My birthday weekend

This time last year I was on a psychiatric unit, so I was pretty apprehensive about my 25th birthday. It couldn’t be any worse, right? My boyfriend was taking me somewhere for the weekend, but I didn’t know where.

We first met back in September at Festival Number 6. Based in Portmeirion on the North West Wales peninsula, the Italian style village was designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975.

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Usually the phrase ‘tourist attraction’ would have me running for the hills, but Portmeirion  is truly spectacular. I’d remarked on how amazing it would be to stay there all those months ago, and thought no more about it.

I was blown away by my surprise of a night’s stay in our special place.

Guests have a choice between the Castle, the Village, and the Hotel. We were in the Village, which I was delighted about. On arrival to our suite, we were greeted with a complimentary decanter of brandy.

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Our little flat for the night

 

After a tipple or five, we went for a wander. The only thing that reminds you you’re not on the Italian Riviera is the rain, but we were lucky. The daffodils were in full bloom.

Portmeirion is magical, with nooks and crannies galore to explore. Photos just don’t do it justice (especially mine).

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At sunset we took a woodland walk, during which my gardener boyfriend would pause every few paces  to admire a rare or unusual plant. From the viewpoint overlooking the beach and nearby town of Porthmadog, we drank cheap champagne (from the bottle, obv) in the spot we’d snogged all those months ago.

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It was dark by the time we made our way back through the forest and  stumbled upon the Dogs’ Cemetery. Let me tell you, a carving of a gigantic dog is not what you want to find in the dark. The Dogs’ Cemetery was established by one of Portmeirion’s eccentric tenants, because she preferred the company of dogs to human beings. Fair enough.

There are two places to eat at night in Portmeirion; the beachside Hotel, which is very bloody fancy, and the Castle Brasserie on top of the hill. Despite supposedly being more informal, we were intimidated by the Castle. We were starving, though, and none of the local takeaways delivered (I KNOW, RIGHT?!)

The Brasserie is deceptive. The food was great (‘these chips are the Angelina Jolie of chips’), and our meals cost less than £20 each. There was even a pianist! Very bloody fancy.

An overnight stay in Portmeirion doesn’t come cheap (I glimpsed the bill during checkout), but it’s an indulgence I think everybody deserves to experience once.  Despite only driving an hour down the coast it genuinely felt like being on holiday.

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Source: Google

The next day, we drove on to Criccieth to check out the new branch of Dylan’s. The original is based in my hometown of Menai Bridge, which with its Straitside location you’d be hard pressed to beat. Renowned for their fresh seafood, they have won many awards including the Michelin Guide 2016. Snazzy.

Dylan’n 2.0 didn’t disappoint. Situated overlooking the beach with views of Criccieth castle, according to my boyfriend ‘it looks like the building from Telletubbies, doesn’t it?’ He wasn’t altogether wrong.

On the recommendation of my friend and barman Dan, I ordered the herb & Parmesan crusted hake fillet, served with creamy mustard leeks and new potatoes. It’s been said that Dylan’s is too expensive, but at £14.95 I thought it was bloody lovely and good value.

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Sean, meanwhile, opted for the Menai Strait Pizza (crabmeat, prawns, chilli, basil, tomato & chive oil). To quote, he hadn’t had pizza that good ‘in about two years, when I went out for my birthday’. Belter.

 

 

My trip to France, Switzerland & Italy

What a week! I just returned from a visit my Swiss-French former flatmate in the region of Savoie, France. Me being me, I was seven hours early for the flight and still caught it by 20 seconds. Should have skipped those drinks…

 

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Laurent’s parents had a house next to a busy road down in Bonneville, but we spent the week in their weekend home on the mountain overlooking the town. Isn’t the view of the Alps beautiful?

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Formerly a small hamlet, Chantal and Rene now own the surrounding 19th century buildings.

On my first day we visited the medieval village of Yvoire, situated alongside Lake Geneva. Visitors aren’t permitted to drive, which keeps the place looking as it always did. Because it was February most of the shops and restaurants were closed. Known for its beautiful flower decorations, I missed out on seeing it in its full regalia. However, the colder season meant we had the place to ourselves.

On day two we went hiking into the Alps. Despite the snow, I didn’t need a cardie and even caught the sun! In winter the mountain goats are kept indoors and their milk is made into cheese. Such a magical place.

I was eager to try as much French food as possible, so Laurent’s mum Chantal made beautiful meals every night. What struck me the most about my stay was that all our meals were fresh.  Tarts and jams was made from the abundance of fruits growing in the garden, mushrooms were picked from the forest, and INCREDIBLY smelly cheese made by local farmers.

I’m not a city girl by any means, but I felt vaguely ashamed to be British. Every meal has a ceremonious feel in France; a world away from the one day a year  – Christmas – my family eats together. Nobody fiddled with their phones, or absent mindedly watched the TV. We lingered for hours, muddling through in broken French and English,  drinking  spirits René had made with plants from the garden.

Because Laurent and me were staying in the chalet usually reserved for tourists, the shelves were packed with books. Before bed I would skim through a book of ABCs, with pictures of objects apparently essential to toddlers. These included shallots, whiskey, and and artichokes. Are you messing? In fact, I saw my first ever artichoke in France.

Laurent was adamant I couldn’t visit the Alps without giving skiing a try, so I reluctantly headed to La Croix Fry, which is a small part of the La Clusaz ski station. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that I might be really good at skiing. Well, it turns out I am MERDE. I drank wine and ate beautiful tartiflette to console myself.

Later in the week we visited Bordeaux, which  I liked but Laurent and his family weren’t fans of. When pressed, they explained that tourism – which primarily relies on the ski  industry – has changed the region a lot over the years.

On the way home our car was caught in a pollution protest; we couldn’t work out the reason for all the dirty looks!

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A little less cultural, we We went bowling and to a pizza party at a friend of Laurent’s house. Incredible pizza with plum tart and even more incredible chocolate mousse! Anyone would think I didn’t have to perform a burlesque act in a few days…

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I’ve often heard it said that French people are rude. I’ve never found this to be the case. Whenever I go abroad I make the effort to learn basic words and phrases, meaning locals are always appreciative and enjoy your efforts, because who wouldn’t be charmed by ‘I am a toilet?’ If in doubt, just grin and hope for the best!

 

Geneva 

As the nearest airport to Savoire is Geneva, it was easy to pop to Switzerland for a visit.

Laurent kept banging on about the Jet J’Eau, Geneva’s answer to the Eifel Tower in the form of a 140 meter fountain visible throughout the city. Situated alongside Lake Geneva, it’s the pride and joy of Geneva. When asked whether I could touch it, Laurent replied that ‘someone once touched it and got their arm blown off’, which endeared me to it immediately.

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After the excitement of spotting a €1400 pair of pantalons (ARE YOU MESSING?), we passed an afternoon wandering around Geneva’s lovely old town.

We went on a hunt for some sort of sacred tree, but gave up and admired the world’s longest bench instead.

Switzerland is expensive, so I wouldn’t go there for a holiday. Also, how unreal is this cake?

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Italy 

Poor Laurent made the mistake of telling me just how close we were to Italy, and after a lot of badgering I got to visit my third country in a week!

I wasn’t prepared for the 55 euro fee to take the tunnel through Mont Blanc, let me tell you. But once I laid eyes on the quaint hamlet of Entrèves, I fell in love.

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Our destination was the pretty town of Aosta.

I was keen to eat as much as possible during the visit, but had to think strategically consider which foods would physically fit in my stomach. Can I tell you a secret? The pizza wasn’t that great.

The gelato though – wow. Because the Italians were So. Bloody. Cool, I opted for pistachio flavour to help me give out very-bloody-cool-vibes. It was unreal and I am fully repentant for telling my Italian friend that gelato couldn’t possibly be better than Ben & Jerry’s.

Italy was cheaper than I expected. No doubt the big cities are more expensive, but here I bought a big bottle of Limoncello for less than 7 euros.

For the final couple of hours before sunset we drove aimlessly through the valley, overlooked by the Italian Alps. We had done so many things during the week, but wandering through about 48  of those tiny villages set on impossibly high mountaintops was the most I’ve laughed in a long time.

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As darkness fell we stopped at one final town with actual civilization, Villeneuve, which lies on the Dora Baltea river. We drank at the only bar in sight, which was full of Italian men Laurent was intimidated by and a barmaid who seemed perplexed by what on earth a vodka with orange juice could be.

I am very lucky to have such an accommodating friend who will willingly drive me hundreds of miles (sorry – I mean kilometres). Staying with locals as opposed to in a hotel is such an enriching experience. Without the Dumonts, I would never have learned so many facts: how French people pour milk BEFORE the cereal, and how washing powder boxes contain toys for kids, and the effect global warming is having on the ski industry.

Instead of a hotel where the only conversation would be about the crap water pressure, we spent hours comparing idioms. ‘I have the peach’, I explained, was the French equivalent to ‘I’m full of beans.’ The Dumonts stared blankly, before bursting into a five minute fit of laughter. Beans?! Being full of Mexican jumping beans, I argued, made sense. But peaches? Give me three peaches, and maybe we could talk.

It was no use, so I chuckled into my home made peach jam every morning.

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I hope you enjoyed un petit peut of my trip! I’d love to hear your travel tales in the comments below.

 

The Vaguely Alternative List of Things to Do in Llanberis, Wales

Having grown up nearby on the Isle of Anglesey, Llanberis is my absolute favourite place in the world. When I have mates from Liverpool visiting, I always bring them to here.

Situated at the foot of Mount Snowdon, Llanberis boasts the highest point in Wales (obvs). At any given time the summit is chokkers with tourists, where they’ll admire this cracking view:

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…unless it’s foggy and wet, in which case they’ll have wasted four hours.

You can catch a heritage steam train up for a hefty £37, and I’m not being funny, but it’s a bit of a cop-out unless you’re old or disabled. However there’s no guarantees you’ll nab a seat even if you’re old, as this elderly man found out when the train was too full of fat people.

Another little titbit: in 2011 a man was jailed for driving his 4×4 up the mountain in gale force winds not once, but twice.

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This Tweet from back in August gave me a right chuckle as well, after a helicopter burst into flames on the summit:

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Anyway, back to it.

I feel for all these tourists, because there’s so much more to Llanberis than a big rock. So, to make life easier for those of you visiting Wales, I’ve compiled a selection of my favourite and vaguely alternative things to do in Llanberis.

My boyfriend had never been to Llanberis, so our recent visit began at legendary greasy spoon Pete’s Eats.

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Pete’s is always packed full of travellers, all of whom look like they deserve a 2000 calorie breakfast. We, on the other hand, did not.

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With our bellies full, it was time to do some exercise. Maybe.

Go on – show me an English high street with better views.

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But first, we popped in to The Snowdon Honey Farm & Winery. It’s run by a lovely old Welsh couple who let us sample various alcoholic concoctions, fuelling us for our mission to the waterfall.

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Having visited Llanberis countless times, I decided this was the day I would finally find the waterfall. I failed, again – even by following the ‘waterfall’ signs – and ended up walking along the train track instead (not advisable).

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Down at the lake i.e. Llyn Padarn, you can hire a row boat for about 6 quid, or take the Llanberis Lake Railway around it. You can even get in the water for a kayaking lesson, among other water sports.

If you want to experience a mountain without having to actually climb one, you can take a bus deep inside the Electric Mountain, which my mum assures me is brilliant and cracking value at £8.50 per adult.

There are plenty of things to do for free in Llanberis, too, my favourite being feeding the ducks.

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I’m smiling but I’m actually quite scared.

Walking to the other side of the lake you’ll pass my favourite spot, Dolbadarn Castle. I camped and got steaming drunk here last summer, and it’s the best place to watch the sunset from.

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Once you’ve hit the other side of the lake, there’s a cluster of attractions to keep you occupied. The National Slate Museum is actually better than it sounds, whilst the Quarry Hospital Museum is also interesting, housing some of the original equipment from the 1800s (I like to play dead in the mortuary).

Another of my favourite spots is the Vivian Dive Centre, best visited at sunset when you have the entire hidden lake to yourself. The water is so blue it looks like a tropical lagoon. It’s worth noting that although anyone is free to enter, this lake is bloody deep so don’t be doing anything stupid like jumping in (although cliff diving is popular).

Right next to the dive centre is this spot:

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Climb right to the top of the tracks and you’ll find spectacular views from the Dinorwic Quarray and buildings and machinery from bygone days.

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Look closely and running alongside the road, next to the reservoir, you’ll spot a dragon cave.

Though not to everyone’s taste, I’ve saved my favourite ’til last. Located up in another quarry on the outskirts of Llanberis, near the Siemens factory, is an abandoned WW2 bomb store. It took us three attempts to find the place, which involves crawling through fences and various downright dangerous misdemeanours. It’s one of my most beloved spots.

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There are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, including the interior, made possible be whoever keeps forcing the door open with an angle grinder (cheers). It isn’t for the faint-hearted: take torches, because you won’t see a hand in front of your face otherwise.

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Image by Nick Catford

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Of course, this adventure technically involves trespassing. However, local kids and urban explorers have been visiting for years. If you’d rather let someone else do the dirty work, you’ll find plenty of reports and photos here.

I would recommend staying a couple of days in Llanberis, maybe at the hostel above Pete’s Eats or The Heights bunkhouse, which is a great spot to chill with a beer after a long day.

The main thing I would say is to explore. Ignore all the advice I’ve just given you and do your own thing. Follow your nose, and you’ll find the lush picnicking spots Trip Advisor won’t tell you about.

What are your favourite things to do in Llanberis? Have I missed anything out? And most importantly, have you found the secret lake? Let me know in the comment section!