Saturday 22 March 2014

Islands in Croatia: Cres

Croatia is a holiday goldmine for people who love islands.  There are over a thousand islands in Croatia, spread over a huge coastal area on the Adriatic Ocean.  From the Istria peninsular (that little leaf-shape peninsular hanging from the northern coast of Adriatic directly across from Venice) one could take a ferry to the beautiful island of Cres.

In between Rijeka and Pula is a little harbour port called Brestova. A scenic drive down the mountain will take you to the ferry port with service running every hour (or every two hours on Sundays). It's only a short 20 minutes' ride across the narrow strait, but on a good day the scenery is breathtaking. The Brestova port has a small café restaurant, gift shop, and toilet facilities.

The main town of the island (also called Cres) is a further 20 to 30 minutes' drive.  It is a quaint holiday town with a marina and beautiful holiday houses. Cafés and restaurants lined the boat-filled marina, and shops selling local olive oil and gifts are aplenty.  It is a great starting point for exploring the rest of the island, which has more to offer than one can imagine: beautiful villages, hidden beaches, local restaurants.  Our next stop was Lubenice, a hilltop village that has only 24 inhabitants!  

Ferry schedule from Brestova:
More on the island of Cres:

Friday 21 March 2014

Celje and its castle, Slovenia

Forming an impressive sight at the confluence of several rivers, Celje is the third largest city of Slovenia.  It is prone to minor earthquakes occasionally, but we didn't experience any.  The main attraction is of course the 14th century castle on top of the hill, overlooking the town like a father watching his son.

Located up on 1,300 feet, the castle is a fortified Romanesque palace.  Written records actually date back to early 12th century, but the fortress-castle was probably burned down and the present one rebuilt from the ruins.  By the 15th and 16th century, it became one of the most important castles across the entire Eastern Alps (Switzerland, Northern Italy, etc).  Its many architectural elements became a model for builders of the region.

It is now an excellent museum and a vibrant cultural venue.  Just the view alone is worth the trip, which is just under an hour from Ljubljana.  We, however, drove up from the south, following the Sava river.  The scenic drive is blessed with small towns and the gorgeous Slovenia countryside. Slovenian railway also stops at Celja the city, and from there it is only a short cab ride to the castle.  

Official website:

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Fountains Abbey - the largest and best preserved monastery in England

Yorkshire is often associated with fantastic fish and chips and its beautiful coastline, but a short distance inland and seated right about Leeds is one of the largest and best preserved monasteries in England, the Fountains Abbey.

Tucked inside a vast royal park is the ruins of a 12th century monastery.  Also listed as an UNESCO Heritage Site, the ruin now lends an elegant and romantic aura for those who venture into this massive stone structure.  For the locals, this must have been an architecture of power, a pink sandstone structure rising out of the landscape and framed by a never-ending expanse of green.  

Like the Lacock Abbey, Fountains Abbey was disbanded in 1539 by Henry VIII.  It followed a downward route into deterioration, and became a stone quarry for the nearby towns of Ripon and York.  It wasn't until the 18th century when it became one of the most treasured monuments of England.

After going through the state-of-the-art visitors' centre (and getting your tickets), you are immediately greeted by acres of woodlands with the Abbey tower looming at a distance.  As one approaches the Abbey via a steep path through the woods, the gigantic stone structure comes plainly into view - what a humbling sight for the viewer.  The façade of the church still stands, very much in the French Cistercian manner; while the Great Cloister corridor stretches to the right. There are few sights more magnificent than this.

Much around the inner cloister court is in ruin and it is hard to imagine the tranquil refuge that it once was.  Even more dilapidated was the Abbot's House at the back of the Abbey (which extends to the royal park) - here, only a few foundation stones are left.  The river Skell flows rapidly nearby, which must have served the monks both as a water source and a natural sewage system.  

The visit ends with an idyllic walk over to the Studley Royal Water Garden and a deer park.  

Getting there:
It is 2 hours by train from London King's Cross to York, after that it is about an hour's drive through the beautiful Yorkshire countryside.  Buy early to score a cheap First Class seat which includes breakfast (or a light meal).  

Official information on National Trust:

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Lacock, an historical village in the heart of England

The historical village of Lacock is where the 785-year-old Lacock Abbey is located. According to National Trust, most of the buildings in the village are now under active preservation, and since this is not London the village is safe from massive tourist invasion.  Few villages are as well preserved as this.  
After a simple yet delicious lunch, we took a slow walk around the village of Lacock and soaked in the idyllic surrounding.  Half timbered houses, beautiful gardens, historic buildings, and an impressive church sprawled across the few roads that made up the village.  The old barn house is now a museum, exhibiting the history of photography with a display of the first photo produced by a negative - invented in 1839 by Fox Talbot, who then lived at the Lacock Abbey.  
In popular culture, the village was featured in Harry Potter movies as well as the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.  
Not a bad way to spend an afternoon!
Free parking available next to the Abbey.  100 miles west of London, or around 40 minutes' drive from Bristol.  
Official website on National Trust -