That time I went to... Rome & The Vatican State

August 2017 and the project to deploy SD-WAN at Cushman & Wakefield was just kicking off. Given the scale of the project I felt that it’d be sensible to make sure we give the first site some extra care and attention before we let the train leave the station at full speed. Turned out that the best location was Rome, Italy since it was reasonably small and the staff hadn’t all left for their summer holidays.

I was pretty excited about Rome, I’d never been before and it was a great opportunity to nudge the country count up by visiting The Vatican State at the same time. On the trip I’d be accompanied by our Italian IT Manager and an engineer from our deployment partner who would be working with us on the project. Since this was the first deployment the plan was to run through the installation script we’d built during the pilot and ensure there were no teething issues for future installations.

Civitavecchia, Rome, Italy

Civitavecchia, Rome, Italy

I flew out early on Sunday morning to Fiumicino (where British Airways were good enough to bump me to Club Europe!), this was to be a quick two-night trip so I wanted to make sure that I had a chance to see the Colosseum and visit the Vatican as well as do all necessary work. The hotel I stayed in was wonderful (Hotel Barocco), it was not the cheapest but being the height of summer there weren’t many rooms left in the city. I would absolutely stay here again if I were to come back.

Delicious Olives, Rome

Delicious Olives, Rome

After settling in I met up with the engineer from our partner and we got to work on the tourist hit list, first up was of course the colosseum, where we found a fantastic bar/restaurant overlooking the complex. We sat outside and sunk a few beers here and had some of the most gorgeous olives, definitely recommend this spot, it’s on a street called Via Nicola Salvi. Interestingly, the BrewDog bar which has opened between my visit and the writing of this post is on the same block(!). The colosseum is truly stunning, it’s enormous and and while there are a bunch of tours and history walks just enjoying the view was perfectly adequate.

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Next up was the Vatican, it really is as tiny as people say, we walked along Via della Conciliazione and found a nice little bar just off St Peter’s Square where again we sat outside and enjoyed the weather and views. The area was pretty quiet since it was a Sunday afternoon but we could see the famous guards, St Peter’s Church and all the things that are recognisable from TV. I took nowhere near enough pictures, but as interesting as the place was, there was nothing that isn’t already photographed a thousand times over. From St Peter’s square we walked back towards the centre of Rome, by this point it was blindingly hot, certainly over 40 degrees celsius and so hit some en-route bars in order to stay hydrated!

St Peters Basilica, Vatican State

St Peters Basilica, Vatican State

We ended the day in the Hard Rock Cafe (like true tourists) since by the time we were in search of food all the restaurants had decided to close. The only reason I remember this is because I have a picture of Yellowcard playing in the restaurant (which I presumably requested!) date stamped at 11pm on Sunday.

River Tiber, Rome

River Tiber, Rome

The two days of work went very well, we completed the deployment of SD-WAN and the activation was a breeze. There were a few snags we picked up in the script but nothing major, the first European site was all up and running! Rome is a great city, but having now been I wouldn’t rush back there is a LOT of history here, obviously, but Ancient Rome isn’t really my cup of tea.

The (Sleepy!) Pearl of The Adriatic - Dubrovnik

Last year was always going to be difficult to top, Monaco was absolutely fantastic and we had a wonderful time; we relaxed, enjoyed good food and embraced the rich and famous lifestyle – we even flew in a helicopter! This year I was determined to try and continue our February city break tradition and after nowhere near enough research or preparation I decided that we should give Dubrovnik, Croatia a visit.

Dubrovnik Old City

Dubrovnik Old City

Dubrovnik is not a place I had a particular desire to visit, although pictures of the old town, along the coastline certainly made it quite appealing and were definitely the biggest selling point. The town has recently become synonymous with the Game of Thrones franchise, many scenes from ‘King’s Landing’ are filmed here, which is pretty interesting. The other big reason for picking here is that Croatia is a country I have not yet visited and I have a personal quest to visit four new countries/territories this year (see my list); so there was that too...

The flight out to Dubrovnik was exceptionally and painfully early in the morning; of the many, many flights I have logged in flightdiary it is the earliest I have ever taken. Not really sure why it needed to be so early, but we didn’t have too much of a choice, there is only one flight every other day and nobody only British Airways fly direct from London during winter. Despite this, it gave us a good headstart on the day. Once we arrived it was a short taxi drive to the old city, getting there was far simpler than the internet would have you believe. Thirty euros to a transfer website and there was a chap waiting for us at the terminal, easy. The old city is completely pedestrianized so the closest a taxi will get you is a spot called Pile Gate where it’s time to grab the bags and walk!

Dubrovnik Harbour

Dubrovnik Harbour

St Lawrence Fortress

St Lawrence Fortress

The Airbnb was fantastic! A very strange bedroom downstairs and kitchen upstairs type affair but it was comfortable, cozy and all we needed. The street outside was absolutely to die for, old brick, with buildings squeezed in together with narrow, steep steps to the main street. I had some reservations that the streets might be fabricated for tourism or that many of the pictures online are of one tiny spot and the rest was nothing like it, I promise you, there is not an ugly street in the city!

Dubrovnik Old City Street

Dubrovnik Old City Street

On the first day we walked about the City Walls, these are the dominant feature of Dubrovnik and surround the city in order to defend against attack. The structures are a result of work that took place between the 7th and 17th century, the majority of their present definition is from work that took place around the 14th century where after the city-state of Dubrovnik flourished through maritime trade. The history of the walls is thoroughly impressive and it’s an absolute marvel that they are still standing in such great condition. They are along with the city itself one of Croatia’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Locations. If you plan on visiting the walls, be prepared for a reasonable amount of physical activity, it’s a good distance around the city and there are plenty of incline changes and steps involved, do take water, especially if it’s summer time!

Being winter there wasn’t a particularly large number of restaurants and bars open which was unfortunate, the city was quiet but there was a great place open called Posat. Not a cheap place but we were very well looked after; to eat we shared a fresh fish cooked to order and a soup made from the head and cheeks! We drank Croatian wine which was surprisingly good and even had space for deserts. Certainly recommended if you do choose to visit, I would expect that during summer booking would be essential.

Laurence & Victoria with Lokrum Island in the background

Laurence & Victoria with Lokrum Island in the background

The second day we took things much easier, we had a coffee on the square and took a slow walk around the city. We found that we could walk around the walls alongside the sea to get a great view of the surrounding islands and sheer vertical walls of the city. There are numerous small hidden doorways out to the cliffs, our favourite was one which led to a place called Buza Bar. This is probably the best view from any bar I’ve been to, with unhindered views across towards Lokrum Island and the Adriatic. We didn’t stay for the sunset, but apparently it’s quite spectacular. As with Posat, I imagine this place is an absolute zoo in the summer months, and certainly is one of the coolest bars in the city. If you ever go to Dubrovnik, it’s essential you don’t miss this. Towards the end of the day we had a nap (because we were completely exhausted form the day before!) and ended up watching the England vs Wales Six Nations game in the Irish Pub. Glad we did as the game was absolutely fantastic and England won.

Laurence on the cliffs

Laurence on the cliffs

By Sunday we were very tired indeed! We had a bit of a lay in, which was a bit weird, all we could hear was people walking up and down the steps outside. We got up, pulled ourselves together and decided to go on a big walk. We headed out of the old city and towards Lapad and the main marina area of Dubrovnik. It wasn’t the sunniest of days but the walk was pretty good and we found a cool street with cafes and bars that was much less tourist-focused. As with the old city a lot of places were closed for winter, but we made do and still had a good time enjoying the scenery. Exhausted and hungry we got the bus back to the town, which was really quite easy. Without much hanging around we hit the Irish pub for a beer and a burger – now regulars, along with almost everyone else who was there, who all of course happened to be on the same BA flight.

Gruz Harbour, Dubrovnik

Gruz Harbour, Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is certainly one of the stranger places we’ve been to, although I can’t quite put my finger on why that’s the case. It has some great history, fantastic food and a weird European vibe that we’ve not experienced before. That said, it was a great trip and we had a fantastic time enjoying the city and despite it being winter time, actually enjoyed the peace, quiet and new surroundings. Would we go back? Probably, although we wouldn’t rush back, where Monaco we certainly would rush back!

The Land of Vikings - Iceland

Testing out my new bose QC25 headphones

Testing out my new bose QC25 headphones

It's become somewhat of a tradition to take a holiday in December. So far it's always somewhere noticeably warmer and where beer is considerably cheaper. This year we thought we would shake things up a little and do the polar opposite - go somewhere colder, where the beer is much more expensive. 

Iceland is an eminently fascinating place, full of history, strange quirks and oddities. Admittedly, it hasn't been on my list of places to visit for a particularly long time, although has certainly grown in interest as I've travelled more. It is by no means the cheapest place to fly or stay, a 5 night trip was rather pricey compared to other northern European countries, such a those in Scandinavia. 

Our trip started in Heathrow Terminal 5, @tigziefc's first visit to the home of British Airways, and the first real opportunity to put my new frequent flyer card to good use. The flight out was around 3 hours long, which was largely uneventful, except for the fantastic view of Iceland on our approach to Keflavík Airport. The Airport was built during WW2 by the Americans, evident in that it's 50km away from the largest city and is completely over-engineered. Prior to this the British also built and airport on the island, the first in fact, in 1940, this airport now handles only domestic flights and was at the time relatively close to Reykjavik. It is now essentially within Reykjavik proper - causing some dispute about it's longevity due to noise - however it's very close! 

Geothermal steam in Iceland

Geothermal steam in Iceland

Transportation onwards from the Airport is by road only, we chose to rent a car for our trip on advice from various sources. Car hire, like most things we came to discover is very expensive, but absolutely worth it. This was also my first time ever hiring a car, which proved a little daunting to begin with.. We drove to our Airbnb rental in the city, the drive was our first real taste of Iceland, the landscape is like nothing I've ever seen before, comparable only to that of the moon. 

We had booked a rather special Airbnb, which had resident cats for company. They took some getting used to for people who aren't particularly familiar with cats but were really good fun and provided great entertainment. The apartment was located right in the centre of Reykjavik, which isn't actually very big and in hindsight, we had a car so we could have stayed somewhere a little further outside of the city. It was however certainly well suited for accessing everything. 

We tied up the day of travel with a visit to the Frederiksen Ale House, which was a total tourist joint but we were too tired to care. I enjoyed my second Icelandic beer in a boot glass, which is absolutely not a local tradition. 

Reykjavik Harbour

Reykjavik Harbour

Day 1

One thing we very quickly realised is that the daylight causes big problems when you need to wake up. There is only about four or five hours of sunlight in December which means there are very long dark mornings andvery long dark evenings. Since we were self catering we needed to go and find a supermarket to buy food and drink for the week. Early on in the planning for this trip we agreed that we'd do our best to offset the cost of travel against eating/drinking out much less than we would on a typical trip. We went on a drive to nowhere and found a 'Bonus' which is similar to Aldi/Lidl in Europe, what made Bonus funny is my new ethic to not eat pork products since it's logo is that of a giant porky pig. 

The landscape on our drive out of town continued to be as stunning as the journey from the airport, huge snow covered hills with very little man-made changes. We also walked down to the harbour in Reykjavik which was perfectly calm against a setting sun. I will always remember this as it's the first time I've ever seen frozen seawater which I still find very odd.  

Day 2 

Diver Crossing

Diver Crossing

The day of the dive! This was probably the highlight of the trip for me, everyone in the diving world has heard of Silfra, it's an absolute mecca for divers and on everyone's bucket list. The location is unique in that it's a rift or crack between two tectonic plates, the Eurasian and North American plates - to be precise. The rift is underwater, fed by a natural spring of consistent temperature which means it has a very slight current. I managed to arrange a dive with a local guy via email, never much of a fan to go with a big tour group. Heddin was  great guide, picked me up from Reykjavik and gave the dive plan in the car on the way to the national park.

The dive was actually pretty thrilling, the temperature outside was around -12 Celsius before wind chill and is certainly one of the coldest I've ever been. The temperature was not conducive to wanting to go and get in the water, it was literally the opposite of what I wanted to do. Nether the less, I threw a dry suit on with an under layer and we went to get in. By this stage my hands and feet were seriously frozen, I couldn't do anything and it was borderline seriously painful - although once in the water everything began to warm up! The water temperature on the surface was around 2 Celsius, which was much better but still pretty mad. 

The Silfra Rift

The Silfra Rift

After dropping down into the rift everything changes, the cold isn't even an issue. The water, the colours and the rocks are just some of the most stunning things I've ever seen. It's blue, green and simply beautiful; the water is completely crystal clear giving perfect visibility for 100 meters or more. The dive isn't deep, I didn't go below 10 meters at any point, there was simply no need. 

After a 40 minute swim the hard part was getting out! One you walk out of the lake everything you wear freezes instantly, shoes, mask, hood, gloves, suit - it's ridiculous! I couldn't wait to get dry and to try and revive my fingers and toes. Heddin didn't experience any of this suffering, simply got in the truck and dealt with it! The person who was diving with me however was feeling it more than I, we had some coffee on the way back to try and fix frozen extremities! 

In the afternoon we walked around town and went to a great little 'Micro Bar' which specialised in craft beer and had plenty of Icelandic speciality beers too. We ended up spending a fair amount of time in this place over our stay and met some pretty interesting people from far and wide. 

Day 3 

My fingers are still numb. This is not good at all.... I decide to do the most manly thing possible and completely ignore the problem. 

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon

We visited the famous Iceland Blue Lagoon, which is supposedly a completely natural hot spring. It was a reasonable drive, around the same distance as that to the airport. The lagoon was actually pretty cool, it is essentially a big 'pond' with a sandy floor and smooth rock sides. It was a total tourist trap but it's kind of an Icelandic icon, so you can't really no go. The price wasn't terrible, but wasn't cheap - do expect to be bored within the hour. We had a great time and took some cool pictures while being incredibly careful with our mobile phones!

Lunch was pretty fun, we had Taco Bell at the only restaurant in the country, it wasn't great, but what did we expect? We closed out the day with a happy hour crawl to some of the bars we hadn't yet been to, the highlight was a local 12% stout which absolutely blew my head off. It was a good beer though, throughout the trip I had several beers from the same brewery, my particular favourite being number 3. 

The Micro Bar

The Micro Bar

Day 4 

Fingers still numb. Now getting a little worried, it was as if I had just made a snowball, except the sensation did not subside. Not painful, just annoying. 

The weather was getting a little worse outside, temperature still pretty cold for Iceland standards with plenty of snow on the streets and a little ice on the road. Despite this we wanted to see if it was possible to drive out to the Gullfoss Falls, it's a considerable drive and the roads didn't seem too bad, all the locals said we'd be fineWe actually made it most of the way, it wasn't at any point dangerous but we agreed that it wasn't worth the risk of the weather turning and not being able to get back. Bit of a shame but the landscape was plenty enough for us to take in! 

We pulled over at the Silfra dive site which was on the way to take a few pictures. It was much warmer than the other day, but the divers all still looked very cold! Glad we stopped here for a while as the landscape around the rift was just as interesting above water. Our final evening was spent in the Micro bar (where we had been about four times now), we drank all the beers we hadn't yet tried and called it a day. 

Day 5

The trip back home was fine, despite the lack of lounge at the airport. On our return home I called 111 for my fingers and at around 1 am the next day spoke with any army doctor on the phone who concluded that I had mild frostbite in my fingers - whoops! She said they would be fine in a week or so, which was good news.

Iceland was a fantastic place to visit. I'm really glad we went while it was cold, it made the experience much more interesting for a short break. Most recommend visiting April/May or September/October in order to get the best weather and for it to still be relatively quiet - this would definitely be advice we take on board if we visit again. All the things we did were great, but it is expensive, take a big wallet with you!

Gibraltar

Gibraltar has been a place of fascination to me for a long time now; a strange strategically important peninsular, occupied by a geographically odd lump of rock with sovereignty to the crown. I'm rather late with this post, some 6 months after visiting 'The Rock' but the fascination continues to consume me, despite doing our best to explore and understand Gibraltar. 

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Many travellers to Gibraltar choose to arrive at an airport of nearby Spain when visiting. Interestingly, despite Gibraltar having a land border with Spain and being a member of the EU (via the UK) it is not part of the Schengen Area. This means that both countries are obliged to complete full border checks, this regularly results in huge queues on the Spain side of the border with people trying to enter by car. We chose to avoid this drama and fly direct, from Heathrow Terminal 3. 

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The Flight into Gibraltar is a treat in itself, with the airport commonly rated as one of the most dangerous in the world. Not only because the runway extends out into the bay, but because of the strong cross winds the southerly rock generates. It's not uncommon for pilots to have no choice but to land in Spain, the EasyJet flights appeared to be extra cautious, one attempting two landings before giving up! The airport's position is directly at the border with Spain which means road and pedestrian traffic has to pass directly over the runway. This of course allows a unique opportunity for a 'runway selfie'.

We decided to stay in a rented apartment while in Gibraltar as hotel rooms here are actually surprisingly expensive. There is only one five star hotel, a floating yacht in the up-scale harbour area not far from the airport. We visited the harbour several times, it has several good bars and restaurants. One bar clear in memory had a gin and tonic garden, it was very pleasant indeed!

One attraction we enjoyed very much was the Botanical Gardens and Wildlife Park. The gardens were surprisingly large with plenty of reminders of the queen's visit in 1954 (just two years after her coronation). The wildlife park was the biggest surprise, it was tiny but completely full with interesting animals; we saw lemurs, snapping turtle, macaque monkeys and even Asian otters (who were absolutely the highlight). 

We managed to find time for almost all of Gibraltar's attractions, some were definitely easier than others. The day we took the cable car to the top of the rock was particularly long, despite promises by locals that "it's an easy walk down" I assure you it isn't. I attribute the extended walk to: A. lack of cellular data, and B. a cartographically incorrect map (which was clearly drawn in Microsoft Paint). We did eventually get to our destination, only to find we had enough cash for a single bottle of water (on a very hot summer's day, they know their market) and not enough for a taxi back to the apartment. The walk was good fun though, we saw more of Gibraltar than we were anticipating and had any macaques for company! Victoria was particularly brave and completed the entire walk while wearing flip flops.  

While half-way up the rock we visited the 'Great Siege Tunnels' which were fantastic. The story of the siege is fascinating and is particularly well known to visitors from the United States. That puzzled me too until I realised that the siege was part of the american civil war (where France and Spain were very much against Great Britain). The WW2 tunnels were in contrast very poor, had no real content and should be avoided. 

Had to fit the above picture in, if nothing more than to demonstrate the flying of the union flag. This picture was taken at Europa Point, the most southerly point of Gibraltar and truly the gate to the Mediterranean. I'm standing here on part of Harding's Battery a military fortification which was constructed in 1859 to defend the Med, there has been a great effort spent reconditioning the area. 

Not far from Harding's Battery is Europa Point Lighthouse, famous for being the only lighthouse outside of the British Isles to be maintained by Trinity House. The light is still operational and provides a guide for shipping through the narrow straight. 

Gibraltar is a fantastically quirky and interesting place, terribly difficult to explain in a short blog post but this remains one of my favourite travel stories. I resolutely encourage anyone and everyone to visit this special place, for history, geography, weather, fauna, flora or even for the tax free tobacco(!) you'll never forget your trip*.

*unless you visit via a cruise - as you'll be in and out in a matter of hours and wont remember a thing.