Bonnie Edinburgh

If you follow on me on Instagram, you will have noticed we recently had a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, for our second wedding anniversary (well, that was the excuse anyway). You may have guessed by the title of this post, but just to make myself completely clear: I LOVE Edinburgh. I mean, I really LOVE Edinburgh.

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We had heard so much about the wonderful Edinburgh Christmas markets that we made it our mission to go – and we weren’t disappointed. Never ones to miss an opportunity, we made what could have been an overnight stay into a long weekend break and spent our four days there walking the length and breadth of the city… after our four hour nap upon arrival.

We hadn’t seen each other long enough since our trip to Paris to sit down and book accommodation, so we booked a fantastic Aparthotel (I didn’t know this was a ‘thing’… FYI, they’re serviced apartments) on the way to the airport at 7am. Although I would not recommend booking quite so late, it worked out very well for us and we had a small kitchen and eating area, a king size bed and a massive shower in our apartment- 20 minutes walk from everywhere! Being in the Fountain Bridge area of the city, Edinburgh’s famous aroma greeted us as we neared the street our apartment was on – the warm smell of hops crept around the streets, and in a really strange way (because to be frank about it, it kind of smells like warm dog food), I liked it.

As the Christmas markets were the reason we went to Edinburgh we visited a few times (basically, if I got hungry, we trotted off to the markets for burgers, crepes, bratwurst – all the good stuff). We meandered through the stalls and found the secret word in the maze of ‘Santaland’, but we soon found ourselves wandering away from the markets and into tiny, crooked streets leading to cobbled roads and antique buildings. Dark as it was, before we knew it we’d come to the castle gates and were excited to explore the city lit up before us in daylight.

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I’m a very nostalgic person, and although we’d decided only to do free things in the city (which there is a lot of), I couldn’t resist a day in the castle learning about it’s history and everything it had seen. Every building told part of the castle’s long and colourful history dating as far backs as the 1100s. Between the castle and the Royal Mile, my imagination ran wild with the possible stories of the people who had stood on the same cobbles hundreds of years before.

What really struck us was how much the locals knew about Edinburgh’s history, and if they didn’t know they had a book or resources to access the information we asked for at hand. They were so happy to chat and share what they knew- everyone took true pride in their city, their history and their culture.

Curious about our own history I asked about the ‘Bells of the Borders’, as Granda had called us that when we mentioned Scotland… lower class bell ringers, who were so poor they didn’t have a clan motto, crest or their own tartan for a long time, because they weren’t important enough to need it. The Corbetts couldn’t be a story farther from the poor Bells- a sept of the mighty highland Ross clan they were pretty much nobility and had estates and a castle. A flipping castle. Paddy now insists that I married up.

Anyway, leaving that discussion for another day… we took a different direction the next morning and went to the Grassmarket which leads round to Greyfriar’s Bobby. Somehow we managed to walk from there to Duddingston Loch, half way up Arthur’s Seat and all the way around to Holyrood Palace. Again, we hadn’t planned a visit but I couldn’t resist – I mostly just wanted to see how the Queen had the place decorated for Christmas. (In all fairness, it was nothing fancier than what I’ve seen in M&S recently.)

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Just like Edinburgh Castle at the opposite end of the Royal Mile, the palace was filled with tales of days long since past (and the Queen’s crockery, they know how to do a decent dinner setting) – everything from Queen Victoria’s tapestries to locks of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair. It’s hard to believe some of the 400 year old items have been around for so long- the evidence of true craftsmanship. Oh, how we have lost so many skills by allowing machines to make everything for us.
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We decided our ‘anniversary dinner’ should be a truly authentic Scottish meal, so we walked back to the Grassmarket to find the ‘real thing’. Where better to go than the (potentially) oldest pub in Edinburgh – The White Hart Inn? I have to be completely honest… it smells a bit… actually, it has a fairly potent stench. I don’t frequent pubs often but I can guess that some of it is just spilt booze, and given that parts of the building have been standing since 1516, you can forgive it for absorbing a few odours over the years. We ticked our authentic Scottish food box with ‘Haggis, Neeps and Tatties’. It was surprisingly good… but I think I still prefer Scottish smoked salmon.

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Unlike our recent trip to Paris (which you can read about here), we found we didn’t really want to go home. There was so much of the city we hadn’t yet seen and so many people we hadn’t yet spoken to. It’s a city where the past and present live in perfect harmony, and each street and doorway seems to tell it’s part of the story of what happened along the way. If you’ve never been to Edinburgh, do yourself the favour and book a trip… and bring your thermals. We’ll be back just as soon as we can manage it!

Gillian x

 

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The Savvy Shopper: Christmas

Remain calm.

We’re now using the C-word openly. With only 2 paydays left, it’s time to talk about everyone’s favourite task: Christmas Shopping.

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I always start my Christmas shopping early (I actually had my sisters’ Christmas presents bought and hidden by March one year- fluffy blankets are a whole lot cheaper when the weather’s getting warmer). If I’m honest, if I haven’t got at least the majority of it done by Hallowe’en I freak out a little. I love buying gifts for people and combining that with my favourite time of year and my love for a good bargain makes Christmas shopping something I actually really enjoy. Here are a few of my tips for keeping the cost down at the most expensive time of the year.

1.Make a list (checking twice optional) and set a budget.

It’s so easy to get completely and utterly carried away with it when it comes to Christmas shopping. Why do we think everyone’s going to be offended if we don’t buy them something? If anything, they’ll probably be relieved they don’t have to send money on a gift in return.
Make a list of who you need to buy a gift for, and be brutal if you have to – you probably don’t need to buy your neighbour’s granddaughter who visits once a month a perfume set. After you know who you’re shopping for set a budget for each person, and stick to it, otherwise it can still get out of hand.

2. Plan ahead.

Now that you know who you’re shopping for and how much you’d like to spend on them, think of what you’d like to buy them, and write it down before you even go near a shop. It’ll save you from wandering around (or internet browsing) aimlessly, before potentially overspending to buy something you think they might like out of desperation to get the job done.

3. Work the offers.

FYI: this isn’t an ad, and I’m not being paid to say this next bit (I wish!), I’m just a major fan!
One of my favourite shops, especially for Christmas gifts, is Boots. I collect advantage points throughout the year and hit Boots for their 3 for 2 offers on everything from Nando’s sets, to toys, to the Laura Ashley photo frames that they pull out of the woodwork for the season. If I have 3 £20 gifts to buy, I only have to pay for 2 of them, and if I’m paying with the points I’ve collected, they’re completely free.

Happy days!

I’m sure some other shops do the same, I just know of them..yet. (Give me a break, I live 5 miles from the nearest town, shopping is a great adventure from where we are.)

4. Outlets and discount sites.

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If you’re in N.I and remotely local, Kildare Shopping Village is only a couple of hours drive away, and filled with great outlet shops for designer items. Junction One and The Outlet are fairly handy too, although outlet stores can be hit and miss, but sometimes it’s nice to just have a Festive day out.
Your best bet for designer discounts is outlet websites – Secret Sales, Brandalley, Achica, etc. I’ve briefly mentioned them before, but they have surprisingly good discounts on massive brands and a huge variety… just be careful with their shipping times as sometimes it can take up to 6 weeks for an item to arrive.

There’s also old faithful TK Maxx (the Aladdin’s cave of shops- you just don’t know what you’ll find!), and of course bargain shops like Home Bargains and B&M Bargains, which are especially good for toys. Buying in a bargain or discount shop doesn’t mean you’re being cheap on someone’s gift, or that you didn’t put any thought into it, it just mean’s you’re being smart about it.

5. D.I.Y

Make something! Anything! Fudge, chutneys, shortbread, a scarf, a candle- even putting together a little hamper of goodies can make a beautiful gift. The possibilities are endless and if you’re stuck for ideas consult Pinterest, knower of all things arts and crafts! Handmade gifts are usually less expensive but will cost you more in time, and will mean so much more to the recipient because you made the effort to make something especially for them.

As per usual I could go on (I’m a bit of a blather, really), but I’ll stop. Christmas shopping doesn’t have to be a chore, and it doesn’t have to cost your savings either, you just have to know what you’re looking for and where. Happy shopping!

Gillian x

Paris

I was in two minds as to whether or not I should write this blog post. In many ways, Paris wasn’t what I had expected, and yet exactly what I had thought it would be – and I can’t decide if I love it or not!

Before we went on our trip so many people had said ‘Oh, Paris is so beautiful, you’ll love it’, ‘Paris is my favourite city’… and I almost feel bad for not immediately sharing the sentiment the moment I set foot in it. I almost didn’t want to write about it for fear I’d offend someone who truly treasures the city, but then why have a blog if you’re only ever going to tell half your story?

Forgo the cancelled flights debacle (which I’m not even going to mention again, because it was no reflection on the enjoyment of our trip at all), we had the perfect tourist trip. We landed on Thursday night, got lost, found our hotel on the same street we had been up and down about four times, and had treats from a patisserie for dinner. (Well, actually, Paddy had a McDonalds, but that’s a little less poetic.)

We headed off to Disneyland on the Friday and had a fantastic day being big kids (which you can read about here), before spending the rest of the weekend exploring the city. We had it all planned out and set out on Saturday morning for La Grand Palais, so we could walk along the Jardins de Tuileries to La Louvre, where Paddy could see the Mona Lisa. (Which, by the way, was the most underwhelming painting I’ve ever set eyes upon – I’m sorry, but it’s tiny, and kind of… boring.) We were wowed by the architecture of the building itself along with the sheer size of it and the labyrinth within. To be perfectly honest, we had no idea it held everything from an Ancient Egyptian Sphinx to Marie Antoinette’s furniture, and we loved it. If you don’t enjoy the works of art and history, every floor and ceiling is a masterpiece in it’s own right -it was my favourite place in the city by far.

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We walked from there to one of Paris’ three Five Guys restaurants (Paddy is now proud to say he has had a Five Guys in four countries) and then to Les Galleries Lafayettes; a beautiful store with a stained glass ceiling, housing every designer you can think of. A shopoholic’s dream. Where everything cost more than my car. Even with their 40% off.

We wandered from there to the Notre Dame in time to hear her legendary bells and the beautiful pipe organ. The cathedral has such a gothic eeriness about it, and the dramatic tones of the pipes bellowed around the whole building. The musician in me cried a little: I get slightly over-emotional when I hear music, and when you add that to a historic place you get all sorts of public blubbering.

Sunday was a bit more relaxed as our feet were still on fire. We’d seen lots of the sites and buildings we’d wanted to see the day before so we found our way to Laduree to grab some pastries and macaroons for brunch.

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I will never eat another Pan aux Raisins again. There’s no point. It will never compare. Sweet, flakey, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, delicious bliss.

Moving on.

We trailed the Champs Elysses to the Arc de Triumph for our standard ‘we’ve been here’ tourist selfie, where people were literally risking their lives to get a photo by running into the middle of the road when there was a break in the traffic.

Seriously.

I mean, the things I do for the ‘gram sometimes, but risking a hit and run by a Parisian Fiat 500 on a road that seems to have zero indication of where any ‘lane’ should be going ain’t one of them.

We left that madness and found a few quieter streets to get to La Tour Eiffel, using the top of the tower to guide us. This felt more like the real Paris. We could actually see the little apartments along the road, with balconies 3 stories up overflowing with little plant boxes. The streets were lined with beautifully hand-carved wooden doors, with great big Charles-Dickens-like door knockers. They were simultaneously oozing grandeur and quaintness in their timeless Parisian design. When we got to the tower it was more impressive than we had anticipated. In a weird way it’s sort of pretty for a big lump of snazzy metal. It’s so intricate and detailed, in a way you don’t really appreciate until you’re standing below looking up at it.

Instead of being all romantic and mushy and going to the top of the tower, we decided to be all romantic and mushy and go for a boat ride along the Seine. Sunshine, beautiful views, and a little historical commentary on every landmark we passed – a pretty perfect afternoon. All along the river people were having a perfect little afternoon of their own. Some were out sunbathing, others reading, a few couples were dancing and encouraging their audience to join, buskers played under bridges – there was a feeling of simple, collective relaxation that we don’t see much of here in Northern Ireland.

The same feeling followed us back to the Eiffel Tower where we disembarked, and the gardens around it were filled with picnics, games, music – people enjoying simple pleasures outside in the shade of the famous monument. Even when we returned to see the dazzling lights after dinner in a little Italian restaurant (where conversation included topics such as ‘Mmmmm’, ‘mmmMMM’ and ‘these are the best prawns I’ve ever had’) so many locals and visitors were still sitting out enjoying the company and the spectacular view.

It was the perfect trip… BUT… it broke the illusion of the Paris I had in my mind from books, movies and magazines. Yes, everything looked as I’d imagined it, but it had been ruined in ways I didn’t expect. Just travelling into the city we noticed graffiti… everywhere. I figured it was just a thing that happened on the outskirts, as with most cities, and that the prized buildings in the centre would be left alone, but I was wrong. It really was everywhere, in abundance, with seemingly little effort to get rid of it or discourage it.

And then came the smell. Mostly ammonia, and stronger in some places than others (I refused to return to one metro station entirely)- but clearly not something that bothered the locals, especially as we witnessed the cause on one occasion.

Yuck. No shame there. It’s no wonder we saw rats running around the place as well. Yep, rats.

We also encountered a lot of homelessness, which truly broke my heart. Mothers with babies and young children and I felt so, SO guilty walking past them without giving them any money which they so desperately needed. But then, all may not have been as it seemed – we couldn’t help but feel they too may have been preying on the tourists (somehow, most of them seemed very clean for people living on the dusty footpaths?), and we genuinely weren’t carrying cash to give them, which was mostly because of the number of pick-pocketers and crooks around.

“5 (Eiffel Tower Figurines) for one euro!”… by which they meant you can buy five and pay one euro for each of them, and if you don’t there’ll be trouble. Avoid those guys. They also sell selfie sticks, and bottles of wine around the Eiffel Tower in the evening for the cheap, cheap price of way more than they bought them for.

The main problem for me, ironically, was that there was too many tourists. In fact, I felt sorry for the Parisians who have to put up with it daily, and made every effort I could to speak French and put a smile on their face (laughing at me no doubt, not with me), just so I felt like they wouldn’t hate me as much for being part of the swarm in their home city.

I guess in the end, I felt a little disenchanted with Paris. The architecture, history, style – everything about it is beautiful, and yet seems to be somewhat undervalued by it’s inhabitants, when realistically they probably wish they could just be left alone with it. The old streets are constantly stampeded by the sheer volume of tourists which only makes you miss what’s around you (and grumpy, it made me grumpy)… and yet, walking through the abandoned streets away from the crowds the city regained its allure and I wished the stones cold tell me their stories of decades gone by.

If you don’t have Paris on your bucket-list you’re making a mistake, but as much as I wish I could say it stole my heart, I don’t think it did. I’ve found myself talking about it every day, but I still don’t feel the pull to return to go back and wander it’s streets once more. I’m not sure when, or if, we’ll be back, but it sure was an adventure.

Gillian x

P.S. I NEVER want to see another selfie-stick again.

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Disneyland at 25

  For as long as I can remember I have wanted to visit Disneyland. I still remember the adverts showing the family the night before their trip- the mum shouting at the kids to go to sleep, with the kids replying that they couldn’t, because they were too excited, closely followed by their father making the same admission.
  Disneyland was only a small part of our trip to Paris and I had imagined that I’d be slightly less excited at the prospect of going at the ripe old age of 25, but that wasn’t so. In the least creepy way possible, I turned into a little girl again the moment I stepped off the train. I couldn’t contain it, I was buzzing with excitement and beaming from ear to ear.
  The park is celebrating being around for as long as I have, and a part of me thought it would show that age a little with the daily wear and tear of thousands of visitors, but I was wrong about that too. In the moments during the day where I realised I was actually an adult (few and far between as they were- in fairness, I am the height of some children), I couldn’t get over how clean it all was. Even the ground was immaculate; we were able to sit on the pavement and there was barely dust on our jeans. There wasn’t a plant out of place, a spot of chipped paint or a light left unshone. There was nothing that wasn’t pristine- nothing that could risk breaking the illusion.

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  We were amazed by how every cast member maintained character, their whole attitude and demeanour mirrored exactly those that we see on screen, to the point where you could forget that they weren’t real. It’s the kind of place you can forget your adult responsibilities and truly enjoy what’s around you- I literally found myself grabbing Paddy and saying “Oh look! There’s Micky and Minnie!”, when realistically I know it’s just a short dude in a mouse costume; you get caught up in the ‘magic’ and forget.
  The park is so untouched by the world outside it’s bounds it’s hard to remember that it isn’t real life. (Shout out to everyone who works there, because honestly, if I had to be that perky all the time, I would crack UP.) There’s nothing sad, nothing scary (unless you don’t like giant mice/people in costumes/rollercoasters) – only joy, excitement, colour and fun!
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  We spent the day exploring each of the ‘lands’ in the park, hopping on the rides, meeting Micky Mouse (obviously, who disapproved of Paddy’s outfit of choice, apparently he’s a French rugby fan) and enjoying the most elaborate float parade we’ve ever seen and the ‘Disney Illuminations’ at the end of the day. There’s no point in trying to explain it all: you just have to go for yourself to see it! I guarantee you’ll have a fantastic time, in fact I think I nearly have the family convinced we need another trip!
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It really is the happiest place on earth – we can’t wait to go again!
Gillian x