Thursday December 28, 2017
The temperature is now consistently below zero, with snow and slush everywhere on the streets. It's strange looking at it from within my very warm apartment, because it can be sunny yet -15C outside, and quite a shock when I leave the building.
Things got pretty busy for me as the year wrapped up. I attended my first Ubisoft Christmas Party at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre, where a band called the Cybertronic Spree entertained us by dressing as Transformers and playing the Pokemon Theme Song. There were circus performers and lots of food and alcohol, and such a great atmosphere to celebrate my first four months with the company.
Ubisoft gave us the Friday before Christmas off. I took the opportunity to run a few errands in the morning - even getting in some time to do some Pokemon Go raiding. I tagged along with Victor in the afternoon, and we hit a few nests around the Junction/High Park area, getting lots of Pokemon in the process. It's horrible to play in such cold temperatures, but not too bad if you have a car to go around. In the afternoon, I headed into town to check out the Christmas Market down in the Distillery District, where it was totally packed with locals and tourists alike. I got some chocolate from the famous chocolatier, SOMA, and then went to Chinatown for hot pot and some games afterwards.
On Saturday, my badminton crew had dinner and karaoke at a restaurant out in Markham. The clientele is mostly Chinese, and as a result, so was the song selection. I let it slip the only Mandarin song I knew was Tong Hua, so I had to sing it. The native speakers seemed quite impressed with my pronunciation and singing ability, despite my inability to speak Mandarin, so I'll call that a win for me.
There were two church services on Christmas Eve, both of which I played piano for. It was quite a challenge, trying to make sure everything was in order musically, but I think the worship team and choir came together quite nicely. I was surprised that it all fell into place and nothing majorly disastrous happened, because I only had a few hours of sleep the night before - I got home late from karaoke, around 1am, and I had troubles sleeping because I was so stressed about waking up early in the morning. A family took me for lunch to Swiss Chalet after the morning service, then dropped me home for a quick nap before I came back for the evening service. Afterwards, I went to a workmate's house for an amazing Christmas Eve dinner with turkey, salads, and a cold pasta dish marinated with a Japanese sweet-and-sour plum vinaigrette.
As I walked home, the snow was falling. It was serene and quiet, everything I had imagined a white winter Christmas to be. It was pretty awesome to see the Christmas lights on peoples' homes illuminate the fresh snow with all sorts of colours, and I can finally appreciate all the winter imagery that's so commonly associated with Christmas.
Another church family had invited me out to their house in Etobicoke for Christmas lunch, so that's where I spent most of my day. I managed to call my parents in Malaysia, and my sister in New Zealand as well, and got to hear from my excited nephews about what presents they got and what they got up to back home. I really do miss them, and I'm looking forward to going back to New Zealand sometime next year to see them, and all my other friends too.
Tuesday November 21, 2017
I've been here for almost four months now, getting back into routine and doing all those regular mundane things that I never really had the inspiration to write about. I'm pretty much settled in, I've recovered from an injury I sustained while playing badminton, and I've started going back to the gym. The gym in my condo is basic, but as I'm still trying to regain all the strength I've lost in the past ten months, it's good enough. Badminton is now a regular thing too! Also, I've found a church to go to, and I've already started playing piano for Sunday services.
Work is going well. We hit a milestone last week, so there was a mad rush to get a bunch of things in to the build before it was sent off to Paris for review. I'm becoming more familiar with things and I'm gaining confidence as I traverse the codebase. It's still massive, and I'll probably never fully understand its structure, but at least I'm making progress.
Winter is rolling in. It's getting colder and it even snowed last week, which was great for about five minutes, and then my face started hurting. I know, layers, etc. I'll be fine. My walk to work is only five minutes. Hopefully it doesn't get cold enough that I'll develop frostbite in the time it takes me to get from my condo to the office.
I do think about home a lot and the life I had in Wellington. I really miss Little Penang. It's sometimes lonely here, and when I'm by myself, I think a lot. It fluctuates between self-doubt and disbelief - it still amazes me that I actually migrated halfway around the world to a foreign country to live and work. I wonder how people back home are doing, and I wonder about my other friends who left New Zealand and how they're coping. I honestly thought I'd be doing better than this, but some of it is impatience too - I want things to be "the way they were", and I often forget it took me nine years to build up that lifestyle in Wellington, yet I've only been here for four months. I've always been - and probably always will be - an introvert. I find it hard to talk to people I don't know, or socialise at parties or bars or clubs. I find it hard to meet new people and strike up a random conversation without any context.
I guess it's a good time to learn, huh?
Friday September 8, 2017
It's been just over a month since I arrived in Canada. The weather is starting to cool - quite dramatically, I might add - and it's a sure sign that winter is on its way. I've moved into my new apartment and assembled all my Ikea furniture with the help of some awesome friends. There's been some hiccups with the bank and Internet and mobile phone bills and all that, but I think most of it has resolved itself, and for the first time in 7 months, I'm not living out of a suitcase. I'm back to cooking as well, and it feels really good.
Work is challenging but I'm soldiering on. It's a difficult engine to get used to, mostly at the moment because of its size. It's hard to know who to ask for help, especially during busy times. I've got a regular Friday lunch crew, and a Pokemon Go crew too, so things are looking up.
I've spent the last wee while making an interactive map of my travels using Google's My Maps feature. It's pretty amazing, and you can see how much of Europe I covered; and despite all of that, I still missed out on places like Croatia, Greece and Turkey.
I did some shopping last weekend with Chi, wandering around Chinatown and then deciding to go to the big Asian supermarket to the east of town. We went to the Canadian National Exhibition the next day, and went on as many rides as we could. I was not particularly happy about one of them, and ended up feeling quite miserable after being suspended upside down multiple times. This weekend, there's supposed to be yum cha!
Saturday August 5, 2017
I've adulted pretty hard this week. Ubisoft's been really great with helping me relocate; all the people they've put me in touch with have been amazingly kind and helpful in getting me sorted. I got my social insurance number, a bank account with debit card and a mobile phone SIM card already; I viewed some properties and submitted an application to rent.
Today I got an email from the real estate agent saying my application had been successful and that to secure the property, I needed to make a deposit with a certified cheque within the next 24 hours.
Everything else has been so smooth and easy, but banking seems horribly backwards if you're still operating with paper cheques. I begrudgingly hot-tailed it to the bank 15 minutes before closing time to pick up a chequebook, then walked to the real estate agent's office in the pouring rain to write out the cheque and hand it to them.
It then occurred to me I had no idea how to write a cheque. Why would I? I've never needed to use one. The receptionist didn't know either; she went to find someone who did. Anyway, after sorting all that out, I handed over the cheque and went to grab some food, again, in the pouring rain.
On the way, I got an email from the real estate agent saying the cheque wasn't certified, which is where the bank certifies it to say I have sufficient funds in my account. Given that the bank is closed now and that it isn't open over the weekend, I'm not really sure how to progress from here.
Why is this so unnecessarily complicated. Adulting is hard. I miss New Zealand's wonderful cashless society.
Tuesday August 1, 2017
This is it. The final few minutes in London.
I managed to catch up with Jono and Charlotte before I left, which was good, considering Charlotte's based in Oxford. We had a barbeque in the rain out at Jono's flat, which I'm told is a very British thing to do. I admire the British resilience when it comes to weather, but I suppose they do have to make the most of summer while it lasts.
On Sunday, I went for a bike ride with Aaron around Teddington and up to Ham House, where we stopped at the cafe for tea and scones with clotted cream and jam. Clotted cream is exactly that - cream so thick that it will clot your arteries. I found it quite sweet and perhaps a bit sickening.
My final dinner was spent with Theo in Hammersmith at a random Italian restaurant. We walked down to the Thames and followed it back to Chiswick where we parted ways.
It's strange. I'm excited and nervous, moreso that when I left New Zealand. I'm actually going for work now, as opposed to going for a holiday. It's getting real. I'll have to find a place to rent, sort out utilities, get a SIM card, pay tax - all those adult things. I'm going to work for an amazing company at what is only my second job. It's a big life-changing moment for me but I'm looking forward to it.
Saturday July 29, 2017
I arrived back in London on Monday and took the train from Stansted Airport to Liverpool Station. I did something I hadn't done in a while - I went out and played Pokemon Go. Legendary raids have been released, meaning Lugia and Articuno can be found in boss raids in gyms all around the city. There was one near Liverpool Station, so I wandered down to see if anyone would show up. Sure enough, even though it was Monday, a small group had gathered to fight the Articuno, but I was unsuccessful in catching it. There were a couple close by, so I followed them around, dragging my luggage with me like an idiot, but neither raid was successful. The District line was in chaos due to maintenance and closures leftover from the weekend, but I managed to make it home for a haircut and quick shower before heading back out to Chelsea, where I met Alice for an incredible dining experience at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Full writeup in my food blog!
I was more prepared on Tuesday. I joined the PoGo London Discord chat and met with some fellow players near Notting Hill. I followed them around for a good 6 hours during the day, going from the west of Hyde Park and finishing near Marylebone Station. Of the ten or so raids we did, I managed to catch one Articuno and one Lugia exactly, so it was at least a fruitful day. I decided to call it a day and met Theo for dinner at Victoria Station. Afterwards, we saw Wicked the musical at the Apollo Theatre. I really enjoyed it! It was a slow start but quickly got better; Defying Gravity sent chills down my spine. The actors were all incredibly talented - magnificent voices - and the costumes and set design was equally as amazing. I'm so glad I got to see a West End show before I left London.
I met Mash for lunch out in Aldgate East, and then tried to find a quiet place so I could do some work on my laptop. I wandered over to the Barbican Centre in the hopes I could find a spot to sit down, but it turns out Kings College London were having their graduation celebrations there. I snuck in to the basement and swiped a glass of juice and some canapés before leaving. It was getting late, so I took the gross unairconditioned Central line over to Queensway and got some delicious char siu and roast duck rice from Four Seasons.
I met with Daniela and Sean for dinner at Putney Bridge yesterday and Jono for lunch at Strutton Ground Market; the rest of the week will just be catching up with people. It's all happened so fast, but I will be leaving London to work in Toronto, Canada with the team at Ubisoft Toronto. My work permit was approved last Friday and my flights were booked today, so it's all official now.
It's strange how curve balls can completely derail your plans; last year I had applied to a dozen or so companies all around the UK and Canada in the hopes someone would employ me and sponsor a visa for me. Both Ubisoft Toronto and Montreal were interested in me, but had a recruitment freeze on, so couldn't complete the hire. That was when I decided I would try for the UK youth migrant visa, but that meant I needed to get to the UK before I turned 31. Thus, I booked all my flights, sorted my life out and secured my visa for departure in January, when literally a week before I left, Ubisoft Toronto called me up to say they wanted to hire me.
Of course, I took the job. It meant that I'd have to wait 6 months for the work permit to be approved by the Canadian government, but it meant that I was free to travel around Europe while waiting. It's been an incredible time, and I couldn't have asked for a better situation. I've seen so much of Europe, but there is still so much more. I've met cool people and caught up with long lost friends as well. It will be hard to go back to working after such a long time, but I'm honestly so thankful that the job materialised when it did; it means that I don't have to sort out a bank account and social security number for the UK, I don't have to find a flat or contend with the ludicrous bureaucracy here. Ubisoft's relocation team have really taken care of me, and it will make my move quite smooth.
Monday July 24, 2017
In true Scottish hospitality, I was greeted at Edinburgh Airport with cold and rain. I didn't have long in Edinburgh, so regardless of whether it was raining, sunny, windy or tornado, I had to get out and see the city. I had a very quick run through of Edinburgh Castle, perhaps the city's most famous attraction; I was thankful for the many indoor exhibits, even if it was super busy that day. I enjoyed some whisky tasting on the castle grounds, saw the Scottish Crown Jewels, walked through the War Memorial and some of the military prisons, and visited the various batteries for some great views of the rain clouds covering the city.
The next day, I took a full day tour of the Scottish highlands; from Edinburgh to Callander, Glencoe, Fort Augustus and Blair Atholl. Our tour bus driver was an amazingly interesting person - he came dressed in his kilt, and sang to us on the bus. He'd been a soldier and had done many mountain treks and kayaking trips across the country, and I couldn't help but admire all his knowledge and talents.
The Scottish countryside reminds me very much of New Zealand. The lowlands resemble the farms around the Waikato, flat and expansive, each growing their own type of crops. As you head towards the highlands, it becomes more like the South Island, with its beautiful mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls. The forces that shaped Scotland are of course very similar to those that shaped New Zealand, and as long as we continue to have good conservation laws, we can enjoy this natural beauty of many years to come. At the start of the day, the clouds were low and misty, but towards lunch, a few spots of blue began to peek through the grey.
We reached Fort Augustus by Loch Ness just after 1pm, and I got some delicious fried fish, onion rings and the Scottish national soda Irn Bru from a nearby takeaway before hot-tailing it to the cruise boat. The boat floated on the water for a good hour or so, and we learned about the mysteries of the lake, as well as the sonar system they use to map the topography. The area around Loch Ness is full of peat, and as the rains fall and water runs into the lake, it takes with it this dark sediment and deposits it into the lake, making it dark coloured. Visibility is almost nil in the water; water hovers around 4C or 5C throughout the year. All these factors make it difficult to look for any large animals that may be lurking in the water.
It was late by the time we got back to Edinburgh, and after dinner, I wandered around the Old Town, admiring the sunset hitting the castle and various buildings. I wish I could have stayed longer; there's more of Edinburgh to see, and today, as I sit at Edinburgh Airport, it's brilliantly sunny and finally a proper summer here (go figure). Edinburgh Fringe would have been really fun to attend next month, especially if it's bigger and better than Wellington's Fringe Festival. Next time!
Saturday July 22, 2017
In classic Irish style, I arrived from sunny Norway into cold, wet and windy Dublin. It wasn't too bad though, it would have still been around 15C. I met John at his apartment and we went for dinner at a local pub.
I was up early the next day to get on a bus tour to Giant's Causeway, all the way up north in Northern Ireland. The weather turned out to be magnificent, with blue skies and sun all around. The area is quite amazing by itself, there's some beautiful bays overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean towards Scotland. There weren't too many people as well, which meant I could admire the beauty of the area at my own pace and leisure. The stones weren't as large as I was expecting, but still a decent size - perhaps half a metre in diameter. Curiously enough, they were almost all hexagonal, probably as a result of the peculiar volcanic activity that created the area.
We had lunch nearby at a place called the Barn, which did a pretty mean Steak and Guinness Pie, then we continued on to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Originally used by fishermen to bridge a 20m long and 23m tall gap between the mainland and an island where they would place their nets to catch salmon, the bridge is now a national heritage site with strict rules regulating how many people can cross the bridge at any one time. From the island, you can easily see Rathlin Island and Scotland.
The rest of the tour took us to the Dark Hedges, a filming location from Game of Thrones, where a narrow road is flanked by a long row of trees. It didn't really have much significance to me since I've never watched Game of Thrones. It had also started raining, but as it was our last stop for the day, it wasn't too much of an issue. By the time we got back to Dublin, it was fine.
Yesterday I spent walking around the city, visiting Trinity College, Dublin Castle and the Guinness Storehouse. John's girlfriend Monica took me around the castle area, showing me all these cool little shops and food areas; I really enjoyed the vibe around the area. It's as lively and jovial as many other European cities I've been too, just not on the same scale. The Guinness Storehouse was pretty interesting, and I was given a free pint to "enjoy", which I managed about 1/5th of before ditching it and bee-lining out of the rooftop terrace. I met Amnon and John for dinner at Token, a bar with a dozen video game arcades and pinball machines inside. We played Tetris, Space Invaders, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Metal Slug and a couple of the pinball machines. I really wanted to play the Simpsons Game, but it was always busy so never got the chance.
It's my final weekend of travelling for a while, which I will spend Scotland. It's slowly dawning on me that the real world approaches - very fast! - and that I'll have to become an adult again.
Thursday July 20, 2017
Stockholm to Bergen was extremely early in the morning, but since we're so far north, the sun had already risen when I left Rafael's apartment at 4am. By the time I got to Bergen, it was close to 9am, and I managed to contact my accommodation who said my room was ready to check in to. Excellent!
It was pretty wet that day. I had lunch at the seafood market - it had such an appetising smell that I couldn't resist. I also made it up the funicular to Fløien, with a magnificent view across the city. The rain was in and out during the day, but that didn't deter me too much - it pretty much just felt like home in Wellington. I walked around the various tracks and went up to the Skomakerdiket Lake, then took the funicular back down. I was cold and tired, so decided to take a nap back in my room.
I had an action packed day the next day. I took the train from Bergen to Voss, an hour train ride through some of the most scenic parts of Norway's fjords and lakes. The weather was still slightly inclement, but the low clouds hanging under the hills made it so majestic. The rain had also made the waterfalls that little more spectacular, but more importantly, the rivers were much more fun for white water rafting!
After suiting up and getting our safety briefing, we went to a nearby spot to practice our moves, as well as a forced swim through the rapids to make sure we knew what to do if we capsized. I'll tell you now, the water was incredibly cold; it would have definitely been unbearable if we didn't have wetsuits. Our bus driver (a guy from Turangi in New Zealand!) took us further downstream to begin our actual rafting. What a rough river it was, but so much fun. There were tons of exciting and thrilling moments, much more than the time I went rafting down the Wairoa River. Some of the drops were incredibly high too, but we all survived without capsizing. We had one man overboard from our boat, and we also plucked a swimmer from another boat in a dramatic rescue. I had so much fun on this one.
After a nice warm lunch, I was dropped off at the Voss Wind Tunnel, an indoor skydiving building. It's quite different to outdoor skydiving, as you can imagine, since you're not strapped to anyone. You control your own movements (to an extent) and I found it quite difficult to figure out what was going on, and ended up flying like a potato most of the time. The sensation was quite thrilling though, and I still had fun, but deep down inside I was disappointed that I couldn't maintain my flight unassisted.
The sun is out today, and it's actually really nice seeing Bergen in two completely different lights. I also realised that Bergen was the inspiration for Arendelle in Disney's Frozen! I wandered down to the aquarium and chilled out in the park for a bit, but there's not much else to see in Bergen. I really do want to come back one day though, Bergen is the closest airport to the famous Trolltunga, and there's tons of other awesome activities to do around here, and also around Norway - I didn't even get to go to Oslo! I also don't even know if I'll come back during summer or winter, as the country is completely different. Despite it being horribly expensive, I still had a good time.
Monday July 17, 2017
After arriving in Stockholm, I met up with Rafael and Erika, who took me around the sights of the local neighbourhood. We went up to a roof bar that overlooks the island that they're staying on, and on a cloudless day with the sun far from setting at 8pm, the view of Stockholm was stunning. There were even a few hot air balloons floating around - that would have been a great idea if I was made of money. We continued walking around and ended up at Mariatorget, a park on a cliff with a view of the north side of the island that looks towards the city hall and city centre. The warm hues of the sunset bathed the city in such an artistic light, it was a beautiful sight to see.
Yesterday, I ventured out by myself into the city's main sights, visiting Gamla Stan and the Royal Palace, the Modern Museum, Nordic Museum and Vasa Museum. I found a kayak rental, so hired a kayak for an hour and paddled around the strait between the museum island, near the Royal Djurgarden. When I started, the sky was completely blue and it was pretty hot out, but as I neared the end of the hour, the clouds and wind had come in.
After lunch (which was the traditional Swedish meatballs!), the weather had started to turn cold, so I took a tour of the Stockholm Subway. Several stations have some very interesting art installations, and since they're inside the subway itself, a single ticket is sufficient to view them all since you never need to exit the subway. My tour took me around:
- Kungstradgarden: Full of red and green bands, with some impressive Scandinavian statues
- T Centralen: Blue and white leaf patterns
- Radhuset: Archaic cavern with a large stone column
- Solna Centrum: A huge red and green mural depicting the destruction of the environment and nature
- Thorildsplan: Pixel art, including icons from Pacman, Space Invaders and Mario
- Universitetet: Scientific murals and artistic wordsearches
- Tekniska Hogskolan: Large geometric shapes with a nature theme
- Stadion: Art for the 1912 Olympic games, with a rainbow on the bumps and crevasses in the bedrock of the station
As I exited the subway, it was indeed raining, so I went back to Rafael's to chill out for a bit. I managed to see all I wanted to see, except IKEA, and I didn't want to stay out too late since I had an early start this morning. Next stop: Norway!
Sunday July 16, 2017
I took the bus from Copenhagen to Malmo very early on Friday morning. I tried my hardest to stay awake for the famous Oresund Bridge that emerges from underground on Peberholm Island, then stretches over the Oresund Strait over to Sweden, but I was just too tired. I met Glen at Malmo Centralstation, then followed him to Ubisoft Massive, where I also caught up with Ricardo.
I walked around central Malmo in the morning. It was a little chilly, but certainly nothing like what New Zealand is currently experiencing. I even managed to get a slice of the famous Swedish Prinsesstårta, a layered sponge cake with a marzipan icing finish. I met Glen for lunch with some of his Ubisoft colleagues, and then I borrowed Ricardo's bike for the afternoon.
It was actually the perfect weather for biking around, since I warmed up quite quickly as I explored the city. I followed the canal from Ubisoft Massive up to the Centralstation, then continued further north to the Turning Torso, perhaps Malmo's most famous landmark. It's a residential apartment block that looks like it's been twisted 90 degrees, and stands at 180m, Scandanavia's tallest structure. The area it overlooks is a really nice park that stretches down the coast, so I was happy to bike up and down that for a few hours. I accidentally biked into the nudist area too, and was quick to u-turn my two wheels out of there.
I got back into the centre of town and rode around Malmo Castle when it started to rain. I took a breather inside the cafe and tried to wait out the rain; it didn't stop and I was getting a bit cold, so I biked back to Glen's apartment and chilled out for a bit there. We went for dinner with Ricardo to Lilla Torg, or "Little Square" in Swedish, a vibrant and happening quarter of town with tons of restaurants and people out enjoying the summer evening.
I took it easy this morning, but met Ricardo and his wife back in town for a final coffee with Glen. We also hired a paddle boat and spent 30 minutes cruising up and down the canal before I had to hot tail it to the Centralstation to catch my train to Stockholm. It was such a beautiful day in Malmo, and the perfect temperature too. In many respects, it's much like Wellington - great cafe and food culture, very multicultural, small enough to walk everywhere, the only real difference is that it's flat, and great to bike around!
Friday July 14, 2017
We were up extremely early on Wednesday morning to get to Berlin Tegel Airport for a flight to Brussels and then to Billund, Denmark. Why Billund? Really only one reason - Legoland!
I remember trying to book transport to get to Billund. Theo and I mulled over all our options and needed to get our timing perfect. We were mildly worried about our transport from Billund to Copenhagen - there didn't seem to be many prepaid options available, and it seemed like any option we took would be a 3 or 4 hour trip. We decided to do as much as we could and leave the rest to fate. We hoped that it was worth the cost and hassle of getting up at 4am.
I remember my first reaction upon entering Legoland's Mini Land - my jaw dropped and my eyes widened. I couldn't believe how amazing all the models were. We passed by a very familiar model castle - Neuschwanstein Castle - which we had visited mere days ago; there were some magnificent Star Wars moment captured in Lego, as well as a massive X Wing, a fully working canal, Amsterdam, various Danish landmarks and towns, Mount Rushmore, Cape Canaveral and tons more.
We went on some rides as well. By far the best one was the Polar Express, a short but fast coaster, with a 5m free fall drop! We went twice, and on the second time, we posed for the camera. I love the picture so much; I'm doing the Asian victory pose and Theo is fast asleep. It's so good. We also went on the Ninjago Ride, the Temple, the Dragon and the Haunted House. We wanted to go on the X-treme Racers but Theo was too tall for that.
I can say with certainty that Legoland met expectation and it was definitely worth it. I enjoyed myself immensely, and we even made it to Copenhagen safely.
We took it easy today, exploring the big sights of Copenhagen. Of course, we visited the Little Mermaid statue, with hundreds of other tourists clambering about on the rocks trying to get the perfect Instagram photo. We also went to Rosenburg Castle, the Kastellet, St Alban's Church, Frederik's Church with the massive dome that we ascended, and Nyhavn. After lunch, I said my goodbyes to Theo - he's back to London while I continue on to Sweden tomorrow.
It's been so nice having a companion on my travels, and with Theo's departure, it only means that my time of travelling is coming to a swift end. I can't believe it! It's been such an amazing five months.
Friday July 14, 2017
The overnight train from Munich to Berlin was a disaster and I regret it so much. The reservation system on German trains is so weird, and the seats we initially chose said they were available but obviously not when someone came and claimed it for himself. We had to move a carriage or two down, where a bunch of eight or so guys had settled in with a lot of beer and even a funnel. We shifted again, right down to the end where the bike carriage was and that was much better, until a bunch of idiots got on and talked the entire night. It made me so angry and sleep deprived. How can these people be so inconsiderate? The bus ride from Zurich to Prague was far more tolerable.
It was rather wet when we arrived in Berlin, and the accommodation wouldn't let us check in until 2.30pm. We managed to leave our bags inside and went out to explore the city. We went to Potsdamer Platz and the Sony Centre, which was really nice because it was all indoors. We found a dessert place and I had a massive serving of dark chocolate and vanilla ice cream with cherries, very much like a Black Forest cake, but it was too much and I didn't finish it.
I was exhausted from the lack of sleep and after checking in, I had a solid nap. We resumed our wanderings of Berlin, going to Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmenmarkt, Museum Island and up to the New Synagogue where we had dinner.
Yesterday, we visited the Jewish Memorial, Brandenburger Tor, the Berlin Wall Memorial, Alexanderplatz, the Computer Game Museum and the dome at the main parliament building. We had a few hiccups along the way with some mistaken place names and failings in checking the opening hours, but we did a lot in the day. I had been desperately trying to find a place that sells Schwartzwalderkirschetorte - Black Forest cake - but I had had no luck, and I was getting desperate. Theo called upon Twitter to see if someone knew and we went out to KaDeWe, a massive department store with a gourmet food hall. I didn't quite get my cake, but I got a slice, and that was good enough.
Overall, Berlin was okay. A few things didn't quite go our way but the city does have some really nice sights and I could see myself revisiting someday. We have been a bit inundated with war-related things and weren't too keen on seeing more, but it is so integral to Berlin's history.
Monday July 10, 2017
It was slightly awkward checking into our accommodation in Munich; the rooms were above an Indian restaurant and had no visible reception or office, but instead it turns out the restaurant itself had the keys to our room. It wasn't quite ready for us, but that was fine, we dumped our bags and wandering around the area. We headed east towards the river and Maximilianeum, and dumped our laundry at a serviced laundromat, then followed the river south towards the Deutsches Museum. The river walk is really nice and green, and with the sun out, there were plenty of sunbathers on the rocky “beaches” by the river. We cut across to the city centre and walked around the Viktualienmarkt and Marienplatz, and went up St Peter's church for some great views of the central square. We ended up by Odeonsplatz and the Hofgarden, before heading back to pick up our laundry and have a quiet evening.
The next day, we were off to the middle of nowhere, southern Germany. We took a train to Immenstadt and then a bus to Alpsee Bergwelt, the home of 3km "rodelbahn" - an alpine coaster that snakes down the side of a mountain. It's self-controlled so you dictate the speed you're going, to a max of 40km/h, but it's incredibly fun and exhilarating. Having the track so long means it's actually a decent length of time too!
On Saturday, we covered more of Munich, visiting the massive Bavaria Statue, heading up to Konigsplatz and the museums where there was actually a music concert, then east across town to the Munich Residenz, another famous palace in Europe. We even made it to the Stadtmuseum, which had an exhibition about Munich's history. It had started to pour by the time we finished, so we headed for dinner nearby - I got the Bavarian specialty, roast pork knuckle!
Our last day in Munich was actually spent far away from Munich, at Neuschwanstein Castle, famous for being the inspiration behind Walt Disney's logo and castle at Disneyland. Our tour guide was a quick talking Italian with a semi-American accent, and a rather abrasive personality, but he told a good story about the castle's history and the circumstances of King Ludwig II and Robert Wagner. Theo and I opted to walk around the lake instead of going into the castle; it's insanely busy inside and you don't really have the chance to walk through at your own pace; you have to follow the pace of everyone else, and that was too reminiscent of my horrible experience at the Vatican museum. The German countryside is pretty, even on a cloudy day. By the time the tour group was ready to depart, it had started storming.
After a long train ride back to Munich, we mulled around the central train station before catching our overnight train to Berlin.
Thursday July 6, 2017
Upon arriving in Salzburg, we were greeted with a beautiful panorama of green mountains, and I could not help but play the Sound of Music soundtrack in my head - apt, because Salzburg is famous for having many of the movie's filming locations.
After checking in, we wandered down the river towards the centre of town, enjoying the magnificent view from the Museum der Moderne. We went to take the lift down to ground level but were shocked when we saw we had to pay a fee! We took the lift anyway and exited through the entrance while the ticket officer was talking to someone; we never looked back.
It's no wonder that the hills in Salzburg are alive with the sound of music, because it is also birthplace to none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His image can be seen around the city, oddly enough, mostly on chocolate boxes. We walked by the house where he was born, as well as a statue in his honour, before heading to the Salzburg Castle, a stately structure overlooking the whole city. It was interesting to see how the castle had changed over the past thousand years, with extra walls, houses and fortifications being added in response to various threats from warring parties.
We had walked a lot that day, so we headed home for a nap and went out for dinner later. We took a stroll down the river front afterwards, as the evening sun dipped behind the horizon.
Yesterday, we took a train out to Werfen, about an hour south of Salzburg. Werfen also has a magnificent castle with some great views, but we were here for the largest ice caves in the world, the Eisreisenwelt. Nestled in the mountains some 1.6km above sea level, the caves are an almost constant 0C, and span 42km of which only 1km is open to the public. The shuttle to the ticket office arrived immediately as we got off the train, and after a 20m walk, a very quick gondola ride and another 20m walk, we were on top of Werfen and at the entrance to the cave.
Theo regretted forgetting his jumper very quickly. I had brought thermals along, as well as my hoodie, despite the weather outside being 26C. I lent him my hoodie while I put my thermals on, hoping it would be enough to keep the both of us warm. Armed with a kerosene lamp, we entered the caves with the tour guide.
The interior is massive and mostly made of limestone with various pools and columns of ice. There's no light in the caves, natural or electric, which explains the use of the kerosene lamps to navigate. We weren't allowed to take photos but the few of us at the back did so anyway; I don't think the photography impacts the integrity of the caves at all. The ice is a beautiful azure colour, much like what you see in glaciers, and large walls of it exhibit the characteristic banding which gives clues on how old it is. Theo and I were pretty cold by the end of it, but we survived, and it was quite an amazing experience.
We're crossing borders into Germany today, heading north from Salzburg to Munich!
Tuesday July 4, 2017
We returned to Vienna by bus from Budapest, arriving just after noon. I met up with Sandra, whom I hadn't seen in five or so years, and she and her partner took me to Laxenburg, a tiny little township just south of the city. We walked around the castle grounds and had lunch at the cafe, and ice cream as well, then we drove all the way to the northern side of Vienna for some magnificent views of the city. It was nice to see more of the countryside and get away from the tourists.
Yesterday, Theo and I visited the Schonbrunn Palace, one of Vienna's most famous landmarks. We spent a good few hours walking around the gardens and lavish rooms. Though I've seen many palaces in my time here, there were still some things I found interesting, like the lacquer decorations and the porcelain room painted to look like porcelain.
We had some lunch and I got my sachertorte from the original sachertorte cafe, then we took the subway out to Prater Park, an old amusement park where you pay per ride instead of a flat entrance fee. We thought we'd give a few of them a go, and went on a couple of rollercoasters and a thrill house. I highly recommend the Indoor Rollercoaster - it's quite fun!
We returned to the centre of town and climbed to the top of the south tower of St Stephen's Cathedral, which was actually pretty disappointing, then visited Karlskirche and Belvedere Park on our way home. We're still suffering from a bit of a cold, so we had a rest and called it a night after dinner.
Sunday July 2, 2017
We arrived in Budapest quite late on Friday, so really all we did was have dinner at a nearby night market and drinks at one of the city's famous ruin bars. Theo and I were feeling a bit under the weather, I think we've come down with a cold, so we stayed for a drink and headed back to the hostel.
Yesterday, we took a hop on/hop off bus around the city's major sights, like Hero Square, the Citadella and the Palace. It's definitely not as scenic as the other places we've been to on this tour but there were still some gorgeous buildings and bridges down by the river. We took lots of photos to commemorate our last day as a Busabout group together, and went our separate ways after lunch.
The Red Bull Air Race was on, and that was pretty special to watch. These small stunt planes would roar through the sky, flying down low to the Danube River and sometimes passing under the bridge, then dodging obstacles placed on the water before screaming back up into the sky and looping victoriously over the city as the crowd looked on. We got some great views of the show from the palace, and spent the afternoon admiring the city from our vantage point.
Theo and I opted to do a boat cruise down the Danube instead of going to a spa party (a "sparty") with the rest of the group. We had a buffet dinner on the boat and floated up and down the river as the sun dipped over the horizon and the lights of the city began to flicker on. We were still suffering from our colds so we headed back to the hostel, only to find the whole group in our room preloading for the sparty! Secretly I was happy to see everyone one last time, but you could see on my face that I was too tired to be sociable. They did ask for one last rendition of Let it Go, and I was happy to oblige, though that is going to be the final memory the group has of me.
This morning, Theo and I are at the bus terminal, heading back to Vienna for a few nights. It's been such a good week, meeting all these people and hanging out with them. Another fun Busabout tour!
Saturday July 1, 2017
Vienna has been awesome (every city I've been to is awesome!) We took a walking tour around town to all the major sights of the city, visiting some grand palaces and buildings along the way, as well as some great places to grab some of the city's best cuisine. We ended the day having some classic Austrian schnitzel.
We had an early start the next day to get out to the Wachau Valley, which sits on the Danube River some 70km from Vienna. We rode 24km over the day, biking to various wineries around the area and enjoying the beautiful Austrian countryside. We visited the ruins of a castle where King Richard III of England was held captive, and admired the views of the river and Valley from our vantage point. It was a warm but windy day, but so good to get out and exercise, and I didn't get too drunk and crash either.
We came back to Vienna and had a massive seafood dinner at the Naschtmarkt near our hostel. Theo and I needed to do our laundry so we called it off for the rest of the night while the others continued on to a local bar for a few drinks.
We had some free time this morning, which we spent having some of the famous Viennese coffee and a sachertorte, a chocolate cake with a layer of apricot marmalade. Theo and I also picked up a bunch of antipasti from the Naschtmarkt to takeaway for later, for a very reasonable price.
We're back here by ourselves in a few days, so we weren't too concerned with missing out on things this round. There's a couple of interesting buildings I'd like to revisit and I've got a friend to catch up with as well. Farewell for now Vienna!
Wednesday June 28, 2017
We're on the move again, leaving the beautiful city of Krakow and heading towards Austria. Again, I wouldn't have imagined what an amazing city Krakow is; the city centre is bustling with life and great atmosphere, there's some stunning buildings around and the riverside is super scenic.
We arrived in the late afternoon on Sunday and after dinner, we hit the town, Polish style, with the Krakow Pub Krawl. Our first bar was underground and we stocked up heavily on vodka oranges and beers, but we were too greedy and ended up having to leave some behind because we were off to the second bar.
And oh my goodness, the second bar had karaoke. I was so down. I was so excited. I chugged three tequila shots and like a boss, I Let it Go to a cheering crowd who weren't expecting that from me. It was such a buzz, everyone was belting it out with me at the end, and whether you like Frozen or not, it's such a fun song to sing. We managed to sing Lose Yourself and I Just Had Sex before we were moved to the next bar. People started dropping out here, it was past midnight. I went home around 1am, a very respectable time for an unexpectedly great night.
The next day, we had a bike tour of Krakow, with only two of our eleven-strong group failing to make it due to bad decisions from the night before. The bike tour took us to the old city wall, mostly demolished, but the moat that had protected the city has been turned into a garden, and you can see the green band of the old moat if you look at a Google map of Krakow. We continued to the university, where Nicolaus Copernicus had been a student, then to the riverside where we learned about the legend of the Krakow dragon. Further down, we visited the Jewish quarter and Schindler's factory, which helped saved thousands of Jewish lives in the Second World War.
We were all pretty tired after the bike tour so we just chilled out in the afternoon and went for dinner at a Jewish restaurant with amazing hummus. We visited a One Euro bar to cap off the night - the next day was going to be intense.
Nothing really prepares you for the horrors of Auschwitz. You've heard what happened and the number of deaths and the statistics but to see the actual buildings where these atrocities were committed, to see their belongings, the hair extracted from the bodies to make carpets and textiles, the gas chambers where Zyklon B was poured in, the railroad where the prisoners were brought in, the gates where they were sorted, the deception that the Nazis used - it's all so emotional, so raw, so disgusting. I finally understand just how bad the Holocaust is and why we must never forget these stories; we must never allow this to happen again.
One of the most poignant moments during this trip was when a mate of mine on the tour placed a piece of pounamu on one of the Jewish memorials at Auschwitz II. He had planned this since leaving his hometown in New Zealand, some 17,600km away, and unbeknownst to him, it is a Jewish custom to place rocks on graves of the deceased - hence how gravestones came to be - and this incredible gesture just brought together Maori and Jewish culture in the most beautiful way imaginable.
In the afternoon, we visited the salt mines, some 65m below ground. A massive network of tunnels through rock salt, the salt mines were a major source of income for Krakow for hundreds of years. In addition to the tunnels to extract the salt, there were also chapels and cathedrals carved into the massive caverns inside, and beautiful chandeliers made from the translucent rocks adorning the churches.
I could see myself visiting Krakow again; the food is fantastic and so affordable. My dinner last night was only $13.50NZD; drinks are also cheap. I will remember my experience at Auschwitz forever and I will never let their stories die.
Sunday June 25, 2017
I'm on my second Busabout tour now and we've just left Prague. What a stunning city! It truly is one of those gems that lives up to the hype; it's a beautiful city with lots of character and amazing buildings, and plenty of great food and a bustling nightlife.
We arrived into Prague on Friday morning on our overnight bus from Zurich via Munich. We spent a few hours at the bus station having breakfast before checking into our hostel. Though I managed to get a decent sleep on the bus, I was still quite tired, so while Theo went out to do laundry, I took a nap.
Around 2pm, we set out for a walk around town. We had lunch at a pancake place that Jordan had recommended, and conveniently it was in Old Town, so on the way to many of the sights we wanted to see. We saw the amazing Astronomical Clock of Prague, as well as the accompanying most disappointing hourly clock animation in Europe. We went up the tower of St Nicholas's Church for some stunning views of the city - orange roofs and green copper domes and spires covered the city. We continued to the Prague Palace and then came back down to Lennon Wall, and had dinner near Charles Bridge. As we were walking home, we randomly stumbled upon an amazing outdoor concert, which had a band and choir singing classical Christmas songs in Czech.
We relocated hostels the next day as part of the Busabout itinerary. We had a bit of time to kill before our walking tour, so we decided to do something we hadn't done in a long time - go to the gym.
Boy it hurt. I've lost so much strength and muscle, and it was so disappointing to be pushing weights far below what I used to be pushing six months ago. Theo looked like he was having the time of his life though. Good on him. It felt good to be using all those muscles again, but as you can imagine, the DOMS are well and truly present today.
I also had the food of my people while waiting for my load of laundry to finish. After sorting my life out, we met up with the rest of our Busabout group and walked to many of the places we visited the day before, but at least this time we got a sweet explanation of everything. We got some absinthe from the Absinthery and we had dinner (I got goulash!) at a place called Lokal, and got some trdelnik by Charles Bridge. The food here is very much winter food; rich and delicious and plenty of carbs. It was a good day to meet new people and have a few drinks, and I'm looking forward to the next week together!
Friday June 23, 2017
I guess it's not surprising that Zurich is very much like Geneva. The beautiful blue lake, the crystal clear water of the river, snow capped mountains, even at this time of year, in the background, a very safe, relaxed vibe and a delight to walk around and explore. Of course, instead of everything being French, Zurich has everything in German.
No matter the language difference though, this is still Switzerland and everything is still extremely expensive. 8 pieces of sushi? CHF28. Asian takeaways? CHF25. Burger? CHF20. It definitely makes it harder for tourists, and I couldn't help but think I would have enjoyed myself if I had an infinite amount of money to spend here.
The weather has been very hot, usually hitting 30C each day. In the afternoons, it would be too difficult to walk around, so we'd chill in the park under some shade for a bit. The river and lake looked very inviting for a swim, but I was never equipped. It was great to see so many people out and about taking advantage of the summer weather.
I think we spent the right amount of time here too; there's not actually too much to see here. We covered the national museum, the lake front, the Chinese Gardens, the confluence of the Sihl and Limmat Rivers; we went up the hill to Lindenhof for views of the Grossmunster and Helmhaus; we saw the stained glass windows of the Fraumunster Church. There was chocolate and cheese and various baked goods to save money.
Overall, not bad. It feels like we did Zurich justice. I would have liked to have possibly visited the Lindt chocolate store but as it was 40 minutes and CHF26 away, it didn't feel worth it. It wouldn't be on my list of places to return, unless someone else paid for me.
Tuesday June 20, 2017
I'm at Luton Airport with Theo, ready for a big five week tour of Eastern Europe. It's stinking hot in London today, and made worse by the lack of any airflow whatsoever on the bus from London Victoria to Luton. So many people were completely miserable, myself included, just frustrated at how badly this country handles weather like this.
The past few days have been uneventful, save for a barbeque out in Teddington on Saturday. As I said, the weather has been extremely hot, which is very good for barbeques and certain outdoor activities, but horrible for sleeping and sitting in buses. I spent most of my time finalising my plans for this next holiday, and also indulging in a bit of Starcraft II when I got bored. I've also introduced a new feature to my blog called Scribbles, which is kind of like an antisocial version of Twitter where I can dump all my random thoughts and observations as I'm on the road, as opposed to sitting down and writing a more formalised blog.
It was good to catch up with Aaron and Louise out at their place in Teddington. Aaron had purchased a massive gas cooker and paella dish, and was busy getting that to work when I arrived. A massive paella hot plate filled with stock, herbs, spices, chicken, and chorizo bubbled away; he later added rice, squid and peas for some colour. The result was a delicious but perhaps slightly inauthentic paella that was enjoyed by all there. There was also a charcoal barbeque working, and lots of salads and drinks to go around.
I'm excited to cover this last leg, but also somewhat nervous about my next moves. Nervous in the sense I'm going to be in unknown territory again, a kind of excited nervous as opposed to anxious nervous. It's not 100% official but very close to it, and I'll write more about this once I get some certainty around dates and timing.
Friday June 16, 2017
After coming back from Amsterdam, I spent the weekend in London vegetating and catching up on sleep. It was good to just do nothing, and it helped that the weather had been every permutation of cold, windy and rainy for a few days. I managed to do some work on my blog as well, hammering out all the writing I did for the food in France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, as well as working on a new feature which should be ready soon.
My mate Theodore has finally arrived too, so we met up for dinner for a few nights. Theo will be accompanying me on my final leg around Europe - we hope to cover the east and northern side this time: Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. It's scary to think how little time I have left here...!
On Tuesday, Theo and Beth, another of my friends from New Zealand, met me on a bus to Cardiff for a three day excursion around western Wales. We had one objective: see puffins on Skomer Island. We rented a car and drove out of Cardiff towards Pembrokeshire, stopping by a cute little castle called Carew along the way. We based ourselves at the YHA in Broad Haven and explored the peninsula around Saint David, then retired for the night.
We got to Marloes around 9am to try and get tickets for the ferry to Skomer Island. Being a weekday, we didn't think it would be that busy; we were shocked to find that tickets to land on the island had sold out an hour ago. We went through a small period of grief before decided that the only viable option was to take a boat trip around the island without landing. They said we'd still be able to see the puffins, and that's all we really wanted.
The boat trip turned out to be surprisingly good. We did see our puffins; we saw hundreds bobbing about on the water. As we approached, they would flap their wings awkwardly and hop along the surface of the sea before taking flight, it was such an awesome sight. There were tons of other waterfowl as well, including gulls, gannets and even a peregrine falcon!
We had a quick picnic lunch at Dale before heading back to Carew Castle. We visited the mill there, as we ran out of time the day before. We also took a detour north to visit the National Woollen Museum. It would have been around 6pm that we got to YHA Cardiff; we had dinner in town and wandered around Bute Park and the central city before heading back to the hostel.
We took it slow today. We had a good sleep in and then got some coffee at a small hipster cafe in one of the city's shopping lanes, then wandered around Cardiff Castle for an hour. It's quite a remarkable structure; they used the walls as air raid shelters during World War II, and the keep in the middle of the castle green has a fantastic view of the city in all directions. After lunch, we returned the rental car and said our goodbyes to Beth, and now Theo and I are en route back to London.
I think despite being unable to land on the island, we still had a really good time. We got to see a particular aspect of the birds that you wouldn't have been able to get from land, and more importantly, we achieved our one objective. We stumbled upon lots of cool interesting sites along the way as we aimlessly drove through the Welsh countryside. We even managed to pick up a bit of Welsh - they say, anyone can cuddle but only the Welsh can cwtch. Good times.
Friday June 9, 2017
I was so enthralled with Amsterdam when I first arrived. The canals and bridges are very Venetian and extremely picturesque; of course, Venice's bridges outnumber Amsterdam's 2 to 1, but that whole aesthetic made me so happy. I arrived in the evening on Sunday and naturally, went to the red light district for a quick look. I knew it was a public holiday the next day, so it was going to be super busy and sure enough, there were hundreds of people walking around, having a peek at the windows of various shops. Yep. Exactly what I imagined Amsterdam to be like.
On my first full day, I got to see some classic Dutch windmills, and I visited a clog factory and a cheese factory too. In the afternoon, I wandered around Amsterdam Centraal and the adjoining area - I even found a piano at the train station, and got some applause for playing Let it Go (it made me feel like a boss!) I spent the rest of the afternoon lazing about in the sun on the rooftop terrace of NEMO, the science museum. What a beautiful sunny day it was.
The next day, the rain and cold came. I went to the Van Gogh Museum and wandered around for a good three hours before meeting Lizzie very briefly at the I Amsterdam sign. I was super tired, so went back to my hostel for a nap. I decided to go for dinner since I didn't hear back from Lizzie; after dinner, I began to feel unwell, and sure enough, food poisoning had struck again.
So yeah, my time in Amsterdam has been half great and half awful. I'm very well acquainted with the bathroom at my hostel, and even at my average 5'11 height, my knees were touching the door of the toilet. I barely left my room and slept most of the day, but I did feel better in the afternoon, and went out to get some coconut water and some fruit. I finished all the food poisoning medication I brought along, and the side effect of that is a black tongue.
I felt like I could eat proper food this morning, so after checking out of my hostel, I went to the Pancake Bakery and ordered a massive Dutch pancake, strewn with stroopwaffels and covered in cream and cinnamon ice cream. It was a terrible choice but I didn't care. I actually made it through 3/4 of it before giving up - the waitress congratulated me on my effort, but deep down inside I was really sad I couldn't finish it. Afterwards, I settled into this little cafe for some mint tea to help soothe the stomach. I still had loads of time to kill before I had to be at the airport, so I wandered slowly around the city. I stopped by the piano at Amsterdam Centraal again and had a little play; I got some fries and truffle mayonnaise, which I couldn't finish; I sat in the square outside the Royal Palace and people watched.
I guess I'll have to come back. I didn't even get to try space cake. Or weed brownies. Or magic mushrooms. I mean, not that I was going to anyway. Nevermind.
It would be nice to come back during tulip season though.
Sunday June 4, 2017
My last stop in Portugal has been in Lisbon. I knew very little about the city driving in, but as we drove over the Ponte 25 de Abril, which looks remarkably like the Golden Gate Bridge, I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the city - glistening blue water, pristine white houses reflecting in the sun, greenery everywhere, and a Christ the Redeemer-lookalike statue blessing the city from its south bank. As we continued, we saw the massive aqueduct stretching over one of the many valleys in the city.
We checked into the hostel and had lunch nearby, and then got driven to the waterfront to explore the city. We said our goodbyes to Alan and Miguel, our bus drivers, and wandered the streets of downtown Lisbon. Naturally, our first stop was a six pack of pasteis de nata, the Portuguese egg tarts. We got some overpriced sangria (that wasn't even alcoholic!) and met back at the Arco de Rua Augusta for a walking tour of Alfama.
It turns out Lisbon is the second oldest capital in the world after Athens. No wonder then that it has such a rich story to tell. We learned about the castle up on the hill, the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed much of the city, its split from Spain, the rise of the Portuguese empire, and the dictatorships and resulting revolution that made Lisbon - and Portugal - what it is today. Of course, no walking tour is complete without a few pub stops along the way. The month of June is a festive one for Portugal, as many holidays fall in this month, so the party was already beginning as we walked around - and it showed. The streets were alive with decorations and roadside stalls selling delicious barbequed foods. We got ourselves some sangria and beer for the walk, as well as the most delicious pork roll, and we were treated to ginja, very similar to port wine, except Lisbon doesn't like Porto very much, so they made their own.
We finished the tour at the Time Out Market, a massive warehouse of high quality food stalls, then we retired to the hostel, saying our final goodbyes to our Busabout group. I'll miss these guys. I've had such a good time touring the Iberian Coast with them, and couldn't have asked for a better group of people. After travelling for so long by myself, it was refreshing to have friends to dine with and explore with.
The next day, a couple of us headed to Belem, a suburb to the west of the city. We got some good views of the harbour from the tower, and wandering around the monastery for a bit, but for me, the main objective was visiting Pasteis de Belem, the first place to sell the Portuguese egg tart. Such incredible texture and flavour! I will remember this for years to come.
After splitting up, I went to the south bank to visit Cristo Rei, the Lisbon version of the Christ the Redeemer statue. The weather had started to cloud over and become very windy, but the view of the city was stunning. To the west I could see the Torre de Belem, where I had just been a few hours ago; to the east, the Vasco de Gama bridge, a 17km long cable bridge that is the longest bridge in Europe. The statue of Christ itself is something to marvel at, a 30m tall statue sitting at 100m elevation above sea level on an 80m pedestal.
Overnight, I learned of the tragedy that unfolded in London. How weird and unsettling it is to see all these familiar places in the news, except now they're devoid of people and filled with sirens and emergency vehicles. I hope everything calms down when I'm back in the UK. May those affected find peace and comfort.
Friday June 2, 2017
Lagos is a pretty little town on the south coast of Portugal overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, near the mouth of the Mediterranean. We've been staying in a villa with a pool, and generally just relaxing around. We're almost at the end of our Busabout tour, and I'm going to miss some of these people, even if they are Australians!
Our first night was quite wild. We had dinner at Nah Nah Bah, known for its innuendo-laden menu and very highly rated for its burgers and garlic chips. And thus began our pub crawl. Lagos is party central. All the bars have happy hours and we basically hopped from happy hour to happy hour, enjoying cocktails, wines and beers for only a few euros. At one bar, there was a nine shot challenge which a few of the group participated in, and totally nailed. Someone pole danced at another. I was relatively controlled throughout the night, but I had heaps of fun.
We were up early the next day, despite all the hangovers, for a kayaking trip around the coast. So good to be back out on the water, soaking up the ocean spray and the glorious sunshine. The coast is full of rock formations, natural archways and caves that you can kayak through and into. The other group had to cut short their trip because they were seasick (and hungover) and on our way back, we met up with them at a nudist beach they had stopped on. There were definitely some nudists out in full force. Yep.
It was a quiet afternoon and I basically just slept until it was time to go for dinner. We had ice cream afterwards and then retired to the villa, many of us still exhausted from the previous night's shenanigans.
We're continuing to Lisbon today, for the final night together.
Thursday June 1, 2017
From Tangier, we took the ferry back to Tarifa and then sat on the bus until Seville. There's actually a lot to see here, but we were only here for a night. It was very quiet yesterday because it was a public holiday, but today was much more lively.
We had a walking tour of the city, covering the major landmarks as well as a brief history. After dinner, we headed up the Espacio Metropol Parasol, a large installation colloquially called the Mushroom. From there, we got a magnificent view of the city and the sunset, as well as a free drink of sangria.
Perhaps the highlight was seeing a pilgrimage procession this morning. Every year, various districts send a delegation of people towards Huelva and today, the district of Triana was up. It was amazing to see all the men and women in formals getting ready to go on their journey, some on horseback and others on foot. The atmosphere was jovial but respectful, and awesome to experience.
We covered the Real Alcazar as well; I did my queue cutting trick to skip the line since we were running low on time. This palace is famous for being featured in Game of Thrones as the location Dorne, which I had no idea about because I don't watch GoT. We didn't have time to cover the cathedral, but our last tourist stop in the city was the Plaza Espana, a beautiful building with a fountain and courtyard with murals representing all the provinces of Spain.
Now it's time to leave Spain and head to Portugal!
Tuesday May 30, 2017
After leaving Granada, we made our way to Tarifa on the south coast of Spain. In fact, it's the southernmost point of Europe, and less than 50km to a completely different continent, Africa.
We explored the town for a bit; I went down to the Isle of Tarifa where to my left I could see the Atlantic Ocean, in front of me was Europe, to my rightwas the Mediterranean and behind me was Africa. It was quite exciting to me!
We took the ferry over to Tangier, Morocco - we saw some whales on the way! We explored some of the city streets with a deadpan humour guide called Ali and a driver called Mohammed. As we made our way around the various sectors of town, he showed us a row of eucalyptus trees ("we don't have koalas here because we ate all of them") - so good. At the central market area, there were tons of vendors selling leather goods, silver jewellery, and clothing, as well as amazing fresh produce and breads of all kinds. We saw a carton of oddly-coloured chicks too, which was probably not very compliant with animal rights.
We were taken to a spices and oils pharmacy where we were told about the benefits of argane for hair and skin. It felt very much like an infomercial, but I ended up buying some saffron (for €8 a gram) and some Moroccan spice mix. I wasn't interested in the cosmetics at all.
We were taken to some souvenir shops to buy some goods but again I wasn't really interested. The vendors are very pushy here, the most forward I've ever encountered. They really go for the sale and will follow you around, even if you say no. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the girls in the group who seemed to be the target of most of these vendors.
We had dinner at a restaurant with some delicious meat skewers and couscous, but I wish there was more. There was also live entertainment in the background too. We had an early night at the hotel so we could take the ferry early the next day.
This morning, a vendor was trying to sell some amethyst to one of the guys in the group, and after being rejected, turned to me and asked "Japan? Korea?" I rolled my eyes so hard but just said "Yes. Korea." Too early in the morning for this!
Monday May 29, 2017
I've joined a week long tour with a company called Bus About, travelling around southern Spain and even heading to Morocco (which is today!) There's a Brazilian, a few Canadians but mostly Australians. It's nice to finally get some solid social interaction after travelling by myself for so long.
We left Madrid and headed to the medieval town of Toledo, still enclosed in a city wall. There's not much else there; a cathedral, a few buildings and some cafes. We continued to Consuegra, famous for the windmills that inspired Don Quixote, and in the afternoon, we arrived in Granada.
We walked around the city centre a little bit but most of us were tired and just chilled until dinner. We went for a casual tapas where there was too much food and sangria, and then we went up the hill to San Nicolas for some great sights of the city and the Alhambra, a Moorish castle. Nearby was the suburb of Sacromonte, a gypsy area, where we were treated to some Flamenco!
There's something entrancing about Flamenco. The rhythm is so strong and driving, and the way the dancers move their feet is amazing. There's a lot of emotion in the music; it was based on the pain and struggles the gypsies endured when the Catholics took over Spain. Unfortunately many of us were so tired from such a long day (it was almost midnight at this point) that we had begun to nod off slightly! It was entertaining nonetheless, at one point in time, there was a heavy flick of sweat on the closest audience members!
We were up early to head to the Alhambra the next day. It's an incredible building that is pretty well preserved despite the history of the warring Moors and Catholics, and some of the architectural decorations are out of this world. There's so much rich symbolism in the facades and columns and art; they based a lot of their designs around geometrical and mathematical concepts. There's a beautiful symmetry and tessellation to many of the patterns, and a lot of allusions to the number 7, which represents completion or perfection. In total, we spent over three hours walking around, and that was probably the perfect amount of time.
In the afternoon, we went to a traditional hammam - herbal bath - for some relaxation in the water. It was an interesting experience, but probably not something I would do again. I feel like I would have enjoyed a swim in the pool (or the sea if we were near it) more.
After a chaotic dinner, we went for karaoke. I could not contain my excitement. I was over the moon and kept talking throughout the whole day about it. Hopefully I did not disappoint; I got to sing my favourite Let it Go, as well as a few others, but it was a public system and we had to share with the other patrons in the bar, who were all amazing (and all sang in Spanish, naturally.) One guy that was there had even participated on The Voice, and that was a treat to listen to. We had such a good time, singing Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, Aerosmith and Whitney Houston, and we finished with the Australian national anthem, John Farnham's You're the Voice. There were so many more songs I wanted to sing but as more patrons started pouring in, the less frequent our songs became, so we left around 1am.
We're on our way to Tarifa to take the ferry over to Tangier, Morocco. I was secretly hoping it would be raining in Morocco so I could bless the rains down in Africa.
Saturday May 27, 2017
Gosh it's early. I've been getting up past 8am most days and today I'm up at the break of dawn and leaving Madrid for a tour of southern Spain.
Madrid is not as big as I thought it was. There's not too much to see, but the weather here has been unpleasantly hot to walk around and explore in my usual manner. I spent a lot of time in the shade of El Retiro park, with the many others who had come to find refuge from the heat. There was a book fair there yesterday, and an arts and craft fair nearby too.
I covered most of the famous sights; there's the Temple of Debod, which was an Egyptian temple that was dismantled and brought to Madrid, then reassembled; there's the Royal Palace of Madrid, full of art and royal things (you can tell I'm a little over that kind of stuff); there were various markets selling produce and tapas.
One evening I queued for 40 minutes to get into a coveted rooftop bar called Azotea in the Circulo de Bellas Artes building. I was somewhat surprised by the heavy security presence but I figured with a queue that long, they're just looking out for the patrons. Not at all. An envoy of important-looking cars pulls up and a tall gentleman gets out and everyone starts taking pictures of him. I follow suit, not really knowing who he is, but hoping I can identify him later. It turns out it's none other than Felipe VI, the King of Spain, so this rooftop bar must be amazing if the king is here too.
The view was stunning from the top, but the drinks are more expensive than what you'd find elsewhere. I watched the sunset, jostling with the dozens of others who wanted to capture the perfect Instagram moment. As the sangria began to wear off, I got progressively more self-conscious that I was in a bar by myself with no one to talk to. I couldn't even get a seat at the restaurant and I was getting more and more miserable so I left and got a quick bite and went home.
The feeling comes and goes. Though I'm definitely quite introverted, it doesn't mean I shun all social interaction. It's just that I need some space to be alone sometimes, and not all the time. It's also especially hard when you're in a country where you barely know the language and can't easily converse with the locals.
Wednesday May 24, 2017
It's no surprise that Valencia is famous for its oranges, because much like Sorrento and Cinque Terre, the region is bathed in glorious sun for much of the year. I've certainly felt it, both days here have been quite warm, and I can't help but enjoy a bit of schadenfreude upon hearing New Zealand has plunged to temperatures around 3C.
The bus from Barcelona was mostly uneventful, save for a puerile moment when we passed by a place called Peniscola, and another moment where there was a burning tyre on the road. I checked in to the hostel and walked around the Turia River Garden, a massive sunken green area where the Turia River flowed before it was diverted to stop flooding Valencia. With the sun out, it was nice to see so many people (and dogs!!) using the park for walks, runs, yoga, gymming or just lazing about.
I covered most of the city sites the next day. I started off at the central markets, again, a haven of all kinds of fresh and delicious-looking foodstuffs. I wandered around La Llotja de la Seda, a Gothic style civil building, briefly, before heading back to the north side of the Turia River Garden and over to the Jardins del Real.
I returned to town for a very late lunch, but it was worth it - I had lobster paella. I returned to the gardens and went south towards the beach, stopping by three amazing buildings along the way. The Berklee College of Music, the Hemisferic IMAX and the Science Museum are stunning pieces of architecture, and remind me of the arcological structures you can build in Sim City 2000. A few kilometres further and I finally made it to La Malva Rosa beach. What a glorious sight to see, the crystal clear blue waters, the huge stretch of sand, mountains in the distance and not a cloud in the sky. It was so inviting I even took my shoes off and walked down to the water's edge.
Because lunch was late, dinner was late too. I ended up ordering a massive 500g steak that I couldn't finish, but it was so delicious. I didn't even have room for flan.
I'm currently on the train to Madrid, travelling at 240km/h. I was cutting it a bit close this morning but I made it at least. It's supposed to be 30C in the capital!
Monday May 22, 2017
I arrived in sunny Barcelona on Thursday morning and made my way to the hostel with no problems. The metro system here is very easy to use, and the Hola BCN card means I can take any modes of public transport, unlimited for four days. My room wasn't ready, so I ended up wandering in one direction to see what I could find.
I ended up at Plaça Espanya, where there was an automobile exhibition on. I wasn't particularly interested though, I wanted to make my way to the massive building up on the hill. I'd find out that this was the Palau Nacional, the site of the 1929 International Exhibition, and it overlooks the Magic Fountain, which lights up at night and synchronises with music.
I went back to the hostel and took a break. I'd been suffering from allergies as I made my way through the east of France and Geneva, but I'd miraculously stopped sneezing as soon as I landed in Barcelona. I was still tired though. I went for dinner some time later and made a complete fool of myself, spilling Fanta on my pants and flicking oil from my prawns into my face. I also had a talk with a lady from Hong Kong who seemed critical of my life choices (she called New Zealand boring and seemed shocked I was spending only four days in Barcelona, compared to her two weeks). It wasn't a pleasant night.
On Friday, my first stop was Sagrada Familia. As I exited the metro station, I looked around to see where the cathedral was and as I looked behind me, my jaw dropped. It's massive. It's not even finished - it's going to be taller than that. The architecture is gorgeous and so purposeful. Everything is there for a reason and has a meaning. The stained glass on the east are greens and blues to capture the morning sun, while the glass on the west are reds and yellows for the evening sun. The columns lining the nave look like trees with branches supporting the roof. Each facade depicts one of three crucial points of Jesus's life - the Nativity, the Glory and the Passion. Each apostle is represented by a tower, each gospel writer has a tower as well, a taller tower represents the Virgin Mary and the central tower, the tallest and yet to be finished, will represent Jesus. I spent ages wandering around, admiring all the different symbolism and choices behind them. It's truly stunning. I will have to return in 2026 when it is complete.
I saw several more of Gaudi's buildings throughout the day. I visited Plaça de Catalunya and La Rambla. There was the Mercado de La Boqueria, full of delicious fruit, meat and seafood. I went all the way down to the waterfront by Maremagnum and took a quick doze there. I loved every moment of it, just absorbing the atmosphere of Barcelona and the glorious sunshine.
I returned to La Rambla for dinner - twice. Once in the market and another just off the main road. The advantage of tapas is that you can easily eat more in a single night, but it does get quite expensive, especially for the solo traveller. In any case, it was a much more pleasant experience than the night before.
I caught the Magic Fountain show as well. A full hour of music and lights as the glow of sunset gives way to night; the atmosphere was warm and friendly as we enjoyed hits like Pompeii, Counting Stars and Somebody to Love.
On Saturday, I went to the Arc de Triomf and explored the gardens around that area before taking a stroll on the beach. I can see why Barcelona's beaches are so popular. Your view is a beautiful expanse of blue sea while you laze about on the pristine imported sand in balmy 20C weather.
I took a tour to Montserrat in the afternoon. It's a mountain to the northwest of Barcelona where a monastery was built in homage to where a relic of the Virgin Mary was found. Montserrat translates to English as Saw Mountain (serrat like serrated) and true to its name, the jagged peaks of limestone looked very saw-like indeed. One rock formation on the mountain is called the camel, and a small triangular gap in the structure has been used in a death-defying wing suit jump. No thanks.
You could easy spend a full day up here walking all the hiking trails to various panoramic sites. I only had time to take the funicular up to Sant Joan, where the views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean were breathtaking. You could see the Pyrenees as well, off the in north. I got to try four types of local liquors as well, made by the monks at the monastery, because there's not much else to do on the mountain. There was a sweet herby one, a coffee one, a hazelnut one which was very good, and the last one was a creme brûlée cream liquor which was my favourite.
Yesterday, I did my laundry in the morning, then returned to the beach to take the cable car to Montjuic. It was quite a wait as there are only two cars, but the view of the city is awesome, and it was such a good day as well. I spent the entire afternoon around Montjuic, walking around the castle, various parks and the Olympic Stadium.
For dinner, I took the funicular back down to the city and found a highly rated paella place. I was seated at the bar next to three Singaporean girls, whose accents I had recognised. We had a good talk about travels and food, and it was refreshing to get that level of social interaction. They apologised for taking pictures of their food.
We shared our starters, which was really nice of them, and I also ended up eating some of their seafood paella because they couldn't finish it. The bar had been playing American music throughout the night, and we couldn't help but sing along when Britney's Hit Me Baby One More Time came up. So good. A really enjoyable dinner with excellent company and atmosphere.
A lot of the gentrification of Barcelona was the result of the World Expo and the Olympics. The infrastructure is well developed and it is incredibly easy to get around on the metro; the Barcelona public transport company even runs some of the funiculars. It remains as one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations and I can finally see why. Sagrada Familia alone was worth the trip here, but there is so much to see and do. The food has been fantastic and the weather absolutely glorious. I'd love to come back with a group of friends and enjoy tapas in its fullest form, with bottles of sangria and mojitos.
Thursday May 18, 2017
Geneva has been lovely. It's incredibly picturesque here, much like Queenstown with the main feature being the lake, then the mountains (all French!) surrounding the remainder of the city. The Jet d'Eau is unmistakably the most recognisable landmark, shooting water 140m into the air, but the city has many other wonderful things to see.
The bus from Lyon took a while, but we made it to Gare Geneva just before 8pm, an hour after scheduled arrival. We were held up at the Swiss border by passport control and customs, who took two passengers off board for questioning. I met Jesse for dinner and retired for the night; it had been quite a long day.
On Tuesday, I had a tour at CERN, which I had been looking forward to. Unfortunately I didn't get to see the LHC as it was operating, but we did see CERN's first particle accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron, as well as ATLAS, one of the four detection stations stationed around the massive 27km diameter ring of the Large Hadron Collider. Though we didn't see much, there was a lot of learn about how the machines worked and how they were built, and I found it fascinating and mindboggling how big these machines are. You don't really get an appreciation of their size until you see them up close. After the tour, I met Jesse for lunch at CERN's cafeteria; he also showed me the WWW plaque.
I took the bus to the other side of town and crossed back into France at Veyrier. There's a cable car to Saleve, one of the mountain ridges overlooking Geneva on one side, and the French Alps on the other. The views at the top were stunning, and it was such a beautiful day as well. I walked around the tracks for a good few hours, enjoying panoramas on both sides. I returned to Geneva and had a simple picnic with Jesse and Rachel by Jonction, the confluence of the Rhone and Arve rivers.
Yesterday I had a late start because I've been hit with pretty severe allergies and have been quite tired as a result. I walked to the UN building and over to the botanic gardens, then down to Bains des Paquis. I continued through the city centre to Plainpalais where there was a flea market; really, I was there to find a place called Aux Merveilleux de Fred, a patissier. Nearby was the Cathedral of St Peter and a very good creperie; I continued north past Old Town to Jardin Anglais, Jet d'Eau and Parc de la Grange. We went for dinner at this place in Old Town that did roast chicken, then we got some Movenpick (so quintessentially Swiss) and a few drinks at a rooftop bar near Jardin Anglais. The view from there was awesome, we were overlooking the lake as the sun set. The fountain had been lit up in rainbow colours to celebrate Anti Homophobia Day.
I rushed to Geneva Airport this morning, barely awake. I was a little behind schedule, but thankfully nothing went horribly wrong and I'm now waiting for my flight to my next exciting destination. It's started to cloud over here, a stark contrast to the brilliant blue skies I've had over the past two days.
Tuesday May 16, 2017
The French leg of my journey is almost over. I'm currently in Lyon, another beautiful city built at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone Rivers. Yesterday, I took the bus from Vallon Pont d'Arc to Valence and had a 15 minute layover before the train to Lyon. Though I needed to go to the toilet, the temptation to play on my final Piano en Gare was too great, and as it was a Sunday, there were quite a few families around who enjoyed my rendition of Let it Go.
I had ambitions to do some exploring after dinner in Lyon but it began to rain heavily, producing a whoa omg double rainbow in the sky. I left my explorations for today; I walked all the way to the confluence point of the two rivers, then took the metro into the town centre and walked around there. I can't help but think I should have stayed here a bit longer to enjoy all the Lyonnaise bouchons, traditional restaurants that serve typical Lyon foods like sausages, pâté and roast pork. I may have to come back in the future.
The last two weeks have been heaps of fun though. I thoroughly enjoyed the sights around the whole country, my favourites being Mont St Michel, the Machines on the Isle of Nantes, and the Ardeche River kayaking adventure. The food has been very enjoyable too, I didn't have a single bad meal. My rudimentary French has definitely helped, and I found people very polite. I couldn't hold a full conversation with anyone, but I managed to order food, ask for directions and get information. My ability to read is much better than my ability to speak, so I understood menus and signboards quite well.
I loved all the pianos in the train stations...wait a second. I can hear one playing now. I have to find it. This will be my actually final Piano en Gare. The guy playing is amazing but he keeps stopping midway through songs and playing something else. He better finish soon so I can have a turn.
Okay I cut it real close but I got two songs in - Let it Go and the Pokemon Theme song. A couple of keys were bung and I had to rush because my bus was leaving soon, but I made it. I didn't get a chance to get a photo of the piano though, this one will just remain a written memory.
Au revoir France, et merci beaucoup!
Monday May 15, 2017
Far away from the hustle and bustle of French cities is Vallon Pont d'Arc. It sits near the Ardeche River, in particular a section known for its beautiful limestone gorges and the Pont d'Arc, a 60m natural stone bridge that spans the river. I took a bus here from Avignon on Friday, and the town was practically deserted, save for a few restaurants and the supermarket. I walked around town and down to the river, but settled in early for a big day the next day.
What better way to see the magnificence of the Ardeche Gorges than by kayak? I'm the kind of traveller that loves to do things, as opposed to wandering around and seeing things. My favourite day in Italy was the day I walked the length of Cinque Terre. It turns out that the water level is higher than usual, due to wet weather the previous few days. This means that the current flows faster so I don't have to paddle as much, but it also means the rapids will be quite rough. All the better for an adventure!
It was cloudy and foggy when I started at 9am. I'd chosen the 32km route, which some people do in two days, but I decide I could do it in one, even before the increased current speed. Somehow, something was lost in translation and I didn't realise I'd be kayaking this by myself. Oh well. I'm sure I'll be fine.
There was hardly anyone else on the river so I took my time. As expected, I had reached the Pont d'Arc, an hour ahead of schedule, so I had to slow down more. I stopped by a campsite to see if I could get some food, but they were closed as it isn't peak season yet. Another campsite further down sold me a pack of chocolate biscuits, which, with a single banana, was my sustenance for the entire journey.
As the day progressed, the clouds broke away to some glorious sunshine, so as the saying goes, sun's out, guns out. I had enjoyed the solitude on the water, very peacefully floating down and admiring the magnificent stone structures and greenery around me. A few more kayaks and canoes started appearing, but at the end of the day, there wouldn't have been more than 20 on the water. I got wet a few times going through rapids, but never capsized, thankfully. I reached the end point an hour ahead of schedule, even with taking several breaks along the way. It was the best day I've had in France, and very grateful that the weather was so fine.
I do have a slight sunburn on both my shoulders, and I may have contracted a cold, but I would have happily done that trip again. I thought about how much fun I had on the Great Kayaking Trip around Abel Tasman National Park a few years back, and the Ardeche Gorge would have been way more fun with some friends by my side.
I wasn't feeling too sore this morning, apart from the sunburn, and I was out of the hotel at 10am. To my surprise, the main street was closed for Sunday markets, selling all sorts of charcuterie, sausages, cheeses, oils, fruits, vegetables, jams, breads, candles, antiques and other miscellany. A marching band paraded through and stopped outside the city hall to play Adele's Hello, and were replaced by an elderly group in formal garb, dancing to traditional instruments. It was so adorable. I stayed, watching their performance for almost an hour, and left as they started recruiting volunteers to dance with them.
Today is my last full day in France!
Friday May 12, 2017
Avignon is a quiet little city whose main centre is completely enclosed in medieval ramparts which remain standing today. The main feature in its skyline is the massive Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes, which housed six Roman Catholic popes for some time in the 14th century.
It has been quite wet during my time here, but I have enjoyed immensely. The streets are in various state of maintenance but that didn't stop me wandering all over town. There's the Pont d'Avignon, which stretches halfway over the Rhone River; Rue des Teinturiers, which has a little stream running along side it, and water wheels all along; and Rocher des Doms, a garden overlooking the Rhone and countryside beyond Avignon. I spent a few hours with an audio guide wandering around the Papal Palace too, because that seemed like the biggest attraction in town.
I was also incredibly amused to find a restaurant called Fou de Fafa, which I confirmed with the owner was named after the Flight of the Conchords song. I mentioned that I was from New Zealand and said that I would try to spread the word about the restaurant to see if it could get to Bret and Jermaine, just because everyone in New Zealand is separated by two degrees.
The weather is forecast to be stormy for the next few days as well, which is incredibly sad because I'm off to Vallon Pont d'Arc to do some kayaking. I found my Piano en Gare but it was in terrible condition and the pedal didn't work, so To Zanarkand sounded terrible on it. I didn't even bother playing Let it Go!
Thursday May 11, 2017
Toulouse is France's fourth largest city, and sits on the Garonne River, which also runs through Bordeaux. The Canal du Midi runs through the city, linking the Garonne to the Mediterranean Sea. Though it's called the pink city from all its terracotta brick buildings, I found it quite green, with trees and gardens everywhere I went.
I dropped my bag off at the hotel yesterday and successfully claimed my replacement Visa card. I walked down the Canal du Midi until the Japanese Gardens and hung around there for a while, enjoying the magnificent sun and warmth. From there, I cut back through the city centre to check in at my hotel, then explored the other side of town, by the Jardin des Plantes.
It was then that I realised that the drawback of enjoying two summers is that I also enjoy hay fever twice.
I wandered in another direction this morning, towards to the northeast but found nothing of interest except a large cemetery and the observatory. I was at the train station and found the Piano en Gare, and played To Zanarkand when a man came up and said to me "Final Fantasy is the best music!" It made my day.
Tuesday May 9, 2017
I've been in Bordeaux, city of wine and delicious things like oysters and steak. By the time I arrived, it was late afternoon and I needed to do laundry, so that was pretty much all of Sunday night.
The city was quiet yesterday because it was a public holiday. I was up relatively early and got to the Mirror of Water by the riverside. It is the largest reflecting pool in the world and goes through three phases: the water fills up slowly and ripples across the surface, then the flow stops and the reflections shimmer into focus, finally a fine mist is sprayed over the pool. I got there so early that the water hadn't even filled up yet, it was completely dry. Thankfully it didn't take long for the pool to activate.
I continued down the river, walking through the flea market and around the public gardens. I had a winery tour to catch in the afternoon, so I had a quick lunch and then met the tour group outside the tourism centre. We visited two wineries, Chateau Marquis de Vauban and Chateau Cayac, sampling some of Bordeaux's finest red wines. The countryside is full of vineyards stretching for miles, it's no wonder that wine is such an important part of the Bordelaise lifestyle.
I went for dinner with two people I met on the tour. I was dying for a piece of steak so we settled on a small restaurant near the tourism office. Afterwards, I braved the cold and waited for the lights on the riverside to switch on to get some stunning photos with the Mirror of Water.
I'm now on the train to Toulouse. I found my Piano en Gare and got a little tinker of that, and some elderly man complimented me on my playing, but I didn't really understand him because it was all in French. Oh well! Glad to bring a bit of joy to someone, in any case.
It hasn't been completely smooth sailing these past few days. I discovered some unknown charges from Uber on my credit card in Australian dollars. I spent a while trying to contact my bank in New Zealand to get it cancelled, as well as Visa International to get an emergency replacement card. I also heard from Uber, who confirmed that my credit card was listed in two different accounts. Though the cards weren't too much, I still had to go through all this hassle for safety, and being on the other side of the world hasn't made it easy. Thankfully both ASB and Visa were incredibly helpful, and my replacement card should hopefully be waiting for me at my next hotel.
Sunday May 7, 2017
Nantes is a cute little town in the west side of France. It's got a very relaxed vibe, and a great cafe culture. As I often do, I wander around with Pokemon Go active and the Pokestops point me to things I wouldn't normally see; in Nantes, many of the Pokestops are video game street mosaics like Mario, Luigi, Kirby, Pacman and Space Invaders. I love it.
The most famous attraction in Nantes is the Isle of Machines. What started as an ambitious project of art and culture is now a hub of mechanical marvels exploring movement and wonder. I think it's fitting, given Nantes is where Jules Verne was born in 1828. There are three aspects to the Isle of Machines; the marine merry-go-round, full of boats and sea creatures with movable parts on a carousel, the giant elephant, capable of transporting a few dozen people and shooting water from its trunk, and finally the gallery, where exhibits are showcased before being added to the current project.
These aren't sculptures or models; they are machines that move and come to life. Inside the gallery, we were treated to movement demonstrations of the spider, caterpillar and heron, each capable of carrying people. They are destined for the Heron Tree, a project set to finish in 2021. The Heron Tree is a massive structure with branches spanning up to 20m from the central trunk and 35m into the sky. There is a prototype branch sitting above the cafe at the entrance, filled with plants and reinforced with steel - the perfect intersection of man-made and nature.
I only stayed in Nantes for a night; there wasn't much of interest to me apart from the Isle of Machines. I managed to finally find a piano not being hogged by anyone at the Gare de Nantes, and my little spiel earned me a bit of applause and a few "merci", so I'm happy!
Saturday May 6, 2017
We got back from the Normandy tour quite late last night. It was basically shower, sleep, get up and head to the train station. I'm now en route to Nantes, leaving behind Paris and its many landmarks.
From Caen yesterday, we drove to St Malo, a fortified city overlooking a portion of the English Channel. The bay also holds many small tidal islands that are accessible by foot at low tide. I kinda wanted to try some of the local seafood - especially oysters - but many of the restaurants didn't open until the afternoon, so I opted for a savoury crepe instead, a galette.
We also visited Mont St Michel, a famous island commune that was the inspiration for Minas Tirith in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. It's a beautiful little town with a majestic cathedral towering over the buildings; we were there just as the tide was coming in, so I managed to explore the intertidal zone very quickly before it was swamped with water. They say the tides in this area are one of the strongest in the world, and it's very easy to get swept up. Sure enough, as we left, water had already reached the far side of the island.
We were caught in traffic around Caen on the way home, but finally after more than four hours of driving, we were back in Paris. It was nice to get out into the countryside and see some old settlements, as well as fields of yellow Canola flowers in bloom. The weather was quite foggy and cold at times, but not as bad as in London. Hopefully it'll improve as the days go by!
Friday May 5, 2017
I've left Paris on a two day tour of Normandy. We're staying overnight in Caen, but we don't actually get to see much of it.
Yesterday I met up with Priscilla for lunch. We had raclette and it blew my mind. I'm lucky I had someone to share it with because there is absolutely no way I could have eaten all of that by myself. I'll write more about it on my food blog once I get a chance to sort out all my photos.
I went to the Jardin d'Acclimatation afterwards, just to digest all the cheese I ate. Because the weather was so foggy and wet, there weren't many people around, but I found it peaceful walking through the park. There's a massive building there called the Foundation Louis Vuitton, commissioned by LV as a museum and modern art gallery, as well as a bunch of amusement rides and water features.
I ended up going to Chatelet to find a patissier that Priscilla had recommended, and stayed in the area for dinner as well. I continued walking around Le Marais, but didn't find anything interesting, so I went back to the hotel. I had an early start the next day.
This Normandy trip started at 7.15am this morning, which meant I needed to get up at 5.30am, to get out of the hotel by 6.15am, to get to the meeting point by 6.45am. We left Paris and headed to Rouen, famous for being the town where Joan of Arc was burned alive at the stake for being a witch. We continued northwest to Honfleur, a coastal town where the Seine meets the English Channel, where we stopped for lunch, and then to Omaha Beach, which was a landing point for the Allied Forces trying to liberate France from Nazi control during World War II. We also visited the nearby cemetery, full of fallen American soldiers; it reminded me very much of Arlington near Washington DC.
Tomorrow we will continue our tour of Normandy, heading further west to St Malo and the famous Mont St Michel, the tidal island with a majestic castle aesthetic, almost like Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings. I'm looking forward to this the most, and I'm hoping the weather warms up too!
Wednesday May 3, 2017
I tried really hard to get to the Palace of Versailles at 9am, opening time. I was quite tired from the day before and only made it out the door at 8.30am. I got to the metro station and with my amazing command of the French language I managed to ask the attendant for tickets to Chateau Versailles. Somehow I managed to take the wrong train so two hours later, I finally made it to the palace entrance and I got stuck in line to get in. I did cut the queue by smoothly joining a random Asian tour group though, and I'm more pleased about my ability to do that than I should be.
Versailles is massive. It's all about opulence; the lavish and extravagant lifestyles of the French royalty that ended abruptly with their overthrowing in the French Revolution. Though the Queen's Quarters are under renovation, I found the rest of the palace quite interesting. I followed Rick Steve's audio guide for the most part, but it didn't cover some of the rooms off the main tourist path. I also went on a private guided tour of the King's Apartments, which was pretty cool too.
Not only is the palace massive, but the surrounding garden is as well. I spent a few hours walking around the suggested path. The musical fountains at the Mirror Pool were operational today, and reminded me very much of the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas. Unfortunately the Theatre Grove had broken, so I had to skip that.
It was close to 5.30pm so I decided to see if I could get to the Catacombs before they closed. I missed the Catacombs and Versailles when I was last in Paris, so both of these were must-visits this time round. I made it in with plenty of time to spare and I explored the 800m of underground cavern. It's astounding how it feels. At a constant 14C, the Catacombs were originally quarries that provided the stone for many Gallo-Roman buildings. After collapsing, Louis XVI ordered them to be strengthened and then to combat the problem of expanding cemeteries, it was converted into an ossuary.
There are so many bones. I was quite shocked, to be honest. I didn't realise how many there would be. There's also many French and Latin inscriptions on plaques around the gallery, and I almost wished I had paid more attention in Latin class in third form. My favourite is at the entrance to the ossuary: "Arrete! C'est ici l'empire de la mort", "Stop! Here is the empire of the dead"
After a lovely slow paced dinner where I once again showed off my command of the French language successfully, I wandered back to the hotel, 14 hours after I left. Another day seized!
Tuesday May 2, 2017
My first full day in Paris was extremely busy. I covered all the famous landmarks; I've been here before in 2001 - so long ago that they didn't even have the Euro - I wanted a quick revisit without spending too much time at one spot.
The city is incredibly pretty. I love the little bridges over the Seine. The flowers are out in bloom and there aren't too many people. However, the line to get into Notre Dame was ridiculously long; I totally cut the queue like a smooth operator. Admission is free though, so I don't think people would have minded that much. I remember the magnificent stained glass window shaped like a rose, and to this day remains as memorable as it was 16 years ago.
From Notre Dame, I walked to the Louvre and its famous glass pyramid. As it was a public holiday, the museum was closed but having been inside already (and it was free for me back then), I didn't feel like I had to go again. Besides, everyone always complains about the horde of people surrounding the Mona Lisa trying to take photos, and you're so far away that it's like looking at a postage stamp.
I continued down past Le Jardin les Tuileries and Place de la Concorde, and onto the Champs Élysées. I found the memorial site of the recently slain officer, covered in French flags and flowers. Further down, there was Laduree, a famous patisserie with a massive line to get in that extended outside. Finally, I made it to the Arc de Triomphe, with the largest French flag billowing in the wind under the arch.
From there, I walked towards the aquarium and the Eiffel Tower. It is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world, and with recent security concerns, it has been completely fenced off with checkpoints and military presence. Thankfully it was relatively quick to get through on the north side, but the lines to buy tickets were way too long, so I left and walked down the Champ de Mars.
I took the metro up to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur. I remember sitting on the stairs there, overlooking the magnificent views of the city. In the distance I could make out the George Pompidou Center. I continued down from the stairs into the red light district - Moulin Rouge!
I often walk around with headphones on, mostly so people don't try to talk to me when I'm on the street. That didn't stop several people chasing after me and trying to offer me free tickets to the various strip shows or whatever around the place. One even tried to talk to me in Chinese. I was not interested. I had places to go and things to eat!
I went back to the Champs Élysées and waited in line to get into Laduree. There is definitely an air of elegance and poshness, and the desserts are presented immaculately. I got three macarons and the classic mille-feuille. Yum!
I had a quick dinner before returning to the Eiffel Tower. The lines were so short now, it took me a few minutes to get a ticket to the second floor - via the stairs, of course. I love the view from there, and as the sun set, the red glow of the sky peeked out from behind the dark grey clouds and the lights of the city started to flicker on. I went to the top as well, for an extra €6 but it was a bit too crowded for my liking. At 9.45pm I made my way back to ground floor and down the Champ de Mars to watch the famous Eiffel Tower light show.
What a day. Paris, je t'aime!
Sunday April 30, 2017
It sits inconspicuously in many places. Wellington brings one out on a good day in Frank Kitts Park. There's one in the Melbourne Airport departure lounge. There's another in the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney. I saw them in three different train stations in Italy. Whenever I see one, it brings such a big smile to my face. I am of course talking about the humble public piano, its ebony and ivory melodies filling the atmosphere with glorious music. I make it a mission to play as many public pianos as I can, but am often constrained by time.
I rarely voice strong opinions on the Internet. But today has pushed me to the edge. It is the second time it has happened to me. I was in St Pancras International train station in London, waiting for my train to Gatwick Airport, when I chanced upon a public piano. I played Let it Go with gusto, attracting a few people who had pulled out their phones and others with kids who danced gleefully at the famous tune. With a smile on my face, I left to grab some food and head to the train.
As I walked to the platform, I found another piano. It blew my mind. I had to play this one too. But someone else was on there. And she remained on there, hammering the same two songs. She played a little while, then stumbled and mashed the keys in frustration. She repeated this for 20 minutes. It was painful to watch and hear. I get that we all have different levels of talent, and that it's difficult playing in public. But this is a piano available to all people and you shouldn't be monopolising this for more than 10 minutes; others have a right (and a want!) to play and if you're just repeating the same thing over and over again, then you should probably invest in your own piano to practice in your own time.
There. I said it.
I'm off on my next big adventure today, heading away for a total of 40 days, covering six countries in West Europe and even Africa! It's going to be wild and crazy but I'm going to love it.
Edit: I have arrived. The train station at the airport has a piano but someone has parked themselves on the seat with a massive book of sheet music. Screw you, selfish wench. Nobody got time to wait for that.
Friday April 28, 2017
I spent the weekend in Brighton, catching up with Dale and Becca. It reminded me of Wellington to some extent, it's a small, cozy town with a great cafe culture and a good vibe. There's lots of little art murals everywhere, and I can imagine the beach getting super busy during summer when it's warm and sunny.
We walked down the waterfront on Saturday after having brunch. Dale and Becca are also big Pokemon Go players, so there was plenty to discuss and share and gripe; unfortunately they're on a different team to me, so we couldn't go on gym runs. We ended up at Brighton Pier, where we went on some of the rollercoasters there - not too shabby! We went biking in the afternoon past the white cliffs when suddenly we got an alert for an Ampharos that had spawned about 13 minutes bike ride away. We had 15 minutes to get there.
There began an awful uphill bike ride for 13 minutes. It has been a long time since I have ridden a bike, and even then, I've never used a bike with gears before, nor have I ridden on the road, so all of that was new to me. It wasn't easy but we made it, the last stretch I ended up getting off the bike and pushing it up the hill because I was so sick of pedalling. There marks the last Pokemon that I can catch for this region - my remaining two are Steelix and Scizor, which require an immense amount of luck to get their items to drop from a PokeStop.
We returned to the white cliffs for a few photos and then went home, via a Dragonite that was also slightly up the hill. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the balcony with some other expats, enjoying cheese, tomatoes, crackers, cider and truffle oil, because we are grown adults and we are fancy. Dinner was at the pub nearby, and I ordered a massive platter of delicious things.
We went up to Devil's Dyke on Sunday. It's a valley carved out by an immense water flow into the chalk rocks during the Cretaceous period, and it's a short bus ride north of Brighton. Though it was a bit cold, the scenery from the cliffs was amazing, and we trekked down one side of the hill to the Shepherd and Dog for an awesome traditional Sunday roast lunch.
I left Brighton on Monday, stopping by Choccywoccydoodah, an eccentric chocolate shop with the most stunning displays of chocolate and cakes I've ever seen. I got a white hot chocolate from there, very reminiscent of the hot chocolate that Ned Flanders serves Bart Simpson in the Simpsons Movie.
I'm off on my next big adventure on Sunday. It's been horribly cold back in London, with rain, wind, hail and thunderstorms hitting yesterday. I barely left the warmth of my bed, venturing out only to get food. This trip will take almost 6 weeks, and I'll be covering France, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco and Portugal!
Friday April 21, 2017
It was a short time in Naples, but my departure also marks the end of my Italian journey. What a time I've had here - so memorable for so many different reasons. I've enjoyed it immensely, despite some of the hiccups along the way.
I took the ferry from Sorrento to Naples without a problem, and checked in to the hostel. The friendly guy at the reception recommended some sights for me to see, as I hadn't planned on visiting anywhere specific. Down from the port is Castel dell'Ovo, which overlooks the Gulf of Naples, so that was the first stop. I continued down to a park by the waterfront before heading back to the center of town. If there was one thing I needed to do, it was visit L'Antico Pizzeria da Michele, a Michelin star pizza restaurant in Naples.
I got my pizza takeaway as the restaurant was full, and although the ambience wasn't quite right, the pizza was pretty good, and only €4. I wandered around some more but retired to the hostel soon after. I was a little miffed at the poor quality wifi and couldn't even get 3G reception, so it was a pretty boring night.
Today was pretty relaxed. I wandered around the block, stumbling upon a few churches and whatnot. I got some takeaway pizza from nearby and took the bus to the airport, and caught my flight to Milan, then to Heathrow without a problem. The view of Italy from the plane is stunning. As we left Naples, the sight of Vesuvius overlooking the gulf was so pretty. As we neared Milan, you could see fields of green and gold stretching to the horizon. We flew over Switzerland and its snow-capped mountains, and over France's green pastures. We neared the English Channel... and suddenly all this cloud covered the land.
It rained as I left Heathrow and took the Underground back home. I picked up some microwave food from Sainsburys on the way. A pretty sad welcome after four weeks of adventure!
Wednesday April 19, 2017
Sorrento is a quaint resort town, obviously very touristy and would probably be way busier in summer, but I have enjoyed my time here immensely. The town itself is not full of things to do, but the areas around it are what make it so special. As I type this, I look up from my phone screen to see the Gulf of Naples, all shades of blue with white crested waves, and Vesuvius off in the distance, and I can't help but smile at all the beauty around me.
After taking the train from Rome to Naples, I took the metro to the port and booked a ticket on the ferry to Sorrento. The signboard with all the departures wasn't working and as a result, I almost missed my ferry, but I did make it in the end. It took 30 minutes to get to Sorrento and I was immediately amazed by how picturesque it is. The streets are lined with orange trees in full fruit, and you can totally just grab one if you so wanted. I had an average dinner, but as I was walking back to my accommodation, I noticed people had lined the streets in anticipation of a procession. It turns out Sorrento is one of the few places in the world that has an Easter procession of this kind; dozens of people dressed in black hooded garb, chanting, waving incense, and carrying symbols of the crucifixion as they walked down the street. It was solemn and quite daunting, especially since the robes they wore resembled the kind worn by the KKK. It was an interesting experience nonetheless, and I'm glad I was there to witness this event, even if it was accidental!
On Saturday, I took a tour of the Amalfi Coast with a very flamboyant guide called Roberto, who couldn't stop telling us to kiss our wives at every romantic landmark. We visited Positano, Amalfi and Ravello; it reminded me very much of Cinque Terre, the whole "town embedded in cliffside" aesthetic. The natural geography of the area produces some amazing clouds that cascade over the mountains, covering the many terraces of orange, lemon and olive trees. We took a short boat ride around Amalfi as well, at Roberto's recommendation, and I enjoyed some of the local citrus desserts. Perhaps too many. I met some cool people along the way, and coincidentally some of them would join me on the Vesuvius and Pompeii trip the next day (I was just thankful that the Vesuvius/Pompeii tour wasn't a total scam.) It was quite late when we got back to Sorrento, thanks to heavy traffic along the way.
I was up early and off to some random car park to start the tour of Vesuvius and Pompeii. The forecast was for rain and thunderstorms, and sure enough, as we neared Vesuvius, the dark clouds began to roll in. We managed to stay dry, but you could see nothing of Naples and the gulf from the crater. Despite that, the terrain was interesting and had a slightly sulfurous smell. It's odd that you're on top of Europe's most dangerous volcano, and although the crater is a shadow of the mountain that erupted in 79AD and destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, it's still quite an experience to see it up close for yourself.
After a very average lunch at an obviously touristy restaurant that we were semi-forced to go to, we were taken around the ruins of Pompeii. I was amazed at how much was actually preserved, and with a bit of imagination, you could catch a glimpse into what the city would have been like before it was destroyed. Various murals, despite fading in colour over the past 2000 years, also gave clues to what Roman life was like. We visited a typical villa Romana, a spa, the central marketplace, a basilica, an amphitheatre, and even a brothel! There's so many little things that historians were able to uncover and deduce; with no sewerage system, people would throw waste onto the roads to be washed away. As a result, stepping stones were constructed to allow people to cross the road while still allowing chariots and horses to pass through, and sure enough, the visible grooves of where the chariots used to go remain today. Each major intersection would be marked with a fountain, and each fountain would be decorated with a face or markings; slaves who couldn't read could use these fountains to navigate their way around the city instead of having to rely on the signs around. Chips of marble embedded in the road acted as cats eyes for the weary travellers arriving from the port at night. There's so much history behind the ruins that I hadn't even considered how massive the city is, and of course, how the devastating eruption in 79AD changed it all in an instant.
It did rain a little bit during our walk, but we remained mostly dry. We headed back to Sorrento and after freshening up at my accommodation, I went to a restaurant recommended by an Australian couple I met on the Amalfi Coast tour. Funnily enough, they were there was well, and later on another couple from the tour joined us. It would have been past 11pm by the time I got home, I had such a good yarn with everyone there.
I had a bit of a sleep in on Monday, then headed down to the port to catch a ferry to the island of Capri. It was so busy that the latest ferry back was 3.30pm, giving me four hours to explore the island. From Marina Grande, I walked up to the central plaza then took a walking track to the south that went past the Arco Naturale and some other beautiful natural sights along the coast. I wandered around the central plaza some more after lunch, and then it was time to go already. I was feeling a little adventurous so I walked over to Sant'Agnello, east of Sorrento, just to claim a few spots in the Mystic Pokemon gyms, and was back in Sorrento for dinner.
Yesterday was quiet. I had another late start, and after taking away some food from town, I walked out to an abandoned fort on the west side of the peninsula. Magnificent views of the bay, and totally serene; there were maybe ten other people there exploring the area, some even so brave as to go for a swim in the chilly Mediterranean waters! I walked back to my accommodation for a quick break, but then it started raining and I lost all motivation to do anything, so I had a solid nap. And that was basically all I did that day! It's nice to relax once in a while, and after three full days, it was probably a good idea to just chill.
Now I'm just waiting for my ferry to Naples. It's slightly windy today but the sun is out, so it's quite pleasant when you're out of the shade. My time in Italy is almost up!
Friday April 14, 2017
Rome is regarded as one of the most amazing cities in the world, packed with ancient ruins and iconic landmarks, there's so much to see and do. It was so unfortunate that I got food poisoning in the first night, because the food I've had in the past couple of days has been very good.
I felt well enough to walk around on Tuesday, so I headed to the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It was crowded, a sight I would soon come to loath. From there, I walked to the Altar of the Father, Trevi Fountain and Pantheon, but I was tired and went home to rest. I secured a Roma Pass card for entry to the Colosseum for the next day.
I was up early on Wednesday to get to the Colosseum and Roman Forum/Palatine Hill. It was great to walk around these archaic sites, appreciating the architecture and grandeur of the ruins around me. Because it was morning, it wasn't too crowded, and I spent a good three hours wandering around. I had lunch nearby and headed to the Vatican to see the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.
John, my Catholic friend, calls it organised chaos. I bought "skip the line" tickets for the Vatican Museum, which basically means I'm part of a sham tour group until I get through the doors, then I'm free to wander at my leisure. We still had to wait a considerable amount of time to get in, but the public access line didn't look like it was moving at all, so I suppose we did skip a line of sorts. In fact, the line is there because of security checks, not to buy tickets or enter the museum itself, so anyone going through has to pass through security.
After I left the group, I wandered around, but there was a set visitor path to follow. The layout is quite good, there's a single route to the Sistine Chapel that takes you through tons of exhibitions of art and architecture. It's incredibly crowded with tour groups blocking passageways and people stopping in the middle of the corridor to take The Perfect Instagram Photo. I didn't care. I just walked straight past. In hind sight, it would have been good to have an audio guide to explain everything, but as I'm not really into art, I just admired the things I saw and moved on. When I got to the Sistine Chapel, hundreds of people were already there, gawking at the magnificent roof that Michelangelo had painted. I recognised the segment titled The Creation of Adam, the famous painting of God with his outstretched arm, about to touch the finger of Man.
I walked to St Peter's Basilica afterwards, recognising the familiar sights of "that place where the Pope does his address". It's quite a marvellous square, surrounded by columns and shadowed by the iconic dome that can be seen from so far away. The line to get in circled right around, and I didn't feel like waiting that long, so I left for dinner, then was home to bed. I was still tired from lack of food and energy, but my appetite was picking up slowly.
Yesterday, I was back at St Peter's Basilica to try and get in, but they had closed until noon for a Holy Thursday mass. Instead, I went to the Terrazza del Gianicolo, a terrace overlooking the whole city and walked back to the Vatican for a quick lunch. I joined the crowd outside the security gates waiting to get into the basilica and as they opened, people surged through, pushing and squeezing. I was unhappy. Even after all of that, we still had to wait to get through security before going into the basilica.
Eventually I made it through. I followed Rick Steve's audio guide, which was awful because he kept telling me to go backwards against the flow of the crowd, and also to inaccessible places. The basilica itself is beautiful though, and the dome is absolutely massive up close. I spent €6 climbing to the top of the dome, where you can barely move because so many people had the same idea. It can be a bit claustrophobic going through the narrow passages, but it's one of those things that you have to do while you're there.
I wanted to see these catacombs on the Appian Way, so I took a bus back into town and waited for another bus that would take me there. It never came. I got frustrated. I ended up going back to the BnB to sleep because I didn't feel like going anywhere else. It was a sour way to end a relatively disappointing time in Rome. The crowds, the public transport, the food poisoning, all just culminated in a pretty sad time for me unfortunately. Sigh.
Tuesday April 11, 2017
So much for the lovely sentiment at the end of my last blog - "Here's hoping Rome will be better!"
I wasn't aware I had to tell my B&B hosts what time I was arriving - I booked them through booking.com, not AirBnB, so I assumed it was a business instead of a side rental. Anyway, I arrived and no one was there, so I called them up and a lady on the end of the phone said she could let me in in an hour; that's fine, I said, and I waited. 90 minutes later, no one had showed up so I called her again and she said her scooter had broken down and she would be another 30 minutes. Finally she arrived to let me in, and we're all good.
Except my room smells of cigarettes.
I went out for dinner to a highly recommended local place, again with a very basic English menu and the staff having very limited English. The food tasted fine; I got two bruschetta, fettuccine with smoked salmon in a cream sauce, and panna cotta drowned in Nutella, and I felt quick sick after the dessert. I went to bed and woke up this morning feeling awful, and sure enough, I've got food poisoning.
I've spent the whole day in bed, I haven't eaten anything except water to replace all my lost fluids. I'm quite miserable and the damn room still smells like cigarettes. I'm hoping I'll feel better tomorrow, otherwise it might be a very quick run through all the major landmarks. I've got tickets booked for the Vatican on Wednesday, which I can't miss, so if I'm not better by then, then I'll have to force myself to go. Worse comes to worst, I've still got Thursday to see everything, but then I'm off on Friday to Sorrento.
Sunday April 9, 2017
Florence has been a mixed bag. Overall I've enjoyed my time here, but definitely not as amazing as Cinque Terre. I left Riomaggiore early in the morning and took the train to Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower. I had lunch there and continued on the train to Florence where I arrived in the afternoon. I had forgotten to specify an exact time with my AirBnB host and he wouldn't be home until 6pm, so I sat in the park for a few hours killing time. It began to rain.
When I finally got access to the apartment, I warmed up for a bit and then headed to a local restaurant for one of the best meals I've had since arriving here. No English menu, owner can't speak English either, highly recommended by locals and tourists-in-the-know - all good signs. It was truly food cooked with heart and soul, traditionally Italian. I also accidentally ordered a quarter carafe and was really smashed at the end of the meal.
I stumbled home and tried to sleep but my mind was racing all night long. I was in a pretty sad state the next day, not hungover but tired. I covered most of the major sights in the city - Mercato Centrale, Santa Maria del Fiore and other cathedrals, the river side, Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi and Cascine Park. I wanted steak for dinner but learned that the famous bistecca alla florentine is actually a 1kg T Bone designed for two people, and I got really sad at that. I ended up going to a place near Santa Maria del Fiore, right in the middle of town, that was recommended by Trip Advisor. They had a steak on offer and I was desperate so I took the bait. I should have known that being in such a touristy area, it would be terrible and sure enough, it was the most disappointing meal I've had so far here.
That night I got really sad about Florence and frustrated about steak. I felt like I'd covered most of the city, which is mostly just churches, buildings, art and fashion. I was a little over architecture because it was kind of samey throughout the country, I didn't really have an appreciation for art or fashion and I still had ages to spend here. Thanks to some encouragement from Charlotte, I booked a day trip to the Tuscan countryside for Saturday, but I still had all of Thursday and Friday to kill.
I wandered aimlessly on Thursday. I went to the train station to pick up some transport tickets when it started raining. I explored the lower level shopping area when I came across a public piano and I suddenly got very excited. However, some dude was playing the world's longest and most boring piece on it, so I wandered and waited some more. After he was done, another dude hopped on and played an even longer and more boring piece, and then repeated it for an hour until I finally had the impatience to ask him for a turn on the piano. I played my usual three crowd pleasers and felt much better about myself, and it had stopped raining too, so I left. I really wanted the steak thing to work, so I tried again, and I can say that this time it was a huge success. The meal also came with 500mL of red wine which I did not finish, wisely.
I went to see Michelangelo's David on Friday. It's quite amazing actually, much bigger than I expected it to be. It's stunning that it's carved from a single block of marble and there's an incredible amount of detail, right down to the muscle definition and the veins on his arms. It was a beautiful day, so I headed south of the river to Piazzale Michelangelo, just up the hill, where there weren't as many tourists as in the city center. The view there is fantastic, the city's major landmarks popping up over the otherwise flat skyline, the roofs all uniformly red. I spent some time at the cemetery next door too, and then headed to a restaurant just north of the river for a seafood dinner. It was exceptional. On the way home, I joined mass at Santa Maria del Fiore, mostly just to see the inside of the cathedral, but ended up following the procession outside. There will be a lot of things happening in the lead up towards Easter.
I was up early and off to the train station on Saturday for my Tuscan day trip. Our first stop was San Gimignano, nicknamed medieval Manhattan for its several stone towers. At one point there were over 70; after the war and other damage, there's currently 14. I climbed the tallest one, Torre Grossa, for an epic view of the countryside; fields in every shade of green, sandy brown buildings with the iconic red roofs, blue skies that reminded me of New Zealand. San Gimignano is also home to a famous gelateria, which won a prestigious award in 2007. I can vouch for that; the flavours were interesting and exquisite, quite different from the regular "plain" ones you get like lemon, strawberry, chocolate. I got a nut, wine and honey mix with an orange and grapefruit sorbet. It was amazing.
We stopped for lunch at a winery where we tasted some Chianti Classico wines, and had lunch. The wines are famous for their composition, and to be deemed "Classico", they must be certified with a certain amount of grape only grown in that region. The wines are typically fruity and very drinkable, and I enjoyed them a lot.
Our next stop was Siena, a beautiful little town with more cathedrals and towers. Known for being a banking center, we got a guided tour of the various architectural styles and history behind some of the buildings. We also learned about the Palio, a horse race that pits the 17 districts of Siena against each other, twice a year. After visiting the cathedral, I climbed the tower in the middle of town for some breathtaking views of the city and its landmarks, with the countryside in the distance. I managed to talk to a New Zealand couple from Tauranga too, and we mused about how bad the weather was at home.
Our final stop was Monteriggioni, a small fort just north of Siena. We weren't there for long, but I walked along the walls of the fort, admiring the now setting sun illuminating the green fields with its orange light. By the time we got back to Florence, it was past 8pm, and after dinner, I was back at home close to 11pm.
The Tuscan countryside is as pretty as everyone says it is, and I think that was my most enjoyable day of my time in Florence. It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy Florence, but I was just too churched and museumed out. My experience with food was either very good or very bad, and that also affected my mood. Here's hoping Rome will be better!
Tuesday April 4, 2017
What a beautiful place this is. You've seen pictures of Cinque Terre on the Internet but to see all five villages in real life is truly something. The way the light of the sunset illuminates the pastel coloured houses rising up from the cliffs, the glistening blue sea and greenery on the hills, the spots of yellow lemons and orange flowers dotted around the towns - there is so much beauty here.
My first two days here were quiet, just walking around Riomaggiore and exploring the various panoramic views. I desperately needed to do laundry and I was also quite tired from everything, and since it was overcast and raining at various points during the day, Sunday was a good day to chill and do nothing. I gathered a lot of information about Vell d'Amore, the coastal walk from one end of Cinque Terre to the other, in preparation for my hike the next day.
It turns out the first half of Vell d'Amore is closed due to landslides, so the alternate route takes you from Riomaggiore up the hill and down to Manarola. It's basically an hour of stairs and extremely exhausting. From Manarola to Corneglia is similar, except I used OpenStreetMaps to take a "shortcut" that ended up being a very sketchy path through thick bush and vineyards.
I was hoping to visit Guvano Beach, famous for its seclusion and beauty, and also for being a nudist beach, but the path again was closed due to landslides. I continued to Vernazza, where I chilled down by the waterside for a while, soaking my aching legs in the very cold Mediterranean water.
The final stretch to Monterosso took a while, and was moderately hard in places, but I was so happy to reach the gate house and the lady there welcomed me warmly. I was desperate for some sugary water, and downed a can of lemonade by the beachside. I took the ferry back to Riomaggiore, seeing all five towns from the sea as the boat sped by, and after taking a break at the hostel, I went down to the waterfront to watch the sunset.
What a glorious sunset it was. The sky had been crystal clear all day, and the colours of the rainbow filled the horizon as the sun disappeared. Behind me, the orange and red light blended with the colours of the houses. I sat with a Canadian couple who I later went for drinks with, and we exchanged contact details hoping to meet again in the future. I think yesterday was my favourite day so far in my time in Italy.
Saturday April 1, 2017
My short stay in Bologna has come to an end, but the city definitely has more to offer than I had time for, especially in terms of food. After arriving at Bologna Central train station, I followed Google maps to my B&B, only to find that there was no B&B at the location described. I double checked the address and did a quick search and continued down the road, and finally found a door at number 23 with the name of my accommodation on it. I trudged up the stairs to the third floor and rang the doorbell to get in. No reply. I tried again, and tried knocking. Still nothing. I started getting flustered and then decided to make an international call to the number on the door. An answer! "I have a booking with you", I said, to which the reply came "I have no booking...there is another B&B with the same name at number 8."
Why would you have two B&Bs on the same road with the same name at different numbers, and then have Google Maps point to neither of them.
I finally managed to check in and all was good, then it was into town to check out the famous sights. First stop was Bologna's Two Towers. The larger is Torre degli Asinelli at just under 100m, and for €3 you can climb the 498 narrow wooden steps to the top for some breathtaking views of the city. Back at ground level, I had a quick squizz inside Basilica di San Petronio and around the plaza outside, but I was getting hungry and wanted to ensure I got my bolognese before leaving. I found a great place just off the tourist track thanks to Trip Advisor and got tagliatelle alla bolognese - the true "spag bol", as the sauce sticks to the flat pasta better than the round. A glass of the house red and a plate of carpaccio on salad, and I was done for the night. Good times!
Today is a bit overcast but I spent most of the morning planning out what I want to do in Riomaggiore, thanks to the B&B having the first solid WiFi since arriving in Italy. It looks like tomorrow might rain, so it's a good opportunity to just chill out and rest, especially after all the walking around.
Friday March 31, 2017
I can see why Venice can be quite a put off for some people. The confusing maze of streets, the stench of the water, the blistering heat, the overpriced...well, everything, the thousands of people cramming all the alleyways - except, for me, I'm here at just the right time when tourist season is no where near in full force and the weather is absolutely beautiful.
I arrived by train to St Lucia station and was stunned at how pretty Venice is. I love the cute little canals and bridges over them. I love the architecture of the dozens of churches and monuments. The water is especially beautiful in the sun and it is so pleasant to walk around. After checking into my hostel, I walked down to Zattere on the south side and caught the magnificent sunset.
The next day, I visited all the major sights around the city: Rialto Market, St Mark's Square, St Mark's Basilica and the accompanying bell tower (pro tip: try not to be in the tower at noon because it gets very loud), Doge's Palace and St Mary's Basilica. Venice is quite small so it's easy to walk around, but I would have probably died without Google Maps to point me in the right direction. I went back to the hostel for a nap then decided to head out again. I took a water bus to the gardens at the far end of town and walked back towards Compo Santa Margherita for dinner.
Dinner was fantastic. I was served a free glass of prosecco to start with and a free shot of limoncello to finish, and honestly that made me so happy.
Today I'm just killing time before my train to Bologna. I walked around Piazzale Roma for a bit but there wasn't too much there, and I explored the train station too. As I was walking around, I heard the unmistakable sound of a live piano and I got so excited when I saw it was open to the public for playing. Of course I played Let it Go, like a boss, and then To Zanarkand, which got me a little clap from someone passing by, but I was mostly just glad that I still had that in me after not playing for two months.
Thursday March 30, 2017
I arrived in Milan late on Saturday night when it was pouring with rain. I had arranged for an airport pickup from my B&B, and sure enough I was met at the airport gate by the owner, who had a sign with my name on it (I found this so novel, I've never had that anywhere before!) As we left Milano Linate Airport, I commented that it was quite busy for the time of night and he said that the Pope had been visiting that day, and that's why there were so many armed guards posted around the airport. I mentioned that I had just come from London and that the armed forces were heavily present everywhere as well due to the incidents last week.
The next day, I set out exploring the city. I walked into town and wandered the streets of Quadrilatero d'Oro - the golden quadrilateral - known for its super expensive shops and famous brands. I continued to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, famous for its massive dome over the shopping arcade where Louis Vuitton, Prada and Versace can be found. Just outside was the Cathedral Duomo di Milano, a massive church that sits at the heart of the city. Probably Milan's most iconic landmark, the cathedral is visited by thousands per day, and the queue to get in is shockingly long - and is separate from the queue to get tickets, which is also as long! It's completely worth it though, the interior is adorned with beautiful stained glass windows and fantastic sculptures and paintings. The real treat however is the terrace. My cheaper ticket allows me stair access to the top - one can pay extra to use the lift. The view from the roof of the cathedral is stunning and it's quite surreal standing on top of this magnificent building and seeing all the arches and spires up close.
Walking down the main pedestrian mall from the cathedral leads me to the Sforzesco Castle, where surprisingly, I find a cat commune and a crazy cat lady feeding them. Apart from that, the castle holds one of Michelangelo's unfinished works, as well as some of Leonardo da Vinci's. I didn't want to wait in queues anymore, so I continued through the park to Arco della Pace, a monumental arch at Porta Sempione. A quick walk through Chinatown and then I was back in town for dinner.
The next day, I took a train north to Como, a beautiful town by the eponymous lake, Lago di Como. The waterfront walk is gorgeous and in the bright sunny weather, it was a real treat and so, so different to the chilly spring weather of London. I spent a few hours wandering around and prestiging two of the many Mystic Pokemon Gyms in Como before heading out for some local seafood and some tiramisu. Yum!
The east side of town leads up to Brunate, a town on the hill overlooking the lake. Access is via the funicular train, or better yet, a winding path that takes about an hour but is so worth it. You're treated to a peaceful stroll through bush and greenery, and the most magnificent views pointing northwest towards Chiasso, Switzerland. I had lunch at the funicular station at the top overlooking the lake and thought to myself how amazing this is. I walked to Faro Voltiano, a lighthouse even further up the hill, but the view again was breathtaking. I was so enthralled by the snow capped mountains in the distance and the warm sun, it made me so happy to be here.
I walked all the way back down via San Donato, and had a quick break in my room before heading out for gelato and dinner - in that order, because I'm an adult. A glass of the house white wine, a plate of spaghetti with mixed seafood and the colours of the sunset by the lake - life is truly good for me right now.
And now, I'm on the train back to Milan and then on another to Venice, city of canals!
Sunday March 26, 2017
My second week in London has come to a close, and what a dramatic one it was.
On Saturday I was wandering around Richmond and Kew Gardens on a moderate but overcast day, which apparently is "perfect weather" to be outside for the Brits. There were quite a few people out at the pubs watching the last few games of the Six Nations, and of course, because it was St Patrick's Day the day before. Green celebrations spilled over onto the next day when Ireland beat England, and I joined the festivities at the St Patrick's Day parade in Central London. Thousands of people lined the streets around Trafalgar Square as streams of pipe bands, dancers, trucks and Irish representative groups walked by.
The weather on Monday took a sharp turn for the cold, so it was a museum day at the National History Museum. I underestimated the amount of time I was going to spend there, and ended up wandering around for close to four hours. Tuesday however was much sunnier, and after meeting Mash for lunch, I went on a tour of Highgate Cemetery, one of London's poshest burial grounds, and where Karl Marx is buried. There are so many stories about the people buried there; our guide was fantastic and spoke about the Victorian times, where the rich and famous would have tombstones and monuments made in their everlasting memory, often in whatever was fashionable for those times - Greek columns, Roman wreaths, Egyptian obelisks. Occupational symbolism was also important, as people wanted to be remembered for their jobs, and the inversion of a particular symbol was a sign of respect for the dead.
On Wednesday, I went out to Hampton Court Palace, far from the city center. There I learned about Henry VIII's lavish lifestyle, and was most fascinated about the kitchen and logistics required to feed 600 people with the most extravagant food for the day. Meat of course was a luxury and roasts required much time and skill to make, and often needing constant watch and turning on the spit by an open fire. Afterwards, I met Aaron for lunch and he took me around Richmond and Richmond Park.
As we were heading home, I got wind of the terrible incident that had happened on Westminster Bridge. It's scary to think I was only there three days ago for the St Patrick's Day parade, and to see the images of the area deserted on the news was quite harrowing. The entire place was cordoned off, and what is normally filled with tourists visiting Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament was empty save for the emergency vehicles and personnel attending the scene. I visited the area on Thursday after meeting Daniela, Sean and Hayden for lunch, just to get a feel of the atmosphere. The area was still cordoned off, but the bridge was open to pedestrians and traffic, and the police presence was definitely more noticeable with regular boat patrols up and down the river. People had already begun laying flowers at the accident site, and reporters had lined the footpaths to broadcast news from the ground. I walked past New Scotland Yard as well, just as a wreath-laying ceremony was taking place, which I assume was in honour of the slain policeman.
Yesterday was super cold and windy, but Aaron took me out to Stonehenge. I was surprised at how large they were, and you can get within about five metres of them at the tourist site. Many of the images I saw online looked like they were from far away. I spent a while walking around and listening to the audio guide (and catching Pokemon as well.) We stopped by the Wheatsheaf Pub near Salisbury for lunch, which was an award winning Steak and Tanglefoot Pie, then visited Old Sarum and the Salisbury Cathedral before heading home for a Chinese meal in Bayswater.
Today - I'm heading off for another adventure! Stay tuned for my next update.
Saturday March 18, 2017
I've been in London a week and have covered most of the major attractions. It's been overcast most of the time, and yesterday was super cold, but there were a couple of stunning days where it was definitely shorts weather and it truly felt like spring. The vibe here is way different to Oxford, there's definitely that big city feel. There's so much to see and do, and I love it. It is quite expensive though.
There's so many well-known landmarks that it's not worth listing out all the ones I've seen. Most days, I catch the tube into town and wander the streets. Soho is especially interesting at night, with all its alleyways filled with bars and eateries. I was out at Greenwich yesterday, visiting the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian (which is not exactly at 0 longitude these days, but oh well.) The area by the Tower of London, St Katherine Docks, has tons of hip restaurants and cafes, and the area by the London Eye, Southbank, has some cool food markets and occasionally, free performances inside the Royal Festival Hall.
My wanderings for Pokemon have also taken me to pretty crazy places too. There was a Slugma nest at Stave Hill near Canada Water, a Cyndaquil nest at South Park near Parson's Green and at Golder's Green, and a Houndour nest at Whittlington Park near Archway. There was an Unown spawn in the middle of nowhere where I had to train for 30 minutes, bus for 10 minutes and run for 5 minutes to get there. After dinner last night, I got off the train going home to catch two different lines and run on a full stomach for 200 metres to catch a Hitmontop in Bayswater. There's no doubt I'm getting exercise, but many times I wonder if this game is worth so much of my time. Maybe I'll talk about this in another post.
Things haven't been all peachy though. On Thursday, I slammed my thumb in the stupid door and decided to cancel my day, but felt miserable for staying at home, so ended up heading out and doing a bit of shoe shopping because my hiking shoes are getting a bit worn. Yesterday, I was looking for food in Soho and had a bit of a sad eating by myself. Eating out to me is an inherently social activity, designed to be enjoyed with other people instead of alone. I really wanted to go to this Brazilian Churrascaria where they serve you unlimited meat, but it would have been so pitiful by myself. I'm usually okay being solitary when I'm travelling, but when I'm eating... I could use a bit of company.
Friday March 10, 2017
There's a couple of places that are easier to reach from Oxford than London, so while I'm here, I thought I might as well get those out of the way. Charlotte recommended Blenheim Palace, just a short bus ride north of Oxford, so as the sun was out on Monday, I decided to head there.
Blenheim Palace is massive. It's a little unfortunate that at this time of year, the gardens aren't in bloom yet, but it does mean there aren't as many tourists wandering around. Blenheim Palace has been home to the various Dukes of Malborough, but is more famous for being the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. The front steps were under renovation when I was there, but there was still a lot to see and learn about this residence and the various people who have been involved with this building.
On Tuesday, I took the train to Bath, famous for its Roman baths, built on top naturally occurring hot springs. Again, it's stunning to see structures that are hundreds of years old and so well preserved, and even though it may not be perfectly intact, the remnants themselves have their own stories of how they came to be in that state. I walked from the train station to Pulteney Bridge, then walked around Bath Abbey before spending a solid hour walking around the Roman Baths. The tour is very well thought out, taking you through the background, architecture and features of the bath in a linear fashion. You get to taste some of the spa water at the end - I would not recommend this. It does not taste pleasant.
I also covered the Assembly Rooms, the Circus, Royal Crescent and the Botanical Gardens. All in all, I would have spent close to six hours wandering around; a lot of the tours from Oxford and London also include Stonehenge in the day trip but only give you four hours to explore Bath, which is doable but quite rushed, especially if you are walking around everywhere.
Monday March 6, 2017
On Saturday, I took a day trip to the Cotswolds and Stratford-upon-Avon, famous of course for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare. The English countryside, on a good day, shows a vibrant green that I haven't seen since leaving New Zealand, but mainly because every place I've been to has been covered in snow (or Malaysia.) I can finally see why people talk about these rolling hills too. It's very picturesque and full of buildings and structures that are hundreds of years old. There are so many small churches around here. There are houses with thatched roofs made from dried straw. There are dry walls - walls made without cement or mortar because it was too expensive. It's interesting because there's so much story behind all these things, and that simply doesn't exist in New Zealand.
The first stop was to Minster Lowell, a village that had popped up to take advantage of wool production. It was named after the Lovells, who were the land holding family of the area. The ruins of the manor house remain today, and this is where we spent most of our time here.
Second on the list was Burford, home of the church where mutineers of the New Model Army were held captive by Oliver Cromwell. Again, the buildings are rich with history and beautiful architecture. Etched graffiti on the stone of the font in the church still remains, scratched out by one of the prisoners in the church during the mutiny. It's amazing to think it has been there for 400 years and that it can still be seen today.
We continued north to the Rollright Stones, a formation of rocks in three distinct groups: the King Stone, the Whispering Knights and the King's Men, all named after the characters in one of the local myths of the area. A king was met by a witch at this area, who said that if the king could see Long Compton from this position, then the King of England he shall be. Of course, the king could not see Long Compton, and was turned to stone by the witch (the King Stone) who then proceeded to turn the circle of men into stone (the King's Men) as well as a group of mutineering knights (Whispering Knights).
The last stop of the day was Stratford-upon-Avon. We had a few hours to walk around and join any tours of the various important houses in Shakespeare's life. I wandered down to the riverside and admired the gardens and some of the monuments and statues erected in Shakespeare's honour, and then had a quick lunch before wandering further into town. I ended up at the Holy Trinity Church, which is the site of Shakespeare's grave, and for £3, it wasn't too expensive to wander in. Again, magnificent architecture with all sorts of arches and columns adorning the main church area, and some fantastic stained glass windows in the fore and rear.
I was back in Oxford in the evening for a pizza and wine tasting session with Jono and Charlotte's friends, who take their wine tasting very seriously (and competitively!) Of course I had to self-moderate my consumption, and wasn't feeling too bad by the end of the night. We continued to Wolfson student bar and played some darts before retiring for the night.
Saturday March 4, 2017
I've pretty much covered most of Oxford's main sights - the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the various colleges around town like Christ Church, Trinity and Magdalen (pronounced Mawd-lin for some very odd reason). I walked the length of Port Meadow where I found some horses roaming around with no fence separating me and them, and I ambled around the Oxford University Parks and Christ Church Meadow, admiring the spring flowers starting to bloom along the riverside. And Oxford is a nice place, but I'm rapidly exhausting the to-do list. Next week, I'll visit the Natural History museum and take a day trip to Blenheim Castle, but that's basically all I have planned.
I spent the first day of March in London, picking up my biometrics residents permit, which allows me to go in and out of the UK freely, and I also met up with Alice, who took me to various places. We had a traditional English pub lunch of fish and chips, and wandered around Borough Market where I got a Baileys chocolate cheesecake. We walked to St Paul's Cathedral (via a few Pokemon spawns) and went inside briefly to attend mass, as it was Ash Wednesday. Normally £18, entry was free as long as you actually sat down for the service. Night fell as we got to Soho and Alice left to meet another friend. I continued wandering as I wasn't quite hungry yet, catching more Pokemon, because I just wanted to pass time, and then got an average steak dinner before taking the bus back to Oxford. It would have been close to midnight when I arrived, just in time for all the drunk people to be wandering the streets, and let me tell you, drunk English people are not fun.
Walking around London was interesting, because there's a lot to see. The landmarks are all so well known and to see them in real life is quite gratifying. But I have to say, if the Japanese are extremely orderly people, and the Canadians walk on the right side of the footpath religiously, then the English are chaotic and haphazardly wander down the street on all sides of the path. It's certainly a different place.
My blog has been having a few issues too. For some reason, the comments query suddenly spiked in memory usage, causing the database to return an empty set due to overallocation. Furthermore, I finally managed to install working versions of Apache, MySQL and PHP on my laptop thanks to WAMP, but it wasn't all smooth sailing and I'd rather not have to do anything like that again.
Monday February 27, 2017
I've finally made it to the United Kingdom, where I'm boarding temporarily in Oxford until I figure out what I want to do. It seems there is a high administrative overhead in opening a bank account, getting a tax number and finding a flat, and of course London is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The weather is exactly as I've expected it to be - cloudy and wet - but it is winter after all, and I expect it to warm up over the next couple of months.
It was a very early start in Reykjavik - 5am to be precise - to get to Keflavik Airport on Saturday, but the flight was short and I arrived in Gatwick just before noon with no problems at immigration. The bus to Oxford took two hours but at least it had free wifi. The first thing I noticed upon arriving is how gorgeous the buildings are; so full of character and rich with history. The food scene is apparently quite lacking here, but I'll be exploring the city tomorrow and will give you a proper opinion after I have experienced it myself.
I have at least managed to obtain a local SIM card for myself, and fortunately this deal allows me to roam around Europe with 12GB of data each month at no additional cost. Again, obtaining this was not a trivial exercise and reinforced the notion that bureaucracy is rife here. The app for managing my account and usage was only available in the UK App Store, so I had to create a new account in order to download it, and honestly I was rolling my eyes so hard at just how unnecessarily complicated things can be. Despite all this, it's all sorted now, and I've even managed to catch the fourth regional Pokemon, Mr Mime. That leaves Heracross (South America) and Corsola (equatorial countries), thanks to Generation II dropping a week ago.
Saturday February 25, 2017
There's something in the ice in Iceland that makes it much more serene than in Canada. Certainly at this time of year, the soft covering of pristine white snow around the city makes it more picturesque, and even more so in the countryside.
Upon arriving in Reykjavik, I had some time to kill before checking in, so I wandered around town for a bit. I'm staying on a hill near a massive church, with a tower that overlooks the whole city. The view from the top is the highest point in Reykjavik and seeing the city come alive as the sun rose was magical. Afterwards, I walked into the CBD and visited a volcano museum, which happened to be staffed by a guy who studied at Victoria University in Wellington, so that was a good yarn indeed. I continued on to various locations around town, stopping for lunch (I got grilled plaice and lobster!) and for shelter during the snow storm. I wanted to go to this highly rated Icelandic restaurant for dinner but they didn't have space available, so I went to a steakhouse and got some steak.
Yesterday I went on a tour around Iceland's southern coast. It was jam packed with sightseeing, we visited Skogafoss Waterfall, which has water from the infamous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, then the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach for lunchtime where I got some expensive fish and chips. The tour continued to the Solheimajokull Glacier, where we hiked for a few hours onto the glacier itself, admiring (and avoiding) some large crevasses all over the terrain. There was the opportunity to go down and explore one of them, but unfortunately we didn't have time. There were a lot of groups on the glacier and we opted to hike further up to watch the sunset colours light up the white snow and blue ice.
We stopped by the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall on the way back, which we missed that morning as there were too many people around it. You can walk behind it, but at that time of night it would have been suicidal, so we took a few photos and then I got dropped off for the aurora hunting tour.
Four minibuses scoured the southwestern coast of Iceland for a dark spot with no light pollution and clear skies. We found the Strandarkirkja church and waited for a bit but to no luck. A snowstorm started picking up so we bundled back onto the buses. Unexpectedly, about an hour later on the way back to Reykjavik, we found a large campfire by the side of the road and all four buses pulled over - "we have lights!!" came the excited call over the intercom. We all rushed out to gawk at the night sky and sure enough, overhead, visible but faint, were these curtains and pillars of green light, moving slowly and fading in and out of view.
The shots you see on Google image search are all taken with long exposures on fancy cameras so completely not representative of what you see in real life. What the cameras don't capture is the movement, the ghostly shimmering of the aurora borealis as it dances across the sky. It was a very memorable experience for me, it's definitely one that I can check off on the bucket list. Of course I'd like to take every opportunity to see more aurora, especially in different colours.
I was back at the hostel close to 2am and today it's completely whited out with snow. They cancelled the whale watching trip I was supposed to go on and it does look quite miserable outside, so it might just be a quiet rest day today.
Wednesday February 22, 2017
A high school friend of mine met me at Niagara Falls and took me for lunch at a nearby winery before heading back to the falls for an Escape Room. Themed around science in one room and art in the other, we worked effectively as a team of five and a half to solve all the puzzles with 25 minutes to go - this room had an 18% success rate! Feeling pleased with ourselves, we walked down the river path towards the actual waterfall.
It's hard to put into words or even pictures how magnificent the Niagara Falls are. The view from the Canadian side is definitely superior, as you get a better angle of both sets of falls. Furthermore, it was such a sunny day that the spray from the river produced a fine pair of rainbows, making the sight truly memorable.
We went home to Waterloo and played some games before retiring for the night. The next day was pretty relaxed, and as it was a public holiday, my friend had the day off too. We went to the next town over to visit a VR Arcade called Ctrl V. It's exactly what you think it is - a set of cubicles with the HTC Vive wired up for you to play in for an hour. There were some really fun games in there - no Into the Dead though. My favourites were a simple shooter where you shot flying pods and dodged their bullets in turn, and a stand-your-ground zombie shooter that provided some fantastic shock and scare moments!
We ended up playing board games again that night, one called Tales of the Arabian Night, which is a controlled, shortened version of Dungeons and Dragons. My character had a horrible time, but the game was kinda fun.
Today I swam for a bit, but struggled with my sore shoulder, and also walked around Waterloo. My friend works at the University of Waterloo, so I met him for lunch, then detoured to an amazing board games and collectibles shop on the way home.
And now, I'm on the plane to Iceland. Forecast is partially cloudy with a 40% chance of aurora, increasing to 60% on Thursday - the exact date I am going aurora hunting!!
Monday February 20, 2017
My time in Toronto has come to a close for now. It's been a very enjoyable five days here, and the weather has been unseasonably warm and sunny too. I covered a lot of the city by foot, seeing many sights and revelling in the food scene here. Toronto is the world's most multicultural city so my mission this week was to eat at a different country each meal.
After arriving at Union Station, I checked in to the accommodation - a small lodging house - and had a rest before heading out towards the main shopping district. I ended up walking through the university and gay village too before settling for some ramen (Japan).
The next day, I walked down to the waterfront, then over to the CN Tower and Ripley's Aquarium. I really needed to use the bathroom so I ended up paying for a ticket to the aquarium, which turned out to be quite interesting. From there, I went to Chinatown and Kensington Market where I got some bulgogi and squid for lunch (Korea), then continued north and east to Queen's Park, and all the way back to the accommodation on the east side of town. There was a Thai place I wanted to try for dinner, but it was closed, so I settled for a veal parmigiana and a very large tiramisu (Italy) from a nearby place instead.
On Thursday, I went to St Lawrence Market and was overwhelmed with all the amazing produce on display. Every type of meat and cut imaginable, all sorts of seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, shelves of cheeses, maple syrup, pastas, antipasto, charcuterie, breads and pastries. I was so happy walking around and admiring all the food. I ended up getting a grilled salmon sandwich (Canada) for lunch.
I took the subway over to High Park and spent a few hours walking around there. Though it was cold, it was very sunny and pleasant, and there were lots of people walking their dogs. I was on the subway again to Ubisoft Toronto, where I got a sweet tour of the offices and caught up with an ex colleague whom I hadn't seen since he left New Zealand. It was getting close to evening, so I settled into a cosy pub called The Caledonian for some haggis (Scotland).
The new set of Pokemon from the Johto region dropped in Pokemon Go, so I spent much of Friday wandering around the CBD to see what I could catch. It was another brilliantly sunny day, so I went up the CN Tower - what a spectacular view from the top. The lake was glistening in the sun, the city still had patches of ice and snow, but for a winter's day, this was most enjoyable. I continued west back to Kensington Market for some tacos and nachos (Mexico) before wandering back to the house for a rest. At night, I trekked back into town for mixed grill platter from Paramount (Lebanon).
Yesterday was more of the same, aimlessly wandering around town and visiting various PokéStops off the beaten track. I really wanted dumplings (China) for lunch, so I went to Chinatown and got my fix there, and I wanted to end my time here with something a little fancy, so I found this French restaurant nearby and ordered their pâté, confit duck casserole and creme brûlée (France). Fantastic! What a great meal to remember Toronto by. I will definitely have to come back and explore all the options I have available.
Just as I got home for the night, a lady right outside the gate cornered me and gave me some bullshit excuse of being hungry and pregnant, asking for any spare change. I offered to buy her food instead but she didn't want any - she tried to get me to pay $60 for subway tokens but I ended up paying $15 to get her to shut up and go away. Not the nicest way to end my time here but I won't let this faze me. I've had a most enjoyable time here and I look forward to coming back when it is slightly warmer!
Wednesday February 15, 2017
I'm at Gare Central, waiting for my train to Toronto. It's been kinda miserable here in Montreal, for several reasons really, but mostly because the weather has been pretty terrible. Last week was painfully cold, so much so that it hurt to go outside. There were snow flurries over the weekend, making walking outside quite magical but still unpleasant. Yesterday was nice...ish, but the Botanic Gardens were closed. Oh well.
The hotel hasn't been that great either. I didn't have control over the floor heating so I was basically at the mercy of housekeeping, who put the temperature too high and I was even sweating last night. The room is quite noisy and I could hear a lot of traffic and people outside during the night. At 6am, demolition on the building next door starts, so really not ideal for a good night's sleep.
As a result of the weather, I've also generally felt quite unmotivated to look for food, though I did make it to Fairmount Bagels and Schwartz Deli. The bagels were really solid, but I didn't realise it didn't come with toppings - it was purely the bagel and nothing else. I ended up buying Italy's finest prosciutto and cheese at a ludicrous price, along with a really nice bottle of limeade. I had to wait outside for a seat at Schwartz Deli and to be perfectly honest I was a little underwhelmed at the sandwich. The meat was a bit dry and needed something more than mustard on the bread. The poutine was good though, and I totally see the importance of having good cheese curds. So, not all was lost, just not as amazing as I thought it would be.
Last night I went on Yelp to find somewhere nice to go for my last night in Montreal and I chose this well rated pub near the hotel. It was probably a 2/5 for me - I ordered a Filet Mignon with Brie and out came this massive plate with meat and fries and cheese. It was a hearty meal but way too much food and the cheese was almost sickening - and I actually had to...um...yeah, afterwards. I got a blueberry creme brûlée as well, which was subpar.
My time here hasn't been completely awful though. There was of course Distant Worlds on Saturday night which was so good that it made up for everything else. On Sunday, I went to the Biodome since that was indoors and really enjoyed it. I saw a capybara, a lynx, two otters, dozens of penguins, a porcupine, some fish, some birds and some bats. It was interesting seeing them cram four different ecosystems into this massive arena.
The weather is warmer in Toronto, and really, as long as it doesn't feel like death walking around, I'll be happy.
Sunday February 12, 2017
I spent the whole day in bed because it was cold and snowing outside - which is kind of novel for me, but I was quite miserable because I couldn't really go anywhere far without feeling like I was going to die. I ventured out to get lunch and dinner, but otherwise it was a pretty boring day to spend in Montreal.
Tonight, however, was the Final Fantasy Distant Worlds concert at the Place des Arts. Final Fantasy has been one of my favourite game franchises since I played FFVII back in 1997, and since then, I've played all the ones from FFIII to FFX-2, and will probably play FFXII, FFXIII and FFXV at some point. The music has been iconic - for who can forget those emotional, pivotal moments so beautifully captured with the perfect soundtrack? There was the poignant Aeris's Theme (FFVII), played as she is killed in the Forgotten Capital, the encouraging You Are Not Alone (FFIX), played as Zidane's friends fight along side him as he battles the gauntlet of Pandemonium, and of course, To Zanarkand (FFX), the hauntingly solemn song about the journey of Tidus and Yuna. These songs carry so much nostalgia and context behind them, but their true power is the ability to confer emotion to people who have never played these games before.
Distant Worlds has been around for 10 years now, and Final Fantasy for 30 years. I have longed to see a Distant Worlds concert for ages, and the closest I got was last year in Melbourne, when Andy and I saw the New World concert. Distant Worlds is a much larger, more powerful experience, and today in Montreal, we were lucky to be joined by Susan Calloway, the voice behind many of FFXIV's vocals, as well as RIKKI, the original voice behind Suteki Da Ne (FFX). The full set list tonight was:
- Victory Theme
- Torn from the Heavens (FFXIV)
- Character Medley ~ Terra, Kefka, Celes, Locke (FFVI)
- Balamb Garden (FFVIII)
- Rose of May (FFIX)
- Dragonsong (FFXIV)
- Cosmo Canyon (FFVII)
- Blinded by Light (FFXIII)
- Apocalypsis Noctis (FFXV)
- Chocobo Medley
- Man with the Machine Gun (FFVIII)
- Hymn of the Fayth (FFX)
- Zanarkand (FFX)
- Jenova Complete (FFVII)
- Suteki Da Ne (FFX)
- Fighters of the Crystal (FFXI)
- Not Alone (FFIX)
- Answers (FFXIV)
- One Winged Angel (FFVII)
I cried so hard at FFVI's Character Medley and at FFX's Zanarkand. Terra's theme has that hopeful beat, that sound of determination to overcome adversity, and Celes' theme has those beautiful notes which make up Aria di Mezzo Carattere. The choir sang Hymn of the Fayth a cappella, then immediately the musicians transitioned into Zanarkand with the first few notes on the piano - totally lost it then. That quietness of that intro mimics the part in FFX's ending where Tidus says "I'm sorry I couldn't show you Zanarkand.... goodbye", and for me, seeing Yuna fall through him was so heartbreaking. Such wonderful memories evoked by such powerful music.
Like in Melbourne, Arnie Roth, the conductor, invited the audience to join in with singing during One Winged Angel, and a chorus of 3000 strong provided a fortissimo "Sephiroth!" that bellowed throughout the auditorium. It was truly a memorable night, full of wonderful music that has stood the test of time for 30 years, and long may it continue.
Saturday February 11, 2017
I spent all of Wednesday flying. It was nine hours to Calgary and five hours to Montreal. The Pacific flight wasn't too bad, people had said Air Canada was average, but I found them okay. I watched Dr Strange for two hours and tried to sleep for the remainder, but I wasn't really tired.
It was dusk by the time I arrived in Montreal, and very cold already. I was unimpressed by the hotel, but at least it's warm. It's quite noisy though, and several times during the night I was woken by various noises from the street.
In the morning, I headed out to find a local SIM card to use for the two weeks I'm here. That in itself was a mission - the places I tried all charge exorbitant rates and they really screw you over with activation fees and what not, up to $50 in one case! Completely not worth it for a fortnight. I finally settled for a provider called Koodo which was still expensive at $40, but at least it wasn't $90 like Bell tried to charge me.
My wandering took pretty much the whole day, and that included going back to the hotel to find that the 3G connection wasn't working, and trekking back to the Koodo store to get it fixed. I had a really bad pho for lunch but dinner was much better at least. I also managed to catch my Tauros from near the hotel, so that just leaves Mr Mime for the regionals!
I was up quite early today, a bit jet lagged but really my body doesn't know what timezone it's in. I ventured out to grab some breakfast, hoping to take advantage of the sunny weather to see some sights, but it's -15C and it's actually painful to walk around. My face feels like it's being continually attacked with tiny needles, and it's unlike anything I've felt before. I promise to never complain about the cold in New Zealand ever again. I made it to Chinatown and stopped for some croissants before heading to Notre Dame, but couldn't tolerate it any longer so I headed back to the hotel to warm up again.
I don't understand how people live like this!! It's supposed to be warmer tomorrow but it's also supposed to snow.
Wednesday February 8, 2017
As I make my way to Narita Airport, I'm well and truly satisfied with my time here in Tokyo. I've had such a good time despite not knowing the local language, and I will definitely be returning some day to explore the rest of this beautiful country.
I covered a lot of things in my time here. On Sunday I was ahead of schedule so I decided to check out Tokyo Tower and Tsukiji Fish Market. My feet were still tired from all the walking so it was good to take it easy. At night, I remembered that I needed to book tickets for the Square Enix Cafe, so I enlisted Amy's help to navigate the website. It took a while and a bit of back and forth, but I ended up having to go to a Lawsons store to print out and pay for my ticket. What a hassle this turned into - there were no English instructions, I didn't know which numbers to put where, and I ended up having to ask the store clerk for help. He asked me to write my name down so that he could translate it to enter into the machine and FINALLY I got my ticket.
Amy had also given me a recommendation from a food blog for this place in Shibuya, but there when I arrived, the alley was dark and deserted, and there was no signage. I thought to myself this will be an adventure in itself, so I went in and enjoyed a very good and satisfying meal.
On Monday, I covered Akihabara, Ueno, Senso-ji and Tokyo Sky Tree, getting myself a Senor Don Gato plushie from a claw machine in Akihabara and a Pikachu in Mega Gardevoir hoodie from the Pokemon Center. I think this would have been my favourite day, just because of all the excitement of the arcades and the Pokemon Center. There were so many soft toys and figurines around, some massive models of Solgaleo and Lunala, the Sun and Moon mascots, as well as the three starters, Rowlett, Litten and Popplio. A special limited time Pikachu with Alolan Vulpix hoodie and Pikachu with Regular Vulpix hoodie were also available, but sadly I didn't have enough luggage space to buy everything I wanted.
I spent the late afternoon and early evening at the Tokyo Skytree, watching the sun set over Mt Fuji in the west. The expanse of buildings is phenomenal and watching the city lights slowly flicker on as night fell was magical. I had a tempura dinner back at Akihabara and then it was home for the night.
Yesterday I spent at Tokyo Disney Sea. Though the sun was out, it was rather blustery, making the day quite cold indeed. It meant that queuing outside for various attractions very unpleasant and it also meant that the final show, Fantasmic, had to be cancelled midway through. I did manage to go on Journey to the Center of the Earth, Indiana Jones, Tower of Terror, Raging Spirits and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with my only regret being the Raging Spirits rollercoaster. All in all, it wasn't too bad, just a bit sad that the day had to end with that cancellation.
This morning I was up bright and early to check out of the hotel and make my way back to Akihabara to go to the Square Enix Cafe right in the middle of Tokyo rush hour. After all the hassle of getting that ticket, I was determined to enjoy my time there and treated myself to a Moscow Mule cocktail and some snacks upon arriving. It was okay I guess, the food was nice and the merchandise was cool, but mostly focused around Final Fantasy XV.
Final thoughts: it would have been nice to know some basic Japanese or at least travel with someone who does. I managed to survive fine but probably missed a few things, especially food. The Japanese are very polite and orderly, and they are very advanced in some things, but other things, like e-commerce, are still lacking. There are vending machines everywhere but no rubbish bins. They really like queuing here. I need to come back with someone so I can go to karaoke.
Sunday February 5, 2017
Japan is amazing. It's everything I imagined it to be and more. Everything is so cute! Everything is so orderly! Everything is delicious! The weather has been good so far, sunny and pleasant to walk around in, but a little chilly at night time. It's certainly not shorts weather but it's better than some of the "summer days" that New Zealand got last month.
My Air Asia flight to Haneda was uneventful, but I did win the airplane lottery again and got the whole row to myself. The food was pretty good too! We landed earlier than expected and I made it through customs pretty quickly. I had planned to take a taxi from the airport to my hotel but decided to take the train since it was still operating. I ended up lugging all 30kgs of my life about 15 minutes, but the weather was mild and I got some good exercise. I was dripping with sweat by the time I got to the hotel though.
On Friday, I wandered aimlessly around Shibuya, visiting various shopping malls and enjoying the sights and sounds of the area, when I happened to spot the region exclusive Pokemon, Farfetch'd, on my nearby list. A bit of scurrying around and it appeared right outside the Shibuya Tokyo Rei hotel - and caught!
I was so lost in time that I didn't get to have lunch. I hurried off to the Ghibli Museum out near Kichijoji and was greeted by Totoro at the entrance. The guidelines say to wander freely with no set path, discover the many and beautiful things hidden inside. Truly the whimsy and wonder of the many worlds of Ghibli have been captured here. There is unfortunately no photography allowed inside so I must rely on my memory to revisit the many exhibits and displays of art all over the building. There's a showcasing of the "beginning of movement", and they're playing this beautiful piano piece from one of the films, and it's such an emotional song. I spent about an hour wandering around, and I'm getting hungry, so I set off to find this French patisserie place that Amy told me about in the opposite direction.
I arrive about 30 minutes later and I am not disappointed. It looks like Louis Sergeant with a few Michelin stars tacked on. I choose two desserts and I'm on my merry way back to the train station, but I spot a park in the sun on the way, so I sit down and devour the things I've bought - a giant hazelnut tower and a yuzu inspired cake.
I'm back at Shibuya at dusk, in time to witness the famous Shibuya crossing, where hundreds of people converge on a single intersection during green lights. I'm hungry still, and getting tired from walking around so much, so I find a ramen bar and play food roulette - I didn't know what to do with the vending machines so I just copied the dude in front of me and ordered what he got. It's delicious. The soup is full of flavour and the noodles are bouncy and soft. The lady next to me however has a massive bowl of pork and egg and I'm getting fomo, but what I have has satisfied me. I'm back at the hotel by 8pm and I pass out for a good 9 hours.
Today I met up with Tak who took me to a sushi train place for lunch. Holy moly. The sushi here is completely different to what you get in New Zealand. The freshness of the seafood is very noticeable, as is the quality of the vinegar in the rice. I'm almost moved to tears, everything is so delicious. The salmon especially is creamy and smooth, the unagi is sweet with a slightly crispiness from the blowtorch. I'm enjoying myself so much, this is a very memorable experience.
We take the train to Harajuku and wander around for a while, visiting the various shopping streets as well as Meiji Shrine and Togo Shrine. We stop by the Cookie Time store and under Raewyn's orders, I sing Let it Go from Disney's Frozen on the karaoke machine and receive a round of applause from the shop, as well as a jafa and hokey pokey cookie for my efforts.
I also visited the owl cafe around the corner. They're so damn fluffy and cute. For 1500 yen you can stay there a whole hour and you get a small drink too. Pretty worth it, in my opinion! As dusk fell, I went to a place called Red Rocks, another of Amy's recommendations, and got a massive stack of sliced beef with a raw egg cracked on top. Delicious again!
I made my way to Shinjuku and wandered the streets, looking at various arcades and bright lights adorning the streets. I bought some thermals from Uniqlo for super cheap as well. I saw the robot restaurant but it looked too busy so I gave it a pass. It was fun just enjoying the busyness of the area at that time, and the atmosphere and vibe.
A half hour later and I'm back at the hotel, nursing my sore feet. What an amazing two days!!
Thursday February 2, 2017
The remainder of my Malaysian holiday has been spent answering the question, "so what haven't you eaten yet?" We went to Klang for bak kut teh, went for a Japanese buffet, and had satay, roti and steamboat. We had a big dinner with dad's side of the family on Monday and I caught up with mum's side of the family on Tuesday.
My time here has been pretty quick but I've enjoyed it immensely. It's quite odd seeing Kuala Lumpur during this time - the shops are all closed for the festive season and the traffic within the city is actually pretty good while people are outstation. My family have spoiled me - they always do - and I will be forever thankful for that.
For now, I'm at KLIA2, the budget airline terminal, where I will be off to Tokyo in just under 90 minutes.
Sunday January 29, 2017
Food is love, food is life. That's pretty much the message being driven home at the moment, as we celebrate Chinese New Year in 2017. The first meal is always reunion dinner on CNY Eve, where I spent it with my father's brothers having a very lavish meal. In between, we followed the epic semifinals tennis match between Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov - what a game!
For the first day of CNY, all of dad's side of the family gathered for an epic lunch at my uncle's house - 28 of us in total. So awesome to see everyone again, and really a special time with family enjoying some delicious food. At night, we went to a friend's house in Tropicana where again we ate and drank like kings in an opulent house, perfectly designed for entertaining dozens of guests.
As we drew closer to midnight, we set off some firecrackers and fireworks - and what a show, much better than what Auckland Sky Tower puts on for the Gregorian new year!
Wednesday January 25, 2017
It's been pretty wet since arriving in Malaysia, which is odd for this time of year. Nevertheless, this of course has not stopped the steady flow of delicious foods into my mouth. My day is basically eating and sleeping, and it truly feels like holiday mode right now.
The flight from Auckland to Singapore was fortunately good. The people sitting next to me relocated to seats with more leg room, leaving me with the whole row to myself. I caught a good four hours of sleep, and felt quite refreshed upon landing at Singapore airport. I had a two hours layover, and there's lots to do there, so I busied myself wandering around the terminals, looking at the various gardens and koi pools. I had a quick squizz at the Butterfly Garden, but it was still dark outside, and it was raining, so I didn't stay for long. There were also several Pokemon decorations around as part of a promotion, and the main feature was an offer to get a plushie for $10 after spending $120 in the airport.
Singapore to Malaysia was pretty rough, and though we departed slightly late, we landed on time. However, the air train between KLIA terminals suddenly broke down, and immigration took far longer than expected, so it wasn't until close to noon that I actually got out of the airport. First meal - fried rice and wat tan hor!
I've never been back to KL for Chinese New Year. It's quite chaotic actually, there's much more traffic on the roads as people rush to buy last minute gifts or food, or head out station to their hometowns for reunion dinner. The rain has made the temperature quite bearable during a time when it is supposed to be over 30C, but of course, exacerbated the traffic jams.
The plan for the next few days will basically be just eating and catching up with family, though I managed to catch one of my ex-colleagues and his wife today. They took me out for banana leaf rice in Puchong, and, as greedy as we were, also went for lau sar bao, the golden duck egg yolk bun. Almost impossible to find in New Zealand, the authentic lau sar bao is salty and sweet, and has a slight grittiness from the duck egg yolk. The bun must be soft and almost cakey, and the inside should look like molten gold, spilling out as you take your first bite. So gooood.
Monday January 23, 2017
I'm sitting here on board my Air New Zealand flight to Singapore, the first of many flights over the next month, as I make my way over to the UK. I've spent the last month saying my goodbyes to various people from all aspects of my life, and in turn, receiving their well wishes for my journey ahead.
It hasn't really sunken in that I won't be in New Zealand for a while. I've lived here for almost 29 years and it will always be home to me. The past nine years in Wellington has been a journey in itself. I've come to realise my place in the world and what kind of person I am. I've gained confidence in how I interact with people and how I conduct myself at work. I've learned an immense amount about who I am and what I am capable of doing. I've met lots of people and made life long friends, and like the many friends who I grew up with in Auckland, they've helped shape me to become the person I am today.
But there comes a time in Kiwi's life where the call of adventure and travel beckons. We live so far away from everything and the world is such a big place. The drive to leave was also accelerated by the fact I wouldn't be eligible for the UK's youth migrant visa for much longer. So without a real plan or job lined up, I resigned from PikPok and bought a bunch of flights to the other side of the world. It's the classic Kiwi "I'll just wing it" attitude. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, and I still don't really know, but I know that I'm about to have a bloody good time travelling.
Sunday January 15, 2017
I had my farewell party at Southern Cross last Friday, and then a mega Final Karaoke at K Zone afterwards. So many people turned up, it was quite overwhelming! It was great to see everyone, especially those who I hadn't seen in a while. After karaoke, a small group of us went to Sassy Loves Cash for a bit, and it was around 3am that I finally got home. It was amazing. I had so much fun on Friday, and I'm going to miss these people who have been such an important part of my life for the past nine years.
In spite of my lack of sleep, I had my Final Badminton on Saturday morning, then yum cha at Regal. I was off to Wadestown for Andrew and Claire's farewell/engagement party too, and then back home to continue the big decluttering. I managed to fob off a lot of miscellaneous stuff to various people, so thanks for helping me out in that respect!
This morning was my Final Service at Central Baptist, and I had specifically requested to be on the piano to pay tribute to an amazing church that was so warm and welcoming to me those eight years ago. I love that the church continues to be so inviting to people across different life journeys, and that they encourage people to worship in a way that has integrity for themselves. It has been a blast serving on the music team, and I'm so happy I was able to bring a smile to people's faces with my cheeky playing style.
Thursday January 12, 2017
You'd think that being unemployed, I'd have a lot of time on my hands. I had planned to write tons of stuff for my food blog - I have a huge backlog dating back to my trip to Melbourne. My day actually fills up really quickly - I'm cleaning, sorting out rubbish, packing away belongings, running to the post shop, running to appointments, getting documentation, selling items and meeting people. I need to drop some stuff off at the City Mission, dump any discarded clothes in the Clothing Bins, and continue packing away all the things I won't be bringing overseas.
I've managed to complete my itinerary, with every flight, bus ride, train trip and accommodation all booked. Final little bit is to see what to do in each city!
Monday January 2, 2017
2017 is finally upon us. What a year it's going to be for me! In just over three weeks, I'll be starting my Big O.E. with the first leg of my journey from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.
The past year has been good for me. I'm very proud of Doomsday Clicker and the financial success that it's brought PikPok. It's been a fun project to work on, and exudes the signature polish and gorgeous art style that PikPok games have. It's got that quirkiness and humour, and those systems have been fun to write. I took on a greater role in recruitment and we hired some cool people over the course of the year - some of whom I won't actually get to work with! I leave PikPok with my head held high, knowing I've made a positive impact on the company and proud of what I've achieved in my nine years there.
I got to see the Final Fantasy A New World Concert in Melbourne, and almost exactly a year later, I will be seeing the Final Fantasy Distant Worlds concert. I walked Lake Waikaremoana and barely survived with a bung knee. I went to five weddings, played piano at one of them and was a groomsman at another. We saw the end of Strawberry Fare, but went hard with Wellington on a Plate. There was Little Penang's fifth birthday, mooncake festival, hot pot, yum cha, late night trips to see the glorious night sky, badminton, squash, crocodile biking, and of course, karaoke. There was Pokemon Go and the ensuing hilarity of me being interviewed by the NZ Herald and Flava, and scoring a mention on TV3's Seven Days.
2016 has been pretty memorable for me and it'll go down as a pretty crazy year.
I've been spending the last week catching up with family and friends. Jules, Mana and I did the drive from Wellington to Auckland on Christmas Eve without any incidents. Christmas was spent in Waiuku on my sister's in-law's farm with loads of food and presents for the nine children in attendance! On Boxing Day, I bought myself a new laptop (that I'm currently using to type all this up) and spent the rest of the day on the North Shore at Mat's house with the Pokemon Gang. On Tuesday, I took James and Navi around Auckland for a whirlwind tour, visiting Western Springs, Giapo and the waterfront to check out the massive cruise ship, Ovation of the Seas. On Wednesday, I met Jono and Charlotte for yum cha at Sun World, then Jordan, Tessa and Mana for Korean food and some arcade games. It was my sister's birthday on Thursday and we had lunch at Carriages Cafe in Kumeu, then I was back in town for Bryce's stag do. We had dinner at Elliot Stables, then did an escape room and had drinks at Dr Rudi's in the viaduct. Friday I had dinner with Mel, Jarrod, Jono and Charlotte at At Bangkok, then dessert at Ollie's, and then on New Year's Eve, I was out in Cockle Bay with Jono and Charlotte again.
I've even found time to go to the gym while I've been up here. It's nice to be relaxed enough that I can sort out all my travel plans and organise things for the trip, and fit in time to catch up with people, eat delicious food, and lift some weights.
Here's to 2017 and the surprises it will bring me.