Borough market and the V&A

Borough Market

When the cooler weather still kept its icy grip on England, I headed on down to London to visit the V&A museum, which I had been planning to go back to for several years after I went and discovered that the fashion exhibit was closed due to refurbishment (typical).

First of all, though, we started off in Borough Market. I had never been to a proper London food market before, so this was some introduction. Borough Market is one of the best-known and most renowned food markets, and if you love your grub, this is definitely the place to be.

Borough Market

The place was swarming with people looking to pick up a tasty treat, and the stalls sold pretty much everything you can think of that was edible. When we arrived I began to heartily wish that I hadn’t eaten breakfast and a number of free treats on the train (thank you cheap First Class tickets!). However, I soldiered on and managed to munch my way through my bodyweight in free samples – I think I must have tried dozens of cheeses, along with ravioli (very awkward to eat off a cocktail stick), cake, Turkish delight, pickles, chutneys, fruit and cured meat. I also oggled piles of bread, cakes, pastries, doughnuts and chocolates. Heavenly.

Once we had feasted our eyes and bellies, we took a quick flick around Southwark Cathedral. This is a rather beautiful example of one of the smaller cathedrals in England, and we were lucky enough to visit while the choir and orchestra were practising for an evening concert, so we were treated to the ethereal sounds of music and singing as we drifted around the cavernous interior.

Once out, it was lunchtime, so I treated myself to a box of Ethiopian curry delights. I’ve never tried Ethiopian cuisine before, but I definitely recommend it.

Victoria and Albert Museum

We finally headed to the museum, which if you love the arts and history, is a goldmine. The fashion exhibit was up and running this time, so I finally got to look at fashion through the ages, from impossibly tight corsets to the avant garde fashion of houses such as Alexander McQueen.

Victoria and Albert Museum

We also toured around the art of South East Asia, marvelled at sculptures and examined pieces from early modern England. In the centre of the museum is a wonderful courtyard with a large pond/fountain area, in which you can dabble your toes or have a waterfight if the weather is gentle – definitely a recommend when the temperatures start to soar in summer.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum

We ended up in Leicester Square to soak up the atmosphere and watch a few impromptu street performers. I also got hailed as ‘the girl with the flame-coloured hair’, so all in all, it was a pretty successful day.

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A mosey around Madrid: Day three

Madrid

My brother photobombing a beautiful picture. Although I guess I DID steal his glasses…

On my final day in the bustling city of Madrid, my brother and I decided to take it easy. Due to the timing of my flight back to the freezing metropolis that is London, we had just the morning and part of the afternoon to while away.

After another appetising feast of bread and butter for breakfast (never again will I let my brother do the catering), I knocked us together some sandwiches and other tasty nibbles and then we headed out towards the park. It was another hot day, and the sky was completely empty of clouds. Typically, I had been super organised and had PACKED my suncream. Not a smart move.

We wandered around the park until we found a pleasant spot, and then spent the time munching my amazing sandwich creations and watching people pass by. I basked in the sunshine as if I had been locked in the dark for a lengthy time, knowing full well that this was likely to be the last I saw of the golden orb for some time.

After another stroll around the beautiful lake and the glasshouse, time forced us to turn our steps homewards once again. I noticed a cheery pink colour spreading across my arms and prayed like hell that my face was not in a similar state. The curse of pale skin is certainly not a fun one.

Back at the flat I had a fun time attempting to deflate the mattress that had been my one source of comfort on the tiled floor. My brother, needless to say, adopted a supervisory role, issuing many (un)helpful suggestions.

Once packed, we headed to the airport and I entered the departure lounge alone. I think it was rather evident to everyone who saw me which flight I was likely to be getting. I was the only pink, orange-haired person in the departure lounge amid a sea of olive-skinned sunlovers. Having sunburn is not fun at the best of times, but being THE ONLY person with it in the entire airport is something else altogether. At least I could prove I had been away…

A mosey around Madrid: part two

Madrid

The hustle and bustle of Madrid

After an exhausted sleep on a surprisingly comfortable inflatable mattress (which managed not to deflate too much overnight), I was ready to hit the streets of Madrid once more. We decided to head to the Museo del Prado to begin with, so after a nourishing breakfast of bread and butter (my brother’s supplies were running low…), we set off into the sunshine for a bit of aesthetic culture.

We arrived about mid-morning and were lucky enough to get our tickets straight away. However, lengthy queues are possible, as the photo below shows, so be prepared to wait if you manage to time things wrong.

Museo del Prado

The queue for the Museo del Prado the week afterwards.

The Prado is an absolutely ENORMOUS house of art, and it is very easy to become incredibly lost. Initially, my brother and I missed the wing housing most of the collections and accidentally found ourselves in the special Goya exhibit before our time slot. Fortune was still favouring us, however, so we marched straight in.

I previously had little knowledge of Francisco Goya, so I’m afraid I looked upon these works with a naïve eye. The exhibit was divided into different subject matters such as ‘pastimes’ and ‘seasons’, and I’m sure if you are a Goya fan, then this will be the exhibit for you. Personally, I found his ‘dark paintings’ in another gallery more engrossing.

After filling our eyes here, we eventually wound up among the permanent exhibits. The Prado prides itself on its selection of religious artwork and portraits, and it houses hundreds and hundreds of the most incredible pieces. Featured artists include Rubens, Rogier van der Weydon and David Roberts, and there were even some examples of Picasso’s work when we visited. The gallery is so vast, however, that I would recommend looking at the Prado’s website beforehand and making a plan of action so that you get to see your favourite artists. My brother and I just plunged right in, and I think it is telling that we never, ever found room one (or Rembrandt!).

When our feet began to ache and my head was so full of pictures that they began to blur into one another, we ventured back out into the sunshine. Admiring art tends to make one peckish, so we then headed off into what my brother tells me is the more bohemian area of Madrid, formerly a very working class area. We went to a lovely called Alma and eventually managed to figure out how to order two coffees and two slices of an incredibly moist chocolate stout cake. I highly recommend!

Madrid

Sangria o’clock!

Bellies full, we were now in need of a rest – and a drink. There are plenty of sunny plazas playing host to streetside bars in Madrid, so we picked one with a spare table and relaxed in the sun with several glasses of sangria. Kicking back in my sunglasses and my fruity drink in my hand, I decided that it wouldn’t be too hard to get used to this sort of life. Not too hard at all…

A mosey around Madrid –day one

Madrid

The sun may be making a more regular appearance nowadays, but the wind still possesses an icy bite that sends my hands blue with cold whenever I have the cheek to venture outdoors. It therefore seemed like the perfect time to abandon merry England and fly across to the sunny city of Madrid.

Taking advantage of some free accommodation courtesy of my brother (an inflatable mattress on the floor was surprisingly comfortable), I booked three days to spend exploring the city and sampling the best sangria on offer.

Cathedral Madrid

Sadly, this journey meant that I had a wonderful 2.30am start in order to drive out of the black hole that is Norwich and reach Stansted. I was also nervous as I was flying solo – something that I had never done before. Fortunately everything was on time and my flight even arrived a little early. Miracles do happen!

Madrid palace

Once my excess baggage was offloaded at my sibling’s flat, I put on the sunnies and went on a tour guided by my brother. We started off by heading towards the palace and the cathedral. Time did not allow us to peek inside either, but I got a good sense of the grandeur of the place. We then headed over to an Egyptian temple, a slightly incongruous site in the middle of Spain. It was apparently gifted to the Spanish state in 1968 after Spain intervened to help preserve other temples (find out more here). For now, this is probably as close as I will get to actually see Ancient Egyptian monuments in the flesh, so it was a particular highlight for me. Annoyingly, there was a long queue to see inside, so we deferred it for another day, only to find out that it was closed. C’est la vie!

Egyptian temple

From the temple you can get some good views over Madrid. From this vantage point the city is surprisingly green, with the urban landscape giving up to the countryside very quickly.

We then hunted around for somewhere to eat, and eventually settled on a Greek restaurant. Yes, some Spanish cuisine would perhaps have been more fitting, but it was recommended to us by some of my brother’s colleagues and it turned out to be a real find. If you are visiting and fancy a change from paella, check out Dionysus Huertas.

Madrid

We finished off the day in the scorching sunshine wandering round a rather beautiful park. It boasted an impressive glasshouse and a stunning lake, on which many people were chaotically trying to row boats. If you have a sharp eye, you may be able to spot parakeets hiding in the trees. Unfortunately I couldn’t spot any, but you may have better luck.

Madrid

On the way there we spotted a very strange vehicle on the roads – it was powered by two rows of enthusiastic people who were cycling… Next time I visit, I am definitely booking a place.

Madrid

Cycle power!

After a mammoth amount of walking (and the early start), I was ready for bed, although a little bit of sangria in the evening helped to soothe the way.

A revisit to the Swiss Cottage Gardens

Swiss Cottage Gardens

So, for weeks it seems we have been battered by gale force wind, soaked to the skin with sudden (and regular) downpours, and forced to hold on to that now much-hated winter coat.

But on Easter Monday, the sun decided to grace us with its presence for a while – and on a bank holiday no less! So my parents and I decided to grab this rare opportunity and ride over to the Shuttleworth estate in Bedfordshire to take a look at the renovations on the Swiss Cottage Gardens. Of course, by the time we arrived there the sun had decided to take an early siesta, but that failed to spoil our enjoyment.

I last visited the gardens some years ago in the height of summer, and since then vast sums have been spent on bringing the gardens back to their former glory. As the guide leaflet said, “no shrub has been left unturned”.

Swiss Cottage Gardens

Thanks to winter keeping its icy grip, the full effects of this restoration have yet to be seen, but the quaint bridges were glossy with a new lick of paint, the glass conservatory ‘Grotto’ boasted a few unusual blooms, and the peacocks seemed to have had a new sense of pride instilled in them.

The gardens reflect a Regency fascination for landscapes that ape the serene countryside of the Alps. The garden visitor is at the forefront of all the designs, with wonderful vistas and views opening up as you thread your way through the garden. Scattered throughout are charming little follies and statues, which add to the natural beauty of the surrounding fauna. There is also a chapel, a tea house (which has a room cunningly hidden below for the preparation of food), and a little island where you can watch the ducks swim idly past.

Swiss Cottage Gardens

One of the 14 peacocks strutting their stuff.

One of the things I love best about spring is the appearance of daffodils. Their bright sunny happiness always brings a smile to my face, and although the garden has not yet fully embraced the new season, the bobbing heads of scores of daffodils hints at good things yet to come.

You can find out more about the history of the Swiss Cottage Gardens and its restoration work here.

Ski School – forging a bond

Ski school

Me with my ski school pals – plus a few add-ons!

I was going to write a post on the weird and wonderful things my ski instructor got me to do to improve my skiing technique, including pretending to be superman and skiing with a giant pink rubber band (more on this another time), but then I decided that I wanted to talk a little more about the fun, laughs and support you can get when, by happy coincidence, you find yourself in a ski group with an eclectic bunch of people that you get on with like a house on fire.

In my first ski school, while there were certainly some characters in my group, no one meshed together in quite the same way as we did this year. The people in my own personal ski ‘gang’ consisted of a range of ages and backgrounds, but despite this, we all somehow got along.

There was ‘Eddie the Eagle’ Ian, five-times married Liz from Glasgow, Julie the Geordie, Eve the London sophisticate, three-times missing Richard and quiet Katie from Ireland. Together, we pushed eachother to go down that hideous, mogul-ridden red, picked ourselves up from knee-deep powder and laughed our way down the chairlift to a warm, soothing mug of Gluwein at the end of a long, snowy day.

Snaking down a slope that you’re not too sure about is always better when you have a little trail of people in front of you to follow, and it’s even better when you have people behind you who you know will pick you back up if you take a not-too-unusual tumble.

Ski school can certainly be a little nerve-wracking on your first day, but by the end of the week we were all shrieking with laughter watching a video of us tumbling around off-piste and demonstrating our more graceful side with synchronised skiing. I’d certainly recommend that you try it at least once, because if you do end up in the right group, your holiday is certainly enhanced: not only do you meet new people, but at the end of the day, there are some extra people to share some shnapps with for après-ski.

Venturing off-piste for the first time

Zell am See

The view away from the piste.

It was the third day of the holiday and I finally felt as though I had gotten the hang of this whole skiing lark. I’d boldly followed my instructor all day, taking a (junior) fun park in my stride and even – gosh – trailed after my ski group with only slight apprehension as we took a little bump through the trees right next to the piste.

By the end of day three, my legs were aching and my brain was gradually descending into ‘shut-down’ mode thanks to the deep level of concentration that is required as a beginner skier. I opted to do just one more run (“just one more… come on, you know you want to…”) and was happily trailing after my instructor and the last brave remnants of my group when I realised, too late, that the instructor had dipped off to the side of the piste and was holding up a barrier, gesturing for us to go through (with a large grin, might I add).

Like an idiot, I went like a lamb to the slaughter.

This, I soon realised, was to be my first real taste of ‘off-piste’. We emerged into deep powder that made skiing feel like sliding through a vat of treacle and we all stopped, staring hopelessly at the sharp drop-off in front of us.

Upon joining us, the instructor (Youko, you know who you are!) gave us some helpful advice. “You know what we have been doing all day? Putting all the weight in the downhill ski and getting a nice edge in?” We all nod enthusiastically. “Forget all of that.” Our faces fall. This was going to be a challenge.

We set off timidly and attempt our first turn in powder. The first two guinea pigs collapse into the snow and flail their arms and legs around. Soon, it was my turn. Miraculously, I stayed upright and joined my fellows. We then traversed along, right next to the drop-off, before curving someway down it. We paused for a few moments to admire the view of the lake of Zell am See. What struck me most was how nice it was to be away from the hectic madness of the pisted runs. There was no one trying to cut you up, and there were no snowboarders falling over right in front of you – we had the place to ourselves.

However, after taking in the view and enjoying the peace, the reality of having to get back to civilisation presented itself. We set off again, and one of the team somehow tumbled down into a big basin of snow. Hopelessly, we gestured to where her skies were sticking out of the fluffy powder while she vainly attempted to regain her footing. Once her skies were reattached, we cruised along until the madness of the piste came back into view. Finally, we joined the welcoming blue run we had left behind and we could celebrate our bravery and sheer awesomeness. Sure, we tumbled and toppled, but it wasn’t a bad start for a group of newbies.