South Georgia: the land of penguins, seals and explorers

The entrancing wildlife and stories of South Georgia

“South Georgia is for those who grew up dreaming of a Garden of Eden where you would walk unharmed among abundant and fearless wildlife in a beautiful wilderness – an oasis of serenity in a world increasingly out of step with nature.” Tim and Pauline Carr, Antarctic Oasis, Under the Spell of South Georgia.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) is a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. South Georgia is 165km long and between 1 and 35km wide. Captain James Cook made the first landing here in 1775 and claimed the territory for the Kingdom of Great Britain, naming it the Isle of Georgia in honour of King George III.

For a while it was an important base for whaling which thankfully ended in the 1960s – these stations were unpleasant and dangerous places to work and nearly destroyed the whale population.

Now there’s no permanent population on the island. It’s an isolated and rugged (inhospitable even) place, especially in the winter. Around 10-20 scientists, support staff and museum staff come and go through the year. And of course travellers like me, coming to visit the penguins, seals and whales in their natural environment.

Nothing can prepare you for South Georgia. That first glimpse of Salisbury Plain from the ship’s deck takes your breath away and you can hear and even smell the penguin life in the distance. Oh and some little gentoo penguins swam serenely past my window when I opened my curtains. We’d made it to this magnificent island where few humans ever go. Time for our first on-shore expedition.

South Georgia: first sight

My first sight of South Georgia

Welcome to penguin heaven

Jumping into little Zodiac inflatables it started to feel like this was really happening. We were about to step foot on the land of penguins. Salisbury Plain is home to one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world – there are tens of thousands of them! It’s impossible to explain the impact that first penguin sighting has – with what looks like a carpet of them stretched out towards the mountains – a very large carpet.

South Georgia: Kings

Clusters of Kings with some furry babies

King penguins aren’t scared of humans – who they don’t see that often. Some look at you curiously – in a “What are these big red things doing in our house” kind of way (we all wore the red expedition jackets that came as part of the cruise), but mainly they continue going about their daily business like there’s nothing unusual going on.

It’s incredible how close you get, touching distance, though we were told not to touch, gotta leave them alone to live their lives! It’s just so much fun watching their interaction. I felt I could stand there all day. The onboard photography coach, Richard, told us not to take millions of pictures of penguins as we’d see endless amounts of them and they all pretty much look the same. A sound piece of advice that’s impossible to take – you can’t help yourself and the snapping soon gets out of control! Millions of pictures later…

South Georgia: penguins and glacier

A carpet of penguins under the glacier

And now it’s seal time

As well as king penguins (so many of them) we also communed with seals. Fortuna Bay was home to the elephant variety. The biggest of them are out at sea feeding at this time of year so we only saw babies (weighing in at about 1000kg) and juveniles (weighing in at up to 3000kg). These are big, quite smelly and noisy animals that emit a sound like a cross between a sneeze and a burp.

South Georgia: elephant seals and ship

Looking over the elephant seals towards the ship and the mountains in the distance

The babies are so tame and curious they come right up to you trying to suckle – their mothers are out at sea feeding. They look pleadingly up at you with their big brown eyes before latching on to your boot or trousers, obviously with disappointing results.

South Georgia: elephant seal baby

The elephant seal is probably the biggest baby I’ve ever seen!

South Georgia: King penguins

The wide-ranging king penguin colony

South Georgia: elephant seals

Juvenile elephant seals snuggle together

And then there’s the fur seals. By far the cutest-looking of their species, they’re also by far the  most aggressive. Fierce about protecting their territory, the adults have no hesitation in charging you and have even been known to bite. And like the penguins you get incredibly close to them – though we tried to keep our distance! Didn’t like the look of them getting ready to charge.

We saw lots of babies on this trip! The fur seal babies were unbelievably cute, the sort of animal you want to take home with you with their pretty faces and soft-looking black fur. Of course you’d never be able to do that and actually you really wouldn’t want to as they are born aggressive. The vicious-sounding growls that come from them as you walk past are quite startling!

South Georgia: baby fur seals

The cutest of cuddly baby fur seals

You’ll be noticing that I also couldn’t resist taking pictures with our lovely ship Le Lyrial in the background.

South Georgia: Fortuna

Hanging out together in South Georgia

After our magical penguin and seal-filled day we headed for Stromness and Grytviken.

Stromness was a whaling station from 1907 to 1931. It is also known as being the arrival point of Ernest Shackleton after his epic journey from Elephant Island. Now this an amazing story!

The legend of Shackleton

In April 1916, Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition became stranded on Elephant Island which is about 1,300km (800 miles) south-west of South Georgia. Shackleton and five of his men set out in a small boat (I mean a very small boat) to summon help and on 10 May they landed at King Haakon Bay on South Georgia’s south coast.

I did a similar journey on this cruise and we passed by the hostile-looking, isolated Elephant Island on our way from South Georgia to Antarctica. It’s a long way and there’s nothing in between! Okay it was highly enjoyable onboard a luxury ship, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for them to get there alive! Especially as they’d already had some epic travels.

And to make matters worse they discovered on landing that they were on the wrong side of the island. So Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley had to walk 22 miles over the spine of the mountainous island to reach help at Stromness.

Legend goes they were welcomed at Stromness by Norwegian Thoralf Sorlie with the words: “Who the hell are you?”. They definitely weren’t looking their best!

They’d left 22 members of the expedition on Elephant Island who were subsequently rescued. They’d survived living under two of the upturned boats and were all still alive when Shackleton returned.

Shackleton’s story is one of hardship and endeavour, I guess that’s obvious in any exploration of the white, icy wilderness of Antarctica. The fact that he never lost a crew member reflects the bond he built with his fellow explorers and his determination to be a solid leader.

It’s interesting if you google him – there are myriad sites about him, his obsessional mission to reach the South Pole first (a mission he failed to achieve – in fact he never reached the Pole at all). And some dubious personal decisions including the fact that he allegedly cheated on his wife and more or less abandoned his children. How he had the time and energy for any of that is another mystery. Whatever the truth, he was undoubtedly someone you’d want on your side when trouble came, trouble we can’t possibly even understand in today’s world. I could discuss this forever but it’s time to move on..well, sort of.

Grytviken: Shackleton’s resting place

Our next stop was Grytviken, home to Shackleton’s grave, a museum and the rusty remains of a whaling station.

Shackleton died onboard ship in January 1922 while moored in King Edward Cove, South Georgia. His body was on its way home to England when his wife was informed of his death and she insisted that he was buried in South Georgia, saying: “Antartica was always his mistress.”

It’s such a moving experience visiting his grave, surrounded by a white picket fence in the desolate remains of the whaling station.

We all had a toast to “The Boss”, as he was known, with a shot of Jameson’s Whisky, half of which we poured on his grave (as is the custom), while pondering how it was physically possible to do what he did with the very limited resources he had available.

South Georgia: Ernest Shackleton

Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s last resting place

The ashes of another noted Antarctic explorer, Frank Wild, who had been Shackleton’s second-in-command on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, were interred next to Shackleton in 2011.

These explorers were made of different stuff! The stuff of legends.

South Georgia: Frank Wild

Frank Wild’s resting place next to The Boss

Our final onshore expedition in glorious South Georgia was in Gold Harbour. An amphitheatre of hanging glaciers and cliffs rises from the sea creating the most beautiful backdrop for the ever-abundant wildlife.

By now I was totally in love with the gentoo penguins, smaller and daintier than the kings, with their bright reddy-orange beaks and beautifully curious personalities. We found their nesting grounds in the tussock hillside (after wading through a lot of mud!).

South Georgia: gentoos

The gentoos breed under the fluffy tussock grass. 

And we spent more time communing with the lovely kings and their families. Some of them nesting their eggs under their down, balanced on their feet. The edge of the colony had plenty of the brown, fluffy chicks, yet to moult their fur and become elegance in black, white and yellow.

South Georgia: Young king penguin

Fluffiness in brown – a young king penguin

The elegance of the king penguins on shore mirrors the elegance of our ship in the distance

I cruised The Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica aboard Le Lyrial on a fabulous Abercrombie & Kent expedition. We embarked and ended in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, an island at the bottom of South America approximately a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Tierra de Fuego is half owned by Chile and half by Argentina. Ushuaia is officially called “The End of the World”, because it’s the southern-most populated city on our planet. And it does feel like you’re in the  middle of nowhere – that is until you start heading east and then south discovering even more remote places.

What an adventure. One that you will never truly understand until you’ve been there yourself. So go, seriously you have to go, and discover more about our fabulous planet and why we should be doing more to preserve it. Escape to the land of penguins and seals, whales and albatrosses, absorb the peace and harmony and try to keep it in your soul. Well that’s what I’m trying to do.

One of the expedition leaders Richard (AKA Black Jack) made a video of our unique experience which you can watch on YouTube by clicking here.

Travel: 24 hours in Brighton

Today we’re heading to Brighton at the seaside, less than an hour by train south of central London. I love train travel and this journey is almost too short, through picturesque quintessentially English countryside to the coast.

I visit whenever I have the chance, which really isn’t often enough. This time it was because my niece Maxine was visiting from Cape Town. Maxine sees a different side of Brighton to me through her dedication to her favourite YouTubers Zoella (Zoe Sugg) and her boyfriend Alfie Deyes who live locally. While I am clearly not their target market I did watch several vlogs with Maxine and can see their appeal.

They have certainly increased Brighton’s popularity among the international youth! And they do recommend places to go in Brighton which makes a good starting point as there are a bewildering amount of establishments to try. There are more restaurants per head in Brighton and Hove than in any other place in the UK with a ratio of one restaurant for every 250 people. There’s also one drinking establishment for every 320 people with over 1,400 licensed premises. See what I mean.

So here’s what we did in our (just over) 24 hours on a bright Autumn day (and night) in Brighton.

Wandered along Brighton Pier

I love the striking whiteness of the Pier which is 524 metres long, though it seems much longer. Some sort of optical illusion?  It was designed by Richard St George Moore and work on it began in November 1881. It finally opened in a grand ceremony on 28 May 1899. The Pier is now a Grade II Listed building that has more than three million visitors a year. It looks particularly sparkly at night – with 60,000 twinkling light bulbs.

The arcade buzzes with people playing games, there are thrill rides at the end and there’s a range of quirky shops. And it’s fast-food heaven – from fish and chips, sausages, hot dogs, burgers, milkshakes, crepes and of course ice cream – there’s plenty to tuck into. The chips are particularly good and it seemed appropriate to wander the pier snacking on piping hot chips wrapped in paper and doused in vinegar. Trust me, you need to do it.

Brighton: Pier

Exploring the pier on a sunny autumn day

The vibrant colours of the carousel looked stunning alongside the blues of sea and sky.

Brighton: Carousel

One of the many ways to keep entertained on the Pier

Enjoyed a beach-side beverage

Brighton Beach is a pebbly one so not so great for walking along. No problem, there’s a long promenade alongside the beach to get a good helping of bracing sea air and some endorphin-inducing exercise.

The arches along the beachfront have been developed into shops selling everything from the work of local artists, clothes, jewellery, and various souvenirs. And of course, food and drinks, from luxury seafood to ice cream. We were there on a beautifully sunny autumn day so ordered coffee from one of the cafes to take away and sipped it sitting on the beach with views across the sea to the pier.

Brighton: the beach

Spend time beach-side enjoying the view

Promenaded the length of the beach

I’m a big fan of a seaside promenade and there’s plenty to see along the four miles between Brighton Marina and Hove Lagoon. Of course there’s the pier and towards the other end of the beach you’ll find the delightfully colourful beach huts that the area is famous for. The huts are much sought after – well, having a place to shelter even in the middle of the English summer makes sense. There are a couple for sale if you have a spare £18,000!

Brighton: beach huts

Its worth walking down towards Hove for a view of the beach huts

You’ll see the Victorian influence in the architecture everywhere in Brighton. I particularly love the seaside bandstand which first opened in 1884. It hosts a variety of bands every Sunday through the summer and is also available for hire as a wedding or party venue. Even when it’s empty I swear you can almost hear the music playing!

Brighton: Bandstand

The beautifully intricate bandstand

Ate lunch at Red Roaster 

Situated at the bottom of St James Street in Kemptown, Red Roaster is a bright, plant-filled contemporary space with a tasty selection of breakfast/brunch dishes, sandwiches and salads – and they serve great coffee.

Brighton: Red Roaster

The trendy, brightness of Red Roaster

Brighton: Red Roaster

Red Roaster’s scrumptious chicken burger with curly fries

Brighton: Red Roaster

Drink up: the freshness of elderflower and mint

Tucked into a luxurious breakfast at The Breakfast Club

So here’s another reason for a long morning promenade. So you have the excuse to tuck into one of The Breakfast Club’s substantial brekkies. It’s their first venture outside of London, like all of them doesn’t take bookings and is extremely popular. The no-booking system is one of my pet hates – but as it happens we only had to wait about 10 minutes before being ushered to a table in this cool venue. The menu makes your mouth water, really – it’s taking breakfast to a different level.

I tucked into this delightful bowl of chorizo hash: chorizo, grilled peppers, mushrooms, caramelised onions and crushed potatoes all topped with a soft poached egg and served with a lemon and feta sauce. Yummy, yummy, yummy, it tasted as good as it sounded.

Brighton: Breakfast Club

And how’s this for the ultimate comfort food. Disco fries! Bacon, beer cheese, fried eggs, skin on chips, chimichurri and spring onions. Seems likely this dish was invented as a hangover cure – think I need to go back with a hangover and test it out.
Brighton: The Breakfast Club

Marvelled at the Royal Pavilion

The spectacular structure that is the Royal Pavilion does look somewhat out of place in modern Brighton. It was built as a pleasure palace by the sea for King George IV and is a mix of Regency grandeur and the style of India and China. It’s said the Germans didn’t bomb Brighton in World War II because Hitler wanted the Royal Pavillion as his seaside home. Can’t blame him – it certainly has wow factor.

Brighton: Royal Pavilion

The sight of the beautiful pavilion always amazes me

Visited doughnut heaven

Dum Dum Donutterie is a sight to behold. There’s a variety of doughnuts and cronuts (a cross between a croissant and a doughnut) beyond your imagination. Like the Galaxy cronut that’s made of butter croissant dough filled with blackberry and lemon butter cream and finished with a swirled fondant. The doughnut selection comes in standard and mini sizes and includes the delectable creme brûlée and chocolate creme options. Eating doughnuts will never be the same again.

Brighton: Dum Dum Donutterie

An array of doughnuts and cronuts to delight

Brighton: Dum Dum donutterie

Ready to go with a bag of tasty takeaways

Meandered through The Lanes

This famous area of the city comprises a collection of narrow lanes, creating a maze of alleyways and small, quirky shops. At first it all seems a bit bewildering but you soon pinpoint landmarks and realise they are simpler to negotiate than you thought. Like Choccywoccydoodah where you can marvel over the fabulously creative chocolate creations.

Brighton: Lanes

A must-visit destination for chocolate lovers

Sampled fabulous ice cream

Well, you can’t go to the seaside and not have some ice cream can you? No matter what the season. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s ice cream everywhere you look in Brighton. We picked Boho Gelateri for its hand-made Italian ice cream and over 20 flavours to choose from.

Brighton: Boho Gelateri

Ice cream is compulsory at the seaside

Indulged in a meaty dinner at The Coal Shed

For dinner we decided on elegant steak restaurant The Coal Shed. They describe themselves as “born from the love of cooking on fire”. Perfect. The focus on top-quality ingredients means dishes are kept simple and arrive bursting with flavour.

Brighton: The Coal Shed

The welcoming frontage of The Coal Shed

The space is contemporary, yet cosy and the menu easy to negotiate. The Black Angus steak burger was served with Bourbon relish, lettuce, pickles, tomato, onion and chunky beef dripping chips.

Brighton: The Coal Shed

The tastiest of burgers with beef dripping chips

I headed straight for a classic – sirloin steak with bearnaise sauce – one of my absolute favourite combinations. The tastiest of sirloins cooked to perfection and the creamiest of bearnaise. What more could you want?

Brighton: The Coal Shed

The perfect medium-rare sirloin with sweet baby potatoes

Brighton’s the sort of place I want to keep going back to. I love exploring on foot and it’s a great town to walk around – and a great town to sit around in too! All those bars and restaurants in such a relatively small area – mind boggling!

Where to stay

We stayed at the New Steine Hotel which is a five storey Georgian Townhouse in central Brighton, only a few minutes walk from the Brighton Pier and city centre. With its French influence and modern chic interior design, it is ideal for all travellers, families or business users alike, and boasts an award winning Sussex Breakfast using local produce, with full options for Vegan and Vegetarian. There are 20 rooms, from modest singles, to Deluxe Twins and Triples, with views over the New Steine Square and the sea.

Brighton: New Steine

The welcoming entrance to the hotel

Our ensuite twin room was very comfortable with modern British-themed decor (love a Union Jack), lovely crisp linen, tea-making facilities and a safe. All the essentials covered there.

Brighton: New Steine

Your comfortable home away from home

Find out more at newsteinehotel.com

Great Italian on the river at CottoCrudo in Prague

Dining alfresco at CottoCrudo

It’s a cold, dank day in London so I’m transporting myself back to a warm August evening in Prague when we dined on the terrace of CottoCrudo. How I love a bit of al fresco dining.

CottoCrudo is in the rather swanky Four Seasons Hotel and the terrace overlooks the Vltava River. The extensive menu offers a range of Italian and Mediterranean-style dishes. Executive Chef Leonardo Di Clemente comes from an Italian farming family and his philosophy is to mix what he describes as “Mamma-style cuisine” with current culinary trends.

CottoCrudo literally means Cooked Raw and this is how the menu divides. The crudo section encompasses a set of mouthwatering raw fish dishes that it’s impossible to resist. All beautifully presented using the freshest of fresh produce. The most perfect start to a summer night’s dining.

What’s on the menu

Oysters were served with mango, cucumber and yuzu soya sauce. Fresh, zesty and gloriously tasting of the sea.

CottoCrudo: oysters

Luscious oysters with a zesty sauce

My tuna spaghetti was marinated with orange emulsion. Thin, spaghetti-shaped pieces of fish that melted in my mouth, made all the more tender by the fabulous citrussy marinade.

CottoCrudo: tuna

A glass full of delightful tuna spaghetti

Raw salmon was served with miso vinaigrette, frisbee salad and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

CottoCrudo: salmon

Delicate Asian-flavoured salmon

The richest of seared tuna carpaccio was served with Genova-style salad and smoked quail’s egg.

CottoCrudo: tuna carpaccio

A colourful collection of tasty morsels

For my second course I chose from the antipasti section. Described as Onsen poached egg with soft potato cream, porcini mushrooms and black truffle, it was hard to picture but I loved the sound of all the ingredients. And boy was I right. What a wonderful dish of softness and flavours.

In case you’re wondering an Onsen is a hot geothermal spring in Japan which is the perfect temperature for making slow-cooked, soft eggs left in the water for several hours. The principle has been transported to the kitchen where eggs are cooked at a low, controlled temperature for 45 to 90 minutes. Love a bit of science in my dinner!

Both this and the tuna spaghetti I had are CottoCrudo Signature dishes which I wasn’t even aware of when I ordered – well, they certainly were spectacular.

Truffly potato cream, egg and mushroom – a phenomenal dish

Saffron risotto was served with roasted seabags, buffalo mozzarella and green pea puree. The sweetness of the fish was perfect with the creaminess of the cheese and risotto. A classic Italian dish given a little bit extra.

CottoCrudo: risotto

Roasted seabass nestles on the saffron risotto

There seem to be a lot of truffles around in the Prague summer – good news for us all. This beautifully meaty dish of milk-fed veal tenderloin was served with foie gras, black truffle and mushroom puree.

CottoCrudo: Veal

Delicate veal with the earthy flavours of truffle and mushroom

CottoCrudo: petit fours

A tray of delicate petit fours to finish with

And here’s the wonderful red-rooftop view across the river.

CottoCrudo: terrace

Looking across the river to Prague Castle

CottoCrudo is certainly a glamorous place to dine. The food is excellent, the service impeccable and the attention to detail impressive. And the intimate little terrace does have great views.

Today’s price point

Being in the Four Seasons you’d expect prices to be on the steep side at CottoCrudo, but the food was actually pretty good value. Starters began at 220CZK (Czech Koruna) – about £7.50 and mains from 620CZK – around £21.

The extensive wine list was however rather on the expensive side with local wine going for around £40 a bottle and everything else for significantly more. We went Czech and weren’t disappointed.

CottoCrudo is in the Four Seasons Hotel at Veleslavinova 2a/1098, Praha I, Czech Republic.

Read more about what to do in the beautiful city of Prague by clicking here

Travel: What to do in Prague

What to do in Prague

Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic. The city is over 1,000 years old and has had an eventful history – in recent times alone it’s been occupied by Nazis and ruled by oppressive communism. It’s now a democracy and tourists flock there from all over the world.

In 1993 Czechoslovakia split into two and the Czech Republic was founded alongside Slovakia. Its capital is a beautiful city famous for its red-roofed vistas, magnificent architecture, cobbled streets and rich culture. Oh and there’s a surprisingly varied amount of great food to enjoy, too.

The city is an extremely popular tourist destination and the streets were packed on the three sunny August days I spent there. So you’re gonna just have to go with the crowds. Just make sure you reserve your restaurants and any other activities well in advance.

Here’s what you have to do on your visit.

Make a wish on the Charles Bridge

The imposing Charles Bridge was built by King Charles IV and finished around 1402. It spans the Vltava River, leading from the Old Town towards Prague Castle. There are 30 statues along the bridge, mainly Baroque style, including the statue of St John of Nepomuk. Touching the priest on the plaque of this statue is said to bring good luck and ensure your return to Prague. Worth a try. You’ll find it by looking for the shiny gold spots created by so many people rubbing it!

Both the views and the bridge itself are amazing making it rather popular. It’s hard to move after about 10am with buskers, street vendors and tourists fighting for space. Get up early if you want a more peaceful experience.

Prague: Charles Bridge

The view from on high atop the bridge’s tower

Prague: Charles Bridge

The bridge looks even better lit up at night

Amble around Lesser Town

Just across the Charles Bridge, Mala Strana, also known as Lesser Town, is a hillside area of the city that dates back to the mid 13th century. It lies at the foothills of Prague Castle with views across the Vtlana towards the Old Town. The streets are lined with charming bars, restaurants and shops and canals with the feel of a mini Venice.

Prague: Lesser Town

The beautiful canals of Lesser Town

It’s also home to the surprising Lennon Wall. John Lennon was highly admired by young Czechs and after his death they painted the wall with Beatles lyrics and other Lennon-inspired graffiti. It’s a beautifully colourful symbol of peace, love and freedom. There’s even a John Lennon pub nearby where you can take a break and sample the local beer.

Prague: Lennon Wall

You have to pose in front of Lennon Wall

Cruise down the river

A river trip gives you a different perspective of a city. We went in style on the Four Season’s electric boat, complete with a fabulous guide and Prosecco all round. A great opportunity to learn  more about the city’s history and cruise along the Venice-like canals of Lesser Town.

Prague: River cruise

Love seeing a city from the water

Explore Prague Castle

Dominating the beautiful red Prague skyline, Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world at 70,000 square metres. It dates back to the 9th century and is set on a hill overlooking the city. Which means you’ll have a good workout getting there (and a scenic one) and the views from the Castle are almost as impressive as the Castle itself.

Prague: Castle

The castle in the distance taken from the river

Prague: Castle

The Changing of the Guard at Prague Castle

Get a time check at the Astronomical Clock

Old Town Square is set between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge. This stylish square displays architectural styles spanning several centuries. It’s dominated by a beautiful Gothic Church and the Old Town Hall which houses Prague Orloj, the incredibly beautiful and intricate astronomical clock. It was installed in 1410, making it the third oldest in the world and the oldest still in operation.

Amazing that it still works. There’s a fantastic moving display every hour on the hour when you’ll see the whole mechanism in action with statues appearing through doors. It’s definitely a highlight of the city – so be prepared for huge crowds again.

Prague: astronomical clock

The most intricate and incredible clock I’ve ever seen

Drink beer and eat sausages

The Czechs are the biggest consumers of beer in the world. They manage to down around 143 litres a head every year. It’s not surprising – the beer is delicious and there are many different ones to try. I stayed in the Hotel u Medividku on the edge of the Old Town which is also one of the oldest mini breweries in Europe (more about the hotel later). A welcome tankard of delicious beer  at check in meant a good start to our stay.

Prague: beer

The tasty local beer from my brewery hotel

There are sausage stalls along Wenceslas Square with a wide range of tempting offers – though I suspect tourists are their main customers. They did smell delicious though. And most restaurants have a sausage dish on their menus. I sampled plenty of flavoursome, quality sausages which were usually served simply with mustard or horseradish.

Prague: Sausages

Be baffled by the sausage choice in Wenceslas Square

We shared a tasty selection at Mincovna in Old Town Square.

Prague: Sausages

Get musical

In the 17th and 18th century Prague was known as the conservatory of Europe. Czech composers Smetana and Dvorak were born here and Mozart lived here after he left Vienna. There are concerts advertised everywhere and we went classical, enjoying a fabulous hour listening to this string quintet in the grandeur of what used to be the Gestapo headquarters during World War II. I’m glad I was there in happier times.

There’s also great Jazz to be discovered and I have to say that the buskers on Charles Bridge were pretty impressive, too.

Prague: Music

Thank you Prague for the music

Visit St Vitus Cathedral

This towering cathedral is the largest church in the country and a magnificent example of Gothic architecture. It’s right next to the Castle and was constructed in stages with the initial church being erected in 930. It’s vast inside with magnificent stained windows and just as an impressive exterior.

Prague: St Vitus

The imperious cathedral towers over the Prague skyline

Discover the Jewish Quarter

Despite its turbulent history, the Jewish Quarter in Prague is the best-preserved Jewish historical complex in Europe. The former Jewish ghetto has myriad tales to tell and you can visit the weathered tombstones of the old Jewish cemetery and the Pinkas synagogue which is now a Holocaust museum. The names of Czech Holocaust victims are written on the synagogue’s inner wall – nearly 80,000 of them. It’s an impactful and horrifying sight.

Prague: Jewish quarter

The Pinkas Synagogue is now a Holocaust memorial

Eat great food

It’s hard to choose where to eat in Prague, there’s just so much choice! We did find some real gems, though I know we only scratched the surface – it’s certainly a city for food lovers. You can read about our amazing lunch at Terasa u Zlate Studne by clicking here. Watch this space for more restaurant recommendations coming soon.

Where to stay

We stayed at the Hotel U Medvidku on the edge of Prague’s Old Town. Our room was really spacious and comfortable with a newly refurbished bathroom with large shower.

It’s a historical, characterful hotel set on a quiet street easy walking distance from all Prague’s sights.

The service was friendly, welcoming and helpful, a good breakfast spread is served in the restaurant and it’s also got something extra special – an onsite mini brewery. One of the older in the country, in fact – the original brewery was founded in 1466. You can do beer tastings or try their beer ice cream. I’d never seen beer brewing before so that was quite fascinating. And of course we had to try some of their delicious brews. That hotel/brewery combination works for me.

Prague: beer

Beer brewing in the barrel

 

 

More sights and flavours of Krakow

Although my stay in Krakow was fairly brief, and seemed even more so with two trips out of   the city to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine and Auschwitz-Birkenau, there was still time to get a good flavour of the city. There’s lots to see and plenty of good food in Krakow. You can read about our great night at the Copernicus by clicking here.

On our final night we headed to the city’s main square. Rynek Glowny dates back to the 13th century and covers over 9 acres, making it one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. It’s surrounded by stylish townhouses and dominated by the Cloth Hall which was originally a hub of trading. You’ll also see the Town Hall Tower and two churches, including the beautiful Gothic towers of St Mary’s Basilica.

Krakow: Rynek Glowny

The towers dominate the skyline of this grand square

All commercial activity took place in this square and it was where regal ceremonies were held as well as public executions. Now it’s the place to head for that all-important souvenir shopping, to taste some local street food and to find a wide selection of bars and restaurants. It’s a stylish square and there’s plenty of entertainment on offer in the evenings with buskers and traditional dancers, as well as lots of traditional wares for sale.

After a pleasant meander, our final destination was the stylish Szara Ges. A modern space offering great views of the square’s grandeur and delicious contemporary Polish food.

As the logo hints at, their speciality is goose, so I couldn’t resist the foie gras. Not just any old foie gras though, ice cream made from foie gras and served with macerated figs and cherries and Tokaj grape jelly. Some wonderfully soft and sweet brioche completed the dish perfectly. I feel I’m going to be searching for foie gras ice cream for a long time now, trouble is I’m really not sure how many places I’m going to be able to find it in.

Krakow: Szara Ges

Inventive and tasty foie gras ice cream to start with

The second starter enjoyed by our group involved beetroot. Well, there would have to be a beetroot option, we are in Poland after all. My brother Frank (who I’ve mentioned before has always had a strong dislike of beetroot…until now) actually ordered it. So much has Poland made him fall in love with the humble beet! It was described as goat’s cheese, baked pepper marmalade and beet leaves in beet ash. Looks beautiful and he was still talking about how wonderful it tasted days later.

Krakow: Szara Ges

The vibrancy of beets and their ash

I ordered another starter as my main course – a handy trick when you’re on a eating holiday. The gravlax was macerated in salt and served with homemade creme fraiche and dill and topped with crisp, peppery radishes. A beautifully dense piece of fish packed with flavour and spiciness.

Krakow: Szara Ges

Sweet and spicy gravlax

The beef fillet was served with goose potato tagliatelle – more of that goose theme – with the crispy shreds of potatoes fried in that most delicious of all fat, and a green peppercorn sauce.

Krakow: Szara Ges

Beef fillet nestles under crispy potato

The cod fillet mignon was grilled and served with zucchini puree and crayfish. A delicate fish dish to savour.

Krakow: Szara Ges

Grilled cod with a delightful sauce

And of course, there would have to be a duck dish. The duck in Poland comes highly recommended by me! Served beautifully rare it came with cauliflower and liquified foie gras. Fabulous.

Krakow: Szara Ges

The tenderest of duck dishes with liquid foie gras

After dinner while we were pondering dessert we sampled a couple of vodkas on recommendation of our lovely waiter.

Krakow: Szara Ges

When in Poland…drink vodka

This dessert was called Copernicus. Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish scholar who formulated a model of the universe that placed the sun at the centre of the universe rather than the sun – a somewhat radical theory at the time. His father was from Krakow. And this dish portrays the sun at the centre with the other planets orbiting around it.

Zsara Ges: dessert

The beautifully yellow and chocolate dessert

Eating at Szara Ges was a lovely experience. The service was welcoming and expert without being too overwhelming and it was perfect to be in the heart of all the night time activity.

Szarages is at Rynek Glowny 17, in Krakow’s main square.

Dining Squares

Rynek Glowny is lined with bars and restaurants on all sides serving a mix of Polish, Italian and eclectic dishes. I enjoyed this delicious duck breast with cherry sauce, apple and roast potatoes.

Krakow: Rynek Glowny

Duck is a Polish speciality

You’ll find plenty of Polish delicacies in the bustling market in the centre of the square.

Krakow: Rynek Glowny

Exotic-looking sheeps cheese

We loved these deliciously smoky cheese bites cooked on the grill with bacon. It’s called Oscypek and is made in the mountains where it’s cured in hot smoke for up to 14 days. It’s seriously smoky with a tasty, unique flavour.

Krakow: Rynek Glowny

Polish Oscypek – smoked mountain cheese

And then there’s the square in the Kazimierz, the Old Jewish Quarter, again offering a range of places to enjoy food and beverages. We tasted the delicious local dumplings (pierogi) served with a creamy sauce.

Krakow: Kazimierz

More dumpling delight – and a creamy sauce

If you want to do a tour of the city in what I would describe as a golf buggy, there are plenty available for hire in both squares. They all come with a recorded, informative commentary. It’s a fun way to see the three main historic areas – the Old Town, Kazimierz (the Old Jewish Quarter) and the Krakow Ghetto where Schindler’s factory is.

And another thing

You can’t go to Krakow and not visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Just half an hour’s drive away they are an absolute wonder. You climb down hundreds of stairs and meander through a world of salt – it needs to be seen to be believed. There’s a large ballroom area where the chandeliers are made of salt crystals, beautifully lit underground lakes, salt statues and an explanation of how everything worked in the days when salt was an expensive commodity and it was prestigious (and well paid) to work here. One of the best strangely unusual things I’ve ever done, if that makes any sense at all.

Krakow: Wuekuczja Salt Mine

Stunning salt chandeliers

Where to stay

We stayed at the Metropolitan Boutique Hotel which is a five minute walk from Kazimierz and less than 15 to Rynek Glowny. It’s a modern hotel with beautifully comfortable rooms, a cosy dining room where you have your delicious breakfast spread and a lovely little courtyard.

The dining room turns into their Fab Fusion restaurant at night where you can enjoy an interesting selection of dishes with a mix of Italian, Asian and Polish flavours.

We organised all our excursions through the hotel. The service was fantastic, helpful, efficient and friendly. Everyone really made an effort to make us feel immediately at home. Which we did!

Oh and there’s a Biedronka opposite (it means ladybird in Polish, they have the cutest logo) – and it’s a supermarket. Always handy.

The Metropolitan is at ul Berka Jaseluricza 19, Krakow

Travel: What to eat in Warsaw

Today I’m continuing my exploration of Poland by tasting the food of Warsaw. But first some history.

The area covered by modern Warsaw has been inhabited for at least 1,400 years. The city has had rather a tumultuous history from the Great Northern War of 1702 to occupation and uprising during World War II and a long period of communist rule.

After the Second World War, when the Nazis slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Jews, they literally demolished the city. In 1945 most of Warsaw lay in ruins. The Soviets proclaimed the Polish People’s Republic and the city was rebuilt in a modern style.

All this means that Warsaw has an amazingly diverse architecture. From the charm and colour of the old town to the squareness and rather grand greyness of the Communist era – those communists certainly built things big!

Widespread anger and unrest hit Poland in the early 1980s with protests over food shortages and the prices of goods and the trade union Solidarity was established. By early 1989 an agreement was made to hold elections and an anti-communist government was established.

Poland entered the European Union in 2004 and is now in a period of prosperity. You can see this in Warsaw’s wide streets, bustling restaurant life and new, shiny financial district. It’s a great city to roam – with lots of green spaces, good shopping and a mind-boggling array of eateries in what is a relatively small area.

To help with the decision making, I decided to start my Polish culinary quest by joining Eat Polska for a food tour. A fabulous way to explore the city as well as tasting plenty of traditional dishes and learning their history. We visited four establishments and tasted a real variety of dishes. There was a good walk between most of the stops which was great as I really did discover more about the city while also walking off some of those calories.

Kaman Lwowska

Our first stop was a cosy, traditional Polish place – the sort of place I could see myself settling down for a lovely long lunch.

I’d seen this dish on several menus already in my short time in Warsaw but hadn’t had the courage to order it. It’s delicious! Bread served with lard and fermented gherkin and a chilled shot of local vodka which we were told to “scull”. This is a match made in heaven – nothing complicated but somehow sublimely tasty with a lovely mix of textures. My mouth’s actually watering remembering it.

Warsaw: lard

Lard and fermented gherkin

Warsaw: vodka

Perfectly chilled local vodka

Warsaw: lard

Spread and ready to eat

There’s a lot of soup enjoyed in Polish cuisine. We tasted the red borscht which is a clear, beautifully sweet beetroot soup served with uszko dumping. It’s traditionally served on Christmas Eve, its vibrant pinkness perfect for a celebration.

We also tasted the cucumber soup – made with grated sour pickled cucumbers and potato and served hot which was unexpected and also delicious.Warsaw: cucumber soup

Cucumber soup…and it’s served warm

Solec 44

Solec 44 is a trendy gastro-pub sort of place in an up-and-coming area of the city. I loved the modern, minimalist interior and the shelves containing huge bottles of pickled everything and a wide selection of board games.

We were there to sample a meat selection. Sausages are huge in Poland – actually, they’re normal size but there’s a massive range of them to try. And very good they all are too. Quality cheeses are more of a recent development and today we tucked into a great charcuterie board. We tried three types of sausage, smoked fatback and four types of cheese. All very tasty, especially the pieprzowka (black pepper sausage).

Warsaw: charcuterie

Gotta love a charcuterie board

Bibenda

Time for a meander back towards the centre of the city and Bibenda which serves a mix of traditional and modern polish dishes. Pork is very popular and served in many, many ways. Today’s tenderloin was cooked with a cinnamon mustard glaze, lemon fennel puree, carrot, coriander, orange zest, cinnamon popcorn and mint powder. The meat was so packed with flavour and all the elements perfectly complemented each other.

Warsaw: pork tenderloin

Exotically inventive pork tenderloin

And then there was this vegetarian dish made of broad beans, zucchini, tomato, onion, garlic, spicy mole sauce, avocado, Korycinski cheese and grilled spring onions. Sort of like an exotic kind of ratatouille topped with loads of creamy avo.

The place also has a fabulous cocktail list and serves a wide range of beers. You could certainly  linger.

Warsaw: vegetarian

An amazing vegetarian selection

Wedel

Wedel is a family business dating back to the 1890s and it sells chocolate in many shapes and forms. There’s literally chocolate in the air. And today we were sampling their legendary bittersweet drinking chocolate. Somewhere between milk chocolate and dark chocolate on the tasting scale, the luscious conception was thick, rich and sweet – one of the most indulgent drinks I’ve ever had. And what a beautiful shop – seriously, I challenge anyone to walk out without buying something.

Warsaw: hot chocolate

Lusciously rich hot chocolate

The Eat Polska Food Tour was a wonderful way to learn more about Polish food – something I had limited knowledge of – and find my bearings in the country’s capital. Our guide Eliza was so knowledgeable – not only about the food but also the complicated history of her country. A really fun and educational way to spend an afternoon. Oh, and tasty, too.

Where else to eat

I loved Warsaw’s Old Town with its colourful ancient buildings, cobbled streets and opportunities for al fresco drinking and dining. The beautiful main square has a couple of restaurants so on our first lunch we went in to Krolewski. I’m guessing this is one of the places all the tourists eat – something of an obvious choice. But we didn’t regret it, the food was lovely and the service great. And I did love sitting in the mains square.

The menu offers all those traditional Polish dishes that you’ve read about including a range of classic soups, duck, pork and beef dishes and those little Polish bundles – pierogi (dumplings). You can even get all of the meats on one plate called a Royal Platter – literally a tower of chops, steaks and sausages. The Poles are certainly somewhat carnivorous.

My first taste of pierogi were these Russian-style dumplings stuffed with cheese, potato and fried onion. Amazingly tasty little bundles. I’m going to have to find somewhere in London to get my pierogi fix.

Warsaw: pierogi

Satisfying pierogi stuffed with potato, onion and cheese

Duck is also a staple and we tucked into the Polish-style roasted duck with apples served in cherry sauce with potatoes and beetroot. I love beetroot but even if you don’t, a trip to Poland will convert you – they know how to do beetroot here. The duck was flavoursome and moist, and the cherry sauce surprisingly zesty, served with perfectly cooked potatoes. A hearty dish for sure. Like a lot of Polish cuisine – you’re not going to go hungry that’s for sure.

Warsaw: duck

Flavoursome duck with cherry sauce and beetroot

Warsaw: steak tartare

Design your own steak tartare

Just across the road from our hotel was a lovely little spot called Bohemia. The perfect choice for a late dinner after our evening tour of the city. Steak tartare crops up on many a Polish menu and as it’s one of my favourite dishes I had to go for it. Love the presentation and the addition of a fresh garlic clove and enjoyed mixing it up to create the right flavour just for me.

There’s plenty of beer to savour and Poland has a flourishing craft beer scene – there are around a hundred breweries in Poland. The three most popular local beers are Zywiec, Okoum and Tyskie. I became partial to a chilled Zywiec. There are plenty of options for beer tasting in the beautiful streets of the Old Town.

Warsaw: beer

Cheers from the Old Town

There are lemonade carts dotted around the city and fresh lemonade is sold all over. They look cute but the lemonade we tried from the cart was a little insipid with the juice of half a lemon, water and a spoonful of sugar. Shop-bought lemonade seemed to have more flavour with extra juice and fresh herbs added. All very refreshing either way.

Lemonade in the park

We also enjoyed coffee and a light breakfast at to Lubie cafe, again in the Old Town. My Local Breakfast included smoked cold meat, cheese, a tasty bowl of ham and egg spread and tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers served with bread rolls. They also had an extensive tea menu and lovely coffee.

A fresh and tasty breakfast with all my favourites

Where to stay

We stayed at the Westin Warsaw. It was situated about a 20-minute walk from the main sights but I do like a bit of a meander, so that suited me. The rooms were spacious and comfortable with good mini bar and tea and coffee facilities. And the service was fantastic with plenty of help organising tours and recommending the best options.

You can find out more about food tours in Warsaw at www.eatpolskacom