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Julie_Reilly

Julie_Reilly
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Member since: 22.09.2011

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    • More +
      30.09.2011 14:08
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      Interesting - for a while.

      LOCATION
      The Pantheon is located on the Piazza della Rotonda, Rome.

      HISTORY
      The original Pantheon was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa. Built in 27 BC, it burnt to the ground in 80 AD. The current Pantheon was rebuilt in 126 AD by Emperor Hadrian. It is one of the best-preserved of all the ancient Roman buildings. The name Pantheon literally means "All Gods" and is believed to be a temple dedicated to all the gods. It has been in use as a Roman Catholic church, Santa Maria Rotonda, since the 7th century. The Emperor of the time, Phocas, gave it to Pope Boniface who insisted that all the "pagan filth" be removed before it could be consecrated.
      The inscription on the front of the Pantheon reads "M. AGRIPPA. L. F. COSTERTIUM. FECIT" which means "Marcus Agrippa son of Lucius, having been consul three times made it".

      OPENING TIMES
      Mon - Sat: 9 am - 6.30 pm
      Sun: 9 am -1 pm.
      ENTRY
      Entry to the Pantheon is free and it is certainly worth a visit.

      THE PANTHEON EXPERIENCE
      The dome is unique in that it is the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. At the top there is a large hole, an oculus, which is the only source of light into the dome. When we went most of the front was covered with scaffolding, but it is a fine example of ancient Roman architecture.
      Inside the dome, the Christian influence is heavy. There are lots of altars and statues and tombs of various important dead people including the artist Raphael, the composer Corelli and two Italian Kings - Umberto I and Vittorio Emanuele II.

      One of the most interesting things to me as a musician was a very small, self-contained single-manual pipe organ-in-a-box. I don't know if it still used for church services, or if it is just there for display. We weren't allowed to touch it! I can't seem to find anything out about the origin of this obviously extremely antique little pipe organ - my romantic mind would like to believe it was Corelli's own, but this is unlikely.
      There is only so much you can take of old pictures and statues so once you've done the rounds, and taken your souvenir pictures, it's time to go and find one of the many scrumptious ice-cream bars which Rome is full of.

      But simply to stand there and know that you are in a nearly 2000-year old building where ancient Emperors and Kings trod is quite humbling. I think it is the oldest still-standing building I have ever been in. And it's free!

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      30.09.2011 14:01
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      One of Rome's must-sees

      LOCATION
      The Trevi fountain (Italian: Fontana di Trevi), dominating the Piazza di Trevi (place of three roads) is probably one of the most famous fountains in the world, and quite deservedly so! The nearest main road in the Via di San Vincenzo, if approaching from the East. If you approach it from the other side, as we did, you will find yourself wandering through small alleys and side streets populated with souvenir stalls before turning a corner and almost stumbling across it.

      HISTORY
      According to legend, thirsty Roman soldiers once asked a girl where they could find water. She directed them to a spring, which was later used as the source for an aqueduct commissioned by Agrippa, which was named the Aqua Virgo, after the girl (who was, presumably, a virgin). The aquaduct was renovated during the Renaissance and renamed the Acque Vergine. The Trevi fountain marks the end of this 14-mile long aqueduct, which provides pure drinking water to many famous fountains in Rome.
      Originally, the water brought by the Acque Vergine was received by a much simpler fountain which cascaded into a plain basin. Work on the current splendid fountain was begun in 1732 although the final touch, the huge statue of Oceanus, was not set in place until 1762, marking the culmination of the project. The legendary scene between the virgin and the soldiers is depicted on the carved frieze decorating the fountain.

      THE TREVI FOUNTAIN EXPERIENCE
      Pictures will not prepare you for your first encounter with this truly magnificent fountain. You hear it long before you see it - the sound of the burbling of water can be heard for several hundred yards before you find yourself in the surprisingly small piazza which is home to this glorious fountain. Unless you go there particularly early, there will undoubtedly be crowds of people several-deep crowding around the fountain, trying to get as close as they can to the unique sculptures and friezes, to dabble their fingers in the water, and taking their turn to toss a coin over their shoulders, which, according to legend, will ensure their return to Rome. It is estimated that as much as Euro3,000 is thrown into the fountain daily.
      If the scene during the day is impressive, the spectacle of the lit fountain at night is breath-taking. If you have time, try to go once in the day and once in the evening, to experience both side of this incredible monument to Baroque engineering and art.

      It is difficult to stand directly in front of the fountain and get a direct shot of all of it, unless you have a camera equipped wide a wide-angle lens. There is a building over the road on a corner; I can't remember if it was a bank or a museum, with wide steps. If you stand at the top of those you can fit all of the fountain in your view-finder. But it is worth taking those shots, just to take home a personal reminder that you were there.

      ROBBING THE POOR
      For 34 years a local man named Roberto Cercelletta used to regularly steal from the fountain in the early hours of the morning, netting as much as Euro1000 a day before he was discovered and arrested in 2002. In 2003 a judge ruled that the coins had been discarded by their owners and therefore their removal from the fountain was not technically stealing. However, since then, copy-cat attempts have been quickly spotted and stopped. The money is collected officially by charity Caritas and is used to help Rome's poor.

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    • More +
      30.09.2011 13:58
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      A real gem!

      LOCATION
      15-19 Queens Square
      Poulton-Le-Fylde
      FY6 7BW
      TEL: 01253 893701
      http://www.chinared-restaurant.co.uk/

      ACCESSIBILITY
      The restaurant has no car park. Poulton is a small historical market town and is a bit tight for space. However, there is a municipal car park a few minutes' walk away. Entrance to the car park can be found on Blackpool Old Road and Hardhorn Road (A588), depending on which direction you approach from. This is a pay and display car park but it is FREE after 6pm.

      The restaurant is on the ground floor so is disabled-friendly.

      OPENING HOURS
      Mon to Sat 5pm - midnight.
      Sunday 2pm - 9pm

      OUR CHINA RED EXPERIENCE
      We went to China Red for my sister's 40th birthday party. I love Chinese food but had never been to this particular restaurant before. Our party consisted of about 14 people, two of them children under 6.

      We met in the bar area, where there is plenty of seating, unlike some restaurants where the bar/waiting area is tiny. The staff were happy for us to wait there as long as we needed for the entire party to arrive. It wasn't particularly busy the night we went, as it was a Tuesday, so the attention we got was very good.

      I had never been there before, nor had my parents so my sister ordered the eat-all-you -can banquet for everyone. This is a FOUR course banquet - and it really is an absolute feast!

      The starter alone consisted of huge platters of crispy seaweed, sweet and sour wontons, salt and peppery chicken wings, filo parcel wraps and sesame prawn toasts. We could all have stuffed ourselves silly on the starter alone - there was so much of it! The beauty of having a selection like this is that everyone can find something they like. We found that the people at our end of the table weren't as keen on the chicken wings, and the other end of the table loved the chicken but didn't rate the wontons, so once we had eaten what we wanted from our platter, we simply swapped, so the food didn't go to waste. Even my three-year old daughter, whose only experience with Chinese food has been lemon chicken and rice, loved the prawn toasts and the filo parcel wraps.

      The next course was soup. There was a selection of four: chicken and sweetcorn, wonton soup, hot and sour soup and vegetable soup. I chose the wonton soup, for the simple reason that I had never had it before. To be honest, I didn't like it all that much, although it was probably more to do with my taste than any poor quality on the part of the soup! But at least now I know I don't like it. If you like wonton soup, it is probably delicious.

      The third course was crispy duck pancakes. My mum was all chuffed that she knew how to make crispy duck pancakes as she had had them once before at my hen night, so she enjoyed teaching my father how to make them, as he had never had them before. I love crispy duck pancakes and these were excellent.

      For the fourth course, they brought a selection of eight different dishes: chicken in blackbean sauce, beef in blackbean sauce, stir-fried chicken szechuan-style, sizzling lamb with black pepper sauce, sweet and sour chicken, sliced beef with plum sauce, beef curry, chicken in Cantonese sauce, all served with soft noodles with bean sprouts, vermicelli Singapore noodles, and egg fried rice.

      The only thing I didn't try was the curry, as I know I don't like curry. But I tried everything else and it was all absolutely delicious! There was something for everyone! My husband only likes chicken so he didn't have to have any of the beef or lamb, and there was still plenty for him to eat. My small daughter wasn't keen on the spicy stuff, although she loved the sweet and sour chicken and noodles, so she had lots of that. And when one thing ran out, they just kept on bringing more and more. It really was "eat all you can!"

      There was no dessert included, but with a four-course Chinese banquet, you really didn't need dessert.

      And the cost of this sumptuous banquet? A mere £13.95 per person, or £9.50 for children under 8.

      There is also a vegetarian banquet, which is £12.95 per person and £8.50 per child.

      I would recommend China Red wholeheartedly. The staff are friendly and eager to please and the food is divine! It is far and away the best Chinese restaurant I have ever eaten in, bar none! If I could give it a million stars, I would!

      (previously published on ciao.co.uk)

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    • More +
      30.09.2011 13:55
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      It has everything you need for a whole day's splashy fun!

      LOCATION
      The Sandcastle Waterpark
      South Beach
      Blackpool
      Lancashire
      FY4 1BB
      UK
      T: 01253 343 602
      F: 01253 406 490
      E: info@sandcastle-waterpark.co.uk
      W: www.sandcastle-waterpark.co.uk

      ACCESSIBILITY AND PARKING
      It is very difficult to find free parking in Blackpool. There is a large car park right next to the Sandcastle, South Beach car park, which is open 24/7. The charges there are £3.50 for 3 hours or £7.50 for 12 hours. Out of season (from mid-November to Good Friday, there is unlimited free parking on a numbers of small roads directly opposite the Sandcastle: Osborne Road, Withnell Road and Simpson street. During the season you can park on these roads for a maximum of two hours, however, they do tend to be busy and spaces get filled up quickly.

      There are good public transport links to the Sandcastle. The trams run right past it and there is a dedicated tram stop. The no. 1 bus runs along the Promenade and there is a stop close by. The nearest train station is Blackpool South, about 15 minutes' walk away. From the station, turn left onto Waterloo Road and keep going until you hit the promenade. Then turn left again and just keep going. You will see the Sandcastle on your right. It is a walk of about 15 minutes or so.

      OPENING TIMES AND PRICES
      Opening times vary greatly, depending on day and season. The earliest opening time is 9.30am in the season and during school holidays, and the latest closing time is 8pm on certain Fridays. It's best to check the website for the particular day you want to come. Some days out of season it's not open at all.

      The admission prices vary greatly and there are a number of different variables. There is a basic admission price plus an optional HyperZone wristband, which entitles you to also ride the Sidewinder and the MasterBlaster. Children must be eight years old cannot ride the Masterblaster, but they can ride the Sidewinder, so their HyperZone wristband price is cheaper.
      Single (12 yrs+): £12.00 plus £3.75 for the HyperZone wristband
      Junior (8-11 yrs): £10.00 plus £3.75 for the HyperZone wristband
      Junior (6-7 yrs): £10.00 plus £2.50 for the HyperZone wristband
      Junior (3-5 yrs): £10.00 - cannot buy a HyperZone wristband
      Infant (under 3 yrs): FREE
      Guests with disabilities/Carers: £7.50 plus £3.75 for the HyperZone wristband
      Senior (60+ yrs): £7.50 plus £3.75 for the HyperZone wristband

      There are also various family passes and group rates you can buy. These are detailed on their website. If you book online there is a 10% discount, but there is also a £1.50 charge. However, even with the charge it is still cheaper to book online if there is more than one person, and you get to jump the queues.

      A few years ago they brought out an annual pass which I bought for myself and my daughter, then 6. I can't remember how much it cost me then, but currently the annual pass is on sale for £100 for seniors/3-11 and disabled, and £120 for 12+. It includes access to the HyperZone also which at that time allowed younger children to go on the MasterBlaster. They had to change the rule as some smaller children were falling out! We went every Saturday morning for a couple of hours and really enjoyed our weekly swims. If we had paid the going rate, it would have cost us £1,534 - so we saved £1,314 - definitely worth considering if you're planning on going a lot. We worked out it only cost just over £4 a week for the two of us to go - far cheaper and much more fun than the local swimming pool and it really improved my daughter's confidence in the water.

      LOCALS
      Local residents get a discount of a massive 50% off the standard admission fee (excluding the HyperZone, which is still charged at full rate) on production of a proof of address such as a utility bill, showing an FY1 - FY8 postcode.

      THE SANDCASTLE EXPERIENCE
      You can really waste a good chunk of your day here. If you're planning on doing any serious swimming, it's not for you - go and do lengths at the local pool instead! But if you want to splash about and go on slides and have a blast, then it's great. The MasterBlaster really is worth going on, although it tends to be busy at peak times. Try and get there early if you can - when we went on Saturdays we were always one of the first there and the first to go on the MasterBlaster. It's described as "the world's longest indoor roller-coaster waterslide" and "the world's first uphill roller-coaster". You have to get an inflatable ring from at the bottom of the MasterBlaster, next to the wave pool, then carry it across the park and up several flights of steps to the top. These rings are large but they aren't heavy - my six year old could drag it easily. Then you put your ring at the top of the slide, settle yourself in and the assistant gives you a mighty push and you're off! You go down and round corners quite fast and then you hit the uphill bits. What they call "water injection technology" sends you up the hills but watch your bottom through the hole in the ring - sometimes it can scrape. The slide is 820ft long, and at the end, there is one final steep slide/drop, just to get the adrenaline pounding. Occasionally the "water injection technology" fails and the whole thing grinds to a halt, which is very funny! They have to send on e of the staff in to the slide and they walk through the now quiescent rollercoaster to where you are and you have to walk through and slide yourself down the final drop, which looks like fun, although it never happened to us. If that does happen to you, you do get another go!

      The Sidewinder is a huge white U-shaped structure dominating the middle of the waterpark. I have been on it twice and that was quite enough. Again, you get your ring from the bottom - they have double rings also so you can go on with a friend - and you take it to the top of the ride. You sit in your ring and they push you down the almost vertical sides of the U. You hit the bottom and slide up the other side part of the way, then gravity takes over and you slide back up the original side., Eventually your momentum runs out and you end up motionless in the middle, at which point you get off and go either, "I'm not doing that again - I think I left my stomach up there!" or "More, more, more!!". I was one of the former; the Sidewinder left me cold, but it is a very popular ride so there must be lots of people who enjoy that adrenaline rush. Even the video of the sidewinder on the sandcastle's website had my stomach churning!

      The rest of the waterpark has plenty to do for young and old. There are the twin yellow and blue slides, the Thunderfalls, which are always popular. Even toddlers can go on there, if they sit on an adult's lap and wear armbands. There is the pirate ship and fort, which have water shooters and baby slides - perfect for your little one. There is a large shallow area for your littly to splash and play in safety, which deepens into a larger lagoon area leading to the lazy river. At the far end of the park, there is a triple water slide, again suitable for smaller children on an adult's lap, although there is a fair splash at the end, so it might not be suitable for very young children. There are also two green enclosed slides, the duelling dragons, which are faster than they look. These have an age restriction of 6 and are only suitable for strong swimmers.

      The Caribbean Storm Treehouse is a watery adventure playground featuring as its top attraction, a giant coconut which slowly fills with water over about half an hour and then upends its contents all over the people below. Watch for kids squirting you as you climb the stairs!

      Finally there is the Typhoon lagoon. This is the best place for proper swimming - you can do quite a few decent lengths in here and the deep end is deep enough for anyone. But every hour on the hour, it transforms into a wave pool! Listen for the Hawaii-five-O theme tune and make your way across to ride the waves.

      There are two new rides coming soon, due to be open on an indefinite date! These are Aztec Falls, a bowl slide, and Montazooma, a mat slide.

      FOOD AND SEATING
      There are plenty of eating and seating areas in the Sandcastle if you don't want to be in the water all the time. There are also lockers so you can take your money with you, pop it in a locker while you have fun, then you can go and get it again when your tummy starts to rumble! Food varies from hot dogs and burgers, to salads and sandwiches.

      CHANGING
      The changing areas and large and well-equipped with both communal areas and private cubicles. There are male and female changing rooms, as well as family changing. A lift is provided from the reception area down to the changing rooms if you have a pushchair and there is a slope from the changing rooms up to the water area, so you can take your pushchair with you. There are LOADS of lockers, which require a 50p piece (refundable). There is a change machine in the locker area but it is temperamental. I sometimes had to ask the till staff for a 50p - but there were always happy to oblige.

      There are showers, toilets and free-to-use hairdryers in all changing rooms. There are also two sets toilets in the water ark area so you don't have to go back to the changing room to use the toilet.

      OTHER FACILITIES
      There is a swimwear shop in the Sandcastle which sells and range of swimwear, goggles and armbands and other swimming accessories.

      There is also a gift shop selling sweets and souvenirs.

      There is a small amusement arcade and a bar selling alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks in the main reception.

      There is a sauna and steam room in the water park next to the Palm Trees snack shack. This is only for use by customers aged 18 or over.

      They also do birthday parties. My daughter had her ninth birthday party here and it was a great success!

      CONCLUSION
      Basically a fab day out - a tiny bit pricy but really good fun!

      (previously published on ciao.co.uk)

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    • More +
      30.09.2011 13:49
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      A great family day out.

      LOCATION
      Blackpool Zoo,
      East Park Drive,
      Blackpool,
      Lancashire,
      FY3 8PP
      UK
      T: 01253 830 830
      W: www.blackpoolzoo.org.uk
      E: info@blackpoolzoo.org.uk

      ACCESSIBILITY AND PARKING
      There is a large pay and display car park outside the zoo. The cost for this is £2.50 per day, which is quite reasonable. Alternatively, you can park for free at Stanley Park car park, and walk through the park to East Park Drive, then up Woodside Drive to the Zoo entrance. This is a walk of about a mile and is a pleasant alternative, if you wish to visit both Stanley Park and the Zoo. The walking route to the Zoo is well-signposted throughout Stanley Park and is very easy to find.

      You can also get a bus - route 20 stops at the zoo. The timetable can be found here: http://www.blackpooltransport.com

      OPENING TIMES
      The Zoo opens at 10am daily. Closing times vary throughout the year depending on what time it gets dark. Check the zoo website to find out when it closes when you want to visit.

      ADMISSION
      ADULT (16 - 59 years): £14.99
      CHILD (3 - 15 years): £10.75
      UNDER 3s: Free
      CONCESSIONS (Senior/Student - with valid ID): £12.99
      DISCOUNTED FAMILY TICKET FOR 4 (2 adults and 2 children): £46.00
      DISCOUNTED FAMILY TICKET FOR 5 (2 adults and 3 children): £56.00

      Local residents with an FY1 to FY5 postcode get a discount of 20% off admission on production of a proof of address, eg a recent utility bill or driving licence. This is valid for up to 5 people per household.

      BLACKPOOL ZOO EXPERIENCE
      As a local, I have been to Blackpool Zoo many times. I try to take my children there at least once a year during the summer holidays. I have seen it grow and develop from a series of little concrete enclosures to a far more pleasant living environment for the animals.

      As you enter, the first animals you see are the giant tortoises directly opposite the entrance. They are quite friendly and will often come over and look at visitors peering at them over the fencing.

      Next you have the option of visiting the Dinosaur Safari. Until recently this was subject to an extra charge, but it has since been incorporated into the entry fee. It is a trek through time, through several different eras of saurian evolution, finishing with the prehistoric creatures that lived after the dinosaurs. There is a dino-egg hunt for the kids also. It's worth a look and it is a unique start to your zoo trip. I don't know of many other zoos that have dinosaurs in them!

      Once in the zoo proper, you will walk past the display arena which has daily bird displays at 11am and 3pm. There are talks throughout the day at various animal enclosures - you can either follow the guide around, or make your own way around the Zoo Park.

      Recent returnees to the Zoo include the penguins and giraffes, both in all-new habitats, far more suitable to their requirements than their previous enclosures.

      Other old favourites include: otters, penguins, sealions, which are fed twice daily with a fantastic display or water acrobatics, elephants, orang-utans, chimps and gorillas on Gorilla Mountain, lions, tigers, camels, porcupines, emus, zebras, the beautiful and striking African Bongos, The Reptile House, and Lemur Wood, where you walk over a wooden bridge and experience lemurs coming right up to you. Touching the lemurs is forbidden, but it is hard to resist trying to stroke these furry beauties! Santa also keeps his reindeer here out of season, and they can be found opposite the zebra and bongo house - last time we went they even had baby reindeer!

      One fab new addition is Amazonia, where you can walk through a recreation of an Amazon jungle with various species of birds and small primates. Cheeky squirrel monkeys will happily jump all over your bags and pushchairs and even all over you, hunting for food. If you do have any food on you, tuck it tightly away in a zipped packet or bag, or you will lose it!

      Wallaby Walkabout is another recent addition to the Zoo. It is home to the wallabies and kangaroos which have for years been a favourite exhibit at the zoo. Now you can get up close and personal with them and walk right through their habitat. It's as close as you can get to Australia! My kids loved this!

      Near the ape house and the new penguin enclosure is a children's playground, which is always popular. There is ample seating for picnicking and for adults to keep an eye on their own little monkeys as they play. If you haven't brought your own food, there is an excellent café located near the display arena.

      One perennial favourite is the Zoo Miniature Railway, which starts and finishes from near the children's play area and takes you on a tour of the outer perimeter of the zoo, and back again if you buy a return ticket, enabling you to see some of the exhibits from the other side of the fence. There is an extra charge for this of £1.50 single to the Aardvark exhibit, or £2.50 return back to the playground, but it's always popular with the kids.

      Quite simply, Blackpool Zoo is a fun family day out. If you want to get away from the buzz of the town, take a day to visit the Zoo and commune with nature. And they have ice-cream!!

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    • More +
      28.09.2011 10:39
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      Much improved!

      This always used to have a decent number of shops but was generally a bit rundown, dingy and quite grotty. Recently, however, with an infusion of cash to the tune of £150 million, the redevelopment of the centre attracted major new retailers such as Debenhams. It is now a pleasanter place to visit, light and airy with more seating areas for when your hubby really can't bear to go in one more shop with you and is just going to "wait outside for a little bit, darling."

      All the shops are located on the ground floor. There is an upper floor, but the only things up there are the toilets and a café. There are lifts and an ascending escalator, but only stairs to come down; there is no descending escalator. The toilets are large and clean with seating areas outside for people waiting for you and plenty of space to leave pushchairs.

      There is a multi-storey car park above the shopping centre, with space for 800 cars. It is open from 8.00am - 11.30pm daily. You have to wind your way around the one-way system to get to it and it can be VERY busy at peak times. I once queued for half an hour one Saturday in December just to get INTO the car park, and then had to queue again once inside the car park to find a space. In busy times I would highly recommend going on the bus, or trying to find a space in Central Drive car park, which is not far away. Car parking charges are as follows:

      * Up to 1 hr - £1.20
      * Up to 2 hrs - £2.00
      * Up to 3 hrs - £3.00
      * Up to 4 hrs - £4.00
      * Up to 6 hrs - £6.00
      * Up to 8 hrs - £8.00
      * Up to 10 hrs - £12.00
      * Up to 24 hrs - £20.00


      Rather than a pay and display car park which I always find really annoying as you have to estimate in advance how long you're going to take, you pay before you go back to your vehicle. Pay stations are located in the middle of the shopping centre - next to the escalator to go up to the café, at the bottom of the lifts to return to the car park, and also on the first car park level. There are none on the other car park levels.

      These are the shops in the Hounds Hill Centre. I have listed them all for the sake of completeness, but I have only made longer comments on the ones I have personally used:

      3 STORE - Mobile phones

      APPY FEET - Shoes

      ALEEFS - Newsagents

      AMPARO - Men's clothing

      BANG - Men's clothing

      BANK - Men's and women's clothing. I have never bought anything from Bank, but have looked around this shop several times. It caters more for the teenager or young adult. Some of its stock I would say is quite eclectic or bizarre and tends to be expensive.

      BARRATTS -Shoes and bags. I bought my wedding shoes here after trawling through every single shoe shop in Blackpool and trying on every single pair of wedding shoes I could find. I walked into Barratts and there they were - my dream shoes. Not only gorgeous but comfortable! Slightly pricy at £40, but how often do you buy wedding shoes? I also saw my dream wedding bag there too. They didn't have it in cream, although the nice sales assistant said they had in their website - and they did!

      BELLA ITALIA - Italian restaurant. I have eaten here, although not recently. As far as I remember, the food was always excellent.

      BODY SHOP - Well-known cosmetics chain

      BOOTS - Well-known chemist and toiletries chain. The Boots in Blackpool is large and well-stocked. It covers three floors and sells toys, nursery goods and children's clothes as well as the usual cosmetics, perfumes and pharmacy goods. There is also a cafe on the first or second floor (I can't quite remember).

      CAFE 61 - café

      CAFE FRESCH - café

      CARPHONE WAREHOUSE - mobile phones

      CEX - I actually have no idea what this is. It is on their website, but when I click on it, it takes me to Debenhams' page. Next time I go I'll pop in and see if it still exists.

      CLAIRE'S ACCESSORIES - this still appears on the Hounds Hill website, but it is actually closed now, which was very annoying as I used to shop there quite a lot. The nearest Claire's now is in Freeport, Fleetwood.

      CLARKS - shoes

      CLINTONS CARDS - Well-known card and gift shop. Large shop with a good selection.

      COSTA COFFEE - Well-known coffee brand

      D & A - Dollond & Aitchison - opticians

      DEBENHAMS - This has to be the new shiny jewel in the Hounds Hill's refurbished crown. Bringing a bit of class to Blackpool, this well-known department store sells designer clothes at pocket-friendly prices. Here you can find Jasper Conran, Betty Jackson.Black, Rocha, Red Herring, Diamond by Julien MacDonald, DKNY, Kangol , and many, many others. Within Debenhams you can also find Dorothy Perkins and Principles. There is a wedding department with lots of little must-have accessories. Overall, a super addition to the Hounds Hill.

      DEBENHAMS CAFE - a café in Debenhams. Clue's in the title.

      DEICHMAN SHOES - I shop here quite a lot. I find they have comfortable shoes at good prices. I have bought sandals, work shoes, boots and children's shoes from here and they all last a good long while. The only thing I do find is that the sizes are very large. I normally wear a 7 UK or a 40 EUR, but here I have to buy a 6 UK, although, just looking at the boots I bought the other week, their 6 UK is actually a 40 EUR, so it looks like it's their conversion that is faulty. If you're not sure, try on your normal size, but also look at the size below as well - you might find it fits better.

      DISNEY STORE - self-explanatory. If you want to buy your kids Disney stuff - this is the place!

      DUTY FREE - I've never figured out why this shop calls itself Duty Free, when it's not. Basically, they sell cheap cosmetics and perfumes. If you're not bothered about what you put on your skin, there are sometimes bargains to be had. It might be worth a five-minute browse, but I rarely buy anything from here.

      EARLY LEARNING CENTRE - Well-known toy store. The ELC in Blackpool used to be quite big but, when they shut down half the centre for the refurbishment, the ELC had to be moved to a much smaller unit. They have remained in their new unit, but as a result the stock they carry is not as extensive as it used to be. The ELC's website is currently offering free delivery on orders over £50 though, so that's worth keeping in mind.

      EUROCHANGE - Money changing. There are several places in Blackpool that will sell you foreign currency. We found that if you take the time to do a trawl of them all, get some quotes written down, they will often try to beat each other down on price, if you order a sufficient amount of currency. So shop around and you can save a few quid!

      GAME - computer games

      GREGGS - Very nice bakers

      HAMPSONS - Another very nice bakers

      H & M - Clothes shop. H & M is a European brand which sells men's and women's clothing. They also sell lingerie and jewellery. I have bought some stuff at H&M, usually in the sale, but I find their clothes a bit expensive in price and cheap in quality. It's usually worth having a look though, as you can sometimes get some bargains.

      JANE NORMAN - I love Jane Norman! I love the little flirty dresses they sell, which drop from below the bust, hiding a flabby belly, with the raggedy style hemlines which show a flash of leg, but hide slightly bulky knees. I do find them a little expensive, but their clothes are so nice, sometimes it's worth it to treat yourself. Check out the sales as they sometimes knock a fair chunk off the price.

      JD SPORTS - Sports shop. Good selection.

      JOHN NELSON - shoes and handbags

      JUST DESSERTS - Sweets and desserts apparently. I don't even remember seeing this last time I went to the Hounds Hill. It might be new.

      LA SENZA - Good-priced lingerie chain. They have some nice every day stuff at low prices as well as the more sexy, expensive sets. They also sell nightwear. I bought my wedding lingerie here.

      LP4 - Le Petit Four Français Ltd. A nice play on words for their logo. They sell French baguettes and pastries.

      METHODIST CHURCH - Yes, there is even a church in the Hounds Hill Centre. Technically it's not within the centre proper, it's out of the Adelaide Street doors and down a bit, on the left hand side.

      NEW LOOK - Well known budget clothes chain. This is a nice big New Look, over two floors. Downstairs they have ladies' and gent's clothing; upstairs they have kids (9-16), shoes, lingerie, maternity, plus and tall.

      NEXT - Well-known clothes shop. Ladies', men's, kids' and home stuff. Sometimes worth a look, especially around sale time.

      O2 - Mobile phone shop

      ORANGE - Mobile phone shop

      PANDORA - Jewellery

      PERFUME SHOP - This stall is located on the main entrance hall on Victoria Street. I always go here first when I need perfume or aftershave as they have proper, well-known brands, not knock-offs at excellent prices.

      PHONES 4 YOU - Mobile phone shop

      PRIMARK - The Primark here in Blackpool is HUGE - spanning four floors. Yes, I know everyone knows about Primark's reputation, but, now and again I find something wearable. I generally buy all my nightwear from here, as they have the short pyjama sets I like, and a wide variety of designs. I often buy kids' stuff from here and they grow so fast it doesn't matter if it doesn't last. They have some nice jewellery hidden among the tat. Mostly awful - but still worth a poke around, if you have time.

      REPUBLIC - a small clothes shop, generally aimed at the younger market, but I've bought a few bits here. An ex-pupil of mine, Valentine, works here. If you see him, say Hi - he's a lovely boy!

      RIVER ISLAND - Well-known clothing store. Men's and ladies' again. They also sell accessories and shoes. I don't think I've ever bought anything from here - they tend to be a bit frilly and bohemian for my taste. Oh, I tell a lie - I bought a bag once. But it's worth a look and if you like frilly and bohemian, you'll love it.

      SCOTTS LEISURE - Menswear

      SHOE ZONE - Cheap, low budget shoes. I generally buy my summer sandals from here. They last the season, then I buy new ones the following year. I also buy school shoes for the kids. They tend to be a mixture of cardboard ones that disintegrate in the rain, or sturdy, leather, padded, ones that last till the kid grows out of them. You get what you pay for - the cheap ones don't tend to last very long, but if you pay a few more pounds, they're worth a punt. They also have the black school shoes with flashing lights that little girls love. The slippers they sell are nice - they sell those big, fluffy, boot-style ones in winter that really keep your feet warm on those cold winter mornings.

      SKY - Sky TV

      STARBUCKS - big brand, overpriced, over-rated coffee

      STRAWBERRY MOON - Fashion clothing. This tends to be aimed at the younger end of the market. I have been in a few times but never bought anything. The prices are reasonable from what I remember.

      SUPERDRUG - low-priced toiletries. Generally decent quality.

      THAINA NOODLE BAR - I have never eaten here. They sell noodles, apparently.

      TK MAXX - Maybe it's me, but I hate TK Maxx. They promise vast savings, arrange their clothes like a second hand charity shop then slap prices on that I would balk at paying, even if they were full-priced. Disappointing.

      SCENT SHOP - perfumes and aftershaves. I've never shopped here.

      TIMPSON'S - shoe repairs, keyrings, umbrellas. Will fix your shoes while you wait.

      VIRGIN MEDIA - Cable TV

      WIGWAM - Women's clothes, men's clothes and shoes.

      (this review has also appeared on ciao.co.uk)

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      28.09.2011 10:36
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      A visit to Rome is not complete without a look at this stunning ruin

      We were in Rome for our honeymoon and, on our first evening we had gone out in the evening warmth a) to find something to eat and b) to have a wander and get our bearings.

      We were rambling aimlessly down twisty alley ways and up unexpected steps when suddenyly we turned a corner and there it was. Rising proud and ancient among bustle and traffic, the Colosseum sits incongruously in the midst of modern Rome - the very essence of anachronism.

      The evening light cast a golden glow over the time-worn stones, lending an inappropriate beauty over what was once an arena of brutal and bloody slaughter for the amusement of ancient emperors.

      Approaching the monument, we found it was surrounded by grassy areas but when we got to the entrance point it was closed for the day. We poked our noses through the gates and, although slightly shocked at the ticket price of Euro15.50, nevertheless we planned to come back the next day.

      Looking online that evening, we discovered the existence of something called a Roma Pass, which, for the sum of Euro25, offers free travel all over Rome, by bus, metro or railway, for THREE days, free entrance into two Roman museums, and reduced entrance into many other attractions. Not only that, at the Colosseum, Roma pass holders can walk straight past the queues to their one dedicated entrance (at the time of writing, the Roma Pass currently isn't available).

      Roma Pass: http://www.romapass.it/

      So the next day, we went out and bought two at the nearest tourist information office. As our hotel was central we walked there, but it is well-served with bus routes and a metro stop.

      The Colosseum is a vast, humbling place. You walk round and can look directly into the basement labyrinth, now grassy and open to the air, but which was once the dark soulless place where hapless and helpless slaves and enemies of the Roman way awaited their inevitable grisly deaths. One end has been rebuilt; you can stand where the emperor would have sat and see what he would have seen - the slaves and gladiators being brought out to fight. Two would come on - only one would leave - alive, that is.

      There are regular display boards with historical information about the Colosseum and the various types of 'entertainment' that went on there. If you listen carefully to your imagination, you can hear echoes of the screams of the poor people sent there to be butchered in the name of entertainment.

      There are guided tours which can be purchased, but we chose to wander around by ourselves. Watch out for the touts who hang around outside the Colosseum - there are plenty of souvenirs to be purchased - at a price. But don't be afraid to haggle! When we had finished looking at the Colosseum and were walking towards the Military Museum, we came across a stallholder who had model Colosseums. I picked up one large one to look the price - a shocking Euro45! I put it back down and the stallholder was instantly on me, offering to drop the price. I said No repeatedly, and he brought it down to Euro15 in the end. I still refused, not wanting to do business with one so dishonest as to put such a vastly inflated price on his goods, when he would have happily taken a third of the price. I eventually found a little miniature Colosseum for a measly ONE Euro in a side street. The same souvenirs are all over Rome at various prices so don't grab the first shiny toy you see - you might find it cheaper round the corner!

      (this review also appears on ciao.co.uk)

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        28.09.2011 10:32
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        Just go there!

        www.vatican.va

        Where to start with the Vatican? Firstly, it is a must-see in Rome. You simply can't go to Rome and not say you've been to the Vatican.

        We bought our tickets online as we had been advised to do so. The cost was Euro15 each plus a 'reservation fee' of Euro4 per person. We did feel the fee was a bit steep, but had been told the queues were ridiculous, especially in high season. It was August so we decided to suck it up and pay the fee. You can also choose which time of day you will be visiting during the booking process.

        The Vatican is about 5km from the centre of Rome - a short train ride. It would be walkable if you were so inclined and fancied a walking tour of the city, but it was a hot August day so we went on the train. At the other end it was only a few minutes from the stop to the Vatican. When we got there, there appeared to be some kind of service going on, as St Peter's Square was absolutely jam-packed with people, seated and standing.

        We made our way round to the museum entrance and were VERY glad we had bought our tickets online as the queue to get in was snaking right round the walls!

        Note to ladies. You are not permitted to enter the Vatican with bare shoulders, so if you only have tank tops, you need to either wear something with sleeves - even short sleeves will doi, or get a scarf. There was a guy selling scarves to ladies waiting to go in who had either not heard this rule or had chosen to discard it. As a rampant feminist this rankled a little when I discovered the rule - how dare they tell me what to wear or insinuate that bare shoulders are somehow 'wrong'. But common sense won over and it doesn't hurt to show a little respect for the religion, even if you don't share it. I would take my shoes off if visiting a mosque, so this was no different really.

        We were able to just walk in past all the queues and take our printed-off booking voucher to the ticket desk to exchange for our tickets. The tickets are actually very pretty and we have kept them as souvenirs of our honeymoon, in our little keepsake box.

        Now, because I'm writing this review over a year after we visited, a lot of the details that we saw are lost to memory. One of the things that I remember most was the display of papal vehicles, old and new, that can be found in the basement. There are gold plated horse-drawn carriages as well as ancient pope-mobiles. We puzzled for a long time how the horses were driven, as there appeared to be no driver's seat on the carriage, before we eventually saw a photo showing one of the horses actually being ridden, and the others directed by the rider.

        There was a scale model of the entire Vatican City in the entrance to the museum, which was fascinating. There was an awful lot of art and some stained glass windows. I remember seeing some ancient maps showing various parts of Italy and the rest of the world. The Sistine chapel is famous for its ceiling - but if you look up a few times as you are shepherded down the long corridors on the way there, there are other fine examples of art work on the ceilings.

        The Sistine Chapel is stunning - and I'm not the only person to say this. It is patrolled by Vatican guards with guns! You are forbidden to take photographs, or even speak above a whisper whilst in the chapel - they were constantly shushing people. Seeing the famous God/Adam painting 'in the flesh' was an experience not to be missed but there are many, many other, less well-known images on the vast ceiling, so take some time to look at it all, including the trompe l'oeil archways which we were certain were real at first!

        Once your taste for Catholic antiquities has been assuaged, there is the obligatory cafe and toilets. And when you leave through the shop there is the most incredible spiral staircase I think I have ever seen.

        We did go back round to try to get into St Peter's Basilica, but the queue was HUGE and our tickets only covered the museums and chapel, so we didn't go into the church, which was a shame as I would have liked to. If you do go to the church, the entrance is down the RIGHT hand side of ST Peter's Square, not the left, which is the exit. If you go the wrong way, you have to walk all the way round again! As we discovered!!

        There are SHEDLOADS of tiny shops selling Catholic souvenirs of every description - you can even buy replica Papal robes - although what possible use you could have for them I can't imagine, unless for a very posh Priests and Prostitutes party!

        I have always wanted a Nativity set for Christmas and we found a fun, inexpensive set in one shop, along with a stable in another shop. So every Christmas, when I set it up, I am reminded of our honeymoon :o) (see photo)

        If you love arty stuff and Catholic stuff, you will love the Vatican and even if you don't, it's still worth going simply to say you have been. There's nowhere else like it in the world.

        (this review has also appeared on ciao.co.uk)

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        • More +
          28.09.2011 10:28
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          Superb!

          LOCATION
          Queens Theatre,
          51 Shaftesbury Avenue
          London W1D 6BA
          0870 950 0930

          First of all, I LOVE this show, so this will be a very effusive review! I was introduced to Les Mis by my music teacher who took us on a school trip to see it when I was 16. I have since seen it 7 further times professionally and one amateur production by under 18s.

          I have got the 10th anniversary DVD and the 25th anniversary Blu-ray. So I think you can safely say I'm a bit of a Les Mis nut!

          I have run my own school trip to see it a few years ago - the kids I took loved it as well - yay for new Les Mis converts! I took my daughter to see an amateur production locally and she loved it so much I said I would take her to London to see it for her tenth birthday. My Dad also came with us, and it is this visit this review is about.

          We went on the 6th August 2011 and were disappointed to find out that this was not one of Alfie Boe's nights - it would have been nice to see him, as he is a local lad! But we had Matt Lucas and I had heard good things about Jonathan Williams.

          There are only three cubicles in the ladies toilets and in the short time it took me to find our seats, dump our snacks and walk back up to the toilets for the regulatory pre-show visit, the queue was trailing round the corner! It took 15 minutes till it was my turn. I don't think anyone missed the beginning of the show - but it might be an idea to get there early.

          We had seats on the front row of the dress circle and my daughter had to get TWO booster cushions to enable her to see over the rather tall barrier designed to prevent us from falling into the stalls. Even my Dad went and got himself one - he's not awfully tall - bless him! But once sufficiently boosted, everyone in our little party could see the stage.

          The show was absolutely fantastically amazing. Jonathan Williams was an incredibly sombre and desperate Valjean at the start, which made his transformation even more poignant. Matt Lucas was hilarious as comedy villain Thénardier,and the producers added a few tweaks to take advantage of his wonderful comic talent. Hadley Fraser was a compellingly fierce Javert and Alexia Khadime a stunning Eponine. I'm not sure who the little boy who played Gavroche was, but he was fantastic! Really stole every scene.

          My daughter and my Dad both loved the three-hour show and obviously I loved it - again! I could watch this show every night of my life and never get bored of it. The music is amazing, the scenery is spectacular, the actors are dazzling - there are simply not enough superlatives to describe this extraordinary show. Take tissues! It will make you laugh and cry and clap so hard your hands sting. At the end, the entire audience rose on their feet as one to give the cast a well-deserved standing ovation.

          Go to see Les Mis. You won't regret it!

          ***SPOILER ALERT***
          If you don't want to know the story in advance, don't read the synopsis.

          Synopsis

          Act One

          Jean Valjean has been imprisoned for the last nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. He is released on parole, but no one will employ him or give him lodging. He is taken in by a kindly Bishop, who he repays by stealing his silver. When the Bishop lies to the police and allows him to go free, he is overcome by remorse and humility and vows to be a new man. He breaks his parole and goes on the run.

          Eighty years on and he is the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner. A factory worker, Fantine, has an illegitimate child, Cosette, who lives with the Thénardiers, a pair of cruel innkeepers, who treat her like a slave and extort money out of Fantine who believes her daughter is ill and dying. She is found out and sacked by the lecherous foreman whose advances she has rejected and, destitute and desperate, she turns to prostitution. She becomes ill, is attacked by a prospective client and eventually dies in hospital, but not before wrenching a promise from Jean Valjean that he will care for her daughter.

          Meanwhile, Inspector Javert has been hunting for the prisoner who broke parole ten years ago. When he sees Valjean rescue a badly injured man from a runaway cart, he is put in mind of the incredible strength of the prisoner who escaped. But, Javert says, Monsieur le Maire cannot be Valjean as they have found him and he comes to court today. Valjean cannot bear to see an innocent man punished for his crimes and confesses that he is the man Javert is looking for. He and Javert fight in the hospital and Valjean escapes.

          Valjean travels to the evil Thénardiers' inn where they are abusing Cosette and rescues her, paying 1,500 francs. Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris.

          Ten years later, the Thénardiers are also living in Paris with Eponine, their true daughter. She is in love with Marius, a student. His friends are disaffected with the government and are planning an uprising. The Thénardiers plot to rob Valjean in the street, but when they accost him, Thénardier recognises him as being the man who took Cosette ten years previously. Marius and Cosette bump into each other in the kerfuffle and fall instantly in love. Javert appears and breaks up the scene, but Valjean and Cosette run away without being seen. Javert suspects that he may be Jean Valjean and swears to catch him.

          Gavroche, a street urchin and friend to the students, overhears Javert and knows who he is - an important detail for a later plot development.

          Marius persuades Eponine to find where Cosette lives but while they are vowing their love for each other in the garden, Thénardier appears with his gang to rob the house. Eponine warns them with a scream and Valjean thinks it is Javert come to arrest him. He decides to pack and run away to England the next day.

          Meanwhile the students plan their uprising for the next day also, to coincide with the funeral of General Lamarque, the only people-friendly politician.

          Act Two

          The students erect their barricade and Javert pretends to join them, offering to spy on the troops, but really he is there to spy on them. Gavroche recognises him and gives him away. The students tie him up, planning on dealing with him later.

          Marius asks Eponine to take a love letter to Cosette, which she does, but Valjean intercepts it, reads it and, realising that Cosette and Marius are in love, changes his plans and joins the rebels on the barricade. Eponine is shot returning to the barricade and dies in Marius' arms. After the first attack, Valjean saves Enjolras' life (the student leader) and wins his trust. He asks to be allowed to 'take care' of the spy Javert and, thinking Valjean will shoot Javert, Enjolras allow it. But Valjean releases Javert and lets him escape, even telling him his address where he can be found, if he survives the night. As the rebels sleep, Valjean prays to God to keep Marius safe.

          There is another attack the next day. Gavroche is killed retrieving bullets from the soldiers' pouches. All the others except Valjean and Marius are killed. Valjean drags an injured Marius into the sewers where Thénardier is robbing the bodies. Valjean collapses under Marius' weight and, while he is resting, Thénardier robs Marius, thinking he is dead.

          Javert confronts Valjean in the sewers and Valjean begs to be allowed to take Marius to the hospital. Javert agrees begrudgingly and then, unable to live in a world where a criminal could have compassion and be a good man, he commits suicide by jumping into the Seine.

          After the rebellion is over, the lost students are mourned by the townspeople and by a recovering Marius, who is with Cosette, but does not know who rescued him. Valjean confesses his past to Marius and says he has to leave, making Marius promise never to tell Cosette the truth.

          Cosette and Marius are married and, at the wedding breakfast, the Thénardiers appear and try to bribe Marius, saying that they have proof Cosette's father is a criminal, showing a ring that Thénardier took off a 'corpse' that Valjean was dragging through the sewers. Marius recognises his own ring and realises it was Valjean who had saved him. He grabs Cosette and rushes to the house, where Valjean is dying of a broken heart through his utter despair at losing Cosette forever. He begs God to take him now and the spirit of Fantine appears saying he has led a good life and will be with God.

          Cosette and Marius burst in and Valjean is happy that he will see Cosette again before he dies. Tearfully, Cosette forbids him to die and he says he will try to obey. But it is too late; the spirits of Fantine, Eponine and the students come to take him to Heaven and he joins them as Cosette sobs at his passing.

          (this review has also appeared on ciao.co.uk)

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            28.09.2011 10:23
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            Simply stunning!

            LOCATION
            Waterfall Lane
            Llanrhaeadr Ym Mochnant,
            Powys,
            SY10 0BZ,
            Wales

            Tel: 01691 780392
            Web: www.pistyllrhaeadr.co.uk
            Email: phillfacey@supanet.com

            We visited Pistyll Rhaeadr (tr. the spring of the waterfall), one of the Seven Wonders of Wales, on a cloudy day in September 2011.

            It's easy to find. Head to Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (tr. the church by the waterfall in the commote of the fast-flowing stream), get yourself onto Waterfall Lane and just keep going for several miles. The road ends at the waterfall so you can't go any further. I say road - it's a single track lane with passing places, so don't barrel down there too fast.

            Shortly before you get to the waterfall, there is a free parking area on the left. Park there if you can, otherwise there is a paid car park (£2) at Tan-y-Pistyll (little house under the waterfall) where there also a B&B and a tea room. There is also a rather primitive and cobweb-festooned toilet block for those unavoidable calls of nature.

            From the parking area it is a short walk of a few minutes to the waterfall itself. You cross a stile at a little clearing with a carved wooden statue and make your way down a rocky path to where an iron bridge has been built over the river to stand and admire the waterfall.

            It truly is an astounding sight. 240 feet above, a cascade of white water falls thunderously from a sheer drop. Halfway down, the force of the torrent has carved a hole in the cliff through which the pounding waters surge, tainted a browny-yellow from the peat in the soil. From there, the water gushes impressively down a smaller drop, thence to burble prettily over large moss-covered stones, passing under the bridge before continuing more peacefully away into the distance.

            If you continue over the bridge, there is a marked path, but this is not the way to the top of the waterfall - it will take you in the wrong direction, as we discovered!

            If you do wish to climb to the top of the waterfall, it is doable. You need to head back the way you came, down onto the car park and walk past the toilet block. On the left there is a gate with a post next to it bearing a faded orange arrow. This will take you up the first part of the path. After a few minutes gentle climb you will come to a point where you can either follow the gentle incline up, or take a rather more direct, but steeper route up some rocky steps. This is marked 'waterfall top' (I think - something like that at any rate). We decided to go up the rocky steps. It's a fair old climb if you're not as fit as you should be, but it's not impossible. After about ten minutes it rejoins the gentler sloping pathway and then it's just a gentle wander along the ridge top. After a few more minutes, if you look to your left you'll see another gate and signpost across a short expanse of grassy meadow. You need to head down there and through the gate. A couple more minutes' walk takes you to the top of the waterfall and then it all becomes worth it!

            The view is stunning and it's a very, very long way down. The waterfall is fed by a stream only six or so feet across, bouncing innocently over stones on its way inexorably downwards. There is no fencing, no way of stopping yourself falling, 'elf and safety clearly doesn't apply here! So just don't get too close, especially when it's wet.

            We went the gentler route back down the slate mountains - watch out for the sheep poo!

            We visited the tea room and I opted for a milkshake and the coffee cake which I can highly recommend. Sadly, the St Bernard dog mentioned by a previous reviewer of this mighty natural phenomenon passed away some time ago. I'm sure he is sadly missed.

            You will get muddy, you may get wet, and you might even get sheep poo all over you, but it's a fun excursion.

            My video of Pistyll Rhaeadr:
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPAZ0YF5Hpg

            (also posted on ciao.co.uk)

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            • More +
              22.09.2011 11:56
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              They made our day very memorable and special!

              We got married at the Savoy Hotel in July 2010 and stayed for our wedding night.

              Wedding

              The wedding was very easy to arrange. They had a special offer on for £999, which included the ceremony (although not the registrar's fee), room hire, wedding breakfast for 50 and evening buffet for 100, a master of ceremonies, a glass of Buck's Fizz for all wedding breakfast guests, table linen to match our colour scheme, a glass of champagne for my husband and me after the ceremony and a souvenir engraved cake knife.

              We simply went in and said "What dates have you got left for summer 2010?" They had no Saturdays and only one Friday - so the decision was made. They even checked that the registrar was available on the date we chose, but the onus was on us to actually book the registrar.
              Then the only thing we had to do was choose our menus, and deliver them a table plan about two weeks before the date.

              We ran into a little snag during the ceremony. I had chosen specific music which I had out onto a CD with instructions for every track. This was played by a member of staff on a small CD player which was OK, until it came to playing the backing tracks for the songs my little choir was singing during the signing of the register. They couldn't hear the music while they were singing and the timing was all out - they caught up in the instrumental bits between verses, but it wasn't good enough. The introduction for one of them was totally mangled and they missed their cue entirely. I thought the CD must have got damaged, but when I played it back after the ceremony on my CD player, it played perfectly, so it must have been their machine. Had I known it was only a shoddy machine, I would have brought my own equipment, which was much better.

              The champagne afterwards was a nice surprise - I didn't know we were getting that - and it was very nice champagne also! My husband was able to set up a tab for the two of us for the day so we didn't have to carry money, which was convenient.

              The wedding breakfast was very nice. The only downside was that we had to choose the meal for everyone! The choices that we had made applied to the entire party - except for the vegetarian option naturally - so everyone had to have the same thing. I guess when you offer such a budget package, you can't really afford to faff about with different options for everyone. But it meant we had to choose fairly innocuous dishes that we felt most people would be likely to enjoy.

              We had a tropical fruit platter for starter, which was mostly OK except for the passionfruit, which I hate. We were able to order plain melon for two guests with specific dietary requirements. Main course was pan fried supreme of chicken, with sautéed button onions, bacon lardoons and mushrooms, finished with a café de Paris cream sauce, served with seasonal vegetable and potatoes. This was nice, although I found the potatoes a little hard and left most of them. For dessert we chose chocolate roulade with forest berry compote. This was divine - you can't go wrong with chocolate!!

              Whilst the package we ordered only included one glass of Buck's Fizz per guest, we were able to order drinks on top of that, and we paid £111.30 for a bottle of house red and a bottle of house white per table, and two bottles of sparkling white for the top table. We had eight tables altogether so that was a pretty good deal. Orange for the kids' table was free.

              The evening reception began at 7pm and the buffet was served at 8.30pm. I didn't actually eat a lot of the food as I was still stuffed from the wedding breakfast. Trying to fit three courses inside an already pulled-in-to-the-limit corseted wedding dress is no easy matter! But what I did have was delicious. We were able to choose any seven dishes from their very extensive range of buffet items. We went with: sandwiches with fillings of cheese, beef, turkey, tuna and ham; salmon goujons; spicy spiral fries; sausage rolls; cheese and onion lattice pastry fingers; BBQ chicken drumsticks and pasta salad.

              Overnight stay

              We were put in a suite with a sea-view and a four-poster bed. The cost for the night was £75. I wouldn't say it was luxurious, but it was certainly spacious. The second room of the suite was almost wasted - it had a table and four chairs, which ended up being the repository for our bags, and a single sofa facing a blank wall. It seemed like someone thought, "Oh we have an extra room here, we'd better find some furniture to put in it," rather that actually setting it out as a sitting room with some thought. In the bedroom, there was a small coffee table by the window with two armchairs so you could sit and chat and look at the sea - which was nice. As is common with many large hotels that concentrate on keeping prices down for the customers, and don't get a makeover perhaps as often as they should, the decor was all just a little bit tired. But it was sufficient and the bed was large and comfortable.

              Breakfast was available the next day but, owing to a slight overindulgence of white wine on my part the night before (which I think is understandable), I didn't have much of it, so I can't vouch as to its quality. All I can tell you is that there were cornflakes, and the orange juice was very sour.

              (This review has previously been posted on ciao.co.uk)

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              22.09.2011 11:54

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              A good one

              We stayed at Travelodge Docklands in April when I was running the London Marathon. I chose this hotel because it was one of the cheapest in London and was fairly close to Greenwich, with good tube links. However, although it was the cheapest, it wasn't cheap compared to other Travelodges - probably because it was the Marathon weekend and everywhere hitched up their prices. I booked online and got a rate of £55.70 for the first night and £99.50 for the second night. Breakfast was extra - as is usual with Travelodges.

              It is easy to get to by tube - the nearest station is East India on the DLR. You have to go over the footbridge over the A1261 though - don't make the mistake of going down the steps first!
              It's then a short walk of just a couple of minutes pretty much straight ahead and it's just round a corner. As I had printed out all the booking confirmations - I simply had to show them to the reception staff to get our keys.

              The room was of a reasonable standard for a Travelodge - basic and functional. There was a kettle and a television and the bed was fairly comfortable.
              We had ordered breakfast and it was served downstairs in the large restaurant/bar. There was certainly plenty of room - there were lots of tables and the food was excellent and plentiful. There was also a large flat screen television in the breakfast room.

              I went to register at the Expo on the Saturday and came back before they had finished serving breakfast. I asked if it was OK if I grabbed a coffee and was told "OK, although we're not really supposed to!" by the waitress, with a wink.

              A good one as Travelodges go. I just wish I'd booked a third night - getting back to Euston after just having run 26.2 miles is no fun!

              (This review has previously been posted on ciao.co.uk)

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              22.09.2011 11:50
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              Mostly harmless ;o)

              My niece had her 25th birthday party recently at Buca di Beppo, the De Vere's new Italian restaurant.

              It was very nice at first glance. There is a bar when you go in, and a member of staff there to greet you. Everyone was very pleasant and I was told that none of my party had arrived and I was welcome to wait in the bar. Instead I asked the way to the ladies and was given very clear directions.

              As soon as I got back to the restaurant the young lady instantly informed me that the others had arrived and showed me to the table.

              We ordered drinks and chatted with the chap behind the bar who was very pleasant and nice.

              There was a Rat Pack singer on the night we were there who was excellent. He strolled around the restaurant with his microphone instead of being stuck on a stage, and sang to everyone. He spoke to me during his break and asked me if someone in our party was having a birthday. I told him my niece was and he made a point of coming to the table later and singing Happy Birthday to her, à la Dean Martin.

              The food itself was a bit of a mixed bag. I had the stuffed mushrooms as a starter, which were excellent. My parents had the minestrone soup and they also said it was very good. My main course was the Frescata - penne pasta with spinach and mixed vegetables. This was a big disappointment. The pasta was bland and undercooked and didn't really taste of anything. I over compensated with the salt and pepper which seemed to pour out of the cruet so I put on more than I intended. I barely ate a third of my main course - I really didn't enjoy it. For dessert I had the cheesecake which again was superb!

              Price wise - the fixed menu for three courses was £17.95 and, as my niece's partner had a leisure card, we got 20% off, bringing it down to £14.36. Not bad for a three course meal, even if one of the three was disappointing.

              My niece's partner had bought her a special birthday cake which the staff brought out with candles and a special song which they all stood around and sang for us - a nice touch.

              I probably won't go again - there are other Italian restaurants I frequent which I know are always excellent. But, if you tried one of the other courses, you might find that I was just unlucky.

              (This review has also appeared on ciao.co.uk)

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                22.09.2011 11:47
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                Shabby, but friendly

                Hotel Dorica
                Via Merulana, 4
                00185 Roma, Italy

                We stayed here for a week in August 2010.

                It is very easy to get to from the airport - a few Euros will get you a train ticket from the airport to Rome's main train station, Roma Termini. No matter how tired you are after your flight, don't be tempted to ask one of the local taxis which hover outside the station to take you to this hotel. They wanted to charge us EUR 25 to take us what proved to be a five-minute walk!

                The hotel foyer is a little run-down - it has clearly seen better days. The hotel reception is upstairs on the first floor but there is a lift, or you can take the stairs if you're feeling athletic. We weren't!

                Once upstairs, the staff are very helpful and friendly and most speak good English. The rooms are adequate - not huge, but had everything we needed. We had a window out onto a tiny courtyard with some dying plants and piping for a view. But if you're a smoker it saves going downstairs to smoke.

                One thing English visitors need to be aware of is that this hotel, and I think most Italian hotels, don't provide tea and coffee making facilities. So if you don't want to pay hotel prices for your cuppa, take your own kettle! When we plugged ours into the socket in the room, it blew the fuses in the room! But when we explained to the manager, he said we could plug it into the socket out in the hallway. There is a safe in each room for your currency and valuables. There is also free wifi in the hotel.

                Breakfast was a typical continental breakfast - bread, cheese, preserves, yogurt, pastries and coffee. It was certainly adequate for our needs.

                One thing that really impressed me about this hotel was the service. We bought tickets online for the Vatican using the hotel's free wifi but then were flummoxed as to what to do when it came to printing them out - as we had brought a laptop but obviously no printer. But when I approached the manager with our problem, he instantly offered the use of his own office to print out our tickets, happily leaving me alone in the office to do what I needed to do.

                Another good point about this hotel is its location. It is within walking distance of most of the major attractions: the Colosseum, the Spanish steps, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Circo Massimo, far too many fantastic restaurants to list, and only a short train ride from the Vatican.

                Don't expect luxury. It's a bed to sleep in and a place to have a shower. But the service is great, breakfast is good and location, location, location make this a very useful hotel.

                (This review has also appeared on ciao.co.uk)

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                  22.09.2011 11:40

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                  Home away from home

                  We had a lovely stay at the West Arms Hotel - Friday 16th to Sunday 18th September 2011.

                  If you don't mind driving five miles up single-track winding lanes to get a mobile phone signal (and even then it's not guaranteed) then this will be a perfect country getaway.

                  The staff are friendly, the locals welcoming and the food delicious. In fact, while we were there, the chef was being filmed by ITV for Britain's Best Professional Dish. I can personally recommend the steak and mushroom pie in the lounge bar.

                  There is free wifi in the hotel albeit in the downstairs areas only. The management are currently working on getting it through the entire hotel but at the time of writing, it was only available downstairs. But it is free to residents, and they even let one old chap use it who had only come in for lunch and was staying at the pub over the road.

                  The rooms are very picturesque, and the only small complaint we had was that our bed was a little hard.

                  The television in the room was an old portable, but when you go to the countryside in Wales, you don't exactly go to watch TV, do you? If you did want to stay in your room and watch a small square box, there is a selection of videos (yes, I did say videos - actual VHS videos) behind the reception desk. I don't know what they have as we didn't need them.

                  Would happily go back again and again.

                  (This review has also been posted on ciao.co.uk)

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