Category Archives: Travel

Continuing on my world adventure

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Nearly a year on since my big world adventure finished, I’m finally ready to finish it blogging about it.

Due to reasons hard to explain and probably not worth trying to, it was challenging writing about the second half of my trip – that being South East Asia.

But I’m now ready to do so. How can I deprave the world from my informative, interesting and comical recounts of my adventures any longer?!

So watch this space for my whimsical wordings about Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Touring Turkey

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So, it had arrived. Our final European destination. As sad as I was that this half of the epic journey was nearly over, I was really excited to finish it with a big cultural shift. So we put a big exclamation mark to our European adventure by ending in Turkey.

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Turkey. Similar to Morocco? With all the atrocities happening in nearby countries, and my Dad sending several txts confirming just how close to those borders ill be getting, there was a little apprehension… but predominantly excitement!

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Selçuk

We wanted a change in cultural scene, and couldn’t have made a better choice for our starting point, than Selçuk. Flying into Izmir airport, we caught a 1.5 hour train with a load of locals out to the incredibly beautiful town of Selçuk. A tourist town due to the historical site of Ephesus nearby, there was plenty to cater to us westerners, but without losing any of it’s Turkish identity.

Being the history nut I am, I was so impressed to visit the Basilica of Saint John. This is a really interesting site with loads of information boards scattered around. Plus, the 360 view from up there is quite stunning. A highlight for me was seeing where St John lived, died and wrote the gospel! One TripAdvisor review stated “for tourists with no religious orientations, the rubble may not be of too much interest.” I completely disagree. I’m not religious, but i’m intrigued but history that shapes the world – both good and bad – and that is quite an important happening in our past time. It is also fascinating to see the scale of church that once stood there. A definite must-see people!

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Continuing with getting my history fix, we went to visit Ephesus – an ancient Greek city which came under the control of the Roman Republic in 129 BC. Let me start by saying, wow. What an incredible site. It is huge! And the ruins left behind are in such great condition; roads, theatres, baths and houses with intact mosaic floors.

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It is a big day though. I highly recommend taking lot’s of water (especially if it is as hot as when we were there!) and some snacks for energy. Also, once again Rick Steves Audio Europe App has a great walking guide for the Ephesus site. Use that if you don’t want to invest in the costly tour guide.

Selçuk is also where my obsession with Turkish Chai began. It doesn’t taste like Chai tea, as you and I know it (the cinnamony kind). Chai simply means tea and it is available absolutely everywhere. It’s cheap too. Nice when you just want to chill out somewhere and people watch.

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Kuşadasi

Kuşadası is a beautiful coastal city. We stayed in a great hotel called the Baris Suite Hotel. Equipped with a sea view and only about ten minutes to a hive of activity on the seafront, it was a value for money, really nice and chilled out place to stay.

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There’s quite a few things to see here such as Ladies Beach, but I would recommend it more if you are looking for a quiet couple of days to recoup. Also, you must eat at Bul Bul restaurant. We ate there both nights because it is really cheap and so very, very good.

Cappadocia

After much researching, we decided the best way to see the beautiful town of Cappadocia, was to hire a car. For us, it was more cost effective than an organised tour and, as you know by now, we like the freedom that comes with driving ourselves around.

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Arriving in the evening, driving into the small town of Goreme was breathtaking. Due to eruptions of three volcanoes yonks ago, the landscape is made up of volcanic ash, basalt and lava. It is very easily carved so communities built their homes into the rocks and underground. So cool! Goreme is full of hotels in such rock caves, which are all lit up beautifully at night.

After getting a tour route map from our hotel, we started with our DIY tour at the Open Air Museum – chapels and living quarters, most dating to around the 11th century,built into the rocks. Lots to see (even if it did get a bit samey) but it was a struggle against all the tour groups! Keep calm, be patient and don’t lose your cool…personal experience.

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Next, we drove to an amazing look out point. Here is a fantastic view of the landscape of Cappadocia, with what looked like two huge cones with large rocks teetering on them. Then it was onto the famous “Fairy Chimneys” – a valley full of tall rock formations, sculpted by wind and water, that echo storybook homes of fairies. Such a unique sight.

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I also really loved the Vanessa Ceramics Factory. The area is quite well known for it’s beautiful ceramic work. We were also really lucky because, while we weren’t with a big tour group, the manager there took us on a private guide through all stages of the artistry – from creating the clay pots, bowls, vases, to painting them, to putting them in the oven! It was very cool to see.

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That’s also where we met a litter of stray puppies and they’re very skinny looking Mother. So we got them a feast from the nearest shop and played with them for an unreasonable amount of time. Who could resist!

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Having a car, we managed to explore every corner of Cappadocia, and the drives themselves were beautiful. However, the highlight for us (as I’m sure is the case for most people) was getting up at 5am in the freezing cold, to go for a dawn hot air balloon ride.

While costs can get quite expensive, we happened to be visiting just outside of tourist season and got a great deal of $110 per person, for a one hour ride (plus a light brekky and transport).

Now, I’m not afraid of heights, but the thought of standing in a wicker basket, 3000ft in the air should make anyone nervous. But once up there, squeezed in the a Japanese tour group, it is remarkably peaceful. I didn’t once feel unsafe, even seeing other balloons bouncing off each other. I could also put this down to being completely awestruck by what I was seeing. I’ll let my photos speak for themselves.

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By now, I was craving a good, proper cup of coffee and had yet to find one in Turkey. The traditional Turkish coffee with the grinds at the bottom of the cup wasn’t really my cup of tea (yes, I hear the jokes too). So when was passed a little cafe called Cafe Safak while walking around Goreme, that claimed “the best coffee this side of Australia,” I knew I was in luck. They even served Flat Whites! Best coffee I’d had in a couple of weeks. Oh, the relief.

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Istanbul

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After a couple of weeks of rurality, I was itching to get back into a bit of city life. So we headed to Istanbul – formerly Constantinople i.e. centre of the Ottoman empire, one of the longest running and strongest political and military states in history. Yeah, I was excited.

Driving into Istanbul, I was in awe of just how big a city it was – fast paced and a little crazy. I felt like I was in London again! We stayed right on the edge of Taksim square as well, meaning we were right in the thick of it. Suited me perfectly.

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Our first day we walked over to Sultanahmet side, which is the old part of the city. We bought a Museum Pass, which, for 85 Turkish Lira, we could see 12 different tourist attractions within 72 hours. It really was the way to go as you not only saved money, but time as well – as you got to jump to the head of the line, VIP styles.

To start with, we visited the Hagia Sophia, Archaeology Museum and the Blue Mosque. The architecture of the two mosques was a refreshing change on the historical buildings we had been seeing through most of Europe. However, and I can only put this down to all the amazing cathedrals we had seen in Europe, but we just weren’t that blown away by the Blue Mosque (don’t get angry!) You couldn’t help but appreciate the place, and the domed roofs from the inside were just beautiful, but… we weren’t blown away.

2014-11-09 10.50.38 2014-11-09 13.45.52The archaeology museum was also good, but by this time we had also seen hundreds of centuries-old pots, weapons, mosaics etc so we were not overwhelmingly impressed by the collection. We also visited the Tokapi Palace, which is definitely worth every penny. A great historic overview of not only the palace and who lived in it, but also what influenced the changes on the Ottoman Empire – from cuisine to dress clothes.

Naturally, the next stop for us was the Grand Bazaar market – “one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops” – Wikipedia.

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When you enter through one of the numerous archways, you have to stand there for a second, don’t panic, take a breath and psych yourself up. This place is huge. A labyrinth of brightly lit shops selling everything from tacky souvenirs, to beautiful handmade jewellery, to fresh tea leaves. It is incredibly overwhelming, and you must be prepared to be “hassled,” but nothing that doesn’t come with the territory of touristy markets. We actually loved it.

While we may not have been completely bowled over by the ‘tourist attractions’ on show in Istanbul, I adored walking around the city – both old and new – and simply observing the way of life there. One of my favourite spots, somewhere that I have no doubt will always stand out in my memory, was the Golden Horn bridge. The bridge itself was pretty cool and you can get a nice view of both sides of the city from it. But it was the buzzing life it held! Fisherman for as far as the eye could see lined the whole bridge, catching wee little fish which I can only presume they were supplying to the fish markets near by. If you walk beneath the bridge, you’ll find hub of seafood restaurants. So grab a beer, take a seat and watch out for the flying hooks from above! It’s great people watching territory.

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Hungry? If you’re looking for a cheap, but delicious, eat, visit my second favourite spot! On the Karaköy side of the bridge, follow the road down to the harbour front and you will come across one of the most entertaining fish markets I’ve ever seen. Filled with yelling men in gumboots, fish and water everywhere, but some really good looking produce. Here we sat down in a busy little “restaurant” and ordered a fish sandwich – you can imagine how fresh it was. If you wanted to eat on the run, there are loads of fish sandwich stands, grilling delicious white fish which they couple with salad and chuck into a fresh bread roll.

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Gallipoli

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For any Kiwi or Aussie visiting this side of the world, going to Gallipoli is almost considered a right of passage. Whether it’s for the dawn service, which is growing in popularity every year, or simply just to see it, most of us will not pass on the opportunity. Nor should we.

Gallipoli is a good five hour drive from Istanbul – so while we wanted to try and do it ourselves, we soon realised it would be more cost effective to do it with a tour group. As you can imagine, the options were endless, but we were very happy with our choice of Crowded House Tours. We were picked up from our hotel, given breakfast and lunch on the way, then supplied a fully-guided tour of the main points of interest with one of the most knowledgeable tour guides I’ve ever seen. He knew more about Australia and New Zealand’s history in the war than any of us! He was passionate, informative and really made the tour for me.

The site itself was incredibly humbling. The stories behind that ditch, this beach, that hill were devastatingly harrowing. The more we saw and listened, the more obvious how much of a suicide mission the whole thing really was. The area that eventually reduced me to tears was the Chunuk Bair Memorial Site for the lost New Zealand soldiers. Here, one of three key mountain peaks was taken by the Kiwis. It was the only success for the Allies of the campaign, however, was lost only a couple of days later when Ottoman troops, led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), recaptured it, at the expense of many lives. More than 90 per cent of the 760 New Zealand men who reached the summit of Chunuk Bair were killed or wounded.

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One thing I came away with however, was the solidarity the Turkish feel with New Zealanders and Australians. While the history between the countries is bloody, they too believe it was a pointless campaign and sympathise with our countries’ loss. Atatürk’s – the founder of Turkey as we know it – quote about the ANZACs really quite moved me:

“Those heroes that shed their blood

And lost their lives.

You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.

Therefore, rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies

And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side

Here in this country of ours,

You, the mothers,

Who sent their sons from far away countries

Wipe away your tears,

Your sons are now lying in our bosom

And are in peace

After having lost their lives on this land they have

Become our sons as well”.

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Top tips to seeing Turkey:

1. Depend on Domus – especially for Ephesus!

Getting around Turkey is actually very easy. There are Domus (like mini-vans) available to take you everywhere. In Selçuk there is a Domus depot full of vans that can take you to Ephesus. Don’t fall for the taxi’s spiel about needing to walk miles, and they will drop you at one end and pick you up at another. A Domus is so much cheaper, and you can walk through the site either way. We actually walked all the way to the other side and started from there. It’s definitely worth saving the money.

2. Book you’re hot air balloon in Cappadocia

A lot of people come to Cappadocia from Istanbul and are told to book their hot air balloon ride in the big city. Do not do that. We met loads of people who did that and paid way more than they should have. And experienced lot’s of problems like being told to be up at 4am not 5am, minivans not showing up etc. Your accommodation in Cappadocia will help with booking a balloon and you won’t be overcharged that way as there isn’t a middle-man fee.

3. Where to stay in Istanbul

We did a lot of research around this and settled on the ‘new’ side of the city. 1. it was more cost effective, 2. it was out of all the touristy rubbish, 3. Taksim is a really cool area! My favourite are was Karaköy. It is lined with quirky little shops, cafes and restaurants. It has a great vibe, but we read it didn’t! Lies! If I ever go back, I will look to stay here.

4. Blue Mosque etiquette

Obviously, seeing the Blue Mosque is a necessity. You’d be daft not to. Just remember you need to wear covered clothing – trousers covering the knees, shoulders covered and girls need to wear a headscarf. If you don’t have one, they let you borrow one. Also, make sure you check the times that the actual inside is open! We were rushed through because it was nearly prayer time. Some people didn’t make it and had to come back for the afternoon session.

5. See it? Like it? Buy it.

This is mainly directed to the Grand Bazaar market, but Istanbul is huge with loads of similar looking shops. If you see something you like, buy it right there and then. I missed out on quite a few things because I couldn’t for the life of me find the right shop again!

 

So the time had come. Our European tour had come to an end. It really did fly by, but looking back at all my posts, we really did do a heck of a lot. While I think I left my heart in Europe somewhere (probably Italy, with all that pesto pasta) we were definitely amped for a change in scenery and culture. So what better way to drastically shake things up by making our next stop, the barley-touched-by-tourists land of Burma.

 

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My gyros filled Greek getaway

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Growing up, I remember my Godmother hanging a stunning framed picture in her bathroom. It was of blinding white buildings with colourful doors and domed roofs, on a backdrop of crystal-clear water.

Could such a beautiful place actually exist? Well, any young woman who has watched Mama Mia the movie as many times as I have knows, yes, it exists and we all want to go there. It’s Greece. And would you look at that! Greece was my next European destination.

Athens

I’m a huge history buff – not that I can actually recall a lot that I have learned – but I really do like learning about old things. That is one of the reasons I fell in love with Rome and I was just as amped to get to Athens.

Sadly, I had heard the world’s historic leading capital wasn’t that great. A bit dirty, a bit dangerous. Upon arrival, I guess I could see where the anti-fans were coming from. However, I thought the city had great character and couldn’t wait to begin exploring!

Exploring a city, for us, is having an end point, but purposely getting lost on the way there. That’s when you stumble across the coolest things. So, we headed in the general direction of the infamous Acropolis and came across a huge seafood and meat market.

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Leaving with our appetites more than wet, our noses led us to the cutest little lady selling fresh corn on the cob with seasoning from Tabasco sauce to lemon to curry powder. Obviously, we couldn’t pass up on such an opportunity so chowed down during our uphill walk to the Acropolis.

 

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Seeing this monument was so exciting for me. A historical site which has stood the test of time through wars and weather alike. Unfortunately – and I say unfortunately loosely – they are currently restoring parts of the citadel. Sometimes, I don’t agree with such a decision. While professionals who I’m sure are bloody good, will ensure it is reconstructed back to its former glory, I tend to think it will lose a lot of it’s intriguing “age.” I would rather they simply ensured what’s left is protected.

So, sadly because of this, the Parthenon building (the one on all the postcards), was yet another iconic monument covered in scaffolding – a trend that seems to be following us throughout our travels…

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Still, it was such a fantastic experience walking throughout the Acropolis, seeing the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion. What made it even better was the free Rick Steves Audio Europe App. A very in depth, interesting, if a bit cheesy, commentary and walking guide of the site.

On the way back down to the modern world we picked up 1kg of the most delicious mandarins I have ever tasted, ever. And, they only cost £0.50p – supporting my theory again that street food is the way to go! Satisfies not only the taste buds but the budget too.

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Finally, the time had come to indulge in what would become staple foods of our Greek journey – greek salad and gyros. As I write this, I am currently in South East Asia (yes, I have a lot of blogs to catch up on) and I still crave these delicious – and cheap! – dishes. If you read my post on Amsterdam, you would know just how much I adore cheese. The stronger and smellier, the better! So, you can imagine my delight when my greek salad was topped with a whole block of feta cheese. This happened in every restaurant too! Oh, heavenly.

The meal was accompanied by a delicious iced-coffee which seems to be the way to drink coffee in Greece! I couldn’t get over how many people we would pass at all hours of the day, with an iced-coffee in hand.

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We also visited the Archaeology Museum (how could you not?!) which was incredibly interesting, before visiting the ruins of the Zeus Temple. We also had quite the magical night by treating ourselves to a film, but not just in any old theatre. We saw ‘Gone Girl’ (not as good as the book) at Cine Paris – a beautiful outdoor, rooftop cinema. Comfy seats, great snacks and the most amazing view of the Acropolis in the background.

Delphi

As you have probably guessed, we like to make our own way to places when we can. I think the best way to see a country is to hire a car and road trip it! So that’s exactly what we did. First stop, nestled within the most picturesque valley, was Delphi.

Delphi in ancient times was considered the center of the known world, the place where heaven and earth met. This was the place on earth where man was closest to God. In Mythology, Delphi was the meeting place of two eagles, released by Zeus and sent in opposite directions. Where they met indicated the centre of the earth.

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Unfortunately, I had contracted a head-splitting migraine and couldn’t focus as much as I would have liked to. But I was still able to take in my surroundings and sit in awe of the place. We also checked out the adjoining museum where lots of old statues, pots etc from the actual site were showcased.

If you visit Delphi, you should really try stay in the town overnight. It was so cute and in the most beautiful setting. However, Athens offers day trips and you can see that has hurt the little town financially. We stayed at Hotel Athina which was seemed a little, stuck in the 80’s but in a homely kind of way. Plus it had the most amazing balcony view! I almost wished we had a whole day just to chill on it!

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Olympia

Olympia, the site of the very first Olympics (if you hadn’t figured that out). From Rome up until now, you can imagine we have seen loads of ruins. So, these ones, while historic as they were, we weren’t that impressed. I could easily put this down to not having a detailed audio guide or the like.

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However, the adjoined museum was actually very impressive filled with intact statues, relics and fighting weaponry. Totally worth the extra few quid.

Zacharo

So after Olympia, we really needed only somewhere to stay the night so thought we would head out to the coast. The beauty of having a car! Doing things on a whim. We came across the town of Zacharo, a sleepy little place that was just seeing the end of it’s high season.

We stayed near the beach at Evelyns house where the owner was so very friendly and told us that they never get tourists around Zacharo – it’s more of a holiday spot for the Greeks. Nailed it! We also questioned him about the millions – and I mean millions – of olive trees everywhere. In the valleys, in people’s gardens. Because if you think of it, how often do you really see Greek Olive Oil in the supermarket? Italy seems to monopolise that industry. He told us that the olives in Greece are used to produce extra virgin oil. However, instead of marketing it as a home brand, it is shipped to Italy, where often it is mixed with a lesser quality oil, but is advertised as extra virgin! So, the Italian “Extra Virgin” oil you buy, is most likely only going to be about 20% extra virgin. Food for thought huh?

And I can’t leave Zacharo without mentioning it’s perfect beach. It was huge, beautiful white sand, crazy warm water and literally no one on it. We had the whole thing to ourselves and went back for a morning swim before starting on our road trip again!

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Nafplio/Navplion

Nafplio was actually one of my favourite mainland stops – a gorgeous seaport town. We spent a night here in a quaint little backstreet guesthouse – Pension Eleni – owned by a little old Greek lady who greeted us with hugs and kisses. I fell in love with the quintessential Greek street it was located on, and was only a stones throw away from the main drag of shops and restaurants.

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Budget was wearing thin now, so we spent only a day and a night here. A highlight for us was walking up to the the Castle of Palamidi. The views from here are spectacular and the castle/fort stretches along the ridge-line of the hill, so there’s actually loads to discover! Plus, the Greeks don’t seem to bothered with over the top health and safety, so it becomes quite an exhilarating adventure for those who are game.

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Kalamata & Sparta

Not going to lie, there really isn’t a lot in these towns. Kalamata is probably worth giving a night or two (which we couldn’t afford to give), but Sparta is literally a drive through town. However, the drive to these places was incredible – seriously one of the best drives I think I’ve done. Up into huge mountains with beautiful views, then down into lush valleys with crystal clear rivers weaving throughout.

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The Islands – Crete & Santorini

As the subtitle states, we sadly only made it to two Greek islands. It would have been nice to visit others, but I really am glad we spent the time we did on the mainland – a lot of people forget about the treasures it holds and opt for time spent on the picturesque, movie-set islands.

So, we began our Crete adventure in Chania. Stumbling into our accommodation Villa Katerina we were greeted by a large, old, boisterous, Greek woman who didn’t speak a lick of english. But while she was seemingly disputing a power bill with someone on the other end of the phone (there was a lot of yelling and hand gestures) she gave us iced-coffee and cake while we waited for her to finish. She then gave me a homemade bracelet! So cute.

After getting settled we wandered into the old town, and as quaint as it was, it was very commercial which I found disappointing. But, we weren’t actually there for the restaurants, bars or beaches, we were there for the Samaria Gorge walk! A huge 16km walk starting amongst the clouds, down into a ginormous derelict river bed. The scenery; spectacular. I’ll let the images below speak for themselves.

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Greece not only holds a place in my heart for one of the best drives, but also one of the best walks I’ve done. I really can’t recommend this enough. And it is pretty much all downhill and finishes at a beach where you can reward yourself with a swim!

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Unfortunately the rest of our time in Chania it was pouring with rain! Spent most of our days eating, chilling and streaming my little sister’s football games (she plays for the University of North Carolina. I’m a proud sister and tell anyone who will listen).

We then moved over to Rethymno. We had the most fantastic spot at Mamangakis Apartments and for a great price. Check out the view!

Sadly again, it was pouring with rain for the most part. We did get to check out the quaint old town which was nice but I can’t really give an educated opinion on the place as we spent most of the time indoors. It’s funny – when you are backpacking on a tight budget, a rainy day really throws you as there isn’t a lot of free stuff to do when it’s bucketing down! Movie watching and blogging with a sea view is nice though!

Then it was time to fulfill a dream I have had since, well, forever. Visit the idyllic island of Santorini! Six hours on a ferry later and we were there! We had the whole day as well, so  found our hotel in Fira, and, of course, hired quad bikes instantaneously. We spent the rest of the day hooning (speeding for those non-kiwis) around the island. It was actually a lot bigger than I thought!

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We left Oia for the next day though as we wanted to walk there. It took about 3.5 hours, but it was such an amazing walk. Starting by walking through the town of Fira, past all the luxury, white hotels, then into the volcanic rock areas, you are constantly up really high, providing spectacular views the entire time. It is not a difficult walk, and you can bus back. Do it!

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Oia was extremely beautiful. I finally got my ‘blue-domed-roof’ photo that I had always dreamed about getting. In terms of the actual town however, I definitely preferred Fira. Just a bit more going on really.

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Third day of fun activities landed on my birthday! It’s pretty cool to say I celebrated my 23rd in Queenstown, NZ, my 24th in Venice, Italy, my 25th in Nice, France and now my 26th in Santorini, Greece. Wow…

How did we celebrate? We walked down 600 steps, waded through really smelly donkeys to a pirate ship which took us to a volcanic island, swam in a not-so-warm thermal spring, drank beers as the pirate ship took us back to the mainland, climbed back up 600 steps through more donkeys, then perched ourselves on the best seat in town to watch the world-famous Santorini sunset.

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Tips to seeing gorgeous Greece:

1. A must-see mainland

The allure of the incredibly beautiful Greek Islands is a powerful drawcard to anyone with even the slightest travelling-fibre in their body. I’m still gutted I didn’t get to see more! However, if you can, really try and get onto the mainland and even in off the coast. It has so much to offer, and the best way to see it is with the windows down, music on and being free to go wherever you like.

2. Use the overnight ferries

When you do begin island hopping, invest in the cheap and effective overnight ferries. Choose the sleeper berths. They are comfortable, with a private bathroom, and before you know it you’re on your next island refreshed and ready to explore.

A tip though is to cross-reference the timetable with the season you are visiting in. Our choices of ferries were bugger all due to being out of ‘high season’ which hindered how many places we could actually visit.

3. Out of season = lower costs

While I’ve just mentioned the ferry benefits of travelling during tourist time, it’s actually crazy how much cheaper things can be, even only slightly out of high season. We got there at the end and saw the prices of things like accommodation drop – some by up to 40%!

 

After maybe one too many free shots from our waiter at dinner (happy birthday to me), the evening ended with a bang. Or should I say snap. I fell down some stairs and badly sprained my ankle. So, the end of our Greek getaway resulted in me hopping – literally – onto an overnight ferry back to Athens, ready to fly to – can you believe it – our final European stop…Turkey!

 

 

Adventuring in Montenegro and Albania

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After two weeks in Croatia, the next leg of our trip seemed short in comparison, but none the less memorable. We were continuing our way through southern Europe by visiting Montenegro and to my Father’s “but why?” confusion, Albania!

Montenegro

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It still fascinates me that in Europe you can hop on a bus for a few hours and find yourselves in a completely different country. That’s like getting on in Auckland and finding yourself in Hamilton… not quite the same. This time, we boarded a bus in Dubrovnik and got off in Kotor, Montenegro.

Here we only had a couple of days, but had high expectations. We had heard people sing its praises and read about all it had to offer. Maybe we were doing something wrong, but we weren’t exactly impressed. Yes, the old town was ‘nice,’ but we had just come from the incredible old town of Dubrovnik! (So, really, me being underwhelmed could be more spoiled than anything).

But there was nothing outside the old walls, the harbour was really quite scummy and it was incredibly expensive. I say “incredibly” – i’m a backpacker so our budgets may differ, but we thought it was overpriced. Also, as I mentioned in my ‘Tips for Croatia’, it’s nice when a place has a bit of atmosphere. Kotor had none. We went for drinks on our first night and everything was closed. It was Friday! Time of season maybe? It only chirped up a bit when a cruise boat unloaded a few hundred all-inclusive golden oldies. And I was happy they were there! Who would have thought I’d ever think that…

Some kudos it deserves is for its castle ruins high above the town, and the view you get if you climb up there. Kotor is situated at the end of a bay, nestled amongst big mountains with a beautiful, blue body of water in between. While the fort ruins were cool (albeit unloved) the view from up there was incredible and ideal for the panorama setting on your iPhone.

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Leaving Kotor for our next Montenegro spot, our expectations were low. So arriving into Budva was a pleasant surprise. Sitting on the coast the old town was larger and buzzing. Our spirits lifted instantly. We had a nice little room in the middle of town and enjoyed cheap food and cocktails for the duration of our time there.

But, it could be because we had seen very similar places in Croatia, didn’t have enough money, or are actually well versed in criticising destinations fairly, we didn’t think Montenegro was ‘all that and a bag of potato chips.’

Albania

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After researching how to get to Albania from Montenegro, it was disappointing to realise just how difficult it would be. Buses are long, you have to take three of them and it is very hard to get through the border. Luckily, we found out our Hostel (Montenegro Hostel) offered a chauffeur option, driving us all the way to Tirana. Even better was the fact that the driver, Dean, was actually the owner of the Hostel group!

Dean was so interesting and chocked full of information about Montenegro and its surrounding countries. For example, if you visit Albania and notice that most of the houses and buildings don’t have actual roofs, it’s because there is a roof tax there! So builders seal the top of the building without technically giving it a roof to avoid the tax!

He also had a personal story that is scripted for the silver screen. A Serbian, growing up in Croatia, he and his family had a beautiful house, a holiday home, a business, and an all round good life. When things grew hostile in the country, he and his family had to flee to Serbia almost overnight, leaving everything behind. Then, his brother joined the “People’s Army” and Dean explained, they didn’t know who they were fighting until they became close enough to see the “enemy’s face” – where often they’d be recognised as old school chums. What’s more, Dean’s brother fell in love with a Muslim woman (obviously a big no no). To escape, they approached the Australian embassy who flew them to Australia within two weeks! They now live happily there. What a story!!

When we arrived into Tirana, I was blown away. It was not at all what I expected. The city was absolutely buzzing! And it was so, so colourful. Dean had told us that this is because the Mayor (now Prime Minister) of Albania ordered the old communist buildings etc to be painted with bright colours, to boost morale of the people (and because communist buildings are so heinous to look at). A great place to get a 360 view of the city is up the Sky Hotel Tower. You pay a small fee to go up, then sit down and grab a beer. Little did we know, it is a revolving bar, and we had to convince ourselves that the floor really was spinning and it wasn’t just the three pints.

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As we explored the city, its unique vibrancy became even more apparent. There are quirky bars and cafes everywhere. Colour, atmosphere, music and lot’s and lot’s of young people. It came across to us as a university town. This could be because over 50% of Tirana’s population is under 30 years old! (Thanks Dean).

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The other thing I loved about Tirana was the food – (“of course it was” says Mother). Huge portions of deliciously grilled meats, tasty salads and mouthwatering, freshly baked breads. So, so cheap as well. The meal in the pictures below cost all of around £6 – and no that wasn’t just for me!

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Accompany that with some of the best coffee I have had since leaving New Zealand, and for a cost of about £0.35,  I think I have found my ideal second home.

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Sadly, the truth hit home about the politically ‘mental’ state of the city when Albania’s football team went to Serbia for the first time in 65 years for a match. We were awoken by car horns, firecrackers and singing outside our window. I jumped on the internet and found out the match had been cancelled because a drone carrying the Albanian flag was flown over the pitch which sparked anger in the crowd and on the pitch. So, a match cancelled and the city erupts in celebration. It again highlighted just how deep-seeded the hatred is…still.

The next day, we decided to take a day trip out of the city to the town of Kruja. There, we explored an old castle and visited an interesting museum, which turned out to be a four-floor shrine too George Kastrioti Skanderbeg – an Albanian hero who defended Albania from Ottoman invasion for two decades. It was very interesting, however not a lot of it was in english unfortunately.

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As interesting as Kruja was, the best part was the bus ride out there! Finding the first one from Tirana proved so difficult. There is no bus depot. We had to walk to a big traffic island and hope that a bus with Kruja on the front drove past, which we then had to flag down. From there, it was fantastic people watching. All the locals would stand at any point on the road and hail the bus. Some would even jump in while it was moving! Also, if you are a woman, don’t bother trying to give your seat to the elderly – chivalry certainly has not died in Albania and a 90 year old man will give up his seat before allowing you to.

Tips for visiting Montenegro and Albania

1. Skip Montenegro

This is obviously, hugely personal opinion. But, if you only plan on visiting Kotor and Budva, and are going to see Croatia first, then I truly don’t see the point. I found, what we saw of Montenegro, as a slightly smaller version of a Croatian town. However, if you are on your way to Albania, then it definitely is a nice route to take.

2. Spend more time in Albania

I will forever regret not spending more time in Albania and seeing more of the country. We dropped another (very strange American) passenger off in Durres before our Tirana stop, and even that city looked like it could be worth one or two days exploring. I shall return in the future I believe!

 

Finishing this particular stint in Albania was perfect. Getting that one last hit of Croatian/Montenegrin/Albanian culture (while obviously different, all are quite similar) it was time to move onto another, one on which the modern world was based on… finally it was see to hit Greece…a large portion of it too (be prepared for a mammoth blog post!)

Seeing Croatia by land and sea

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Croatia. A country once known for it’s modern, horrific warfare, now recognised amongst the young globe-trotting community as destination “Sail Croatia.” In all honesty, I really didn’t know what to expect from our next stop (and we were spending two weeks there!). The extent of my knowledge embarrassingly revolved around fellow London mates’ stories of sunshine, sailing and booze.

I have to admit, our journey started in a similar way. 

The Islands – Milner, Hvar, Palmizana, Korcula, Mjet

The islands of Croatia are a popular drawcard for tourists the world over. The incredibly clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, coupled with gorgeous old towns and amazing food was definitely something I wanted to check out! And how’s this for luck/karma/deserved fate, we had family friends sailing around the islands when we were going to be there!

So meeting in Trogir, a beautiful, white-tiled coastal town 20 minutes from Split, we hopped aboard with some of the nicest people I have ever met and began our journey! First stop was the island of Milner where we sheltered after a rather hairy sail! It was a quaint town, but the best was yet to come. My favourite was our next stop – the Stari Grad (old town) of the large island of Hvar.

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Here, everything seems white – the tiled pavements, the old small buildings with wooden doors. It was how I would have pictured a Greek town would be. I would soon learn that most Croatia old towns are like this. It was made up of small alleyways where around every corner was another little boutique shop or restaurant. We had cocktails and an incredibly good dinner at Antika House of Food, where the meals were delicious and the cocktails even better.

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Next stop was Palmizana – an island just off Hvar and what I can only explain as pure paradise. I’m talking the clearest water I have ever seen, white-sand beaches and a beach-front bar called Laganini, with couches in trees! Here we enjoyed a great chilled out session with…more cocktails.

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Then onto Marco Polo’s birth place – the island of Korcula. Again, this island’s town was so interesting to walk around – new things to see around every corner! We came across an old watch tower which had been converted into a rooftop bar! Here we had, well, more cocktails of course.

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Final island hop was to Mjet (where I sailed by myself! Nailed it too). Mjet was very different from the other places we had visited. Instead of an old town, we sailed into a cove which had a warm welcome of mooring owners waving at us! I waved back enthusiastically – little did I know they were waving for our custom. After choosing your dock, you then go and eat at their restaurant over the other side of the bay. Very cool!

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Bosnia

After ten memory-making days upon the Med sea, it was time to come ashore and continue our adventure on land. We decided to hire a car so we could really make the most of the time we had. So it started with road tripping across the border into Bosnia.

The more we travel and the more countries we see, we have realised just how much of a peaceful, “100% Pure New Zealand” bubble we have grown up in. As embarrassing as is it is to admit, again, our naivety here was at an all time high. But, as what I like to think constitutes a “real” traveller, we did our research, read loads of articles and taught ourselves about Bosnia and it’s horrific, yet incredibly recent history.

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It only took about 20 minutes to drive from the Croatian coast, inland and across the border into Bosnia – but instantly, we knew we were in a different country. The place was so barren and quite depressing, but consequently fascinating. Driving through we saw several different flags national flags as well. It wasn’t until we educated ourselves later, that we realised the country sadly still wanted to be split up with separate regions having extremely different outlooks.

We didn’t have long unfortunately so made a beeline for Mostar. As with the other cities we drove through, it was aged, grey and stuck in the 80’s. However, it’s old town was beautiful. Here we walked across the infamous Stari Most bridge which had been blown up during the interfaith war of 1993.

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On our way back out the country, we also stopped at the Kravice waterfalls, which seemed to literally appear from nowhere.

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Roadtripping Croatia

Then it was time to get back to Croatia and begin adventuring along it’s coastal highways. The drives in between cities and towns were spectacular. I highly recommend hiring a car here. The roads are some of the best we have been on – well kept, easy to maneuver and the views along the coastline were out of this world. I liken it to the Pacific Coast Highway from L.A to San Francisco…could be even better actually. We we warned Croatian drivers could be crazy, and there were a couple of hairy moments, but nothing out the ordinary – every road has idiots on it.

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Zadar – our first stop was the city of Zadar. While I can’t really talk about the modern part of the city, the old town where we spent most of our time was great. It had loads of restaurants and bars and had a real ‘university town’ kind of feel to the whole place. Food and drink were cheap as chips too!

Sveti Juraj – Really just a stop over coastal village, situated just off the main road. A great place to stay to break up the journey, or if you want a day or two just to chill by the seaside. Here, we were greeted by our Guesthouse owner (who couldn’t speak a word of english) with some of the most horrific Grappa I have ever tasted (a Croatian clear liquor, strong with a hint of methylated spirits). 

Pula – I think a few people might disagree with me here, but I thought Pula was slightly a waste of time. There wasn’t anything there you couldn’t see elsewhere, other than the 6th largest Roman amphitheatre in the world, which, yea, I guess is cool. But once you have been to Rome, the shine rubs off a bit.

Plitvice – Our drive inland to Plitvice was one of my favourite parts of the journey.  First, we stopped in the most beautiful coastal old town called Rovinj. If we had more time, I would have loved to have stayed a night or two here. Again, beautiful cream alleyways weaving through quaint, white buildings with brightly coloured doors. A rainbow coloured harbour full of fishing dinghies, framed with restaurants and bars. A must visit!

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Then, within an hour, after navigating through misty forests and over rushing rivers, we were in the mountains, with the temperature changing from 24 to 13 degrees! Plitvice itself was actually a couple of farm houses in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing there, but it was a good place to make camp before venturing into the Plitvice national park to see the lakes and waterfalls.

We woke up early to see the lakes and were so disappointed as we began to navigate the wooden pathways over the water as the fog was as a thick as smoke and we couldn’t see a thing! But, as the day wore on, it started to lift, revealing some spectacular sights. Huge waterfalls gushing gallons upon gallons of water into lakes below, which in turn had their own waterfalls and so on.

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The paths went down around seven levels each with a huge lakes and waterfalls. At one point, the paths were closed due to “flooding” but everyone just ignored those and carried on. Feet got wet, yes, but it was fine. The maximum amount of water also meant the waterfalls were huge!

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Dubrovnik – Then it was time for the long journey to Dubrovnik (Kingslanding in Game of Thrones!). This place really was one of my favourites. After visiting, I look back and am surprised at the lack of people suggesting to go there for a weekend break from London.

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To be honest, you want to stay in the old town, within the historical city walls, as that’s where all the action is. We were in a hotel right against the wall, which just happened to be next to the entrance to a secret (not secret at all, but I like to think I discovered it) bar built outside the wall on the rocks. Sheltered from any wind, you can sit here for hours, cold beer in hand, watching the boats go by and basking in the sunshine.

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Obviously we did the touristy things as well as drink beer – walked the city walls, visited the harrowing, but ‘must-see’ war photo museum and dined on local delicacies. But something else I would recommend is trekking up Srđ hill. You can catch a cable car, but where’s the fun in that when you can walk up over 300 steps out of the old town, before even starting on the 1.5 hour hill climb?! Once you reach the top, you have a great view of the Mediterranean, as well as looking down onto Dubrovnik. There is also a good museum regarding the bombing of Dubrovnik by the Serbians in 1991-1992. Albeit a bit of an information overload, it was very interesting and quite scary to think that that whole war happened, and was allowed to happen, in my lifetime.

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Tips for Visiting Croatia

1. Know your history

The history of this country, as well as all the others once part of Yugoslavia, is too important and too recent not to know about. Read up and watch movies about it. Here is an article I found very informative and helpful: http://bit.ly/1rJoO0t Just try and keep open minded about the whole thing. I think there were baddies and goodies in this scenario, but events that preceded merely decades before would see those roles switched. Also be mindful when talking to locals about it, no matter their nationality. The hatred still runs very deep and issues can be sensitive. Just let them talk, and ask questions methodically, rather than having too much of a personal opinion.

2. Get on land

Croatia really isn’t just all about the islands – as beautiful as they may be. Get on land and explore the towns along the coast of the mainland and further in. Croatia’s national parks and mountains really are a must-see.

3. Hire a car

Leading on from my last point, the best way (and most fun) to see the mainland is to hire a car. The drives, like I mentioned, are fantastic. You will be wanting to stop constantly for panorama shots!

4. Don’t be a vegetarian

The Croatian diet is very heavily based on meat, fish and potatoes – more often than not, grilled. Unless you are spending far too much at swanky restaurant, fresh salads, fruit and vegetables are really, really not good here.

5. Go during tourist season

Yes, you read that right. I can’t believe I’m saying this but…go during tourist season. This is merely an opinion, as I have never been during the high season, so it could be hell. For us, visiting just out of the season meant that everywhere – other than Dubrovnik – lacked an atmosphere and was pretty ‘dead’. When it’s not a relaxing, quiet holiday you’re looking for, that can really suck!

6. A must for the Arts & Crafts enthusiast

A really nice and unexpected surprise about Croatia is the awesome boutique arts and crafts available here. Every town we visited – especially on the islands – had amazing boutique studios and shops offering the coolest art I’ve seen. Really great stuff to showcase in your lounge.

 

So! Another country I never dreamed I’d visit, ticked off the list. I think we really saw Croatia ‘well’. By land and sea, we covered a lot of ground and I think got a real feel for the place. I regret not having more time to spend in Bosnia, but hey, got to leave something to do in the future right!

But, the road trip did not end there. Time to hop borders and venture to Montenegro and Albania!

 

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From Spain to Italy

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Oddly, I have always felt a strong love for Italy. Maybe it’s because it offers three of my most favourite things in the whole world (not including you Dad) – deep and interesting history, good wine, and amazing food.

Before leaving New Zealand, I was adamant I would see as much of Italia as I could. It started with two birthday weekends in Venice and Nice – just two-day tasters of a country I would fall deeply in love with. So from Spain, we hopped on a plane (very exciting after about a month of bussing and coaches) and headed for a city oozing with history, Rome.

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Rome! Five days in a city I have wanted to visit for as long as I could remember. And it couldn’t have started any better. Our accommodation was a great Airbnb room, literally next door to the Vatican, with a view of St Peters, AND as we got off the bus from the Airport, two monks got off with us! I couldn’t help but giggle with excitement.

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Day one continued to impress. Arriving late afternoon, it was soon time to find dinner – a moment I had been looking forward to all my life. Dinner in Rome! Meeting with a few school chums from back home, we started to walk around looking for that perfect, traditional restaurant. We had met at Piazza Navona, so were weary of all the ‘touristy’ and expensive restaurants competing for our custom. But we were starving. So decided to narrow down the options by price per litre of wine. Effective don’t you think? We found a quaint place on a very cute street offering a litre of house red wine for 9 euro! We were sold. Surely the food couldn’t taste that bad.

Funnily enough, we hit the absolute jackpot. Very well priced, brilliant service and some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted. So good in fact we went back four out of the five nights we were there – totally against the rules of ‘foodie culture’ I understand, but I believe if something is that good, why look elsewhere? Eventually the waiter was giving us free Prosecco on arrival and Limoncello post meal, due to our returning custom. It was called Ciccia Bomba. Our favourite dish was the clam spaghetti in white wine and garlic sauce.

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I had heard mixed opinions on Rome – I personally adored it. Every which way you walk you will come across something to read about, something with a long and important history. We couldn’t get over how many ruins there were scattered about the place. I definitely recommend walking everywhere if you are up to it. It can get a little tiring – especially if you fill your days like we do – but you will not be disappointed. Getting lost in Rome truly makes the experience.

Obviously we saw all the main attractions and a few others. Here are my summarised thoughts and some tips on visiting the big three :

The Vatican Museum – I had seen the TV progamme, The Borgias, and I was chomping at the bit to get behind those Vatican walls. I am also quite well read up on the history of the Vatican the papacy and the power it had (has?) over the world.

The museum was really good, if not maybe a bit overwhelming. So much to see and a rubbish map to get around. While the Sistene Chapel was incredible, I actually think the Raphael Rooms were the most impressive! The frescoes were actually breathtaking and we spent most our time in these four rooms. Tips: Book your tickets online! Holy cow, the line to get in was massive. Luckily, we had now learned our lesson and researched tickets online first and boom! Within five minutes we had the tickets and walked straight to the front of the line. Also, you have to get the audio guide. There really is no point without it!

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St Peters Basilica – Now this is how you build a church. As I mentioned in my last post about my time in Spain, at this point in such a journey, churches are a bit ‘same old same old’ and the initial awe wears off fast. But not in St Peters. This church is immaculate, balanced, serene and simply incredible.

Tips: DO NOT be afraid of the initial cue! Yes it looks enormous, circling around St Peters Square, but this is just to go through security and it moves really fast. Also, make sure your knees and shoulders are covered. Again, an audio guide will make this experience a lot more worthwhile. I can’t say if there is one available there, but we downloaded Rick Steve’s Audio Europe and it has a great walking tour for the basilica. Finally, it is definitely worth the extra 7 euro to head up into Michaelangelo’s dome. The adventure actually getting into the dome is very exciting and the views of Rome cannot be matched. But do be prepared to cue for a while here.

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The Roman Forum – Ok, confession time. I definitely did not do the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill as well as I should have. Not going to lie, it was a bloody hot day and the Roman Forum is massive. Also, we didn’t have our trusty audio guide with us! So there was a lot of walking, not a heck of a lot knowing what we were looking at. There were plaques around, but in that heat, it is very hard to see straight, let alone reading paragraphs of information.

However, it is a must-see! The history here dates back so incredibly far. For example, this is where the Senate—as well as Republican government itself—began!

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Pisa and Cinque Terre

I think most of my fellow Italy travellers would agree with me that Pisa is really just a day-trip kind of place. The city itself is very sweet and nice to walk around at night, but there really isn’t much to do except see the infamous tower – which really is on one hell of a lean! However, I found watching the “holder uppers” the most entertaining part.

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So with that done and dusted, it was onto the mind-blowing town of Cinque Terre. Located on the rugged coast of the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre comprises of five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

To get to these towns, you can catch the train (a very unreliable and inconsistent one however). But where’s the fun in that? Get your walking shoes on and hike there! There is a walking trail that connects all five and some take as little as half an hour. Unfortunately however, torrential rains in 2011 took out some of the easier tracks. But there are alternative routes – some literally vertically up and straight back down again.

While parts of the walks are hard, they are incredible. The views are out of this world and all five towns are breathtakingly beautiful, with their colourful terrace houses built into the cliff sides. We were lucky enough to stay in an amazing sea-view apartment in Riomaggiore (http://bit.ly/1tjdA2p see room number 2) which in my bias opinion, I thought was the best town in Cinque Terre.

It was small and a bit more quiet than the others whereas, the likes of Manarola was packed! Remember, if you do the walks, take your swimmers with you! Every town has a place to swim and you will get hot. I think it is the sweatiest I have ever been and it was coming out of peak season!

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Florence

I think there will be a lot of disagreement with me on this, but after all it’s hype, I was quite disappointed in Florence. I just found it a bit…*shoulder shrug*…mediocre. Again, this could be down to the kind of holiday I am on (one that needs to stretch every euro as far as it will go!) But for me, it felt like the perfect place to go for a weekend shopping holiday with some girlfriends, where you could take in a few cultural sights and good food as well.

Don’t get me wrong. It was a very beautiful city – although I personally don’t think as beautiful as Rome – and the Statue of David was incredible. Luckily, we met with very good friends, hired bikes and had a blast dodging all the tour groups and cycling around the city. Also, I have to say the Galileo Science Museum was brilliant – a great scene change from all the art and sculpture museums and actually really interesting. Galileo’s own finger bones are showcased there! Cool huh?  florence

A final highlight was a fantastic restaurant tucked away down a street you would never simply walk past. It is called La Beppa Fioraia and it is a great escape from the city. It is quiet with an awesome decor of grass (although fake) picnic tables and colourful umbrellas everywhere. Better yet it was filled with locals and the food was outstanding. My favorite dish was the antipasto which consisted of everything from goats cheese, to home-made pate  and delicious dough ball things called Coccoli.

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Palermo to Milazzo to Stromboli

So, safe to say I was really ready to leave Florence and was so excited for the next few days of adventure. We were heading to an active volcano!

But first we were breaking up the journey with a couple of days in Palermo – the Mafia’s head office apparently. Could have skipped this place if we had the choice I reckon. A cool town, but, it was just another town really. One of it’s USP’s however was its 600 year old Arabic market! A hive of fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood activity, with what seemed like hundreds of crazy 50+ year old Italian men all yelling stuff. I loved it! What an atmosphere!

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Then it was onto a bus to Milazzo. We were so disappointed that we had chosen to stay only one night here. It was really just to have somewhere to lay our heads as we had a 7:00am ferry to catch in the morning. But it was such a beautiful seaside town! If I was a bazillionaire, I’d definitely have a holiday home here.

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Then, morning broke the next day and it was time. Something I had been looking forward to for weeks. Not only were we about to board a ferry that used hydrofoils (cool!!) but we were riding that speed machine to an active volcano, on which we were living for the next three days – Stromboli.

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Pulling up to Stromboli’s dock, you could see the smoke gushing from the top of the volcano. What made it all the more real was the placard warning you of all the dangers to be aware of on the island, including eruptions, falling rocks and tsunamis. Exciting!

To my surprise, the place was buzzing! I had expected quite a barren place with a population of maybe 20. But to my delight there were cafes, shops, restaurants and beautifully coloured houses all over the island. To get around, there are only two main streets that you can drive a Piaggio through, but paths and driveways all spaghetti off these roads – meaning it is actually easy to get lost, would you believe.

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We were lucky enough to find a sweet Airbnb location, with our own private black-sand beach.  Our host was also incredibly cool. A hiking guide, she was a huge volcano enthusiast. She also explained that the two rocks in the below picture, are chemically exactly the same. However one is spat from the volcano, full of gas, and the other is found inside! How cool is that?!

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Stromboli really is a little oasis – besides the constant impending doom of falling victim to a volcanic eruption.

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Speaking of which, one of the main attractions to us visiting Stromboli, was to actually climb the volcano. However, that wind of excitement was soon knocked out of us when we realised we couldn’t have come at a worse time. Basically, there was a huge buildup of gas where the lava was no longer pouring out of a vent. SO! It was too dangerous to walk to the top due to it blowing at any point, but it also meant there wasn’t a heck of a lot of lava flow. I dubbed this point in time, “no man’s land”.

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But, we weren’t to be disheartened. We packed a bottle of red and headed off around 6:00pm. We climbed as far as we could up Stromboli, to the 300m mark, and settled in for nightfall. Here, we did see a bit of lava action and rolling glowing boulders, but also an amazing Mediterranean sunset. It was still worth it for sure.

Napoli, Almalfi Coast and Pompeii

With one of the best pizzas I have ever tasted, we boarded a ten-hour overnight ferry to Napoli (or Naples…if you didn’t figure that out). We paid the extra for a cabin so we were refreshed and ready to go as soon as we docked.

Now, we had heard very mixed reports about Napoli – to be honest, most of them not so good. So we only had a day here to explore. We dropped our bags at a luggage check in the main train station and headed for the one attraction I was interested in – the Archiological Museum. My interest was founded on the fact that apparently so much of what was discovered in Pompeii – frescoes, pots etc – were showcased here.

It was closed. Bugger.

So that through a spanner in the works. Instead we went for a walk up to the catacombs and did the tour there, which was actually very good. However, the highlight for me was actually walking around Napoli! The best way I can describe it is an Italian city that is stuck in time. You really feel like you are walking around 1930s Italy. Yes it’s hectic, a little dirty and quite overwhelming, but you get a true sense of Italian identity here. The city is so distinctive and buzzing! I wish we had spent more time there.

We then based ourselves in Salerno – a bit of a nothing town – but it had great public transport access to Almalfi Coast and Pompeii.

First up was the incredibly well preserved city of Pompeii. We all know the story – Mt Vesuvius blew the heck off its top and buried the ancient town in ash, preserving houses, shops, brothels and even people. I had always wanted to visit Pompeii and did not disappoint.

However, we found it was very unorganised. You need to get the audio guide, of course, but the way the walking plan is laid out is quite daft at times, not making a lot of sense. Also, the site is huge! Take a packed lunch and plenty of water – we were there for six hours!

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I think a lot of travellers also have the same conundrum that we faced – Pompeii or Herculaneum (another town buried by that ba****d Vesuvius). Well, we actually ended up doing both – but definitely not in the same day! My evaluation is as follows: Herculaneum is a lot better preserved, with much of the same to see as Pompeii, but it is a lot smaller. When you visit Pompeii, you are walking the very same streets of a massive city that they were using then. You feel a lot more immersed in your surroundings. So, I personally preferred Pompeii.

Finally, it was onto the last leg of our Italian tour (booo!) – the infamous Amalfi Coast. Again, I had heard very, very good things. We hopped on a ferry and blasted it to Almalfi – a gorgeous coastal town full of colour, personality…and tourists. It was so busy which I know is to be expected, but that doesn’t mean I like it!

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We heard you could catch a bus to a couple of other towns on the Almalfi Coast, but why bus when you can walk! (I typed that with a lot of sarcasm). Our first stop was to the town of Ravello which it was recommended to bus up to and walk down. We did the opposite, like the rebels we are. Literally a hike up god-knows how many stairs, past people’s front doors and yapping dogs, to the cutest cliff-side town looking down to the coast. It took about 2 hours but it was actually a great walk through areas you wouldn’t see in a bus.

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After a pit-stop break in Ravello, we then walked down the other side to Minori – where we stopped for a dip in the sea, then up and around the corner to Miori, where we had dinner on the beach. Four towns in one day? Not too shabby.

I really loved Almalfi – the walks produced some spectacular views – however (and a lot of people might shake their heads at me) I much preferred Cinque Terre. For the similar experience, the towns of Cinque Terre are a lot more remote, more contained and just nicer (in my humble opinion!)

So that’s it! Italy was over. I couldn’t believe it! While this post is extremely long (sorry about that), this part of our trip, sadly, went past in the blink of an eye! Confession: I said Almalfi was our final stop, however, we had to fly out of Rome… so where did we go for dinner? What a way to finish our Italian experience than dinner at our favourite Italian restaurant – Ciccia Bomba! We even got that free Prosecco.

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Tips for visiting Italia

These generic tips might help you on your Italian escape

1. Coffee culture

You might or might not have realised from archived posts that I am a coffee fanatic. I love it, and am very fussy about it too. Obviously, Italy is known for its coffee culture. And boy, do they have some good tasting grinds. But, their coffee’s with milk i.e. cappuccinos and lattes are terrible. I have no idea what it is and I gave them so many chances to impress. A good friend told me its because they have rubbish quality milk. But they are also lacking in the skills of using that milk with coffee – even if it is poor. I stuck to espressos.

Sorry, I digress from my tip. The tip is to drink at the bar. All the cafes serve coffees over the bar. If you were to actually sit down, you could get charged up to three times the price! Watch the locals, stand amongst them and enjoy! Also, even though you might have already paid, its customary to leave a coin behind, almost like a tip, but it can be any amount.

2. Drinks can be deceiving

We were caught out a few times by this. When dining out, we would look at menus and find very reasonably priced meals – some as little as 5 euro for a pesto spaghetti! So we would sit down, choose our food then consult the drinks menu, which were often so extortionately priced. 4 euro for a can  of coke!? If you like anything other than tap water (which in most cases they won’t serve anyway) then make sure you check out the drink prices, otherwise that ‘cheap eat’ you were looking for does not work out so budget friendly.

Also, my biggest advice is to always order the house wine which is usually served in 1, 1/2 or 1/4 litres, rather than a bottle. It is reliably fantastic wine and so, so cheap.

3. Aperitivo time is happy time

Around 6:30pm to 9:00pm is what I like to call Italian Tapas time. It is where in almost all food establishments, you can order a drink and it will be accompanied by an aperitivo – little snacks that can range from simple crisps to bruschetta, meats and cheeses! It’s great for warming up the old stomach while waiting for that 9:00pm dinner time. But be aware, do not go crazy at the aperitivo buffets. You will offend and get dirty looks.

4. Must-do

Order the pesto clam spaghetti. You just simply must.

 

The next stop should be interesting, somewhere I admittedly know nothing about – Croatia. Spoiler alert! The first part of our trip involves family friends, a private yacht and island hopping. Stay tuned!

 

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From Portugal to Spain

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During my time in London, I had been fortunate enough to visit Spain briefly for the Running of the Bulls (no I didn’t run…watching the giants on big screens chase two brothers and a boyfriend was all the exhilaration I needed). I fell in love with the culture instantly and couldn’t wait to get back into that part of the world again. So, without hesitation, stop number four was Spain. To be precise, sixteen days in total, visiting Sevilla, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona.

Sevilla

After a shocking ten-hour bus ride from Lagos to Seville, the first thing that hit me like a slap to the face was the heat. Wow. I don’t think I have ever experienced heat like it. And with our lives on our backs, we had to battle through it to find our accommodation.

Walking through the streets in a haze of heat exhaustion and impatience, it was still impossible not to appreciate in awe the architecture of the city. It seemed so legitimately Spanish! Arriving at the heart of the old town, I was stoked to find our accommodation nestled amongst cafes, cured meat stores and boutique clothing shops.  Advertised as a hostel, Urban Sevilla was brilliant. An amazing roof top terrace, white marble décor and fantastic facilities. Very cheap and I highly recommend!

So, we had four days to spend here. Not going to lie, it was probably too much time – especially if you have a daily budget and can’t kill time by shopping! However, I can confidently say I have seen Sevilla and seen it well.

One of the highlights was Parque de María Luisa – a now public park that was once part of the grounds of the Palace of San Telmos. So as you can imagine, they are quite extravagant. Lot’s of pretty fountains and pathways weaving through the large grounds. Then, situated in the middle is the Plaza de Espana. I initially thought this jaw-dropping building had been some sort of ancient palace or maybe an emperor’s summer home? It was actually built in 1929 to host the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair. So, not quite as historic and ancient as I was hoping, but by no means less impressive.

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Sevilla’s tapas reputation was something else we were willing to put to the test (oh, its a hard life). Online reviews, blogs and word-of-mouth had summarised Sevilla as the “best place in all of Spain for tapas.” So we decided to find out for ourselves.

Ahhh….hmm…well…Sevilla has the best tapas in Spain? If so, we couldn’t find them. We confidently scheduled a ‘tapas night’ and budgeted for a feast, however, after visiting five different establishments, we were left disappointed. 1. because of the high prices of tapas and 2. they just weren’t that impressive! We could have been looking in the wrong places, but we gave it a fair crack, and sadly concluded that Sevilla does not live up to it’s reputation as tapas king

Granada

Hands down, Granada is my favourite Spanish city A majestically, beautiful old town, this is where I would visit if you wanted to have a legitimate, Spanish city experience. Yes, it has its touristy attractions and tacky souvenirs, but it remains true to its authenticity.

This is supported with with “number one attraction in Spain”, the Alhambra – a once fortress, which was then converted into a huge, extravagant Moorish palace in the mid-11th century. It is preserved in such great condition, with wall and floor mosaics, over-the-top fountains and breath-taking gardens in full bloom.

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It is definitely a must-see, but make sure you put aside at least five hours of your day to see it and you MUST get the audio guide. Otherwise you will appreciate what you are looking at, but have no idea what it is as there are limited information plaques.

Post-feeling like royalty in the Alhambra, we decided to admire this monumental building from afar. Weaving through old streets oozing with Spanish authenticity, we made our way to Mirador de San Nicolas – a fantastic lookout point where you can admire the Alhambra in all its glory!

After our disappointing tapas night in Sevilla, we didn’t hold out much hope for Granada. But, we were determined to do as the locals do, so ventured into town with low expectations.

Relaying my tapas experience here calls for nothing less than a SMS abbreviation like ‘OMG!!!’ Basically, the tapas game was played different in Granada. Here are the rules: buy a drink, get a tapa. Buy another drink, get another tapa and so on. Safe to say, we were in our absolute element. What’s better is the tapas were quality food! Delicious in fact and perfect sized portions to have a decent night’s feed.

We had also done our research and found some highly recommended places (for good reason!), which I am in turn, going to recommend to you:

Babel World Fusion – named due to its selection of tapas from around the world, Babel was one of our favourites. We started and finished there. With a selection of over twenty different tapas, we were spoiled for choice. However, our favourites were the curried rice and the enchilada. You’re looking at 1.85 euros for a small beer and a tapa. Babel’s interior is also world-themed and it’s chilled out, student atmosphere makes it a great place to spend a few hours!

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Bar Poë – renowned for its tapas, Bar Poë thoroughly impressed us. From a menu of nine tapas, we decided to have four drinks – meaning four tapas! The portions were surprisingly large and were cooked fresh in the kitchen behind the bar. We dabbled in the Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (Portuguese style salt cod), Estofado de Carne con ‘Piri-Piri’ (Spicy ´Piri-Piri´ pork stew) Feijoada Brasileira (Brazilian black bean and pork stew) and the Hígado de Pollo Picante con Cilantro (Spicy Chicken Liver with Cilantro). I would recommend all of them!

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Bar Los Diamantes – the seafood-only tapas bar was recommended on the Guardian – and for good reason. We had a great spot at the end of the bar where we could see all the tapas being cooked by a squadron of five chefs! However, it only opens at 8:00pm and gets absolutely slammed, so if you rightly choose to visit Los Diamantes, make sure you get in early to guarantee a spot where you will be served!

Including fresh clams, shrimp and calamari, we also splashed out and paid for a plate of razor clams. While extremely strange looking, the razor clams have taken the top spot as my favourite shellfish. I had never heard of them before, but they were delicious!

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Valencia

As a huge advocate for Airbnb, one of the biggest advantages (in my opinion) of staying in other people’s homes, is the location. While you can choose places as close to the city centre as you like, usually, you end up in a part of town where normal, ‘average joes’ live. I love that. This is what happened for us in Valencia – we even had a flat dog! It also means you stumble upon local cafes which serve great food for cheap as chips! Every morning we had the same brekky at our ‘local.’

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As for the rest of Valencia, I’m not going to lie, it was nothing special. This might have been due to the fact that I had fallen in love with Granada and my mind was set on what I expected from a Spanish city. However, there just wasn’t a lot to do or see in Valencia. Yes, it has a nice town, loads of shops and a bull fighting arena, but it just didn’t ‘wow’ me and didn’t feel as authentic as Sevilla or Granada.

The highlight of our time in Valencia was actually situated 40 minutes outside of the city, in the town of Bunol – a sleepy village that for one week every year, hosts tens of thousands of nutters, visiting for La Tomatina. This is the ridiculous festival of throwing tomatoes at each other. It begins by daring participants going for glory by climbing up a greasy pole and trying to knock a leg of cured ham off the top (no, I am not kidding). Once this is achieved, the cannon sounds, people cheer with excitement and the food fight begins.

Going into the festival, I had heard it all – people pee in the streets because it is so crammed, it really bloody hurts getting hit with a tomato, locals throw frozen tomatoes etc. So, I was nervous (mainly from a frozen tomato to the temple – what a way to go that would be!). Luckily, I didn’t die. Instead, I had the time of my life.

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As I type this, I am shaking my head, reminiscing and thinking just how bizarre and downright crazy it was. We quite literally swam in tomatoes. And might I add, good quality plum tomatoes! Throwing them at the back of strangers’ heads almost seemed a waste! If it is on your bucket list as it was on mine, I have one tip for you: invest in goggles, and relatively good ones that won’t break. My eyes were on fire as soon as the first tomato hit me point blank in the face. I was fighting blind from there on out.

Barcelona

Finally. I come face-to-face with the infamous Barcelona. In my social circle, its reputation preceded itself, with one mate having visited five times.

We were chuffed to find our Airbnb apartment was located in the beautifully quirky, historical Gothic quarter. Our host Leon, was fantastic. A contemporary artist, his flat was incredible and extremely homely.

As I’m sure many other travellers do, we began our Barcelona experience by visiting the La Sagrada Família – the still unfinished, catholic church designed by Antoni Gaudí. As you can imagine, at this point in our trip, we have visited many, many churches. Sadly, you become numb to some of the grandeur, the historic significance and the extravagant decor of these churches – due to them all seemingly being very similar (I whispered that in my head).

Not in Gaudi’s case. The Sagrada Familia is something so completely different. If you haven’t seen it, I would describe it as something from a Dr. Seuss book.  Again, I would definitely splash out and get the audio guide.

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To continue our Antoni Gaudi education, we hiked (I say hiked…there were actually outdoor escalators) up Camello Hill to reach Park Güell – an imaginative public park built in 1914. Again, we were struck by the completely unique design of the park, but I have to say, I enjoyed the view of Barcelona city from the top of Camello Hill the most!

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I think any traveller would agree with me when I say that visiting a new place is always better with a local. Luckily an old school chum of mine had been living in Barcelona for over two years and was flatting with a lovely lady who was Barecelona born and raised. As well as taking us to a great tapas bar, and a grand tour of Barcelona at night,  we also accompanied them to a music festival called Piknic Electronik.

Located in Plaça de la Sardana, every sunday during summer sees all people – young, old, families – venture to the top of the hill for a few chilled drinks, street food, DJ sounds and fun activities. Also, on another field up a level is where all the keen-beans hang out. A big DJ set up and beer tents attracts the serious party folk, ready to have a great time before Monday rears its ugly head.

Finally, a visit to La Boqueria is an absolute must! This is a fresh food market that will leave you feeling hungry. While it is a tad on the pricey side, you should definitely save a bit of cash to spend here – even if it’s just on some thirst-quenching, freshly squeezed juice for 1.50 euro! My absolute highlight had to be the selection of olives, stuffed with everything you could possibly imagine!

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Tips for visiting Spain

Here we go. Some tips that you may never use when you visit the beautiful country of Spain.

1. It’s all about the cañas

As lovely as spanish wine is, I highly recommend you become a beer drinker in Spain. It is so much cheaper and epic on a hot day. What’s more, once converted, always order cañas. These are smaller sized beers, but exactly half the price – usually around 50 cents to  1 euro. This way, your beer is always cold! I know, that’s why it’s tip number 1.

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2. ALWAYS book online

So many of the attractions we have seen, including the Alhambra and the Sagrada Familia, had huge queues for tickets. However, all also offered tickets online, meaning you can jump the lines! Always check the world wide web first to see if anything that requires and ticket, are online. It will save you a load of time and you won’t end up standing in the scorching heat!

3. Audio Guides – sharing is caring

I am a huge fan of audio guides. They really do give you a whole new, interesting and educated perspective on the places you are visiting. However, they can be very pricey. Our worst so far is 11 euros for one!

If you can, see if you can get a sneak peak of an audio guide before you fork out for one per person. Most of the time, if they are relatively dated, there will be an audio jack for headphones. That way, you can buy one, chuck in your iPod earbuds and then you can both listen! We have even stepped it up a notch and purchased a headphone splitter. This way we can have one audio guide, one splitter and two sets of headphones! Way to stick it to the man eh?

4. Go Euro

If you are planning to get around Spain relying on public transport, you MUST use this app where possible. GoEuro allows you to book rail, bus and flights really easily, but it’s main USP which attracted us budget backpackers was that you can get up to 50% discounts using it! We almost halved our ticket prices every time we used it.

5. Hidden tickets at the Alhambra.

If you go to the Alhambra and don’t purchase tickets at least three days in advance, you are most likely going to miss out. This nearly happened to us. We forgot to book online, and it was showing “sold out” for the duration of our stay. I actually welled up a little.

But! We were determined to play our hand at getting up at the crack of dawn and hoping to scoop some tickets at the gate. To our horror, there was already a line of over a hundred people with the same idea. Meaning, we would probably miss out on any tickets that were unlikely available for that day.

However. We had been told by our brilliant Airbnb host that hidden down the back of the gift shop, right outside the front entrance, is a ticket machine. We sought it out and to my overwhelming relief, it gave us tickets for the afternoon session that day! I would recommend going straight to that miracle machine if every other source says the tickets are sold out.

 

So. After sixteen brilliant – but at times gruellingly hot – days venturing through Spain, it was again time to make tracks to the next country. I know that there is SO much more of Spain to see, which is exciting! However, I do feel like I really managed to get into the culture of the place and appreciate the different identities of the different parts I visited.

Our next stop however, has a very special place in my heart and I was so ready to get there for our next adventure. Portare l’Italia!


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