Driving the Transfagarasan Highway of the Transylvanian Alps

Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear called this “The best road in the world” and you can see why.  Looking from above it looks like a child’s perfect Scalextric set as it impossibly winds up over the Transylvanian Alps and leaves you marvelling at the effort and engineering skill that have been put into making it.  Great fun to drive and a must if driving your way from Transylvania to Bucharest

A day in Bucharest

The first time I visited Bucharest I think I left with the views of it being one of the worst capital cities I’ve been to and “never going back!”.  Perhaps that is a little harsh as, on second time visiting, and wandering through the Historic Centre I saw there are actually some impressive historic buildings and taking a tour to understand the history of Romania post WW2 is quite interesting.  I think it also comes down to if you go mid-week or at the weekends – the Historic Centre seemed to come to life at the weekends as they pedestrianised nearly the entire area and had more of a party atmosphere

 

That being said, I think you only really need a day in Bucharest and I’ve listed some top tips below for how to make sure your experience is like my second visit rather than my first!

A day wandering through Bratislava

Was disappointed with Bratislava. There is an ok old town, the castle is worth a look and there are nice spots to walk along the river, but it is a far poorer version of some of the magnificent spots nearby like Vienna, Prague and Budapest, or other “cute old towns” such as Ljubljana or Krakov
My suggestion is to allocate the time you have to those cities rather than making the trip to Bratislava
Then again, if you’re on a stag do / bachelor party, I could see the appeal as it looks well set up for this. A few drinks in the square, boat party and then on the lash, happy days. Less so for anything else
Extra tip – watch out for the taxi drivers charging high prices, especially from the station or airport. They’ll tell you it’s a minimum charge of €20 / €40, which is nonsense. Should be less than €10 from the station and and around €20 from the airport

A day for the highlights of Milan

Milan felt like the definition of style – not only the perfect buildings and the art, but everyone walking around looks like they’re just about to hit the catwalk.  Maybe this was just a summer thing, but either way it seemed to ooze style!

That being said, I didn’t find it a particularly deep city for things to do / see, so I’d say a full day is enough, with some obvious sites to draw your attention

PR3 hike from Ermelo to Figas de Ermelo

If you’re staying around the Duoro, or maybe Porto, I’d really recommend this 5 hour roundtrip hike from the beautiful mountain town of Ermelo to the waterfalls in the heart of the Alvao National Park.  Clearly signposted all the way, you’ll get some great views over the nearby mountains, walk through some of the gorgeous forest and reward yourself at the top with a swim in the natural pools and waterfalls.  Best of all, you’ll have it largely to yourself as, from what I saw, there are only see a few people along the way

Overall a great hike for a break away from the various wine tours!

A day in Porto for port tasting and wandering through the Ribeira district

Porto is nice enough, and definitely worth a day trip.  Its UNESCO-listed Ribeira district and waterfront are nice to wander around, if very touristy, and a visit to one of the port wine houses in particular is good fun to sample the wines, learn about the production and enjoy the views.  But I thought it was a slightly less attractive version of the Alfama district in Lisbon and is more of a conduit to the real highlight of the area (and Portugal) which is the Duoro Valley (see Wine tasting around Pinhao in the Duoro Valley for more details)

All sounds a bit negative! – definitely worth a visit on the way to the Duoro, but no more than a day needed

The Northumberland Coast (in summer!)

The UK isn’t known for its beaches, and for good reason – its only warm enough for them 3 months of the year and even less the further north you go!  That’s why the coastline of Northumberland, and in particular Bamburgh Beach and Embleton Bay, comes as a bit of surprise when I put them in a list of the top beaches in the world.  But before you write it off as nostalgic madness, consider a few factors:

  1.  The castle backdrops – Bamburgh Castle is an imposing 11th century Normal castle that looms over Bamburgh Beach from its crag right on the waterfront and with as much history as almost any castle in the world.   England dominates the world for stunning castles by the beach, and Bamburgh is the jewel in the crown.  Dunstanburgh Castle, whilst more battered over the centuries, provides a similar backdrop for Embleton Bay
  2. The quality of the sand – the sand tone in this part of the world is the same as the powdery sand you find in the tropical beaches of the likes of Brazil and the Caribbean, and is so fine it squeaks, which is in stark contrast to some of the pebble beaches you find in the eastern Mediterranean and south of England
  3. The cute villages by the water – the likes of Low Newton-by-the-Sea, with its gorgeous white cottage square green circled by local pubs overlooking the beach are about as quaint and lovely as anywhere in England
  4. Few tourists – “best kept secret” seems to have held well for decades and you simply don’t have the volume of fellow tourists as you would in the south of England.  The beaches are wide and long, and you will likely have big chunks to yourself
  5. The Northumberland Coast Driving Tour – you have some great nearby attractions that share the quiet vibe.  In particular, Hadrian’s Wall (the well preserved northern boundary of the Roman Empire), Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island – a key centre for the spread of Christianity in Britain in the Dark Ages and infamous site of the first Viking invasions), and the various quaint Northumberland villages dotted no distance from the coast

 

It obviously doesn’t hit the tropical beach vibe, but is nonetheless beautiful.  Just be sure to go in summer!

Durham’s Cathedral, Castle and village

The famous travel writer Bill Bryson, after seeing half the world, was gobsmacked when he saw Durham and wondered why no one had told him about it before.  So much so that he decided to become Chancellor of Durham University and says, “If you have never been to Durham before, go there at once. Take my car, it’s wonderful.”  Easy to see why – the setting with the magnificent Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle perched high on the tight meander of the River Wear is just stunning and is complemented by the small narrow streets that branch off all through the nearby town

 

An easy day trip from Newcastle (see here for tips on Newcastle – A day in Newcastle), one of the key stops on the main east coast line that runs through the UK, and a must if in this part of the world

 

Top tip – be sure to walk around the river right by the waterfront.  The best bit is from Framwellgate Bridge to Prebends Bridge, but you can also walk all the Elvet Bridge

A day in Newcastle

Newcastle has a great reputation for its friendly locals (and, let’s face it, the accent everyone loves to imitate) and its world-class partying / lash that comes from both the locals and its giant student population (locals, aka “Geordies” will often like to quote how many top 10 lists Newcastle appears in for a night out).  But it also has a surprisingly elegant city centre with a riverfront that rivals anything else in the UK outside of London, and 4 places to visit nearby that are equally surprising in just how gorgeous they are

If you’ve got only a day (in summer!), I’d recommend the below itinerary for the best of Newcastle and the surrounding area