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Right in the middle of the small Greek island of Paros are what used to be the world’s most famous marble quarries from which the world’s most coveted marble was extracted during the 3rd to 7th centuries BC. The Marathi marble quarries were mined by hundreds of thousands of slaves during these times, producing ultra-translucent marble with a stunning transparency of 7cm – that is, you can see the light shine through the pure white stuff for 7 whole centimetres. If you can picture any Greek sculpture, it probably has some Parian marble in it. If you can think of the most famous one – the Venus de Milo in the Louvre – than you have pictured the beauty of Parian marble.

For all these reasons, and for the love of adventure and discovery, you’re going to want to switch up your beach bumming  and wine sipping and check out the ancient Marathi marble quarries on your trip to Paros.

BEFORE YOU GO

Make sure you are wearing proper shoes. The tunnels leading down into the earth are wet, making the marble and rocks slippery, and the rubble is loose. You have to descend quite slowly to make sure what your stepping on won’t roll away under your feet.

Bring a torch! The quarries shut out the light surprisingly quickly, so that you’re plunged into darkness just a few metres in. I don’t know how, but we somehow completely forgot about this and had to use out phones’ torches, which doesn’t quite does the trick so well.

And then you’re going to want to download maps.me. Google maps has the location only sort of mapped. We didn’t have the luxury of maps.me when we were looking for the quarries (we only learnt about it from a fellow traveler on a different island in Scotland a few weeks later), but since I’ve known about it, it has become my favourite map app for travel. It has almost everything mapped, including the sites of the BOTH cave entrances.

Paros marble quarry darkness

You’re gonna want that torch.

HOW TO GET THERE

First, you need to head to Lefkes from Parikia. On your way there, about 10 minutes into the drive, you will see a brown heritage board pointing out the ancient marble quarries to your right (first marker on the left in google maps). Only a minute or so later, at the next right turn, is another such board (second marker in the green section). HMMM….WHICH ROAD TO TAKE???

WELL. If you want to park as close to the quarries as you can, turn right at the first sign. The second sign points right to a pedestrian-only road. You cannot drive onto this road.

So you have two options here:

  1. Park your car somewhere along the main side of the road and walk about 400 meters on the pedestrian-only road to the caves.
  2. Turn at the first signposted right to park closer.

If you are parking closer, you will find yourself driving through the small village of Marathi. Very soon after you’ve turned right, a ‘marble quarry’ signpost will tell you to head left at the fork.

Don’t drive too much further after this left-hand fork. A few bends later you will see a small open caste quarry. We parked our car here.

Just across from this quarry you will spot some abandoned ruins. These were supposedly French mining company buildings, who wanted to open up the quarries in the 19th century in order to extract Parian marble for Napoleon’s tomb. The entrances to the caves are just behind these buildings. There’s another sign pointing it out.

If you opted for option 1 (parking along the main road and taking the paved pedestrian walkway in), you will find the quarries on your left, and the ruins on your right.

Paros marble quarries

Erica is 80% sure we found the quarries.

TWO DIFFERENT ENTRANCES

The caves are behind some wire fences, but you only need to swing open the gate, and voilá. Access granted.

The first entrance to your left is the easiest of the entrances. There are clearly built walls leading down to the entrance, and even when you’ve entered the quarry, you will see the angular shapes of clearly defined walls inside.

Marble quarry entrance nr1

The first quarry entrance is clearly defined

Paros marble quarry

Quarry Nr. 1. Look for the tiny shape of Chris in the middle to see how big these tunnels are!

The second entrance is just to the left of the first one, and is a bit less official-looking and way more…cavey. You have to clamber over some bigger stones to get to the mouth of the cave, and there is way more rubble lying around, making it a bit more challenging. It is also a bit steeper than the first.

Paros marble quarry

The second quarry’s entrance is a but more…rough around the edges.

The cave opens up a bit right at the mouth

Supposedly the two entrances connect at the bottom, where the tunnels level out, so you should be able to go in one and out the other. We did not attempt to walk in one entrance and out the other – the sunset was catching up with us and we still had that post-adventure snacking to do in Lefkes – so…don’t blame me if you fall into some deep dark quarry hole down there. 

I would definitely recommend doing this if you have an hour to spare in Paros. It’s quite a stunning contrast to the usual suntanning, eating, drinking, lazing-around kind of Greek island activities, and it’s really something special. If you’ve ever looked at a Greek marble sculpture and wondered how in the world you even begin to chisel a big block of marble to form something so beautiful, then this experience adds a whole other layer to these wonderments. There’s no real way to comprehend the kind of labour and time it took to open up the earth all those centuries ago, to extract, in the deep darkness, something so purely white. But you can go and feel the earth grow cold and wet and completely and utterly dark, and then you can pick up a little shard of marble, turn around and hold it to the light to see the sun illuminate the translucent rock from behind so that you can see the dull silhouette of your fingers on the other side of it.

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The Greek Island of Paros: A 5-day Itinerary

This past summer we finally got to do one of those bucket list things we’ve always dreamed of doing – probably one that every traveler heading to or moving within Europe dreams of at least once: a Greek Island Vacation. One of Joel’s best friends from California was on a work trip over in Israel and instead of hanging out in grey old London Town (which we’ve done together before), we decided to meet halfway in between London and Israel for a full week of summer in Greece. 

 

Greece has something crazy like 2000 islands, a couple hundred of which are inhabited, so at first we had no idea what island to choose. All you ever hear about is Mykonos and Santorini, a previous diving instructor told us the diving is good in Ios, and every Greek person you ask say something completely different. In the end, we decided to spend 5 days on the island of Paros. 

WHY PAROS

First of all, it’s one of the closer islands to Athens. Most of the Grecian islands are deceptively far from Athens if you’re going by boat. Santorini, for example, is about 9 hours by ferry. Paros is one of the closer islands – you can get there in about 4 hours with the gigantic Blue Star Ferries. (There are faster, smaller ferries, but these are more likely to make you sea sick). So that’s Reason Number 1, but besides travel time there are many other reasons to choose Paros: 

 

2. It’s cheaper! Not a big surprise, but accommodation in Paros was quite a bit cheaper than in Mykonos (which was our other option, since it’s only 1 or 2 hours further by ferry). 

3. It’s an all-rounder. Paros has something for everyone. It could be a romantic destination, a family vacation, a solo mission…it satisfies so many requirements. 

4. It’s the perfect size for a short vacation. Big enough so that there’s some new corner to explore everyday, and small enough so that driving anywhere doesn’t really take longer than 30 minutes. 

Blue Star Ferries

Getting to Paros is a smooth 4-hour cruise with Blue Star Ferries

WHERE TO STAY?

Because of its perfect size, you don’t need to hop around accommodation-wise. We decided where to stay based on Airbnb options and we ended up staying in Parikia, which is the capital of Paros and the main port town. It’s a cute little, typically-Greek, Cycladic village with great food options. The village also faces west, so you can come home to a gorgeous sunset. 

Another option would be Naoussa, on in the north, which is, I have to admit, just a little bit more adorable than Parikia. 

But we just couldn’t pass on this 2-bedroom Airbnb, with its massive terrace and breathtaking views (shoot us a message if you’d like to stay here too): 

Airbnb sunsets

Sunset views and Greek wine on our Airbnb deck

 

HOW TO GET AROUND

You can easily rent cars, quad bikes, or scooters to get around. Rentals can be organised at the port, or through your accommodation. The car worked very well for 4 of us, as we could just throw all our beach stuff in the back, and head on out. Plus, sharing the cost of renting a car in Paros between four people is super cheap. We also kind of went just off-season (right before summer holidays for everyone else), so a car is great if your expecting some rain.

 

Alternatively there’s a public bus going around the island. Tickets are 2-3EUR and you can buy them on the bus. 

 

SO…now that you have your home-base and your transportation, here’s your perfect 4-night, 5-day itinerary: 

 

YOUR 5-DAY PAROS ITINERARY 

 

DAY 1 – WEST

You’ve just arrived, probably late morning-ish, and if you’re staying at the same amazing Airbnb we stayed at, your host will pick you up from the port for your check in. Take this day to settle in, hire your car/scooter/quad bike, stock up your kitchen from the local supermarket, and explore your nearby surroundings, i.e. the adorable little village of Parikia with its churches, cobble-stoned streets, and blue-and-white painted shops and homes. 

 

Parikia

We immediately found the best gyro-place on the island for our first meal. Our Airbnb host suggested a place called Brizoladiko Steak House (basically, just look for the ‘Steak House’ sign). We were skeptical, because ‘Steak House’ sounds very touristy and not at all Greek. But dayummmmm….BEST GYROS ON PAROS. We returned multiple times. (They also do take-out and delivery). 

Steak House gyro

Head to the Steak House place for the best gyro on the island – and get it right on the water.

 

YOUR FIRST SWIM: Take a sunset dip in the clear, lukewarm waters of Krios or Lavidia beach, the first beaches adjacent to the Parikia port, and take in the fact that you are actually on a GREEK ISLAND!!! 

Lavidia Beach

Lavidia Beach

DAY 2 – SOUTH & EAST

Beach day

This is Greece, so get yourself to the beach ASAP. The southern and eastern side of the island is lined with incredible beaches – you could probably spend 5 days just relaxing on all the different ones. We didn’t have a ton of time, so we asked the local guy who dropped off our rental car what his favourite beach is.

FARAGAS BEACH

We headed to Faragas and spent a day working on our tan, splashing around the crystal clear Greek-blue Mediterranean, and snorkelling in the rocky bay nearby. There are some sun beds and umbrellas on the beach, which will cost you a couple of Euros to use. But the beach has soft yellow sand, so you don’t necessarily need these.

Faragas beach

Spend all your time at one beach, or head up and down the coast. Whatever you do, we highly recommend you have lunch or dinner at a place called ‘Moypatio’ – right on the water in the southern fisherman’s village of Aliki – the seafood we had with our chilled wines and beers was just mouthwateringly delicious. And our meal came an incredible view of the bay AND free little after-lunch ice cream sticks. What more could you want??

Aliki

The crystal clear waters of Aliki

Lunch with a view

Lunch in Paros generally gets served with a view

Moypatio

This is the place you have to get to for all the amazing food!

DAY 3 – NORTH

Head to North to explore Naoussa

Naoussa is a scenic little fishing village in the North of Paros that is definitely worth exploring. It is beautiful and offers that perfect Grecian feel – narrow blue and white corridors snake through the village, accented with climbing green flora and bright pink bougainvilleas, and drying octopi hang outside windows and doorways like christmas decorations. Old men sit outside on steps with drinks and cigarettes in hand, with village cats and kittens lazing around or waiting around in the port for a scrap of stray fish from fishermen unloading their vessels.

Just take your time exploring the little passages, the fishing harbour, the old Venetian fort nearby, and then relax with a glass of white wine or a bottle of beer on the water.

Naoussa

Naoussa

Naoussa fort

View from the old Venetian fort

Naoussa

Naoussa

Lunch:

We were taken to a place called Mediterraneo by a couple of locals and the food was fantastic. Definitely try the grilled octopus and the aubergine fries, with a side of tzatziki and pita, of course.

Coffee and Drinks:

We were then lead to a tiny trendy little place called Sommaripa, which has really great coffee and inspiring tea infusions, both of which you should try. This is a café/cocktail bar that sits on the first floor with views over the town and harbour.

Take it to the beaches!

Yes, of course you have to go to more beaches! Again, lots to choose from in and around Naoussa, but if you’re lucky like us, and you met up with some local friends, Stella and Thomas, they will take you to a secret, lesser-known beach in a quiet bay lined with wild flowers. This is Lageri beach, and it is right opposite the bay in which the popular and crowded Santa Maria beach is. Lageri beach is also where we saw a fully nude man slowly ascend out of the waters like a god on one end of the beach, and then walk all the way across the beach with nothing but his member to the other side. Where is he going? Where are his things? How is he getting home? Has he always been this naked? So many questions. 

Make a good impression, and your local friends might even invite you to their home out in the ‘countryside’ (aka not in the village) to meet their cat and enjoy a cup of herbal tea. Perfection.

Lageri beach

Quiet and tranquil Lageri beach

Locals' garden

Stella and Thomas’s wild garden in the Parian countryside

BEWARE! Naoussa is an old village, so the streets are cramped, windy, and/or one-way. If you arrive later in the day parking may be a bitch if you arrive by car (even if it’s a small one). We squeezed into a spot next to the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin (the biggest church on the highest point), but it was a bit trickier to manoeuvre back out again!  

Also, we experienced the town as quaint and sleepy, but we were there right before high-season kicked off, when it can apparently become packed with tourists.

DAY 4 – THE MIDDLE

Time for some adventure!

Fun fact: Marble from Paros is considered to be some of the finest marble in the history of the world. It is pure-white and ultra-translucent (up to 7cm), which is why it is found in up to 75% of Aegan sculptures, including the famous Venus de Milo. Which is why you should head out to the ancient marble quarries in the middle of the island, about 12 minutes’ drive from Parikia. There are two quarries, which were created from the 3rd to 7th century BC by over 150,000 slaves. Some signage will get you close to the quarries, but otherwise it’s sort of tucked in behind some fences. If you find the quarries, you can head deep, deep under the earth where it gets pitch black dark and icy cold to see where the famous Greek marble us to come from. (Read more about how to find these quarries and what to expect here)

Paros marble quarries

Lefkes Village

Lefkes lies at the highest point of Paros, just 10 minutes’ drive from the quarries, making it a perfect post-adventure snack stop. It is a teeny tiny 500-strong village with the beautiful Agia Triada church right in the middle. If you park your car in the parking area (there’s only one small parking area which you can’t really miss – tourists are not allowed to drive into the village), you’ll see the church clearly down the hill. The village is so small that you can eyeball your way there. Gorgeous views to all sides of the village can be had from this church.

Lefkes

Lefkes church

Stop for coffee and traditional Ravani orange cake at the little café right across the church, Kaféneio. It is run by the sweetest family who lives literally RIGHT next door. We were offered all kinds of treats and snacks on-the-house as we watched the sky turn pink and purple with the setting sun. Honestly, sitting there in that quiet little square, experiencing the best Greek hospitality, was one of the best moments of the week.

Ravani cake

DAY 5 – GOODBYE

But before you leave, stop by the Byzantine ‘Church with One Hundred Doors’, aka Panagia Ekatontapiliani. It is a beautiful church dating back to the year 326 (how do you even comprehend), and was founded by the Constantine’s mum. So. 

My absolute FAVOURITE part of this church, which you should not miss, is the monk’s room. It is a little corner of bare simplicity attached to this grand stone complex with all its golden paraphernalia. A little lantern with a flickering candle, a thin mattress with a stone for a pillow, and scribbled prayer notes or something tucked to the side. Just the lucid unpretentiousness put the biggest smile on my face.

And then, mid-morningish, the big old trusty Blue Star Ferry rolls into port and its time for you to head back to mainland. Back to the city of Athens, which also hold her own wonders. But you’ll remember these 5 days for a very, very long time.

 

The above itinerary allows for a lot of long lunches, late breakfasts, and just taking it easy. It is 100% possible to do Paros over a shorter period of time – a weekend even. Please, please, please don’t miss Paros just because you think you don’t have time. Paros is always a good idea.

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Ottawa: The Surprising Tourist Destination and 8 Things You Have To Do in the Canadian Capital

After visiting Vancouver over a sunny weekend a few years ago, I’ve always imagined Canada to be a really beautiful country – and it is (it wasn’t named 2017 Destination of the Year by Travel + Leisure for no reason!) – but Ottawa has never come up as a city I need to see or experience as a tourist. So when I finally had the opportunity to go there last month, my expectations weren’t very high. I googled museums in the city, and figured I’d just spend my time indoors learning about new artists (one of the pros of being a museum-enthusiast is that there is always a museum, always something to do, no matter where in the world you go) or catch up on reading-for-pleasure after handing in my thesis a few weeks earlier.

Well, let me tell you, I was so pleasantly surprised by Ottawa! It’s a great place to explore and experience, with tons of beautiful views, great museums, gorgeous parks, the Ottawa river rushing right through just to make it extra scenic, and, of course, super friendly and helpful Canadians. So if you find yourself in Ottawa, here is a list, in no particular order, of eight things you should definitely check out (if you are short on time, skip to the end and definitely just do this one thing):

  1. GAWK AT PARLIAMENT HILL AND THE VIEWS (AND POSSIBLY EVEN JUSTIN TRUDEAU)

If you didn’t know it yet, Ottawa is the capital of Canada and it’s where the beautifully inspiring parliament buildings are (housing the equally beautiful PM Justin Trudeau, of course). The buildings were constructed in different Gothic styles and opened in 1866, but a 1916 fire burnt down everything except for the library (PTL), so make sure to walk around the back and see the only original 19th-century part of the parliament left standing.

Parliament hill

Another reason to walk around the back (if old Gothic libraries don’t inspire you) is for the sweeping views across the canal towards the cathedral, and over the river towards Quebec. And keep your eyes out for a fat and furry groundhog that has claimed the Parliament’s lawn as its territory!

Groundhog on Parliament hill

View from Parliament Hill

Views from Parliament Hill

2. GO FOR A RIVER CRUISE

Ottawa River runs through the city, adding that classic city-river scenics to the cityscape. And what better way to enjoy a river than to cruise upon at sunset? None, is what.

We were lucky and got invited to go for a lazy after-work cruise in a friend’s boat, but there are tons of companies offering tourist cruises, like the classic Capital Cruises. Or you can get your boating fix by taking a river taxi from one side to the other.

Just don’t expect a cruise in winter, when the river actually freezes over until the end of the season when the city blows it up with dynamite before it thaws to prevent flooding…because Ottawa is so extra.

Cruising on the Ottawa River

3. HIT UP SOME MUSEUMS

Ottawa has a ton of them – from the classics like the Natural History museum to some more odd picks like the Insectarium. I would highly recommend the National Gallery of Canada, which you may find inside an enormous glass castle, basically.

Brian Jungen's 'Shapeshifter' (2000)

Brian Jungen’s ‘Shapeshifter’ (2000) – massive whale skeletons made from plastic chairs

The reconstructed Rideau Chapel with Janet Cardiff's 'Fort-Piece Motet' (2001)

The reconstructed Rideau Chapel with Janet Cardiff’s ‘Fort-Piece Motet’ (2001)

DO CHECK OUT: The salvaged interior of the 19th-century Rideau chapel which was reconstructed in the National Gallery after the rest of it was demolished in the 1970s. Not only does it make for a stunning contrast from the modern building it’s now built in, it also features a sound installation from my favourite Canadian artist, Janet Cardiff. Forty-Piece Motet is an immersive sound-experience in which 40 separately recorded voices singing a 16th-century choral piece are played within the chapel space.

If you have trouble finding the gallery, just look out for the iconic spider sculpture outside by  Louise Bourgeois, or the cathedral across the street.

National Gallery of Canada spider sculpture

4. DAYLIGHT STAR-GAZING IN THE NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL

You should definitely pop into Ottawa’s Notre Dame cathedral, especially if you are in the area anyways. It will only take you a minute, or you might love it and then it’ll take you ten, but this cathedral does not look like all the other cathedrals everywhere. Honestly, I only popped in because I was around, but I was really taken aback by how stunning the interior is. The entire cathedral is painted in bright colours and shining gold, but the best part is the gorgeous midnight-blue vaulted ceiling, covered with hundreds of golden stars. Just magical.

Notre Dame Cathedral

5. GO INTER-PROVINCIAL

Stretching just over half a kilometre, the ‘Alexandra’ or ‘Interprovincial’ bridge will take you from Ottawa, Ontario, right into the province of Quebec. Technically the city border is ‘drawn’ right in the middle of the river, but it feels more like the city spans the two provinces. I love me a bridge walk and the views it usually comes with, and this one offered beautiful vistas of the parliament rising up over the water.

Interprovincial bridge

6. GO FOR A STROLL IN THE PARK

Ottawa is blessed with lots of beautiful green spaces, like Major’s Hill Park or Gatineau Park in Quebec, which is just 14 minutes’ drive from the city centre and a stroll in any one of them is a peaceful pastime. I would especially recommend this during autumn, when the colours of the leaves are just spellbinding.

This year, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada, the city put up a massive floral exhibition called MOSAICANADA in the Jacques-Cartier Park with 33 gigantic plant-based sculptures representing Canadian life. There was music, water-features, international collaborations and everything – it was quite a sight to see and, wait for it, FREE. Unfortunately it has closed for winter, but hold thumbs and mark your diaries, because I read that they are setting funds aside to do it again next year!

Mosaicanada Mosaicanada

7. TRY A BEAVER TAIL IN BYWARD MARKET

Any Canadian will tell you this is the absolute number one must-do in Canada. Beaver tails, I mean. And no, they are not actual beavers’ tails, but rather long flat lightly fried dough that comes with all kinds of sinful toppings and will warm you right up during those chilly Canadian evenings. Lots of fillings to choose from, but I took some local recommendations and went for the classic cinnamon-sugar and lemon, and I suggest you do the same because it’s DELICIOUS.

I suppose these will be good anywhere, but we were taken to a stand in Byword Market – a favourite market area lined with food stalls day and night.

Try a beaver tail

8. FORGET ALL YOUR TROUBLES AT NORDIK SPA

FULL DISCLAIMER:

I am not a spa-person. Getting massages or manicures or facials or most beauty/wellness-related treatment is just not the type of thing I want to spend time or money on. Last time I got a manicure was before a high school dance.

BUT…after EVERYONE told us we have to have to have to go to Nordik spa, we decided to spend the last few hours there before our evening flight back home. And…let me tell you – it’s true. YOU HAVE TO HAVE TO HAVE TO GO TO NORDIK SPA!

Nordik spa

Nordik Spa. Image Credit: Nordik / Photolux

A basic ticket will get you the ‘Thermal Experience.’ By following the ‘Hot, Cold, Rest’ mantra, you get to enjoy the hot and cold spa for the entire day – utilising their 9 different saunas, 4 cold water pools and tons of other beautifully designed rest areas where you can just wind down, relax and forget about all your worries. Basically, the perfect pre-flight mindset.

Depending on your preferences, you can pay extra for massage treatments, gourmet meals, or their famous Källa treatment, in which you get to float around in salt water, a la the Dead Sea, in an ambient atmosphere.

Whether you want to sip on wine in the infinity hot tub overlooking the forests of Quebec, sweat it out in super chic saunas, take a quiet nap in a hammock, or all of the above, Nordik Spa is just the magical and beautiful place to do that. We highly recommend doing this to unwind after a long journey in to Ottawa, or to relax before a long journey out. Or whenever. Just go. We went in autumn, and it was beautiful underneath the green-orange-red-and-yellow forest foliage, but I would love to go back in winter to see the steam rising all around me while a blanket of white snow lines the hot tubs. I mean…does this look like a fairytale, or what:

Nordik spa in winter

Nordik Spa. Image Credit: Nordik / Photolux

Nordik spa

Image Credit: Nordik / Photolux

HOT TIP: Nordik spa is 20 minutes’ drive from Ottawa city centre. You can take an uber there from Ontario, but beware, Uber does not work in Quebec. The uber driver kindly let us know as he dropped us off and gave us his number so that we can call him to pick us up again, which worked out perfectly.

SPA DRESS & ETIQUETTE: Towels and bathrobes are available to rent, but remember to bring your own flip flops! We totally forgot (read: completely unaware of spa dress codes/essentials), and we would rather have had some.

Photography is strictly prohibited, so that everyone can just really relax without having to worry about being caught half-naked in other peoples’ potential Facebook profile photos. All photos of the spa in this post have been generously supplied by Nordik.

My trip to Ottawa actually ended up being one of my best travel surprises yet – turns out Ottawa is a super cool city with a ton of beautiful sights and cool things to do in every season, which I plan to go back for! Heck, I might go back just for that dreamy infinity hot tub.

Infinity hot tub at Nordik spa

Image Credit: Nordik / Photolux

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Our 7 Favourite Winter Destinations

WINTER IS COMING. 

We just arrived in Berlin and it’s very clear that winter is almost upon us. We are freezing, and it’s not even December yet! (It also doesn’t help that we were on a tropical island in the Andaman Seas last week). So, while I crank up the heaters, burrow my feet in a cosy sheepskin rug, and sip on a hot cup of chocolate, I figured why not rather get inspired for the cold and the wonderful travel experiences it can hold?

Narrowing this down to 7 was hard, and rating them was even worse, because each one is layered with so many different types of warming winter memories. I love winter! I love cuddling under the blankets, with books or netflix, curling my fingers around cups and cups of tea and hot chocolate, wearing big old knitted sweaters, and listening to the rain (or watching the snow, if I am lucky enough). So to help me keep the list succinct, I’ve kept it to cold-weather destinations, besides for one crazy exception – there’s always an exception to the rule, right??

So here it is – our definitive list of our favourite winter destinations (so far). Don’t get cold, get inspired!

7. IRELAND

This might come as a surprise, but Ireland is a great place to visit in the winter. I think Ireland is very underrated – the landscapes are incredible, it’s an easily affordable European destination, the people are SO sweet and friendly and so much fun, and their accents will just warm your heart. Here’s the thing – it’s grey weather most of the time anyways, so you may as well go in winter, bundle up in beanies and gloves, cozy up in merry pubs, sip on hot cider at christmas markets (or anywhere), and enjoy both the peaceful feeling of the holiday season AND way less tourists at popular tourist spots like the Cliffs of Moher. We went on a road trip and visited the cliffs in the first week of January (read more about it here), and there were few tourists besides ourselves. Ireland is cozy, homey, friendly and wonderful – the perfect place to warm your heart over the winter season.

winter

Christmas time in Galway

Christmas time in Galway

6. TRIGLAV NATIONAL PARK, SLOVENIA

Full, disclosure – we haven’t been to Slovenia in winter.

BUT, we spent a summer weekend visiting Lake Bled and its surrounds and were ABSOLUTELY BLOWN AWAY. This corner of the world is simultaneously quaint and cute and awe-inspiring and mind-blowing. The scenery feels like some fairytale dream that keeps impressing after each corner. We chatted to the kindest, sweetest local man at a market, who presented us with a postcard of Lake Bled in the winter, and insisted we should come back in February, when the lake freezes over and it’s basically like magicville. And honestly, I can’t wait to see it with my own eyes.

Sunrise over Lake Bled

Sunrise over Lake Bled

5. ISTANBUL, TURKEY 

Anyone who knows me knows that I am crazy for Istanbul. We spent a couple of months in Turkey a few years ago when I interned at the Museum of Innocence, and I fell head over heels in love with the city. Winter in Istanbul is way cheaper, way less crowded and almost always sunny. If you’re lucky, it may snow, in which case the city becomes extra magical, with the snow-topped domes and minarets of the mosques lining the city skyline, and colourful stained glass Turkish lamps lighting up the windy cobblestoned streets of one of the oldest and most prolific capitals in the world. Pair that with Turkish food – which is basically the most perfect winter food ever – and you’re in for a treat. So many famous historical sites, so many lesser explored nooks, so much to eat and drink, so much to love.

Also, you know Istanbul is a fantastic winter destination when someone who was hospitalised for pneumonia during its winter snowfall (me) dreams about being back in its winter snowfall.

winter5

 

4. TROMSO, NORWAY

Tromsø is way, way North in Norway, above the Arctic circle and is one of those quintessential winter destinations – thick snowy landscapes dotted with wooden cottages, windows lit up with warm yellow; reindeer, bears, and wolves in different corners of the vast white wilderness, and long dark nights lit up by the Northern Lights. For those of us, like me and Joel, who are wholly unaccustomed to real cold hard winter, it’s just magical. To go out and explore the white and blue landscape, and then come back and warm up in the cosiest little hotel ever (Tromsø Bed and Books), before going out again to see the sky light up green with the Aurora Borealis…I mean, what better way to indulge in the freezing cold than this?

Also, if you’re more adventurous, rent a car and get out of town to see the wintery landscape unfold. Just don’t make the same mistakes we did! norway9tromso6

 

3. SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT

Okay, this is a crazy outlier, escape-the-winter exception, but it’s so close to Europe that I couldn’t help myself!

At the tip of the Sinai Peninsula there’s an annual precipitation of less than 4mm, and a cloud could easily be mistaken for a UFO, they’re so scarce, making Sharm el Sheikh one of the best places (if not the best) to escape winter in Europe. Anyone who has listened to Joel when on the topic of sunshine and snorkelling, knows that he looooooves Sharm el Sheikh, and is constantly urging everyone else to go. We only started diving recently, but we did our advanced course here and we are ruined for life, because we have not experienced diving or snorkelling sites anywhere else in the world that even comes close to the underwater landscapes in Sharm.

On top of that, Sharm el Sheikh is DIRT CHEAP – you can book yourself into a 5-star beach-side resort for about $50 a night – which is why it’s a great option for diving (besides the abundance of wildlife and constant 30-40 meter visibility). PLUS, it’s only a couple of hours on the plane and you’re there. ALSO, if you are in Sharm you can head to Mount Sinai at night for a spectacular hike under the stars, ending with a mountain-top sunrise – one of the most singular things we have ever done.

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2. INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA 

When we think back on Innsbruck we remember christmas lights strung across old town squares, cinnamon sugar on our fingers after munching Austrian pastries, carols played by string quartets from a golden roofed balcony, warming up with cups of hot chocolate underneath the twinkling lights of a gigantic (real) Christmas tree, watching the sun set over the snow-capped Austrian Alps, and refilling our designated mulled wine cups over and over and over again. Being in Innsbruck over Christmas time felt like being trapped in a Christmas snow globe, but in good way (not at all like the Hallmark movie ‘Snowglobe’ with that exact plot line). If you can imagine a winter wonderland Yuletide paradise, than you’ve more or less imagined Innsbruck.

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1. ICELAND

Well, obviously.

Not only our favourite winter destination, but one of our favourite places in the world ever. Iceland is not like any place you’ve ever been, nor like anything you’ve imagined or expected. It is so spectacularly different – so inspiring and so unimaginably vast despite how small it is.

Iceland is made for winter lovers – pure white snow, cyan-blue glaciers, countless icy waterfalls, boiling hot geysers, lush green moss covering the volcanic black earth. And then you also stand a chance to see the magical northern lights. Oh, and have I mentioned the natural geothermal pools just waiting to be found and dipped in? It’s quiet, peaceful, otherworldly and just so indescribably beautiful.

It is also a place that encourages slow traveling, even when you’re seeing a lot of stuff, because there is very little to do outside of Reykjavik, which means your time to just enjoy where you are is greatly maximised. You just go to the one restaurant that is in the town, eat the fish or the hot dog or the pizza, and spend the rest of the time you would have worried over what to do and where to eat breathing in the beautiful landscape; stopping, staring, wandering, imagining, and maybe soaking in a warm geothermal pool somewhere in the wilderness.


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Summiting Mount Snowdon, and the Weirdest Village in Wales

There’s this place called Snowdonia.

Yes, really.

It’s in Wales and its all craggy mountain tops, breathtaking views, lakes upon lakes, and quaint villages. And when it gets covered in snow during winter, it’s every bit as epic as it sounds. But even when it’s not snowing, Mount Snowdon epically peaks over all the other mountains in Wales and England at 1058 meters (the highest peaks in the UK are dotted around Scotland). It’s Welsh name, Yr Wyddfa, recalls the origin story of the large mountain – when the mourning people of Gwynedd (the region), covered the corpse of their giant-king with boulders after being defeated by King Arthur.

Pretty epic.

Not knowing any of this, we blindly said ‘YES!’ when our friend Emily suggested we go climb it.

Choosing which path to take up and down

Mount Snowdon bears the accolade of being the busiest mountain in the UK, with over half a million visitors each year. Even so, the hike should not be taken lightly – proper footwear is essential and knowing which path to take relative to your abilities is crucial. Enough googling can get you into pretty grim stories of Mount Snowdon fatalities – there actually were two helicopter evacuations on the day that we went hiking.

I’m sounding very knowledgable, but we found all of this out only the night before we were planning to reach the summit. we were a bit confused when we googled ‘hiking Mount Snowdon’ and realised there’s a ton of ways to get to the summit, some of which are hair-raising and death-defying. Luckily, I came upon an infographic that was super helpful in choosing which way to go:

How to choose the right trail

We chose the Pyg Track ascent and the Miners’ Track descent. 

Partly because it’s a little less busy and more challenging than the most popular Llanberis Path, and partly because we had a rental car – this way we got to experience two trails and still end up where we started. But also because I have a healthy fear of heights and was not mentally prepared for anything higher than 5/10 scariness.

The low down on the Pyg and Miners’ tracks

Pyg track ascent

We were lucky and got a spot at the parking lot, to the right of which the start of the Pyg track is clearly marked. The start of the path is quite busy, but it thins out quickly when people start getting tired. We were very optimistic when we saw the first peak ahead, thinking, ‘oh this will take no time at all!’ …

FALSE.

This is not the peak. This is where those crazy people go up to take the super high and very scary trail along the ridge. No thanks.

The road carries on for much, much longer past some gorgeous lakes, next to which our descent trail, the Miners’ track, is clearly visible.

These two trails meet up after the lakes, and then the worst part is ahead of you: the long, steep and rocky ascent to the top ridge.

When you’ve reached this part, it’s a gradual and ultra-scenic walk up to the highest point. But we would suggest you take your lunch break here, because the actual summit can be suuuper crowded.

Miners’ track descent

The miners’ track splits up from the Pyg track after what was the worst part coming up, and descends quite steeply all the way down to the lakes.

This made me realise that we made a great choice NOT coming up with the Miners’, because that would be a hellishly steep ascent. Not so much scary, or difficult, but just unendingly steep.

From there it’s an easy, mostly paved walk along the edges of the lakes, until it ascends again slightly back to the parking lot.

Start of the Pyg Track

Start of the Pyg Track

The start of the Pyg track. Unfortunately, the peak ahead is NOT the summit. The path cuts through the valley and continues on for much, much longer.

Pyg and Miners' tracks

Break for lunch before the crowded summit

Break for lunch before the crowded summit

The summit

The road to the final summit leads along the Mount Snowdon Railway and it gets very crowded, very quickly as you approach it; people eventually queue up for the ten or fifteen built out steps to reach the highest point. Having a fairly serious aversion to queues, we couldn’t really be bothered. (Or were we bothered by the fact that this is what is has become?…hard to say). There’s a café and toilets at the top, but, again, it is seriously crowded. We found a slightly quieter spot where we could sit down and watch the clouds roll in and out while the birds dipped over and under them.

summit views

The crowds

As mentioned above, this is the United Kingdom’s most popular mountain, and the Llanberis Path is its most popular trail – so if you want to cut corners crowd-wise, we’d suggest you stay off that one. While the start and the summit were both very crowded (ladies – PEE AT HOME! Lonnnng queue for the restrooms in the parking lot), it thinned out quite a bit until we reached the nasty, zigzaggy ascent, where people slowed down again and bundled up again.

On top of this, we went at the end of the season. Weather-wise it’s a bit risky (though we were blessed with the perfect conditions), but I do not want to know what the high-season crowds look like

 

The views

Enough reason to put your back into this hike. The lush green valleys, spotted with wildflowers; the deep-blue lakes reflecting the dramatic skies, the clouds rushing in, momentarily engulfing you in grey-white at the summit; and the sheep, leisurely grazing at impossible heights.

Beautiful snowdonia

lakes in Snowdonia

more lakes

sheep

 

The Pyg and Miners’ track combo was perfect for us, and I can definitely recommend this for first-time Mt. Snowdoners. It’s a mostly gradual walk, with more challenging, but not fear-inducing or back-breaking intervals of rocky ascents and descents, and breathtaking views.

Whilst the trek to the summit is certainly popular, it is not necessarily easy. It’s a stiff hike, and can even be frustrating where hikers bottle-neck on harder parts, but everyone is duly rewarded with the hard-earned exhaustion that only comes from accomplishment and, let me reiterate, THE SKY-HIGH VIEWS:

summit

 

Where to stay

Beddgelert is an adorable little village with a population of about 500, just 20 minutes from the Mount Snowdon car park. We hung around here for a rewarding pint and early dinner after our hike and we loved it. We did not get to stay here, though. 🙁

The quaintness that is Beddgelert

The quaintness that is Beddgelert 🙂

We booked our bank-holiday weekend a wee bit late, when most places were already sold out, but came upon the cutest little cottage, with the most magical little garden, just outside of Barmouth through the HomeAway app. It was over an hour’s drive to get to our hike on Saturday morning, and the 3000-strong town lacks that specific quaintness that a village with only 500 people has, but we adored the cottage and the lovely couple who hosted us. They even came knocking on our door with a plate of home-made lemon drizzle cake!

If you DO end up in Barmouth, make sure that you go to Knickerbockers! They specialise in all the best decadent ice cream combinations…if I close my eyes I can still remember the sweet, dreamy taste of that birthday cake ice cream…

weekend cottage

 

weekend cottage

 

Knickerboxers

 

PORTMEIRION: 

THE WEIRDEST VILLAGE IN WALES 

(or anywhere)

Visiting Portmeirion has been one of the more surreal experiences of our time in the UK. It’s a small coastal village in Snowdonia meant to look like a small coastal village in Italy. The result is that it looks like neither, existing as a facade of both Wales and the Mediterranean, where pasty-white British tourists sip wine on neo-classical balconies or eat gelato besides lily-white Romanesque statues.

Portmeirion’s designer and creator, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, had bought the land of an abandoned Welsh village in 1925, and set out to create this out-of-place Mediterranean town over the next 50 years. He sought to create a ‘home for fallen buildings’, and ‘collected’ parts of buildings in the UK that were due to be demolished. Consequently, the town is a mad bricolage of nostalgia and architectural styles, painted in brights and varying pastels. There’s even a golden buddha on site for no sensible reason that I can think of. The combinations are flamboyant and extra and super strange, and it will put a smile on your face, however confused it may be. Visiting Portmeirion feels more like traveling through time and space – from 21st-century Wales to what someone in the mid-20th century imagined the perfect 19th-century Mediterranean town to be.

Keep in mind that we did not really know any of this when we set foot in Portmeirion, so the out-of-placeness felt jarringly bizarre.

We also found out later that the town was positioned as the back drop for a British TV series from the 60s. In ‘The Prisoner’, a former British secret service agent is knocked unconscious in his London flat, only to wake up to a recreation of his flat in ‘the Village’ – a coastal, picture-perfect Mediterranean place where it seems as if people are just peacefully living out their lives. Except he can’t leave, everyone has numbers for names, he regularly gets interrogated, and you can’t tell the prisoners and the guards apart. And you know what…Portmeirion seems like the perfect backdrop for this.

I am dying to watch this series, by the way.

portmeirion

portmeirion

Portmeirion is weird and wonderful and very kitch, like a beautiful lie told beautifully well. I think I was the only one in our group who really loved this village. I loved loved loved it. Because of how deceptive and uncanny it all felt. I felt like I was in some sort of twilight zone.

Besides the strange and colourful town, there’s also a small forest to be enjoyed with a couple of walking trails that lead off to surprisingly pretty little beaches, ocean-side views, a japanese garden, and a dog cemetery where the lady of the house, who preferred canine company to humans, buried her pooches in the previous century.

Portmeirion is open form 09.30 to 19.30.

Tickets are £12 for adults, £9 for students (save £1 when you buy online)

portmeirion grounds

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