Taking the Train to Turkey

One of this year’s goals is to tick something off from the bucket list, another of this year’s goals is to try and see as many new countries as possible. What better way to do so than by taking the train to Turkey?

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This trip has been some months in the planning and after many different iterations of the route we’ve agreed on taking the more traditional route from London to Istanbul, via Belgrade and Sofia instead of Bucharest. This is the route that the 1920s Orient Express would have taken so should give us a real feel for the Balkans while also taking us through some counties neither of us have been to before. The exception to the traditional route is that we’re going to travel via Brussels and Cologne instead of Paris, because, well, the beer is much better in Cologne.

In addition to the Cologne detour we’re going to start the trip in Penzance, Cornwall because Cornwall is Owen’s home and starting in London sounds really rather dull. We’re also going to end the rail trip in Ankara, Turkey, that way there’s no disputing that we made it to Asia (the other side of the Bosphorus may be considered Asia, but only just), it should give us a chance to really experience Turkish railways too. To top the trip off we plan to fly home via Kiev, Ukraine with time to briefly visit the city and have a celebratory lunch (it was also the cheapest flight home).

Since we’re going to be trapped on a train for many, many hours during our trip I hope to photograph and blog as much as possible, so do stay tuned and expect updates. We’re both very excited and can’t wait to get going.

Quick trip to the Costa del Sol

Halfway through the year and time to catch a breath! A trip to Spain was the perfect opportunity to get some sunshine and relaxation time. We'd both been to the Costa del Sol before, Victoria many times more than I and can't fault it, beautiful weather, delicious Spanish food and great places to visit. We couldn't wait to get on that plane!

Estepona costline, Malaga, Spain

Estepona costline, Malaga, Spain

Turia Tostada Beer

Turia Tostada Beer

We were staying with family just outside of Estepona right on the coast in a beautiful private villa complex. It was a very peaceful area and the surrounding gardens were immaculately kept. On the first day we followed tradition and visited the local Carrefour for supplies, I absolutely love this shop, it is stacked full of amazing food and drink. We walked out with more beer than it is possible to drink in a week, all of which I had never had before. The beer was mostly macro-brewery specials but I managed to find some locally brewed craft beer from La Catarina which was the star of the show.

On the second day, I had arranged to go diving with Gibraltar Dive Charters. After having visited Gibraltar before I was desperate to get out in the bay and see some of the wrecks. Lugging all of my dive equipment from home to here was a bit of a pain, especially carrying it on the DLR(!) but I was confident it would be worth it. After turning up I discovered that my 3mm wetsuit wasn't going to cut the mustard and my lovely warm dry suit was, unfortunately, sitting in its bag at home. Luckily the dive shop offered up a thicker wetsuit and all was fine, lesson learnt! With a group of about 14 divers, we visited the SS Rosslyn and the Seven Sisters dives sites, both were interesting and worth checking out.

Northern end of the Gibraltar Rock, Gibraltar

Northern end of the Gibraltar Rock, Gibraltar

Another highlight of the trip was watching England's world cup battle against Columbia in the quarterfinals. We timed dinner perfectly to be able to watch in front of a huge screen in Jack's along the Peurto Banus marina. The game went to extra time and then penalties which thankfully we won! Peurto Banus is a place that shoudn't be missed on a trip to Marbella, it is a smaller but has a Monaco-esque vibe and plenty of super yachts and cars to match.

Puerto Banús Marina, Málaga, Spain

Puerto Banús Marina, Málaga, Spain

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. 

Whitstable Regatta

This weekend Victoria and I ventured to Whitstable for the regatta and a day out. The regatta was rather odd, there were very few boats, it was no equivalent to Cowes! Perhaps we missed the events somehow. Nonetheless we still had a fantastic time, Whitstable is one of the best parts of Kent, it is on the sea, has a fantastic brewery and isn't that far from home! Of course it's most famous for it's oysters, but despite temptation we agreed to leave them until next time. 

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Despite the lack of waterborne craft we still managed to get a lifeboat selfie, as it has become somewhat habitual. Interestingly this vessel isn't from Whitstable, I'm pretty sure it's the Leonard Kent from Margate and the crew came in for the day.