Italy

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There are some places that you’ve dreamed of visiting for so long, that you feel sure the entire universe must come to a complete standstill when you get there, simply to acknowledge that you’ve finally arrived. Italy was that place for me. And while, disappointingly, the earth didn’t quite stop spinning on its axis when our ferry arrived into Port Bari, I certainly felt ready to explode with excitement when I first set foot on Italian soil.
Stopping in Bari only long enough to find our way to the bus station, we were soon on the road heading across the country bound for Naples. With a reputation for being a bit of a dangerous city, the allure of real Napoli pizza was too strong for us to miss out on a stop there. Our first night was spent loosening the belt buckles as we indulged in traditional Neapolitan margherita and marinara pizza (the only things on the menu) at Da Michele. With a rich pizza making history reaching back to the 1870’s, the pizzeria’s become ever more popular thanks to Julia Robert’s character in Eat, Pray, Love dining there. And it was mouth wateringly delicious, pizza like nothing I had ever eaten before.
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The rest of our time in Naples was filled strolling the expanse of the city, which felt like it was going a million miles an hour around us. Checking out the numerous Churches and Basilicas tucked into every spare space, we managed to crash one actual wedding, plus the photo shoots of about four others. Chatting to locals, we learnt how the cornos (something that looks a lot like red chile pepper) lining street after street is a local trinket warding off the Evil Eye and bringing good luck.
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Most pleasingly, our Napoli food coma experience also continued nicely, eating more pizza of course, as well as stumbling into the most divine pasta shop, where the owner made us the most delicious fresh tomato, mozzarella and oregano sandwich, without a doubt one of the best things I have ever eaten.
For me Naples was definitely a travel highlight I wasn’t expecting. Gritty, seedy, and dirty, it was a hot mess of amazingness. The run down, dodgy looking exterior of buildings simply emphasised the incredible  beauty to be found inside. And I really truly felt like we were getting a real taste of Italy, with every experience, not just the pizza in Naples, about as authentic as you could hope for.
From Naples it was onwards by train to Roma, and all the mind blowing, mesmorising, heart stopping, breath taking sights on offer. I realise I’m really getting my gush on here. But Roma was full of so many moments of magic, the sight of the Colosseum approaching in the distance, the outline of Vatican city on the horizon, the historical ruins of Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, structures like the Pantheon, or the dream like feeling of the Santa Maria Delgi Angeli Michelangelo’s theatre of light – it felt as if every step took us towards another wow moment. So many times in Rome I would find myself caught in a moment, lost completely and totally surrendered to the beauty of the world around me, something that really is such a magnificent feeling to experience.
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If it’s possible to choose one moment though that truly floored me more so than the rest, it would probably be coming through the Piazza Della Madonna and finding yourself standing before Rome’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, without a doubt one of the most overwhelming, breath taking buildings I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.
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The next day we filled with a visit to the Vatican and St Peter’s square, taking in the Castle Sant’ Angelo and Piazza de Tribunali along the way. Entering the Musei Vaticani you’re immediately overcome by the richness of the artistic work on offer, lost in a world of tapestries, paintings and sculptures, at times it almost feels like you’re brain cannot take in any more, and your mind might quite possibly burst from the overload. While seeing Michelangelo’s famous roof of the Sistine Chapel with my own eyes was pretty amazing, it was also pretty ridiculous. Hundreds of people crammed shoulder to shoulder into what is pretty much a tiny room, failing to ‘secretly’ take photos, heads raised to the ceiling, all with the not so melodious voices of Italian security guards telling people to stop taking the ‘secret’ photos and to be quiet in both English and Italian, gave the whole thing a tinge of hilarity.
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Possibly one of the biggest travel disappointments I’ve experienced so far was failing to see inside St Peter’s Basilica. While it was absolutely one of the things I had most been looking forward to, it closed early the day we were there due to a special meeting beginning that weekend, being held by the Pope about modernising the church.
Returning again the next day with grand ambitions to finally get inside the Basilica, and most importantly for me, see Michelangelo’s Pieta, we were blown away by the crowds in St Peter’s square. Being a Sunday I’d underestimated just how many people were going to be there, especially given the unique meeting of Cardinals and Bishops going in the Vatican at the time. Arriving at the tail end of Sunday mass and joining the Basilica queue which already stretched right around the square, we watched mass on the big screen with the thousands of others who were there. To further my disappointment, after waiting in line for a little over an hour in the searing sun we learned that sadly the Basilica was going to remain closed to the public that day as well.
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Luckily there was a condolence prize in store for us though, when the crowd was treated to a surprise address by Pope Francesco himself – and how adorable he is! While I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying it was quite a phenomenal atmosphere to be experiencing first hand.
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Sadly St Peter’s wasn’t to be the only thing we missed, with the Trevi Fountain undergoing refurbishment it isn’t currently much of a sight.
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 And while not under refurbishment, catching a glimpse of the Spanish steps was also a little challenging, given they were almost completely hidden under the swarms of tourists who were covering them.
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The rest of our time in Rome was filled with strolling from Piazza to Piazza, stopping for a vino or two, or three along the way. The best thing about wandering the city was when you came across buildings you might already have encountered, but they emerged from a different angle. When places like the Colosseum revealed themselves from a completely different view point, it was like having the first experience all over again. I really feel like you could search and revisit this city forever and it’ll always reveal a new side of itself to you when you least expect it.
While leaving Rome was definitely a little heartbreaking, the frenzied crowds at least made parting a little easier. Although there was so much of the city I felt we’d left undiscovered (there really is only so much you can fit into three days!!), we were ready for a change in pace and to downsize a little. And with a few hours on a bus we escaped into the Tuscan countryside where we were welcomed into the delightful world of Siena, and all the goodness Tuscany has to offer.
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And what a place the medieval city of Siena is, I was immediately smitten with its charm and beauty. Heading straight to the Piaza del Campo, we indulged in aperol spritz and enjoyed watching the world around us go by as the sun started to set. The plaza itself is huge, and twice a year they hold the most insane horse race, where the horses speed around the centre that’s packed with spectators, while others squeeze into any other vantage point they can find. For the rest of the year though it’s a pretty chilled place, with cafés and bars on the outer and tourists, locals and students hanging out in the middle.
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Our first full day in Siena was spent soaking up all the, mostly religious sights, of the city, including Chisea di San Domenico, the last resting place of the head and thumb (which you can actually see on display) of Siena’s patron saint, St Catherine. Then it was off to the church of St Francis, and finally to Piazzo Duomo, consisting of museums, a baptistery, crypts, a panorama view of Siena, and of course Siena’s incredible Gothic Cathedral.
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I’ve said a lot of times throughout my travels that I never tire of seeing Cathedrals and Basilicas, and that each one continues to amaze and inspire me. But I can say without a shadow of a doubt, even in Italy, I’ll be hard pushed to find anything quite as spectacular as this. The exterior alone which looks like some kind of boiled candy is entrancing, and once inside I think I hardly picked my chin up from the floor I was that gob smacked, every inch of it was exquisitely beautiful, it was almost too much for my brain to take in all at once. Sadly,  my photography skills don’t come close to doing it justice.
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With so much beauty to take in we needed plenty of sustenance to keep us going, luckily the local specialty is roast wild bore, with sandwich specialists on every corner to fulfill your culinary needs. So very delicious. We also helped finance a local deli, full of the most incredible home made local food, from lemon chicken, to meat loaf, pesto lasagna, and all kinds of pasta. It was gastronomic heaven.
With so much more also on offer around Siena we decided to hire a car for the day to make the most of the Tuscan countryside, and it was definitely one of the best travel decisions we’ve made. The drive itself was sublime, and with so many stops along way to visit villages and take photos, getting to our final destination of Montepulciano (which should take about 54 mins) took around six hours! It was like driving through a painted landscape of poplar trees and olive groves, and what we were seeing with our very own eyes hardly seemed like it could be real at all.
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After numerous photo stops, we found our way to the Monastery Oliveto Maggiore, where Monks have been living and producing wine and other organic delights for hundreds of years. Set back from the road and tucked in amongst trees and hillsides, the serenity and peacefulness of the place was quite spellbinding. And after several wine tastings we soon learnt that monks sure know how to make their wine!
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Armed with a bottle of red it was back to the car and onwards to Buonconvento, a tiny village that our stomachs were determined that we stop at. Unlike many of the other surrounding Tuscan villages and towns this one was considerably less touristy, very few people spoke English and we were surrounded by mostly locals. It was here that we stumbled upon yet another heavenly sandwich, made fresh by an Italian mama with the most exquisite local produce.
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Rounding the drive out with a stop in Pienza, home of the famous Pecorino cheese, we finally made it to Montepulciano, home of more delicious Tuscan wines, with our cameras clicking non stop along the way. Finally returning back to Siena as the golden sunset engulfed the surrounding countryside.

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As always the time to bid Siena goodbye came too quickly, but with our Tuscan adventure continuing we made our way to the cultural delights of Florence and the world of the Medici family.

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Growing up with a mother whose love for Florence was ingrained in us from birth, for me it was wonderful to be able to experience the place that held such a special place in her heart.

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Of all the incredible art on offer in Italy, I would have to say David was one of the most phenomenal things to see. The way you come around the corner in the Accademia Gallery to get your first glimpse of the incredible statue from afar, before he draws you in close up to truly take in the sheer size of him, and the phenomenal detailing. It was amazing.

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With a visit to the Uffizi Gallery, a stroll across the Old Bridge, Churches, Monuments, and the best Gelato possibly in the entire world all on the agenda, it wasn’t hard to fill our time in Florence. And before we knew it our fleeting visit was over, with a train taking us onwards to the charm of the five villages of Cinque Terre.

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Staying in the village of Riomaggiore, the charm and quaintness of the area was an absolute delight. Almost immediately my nose led me to a tiny store from which a local woman sold fresh home made pasta and the most delicious sauce, which she would cook up while you waited so you could literally start eating it as you walked out of the shop, truly my form of heaven. Fortunately we were staying just outside of the peak summer season, which meant it wasn’t quite as busy as it usually is. However unfortunately, some recent extreme weather, coupled with ongoing rain, meant the walking tracks connecting the villages were closed, putting a stop to our hopes of getting some hiking in. Luckily most of the villages are pretty hilly so there was still plenty of opportunity to burn off some of the pizza and pasta calories.

Our first night we experienced the fast changing wrath of the elements as we watched a storm approach, hit hard, and blow through, before leaving us with the most sublimely colourful sunset.

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The sun, especially as it set, created the most exquisite light in the villages, sparking to life the various bright colours of the buildings. It really felt like a touch of magic had found its way to us as the sun set in the evening.

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With the walking tracks closed we decided to get around the other villages by boat. And if we couldn’t walk, sailing surely was the most idyllic way to see this part of the Italian Riviera.

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Taking the ferry it also gave us the opportunity to visit Portovenere, a village further along the coast which had been recommended by a lot of our friends. If the trip around the coastline wasn’t beautiful enough, the village itself was simply wonderful. With delightful restaurants and cafes lining the waterfront, the back streets and alleys were full of adorable little shops, and friendly locals selling all kinds of local produce, including the most heavenly pesto.

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After a day of sailing it was back to the station and a train bound for Venice, our final stop in Bella Italia.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Venice but for some reason it wasn’t at the top of my ‘Italian destination excitement list’. Perhaps I had unconsciously lowered my expectations, just incase our so far phenomenal Italian adventure ended with a bit of a fizzer. Whatever the case, I’m glad I left the train station expecting to be underwhelmed, because it meant the feeling of seeing Venice for the first time packed an even bigger punch – I was instantly in love.

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Arriving in the late afternoon, our first taste of the amazingness of this floating city was under the glow of more of the most exquisite sun light. The way the sun’s rays bounced off of different parts of buildings as it slowly set, coupled with a sense of being lost in some kind of Labyrinth as we tried to navigate our way around the canals by foot, gave the strangest most unreal feeling.

I imagine the timing of our stay probably enhanced our visit, again missing the bulk of the summer travelers Venice felt relatively quiet and empty to us, and with the weather cooling off considerably, we didn’t have to battle the extreme heat and smells that come with the summer days.

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The next day we decided to see Venice the way that’s best, from the water, and grabbing a boat headed towards the other end of town. Watching life exist around waterways is quite a fascinating thing. The activity on the water and the hustle and bustle that goes on by boat was crazy, with all sorts of services from rubbish collectors to posties operating on the canals.

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With Mike’s birthday to celebrate, the sights of Piazza San Marco to explore,trinkets made from Ventian glass to hunt down, well played Vivaldi to listen to, Venetian carnival masks to choose between, wine and food to drink and eat, as well as increasingly beautiful sunsets to take in, before we knew it our time in Bella Italia had sadly come to an end.

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Two weeks of exploring suddenly felt like they were over in a heart beat, and all I wanted more than anything was to be able to go back and do it all again. Italy had well and truly stolen my heart, all possible expectations had been blown out of the water, and I was devastated to have to say goodbye. Italy was and is everything I had always dreamed it’d be, and already I’ve started dreaming of finding my way back there again.

Montenegro

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I want to say flying into Podgorica from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport (departing from gate 307 no less) felt just like flying into somewhere like Blenheim airport back home. But actually it didn’t just feel that way, that’s exactly what it was like – and what a contrast! With a tiny passport control (consisting basically of a man and a small table), one small luggage belt and an arrivals hall that had a couple of hire car companies and one out of order ATM, in an hour and a half we had landed in quite a different world, and I loved it!!!
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A third of the size of Wales, Montenegro’s population is around 6 hundred thousand (compared to Turkey’s almost 75 million), and we could feel the space around us as soon as we hit the road in our wee rental car. Almost instantly we were hit with the mesmerising beauty of the country’s famous mountains, even arriving on an overcast day they still took my breath away.
With the freedom of a rental car allowing us to go wherever, whenever we wanted, we decided to base ourselves in Budva. While it’s the biggest of the ‘resort’ type towns in Montenegro, basing ourselves there meant we had all the convenience of a tourist hot spot, (including beautiful beaches, numerous delicious food stalls, restaurants and supermarkerts) but also the ability to escape into our majestic surroundings whenever we so wished. Given we were visiting after the busiest of the summer months it also meant things were relatively quiet and not as crowded as they get in the height of summer.
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 Montenegro had never originally been on our to do list, in fact we had planned to spend the time traversing Croatia’s spellbinding coastline. But in need of a little R&R, and on the advice of my sister and Serbian sister in law, we changed course to base ourselves in the smaller of the two options, and I’m so glad we did.
Almost instantly I was struck with how stuck in a time warp this little slice of paradise is, from the fantastic two piece track suits being rocked left right and centre, to the 80’s music blaring from every pub and beach front establishment. Every which way you looked there were high pony tails galore, and prices so low it left us wondering if we were actually still in Europe. Add into this mix the kindness of the local Montenegrin people and it was a recipe for a fabulous week.
After a day hitting the beach in Budva and exploring the charm of its quaint old town, we hit the road to explore the Bay of Kotor. Now a lot of things have blown my mind throughout my travels so far, but I had to blink and pinch myself A LOT staring at the mountainous surroundings of this part of the world,  to ensure what I was looking at was actually real. It was as it I was looking at the canvas of the most exquisite painting, a landscape so perfect it could only exist in a creative mind. But every last inch of it was real, and I didn’t want to leave, fearing, even with photos, I could never conjure the true amazing-ness in my mind again if I did.
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After numerous photo stops, we eventually found ourselves at the old town of Perast, where we simply strolled taking in our incredible surroundings, ate the most delicious Montenegrin feast, drunk local beer, and took a boat ride out to Our Lady of the Rocks. Built on an artificial island created by rocks and sinking old ships loaded with rocks, according to the legend it was created over centuries by local seamen who stuck to an ancient oath after finding a Madonna and Child icon on the rock in the sea. Apparently the custom of throwing rocks into the sea remains alive today, with local people taking their boats out and throwing rocks into the sea to widen the surface of the island on a special day each year. If I had to try and conjure up perfection in the form of a day, I would say the day we spent exploring this place would have to be it.
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With a belly full of food, we decided to leave checking out the Fortress of Kotor until the next day, a wise idea given it required climbing several hundred steps up the rock face to get there. But it was a climb that was well worth the effort, as the views, and surrounding old town, once again were simply spectacular.
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The next morning we hit the road bound for Croatia. After about two and a half hours of driving, and a fairly lengthy border crossing, we were in Dubrovnik. Having seen plenty of photos of friends who’ve set off on med sailors or sail Croatia adventures from the sea side city, I knew we were in for another sensational experience, but there’s nothing quite like coming round the coast to see the expanse of the beautifully walled old town glistening against the water, it truly was beautiful. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget what crowds feel like though, and once we ditched the car and ventured by foot into the city walls I was blown away by just how many tourists were swarming around compared with across a very close border. And while I loved soaking up all Dubrovnik had to offer, a little part of me felt quite relieved to cross back into the world that while may seem a few decades behind it’s Croatian neighbour, offered us the kind escape we were after.
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The next day we headed inland from Budva, again on the advice of my sister in law, to a small settlement called Rijeka Crnojevica. While the winding narrow roads through the mountains hand me questioning where exactly she had sent us, we eventually arrived and embarked on an idyllic river ride full of stalks, pelicans and all kinds of other beautiful birds. The natural beauty of Montenegro and the absolute crispness of its air quality reminded me so much of home. Even so soon after the height of summer, we somehow managed to time our arrival so we pretty much had the entire river to ourselves. Feeling so removed from everything, it was amazing to be able to experience a place that felt so untouched. The only downside was not dressing warmly enough for the excursion (something I’m often guilty of), but luckily we were blessed with a little more of that Montenegrin kindness, with our guide giving up his jacket for me.
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Our final two days were spent relaxing and exploring the beaches and inlets surrounding Budva. Sitting on the beach enjoying yet another beer in the sun I couldn’t help but marvel again at being in a place that felt like it was from such a different time.  Just like every other aspect of this time warped treasure, the beach was no exception, while there was not one sunblock bottle in sight (aside from ours of course) locals wandered daily up as down the beach selling bottles of oil! One lady I witnessed even dousing herself in a bottle of olive oil she’d probably grabbed from the kitchen on her way out of the house! Turns out the slip, slop, slap and wrap message hasn’t quite arrived here yet!
It was a feeling that spilled through to the road rules as well, with driving quite the experience. I had definitely become accustomed to some crazy driving on the roads of Morocco and Turkey, where locals over took on blind corners, five cars at a time, before slipping back into gaps narrowly missing the on coming traffic. But with those experiences in Minivans and huge buses, it certainly became all the more terrifying when having our own car and being able to see very clearly out of the front windscreen what was going on. We learned pretty quickly that Montenegrins don’t really think much about good ‘gap selection’ and passing on blind corners up narrow winding mountainous roads is apparently just the norm. Pulling over and parking on the side of said narrow windy mountainous roads also seems quite a popular activity, as is parking just about anywhere one wants (footpaths outside of supermarkets are particularly popular). If I didn’t find it all quite so hilarious, I might’ve actually seriously feared for our lives!
Montenegro really was the most amazingly chilled out place to visit, where the locals were just so happy to help in whatever way they could. Even up to our last few hours in the country we were treated to the benefits of this casual laid back attitude. When we wanted to keep our hire car an extra half day, the guy running the local company told us to keep it for as long as we liked, at no extra cost. Dropping the car off in Bar, where we were booked to travel by ferry to Italy, we took the opportunity to head towards the border of Montenegro and Albania, stopping in a town called Ulcinj. Despite not actually crossing the border, it very much felt like we had. With a population of about ten thousand, Ulcinj is the centre of the Albanian community in Montenegro, as the majority of people there are Albanian and Islam is the major religion.
After exploring a little more of the area, we headed back to Bar, stopping at what remains of the Old Town. A fascinating absolutely beautiful place, its heritage includes Turkish baths, Roman aqueducts and a citadel with an origin dating back over a thousand years. It’s so integral and important to the country’s history that the Montenegrin government is currently pursuing a huge project to completely restore it into a living museum.  Located on the outskirts of town, had we not been able to keep our car we probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to this ancient place, which ended up becoming one of the major highlights of our time in this beautiful country.
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With the most perfect of sunsets to sail off into, we said goodbye to what really is an enchanting wee country. I’m so glad we decided to spend our time exploring this coastal gem, and the incredible culture and phenomenal scenery it has to offer.
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Turkey

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Unfortunately for Mike the crappy end to Morocco became a crappy start to our Turkish travels. Despite making it to Istanbul without any major incidents, his sickness wasn’t subsiding fast. So three nights in the city turned into five, all of which he spent inside our hotel room slowly recuperating and returning to the land of the living by building his strength back up on yoghurt, bananas and dry crackers.
I meanwhile hit the streets of Istanbul so I could at least take photos of what he was missing, and stuffed myself silly of doner kebabs. The day spent exploring the magnificence of the Haigha Sophia and Blue Mosque was just sublime.
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The Blue Mosque has officially become one of my favourite buildings, I loved it so much. And while it was of course packed to the rafters with every tourist and his dog, what amazed me was how peaceful it could still feel, despite the people buzzing all around you.
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Filling the rest of my days wandering around all the delights Istanbul has to offer, the Grand Bazaar, the spice market, the Waterfront, and across the Bospherous into the ‘new’ part of the city, we finally got to the point where Mike felt ready to travel, and set off for our first stop in this enormous country, Cannakale and the battlefields of Gallipoli just across the Dardanelles.
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With so many companies offering tours of Gallipoli I had no idea what might be best, but finally we settled on Hassle Free tours, and while I have nothing to compare it to, I have to say our tour was excellent. Our Turkish guide Morat (not to be confused with Borat) was a wealth of knowledge, and his passion for the subject was immediately clear in his engaging presentation of what had gone on here nearly exactly a hundred years ago.
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Having already explored the battlefields of the Western front and Normandy, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gallipoli, it is of course one of the key historical lessons we learn growing up, and making the pilgrimage there is quite the right of passage for many young Anzacs.
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I think the thing that hit me first was the incredible beauty of the coast line, it seemed a place more likely to hold tourist resorts than such a bloody history, with its crystal clear waters and phenomenal landscape.
With the details of the Gallipoli campaign ingrained in Anzacs from such a young age, it was hard to think I was going to learn anything ‘new’, but of course I was so wrong. It was fascinating to discover that while the initial beach landing went off course, there were many subsequent military decisions made that, had they been different, could’ve meant the campaign ended a very different way.
It was also enlightening to hear the story of the Turkish men who fought the campaign as well, and to hear their story. To learn of the daily bullet rations they dealt with, and their own questions of how these men came to be here, and what exactly it was they were fighting for. Of the 130 thousand soldiers who died in the eight and a half months of the campaign, 86,000 of them were Turks.
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With the trenches here just 8m apart, (the Turkish soldiers dug this close so the allies couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t hit their own men with bombardments from their ships) both sides were close enough to hear each other.  For us as we moved around the peninsula it was one of the most incredibly peaceful experiences, with hardly a sound to be heard. It was strange to think how different it must have been for those men a hundred years ago, the terrifying sounds of artillery, or their comrades or enemy crying out in fear, or in pain.
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I put my name in to the ballot to be able to attend the 100 year anniversary of the campaign this coming April, sadly like many many others it wasn’t pulled out. But the enduring relationship between the Anzacs and their Turkish brothers is one that I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for. The words of Ataturk in 1934, so soon after the war, and the bonds that remain …. After what was such a waste of life … is truly such a special thing.
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To be welcomed into this country as almost an extended family member was a humbling and incredible experience, and one that I will never ever forget. I feel immensely privileged and honoured to have been able to see the way our own men, who gave the ultimate sacrifice, have been able to rest in peace with their Turkish brothers.
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They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
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Bidding farewell to the coast line of Cannakale and its delicious fresh seafood (our first real foray into Turkish cuisine which we could not get enough of) it was off to Selcuk and the ancient world of Ephesus.
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In Selcuk we found ourselves at the kind of guesthouse that really makes your travel experience special. Run by a brother and sister, it was homely, packed to the rafters with beer and raki, and provided the best of mammas home cooking in a dining room full of travellers. Carrying on the Anzac spirit we met a fantastic Aussie couple to trade travel stories with, including our mutual amazement at all the ruins of Ephesus had to offer.
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Enjoying our time in Selcuk so much, we extended our stay by a night, deciding to do a day trip to Pamukkale  from there. Pamukkale’s white terraces of carbonate minerals left by the flowing water was another pinch yourself kind of moment. And although swarming with visitors, seemed completely unreal.
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From Selcuk we saddled up for the first of some pretty lengthy bus rides and headed south to Kas, and another wonderful guesthouse. Making the most of the sun and the crystal clear water of the Southern Turkish Coast, we sipped beers, dined on mouth watering calamari, bread and local dips, and discovered the heaven that’s Turkish dumplings/ravioli and Pida (Turkish pizza). Without a doubt the best food I’ve had since I started this adventure was in Turkey, and probably the best of the lot was in Kas. After eating ourselves into a food coma the first night, we returned to exactly the same restaurant and did it all again the second!
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Even the lunch we were treated to as we sailed around the coast on a boat was divine. Stuffed peppers, bbq’d chicken, how I didn’t sink straight to the bottom of the sea I’m still not sure. Food aside, the day on the boat was absolute bliss. Hours sailing in the sunshine, and jumping into water you could basically see straight through, took relaxation to a whole new level. And if that wasn’t enough, at one stop we were also treated to a visit by the most beautiful sea turtles. I didn’t want the day to end.
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Departing from Kas we had roughly 14 hours on a bus to look forward to in order to arrive in Cappadocia. Surprisingly enough what I thought could only be nightmarish, actually turned out to be relatively painless. The buses in Turkey are pretty ideal, complete with entertainment systems and attendants serving drinks and snacks. The movies unfortunately were all in Turkish, but it’s surprising how caught up in a story line you can get, even with no sound!
Landing in Cappadocia at 4am we made our way to bed in our cave room, before waking up just a few short hours later to make the most of our fast stopover. Exploring by foot we took in the fairy chimneys, valleys and open air museums that make this part of the country pretty spell binding.
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We’d made the executive decision not to do one of the hot air balloon rides the area is famous for, mostly due to the price. But despite that I still hauled myself out of bed at 530am the next morning to climb sunrise hill and watch the balloons take flight (Mike choosing wisely to stay in bed). Sadly that morning the sun was the only thing to rise, and even that wasn’t particularly spectacular. It was one of the few windy mornings that for safety reasons kept the balloons firmly on the ground, so I slumped back down the hill as disappointed as if I was supposed to be in one of the baskets!!
Filling myself to the brim with caffeine after the early wake up call, Mike and I then set off on a day tour to make the most of our last day in the area. Travelling to Derinkuyu Underground City, the Ihlara Valley and Selime Monastery, the day consisted of the most incredible sights which seemed like they had come straight from a Star Wars film. I had no idea that scenery like it existed in Turkey, and it was such a treat to get to see so  much of it.
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After a pretty full on 36 hours, we headed back to the bus stop for a 12 hour overnight ride back to Istanbul … which thankfully again seemed to pass pretty quickly. A short second stop in the city meant Mike could at least enjoy a few of the sights he’d missed the first time round, before it was time to take flight once again, nearly two and a half weeks over in what seemed like a flash.
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Turkey was without a doubt  a huge highlight on this adventure, the phenomenal cuisines, the kindness of the local people who welcomed us with open arms, and a history so closely intertwined with our own, made it a particularly special stop on this journey.

Spain

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Spain was always set to be a pretty epic adventure, food, sangria, sunshine AND I was seeing my other half Mike again for the first time in four months.
Arriving in Barcelona the day before Mike, I’d booked myself a very cheap hostel in the part of town closest to La Rambla, the famous shopping street. Famous it may be, but for me personally it was my least favourite thing about the city. The crowds of people were insane, and it felt like a ture pick pocketers paradise. Although the La Boqueria market was a delight for the senses, it was hard to enjoy, let alone actually get close enough to any of the stalls to buy anything, with the hordes of tourists packed in like sardines.
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It was hard to escape the droves of tourists, especially in that part of town, but my first sunset in Barcelona had me excited for all that Spain had to offer.
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Leaving the craziness of La Rambla behind, I set off first thing the next morning to the accommodation Mike had booked for us (a special treat as it was well above my backpacker budget!) and it was beautiful. An apartment right in the middle of all the Gaudi buildings, in an absolutely beautiful part of town. With a sunny courtyard that included hammocks, it was bliss!
Our first day reunited we decided to wander the city by foot, checking out Guadi’s Casa Batllo (probably my favourite of his buildings) and strolled the winding streets and alley ways of Le Ribera and the Gothic area. I was reminded immediately of our travels through Cuba with the streets and buildings, just perhaps a little more up-kept in this part of the world.
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After an evening of some serious sangria, and enough tapas to make me feel like I was ready to burst, the next day was all about Guadi. Unfortunately we had left our run a little late to get tickets to get inside the Sagrada Familia, but it was still an impressive sight to behold from the outside.
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We did however experience the interior and amazing rooftop of La Pedrera, which was really quite incredible. It’s amazing to see in the flesh just how forward thinking Guadi was for his time, and makes you wonder where in the world he conjured these creations from. It was from the roof top of La Pedrera that I could also grasp the sheer size of the Sagrada Familia, which I didn’t get a real sense of from simply standing next to it. Given La Pedrera isn’t the top Guadi tourist draw card, it was also nice to get to experience the environment with an ever so slightly smaller crowd of people.
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From there we packed a lunch of bread, jamon, queso and olives to take out to Guadi Park, somewhere (given the name) I was imagining to be a lush green oasis in which to escape the searing sun. Not however quite the case, the rugged desert like landscape was my first taste of what was the come the further south we headed. The expanse of rugged desert terrain, overlooking Barcelona did provide an escape from the city of a different kind though, and again was a glimpse into the surreal world and mind of a such a fascinating creative.
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With Barcelona definitely not the cheapest of places I’ve visited, we made the most of our beautiful sunny terrace, and the delicious fresh produce (and cheap beer!) on offer at the supermarket for the remainder of our stay in the city. A wise option not just for the wallet, by for the taste buds as well!
After filling ourselves to the brim I had asked Mike to take me to a huge fountain show that I had seen advertised, which took place in front of the National Museum, as it was a part of the city we were yet to explore. With the show starting at 9, by 7 there were already thousands of people claiming their spots in the huge outdoor area.
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With Mike strangely preoccupied with finding somewhere quiet I followed him through a park on the hillside looking over the city, and as if by magic the crowds melted away until we found ourselves completely alone in a tiny garden, right as the sun was setting over Barcelona. Looking a little nervous and shaky, Mike said he wanted to tell me something, and right at that moment pulled a ring from his pocket and proposed. I was so caught off guard, and even now looking back I can’t find the words to express how that complete feeling of surprise, or being swept off your feet actually feels. And so we watched the fountains in a bubble of bliss and I wondered whether anything would ever be able to top that night again in the rest of my life.
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Still buzzing the next day, we decided we had to sample one more thing that the city of Barcelona has to offer, and that’s its beaches! Taking the metro a little further out to escape the craziness of Barceletta beach (the closest to the city), we landed at playa del bogatell, for sun, sand, sea and of course a bunch of boobs. It definitely was strange at first to be amongst something so different to our culture, and I was reminded of how reserved and private we are are as a nation. Yet interestingly given how totally normal this all was, and the huge variety of people getting their gear off, any sexual aspect of the situation completely disappeared, and it just felt completely normal. Watching all the ladies strip off around me, I actually couldn’t help but be a little jealous of that one element of freedom that we haven’t quite taken up back home.
From Barcelona an 8 hour bus ride landed us in Madrid, and for the first time I got a taste of the desert countryside of Spain. I was actually a little (pleasantly) surprised by the expanse of the rugged dry open spaces and for some reason hadn’t quite expected what I was seeing.
Once in Madrid I was instantly in love, it really had a lovely more relaxed pace to it than Barcelona, and there also seemed to be a dramatic drop in tourist numbers. We found a market with the most divine tapas and food I have ever seen or tasted, and spent both our evenings there watching the sun set over an ice cold San Miguel beer, it was bliss. Making the most of the beautiful Spanish weather we hired a row boat, ate ice cream, strolled the parque del buen retiro, and in a bubble of seemingly never ending bliss, did all the things a disgustingly in love newly engaged couple should do.
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With our two nights in Madrid over in what felt like a heartbeat, it was onto Granada, the only region in Spain where tapas are still completley free with every drink you buy, everywhere. We only spent two nights in the Southern Spanish city, but didn’t spend a cent on food. In saying that however it’s probably worth noting we did drink A LOT at all hours of the day …..
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I didn’t have a lot of expectations for Granada, it had really only become a destination as it was an easy place to get to where we needed to be in the Spanish mountains to meet my brother and his family. But in my experience I’ve found it’s the places you expect the least from that seem to really wow you, and Granada was no exception – becoming one of my absolute favourite places that I’ve visited so far.
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I just loved everything about the city, its small town feel, the kind people, the beautiful buildings, the maze of tiny streets winding up the hillside, local musicians filling the warm evening air, and the mix of Arab and Spanish culture, history and heritage. And of course the jewel of the city the Islamic palace fortress Alhambra, which was an absolute joy, and quite the trek to explore.
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The architectural beauty, a symbol of 800 years of moorish rule, sits atop a hill filling the skyline of Granada, a turly phenomenal sight by day, and an even more exquisite beauty by night. There are only 6000 tickets available for visitors each day and they sell out FAST, I’m so glad we made it our mission to get one.
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As the sun set on our final night in Granada we bar hopped from the busy central bars, up the hill through the local neighbourhoods until eventually we had left all the tourists behind and were enjoying our beer with a phenomenal view of the city, surrounded by local people and of course the many stray cats that are an integral part of these places. Simply put it was lovely, and reminded me so much of the long summer evenings we spent in Cuba, where neighbours sat yacking on front stoops well into the night, and children could evade the stern looks of their mothers and fathers to stay up much later than normal playing. There’s such a feeling of simplicity and contentment in those moments that I wish I could bottle up and carry around with me forever.
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Although a little hard to say goodbye so soon, I was consumed with an absolute insane excitement to move on to our next destination, a villa tucked into the Spanish mountains in the Sierra Nevada, where my brother his lovely partner, beautiful daughter, and a weeks worth of R&R, were waiting for us. A winding mountainous bus ride through remote towns and villages finally had us at our destination and it was just perfect. Days spent lounging by the pool, consuming bucket loads of local jamon, bbq’s overlooking the mountains, sangria, beer, siestas. I loved every second and spent my 28th birthday feeling like I was the luckiest person in the world.
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Of course being in the Spanish mountains came with its own challenges, there was very little English spoken, the place actually became more deserted than a ghost town during siesta time, and food tended to attract A LOT of wasps, but for the most part these things just added to the experience.
Trying to order chorizo at the butchers went from a 5 min job to one that seemed to lasted an eternity, as the Spanish lady running the shop seemed to require some sort of life update from every customer who came through her door (well at least I think that’s what the conversations were about, I couldn’t understand a word of the very many that were being said in insanely fast succession). This was also my first lesson in the Spanish line etiquette, if you’re not up for chaos, carnage and pushing in, you’re probably going to miss out. Luckily the locals finally took pity on me and asked what it was I was after, with my superior Spanish language skills (haha) of course failing me as I tried to place my order in front of a shop full of non English speakers. But after what seemed like forever, with the most delicious chorizo in hand, I left the shop feeling completely triumphant.
Language barriers caused a few more minor hiccups along the way, when asking for a jug of water to go with our jug of sangria, we ended up with another jug of watered down sangria instead. But for the most part the failure in cross cultural communication simply inspired plenty of laughs.DSCN4693
Our week in the Spanish mountains came and went far too fast, and my heart was literally breaking at the thought of leaving and saying goodbye to my family.
Driving together south to Malaga, we stopped at one of the coastal resort areas for lunch, and wow am I happy we decided to travel inland on our Spanish adventure. While the beaches look beautiful and the sea breeze was a welcome relief, like many of these resort areas, the place felt completely soulless and void of any culture at all. It was a strange feeling given the richness of the past two weeks that we had just experienced.
As my brother and his family flew out of Malaga, we moved further South to Algeciras, our base for a couple of nights to plot our next move across the water to Morocco. While not the most inspiring of destinations (or accommodation for that matter) I do always enjoy being in a place that’s not at all tailored for tourists, where you can experience real people going about their real lives, and Algeciras was about as authentic as you can get in that regard.
However it was here that we once again got to experience more of the wondrous challenges that can come with travelling. Booking ferry tickets from a port 25 mins south of where we were (for a more direct route), we were told to be waiting for shuttle bus to get us to the destination at 2pm the next day (just an hour before the ferry was due to depart). Arriving well ahead of schedule panic started to arise when there was no shuttle to be seen anywhere. Traipsing back to the ferry terminal we were informed that the road was closed and there was no way to get there. Offering us no alternative, and working to the ultimate in laid back Spanish time, it was only when we pushed that we found out we could change our ticket to depart from the port we were at.
Establishing all of this across language barriers and then dealing with extensive delays, and of course more of the chaotic Spanish lines, left me feeling more than frazzled. But of course when travelling it’s hitting the lows that make the highs taste even better. Whilst sitting in the terminal feeling quite deflated Mike and I noticed the distinct kiwi art of Bill Hammond’s bird man on the t shirt of a fellow traveller, I noticed his black and silver passport and when he smiled I said ‘hello’, his grin instantly widening as he said ‘now that accent sounds familiar’. Turns out we had met Sandy McCutcheon, a fascinating kiwi novelist and former broadcaster, now living in the Fez Medina in Morocco. Running an English blog site of news and events in Fez with his writer/photographer/journalist wife, we had a great conversation, took the opportunity to pick his brain, and finished with the promise of a catch up and a coffee as soon as we arrived in Fez, and a lingering feeling of what a small and crazy world this place really is.
And with that it was finally time to board the ferry and set sail for Morocco.

Poland

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Initially I’d thought I was taking a bus from Prague to Krakow, but on closer inspection of my ticket (late the night before I was leaving) I realised I was actually taking a train across the Czech Republic to Ostrava on the border, before transferring to, not so much a bus, but a mini van – the joys of booking travel in a different language! While not at all problematic in itself, inter city trains in non English speaking countries always make me nervous, that either I’m on the wrong train (so far I’ve never had my ticket checked) or that I’ll miss my stop as I won’t understand it when it comes over the loud speaker! But hooray with no trouble I made it to Ostrava and successfully transferred (along with 5  other travelers) to the mini van, and finally it was off to Krakow!

Arriving in the city I couldn’t believe the change in pace from my most recent destinations, it was much much smaller than Prague and Budapest, with everything easily in walking distance. And while buzzing with tourists of course, it just didn’t seem to be heaving quite as much with them. My first stop was an afternoon beer in the sun in Old Town’s Market Square  where I simply sat and watched the world go by before me, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Lost completely in the picturesque surroundings, it was absolute bliss.

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Sitting there it was hard to imagine that such a place could ever have been anything but this perfect Polish tranquil environment. But if I’d thought Hungary and the Czech Republic had had it rough, Poland was next level stuff, literally disappearing from the map at one stage. There is a pretty big reminder of this past right in the middle of Market Square with a statute commemorating a great Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, whose poetry during that time was a source of national remembrance and national identity, helping the Poles to survive and not forget about independence.  Hitler had it torn down when the Nazi’s invaded of course, but today it again stands proudly and steadfastly in the centre of the world going on around it. For me it was a pretty appropriate introduction to the city which I was pretty quickly falling in love with.

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The next day I took up what’s fast becoming one of my favourite activities, joining the free Jewish walking tour. I’ve done quite a few of these now, and while the guides can sometimes be a bit hit and miss, this one was excellent and I was captivated by every single word.

Before the war there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland, it was the biggest Jewish community outside of the United States. Pretty much since Poland’s discovery in around 966, they’ve played a big part in the country’s history.
So we began our tour in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, a part of the city the Nazi’s surprisingly preserved, synagogues included. Why they did it still still leaves historians pretty stumped, some theories include the Nazi’s wanting to keep the community as a sort of museum of what they saw as an inferior race that would soon be extinct.

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Despite it’s preservation however, post war the Communist regime invested no money in anything connected with Jewish culture, so the area was left to rack and ruin. As a result it attracted criminals and drunks and became a very dire, and unsafe part of the city that most people stayed away from. It wasn’t until Steven Spielberg arrived to make Schindler’s List that things started changing. Whilst initially planning to shoot the movie in the original Jewish ghetto, which had subsequently been developed, he decided the Jewish quarter was a much more appropriate location given how run down and derelict it had become. Once the movie won its Oscars, people started becoming interested in the area, slowly bringing it back to life. In the early 1990s things really started changing, with artists and students moving into what was a very cheap living area. Becoming the bohemian centre of Krakow, bars and pubs were opened for musicians to play at, and people started flocking to what soon became (and still remains) the centre of Krakow’s nightlife. While the buildings are still pretty run down looking, the Jewish quarter’s now of course become an incredibly expensive and much sought after part of town to live, and like many similar parts of other cities like New York and Berlin, is now far too expensive for struggling artists!

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With Krakow becoming the Nazi capital of occupied Poland, and Nazi officers and their staff requiring housing in the finer part of town, the Jews were soon moved across the river to what became the ghetto. Wandering the streets these days there’s not much left to suggest the horrors that occurred in this part of town, except for Heroes square and the Eagle Pharmacy.

When the Nazi’s turned the area into the ghetto, the pharmacy’s Polish owner Tadeusz Pankiewicz  and workers found themselves right in the middle of it all. With Pankiewicz deciding to stay, he and his staff were the only Poles allowed to live and work there, with the Nazi’s hoping their presence would lessen the spread of disease. During the two year’s of the ghetto’s existence, the pharmacy became a life line, both in terms of the social aspect as the hub of the community, as well as the medical assistance it provided. Staff also assisted in delivering messages in and out of the ghetto, and helped with falsifying documents and avoiding deportations. The staff didn’t just risk their lives,but were forced to watch the horrors unfold as the ghetto, and its 15,000 inhabitants, was eventually ‘liquidated’.

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Just outside the pharmacy’s door is Heroes Square, it was from here that the 25 kilograms of luggage that the Jews were allowed to take with them when they were forced from their homes was confiscated and emptied for ransacking. It was also where the Jewish people were transported from to death camps, and where Nazi soldiers opened fire on those they knew would never survive the horrific journey. It wasn’t until 2004 that a memorial was established here, prior to that it had simply been a bus stop. Now the chairs symbolise the objects and the things that were all left waiting for their owners to return, each chair facing a particular direction to symbolise the different fates awaiting each of the victims.

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One of those directions of course is towards Oscar Schindler’s enamel factory, where our tour finished. It now houses a museum, not just about Schindler and the 1200 workers he’s credited with saving, but also depicts life in Krakow under Nazi Occupation. An absolutely excellent, and relatively new, museum, it provides a keen reminder that while of course the Jews by far suffered the most horrific fate, the wider Polish population themselves also suffered greatly during that time.

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There were 65 thousand Jews in Krakow before the war, now officially there are 110 members of the religious community. But experts say these days the official number probably doesn’t give and accurate story.

While ‘officially’ there are ten thousand Jews in the whole of Poland, the Chief Rabbi believes the actual number is probably closer to 30 thousand. That’s of course due to the fact that in such dangerous times, if people could bury their Jewish identity they did, assuming fake identities if possible, or giving their children to non Jewish families to raise in a bid to save them. Even post war under Communist rule much of what was left of the Jewish identity and culture in Poland was forced underground, 20 thousand Jews were expelled from the country after the 6 day war in the 1960’s. Now there are Jewish community centres that have been set up helping people trace their origins, as many may suspect, but don’t even know if they have Jewish heritage.

After a bit of a rest, Greta (a lovely Australian girl I met) and I joined another group of Aussies to sample the now famous night life of the Jewish Quarter. We ended up at the Singer Bar, a fabulous place which has old fashioned Singer sewing machines as tables, just one example of the amazing atmosphere, feeling and great vibrancy of this city. It’s always so nice to have some Aussies to share a few beers with, with the shared humour, commong ground and general opportunity to take the piss and have a laugh, it’s a bit of a taste of home!!

The next day the tone changed somewhat, as I set off on a journey which, from the outset of my travel, has always been at the top of the priority list, and that was a visit to Auschwitz Birkenau. I decided to take an organised tour to the Nazi death camps, as visiting alone is a little complicated (at this time of year any way), so I figured it would make what was already going to be a highly emotional day, a little easier. But even having my transport, guide and entry sorted, I should have realised nothing about visiting such a place was ever going to be easy.

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Despite being part of a guided group, it was an extremely hard visit to do alone, and for the first time since I started flying solo, I wished like anything I had a travel buddy. It may seem an odd thing, but in a place like that what I needed more than anything was some kind of human physical contact, a hand to hold, a shoulder to drape an arm over, a warm body to give a hug. With all the holocaust memorials and museums I had visited so far, I thought I was emotionally prepared for the harrowing rawness, but much like my feeling when I arrived at Dachau, nothing can ever prepare you for visiting such a place. While Auschwitz camp now houses a museum of evidence of the harrowing history of the death camps, the impact of Birkenau’s sheer size and scale, and gas chamber remains, packs a punch to the soul of a different kind. Retracing the final footsteps of so many Jewish people …. Standing in the same place as the Nazi doctors who with a simple hand gesture made their selections … The physical evidence of lives that were stolen … Of names that were replaced by numbers …. Of identities that were so cruelly and inhumanely stripped away by pure evil … was more overwhelming than I could ever have imagined. When I entered the room full of tiny baby clothes and children’s shoes I had to hold my breath in the hope of choking down my sobs. As hard a day as it was visiting such a place, I’m so glad I went, and better yet I’m so glad that places to remember (as harrowing as they may be) still exist to remind us of some of the darkest days of our history, and what humans can be capable of. Standing there and thinking of the current daily news bulletins filled with images out of Gaza, it was a reminder that seemed particularly poignant, and left me wondering just how far we as humans have actually come?  A nagging question I still can’t find an answer to, or seem to be able to quite shake off.

In need of some comfort food, I followed my day at Auschwitz with some of the local cuisine, opting for the pierogi, or polish dumplings, I had been reading about before I arrived. Stuffed with cabbage and meat and  covered in some kind of delicious polish sauce, it was the filling warm meal that I needed in order to recharge the batteries for my last day in Krakow.

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With the sun beating down on my final day in the city, I took myself off to Wawel castle to stroll the beautifully kept grounds. I’ve found that Castles (unlike churches) take a lot to wow me, so being treated to such gorgeous weather, I made the executive decision to skip the lines for any of the interior exhibitions and simply enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

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It was during these explorations that I stumbled across the den of the Wawel Dragon, and the wonderful legend that goes along with it. I’ve never considered myself much of a ‘dragon’ enthusiast, but my inner child was so captivated with the story, and I found myself just as enchanted as the tiny humans around me who were also wandering the den tucked away in the cliffs of the castle.

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Famous in Polish folklore, the dragon’s tale takes place in Krakow during the reign of King Krakus, the city’s leglegendary founder. Each day the evil dragon would beat a path of destruction across the countryside, killing the civilians, pillaging their homes and devouring their livestock. In many versions of the story, the dragon especially enjoyed eating young maidens, and could only be satisfied if the townsfolk left a young girl in front of its cave once a month. The King certainly wanted to put a stop to the dragon, but his bravest knights fell to its fiery breath. In the versions involving the sacrifice of young girls, every girl in the city was eventually sacrificed except one, the King’s daughter Wanda. In desperation, the King promised his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could defeat the dragon. Great warriors from near and far fought for the prize and failed. One day a poor cobbler’s apprentice named Skuba accepted the challenge. He stuffed a lamb with sulphur and set it outside the dragon’s cave. The dragon ate it and soon became incredibly thirsty. He turned to the Vistula River for relief and drank and drank. But no amount of water could quench his aching stomach, and after swelling up from drinking half the Vistula river, he exploded. Skuba married the King’s daughter as promised, and they lived happily ever after.

I love it! Now while in the tale the dragon doesn’t play a particularly kind role, the little figurine I’m taking home of him does has him looking like the cutest little thing ever!!

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Spending the afternoon sitting in the sunshine under the castle and eating the most amazing home made ice cream I’ve ever tasted, I completed my last day in Krakow sharing a beer with a fantastic Norwegian mother and daughter, and then dinner with another Australian fellow traveler. I’ve been spoiled rotten so far with the people I’ve met in my travels, and had some of the most fascinating conversations with the most interesting people, which has simply been incredibly eye opening and by far the best thing about my travels.

Naturally, I found it incredibly difficult to part ways with Krakow, I had fallen for the city hook line and sinker. But, the crack of dawn saw me heading to the train station to take a train South towards the Polish and Slovakian border to the countryside and the famous Tatra mountains.

Sad to leave all my new friends and be alone again for the four hour journey, the travel gods seemed to be smiling on me once again. I found myself sharing a cabin with the kindest, most hilariously entertaining Polish American family. Completely bilingual, the family of three sons (who reminded me so much of my Alsford cousins back home) and a couple of their friends adopted me for the trip and we had a marvelous time. It never ceases to amaze me how complete strangers can make you feel so at home in such an instant, it really was lovely.

As much as I would’ve loved to join them for their six day hike into the mountains, we parted ways at Zakopane train station, and I made my way into the popular vacation spot under the mountains. Definitely in need of some wide open spaces, Zakopane reminded me a little of Turangi on steroids. While the scenery was divine, I was feeling more than daunted, as the further away from the big cities you are, the less English there is, and that can be hard work. But it wasn’t long before a beer, a traditional polish band and a meal with some of the regional smoked sheep cheese had me relaxing into my new surroundings.

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The next day an early start had me making my way on a minibus towards the Tatra mountains in search of the great emerald lake, or Morskie Oko. I was initially a little nervous about heading of into the mountains alone, but I soon realised I was anything but alone. The hike is one of the most popular routes for visitors to Zakopane so there were loads of people about. The hike itself was incredible and the lake absolutely stunning, photos can’t really capture it’s colour, or quite how crystal clear the water is.

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I’m sure it must look even more incredible on a clear sunny day, but I was pretty happy with the cloud cover as it was hot enough! Climbing a little more I found a second smaller lake which was just as beautiful and a nice change of scenery from city life. From there many of the hikers were making their way further into the mountains but I figured it was a little bit beyond my skill level! So I started the long trek back towards the car park and patted myself on the back for making myself get out of bed early, as every man and his dog seemed to have arrived at the mountain! I couldn’t believe the swarms of people making their way up as I climbed down. They were all heading straight into the throngs of the loudest thunder storm I have ever heard, with the clouds finally tearing open with heavy rain just as I made it safely back onto my bus home.

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Exhausted I tucked into a little more hot and hearty polish food, before sorting myself out for the night train that was taking me north to Warsaw. Travelling alone the night train had me a little anxious, it wasn’t a sleeper train, just seats in the compartments, and the little helpful guides everywhere suggesting ways to prevent the robberies made me a little nervous. Coupled with having having no idea what the driver was saying over the speaker every time we stopped somewhere in the dead if the night, I would have to say it wasn’t the most enjoyable of journeys. Luckily though a nice Polish guy sharing my compartment could obviously sense my anxiety and translated, the mostly unimportant information, reassuring me enough to at least get a few hours sleep.

By 8am I had made it to Warsaw, and after a bit of breakfast headed straight to the meeting point for the city’s free walking tour. I didn’t really know what to expect from the city, a lot of people had told me that given it was completely flattened during the war it’s a pretty uninspiring ugly place. But personally I found it to be one of the most inspiring places I have ever visited, and a lesson in resilience like no other.

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With Hitler making no secret about wanting to destroy the city of Warsaw, and eventually seeing that plan through, local historians hid blue prints and city plans, so that eventually they could one day see a Phoenix rise from the ashes. And so it has, the Old City has been completely rebuilt, using whatever could be salvaged from the past. It’s fascinating to look closely at buildings and see the secret signs of history, darkened bits of materials that still carry the marks of fire and destruction, being pieced together with new materials used to move the city forward again.

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Visiting just a few days after the anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, evidence of the commemorations marking Warsaw’s attempt to save their independence were still dotted all around the city.

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It’s a part of World War Two history I knew very little about, and I was fascinated to learn all that I could about one of the most important events in the history of the country. Desperate to capture the city before the red army arrived, 25,000 soldiers of the Home Army and other troops took up arms against the Germans. Despite the strength of the German soldiers, and the complete indifference of the soviets, the poorly armed insurgents managed to fight for two months, and eventually regained control over large areas of the city. But in hearing the news of the rising, Hitler gave the order to have all the occupants of Warsaw killed, and the city flattened. Those carrying out the orders didn’t distinguish between resistance fighters and regular civilians, who were trapped in the middle of the battle ground, and eventually it resulted in the biggest massacre of polish people by the Nazi army.

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With the bitter fighting eventually ending in military defeat, it was another 45 years before Poland finally won its independence. With this new historical backdrop to the city I saw Warsaw in a whole new light, and while I’ll admit it isn’t the most beautiful of places to visit, it is without a doubt one of the most fascinating places I have ever been.

I definitely hadn’t expected to be quite as captivated with Poland as I was, but for many reasons it’ll be a place that I won’t be forgetting about any time soon. It truly was such an incrediby eye opening learning journey for me, and I hope one day to be able to get back and explore more of what this country with such a fascinating history has to offer.

Czech Republic

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My journey to the Czech Republic began with an 8 hour bus ride through Slovakia, with a wee break in Bratislava, where the rows and rows of communist style block apartment buildings (known in this part of the world as Paneláks) dominating the horizon were a stark reminder of the lingering hangover of recent history in this part of the world.

Finally arriving in Prague, my hostel was about a ten minute tram ride from the city centre, containing everything a traveller could possibly need, the crown jewel was its underground cellar bar packed to the rafters with amazingly delicious, perfect for the extreme heat, Czech beer. I’ve never been a big beer drinker, but it’s amazing how fast you develop a thirst for it!! Unfortunately at this rate I’m sure to be developing a less desirable beer belly as well ….. but given those here in the Czech Republic consume on average 160 litres of beer per person per year, it would be rude not to join in!

After a few beers too many, and a free hostel BBQ dinner with all the trimmings, this was an ideal way to start the day in the cosy court yard of the hostel …

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… before it was back to pounding the pavement to take in all the wonders Prague has to offer.

Exploring the grounds around Prague castle was first on the agenda, with Anya, a lovely Russian/American girl I met in the hostel, covering around 18 acres of land it is huge. However, it definitely wasn’t the most amazing of castles I’ve seen on my journey so far, with the crowds of tourists there definitely detracting from the experience, the place was literally heaving with people.

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After lunch of Czech Goulash, dumplings, and of course beer, we joined one of Prague’s walking tour, complete with a giant Scottish guide. Taking us through Old town, past the 600 year old astronomical clock (officially one of the most overrated sights in Europe), through the Jewish quarter and past the 1270 oldest active Jewish synagogue, we checked out the beautiful art nouveau inspired buildings dotted around the city, as well as stopping for, you guessed it, more beer.

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After browsing the souvenir stands of Charles Bridge, I took a stroll to the Lennon wall, before dining on more Czech food with a few others from the hostel. Ordering a variety of local dishes to share, the key learning of the night was definitely that Czechs enjoy things deep fried …. Bread/cheese/potato pancakes you name it. Delicious of course, but oh so bad.

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The next day Anya and I decided to take a day trip to the small town of Terezin, a former Jewish Ghetto and Nazi prison. 155,000 people passed through Terezin during the war, 35,000 of them perished there, while another 87,000 were transported on from there to their deaths.

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Many of them of course were children, and for the first time I felt like I got a real insight into what life during this period has been like for them. This was mainly down to the surviving artwork that was created by them, in an art school in the ghetto set up by a Jewish art teacher. The pictures and paintings depicted their interpretation of life in the Ghetto, as well as what they missed most from home, and what they hoped for again in the future, a future most of them never lived to see.
With very little photographic evidence of life for the people in Terezin at that time, it was art that survived from the adult population as well. Many of the artists sent there were put to work as technical workers, instructed to create false illustrations of life in the camp to use in Nazi propaganda campaigns. But many covertly and secretly used their resources to create realistic representations of life there which they smuggled to the outside world. It was some of the most desperate soul aching art work I’ve ever seen. Most of the artists were of course found out, sent to the Ghetto prison, and killed.

The town itself, which is almost completely cut off from the outside world by fortification walls built by the Hapsburg’s, has an incredibly eery feeling, and wandering the streets I could almost feel the weight of it’s dark past. While local Czechs were ordered out of the area at the time it was turned into the ghetto, these days the small town is of course sparsely populated again.

We stopped for lunch at one of the local places on offer. I couldn’t decipher anything on the menu so basically closed my eyes and pointed. What came out was a very basic, messy looking plate of pork, dumplings and a tonne of gravy. Not one to turn my nose up at food, I dug in. It was without a doubt right up there with the tastiest food I’ve eaten. Just another example of how some of the best experiences can often come when they’re least expected and in the strangest places.

The next day I travelled a little South of the city centre to Vysehrad castle and park, an incredibly tranquil area, that despite only being four metro stops from the old city, felt worlds away as tourist numbers dropped off dramatically.

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As much as I would have liked to stay in this peaceful end of the city, with so much still on the ‘to do’ list, it was back to old town and the windy streets still crawling with people.

Back in the thick of it I visited a memorial I had wanted to see since I initially arrived. Commemorating two young Czech students, who both set themselves on fire in 1969 in protest following the Prague spring. At just 21 and 22 years old, the young men wanted to wake up their Czech brothers and sisters and show them they had to fight back against their communist oppressors for their freedom. But sadly it was too little too late, the country had already become a normalised communist regime again, and like their fellow eastern counterparts, it would be another twenty years before the Czech people would finally take back control of their country.

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Continuing my Communist era education, I headed off to the Communism Museum, with the irony of its location (above a McDonald’s and next to a casino) definitely not lost on me.It was yet another example of an extremely fascinating museum.

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Rounding the day out, I finished as I’d started, and escaped a sudden deluge of rain by enjoying more Czech beer at a beer garden overlooking the city.

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While I would have to say of all the people I’ve encountered so far, the Czechs definitely don’t have the sunniest of dispositions, you have to admire the resilience of the people here. There’s been very little time in their history where they’ve actually been governed by Czechs and not foreign powers, yet they’ve held steadfastly to their cultural identity. Like many times during this European journey, here in Prague I was struck again with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what we’ve got, and the past we’ve had, in our little corner of the world.

I was incredibly sad to say goodbye to Prague, and of course the Czech beer, again I think exploring more of the countryside would have been a fascinating experience. But alas with a strict budget and timetable to keep to, it was onwards to the final step on my Eastern Journey, Poland.

Hungary

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I didn’t really know what to expect when I set off on my Eastern Europe adventure, and to be honest with the recent current events concerning passenger planes, I was a little nervous to be travelling full stop. But despite the very rainy start, Budapest was quite the welcome to the East.

My hostel was in the Jewish quarter, which was pretty much in the middle of everything. It was an incredibly vibrant part of town, full of restaurants, bars and clubs.

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Like my recent destinations, I decided to take up the free walking tour of the city to properly get my bearings, and with the meeting spot at St Stephen’s Basilica, I took the opportunity to have a look around inside.
With so many Cathedrals/Churches/Basilicas around Europe I’ve been warned I’ll get to the point where I’ll never want to see another interior ever again. But it would seem I’m still yet to reach that point as St Stephens took my breath away.

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Not only is it incredibly beautiful, it still houses St Stephen’s Holy right hand, which was the only part of his body to have miraculously mummified when they dug it up many years after his death. But it doesn’t just hold the miracle hand of the Saint, it also has the country’s holy left foot as well, with Hungarian football hero Ferenc Puskás buried there. I’m not sure how many football players get such a notable final resting place, but I guess in the eyes of Hungarians, he is also about as saintly as you can get!!!

As the clock struck 10, an incredibly energetic local guide Stefi took charge of our tour, and with that I got my first insight into Budapest and the Hungarian culture.

Interestingly after Denmark and the so called happiest people in the world, I found out Hungarian people are the most pessimistic. But who can blame them given their tumultuous history, there’s always been someone invading/taking over/splitting the country apart. In fact the Hungarian language is apparently the 2nd most difficult in the world to learn, and that’s mostly down to the fact that it has been influenced by so many other languages. According to Stefi if you’re serious about learning it, the fastest way is to take a Hungarian lover, as the best place to learn is in bed ……

For me it really has been fascinating to cross country borders and see how parts of history connect throughout Europe, it’s like a great big puzzle where certain places join up with others along the way. Here my education of the Austro Hungarian empire and the Hapsburg royal family continued, this time however from the Hungarian perspective. Here Princess Elizabeth was adored and loved so dearly, no one refers to her as Sissi, as the country and princesses’ mutual admiration means she’s far to revered to be referred to by her nickname. She did a lot of work pushing for Hungary’s independence, and actually spent a lot of time here during her life. Now many many parts of the city are named after her and she is still held in the highest regard. Princess Elizabeth also learned the Hungarian language, which the people here still appreciate very much. Although, so the story goes, she learnt it in just two years …. So rumour has it she must’ve been learning in someone’s bed!! I love that decades on the people here still relish in the scandal of it all!!

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The whole bed activity subject seemed to be a bit of a running Hungarian theme, apparently rubbing the stomach of this little fellow ….

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…. Uncle Charlie the jovial policeman, helps give you luck in the fertility department. And not only that, the healing powers of Budapest’s famous thermal baths are also said to make you ripe for the picking. Intrigued, I had to ask if there was any real proof to this claim, and was informed about the hippos at Budapest zoo. Whilst they’re one of the most popular attractions in the city, they weren’t very happy with the cold climate of their Budapest home. So the brains behind the city’s operation came up with a natural answer, with the city’s most popular hot thermal baths right next door, a little tinkering with pipes etc meant the hippos could enjoy a hot bath too! Anyway again, so the story goes, very soon the hippos started breeding at much faster rates, and now, while Hungary isn’t the richest of countries when it comes to exports, they do have the highest rates of hippo exports than any other European country.

With those details settled, our group crossed the river from Pest into Buda. Almost instantly there was quite a different feel between the two parts of the city, as if the pace of life slowed down just a little. Interestingly the attitudes of the populations on either side of the river are quite different to! Those living in Buda consider the Pest population to be uncultured and a little more on the wild side … Whilst those in Pest think inhabitants of Buda are rich snobs.

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After exploring a little more of Buda and the breathtaking views from the Fisherman’s Bastion, I took myself off to the House of Terror, which, while not housing the happiest of materials (the name may have given that away …) it was an absolutely excellent museum. Located in the former headquarters of the gruesome Hungarian Arrow Cross Party and the Hungarian Nazis, post World War Two it was also where the notorious communist terror organisations took up residence. Inside lighting, music, and creative exhibition displays brought to life some of the most harrowing aspects of Budapest’s recent history.

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After a busy day I was very much in need of sustenance in the form of a traditional Hungarian dinner of stuffed cabbage leaves with goose salami and sour cream at the beautiful restaurant Spinoza. Complete with a piano player, candle light, and a few wines, the experience cost me a grand total of about $14.

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This fine dining experience followed a breakfast of some kind of sweet pastry concoction filled with apple and berries at the steep price of 50 cents, and lunch of a traditional wood fire oven cooked pizza bread topped with Hungarian sausage, a feast which set me back about a staggering $4.

Not all of my culinary adventures were good experiences however. Some Aussie backpackers thought they’d keep up the Anzac spirit and share what looked like an absolutely delicious kind of cinnamon scroll with me. It turned out to be, well I don’t know what actually, but it was quite possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten. I couldn’t even place the taste, but it was very strange and lingered long after the disastrous mouthful. I’ve been googling and googling but am still yet to work out exactly what the culprit was!

With so much food as delicious and cheap as all of this, I figured another decent walk was in order, so I decided to climb up to the the city’s citadella and Budapest’s very own Lady Liberty. The citadella was ordered by Austrian King Franz Joseph in 1853, completed in 7 years, it was actually hated by the Hungarian population as the people regarded it as a threatening symbol of Austrian power. Used extensively throughout the war, now it offers a complete panoramic view of the city, and gave me my first opportunity to really take in the magnificent might of the great Danube river. Flowing through four capital cities, the river passes through or touches the borders of ten countries: Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Standing from the height I was at was quite the sight, each way you looked it stretched so far into the distance it melted into the horizon.

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Since walking over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco I’ve become a tiny bit obsessed with bridges, so Budapest couldn’t have been more perfect for me!!! While the Chain Bridge was the first one to connect Buda and Pest, there are now also seven others, and I absolutely loved how beautiful and intricate each one was.

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With the sun beating down, it was time to take a break from the city and head to Margaret Island between Buda and Pest, where I hired a bike and enjoyed the beautiful gardens and green space. It’s always such a relief to be able to find a bit of an escape from busy cities, and Margaret Island provided just that.

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The walk back from there to my hostel also gave me the chance to check out the stunning Parliament buildings, as well as the incredibly moving Jewish shoe monument, commemorating the Hungarian Jewish victims, killed by the Arrow Cross militiamen. The killings usually took place en masse – the victims were lined up at the embankment, and shot into the Danube, execution-style.

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After a day of some serious walking and very little to eat but ice cream, the body was in need of more Hungarian food. Having had Frici Papa recommended to me by several locals I took myself off in search of some more local cuisine. While not quite the atmospheric experience of the night before, (the wait staff were very dead pan, and the decor quite strange), it was, I’m told, a far more authentic Hungarian experience. So I ordered up the very traditional chicken paprikash (Hungarian stew), and it was delicious!
With their love of soups and goulash the Hungarian cuisine is definitely more suited to a colder climate, but even temperatures of around 29 degrees couldn’t stop me once again devouring every morsel I could get my hands on!!!

Discovering a fellow kiwi in my hostel room,  we decided check out one of Budapest’s most popular ruin pubs, and what a crazy trippy place it was. As the name suggests, ruin pubs are found in the most unlikely places, damaged and dilapidated buildings that remain in the state they were left in following the war. Post communism these buildings were snapped up at cheap prices, and rather than being repaired, owners had artists come and decorate the spaces in crazy creative ways, turning them into the bars and clubs that are now an integral part Budapest’s crazy night life, identity and culture. It’s hard for photos to really capture the uniqueness of these places, which are often several stories tall, you really have to see it to understand it.

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In need of a little R&R, my last day consisted of a walk through Heroes Square, onto the healing relaxing waters of the Széchenyi thermal baths. Again, probably an activity better suited to a colder time of year, but with one pool luckily kept at a cooler temperature, it was nice to finally be able to relax by a bit of water!! I’ve been spoiled by the fact that you’re never very far away from some kind of swim-able water source in New Zealand, so summer in land locked countries is definitely requiring some acclimatising!

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While it was a pretty ideal way to spend the day, I definitely have come to love this city the most by night – not just because of the epic night life that’s on offer here, but because the city comes to life in a whole new way once the sun goes down. Buildings and bridges that stunned me by day, had me swooning even more under the night sky.

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As always my time in Hungary came and went too fast, and I was left with a lingering wishful feeling that I’d stayed longer and explored some more of the country side.  I had intended to do some day trips to get out of the city, but with so much to see and explore, time once again got the better of me … But luckily the Eastern Europe experience was only just beginning.

Belgium & France

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It was a grey and wet day when my brother, my niece and I drove off the ferry in Calais, France to begin our journey visiting the battle sites that were such a turning point for our nation. The weather seemed completely appropriate given the sombre scenes which went on here a hundred years ago, and the lives of New Zealand soldiers that were lost on the soils of the western front.
I don’t know whether it’s being the daughter of an army Major, a former Anzac service attending Girl Guide, or just the fact that I am such a staunchly proud New Zealander, but for me a major priority of visiting Europe was to make a pilgrimage to the sites where so many great New Zealanders had served, making the ultimate sacrifice, many giving up their lives, and where so many others no doubt at least left parts of their hearts and souls behind.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of standing in such peaceful, quaint and beautiful surroundings and imagining them as they had once been – muddy bloody battlefields, the place of nightmares, misery, and terror. But just standing there and being, nearly a century later, you could still feel so acutely the enormity of such a huge loss for such a small nation.
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In Belgium we visited the townships of both Passchendaele and Ypres, stopping at an excellent War museum, as well as the New Zealand memorials in each town, Tyne Cot cemetery and Messiness Ridge cemetery.
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Tyne Cot is now the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world in terms of burials, there are 520 graves of New Zealanders, 322 of them are unidentified.
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Messines Ridge is a pretty special place for New Zealanders, and this is where the focus of Anzac Day commemorations on the Western Font is for Kiwis. It was here on the 7th June 1917 that New Zealand forces reclaimed the village from the Germans in the battle of Messines. The memorial commemorates over 800 soldiers of the NZ expeditionary force who died in or near there in 1917 and 1918 and who have no known grave.
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The day also included a visited to a smaller cemetery and memorial in Polygon Wood. When I first saw the NZ cemetery here I was surprised by the random layout of the graves, as most of the Commonwealth ones I had seen so far had been in clear cut rows. Some reading soon informed me that this front line cemetery was made during the war, with the random layout of the graves painting a vivid picture of the dangers involved in the hasty burial of the dead under the constant threat of sniper and shell fire. Reading that brought a whole new level of meaning and feeling to what I was seeing, standing there in what is now such a tranquil environment it was so hard to imagine what it must have been like for those men burying their fallen comrades in such horrendous conditions.
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With so much on our agenda we didn’t have a lot of time to visit many of the Australian memorials, but at Polygon Wood the Australian and NZ memorials were very close together, allowing us to take a moment to acknowledge the other half of what makes up our Anzac identity. While the Commonwealth cemeteries of course hold graves of soldiers from all the Commonwealth countries, knowing our New Zealand soldiers are surrounded by their Australian brothers in arms gives me a silly sort of sense of comfort.
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It was nearing the afternoon of our Belgian explorations when my brother asked me if I knew what had happened to all the German soldiers, something I hadn’t even considered until that point. While of course they were the enemy, their soldiers were just like our own, fighting their country’s battle. After a little investigation we soon found our way to a German cemetery where thousands of names and head stones marked the devastating losses they too suffered.
There were wreaths of poppies around many of the memorials which surprised me, but on closer inspection I found they were from allied countries, acknowledging and remembering the loss of not just their own, but all those who fell fighting. One I read from the British army stated “sons and brothers all, united in death, but not forgotten”. It was incredibly touching to see, and I’m so glad we took the time to visit here to remember all those who were lost, and show our respect.
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I was so impressed by the beauty of the cemeteries and memorials, and how well they are kept. It’s such an honour to see the care and dedication that must go into them, and so fitting for those fallen heroes for whom they’ve become their final resting place.
But despite the special care it still saddened me so much to think of the way these men, and boys died. The horrendous conditions they spent their last days in, the way they were in many cases like lambs to slaughter. When I saw the names, and the ages, I couldn’t help but think of the young men and women I’ve been in court to see sentenced to jail terms for various crimes, or think about the horrendous problems we have back home with violence, murders and domestic abuse, and wonder how and when we got to this point as a nation. I couldn’t help but shake a lingering feeling and question in the back of my mind, has something happened along the way to make us lose pride in who we are? When you see for yourself that all that remains of so many people is a sea of white headstones, many of which aren’t even able to hold the names of the unknown faces that are buried there, you can’t help but question how anyone could throw away or waste a second of their life, or anyone else’s for that matter.
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After spending the night in the French city of Lille, the next day we travelled to Le Quesnoy, a small French town that was liberated by New Zealanders in 1918. The town had endured 4 years of German occupation before a group of kiwis and a ladder took them on and won. By the end of the action the NZ division had taken some 700 enemy soldiers captive. Unfortunately we were visiting on a Sunday so the small museum with photos, documents and other memorabilia wasn’t open. But the memorial itself to the New Zealand soldiers at the end of Rue Nouvelle  Zealande was very moving. Tucked in against the fortification, it’s been placed near where Lieutenant Averill scaled the ladder on the 4th November 1918. To see the tributes to our kiwi men so far from home in such a sleepy little French town was pretty special. While I had read and heard the story of this liberation before, there’s something about actually being there and seeing these places through your own eyes, I felt very proud and honoured to be there, and to walk the streets and garden that are named in memory of those heroic Kiwis.
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It was then back on the road to head south east to a town called Longueval, it was near here that the New Zealand division joined the battle of the Somme on the 15th of September 1916, and it holds a special place in new Zealand’s World War One military history. The New Zealand memorial lies about a km east of Longueval and stands on the site of the German defence line. If you look west from the memorial you can see Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, and it’s from there that the New Zealanders sprung from their trenches at dawn on that day. Looking back towards the cemetery you can see the open slope that they had to advance up, and seeing the land from that perspective, broke my heart just a little, imagining those men given such a grim task, ripe for the picking by the enemy as they made their way through exploding shells and then eventually a barrage of bullets and gunfire. But despite what eventually became a bitter hand to hand fight, in just a short time the German trench line was in New Zealand hands, and by the end of the day the division had achieved all it’s objectives, forcing back the enemy and clearing the village of Flers.
On that first day 6000 soldiers from the New Zealand division joined the attack. 600 were killed, with 1200 left wounded or missing.
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Caterpillar Valley cemetery contains the graves of 5,197 soldiers from the United Kingdom, 214 from New Zealand, 98 Australian, 19 South African, 6 Canadian and two from Newfoundland. On the wall of remembrance are the names of 1,272 New Zealanders lost during the fighting of 1916. It also contains the grave from which the remains of an unknown New Zealand solider were exhumed and re-interred at the national war memorial in Wellington.
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Driving through the countryside of both Belgium and France, the number of cemeteries and memorials literally left me speechless. Among the fields of peas, corn, potatoes, spinach, wheat and barley that stretch for miles are rows and rows of white head stones, and walls containing endless lists of names of lives lost.
The statistics for New Zealand alone are staggering, with one tenth of the population serving during the First World War. Out of a population of less than one million people, the New Zealand expeditionary force suffered 59,483 casualties of whom 18,166 died. Fighting on the western front in France and Belgium claimed 12,483 of those lives. Retracing their final footsteps was an incredibly humbling experience.
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After spending a night in Rouen our travels then took us into the domain of the Second World War and the D Day fighting on the Normandy beaches. We drove to Omaha beach, which was one of the scenes of the most bitter fighting, and standing on the beach you can see why. The area is surrounded by huge hills and cliffs from which the Germans fought back against the allied attack. Standing on top of the cliffs and looking down, especially from Pointe Du Hoc, it’s a formidable sight. The fact that the American rangers were able to scale them and achieve their mission of disabling the German guns threatening the beaches is phenomenal, but it’s easy to see why their mission, and that of those storming the Normandy beaches themselves was such a horrifying task.
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Nearly 160,000 allied soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy in the early hours of the 6th of June 1944 to commence the liberation of France, accompanied overhead by tens of thousands of airmen. All up around 196,000 allied sailors with over 5000 ships also supported the attack.
At the time of the D Day landings, most of New Zealand’s forces were actually fighting alongside the British and US armies in Italy, so the main kiwi contribution came with air crew serving in the Royal Air Force. It’s estimated 3,900 New Zealanders were on active service by early 1944, flying fighters and bombers, they towed gliders, dropped paratroops, searched for submarines and attacked surface shipping. In fact a New Zealand pilot (RAF Flying Officer Johnnie Houlton) claimed the first allied air victory that momentous day. Airborne in his spitfire just south of Omaha beach he glimpsed a Ju88 bomber, firing at the enemy aircraft the engine disintegrated, the two crew members baled and the aircraft crashed on a roadway, blowing apart on impact. Supreme headquarters nominated it the first enemy aircraft to be shot down since the invasion began, and all down to a kiwi! I loved reading (courtesy of nzembassy.com) that the spitfire actually still survives today, and after being carefully restored is a popular performer at air shows and memorial flypasts in the United Kingdom. Painted in the original colours in which it flew over the Normandy beaches it still carries Johnnie’s individual identity marking ‘V’ which he selected after his wife’s name Victoria. It’s now a two seater, and when it flew over the beaches in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the landings, sitting proudly in the passenger seat was Johnnie himself.
While our role in the D Day campaign might have been relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, for the US, Britain and Canada, whose soldiers were on the ground, they paid a great price. On Omaha beach the US divisions battled German resistance over a beach littered with obstacles, attacking steep bluffs, and by the end of that first day had fragile control of the beach. On the plateau they reached overlooking the beach now stands a memorial and cemetery for nearly ten thousand service men and women and the nearly two thousand missing in action. With white crosses stretching far into the distance, the area overlooking Omaha beach and the English Channel has now been transformed into a beautiful space, a fitting final resting place for such brave men and women.
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It was such an honour and a privilege to be able to visit the sites of our fallen soldiers, made all the more special by the fact I was able to do it with my big brother. It was without a doubt the most humbling and sobering experience of my life, visiting such significant sites on which the identity of our small nation was formed.
The trip has had such a profound effect on me, and I think it’s probably because I wasn’t just learning about world history that I felt far removed from, but instead was learning about New Zealand history, my history, and the Anzac bonds that were formed so long ago. I am so proud to be a Kiwi, and I truly hope our beautiful nation can move forward in a way that’ll make the men whose bodies remain in battlefield cemeteries on the other side of the world, proud of what they fought so hard for.

Denmark

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The novelty certainly hasn’t worn off of having so many countries at your fingertips here in Europe. With a little help from a beautiful ferry crossing, a bus had me in Denmark from Berlin in just over 7 hours. For a Kiwi kid the ease of crossing country borders without having to get on a plane is still pretty amazing!!
So here I was in Copenhagen reuniting with a very special friend who I studied at Broadcasting School with. It was there in pre-earthquake Christchurch that Emily dragged me almost daily to the Copenhagen bakery to share with me her love for all things Danish. When she moved back here a few years ago I vowed I would make it to the real Copenhagen with her before she left, and it was incredibly exciting to actually make that plan a reality!
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Instantly I could see how the city had so completely stolen Emily’s heart. She described it to me as a big village, and I think that’s probably the perfect description. You get all the advantages and excitement of a capital city, without feeling daunted, intimidated or lost as everything is so compact and more intimate.  The endless summer days seemed to go on and on, it’d be light by 4am in the morning, and wouldn’t really get dark until well after 11pm which meant you hardly felt like you needed to sleep at all! With the lack of sun light during the winter months, for the Danish summer means being outside as much as possible, which means there is so much going on all the time.
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Now if I had thought there were a lot of bikes in Germany things reached a whole new level in Copenhagen.
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I quickly learned EVERYONE in the city rides a bike, so after a day of watching the beautiful Danes roll along so gracefully, I decided I must get amongst it and experience the freedom of travelling in a city that was built for cycling. So I hired a bike and took to the road expecting a gloriously calming experience ……
But oh how wrong I was! I had never been so incredibly stressed/terrified in all my life!! It was literally like taking to the open road in a car without learning how to drive first. Not only were there rules and signals that I had no idea about, my brain also struggled  to negotiate travelling on the right hand side of the road, my lack of knowledge resulting in a lot of Danish words that I couldn’t understand (probably for the best) being yelled in my direction, and angry bells following me around the street (like Germany cycling is a serious business here).
So needless to say my first day on two wheels was spent mostly walking alongside my bike!
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But I’m proud to say that despite the stress and terror I persevered, and breathed a sigh of relief at the weekend ticking over so I at least had Emily to follow! With a bit of practice (and a better sense of direction) I even managed to spend Saturday night riding in heels and a dress, no easy feat, well for me anyway, the Danes seem to be able to do anything texting/talking on their phone/carrying children/carrying shopping etc all while cycling.
By my last day I felt totally at home on my bike and was so sad to have to give her up. It really is such a great way to get around, especially when the sun is shining (not so much when it’s raining which evidentally happens quite a lot during the Danish summer).
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But there is of course more to Copenhagen than its extensive cycle ways! With some quality Little Mermaid time, a Canal trip, a visit to Christiania the hippy commune (where you can buy all things marijuana should you so wish, but more importantly in my view incredibly delicious pork sandwiches), a visit to Hans Christian Anderson’s grave, dates with Degas, Monet and Van Gogh at the Glyptotek art gallery, and so much Danish food in my belly, I quickly ticked off all the must do’s of such a vibrant, beautiful city.
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But a stay with Emily McLean always means more than the normal. Thanks to a new friend she’d spent approximately 15 mins with at a BBQ the previous weekend, she had us on the guest list for work drinks at the United Nations Danish Headquarters. An incredibly fun night exploring the elaborate building (built for the UN by the Danish government), and meeting people from all over the world.
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The next day Emily took me along to two birthday parties which took me behind the tourist hotspots and gave me an amazingly authentic taste of Danish culture. The first party started off with sports in the park, before a dinner party that included beautiful food, wine, and fabulous traditional Danish birthday singing.
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For me it was such a privilege to be invited along and to be able to partake in such a wonderful cultural experience. Interestingly it also gave me quite the insight into how the Kiwi culture is perceived too, after spending quite a while talking to a Danish couple who’d recently returned from living in NZ for 6 months. While they loved their time in NZ they found kiwis to be very conflict averse people, beating around the bush rather than being direct and to the point, something Danes have no problem with!
They also hated the stock standard white tip top bread, which is completely understandable once you taste the delicious dark brown bread that’s full of seeds that the Danes are brought up on!
Which brings me to the Danish food … a cuisine I was secretly hoping I wouldn’t be too fussed about given my current daily calorie intake. But alas like everything else I found in Denmark, the food was divine! With the advantage of local knowledge, Emily had me at all the good coffee houses, dining on Danish pastries, Danish sausages, Danish liquorice, Danish summer fruit (which is super sweet thanks to all the sunlight), as well as traditional summer foods like a custard and biscuit concoction the name of which I wasn’t even able to repeat when Emily tried to tell me how to pronounce it.
Danes love their traditions, and are so proud of their culture and where they come from, I really appreciated their optimistic attitude and so enjoyed embracing everything about the culture.
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Partying with Emily’s Danish friends also have me more of an insight into what life must be like for expats like her, especially when they move to a foreign country where English isn’t the first language. All around me conversations were going on with me not having a clue what was being said. It gave me a taste of just how isolating I’m sure it can be at times, and so much more admiration for those who take up the challenge to really experience the new and unknown. Emily can of course speak fluent Danish now, I can’t imagine ever being able to learn another language (especially Danish, which requires the use of a totally different part of your mouth) so well!
But Ems has found her fair share of cultural differences which was also fascinating to hear about – as well as her job running the social media for Maersk, she’s become a minor celebrity with her Copenhagen Post column outlining her experiences with dating the Danes (Carrie Bradshaw eat your heart out). For guaranteed laugh out loud moments check it out here.
It was another tough goodbye leaving Copenhagen and the incredibly beautiful Danes – Emily tells me the natural beauty gets even more extreme the further north you head, she said on a flight to Iceland once she felt like she was flying with a bunch of Elves back to Rivendell, an analogy I found completely fitting for the Scandinavian people.
Although not the cheapest part of Europe to explore I hope my travels can bring me back to this part of the world in the near future, I’ve heard only amazing things about Sweden, Norway and Iceland, and would absolutely love to see more of such a beautiful part of the world.

Germany

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What better welcome could you have to Germany, than arriving the day of the country’s first Football World Cup game. Everywhere fans were draped in flags, had their faces painted or were wearing their football jerseys with confidence and optimism, it was a pretty amazing atmosphere to arrive to.
I was met off my bus in Munich by the lovely Ava who, along with her partner Corey, I was staying with. Friends of Louise’s they’ve been living here for about 3 years while Ava finishes her PhD, and it was so nice to see some friendly and so welcoming kiwi faces.
Ava took me on my own personal walking tour of the city which was fabulous, starting with a work out climbing St. Peter’s church bell tower for a panoramic view of the city (luckily I was too puffed to be too worried about the height). Then of course she had me standing in the front row at 5pm for the famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel show – just adorable!
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After a few hours of city strolling it was off to meet Corey for dinner and beer at one of the biggest beer halls in Munich, Augustiner. And it was huuuuuge, I was floored by how big the hall itself was, and then the huge beer garden on top of that, and of course everywhere was completely packed by frenzied football fans. The food, beer and pretzels were all just delicious! Having been in Munich for all of about four hours by that point, I knew already Bavaria was a region I was going to love.
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The next day was definitely a change in pace, as I made my way out to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site. I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve watched the documentaries, I’ve read the books, but personally I think nothing can ever really prepare you for a visit to a place where so many lives were so needlessly and horrifically lost.
What really hit home for me the most was just how close the camp is to the surrounding Dachau township, where for it’s entire 12 year history those who lived there went about their daily lives so close to the camp’s  perimeter.
Despite cameras flashing all around me, I personally didn’t feel it was appropriate to be taking pictures. For me the photos the American troops took of emaciated prisoners and bodies upon bodies piled up when they liberated the camp was enough. The one photo I did decide to take was of these words on the memorial:
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While much of Dachau still stands as it always did, important words like ‘never again’ and ‘do not forget’ now also stand in place amongst the memorials that are steadfast additions.
I found it hard to shake off the overwhelming sense of despair in humanity after leaving, but I’m definitely glad I went. It was an education quite unlike any history book could ever give you.
The next day I took a train for 2 hours out of the city into the countryside near the Bavarian border for a slightly different experience,  escaping into the breathtakingly beautiful and idyllic surroundings of Neuschwanstein castle. Ludwig 11’s masterpiece was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, and it really was like stepping into a fairy tale. Tucked away in the Bavarian mountains it was gorgeous, and the clear water of the surrounding lakes was just amazing, you could almost feel the music of Wagner, who the castle pays homage to, drifting through the breeze.
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By the time I got to Germany I was feeling a little over palaces so thought I’d give the interior tour a miss, but at the last minute changed my mind. And I’m really glad I did, it was such a fascinating place to be. Very little of the castle is actually finished, because the building stopped when the king died, but being inside was a fascinating insight into Ludwig’s head. Again unfortunately photos weren’t allowed, but my goodness it was lovely.
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Bavaria is such a beautiful part of Germany, it’s so charming and peaceful, and the countryside is just simply breathtaking. I was lucky enough to be able to see quite a bit it as thanks to a public holiday, Corey, Ava and I spent the next day hiking in an area called Tegernsee. It was beautiful. Sadly given the quality of my camera the photos just can’t quite do it the justice it deserves, the scenery was just gorgeous.
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When Corey pointed out the tiny church poking up at the top of this cliff as our first destination, I honestly thought he was joking.
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But after assuring me it was actually possible to walk up there, we made it, and it was lovely.
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With Bavarians and beer going hand in hand, you’re never far from a beer garden, even when you’re hiking in the mountains!!!! Throughout the walks beer gardens pop up in the most unlikely places, so a lunch break meant weizenbier (wheat beer) and Bavarian cheese pretty much in the middle of nowhere!!!! It was seriously so great.
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For me the Bavarian food has been some of my most favourite so far, as a carnivore it appeals greatly to me (I don’t know how you’d survive as a vegetarian here!!!). My last meal consisted of red cabbage (made with apple, so delicious), spätzle (egg noodles), dumpling, pork, hamburger, duck and sausage, all covered in delicious gravy – I truly felt like I had consumed a small farm. Then after swearing I couldn’t possibly fit anything else in, I helped Corey and Ava polish off a plate of Bavarian pancakes, oh so good.
It was particularly difficult to say goodbye to Corey and Ava’s incredible Kiwi kindness and company, they had truly made my time in Munich such an incredibly fun and interesting experience. But given how much I was enjoying the local cuisine, it was probably a good thing I didn’t stay any longer!!!!
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7 hours on a bus and I was transported into what felt like a different planet. After the traditional culture of Bavaria, Berlin seemed worlds away with it’s graffiti art and splashes of artistic colour that gives the city it’s unique identity and edge.
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I didn’t initially warm to Berlin which surprised me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was due to the unseasonably freezing rainy weather, or the fact that a lot of my time was spent taking in pretty emotionally heavy pieces of history. I’m not sure, but I’m glad I had the luxury of staying around a little longer than most travellers as it definitely grew on me.
I was once again lucky enough to be taken in by the kindest hosts I could hope for, Katie a friend I’d met while on exchange in the states 11 years ago, and her German boyfriend Bosse. It was an absolute treat as I got to fully immerse myself in the German culture, and also spent so much time chatting to Bosse about what it was like growing up in such a different culture to my own, as well as learning about Katie’s experiences moving there from a country like the US. We spent a lot of time drinking local beer and eating SO much of the local German cuisine (which is fast becoming my favourite!!), and even spent one evening making cheese spätzle (pretty much Germany’s version Mac & Cheese) from scratch, an experience I absolutely loved!
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I was also fortunate enough to arrive on a weekend when Berlin really was showing the best of its identity and culture off, with both the Christopher Street Parade (gay pride celebrations) and Music de la Fete taking place.
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With the World Cup in full swing, I also got to experience more frenzied football fans when Germany took on Ghana (which proved a little more exciting than I thought it’d be!!) and as a result have now officially adopted Germany as my World Cup team. Much like Munich, all through Berlin German flags celebrating the football team hung from buildings, windows and cars – interestingly I’m told the World Cup is one of the only times Germans feel like they can wave and display their flags with pride, and not feel like everyone will freak out. Apparently most of the time you’d rarely see the German flag flying so boldly, unless of course it’s on official Government buildings.
I felt like you could really reach out and touch the history of both World War Two, and the Cold War in Berlin which really was fascinating for me. My days were filled with Third Reich walking tours, visits to monuments and memorials, the Jewish memorial museum, the Typography of Terror museum (outlining the dark days of the Gestapo and SS across Europe), as well as the East Side gallery, and Berlin Wall monuments and memorials.
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I’m told after ignoring the dark days of World War Two for quite some time after the war, Germany now confronts its history head on, and there really is so much opportunity to learn, and educate, and most importantly never forget what happened during that time.
One of the most moving memorials I came across were little golden plaques I found dotted around the city. Slightly raised from the footpath they’re designed to make you almost trip over them so you look down. On each one is the name of a Jewish person who was taken from their home, where they were sent to, and in most cases where they died. You’ll find a lot of them around the city as there’s one for each person who was taken from Berlin, and they’re positioned in front of the the home or location where they were taken from.
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Experiencing the German culture really has been incredibly interesting for me. I guess perhaps because it’s one of the few places I’ve been so far where I’ve felt such stark differences with the New Zealand culture. The German love for rules and order, and their absolute precision with things like public transport really appealed to me. Luckily I was informed that police will stop and fine you if they catch you jaywalking (which is a very common thing for Wellingtonians to do!), and parents will yell at you if they see you crossing before you get a green man (which are particularly cute in Berlin) as you’re teaching their children bad habits. For the most part they will literally stand and wait even if there’s not a car in sight for their green walking light!
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There is also very little security for the tubes and trains as commuters are trusted to purchase and pay for their tickets. There are random ticket inspections of course, but the locals are highly unlikely to be caught out breaking the rules.
Probably worth noting here too that another set of rules are preeeeetty important to adhere to, especially when you’re a tourist, and that’s keeping out of the way of cyclists!!! With so many cyclists, there are bike lanes everywhere, and often for the untrained eye it can be hard to establish where the footpath ends and the bike lane begins. You do however learn very quickly when you get it wrong and find yourself in the middle of cycle way where angry cyclists, going at insanely fast speeds, are prepared to run right over the top of you! One of my tour guides joked that German motorists wouldn’t hit you with their car as then they’d have to clean them, but German cyclists show no mercy!
I’ve so loved the green thinking of Germany, and the planning that goes into creating green public places, especially in the city. When I travelled from Munich to Berlin I saw wind turbines and fields full of solar panels everywhere. And of course almost everywhere is built for bikes. And the parks have been such an experience. In Munich the English garden had this fantastic part of the river where crazy surfers could ride waves (right in the middle of the city!!).
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In Berlin I checked out a park that had been developed around former railway lines, as well as Tempelhofer Airport, the old US sector airport that closed down in 2008 and is now a recreational space. Berliners voted overwhelmingly to stop any building development in the space so now it has native grasslands, community gardens, and huge runways that are full of cyclists, roller bladders, skateboarders, wind surfers and all sorts. I really get the feeling that no space is ever wasted or left to become overgrown and derelict.
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The one thing that is taking a little getting used to in Europe is the prevalence of smokers. I’m not sure if NZ is more smokefree than I give it credit for, or if I just don’t notice it as much back home, but on this side of the world it seems pretty hard to escape the wafting clouds of smoke.
Smoke clouds aside though, Germany for me was definitely a real cultural adventure, and I loved exploring the parts I was fortunate enough to visit. If I could’ve taken a life time supply of currywursts home with me I definitely would have, but instead I left (no doubt several kilos heavier) with so many amazing cultural experiences, and a back pack full of more German chocolate than one person needs!!!