Thursday, 30 October 2014

England – Those world-famous Whitby fish and chips

October 27-30

Hello everyone!

Another half-term, another trip to…England. Though I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the fact that I’m not visiting many new and exotic countries at the moment, this feeling is tempered by our decision to visit a great friend in a new location.

Our flatmate in Kazakhstan, Cheryl, has returned to her hometown of Whitby, a coastal town in the northeast of England. We’d heard much about Whitby during our two years in central Asia. How amazingly beautiful it is. How it is steeped in history, ranging from Dracula to Captain Cook. How it is the home of the best fish and chips in the world. It was time to see if Whitby could possibly live up to the hype.

A combination of three trains and a tube across London took us from my parents’ new abode in Sussex upcountry to Whitby, where we were greeted by our excited tour guide.

Arriving in Whitby’s quaint train station in the evening meant that we were unable to judge how beautiful the place was until the following day, when we strolled around the town. We wandered down the rolling green hills of the North Yorkshire moors towards the pretty seaside town, which itself is bisected by the Esk river.

Both sides meet the sea with their own rickety wooden pier, creating what seems like a large mouth in the sea, ready to suck in unsuspecting ships. Some quite famous ship captains have set sail from here…

History aside #1: Captain Cook moved to Whitby when he was 17 and learnt many of his fabled seaman skills in the town. There’s a museum here…which we didn’t make it to.

Looming large over the small galley of ships is the imperious Whitby Abbey. If you think it looks like a dilapidated, ruined building…you’d be correct. This is for a variety of reasons, ranging from Henry VIII’s destruction of the abbey in 1540 to a more recent bombing during the First World War.

History aside #2: Bram Stoker used Whitby and its haunting abbey as inspiration when writing Dracula. Part of the story is set here, and the town now has a famously scary Dracula Experience…which we didn’t make it to.

The abbey dominates Whitby’s skyline and, on a cloudless blue day such as the ones we had, is a breath-taking sight. To reach the top is breath-taking in its own right, as you have to ascend 199 steps to reach it. There are 199, even though I miscounted on the way up.

It’s not just the main monuments that give Whitby its picturesque, postcard look. Narrow streets that snake through and link the historic alleys are the heartbeat of the town, where throngs of people can be found hunting for their lucky duck or scouring for a piece of cheap jet-stone extracted from the nearby cliffs.

The whole region possesses stunning natural beauty. One particular spot, Robin Hood’s Bay, is just a few miles down the road.

History aside #3: Robin Hood has never been here. Nothing for us to miss here!

It was here that I (partially) fulfilled one of my goals for the trip: go in the notoriously cold North Sea. Not having a towel or change of clothes prevented me from fully submerging myself. Honestly, it was nothing to do with it being bone-shudderingly cold…

Much drier, though just as windy, was our walk along the western beach to the nearby village of Sand’s End.

As for those world-renowned, much-hyped Whitby fish and chips? We certainly sampled enough: three lots in as many days, all from different places. There are a plethora of other locations to try in the future, though the queue below will suggest to you the popularity of some specific chippies. The Magpie Café, shown below, is where celebrity chef Rick Stein (not James Martin, as I may have suggested in the earlier edition of this blog!) tucks into fish and chips.

Verdict? Amazing, particularly from Hadlee’s chippy. Even the takeaway shop which accidentally included a loose screw from their chip fryer were kind enough to offer us fresher, non-metallic chips. All very tasty, though I could feel my arteries clogging and waistline bulging with each bite.

As you may have gathered, we loved Whitby. It was wonderful to properly catch up with one of our best friends from Kazakhstan and experience so many of the things that she had told us all about. Missing some of the main attractions actually gives us many reasons to return! Once we’ve gone on a serious diet to recover from the mountains of fish and chips, of course…

Love you all


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Czech Republic – Let there be Light!

Czech Republic – Let there be Light!

October 17

Hello everyone!

October. Autumn is in full swing. The leaves are turning fiery. The flip-flops are being used increasingly sparingly. The amount of daylight is getting shorter, with evenings becoming longer.

Don’t panic, though. Though some opportunities are lost with the end of our Indian summer, others are being created. One such example is Prague’s spectacular SIGNAL light festival, which took place this weekend, bringing bright and colourful light to the increasingly long night.

The idea of the four-day festival is to showcase Prague’s rich architectural heritage and combine it with more modern art ideas. Prague’s most famous buildings and areas, such as the Old Town square and the Charles Bridge, are just two of many locations which undergo a visual transformation once the sun has set.

Certain buildings are selected in advance and a ‘mapping’ company will spend time creating a display unique to one particular building. Indeed, the shows are not transferable to the other sites in the city. Shows last a short time, between five and ten minutes, and are on loop so it is possible to see many shows over the course of an evening.

Our first destination in the dark was the church at Namesti Miru. A large crowd gathered as each petal projected onto the clock face disappeared, counting down to the start of the show. The clock face soon transformed itself into a blinking eye.

There were some very impressive effects being projected from a distant building onto the spires and main part of the church. The lights were able to bring the church to life, making it bulge and shrink. Later in the show the bricks also seemed to start emerging out from the church, creating an amazing 3D effect.

From Namesti Miru we walked, via a pub of course, a short distance to the famous Old Town Square, where another light show was to be shown. The obvious place to beam this would have been on the world-renowned astronomical clock, yet for some reason the famous timepiece remained dark throughout. Instead, one of the lesser-known buildings was the subject of a bright light makeover.

As with all of the shows we saw, it was unique and solely for the building it was dramatically altering. This display, by a different mapping company, utilised a variety of colours to bring the building to life.

Our next location was one of Prague’s main libraries, which has six Greco-Roman statues standing over its large, looming doors. The idea of this light show was to tell the story of each of these figures. We watched it twice and still had no clue as to what was going on.

There are many shows around the city; it isn't really possible to enjoy them all. We walked past an interactive light show at the base of one of the towers of the Charles Bridge. A person would blow into a tube, which would them transmit a beam of light towards the tower and display a pattern on the old stones. The line was too long to consider waiting in, though it did look like a lot of fun.

The best show we saw was our last, and absolutely worth the long walk from the town centre. We arrived at the end of a light show in the grounds of the Kafka museum. The applause from spectacle-clad men and women which greeted its conclusion suggested that it would be worth investing in the 3D glasses being sold at the entrance.

In true Kafka style, it was incredibly weird and difficult to describe. Best just watch the videos…

I really enjoyed seeing the spectacular effects of the show. Whether modern art is your cup of tea or not, this festival is a great way to see the main attractions of Prague in – excuse the pun – a whole new light.

Love you all


Sunday, 5 October 2014

Czech Republic – Rocking around Czech paradise

October 4

Hello everyone!

Prague is beautiful but, just like living in any large city, it’s often pleasant to escape the crowds and kafuffle. As the weather will soon turn wintry, we took the opportunity to escape to the countryside to see the green leaves turning to the fiery colours of autumn.

The main reason we visited the area which translates as Czech Paradise, however, doesn’t change colour. In fact, they haven’t changed colour for many thousands of years.

Česky Raj is just short of 100km northeast of Prague: easily accessible by car. As we don’t possess a car, however, we had to cross the city to the Černy Most bus terminal to hop on a bus which would take us to a village called Jičín. Missing the aforementioned bus by seconds wasn’t great planning, but another arrived soon after to give us plenty of time in the fresher air of the east.

Jičín itself is a nice place, with colourful Baroque buildings fortifying a pretty town square. We wandered around their Saturday market before leaving on a seven kilometre uphill trek to the entrance of a natural reserve of sandstone rocks called Prachovské Skály.

Once inside the boundaries of the park (the kind lady allowed us to enter for student prices as I fumbled around trying to find my expired student card), the real walking begins. There are a variety of trails snaking through, around and under the sandstone stalagmites which rise surreally from the colourful hillside.

The exact reason for these freaks of nature is unclear, but I assume it is due to the ice age and the erosion attached to it. The rocks, which are the biggest collection of their type in Česky Raj, are a popular climbing challenge for those who enjoy such a thing. In the picture below, a professional has scaled one of the rocky obelisks and is helping an amateur towards the peak. This is normally a challenge I would hurl myself at; unfortunately, time constraints were against us. Though watching those climbing the vertical peaks would have certainly resulted in thinking twice about scaling the rocks. Terrifying.

The stones, cool to the touch, are a pleasure to walk around. Squeezing through narrow crevices can lead to dark, mossy areas which can seem otherworldly. It struck me as being the perfect location for The Lost World.

Our trip to paradise was for one day only, so we had to eventually trek back to Jičín in order to catch one of the last buses to Prague. My guess is that we covered in excess of 20 kilometres of hilly and awkward terrain on foot during the day. In spite of the effort required, it was exactly what I wanted. The air seemed fresher, the leaves brighter, the terrain more spectacular.

Whether I’d describe Česky Raj as ‘Czech Paradise’ is up for debate. I would, however, highly recommend it as a location in which you can get away from city life. Just don’t look down if you climb those rocks…


Love you all