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 Turk