Back in September me and three friends travelled to Torremolinos, near Malaga in southern Spain for a few days. Last year, me and two of these friends travelled to Portugal so this time we went to Spain! This was my second holiday to mainland Spain, last time was in September 2016 when I went to Tossa de Mar in Catalonia, which is only 100 kilometres south of the French border. Other than that, I have crossed the border to Seville when I was in Portugal as a child and have visited the lovely island of Majorca back in October 2008. So of course, it was nice to see a different region of the country that is so popular with many tourists.
We stayed in the Hotel Parasol Garden which is located 50 metres from Playamar beach. Despite it being early September, when we arrived it had started raining! Luckily this only really happened on the first day and after that it was warm weather the whole time. For us Brits it was like an extension of summer. The hotel room itself was fairly basic with two beds in the main room and then a little room with another two beds so it fitted us all in. There was a good view of the pool from the balcony and you could just about see the sea. We went all-inclusive which is great as you don’t have to worry about money, but I think you start to feel the effects of all the new food and drink after a few days as you’re not really used to consuming so much normally.
After getting to the hotel, we took the opportunity to relax by the pool and later we ventured to the seafront as it turned to evening. The area looked lovely with almost purple skies as it darkened. The second day was beach day! Now I’ll admit I’m not great at just sitting for extended periods, so I went into the sea for a little paddle and had a little wander round. The beach was super busy too, even though it was a weekday so I assume most people must had been tourists. We went out for a drink in the evening which led us to see the beach and get up close to the sea by night. It was very calm as nobody was there but also so much darkness when you look towards the sea in contrast to the lights of the resort behind.
On our third day we ventured a little further out to the city of Malaga. I mean you can’t travel all that way and not do some proper sightseeing, right? Malaga is the six largest city in Spain and was home to the artist Pablo Picasso, famous for co-founding the Cubist movement. It is also one of Europe’s oldest cities. We saw sights such as the harbour where we stopped off for a jug of sangria between us. After a bit of walking we later stopped off at Malaga Cathedral – the gardens were absolutely beautiful and well-kept with water features and bird fountains. The cathedral itself had beautiful architecture outside, even though only half us went inside (although I’m sure it was stunning). It was soon time for lunch (paella, nice and traditional) and then to see the Roman Theatre which is free to go in and see the ruins – it is one of the remaining symbols of Roman Hispania in the city where shows would take place. You can even walk up to where the people would have been seated to give a good overall view of the ruins.
As mentioned, the city was home to the great artist Pablo Picasso – which if you haven’t at least heard of him then I would be at least a little worried… so of course we went to the Museo Picasso Malaga. I did Literature and History of Art for my university degree so this was a must! Malaga was a lovely city to see and very accessible to get to by train from where we were staying as were most things. The airport is on the same train line too so you didn’t have to worry about how to get to places.
The last full day consisted of one last proper trip to the beach (I even properly went in this time – yay) and then off to Benalmadena, a nearby town also on the Costa del Sol. We took the cable car up which took a good 15 minutes which offered lots of elevated views of the town and the coast behind it. I must admit it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a cable car, but seeing how high up it was going even unsettled me as you’re going over residential areas and even a motorway. Once you get to the mountainous peak there are lots of opportunities for walking and going up a bit higher. There’s also a café if you fancy a break too. The views were beautiful and vast, so I’d recommend if you find time to go there on your visit.
Torremolinos is known for its bars on the seafront so we ventured out a couple of times. Nothing too much mind you, I don’t think any of us do particularly long nights out nowadays! It’s a fairly lively place but you also get the impression it’s very family friendly. Unlike back in the UK, people had kids in the bar even when it was fairly late. I suppose it’s indicative of the general consensus that Spain has a more relaxed way of life. There are plenty of convenience stores where you can get amenities such as water and go souvenir shopping which proved handy.
Spain is a great place to go for a girl’s holiday, or any sort of holiday for that matter. It one of those places that has the benefit of not being too far away from the UK and for the vast majority of the year, you’re pretty much guaranteed decent weather. I think if I went to Malaga again and had more time, I would like to do a day trip to Gibraltar. That was the idea originally but due to time constraints we went to Malaga instead which was still a great choice for a day trip. Overall, it was a lovely holiday with lots of nice memories made with some fab friends!
In February this year me and my friend went to the Shakespaw Cat Café in Stratford upon Avon which only opened in December 2018. I’d been wanting to visit a cat café for a while and had toyed with the idea of visiting Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in London, but when I was down there it was all booked out and the location is a bit out the way which didn’t help. Almost immediately after visiting Shakespaw Cat Café it was announced that there was a cat café coming to Birmingham’s Grand Central aptly called the Kitty Café which has branches in Nottingham and Leeds. So naturally I was super excited to try it out.
Originally the cat café concept started in Taiwan, however they have been a particular phenomenon in Japan. They’re designed for people who don’t have pets so they have a place to go and play with cats. But it’s also for everyone, including cat owners (just don’t tell their cats that they’ve been cheating with other cats…). Now it’s extending to all over the world, including the UK. Which is great news for people like me who love cats but can’t have one right now.
Opening in May 2019, the Kitty Café Birmingham is still fairly new to date so some of what I say will be down to teething issues. We visited in June 2019 after booking a one-hour slot over a month before. As of writing (July 2019) I am looking at the availability and it looks like it would definitely be a few weeks to wait again, so the popularity is definitely not slowing down.
First impressions I have to be honest weren’t great. We were there before our 11am one-hour slot and we had to queue behind people who were trying to get in on the day who weren’t taking no for an answer. This was late June and I booked the table in early May so you can see from that that they aren’t just going to be able to come in on a Saturday of all days. By the time we got in I was told we would still have to leave on time which I get but still didn’t really like as we weren’t late of our own accord. Yes, it was only 5 minutes but it was the principle. You also have to pay a £6 entry fee before you get in there which also slows things down. Spoiler: we stayed until about 5 past 12 and nobody had asked us to leave so one full hour was had! #sucharebel.
We got in and we were sat right at the front of the café so we were right by the window where lots of people look in from outside. Luckily it was easy enough to ignore so it wasn’t much of an issue. The décor of the café is really on point, cat cushions, cat shaped neon lights, big scratching posts, connecting walkways for the cats above us – it is very well done and very cat friendly. Unfortunately, when we first got in there weren’t many cats down our end but you’re free to walk around where we found most of them congregating by the door leading to the toilets! There is also merchandise to buy if you fancy, too.
In terms of the food on offer, there are selections of cakes, paninis, sandwiches and even pizza. We had cream teas which were nice enough, usually when you have cream tea in a café the scones are warmed up a bit which they weren’t – but that’s a small gripe. You can even have afternoon tea in there but I really do wonder how that would work if you’re subject to one hour. With a lot of people walking around to interact with the cats I must say for afternoon tea I’d rather go somewhere more traditional without time constraints.
As you’d expect the cats were adorable and soon enough, they started venturing round the café a bit more. We had this grey cat get up on the back of the chair where my boyfriend was sat and later on, we had this adorable kitten get up on our table. Even though there are covers to use for your food (which is a really good idea) he still managed to nick a bit of the milk, but we were done with our cream tea anyway so that was fine! Besides, how can you say no to such a cute face.
I had a discussion with my friend who I visited the Shakespaw Cat Café with about which she preferred as she went to the Kitty Café Birmingham coincidentally on the same day that I did but later on. Interestingly she preferred the Kitty Café Birmingham whereas I think overall, I prefer the Shakespaw Cat Café. My reasons are that you get 90 minutes there so it’s less rushed and it’s more old-fashioned and charming but I still really liked the Kitty Café.
In conclusion, I had a lovely hour at the Kitty Café Birmingham. It was one of those where it started off a bit rocky but it got better as it went on and both of us were having a great time. As I previously said, I think some of it may be because it’s still relatively new so everybody is still finding their feet. My boyfriend isn’t even a cat fan so it must have been alright. It’s nice that they have a rehoming programme for the cats (although they won’t be the ones you see in the café) which can be found on the website. I am definitely looking forward to returning in hopefully the not so distant future, it’s great to have a place like this nearby.
This month I came back from a trip to Cork, Ireland. Cork is the Republic of Ireland’s second largest city after Dublin. When I was a child, I used to go to Ireland pretty much every single year due to having relatives over there, however from around the age of 15 those trips waned. I’m 27 now and the only other time I went to Ireland in between then was going to Dublin in June 2016. As nice as Dublin is, it’s not the Ireland I grew up knowing. The Ireland I knew was all in the countryside rather than the city. This time while we went to the city, we did get to see a bit more of the green that Ireland is famous for. And let me tell you, it really is greener than what you’d get over in the UK. It gives a literal meaning to the grass is greener on the other side, or the Irish Sea rather! It was intended to be a trip with my boyfriend, my dad and my aunt and uncle but unfortunately my aunt and uncle couldn’t make it in the end.
We flew with Ireland’s flagship airline Aer Lingus in one of their turboprop planes which was a first for me to be flying in. We landed safely and we arrived at our hotel which was the Clayton Hotel which is a lovely hotel which looks over the River Lee, which goes right through Cork’s city centre. We got into Cork fairly early so not long after we checked in, we started to walk around to get a feel for the place. My first impressions of Cork were that the aforementioned River Lee made it very reminiscent of Dublin and its River Liffey. We walked up Oliver Plunkett Street, a shopping street and turned off to check out the English Market. This market has been featured on television and is renowned for its locally produced artisan food along with its mid-19th century architecture. Walking around we also saw the Crawford Art Gallery and not too far away a JD Wetherspoon. Yes, Wetherspoons in the Republic of Ireland! They don’t even sell Guinness, but another local stout called Beamish.
Afterwards we carried on walking and got to Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, a Gothic three spire cathedral owned by the Church of Ireland and completed in 1879. My first thoughts were that it looked very reminiscent of Paris’ Notre Dame on the west façade. It is a beautiful cathedral and I am always in awe of how things like this are man-made, the details are always so intricate. A short walk away are the main campus grounds of University College Cork, a renowned university which makes up one of the Queen’s Colleges, the others being in Belfast and Galway. The campus looked vibrant with its green grass and while it had traditional looking buildings, it also looked pretty modern particularly around the courtyard area with the student union buildings. Have to say, it looked like it would be a really nice place to study. Campus universities are the best, I mean I would say that though! Then it was time to have lunch and more importantly an actual pint of Guinness. Ooh yes.
The second day was quite rainy but it didn’t stop us from sightseeing! We began our long walk over to the other side of the city to see the Cork City Gaol which used to a prison but now it’s a museum popular with tourists. Before that we passed the notable landmark of the Church of Saint Anne in Shandon. It’s known for containing the Bells of Shandon, we didn’t go up it but apparently visitors can go up it and ring the bells themselves. From the hotel window this church didn’t look too far away, although it was a different story when actually walking to it! You can spot it from far off, just follow the gold salmon figure on the top which represents the fishing industry (Cork isn’t far from the coast) but also the fish is a symbol of Christianity. After much walking through residential areas we reached the Gaol.
The Cork Gaol was originally opened in 1824, closing just under a 100 years later in 1923. It housed both male and female prisoners, even children who committed crimes within the city of Cork. It was so interesting walking around and reading the stories of the prisoners in each cell, it’s amazing to think that people were held up in those conditions for the pettiest of crimes. I recall one cell had the story of a 16-year-old and her baby, of course the baby was the youngest resident there. There are three floors of the prison, two of which you can walk around. It does look like your standard prison despite how old it is. Hopefully it will be the closest thing I will get to being in a prison! The prison grounds themselves were beautiful, in a very weird way you felt like you could be walking up towards a stately home with how well kept the garden is, not a prison! It probably didn’t look quite as nice at the time I will guess.
We then spent ages walking trying to find Fitzgerald Park as I thought it wasn’t too far away but it clearly was. I think on that day we clocked up the most steps just trying to find things. Named after Edward Fitzgerald the city’s Lord Mayor, Fitzgerald Park when we finally found it was very scenic with its own little gardens and fountain, even in the drizzly rain. It is home to the Cork Public Museum and a variety of sculptures, most notable is the commemorative bust of Eamon de Valera, a prominent political leader in Ireland. The riverbank of the Lee runs along the park with the back gardens of peoples houses on the other side. I can only imagine how nice having a garden like that would be with having the riverbank and the park to look out at, particularly on a nice day.
My personal highlight was going to Blarney Castle and Gardens. Of course, Blarney Castle is home to the Blarney Stone, which if kissed gives you the gift of eloquence, also known as the gift of the gab. First off, we decided to brave the castle and actually it didn’t take too long to get the top. At the top you can see views of all over Blarney and the countryside. But most importantly, it’s where you get to kiss the stone. But it’s not just a rock on a pedestal, no the rock is down the side of the castle wall so you have to lower yourself (with help) to kiss it while holding onto bars. When I saw pictures of people doing it, I thought it looked torturous. My boyfriend went first and did it, however when I gave it a go and made the mistake of looking down as I lowered myself so I saw the grass on the ground so at that point I gave up. So unfortunately, I cannot say I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone, at least I tried right? I don’t need no eloquence anyway… I jest.
Then it was time to explore the gardens which I loved. The gardens are SO beautiful, green, tranquil and spanning over 60 acres which can be viewed from the top of the castle as mentioned. It was a true picture of spring. Even when you first walk in you are greeted by a big blossom tree. Even if it didn’t feel like spring before, it did now. I was honestly in awe of the intense green grass and trees by the river as you walk towards the castle. I love anything like that as you can tell. It’s also fairly diverse with different gardens within it, for example there’s the Poison Garden – which is as exciting as it sounds filled with dangerous plants. There are also the woodlands and even a little cave we found to venture into! Afterwards we visited Blarney Woollen Mills which is the largest Irish shop in the world so of course we had to get a few souvenirs.
Then we travelled to the harbour town of Cobh in the afternoon. It’s a picturesque waterfront town with colourful buildings (which I’m a sucker for, that’s why I like the houses in Notting Hill!) and overlooked by St. Colman’s Cathedral – one of the tallest buildings in Ireland. Facing the town from the sea there is Spike Island which is the site of a fort which was used for defence and a prison. Now it’s a tourist attraction. Cobh is also associated with the Titanic even though it was actually built in Belfast, but here is where the last 123 people boarded the ship. There is also the Cobh Heritage Centre which has exhibitions on Irish history. We had a quick look in there and then mainly walked around the town and headed up to the cathedral and back. It’s a very charming town with character with lots of history which is why despite it being a small place is clearly popular with tourists.
Pubs are a big thing for when you go to Ireland. My dad really wanted to hear some live music so we went to pubs with that in mind. An easy way to narrow down which pubs to go to is using the Cork Heritage Pub Trail list. On the first night we went to The Poor Relation, unfortunately there was no music that night but it was nice to soak up the atmosphere of a good old Irish pub. There’s something different about them compared to English pubs. By recommendation of the list we also visited The Mutton Lane Inn, the oldest pub in Cork. That night we visited Sin E, a long-established venue for traditional Irish music and it was nice to finally here some live traditional music. It was a cosy pub with an upstairs and a downstairs and there was no stage it was literally people sat around a table with their instruments playing. I thought that was pretty cool though.
On the last day we had our last hotel breakfast, walked around Cork one last time, saw the Parnell Bridge and then it was time to head to the airport. Unfortunately, we were in the airport for hours as our flight home was delayed due to bad weather amongst other things. It felt silly to complain too much about it though considering earlier that day was the Ethiopia Airlines crash which sadly killed so many people. It puts things into perspective, as they say better to be late in this life than early to the next one. I did have a bit of a ‘cultural’ experience while waiting at the airport though, because I finally got to have some Tayto crisps as well as some Rock Shandy Club Orange! I made sure I had Club Orange a few times while I was in Ireland because it’s definitely better than Fanta. Yeeep, I said it. And Tayto crisps are just part of my childhood for me.
Since coming back from Ireland I’ve found I’ve been missing it quite a bit. I would love to do a proper road trip there at some point. I remember going to Killarney when I was about 14 and it still stands out as one of the nicest places in Ireland, so I’d love to go back there. I think generally along the west coast would be nice too. If you haven’t been to Ireland much I fully recommend flying over and staying in a city like I have done with Cork and Dublin because in reality it’s a much easier journey. There are always tours you can go on to see outside the city too, we used Paddywagon Tours who operate all over Ireland for Blarney and Cobh. Next time if I were to go to a city, I would like to see Belfast and Giant’s Causeway. It would be different as I’ve not really spent much time in Northern Ireland before. I would definitely like to return to Cork sometime though, definitely a great city to go to if you’re looking for something a bit less touristy than Dublin but still looking for that Irish city charm.
Hello! This is a post a long time coming, because I haven’t posted in a long time! Hurray!
But in all seriousness, it’s fair to say I’ve let this blog get a bit dusty. But there’s no reason why it cannot be given a good dusting. It looks like my last post was back in July shortly after I returned from Portugal. I can see it’s become a bit of a trend on my blog to go abroad and then write about it shortly after as that’s what the last couple of posts have been about. I really like that though because I am certain that by documenting it with words, I will read it back and remember details I wouldn’t have otherwise remembered. I’m sure I’ve done this already before when I had handwritten things from when I went to Japan and Hong Kong back in 2009. Of course, I’ve forgotten them all again, just until I find and read it next time.
July to March is a fair while so what have I been doing? A few honourable mentions are the fact that I moved out of my dad’s house!! Me and my partner have been living in a flat since the very end of August. It’s felt longer really, but in a good way. As great as it is living at home you get to a point where you need your independence. I also left my job back in October where I worked in buying and I’m now working in export. It’s been very interesting as I am no longer a customer but now working for a supplier so the roles have been reversed and I now have to speak to the customers rather than the suppliers. Hopefully all are more strings to my bow.
In January I went up to Edinburgh with a few friends which was great fun, if not a bit cold. I’d only been to Edinburgh once before but it was pretty much just as I remembered it. Managed to do quite a few things that I never did the first time such as going up Calton Hill, going up the Scott Monument, the Botanical Gardens, having tea and cake in The Elephant House (where it is said JK Rowling came up with the idea of Harry Potter). Not to mention going to an actual Scottish ceilidh (pronounced kaley) which is traditional dancing. I have absolutely no coordination whatsoever so I just went along with everyone else as you have to dance with everyone else there. Good times. I also made a trip to Colchester, Essex in February which is where I studied at the University of Essex for three glorious years. This July it will have been five years since I graduated. FIVE YEARS.
It was also my birthday very recently (2nd March) where I was taken for a lovely afternoon tea by my partner at Sky By The Water in Resorts World, Birmingham. As you can guess by the name, it’s a rooftop restaurant and bar. We had a window view which was wonderful, me being an absolute geek loved seeing the planes taking off and coming into land in the adjacent Birmingham Airport. Even saw the massive A380 at one point. You could also see the trains at the station as well as around Resorts World itself. You could even see some green beyond it all which was also nice. As usual, the afternoon tea was so good but so filling which meant we didn’t even finish it all. I’m not sure if I’ve ever finished an afternoon tea to be honest. In the evening I had my close friends round my flat and we all had drinks and went out to Reflex on Broad Street. Wahey. Then even more recently I came back from Cork in Ireland last weekend after spending a few days over there.
Oh, and I’ve changed my blog handle and updated it generally somewhat. I’m sure people have wondered where the username Azuleu came from and I may as well say now. Back in 2006 at the tender age of 14 I came up with my own character called Oceana Azuleu who was meant to be water related. Azu came from Azul which is blue in Spanish and leu came from Bleu which is blue in French. And Oceana speaks for itself I think. But I adopted Azuleu as a username because it was less likely to already be taken up and it sounds fairly unique. But as times change and our real lives are more entwined with our online lives, it’s felt like the right time to start changing my handles on social media and my blog to something that actually is my name.
This is just a check in really, but I am aiming to write about my adventures in Cork over this weekend. Partly so I can document it as said so I don’t forget it all but also as a good opportunity to kick start this blog into 2019 where it belongs! Hopefully there will be even more adventures near and far this year. Watch this space.
Earlier this summer me and two friends went on our first girls holiday together to Albufeira, Portugal which is a popular tourist city located in the Algarve. It had been a long time coming for the three of us to go abroad together, even if it was for a whirlwind three-night stay. I had only booked two days annual leave from work and was due to be back in work on Monday morning after getting back in the early hours, believe me that was a tough day… I had been to the Algarve once as a child with my parents one December many years ago and all I remember is grey, rain and storms. Apparently, we were lucky enough to have been there for one of the worst winters on record. Excellent! But of course, I knew that isn’t the typical experience of Portugal so it was good to visit again as an adult. And you know what? It was pretty warm and sunny. But I guess it helped we went at the end of June. Although believe it or not as I write the UK is going through a long heatwave so it was actually warmer at home when we went.
We left nice and early to the airport and roughly two and a half hours later on the plane we reached Faro Airport. I’m assuming that as I had been to the Algarve once before that must have been the airport I went to previously. There were some really nice views on the approach to landing where you’re looking over all the buildings and yep, lots of water with the sea visible in the distance. One of the first things I realised about Portugal (and I will admit it did take a couple of hours) is that there is no time difference to the UK! This blew my mind (it doesn’t take a lot). The first day was fairly chilled out, we landed around 11am and we got to our aparthotel which was at the Alfagar Cerro Malpique Hotel (the name took us a little while to remember!). The balcony view was lovely as you could see over the pool, the Albufeira old town and the sea beyond. The only downside was that it was up a bit of a hill but we were aware of that before getting there.
By staying in an aparthotel, we saved quite a bit of money by making our own food not to mention we didn’t really go out drinking so overall the holiday was fairly cheap. We took a walk around Albufeira to get a feel for it and first impressions were that it is very touristy with lots of bars and restaurants, but again we were aware of that. I’m not used to hearing so many British people abroad out and about in one place though! We then walked along the beach which was super windy and later on returned there to lie about on the beach. I even did a bit of swimming in the sea after getting over the initial chill of the water. I’ve always loved the beach, especially on a hot day. I suppose one reason is that back in Birmingham we are pretty landlocked. Oh, and the weather isn’t usually nice enough in the UK to go into the water.
The first full day involved going to the Albufeira Marina to get on a 3-hour boat ride which took you around the coast of the Algarve and to some caves! The Marina itself had a lot of gift shops, bars and restaurants and even an arcade. There were some pretty looking apartments above them too in pastel blue, pink and peach colours. Just before we got on the boat, we paid the extra to go on the top deck and were greeted with a glass of white wine. Later, we were greeted with a glass of rose as well as the Tequila Sunrise cocktail we had just bought. So, we did pretty well! It was on that trip we all got the most burnt because the wind lulls you into a false sense of security. Early on we saw some dolphins at a glimpse jumping out the sea but we couldn’t stay near them too long as the boats can make them stressed, but it was nice to see them from afar. The main attraction was seeing the very picturesque Benagil sea cave, a beach in a cave which can only be reached by boat.
We spent our second full day at the Zoomarine, a well-known amusement park in the Algarve which has a mixture of animals, rides and water attractions including its own beach. To make the most of it I would suggest taking swimwear so you can go on all the water attractions such as the slides and pools but as we weren’t sure what to expect we went in our normal clothes – but still got wet as it is a water park, naturally. I would absolutely recommend it if you were travelling as a family as there is something for everyone especially for the kids. My favourite part was watching the Dolphin and Sea Lion shows, both were very impressive. You can see that these animals are trained incredibly well but you can also see how much they are genuinely loved and taken care of by their trainers. I also liked their emphasis on conservation and the environment. The atmosphere in the park itself was nice and they even have their own theme song which got stuck in our head for the rest of the holiday (as well as Jess Glynne’s Hold my Hand – cheers Jet2!).
Food wise I knew I wanted to try a few things Portuguese while I was out there so I made sure I tried Pastel de nata which is a Portuguese egg tart pastry which is very popular. On our final night in Portugal we went out for a meal so I wanted to go all out and have something I wouldn’t have back at home. Which meant I chose an octopus dish with olive oil accompanied with vegetables and potatoes. Very Mediterranean! I had never had octopus before so it was an experience, it didn’t seem as rubbery as squid but it was a little bit ick when the suckers fell off the tentacles as I was chewing. To accompany this dish, me and a friend shared a bottle of green wine and that was another Portuguese thing I never knew existed either. It doesn’t look particularly green, more like a white wine but it’s a type of wine from the green grape.
Albufeira was really fun and we packed a lot into the time we had. Unfortunately, it meant we could only properly go to the beach and pool about once but we made the most of it. Next time I would like to go for longer just to have a bit more time relaxing. Don’t get me wrong I could never be on a sun lounger for 7 days straight but it’d be nice to have a mix especially as I seem to end up on more city breaks. Albufeira’s old town is catered for tourists so if you’re looking to see a bit more there are plenty of trips out you can book so there is plenty to do. My colleagues at work were rather impressed with how little I ended up spending as they all thought I would need more money out there but it goes to show how much of a difference a self-catering apartment and a nearby supermarket can make. I’d love to visit Portugal again and next time I’d like to visit Porto as that seems to be an up and coming place, not to mention the second city. Maybe I can improve on my Portuguese for next time too… Obrigado!
Earlier this month I went to Paris for the very first time. Considering its proximity to the UK, it’s one of those places I feel I should have already visited but have never done so. I’ve got as far as America and Asia previously but somewhere that is just an hour’s flight away and is considered a world city I just hadn’t quite made it to yet! I was really intrigued to finally see Paris because to an extent I’ve heard conflicting things about it – you hear that it’s romantic which is the general consensus on it but also you hear that it’s dirty and well, disappointing. The actual term for the latter is known as Paris Syndrome which in particular is exhibited from Japanese tourists. I really liked Paris, although I can see why it may disappoint some because rightly or wrongly it is really built up in our minds as this amazing place which is why I went in with an open mind.
We flew from Birmingham to Paris Charles de Gaulle with Air France. I’m a little bit of an aviation geek so I was happy to be going with the national carrier, but more so because it means food and drink included! There was only the one food option which was an Apple Onion Confit in a sandwich roll which I had with a little bottle of Merlot. Great way to start the holiday! Once we got there it was just a 45-minute train ride into the centre of Paris. We were fairly lucky with the weather so by the time we got there it was 28 degrees. The ticket machines and train station set up didn’t seem to be the most efficient really, but it probably seemed worse with the heat. Libertel Canal Saint-Martin was the hotel we stayed at in the area of Jaures which has really good metro links to the centre of Paris. There are plenty of places to get food nearby such as McDonalds and Subway, although there are plenty of restaurants around too. There are plenty of shops along the same street as the hotel too so you aren’t far away from any amenities.
When you go to Paris, as with any other city break expect to do a lot of walking! I think on the one day we did over 10 miles easily. The first thing we went to see is the most iconic sight in Paris – yep, the Eiffel Tower. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower so many times in pictures but it was amazing to actually see it in person. I loved being able to seeing all the intricate details of it that you cannot see or notice so much in the pictures. You can go all the way up to the top and it was funny seeing silhouettes of people taking the stairs – I wasn’t envying them. It was lovely to just take a moment by sitting in the park and looking up at it. I’m always in awe of tall buildings and love looking straight up at them – even if it makes me a little dizzy. Unfortunately, I only did get to see it by day so pictures will still have to do for it at night.
On the same day we saw one of the famous monuments in Paris; the Arc de Triomphe which honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. It’s located at the western end of the Champs-Élysées which is one of the most famous shopping avenues in the world. I was told beforehand that there was a McDonald’s along that street and the only reason it is there is because there is a white M arch to blend in with all the designer shops. I pictured this actual really fancy looking arch (whatever that may mean) but it really is just a normal looking one- but white! Then it was to the Sacre-Coeur, a basilica located on the highest points of the city, making for some very lovely views over Paris. We went inside the basilica and walked around, taking in the beauty of the mosaics and church. I respected the policy of no photography so it was a bit sad to see pretty much everyone else ignore that. Some tourists, eh?
One of the absolute highlights of the trip was Notre-Dame. The interior was stunning with beautiful architecture and stained-glass windows. There was actually a service going on as well. We then had to pick a slot to go up the cathedral and then return closer to the time so we took that opportunity to walk around along the River Seine and pop into the Fete du Pain – yes, a bread festival opposite! There was lots of bread being sold and you could see them making it too. After killing a bit of time, we returned for our slot to go up Notre-Dame which is the highest viewing point after the Eiffel Tower. I always struggle with the stairs in old buildings as it’s a bit claustrophobic and I always get scared of tripping up! But it was worth it because the views were gorgeous and my favourite memory of it is hearing the bells ring – they were so loud but so atmospheric. You get an up-close view of the architecture, including the gargoyles which is what I always associate with Notre-Dame! After walking around, you go up a second staircase which leads to the very top, giving you an even higher up panoramic view of Paris.
The rest of the day consisted of a lot of walking, we walked all around and got to the Louvre and saw the iconic glass pyramid. Home to the original (but small) Mona Lisa, there were tourists everywhere. Afterwards we carried on to The Tuileries Garden which is a park just opposite the Louvre. This lead us to the Place de la Concorde which is the largest square in Paris which is decorated with statues and fountains – as well as a lot of traffic circulating round it! The rest of our walk took us by Musee d’Orsay which is another famous art museum located in a former railway station. Eventually we managed to find the Luxembourg Gardens, the home to the beautiful Luxembourg Palace. It was designed for Marie de Medici, wife of King Henry IV to replicate the Pitti Palace in her native Florence. Those names take me back to A Level History! The park is known for its lawns, sculptures, fountains and flowerbeds. It was beautiful and the sunshine certainly helped.
I’m a big foodie so I wanted to try something quintessentially French while I was there. Initially I wanted to try frogs’ legs but escargot (snails) seemed more widely available. We went to a restaurant close to the hotel in Jaures where we had that as a starter. They were served in the shell and you are given a little fork to get them out. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be but it probably helped that they were heavily seasoned with garlic. I assumed the texture would be similar to mushrooms but I think they were a bit softer. It’s actually hard to look back and think what I would describe them as being like as I don’t think I’ve had anything quite like them! But the general review is that they are okay. For the main I had chicken with sweet potato mash and gravy with a little salad garnish. That was really nice and I’m assuming that’s reasonably French right? Other than that, we stopped off at a French café after lots of walking on the penultimate day and had a baguette and a drink. I had a glass of wine and my boyfriend had a coke. Guess which was cheaper? Only in France!
The final day was fairly chilled out as our flight didn’t leave until about 8:30pm but we just took the day to take it all in one last time. It was a beautiful sunny day too, so we took the opportunity to go on a boat cruise on the River Seine which lasted around an hour and in that time, you can see all the main sights which was quite fitting for a final thing to do. Paris was a positive experience for me and I can now tick it off my list. I went in with an open mind which probably helped as the place is far from perfect, for example there is a lot of litter I noticed. Arguably the hype probably gives it an unfair image to live up to. It probably doesn’t help that depending on where you live you may have to make a big effort to travel to Paris. For example, I noticed at the airport a lot of flights going and coming from Japan.
Paris is a must see for a city break. There are plenty of iconic sights and it doesn’t have to be too expensive. We took about 200 euros each and I know I came back with about 60 so considering we were there for the best part of four days I don’t think that was too bad. One thing that helps is to not to go to restaurants or bars all the time, we had a McDonald’s opposite the hotel which cut some of the cost for eating. We went for 3 nights and I think that was enough time to see most of the sights, if you wanted to do it more thoroughly then I’d recommend a bit longer especially if you are coming from further afield. Next time I’d like to see Paris more by night as I didn’t really get to see much of it after dark. But overall it was a good experience and I would like to visit again one day in the future.
Ahh Final Fantasy XV. The game is one I had been curious about ever since it was announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII back in 2006 and it was only released as Final Fantasy XV towards the end of 2016. I would have been 14 when it was first announced and now I am 26, scary thought! Last night I completed the game after playing it for over a month. Sounds like a long time but sadly 40+ hour games and working full time doesn’t really mix in terms of getting them completed quick. It’s been a journey I’ve really enjoyed going on alongside Noctis and his friends and now I’ve finished it’s like finishing a boxset, it’s sad that it’s all over and I’m not quite sure what to do now.
The story is centred around Prince Noctis and his close friends Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. Noctis is about to get married to his fiancée Lady Lunafreya but circumstances see his father King Regis killed by the empire which leaves Noctis going on a quest to reclaim the throne. The main villain who you meet later on is Ardyn, who is after the throne for himself. The fact that the team are already established from the start makes it a little bit unusual compared to other RPGs where you meet people along the way and assemble a team. However, it’s nice that it focuses on already established friends and further develops their relationships with each other.
One of the key themes of this game is brotherhood and aptly there is a five-part animated series called Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV which focuses on the backstories of the characters and how they all met. There is also a film called Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV which runs parallel with the game’s story at the beginning and focuses on King Regis, Noctis’s father before he is killed. The main theme is a cover of Stand By Me performed by Florence and the Machine which you hear at the beginning and during the credits. It captures the theme of the relationship between Noctis and his friends. One thing that impressed me throughout was the amount of dialogue between them all as they generally go around. Even late in the game you hear new bits of dialogue, some of which can be quite amusing at times.
The battle mechanics work in real time and you can only control Noctis, but the others help throughout and at points you can get them do their special attacks once the gauge is filled. Once you get further into the game you are able to summon and of course you can use magic. Noctis also has a warp ability which proves pretty handy at times, especially when you need to get out of the firing line. In battle your HP can go down to zero but you don’t necessarily die, if you do then you have a chance to use a Phoenix Down before it’s too late. In some cases, your teammates can heal you too so you don’t even have to use potions and as long as you’re not being attacked your HP and MP will climb back up both in and outside of battle, making things easier in some ways. You also gain your experience points every time you rest at a hotel or camp so it tallies up after every battle or mission.
The games tagline is ‘This is a fantasy based on reality’ and it is very much a modern Final Fantasy (although don’t worry you can still ride on the Chocobos!). You spend a lot of time driving in the car named the Regalia and it is your main mode of transport. You can make camp or stay in places which relates to the day and night feature, meaning it encourages you to stay somewhere and clock up your experience points and skills. Ignis creates meals for the party at camp which boosts their stats and gains recipes along the way. Prompto takes pictures daily and you can review these, a lot of these pictures could be group pictures, selfies or just general scenery which gives it a nice personal touch. You can also take your own photos if you like too. Another bit of realism is the real-life brands that you see in this game, some a bit unexpected such as Lunafreya’s wedding dress being designed by Vivienne Westwood to Nissin’s Cup Noodles!
There are a lot of stunning places to behold in the game too, my personal favourite would be the city of Altissia which is heavily based on Venice, complete with a gondola system to get around. Driving around you see many beautiful landscapes, some of which call for photo opportunities by Prompto. If it doesn’t make you want to get your friends and go on a big road trip then I’m not sure what would! The world feels so vast and you’re constantly moving around going to the next place or doing the next mission but luckily you are able to fast track getting to certain destinations which helps getting around smoothly.
The game isn’t perfect by any means but I do think it’s the first Final Fantasy that I’ve really enjoyed and engaged in since Final Fantasy X. Not counting FFXI or FFXIV, FFXII I admittedly never really liked. FFXIII was alright but even back when this game was supposed to be part of that world as Versus XIII I always preferred the look of it. I can see in some ways some may feel FFXV is a bit rushed. Once you get to Altissia and Luna’s subsequent death, the game narrative goes into a quick drive towards the end. I spent a lot of time doing the missions and levelling up before heading back to Noctis’s home town of Insomnia and facing Ardyn but sometimes the missions can get a little repetitive. Some aspects of the narrative aren’t always clear, for example I understood the slightly confusing ending because I had spoiled most of it for myself previously (yep, just too impatient). It also would have been nice to have seen a bit more of Luna before she died as she clearly meant a lot to Noctis and could have given her death a greater impact.
As mentioned before, the game is meant to be a fantasy based on reality which explains why the ending is so tragic as Noctis goes against antagonist Ardyn for the final time over the battle of the throne. Once Ardyn dies, Noctis is left with no choice but to sacrifice himself which leaves you with a bittersweet taste as justice isn’t really done. Justice not being done both in fiction and reality is something I struggle with because it is a reality that life isn’t fair but you always want the bad guys to get their comeuppance. The ending is sad not only because Noctis makes the ultimate sacrifice, but you feel after the death of the two people closest to him he deserves to have a happy ending. Honestly, the final scene after the credits gave me chills as you see Noctis and Luna reunited and ‘getting married’ in the afterlife. It’s so bittersweet and I’m still reeling from it.
Final Fantasy XV overall to me is a great entry in the iconic series. I truly engaged in the story and the characters. While I’ve finished the main story, I am aware that the Royal Edition has just come out, with the Royal Pack available for those who already own the game. I’m not rushing to get it as it stands as I understand there may be more expansions so I will leave the game as it is for now, but I’m sure I will return to it at some point.