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!

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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!

The Black Forest (not just a cake)

IMG_3518Feeling a little cooped up, James and I decided to take a mini break last week, to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).

Armed with our Baden Wurttemberg pass – a rail pass which allows us to use any of the regional (read: slow) trains in the state, we set off on Thursday evening and within three hours our train was pulling into Triberg station. Triberg, well known for the invention of the cuckoo clock, is a small town surrounded by forest, where Josef Keller first created the Black Forest Gateau, where some of the first tourist hiking trails were set up and home to the highest waterfalls in Germany. IMG_3517Our guest house provided not only breakfast, but a “Schwarzwald Card” which gave us free transport on all networks within the Black Forest as well as admission to a few top spots. This turned out to be fantastic value, as we used about 100 euros worth of trains in the area in two days.

 

On Friday morning we visited the Triberg falls, a series of waterfalls over 163m high. We could hear the chatter of the water as it cascaded playfully over rocks, into deep pools and through crevices, making its way down the hillside. The falls themselves are surrounded by a nature park with various marked trails. We hiked up the steep hill, able to cross the falls twice over purpose built foot bridges. After coming back down we could continue along a trail which brought us out at the edge of Triberg, and had a number of points of interest along the way back in such as ancient churches and of course, Cuckoo Clock shops!

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After browsing the shops we hopped aboard a train which travelled along the Schwarzwald Bahn route – a network of rail with about 35 tunnels and picturesque views of dense forest, towering pines, open meadows and small villages with wooden houses. Our destination was Titisee – a slightly bigger town on a beautiful lake. Nestled in the forest, with quaint shops selling traditional clothing and foods, cafes upon the water just made for whiling away the afternoon and boats for hire to enjoy the lake, Titisee is another gem where we felt miles away from the busy “real world” of central Europe. We took a walk around the edge of the lake, enjoying the view and the fresh air as well as our luck at not getting rained on!

Our afternoon was spent at an amazing pool complex on the outskirts of town. In this indoor complex we found a wave pool and 10 different water slides! The slides were amazing, and we spent hours running up the stairs and flinging ourselves down the various chutes on tubes. One was a speed slide, with a nearly vertical drop (James got up to 37km/h), another where we started off easy, dropped suddenly and were shot up the side of a massive halfpipe, swinging down the other side and out.
Many a time we got ourselves stuck going backwards through twisting chutes and we alternated between doubling and going it alone. When we’d had enough of the slides, we went through to the adjoining wellness area where we floated around in a quiet warm water pool, lay on massage jets and swam through to an outdoor area. The roof and walls here were glass, so I can just imagine how serene it would be when its snowing outside. With loungers, a pool bar, a cafe and an R16 entry criteria it was bliss. Another area had saunas, steam rooms and jacuzzis.. maybe we’ll have to come back in winter!

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We enjoyed a meal of schnitzel and locally caught trout on the water front before taking a train back to Triberg. Here it was too late to catch a bus – luckily a local woman informed us that at this time of night, you have to call the bus an hour ahead so that it will stop at the station. Otherwise we would have waited for its scheduled arrival in 45 minutes time! It wasn’t raining and only a 15 minute walk up the road to our hotel, so we weren’t too put out.

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The main street in Triberg

An old fashioned steam train in the Black Forest

An old fashioned steam train in the Black Forest

The next morning stiff and sore from hiking, sliding and swimming we gingerly crept into the breakfast room. Abandoning ideas for another days hiking, we instead boarded a train bound for Baden-Baden, near the edge of the Black Forest and on our way home. This spa town is a complete contrast to the rustic feel of the Southern forest, and used to be popular amongst wealthy Russians for its casinos and its healing waters. There are ruins of ancient Roman baths here and two modern baths still offer the traditional experience.

IMG_3544This includes salt scrubbing, saunas and rejuvenating mineral pools. The town itself is quite large, and has a very pretty pedestrian area with boutique and high end shops, fountains and many cafes. The tree lined streets and impressive houses exude affluence, as do the clientele of the famous casino.

We walked through the suburbs to reach the station of the Merkurberg Bahn in the hills – a cable car to the top of the local mount. This is also a base for a hiking trail network through the forest and hills in the area – a day of hiking followed by an evening of hot pool soaking sounds like a good excuse to come back! The steep ride up in the cable car was fun, and I’m always amazed by the feats of engineering and the original thought which lead to their invention with things like this. At the top we stepped out to a magnificent view of the valley, over which were soaring a multitude of paragliders. We sat and watched them launch themselves off the hill for a while, before meandering along the pathways and checking out the view from the other side.

The cable car brought us back down the hillside, and we trained back to Ludwigsburg where exhausted and satisfied we indulged in some takeaways from a new Asian fusion restaurant. A taste of home after months of meat and potatoes was a welcome change and we felt thoroughly refreshed after our little excursion.

 

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Florence and the Cinque Terre

_MG_2858As a last stop on this segment of our trip, and the last few days of our continuous travel segment, we flew into Florence, Italy.

It is hard not to fall in love with Italy, and Florence was no exception. From the moment we arrived dirty and tired at one in the morning, the beauty and relaxed feel of the city was a relief from the heat and chaos of Greece. Although the Italians are not known for their punctuality (argh!) one can only “go with the flow” and take it as part of the experience._MG_2991

Aside from cobbled streets, red brick buildings, scooters and crawling vines the biggest feature of Florence (Firenze) is its Duomo. In the centre of town is the Santa Maria del Fiore, the largest dome in the world that is built from brick and mortar. The cathedral itself is an ornate work of art, and its dome is no exception.

Many other renaissance buildings and churches are nestled into the historic center, and of course the main attraction for many people is the art. The original statue of David by Michealangelo, a room with walls made from semi-precious stones and paintings which are hundreds of years old are just some of the priceless treasures one can see here. Not having time to truly enjoy a museum visit, we wandered the streets instead, taking a walk over the Ponte Vecchio (an ancient bridge line with gold merchants) and up the hill to the Piazzale Michaelangelo. We were rewarded with a stunning view of the city! _MG_2842

When in Italy of course wine, pizza, pasta and gelato must be enjoyed! The Italians didn’t fail to deliver on the gluten free front as usual, and its probably good for our waistlines that we didn’t stay for more than a couple of days…

On our second day, we took part in a magical “alternative” tour of the Cinque Terre with our friend Sarah from New Zealand. Starting early, we boarded a bus for an entertaining two hour drive north, on which our young and enthusiastic guides regaled us with tales of their own lives as well as the history of the region. We drove past the famous Pisa, and past cultivated gardens and fields – a reminder of the skills that the Romans brought when they invaded and took over most of Italy. We cruised past Lucca, the town with city walls so deep people can ride bikes along them and they used to be roads! As we moved North of Tuscany into the Liguria region, we heard about Byron and Shelley who loved to spend time here. drinking, boating and swimming in what is now called “Poet’s Gulf”.

The Cinque Terre, a World Heritage site consists of 5 fishing villages set into the cliffs overlooking the Italian Riviera. The roads are narrow and they aren’t accessible by bus. Traditionally the trek between the villages had to be made by the dirt tracks set high on the cliff, and it was along this unadultered trail we embarked between the second and third villages, Corniglia and Vernassa. There were no handrails, benches or groomed trails and we certainly felt intrepid as we carefully walked along the narrow uneven dirt trail which passed sheer cliffsides, rows and rows of grapes, small houses and twisted at times through the forest. Our guides pointed out the chestnut trees – a lifesaver for people living (and hiding) here during the war, when no supplies were able to be brought in.

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At the third village the sun was already beating down as we sat on a shady terrace to enjoy a lunch of local delicacies. _MG_2983Anchovies are the pride of the region and we had them prepared two different ways as well as an assortment of other seafoods, and delicious risotto. Moving on we caught a short train to the next village, Monterrosso, where we enjoyed some time to wander and take a quick dip.

After waiting for 40 minutes for our delayed train (typical!) we arrived at the fourth village, Levanto. Here we had a generous wine tasting of one white wine from each of the regions – Manorola was my favourite! Atop a hill I found an old nunnery with a graveyard – except there weren’t graves in the ground, rather long narrow tombs in the wall and family mausoleums. It was a peaceful place but also somewhat creepy!

Having cooled off with another swim, we hopped aboard a boat and cruised around the corner, enjoying the crystal sparkling waters beneath us and the warm wind on our faces. We sailed past the villages we had been in, and ended up in village number one – Manorola. Here we climbed up the steep streets and staircases to enjoy a magnificent view, and had time to poke our heads into little delicatessens and shops.

 

_MG_2936 _MG_2978After a final short train ride, we hopped aboard our bus, tired from a day of hiking, exploring, swimming, learning and sunshine and drove back to Florence.

 

One last adventure awaited us on our day of departure. We boarded our tiny, propeller plane to head back to Germany, buckled in and listened to the safety demonstration. The plane picked up speed on the runway, the engines revved and then…. they quietened, the plane slowed and turned around. Once again, it picked up speed, the engines roared and we were… not off. Soon the captain spoke to us informing us that there was a problem, and we would have to disembark. Florence airport is absolutely tiny, so the next 3 hours which we spent inside its single room were torture. With no announcements made, updates or even drink vouchers the plane full of passengers had no choice but to sit tight until finally, a bus came to collect us. We were taken to the same plane! I guess it had been fixed because this time it took off no problem, and thankfully delivered us safely in Stuttgart.

We will definitely be back for more relaxation, romance and red wine in Tuscany someday!

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Glorious Greece

_MG_2662From the moment we arrived in Athens to the night we left Mykonos, Greece has been a whirlwind of adventure. Another early morning flight saw us arrive in Athens to stifling heat and bright sun, with brown landscape greeting us as the bus headed into the city. By the time we were checked into our hotel (a treat, as we had some loyalty points to use) we were already hot, sticky and dusty – a theme which would continue for the next few days!

After cooling off in the pool, we met our friends Carme and John who had just arrived from New Zealand, to enjoy a traditional Greek meal underneath the Acropolis. The next day we took a walking tour of the main historical highlights in Athens. Ever since my first classics class at age 16 I have been dreaming of seeing these monuments and sights, and to see the towering columns of marble and detailed inscriptions on walls which I had only seen in pictures, was magical.

Firstly we visited the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, to watch the changing of the Guards. We had a refresher on the founding history of Athens, including the battle of marathon and its occupation by various empires (Persian, Ottoman etc). The Temple of Zeus, although in ruins and with only a few columns left is still a majestic site. It’s base, standing in the centre of what used to be a sanctuary, once held 104 columns of marble which supported the colossal temple.

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Checking out the Parthenon

As we began our way up the winding road on the Acropolis, we came across an Ascelope sanctuary. Ascelope was once a medicine man, struck down by Zeus for his power to bring people back to life. His legacy lived on however in these sanctuaries, where people came to stay overnight. They would dream of Ascelope’s snake and their dream determined the treatment they would be prescribed.

Further along the path was the theatre of Dionysus – with its marble seats, statues of characters and masks and well designed stage it was easy to imagine the ancient greeks enjoying plays here. Although perhaps not in the August heat! The nearby Odeion; the music hall, still hosts concerts year round, as its amphitheater design provides such good accoustics._MG_2668

Nearly at the top, we saw the temple of Nike – the little godesses of victory. Finally we rounded the corner to enter the Parthenon via the road so many ancient greek travellers, visitors, priests and towns people had entered before us. The Parthenon, although smaller than the Temple of Zeus, is in better condition and was remarkably well maintained until the 17th century when it was bombed by the Venetians. Here we noticed the friezes along the tops of the columns, depicting stories of battles and various important myths. One of these was the birth of Athena – when Zeus learned of a prediction that his mistress was going to give birth to a son who would defeat him, he swallowed the mistress. Nine months later he had a pounding headache, and Hermes split his skull with an axe…. out jumped a fully formed Athena, who had been banging on the inside of his head ready to be “born”!

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The Parthenon has a subtle feature which makes it all the more pleasing to the eye. It has no straight lines. The columns are all built on a slight angle, so that if they reached for 2 km they would meet, and the floor itself has a curvature. This is all purely for aesthetic reasons, and it works! Around the corner from the Parthenon is a smaller temple, where we saw the gifts of Poseidon and Athena to the people of Athens. These two initially fought over the right to rule Athens, and Poseidon struck his staff into the ground to create a spring of water for the people. The god of the sea’s gift was not well received however, since the water was salty. Athena then planted a seed and an olive tree grew – a much better gift, therefore she won the city of Athens.

We were fortunate enough to be staying nearby the Panathenaic stadium – the home of the modern olympics in 1896. Standing on the podium here was pretty cool!

stadium 1 stadium 2Our journey in Greece continued from Athens via ferry. We embarked from the port of Piraeus at 7:30am, and 7.5 hours later berthed at Thira, Santorini. Although we could have taken a local bus, after the early morning, long ride and with the heat and our packs we decided we would take a taxi to our accommodation. We were staying in the quiet village of Imerovigli – a few km away from the main town of Thira.We were ushered into a shared van, paid 20 euro up front and were driven into Thira. Where we were dumped! I checked the name of the hotel and the address with the driver, but he assured us it was “just up the road”. Once we started walking up the congested pedestrian road it was clear we weren’t in the right place. We stopped to ask at a bar, which turned out to be run by a British man. Rolling his eyes when he heard about our driver, he said “welcome to Greece!” after which he gave us a seat, water, charged my phone, connected us to the wifi and rung our hotel for us. They wouldn’t come to collect us, so we had to keep going ourselves. We piled onto a bus which was so full with people we couldn’t move, and sat sweating and trying to breathe as it drove up the hill towards Imerovigli.

Here we got out, and asked at a car rental shop where our hotel was. They hadn’t heard of it they said…. we kept walking, but after seeing no sign of it, finding no street signs and having no cellphone reception, we stopped into a restaurant to ask. Yes, this lady had heard of it… but it was too far away to walk. We could take a taxi or a bus? At this point, hot, tired, flustered and despairing I explained that we had already tried both those options, as well as walking and asking people but we just could not get to this hotel. The kindness of strangers was well and truly in force that day – as she summonsed one of her employees to put our bags in the car and drive us there herself. Once we arrived, the manager was nowhere to be found…. she turned up 5 minutes later, after having driven to Imerovigli to find us since the car rental shop had rung her, telling her to come collect her guests!

Luckily the serene view over the caldera (crater of the volcano) made it all worthwhile. Our studio was exquisite, and away from the bustle of the town we felt completely at peace as we watched the sun set over a glass of wine.

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The next day we met up with Carme and John again – who had just got engaged! This happy news set the mood for the day, and we set off upon the dirt cliff top trail which connects all the villages. We couldn’t walk fast in the heat, but enjoyed the views and plenty of breaks, before arriving in Oia two hours later. From this cute little village with its boutique shops, we headed down about 250 steps, sidestepping donkeys along the way! Just around the corner was Amoudi Bay – a spectacular swimming spot where we sunbathed, lunched, swam and jumped from the cliff into the clear ocean. We thought the water in France was clear! The Aegean is another step above.

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After climbing back up the stairs and catching the bus back to our accommodation, we enjoyed dinner together in Thira, where we were able to check out a few of the shops as well. A lazy last morning was followed by an excursion to Red Beach – created by a landslide and surrounded by red rock, this small beach is novel but not as pristine as Amoudi Bay. That night there was a fireworks display over the volcano, and we had been invited by our new British friend to reserve a table at his cocktail bar. After a delicious meal in Imerovigli, we tried to catch the bus to Thira for the 9pm start. DSC05344The time ticked by and no bus arrived, so we started to flag down cars…. a couple did stop, but they weren’t going in our direction. Many probably weren’t keen to take on 4 disheveled looking kiwis! Luckily a bus finally arrived, and we made it to the bar just on time. People were lining the streets for a view, so we felt privileged to have our front row table, where we enjoyed fabulous cocktails (John and James enjoyed their shared melon ball complete with sparkler, fruit kebabs and pink straws the most!) and watched the half hour display depicting the eruption of Santorini. Because the fireworks were being let off on the volcano a few km away from where we were, the sound took a long time to catch up with the light, so often the fireworks were finished by the time the booming reached our ears!

Santorini was a lovely island, more dusty and desert like than I had imagined, but with alot to offer.

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The next day we caught our ferry to Mykonos, an island of which we had no expectations due to its reputation as a party spot, but we are so glad we made it there. Unlike Santorini, the island is surrounded by proper sand beaches, where people hire loungers and while away the afternoons with drinks in hand. Spoilt for choice, we were able to find a beach which had a good balance of young people, music and a bar, but was not the raving party of the famous Paradise Beach. In the town itself, I was surprised to find that the houses have a completely different look to those on Santorini – although still white and made of stone, instead of the curved dome roofs, these were all square with flat roofs.

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_MG_2801We very appropriately got lost wandering through the tiny streets of Mykonos town – which was designed as a maze in order to confuse and slow down pirates _MG_2810trying to pillage the town.

Just when we thought everything was beginning to go smoothly again, we checked into the airport at Mykonos for our 10:30pm flight only to find it had been delayed by over an hour. By this time we were no longer surprised!

 

 

 

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Sunshine in the south of France

_MG_2468For the past two weeks, we have been taking a breather in France. Spending 5 days in one place felt amazing, and where better to kick back and relax than Provence? Getting there wasn’t easy – somehow our short flight to Clermond-Ferrand followed by a train ride to Aix en Provence turned into a 12 hour ordeal… a theme which did continue somewhat for our time in France. Absolutely nothing was on time, shops didn’t open at their advertised hours, trains and buses ran on different “special” timetables which were only advised on the day… it seemed as though a lot of France was enjoying their summer holidays as well, so we just had to go with the flow.

As a result, we spent more time sunbathing on our apartment terrasse, meandering through the local markets and lingering over crepes at photo (12)lunch than we did on day trips and sightseeing. This turned out to be perfect, and allowed us to soak up the charm of Aix en Provence. We were staying right near the famous Cours de Mirabeau with its spectacular fountain and line of lively cafes. Aix is nicknamed the “City of a Thousand Fountains” and although the exact number (60? 100?) can’t be agreed upon, they sure are everywhere. We stumbled upon many of them in tiny squares or small streets, as well as the larger more well taken care of features in the centre of town. We walked up a hill to Cezanne’s studio, where the famous artist painted so many of his masterpieces, and tasted olives, sundried tomatoes, cheeses and fruits in the morning markets.

 

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We did stray a little further afield, when we made a trip to Avignon. This medieval city is beautiful, still surrounded by its old town walls and with an incredible cathedral in its midst. A short bus ride away was the magnificent Pont Du Gard. _MG_2496This bridge which is part of the Nimes aqueduct, is a remnant of ancient Roman times and is in fact the highest of all aqueduct bridges. Despite being built over 2000 years ago, it still towers above the Gardon river and is a World Heritage sight. As we rounded a corner, we were struck by this 3-leveled structure with its arches; an amazing feat of masonry and engineering especially considering the time in which it was built. The Romans used stone blocks carved in quarries, then attached to rope and pulley systems to construct the bridge – no mortar was used so they have held fast and not shifted in all these years. The aqueduct itself used to supply water to the whole region, with wealthy households having running water, pools and water features and the towns having a constant supply of water via fountains which also overflowed to clean the gutters and streets. A strictly monitored water usage system was in place to avoid corruption and it is estimated that each household in the area used around 1000 litres of water a day. Today that volume is more like 400.

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After walking across the bridge, we had the opportunity to swim underneath it! The popular swimming spot was teeming with families, and despite not having much time I couldn’t resist a quick dip. Swimming in clear cool water and looking up to see this ancient structure above me was surreal.

In front of the Pont du Gard

In front of the Pont du Gard

Testing the water

Testing the water

The summer is well and truly in swing in France, so after our stay in Provence we packed up again and headed in search of the ocean. As our bus drove along the Promenade in Nice, we gazed at the bluest sparkling water we had ever seen. The Mediterranean is something else – so clear you can nearly see the bottom, so blue it looks like a postcard, the perfect temperature for cooling off without freezing and so salty you can float with no effort. We enjoyed a couple of lazy afternoons alternating between soaking up rays on the beach and jumping into the sea. Although there are plenty of sections of the beach owned by restaurants which rent out sun loungers and prime spots, we toughed it out with our towels in the free areas.

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From Nice, it is not far to the principality of Monaco – just a 20 minute train ride. Looking for something different, we hired bicycles and rode there ourselves! And what a wonderful decision that turned out to be. There are three roads between Nice and Monaco – the Grande Corniche, the Moyenne Corniche and the Basse Corniche. As their names suggest, they are the high, middle and low roads. The Grande Corniche is apparently a hairy clifftop road, where Grace Kelly and Cary Grant drove along in “To Catch a Theif”. Grace Kelly (Princess Grace of Monaco) was also killed in a car crash near here, and there are roads and monuments dedicated to her all along the way to Monaco, as well as in the country itself. The Moyenne Corniche still involved some steep climbs, and we opted for the Basse.

_MG_2596_MG_2597 _MG_2603Having cycled in Auckland, I have a fear of all vehicles with a motor anywhere near me whilst I’m on a bike, but here I had no reason to worry. The drivers were so considerate, waiting patiently behind us on narrow sections, driving slowly around us with a wide berth, and doing it all with a smile – not the slightest hint of irritation, rude words or gestures. Even the Basse had a few hills, but it was still a pleasant ride with the most spectacular views. As the sun shone down on us, we breathed in the fresh sea air and made plenty of stops to savour the views of gorgeous coastline, shimmering ocean and colourful villages.


When we arrived in Monaco, we all of a sudden found ourselves in an underground network of tunnels and roundabouts, from which we emerged in the middle of Monte Carlo. Since Monaco is such a small piece of land, they have to make the most of their space! We immediately felt under dressed and out of place as we realised we were right outside the casino and near the main shopping streets with their designer offerings. People were dressed as though they were attending functions, looking composed, glamorous and expensive as they wined and dined, took photos and shopped. We were sweaty, in shorts and t-shirts and wheeling bright orange hire bikes. We high-tailed it down the hill to the beach where we managed to find some (just!) affordable fast food, and did a bit of exploring before putting our bikes on the train to go back to Nice.

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Our time in France has been a mixture of old-world charm, modern elegance, delicious food and wine, slow paced and full of sun. Now we head further south, to Greece!

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The Benelux region – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg was an interesting experience! It was much more expensive than we anticipated, and we felt we had unwittingly stumbled upon a pocket of sophistication and wealth in this part of Europe. Although most people speak english, there wasn’t alot of written english. Luckily Dutch is so similar to German with a bit of an english influence thrown in, I was able to understand most things I read on signs, menus and brochures.

Ghent….

_MG_2236We flew into Charleroi in South Brussels, and from here needed to make our way to Ghent. As we waited at a small, unattended local train station, an elderly man walked from the far side of the station, through the underpass and up onto our platform. He spoke in English and asked if we were by chance trying to get to Brussels… he very kindly gave us instructions for a much faster option with a shorter wait if we went over to catch the train he was catching – we were so grateful!

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Once we arrived in Ghent, the neighbourhood streets appeared deserted…. tumbleweeds deserted. Upon checking into our hostel, the owner told us that the huge month-long festival in July had just finished, and the city was recovering! Luckily everything in the center was still open. We had no expectations of Ghent, and fell in love with its beauty. The buildings were tall, decorated and magnificent. Cathedrals and brick houses framed cobblestoned streets, wide open squares and large canals, with pedestrians and cyclists enjoying the sunshine.
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After wandering the streets, visiting the castle and lingering on bridges to watch the tour boats float by, we headed back to our hostel where we cooked dinner and spent the evening in the common room. Just after midnight we climbed into our bunk beds and turned out the lights. Within 5 minutes I felt something bite me, and James felt a bug of some sort… thinking they were mosquitos, we turned on our lights. Our beds were crawling with bedbugs. It was like something out of a horror movie – little reddish brown creatures of all different sizes, scuttling at speed over our white pillows and sheets. We have no idea where they had been hiding, but they were out for blood! We leapt off the beds, disturbing our roommate as we turned on the lights and hastily threw all of our things into the corridor. A thorough check of all our clothes and possessions followed, then we dressed, packed up and set about getting the heck out of there! We called hotels in Ghent, starting with the cheapest… each one we called were already booked out so at 1am when the Marriott said they had a room, we said we’ll take it! They sent a taxi to collect us and it was with relief that we entered the sparkling hotel hall, took our bags into a clean room, had hot showers and collapsed into an immaculate bed with brand new sheets. A bottle of wine from the mini bar finally relaxed us enough to sleep!

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_MG_2295The next day after a sleep in and a gorgeous breakfast overlooking the water, we caught a train to Bruges. This town is popular for a reason – it is stunning. From the train station we somehow got lost in a flea market, but then found our way to the city centre where we did our own self guided walking tour. Aside from the beautiful cathedrals and small narrow streets, plus winding canals and plenty of greenery, the entire town is permeated by the sweet, heady scent of chocolate. There was not a lane without a chocolatier and suffice to say we indulged! Lace stores were also everywhere, since lace was once a very important industry for the area, and it is still handmade there. After exploring for a few hours, we took a half hour boat tour along the canals, where we saw some areas we hadn’t reached by foot. All in all it was an idyllic day trip.

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The Hague….

_MG_2315_MG_2326Our next destination was the Hague – just a couple of hours by train from Ghent. Here it was with some trepidation we checked into another hostel… luckily no bed bugs at this one! The Hague is an important centre for international law, but we were on a hunt for windmills. Being too far away from the most popular area where one can go inside the mills, we decided to try to find a set of three I had read about on the internet. We walked to the supposed bus stop, only to find no bus going to our destination. The man in a nearby shop directed me to the central tram stop… from where the right tram did not go. Eventually we found our stop… right outside our hostel. 20 minutes later we got off at the last stop in a small town, still having seen no windmills! We asked a couple of tram conductors who were on their break, and after an animated discussion amongst themselves they gave us directions to find where they thought the windmills might be. One of the conductors took us on his tram to the next stop, where we had to change and ended up in a residential area in the middle of nowhere. After walking around the block, we finally caught a glimpse of a windmill! Unfortunately they were on private land and we couldn’t get close, but we took some photos and imagined what it must have been like in the area 100 years ago – apparently they were just everywhere.

Amsterdam….

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No trip to the Benelux would be complete without a visit to Amsterdam! This city really has two faces – the energetic, illicit and slightly seedy nighttime scene filled with drugs, sex and revelry, and the pretty daytime scene with flowers, bicycles, museums and general city bustle. There isn’t so much drunken disorder in the evening, since most people are just high. We walked past _MG_2370beautiful girls waiting behind glass panes for customers, gawked at shopfronts displaying more drug paraphernalia than we thought could possibly exist and had an educational visit to the history of sex museum. The smell of weed being everywhere was less than pleasant but it was otherwise a happy atmosphere and we felt very safe.

In the morning we walked through the slightly more classy areas of town. It appears that Amsterdam is a popular shopping destination – with amazing prices for designer gear and lines in the shops even I couldn’t face. The lines turned out to be a problem elsewhere too – I had been very eager to go into Anne Frank’s house, however the line stretched for two blocks. It would have taken hours to get in!

Although there were loads of bikes in Belgium, nothing can prepare you for their prominence in Amsterdam. There are special roads for them, they are allowed on all the public transport and they have right of way. Everywhere! The locals whizz past, and we had to be careful not to be run over – on the other hand the buses and trams will let you walk past. Parents rode bikes with two kids in the front and one on the back, students purposefully rode with books on their backs and old ladies cycled from the markets with baskets full of flowers. We visited the flower market – where the stalls are on floating barges, and enjoyed traditional dutch pancakes for lunch. They bake the filling (apple/ham/cheese/whatever) into the batter and serve them flat, so they are quite different from the french crepe.

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We had to make a quick detour to Germany for a day so James could be fingerprinted for his new residency card, and then we took the train to Luxembourg. We really enjoyed Luxembourg, as we found it a tranquil and interesting place after the pace and size of Belgium and Holland. We took the Wenzel Circular tour, which focused on the layout and fortifications of Luxembourg City. We were able to go into the casements – the inside of the walls and underneath the castles. There are 27km of tunnels under the city, which were used for defence and to house soldiers and horses but later also for shelter during WWII. There are three layers of fortifications, built in German, French and Spanish style as the city has been governed by different lands at different times. We learnt about how the walls were initially wooden, but burnt down in a fire and how the lower town where the _MG_2422 poor people used to live, flooded frequently before a lock was built. Although French is spoken a lot in Luxembourg, its official language is actually German. Luxembourgish is spoken, but has no written form so children start school in Luxembourgish, with their books in German. They begin learning English at about 11 or 12 and then high school is all taught in French. Thanks to Napolean, the entire judicial system is conducted in French – but many locals don’t speak the language so translators are required at nearly every hearing!

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After a relaxing two days in this small town, we headed back to Brussels to catch our flight to France.

Ireland: Wild seas, crumbling castles, chatty locals, pints of Guinness…


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The Emerald Isle is a fitting name for this charming and romantic land. Maybe it was something to do with the freedom and independence of travelling in our own campervan, perhaps it was the similarities we found between Ireland and home, it could have been the tiny winding roads and miniature villages or the friendly locals with their melodic accents…. maybe it was the isolated beaches and relaxing views but whatever it was, we were thoroughly enchanted with Ireland.photo (10)

Our first port of call was the bustling city of Dublin, which is a mixture of fashionably alternative, historically picturesque and modern grunge. Wandering around the city we chanced upon Temple Bar – the happening district with all the good bars, Christ Church Cathedral and a great many pubs of course! Guinness was on the cards (for James) as we sat down to a pub meal of Irish stew and plenty of potatoes.

The next morning we picked up our Spaceship! It is an amazing feat to convert a large car into a house on wheels, but Spaceships have managed it. With rotating seats, fold out tables, storage compartments, awnings and a very decent sized bed we were super comfortable. It was imperative to stay neat and tidy in order to stay organised and not lose things, and you will all be surprised to hear that we managed it! Being able to stay in campgrounds with the tents gave us lots of freedom and meant we could enjoy more out of the way places, but sleeping on a soft double bed inside a warm cosy capsule which was nowhere near the ground was quality glamping. James is a whizz with the camp stove and we had gourmet meals most nights, plus hot coffee asap in the mornings!


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We headed off to Galway, the pretty seaside town on the West Coast. The sun was shining as we set up our

campsite and walked along the promenade to town, which had a cobbled main street and many many tourists. The next day we decided to make our way further south, but along the coastal road instead of the highway. These roads which wind through the countryside and along the coast are so narrow, its hard to believe they are two-way! Indeed there were some hair raising moments when a motorhome or a bus was coming in the other direction – I think we’re lucky we didn’t pop a tyre trying to get ouphoto (8)t of their way. The countryside is so picturesque; somewhat reminiscient of New Zealand but instead of wire and wood fences, there are stone walls everywhere. There are also grey rocks dotted throughout the vibrant green paddocks, which was a bizzare sight.

Part way down the coast we stopped at the Cliffs of Moher – this famous sight was just as good in person as it is in pictures, although the cloying hordes of tourists did marr the natural beauty a bit. After driving through Kilkee, a popular seaside town for Irish holidaymakers, we settled at a very remote and peaceful yet basic campground in Donnaha for the evening. Far away from the main road and with nothing but fields, beach and sea to look at we relaxed to the point of nearly not wanting to leave!

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The Cliffs of Moher

_MG_2114  _MG_2088But move on we did, and took our Spaceship on the car ferry from Killimer to Tarbert in County Kerry. Kerry is where the Brosnahans are originally from, and the name Brosnan started popping up on signs and shops more often down here. We made a detour out to Dingle, and although we didn’t drive the full peninsula, we enjoyed the atmosphere in the cute harbour town. Upon arriving in Killarney, we were discussing our plans with the campground manager and sadly learnt that Skellig Michael, the World Heritage sight we had planned to visit the next day was closed. Star Wars had turned up with no notice, paid the tour operators out for the full week so that they’d not bring anyone to the island and were using it exclusively for filming. As you do.

We therefore spent an extra day in Killarney which turned out to be great! We hired bikes and leisurely rode out to Roass castle and Muckross house. This house is a Tudor style mansion built in the 1800’s, and James could just imagine himself as the Lord of the house, with pheasants roaming his grounds! In the evening a travelling group of German jugglers entertained us with a show at the campground and we slept well after a day of fresh air and activity.

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On day 5 we set off to drive the Ring of Kerry. This beautiful 180km loop hosts many sights and attractions, and could take an entire day if one stopped at every single site! Getting an early start, we luckily avoided most of the crowds and the tour buses – there is no room to pass and everyone is encouraged to drive the ring anti-clockwise since it is so narrow. Our first stop was Ballycarbery Castle in Cahirsiveen. These abandoned and overgrown ruins were down the end of a country lane in a meadow next to the sea and we were the sole explorers there. We poked our head into doorways, walked along corridors and up staircases to nowhere. There was something magical about the isolation and silence of this centuries old building.

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After a coffee stop which turned into a rather long chat with the friendly cafe owner, we continued to drive slowly around the loop taking in the breathtaking views of wild seas and unkempt fields, stone walls and tiny perfect painted houses. From Kenmare we turned off to Blarney where we of course couldn’t go past the castle. It’s impossible to see the castle without paying the entry fee so we made the most of our entry to the grounds. We did go into the castle itself, but the line to kiss the Blarney stone was doubled back and filing down the narrow enclosed tower staircase so we decided we were both eloquent enough without needing to gain the “gift of the gab”!

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Our campsite in Blarney had its own 18 hole pitch and putt golf course, which was the perfect way to unwind and enjoy the sunshine. As a complete novice I had a lot to learn, but suffice to say I am now addicted! We visited a small pub in the village for dinner where we were entertained by an Irish singer and his story-telling father.

From Blarney we drove north to Kilkenny, where we spent our final two nights. This seemed like the kind of place we could live, with the huge castle at the centre of town. The castle grounds are open to the public, and a huge expansive lawn was being enjoyed by students and families in the mid afternoon sun, while the trails around the outside and along the river were busy with runners and walkers. The main streets are still cobbled and quaint, and nestled between the normal shops and houses are remnants of the old town – imposing stone abbeys, cathedrals and towers. We visited the Round Tower at the St. Canice church, which is over 1200 years old! It still looks pretty sturdy.

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Our last day in Ireland involved packing up and saying a fond goodbye to our Spaceship which had been our home and wheels for the last week, and spending a couple of hours in Dublin again. Here we went to Trinity College where we were able to wander the grounds. This is a truly beautiful campus, with tall majestic buildings covered in Ivy and perfectly manicured lawns. We would have loved to visit the library with its shelves of ancient books, but unfortunately didn’t have time to take the tour.

Driving map Ireland

Our drive and the places we overnighted

Although we only saw a small part of the Republic of Ireland, we know we will be back – to see Northern Ireland and much more of the South!

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Slovakia and Germany

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Bratislava Castle

Our last stop in the East before heading to Germany was Slovakia. Since our hiking plan was thwarted by the snow and ice, we took a bus over the border from Zakopane, Poland to Stary Smokovec, Slovakia. This resort town in the mountains is bustling in winter and summer for skiing and hiking, and we had the perfect place to treat ourselves after weeks of hostels and cheap eats. The Grand Hotel in Stary Smokovec is a historic hotel, opened in the early 1900’s and having housed many famous guests is still one of the most prestigious hotels in Slovakia. Its high ceilings, grand halls, sparkling chandeliers and outstanding service made us think of scenes from the movie “Grand Budapest Hotel”.

We set out for what was supposed to be a 20140708_114833gentle hike one morning, but were soon hurried along by dark clouds, loud bangs of thunder and flashes of lightening. These were followed by pelting ice cold rain drops (despite the air being warm) and our hike turned into an adventure run! We jogged along forest trails, up rock staircases and along high alpine ridges, dodging the rain and lightening and avoiding roots and slippery stones. By the time we returned we were wet through and exhausted, but thoroughly exhilarated! Luckily our room included entry to the spa and sauna complex where we whiled away the afternoon soaking in jacuzzis and basking in saunas.

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“Are you sure you want the big size sir?” ……

 

From the peaceful mountain town we took a train across the country to Bratislava; the busy city on the Danube. _MG_1984Here we had only a day to explore but it was worth it to see the East meets West building styles, the old castle (rebuilt in the 1950’s after a fire), Roman ruins and great cafes. By this stage we were somewhat travel weary after a busy two months, so it was a relief to board our overnight train to Germany. The minute we crossed the border into Austria I was all of a sudden able to understand signs, communicate with people and feel much more in control of our situation simply because I could speak the language. This palpable feeling of relief was a lot stronger than I could have anticipated, and goes to show the importance of being able to make sense of and participate in one’s environment.

 

 

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Marbach, a neighbouring town

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The fields out the back of the village where my grandparents live

The last two weeks have been spent staying with my grandparents in Germany and they have been exactly what we needed to recharge our batteries and get ready for the next stage of our journey. It’s been wonderful spending time with my family, and strolling around the local areas which remain largely unchanged each time I visit. We’ve been very well fed by my Oma’s delicious cooking as well! The South West of Germany is still a traditional and cultural place, with beautiful old buildings, lush green forests, quaint villages, markets and bakeries galore. Our home is in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg and we spent most of our time in my grandparents’ village, the nearby town of Ludwigsburg and the city of Stuttgart. My uncle was kind enough to take us for a day trip to Karlsruhe where I’ve never been. This is such an interesting place, as it is the home of the founding of German democracy in the 1700’s. The Kaiser at the time instigated the first constitution which dictated that all people are equal, have the right to practice religious freedom, should be free from taxes, have the right to a home and a garden… and more. His castle is the centrepoint of the city which was designed as a fan with diagonal streets leading out from the castle. A short tram ride away from here is the Rhine, and standing upon its banks we were only approx 8km away from France!

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Vineyards just 5 min away from home

We addressed our admin requirements while we were in Germany, such as me registering as a resident – signing up at the local town hall, getting a bank account and compulsory health insurance. Days of 33 degrees plus also sent us running for the local swimming pool and a nearby lake to cool off!

Now rested, sunbaked and organised, we head off on the next part of our trip – Ireland! Despite everything having gone pretty well until now, the luck of the Irish was not with us as I confused the dates of our flights in amongst all the other things we have been booking. Turning up to the airport at 4:30am to be told your flight is tomorrow is not an enjoyable experience! We were faced with the option of waiting until the next day, but having to shift our bookings in Ireland, or book another flight, take a bus to another airport and fly to Dublin regardless. In our bleary eyed morning state we decided to do this, so I am publishing from the pretty and lively Dublin itself.

Poland – from the city to the mountains

_MG_1808Although we’ve only been to a few places, Poland has surprised and delighted us in its variety of experiences and with it having so much to offer. The country is more modern and closer to Western Europe in style and familiarity than where we’ve been lately. The people are more abrupt and we’ve had to get used to not exchanging nods and smiles in the street or on the hiking trails, being ushered in and out of eateries quickly and receiving curt service at checkouts. This isn’t to say they aren’t helpful or that they’re unfriendly… simply less open and more serious than the laid back Kiwis, super friendly Americans and sweet Latvian/Estonian/Lithuanians.

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The sun!!

Warsaw…

Having thoroughly educated ourselves about how to not get ripped off by taxi drivers, we arrived in Warsaw and got totally ripped off by a taxi driver.

Warsaw was completely decimated during WWII, so its “Old Town” is in fact a recreation of the ancient buildings which used to stand there. It impresses me that they made the effort to recreate these intricate old buildings on their original foundations – many other cities have rebuilt in a modern style after a disaster, so this seemed a unique approach. The basements of the city are the oldest part, as these were largely undestroyed and remain intact underneath the current buildings. Our first impression of Warsaw was of a colourful, spacious and pretty city. Seeing the sun for the first time in weeks might have had something to do with our favourable impression! We spent a lovely morning checking out the old town and the huge Lazienki Park and Palace. Here are many royal buildings of importance, from the palace of the King of Poland, to the Orangery for Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and a Roman Theatre. _MG_1796  _MG_1815 _MG_1833

Science

In contrast to the historic touring of our morning, we spent the afternoon enthralled at the Copernicus Science Centre! This entire museum is dedicated to Science, with exhibitions about the beginnings of life, the environment, physics, psychology, neuroscience, the human body, water, robotics and more. Every single exhibit is interactive, and adults and children alike were completely engaged. We did puzzles, irrigated farmland, competed against each other in using brain waves to move a ball, participated in psychological analyses, simulated a political utopia, learnt about social change, built bridges from different materials, competed against virtual animals in sprint tests, performed laparoscopic surgery on a teddy bear and did a cloning simulation to name just a few activities.

Krakow….

This large city loaded with so much history, has also become a hugely popular tourist destination for families and young people alike. There were a number of Stag Dos happening and in general the town was much more crowded. This however meant there was a busy, happy vibe and in the evenings the main square was filled with diners eating outside, buskers playing music and tourists being driven around on horse drawn carriages. The castle still sits atop its hill overlooking the Old Town, and a trumpeter heralds from the top of the clock tower in the square on every hour. Nearby is the Jewish Quarter; a hip bar district where we stumbled upon a mass public folk dancing lesson! _MG_1901

No visit to Krakow of course is complete without paying respects at Auschwitz-Birkenau. We were transported by van to the sites where countless horrors occurred not so long ago. Our tour guide took us first through Auschwitz I, where the camp commandment lived and conditions although still horrific were somewhat better. We did visit underground prison cells where so many were murdered, and saw the building where Dr Carl Clauberg performed his medical sterilisation experiments on women. This site is an excellent museum, with photos and information throughout.

Our second stop was Auschwitz-Birkenau – the second, larger and more famous camp. Here we saw behind barbed wire fences rows of wooden barracks which were designed and built as horse stables for the German Army to house 50 horses. They each housed over 700 men. The train tracks still lead ominously from the fields outside, through the imposing gates and to a platform inside the camp. Here an old cattle wagon stands, to remind us of how the prisoners travelled for days. Past the rows of wooden houses are the remains of the gas chambers and crematory ovens – partly demolished but still eerie, ghastly structures of pure evil. Although it is difficult to imagine the conditions of these empty camps when they were filled with people, they are so well known from history books and pictures that it is an extremely sobering experience to be there in person. Interestingly, we still don’t know everything that went on here – documents are only allowed to be released every 50 or 60 years, and the majority are being held by the Russian government, sealed and locked away with no definite release date.

The story of the day had to be one of our tour guide’s own experiences. He was bringing a group of people through the camps, and an elderly woman was speaking as though she was somewhat familiar with the place. He asked “have you been here before?” She answered “yes, I have”. He asked “Oh, when was your last visit?”

“1942.”

Zakopane….

After Krakow we headed once again into the countryside, to the mountain village of Zakopane. Here we had _MG_1944planned to hike over the Tatra mountain ranges into Slovakia – in summer months usually a challenging but achievable climb. Unfortunately, since the weather has been unseasonably cold the high mountains were still covered in snow and a lot of ice. We spoke with local people, experienced mountaineers and park rangers, all of whom advised that we would need crampons, ice axes and experience. None of which we had, let alone gloves, hats or emergency survival gear. Sadly and reluctantly we had to pass on this adventure.

We still embarked on a hike of similar distance and intensity, on the lower mountain instead. Hiking here is very different from in N.Z… along the main road there are benches and picnic tables every km or so, cafes at the top of every peak and portaloos in convenient locations. We took a more off-the-beaten-path track, but even this was busy with serious hikers and day-walkers in pretty sandals alike. We came across two fully equipped mountain chalets with restaurants! The actual walk was very steep and rocky, with the way up being aerobically difficult and the way down torture on our quads. The views however were worth it; cascading waterfalls and alpine lakes nestled amongst green forests in the middle of the mountains._MG_1930 _MG_1940

In our hostel in Zakopane, we met some fellow travellers who we think ought to do a bit more travelling! A Turkish medical school student was convinced that cannibals are still rife in NZ and didn’t really believe us when we told her this wasn’t true. We went with it, and told everyone we were travelling around Europe “sampling” the different nationalities. A guy from Poland felt quite proud of himself for knowing that the Tasmanian Devil is native to NZ and a boy from America was quite put out that the Poles don’t speak more English. After all, America and English have been around for a lot longer than Poland….

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After a fascinating and very fun 6 days in Poland, we boarded a bus to head around the mountains to our next destination, Slovakia.

railway

The train from Warsaw to Krakow