Liechtenstein – Prince’s Way Walk and Vaduz Castle

_MG_5974Another month, another country to conquer and this August we headed with our friends Matt and Kendall from New Zealand, to Liechtenstein.

This tiny, 25km long principality where Swiss German is spoken, is nestled between Austria and Switzerland and uses the Swiss Franc. Our main destination was the small mountain village of Gaflei, and to get here once we entered Liechtenstein we had to drive up winding mountain roads._MG_5850

The climb began after Vaduz, and the roads got progressively narrower after Triesenberg. Hairpin corner after hairpin corner, narrow one-lane roads and gradients which made us fear the car would start to roll backwards took us through storybook villages and higher into the mountains.

Finally we made it to the carpark
_MG_5893at the end of the Gafleistrasse, which sits at about 1400m. From here there are many signposted walks, and we chose to do part of the “Fürstensteig” or “Princes Way Walk”. The first half of the 6km loop is essentially all up, but offered breathtaking scenery to help us forget all about sore legs or puffing lungs.

Some parts of the trail traverse ledges along steep cliff faces, and even have cables stapled into the mountain side to hold onto. This walk is not for those with vertigo or a fear of heights! Once we rounded the side of the mountain, the terrain instantly changed from grey rock and shingle to grassy meadows and dirt tracks. From our vantage point at about 1650m, we could clearly see the Three Sisters peaks towering above spectacular valleys and a shepherds hut which must be inaccessible in winter.

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Once we reached the highest point of our loop, it was time to meander downhill back to the car park. We had a musical accompaniment for this journey, as we walked through meadows which were home to cows wearing bells around their necks.

After just over 2 hours of hiking it was time to head down the mountain in search of lunch. We arrived in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein to lunch menus in the order of 30 euros a main… luckily the supermarket was open on a Sunday so we could have some albeit expensive, bread and cheese instead!

Before leaving Liechtenstein, we checked out the famous Vaduz castle. We weren’t able to enter the grounds or the castle itself, as it is private property and home to the Prince of Liechtenstein. It was built in medieval times, and purchased from the Roman Emperor in 1712 at the time the family of Liechtenstein purchased the countship of Vaduz (events which followed resulted in Liechtenstein becoming a principality).

_MG_5993We found Liechtenstein to be very Swiss, but are impressed with its network of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as its natural beauty. It seems like a good place for a day trip or weekend mountain escape, and we won’t discount the possibility of a longer hike there some day.

A day in Zurich

IMG_5772One of the fantastic things about living not only in one of the most central European countries, but in the south of Germany is that we have multiple international borders within a couple of hours drive.

We had time for a short day trip this month,_MG_5756 so we chose to zoom down to Zurich, in Switzerland. It took about 1hr 45 to drive there via the motorways. Apparently there is an annual toll fee one must pay to be allowed to drive on the Swiss motorways. We found this out after the fact, and luckily not from a toll controller as we would have been fined about 500 francs!

Upon arriving in Zurich we drove around for a bit, confused by all the signs pointing to the Centre… until we realised each suburb has a “Centre”. Zurich has a river flowing through it with the clearest water, which also bubbles up into fountains where the water is safe to drink (unusual in Europe).

_MG_5730We begun by strolling down Bahnhofstrasse – one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world. We are sure the designer label and jewellery stores are indeed expensive, given the price of our coffee! Even so close to the border, Swiss German is spoken. I was able to fumble through with shopkeepers speaking Swiss to me and me speaking German back, but I had about as much success understanding overheard conversations as I would have had they been in Russian.

Further away from Bahnhofstrasse is a hilly shopping suburb with cobblestoned streets and a variety of clothing, accessory, chocolate, gift and gourmet stores. We wound our way through this part of town down to the lake which is wide, glassy and beautiful. Tree lined and dotted with sailing boats it was soothing to the soul to stroll along its shores.

For a different perspective of the city we headed to the trendy Zurich West End, where an old viaduct has been converted into modern cafes, wine bars, slightly off beat labels and a large indoor market hall.


Having packed sandwiches for lunch, and forked out 50 euros on coffee and a couple of chocolates (when in Switzerland…) as evening fell we headed back over the the border in search of a meal which wouldn’t cost more than a weeks’ groceries!

Stockholm stories

At the end of May we ventured a little further from home, boarding a plane to Sweden. Well actually, we boarded a plane for a ridiculous 35 minute flight to Zurich where we had to change to fly to Stockholm!_MG_5530

Stockholm was a fantastic experience although it was cold. Really cold. We arrived to 10 degrees and chilly winds, which were soon accompanied by ice cold rain.

Stockholm is an archipelago of 14 islands, with a superb public transport system (trams, subway and ferries) and a number
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Our apartment was in the hipster Sodermalm area which was brimming with cool. Pop up bars, no-reservation cafes, food trucks and skateboard parks were frequented by young people in skinny jeans and over sized sunglasses.

To the north of Sodermalm is the central city and Gamla Stan (the old town). We were actually in Stockholm for me to run the marathon, and on Saturday I joined over 20,000 other runners in pounding the pavements through the centre of Stockholm, past many of the famous attractions such as the Royal Palace.

McdsAfter finishing my first marathon freezing cold, soaking wet and deliriously happy, we slowly made our way through town. Although I was exhausted, the multi story shopping malls and modern glam of the inner city did not escape me. Our first mission – despite the vast traditional, international, modern, fusion and downright delicious offerings in Stockholm – was to McDonalds. Scandinavia is the only place in the world where you can get gluten free burgers at Mcdonalds, and I did not just have one.

With as little self-powered movement as possible, we shuffled across the road that evening to catch a movie on the big screen – the first in probably over a year. In Sweden, television and movies are not dubbed (although they have Swedish subtitles), so we could enjoy some English media. English is widely spoken in Sweden, and we never had a problem communicating. As we noticed the night before, the sun didn’t set until after midnight, and rose again at about 3am. It is bizarre waking up in the small hours of the morning to bright daylight!

_MG_5412On Sunday it was sightseeing time! First stop via a ferry ride was Skansen, an open air museum with installations from various regions of Sweden throughout the ages. We wandered through villages of wooden houses from the 1700s, bought coffee from 19th century shops selling grains and cotton and enjoyed a view of Stockholm from the botanical gardens. In addition, Skansen has a zoo with Icelandic animals. The moose were probably the most impressive, with their graceful movements, impressive height and colossal antlers.

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Skansen is on what is called the “museum island” of Djurgarden, although there are museums all over the archipelago. After crepes for lunch, we headed to Vasa – our favourite museum of the trip. Within this museum is housed the huge wooden Vasa warship, which sunk in the Stockholm harbour in 1628 and was only salvaged in 1961. Aside from the massive, largely intact viking ship in the middle of a building, the 4 stories of educational journey visitors are taken on was amazing. We read about the building of the ship, the faults which caused it to sink, the lifestyles of the locals at the time, where the supplies for such ships came from and all about life on board for the sailors. _MG_5598We learned about finding the ship after hundreds of years, and the dangerous salvage mission. It was fascinating to learn about how experts needed to dig tunnels on the ocean floor and carefully float the ship. There were scale models as well as entire rooms set up as various areas of the ship, so that visitors could experience what it would have been like inside. Explanations not only of the decorative features of the ship but also of how conclusions about the colours of paint used were drawn and of other artwork of the time, really helped to add context. An entire floor was dedicated to the science of preservation and we learned about the difficulties in drying and preserving the various materials on board. It took over 15 years for the initial drying period, during which time 1.5 times its weight in water was removed. The drying process continues today, and over the last 5 decades advances in technology have seen more and more sophisticated preservation techniques being applied to the ship. The technical section finished with a delightful exhibition of skeletons and human remains found on board, along with forensic explanations about the identity of the people.

MtballsWe emerged from the specially temperature and light controlled environment of the vasa museum some hours later, and made our way back to the main island. Here we visited a restaurant named Unter Kastanjen for some traditional Swedish fare. Everything on the menu was available gluten free, so I even enjoyed some garlic bread along with my Swedish meatballs. Since our table was earmarked as gluten free, James’ burger also came on gf bread therefore I was able to eat from his plate much to his annoyance and my delight!

Whilst wandering the streets, I will admit that there were a few moments where I simply had to sit on the side walk, since my legs, post-marathon, refused to walk another step. Plenty of cafe stops and rests saw me battling through, and after dinner we still managed to cram in Fotografika – the photography museum. Here were installations from a variety of photographers, with an interestingly diverse range of styles.

_MG_5664After a deep and dreamless sleep, our last day in Stockholm arrived far too soon. Our first mission was to visit the library; well worth a bit of a trek out of the main city. This architectural masterpiece, designed by Gunnar Asplund has a rotunda as its centre, meaning that when one stands in the middle of the room they are surrounded by circular walls of towering bookshelves. I could have stayed there all day._MG_5662

_MG_5691The amusement park in Stockholm was also included in our 3 day pass, so we took advantage of a couple of sunny hours to ride the rollercoasters and play arcade games.

Later that afternoon saw us back in the old town, where unfortunately the Royal Palace was closed but the Nobel Peace Prize museum offered some interesting insight into Nobel, the prize and previous winners.

After checking out the cute boutiques,_MG_5676 stopping for “Fika”, the Swedish tradition of coffee and cake at 3pm (gluten free cake? No problem!) and admiring the water one last time, it was time to head to the airport.

Sweden has a different feel to Central Europe, and seems to be a mixture of Old-World Europe and modern Anglophone/American culture, with its own special touch of eccentric Scandinavian custom. Our action packed 4 days in Stockholm were exciting, refreshing, inspiring and wonderful. It was just a little bit of a relief however, to leave the Krone behind and return to Euros!


Istanbul – a city of contrasts

_MG_5095Last month, although the main purpose of our trip to Turkey was to attend the Gallipoli commemorations, we chose to stay an extra night in Istanbul after our Anzac adventure. We didn’t have many expectations of Istanbul, but within an hour we realised we had completely underestimated this majestic city so rich in culture, history and beauty.

Istanbul is a real East meets West experience, literally as well as figuratively. The city spans two continents (Europe and Asia), with its two parts connected by a bridge. Upon driving in and out of town, skyscrapers, glistening malls and brand new houses line the highways. The inner city suburb of Lalei where we stayed had more old-world charm and was a bustling center for locals and tourists alike. We wandered the narrow streets, always looking out for the rattling trams, speeding cars and nimble cart bearers.

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With some new found Kiwi friends (from our Anzac tour), we experienced Turkish cuisine beyond Doner kebabsIMG_4766. One restaurant we went to treated us to delicious wine and a local specialty – Testi Kebabi. Our meat was slow cooked with vegetables and sauce in a sealed clay pot, which was set on fire to create steam pressure on the inside. The pressure caused the lid to eventually pop off (during an entertaining display by the waiter), and the hot, freshly cooked stew was poured directly onto rice at our table. To finish, Turkish Delight was in no short supply and we sampled many different flavours.IMG_4771

It was a 10 minute walk from our hotel to Sultanahmet – the more famous old town suburb, steeped in history, bursting with high end restaurants and boutiques selling stunning hand crafted items. Along the way, we came across broken columns and Romanesque ruins. They were in fact Roman, since Istanbul was once Constantinople – one of the three capitals of the Roman Empire. Hinting to an even more ancient history, some of the columns were adorned with Greek Corinthian designs. After an earthquake in the 1860’s, columns from the destroyed buildings were moved underground and used to support the Underground Cisterns.

These Cisterns once housed the city’s water supply, but have now been drained and are open to the public. We walked down a few flights of stairs into this softly lit cavernous space, where tall columns stretched to a high ceiling and the water below us (we walked on purpose built bridges) dampened all sounds.

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Before long, we saw the Blue Mosque rising above the trees on _MG_5061the skyline, named because of the blue tiles lining the inside walls – blue being a holy colour representing the sky and house of god. The building itself is composed of a series of eight small domes, six spires and one huge, main dome. It used to be an educational as well as a religious institute, and the domed architecture can now also be seen on many university buildings in the area. We were required to don headscarves and remove our shoes before entering the large hall, where we were introduced to a place of worship which contrasts with the many christian cathedrals we have visited in Europe. One major difference is that there are no human faces painted or represented inside the mosque. Instead, handcrafted tiles, mosaics and geometric patterns line the walls and ceilings. The large prayer carpet is laid down so that worshippers can face Mecca. We learned that the Muslim people pray 5 times a day, say rosaries and that men and women pray differently (women gesture from their hearts and men from their ears).

Outside the mosque, as if Roman, Greek and Islamic influences weren’t enough to delight (and confuse!), there is an Egyptian obelisque, sent by Marc Antony. Actually, only half of the obelisque is in Istanbul as the whole obelisque was too large to transport!

Our next visit was the Hagia Sofia. This church really is a perfect example of the _MG_5119conglomeration of religious culture in Istanbul. The red clay to build the church comes from the Greek Island of Rhodes, the marble inside is from the Marmara Sea in Turkey and it is the 4th largest church in the world. It was initially built as a Greek Orthodox church and was converted to a Catholic one by the Romans, where many Emperors were coronated. After conquering Constantinople, Mehmet converted the Hagia Sofia to a Mosque, covering up the christian mosaics (especially the faces) with plaster. After the 1860 earthquake, many of the mosaics were uncovered but Italian artists were hired to replaster and recover them. In the 1920s, Atuturk converted the Hagia Sofia to a museum, and allowed the mosaics to be uncovered again – their restoration is still ongoing today. Inside we saw the two levels so that men and women could pray separately, the original christian altar, the art depicting Rome as the center of the world, and the later added Muslim altar, off-center so that it could point in the direction of Mecca.

Later, we wandered down to the port where our friend Shiv was on the NZ Navy ship Te Kaha. We walked together through the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. Tulips were perfectly arranged in flower beds, colourful sculptures were dotted throughout and the clean paths took us to fountains surrounded by manicured hedges. Here we also saw some of the remnants of the old city walls – still standing from Roman times.

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No visit to Istanbul would be complete without a trip to the Grand Bazaar. I was expecting this to be a cacophony of noise and hassling market stall holders but was pleasantly surprised by my peaceful shopping experience. The indoor market is huge, and a maze of side alleys and hallways – it is so easy to get lost, especially when distracted by the colourful pottery and glassware, sparkling gold jewellery and intricate carpets.


We left Istanbul wistfully wishing we had booked more time here. We didn’t make it to the famous Galata bridge for fresh fish, or to the Asian side of the city. We barely grazed the surface of this exciting, fascinating city which drew us in and earned our adoration almost instantly. I have saved some Turkish Lira and we plan to return sometime soon!

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Anzac Day at Gallipoli 2015: “Lest we forget”

_MG_4909Every year as children attending school in New Zealand, we learned about Anzac Day. This story which has so strongly influenced our cultural and national identity is entrenched in the minds and hearts of every New Zealander, evidenced by the crowds which turn up to dawn ceremonies all over the country every April 25th.

Anzac Day is not only a day to remember the fateful landings at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915 and the brave campaign fought there for months on end by the New Zealand and Australian soldiers, but a day to honor all men and women who have served our country, defended our freedom, left their families and comfort to fight or peace-keep in far off lands and a day to celebrate who we are as a nation._MG_5030

In the early hours of the morning on April 25th 1915, Britain launched its attack on Turkey. The idea was to take over the Dardanelles straight, opening access to Europe (in particular Russia), to necessitate diversion of enemy resources from the Western Front and to aid in victory over Germany. The British war office deemed the Ottoman forces to be weak, likely to be easily overcome and sent in the Anzacs – a new fledgling corps made up of young men from New Zealand and Australia. These young men had been promised travel and adventure overseas, easy victories and that they would come home heroes. They knew very little about the realities of war, and Australia and New Zealand were excited to contribute to the war effort – one of the first times they would internationally be recognised as countries in their own right, not just colonies of Britain._MG_5028

From the beginning, the Gallipoli campaign was a tragic failure. To start with, the soldiers were deposited not on flat open expanses of beach but at Anzac Cove, a narrow stretch of sand surrounded by cliffs. As the soldiers landed at dawn, they found atop these cliffs thousands of Turkish soldiers armed with machine guns. Hundreds of our men lost their lives within the first five minutes of landing on Turkish soil. Despite this, the men roared up the hills, scrambling over bushes and rocks in an attempt to storm the Turkish troops. In the months to come they gained a reputation for their raw bravery, tenacity and perseverance despite being so outnumbered. For months on end the soldiers lived in shallow trenches they had dug themselves, exposed to horrific disease due to the sanitation conditions, and becoming increasingly weak thanks to inadequate supplies of nutrition and medical care being shipped in.

The surrounding terrain at Anzac Cove

The surrounding terrain at Anzac Cove

Many times the message was relayed that this battle was hopeless, the conditions were terrible and the army should withdraw. Bodies piled up day after day yet those in charge issued the command that they were to keep fighting. The news that reached British, Australian and New Zealand newspapers was that the war was going marvelously, and Turks were falling at the hands of the Anzacs – that it was a big success. Further misinformation resulted in the death of more young men… such as the directive to empty their guns of ammunition and charge the Turkish forces with bayonets instead as this would be much faster. After the first wave of 100 men to attempt this were gunned down by Turkish machine guns, three more waves were forced to run to their certain death.


Remains of some of the trenches

There are many more stories such as reinforcements arriving too late or bombardments being called off too early which make one seethe with the incompetence of those in charge. Still, we choose to celebrate instead our men’s bravery and successes, which were significant. _MG_5033

During the 8 months of this campaign, the Anzacs and the Turks gained a mutual respect for one another. Turks would throw cigarettes to the Anzac trenches (sometimes only a few meters away) and the Anzacs would throw food or other supplies back. They wrote notes to one another and on one occasion called a truce so that each side could finally bury their dead. The Turks couldn’t understand why the Anzacs were so far from home, fighting for another country and they themselves were only defending against our attack – they hadn’t chosen to enter into battle. The humanity of both sides is brought home with such stories, and we remember that they were all men with hearts, not machines and not evil forces.


Ataturk, the first president of the Turkish republic’s message to us: Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. You are now living in the soil of a friendly country therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Eventually, after briefly capturing Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair, the Anzacs were given permission to withdraw. Overnight, every single soldier was safely evacuated – making it the most successful evacuation of the war. The Turks celebrate Anzac Day also, as for them it represents a turning point in history – they defended their country and owe their freedom to their troops and the battles won at Gallipoli.


Anzac Cove

Back to the present day, and each April 25th at 5:30am, New Zealand and Australia remembers the Anzacs. Dawn ceremonies are solemn affairs, with prayers, poems and speeches performed as well as hymns being sung. The flag is raised to the tune of the Last Post played on a bugle or trumpet and service men march in formation. Often Air force planes fly overhead, and members of the public lay wreaths and poppies (the symbol of Anzac Day due to the fields of blooming poppies where so many men died) on local war memorials. This day is a public holiday in both countries, and is one of 4 days out of 365 where shops aren’t allowed to open (before noon anyway).

Each year the same ceremony is performed at Gallipoli itself, and many young New Zealanders and Australians make the pilgrimage to Turkey to honor the fallen, and partake in this patriotic display of thanks and pride.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Since so many people were expected to want to attend, the Turkish government limited attendance to 10,000 people – 8,000 Australians and 2,000 New Zealanders. This represents less than the number of men killed at Gallipoli from each country, which when considering that the populations of our countries were 4 million and 1 million respectively were significant. Over 120,000 men were killed at Gallipoli and many of them (including 74% of NZers) remain unidentified and lie in unmarked graves.


Early in the day, when there was still plenty of space

People who wanted to attend the commemorations had to apply via a ballot process, and James was lucky enough to win a double pass. Whilst many of our compatriots travelled all the way from Australasia, we were fortunate enough to only have a 3 hour flight from Frankfurt.

Shortly before 6am on the 24th, our Top Deck tour group left Istanbul and drove 4.5 hours to Gallipoli. Here we went through a number of security check points and I have to say I am utterly impressed with the military organisation of this years commemorations. We spent some hours at Mimoza beach in a waiting area, after which time we were allowed to walk 2km along the coast to Anzac cove and through another security check point. The cove is maintained as part of a national park, and there are no buildings or permanent structures. We were allowed only to bring a backpack, with no camping gear permitted.

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Upon arriving at Anzac cove, the first thing that struck us was the sheer faces of the cliffs towering above the beach. We could only imagine the surprise followed by confusion and then finally dread the soldiers must have felt upon realising the position they were in. The small grassed area was surrounded by plastic seating, but we managed to grab a spot on the grass where we could stretch out for a few hours at least. As night fell, the temperatures dropped, the mood became somber and more and more people filed in. By 3am it was standing room only throughout the cove. 10,000 Nzers and Australians kept an overnight vigil, during which time films, speeches and stories were played on the big screens erected at the site. We heard untold stories, were reminded of facts we had previously learned, watched teary interviews with veterans, heard heartfelt performances by school children and listened to letters and reports from the battlefields. The army band played at regular intervals._MG_4970

We felt a mixture of pride for the bravery of our soldiers, and anger at the senselessness of their deaths. It was heartbreaking to hear gravestone inscriptions written for men by their mothers – because they were too young to have wives and were really only boys of 17 or 18. When “dying for a worthy cause” was mentioned it really was difficult to reconcile this with the thought of young men being slaughtered fighting someone else’s battle. We were reminded of the bravery and dedication of the Red Cross nurses who spent sleepless weeks caring for wounded and diseased soldiers whilst shells fell all around their hospital ship, and heard of the reporters who tried valiantly to get the real stories published.


The ocean behind the podium was a peaceful scene


At 5:30am, the place was _MG_5008silent. All we could hear was the lapping of the ocean on the shore, and the air was eerily still and thick with anticipation. At this moment, it was not hard to imagine the soldiers dropping into the sea with their heavy packs (many of them drowned at this point) and coming ashore to the very spot where we were standing, to meet their death. The bones of thousands of unidentified soldiers lay under our very feet.

The ceremony was a moving affair, with speeches from our Prime Ministers, Prince Charles and representatives from Turkey. We sung our national anthems with pride and reflected more deeply than we ever had before during the annual two minutes of silence.

Once the dawn ceremony was over, it was time for the next part of our journey. We filed out of Anzac cove and began the trek up the steep 6km track towards Chunuk Bair (where we were security screened twice more). After 3km we left the Australians at Lone Pine for their own ceremony. Along the way we visited some of the many cemeteries dotted all over the Gallipoli national park, and stood in the remains of the trenches trying to imagine how life must have been for the soldiers. It was near impossible to do so.


At Chunuk Bair we had a 3 hour wait while the Turkish scouts commemorated their own victories, and the cold hard ground has never felt so welcoming! Our group lay down a blanket and slept solidly for these 3 hours after which time we were allowed to enter the site. The New Zealand service was somewhat more uplifting than the dawn ceremony, with more of a focus on celebrating the accomplishments and bravery of our soldiers. Prince Harry spoke at this service as well as John Key once again, and youth ambassadors from NZ entertained the crowd with New Zealand songs – from Crowded House to Pokarekareana. As we sung the national anthem and the service ended with a prayer, the emotion in the crowd was palpable and we felt very much at one with our countrymen.

Still smiling after a sleepless night. Feeling proud to be NZers

Still smiling after a sleepless night. Feeling proud to be NZers

After our service we were incredibly fortunate to be one of the first buses called up to drive back to Istanbul – many others were waiting until 9pm. Throughout the waiting and the services we were reminded that no matter how cold, or tired or hungry we were, our ancestors and predecessors endured much, much worse. Their actions and the sacrifices of their families determined our future, by way of contributing to the Allies’ victory, and in shaping our identity as a doggedly determined, remarkably resourceful and tremendously tough nation.

My own great grandfather fought at Gallipoli, and was one of the fortunate few who made it home. This makes the connection I felt with Anzac cove even stronger. There is something uniquely special about setting foot on such sacred ground, especially when it is somewhere we learn about, talk about and see pictures of every year. It was an incredible privilege and an indescribable experience to have visited this site which is such an important part of our history, and to remember the Anzacs in the very place where they lay down their lives._MG_5035

Extravagance, elegance and experience! From United Arab Emirates to France in March

This month, James travelled overseas alone to Abu Dhabi, where he had the perfect holiday. After months of daily _MG_4275 German courses, homework and study being fitted in around his other part time job, not to mention the short days and icy temperatures, he was well overdue for a break and what a place to spend it. James’ parents Michael and Jennene were in Abu Dhabi for a conference, and since it is only a 7 hour flight direct from Stuttgart (like flying Auckland to Perth), it was an opportunity not to be missed for James to catch up with his parents after nearly a year of being away from home._MG_4354

After the ancient cities of Europe, Abu Dhabi was like another world, one where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred and the level of opulence is realms beyond any other country we had ever visited. James was awestruck from the minute he landed, with the scale of the buildings, the brightness of the lights, the modernness of the interiors and the sheer luxury which was everywhere. The streets could have literally been lined with gold and noone would have blinked an eye.

All of this luxury comes at a price however – which James learnt on the first night after ordering a single glass of whiskey…and receiving a bill for 75 euros! The hotel where the Brosnahans were staying was directly over the famous Formula One track, and they breakfasted whilst watching Ferrari’s zoom around the track below them. James and his mum visited Ferrari world, riding the roller coaster and ogling the cars.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to the Sheikh Zayed mosque. The mosque itself covers an area of 12 square hectares, and was intended to be a symbol of unity, to represent_MG_4270 the cultural diversity in the UAE and the world. Materials and pieces of art from many different countries are included in the _MG_4197design, notabu dhabi james least the huge chandeliers made from Swarovski crystal, imported from Germany. The carpet in the main prayer hall is over 5,500 m squared and is one single piece woven from wool sourced partly from New Zealand.

Marble and precious stones abound inside the mosque, with inlays of pearl and gold everywhere. In order to enter the mosque tourists must respect the religious and cultural beliefs of the local community, therefore James was required to don a full length garment to hide his bare legs.

A day trip saw the family plus some friends from the conference, including a good friend Justin from New Zealand, visit nearby Dubai. Here the Mall of Dubai held hours worth of entertainment, with an aquarium (complete with sharks) in its midst. Other sights included the Gold markets, spice markets and a boat tour along the Dubai “creek”, as well as a view of the world’s tallest building towering above the other skyscrapers.


At first distracted by the shining attractions, James later did notice that this sparkling oasis is still in the middle of a desert. We wonder what life would be like when the majority of daily life is conducted indoors, and main attractions include shopping (especially important since a lot of emphasis does seem to be placed on wealth and status in these cities). On the road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the unspoken seedier side of the UAE was evident, with poverty stricken immigrants lining the streets, on their way to 15 hour work days and certainly nowhere near the clean, beautiful streets of the main cities. _MG_4425_MG_4433

In general, 5 days in the sun and heat, relaxing by the pool and partaking in the extravagant lifestyle that is life in the UAE, were a complete delight for James. He returned home raving about Abu Dhabi and we can’t wait to go together one day! Seeing his parents after so long was also fantastic and he enjoyed every minute of his holiday.


Although Abu Dhabi certainly counted as a country for our goal of visiting a different land each month…. I wasn’t there so we needed to get me across a border as well! In the last weekend of March we headed to Strassbourg in France. From Stuttgart, Strassbourg can be reached in just over an hour with the TGV however this convenience does not come cheap. We instead took advantage of the Baden Wurttemberg ticket which allows us both to travel on all commuter transport in the state for 24 hours, for just 28 euros. We set off from Tubingen at 7am and 3 hours later crossed the border into France (our ticket got us as far as Kehl, from where it is just 10 minutes to Strassbourg). It was a stunning sunny day, perfect for exploring the pretty Alsace town. Even the main train station was distinctly more French than German, however we were relieved to find that German and English are spoken widely. I have never met such friendly French people as I did in Strassbourg and was grateful for the hospitality of the cafe owners, shopkeepers and tourism operators .


After strolling through the old town and stopping off at the numerous chocolate shops, we stopped at a cafe, where we enjoyed a coffee and a spot of people watching in the sunshine. Having stimulated our appetites we proceeded directly to lunch – at a creperie of course! Being able to enjoy both a savoury and a sweet crepe was as always a treat for me since the French make their ‘Galettes’ with gluten free buckwheat flour. Afterwards we made our way to the Cathedral… but not before picking up some macarons from a very sweet and elegant patisserie.

The Strassbourg Cathedral is a magnificent site, and was the world’s tallest building until 1874. Its gothic architecture is so intricate, and thousands of carved figures adorn its sandstone outer walls. Inside the wonderment continues, with high curved ceilings, stained glass windows and an astronomical clock.

In complete contrast to this building from the middle ages is Strassbourg’s more modern claim to fame – the headquarters of the European Union and Parliament.

We took the quintessential covered boat tour, which cruised along Strassbourg’s canals and took us past these sights. The Parliament building holds an amphitheater with 750 seats, and is surrounded by gardens which create a wall of green. The court of human rights of the EU is also here, and is a symbol of conciliation and peace. We floated past the Rhine Palace, Fisherman’s Quay and half timbered houses – which used to be like furniture; non-permanent fixtures to be moved around at will. Many of the buildings along the canals have a rich history, having over the years housed hospitals, then convents, then schools, then prisons. The four canals along which we rode are on two levels, and we had to go through Locks where 360,000 litres of water flows in to raise the water level 1.8 metres, allowing boats to access the next level of canals. We passed under many covered bridges where gunners took their positions during battles throughout time – the bridges were covered not to protect the gunners from the elements however, rather the gunpowder!_MG_4591 _MG_4594 _MG_4597

The waterways have many stories associated with them and form part of Strassbourg’s identity. One such example is that the washing of the rich was done upstream of the poor, but if something from the rich escaped the washerwomen and floated downstream, they had to pay the poorer women to get it back! The old tanneries next to the water which are now closed in, used to have open roofs to dry the skins, and criminals were tortured in cages hung from the bridges around the city. The contrast of medieval history, centuries old buildings and churches (with tombs dating back to 1180) with the modern concept of the European Parliament mean that Strassbourg has an interesting and ecclectic collection of sites. Combined with its German influences and French culture, mixture of locals and tourists and of course the crepes and macarons, this gem in the Alsace is certainly a place we will visit again.

Making the most of our travel ticket, we crossed the border again and headed slightly south back into the Black Forest, to stay the night in Freiburg. We didn’t check out too many sights in this attractive student town, but I ran in my first European race which was a real experience! I have never run in an event with so many participants, where for the first few kilometers it was impossible to find elbow room and where I was never wanting for company.

_MG_4626_MG_4661This March update has been somewhat delayed… thanks to the adventure that has been moving house! That story deserves a blog post in itself, but suffice to say we have been kept extremely busy and are looking forward to our next mini-break overseas.

Christmas in Germany

We’ve been into the everyday grind of the New Year for nearly a month now, so a flash back to Christmas magic is most welcome! This year we were in Germany for the entire Christmas season, which is a very special time of year.

In South Germany in particular, Advent (the month before Christmas) is widely celebrated. This time of peace and platzchenjoy is marked by a flurry of activity, whereby young and old alike partake in many traditions. One of these is Christmas baking – there are entire cookbooks dedicated to “Platzchen” which are small christmas cookies, usually with almond, cinnamon and similar spiced flavours. People set aside entire days to bake five + different types of these early in advent, and then take them to friends and family, work, school etc.

We are all familiar with advent calendars – the cardboard frames with a piece of chocolate behind each day’s little door. Here, it’s a bit more involved downloadthan that! Advent calendars are more often than not handmade, for children the presents are often in knitted socks, sewn bags, clay figures or houses… and although little, the gifts are usually more varied and personal than chocolate. Many adults make advent calendars for each other too; James and I attempted to join in this year although we were a little underprepared. We might not have had our gifts wrapped and ready before the start of advent, but we still had fun presenting each other with chocolate, fancy teas, books etc each morning. Each of the four Advent Sundays are also marked, by lighting another candle in the wreath households have set up on the table.

The 6th December is when St. Nikolaus comes, and children receive presents in shoes that they leave outside the door – another version of Santa putting presents in stockings.

Something which has become synonymous with Germany and Christmas, are of course the Christmas Markets! No xmas 1 IMG_4001matter how grey and cold it is outside, how stressed people are with work or holiday organisation, a Christmas Market will transport anyone to another realm for a couple of hours. Market Squares are sectioned off and dressed up with glittering lights, green boughs and colourful decorations. They are filled with stalls, each made from wood and shaped like a little hut, with elaborately decorated roofs depicting Christmas scenes. The smell of mulled wine, grilled bratwurst and spiced IMG_4174cookies hits upon entrance, and the magic begins! Stalls sell anything from handcrafts to commercial items, but most people attend the markets for the food and drink…. specifically the Gluhwein (mulled wine)! There is nothing like sipping on a hot, spiced sweet wine whilst watching your breath escape into the frigid air, listening to the hum of people and the background Christmas music and spending time with friends.

Each Christmas market tends to have its own flair, and we visited a few! In Stuttgart, there is a section for the Finnish market where stalls are decorated in a more rustic style and smoked fish is for sale. Ludwigsburg is distinctly baroque, and Esslingen has a famous Medieval market every year. This is one of our favourites, as actors wander the place dressed in traditional costumes, jugglers and minstrels perform regularly, there is an “arcade” section where hay lines the ground, furs hang on the walls and guests can have a go at shooting bows and arrows, throwing knives and bowling with handmade balls for prizes. My favourite game is mouse-roulette, where players choose a numbered house, a mouse is let loose on the game board and the winner is whoever chose the number house into which the mouse chooses to run. Stalls sell leather goods, 13th century dresses, games, hand carved wooden bowls and knives and lots more.

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A week before the Christmas season starts, Tubingen holds its famed Chocolart festival. Similar to the Christmas markets, the theme here is… you guessed it, CHOCOLATE. Along with mulled wine, they sell hot chocolate with rum, liquid chocolate to eat with a spoon, chocolate liqueur shots served in chocolate shot glasses…. Every single stall sells chocolate of some description, from elaborate moulded designs to 99% dark chocolate from Equador. There are artworks from chocolate paint, live demonstrations of chocolate making and various cake stalls. Almost every stall provides samples!schoki 2 schoki 1

At the end of Advent, comes the actual Christmas period. In Germany these days are distinguished by “Holy Evening” (Christmas Eve), “The First Christmas Day” (Christmas Day) and “The Second Christmas Day” (Boxing Day). On Christmas Eve, the day begins as any other but in the evening the fun begins. Traditionally the Christmas Tree is decorated during the day, hidden behind doors and unveiled in the evening. Many people visit relatives and friends specifically to admire their trees and share a drink. This is the time when gifts are exchanged, and a simple meal shared. We spent Christmas Eve at my aunt’s with my grandparents, where we had a traditional meal of frankfurters, potato salad and stuffed dates. The tree was gorgeous as usual, and something special for us was that it had real candles (no fire hazard here!). Later we went to a carols service at the church, which was so full people had to stand.IMG_4002

Christmas day brought the feasting as we know it, and we travelled to my Uncle’s brother’s to spend the afternoon. With more than 10 people we had a delightful afternoon and evening, drinking champagne, watching old shadow puppet movies on a projector, eating gulasch and chocolate pudding and singing christmas carols around the tree late into the night. The next day was another celebration, at my cousin’s house. With 10 adults and 6 children, it was the best kind of chaos! Another tradition on either the last christmas day or new years, is to eat Raclette. This is a Swiss meal where chopped meat, veges, potato and bread are laid out on the table. Each person has their own little pan in which they grill a special kind of cheese on the grill which sits in the middle of the table. The cheese is scraped over whatever bits they have chosen – this works especially well for potatoes, or bits of ham, onion etc are added to the cheese while it is grilled. Eat, grill, repeat!IMG_4032

As we were leaving my grandparents’ to head back home, the snow began to fall. Within hours, our town was buried beneath a deep layer of pure white. The lake was dusted as though with icing sugar, the trees were white skeletons and the ground crunched underfoot. It was still, peaceful and although a day late, finally a white Christmas!

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A few days later we flew to London to bring in 2015 with friends at a New Years Ball! We delighted in the familiarity of people, language and food for a few days, not least barista coffee (namely, Flat Whites!). Upon arriving back in Germany 2015 began properly. This year, we aim to visit a different country every month. January saw us visiting the U.K; the closest thing to going home for a weekend without the 24 hour plane trip. We’re on the lookout for a good February destination, so watch this space!

Love in Lucerne

This month, we had a weekend away to a place quite special to us. Four years ago we were on holiday in Chapel BridgeEurope in winter, and whilst visiting Lucerne, we were suspended in a private Gondola above the snowy Swiss landscape when James proposed to me. We were also married in December (two years later, in NZ on a hot summers day) so it was the perfect time now to go back for our wedding anniversary.

_MG_3459For once, we managed to make our train connections so it was a very relaxing trip from Tubingen to Lucerne, taking just under 4 hours with two quick changes. Our hotel upgraded us to a Junior Suite as an anniversary present, no small thing given the prices of … well… EVERYTHING in Switzerland! We arrived in the evening and didn’t have to venture far from our hotel to find wine and Italian food, so it was a good start!

Lucerne is one of the most picturesque cities I have ever visited, with its charming wooden bridges and centuries old houses, serene lake, abundance of fairy lights and of course being surrounded by snow capped _MG_3503mountains. Even the train station is magnificent! Similar to many European towns, the “Old Town” is a collection of cobblestoned alleyways and market squares, although these are lined with high end watch, chocolate and fashion stores which ooze sophistication. There are two wooden footbridges bridges running across the river which separates the Old town from the New town. The most famous of these is the covered Chapel bridge, built in 1333 as part of the town fortifications. As well as the ceiling being adorned with colourful paintings about historic events in Lucerne, the bridge is interesting because of its connection to the “water tower”. This existed before the bridge, and has been used for everything from a torture chamber to a gift shop, but not as an actual water tower. _MG_3510

While we were in Lucerne, the snow had not yet arrived for the season so we couldn’t ski or toboggan like during our last visit. We did however take a 10 minute train around the lake to the Hergeswil Glassworks. These have been in existence since 1817, when they produced craft glass like that in Venice. Soon they were producing glass for industry such as bottles _MG_3426and jars, and during the war provided many jobs to create preserving jars and similar essentials. The Glassworks were a representation of the social system of the time, with the workers being very separated from the upper class owners in their work, their pay, their living conditions and even a physical wooden railing in the director’s office where they went to collect their wages. In 1975 the factory stopped being able to compete in the market and was nearly closed down. It has however been preserved as a historical location and produces beautiful glass pieces once again, such as platters and wine glasses. We visited the museum, which was a unique exhibition. Visitors enter at timed intervals, so that they have the place to themselves. Only one room or section of a room is lit up at a time, and a voice-over narrates the story of the Glass Works as  the visitors walk through. As the light fades from one exhibit, it starts to illuminate another, guiding the visitors through. Doors opened automatically and it felt a little like being Alice in Wonderland! _MG_3433

After the museum, we ended up in the factory where we could watch workers blowing glass and creating the actual products for sale.

It is fascinating to watch the molten liquid glass (a mixture of sand, minerals and old glass) being wielded by the workers, poured into moulds, beaten into shape and solidified to create recognisable forms of plates and glasses. _MG_3422There were no delicate figurines being made here as there are in Venice, but it was no less impressive to watch the strength required for some of the massive creations, and interesting to see how easily a piece could be ruined by not pouring the liquid just right. To the side, was a place where I could blow my own glass ball… yes, it may be touristy but I couldn’t resist! I had to blow surprisingly gently, and the difficulty was in turning the stick evenly and quickly so that my ball wasn’t lopsided.

Towering PeakWe of course rode up the Gondola, for nostalgia. The view from nearly 2000 metres up Mt Pilatus is stunning, and we enjoyed a peaceful walk together through the snow (not enough for the pistes to be open, but still enough to be magical). Crunching snow underfoot, green pine trees overhead, the blue water of the lake, the pitched roofs of the town in the distance and mountains as far as the eye can see.

What better place to take a breath and recharge?!_MG_3471

In the evening on Saturday we went out for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. The “Thai Garden” was beautifully presented, with live background music, water features and three different dining areas. The food and experience lived up to the reputation… as did the price. Compared to Germany, Switzerland is extremely expensive, however we found the prices to be similar to Auckland in a relative sense. For example a coffee in Auckland can easily cost $4.90, and it cost 4.90 francs in Lucerne. If you are earning in dollars and pay for your coffee in dollars, vs earning in francs and pay for your coffee in francs, that’s pretty similar. Of course visiting Switzerland with dollars (or in our case, euros) means it is very expensive!

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On Sunday we leisurely wandered around town, Lion of Lucernechecking out a craft market and visiting Lion Monument (a tribute to the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss Guard during the French Revolution, carved in 1820).

A stroll around the edge of the lake, watching a lone fisherman on the water, children playing on the tree lined avenue and a mixture of tourists and locals going about their day, was the perfect way to end a relaxing weekend together in Lucerne. After leaving on Friday afternoon, we arrived home on Sunday evening – we are so lucky to be able to just pop to another country for weekend away!_MG_3485 _MG_3460

Introducing Tübingen

All has been quiet on the blog front lately…but not the Brosnahan front! On an unassuming Tuesday in October, I travelled about an hour South for a job interview at the Institute for Tropical Medicine (part of the University) in Tübingen. Three days later_MG_3167 I started my new job!

The past month has been an exciting and exhausting whirlwind of learning a new job, contracts, registering in town, finding an apartment, moving from Ludwigsburg, arranging compulsory health insurance, setting up power and internet accounts and in general just settling in. After a couple of quiet weekends we finally feel as though we’ve surfaced, and have the energy to tell you a bit about our new home town.

Tübingen has a long and proud history of being a University town. The Karl Erberhards University of _MG_3197Tübingen was founded in 1477, although Tübingen itself has been around since 1078. Yes that’s right, they had an established educational institute before anyone even knew New Zealand existed. Tübingen has been referred to as “Athens on the Neckar”; a reference to the cultural identity brought to the town by its educated inhabitants, reputation for critical thinking and creative flair, and no doubt the beauty of its architecture.




Our house! (We live in the roof)

The University really is the hub of the town, with multiple campuses and associated hospital clinics spread throughout, and students providing a vibrant,

_MG_3136bustling atmosphere. The town charms its visitors the minute they arrive with its picturesque bridge over the Neckar, on which Stockerkahn boats cruise in the summer, watched by students eating their lunch on the old stone walls built upon its embankments and of course the coloured houses in the background completing a scene worthy of an oil painting.

Although the population of Tübingen is small (about 90,000), its heart is anything but. On any given day cyclists will be whizzing around on dedicated cycle paths, buses will be rumbling down narrow streets and families will be strolling through the pedestrian only centre of town. Numerous sidewalk cafes are enjoyed by young and old alike, and there are plenty of vegan, artsy and kitschy locales to satisfy the student population. At lunchtime the most popular place to enjoy a meal or an icecream is the steps of the church in the wide open Marktplatz – the perfect position from where to watch the world go by. On weekends, the parks and nature areas are always being enjoyed by couples and families out for a stroll.



Blissfully unaware they’re about to become dinner..


Enjoying autumn leaves

We have got into the spirit of things,using our bikes just like the locals do, to get everywhere. We’re now used to not wearing helmets, and I can zip from home to work in high heels in under 10 minutes! We load up our carriers with groceries once a week and ride our bikes to the gym, out to dinner, to bars and just because.

This pedestrian/cyclist tunnel has awesome acoustics, and it's lovely to walk through listening to whichever busker has this spot for the day.

This pedestrian/cyclist tunnel has awesome acoustics, and it’s lovely to walk through listening to whichever busker has this spot for the day.

Aside from bikes, the river and the university, Tübingen has a beautiful old town and a castle. In the old town are cobblestoned streets and buildings dating back to the 1400’s. Poised atop a hill is the old castle, which is now a museum and in the grounds of which the local archery club still practices. Surrounding the town itself are forest areas, through which paths and trails connect the neighbouring villages. We’ve enjoyed a walk in the woods to Schwarzlocher hof, an old restaurant in the country which raises its own geese for its traditional dishes, and I’ve run through part of the woods just behind our suburb. There is even a large nature park with hiking and biking trails within 10 minutes drive which we’ve yet to explore.




Tübingen has most things on offer – plenty of cafes and traditional restaurants, some clothes shops, a disproportionate number of shoe shops, the major grocery store chains, a big electronics store and loads of little boutiques with specialty goods. If we need a more broad ranging shopping experience we can travel 19 minutes by train to nearby Reutlingen, or for the city experience it takes 45 minutes to get to Stuttgart. This is also where our nearest airport is, so we’re looking forward to snapping up some cheap flights to exotic destinations next year!

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For now, our lives have settled into a routine of work for me, commuting to Stuttgart for daily language classes for James, searching for new eateries, hairdressers, entertainment and generally navigating life in Germany. The days are getting shorter, but the autumn has been beautiful; still and crisp air, clear skies and cool evenings. We’re looking forward to the first snowfall, the Christmas markets and the Chocolate Festival – the largest and most famous in Germany – which is held in Tübingen every December.


Homes away from home – places we laid our heads whilst travelling

It’s said the journey is often more important than the destination, and in our case it has certainly been a huge part of our travel experience. That is, while we’ve visited some incredible countries, seen some inspiring views and ticked off a number of bucket-list worthy sites, we’ve also had a lot of fun in between.

Completely unexpectedly, some of the places we stayed have been so interesting I decided they should be shared in a blog post!

In Las Vegas, we were so fortunate to be offered a suite in the Hilton Elara Grand Vacations complex by my Uncle Pete. We kept our backpacks zipped in their slightly less “I’m a young backpacker travelling on a shoestring” looking covers and recycled our one nice outfit a number of times whilst staying here! With a stunning pool (complete with cocktail bar), an on-site Starbucks and direct entry to the next door shopping mall we felt as though we were in a movie. Playing at being fabulously wealthy was fun for a few days, but sadly we had to move on!

_MG_0682A weekend at Lake Powell involved sleeping on a house boat – a new experience for both of us! This long boat had a lower level with a lounge, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom plus an upper open-air deck. In the 40+ degree heat in the middle of the desert, the best place to sleep was outside on the deck. Sleeping under the stars, surrounded by red rock and isolated from civilization as the boat gently rocked us to sleep was a magical experience.

When we drove down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Franciscocasita to Los Angeles, we stayed over in a tiny beach community – Grover Beach. Here we were warmly welcomed by our airbnb host, and shown to our room which was actually a converted garden shed! On the outside it looked like any other shed sitting in someone’s back garden, but inside was a cosy oasis with a comfortable bed, couch, movies and good Californian wine on the house.

In Latvia when we attended the wedding of our friends Agnese and Rudi, we were invited to stay in a traditional chalet out in the country. _MG_1489These wooden log cabins with sloping rooves were in a picturesque setting, dotted around a central meadow in which we lit a bonfire to dance and sing around. The cabins themselves were warm and spacious, with bunk beds in the bedroom. Our bunch of rowdy kiwis piled into the loft however, laying out sleeping mats side by side and having a good ol’ sleepover!

Upon arriving in Warsaw, we gave a taxi driver our address and he drove around the block a few times before he was convinced this was the place. It turns out our accommodation is a boarding school during the year, and rents its rooms out during the holidays. We made our breakfast in a commercial sized kitchen, showered and brushed our teeth in a bathroom with rows of sinks and mirrors strangely reminiscent of primary school bathrooms and slept in little single beds. The walls were adorned with children’s art work and the large old building could easily have been the scene for an Enid Blyton book.

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Poland offered another surprise, when our airbnb apartment in Krakow turned out to be above a sex shop. Unsure of how exactly krakowto get to our apartment we hung around outside awkwardly until the seedy looking man standing outside asked if we were here for the “hotel”. “Yes..?” we tentatively replied, and he directed us upstairs to what was luckily the right place! It was a great apartment where we were just renting a room. Our hosts were lovely people and we enjoyed their company but it was still a little strange to be ducking into the doorway with the sex shop sign and to see a constant stream of men entering and exiting the lower level via the same staircase we were using!

After many hostels and various airbnb apartments, we chose to spend our nights in Stary Smokovec at the Grand Hotel. This historical hotel still looks as it must have in the 1900’s, with high ceilings, glittering chandeliers, sweeping staircases and wooden balconies. We spent rainy afternoons playing pool or using the internet in the common areas which were just so inviting with their plush armchairs and huge windows affording views over the valley. We didn’t have to leave the hotel as full board was included and it had its own spa complex.grandhotel-smokovec-23

In complete contrast to this wonderful hotel, our hostel in Ghent was the stuff of nightmares. Although the place itself seemed ok, despite the 5 flights of stairs to get to our room, the trouble started when we turned out the light…you know that feeling that something is crawling on your skin? It usually starts with an itchy bite, or having seen a mosquito, or being too hot and is usually all in your head. Not this time! Our beds were literally crawling with bedbugs, tiny, disgusting, scuttling little things which were on our sheets and pillows, running over our bodies and feeding on our blood. We were out of there quick smart!bugs

Many of the apartments in France, Italy and Greece were in buildings hundreds of years old, and we had to summit hundreds of tiny stairs in narrow staircases to reach our accommodation. I can’t imagine how people with large wheelie suitcases manage! This was however preferable to the old fashioned elevators on offer. Running up the middle of the buildings would be a narrow cylinder within which was an elevator. When the doors opened we could see a tall rectangular box hanging from ropes and a pulley system. It was barely big enough for one person and their bag, and it looked like a coffin on its side. We took the stairs.

Using the toilet in Greece was a novel experience! Because their plumbing systems are so old, they aren’t able to cope with the large demands put on them by a growing population and a booming tourist industry. Toilet paper must under no circumstances, be flushed! It was difficult to remember this but it had to be used, then put in a bin next to the toilet. Most often a bin without a lid. The toilets didn’t smell too good in Greece.

Our favourite airbnb apartment - in Provence

Our favourite airbnb apartment – in Provence

In addition, we of course stayed in many hostels and airbnb apartments. Sometimes we barely slept thanks to snoring (how can one person make THAT much noise??) or slamming doors, other times, such as in Vilnius our hostel was a warm cosy sanctuary. Here we hung out in a comfortable, clean common room with travellers from all over Europe and the U.S., sheltering from the rain and catching up on emails and the news. I think the most important things we learned about hostels were to always take earplugs and check the beds thoroughly!

Airbnb apartments aren’t always what they seem online, and we’ve stayed in some quirky places with neck-breaking stairs, stifling loft bedrooms and no wifi. We now know: include “air conditioning” in the search filters, check if there is wifi and get excited about the unexpected!

For the last while we’ve had our own flat in Ludwigsburg, thanks to my Aunt and Uncle, and now that we are moving to Tuebingen we have started the apartment search. In the meantime we’re staying in a boarding house with beds commandeered from the nearby hospital – with adjustable mattresses so they can be propped up into sitting positions. Its quite awesome really!