Category Archives: Travel Destinations

Need Some Travel Inspiration? Why Not Try One Of These 11 Diverse Festivals From Around The World

Now is the best time to plan your adventures for the rest of the year and travel shows like Destinations (2-5 February 2017) in London are a great way to get a good overview on what’s on offer. At the show you can listen to travel experts, adventurers and journalists, such as John Simpson, Simon Reeve or Phoebe Smith, talk about anything from travel safety to trending travel destinations and get your most burning travel questions answered. Of course, the main question I had for the exhibitors was what fabulous festivals from around the world they loved best and, after doing all the legwork, I put together the below list for you to add to your schedule for the coming year and beyond. Here we go!

travel-panel-destinations-2017

February: Sami National Day Celebrations, Lapland

Sami National Day is on 6 February, it’s celebrated in most of the Nordic countries and is a great way to get acquainted with the age-old traditions of the Sami people. It includes reindeer sprint racing, learning about the Sami language as well as live music. Cities like Tromso, Jokkmukk, Oulu and Murmansk are good places to visit at this time of the year as they have some of the largest celebrations.

May: Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Morocco

This Moroccan gathering of high-profile musicians from around the world is an event which has long been on my to visit list and looks like a magical experience, even if festivals are normally not your kind of thing. You can stay in a traditional Riad, visit the sights during the day and immerse yourself in the most beautiful music from around the world at night. Unmissable!

May: Teheran Book Fair, Iran

Iran has a rich cultural and historic heritage and the fact that TIBF had around 5 million visitors in 2016 proves its importance for publishing in the Middle East. Of course, you’ll need to look into visas and other formalities in order to be able to visit, but the fair has around 600 foreign exhibitors and offers an enticing roster of cultural activities (author talks, writing workshops) to boot.

June: Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

While you might be more familiar with the novel about Count Dracula, TIFF is a popular film festival taking place annually in one of the most beautiful areas of Romania. In addition, Cluj boasts a vibrant cultural scene and no less than nine universities. If you’re visiting a country where English isn’t the main language, international film festivals are a great time to travel there as they are geared towards visitors from abroad and often offer fun side events like director Q&As and parties. Just make sure you book your accommodation ahead of time, as it will be super busy.

July: Tibetan Hemis Festival, Northern India

This recommendation came from my friends at Earthbound Expeditions and looks fantastic. Hemis Gompa, the largest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, is hosting this annual event, which is also a state holiday, and remembers the birth of Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan buddhism. There will be traditional costumes to admire and the sacred masked dances (‘Chaam’) by the Lamas are the highlight of the celebrations.

August: Garlic Festival, Isle of Wight, UK

Interestingly, the soil on the Isle of Wight is apparently so good for growing garlic, the island used to even export it to France. With their motto of ‘In Garlic We Trust’ you get to try unusual delicacies like garlic beer (not so sure about that one) and garlic fudge and an learn cooking with garlic with some experts.

August: Udaya Live Yoga and Music Festival, Bulgaria

Yoga festivals have been taking most of Europe by storm in the past few years and having been to Yoga Connects and Soul Circus in the UK last year, I started noticing lots of other wellness-oriented festivals, including Udaya Live in the Rila mountains of Bulgaria. Imagine spending a few days in stunning natural surroundings letting go of your everyday worries, doing workshops with world-class yoga instructors and learning about anatomy, nutrition and spirituality.

August: Sziget – The Island of Freedom, Budapest, Hungary

Sziget (which means ‘island’ in Hungarian) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and seems to get ever more popular. Taking place on an island in the Danube, it’s a week-long party of concerts, theatrical acts and other creative fun where you can see well-known headline acts alongside lots of quirky other entertainment. Interestingly, you can bring ‘peaceful pets’, like your dog or even a ferret, along, but not so sure if they’d enjoy the loud music as much as you will.

September: Lake of Stars Festival, Malawi

This was one of the most intriguing recommendations I got, but alas, like quite a few other festivals this year, they are taking a break and will be back in 2018. So plenty of time to plan your visit. The arts festival offers live concerts, children’s activities and other creative events. It has established links with the UK and is also planning some cultural events in Scotland and London for this year, so keep an eye on their website.

November: Kona Coffee Festival, Hawaii

What better combination than sunny beaches and a festival that celebrates the local coffee culture? Welcome to Kona and its coffee culture festival, which is Hawaii’s oldest food festival and revolves around the history of coffee in the coffee-growing Kona region. The yearly harvest is celebrated with tasting events by artisans, farm tours and coffee art exhibitions.

November: Uppsala Light Festival, Sweden

Scandinavia has long been one of my favourite destinations and while there are lots of festivals in Sweden around Midsummer, our Northern neighbours also know how to celebrate the darker time of the year. Head to the fourth-largest city in Sweden for a winter weekend break and experience the magic of ‘Allt Ljus’ – squares and buildings illuminated at night-time. How much more ‘hygge’ can you possibly get?

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for the Destinatons Show 2017. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers.

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Fly Away With Me: World Travel Market 2016

Living in London has many perks and one of them is that some of the largest events in any industry take place right here. Of course, World Travel Market, which took over the Excel from 7-9 November 2016, is not exactly a festival as such, but it comes pretty close to feeling like one if you’re a travel addict, blogger, or both. It’s a huge event and with nearly 50000 exhibitors and visitors from around the world and a long list of presentations and networking sessions on offer, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. In order to narrow it down a bit, I decided to focus on four areas this year: Travel Blogging, Creative Tourism, Responsible Tourism and Women in Travel and came away with some fascinating insights from all events I attended.

World Travel Market

Travel Blogging has become a huge growth sector in recent years with destination marketers, travel brands and influencers getting a chance to mingle and learn from each other at a lot of events – plus bloggers get access to the press lounge! On Friday, I attended at two events on mobile and live social media and video. We heard from digital communications experts like Flagship Consulting, bloggers, e.g. Niamh Shields of Eat Like A Girl,  and vloggers, such as Evan Edinger and Hannah Witton, who are using video as a blogging tool and I was impressed with their stories of how it is helping them to connect with their audiences, one video at a time. The next day the focus was on personalisation for bloggers and brands and influencer strategy with presentations from travel brands, such as  Cheapflights and Skyscanner, who work with content creators and shared some interesting details on how each of them manage those collaborations. Traverse hosted all of the above events and they are organising a blogger conference in April 2017, see you there!

World Trade Market Press Centre

Another fascinating session and the one closest to my heart was the Creative Tourism presentation on Tuesday. The title ‘Creative Tourism: A Necessary Update’ didn’t sound especially creative or promising, but the session most definitely was! Caroline Couret, the CEO of the Creative Tourism Network, based in Barcelona, presented a number of fascinating case studies on how destinations from different countries, such as Saint Jean Port Joli in Quebec as well as Ibiza Creativa, can attract creative travellers from around the world. Of course, the challenge remains for destinations and brands working in this market to stay commercially viable while providing options for a target group of highly independent and diverse travellers, an issue which I’ve also experienced in my own niche of festival travel. But how encouraging to see that this area has become such a growth market in recent years and is starting to be taken seriously around the world.

The World Responsible Tourism Awards 2016 were also announced during WTM 2016. This was probably the most inspiring event of all I attended, every single nominee sounded like an exciting forward-thinking business and the winners came from all four corners of the world. The overall winners this year were Lemon Tree Hotels in India (socially inclusive work environment and employment for people with disabilities and from disadvantaged backgrounds) and Tren Ecuador (a community-based tourism initiative supporting local people along a train route), both pictures below accepting their awards. I was particularly impressed, for instance, that all Lemon Tree Hotel supervisors are trained in Indian Sign Language and in the case of Tren Ecuador, how lots of smaller projects successfully combine to create a livelihood for many rural families. Further winners included the Sam Veasna Center in Cambodia (wildlife conservation), the Friends International ChildSafe Movement (responsible tourism campaign) and Elevate Destinations (innovation by tour operator). It was also really encouraging to see how many of the organisations and sponsors had female leaders presenting and receiving the awards.

WRTD Awards

Which also makes for a nice segway to my last focus at WTM 2016: Women in Travel. As there were too many events clashing on the Wednesday, I only made it to the last panel session of the day-long Women in Travel Meetup, but was extremely glad I had done so as it was the perfect WTM closing event for me. The discussion organised by Alessandra Alonso of Everyday Mentor focused on female ‘start-up stars’ and we heard from a diverse group of speakers about their individual projects. One of them was Carolyn Pearson, who started Maiden Voyage, a women’s business travel network out of the simple need of wanting to meet other business women travelling alone and Natalia Komis whose start-up I Am Adventures takes artists, entrepreneurs and social innovators on creative adventures around the world. The panel members reminded the attendees to always concentrate on your own business mission and to make sure to join a network. The informal networking session which followed was proof of the friendly and productive atmosphere with interesting connections made with business women from various countries (more on the blog soonish).

So if you’re an established or aspiring travel blogger, destination marketer, translator (I did meet one other linguist specialising in tourism!) or simply passionate about travelling, WTM is the event for you, see you next November!

Disclaimer: This blog claims no credit for any images used in this post. All three images are copyright to its respectful owners, in this case the the official WTM photographers.

Dog Days in Oxford

In August I spent a couple of days pet sitting in Oxford. I’d always liked the city and it was a great way of becoming a temporary local while spending time with a cute dog. So here is a roundup of my favourite things to do in the ‘city of dreaming spires’ that include some more well-known attractions as well as off the beaten path suggestions.

Manchester CollegePitt Rivers Museum

Amazing anthropology museum which is attached to the natural history museum and offers free tours every Wednesday and a couple of other times a month. You could easily spend a whole afternoon here, but can also get a good overview in less than an hour. Free entry and staff are knowledgeable and friendly.

Punting

The major punting hub in Oxford is right by the Madgalen bridge in the centre. If you feel like a quieter experience (depending on the season and weather) with less of a chance of other inexperienced hobby punters bumping into you while giving this fun activity a go, try the Cherwell Boathouse in North Oxford, about a 20 minute walk from the station or a short ride on a local bus up Banbury Road. There is also a restaurant/cafe attached to the boathouse, which makes for lovely riverside dining or a celebratory pint after you’ve successfully mastered your first punting lesson.

Allium at Elder Stubbs

Jericho

This is one of my favourite areas in the city. Walton Street boasts a long list of fabulous pubs, cafes and shops to keep you busy for an afternoon or evening out. Favourites are the Jericho Tavern  (regular live gigs upstairs,) and the Albion Beatnik bookshop and cafe, a cosy independent bookshop, where I attended a fantastic poetry night. Another cafe I really liked for it’s excellent coffee and relaxed atmosphere is Zappi’s Bike Cafe, above a bike shop on St Michael’s Street, a short walk from Jericho in the centre of Oxford.

Zappi's Cafe Oxford

Churches, glass engraving, open gardens and folk dancing with the locals

On Sunday I visited the local Unitarian church in a beautiful historic building and got talking to a lovely woman, who took me along to one of the National Garden Scheme’s Open Gardens for Charity. We had tea and scones on the lawn with her friends and I got invited to another event, a private folk dance evening in someone’s garden, the following night. I also attended a fascinating talk by well-known glass engraver (to the Queen, no less) Philip Lawson Johnston.

Philip Lawston JohnstonEvensong

A great way of combining seeing one of the colleges for free with a lovely musical experience is to attend an evensong session in one of the famous university churches. We went to Christchurch on a beautiful summer evening and after enjoying an hour of music in the cathedral got some great sunset shots of the buildings and courtyard. It’s free, but do turn up early as seats tend to fill up quickly.

Live music in Oxford

I was excited to see that apart from a few larger music venues, such as the O2 Academy, Oxford also boasts quite a few lively music sessions in various parts of the city centre and beyond. While I was there I visited the James Street Tavern off Cowley Road for their Tuesday night session, which was lively and fun, and the Halfmoon Irish pub on a Thursday night. This area also has a couple of other venues with live music, e.g. The Bullingdon, the Cape of Good Hope and Cafe Tarifa. Also watch out for the fantastic Folk Weekend Oxford in April and the Elder Stubbs allotment festival in August (both accept volunteers).

Elder Stubbs Festival

Charity shop tour and Oxford’s most unusual attraction

On my one rainy day during my stay I did a bit of internet research after breakfast and found out that Headington seems to be the place to be for a good charity shop browse. It not only has a cluster of half a dozen shops in close vicinity (see list here), but also offers a very unique visitor attraction: the Headington Shark.

Headington Shark

Where to find events online and offline

With Oxford being such a vibrant university city, events abound and the best way to find out what’s going on at any one time is to check out Daily Info (which also lists arts, theatre, workshops and family events), Nightshift (also available in paper form in many pubs and bars around town), Music in Oxford, Folk in Oxford, Young Women’s Music Project, Evenbrite or Meetup.

P.S. My very favourite thing of my time spent in Oxford was coming across baby newts in the garden pond of the house I was staying in. They are fascinating animals who live part of the year in the water and part of the year on land and seeing them upclose was quite a special treat.

Newt baby

Not Your Average Winter Holiday: Bucharest in December

When a good friend of mine mentioned last November that she was going to fly to Bucharest for a few days after Christmas I wasn’t all that excited at first. But a pretty cheap flight, a cosy apartment in the centre and Bucharest’s label as ‘Paris of the East’ proved just too tempting in the end. The deal was my friend was going to mainly concentrate on ‘church seeing’ while I was going to delve into Bucharest’s cultural scene, if there was any to speak of. So far, so good.

Spending a few days in a place you have absolutely no expectations of can be a great advantage. As the list of things I absolutely wanted to see was relatively small, I ended up spending whole days with my friend wandering through different parts of the city. We watched iceskaters doing their rounds in Cismigiu park, cuddled with some cats in the village museum (with buildings from different regions in Romania) in Herastrau Park and visited more churches than I had ever seen in one place before.

To my own surprise I became quite fascinated with walking past walls and walls of iconic images in the semi-darkness and watching young and old light candles for the living and the dead (or in some places the ‘sleeping’). Each church had a different feel to it, my favourites being the Cretulescu Church and the Stavropoleos Church. I was quite touched by how religious Romanians are, even some of the city dwellers, and how they seemed to draw a lot of strength from it.

The day after we arrived it started snowing quite heavily and the rest of the week was dry, so all the roofs of the buildings and the tops of the trees were covered in a magical, white layer like powdered sugar. The snow somehow helped to soften the edges of a city that, particularly in the old town, looked in parts like a set for a WWII movie while every other building was a (theoretically) depressing-looking Communist era apartment block. But instead of being disappointed I found myself more and more drawn to this city with its mix-and-match look and its wealth of Orthodox churches with old ladies, clad all in black, selling candles at the door.

Churches aside, of course I also discovered (or excavated?) the cultural side of Bucuresti (the Romanian spelling of the city’s name). As the language barrier was a bit of a hindrance for movies and theatre shows, we spent a lot of time warming up in cafes and bookshops. Our favourite haunt, and our usual place for meeting some of the local couchsurfers, was the café in the basement of the huge Carturesti bookstore near Piata Romana, a real haven for bookworms like myself. Another great café for coffee and chocolate fans was Chocolat in the old town, where they also served excellent savoury dishes. I also enjoyed browsing in the smallish Anthony Frost English bookshop and went to a concert by Ada Mileia (who sings in Romanian and English) in the Art Jazz Club, a mere one minute walk from our apartment. I can also recommend Green Hours jazz club for gigs and other arts events.

Despite the many social and economic issues the majority of Romanians are still facing, we were both surprised at how much we had fallen in love with Bucharest’s rough charme in those couple of days. So if a friend of yours suggests to fly to Bucharest for the Christmas holidays, just go along, talk to the locals, walk the city’s streets with open eyes and you might be in for a nice surprise. I certainly was.

Slow Pleasures: Rediscovering Paris One Macaron at a Time

There are a million reasons for returning to Paris again and again. It’s one of those places that is constantly evolving and I never tire of it. My recent trip in August happened to be in the middle of the main tourist season (mon dieu!). But having already visited the main attractions the first couple of times, this weekend was exclusively dedicated to soaking up the atmosphere.
 
Here are some of my favourite things to do in Paris most of which are (even slightly) off the usual tourist trail and will hopefully make your own return visit to the French capital as delightful as mine was this time:
 
FIND
First things first and that usually means getting a guidebook. I absolutely hate dragging around heavy tomes or traffic-stopping maps the size of a small parachute. That’s why I’ve fallen in love with the Cartoville Mapguides. For about 8 euros a pop, they fit into your handbag, feature useful fold-out maps of different areas, handy sightseeing, food and drink tips and are available as Everyman Mapguides in the UK and Knopf Mapguides in the US. Et voila!
 
EXPLORE
I’ve been a fan of the French Open since I started learning to play tennis as a child and loved watching my favourite players battling it out on the red sand of Roland Garros every year on telly. But nothing compares to actually standing on the centre court (seating capacity of 15000), seeing the players’ changing rooms and hearing some behind the scenes stories (never knew that they get a hefty fine if they don’t turn up for interviews after their matches). Roland Garros offers tours in French or English, there is an excellent tennis museum and a souvenir shop too. The metro stop is Porte D’Auteuil.
 
centre court
 View of the Centre Court at Roland Garros
RELAX
I’m always on the lookout for the best coffee in town and am especially thrilled if it comes nicely presented with some sweets and a glass of water AND a view of Notre Dame but without a group of noisy tourists at the next table. Such a gem is La Cafeotheque (metro: Pont Marie). Superfriendly and knowledgeable staff, coffee being roasted on site, a choice of mouthwatering speciality coffees and a cosy atmosphere with mainly local customers. If you’ve been on your feet all day exploring the beautiful streets and parks of Paris, step into La Cafeotheque, lean back and enjoy!
 
INDULGE
La Duree (e.g. Rue Bonaparte, metro: Saint-Germain-des-Prés) is not your ordinary bakery. It is one of the poshest addresses for macarons (not macaroons, see wikipedia for the difference) and other little treats which tend to go down very well as pressies for loved ones back home. If you feel like treating yourself a bit (or big time), this is the place to go. If speciality teas are more your thing, check out Mariage Freres, a tea connoisseur’s heaven in the Marais area (metro: Madeleine).
 
laduree choice
Some of the dainty delicacies on offer at La Duree
 
PAMPER YOURSELF
While you’re in Rue Bonaparte drop into Aesop for beautiful natural cosmetics from this Australian brand. I first got hooked on them (ah I love my legal drugs) while travelling in OZ and Cate Blanchett also seems to be huge a fan. So now I treat myself to a few pots of of their special potions whenever I get into one of the few shops in Europe. They do mailorder also, but it’s so much more fun to get the products in person. Rue Bonaparte is also one of my most cherished places in Paris as this is where one of my favourite designers, Eileen Gray used to live most of her life. Her E1027 table is simply the best piece of furniture I’ve ever owned. In fact, if you could hug a glass table I would.
 
kitty
Do as this kitty does, stretch your legs in a shady spot
 
PLAY
After so much serious pampering it’s time to lighten up a bit and what better way to do that than to jump on one of the many Paris carousels. You may get some funny looks from the 5-year-olds sharing the wooden horses with you (and a cow, what was that all about?), but don’t let that put you off. Give the little ones a cheerful high five and you’re good to go. You can find these marvels of the past at the bottom of the hill of Sacre Coeur on Montmartre (remember Amelie??), in the Jardin des Tuileries, in the Luxembourg Gardens and also in the Parc du Champ de Mars.
 
horses
The carousel by the steps of Sacre Coeur
 
GET INSPIRED
I’ve been very much into artwork by illustrators recently (found another fabulous one in Edinburgh, more later) and came across this artist’s work in the bookshop of the Centre Pompidou. Rebecca Dautremer illustrates mainly young people’s books, the one I took a look at was called ‘Les Princesses’. Here is an interview with her in English to get an idea of how she works. Aren’t the drawings just magical? Both dark and dainty at the same time. Marveilleux if you ask me.
 
summer rooftop
rooftop decorations near Centre Pompidou
C’EST TOUT?
Mais non, if you’re still looking for more things to do on a summer’s day in Paris go to one of the free readings at Shakespeare & Co, a quirky bookshop that stocks English-speaking books. Also check out Paris Plages (sand, deckchairs and icecream sellers along the Seine) and the FNAC music festival (free gigs outside the Hotel de Ville including acts like Malians Amadou et Mariam). En fin, after all the excitement of the day head to the Canal St Martin area for a few drinks in one of the many bars and cafes.

Home Sweet Home: Why it’s great to be a tourist in your own home town

Since moving abroad I’ve been having a great time being a tourist in my own hometown every few months or so. I couldn’t have picked a better time for a visit this summer as the weather was just perfect for balmy nights in the beergarden, there was a free outdoor jazz gig, I got to play with my cute nieces and discovered a few new corners of the place I grew up in.
So here are my top 8 reasons why visiting one’s hometown can be the best and most relaxing holiday of all:
1. The temperature actually reaches 30+ degrees
Ah it’s so nice to be able to leave your umbrella at home (if at all, it might come in handy to shield you from too much sun) and spend every night beergarden hopping, fanning yourself with the cocktail menu while contemplating the next drinking destination. In Augsburg alone there are about 100 beergardens to choose from, there is even a little guidebook for that serious (= Irish style) beergarden crawl!

Eiskaffee

2. Your mum/friends/neighbours will happily feed you
Let’s face it, you’re only in town every couple of months, so there should be dinner invitations left, right and centre. I never fail to have Kaesespaetzle at least once when I’m home and never turn down an invitation for afternoon tea, especially when the host mentions homebaked cake…mmmhhh…in fact I more than once managed to have four brunch/coffee/dinner/coffee get togethers all in one long, leisurely vacation day. Bliss.
3. You get to hang out with old friends
No introductions or explanations needed, no awkward moments, just sipping coffee together, giggling about jokes that only you find funny and having a brilliant time.
Gilda Razani
Outdoor jazz gig in the beautiful Damenhof

4. You don’t need to bring a guidebook

You know how much the tram ticket is and where to catch a bus to your favourite cafe. You don’t need to do any sightseeing because you know the place inside and out. Plenty of time to just relax, eat, drink and laugh.
Blumen
5. Everything is cheaper – especially food and drink
Well, this might not apply if you’re living in any other place than Dublin, but it is just incredible how much cheaper everything always seems back home. Being a firm believer in appreciating the little pleasures in life, I always happily eat and drink my way through the menu of all my favourite foodie places and smile at the thought of how in Dublin this would have cost me a small fortune. By the way, buffet style brunch (usually includes a hot drink and/or juice and a selection of savoury and sweet food all for under a tenner) is amazing in Germany and you can sit there all morning with your friends.
Pizza
Yummy coal oven pizza for €7 and it was so big I couldn’t even finish it all
6. You discover new things about your old home
When your friends are at work but you have a bit of time on your hands, take an extended walk around town and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll find. Turn into a street you normally wouldn’t take, peak around an unfamiliar corner, get off a tram stop earlier, have a chat with a stranger at a newsagent’s, sit on the steps of a little church watching everyday life go by.
Message on the street
Don’t dream about the past when happiness is at your footstep. Wake up and discover me. Yours, Augsburg. One of the winners of the ‘Lebe mich. Dein Augsburg.’ competition (see also: http://www2.augsburg.de/index.php?id=20536)
7. You remember what’s cool about the place you’re from
When it’s almost time to go back pick up a few tourist office brochures to show to your friends and colleagues abroad. Every place tends to have a few interesting things it is known for, be it the best local brewery, the most famous writer or artist or some curious historical facts – go dig them up!
Rathaus und Perlachturm
City Hall and Perlach Tower
8. You can bring back some things you crave when you’re homesick
I always miss my favourite chocolate, speciality teas and my mum’s christmas cookies, so on the way back to Dublin I generally fill up my suitcase with as many of them as I can fit in. I tell ya, having such a stash with things from home is priceless when you’re hit by a bout of homesickness on one of those dark, rainy November days.
If you ever make it to Augsburg, check out these sites before you go:
The ‘Fuggerei’ is the world’s oldest social housing estate dating to 1516.
Famous Augsburgers include Leopold Mozart, Bertholt Brecht and Rudolf Diesel.
Augsburger Puppenkiste – Augsburg’s renowned puppet theatre company
The Eiskanal – the world’s first artificial whitewater course (used during the 1972 Munich Olympics)

Urban Travel Adventure On a Budget: Cardiff

I absolutely love travelling and what I enjoy most is exploring cities I’ve never been to before. So many new people to meet, interesting cultural places to check out, coffees to sip in beautiful locations while scribbling in my notebook. Bliss!
This May I booked a flight to Cardiff for a week. I know, not the most obvious place to spend seven days. You’re thinking rugby, pints and rain, right? Well, what I found was cocktails and a movie night in a Mongolian tent, talks by bestselling authors and a very interesting multicultural singing experiment. The dark horses of the travel world sometimes do turn out to be the best hidden gems.
Getting to Cardiff was surprisingly stress-free as I steered clear of a certain low-fares airline and instead opted for AerArann (no baggage and check-in fees, woohoo). I booked into the Nos Da Hostel ( = ‘good night’ in Welsh) right opposite the Millenium Stadium and at around €20 a night including brekkie a good, safe and friendly option.
You’ve probably already heard of Couchsurfing. I joined the CS community earlier this year and haven’t looked back since (I’m going to post separately on the best way to ‘score’ a couch in popular cities, what to put on your profile and, more importantly, what NOT to do etc.). Couchsurfing in Cardiff was a total eye-opener for me. The Cardiff CSers are a small, tightknit, but extremely welcoming group of people who really care about their city and enjoy sharing it with newcomers and residents alike. During my week in Cardiff I stayed with two lovely female couchsurfers one of whom organised two pub nights while I was there (see A Shot in the Dark and Royal Oak Pub). It was a great way of meeting the locals as well as exchange stories with other visiting couchsurfers.
Movie Night in the Milgi Yurt

Movie Night in the Milgi Yurt

Cardiff may only have about 300 000 inhabitants, but it has its fair share of quirky cafes and pubs. Milgi Lounge (in Cardiff’s student area around City Road) was one of those places that I wanted to take with me to Dublin when I left. A hangout that reminded me of San Fran or Amsterdam, Milgi offers an enticing food menu, great cocktails and coffee and: a real Mongolian yurt in the back garden with a collection of preloved sofas and armchairs where punters can enjoy free movies. Chapter was my other favourite place in the city. It’s an arts centre and cinema (think IFI, but with a more creative food menu and art exhibitions). It serves creative, great value comfort food, excellent coffee and homemade cakes to die for and attracts all kinds of people from young families to artsy types. Another favourite that my CS host recommended to me was the Waterloo Gardens Teahouse in the leafy suburb of Roath. With its modern wooden interior and many tempting speciality teas and coffees on offer, it is an oasis of calm only a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
Afternoon break at the Waterloo Gardens Teahouse

Afternoon break at the Waterloo Gardens Teahouse

As this is a blog dedicated to all things festival, of course there was plenty of that as well. Hay was absolutely amazing (see my article here) and I also was at a very interesting event which might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but which impressed me a lot. The National Youth Eisteddfod is an annual Welsh peforming arts festival for young people (there also various other ones, for adults, just for music etc.  see here). This year it took place in Cardiff Bay and it attracts participants from all over Wales (only those who win their local and then county competitions get to take part). There are a variety of disciplines represented, from choir singing to theatre to dance, orchestra performances to poetry recitals. The whole week gets huge television coverage and it is a great honour to be crowned one of the overall winners. You can buy a day ticket for about €13 and just stroll in and out of various competitions. But beware, everything is in Welsh (which to me is one of the most beautiful and powerful languages on earth), earphones with translations available as far as I know.
Welsh choir competition at the National Youth Eisteddfod

Welsh choir competition at the National Youth Eisteddfod

After a week in Cardiff I basically felt like I WAS already living there and was very sad to leave. But on my last day there was another highlight. Before I had left home I had emailed a woman who works for the local women’s arts association and she had told me about a new, cross-cultural women’s singing group, which I joined for one of their rehearsals. They were going to perform at the upcoming Refugee Week, an amazing nationwide ‘festival’ for locals and refugees to meet and learn from each other celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK. Even though I could only attend this single choir session, they welcomed me with open arms. The group consisted of a friendly bunch of women from various countries and age groups and it was great to chat about how each of them experiences life in Wales.
So if you want to see a bit more of the place you’re visiting and not just scratch the touristy surface, make sure to get out of your comfort zone once in a while. It might be a bit scary at first. But it’s really worth it. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Do your homework: do some internet research before you go. If you like writing, look for places where readings are being held. If art or sport is your thing, check out the websites of local arts or sporting organisations and see what’s on while you’re in town. If good quality food is what you’re looking or, find recommendations from food blogs and local websites.
2. Check out the local couchsurfing forum pages: take a look at the community pages of local couchsurfing groups (you don’t need to be logged in to read the messages, just go to http://www.couchsurfing.org, click on community, then search groups). They are full of tips from knowledgeable locals about anything from local transport to where to have the cheapest pint in the place you’re visiting.
3. Make friends before you go: join Couchsurfing or ask your own friends if they know anyone in the place you’re going. Email them and ask would they like to go for a coffee or show you around. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
4. Get insider tips from locals: while the staff at the tourist office were friendly and quite knowledgeable, I got the best insider tips through asking locals I had met in music stores and cafes and who recommended their favourite places to me. And from my couchsurfing hosts of course.
So get out there and get planning, you know you want to :-)!