Sunny Sofia

Despite a forecast of warm temperatures but constant rain, we were pleasantly surprised to experience a three day weekend of nothing but sunshine in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Free Walking Tour

Alexander Nevsky ChurchAs per usual, I started my Sofia adventure like any other…  with a free walking tour. The guide Niki was probably my favourite guide so far, energetic, enthusiastic, knowledgable, and entertaining.

Bulgaria was originally inhabited by the Thracians from 400BC; the nation later went through a period of Roman occupation which merged into the Byzantine Empire. In 1204 the nation was captured by Crusaders, and by the 14th century Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule. There was a period of uprising and in 1908 the Bulgarians overturned existing treaties and announced its complete independence. At this time they established a monarchy but had lost track of who had royal blood and decided to import royalty from other countries.

The first King of Bulgaria was Alexander from Germany, who abdicated after some time. Then Ferdinand from Austria was put into power. It was under Ferdinand’s rule that independence was established, and the nation made great progress in infrastructure and public gardens, among other things.

King Ferdinand requested an Italian bride Maria-Louise,  and their eldest son, Boris III, later led the country. At the time of the Spanish inquisition  the Jews were chased out of Spain and many found themselves in Bulgaria, beginning a Jewish period in Bulgaria. When it was found that Jews were going to be sneakily deported during World War II, Boris led a Bulgarian protest encouraging all citizens to wear the yellow star of David and refusing to give up the Jews; thereby saving the entire Bulgarian Jewish community. (I believe Bulgaria was the only nation to achieve this).

After the war the Monarchy was abolished and a republic was declared. The election was won by the communist party, and from this time until 1989 Bulgaria was a socialist republic.

While Bulgaria is still building itself up after a turbulent history, it is becoming more attractive to tourists and the economy is slowly strengthening. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007. Today the population of Bulgaria is 7.1 million, with approximately 1.26 million based in the city’s capital Sofia.

Niki taught us the history of the city as we went from site to site, as well as illustrating the changing monarchs with some group acting in the park.

Sofia MosqueWhile many of the sites we stopped by were spectacular, one of that struck a chord with us, was the Square of Tolerance. There is a place, near Serdika metro station where you can see an Islamic Mosque, Jewish Synagogue and Catholic Church. They all have beautiful architecture, they are all in the same neighbourhood and they can all coexist in peace, as can each of the followers of their faith. We really appreciate this message and deeply respect the Bulgarians for their tolerance not just now but also in the past. In my opinion it is a fantastic symbol for how we should all live and respect others.

Other sites I really enjoyed for for their stories and architecture were the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; Sveta Nedelya Church; the Church of St Petka of the Saddlers with it’s quirky and haphazard construction; Saint Sophia Statue; City Park; Rotunda of Saint George; National Archaeological Museum; Ivan Vazov National Theatre; and the National Assembly (Parliament).

Coming from the young nation of Australia, it astounds me to walk around such an ancient city as Sofia. Everywhere you go you can still just stumble across ancient Roman ruins! It’s ridiculous and fantastic at the same time. The ruins are typically protected from the weather by glass domes.

While we were in the City Park Niki showed us hundreds of white and red bracelets hanging from the branches of the trees. It is a tradition in the Balkan region to give this bracelet to someone you care about on March 1st. The bracelet is then continuously worn until you see a Stork, then you hang it on a blossoming tree to welcome the spring. It is a bizarre and beautiful custom!

Tours operate daily, starting from the Palace of Justice.  Tours run at 10am, 11am and 6pm throughout Summer; and 10am and 11am in Winter.

Tourists in Sofia

Balkan Bites Food Tour

The Balkan Bites Food Tour is a great way to learn about the origins of the Bulgarian cuisine, the food culture as it exists today and to sample both the traditional and modern cuisine of Sofia.

Our guide Natalie walked us through the main phases of the Bulgarian cuisine, starting with the garlic introduced by the Thracians 6000 years ago. Slavic tribes came later, bringing pastries.

Following this came Nomadic Bulgarians who were dairy farmers making vast quantities of milk, and also yoghurt. The Bulgarian yoghurt is the healthiest in Europe thanks to unique bacteria native to the country. Bulgarians claim that their yoghurt consumption  is the secret to their long and healthy lives.

During the Ottoman Empire spices, and middle eastern dishes were introduced into the cuisine. Refining the flavours I would probably consider as Balkan.

Post World War II and the introduction of communist rule saw the standardisation of menus; where the same name was used for the same dish nationwide. For example, Shopska Salad can be ordered anywhere in Bulgaria and is always comprised of cucumber, tomato, white cheese, resembling the colours of the flag.

Just twenty years ago western influences came into the cuisine, after McDonald’s made it to Bulgaria. McDonald’s was ridiculously popular at the time – a symbol of independence from soviet rule and perhaps a feeling of being linked to western society. While McDonald’s is no longer as popular as when it first opened, the Bulgarians have retained a love of burgers.

Tours run daily at 2pm, meeting at the big head sculpture in Krystal Park. If you want to do the food tour it is recommended to book in advance; alternately be at the meeting point 30 minutes before the tour starts to try grab a spot.

Graffiti Tour

Hungarian Girl by NasimoThe Grafitti Tour was run by an artist who called himself Niki. He gave us the run down on the graffiti artists and culture of Bulgaria. For two hours he took us through the streets of Sofia to see some of the work of local artists.

In alignment with the name of the tour, it certainly had a focus on graffiti, and not street art as I had hoped. It was interesting that the guide had quite a positive view of graffiti while my own personal view of it is a negative one, I don’t consider it to be very creative or requiring extraordinary talent. I do however, really appreciate the complex and creative works of art that I would view as street art. The tour certainly covered some of these, but there were fewer than I had anticipated.

I also found that there was less respect amongst street artists in Sofia compared to so many other cities I have visited, it was visible in how many artists tagged or defaced the work of others.

My favourite piece of art was by Bulgarian artist Nasimo. The piece was of a traditionally dressed Hungarian girl. The patterns on her apron were not symmetrical as Bulgarians see symmetry as a symbol of bad luck. The piece was created after a trip to India,  the influence of  art styles and symbols used in Indian art works was visibly reflected in the work.

Tours run at 3pm on weekends, and start at the Sofia Sculpture near Serdika Metro station.

Out and About on the streets of Sofia

Thermal Springs - providing drinking water to the city of SofiaWe thoroughly enjoyed just exploring the city of Sofia on foot. It’s a very walkable city.

Vitosha Boulevard, named after the mountain visible at the end of the boulevard is a great street to wander for checking out the cafe’s, restaurants and shops.

The National Palace of Culture is a fascinating building to look at, but mostly the park in front of it is a wonderful place to stroll through, perhaps dip your feet in the fountain and just sit and soak up the atmosphere.

If you are up for a big walk, the public park called South Park is huge and absolutely beautiful – a great way to get back to nature! We went because we saw it on a map and thought it would be amusing to say we had been to South Park (like the TV show), and were astounded by it’s unexpected beauty.

The area surrounding the old thermal bath house is also fantastic, and definitely a great spot to fill up your drink bottle.

The Ladies Market is worth a visit, it is predominantly a fresh food and vegetable market, but where you can also pick up all sorts of other bits and bobs.

Food

Lubimoto RestaurantSome traditional foods to try include: Tarator (vegetable soup), Shopska salad, Chuski bôrek, Havarma, Capama, Moussaka, Yuveche.

Food is reasonably inexpensive – we spent the following averages on each meal for two people:
Breakfast: 24 LEV / €12
Lunch: 30 LEV / €15
Dinner: 47 LEV / €23

Restaurant Recommendations

Lubimoto we visited for dinner on the recommendation of the the tour brochure, which also gave us a discount on our meal. The restaurant was a little harder to find, and easy to walk past – but once you get in it has a very cosy, homestead, or small town pub feel to it. It felt very family oriented with traditional food, bursting with flavour.

Manastirska Magernitsa is the Lonely Planet ‘Top Choice’ restaurant in Sofia and I 100% understand why! It was just like walking into the courtyard of someones home, so welcoming and cosy. Tables were set up through out the courtyard and the house. The house/restaurant is a traditional Bulgarian home complete with family photos and other memorabilia. The food was absolutely exquisite, brilliantly presented with hearty, warm flavours served by smiling and friendly staff. I most definitely recommend this place!

Transport

Flights

We flew Eindhoven-Sofia return with Wizz Air for €110 per person, we found the best deal through Kiwi.com

Getting Around

All the best sights of Sofia are fairly central and easy to walk. If you prefer other options, the subway is cheap and easy to use but there are only two subway lines. Each trip costs 1.60 LEV / €0.80. For this same price you can even ride the subway to the airport!

Airport transfers by taxi cost around 12 Lev / €6. At the airport is an official desk where you can book a taxi voucher. Be aware that there are many taxi scams, the best idea is to go into a hotel and ask them to call you a taxi. If you do take your chances hailing a cab on the street be aware that costs should be <1 LEV per kilometres, if you can see the metre spinning up too quickly, cancel your ride!

Accommodation

We stayed at Rila Hotel Sofia. The entrance looked clean and modern as it was the only part of the hotel which had been renovated. Rooms were outdated, but otherwise clean and functional. While Rila Hotel may not have been the best looking hotel, it was certainly brilliantly located only two minutes walk from the central Vitosha Boulevard.For this reason, I would absolutely recommend staying here.
Three nights in a twin room cost €111.

Sofia, Bulgaria

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Beautiful Budapest

Many years ago I visited Budapest and due to some personal issues didn’t have the best experience, despite being able to see that it was a beautiful city. I felt that it was time to ‘redeem’ Budapest, and popped over for a super quick city break.

I was not disappointed and had spectacularly wonderful time!

Free Walking Tour: Original

Fishermans BastionAs is my preference to start exploring any city, I started with a Free Walking Tour. Based on the experience and recommendation of a friend, I did the Original Walking Tour.

The tour guide Lilla was a Budapest local, born and raised in Hungary. She walked us through various parts of the city and history.

The city of Budapest is split across two sides of the river Danube. One side of the river is Buda, meaning water and the other is Pest, meaning fire.

Hungary has a population of 10 million, approximately 1.7 million in Budapest, and the nation has 13 Nobel Prize winners. The theory is that the complexity of the language is intertwined with the level of complexity the Hungarian mind can process. This talented and modest nation of people has been the mother to great innovation and creative design including the Rubik’s cube, ballpoint pen, helicopter rotors and much more.

Some History

Nomadic pagans first arrived in Hungary from Asia in 896, and as a result the number 96 because a significant, or special number in Hungarian culture. The asian origins of Hungary is still evident today in the language, which is highly complex and has no links to any other European language (Finnish is the other Asian based language in Europe – these two are considered to be among the most complex languages to learn)

St Steven was crowned as the first King of Hungary in 1000, and converted the nation to Christianity.  In 1241 a Mongol invasion caused havoc and and much damage Throughout Hungary; in 1340 Hungary feel under the rule of Louis the Great; in 1526 the Hungarian forces were conquered by the Ottoman Turks; and in 1699 the Turks were expelled and the nation fell under Austrian rule. Eventually Hungary became a partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrian architecture is still the predominant architectural style visible in the city of Budapest.

In 1918, post World War I, a Hungarian republic was proclaimed; but in 1919 the country was taken over by communist rule. According to Lilla, if nothing else, life under communist rule taught Hungarians to have and value a strong separation of their personal and public lives. Public appearances will convey happiness and perhaps wealth – but personally this may or may not be the case.

Hungary finally became an independent democracy in 1990; and is now a member of the European Union, NATO, the OECD, the Visegrád Group, and the Schengen Area. Despite being a member of the EU, Hungary continues to use it’s own currency of Forint as the currency is not yet strong enough to make the switch to Euro.

Things to see

The Castle District

Matthias ChurchDespite the name, there is no castle on castle hill. Only the ruins can still be found. Regardless of whether a castle remains or not, the castle district is a gorgeous area to explore. Cute little streets, nice green parklands and my two favourites:theMatthias Church and the Fishermans Bastion.

The Church of our Lady, typically referred to as Matthias Church was started in the 13th century but rebuilt 100 years ago in it’s original gothic style. It’s a beautiful white church with a coloured tile roof.

I hear it is spectacular inside, but unfortunately it was closed on the day of my visit; entry costs 1500HUF.

The Fishermans Bastion is a terrace constructed along the hillside with seven turrets providing spectacular panoramic views of the river and city below. The seven turrets represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. It was constructed around 1900 out of beautiful white stone blocks. You can freely explore the Fisherman’s Bastion, but if you wish to walk the upper towers there is an entry fee of 800HUF. If I recall correctly, you can purchase a combo ticket for the church and bastion.

Chain Bridge

Chain BridgeChain Bridge was the first permanent bridge built over the Danube, to connect the two sides of the city. During the war the bridge suffered a lot of damage, it was blown up but pillars remained intact. The connections between the pillars were rebuilt after war.

Some quirky folklore to go along with this bridge is that the bridge’s architect said it was so perfect that he challenged all the people to find a flaw in it. If they found a flaw he would jump off his bridge and kill himself. It took two weeks but eventually a child said that the lions did not have tongues. The architect proceeded to spin a story about lions keeping their tongues in their mouths, unlike dogs – and that this was not a flaw but simply not visible; thus saving his life.

Heroes Square

Heroes Square is the largest square in Budapest. This millenium monument was established to commemorate the first 1000 years of the Hungarian state. The Archangel Gabriel is atop the central pillar, surrounded by seven Magyar Chieftains, and the semi circle of columns contains the likenesses of fourteen important historical figures, such as Kings. It is a beautiful site to wander around and behold.

Heroes Square

Gellert Hill

Gellert Hill is a 140 metre high Dolomite rock overlooking the river Danube. It is a beautiful area to explore with a natural park, several monuments and a cave church to explore.

On top of Gellert Hill is statue of lady holding palm leaf, which can be seen as a beacon from all over the city.

It was placed in 1947  by the Soviets as a symbol of liberation during World War II. Despite the rule and conditions under which she was placed on the hill, she was kept there because the Hungarians like the sculpture, though the inscription was modified to read “To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary”.

Tram Line 2

We didn’t get around to it, but we were advised that Tram Line 2 is worth riding around as it takes you past all the best sights of the city, offering beautiful views. When you google it, it is listed as one of the best tram rides in the world!

Thermal Baths

Szechenyi Thermal BathsBudapest is home to the largest thermal water cave system and the second-largest thermal lake in the world (Lake Hévíz). With more than 136 thermal springs around the city it is no wonder that there are many thermal baths to visit. The baths are both turkish and non-turkish styles, and an absolutely fantastic way to relax.

Possibly the most famous baths in the city are the Szechenyi Baths, which can be found just a few minutes walk from Heroes Square. Baths range in temperature from icy cold to searing hot, and are both indoor and outdoor. I lolled about in the tepid baths for several hours, genuinely wishing I had the entire day to soak it up and relax.

Prices vary from 4900HUF to 5600HUF dependent on whether you have an advanced booking and a locker or cabin, this gives access for single entry but full day use. The pools are also open in the evening for a ‘pool party’ in the outdoor pools.

Cave Systems

While I did not have the time for caving on this trip, my caving experience in 2007 was probably the best caving experience in my life.

Underneath the city are extensive cave system which you can explore on a variety of tours of differing challenge levels. Caving has always been my number one recommendation for anyone travelling to Budapest!

Ruin Bars

During communist rule normal buildings were owned by the state, but  when the conditions of the buildings deteriorated, they were simply deserted. Since then some artists bought them cheap,  did the minimum possible renovations and converted them into bars. The Ruin Bars are a very popular spot to drink (and eat) and can be found in the Jewish district.

Other things to spot

Little Princess SculptureThe “Little princess” sculpture by the river was placed in 1972, it was modelled on the daughter of the artist as she played in a paper crown and bathrobe as a mantel.

The Danubius Fountain in Erzsebet  square is beautifully constructed with with four sculptures; one to represent each of the four rivers of Hungary.

Food and Drink

Eating Chimney CakeHungary has a range of cuisine, but three traditional items to point out are Palinka, Langos and Chimney Cake.

Palinka  is a plum brandy,which legally needs to be between 36% to 80% alcohol. It’s quite extreme, but a must-try!

Langos is “communist pizza”, and a commonly found street food. It is a deep friend flat bread typically served with warm with sour cream and cheese, though there are many toppings available.

Chimney cake is a hollow chimney shaped cake that’s quite crispy and coated in a sugary glaze. The sugar and vanilla flavour is most traditional, but more recently the flavours, and fillings, have expanded in options. The best chimney cake has been baked on open fire.

Accommodation

I am incredibly lucky to have a Hungarian friend, who has an apartment in Budapest which she rents out via airbnb. It’s an absolutely gorgeous, recently renovated one bedroom apartment in a brilliant location just a few minutes walk to Heroes Square.

If you are headed to Budapest – then I can’t recommend this apartment highly enough as the ideal place to stay!!!

If you haven’t already got an airbnb account – feel free to sign up using my link, to give us both some travel credit.

Getting Around

Flights

I always search for flights using a variety of search engines: Kiwi, Momondo and Kayak. This particular trip I booked via Momondo, and a return flight Amsterdam-Budapest cost €158 with KLM.

Airport Transfers

Sadly Uber doesn’t operate in Budapest, but for transfers to and from the airport the most cost effective option for two people was a taxi. On arrival at the airport is an official taxi booth where you request and are assigned an offical taxi. A one way taxi ride cost approximately €20.

If you are ever taking a taxi – do not hail one from the street, as there are many taxi scams. I suggest to phone in a booking, or go into a nearby hotel and ask them to book you a taxi.

Taxi Numbers: 
+36 1 211 1111   +36 1 666 6666   +36 1 777 7777

Local Transport

Budapest has buses, trams, a subway system and bubi bikes to allow you to move around the city. My preference however is always to walk – so I cannot comment on prices and ease of use of public transport.

Budapest, Hungary

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Stunning sLOVEnia

Slovenia is one of the smallest countries in Europe with a land size of just over 20,000 square kilometres with a population of 2 million; 280,000 of whom are based in the country’s capital of Ljubljana.

Slovenia has a small section of coastline on the Gulf of Triest in the Adriatic Sea. The remainder of the country is inland with beautiful green rolling hills, high peaks in the alps, crisp blue rivers, canyons and lakes.

Ljubljana

Dragon Bridge guarding the city of Ljubljana, SloveniaLjubljana is a magical city that is more than 5000 years old. The city’s history goes back to Greek mythology and the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason was said to have followed a river on his return home from having stolen the Golden Fleece. Where the river dried up he and his team continued on foot until they found a lake guarded by a dragon. A fight ensued, Jason slay the dragon, but the legend of the dragon protector of Ljubljana was then born. The dragon remains the symbol of the city, and a bridge guarded by four dragons now pays homage to the dragon.

In Jason’s day Ljubljana was a lake amongst fields of green. The lake has since been dried up  during the Roman period and a city has been built up. Many of the older buildings in the old centre were built in the middle ages, there are also many 17th century architectural designs to be found in baroque and art nouveau style. After an earthquake destroyed roughly one third of the buildings,  the newer constructions were typically 19th century Art Nouveau. Many of the buildings, sculptures and general design were created by architect Jože Plečnik.

Despite the beautiful array of architecture, the city maintains a balance of nature and culture, with many parks and tree lined streets. The city is also flanked on two sides by forests with unrestricted access to the wildlife; as recently as six years ago a bear strolled into town!

Street art in Metelkova Mesto, SloveniaThe focal point of the city is the castle on the hill; the old city and the river sweep in an arc around this castle hill. The river is the cultural hub of town and all the main historical sights are along the river. Numerous bridges of different designs allow one to cross back and forth from one side to the other.

The old city has a wonderfully alluring charm, and I absolutely adored strolling around. While it is very easy to get around and find things, for orientation as well as city history and legends I would highly recommend the free walking tour; some highlights include: the Pink Church, Cathedral, Triple Bridge and Dragon Bridge.

Not included in the walking tour is a visit to the castle on the hill. You can walk up there in around 15 minutes or can pay to ride a funicular up the hill. The funicular costs €4 return or €10 including a castle visit. A castle visit by itself is €8. The courtyard, cafe, a few hallways and towers of the castle are free to enter. I did not pay for a ticket and I do not feel I missed anything.

In addition to appreciating the old architecture the city does have some more modern work, street art. Unfortunately timing didn’t work out for me but I really would have liked to do the graffiti walking tour. However I did make it to the popular street art site, Metelkova Mesto. Previously army barracks turned into squats, it has become a bit of a street art and cultural hub. It’s well worth a look around.

NIght photo of the Pink Church and Triple Bridge, Slovenia

Getting Around Ljubljana

I throughly enjoyed exploring Ljubljana by foot, certainly within the old town there is no need for transport.

Eating out

For traditional food I have two restaurant recommendations:

Violin offer a good range of Slovenian foods, a great ‘menu of the day’ option and a really good price point. Service is a bit slow and not the most friendly I have ever experienced.

Julija had spectacular food at a higher price point, and brilliant service. You have to be lucky to get a table. I was lucky by going in for an early lunch. Simply divine flavours!

Bled

Boating on the lake, SloveniaThe town of Bled is best known for it’s lake, Lake Bled. Settled between the rolling green hills is a beautiful green water lake, 31 metres deep and home to 19 types of fish. Some of which are insanely huge!

Within the lake is a small island of triassic limestone and dolomite, rising from the floor of the former Bohinj glacier. You can rent a boat to row out to the island, or you can pay for a seat in a boat for €14.

On the island is the Church of the mother of God on the lake, which you may visit for €6. In the church is a wishing bell which visitors may ring, and as a result the bell ringing can be heard echoing across the lake throughout the day. A truly beautiful and calming sound.

On the lake overlooking the lake is Bled Castle, it affords beautiful views over the lake and surrounds. The entry fee for the castle was €10, and while the castle is steeped in history I was a little disappointed that the majority of spaces had been converted into shops.

Walking or cycling around the lake is a brilliant way to spend the time and enjoy the area. My estimation is that the distance around the lake is approximately 6 kilometres. The highlight for me was an additional short hiking loop at the far end of the lake to the two viewpoints: Mala Ojstrica (611m) and Mala Osojnica (685m). The views were absolutely spectacular and the first time I had seen the sun in Slovenia (I was simply unlucky with the weather for most of my trip).

Vintgar Gorge is a site worth visiting in the area. Along the river is a walkway which you can stroll along into the gorge – unfortunately due to heavy rains the gorge trails were closed when I visited. I was told that there is also a 2.5 hour walking loop along the mountains overlooking the gorge, but with time constraints I chose not to walk it. Vintgar is approximately a 7 kilometre round trip from Bled. You can get there by walking, by bicycle or pay €5 each way for a transfer (if you are solo then it is €10 each way); in high season there is also a tourist bus available.

Lake Bled from Mala Osojnica viewpoint, Slovenia

Getting Around Bled

I thought it was easy and pleasant to get around by foot. If you want to go a little faster then you can easily hire a bicycle for €3.50 for 1 hour; €5 for 2 hours or €6 for 3 hours.

Eating Out

I have only one restaurant recommendation from myself, and one on the word of a friend.

Okarina was the restaurant I went to twice. The price point was quite high in my opinion, but the food and service was amazing! I had the balkan meat skewer on one occasion and the flavours and tenderness of the meat were simply mouthwatering! The wild boar cutlets I had the following the night were equally amazing.

Friends had dinner in the restaurant in the castle on the hill overlooking the lake, they claimed that the food was simply divine!! An added bonus with dinner at the restaurant is that if you have a restaurant booking you do not need to pay the castle entry fee.

Flights

I found and booked my flights through Momondo.
The best deal I could find was a return trip Amsterdam – Ljubljana for €265.

Accommodation

As usual my accommodation was booked through booking.com.
In Ljubljana I stayed at H2O Hostel for €13 per night and at Lake Bled I stayed at Garden House Bled for €17 per night. Neither included breakfast, and a Garden House Bled towel rental was €1.

Getting Around

Airport transfers can be arranged online with one of the shuttle bus companies such as Markun or GoOpti. They both advertise transfers for €9, however when I tried to book a Sunday transfer with GoOpti they wanted to charge €13 so I stuck with Markun. I found them reliable and efficient.

For travel between Ljubljana and Bled I travelled with local buses. I used the Avtobusna postaja Ljubljana website to look up the schedule. You can just turn up to the bus station and buy the ticket on the bus, or the nearby ticket office. The bus departed from bus space 7 at the Ljubljana main bus station, at the time of writing. The transfer between Ljubljana and Bled is €6,30.

Ljubljana And Bled, Slovenia

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Trip to Tassie

Family PhotoWith the birth of a new family member, I made a short trip home to Tassie. I had some amazing fun times with the family, playing the fun auntie to my niece and nephew, as well as smothering the new baby in love and hugs.

In addition to spending loads of time with family and friends, I did a little bit of ‘touristing’ along the way. Here are the highlights…

Freycinet Adventures Sea Kayak TourFreycinet Panorama

Something that has been on my bucket list for some time, is a sea kayaking tour on the Freycinet Peninsula. I finally found the time to book in and do it, and I absolutely loved it!

Freycinet Adventures is a sea kayaking tour company owned and operated by a local Tasmanian couple Nathan and his wife Suze.

I booked in to the 3 hour Freycinet Paddle which set off from Muirs Beach. The tour started with a quick introduction to kayaking and very quickly you set off across the bay towards the Freycinet National Park. The first stop is locally known as The Fisheries and had a prominent role in the whaling history of the area; the second stop is The Quarry an old mining site; the third stop is in the vicinity of Honeymoon Bay and this is where you take a moment to stretch your legs and enjoy a hot drink and delicious locally made cookie.

Freycinet Paddle view of The HazardsWhile the stops are made for discussions on sites of significant historical impact, the guides chat (as much or as little as you like) throughout the duration of the paddle about the area and the history. Despite me being a local, Nathan taught me many new and fascinating things about the area. I had an absolutely amazing tour, a brilliant guide and we were lucky enough to have stunning weather. All-round an amazing and unforgettable experience!

The Freycinet Paddle costs $98 per adult. If you aren’t up for a three hour tour then Sea Kayak’s are available for rent; or if a three hour tour isn’t a big enough adventure for you look into a multi-day expedition tour.

Wineglass Bay Lookout Hike

Mum and I at the Wineglass Bay Lookout in Freycinet National ParkWithin the Freycinet National Park are loads of amazing walks. With my limited time frame my Mum and I only had the time to walk to the Wineglass Bay. It’s a reasonably steep uphill walk. It is 3km and takes roughly 1.5 hours up and back.

It is an absolutely beautiful walk with stunning views over Wineglass Bay. If you want a view looking down on Wineglass, then the Wineglass Bay Lookout or if you are up for a physical challenge, the Mt Amos track are a great idea!

To check out the range of day and multi-day hikes in the Freycinet National Park, check the National Parks website for details.

If you aren’t up for a big hike, then it’s worth considering the Aqua Taxi. This is a new offering from Freycinet Adventures and I think it’s absolutely brilliant. You can take the aqua taxi to hazards beach and walk the short 30min, flat-ish Isthmus Track over to Wineglass Bay Beach. Great for people who aren’t up for the physical challenge of going up and over the saddle.

The Aqua Taxi can also do drop off’s at Cook’s Beach or Crockett’s Beach. These are beaches that I have personally never been to. Cook’s Beach and the hike to Mt Freycinet were previously only possible as a multi-day hike in a national park where you need to bring in everything including your food and water. Crockett’s Beach is on another island altogether, Schouten Island.

So I personally can’t wait for the opportunity to visit these places as a day trip!! At the top of my list is an Aqua Taxi ride to Cook’s Beach from where I would like to hike Mt Freycinet; closely followed by the trip out to Crockett’s Beach on Schouten Island.

Prices for the Aqua Taxi start at $30.

Tahune Airwalk

View of the Picton River from the cantilever viewing platform of the Tahune AirwalkThe Tahune Airwalk is just over an hour drive south of Hobart, near the town of Geeveston. At the Airwalk are a few walking trails through and above the forest, among the trees; the most notable of which is the Airwalk itself. A series of metal walkways suspended amongst the canopies of the trees, with the highlight being the cantilever viewing platform hanging 50 metres above the forest floor, providing a stunning view of the forest and of the Picton River.

A visit to the Airwalk is a great way to get amongst nature and be humbled by the immense trees and amazing ecosystem. I have visited the airwalk numerous times, and it never fails to impress. On this occasion I visited with my travel buddy Wayne, who I had met in Argentina; and caught up with in New York; and who was coincidentally visiting Tasmania at the same time as me.

Entry to the Airwalk is $29; it is free for locals who are bring paying visitors.

Tassie Tourist

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Weekend whip around Belgium

Reflections on the Leie Canal at nightLiving in the South of The Netherlands, the closest international weekend getaway location is Belgium. With a reasonably last-minute decision, a friend and I drove down to Antwerp and Gent for the weekend and throughly enjoyed exploring these two towns.

Antwerp

Arriving in Antwerp we parked the car and started exploring the city on foot. We parked at the Grote Markt and walked a big loop along the river Scheldt, through the area called Zuid, Sint-Andres and into the historic centre. In our wandering we enjoyed stops for food, coffee and of course Belgian chocolate bon-bons. We also stopped by some of the historic sights of the city, many of which are UNESCO Heritage listed.

Much to my disappointment there were no free walking tours running at the time of my visit, perhaps due to Winter. If you are headed to Antwerp, I’d recommend checking if they are running the tours.

Worlds oldest half-hour hourglassHet Steen

Het Steen is a medieval fortress on the Scheldt river. Antwerp is one of Europe’s biggest ports, and Het Steen was previously used to control access to this port. It is a beautiful old building and is free to wander in for a look.

Near the entrance to the fortress is a sculpture called Lange Wapper, a Flemish folklore character. Inside the first courtyard is also the worlds oldest half-hour hourglass which I thought was beautiful.

Onze Lieve vrouwenkathedralOnze-Lieve Vrouwenkathedral

The Cathedral of our Lady is a roman-catholic cathedral from the 1500s in the historic centre of Antwerp. The bell tower has quite a striking clock face  and can be seen from various points around the city.

I enjoyed views of the cathedral from outside, but missed out on going inside as I got there after closing time.
Entry costs €6, check the opening hours.

StadhuisStadhuis & Grote Markt

The Town Hall of Antwerp can be found in a large open plaza called the Grote Markt.

The Stadhuis, town hall, is also from the 1500s and is another example of renaissance architecture. The Stadhuis has a beautifully structured and decorated gable.

Standing in the Grote Markt you have a beautiful view in all directions; a series of various shaped gables are a stunning silhouette against a sunny blue sky. This is a great spot to sit outside on one of the many terraces and enjoy a local brew.

Sint-Anna TunnelSint-Anna Tunnel

The Sint-Anna Tunnel is a lesser known gem of the city. It was established as a pedestrian and bicycle tunnel to cross from one side of the river to the other, in the 1930s.

The tunnel is 572 metres long and is still in use today. The 30s architecture of the tunnel is super charming, along with the wooden escalators.

In addition to the charming tunnel, the view of Antwerp from the opposite side of the river is worth the walk.

Gent

Leie CanalRoughly an hours drive from Antwerp is the magical town of Gent. It reminded me of Bruges, as they both have canals winding through the town. Despite thoroughly enjoying my half day in Antwerp, it was Gent that stole my heart.

The town is wonderfully charming; it has a friendly feeling to it combined with old world character. Sitting at a cafe beside a canal watching the boats go by, drinking a latte and tucking into a Belgian Waffle was such a fantastic way to spend time.

Belgian Waffles by the riverGent has free walking tours operating daily. While I didn’t get to a free walking tour I did get to a Canal Boat Tour and would highly recommend doing the same.

The boat tours leave from either side of the Leie River near the Graslei. It’s a relaxing hour cruising up and down the canal learning about the history of the town.

Some of the more interesting things I learned included the fact that: the town has a whopping 53 churches, every guild in the town had its own church; the town has only one building with a wooden facade, all wooden facades were banned in Europe after the London fires of 1666; and the Dutch expression Stone Rich (Steenrijk) originated from historic times when only very rich people could afford to build stone houses.

Some sights to check out…

Belfort

Belfort of GentThe Belfort of Gent is one of the three towers looking over the city’s historic centre. It is flanked by the Sint-Niklaaskerk (which I did not visit) on one side and Sint Baafskathedraal on the other side.

The Belfort was constructed in the 1300s and has been used as both a bell tower and fortified watchtower. The tower spire is adorned with a gilded dragon, which I consider to be such a charming feature.

My favourite aspect of the Belfort is that it is open for the public to climb, entry costs €8. The long way up a narrow winding staircase, is rewarded with stunning views over the historical city of Gent.

Sint-Baafskathedraal

Sint-Baafskathedral is another cathedral of Gothic architecture, which is free to visit. The exterior of the cathedral is undergoing renovation, but what you can see is certainly beautiful.

It is a stunning cathedral to visit, with beautiful old artworks adorning the walls, and meticulously detailed sculptures, altars and alcoves. It is worth stopping by for a look.

Gravensteen

Gravensteen CastleGravensteen is a castle in the centre of town. The current construction of the castle dates back to the 1100s, though the site first housed a wooden castle in the 900s. The restored parts of the castle have been open to the public since the 1900s.

Gravensteen is one of very few castles in the world that can be found in a city centre; it looks imposing yet dignified in the historic centre of Gent.

The castle has an entry fee of €10, and I chose not to visit it on this occasion.

Big Canon

On Big Canon Square (Grootkanonplein) you will find a 12,500kg Canon. The canon is rumoured to have been used once, on which occasion it shot a big bad canon ball that was so heavy it only fell 5cm from the mouth of the canon.

Now it serves only as decoration and has the nickname Dulle Griet, or Evil Woman.

Korenmarkt

The Korenmarkt is the main city square in Gent, and has beautiful historic buildings on all sides. When we walked through the square it was filled with tourists and locals enjoying a warm winters day out, and with children running after the clouds of bubbles floating through the air. Such fun and laughter!

Belgium Weekend

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A long weekend in London

For close to two years I have been an active member of a Facebook group called Girls about the Globe for women who travel solo. It was established by Lisa from the website Girl about the Globe. So when Lisa suggested a group meetup in London I was super excited!

London is only a 50 minute flight from Amsterdam, and there are regularly super cheap deals. It’s a great place for a weekend city break, so that’s exactly what I did.

My primary purpose for the visit was of course, meeting some of the amazing women I have spent the last months talking to online. I also spent time catching up with a good friend from university back home, and another friend who I had met on my trip along the Garden Route in South Africa. Amongst all my catching up, I did squish in some sightseeing, but only a little.

Girls about the Globe London Meetup

Harry Potter Studio Tour

Straight off the bat it’s worth mentioning I’m a Harry Potter fan. Not a complete lose-my-shit-omg fan, but enough to be excited at the prospect of going to the Harry Potter studio. I read all the books in Dutch when I was living in The Netherlands as an 18 year old (GREAT way to learn a language by the way!) and then bought DVDs of all the movies once I was back in Australia.

The Great Hall, Harry Potter StudioThe Studio Tour was fantastic! The first part of the tour is guided, but beyond that is self-guided. After an introduction to the movies and the studio, we were led into the magical great hall by our guide. Our first glimpse of the genuine sets used in the movies.

Beyond the great hall were various sets, costumes and props. I spent three hours wandering around, soaking up the magical atmosphere and snapping pics. The amount of detail that went into the design and creation of each and every item was simply amazing.

The tour is actually split over two studios: J and K (JK…JK Rowling). Before moving from one studio to the other there is a small cafe, where you may treat yourself to some authentic Butterbeer!   It was obscenely priced and tasted horrid, nonetheless I felt I my visit would not have been complete without it.

The Harry Potter Studio is quite a way out of town, allow an hour transit time and you also need to be there 45 minutes before your tour. You catch the train to Watford Junction (around £16 return) and the shuttle bus from there to the studio (£2.50 return). Tickets need to be purchased in advance (£39 for the basic ticket), and you need to provide evidence of this in order to catch the shuttle bus to the studio. Alternately you can book a tour leaving from London, Generator Hostel offer a tour I believe, and this takes the transport hassle out of the equation.

Exploring the Thames by foot

I am a person that really explore by foot, so I actually spent a fabulous evening just wandering  down the river Thames to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Then I crossed the river and walked down the other side all the way to Tower Bridge, and crossing over Tower Bridge back to the North side of the river. The city is really beautiful at night.

Being by the river I found it particularly spectacular to see the colours buildings and architectural structures reflected in the glassy surface of the river. If I hadn’t been so tired, then I would have stopped at one of the many riverside pubs to enjoy a wine.

Tower Bridge by Night, London

Street Art Walking tour

Peace X-Ray London Street ArtFree Tours by Foot are a company that organise free walking tours all over the world. Surprisingly, I don’t think I have done one of their tours before so it was about time I did. They offer a fantastic 2-2.5hour Street Art Walking tour of East London. My guide was Greg, a local London street artist. He was incredibly knowledgeable about street art as an art form, it’s history, various styles, the artists, and of course the general rules and code of ethics amongst artists.

Despite the bitter, bitter cold and fear of losing my toes, the tour was brilliant and I throughly enjoyed it. I saw loads of different types of street art, some which I liked, some which I didn’t.

The Shard…bar

The Shard by nightOn asking for “must see places” in London loads of people mentioned to me that I should go to The Shard. The Shard is  a skyscraper that almost literally looks like a shard of glass sticking into the air. It is one of the more recent architectural icons of London and provides a spectacular view of the city.

Tickets for the viewing gallery of The Shard are certainly what I would consider a bit ‘up there’. Bookings in advance are £21, but an ‘on-the-day’ visit is £31. However, the view from the Aqua Shard bar is amazing…and free!

I headed up to the bar, slowly sipped an overpriced glass of delicious wine and soaked up some spectacular views of London across the range of daylight through to night time. It really was beautiful!

Girls about the Globe

Girls about the Globe is a Facebook group/community for women who travel solo. The group was established by Lisa and is supported by Natalie, and of course all the members of the community. We all share our thoughts, concerns and travel tips; as well as request recommendations and arrange to meetup with others if we are travelling to the same destination.

It is a friendly group of women who are incredibly encouraging and supportive of each other.

Accommodation

London has LOADS of fantastic accommodation options, and with the comprehensive subway system the majority are well located. I chose to stay at Generator Hostel due to the fact that some of the other girls would also be staying here. Generator was a pretty funky hostel. The breakfast was ok but not amazing and it wasn’t the most cosy atmosphere. Despite that it had a positive vibe, it was clean, upbeat and lively.

A Long Weekend In London

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Australia Day LP Promotion

“Aussie Aussie Aussie … Oi, Oi, Oi”
This is the all too familiar chant of Australia Day.

If you’ve always dreamed of visiting Australia then now is the time to jump on that curiosity and grab a Lonely Planet Guide to help you research and plan your adventure.

To celebrate Australia Day Lonely Planet are offering up to 65% off Australia eBooks.

The promotion starts on January 26th (Australia Day) and runs for a limited time, use the code CORKER to access these deals.

Check out the Lonely Planet Shop now and prepare yourself to visit some of these pristine beaches..

Wineglass Bay taken from Mt Amos, Freycinet National Park
Wineglass Bay taken from Mt Amos, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania Australia
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Berlin in 36 hours

Eastside Gallery in BerlinWhat can you see in Berlin in 36 hours?
A whole lot actually!!

When I returned to The Netherlands in October, the first thing one of my cousins said to me was that she had never been to Berlin and wanted to go together with me. We picked a date in December, booked the cheapest transport we could, tee’d up accommodation with one of my best friends who lives in Berlin and I told my cousin to make a list of everything she wanted to see.

At the end of trip she was absolutely thrilled that we had been able to tick everything off her list – she hadn’t anticipated how easy it would be to get around all the main sites of Berlin.

My walking-sightseeing route

I am a person who enjoys walking, so this is my recommended walking route for sightseeing Berlin. You could easily do things in a different order, take transport to connect sections and also split the adventure over multiple days. I will mention both things you could see as well as what we did see. Also your personal interests and budget will alter what things you consider worth visiting.

Alexanderplatz is a great spot to start your sightseeing, there is a big open square with loads of shops and cafe’s, not to mention a famous world clock. During December there are two enormous Christmas Markets in this area, one on each side of the station. They are well worth a visit for some tasty food and drink, not to mention shopping and ice skating.

Berliner DomA nice way to start is with a visit up the tv-tower, Fernsehturm. The tower was completely shrouded in fog, so we didn’t bother with this visit. However, if you have never been to Berlin and the skies are clear, it provides a reasonable view of the area, which can really help give perspective to the city’s layout.

From here you head up the Karl-Liebknecht Strasse in the direction of the Brandenburger Tor. Based on time and interest, you could make your first stop the St. Marienkirche; you could also zip across to visit the Rotes Rathaus and  Nikolaikirche both on/near Spandauer Strasse. The Nikolaikirche is the oldest church in Berlin.

We made our first tourist stop a visit to the Berliner Dom on Karl-Liebknecht Strasse. It is a beautiful old cathedral on Museum Island. While originally established in 1415, the cathedral underwent various changes in administration and construction over time. The current building was established in 1905. It is a domed beautiful cathedral that is worth a visit, be sure to climb the cupola and walk around the terrace outside. The entry fee is €7.

Neue WacheContinuing up Karl-Liebknecht Strasse you have a nice view of the Lustgarten and you could pay a visit to the Humboldt-Box. Once you cross the beautiful Schlossbrücke bridge, the street name changes to Under den Linden. A very well known street.

Our next stop was a visit to the monument Neue Wache. It is a memorial for the victims of war and tyranny. It is a sombre hall with a single sculpture lit by natural light funnelling into the room through a central portal in the ceiling. I find it a fascinating memorial to visit. Entry is free.

Across the road from the Neue Wache and little further up, turn left in front of the Humboldt University to find Bebelplatz and the underground library, memorial sit of the nazi book burnings.  These outdoor memorials are obviously free to visit.

Continuing in this direction at the end of the street and to the left is St Hedwigs Cathedral, a beautiful and strikingly modern cathedral.

Drinking FeuerzangenbowleFrom St-Hedwigs continue up Behrenstrasse to Charlottenstrasse, turn left to visit the Gendarmenmarkt. This is a stunning square with a French Cathedral on the right, German Cathedral (Deustcher Dom) on the left and Concert hall behind. At the time of our visit the square was filled with one of the most popular Christmas Markets of Berlin. Needless to say, we paid our entry fee and popped in to look around and enjoy a Feuerzangenbowle (a very alcoholic version of Glühwein). The Deutscher Dom is also worth a visit.

From the Gendarmenmarkt head up two blocks to Friedrichstrasse, turn left on this street. This is the super fancy part of town with all the expensive shops, I don’t recommend shopping, but I do however recommend walking along the street to visit Checkpoint Charlie and numerous other sites in the immediate area with information about the Berlin wall.

Checkpoint CharlieFrom Checkpoint Charlie walk along Mauerstrasse to Leipziger Strasse and up to Potsdamer Platz. Potsdamer Platz is the old heart of Berlin and still today is a central hub for the city. During December it is also a site of another very popular Christmas Market.

From Postdamer Platz head along Ebertstrasse in the direction of the Brandenburger Tor. After a few blocks you will come across the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; and if it interests you the site of Hitlers Bunker (on Gertrud-Komar Strasse).

Back on Ebertstrasse a block or so further is the Brandenburger Tor and Pariserplatz, the end point of the famous street Unter den Linden. The Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, used to serve as a gate separating East and West Berlin; it now symbolises Germany’s unity.

Brandenburger Tor

ReichstagNorth of the Brandenburger Tor is the German Parliament building, the Reichstag. This is one of my architecturally favourite buildings in the world. The lower part is constructed of stone, while the cupola at the top is glass, steel and mirrors. I find it an interesting contrast and simply beautiful to visit, both during the day and after dark. Visits to the Reichstag are free, but you really need to book online in advance, but during the month of your visit. If you don’t book online, it is still possible to visit, but you need to stand in line for up to a few hours to make an appointment. If you have a short visit I would strongly advise booking in advance.

These are the main sites in central Berlin, all within a simple walking route. Outside of this area I highly recommend a visit to the East Side Gallery, though I recommend using transport to get there. By train the nearest station is Ost-Bahnhof, by U-Bahn or S-Bahn head to Warschauer Strasse. From here you can see the iconic Oberbaumbrücke and walk the length of the East Side Gallery, which consists of painted sections of the Berlin Wall.

For more detailed information and some additional ideas on things to see and do on a longer stay, check out my other post on Berlin.

Tourist Tickets

Many cities have a city pass which you can buy that includes entry fees to certain sites, and also sometimes includes your public transport. Many cities have just one tourist card, Berlin however has five on offer: Berlin Pass,  Berlin CityTour Card, Berlin WelcomeCard, EasyCityPass Berlin and QueerCityPass Berlin.

While this is something we didn’t make use of, I would highly recommend investigating if one of these passes covers the things you want to see and do, and evaluate if it is a more cost effective option for you.

Transport

Around Berlin

Staying at a friend’s place outside the city centre, we bought daily A,B,C tickets which cost €7,70 and allowed us unlimited public transport in zones A, B and C; using regional trains, S-Bahn, U-Bahn, Bus and Tram. For central Berlin an A ticket should be plenty.

Getting there and Back

To get the cheapest transport between Rotterdam, The Netherlands and Berlin, Germany we did quite a bit of googling. The three main options are bus, train and plane. If you are lucky then you can get a flight for €25 with Transavia, though in looking for flights I would still always check Kiwi.com first.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find cheap flights as we were travelling at peak season for Christmas Markets. The cheapest we found was on overnight bus with FlixBus and a return train trip; which cost €29 and €49,90 respectively.

Berlin In 36 Hours

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Twenty-Sixteen what an amazing year it was!

Twenty Sixteen was such an amazing year full of so many adventures, with so many amazing shared and solo experiences.

My year in review

Family Christmas 2015I started the year at home in Tasmania with family, catching up with friends and relaxing in the sunshine (on the days it wasn’t raining or snowing). I also enjoyed playing tour guide for a Melbourne-based Brazilian friend who came to visit.

After some down-time at home I packed my bags and was off to continue the adventure.

I started in the Middle East with a group tour of Egypt and Jordan, followed by a solo trip through Israel. I then flew down to Nairobi, Kenya to meet my cousin Mirjam for some African Overlanding Adventures. We had the most phenomenal tour group in our truck and the journey through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe was simply a barrel of laughs, ending with tears as we said goodbye. I continued overlanding through Botswana and South Africa with a new group, and then went solo around Cape Town. I’ve never been the biggest meat lover, but I did take this African adventure as an opportunity to try several game meats including Ostrich, Crocodile, Kudu, Gemsbok and Warthog.

Elephants in the Serengeti

Camino Family at Kilometre Zero in FinisterreI headed back to The Netherlands for a super quick re-pack before heading to Saint Jean Pied de Port in Southern France to start walking my way across North Spain to Santiago de Compostela. While many undertake the 800km pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, for spiritual reasons, I really wanted to challenge myself physically and mentally. Despite the foot pain of walking for 31 consecutive days, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I throughly enjoyed the camaraderie among fellow pilgrims, I made some friends for life and I am incredibly proud of what we achieved together. It was absolutely amazing.

Galapagos Island visit with mumAfter a brief recovery period, I headed back across the oceans to South America. I spent six weeks in Ecuador, mostly touring around Quito and other places in the highlands. I survived a dog attack, and hopefully enriched the lives of some children when I volunteer taught in the rural town of Salasaca. The highlight of my Ecuador adventure was a visit from my mum, my aunt and uncle and some family friends. Together we fulfilled mums lifelong dream of visiting the Galapagos Islands. We cruised from island to island on a boat for 8 days, exploring the amazing landscapes and wildlife both above and below the waters surface. We even swam with three different breeds of shark; however it was the slow and elegant sea turtles that grabbed my attention.

Bahia De Las Aguilas, remote beach in the Dominican RepublicAfter the sadness of saying goodbye to my mummy, I was cheered up by my camino family who met me in Colombia to celebrate my birthday and explore the country together. Colombia is such a beautiful country, we saw and did so many amazing things, it even crossed my mind a few times to look for a job there!

However, I moved on soon enough to an English teaching job in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. It turned out to be one of the worst decisions I made, but I made the most of it, made some amazing friends and explored as much of this Caribbean Island as I could.

The adventure changes…

Newest Industry Office SignThere’s no way I will ever be sick of a life in travel, but at some point things change. My travel funds ran out, and I needed to seek a method of financing my travel addiction. I found an awesome job as a Business Analyst for a software startup, Newest Industry, in The Netherlands and have since moved to Rotterdam.

While my travel funds build up I will be working full time, exploring The Netherlands and taking European City Breaks whenever the opportunity arises.

If you are in The Netherlands and want to meet up; or want to meet me elsewhere in the world…drop me a line! I’m always open to adventure!!!

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Explore the world with me!