A WEEK IN RUSSIA: Domed roofs and wildfires

Russia was the first place I visited in Eastern Europe. In hindsight, I had no idea what I was getting myself into!

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When we arrived in Moscow, the whole city was covered in smog due to wildfires. Everyone was wearing masks to protect their noses and mouths, and it was unbearably hot.

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We spent a few days in the capital, trying to make the best of it. We visited the main highlights…

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…such as the Red Square, the Kremlin, and St Basil’s Cathedral (which is amazing!).

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Everything was different from what I expected!

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The architecture was especially unusual.

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We then took a fast train to St Petersburg, where the weather was much better – sunny days which weren’t too hot (and no smog!).

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Again we stumbled upon domed roofs on every corner!

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St Petersburg is sometimes called ‘Venice of the North’ because of the many canals around the city. And although both places are beautiful, I think they’re both quite different.

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The city is also the home of the Hermitage Museum, one of the great museums of the world, with highlights that include two Da Vinci paintings.

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You can spend a whole day there.

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St Petersburg was definitely my favourite of the two cities we visited, but I should definitely go back to Moscow when the weather is better and reassess!

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WHERE TO STAY: 3 useful resources when booking accommodation

I used to always book the cheapest hostels around, but nowadays I’m definitely more picky about where I stay. Plus with so many search sites around, it’s easy to find a great stay at an affordable price.

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These are the sites I normally visit when I’m booking accommodation:

1. Hostelworld

Hostelworld specialises in hostels (obviously) and it’s the best site for this type of accommodation. Their search engine is really good, allowing you to select things like the type of room you want (I normally stay at hostels but in an ensuite room) and rating based on user reviews.

You normally only pay a 10% deposit when you book, and the cancellation fees are minimal, in case you change your plans.

There are annual awards for the best hostels, a list definitely worth looking at before you book.

2. TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor is hugely popular but it can also be unreliable – some complain that many reviews are actually left by the businesses themselves.

But it is a good place to compare prices and also to get a general feeling about a place. I normally do my research through TripAdvisor and then book straight from the hotel website: some places offer special discounts if you book directly.

3. Airbnb

The first time I used Airbnb was because I didn’t have any choice: we were going to Ukraine for the Euros and the only places available were 5-star hotels costing hundreds of pounds per night. We ended up finding a nice little flat that was within walking distance from the stadium!

Nowadays I go to Airbnb as a first choice: I can’t wait to find an apartment next to a canal for my upcoming trip to Venice!

And I always like having my own kitchen: it’s a great way of saving money and it makes life easier in places where veggie food is not widely available.

The main thing with Airbnb is checking reviews from other users. There is always a risk that a host may cancel your stay with short notice, and choosing a host with good reviews makes this less likely.


Where are you staying next?

TRAVELLING ON FILM: Paris

I’m off to Paris next month. Paris was the first city I’ve visited in Europe and it remains one of my favourite places in the world.

From the Eiffel Tower to Montmartre, via countless gardens and charming cafes, Paris is so stunning that it’s no surprise that many films are set there.

Here are three of my favourites:

1. Midnight in Paris

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Woody Allen is great at making cities a central part of his films and Midnight in Paris is no different. This whimsical tale of time travel couldn’t be set anywhere else.

It’s great to imagine how Paris was in the 20s, cafes coming to life with artists like Dali and Picasso.

2. Frances Ha

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Frances Ha is mostly set in New York, but the title character spends a weekend in Paris.

This film directed by Noah Baumbach stars Greta Gerwig, who is absolutely amazing in the lead role.

As with all Noah Baumbach films, it’s quirky and hilarious – but probably not to everyone’s taste.

3. Amelie

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I’ve watched Amelie countless times, and I love it!

The film is set mostly around Montmartre, and you will never see Paris in the same way after you watch Amelie.

And you can even put yourself in the title character’s shoes by visiting some of the main locations of the film: the Cafe des Deux Moulins is always full of Amelie fans!

ON PACKING:

I loved the column by David Whitley in the Jan-Feb edition of the National Geographic Traveller magazine. This pretty much sums up my attitude to clothes when I travel:

“Over the years, travelling has cemented my status as someone never likely to be approached by one of those ‘street style’ fashion pages in magazines. It’s been a thoroughly nerdy descent into the joys of utilitarianism, aided by the realisation that the only places that care about what you’re wearing are the ones you won’t enjoy being in anyways.”

A DAY IN LONDON: A walk in the South Bank

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You could easily spend months exploring London. But if you’re short for time, one of the best things to do is walking along the South Bank of the Thames.

This is the first place I take my friends when they come to visit, as you can see a bunch of the city’s highlights at once.

So here’s a step-by-step itinerary for a leisurely day in London:

1. Eat something first:

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Start your day by taking advantage of one of many places around London that do great brunch. My suggestion is Milk, in Balham (I discovered it recently and it was AMAZING!), but there are loads of places around.

2. The London Eye

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Start your walking tour at Westminster Bridge. There you get one of the best views of the city: Big Ben and the Parliament on one side, London Eye on the other.

The view from the London Eye is awesome (on a sunny day), but the ridiculously long queues are really off-putting. If you are planning to go, book in advance as it saves time and sometimes you can get a good discount (an adult ticket costs £26.96, ouch!).

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3. The South Bank Centre

Continuing along the river, the Southbank Centre is a great venue for arts, so check out what they have going on.

4. The Tate Modern

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You will then reach the Tate Modern. Admission to the permanent collections is free, so you should really stop and have a look around.

There are also some good cafes and restaurants (as well as a great shop), so you can stop for lunch there.

5. The Globe Theatre

Right next to the Tate is the Globe Theatre, which is the original Shakespeare theatre (although it had t be rebuilt after a fire).

There are always performances on (not all of them are Shakespeare plays), and standing tickets cost only £5! I see something there at least once a year, and it’s always great.

6. Millennium Bridge and St Paul’s

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Across from the Tate is the Millennium Bridge, which leads to St Paul’s Cathedral. This is another great place to get a good view of London.

You can continue along the river all the way up to Tower Bridge, but I always prefer to split this up in two days – so I’ll leave that for a future post…

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