A day in Bruges

It wasn’t until I saw the 2008 Colin Farrell movie “In Bruges”, a black comedy about two Irish hitmen hiding out, that I had even heard of this Belgian town! I went from first hearing about it, to adding it onto my “absolutely must visit” list less than half an hour into this film…

Seeing this town used as a backdrop for this film was almost a distraction from the storyline itself. The film, as it’s title suggests, does an incredible job of showing Bruges at its best – the beautiful architecture, the stunning Belfry and the wonderful little old bridges. Soon after we had watched the film for the first time, we were booked on a long weekend to go and visit Amsterdam and Bruges!  In fact, we were booked to go on this trip in the May and enjoyed it so much that we booked up to go back again only a few months later in the August!

You always have to take care when you first see a place in a film and decide it is the next place to visit after falling in love with all the Hollywood imagery and effects. You are either going to visit somewhere and find that it completely exceeds your expectations and the film represents it exactly how it is. I’ve found this to be true with Las Vegas, New York and Thailand (Thailand as in Leonardo Dicaprio in “The Beach”.) I’ve also been bitterly disappointed with some places I’ve visited after seeing them featured on the silver screen (spoiler alert – Hollywood is an absolute DUMP in real life!) so I really didn’t know what to expect on my arrival here.

I’m pleased to say that it was everything I had hoped it to be, which is obviously why I booked to go back so soon! It is a beautiful city and in my opinion completely under-rated.

Bruges has most of its medieval architecture intact, making it one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe. The historic centre of Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.

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Grote Markt is the largest of Bruges’ two central squares. It is full of beautiful architecture and buildings which have real character – here you will find some Nineteenth century gabled buildings along three sides of the square, and the fourth side features the breathtaking Belfort. There are horse drawn carriages galore within the square if you would like a whistle stop tour of all the main sights. Perfect on those bright and sunny days but beware, they are expensive, as most touristy trips tend to be!

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Whilst here we went for lunch on the square and sat outside so we had a beautiful view of the Belfry. We had been pre-warned that the food would be expensive but it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. We sat in the sunshine and had a lovely lunch and some drinks whilst admiring the views and people watching, so well worth it I thought! If you are put off the prices in Grote Markt then if you walk a few streets away from the square you will find places with more reasonable prices (but not as much of a view, obviously!)

 

Anyway, after our pit stop and refreshment break we went on a mission to explore as much as we could during our short time here! Here are some of the main sights that Bruges has to offer;

The Belfry

As the Belfry is Bruges most famous landmark it would be wrong to start with anything else! It features heavily in the In Bruges film and storyline. It is a medieval tower from the 13th Century and used to house a treasury and municipal archives. The city archives were very sadly lost in a huge fire in 1280, and the tower was largely rebuilt.

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The poor Belfry has actually been subject to three fires over the years, the last one was in 1741 when the wooden spire was destroyed and never replaced. If you want to go all the way to the top you can, and you would be a braver person than I am! Friendly word of advice – if you are planning on going to the top of the tower, DON’T watch the In Bruges film before you go!

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There is a fee of 8 euros to climb the 366 steps to the top of the bell tower and it stands at 83 metres (or 272 feet) high! It is at the South end of the Markt (you can’t miss it!) and is open from 9:30am to 5:30pm. You don’t have to do the entire 366 steps all in one go, as on the way up to the tower you can stop at various levels to see the old bells and watch the big bell and see the carillon in action. There are a total of 47 bells which make up the carillon, and they ring every quarter of an hour.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood

Even if you don’t have time to venture inside here, it is worth visiting just to admire the dark gothic and romanesque exterior!

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The basilica consists of an upper and lower chapel and is dedicated to St Basil the Great. The lower chapel was built in the 12th century in Romanesque style and the upstairs chapel was built in the Gothic style in the 16th Century and houses a venerated relic (the physical remains or personal effects of a saint which have been preserved to be used as a memorial for them). The relic is of St Basil the Great and was brought here by Count Robert II from Caesarea Mazaca in modern day Turkey, or Cappadocia, Asia Minor as it was known then.

The basilica is also famous for housing a phial said to contain a cloth with the blood of Jesus Christ on it. This was rumoured to have been brought to the City by Thierry of Alsace after the 12th Century second crusade, however recent research found no evidence of the relic being in Bruges before the year 1250. The phial is made of rock crystal, there is gold thread wound around the neck and the top is sealed with red wax. It is then encased in a glass fronted gold cylinder. I wish we had taken the time to go in and see this now!

St. Salvator’s Cathedral

The cathedral is one of very few buildings in Bruges which has survived all the ages with no damage. It was originally built as a parish church and was not given cathedral status until 1834.

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The newly defined cathedral underwent significant changes after that to make sure it looked more cathedral-esque, and a fortress like Romanesque style tower 99 metres high was built.

Provincial Palace

This is a really beautiful neo-gothic style building which was actually built in two stages the first stage was between 1887 and 1892 and the second stage between 1914 to 1921.

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The building was originally used as a government meeting hall until 1999 and is now used mainly for exhibitions.

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Church of our Lady

We didn’t have time to actually visit here properly and go inside which was a real shame. Even in the distance looking at the beautiful spire you could tell what an impressive building it is. Its tower is 122 metres in height and the building is the tallest in the city and the second tallest brickwork tower in the WORLD!

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Even more annoying, I learned after we had got home that inside you can find Michaelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” sculpture in the transept, believed to have been the only sculpture by Michelangelo to have left Italy within his lifetime. We really should have taken the time to visit here properly!

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The Old St. John’s Hospital

This, as the name suggests, is an old medieval hospital which was founded in the 12th century. It is located next to The Church of our Lady and houses some of Europes oldest surviving hospital buildings. Today part of the hospital buildings houses the popular Hans Memling museum.

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If you have the time to take a boat trip during your visit to Bruges, you’ll get some spectacular views of the Church and the Old St John’s hospital en-route. The trips only cost around 10 euros and can take you to places in the town that you otherwise can’t reach! The pictures of the Church of our Lady and the Old St John’s hospital are spectacular from the water.

If you have time, also check out the well preserved old city gateways; the Kruispoort, the Gentpoort, the Smedenpoort and the Ezelpoort.

And of course, no trip to Bruges would be complete without window shopping at some of the famous Belgian chocolate on offer! Oh, and waffles, you MUST have some Belgian waffles whilst you are here!

Bruges is ever so easy to get around, the train station is only about 2km from the town centre and the train station adjoins the bus station. Local buses can take you from the train station to the town centre or there are plenty of taxis around if you prefer.

Although we visited Bruges both times during the summer months, the weather was still very unpredictable! The first time we visited it was very dark and cold and the rain didn’t stop the whole time we were there! It was no fun trying to capture some good photos in this awful weather, however, the second visit to Bruges with glorious sunshine partly made up for this! Always plan ahead and check the weather before you go – it really can be one extreme to another!

A really beautiful place which is well worth a visit – I would love to go again, but would like to actually stay in Bruges this time, rather than just do a day trip here. A day just isn’t long enough to explore and uncover all that this place has to offer!

Nashville, a journey to the Deep South

I’ve always wanted to visit Nashville – the home of Country and Western music!

Nashville is the capital of Tennessee and we visited as part of our big tour of the deep south of America so unfortunately our time here was pretty limited. In fact, although we spent roughly the same time in some of the other locations such as Memphis, Chattanooga and Tupelo, Nashville was the one place I really noticed that we wouldn’t have enough time to see the vast majority of the sights this fantastic place had to offer.

I couldn’t wait to visit, mainly to learn more about the history of country and western music, as Nashville is known as the centre of the country music industry, earning it the nickname “Music City”.

Although it was very limited, here’s what we managed to squeeze in during our short time here;

The first point of interest made me chuckle – the John Seigenthaler pedestrian bridge – also known by the locals as the Dolly Parton bridge due to its two rather large humps….

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RCA Studio B is a recording studio which was originally known as RCA Studios. The studio helped to revive the popularity of country music and establish Nashville as an international recording centre. 

The recording studio is a single-storey building with offices at the front, but the area of the studio and control room has a second storey which contains an echo chamber.

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Famous artists who recorded songs at Studio B include The Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, and the one and only, Elvis Presley! In her 1994 memoir, My Life And Other Unfinished Business, Dolly Parton told the story of how she was rushing to her first recording session at the studio in September 1967 and, rushing to make the session on time, drove her car through the side wall of the building. The spot where her car impacted the building is still visible even today!

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Daily tours of the studio are offered by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the tour guides have some fantastic stories to tell which have been gathered over the years – including Elvis Presley banging his head on a low hanging microphone during the recording of “Are you lonesome tonight?” The sound of him doing it can still be heard on the original recording they play for you!

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We also visited the Nashville Parthenon which is in Centennial Park. It is a full scale replica of the original Parthenon in Athens and was built in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Today it is used as an art museum – it is really impressive to look at!

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I don’t even really know how to begin explaining the amazing Country Music Hall of Fame! It is absolutely huge! It is one of the world’s largest museums and this is obvious as soon as you step inside! You could spend weeks here looking at the memorabilia and reading the information contained within one of the world’s most extensive musical collections. 

Here are just a few of the incredible items and collections you can find inside;

Elvis Presley’s gold cadillac – the 1960 Cadillac was customised by Barris Kustom City of North Hollywood. The exterior sheen is due to its 24 carat gold plate highlights and forty painted coats of a translucent mixture of crushed diamonds and fish scales called diamond dust pearl. The interior includes a gold plated television and a record player with automatic changer!

Taylor Swift’s crystal covered guitar! Swoon! The pictures didn’t do it justice at all!

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Elvis Presley’s 24 carat gold leaf piano (starting to see a theme here!) I don’t think this is actually here anymore, as news articles seem to suggest it sold in an auction to the Hard Rock Cafe for $600,000!! I’m glad I got to see it whilst I was there!

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Plus rooms and rooms and rooms of memorabilia from hundreds and hundreds of Country and Western music stars, including Roy Rogers, Patsy Montana, Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Red Foley, T. Texas Tyler, Spade Cooley, Merle Travis, Hank Thompson, Cindy Walker, Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson, Keith Urban, Brenda Lee, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Patsy Kline, Tammy Wynette and infamous names like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton…. the list goes on!

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After spending a good few hours here we continued to explore this amazing city and came across the Johnny Cash Museum. 

God, I really regret not visiting here but I don’t know how we would have had the time!

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It features the largest and most comprehensive collection of Johnny Cash artifacts and memorabilia in the world, and is located in the heart of Downtown Nashville. It is one of only six attractions in Nashville to receive the coveted AAA Gem rating and is ranked the number 1 music museum in the world by Forbes, Conde’ Naste and National Geographic Traveler – if you get the chance – GO!

Walking the streets of Nashville is amazing feeling. It is so relaxed, and everywhere you look are shops selling Cowboy hats and Cowboy Boots, or really expensive guitars.

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There are bars open everywhere with live music being played and even street sellers selling famous Moonshine! The stuff looked lethal so no, we didn’t have any!

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There’s so much to see and do here, its easy to see why people love it and call it the home of Country and Western music! I just hope I get the opportunity to go back some day!

 

A trip to Kensington Palace

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I hadn’t ever thought about visiting Kensington Palace but when I told my Mum I wanted to visit London for the day and asked her what she fancied doing she said she had always wanted to visit! Even better, you can get Kensington Palace entry tickets by exchanging your Tesco Clubcard vouchers, bargain!

Kensington Palace is situated in Kensington Gardens and has been the residence of the British Royal Family since the 17th Century. It is currently the official residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, and Princess Eugenie.

Kensington Palace was built as a royal home for William III and Mary II at the end of the 17th Century. It has had many roles over the years, including a museum and a barracks for soldiers guarding the Great Exhibition. It used to be a small mansion known as Nottingham house. In 1689 the new monarchs, King William III and Queen Mary II, purchased Nottingham House for £20,000 and only weeks later, Sir Christopher Wren began work on transforming it into a royal palace. The new palace had a chapel, courtier accommodation, kitchens, stables, barracks and many grand rooms and state apartments. Queen Mary died in 1694 of smallpox in her bed chamber in the palace but had spent many years before designing and furnishing the palace.

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William didn’t make many alterations to the Palace, and his successor, Queen Anne, only reigned for a short time and so only added the orangery during her time. Anne left no heir and so the palace passed to her distant relative, George Ludwig.

The new King George liked Kensington Palace but found it to be in very poor condition and so plans were made to rebuild it on a much larger scale. A new set of State Apartments were built to replace the old Jacobean house in 1718 to 1722.

During the reign of King George II between 1727 and 1760, the Palace was used to its full potential as George and Queen Caroline enjoyed entertaining their guests in lavish ceremonies. Unfortunately, after Queen Caroline’s death in 1737, the King closed off half of the palace. King George died in his private apartments at Kensington Palace in October 1760.

George III showed little interest in Kensington Palace throughout his reign (1760-1820), but this did mean that the furnishings and paintings were left untouched in dark rooms for this time. The Palace eventually became home to George III’s two sons, Prince Augustus, Duke of Sussex and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. Prince Augustus was a book collector, and amassed over 50,000 volumes in his apartment! Prince Edward was the father of Queen Victoria, who was born in the palace in 1819. In June 1837 she was told of her accession to the throne, and held her first council in the Red Saloon.

Queen Victoria’s daughters, Princess Louise and Princess Beatrice, later lived in the palace. Louise was a really gifted artist and left the legacy of the statue of the young Queen Victoria which sits at the east side of the palace.

A major restoration of the palace took place in 1898 under the orders of Queen Victoria and in 1912 the rooms were filled with display cases when the palace became home to the London Museum. A lot of damage was caused to the Palace by incendiary bombs during the Second World War.

In the 1960’s, Princess Margaret came to live at the Palace, and further members of the Royal Family began to arrive in the 1970’s and 1980’s, one of the most famous of these being Diana, Princess of Wales, who lived at Kensington Palace up to her death in 1997.

There are several tours you can take within Kensington Palace which are:

The Kings State Apartments

The Kings Staircase leads to the King’s State Apartments, and all visitors for the King would have climbed this staircase, (provided that their clothes and jewels were acceptable to the guards!) The staircase paintings were completed around 1726 by an artist called William Kent, who included a portrait of himself on the ceiling in a brown artists cap and holding a palette. Kent’s work was inspired by the work he had seen in Rome, where he trained to be an artist.

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The Presence Chamber was where the King would sit on his throne, under a crimson silk damask throne canopy, and important guests would be ushered in to bow to him.

The Privy Chamber was one of Queen Caroline’s favourite entertaining spaces. It has another amazing ceiling created by William Kent in 1723 and shows Mars, the Roman god of War, and Minerva the goddess of Wisdom, and surrounding them are the emblems representing the arts and sciences.

The Cupola Room was probably my favourite room of the Palace. This room was the first room decorated by William Kent. In this room he re-created in paint a baroque Roman palace but with the Star of the Order of the Garter as the ceiling’s centrepiece. George II and Queen Caroline hosted really lavish parties in this room.

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The strange object in the centre of this room is a clock and a music box as well as a piece of artwork, and was completed in 1743.

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The Kings Drawing Room would have been packed full of courtiers back in the day, who would have all attended the King’s parties seeking power and patronage.

On the ceiling William Kent has shown the powerful god Jupiter, who accidentally killed his lover Semele, and portraits of Venetian doges line the walls. Next door to this room was the King’s bedchamber, and halfway through the evening he would emerge to make his grand appearance.

The Council Chamber is located in one of Christopher Wren’s pavilions, built on the corners of the original Nottingham House and it has served William III, George I and George II as a meeting place for the Privy Council. The sort of court dress that would once have been worn in these state rooms is on display here.

Queen Caroline’s Closet is a small room which originally belonged to William III as his bedchamber. George I used this room to store books but these were removed after Queen Caroline made one of the most important art discoveries of the era. In 1727, she found hidden in a cabinet a portfolio containing many drawings made by Hans Holbein, the younger of Henry VIII and his courtiers. Caroline later made this room a gallery filled with 300 paintings, miniatures and embroideries.

The Kings Gallery was built for William III as an addition to Wren’s design in the new South front and was finished in around 1700. It was in here that William III played soldiers with his little nephew and intended heir, the Duke of Gloucester. After a riding accident at Hampton Court, it was here that the King caught the chill that led to his death on 8th March 1702.

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The gallery was transformed in 1725 by William Kent for George I. Red damask replaced the green velvet walls and the fine oak joinery was painted white and gilded. Kent and his assistants painted the seven large ceiling canvasses that show scenes from the life of Ulysses.

Queen’s State Apartments

The Queen’s State Apartments are deliberately plainer and lower-key than the Kings, both inside and out. Here you can learn more about the lives of Mary II, Queen Anne and the House of Stuart.

The Queen’s Staircase is a sharp contrast to the grand marble King’s staircase. These apartments were built for Queen Mary between 1689 and 1694.

The Queen’s Gallery was painted white and hung with full length portraits of Kings and Queens  of England. Later, Mary developed a passion for collecting treasures from India, China and Japan. She filled the gallery with artefacts such as Turkish carpets, embroidered hangings and lacquer furniture, alongside her collection of 150 pieces of oriental porcelain.

The Queen’s Closet was where a terrible argument took place between Queen Anne and her childhood friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.

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The Queen’s Eating Room has beautiful panelling which has survived from the 17th Century. In here, William and Mary would share simple private dinners of fish and beer. Mary would also use this room to make tea with the ladies of her household.

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The Queen’s Drawing Room used to be filled with Mary II’s porcelain. This room is the room which is claimed to have lost most of its original character, as it badly damaged by an incendiary bomb on 14th October 1940. Most of the panelling was destroyed which is why the walls are now wallpapered.

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The Queen’s Bedroom was used by Mary as her State bedroom when she and William first moved into the palace. Just as soon as Christopher Wren had finished work on the Queen’s Apartments, Mary had her rooms extended to provide her with more accommodation. This resulted in the Queen’s Gallery and a new private bedchamber being built.

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Victoria Revealed

We were very disappointed because this exhibition was closed when we visited, and it was one of the main exhibitions we wanted to see! We will definitely have to revisit to see this. In this exhibition you can visit the rooms Queen Victoria grew up in and learn more about her life right through from her childhood to her final years. In this section of the palace we would have been able to see:

The Stone Staircase where Princess Victoria first met her cousin and future husband, Prince Albert, for the first time in 1836.

The Red Saloon where Victoria held her first Privy Council on the morning she became Queen in June 1837.

On this tour you will also learn more about how Victoria and Albert fell in love and Victoria’s lonely family life growing up at Kensington Palace.

There is also a separate exhibition about Price Albert known as the Great Exhibition, which was in 1851 and would later be known as his greatest piece of work. It showcased technological and cultural achievements from over the world and attracted over six million visitors.

Modern Royals

This is a changing display – when we were here it was a beautiful Diana exhibition showcasing some of her most famous outfits. Well worth a visit and it slightly made up for the fact that the Victoria exhibition was closed.

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The first dress below was designed by Bruce Oldfield, who designed many dresses for the Princess. She wore it at the Courtauld institute of Art, Somerset House in 1990 and again at the Buckingham Palace state banquet in 1991.The Princess chose the second dress in the below picture for an official visit to Japan. The colour was chosen to complement the flowering cherry blossoms.

Diana chose to wear the Spencer Tiara, a sparkling family heirloom, on a state visit to India in 1992. This second dress was designed to complement it. The embroidery on the bodice of this dress was based on traditional Indian patterns.

The Princess wore this first dress when she danced with actor John Travolta at the White House. This second dress was embellished with falcons, the national bird of Saudi Arabia, when the Princess visited there. The high neckline and long sleeves also respected local customs.

The second dress below was worn by the Princess when she visited Brazil, shortly after their national football team lost to Argentina in the World Cup. Conscious of her hosts feelings, she instructed the designer, Catherine Walker, to avoid the blue and white colours of the Argentinian team when she designed the gown.

The second dress below was worn to the New York gala event before the Christie’s Auction.

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You can also visit the beautiful Palace Gardens, which were transformed in 2012. During the winter months, Queen Anne’s orange trees were protected from the cold inside her magnificent orangery, which was built for her between 1704 and 1705. In the summer months, they were transferred to the terrace outside. Anne also added fountains and an alcove with a garden seat to the south gardens. This still exists but was moved to nearby Lancaster Gate in the 1860’s. In 1705, 100 acres were added to the east side of the palace to form a paddock for royal deer and antelope.

The majority of the works done to the gardens were down to Queen Caroline. She extended the plantings, laid the Broad Walk and had the Round Pond dug in 1728. The Serpentine was formed as a boating lake by flooding several smaller ponds.

The Sunken Garden was laid out during the reign of Edward VII and opened in 1909, and is the most popular of the Palace gardens.

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The east and the south sides of the palace were laid out in 2012 with a new scheme designed by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, inspired by the old layouts of lawns, trees, borders and topiary of George II’s time.

Queen Victoria is present at the front of the Palace in the form of a statue, which was designed by her daughter Louise.

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Kensington Palace was a lovely day out in spite of the cold, wet weather! A place I will definitely have to visit again so I can see the gardens properly in the sunshine and hopefully finally get to see the Victoria exhibition when it re-opens, which should be any day now….

CocoChlo in Paris

Ooh la la!

What a beautiful place Paris is! So much to see and do and so much history! And so much style – I really don’t think there’s such a thing as being overdressed in a place like Paris!

I only spent a couple of days here but this is what I managed to fit in during my short visit:

Place de la Concorde

The Place de la Concorde is one of the major public squares in Paris and measuring 21.3 acres in area, it is the largest square in the French capital. Features of the Place include two identical stone buildings, separated by the Rue Royale. The eastern one houses the French Naval Ministry, and the western one is the Hôtel de Crillon. At each of the eight angles of the octagonal Place is a statue representing a French city:

  • Brest and Rouen by Jean-Pierre Cortot
  • Lyon and Marseille by Pierre Petitot
  • Bordeaux and Nantes by Louis-Denis Caillouette
  • Lille and Strasbourg by James Pradier

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Luxor Obelisk

The centre of the Place is occupied by a giant Egyptian obelisk decorated with hieroglyphics exalting the reign of the pharaoh Ramesses II. The obelisk once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple and is over 3000 years old! It is one of two the Egyptian government gave to the French in the 19th century – the other one stayed in Egypt, too difficult and heavy to move to France with the technology at that time. It arrived in Paris on 21 December 1833 and three years later, on 25 October 1836, King Louis Philippe had it placed in the centre of Place de la Concorde. In the 1990s, President François Mitterrand gave the second obelisk back to the Egyptians.

The obelisk, a yellow granite column, rises 23 metres high, including the base, and weighs over 250 tons! Given the technical limitations of the day, transporting it was no straight forward task and on the pedestal are diagrams explaining the machinery that was used as part of the transportation. Missing its original cap, believed stolen in the 6th century BC, the government of France added a gold-leafed pyramid cap to the top of the obelisk in 1998.

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Champs-Élysées

The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is an avenue in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, 1.2 miles long and 70 metres wide, running between the Place de la Concorde and the Place Charles de Gaulle, where the Arc de Triomphe is located. It is known for its theatres, cafés, and luxury shops, for the annual Bastille Day military parade, and as the finish of the Tour de France cycle race.

Palais Garnier

The Palais Garnier is a 1,979-seat opera house, which was built from 1861 to 1875 for the Paris Opera. It was called the Salle des Capucines, because of its location on the Boulevard des Capucines in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, but soon became known as the Palais Garnier, in recognition of its opulence and its architect, Charles Garnier. The Paris Opera now mainly uses the Palais Garnier for ballet.

The Palais Garnier has been called “probably the most famous opera house in the world – partly due to its use as the setting for Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera and, especially, the novel’s subsequent adaptations in films and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular 1986 musical.

The beautiful building includes very elaborate multicolored marble friezes, columns, and statues, many of which portray deities of Greek mythology.

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The two gilded figures on the apexes of the principal façade are Charles Gumery’s L’Harmonie (Harmony) and La Poésie (Poetry). They are both made of gilt copper electrotype. Bronze busts of many of the great composers are located between the columns of the theatre’s front façade and include Beethoven, Mozart and Spontini. 

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The Ritz Hotel

The Hôtel Ritz is ranked among the most luxurious hotels in the world and is a member of “The Leading Hotels of the World”. The Ritz reopened on 6 June 2016 after a major four-year, multimillion-dollar renovation.

The hotel was founded by the Swiss hotelier, César Ritz, in collaboration with the chef Auguste Escoffier in 1898. The new hotel was constructed behind the façade of an 18th-century town house, overlooking one of Paris’s central squares. It quickly established a reputation for luxury, with clients including royalty, politicians, writers, film stars and singers. Several of its suites are named in honour of famous guests of the hotel, including Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway who lived at the hotel for years.

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Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel is a triumphal arch located in the Place du Carrousel. It was built between 1806 and 1808 to commemorate Napoleon’s military victories of the previous year. 

The monument is 19 metres high, 23 metres wide, and 7.3 metres deep. The 6.4 metre high central arch is flanked by two smaller ones, 4.3 metres high, and 2.7 metres wide. Around its exterior are eight columns of marble, topped by eight soldiers of the Empire.

The chariot atop the arch is a copy of the so-called Horses of Saint Mark that adorn the top of the main door of the St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

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Notre Dame

Notre-Dame is a medieval Catholic cathedral and is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, and it is among the largest and most well-known church buildings in the world.  The cathedral treasury contains a shrine, which houses some of Catholicism’s most important relics, including the purported Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails.

Read more about Notre Dame here.

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The Eiffel Tower and Parc Du Champs De Mars

The Eiffel Tower is named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. Constructed from 1887–89 as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, it was initially criticised by some of France’s leading artists and intellectuals for its design, but it has become one of the most recognisable structures in the world. The Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world; 6.91 million people visited it in 2015.

The tower is 324 metres tall, about the same height as an 81-storey building, and is the tallest structure in Paris. During its construction, the Eiffel Tower surpassed the Washington Monument to become the tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held for 41 years until the Chrysler Building in New York City was finished in 1930.

The tower has three levels for visitors, with restaurants on the first and second levels. The top level’s upper platform is 276 metres above the ground – the highest observation deck in the European Union. The climb from ground level to the first level is over 300 steps, as is the climb from the first level to the second!!

The Champ de Mars is a large public space between the Eiffel Tower to the northwest and the École Militaire to the southeast. The park is named after the Campus Martius (“Mars Field”) in Rome, a tribute to the Latin name of the Roman God of war. The lawns here were formerly used as drilling and marching grounds by the French military.

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Les Invalides 

Les Invalides is a complex of buildings containing museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans, the building’s original purpose. The buildings house the military museum of the Army of France, the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, and the Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine, as well as the Dôme des Invalides, a large church with the burial site for some of France’s war heroes, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte.

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Grand Palais

The Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, commonly known as the Grand Palais is a large historic site, exhibition hall and museum complex located at the Champs-Élysées. Construction of the Grand Palais began in 1897 following the demolition of the Palais de l’Industrie (Palace of Industry) as part of the preparation works for the Universal Exposition of 1900, which also included the creation of the adjacent Petit Palais and Pont Alexandre III.

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Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile

The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile is one of the most famous monuments in Paris, and is at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. The Arc de Triomphe has an overall height of 50 metres, width of 45 metres, and depth of 22 metres. It honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

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The Louvre

I had no idea just how huge the Louvre was! The Louvre is actually the world’s largest museum and is a central landmark of the city.  Approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century are exhibited over an area of 72,735 square metres. The Louvre is the world’s second most visited museum, receiving 7.4 million visitors in 2016. We had planned to visit the Louvre but just did not have enough time to explore such a huge place! I was disappointed we didn’t get the chance to see the infamous Mona Lisa painting though!

The museum opened on 10 August 1793 with an exhibition of 537 paintings, the majority of the works being royal and confiscated church property.  The collection was further increased during the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X, and during the Second French Empire the museum gained 20,000 pieces. The collection is divided among eight departments: Egyptian Antiquities; Near Eastern Antiquities; Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities; Islamic Art; Sculpture; Decorative Arts; Paintings; Prints and Drawings.

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Inside the Louvre, find some world famous artifacts including:

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – arguably the most famous painting in the world, due in large part to when she was stolen in 1911.

Great Sphinx of Tanis (Old Kingdom, 2600 BC, Old Kingdom) inscribed with the names of the pharaohs Ammenemes II, Merneptah & Shoshenq. Excavated in 1825 among the ruins of the Temple of Amun at Tanis, it’s one of the largest sphinxes outside of Egypt.

Venus de Milo (100 BC, Cyclades, Greece) Art Historians believe she’s a 100 BC replica, however she does have typical 5th Century BC details.

Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 BC, Ancient Greece) Her Hellenistic form merits her place as one of the Louvre’s top three most important pieces. During WWII she was evacuated with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Slaves and Venus de Milo to Château de Valençay.

Luxembourg Palace and Gardens

The Luxembourg Palace was originally built (1615–1645) to the designs of the French architect Salomon de Brosse to be the royal residence of the regent Marie de’ Medici, mother of Louis XIII of France. After the Revolution it was refashioned (1799–1805) by Jean Chalgrin into a legislative building and subsequently greatly enlarged and remodeled (1835–1856) by Alphonse de Gisors. 

On the south side of the palace, the formal Luxembourg Garden presents a 25-hectare area of gravel and lawn adorned with statues and large basins of water where children sail model boats.

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Sacré-Cœur and Bell Tower

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart is a Roman Catholic church and minor basilica, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Sacré-Cœur Basilica was designed by Paul Abadie. Construction began in 1875 and was finished in 1914. It was consecrated after the end of World War I in 1919.

A mosaic in the apse, entitled Christ in Majesty, created by Luc-Olivier Merson, is among the largest in the world. It is absolutely stunning but unfortunately the use of cameras and video recorders is forbidden inside the Basilica.

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Cruise along the Seine

I was a bit unsure about going along to our pre-booked trip on a boat along the Seine because the weather had been so unpredictable all day but I am so pleased we went in the end. All the buildings you travel alongside are lit up beautifully and stunning views of the Eiffel Tower make this a fantastic photo opportunity!

There are several places online you can pre-book tickets for your river cruise, including Seine Cruises and good old Viator.

 

 

A fantastic trip to a beautiful place! Paris is a centre for art, fashion, gastronomy and culture – what more can you ask for in a destination??

A short trip to Venice

As I am writing this Venice blog and uploading my photos from a while back (Venice was one of the first places I ever travelled to!) I am thinking I will need to go back as soon as possible as I went when I had a really rubbish cheap camera which explains the really poor quality photos!! Sorry!!

I only spent a very short while in Venice, it was really just a whistle stop tour as part of our grand tour of Italy. One thing I will say about Venice and that is it must be seen to be believed! It really is unlike anywhere else in the World!

Whilst I was there, as well as consuming ridiculous amounts of amazingly tasty gelato, I also managed to have a snoop at the following:

St Marks Square

Otherwise known as Piazza San Marco, St Marks Square is the main public square of Venice. At the eastern end of the square is the great St Mark’s Basilica.

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St Mark’s Basilica

From the 11th century onwards the building has been known by the nickname Chiesa d’Oro (Church of gold) due to its grand design and gold mosaics.

The interior is based on a Greek cross, with each arm divided into three naves with a dome of its own as well as the main dome. The marble floor is entirely designed in geometric patterns and animal designs. The lower part of the walls and pillars is covered with marble slabs. In typical Italian style it is very ornate!

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St Mark’s Campanile 

St Mark’s Campanile is the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica and it is one of the most recognisable symbols of the city.

The tower is 98 metres tall, and stands alone in a corner of St Mark’s Square, near the front of the basilica. It is 12 metres wide on each side and 50 metres tall, above which is an open room surrounding the belfry, which houses five bells. The tower is capped by a spire, where on top sits a golden weathervane in the form of the archangel Gabriel.

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The Clock Tower 

The Clock Tower was completed in 1499, above a high archway where the street known as the Merceria leads through shopping streets to the Rialto, (the commercial and financial centre). 

The Clock Tower is an early Renaissance building and although both the tower and the clock date from the very end of the 15th century, the mechanism of the clock has been much altered since then. The lower two floors of the tower make a monumental archway into the main street of the city.

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Doge’s Palace

The Doge’s Palace is a palace built in Venetian Gothic style, and is one of the main landmarks of Venice. The palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice. Today, it is one of the 11 museums run by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.

Doge’s Palace has a LOT of history! Too much to detail in a blog – you can read more about it here.

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Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs is made of white limestone, has windows with stone bars, and passes over the Rio di Palazzo. It connects the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace.

The view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge’s name comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells.

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Rialto Bridge

The Rialto Bridge is one of four bridges which span the Grand Canal. It is the oldest bridge across the canal, and was the dividing line for the districts of San Marco and San Polo.

The present stone bridge was finally completed in 1591 and is similar to the wooden bridge there before it.  The bridge has defied critics to become one of the architectural icons of Venice.

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Gondolas

You can’t visit Venice without going on a Gondola ride! It’s the best way to admire the city and get an up close look at some of the beautiful architecture! Plus it is fascinating to watch the guys steering the gondolas along the winding streets and under some VERY low bridges! It’s truly an art!

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Venice is a lovely place with very interesting history – you can get some fantastically cheap deals to Venice these days and a long weekend is the perfect amount of time to spend here.

If that isn’t enough to persuade you to book up and go then just remember, Venice may not be around forever as it is slowly sinking year on year due to rising sea levels from climate change! Although the levels are only said to be rising around 1mm a year, don’t forget Venice is already prone to flooding during high tides….it’s quite daunting to hear the sirens going off to warn you of an incoming flood tide!!!

New Orleans, A journey to the Deep South

We visited New Orleans mainly for the Mardi Gras celebrations (see my Mardi Gras blog!) but during our few days here we managed to fit in so much more besides! New Orleans is a truly beautiful place, I really I hope I get the opportunity to go back again someday.

Here’s some of the other amazing things we managed to see and do during our trip to the Big Easy:

Jackson Square

Jackson Square is an historic park in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, for its central role in the city’s history, and as the site where in 1803 Louisiana was made United States territory pursuant to the Louisiana Purchase. In 2012 the American Planning Association designated Jackson Square as one of America’s Great Public Spaces.

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St Louis Cathedral

The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France (also called St. Louis Cathedral) is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans and is the oldest cathedral in the United States. The first church on the site was built in 1718; the third, built in 1789, was raised to cathedral rank in 1793. The cathedral was expanded and largely rebuilt in 1850, with little of the 1789 structure remaining.

The cathedral is said to be haunted by Fr. Antonio de Sedella, more commonly known as Père Antoine. He was a priest at the cathedral and his body is buried within the church. He is said to walk the alley named after him next to the cathedral in the early mornings. Accounts of his apparitions by parishioners and tourists claim that he appears during Christmas Midnight Mass near the left side of the altar, holding a candle.

Another haunting is said to take place in the cathedral by Père Dagobert, a monk who resided in the church. It is said that his voice can be heard chanting the Kyrie on rainy days….

Luckily we didn’t encounter Père Antoine or Père Dagobert during our visit!

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The Cabildo

The Cabildo was the seat of Spanish colonial government, and is now a museum. It is adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral.

The original Cabildo was destroyed in the Great New Orleans Fire (1788). The Cabildo was rebuilt between 1795–99 as the home of the Spanish municipal government in New Orleans, and the third floor with mansard roof was later added, in French style. The building took its name from the governing body who met there — the “Illustrious Cabildo,” or city council. The Cabildo was the site of the Louisiana Purchase transfer ceremonies late in 1803, and continued to be used by the New Orleans city council until the mid-1850s.

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Pontalba Building

The Pontalba Buildings form two sides of Jackson Square, they are matching red-brick, one-block-long, four‑story buildings built in the late 1840s by the Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba. The ground floors house shops and restaurants; and the upper floors are apartments which, reputedly, are the oldest continuously-rented such apartments in the United States.

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The French Quarter

The French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré, is the oldest neighbourhood in the city of New Orleans.

The district as a whole has been designated as a National Historic Landmark, with numerous contributing buildings that are deemed significant.  Due to its distance from areas where the levee was breached during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as well as the strength and height of the nearest Mississippi River Levees in contrast to others along the canals and lakefront, it suffered only relatively light damage from floodwater compared to other areas of the city.

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Saint Louis Cemetery

Saint Louis Cemetery is the name of three Roman Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans. Most of the graves are above-ground vaults constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The above-ground tombs in New Orleans cemeteries are often referred to as “cities of the dead.” Enter the cemetery gates, and you will find decorative ironwork, sun-bleached tombs and stunning crosses and statues. It seems weird visiting such a place as a tourist, but I’m pleased we paid our respects to such a beautiful peaceful place.

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Early settlers struggled with different methods to bury their dead. If you dig only a few feet down in New Orleans, the grave becomes soggy and begins filling with water which results in the coffin literally floating. Even worse, after a rainstorm, the rising water would pop the airtight coffins out of the ground. To this day in New Orleans, unpredictable flooding still lifts the occasional coffin out of the ground in areas generally considered to be safe from flooding.

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Eventually, New Orleans’ graves were kept above the ground, following the Spanish custom of using vaults. The walls of some cemeteries here are made of vaults stacked on top of one another, while wealthier families could afford the larger, ornate tombs with crypts. Many family tombs look like miniature houses, complete with iron fences. The rows of tombs resemble streets–and this is why New Orleans burial plots quickly became known as cities of the dead.

We visited St. Louis cemetery number 3 which is located about two miles from the French Quarter. The cemetery opened in 1854 and the crypts on average are more elaborate than the other St. Louis cemeteries, including a number of fine 19th century marble tombs.

St. Louis No. 3 also includes a Greek Orthodox section. The cemetery was heavily flooded during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but its tombs escaped relatively unscathed other than some plaster damage from debris.

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The Mississippi River

The picture I took of the river looks really cold and wet…. because it was! I couldn’t stand there in the cold for much longer to take a photograph so I’m afraid this was the best one I have!

The Mississippi River is the chief river of the second largest drainage system on the North American continent, second only to the Hudson Bay drainage system. Flowing entirely in the United States (although its drainage basin reaches into Canada), it rises in northern Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for 2,320 miles to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. The river either borders or passes through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

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New Orleans Street Cars

Streetcars in New Orleans have been an integral part of the city’s public transportation network since the first half of the 19th century. The longest of New Orleans’ streetcar lines, the St. Charles Avenue line, is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world.

There are currently five operating streetcar lines in New Orleans: The St. Charles Avenue Line, the Riverfront Line, the Canal Street Line (which has two branches), and the Loyola Avenue Line and Rampart/St. Claude Line (which are operated as one through-routed line). The St. Charles Avenue Line is the only line that has operated continuously throughout the wide destruction by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent floods from the levee breaches in August 2005.

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Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley Plantation is an historic plantation located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, in the community of Vacherie, St. James Parish, Louisiana.

Oak Alley is named for its distinguishing visual feature, an alley created by a double row of southern live oak trees about 800 feet long,  which were planted in the early 18th century — long before the present house was built. 

The mansion has a square floor plan, arranged around a central hall that runs from the front to the rear on both floors. The rooms feature high ceilings and large windows and the exterior features a free-standing colonnade of 28 Doric columns on all four sides that correspond to the 28 oak trees in the alley.

The grounds include a formal garden that separates the mansion from the old garage. The old car garage is the temporary site for the sugarcane Theater, where the history of sugarcane cultivation is explained through a video and exhibits. A blacksmith shop and the Stewart graveyard are also on the grounds.

The film “Interview with a Vampire” was filmed here!

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Carriage Rides

I’d highly recommend taking a carriage ride while you’re in New Orleans – the tours are expensive but the drivers are so knowledgeable – you can learn a great deal during your 90 minute journey.  The carriages take you past the many landmarks of New Orleans, including Bourbon Street, the Mississippi, and Jackson Square.

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Food-wise there are so many amazing places to eat in New Orleans, but I would highly recommend a visit to Cafe Du Monde!

When you are there, order a Cafe Au Lait (coffee with hot milk) and Beignets (a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar served in orders of three). They are absolutely delicious! Be warned – Cafe Du Monde gets VERY busy – be prepared to queue!

 

On our travels around the city we also tried jambalaya – a dish consisting of meat and vegetables mixed with rice. The meat usually includes smoked sausage such as andouille, along with some other meat or seafood, frequently pork, chicken, crawfish, or shrimp.

We also tried gumbo – a stew that consists of a strong stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and what Louisianians call the “Holy Trinity” of vegetables, namely celery, bell peppers, and onions. I highly recommend trying both – very delicious!

Drinks wise, as I say in my Mardi Gras blog – definitely give the Hurricane cocktail a try – a famous cocktail created by New Orleans tavern owner Pat O’Brien consisting of dark rum, white rum, over-proofed rum, passionfruit syrup and lemon juice. In the 1940s, Pat O’Brien needed to create a new drink to help him get rid of all of the less-popular rum that local distributors forced him to buy before he could get a few cases of more popular liquors such as scotch and other whiskeys. He poured the concoction into hurricane lamp–shaped glasses and gave it away to sailors, hence the name.

A definite place to add to your bucket list to visit – New Orleans is one of my favourite destinations out of all of the amazing places I’ve visited so far!

A day in Amsterdam

I only spent the day in Amsterdam but enjoyed it so much I booked to go back again for another weekend only a couple of months later! There’s lots to see and do here and it’s unlike anywhere else I have visited!

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Some of the things I would recommend seeing and doing during your stay in Amsterdam (in between your visits to the infamous Amsterdam coffee shops!) include:

Anne Franks House

The Anne Frank House is a house and museum dedicated to Jewish wartime diarist Anne Frank. During World War II, Anne Frank hid from Nazi persecution with her family and four other people in hidden rooms at the rear of the 17th-century canal house, known as the Secret Annexe. Anne Frank did not survive the war, but in 1947 her wartime diary was published.

The museum opened on 3 May 1960. It preserves the hiding place, has a permanent exhibition on the life and times of Anne Frank, and has an exhibition space about all forms of persecution and discrimination. In 2013 and 2014, the museum had 1.2 million visitors and was the 3rd most visited museum in the Netherlands, after the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.

We did have to wait a long time in the queue to get in so it may be worth while pre-booking your tickets. Entry fees are 9 euros for an adult ticket and I would really recommend it, it is a really moving and interesting place to visit.

Dam Square

Dam Square is the town square in Amsterdam. Its buildings and events make it one of the most well-known and important locations in the city (and the country!) The buildings on Dam square include Nieuwe Kerk (New church), De Bijenkorf and The Royal Palace.

Nieuwe Kerk (New Church)

The Nieuwe Kerk is a 15th-century church located on Dam Square, next to the Royal Palace. The Nieuwe Kerk is no longer used for church services but is used as an exhibition space and for organ recitals.

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De Bijenkorf

De Bijenkorf is a high-end department store founded by Simon Philip Goudsmit (1845–1889). De Bijenkorf is owned by the Weston family that also owns Britain’s Selfridges, Canada’s Holt Renfrew and Ireland’s Brown Thomas.

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The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is one of three palaces in the Netherlands which are at the disposal of the monarch by Act of Parliament.

The palace was built as a city hall during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. The building became the royal palace of King Louis Napoleon and later of the Dutch Royal House. It is situated on the west side of Dam Square, opposite the War Memorial and next to the Nieuwe Kerk and is a really impressive building to look at!

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Bloemenmarkt – The Flower Market

The Bloemenmarkt is the world’s only floating flower market. Founded in 1862, it is sited  on Singel between Muntplein and Koningsplein in the city’s southern canal belt. It includes 15 florists and garden shops as well as a range of souvenir gifts. The market is one of the main suppliers of flowers to central Amsterdam. You can find some really beautiful flowers here – we stayed away from the water as the wind and rain was pretty heavy that day!

The Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum is a Dutch national museum dedicated to arts and history. The museum is located at the Museum Square in the borough Amsterdam South, close to the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and the Concertgebouw.

The Rijksmuseum was founded in The Hague in 1800 and moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first located in the Royal Palace and later in the Trippenhuis. The current main building was designed by Pierre Cuypers and first opened its doors in 1885. On 13 April 2013, after a ten-year renovation which cost 375 million euros, the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix. In 2013 and 2014, it was the most visited museum in the Netherlands with record numbers of 2.2 million and 2.47 million visitors!

It is also the largest art museum in the country with over 8,000 objects of art and history on display, from their total collection of 1 million objects from the years 1200–2000. Among these are some masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer.

Madame Tussauds

Yes a really touristy place to visit but this was the first time I had visited a Madame Tussauds and I did really enjoy it! Inside you can find hundreds of wax figures of famous people from the world of music, sport, fashion and film.

My advice – definitely book online in advance to get the best deals and to avoid standing in queues which, during busy periods can mean a wait of over an hour! Pre-book your tickets here – you also save on entry fees by pre-booking.

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The Red Light District

A trip to Amsterdam wouldn’t be complete without a visit to its world famous Red Light District!

De Wallen is the largest and best known red-light district in Amsterdam. It consists of a network of alleys containing approximately three hundred one-room cabins rented by prostitutes who offer their sexual services from behind a window or glass door, typically illuminated with red lights.

The area also has a number of sex shops, sex theatres, peep shows, a sex museum and a cannabis museum. We visited the cannabis museum – a museum dedicated to the historical and modern uses of cannabis for medicinal, spiritual and cultural purposes. Interesting if you like that sort of thing – a bit of a waste of time and money if you don’t!

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Coffee Shops

A trip to Amsterdam would also not be complete without a visit to the infamous coffee shops!

In the Netherlands, coffeeshops are establishments where the sale of cannabis for personal consumption by the public is “tolerated” by the local authorities. Under the drug policy of the Netherlands, the sale of cannabis products in small quantities is allowed by licensed coffeeshops. The majority of these also serve drinks and food and in most of the places we visited, the rule was that you had to buy a coffee or hot chocolate with any purchase of cannabis. Coffeeshops are not allowed to serve alcohol.

If smoking isn’t your thing (which it isn’t mine!), you can always try one of the infamous space cakes! They come in all shapes, sizes, colours and flavours but be warned – they aren’t an easy way out in comparison to smoking!

Fast forward a couple of hours and you may find yourself walking around Madame Tussauds in a bit of a giggling haze…..just saying!!

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Sudeley Castle Spectacle Of Light

As my sister’s Birthday is the 1st December, we always try and do something a bit different on her Birthday or the weekend closest to it. She is definitely a winter baby and loves this time of year so we generally tie in her Birthday day out with something that is Christmas themed as well! Past days out have included a trip to Longleat Safari, ice skating at Cribbs Causeway and of course for her last milestone Birthday, an amazing trip to Iceland!

Last year I came across an event which was being hosted at Sudeley Castle called the Spectacle of Light. Last year was the first time they had hosted such an event and as several of us have been meaning to visit Sudeley Castle for some time, this event looked perfect for the occasion!

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The event is hosted after dark, and the Castle and grounds are lit up and decorated for a wonderful spectacle of light and sound. You follow a trail of light around the stunning castle grounds, magical gardens with majestic trees and into the romantic ruins where ideal photo opportunities await you! Music is also played as you wander the trail!

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We attended on the 1st December last year, but this year the dates span from the 8th to 30th December 2017.

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After you are done exploring, the café is open where mulled wine, cider and hot chocolate are served alongside other winter warmers like soup and hotdogs.

Entry times for the event are every half an hour from 5pm until 7:30pm – when we went last year we booked the latest entry time of 8:30pm, however they contacted us a few days before to ask if we could arrive for 8pm as they were short on staff – it looks as if they have reduced the amount of entry times this year as a result.

When we wandered the trail it was extremely quiet and peaceful, there were only a handful of other people who were there with us which made it all the more special! The weather was perfect December weather as well – cold but dry – we were very lucky on this occasion as I would imagine it to be a very different experience in the torrential rain!

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If you pre-book your tickets online you can also save 10% on the ticket prices – adult ticket price is £15.75 per person (normally £17.50) and child price is £9.90 (normally £11.00). Family tickets are also available.

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A typical walk will be approximately 60 -75 minutes, although if you wish to stay longer you are very welcome.

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According to the website, they have some new additions to the event this year including an “amazing kaleidoscope of illuminated parasols, an enchanting tree energising its sparkling roots and a friendly roar in the tower dungeon!”

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A highly recommended event, particularly for you budding photographers! We were slightly disappointed that our tickets did not give us full access to the Castle as this is a separately hosted event, however this just meant we were looking forward to re-visiting the Castle again in the daytime to see all that it had to offer!

CocoChlo’s Christmas Day

Merry Christmas everyone!

I hope you’ve all had a lovely day! I’m sat here in front of the TV feeling extremely full, surrounded by amazing tasty treats and am admiring all the beautiful presents I’ve received from my amazing friends and family.

I got up relatively early to do all the preparation for Christmas dinner but found I had plenty of free time this year just because of one small change – I cooked the turkey overnight last night so it was ready this morning! Friends have done this for years – I’ve never done it but I am definitely a convert now! It saved me loads of time and worry about whether the turkey was cooked and saved me loads of space in the oven so I could cook all the other bits and pieces! I will definitely do the same again next year!

We only got the chance to open a couple of presents this morning before people started arriving, I am incredibly lucky and got the Mulberry handbag and Tiffany perfume I was after! Completely unexpected and a real surprise! We decided we were going to save the rest of our presents until the evening when everyone had gone home so we weren’t rushing.

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Hubby then popped down the pub with a couple of friends whilst I cooked and prepared the rest of the dinner – this year I didn’t leave the kitchen as we only moved house a few weeks back and I’m still not used to using the oven and hob yet so was being over cautious – especially when there’s twenty different things to cook for Christmas dinner!

Anyway, I must have done something right because all my timings were pretty much spot on and everyone loved this years Christmas menu! As usual I bought way too much food and everyone ended up going home with huge doggy bags!

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Our canapés – BBQ Pork Belly Squares and Asian Chicken Lollipops
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Brie and Cranberry parcels
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Our amazing mediterranean platter
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Our yummy turkey, the first time I’ve cooked a roast in our new oven! It even had Christmas Spiced Bacon on the top (see below!)

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And our second meat was this amazing Christmas spiced gammon, ready to carve and eat (should the worst have happened with the turkey!)
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I don’t like Christmas cake myself but they always look so pretty don’t they?
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These bite-sized mini mince pies went down well with everyone!
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The Santa Stuck in the Chimney cake was AMAZING! A red velvet fudge cake inside, probably one of the best cakes I’ve ever eaten! And I’ve eaten A LOT OF CAKE!
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See what I mean? It tasted amazing!
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These chocolate mousse glitter pinecones went down a treat too! So pretty!
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Everyone went home with a lot of cheese! This amazing “Cheese” cake was from Tescos and was made up from Cheddar, Red Leicester, Stilton, Wensleydale with cranberries and Brie! Yum!

For place cards I bought these amazing Reindeer cake pops with little name tags, aren’t they lovely?

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And for favours I bought these lovely Nutcracker and Gingerbread Man bottle bags from Paperchase and filled them with Lindt truffles –

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Every year my Sister and my Mum buy me beautiful flowers to say thank you for hosting Christmas dinner, this year my Mum bought me a beautiful Christmas pudding flower arrangement from Marks and Spencers and my sister bought me a stunning snowglobe style flower arrangement (also from Marks and Spencer’s). I say this a lot but the photos really don’t do them justice!

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plus my Sister popped into Tesco’s to get some last minute Christmas bits and came across these beautiful Nutcracker flowers so she just had to buy them for me! I’m absolutely spoilt!

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The day completely flew by which is always such a shame, I hate it when it gets to the point where people have to leave! Especially today as we had a bit of a mini storm going on outside so everyone got soaking wet and blown away in the storm on the way to their cars! That will teach them not to leave won’t it!?

After everyone had gone, laden up with doggy bags and left overs, we finally sat down and opened the mounds and mounds of presents we had from friends and family. There was definitely a Nutcracker, Harry Potter and Beauty and the beast theme going on with my presents! My friends certainly know me very well! Here’s just some of the lovely gifts I had from friends and family-

Lots of sweets and treats:

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Elf cake Pop’s from Popalicious cake pops!

SO.MANY.PYJAMAS!!!! My favourite!

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And this brilliant Pusheen T-shirt! Pusheen is my spirit animal!

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Plus lots of smelly stuff, perfumes, bath bombs and hair treatments!

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Looking forward to using these! Anyone else used Philip Kingsley stuff before?

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Plus I was also given a pair of gold Beats headphones and BOTH pairs of trainers I wanted! I’m so lucky!

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All this followed by a short doze and nibbling leftovers and cheese and biscuits on the sofa whilst watching Christmas TV makes this my perfect Christmas Day!

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I hope you’ve all had an amazing day full of love and laughter with your families and friends! I’m looking forward to Boxing Day when I usually have a good clear out of my wardrobe to give unwanted items to charity and to put away all my lovely new presents!

Merry Christmas everyone! xx

CocoChlo’s Christmas Eve

I can’t believe it’s here already! The best day of the year! I actually prefer Christmas Eve to Christmas Day – there’s no better feeling than the evening of Christmas Eve when you finally sit down and everything is wrapped and prepared ready for tomorrow! Here’s how my favourite day of the year unravelled in 2017 –

We usually get up early and bundle the two dogs in the car and drive up to Painswick Beacon for a lovely long Christmas Eve walk. A few years ago some fellow dog walkers chose a beautiful big tree along the dog walkers path and started hanging baubles and decorations alongside photographs of their beloved dogs who have passed on.

It’s such a lovely tribute, putting their pictures where they enjoyed frolicking in the woods and chasing across the golf course to annoy the golfers! We added a tribute to our dog Scampy who died in 2006 – he was such a lovely dog and was incredibly loyal to his family of us girls!

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After our long walk we come home and have some breakfast – usually bacon rolls or Christmas morning muffins – and then we will start going about our day visiting people and dropping peoples presents and Christmas Eve boxes off (there were a LOT of Christmas Eve boxes to drop off this year!)

We visit several of our good friends on Christmas Eve, and some of these friends we struggle to catch up with for most, if not all, of the year! So it is great to catch up with them and hear how they’ve been getting on for the past few months/year.

I have a lovely lunch at my friends Mum’s house, I’ve known this particular friend for a VERY long time (since we were about five years old!) so it is great to catch up with her lovely family and my beautiful god-daughter. Her Mum buys all these amazing cheese bakes which she puts in the oven and we then eat with fresh bread and bread sticks! Delicious!

By the time we have been round to everyone and dropped off all the presents and/or Christmas Eve boxes, it us usually around 5/6pm, so we finally get to settle down at home and watch our Christmas movies and have some party food, and open our own Christmas Eve boxes! It also gives me a chance to have a bit of a tidy up and to start preparing some food and drink bits and to decorate the dining room table ready for the guests tomorrow.

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Here’s what we had in this years Christmas Eve boxes:

Yankee Candles

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Christmas Pyjamas

I normally get one set in my Christmas Eve box but had an Elf set and a Grinch set this year!

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Plus some matching Grinch slippers!

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I also had some lovely Gingerbread Men tea light candles, rose gold reindeer tea lights (which went really well with my existing reindeer set!), some lovely salted caramel chocolate pinecones from Marks and Spencers, a pegasus ornament to hang on our Christmas tree and a sparkle and fizz chocolate bar from Marks and Spencers!

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Between us, hubby and I also had the entire set of hot chocolates from Wilkinsons – regular hot chocolate, white hot chocolate, gingerbread hot chocolate and marshmallow hot chocolate! Yummy!

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To make things easier, we normally cook a batch of party food for dinner tonight, so we can graze at it over the course of the evening!

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Then, at around 10:45pm, we walk up to our local church to attend Midnight Mass which usually starts at around 11pm and finishes just after the bells chime for midnight. We’ve been going for several years now, only missing it one year when I was feeling unwell, and I regretted not going for the whole of the following year. We aren’t particularly religious, we didn’t even get married in a church, but we are incredibly lucky. We have more than we need, we have an amazing family unit and all our family are currently in good health, we don’t have to worry about how to pay bills or where the next meal is coming from like some poor people out there have to, so we have a lot to be thankful for. Going to Midnight Mass is our way of saying thank you for everything we have had over the past year and to hope for as much good fortune in the year to come. It also gives me a chance to think about those friends and family who won’t be spending Christmas with us because they are no longer with us.

We usually get back around half midnight and go straight off up to bed so we can get up early the next morning to start preparing for the big day!

I hope you all have a magical Christmas full of love and laughter – MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE! xxx

What’s on the menu this Christmas?

One of my favourite aspects of Christmas is the incredible food you can buy this time of year! I have to say my favourite place to buy food from for the festive period is Marks and Spencers. In my opinion they overshadow all the other supermarkets and consistently bring out new, exciting and unusual products year after year.

For Christmas Day we will usually choose three or four canapes which I leave out for people to pick at whilst the main meal is cooking away. If the boys have been down the pub for a couple of pints before lunch they are usually rather peckish by the time they come home so they look forward to these!

This year for our canapés we are having Asian chicken lollipops, BBQ pork belly squares and Brie and Cranberry parcels (all from M&S) and a lovely Antipasti platter from Tescos which consists of grilled vegetable antipasti, marinated slow roasted tomatoes, Spanish olives with cheddar cheese, pitted Halkidiki olives with lemon and garlic, feta stuffed peppers, roasted and salted corn and roasted and salted broad beans! Delicious!

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We then have our starters – one is usually fish and the other either meat (we don’t have any vegetarians in the family). Past starters have included individual baked Camenbert’s with a range of toppings, gold flaked smoked salmon, cheddar cheese souffle’s, prawn cocktails, pate, and an amazing Lobster Thermidor!

This year we have actually chosen three starters as we couldn’t decide and everyone wanted to try a bit of everything! We have gone for –

Cornish Cruncher cheese and cider bakes (with breads for dipping):

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Smoked salmon bauble terrine:

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King prawn and poached salmon terrines:

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Then onto the main course which is usually the trickier bit to select – we have a half and half split in the family of who likes turkey and who doesn’t, so when there are between 8 and 12 of us having Christmas dinner – I will usually cook a turkey and one other meat (usually either lamb or beef wellington). Everyone likes different vegetables and condiments so we start off with a big list which basically includes everything you can think of and then this is usually cut down a bit after people compromise on a few things! I don’t mind cooking such a huge range of things if people like them but the issue I have found with cooking so many different things is a) getting the timings right so they are all cooked at the same time and b) keeping everything warm whilst you are serving the starters, cutting the meat etc. It really was becoming quite tricky so after having a meltdown one year because the sprouts were stone cold, I decided we had to start limiting our choices slightly!

We have gone for a plain turkey crown this year (no stuffing or bacon) but I am going to add this amazing looking Christmas spiced bacon on top of the turkey! Yum!

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After moving into our new house only a couple weeks ago, I was worried about trying to cook two meats in an oven I was still getting used to, and in one which is much smaller than my lovely range oven I had to leave behind at the old house, so in the end I choose this amazing looking gammon joint from Marks and Spencer’s – all cooked and ready to eat! Easy peasy!

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Add in pigs in blankets, sage and onion stuffing, yorkshire puddings, peas, carrots, parsnips, cauliflower cheese and green beans and we have a feast fit for a king!

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I’ve also bought some delicious bread sauce (Mum’s favourite) and cranberry and port sauce to top it off with.

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Then onto the best bit – dessert! We usually end up with a HUGE choice of desserts because again, everyone likes different things! Everyone always takes home a doggy bag of desserts to eat later and I freeze what I can and slowly work my way through them!

For the past three years one of the choices has been the “penguin party cake” from Marks and Spencers! We fell in love with it the first time we had it – the sponge was so light, and the buttercream and icing were delicious! We have bought it every year since and were really hoping that M&S decided to bring it back again this year, but it didn’t feature in their Christmas food catalogue! I tweeted them and they confirmed that it wouldn’t be back this year unfortunately! [insert very sad face emoji!)

This year is no exception on the dessert front and I’ve gone totally overboard AGAIN. I will be eating these until Easter I think!

Santa’s stuck in the chimney cake – really looking forward to trying this one!

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White chocolate Snowball Wreath (with raspberry compote inside!)

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Chocolate pinecones – I saw these last year but stupidly didn’t get any! Aren’t they lovely?

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Salted caramel yule log – I’m OBSESSED with salted caramel flavoured things so this looks like it was made for me!

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Mini Mince pies

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Then, believe it or not, I actually serve a course of cheese and biscuits! This year I think I got an absolute bargain buying this cheese “cake” from Tescos! It was £30 and weighs almost 3 kilos and consists of Coastal Cheddar, Red Leicester, Blue Stilton, Wensleydale with sweetened dried cranberries and blueberries and St Endellion Brie – so something for everyone’s taste!

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Whilst on the subject of cheese, I bought this lovely item from Marks and Spencer’s for several of my cheese loving friends – isn’t it great? It’s called in a pear cheese!

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Then the easiest part is usually the drinks! Everyone knows what they like and to be honest I have given up on making surprise cocktails and punches for the guests because they tend to stick with what they know they like!

Some of the most common drinks we partake in during the festive season are Apple and Cinnamon Martinis (apple juice and cinnamon flavoured liqueur – Smirnoff do a good one with gold bits in it!), Snowballs (Advocaat, lemonade and a splash of lime juice), Amaretto sours (amaretto and pre-mixed Finest Call sweet and sour mix – I tend to order in bulk from Syrup’s and Stuff as they do case deals on the Finest Call range) and of course Prosecco with chambord, limoncello or Popaball’s Rose gold shimmer for processo!

Anyway, as it’s almost Christmas Eve I had better go and start prepping! Two more sleeps to go!!!

New York at Christmas Time – Day Three

We didn’t have any major plans for our third day in New York as I didn’t know how much ground we would cover yesterday and whether we would need a couple of hours to catch up on things we missed yesterday!

We started off the day by walking north to make our way to Central Park. We stopped by the Plaza Hotel on the way (the hotel Kevin stays in in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York) to take some photos – hubby said if we were lucky enough to visit New York again he would like to stay here next time!

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We then stopped and had another tasty breakfast at a café on Columbus Circle! It was AMAZING!

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We then crossed the road to visit the Columbus Circle Holiday Market which was another market I knew I wanted to visit. The location is great – perched in between the hustle and bustle of the city and yet also on the edge of Central Park.

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I really loved this market, lots of lovely stalls and the food stalls were amazing! Check out my poo emoji and little lamb macaron I bought while I was there!

There was also a stall selling giant S’mores and the most amazing hot chocolates I have seen!

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After our visit to the market we went to visit Central Park and spent a good couple of hours walking round to see all that it has to offer. Here are some of the amazing things you can see in this massive park:

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Central Park Zoo

We visited Central Park zoo the first time we visited New York, so we didn’t visit this time. Still, it is a great day out and well worth visiting if you get the chance. You’ll find over 130 different species ranging from Snow Leopards to Tropical Birds in here! Prices start at $18 per adult ticket.

Wollman Rink

This looked like a lot of fun and was much cheaper than the rink at the Rockefeller Center (starts at $12 per adult). The rink also seemed bigger and far less busy too!

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Wollman Rink was opened in 1949 and has been a favorite attraction of Central Park ever since. In the autumn and winter, ice skating at the rink is one of the most popular things to do in Central Park. It’s lovely to skate with the city’s skyline looking down on you!

Loeb Boathouse

The iconic Loeb Boathouse offers boat rentals and gondola rides, as well as a very exclusive expensive dining experience!

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Calvert Vaux designed a wooden structure of the boat house that would last from 1873 until 1954. The beautiful, two-story, Victorian structure was eventually torn down, but its original purpose was carried on by its replacement, now known as the Loeb Boathouse.

Carl M. Loeb opened the new, red brick and limestone Boathouse in 1954. In addition to its traditional functions, the new Boathouse is also the site of the Boathouse Restaurant.

Pilgrim Hill

We wanted to visit here because this is where everyone goes sledding when there’s thick snow on the ground! We were hoping there would still be some snow when we got there but unfortunately it had all gone! Still a very pretty place though!

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Alice in Wonderland

Located just north of the Conservatory Water at East 74th Street, Alice in Wonderland stands eleven feet tall in bronze, surrounded by the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit and a few of her other friends!

The Dairy Visitor Center

The Central Park Dairy, which now serves as an information center and gift shop inside the park, was originally intended as a source of fresh milk for children in the late 19th century.

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The Dairy was constructed in 1870; at this time, fresh milk for children was difficult to find and desperately sought after by parents. The Dairy was built at the southern end on the park, originally the children’s section, to provide milk and snacks for children in the cool and relaxing atmosphere near the Pond.

Plus there is loads, loads more to do in Central Park than this, you can easily spend a couple of days in Central Park checking out everything it has to offer!

After a few hours and a LOT of walking around Central Park we walked back towards the hotel and stopped off at Times Square where I checked out the “it’s always Christmas” shop! There has been a Facebook video going round which showed footage of the inside and outside of this amazing store so I was really pleased I got to visit!

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I also spotted this amazing little cupcake store on Times Square called Baked By Melissa. They sell adorable little bite-sized cupcakes in some amazing flavours! I bought a pack of six but wish I had bought more! They are only bite-sized after all!

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I also went into a brilliant deli and bought a rainbow bagel which had almond butter in! Delicious!

After a pit stop to stuff our faces we ventured on down to Macys Department Store. I wasn’t too bothered about doing any shopping as you could spend all day in this amazing store, but I wanted to visit their Christmas department which is called Holiday Lane! I’ve seen a Facebook video of Holiday Lane too so I knew it was going to be spectacular!

I have never seen so many beautiful trees and decorations and stuffed toys and wreaths and Nutcracker Dolls! I really was in my element!

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After a long final day we visited Times Square and splashed out on a HUGE slap up meal at Applebee’s which is one of our favourite American restaurants. I love the pretzels with beer cheese dips for starters and four cheese macaroni cheese with chicken on top, absolutely delicious!

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The perfect end to a perfect holiday! Our three nights here went so quickly but we all got to see things we wanted to see and do things we wanted to do, and most importantly we got to spend time together. A truly magical place this time of year, if you ever get the chance to go, grab it with both hands!

Until next time New York!

New York at Christmas Time – Day Two

We were all up earlier than I had expected us to be (stupid jet-lag!) but this meant we could get ready and be out stomping the streets of New York as early as possible and cover more ground.

We put the TV on as we were getting ready and were mortified to hear that there had been an attempt to set a bomb off only a few streets away from our hotel but thank god no-one was seriously injured or killed. I take my hat off to the authorities who have to deal with terrible situations like this – they are all so skilled and well trained and professional throughout and I have to say, despite being only a couple of streets away from where disaster could have struck, I never once felt unsafe knowing the best of the best were out there protecting us all. I think it is fair to say that terrorism failed in more than one aspect that day.

Anyway, on a brighter note, off we went on Monday’s adventure. We walked a good twenty minutes to go and have breakfast at Broadway Café – we always have breakfast here at least once during our trips to New York. It is a brilliant place with so much choice, I challenge you not to find something on the breakfast menu that you like! If you get the chance you must pay them a visit!

After a hearty breakfast of pancakes with crispy bacon and maple syrup and omelettes, oatmeal and sausage sandwiches, we carried on walking South down Broadway, admiring all the shops and window displays.

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On our way to the Financial District we came across the Flatiron building – such an amazing design! It was originally called the Fuller Building, is 22 storeys high and was completed in 1902. The name “Flatiron” comes from its resemblance to a cast-iron clothes iron. The building is often described as “one of the worlds most iconic skyscrapers and a quintessential symbol of New York city.” It is certainly very amazing to look at!

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We eventually arrived at Washington Square Park, which looked beautiful as it still had some snow on the ground. The park is a 9.75 acre public park in Greenwich and is one of the best known parks of New York city. At the northern gateway of the park you will find the Washington Square Arch (in the second picture).

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We also stopped off at Sugarhut and spent a fortune on sweets! I have never seen so many different types of sweets and treats! I was like a kid in a toy store! You don’t get sweet shops in the UK anymore really do you? It’s mainly the supermarkets you have to get your sugar fix from!

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We carried on walking down Fifth Avenue for a few more miles until we reached the Financial District and One World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower. The last time we visited New York in 2013, they were still building here and we all said as soon as the observation deck was finished that we would come back to visit.

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One World Trade Center (also known as WTC of Freedom Tower) is the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex. It is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and is the sixth tallest building in the world! The new skyscraper stands on the site of the original 6 World Trade Center building. The building’s architect was David Childs, whose firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) also designed the Burj Khalifa and the Willis Tower.

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Construction of below-ground footings and foundations for the Freedom Tower began on 27 April 2006, and when we visited Ground Zero in June 2009, all work was still being completed underground at this point. One World Trade Center became the tallest structure in New York City on 30 April 2012, when it surpassed the height of the Empire State Building. When we visited New York in May 2013, the work which had been completed was incredible – the Tower was almost complete and the final component of the Tower’s spire had just been installed, making the building (including its spire) reach a total height 1,776 feet! The building is 104 standard floors high, but has only 94 actual stories. The height of 1776 feet is deliberate, as it references the year the United States Declaration of Independence was signed. The building officially opened in 3rd November 2014, and the One World Observatory opened on 29th May 2015.

The tower has a three-story observation deck which is located on floors 100–102. The actual viewing space is on the 100th floor, but there is a food court on the 101st floor and a space for events on the 102nd floor. Admission to the Observation Deck is $39 and is well worth the price.

Once you have passed through security you enter a lift which takes you up to the 102nd floor. During the lift journey, screens on the walls of the lift light up and show you how the skyline of New York has developed since the 1900’s. Once you leave the lift you are escorted into a theatre type room which shows another video of New York, its residents and its developments over the years. The video is extremely moving, and once the video has finished, the black back drop lifts up and shows you a beautiful outlook of this amazing city! I cried at the time and thinking about it again as I type this it has made me tearful again! It was so moving and very tastefully done.

You then leave the theatre room and explore the observation deck where you can take some absolutely amazing photographs from all the viewpoints of the city. Keep an eye out for the Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty and of course the incredible Empire State Building.

Photographs really do not do it justice, the view is exceptional and I could have stayed there all day looking out at this amazing place.

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We didn’t visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum on this occasion as we visited on our trip during 2013, however I urge you to go and visit if you get the chance. I will cover more on the Memorial and Museum in my next New York blog which I hope to publish early next year.

After our amazing (and very emotional) visit to the Freedom Tower, we wandered down further into the financial district to see Wall Street and it’s infamous “Charging Bull”. Despite being to New York a couple of times before, we have never got around to seeing him so we were pleased we got to this time!

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We then started making our way back up Fifth Avenue towards our hotel and on the way we visited the Union Square Holiday Market. I was really looking forward to this market but to be honest I was rather disappointed. There were nowhere near as many stalls as I had expected and I couldn’t find any of the stalls I had ear-marked to visit which was a real shame! A very pretty market in the centre of Manhattan but I left here empty handed!

When we visited Union Square market I had made a note to visit a nearby bakery/restaurant called Union Fare, I am so, so pleased I did in the end because I managed to get hold of one of their famous Red Velvet croissants (a red sweet flavoured croissant filled with a delicious cream cheese flavoured filling) and a Birthday Cake croissant (a croissant with multi-coloured sugar strands running through it filled with a white Birthday cake flavoured filling which is again filled with colourful sugar strands)! Delicious! I also bought a very colourful Sugar Cookie which I saved to eat later on when we got back to the hotel!

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As we continued on we came across Gingerbread Boulevard in Madison Square Park.

Gingerbread Boulevard features a life-size Gingerbread House, with ginger “bricks”, a “frosting-covered” roof and is covered in candy canes, gum drops and more.

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You get to go inside the house where there is a fire lit and a fully-decorated Christmas tree. Inside are TV screens which show the Gingerbread Man decorating his Christmas tree and then running past the windows of his house – it’s probably more for the children but we enjoyed it and thought it was really cute!

It was a bit of a surreal experience but a really good laugh and a great photo opportunity! Plus the house smelt absolutely delicious! We didn’t have to queue to go in and there was no charge so I would highly recommend visiting Gingy in his Gingerbread house if you have the chance!

After finally getting back to our hotel (after a Dunkin’ Donuts stop on the way!), we checked our phones which said we had walked the equivalent of a half marathon!

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We decided we wanted to go back to the Rockefeller to do the ice skating tonight (even after walking all that way!) as the forecast was rain for the next day, so after a quick rest at the hotel we wandered back over to the Rockefeller Center.

It was far quieter tonight than it had been the night before which was great. We managed to get into the last ice skating slot of the evening which was from 10:30pm until midnight, and we only had around a 45 minute wait to get onto the ice which I didn’t think was too bad considering you can’t pre-book tickets. I think the slots of an hour and a half are a bit long as the ice skating boots were really uncomfortable and it isn’t the biggest rink in the world but anyway, another amazing experience ticked off the bucket list!

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After ice skating at the Rockefeller Centre we headed off back to the hotel and walked past Saks Fifth Avenue – I knew they would put on a spectacular show but I didn’t imagine something as incredible as this! The theme this year was to celebrate 80 years of Snow White so the window displays were all Snow White themed and then on the front of the building was a spectacular light display which went off every hour or so alongside music from Snow White such as the ‘hi ho hi ho’ song! It was truly incredible.

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I know now why they call it the city that never sleeps! By the time we got to the hotel we were all absolutely exhausted!! I was worried we would sleep in the next morning and lose precious time on our last day because we were so tired!

New York at Christmas Time – Day One

What an amazing past couple of weeks my family and I have had! My husband and I finally got to move into our dream home, we celebrated my Sisters Birthday, my Mum’s Birthday, had our annual trip to London and two themed afternoon teas and to top it all off, we spent three nights in New York!

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The day we moved (Friday 1st December), we were at my Mum’s house in the evening, celebrating my Sister’s Birthday with some cake and champagne when out came four gold envelopes, each containing a note saying how hard we had worked this year and as an extra special Christmas present, Mum had paid for the four of us to spend three nights in New York!

Everyone was (and still is!) absolutely dumbfounded! What an incredibly amazing and perfect present, all four of us have always dreamed of going to New York over Christmas!

We left on the 10th December and battled our way to Heathrow through the most terrifying snow storm I have ever seen! How we all made it to the airport in one piece I will never know! We were lucky we had an early morning flight because even as we were sat on the plane watching it be de-iced by a giant robot, I sat there thinking to myself they are definitely going to cancel lots of flights today due to the snow!

Anyway, we got away on time and around 7 hours later (and after my husband watching Home Alone nearly four times on the plane journey, not joking!) we arrived in the Big Apple!

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We were staying at The Roosevelt Hotel on East 45th Street and it looked absolutely stunning inside! Huge Christmas trees and decorations and wreaths and baubles, a really lovely hotel. I have been lucky enough to have visited New York three times over the last 8 years and this is the best hotel I have stayed in so far, I would definitely stay here again.

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So, we got checked in and had a quick shower and got changed and out we went! Our first stop was the amazing Bryant Park Winter Village which wasn’t far from our hotel. I couldn’t wait to visit this Christmas Market – it looked like the biggest and had loads of amazing food stalls I wanted to try!

It got dark as we were there so the buildings were all lit up above you whilst you were wondering around the market drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate – it was amazing! There’s an ice skating rink here and plenty of bars and restaurants surround the market too.

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Whilst I was there I indulged in some chicken from Chick N Cone which, funnily enough, is bite sized pieces of chicken in a waffle cone! I tried the Cinnamon Maple flavour – it was the best tasting chicken I have ever eaten! I wish I had bought two!

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My Sister tried some Mexican Tacos and the boys had a New York Cheese Steak sandwich (they ate these too quickly for me to catch a photo of them!)

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I also tried some truffle mozzarella sticks – god they were to die for!

Next we moved onto the dessert stalls – my Sister and I bought three filled Churros to start – one was filled with Dulce De Leche (caramel), one was filled with Boston Cream Pie (kind of a crème pâtissière filling) and the other one was filled with S’more (marshmallow and chocolate filling) – again, amazing! I do love Churros!

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I was also really pleased as I managed to get hold of two pots of cookie dough from DO whilst I was there – I follow them on Instagram and love their colourful cookie dough flavours and designs! I had a Birthday cake flavoured cookie dough and their limited edition Winter WonDOland cookie dough! Yum!

After a couple of hours (and a couple of drinks!) at Winter Village we wondered over to the Rockefeller Center to see the infamous Christmas tree and to go ice skating.

On the way to the Rockefeller Center, the streets of New York are lined with beautiful festive decorations and lights everywhere. It really is a magical place this time of year!

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When we arrived at the Rockefeller Center we were all speechless! The Christmas tree is absolutely stunning in real life and is HUGE! It is covered in multi-coloured lights and sits happily above the skating rink whilst people skate below!

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Aside from the spectacular tree, there are also lots of other beautiful statues and decorations at the Rockefeller Center to celebrate the festive season!

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Unfortunately, the skating rink was booked out to a private party this evening so we had a stroll around the Rockefeller Center and took plenty of photos before making our way back to the hotel for the evening. In hindsight, we should have left visiting the Rockefeller Center until the following day as it was absolutely HEAVING with people (as it was a Sunday) so you couldn’t get a very good view or take many good photos!

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If you visit New York for the first time I would highly recommend visiting the Rockefeller Center’s Top of the Rock viewing deck. We have been to New York twice before and done the Top of the Rock both times so we didn’t do it again on this occasion, however the views are incredible and you can visit both during the day or at night – I would recommend visiting at night if you can, as you can see the Empire State Building lit up in all its glory! I would also recommend pre-booking Top of the Rock tickets online as queues can be huge and the last thing you want to do is waste time hanging around in queues when New York has so much else to offer!

There’s also a huge selection of shops and restaurants within the Rockefeller Center for you to visit, and right outside you can also find Radio City Music Hall – their Christmas Spectacular show is infamous across the globe!

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We were exhausted by the time we finally got back to the hotel but couldn’t wait for the next day’s adventures!

What an amazing start to an incredible few days in New York!

 

London at Christmas time

London is such a brilliant place to visit around Christmas time – not so much if you are one of those headless chickens running around trying to source last minute Christmas presents, but if you have Christmas all wrapped up and have the time (and patience!) to explore and see what this city has to offer during the festive season then you are in for a treat!

My Mum, my Sister and I go on a day trip to London every December, here’s some of the amazing things we have done over the last few years:

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

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This place is like marmite – I’ve spoken to people who absolutely love it here, and likewise, people who absolutely detest it! Winter Wonderland opened on 17th November this year and is open for six weeks until 1st January 2018.

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It is free to enter Winter Wonderland and inside you can find a wealth of things to do including –

Ice Skating

Winter Wonderland’s ice skating rink is the largest outdoor rink in the UK and is open from 10am to 10pm. Ice skating sessions run every hour on the hour and each session lasts for 50 minutes.  Adult prices start at £9.50 and child prices start at £7.50.

If you are unsteady on your feet you can also ask for the help of an Ice Guide – a trained ice skater who can escort you and your group on the ice – a really great idea but they don’t come cheap (£35 an hour on top of your skating ticket price!)

Magical Ice Kingdom

This has a different theme every year, the year we visited it was the theme Merlin and the knights of the round table and it was absolutely fantastic!

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Merlin
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One of the Knights of the round table
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The Sword in the Stone
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My favourite is this beautiful unicorn and her baby!
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And the grand finale was this absolutely incredible ice dragon with glowing eyes!!

Definitely well worth a look if you have the time! There were loads more characters to see and the pictures I have taken seriously do not do them any justice! This years theme is called Deep Sea Adventure and looks just as amazing! Adult Ticket prices start at £7.00 and child’s prices start at £5.00.

Bar Ice

You may have already seen my blog on the two Bar Ice bars you can find in London, if not you can read about this great experience here. One of the Bar Ice’s can be found at Winter Wonderland but obviously can get very busy so make sure you pre-book your tickets!

Plus loads more including the Giant Observation Wheel, The Sooty Christmas Show, Zippo’s Christmas Circus, Cirque Beserk, Cinderella on Ice and of course the stunning stalls selling everything from Mulled wine to Churros to Christmas Decorations to hats and scarves!

Outside of Hyde Park, we usually visit:

Oxford Street

My favourite shopping street! It is obviously very busy this time of year but do your best to stop along the way to check out the amazing Christmas decorations which line the streets! Regent Street always looks really pretty too!

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Oxford Street
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Regent Street Angels

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Department Store Windows

Have you ever watched the film “Mannequin”? It follows a guy who, with a lot of assistance from a mannequin which comes to life when no-one else is looking, is a Window Dresser, and together they design these amazing department store window displays which have people travelling from miles around to come and see.

Classic 80’s film and the department store windows this time of year always remind me of it!

Anyway, each year there is a bit of a battle between the different department stores to have the best dressed window displays. The ideas they come up with are amazing and must take them hours and hours to create. Here are some of the highlights we came across this year:

Harrods

A bit of an unusual one this year! An Instagram friend told me its because they were designed by Karl Lagerfeld and this seemed to make a lot of sense! I’m still unsure whether I like them or not….

Selfridges

I loved Selfridges windows this year! Really fun and eye-catching! Bouncing Santas, Robins and Christmas Puddings and a suit made of sprouts! What more could you want?? Oh yes, a “Nutcracker Queen” surrounded by her Nutcracker soldiers on the balcony above the escalators! That will do!

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Plus we loved the massive hare and fox which appeared in the H&M windows this year!

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Department Store Christmas departments

I don’t tend to do much shopping in the department stores, I’ve usually got everyone’s presents by now and the temptation is to spend far too much if I start wondering into areas like Saint Laurent or Alexander McQueen! What my sister and I do tend to do is head straight for the Christmas themed sections within the department stores to check out the decorations and displays! In some of the bigger department stores it really is like walking into a Winter Wonderland!

This year I encountered a life size singing Reindeer (only £4,500!) and a huge Nutcracker Doll (only £1,250!). Better start saving I think!

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Department Store Food halls

Harrods Food Hall at any time of the year is absolutely incredible but team it up with all the Christmas flavours and goodies they have to offer and I really am in heaven here!