I have been obsessed with central eurasia since I was a child. There is a big wide gap from Ukraine (or arguably further West) all the way to China. There is a great big gaping hole in the map. Since I was young, with the globe I inherited, I used to stare at this gap and wonder what was there. As I span the globe back to Europe, there are no barriers. No high mountains, no wide oceans, nothing…So it must be possible to drive to China?
Most people laughed when I came out with that question, but it MUST be possible. After travelling some of Asia with Kerrie, we were struck by the real sense of gratitude for our European background – we have everything!
When you see first-hand how little the majority of the people on the planet have you can feel embarrassed, relieved or guilty. There is however, something we can do. There is an unending list of incredible global charities to tackle a vast number of issues around the world. If everyone did something for one of these charities in their life the world would be a much better place than it is now.
I had been pondering what I could do for a few years to actually help people in a ‘real-terms’ sense. I saw a ‘call-to-arms’ from GoHelp online and immediately I had decided. I was going to drive to Mongolia….
GoHelp do some incredible work in Mongolia (as well as a few other places too) delivering healthcare and education to a huge number of people who would otherwise not have access to it. These people are exactly the same as me, many the same age. We are identical in every way apart from one – I got luck in the geographical lottery. I was born in Europe and as a result of that (and a bit of hard work along the way!) I have a car, a house, a partner, I am able to travel regularly, go shopping and have a 24-hour university hospital withing 20 minutes which is free at the point of use – I won the JACKPOT!
My Mongolian counterparts, however, are in a post-soviet country who are lucky if they have somewhere warm to stay or get to see a doctor. GoHelp are trying to make up the balance. With donated vehicles, equipment and of course cash, they are providing education, an ambulance service and so many other good things for these people.
I had no idea how I would do it, but I was determined – Mission Mongolia would happen. Kerrie suggested I went to see a director at the company we work for and see if he would entertain the idea. In her never-ending optimism, she said ‘he can only say no…and imagine if he doesn’t!?’.
I thought about how I could convince them to take on the project and I realised we are opening an office in Guangzhou – quick look on the map, yeah, lets do that as a detour! Off I went to see just how hard he would laugh!
I had prepared my pitch and I was ready to sell the idea – he listened, carefully, didn’t say a lot and gave nothing away… not even the smallest hint. He asked me to send him a project plan for a meeting he had in an hour’s time and that was it. Was I going to Mongolia?
A few days later and it was Sunday. He asked me to phone him in Dubai and speak about my ‘crazy idea’. I sat in my spare room, where I am writing this from today, and called. In a quick conversation he agreed that they would be our main sponsor. They would supply our vehicle and the costs of ensuring it was up to the job, and give us a place to prepare and work on it. They would also provide three of my colleagues to make up my crew. The call ended with me in a shocked silence. I was going to Mongolia.
This is how Mission Mongolia was born. We would have 4 people, 4 weeks and 12000 miles of journeying to deliver the vehicle to GoHelp in Ulaanbaatar.
I had 20 applicants for crew and I held interviews and a selection activity evening to select the best. After some of the hardest decisions (probably of the whole project) I chose Kylie, Scott and Luca. Together we would make up the Mission Mongolia Crew 2017.
I still have no idea why I suggested Malta, but here is my Malta Review.
At the time, following a previous holiday where BA Late Deals had messed up our Dubrovnik trip, we had some BA credit to use up and for some reason, I thought Malta would be an interesting trip to spend it on. After succumbing to the seamless marketing of VisitMalta, Kerrie agreed it would be worth a visit.
We flew from Gatwick to Malta with British Airways and landed in the Maltese capital of Valetta (more on Valetta later). We arrived to one of my typical ‘no one’s ever heard of them’ car rental desk.
A rather abrupt gentlemen processed our booking and worked to up-sell every product he could including a sat nav. Schoolboy error number 1, I chose to go with a sat nav as we were due to stay on the opposite side of the island and I had no idea how to get there.
I looped the airport about three times whilst Kerrie tried to find some satellites on the satnav I had foolishly paid for. Ok, satellites located, great work – our hotel won’t come up… hmm… I pulled over convinced I would work it….Nope, the only language loaded was Maltese and I had no idea how to spell our hotel name, in Maltese.
I decided, from memory, to head west… you can only get so lost, can’t you?
As we descended into St. Paul’s Bay it started raining pretty heavy so I turned on the wipers, and to my surprise, the rubber part fell off and left the metal arm to scratch across the windscreen. After a further 20 minutes of driving, with my head virtually out of the window, we arrived in Ramla Bay, my hair dripping wet and we could see the hotel, we just couldn’t get to it!
I had booked the Ramla Bay Resort based on it’s 4 star rating (confirmed by TripAdvisor) and its proximity to the Gozo ferry port.
After I had resorted to Google Maps on my phone, we had to leave Ramla Bay and re-enter on another road, as the Hotel entrance is not in Ramla Bay but at the top of the hill on what looks like an un-made road.
When we arrived, there were very few free parking spaces and we were directed to park out of the hotel grounds on some scrap land and walk back to the hotel with our luggage.
The reception ‘first impression’ is a bit underwhelming. A fairly standard reception with staff who were fairly helpful. We checked in and went to our room. The room was fine, again, fairly average and the hotel feels a little ‘tired’.
The following day, we decided to go straight to Gozo and see what was there. From my research, I saw there was a UNESCO world heritage site – Temples of Ggantija which looked amazing. The ferry port was a 10 minute drive at most and we got straight on.
At Gozo island, after getting a new wiper blade, we drove up into the islands interior heading for the Temples of Ggantija. We found a discreet sign pointing to these but it is not obvious. Entry is through the tourist centre and museum for the Temples – and less than 10 Euro each for museum and temple visit, it’s not a bad price either.
It was underwhelming to say the least. The temple is in a strange state of disrepair and repair. The temples are a lot smaller than they look in the photographs (around 2-3 feet tall!) and the tour guide was very clear when she explained that they had been rebuilt in the form that the discoverer believed they originally were. They are in the middle of a field and there isn’t much to look at.
I am all for monolithic sites and I appreciate the sense of significance with sites like this, but once they have been rebuilt and marketed as hard as they have been, the awe can wilt a little.
When we left Ggantija, I managed, for the first time, to get the car over 30mph – which was a real mistake as the steering wheel started to wobble violently and the car shuddered. Being a mechanic, I climbed underneath and saw the steering arm had a rather impressive bend in it and the tyre had a big chunk missing on the inside edge… Do we lose a day and get it swapped or just carry on…..carry on of course!
This is a giant arch carved into the rock by the sea’s wave action and is surrounded by lots of erosion caused rock formations (including another much smaller arch)
On the way to or from Azure Window, it is worth heading along the coast roads that run to some of the beaches. On these, you will find shallow squares cut out of the rock shelves that the beach meets. These are the Maltese salt farms. The water washes up over them at high tide, at low tide, the sun dries them out and the salt can be harvested. Not a tourist attraction but interesting to see.
In the sandstone banks at the edges of the beach, huts have also been carved out in some placed even with doors fitted too!
On Gozo, there are a number of nice churches to see and some quaint little villages too. We spent the day and went on the ferry back that evening.
Next day we drove up to see what the fuss is about with Popeyes Village…and after visiting, I’m still not sure.
Popeye’s is an ‘intentionally’ derelict looking town in a windswept cove. It is an original film set from the Popeye film which is significant but for me, it didn’t do much.
At first we thought it had been destroyed by a storm and was closed but it turned out to be open. Having no children, we decided not to venture down but I was asked for my thoughts by Popeye’s village and I gave them the above. Their response was :
We thank you for finding time to visit Popeye Village during your stay in Malta.
As you are making your way through the village, one must appreciate that you are visiting one of the very few film-sets still fully intact after all these years – as usually, film sets are disassembled as soon as shooting is over due to copy rights, but luckily, the Popeye film set is still here for us to appreciate.
Please note that the shabby-looking village had to resemble a poor fishing village dating back to post First World War, where all its people had to do was to pay all their earnings to the commodore in taxes!!! Therefore, the designer that was engaged for this project had to take into consideration that the village had to resemble the original Segar’s cartoon drawings which were initially depicted in comics in the 1920s and 30s.
Thanks and many regards,
Events, HR & Customer Relations Manager
Fair enough I think. Could be worth a visit on a nice day with kids?
We carried on along the south coast and headed for Dingli Cliffs. Dingli Cliffs again had the ‘VisitMalta treatment’ and looked amazing in the photos. Having visited, they are just some cliffs. Full disclosure, I do live very close to the Seven Sisters Cliffs so I am probably desensitized to it a little… I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.
Very close by, difficult to find, is Clapham Junction Cart Ruts (called Misrah Ghar il-Kbir in Malta) but they are signposted as ‘Cart Ruts’ or ‘Kart Rutts’. These are hundreds of what look like horse and cart tracks actually carved into the rock floor. There are other examples on the islands but these are the best.
From the cliffs, head down the Triq Inżul ix Xemx (road), as the road forks, keep right and on you right, there will be a little field with a sign. Park in there and walk across the fiels in the direction of the coast road, you will come into a field where the Cart Ruts start. Walk around to your heart’s content – they’re everywhere.
I genuinely found these really interesting. I don’t believe they are ruts from carts as they come from nowhere (Dingli Cliffs) and go towards the fields. Why would you have that much cart traffic that it carved grooves (some a foot or so deep) into the rock? Also, these grooves get closer together and further apart, by a big amount too. How is that possible with a rigid axle vehicle? Obviously typically we are told these were made in mud and became rock… I think these are something much more interesting but that is a whole other post! 🙂
From there, you can continue east along that coast and arrive at Malta’s Freeport. As I have worked in cargo and shipping, I can’t resist visiting large or important ports… if you are interested, go take a look!
From there, we headed back via St. Paul’s Bay to get some food, parking can be a pain here but there are some good restaurants in the bay.
Following day we chose to go and spend a day at the pool as it was quite warm and the persistent 10mph wind that had blown since our arrival had died down a little. Luckily, we went to check it out before donning our swimwear as when we arrived, the pools were empty and dry – not open until April…
There is an inside pool and spa facility at the hotel though… oh, that was closed too.
After scrapping that idea, we went to see St. Agatha’s Tower, Triq Tad-Dahar, or Red Tower as it is creatively called by the locals. Worth driving up to see, it was only a few minutes from our hotel and there is a route you can take on that road to see some of the beautiful western Malta. My route is here:
From there, we spent the afternoon at Paradise Bay which was nice, a little busy but would be a great place to catch the sun in summer.
On our last full day, we wanted to go to Valetta, the capital. On the way though, on an island smaller than the city of London, much to Kerrie’s disappointment, I managed to find an Aviation Museum!
Between working in aviation and being a plane geek, I managed to find an excuse for us to go. What a treat!
Malta Aviation Museum-Ta’ Qali-Malta – Meteors, Sea Hawks, Vampires, Lightnings, this is the way aviation museums should be! All sorts of aircraft/engines in all states of restoration scattered around for you to look at your own leisure. This will make any plane geek’s day!
We swiftly proceeded to Valetta and parked up in the city centre parking (surprisingly hard to find). Valetta is a very old city which has been the only hub on the island for any significant period of time. The whole city is amazing, crafted sandstone in a kind of baroque style with huge city walls and a bridge to enter.
You could spend a few days wandering the small streets, some dating back to the 16th century, with their charming little cafés. As you enter the city, you will probably come across the ruins of the Royal Opera House which was destroyed in WWII.
The feel of Valetta and the people are just awesome.
Malta is an interesting place, the car and the weather probably clouded our trip a little. I feel Malta oversells itself a little and this maybe makes you feel about underwhelmed when you see the things in real life. Without such marketing they would probably have been pretty impressive.
Despite our hiccups, we had a great laugh and a good trip overall! The beaches are good and in summer, if you want somewhere, that’s good value, to soak up the sun, Malta would be perfect (just hire a decent car!).
Just another quick Malta review tip for any plane geeks, Malta airport offers a raised viewing platform mid-runway with parking too… take your camera!
Will we be going back to Malta? Probably not.
P.S. The car hire company agreed the vehicle shouldn’t have been in that condition and refunded us a day as a good-will gesture…
I must have looked at over twenty destinations in my search for our perfect February break.
We had four days ideally, had to be a reasonable cost, had to be within a few hours flight and I wanted to fly from Gatwick – an easy criteria for Europe in February.
I searched for ways to convince Kerrie of each place I found and she was indifferent to my excited pitch about what there was to do in each place until I showed her a picture of Lake Bled.
When she said ‘We have to go there!’, I immediately booked flights before she could change her mind!
Lake Bled is in Northern Slovenia, not far from the Austrian border. It is a beautiful lake in the Julian Alps with a small island in the middle. It is a big tourist attraction in the summer but winter seems to be their low season.
Bled town is primarily to the East of the lake and has plenty of hotels and restaurants to cater for the busy season. It also has a big Medieval Castle on a hill towering over the town which is lit up at night.
In winter, the lake freezes over to such a thickness that you can walk over the surface, all the way to the island in the middle – when we got there, a warm spell had hit and the ice wasn’t thick enough to safely walk on!
I booked flights with Easyjet from Gatwick to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana ( pronounced Lyub-liy-ana). Ljubljana is just over a 2 hour flight from London and return fare for us was less than £100 each. The only problem with flights to Ljubljana is that Easyjet fly out Friday evening and back on Monday midday with no flights on Tuesdays (in early Feb) so our 4 day getaway was off the cards. We flew out on the Friday evening and decided to fly back on the Wednesday. This would give us 4 full days in Slovenia with two days to fly.
Bled is about 20 miles from Ljubljana Airport and is essentially, one motorway until the road into Bled. There are plenty of transfer options, as well as train and bus links. For around 15 euros a day, we hired a car from InterRent at the airport.
If you are going to use InterRent I can save you an hour of aimless walking – their office is not in the well-sign posted Car Rental facility, as you might expect! As you exit the arrivals building, turn immediately right, walk down to the departures building, go in the first set of doors and turn immediately left. There will be a dimly lit corridor that their office is on…it took me about an hour to find and no airport staff know where it is either!
We then drove north to Bled and arrived at our hotel in about 30 minutes which had free parking.
We normally choose a cheap hotel when we go on short breaks as we spend so little time in the room but this time, with my adventure plans for this year, we decided to splash out on a five-star hotel – Grand Hotel Toplice. The hotel is in the south of Bled, right on the edge of the lake. I wasn’t convinced by the elegance of the hotel from the promotional pictures but nevertheless for less than £100 a night on Booking.com, it should still be great value.
We had few plans when we arrived, I just had my normal book full of scribbles from my research of things to see and do. When we checked in, there was a brilliant concierge who was incredibly welcoming and knew everything about Slovenia and Bled. He gave us more maps than we would ever need and suggestions on enough attractions to fill a few weeks at least!
We spent the Saturday exploring, we drove around the lake (15mins) about three times and explored Bled making a plan of attack for the trip.
Typically, I cannot resist a ‘Road Trip’ and I managed to convince Kerrie that we should do one on the Sunday:
With an early start, you can get to the stunning Wörthersee Lake for breakfast, head across into Italy, down through the Easternmost point of the Dolomites, down to Trieste for lunch and back to Bled in time for dinner.
The scenery is breathtaking, although we had fog through a lot of the Italian Alps, the picturesque valleys and towering mountains were definitely worth seeing.
Trieste is a nightmare to drive around! We spent about 2 hours trying to find somewhere to eat as well as somewhere to park. At one point, I got us pretty lost and we were on a 30% incline in the wrong part of the city, with wet tarmac, watching a car slide down the incredibly narrow street towards us as he tried to get some grip!
The driving in this part of the world (ignoring Trieste) is easy! The roads are perfect and quiet, everything is well sign-posted and the other drivers are surprisingly courteous. The only thing to bare in mind is that in Austria, you need a vignette to drive (like a toll sticker). They only cost around 9 euros for a 10-day vignette (the minimum) but hefty fines are handed out to anyone travelling without one. All the service stations and significant road borders sell them anyway so it isn’t much of an issue.
Next, we wanted to go Skiing. Slovenia is a hidden skiing destination in Europe. It has the world-championship Maribor resort but other than that, they are pretty unknown.
There are a few ski centres around Bled but very few write ups that I could find.
Straža – pretty much opposite our hotel, Straža is basically a hill that, when snow covered, can be a good starter or children’s slope to learn on. They also offer snow tubing when the weather is right! Straža does open for evening skiing when there is snow so it can be good, as it is in Bled, for an aprés-ski-ski.
Vogel – we decided to head for Vogel. It is the next valley over, in the Bohinj area (beautiful even if you are not skiing!) and it is about a 30 minute drive. This is a great resort for intermediate skiiers offering pistes of all different shapes and sizes. Ski hire is available at the top where the gondola arrives and is very competitive – all day hire of Skis, poles and boots is 30 euros!
Lift pass is 30 euros for all day and also gets you a ride there and back from Bled on the Ski Bus. On top of that, it allows you to ski the other local resorts of Kobla, Kranjska Gora, Krvavec, Soriska Planina, Stari Vrh and Straža. That’s a good deal!
On the way to or from Vogel, or just in Bohinj, you shouldn’t miss a gem of a restaurant – Foksner. They have some incredible food in a quaint little timber cottage with really friendly staff. On top of that, it is probably one of the nicest burgers I have ever had in my life!
Bohinj is another beautiful mountain lake surrounded with small villages which host some great bars and restaurants too!
Tuesday we decided to go and have a proper look at Ljubljana. We left early and headed for the castle. The castle hill is a great vantage point to see the whole of the city. You can see from up there how it isn’t so much a city, more of a town.
Ljubljana has an arty, indie feel to it. The locals are really friendly and seem to want to help you with anything you need. We didn’t feel there was that much to see but it would be a great place to spend some relaxing days in the cozy bars and pubs.
We then headed across the border into Croatia. We have done Croatia before but only in the South, I have always wanted to see Zagreb and we decided now was the time to do it!
Zagreb is a great city, there is plenty to do and plenty to see. We came across an area by St. Mark’s Church (upper town) and walked down to the bottom of the hill where there is a nice baroque district with a market in the square on Sundays.
Being science geeks, we really wanted to see the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum but it was closed when we went. Looks to be well worth a visit next time!
Another quirky museum that is much talked about in Zagreb is the Museum of Broken Relationships – it seems we missed a quirky experience there but next time, we will do it!
On our final day, we spent more time in Bled experiencing the Slovenian hospitality and as we had heavy snowfall the night before, decided to drive into the dramatic Triglav national park. This is a mountainous area to the immediate north of Bled which is at a higher altitude and we found a good loop to do (only if the road is safe, of course!)
After my initial scepticism from looking at their Booking.com profile, I have to admit I was wrong. The photos, in my opinion, make the hotel look dated and tired but this just isn’t the case.
Not to be too strong but this is probably one of the best hotels, from a guest experience point of view, I have stayed in when travelling Europe.
We arrived when it was dark and found the hotel reserved parking (of which there was plenty), that faced Lake Bled. We parked up and carried our luggage towards reception to check in. Their concierge came straight out and insisted he took our cases into the reception.
As you walk into reception, you can appreciate the elegance and class of the hotel. It is clean, light and polished, with a simple but classy decor.
The smiley concierge checked us in effortlessly and started asking us about what we had planned. I explained what we would like to see and immediately he started handing us out maps and tips for every place we wanted to see. He knew all the local attractions and advised us on best times to go. He knew his stuff!
We then went up to our room insisting, in true British style, to take our own cases. We went into the room and found it to be immaculate and well presented. The room had two double french doors onto the full-width stone balcony with charming wooden blind inner doors. The bed was huge and very comfortable.
The breakfast offered was in a huge variety and there was an additional menu of items the kitchen would make for you fresh. The breakfast is served in the restaurant with full width windows facing the lake.
There is a pool on there which is in a roman-column style surround and although it is not heated and only at room temperature, guests have complimentary access to Hotel Golf (virtually next door) which has a fully heated pool.
I can tell why world leaders choose to stay here as the hotel is exquisite, it even offers a stunning guest (and presidential 😉 ) lounge overlooking the lake from the first floor.
Having worked at a hotel, I am rarely such an easy critic to win but I would genuinely recommend this hotel to anyone going to Bled who can spend a little more money for a luxury hotel (at less than £100 a night, it is great value).
Overall, Slovenia was faultless as a short break destination. It is easily one of Europe’s top-10 destinations in my opinion and we will definitely be back!