Friday, November 13, 2020

Day Trip from London

A few weekends ago we had a rental car and went looking for autumnal colors in the Kent countryside.

Our destination was literally picked after perusing a map and hubby selected a large green area called the High Weald, an Area of Natural Beauty. This expansive, wooded area covers land within the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex in southeast England. We narrowed our choice down further and decided to explore the trails within the Bedgebury National Pinetum.

If any place was going to have autumnal colors, it had better be an English forest.

Upon arrival, the car park was chock-a-block, but once we got away from the main visitor’s center, we were able to practice better social-distancing away from people.

The Bedgebury National Pinetum contains more than 12,000 trees and has several walking and mountain-biking trails and even a bike rental shop. The pinetum is the name used to describe an arboretum (tree collection) that consists mainly of conifers. Bedgebury is a partnership between the Forestry Commission and the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens, which we’ve visited many times, and is one of a handful of international botanical gardens that focuses specifically on pine trees.

The forest provides a beautiful setting for peaceful walks and a chance to escape the city. But don’t forget to wear your hiking boots because the trails get awfully muddy. We saw several dogs wearing mud up to their bellies that were happily running ahead of their owners on the trails.

The pinetum’s history actually dates back about 400 years when the previous owners, the Beresford family, planted English Oaks in the local forests. The Beresford family also was responsible for a large part of the landscaping, including Marshal’s Lake, and introduced exotic trees such as the Lawson Cypress. Unfortunately, I’m not sure where these oaks or cypress trees were located as the map wasn’t that detailed.

Still, we had a pleasant enough day and spent about two hours walking amongst the trees. Of course, I was busy taking photographs as we went along.

Like most of our UK walks or long bike rides, we ended up at a pub afterwards. We nearly missed the sign advertising a local brewery, Cellar Head Brewing Company, just down the road from the forest. What luck!

This family-owned microbrewery even uses local hops to make their beers. Kent has been growing hops for hundreds of years and you still see remnants of the hop houses as you drive around the countryside. It’s thought that the cultivation of hops was probably first introduced from Flanders (Belguim) to England in the Maidstone area of Kent at the end of the 15th century but production reached its peak during the 19th century.

View of the High Weald from the Cellar Head Brewing Company in Kent.
If you’re out in Kent, definitely check out the local pinetum and the brewery.

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Friday, October 30, 2020

With Halloween just around the corner, I am reminded of one of the spookier experiences from our travels in Europe.

In 2016, we had just moved to London and some friends wanted to meet in Paris for the weekend. Someone suggested seeing the Catacombs of Paris as a different activity to do. Now, this would not normally be my cup of tea as I get freaked out easily, but we agreed to go as a group.

The Catacombs are indeed creepy. Perhaps even morbid, but also oddly interesting.

Skulls in the Catacombs of Paris
Long row of bones Catacombs of Paris
The Catacombs of Paris were “created” at the end of the 18th century because, basically, the city had run out of room to bury its dead in the local cemeteries. In fact, in 1780, after a bad rainstorm, rotting corpses washed out into the street from the Les Innocents, the city’s oldest and largest cemetery. Can you imagine?

I shudder to think of anyone who lived even close to this cemetery in the 18th century! The city must have reeked of decomposing bodies!

So King Louis XVI issued an order to move the city’s dead. The first evacuations were made in 1785 to 1787 and started with the Les Innocents cemetery. The bones and skeletons were transported at night to the former Tombe-Issoire quarries under the plain of Montrouge, which at the time, was located outside the capital. The quarries date back to the 14th century and much of the limestone extracted from here was used to build Paris before the 18th century.

Tunnel view Catacombs of Paris

As you pass into the ossuary, you walk under a doorway with the haunting inscription above: 
Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!” (Stop! This is the empire of death!)

Did you know there are at least 320km/200 miles of tunnels from the old quarries under the City of Light?

And only a small portion, covering 1.5 km/about 1 mile, of the Catacombs is officially open to the public.

Map of the Catacombs of Paris
History plaque in Catacombs of Paris

Between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, the bones of more than 6 million Parisians were transferred to the Catacombs. In April 1786, the site was consecrated as the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” – an ossuary is a place where human skeletons are stored. But the name “Les Catacombes de Paris” was introduced in reference to the Roman catacombs, and the name stuck.

In 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment and became a tourist attraction. At first, the bones had just been dumped haphazardly into the old tunnels, but eventually, the city’s inspector was charged with organizing the bones.

Today, you’ll find the walls of the Catacombs lined with tibias and femurs punctuated with old skulls. This sight is enough to make anyone feel a bit creeped out.

Bones deposited 1787 Catacombs Paris
Line of skulls 1804 Catacombs of Paris

Bones deposited 1859 Catacombs Paris

More skulls and bones in Catacombs of Paris

Every now and then, you’ll see a blank niche in the aging wall, and you have to wonder if someone didn’t take a “souvenir” from the Catacombs.

Have you been to the Catacombs of Paris? Or would you go?

Huge display of bones in Catacombs of Paris
Layers of skulls and bones Catacombs of Paris

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Creepy skulls Catacombs of Paris

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Mini Travel Guide for 2-3 days in Malága

Sunny weekends in Spain.

Sigh, I miss hopping on a plane from London and whisking off to Europe for a weekend. It used to be so easy, but that was 2019. Nearly all of our travel plans for 2020 were cancelled or put on hold because of the international pandemic that is Covid-19.

 So, I’ve been using some of my furloughed/lockdown time to organize and edit photos from previous trips. In mid-May 2019, we went to Malága for my birthday weekend. This part of southern Spain, known as the Costa del Sol, has more than 320 sunny days each year, according to The Local Spain and confirmed by the national meteorological agency. It’s no wonder that this area sees so many British tourists as well as people from France, Germany and Italy.

And we were desperately seeking sunshine.

Malaga, Spain
Malága, Spain, and its port area, as seen from the Alcazaba fortress.  

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly, weekend-get-away from the dreary UK weather, then Malága is a splendid option! 

One Night is Enough in Benalmádena

After picking up our rental car, we drove a short 15km to our hotel, the Sunset Beach Club in Benalmádena. It’s a very family-friendly hotel typical of British package holiday-goers. Not our usual cup of tea, but the hotel’s pool was wonderful and the view from our room wasn’t too shabby either. Suitable for one or two nights.

Sea and pool view from the Sunset Beach Club in Benalmádena, Spain.

Not surprisingly, given its location and climate, Benalmádena is one of the most popular holiday resorts on the Costa del Sol of Spain. This area has a subtropical Mediterranean climate, with summer temperatures an average of 30 ºC and a mild 17 ºC in winter. If you’re seeking solitude, this is NOT the place for you, but in mid-May, the beaches weren’t too busy.

A Spanish Birthday Lunch

After soaking up some sunshine, we went looking for lunch nearby and found a cute seaside place called Restaurante La Cala. After seeing the grill master tend to his espeto outside, we had to order these grilled sardines. Espeto is a traditional dish of Malága – the sardines are skewered and roasted over a barbecue pit.

We ended up over-ordering for two of us – a fresh tomato salad, roasted peppers, grilled calamari, grilled octopus and, of course, the espeto. Add in a bottle of chilled, white Spanish wine and a healthy dose of sunshine and I had a superb birthday lunch. The portions were generous, and the prices were reasonable – especially for a touristy area.

Seafood Dinner for Two

After a long nap (we had a 6:30 a.m. flight, so it was justified), we set out for a nighttime stroll in Benalmádena. We passed a few beaches as well as the intriguing Castillo De Bil-Bil, a former country villa built in 1927. The Moorish-style villa is usually used for exhibitions, concerts and civil weddings – hosting the most civil weddings in the entire province of Málaga.

Along the boardwalk (Paseo Maritimo), you’ll find several fish restaurants as well as British-themed bars that cater to the tourists. Some of the places seemed a bit tacky, but we finally settled on Restaurante Santa Ana. Although paella is a specialty of Valencia, it’s a dish we don’t often eat in London, so we ordered the seafood paella. It was HUGE!

Dinner was very reasonable – paella, wine and melon con jamon for dessert totaled just 44 euros.

Exploring Malága’s History

On Sunday, we moved on to Malága – a city with a multi-layered past – entwined with the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and Spanish Catholics. I fell in love with the view from our hotel’s rooftop bar and swimming pool, which I don’t have a photo of unfortunately. We stayed one night at NH Málaga Hotel, a Spanish chain hotel that is comparable to a Hilton.

Wandering into the city center of Malága, we found an electic mix of architectural styles – many of the buildings were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the Art Deco facades and the small balconies stretching out over narrow, paved laneways.


One of my favorite buildings was the ornate Palacio Episcopal de Malága situated in the Plaza de Obispo. Parts of the building’s complex date to the 16th and 18th centuries. The complex houses the seat of the Archbishop of Malága, government offices and art exhibitions.

Must-see: Teatro Romano

Literally in the city center is the Teatro Romano (Roman Theater) dating to the 1st century and built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus. Surprisingly, the theater was only re-discovered in the 1950s and was excavated. I’d highly recommend going inside the Alcazaba next door, so you look down into the ancient theater.

Must-see: Alcazaba de Malága

The Alcazaba is a hilltop fortress built in the 11th century by the Moors who ruled the Malága area for more than 400 years. We explored many of the fortress’ defensive towers, inner rooms and landscaped gardens and fountains. This gorgeous building reminded me of a smaller version of the Alhambra in Granada, which unfortunately, we haven’t seen in person yet.

If you visit during spring, you can look out from the hilltop and see the vibrant purple blooms of the jacaranda trees in the city.

Must-see: Catedral de Malága

Also located in the city center is the Catedral de la Encarnación de Malága, which was built on the ruins of the former mosque of Aljama. This enormous cathedral was built over the years of 1528-1782 in the Renaissance style and is divided over two floors. We didn’t peek inside this cathedral because we’ve seen so many impressive European churches these past few years.

Eat Turrón

If you have a sweet tooth, you cannot miss out on trying Spanish turrón! Turrón is a traditional sweet made from almonds, sugar and honey – similar to almond paste. Torrons Vicens, a family-owned company in Malága, sells dozens of varieties of turrón as well as nougat and chocolates. Delicious!

Oh, there’s also jamon! We ate two sandwiches with jamon and some jamon for dinner one night.  

Street Art in Malága

Finding a bit of street art in Malága was just a bonus. We love exploring European cities and discovering street art, especially from some of my favorite artists such as the Invader.

Visit Museo Picasso Malága

On Monday morning, my husband left early to take a train to Madrid for work and I went on my final day of sightseeing. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and coffee at an outdoor café. Then, I went to the Museo Picasso Malága, which houses more than 280 works donated by members of Picasso’s family. Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born in Malága in 1881 but lived most of his life in France. I cheekily snapped two photos while inside the museum, which also is a 16th-century palace.

Last Beach Day

After my museum visit, I decided to soak up some sunshine on the beach. There’s a popular city beach called Playa la Malagueta near the port. The only issue is parking. I went round in circles trying to find a parking spot, which avoided parallel parking, and finally found a parking garage. The beach is full of pebbles, but it’s nice enough for a bit of sunbathing.

Since I had a late flight back to London, I drove back to one of the sandy beaches near Benalmádena and spent the afternoon here under the palm trees.

Overall, I would say that Malága offered something for everyone – a bit of history, architecture, beaches, good food and sunshine. Definitely a good escape from London for a couple of days! But obviously, only travel to this part of Spain when travel is safe to do so.

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