic city. The colours, sights and sounds are wonderful and it's handily compact and very easy to see on foot. There are hop on tour buses and trams, but, if the weather is decent, wrap up warm and hit the streets.