Monday, June 17, 2013

Mediterranean to the Alps '13

So here I am again.... another trip to Europe. I would say that I don't know what it is that keeps me coming back again and again, except I do. It's the wealth of culture and history europe has, it's the people, the food, and the unique and pristine landscape that each region offers.

So this time, I came to Europe, specifically to go to Austria to visit Peter. Before I came, we mapped out a road trip that covered nearly only the best Europe had to offer - Venice, Cinque Terre, Nice, Marseille, Chamonix, Murren, and Innsbruck.

Here are just some of the best and most funny times on our trip :D....

So in the early morning of April 22, we packed up the car and headed for Venice from Peter's house in Schladming. Our hotel - Hotel Alveri - was in Mestre, just outside of Venice, and turned out to be a hidden gem! The hotel was so modern, clean, quiet, and spacious... not to mention the hospitable staff . So our first day we arrived it was mid-afternoon and we wanted to venture the island for the rest of the day. The moment we stepped out of the bus and were finally on the island, it was mayhem, in terms of a literal torrential downpour of rain. Every single person was taking cover under any inch of roof or tarp possible. Even ourselves were a bit unsure about stepping out from under our protective arch.... but, we didn't want to waste our day and we wanted to put our 'waterproof' Arc'teryx jackets to the test :D. So we started walking down the canals (having not a clue where we were heading) ... and surely enough our jackets had kept us dry ... however, we ran into a slight issue in that we had nothing 'waterproof' on our lower-halfs ... hence my jeans were soaking wet and Peter ended up with what he described as "see-through pants" due to them being white. Nonetheless, it was hilarious. So after some time, the rain did die down but by that time, we were still walking down canals... until we came to the edge of the island, and looking around we had no idea where we were - there was no St. Marks tower in sight, no Rialto Bridge, no gondoliers, nothing.... I highly recommend people get a map before deciding to wander Venice ... there is a good possibility you will never find your way back! (There were actually a few times we had walked for an hour, to find ourselves in the same spot we started in... we found this hilarious!) ... We eventually found that we were in fact just on the other side from the Grand Canal. The rest of our day consisted of wandering aimlessly, drying off, and then deciding to eat dinner at one of the biggest 'tourist trap' restaurants in Venice, which thankfully now we find humour in. We ended up taking the bus back to the hotel's area quite late one night, and due to my genius idea, we decided it would be easiest to get off the bus that was directly in front of our hotel... minus the fact there were 14 sets of train tracks and a massive chain fence between the bus stop and the hotel (no big deal). I just figured there must be a set of pedestrian stairs or something to get over to the other side ... boy was I wrong. So once we figured out there were no stairs or sidewalk for pedestrians, we contemplated crossing the train tracks (14 sets) in the pitch black, until we realized that was not the smartest. Our next option was to walk all the way up the highway to the next exit, take the overpass over the tracks, and walk all the way back to the hotel (that was directly across from the bus stop we just got off at). Well, we started walking, kept walking, and kept on walking some more.... until a couple blocks from our hotel we hear a car slow down and roll down his window and hear him say "hey guys, get in!" ... it ended up being the night auditor at our hotel that had shuttled us to the bus station earlier that day. What a pleasant surprise it was to see him, haha! We were so thankful for him stopping to pick up us that we tipped him 10euros... he was a sweetheart. Venice all together, was an awesome experience ... it's totally one of a kind and has such a unique pace ... I found it to be very beautiful and rich city!

After several attempts asking different gas stations directions for getting out of Venice and then ending up going in circles around the same roundabout multiple times, we went on to Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre - the italian riveria. The 15 minutes leading up to our arrival into Riomaggiore, we could immediately tell that this region was going to be like anything else we'd ever experienced or imagined... we were winding in and out of the coastline atop a mountainside, it literally took our breaths away. Our first day we checked in with our host, and went down to the mini harbour of Riomaggiore. We were stunned by the vastness of the coastline and beauty and bright colors of the village. That night we made a reservation at a restaurant directly at the harbour recommended by our host... and it was in no way a disappointment... the freshest seafood you could imagine. In fact, as we were eating the local fisherman were bringing in the day's catch right in front of us. Before we arrived, we were set on hiking the Cinque Terre trail that links all 5 villages along the coast and takes about 5 hours to complete... So our second day, we took a morning ferry (not by my choice.... Peter :P) over to the farthest village Monterosso, to be able to hike our way back to Riomaggiore. Monterosso introduced Peter and I to the 'squat' toilet system ... it was quite an experience for us both (eeek). From Monterosso, we took the trail onwards to Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarolo, and then back to Riomaggiore. We were told at the beginning of the trail that from Corniglia to Riomaggiore was closed due to rock slides and trail maintenance... but Peter and I were determined and we opted to give it a try anyways, because the views from the trail were just too good to pass up. It turns out we weren't the only ones, and it was totally hike-able, however there was clearly some trail damage. Peter and I would have missed out on a seriously amazing experience and hike had we not actually gone ahead and continued on the trail... the views were incredible and the hike allowed us to enjoy a variety of wildflowers, lemon and orange trees, and birds-eye-views of each village. As Peter and I passed Vernazza on the ferry earlier in the am, we noticed one particular restaurant at the top of a massive rock-face over looking the sea... so when we descended into Vernazza we were determined to make a reservation for dinner later that evening at that particularly 'awesome location' restaurant. We came back for dinner later that evening and ordered one of the most delicious meals we both have ever tasted. It was (as stated on the menu) "a pasta dish for 2, served Vernazza style" ... what arrived in front of us was one heaping dish of pasta with a variety of fresh seafood mixed in a rich tomato sauce. We paired it with a bottle of local Cinque Terre, white wine :D. Together, they were hands down - amazing. It was totally by luck and to our delight that the restaurant's quality was as good as the views from the restaurant... a double win. Even to this day when we reminisce of this dinner, we can't help but to lick our lips and close our eyes remembering all the flavours of the dish. Of course, the icing on the cake was that our table granted us an ocean and sunset view. It was beautiful. The Cinque Terre has got to be one of the most tranquil and extraordinary places on our planet.

Next, we were off to Nice, France with a quick stop in Monaco seeing all there really is to see - the Monte Carlo casino, the Grand Prix track, and the harbour. After we checked into our hotel in Nice, which was 1 block from the beach, we obviously headed straight for it. Miles and miles of ocean stretched as far as we could see in nearly all directions ... and the most crystal turquoise waters we both agreed we'd ever seen. Our entire time there, we didn't run short of things to take pictures of ... as Peter says again and again "Nice was such a positive experience!" ... Nice has the convenience and beauty of the ocean and a little mountain called Castle Hill along the coast that overlooks all of nice and the port. We enjoyed fantastic dinners both eve's complete with chocolate mousse, seafood, steaks, and apple pie. Overall, Nice was really nice!!

Our drive from Nice to Marseille was short but rewarding as it gave us beautiful views driving parallel to the sea, then past the 'grand canyon' of europe - The Verdon Gorge, and finally into Marseille. Coming into Marseille, I didn't know what to expect.... Now being there, I would describe it as a place that lacks a lot of energy and life. All the buildings are very monotone, and this really in a way 'sucks the life out of the city' - which is the total opposite of Nice, just 2 hrs away. The streets were quite dirty and every single car on them seemed to have been in a serious accident having numerous scratches and dents in them. Then there were the buildings which were old and looked as though they were going to fall apart any minute (worrisome). Despite this, and the fact that Peter and I had some rather disturbing encounters with some odd locals, as well as having horrible luck trying to find a restaurant open on a Monday evening ... there were some positive and unique things to see and do as a tourist. First off, the harbour is spectacular... so vast and filled with hundreds of different types and styles of cool boats. Secondly, our hotel - Residhome Saint Charles Marseille - was an absolute 180 experience from what we expected to encounter based on previous reviews from travellers online, it was seriously such a great find... i think it was even the cheapest hotel out of our whole trip and yet we had a suite with all the amenities needed, a king sized bed, and only 15min from the Old Port! Lastly, this was our first stop where were privileged enough to find our first Starbucks on the trip on a scorchingly hot day that was forecasted to have rain and where we dressed accordingly for that! As sad as this may be, this was one of the highlights of our time spent in Marseille... long live Starbucks' cold beverages!

Monday, August 1, 2011

back home in canada now...

I've now been back home in Canada for about a month... it feels so so good to be 'home'. What I've done in the last 11 months feels incredibly surreal though. Coming back home... the city, the people, the 30 degree summer weather... nothing seems to have changed. It is so strange to think that I have just completed travelling 13 countries in 11 months, while living in England and going to university there, and to think how much this experience has changed me as a person, and yet my hometown of 90,000 people appears to have been frozen in time these last 11 months.

Although there's no place like home, and it feels awesome to be home in a familiar scene, I of course miss the amazing people that were such a huge part of my experience abroad. I knew before I left, that it wouldn't be the places I would miss the most, but the people for sure. They completely took me in, and showed me different aspects and attitudes of life and other cultures that people often overlook.

I've come to realize that this experience cannot translate to words. No matter how long or how hard I try to explain to anyone the journeys I had, the hard times, the good times, the people I met, the different foods I tried ... everything ... I get the same blank 'head-nod' from everyone. From this reaction I can tell that they will never fully understand how extraordinary my time in Europe these last 11 months was. One really has to 'do' it to understand its significance.

Below I've written the words that to me, that best describe my experiences.

Friday, June 3, 2011

... The Kindness of Strangers

So a little while back I bought this book at a cool travel book store I found near Covent Garden in London. I bought it o read while I was travelling, waiting for planes and trains. It's called The Kindness of Strangers, written by Lonely Planet, and it's about all different kinds of travel experiences that the authors had while travelling, but with a twist... it's about complete random acts of kindness by absolute strangers they had experienced while travelling.

The book has a preface by the Dalai Lama which reads:
If we really think about it, our very survival, even today, depends upon the acts and kindness of so many people. Right from the moment of our birth, we are under the care and kindness of our parents; later in life, when facing the sufferings of disease and old age, we are again dependant on the kindness of others. If at the beginning and end of our lives we depend upon others' kindness, why then in the middle should we not act kindly towards others?

Honestly, as soon as I started reading this book, it made me realize of how many random acts of kindness from complete strangers I have gotten through all of my travels .. but I really never want to forget about them, so I wanted to write about them on here.

Cairo, Egypt:
I think I wrote about this previously, but it was honestly one of the moments of my time in Egypt I will definitely never forget. I was by myself and had taken a taxi back to our hotel from a park in Cairo I was at with some friends. However, the taxi driver didn't really know English, yet he seemed to understand on the map, where my hotel was. Firstly, the man made me quite uncomfortable while I was sitting in his taxi, as he repeatedly told me how beautiful I was. Secondly, I felt as though the car was going to break down any second and it was filthy dirty and had sand everywhere inside. So, after about 10 minutes in the car, he comes to this street and says "ok, here you are" so I look out the window and thought to myself "I don't recognize anything here, maybe the hotel is just down the street a little... I'm sure I can find it." So I paid the man, get out and start walking. Sure enough, I have no idea where I am and I don't see any building with the name Victoria Hotel on it... and of course I'm dressed in shorts and a t-shirt because it's about 42°C outside so I'm getting stares from the locals. I'm so lost at this point, but then I see a bunch of national guards standing on the street dressed in white uniforms. So I came up to them and asked them if they are aloud to speak to me while on duty and they replied "yes." I ask them if they know where the Victoria Hotel is and they all chat amongst each other and say "no"... but one guards gets up, walks away, goes into some building down the street, and comes back with this little book. He hands it to me and tells me to find the name of my hotel in this book (it was some sort of old travel guide book). I point at the hotel name in the book, and underneath it it is written in Arabic. The guard then takes a piece of paper, writes down the name and address in Arabic. He has me walk with him as he waves down a new taxi for me and tells the driver in Arabic where I want to go and negotiates a price of 5 Egyptian Pounds (about $1) to go there. The driver agreed, I got in, and he took me straight to my hotel.

Salzburg, Austria:
This was back just before New Years, and I had taken Ryanair from London to Linz, Austria, and from there was taking a train to Salzburg. While I was waiting for the train, I made friends with a British man who lives just outside of Salzburg. We caught the same train and chatted the whole train ride. He had asked me where I was staying in Salzburg and I said a hostel, but that I hadn't booked it yet. So he offered me his Blackberry to search for a hostel online to go to. As I looked at the site, I saw that actually all hostels in Salzburg were completely booked, and I really didn't expect this. I told the man I'm sure that there will be an opening at a hostel somewhere (hopefully). He appeared quite worried about me and gave me his cell number and name in case I couldn't find anywhere to stay... he said he had friends directly in Salzburg center that I could probably stay with if I needed to. I eventually did find an opening at a hostel in the center, but later I sent the man a text thanking him for his generosity.

Zurich, Switzerland:
I also did some CouchSurfing while I travelled. So I was in Lucerne at the time and had sent a girl an email asking if I could stay with her for one night while I was in Zurich. She replied back to me saying yes, but that at the time my train was due to arrive in Zurich, she would be at her work, a hotel, until 11pm... but if I was still interested despite this, that I could come pick up her house key from her at the hotel and then let myself into her house. I told her that if that is alright with her then that would be great! So the girl gave me the address to her work and I took a tram there from the main train station. I came up to the front desk and introduced myself to her, and she gave me a map on how to get to her house, told me how to open the door, and gave me the keys! How trusting right?! So I toured around Zurich for a few hours first, and then around 10pm went to her place. When I opened the door I had seen she set out a little mattress with blankets and a pillow for me already in her living room. I was pretty tired from travelling all day so I went right to bed. I heard her come home at about 1130pm, and she just closed the door to living room as to try not to not wake me. The next morning I was leaving Zurich and had to be at the airport by 1pm. We had planned to go for breakfast that morning, and she knew I had to be on my train out to the airport by noon, but at 10am she was still sleeping and I didn't want to wake her because I knew she got in kind of late last night... so instead I left a note on the bed saying "hey, I'm going to the center to grab some breakfast, I know you're probably pretty tired from work yesterday so don't worry about it. If you wake up before noon, give me a text and we can meet up - Brittany".... however, I never heard from her. So, literally, I had never even had an actual conversation with this girl, yet I slept in her house overnight and had been given her keys to her house.
It really showed me that there are really trusting and nice people out there.

These really are just a few of the acts of kindness people have shown me during my travels. More so than the destinations themselves, what I remember of my travels are the people I met.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I AMsterdam!

I just got back from Amsterdam a couple days ago and it was awesome!

I took the Eurostar from London to Brussels, then transferring trains onwards to Amsterdam.

The first thing I noticed is that nobody in Amsterdam drives... everyone bikes. The bike has replaced the car in The Netherlands! When I told my hosts that I drive a car at home in Canada,  they looked at me like I was insane! But then I explained that in Canada everything is so much bigger and if I tried to bike from one end of my city to the other, it would take me hours.

The first day I got there, the host I was staying with brought her bike to come pick me up from the train station and she was like "well hop on, we've got a 20 min bike ride" and i was like "... but i have a suitcase?" and she was like "just roll it behind us!" So here I am sitting sideways on the back of this bike while she peddles, and I am rolling my suitcase behind the bike! For any of us not from the Netherlands, this would've looked hilarious... but to them it was totally normal. It was one of the funniest things I've ever done in my life and probably ever will do.

I didn't really know what to expect in Amsterdam. After 2 days of being there, I still felt like I hadn't really seen anything.... but then I kind of realized something - that Amsterdam, even though it's as infamous as say London or Paris, it doesn't really have the sights like they do. I didn't see any monuments (similar to Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower), or anything else of this nature. Instead I realized that Amsterdam was more about the people and their lifestyle; their bike-culture, the laid-backness of the people, strolling along the canals, lounging in the squares, and the unique architecture of the houses and buildings ... this is the culture of Amsterdam. And of course you can't forget the famed Red Light District and the Coffeeshops.

If you plan on going to the Anne Frank house, be well aware of the que times. I was quite interested in doing it, however the ques were about 3 hours long before the house had even opened. Personally, I didn't have this kind of time to kill during my time in Amsterdam!

My hosts also took me to this incredible garden/park called Vondelpark. Since it is April, all the flowers were starting to bloom and it was just beautiful! This park is extremely popular with the locals. You will see tons of people of all ages enjoying picnics and drinks on the grass and benches here. I highly recommend this park for a stroll if you need some down-time from wandering the streets.

For me, Amsterdam was a different kind of holiday... but definitely in a good way and I would love to return one day!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Edinburgh!

Edinburgh, so I've read, is one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe... and I totally concur with this claim now that I've been there myself.

Edinburgh has an almost medieval appearance with a fortress style castle overlooking the city and completely monochromatic buildings throughout. The buildings themselves each look like medieval castles of some sort.

At the north edge of Edinburgh is the North Sea. Surrounding the city however, are quite lush green rolling hills; one of which is called Arthur's Seat and is a hot spot for tourists to hike up to to get incredible views of Edinburgh, nearby villages, and the North Sea coastline. It's actually an extinct volcano, as is the hill that Edinburgh Castle is built upon.The Castle of course also provides some panoramic views of Edinburgh below and is easily reachable by foot.

Another notable vantage point for pictures are up on Calton Hill where you'll find some interesting monuments including an Athenian Acropolis. It only takes about 5 minutes to get to the top from the Regent Road staircase on the Southside.

Also in Edinburgh is the Palace of Holyroodhouse which is the Queen's official residence when she's in Scotland. It's directly across the street from the Scottish Parliament. It's a very modern and rather artsy building, built just in 1999. Tourists can go inside, so I did. It was neat to see some of the acts and commissions that have formed the laws in Scotland today and also see the debating chamber where all assemblies take place. I saw one of the acts which in 1457 banned all golf and football (soccer) because King James II wanted people to practice archery instead so they could be more useful in defence for the country.

Edinburgh doesn't have any shortage of places to go or things to see, especially with the infamous shopping streets: the Royal Mile and Princes Street.

The city has a lot of green space which makes up for the lack of color everywhere else in the city.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Swiss-land!

For Easter in England, we got two weeks off from uni so I though it would be a prime time to do some travelling. I flew from London to Basel, Switzerland with Easyjet and guess how much it cost me round-trip.... 57GBP which is around 100CAD! In comparison to Canadian flight costs, this is dirt cheap! 

I flew into Basel because I have some friends who live there, who were study abroad students in my program in Canada. Basel is a very artistic city with tons of modern art sculptures and with murals and paintings on almost every building. The city has the Rhine River flowing through it, with several park benches lined along it for those to enjoy the beautiful scenery.


For it being April in Switzerland, it was considerably warm when I was there! Somewhere around 25°C... I even had tan lines! The first night I got there my friends had already bought me a ticket to the International Music Festival, also called Les Museiques that plays in Basel every year.  It's a massive event that is very popular and was totally worth going to! The festival includes various genres of music, played in numerous different museums and art venues all over Basel, and your wristband/ticket gets you into each of them. You just hop on a tram and go from one to the next! 


From Basel I caught the train to Lucerne. Lucerne is amazing! The city, Lake Lucerne, and the 3 major mountains surrounding it: Mt. Pilatus, Mt. Stanserhorn, and Mt. Rigi. Lucerne is a total postcard-picture-perfect spot. It's also a 'walking city'. I didn't have a map or guide, and I ended up finding all the main sights on foot by myself. Here's my favourite spots:


- the Chapel Bridge: an icon of Lucerne. The wooden bridge actually caught on fire in the 90's and had to be re-built, but the tower is still the original structure.


- the old city wall: this medieval wall was built in the 1300's and are mostly still in tact!


-the Lion of Lucerne: this lion monument carved out of the cliff face, was built to commemorate the more than 600 Swiss soldiers who lost their lives during the French Revolution when the Tuileries Palace in Paris was invaded


Being in the center of the Alps I couldn't resist the urge to go to the top of one of these incredible mountains. So from Lucerne I took a train to Goldau, and connected with a Cogwheel train that took me to the top of MT. Rigi on the opposite side of Lake Lucerne. It's in the north-eastern Alps with a summit of 1,797m. Towards the North you see a flat Switzerland of tiny cities and villages, and towards the South are the major peaks of the Alps; no human life, just mountains.


I finished my trip in Switzerland with Zurich. There's the typical 'Old Town' of Zurich with historic churches, monuments, and buildings, and then you come to Lake Zurich which splits the city along 2 banks. I walked for about a 1/2hr past the 'Old Town' along the lake and got some gorgeous pictures with the Alps in the backdrop. 


From what I could sense, Zurich has a bit of everything: culture, accessibility, nature, and it seems very multi-cultural. Although of course, you can sense the typical commerce vibe that most major capitals have.... "busy, busy, busy, go, go, go".


I didn't expect to love Switzerland as much as I did, but I was actually really sad to leave! I wouldn't argue that it's one of the most beautiful countries in the world.


Until next time...  

Tschüss!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Slovenia: Ljubljana, Postonja Caves, & Lake Bled

One of my university professors once asked my class "do you know what the most romantic country is?"... the answer... "sLOVEnia because it has the word LOVE in it!" 

I don't know many, maybe not even anyone who has actually been to Slovenia. It just isn't as "on the map" as it's neighbouring countries to the west like Italy or Germany. But I wanted to come to Slovenia for the reason that this was the country my grandpa was born in, in the capital Ljubljana. 


I took a train from Flachau, Austria where I had spent New Years with some friends, to Ljubljana which was a very very beautiful train ride through the Julian Alps.


When I was checking in the girl at the front desk needed my passport... so I gave it to her, she looked at it and said "Klanchar (the actual pronunciation), you are Slovenian!? Do you speak Slovenian?" I was like "yeah, my grandpa was born here... and umm no, I don't speak anything but English!" I will assume it's a common name in Slovenia!?


I arrived quite late in Ljubljana but didn't want to waste any time so I headed out right away. The city was covered in heavy thick fog, which made it difficult to see but I read somewhere that Ljubljana is actually known for it's fog... apparently they have fog 121 days a year!


After grabbing dinner, I headed back to my hostel for a night's rest to set out again in the morning. In the morning I picked up a map at the tourist office. Everything was very central because Ljubljana is actually almost like an island, with the Ljubljanica River circling around the city like a ring. When you look at an ariel view of the city, the Ljubljana castle sits atop a  lush green hill right in the middle.


My day included all the major sites - the Ljubljana castle, town square, famous bridges (like the Dragon Bridge and the Triple Bridge), a few cathedrals, the Ljubljana university, a farmer's markets, town hall, and the Slovenian parliament building.


The city is quite old, which is evident just by the look of the buildings and the damage done from the earthquakes/floods. Actually, the infrastructure of the city is in quite poor condition because of these disasters.


I recommend the castle for anyone visiting Ljubljana because it can award you some very outstanding views. There are two options for those wanting to get to the top - a funicular (for a fee) or the walking trail (which has some steeper inclined sections but is free to do). 


Some small interesting facts I learnt were that:

- the Dragon is the symbol of Ljubljana, representing power and courage. (You can see it on many signs and statues around the city).
- Ljubljana is on the south part of the Eurasian Plate and therefore has had several earthquakes as well as floods in the past, 2 of which were quite severe
- After the devastation of the earthquakes and a flood, Ljubljana was re-built in similar style to Graz and Salzburg in Austria
- Slovenia is the 3rd most forested country in Europe (after Sweden and Finland), according to their tourism website

One of my days in Ljubljana was spent going to the Postojna Caves, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Slovenia and biggest Karst caves in the world, which are about 20km long and 2 million years old! The guided tour was available in multiple languages, split into different groups for each and lasted about 1.5hrs. The inside of the caves are relatively warm but make sure you wear a waterproof jacket and enclosed shoes! Some of the Karst columns and formations are literally jaw-dropping, their size is incredible! If your schedule allows it, don't miss Postojna Caves!


My last day in Slovenia was spent at Lake Bled. The lake has an intense emerald green color, and in the centre of it is a petite islet with a cute church on it... this lake is truly a picture perfect spot! From what I got, there was not a whole lot more you could do there other than walk around the lake, rent a boat to paddle around the lake in, or walk up to Bled Castle which was on a steep cliff overlooking the lake. Because of this, I couldn't imagine spending any more than one or maximum two days in Lake Bled. Nonetheless, make sure to stop for a picture or two if your passing through the area!


I think that's all... I hope you liked the post and get to enjoy some of the beautiful sights Slovenia has!

Adijo!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Stockholm - 'The Capital of Scandanavia'

Just got back today from Stockholm - went with a friend from uni for the weekend :)

I think it's become one of my new favourites! With a fresh sprinkle of snow sprinkled against the brick colored buildings, Stockholm had a totally refreshing and relaxed feeling unlike anywhere else I'd been.

Fun fact: Did you know Stockholm is made of 14 islands?

We went first to watch the 'changing of the guard' at the king of Sweden's Royal Palace, which is on 'Gamla Stan' known also as the 'Old Town'. It is right across from the Swedish parliament, which is on it's own separate island. After the ceremony, we took a tour inside the Royal Guest Apartments. Normally you can tour the actual Royal Apartments because the king's main home is Drottningholm Palace (just outside of Stockholm), but that particular weekend the monarch family was in Stockholm so we could only do the Guest ones.We also toured the Treasury where all the crowns, swords, and jewels are kept. Some of the things dated back all the way to the 1500's! Last at the palace, we toured an exhibition that showcased the wedding gifts to the Swedish Princess as she got married earlier this year in June. Some of the gifts included: drawings from local elementary schools, hand quilted blankets, paintings, and hand carved tables.

Another fun fact: Did you know the Princess of Sweden married her personal trainer?

We also made sure to make a reservation to go to the Absolut Ice Bar! The entire bar is made out of water from the River Torne and it's -5 inside all year round. Every year they do a different theme apparently; this year was an underwater/aquatic theme! There were marine life carved into ice blocks and the walls, and the drink menu had "aquatic" names. Everything possible was ice... the glasses, seats, and bar... Definitely a unique experience and one of the best yet! If you plan on doing the Ice Bar as well, I highly recommend you make a reservation as well because it is quite popular!

Also, the people of Sweden are some of the friendliest I've met while in Europe!
Overall... Stockholm's food (make sure you get some Swedish meatballs and smoked salmon), culture, and people were amazing and on top of that it was incredibly beautiful. I absolutely loved Stockholm and hope to be back soon!

Adjö!

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Tourist in London...

I've now started university in Bournemouth, and the first weekend the university offered a cheap trip up to London for the day for international students (coach & tour included), and since I've only gone through Heathrow and not into the city, I figured it was a good time to go.

Our guided tour took us around all the major sites:
- Big Ben
- Parliament
- Westminster Abbey
- Trafalgar Square
- Covent Garden
- Buckingham Palace
- London Bridge & Tower Bridge
- London Eye
- St. James & Hyde Parks

There are so many things to see and do so my strategy was to go and view all these places and then I'll come back another weekend or multiple ones and take my time going through each attraction and museum of interest.

Buckingham Palace is of course a must.... but incase you didn't already know, if the British flag (the Union Jack) is up then it means she is out of residence, and if it is her own flag (yes, she and all other royal family members have their own flag) then it means she is presently there.


I now understand why London gets put in comparison with New York. It feels like you are in the center of the universe because you have everything at the tip of your fingers... shopping, gastronomy, entertainment, commerce, culture, nature, everything! And the parks... they're HUGE (like 1/3 the size of all of London) they look just like pictures I've seen of Central Park in New York. There's lots of people running, playing soccer, horseback riding, etc. through them. 

There's far too much to do and see in London for only having a day or two... if you rush everything you might as well not even bother doing it. Now that I am 'based' in the UK for uni, I will make a lot of trips to London to see all that it has to offer!

Overall...
a great first experience to London

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wien/Vienna

After Prague, our next stop was Vienna! Vienna was the first city I came to in Europe back in 2006 and I really really love this city. It has very 'old European' architecture, and like all cities in Europe, it has a whole lot of history. Also the people are very friendly - it only took seconds for 2 different people at the train station to ask me if I needed help or directions!

Vienna has a great coffee culture, from relaxed cafes to very elegant elite cafes, and they are  always packed! Vienna is another city I really enjoyed walking around myself. There are so many interesting buildings, churches, and grand statues. Some of my favourite are
-St. Stephansdom Cathedral
-State Opera House
-the Hofburg's Imperial Palace (the family that ran the Austro-Hungarian empire for 800 years)
-Schonbrunn Palace (if you have time!)
-the building of the Austrian National Library

From Vienna, I left my Contiki group a day early and took a train from back to Peter's in Rohrmoos-Schladming which was about a 3.5 hr train ride. The day after I arrived it was my 20th birthday, so we went to the Dachstein Skywalk. If you are ever in this area of Austria and the weather is good, go here! It has unbelievable views overlooking snow-capped mountain peaks and deep valleys. The 'skywalk' is a glass platform where you look straight down 250 meters below! From the top you can even see the surrounding regions as far as the coast of Venice, Italy! It's absolutely stunning!

That's all for now, Auf Wiedersehen!
xx

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Berlin to Prague

I am now in Berlin!

When I first got into Berlin, I kind of had a strange feeling, but after a couple minutes I realized,  it was that I wasn't in Egypt anymore! I know it sounds stupid, of course I knew I was in Germany, but it was so strange because it was at that point that it hit me how different Egypt really is. For example, when I was in Egypt I didn't really want to go into any stores or restaurants (at least not alone) because they didn't look safe, there were hardly any that looked clean, and the shop keepers were extremely pushy. But then when I was walking from the train station to my hotel in Berlin, it was the first restaurant I saw and I had this feeling like I should go eat there because it looks really clean and I might not come across one like this again for a while! In the back of my head, I had the mentality I was still in Egypt! 

Anyways... while in Berlin for 3 days, we went to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Where 20,000 people were imprisoned, and which were mainly political people. Inside the camp you can still see sites like the gallows, barracks, prison, kitchen, watch-towers, and at the back of the camp through a gate is a mass grave site for the victims. A concentration camp is possibly the most solemn place you will ever visit in your life. It's the only "tourist" site I've ever been to where there were loads of people but everyone was so quiet it was as if there was nobody there at all.

There was a quote on one of the walls near a statue as a memorial for the victims that I took a picture of - "And I know one thing more - that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated, and hanged..." - Andrzej Szczypiorski, Prisoner of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, 1995.
.......

Our main points of Berlin included a walking tour throughout Berlin, going to a few museums, seeing parts still left of the Berlin Wall, going to the Brandenburg Gate, and to the Holocaust Memorial.

After Berlin, we drove to the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague. Wow, this is such a very beautiful city! The Vltava river runs through the city and is covered with many large beautiful bridges. You can get an incredible view of the entire city and river by going up to the Prague Castle, where the President of the Czech Republic resides. Other than the Prague Castle and it's view, I recommend going to the historic Charles Bridge and the famous Astronomical Clock. While out at night, make sure you go to the river bank and check out the Prague Castle all lit up, it looks so elegant! Rather than going to museums or talking a guided tour, I opted for just doing my own thing walking around Prague and seeing where the paths took me, which I really enjoyed.

Once in Prague, you definitely start to realize a more Eastern European way of life - in the architecture of the buildings, the prices of goods and services are cheaper, and not everything has been modernized like in Western Europe. It is quite interesting to see these differences for yourself. 

Well, that's all for now... gotta run!

Sbohem! (bye)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Egypt ... 'Where it all begins' continued


Egypt so far has been amazing, it's so much more than I expected it to be! This week, we've been busy checking out some of these ancient temples throughout Egypt....



Kom Ombo Temple
Inside Kom Ombo Temple, there are hieroglyphic writings on the walls which is proven evidence of the first Egyptian calendar. Lines drawn represented new days and circles represented the sun rising. This is how they knew what day it was, in what month, and when it was a new day!


Edfu Temple
Edfu Temple is possibly the best preserved temple in all of Egypt! At the back of the temple you will find an original metal boat and shrine. The metal boat was used by the people to bring offerings for the god of the sky Horus, to either approve or disapprove their offerings.


Luxor Temple
Luxor Temple is like a palace filled with magnificent columns and statues! In front of the temple is the Avenue of Sphinxes, which is a 3 km long stretch with statues that have the head of a human and body of a cat. You will notice the sphinxes stop at a road, and on the other side of that road they are excavating large gaps because they believe that there are more sphinxes under the ground which are undiscovered and they believe that they link Luxor Temple to another called Karnak Temple. Our group leader told us they have even evacuated people out of their own home and destroyed them to excavate underneath and that currently there is a big debate because there are 2 big religious sites, 1 church and 1 mosque, that they want to tear down in order to excavate under to find the remaining sphinxes. History and culture or religion? What's more important.... That's not a debate I want to be a part of. 



Karnak Temple
Karnak Temple is huge! It has 8 different entrances, and there is even a water reservoir inside the gates of the temple. At the end of the temple there is a statue of a Scarab beetle, which is a symbol of good luck in Egyptian mythology. So rumour has it, that if you walk around the statue counterclockwise 8 times you will have good health and luck for the rest your life! A lot of people were doing it – so we joined in too!

The Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings is totally incredible! Unlike all the temples we visited, it was built in the middle of the desert, on the west bank of the Nile, in behind the mountains as to protect the tombs. It has 63 tombs including the mummy of King Tut. I highly highly highly recommend going to the Valley of the Kings while in Egypt because this was a truly authentic tourist attraction - there is no show being put on simply to impress the tourists here. Going into these tombs where pharaohs are buried is a completely surreal experience.

A lots of the temples still had their original colorings... mainly bright blues and reds. Although you notice a lot of damage done by flooding of the Nile.


Almost everything represents something in Egyptian culture, 

- the Scarab beetle represents good luck

- a drawing of the Egyptian eye is for protection

- a Cobra snake is on the entrance of the temples so that the cobra will forever protect the temple

-the Lotus flower serves as the symbol of Upper Egypt and the Papyrus flower for Lower Egypt
- the Ankha has a straight vertical line to symbolize the Nile River and a loop to symbolize the Delta, then it has a horizontal axis like a cross to symbolize that the river is giving life to all of the land from the Nile to the Delta

Yesterday we went to the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Out of respect and tradition, we had to take off our shoes before entering and all women have to cover their arms and legs while inside. It’s very very beautiful inside. There was a huge chandelier in the center and 365 hanging lights (one for each day of the year). The women and men each had separate areas to pray. I learnt that in mosques the wall the people pray to always faces towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Therefore here the people pray towards the east but any mosque east of Saudi Arabia will pray to the wall of the west.

I've had some unforgettable experiences in Egypt, but now I'm onto Berlin!
maa al salama! (bye!)
xx

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Egypt ... 'Where it all begins'


From the moment I landed in Egypt, it took me by complete surprise. When people talk about having a 'culture shock', well this was that place for me. 

The first day in Cairo we went into the city, and it was somewhere just above 40˚C that day, so I decided to wear shorts and a tank top because for me that was absurdly warm! However, in predominantly Muslim countries like Egypt where the culture is quite conservative, nearly all the local women wear Burqas, covering their skin from head to toe. Despite the fact I knew this, I made the decision to still dress in my shorts and tank top... which I regret having done because I was ignorant to respecting this part of their culture. Also, by dressing the way I did I had a lot of attention drawn to me from both men and women... attention that I didn't want or need being a tourist. This unwanted attention got too much for me that later while we were at a small bazaar I bought a cotton scarf to put over my chest and shoulders. Once I did this I noticed that I wasn't getting anymore whistling by the men or stares from the women. After covering my bare skin, I felt more as though I could blend in.

Our second day in Cairo we went to the Pyramids of Giza. Two words: absolutely incredible. One of the highlights while visiting the Pyramids was going inside. You can go inside Kahfre's pyramid (the middle one) to his burial chamber for an additional fee of something like $6. You enter in from the second row of blocks and go down a ladder for about 40 feet in a tunnel about 3 feet wide, and then the next 40 feet you go up a ladder until you reach a massive room that has a scripture on the wall and an open tomb of where the famous pharo's son was buried. This was such an awesome experience, but not recommended for those who are at all claustrophobic! 

All around the Pyramids you can find people selling camel rides. After having done it, I would say that I do think it is worth it and it's pretty safe, however just make sure to check yourself afterwards for ticks (especially if you are wearing shorts or capris), because I found a tick on the back of my leg after I had jumped off the camel. Luckily though, it was only on the surface of my skin and I was able to flick it off right away. 

No visit to Cairo is complete without going to the Egyptian Museum. Here you can see thousands of pharaonic artifacts, royal mummies, and even the mask of King Tut. I quite enjoyed this museum!

The people of Egypt are very friendly however many of us on the tour experienced something we were not used to - people expecting you to tip/pay them for everything, and sometimes (more often than not) they came across quite rudely about it. Some were for normal things like the bellman at the hotel but the bellman at my first hotel in Cairo had actually just taken my suitcase out of my hand and brought it to my room without me even asking him to, and when I got into my room, the man was standing there refusing to leave until I tipped him. This I did not appreciate given I was rooming by myself and a female. 

Then yesterday we took the train from Cairo to Aswan, and when I got off the train we had to go down a few stairs to go to another platform, and when I went to put down my suitcase handle and carry it by the side handle in order to get down the stairs an old man (who was waiting at the top of the stairs) came up to me and put his hand right over top of mine and quickly swung my suitcase up on top his shoulder and just started carrying it down the stairs infront of me. I thought this man might be running off with my suitcase, so I chased him down the stairs, and when we got to the bottom, I tugged on my suitcase and had to tell him to put it down, and when he did he put out his hand and asked for a tip! I was so mad because I had not asked him or implied I wanted him to do that and he just took it upon himself to do it and wanted me to pay him! I said “no, I didn’t ask for this” and he stood there with his hand still out and gave me an angry look. I just grabbed my suitcase and continued walking with the rest of my group. Many of us on my tour have experienced this. 

Make sure to check out some bazaar's while in Egypt, but be prepared to bargain! You'll find the shopkeeper quote you a price and you can always bargain it down lower! If they act like they won't take you lowest offer, all you got to do is start walking away and they will practically sell it to you for dirt cheap. Also, be prepared for some to literally stand in your way and not let you pass until you come into their shop. Many of them will lure you in with “come on, it’s free to look” and as soon as you leave after looking in their shop, they will literally follow or chase you down the street until you have to repeatedly ask them to leave you alone or until you get really frustrated. One girl on my tour was looking at a belly dancing costume and when she left without buying anything, the man chased her down the street holding the manikin in his arms! Also, be careful when they use their young and cute children to try to sell you anything they can.

Safety is pretty good right now in Egypt. There are police and security literally on every street corner and in every building. I’ve even had to go through a metal detector at all my hotels and each tourist site.

Some of our other sights in Egypt included 
- the High Dam, which has the largest man made water resevoir in the world
-the unfinished obelisk, which was basically an obelisk not yet completely carved out from the rock but totally unusable anyways because of a massive crack that has formed

The final part of our tour in Egypt is on a 5 star cruise up the Nile River from Luxor to Cairo. The cruise is not your typical "North American" cruise as it only holds about a 150 passengers. The one we are on though is beautiful - so modern and clean, and all of the staff are extremely welcoming and helpful. For anyone wanting to see Egypt in a different and unique way, try one of their river cruises... this is the kind of views you can expect!

Anywhos, that’s all I have to update for now
salām! (goodbye)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Rome + Pompeii + Corfu!


My last morning in Rome I went to the Cappuchin Monks which is a crypt made up of bones from 4000 friars and monks. I found it sort of cool and weird at the same time, but this is a definite no-no for those who get spooked easily.

Rome was an incredible experience. It was a place that I was literally asking myself “where am I?” because everything there is just so historic and the culture is well represented in it's  architecture and design. I could never see these sort of things in Canada because they would be so out of place!

From Rome we travelled to Pompeii where we had a guided tour of this ancient city where several villas of people were killed when Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. There are a large amount of artifacts that have been well preserved and even some bodies of humans where you can see them actually covering their faces and trying to protect themselves from the hot lava. Seeing this, it's very hard to imagine what that day was actually like. 

We were only in Pompeii for one day, and then we went to the port of Brindisi to catch our overnight ferry to the island of Corfu, Greece. Olives, feta cheese, souvlaki, tzadiki, and more olives, here I come!

After our overnight ferry, we arrived in Corfu and drove to our hotel which ended up being right across the street from the beach! I only had one day in Corfu because I was leaving early to catch my second Contiki tour through Egypt.

Before my flight to Cairo, I went into the center of Corfu and grabbed some lunch. If you go to Greece, you cannot pass up a Gyro! I had one with chicken souvlaki, tomatoes, onion, tzadiki and then they put french fries inside this cone shaped wrap with some sort of gravy drizzled on top... it was so so delicious!

Here's one of these moments when you're on holiday when somebody says or does something nice that just makes your trip that much more special... it's these little moments I don't want to forget. So I ended up taking a taxi to the airport, and on the way my driver asked me where I was from and when I told him “Canada”, he held my hand and said “you are the most wonderful people, it’s a pleasure” and he shook my hand with a massive smile on his face. I found this to be such a sweet moment because the man was so genuine and kind, and this was something I really appreciated. 

So now, I'm off from Greece and heading to Cairo, Egypt!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Venice, Florence, & Rome

We're now in Venice! One of my most beloved cities I've ever been to. Venice always has something to do, somewhere to wander, something to see... always. This is a prime example city of a city you could 'get lost in'. The biggest tip I can give to someone travelling to Venice is GET A MAP. We did it a few times where we thought we were heading in the right direction only to find that one hour later we ended up at the exact first square that we had started at.

From Venice we travelled south to Florence. I've been here once before and honestly I didn't care for it the first time, and the second time wasn't much different. The main points of interest are viewing the Duomo Cathedral and going to the Vecchio bridge. You can of course also go see Michelangelo's David, but from what I've heard, the tickets are costly! If it's not in your budget to spend the money on seeing the real one, just head to the Piazza della Signoria and you'll see the replica David in the square


For me, Florence was just a place I could enjoy a nice meal outside watching people go by. It's not really a place that for me, had much to do or see. I was actually pretty happy to be leaving Florence and heading on to the capital of Italy... Rome!


Now Rome on the other hand, it's the real deal!


I'm not really a 'hire a day guide' kind of traveller, however Rome has got to have one of the most interesting and complex pasts of all the cities I've been to. Therefore, I was thankful we had a guided tour for our day in Rome. The tour included the Roman Forums, the site where Julius was cremated (which is a large mound of dirt overlayed with flowers on top), then the Colosseum, to the Spanish Steps, to the Trevi Fountain, to the Pantheon! 


All of them are amazing to see and should be a definite on anyone's to do list! And the best part is, this was all done in one day (even with there being 138 stairs on the Spanish Steps)! Don't forget, as per tradition, to throw in some coins into the Trevi Fountain! One is suppose to find you Italian love and the other is suppose to bring you back to Rome!


My day was finshed off with a delicious Italian meal. Complete with bruschetta, lasagne, red wine, and dolce de leche gelato!!


Ciao bella!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Time for some French Sea & Sun!

From Barcelona we travelled northwards along the coast and arrived in Nice, France aka the French Riviera. On our first day we went to the French perfume factory of Fragonard located in Eze (about 20 minutes outside of Nice) where they make all their perfumes from real natural extracts and without any synthetic ingredients. I ended up purchasing a Vanilla scented eau de toilette called Fleur de Vanille. I found it to be very reasonably priced for this quality, and also I really love the purity and simplicity of this Vanilla fragrance. Possibly the nicest one I've ever bought!

Afterwards we had quite a bit of free time so most of us spent the day lounging in the sun near the crystal turquoise waters. Nice has a typical sun-holiday destination vibe (something I would compare to Mexico for example). However, once you get into the Old Town, you start drifting away from the beach-touristy scene and are suddenly in a very quaint, historical city. Where you'll be wandering through tiny alleys and corridors, and I can guarantee you will come across some fantastic local restaurants. Be aware though, that there are of course several 'tourist' restaurants that lure you in with a low price "deal" (be cautious of menu's labelled "Tourist Menu"). In my experience, these restaurants don't serve true authentic, local cuisine and honestly the food quality and taste is usually disappointing. It's usually simplistic and flavourless. 

If you have time, I recommend stopping in Monaco to have a peak at the Grand Casino... which can only be done from the outside as you have to pay an entrance fee to go in. Also if it is feasible, go up to Prince Albert’s (the prince of Monaco) castle where you can get a great view that over looks all of the city.

Au revoir! ... xx

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hola Barcelona!

I am now in Barcelona!

This morning we went first to the '92 Summer Olympic's Stadium, then to Gaudi's 'very unfinished' (that's an understatement) masterpiece - La Sagrada Familia. However, even only half finished, the cathedral is absolutely stunning! It's evident looking at the structure that Gaudi was a genius and crazy at the same time. Whether you like art or not, this is a definite must see for anyone in Barcelona - I've never seen anything so intricate and detailed. Even now, their expected completion date is 2027!!

'La Rambla' is a very touristy and central street with tons of entertainment acts, people dressed in outrageous costumes, and tons of portrait artists. If you follow it all the way down you will reach the old port of Barcelona where you'll find the Christopher Columbus monument.

Tonight we head to a Flamenco show in the city ... it should be a good night!

Post soon....
Adios
xx

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Beaujolis - Wine Time!

On my 2nd day in Paris I started at the Eiffel Tower and while I was waiting in line there was a couple behind me who's accent sounded very familiar so I asked them where they were from, they said "Canada", they asked me and I said "Canada", I asked where in Canada, and they said " British Columbia" and I said "me too, where" and they said they were from Summerland! How cool that two people from the same region of the world meet half way around the world completely unexpectedly!

After waiting in the line up for quite some time, I walked up to the 2nd level of the Eiffle Tower which was around 600 stairs! Totally worth it though because these were some absolutely amazing views of the city! I didn't bother to go to the very top because the lines were so so long and i've already been to the top before.


After that I walked about 10 min on the other side of the Seine to see Lady Diana's tunnel. The top of the bridge has thousands of postings from people from all over the world. Even until today, there are still people leaving and writing tribute messages to Princess Diana.


On our last night in Paris we went to a cabaret show and enjoyed some Champagne which was pretty fun!


The next morning we left Paris to come to the french wine region of Beaujolis! We stopped briefly in a small town called Fontainbleu. This region of Beaujolis is beaaautiful! Vineyards for miles and miles. It's so serene here and the locals are extremely friendly - everyone says "Bonjour" to you! 


We stayed at a 500 year old chateau in the region which Contiki actually owns. It was like an old castle taken out of a Disney movie or something!

Today we went for an hour hike and had a picnic lunch on top of a hill over-looking the whole region which is covered with vineyards, yet again.. so beautiful!


Tomorrow morning we head to Barcelona and I'm very excited!


Post soon...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Paris!

Bonjour!

Yesterday morning we left London, took the ferry across the English Channel from Dover to a port in France and from there drove to Paris. Along the way, we passed the Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial, which is stunningly magnificent not only because of it's size but also because of the solemness I felt just looking at it. 


After arriving in Paris in the afternoon, we toured all the most notable sights by coach. We then stopped at a little french restaurant near the Orsay museum for some escargot, along with champagne and a selection of french cheeses. This was my first time having escargot and I say it tastes kinda like garlic! Even though I love garlic, I don't think I could willingly eat an entire plate of them, knowing that I'm actually eating snails. In this case, it's matter over mind!

This morning the group went to the Palace of Versailles but I didn't have much interest to go there since I've seen the palace's replica in Vienna - Schönnbrunn. Instead I caught a bus into the city and then took the RER train and got off near the Notre Dame cathedral. This is such a beautiful cathedral that I could spend hours starring in front of it just trying to interpret all the illustrations around the doorways and what they might symbolize.


I wandered down from the Cathedral along the Seine river to the Louvre museum. I've been inside the museum before and would've liked to go inside again to see some of the other exhibitions I didn't get to see before, but the line ups were seriously hours-long and I didn't not have a lot of free time in Paris. 

From there though, I walked through the Tuileries, past the Egyptian Concorde, and finally onto the infamous Champs-Elysees taking a ton of pictures along the way! All together, this walk took me about 4 hours, but this was a rather leisurely walk with quite a few stops along the way to take in some of the smaller treasures that Paris and it's people have to offer.

Tomorrow I plan on walking up the Eiffel Tower (approx 600 stairs), which can only be done up to the 2nd level and from there I must take the elevator. Hopefully I'll have some good weather tomorrow like I did today!

Anyways, I'm going to go continue wandering...
Au revoir!