Paris

Harjit came to visit us in London during the royal wedding.  

The following weekend, we went to Paris for a weekend since it's been her life-long dream to go there!  We window-shopped, drank wine, walked everywhere, and checked out all of the main tourist sites including Notre-dame, Arc-de-triomphe, Champs-Élysées, Montmarte, the parks, and of course the Eiffel Tower.

We also went to the Louvres where the Mona Lisa gallery was packed with people (as usual)! 
Try to find Harjit in this pic:

Newcastle

Part of Jen’s daily commute to Slough includes a 20 min train ride that costs £14.90 (return). We saw a seat-sale to go to Newcastle-upon-Tyne which is 3.5h by train and only costed £19, so we decided to go there for a quick weekend get-away. 

We didn't have any plans or expectations so we just relaxed, wandered, and checked out the markets.

We stopped by the mall to watch a movie discovered the longest foosball game ever! ;)

Porto

Porto has been on our list for quite some time, but we never managed to get over there until now … and it was really worth it!  

Porto is a great town with lots to see, do, drink and eat. We spent 3.5 days there and would have happily stayed several more. The fact that it was hot and sunny definitely helped ;).

One of the first things we did was a walking tour with Porto Walkers to get some insight into the history of Portugal, Porto, and Gaia. Here are some fun facts according to our guide: 
  • As soon as we arrived we noticed that the bread and pastries in Porto are really yellow.  Apparently the reason for this is because the churches used egg whites for laundry and plaster (and there are a lot of churches here!).  They needed a way to use up the egg yolks, so it was added to the bread and Dom's new favourite Portuguese dessert, Pastel de Nata (egg-tarts)!
  • Cod is considered a staple part of the Porto diet, but 100% of it is imported. It's dried and salted for preservation and is called Bacalhau. 
  • Portugal has the longest lasting alliance with England
  • During the dictatorship (yep there was a dictatorship in Portugal), the ruling government built medieval castles, rewrote history, and even made the Porto cathedral look like a castle.

One of the things Porto is most known for is Port Wine, but all of the port cellars are actually located in Gaia, the city across the river.  
We did a port wine tour that took us to 3 port cellars (Ramos Pinto, Quinta Santa Eufemia and Porto Cruz), where we tasted 7 different ports (white, pink, ruby and tawny).  

More interesting facts from the tour:
  • The port cellars are in Gaia (not Porto) because Gaia had lower tax and is north-facing, therefore less hot/sunny
  • Gaia is the city with most alcohol per square meter, in the world
  • Port is made by fermenting grapes and then adding cognac
    • The grapes are fermented for 2, 3 or 4 days.  Cognac is then added causing the fermentation process to stop.
    • There is about 20% cognac to 80% wine. 
    • The cognac has around 70% to 80% alcohol content when it is added.
  • Types of port:
    • White: Made from white grapes
    • Ruby: Aged 3 to 10 years in a large vat.  Has less contact with the wood and air resulting in a darker colour and fruitier flavour. 
    • Tawny: Aged 4 to 40 years in smaller barrel.  More contact with wood and oxygen results in flavours of spices, dry fruit and caramel.
    • Vintage: Only available in really special years when the Port Institute decides that the year's batch is so good that it can be called a "Vintage Port".
  • In the 17th century, port was created as a way to ensure the wine destined for England did not spoil.  The modern version of port was introduced around 1850
  • The life of a port barrel is as follows: it holds wine for the first 5 years, then port for 40 to 80 years, then ends with fermenting whiskey.
  • Port grapes are grown in the Douro valley which is 150 km from Porto. 
    • The soil of the Douro Valley is made of shale which sometimes had to be loosened with dynamite in order to plant the vines. 
    • Summer temperatures reach 40 to 45 degrees Celsius with little rain.  In winter it snows.
    • The vine roots can grow up to 20 meters long
    • They are not allowed to water the vines in the summer unless there is a really bad drought
    • Port can be made from 120 different types of grapes

Since we were there for a few days, we also spent a day walking to the coast since we heard the views were really nice.  Unfortunately, by the time we reached the end, a thick fog appeared so we had no view. 

One of our biggest travel highlights is the food experience.  We tried Bacalhau (salted cod), Dobrada Guisada (tripe stew), and Pastel de Nata (these were our favourite!).

We also read that one of the must-try local specialties is a super sandwich called the Francesinha.
The Francesinha was inspired by the French sandwich, Croque Monsieur: bread, meat, cheese, sauce.  The creator decided to make it even better by adding more meat, an egg, more bread, more meat again, smothered in cheese, drenched in gravy, and placed over a bed of fries.  The whole dish is then put in the oven and served hot. A delicious year's dose of cholesterol :)

We tried 2 of the more "popular" restaurants: Lado B and Cafe Santiago-F.  Both were good, but we had a slight preference for Cafe Santiago as the sauce was a little spicier.  Lado B had a really nice smoked-tofu vegetarian option that was also surprisingly delicious!


When we first arrived in Porto, we noticed a few people dressed nicely and wearing capes.  We assumed there was some sort of concert or dress rehearsal happening in the area and didn't think much of it.  As the hours/days passed and we explored further around the city, we continued to see more and more people dressed in capes.  We started to think there was a Harry Potter convention in town. 
At one point there was a group of them lined up and chanting and on our last day there was a massive parade of them!  We finally found out that this was all part of a university student week called Queima das Fitas.  We think it's supposed to be a fun celebration but a couple of the students seemed upset and were crying (not sure why)!  The parade was interesting to watch for a bit and Dom was tempted to buy a cape too!  

Folkestone to Deal

Being away from home, one of the things we miss is opportunities to go on hikes through the mountains. Obviously the London area isn't the most mountainous, but Jen did a bit of researched and found a multi-day architecture walk (ChalkUp21) along the southern coast, from Folkestone to Deal (around a 30 km walk in 2 days).

We took a 1 hour train to Folkestone, stopped for breakfast, grabbed some snacks for the trip, then made our way to the trail.  We hiked the North Downs Way Coastal Trail, stopping at a few places along the way: from big horns, to Napoleonic towers and WWII bunkers.

In Dover, we were greeted by the famous Banksy Brexit Street art.  We walked around town, saw the castle from afar, and went for dinner.  The city wasn't particularly interesting, but the castle looked really nice from outside so we made a note to come back and visit it and the WWII tunnels another day. 

The next morning, we set off for Deal along the white cliffs of Dover.  We admired the scenery of the cliffs while passing by the Lighthouse, St Margaret's Bay, the Dover Patrol Obelisk, and Walmer Castle along the way.

We ended our day like all great outings in the UK: with a meal and drink at the local pub!

Ljubljana

For Easter, we decided to visit Ljubljana (or "jube-jube", as Dom calls it), the capital city of Slovenia. 

Unfortunately they were forecasting a lot of rain and overcast days, so we made sure to enjoy our first day visiting the city.  So we walked pretty much everywhere that we could, visiting the markets, stopping for some really good ice cream, and tasting local dishes.

Day 2
As predicted, the second day rained, so we drove out to visit the Postonja Cave and Predjama Castle where we could spend most of our time indoors. 

The Postonja cave is extremely touristy and was super busy even though it was a Thursday afternoon. The cave complex is just amazing!  There's about 24km of caves and we explored about 3.5 km by train plus another 1.5km by foot.  The attraction is really well maintained and full of information - did you know that it takes about 100 years to get 1cm of stalactite?  It's so crazy to think about that when you see the size of some of these formations!  Despite the attraction having a small Disney-like train into the caves, it was definitely still worth the trip.

In the same region, we also visited Predjama Cave.  
According to the audio tour, this castle holds the Guinness World Record for being the BIGGEST CASTLE IN THE WORLD!!   ...that is in a cave.  (haha)

The local legend was that a Slovenian "Robin Hood" named Erazem Lueger lived here.  He held the castle through a 1 year + 1 day siege, leaving the attackers baffled at how they could survive for so long.  Erazem had been sneaking out the back through hidden tunnels to replenish their food and supplies.  The castle eventually fell one night when Erazem went to the bathroom.  A servant had betrayed him and told the attackers that this was the weakest section of the impenetrable walls.  When the servant lit a torch in the window to signal the attackers, a cannon ball was fired toward the bathroom, killing Erazem. 
Since the castle is built into a cave, it was very interesting to see the man-made architecture mixed with the natural rock formations.

Day 3
The rain continued on our third day, but we still decided to try visiting the country side.  Our first stop was Lake Bled, a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains, with a church on a small island in the centre of the lake.  The scenery here is meant to be a picture-perfect postcard image.  Unfortunately, when there's fog, a sky full of rain and clouds, and no sunshine, it was rather ordinary.  We still enjoyed our day walking partially around the lake and hiking up to the castle, the highlight was the famous Lake Bled Cream Cake that we tried at a local bakery - a lighter version of the "mille feuilles" minus the almond-icing.  We also samples some local blueberry and honey liqueurs that were very tasty! 

We also went to a nearby gorge, but only managed to walk a small portion of it since the rest was closed due to slippery conditions from the rain. 

On our way home, we stopped by small village to go to a restaurant called Vila Podvin, which was recommended by our Airbnb host.  

We were wet and muddy, so when we saw how fancy place was, we thought they might turn us away!  Instead, they happily seated us and treated us to an amazing dinner of modern Slovenian cuisine.  We weren't hungry enough for the 5 course meal, so we just opted for the “a la carte” menu. After taking our order, the waiter mentioned that he would bring out a selection of appetizers to go with our meal.  The menu was on the pricy side, so we assumed this meant we'd end up with a monster bill in the end... but after a slight hesitation, we just decided to go along with it... why not, we're here!  We thought it'd just be one or two small things, but they just kept coming..!
- Foie gras with brioche
- Soft-cooked egg with polenta, crackling, and potato foam served in the shell
- Sourdough bread with 4 flavours of butter
- Mackerel on .. a ball of white stuff..? 
- Cannoli filled with goat cheese paste

Despite the starters including several ingredients that Jen isn't a big fan of (ie. Foie gras, Mackerel, goat cheese), we were both blown away at how delicious the little appetizers were!  

The main meals we had ordered were also good, but the starters definitely stole the show!  We were also shocked when we received the bill and discovered that all of the starters were complimentary!  :).  The food and atmosphere at Vila Podvin were amazing.  We would definitely return!

Days 4 and 5
We spent our last 2 days checking out the rest of Ljubljana.  We saw a huge line at one of the market stalls making fresh pizza, so of course we had to join it.  The pizzas came out piping hot and were so delicious, that we lined again for more!  

We also discovered Börek, a puff pastry filled with various things such as cheese, potato, spinach, etc.  It was tasty and really inexpensive so we ate it almost every day for breakfast or lunch!  The best one we found was at a bakery a bit further way called Pekarna Jurčkova.  We noticed that Truffles seem quite popular here, so we bought some to bring back to London.

We stayed at a very lovely Airbnb where the owners decorated everything with a modern-retro 1960s look.  It was clear that a lot of thought was put into every single item in the apartment!  The location wasn't as central as the hotels in the core, but the room was super cute, the hosts had excellent food recommendations, and it fit in our budget! :)

Liverpool

One weekend we decided to visit Liverpool, home of the Beatles.

We visited a few iconic sites and the Beatles Story museum.  

Wandered around the city checking out the port and various architectural sites.

We also strolled through one of the most unique looking cathedrals we've seen in our travels - Metropolitan Cathedral.

Apparently Liverpool has the oldest Chinatown in Europe, and we happened to be there during Chinese new year!  We decided to stop by the Chinese supermarket for some supplies, checked out some of the New Years festivities, and ended our evening by warming up with a big bowl of noodle soup.

Before heading home, we stopped by the local Costco to buy a few things :)







Via Ferrata in Switzerland

During our first trip to Switzerland, we learned about Via Ferratas from Jen's cousin, Shannon. Unfortunately, it was too cold and late in the season for us to go. 

Since the weather was really nice this time, Shannon offered to take us and it was SO worth it!  

A Via Ferrata is a route making method to make passage easier and more secure. It’s done by a installing steel steps, handles, ladder rungs, and a steel cable in places where the trail steepens. Now, they are used for adventure seeker trying to explore the mountains in a different way.

We woke up early morning to meet up with Shannon and her boyfriend, Oleg.  We drove for about 2 hours and took 2 cable cars up the mountain to Murren where we had lunch in a plaza overlooking the valley.

After lunch, Oleg left us to go paragliding while we went to rent equipment for the Via Ferrata.  

Here are some interesting facts: 
 - Length: 2.2 km
 - Starts in Murren, 1670m above the valley
 - Ends in Gimmelwald, 1370m above the valley
 - Length of the Nepal bridge: 80m

One unique thing about this particular Via Ferrata is that it actually descends about 300m to the end point, whereas via ferratas typically ascend to their end location.  

Here are some of the views along the way

Part way through, we encountered 3 base jumpers just as they were preparing to leap from a base jumping platform.  

Our group was attached to the mountain with thick metal ropes and we felt super nervous just walking out to look over the platform!!  It was just incredibly crazy to actually see people leaping off the edge without any hesitation!

After a couple of hours we finished and met up with Oleg in Gimmewald. We then walked through the valley soaking in more amazing views before going for dinner at Shannon’s and Oleg’s favourite burger joint in Interlaken (Hüsi Bierhaus).

We spent the entire day amazed at the non-stop breathtaking views.  It's such a beautiful country and we had such a great time!   

Many thanks to Shannon and Oleg for being our guides on such a fun and awesome adventure!!

Science Fiction Party

While in Sri Lanka, we met up with our Swiss friends, Fabian and Iris, and they invited us to their place for another epic Iris Party - Episode 2. The moment Dom heard the theme for her birthday party was "Science Fiction", the tickets were booked.. in fact, thinking back, maybe they didn't invite us.. maybe Dom actually invited himself :P. 

Finding a costume for a party when you're not in your hometown is tricky. Different costume ideas crossed our minds (Dom was originally thinking of going has Optimus Prime!), but after considering our limited time to finding the perfect materials and put it all together, we both decided to go as Jawas. 



A lot of fun went into preparing for the party:

We also met one of Fabian’s friend Michael (dressed as a character from Men in Black) who had just released this cool new music video: 


Balassagyarmat

From Bratislava, we took a train to Vác where Krisztina picked us up for a quick visit with her and the kids.

We went out to a local festival to watch some live music and eat cotton candy.

We took a ferry to Visegrád where we rode the bobsled, had a delicious fried fish picnic, ate more cotton candy, and hiked up to the top of the hill for a beautiful view.

On the last night, we taught Bogi how to make her own pizzas :)

Many thanks to Krisztina for taking time out of her very busy schedule and treating us to such a lovely weekend!

Bratislava

Although the arranged bike tour ended in Vienna, we had originally planned to continue on our own to Bratislava, Slovakia.  However, once reaching Vienna, we changed our minds and opted to spend some extra time visiting Vienna before leaving on a late afternoon train. 

We had no idea what to expect in Bratislava and we were pleasantly surprised!  It has a really nice historical centre and we were blown away at how good the food was - very rich, but so delicious!! 

Dom’s favourite dish was Bryndzové Halušky - a gnocchi-like potato dumpling with a sheep cheese and sour cream sauce and fried bacon on top.  Jen liked the Zemiakové placky (potato pancake fried in oil) and the Svickova na Smetane (a typical Czech dish with pork tenderloin and a creamy white sauce).


After all that biking, we were really happy to treat ourselves and fill our bellies with so much yummy food!