Stari Bar, Stari Budva, Stari Nights?

A year past our trip and several months since the last post, I figure it's high time I fill you in more on our babymoon.

Either luckily (or unluckily), we started with low expectations after Albania. Itching with sand fleas and keeping the windows down to keep the car cool (since we were afraid the A/C would overheat it), we thought it was time for a good laugh and for fortunes to improve.

Since we were travelling by car and a lot of the countries we were visiting were not in the EU, we had warned the car rental and asked about the insurance we would need for driving to each of the countries. The agent handed us a green sheet which he said was very important that we would use at each crossing. Upon arriving at our first crossing, we came to find out that, we'd already lost it. Doh.  Paul and I had some disagreeing on where it might have been (one theory being that our cop friend kept it), but either way, we found ourselves having to purchase new insurance at the crossing. Since it ended up only €15 so we didn't complain too much and instead turned our focus to food.

We decided the first few stops didn't look that great and we would hold out for something better. Then the realisation was there were 2 very hungry pregnant women in the car and it became a mission to find something to eat ASAP.  We found an exit that looked promising and stumbled upon one of those great finds that you always hope to find on a roadtrip.

Ulcinj, where we stopped, ended up being a cosy beach city - not so locale that there weren't shops selling beach wares, or some places with English menus, but just locale enough that we were some of the only tourists there, especially this early in the season. We found a view over the water and dug into what was one of many, many Italian meals over the course of the trip. Afterwards, we walked the beach but decided to keep on our way north to Budva.

Back in the car, despite planning to hightail it to our hotel, we saw signs for Bar along the way. We had looked at staying here, but decided that Budva was more our scene. When driving past, we knew we couldn't pass it up completely, so turned to drive up the hills to Stari Bar.  At the top, we paid a random man 2 (likely a fee to keep our car, full of baggage, safe rather than park). Despite driving up hill, there was still more uphill hiking to do until we found ourselves in the castle. It was beautiful, some areas with tended gardens, others left to tend to themselves, what used to be rooms or churches now becoming home to roses and bushes. 

We wandered around, at first following a map, then finally letting our imagination take-over.  Despite being an attraction (there were handouts for 2 proving it), we had run of the place other than a few other people we spotted on the way up and in. It was surreal slipping through what we thought to be paths, perhaps alleyways when it was a booming castle/market in its day.  Instead of crossing paths with a ghost of the past though, I only crossed with what I hope was a friendly snake.

Finally, our first day of roadtripping was done and we made it to Budva.  In actuality, we had booked a hotel in a bay just north of Budva.  Driving up through the campgrounds, full of backpackers and Eurotrippers, I wasn't sure what to expect. But, our hotel was nice enough, if lacking in local flair and tasty food.  We enjoyed a day of lounging and nights of card playing, as the storms railed around us.

We couldn't leave Budva without investigating the city, so we stopped on our last day there.  Of course we needed a little sustenance, so grabbed a smoothie before strolling the streets. We ducked into a museum on the ships that came through to get out of the heat and get a better view of the city walls, but finally gave in and headed to the beach.

A little online research let us know about a beach that was supposed to be good, so we followed the directions, feeling a bit sneaky as we walked past a private hotel pool. We came upon the first beach, but according to directions needed to keep going. As we climbed through a large cutout in the rock, with a board placed on it, we felt even sneakier and were wondering where it was sending us. Not one to give in once we'd started, we kept on.  We finally found our beach, which was nice, although a bit toasty without any shade.  The boys were lucky to have been in their suits, but the ladies didn't feel like trying to wiggle pregnant bodies into bikinis under the towels, so settled with dipping our toes in and working to stay cool.

Our first few days in Montenegro were surprisingly nice, although perhaps even more so in comparison to our rocky start! Little did we know what else Montenegro had to offer!

Seville snapshots

With pregnancy, having a baby and maternity leave, last year we got a bit behind on travel (not to mention blogging but that's another sob story). I spent the last 5 months of 2015 without a single escape. Even with a baby though, I knew that travel was still a priority to me and so I didn't want to wait too long before we got back in the saddle.

Our first vacation destination couldn't have been more perfect - Seville, Spain. Even almost 3 months later, I still think of that moment as we rambled down the cobbled streets, passing tapas after tapas bar, loud with the sounds of friends enjoying a late meal (and probably some sangria). Looking up, I saw laundry hanging from clothes lines window boxes overflowing with red flowers, and windows surrounded by vibrant, colourful tiles. It was in that moment that I felt like I found a bit of myself that had been lost in the transition from carefree woman to mom who stresses about a baby's well-being, sleep schedule, eating schedule and just about everything else you can worry about (and many things you shouldn't worry on!).

Of course not everything about the trip was perfect - it started out with an expensive taxi ride when I thought we were running late for our flight at Heathrow when in fact we were running late for our flight at Gatwick. Or when we got stuck in the rain with no umbrellas. Or, something even less predictable than weather, the baby who doesn't sleep! But still, it re-ignited my excitement around travel and reminded me what I loved about it. Perhaps it's the old saying absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I felt more of a thrill from this trip than I had from travelling for awhile.

I am promising myself that I will write down our adventures soon, but for now, here are a few of the details that drew me in to Seville's history, architecture and culture. Hopefully this little taste will inspire me to come back to share more, and get more travel in the books!

Days in Shropshire

I had dreams of my maternity leave - using it to get out and about London to visit museums and the sites, perhaps with an occasional weekend trip. Paris anyone?

Then baby arrived and I realised quickly that it might not work out as I had imagined. And I've been very happy with that, as I have to say there is nothing better than having a baby curled up against you as they sleep contentedly.

However, when Paul had to take a trip for work within the UK, I decided I'd rather tag along (somewhere with room service!) than sit at home alone with the baby for a few days. So we packed up the car with baby, dog and lots of baby gear and hit the road.

We were staying in Whitchurch at a golf resort and spa; I thought we might be able to walk into town to see the sights, but it seemed as if both town and sights weren't exactly in walking distance.

So the first day, we packed up the car again and headed out for a small trip - to dip my toes into handling baby and dog out on my own outside my 1 mile comfort radius in Chiswick.  We visited checked out English Heritage for a site near us to visit and stumbled upton Moreton Corbet Castle.

Originally built in the 12th century, it's stone facade was built in the 13th century and remodeled in the 16th century.  It fell into disrepair when the family moved in the 18th century, and while it is managed by English Heritage, it is still owned by the family.  There's not much importance to it, which I think is almost more interesting! Imagine someone coming to look at the ruins of my house 500 years from now!

The next day, feeling more confident, we decided to go out for a walk for the dog at Fenn's Whixhall Bettisfield Mosses. It claims to have one of the biggest and best raised bogs in Britain (whatever that means), but we were looking maily for a place for Belle to run around and let loose.

We drove in and parked by the canal. We decided to start our trek there and walked along the canal path. About 10 minutes into our walk, we crossed over the border from England to Wales. From there we decided to head inland.  Our whole walk, we had only crossed paths with one other couple walking with their dog, but once we headed into the mosses we were completely alone. It was muddy out there, but that made no difference to Belle - she was in heaven! We wandered for a while but then a huge rain cloud was approaching so we dashed back to the car and decided to make it a night in, room service and all!

So that Paul could get in on some of the sightseeing, we had booked one extra night in Whitchurch. So Saturday morning, we slept in (as much as you can with a 2 month old baby) then squeezed in one final sightseeing stop at Beeston Castle. I had wanted to visit it during the week, but oddly enough it was only open weekend days.

The castle offered two walks - the woodlands walk and the castle walk. So we decided to take the woodlands route, thinking it would be scenic and something Belle would like. We were right on both counts - Belle sprinted, jumped logs, ran back, chased squirrels and was generally the happiest dog alive as we walked through trees full of the autumn reds, oranges and yellows. Where we were wrong in our thoughts was that the path would take us to the castle. She told us a 30 minute walk and 25 minutes later we ended up right back where we came in.

A little rain was starting to sprinkle and the baby was getting quite heavy to carry but we persevered, intent upon getting to the top of the castle.  When we got to the top, while the castle wasn't much, the views were worth it.  With views stretching across 8 counties, it reminded me of the simple beauty of the English countryside, filled with greenery, fields and of course sheep.

Unfortunately the rain was looming, so we snapped a family photo and scurried back down to leave. Before we left, we were persuaded to purchase an English Heritage membership though, meaning we'll have lots more English adventures in the next year!

Thanksgiving Overseas

Since our move overseas in 2011, we have missed the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving in the US.  It's sad to miss out on our families (and the days off!), but we've taken the chance to bring this tradition with us to our new homes.  Once we moved to London, we discovered a great community of Americans and took to celebrating in a big way!

The tradition started in 2013 with a group of 25 of us travelling out to Dartmoor National Park for a weekend at Bovey Castle.  For 2014, we took it further and travelled to Cork, Ireland to celebrate.

While I had been to Ireland before, it was Paul's first trip and I think he may have been more excited about Ireland than the big Thanksgiving!

The first stop of the trip was a group tour and tasting at the Jameson Distillery nearby our hotel.  While I'm not a whiskey fan, it was interesting to see the process and the history there.

 The aging process of whiskey over the years - you can see it both darken and the amount in the barrels reduce

The next day was our Thanksgiving day (albeit a week late!) - it included cooking all the trimmings all day, from the turkey, to mashed potatoes, to pumpkin pie, and there was even a game of American football, despite the rain.  We decided to make a big evening of it and dress up for the event.

To make sure we didn't indulge TOO much, we followed the meal the next day with a walk on the nearby Garryvoe Beach. We picked it due to it's proximity, not it's importance, but it was a beautiful day of sunshine, perfect for a stroll along the water.

On our last day in Ireland, we both wanted to get in some proper sightseeing.  Paul had researched the area and the drive around the Ring of Kerry, but since we didn't have time to do it all, we picked the biggest sight - the Blarney Castle.

While the castle has an impressive history, including requests from Queen Elizabeth to take possession of the castle, it is most famed for the one stone within it - the Blarney Stone.  It's not entirely certain where it came from, but thousands (or more!) have made the trip to the castle to kiss the blarney stone in order to help them become more eloquoent speakers.  Before arriving, I was expecting a stone on display with a queue up to give it a quick peck.

Once we arrived at the top of the castle, I saw the reality.  The stone is built into the castle battlements - in the past, people were simply lowered to kiss it. Now, to ensure that everyone who kisses it lives to tell the story, they've built in protective bars and have a friendly staff member hold on as you give it a smooch!

So with great feast with friends and gaining the gift of gab, we called is a successful Thanksgiving. This year may not have been quite as exotic, but is certainly exciting as we enjoy it as a family, with my sister and a friend from the States visiting.  We certainly have a lot to be thankful for!

Chiang Mai

When we were planning our trip to Cambodia and Thailand, I kept hoping, hoping, hoping that our trip would overlap with the Loy Krathong Festival. This is the famous lantern festival, known to most only because of the gorgeous photos with thousands of laterns lighting up the sky. The hard part about visiting is that the dates aren't released very far in advance, as they are based off a lunar calendar, so it could be completely up to luck if you make the festival.

Our luck? The festival was the week before we arrived!! However, for tourists like us, they also do an international festival with a set date which coincided with our trip - unlike the normal festival, there are tickets which sell out months in advance and had sold out when we booked our tickets.  I put my name on a waiting list and hoped for the best.

Even without the festival, Chiang Mai, home of the Yi Peng (or Loy Krathong) festival, was full of excitement during our days there. On the first night, we wandered the streets, which were full of people, parades, singing and lights! We found our way to the river and purchased some floating lanterns, made wishes and set them free.  The night was raining, making it hard to keep the lanterns lit and making slush of the ground. We set up shop at an outdoor beer festival to take it all in.

Our friends were leaving the last day, while we were continuing our stay by another night. We decided to wake up early for a bit of a cultural exploration and took a tuk tuk out to see Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. In addition to the temple being beautiful, it is situated on top of Doi Suthep mountain, giving great views over the city, so we got an early start hoping to catch the sunrise over the city.

We arrived to a nearly empty temple clouded in fog with the only other early risers being the monks; all this combined created an almost mystical aura to our visit.  We wandered the site hoping for the fog to clear, but eventually decided the weather wasn't in our favor.

We made a pit stop on our way back into Chiang Mai to another small temple on the river.  Being a year later, I can't recall what it was called and an online search doesn't bring up much.  It was a quiet, peaceful temple though, still in use, but having fallen victim to the elements in some places.  The small river next to it added a symphony of babbles and gurgles as we walked around finding more and more statues around the park. Finally it was really time to hit the road so that our friends could hit the road to the airport.

That evening we decided to skip the celebrations in order to better explore Thai food with a cooking class. For our first stop, we hit the markets to find the fresh ingredients we would need for all of our recipes.  The markets were busy, filled with people shopping for their evening meals, and full of unusual fruits and veggies. I had my eye out for the famed durian fruit (said to reek of fish and is banned from many hotels and planes), but it was out of season so I was either fortunate or unfortunate depending upon your stance on the smelly fruit.

After our shopping, we headed back to the site to cook up our evening meal. It was quite the feast! We started with spring rolls, headed over to soup (coconut and tom yum), then made our main meals (pad thai and stir fried hot basil). For our dishes, we even made our own curry, grinding up fresh green chilies to make the paste. With our enthusiastic grinding, Paul managed to get some in his eye, rendering him out of commission for the rest of the grinding, and making me a bit hesitant to finish up the job! The finished product was worth it though - so delicious. We tried recreating the pad thai at home once we got back, only to find it just wasn't as good. Was it our cooking or the lack of farm fresh ingredients? I'd like to think our cooking wasn't to blame!

Finally, on our last day in Chiang Mai, we got the tickets we had been waiting for! I had heard we had gotten tickets, but didn't want to believe it until they were in our hands.  We wandered around the city through the early afternoon, but I couldn't wait to get to the ceremony. 

The festival is a huge cultural event, a rite for people to pay their respects and let go of anger, resentment and frustrations. Throughout Thailand, people release the "krathong" on the river, but in Chiang Mai they release the famed lanterns lanterns.  The true ceremony is overseen by the monks at Mae Jo University, with thousands and thousands of participants.  For those that miss the true ceremony, they arrange an international event.  This is focused on the release of the lanterns, although there are some speeches and information given in advance. However, you could tell everyone was restless and waiting for the big event. After sunset and a prayer, the first lantern was lit and the flames were passed along to the back of the area, every moment the sky becoming even more crowded with the lanterns.

Despite the commercialness (and even inauthenticity compared to the real event), it was moving and magical. I can only imagine sitting in on the real deal.  After we lit our first lanterns, we stood back to take it all in before lighting a few more lanterns to send our wishes and prayers up.  As the lanterns slowed, excitement began again when the fireworks started.  It made a beautiful display against the backdrop of a sky lit with lanterns. I don't think I could have asked for a better ending to our time in Thailand and it's an image that is etched forever into my mind - how could it not be?