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The 10 Places I loved visiting (and would love to go back to!)

Carrying on from Sunday’s blog post, here are ten places in the world that I truly loved visiting and, in a heartbeat, would run back to if money, time and common sense were chucked out of the window. I have only been to 35 countries but I have seen a fair few sights which really should be shared with the rest of you. So without a do, here are my top ten places that I have visited and would definitely visit again in a heartbeat:

10) Seychelles.

I know I have a bias towards the Seychelles as it is my mother’s country, but I have to be blunt. I really do love this country. I also love Sri Lanka, my father’s country, but due to its security situation, I really do not want to go back there for pleasure. You see, Seychelles attracts me, not just for family, but for the islands themselves. There are over 100 islands in the archipelago, and I have only seen four of them. And it is not just beaches. Great wildlife, a steamy hot and mountainous interior and wonderful old colonial architecture give the islands one hell of a lot of variety for such a small place. Plus, the culture, a polyglot of the islanders’ ancestery means that this is a fascinating place to see and meet people. Yes, the Seychelles are expensive, they are a pain to get to but it truly is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

(Last visited 2008)

9) San Francisco.

I love America, and I jump at the opportunity to travel there. The country is so vast, and is naturally blessed with some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. America’s cities are also some of the best that humanity has ever built. New York, Philadelphia and Boston are wonderful places that were launched on the backs of their old colonial past. But for me, San Francisco is the place to get to. A wonderful city in probably one of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth. And it is not too big or small, San Francisco is just that right size where you can explore and relax in equal amounts. A city steeped in history but also at the forefront of modern technology, this really is one of the happiest places on Earth.

(Last visited 1994)

8) Mexico.

All right, I know this is a big one, but Mexico is one hell of a country, and I have to return here one day. From the magnificent ruins of Chichen Itza, to the wonderful beauty is Chiapas and the frenetic capital of Mexico City itself – which I have to point out as one of the best cities I have ever visited!

I saw a hell of a lot of this country, but a visit back is a must for me. I loved my time here, and would happily go back and this time see the north of Mexico as well has head to the coasts for a bit of R&R.

(Last visited 2002)

7) Budapest.

One of three European cities on my list – and surprising, as I have only really begun to explore Europe in the past two years. But Budapest is truly beautiful. Split by the Danube you have the flat and fun Pest on one side of the river and the hilly, snooty but really beautiful Buda on the other bank. One thing, the Danube really shapes this city and its history. I am probably biased to this city, and I have a lot of fond memories of the place, which is also why I do want to hedd back here. But genuinely, memories are not the only thing. Budapest has tons of stuff to see, and has awoken from its communist stupor with vigour. Check it out when you have the chance, you will not regret it! I will certainly be heading back there.

(Last visited 2011)

6) Meghalaya.

The wettest place on Earth may seem like a strange place to recommend, but Meghalaya is truly a cultural gem of this world. Its unique hilltop location on a ridge overlooking the Gangetic plain both isolates and links it to the surrounding country in one fell swoop. Three unique cultures dot the state, and its pristine environment truly makes this one of India’s great surprises. I have never felt do relaxed and refreshed in my life as I have in Meghalaya. Whether it is the excess amounts of water, the wholesome food or the really cool locals, Meghalaya is a place I could visit time and time again.

(Last visited 2009)

5) Yunnan.

One of China’s true gems, Yunnan has it all. Great food, spectacular countryside and a culture that intertwines South East Asia, Mainland China and Tibet all rolled into one easily accessible destination – no small feat for a country as difficult as China. From the border with Burma to the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau there is something for everyone. Dotted with the famed backpacker hangouts of Dali and Lijiang, it is easy to be an independent traveler or to mosey in and relax with the crowd. It is definitely a part of China that I would not hesitate to visit again!

(Last visited 2001)

4) Krakow.

Wow, wow, and wow would be the best three adjectives to describe Krakow.

I know, it is surprising to include this city here, but really, my Poland bias aside, I really have to recommend Krakow and it is a city I would run back to in a heartbeat. To simply put it, there is A LOT to do in Krakow, and Poland’s piss-poor marketing skills means that it is a destination that flies far beneath the radar. Without the crowds you get in other European hotspots (unless it is a stag-do summer), you can feel a little like a pioneer coming here with all the ease of mainstream European travel. There is so much to recommend about Krakow, go on, treat yourself, and take some time out over here.

(Last visited 2011)

3) Xinjiang.

China’s biggest province is arguably it emptiest as well. Yes, there are a hell of a lot of tensions over here, with a separatist movement that is far more bloody than Tibet’s. And it is hard work to travel across here. But it is a culturally fascinating area. Plus it is a desert, now that counts as a huge amount of kudos for me. I have spent an inordinate amount of time here. It really was the first place that I experienced ‘independent’ travel, far cut-off from family, friends and anyone else, having to survive on my own with my interactions meaning the difference between food or nothing. I also crossed this vast area by foot (took me two months and lost a third of my body weight) which drove me slightly nutty.

Xinjiang is definitely a place with strong emotional ties, but I can also safely say that this is a part of the world that has a hell of a lot to give to the outside visitor. And despite beinfg in China, it is ironically the easiest part of Central Asia to visit, and that is a spectacular region of the world to taste…

(Last visited 2003)

2) Berlin.

Surprised? Well, you really shouldn’t be. Berlin has it all. An all encompassing history, easily accessible tourist spots, all at a reasonable price. Whether you are looking for cool bars, great food or simple fun, Berlin has something for everyone. London and Paris may get all the glitz and glamour. Barcelona and Milan get all the cool kids. But Berlin itself is simply magnificent. There is far too much to see and do that can be simply described in a short paragraph. There is so much I have left to see. I will be back here, and probably sooner rather than later.

(Last visited 2012)

1) Assam.

There really is not an order to this list, and while Assam currently takes the number 1 spot, I would go back to any of these destinations if I had instant access to cash. But the reason I value Assam so highly is multiple. Firstly, it was my first destination in India, and so I will always have an emotional attachment here. Secondly, it is so big, and so the variety is there. Thirdly, it is undiscovered; despite its huge size and obvious attractions, foreign tourists are few and far between, partly as it is so cut off.

But Assam is truly a stellar destination. It is easy to get round, once you get there! It is also really friendly, with a shockingly competent Tourist Office that will go out of its way to give you information. With a wide variation in Geography from lowland plains to mountainous, I just did not have the time to see all there was. There is a magnificent history, one of Asia’s great civilisations nestled here in the fields. Lush forests and wildlife that will make your jaw drop (I saw my first Rhino here!)

I will go back to India again, and while there is so much of the country I have not seen, I will have to make a beeline for Assam.

(Last visited 2009)

So that is my top ten of places I have seen, and ideally, would love to go to again. Any comments, drop them in the box below. And have you been to any of these places? Agree with me and what would be your top ten?

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Lubiąż Abbey – a little walk round

On my last trip to Poland, I happened to visit Lubiąż Abbey, one of the largest Christian Complexes in the world and while today its Holy functions no longer exist, it is still a significant tourist draw in this part of Silesia. Of course, the day I went Siberia had decided to camp out in Poland (although it was still October) meaning that it was…well…cold when I visited the former monastery on the banks of the Odra.

A little history (my usual Wiki-Quote). The first Christian functions on this site were established around 1150. Like many parts of Silesia, its history is intertwined with the political wrangling that this part of Europe has found itself in. Lubiaz Abbey has come under the control of the Prussian States, the Polish, the Bohemians and even the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary.

But it is during WWII that Lubiaz’s history come closer to the history in the UK. While occupied by Nazi Germany, Lubiaz’s vast underground complex was home to the engine factories for the V1 and V2 rocket bombs. This vast slave labour camp existed until the Red Army invaded. The Abbey itself fell into decay until 1989 and the fall of Communism. Restoration started and it is a process that continues today.

One little titbit about the Abbey was that in 1997 Michael Jackson visited Lubiaz. Rumour has it that his helicopter tour and stop-off was to see if he could buy the Abbey. Well, his offer was rejected. However, according to the guide who took us round, the visit was meant to be kept a secret, but the whole village (and most of the surrounding area) turned out to greet the King of Pop! Given the traditional Polish welcome of bread and salt, Michale Jackson was in Lubiaz Monastery for only 20 minutes. It is reported that he was astounded by the lavish interiors. Yes, I did go inside, but we were not allowed to take photos inside of the Abbey 😦

Yeah, I think you noticed it was snowing like crazy that day. Of all the days to see a top tourist attraction, I had to pick the one day in October where Siberia decided to decamp. Snow was everywhere, but luckily, having been bitten by the famed Polish cold earlier this year, I came fully wrapped up.

One little extra you will see at the abbey is an exhibition on old German trains. I do not exactly understand the reasoning behind it (other than the fact that Lubiaz was a hot tourist spot when it was called ‘Lubies’ and a part of Germany). Although I could not get exactly what everything was about, it was fascinating to see the old cultural links that used to exist between Silesia and its big neighbour to the west (something that is more evident in Wroclaw).

Getting there and away:

One word – car. It maybe only 40 miles or so from Wroclaw, but Lubiaz is a small village and it is difficult to get to. There are local (and infrequent) buses from the two nearest railheads in Glogow and Wroclaw throughout the day, but really, unless you have your own transport (or speak brilliant Polish), it is a pain to get here.

Accommodation here is non existent too, and the restaurant in the Abbey keeps limited opening hours, so plan your trip accordingly…

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Flirting with the Polish Border at Frankfurt am Oder

Last month I was in Poland for the 8th edition of the Quest Europe film festival. Due to its location in Western Poland, Zielona Gora can be a bit of a pain to get to from its nearest Polish cities, but is surprisingly easy to get to from from Berlin across the border in Germany.

This is normally the way I go. Land in Berlin, take the train to the Polish/Germany border, walk across the border then head on a coach to Zielona Gora from the Poland side.

And of course, this being me, I have an illicit fascination with borders. And this point of the German/Polish border is one of the more fascinating parts of Central Europe, as well as one of the prettiest. Well, at least on the German side.

Germany has two Frankfurts. The first one is in Hesse in the west of Germany. Seat of the Euro, centre of the financial power of Europe’s largest economy. Big, brash and flash. The second Frankfurt is right on Germany’s eastern border in the impoverished state of Brandenburg. Frankfurt am Oder is small, shrinking and while rather pretty does not really have much to it. However, it serves as a very useful gateway to Poland, particularly if coming via road or rail. The Autobhan links with the Polish Highway network just outside the city. There are direct trains between Berlin and Warsaw that stop in the town. And, being across the border from the Polish town of SLubice, it is very easy just to take a walk over the Odra river, which also acts as the border in this case.


(Frankfurt Oder from the Polish (Slubice) side of the border)

Before the second world war, Frankfurt Oder covered both sides of the river. But after the border changes of 1945, the eastern portion of Frankfurt Oder became the Polish town of Slubice.

Slubice is, well, interesting. It is an ugly town, but it is very vibrant. People are utilising the border everyday, Germans are coming over all the time for cheaper goods, the Polish (and even some Germans) are crossing the border to work and study. And Slubice is definitely on the up. As soon as you arrive in Poland there are money changing shops, neon lights, bars and restaurants telling you to come over here. It may be the smaller of the two towns, but Slubice definitely has a sense of excitement about its border status, even if there are no longer checkpoints between the two countries.

However, on entering Frankfurt, you do not feel like you are on some border with another country. In fact, it seems like Frankfurt Oder itself decides to purposely ignore Poland as some rather embarrassing friend. If you did not know any better, this would just seem like any other impoverished Eastern German town with a shrinking population and not much else to do in town. It is quiet. And with 60,000 residents, Frankfurt Oder is small. But Frankfurt Oder is surprisingly pretty. Many parts of the town, particularly the area towards the river has been beautifully restored and like everything in Germany, Frankfurt Oder is shockingly clean.

Now while I would not make a beeline for Frankfurt Oder, it is worth spending a few hours here while waiting for a train or vice versa. It is a rather nice place to stop for a cup of coffee and because the town has been so beautifully restored, there are a lot of very nice places to wander through. And if you are in the town centre, there are a few hawker booths that serve cheap fare such as kebabs, pizza or…frankfurters…hehe…

As I said previously, there really is not much to warrant a special trip here. But for those looking for a cheap (and relatively easy) way to and from western Poland, going via Frankfurt Oder and crossing over to Slubice is a pretty good way to do so. If you have the time, the walk is not far. In about one hour you could probably walk through Frankfurt and Slubice and see everything that needs to be seen, or if you take it leisurely, it can be done in three or so hours, including a stop off for a coffee. Really, the two towns are quite small. I have regularly crossed between Germany and Poland this way and will be doing so later this year when I go back to film Great Brytania. And while I have seen all there is to see, I always like venturing back and forth to check out any details I might have missed.

Frankfurt Oder, getting there and away: Trains leave twice an hour from Berlin and take around an hour, costing €9.40. You can also hop on the Berlin/Warsaw express which call at the station. The rail station is around 15 minutes walk from the riverside/centre of town.

Poland/Germany Border: The Friendship Bridge links Frankfurt Oder with Slubice on the Polish side. It basically goes from town centre to town centre, and as there are no border controls, you can walk over it as many times as you like!

Slubice, getting there and away: The rail links to Slubice are terrible, and the only way is by coach. All the major places in Lubuskie are linked by coach including Zielona Gora and Gorzow. If you need to take the train, the town of Rzepin is a few miles away, reachable by taxi, and there are regular rail links all over Poland from here.

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Auf Wiedersehen Schonefeld? Not quite yet…

Well, this airport was not meant to be, but due to the oft delayed Brandenberg Airport project, good old Schonefeld is still operating and I was there last month when I went via Berlin to get to Poland. And even when Berlin’s new airport is opened, Shconefeld will still have a use, as the new airport is basically an extension of this site. A massive extension. New motorways and railway lines as well as a (massively planned) new Terminal building will take over from the funky, almost retro feeling airport that is currently Berlin’s secondary airport.

Berlin Schonefeld, being located just outside the eastern part of Berlin was the old East Berlin Airport. Built before the outbreak of WWII, it was the main airport of the old East Germany. As with everything in Berlin, there has been a hell of a lot of history with it. Also it was the hub for Interflug. Interflug? You know, the old East German airline offering quality flights to Czechoslovakia and Mother Russia! All right, enough old Communist jokes, but honestly, Aeroflot is the only major flag carrier to use Schonefeld. While Tegel is the place for the so called ‘Quality Airlines, Russia has insisted that history remains paramount and that it still uses good old Schonefeld, the airport it commanded for X-amount of years.

However, most of the sane world uses Schonefeld, not for the retro-Commmunist experience, but as it is the place that the ‘no-frills’ airlines use to fly into and out of Berlin. When I first went to Berlin in 2006, I flew in and out of Schonefeld, and it was my first taste of Germany. As I have been (now) a frequent visitor to Poland, I have used Berlin as my gateway to that country, and it is almost always Schonefeld that I fly into. In fact, I have used Schonefeld Airport more than any other European airport outside the UK.

I like Schonefeld. It is a small, simple airport that is very well connected to the city centre. Twenty minutes by the airport express or about 35 mins using two S-Bhan trains. And at €3 for a single ticket, it is relatively painless on the wallet as well. It can be a bit daunting at first, as the airport’s lack of bells and whistles makes for an unusually simple experience, especially when compared to the airports of other European cities. But that is what I like about Schonefeld, the fact that it is understated and simple to navigate. Although it was not really built to any great design, the airport does its job very well, and has handled the recent boom in low-cost European travel relatively well.

So what will happen to Schonefeld airport next year? Well, as Berlin Brandenberg airport will use most of SXF’s facilities, a lot of it will remain open, just transferred to the other side of the site. The old terminal buildings will remain in place for a bit, but they will be eventually knocked down. No loss there unlike the unusual Tegel which, although not practical for today’s travel, surely must rank with some architectural merit.

So that is that. I have to write up some travelogue of my time in Berlin this month, as I went to a couple of really excellent museums, and I have had a great time visiting this city recently. Ah, I must get onto the task!

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Auf Wiedersehen Tegel? Not quite yet…

Yesterday was meant to mark the opening of Berlin Brandenberg Airport. One of Europe’s grandest construction projects, and at a price tag (so far) of 3 Billion Euro’s, Berlin Brandenberg possibly one of the more expensive construction projects currently happening on the continent. But, the airport is not open. And what was meant to be a not-so-fond farewell to the venerable Tegel Airport, is now, well, a mini-travelogue about my last two trips to the continent, both of which required me to going via Berlin’s Tegel Airport.

Tegel is a funny old airport. It is very much a child of the 1960’s and it feels like a mini LAX. But its roots lie in the Cold War, and in particular the Berlin Airlift. Located in what was then the ‘French Sector’ of West Berlin, the French government built the first part of the airport in 90 days, with the first flights landing on November 5th 1948, as part of the airlift.For the next six months until the lifting of the Soviet blockade, Tegel as well as the legendary Templehof in thr American Sector and R.A.F. Gatow in the British sector of Berlin kept the West Berliners supplied with everything.

And so for the next sixty years, Tegel became a mainstay of Berlin’s aviation reality. It was never as grandiose as Templehof, its more famous cousin in West Berlin, but it was far more useful, by having longer runways and so it was able to adapt to the jet age far more effectively. In the 1970’s, Tegel became West Berlin’s main airport, a title it has held even since reunification. Despite the larger Schonefeld Airport to the south east of the city of Berlin, the airlines that had established themselves in the Cold War decided that they wanted to stay put at Tegel.

Which was a shame, because, to be blunt, Tegel is an a**e hole of an airport. Tegel is small, poky, and very hexagonal while Schonefeld works well, albeit in a crowded fashion. And while Tegel is close to the centre of the city, it is not on a train line or on the U-Bhan. In fact, Tegel is a ride in not-too-much traffic on bus or you can fly around in a Mercedes Cab, if you have the desire.

So, to be honest, I was actually looking forward to the opening of the new Brandenberg Airport, as I was planing to use it in August when I head off to the Quest Europe Film Festival (I am a jury member for a second year in a row…). But it looks like I am to be denied that pleasure as Tegel, the great survivor, continue to serve the German Capital.

And serve it does. Tegel has 4 (or 5) fairly small terminals. Terminals A and B are the main two buildings, while Terminal C was built as a temporary structure. Five years later it is still going strong. Terminals D (and E) are in the same building, D being the departures and E being the arrivals. They are al interconnected which means if you arrive in one part of the airport, you should be able to walk to another part. But I was holed up in Terminal A for my experience of the 1960’s, and, well it was an interesting experience. The food is overpriced, and the selection is poor, but as Tegel never really gets too busy, the airport is actually quite relaxing. Also, in the modern-day jet age of ultra hyped terrorism, having individual security lanes for each gate (it is forced to do so by the hexagonal design of the airport) means that passport control and personal/baggage checks are actually pretty painless and quick.

The one thing that Tegel fails is in public transport. You can only get to Tegel by Car or Bus. I have done both, but as I drove on Easter Monday to the Airport, the lack of traffic gave me a false sense of security on just how easy it was to get there.

For those without their own transport, you can get a bus to Central Berlin, but it will be an interesting ride on the Tegel Bus (numbered TXL after the airport’s code). Exit the arrivals hall, and find the bus stop. Use the ticket machines, or if you are lucky, there is a man in a booth For those wanting just a single ticket, the ride costs €2.30 into town. Or (as Tegel is in the city limits) get a Zone A+B Travelcard. Do not forget to validate the tickets when on the bus. On the was you will ride through the bredth of Turkish Berlin, and the bus will innevitably get crowded as it also serves as a regular commuting route for the locals. In the end, the TXL bus will drop you at all the important bits in Central Berlin, allowing you to transfer onto the tube or rail network. But, as there still is another nine months or so until the New Berlin Airport opens up, this is going to be the classiest way to get into the German Capital…

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The New Wroclaw Airport – Opened!

Yesterday I got on a flight from Wroclaw back to London. There is nothing impressive in the flight itself. The usual, bog standard budget airline, two hour hop. Except for one thing.

Oh yes, it was opening day at the Wroclaw’s new terminal. The airport is in the same place, but the new terminal is about a mile further down the road. So on Thursday, I shuffled through the cold and draughty old terminal building, while on Sunday I (still) shuffled through a warm and brand new glass and steel building. Hey, it has been a long time coming. Since Wroclaw was chosen as the host of Euro 2012, renovation and renewal has been the key. Along with being the European Capital of Culture in 2016, Wroclaw aims to put itself on the map as much as possible. And there is cash in the city, enough to build this new terminal at the airport. So while the train station in the centre of town is no more than a pre-fab shed, at least the airport will be swimmingly big enough to allow people to enter and exit the city to watch lots of football.

And opening day, the airport was busy! No, not because there was suddenly thousands more people travelling to far flung destinations. But simply as there were a ton of people gawping at the new airport.

Similar to Porto airport, the terminal is light and breezy. Steel and glass supported by large columns. It feels like Stansted airport all over again! However, unlike Porto airport, this is firmly stuck in the 1980’s with regards to transport. Yep, that means it is still the same, lousy and slow (but at least cheap) airport bus that trundles every twenty minutes to and from the city centre. And it is so behind on transport that cars take centre stage at the airport, while anyone on public transport has to lug their luggage from the periphery of the concourse to the bus stop at the edge, located as if it was an embarrassment to the airport authorities.

Yeah, as someone that has almost always used public transport to get to and from this airport, the lack of any real rail or tram link to the city centre is a pain. Wroclaw is not a big city, yet 40 minutes is a long time. Mostly as the bus stops and serves every other place on the way to the city centre. Plus, there are some awkward traffic moments towards the city. There is no motorway linking the airport to the centre of Wroclaw, so we all know that in a few years time, transport to and from the airport is going to become a real pain. The lack of foresight with regards to the surrounding infrastructure is shocking…

Still, once inside, the airport is shockingly well polished. The opening ceremony went smoothly and there were no major muck ups on opening day when I went through. A little understaffed, but even the security was surprisingly friendly. I think everyone was on their best behaviour as management was sculling around the terminal like a bundle of rotting fish. Some of the shops were still yet to open. For some bizarre reason there was a Virgin Record store there – I have not seen one of those in ages! The next time I pass through here (and that could be a long time in the future) everything would have settled down. The hustle and bustle would have replaced the prstine sheen. But you know what, if felt kind of nice to pass through Wroclaw’s new terminal on opening day…

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Seaside Postcard – Whitstble

A couple of weeks ago, I headed down to the lovely seaside town of Whitstable, out there on the Thames Estuary. Close to the Cathedral City of Canterbury, it is actually quite a charming little spot to take in some of the seaside air and to get a view of life, beyond the great metropolis. And luckily for me, it was a sunny day!

The British seaside has a huge tradition in this country. Starting with the Victorians but persisting to this day, the tradition is as follows: Queue up on a train/in traffic to get to the seaside. Exit said mode of transportation. Walk around the sea, flick some sand at each other, eat some fish and chips, have an ice cream and head back home to bed in the city before 9pm.

And because, really, that is day to the British seaside, I have avoided it at all costs. I have been to more seasides abroad than in this country. Okay, pick a country without a huge coastline like the USA, and I have still seen more seaside over there than in the UK, with its long and easily accessible coastline.

One thing being on the coast (or technically in the Thames Estuary) is that fishing is big business here. Still. You do get Oyster’s served up in buckets (what better way is there to sample such delights?). But for some reason in recent years, the oysters have moved away. The water has got too warm. Some blame the London Array, which is easily visible from all over Whitstable, and some blame added pollution. But whatever, the climate and the seaside is changing. For, this area is the place that will be blighted by Boris Island, should that project ever get off the ground. But for now, that development, should it ever happen, is a generation away. And you bet that the residents will fight tooth and nail to make sure it is not built. After all, Whitstable is famed for being one of the happiest places in this part of the UK. A saunter down any of its streets will reveal families galore. Oh yes, this is where you come to live and raise children, The town is a bohemian hive of activity, with artists and readers of the Observer living here in droves, somehow making (quite a good living) from doing very little work…ah, nothing like a good grant to keep you in pocket…

One thing to mention is the castle that overlooks the town. Now, this castle is a folly. It is not real, in the sense it was not built for any defensive purpose during the turbulent Medieval period. In fact most of it is around 150 years old, built by a rich Victorian gentleman…as a place to keep his mistress…yeah, not exactly a subtle occurrence…imagine the conversation between his wife and himself.

So do take a trip, if you fancy it. I do not venture often to this part of the world, but I thoroughly recommend it. Whitstable is a fantastic little place to while away a day or so, and as trips to the easide goes, it is rather fun…

(sorry for the picture quality, but they were taken on the 3DS – not that great a camera…)

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