Once upon an isle

I had mixed feelings about our arrival in Greece. On one hand, the Greek islands were one of the destinations I most looked forward to. But on the other hand, it was virtually my final destination. After a wonderful eight weeks spent traveling, that prospect was a sad one.

We arrived in Athens from Belgrade late on a Sunday afternoon. Wandering around in the evening, I found the city surpassed my expectations. The streets were vibrant; walls covered in street art and buzzing with activity. The area we went to for dinner was full of appealing options, each restaurant and bar packed with people. Unsurprisingly, we very much enjoyed our first Greek meal.

We had only one day in Athens, which was more like half a day once we allowed sufficient time to get to the airport. How we spent the morning was the obvious choice – visiting the Acropolis. The heat was fairly brutal, but it was definitely worth the climb. Seeing the ruins was fascinating, as was learning about the place’s history as the birthplace of democracy. Moreover, from the top we had amazing views of Athens.

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The Parthenon, at the top of the Acropolis.

Off to Santorini we went. We took a very short flight on a very small plane, which is always fun*. Once safely landed on the island, we could immediately see this was a photogenic place. Our accommodation was in an area called Thira, which is central to all the action. We spent our first evening exploring, and eating more delicious Greek food. You can assume from herein that every day we ate delicious Greek food, and I will stop mentioning it.

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This is Thira.

The area was gorgeous. Perched high on a cliff, overlooking the ocean, it appeared watching the sunset in Santorini is effectively a sport. Hoards of people get to the best spots early to hold their positions, poised with cameras in hand, snapping away until the pretty pink sun disappears into the ocean.

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I had no problem with being one of those people.

The streets are as you imagine them: picture perfect. White buildings with blue finishings lining narrow cobblestoned paths. The shops are lovely, selling handmade leather sandals, fine clothing, and souvenirs that are – for the most part – not tacky; things in fact you want to buy. There are restaurants, bars, ice creameries aplenty. It’s a tourist’s paradise.

On our first full day we decided to go on a boat tour which took us to thermal springs and volcanoes. Walking down to the port was probably the only unpleasant half hour of our few days in Santorini. A popular tourist thing to do is take a donkey up or down. We opted not to as it seemed a little cruel, but going by foot meant we were avoiding donkey excrements everywhere. The smell was awful, and many times we had to yield for donkeys seemingly heading straight at us.

But we made it down to the old port, and the first stop on our boat trip was the thermal springs. It was too small an area for our boat to dock, so we had to jump from the boat and swim a short distance to the springs. They were red in colour (I assume this is due to the volcanoes in the area) and really cool to swim in. Well not cool in temperature – warm!
Next we docked at the volcanoes, where we had a guided hike. We saw approximately four volcanoes, one of which was active. The guide had us put our hands under a particular rock, from which you could feel the heat radiating. The whole experience was kind of like walking over big sand dunes made of black rocks instead of sand.

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The orange coloured water is the thermal spring.

The weather was very windy, and sailing back to Santorini wasn’t smooth. But since Sail Croatia I feel as though I’m a veteran of rough seas – the choppiness hardly fazed me and I just enjoyed the views. Instead of walking back up from the port, we avoided the donkey droppings and took a cable car.

That afternoon we spent some time by the pool, enjoying the luxuries of our guesthouse after some weeks spent in hostel accommodation. Later in the day, we walked to a winery called Santo Wines. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the views were sublime. The local wines were delicious, relatively inexpensive, and each of our flights came with generous servings of cheese, bread and olives. It was the perfect situation in which to watch that perfect Santorini sunset.

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Wine tasting.

The next day we were lucky enough to spend with my cousin, who was in the general Mediterranean vicinity and arranged to overlap with us in Santorini. We began our day at the black beach – literally a beach with black sand. I thought it was as beautiful as any white sand beach. The water was glorious to swim in, too. We then made our way to the red beach. Having just come from the black beach, I assumed this beach would have red sand. It did not, but rather was surrounded by brown/red volcanic rock. We had to hike a bit of a way to get there, and had incredible views of this unique beach as we descended onto the sand.

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The red beach.

In my head Santorini was much smaller than it turned out to be. I pictured a little island, but it actually consists of many different and varied areas spread across about 90 square kilometres. That evening, we took a bus to Oia, which is the most famous spot for watching the sun set. By 7pm we’d secured our spot, a ledge overlooking white buildings below and the ocean beyond. Over the next hour the crowds came pouring in. We stayed glued to our spot while tourists hustled and bustled behind us, often squeezing between us to get those unobstructed photos we had unlimited access to in our front row positions. Sipping beers and watching the sun go down, we were fairly pleased with ourselves.

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Waiting for the sunset. Me, cousin Lital, and Leanne.

The sunset itself was absolutely beautiful. You could see why people make such a fuss over it. There was even a round of applause once it completely disappeared. Oia, too, was a magnificent place. Amongst a whole island of beautiful spots, it’s usually the one that makes it onto the postcards. I particularly liked the churches, which were white with distinctive blue domes.

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The sun sets over Oia.

And that was it for Santorini. I could have easily spent more time there, but it wasn’t to be; the next day we were off on a fast ferry to Mykonos. In Mykonos we stayed in a place called Paraga beach. Our accommodation left a lot to be desired, but the fact that we were virtually camping in a cloud of dust was made up for by the beauty of Paraga beach. Just outside our ‘room,’ we had a view over stunning blue green waters glimmering in the sun.

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Okay, our accommodation wasn’t so bad…

After a swim at the beach, we decided to venture into town for our first evening in Mykonos. Like Santorini, the main town caters to a tourist’s every need. Nice shops, delicious restaurants, photogenic streets. It also has some really amazing art galleries. We had dinner and wandered around, loving the place even when we were lost and found ourselves going in circles.

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A wave splashing in front of Mykonos’s famous windmills.

The next day we spent relaxing – lazing by the pool (yes, our accommodation further redeemed itself with a swimming pool) or lying on the beach. In and out of the water, sunbathing, reading… It was a perfect holiday. We repeated this for the four days we were there, and I can tell you I didn’t tire of it. It was ideal timing for me – much needed relaxation after eight weeks on the go, and before going back to work.

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They don’t call it Paradise Beach for nothing, evidently.

Mykonos is known for its party scene. Next door to Paraga is Paradise beach, where all the parties are happening. So we were conveniently located to check it out. For all the hype, I was positively underwhelmed. By coincidence, I’d run into three friends who I met on Busabout in Switzerland who were also staying at our hostel. We had a fun night because we all went out together, but the clubs were really dreadful. I enjoyed the nightlife far more in virtually every other city I went out in.

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Out and about.

So rather than the party vacation every young person goes to Mykonos for, we opted for the relaxing holiday. Earplugs were a lifesaver, with the music blaring every night until daylight. We did check out the day beach parties, which were marginally less seedy than the night time ones. I know I usually tend to write more about our daytime explorations than going out at night, but I just feel so strongly about how unappealing I found the Mykonos party scene. Anyway, rant over.

Given all I’d heard about was the nightlife, I hadn’t given much thought to how beautiful Mykonos would be. In that regard, the place exceeded all my expectations. The beaches are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and the water some of the clearest I’ve ever swum in. One day I packed my goggles in my beach bag and marvelled at the abundance of fish we were swimming with. We also did water sports on our last day – a tube ride – which was lots of fun.

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Looking down on one of Mykonos’s many beautiful beaches.

And all of a sudden the sun set on my summer holiday. I said goodbye to Leanne and tried not to be too jealous that she has another three months of traveling ahead of her. Two days in London and I’d be bound for home, undoubtedly planning my next big trip…

Catch you soon.

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Along the Balkan trail

When it comes to traveling, I always like to go a little off the beaten track. As exciting as it is ticking off all the big tourist attractions, there’s a different kind of thrill that comes with discovering places lesser known. It certainly helps that I have an adventurous father who, when not planning his next exotic trip, is making interesting suggestions for mine.

And so with his guidance, we decided to slot Sarajevo and Belgrade in between our more typical European summer destinations of Croatia and Greece. We arrived in Sarajevo on a bus from Split in the evening, and even the simple act of going out for dinner proved fascinating. Being an evening of Ramadan (post sunset), the streets were buzzing with activity, and the restaurants were packed with locals enjoying their traditional feasts.

We began the following day with a free walking tour organised by our hostel. It was on this tour that I got my first taste of the fascinating and troubling history behind the country that is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country was involved in a war in the early 1990s with its neighbouring Serbia and Croatia. Our guide recollected her childhood, growing up amidst a war, her mother working each day recovering bones of the dead. To me, the fact that these atrocities took place so recently – well within my lifetime – made it all the more poignant.

Sarajevo.

But there is much more to the history of this brave country than that. For starters, in 1914 Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo. This event marked the beginning of World War I. On the tour, we visited the exact spot where it happened. In fact, our hostel was called the Franz Ferdinand Hostel, and was a little museum in itself.

Aesthetically, Sarajevo is fascinating. It’s not a beautiful city, although if you look out to the mountains they are quite pretty. In the centre, some buildings are nice, with clear Austro-Hungarian influence. Others are dilapidated – but all add character. Our guide described Sarajevo to us as the “European Jerusalem”. Christians, Muslims, and Jews are all living together in harmony. I wanted to tell her that this perhaps isn’t true of Jerusalem, but I refrained. Nonetheless, it’s very much true of Sarajevo. We passed many mosques, churches, cathedrals, and a synagogue.

Wandering the streets.

That afternoon, we went to an exhibition on the Srebrenica massacre. This is not something I’d heard of, but is an important part of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s harrowing war history. Also known as the Srebrenica genocide, this event over a few days in July 1995 saw the killing of more than 8000 Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys. The exhibition was a combination of photos and short films, and was incredibly moving.

Always keen to try the local cuisine, for lunch we had something called cevapi. It’s these little mince meat sausages inside a pita pocket served with onions and sometimes other accompaniments, like sour cream. It was quite tasty. We also tried Bosnian coffee, which I think is essentially the same as Turkish coffee.

Trying out the local coffee.

We keenly continued our sightseeing with a visit to the city hall, which was unexpectedly beautiful inside. It housed a contemporary art exhibition of sorts as well as an exhibit on Sarajevo’s history. We tried as best we could to take it in, although admittedly we’d had somewhat of an information overload for a single day. We also revisited a couple of other points of interest we’d passed during the morning’s tour to have a closer look.

Inside Sarajevo’s City Hall.

The following day we went to the Sephardi Synagogue, which is also the Jewish Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The shul itself, though not in use, was impressive and had me imagining what it would have been like in its heyday. And the museum gave a fascinating insight into the history of Jews in BiH (that’s how they abbreviate Bosnia and Herzegovina). Today, there are something like 1300 Jews living in the country, with approximately half in Sarajevo. There is a replica of the famous Sarajevo Haggadah there, though the original is housed in a national museum. We also visited the Askenazi synagogue, which is in use today. It was quite spectacular inside.

The Ashkenazi Synagogue.

That afternoon, we went on a siege tour of Sarajevo. The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting almost four years. The tour took us to the location outside of the city centre where tunnels were dug as the only way to go in and out of the city. We got to go inside the tunnels, and had a guide who taught us all about this particular aspect of the war.

Learning about the Siege of Sarajevo.

Funnily enough, we also visited Sarajevo’s Jewish cemetery on this tour. Rather than for its religious significance, it was because it was a strategic point of interest during the war. Overlooking a lot of the city, the cemetery was used as an artillery position by Bosnian Serbs. In a way, I was more interested cemetery itself, which is the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It was fairly dilapidated though, with people not having been buried there for 50 years now.

The Jewish cemetery.

All in all, Sarajevo’s history fascinated me no end. Particularly its recent war history. It’s actually not safe to hike outside of the city unguided, as there are still unexploded mines around. Plus, many of the buildings have bullet holes in them.

Fortunately, Sarajevo was not the only place in BiH we had the opportunity to visit. During Sail Croatia, we went on an optional day trip to Mostar, a beautiful city in the south of the country. Let me take a minute to write about that.

Mostar is known for its iconic Stari Most, or old bridge – a reconstructed medieval arched bridge. Any picture you see of Mostar is likely to feature this bridge, towering over the beautiful blue green river below. Our local guide took us there, and we saw professionals jumping from the bridge for tips. If my memory serves me correctly, the jump is 24 metres. I wouldn’t be game, though apparently you’re not considered a proper local if you haven’t jumped from the Stari Most.

The Stari Most. If you look closely, someone is preparing to jump.

The surrounding streets and alleys were very endearing, filled with shops and market stalls. Although there isn’t a heap to see in the way of landmarks, the tour was exceptionally interesting from a historical perspective. Mostar was besieged and greatly affected by the war. Again, our guide was a child during the early 90s, and recollected what it was like to grow up during such a time.

The streets of Mostar.

I must also mention the glorious waterfalls we stopped at on the way to Mostar. The Kravice falls, they are called. The water was freezing, but served as a much-needed remedy after a night out on Sail Croatia the night before.

Pip and I enjoying the waterfalls.

So that’s Bosnia and Herzegovina covered. The plan was to fly from Sarajevo to Athens, but all the flights went through Belgrade. We thought, why don’t we extend the stopover and add another country to the passports. And so we did.

We didn’t have a lot of time at all, but I think we utilised the time we did have fairly well. We started with dinner – one of the best meals I’ve had this entire trip. And probably the cheapest too. Belgrade had us hooked pretty quickly. And then we walked, soaking up every last bit of daylight to take in the streets of Belgrade. Sure, many of the buildings could use some work, but the city is oozing with cool. Picture buzzing bars, restaurants, and lots of amazing street art.

Belgrade at dusk.


We walked down to the waterfront, where they have a nice, civilised promenade. A little further down the river are a bunch of floating bars and nightclubs which we were keen to check out. Belgrade is known for its nightlife, and we could quickly see why. We ended up relocating to dry land because the mosquitos were finding us particularly tasty. The bars there were just as good.

Belgrade by night.

The following morning we went to see Belgrade’s old fortress, which was cool to explore. Then we made our way to the Bohemian quarter, which was all cobble stones and pretty flowers and quirky cafes. Everything I saw of Belgrade I liked, and I wished we had a little longer. I’ll just have to go to back. The whole Balkan region, in fact, is one I’d very much like to travel to again.

Belgrade’s fortress.

Sailing Croatia

Hello to all, and apologies for falling a little behind on the blogging. Rewinding almost two weeks, we began our Croatian journey in the capital, Zagreb. There we enjoyed wandering the charming streets of the old city. I am becoming quite well-versed in these old European cities… Cobble stoned streets, beautiful churches, bustling fresh produce markets, and atmosphere around every corner. We had just a day there, but I think it was sufficient to absorb what Zagreb has to offer. It’s a lovely place, perhaps even nicer than I expected it would be.

A bit of Zagreb.

One thing of note we did do there is visit the Museum of Broken Relationships. Yes, this is a real thing. It’s amazing – albeit a little depressing! Basically, this museum collects items and stories from broken-hearted people all around the world. The exhibits feature objects symbolic of their broken relationships, and usually a blurb documenting what happened. It’s completely engrossing and unlike any museum I’ve ever been to.

Next, we took a train to Split. The scenery along the way was gorgeous, and proved to me that Croatia boasts far more than just seaside beauty. We arrived in the evening, keen to get a good night sleep before beginning our week-long Sail Croatia journey the following day. Little did we know how important a good night sleep would be!

We boarded our boat, called the Marija Magdalena, in the port of Split on a Wednesday morning. Our fellow passengers were all twentysomethings, mostly from Australia, as well as a few New Zealanders and Canadians. There were 22 of us in total, plus the crew. It quickly became clear it would be a fun week ahead.

Our home for the week.

Our first port of call was to be Hvar, a sparkling island on the Dalmatian coast known for attracting celebrities. On the way, we stopped for a swim, as we would every day of the trip. The perfect blue waters of the Adriatic completely cured me of the touch of sea sickness I was feeling. This was certainly the life. Swimming, sunbathing on the deck – often with a drink in hand – and enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.

Pip and I enjoying a swim stop.

Hvar was spectacular. It was easy to see why it attracts the A-listers. We arrived late in the afternoon, so we didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore. But we climbed up to a fortress which accorded amazing views of the city and the water below. That night, our group went out for dinner before checking out some of Hvar’s nightlife.

Overlooking Hvar.

The next afternoon, after a glorious day of sailing, we docked in a place called Korcula. It was a little sleepier than Hvar, but still beautiful. Ancient sandstone buildings and red roofs, clustered together with a background of mountains and a foreground of blue sea. Picture perfect indeed.

Lovely Korcula.

I was very much looking forward to our next stop, Dubrovnik. We arrived there on Friday afternoon, and began with a walking tour of the city. I was astounded by its beauty, and fascinated by many aspects of its history. Unlike the other ports, we stopped in Dubrovnik for two nights rather than one. That gave us the next day to explore as well. We began our day by walking around the wall of the old city. It took us almost two hours to walk around, and the weather was boiling hot, but the views were incredible. I’ll let my photos do the talking.

One of the millions of photos I took on this day.

In case those views weren’t fabulous enough, we then took a cable car up a mountain to overlook the entire city. This too was amazing. Satisfied with our sightseeing, we ventured to one of the popular swimming spots of Dubrovnik. Buza, it’s called, is also a well-known cliff jumping spot. I didn’t partake in that, but very much enjoyed the swim. And as with every evening on Sail Croatia, a night out was on the agenda. This one I feel was particularly worth a mention. It was a nightclub inside an old castle… So cool!

Dubrovnik down below.

Our next destination was a little different. Mljet is a beautiful area of national park. There’s not much of a town there, but the scenery is more than enough to make it a place worth visiting. We spent our afternoon there swimming at an idyllic lake surrounded by trees. And when we were sick of that, the ocean was only minutes away.

Mljet.

Markarska was next – another picturesque coastal town. From Markarska, I went on an optional zip lining excursion. We zip lined eight courses across valleys, through trees, over rivers, and more. The views were sublime. It was a great adrenaline rush (though I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re scared of heights). Back in Markarska that night, we went to a club inside a cave. So now I can say I’ve been to nightclubs in both a castle and a cave. Somehow I feel nights out back home just won’t compare.

Ready to zip line!

From Markarska, we were headed back to Split for our final night on board. We had one last hurrah with everyone on the boat, thought admittedly it was a struggle. One week spent on a boat, in the sun all day and revelling every night, had me completely wiped out and very much looking forward to a good night’s sleep on dry land…

A fun week.

But before we left Croatia bound for Bosnia, we had half a day to spend in Split. The first night we’d spent there before our sail didn’t give us much of a chance to get to know the city. But in this half day, I really fell in love with it. We spent some time checking out the city’s ruins, which are amazingly cool. We climbed the cathedral’s bell tower, giving us stunning views of the city and the ocean beyond. We picked up some delicious fruit from the fresh produce market. And a particular highlight was tracking down the synagogue, which was small but full of life.

Split.

I may be worse for wear, but Croatia is well and truly one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to. I think the photos accompanying this post demonstrate that better than I ever could.

Missing this already.

The best of Budapest

I’m having rather a hard time containing my enthusiasm about the latest leg of my trip. Anyone in close proximity now becomes subject to my gushing about Budapest. And I guess you, dear reader, have signed on to be my next victim.

It began on Thursday evening, when I landed in Budapest from Zurich (via Brussels). Leanne, my travel buddy for the coming month, had already arrived a few hours earlier. As exhausted as we both were from our respective journeys, perhaps reinvigorated by our reunion, we decided to join a night time river cruise along the Danube.

Budapest by night.

This was the perfect introduction to beautiful Budapest. First of all, lit up at night, the city was radiant. It is apparently the second most illuminated city in Europe, following Paris. And secondly, the excitable backpacker crowd on board was the first taste of the crazy fun we would have in the days to come.

The following morning, Leanne and I joined a free walking tour of the city. It was hot, sunny, and I was immediately taken with every site and story. We walked from Pest to Buda, seeing the comparisons between the old and the new(er). We visited churches, monuments, and vantage points of the city. We learnt about the traditional Hungarian dishes. Another great introduction to the city.

Tour time.

We noticed the same company ran a Jewish legacy tour in the afternoon, so we decided to sign on for that one as well. We discovered that the Jewish quarter is actually one of the coolest areas of Busapest. It’s packed with trendy restaurants, popular bars, colourful street art, and general atmosphere. The tour covered the lives of Hungarian Jews before, during and after the Holocaust, visiting memorial monuments and various points of interest. I was fascinated to learn that there are today more than 100,000 Jews who live in Hungary. Imdeed, we visited three robust synagogues, passed kosher restaurants, and so on.

The Great Synagogue. I couldn’t get the whole building in the shot!

That night, we joined our hostel (and a number of other hostels) for a pub crawl. This was no ordinary pub crawl, but saw us stop off at a number of ruin bars. These are bars in old, dilapidated buildings, and are a trademark attraction of Budapest. They look ready to be torn down, but inside they have been decorated with all sorts of bits and bobs, and transformed into cool, grungy places to have a drink – or five. Needless to say, the night was lots of fun.

A typical ruin bar. So cool!

Another one of the reasons that Budapest is so freakin’ cool is that it has an aminal cafe. The following day, a little worse for wear, Leanne and I decided to take it a bit easier and join some new friends from our hostel on an expedition to said cafe. It was the most wonderful place. Cats lounging on the tables. Bunny rabbits, reptiles, and even hedgehogs all delivered to your table to play with. Best. Place. Ever.

Just chilling.

Afterwards, we went to explore the market hall. It’s set in an amazing building over two levels, and contains a variety of food – fresh produce as well as traditional Hungarian fare. There are also a whole lot of souvenirs to peruse. For lunch, we had langos. That’s a Hungarian delicacy; deep fried bread with topping. It sounds a bit like pizza, but it’s more like a savoury, flat donut. The traditional topping is sour cream and cheese, but they will put pretty much anything on it.

My tasty langos.

Later in the afternoon, we decided to visit the baths. There are thermal baths all over Budapest, and it’s an essential activity during any visit to the city. It was simply heavenly. There are pools of all temperatures, both indoors and outdoors. After many days on the go, it was delightful, and much-needed, to relax for a while. Moreover, the baths are set in front of a backdrop of these grand old buildings. A fun addition to the experience was a big screen showing a soccer match in which Hungary was playing. Apparently, it has been many years since their team had progressed this far in the competition, and everyone was right into it. In the end, Hungary drew with Iceland, which means they are still in the competition. As we left the baths, people were celebrating wildly on the streets. It was quite a spectacle.

The baths.

The following day was our last day, and we had a lot we still wanted to see, so we packed it all in. We started off by going to the Parliament. You couldn’t go inside, but the buildings which make it up are impressive, and set right on the River Danube. Continuing along the river, we saw Budapest’s most significant Holocaust memorial. It’s an evocative collection of bronzed discarded shoes, commemorating the people who were brutally shot into the Danube.

Budapest’s parliament.

We crossed the river over the chain bridge, which I’ve since deemed is my third favourite bridge in Europe. First is London’s Tower Bridge, then Florence’s Ponte Vecio, and then this impressive structure. In Buda, we climbed up to Matthias church. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside as they had Sunday services going on. But from the outside it was fairly spectacular; whiter and cleaner than others I’ve seen like it. The colourful tiled roof made me somewhat less impressed with that of St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, which you may recall I raved about at the time.

Matthias Church.

We then ventured to the Citadel, an old Acropolis perched on the highest hill in Budapest. Rather than the citadel itself, the primary appeal is climbing up to it and having brilliant views over the city.

Hot and sweaty, but we made it!

Next on the agenda was the Great Synagogue, which we took a guided tour inside, having seen it from the outside during the Jewish legacy tour. This was far and away the most aesthetically impressive synagogue I’ve ever been in. The finishings were beautiful, and rivalled any cathedral. This is a feat not often achieved by synagogues, in my opinion. It’s the third largest synagogue in the world, behind one in New York and one in Israel.

Inside the Great Synagogue.

Also at the synagogue is a mass grave site, where many people who died in the Budapest ghetto during World War II are buried. There is also a tasteful memorial garden, which honours the Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust, as well as paying tribute to a number of the Rigteous Among the Nations.

Some of the graves outside the synagogue.

Finally we visited St Peter’s Bascillica, a significant landmark in Budapest. As well as marvelling at its vast yet intricate interior, we took a lift to the dome. Up there you get panoramic views over the city.

Budapest, as seen from the top of St Peter’s Bascillica.

I didn’t want our time in Budapest to be coming to an end. So much so, that despite our 6am train to Zagreb the following day, we went out with our new friends instead of having a sensibly early night.

I think I loved Budapest for a number of reasons. Certainly a big part of it was our hostel, which was the top level of a heritage listed building up about 1000 stairs. With only 22 beds, all the guests and the staff were like a family. They belong to a group of about five ‘party hostels’ who all get together every night for the various activities. It’s so much fun. A friend recommended it to me, so if you’re reading this and you have plans to go to Budapest, please ask me more about it. It’s one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, and I would love nothing more than to recommend it.

New friends, good times.

But just generally, Budapest is an awesome city. It’s got so much to offer in both a historical sense and a contemporary sense. It’s beautiful in parts, and endearingly dingy in others. The food, the vibes, the people. I am complete besotted and want to go back and see more than I could in just three short days. Hands down my favourite place of the trip so far. And I’ll be pretty surprised if anything can top it.

Bye, Budapest 😦

But nonetheless, there’s lots still to look forward to. Next (well now, technically): Croatia.

Swiss musings

My first taste of Switzerland presented itself on the plane from Munich to Bern; looking down on a vast spread of beautiful snowcapped mountains, I was in awe. Certainly this was indicative of the aesthetics I would enjoy in the days to follow.

First on my Swiss itinerary was one day in Bern, which is Switzerland’s capital city. Unfortunately, it rained and rained and rained. Also a sign of things to come… Nonetheless, I set out to explore. I walked along the main street and perused some lovely weekend markets which were set up in the centre. I then joined a free walking tour, which took us around the focal points of this little city.

Looking down the street in Bern towards its famous clock tower – the Zytglogge.

Bern is set on a river, and is a gorgeous place. The old city’s medieval architecture is largely preserved – much of it from as far back as the 12th century. But it’s fairly small. Even with only one day, I felt as though I was killing time towards the end. I did go and visit Einstein’s house, where he lived from about 1903 for a few years. There was a little museum there which was rather unexceptional.

A view over part of Bern.

Late on Saturday afternoon, the Busabout bus arrived, and soon we were bound for Lauterbrunnen in the Swiss Alps. This drive accorded possibly the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen out of a bus window. Picture mountains shrouded in clouds and capped with snow, a shimmering blue/green lake, and little towns dotted through vast green valleys. Unfortunately my photos through the window didn’t turn out, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Lauterbrunnen is a small town with a population of 2500 people. The single street is peppered with cute cafes and shops. But I would say it’s main purpose is as a gateway to exploring the Swiss Alps. You can take a train or a cable car to many different peaks. You can skydive or paraglide or raft in the rapids. You can hike up to waterfalls and explore tiny towns nestled in the clouds. We stayed at a campsite (in cabins, not actually camping for those who were momentarily impressed) which was surrounded by waterfalls, mountains, and altogether beautiful scenery.

This waterfall could be seen from our campsite.

Unfortunately my plans for our two days in Lauterbrunnen were largely dashed by the grey, rainy weather. I had hoped to go up the Jungfrau, which is the highest railway station in Europe. I would have been up on those snowy peaks, but seeing absolutely nothing because of poor visibility. Paragliding was a no-go, and while I could have opted instead to go white water rafting, the cold, miserable weather deterred me from getting into my bathers.

In spite of the weather, I still managed to enjoy my time in Lauterbrunnen. Our Busabout group spent lots of time hanging out and having fun. I drank hot chocolate and ate cheese fondue. Who can really complain about that?

Yum.

Fortunately, the rain stayed largely at bay when a friend and I ventured to Murren, another town in the Alps. To get there, we took a fernicular type thing, followed by a train. We were literally in the clouds. I could hardly see 20 metres in front of me, and it was freezing. But I decided to stop for some lunch, and when I came out of the restaurant, the cloud had cleared somewhat. The views of the mountains surrounding us were spectacular.

Murren.

From Murren, we took a cable car back down and visited these incredible glacial waterfalls. Rather than your traditional waterfalls, the Trumellbach falls are set inside a mountain, and made accessible through lit paths and passages. It was very cool and unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The photos don’t really capture it.

On Tuesday morning, I went on the bus to Lucerne. I think this picturesque little city was my favourite place in Switzerland. Set on Lake Lucerne, and against a backdrop of those never tiresome snowcapped mountains, this city would be pretty even if the architecture was ordinary. But the old town is cool, colourful and its architecture endeared it to me even further. Particular highlights were the two old covered bridges.

Lucerne.

As soon as I’d got my bearings, I took a boat around the lake, which was nice, although the weather – again – was not. I spent the rest of the afternoon meandering across bridges, wandering through cobble stoned streets, and enjoying the old town squares. After dinner, I found myself again on one of Lucerne’s many bridges. From one side, the sun was setting. On the other side, there was a rainbow. I hardly knew where to look. It really was a beautiful end to a day.

It almost felt worth all the rain to see this…

Satisfied I’d seen all the main sights of lovely Lucerne, the next morning (this morning actually – I’m fairly on top of my blogging for the minute) I got on a train to Zurich. They’re less than an hour apart by train. When I got to Zurich, I marvelled for a while at the main train station. Train stations in Europe have everything. This one even had a fresh produce market! I thought that was pretty cool.

It struck me immediately that Zurich is quite similar to Lucerne. It too boasts a storybook old town set alongside a river. Of course, Zurich is far bigger, and perhaps not quite as picturesque as Lucerne. But I really enjoyed checking it out today. I visited a couple of the most famous churches, and again wandered in and out of the narrow cobble stone streets. It has been my first partially sunny day in Switzerland, which I’m sure made a difference to my level of enjoyment.

A cool building, which I think was just a bank…

While the smaller cities were rich in charm, Zurich has an exciting big-city buzz about it. This evening I explored the neighbourhood where I’m staying in search of dinner. I could have picked any cuisine I wanted, and once that was decided, 10 different restaurants serving it. As I walked, people were spilling from bars and pubs into the street and making lots of noise about the soccer. My friend Alli often uses a word which isn’t really a word, but I think it fits what I’m trying to say here. Zurich is vibey! And I like it a lot – perhaps more than I thought I would.

So here I am in Zurich for the night. Tomorrow I fly from here to Budapest, which I’m very much looking forward to. My wallet is also keen for the change – Switzerland is frightfully expensive.

Catch you soon!

I believe this statue represents a character in Greek mythology.

Guten tag: volume #2

I wasn’t quite sure where to put this blog… I’ve been writing country by county to this point, yet my time in Germany was split by Czech and Austrian adventures. So instead of tacking Munich on to the end of my ramblings about Berlin, I’ve decided it will get its own little post. And I reckon it deserves it.

Munich’s rather impressive New Town Hall.

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon from Salzburg, only a couple of hours by bus. In the evening, our Busabout guide kindly showed a few of us around the city, as a way to give us some grasp of the orientation of things. A new Busabout mate and I then went and had dinner at the Augustiner brewery, which I understand is amongst the most famous in Munich. It didn’t disappoint.

Being my only full day in Munich, I was keen to make the most of Thursday. Unfortunately it poured with rain. Nonetheless, Matt (aforementioned new Busabout friend) and I braved a bike tour around the city. Only two other people were as silly as us. When I wasn’t thinking about my poor wet feet, or my soaking jeans, I enjoyed the day. Munich has some amazing sites to see. The neo-gothic New Town Hall, which dominates the central Marienplatz, resembles a cathedral built many centuries ago – even though it was only completed in the early 20th century. The old royal residence is predictably grand, and the churches are brilliant inside and out.

I think this photo captures how wet the day was.

Munich also has a great deal of history, as our guide capably conveyed. It was the setting for a lot of Hitler’s work, and like Berlin, this is not something the city shies away from. But the city has an interesting story well before that, stretching back to its foundation in the 12th century.

We also visited the English garden, which is the largest park in any city in the northern hemisphere, including New York’s Central Park. It was gorgeous in the rain, and I only wish I could have spent some time there on a sunny day. Interesting features include locals surfing in the river, and an area for naked sunbathing. Fortunately, given the weather, there were no sunbathers of any form.

Making the best of it in the beautiful Englischer Garten.

The tour finished off at the Hofbrauhaus, which is perhaps the most famous place to visit in Munich. It’s a beer hall of epic proportions serving beers by the litre. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s also a whole lot of fun. The beer is good and the atmosphere can’t be matched elsewhere. It was a perfect place for Matt and I to dry off for an hour or two.

This beer was as big as my head. Somehow I managed to drink the entire thing!

The beer must have worked some magic, because when we came out it had stopped raining. I wasn’t sure it ever would. So we made the most of this brief window and climbed up the tower of St. Peter’s church. We were told if the day was clear we could have seen as far as the Alps. Although the sky was grey and there were no mountains in sight, we had a great panoramic view of Munich. By sheer luck, we were there on the hour, and could watch the performance of the Town Hall’s glockenspiel. I didn’t find the musical show to be overly inspiring, but I think it’s fair to say we had the best view in the city.

It was something like 300 steps to get up here, but I think the end result was worth it.

On Friday morning, to my delight, the sun was out. I had a few hours left in Munich before I needed to get to the airport, so I decided to walk around again and see the sights in the sunlight. What a difference the sun makes! It certainly made for some better photos than the ones I’d taken the day before. I also took the opportunity to visit a few places I hadn’t seen, including the synagogue, and the viktualienmarkt. The latter is a vibrant market of fresh food and other bits and pieces. I always love a market and enjoyed picking out some fruit and lunch from the various stalls.

The Viktualienmarkt in the heart of Munich.

All in all, Munich was lots of fun. New friends, great beer, cool sites, good vibes. The large amount of rain managed to dampen my experience only a little. Now, I’m in Switzerland. I’m head over heals with this place and already itching to write about it, but I must resist for now. Thanks for reading, and I’ll catch you again soon.

Enamoured with Austria

A question I repeatedly received before my trip was ‘where are you most excited to go?’ My answer often changed. From the Greek Islands, to Berlin, to Switzerland. In fact, I think Austria is one of only a handful of destinations which didn’t once feature in my ‘most anticipated’ list. Perhaps my lack of expectations contributed to my being so completely rapt with it now.
We arrived in Vienna on Friday evening. Almost immediately, a couple of my pals and I set off on a walking tour which Busabout had suggested. Titled ‘Walk and Fork,’ the idea was to be guided around the city, before tucking into a traditional Austrian dinner. Our guide was wonderful – she spoke ever so enthusiastically about the city, both in a historical sense and a contemporary sense.

Traffic lights promoting marriage equality. Isn’t Austria the coolest?!

We visited many of the main sites, such as the famous statue of Mozart located in a central park, the Hofburg Palace, and St Stephen’s Cathedral. It accorded us a great taste of the city – before we literally tasted. I’m no stranger to a good schnitzel, but this one really was delicious. And we had apple strudel for dessert. It didn’t take me long to get on board with Austrian cuisine. Those at home, don’t be surprised if I come back a little rounder…

The man himself.

On Saturday, a few of us Busabouters had signed up for another one of the suggested tours. This one, the ‘Grape Escape,’ took us on the train about an hour outside of Vienna to the Austrian countryside. We rode bikes, visited wineries, and passed through some beautiful little towns along the way. The scenery was stunning, the wine was delicious, and the weather was sunny (well, in patches, but at least it wasn’t raining). This was easily one of my favourite days of the trip so far.

It was like riding a bike…

The only downside was that it left me with just one single day to explore Vienna. I started off at the Schonbrunn Palace – and seemingly every single other tourist had the same idea. Once I pushed my way through the sea of selfie sticks, the place was incredible. A little about Schonbrunn: it was an imperial summer residence used by the Hapsburg monarchs over the years of their reign. Built somewhere around the 1600s, it has – wait for it – 1441 rooms. The baroque palace is one of the most important architectural, cultural and historical monuments in the country. It also has amazing grounds and gardens which I enjoyed walking through after I’d toured the impressive state rooms.

Schonbrunn Palace, as seen from the gardens. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos inside.

A new discovery of this trip is Rick Steves. For the uninitiated, Rick Steves is a travel writer who produces audio podcast guides to European cities, amongst other things. You download the tracks relevant to the city you’re visiting, and then you’re ready to go. That afternoon I set myself up with his Vienna city walk, and let Rick guide me around the city. No need to read a map; Rick’s got it covered. Not to mention the history, or the interesting tidbits. I can’t speak highly enough of this app.

The starting point of the tour was the Opera House, which is grand beyond words. With music being such a big deal in Austria, it makes sense that their state opera is a focal point of the city. Unfortunately to see the inside you have to buy a ticket to a show, or take a guided tour, which I didn’t do. Next time!

One of the Opera House’s marvellous facades.

I stopped briefly at the original Hotel Sacher, where the famous cake was first ‘invented’. The sacher torte is a chocolate cake with a thin strip of apricot jam separating two layers. It is iced in dark chocolate. In all honesty, I’ve had better chocolate cakes for less money. But it was about the experience. The hotel was fancy, and I can say I had a sacher torte at the home of the orinigal sacher torte. Tick.

Don’t get me wrong – it was very nice.

Next on the audio tour was St Stephen’s Cathedral. I’m told it’s Romanesque and Gothic in its style, and has been the setting for many important events in Austrian history. What struck me most was its colourful tiled roof, which is unique and symbolic of this famous cathedral. The cathedral’s interior is beautiful, ornate, and quite enormous.

St Stephen’s Cathedral, from the ouside, and below from the inside.


The last main stop was the Hofburg Palace complex, where the Hapsburg family lived (except for in the summer, when they stayed at Schonbrunn). It now houses a number of museums, including one on Empress Sisi (Elizabeth), the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. I thought that would be a cool one to visit, as something a little different from the typical history museum, or art museum. Moreover, I could tell Sisi was a fascinating character from my visit to Schonbrunn. The museum documented her narcissism and struggles with Royal life, and was really well done.

 

The Hofburg Palace.

The ticket also included admission to the silver collection, which contains rooms and rooms of cutlery, crockery, and various other practical and ornamental pieces which were used by the Hapsburg family over many decades. I was in awe of every spoon and every knife; every plate and every bowl. Each piece was so intricately decorated. It’s the sort of museum I would imagine everyone’s grandmother enjoying. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it though!

I also visited the imperial rooms of the Hofburg Palace, which were amazing, although similar in parts to what I’d seen at Schonbrunn that morning. Wow, what a decadent life those Hapsburgs had!

Throw in a goulash for dinner, and that was pretty much all I had time for before leaving for Salzburg the next morning. There is a song by Billy Joel called Vienna – you probably know it. I’ve always known it and liked it a lot, but now I feel as though I appreciate its meaning a little more.

“Slow down, you crazy child, and take the phone of the hook, and disappear for a while. It’s alright, you can afford to lose a day or two… When will you realise, Vienna waits for you?”

As much as there are plenty of sights to see in Vienna, the city is also fairly relaxed. It’s not an enormous capital hustling and bustling at all hours of the day and night. The Viennese seek to enjoy life. To spend a morning sitting in a cafe over a single cup of coffee and some newspapers, or a sunny afternoon in a park, is very much ensconced in the culture. I only wish I had a little longer to slow down… But it turns out in this packed itinerary of mine, I can’t afford to lose a day or two. I know, though, that Vienna will be waiting when one day I make it back again.

Just a photo I like. I cant quite remember what the statue represents.

On Monday afternoon, our bus pulled in to sunny Salzburg. During the day, we had stopped to pick up and drop off some fellow Busabouters in a place called Grunau. This tiny town, nestled in the Austrian mountains, was absolutely beautiful. Our guide encouraged us to fill up our water bottles straight from the stream, and we all enjoyed what I think is the freshest water I’d ever tasted. I wished I was staying there. But as I keep telling myself, you can’t do it all.

Our bus parked in Grunau.

I spent my first afternoon in Salzburg with Rick Steves. As always, he gave me a great tour, which included various landmarks relating to Mozart – Salzburg’s pride and joy. They have really capitalised on Mr Wolfgang! That aside, Salzburg is a beautiful place. I wandered in and out of cathedrals and churches, made my way through lively town squares and old streets, all the while my buddy Rick Steves drawing attention to various points of interest along the way.

A rather large fountain.

Salzburg’s other claim to fame, of course, is the Sound of Music. On Tuesday morning, I went on the famed Sound of Music tour. Though I’m a fan of the film, even if you’re not (who are you??) this tour would still appeal, simply for the pretty places we saw. First, we visited the back of the Von Trapp house, which is set on the lake where Maria and the children all fell in. Our guide gave us a whole range of interesting info, such as how they had to get divers under the boat to tip it over for that particular scene, and how one of the young actors couldn’t swim.

Look familiar?

We then visited the gazebo which has actually been moved from its original location, but looks just the same. We passed another house which served as the front of the Von Trapp home, as well as Nonnberg Abbey, where Maria was studying to become a nun.

“I am 16, going on 17…”

We then drove a little way out of Salzburg to see some of the glorious scenery which provided the backdrops for the film. In a little place called Mondsee, we visited the church where Maria and the Captain were married. The real life Maria and Captain Von Trapp were married at the Abbey, but this is where there wedding was filmed for the movie. Our guide was able to explain many aspects where the film differed from the true story. Hollywood is Hollywood, after all! The tour finished in the Mirabell gardens, which also played host to some scenes of the film. The whole thing was very touristy, but lots of fun. There was even singing on the bus!

Not hard to see why I’m fairly besotted with Austria. This was one of the spots we stopped at during the tour.

That afternoon, I went up the Salzburg fortress. Set atop a hill, you can walk up, or take a fernicular if you’re sensible. I chose the latter. This fortress is from the 11th century, and as well as touring some of the rooms (including an old torture chamber!) there are a few interesting museums up there. Though perhaps the biggest drawcard for me was the view. From the top, you could see all of Salzburg and the mountains beyond. It was a beautiful day, which certainly helped.

View from the top.

On my last morning in Salzburg, I went to visit Mozart’s former residence. Today it’s a small museum documenting his life and that of his family. The highlight for me was seeing a few of the instruments which he once played. They don’t make them like that anymore! Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take photos.

I then spent some time wandering Salzburg’s main shopping street, which is set gloriously in the old town. Close by, there was a daily fresh produce market where I bought the most delicious raspberries. I sat in the square and enjoyed my last bit of time in Salzburg – and Austria. An unexpected highlight indeed.

Colourful market scenes.

Cesky Krumlov(e)

Let me preface this post by explaining how I’m traveling around for the next couple of weeks. I’m on Busabout, which is a hop on/hop off bus service across Europe. They also offer organised tours, but I think the hop on/hop off is the best and most unique part of their offerings. So I picked up Busabout from Berlin to Prague on Tuesday. Some people got on or off midway through the day in Dresden, though most continued to Prague.

Admittedly I was somewhat dreading this first Busabout day. We left Berlin at 8am and were due to arrive in Prague at 4pm. A day spent on a bus didn’t hold all that much appeal at the outset. But it just flew by! We stopped plenty, I met lots of friendly people, and our guide was full of interesting tidbits along the way. As much as I prefer train travel, I was immediately taken with the Busabout format.

Given I’ve been to Prague before, I opted to stay just one night. There is a Busabout bus coming through every two days, so you can stay as long as you want. It’s great for travellers who haven’t planned their trip down to the last detail (unlike myself), and want a bit of flexibility. So I left Prague the following morning bound for Cesky Krumlov.

What in the world is a Cesky Krumlov, you ask. As I discovered, it’s one of the most marvellous places on this earth. Located in the south Bohemian region of the Czech Republic, a couple of hours from Prague, it’s a super old town set around a river and amidst lush, green hills. To give you an idea, the whole place has a UNESCO world heritage listing. It’s not huge, and there isn’t an enormous amount to do, but walking through the cobble stoned streets I was simply in awe. Whether it was another beautiful building, or the vista of a mountain top shrouded in cloud, or the sound of birds happily singing, or the smell of freshly baked trdelnik. This place captured my heart before I’d been there an hour.


Lovely Cesky Krumlov.

My new friend Jess and I decided to do a walking tour on the first afternoon. Our guide was wonderful and gave us a great insight into the history of the city. To be honest, though, I was so completely floored by what I was seeing that some of the information went in one ear and out the other.

A typical street in Cesky Krumlov.

Despite some very patch weather, we thoroughly enjoyed our 48 hours in Cesky Krumlov. We sat by the river and drank cheap Czech beer. We wandered the streets. We scoped out cute little hole-in-the-wall shops and markets for one of a kind souvenirs. Oh, and we stayed in the most delightful little hostel, which felt more like staying at someone’s house than in a hostel. They are always the best ones.

This is the aforementioned trdelnik. It’s a delicious traditional Czech baked good (and also makes a fun telescope – who knew?!)

Although our exploring wasn’t fast-paced, we did tick off most of the main attractions. A highlight of the city is the Cesky Krumlov Castle. Built in the 13th century, the castle has Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements. It’s really quite amazing. We climbed up a very narrow staircase to reach the top of the tower, where we had beautiful panoramic views of the city. There are also gardens which we wandered through.


The castle tower.

While it was no surprise to be able to visit a church, I was fascinated to discover there is a synagogue in Cesky Krumlov. There are few to no Jews in Cesky Krumlov today, and it doesn’t run services. But as we learnt from the small exhibition there, before the Holocaust, there was indeed a Jewish population in Cesky Krumlov. Although precious decorations were confiscated from the shul, it was spared from destruction during World War II, and converted into a Hitler’s Youth Club. After the war, the synagogue was used as a church, and later a storage room for theatre sets. Today, it comes under the auspices of the Prague Jewish Community, which oversees its operation and upkeep. Given no services take place, the synagogue has been restored as a cultural venue (not Jewish-specific). At the time of our visit there was a photographic exhibition there.


Inside the synagogue.

Cesky Krumlov is a big destination for art in the Czech Republic. Everywhere we went, we saw art students sketching. Well, they have plenty of material, that’s for sure. We got our fix at the art gallery, where we visited an exhibition on Czech artist Egon Schiele. He was somewhat ostracised during his time in the early 20th century. His works were often nudes – way out there – and critics today say he was ahead of his time. We also saw a few other artists’ work at the gallery.


I couldn’t take photos in the Egon Schiele exhibition, but this was one of the pieces in the gallery by a local artist.

Yesterday evening we did a ghost tour. I’m not sure that I buy into all the stories… If I did I probably wouldn’t have slept last night. But stories of spirits and vampires are a fairly commonplace aspect of Cesky Krumlov’s narrative, so it was cool to hear about. If nothing else, seeing the city at night was glorious.


Cesky Krumlov at night.

Today, we’re on the bus to Vienna.* This Austrian countryside rolling past me through the windows is absolutely beautiful. The Czech countryside, too, was fabulous. Oh Europe, how you make my heart sing. Anyway, I will write again soon about the land of Mozart and sacher tortes and schnitzels and The Sound of Music…


View from the castle. So glad I visited this place.

*I’m actually only posting this two days after writing it, so that’s not entirely true.

Catch you soon.

Guten tag!

Hello to all. I’m lucky enough to be abroad once again; this time for eight weeks on what promises to be a jam-packed trip across central and Eastern Europe. Those who know me well will be aware that keeping a blog has always been a big part of my travels. I write to keep my family and friends – and anyone else who may be interested – up to date with my adventures. But I also write for myself. Because I love to write, and I can imagine no better way to document my travels. So welcome, and I hope you’ll keep reading over the coming weeks.

I began my trip in London. The week was spent with family and friends, and accorded me the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite London places. I found myself besotted with the city all over again. But since I’ve written loads and loads on this blog about London previously, I’m opting to properly begin in my second destination: Berlin.

So here I am. Sitting in a coin laundry at the end of a full week spent in the German capital – my first ever visit to the country. And I’ve really loved it. This city is simply heaving with cool. It doesn’t necessarily have the aesthetics a number of other European cities boast, but no matter. Every area of this cosmopolitan city is crying out to be explored, and each seems to offer something a little different.

I arrived from London on Tuesday evening. My friend Jarin, an old school mate who I had convinced to tack Germany onto the end of his European holiday, was already there. As we ate dinner at one of the many restaurants near our hostel, he told me excitedly what he’d already discovered – and vowed to be my tour guide for the next day.

We started off the following morning by visiting the Jewish museum. I believe it’s the largest Jewish museum in Europe, and it’s really quite impressive. Over three hours we explored the various exhibitions, which covered the Holocaust as well as many other periods of Jewish history from the Middle Ages to the modern day. Interestingly, we came to realise the experience was as much about the architecture and design of the museum as it was about the content.

A room at the Jewish Museum commemorating the Holocaust.

After lunch it was time to scope out Berlin’s main attractions. First up was Checkpoint Charlie, the best known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. To me there was a bit of touristy tackiness about it, such as ‘guards’ posing for photos at the checkpoint, but it was certainly worth seeing. There are also associated museums and exhibitions around the area which give you a good dose of history. Next, we wandered up Unter den Linden, the main boulevard in the centre of Berlin, to the Brandenburg Gate. As much as I knew what it would look like, it was still a thrill to see. Then we had a look at the Reichstag (wow!), before heading towards some Shoah-related points of interest. We saw the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, and Hitler’s bunker (or rather the site where it used to be). We also went to Bebelplatz, which is the square where the Nazis organised the first official book burning in 1933. If you look under the ground in one particular spot, there are empty book shelves – a memorial to this historically significant event. Beyond it is the beautiful Humboldt University, which occupies a former royal palace.

Unfortunately the weather was a little gloomy. But thumbs up for the Brandenburg Gate!

 

That evening, we rewarded our tired legs with a delicious dinner at a traditional German restaurant. Jarin did it right and had sausages (with sauerkraut and other signature accompaniments), while I went for a special handmade German pasta, which was delicious. And as with any proper German meal, there was of course beer.

The next day was always going to be a significant one. Not only in the scheme of my trip, but indeed in the trajectory of my life. My paternal grandfather is a Holocaust survivor. Although he was born in Poland, the concentration camp he and his father were sent to was located in Weimar, Germany. It was a given that if I were ever to be within a few hours of Buchenwald, I would visit. So Jarin and I set off early on Thursday morning for Weimar. I had made contact in advance as I had heard they are very accommodating of descendants of survivors coming to visit. On arriving at Buchenwald, we spent about an hour with an archivist who had meticulously gathered all the available documents pertaining to my grandfather and my great grandfather. It was mostly information I knew, but it was poignant to see the various documents nonetheless. I was in fact able to give the archivist information about the fate of my great grandfather which he did not know. After that, he had organised a tour guide to take Jarin and I around the camp. Although there is a lot of the original camp which isn’t there anymore, there is a lot that is. And moreover, there are many parts which have been reconstructed. From the memorials, to the site of the block where my grandfather was, to the harrowing crematorium. It was all incredibly moving. And not only as the granddaughter of someone who survived it, and the great granddaughter of somebody who didn’t. But learning about the unimaginable atrocities which took place will move any human being, I think. I was somewhat concerned that the day wouldn’t hold so much interest for Jarin, but that was far from the case. This history, and the messages associated with them, are universally relevant. There is also a museum there, which is incredibly well put together. It’s a day I’ll not soon forget.

The original gate to the camp.

We started Friday a lighter note, with a visit to the east side gallery. That’s a part of the Berlin Wall which wasn’t torn down. As I understand it, Germany invited artists from all around the world to make their marks on the wall. Today it’s a colourful mishmash stretching well over a kilometre. Some of the panels are graffiti like; others display quite impressive artworks; while some provide a social commentary of sorts.

Recognise this?

We then went to visit the Neue synagogue, which has been reconstructed since its destruction in World War II. It’s beautiful from the outside. Unfortunately you can’t look inside unless you attend a service. You can visit the dome (we found it very underwhelming) as well as a small museum inside.

The outside of the synagogue.

Something which I immediately noticed in Berlin is their entirely relaxed approach to alcohol consumption. First of all, every convenience store sells alcohol. More often than not, a bottle of water will set you back as much as a bottle of beer. For an Australian, that’s unheard of. And further, you can drink in public. I often saw people walking down the street drinking. If you see that at home, there’s a good chance the person consuming the alcohol is not in a good way. Anyway, what I was going to say was, it was Jarin’s last afternoon in Berlin (and Europe!) so we decided to grab a beer and have a drink in the park to farewell him. We felt quite like locals – though it’s unlikely the locals around us were drinking Berliner Pilsners!

Cheers!

I’d organised this week pretty well. As soon as Jarin had left, my cousins Dana and Jon had arrived in Berlin. Living in London currently, they have that luxury we Aussies don’t – proximity to Europe – and are making the most of it. So we got together in Berlin for dinner and caught up on the week since we’d last seen each other in London. They have a friend living in Berlin, so Friday night’s dinner destination was the first of many of her reccomedations ensuring we’d always eat at the best local spots.

Saturday morning saw me visit another place of relevance to my family. My paternal grandmother was born in Berlin. Her parents managed to come to Australia before things got really dire for the  Jews, so she arrived in Melbourne aged two. However, her grandparents, my great great grandparents, remained behind and were eventually deported to a concentration camp. In recent years, Germany has erected what are called stumbling stones. They are bronze squares on the pavement outside where a Jewish person once lived. They give details, such as their names and year of birth, and where they were deported to. Such plaques can be found outside my great great grandparents’ former home in Charlottenburg. So off I went to find the apartment where my grandmother was born. I admired the lovely apartment building, and took in what was written on the stones at my feet. The names of my great great grandparents, the dates they were deported to Theresienstadt, and the approximate dates that they died. Amongst the leafy streets in this picturesque neighbourhood, it was difficult to imagine that something so abhorrent had occurred there.

My great great grandparents, Georg and Zerline Marcuse.

Since I was in the neighbourhood, I went to visit Charlottenburg Palace. It was built at the end of the 17th century for some important people to live in. The internal decorations are exquisite, as are the gardens surrounding the palace. I also discovered some lovely craft markets nearby.

I took this before someone yelled at me in German telling me not to take photos..

That evening I dragged a new friend from my hostel room to a burger place my best work pal at home had told me to go to. What was beginning to strike me was how different one area was from another in Berlin. Every neighbourhood has a unique vibe and a unique aesthetic. This area, in east Berlin, was grungy if not a little downtrodden. But at the same time it was the most cool, happening place I had been to yet. The spot was a funky little hole in the wall overflowing with locals hungry for these amazing burgers. So delicious.

Making new friends, discovering new places.

On Sunday, Dana and Jon and I went to visit the Reichstag. As well as learning the history of the German parliament, we were accorded magnificent views of Berlin. About 25 years ago they built this glass dome which you can go up and be guided as to the landmarks covering the full 360 degrees. Architecturally it’s very cool.

The aforementioned dome.

We continued our day at mauerpark market, a well-known Sunday market it Berlin. For the most part a flea market, it was buzzing with atmosphere and packed with Berliners hunting out their next antique.

D and J just chillin’ after some market shopping.

Afterwards, we went to see the exhibition associated with the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Each room takes a different focus, for instance looking at the stories of specific families, or the locations where there were camps. I found it to be very well put together. It’s only a shame that it’s hidden under the ground, as I expect many tourists may inadvertently pass it by.

I didnt take any photos inside, but this is the well known memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe.

We had lunch in a beautiful square which was very much an exception to my earlier comment about Berlin not having those grand European aesthetics. Gendarmenmarkt Square is fairly famous, flanked by a French church and a German church, with a beautiful concert house in the middle.

The Berlin Konzerthaus.

On Monday we went to the Pergamon museum, which houses reconstructed monumental buildings such as the Pergamon altar and the market gate of Miletus, all from ancient Turkey. There is also an exhibition of Islamic art. I really liked it. It wasn’t too information-heavy or too expansive, and the relics on display were all very cool. I guess others agree with me, as it’s supposedly the most visited museum in all of Germany!

Inside the Pergamon. Cool, huh?

We decided to venture to the tiergarden, the big green space in the centre of Berlin. I really love the parks in Europe. They often make you feel as though you’re out in the country, when in fact you’re right in the heart of the city. This one was no exception, and we enjoyed it until a thunderstorm of epic proportions came out of virtually nowhere. Fun times! After an important stop at the Ritter Sport shop (all the chocolate), it was time to say goodbye to D and J, and for me to prepare for the next leg of my trip. Busabout to the Czech Republic. Stay tuned.

And one last pic for good measure. This is the Berlin Cathedral.

Singapore sojurn

I decided I would stop in Singapore on my way home from London. My reasons were threefold: 1. There’s not much I hate more than long haul flights. I thought it would be good to break the 24 hours up a bit. 2. To visit another one of my exchange buddies, Aditi. 3. To see a new city, and one I’d only heard good things about.

It was particularly nice to get off the 13 hour flight from London and be able to go to a hotel, not onto another plane. I arrived in Singapore in the afternoon, and that evening met Aditi in Little India. It was a vibrant place with colourful markets, shops, places to eat, and lots of activity. We ate at a vegetarian Indian restaurant, which was really good — though some things on my plate were a touch too spicy!

Little India

A grocery market in Little India.

After dinner, we went to the waterfront, which was fabulous at night. I was amazed at the Marina Bay Sands, the famous three towered hotel with the infinity pool at the top. It has its own glamorous shopping complex, complete with a canal running through the centre. Outside on the boardwalk, the the lights of the skyscrapers lit up the water. There was plenty going on, including a sound and light show, a market, and live music. Aditi and I had such fun; I was thrilled with my first taste of Singapore and eager to explore the next day.

Night

Armed with a comprehensive list of recommendations from Aditi, I decided to go to what’s called the River Safari. A new component to the highly-regarded Singapore Zoo, the River Safari is sort of a cross between a zoo and an aquarium. It takes you through seven major rivers of the world, showing you the different species that live there. There are primarily water creatures to see, but also birds and some land animals. The biggest attraction is the pandas at the end. I fell in love with them a little.

Panda

Just chillin’

In the afternoon, I explored Clarke Quay, the area where my hotel was. It was nice enough, but I’m told there would have been more happening had I gone at night. There are lots of restaurants, bars, and that type of thing.

Singapore is an exceptionally well organised city. On my own, I had no trouble navigating the public transport system. It’s very clean as well. My only complaint about the place is the heat and humidity. My glasses literally fogged up as soon as I walked outside. As such, that afternoon I made the most of the hotel pool and went for a swim.

In the evening, I decided to head into Chinatown. It was a fabulous Chinatown! Chinese lanterns overhead, it seemed never-ending. I perused the stalls for an hour or so amongst the crowds, and once everything began to look alike, I sat down and had dinner.

Chinatown

Chinatown

Jet lag was not my friend in Singapore, and I was terribly tired the following morning, but wanted to make the most of the day before my flight that evening. After a delicious hotel buffet breakfast, I set out to find Raffles. It’s a beautiful, luxurious, colonial style hotel; a historic icon in the heart of the city.

Raffles

Raffles Hotel

I then walked to the waterfront so I could see the city in the daylight, which was nowhere near as breathtaking as it was at night. But it was good nonetheless. In the afternoon, I visited Gardens by the Bay briefly, which, as the name suggests, are gardens. They are expansive and very pretty but I couldn’t cover too much ground because of the heat.

City

Walking through Singapore

I then headed to Orchard Road: the big shopping street. Another thing which amazed me was the amount of malls they have in Singapore. There are shopping malls EVERYWHERE. I’ve never seen so many in my life. Shopping rarely excites me, but Orchard Road is fairly iconic and I’m glad I found some time to have a look.

Then it was time to go to the airport. It was sad because the trip was over this time — I wasn’t off to another exciting destination. Singapore was a lovely way to round off a brilliant trip. Now, the question is, who else wants to get married overseas? Because I’m coming. You can almost be sure of it.