Paris on a whim

Stumped as I was for something to do to celebrate my 23rd, when my mum ventured the idea of escaping to Paris for a bit of a mother-daughter holiday, I jumped on it.  It was literally booked about ten minutes later.

The weather was sunny and warm, and we walked around, ate lovely food, shopped, and visited a few places I hadn’t been before (and some places I simply love).


Goat’s cheese salad – a must-have. Always good, and different in every café so you have a reason to just never not order it.


Two patisseries that my housemate and I used to frequent on our study abroad year – we lived just down the road. The one on the left is sino-francais and doubles as a chinese takeaway 😛

Canal Saint-Martin

Canal Saint-Martin

Canal Saint-Martin

Canal Saint-Martin

Somewhere we visted that I hadn’t been to before was the Canal Saint-Martin, in the east of Paris.  It was packed along its edges with people enjoying the sunshine and browsing the boutiquey shops along the banks.

We stopped in a trendy crêperie for some caramalised apple goodness.



Someone get these Parisians a beach!

Sailing boats in the Jardin du Luxembourg

Sailing boats in the Jardin du Luxembourg

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I really recommend visiting the Marche aux Puces (flea markets) to anyone who’s planning on visiting Paris.  It’s easy to get to, just take the line 4 to Porte de Clignancourt on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday and follow the crowds.  There’s a massive market that’s sprung up around the edges of the actual market, make sure you don’t get fooled into thinking that’s what you’re looking for!  Head for Rue Rosiers, and Marche Dauphine, and explore from there (you can get a map from the website).  Track down some moules-frites for lunch 🙂

Early morning Seine

Early morning Seine

My favourite part of Paris, I think, is Montmartre.  We spent a good part of our last day ambling around, exploring the area behind Sacre Coeur that is remarkably void of tourists and very pretty, with little craft shops, a park and great views over the city.  I like the feeling of space you get up there – the rest of Paris can at times feel very hemmed in.






I’ll be back.

Lochs, Walks and Castles

A couple of weeks ago I got back from a spontaneous week-long trip to Scotland with a friend.  Whenever the two of us plan a trip it’s always going to be over-ambitious, if history’s anything to go by.  What had started as a plan to drive around almost the whole of Scotland (ok, it had actually started as a plan to go to Finland, but we won’t talk about that), morphed into the rather less ambitious but wholly more doable trip to the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the south west highlands.

The drive there only took twelve hours thanks to the motorway being suddenly declared unsafe and closed just past Birmingham.

But we got there in the end.

We woke up in Moffat after having finally arrived the night before, to be greeted by a statue of the ubiquitous highland sheep on our way to find breakfast.

We woke up in Moffat after having finally arrived the night before, to be greeted by a statue of the ubiquitous highland sheep on our way to find breakfast.

After the first of many hearty Scottish breakfasts (I don’t think we could really have found any other sort of food apart from hearty, even if we’d tried) we wandered into the shop of Moffat’s ‘singing potter’, a born again Christian by the name of Gerry, who believes he’s been saved by a miracle (you can read about him here).  He invited us into his workshop and tried to sell us Jesus, but we ended up buying just a couple of pottery seconds, which didn’t at all break while we unpacked the car at the end of our trip.  Noo.  Anyway.  It made for an interesting introduction to Scotland.

We carried on through Glasgow that morning towards Ardgour, where we’d booked for two nights, driving across Rannoch Moor and the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.  The scenery is stunning, the moor about as desolate a place in the fog as I’ve ever seen, with just the odd white box house accessed by tiny roads.

Waterfall on Rannoch Moor

We pulled the car over to photograph this waterfall just beyond Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor

The moor.

Ardgour itself is a tiny hamlet, and mostly I’m guessing made up of holiday properties.  The inn we stayed in, accessed by taking the ferry across from Corran (around £7 for a car) was old fashioned (think green rooms and inappropriate music playing in the restaurant) but friendly and there was a jovial atmoshpere in the bar area, where we sat and planned our trip to the Ardnamurchan peninsula.  The next day we drove out into what felt like the middle of nowhere , and I was never sure if I was on a road or a private drive, but we eventually found a car park and walked for a couple of hours.

The Inn at Ardgour

The Inn at Ardgour

Abandoned boat in Ardgour

Abandoned boat in Ardgour

Walk near Arisaig

Walk near Arisaig 2



We thought we were walking to the Silver Sands of Morar, but to be honest I'm not sure we were!

We thought we were walking to the Silver Sands of Morar, but to be honest I’m not sure we were!

On the drive back we headed for Castle Tioram, a ruin that you can only reach at low tide. The castle was bought up by someone who wanted redevelop it as a private house, but he wasn’t allowed, and so now it’s just standing there, needing to be rescued, because it’s visibly crumbling.  The sign that says don’t approach the walls is fixed on the wall, so you get all the way up to the stone, read the warning, look up, and suddenly become aware of the slightly worrying angle the place is sitting at.

Castle Tioram: would have been imposing landing here.

Castle Tioram

You can only reach the castle by walking across to it at low tide

You can only reach the castle by walking across to it at low tide.

It was much more atmospheric than the massively touristy Castle Urquhart that we visited later in the week.  That one even came with a hilariously half-arsed video, complete with marauders advancing on some sheep, flanked by unbothered highland cattle.  I don’t doubt the conservation money is vital, but I’m glad I got to see Tioram without any of the gift shops and car parks.

A bridge on the drive back from Castle Tioram

A bridge on the drive back from Castle Tioram

We also inadvertantly drove over a mountain to get a glimpse of a loch.

We inadvertently drove over a mountain to get a glimpse of a loch.


War Tourism

Our host has given us directions using a human being – movable, usually – as a landmark. “Go past the junkie,” he said. “Then you’re there.”

Sure enough, the solitary figure on the pavement watches vacantly as my friend Hannah and I slip behind the advertising signs and small piles of rubble. We’ve found ourselves at the end of one summer in Mostar, in the Herzegovina part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building we’re entering – a tower – was once a bank, captured in the Croat-Bosniak war and converted into a sniper tower. It’s made up of angles; triangular and aggressive in design, or so it appears now.

Bereft of windows and completely hollow, stepping inside is like walking into a multi-storey car park, only the floor is lined with broken glass, litter, general debris. Old documents here and there. Bullet casings.

Disquieted, I follow Hannah up several flights of stairs – unsupported, marked in red where declared by some authority as unsafe. My hesitance is half because I’m nervous of what we might find, and half because a sense of guilt is playing on my mind, making the camera around my neck feel heavier than usual. Little more than a decade ago, gunmen chose to nest in this building because of its height and outlook, and murdered people. I take few pictures. Hannah takes more. We justify our curiosity to each other – we’re students of conflict and should witness its realities. I still feel voyeuristic.

Over the half height wall looking at the adjacent buildings you can still see the damage the bullets wrought, while standing where their shells fell.

I look instead to the school across the road, its bright orange walls some contrast to its surroundings. Out of the gates of the United World College, opened in 2006 to aid reconstruction of post-conflict society, children and young adults of mixed ethnicities finish their day of school. Behind the college, across from the entrance to this looming ghost of a bank, a trendy café with cream umbrellas plays host to a lively crowd.

All over Mostar buildings sit unrepaired or crumbling, decimated by fighting. Beautiful old structures from a past now clouded by recent history. But there is more than a little recovery, even though it seems slow. The famous bridge has been rebuilt and is gleaming (I slide over the polished stones). The old town is a tourist gem – artisan shops and restaurants, with only galleries and a museum to tell of the past. Everyone is welcoming and talkative. One day, when the damage is no longer so visible on its surface, the Mostar tourists encounter won’t be so completely defined by conflict, but by its hospitality, its food, and its surroundings.

The day before we leave for Sarajevo, in an old fort overlooking the River Neretva at dusk, we learn that our tour guide hasn’t told his son about the war. The information is offered unbidden, reflectively.

“But don’t you want the children to learn, so that history doesn’t repeat itself?” asks an Australian girl. “No,” he says resolutely. “He’ll never know what people did to each other here.” He’s protecting his son’s innocence, and of course in other places we are urged never forget. Still, I wonder if it matters, and if we ever learn anyway.


The landscape of Bosnia Herzegovina is beautiful, lush and green, albiet marred by the too-frequent ruined buildings and walls scarred by bullets from the vicious wars of the 90s.  The first thing my friend and I did in the country was a tour around Herzegovina the day after we arrived, visiting an ancient Muslim holy house at Blagaj; the old town of Počitelj which was destroyed by the 1992-96 war; a catholic pilgrim’s site and location of a supposed miracle at Medjugorje and, last but not least, the Kravice falls, where we swam in a freezing lake (turned film set).  And that’s not even mentioning the food.  

Blagaj, Pocitelj and Kravice waterfalls

Blagaj, Pocitelj and Kravice waterfalls

Despite arriving in Mostar 3 hours late (budget time for your transport in this region) we were picked up as scheduled and taken to the fabulous Deny Rooms hostel, where that night my friend and I and a gaggle of Australian backpackers signed up for Deny’s Herzegovina day tour, drank some rakia (potent and went down easily) and shuffled off as a group for a traditional Bosnian meal in a local restaurant.  

Happily thrown together with new people, in Mostar we ate and explored with the other guests.  I don’t usually sign up for tours, preferring to explore by myself or with my friends, but because we’d all met the previous night it felt like we’d be missing out if we didn’t, and so we booked an extra night, and didn’t regret it once.

One of my better breakfasting experiences, by the side of the River Buna

One of my better breakfasting experiences, by the side of the River Buna

The picture above is where we had breakfast on the morning of the tour.  It was misty, and we were led through thick stone walls into a courtyard full of tables and trees, and a massive stone walk-in oven (ok, cooking area), and told to guess what we were having for breakfast.  The answer: börek and an unsweetened yoghurt drink.  I was more excited about the yoghurt drink than the heavy pastry with meat or cheese.

There were kittens at breakfast.  One of them kept climbing on the girl who least liked cats, and was eventually plucked up by the neck by one of the tour hosts, who pretended to throw it into the river.  It promptly came back.

The Muslim holy house, or Dervish house, was just across the river from the restaurant.  It’s built right at the bottom of a cliff too tall to photograph, and juts out over a vividly blue pool.

Dervish House 1

Blagaj dervish house from across the river

Dervish House 2

Close up, the two hostel owners who guided our tour wearing their I

Our next stop, Počitelj, on the left bank of the River Neretva, just south of Mostar and strategically important from the 15th century all the way up until the late 19th, was all but destroyed in the war of 1992-96, as was so much else in the region during those years.  We were guided by two rambunctious kids (and it’s not often that word actually applies) up to the fortress, where the view was amazing out over the river valley.  You can also climb up inside the tower.


View from the walk up to Počitelj’s fortress


The old town of Počitelj and River Neretva.  You can see the fortress just left of centre.

Another short drive and we were at the bizarre site of Medugorje, 35km from Mostar.  The story goes that in 1981 the Virgin Mary appeared to some teenaged walkers in the hills, and the church built to commemorate this attracts Catholic pilgrims from all over the world.  There are literally hundreds of gift shops selling kitsch religious souvenirs, and not much else.  There is a huge car park, and the church itself is an underwhelming pale yellow building.  There was a service going on inside, though, and it was more packed than any church I’ve seen.

Our day finished at the Kravice waterfalls, where we ignored the rain and obvious onset of winter and swam in the lake.  It was absolutely freezing, and while I’m glad I took the plunge (heh) and actually swum, I knew my limits and couldn’t make it all the way across to the waterfalls, the current being really strong and the temperature having evacuated my lungs of air.  Letting the current help me back to the shore I grabbed on to a dinghy sheltering a load of filming equipment. Drying off I ordered tea instead of beer (and was then the envy of quite a few cold people) when we all gathered in yet another restaurant lakeside to be served up a massive meal of meat in just about every form and (thankfully) some salads.

Kravice Waterfalls

Kravice Waterfalls

Bonus picture: dressing in loaned scarves to look around the dervish house:


Hue to Hoi An by moto

Vietnam Coast Ride

My eighteen-year-old self.

This photo was taken by my friend Laura when we were travelling in Vietnam in March 2010, en route to Hoi An from Hue, both coastal towns.  The guesthouse in Hoi An was run by a man called Thuy, whose toddler I remember scuttling around the lobby’s tiled floor on a mini bicycle, pursued at all times by its mother.  The guesthouse was in a street of similarly inviting, family-run accomodation.

Hue was the first town in Vietnam where we really felt the heat, having been treated to overcast and quite cool weather around Hanoi, Halong Bay and Tam Quoc, the more northern places we’d visited.  We were keen to get even further south, to the beach towns we’d heard and read about.  When Thuy offered us an alternative to the bus we’d been intending to catch – a ride to Hoi An on the back of his and a friend’s motorbikes, we immediately agreed.  We were already used to catching moto taxis around the towns, so why not?  Besides, we knew that this stretch of coastline would be beautiful.

It was, too – bright blue skies and a turquoise, sparkling sea on the left of us, the roads winding along.  Sometimes they edged the cliffs so that I was glad to be on such a small vehicle, watching cars and the odd lorry or coach squeeze precariously past each other.

I’d put on jeans and hoody, aware that in the UK we wouldn’t think of getting on a bike without leathers of some sort; although most tourists (including us, in towns) would think nothing of riding along in shorts and a t-shirt.  I still can’t really bring myself to ride a moto with bare legs.  We passed at one point some endurance-types on hefty motorbikes laden with luggage (my backpack was balanced in front of the driver, probably attached with some sort of bungee).

Many photos were taken of the road ahead of us as we trundled along, all of them looking to my mind like doctored photos from a travel brochure.

Hue-Hoi An 2

Hue-Hoi An 1

We stopped a couple of times along the journey, once to visit Elephant Springs, a swimming spot named for it’s elephant-shaped rock,  which I suspect is not quite a natural phenomenon [see picture] and the Marble Mountains, where we wandered among countless marble statues, some impressive, others bizarre and all out of scale next to each other.  It was in the gift shop here that the seller caught sight of my fake silver ring, purchased for 99p somewhere back home, and offered me anything in her shop in exchange for it.  Knowing it wasn’t silver, I picked something suitably inexpensive, a small marble swan, and, slightly perplexed, agreed to the swap.

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Elephant Springs, just outside Hue

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Marble statues at the Marble Mountains

A wonderful journey, on which I also learnt not to dismount a motorbike from the side with the exhaust on it, and that if you do do that, to remove your leg from the burning metal and not just stand there wondering what that odd stinging sensation is.


Saving the rest of the coast road for another trip…

This post is a response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Snapshot Stories.  The task was to go into the first photo album you find and locate the first picture of you.