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My Favourite Travel Moments of 2014

In 2014 I returned to Europe and the UK, where I explored Belgium, soaked up Parisian life, and road tripped through the UK with my brother. Here are seven moments that left an impression on me this year:

Finally spending time in Belgium

In 2010 I spent around three hours in Belgium – the time it took for the tour bus I was on to drive from Germany, stop at a Belgian roadside cafe for lunch, and then continue on into France. Despite since visiting all of the countries around it, I never thought about going back to Belgium.

That is, until my brother and I were planning a Europe Trip and had no idea when or where we should go. A search for festivals in November turned up the Brussels Light Festival, and we thought why not start our trip in Brussels, and throw in a side trip to Bruges?

The Grand Place
Brussels at night: The Grand Place

We ended up splitting our time between Brussels, Bruges and Ghent. Aside from the area between the palaces and the Grand Place, Brussels didn’t have that quaint feel of being hundreds of years old, but it did have the frites and waffles we were looking forward to, as well as quirky comic strip, figurine and street lamp museums, and the strangely cool Atomium.

Sint Janshospitaal in Bruges
The incredibly photogenic Sint Janshospitaal in Bruges

Bruges was exactly how everyone who’s been there describes it – beautiful. I visited Michaelangelo’s Madonna statue in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk after learning about it from the movie the Monuments Men, battled with the steps of the Belfry, sought out windmills in the pouring rain, and went on a Belgian chocolate crawl down Katelijnestraat.

Ghent
The gorgeous buildings along the canal in Ghent

We weren’t expecting the old town of Ghent to be as pretty as it was. We explored Gravensteen Castle, took a stroll down by the colourful houses along the canal, and walked circles around Ghent’s many churches.

Getting blown away at Hadrian’s Wall

Sycamore Gap along Hadrian's Wall, used as one of the filming locations in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Sycamore Gap along Hadrian’s Wall, used as one of the filming locations in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

I didn’t want to visit just any section of Hadrian’s Wall – I wanted to visit the area known as Sycamore Gap, where the wall passes near a sycamore tree. Why? Because it was featured in one of the early scenes in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The only catch was that no matter how many web searches I did, no one would give me clear instructions on how to get there. So we were pretty impressed with ourselves when, despite a whipping wind, we followed the wall along and were eventually rewarded with the sight of Sycamore Gap (some of the other walkers must have thought I was crazy, getting so excited over a tree)!

Seeing Christmas come alive at Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House from across the river
Chatsworth House from across the river

Visiting Chatsworth House has been on my travel bucket list for a long time – ever since watching the BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series and seeing Chatsworth act as the setting for Pemberley. It looked like we weren’t going to get there for a while – after ninety minutes sitting in a queue of cars we were thinking of giving up. Little did we know we had come on the weekend of the Christmas Markets! The house had been decorated for Christmas and while we saw little of the house’s decor, we were instead transported to the magical and crazy world of Alice in Wonderland.

Chasing Robin Hood from Nottingham to Sherwood Forest

Robin Hood statue in Sherwood Forest
We visited Nottingham and Sherwood Forest in search of Robin Hood stories

Robin Hood stories have always captured my imagination, and I managed to convince my brother that we should spend some time in Nottingham as a stopover on our UK road trip. While Nottingham and Sherwood Forest did not meet my expectations (I’m not sure what I was wanting – a theatrical set up of an outlaw camp next to Major Oak?), my brother and I took full advantage of the shops and a trip down in to the caves underneath Nottingham was one of the more unique experiences I had.

Hugging Stones at Avebury

Avebury
Reaching up to the top of one of Avebury’s standing stones

We were cramming a lot of Heritage Sites in to one day: Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral, Old Sarum, Silbury Hill, a Chalk Horse and Avebury were all on our hit list. Out of all of these important places, it was Avebury that is my favourite memory of that day. Maybe it was the light as dusk began to fall. Maybe it was the last sight at the end of a long day. Maybe it was the freedom to walk around the stones and up and down the mounds. Whatever the reason, walking around the muddy fields at Avebury is one of my favourite memories from my UK road trip.

Seeing the sea of poppies at the Tower of London

The 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' art installation at the Tower of London
The sea of poppies in the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ art installation at the Tower of London

When I first heard about the project to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and to remember the 888,246 fallen British soldiers and saw images on the news of people adding their ceramic poppies to the moat surrounding the Tower of London, I knew it would be an awesome sight when completed. Unfortunately, I was at home in Australia at the time. By Remembrance Day on the 11th November, my travels had taken me to Edinburgh, and I was sure that by the time I arrived in London on the 23rd the poppies would have been all packed up. They mostly were, save for the corner section between the Tower entrance and the Thames. It was a sight I will never forget.
The ceramic poppies in the Tower moat
The ceramic poppies in the Tower moat

Spending time with my brother

I spent November travelling around Belgium, France and Great Britain with my brother. Though it did not always go smoothly, I wouldn’t go back and change it – we now have stories that we can talk about for years!

My Favourite Castles of 2014

Travelling through Belgium, France and the UK, there were no shortage of castles for me to choose from. Here are some of my favourites that I visited in 2014:

Coudenberg Palace

Brussels, Belgium

Coudenberg Palace
Underground! Inside the Coudenberg palace

My brother found this one for me while looking for things to do in Brussels. The remains of the twelfth century Coudenberg Palace lie underneath the city, and you are free to explore them on a self-guided tour. The cavernous rooms lined with stones made for an interesting welcome to the Belgian capital.

Gravensteen Castle

Ghent, Belgium

Gravensteen Castle
Gravensteen Castle

Gravensteen Castle was cool. The twelfth century castle had a weaponry room (the detail on the hilts of the swords was amazing!), a replica guillotine, a room filled with torture devices, and some of the best views of Ghent.

The Palace of Versailles

Paris, France

The Palace of Versailles
The courtyard at the palace of Versailles

Ah, Versailles! The main palace demonstrates the wealth and luxury of the Bourbon family, but it is the Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet that I really loved. Getting lost in the gardens on the way to the Grand and Petit Trianons was all part of the fun.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle at night
Edinburgh Castle at night

There’s really something for everyone at Edinburgh Castle, from war and military museums, to Scottish history and the complex story of the Honours of Scotland. We visited on Remembrance Day, and standing in the National War Memorial reading all of the names of the Scottish soldiers who gave their lives during the wars was very moving.

Alnwick Castle

Alnwick, England

The entry to Alnwick Castle
The entry to Alnwick Castle

This castle looks like it is straight out of a fairy tale. In fact, it was used as a film location for the Harry Potter series as well as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I loved the dining room in the State Apartments, and the many museums and exhibitions housed along the castle walls. There was even a wedding reception being held in the beautiful castle grounds!

Warwick Castle

Warwick, England

Warwick Castle
Looking over the River Avon at Warwick Castle

The thing I enjoyed most about Warwick Castle was The Castle Dungeon tour. Not knowing what was going to jump out at us next was both scary and all part of the fun (though it was a relief when the tour finished and I no longer had to wonder what was on the other side of the next door!). The castle itself, although small, has had a long history. There are even peacocks strolling around the grounds! While we saw the falconry exhibition we were unfortunately there too late in the year to be able to see the jousting or the trebuchet in action.

Caerphilly Castle

Caerphilly, Wales

Caerphilly Castle
Caerphilly Castle

While we didn’t have time to go inside Caerphilly Castle, we were able to drive all the way around it. Surrounded by water the old castle is very picturesque and is now among my favourite Welsh castles.

Old Sarum

Near Salisbury, England

The ruins of Old Sarum
The ruins of Old Sarum

I knew nothing about Old Sarum before I arrived. Since I had always heard its name in association with Stonehenge and Avebury, I assumed it was another stone circle. I was very surprised when we arrived to discover that Old Sarum was originally an Iron Age fort and was later the site of a castle for King Henry I.

Blenheim Palace

Woodstock, England

The courtyard of Blenheim Palace
The courtyard of Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace may be best known as the birthplace of Winston Churchill, but the palace itself is pretty in its own right, both inside and out. I especially loved the hidden Secret Garden, tucked away to the side of the palace.

The Tower of London

London, England

The 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' art installation at the Tower of London
The sea of poppies in the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ art installation at the Tower of London

So much history is tied up in this fortress. The last time I visited I raced through with an audio guide stuck to my ear. This time, we went on a guided tour with a Yeoman Guard. If you ever get the opportunity, make sure you tag along with them – they bring the Tower’s stories of happiness, horror and woe to life.