Category Archives: Travel

12in12 Running Challenge

Running in BupdapestI try to stay reasonably fit and strong. One of the cheapest, easiest and convenient forms of exercise is running. So I run and I know it’s good for me (mentally and physically), but it’s not my favourite thing to do.

Every so often I sign up for a competitive running event because it’s a good way to scare myself into keeping active.

The History

In November 2016 my uncle was signed up for a running race called the Zevenheuvelenloop (Seven hills run) in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He and his running buddy were unable to participate and handed their entries over to my ‘partner-in-crime’ and I. Soon thereafter we were signed up for the Bruggenloop (Bridge run) in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Around this time my partner came across a blog post written by two Dutch girls who were challenging themselves to run twelve competitive running events in 12 months in order to achieve 12 medals. When he told me about it, it would seem that I dared him to do it and somehow we both ‘signed up’ for running 12 races in 12 months.

The Challenge

We’ve set up some rules for ourselves for this challenge. The challenge is to complete twelve competitive, and officially recognised, running events in a twelve month period. The race you has to be 10 kilometres or over. The event has to award a medal.

We did not have any other limiting conditions on the way we completed the challenge. We completed a variety of events, all over The Netherlands (and one in Budapest) covering a range of distances: 10 kilometres, a car-chasing event,10 english miles (16K) and a half marathon.

If you want to sign up to an official 12in12 challenge, commit to 12 events of the same distance and receive a 12in12 medal; then there is an official challenge site 12in12.

The Events

Zevenheuvelenloop Medal#1 Zevenheuvelenloop
Nijmegen, NL 

November 20, 2016
Distance: 15 km
Time: 1:22:57
Avg Pace: 5:30 min/km

One of the most popular and scenic races in The Netherlands, despite the name it doesn’t have seven hills, rather it’s named after the street along which you run, the Zevenheuvelenweg.

Bruggenloop Medal#2 Bruggenloop
Rotterdam, NL 

December 11, 2016
Distance: 15 kilometres
Time: 1:26:59
Avg Pace: 5:45 min/km

Really fun evening race where you run through the sunset and everyone wears flashing green armbands. After the sun has set the sea of green flowing through the streets looks awesome. The run crosses several bridges and passes through a tunnel; it’s a great city tour of Rotterdam with many cheering spectators. This is probably my favourite medal simply based on it’s appearance.

Egmond Aan Zee Half Marathon Medal#3 Egmond Half Marathon
Egmond aan Zee, NL 

January 8, 2017
Distance: 21,1 kilometres
Time: 1:57:36
Avg Pace: 5:35 min/km

A run along the beach and through the dunes is not my ideal terrain, but it certainly was scenic! This was a tough race as I was not just fighting the cold, I was fighting the flu. I like that the medal is quite heavy, it’s reflective of the heavy nature of a half marathon along the beach in the winter.

Midwinter Marathon Medal#4 Midwinter Marathon
Apeldoorn, NL 

February 5, 2017
Distance: 10 miles
Time: 1:36:57
Avg Pace: 6:00 min/km

A very quiet and cold forest run, not the most inspiring event. We took the opportunity to do some sightseeing of the Royal Summer Palace after the race, since we were in the neighbourhood.

CPC Den Haag Medal#5 CPC Loop
The Hague, NL 

March 12, 2017
Distance: 10 kilometres
Time: 55:40
Avg Pace: 5:36 min/km

The first warm day of the running season, a super happy vibe in the city and a good crew of friends to run with; the CPC was loads of fun.

Enschede Marathon#6 Enschede Marathon
Enschede, NL 

April 23, 2017
Distance: 10 kilometres
Time: 52:37
Avg Pace: 5:12 min/km

As Enschede is a border city we combined this event with a weekend trip to a pink castle in Benrath and explore the city of Düsseldorf, Germany. Aside from our sightseeing, the event itself wasn’t particularly memorable.

Wing for Life Medal#7 Wings-for-life
Breda, NL 

May 7, 2017
Distance: 14.57 kilometres
Time: 1:27:04
Avg Pace: 5:59 min/km

With a group of five of us, we made a team called the “Suckers for Punishment” and signed up for the Red Bull Wings for Life relay. It’s an awesome race with no set distance, you simply keep running until a chaser car catches up with you. It’s a fund raising event to support sufferers of spinal cord injury. Absolutely truck loads of fun!

Leiden Marathon Medal#8 Leiden Marathon
Leiden, NL 

May 21, 2017
Distance: 10 kilometres
Time: 56:55
Avg Pace: 5:37 min/km

Leiden is a really cute town. Old architecture, bridges, canals and sunny weather made the run a very pleasant one.

Maastrichts Mooiste Medal#9 Maastrichts Mooiste
Maastricht, NL 

June 11, 2017
Distance: 10 miles
Time: 1:42:52
Avg Pace: 6:27 min/km

A beautiful but challenging run in crazy hot weather; with a cheeky loop over the border into Belgium (I can assure you though, I did not run with my passport in my pocket). This was the only race where I have ever been given cake at the end! It’s a traditional cake called Limburgse Vlaai.

Dam tot Damloop Medal#10 Dam tot Damloop
Amsterdam, NL 

September 17, 2017
Distance: 10 miles
Time: 1:37:30
Avg Pace: 6:03 min/km

The most popular race in The Netherlands is by far the Dam tot Damloop. Entries sell out within hours of registration opening. A run from the centre of Amsterdam to the city of Zaandam. After a break from running over the summer, this was quite a challenging run; despite the pain I was in, the huge volume of spectators cheering us on was a real motivator!
Note:  I forgot to wear my Garmin on this run, so stats are pulled manually from the official event site.

Bredase Singelloop Medal#11 Bredase Singelloop
Breda, NL 

October1, 2017
Distance: 10 kilometres
Time: 56:24
Avg Pace: 5:35 min/km

Breda is another cute town, with adorable architecture, cobble-stone streets, bridges and canals. The race finished near the church, which is the architectural focal point of the city.

Budapest Marathon Medal#12 Budapest Marathon
Budapest, HU 

October 15, 2017
Distance: 10 kilometres
Time: 59.26
Avg Pace: 5:53 min/km

We celebrated the offical finish of our challenge with a holiday and run in one of our favourite cities, Budapest. We had beautiful weather and it was a nice, different way to do a ‘city tour’. The best way to relax all the muscles after the run was a half day soak in the thermal baths and an evening river cruise down the Danube.

Brabant Marathon Medal#13 Marathon Brabant
Etten-Leur, NL 

November 20, 2017
Distance: 10 kilometres
Time: 56:24
Avg Pace: 5:35 min/km

Lucky run number thirteen. Despite our planned big hurrah of a final race in Budapest, we decided that to add a thirteenth race into the mix and wrap up our challenge with an event in our home town. As a recent local the entire run, apart from the start and finish 1 kilometre, was new territory for me. A nice way to see more of my new town. With the wintery weather, we had fantastic luck that we finished the race and got home just 5 minutes before the torrential rain began!

TOTAL

Distance: 174.52 kilometres
Time: 16:49:21
Overall Average Pace: 5:45 min/km

The Gear

Just in case you wanted to know what my standard sports kit includes

12in12 Photo Gallery

Click on the image in the slider to check out my photographic summary of each event.

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Navigating Northern Namibia

Yawning Cheetah at AfriCat in OkonjimaAfter an awesome Southern Namibia loop, I linked into a Northern Namibia loop. The 7 Day Northern Adventure tour started with a new group of people and surprisingly the same guide, Tongai. After a quick introduction of the route and highlights we all bundled into the truck and off we went.

I always book my tours through TourRadar where I can find loads of different tour options AND I earn travel credit each time I book, which I can use as discounts next time. If this sounds good to you, sign up using my referral link and we will both earn travel credits!

Okonjima

The first stop was an overnight in the AfriCat Nature Reserve in Okonjima. AfriCat is a project set up to rescue cats that have been injured, or raise animals who lost a parent when they were too young to survive on their own. Once animals have been rehabilitated or raised to a point of self-sufficiency they go through a few monitored phases of release back into the wild. Their first period of release also has the animals on a form of contraception so they first learn to hunt and survive, before they begin to breed.

Leopard at AfriCat in Okonjima

A large portion of Namibia land is privately owned farms, with livestock. With free roaming cheetahs and leopards, many farmers lose livestock to the predatorial cats, and as a result often shoot them. The AfriCat foundation assists in cases where these shootings don’t result in death, but they do more than respond retroactively. They proactively work to educate farmers of the hunting habits and behaviours of various predators, so rather than shoot the cats, take alternate measures to protect their livestock so they don’t fall into the hunting patterns of the cats. For example, Leopards typically hunt nocturnally, if livestock are kept in pens at night, they are not easy picking for a leopard and they leopard will hunt on free roaming antelope instead.

The AfriCat Nature reserve is 20,000 acres; while the main focus is on cats such as cheetahs and leopards, you will also find various breeds of antelope, hyena, warthog, and jackals. On a game drive we saw many beautiful animals, the highlights being a leopard and some cheetahs.

Etosha National Park

Zebras in Etosha National ParkTwo days in Etosha National Park was the following activity on our schedule. The name Etosha mean Great White Place, and the size of the park with a huge salt pan is certainly accurate to its name. It is one of the largest national parks in Africa with a size of approximately 22,912km2, roughly the same land size as the country of Belgium. The Etosha salt pan within the park covers 21%, 4,730km2 of the parks area.

Our animal sightings within the park included: elephants, lions, red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, kudu, springbok, black faced impala, burchalls zebra, black backed jackals, and three black rhinos. Most sightings were at various waterholes around the park in the early morning or late afternoon.

Animals drinking at the waterhole in Etosha National Park

Otjikandero

When visiting any country it is important to not just see the sights and animals, but also learn about the tradition and culture of the country and its people. As mentioned in the Southern Namibia post, there are X peoples, or tribes, native to Namibia. In the town of Otjikandero we paid a visit to a Himba village. While Himba were traditionally a nomadic people, the Otjikandero site was established as a permanent base with an orphanage and school programs. The lower school grades are offered on site by a teacher from the Ovamba tribe (despite Ovambo people having vastly different traditions than the Himba), higher grades are offered through boarding school programs if the children have the financial support to attend, on-site are also literacy programs for adults offered by a teacher from the Herrero tribe (which is very similar in tradition to the Himba).

Young Himba boy in Otjikandero The village is made up of various huts constructed from Mopani trees. Each hut will house a family of up to 6 or 7 people. Each hut takes approximately 2.5 – 3 weeks to build, and they typically last 5-6 years; though some replastering is done after each rainy season.

The village huts all surround a main kral, where livestock is kept overnight. The main hut in the village is easily identifiable as it is directly opposite the kral entrance, the other thing between the hut and the kral is a holy fire. The leader of the village, who resides in the main hut, always leads the tribe together with his partner.

In regard to traditions growing up, it is still common practice that boys are circumcised, girls are not; and that all children who reach puberty have their four front lower teeth removed over the holy fire. Also polygamy is still an accepted tradition within the Himba people, though if a man wants another wife, the other wife(s) must agree to it, and each family of the man has a separate family hut.

Twyfelfontein 

In 1946 David Levine, the first European settler to the area found a local water spring, in a semi-arid region of the country. The spring was brilliant for his cattle and sheep, though he was never sure if there would be enough water to sustain the farm, and he called the area “doubt fountain” twijfel fontein.

The Lion-Man stone engraving at TwijfelfonteinBefore David settled in this site, drawings/carving were found in 1921. The engravings are believed to be 2000-6000 years old and probably done by the San people. The engravings were made by using quartz to scratch images into the sandstone. As the San people were Nomadic hunter-gatherers, it is believed that the engravings were used as maps to share with fellow people to share and teach what can and cannot be hunted, and what can be found where, such as water sources. Artists often marked their work with an outline of their foot.

A common drawing seen in the area is a Giraffe. The Giraffe is a sacred animal, the bringer of water. The most important icon to be found was the Lion-Man. Each site will only ever have one lion-man, as each tribe only has one leader. The Lion man is depicted with five toes instead of four, and is representative of the Shaman.

While the site offered mostly engravings, there were also some paintings to be found and some natural rock formations. The visit to Twijfelfontein was truly fascinating and beautiful. Our guide Elizabeth did a fantastic job of sharing everything she knew about the site. Her love for the environment and history was made evident in the way she shared her knowledge.

Cape Cross Seal Colony

Cape Cross is a seal reserve on the skeleton coast. It is a protected area, home to the world’s largest fur seal colony. The seal colony is very loud and smelly to visit, but certainly interesting to visit briefly.

Swakopmund 

Sandboarding in Swakopmund

Swakopmund is the northern most city we visited on the coast of Namibia. It is a town with a population around 75,000, a reasonably small city. The old German architecture contrasting the new modern buildings is quite fascinating to see. Swakopmund has several activities on offer if you have the time.

The number one thing on my ‘To Do’ list was to sand board down some dunes! Eben and Christian from Khoi San Sandboarding collected us from the hotel and took us about 15 minutes out of town to the designated dunes. With a big dune hike to start and a quick lesson we were carving up the dunes pretty quickly. It was loads of fun and definitely an activity I would recommend!

Okahandja

The very last stop of the tour was a visit to the craft markets of Okahandja, the best place to haggle over some local souvenirs! Okahandja has the biggest open-air craft market in Namibia. Be prepared to be hassled for your attention and business, but do explore and enjoy the experience.

Northern Namibia

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Lonely Planet Black Friday Deal


Lonely Planet are offering an incredible BUY ONE GET ONE FREE deal at Lonely Planet’s online shop.

The offer runs from Thursday 23rd November until Midnight Monday November 27th.

Simply use the code ONE4FREE to get 2 for 1 on everything, from guidebooks and ebooks to inspirational coffee table books.

Be inspired for a whole lot less and start planning an epic escape or two!

Where will your next adventure be?
Nicaragua Lonely Planet

My most recent LP acquisition is to my next adventure destination…. Nicaragua!

My three week Nicaraguan adventure is rapidly approaching. It is time to start planning.

My new Nicaraguan Lonely Planet has some great information on places to go; things to see and do; how to get around; budgeting tips. The highlight so far is the fantastic summary of the adventure activities on offer…and unsurprisingly I added Volcano Boarding to my Bucket List!!!

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Scouting around the South of Namibia

Oryx; GemsbokSince my first trip to Africa, a visit to Namibia has been at the top of my wish list. In August as a birthday present to myself I booked a Namibian adventure. With this adventure having time constraints I booked a tour with Wild Dog Safaris, the 14 Day Namibian Adventure.

The reason for my choosing this particular tour was to see Kolmanskop, Deadvlei and Etosha National Park. Kolmanskop is quite a detour from the standard route, so it is not included in many of the Namibian tours.
I always book with TourRadar because I earn travel credits; do the same and sign up with my referral link.

Namibia

Namibia is on the west coast of Africa, directly above South Africa. It’s currency, the Namibian Dollar, is equivalent to the South African Rand and within Namibia the currencies can be used interchangeably.

Namibia has a population of around 2.2 million living with a land size of approximately 825,000 square kilometers. According to wikipedia it is the second least densely populated country in the world with roughly 2.7 inhabitants per square kilometer.

The mineral rich earth of Namibia led the main industry to be mining; diamonds, copper, tin, gold, zinc etc.

The traditional peoples of Namibia include the Damara, Nama, San, Himba, Herero, Kavango, Ovambo, Basters, Tswana and Caprivians; each with their own languages, culture and traditions. However, as is the case with so many nations, Namibia was occupied by white Germans for some time, followed by white Afrikaners. Afrikaans, English and German are the common languages you will hear.

7 Day Southern Swing

On starting the tour I discovered that the 14 day tour was actually two tours combined, the 7 day Southern Swing and the 7 Day Northern Adventure. Both tours looped the south/north region respectively, starting and finishing in Windhoek.

Windhoek

Windhoek is the biggest city within Namibia, and unsurprisingly also the capital city, with a population of 250,000. I spent very little time in Windhoek, and was quite happy about that as it seems to be just another city.

For me the best part of Windhoek was a visit to Joe’s Beer House for a meal. It is a spectacular themed pub/restaurant with a wide range of beer and food. The highlight was the game meat on offer! I ordered the Bushman Sosatie which offered a selection of Zebra, Kudu, Springbok, Gemsbok and Crocodile (on this occasion they were out of crocodile and it was replaced with pork). It was delicious, if you visit Windhoek, you must eat at Joe’s!

Bagatelle

Aardvark searching for antsBagatelle is a game ranch in the Kalahari desert. A visit involves driving through rolling plains of yellow-grey, low dry grass broken by intermittent raised ribs of mostly bare glowing ochre dunes.

The ranch is 10,000 hectares with accommodation and camping spots on offer, protected against the animals in the area. Through the fenced boundary of the accommodation it is possible to go on a game drive to see the many animals protected within the fences of the ranch.

In our one hour game drive our local guide David showed us the huge weaver bird nests that appear as matting in the tree branches. We saw an Ostrich sitting on it’s next of eggs. We found an aardvark happily and busily digging in the ground for ants. We also saw Oryx, Springbok, Blue Wildebeest, Giraffe, a Cape Fox, Yellow Mongoose and Meerkats.

To conclude a wonderful evening game drive, we stopped atop a dune to enjoy a sundowner cider and watch as the sky changed through the shades of red into darkness.

Sunset in the Kalahari Desert

Mesosaurus fossil farm

Our second visit on the tour was to a Mesosaurus Fossil Farm, owned and managed by a man by the name of Gil. Gil explained to us how he had come across the fossils on his property and how research began on what was found.

The Mesosaurus is a small crocodile type creature, 35-100cm in length. It had teeth which were long, but weak, that were used to filter food out of the water similar to the method used by many whales. The fossils contain only the prints of these animals, as it is thought that the water had a high acid contain, dissolving the bones. The mesosaurus is estimated to have lived in the region 270 million years ago; the findings support the idea of Gondwana (one large continent) as the mesosaurus fossils found in Namibia are the same as fossils found in South America.

While the fossils were fascinating, they were not my favourite part of the visit. What I found more interesting were the towers of rocks and the quiver trees.

Dolomite rock towers and Quiver treesAround the area were what appeared to be towers built of rock cubes, all neatly stacked.  This volcanic area had experienced periods where the magma bubbled up through the ground and formed pinnacles of Dolomite rock. In the desert one experiences a huge variation in temperatures, hot through the day and often below freezing at night. The extreme changes between hot and cold caused the rocks to crack, splitting vertically and horizontally, forming these towers of cubes.

The quiver trees around the property had a papery yellow-white bark, and am umbrella of interestingly angular branches with structured spiky leaves. People used to hollow out a branch and create a quiver for their bows; though I am unsure what kind of relation the ‘quiver’ tree has to the term ‘quiver’ for arrows, originally.

I found the rock cube towers and sharp lines of the quiver trees to be quite beautiful to look at.

Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon is a spectacular spot to visit. It is the second largest canyon in the world, created by water erosion 500 million years ago. The canyon is  27 kilometres wide, 160kilometres long and 550 metres deep. The size and depth of this canyon is truly a wonder to behold.

We arrived at the canyon before sunset to enjoy a stroll around the rim as the sun bathed the canyon in golden light.

The canyon used to be a popular hiking spot, but due to many injuries the canyon hiking has been restricted.  A multi-day hike is still an option for groups of three or more in the winter time, but there is an application process to follow. Reservations can be made via Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR); several sites on the internet claim bookings need to be made a year in advance.

Fish River Canyon

Lüderitz

Lüderitz Train StationLüderitz is a coastal town named after it’s founder, German national Adolf Lüderitz. It’s a quirky town that is several decades behind the times with colonial architecture and Art Nouveau designs. Many of the city’s signs and street names are still in German.

It appears to function primarily as a fishing village and gateway to the popular tourist destination of Kolmanskop.

Kolmanskop

Kolmanskop was named after a transport driver by the name of Johnny Coleman, who was once lost in a sandstorm and abandoned his vehicle opposite a small settlement.

Kolmanskop HospitalIn the settlement lived a railway supervisor August Stauch. In 1908 one of the railway workers showed him a stone he had found in the sand, and when it was determined to be a diamond the settlement quickly became a secured diamond mining town.

The town housed 300 German adults, 44 German school aged children and around 800 Namibian workers. The Namibian workers each signed up for a two year contract, during which time they were not allowed to leave at all.

With mining being done manually and the high value of diamonds, smuggling was a major concern. People used several methods to try smuggle diamonds out of the area including, carrier pigeon, swallowing the diamonds and also cutting their skin and embedding the diamond under the skin. As a result, the hospital had the first x-ray machine in the country in order to scan bodies for diamonds, as opposed to broken bones.

When the Namibian workers came to the end of their contract they were fed cod-liver oil and placed into quarantine for some time where the toilets had strainers to catch any diamonds that workers may have tried to smuggle before leaving.

Kolmanskop, abandoned residenceMining at Kolmanskop continued from the early 1900s through to 1927 (aside from a break during World War I), when more extensive diamond deposits with found at Orange River. At this time the entire township packed up and left Kolmanskop.

This deserted town has since been engulfed by the Namib desert and become a tourist attraction. For me, a visit to Kolmanskop was at the top of my Namibian “Must See” list.

This ghost town is spectacular to explore, eerie and stunning at the same time. On tour my time to explore was very limited, we had an hour tour and then a half hour to explore. If you have the time I’d highly recommend taking a few hours to wander at your leisure.

Sossusvlei

Sossusvlei is a salt and clay pan in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. It is technically one specific pan but the name is typically used to refer to the area and neighbouring vleis (marshes).

The Namib is one of the oldest deserts in the world, it’s sand is grey and weighty, but the lighter, orange sand from the Kalahari desert has blown in from across the land over a period of 80 million years to build up the huge orange dunes found in the Sossusvlei.

The region is a popular tourist destination for the sand dunes and Deadvlei.

We started our visit to Sossusvlei with a sunrise hike up Dune 45. Dune 45 is over 170 metres high and is located at the 45th kilometre of the road from the Sesriem Gate and the Sossusvlei.

At the top of Dune 45

Early access to Sossusvlei is only available to visitors within the the main gated area, such as guests of Sossus Dune Lodge and the NWR campsite. These gates open an hour before sunrise, where the main gates open at sunrise. We were queued at the early entry gate 15 minutes prior to opening and once open we drove straight to Dune 45, where we were the first to start climbing the ridge of the dune to it’s peak for sunrise. The cold morning, high winds and ever shifting sand made for quite a challenging hike, which was 100% worth every bit of effort. The sunrise was stunning and the views spectacular.

Dead trees of Sossusvlei seen through a sandstorm

From Dune 45 it is a short drive to the access point for Deadvlei, from where you can hike in through the dunes for an hour or more; or pay for a short 4wd drive. On arrival we were hit by a sandstorm, which despite feeling unpleasant was actually rather beautiful. After our sunrise hike and with the sandstorm, we were all pretty interested in taking the 4wd option.

From the drop off point it is a 15 minute sand dune hike in to Deadvlei. Many years ago a river ran through the region, but after it dried up the trees began to die. The only surviving trees in the area are Camelthorn Acacia, which have very long roots and are capable of finding small traces of water. This is where the name Deadvlei came from.

Deadvlei is surrounded by large dunes on all sides including the popular to climb, Big Daddy. The sheltering dunes have protected the deadvlei and it’s trees, and the dead trees remain standing. The Deadvlei is a dry, cracked pale salt pan surface; with grey-brown dead trees sprouting out of this; set against glowing ochre sand dunes; and, in our case, crystal clear blue skies.

Deadvlei is an absolutely fascinating place to visit, and is visually spectacular, the colours and structures are truly beautiful.

Deadvlei

Seisreim Canyon

The closing activity of our tour was a short visit to Sesriem Canyon, originally Seisreim canyon for it’s six rims. The canyon was formed 30 million years ago by water flows and is 3 kilometres long.

The canyon is home to many breeds of birds, and probably a large number of other animals species. We enjoyed a short walk through a section of the canyon before the sunset brought our final day to a peaceful close.

Food Costs

Food is Namibia is quite affordable. Most of my meals were included in the tour cost, but based on the few meals I paid for outside of the tour, I would say that breakfast averaged around  NAD$70 (USD$5), a dinner between NAD$115 to $200 (USD$8 – $14) and lunch somewhere in between.

Accommodation

My pre and post tour accommodation was not included in the tour, and I booked an awesome glamping tent at Urban Camp through booking.com.

Airport Transfers

Airport transfers can be arranged through the tour company, the accommodation or online. I found that the tour company and accommodation both offered a one-way transfer for NAD$450, while booking only through city cabs was NAD$300.

Windhoek City Cabs weren’t responsive to the web form, but they were responsive to email, My pickup service was great!

Southern Namibia

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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, followed a few months later by a 5 day trip.

I was not disappointed and had spectacularly wonderful time every 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.

Entry costs 1500HUF and it is absolutely fantastic inside. Interesting colours and designs – much more lively than other cathedrals I have visited around the world.

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 you want to visit both the cathedral and the bastion, the combo ticket is the best option.

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

Tram Line 2 is a beautiful old tram,  whose line follows the river and 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!

Danube River Cruise

Budapest by night (probably also during the day), from the river is truly stunning. I would highly recommend a Danube river cruise. There are many options to pick from, covering a huge range of prices, some include a dinner.

We chose to do a basic one hour tour with the river line of the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus and we really enjoyed it. Tours depart from dock 8A.

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.

The Rudas Bath is also spectacular. The thermal springs only run under the Buda side of the river. Szechenyi has the thermal waters routed to the pools, where Rudas has natural access to the springs.

Prices at Rudas are a bit cheaper than Szechenyi ranging from 3100 to 5900 depending on the day, and the services you request.

Cave Systems

Caving in BudapestUnderneath the city of Budapest are extensive cave systems which you can explore on a variety of tours of differing challenge levels. I’m always up for the biggest challenge and have toured this cave system twice already!

The adventure caving tour is three hours long, you are provided with an overall suit to protect your clothing and a helmet with headlamp. I’d recommend bringing old shoes as they will get a bit dirty. You will be climbing and crawling through big and small caverns and tunnels. It’s absolutely fantastic and has always been my number one recommendation for anyone travelling to Budapest!

The cost is 7,000HUF per adult and worth every penny!

Parliament Building

The Parliament Building is Gothic Revival architecture. The building facade is symmetrical with a stunning centre cupola. The architecture, and artwork in the building are beautiful; and the tour was both interesting and informative.. You can take photos throughout the parliament building, except in the centre cupola.

Please note, you really need to book tickets online a week in advance to get in (in high season perhaps 2-3 weeks ahead is necessary). We only managed to book an 8am tour, which turned out to be fantastic as it meant that the tour group wasn’t full and the  parliament building wasn’t overflowing with people.

A one hour tour costs 2200HUF for EU residents, and 5900HUF for non-EU tourists.

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 Shoes on the Danube is another river side monument. During WWII Jews were lined up, ordered to take off their shoes and then shot from behind so their bodies fell into the river. The monument can be found near the Parliament building.

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.

Coffee

After a decent walk there should always be time to chill and have a coffee.

PICNIC is a nice location if you visit the Citadel and are on your way towards Buda Castle.

Madal Cafe is near the Parliament building and serve a good brew.

My Little Melbourne is a Aussie themed location in the city centre. 

Breakfast

STIKA
This corner cafe is quite modern and a bit hipster. We ordered Eggs Benedict and Eggs Florentine on English muffins and they were simply divine!! 
The service and coffee were also fabulous.

Zoska Reggelizö Kévézó
Zoska is one of the most popular breakfast destinations in Budapest and usually has a queue out the door. A super cute and cosy cafe with delicious food. They offer a variety of options of eggs, and I’d recommend trying them.

Kelet Cafe
Kelet Cafe is a gorgeous cafe full of books, and other cafe decor. They don’t have a wide ranging menu, but what they have on offer they do very well!

Lunch

Street Food Karavan
A range of street food options in a chill outdoor environment, I found it a really cheerful place to hang out. The goulash served in a bread bowl would be my food recommendation.

Nothing Special
A super quirky cafe with seating from an old theater. Fantastic service and fabulous food.

Drum Cafe
More in the category of cheap eats, don’t visit the cafe for the decor. A great spot to enjoy a traditional meal at an affordable price.

Dinner

Magyar Qtr
Magyar Qtr is a restaurant by the river, you pay for the location as views of the Danube are lovely. While certainly a bit upper end price-wise, the food was absolutely delicious.

Doppio
Doppio Restaurant was cheap and cheerful with great value traditional meals.

Karcsi Vendéglö
Really good food at a really good price. Lovely wait staff and a nice restaurant that was cosy and welcoming.

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 typically search for flights using a variety of search engines: Kiwi, Momondo and Kayak. I sometimes check directly on airline websites to see if there’s a better deal.

I booked  one of our trips via Momondo, a return flight Amsterdam-Budapest cost €158 with KLM.

The second trip I booked directly with Hungary’s budget airline, Wizz Air. The flight was Eindhoven-Budapest return for €70 per person.

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.

The bus to the airport is a dedicated transport ticket, one way for 900HUF on line 100E from the city centre. We were impressed with the efficiency of the bus.

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.

That being said, public transport in Budapest is brilliant. A transport card gives you access to all the forms of public transport. We bought a 7 day travel card for the five days we stayed in Budapest, at a cost of 4950HUF, it was absolutely worth the money. We zipped back and forth across the city with ease.

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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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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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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