Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Islas Cíes: the Best Beach in Europe

I’m following a steep trail through enormous gum trees. Every few steps a red butterfly or scurrying lizard catches my eye. The air is fresh and were it not for the glimpses of turquoise water between the trees, it would be easy to believe I'm in a large forest. I’m starting to break a sweat.

Though the UK may still be grey and miserable, there’s a tiny slice of the Caribbean on the continent, and somehow I managed to find it.

You could be forgiven for thinking Praia das Rodas (the main beach on the island) was somewhere in the tropics.
As I round a corner, suddenly I’m aware of the sun beating down on my shoulders. The path continues to climb upwards until I’m higher than the tops of the gum trees I was walking through.

To my left, I can see another of the Cíes islands. Ahead of me lies my reward: the lighthouse at the highest point on the island.

The other island to my left.
My goal: the lighthouse.

About half an hour later, I arrive. And what a sight.

After soaking in the rugged magnificence of this spot for as long as I can, I start to feel like I could shout without a soul hearing me. So I do.

Back at the campground in time for sunset.

I discovered Islas Cíes quite deliberately. I wanted to spend my birthday on the most beautiful unblemished beach in Europe. I thought I’d end up somewhere in the Mediterranean. But The Guardian told me in its list of the best beaches in the world to come here, in rugged northern Spain.

Seeking to balance a spate of city breaks, I was thrilled to learn that the only accommodation on the island was in the campground. I bought a cheap tent from Amazon and dutifully paid the Ryanair excess baggage fees to cart it to the island.

You wouldn't know this photo was taken after 9pm.

Food on the island comes from one of two restaurants which are a lot like the serveries from school camp. There are no English translations so the menu felt like a food lottery. I stared wistfully at others’ paella, Spanish omelettes and sausage platters and hoped that the unknown dish I requested would be one of those.

Unfortunately whatever I ordered was Spanish for “two McChicken patties and a side of fries”. You live and you learn!

There are several gorgeous beaches on the island, and the next day I spent a pleasant afternoon walking around the rocks to find a small cove I could have entirely to myself.

Praia das Figueiras, near the little cove I found for myself.
I really had to pinch myself when we were leaving. I felt like I’d spent my birthday in paradise. And the highlight was definitely sitting on the edge of a flat rock on the highest point, with the sun warming my back and the wind teasing me to jump.

Islas Cíes will always feel like my personal secret – a special place where solitude enables the kind of personal reflection that opens a new chapter in your life. It’s so much more than a beach holiday.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

One Day in Porto: 8 Unmissable Activities

Considering how many people visit Europe every year, it's surprising how few itineraries feature Portugal. And even then, the majority of tourists are flocking to the beaches in the south. But there's more to Portugal than beaches, and with these 8 unmissable activities you can have an unforgettable day in Porto.

1. Climb the bell tower at Clérigos Church
This is the highest point to look out over the city, and a great way to get your bearings when you arrive.
View over the Douro river from the top of the bell tower.

2. Have lunch at café Ancora D’Ouro O Piolho
It might not be much to look at, but this 100 year old café has some of the best food in Porto. And Porto has some of the best food in Portugal.

3. Pop into a church you stumble across accidentally
The interior of Portuguese churches can make you think of El Dorado; the infamous city of gold. Jaw-droppingly ornate churches are everywhere. Pop into a random one that's not in your guidebook.

4. Walk along the Ribiera
The Ribiera is Porto's UNESCO world heritage status waterfront. On the day we were in Porto, there was a regatta. There's no railing, so this is the perfect place to sit with your feet over the edge and celebrate being alive.

5. Visit São Francisco Church
This 600 year old cathedral in the world heritage Ribiera is quite possibly the most ornate I've ever seen (plus the crypt downstairs has skeletons).

6. Drink sangria by the Douro river
Right next to the Dom Luís bridge, there's a little café sitting out over the edge of the water. The food is unremarkable, but this is a fantastic spot to enjoy the sun with a jug of sangria.

7. Tour one of the port wine cellars
Porto is (as the name would suggest) the port wine capital of the world. On the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river, there are a dozen or more port wine cellars, each offering tours for €3-5. We chose Burmester, because we'd heard that their location cut into the cliff face was the most remarkable. It was extremely interesting and the highlight of our day in Porto. Plus I discovered a new-found enjoyment for port.

8. Take the gondola
The gondola in Porto is relatively new, and some think of it as a tourist trap. But when you see the historic Ribiera from the air, the view is priceless.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ottoman Trek: Three Posts for Flight Centre

Last month I had an absolute blast on the Busabout Ottoman Trek soaking in five countries across Eastern Europe in just seven days. If you follow me on twitter, you'll know I've written three posts about the trek for Flight Centre UK. But in case you don't, here they are!

The Ottoman Trek: A Daily Snapshot

An Antipodean guide to Turkish baths

Tastes of the Ottoman