A city escape in Frankfurt am Main

It was mid-way through the year, and we decided we should explore a little more of our own country after so many international adventures. It took 2.5 hours to drive North East to Frankfurt am Main – otherwise known as Mainhattan._MG_5780

Frankfurt is the only city in central Europe with a “Skyline”, and has been likened to New York. It is the business hub of the area and is where you can find the Stock Exchange and the European Central Bank. As we drove into the city we were struck by the Skyline, a magnificent collection of shining Skyscrapers, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since New York and before that, at home in Auckland._MG_5781 _MG_5785

It was a wonderfully familiar feeling to be in the city again, and we spent the first hour basking in what some would consider the boring, ugly business district. We found an espresso bar which produced a great flat white, checked out the trendy pop up cafes, vegan eateries and tapas bars and shopped on the main street. Here we also went into the MyZeil mall, a crazy silver construction famous for it’s cornucopia design._MG_5789

Frankfurt is more than its business district however, and we continued to explore. Berger Strasse is an artsy street with stores selling handcrafted wares and is lined with eateries. We headed for a Japanese restaurant and spent a leisurely hour eating our fill from a Sushi train.

The Markthalle, or indoor markets were an exciting place filled with fresh cheeses, meats, fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and nuts and local specialities. Here we sampled the famous Frankfurter Ebbelwoi – or Apple Wine. The tangy fermented apple drink is an acquired taste but mixed with sparkling water we didn’t find it too bad.

_MG_5792There is a green belt which runs right around the city; gardens and green spaces all connected with bike and pedestrian paths running through them, so that one can walk or cycle right around the city without encountering vehicle traffic. It was lovely to wander through part of these on our way back to our hotel.

On the programme for the evening was dinner at a Steak House – another city indulgence we had been missing. The next day we enjoyed a full english/american buffet breakfast, (its the small things) and headed just a few paces down the road to the Science Centre. As far as science centres go, it was small but interesting and we whiled away a couple of hours getting involved in the experiments.

Later on we crossed over the famous Eisener Steig (iron bridge) leading to Sachsenhausen. Sachsenhausen is somewhat more grungy, and is where Frankfurt’s nightlife can be found. Students are seen walking over the bridge on Friday and Saturday evenings, and often trudging back in the early hours of the next morning.

Along with the clubs are old traditional Ebbelwoi pubs and the area was fairly busy even on a Sunday afternoon.

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The Old Town of Frankfurt seems almost out of place with its timber buildings, but it wouldn’t be a German city without them. The Roemerberg is a huge Gothic Church and this square was bustling with tourists.

As in any big city _MG_5831there is a vibrant side and a seedy side. The latter we found in some back streets near the train station – sadly there were blatant drug use and some desperate looking people hanging out here. On a more positive note, sitting on the banks of the Main river, we watched residents running along the path or enjoying a drink on one of the bar boats._MG_5809

Frankfurt is a real mix of old and new, business and art, hipster and historic. Reluctantly we collected our bags that afternoon and headed back down to our little hometown. Admittedly we love our small town and wouldn’t trade it in, but being so used to Auckland, Sydney and even London, every so often a big city break is just what we need.

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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
of diverse suburbs some of which take up an entire island._MG_5651

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!

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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.

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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.

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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 .

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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.

February Freeze

February for us is usually a blissful month of long days, hot sun, after work swims at the beach, weekends spent sipping iced beverages and paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing, swimming, sunbathing or various other activities involving the outdoors and the water.

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Watching the snow fall

This year, were introduced to snow shoveling, below freezing temperatures, darkness falling before 5:30pm and Netflix. Lots of Netflix.

We haven’t been completely deterred from being outside however, IMG_4409and feel very fortunate to be living in an area where we are within a couple hours drive of multiple ski fields. Making the most of winter, we’ve enjoyed taking up skiing as a new sport and have spent February working our way up to the real slopes. At the beginning of the month, we took a bus from nearby Reutlingen to a small ski field in the Schwaebisch Albs just 24km away. Having only skiied about twice before (the last time being a traumatic experience on far-from-beginner-slopes in Austria 4 years ago), this small field was the perfect re-introduction. We may have been some of the oldest people there, but at least we weren’t the only ones struggling to master the T-bar lift! The gentle slope allowed me to get the feel of skiing, although it was highly embarrassing when I thought I was doing quite well only to hear “beep beep”… I turned around and found a 3 year old trying to get past me. He proceeded to zoom off into the distance… no parents, no poles, no fear!

The next weekend we stepped it up a level and took a bus to the Feldberg ski area in the Black Forest. IMG_4415Although it is only about 1.5 hours by car, I was very impressed with the ease at which we managed the journey with public transport. The bus took us directly to Titisee, from where we got the ski bus up to the Grafenmatt ski field. IMG_4408 It is still a real novelty for us to ski amongst pine trees, since the only ski field we’ve ever known is on the bare face of a volcano. After an hour of practice, we decided we should each have a private lesson, in order to improve our skills since we knew that at the end of the month we would be braving the slopes in Austria again. James’ lesson proceeded as follows:

Ski down blue run. Too easy. Ski down red run. Too easy. Instructor: I don’t actually think I can teach you anything. Hmm. Ski down black world cup run! Lesson over.

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I’m the one in pink pants

Mine was a little more constructive. My instructor immediately realised that my biggest problem is confidence, so we did some exercises involving skiing without poles, and switching them from hand to hand. I managed to comfortably ski down a short red run a few times. After lunch unfortunately the snow had become icy in some parts and very uneven with hills and holes in others which increased the technical difficulty. We decided to try out a new red run, however I learnt that not all red runs are the same level! This was bumpy, icy and steep and many people were struggling to ski down with control. I managed the first 2/3rds but ended up taking off my skis and walking down the last part. We learned afterwards that it was exactly the same terrain and gradient as the neighbouring black run, and only classified as red because it was wide. I didn’t feel quite so bad after hearing that!

Due to the worsening weather and snow conditions we headed back to Titisee a little early. This town is beautiful in summer and almost more so in winter. It was like a scene from a postcard, IMG_4420with shoulder deep snow drifts piled up on the side of the road, trees glistening with white and perfectly formed icicles hanging from the roofs. Since we had some extra time, we embarked on our first European sauna experience. Read: no clothes allowed. It was definitely a strange feeling for the first 5 minutes to be so exposed, but since the other patrons were also naked and nobody was paying attention to anyone else it felt normal in no time. The heat of the saunas and the spa was just perfect after our freezing hours on the ski field.

Our month finished off with the penultimate ski trip to Austria. This was a trip organised by the local sports shop, and it’s hard to believe how easy it all was! We paid 50 euros in advance for the bus and the lift pass, and left Tubingen at 5:30am, drove across the border and arrived directly at the ski field at 9am.

Heading up in the gondola, ready to hit the snow!

Heading up in the gondola, ready to hit the snow!

We had already received our lift passes on the bus and having hired our gear in Tubingen, all we had to do was put on our ski boots and get on the Gondola. The bus departed exactly on time in the afternoon, had beers and water waiting on board and we were home by 7pm. Just taking a day trip to another country is still mind boggling for us.

The Montafon Golm ski field is great for intermediate skiiers, with its wide open pistes, good range of runs and it was not crowded at all. A group of 6 of us were on the trip together, and we had the best day out. It snowed lightly all morning, and was overcast in the afternoon but the snow condition was great and it was a very mild temperature. Within the first 5 minutes James attempted a stop at high speed and managed to bowl our friend Alex over, and I didn’t have the skill to turn quickly to get out of the way of another skiier so careened straight down the slope, promptly tumbling over of course. With our first falls out of the way, we took the chair lift to the highest point and it was straight onto a red run. The previous two ski excursions had served me well, as my confidence and skill were at a level where I could at least do most of the runs the others did, albeit a lot slower! The others sped ahead, I took my time, the boys ventured slightly off piste (complete with tree-collisions and faceplants) and we all met up to ride the lift to the top together. At the top of the lift we would use the map to plot our way down and we must have done at least 10 or 12 runs during the day. It was fun to be able to pick and choose routes, James enjoyed having another guy to zoom around with and with my confidence slowly on the rise I certainly challenged myself.IMG_4393

After nearly 3 hours of skiing we took a lunch break, after which we were all somewhat tired, and the snow was becoming bumpy so the afternoon session was at a somewhat more sedate pace. With the snow being so uneven I was inadvertently forced to do a few jumps, and I have to admit I eyed up the ski jump with keen interest… maybe next time!

A neat feature of Montafon Golm is that from the top of the lift to the carpark, you can ski for 9.2km nonstop. We had planned this as our last run of the day, but unfortunately my shaking muscles and weary body meant I only made it the first 7. Still, it was overall a successful, laughter filled day out with friends and we ticked off another country for February.

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The weather is becoming more mild, flowers are starting to bud and Spring is on its way. The ski fields are likely to be open for another couple of months however, and since James in particular has the skiing bug I don’t think we’ve seen the last of snow this season!

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!

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!