Krakow | Poland.

It would go against standard January tradition if I didn’t prioritise spending valuable hours trapesing the internet for city breaks over getting ahead on my ever-growing pile of university work. Fast forward nearly 5 weeks into the present day, I’m still a stressed-out literature student drowning in novels and secondary readings – but I’m also a stressed out student with another European city checked off of her list. So why Poland? I’ll be honest and give an incredibly blunt answer that rings true to many people travelling to eastern Europe for a weekend – because it’s cheap. Not only is it cheap out there, but it’s also cheap to get too. I paid just over £100 for flights and accommodation for 4 nights and 3 days right next to the city centre, and that was including paying extra for better flight times to give us a bit more time. So what can you do with just over 72 hours in Krakow? Mine went a little like this:

I stayed in Kazimierz, located inside the Jewish Quarter, which is extremely rich in history with a mix of architecture and beautiful buildings post pre and post war. In its regeneration, it’s a scene for younger, artier types with quaint cafes, cobbled streets and an ever-growing bar/café scene yet, it’s hard to miss the darker side of history whereby approximately 17,000 of its inhabitants were sent to extermination camps across Europe. While I decided to walk freely and explore the old Jewish Quarter by myself, there are a lot of free walking tours which you can join to learn more about the history of Kazimierz.

We arrived in Krakow around dinner time & in search of food we found ourselves in Max 18 overlooking the Grand Square in Krakow. We chose to eat some cheese, onion & potato stuffed dumplings with a couple of pints of Zwyiec and to say that you’re in the heart of one of the main tourist attractions, food and drink is relatively cheap.  The night-time consisted of a trip to quirky Harris Piano Jazz Bar hidden downstairs just off the main square for some beautiful music and a few too many gin & tonics.

I don’t think any trip to Poland would be complete without a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau and this is what we dedicated our first proper day too.  It’s an incredibly difficult and harrowing experience, but an important one I feel for remembering the 1.1 million people who lost their lives there. While I plan to do a separate blog post about this excursion, what I will say about the trip is that books and history lessons will never do it justice. It’s very easy to become detached from the facts and numbers on a page, but seeing the sheer size of the never-finished Birkenau complex, or 2 tonnes of real human hair in front of you, or the physical scratch-marks on the gas chamber walls really reaffirms the horror of what really went on. Entry into Auschwitz-Birkenau is free, but to guarantee entry on the day I would recommend booking through a tour operator as you’re not guaranteed a place if you turn up on the day.

While in Krakow we also visited the famous Wieliczka Salt Mines deemed as a UNESCO world heritage site for the incredible salt sculptures and architecture inside. We took the tourist route, but there is a more active miners route you can take however you cannot access St Kinga’s chapel this way. The tour starts by taking 300 steps down into the mine and throughout the tour you gradually descend to 135 metres below the surface. The tour itself was interesting, albeit slightly boring at times, but St Kinga’s chapel is definitely a must see. Located hidden in the underground, the whole chapel is carved entirely out of salt (including the chandeliers) and is often used as a wedding chapel due to its beautiful and meticulous attention to detail. There’s also a restaurant, function room and gift shop all located deep inside the salt mine – and I picked up a cute lil crystal candle holder for around £1.50.

Just to reiterate the earlier point of cheapness, we had a beautiful meal at Pino consisting of 2 bottles of red wine, a starter, 2 mains, a pudding, and a Bailey’s coffee for under £30. Likewise, I tried my first custom-made vegan burger at Krowarzywa for less than £3, and had 2 pints of beer and a large pizza for less than £6. We also paid the equivalent of £1.40 a pint in a little Irish bar in the square which we later found out from a local that this is expensive as you can get them for around 70p out of tourist areas! So if you’re looking for a cheap city break in a beautiful country with a rich history – Krakow is definitely the place for you. – Until next time, Jess x

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Is Valentines Day overrated?

Valentine’s Day stems all the way back from ancient Rome where St Valentine secretly married couples in love against the rulings of Emperor Claudius II. He believed that people’s concentration should be on the war and he threw St Valentine into jail for his law-breaking, and St Valentine died on the 14th February. On the eve of his death, he sent a note to his beloved signing it ‘from your Valentine’ & the rest is history…

Now in 2017, Valentine’s Day sees jewellery sales peaking on the 8th February, flowers doubling in price leading up to the 14th and countless adverts on finding the ‘perfect gift for the one you love’ running from mid-January. Valentine’s Day gives me mixed feelings, while I love reading everybody’s posts and seeing people celebrate their nearest and dearest, I can’t help feeling that somewhere in the over-commercialised mess and social media culture that Valentine’s Day has lost its true meaning.

Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day of showing appreciation for the people who you love and care for the most, be it a life partner, a family member or a friend. Nowadays it feels like a money trap for couples where the only way to show your appreciation is a fancy 3 course dinner, some very Instagram-able roses, or an expensive trip to Pandora.

I think my problem with Valentine’s Day lies with the fact that so much emphasis is placed on finding the perfect gift to show how you feel about someone, that the present becomes more about money than any sentiment behind it. It shouldn’t take one day of the year to go the extra mile for someone you love, nor should it be the only day of the year that you showcase them. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t make an effort on Valentine’s Day, I’m all for being a hopeless romantic and I’d happily argue that someone who doesn’t agree that there’s no better feeling than feeling loved and showing someone how much you love them is a liar. But when did we have to start breaking the bank to show someone how much we care about them? Why can’t we all just be content with a cosy night in and a Netflix marathon? So much emphasis is placed on this one day, yet I just guarantee that a random display of affection on any other 364 days of the year, where it hasn’t been drilled into you since January that Valentine’s is approaching, would mean so much more to your other half!

 

Budapest | Hungary

#HelloHungary. Budapest is one of those countries I have always seen advertised for cheap city breaks, yet I have never known what the Hungarian capital has to offer. Although the sole purpose of my trip was to visit the Budapest Christmas Market, on the week leading up to my trip I found myself, like a woman possessed, researching the landmarks to tick off and best places to squeeze into our 3-day trip. My ambitious planned itinerary of course went out the window, and although I didn’t see everything I planned too, one thing I took from the visit was that if you haven’t visited Budapest you need to, & that a return visit is definitely on the cards. With its beautiful architecture, lively (& cheap!) bar scene & little quirks it really should be on everyone’s travel list.

Where to stay? I stayed at the Royal Park Boutique Hotel, a couple of minutes’ walk from Keleti Pályaudvar meaning access into the city via metros and trains was incredibly easy and fast. The hotel was modern, and the staff were really lovely yet I wouldn’t recommend drinking in the hotel bar as the prices are almost triple that of bars situated a minute walk away. One thing that took me by completely by surprise is that the shower essentially acts as a divider between the bedroom and bathroom. Despite the frosted glass, it’s definitely something to bear in mind!

What to do? 2 words – Szimpla Kert. Inhabiting an old abandoned building, it is a gold mine of all things eccentric with its hidden stairways and endless rooms filled with quirky deco, fairy lights and graffiti. This run-down building will go down as one of my all-time favourite bars, unmatchable in character and its individuality. Like Birmingham has Snobs, Budapest has Szimpla Kert – It really is an absolute must, and located a short walk from the Astoria station there is no excuse to not pop in for one (tip: ordering a double vodka here is like ordering a quadruple at home, don’t do it – or do, you can still enjoy exploring Budapest hungover).

 

Budapest has the best of both worlds, providing both an animated bar scene and a chance for relaxation at the Széchenyi Spa. I can honestly say there is no weirder feeling than packing a bikini for a city where the average daily temperature in December is no more than 1°C, but the baths are a unique experience I strongly recommend. The panicked run from the spa to the outside pool proves not for the faint-hearted, yet temperatures reach up to 38°C in the pools themselves, to the point where you can actually feel too warm. The baths also have multiple pools inside, aromatherapy saunas and ice-baths all included making it an easy way to spend a good few hours of your day.

 

Split by the Danube river, both Buda and Pest have differing yet equally interesting places to explore. Buda, on the west, is the ‘hilly’ side of the river & if you can make it up Castle Hill the views are absolutely beautiful. Buda is home to Buda Castle & Fisherman’s Bastion, and for about the equivalent of a £1 you can test your hand at Archery on the castle grounds. The Pest side is definitely the more accessible of the two, and inhabits most of the well-known tourist attractions such as Heroes Square, the baths, and Parliament to name a few. The 3 days all in all were a whirlwind, and in our short trip I feel like I only scratched the surface of what Budapest had to offer. A trip to Margaret Island would definitely be at the top of my list on a return visit & also renting a beer bus in the sunshine wouldn’t go a miss. Until next time -Jess

 

 

 

Amsterdam | The Netherlands

“With its picturesque canal network, rich history and vibrant cultural scene, the capital of the Netherlands is one of the world’s most unique city destinations.”

 

Amsterdam. I fell in love with this city the moment I stepped off the coach outside the Heineken Brewery after a long 15 hour coach journey to reach it, and continued to fall in love with it while lugging multiple bags around on our 15 minute walk to the hostel. (side note. do NOT be fooled into thinking a coach journey to Amsterdam is a good idea like my university did to me. 15 hour coach journey over a 50 minute flight. You do the math).

We arrived at the ‘Hans Brinker Budget Hotel’ which openly sells itself as ‘not the best but definitely the most memorable hotel in Amsterdam’. The rooms are extremely basic, the shower made me feel like I was auditioning for a shower scene in Orange is the New Black and our bunk-beds lacked ladders so an unattractive scramble was required to ‘beach’ yourself on the top bunk. You certainly get what you pay for, a motto they embrace, but because you pay so little & the drinks are extremely cheap in the downstairs bar ($2 for 2 glasses of Rose?!) you can’t really complain.

As a complete newbie to the city of Amsterdam, I was so excited to wander the beautiful streets I’d seen plastered on my Instagram & I completely fell in love with the quirkiness and uniqueness of this capital city. I honestly forgot that it was the capital city, cars are drastically outnumbered to bikes and engine noise is replaced by street performers and the occasional frantic ringing of a bike bell because you’re accidentally stood in the cycle lane.img_8963

In true tourist style we headed straight to the ‘I amsterdam’ letters located at the back of the Rijksmuseum on Museumplein to tick off my little bucket list. Thankfully, I think the unpredictable weather had warned everyone off and our 11 strong group managed to get a photo all to ourselves.

The rest of the day consisted a walk around Vondelpark which in the height of Autumn is stunning. One of my biggest regrets while in Dam was never renting a bike, and this would have been the perfect place to do it. Amsterdam has a great mix of indoor and outdoor attractions perfect for dipping in and out of the rainy showers, and while I’d have loved to explore Vondelpark further, the weather wasn’t on our side. Apart from the obvious, most favoured indoor activity amongst fellow Dam goers, Amsterdam also has a wide range of museums in the heart of its city centre.  My personal favourite being the Banksy & Warhol exhibition at the Moco Museum. *insert arty photos below*

If you’re looking for something a bit less arguably artistic and perhaps more traumatising maybe? then the Sex Museum is something that I’d definitely recommend. I left feeling like a knew a few strangers a lot better with the masses of photographs proudly displayed, but for only $4 entry it’s a cheap way to kill an hour and have a laugh doing so. And I suppose if you’re feeling hungry and fancy something completely unique, free entry to the cheese museum just up the road from Anne Frank’s house allows you some free samples & a cheesy (excuse the pun) photograph in some weird attire.

So what else is there to do? Unfortunately, my time in Dam was extremely bittersweet. I didn’t leave feeling disappointed but 2 days is not enough to explore the city in its entirety. Upon my hopefully soon return I’d love to go to the Anne Frank Museum (we never pre-booked and a 3 hour que is not appealing), Visit the Heineken experience & the Van Gough Museum. Until next time Dam! – Jess