Central Sweden

This adventure post is long overdue! However, my excuse is that I have been distracted by a new venture that has been taking up more of my time than I thought. (More to follow on that soon!)

It was back in August when the hubby and I embarked on our back-packing and camping train journey from Stockholm to Swedish Lapland and back again. We saw and experienced so much but felt like we barely even scratched the Scandi surface! After flying into Stockholm, we took the Inlandsbanan (an old logging train) all the way up to Gällivare above the Arctic Circle, stopping off at little towns and villages en route. We have so many recommendations from this adventure that we have broken them down into three parts: Central, North and Stockholm.

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We flew into Stockholm Arlanda Airport and immediately started our journey via Swedish National Rail to Mora, which is the first major stop on the Inlandsbanan and is about 300km North-West of Stockholm. (Please note that the Inlandsbanan does officially start in Kristinehamn!). The Inlandsbanan is a 1,364km privately preserved railway route, where one train runs daily between Mora and Östersund, and another between Östersund and Gällivare. It only operates during the summer months and the dates change annually so you are best to check their website for the most current information. The train chugs along at an average speed of 50km/h and will stop at any ‘sight worth seeing’ and conveniently placed track-side restaurants at meal times. We purchased a two-week hopper ticket at 1,995kr per person (approximately £200), which allows you to get on and off the Inlandsbanan however many times you want making each journey unique! There are loads of other options on their website, including package tours which appeared to be popular.

Part 1 – Central

Mora is a cute little town and a real taste of central Sweden. This was certainly one of the ‘larger’ towns on this part of the route, but there is only enough stuff here to keep you occupied for a day. We camped at Mora Parken, which had great facilities (showers, kitchen, etc.) and was very close to town. We arrived mid-afternoon, set up camp and then went off to find dinner!

We had a wonderful first meal at Korsnäsgården which is located across the road from the train station. It’s a beautiful and bright little place, using local ingredients with a modern twist. The following day we had brunch at Konditori Kaffestuga (a chain of cottage cafés in this region) where caramel filled pastries, goats cheese and beetroot toasted sandwiches with honey and walnuts, salt liquorice buttercream topped macaroons and unlimited tea and coffee filled us up! After that we visited Zornmuseet and Zorngården, which celebrates Andres Zorn’s work and his fabulous house (which had more modern conveniences than the royal palace at the time!). Zorn is one of Sweden’s most renowned artists and this little shine to him does him complete justice. Make sure you catch a guided tour of his house in English (tickets can be purchased at the museum) and visit Café Zorn after for some delicious cakes. After walking around the town, take a look at the giant Dala Horse down by the lake; traditionally these wooden horses were carved as toys for children but now the Dala Horse is symbol of Sweden (so obviously, we got a little red one which now adorns the mantle piece!).

Our next stop was Orsa, which was even smaller than Mora but was the closest station to the Grönklitt Björnpark (bear park!). The camping facilities at Orsa were good, with a large kitchen and lounge area for campers. The restaurant onsite served good food, but is expensive: however, you are paying for the views of amber sunsets across the lake. Keep an eye out for red squirrels hiding in the trees there too!

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The bear park is located on the side of a 561m hill, which turns into a ski resort in winter and claims to be Europe’s largest predator park. Grönklitt is mostly filled with loads of native Swedish animals, (the bear cubs and wolves were our favourites!), with a few polar bears and tigers thrown in for good measure! If you manage to make it to the top of the hill then you will have earned your waffles crowned with cloud berry compote and vanilla ice cream, which are available in the Viking-hall-themed restaurant! To get to the bear park from Orsa we booked on to a bus at the tourist office the day before, which runs a few times daily in the summer; we were informed that we would have to pay a small fee but on both the outbound and return journeys the driver refused our money(!??).

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When we were waiting to catch the Inlandsbanan the next day we sat in the dappled sunlight at the Konditori Kaffestuga in town. This branch was located in a delightful wooden lodge, where we stuffed our faces with weird and wonderful sweet treats that we had never seen before! Including a green marzipan log filled with an arak, cookie crumb and chocolate paste (Google tells me this is called a ‘Punchrulle’!).

Our final stop on the Central part of our journey was Östersund. Set on the shore of an enormous lake, this lively and youthful city, had quite a lot going on (relatively speaking)!! Unfortunately, the nearest campsite was located quite far away from the town so we booked ourselves into some self-catering apartments in the city centre: great location, with weird but beautiful buildings and eclectic furniture! We spent our first morning walking around the city and down by the extensive lake and grabbed from breakfast from Törners Konditori, where they had a delicious selection of cinnamon and cardamom buns, blueberry and custard pastries, princess cake and ornate patisserie.

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This fuelled us for our day at Jamtli, an outdoor living museum, filled with Swedish history and enthusiastic actors! We really cannot recommend this place enough; we had a wonderful tour in English where we were guided ‘through time’ by a brilliant hostess, we visited the King’s Inn, the local village where we sampled natural fizzy water imported for its health benefits, sang with sobriety campaigners in the town square, helped pack bags for a camping roadtrip in the ‘60s and sampled fish-finger pasties for a 1970s dinner party! After which we had lunch at the museum restaurant, another tradition building but on a much larger scale, it serves a delicious daily special with hot and cold buffet sides. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in and out of different periods of time and talking to real people living in that moment: hippies, a wartime farmer’s wife and the richest farmer in the land!

We finished our time in Östersund with a fabulous dinner at Jazzköket. The menu changes regularly to include influences from different countries and the chef uses interesting flavour combinations along with local ingredients to make some very cool dishes: for dessert, we had sweet potato cream pie cookies and pea shoot ice-cream with dulce de leche. All this was surrounded by an awesome atmosphere and a funky setting. Try and time your visit with the live music they have on!

The next morning we got up early to catch the train North towards the Arctic Circle…

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French road trip

A good friend of ours moved to Paris with his job a few years ago, and it wasn’t long before he had found himself a gorgeous French girlfriend. The relationship moved along swiftly and before we knew it we’d been invited to their wedding in the south of France in a region called Languedoc-Roussillon.

Lee (Truffle!) had never visited France before, whereas I’d been there nearly every summer of my childhood for camping holidays. So, to explore France with him and introduce him to some of the culture I experienced as a child was great fun. I even managed to teach him a few phrases; although the one that he found most useful was: “can we have some more bread please?”!

En route from the airport to our gîte in Foix we stopped at a cute little town, perched on top of a massive hill, called Carla Bayle. It had a real bohemian vibe, full of artists and bijou cafés. We found a little restaurant for lunch called Auberge Pierre Bayle, (named after the Protestant philosopher who lived there). It didn’t look like much from downstairs but as you climb the spiral staircase to the restaurant upstairs you see why all the locals come here for lunch… the view is incredible!! You overlook miles of green and yellow fields, orchards and in the far distance… the Pyrénées! Plus, the food was delicious, really interesting menu with beautiful presentation. We can’t recommend it enough!

The wedding day was a truly romantic affair and it was interesting to see what the quirks of a French wedding ceremony were! So, after lots of champagne and croquembouche it was time to start our little French adventure! After all it would be a waste to go all that way and not tag on some exploring!

Our first stop was Mirepoix, an old medieval town with rustic charm, it really felt untouched by tourists. We stayed in a beautiful bed and breakfast called Demeure de la Carmine. And what a breakfast!! The spread was incredible, everything you could imagine! Our host, Stephane, was gorgeous and could not do enough for us. We visited the famous market the next morning (Thursdays and Mondays only), ate pastries (including the best coffee éclair we have ever had!), sampled cheeses and people watched. For dinner, we went to L’autre Jardin; a gourmet restaurant serving interesting flavour combinations, with its own little wine cellar! Amazing!

The following day we headed over to our next hotel called Le Vieux Castillon, on top of another hilled town: Castillion du Gard, which was pure bliss. The hotel was made from sandstone and all the furnishings and accessories were white. The only colour came from the accent windows of saffron yellow glass, these bathed the rooms in a warm golden light. This hotel was a little bit of luxury with a beautiful swimming pool, an epic breakfast buffet, a nine-course tasting menu and honey-scented Nuxe products in every room!

From here we explored Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct of enormous proportion, and the medieval city of Avignon with its numerous castles and bridges. One castle that is definitely worth the entrance fee is the gigantic Palais des Papes, a UNESCO world heritage site which used to house the Popes in the fourteenth century. And of course, we ate lots of weird and wonderful pastries! Including a ‘Figue’ which had a pale green marzipan exterior manipulated to resemble a fig, and it was filled with a chocolate and fig ganache; the texture is a cross between a cake and cookie dough! Heaven!

Whilst travelling to our next B&B we had a whistle-stop tour of the city of Nîmes, which was soaked in Roman culture… what ancient town would be complete without a mini colosseum and a huge temple?? (The Maison Carrée is probably the best-preserved temple of its kind!) The gardens are definitely worth checking out; the sculptures and fountains are pretty awesome.

That afternoon we arrived in Carcassonne to our B&B just outside the city walls. The Carcassonne B&B was homely and chic, its interior was full of curated antiques and the rooms were named after their colour (we stayed in the Yellow Room). We spent that evening and following day walking around the city walls and castle, and exploring the little alleys and side streets. We had two wonderful meals here: yummy pizza and caramel crème brûlée at La Courtine, and intriguing tapas at the gritty L’Escargot (some delicious local flavours).

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We spent our final day at our departure destination: Toulouse. We had an amazing five-course brunch at La Fiancé and spent the rest of the day wondering around the city people watching and eating random food from kiosks and side street shops, (including the famous rose shaped, nutty flavoured ice cream from Amorino’s).

It was a truly wonderful trip from start to finish, filled with local wine, enormous castles, romance and quirky food. Vive la France!

Venice

This is a city full of mystery and epic amounts of seafood. We stayed here just before Christmas, when the days were cool and bright and the nights were cold and twinkly. Here are our top ten things to do in Venice…

Arrive like James Bond… book a private water taxi from the airport to your hotel. It’s expensive, at approximately 150 euros, but it’s the best way to enter Venice, soaking up the atmosphere and sights all the way. It’s also a good way to get your bearings.

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Watch the sunset from above the city… take the lift to the top of the 99m tall Campanile, previously a lighthouse and belltower, to get the most amazing view of the city bathed in orange light. Oddly enough you can’t see a single canal from up there!

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Eat cake and people watch at Florian… This is Venice’s most famous café and it’s prime location on St Mark’s Square makes it perfect for people watching. It’s pricey but the views, both inside and outside, are amazing! (Don’t forget to try the delicious hot chocolate!)

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Wonder round the Rialto Pescheria (fish market)… it’s a bit smelly, but an absolute feast for the eyes. Open Monday to Sunday from 8am to 1pm, it’s where the locals go to do their shopping, so you get a real taste of Venetian life. It’s not just fish here either, there are fruit and vegetable stalls, cheese kiosks and bars. Watch you step though, it can get a bit slippery!

Munch at a Michelin starred restaurant… Located in the Central Castello is a hidden gem, Il Ridotto (we walked past it twice trying to find it!) that serves beautiful and delicious food. The best value for money are the lunch set menus at 30 euros or five-course evening tasting menu at 85 euros. They also use Murano glass tumblers for the water which are works of art!

Be a Tourist… find an excuse to visit the Hotel Daneili. This hotel is where the movie ‘The Tourist’ was filmed and for good reason. It is so gorgeous! We had our wedding breakfast in the Terrazza Restaurant with a view overlooking the Basilica di San Marco, but would go back just to have a drink and marvel over the ornate staircase.

Harry’s Bar Bellini… This iconic gourmet restaurant which hasn’t changed much since the 1930s when it opened, (check out the quirky toilet design). Crazy prices everywhere but you can’t go to Venice without having a Bellini! Try and go upstairs if you can, the views are worth the expensive bill!

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Get up close and personal at the opera… This is a moving opera that you follow round different rooms in an old venetian palace! Very personal! It has a rather strange booking and entry system; just go with the flow and take cash.

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Venetian street-food… for a cheap and light lunch served in a paper cup visit Acqua & Mais. Try the stuff you’ve never seen before, especially the seafood, it’s what the Venetians do best!

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Tie the knot… we got married here just before Christmas and had the most wonderful time in the city which was full of magic and twinkling lights. Check out the full adventure here: Venetian elopement

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Venetian elopement

 

My husband and I are recently married, so recently married that it still sounds weird to say that! On the 22nd December 2016 we made our promises to each other in Palazzo Cavalli in Venice. We did this in a near empty room with only the registrar, translator and two witnesses that we had met only moments before! And it was truly the most magical day of our lives!

Only four months previously Lee proposed at Llangennith in Wales, a very special place for his family and us. We had previously spoken about a hassle-free wedding day that was just about us and a couple of our friends had gone abroad to tie the knot and they were totally chilled about the whole planning process as they didn’t have to please anyone expect themselves. Definitely the way to go!

Of course, we had a ‘modern’ elopement, which meant that we told our families that we were disappearing off to get married! Initially there was a little resistance to the idea, however after we explained why we were doing it they understood: 1. We wanted to actually spend time together on our wedding day, 2. We wanted to have an adventure at the same time, 3. It was our wedding day, not theirs!

We had booked our usual pre-Christmas city break earlier in the year. We love Italy (especially the food!), so this year we booked flights to a new city: Venice. After getting engaged in August Lee mentioned in passing: ‘why don’t we just get married in Venice?’, obviously, I said yes immediately which took him off guard! But we soon threw ourselves into planning our intimate Venetian adventure, especially as we only had three months in which to organise everything!!

We found an amazing wedding planner to coordinate everything in Venice: Amber who owns Angel Lion. She put us in touch with our award-winning photographer, Barbara Zanon, who was totally our style: a bit quirky and willing to try new creative ideas and alternative compositions. As it was only going to be the two of us there we wanted to capture the memories so that we could share our special day with everyone back home. (All photos in this post were taken by her, she’s totally amazing!)

The goal in marriage is not to think alike,
but to think together.
Robert C. Dodds


The Wedding Day

We had been in Venice for two days prior to the main event and we were staying at Oltre il Giardino, in a junior suite which had a spacious bedroom with an enormous bed(!), a luxurious bathroom and a relaxing living room. All were decorated in a quirky minimalistic way with eclectic antique pieces and modern comforts.

I prepared myself in the bedroom (with the en suite bathroom) and Lee got ready in the living room which was connected to the rest of the hotel so that he could amuse himself during my three-hour transformation!! I had my hair and makeup done by Letizia Cordella, I wanted a natural boho look that I wouldn’t have to keep adjusting throughout the day.

At half past one the time came for the ‘prima vista’ (the first look!), which took place in the beautiful hotel garden. Luckily the weather could not have been more perfect; clear blue sky, fresh air and sunshine! I was full of nervous excitement as I walked out to meet my husband-to-be, and he was totally gorgeous, especially in his suit! A big hug and kiss helped to relax our nerves and we walked out of the garden courtyard to the canal where our traditional speed boat awaited! In James Bond style, we were transported to the town hall for our two o’clock ceremony. When we arrived, we were greeted by our witnesses who we had never met (the wedding planner’s assistant and her husband – who coincidentally got married on exactly the same day the previous year!), the registrar and the translator.

The ceremony was over in a matter of minutes and before we knew it we were husband and wife! We exchanged rings and were presented with a gift from the City of Venice; a beautiful azure blue stem vase made from Murano glass embellished with daisies and gold leaf.

And then we were off on our first adventure as a married couple: a tour of the city and surrounding islands by speedboat with our photographer. Our first stop was the island of Burano, where winding cobbled streets and palazzos were decorated with jewel coloured houses; we had great fun finding our favourite coloured houses to strike a pose by and exploring the narrow passages between little courtyards.

The next stop was San Giorgio and we arrived here as the sun started to set. We watched the golden peach light dance off the water and as we looked back to the gorgeous views of St. Mark’s Square and Dorsoduro. I had great fun twirling my dress around here watching it catch the light!

We then re-embarked the water taxi and travelled to our final destination: Hotel Danieli. For those of you who haven’t seen the film ‘The Tourist’ with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, this hotel is the most beautiful in Venice! It has the most incredibly ornate staircase you will have ever seen, vibrant stained-glass windows and chandeliers that look like lavish flower arrangements. After the long day walking around we had some hot chocolate and biscuits in the lounge to energise and warm up before heading up to the Terrazza restaurant.

When we entered the restaurant, we were greeted by ‘Here comes the Bride’; so embarrassing!! The waiter then took us to an amazing table overlooking St. Mark’s Basilica, and the food and wine was delicious! We had a three-course meal of ‘land and sea’, which drew on traditional Venetian flavours with a modern twist. So wonderful!

After bathing in the atmosphere and filling ourselves to near-bursting-point we took a water taxi back to our hotel, where we spent the next hour removing about one hundred hair grips from my head!!

It was truly a wonderful day and the best thing was we actually got to spend the whole time together, being excited and sharing every moment of the experience. I cannot recommend a modern elopement enough; and if the only reason you are being put off is because you don’t want to upset your parents, then remind yourself that it’s your day not theirs! And after we got back, our parents totally got why we had disappeared off together. Remember: people who mind don’t matter, and people who matter don’t mind!


So, here’s to a lifetime of adventures!!

The gorgeous Gower

Llangennith, located on the Gower peninsular just west of Swansea, is a very special place for my husband and his family. ‘The Howarths’ have been coming to this part of Wales for generations! His grandparents took his parents, his parents took him and his two sisters, and now his sisters are taking their children! We also had our first holiday together there, when he told his parents that he was taking a ‘friend’!! And we have been going there ever since, including when Lee whisked me away for a surprise weekend, when he proposed! (more on that another time!)

There is something truly magical about the simplicity of this place. We stay in his parents’ static caravan which overlooks the beach. We BBQ in the rain, read in the suntrap sand-dunes, play cards inside when it’s pouring outside, have campfires and toast marshmallows on the beach at night and body-board in the ocean (wearing wetsuits obviously, because it’s bloody freezing!).

It’s a simple, yet beautiful, life there. And the lack of phone reception means that you can truly unplug from the world. Sometimes it is when we remove all these material things that surround us, and stop us from seeing what is actually important in life, that we can really be happy and appreciate what we have. Just listening to the waves lap against the shore is all you really need…

Our most recent visit was over the long Easter weekend. It’s under a four-hour drive, which is perfectly acceptable for a long weekend away! It was our first break of the year and it was wonderful to escape and recharge the batteries, especially as my working life wasn’t particularly inspiring. We went on some gorgeous walks, played cards, read, painted in watercolours and ate some yummy cakes! We had great fun making friends with wild ponies and little lambs (what Welsh trip would be complete without seeing some sheep!?), and taking in the fresh sea air.

It was this particular trip when I decided to make a change. I wasn’t happy in my current job (and ultimately career) and I needed to do something about it. Unplugging from the world and getting my thoughts down on paper really helped me to see clearly. The corporate world and its values just didn’t appeal to me. I had a real longing to be creative and be free to make my own choices.

I returned from Wales with a clear and inspired mind, positive about the future and the next adventure.