Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Northern Ireland - Discovering the Antrim Coast

Northern Ireland has a lot to offer, from its capital Belfast, to small quaint villages, to green fields and impressive cliffs on its coastline. I could go on and on about what's great about this country. I've been to Northern Ireland several times and never get tired of it. This month we discovered (or rather re-discovered) the beautiful and rural Antrim Coast on the north side of the country.

Below you'll find 4 of my favourite places to visit in this region. They're all located fairly close to each other, so can be done in 1 day if you have your accommodation nearby. There are a few hotels in the area, and there are also plenty of cozy B&Bs for those who'd like a more authentic experience. A good website for B&Bs would be B&B Ireland. I would also recommend to have a rental car as you can spend as much time as you'd like on each site without having to worry about your bus leaving without you. It would also allow you to visit more in one day.


Dunluce Castle


Only the castle ruins remain at this wonderful site. The oldest parts date to around 1500 and the castle was at the time the centre of power for the Gaelic lordship. At the end of the 17th Century the castle started to fall into ruins. 


Even if in ruins today, the site is truly spectacular, located at the edge of a cliff with view of the Atlantic Ocean and the nearby cliffs. Cross the bridge and have a stroll on the inside of the ruins while you try to imagine how the castle used to look like...




Old Bushmills Distillery


The Old Bushmills Distillery is officially the oldest whiskey distillery in Ireland. Though it got its license in 1608, there were already talks about a whiskey distilled in the Bushmills region in the 13th Century. Did you know the word whiskey derives from the Gaelic "Uisce Beatha", meaning "water of life" in English?


If I had to skip any of my 4 favourite visits, it would be the distillery. Not because it's not interesting, but because you can find distilleries in any other parts of Ireland and they're all pretty similar in the sense that while touring the distillery, they all explain how whiskey is made and will give you a little taster in the end. Obviously, if Bushmills is your favourite whiskey, you'd want to go and leave out one of the other 3 sites, but if you're more like me; not much of a whiskey drinker, but more interested in just seeing a distillery and learning about the distilling process, any distillery would do the job for you.


Giant's Causeway


This is Northern Ireland's only World Heritage Site and one the most fascinating natural sites in the world. I always enjoy a visit here; summer or winter, both gives a different feeling to the place.

Legend says the 40,000 basalt stone columns were built by the giant Finn McCool with the aim to create a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. Geologists on the other hand claim that the causeway was formed by lava following volcanic eruptions over 60 million years ago. Which one do you believe in?


There's a modern visitor centre on site including restrooms, a cafe, a souvenir shop and a small exhibition. To get to the causeway itself, you can go by foot or take the shuttle for a small fee. There are guided tours regularly, or you can choose to do the visit with an audio-guide. When you get to the end of the causeway, you can either walk back the same way you came from, take the shuttle bus or do a 40 minutes hike over the mountain to get back to the visitor centre.





If you choose to go for lunch before or after visiting the Giant's Causeway, the Causeway Hotel is located right next door and serves lovely food at reasonable prices. If you're lucky enough to be there on a Sunday, you'd get the chance to try the Irish Sunday carvery (buffet style serving with a choice of meat, vegetables, gravy and different accompaniments).


Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge


This bridge is connecting the island of Carrick-a-Rede to the cliffs on the mainland. The island was once used by fishermen, and an old fisherman's cottage is the only building there today.


If you're afraid of heights or don't like to be on unstable ground, this place might not be for you. The bridge is 30 metres above sea level, 20 metres long and it's moving as you cross it. I have to admit I was close to turning around when I first saw the bridge, but luckily I did cross it, and the experience and the view were absolutely worth it. That walk along the cliffs and on the island is really something special. I would've done it again! 



*****

Since these 4 visits are located close to each other it's not the end of the world if you choose to do this itinerary in a different order. Note that there are also other factors to take into account when planning your day, like opening hours that change according to the season and weather conditions on the day. If you know there are high winds or a rainstorm coming in the afternoon, you'd be better off doing the rope bridge and the causeway in the morning as these are quite dependent on nice weather to stay open and safe. Dunluce Castle is also an outdoor visit, but less dependent on the weather conditions than the two others.

The main tourist season in Northern Ireland would be May to September, so if you'd like to avoid the biggest crowds, try to schedule your visit outside of this period. Though, the area is very popular also among locals, so you wouldn't get the place all to yourself even if you come in January...


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

How to drink coffee in Italy

Coffee is an important part in the life of an Italian. In fact, several million cups of coffee are sold every day in Italy. With help from my Italian friends, I have put together the below overview of the most common types of coffee served in the Italian coffee bars.


Espresso, Italian coffee


ESPRESSO
This is the foundation stone of the Italian coffee culture. All other coffees are just variations of the espresso. This is why the Italians would call the espresso "caffè", because this is for them the normal, pure coffee. The espresso is served in a tiny, thick cup (apparently the espresso tastes better in a thick cup than in a thin one). Even if the coffee is supposed to be really strong, it shouldn't be bitter and it should also be covered by a thin layer of bright, creamy foam. In coffee bars the coffee is made in an electric espresso machine, whilst in most Italian homes the traditional "caffettiera" (coffee maker) is still in use. The "caffettiera" can be found in various sizes, usually making from 1 to 8 cups.


Caffettiera


CAPPUCCINO
This is another famous coffee outside of the Italian borders. The cappuccino is espresso with milk and foam. Be aware that many Italian baristas are serving the cappuccino rather lukewarm unless you ask them to make it "bollente" (boiling hot) or "molto caldo" (very hot).

LATTE E CAFFE / CAFFELATTE
This requires approximately the same amount of espresso and hot milk.

CAFFE MACCHIATO
This coffee is probably less known among foreigners. "Macchiato" means stained so you basically "stain" your espresso with a little bit of milk. It's important to not do 50/50 as that would make it a caffèlatte rather than a macchiato.

LATTE MACCHIATO
This is the opposite of the caffè machiato. You "stain" the milk with a little bit of espresso.

CAFFE CORRETTO
An espresso with a little bit of liquor (you decide the amount yourself). There is no standard caffè corretto with a specific liquor. If you order this in a bar you need to specify which type of liquor you would like to "correct" your coffee with ("Corretto" means corrected).

*****

These are the most common types of coffee in Italy. In addition, they serve caffè americano which is probably more of a compromise to be able to serve the tourists a coffee that is more like the one they are used to at home. Apparently the Italian would never drink caffè americano... which is espresso with additional hot water added. Caffè lungo ("long" coffee, thus a lot of coffee) is also espresso with a little bit of additional hot water, but this water is not added directly in the cup, you just let a bit extra water run through the espresso while making it. So, this type of coffee needs to be made on a machine and not in a "caffettiera". Caffe Marocchino is moroccan coffee; drizzle a bit of chocolate powder on an espresso, and then add milk foam on top. Chocolate powder might be added to the bottom of the cup as well.

So, at what time of the day should you drink these different types of coffee? Know that you can't go wrong no matter what time of the day you order an espresso. However, you'd want to be careful when ordering a cappuccino or a caffèlatte. If you were to order one of these after 11am, for example after dinner, you reveal yourself as a tourist as cappuccino and caffèlatte are strictly reserved for breakfast.

Italian breakfast - cappuccino and cornetto

The typical Italian coffee bar, outside of the most famous tourist areas, is different from for example the Norwegian cafe. A Norwegian would sit down, have a coffee and maybe a sweet treat or a piece of cake while chatting for an hour or two with friends. An Italian would have his shot of espresso quickly while standing at the bar. An important reason for this is the fact that there's a price difference for the coffee if standing up at the bar or if sitting down at a table. The price difference actually triples some places if you'd like to sit at a table, even if drinking the exact same thing as someone who's standing up. If you drink a lot of coffee, this might be worth taking into account next time you visit Italy ;-)

Friday, January 4, 2019

A weekend in northern Netherlands

When planning a visit to the Netherlands, Amsterdam is usually the first place that comes to people's minds. But what about the rest of the country? What is there to see and do? I have to admit I didn't have a clue myself when I decided to go visit a friend living in the northern part of the Netherlands. I went for a weekend break, or 2 full days, and even if the country is small, that still wasn't enough to see it all.

Hop on a direct train from Schiphol Airport or Amsterdam, or rent a car to make it easier to get around and stop wherever you feel like it. You'll arrive only a couple of hours later in both cases. I would recommend to rent a car as it gives you more freedom and you'll be sure you'll manage to get where you want to go.

Day 1: Giethoorn


Giethoorn, meaning goat horn in English, is a small village with approximately 2,600 inhabitants. The village is not easily accessible by car and therefore a lot of the transportation is done by boat, by bike or on foot. The village is known as "Venice of the Netherlands", "Little Venice" and "Venice of the North" because of its more than 150 bridges.

Canal Giethoorn

Giethoorn is a quiet place and is best visited outside of the main tourist season to be able to fully enjoy, as it can be quite busy with tourists especially during summer months.

Take a walk through the village and enjoy a tea and Dutch apple cake at one of the cafes located next to the canals.

Join a boat trip on the canals or rent your own little boat to get lost and discover the village on your own.

Wooden bridges will lead you from one side of the canal to the other, or from the main walking path to your house; one of the cute old farm houses with thatched roof... 

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands


Day 2: Fort Bourtange & the German border


Fort Bourtange is a star shaped fortress town (if seen from a bird perspective) located near the German border. Bourtange dates from the end of the 16th century, though has been restored and is today a historical museum containing a market place, small shops, museums, a hotel, windmills, a church, an old synagogue and family homes (yes, there are actual people living there!). The entrance is free, except on market days when there is a small fee to get in.

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

On our way back from Bourtange we stopped "in the middle of nowhere" for High Tea* at Kopje Genieten. This is a small cafe located in a Dutch family's house, which made us feel like we were visiting the locals. A family of 3 had decided to leave the city life behind and move to the countryside. The mother of the family was running the cafe, serving home cooked meals and pastries. Teas and coffees were also available, and we were especially impressed by the way the tea selection was presented. You are given an empty tea bag and can fill it with whichever tea you prefer from the assortment of 24 tea types. The service was very personal and the owner took her time to come over for a chat and to get feedback on our experience. You could feel she really put her heart into it all.
*The High Tea needs to be booked 2 days in advance.

High Tea Kopje Genieten Netherlands

Cafe Kopje Genieten, Netherlands


Thursday, December 27, 2018

Why visit Hydra - A Greek island

Located not far from the capital Athens, the picturesque greek island of Hydra is well worth a visit. The island can be reached by ferry boats, hydrofoils and catamarans. The trip takes between 1 hour 10 minutes and 3,5 hours from Piraeus depending on your choice of transportation.

Hydra harbour


Hydra, Greece

Once arrived, you'll need to either walk or take a water taxi to get around. Cars are not allowed, except ambulance and garbage trucks. Why not book a donkey to carry your luggage?

Hydra, Greece


Hydra, Greece

They even take care of your shopping bags...

Hydra, Greece

Don't miss the view from the windmills on the hill top Agios Athanasios. They can be reached by foot.

Windmills on Hydra, Greece

Cannons from Hydra's past are still overlooking the harbour, though they were not much needed at the time thanks to Hydra's strong naval power. In the 18th century, Hydra was also very prosperous due to trading with the rest of the country and also with foreign countries in America and with France and Spain.

Cannons on Hydra, Greece


Many international jet-setters come to visit Hydra and some even own houses on this island. To mention a few frequent visitors in the past; The Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Picasso, Chagall and many more. It's not difficult to see why they chose to come here...

Restaurant at Hydra port

Hydra, Greece

Restaurant in Hydra, Greece

Hydra harbor
 
Cats of Hydra, Greece