Tag Archives: Europe

Luxembourg City in 36 hours

Luxembourg City is the capital city of the tiny, tiny, European country of Luxembourg.

When travelling around Namibia, Africa in 2017 there was an awesome woman from Luxembourg in my tour group. I learned some interesting things about Luxembourg, and with it’s proximity to where I was living in the Netherlands I thought a weekend trip to catch up with her was a fantastic idea. I took some family along for the ride and we had a most spectacular weekend away!

Luxembourg Facts

This tiny country is 2,584 square kilometres with a population of approximately 590,000 people.  Interestingly, and sadly for the Luxembourgers, most people don’t realise that Luxembourg is an independent country with it’s own language, Luxembourgish. Being such a tiny nation, squished between Germany, France and Belgium it has two other national languages, French and German. The most predominant language heard in Luxembourg city is French.

Things to see

Barrio Grund with the Bock Casemates in the backgroundOne of the things to see in the city is Gëlle Fra, the Golden Lady statue. She is a war memorial dedicated to the Luxembourgers who fought in the World Wars and the Korean War.

The Notre Dame Cathedral built in the early 1600’s is a wonderful display of architecture. Some parts are semi-renaissance, semi-baroque while others neo-gothic.

Grand Ducal Palace in the centre of the city is also a fabulous building to see. It is the official residence of the grand duke of Luxembourg, who operates as the head of state.

Barrio Grund is the old part of town, on a lower level than the vast majority of the city. The buildings and churches are simply stunning, and it’s wonderful to walk from the casemates to this area along the river.

The Bock Casemates are the rooms and tunnels in the cities old fortress, where in times of attack the Luxembourgers could defend their city. It was wonderful to walk explore the casemates and to enjoy a wonderful view of Barrio Grund. Entry to the casemates costs €6, more if you would like the audio guide.

Adolphe BridgeOther highlights of the city were the gardens, parks and bridges. The city is wonderfully green, with a surprising variation in altitude of the landscape, warranting bridges everywhere you look. The  bridge architecture varies from bridge to bridge, but they are really fascinating and beautiful.

Luxembourg City is very walkable and everywhere you go is beautiful architecture and green parks. It is a clean city with a welcoming feeling. A place definitely worth visiting.

Food

Drinking beer at Dancing NoodlesDuring our visit there was a fair of some kind and we had the opportunity to try a typical Luxembourgish dish  Gromperekichelcher. It was a like a potato fritter but with more flavour, very tasty indeed.

At the fair we also tried  Curry Wurst, and Mushrooms dish with a cream space and Spätzle. Much of the food we came across at the fair is similar to what you may also find in Southern Germany and Austria.

Another great spot to eat is Dancing Noodles, where they make the noodles for their asian dishes in the traditional way. The noodles look great and taste delicious!

Accommodation

Booking last minute, on a budget, for four people, with need of parking, gave limited options. We booked Mandarina Hotel which is 5 kilometres out of the city centre and we couldn’t be happier with our choice.

Mandarina Hotel is a really well maintained hotel with absolutely wonderful staff, clean, modern rooms and an extensive breakfast buffet. The parking was free, and we were on a direct bus line to the city centre.

Transport

Getting There

We drove to Luxembourg from The Netherlands. The roads are good, with clear signage. Parking in the city costs money, but parking outside the centre can be free.

To get to and from Luxembourg City, there is a main train station 10-15 minutes walk from the centre, or the airport is 7 kilometres from the centre.

Getting Around

The city centre is very walkable, with some free public elevators to help with the hills.

In and around the city is a good public transport system, and we were lucky enough to visit during a vacation period where all bus rides were free.

Normal public transport tickets cost €2 for 2 hours or €4 for a day, and they are valid for bus, tram and train.

Luxembourg City

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A week in the Balkans

View of Dubrovnik for the mountain with the cable carThe Balkans, or Balkan Peninsula is a region named after the Balkan Mountains, and that borders on the Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean and Black Seas. It is a large geographical region encompassing several countries. I spent a week in the region visiting four cities within these three countries: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Kotor and Budva, Montenegro; and Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It wasn’t the most active sightseeing week, as we were plagued with constant rain. Regardless of the weather, everything we saw was fantastic, beautiful and my mother and I had an amazing time.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik is a city I have long wanted to visit. The old walled city was rumoured to be beautiful, and it most certainly lived up to expectations. Also for those Game of Thrones fans out there, various sites in an around the old city of Dubrovnik were used in the filming of the series.

I loved the city walls, surrounding a sea of orange tiled roofs; the old architecture and wonderful charm of this old town.

Some History

Croatia is a small EU country on the Adriatic coast, with a recent turbulent history. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia from 1918 through to the 1990’s. Yugoslavia was made up of what is now known as Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia and Kosovo. Croatia is a long country with a huge amount of coastline very popular for tourism, as a result it was of great economic importance to the ruling region of Serbia.

In 1991 Croatia made the decision to become independent and this didn’t go down well with the Serbs; who followed the announcement with a war that continued until 1995.

The beautiful sea of orange roofs in Dubrovnik old town, seen from the city wallsCroatia sustained heavy bombing and vast amounts of damage. With the tourist economy a sore point for the Serbs, they set their sights on destroying the Old City of Dubrovnik. As a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, this was considered an international war crime.

The heritage city of Dubrovnik was more than 50% destroyed in the war, though you wouldn’t know it today. Dubrovnik received money for rebuilding from UNESCO, though it only covered 20% of what was needed. The resourceful Croatians managed to raise the remaining 80% themselves.

To maintain the original look and feel of the city many craftsman had to relearn the traditional trades in order to rebuild using the same materials and same method as original construction. While many things could be remade using new materials and old methods the roof tiles proved a problem. As they could not remake the roof tiles, they bought up original tiles from owners of private houses in the region who had undamaged roof tiles and paid for them to have new roofs.

Dubrovnik Old Town

The city of Dubrovnik has a population of approximately 42,000 people, roughly 800 of whom live in the old walled city. Tourism to the city is absolutely crazy and they are now looking into the introduction of a cap on the number of daily visitors. In 2017 this tiny city had 1.18million visitors, not including the tourists coming in from cruise ship visits; on a summer day there may be 7000+ tourists trying to explore the town. For this reason I was rather grateful to visit during cold wet November, as the season was shutting down and stores were closing for the winter; there was not a single tourist queue to be found.

The Old Town was built during the 13th to 17th century on a small valley by the sea. the Northern and Eastern sides of the city are each on a hill, while the main street of town, Stradun is near sea level. As a result the old city has many steps, 5,435 in fact (the most direct route from the centre to our apartment involved 144 steps). The city is surrounded by a city wall 2 kilometres long, protected by five fortresses. The greatest enemy to Dubrovnik were the Venetians.

Dubrovnik was a small republic during the 14th to 19th century; and at that time 14,000 people lived within the city, with the gates always closed.

Onofrio Fountain, inside Pile Gate of Dubrovnik old townThere are a few notable constructions within the old city, amongst which is the Onofrio fountain. The Onofrio fountain is fed by a well some 12 kilometres away.  It is found just inside Pile Gate, the Western entrance to the city. It was designed by an Italian architect, and facilitated the peoples’ ability to live within the city walls without the need to leave in search of water. It’s a beautiful fountain with many taps, and intricate carvings. It also has a dog sculpture, ‘Kučak’’ guardian and protector of the values of the Republica, on top of it.

On April 6th, 1667 Dubrovnik experienced a terrible earthquake but surprisingly the San Xavier Church and anything built near the city walls survived. The earthquake affected architectural design in the city; with the construction of balconies being forbidden. The Earthquake marked the beginning of the end for this small republic.

Dubrovnik is 95% Roman Catholic, but the people are very accepting and respectful of other religions. Their city is has allowed the building of several religious buildings within the walls. There are Catholic churches, a Jesuit Church and a Franciscan Monastery. There is also an Orthodox Church, though it was built to face away from the main street, because if the pope were to visit they did not want him to be confronted by other religions.

Wandering the tiny alleys of this old walled city is a spectacular way to spend the time, as every corner oozes charm. I really loved Dubrovnik old town.

Recommended Activities

To learn some history of the city and get a local’s perspective on life in Dubrovnik, take an Old Town Walking Tour. The cost is 90 Kuna for 1 hour.

For the Game of Thrones fans, there are several GoT walking tours available.

Take a self-guided walk around the city walls and around St Lawrences’ Fortress. You do not have to complete both activities in one day; but the combination ticket is single use per activity. The ticket costs 150 Kuna.

Enjoying the view in CavtatTake a cable car trip up the mountain for some spectacular view of the old city and coastline. The Cable Car cost is 140 Kuna for a round trip; though active people may like to walk up and/or down using the marked trail. Note, if it is windy, the cable car will not operate for safety reasons.

Take a trip out to Lokrum Island; the  ferry costs 40 Kuna. On arrival you need to pay a parks entrance fee. Some ferries are more expensive, but already include this fee. Note: in low season, nothing is open on Lokrum – so be sure to bring food and water.

If you have extra time in the area, it’s worth taking a local bus to the neighbouring town of Cavtat. It’s a beautiful spot to enjoy a stroll and a lazy lunch.

Kotor & Budva, Montenegro

Kotor, MontenegroFrom Dubrovnik we booked a day tour to Kotor and Budva, Montenegro with one of the many tour operators in and around the city of Dubrovnik. We paid 315 Kuna per person for a full day tour with Amico Tours.

Montenegro is a small country, just under 19,000 square kilometres, with a population of 660,000 people. Like Croatia, it has a coastline on the Adriatic Sea.

Montenegro got it’s name from the Spaniards entering by ship, from the black (Negro) mountains (Monte) they could see from the sea.

Like Croatia, Montenegro was a part of Yugoslavia, who managed to gain independence in 2006. At the time they took on the Deutsch Mark as their currency, so when Germany changed to the Euro, so did Montenegro despite not being a member of the EU.

Kotor

The small town of Kotor, predominantly of Venetian Architecture is a walled city built around the 14th century. This small city is the 2nd largest walled city, 4.5 kilometres long, in Europe, according to my tour guide. The city of Kotor has a population around 13,000; approximately 1,000 of whom live within the city walls.

While we could clearly see that it was a beautiful city with stunning old buildings, and an impressive city wall which we would have liked to climb, the torrential downpour with only brief bursts of sunshine limited our options.

Budva, MontenegroBudva

Budva is one of the oldest settlements in Montenegro, at around 2,500 years old. Similar to Kotor, it is an old town built in Venetian times, though less money was spent on it in comparison to Kotor. It’s walled city is tiny in comparison to that of Kotor.

Budva is much more popular for tourists, with it’s 34 beaches and many nightclubs.  The party-tourism focus falls less within my interests than the smaller town of Kotor.

Mostar & Kravice, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia-Herzegovina is inland from the coast of Croatia and has very little coastline itself. Bosnia is the northern region of the country and Herzegovina the southern region. In this view I visited Herzegovina only. The day tour to Mostar and Kravice Waterfall from Dubrovnik cost around 350 Kuna per person, and I cannot recall the tour company I went with.

Within Bosnia-Herzegovina are three main religious groups: Bosniaks, Muslim Bosnians form the majority at approximately 50% of the population; the Croats: Croatian Roman Catholic are approx. 15% of the population; and the Serbs: Serbian orthodox christians at approximately 35% of the population. Muslim is the predominant religion as the country spent around 450 years under Ottoman rule.

Mostar Bridge, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Mostar

The city of Mostar is considered the most important city in Herzegovina, is the cultural capital and is the fifth largest city in the country. The city is split by the Neretva River, and the two sides of the river provided quite some segregation in community. One side was muslims and the other Christians/Catholics. This meant the city had two of everything, two schools, two universities etc.

The highlight of Mostar is the bridge connecting the two sides of the city. The term Most means bridge and the Mostari with the bridge keepers. The bridge was designed an built during ottoman reign though it was bombed in 1993 during the Bosnian war time and rebuilt soon after.

The bridge was listed by Lonely Planet as one of the worlds most beautiful bridges, and I don’t disagree. It is absolutely spectacular, a perfect deep curve over clear blue waters. It is simply stunning.

The old town of Mostar is worth visiting for it’s charm as well as its bridge. Beautiful cobble stone streets and old ottoman architecture.

Something that I consider worth mentioning about Bosnians, they cook fantastic meat. I had a Bosnian housemate for some time and she made the most amazing meat dishes. While in Mostar, I’d recommend eating at Šadrvan to enjoy some of the national meat specialities.

Kravice Waterfalls, Bosni-HerzegovinaKravice Waterfall

Our day trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina included a stop at the Kravice Waterfalls. The waterfalls are approximately 25 metres high split across approximately 20 waterfalls, falling into a beautiful lake below.

If you had enough time, this would be a fantastic place to spend a day to sit, picnic, swim and enjoy the beauty of nature.

Accommodation

We stayed in a private Airbnb apartment just inside the city walls on the sea side. It was a fantastic location, the apartment was neat and tidy, and the host very helpful.

At €36 per night for two people, it was reasonably priced.

If you aren’t already an Airbnb member; please sign up using my link.

Food

Being based inside the city walls and with constant rain we mostly stayed inside the city walls for our meals. I expected the restaurants within the walls to be the most expensive, and while they were probably more expensive than restaurants outside the walls, I was pleasantly surprised with the relative affordability.

We paid up to 200 Kuna for two people for lunch, which is approximately €26 or USD$32. For dinners the costs ranged from 300 – 400 Kuna; €40-€53 USD$49 – USD$65; for two people.



Transport

The shuttle bus to and from the airport is only 40 Kuna per person one way and is a 30-45 minute ride. It travels quite frequently and takes you directly to the entrance of the old walled city of Dubrovnik; Pile Gate.

Taking a taxi if the bus schedule doesn’t work for you is around €30 one way. They accept both Euros and Kuna.

We flew Amsterdam – Dubrovnik return with Croatian Airlines for €402 for two people. Note we travelled in low season and booked the flights some months ahead.

A Week In The Balkans

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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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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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Barcelona, Spain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABarcelona is a phenomenal city, one of my favourite cities in the world. So you might be expecting a big post all about how I explored every inch of Barcelona, but I will explain why that’s not what you will be getting.

After travelling non-stop for a chunk of time, I got to Barcelona quite tired. Having booked an airbnb apartment, I needed some time out and also time to recover from my flu. In addition to this, I went to Barcelona for a conference so I used my time to do a bit of pre-conference study, as well as attend a workshop and the conference. The third reason, which is not really a reason (it’s more a reason for the lack of guilt I felt in not exploring the city) is that I have visited twice already, because it’s a city I absolutely adore.

Barcelona Highlights

Reflecting back on previous visits, my list of highlights is (I warn you,

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I am a HUGE fan of the Gaudi architecture):

  • La Sagrada Familia (Gaudi)
  • Casa Batlló (Gaudi)
  • La Pedrera (Casa Mila) (Gaudi)
  • Park Güell (Gaudi)
  • Palau Güell (Gaudi)
  • Mercat La Boqueria (just off Las Ramblas, which by the way is also worth a wander down, but keep your hand on your bag!)
  • Passeig de Gracia (for a spot of shopping)
  • Also, as usual I highly recommend a free walking tour
  • A cooking class is also a fabulous idea!

This Barcelona Experience

I went to a web developers conference (Smashing Conference) which was held at the most phenomenal and prestigious location: Palau de la Música Catalana. It was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner and built between 1905 – 1908. The building has so much amazing sculpture and mosaic tile work both inside and outside the building. The stained glass windows, particularly the ceiling, are indescribably stunning. It was such a privilege to be able to spend two full days in such an amazing place – with the added bonus of learning stuff while I was there.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the conclusion of the conference they organised a typographic photo walk of the city, which sounded fantastic to me – and at least one hundred other conference attendees. With the popularity of the activity, I was unable to hear or even see what the guide was talking about, so I wandered off after about 30 minutes.

Other than the conference I mostly hung out in my apartment, caught up on sleep, laundry and other bits and pieces. From time to time I went on a wander of the city, absorbing the atmosphere and taking the occasional photo of something pretty (I tell you – there’s pretty things everywhere you look in this city!)

So after a week in Barcelona I have fed my brain and my soul, and am energised for the next leg of the journey…Morocco!!!

Check out all my Barcelona photos on Flickr

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Granada, Malaga & Cordoba, Spain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spent about a week whipping around Andalusia, the southern portion of Spain. I spent two nights in Granada, one in Malaga and then two in Cordoba before heading north to Barcelona.

In between transport times and the flu I didn’t see a great deal of any of these places. However I felt I saw the highlights, enough to appreciate these cities. Also they aren’t very big places, so hitting the highlights in the span of a day was generally possible.

Granada

Granada is definitely a city on the popular tourist trail, it was ridiculously busy with people everywhere. Not to mention we were there across a Sunday and Spain’s National Day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile it is true to its history, I really felt that Granada was having an identity crisis. The majority of the city was ‘standard’ Spanish design, some wider avenues for the main streets and narrow winding cobblestones for the other streets. Then as you head into the old town the streets gets windier and narrower and then you randomly pass through entire streets which make you feel like you are in a turkish bazaar – the street sellers yelling for you to buy their wares and I saw the exact same products as I did in Istanbul. There were also loads of little bars selling mint tea like in Morocco and bars with the hookah pipes like Istanbul. It was interesting but bizarre.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAExploring the old town is wonderful and it’s worth walk up to the Mirador de San Miguel, apparently the setting sun lights up the Alhambra on the opposite hill is really beautifully, but I didn’t stay for the sunset to find out. The Mirador (lookout) is crazy busy into the evening!

The Cathedral is one of the main sites to see, but after having seen so many cathedrals, and with a cost of something like 8€ this was one cathedral I skipped, though it did look lovely from the outside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe main attraction of Granada is The Alhambra, word of warning if you want to go you need to book weeks preferably more than a month in advance as it is insanely popular, if you can’t get a standard ticket then try to book a guided tour as they sell out slightly less quickly.

The Alhambra is a fort and palace strategically placed on a hill. The name is a variation on Al Hamra which means The Red One. There are loads of theories about why it had that name, but of course, they are all just theories. The grounds of the Alhambra are quite extensive but the real highlight is the interior of the castle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe moors believed, and this can be seen throughout Spain, that the exterior of all buildings should be equal. You should be unable to determine the wealth of a home owner based on the outside of their house. Once you put over the threshold of the palace at the Alhambra you are quickly astounded at the amazing designs. The colours, the carvings, the intricate wood and mosaic work. The archways that lead you from room to room are each individually designed and created. Each room has a different design in the floors, walls and ceilings. The palace is an extensive collection of rooms and patios. The crowds of people can be a little frustrating but it is otherwise simple magnificent to wander the spaces in the palace.

Visiting the arab baths (hammam) is a very popular activity and the most popular baths were booked out, so I went to Aljibe de San Miguel Arab Baths and paid for the 55€ for 1.5hours access to the baths, an exfoliating scrub and oil massage. It was a thoroughly pleasant way to wind down at the end of the day and relax my legs and feet after so much walking.

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Check out all my Granada photos on Flickr

Malaga

Malaga is a cute coastal town. It was brilliantly sunny when we visited, which was a pleasant surprise after cold, rainy Granada.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe started the day with the aim of heading straight to the Picasso Museum. On our way there, we popped into the tourist information office and stumbled across a flyer for a free walking tour starting 20 minutes from the current time. So we put the Picasso plans on hold and headed to the meeting point.

We met our guide Shelby, from South Tours at Plaza Constitucion. With a small group of us we explored some of the main buildings in town including a visit to the local market and a wine cellar, to try the local sweet wine, Moscatel. It was a bit too sickly sweet and syrupy for me (and I have a sweet tooth). We learned some of the city’s history, saw the roman amphitheatre and Alcazaba on the hill. We walked through the famous restaurant El Pimpi where Antonio Banderas signed a wine barrel and finished the tour at the birthplace of Picasso, where we took a picture with his statue.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the tour we decided to visit the Alcazaba rather than the Picasso museum, because as the guide pointed out, all his most famous works were sold and are therefore not to be found in the museum of his hometown.

So we headed off to the Alcazaba, entry was only a few euros (though I forget the exact price). After the Alhambra in Granada, this castle was beautiful but in a more rugged, unfinished way. It was still stunning to explore and I throughly enjoyed wandering the grounds. The added bonus was that it wasn’t excessively busy, quite uncommon at this time of year for any major site in Spain!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe finished our day watching the sunset from the rooftop terrazza of the AC Hotel Malaga Palacio. It is a crazy fancy restaurant where they open the doors for you and even push the elevator button for you. Don’t be daunted, stroll on through the lobby to the elevators and head up to the terrazza, you won’t be the only tourist in jeans and sneakers!! The view is beautiful, so I recommend finishing your day there with a drink!

Check out all my Malaga photos on Flickr

Cordoba

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe main highlight in Cordoba is the Mezquita. It was originally built as a mosque. Later it was converted to a Cathedral, rather than destroy the existing structure, they simply knocked down 63 columns in the interior and constructed the chapel internally. Needless to say the combination of traditional muslim architecture and the Catholic architecture is thoroughly fascinating. While it is a little bit of a bizarre combination of religions, it is simply stunning!

Entry to the Mezquita is around 8€ after 10am. However, if you turn up at 8:30am you can have free entry to the majority of the cathedral until 9:20am when you are asked to leave.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI also did a free walking tour of the city. The guide Susanna was passionate and knowledgable about her city and spoke really good English. We explored a portion of the old town, learning the history and seeing several old sites, including the Roman Temple, the old bridge, Jewish Quarter, the Mezquita (from the outside) and the Alcazar.

Cordoba is a beautiful city, easy to navigate and with such a cheery atmosphere.

Check out all my Cordoba photos on Flickr

General Tip for Eating Out in Spain

IMG_7793Everything runs on a later schedule in Spain. Breakfast is around 9am (stores open around 10 or 11), lunch is around 2 and dinner usually around 9pm.

At lunch or dinner they will often place a bread basket, or sometimes a plate of olives on your table. These are generally at your own expense, so it is worth checking if it is free. If you don’t want to pay, then simply refuse it or check your bill carefully at the end and refuse to pay that portion.

While often some of these things cost money, it is also important to be aware that you often get one tapas free when you buy a drink.

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Seville, Spain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeville was founded as a roman city based on its position for trade. People came up the river, found the site that was later to be named Seville and deemed it to be a good spot. It had access to water, which allowed trade via the Mediterranean, and it was close to the mountains which allowed for trade of ore and metals. Seville was founded halfway between the two.

As I have mentioned previously, a great way to get to know a city is with a free walking tour. So meeting at the fountain near the Giralda Tower, I did a free walking tour with Manuel from Pancho Tours. For about 2.5hours we wandered around the main monuments of the city, learning about their construction and their history. I am notoriously bad for remembering these types of facts, but I managed to write down a few snippets and hopefully I recorded them accurately.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Cathedral & Giralda Tower

The Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. When it was first constructed it was a muslim mosque, but over time and changes in rule, the majority of it was destroyed and rebuilt, eventually it became a Christian Cathedral. The construction took more than 150 years.

A fun fact about the cathedral is that it holds the tomb of Christopher Columbus, however, it is actually only his foot.
Excuse me if the facts are perhaps a little sketchy BUT if I understood correctly, Columbus died in Valladolid near Madrid. His will stated that he wanted to be buried on the island of Madeira, one of the islands he discovered. So the body was moved to Seville. It was here that the family disputed the will and buried him in Seville. The king wanting to comply with the will, then moved the body to Madeira, but due to something, it was moved to Cuba, then for safety reasons it was moved back to Seville. So I guess somewhere along the line some body parts went missing!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Giralda Tower is the only part of the Cathedral that remains from its muslim heritage. It was built as a minaret and the construction is still visibly muslim aside from the addition of a bell tower and weather vane at the top. The view from the top of the tower is fabulous! (There are 35 ramps and 17 steps to climb to the top)

To gain access to the Cathedral without having to wait hours on end I recommend three options. The first option is to go to Iglesia del Salvador, here you can visit the church and also buy a ticket for the Cathedral which allows you to skip the queue. The second option is to go at lunchtime, around 2pm, when the queue is a lot shorter. The third option is to buy a ticket online, but this is rather challenging to find, and requires you to enter the cathedral from an alternate entrance. I think the cost is 9€.

The Alcazar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANear to the cathedral is the Reales Alcazar, the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. When the Spanish flag is flying it means the King is in residence, if the flag of Seville is flying he is not. The name Alcazar has a muslim base and roughly translates to ‘the house’. The origins of the building are roman, but due to adaptations over time it certainly has a strong muslim look to it.

Another fun fact, in Season 5 of the popular series Game of Thrones, the Alcazar and it’s gardens were used as the city of Dorne.

The cost of entry to the Alcazar was about 9€ and an audio guide is an additional 5€.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few other sites

Plaza de Espana is a gorgeous building/plaza that was made for the world expo many years ago and is certainly worth a visit.

The Metropol Parasol is a crazy weird structure, it is bizarre but cool. Entry costs 3€ and you can catch the lift up and wander the platforms to get a good view of the city (not as good as from the Giralda tower, but still good and it’s quirky).

Walking along the river is gorgeous and getting lost in the narrow streets around the cathedral area is fabulous, and there are so many fantastic little tapas bars to pop in to for a bite to eat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome recommended food options…

Taberna Coloniales – near the cathedral, famous for tapas, 3 storeys high.
Taberna Volapie – near the parasol, good is quite good, but a bit pricey. There’s a free flamenco show every night at 9pm, go early to get a seat.
El Riconcillo – near Santa Catalina church, oldest tapas restaurant in Seville.
Los Caracoles – the Lonely Planet Guide suggested that eating near Alfalfa Plaza was a good idea, and we stumbled across Los Caracoles and loved it!

Accommodation

Once we more rented an airbnb, this time a private room in someones home. It was situated near the Santa Catalina church and was a fairly short walk to everything. It was fabulous!

Check out all my Seville photos on Flickr

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