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    The 10 best castles in the world (IMHO)

    My inner princess never thought this was possible. My own country has a history of around 150 settled human years, so the magic of walking through thousands of years of Euopean history never quite loses the unique frisson of delight. This selection is my top 10 of the best castles in the world (well, in my honest opinion anyway!)

    Suits of armour that tell tales of bravery and hardship, kitchen hearths that fed hundreds of (in)famous dignitaries and hard-working servants, windows that saw enemy arches living up their longbows and sighing maidens dreaming of their loves, moats that were filled with all sorts of exotic contents and drafty castles walls that witnessed history that changed the lives of nations.

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Yeah, I’ve got the castle wandering bug bad. If there is a castle or palace near where we are (and by near I mean within 2 hours train ride) you can guarantee that I’ll be making my way there, scheming how to get closer or researching ways to sleep there (Prince Harry, watch out).

    Buckingham Palace, London, England
    Known by locals as ‘Buck House’ the home of our Commonwealth Queen was everything thing I thought it would be – ostentatious, sumptuous and amazing. Just what a Palace should be. As important to the British psyche as Tea, wellies and apologising for other people bumping into you, the Royal family is an institution. Britain (/England/the United Kingdom/whatever) simply wouldn’t be the same without the bastion of the eccentric royal family: the Queen’s imperious waves, Prince Philips gaffes, Charles & Camilla’s love affair and Kate and Williams rock-star icon just adds such a soupcon to the mystique of Britain.

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Pena Palace, Sintra Portugal
    Quirkily gorgeous, the Palacio Nacional da Pena is one of the finest tourist attractions of Portugal and exemplifies the 19th century Romanticism style of architecture with a twist of sheer imagination. The curiously crenellated collection of beautiful rooms crest a collection of beautiful palaces in the town of Sintra.

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany.
    On our visit, leaving behind the crowds in the busy parking lot (there are a couple of family castles that can also be visited) we walked up the hill towards Neuschwanstein. Leaving Mr Kiwi to enjoy the fresh mountain air, I took in the guided tour through the unique rooms created solely for Ludwig’s use – even the servants had separate hallways running alongside. From an ornately carved bedroom to a man-made cave and private theatre room, the castle that inspire Walt Disney’s cartoon glory was curious to say the least…

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey), Highclere, England
    They say never meet your heroes as you’ll only be disappointed when their humanity is revealed, but I say ignore that entirely. Sometimes you have to. Sometimes you have to get on that train, walk through those gates and simply revel in the crazy amazingness that is England. Case in point – Downton Abbey. Wait, I mean Highclere Castle…

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Winchester Castle, Winchester, England
    Housing the Arthurian Round Table of myth and legend (though sadly actually slightly more modern in construction – only commissioned by King Henry in the 13th Century, rather than 6th as they originally thought) Winchester Cathedral is well worth a wander – especially in winter…

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Strawberry Hill House, Richmond, London
    Hidden in the opulent suburb of Twickenham, (aka Surrey) a gothic castle of dreamy spires quietly rests. Each new room seemed like walking into a fairytale princess’ room – in fact my friend struggled the whole way round to choose just the one she would have as her bedroom…

    Eilean Donan, Highlands, Scotland
    You can name almost any of the residences of royal kilt wearers (a personal favourite is Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh), but the most famous in the Highlands is the beautiful and mysterious Eilean Donan, which means ‘Island of Donnan’. Found on a a small tidal island located in the western Highlands of Scotland, the castle was first founded in the 13th century and after extensive 20th Century work now features in a litany of movies and TV shows (including a Monty Python cameo).

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Kidwelly Castle/Castell Cydwell, Carmanthenshire, Wales
    Known best for featuring in the establishing shot of Monty Python’s Search For The Holy Grail (aka one of the best comic films ever) this castle is a treasure of the Welsh countryside.

    Eltham Palace, Eltham, England
    First mentioned in the Doomsday book, Eltham Estate was presented to King Edward II in 1305 and developed into one of the most favoured royal palaces with 1,000 acres of deer park on its doorstep. #swoon

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Blarney Castle, Blarney, Ireland
    Quite simply, that’s how Mr Kiwi and I came to find ourselves being pushed (by some bloke) over a parapet, backwards, whilst holding on to a couple of sturdy steel supports. Kissing the Blarney Stone was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments that blew my tiny little mind, and it was well worth the journey. (Will I ever become vaguely eloquent? Probably not, and I’m ok with that.)

    The 10 best castles in the world Adventures of a London Kiwi

    What would make your top 10 castles in the world list? (Real or fiction…) 

     (PS. pin me!)

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    Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland

    Every blogger secretly wants to discover hidden gems right? I mean it’s practically in the job description: Chatterbox required for hours sat in front of a screen editing words and photos about unusual things. Must bring own mug and discover ‘hidden gems’.

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Mount Stewart isn’t a hidden gem, it is one of Northern Ireland’s diadem rocks, second to the actual rocks of the Giant’s Causeway. The opening hours were flexible (to say the least) on the rainy day that we visited, so we wandered through the gardens whilst the grey clouds threatened.

    Warning: I also somehow managed to get every photo slightly askew.

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Inbetween the rumbling clouds, we explored the sprawling gardens, restored to the splendour of their original planting in the 1920s (overseen) by Edith, Lady Londonderry. 

     Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    The greenery was interspersed with a scattering of fascinating statuary, politically planted flower beds (featuring the harp and red hand of Ulster) and a beguiling smattering of paths.

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    We were the only people foolish hardy enough to be wandering through, and took our sweet time (with a close eye on those clouds.)

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Out damned spot, or off damned raindrop, rather.

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Behind large leafy fronds, concrete faces smiled out at us in a variety of curious gazes.

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    With the threatened rain drops beginning to splodge, we made our way inside the hallowed halls where the current generation family still live, after a National Trust regeneration of £8 or so million pounds. Running into Lady Rose Lauritzen, a direct descendant of the Marquesses of Londonderry, we took our time to explore each of the rooms.

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    The interior is all the glorious opulence I have come to expect of titled family estates usually established for longer than New Zealand has history (with some of that history caused by mischievous generations…)

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Just a casual set of armour on the walls…

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    …titles on the dining room table…

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    …priceless artwork hanging on the stairwells…

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    …and galleons whimsically hung from the light fittings (an optical illusion that would sit on the nearby lake before the trees grew so high)

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

     

    Though with animal snacks dotted around the living rooms, and silver-plated dog bowls, I feel like these would be my people.

    I did wonder what these two dudes were discussing “OMG, did you SEE that volunteer’s skirt clashing with her jumper?” < Why I can never work in a museum…

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    …before we finished the house tour with a peek into the family chapel hung with lions rampant.

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Oh, and we couldn’t get a seat in the cafe for a spot of tea and scones
    because when we wandered in it was swarming with elderly people. Does
    the disappointment make me an elderly people?

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Mount Stewart National Trust Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Luckily our friend and local guide extraordinaire knew of nearby village that purveys the most ridiculous cinnamon scones so all was not lost on our last morning of Northern Ireland rambling…

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    10 reasons you should visit Belfast

    Every couple of years Mr Kiwi and get ourselves organised enough to book a long weekend listening to tunes and eating great food with our favourite Belfast-based friends. We hop on a Friday night flight, stock up on a few bottles of beer, spin a few records (the sound quality is simply amazing – though I’m always amazed to be allowed into the man-cave) and bookmark a couple of activities in between the terrible jokes that abound.

    10 reasons you should go to Belfast Adventures of a London Kiwi

    When you have good weather (and even better, lovely locals to escort you around the compact city) Belfast is almost unbeatable. Often skipped through by tourists taking daytrips and overnights from Dublin to the wonder of the Giants Causeway, there is a surprising amount of things to do as a visitor in the capital of Northern Ireland.

    Sure, the highlights could be covered in a day plus a half day out to the coast, but take a few days. Relax. Explore. Loosen your belt.

    Titanic Museum Things to do in Belfast Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Titanic Museum Things to do in Belfast Adventures of a London Kiwi

    With the years of the Troubles shadowing visitors perceptions, we love discovering the layers to the capital city of Northern Ireland. Art, culture, good food, plenty of music, history, natural beauty, afternoon tea, pubs galore, stately homes, luscious fields (that always seem to have just been mulched as we fly into the city) and winding country lanes.

    And you won’t even have to collect a different currency.

    1. Settle in one of the funky pubs for an hour or two of live music and chatter. Most tourists head for the the only working pub owned and operated by the National Trust, the iconic snugs of the Crown bar, but there are so many more. Luxury hotel bars, music dens, OMPs (old man pubs) and a few for the dance mad young’uns (clearly not us anymore.)

    Crown Pub Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    2. Take in a cuppa at Mount Stewart House, Garden & Temple of the Winds (and if you’re lucky like we were you may meet Lady Rose Lauritzen, a direct descendant of the Marquesses of Londonderry)

    Things to do in Belfast Mount Stewart Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Things to do in Belfast Mount Stewart Adventures of a London Kiwi

    3. Explore the gruesome history of Crumlin Road Gaol, with a guided tour sharing history from 1845 until it closed its doors as a working prison in 1996.

    Crumlin Road Goal Adventures of a London Kiwi

    4. Take a few back roads out of the center and discover waterfalls, castles overlooking the ocean (potter along to CarrickFergus to discover the building that the French conquered only to run away due to the neverending rain…), Cinnamon Scones that will destroy any and all diets and sleepy sheeps on verdant pastures.

    10 things to do in Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

     
    5. Learn about the indelible mark of living history.

    Black Cab Tours The Troubles Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Black Cab Tours The Troubles Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    6. Visit the Titanic Museum. Now, it hadn’t really been on my ‘must visit’ list, but actually besides glossing over the reasons for the Titanic not surviving a tussle with an iceberg *cough* manufacturing *cough* the museum is a wonderfully interactive showcase of passenger steamer history.

    Things to do in Belfast Titanic Museum Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Titanic Museum Things to do in Belfast Adventures of a London Kiwi

    7. Have afternoon tea with a friend who travelled from another country for the day (in this case the beautiful Becky @ Casa Caudill who lives in Dublin but hopped on the train especially to hang with me.) The Titanic Museum serve a surprisingly good, varied tea in the recreated Titanic Ballroom, complete with staircase for swishing down.

    Things to do in Belfast Titanic Museum Adventures of a London Kiwi

    8. Catch the latest exhibition at the Modern Art Museum or go shopping for the toiletries your husband left in England for nice stuff in the malls.

    What to do in Belfast Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    9. Afternoon tea again – we were invited to visit the Europa Hotel to try out the afternoon tea, and as far as gluten free afternoon teas go, it was cracking. In fact it was so generous, the lads found us and polished off the good sized portion we couldn’t finish.

    Belfast Afternoon Tea Europa Hotel Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Europa Hotel Belfast Afternoon Tea Adventures of a London Kiwi

    10. And of course, visit the fascinating Giant’s Causeway. Take an umbrella unlike my stupid 2010 self.

    Giants Causeway Things to do in Northern Ireland Adventures of a London Kiwi

    Belfast is such a surprising city break. I mean hey, if it’s good enough for Obama…

    Have you been yet?

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    Belfast, Northern Ireland

    How and where do you start with a city like Belfast? Torn in two for generations over the rights of the English and the Irish to govern this rainy spot, peace seems to be gently settling on this troubled place.

    Falls Road striking with Republican/Nationalist messages - Belfast, Northern Ireland


    After travelling through the luscious Irish Country side, kissing the Blarney Stone, sipping on an ice-cold Guinness next to the Liffey, marvelling at the incredibly dramatic Cliffs of Moher, transversing Dublin’s ha’penny bridge, explored the enigmatic ruins of Charles’ Fort and marvelled at the gluten-free offerings of Ireland, we hopped on the train to Belfast. There was no announcement en route of the country’s border line, one minute you were in the emerald Isles, next thing back on English soil – yet that imaginary line has been the subject of so much suffering.

    Each time we re-visit we don’t really know quite what to expect. The murals still line the infamous Falls Road striking with Republican/Nationalist messages; the curbstones lining the Shankill Road strike the eye with patriotic red white and blue Loyalist hues.

    The Shankill Road with Loyalist messages  - Belfast, Northern Ireland

    Peace walls “designed to protect neighbourhoods from sporadic attacks and retain a sense of peace and protection” still stand proud. Mostly unlocked during the day, in heightened periods of unrest the click of a key in their locks ring true.

    For the most part fervour seems to have abated somewhat allowing the city occupants to start a fresh with busy day-to-day lives. It isn’t a pretty city, but one mired in recent history, with talks still ongoing.

    Peace walls - Belfast, Northern Ireland

    Not all of the murals are political, modern artists are taking advantage of the history to create their own image of the of the city. Tourists are beginning to visit this city – for the ill-fated Titanic (built in Belfast), the Crumlin Road Goal (good enough for her Majesty the Queen to visit) and their museum of modern art.

    Peace Murals - Belfast, Northern Ireland

    We especially loved the live music scene and spent a toe tapping Friday perched on bar stools around the city center before inhaling a burrito bowl of delicious proportions.

    Peace Murals - Belfast, Northern Ireland

    We rounded our evening by popping into an opulent hotel for a blackberry nightcap (I was much mocked by the boys) whilst we planned our next day.

    Waking to homebaked croissants and the cheery sound of coffee cups and kids chattering, our effusive host (Mr Kiwi’s friend for more than 20 years) asked if we wanted to see the Titanic exhibition. It’s an awkward thing to do, but as we politely declined he laughed with relief and asked what we’d really like to do (he’s been roughly 10 times with overseas visitors).



    Basically we just wanted to spend time catching up with him, so in the spirit of the black cab tours, we took a drive through the mural districts and spotted peace walls dotting the town. We walked the hushed hallways and tunnels of  Crumlin Road Goal, and briefly stopped into the modern art museum.

    Tourists are slowly beginning to chip away as the firm veneer of this troubled city – we lunched in a Michelin Starred Restaurant, sipped a pint or two in the stunning Crown Pub and settled in to watch the world go by with a tray off coffee.

    Belfast, we can’t wait to revisit again – the Giant’s Causeway is calling.

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    Northern Ireland #travelthursdays

    I rather enjoy Thursdays. Not quite as much as Fridays, or Saturdays, and Sundays, but there is something rather nice about having reached the back end of the week, and being able to start planning weekend shenanigans (not this month though it’s going to be a little ridiculous). Thursdays are also perfect for planning long weekends away.

     

    One of the best things about living in England (other than the afternoon tea) is the vicinity to so many places. 3 other countries are within driving distance (Wales, Scotland & France) with at least another 5 within 2 hours flying distance.

     

     

     

    Perfect for sneaky long weekends away.

     

     

    My first ever view of the Altantic. I felt so excitingly far from home…

     

     

     

    The Giant’s Causeway, not far from Bushmills Distillery where it was rude not to try a wee dram, and we ate the best EVER roast.

     

     

     

     

     

    Such a sad, history rich and fascinating country.

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