Why Lisbon is Simply Irresistible: Your Guide to the Charming Portuguese Capital

When I visited Madeira for the first time in May, I came back desperate to book another trip that would replicate the wonderful time I’d had there and potentially even top it. After doing a bit of online research I realised that Lisbon is basically one large street party during most of June due to the ‘Santos Populares’ festivities and less than a month later I found myself in the stunning ‘City of Light’. I was well aware that when you have high expectations of a place, they do not always match up with reality. Lisbon, however, lived up to every promise and more for me. So let me share my favourite places with you and also some logistical tips for first time visitors. As there was way too much information to pack into just one post, I decided to do two additional ones for Best Day Trips from Lisbon (tips for Sintra and Cascais) and Lisbon during the fun-filled San Antonio Festival in June and will add the links here once they are done. You can easily spend 5+ days in the city, but if you only have 2-3 days, try and prioritize based on your interests and you’ll still have an amazing stay.

Arrival and Where to Stay

Lisbon’s airport is close to the city centre and very well connected by the local metro. It’s one of the nicest metro systems (spacious and clean) I’ve come across and easy to navigate, so when you leave the airport head to the metro entrance, buy a Viva Viagem card (50 cents, reloadable) in one of the machines (press British flag for English, also usually friendly staff around to help) and load it with a few euros (one trip with your card is only €1.35). I also found the city centre really safe to walk around at night and after a few days I felt thoroughly at home, even though I don’t speak Portuguese (yet).

In terms of where to stay you have many enticing options to choose from. As I booked my trip quite late, I ‘ended up’ near Rato metro station and the beautiful Jardim das Amoreiras (Mulberry Tree Park), which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it was a pleasant, quiet neighbourhood and easy to walk to most places while I also had excellent metro, tram and bus connections right at my doorstep. If you prefer to be in the thick of things (and are OK with e.g. more noise in the streets at night), Alfama, Barrio Alto, Chiado and Baixa are all great options. So is Belem by the sea (just a few minutes away by train or bus) or even Cascais or Estoril (if you prefer a beach holiday with a bit of city sightseeing thrown in). I would choose a hotel over an Airbnb as like in many other popular cities more and more locals get pushed out by holiday rentals nowadays. If your accommodation is anywhere near a Pingo Doce supermarket, rejoice, as you’ll easily get all your basic supplies and more there (the one near Rato was so good and I even got to know some of the staff after a few days).

Castles, Museums and Other Highlights

Lisbon offers a huge choice of attractions and it can be a bit overwhelming. My usual strategy is making a shortlist of personal ‘must sees’ based on guidebooks and online research and then grouping them by area. I also usually start out with a walking tour to get my bearings and some historical background (so many differently themed ones available in Lisbon), but as I arrived during the San Antonio festival, I somehow never got around to it this time as I was so busy exploring the different neighbourhoods.

Some of my favourites included:
– The Castelo de Sao Jorge (on left in pic above) with spectacular views, I highly recommend booking a tour, as it made it so much more interesting
– A tour of the Casa da Amalia Museum (the actual former home of Amalia Rodrigues, incl. her still alive African Grey parrot Chico), one of, if not the most famous, Portuguese fado singers whose song ‘Cheira Bem, Cheira a Lisboa’ (smells nice, smells like Lisbon) is a popular singalong in all the squares during the June festivities and at football matches; there is also a fado museum in the Alfama area, if you want to learn more about its history
Berardo Museo Arte Deco (next to LX Factory), which I found by talking to another traveller, they do a fantastic guided tour in English including a wine/port wine tasting in their own bar at the end (all just €5) and the furniture and artwork displayed are excellent
Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookshop, they’ll even stamp your bought book for you as a souvenir and have a nice little café at the back if you need a break from exploring
LX Factory (pronounced ‘l-shish factory’) where you can visit local artists’ studios, the cool Ler Devagar bookshop (pic below) and have a meal or drink in one of the lovely cafes on site

Carmo Convent, beautiful church ruins and an archaeological museum plus a chance to meet resident feline Carlota
Cross the river by ferry (use your Viva Viagem card) from Cais de Sodre to Cacilhas and take a bus/tuk tuk (negotiate, I paid only €3)/walk to the Cristo Rei statue for wonderful views over the city, walk along the waterfront for street art and restaurants
– Discover old Lisbon in Alfama, Mouraria and Graca on foot with its small lanes, street art and stunning viewpoints plus the Campo de Santa Clara flea market on Tuesdays and Saturdays (next to Sao Vicente church)
Campo de Ourique is a non-touristy neighbourhood and the last stop of the 28 tram where you can stroll through the beautiful historic Prazeres Cemetery
Rua Augusta Arch is worth the €3 to get to the top and admire the view over the River Tejo and the huge Praca do Comercio
Casa dos Bicos (‘House of Spikes’) was built on the old city walls and is now housing the Saramago museum
Belem has several attractions including the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos monastery and the Berardo Collection Museum, an impressive modern art museum, plus the Padrao dos Descobrimentos monument and of course the Torre de Belem

Bear in mind there are lots and lots of other places to visit and the above are just suggestions based on what I managed to fit in and thoroughly enjoyed.

Ride the Historic Lisbon Trams

A trip with the 28 tram is simply a must-do and the queues are often long, but there are also other lines like the 12, 24 and 25. I managed to hop on the 28 in Praca Camoes (€1.50 per trip with your Viva Viagem card, just hold it onto the machine at the front, or pay the driver directly (€3). Masks were still required in all public transport in summer 2022 without exceptions. Do not stick your camera or head too far out the window as the trams travel fairly fast and the streets are narrow. Please be considerate to locals using the trams as their daily transport and offer your seat to e.g. an older person who needs it more than you.

Public Transport Day Pass or Lisboa Card

I personally did not have enough time to fit in enough museum sightseeing this time to make it worth getting a Lisboa card (24, 48 or 72 hrs), but you can make a list of things you definitely want to see, add up the cost and check if it is worth getting it, it might well be. However, the public transport passes are very useful and start at just €6.45 for a 24 hr city centre one (more in the next section plus be aware that you can either load zapping credit OR a 24 hr transport pass onto one Viva Viagem card at a time, I just bought two separate ones and marked them accordingly).

Historic Elevators and Lifts – Cheapest Option Plus Beat the Queues

This is probably the best money saving tip I can give you in terms of attractions and public transport. Load a 24 hr card for €6.45 onto your Viva Viagem card and it’ll include the expensive but unmissable ‘fancy’ transportation around the city centre (normally €3-4 a pop).
Santa Justa Lift: 45 m high tower, do not queue for ages with the tourists at the bottom, walk up the stairs, cross the street, turn right up the hill and in 5 mins you are at the viewing platform at the top, queue at the left to take the elevator down (only 20 seconds!)
Gloria Elevator (pic above): Ride it either way between Avenida Liberdade and the Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara, with some fun street art along the way
Bica Elevator: Ride it up from Rua de Sao Paolo (not far from the ferry and Timeout Market) or down from Travessa do Cabral (iconic photo looking down, which is also near Praca Camoes, 28 & 24 tram stops plus the Mantegueria pasteis de nata shop).

The Beautiful Miradouros, Parks and Quiosques of Lisbon

The stunning viewpoints and cute little park kiosks are my very favourite thing about Lisbon! While we have ‘munro bagging’ in Scotland, in Lisbon you can do a walking tour of the 7 hills and stop off at each of these little oases along the way. They are a great place to enjoy a coffee, a snack or a glass of local port wine, watch local life go by, cuddle a dog (see my insta for the cutest ones I met), admire the many exotic trees, read a book and enjoy the sunshine or a sunset with a view over the city. My favourites include Alcantara (last pic below), Principe Real, Luzia, Monte, Catarina, Portas do Sol, Amoreiras (pic above), Graca, Alegria, Camoes, Estrela and there are many, many more. I cannot recommend highly enough to make time for some of these tranquil moments even if you have a busy sightseeing schedule planned.

Eat Your Way around Portuguese Specialities

Timeout Market: in the Mercado da Ribeira across from the Cais de Sodre ferry terminal, this is THE place to sample lots of different specialities in one location ranging from simple soups (€4-5) or desserts to top of the range cooking (from around €10), don’t be put off by the bustle and noise when you first enter, pick a few things to eat and take a seat at one of the large communal tables with other people from around the world and enjoy your delicious meal
Pasteis de Nata de Belem (pic above; singular: um pastel de nata): arguably the best custard tards around, so try them there (sit-in queue often shorter, beautiful tiled-covered, historic building) and watch them freshly made during your visit to see the other attractions of Belem
Queijadas da Sintra/Travesseiro da Sintra: there are a lot of different types of queijadas (small cakes) in Portugal, named after places or people like queens and apart from the pasteis de nata, I also recommend trying these (ideally in Sintra), they are all extremely sweet though
Casa do Alentejo: this well-hidden gem in Rua das Portas de Santo Antao (near Rossio station) is a restaurant in the former 17th c. Alverca Palace, enjoy the hearty food (pic below) in the sunny courtyard

Cataplana: is a Portuguese fish stew and also the name of the clam-like copper pot it is cooked in, so delicious
Pasteis de Bacalhau: not sweet this time as they are salted codfish cakes and you can sample them as starters or snacks in various cafes or kiosks
Ginjinha Bars: there are several of them dotted around the city centre, e.g. A Ginjinha and Ginginha do Carmo (chocolate cups), where you can try this sweet local speciality, a sour-cherry liqueur
There are so many other yummy things to sample, you’ll be spoilt for choice. While I was doing research for my trip, I also came across the To Lisbon with Love podcast and found their food and drink recommendations particularly good.

Live Music

If you are in any way interested in music, attending a live fado concert during your visit is a must. However, there are a lot of music experiences geared mostly towards tourists that might be entertaining, but not always that authentic. After doing lots of research, I found Real Fado Concerts (check their insta) and booked a show in a former underground water reservoir built in 1864 right under Principe Real Square. The young singer, Beatriz Felicio, plus the two guitarists were fabulous, the audience small (maybe 15) and the sound fantastic due to the unusual location (pic below). Casa da Amalia also do live concerts in their garden a few times a week and I also heard about two recommended venues called Duque da Rua and Senhor Vinho plus there is a fado walking tour you can join. Most fado concerts (with or without food) tend to be from €20 upwards.

Another place I really enjoyed is Hot Club de Portugal Jazz Club in Praca Alegria, one of the oldest (since 1948) and most prestigious jazz clubs in Europe. It is open Tue-Sat from 10pm-2am, so arrive a few minutes before opening to get a seat (usually around €10, cash only, the bar had very reasonable prices and the club a very relaxed atmosphere).

As I was in Lisbon during early summer, I tried to make the best of outdoor events and music, but there are plenty of good indoor venues, too. If you’re looking for a low-key evening with inventive local food and wine in a friendly neighbourhood with good live music almost nightly, look no further than the Flores da Pampa restaurant (I enjoyed some fun West-African kora music when I was there) in Praca dos Flores.

I really fell in love with Lisbon and its people and I hope you do, too. On my last morning in the city, I ventured up to the highest miradouro of them all, the Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte and came across a wall with tiles that read: Boa Viagem, Lisboa espera por ti – Happy travels, Lisbon is waiting for you. What a beautiful message and just what my heavy heart needed to hear as I was so reluctant to leave this stunning place, which I’m sure I’ll return to again and again.

Disclaimer: All photography Life is a Festival. Any prices mentioned may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.

One-Day Music Party in the Highlands: The Gathering 2022

I haven’t been to many one-day festivals, but The Gathering in Inverness, a fairly new event that started only in 2019 and focuses on traditional Scottish music, had such a packed line-up of bands I really liked, I just decided to go for it. I took a train (3.5 hours direct) up to Inverness on 28 May, arrived midday and the venue, the Northern Meeting Park, was less than a 10 minute walk from Inverness station. There was a main stage and a much smaller stage 2 and plenty of enticing local food and drink (including enough meat-free options) on offer to keep everyone going from lunchtime until 10.30pm, which was the cut-off time, presumably as the event took place right next to a residential city centre area.

The festival had a really relaxed vibe to it and I met lots of friendly people of all ages. I liked how it suited everyone from groups of youngsters out with their friends to families with babies sitting around on blankets to real music fans dancing in the front. It seemed to really bring the local community together and everything appeared well organised (also top marks for whatever company ran the portable toilets, they did an amazing job keeping them clean all day, something often neglected at largish outdoor events).

Now to the live music. I managed to catch most bands on the day and the sets were spaced out with half hour breaks in between acts, so I also had time to head over to stage 2 for short sets by Lairig and Heisk, both fantastic, will definitely look out for them in future. They had the audience on their feet dancing in no time and the fact that it was quite a small tent made for an especially nice atmosphere.

The mainstage line-up offered one highlight after another. Alas, I missed Project Smok (hoping to catch them in Glasgow sometime), but really enjoyed Heron Valley with band members from all over Scotland, like Oban, Lewis, Cowal, Glasgow and Stirling. Torridon from Ross-shire brought some more rocky Scottish sounds to the event and around mid afternoon it was time for Manran, who I had only discovered last December in Aberdeen and then seen at this year’s Celtic Connections in Glasgow. It was a great set as usual, even though the quieter songs got a little bit lost in the boisterous outdoor gig atmosphere.

Up next were The Peatbog Faeries from the Isle of Skye, who combine traditional Scottish music with some very danceable grooves, which seemed to work perfectly for the mixed-age audience. Their set was followed by Skerryvore, a Scottish force of nature who had everyone dancing and singing during their whole set (see pic below). Capercaillie are always a joy to listen to, but had similar issues as Manran. Their quieter songs got mostly drowned out with the drizzle and wind during their set, definitely a downside to outdoor shows, even though it was luckily really sunny for most of the day. Still a fantastic band that I would highly recommend seeing live. The final act of the night was indie folk band Elephant Sessions, whose mix of trad, funk and electronica was a particular favourite with the many younger attendees. All in all a fantastic day. I just hope a few more female musicians can be added to future festival line-ups. There are certainly enough talented candidates to choose from on the Scottish music scene and beyond.

Having missed out on festival ‘practice’ for two years during the pandemic, at the end of the evening I was so tired from being on my feet and dancing most of the day, that I was just glad my B&B and my cosy bed were a mere 5-minute walk away. On Sunday I went for a nice brunch and a wander around town and was back in Glasgow by Sunday evening. If you fancy giving festivals a try, but do not feel up to camping or travelling far, this is a great event that is totally doable with public transport and also on your own. You won’t feel like a stranger for long, I certainly didn’t.

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival.

Aye Write 2022: Glasgow’s Literature Festival Returns With Stellar Line-up

In March 2020 I had got a message from the Aye Write team that my volunteer shifts had been cancelled due to this new virus that had just been named: Covid-19. A few days later the first lockdown was announced and we all went into full pandemic mode with festivals and events moving completely online, if that was possible at all. Fast forward two years to May 2022 and Glasgow’s Aye Write literature festival was finally back (6 – 22 May) with a packed in-person line-up that more than made up for two years of missing out on live author talks.

I worked two shifts this year, one at the Mitchell Library and the other at Tramway arts centre, in the Southside of the city. Both days had one highlight after another with a varied and super intriguing list of speakers, who all did signings afterwards with readers queueing up eagerly to get their hands on the latest books. Aaaahhh… it was so great to have all the lovely hustle and bustle of an actual book festival back again!

The first event was a roundtable hosted by author Karen Campbell with three first-time authors whose books all sounded really excellent: Kirsty Capes, Louise Nealon & Emily Edwards (see pic above). This was followed by a wonderfully humorous (despite the mostly serious subject matter) talk by ex-police officer Kevin Maxwell discussing his memoir ‘Forced Out’. What an inspiring speaker, who overcame a lot of adversity and meets life’s challenges with such a positive attitude (see pic below).

Next up were author and activist Laura Bates and barrister and writer Harriet Johnson reminding us that we still have a long way to go in terms of ending violence against women. My last event that day was an interview with Jess Phillips on her life as an MP. She might be one of the most outspoken politicians I’ve ever come across and it was refreshing to hear her perspective as a woman navigating the ins and outs of Westminster on a daily basis (resident rodents and flooded bathrooms included).

My second shift covered three fantastic talks at Tramway in the Southside on the last day of the festival. As I arrived early, I spent some time exploring the local oasis that is the Hidden Gardens. I highly recommend grabbing a cuppa from the café and enjoying a bit of peace and calm there and also explore the ever-changing art exhibitions in their large indoor space (both are family- but sadly not dog-friendly, a bit unusual for Glasgow). The first talk was on White Supremacy, Black Lives and Scotland’s Role in the Slave Trade. While this issue has not always had the public attention it should have, it’s good to see more and more scholars and writers discussing it in recent years. A more honest look at our past is surely the main way forward for a future without racism.

Popular Edinburgh-based crime writer Ian Rankin took to the stage next discussing his latest novel ‘The Dark Remains’, turning the manuscript by the late William McIlvanney, seen by many as ‘the godfather of tartan noir’, into a fascinating-sounding read (see pic above). The closing event of the day and also the whole festival was an interview with Sottish writer and rapper Darren McGarvey on his latest book ‘The Social Distance Between Us’. He never fails to eloquently talk about class discrimination in UK society and the book’s mission ‘to place the affluent under the same scrutinous microscope as the poor’ definitely resonated with many in the festival audience.

Of course this was only a tiny portion of the many talks and workshops on offer at this year’s festival. Even if you have not heard of some of the names on the line-up, I highly recommend putting Aye Write in your calendar, so you don’t miss out on any upcoming events.

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival.

Madeira Flower Festival: Practical Tips for Visitors

If you’re planning on visiting Madeira during the ‘Festa da Flor’ in May, you might have some questions regarding the timing of your holiday and what to expect. As I attended the vibrant flower festival in Funchal in May 2022, I have put together this handy list for you, so you’ll get a quick overview and can be sure not to miss any of the highlights.

When and where does the flower festival take place?

The flower festival takes place in Madeira every April or May and while the main highlight of the festival is the flower parade in Funchal on the first Sunday of the festival (in 2002 it was on 8 May), there will also be lots of related events on during the rest of the month. The updated information can be found on the official Madeira Tourism website, although I recommend you pick up a printed brochure from your hotel or the tourist office when you get there to confirm the exact times and locations for concerts and other happenings.

What are the main events?

The most impressive event the majority of visitors are here for is of course the annual Allegoric Flower Parade in Funchal, which has been around since 1979 and brings a stream of colourful floats and groups of dancers in elaborate costumes to Madeira’s capital. They can be seen parading through Avenida do Mar, a scenic parkway along Funchal’s harbourfront, showing off floats that have been designed and built for months by local clubs from all around the island and been decorated with thousands of fresh flowers the night before. There is also a ‘Wall of Hope’ being created the day before the parade where children pin flowers to a wall as a symbol of peace in the Praça do Município and various other happenings in Funchal and other municipalities.

When is the Funchal flower festival parade and where does it take place?

In 2022 the flower parade started at 4.30pm on Sunday, 8 May, on Avenida do Mar proceeding west towards the cruise ship port. It took about 2 hours and it was a really fun experience. Just make sure you bring plenty of sunscreen, water and snacks, especially if you have children with you. The nearest public toilets are in Jardim Municipal and in Praça do Povo.

Is there an entry fee and do I need to book tickets in advance?

The parade is free to attend for all if you don’t mind standing. Just make sure you arrive about an hour early to get a good spot along the parade route. If you prefer a seat, there were grandstand seats available for around €40,-/person, which can be booked online or in person from the tourist office.

Where should I stay in Funchal for best access and least hassle during the flower festival?

Anywhere in the centre of Funchal is a great location as it is not a very large city. I stayed next to Jardim Municipal, which to me was the perfect spot as I loved hanging out in the kiosk cafe (snacks, drinks, free wifi) in the beautiful city park in the early evenings. The area between the Teatro Municipal Baltazar Diaz and the park plus along Avenida Arriage up to the Cathedral seemed to be the main gathering place for everyone in the evenings. There were free nightly live music concerts (popular, folk and fado music) from Thursday to Sunday and stalls where you could sample freshly made local ‘poncha’ and snacks plus buy various flower- and Madeira-related souvenirs.

What else is happening besides the parade?

The main Madeira Tourism website has an up to date list of all the events that are part of the flower festival, so you can plan ahead, but as mentioned above, there was plenty of free entertainment around the city centre that generally finished around 10pm. I also greatly enjoyed viewing the ‘best in show’ of the flower competition in a temporary pavilion along Avenida do Mar, where you could admire the most exotic types of flowers for free and buy bulbs and living plants at a stall outside. Plus you can get a close-up look at and pictures with the floats following the parade and the day(s) after as they get ‘parked’ near Praça do Povo by the harbour.

Anything else to keep in mind?

As I decided to stand on the harbour side of the parade route to have the best light for pictures, this meant that I had to walk all the way down to one end after the parade to get back to the centre as there was no way to cross the fence anywhere in the middle. If you are worried about not getting a table in a particular restaurant right after the parade as everyone else will have the same idea of course, by all means do book ahead. But in my experience there were so many restaurants and cafés in Funchal, you should easily find one to suit your taste and budget, even on very busy days. Just keep an eye on how many cruise ships are docked in the harbour while you are visiting (when I was there it was about 1-3 per day, but can be as many as 30 around New Year’s apparently). Check on pages like Cruise Mapper to find out more.

While the flower festival is certainly one of the highlights of the Madeiran calendar, the island has so much more to offer: awesome hikes, dolphin-watching, delicious food, tobogganing down city streets and swimming in natural sea-water pools being just a few of them. If you’re planning your first trip to Madeira, check out my one-week itinerary for first-time visitors with top tips on what not to miss!

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival. Any prices mentioned may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.

Top Tips For First-Time Visitors to Madeira Without a Car – a One-Week Itinerary

Camara de Lobos fishing village

At the beginning of the year I decided that I really needed to get back into travelling properly and had been looking at Portugal before the pandemic. As there were still lots of different covid rules in various countries in spring, I did something I’d never done before to be on the safe side: I booked a ‘package holiday’ (direct flight from Glasgow and apartment in Funchal). Then I also remembered that Madeira was supposed to have a beautiful flower festival and luckily enough there was availability for early May, hurrah!

Traditional poncha drink in Funcha

Before booking the trip, I did some research and quickly figured out that the island had lots of advantages: it offers versatility in terms of activities, has all the things I’m interested in (culture, nature, wildlife) and as it is fairly small, it is easy to base yourself in one place (e.g. the capital Funchal, which I highly recommend if you do not rent a car) and do day trips or shorter activities from there while also being able to enjoy strolls around town in the evenings.

As I wanted to see a good bit of the island’s different landscapes but also do a few longer hikes, I chose a mix of activities for my week:

Day 1: A Walk around Funchal and Dolphin Watching
With just over 100k inhabitants, the seaside town of Funchal is a great place to discover on foot. I absolutely fell in love with the many exotic urban trees, like Jacaranda, African Tulip and Tipuana, and it felt very safe in the evenings (I mostly spent time in the centre, near the old town and around the seafront) and there are a huge number of bars, cafes and restaurants to try out. You can also admire the beautiful painted doors on and off Rua de Santa Maria as part of a regeneration project and pop into the Mercado dos Lavradores, a permanent, colourful (and mostly touristy) farmer’s market with fruit, flowers and fish stalls.

Common dolphins swimming alongside speedboat off the south coast of Madeira

The dolphin boat trip was my absolute highlight of the whole holiday! I picked a two-hour speedboat trip and we managed to spot two pods, common dolphins (pic above) that partly swam alongside the boat, and some bottlenose dolphins plus even a loggerhead turtle. Whales are a bit rarer, but can also be seen at times. The sightings are not guaranteed and vary throughout the year and the marine biologist on board stressed how important it is to not see them in aquariums, but in the wild to appreciate their true beauty. I couldn’t agree more!

Day 2: 25 Fountains Levada Walk
This is a very popular and fairly moderate walk (still ca. 11km) as it is mostly flat with some steps up and down and leads you through some of the island’s lush vegetation along the famous levadas waterways (a unique irrigation system largely built by working-class people and slaves). It is also a good choice if the weather forecast is not that great, as you’ll mainly be in the forest, just make sure you bring good footwear, layers, including a waterproof one, and maybe a small torch as the walk involves a couple of tunnels (the longest being ca. 800m long).

Waterfall during the 25 fountains levada walk in Madeira

We had a very knowledgeable guide who pointed out names of plants and trees in various languages, so while it was very busy with tourists (I mean busy, you’ll partly be queueing to pass groups of people due to narrow paths), it was still worth it, there is a beautiful waterfall along the way and you get to meet the local chaffinches if you bring seeds or nuts for them (please do not feed them bread or crisps).

Feeding chaffinches during levada walk in Madeira

Day 3: Jeep Tour of the Northwest of the Island
This is a popular tour covering a lot of sights in the south and northwest of the island and there are minibuses (up to 16 people) and jeep options (4-8 people, back is open in good weather, so bring a hat/scarf if needed). Our tour included Camara de Lobos fishing village (loved this little place), Ponta do Sol, Canhas passing banana and wine plantations, Calheta, Paul da Serra (reminded me of the Scottish Highlands complete with roaming cows), Ribeira Brava, Seixal (black sand beach) and our main stop, Porto Moniz (with natural sea water swimming pools and some chilled out Madeiran wall lizards).

Madeiran wall lizard

On the way back we stopped at Cabo Girão seacliffs viewpoint (with 580m the highest in Europe and the second highest in the world), Veu da Noiva waterfall and did some off-road driving on very steep village roads and mountain paths.

Porto Moniz with its natural pools from above

Day 4: Hike from Pico Areeiro to Pico Ruivo
This hike is classed as difficult and is recommended only for regular hikers, but I managed to do it and there were even families with older children. It offers the most scenic views (including seeing a Madeiran red-legged partridge, see pic below) high up in the mountains (we started on Areeiro at 1800m, walked mostly downhill for 2 hours, then back up to Ruivo 1800m for an hour, the toughest part, to a hut (with one toilet), 15 minutes to the top and another 45 minutes or so down to our pick-up point) and you can do a sunrise walk as well. I loved doing this walk as our guide made sure to stay with the last person in our group of 10, so it felt completely safe. It is not ideal if you suffer from vertigo or have knee issues as the middle part is fairly steep including some metal steps and you should make sure to bring at least 1 litre of water and some nutritious snacks plus shoes with good grip (I also brought hiking poles). We had the most perfect weather conditions and views, but I met some people who did this hike on a windy, rainy day, which made it a lot tougher and they were basically surrounded by clouds/fog all day, so try and book it for a clear day.

Mountain view including partridge on hike from Pico Areeiro to Pico Ruivo

Day 5: Jeep Tour of the Northeast of the Island
This was my second jeep tour, this time covering the northeast of the Island. We first drove up to Pico do Areeiro for the views, Ribeiro Frio, had a short levada walk to Balcões viewpoint (more chaffinches to feed), did some more off-road driving through the eucalyptus forest, spent lunchtime in a bakery café in Santana (queijadas, small round cheesecakes were my favourites), where you can see the traditional A-Frame Houses.

A-frame house in Santana Madeira

Later we visited a rum factory in Porto da Cruz (using sugar cane grown on the island), which also had a beautiful beach, and finally headed to the viewpoint of Ponta de São Lourenço (you can do hikes of the peninsula). I would have loved to see Machico, the old capital of Madeira, and visit the wicker factory in Camacha, but there just wasn’t enough time during our day.

Ponta de São Lourenço viewpoint on Madeira

Day 6: Valley of the Nuns plus Madeira Flower Festival Parade
On Sunday morning I had booked a half day trip to Curral das Freiras (Nuns’ Valley) as it fitted my schedule and it ended up being one of my favourite outings of the week: Pico dos Barcelos viewpoint over Funchal (pic below), Eira do Serrado viewpoint over Nuns’ Valley, then a drive down into the village and time to look around plus taste some of the chestnut delicacies (cake, liqueur etc.), plus a stop at Camara de Lobos fishing village (see first pic of the post). A lot of value for just 4 hours, really recommend this.

Pico dos Barcelos viewpoint Madeira

The highlight of the flower festival, the annual flower parade in Funchal, took place on Sunday afternoon at 4.30pm and it was like a carnival procession with lots of colourful floats, fun music, thousands of flowers, dancers and children in costumes and was an absolute joy to be part of. Unlike what you might read online, you can – but absolutely do not need to – buy a seat for this event, just turn up fairly early anywhere along the route (Funchal seafront) and join in the fun. I met people from all over the world while waiting for the parade to begin and it lasted about 2 hours plus you might get a chance to pose with some of the participants in beautiful outfits afterwards. There was also some great live music and other performances plus food, drink and other stalls around the city centre during the duration of the festival.

Flower Parade in Funchal, Madeira, with colourful costumes

Day 7: Cable Car to Monte and Toboggan Ride
The visit to the Monte neighbourhood of Funchal and the ca. 2km ‘carros de cesto’ (toboggan) ride downhill to Livramento was one of those ‘must do’ experiences that I wasn’t so sure of at first, but then I was so glad I’d decided to go for it (and it’s not scary at all, trust the drivers, they are very skilled and experienced). Here are some options depending on your budget and time available:

  1. Cheapest: steep uphill walk from Funchal to Monte (maybe 1 hour), share a toboggan down with one or two others (15 euros each), walk down the rest of the way (30 mins)
  2. Medium budget: bus 19/20/21 from Funchal to Monte (ca. 2 euros, from driver), share a toboggan with one or two others (15 euros each), take the bus back down (another 2 euros)
  3. Most expensive: cable car with great views (12,50 euros one way, 18 return, second part not needed if using the sleds), toboggan by yourself (25 euros), taxi down (should be around 7 euros, beware of ‘tourist’ prices)

There are lots of things I just couldn’t fit in, like various botanic gardens, so make up your mind for what your personal priorities are and plan accordingly. Madeira does have a few beaches, but is certainly not an ideal destination if that is the main focus of your holiday. It also has a lot of adventure sports activities, like canyoning and paragliding to take advantage of.

Additional practical advice:

Cost of activities and booking/planning tips: All the tours I booked were very reasonable and started at 15 euros for a half day (4 hour) excursion, mini bus tours (up to 16 people) tend to be from 25 euros while the jeep tours (around 4-8 passengers) are around 45 euros, guided all day hikes around 35 euros and for the dolphin and whale watching there is a catamaran option (25 euros, not quite as likely to see wildlife, but has toilet and refreshments to buy) or a speedboat option (45 euros, you’ll get another trip if no sightings, more detailed talk from marine biologist onboard). All these could be booked online beforehand (recommended in busy months and because Funchal is a cruise ship port year-round, most tours have free cancellation up to the day before) or the day before/on the day in Funchal and there are lots of similar operators to choose from. It can be a bit overwhelming to choose, but you can basically see most of the island with the two full day tours I outlined above. Just a bit of a warning: make sure you get a confirmation for each tour with the pick-up time and location (often conveniently your hotel or nearby) and be there on time as their whole schedule depends on passengers being punctual or you might loose out on the tour otherwise.

Best time to travel: I felt very lucky with my early May trip as we had 20-24 degrees and it was mostly sunny, but do prepare for mixed weather due to its exposed location as an island. When I asked around the late summer and also the Christmas and New Year’s period seem great times to visit due to various festivities and due to the year-round mildish weather.

Vegetarian and vegan food: Absolutely no issues finding veggie food and I also came across good vegan options, including a restaurant with a separate plant-based menu, Olives. I also had a delicious bean burger with fries (yep, not very traditional, but life is about enjoyable moments, not just ticking off lists) and a poncha overlooking the harbour at Hamburgueria do Mercado.

Veggie burger and poncha overlooking Funchal harbour

Eating out and supermarkets: If your accommodation option does not include breakfast, I would opt for having it in a local café, it is inexpensive and you can soak up the atmosphere, e.g. sit amongst the most beautiful exotic plants with birdsong all around you in one of my favourites, the café of Jardim Municipal (see pic a bit further up), or have a quick brekkie stop at Opan, an inexpensive, modern bakery café, that has a few outlets around town. I also recommend trying Bolo do Caco, a stone-baked round loaf of bread that you can get as a yummy snack with melted cheese together with ‘uma bica’ (an espresso) or ‘uma chinesa’ (coffee with milk). The atmosphere around town was really chilled, as Madeira does not tend to attract party tourists (even though you can dance in bars and clubs until late) and the vibe was friendly and lively. Please consider giving tips wherever you can as Portugal has some of the lowest hourly rates in Europe and even rounding up to the nearest euro adds up for the workers.

Bolo de Caco with coffee Funchal

Car rental, bus/jeep tours or public transport: If you really enjoy driving on narrow, steep, windy roads and are not fazed by parking issues in popular tourist spots, by all means, go for a rental, as you’ll clearly have more freedom to choose your own routes and itinerary. If you have limited time and still want to see a lot, the small group tours are an excellent choice, and as a solo traveller they were also great to meet other people. If you mostly need to get from the place where you are staying to the start of your hike or want to just travel from A to B, the Madeiran public transport or prepaid taxis are a great option.

Selfie with our jeep driver/guide in Madeira

Souvenirs: There are plenty of Madeiran products that make great souvenirs. From the traditional carapuça hat (surprisingly, it was cheapest, just 5 euros, at a tourist shop in Nun’s Valley, and they are actually made on the island and come in different sizes) to embroidery, the famous fortified Madeiran wine, premixed Poncha (even though to try the real thing, it needs to be mixed right in front of your eyes). The La Vie Shopping Centre has a large Pingo Doce supermarket and there is a Continente Modelo in the old town. Both had some great local jams made with chestnuts, fig and honey etc. which are an inexpensive, but authentic pressie for loved ones. During the flower festival on the streets and also in the Mercado dos Lavradores you can buy various flower bulbs and seeds, talk to the vendors to make sure they will flourish in your home country.

Cable car from Funchal to Monte

I hope the above is helpful if you are already planning a visit to beautiful Madeira island or you are now inspired to book your own trip. It really is a stunning part of Europe and I cannot recommend it highly enough! Feel free to comment below if you have any additional questions.

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival. Prices may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.

Staying In is the New Going Out: Free & by Donation Online Resources for Culture Lovers

Post last updated on 04 May 2020

Rainbow fairy door in forest

Life is still a festival, just in a different way

We’re all in the same boat at the moment. No one can really make any plans for the foreseeable future, in most countries we’re asked to stay at home as much as we can and travel is completely out of the question. Some of us might have holidays cancelled and, in my case, my whole calendar of festivals and cultural events has been wiped out pretty much overnight.

Yes, this can all be very frustrating and a time of heightened anxiety for many of us, but we don’t really have a choice and life is what we make it after all. Lots of fun things have recently been started by creative folks all over the world to help connecting us in these unusual times. I’m going to try and collect a good few here and update the post regularly, so do bookmark this page and check back whenever you’re in need of some positive inspiration (no mention of the c. word allowed!).

The good thing about being signed up to lots of newsletters by bands, cultural organisations, venues and other interesting creatives is that now most things have moved online, my inbox is brimming with helpful and positive tips from everyone. I’ve grouped them into a number of categories and will keep adding to them whenever I get time to do it.

One more thing: most of the things I’m listing below are free as there will be a lot of you out there who are already feeling the pressure of just keeping going at the moment. However, please also think about how you can help your local community in any way you can, which does not always have to be financially. Look around your city’s streets and pick a few independent cafes and shops you like, follow them online and ask how you can help. Buy merch by smaller, independent musicians and other artists, if you can, as birthday or Christmas presents. The options are endless and you can do all this from your own home.

Online music festivals

To my delight, within days of most of us being at home instead of out and about, a lot of smaller and larger initiatives have sprung up to either take existing cancelled events online or as fundraisers for musicians who are having a hard time at the moment. I’ve already missed a few but here are some upcoming ones:

The Folk on Foot Front Room Festival happened on Easter Monday on Youtube and Facebook and had a stellar folk music line-up with half hour sets by Karine Polwart, Kris Drever, Peggy Seeger etc.. and can still be watched online. Donations are still open, too, and will be shared between the participating musicians and the Help Musicians UK charity.

Folks at Home is another online folk music initiative. While it is not streaming live, it has over 27 hours of exclusive online content for ticket holders (proceeds to the musicians). So you can watch whenever you feel like it.

Oregon-based music festival Pickathon have decided to do online live gigs in aid of MusiCares at 1pm PCT (luckily for us 9pm UK time) on various dates starting on 8 April. Can’t wait to tune in!

There are also more and more fundraisers for independent music venues, many of which, let’s face it, are struggling to survive at the best of times. If you want them to still be there after the crisis, why not adopt your local venue, like The Greennote in London, where I used to volunteer, or The Glad Cafe in Glasgow, where I live now, and donate to them directly. A good organisation to check out for additional information is Music Venue Trust.

stay positive sticker on tree trunk in Scottish forest park

Live music streams

Live music is a big part of my life and it’s been really hard getting used to going from several gigs a week to absolutely zero. Socialising and listening to music by artists who care about other people and the world does not have to stop completely though. Like everything else, it has just gone online for now! While the time difference makes it sometimes a bit tricky to catch every event and still get enough sleep, it has the one big advantage that we are now all ONE big global audience. These musicians have been doing live streams recently, so check them out and follow them for more virtual gigs:

Peggy Seeger (Sundays at 5pm), Sierra Hull, Don Gallardo, The Barr Brothers, The Royal Jelly Jive, Dougie MacLean (every second night at 8pm), Anne McCue, Elaine Lennon, James Hodder, Andrew Combs, Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay, Cathy Jordan, Mo Kenney, Daoiri Farrell, Niamh Regan, Rachael Sage and many more. If you’re not familiar with the above artists, check them out, you might quite like them and they all have a back catalogue of fantastic music for you to get!

I recommend signing up for newsletters by the Journal of Music and Shrewsbury Folk Festival (the SFF Youtube channel is pretty awesome, too), who are doing online music listings on a regular basis now.

US radio NPR have an impressive list of daily live concerts by musicians of various genres.

Secret Sessions, London’s monthly new music night, is now also doing live stream takeovers of their Instagram account with inspiring mini gigs by talented performers, usually at 7pm.

US-based Signature Sounds have some fantastic ‘home sessions’ with Americana artists.

The Green Note in London are now offering online gigs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 8pm (suggested paypal donation for the musicians of £10 per show) with a great line-up of Americana and folk musicians.

UK folk musician John Spiers is running an #IsolationPubSession on his Youtube channel for everyone to play and sing along.

Sofar Sounds has also launched online gigs in their listening room. As with all the others, donations to the artists are encouraged.

The #Covidceilidh hashtag on Twitter (you can see the vieos without having an account) has been fun to follow with musical contributions from around the world. #LiveFromHome seems to be mostly US-based sessions of any kind of genre.

Check out the Life is a Festival Youtube channel for videos of past festival performances and plan your next festival visit from your couch!

If you’re planning on doing your own live streams from your home, The Space have a handy low-tech low-cost streaming guide for doing just that.

Author events

I need to do some more online research to find more live readings, but all the book festival websites and other organisations promoting reading are usually a good start.

BBC Arts has recently launched Culture in Quarantine, a virtual arts season, which will also include The Big Book Weekend, co-founded by authors Kit de Waal and Molly Flatt, happening 8-10 May. It will run in cooperation with MyVLF, a free global virtual literary festival holding online author events.

The Scottish Wigtown Bookfestival is doing #WigtownWednesdays with live author talks, book club sessions and literatry pub quizzes.

There is a new Scottish crime writing podcast: The Tartan Noir Show.

The Edinburgh Book Festival (one of my very favourites, see my review) has a lovely audio and video section with lots of inspiring author talks.

Cambridge Literature Festival had #thelisteningfestival 17-19 April and might do more online events.

The Hay Book Festival in Wales (have been both to the summer and the winter version, both brilliant) has a wealth of interesting material on their webiste, including films, podcasts and free resources for school children.

Poet and Scots Makar Jackie Kay seems to be doing a new poem every Sunday on her Twitter account. She is inspiring and funny, you’ll love it.

#ShelfIsolating is a fun Twitter hashtag to join other booklovers, libraries etc. who are talking about reading, authors and books

NHS rainbow sign outside a shop in Glasgow

Film screenings

There are various organisations offering a catalogue of films for free online, for instance 200 free documentaries by IDFA, the BFI’s online film collection, this year’s (sadly cancelled) SXSW latest short films, shortfilm.de (most films in English or with subtitles) and others.

Mubi also seems to currently be doing a free three month trial of their movie screening service, sign up via this Filmhouse link.

We Are One is a global free event on Youtube that brings together 20 international film festivals from 29 May until 7 June and includes fiction, documentaries, music, comedy & filmmaker conversations. 

London’s Open City Documentary Festival has a huge online film archive with many free films to watch.e

If you like adventure and outdoor films, Explorersweb has collected a list of so far 400 (!) free to watch ones: List 1 (mostly Banff Mountain Film Fest), List 2, List 3, List 4

Bertha DocHouse in London has a great online hub with recorded interviews with filmmakers and is also working on more live stream collaborations.

Other streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, NowTv or Britbox are also often offering 30 days free trials or pretty cheap monthly fees. They can be cancelled anytime, so you can mix and match to get the best new content when you want it or can afford it.

Theatre shows

The Stage has a rolling list of theatre productions, which are now available to view online, including some charity projects in support of e.g. the NHS.

The National Theatre is now screeing one of their hit shows every Thursday at 7pm online for free, so this is my new weekly theatre night! Again, please support them with a donation, if you can, any amount will help.

The Coronet Theatre in Notthing Hill has an Inside Out online content and event section with cultural content.

Other fun & social online events

One of my local Meetup groups did a pub quiz and an open mic on Zoom, which were both great fun, so I bet your local groups are doing similar things. You can usually join for free (or a small fee for admin costs) and as it’s mostly smaller groups, it is a lovely way of keeping in touch with people or even make new friends while self-isolating, especially if you live on your own.

The Edinburgh Science Festival has been cancelled, but has announced some future online happenings, so keep an eye on their website or sign up to their newsletter.

The Cosmic Shambles have started a pretty impressive Stay at Home Festival with a almost daily mix of science, book and comedy shows on their Youtube channel. Intriguing stuff! Again, donations very welcome.

The Arts Society is running online lectures on arts topics to try and promote connection through a shared love for the arts.

If you fancy brushing up on your French skills, head over to the Alliance Francaise website, which has a fantastic collection of free films and materials.

There are also quite a few online choirs, such as Sofa Singers or Gareth Malone’s #GreatBritishHomeChorus now, which you can join from anywhere in the world online. No excuse not to get singing!

Keeping active indoors (and outdoors, if you can) & beating anxiety

Yoga with Adriene has been my favourite go to channel on Youtube for taking some time out and getting a new perspective for a long time. This is what got me into yoga and you’ll get something out of it whether you’re a total beginner or a pracised yogi. Plus, there is Benji, the dog!

New York non-profit The Tricycle Foundation has started free/by donation online practise sessions with inspirational teachers, such as Pema Chödrön and Jack Kornfield. Make sure you sign up beforehand for the Zoom link. They also offer a great worldwide live online meditation calendar. One of their contributors, NY-based journalist Jihii Jolly, has also compiled her own list of useful resources & online tools, reading tips and more.

UK-based World Yoga Festival offers online yoga, meditation and cooking classes.

If you are OK to do so, it’s also a really good idea to get some fresh air outside while keeping to your location’s physical distancing rules, of course. I’m lucky to have a large park right behind my home and I try and get out there as often as I can. Even just a few minutes a day make me feel so much better.

Be kind to yourself and others

There seem to be quite a few negatives about our current situation: clearly the actual danger to people’s lives (do keep up with trustworthy news sources and avoid the scams!), anxiety because of worrying about family and friends while being separated from them, boredom, lack of money or other ways life is restricted at the moment.

But here is the good news. This crisis also brought out the best in many people and in our communities. Volunteer opportunities (e.g. NHS responders in England or Ready Scotland) and mutual aid groups have sprung up practically overnight, there is a real focus on living in the moment, minimalism and not taking anything for granted anymore. While there seems to be more tension and anxiety in the air, there is also kindness to be found wherever you look. There are so many positive things we can focus our time and energy on, including taking a little more time for ourselves.

There is a new online radio show for Scottish volunteers called Radio V with a new show every Saturday.

This brilliant online letter writing project called #DearFriend was started in Aberdeen, but anyone from around the world can write to care home residents – write your letter now!

Action for Happiness has a Coping Calendar and lots of other useful resources for staying positive.

Action for Happiness Coping Calendar April 2020

What all of us can do right now

Contact a friend, family member or neighbour and ask if they’re OK. They might have an issue you didn’t know about, maybe to do with their health or mental health, work or just not being able to cope that well with change as quickly as you might be able to.

And don’t forget to show yourself some love, too. I’ve been taking a lot more baths recently and am enjoying my favourite foods even more than usual. Sending everyone a virtual hug from my home office in Glasgow. Stay safe, look after each other and let’s keep inspiring one another!

Home office

Ringing in the New Decade with Celtic Connections 2020

Time flies when you’re having fun and so the 18 days of brilliant live music that was the 2020 edition of Celtic Connections (16 January – 2 February) went by way too quickly, as usual. The popular winter music festival with its mix of folk, celtic, trad, Americana and world music once more attracted large audiences from the UK and abroad. What’s more, there seem to be new fans joining the stalwart CCFest fans flocking to Glasgow every winter to see world class acts jam together and discover the freshest talent of young musicians from Scotland and further afield.

I managed to get quite a few good concerts in again this year starting with volunteering as an artist liaison for a fantastic double show at the Tron Theatre by US Indie-folk artist Noah Gundersen, supported by Brighton-based Bess Atwell. The event also included a short presentation by suicide prevention charity TWLOHA. The same day I witnessed the emergence of STORM, a stunning 10m tall moving puppet (see pic above) made of recycled materials to commemorate the festival’s Coastal Connections Day. The night after I headed down to St. Lukes for Kentuckian Tyler Childers, who has a strong fan base in the UK and came recommended by friends, but somehow didn’t hit the right notes for me. Iris Dement, on the other hand, who I had wanted to see for a very long time, was a real revelation. While her unusual voice might not be everyone’s cup of tea, her witty and intriguing stories and beautifully songs made me feel more like being at a house concert rather than in a large concert hall.

Probably my favourite gig this year was Canadian Frazey Ford and one of my favourite Scottish bands, Adam Holmes and the Embers from Edinburgh, at St. Lukes. Whoever booked those two as a combo should be congratulated as their unique styles complemented each other extremely well. It was a beautiful night with lots of happy people in one of the nicest venues in town. On the second Saturday I volunteered at the Drygate looking after the Folk Circle consisting of English folk singer Reg Meuross with Scottish singers Lori Watson and Kim Richards and some of their musician friends. Their melodic music would have probably been better suited to a quieter venue, but it was still a lovely concert. The night after I had been invited by a friend to join him for the Phil Cunningham 60th birthday bash at City Halls (pic below). We had pretty good seats and the line-up kept getting surprise additions, such as Eddi Reader, Karen Matheson as well as a children’s sibling duo playing traditional instruments almost like pros. The nearly three-hour show was a fun-filled celebration and a night to remember.

My third week started with the first of two Seirm recordings for BBC Alba, which this year took place at The Arches next to Central station (rumbling train sounds included!). The best thing about being part of a recording for TV is always being so up close to some of the most amazing musicians, while it also requires a lot of patience as the set-up between artists takes quite a while. On that night’s bill were Dervish (pic below), RURA, Aoife Scott (Irish singer Frances Black’s very talented daughter), the very entertaining The Poozies and Della Mae from Boston (now Nashville). I had to drag myself away just before it finished to catch the tail end of The Milk Carton Kids in the RCH, who I had never seen live before and whose harmonies and beautiful, quiet melodies were truly mesmerising.

The night after, at The Old Fruitmarket, was another one of my favourite festival shows: Brooklyn-based Anais Mitchell (pic below) and her newly formed trio Bonny Light Horseman with fantastic guitarist Josh Kaufman and singer Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats. Seven months pregnant and having recently won eight Tony awards and a Grammy for her folk opera ‘Hadestown’ a few days earlier, Mitchell was positively beaming on stage and I loved every bit of it. The last night of the festival was another highlight for me: the Translatlantic Sessions, this time featuring Tenessee mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull (whose songwriting workshop that morning was fantastic), Dervish singer Cathy Jordan and young Edinburgh-based songwriter Rachel Sermanni as well as a host of amazing festival musicians.

While 18 days of music seem fairly long to those used to 2-3 day music events, it is somehow never long enough once the festival gets going. One thing is for sure though: Celtic Connections is a fantastic way for visitors to experience all the friendliness and hospitality Glasgow has to offer and a chance for locals to welcome the new year with a bang!

Here are my reviews of previews editions of the festival in 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and some practical tips for your first visit to Glasgow during Celtic Connections.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with review tickets for some events. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

4 Reasons Why Shrewsbury Folk Festival Is Simply Unmissable (incl. 2019 Review)

Even though I only made it to two festivals this summer, I made sure one of them was Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It was my 8th time in a row and it’s always a fantastic weekend of live music, dancing and fun. This time we managed to have another heat wave coincide with the bank holiday weekend, like in 2017, which made for a completely rain-free festival, hurrah.

If you’ve never been to SFF, here are the best reasons to join us next year and the next and the one after that…

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019 Village Stage with audience in the sunshine.

The quality line-up

Even though there wasn’t enough Americana on the bill this time around for my liking, I’m always amazed at the great variety of brilliant musicians who play the festival. Now being based in Scotland, I was particulary excited to see the fabulous Skerryvore make a return as the Monday headliners (who just about made it from the airport coming from the US leg of a tour) as well as the always excellent Capercaillie. The festival also showcases up and coming local artists on the Launchpad stage, which this year included young guitar talent George Nash.

Mankala band from Bristol performing at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019

While I enjoyed the sets by US artists Amythyst Kiah, Birds of Chicago, Rev. Seckou, Cajun Country Revival and Aine Tyrell from Ireland, I was most impressed with the world music collaborations this year. These included Michael Messer’s Mitra (jazz/blues/classical Indian), AKA Trio (musicians from Brazil, Italy & Senegal) and Mankala (see pic above), all well worth checking out. I also always enjoy Kate Rusby, Oysterband and the While & Matthews duo had several sets, with guest musicians like Belinda O’Hooley, to celebrate their 25th musical anniversary. New to me Jiggy playing traditional music from Ireland with a modern twist were probably my fav new find this year, indeed I was surprised I had never heard of them before.

The additional activities

I always pick up my festival programme (one of the best ones around, really detailed and beautiful with band descriptions and everything you need to know) when I arrive on Thursday and aim to make it to a few other things than ‘just’ listening to music. But every single time I have to admit that there just isn’t enough time to get to everything – which is also a nice problem to have as it means there is so much on, you’ll absolutely never get bored. How could you?

Vegetarian food at one of the many food stalls at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

Included in your festival ticket are songwriting workshops, you can learn every instrument you can think of from scratch (incl. bodhran, mountain dulcimer, flute & ukulele), browse the market stalls, join a yoga session or spend a whole day in the dance tent. One of my favourite things this year was the children’s parade with dozens of beautiful animal paper lanterns and proud youngsters showing them off to the sound of the crowd singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ as this year it was a maritime theme – just magical!

I’m proud to say I at least managed to make it to one ceilidh (with John Spiers playing live for us, no less), which was a lot of fun. And ceilidhs are so inclusive, you don’t need to know what you’re doing or bring a dance partner, you can simply join in and that includes wheel chair users and people of all ages (the youngest dancer was probably four years old).

The historic town of Shrewsbury

The town of Shrewsbury is a shortish walk from the festival site, so I often head there along the river to stock up on food supplies, have a coffee and browse the charity shops. You can explore the town’s heritage, join a walking tour or enjoy a river cruise. They also have a number of good outdoor shops, which is handy if you’re camping. You might even bump into some festival musicians, some of whom stay in town if they don’t get put up in homestays nearby. You’ll also run into lots of other festival goers (easily recognisable by their wristbands or festival t-shirts) and everyone usually has a good story about previous years or favourite acts.

Shrewsbury library in Shropshire and statue of Charles Darwin.

The friendly atmosphere

SFF is largely staffed by (hundreds of) volunteers who tend to join the same team every year, so they really know what they’re doing. This makes for a calm, relaxed atmosphere and you’ll hardly notice the festival security team (who are really just there as a back-up). There are plenty of tables and chairs to sit and chat over a coffee, people practise their instruments in the bar, hub or outside their tents and are generally respectful of each other. I have hardly ever come across anyone drunk and/or rowdy, it’s just not that kind of place.

Bramble the spaniels helps out at artist reception at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

Having said that, the festival attracts people of absolutely all ages, from families with toddlers (the youngest I met this year was a 5-week old baby!) to retired folks and everyone in between. Compared to more crowded festivals (e.g. the also excellent Cambridge Folk Festival) there is a lot of space, almost never much mud, even if it rains persistently like in previous years, and hardly any queues (maybe apart from peak lunch & dinner times). Oh and the festival is dog-friendly of course and even the pooches like to join in like beautiful Bramble (see pic above). All of this guarantees a stress-free, super relaxing weekend of music!

George Nash playing the Launchpad stage at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

So join us, sign up as a volunteer or grab a festival ticket, bring your guitar and be prepared to talk to strangers. Like a woman I met on the train on the way home to Glasgow remarked: It’s so nice when people still talk to each other. It is, isn’t it? SFF is one of those places where you’ll get a friendly hello back when you smile at a stranger. Wouldn’t it be lovely to take this attitude back home with you, especially in these times when we seem to be sorely in need of a little more kindness?

Banjos vs Bagpipes: Oban Live 2019

I first came across Oban Live (7-8 June 2019) founders Skerryvore at Shrewsbury Folk Festival last summer and as I was moving to Scotland shortly after I was excited to hear that they had their very own festival. The sold out two day event (capacity 5000) has been taking place in the beautiful seaside town of Oban on the West Coast of Scotland since 2016 and has been going from strength to strength ever since.

Oban Live Skerryvore Stephen Lawson.jpeg
(photo courtesy of Oban Live/Stephen Lawson)

On Friday morning I hopped on a very crowded (as way too short) train from Glasgow and arrived three hours later in Oban together with lots of other excited, mostly repeat, festival goers. And yeah, despite having had some terrible weather all week, the open-air festival stayed blissfully rain-free during the whole weekend.

Oban Live train station.jpg

Oban Live takes place at Mossfield Park Stadium, a short, well-signposted walk from the town centre and unlike most of the other festivals I usually attend there is just one big stage. This meant there is no difficult choices to make or music schedules to plan. We could simply enjoy all the bands without having to worry about missing any of the live acts.

Both days’ line-ups consisted of six bands. First up on day one was young local trad musicians Argyll Ceilidh Trail, followed by JigJam from Ireland and Be Charlotte, an up and coming Dundee-based artist. After sampling the festival food on offer, which included wood-oven pizza, Asian noodles, Mexcian food, fish & chips and a stall with some traditional Scottish dishes, all of which had veggie options, plus a coffee, tea and ice cream stall, it was time for the evening acts starting with popular trad fusion band from the Highlands, Elephant Sessions.

Oban Live Stage Stephen Lawson.jpeg
(photo courtesy of Oban Live/Stephen Lawson)

My favourite set of the night was billed as Celtic Brotherhood, which in fact consisted of festival bands We Banjo 3 from Galway and Skerryvore joined by some additional local pipers for extra oomph. The Friday headliners were Red Hot Chilli Pipers with dancers of Flings & Things, an appearance by Soul Nation choir and of course bagpipes galore.

Day two started out with Edinburgh based rock band DMS followed by Scottish trad virtuosos Talisk and spirited singer songwriter Lucy Spraggan. The Caman Connection, a super group of Scottish musicians with an association with the Scottish sport of Shinty brought together by Gary Innes and included band members of Runrig, Capercaillie and Manran. The rest of the night was another energetic set by Irish ‘Celtgrass’ band We Banjo 3 and a fabulous closing set by Skerryvore, who had everyone up on their feet for the last hour and a half.

Oban Live Talisk Stephen Lawson.jpeg(photo courtesy of Oban Live/Stephen Lawson)

Besides the main event there was also a varied programme of Fringe happenings taking place from Thursday onwards and both the main festival as well as the fringe had informative little print-out programmes with all the info needed. From daytime pub sessions to a craft market and two after parties at the View Oban late into the night, there was something for everyone whether you are a morning lark or a night owl.

I was very impressed with the organisation of the festival on the whole. The security checks at the entrance were thorough but not over the top (it is OK to bring in food, just no liquids) and there were clearly layed out areas for putting up your own camping chairs with a great view of the stage, while most people opted for dancing right in front. There was also a VIP ticket option with a separately cordoned off area, their own bar and perks like food vouchers and priority entry into the after party each night. The entire festival was very relaxed and had a mixed age audience from families with children to groups of local teenagers and lots of Skerryvore fans of all ages from around Scotland and beyond.

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As there is quite a demand for local accommodation during the festival weekend, I would highly recommend booking your hotel or B&B as early as possible. Having initially thought I would be camping (around £30 including a shuttle to and from the festival), I opted for a hostel in town instead, Oban Backpackers, which was walking distance, comfy, very clean and, of course, full of other Oban Live folks, so a very pleasant base for the weekend.

In terms of eating out, Oban has plenty of options for everyone: fresh seafood from a stall by the harbour, trying local delicacies at the Food From Argyll café in the ferry terminal or starting the day off with a sweet breakfast at the airy Chocolate Café with a waffle & ice cream special (see pic below). There are also a Tesco, Lidl & Aldi on the way to the festival for supplies and some cheap camping chairs (Tesco), which came in handy as my friend had hurt her foot just a few days earlier.

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During the day you can explore the town itself and for instance enjoy the fantastic view over the bay from McCaig’s Tower, hike or cycle to one of the nearby beaches (can recommend Ganavan (see pic below), about 2 kilometres along the seafront with a food stall and public toilets) or take a 1-2 hour wildlife spotting boat trip from the harbour.

Oban Live Ganavan beach.jpg

Oban really is a beautiful corner of Scotland and Oban Live a festival which is big enough to have an excellent time listening to top Scottish and international musicians while being small and friendly enough to have a relaxed holiday weekend. Best of both worlds!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2019 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival apart from those labelled courtesy of Oban Live/Stephen Lawson.

 

City of Bridges: 24 Hours in Newcastle

After moving to Glasgow last autumn I had a long list of places to visit in Scotland, but things don’t always turn out the way you think. I have always been fascinated by the history of individual buildings and the people who lived in them. When I was watching the BBC documentary series ‘A House Through Time’ the other day, which portrayed a home in the English city of Newcastle, it seemed like an intriguing place to visit: industrial history, a vibrant cultural scene and many beautiful green spaces, very similar to Glasgow.

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About a week before the trip I booked a train ticket and found a good hotel deal. I decided to stay one night only and see how much I would manage to discover in 24 hours just by walking a few different neighbourhoods and soaking up the local atmosphere. I made a shortlist of things I absolutely had to see and usually group those by area with spots for lunch or coffee preselected, which gives me a few things to aim for along the route without restricting me too much in terms of spontaneity. It also really helps working out beforehand when certain attractions are closed, so you don’t end up missing out on them. Here are a few of the things I especially enjoyed:

The Lit & Phil

On my travels I often visit beautiful cities and buildings, but not many have the kind of wow factor the Lit & Phil has for me. Fairly unassuming from the outside, you walk up a flight of quite dark stairs until you emerge into the most brilliantly designed (by John Green 1822-25), large yet cosy space every booklover would want to never ever leave again. Give me 180k of books to browse, a cup of coffee and a comfy chair and that’s me sorted. Apart from its undeniable instagram appeal, it was the friendliness and uncomplicated feel of the library that made it even more enjoyable. I was made feel welcome by an enthusiastic volunteer (who worked as a librarian for 40 years) and while it is an independent members library, everyone is encouraged to browse and explore the space. It has always been a place to discuss books, not just for quiet contemplation, so if you want a guaranteed good experience on your visit, even just 10 minutes in here will lift your spirits. The Lit & Phil is a mere 5 minute walk from central station, so no excuse, plus they have lovely souvenirs to take home to those unfortunate ones who missed out on experiencing this amazing library in person.

NC19 Lit & Phil

The Bridge Views

Even if you only have an hour in Newcastle, walk down to any of the bridges and look across the river Tyne and you won’t regret it. The city’s 7 stunningly different bridges spanning the Newcastle Northern side of the river and the Gateshead side on the south are a sight to behold and you’ll never get tired of those fabulous views. In fact, I dare you to walk across any of them and not feel like wanting to take hundreds of pictures from the many possible angles. Once you’ve crisscrossed them to your heart’s content, grab a sandwich, take a seat somewhere by the Quayside and indulge in some people watching. Newcastle is a lively city with a large student population and as I was lucky to have excellent weather during my visit, everyone was out and about enjoying the rays and a relaxed drink by the water. Bliss.

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The Ouseburn Valley

I often find the best places to visit by simply opening Google Maps and zooming in on individual neighbourhoods. When you type in things you enjoy doing or spending time in like (in my case) vegan cafes or charity shops, you often find the best places for a nice walk. I therefore quickly worked out that the Ouseburn Valley (once the cradle of the city’s industrial revolution) east of the city centre would be a fun place to explore and I wasn’t disappointed. After enjoying the views over the city centre from the top floor of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art I crossed the river and walked east along the water until I got to the Cycle Hub (bicycle repair and great coffee with a view). I then followed a footpath next to the Ouseburn (pronounced ‘use-burn’, a small tributary to the Tyne), which took me past Seven Stories and to Ouseburn City Farm. There is even a horseriding centre just up the road. The Cluny pub right opposite and the Tyne Bar (a bit further south) are both great for live music, so I guess I’ll just have to come back another time. It’s an area that won’t appeal to every first time visitor with its rough charm and mix of old and new, but to me it’s just perfect.

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Green Spaces & Cosy Cafes

City trips don’t need to exclude spending time in nature. On the contrary, many modern cities have a wealth of green spaces, which are well worth enjoying, promoting and saving for future generations. On my second day I walked from the city centre north towards Jesmond, turned right on Osborne Avenue and continued north along the river for a little while, then turned around and walked south on a forest path to Heaton Park, ending up on Heaton Road. I had a chat with dog walkers, European visitors who used to live in the city and locals along the way and one of them recommended The Butterfly Cabinet for brunch. It turned out to be a good tip. After a morning’s brisk walking, I enoyed tucking into a yummy veggie burger and then still had some time left for more sightseeing in the city centre, including the intriguing historic Bessie Surtees House. The day before I found Super Natural Vegan Cafe (see their amazing food below), which I managed to visit twice, as there always needs to be time made for cake.

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The Sage Gateshead

The large and modern Sage Gateshead music centre and concert hall on the South Side of the Tyne (easily walkable from city centre accommodation) was designed by Norman Foster and opened in 2004. I had been aware of it for a while as they run a fabulous sounding Americana festival ‘Summertyne’ in July (on my list!). So it was very lucky that the one night I happend to be in town an absolutely wonderful special event was taking place. ‘Modern Fairies’ an enchanted mix of folk myths, ancient and modern instruments, storytelling, illustration and film making was simply beautiful and it somehow summed up my whole Newcastle experience for me: it’s a city that manages to marry the old with the new in a vibrant, down to earth way, which is really inspiring. Having scribbled down the dates of lots of upcoming festivals and other cultural events in my notebook, I’m certainly planning to be back fairly soon. I hope the above gives you a few additional reasons to visit this Northern City with its friendly vibe.

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P.S. If you’re a bunny lover like me or even if you’re not, don’t miss the Vampire Rabbit, you’ll have fun hunting down this bizarre over a century-old gargoyle with a mysterious history in the city centre.

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