Monday, 12 March 2012

Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg

During my time in St. Petersburg, Russia I was lucky enough to visit some of the most amazing places and over the next few weeks I'm going to explore some of my favourites on my blog, starting with Catherine's Palace.

Catherine's Palace, an 18th Century imperial residence, is located within Tsars village which is around 24km from the city of St. Petersburg. Tsars Village, or Tsarskoye Selo in Russian, was a popular summer residence among the Russian nobility who enjoyed escaping city life for the peace and tranquillity of the so-called village. It has immaculately maintained gardens and a number of small pavilions within the gardens. There are also many bridges over the river and many of these are in the beautiful chinoiserie style.

Construction work began on the palace in 1717 and it is named after Catherine I who was the wife of Peter the Great who is credited with founding the city of St. Petersburg. The pristine blue and white exterior facade with its opulent gold finish is stunning, especially against a perfect blue sky backdrop.

Catherine's Palace

The exterior decorative features which you can see above in gold paint were originally decorated with over 100kg of real gold but were changed by Catherine II, or Catherine the Great as she is often referred to as, when she found out the cost of the gold. She viewed the extensive gold decorations as reckless extravagance and only allowed some gold finishing to remain.

The interior of Catherine’s Palace is even more lavish than the exterior and the Great Hall and the majority of the rooms have stunning golden façades. A tour of the inside of Catherine’s Palace is a must in order to see some amazing artwork and incredibly ornate ceilings and floors and to generally get a flavour for the flamboyant way of life in which Russian royalty lived.

If you do decide to take a tour of the interior of the Palace then you are given some rather fetching blue covers for your shoes to minimise any damage to the intricate wood floors in certain parts of the palace.

Definitely one of my hottest looks...

Once inside and fitted with your highly attractive shoes covers you are greeted with awe inspiring and intricate decor which you could easily spend hours admiring.

Stunning gold facade in the Ballroom

Opulent table setting

Traditional Russian dress which Catherine the Great would have worn

If you do decide to explore the interior of Catherine's Palace, which I highly recommend, then you are required to take a tour. Unless you organise this before arrival all tours are generally given in Russian so it's best to contact a tour company before you intend to visit.

Also inside Catherine's Palace is the world famous Amber Room which is created of amber panels which are backed with gold leaf and mirrors. It was created for Peter the Great in the early 18th Century with pieces from Berlin City Palace. It was then destroyed during World War II when the Germans invaded, after a failed attempt to hide it beneath ordinary wall coverings. It was taken to pieces by the Germans and transported away from St. Petersburg but the whereabouts of the pieces have never been discovered and there are many theories surrounding it.

Under orders from Vladimir Putin reconstruction of the Amber Room began in 1982 and it was finally re-opened to the public in 2003. There is an extra charge if you wish to visit the Amber Room, which has been called the eighth wonder of the world.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

My Worst Ever Travel Experience

Picture the scene... it was 2008 and it was the end of an incredible week's holiday on the picture-perfect island of Cyprus with my mum. We'd spent the week lazing on the beach, drinking cocktails and eating some amazing meals...

On the last day of our perfect holiday my mum called to find out what time we would be picked up to go to the airport for our flight home to Glasgow. She was told that the flight company, XL Airlines, had gone into liquidation the previous day but was reassured and told alternative flight arrangements had been made and we would be picked up the next morning.

The next day we were picked up at the specified time and soon arrived at the airport. Whilst we waited to check in we spoke to some girls who were due to fly to Manchester with XL Airlines and hadn't been given alternative flights who had been in the airport overnight. Feeling very sorry for them and thankful that we did have an alternative flight to catch we checked in and headed through to the departures lounge. Little did we know our situation was about to get a whole lot worse.

At first our flight was delayed for 4 hours. Not the end of the world we thought, at least we'll be home soon.

Then it was delayed another 3 hours. Annoying but not too bad.

Then it was delayed a further 11 hours.

By this time it was evening and we were facing a night in Larnaca airport. If you've ever been to Larnaca airport pre-refurbishment you'll understand this wasn't an ideal situation. Row upon row of horrible steel seats were all we had to sit on and the only place to buy food was Wimpy.

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With the realisation we were going to be there all night we found ourselves, along with 2 other plane loads of people who were in the same situation, we took over the upper cafe section of the airport and swapped magazines, books, chatted and did everything we could to pass the time. I even made some lovely new friends. I remember being so worried because by this time I was missing my first day at University and I even made my dad call them to tell them why!

As time passed our flight disappeared from the screen completely and we knew we were in trouble. Airport staff wouldn't communicate anything to us and we faced another day in the airport.

Day quickly turned into night with no sign of a plane to take us home. The only help we'd had from airport staff was tickets to buy meals in the Wimpy. They wouldn't tell us what was happening or when we would be getting home.

As our cases had been checked in and we had no luggage people were beginning to get increasingly frustrated. One poor man's medicine was in his case which he had no access to and babies were running out of food and nappies. Some of the girls who worked in the duty free must have felt sorry for us as they brought a bag of supplies for us to freshen ourselves up.

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The next morning we were told a representative would come to speak with us and everyone gathered at the edge of security waiting for them to arrive. I'm pretty sure they thought some passengers were going to be trouble as nobody ever came. A man with a video camera had been filming the scenes and I soon got a few messages from friends telling me I was on TV!

That afternoon a plane finally arrived! It was the best feeling ever knowing we had a plane to get on so we could finally get out of what had become a nightmare. It was one of the massive Airbus A380's with an upstairs and it was big enough to fit the 3 plane loads of passengers who'd been stranded at Larnaca.

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As soon as that plane got in the air and everyone had sunk into the supple leather seats the entire plane fell asleep and before we knew it we were arriving home. More than 55 hours later we finally made it home, and I've never been happier to crawl into my bed.

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Although this was my worst travel experience and it was a nightmare at the time I know it could have been a lot worse!

Have you ever had a horrible travel experience? What happened?

Monday, 5 March 2012

Exploring Edinburgh

As a Glasgow girl I adore my city but I also enjoy travelling through to Edinburgh and spending a few days in Scotland's beautiful capital. Edinburgh is a stark contrast to Glasgow- Glasgow is essentially an industrial city whereas Edinburgh has such wonderful architecture and lots of open spaces which are harder to find within Glasgow's maze of streets.

Upon arrival in Edinburgh city centre one of the first things I always notice is the imposing sight of Edinburgh Castle dominating the skyline from high above the city on an extinct volcano. The origins of the castle date back to 1130 and so much history has taken place within it's walls, including the birth of one of Mary Queen of Scots' children and it is even reported to be haunted by ghosts and phantoms of years gone by. I'm not sure I believe these tales but there are many ghost walks and tours in the city which might convince me otherwise!

Edinburgh Castle

In the middle of Princes Street lies the stunning monument to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (I wrote my dissertation on his novels!). The monument features him seated in the centre with his beloved dog next to him. Visitors can climb the 287 steps to the top of the monument and enjoy stunning panoramic views over the whole city.

Walter Scott Monument

If you want to get a great view of the city and enjoy some fresh Scottish air then the best place to head is for a walk up Arthurs Seat. I've only walked part of the way up to Holyrood park and the remains of St. Anthony's Chapel. The views over the city and towards the Forth even from this point were incredible. One day I'll have more time to climb to the very top of Arthurs Seat, I'm determined.

The remains of St. Anthony's Chapel
View from St. Anthony's Chapel
View from St. Anthony's Chapel with Calton Hill in the distance

The remains of St. Anthony's Chapel date back as far as the early 15th Century and although exact origins are unknown it is likely that it had a tower which was around 40 feet high.

St Andrews Square lies at the east end of Edinburgh's George Street, just seconds from Princes Street, and is dominated by the Melville Monument and surrounded by lovely gardens which are a great place to relax in the summer.

Melville Monument, St Andrews Square

Whilst I was in Edinburgh there was a really interesting art exhibition 'Invisible Words' in St Andrews Square which is part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

The pictures were all images from the science world and some of them were so colourful and really fascinating.

I think this one was my favourite. Would you believe these are all bacteria contained within agar plates?

Just moments from St Andrews Square on George Street is one of my favourite eating and drinking spots in Edinburgh is The Dome. The Dome is a gorgeous converted bank which dates back to the mid 19th Century and is now an amazing bar, restaurant and meeting spot. You can get an amazing champagne afternoon tea which I definitely recommend.

The very first thing you notice when you step inside The Dome is the stunningly beautiful chandelier which dominates the entrance hall. Anyone who knows me will know I adore chandeliers and this is one of my favourites.

Chandelier in the main entrance hall
The Dome
The Dome which dominates the The Grill Room area where you can have lunch, afternoon tea, dinner or drinks is stunning. It is decorated in such an ornate manner that when I'm inside I simply can't stop staring up at it and admiring it.

Annnnnd there's even chandelier's in the bathrooms...!
Yes, okay, I took a picture of the bathroom chandelier.

I can't wait to get back through to Edinburgh and spend more time exploring this gorgeous city. Has anyone been before? What are your favourite places in the city?

Whilst I was in Edinburgh I had a complimentary stay at Haggis Hostels- an amazing hostel in the city centre. Check out my review of it here.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

My First Ever Hostel Experience | Haggis Hostels Edinburgh

Okay, I have a confession, I've never stayed in a hostel before. Until now that is! I've just had my first hostel experience at Haggis Hostels in Edinburgh.

It was with some nervous trepidation that I decided to make this my home for the evening in Edinburgh as I've heard some real horror stories about hostels involving bed bugs, thiefs and general grubby conditions. I needn't have worried, Haggis Hostels isn't your average hostel, it's so much better.

You'll find Haggis Hostels located smack bang in the centre of the city, just 50 metres off Princes Street, the main shopping street. This means that everything you could need is nearby- shops, restaurants, bars and clubs which is perfect. From the moment I walked through the door the first thing I noticed was how clean it was, everything was absolutely spotless. I was met by Chris, one half of the brains behind Haggis Hostels who showed me my room and gave me a little tour.

Four bed room at Haggis Hostels
I was placed in a room with 4 beds yet the hostel was quiet so I had the room all to myself, what luxury! The lovely Chris had made my bed ready for my arrival and he'd even set out a few goodies for me...

The mattresses are lovely and thick and very comfortable to ensure a great nights sleep and it's luxury bedding and towels all the way here. There are even international plug sockets right next to every bed so you can charge up your phone right next to you whilst you sleep, great idea!

There are lockers in every room and they're a pretty good size for fitting all your valuables in so you don't have to worry about them while you're out exploring Edinburgh.

The kitchen at Haggis Hostels is amazing, definitely much better than I was expecting. It's big and bright and has everything you could possibly need to cook a few meals. Again, the kitchen was spotless- you could probably eat off the floor! At Haggis Hostels you get a breakfast included in the price which is a great touch and so handy to fuel up before a busy day.

Lovely, bright kitchen

Plenty room to cook up a storm!

The recreation area is the place where you can chill and hang out with other hostel guests. It's set up with a tonne of leaflets on things to do in Edinburgh and further afield in Scotland. There's also a stereo, board games and lots of books by great Scottish authors (although without Sir Walter Scott...get this sorted guys!).

The hang out spot

The hostel toilets and showers are also incredibly clean, I actually think the shower was cleaner than mine at home! The showers have lockable doors and a little seating spot for leaving your towel and clothes while you shower. The showers are brilliant too, lovely and warm and powerful, perfect to wake you up in the morning.

The guys who run Haggis Hostels Al and Chris are great and have really thought of everything with this great little hostel. They give you such a warm and friendly welcome that you feel quite at home here and they're so helpful with anything you need. I had a great time at the hostel and next time I'm back in Edinburgh I'll be staying here again. Hopefully sooner rather than later!

Haggis Hostels so kindly let me stay for free for the purposes of this review however, all opinions are my own and are entirely honest.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

A Weekend in Manchester

I spent last weekend in the English city of Manchester visiting some friends I'd met on holiday almost two years ago. The main purpose of the visit was simply to catch up but we managed to fit in some sightseeing, good meals and two excellent nights out.

Manchester itself is a sprawling city with so many shops, bars, restaurants, clubs and plenty to see, not to mention the two big football clubs which call this city home. Whilst we were in Manchester we stayed in a great apartment in the Deansgate area which I booked through Roomorama, you can read my review of this here.

On our first evening in Manchester we headed straight for Chinatown, the second largest Chinatown in the UK after London, and attempted to pick a spot for dinner from the numerous different options. We decided on Peking Court which was doing a buffet and had something which suited all six of us. The food was delicious, if you are ever there I highly recommend the salt and pepper chicken which was to die for. It was also very reasonably priced, costing us £13 each including a tip. Not bad for a delicious all you can eat buffet!

Arch at the Entrance to Chinatown

After dinner we headed to an area called The Printworks which, as the name suggests, was a print house until it's refurbishment in 2000 after lying dormant for around 10 years. It dates back to 1873 and is now home to a cinema, numerous restaurants, bars and 4 clubs. We spent our night in Tiger Tiger sampling some of the different floors within this massive club and had a great time! Coming from Glasgow, the home of the £1 drink, we found drinks to be quite expensive in comparison but not outrageous.


Inside the Printworks

Retro print posters give the interior of the Printworks a quirky feel

The Big Wheel of Manchester was also something I wanted to experience whilst I was there as I love heights. At only £5.50 for a student ticket (£7.50 for adults) we all took the opportunity to see Manchester from 60 metres in the air.

The Big Wheel of Manchester

The height of the big wheel affords some great views of Manchester Cathedral and the many modern buildings mingling with the older, more traditional architecture of the city. The Big Wheel of Manchester is being dismantled in April in order for the city to host some Olympic events this summer so get there quick before it goes.

Our second night out in Manchester saw us exploring the bars and clubs of Deansgate Locks, just a few minutes walk from our apartment. Here, quirky bars and clubs are found within converted railway arches and outside there is a huge wooden walkway over the bridge which apparently has outdoor seating in the summer months.

We made our way first to Baabars, a ridiculously busy bar which specialised in £1 shooters. I had a 'Purple Wand' (purple is my favourite colour!) which was gorgeous but we didn't stay long as it was far too busy and there was barely any room to move.

We then headed to Missoula, which serves food during the day and at night turns into a vibrant club with great DJ's in the downstairs area. Upstairs there is exposed brickwork which is in keeping with Missoula's former status as a simple railway arch. This is mingled with modern furnishing and decor, giving Missoula a truly unique feel.

I really enjoyed my trip to Manchester and would like to go back and explore more of the sights such as the interior of Manchester Cathedral. I'd also love to have a meal in the famous Curry Mile, maybe next time!

Have you been to Manchester? What did you think of it compared to other English cities?