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!