Revisiting Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – Part 1

Having been holidaying in Tenby, a popular seaside resort in the south end of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park since I was a child, I know that area of the park at least pretty well so when we decided to include this park in South West Wales in our Welsh National Parks Road Trip itinerary, I knew I wanted to make sure we included some places and activities there I’d either not done before, or hadn’t done since I was much younger while still revisiting what I consider to be some of the park’s highlights for my friend who had not been before to see.

Views walking along the sea wall from Wisemans Bridge to Saundersfoot

With this in mind, we planned a 5 night stay in the area. With many of the hotels in the park itself sold out or way too pricey by the time we got around to booking and many holiday parks only offering the standard Sat-Sat, Mon-Fri or Fri-Sun stays which didn’t suit our itinerary, we eventually decided on a roadside motel in the small village of Llandissilo, a few miles north of market town Narberth and, while quite a way outside of the park, a pretty central location to reach all parts of the park from with pretty much everywhere being within a 20-40 minute drive!

Arriving early on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t what we had planned – we’d expected to spend most of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but the weather had had other ideas – so we made a hasty decision to stop off at Wisemans Bridge at the southern end of the park and the closest point of the park to our motel. When we had to queue along the a-road out of Carmarthen into the park, I should have realised how busy everywhere would be on a Saturday afternoon and we arrived to find all the spaces in the free car parks at Wisemans Bridge completely full. Continuing on, we came to the car park for Coppets Hall, a small bay lying between Wiseman’s Bridge and the popular seaside town of Saundersfoot. Although busy, the car park had an attendant who directed us to park along a grass verge despite there not being an actual marked space there. It didn’t cost much for a couple of hours parking so all paid up, we picked up the coast path and headed through the old railway tunnels and on to the sea wall path back towards Wisemans Bridge.

Rocky coastline at Wisemans Bridge

The Wiseman’s Bridge to Saundersfoot walk is one of the easiest walks along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path being along flat and wide paved footpaths so it didn’t take long to reach the pebbly beach at the other end. We spent a bit of time wondering along the beach looking in the rockpools revealed at low tide before retracing our footsteps back to Coppets Hall and walked in the opposite direction to the bustling town of Saundersfoot where we treated ourselves to an ice cream and wandered around the harbour.

After returning to Coppets Hall, we drove to our motel to check in deciding to have dinner in the restaurant on site realising it was unlikely we’d find anywhere with space for us to eat out at that evening!

For our first full day in the park, we had booked tickets to visit Skomer Island. Worried about things getting booked out, we had done this quite a bit in advance which meant we couldn’t check the weather first.

Walking along the coast path near Martin’s Haven

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side that day. Arriving in Martin’s Haven to check in for our boat trip an hour before it left, we were met by high winds and heavy rain. After checking in and looking around the small gift store,we found the rain had eased a bit so I decided to go for a walk along the coast path while we waited for our boarding time. The views were stunning as I watched the waves crash up against the rocks.

Once it was time to board, we walked down to the small bay and onto the awaiting boat. Just as we set off, the rain started to pour once again making for a rather uncomfortable crossing only cheered up by a seagull deciding to hitch a lift on the corner of the boat to save him the flight across!

Arriving at Skomer, we climbed a set of steps up to a ranger station where we were met by an island ranger who explained a bit about the island, what we might see and the rules for our visit.

Above, and below, exploring Skomer Island

Because of Covid restrictions, the paths around the outskirts of the island had been made one-way in an anti-clockwise direction from the visitor centre and picnic area at the centre of the island. We had 4 hours until we needed to be back at the ranger station and were told that that should be more than enough time to walk the perimeter and be back with time to spare.

As we set off along the path to the centre of the island, the rain finally stopped and we made it about half way around the perimeter path before it started up again. The path around the island lead to many beautiful viewpoints from the cliff tops but wildlife wise, being slightly too late for ‘puffin season’, we instead had to make do with spotting a seal frolicking in the waves crashing against the rocks below.

The pouring rain and strong winds made the last section of our walk slightly more uncomfortable than we’d have liked and with not stopping as long as we otherwise would have to enjoy the views and speeding up our pace a bit to get out of the rain, we ended up back at the centre of the island quite a bit sooner than we had expected to.

The rain sets in again as we walk the coast path on Skomer Island

Luckily, we managed to find an empty bench in the covered picnic area so spent the last hour on the island having a leisurely picnic lunch and looking around the small visitor’s centre before making our way back to catch our boat back to the mainland. Just as we were about to depart, we spotted another seal playing in the surf then scrambling up onto the rocks just off the island.

The rain had stopped again making for a much drier and more pleasant boat trip back to the mainland. Arriving back late afternoon, we drove back to our motel and change into some drier clothes before going for dinner there.

Above, and below, taking Reggie the Alpaca for a walk

The next day, we were pleased to wake up to a much drier day and a forecast of some sunny spells! We had booked an alpaca trek for that morning and tickets to Heatherton World of Adventures for that afternoon so after breakfast, drove out to a farm near Manorbier to meet our furry friends for the morning. Having never walked an alpaca before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but it turned out to be a really fun activity even if we were technically just walking around a field.

My alpaca, Reggie, was pretty obliging, trotting alongside me and posing for photos when we reached the halfway point in return for a few handfuls of food.

After returning Reggie to his pen and saying our goodbyes, we drove on to Heatherton, an activity centre just outside of Tenby. This was a place I’d always go on a cloudy day with my family when I was younger. Back then, it was a much smaller affair and billed as a ‘country sports’ and golfing centre. We’d spend our morning on the pitch ‘n’ putt course and our afternoons trying out archery, pistol shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting, croquet, boules, and, of course, take a few trips round on the bumper boats. Now the park has extended to occupy a site across the road from when the original activities are still housed and the list of activities on offer has more than doubled to include baseball, ropes courses, slides, a hedge maze and many many more. I mainly just wanted to revisit all my old favourites for nostalgic reasons so we bought an 8-credit pass which we calculated to be enough to spend on all these with a couple left over for anything else that took our fancy.

Upon arriving, we couldn’t quite believe how busy the centre was, especially as passes had to be pre-booked due to ongoing Covid restrictions and were supposedly limited each day. We struggled to even find a parking space in the overflow but once we had, went to pick up our passes from the main reception. Seeing that there were long queues for everything, we went with the one that currently seemed to be the shortest/moving the quickest and that was the bumper boats. Within 10 minutes we were sat in the boats – which didn’t seem to have been updated at all in the slightest since my original visits in the late ’90s – racing (well, more like crawling) around the small course trying to bump into the other boats. Great fun!

Having forgot to take our lunch with us that day, we grabbed sandwiches from the on-site cafe before our next activity. We went with pistol shooting next. Although we were the next group to take part when we joined the queue, there was a loong, tedious wait as the group before us had their safety talk then slowly worked their way through their 20 pellets but once it was our turn, it was a fun activity to try out and when I collected my target after our session finished, I hadn’t done too badly!

It was another long queue next, this time to try out laser clay pigeon shooting. This was always my favourite when I was younger as I was always pretty good at it but not today, as I failed to hit all but 2 clays as they flew through the air! At this point, having only averaged one activity an hour since our arrival and with still over half of our credit to use up, we were slightly worried we wouldn’t get through everything but as we headed across the road to try out the park’s new Dragon Slide – where you sit in a giant rubber ring, a bit like a water park slide but without the water! – we found a much shorter queue time and were on and off in 5 minutes. The slide was so much fun that we decided to use another credit up to ride it again!

Crossing back under the tunnel to the other side of the road again, we found the crowds had started to empty out a bit. We had 3 credits each left to use, 2 of which we knew we wanted to spend on the still extremely busy Adventure Golf, the other, we originally planned to use on archery but seeing there was still quite a queue for this and no queue at all for the bumper boats next to it, we decided to jump on these again instead!

Having left Adventure Golf to the last hoping the crowds would clear, we decided it was now or never and went to get our clubs and golf balls and were warned that we’d have to queue to play each hole. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad with just one group in front of us to wait for each time. Seeing how busy the park had been put us off booking to go to Oakwood, a nearby theme park, over the next few days as we worried we’d just be spending the whole day queuing so instead we decided to use the day we would have spent there exploring the coast a bit more.

It had been a fun start to our time in Pembrokeshire and we still had a few more full days left to explore the park as well as the morning before we left for Snowdonia. With the weather forecast not looking too bad, we were looking forward to spending a bit more time out on the coast.

Brecon Beacons National Park

After a few weeks of planning, we were starting a 2-week tour of Wales concentrating our time mainly on the country’s three National Parks. First up was the Brecon Beacons, situated in the middle of South Wales. The park was one I’d driven along the outskirts of many a time, bypassing it on an A-road at least once a year for the last 25 years as we headed on family holidays to South West Wales and I’d visited the town of Brecon as a ‘halfway to our destination’ stopping off point many times over. But I had never crossed that busy A-road to see what lay on the other side!

At the trail head to climb Pen y Fan

We arrived at our motel for the next three nights early evening on a Wednesday. We were staying in the town of Merthyr Tydfil just outside the southern end of the park as prices were a lot cheaper here than to stay in the National Park itself but in just a 5 minute drive, we were across the park boundaries.

After settling in to our room, we went out in search of dinner thinking that we’d have no problem getting a table anywhere on a Wednesday evening.

As restaurant after restaurant told us they were full though, we began to realise we were once again going to have to plan ahead for our meals this trip, pre-booking and making sure we were back in time rather than seeing where the day took us and grabbing something wherever we ended up. Finally finding a Pizza place that could squeeze us in, we had dinner a little later than we’d hoped but still found time to fit in a walk around town after our meal.

Sheep near the top of the mountain

Our itinerary for our stay in the park was more a list of ideas and suggestions than a definite plan. A walk up Pen-y-Fan, the highest mountain in Southern Britain, was top of that list and we were keeping an eye on the weather to decide which day was looking best for it. The weather looking to be ok and expecting the National Park to be pretty full with the August summer holidays in full swing, we were up early for our included breakfast at our motel the next day, aiming to be at the car park for the main path to the top of Pen-y-Fan by 9am to beat the crowds.

While the car park was by no means empty when we arrives, we did comfortably find a space and when we returned later to find cars parked everywhere in the main car park, along the road and in lay-bys within a mile or so either way, were glad we made the effort for an early-ish start.

View from the top

The weather was pretty clear for the most part, the sun shining as we set out. The path was easy to follow and the instructions I’d downloaded from a National Trust circular walking route helped us work out which of the two peak we were aiming for when the path split – and it’s a good job it did, We reached a very windy peak of Pen-y-Fan just as the cloud started to move in, some kind of view still visible to us from the top but just minutes later, we made our way across to the peak of Corn Du, the second peak to find ourselves completely immersed in fog and cloud and unable to see Pen-y-Fan, or anything else, anymore!

On top of Corn Du in a cloud!

From Corn Du, we retraced our steps back down the path we had walked up rather than taking the circular route down an alternative path to the road. Exhausted, but feeling a sense of accomplishment, we collapsed into the car feeling grateful that we had a space so close to the path entrance so that we didn’t have to walk any further, and treated ourselves to our packed lunch and a nice hot cup of tea from a flask!

Lunch over, we drove north and seeing the National Park Visitor Centre signposted, decided to use the facilities, get some more park information and buy some souvenirs. There were a number of walks signposted from the visitor centre of varying lengths and difficulties but deciding we’d done enough walking for the time being, we moved on to do a circular scenic drive through the east side of the park.

Above, and below, Gospel Pass drive

Driving up towards Brecon, we turned off back into the park and followed an extremely narrow, steeps, twisting and turning track which, judging from the grass growing up the middle of the road, is rarely used. Thankfully, we didn’t meet any oncoming traffic and just as we were wondering where the sat nav was taking us, the road opened out to reveal Gospel Pass, the road we were aiming for, in front of us.

This mountain pass is seen as a ‘must-do’ drive in the Brecon Beacons for it’s stunning views and we made our way along it past pretty countryside and wild horses roaming the hills. We pulled up at Hay Bluff, a parking area from where we could admire the views.

Llanthony Abbey ruins

After taking in the scenery, we continued along gospel pass, the road again narrowing and heading through woodland. Eventually, we reached Llanthony Abbey. The abbey ruins are free to visit and there was a cafe on site run by neighbouring Llanthony Priory Hotel for refreshments.

From here the road continued to a main A-road which we then followed west back to our Merthyr Tydfil Hotel giving us a few hours to relax and freshen up before our dinner reservation in town that evening.

The next day we were once again up early, this time to drive out to the car park at the start of the Four Waterfalls walk. As the name suggests, here there is a circular path with paths leading off it at various intervals to see four waterfalls!

Above, and below, on the Four Waterfalls walk

Finding the car park almost empty at around 9am, we chatted to the car park attendant who explained to us that none of the waterfalls are visible from the main circular trail and that the paths leading down to each of the falls were quite strenuous. He recommended we did the loop in reverse to see the most impressive waterfall first so if we were to decide we’d had enough at that point, we could just retrace our steps back still having seen a pretty good waterfall!

Although we were pretty sure we’d not give up after one waterfall, we decided to take his advice so we could at least get the waterfall with the most steps up and down out of the way first!

The main path to the waterfall exit was easy but we could straight away see why we were warned over the path to the waterfall itself. The steps down were often uneven, made of slippy blue stone and way too deep for our short legs to manage easily without grabbing onto something for support as we lowered ourselves down – and often there was nothing to grab on to! But it was worth it once the waterfall was revealed. It was possible to scramble across some rocks to go behind the waterfall but seeing as we’d had a tough time just getting down to that point, we stayed to admire it from the base of the steps before climbing back up to the path again – surprisingly, it was easier going up than down!

We continued along the path which narrowed, had frequent unpaved sections and rocky sections and was in itself, not an easy walk anymore, until we reached the next branch off to another waterfall. Again, we found a steep path with loose gravel sections, muddy areas and even a few boulder sections! It certainly made the walk more interesting though. It took us about 3 hours to complete the full walk with stops for a bite to eat along the way and taking our time across trickier sections of the path and we made it back onto the main paved section of the path back to the (now packed) car park just as it started to rain, grateful that it hadn’t rained while we were scrambling over already slippery rocks to see the falls!

Pretty views from the lay-by opposite Crai Reservoir

After a lay-by late lunch stop, we looked at a map and consulted our list of itinerary ideas deciding to loop around to the centre of the park and visit one of the park’s many reservoirs. We decided on Crai Reservoir which would put us back on a road heading towards Merthyr Tydfil again rather than taking us out of the way. We had read that there was a path you could walk there towards the reservoir dam with great views across but upon pulling up at the car park across from the reservoir, we couldn’t actually find this path!

There was a bridge across a valley stream leading off from the car park which offered a pretty view of the hills and some footpaths signposted up into the hills but across the road, we walked along the grass verge alongside where we could barely even see the reservoir peeping out from behind dense hedgerow, never mind find a path to access it.

Carreg Cennen Castle

Giving up and returning back in the other direction, we walked a bit further south of the car park to a driveway down to a house where there was a public footpath sign which seemed to be pointing along the side of the house’s grounds but a path was barely visible and overgrown with nettles to the point that we weren’t completely sure if it was even there or if the sign was pointing along the road we had just walked along instead.

Not wanting to end up walking across private property, we instead returned to the car and, as it was now nearing 3pm anyway, took a scenic way back to the southern end of the park looping background to our Merthyr Tydfil motel.

Nearing the castle

With no rush to get to our Pembrokeshire National Park destination the next day, we had planned to spend the majority of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but checking the weather, we saw there was heavy rain forecast the next morning. We checked to see if there was any availability at the Dan yr Ogof Welsh National Showcaves but fond all the timed slots already sold out so decided to see what the weather was like the next day and take it from there.

We did indeed wake up to heavy rain and cloud and decided our original loose plans to hill walk to a view of a glacial lake Llyn y Fan Fach or to drive along Black Mountain Pass at the west side of the park were probably not worth it as the views wold be obscured by cloud.

Exploring the castle ruins

Instead, we decided to begin our drive to Pembrokeshire making a stop at Carreg Cennan Castle on the edge of the Brecon Beacons along the way.We had downloaded instructions for a circular walk around the castle providing views it without having to pay to go in but once there, the weather still not great, we decided to pay the small fee to visit the ruins instead. Luckily, the weather started to clear just as we were about to leave so we got to see a bit more of a view from the top!

It was great to finally see what lay on the other side of the busy A-road bypassing Brecon that I’d driven down so many times in the past and as it turned out, our 3 nights in the Beacons was nowhere near enough time to see anywhere near all the park has to offer but it was a start. I was glad I had the chance to visit and definitely plan to return sometime!

A Wales National Parks Road Trip

Who’d have thought when our US National Parks Road Trip planned for last summer had to be cancelled that we’d be unable to reschedule it for 2021 either?! But with Covid still dominating new headlines around the World, the US still not allowing UK visitors and strict rules on entering and exiting the UK still in force over a year on, we realised pretty early into the year that making any plans to travel out of the UK was not a good idea. Despite some travel being allowed out of the UK to the few ‘green/amber list’ countries who will have us, with all the uncertainties over how long countries will remain on these lists for and all the complicated – not to mention expensive – testing rules to travel, we decided we were best to make summer travel plans a bit closer to home again.

In the beautiful Brecon Beacons

We had a few early discussions about possibly travelling to Ireland, a country I’ve seen very little of, for a road trip around the coast but not being sure if we’d both be fully vaccinated in time to go there, that idea was soon put hold for the future and our thoughts returned to the UK National Parks.

After a successful 2-week trip to the National Parks of Northern England last summer, we narrowed this year’s options down to the parks in Southern England, a trip up to Scotland for a mixture of National Parks, isles, highlands and cities or heading west into Wales. We eventually settled on visiting the 3 National Parks of Wales, a country I am very familiar with having holidayed there at least once a year for the last 27 years. In fact, my annual family holiday is usually taken in Tenby, a seaside town in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park but as this is mainly spent as a beach holiday with the occasional trip out to other nearby beaches, there was plenty of the National Park I’d not seen as well as some activities and attractions I’d not visited since going as a teenager which I wanted the opportunity to relive. I figured I could then play tour guide on the day we planned to spend in the southern end of the park which I know and love.

Regularly visiting Snowdonia National Park too with a friend having a holiday home at the southern end of it as well as often taking out of season trips there with the dog meant I was somewhat familiar with this area too although once we started looking into what to do there, I soon realised I’d actually seen very little away from the southernmost tip where the seaside town of Barmouth is located.

One of the many waterfalls in the Brecon Beacons

The Brecon Beacons was a National Park I was totally unfamiliar with outside of the town of Brecon itself where my family would often make a pitstop at en route to Tenby so I decided to concentrate my initial research here.

Looking at a range of websites, blogs etc on each of the parks, we eventually came up with a plan to split our time with 3 nights un the Brecon Beacons and 5 nights at Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and Snowdonia National Park respectively during which time we’d tackle some of the big hikes including Pen-y-Fan and the Four Waterfalls Walk in the Brecon Beacons and, of course, Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park.

On Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire National Park

Despite pretty much having our trip all planned out, we put off booking longer than we usually would as we waited to see what restrictions would or wouldn’t be eased. Then, just as we were starting to think about booking hotels for our stay, our plans had to be briefly put on hold as my friend suffered an injury which could have put an end to any hiking and long days driving followed by a death in the family.

When we finally came to book some places to stay we found very limited availability and extremely high prices, especially as we’d decided to book fully cancellable options just in case things changed before we went.

Walking an alpaca

We eventually settled for a pub/motel room in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, a few miles south of the Brecon Beacons National Park and just a short drive from some of the walks we planned to do. The motel was within our budget and included breakfast and its location was also convenient for eating out in the evenings as there were plenty of cheap and cheerful chain restaurants just a short drive from the town centre.

For Pembrokeshire National Park we had to stay quite a way out of the park in a roadside motel near the town of Narberth. The motel cost us a lot more than we’d wanted to pay but was still the cheapest place we could find. It did include breakfast though and although being a bit out of the park, was at least pretty centrally located meaning we never had more than a 40 minute drive to the north or south end of the National Park from there.

Snowdonia proved to be the most difficult and expensive park to find accommodation for and we ended up having to split our stay between 2 places, choosing a small farm guesthouse just outside the south-west end of the park for the first 2 nights and a chain motel in Bangor, a seaside town north of the park for the final 3 nights.

Visiting Snowdonia National Park

With our accommodation finally sorted, we moved on to the activities. Whereas many of the activities and attractions in the park are usually turn up and go, many of them currently had pre-book only rules which can be difficult when you’re going somewhere with very unpredictable weather! We had the National Welsh Showcaves at Dan-yr-Ogof pencilled in as a rainy day activity for the day we left the Brecon Beacons in case it was too wet to hike but decided to hold off booking in case the weather did turn out to be ok.

As soon as we realised it was almost certainly going to pour down that morning, we went to book only to find we were too late and it had sold out. That wasn’t our only booking failure – we also left booking activities at the popular ZipWorld attractions in Snowdonia way too late, finding the Velocity 2 zipline and the mountain coaster we really wanted to do both sold out until the autumn (we did eventually manage to get a cancellation slot on the ziplines at a later date!)

We did manage to pre-book a boat trip to Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire National Park – something I’d wanted to do for years – but pre-booking weeks in advance meant it was pot luck with the weather and, of course (spoiler alert!), it ended up absolutely pouring down that day.

About to zipline over an old quarry in Snowdonia

We were luckier with the date we picked to walk Alpacas or that would have been miserable too. Other activities such as visits to Heatherton World of Activities and Oakwood Theme Park both in Pembrokeshire, we decided to leave til the last minute and check on the weather and luckily, when we did decide to attend Heatherton, there were plenty of tickets left booking the day before we attended.

Despite everyone staycationing leading to accommodation prices shooting up and activities selling out way in advance, our trip was, overall, a success and while it still wasn’t quite up there with our US adventures, we were grateful to be able to get away at all and had a pretty great time.

Lincolnshire

A UK Staycation visiting the Lincolnshire coast and Wolds

With Spring half term approaching, I started to think about taking another UK staycation with my parents and their dog Lily. With foreign holidays still being complicated, it seemed that everyone else had had the same idea and prices for a caravan holiday in the parks we’d usually use were way out of our budget. Not giving upon the idea, we kept regularly checking prices in the hope that something last minute would appear and with prices at chain sites not budging, I decided to google privately hired lodges and static caravans.

Humberston Fitties Beach and Tetney Marsh

Finally, on the Friday the schools broke up, a couple of options turned up, an AirBnB static for hire on private land in the Lake District, a lodge in Norfolk reduced on Hoseasons after a cancellation and a caravan in Lincolnshire on a small privately owned site by a fishing lake, all pet friendly and all around the same price. The AirBnB option disappearing as fast as it appeared, we knew we had to make a decision quickly so we went for the slightly cheaper option of the static caravan in Lincolnshire.

The site was situated inland on the edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Lincolnshire Wolds but the nearest beach, Mablethorpe was just a 25 minute drive away. After spending the weekend looking up which beaches were either completely dog-friendly or at least had dog friendly areas, we set off early on the bank holiday Monday morning, hoping to beat the traffic and arrive in time to spend an afternoon on the beach before arriving at our accommodation.

Fitties Beach

The journey went smoothly and without hold ups, the only problem being when we stopped at the services only to be met with the longest queue I had ever seen to get into the building and use the conveniences!

Deciding we could all hold on, we continued north of where we were staying towards Grimsby then, bypassing Cleethorpes (a resort with a huge, sandy beach but where dogs are completely banned throughout the summer season), drove south to Humberston where we were aiming to find and visit Fitties Beach.

Following the satnav to our destination, we were slightly concerned when it seemed to be taking us straight through a huge Haven holiday park, especially as we could see arriving cars queuing to check in ahead of us.

Above, and below, a stroll alongside Louth Canal

Luckily, we were guided past the queuing arrivals and out through the other side of the park where we found a small, private village, the narrow streets lined with chalet-style holiday homes and pretty bungalows. We were eventually lead down a no-through road, the car park for Fitties Beach and the neighbouring RSPB Tetney Marshes lying at the end. The car park was super busy so we drove back out, managing to find on street parking just down the road and from here, we followed a public footpath between the houses, across some dunes and onto the beach.

The beach was more mud flats than sand and the tide was so far out we could hardly see the sea but there was the sun was shining and there was plenty of room for Lily to have a run around so we spent a bit of time walking towards the Tetney Marshes end of the beach and back again.

After spending an hour or so exploring, we walked back to the car and began to drive towards the town of Louth, our accommodation being situated a few miles outside of the town in the village of Alvingham. As soon as we arrived, we knew we had made the right choice of sites for a relaxing holiday. Our caravan was one of just 3 statics on site, all of which overlooked a large fishing lake. A few tourers were parked up on the rest of the grassy field beside us while chickens roamed free around the site, their fresh eggs being sold daily.

An empty Huttoft Beach

After checking in, we drove the short distance into Louth to grab fish and chips for dinner then that evening, we took a walk along the disused canal which lay behind the site, the path eventually lead to Louth but we turned around long before that point!

The next day, we took a ride out to the coast and a beach we had researched to be dog friendly. Not far from the better known Mablethorpe, Huttoft Beach was a little gem. The beach was backed by a busy car park but after parking up, we walked away from the crowds sat in front of the car parks to an almost empty section of the beach in the distance. It was a warm, sunny day but Lily had a great time keeping cool with regular dips in the sea, chasing sticks and rarely bringing them back again!

After returning to the car for a picnic overlooking the sea, we decided to drive on to look at a few other bays, the first being Sandilands.

Above, and below, at Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe Dunes National Nature Reserve

With it now being early afternoon and the sun still shining, it was suddenly very busy and we were unable to find a space on the small car park or nearby. We continued on to Sutton-on-Sea and then Mablethorpe itself but had the same problem at each place so instead we drove to try to find the beach at the Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe Dunes, nearby National Nature Reserve. We instead ended up at an entrance to the Nature Reserve that did not have beach access but instead, there was a trail to follow around the reserve and viewpoints of the distant dunes so we spent a bit of time looking around.

The church in Alvingham Village

We returned to our caravan park late afternoon but after dinner, went out for another canal side walk, this time walking in the opposite direction and heading away from Louth. Our walk took us towards the village of Alvingham and, reaching a bridge crossing the canal, we crossed it into the village, past the village churches and looped back through the village to reach our caravan park again.

Back at the caravan park, we picked up a few leaflets outlining countryside walks in the local area and in the nearby Lincolnshire Wolds and made plans to have a day away from the coast the next day and explore the Wolds a bit instead.

Lily cooling off at Hubbards Hills Country Park, and below, a walk in the Wolds

Awaking to yet another day of glorious sunshine and warm temperatures, we were conscious of going somewhere where there would be plenty of shade for Lily and possibly some water for her to cool off in so we decided to drive to the nearby Hubbards Hills, a country park in the Wolds. Parking up at the free car park at the back of the park, we entered the park to find a shallow river which Lily dived straight into. The pretty park has a path running from one end to the other which runs alongside the river. Lily wasn’t the only dog paddling in the river and as we got closer to the busier side of the park, we found an area in which children could paddle and play in the river too. We instead, walked away from this area, up into the hills and followed a shady path through the trees which eventually lead us out into a nearby village. From here, we crossed the river and walked back into the park, finding a quiet patch of grass to site and have a picnic before following the riverside path back to the far end where Lily once again cooled off in the river before we returned to the car.

It was mid-afternoon so after our walk in the Hubbard Hills, we decided to drive to one of the villages in the Wolds to follow one of the ‘Wolds Walks’ on a leaflet we had picked up from the caravan site.

We drove to the pretty South Thoresby, parking in a layby and trying to make sense of where we were on the map we had on the leaflet. Finding the church where the walk started at, we struggled to work out which direction we were to walk in to being our walk so we followed the public footpath signpost and hoped for the best.

Lily relaxing in South Thoresby village after her walk

We didn’t get very far before we reached what seemed to be someone’s back garden. Confused, we returned to double check that was indeed where the signpost was pointing. A local saw us hesitating and called across that we were going the right way and to go through the gate. Following his instructions, we found that the footpath cut right through a garden before leading out to a field the other side!

Following the signpost to a stile, we helped Lily through and continued along the path, reaching main road at the end of it. It was at this point that we realised where we were on the map and that we were following a second, longer walk than the one we hoped to pick up. Not wanting to return back though the back garden again, we used google maps to work out a cut through back to the original route, although this did mean walking it in the opposite direction to how it was intended and following the instructions backwards!

St Andrew’s Church in South Thoresby
An exhausted Lily!

Finding our way to the path marked on our route map, we managed to find the entrance to a public footpath running alongside a farmer’s field, past a copse and through some woods. We then followed a boardwalk over marshland which lead us back to the church in the village where we had started.

It had been a pretty walk through the Wolds on a warm, sunny afternoon and the drive through the Wolds back to our holiday site was just as pretty.

That evening, we attempted another canalside walk from our caravan but an exhausted Lily was having none of it and after reluctantly making it a few metres along the path, refused to move any further!

The last day of our trip was another warm, sunny one so we decided to head back to the coast, this time driving slightly further south to Anderby Creek.

The small car park at the beach was already full but we managed to find on road parking nearby. Walking up to the sands, we turned left at the entrance to the dog-friendly end, walking away from the crowds towards a near-empty sandy beach.

Lily enjoys one last walk on the beach

Lily once again had a great time splashing in the sea and insisted on taking up most of the picnic blanket we had brought out with us when it was time to have lunch!

We spent most of the day at the beach before returning to our holiday park again, spending one final evening taking a walk along the old canal.

We had really enjoyed our visit to Lincolnshire. It wasn’t somewhere we’d really considered going to before but we had found some really lovely beaches and what we’d seen of the Wolds had been really pretty. It’s definitely somewhere we’d love to return to!

East Sussex and Kent coast

A UK Staycation

After months of lockdown over the winter, I was desperate for a break and with Spring approaching, UK staycations in self-contained accommodation were finally to be allowed. With the opening date for holiday parks, holiday cottages and lodges overlapping with the second week of the school Easter holidays, we decided to look for somewhere to go for a few days, just looking forward to a change of scenery.

Winchelsea Beach

With Wales, our normal port of call for a UK staycation, remaining closed to visitors from across the border for the time being, we had to look elsewhere. Having family in Kent we’d not seen for a while, we started to look at availability in the south of England, thinking we could tie in a get-together while there.

Prices were sky high with everyone desperate for a getaway, especially in the more obvious holiday destinations around Brighton. Deciding to leave booking to the last minute, we eventually managed to grab a bargain 4-night stay at in a static caravan at an East Sussex holiday park.

It was a long drive from the Midlands down to the small seaside town of Winchelsea and by the time we arrived we were pretty exhausted. Not wanting to cook, we took a drive into the nearby town of Rye, hoping to grab some food from the local chippy. Unfortunately, we found both of the town’s Fish and Chip shops closed on a Monday. Not being able to find or settle on anything else, we ended up heading back to the holiday park and its local Co-op, finding what we could from the groceries we’d brought with us and grabbing a few extra items from the convenience store.

On the bech at Camber Sands

The next morning, we had arranged to meet with family at Winchelsea Beach. They were not expected to make it there til a little before midday so with Lily the dog chomping at the bit to be walked, we headed down a bit earlier. We were disappointed to find that with the tide in, the beach was pebbly, the shale stone hurting Lily’s paws so instead we had to walk her along the coast path that ran along the top of the sharply steeping beach.

Messaging our family who were more familiar with the area, we asked if there was any sandy bays they knew of nearby and they suggested Camber Sands, just a 20 minute drive along the coast. Quickly changing our plans, we arranged to meet there instead at around noon and turned around to walk back to the small Winchelsea Beach car park.

With it being a warm-for-April, sunny Easter holiday day, the main car park at Camber Sands was busy and the charges seemed a bit steep but luckily, we found some on-road parking nearby and cut across a playing field to reach the dunes backing the beach. Following one of the well-trodden paths that had been made through the dunes, we soon emerged the other side to be greeted with an absolutely beautiful stretch of golden sands to our right which gradually turned to pebbles to our left.

We made our way down towards the beach cafe where we’d arranged to meet our family members who had also just arrived then walked down towards the sea to find a space to sit out and picnic together.

A stroll on the beach at Camber

After lunch, Lily and my 6 year old niece paddled happily in the sea. The tide was starting to go out and we spent the next few ours strolling along the sand, paddling in the shallows, and, once away from the busier end of the beach (by the car park and cafe), we even found time for a family game of French cricket!

Away from the crowds, with the warm sun shining and the sea sparkling, we could have been anywhere. The beach at Camber is definitely up there with some of the best I’ve been to in Europe and further afield!

Above, and below, at Bexhill-on-Sea and, further below, St Leonards-on-Sea

3 hours later, we decided it was time to make our way back to our cars and saying our goodbyes, we returned to our spacious caravan back at the holiday park exhausted.

After dinner, we took Lily out for an evening stroll in Winchelsea around the playing field behind the beach where a local children’s football club were finishing a practise session, then up to the coast path retracing our steps from our morning stroll.

The next day, we decided to have a ride our further along the coast to explore the area further. Driving out past an extremely busy-looking Hastings, we stopped instead at the quieter Bexhill-on-Sea. Like Winchelsea, the beach here was pebbly while the tide was in but we enjoyed spending an hour or so walking along the wide, grass-lined promenade, sitting out in the sunshine on a bench overlooking the sea to eat our picnic lunch. After lunch, we briefly walked Lily down to the sea, being careful not to stay too long on the pebbles before returning along the promenade to our car and driving back towards Winchelsea.

Our next stop was at St Leonards-on-Sea. Unfortunately, the weather had changed for the worse and the sunny spells from the morning had been replaces by cloud, some passing drizzle and a bitterly cold wind. Parking at the southern end of the town, we took a quick walk down onto the beach hut lined pebbly beach then battled against the wind to take a stroll along the promenade and back.

On the way back to Winchelsea, we took a slight detour to the small village of Icklesham.

Hogg Hill Mill sat on top of a hill

My mother is a huge fan of The Beatles and my sister-in-law had informed her a recording studio belonging to Paul McCartney lay just outside of Winchelsea and it was possible to follow a public footpath running alongside it. After looking it up, we found our way to Hogg Hill Mill, a former post mill which had been converted into a recording studio.

Reaching the former mill

Seeing the building lying on top of a hill, we found a small pull in to park by the gate signposted as a public footpath and dutifully all marched up the hill so my mother could get a photo with the studio in the background!

Returning to the holiday park, we ventured out again in the evening to once again walk Lily around the playing fields behind the beach, this time heading up to the coast path and wandering along towards Rye Nature Reserve before looping back to the car.

Wanting to give Lily another run on a sandy beach, the next morning we returned to Camber Sands first thing.

Back on Camber Sands briefly, and below, the intriguing landscape of Dungeness

After Lily had a run around and splash in the sea, we drove east across the border into Kent to visit Dungeness. Situated on the Kent headland, Dungeness is part of Romney Marsh and is both a private estate and part of a national nature reserve. The barren, almost destitute headland was like something out of an apocalyptic movie with rusting machinery, empty shacks and rotting boats sporadically dotted across the land, paths and the occasional boardwalk leading down to a shingle beach and the sea.

Further along, a lighthouse, which can sometimes be climbed for views across the bay, lay along with a busy cafe and more boardwalk walks across the land.

Greatstone-on-Sea

After spending some time exploring, we continued along the Kent coast, stopping at Greatstone-on-Sea where we found another pretty, but pebbly, beach. Taking a walk along the grassy promenade, we then continued into the town of New Romney and along towards Dymchurch where we hoped to make our final stop of the day.

Unfortunately, we found Dymchurch to be incredibly busy and, unable to find somewhere to park, had to turn around and head back towards Winchelsea and our holiday park.

After another walk along the Winchelsea coast path that evening then again the next morning, it was time to say goodbye to East Sussex and Kent but we’d enjoyed spending a few days exploring part of the UK we’d not seen before.

The Essex Coast

A UK Staycation

On the beach with Clacton Pier in the distance

While I have missed being able to take off on a European city break at a minute’s notice or head further afield on heavily planned extended trip, the past year has at least, given me the opportunity to explore a bit more of the UK. After trips to various UK National Parks last summer, I headed to the East coast of England last autumn where I spent a few days exploring the Essex coast.

By the pier

Essex was a place I visited a lot as a child having relatives who lived there until my early teens. Although they lived inland, I remember making the odd trip out to the county’s coast while there – Clacton, Walton-on-the Naze and Frinton-on-Sea all being places I had vague, hazy memories of.

Now, all these years on, I had booked a static caravan for a week away with my parents and my dog just a few miles outside of Clacton and I was looking forward to revisiting some of these places.

We spent our first day of the trip driving the short distance into Clacton where we easily found somewhere to park along the promenade just up from the seaside resort’s pier. Despite social distancing and mask wearing advice still being in place, it was half term and the area around the pier was busy as families with excited children headed along the boardwalk towards the bright lights of the arcades and fairground rides dotted along the large jetty.

Moving away from the crowds, we headed onto the quiet, mainly sandy beach, lined with its colourful beach huts. Walking away from the pier, Lily our dog playing happily in the waves lapping onto the seashore. Returning to the car to sit and eat lunch sheltered from the cold wind, we then took a short walk in the opposite direction past the pier and onto the resort’s West Beach before driving back to the holiday park to warm ourselves up.

At Frinton-on-Sea

Day 2 and we drove a bit further up the coast to visit Frinton-on-Sea and the livelier neighbouring resort of Walton-on-the-Naze. This morning, the weather was a bit better and this showed on the beach here being a lot busier than the beach had been at Clacton the previous day. With the tide almost fully in, there was little beach to be seen and instead of heading down to the sand, we had to make do with walking along the concrete, beach hut-lined path behind. Walton-on-the Naze’s pier with its large yellow undercover amusement arcade in the distance brought back childhood memories of previous visits.

Returning to the grass-lined promenade, we sat out on a bench in the sunshine to eat our lunch before returning to the beach. As we walked towards the pier, the tide was slowly creeping out and by the time we reached Walton-on-the Naze, there was enough beach for Lily to have a run on and splash around in the sea.

A rainy Walton-on-the-Naze

The next day, we decided to drive a bit further along the coast to Walton-on-the-Naze itself. After stopping in the town for a bit of shopping, we parked up right by some steps by the beach just as a heavy downpour of rain began. Wrapping up warm, we braved the rain and wind to give Lily a walk on the small bit of the beach not completely covered by the sea before returning to the car for lunch.

With the weather not looking like it was going to improve anytime soon, we decided to leave the beach behind and drive along the coast to visit the Naze Nature Reserve.

Lily enjoys the view at the Naze Nature Reserve

The rain briefly stopping, we walked Lily along to the Nature Reserve’s entrance. A visitor centre and shop stands near the entrance and there are steps down to the beach. Instead, we walked along the path into the nature reserve itself past the Naze Tower. When open, it is possible to climb the tower for views over the coast. We followed a circular path around the nature reserve which took us along the cliff overlooking the coast before turning inland past some Artillerary Pillboxes from World War 2 and back towards the Visitor Centre.

We finished our visit with a walk down the path to the beach and along towards Walton-on-the-Naze in the distance before returning to the car and driving back to the holiday park.

Visiting Point Clear Bay, and below, walking around the peninsula

Wanting to see as much as the surrounding coastline as possible, on day 3 we headed south of Clacton-on-Sea past St Osyths and on to Point Clear Bay. Standing on a penninsula overlooking Mersea Island, Point Clear Bay didn’t have much of a beach, more of a shore leading down from a watersports club and hire centre and we stood watching the windsurfers hurtle back and forth across the waves in the distance before racing back onto shore. A path follows the sea wall along the penninsula and as we followed it around, we were soon met with views of Brightlingsea, another Essex coastal resort, in the distance.

Batemans Tower at Brightlingsea

The next day, we decided to drive into Brightlingsea for a better look. It was a quaint little place with its endless rows of colourful beach huts, many of them occupied with holiday makers wrapped up warm and huddled up with a cup of tea.

Lily splashing around at Brightlingsea

While again, there wasn’t much of a beach, Lily had a great time splashing around in a salt water pool at Brightlingsea Beach overlooked by Bateman’s Tower, a listed building built in the late 1800s.

A busy coast path walk at Brightlingsea

From the promenade, we followed a coast path along the sea wall then looking out over Brightlingsea Marsh National Nature Reserve.

Dovercourt Beach

Our final full day in Essex was a wet and windy day. Today, we drove north of Clacton to Dovercourt Beach, near Harwich. The dreary weather had stirred up the sea and as we walked along the promenade, huge waves crashed over the sea wall. We followed the coast path down to Earlham’s Beach, a bit of a hidden bay backed by dunes and marshland before returning to Dovercourt and making it back to our car before another torrential downpour.

Viewpoint at Wrabness Nature Reserve

After another lunch in the car, we drove to Wrabness Nature Reserve following the path from the car park out to a viewpoint then down to a pretty beach overlooking the River Stour estuary, the Suffolk coast in the distance.

Cold and wet, we then made our way back to the holiday park to change into some dry clothes and warm up!

Lily enjoying a walk at Holland-on-Sea beach

The next day it was time to say goodbye to our caravan and holiday park but before leaving Essex behind, we once again headed to the coast, this time to Holland-on-Sea, a stretch of sand just up from Clacton. Like Clacton, the sandy beach was again lined with colourful beach huts and we spent some time wandering along the shore letting Lily burn off some energy with one last splash in the sea before the long drive back to the Midlands.

We all agreed we had enjoyed our trip to the Essex coast and would definitely visit again if the opportunity arose.

Lake Garda and Verona

Having spent a few days in a rather quiet Milan for a summer city break, we were off to the Italian Lakes for the second part of our trip.

Not having a car, we had found ourselves quite tied down with where we could get to in the region using just public transport. Rather than having to work out how to get ourselves and our luggage to a resort by boat, we had taken a friend’s advice to visit Sirmione, a resort town on the southern banks of Lake Garda.

Views across the lake

From Milan, we caught a regional train eastbound to Desenzano del Garda. From here, we planned on catching a bus to Sirmione then find our way to our hotel once in the town but after departing our train to a deserted station, we couldn’t find any information on the buses. Deciding to go with our backup option of a taxi also proved more difficult than we expected it to be as none were around to meet the train and there was no one around to ask! Finding a payphone, we managed to call a taxi service and get someone to understand us and finally, a good half hour or more later, we were on our way.

Watching the sunset across Lake Garda

Our problems getting to our destination didn’t stop there though. Sirmione is at the tip of a peninsula and there is one road in and one road out of the town. With it being August, peak tourist season, and a Friday afternoon, it seemed the whole of Italy was heading that way and what should have been a 15-20 minute journey, took over an hour as we sat in a long line of traffic leading up to the town gates!

Spending the evening in Sirmione

By the time we finally arrived at our hotel, we were definitely ready for a relaxing few days and were glad we had upped our budget a bit to stay in a nice 4* hotel. Once settled in our room, we wandered into town, finding a small pizzeria for dinner and watching the sun set over the lake before heading back to our hotel for drinks at the bar.

About to depart on a boat tour, and below, exploring the Lake and Sirmione

The next day we planned to spend exploring Sirmione a bit more so after breakfast sat out on the hotel’s sunny veranda, we once walked down to the town’s centre. After familiarising ourselves with the small town’s layout, we made our way to the lakeside.

It was a beautiful, sunny day and we decided to take a boat tour out on the lake around Sirmione. The views across the lake, of Sirmione Castle jutting out from the town and of the mountains in the distance were really pretty and it was interesting to find out a bit more about the area we were staying in.

Lakeside in Sirmione, and below, Gelato!!

We spent the rest of the morning in Sirmione, sitting out on the shingle beaches leading down to the lake’s edge, wandering along the lakeside paths, looking around the bustling town, sat out at the cafes and bars and enjoying gelato before returning to our hotel in the afternoon and relaxing by the pool and cooling off with a dip.

A day in Sirmione, and below, views from the castle

That evening, we took a stroll back into town for dinner, first walking along to Sirmione Castle which we paid the small entry fee to go and explore. The ticket price was more than worth it for the pretty views over Sirmione and Lake Garda.

View over the lake

The next day, we caught the Sirmione land train to the Grottoes of Cattulus, the ruins of an ancient Roman Villa.

View from the top

The entrance to the Grottoes was on a hill top and in the heat we were glad of the land train to take us there. There were pretty views over the lake from the top and after our visit, we walked back down the hill into town.

In Desenzano del Garda

While Sirmione was a lovely place, there is not a lot to do outside of relaxing by the lake so we decided to catch a bat across the lake to the town of Desenzano del Garda.

An afternoon in Desenzano del Garda

Arriving around lunch time, we found somewhere in the main square to eat before spending some time wandering around then catching the boat back to Sirmione that evening.

The amphitheater in Verona

We had one final day left of our trip and with the overcast weather forecast, we decided to use the day to take a trip out to the city of Verona. Enquiring at our hotel, we pre-booked tickets for the bus the day before then walked down to the pick up point the next morning.

Above, and below, a day in Verona

It took just over an hour to reach the city of Verona and we were dropped by the city gates. The weather there was much better than what we had left behind in Sirmione and we had a lovely day exploring the city in the sunshine.

Milan

One of the last trips I took last year before everything shut down and freedom to travel became a thing of the past, was a short city break to the Italian city of Milan. It was right on the cusp of Corona Virus getting a grip and at the time, all those things that we’ve now grown accustomed to – arriving to temperature checks and seeing many members of the public masking up on public transport etc – seemed a bit of a novelty. Milan and its neighbouring areas later became a hotspot for the virus in Italy and a week later I found myself to be the subject of a debate at work as to whether, having recently visited the area, I needed to be sent home or not! I wasn’t, if you’re wondering, but had I been sent home, it would have been worth it for what was a great short break away.

That was my third trip to Milan but only the second of which was planned in advance having once found myself stuck there for a day unable to get a train out of the city to Florence, and while it has never been my favourite Italian city to visit, it still has plenty to offer for a short break.

Closed designer stores – August in Milan

Picking when to visit Milan can have a huge effect on impressions of the city. Being a teacher, my first visit was in August during the main summer break and as part of a longer, city-hopping trip to Italy. What we didn’t realise was that in August, with the heat in the city, many of the businesses there close down as everyone takes off to the nearby Italian lakes. We had trouble finding any restaurants open other than the touristy ones in the centre and many of the designer stores had ‘closed until September’ signs in their windows. The whole city felt like a bit of a ghost town!

Walking towards Sforza Castle in Milan

On that first trip to Milan, I stayed at a small hotel on the edge of the Zona Buenos Aires area. From here, we were able to walk to all the main sites and, choosing to use the hop on/off tour bus as well, found we didn’t need to use the public transport system at all.

On my most recent visit, as we were visiting the city for a concert, we stayed further out of the city towards the arena in the Morivione district. As Milan has an excellent and easy to navigate metro system, this didn’t hinder our sightseeing at all as trains into the city centre were regular and quick.

The impressive Milan Duomo

The main must-see attraction in Milan, and in my opinion, worth the trip alone, is the stunning Duomo di Milano or Milan Cathedral. No matter how often I see this impressive building, the elaborate facade with its intricate carvings never fails to take my breath away. Entrance to the cathedral is by ticket only and these can be purchased online or on the day from the nearby, well-signposted ticket office.

If you have plenty of time, then buy a combo ticket allowing you entry into the church, archaeological area, museum and rooftops.

On a clear day, the views over Milan from the rooftops are pretty good and it’s interesting to be able to get a bit closer to the gargoyles and other carvings decorating the cathedral’s exterior. My visit to the rooftop last February, on a surprisingly warm and sunny day, was punctuated by hearing sharp blows on the guards’ whistles as they reminded visitors to be respectful and not treat it as a rooftop terrace to sunbathe on!

I followed my visit with a trip to the nearby Duomo Museum which houses various artefacts and original works of art from the Cathedral.

Piazza del Duomo

The busy Piazza del Duomo in front of the Cathedral is a bit of a tourist attraction in itself with crowds fighting for the best spot to get a photo of the Cathedral and paying locals for bird seed to feed the square’s famously friendly pigeons. Its also home to various touristy bars and restaurants which, while not as expensive as I was expecting, unsurprisingly don’t offer the best food you are going to find in the city. Around the square, you’ll also find a few high street stores.

Above, and below, a visit to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

If it’s designer shopping you want then Milan is definitely the place to go. The elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, said to be one of the World’s oldest shopping malls, is full of designer fashion boutiques and, even if the prices are out of your budget, its fun to window shop. The mall is home to a range of bars and restaurants too and we enjoyed a delicious pizza lunch at Sorbillo restaurant followed by gelato from Venchi!

Milan is also home to the famous opera theatre, La Scala. If you want to see a performance here, it’s best to book in advance. Guided tours of building can also be taken.

La Scala Opera House

While not the most obvious place to visit in Italy if it’s museums you’re after, Milan still has plenty to offer with many small galleries and exhibits to visit. The most famous work of art found in the city is Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper. Tickets are needed to view the painting and often sell out well in advance. On all my visits, I’ve left it too late to book and have yet to get a ticket to visit.

Above, and below, exploring Sforza Castle

The Sforza Castle complex is home to a variety of museums all housed inside the 15th century building. It is free to visit the castle complex itself but there is a small fee for a ticket to visit the museums, the price of which depends on which rooms and exhibits you want to explore.

One of the museums is the Museum of Pietà Rondanini Michelangelo displaying Michelangelo’s last piece of work, the Rondanini Pietà, an unfinished marble sculpture.

Arco della Pace at the entrance to Parco Sempione

Parco Sempione, with its impressive archway entrance, lies directly to the rear of Sforza Castle and is also worth a wander through if you are in the area. Other pretty parks in the city include Giardini Indro Montanelli, Milan’s pretty public gardens.

On my last visit to the city, we found ourselves in the Navigli district, an area of the city we had not visited before.

Above, and below, contrasting daylight/nighttime visits to the Navigli area

The Navigli are a system of canals. Currently, bars and restaurants line the walkways along the edge of the canals. We first visited in the evening. The area was lively but with a great atmosphere as people sat out enjoying drinks and aperitivo. After wandering round for while and stopping for a few drinks, we chose one of the many restaurants to eat at.

We returned to the Navigli district the following morning to find it just as busy with people shopping and sat out at the cafes enjoying the sunshine. It was definitely a fun place of the city to visit!

There’s still plenty of things for me to do and see in Milan and I look forward to the next time I find myself in this exciting city.

A weekend in Venice

Venice was an Italian city I’d been curious about visiting for a while having heard mixed reviews about it from various friends. After spending some time in Tuscany visiting Florence and some of its nearby cities, we had caught the train north for a few nights in Bologna, a city we had found a nice contrast being less touristy and more authentically Italian and we were now travelling to the last city on our Italian adventure, Venice.

Arriving into the city by train, we had not thought at all about how we were going to find our way to our hotel. Normally, if the hotel wasn’t close to the station or easily accessible by public transport, we’d hop in a taxi to take us there and as we were both travelling with hefty luggage, this would have been the ideal situation today. But, of course, there’s no traffic allowed in Venice and public transport in by the waterways only.

The Rialto Bridge

After seeking advice from the information office at the station, we realised we would need to take a water taxi along the Grand Canal to the stop closest our hotel and then walk the rest of the way. The first part of this was relatively easy. We were quickly able to purchase water taxi tickets and were soon loading ourselves and our luggage onto a boat.

The stops were well signposted making it easy to see where to disembark. Things got a little trickier at this point as we had to cross lots of small bridges over the canals and drag our luggage down a maze of narrow roads to try and navigate our way to the hotel.

Down by the Grand Canal

We eventually made it there and breathed a sign of relief – that was until we found out the hotel was on the third floor of a building without a lift and we’d have to carry our luggage all the way up the stairs!

It was a beautiful, sunny day so, that little adventure over, we spent a bit of time settling into our room before venturing out into the city for the afternoon.

Our hotel was in a pretty good location – in a quieter, less touristy area but only a 5-10 minute walk from the Rialto Bridge and many of the other tourist attractions.

On the gondola sailing under the Rialto Bridge

Armed with our map, we made our way along the narrow cobbled streets. As we neared the main area of Venice, the streets became noticeably busier. We soon discovered that every street looked the same and we seemed to be going around in circles getting nowhere fast when suddenly we found ourselves at the Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge ahead of us!

Nearby we found a small market going on so had a quick look around the stalls before walking back to the canal and crossing the bridge.

Here, we found a cafe to sit out at and had drinks in the sunshine watching the people, boats and gondolas go past.

Above, our Gondolier, and below, enjoying our gondola ride

Deciding you can’t go to Venice and not have a gondola ride, we began to investigate the cost. Prices seemed to be per boat so it was more for a private gondola ride and there were extra charges to get the gondolier to sing. We hovered around the canal banks wondering if we could find another group to share a gondola with and before long, a family of 4 asked if we wanted to split the cost with them.

Jumping in, we were able to sit at opposite ends of the gondola so sharing didn’t spoil the experience and the family even offered to switch places with us half way around so we could sit up the other end of the boat for a while. It also meant we could take photos for each other so they were able to get a family photo together on the gondola then take one of the 2 of us.

Above, St Mark’s Cathedral, and below, in a busy St Mark’s Square

The gondola ride took us out on the Grand Canal and under the Rialto Bridge then down some of the narrower canals leading off it. It was a really fun experience and we got a decent amount of time on the water for the price we paid.

After our gondola ride, we continued to walk down the narrow streets, eventually finding ourselves out in St Mark’s Square. The square was busy but as there was only a short queue to go into St Mark’s Basilica, we joined the queue and soon found ourselves inside.

Above, and below, evening by the Grand Canal

We spent some time looking around the grandly decorated cathedral then started to find our way back to our hotel. That evening, we ate at a restaurant we found near to where we were staying to avoid the inflated prices in the more touristy areas, walking back to the Grand Canal after.

Doge’s Palace

The next day, we made our way back to St Mark’s Square and bought tickets to visit Doge’s Palace.

Above, looking up at the palace from its courtyard, and below, exploring the palace

Our tour was self-guided and it was interesting to see the ornate decor and artwork inside the impressive building.

From the palace, you can also peep into the Bridge of Sighs, so called because it lead from the palace to the prison across the canal. Those who crossed it were mainly prisoners who were said to sigh as they lost their freedom.

After exploring the Palace, we walked around the outside of the building to see the Bridge of Sighs from the outside.

Returning to St Mark’s Square, we watched the clock in St Mark’s Clock Tower chime on the hour, its two bronze figures appearing to strike a bell, before walking away from the square to find somewhere cheaper to have some lunch.

St Mark’s Clock Tower

St Mark’s Square at night

With the already dull weather turning to rain that afternoon, we took the opportunity to visit some museums starting with the National Archaeological Museum of Venice and then moving on to Museo Correr, an art museum overlooking St Mark’s Square.

That evening, we walked back to St Mark’s Square. The weather had now cleared and the square was busy once again.

St Mark’s Cathedral at night

Street performers and opera singers filled the Square and we stayed to watch for a bit although decided against taking a seat at any of the bars and restaurants overlooking the Square having heard stories of extortionate prices being charged just to sit before even ordering anything!

We had one more full day left in the city of Venice and still plenty to explore. We began our morning with a stroll to the tucked away Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, a building known for its beautiful external spiral staircase.

Then we walked through the city’s maze of streets to Ponte dell’Accademia, a huge bridge and one of only four to cross the Grand Canal.

Above, Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, and below, inside the church and the views across to St Mark’s Square from nearby

Crossing the bridge, we then walked to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, a domed Roman Catholic church which stands imposingly on the canal side. Looking across the water from there, you can see the bell tower in St Mark’s Square in the distance.

Walking back towards St Mark’s Square afterwards, we explored some of the streets leading away from it visiting some of the more tucked away churches we came across as we wandered.

Later finding ourselves passing Teatro La Fenice, a famous Venetian opera house, we decided to go inside and take a tour. We were given audio guides with our tickets telling us about each room we went into and finishing with a look into the auditorium and the tour also included a special exhibition on opera singer Maria Callas who began her career at La Fenice. While visiting the theatre wasn’t something on our Venice ‘to do’ list, we found the visit really interesting.

With a late afternoon flight booked out of Venice the next day, we still had some time that morning for last minute sightseeing. Once again finding ourselves back in St Mark’s Square we took some last minute photos and enjoyed the atmosphere before my friend had to leave to catch her flight home. With a bit more time to spare and the sun finally shining, I made a spur of the moment decision to go up St Mark’s Campanile, the Square’s famous bell tower.

There was quite a queue but it seemed to be moving so I thought I had more than enough time.

Above, and below, views from St Mark’s Campanile

Unfortunately, the queue slowed down and by the time I was finally admitted into the bell tower, I was getting short on time an couldn’t spend quite as long up there as I would have liked to. It was still worth the money and the wait though as the views over the city were really pretty.

After my flying visit to the Campanile, it was time to wave goodbye to St Mark’s Square one last time and to make my way back to the hotel to collect my luggage. From the hotel, I caught the airport water taxi from a nearby stop across the the airport.

I was glad I had finally got around to visiting Venice. The city is a really pretty city to wander around once you get your head around its maze of narrow streets and realise they all eventually seem to lead to St Mark’s Square. I had found the city to be extremely busy, touristy and over-priced but I had gone expecting all those things and it hadn’t ruined my stay too much. There was certainly plenty to do and see and I’d love to return there one day.

A trip to Bologna

Spending 2 nights in the North Italy city

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna

I was in Italy, one of my favourite European countries, and after spending a few days in the Tuscan city of Florence and its surrounds, it was time to move on to our second destination, Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of North Italy.

Palazzo del Podesta in Piazza Maggiore

Arriving from Florence by train, we took a taxi to our hotel. It was late afternoon and once settled in, we grabbed a map of the city from the hotel reception and headed straight out to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings.

A short distance from where we were staying, we found ourselves in Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square.

Historic buildings surrond Piazza Maggiore

The square is surrounded by some of Bologna’s most important buildings including Biblioteca Salaborsa- a historic library – and the Basilica di San Pietro and in the centre of the square lies the Fountain of Neptune.

Ancient ruins below Biblioteca Salaborsa

From Piazza Maggiore, we walked along Via d’Azeglio, a pedestrianised street lined with high street stores and cafes before looping back around to the main square again.

That evening, we walked north of the square finding ourselves in a maze of narrow streets and choosing a small Trattoria to have dinner at before walking back to our hotel.

With one full day left to explore the city, we found a self-guided walking tour online to follow around the city.

A walkway built over the ancient ruinsunder Biblioteca Salaborsa

Returning to Piazza Maggiore, we visited the Basilica di San Pietro and then Biblioteca Salaborsa. While this is the main public library in the city, the main reason for visiting actually lies beneath the building. Through the floor in the centre of the library, it is possible to see the ruins of an ancient building underneath.

We walked down to the basement level of the building where for a small fee, it was possible to get a bit closer to the ruins, viewing them from an open walkway that has been built above.

Looking out at the Basilica di San Pietro from Palazzo Communale

Next, we crossed the square to visit Palazzo Communale. Formerly a palace, it now houses some of the city’s administrative offices but is also home to the Civic Art Collection.

We wandered through the building looking at some of the art on display and enjoying the views over Piazza Maggiore from the building’s windows.

From Piazza Maggiore, we walked the short distance to the Archaeological Civic Museum.

Art at the Archaeological Civic Museum

The museum is worth visiting for its building alone, being housed in a 15th century Palazzo, and it contains exhibitions which include Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts.

After spending an hour or so looking around, we continued our self-guided tour of the city walking down to the Basilica of San Domenico, a historic church known for its multitude of priceless works of art.

We then walked back on ourselves and along Via Rizzoli towards Two Towers Piazza with the St Petronius statue stood in front of the tall, imposing structures.

Above, and below, at the Basilica di Santa Stefano

After stopping for gelato from Gelateria Gianni, we walked through the Quadrilatero area to Basilica di Santa Stefano, a maze of 4 (originally there were 7) connecting churches.

For our final stop on our sightseeing tour, we walked back to Piazza Maggiore and then headed north to find Finestrella di Via Piella. Here you can peer through a window in a wall to see one of the remaining sections of one of Bologna’s historic canals, Canale delle Moline. Taking a picture through the window, it could easily have been a photo taken of the more famous canals of Venice!

Feet aching from walking all over the city, we returned to the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero, an old medieval market area just east of Piazza Maggiore. Here, we sat out at one of the many bars for Aperitivo, enjoying a selection of breads, cheeses and meats over drinks.

Returning to our hotel for a bit to rest, we then ventured out once more that evening, again finding a small tucked away Trattoria just north of the main touristy areas of the city for a late dinner.

I’d enjoyed my visit to the city of Bologna, less touristy and busy than Florence had been but still with plenty to see and do. Next up, Venice!