Incredible journeys inspired by Oxford

If there is one thing that I love as much as exploring the world, it’s probably reading. So I was extremely excited to discover that Oxford had been an inspiration for so many amazing books.

Cherry on top of the cake: it seems to have inspired especially epic journeys involving dangerous travels and incredible friendships. Follow me around Oxford and let’s all embark on a literary adventure!

1) Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

Starting with the most famous, follow me on my Harry Potter filming locations journey! Can you associate these different photos with scenes from the movies?

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library was used in the movies as Hogwarts’ Infirmary. Looking up, you might notice that letters are sculpted in the ceiling of this impressive room. These letters are the initials of all donators who allowed the construction of the building thanks to their generous donations.

While you are at the Bodleian Library, take a minute in the main entrance and have a look at the statue in front of the building. Reminding you of anyone? He is surely looking a lot like Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, also known as Nearly Headless Nick!

New College Cloisters was used for one of the emblematic scene in Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire. Remember when Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret? Well, that was in that exact cloisters!

Now time to enter one of the most iconic Hogwarts location of all: the Great Hall! Even though a replica was created to film in studio, the original location is in Oxford. Just a look at the Christ Church College dining hall is enough to see the similitudes and be transported in the incredible School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

2. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll also found his inspiration in Oxford to create Alice and its Wonderland. You can find reminders of this fact across the city like these miniatures in the Museum of Oxford.

Charles Lutwidge, Lewis Carroll’s real name, arrived in Oxford to study mathematics at Christ Church in the 1850s. If you wish to follow the White Rabbit down the rabbit-hole, heading to Christ Church Meadow is your strongest chance. Foggy and green, I easily understand how the inspiration came to Lewis Carroll!

Interesting anecdote, the real life Alice who inspired the story, named Alice Liddell, was the daughter of a Dean at Christ Church.

3) The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S Lewis

Another epic saga born in Oxford is The Chronicles of Narnia. C.S Lewis found his inspiration, according to my guide, when he left his college one night.

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He stumbled upon these three elements:

A lamp-post, a faun and a lion were all C.S. Lewis needed to bring the amazing world of Narnia to life! The lamp-post being the very first thing that Lucy sees when she goes through the wardrobe to Narnia, the faun being Mr Tumnus, the first character she meets, and the lion being the great Aslan himself of course.

4) The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkiens

Last but not least, Oxford also brought to life the incredible series of The Lord of The Rings. For most of his life, J. R. R. Tolkiens was a professor of English and Literature at Merton College. Having one of the oldest library in the UK, Tolkiens would have spent lots of time reading and studying there to prepare his books.

According to my guide, the twin towers of All Souls College in Oxford are supposed to have given him the inspiration for his second volume called the Two Towers.

So is it a coincidence that all those incredibly epic stories have been written or inspired by Oxford? I don’t think so! If you are experiencing some writer’s block or just want to get some inspiration, you might want to head to The Eagle & Child.

This pub used to host the Inklings, an Oxford writers’ group which included C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkiens, Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson. Meeting during lunchtimes at the back of the pub in a room known as the ‘Rabbit Room’, they would read and discuss various materials and manuscripts.

If you don’t feel like writing, it’s still a great place to have some nice food and think about life while feeling inspired by some of the finest writers of Oxford!

 

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Huge Thanks to Premium Walking Tour of Oxford for their great 2 hour-long free walking tour! Starting in front of Oxfam No.17 on Broad Street, at 11am and 2pm everyday, don’t hesitate!

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Ecuador: A country full of wonders [Part 1]

Ecuador may look quite small on the map but I can assure you that it is packed with amazing destinations!

ecuador_91If you are a nature enthusiast, this tiny country will seduce you by its incredible diversity of landscape and its unique wildlife.

Ecuador is indeed the most biodiverse country on Earth for its size. Quite exciting, isn’t it? The birdwatchers will be especially happy knowing that the country contains 16% of all existing bird species! According to the Biodiversity Group, a dazzling 140 species of hummingbird is awaiting for you there.

Bordering the Pacific Ocean, Ecuador is a mosaic of extremely diverse ecosystems. From high mountains to surprising islands, follow me in my journey there.

1. Quito & the Andes

Being the longest mountain range in the world, the Andes run along South America’s western side from Chile to Venezuela. More than being long, the Andes are also very high and your body will get to experience the effects linked to altitude quite quickly if you fly to Quito.

Perched at almost 3,000 meters, the capital city was already a challenge for me. Headaches, tiredness and nose bleeds were a constant reminder of how high I suddenly was but luckily my body got used to the altitude after few days.

Quito is definitely worth a visit for its beautiful city centre, mix of gothic cathedrals and colorful houses. I totally fell in love with the Basilica del Voto Nacional due to its original animal gargoyles. As a zoologist, it just felt so nice to see the traditional deformed figures replaced by sculpted pelicans and anteaters!

If you are a foodie and like eating like locals, head to a cafe and order a hot chocolate. It will be served with a bowl of cheese that you are expected to drop in the hot drink. Absolutely delicious!

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Once done with Quito and fully adjusted to the altitude, you can then head to the real wild moutains! Make sure to have a guide with you if you go on unknown paths and be ready to experience extremely cold temperatures.

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Hiking the Andes was a beautiful but somehow painful experience for me. Still struggling with altitude sickness, my few hours walking in the cold were pretty miserable. Headaches, short breath and dizziness accompanied me through the entire journey making it hard to fully enjoy the view. So I insist again: take your time to adjust to the altitude before heading anywhere.

When back at lower altitudes, I could breath again and enjoy the mountains a bit more. Visiting the Antisana Ecological Reserve, I thought at first glance that the vegetal landscape was quite homogeneous. But when I started looking more closely I discovered some beautiful flowers hidden here and there, drops of color surviving the harsh altitude and temperatures.

Every plant growing there has evolved to survive the difficult conditions either by growing at a smaller size or by becoming thicker to protect itself from the cold. In terms of wildlife, I had the chance to meet again with two of my favourite birds: hummingbirds and caracaras.

A photographer’s paradise: Botanical Gardens

If you love the outdoor and want to improve your photography skills, botanical gardens can be the perfect place to go! Usually containing hundreds or even thousands of different plants’ species, they give you a good window of the plant diversity across the world.

As a wildlife photographer, I also love them because they are host to many species: from colorful butterflies to weird-looking monkeys, you never know what you will stumble upon. Local species such as squirrels and ducks usually thrive in those gardens and are easier to approach that in the wild, making it a good photography training.

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Botanical gardens for me are places where I can completely lose track of time and let go of whatever I have in mind. For a good photography trip, I would advise to save a couple of hours to enjoy the garden at its fullest. Flowers can change really fast depending on sunlight so you want to make sure you get different perspectives in your photos.

I usually try to bring a range of different lenses with me when I go explore botanical gardens. Zoom lenses are great for snapping wildlife shots especially of birds and mammals, macro ones are amazing for insects, and I absolutely love taking my 50mm f1.8 to take flower portraits.

My top 3 so far:
1. Jardin des Plantes, Paris: This botanical garden is perfect to combine with a visit to the Museum of Natural History located next door. Great to take a green break from the busy capital.
2. Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro: Beautiful and huge, this garden even has a portion of preserved Atlantic Rainforest! Great to spot squirrels and capuchin monkeys.
3. Old Botanical Garden, Kiel: Very spacious with an amazing diversity of plants. Great for flower portraits and relaxing on a sunny day.

Aberaeron: Wales Best Place

Seaside resort located on the West coast, Aberaeron, elected Best Place in Wales, is definitely charming and colorful!

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The contest, ran by the Royal Town Planning Institute Cymru, is meant to celebrate Wales most protected, carefully planned or improved places. The cute village of Aberaeron came in first position, followed by the picturesque Tenby and the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that is Gower.

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Visiting Aberystwyth last weekend with a friend, we decided out of curiosity to stop by Aberaeron to check what made the place so special. We took the bus T1 at destination of Carmarthen. After a 40 minutes ride in the Welsh countryside, we arrived in the charming village.

Tiny, is probably the first adjective that came to my mind when looking around. In this season, a day is definitely enough to enjoy the town and see all the main landmarks. My second observations was that almost all the houses around us were painted in bright colors, giving the town an interesting vibe.

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Heading first to the harbour, we enjoyed a nice view of the church connected to the port by a woody bridge. Few sailing boats were patiently waiting for a chance to get back to the sea and the sun was just high enough to give the scene a perfect lighting.

Crossing the bridge and heading to the church, we ended up in the Craft Centre. There, we found a patchwork of different shops (which unfortunately were mostly closed on Mondays). An antique shop, neighbouring a tattoo studio, was filled with tick tocking noises and exhibited amazing  clocks.

Despite my deep hatred for any ticking sounds, I have to say that I always enjoy watching old clocks. In one corner of the room laid a beautiful one, called the Skeleton Clock, its mechanism fully exposed to the public eye hanging in all its beauty.

Continuing our bucolic wander, we reached the river and a hiking path leading to Lampeter. Probably busy during the summer, the path was then pretty quiet. After visiting the Tourist Information Centre and wondering in front of the local artists’ paintings and photographies, we decided to go have a walk along the coast.

Curious about the possibility to spot marine wildlife, I asked the receptionist before leaving if dolphin sightings were common around Aberaeron. She explained that dolphins could often be seen in the nearby town of New Quay but rarely around the village. I guess that provides me with a good reason to come back explore this region of Wales next summer!

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Hungry?
Located right in front of the T1 and T5 bus stops, the Ambassadors cafe is based on the first floor of a souvenir shop. From sandwiches to panini and even crepes, the large choice of lunch items will make everyone happy.  Deliciously fresh smoothies and incredibly big slice of cakes are also on the menu, making the Ambassadors Cafe a perfect place for tea time as well.

How to get there? 
T1 from Aberystwyth, Lampeter, and Carmarthen
T5 from Aberystwyth, New Quay, Cardigan, Fishguard and Haverfordwest

Eat, Drink, Wander

While traveling or living abroad, I always try to do things the way local people do. Sometimes it involves discovering local transports like matatus in Kenya, other times it can mean learning the basics of a new language.

However, considering myself a foodie, there is nothing I love more than trying typical food or drinks! So I decided to list here some of my best or more surprising discoveries of the past few years.

1. France: Brittany

  • Winner: Kouign-Amann

Photo Credit: momo go/Flickr
Photo Credit: momo go/Flickr

Think of the most buttery thing you can imagine. Multiply the amount of butter by a hundred and you’ll get the Kouign-Amann. I never found anything so buttery anywhere in the world but that pastry is so amazingly delicious that who would care about counting calories?!

To be honest, if you speak Breton the name by itself is saying it all: Kouign meaning cake and Amann meaning butter. Rumor has it than this pastry was invented by Yves-René Scordia in the 1860s. At the time flour was scarce but butter abundant and so that would explains the unusual proportions used to make the delicious pastry.

My best memory of Kouign-Amann is linked to the beautiful city of Saint-Malo. After having spent the day exploring the Mont St-Michel in a freezing cold, my parents decided to head in Saint-Malo to have a break. Passing in front of many bakeries, I finally managed to convince them to stop for some cake and hot chocolate and that’s how I discovered the Kouign-Amann for the very first time!

  • Runner-up: Galette-saucisse

Photo Credit: the LEAF Project/Flickr
Photo Credit: the LEAF Project/Flickr

Brittany is famous around the world for its savoury buckwheat flour pancakes, known in the region as galettes. Be aware if you ever go to Brittany that you should never refer to the galettes as crepes in front of the locals. I did many times and my Britons friends always quickly corrected me, putting an emphasis on how drastically different the two things are.

But there is something even more symbolic than the simple galette for people inhabiting the Ille et Vilaine department and that is the galette-saucisse! Even though I found it pretty boring, the fact that it has a song dedicated to it makes it relevant to this list.

So if you ever go around Rennes and see people eating a sausage inside a galette in the street as they would eat a hot dog, don’t be surprise and give it a try!

2. Great Britain: England

  • Winner: Full English Breakfast

Photo Credit: Magnus D/Flickr
Photo Credit: Magnus D/Flickr

Somehow I got very attached to the full English breakfast after spending six months as an Erasmus student in Manchester. Honestly, there is no better comfort food and hangover cure than this. After an agitated night out, you just head to the pub on the next day with your friends to watch a football game while having a nice and heavy breakfast.

Usually around £4 or £5, the most typical ones includes hashbrowns (my favourite part), sausages, bacon, beans and tomato sauce, eggs, and black pudding which at my complete astonishment appeared not to be a pudding at all but a blood sausage!

You can also find versions with mushrooms, toasts, and even in some places, personalise it as much as you want. In all Britishness, I always accompany this heavy breakfast with a cup of milky tea.

  • Runner-up: Yorkshire Pudding

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Photo Credit: Sam Greenhalgh/Flickr

I associate Yorkshire puddings with Christmas and happy times so I just love them. One of my flatmate in Manchester was from Yorkshire and I had the priviledge of eating home-made ones as my very first ones.

These puddings are also often served on roast days with meat and vegetables. Their fluffiness and squichiness make them amazing but add a bit of gravy on top and you’ll be heading for pure deliciousness!

3. Ecuador

  • Winner: Popcorn Soup

Photo Credit: Lee Davenport/Flickr
Photo Credit: Lee Davenport/Flickr

Soup is a very important part of Ecuadorian meals. I was initially quite surprised to see that soup was almost always part of the menu. Even on the Galapagos Islands where temperatures were close to 40°C, restaurants were all serving soups as a starter.

But that was nothing in comparison with my amazement when I discovered the popcorn soup! I already had soup with bread, croutons or cheese in the past but with popcorn?! Of course my curiosity was instantly titillated and I had to try it.

I looked at the bowl of soup in front of me and took a handful of popcorn in my hands. Slowly dropping them in my soup, I could hear them drown and drift making an effervescent sound which reminded me of the sound of snow.

I could see the popcorn slowly softening and decided it was soft enough for me to give it a try. I have to say that even though what I love the most about popcorn is its crunchiness, this squishy version was just delicious and it definitely added something to the soup. So if you ever see Ecuadorian people adding popcorn in their soup, follow their leads and give a try!

  • Runner-up: Plantain

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    Photo Credit: protogarrett/Flickr

In term of taste, plantain would actually be my winner but the popcorn soup was so surprising that I thought it deserved the spotlight.

Plantain is a banana type that needs to be cooked before eating. My favourite ways of eating it was either fried or as crips. It is commonly served as a side for main dish and is easily found in any restaurants.

4. Portugal

Winner: Pastéis

pasteis-portugal-foodI always had a sweet tooth so living in Portugal was pretty much heaven for me! Pastéis refers most often to sweet pastries that you can find in every bakery. If you ever go to Brazil, you might be surprised to discover that there, pastéis are most often salty snacks.

The great thing about Portuguese pastéis is that it seemed to me that almost each city had its traditional one so that was the perfect excuse to eat pastries every time I was traveling somewhere!

The most famous are probably the pastel de nata, and the pastel de Belem, which you should absolutely try at the Antigua Confeitaria in Lisbon. However, my personal favourite is the traveissero (which is the one at the bottom of the photo).

A great place to taste as many pastéis as you can handle is the Piriquita bakery located in the fairyland-like city of Sintra.

  • Runner-up: Requeijão

Requeijão is a inbetween of yogurt and cheese in term of texture. Salted, I loved to have it for breakfast on bread coated with honey. Some people compare it to the Italian ricotta but the taste is stronger and more characteristic. Requeijão can also be found in Brazil but there it is more of a spreadable artificial flavored cheese.

5. Brazil: Rio Grande do Sul

  • Winner: Chimarrão

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There is nothing more typical of Rio Grande do Sul than chimarrão. I was in Porto Alegre for less than a hour that I had already been handed a cuia (name of the wood recipient) to try it. My first impression of it, to be fully honest, was that I was drinking some very bitter boiled grass but it is an acquired taste and I quickly became addicted to it.

Chimarrão, also known as mate, is typical of the Gaucho regions so you can also find people drinking it in Argentina and Uruguay.

However, the cuias found in other countries are much smaller than the Brazilian ones. That is due to the fact that in the South Brazilian culture, the Chimarrão is meant to be shared.

Invited at someone’s place, in class, or at a conference, you will see cuias and thermos of hot water passing from hands to hands. The way you prepare it is that you first put the erva mate in the cuia, then you level it by putting the cuia upside down on your hand and create an empty space of one side (as you can see on the photo), finally you add the boiling water and the straw. Once it’s ready, you just keep topping it up with warm water without adding any mate.

If  you ever live in Rio Grande do Sul and want to make friends easily, just buy a cuia and some erva mate and you will be adopted instantaneously!

  • Runner-up: Churrasco

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Another important cultural tradition in the region is the churrasco. This Brazilian barbecue is serious business and if you live in Rio Grande do Sul, you will often be invited to come for a churrasco.

A typical churrasco usually includes big piece of beef slowly cooked on giant sticks, chicken hearts, garlic bread. and a kind of potato salad called maionese.

Usually lasting for entire afternoons, there is nothing more friendly and fun than a good churrasco. Plus, I never ever tasted any better meat than the one I had in Rio Grande do Sul!

Meeting with rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy

“If an accident happens money will not be refunded.” Warning from friends and travel websites came back to my mind when I read this message written on my matatu ticket. “Matatus are not safe,” I could hear them repeat in my mind. “They are cheap for sure but accidents are frequent.”

My stubbornness to always travel as local people do and the incredibly cheap price of the ticket still had convinced me to take a seat inside the small mini-bus parked in Nairobi station and heading to Nanyuki.

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One thing to know if you ever decide to travel by matatu is that you’ll need a certain dose of patience. As I sat in the vehicle still half-empty, I quickly learned that the rule number one was: as long as there are seats empty the matatu won’t go anywhere. After a little more than an hour, the mini-bus was finally full and ready to go. Accompanied by the sound of chicken chirping at the back, we finally left Nairobi.

From all the rumours and stories I had heard about matatus‘ drivers, I have to say that my ride went swiftly despite some bumpy roads. I even managed to fall asleep for a while and woke up looking everywhere around me hoping to catch the sight of a giraffe or any other Kenyan emblematic species. After few hours we reached our terminus: Nanyuki. My final destination, however, was still awaiting for me further away.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy had arranged a taxi for me and after twenty minutes (and the realisation that I had assumed incorrectly that there was only one matatu station in town) my driver, Martin, picked me up.

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My eyes widened once we passed the entrance gate of the conservancy few minutes later. I could see antilopes all around and elephants in the background.

“What’s your favourite animal here?”he asked me. After a quick thinking, I answered him: “I love hyenas.” Martin just couldn’t stop laughing at my answer. He explained that people in Kenya usually did not like hyena very much. When asked about his own favourite he told me that he really liked giraffes. “They are tall and elegant. They can eat the leaves that no other animals are able to get.”

Once arrived at the Stables, formerly known as the Research Centre, I was warmly welcomed by the staff and shown the room I will occupy for the next two weeks.

I quickly realised that traveling around the conservancy during my free time (I was there as an intern) wouldn’t be as easy as I thought. I had no intention to be eaten by a lion or charged by an elephant while walking around so my freedom of movement seemed suddenly quite limited.

Over the weekend, however, I noticed the frenetic obsession that people at the camp seemed to have with rhinos. When asking around what exactly everyone was so excited about, I was made aware that a process called rhino notching had been going on for a while and was coming to an end on Sunday.

The notching involved two teams: one team in an helicopter shooting the rhinos to be marked with tranquilliser and a second one composed of various trucks on the ground tracking the rhinos, ready to act once the animals were asleep. Quite exciting indeed!

On the Sunday afternoon, I got lucky enough and was able to join one of the ground team. Packed with various staff members, the truck quickly headed toward an open plain where we watched the helicopter chasing a rhino. Leaning dangerously, the airplane managed to get close enough to the impressive animal allowing the vet to tranquillise it.

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Seeing the rhino slowing down and finally falling asleep was the signal that the ground team had been waiting for to get into action. Speeding through the bush following GPS indications, I could feel the tension and excitement building up among us. Everyone knew that the animal would not stay asleep for very long  so getting to the scene quickly was essential to the operation.

Once the rhino had been located, the wildlife team rapidly went on the ground and started buzzing with activity. While some measured the individual, others painted a white sign on his back, took some blood sample and finally pierced his horn to insert a GPS tracker inside. The process is completely harmless to the animal and the horn made of keratin will then grow back around the tracker.

The pressure faced by rhinos in East and South Africa from poachers make it essential to be able to track the animals inside the conservancy. However, the data collected also allow to gather information on the health, genetics, and distribution of the individuals present in Ol Pejeta.

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Sudan is the last male Northern White Rhinoceros on Earth

Five minutes later everyone has managed to do what they were supposed to do and the staff members quickly go back to the trucks. Slowly, the rhino starts moving again. Looking confused and dazed, the massive animal looks around him and gets up. Now firm on his legs, he quickly disappears in the bush: time to track the next individual on the to-notch list.

The rest of the afternoon was a succession of wild rides in the bush followed by frenetic activity for every asleep rhino that had to be marked. The sun was starting to drift when we reached the last individual to be notched. As for the others, the staff members quickly jump down the truck to start buzzing around.

They were almost reaching the animal when suddenly the rhino started to move and got up. A wind of panic blew across the team and everyone quickly ran back toward the truck. The rhino made few steps and fell asleep again on the ground, breathing heavily. That’s one this last adrenaline rush that a truly amazing afternoon reached an end.

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The ride home gave us the opportunity to watch the sun slowly making its exit through a beautiful spectrum of reds and oranges. While the day was coming to an end for us, the bush was still vibrating with life. I kept looking at the zebras and antelopes around us, trying to print in my mind as many details and memories as I could.

5 books that gave me the travel bug

I’m often surprised at how wanderlust suddenly hits me. From movies to conversations or even food, the drive to grab my backpack and go wonder is often difficult to fight. When I look back at my childhood trying to find out what might have started it all, it’s often books that come to my mind.

Here is a selection of five books that definitely gave me the travel bug and triggered long lasting obsessions for some places.

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Photo Credit: Debarshi Ray/Flickr

I. The adventures of Tintin by Hergé

From China to Peru, Tintin was to my eyes this amazing reporter and adventurer travelling across the globe to solve cases. My dad had the entire collection of albums and I remember spending hours and hours reading them as many times as I possibly could.

The great thing about the series was that being comic album it always felt like following the footsteps of the characters. In Tintin and the Temple of the Sun, I was totally transported to Peru. I could picture traveling with lamas and see myself climbing the Machu Picchu or meeting with the Incas.

The comics were also all about incredible friendships that Tintin developed during his adventures. I still remember how Tintin spent the entire album of Tintin in Tibet looking for Tchang, a young Chinese boy he had met in The Blue Lotus, after his plane crashed in the Himalayas.

Full of endearing characters, amazing destinations, and incredible adventures, The Adventures of Tintin sure had some flaws but overall it was a great collection to read as a kid.

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II) Disney’s Small World Library

If my parents weren’t sure yet that I would become a travel addict, they sure encouraged it by reading me Disney’s Small World Library books. Following Disney characters, these colourful illustrated books are each focused on a specific destination.

These books are basically travel guides for kids: a touch of culture here, a bit of food there, and showing you the famous landmarks of each place. Funny and entertaining, Disney largely contributed to the development of my travel to-do list.

These books established in me two long-lasting obsessions: one for Kenya and the other for the Chinese New Year. Indeed after following Goofy on his safari I couldn’t take the lions, zebras and giraffes out of my mind. More than that, I also developed a passion for Masai culture and East Africa in general.

Sometimes diving into stereotypes about countries too easily, this collection is still a great way for a kid to discover the world and spark wanderlust.

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III) City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

Sent off to NYC to live with his grand-mother while his mum faces cancer treatment, Alexander Cold has no idea of what is awaiting him. Kate, his eccentric grandma reporter for a magazine, embarks him on an investigation through the Amazon rainforest to find what locals call the Beast.

City of the Beasts takes us through an epic adventure in the heart of the Amazon. Deep friendships, unexplored wilderness, and spiritism are all brought to us by Chilean author Isabel Allende.

This book is surely the one that made me fall in love with Amazonia. Both the difficulties faced by the characters to reach it, the amazing wildlife described and the quest of Alexander to find his spirit animal completely won me over.

It was one of this book that I just couldn’t close before having reached the very end of it. Well researched, it made me very curious about Amazonian culture and the concept of animal spirit. If you want to be transported to the Amazon in an intense quest, this book is definitely for you.

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IV. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Behind this intriguing title hides a curious story. While London emerges from WWII, writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next subject. An unexpected letter from a man living in Guernsey is going to set up a series of correspondance between Juliet and various member of a literary club called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  

After a few letters, Juliet decides to head to the island to meet her new friends and falls in love with the place. Through the description of the island landscapes and living conditions, I have to say that Juliet managed to make me fall in love with the place as well! The book left me with the certainty that I had to go explore Guernsey one day.

This book is a proof that reading can definitely broaden our horizon and give us the will to see what is described through her own eyes. I had never really gave a thought about going there before but after reading the book, Guernsey is now definitely on my travel wish list.

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V. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

From Oxford to the far North, the brave and young Lyra will take you on an epic adventure. When her friend Roger goes missing among many other children, Lyra decides to do everything in her power to get him back. Her trip will take her from Gypsy boats to talking armoured bears and she will face serious threats across the way.

Brilliantly written, this book is a chef d’oeuvre of children literature. Philip Pullman creates an entire world filled with daemons, witches, and multi-faceted vilains. All the steps of Lyra’s journey are described in such a way that I felt like I was living it all while reading the book.

The vivid description of this slightly different Oxford left me curious to discover the real one while the scene of the Aurora Borealis left me in deep awe. In term of traveling means, I have to admit that Lyra got me jealous: flying over the far north in an air balloon and running on the back of an armoured bear sounded like pretty cool way to explore the region!

Discovering Pembrokeshire by bus

After living in the Welsh capital for almost a year, I decided last August that it was finally time to explore this coast I had heard so much about: Pembrokeshire. After weeks of reflexion and price comparisons I came to the conclusion that the best (and cheapest) way to explore this part of Wales was to do it by bus.

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Day 1: Cardiff-Fishguard 

As we say in French “le monde appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt” [the world belongs to those who wake up early] and what better reason to wake up early than to go on an adventure, right? Full of energy and impatient to reach our destination, my sister and I jumped  on a train to Haverfordwest in the early morning.

In addition of being Pembrokeshire’s administrative centre, this small town also used to be the second largest port in Wales. Located at more than 2h30 from Cardiff, Haverfordwest is one of the rare town in the county to offer both bus and train connections to the rest of the region.

Once arrived at the tiny train station, we ran to the bus stop on the side to catch our ride: the T5. After 40 minutes of countryside roads and beautiful sceneries, we stopped at Fishguard Square. Small market town, Fishguard is located above the Fishguard Bay and is close to both the Coast Path and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

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Fishguard Bay

Hiking was the reason we were here so we decided to head straight away to our accommodation to ask if we could drop our bags earlier than expected. One square and a tortuous street later, we reached the Hamilton Lodge.

Entering inside felt like going home. Welcomed by a friendly dog, we walked in a corridor giving on a comfy patio with various couches and  further away on a bright, fully equipped kitchen. Q, the owner, gave us our room key and asked us what our plans were for the afternoon. When we explained that we were in Fishguard only for a day, he convinced us to go explore Dinas Island instead of the Coast Path and gave us all the information we needed to go there by bus.

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Pwllgwaeod Beach

Despite getting off the bus at the wrong stop and being lost for a little while, we did not regret following his advice for a second. The path starting at Pwllgwaeod Beach -great spot to stop for a picnic- goes all the way around Dinas peninsula until the Cwm Yr Eglwys.

Under a not-so-cloudy sky, we walked up and down for two hours stopping frequently to take pictures of the amazing views on Fishguard Bay. Sheep and dogs are both present on the island but if you are a wildlife seeker, take a look down the cliffs to spot seabirds. If you are lucky you might even spot some playful seals!

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Day 2: Fishguard-St Davids-Broad Haven

After a nice breakfast (included in the price) at the Hamilton lodge, we went back to Fishguard Square to take the bus 413 heading to St Davids. Beautiful countryside landscapes and amazing views on the Pembrokeshire Coast convinced me again that traveling by bus is one of the best way to explore new places. It’s a magic you can’t really experience if you are driving because you need to be focused on the road and that you won’t be able to experience by train here.

After 45 minutes, the bus driver dropped us in St Davids, renowned for its cathedral, spectacular coastal sceneries and wildlife.  Its proximity to Ramsey Island, an RSPB reserve, makes it an easy place to find boat tours.

Seeing that one of the boat operator, Voyages of Discovery, still had two spots available in the morning, we decided to book our trip. We then headed by bus to the departure point in St Justinian’s and patiently waited for our names to be called, in the middle of a crowd of people awaiting for various tour operators.

Embarking on an orange boat, we were then taken on an hour-long trip around Ramsey Island with a friendly guide providing us with details about the place. With its cliffs up to 120 m high, the island offers dramatic landscapes and great nesting sites for seabirds such as guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, and razorbills.

Taking us to a cave, the guide explained us that seals love staying there especially when they are with their pups. Talking about seals, our boat was quickly surrounded by many of them few minutes later. While some of them were resting and sunbathing, others were playfully following the boat allowing me to take some closeup photos.

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After the trip, we decided to follow the coastal path from St Justinian’s to St Davids’ Head. Unfortunately we quickly realised that the estimations of Google Maps were far from the reality and that we wouldn’t have enough time to go there and come back before our bus’ departure time. Stopping at the beach of Whitesands Bay, we headed back to St Davids to see the cathedral before leaving.

It’s funny how I had read everywhere that it was THE thing to see in St Davids but somehow I was far from imagining how impressive it was. Quite hidden in the city, it took my breath away when it finally appeared in front of me. Immense, majestic, beautiful!

Built on St David’s 6th century monastery, St Davids Cathedral has been raided by vikings across the 10th and 11th centuries. It’s finally in 1180 than the rebuilding of the nave and west of the church began under the bishop Peter de Leia.

This cathedral is definitely worth stopping for and if the sun is out it becomes a perfect spot to sit on the grass and rest for a while.

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Content with our day, we headed back to town to take the bus 400, poetically named the Puffin Shuttle. Longing the coast until Marloes (port to reach Skomer Island), this shuttle allows you to have a great view, through panoramic windows, of the cliffs and hills of the coastline.

Good thing to know: if you are hiking around this area, you can just stop the 400 in whatever place you want and then explain to the driver where you want to be dropped off.

We arrived in Broad Haven, our final destination for the day, welcomed by the rain and quickly took refuge in our hostel for the night.

 

Day 3: Broad Haven – St Brides – Cardiff

After a night spent at the familial YHA hostel of Broad Haven, we decided to do some serious hiking and headed toward St Brides. Broad Haven is a small village with a tiny supermarket, a café and a large beach loved by surfers. Not really attracted by the place, we quickly walked up and down the hill by the road to reach a much picturesque place: Small Haven.

Charming tiny houses full of characters are built on the cliff, facing the sea. The beach is smaller and quieter. It looks like a perfect tiny village, the kind you want to send a postcard of to your friends to show how beautiful Pembrokeshire is.

From there, the Coast Path starts again climbing the hills to take you to a perfect view on the entire town. Quickly, the coastal view disappears behind trees and the path becomes darker. 45 minutes later the coast appears again, longing fields filled with sheep and cows, the path continues with breathtaking panoramas.

Looking at the weather, we decided  to stop earlier than we had planned. After 2h30 walking, we found an unoccupied beach and stopped to eat our well-deserved picnic. Walking back to Little Haven, everything suddenly became foggy. A storm was coming. And it was coming fast.

Pouring rain started hitting us but luckily we reached a stone refuge near Little Haven Beach. The coastline completely disappeared, hidden behind a foggy blanket. All we could do was wait for the storm to slow down or hope to cross path with the Puffin shuttle.

dsc_0241After a while, the coast slowly reappeared and the storm went away. It was time for us to walk back to Broad Haven, warm up with a hot chocolate and take the bus back to Haverfordwest.

Back at the tiny train station, we waited for our train to take us back to Cardiff, our heads filled with beautiful landscapes and nice memories. Now I understand why Pembrokeshire is such a touristic attraction in Wales. It truly has a lot to offer for all type of travellers.

My new objective now is to come back one day and hike a longer section of this amazing coastline.

Overall rating: 8/10
Best Surprise: The Hamilton Lodge. Awesome place and super friendly owner!
Only Regret: Not being able to go to Skomer Island (I really wanted to see the puffins!)

 

 

On the search for Sherlock at Ramon’s

Ramons cardiff food

Rumour has it that Benedict Cumberbatch frequently ate lunch at the Ramon’s Cafe when filming in Cardiff. As Sherlock is set once again in Cardiff, I decide to try my luck and head there for lunch.

Ramons“In the UK, you can recognise a good breakfast place by the number of builders inside.” This piece of advice given to me by my British flatmate resonates in me as I arrive in front of Ramon’s. Three builders are standing right in front of the door, chatting. One good point for Ramon’s already.

Gareth Badman owner of Ramon’s tell us a bit more about the place:

As I pass the front door, I quickly notice the mix of people present inside. A group of girls, probably students, are having breakfast. A couple in their thirties is sitting in front of large plates which seem to contain the specials of the day, ‘minted lamb chops’ as the board outside had informed me. Further away, an old lady is sitting with her son chatting cheerfully.

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The radio is playing some hit songs and on top of the conversations I can hear the loud sound of the coffee machine. I turn around and look at the massive menu fixed on the wall. At Ramon’s you’ll never lack of choices. From vegetarian options to burgers, all sound delicious and most are around £4 to £5.

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In term of breakfast, Ramon’s definitely knows what it’s doing. Choices range from American breakfast with pancakes to British breakfast coming in different sizes going all the way to the famous in Cardiff, Mammoth breakfast. And then, there it is. A ‘builders breakfast’. I have no doubt left that this place is definitely a good breakfast place.

Breakfast Cardiff food

My head is buzzing with temptation and I finally fix my mind on the specials of the day. A friend joins me at that moment and orders a vegetarian burger. At Ramon’s you always order at the counter, pay and then get a ticket with a number that would be shouted through the room to locate you when your food is ready.

Our plates arrive few minutes after we sat down and a delicious smell of freshly cooked vegetable and lamb hit my nose. A mix of green peas, mashed potatoes, carrots and lamb is spread on my plate. The portions are as always generous, better to come with an appetite. It’s delicious and filling, every bite is full of taste. I decide to give a try to the vegetarian burger ordered by my friend. Beans and mushrooms are mixed with spices combining together into something really tasty. I’ll keep that in mind for next time.

Food Ramons

As I’m taking few photos of the inside of the room, the old lady suddenly calls me.“My son thinks you must be a kind of reporter. Is it true?” I sat down with her for a moment and discover that she has been eating in Ramon’s for the past 25 years! I can’t stop myself of thinking that she is a good representation of the place. Cheerful, convivial, and open to everybody.

Sadly, no trace of Benedict. So I decide to question the owner about the accuracy of the rumours before leaving. “We’ve had Torchwood filming in here and we’ve had Doctor Who. But I’ve never seen Benedict Cumberbatch.” Well, it was worth giving it a try anyway.

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Address:
Ramon’s Breakfast and Burger Bar
64 Salisbury Rd, Cardiff CF24 4

 

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Solo Weekend in Buenos Aires

My wanderlust came back to me after few months settled in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Day dreaming and checking random flights destinations on Skyscanner were not enough anymore. I knew it was time to pack my backpack and go away for a while. So when a friend asked me to join her in a congress in Uruguay for a week, it did not take much convincing for me to accept. I quickly realised that Buenos Aires would be just a few hours of boat away and decided to go on a solo weekend after the congress.

I started my journey taking a bus from Montevideo to Colonia and then embarked into a boat direction Buenos Aires. I arrived there at night and discovered that the exchange offices had closed already. So here I was, in Buenos Aires with no more than the few Argentinian pesos a friend had given me and a Brazilian debit card which did not allow me to cash out abroad. Not the best of start for sure but the excitement of being in a new country was stronger so I just decided to walk to my hostel instead of taking a taxi.

Buenos Aires City Centre

The short version of the story is that my hostel turned out to be much further away than I thought but I managed to take the bus thanks to the kindness of a group of Argentinian girls who paid for my ticket. From what I experienced during my weekend, the “porteños” -as they like to call themselves- were all extremely helpful and friendly. So that was something to like already about this amazing city, and there is so much more to like!

If you are afraid two days might not be enough to appreciate the Argentinian capital, don’t let it stop you. Buenos Aires has a lot to offer and a weekend is short to explore all its wonders but good enough to get to see the main attractive spots and to charm you to come back.

Here are some of the things I did and places I explored:

  • Take part in a free walk

Free walks Buenos Aires is a group of enthusiastic guides who offer two tours per day. The morning tour starts at 10.30 and will take you from the Teatro Colón to the famous Cementerio de la Recoleta. Hours will fly by while you are immersing yourself into a cultural and architectural journey through the city. From its parks to its palaces and ending up in the cemetery, you will end your tour in the afternoon spinning with information. And let’s be honest, who could take you through the city better than a porteño or porteña? This tour is a goldmine of anecdotes and history, and all of that for free! Don’t hesitate to tip to show your gratitude at the end and to write a review of your personal guide on Trip advisor.

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Another tour in the afternoon will take you through the city centre from the National congress to the Obelisk. I initially was very ambitious and wanted to do both tours on the same day. I realized after the first one that my legs needed a rest and that my stomach needed a lunch break. If you want to go for it, be ready and bring with you hat, sunglasses, sun cream, water and sandwiches.

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  • Get your dose of colours in Caminito

Located in La Boca, Caminito is nothing less than a street museum! Emblematic of the Argentinian capital, it is also a very touristic place so be ready for the crowd. You will be welcomed by an alley of colourful tiny houses, tango dancers and painters. Nothing seems to be out of place in Caminito, from the pope greeting you from a window to knitted street signs, art is everywhere.

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Caminito, or little street in English, came out of the mind of local artist Benito Quinquela Martin. He decided in 1960 to bring the abandoned street to the vibrant place it used to be in the early 1900s. At the time, the port and its surrounding were filled with Italian immigrants who brought a unique identity to La Boca.

Colours Buenos Aires

Overall, Caminito is a vibrant and inspirational place if you like art (or colourful surroundings) and it doesn’t take long to explore. Just bear in mind that it is one of the main touristic spot in Buenos Aires and so it can be overwhelming.

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  • Wander in wonders in San Telmo

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San Telmo is the oldest barrio of Buenos Aires and is also the location of one the most popular event in the capital: the Feria de San Telmo. This feria or market takes place every Sunday and the streets gets filled with artisans, paintings, and antics. The official spot for the feria is Plaza Dorrego but you will quickly see that it extends much beyond that. I was glad I had no money with me cause if I had i would have bought way too many things!

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The place is buzzing with kiosks and everyone can find what they are looking for. Glasses, lamp bulbs, old phones, and artisanal instruments mixes with Mafalda’s items from socks to magnets.  If you have a passion for antics or just love shopping, this is the place to be. One tip though, don’t spend all your money in one place because you have hundreds to come with more marvellous objects and souvenirs! One last tip, don’t hesitate to negotiate the price, that’s what all the locals do.

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  • Go greet Mafalda on her bench

If you don’t know it yet, Mafalda is a comic strip written and drawn by local cartoonist Joaquin Salvador Lavado, better known as Quino. Mafalda is a six-year-old girl concerned about humanity and world peace but with some serious attitude issues. The comic strip was published from 1964 to 1973 and gained popularity worldwide.

Mafalda

Buenos Aires is completely crazy over Mafalda and as I mentioned before you can find all type of merchandising associated with her character in the Feria de San Telmo. But the Mafalda-mania doesn’t stop there. You can actually go find Mafalda herself, sitting on a bench with her friends, at the corner of Chile and Defensa Street. Of course everyone wants to have a photo taken sitting next to her so you might have to queue for a while to get the so precious selfie with the six-year old statue.

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The city has plenty more to offer for sure but if you are around just for a weekend these spots will give you a good picture of the city. One place that I have some regrets about is a bakery called La Confitería Ideal. Locals highly recommended it as a great place to eat but also to watch and perform tango, so why not giving it a try to finish your weekend on a sweet note?

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