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My 2019 Year in Review

 

Happy belated Christmas everyone!

I hope you’ve all had a fantastic festive season with your friends and family, and that you’ve been well and truly spoilt with gifts, food and fun. I’ve had a lovely few days at home with my family, enjoying Christmas and everything that comes with it. Now that the big day is out the way, I’m looking forward to celebrating a new year, and a new decade, and can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store for me! Before that though, here’s my annual round up of my highlights throughout the year – it was certainly one of my biggest and best years to date! Here’s what I’ve got up to over the past 12 months, and how I got on with my 2019 New Years Resolutions too…

 

January & February

 

I had a great start to the year, with my sister Hannah surprising me with tickets to go and see Disney’s Aladdin on the West End for my 26th birthday! I had a magical day shopping, lunching and indulging in all things Disney with my sis, and it definitely made me want to see more West End shows. I also spent time with my friends, going out for dinner and having a games night in instead of doing a clubbing night out – defo showing my age now! January was also a special month as we got our new puppy Lola, a beautiful little Cavapoo who has brought so much joy to our lives this year. It snowed a lot at the end of Jan and Lola absolutely loved running around in it, feeling the soft white powder beneath her paws – what I would give to see snow again this winter!

 

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That's a wrap! My internship at The Sunday Times Travel Magazine has come to an end 💻 I've had a great couple of weeks learning about the world of journalism and I even got to write an article that got approved and will be published in the May issue of the magazine which means… MY NAME WILL BE IN PRINT! 🗞 It's been a great experience but I can't wait to come home – I'm not sure London life is meant for me as I've spent the majority of the time getting lost and ending up in places I didn't even know existed, and no one smiles or talks on the tube which makes it soooo lonely 😭 Until next time, London, I won't be back for a while! 👋 Ps. Omg forgot I'm there Tuesday to fly to Australia 😂✈️ #whatislife

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February also saw me quit my job at luxury travel firm at Abercrombie & Kent (where I had been working for the past 18 months) in order to take a leap of faith and try something new. I left my job on 15th February and did a two week travel writing internship at the Sunday Times Travel Magazine, learning all about the world of journalism at the News Building in London. I really enjoyed my internship, and even got one of my articles published in the May edition of the magazine, which is probably my biggest writing achievement to date!

 

March & April

 

March and April were my favourite months of the year as I spent them both exploring the beautiful country of Australia, and what an adventure I had! I travelled alone and was away for six weeks in total, going from Melbourne – Sydney and ticking off the likes of the Great Ocean Road, Adelaide, the Outback, Cairns, the Whitsundays, Brisbane and Bondi Beach along the way. I skydived over Uluru, camped under the stars in the Outback, snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef and took a scenic flight over Fraser Island, ticking sooo much off my Aussie bucket list! I made some wonderful friends, who I still speak to now, and had the most amazing time in Australia. It was honestly the best trip I have ever done – I was so sad about leaving and wish more than anything that I could return right this second. Australia – I will be back one day!

 

 

The rest of April saw me enjoy Easter at home with my family and spending time catching up with all my wonderful friends. I headed to Bristol at the end of the month for a charity gala night to celebrate 25 years of the Pituitary Foundation, who I of course am a proud ambassador for. I went with my mum and dad, their two friends and one of my best friends – we had all climbed Mount Snowdon together the year before so it was a lovely way to reunite and celebrate such a wonderful achievement for the charity.

 

May & June

 

May was a great month of travel for me, as I headed to Spain with my sister Hannah to embark on our Spanish interrailing adventure. We were away for 8 nights/9 days and spent time in Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona. We had a brilliant trip and absolutely loved visiting some of Spain’s most iconic cities. I loved Valencia and Barcelona for their beaches, ancient cathedrals and lively atmospheres, but I think Madrid was my favourite out of all three of them as I just loved the history and the authentic Tapas. My nan and grandad and aunty and uncle also came down to stay with us just after we got back from Spain, so it was lovely to spend time with them as I hadn’t seen them since before going to Australia and we had a lot to catch up on!

May also saw me head to the Lake District and Scotland with my mum and dad – we were heading up to climb Ben Nevis for the Pituitary Foundation and had a lovely break away, although my dad sadly broke his wrist whilst we were climbing the mountain so we didn’t make it to the top which we were absolutely GUTTED about! Later on in the month I headed to Cardiff with one of my besties to go and see the Spice Girls which was absolutely amazing and brought back allll the 90s feelings from when I was a little girl growing up! I also celebrated my five year blogging anniversary at the end of the month which is absolutely CRAZY – I can’t believe I am still blogging and am thankful every day for the amazing trips I’ve taken and the wonderful people I have met through my blog, I know for sure that my life would be very different without it!

 

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Happy #TravelTuesday everyone – I'm actually not travelling at the moment (for once) and you know what, I'm actually soooo happy about it! 🏡 I haven't spent more than 2 weeks at a time at home since February and have been on back to back trips since March, taking 10 flights in 3 months, and travelling thousands of miles across Australia, the UK and Europe which has made me bloody exhausted 😩 I know I shouldn't moan because I LOVE my life and I'm so lucky I get to travel so much, but all the constant running around from airport to airport and sleeping in different hotel beds every night has finally taken its toll and I've got so fed up with being on the road that I just want to have a base to come back to ✨ So I'm now totally ready to spend the next three months completely at home, as my next trip isn't until September, and focus on myself, my blog and something else which I haven't told you about yet but I will reveal all soon, I promise! 🙈 For now here's a pic of me loving life in sunny Italia and soaking up the stunning mountain views that were right behind me ⛰

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In June my lovely nan came down to stay with us for a week and it was sooo amazing to spend some quality time with her. We enjoyed lovely days out in the Cotswolds just as the weather was getting good and had so much to catch up on as, like with my other nan and grandad, I hadn’t seen her since before I left for Australia! June also saw me head to Italy for my 4th annual Traverse conference which, as you know, I attend every year! I headed over to Verona for two nights first, ticking off all the sights such as Romeo and Juliet’s Balcony, the Castel San Pietro and the impressive Arena – I really liked Verona and would definitely like to return one day to spend a bit more time there. After Verona I travelled onwards to the city of Trento, in the Dolomites, where the Traverse conference was being held. I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the region of Trentino and it was great to discover a part of Italy I knew nothing about, all whilst attending my fave travel conference and catching up with my fave blogger friends. At the end of June I also went to see Westlife for the 4th time with one of my besties and it was amazing – I love them so much and am already planning to see them again in 2020!

 

July & August

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New week, new month, new JOB! 😬 Eeeek been keeping this under wraps for a little while, but today's the day I start my brand new job at a luxury travel company in Witney. 🌎 I'm so excited to have swapped a 2hr daily commute for a drive that takes me just 8 minutes to get to my new office 🙈 Instead of finishing at 5:30 and not getting home til nearly 7 I'll actually be home before 5:30 which means I can actually have a social life in the evenings and can fit it around working part time on my blog too ❤️ So excited for my new chapter to begin, after 4 months of travelling and spending way too much money I can't wait to get into a proper routine again and start settling down (kind of 😉) Operation 'Jess is saving up for a house' has been resumed! 🏡 #MondayMotivation #NewJob #NewChapter #WishMeLuck

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July and August were a little quieter for me and I didn’t leave the country once (shock horror!) but I did have some exciting news which was that I started my brand new JOB at luxury travel firm Oxford Private Travel! I was so excited to start working again after 4 months off and was keen to take the next steps of my career in the travel industry. I also swapped a 2hour daily commute for just a 20 minute round trip compared to my last job, and I feel so much happier in my new role, which is much more varied than my last one – I’ve been there six months now and still love going into work every single day. July also saw me head to London’s Hyde Park for their British Summertime Festival two weekends in a row as I saw the legend that is Robbie Williams with my sister and the absolute Queen that is Celine Dion with my mum! I’d wanted to see them both since I was a little girl, and both concerts were absolutely amazing so I will definitely remember them forever.

 

 

August saw one of my friends I met in Australia come and visit me for a couple of nights which was so lovely. She’s from The Hague in the Netherlands so wanted to visit Oxford and do a Cotswolds trip – to which I was her tour guide and host for the weekend! I love the fact that travelling allows you to meet people from all walks of life who you’d never meet otherwise, and for that I will always be grateful as some of my best friends are people I met whilst I’ve been travelling! At the end of August I headed up to Liverpool for my cousins wedding and my nan’s 80th birthday which was an amazing, fun-filled, family weekend with all my nearest and dearest. During the bank holiday weekend I also went to The Big Feastival, an amazing show here in the Cotswolds which is brimming with food stalls, family entertainment and big name artists – I went with my two friends and their little girls and had such a lovely time!

 

September & October

 

September was a great month for blogging events as I headed to London for the inaugural Borderless Live event run by the Traverse team, and then up to Manchester the week after for the popular Blog at the Beach event with Ice Lolly Holiday. Normal travelling service had resumed by the time September came around, as I flew out to Sardinia for my first work trip. We stayed at the gorgeous Forte Village Resort and spent time doing site inspections and enjoying all the facilities that the resort had to offer, but what I loved most was just swimming in the sea and taking in all the beautiful surroundings. The next day after I got home I was straight back to the airport to head on a girls holiday with my friend and two sisters to Vilamoura – it was my first time in Portugal and I was so excited! Vilamoura certainly didn’t disappoint and we had a great week enjoying the glitzy marina, swimming in the sea and checking out the fantastic waterpark. The day after we got back from Vilamoura we went up to Liverpool for my cousins baby shower which was a lovely family filled day.

 

 

October saw me take my second work trip in just 2 months, and my 6th visit to Italy in less than 3 years, as I headed to Venice as part of a travel agent fam trip. I only spent two nights there but had a great time seeing lots of hotels and taking part in excursions including visiting a gondola workshop, seeing the hidden gardens in the city and taking a boat trip over to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. Despite visiting Venice for the first time back in 2016 (and not falling in love with it as much as I thought I would) I actually really enjoyed my second time in the city and had a much better experience this time round! In October I also took a first aid course (and passed) so I’m now a fully qualified first aider which is great and I also popped into Oxford for an evening with the Pituitary Foundation to listen to Professor John Wass, the founder of the charity, give an interesting speech. I also did a couple of blog reviews at The Botanist, Cheltenham and The Ivy, Oxford which were great evenings out, saw Grease the Musical in Oxford and I went to Brighton with two of my besties for a fun girly weekend!

 

November & December 

 

In November I went to WTM London for the third time, but this time with work rather than as a blogger which was totally different! I had back to back meetings all day and not much free time but still managed to catch up briefly with a few of my fave blogger pals who I hadn’t seen since Traverse in June or Borderless Live in September. November also saw me heading to our local fireworks display for Bonfire Night, and popping into Oxford for my work Christmas party which I had the task of organising and, luckily, a great night was had by all! At the end of November I took my sister Sophie to nearby Blenheim Palace in Woodstock for their annual Christmas at Blenheim event which was even better than last year’s one! The Alice in the Palace was beautiful, the illuminated lights trail was spectacular and we left feeling truly festive.

 

 

At the start of December I attended Sudeley Castle’s Spectacle of Light event in Winchcombe, near Cheltenham, with my sister and parents – we had a lovely festive evening and it was just what we needed to kick-start our December! A week later my sister Hannah and I headed to the beautiful Baltic city of Riga for a Christmas Markets break and we had the most wonderfully festive weekend. I actually won this trip in a competition I entered whilst at Traverse 19 in Trento back in June, which was sponsored by Magnetic Latvia. We had a fantastic time in Latvia and I couldn’t think of a better place to tick off my 30th country, which was a definite travel milestone for me! Of course December has also brought Christmas, a quiet one at home with family this year, and I’m excited to be heading to Cheltenham for a 1920s Great Gatsby themed party on New Years Eve so I can see in 2020 in style!

 

My 2019 New Years Resolutions

At the start of the year you might remember that I set my 2019 New Years Resolutions, and I always love to reflect and look back, so here’s how I got on…

 

Go Veggie for 1 month – SUCCESS – I actually kept this up for an entire SIX MONTHS instead of just for 1 month which I am really proud of myself for. Unfortunately I am still having problems with my tummy, and think that my constant bloating and stomach pains may be something to do with my ovaries instead of being food related, so I am going to investigate this further but I definitely didn’t miss meat at all during my 6 months of being veggie and have only recently started eating chicken in order to get more protein into my diet – I still avoid red meat and don’t eat fish at all so I’ve done really well with this resolution, and it was much easier than I thought!

 

Visit 7 countries – SUCCESS – I managed to tick off Australia, Abu Dhabi, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Italy (x3) and Latvia during my 2019 travels so I am really glad I was successful at this one! As a travel blogger, ticking off countries is a big deal for me, so I’m going to try and visit as many as I can each year and already can’t wait to see where my 2020 travels take me!

 

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*NEW BLOG POST* ((Link in bio)) How to spend a day in #Verona 🇮🇹 Back in June I spent a very short time running around Italy's city of love ticking off alllll the sights as quickly as I could! 🌎 If, like me, you're on limited time during your flying visit to Verona, check out my travel guide to make the most of your day in this beautiful city and see some of the top sights including the Verona Arena, Ponte Pietra and Juliet's Balcony 😍 This pic was taken at the top of Castel San Pietro, a hillside fortress which can be reached on foot if you're active, or by funicular if you're feeling tired (like me) and offers some of the best views of Verona ✨ . . . #traveltuesday #travelblogger #travel #travelgram #uktravelbloggers #lonelyplanet #mytinyatlas #darlingescapes #veronaitaly #veronainlove #igersverona #insta_verona #veronacity #veronapictures #italy #italia #igersitaly #italytravel #topitalyphoto #italy_vacations #europe #europetravel #europe_pics #europe_tourist #europe_greatshots #citybreak #citypics #citylife #cityscape

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Read 2-3 books a month – SUCCESS – I have been really good at this one and read a whopping 24 books this year, which is bang on 2 books a month! I am really glad I have been able to do this as I absolutely love reading and have spent more time focusing on this instead of scrolling on my phone, so that’s a definite positive!

 

Take a leap of faith – SUCCESS – I was really vague about this when I set this resolution at the start of the year, but it was because I already knew what it was, I just couldn’t tell you as I hadn’t given in my notice at work! This year, my leap of faith was to quit my job and travel around Australia, and I did exactly that! I’m really proud of myself for pushing myself out of my comfort zone, leaving a job I was unhappy in and travelling the other side of the world on my own. Life is too short to be unhappy, so take a leap of faith and follow your dreams before it’s too late!

 

 

Reach 10,000 social media followers – FAIL – I tried this one last year and failed, and sadly I didnt manage to achieve it this year either. I’m now on 9344 followers across all social media platforms, so I’m not a million miles away, but I would have loved to reach my 10,000 milestone in 2019. Ah well, maybe next year I will finally get this one!

 

Make time to meditate – FAIL – Bad news, I didn’t get this one either, but it’s because I am so flipping busy all the time I never have time to sit down and meditate! I have obviously spent more time reading books this year though, so I’m taking that as a positive and not worrying that I haven’t meditated because you can’t do everything, right?!

 

What I want from 2020

 

If I’m honest I’m really not sure what I want from 2020. This year surpassed all my wildest dreams as I travelled for 13 weeks of the year, got a new job which I absolutely love, spent time with family and friends and saw some incredible concerts which I will remember forever! I’m just grateful to have had a really wonderful 12 months after a difficult 2018. The only thing I really want to achieve is to buy a house – I’ve wanted to move out for a while and have finally got a decent deposit saved up, so I’m confident that 2020 will be the year I finally get on the property ladder! Other than that though, I just want to continue taking little trips throughout the year and hopefully I’ll get sent on some more amazing work trips too!

I will most likely write up my 2020 New Years Resolutions in January so will share them with you when I’m ready and have thought more about what I want to acheive from the year ahead. Until then though, I hope you’re all still enjoying the festive period and that you have a happy and healthy start to 2020. Happy New Year everyone – thank you as always for reading my little blog, I love that I can still share my life updates with you five years after starting Journeys with Jessica – long may it continue!

Love Jess x

 

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Lush green mountains, sunny blue skies and glorious countryside views, this is what I love most about the beautiful #LakeDistrict ⛰ I didn't go abroad until I was 8 years old and spent many half term holidays up here with my sisters, so Lakeland is a huge part of my childhood and I have fond memories running up and down hills, chasing sheep in fields and having fun with my family ❤️ One year we even ended up getting lost on a mountain when my mum thought we were following yellow arrows on stones and sticking to a proper pathway but it turned out to just be yellow MOSS that she was following and we had been going round in circles for 8 hours!! 😂 A phone call to Mountain Rescue got 3 kids, 2 adults and 1 dog back on the straight and narrow but it took us forever to get off that bloody mountain and I never wanted to see another one for weeks after that 🙈 Luckily I started to love them again as I got older, and now they hold a special place in my heart and help me to appreciate all the natural beauty we have right here in England 🇬🇧 Do you have a silly travel story? I'd love to hear them on this chilled Sunday evening! ✨

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How to Spend a Festive Weekend in Riga, Latvia

 

 

A couple of weeks ago I returned from my last trip of the year (and the decade, which sounds WEIRD!) after visiting the beautiful Baltics for the first time with my sister. We spent a festive weekend in Riga exploring the cobbled streets of the Old Town, wandering around the gorgeous Christmas markets and enjoying some traditional Latvian food which made for a fantastic weekend getaway before the madness of Christmas was here! I actually won this trip as a competition prize from Traverse Events and Magnetic Latvia when I was in Italy attending Traverse 19 in June, so it was a great way to end my wonderful year of travel and made a change from heading to sunnier climes! Here’s what I got up to on my festive weekend in Riga, and what I’d recommend you do there too…

 

Check out the Christmas Markets

 

With not one, not two but THREE Christmas Markets dotted around the city, it’s not hard to see why you’d opt for a fantastic festive weekend in Riga. The biggest (and best) ones are located in the Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square) and are breath-takingly beautiful. Situated right in front of the impressive Cathedral, the wooden markets are decorated in traditional European style and sell everything from mulled wine and hot chocolate to gingerbread houses, sweets and hog roasts. Christmas music fills the air, with live folk dancing and carol singing occurring daily, and there’s often real snow falling from the sky as Riga is notoriously cold in December! The entrance arch, with Christmas trees and twinkling lights lining the opening really makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into a scene from Narnia, and its such a magical place to walk around at any time of day, but especially in the evening when the skies are dark and the lights are out in force! Take a walk over to the Esplanade to check out one of the other markets, located just in front of the striking Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church which is free to enter and definitely worth a visit. At these markets you’ll find stalls selling similar products and a real life rabbit village (yes, you heard me right) where super cute fluffy bunnies are kept in a huge pen complete with Lego houses, toy buildings and more. What a place!

 

Try traditional Balsam at Black Magic

 

 

 

I had heard lots about Balsam before my festive weekend in Riga and knew that it was a ‘rite of passage’ when visiting Latvia, so where better to try some for ourselves than in Black Magic, a beautifully medieval café/bar which was a former apothecary selling all sorts of lotions and potions back in the 1700s, and in particular black Balsam which was used to treat ailments and made from 24 different ingredients. Inside, the lights are dimmed and you are served by candlelight – choose from a range of delicious chocolate truffles, cakes and sweet treats, all made from the traditional black Balsam, or just order shots or cocktails of it at the bar if you’d rather taste it that way (and if you’re made of strong stuff!) If, like me, you’re a bit of a lightweight, I would suggest ordering a hot blackcurrant drink with Balsam as it’ll warm your cockles slowly and allow you to taste it a little more gently than just ordering a hard core shot which is full of alcohol! Black Magic was a hidden gem and even had a secret room behind a bookcase which you pushed open to enter – I had read a few blog posts recommending this place and I can agree that it is definitely worth a visit during your festive weekend in Riga! 

 

Wander around the Old Town

 

 

Probably our favourite thing to do during our festive weekend in Riga was simply just to walk around the Old Town soaking up the festive spirit in the air and admiring the historic buildings that were dotted around. I felt the cobbled streets and red coloured buildings were reminiscent of Prague and other European cities, but Riga is much smaller and I felt had much more character too. Whenever I visit somewhere new I always make a point of learning as much as I can about its history, so we paid a visit to the War Museum and the Museum of Occupation, both of which gave a fascinating insight into Latvia’s history. I was absolutely shocked and saddened to learn that Latvia has only been ‘unoccupied’ for 50 years of its 800 year history after the city was founded in 1201, and it was very moving to read stories of occupation from older times, as well as more recent times in the Second World War, right up until Latvia was listed as Independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The House of the Blackheads is well worth a visit if you are interested in learning more about this – the building was destroyed in World War Two and only reopened in 1999, so it is literally only 20 years old and the restoration is remarkable. Tickets cost just 6 Euros for entrance to all parts of the House, including the original cellar and the grand ballroom.

 

Climb St Peter’s Church Tower

 

I have climbed many a Church Tower in my time, and have seen some epic sights from up high whilst on my travels, but the views that greeted me from the top of St Peter’s Church were truly breath-taking and really made our festive weekend in Riga extra special! Taking an elevator 123m up to the top made a welcome change from climbing god knows how many hundreds of steps I usually have to tackle when taking part in this kind of thing, but the views at the top were one of the most rewarding I have ever witnessed! You could see for miles in every direction from the top of the Church, and we were able to spot the red roofs of the buildings below, the blue waters of the Daugava River in the distance and the various landmarks and sights that make Riga so special from up high. Tickets cost 9 Euros but they are definitely worth it for the incredible panoramic views you get from the top – just don’t forget to hold on to your hat as it is ridiculously windy up there!

 

Have lunch at the Centralais Market

 

 

We did this on our last day once we had seen all the sights so that we could spend a bit more time and really enjoy our visit to the Centralais Market! Brimming with food, drink, arts and crafts stalls, as well as fantastic places to sit down and eat lunch/ dinner or have a drink at the bar, the Centralais Market was a great place to warm up from the cold and while away a few hours. We wandered around the stalls, tasted some samples of cheese and other yummy delights and enjoyed lunch from one of the food stands – delicious potato rosti’s with amazing toppings which were sooo good! I think in the evening this place really comes alive and is a great place to party, but we were just happy to find somewhere warm for a few hours and enjoy some fantastic food during our festive weekend in Riga!

 

Where to stay

 

We stayed at the Wellton Riga Centrum Hotel and Spa during our festive weekend in Riga, located on Kaleju Iela, just opposite the Galerija shopping centre and within striking distance of the centre of the beautiful Old Town. Café’s, bars, souvenir shops and supermarkets lined the streets surrounding our hotel, which were super handy and being just a few minutes’ walk in any direction from the Old Town meant we were in the perfect location for being able to get around and see all that the city had to offer. The train station was just a 10 minute walk away, as was the nearest bus stop which served the 22 line, making it super easy for getting to/from the airport (tickets can be bought on the bus for just 2 Euros each way!) I think there are 3 Wellton’s in Riga, and I would highly recommend the one we stayed in as it had a fantastic Spa which was sooo needed after a busy day of sightseeing in sub zero temperatures! Our room was clean, spacious and modern and breakfast was served until 11am which was perfect for us as we struggled to wake up early what with the 2 hour time difference from the UK and the lack of daylight that saw the sun rising much later than we were used to!  

 

Where to eat/drink

There are an abundance of quirky restaurants, bars and cafes in Riga serving a mixture of traditional Latvian food and modern, Western menus as well as chain restaurants including Costa and TGI Fridays if you like your home comforts! Classic Latvian dishes include stewed sauerkraut, potato rosti’s, meats marinated in rich sauces, soups served in bread bowls, dark rye bread and of course the famous Balsam which Riga has become so well known for. We chose to eat our evening meals at traditional restaurants during our festive weekend in Riga, including the legendary Folkklubs, one of the most popular places in the city which serves classic Latvian dishes alongside live folk music as you dine! I would highly recommend Folkklubs on Peldu Iela for an authentic Latvian dining experience, but be prepared to wait ages for a table, and even longer for service as the place seems to be super busy every night of the week! For something more modern, head to OGLE restaurant near the House of the Blackheads where you’ll be treated to pizzas, pastas and dishes from the woodfired grill as well as delicious cocktails at great prices.  

 

As you can see, my sister and I had a magically festive weekend in Riga and we came home feeling full of Christmas spirit! I would highly recommend visiting Riga at any of time of year as it is super interesting to learn about its history, see its beautiful landmarks and indulge in its traditional Latvian food, but all of this is heightened at Christmas, so December is a definitely a great time to be heading over there. Have you spent a festive weekend in Riga before? Or have you got plans to head up to the Baltics any time soon? Vilnius and Tallinn are next on my bucket-list, so I’m sure I’ll be planning trips there for 2020 very soon – send me allll your travel tips please!

NB. I won this trip as part of a competition prize with Traverse Events and Magnetic Latvia with no obligation to post. All words and photos are of course my own.

 

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A Festive Evening in the Cotswolds at the Sudeley Castle Spectacle of Light

 

 

On 1st December I was invited along to Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire to experience their Spectacle of Light event which had a special Peter Pan theme this year. Located in Winchcombe in the Cotswolds, just a 30 minute drive from nearby Cheltenham, Sudeley Castle boasts a history spanning 1000 years and its onsite chapel is the burial site of Queen Catherine Parr, sixth wife to Henry the Eighth, where her marble tomb resides. Sudeley Castle dates back to the 1200s, but the current structure was built in the 15th century, with its ruins and gardens being well looked after and kept to an incredibly high standard. Recognised as a Grade II listed building and an internationally important structure, Sudeley Castle is one of the few castles left in England that is still a residence and is only open to visitors on certain dates throughout the year, with the family’s private quarters totally closed to the public.

 

The lights  on the Castle

 

The Peter Pan laser display

 

The Sudeley Castle Spectacle of Light is now in its fourth year and it seems to be getting bigger and better with each year that passes. The Peter Pan theme this year was really well put together, with character appearances from Tinkerbell, Captain Hook and Pan himself, as well as a light/laser display in the main courtyard. The beautiful castle and its ruins are lit up in the night sky, whilst the stunning gardens are adorned with dazzling lights, water fountains and sparkly props designed to make them look extra special.

 

The Castle ruins all lit up

 

The sparkly fountains

 

Wonderful music from Peter Pan fills the air, and you can follow the illuminated trail the whole way around the castle. I particularly loved the way the Castle was lit up with different colours, the way the fountains were glistening with sparkly lights, and the positioning of the big illuminated star that made it a great place for taking those all important Insta shots! We really loved the illuminated lights trail and the Peter Pan theme, but I do think that there was a distinct lack of Christmas music which would have made it feel more festive. Having said that, I think the music that was present did add to the Peter Pan theme and perhaps Sudeley are aiming for the event to be more about the storybook feel rather than just churning out the Christmassy sounds of Shakin Stevens on repeat!

 

More illuminations with the Castle in the background

 

Enjoying a mulled wine on the terrace

 

Every evening the Sudeley Castle Spectacle of Light has six entry time slots from 4:45pm onwards. A typical visit to the Spectacle lasts around an hour to an hour and a half, but you can spend as little or as much time onsite as you wish! I went with my parents and my sister and we spent around an hour there in total as we stopped to enjoy a mulled wine on the terrace, bought some little presents from the gift shop and were taking lots of photos as we wandered round.

The Sudeley Castle Spectacle of Light runs on selected evenings until 30th December 2019, so be sure to book your tickets promptly as slots for the final days are filling up fast with Christmas just around the corner now! It is best to book your tickets in advance, as they are a little more expensive on the gate. Advance adult tickets cost £16.50 whilst child tickets are £9.90 with under 3’s going free of charge. Make sure you turn up at the correct entry time as stated on your ticket though as tickets are only valid for that time and are not transferable.

 

Sparkling lights in the Castle gardens

Sparkling lights in the Castle gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had a wonderful evening at the Sudeley Castle Spectacle of Light and it certainly got my December off to a festive start! I’m so lucky that living in the Cotswolds means places like this are right on my doorstep, and I definitely need to make more of an effort to visit them throughout the year, rather than just at Christmas! Have you been to the Spectacle before? I would love to know what you thought of it!

NB. My tickets for the Sudeley Castle Spectacle of Light were gifted to me and my family for the purpose of this review but, as always, all words and photos are of course my own.

 

The star of the show!

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Travel guide to Vilamoura: Planning your trip to The Algarve

 

The beautiful Algarve, one of Portugal’s most visited regions and one of the most popular beach destinations in Europe. I visited Portugal for the first time back in September when I spent 5 days in Vilamoura on a girls holiday – how it took me 26 years to visit Portugal I will never know!! I absolutely fell in love with the Algarve during my trip; the weather was amazing, the beaches were stunning and the food was incredible! If, like me, it’s your first time visiting the Algarve or you’re planning a return trip there for 2020, here’s my travel guide to Vilamoura, and how I would recommend you spend your time there…

 

Wander around the marina

 

The beautiful Vilamoura marina

 

The marina is without doubt THE place to be in Vilamoura, with a wide range of shops, bars and restaurants lining the harbour. Sip cocktails as you watch the mega dollar yachts bobbing up and down in the harbour, or take your pick of some of the Algarve’s best restaurants and enjoy lunch or dinner by the sea both day and night. There are plenty of lively bars (including at least three Irish bars!) that are open until late, offering lots of places to enjoy a few drinks. The marina is the hub of Vilamoura and has a real buzz about it, so you’ll definitely find yourself spending lots of time here during your holiday, and no travel guide to Vilamoura would be complete without it!

 

Go to the Aquashow Waterpark

 

The Aquashow Waterpark

 

Located in Quarteira, just a 10 minute taxi ride (or short bus ride) away from the marina, the Aquashow Waterpark is a fantastic day out for all the family and offers something different on my travel guide to Vilamoura. There are huge water slides for the thrill seekers, smaller rides and flumes for the less adventurous and even land rides for those not wanting to get too wet. An onsite café and shop allows you to purchase food, drinks and souvenirs, and there are lockers available for a small charge. There’s a lazy river, wave pool and large swimming pool if you’re looking to have a more chilled out day instead of going on ride after ride. We spent the morning on the big rides and then the afternoon on the smaller rides and had an amazing day doing something different that didn’t involve the beach or the marina, but whatever your reasons for visiting, you’ll be sure to have a fun filled day out at Aquashow – an absolute must see on your travel guide to Vilamoura!

 

Hop on a dolphin watching boat tour

 

Photo courtesy of www.tripadvisor.co.uk

 

I reeeallly wanted to do this during my time in Vilamoura but sadly we ran out of days and didn’t manage to squeeze it in! There are plenty of boat trips to take in Vilamoura as the area is fantastic for dolphin watching, with the Atlantic Sea being one of the best places to spot them in the wild. Some trips take you out to the middle of the sea and into the Benagil Caves for a fantastic experience, whilst others just focus on offering amazing opportunities to see some brilliant marine life. Next time I am in the Algarve I will definitely be taking a boat trip as I have only seen dolphins in the wild a handful of times and they are my favourite animals in the world so you can imagine how gutted I was that I didn’t get chance to try and see them this time round!

 

Explore the two long sandy beaches

 

Having fun on Praia de Vilamoura beach

 

There are two beaches at the heart of Vilamoura, Praia de Vilamoura to the east – the most well known as it is right by the marina – and Praia da Falesia to the west which is located a little further away. Both beaches are equally as beautiful, with long stretches of golden sand and deep blue waters that are perfect for swimming in. I was really apprehensive about swimming in the sea as Portugal sits on the Atlantic Ocean which is notoriously chilly and no where near as warm as the Med, but once I got over the initial shock of coldness and started swimming properly I completely forgot I was in the Atlantic and enjoyed spending plenty of time in the water! Both beaches have sunbeds and umbrellas to hire, and there are small beach bars too, with the luxurious Puro Beach on Praia de Vilamoura being part of the Anantara Vilamoura hotel (more info below) and THE place to sunbathe if you’re looking for VIP treatment.

 

Get involved with the golfing

 

Photo courtesy of www.anantara.com

 

Known for its excellent golfing facilities, home to no fewer than 40 golf courses across the resort, no guide to Vilamoura would be complete without mentioning the G word, even though I am quite possibly the least likely person in the world to play golf! I think September must be big in the golfing calendar because there were sooo many groups of men there who were either on stag do’s or group golfing trips – the majority of which were taking over the Irish bars night after night! The Portugal Masters, held in October, are a super popular time to visit, so I would avoid going to Vilamoura at this time if you aren’t bothered by the golfing as accommodations are more expensive and restaurant capacities are limited as they are often inundated with groups.

 

Where to stay

 

Our hotel, Dom Pedro Portobelo

 

We chose to stay at the Dom Pedro Portobelo Hotel, which is in a perfect location for exploring all that Vilamoura has to offer. Just a 4 minute walk away from the marina, the hotel is close enough to the action without being right on the harbour and offers fantastic value for money. There’s a restaurant and large pool onsite with accommodation options ranging from standard double/twin rooms to spacious 1 or 2 bedroom apartments. We had a 1 bed apartment that slept 4 of us comfortably, and our spacious balcony had views overlooking the pool and the sea in the distance. Faro Airport is a 25 minute drive away, and I would recommend booking a shuttle transfer before you travel as they are so cheap (£13pp return) instead of just jumping in a taxi when you get to the airport. The Dom Pedro Portobelo is one of many hotels in Vilamoura from the Dom Pedro brand and I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone looking to enjoy a fantastic stay in Vilamoura without the hefty price tag that comes with staying on the marina!

 

Hanging out at Anantara Vilamoura

 

If you have a bigger budget, you’ll be spoilt rotten at the Tivoli Marina, right at the heart of the resort and commanding some of the best views in the area! The excellent location, top notch restaurant and spa and the exquisite rooms with stunning marina views will give you a fantastic stay at any time of year. Alternatively head to Anantara Vilamoura, located a 15 minute drive from the marina by complimentary shuttle, which is a world away from Vilamoura’s buzzy atmosphere but amazing for golfers and those who want luxury, privacy and peaceful surroundings. There are 4 pools, 3 restaurants and 2 bars as well as a spa and state of the art gym with a world class golf course home to the Portugal Masters directly opposite the hotel. I was lucky enough to see both of these 5* hotels during my time in Vilamoura as I was doing some site inspections for work (even whilst on holiday – dedication or what?! ) and got to really experience the luxurious nature of them both, so can whole-heartedly recommend them if you’re looking to splash the cash and I definitely wanted to include them on my travel guide to Vilamoura.

 

Where to eat/drink

 

The glitzy Vilamoura marina

 

The marina is really the only place to go in Vilamoura to ensure you get a top notch meal, and I have to say we were blown away by the quality of food night after night during our holiday here. The meat and sea food dishes were amazing, with fresh produce and eclectic menus to choose from no matter which restaurant you ended up at. We ate at Italian, Portuguese and Mediterranean restaurants during our holiday and certainly weren’t disappointed. For drinks, I would head to the cocktails bars along the harbour front if you’re looking for something sophisticated and casual, but if you want somewhere a bit more lively I would definitely choose one of the Irish bars to get you in the mood for dancing!

As you can see from my photos, I had an absolute ball during my time in Vilamoura, and I definitely could have spent another few days lazing on the gorgeous beach, admiring the glitzy marina and swimming in the deep blue sea. With so much to see and do, the Algarve provides the perfect place for a week long holiday or a weekend escape for couples, families and groups alike. Hopefully my travel guide to Vilamoura has shown you that this part of Portugal is perfect for all types of travel, but if you need convincing further, take a look at this gorgeous candyfloss sky which lit up the marina night after night once the sun had started to set – truly magical, am I right?!

 

Candyfloss skies

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How to Spend a day in Verona

 

Fair Verona. Home to Romeo and Juliet, the second oldest Colosseum in Italy and excellent pizza, pasta and gelato. Well known for it’s excellent location close to Lake Garda, Verona makes the perfect place for a city break during your travels to Italy. I visited Verona for the first time back in June whilst I was in Italy to attend my 4th annual Traverse conference which was being held in the small city of Trento, nestled in the Dolomites. I only had time to spend a day in Verona but still managed to tick off most of the sights and get a real feel for the city during this short time. The city centre is pretty compact and is super easy to get around on foot, with all the major attractions in walking distance of each other, so only having a day in Verona really isn’t a problem and is actually doable! Here’s what I got up to during my visit, and how I recommend you spend a day in Verona too…

 

Check out the Verona Arena

 

me in front of verona arena

The historic Verona Arena

 

This was the first thing I did when I spent a day in Verona and it was a great way to get my bearings and to kick-start my time in the city learning about some of its fascinating ancient history. Tickets cost 10 euros and offer access into the main Arena as well as the tunnels surrounding the amphitheatre. The inner part isn’t huge and is a bit underwhelming if you have been to the iconic Colosseum in Rome, but I would say it is still worth a visit if you want to learn more about Verona’s history during Roman times. Built all the way back in 30 AD, on a site which used to be pas the city walls, the Arena is in fact one of the best-preserved ancient structures in the world. Nowadays, the Colosseum is used to host concerts, shows, sporting events and plays throughout the year in Verona and is a great hub seating up to 30,000 guests in the middle of the city, with the surrounding restaurants, bars and café’s in Verona’s main square being great places to people-watch.

 

Climb the Torre dei Lamberti tower

 

verona rooftops from the top of the tower

The amazing views over Verona from the top of Torre dei Lamberti

 

Located behind Piazza dei Signori, the Torre dei Lamberti is one of the tallest towers in the city at 84 metres high and is definitely worth a visit if you’ve only got a day in Verona. Construction first began in 1172, with the bell tower being added in 1295. Some 110 years later, the top of the tower was struck by lightning and remained damaged until restoration works began 16 years later in 1448. For just a couple of euro’s you can either hop in an elevator or walk the staggering 368 steps to the top of the tower, which in my opinion is a much more exciting option, especially when you are rewarded with stunning panoramic views over the city below! Catch a glimpse of the iconic terracotta rooftops, the winding river Adige and some of the beautiful houses and courtyards that can be found across the city, making your journey up to the top well worth a visit, especially at sunset or after dark when the city is lit up and dazzles below you right before your eyes!

 

Visit Juliet’s Balcony

 

me in front of juliet's statue

Well it’s worth a try, right girls?!

 

Definitely one for the Verona bucket list, but beware of the crazy amounts of tourists all flocking to do the exact same thing! Located on Capello Street, Juliet’s Balcony is perhaps one of the most famous tourist attractions in Italy, and for good reason. Based on the iconic Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s Balcony is said to be the place where Romeo declared his eternal love for Juliet, and you can visit the onsite museum which allows you to take photos on the world famous balcony. Although ridiculously busy, I still think it’s worth stopping by to tick this one off your list of things to do if you only have a day in Verona. There’s a life-size bronze statue in the courtyard garden below and, according to legend, if you touch Juliet’s right breast you will be granted eternal love! I’m not sure how accurate it is though gals – I tried it and, guess what, I’m still single 😉

 

Take the cable car up to the top of Castel San Pietro

 

the views from the top of the castel san pietro

One of the best viewpoints in Verona!

 

This is an absolute must see when spending a day in Verona, and the best time to visit is at sunset so you can watch the city turning a vibrant shade of orange as the glow of the sun reflects off the red rooftops below. A trip in a cable car up to the top of Castel San Pietro, part of Verona’s castle complex, will set you back just a couple of euro’s, and you can take a slow walk down the sloping hill afterwards if you prefer to return on foot instead. The views from the top of the hill are breath-taking, and especially good during sunset – I would recommend taking a good hour or so out of your day in Verona to visit this so you have enough time to go up and down and take in the amazing views as well!

 

Walk along the River Adige

 

the beautiful ponte pietra bridge

The best known bridge in Verona, the Ponte Pietra

 

The Adige is the second longest river in Italy, flowing over 400km through the northern part of the country towards the Adriatic Sea, and it is the same river that runs through Trento, the place that I was visiting next after spending a day in Verona. Cross the many bridges to see the city from both sides as the river runs below you, and walk the as far along as you wish to explore some of Verona’s beautiful surrounding countryside away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Verona’s most famous bridge, the Ponte Pietra, is a Roman arch bridge which provided the city with access to the Arena and was completed in 100 BC, making it the oldest bridge in the city. The arch nearest to the right bank of the Adige was rebuilt by lord of Verona Alberto I della Scala in the 1200s and sadly four of the arches were destroyed in world war two but rebuilt in 1957 using original materials.

 

Where to stay

 

the exterior of stravagante hostel verona

StraVagante Hostel Verona. Image courtesy of booking.com

 

I was on a budget so stayed at the brand new StraVagante Hostel which had only recently opened and really enjoyed my stay as the hostel was clean, comfortable and central, with much more of a hotel feel than a hostel which I really liked. The hostel is in a great location for both the airport and train station – I arrived by plane and found the Aerobus super easy and cheap to use (make sure you buy tickets – 6 euros each way – at the ticket office or on the bus using cash) and the train station was just a 10 min walk away too. If you’re looking to spend a little more, there are plenty of great hotels to choose from in central Verona, including the Grand Hotel des Arts and Hotel Milano and Spa.

 

Where to eat/drink

 

piazza bra in verona

Piazza Bra, a great place for food and drinks in Verona

 

Unfortunately I didn’t eat out much at all during my day in Verona as I wasn’t there for very long, but I did manage to have a fantastic pizza in Piazza del Signori, right near to Juliet’s Balcony. Verona has a fantastic foodie scene and there are plenty of restaurants serving pizza, pasta and gelato so you can indulge in alllll the Italian food; I’d recommend eating in Piazza Bra and Piazza delle Erbe as well as the areas by Torre dei Lamberti and the Colosseum for a brilliant choice of authentic Italian restaurants. I was actually pretty gutted that I didn’t eat out anywhere else during my time in Verona, but I guess that’s just another excuse to go back, right?!

As you can see, I had a great time soaking up the ancient Roman feel about this beautiful city, and what Verona lacks in size it certainly makes up for in charm, culture and history! If, like me, you only have the time to spend a day in Verona, I would definitely recommend you see these main sights as they are all totally doable. I would definitely return to do a day in Verona if it was planning a trip back to Italy, which I am sure I will do in the next year or two, and I would try and visit Lake Garda next time too as that place has been on my bucket list for soooo long. Have you ever been to Verona before? I’d love to know what you thought of it!

 

stood in front of the river adige in verona

Saying a fond farewell to fair Verona – I will certainly be back!