Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Be Spontaneous! Grab a Last Minute Getaway

I don't know about you, but I'm no good when plans are up in the air. At the end of August, I might have the chance to hop on a plane and visit my best friend in Belfast but only if her work commitments come through. So I'm stuck - I can't book flights and I don't know what to do with my time off if plans fall through. Luckily the lovely people at Cosmos have come through with some last minute ideas for me, just in case...

Securing a holiday at the very last minute is not only exciting but can also save you significantly on the cost. This is because airlines that still have spare seats would rather have them filled at a discounted price than be empty. The same can be said for hotels that have empty rooms, which is why booking a holiday at the last minute is often a regular option for many people.

The last minute deal is not for everyone, especially if you’re the type of person who likes to plan well ahead of time. But whether you’re looking to benefit from an all-inclusive break or dreaming about cheap villa holidays, booking at the last minute is still very much an option.

Here are our top three budget destinations that are perfect for a last minute getaway - some you’ve probably never even considered:

Warsaw, Poland

Visitors to the capital city of Poland this year can benefit from hotel discounts of up to 20 per cent. So, anyone wishing to see all the sights that this historic city has to offer can do so at a significantly discounted price.

Visitors during the summer months absolutely must take in the free (yes free) piano concert held every Saturday and Sunday next to the statue of Chopin in Lazienki Park. This tradition has been going for more than 50 years and is perfect for travellers who are keeping to a tight budget.

Warsaw’s most historic part, Old Town, was heavily damaged during the Second World War but nowadays enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status due to its extensive restoration. Furthermore, visitors can take in the ambiance of Old Town in one of its many cafes and restaurants – all of which offer traditional pierogies at extremely reasonable prices.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is a truly magical place and the perfect destination for a last-minute getaway from the UK. And Turkey’s economic, cultural and historical heart has much to offer the last-minute getaway visitor.

Spice-scented bazaars are what makes this capital city so special and visitors will feel as though they are in a scene from a book whilst walking through its busy streets. Add to this traditional Turkish baths and you’ve got yourself a very exciting, yet relaxing place to visit.

A neat fact for travellers is that Istanbul, historically named Constantinople, is the only city on earth that straddles two continents – Asia and Europe. And, it’s one of the few places on the globe where you will see women dressed in black burkas from head to toe shop alongside girls wearing jeans and high-heels.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam may have a reputation as the red-light capital of the world but this only adds to its charm. With intimate streets, beautiful squares and fantastic canals, Amsterdam is truly a city of wonder and intrigue

Some people might think that Amsterdam lacks history and culture but the truth is that this city has the highest museum density in the world and houses such iconic establishments as the Van Gogh Museum, Hermitage Amsterdam, Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum with Rembrandt’s world-famous Nightwatch.

Visitors to Amsterdam – especially those on a brief getaway – should experience the historic canal district and indulge in a canal tour. After all, this area was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011 and is therefore an area that is particularly special. Although, to afford the total Amsterdam experience a bicycle is the order of the day.

Can you recommend any last minute getaways? Where have you travelled on the spur of the moment before?


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Verona: Façades, Windows and Doorways

There is nothing so beautiful or insightful as a simple doorway, window or façade; they are the eyes of a city, providing us with a glimpse of the life and soul behind them.

Verona was the second city that we visited during our trip to Italy and although I loved Milan, it was nice to escape the hectic capital city for the quieter, more relaxed City of Love.

On our first afternoon, we took a long walk around and through the city and I simply couldn’t resist taking photo after photo of the beautiful façade, doors and windows. It was a great experience because I remember why each scene caught my eye and I made sure to compose each photo carefully, but it was rewarding to put all the photos together in the end and see how they came together as a collection.

Satis beatus, Palazzo Carli, Verona

The keystone of the 18th century Palazzo Carli reads satis beatus which translates as ‘sufficiently happy’. That wasn’t what caught my eye though, in the photo above, I loved the way the Italian flag contrasted with the burnt orange plaster of the building. This building was once the home to the Hapsburg ruler and is now NATO headquarters.

Corso Porta Borsari, Verona

For me, this scene taken on the Corso Porta Borsari was so quintessentially Italian. I love the greenery flowing down from the balcony, the green-shuttered windows and the various states of disrepair of the paint and plaster. I love to compare street signs and direction posts in the cities that I visit.

Ristorante Antica Torretta, Verona

This is the doorway of the Ristorante Antica Torretta on the Piazza Broilo. I was very pleased with how this photo turned out and was glad that I decided to take it in portrait mode. To me this doorway looks so inviting with its leafy awning and I would certainly have wanted to go inside if the restaurant were open.

Windows and Doorways of Verona (3)

It wasn’t too late in the afternoon but the shadows were already beginning to lengthen. It was the house numbers that caught my eye in the scene above. I love it when I’m able to capture a perfectly framed façade…

Windows and Doorways of Verona (4)

…because sometimes the streets in Verona (and the rest of Italy) are very narrow and your view of the façade is slightly elevated…

Windows and Doorways of Verona (5)

… or even very elevated indeed. Despite not getting the perfect photos that I wanted, I decided to keep these photos because this is what I remember of the houses in Verona – the ornate steel work of the balconies, the shutters and the plants. I have always said that I will jump at any chance to live and work in another city and I like to imagine that I could live in the inner cities of Boulogne, Verona or Lille. 

Casa di Cagnolo Nogarola detto Romeo

It looks plain, doesn't it? Well this is part of the façade of the Casa di Cagnolo Nogarola detto Romeo, the home of the entirely fictional character Romeo, of Romeo and Juliet. The character might be a fiction but this house was in fact the seat of the powerful noble Montecchi family and so the house is a fitting location to complete the myth of the star-crossed Veronese lovers.

Palazzo della Ragione, Verona

This is just a small detail of the Palazzo della Ragione in the Piazza dei Signori. Construction of this destinctive building completed in 1196 and it was the frescoes and tile work on the façade that caught my eye. It is heart breaking when you see the remains of fresco work on these buildings. The buildings were once covered with them to a great extent but they faded, crumbled or were painted over as Verona’s fortunes changed over the centuries. You’ll often see parts of a fresco under an arch or somewhere that doesn’t catch direct sunlight.

The building has had many uses over the year but it is now home to the Gallery of Modern Art Achille Forti.

Loggia del Consiglio, Verona

The Loggia del Consiglio in the Piazza dei Signori is not an easy building to capture. I specifically wanted to capture the details of the 15th century town hall, but to do so meant to elevate the angle once again. If you’d like to see the detail of the full building, I’ve uploaded it on Google +.

Windows and Doorways of Verona (9)

It took several attempts before I decided on this photo and even then, it wasn’t perfect. I wanted to capture the plainness and simplicity of the façade while still capturing it’s unique Veronese charm. I think it might have worked slightly better if I was taller!

Palazzo Cossali, Verona

This is the façade of the old Palazzo Cossali on Via Carlo Cattaneo. Again, the building was once covered by frescoes but these were lost in the first half of the 19th century. The building is now home to engineering firm Technital who have established that the building is structurally very true to its original form, except for the doorway above which was a 19th century addition.

Windows and Doorways of Verona (11)

And one final photo.  This one was taken on Via Roma, really close to the location of Palazzo Carli in the first photo. I love the weathered wooden door with its ornate carvings, the burnt orange plaster and the steelwork on the balcony and the first floor windows.

What do you most like to see in a foreign city? What types of things catch your eye and make your travel partners sigh with exasperation as you capture yet another example of that something unique and quintessential?


Friday, 25 July 2014

iPhone App Review: Toolani International Calls

The Blue Box

Before I begin, let me just say that this post has nothing to do with Doctor Who but I thought this photo of the T.A.R.D.I.S. was a lot more original than any photos I might have of London phone boxes. The photo is not entirely irrelevant because sometimes you find yourself very far away from home and you just need to make a simple phone call. When I moved to England in 2007, I was depending on international phone cards to call home and they were an absolute nightmare. There was no way to track them and no matter whether you spent £5 or £20 they seemed to last the same time.

For a long time after that, we depended on our landline provider who seemed to offer reasonable international calls but then I discovered that there are iPhone apps that can offer much more reasonable rates.

The lovely people at Toolani recently contacted me and asked me to try out their app. Now as I mentioned, I have used apps like this before so I’m going to tell you a little bit about how it works, the quality of the calls and whether I’d considered switching over to Toolani permanently in future.

Toolani is available on both the iPhone and Android app stores and is free to download. Once you’ve downloaded the app, you go through a short registration process and you can then connect your phone book to the app. You can add people to your favourites list and you can also click on the cog icon to see the rates to call the destination of your choice.

Here are some example rates in Euro cents per minute and approximate £ equivalents:

Country Landline Mobile Landline Mobile
South Africa 1.6 cent 5.0 cent 1.27p 3.95p
Australia 1.6 cent 5.0 cent 1.27p 3.95p
New Zealand 0.9 cent 3.3 cent 0.71p 3.30p
Canada 0.9 cent 0.9 cent 0.71p 0.71p
USA 0.9 cent 0.9 cent 0.71p 0.71p


* Please note that these rates are indicative only and will change depending on which country you are calling from.

The rates turned out to be slightly less expensive than the app I was currently using for landlines and on par with the mobile rates.

When you use an app like Toolani, you connect to a local number and will therefore use your free minutes or, if you’re on PAYG, you’ll pay an additional amount for the price of a local call. Considering that the only thing I use my free minutes for is international calls, this is just fine by me.

So what about the quality? Well, I called my bestie in South Africa one evening and we had a nice long chat while we discovered our future travel plans. It certainly didn’t feel like we were 5,000 miles apart! I also called a friend to wish her happy birthday and although I caught her at Durban Airport, the call was perfectly clear. The test has come recently because we are selling a flat in South Africa and as you can imagine, there are almost daily calls to be made, right in the middle of the working day. Being able to pick up the phone and make long calls has been a blessing and the app has proved invaluable during this time.

Would I recommend it? Yes. I’m really impressed with the quality of the calls and the cost and as it is slightly easier to get around than the previous app I was using, I'm going to stick with it too.

Receive €5.00 free Toolani credit

Because I know that you’re unlikely to try out an app before you pay money for it, I’m offering a whopping 100 €5.00 vouchers for free Toolani calls for either the iPhone or Android apps. To grab a voucher, simply follow these steps:

  • Download the app using one of these links: iPhone app or Android app.
  • Leave a comment to say you’d like a voucher.
  • Enter the draw using the Rafflecopter below. You must click on the Rafflecopter widget once you've left your comment or I won't be able to send your voucher to you.
  • Complete the extra Rafflecopter tasks for extra chances to enter the draw.

The competition is open worldwide but please make sure you can download the app first before you enter the competition.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

An afternoon in the Fruška Gora, Novi Sad

Recently Tricia Mitchell asked me whether I enjoyed my time in the Fruška Gora and I decided to answer her in photos. Fruška Gora is a mountain range just outside of Novi Sad in Serbia and it is known for its pine forests, vineyards and monasteries. I spent one long, wonderful day there in June and this is our story in five (or so) photos.

There was a little bit of this - Krušedol monastery, Fruška Gora:

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora

And a little bit of this - Velika Remeta monastery, Fruška Gora:

Velika Remeta monastery, Fruška Gora

We also visited the women's monastery at Grgeteg, Fruška Gora:

Grgeteg women's monastery, Fruška Gora

We had a fantastic lunch at Hotel Norcev, Fruška Gora and I came face to face with a NATO missile:

NATO missile, Hotel Norcev, Fruška Gora

And finally, I saw my first ever ex-Yugoslavia spomenik, a giant concrete World War II memorial:

Novi Sad Spomenik Fruska Gora

And a final bonus photo of my time in the Fruška Gora - the communications tower targeted by NATO in 1999:

Bombed out communications tower, Fruska Gora

I can’t wait to tell you more about each of these and my post on the first monastery Krušedol is almost ready to publish!

Today is just a short post and I’m glad that I’d put this selection of photos together on Twitter because that made it a little easy. Despite having prepared my photos and written most of the content for my post on Krušedol, I simply couldn’t manage to finish it tonight. 

Life is super busy at the moment with lots of dates with my friends and family, a gruelling study schedule and long days at work where I pick up new and more challenging duties. I’m beginning to feel like I’ve become very boring, I must admit! I wouldn’t want it any other way but it does mean that for the foreseeable future, I might not have as much time to blog here at Emm in London. I’ll try not to be too negligent though!

Having said that, I do actually have some posts planned over the next week. On Friday I’ll be telling you about a long-distance call app that I tried out and we’re back next Friday too with the monthly travel link up. The theme this month is Staycations. The idea is to share what people can do in your corner of the world, whether it is an afternoon, a long weekend or a holiday. I already wrote about Ten Things To Do In Johannesburg in May, so this time I’ll be writing about Kent.

What are you up to this summer? Are you getting everything done or are you like me, trying to squeeze more hours into an already full day?


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Vintage and Retro at the Isle of Wight Bus Museum

Isle of Wight Bus Museum

My biggest regret when I visited the Isle of Wight in March 2010 was that we were not able to visit the Bus Museum. The museum is only open in the summer months and we had visited the island a mere two weeks before the start of the summer season. I mentioned this to Melissa when we visited last year and was thrilled when she was as keen as I to see the museum.

As you know, I adore vintage cars and trucks but my particular love for classic buses began when I discovered Oompus the omnibus in the Ladybird Classic Tootles the Taxi and Other Rhymes.   

So now that I’ve painted a picture of my state of childlike glee upon entering the museum, I can confirm that disaster soon struck. My camera ran out of battery! I can tell you now, there is no more pitiful a spectacle than a blogger who has run out of battery. Well, I put on a brave face and thanked my lucky stars that I had my iPhone handy.

Now if you’re all safely in your seats, let’s begin our tour of the museum…

KDL885F Bristol RESH6G1968 Bristol RESH6G KDL885F

How retro is that? I love the horizontal lines of the grill.

Interior KDL885F Bristol RESH6G Driver's seat of the 1968 Bristol RESH6G KDL885F

This view makes me so nostalgic. This would have been the first thing we noticed upon entering hundreds of buses. The seat doesn’t look very comfortable though!

ADL459B Bedford SB31964 Bedford SB3 ADL459B

The Isle of Wight was a very popular holiday destination for scores of English tourists every summer and once they'd reached the island by rail or ferry, buses were the primary method of getting around. The various bus routes would take visitors to well known beaches and other attractions and buses are very much part of the island's heritage.

Seat detail ADL459B Bedford SB3Seat detail 1964 Bedford SB3 ADL459B

Somewhere along the way I have definitely grown up because I find the pattern of this material positively gorgeous in a retro, 60s way. Thirty years ago I might have refused to sit on it and would have found it unforgivably old fashioned.

Front grill detail ADL459B Bedford SB3Front grill detail 1964 Bedford SB3 ADL459B

I was fascinated by the intricate designs of the buses, especially in the front grills. Don’t get me wrong, I love modernity (post-modernity?) and modern design but I do think recent designs lack the elegance of the last century.

SDL268 Bristol LD6G1959 Bedford LD6G SDL268

This is a proper old omnibus from 1959. Oh, can you imagine how many island summers this traveller has seen?

Detail FDL927D Brisol MW6GBack detail 1966 Bedford MW6G FDL927D

Only in the 1960s could we have thought that salmon / brown was an appropriate colour for a bus. Come to think of it, I'm sure I remember salmon coloured linoleum in one of our kitchens.

DL5084 Daimler CK1919 Daimler CK DL5084 (body 1922)

This was one of my favourite exhibits, tucked away at the back of the garage. I guess this vehicle is just too old and too damaged to restore and it is quite a reminder of the work that has gone into restoring the buses in the museum. You can see the state of the engine below. Part of me hopes that someone does take this restoration project on board but another part of me likes to see it in its original form.

DL5084 Daimler CK Front Chassis DetailFront Chassis detail 1919 Daimler CK DL5084 (body 1922)

ODL400 Bedford SBGFront grill 1957 Bedford SBG ODL400

You may have noticed that most of the buses here are Bedford buses. Bedford was a subsidiary of Vauxhall Motors and was founded in 1930. They made everything from trucks and buses to ambulances and army vehicles and were sold right around the world. The Bedford brand went defunct in 1986 but their spirit lives on in many Vauxhall and Opel designs.

My first two cars were Opel Corsas and my first car was in a similar shade of turquoise blue to this Bedford bus. The only time she ever broke down on me was on that first day home from the dealer when I hadn’t quite figured out how to put petrol in her yet.

Back detail ODL400 Bedford SBGBack detail 1957 Bedford SBG ODL400

FDL676 Bedford OBFront grill 1949 Bedford OBG FDL676

Service 42, Isle of WightVintage service 42 sign

VDL264K Bedford YRQFront grill 1972 Bedford YRQ VDL264K

Vintage Buses at Isle of Wight Bus MuseumVintage Buses at Isle of Wight Bus Museum

Front Detail SDL268 Bristol LD6GFront Detail 1959 Bristol LD6G SDL268

Vintage signs at Isle of Wight Bus MuseumVintage signs at Isle of Wight Bus Museum

I was really impressed by the Isle of Wight Bus Museum and would absolutely recommend a visit if you are ever on the island. Both children and adults are encouraged to climb into the buses and explore them and you are also more than welcome to move props around to ensure the best photographic opportunities. We felt really relaxed during our visit and felt welcome to take our time. Definitely stop by the gift shop on your way out! I bought a gorgeous omnibus model that now has pride of place in my display cabinet.

The Isle of Wight Bus Museum
The Quay
Newport Harbour
Isle of Wight
PO30 2EF

Admission: Adults £4.00, Children 5-15 years £2.50. Concessions and family tickets available.


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Grandeur of the Duomo di Milano

Milan Duomo Piazza del Duomo

I'll never forget the moment I first saw the Milan Cathedral in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo. We emerged from the darkness of the Metro on a particularly hot and humid summer afternoon and suddenly we all spotted the Duomo at the same time. I could tell that because all four of us took a sharp intake of breath and went silent. It certainly is an impressive sight.

On the day that we came back to visit, we made sure that we were at the Duomo bright and early in the morning because we had heard that the queues could get pretty long. We were dismayed when we arrived because the queues were indeed quite lengthy but we were amazed at how quickly the queue went and how efficient the organisation was.

Entrance to the Duomo is free but they do ask for a €2.00 donation if you’re going to take photos inside. We figured that I was going to take a lot of photos inside so I paid €5 just in case!

Milan Duomo Nave, Crossing and Choir

The Milan Duomo is as impressive inside as it is outside. Entrance to the nave is restricted to worshippers and there was a service in session when we arrived. You can see the somewhat smoky effects in the photo above and below from the incense. It was really beautiful and peaceful inside and I stood with my mother-in-law for some time while she watched the service.

Milan Duomo Choir

We turned into the South Aisle and took a look at the South Transept. What impressed me most about the Duomo was the incredible detail everywhere we looked. I thought that these tiles were quite exquisite.

Tile details Milan Duomo

The Milan Cathedral or Duomo di Milano in Italian is the fifth largest cathedral in the world and it took a whopping six centuries to build! Construction of the Gothic Cathedral began in 1386 and was only completed as recently as 1965. It kind of puts the construction of the Sagrada Família into perspective; although not yet completed, construction on the Sagrada Família only began in 1882.

Milan Duomo (6)Milan Duomo The Alter of St John the Good

This is La cappella di san Giovanni il Buono or the Alter of St John the Good in English. The inscription on the pediment reads “Ego Sum Pastor Bonus” which translates as “I am the good shepherd”. These were my favourite two photos from inside the Duomo.

Milan Duomo La cappella di san Giovanni il Buono

an Bartolomeo Flayed (1562) by Marco d'Agrate

Just left of the alter stands the famous sculpture of San Bartolomeo Flayed which was completed by Marco d'Agrate in 1562. If you’re squeamish, it might be a good idea to page down at this point and not read the next sentence…

… ready? The sculpture depicts the saint’s flayed skin thrown over his shoulders like a stole. It is pretty grim but what is notable about the sculpture is the incredible level of detail. Click on the photo above to see the blood vessels, tendons and ligaments; it really is quite impressive.

Milan Duomo Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster

One of the stranger things you will see at the Duomo is the mummified corpses of important Catholic saints. I think this is a bit bizarre to say the least, even though I know that Catholics are not alone in this particular practice. Then again, I won’t even walk over graves in a graveyard so I guess I just like the dead to remain undisturbed and restful.

This is Cardinal Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster who died in 1954 and was beatified in 1996. If you click on the photo above, you can see his gnarled and mummified hands.

Milan Duomo

On that note, we decided it was high time for a breath of fresh air! This final photo shows the detailed carvings in the front doors of the cathedral.

We certainly enjoyed our visit to the Milan Duomo and I would recommend going inside. You can pay extra for guided tours and access to the terraces but we thought that there was more than enough to see without taking those extras.

Duomo di Milano
Piazza del Duomo

Opening times: Daily 7.00 – 18.30
Entrance: free plus €2.00 for a photographic pass


Join Us On Facebook

Add me on Google+


Copyright © 2008- Mandy Southgate / Emm in London