THE BIESZCZADY MOUNTAINS – THE POLISH “WILD WEST”

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The road winds steeply, ever-upwards, deeper and deeper into the Bieszczady Mountains in the south-eastern corner of Poland.

Below you can see the sea of green valleys and fast flowing rivers. I am on the hunt for little Przewalski horses and bisons which are under protection and live in small conservation centres.

Deep in the forest we creep through beech and pine trees to meet cute brown foals feeding and fooling around. Though fully domesticated they seem shy and unwilling to be touched. Undeterred we decide to do some more hiking and spot as many wild creatures as possible.

And this is a perfect place as the landscape is sparsely populated and densely forested full of sweeping vistas and home to brown bears, solitary lynx, European bisons and even a few packs of wolves.

This area used to be a melting pot of Ukrainian Bojki and Lemki ethnic groups, Poles and Jews living together. But the WWII and the ethnic cleansing actions after the war have irreversibly changed the face of this region. The indigenous inhabitants were forced to leave and the nature took the reign again.

It became the Polish “Wild West” where dreamers, sensation seekers and people with the past but no future started to arrive and create new communities in their own unique style.

The mountain range is not very high with the highest peak of Mt Tarnica only reaching 1346m but gentle peaks and their sweeping pastures known as “Poloniny” offer great, unbroken views of wilderness and mountain ranges straddling Polish, Ukrainian and Slovakian borders.

For those who like hiking, mountain biking or horse riding this area is a real contender. And it’s quickly becoming popular with tourists especially in summertime.

You can’t travel through Bieszczady without conquering its highest peak of Mt Tarnica.

Our starting point is a small resort of Ustrzyki Gorne and our trail leads first through the dense forest.

It’s a hot summer day and the woods provide a welcome shade especially that our trail becomes rapidly steep and rocky.

Only when we reach the edge of the forest and enter lovely green pastures full of wild blueberries and tall pink flowers we are offered some respite from climbing up the hill. The views of surrounding peaks are spectacular but the sun is still merciless.Fortunately, there is a light breeze and the visibility is perfect.

The Tarnica Peak with its huge metal cross shimmers in the distance. It’s a steep and rocky trail from now on but the mountain panorama is worth the effort.

At the top you can admire the highest peaks of Szeroki Wierch, Krzemien, Kopa Bukowska, Halicz, Polonina Carynska and Ukrainian Pikuj.


From Tarnica you can continue the red trail to the other summit of Halicz or like us follow the blue trail down to a small village of Wolosate (the length of our trail – 4 hours).

The whole area is full of hiking trails offering an easy access to beautiful mountain vistas.

One of the most popular is Polonina Wetlinska (1255m). Our start is at Wyzna where the trail is quite easy at the beginning but becomes steep once you reach the forest.

We climb up for twenty minutes until we reach wide pastures and reach the highest lying mountain hut known as “Chatka Puchatka” (Winnie the Poo Hut). It’s worthwhile to walk the whole ridge of the Polonina (around 1 hour) and admire mountain ranges.

Coming down is easy – you can either follow the yellow trail back to Wyzna Pass (1 hour) or the black trail to Gorna Wetlinka (50 minutes).

Once you get tired from all this walking there is a lovely resort of Solina nearby with a large lake and the biggest dam in Poland. It’s 664m long and 82m high and offers lovely views of the lake surrounded by dark green mountain peaks.

The dam itself is pretty spectacular and at the summit you have both the banks connected by the embankment with the lake on one side and the sheer drop of the cliff on the other.

It’s a great place to unwind, swim, kayak or just simply go shopping for souvenirs. There is no shortage of bars and restaurants either.

For us observing the sun go down behind the hills and listening to gentle waves lapping the sandy banks of Solina was the perfect finish to our mountain adventure.

RURAL WILTSHIRE – FROM QUIRKY LACOCK ABBEY TO A PEACEFUL KENNET&AVON CANAL

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There is no shortage of quintessentially English rural places. And Wiltshire is a perfect example, full of green pastures, narrow and winding country lanes, picturesque villages dotted among chalk hills and over 100 miles of criss-crossing canals.

The Wiltshire landscape manages to incorporate as many English emblems as it can. But even by its high standards the Lacock village with the Abbey in its midst is truly unique.

On arrival, I’m greeted by a quirky Abbey Country House surrounded by woods, green pastures and by medieval cottages untouched by modern alterations.

I gasp with childlike wonder at picturesque, historic streets lined with crooked white cottages or stone houses. Shops, houses, pubs and barns remain exactly the same as they looked in the 18th century.

Apart from many parked cars nothing has changed over the last 200 years and you can expect to bump into Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet at every corner.

No wonder that the village has become a favourite with film producers. It’s most famous appearances include “Pride and Prejudice”, “Cranford”, “The Other Boleyn Girl” and Harry Potter films.

There are narrow, winding lanes to explore and a delightful King John tea house with its peaceful and secluded pub garden and serving excellent cream teas.

Just before St. Cyriac’s Church it’s worthwhile to turn into a small lane Nethercote leading to the Packhorse Bridge built in the 1700s . Two streams link together and encompass the village on one side.

The most historic building is the old Tithe Barn dating from the 14th century and still in a good shape both inside and outside.

After wandering medieval streets and visiting a quaint bakery it’s time to explore the unusual Lacock Abbey and its fascinating 800 years of history.

The Abbey is a mix of different architectural styles and built upon the foundations of a former Benedictine Monastery (nunnery).

You can enter medieval rooms and a cloister court and soak up its monastic past.

Upstairs you will see impressive Tudor halls, treasures of a devious Tudor courtier, the 18th century dining room, the dance floor from the 1920s and William Henry Fox Talbot’s museum. It’s a small museum crammed with photographic equipment and celebrating William Talbot’s contribution to the invention of modern photography especially negatives.

On your way back through this pleasant land, amongst gentle rolling hills and thatched cottages, you can stop to discover the Wiltshire’s main waterway -The Kennet&Avon Canal which runs for 87 miles across the countryside.


In Denizes there’s a great walk along the canal where you can admire Caen Hills Locks in action. The Canal climbs for 2 miles through a series of 16 locks  and it’s interesting to observe boats passing underneath.

A few miles to the east there’s the world’s oldest steam-driven beam engine at Crofton Pumping Station.

The station is open in summer and invites visitors to go inside and see two huge steam beam engines dating from 1812.


Outside there are lovely views across the canal and a big picnic area.

HOW TO GET THERE

the best is by car

Lacock village in Wiltshire SN15 2LG

Denizes Wharf SN10 1EB

Crofton Pumping Station is 2 miles from Great Bedwyn

www.waterscape.com

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DIZZY HEIGHTS OF MT EVEREST “THE GODDESS MOTHER”

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There are not many airports in the world with a worrying tag of being the most dangerous in the world. But Lukla in the middle of the Himalayan Range can easily boast this title. And this is exactly our starting point in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary to conquer the Goddess Mother of all Himalayan Peaks – the mighty Mt Everest.


For such a tiny strip of a runway cut into a mountain cliff the air traffic is heavy with several small planes taking off and landing. But it’s only busy when the weather conditions are good and at this moment we’re not so lucky. So far we’ve spent 3 days at Kathmandu Domestic Airport waiting for clouds to lift off. No pilot would take a risk of flying a small metal tin when it’s misty as they do not use any radars or GPS apart from mobiles.

The domestic airport is a total chaos and a source of bewilderment for tourists trying to make out any sense from random announcements.

At last, we hear that our flight can start and the pandemonium ensues. People fight to get to Tara or Buddha Airlines ticket offices, waving and shoving their tickets into workers’ faces. This is a moment when people stop caring whether planes will actually reach their destination. Everything seems better than spending another day at the airport. Our group keeps it cool as we managed to bribe a flight attendant and are quickly whisked outside to our plane.

The flight is relatively short around forty minutes and rather uneventful. We admire deep gorges and knockout mountain views along the way. The best are eight thousand metres peaks towering above clouds in front of us and, of course, the abrupt landing on top of the cliff and sharp braking on a very short runway.

In Lukla we’re surrounded by hundreds of porters and tin-roofed lodges with funny names such as “5* Lodge-hotel”. No wonder that we quickly opt for a more modestly named “Sherpa Inn Lodge” where we can indulge in drinking Everest Beer still priced only at 350NPR ($4) per bottle. I’m savouring the taste knowing that prices are going to climb together with our hike.

We begin our trek with a series of short trekking days to ensure we acclimatise. Even Lukla is based on 2800metres and our final ascent is up to 5600 metres high. The first part of a trek is strenuous but pleasant with the hot Nepalese sun beating down and us following the banks of the Dudh Koshi river, up and down winding mountain trail heaving with tourists and locals alike.

Our main task is to duck away and let donkey and cow trains laden with heavy loads to pass through. After seven hours of steep trail we reach a lodge and land exhausted in a dining room. The food is vegetarian with a heavy reliance on rice, vegetables and noodles combined with eggs.


In the morning we slowly make our way along the river and then cross the river a few times using  large suspension bridges. The steep hill is heavy-going and we get a piece of advice from our Sherpa guide Ang Nuru “There is one vital thing for you to learn to avoid the mountain sickness”. We all lean in to absorb this nugget of wisdom which will turn us into real mountaineers. “Just move very slowly – Chukum, chukum” he shouts and laughs. With a heavy sigh we continue through the Sagarmatha National Park and make a final ascent over 1000 feet to reach Namche Bazaar.


It is a buzzing trading place for Sherpas and Tibetans and full of backpackers. Exhausted but exhilarated we admire numerous terraces painstakingly carved out from steep mountain slopes. It’s a good resting place full of shops and even  two “Irish” pubs. Signs advertise happy hours, beer while shops sell trekking gear, Buddhist CDs and Tibetan jewellery.

Next morning we slowly make our way down to the Khumjung village at the foot of the sacred Khumbila Mountain. Suddenly the view in front of us is superb. The sky is deep blue and the sun gilds countless mountain tops, and I can see the distinctive shapes of Ama Dablam, Everest and Lhotse.

Khumjung looks firmly uniform with whitewashed houses with green roofs, a pretty stupa and a famous Edmund Hillary school founded in 1960. But the most unique thing there is a yeti skull locked away in the Khumjung monastery. For only 100NPR a monk will open a metal box and you can glimpse a large head covered by thick brown and bristly fur. Unfortunately, locals do not allow anyone to touch their cash cow – not even scientists managed to obtain its DNA.

Over the next two days we continue our ascent stopping at small villages, passing through enchanting rhododendron forests and herds of grazing yaks until we reach a famous Buddhist Monastery at Tengboche (3900metres).


Now we can really enjoy the sweeping views of the bright-white summits of Nupste (8100m), Ama Dablam (6812m), Lhotse (8513m), Everest (8848m). They are everything I hoped they would be – divine and majestic.


We are now ascending steep hills on the way to Pheriche - a high lying mountain village deep in a valley surrounded by jaw-droppingly beautiful peaks of Lobuche, Ama Dablam, Island Peak, Makalu and Champulo.

It’s a bleak and unforgiving place above the tree line, a rocky and rugged terrain. In Pheriche there is a small mountain hospital where we meet the English and Polish volunteer doctors who help victims of an acute altitude sickness. We even witness a rescue helicopter mission carrying sick tourists from Lobuche back to Kathmandu.

It’s becoming much colder and tougher to follow the trail. We dine daily on Dal Bhat - the staple diet of lentils and vegetable curry. Other choices are pasta, eggs, noodles or dumplings followed with hot tea and a constant increase in price the higher the elevation.

The only problem is the higher we go the food becomes steadily worse. No wonder our early nights consist of dreaming about steaming hot sausages, fruit and chocolate.

From now on we follow the Khumbu Glacier climbing over rocky stones.

There are many stone memorials (chortens)along the way commemorating climbers who died on Mt Everest. The line of lonely chortens standing forlornly on the ridge, surrounded by the Mt Pumori’s jagged rocks and beaten by relentless howling winds reminds everyone about the human frailty against the forces of nature.



The Khumbu Glacier is dotted with frozen lakes and huge boulders scattered around. At last we reach a tiny village of Gorak Shep (5100m) surrounded by a desolate plain and overlooked by the highest peaks. From there there is a relatively short two-hour but somewhat challenging hike especially at the present altitude.


We reach a placard stating simply Mt Everest Base Camp 2012 and in the distance we can make out expedition tents just below the ice fall at the bottom of the Everest. It’s hard to believe that even at this dizzying height of 5350m climbers have another 3.5km upwards to reach the summit. All slopes are covered by snow thick in some places or translucent ice elsewhere. The sheer power of nature is very present and humans seem very frail in comparison.


The next night we have to wake up early at 4am to climb  Kala Pattar (5500m) to get the best view of the west and south face of Everest and Lhotse. The trail is very strenuous, the wind numbingly cold and penetrating and everything hidden in complete darkness. On the way I pass two emerald lakes gleaming in the rising sun and am confronted by a massive wall of Everest. The view is amazing and the Everest face so close that you can see the climbing route to the summit. Though I am on the verge of hypothermia I still manage to snap a few photos and pose in front of the most famous mountain in the world.


Coming down is a much faster affair and we pass more secluded villages. Watching yak herds coming down the ridge with the snow-dusted mountains is nothing short of spectacular. We have to share the trail with yak caravans - cuddly looking but quite moody and easily frightened creatures. The moment we see them there is a yak alert and we let them pass first.


It’s now downhill as we descend sharply past gushing waterfalls, forests and hidden valleys.

On the way we stop at a village of Pangboche famous for its 17th century gompa (monastery). It is beautifully painted, full of prayer wheels, trumpets and colourful pieces of material hanging from the ceiling.

Down and down we go, through stunning scenery of high peaks behind us until we reach Ghat and,finally, Lukla.


As we chill out in the lodge awaiting our return flight to Kathmandu, recounting our experiences, I think to myself that nothing can compare with the thrills and beauty of the Himalayas. And we only managed to get there thanks to help from our Sherpa porters Kami, Mingwa, Yanggi and our guide Ang Nuru.

There is not much I can add to this as I watch the sun again rising over the Himalayas, giving each peak form, colour and revealing the spectacular proportions of this unforgettable landscape.

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KATHMANDU – THE GATEWAY TO NEPAL

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Stepped in more than 2000 years of history, Nepal’s capital is a colourful albeit chaotic melting pot of Asian cultures and traditions. It contains two fabled cities – Kathmandu itself and Patan City separated by the holy but extremely polluted Bagmati River.


The first impressions are much less spectacular than expected. The city is compact and surrounded by distant hills with a mish mash of buildings in different state of disrepair and overflowing with traffic.

The sweet incense mixes with more unpleasant dump smells and the incessant noise of honking cars, taxis and motorbikes is disorientating.

There are plenty of cars but they’re even outnumbered by human traffic. Many people carry enormous loads on their backs. They carry almost anything so seeing a small lean man under a massive fridge seems almost normal.

Masses of people push their way along the cobbled, narrow alleyways, with hooting taxis and rickshaws trying to overtake them.

Amongst the crowds are men in police uniforms doing nothing but standing and pointing. Not surprisingly, everyone ignores them and charges forward. It’s quite remarkable that despite chaotic scenes there are hardly any road accidents. I think it’s all to do with a chilled-out attitude of Nepalese drivers.

Kathmandu is also a dog and cow-friendly city with huge numbers of them wandering freely and feeding off the steaming piles of rubbish. In all this chaos and amongst countless rows of shops lining the streets offering their wares you can suddenly encounter mesmerising sights of beautifully carved temples and monuments. And this is exactly what gives Kathmandu its sense of mystery. You never quite know what can be found round the corner.

Most tourists end up in Thamel, a tourist-friendly area full of cheap guest houses, a myriad of shops and restaurants for all budgets. With its warren of winding lanes it’s easy to explore on foot, shop around or tuck into traditional Nepalese dishes such as dhal and curry, momos or a noodle soup. But remember to carry a torch at night as the electricity supply is rather haphazard.

The best place to start exploring is the iconic Durbar Square in central Kathmandu famous for its numerous palaces, courtyards and pagodas.

The variety of these intricate temples is astonishing and it’s easy to spend the whole afternoon there admiring the sights and,at the same time, dodging Sadhus- holy men very much intent on parting you from your rupees.

Just to confuse you Kathmandu boasts another Durbar Square just south of the Bagmati River in Patan City.

It is a more intimate place with an enchanting complex of palaces and temples.

Apart from Hindu temples there are amazing Buddhist stupas such as the Boudhanath Stupa.

It is one of the most important stupas in Asia and 40 metres tall one of the biggest as well.The all-seeing red, white and blue eyes of Buddha are painted on all four sites and surrounded by hundreds of fluttering prayer flags, prayer wheels and images of Buddha.

It’s surrounded by numerous restaurants and what’s better than admiring the views from their roof terraces with the Everest beer in your hand.

However, my favourite Buddhist temple is called Swayambhu Temple ( Monkey Temple) which crowns a hill overlooking the Kathmandu valley.

I particularly enjoyed observing red-clothed Buddhist monks spinning hundreds of prayer wheels and herds of cheeky Rhesus monkeys running around us in noisy groups. Just do not offer them any snacks or you will be left with a nasty bite. The site offers a fantastic view over the city and you can watch endless stream of pilgrims ascending stone steps up the steep hill.

Kathmandu truly throws everything together – the good, the bad and the ugly.

It will leave you both exhausted and exhilarated.

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THE BIESZCZADY MOUNTAINS AND ITS COLOURFUL ARCHITECTURE TRAIL – A STEP INTO THE POLISH PAST

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It’s early morning and I am ready to start a discovery trail in the far-flung corner of Poland’s   Bieszczady Mountains.


This rugged and isolated terrain bordering with Ukraine and Slovakia is full of gentle peaks with sweeping pastures known as “Poloniny” at the top, dense beech forests and fast flowing rivers in the valleys.

This is a wild landscape with great views and home to brown bears, lynx, European bison and quite a few artistic souls.

It is a perfect place to try hiking and horse riding or exploring an authentic and picturesque trail of old wooden Orthodox churches and chapels.

The whole region is dotted with these pretty timber churches that have been the part of this landscape for over five centuries.

This area has always been an ethnic and religious borderland where Poles, Jews, Ukrainians and Russians have lived together. But the 20th century history has been a turbulent one especially the Second World War and its aftermath when all the Russian ethnic groups called the Lemks and the Boyks were forcibly removed from the region. You can still discover some abandoned villages , nowadays, half hidden in high grass and bushes and 59 Russian and Greek Orthodox churches.

Most of them concentrate around a little town Sanok known as the “gateway to Bieszczady”.

Sanok with its attractive old town is a starting point of the wooden architecture trail and a place where you can find the biggest Open-air Museum of Folk Architecture in Poland.

The museum is vast and situated on a high hill by the San river.

It’s many picturesque trails lead through the perfectly preserved 19th century Galician town with its Polish and Jewish workshops, a post office, a fire station and townhouses. From there you climb forested slopes until reaching the 18th century orthodox church and then down again to open fields running between whitewashed houses and flowery gardens.

Walking through the park you will encounter tiny shrines and farm houses, wells carved out of massive tree trunks, small windmills and farm enclosures with curious goats and placid sheep. It is fascinating to wander around among old cottages, sit down on the porch or look inside the old shops. Most of interiors are furnished and decorated as they were 200 years ago.

Some manor houses boast good quality furniture in stark contrast to poor rural cottages where people and farm animals shared the same big and smoky room with animals huddled together in one corner and people sleeping on long wooden benches.

There are over 150 wooden buidings to explore dating from the 17th to the 20th century. There you will find public buildings such as rural schools, shops, farm houses, animal sheds and even industrial structures such as the 19th century petroleum machinery. All buildings are dedicated to different ethnographic groups such as the Lemks, Boyks, Western Pogorzans, Eastern Pogorzans and Dolinians and are segregted into separate sectors.

I particularly liked small orthodox churches from the 18th century and the 17th century wooden Catholic church. You step into the dark not knowing what to expect and then suddenly lights are switched on and you are simply dazzled by golden interiors and very colourful wall murals. The central part is always taken by the impressive “ikonostas” - a golden wall with row upon row of beautiful icons.  It is a symbolic border between a real and a mystical world with the altar hidden behind the “ikonostas” and never visible to the congregation. There are always a few rows of icons starting from the lowest representing the Christ, his mother and the saint patron of the church. The next row shows twelve saints and the scenes from the Christ’s life. Above there will be Jesus Christ with his Apostols and the highest level presents Old Testament Messiahs around the Christ on the cross. It’s a place to reflect, full of beauty and melancholy.

There are many more of these architectural pearls to discover around Sanok where roads  wind up around hills passing sleepy villages, scattered shrines and hidden cemeteries. Some of the Orthodox churches are still in use but many have been abandoned. They stand alone and forlorn usually perched on the top of a hill.

One of the most valuable is the monastic Orthodox church in Ulucz from 1510 with the unique polychromy. It’s only 20 km from Sanok but the place feels very isolated. The church is on top of a forested hill and surrounded by a very old Ukrainian cemetery- an atmospheric but somehow unsettling place. A legend says that villagers three times tried to build this church at the bottom of the hill but three times all their building materials have been mysteriously moved to the top. At last they understood that the hill is a sacred place and moved the church there.

Another beautiful Russian orthodox church still in use is in a tiny village of Hoszow. It is also built on a small hill and surrounded by ancient oak trees named after the Russian saints Cyril and Metody. We were lucky to meet an elderly villager who kindly let us inside the church where we could admire elaborate wall paintings and the golden “ikonostas”. He sadly stated that this place will soon share a fate of other abandoned churches as there are only eight elderly families left in the village.

Nearby, there is a big Boyks church in Rownia village and an abandoned church in Liskowate from the 17th century. Only remnants of the bell tower remain and some of its onion domes are lying scattered in the grass.

Other notable examples of orthodox churches are in SmolnikKroscienko, Radoszyce and Komancza.

And for all of you who do not have time to travel long distances there is a special place in a village called Myczkowce where over 140 orthodox churches have been lovingly recreated in the Miniature Park.

All miniatures stand together on ten little hills and grouped according to geographical and cultural heritage representing Polish, Ukrainian and Slovakian Orthodox architecture. You can unwind there and listen to old orthodox choir singing. A perfect place to start or finish your trail of discovery.

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BLUEBELL RAILWAY AND SHEFFIELD PARK – A JOURNEY INTO VICTORIAN PAST

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The smell of smoke, white steam and the whistle of an engine rises up from the dark green and dense woodland near the Sheffield Park Station.


The scene is idyllic and a red brick station is maintained in the original Victorian style of the London to Brighton and the South Coast Railway.

The Bluebell Railway does a line along the 18km route between the village of Horsted Keynes and Sheffield Park.

The station opened in 1882 at the request of the Earl of Sheffield but its fortunes waned and it closed in 1958. It was saved from extinction by a group of enthusiasts in 1960 and became a popular tourist trail.

The main station is a typical Victorian building with the original ticket office, a museum, a shop and the Bessemer Arms pub.

Two platforms are linked by an overhead bridge.

With a childlike delight I observe a black locomotive puffing away and pulling several bright  green and old-fashioned Pullman carriages full of relaxed and beaming passengers.

With the sun out what can be better than a leisurely trip on board of a vintage train when it rolls gently through the forest and open pastures of the East Sussex. You travel in comfort enjoying a traditional afternoon tea and admiring views. You could easily be in the Edwardian era.

The surrounding countryside is very pretty with an abundance of open heathland, dense woods, numerous and extremely picturesque bridges and gentle green hills.

The line is adorned with daffodils in spring and bluebells in May (hence its name).

For me the most exciting part is the locomotive workshop and a shed housing veteran engines and rolling early 20th century stock located at the station.

The display includes late 19th and early 20th  century vintage locomotives and a black beast of the Brighton engine from the 1940s.

The train departs from Sheffield Park Station at 11am, 1pm and 3pm and train tickets are from £13.50 (children £6.80).

HOW TO GET THERE

By car: Sheffield Park Station is on A275 East Grinstead to Lewes  road

By train: southern trains operate between London Victoria to East Grinstead

Only a mile from the Sheffield Park Station, across a beautiful countryside , lies Sheffield Park and Gardens.


There are four lovely lakes linked by cascades and waterfalls, and fringed by rhododendrons and azaleas.

When in bloom their bright colours reflect in waters adding a wow factor to the place.

The park is famous for a huge selection of rare trees and shrubs and was originally laid out in the 18th century by “Capability” Brown

and beautifully maintained by the National Trust.

I particularly enjoyed magnificent Californian seqoias, flaming red acers, dates and palm trees.

It is a perfect weekend hideaway and a picnic site. With 120 acres of parkland and endless pastures outside with flocks of sheep there’s a lot to discover and enjoy.

HOW TO GET THERE

by car: midway between East Grinstead and Lewes (free parking)

Entrance fee is £7.80

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SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL’S SPIRIT IN KENT

The road through Kent snakes along leafy lanes and across quiet pastures and wooded parklands.

Chartwell set amongst wooded hills and with sweeping views is only 30 miles from London and an oasis of peace and tranquility.

Hidden from the road behind a high brick wall, Chartwell was bought by Winston Churchill in 1922 and stands high on the slope offering great views of the lush Weald of Kent.

It is a spacious, anassuming house with large gardens where Winston Churchill and his family lived for 41 years. The house is very private, full of family personal possessions and lots of photographs on display.

There is a small museum on the top floor with many interesting gifts and honours Churchill accummulated from world leaders and his many admirers. His studio is full of books he read and wrote and many of his ever-present cigars.

You can also admire his art studio and take a look at his paintings.

The house is surrounded by a beautiful garden and an expanse of grass leading down to a long lake with a small promontory – Winston’s favourite relaxation spot where you can also sit down on a chair and enjoy this idyllic place.

Nearby, there is a rather big and oval swimming pool where a small herd of cows with their calves are enjoying the lush pastures.

At the back of the house you can wander around a productive kitchen garden surrounded by a long kitchen wall built by Winston himself during his 7 years of wilderness.

There are lots of old fruit trees, colourful shrubs, herbs and roses surrounding the house.

When the sun comes out it is a perfect place to be.

HOW TO GET THERE

from London – leave M25 at exit 5 or 6, 2 miles from Westerham in Kent TN16 1PS

The property belongs to National Trust

Admission fee is £10.00

Just a few miles from Chartwell you will find a very charming, old village of Westerham with lovely houses, Churchill’s and General Wolfe’s statues and a rambling ancient cemetery next to a delightful little church – half hidden in grasses and tumbling down the slope of the steep hill.

Just around the corner from Westerham’s main square there is The Quebec House - the childhood home of General James Wolfe, victor of the Battle of Quebec.


Along the road to Ide Hill and 2 miles from Westerham you will encounter a secluded 19th century garden set on the very high hill and called the Emmetts Garden.

There are spectacular views of the surrounding hills and valleys from the top and wooded hillsides to explore.

The best way is to wander around its scenic paths through blossoming rhododendrons displaying fiery colours ranging from purple, pink, orange, red to yellow and white. In the middle there is a lovely rock garden with many exotic shrubs and an extensive rose garden as well.

HOW TO GET THERE

two miles from Westerham, Kent TN16 1PS

The garden belongs to National Trust

Admission Fee £6.00

ELEGANCE AND PORCELAIN BEAUTY OF MEISSEN

It is the beauty of porcelain figurines and elaborately painted dinner sets that come to your mind when Meissen is mentioned.

It was a great success story when Germany unravelled the mysteries of porcelain production in the 18th century. Before it has been zealously guarded by the Chinese who had a total monopoly and could charge a top dollar for it.

No wonder  that the Elector of Saxony, a great porcelain collector and a main supporter of its industry in Europe, established the Meissen Porcelain Factory in the Albrechtsburg Castle in the centre of Meissen and made a success of it in the following years. There is not one royal castle in Europe without its Meissen porcelain collection from Britain to Russia.

Today when you arrive in this pretty and elegant town you won’t immediately notice porcelain souvenir shops but you can’t avoid the Old Town perched high above the Elbe River with its Gothic castle of Albrechtsburg and soaring church towers.

It was in the castle where first experiments to make porcelain took place. Today it houses museums and- you guessed it- an impressive porcelain collection. And in the Church of St. Nicholas you will find the largest figures ever made from Meissen porcelain.

We skipped the Porcelain Museum as I found its entrance fee a touch too high and instead  concentrated on  exploring a lovely beer garden nearby. But I heard it’s a fascinating place for all porcelain enthusiasts as you can learn everything about porcelain invention and its production methods.

The whole Old Town is compact with plenty of pretty buildings and charming restaurants. The best way is to wander around and explore little lanes, climb the stairway up on the hillside stopping at beer terraces and enjoying great views of the town below, the Elbe river and distant hills stretching to the horizon. Pretty soon you will pass the Gate Tower (Schlosstreppe), old city walls and ,hey, you are in front of the castle.

At the bottom of the hill there is a picturesque Market Square with the 15th century Town Hall on one side and a lovely parish church opposite. The square is surrounded by old buildings – all lovingly renovated and you can follow various steeply stepped lanes leading up to the castle on the hill.

Meissen is not only a perfectly preserved old town in Saxony but is also very accessible from Dresden.

This winning combination together with distinctive Saxon wines attract plenty of tourists throughout the year.

In Meissen there is no shortage of pretty little wine taverns where you can stop for a glass of wine. And in summer, if you see a broom outside a house, it means that wine is served inside.

And this is definitely the best reason to stop there.

HOW TO GET THERE

By rail – from Dresden take S-Bahn (27 km – 30 minute  trip)

by Boat – From Dresden Elbe River Excursions ( 2 hour trip)

KONIGSTEIN – EUROPE’S BIGGEST MOUNTAIN FORTRESS

Perched on a hill and overlooking a small Saxony town of Konigstein is the mighty Festung Konigstein (Konigstein Fortress).

In its 800 years of existence it has stopped all its enemies and remained unconquered until the arrival of present-day tourists eager to climb its walls, admire its might and enjoy great vistas from the top especially the Elbe River bend.

It is undoubtedly Europe’s biggest mountain fortress with impenetrable 40 metre high walls, 60 buildings inside to explore and covering an area of 9.5 ha.

For all its aloofness it is very accessible as you can choose to climb the hill following a picturesque and winding path which only takes 30 minutes or take a cute courtesy train from the town centre.

The fortress is truly massive and you need a least half a day to see everything but the experience and the views are definitely worth the effort.

The first document to mention Konigstein dates back to 1241 and refers to it as a castle.  Originally it belonged to the Bohemian Kingdom but at the beginning of the 15th century it passed into the hands of Saxon rulers. Since 1589 it was turned into a fortress and remained one until the beginning of the 20th century.

Throuhout its history different Saxon regiments have had their base there and many buildings have been added reflecting different architectural styles from Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque to the 19th century Neo-Gothic Garrison Church.

The fortress have also some other unusual wonders such as the deepest well in Saxony (152.5 metres) dug in 1563 and still being operated for tourists to marvel at its sheer drop.

The army supply warehouse with its sloping surface perfect for rolling massive barrels down to the bottom is another treasure. It holds “The Great Cask” – the largest wine barrel in the world with a capacity of 238,000 litres.

Other treasures include a collection of cannons and regimental Saxon uniforms. The interesting fact is that Bismarck used to keep millions of silver talars in the fortress – obviously trusting its impregnable walls.

The sheer drop of massive walls of the George Castle and the stark entrance gate with the Royal Saxon Coat of Arms is particularly impressive.

I also liked the collection of royal cannons and the ornate Baroque Lilienstein Tower perched precariously over the cliff but with stunning views of the Elbe River below and surrounding hills.

After all this exhertion there are ample opportunities to sample traditional German fare of bratwurst with mustard and a schnitzl with potatoes.

The fortress is a magnificent place just waiting to be discovered. So don’t just stay in Dresden – get on a bike and get there.

HOW TO GET THERE

By car: by motorway A17 – Dresden – Prague (Pirna exit), then federal road B172 in direction Bad Schandau

By Urban Railway: S-Bahn line S1 – Dresden – Konigstein – Schona

By Boat: Dresden – Konigstein – Bad Schandau

Admission Fees: 8 EURO

You can find free parking in Konigstein town.

The car park next to the fortress has a parking charge.

WEIMAR – GERMANY’S CULTURAL GEM

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Two heavyweights of German literature – Goethe and Schiller stand side by side and gaze above us at the Theaterplatz in Weimar. Just by looking around the centre I can see that this compact  city is a stunning architectural pearl.

If you ever travel through Thuringia in the south-east part of Germany just make a stop in Weimar and you won’t be disappointed. For a small city of 65000 it has a vast cultural heritage to offer.

Weimar was home to the giants of German literature: Goethe and Schiller, home to classical music and a composer Franz Liszt, the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement and the place where Germany’s first democratic constitution was signed after the First World War, giving its name to the Weimar Republic period of 1918 – 1933.

It’s an easy place to explore with many compact squares surrounded by old townhouses and numerous museums, palaces and monuments on every corner and sumptuous gardens near the centre of the city.

In Theaterplatz you can admire the imposing National Theatre with the symbolic statue of Goethe and Schiller

and The Bauhaus Museum at the opposite side of the square.

From there narrow and winding lanes lead to the Schiller House and the Goethe House where his famous “The Faust” was written and his memorabilia can be seen.

Nearby, the main art museum – The Schlossmuseum with its first class collection of paintings ranging from Renaissance until the beginning of the 20th century occupies the City Palace

a sprawling building with a distinctive tower which is situated on the banks of the river Ilm and surrounded by a large classical park designed by Goethe himself.

Just to the south of the palace the view opens onto the impressive baroque buiding with a columnal porch. It is a well known music school founded by Franz Liszt in 1872.

We follow more winding lanes until we reach the 16th century Herderplatz with its white Herder Church famous for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s altar triptych (1552). It is a UNESCO site and I’m a bit disappointed to find church doors firmly bolted. It seems we arrived there after the closure time at 4pm.

We have to move on to the picturesque Cranach House rising above a colourful market square where an arty coffee shop tempts us to take a break and tuck into delicious cakes.

The square boasts pretty as postcards buildings and an impressive neo-gothic Town Hall.


Our visit culminates in Weimar’s Historical Cemetery just outside the city centre. It has a park-like feel with its dark green tree alleys, old walls engraved with family graves and little criss-crossing paths.

A richly ornamented Russian Orthodox Chapel rises above the cemetery and its gilded onion domes draw attention to the burial site of the Russian Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, the wife of Grand Duke Carl Friedrich.

The mausoleum chapel was built for the Russian Tsar’s daughter in 1860s. Even soil from Russia was brought especially for her last place of rest.

The whole cemetery is a lovely secluded spot perfect for wandering around and discovering classical graves of many Weimar celebrities. The coffins of Goethe and Schiller can be viewed together with Goethe’s close confidante Charlotte von Stein.

After all this cultural nourishment we’re ready for culinary Thuringian specialty such as the original bratwurst with mustard.

HOW TO GET THERE

By train – from Dresden, Berlin, Leipzig or Halle. The centre of town is a 20-minute walk south of the train station

By car – along E40 between Erfurt and Dresden

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