Thursday, 27 October 2011

Croatia, you're also awesome

Current City: Split
And another two items get crossed off my "To Do" list;
1. Listen to the Sea Organ at Zadar, and
2. Get sprayed by the waterfalls at Plitvicka National Park
The first one was easy, as the waterfront of Zadar was a 15 minute walk from my hostel. The Sea Organ is amazing; you hear it before you see it, and you can hardly even see it when you're there; all it is is a few holes in the marble steps, and a few slots cut into them. The sound it makes is almost mesmerizing; a completely random series of notes played by the waves and the wind.
The waterfalls at the lakes were, in a word, stunning. And this is coming from someone who lives on the West Coast. Even how we got there was a bit of a great story; the day I arrived there was an Aussie girl and a British guy staying in my room who had all heard of the parks, and were interested in going. I said I was going no matter what, and were more than happy to have them come along. That night while discussing plans, we met a couple from France who didn't have any plans, and invited them along. With the 5 of us, we decided to rent a car for the day and just drive to the park, as it would be cheaper and quicker than getting a bus. The next morning we awoke to an absolute downpour. After meeting with the others, I decided we could either stick around Zadar and probably get wet, or risk going to the park and probably get wet. We decided on the park. The drive up was a bit wet, but it stopped raining right when we got to the park, and actually started to clear up about halfway through! The others said it was the highlight of their entire trip, and it was definitely a highlight of mine. I could describe how stunningly beautiful it was, but again, I think I'm just going to post some pictures.
No, the water doesnt look like that. It's actually clearer.

Yes, it does look just like that. Only better.

Veliki Slap (The Big Waterfall). Yes, it is big.

Hiking back towards the parking lot.

Sea Organ during the day. The sound exits through the holes on the left.

A quick shout out

Current City: Split
I think I should make a quick post about this guy I met in my hostel in Zadar; Rob Lutter is cycling around the world to raise money for clean drinking water in the developing world. He left England in September with his bike, his camera, and a couple changes of clothing, and hopes to ride his bike to New Zealand by Christmas 2012. You can follow his progress at and make a donation to his cause.
He's probably one of the most humble individuals I've met, and seemed overjoyed when we shared our take-out meat platter with him, as it was a bit of a change from the bread and honey he had been eating for the last few days.
Consider making a donation, or just check out the site!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Budapest, I Heart You

Current City: Zagreb
I didn’t actually want to leave Budapest. I really didn’t. My original plan was to only stay two nights, which turned into four, and even then I had to finally pull the pin and leave. My hesitation had a bit to do with the city, but a lot to do with where I was staying and who I was with.
I did not think for a moment, upon arriving at the hostel Carpe Noctem Vitae, that it would become the highlight of my trip. Very much hidden away on the top floor of an old run-down building, with no sign, a piece of paper with a buzzer number taped to the door, and accessed by an old run-down elevator, it reaffirmed by belief that it’s the people that make a place what it is.
As I was riding the elevator up to the 5th floor, thinking to myself “what the hell have I gotten myself into..”, I was met at the door by Hawaii (yes, that’s what she was called. Guess where she was from), who was more than happy to show me around the hostel, introduce me to everyone, and help me get settled in. My first night involved a pub crawl, with ½-litre beers costing around 2 Euros, which was followed the next day by an incredibly lazy 4-hour soak in one of the many thermal baths around the city and a quiet movie-and-tea night with some of the lazier hostel guests. The heartier among us (mostly Auzzies) went out on another pub crawl.
The next day was a trip to the Ethnographic Museum, where they had a travelling exhibit of the winners of the National Photo Press competition; hundreds of amazing photos, (both touching and horrifying) from news stories from around the world. This preceded the five hour caving tour with Jack and Sarah (both Auzzies); if anyone dislikes small spaces, I would recommend against crawling through nearly a kilometre of caves, although I figured that would be obvious. We got back just in time to head out on the booze cruise up the Danube; a night of cheap beer, amazing sights, and raucous recitations of national anthems (well, maybe just Canadian and American anthems).
Having not seen much of the actual city, I felt the need to head out the following day and joined a walking tour around the city. I love the walking tours, and I especially love that they are a)free (you tip the guide at the end, but theres no obligation to pay), b)in English, and c)most often given by locals, who know the city better than anyone else.
So a great city, a fantastic hostel, a few crazy nights out, and a whole bunch of some of the funnest, coolest, most sociable people I have ever met. There are a couple of places I’ve left thinking I haven’t fully experienced, and Budapest is one of them.
On another note, are there any Australians between the ages of 19 and 26 left in Australia, or have they all left to go travelling? It seems like theres about a half of a generation missing from the country. I mean, I’ve been to Australia, and it’s really not a bad place! A little warm in the summer, but I’m sure they have AC…
The World Photo Press exhibit

St. Ishtvan (St. Stephen) cathedral

Inside St. Stephen Cathedral

Chain Bridge over the river Danube

Pesht, looking from the castle on the Buda side of the river

Chillin' in the hostel

Dinnertime! Every evening you can get a home-cooked dinner for 500 Hungarian Forints (less than 2 Euros)

Caving underneath Budapest

Me crawling through the Winnie-The-Pooh hole. I was just barely able to make it through without getting stuck.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Current City: Vienna
There's a couple things I've learned about Vienna:
The Leopold Museum is closed on Tuesdays.
The Opera is closed for tours on Tuesdays.
The Natural History Museum is closed on Tuesdays.
The Ottlinker brewery is open, but does not run tours on Tuesdays.
The Austrian Parliament, however, is open, and runs tours in English every few hours.
Guess what I did yesterday.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Sometimes the best thing you can do is relax and have a drink

Current City: Vienna
Travelling can be stressful; there's always the inevitable lineups, security, baggage hassles, connections and shuttle busses. And that's just flying. If you think about it, you can't really get on the correct plane but in the wrong direction. This is entirely possible on a train, and has happened to me, probably more than I would like.
Of course all of this can be mitigated simply by showing up to the station on time, unless one is listening intently to a rousing tale of Czech bravery in the dying days of the Second World War, as told by your tour guide Michael (and to his credit, he was a fantastic guide). Luckily, there is always another train that will get you to where you need to be. However, that other train will probably stop at a small town between Prague and Vienna, where you will have only a few minutes to decipher the departure schedule in order to board the correct train at the correct platform, which will then proceed to stop at each and every station before arriving at Vien Meidling. You just need to have faith that everything will work out, and you will eventually end up in your hostel with a drink in hand. Of course this is just what I've been told, it's not like I've experienced anything like this personally...
I have to say I was very much taken with Prague; a charming city that was touristy enough that English was not a problem, but not too touristy that everything there was sick of everyone else being there (as seemed to be the case in Paris). A quick day trip to Sedlec, an hour outside of Prague, meant another item crossed off my "to do" list: visit the Bone Church. Not actually as disturbing as you might think, probably because it's been made into quite the tourist attraction (and probably one of the few reasons why anyone would come to Kutna Hora. Sorry, but it's true!)
I dont know if I can say enough good things about Prague! Fantastic history, nice people, great food, great beer, and attractive women everywhere. What the hell else do you need?! I only wish I could have stayed a bit longer. Perhaps later this trip...
I like my original nickname for the city: Paris without the Pretentious.
Photos to follow soon.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The only thing Canada needs is to import more Czech beer....

Current city: Prague (Praha, Prag, take your pick)
So going right from Paris to Berlin and then to Prague, it's like double culture-shock; you go from old city, to new city, to uber-old city. Paris seems to have embraced its old-world charm, all the while charging people to experience it. There are centuries of history hidden in every square and building, but at the same time it is definitely a world-class city, and seems to have the ego to go along with it. Don't get me wrong, I loved it there, and there is certainly a lot to learn and experience in Paris. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Berlin turned out to be a bit of a mindfuck. The whole city is an oasis of new-city on a continent of old. For obvious reasons; there was very little left of it after 1945, so rebuilding was the only option. Being there for only 2.5 days gave me more of a history lesson than in 5 years of highschool. Going on a walking tour of the city, you realize just how much it seems that Berliners are looking towards the future, while at the same time glancing over their shoulder at the past. Case in point; the Berlin Wall. When it came down in 1989, there was a huge movement to get rid of as many remnants of the Soviet-era as possible, with a 12-ft tall piece of concrete being the most obvious. With only 3 sections of the wall remaining intact, Berliners are now reallizing that it might be important to save, because a) of the obvious tourist draw (and therefore tourist $$) and b) for the importance it played in shaping the modern-day Berlin. It is an important aspect of the city and its history, no matter how dubious. The same way that Paris recognizes something like the Place de la Concorde as a venue for history-changing events (like the beheading of a King), I think that, in time, Berlin will come to recognize their own (albeit infamous) place on the world stage. Now, please dont think for a moment I'm drawing any kind of comparison between the French revolution and the attrocities of WWII; one only need tour the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (in Berlin) to realize just what happened, in horribly graphic detail, between 1939 and 1945. I only wish to point out just how far-reaching the wake of past events can be, and the effects of those events decades or centuries later. I just find it fascinating to compare how relatively recent events versus past events can shape modern-day cities.
I did enjoy my time in Berlin; its a fantastic display of modern architecture and engineering juxtaposed against decided old-world monuments and buildings. My only regret is that I never got to tour the Reichstag; in November of last year they apparently had a credible terrorist threat against the building (according to our tour guide), and thus no longer allow walk-in visitors. Each person visiting the dome must now sign-up online at least 3 days in advance. Since I have an open Eurail pass, and I plan on coming back through Munich later this month, I think I might make a day of it yet!
Now on to Prague, and my initial impressions of it are that I seem to love it! It is the quintessential old-world European city. It has the history, the charm, and, for lack of a better word, the "whimsy" that one expects while wandering the winding cobblestone streets. And this is coming from someone who's only experienced it for about 6 hours. The highlight of coming here, though, would have to be the Orloj, or Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, a mechanical clock completed in 1410. Forget the "seeing a castle older than Canada" requirement of this trip; I've seen a CLOCK older than Canada! For those of you who havn't seen the YouTube video, let alone heard of this clock, it celebrated its 600th birthday with a spectacular video display on Oct 9th, 2010. (Video Mapping on Orloj: ).
I had just finished a fantastic pizza dinner and was making my way towards the clock when I heard some sound effects from several blocks away. When I got to the square, I realized that they were showing the Projection Mapping that I had seen a while ago on youtube. I nearly wet myself. I thought I had had the incredible good luck of showing up on the exact anniversary of the video display. (Being both a science-geek and a tech-geek, I was fascinated by both the astronomical clock movement and exactly how they were projecting this onto the building). However, after the video had finished there was a countdown clock that seemed to start at 20 minutes, indicating that they run the same display every 20 minutes every night. I don't care, I'm sticking with my original impression that it was my impeccable timing. It was impressive nonetheless.
I now have a nickname for Prague; Paris sans pretentious.
I kinda like it.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Current City: Berlin
OK, I know I haven’t posted an update in a while, but in my defence, the wifi in the hostel I was staying at sucked. Also, I was in Paris. So sue me.
First off, I must say that catching an overnight train is certainly… an experience. Probably not the quietest night I’ve had, but it kind of rocks you to sleep. I’m just chalking it all up to the whole European experience thing.
So Paris was amazing; I think I saw just about everything I wanted to see, and then some. All capped off with an amazing meal with an amazing view (more on that later).
The Paris walking tours are excellent. I would recommend them to any visitors who want to learn about the city from the inside. And there is a lot to learn! Each tour takes about an hour, and they’re free, so at the end you just tip the guide what you think it was worth. I went on three in as many days, and at 10 Euros/tour, it was worth every penny. There wasn’t even anyone else on the tour of the Latin Quarter and the Left Bank (the South side of the Seine), so it was basically a personal tour from a guy named Kevi who lived about a block from where we finished the tour.
Another tip, if you want the best views of Paris at night, skip the Eiffel Tower and catch the Metro out to Tour Montparnasse. Aside from the Eiffel Tower, it’s the tallest structure in the city, to get the lift up to the observation deck on the 56th floor is the same as a ticket to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but the best part is that when you get up there, you not only have the incredible views of Paris at night, but you can get a picture WITH the Eiffel Tower all lit up! You can even take a set of stairs up to  the 59th floor (the roof, basically) and get un-obstructed views of the entire city.
Of course you can still do all the regular tourist-stuff (and I did, of course). The Louvre and the Musee d`Orsay, Les Invalides (Napolean`s tomb and the Military School), Notre Dame (did another walking tour of that one), the Sacre Cour (Sacred Heart) and Saint Sulpice Basilicas.
And finally, on my last night in Paris, I found a great little restaurant (and by found, I mean I walked around for about 2 hours scoping out the best place to have dinner). I must say, though, it was 2 hours well spent; to be eating an amazing meal (Ravioli in a white truffle oil cream sauce) and watching the Eiffel Tower light up. As the icing on the cake-of-awesome that was my night, as I was sipping my après-dinner café-au-lait, it hit 8 pm and they turned on the twinkling lights (as they do every hour on the hour). I figured it wasn`t going to get any better than this, finished off the caramel cookie they brought with the coffee, paid my bill, and thanked the waiter for making my night with a nice tip. I don’t think he had any idea what I was talking about. I walked back to the metro with the biggest grin on my face.
I could go on, but, as they say, a picture is worth 1000 words.
My first night, after arriving from Barcelona

Pompidou Centre

Patisserie (baker) in Montmarte

La Pyramide du Louvre, a nuit

The Mona Lisa, in all of her dimiuative glory (seriously, the painting is tiny..)

The tomb of Oscar Wilde in Cemetary Pere Lachaise. I also found Jim Morrison's tomb.

The view from Tour Montparnasse

OK seriously, there are worse things you could be looking at while eating dinner....
 Please note this is only a small portion of the 1600+ pictures taken thus far.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

From 25 deg. & sunny to 10 deg & drizzling...

Current City: Paris
Despite not having a huge vested interest in visiting Spain (indeed I almost considered skipping it in the interest of time), I must say I’m glad I didn’t. The food was fantastic, the sights were incredible, and the club crawls in Malaga and Barcelona were great. Certainly the highlight was yesterdays visit to Montserrat, just outside Barcelona.
I just so happened to sit down and watch a Rick Steve’s travel special on Europe the day before I left, and caught his visit to this mountaintop monastery, and decided I should consider the sojourn.
A 90 minute train ride from the city took us to a cable car station, and a further 5 minute ascent took us to the village. A series of trails snake around the side of the mountain, with two funiculars ascending or descending from the village to smaller chapels on the mountain. The vistas of the surrounding Catalunya area are stunning, as was the Basilica. I really do wish I had researched this a bit more before seeing it; it probably would have made it that much more fascinating. 
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The lineup to buy tickets starts on the OTHER side of the building, and ends in the middle of the picture.

Park Guell, another of Gaudis works. Amazing views over Barcelona.

The giant lizard in the park. I pretty much had to elbow my way in there to get this picture.

The Basillica at Montserrat

Candles outside of Montserrat Basillica

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Current City: Barcelona
There's a certain romance surrounding travel that is definitely lacking when you fly somewhere. As anyone who's flown in the last few years will attest, there is almost nothing enjoyable about it, with the exception of actually arriving at your destination with your luggage intact. The list of complaints seems to be unending; from the outrages taxes and fees that you are charged when you book your ticket (what the hell is the Service Charge for anyway? I'm booking it online!), to the baggage restrictions, to the fact that the seats make a telephone booth seem spacious. My gripes about airport security alone would take so long to type it would probably drain my laptop battery.
These seem to disappear with rail travel. Now, obviously there has and will always be a need to fly places; that high-speed train between New York and London is probably a long way off. I'm sure that most Europeans will dismiss rail travel as pedestrian (pun intendid), but coming from North America, there is an unmatched novelty about watching the beautiful Spanish landscape fly past my window at 285 km/hr. I think a lot of Europeans view trains the same way most people view planes; a way to get from A to B. A means to an end. Railways in N. America still hold that appeal and romance; just look at the Rocky Mountaineer, which takes you through some of the most beautiful vistas imaginable. Or the great Australian railroad between Sydney and Perth.
Sure, you could fly for about 1/3rd the cost and have it take 1/10 the time, but where's the fun in that? Train travel will always be the slower, more expensive alternative to flying.
And I wouldnt have it any other way.

Sunday, 2 October 2011


Current City: Malaga
I think I had one of those moments earlier this evening, one of those moments I was hoping to have at least once in each city; a moment where you just stop, sit back, and truly appreciate where you are.
It came as right as I was finishing some of the best gazpacho and migas I think I've ever had, at a little tapas bar on a side street in Malaga. Despite getting lost en route to the hostel, and the terrible Ryanair flight (there's a reason European carriers are so cheap, its because they dont give you ANYTHING, not even pockets in the seatbacks. I was surprised they had toilets on board), and the stressing about a language barrier which doesnt seem to exist.
I've really enjoyed the time spent in the UK, especially seeing old friends and getting the whole Scottish hospitality. And the haggis and beer. Those were both quite good. But now, sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Oasis backpackers hostel, with the illuminated dome of the cathedral visible just over the skyline, it seems like this tour has truly started. And I am thoroughly looking forward to it.
And for whatever reason my web browser has defaulted to all Spanish.