Saturday, 4th October – London to Santorini

On the agenda today was some last minute sightseeing before flying to Santorini, Greece.

You can’t start a good day without breakfast and so we got our fancy pants on and enjoyed a lovely meal at The Ritz in St James.

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From The Ritz it was a short but beautiful stroll through Green Park to Buckingham Palace. We were not alone, hundreds of people were also making their way to see the Changing of the Guard.

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Undeterred by the inclement weather it felt like thousands of people were gathered around the Victoria Memorial.

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After the ceremony was finished we went back to Blake & Peter’s and packed our small carry on bags for our trip to Greece. We again utilised the Tube to make our way to Heathrow for our Aegean Airlines flight to Santorini.

Our journey to Santorini was an overnight flight to Thira via Athens. Our travel tip from this experience is that we recommend getting the day flight. When we arrived in Thira we had a long wait until we could check in to the hotel and there was literally nothing open when we arrived.

2014 European Adventure

Friday, 3rd October – London

Today we planned to do all the standard “touristy” London sight seeing before checking out of the hotel and meeting our good friends Blake and Peter.

From the tube, we got out at Westminster which put us right in the heart of things. We made our way over to Westminster Bridge and enjoyed the view of the Thames taking in this iconic view which includes the London Eye and Big Ben.

We decided to have breakfast at St Stephen’s Tavern which claims to be the hangout of the local politicians. Sure, there were probably cheaper places but the Tavern is absolutely gorgeous and we couldn’t resist.

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After breakfast we explored Parliament Square, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Walking up Whitehall Street past 10 Downing Street and the Horse Guards, we made our way to Trafalgar Square.

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We had a wonderful day, the weather was perfect and we reluctantly made our way back to the hotel to pack our bags and check out.

In perfect London fashion we walked out of the hotel to find the weather had gone from perfect blue to pitch black and it was pouring. This didn’t bother us as it was a perfect excuse to get an iconic black London cab to meet the boys at The Crabtree in Fulham for drinks and dinner.

It was awesome to finally see our good friends and catch up over a couple of pints and a lovely meal.

2014 European Adventure England

Thursday, 2nd October – London

Today was going to be a very Harry Potter kind of day.

Bec had been looking forward to going to the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio tour. We purchased tickets online for about 28 pounds each and were given specific times to do the tour.

We travelled to the studio in Leavesden via train from Euston to Watford Junction. At Watford Junction there was a Harry Potter themed bus (no, not the night bus) waiting to take us to the studio (for 2.50 pounds return). The whole trip from our Hotel to the studio took less than 40 minutes.

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Once we arrived, there was too much too look at! The studio was the place where most of the Harry Potter movies were shot and when they finished filming, they turned the studios into a living museum.

The locations that you walked through (like the Great Hall and Diagon Alley) were the actual sets used in the films. There was also a huge amount of props and back drops that were arranged throughout the studio.

The ticket price included a self guided tour that Bec used while Keith just took lots of photos.

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Once the tour was finished we explored the back lot where there was a Night Bus, Privet Drive and the opportunity to try Butter Beer!

The final part of the exhibition also showed a lot of the artwork and models used in the production of the series. This included a massive scale model of Hogwarts that you could walk around. The detail was so perfect that they actually used it for some of the outside shots!

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After spending most of the day in fanboy heaven, we decided to do some sightseeing around London once we got back. A couple of the key things we wanted to see were St Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge, London Tower and London Bridge.

We saw some great sights, got some great night shots and had dinner in the city as well. After seeing London Tower and London Bridge we headed back to the hotel.

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2014 European Adventure England

Wednesday, 1st October – Liverpool to London

This morning we set out from Liverpool with a five hour drive ahead of us. Stonehenge was the destination, but we were hoping to see a lot of the English countryside on our drive.

Unfortunately since we had to make pretty good time there wasn’t a lot of stops along the way and hardly any photos. There were two stops worth mentioning, however.

The first was in a rest area in the Cotswolds – a massive forest area that is particularly beautiful and breathtaking. The rest stop was on a hill so we got to see right out over the forest.

The second stop was something we really hoped we would find – Devonshire teas. We came across a little house on the edge of the Cotswolds that had a sign out the front for Devonshire teas. We found a shed converted to a kitchen and cafe with the owner serving home made…. well, everything. We sat outside in his yard and enjoyed the most English thing we could.

Bec enjoyed motoring around in the Audi A4 – the roads were smooth, the countryside beautiful and the car a treat. We finally realised we were very close to Stonehenge so we pulled over to check our notes and we surprised to see…

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A pig farm! There were massive pigs right there on the side of the road with a HUGE amount of space to run around. They looked really happy, actually, but we’d never seen bacon in it’s natural habitat before.

Around the corner, we found our way to the visitors centre of one of the most well known, oldest monuments in the world – Stonehenge.

We parked the car at the visitors centre. A shuttle service runs from the centre to the stone circle, stopping off halfway to allow visitors the opportunity to walk the remaining stretch if they wish. It cost us 30 pound (AUD$60) to enter the site which included the shuttle.

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After exploring the stone circle, we headed back to the centre to see the exhibitions. In the photo below are replicas of dwellings. It is believed that the people who built Stonehenge would have lived in something similar over four and a half thousand years ago.

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We explored the new visitor centre, opened in December 2013. It houses permanent and temporary exhibitions, including nearly 300 archaeological treasures found buried at the site – from jewellery to pottery to human remains – as well as a gallery, a gift shop and a cafe.

Once we were over the awe of this amazing relic, we had to leave to return the car in London. Only a stone’s throw away and on route to London was a small place that wasn’t well maintained or sign posted called Woodhenge. It seemed interesting so we pulled over for a quick look.

Estimated to be built about 2300 BC, it was originally believed to be the remains of a large burial mound, surrounded by a bank and ditch almost completely destroyed by ploughing. Aerial photography detected rings of dark spots in a crop of wheat, and today concrete markers replace the six concentric rings of timber posts which are believed to have once supported a ring-shaped building.

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Once we set off for London, we only had about an hour or so before we reached our next destination – Ascot Racecourse. This was the last item on our James Bond filming locations list. Since it was closed and we were on a tight schedule, we just took the photo opportunity and then headed off to return the car.

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After dropping off the car we checked back in to the hotel where it all began – the Ibis at Euston St Pancras.

2014 European Adventure England

Tuesday, 30th September – Dublin to Liverpool

We woke up early but a little dusty from our night at the pub. Sadly today we were leaving Ireland and making our way back to England. A short 25 minute drive from our hotel placed us at the Stena line ferry terminal where we would travel from Dublin to Holyhead. It was a 3 1/2 hour trip and so we made the decision to pay for an upgrade and secured a sleeping berth. We both slept the entire way only waking to our alarm set 5 minutes before scheduled arrival.

After an orderly disembarkment we were soon in the car, off the ferry and on our way. We had done a lot of research prior to our trip and so you can imagine our surprise when we started seeing road signs in Welsh! We had no idea that this part of our trip took us through Wales.

After this surprise we decided to take the time to explore a little and stopped in the Conwy Marina. We enjoyed lunch at a local pub, the Mullberry, overlooking the Conwy River. It was a beautiful start to the day.

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Making our way out of the Marina we took a wrong turn, missed the entry to the highway and found ourselves in a walled city – the town of Conwy. As we came around a bend we saw the most magnificent castle. We drove over a spectacular bridge and decided to park the car and investigate further.IMG_5587IMG_5601IMG_5621IMG_5630

As we got closer to the castle we both decided we had to see if we could get in to explore. It cost about 26 AUD for both of us to get in which included a visit to the small museum built alongside the castle. We quickly agreed it was something we both really wanted to do and calculated how much time we could spend exploring.

Once inside we were blown away by the enormity and beauty of the castle. This was indeed an unplanned highlight! The castle ruin has grass covering the ground and no roof but the walls are still mostly intact.

Conwy Castle and the town walls took four years to build. Work started in 1283 costing 15,000 pounds which converts to around 85 million AUD in today’s money. UNESCO considers Conwy to be one of “the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”, and it is classed as a World Heritage site.

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There were stairs leading to the top of the castle and we had incredible 360 degree views across the town, river and surrounds.

Our destination for today was Liverpool, England. After leaving Conwy Castle and a short 1 1/2 hour drive, we arrived at 15 Sandeman Rd, Walton, Liverpool. This was the home of Bec’s grandmother, Margaret Elizabeth Bradley (nee Holmes). Bec’s grandmother left this house early in 1930 with her father and sister to migrate to Australia. After a quick chat with a neighbour who remembered the family, and other family members who had made the same pilgrimage, we made our way back to Liverpool city. 

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A few days earlier we realised that our itinerary gave us the opportunity to explore the famous Empire Theatre and enjoy the current production of Wicked. On our way to the theatre we noticed the renown Radio City building.

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The Empire Theatre opened in 1925 and is the largest two tier theatre in Britain. The show was worth the 120 AUD – we enjoyed every second of the performance.

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2014 European Adventure England Wales

Monday, 29th September – Cork to Dublin

Last night we stayed in Cork, about 15 minutes drive away from the famous Blarney Castle. The castle was the first stop on our itinerary today on our way to Dublin.

The castle itself houses the Blarney Stone, famous for bestowing the gift of the gab on all who kiss it. Due to OH&S issues and the “ewww” factor, we didn’t want to kiss the stone, but there is so much more to see.

Entry to the castle (13 euro each) gives access to the beautiful gardens surrounding the castle itself. Once you go through the main entrance, the path takes you through some of the amazing gardens and forest that cover the 60 acre property.

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The short walk from the main entry brings you to the castle, but the outside view as you approach is breathtaking. There is even a special garden at the side of the castle that is called the Poison Garden. It holds plants that have been considered poisonous over the ages that today may be considered beneficial or have alternate uses.

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Once you reach the castle, there is a windy staircase that has 100 steps leading you to the top where the Blarney Stone rests. Whilst we refrained from kissing the Stone, the view of the surrounding gardens was worth every step.

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The village of Cashel, an hour and a half away from Blarney Castle, has a massive ruined Abbey on a hill – the Rock of Cashel. When we got to the town, we also discovered other ruins, like the ruins of St Dominic’s Abbey (below).

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This landmark is a spectacular group of Medieval buildings set on an outcrop of limestone known as the Rock of Cashel. The oldest building on the site is the round tower, built in 1100. Other buildings were added over the next couple of centuries, but only ruins remain today.

Entry was only 7 euro each including admission to a small gallery/museum inside that’s worth the price alone. There was restoration work going on when we were there, but it didn’t impact our experience.

The scale of the Rock is astounding. With walls all around the site and the peaks reaching almost 30 metres high, you feel dwarfed by the ancient ruin. The on site graveyard, with its mossy texture, gives the whole place a slightly spooky feeling.

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From the grounds you can see another cathedral’s ruins in the distance. We didn’t travel down for a closer look, but enjoyed the view from the Rock.

IMG_5529After spending most of our day wandering through ruins, it was now time for us to head to Dublin. The two and a half hour journey took us to the hotel we stayed at, just outside the main city of Dublin.

Once at the hotel, we got ready to catch up with one of Bec’s friends. We hadn’t seen Lisa for 8 years and we had a wonderful time catching up over drinks and dinner at her local.

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2014 European Adventure Ireland

Sunday, 28th September – Limerick to Cork

As with most days on the UK part of our adventure, today’s itinerary was exciting but long. The drive was approximately 6 hours from Limerick to Cork via Tralee, Kenmare, Killarney, Bantry and Skibbereen on the Ring of Kerry.

After checking out of the hotel we went for a quick walk along the River Shannon. From the bridge we could see King John’s Castle. The castle was built in the 13th century on the site of a Viking settlement dating back to 922.IMG_5043

On the road from Limerick to Tralee on the banks of the River Deel lay the ruins of the Franciscan Friary built in 1389.

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From Tralee we headed to Kenmare via Killarney National Park. Driving through Killarny we found a cathedral – St Mary’s – at the foot of the National Park. We stopped in to have a look at this Gothic Revivalist style church and took some photos.

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Killarney National Park, for its size, has many varying landscapes. Some parts are almost like the Scottish moors and others so rich and green they are almost like a rainforest.

At the foot of the park there is a large body of water, Lough Leane (which means lake of learning). Depending on your viewpoint, the landscape around the lake is completely different.

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Further on the road to Kenmare we came across an old church perfectly situated near a gorgeous waterfall. Not far from the church were the ruins of a small anonymous castle. The Ring of Kerry was proving itself to be a highlight.

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Continuing on the Ring of Kerry, we found a look out called Ladies View. The name apparently stems from the admiration of the view given by Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting during their 1861 visit.

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The rest of our journey on the Ring of Kerry toward Kenmare continued to amaze us with its unique landscapes.

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Molly Gallivan’s was an unexpected gem about 15 minutes from Kenmare towards Bantry. A quirky little hobby farm where you can experience Irish lifestyle as it was prior to electricity, see some ancient ruins, do some shopping in an extensive gift shop and enjoy some homemade scones in front of a fire.IMG_5194

We enjoyed the rest of the journey to Cork on the N71, stopping only to take some random photos.

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On our way into Cork, we noted Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral. This Gothic style church was built in the 18th century on a historically religious site since the 7th century.IMG_5316

We checked into a rather posh hotel (in comparison to our usual Ibis digs), taking advantage of their lovely restaurant indulging in a few glasses of wine overlooking Cork and the River Lee.

2014 European Adventure Ireland

Saturday, 27th September – Sligo to Limerick

Today’s trip takes us from Sligo to Limerick – a five hour trip via Galway, the Cliffs of Moher and Ennis. After a good nights sleep we were up super early and made our way to Sligo Abbey, built in the 13th century.

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On our way out of Sligo, we stopped to have a look at a beautiful church – the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. A relatively new church, opened in 1874, it is the only Norman style church in Ireland. We had a brief look inside, as the morning mass was about to start.

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Over the next two hours, we really enjoyed the drive through country Ireland as the scenery was incredible. We came across Dunguaire Castle which was not on our itinerary, but simply too picturesque to drive past. We didn’t pay the entry to go inside, but did look around the gift shop. This place seemed to be a major tourist attraction – we knew this from the incredible number of coaches arriving as we left.

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On the coast road just outside of Ballyvaughan we spotted a large keep of a castle and decided to explore. Upon further investigation, it turned out that only one of the walls was intact! The others had fallen away over the years. We later found out that it was Muckinish West Tower House built around 1350.

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We were only an hour away to our next destination, the Cliffs of Moher. This part of our journey was amazing and it was an incredible day – one of the warmest we’d had since returning to the UK. The rolling hills along the coastal road along with the blue sky and green fields partitioned by traditional Irish stone walls were perfect.

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Along the road we also encountered spectacular views. One of them (below) was of a place called The Burren. It is within a national park, and has an almost alien landscape on top of the mountains there – a huge contrast to the green everywhere else. We didn’t have time to explore further, but seeing The Burren in the distance was great!

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One of the most iconic places to visit in Ireland is the Cliffs of Moher. The site itself is visited by a million people per year and is well built to cater for the numbers. They have a great car park, visitors centre and walks around the cliffs – all for six euro per person (including parking). One of the best value locations we visited on our trip.

At about 215 metres high and going for 8 kms, the Cliffs are so impressive – 320 million years in the making! Many films have been made here including a couple of our favourites: The Princess Bride and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

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Throughout the UK we had problems finding Air BnB’s so we staying at a lot of hotels. This means we’ve been accumulating loads of washing! We managed to find a laundromat in a place called Ennis – en route to our hotel. We have to plug Fergus Dry Cleaning, they were really lovely people and after we explained we were travelling, had 8 days worth of washing and an hour to get it sorted, they agreed to prioritise us! We were really surprised with the price as well. While they washed our clothes, we went and had a traditional Irish lunch (including real Guinness) at the local pub, Brogans Bar and Restaurant.

Back on the road, we continued toward Limerick, on the way we saw some horses with a new foal that Bec just had to feed an apple to.

Unfortunately time had gotten away from us, we drove around Bunratty Castle, however couldn’t look around too much as it was closed.

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Once at the hotel, we hung all our wet washing up in the room and slept under our drying clothes that night.

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2014 European Adventure Ireland

Friday, 26th September – Belfast to Sligo

We had a huge day of driving and sightseeing ahead of us in our trip from Belfast to Sligo via the North Coast so we had an early start.

Everywhere you look in Northern Ireland the scenery is breathtaking. The bright blue sky and the emerald green of the fields are only broken up by rough cliffs and sea glimpses. The weather had now turned and the cloudless days, whilst beautiful, were cold.

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Our first destination was the Dark Hedges, only an hour outside of Belfast. We should point out that the initial reason we went there was to see the filming location for the Game of Thrones TV series. Regardless of the pop culture reference, it was amazing.

The Dark Hedges is a beautiful avenue of beech trees, planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century. Two hundred years later, the Dark Hedges have become one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.

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Ballintoy is situated in one of the most picturesque parts of the North Antrim Coast between the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. This stunning harbour location has been used for exterior Pyke shots and as the Iron Islands in Game of Thrones.

We spent a lot of time at the harbour exploring the rocky coastline. The noise of the wind, ocean and birds was deafening, particularly as the waves crashed onto the rocky shore. Despite this it was incredibly relaxing and strangely calming.

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As we continued along the North Antrim Coast we made our way to Larrybane headland. Larrybane was featured in Game of Thrones being the location of Renly Baratheon’s camp site in Season 2.

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The coastline constantly surprised us with spots like the White Bay viewpoint and Castle Dunseverick. We had to stop a number of times to enjoy the scenery and take photos before reaching the Giant’s Causeway.

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The Giants Causeway is a Unesco listed heritage site that is a result of intense volcanic and geological activity. It is believed that the causeway is a 60 million year old legacy to the cooling and shrinking of successive lava flows. Or it could be that the mighty giant, Finn McCool, wanted to build a way to get to Scotland to have a ‘discussion’ with the giant Benandonner in Scotland who was taunting him.

Regardless of science or legend, the Causeway is mind-blowing and a very unique landscape. The shapes seem alien, nestled in a spectacular coastal setting.

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Our experience with the National Trust of UK has been fantastic. Everything was well set out, easy to navigate and well maintained.

For a  9 pound adult entry fee, we could experience the visitors centre (with exhibits and movies), self-guided tour and shuttle bus to the causeway itself. The shuttle bus saves time, but it is a great walk. We enjoyed the walk down and the bus back up the hill.

After leaving, we headed west towards Dunluce Castle to see more amazing landscapes. The castle traces back to the 13th century but is now mostly in ruins. It features in Game of Thrones as castle for the House of Greyjoy, though almost unrecognisable due to CGI enhancement.

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Stretching along the coast from Dunluce Castle are the unique limestone cliffs of the White Rocks. These soft sedimentary rocks have been carved through centuries into a labyrinth of caves and arches.

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We found a small car park at a lookout on the coast and decided to have our lunch there. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we were able to get glimpses back towards Dunluce Castle.

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Our next stop on the itinerary was Downhill Demesne, Hezlett House and the Mussenden Temple. They’re all located on an immense grassy field with the house the crowning point and the temple perched on the edge of a 120 foot high cliff. The house was a marvel of design and architecture until destroyed by fire around 1850.

It currently sits a gutted facade, grass as its carpet and sheep living in the servants quarters. The bright green, sky blue and fluffy white clouds made for fantastic photos. Entry was free, the area was well maintained and you could easily roam through the gardens all day.

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Thirty minutes outside Sligo, our final destination for the night, we spotted Benbulbin. Benbulbin was shaped during the ice age, when Ireland was under glaciers. Originally it was a large plateau. Glaciers moving from the northeast to southwest shaped it into its present distinct formation.

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Just before we reached Sligo, we saw St Columba’s Church of Ireland in Drumcliff the location of W.B. Yeats grave.

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There is still contention regarding the authenticity of Yeats’ remains, initially scattered in an ossuary in France in 1946 before being repatriated by his wife back to Ireland.

Finally we reached Sligo, checked into our hotel and had dinner at the restaurant on site. We retired early, exhausted after a long day with the promise of another huge day of beautiful scenery ahead of us.

2014 European Adventure Ireland Northern Ireland

Thursday, 25th September – Glasgow to Belfast

For the Ireland leg of our journey, we had to catch a ferry from Scotland to Belfast. We arrived at the ferry terminal in Troon (Scotland) early and found a place to have some breakfast. We drove onto the ferry and once the car had been locked up below, we made ourselves comfortable in the lounge for the trip.

It was looking like a grey drizzly day however, the ferry trip was very quick, arriving in Larne (Northern Ireland) just two hours later and before we knew it we were instructed to make our way to our vehicles. We were impressed by how organised the whole process was, quick, efficient and very well managed.

It took an hour from the ferry terminal to arrive in Belfast. We checked into our hotel, which was quite central and once settled we planned our walking itinerary for the day.

The walk ended up being huge covering a large part of the city. We loved the old buildings, so much history and character in a small space.

A building on College Square.

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Assembly Buildings Conference Centre was built in 1905 as the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

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City Hall and City Hall’s Garden of Remembrance.

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St Annes Cathedral.

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After 82 days of walking, Bec’s Converse finally had to be retired. So we did some retail therapy in the main shopping mall and grabbed some replacements.

We headed back to the hotel, dropped of our shopping and made our way to the conveniently located pub across the road for dinner.

2014 European Adventure Northern Ireland Scotland