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A Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

A Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

Growing up as one of three girls meant that family trips were anything but calm. Someone would be breathing too loudly in the car, someone would be sitting too closely to someone else or a mass riot would ensue if a sister was seen wearing another sister’s dress/shoes/anything that wasn’t their own.

Nowadays we’re mature adults and Shannon and I are so cordial to one another you might find it hard to believe that I ever broke her nose when we were kids. Twice. But those turbulent times are over and now we are more than capable of surviving a short holiday together especially when that holiday involves eating our way through the villages of southern France and taking lots and lots of pretty photos.

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So with that confidence in mind, we decided to take a quick trip to France last month to stay with our aunt and uncle who have spent the last 10 years converting an old barn in to the most beautiful chateaux by the Pyrénées (trés middle class, I know). As they are fairly rural we decided to hire a car and after an hour long process (why do I always get the employee who has just started the job the day before?) we finally hopped in to our beautiful Toyota Aygo that just about fit us along with our carry-on bags.

The French drive on the right hand side of the road which made for an interesting journey to our uncle’s house. It took a few attempts to leave the airport (and Shannon couldn’t even bring herself to look out the window when we eventually joined the motorway) but we made it in one piece to maison de Donnelly in the late afternoon. After we were hugged and my uncle commented on the rental (“that’s some wee yoke there” – typical Irish man review), we were shown around their humble abode which wasn’t so humble and moved me to real-life tears. They have managed to create a home that is warm and still so full of character, each room decorated with gorgeous French vintage market finds at prices that made me shed even more tears. I immediately promised myself that I will be a regular pest of theirs for as long as they would have me.

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My aunt Bronagh is an incredible cook and once we were settled, we sat at a table overlooking the sunflower fields (am I making you sick yet?). The food was glorious and the wine even more so. We sat chatting until Shannon and I could barely speak with tiredness so with heavy heads we retreated to our beautiful bedroom to sleep in our beautiful beds. Turns out we are still kids at heart and we fell asleep in the same bed, talking until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. 

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On our first morning I trotted down to the village to get croissants for breakfast because that is what one does in France. We planned our route for the day over our crumbs and then set off for Fanjeaux, a little hilltop village with views for miles. The rain decided to show up for the first hour or two but I was ferocious in my cheeriness that the rain would soon clear off. I’m one of those travellers that vehemently believes that rain should never dampen sprits but really all that it does is convince my fellow traveller that I’m a bit mental (picture me in the pouring rain with a manic smile screaming “WE ARE HAVING FUN, AREN’T WE?!).

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Fanjeaux is an old Cathar town with old medieval walls surrounding the Dominican chapel. It was beautiful despite the drizzle with plenty of cobbled streets to get lost in (or do circles like we did). It was so quiet and felt a little eerie in places because we hardly saw a soul save for a few damp tourists. We didn’t stay too long because we didn’t have an umbrella but it’s a place I would love to go back to on a clear day.

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Luckily for everyone the skies cleared as we were headed to Limoux and as the clouds parted we could spy the Pyrénées in the distance. The valley between Fanjeaux and Limoux are covered in vineyards which makes it a little difficult to be the chief/only driver. The area is famous for a sparkling wine called Blanquette which is sold by the vineyards alongside the road or in all the local shops. If Shannon had have been driving I would have been making a pitstop at every vineyard but being the ever-responsible big sister I stuck to caffeine and saved the wine tasting to the evenings when I could guzzle guilt-free back at the barn.

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As we approached Limoux we could see that it didn’t quite have the same charm as Fanjeaux. It was a little busier and there were plenty of roadworks which don’t really scream rustic tranquility. However there is a lovely square there which was perfect for soaking up the delayed sun rays and drinking the first coffee I have ever actually enjoyed. After years of trying to like coffee (and failing), it seems all it took was a mocha in Limoux to win me over. I feel more grown up than ever now.

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After a charcuterie feast which was mainly eaten by moi, Shannon and I dawdled back to our car crossing over a very pretty bridge with fantastic views across the river. On our way we dodged a few lengthy gazes from French men who we soon discovered were unashamedly comfortable with staring. Oh how different they are to the typical Irish fella who would look anywhere but the woman he is interested in for fear of coming on too strong…

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Back in the wee Aygo we made our way to Mirepoix with a quick stop off in Luc-sur-Aude. Oh my, this drive was so spectacular. Trees seem to line the entrance of every town in the Languedoc but this road was truly special. Mountains seemed to appear out of nowhere with sheer cliffs towering over the winding roads. Shannon and I had our noses to the windshield as we gazed upwards in awe, not speaking save for tutting to ourselves like old women. We pulled in to Luc-sur-Aude to give our necks a break and again were so surprised at how quiet the little village was. We walked through the streets wondering where the people were and if there was some apocalypse we hadn’t heard about before heading up a hill to check out the spectacle. There were vineyards for miles surrounded by mountains and despite my attempt at taking a photo of the view, I couldn’t do it justice.

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The late afternoon sun was burning above us as we headed up the mountains towards the fairytale town of Mirepoix. Our ears popped as we climbed and we pulled over to drink in even more beautiful views. The roads were so quiet and when we sat overlooking the valleys below all we could hear with the cicadas buzzing in the heat. 

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We got to Mirepoix in the evening and as we hopped out of our car and walked towards the main square, we looked at each other with shared glee, silently agreeing that we had definitely saved the best place to last. The town looked like something straight out of a Disney movie set and I half expected people to burst in to song at any moment. Shannon and I grew up on these movies and you can imagine how giddy we were to see such a place in real life. We strolled through the market stalls and circled the old town walls before picking a spot in the square where we could soak all of the colours in. We sat with the golden light on our faces, barely speaking a word but feeling incredibly content with ourselves.

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Drunk on the day we just had, we headed back to the barn for another feast until the sky. Desperate not to finish the day just yet, we dandered down to the village to watch the locals play bowls (or boules if you want to get technical) and drank coffee while the stars came out. Finally shattered, we fell in to our beds, thoroughly satisfied that sisters really do make the best travelling companion. Even if their driving might terrify us.

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Stay tuned for a few more French posts coming soon…

A Weekender’s Guide to London

A Weekender’s Guide to London

Just over a month ago, Andrew and I scooted over to London for a long weekend to celebrate his 29th birthday. He had been feeling a little wary about marking the occasion since he was starting to mourn his twenties like he was already an elderly man but I left him little choice!

We had both been to London a few times before but not as a couple so it was lovely to explore new parts of the city together. There is such an amazing energy in London, an atmosphere that picks you up and runs with you. Through streets heaving with the stories of millions. A few people were surprised at us deciding to visit after the horror the city has experienced in recent months but it’s resilience and the spirit of the people there is palpable. Fear just isn’t an option.

Our afternoons were spent lazily strolling from one park to another (with plenty of coffee and cocktails thrown in to save our wee hooves) and evenings were for catching up with old pals. Getting around London is so easy and now you can just swipe your debit card in the Underground cutting out all the hassle of getting train tickets and Oyster cards. We flew in to Gatwick Airport and just hopped on the Southern Rail to London Victoria for a standard rail price. Quick tip: don’t get the Gatwick Express because it’s £15 more expensive and is only 5 minutes faster.

We discovered lots of new places on this trip so I thought I would share a few that really stood out for us. London is huge but we packed in a lot without feeling like we were rushing around. We also got really lucky with the weather so we tried to stay outside as much as possible, avoiding most of the museums I would normally visit on a cloudy day. Of course there is so much to do but this was a great itinerary for a sunny weekend. Feel free to pick and choose a few things from it and I hope you have just as good a time as we did!

Where We Stayed

London accommodation can be super expensive so to save a little cash we stayed with Andrew’s friend our first night. As much of a life saver it can be to have a friend in the big smoke, it’s not hugely romantic so we checked in to the Grange Hotel at St Paul’s on the Saturday (a surprise birthday present for Andrew!). It was such a treat to stay somewhere a little swanky and they even had some wine and cupcakes left out as a birthday gift – so thoughtful!

 

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The room was super cosy to come back to and the bed was almost too good to leave in the mornings. The breakfast made it all worthwhile – there was so much variety you could take hours over breakfast if you wanted! We loved being able to come back to such luxury after a day exploring on our feet and we headed straight for the spa in our dressing gowns to soak our weary bones. I would definitely recommend this place if you can book it. Weekends tend to be cheaper because there’s less business-folk around so make sure to look out for deals then!

Where We Ventured

Friday

We landed in the morning so after leaving our bags off we went searching for some late breakfast. We tried to get in to The Breakfast Club in Soho but the line was ridiculous so we dandered off to Carnaby Market instead for a huge diner-style brekkie.

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After eating and strolling through the decorated alleyways, we walked towards the Natural History Museum. I’ve been to the museum before but Andrew hadn’t so I knew it couldn’t be missed. It’s easy to spend a whole day in there (especially if you have kids) but because the weather was so good we didn’t want to stay inside for too long.

 

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When we had managed to see both the life-size T-Rex and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition we reemerged in to the sun and made our way to Hyde Park. Visiting parks is my favourite thing to do in a new city because even tourists can blend in as locals. Bodies were lazily strewn across the grass basking in the afternoon heat and we found the perfect spot to have a nap.

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Feeling energised after our siesta, we headed towards Notting Hill via Kensington Palace. The street behind Will and Kate’s gaff has some of the most amazing mansions I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t help but peak through the fences or over the walls to catch a glimpse of how the other half live (pretty well apparently). It was a fair walk from the Palace to Notting Hill but watching the buildings change from ordinary brick to candy-floss heaven made me glad that we were on foot.

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We kept going towards Portobello Road to check out the market and refuel i.e. welcome in happy hour. I also made sure to check out St. Luke’s Mews which is just parallel to the markets and an absolute Insta delight. You will recognise the buildings I’m sure since every London Instagrammer worth their salt has snapped the houses before and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re a fan of super delicious houses!

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Saturday

On Saturday we were in a mad rush to meet my cousin and her new fiancé for brunch in Hoxton which wasn’t easy since we were coming from Clapham Junction and the heat was already melting us. We managed to just be a half hour late (sorry Camille!) and then wandered around the Hoxton Markets towards Brick Lane.

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I loved Brick Lane despite the fact it’s revered as a hipster haven. There is such a great energy around and the vintage shops were incredible if a little overwhelming (I’m not used to such high-end vintage delights!). There is music filling every alleyway as well as the smell of food from all of the carts dotting every corner. After exploring the area and sinking back a much needed Pimm’s we headed towards Spitalfields Markets. I honestly could spend a weekend just exploring London’s markets and come home a happy woman!

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We had one last pitstop before heading back to the hotel which was Dunstan-in-the-East, one of my favourite spots of the trip. It’s a bombed out church found amongst skyscrapers that has been reinvented as an urban garden, providing a sanctuary for those looking to escape the hustle outside it’s walls. If I lived in London I could be found here often I think.

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Sunday

We were feeling a little dusty after our night out on Saturday (home at 4am!) so were a little slower to start. We managed to peel ourselves away from our cloud of a bed and headed towards the Sherlock Holmes’ Museum around lunchtime. Now, I freely admit that the museum is an absolute tourist trap and the admission at £15 is a little steep but there is such attention to detail here I couldn’t help but feel impressed.

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After exploring Sherlock’s house we escaped to Regent’s Park to rest our hangovers and find shade from the heat. We walked over the bridge and past the pedalos towards St. John’s Lodge Gardens, a secret haven within the park that is without the crowds of a sunny day. We made daisy chains and waited until we felt ready for a little more walking.

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Feeling a little bit more alive we hopped on a quick journey on the tube towards Little Venice, a canal network that is found in a quiet leafy suburb that feels a million miles away from the city. There are canal boats here that are of different sizes and colours but all equally beautiful. It’s evident that many of them are used principally as homes with mini gardens on the roofs and flowers everywhere. I would imagine it would be stunning in the autumn when the leaves that hang over the boats turn bright orange before disappearing in to the river.

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Monday

Our last day was another scorcher which made it that bit harder to leave. We managed to score free tickets to St Paul’s cathedral from the hotel (win!) and hopped across the road for a quick tour. It was a lot bigger that I had thought and so beautiful, especially the ceilings which sparkled in the sunlight and made my neck ache from all the craning. Andrew was even brave enough to go to the very top of the dome while I waited outside like the wimp I am!

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We headed towards Covent Garden via the Thames to enjoy a little bit more of the cityscape before our flight. We strolled through the shops and listened to the classical music reverberating across the walls from a quartet in the basement and took a break from the heat in one of the cafés.

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Our last stop was Neal’s Yard, another Instagrammer’s delight despite it being so tiny. It’s gorgeous and I wished I could’ve stayed there the rest of the afternoon but alas we had a flight to catch. Next time, maybe.

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Where We Ate

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Boqueria, Brixton

My mouth filled up with water as I was writing this just remembering the suckling pig alone. It’s a tapas place with the best service we had throughout the trip and it made for a lovely birthday dinner for Andrew. I would definitely come back here the next time I’m in London.

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Monty’s Deli, Hoxton

This is a fairly new joint and very popular so be sure to book a table! We ate brunch here with my cousin (I had the scrambled eggs with lox – so good!) in one of the booths that made me feel like I was in New York even though I’ve never been to New York.

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Honest Burger, Liverpool Street

When we go on holiday we need to fit at least one burger meal in to keep old Andy happy and man was he happy after this burger. It was perfect, not a thing wrong with it but afterwards we were in the mood for something sweet and it turns out they don’t serve desserts!! WTF? Wouldn’t hold it against them though. Oh, and their cocktails are the bomb-diggity.

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Bill’s Cafe, Baker Street

We had brunch here on Sunday and I was so happy because it was the perfect Sunday brunch spot. The atmosphere was so welcoming and relaxing I could’ve stayed all afternoon. The menu was perfect and I wanted to go for everything on there (that could have been the hangover though) but settled on avocados with poached eggs on toast. Never a bad decision!

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Leong’s Legend, Chinatown

Our friends took us here on our last night and although Andrew wasn’t a huge fan, I adored the dumplings. I fell in love with dumplings when travelling in Australia (Chinatown in Adelaide specifically) and Leong’s reignited that long lost love. Next time I would just order a few different dumplings with rice since they were by far the best thing I ate there.

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Wahaca, St. Paul’s

I will never say no to a quesadilla especially the chicken club quesadilla at Wahaca! Holy Moses it is delicious and super filling too which makes it a fairly cheap lunch. We ate in the St. Paul’s branch which is in the One New Change building. If you go there for lunch you should definitely pop up to the rooftop terrace where you can get uninterrupted views of the city with St. Paul’s cathedral towering overhead. Just don’t go on a Friday evening because we heard there are queues from the ground floor which is a little much.

Where We Drank

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The Distillery, Portobello Road

The Distillery was a gin bar we stopped in to on our walk up Portobello Road which was beautiful on a sunny day. The interior is stunning however the drinks were on the more expensive side. Not a huge shock when you’re in London but my drink was tiny and for £8 I thought it was fairly steep. A nice spot for one drink though!

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Hope & Anchor, Brixton

We hopped across to this spot after our delicious meal in Boqueria. It has a great outdoors area out the back with beach huts perfect for a group of people on a summer’s afternoon. The beer garden closed at around 10pm though (we weren’t too sure why) and the bar turned in to a club then which was too much for us oldies so bear this in mind if you go during the evening.

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Boiler House Food Hall, Brick Lane

We didn’t eat here but had a drink out the back in the beer garden which was buzzing with people. I had a Pimm’s to get in the spirit of things and felt really wild drinking at 12pm. Beer gardens are the best on holiday especially when the sun is out so would definitely recommend this spot on a good day.

Translate, Shoreditch

No photo for this place since we were out with a group of friends and fairly well oiled but I had to include it for the music alone. It has the best cheesy 90’s music so if you’re not in to that sort of thing steer clear at the weekends! We loved it though and sang our wee lungs out in between sips of our cocktails.

 

And that is the round-up for London! I hope you can make use of some of the knowledge we picked up on our quick break and if you have any insider trips of you’re own, please feel free to share in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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