Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Solo Trip to Vienna. Part 1

jacek-dylag- vienna city view

Last year I took the plunge and went solo traveling for the first time. Whilst some might find this odd or confusing, I really wanted to go away from London for a few days. None of my friends were available and I didn't want to let this be an excuse or more something to hold me back and me ending up not seeing the world. Obviously going somewhere foreign by yourself sounds a bit scary at first that's why I chose to visit Vienna, as the Austrian culture is very convenient for me plus the capital is a well-known treasure trove for art. Very spontaneously, I checked mid-week flights and accommodation and booked a four-day trip a week in advance. Here's what I got up to in mid-June on my holidays in Vienna:

Day 1: Arrival in Austria's Capital

I took an early flight from London and arrived in Vienna during midday. When you fly into the airport, you'll get a lovely view of the city and its surrounding nature with rivers and green fields, which felt awesome. This was exactly what I needed. A moderately small (in comparison to London) city with natural spaces and lots to see and to relax. To get to my hotel, I had researched the easiest was to hop on a bus, which would take approximately 25mins. The airport is moderately big and very well signposted so I had no issues in finding the bus stop. The bus journey was super easy and took me straight to Vienna's South Station, as my hotel was close by. The bus went actually past it, so I knew where to go after I got dropped off. 

My hotel, Hotel Daniel in Vienna, was only a short walk from the South Station and located next door to Palace Belvedere. I'll share a review about the hotel in more detail in another blog post as it was incredible and I had a really great time staying there. It was one of the best hotels I've stayed in with its quirky style and very welcoming staff. Anyway, once I got to my room and dropped everything off, I changed into lighter summer clothes as it was 30 degrees - very hot and humid. First stop, Palace Belvedere which has beautiful gardens and allowed me to stroll right through its park into town. The walk from my hotel into central Vienna took around 20 minutes and I walked past water fountains, old build houses with lovely facades and numerous walk-in supermarkets. In fact, there's a walk-in shop every two metres and having missed German food for a while, I made a little food shopping trip.

palace belvedere in vienna

Once arrived in central, I made a round through the centre. The High Street is typical for any other European capital seamed with the usual franchised fashion retailers and tacky souvenir shops. There were some tourist groups around and after passing the Albertina, an art gallery, I found a bench in the nearby garden Volksgarten to enjoy the early evening hours. The Volksgarten was in full bloom with neat and tidy flower arrangements, little water fountains and a sea of roses. For food, I found an Italian restaurant back in central called Fratelli, which was busy (always a good sign) but the staff treated the service as a conveyor belt, so it was a bit impersonal and overall an average dining experience. 

After dinner, I was curious to walk to the Prater, Vienna's permanent amusement park in the North of the city. From afar, I could see the Ferris Wheel and towers which made it look very close. Fast forward an hour or so and I was still looking for the park's entrance and got a bit lost in a residential area. It was still light and a very warm European summer evening so I didn't really worry too much. Eventually, I got into a huge park which turned out to be the furthest end of the fairground. I made it!

I arrived at the Ferris Wheel shortly before the golden hour and thought it'll be a great opportunity for me to see the sunset from the top. I bought a ticket for 10 EUR and then waited for a few carriages as I wanted to avoid a group of young families with their noisy kids. Next to me were two ladies, maybe a few years younger than me who had exactly the same thought, so once we were happy to board an empty capsule, we started chatting. They were from London too, explored Slovenia and spend now their last days in Vienna before heading back to the big smoke. One of the ladies used to work in SEO and mentioned casually "oh well, it didn't work out" - I couldn't have loved this lady anymore I FEEL YOU! So we then bonded over cursing our previous SEO jobs and agreed it was for the better that we've ended our SEO career. We just made it in time to the top before the sun was completely gone and saw the final sunlight of the day, whilst on the other side in the North a huge storm brew together and send regular some impressive lightning over the city. This would have been a great view to enjoy if the carriages wouldn't have been so rocky. I'm spoilt with the London Eye and its solid capsules, but the Vienna Ferris Wheel is over 100 years old and mainly constructed of wood. It was rocking a lot which made me feel uncomfortable and a bit unsafe. I think this was the longest I've ever been held on top of a Ferris Wheel as everyone sat very quietly in the middle trying to not make a move as it was rocking already pretty hard from the storm. The views were incredible though with colorful flashing lights of the rides below and the dramatic bolts of lightning.

Storm in Vienna shot from the ferris wheel
the city vienna view from the ferris wheel
the ferris wheel in vienna
vienna prater at night
prater shot from the ferris wheel

Once back on the ground, the heavens opened up and it poured buckets. I've never seen so many people rush straight to the nearby station, including me. Vienna's centre is mostly old town so there's not much of public transport centrally, but there's like a ring tram system circulating around its historic centre. It only took three stops for me to be back at Belvedere Palace and the hotel. I fell into my soft duvet and pillow but tossed quite a lot as it took me ages to fall asleep. I don't know what it is but I barely sleep in hotels. Usually, they are too noisy, too unfamiliar or simply the bed is not soft enough anyway, I usually have a hard time to fully switch off sleeping in a hotel. In this case, the air conditioning was faulty which kept me awake for a good while before I got up, dressed and asked the reception guy for some earplugs. Reception luckily had a spare pair and also checked on the air conditioner in my room and said he'll get a technician in the morning to have it fixed. So I went back to bed for round two to fall asleep.  

Day 2: Exploring Vienna's Historic Centre

My first proper day in Vienna started with a surprise. The Hotel Manager waited for me at reception and gave me a very generous room upgrade to make up for the faulty air con. I moved into a double room with a hammock and on top, I was invited to breakfast. Yes, please! The breakfast room of the hotel was pretty cool. An open planned space with plants everywhere gave laid back vibes. The hotel also had its own bakery, so I had this lovely lady baking fresh waffles for me and a cold-pressed machine gave me freshly pressed orange juice. I felt completely spoilt and pampered. And OMG roles. Proper German roles. THE DREAM.

fresh waffles served at Hotel Daniel in Vienna

Well fed I was ready to take on the day. My first stop was Palace Belvedere next door. The Palace hosts first and foremost one of Vienna's many art galleries in a stunning baroque building. Treasures of Viennese artists as well as Klimt and Hundertwasser artwork can be admired and there are some incredible architecture and gardens outside, too. The Palace is built on top of a hill whereas the gardens lead downhill to an Orangery which is surrounded by real orange trees (I have a soft spot for orange trees). Inside the Palace, I spend a good amount of time to take in the historic art and to admire Klimt's famous The Kiss - a couple indulged in a very intimate kissing scene which is gold plated and certainly one of the most valuable artworks of our time. It's a stunning painting and an absolute must to see when in Vienna. 

Orangery in vienna

From the Orangery, I knew the way into central so I strolled down the main road and took my time wandering around town and taking it all in. I went into some of the shops, got some inspiration and the current stage German fashion has finally come to, checked out an interesting souvenir shop and made myself familiar with the location of the Austrian National Library and Spanish Riding School which are close together. Not far from the Riding School, I found a lovely authentic Viennese coffee house called Café Central which happened to be one of Vienna's oldest and most traditional cafés. It was mid-afternoon and certainly time for tea and cake, so I found a seat outside in the sun and enjoyed life passing by. From the menu, I ordered freshly pressed orange juice, hot chocolate and the Austrian classic Apple Strudel with hot vanilla custard. All for the moderate price of 15 EUR. Sitting in the sun enjoying the treats was a nice reminder of our traditional coffee and cake time that we celebrate in Germany with familiar cakes and flavours and I can't deny, I do miss German culture and speaking my language.....but I don't miss Germany if that makes sense.  

applestrudle served at cafe central vienna
cafe central in vienna

After tea time, I felt well rested for some more sightseeing so I ended up at the Albertina museum for the next two hours, which hosts over 65,000 artworks including paintings, drawings and old master prints. You'll find everything from Monet to Hundertwasser via German expressionists from the Blue Rider Circle and at the time of my visit, I got to see a free Keith Haring exhibition celebrating the artists' lifework. The collection spans over four floors so I would recommend bringing some time to fully appreciate the artwork on display.

The visit to the Albertina museum definitely left me feeling inspired and hungry to see more art over the coming days. I strolled slowly back towards the hotel but took a few detours and routes in the town centre which I hadn't explored yet. I spend some time in a book shop browsing some of the German magazines and admired the historic architecture and buildings. At some point, I ended up in a small side street away from the busy main road and stumbled upon a hidden restaurant called Figlmüller. There was a small queue and a quick look at the door which was plastered with tonnes of awards and newspaper articles convinced me to check out this place. It was certainly very busy inside and popular with many celebrities who had visited Vienna in the past as I learned from the magazine articles that the restaurant was THE place for Austrian Schnitzel and Cordon Bleu with a traditional wood paneling dining room. I wasn't particularly hungry as I was still full from the apple strudel and it was only early evening, however, I thought the place must be pretty hard to get into later on, so I could maybe squeeze in a cheeky cordon bleu and then not worry for dinner.

I queued up for about 30 minutes and got seated downstairs. The restaurant itself had a lovely charm. It was a very traditional and rustic place with different wood-paneled dining chambers, indirect light and I felt I was in for a real treat plus I haven't had Schnitzel in about 20 years. The excitement, however, clouded quickly as once I sat down a rather moody and taciturn waiter took my order. Apparently, the meal would only come by its own, meaning meat only, which in my cultural understanding is wrong but the tourists would love it. Well, maybe but as a true German, I needed some potatoes and some sort of garnish with it. Just eating meat felt a bit odd.

john-tuesday-fueglmueller schnitzel restaurant in vienna

The waiter couldn't really recommend me anything so I went with potatoes and parsley garnish (it was literally that). Well, at least no faffing about with German precision, you get what you order. The meal took a while so I watched the constant coming and going in the restaurant. It was petty touristy and the Schnitzels were as big as the plates which is in my understanding wrong. The whole place felt like a huge conveyor belt and staff were not very attentive. My food came at some point and it was literally just the Cordon Bleu, no extra potatoes, no veg or any gravy. Speechless. I finished my Cordon Bleu as quickly as possible (it was ok), paid and left. Hm...it was certainly an experience but I doubt I'll go there again if I make it to Vienna a second time.

The evening was still light and warm so I decided to call it an early night and returned to the hotel. On the way, I picked up a few snacks as my dessert from the supermarket and got all excited as there were a few of my favourite German foods. Back in my room, I took a long shower and watched telly on my fluffy new bed. And you may think Oh, you can do this every day at home in London, but I truly enjoyed having an evening filled with German telly for once able to switch off my brain and just let my native language babble in the background. Eventually, I fell asleep in this huge soft bed with its cosy fresh sheets looking forward to two more days in beautiful Vienna.

To be continued......

Thanks so much for reading and till next time when I share Part 2 of my solo holidays in Vienna.


Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Florence In May

Florence skyline shot from uffizi gallery

On his many trips to Italy, German poet Goethe once said, “We’re all pilgrims who seek Italy”. And I mean who can blame the man, he is certainly right. Italy, the land of pizza, pasta, calzone, dolcetti, gelato, iconic art, and exquisite culture, used to be a dream destination for many as traveling in the pre-German Romantic period was expensive and obviously a privilege reserved for the rich….but uh well, how time has changed and thanks to today’s low budget airline era, jetting off to sunny Italy has never been easier. And what’s good for Goethe is good for the travel-hungry millennial after all, right?

Off to Florence it was and it wasn’t by accident either. Have you ever watched Dan Brown's Hollywood adaptation Inferno? I LOVED that film and it was mainly because of the incredible locations the movie has been shot in. For those who haven’t seen the film, the main protagonist Professor Dr. Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in hospital with severe amnesia. He can’t remember where he is, how he got there or what has happened to him until further events evolve and it is revealed he’s been stationary in Florence. There’s also Felicity Jones, whose character helps Langdon to escape and in true Dan Brown fashion there is a conspiracy and epic hunt across iconic historical and religious sites in Florence and Venice, but mainly Florence. It is literally a 2h advertisement showing off all the beauty this city has to offer.

Anyway, the film captured the charm of the city magnificently and I really wanted to go after seeing the movie. At the very latest when the chase ended up in the Boboli Gardens which are located in the stunning hills surrounding the ancient town of Florence.  The chance for a visit came around last year during the Spring Bank Holiday when I stayed for four days. I'd say four days is a good amount of time if you visit Florence for the first time and to get a taste for the city. However, the atmosphere is incredible and there's a lot to do and to see. I've left out a few sights which give me a good reason to come back to Florence one day. 

The Best Time For Visiting Florence

Having been to Rome in late October/early November once, wearing light T-shirts and summer dresses in 25 degrees, I was aware that Italy in the high season of summer might be a suicide. Hence why the perfect timing was shortly before summer kicked in and the Spring Bank holiday seemed an ideal date to go sightseeing in Florence. The temperatures were perfect at around 26 degrees to stroll around town in the day, sit outside in the warm summer evenings and watch a clear night sky perfect for stargazing. 

How To Get There

As Florence is part of the UNESCO world heritage and boasts with historical buildings, the city aims to preserve its charm and heritage. Air traffic is a huge source of noise and pollution. Therefore the city has restricted most of it and controlled heavily through a small airport outside the city. Flights directly to Florence are also a bit more expensive and at odd times, so the alternative would be to book a flight to Pisa which is around 1h away by bus. Low-budget airlines fly daily and regularly to Pisa from London with a flight time of approximately 2h.

Pisa airport is very small and slightly chaotic so it would be best to head straight to the exit and hop on a bus to Florence. There are different operators who go to Florence and the return tickets for the ride will cost around 12 EUR. To be honest, the bus journey is very straight forward and you’ll get to see a bit of the Tuscan countryside, too. Once you arrive in Florence, it is actually one of the key experiences to enjoy a city without any constant flight traffic. It allows the city to preserve an untouched charm and it would spoil the atmosphere of the city completely if there were tonnes of flights circulating over the city every other minute. In fact, Florence has been voted as one of the best cities to visit in Italy and I personally can see why. Here are my top tips for a first-time visit to Florence:

heidi-kaden-lopyreva-side streets of Florence
matteo-lezzi-Uffizi Gallery Court
david-tapia-san-martin-Florence Duomo

What To See & Do

Oh, where to start! There’s so much to do and see in Florence, you certainly won’t be bored at all. I stayed for four days and left out a few sights for a hopefully soon-to-come second visit. The biggest sight is the city and its incredible atmosphere. Yet one of the most visited cities in Italy, it has certain corners which are still very unspoiled and left authentic so you will have a good time wandering around exploring. Having been drawn to Florence through the Inferno film, I wanted to check out all the sights which served as a film location but on top, I got to enjoy some amazing experiences which are part of the Florentine lifestyle. Those included:

  • Palazzo Vecchio - inside is the Hall of 500 an impressive hall with magnificent frescos and elaborate ceiling work which will leave you speechless. In the Inferno film, this is the location of the iconic scene where the assassin gets killed and falls through the ceiling).
  • Boboli Gardens - the garden is huge and in some parts left very natural so it’s a joy to wander around in its maze-like hedges and get lost in it. The garden has three main parts which spread over the surrounding hills, including a rose garden and Parco Bardini.
  • Uffizi Gallery - this is a MUST for any art lover. It’s like the MOMA in New York or the Louvre in Paris. You can’t come to Florence and not indulge in some fine Italian art. You’ll see Botticelli's Venus, Spring and other Italian treasures in this highly curated art museum.
  • Right by the Uffizi Gallery is a small tourist information which sells combi tickets. The tickets are 38 EUR and include entrance to the Boboli Gardens, Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti and are valid for three consecutive days. Enough time to cover all of your sightseeing.
  • Please note, some sights in Italy are closed either on the first or last Monday of the month.
  • Florence Duomo - Undoubtedly Florence's major landmark didn't make it on y visiting list this time but I'm keeping it for a second visit. As the Duomo is THE tourist attraction, booking tickets in advance is advisable. 
  • Indulge in Florence’ diverse culinary scene. There are tonnes of lovely restaurants, cafes, and gelateria, so you can literally spend an entire day just going from one place to another and eat your weight in delicious Italian cuisine. La Dolce Vita at its best!
  • The little narrow streets around Mercato Centrale Florence/ Mercato di San Lorenzo are full of street sellers. Furs, fine leather and souvenirs are mostly sold by locals and the atmosphere is similar to bazaars in Marrakech. It is a great hustle and bustle, as there's lots to see, smell and of course to eat. Inside the market hall, is a huge food market which sells local produce, street and finger food which make it ideal for a quick lunch/afternoon snack. 
  • As the capital of Tuscany, Florence is also known as one of the most romantic spots in the world. It's no surprise, that a daily evening activity is to watch the sunset from any of the many bridges in Florence. Hundreds of people - tourists and locals alike - gather to watch the spectacle. They sit down with their ice cream or beer and simply enjoy the calming sight of the warm sun setting in the West. It’s a huge part of the Florence lifestyle and a wonderful tradition to finish another day in this beautiful city.
  • The absolute perfect spot for watching the sunset must be Plazza Michelangelo as it is up in the hills with an unspoiled panoramic view over the city. Stargazing from up there must be insane!
  • The surrounding hills of Florence offer some fantastic scenic routes, especially as the gardens are all linked and there are some lovely villas to spot. Here is an example of a tour:

Tour: Exploring the Hills of Florence

  • Start at the Ponte Vecchio and cross over from the North to the South. You’ll end up on the Via de Bardi. Follow the road East for a good while until it becomes slightly narrow and residential. Eventually, you’ll reach a huge wooden door on the right which is the entrance to the Parco Bardini. It is almost unassuming so you can easily walk past it. If the park is closed, turn right and walk a few meters back. To your left should be a small street going uphill called Costa Scarpuccia. Be warned it is very steep.
  • At the end of Costa Scarpuccia, turn left into Costa S. Giorgio which will lead you to the main entrance of the park, but in this case you want to walk further up.
  • Costa S. Giorgio will split into Via del Forte di S. Giorgio which is a small, narrow street with a lovely romantic cottage which will lead you to the entrance of the Boboli Gardens.
  • If you stay on the Costa S. Giorgio, follow it to its end and then turn left onto the Via di Belvedere. This is a wonderful country road with olive trees and wild vegetation. It goes downhill and can be a little steep. Follow it for around 20 mins and then it will lead you to Via Bastioni.
  • Turn right to Via del Monte alle Croci which is again, a bit steep as it has lots of stairs to climb up another hill. On the left is a rose garden for a little break, however, continue to walk up the hill and you will end up in Plazza Michelangelo which is THE spot for breath-taking views over Florence and a superb spot to watch the sunset and do some stargazing. 

ponte vecchio in beautiful florence
river arno in florence
small narrow streets in florence
boboli gardens with rose gardens in florence
florentine villas in the surrounding hills of florence

Where To Eat

Wherever you go in Florence, you won’t starve! The city has a rich food and dining scene and I’ve not eaten badly during my stay at all. Some of the best places in town can be found here:

  • Breakfast: Paszkowski located on the Piazza della Republica in the city centre serves a lovely continental breakfast including pancakes. There’s of course eggs, beans and ham for the British and freshly pressed orange juice at affordable prices. I came here twice.
  • Another breakfast spot can be found down the road. Caffe La Posta on Via Pellicceria offers European breakfast for 10 EUR. This includes coffee, orange juice and the choice between pancakes or eggs, bacon and a croissant. It’s a great deal for a quick and uncomplicated breakfast.
  • Via S. Miniato in the area close to the rose garden has some lovely little restaurants seamed closely next to another.
  • Sesto on Arno Rooftop Bar & Restaurant at the Westin Excelsior Hotel boasts with stunning views over the river and the dome. It’s pricey but lunch is definitely doable at around 30 EUR per person. It's a high-end restaurant so dress appropriately and be aware that they do charge a compulsory 22 EUR per person in the evening, regardless if you only want to go for one drink or make use of their buffet.
  • Florence is popular for its succulent Florentine steak which can be ordered at Trattoria 13 Gobbi in Via del Porcellana. The award-winning restaurant is THE place in town for the traditional Florentine dish. The steak is huge and usually comes on its own.
  • Plazza Santo Spirito on the Southside of the river is another area for fine al fresco dining. In the evening the square transforms into a hustling and bustling chaos of mostly young people going for drinks and meals out. Ristoranti Ricci was my choice one evening for a much-needed pineapple pizza.
  • Il Borro Tuscan Bistrot on the Northside of the river is a fine dining bistro that has a daily changing menu with some lovely Florentine creations. The place is very stylish and elegant serving quality, fresh food. I tried a risotto with goats’ cheese foam and pine nuts which was exquisite.
  • TOP TIP: there’s another lovely rooftop bar called La Terrazza Continentale on top of the Continentale Hotel located at Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli. The entrance is a bit hidden and you have to specifically request to go up to the roof bar. I guess as space up there is pretty small, the roof bar has still been kept as an insider tip. It’s tiny but has great views over the river, Plazza Michelangelo and the Ponte Vecchio.
  • Gelato: get your ice cream fix from Venchi, which is one of the cheapest Italian ice cream chains I’ve known, or if you want to support the locals I can recommend Gelateria La Carraia, Gelato Artigianale and Cantina del Gelato.

pizza time in florence
rooftopbar la terrazza continentale
palazzo vecchio during a summer evening
summer evening in florence
Ponte Vecchio in florence shot from the rooftop terrace of continentale hotel
view over florence from Sesto de Arno restaurant
tord-sollie-bridge life in florence during the summer

There you go, these are all my tips for a first-time visit to Florence. Even if you prefer to explore for yourself, I'm pretty sure you will create long lasting memories in this unforgettable city. 

Thanks so much for reading,
Till next time,

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Shakespeare Week Memories In Stratford-Upon-Avon

celebrating Shakespeare week

Last month, the team from stationery brand Viking very kindly invited me to a Shakespearean themed event. The evening was meant to celebrate Britain's most famous Elizabethan writer and his contribution to literature and culture including a poem writing workshop and learning some badass calligraphy skills. Silly me double booked herself so had to drop out very last minute, however, as I've studied literature at university for many years Shakespeare certainly has been a part of my life. 

About ten years ago, I went on a very special Shakespeare course trip with my literature class from university. My lecturer at the time had excellent connections to the RSC, so she treated us to a full week of Shakespeare hard-core experience in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Each day would be filled with interactive literature workshops at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, followed by visiting the sights of the town and the day would end with a performance at the RSC Theatre. It was bliss!

I remember as if it was yesterday. I had just finished my academic ERASMUS year at Lancaster University. My bag and suitcase were packed, the keys to my student room handed over and farewells to friends have been made. I was ready to leave an amazing place behind and travel south into a brand new adventure. In Stratford, I would meet with my classmates from my home university which I hadn’t seen in over a year.

It was a warm, sunny spring day in early June when I left Lancaster. One last time I would take the bus from the university down the green lush grounds into town for the train station. I had booked my tickets in advance and knew I would have to change in Birmingham. The journey itself was smooth and straight forward for about 2h. There was one minor interruption in Wolverhampton when the train got to a halt and passengers had to board a slow service into Birmingham New Street. Luckily the delay was only a few minutes and I caught my connection train from Birmingham Moor Street.

In the heart of england lies idyllic stratford upon avon

By then it was early afternoon, the sun was heating up and the train literally stopped every ten minutes. It felt like forever.  However, when the train was moving, it would go past golden wheat fields and green dark forests under a bright blue sky. I felt like I was going to the most idyllic place in the countryside and Stratford did not disappoint. I remember in the late afternoon, the train came to its final stop: Stratford-Upon-Avon. Back then the station hadn’t been renovated yet, so all you ever saw and knew you were in Stratford, was an aged sign with letters peeling off under a golden late afternoon summer sun. In the middle of nowhere everyone had to get off the train. It was quite a hot day and though I was prepared with notes (back then there were no smartphones so I researched instructions beforehand) I had to freestyle it somehow and find my way. In the end, I ended up in a very quiet and leafy residential area and found the address that my lecturer had given me.

I knocked on the door of a lovely pale green house on Shottery Road and…..

There was no answer.

So I knocked again.

No answer.

This went on for a bit till I found the phone number from the B&B and gave it a ring on the house phone. After a while, a lady picked up and informed me she would be “over” in a few minutes. Sure.

So I waited.

And waited.

And then she finally arrived and gave me access to the house. It turned out that the B&B my lecturer had booked for us had two houses, one on Shottery Road and the main house on Rother Street. The house in Shottery Road was entirely booked for my class so we had the house to ourselves. As I was the first to arrive, I got to choose my room. And I literally went up to the third floor and worked my way down, checked every room, which I would like best. I ended up with the one on the ground floor away from the kitchen and entrance at the back which led onto a nice stone terrace with the most adorable British garden ever. The birds sang outside and I’ve never felt so calm and relaxed. This was gonna be a great week.

And it was! As soon as my classmates arrived, we had the best time ever. We would have breakfast together and cook dinner in the evening, sat on the terrace and enjoyed the evenings before the performance at the theatre would begin. It was a wonderful reunion with friends and new classmates and it was one of the main reasons why I have this Shakespeare Week in such fond memory.

historic building in stratford
My study group inspecting shakespearean documents
Hall's Croft Graden

Our first day started off at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Here we had interactive workshops, even met the cast of the RSC theatre group or got to view important historical documents and first folio editions. The learning centre made sure, we would take something valuable out of each session and be fully prepared for tonight’s show. Whilst in Stratford, I remember we watched A Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar and As You Like It. The longer I stayed in Stratford, the more idyllic and romanticised I made this place. Every house there is simply gorgeous and boasts full of history. There's always a hint of literature in the air and every corner carries culture. I really fell in love with Stratford and to this day it would be the only place in the UK where I would consider buying a house (but that's a story for another time).

After class, we got to venture out to explore the sights, so each day we visited a different building. A very memorable day was when we all went on a quest to Anne Hathaway’s cottage which lies a bit outside of town centre and leads you through residential areas of Stratford and partly through unspoiled nature. Our group had a wonderful dynamic and we truly enjoyed our time together, hence why each day felt pretty adventurous.

Apart from the sights, we also ventured out and about in town. Stratford has a lovely shopping mall in the North with all the High Street shops you could think of; the surrounding fields and woods around town hold something magical and especially the river is of incredible beauty. Let me just say: the golden hour by the church - what a magical moment! When we saw the As You Like It performance which is placed in the fictional forest of Arden, we all felt like we’ve been there as we all had experience Stratford’s charm and had been under its spell. After the performance, we would have drinks at The Dirty Duck pub and reprise another incredible day.

my study groupshakespeare performances by the RSC in Stratford
the courtyard theatre in stratford
shakespeare's study at nash house
My study group outside nash house

The last day was quite sad, to be honest. My class would head back to the airport in London and I was off to Marylebone station in Central. One last adventure was yet to come. As I mentioned earlier, my Stratford visit happened before they renovated the station, so at the time, it was in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by dusty sandy pathways. On the day of departure, there was heavy rainfall so the road had turned into a muddy disaster with a massive deep puddle blocking the way to the station. I couldn’t get a taxi to take me over the puddle, so the only way to get around it was to walk back up the street, up to the bridge for the underpassage for the train and walk down the steep hill to access the station. Actually, I slid down the hill as it was raining and muddy and I was in ballerinas with a 20kg suitcase in tow. It was quite adventurous and I certainly never forget how I sat on that 2h train journey down to London, wet, muddy, a bit cold but with a heart filled with lasting memories.

Thank you for reading today's post.
Till next time,

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A Classic Blogger Event In 3 Acts

Moonpig Mother's Day blogger event

March started with an events invite - and as you know I love blogger events! The team from Moonpig kindly let me join them at their uber-cool Head Quarters for a Mother's Day Event*. The afternoon promised to be filled with activities, crafts and a good old Afternoon Tea session so I couldn't say no. Ever since I've joined the blogging community in 2014, I've been a huge fan of branded blogging events, attended a good amount of them since and have also worked professionally and delivered a few iconic events myself. As I'm still very much interested in events as part of an experiential marketing strategy - basically how brands can engage with their customers - I had been very excited to be invited by the popular card retailer. 

Moonpig belongs to the Photobox Group, which is Europe's leading personalization business. The group comprises five brands to date across the UK, Germany, and France, which include personalized photo services, posters, greeting cards and gifts. On the UK market, Moonpig is the dominant brand and I'm sure you all have their jingle Moonpig.com *sings* in your heads right now. 

In one of my previous events posts, I've analysed the ten points that make a great blogger event on the example of Very.co.uk's Valentine's Day Event; however, their event was more of an in and out networking nature, whereas the Moonpig event followed the classical structure of a branded blogger event. I've used the same outline when I designed events to bring the brand and consumer closer together, so in today's post, I'd like to share with you the classical elements of a blogger event in three acts: 

1. Introduction

Brands organise blogger events to connect with their consumers, in this case, a few selected influencer and their target audience. Once a brand has established the connection, they work on developing a relationship with said influencer to create a long term momentum. The first step is to get to know each other, so usually once everyone has arrived at the event's venue, brand representatives will take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves, the brand and their mission. This is actually a very crucial and highly enjoyable part of a blogger event because you can directly connect and engage with the best person who later will be your main point of contact. Usually, marketing departments for brands tend to be mysterious and barely give out their details, so you do research for ages until you find the best person to speak to and to connect with. At blogger events, this is a great opportunity. You'll most likely meet the marketing manager or the brand manager, and executives which handle the blogger relationships. All very good contacts to connect with and worth keeping in touch afterward the event for future collaborations and working together.

blogger events brand representative gives introduction
cocktails served at moonpig event
at the moonpig blogger event at their offices

Once we all had sat down, Moonpig welcomed us to their Mother's Day Event. We got introduced by Claire from the SEO team who held a lovely presentation on the brand, so we've learned about its mission and in particular with a focus in the upcoming Mother's Day. The brand has specifically designed a few gift ideas which we would later try out ourselves. We were also shown the Mother's Day advert which is currently floating around on TV to get us into the right mood for the activities that were to come.

2. Main Part: Activities

Now let's come to the fun part. There's no real blogger event without the activities. Those have the function for the blogger to experience the brand's services and products for themselves. As we all know, people buy from people, and these days consumers buy from authentic reviews and experiences, so this part of the event is important as the experience will be shared later on the influencer's blog (and hopefully animate the readership to make a purchase decision). 

The afternoon at Moonpig was filled with lots of activities because the card retailer is also THE destination for personalised gifts and flowers. Yep, you read correctly - the office has its own flower department which arranges the most stunning bouquets every day. More on that later! For the first stop, I joined my blogging friends for a cocktail making class which was funfair themed. How cool was that? With the help of skilled mixologists, we got to create our own cock/mocktails in no time which we sipped out of bags similar to goldfish pouches which you can win at American funfairs and take home with you. I'm not sure if it's a common thing in the UK (it's defo not in Germany) but at American funfairs, you can shoot yourself your own goldfish and then you'd take it home in a plastic bag. I know...it sounds weird and I only know of this from watching way too many movies. However, our drink was basically resembling the same concept. No worries, no real fish were harmed in the process, we plopped some fish-shaped jelly sweets into our bags and off we went to the next activity.  

bloggers having fun at the moonpig blogger event
fun at the fair creative cocktail making masterclass

Once we had challenged our inner mixologist, we sat down for Afternoon Tea. You know, the classic British tradition when you sit down, eat finger sandwiches, cakes, sweet pastries, enjoy unlimited tea and do not give a care in the world until Sunday afternoon has gone like this *snaps fingers*. The Moonpig team absolutely spoilt us with fine china, steaming teapots and scones, cream, jam and cakes galore. It is just the absolute classic experience when you're British and as Afternoon Tea can get quite expensive, it would be a wonderful idea for Mother's Day to take out your mum for a good old catch up. (I give up on mine though, cause she's an impatient German and sitting down for an entire afternoon to relax, chill and stuff your face with sugary treats would not really be her thing - more for me then!)

afternoon tea at moonpig office
creating gift cards at moonpig
flower bouquet arrangements

Upon the Afternoon Tea session followed a photo shoot. Yep, that's correct we wouldn't be at Moonpig's office if there wouldn't have been a photo booth. Equipped with some props and killer posing, we got to shoot our very own pictures to create our bespoke Mother's Day cards. Once the picture was taken, we took seats at the laptop bar and scrolled through their Mother's Day cards collection. The range was diverse and it was hard to select as I loved a lot of the designs. Once I had chosen one I edited my picture from the photo booth in, personalised my message for my mum and added the card to my virtual basket. I was then able to decide on the cards' size (I went for super large), checked out with my address and clicked send. Great! 

With the card in place and in order, there was still so much to come and to see. The office had been set up in little work stations to display the brands' current range of gift ideas for Mother's Day. There was anything a mum's heart could possibly desire from bath bombs, to picture frames, luxury chocolates or tea, special hampers - and all available to order from Moonpig for a special gifting experience.  

The highlight came at the very end of the afternoon: for our last activity, we joined the flower department to learn how to arrange Mother's Day flower bouquets. The Moonpig team showed us how to cut the flowers and arrange them perfectly in a vase. I know this sounds a bit dull, but there are a few things you can actually do wrong in arranging flowers. The shafts need to be cut at an angle of 45 degrees for about 1-2cm. To keep the flowers fresh for the longest, you can either use specific food that comes with the bouquet or dissolve a spoon full of sugar in water before adding the flowers to your vase. Remove leaves to keep the water unspoiled for as long as possible. The vase should always have the same height as the shafts' length to make the bouquet sit nicely in it. Sounds like a lot of work, right? 

I'm usually not too fond of flowers because of the sheer amount of work they make, let alone when they start to die and lose their petals. However, my bouquet was simply stunning with pink geraniums, roses and stargazer lilies greeting me every day when I got home for a good ten days.   

3. Close

The close of every blogger event is another opportunity for a brand to connect with their influencers and leave a final positive impression. The brand representatives usually thank every blogger individually for their time and for coming along. Often business cards get exchanged to keep in touch and goody bags are handed out. As I've mentioned in my previous events posts, goody bags are never to be underestimated. A final incentive to make the event experience as memorable as possible to be featured online, they are also the only thing that an influencer physically takes away. The excitement to get home and uncover the bags content can be decisive for a blogger if they cover an event on their blogs or not.    

Goodybags from Moonpig

There you go, the classic structure of any blogger event always follows the same procedure: introduction - activities to experience the brands' product and service - and the close to leave a final positive and lasting impression. There are of course other event models and types which can work for influencer marketing which you can find in my Blogging Events - Are They Worth It? series. 

Thank you so much for reading and till next time,

* I was invited to the Moonpig event and gifted a goodbag and a flower bouquet.
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