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Sunday, 14 December 2014

"My favourite thing is to go where I've never been" - Diane Arbus

The absolute best part of living in Europe is having an abundance of incredible places to explore at your doorstep. Planning my summer vacation was a blast! I decided to take a solo month long trip and visit places I had never been. The difficult part was narrowing down my list. I knew I wanted some beaches and sunshine, but I also wanted to take advantage of my long holiday and explore some cities that needed more devotion than just a weekend trip during the school year.

With my one little carry on bag, 9 flight tickets in hand and the excitement of having a full month of exploration ahead, I left Italy and set off to explore the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Greece and Turkey - before heading home to Canada for the remainder of my summer holidays. Unfortunately, the last leg of my trip in Turkey fell through and has now been postponed until 2015.

When I set off on this month long journey I figured I would have boat loads of downtime to sit in my hostel rooms and write about my adventures. Surprisingly, I wrote very little - because I was just having TOO MUCH FUN!! So, rather than detailed posts about each place, here are a few highlights from each country.
Czech Republic
I spent four days touring the beautiful medieval city of Prague. The cooler temperatures were a nice change after a month of heatwaves in Milan. I took advantage of the small size of this city and spent my days walking and exploring the old town, trying local cuisines and checking out some of the many museums Prague has to offer - my favourite being the Museum of Communism.
My hostel had a great pub which made meeting new friends quite easy. I spent a lot of time here watching more soccer during the World Cup than I probably ever have in my life! I also visited one of the best pubs I've come across. This pub has tables equipped with beer taps and computer screens. You can type in your name, pour your own beer and at the end you are charged by litres. A great concept!
Another highlight was taking the train outside of Prague to the small town of Kutna Hora. This town is home to a Roman Catholic Church that is constructed with more than 40 000 human skulls and bones. A truly haunting place to visit.
Despite a near mugging incident (I managed to push a purse thief away and yell very loudly at him!), I had an incredible time in this city. I found it to be a lot like Budapest. Both cities I love and would easily go back to.

The Netherlands
The second leg of my trip may have been the most fun. I spent four days in Amsterdam visiting friends and exploring the city and countryside. My wonderful friend Glenn lent me his beautiful apartment that sits along the canal is an amazing location. It was the perfect home base for my time here. Before Glenn took off for his holiday we took a luxury boat cruise around the city. A great introduction to what is now one of my favourite places. The following days I spent time visiting great friends Ferry and Niek and meeting their lovely friends. The guys took me on their boat and we had bbq as we cruised the canals through the red light district. I also took time to tour the Anne Frank House, the Heineken brewery and took a bike ride to the countryside to see some traditional Dutch communities and windmills.
A great time with fantastic people in a city I will certainly be returning to again soon!

Who doesn't love sunshine and beaches? That's right...nobody! Croatia is a total hot spot in Europe right now. This post war, developing country with its cheap prices and ideal location has become a tourist haven. Because of this, it isn't exactly a peaceful and relaxing place to be in the summer months. I stayed in the old town in Dubrovnik - a walled city that is often the backdrop in 'Game of Thrones'. This medieval city is incredibly beautiful. The wall surrounding the city is the largest in Europe and for a small fee can be hiked - offering incredible panoramic views of the city, sea and mountains. A swimming beach is a short hike from the old town and there are tons of boating excursions available.
I happened to arrive during the opening of the Summer Festival. The torch lit streets of old town were very much alive with preparations for the kick off of the summer season. Fireworks, street performers and traditional dancers brought celebration and positive energy for the summer ahead. Dubrovnik relies heavily on tourism during the summer months as this is their main source of income.
A beautiful and unique place to visit, but I would definitely recommend visiting outside of the peak season.

Montenegro was never part of my original plan, but due to its close proximity to Croatia, I figured I would check it out while I'm in the area. I only spent a short time in this country full of mountains and seaside villages (the word Montenegro literally translates to 'black mountain'). 
With a fairly small population and only recently joining the EU, it is a country that is struggling economically and relies heavily on tourism - much like Croatia. After Yugoslavia broke apart and these smaller nations formed, many multimillionaire Russians moved in, bringing their yachts and building resorts. Montenegro is still relatively quiet, but it appears to be the next Croatia and I predict within the next several years will be a booming spot.
I spent my time village hopping, hiking, and enjoying the ridiculously cheap prices of seafood! I was also eager to learn more about the history of the Balkans so I joined a tour, which meant I got to see more than I would have had I been traveling alone.
Entering Montenegro wasn't the easiest trek. We had to go through three border crossings and drive through several areas of 'no mans' land'. Definitely worth a visit purely for the scenery, but I think Croatia has more to offer at the moment.

 Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bosnia may just top my list of favourite places, or at least come close to it. I was absolutely blown away by the raw beauty of this country. I joined a war tour and spent time traveling through four city/villages that were some of the most heavily devastated during the fall of Yugoslavia. Mostar was by far the highlight of my summer travels. This city that is naturally divided by a river was once, not very long ago the centre of a civil war between Muslims and Christians. The river literally divided the populations and the famous Mostar bridge (named after the original bridge keeper) acted as a connector for attacks and rescues - until it was severally bombed. This now peaceful city still has obvious evidence of its recent devastation. Bombed building rubble and bullet holes line the streets. Apparently each year the government sponsors one building in the city to be rebuilt.
The bridge was rebuilt and is now the focal point of the city. A local man can be spotted daily collecting money to make the 24 metre jump into the river. A definite must see!
With a National unemployment rate of approximately 45%, Bosnia is very much a developing country. Tourism hasn't quite reached this beautiful nation, which is a shame. The people I met were incredibly friendly and welcoming. I found a traditional restaurant for lunch and had the best meal and service and was only charged four euro!
The tour also brought us into the small town of Medjugorje. This town was put on the map by six children in the 1980's. They claim the Virgin Mary appeared and ever since, devoted Catholics from around the world have been flocking to this area.
After visiting some countryside ruins, the final stop was in a quaint hillside Muslim village, full of markets, a beautiful mosque and hillside homes.
Bosnia is a country I definitely cannot wait to continue exploring!

I arrived in Athens and was greeted by my wonderful friend, Mary. I spent three days with her at her family home and was shown the kindest hospitality by her and her mother. Home cooked Greek meals, tours of the city, an afternoon at the beach and a night of clubbing with Mary and her cousins until the wee hours of the morning made for a very memorable time in an incredible city. Athens was surprisingly quiet while I was there. This city is seriously impressive and surpassed my already high expectations. After a wonderful few days (and some unfortunate cockroach experiences), I boarded a ferry (with a home cooked packed meal by Mary's Mom!) and took the four hour journey through the Mediterranean Sea until we reached Port on the Island of Santorini.
As my month of traveling was coming to an end I chose to get off the beaten path and booked a private cave in a less touristy part of the Island. I was more than ready for some quiet, down time. My hostel was about a 25 minute walk from the main tourist town. After some unclear directions I found a local to drive me and save me from aimlessly walking alongside a busy road in the scorching sun. When I arrived at my hostel I was greeted with a huge welcoming pool overlooking the ocean, pink flowers, little white caves with blue roofs and the friendliest dogs who apparently live at the hostel! It was truly paradise and I couldn't wait to spend the next week doing absolutely nothing!
Well, my plans for doing nothing didn't last long. I soon met some new Aussie friends and we spent the next days sailing, hiking a volcano, soaking in thermal waters in the middle of the sea, partying in Fira Town and watching the famous sunset in Oia. This may just be one of the prettiest places I've ever been!

My last stop - Turkey, had to be cancelled due to being sick (punishment for having too much fun for the last month?!). I was soon back in Milan and ready to return to the comforts of my parents' house in Canada for the remainder of summer. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Off the beaten path....with.... Rick Steves?!

May and June brought sunshine and friends.
One of my oldest and closest friends took two weeks off from her busy life to fly from Toronto to Rome. I couldn't wait to see her and greet her on Italian soil. I was also excited because I now had an excuse to return to Rome.
I had visited Rome as a University student and much to my surprise, I wasn't impressed. Yes, it is beautiful and full of rich history and culture, but something was missing. I wasn't blown away like I have been so many times with other parts of Italy. Maybe it was the annoying abundance of tourists, maybe it was the fact I arrived hours after a deadly earthquake or maybe it was the fact I spent my first 15 hours in Rome sick in a dirty hostel bed! Regardless of whatever it was that didn't impress me, I was feeling optimistic this second time around would blow me away.

Angela and I spent the weekend walking, eating and catching up as we soaked in the Roman sunshine and vino! It was a lovely weekend away, but I still left wondering what it was that I was missing. I just can't seem to fall in love with Rome the way so many others do. Maybe trip three will light that spark!

Upon returning to Milan, I was back into work mode and Angela took advantage of the sights and Milan's close proximity to other beautiful parts of the country like Tuscany and Venice. We spent the following weekend in Cinque Terre. A beautiful coastal region a few hours away from Milan. Cinque Terre translates to 'Five Villages'. We found a quaint little hotel on the water in the village of Vernazza. From here we took a beautiful (and painful) hike to one of the neigbouring villages. We rewarded ourselves with treats from a local lemon festival and we relaxed our tired bodies with a day on the beach and refreshing dips in the sea. This is absolutely my favourite part of Italy! Colourful villages emerge from cliff sides along the ocean. Olive groves and lush hiking trails run parallel to a deep blue sea. This has got to be one of the most picturesque places on the planet! If you have ever read a Rick Steves guide or watched an episode of his show, you will know he agrees with me on the beauty of this region. In fact, after a whole train mishap and ending up traveling in the wrong direction and sitting at the wrong train station, we happened to bump into Mr. Steves himself as we waited to board a train. A great and (hilarious) end to a fabulous weekend!

June approached and summer vacation was so close I could taste the coronas and poolside waiting for me! Unfortunately, I still had a very busy and hectic month of work before I could relax. Well, this waiting for summer to come to me wasn't going to cut it... so, I went to summer!
My friend Clarice who lives in Rome met me on the Island of Sardinia. We spent three days in the South in the small and quaint city of Cagliari. After boarding a rainy flight in Milan and spending ninety minutes traveling through turbulence, it was finally time to reconnect with my love of Island life. This weekend was incredibly relaxing. We spent a great deal of our time here tanning on white sandy beaches, swimming in crystal clear waters and checking out the local culture. We took sailing lessons and had dolphins swim alongside our boat, we ate an abundance of local cuisine (we avoided the traditional horse dish as well as cheese with worms), we took a trip to visit the flamingos and we let ourselves get lost on narrow side streets. It really was the perfect weekend..... until.... the hostel incident. This incident was so intense that it needs a separate blog post. Sneak peak highlights: Clarice and I running for our lives down dark hallways at three in the morning - police called - paramedics called - not a wink of sleep the rest of the night - convinced this could be the end of me - thoughts of "my Mom is for sure going to tell me to stop staying in hostels". Stay tuned!
My final Italian adventure before I left for the summer was spent with two amazing friends that I met while I lived in London. Kelsey and Mary were my people! The type of girls you just connect with immediately. We were missing the rest of our London crew, but we were happy to be reunited after two years apart. I brought them sightseeing in Milan, which is always fun for me. Each time I bring a visitor sightseeing I end up exploring something new as well! We walked to the top of the Duomo and had gorgeous views of the city, we spent time in Navigli (da Vinci's canal district in Milan) and we took a train to Lake Como. While at Lake Como we decided to venture further. We hopped on a ferry and made our way to Bellagio. Once we arrived we were on a mission to find the beach. It wasn't exactly the most organized trip (I may have dropped the ball on this one!). We eventually found a pebbly beach and had a nice dip in the ocean with snowy capped Alps as a backdrop. Moments like this I pinch myself and whisper "I live here! You did it! Your dream came true". I smile and I make sure not to take a moment of this experience for granted!

June ended as did the school year. My first year in Italy came to an end. I had so many incredible adventures and visited so many new parts of the world. I visited 12 countries during the year, 7 of which were new countries for me. With my first year of teaching in Milan and my fifth year of teaching in total behind me, I was ready for a long summer holiday!

A trip across Europe and back to Canada is up next! Check back to read about my time in:
Czech Republic, Netherlands, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Greece.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

European Road Trip

In 11 days I traveled through 7 countries with my parents and their good friends. We rented a mini van and departed Milan on route to Baden Baden in Southern Germany. Along the way we stopped for lunch and stretching breaks in beautiful Switzerland. We spent the first several hours of this ambitious road trip viewing spectacular snow capped mountains and gorgeous green countryside farm fields. Switzerland is a country I avoid traveling around due to its high costs. However, this drive from the South to the North made me eager to return.

We arrived in Baden Baden in the evening of day one. A small village just outside of the city of Baden Baden used to be home to a Canadian military base that my parents and their friends were stationed at before I was born. This small German town somehow immediately felt like a home away from home. Growing up I had heard countless stories of this foreign place.  In fact, as a young child I used to tell my classmates I was German. I was convinced that because my parents had lived there for five years that this made me German. Despite later finding out that I am not in any way German, I have still always felt a connection to this place.

We stayed at a hotel that sits directly on the old base (this is also now home to a small airport that Ryanair flies out of). The street signs still have their traditional Canadian city names that Canadian bases always have. Our hotel was on Halifax Street and just behind the hotel were two old jet hangers. I saw the buildings where my parents used to work, old bomb bunkers, the pubs they used to hang out in and even shopped at my Mom's favourite shoe store from the 1970s. We drank a lot of beer, ate a lot of schnitzel and I listened to a lot of reminiscing! The absolute best part of this visit and of the whole road trip was visiting the house where my parents used to live.

There on a quaint little street in a tiny, beautiful German village was the home that my parents had a whole different life in. My Mom had a good feeling that their old landlords still lived there - despite not being in touch with them for over thirty years. A knock on the door, a few seconds to process who was knocking on the door and old memories came flooding back for my parents and their very shocked landlords! A total blast from the past had just shown up on their doorstep totally unexpected. Tears and hugs followed.

We were invited into this wonderful and welcoming home by a couple who spoke very little English. They eagerly called their grown children to come over. My parents had spent a lot of time with this family as their apartment was in the lower level of the house. We drank wine, shared stories, ate Easter desserts and I got to tour my parents' old apartment. At one point a book that my mom had given to this family over thirty years ago was brought out. It was a book all about Canada with a beautiful goodbye message my mom had written inside before moving back to Canada. With this book they also found photos of my parents when they were younger than I am now! It was an incredible experience and a day I will never forget.

After some family fun in Baden, a rainy tour of the city, and a drive through the Black Forest, we were off again. Our next stop was Montpellier, France. We used this as a 'layover' - a place to spend the night to break up all of the driving. It is a beautiful city located on the south coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea. The next morning we were off again. This time to discover the majestic little country of Andorra. Andorra is located in the Eastern Pyrenees mountains and sandwiched in between France and Spain. The country sits in a valley at the base of the mountains which means to arrive here you must drive up and over some pretty steep, snowy mountains - the views are unreal! When you cross the border and begin the descent into Andorra, you are greeted with fresh rivers, lush greenery and mountains that are all encompassing. It is like being in a scene from Lord of the Rings or in a fairytale land.

We spent our time here walking around the sleepy little capital of Andorra La Vella - home to Europe's largest spa and a famous tax free shopping street. We found a cozy little pub with beer from around the globe. Of course we sampled many different types - including a chocolate, coconut, pineapple and a Christmas mix! Due to the close proximity to Spain, there is a great deal of Spanish influence in this country. The official language is Catalan and many of the dishes are made up with a Spanish flare. Despite being a landlocked country, there is no shortage of fresh seafood and it is home to the best Paella I've ever had!

This is a country that isn't entirely easy to get to, so I have my doubts that I will return...but, if I ever have the opportunity to go back I will definitely spend more time checking out some of the many outdoor activities offered - like, whitewater rafting, canyoning and biking. The natural landscape offers a spectacular 360ยบ view no matter where you are in the city.

Up next, Spain! We spent three nights in Barcelona - one of my all time favourite cities. We rented an apartment a few blocks from the famous Sagrada Familia and spent our time walking the city, eating delicious Spanish foods and drinking sangria. This was my second time to Barcelona so I skipped out on a few of the major tourist spots. I made a trip to Gaudi's Park Guell and enjoyed walking through the lush pathways that overlook the city and sea. I stumbled across a fun Spanish band and decided that I need to return to Barcelona for a full month sometime in the future to really soak in the culture (and sun!). Barcelona is a vibrant city with something to offer everyone. It's a place I know I will return to time and time again over the years.

After leaving behind the Spanish sun we drove along the coast and came to our final destination: The French Riviera. We rented a stylish apartment just outside of Nice and spent the next few days enjoying the seaside, walking the city, having fresh baked goods for breakfast and taking a bus into Monaco for the day! While in Monte Carlo, Dad and I were eager to get into the famous Casino that is in a few James Bond movies. A little too rich for our blood, but we enjoyed walking around and spotting all the high rollers.
Prior to visiting Monaco I had only heard negative reviews from others who had been. Many compare it to a movie set or call it fake and over done. To be honest, I enjoyed it immensely! It was fun to see fancy sports cars, multimillion dollar yachts and to sip cocktails on the beach along side some of the wealthiest people in the world. I wouldn't call the people warm and friendly and it's not somewhere I would care to spend a great deal of time, but a visit and tour was pretty exciting!
This Easter break road trip brought us to some beautiful parts of Europe. It was wonderful to share this experience with my family. This trip marked the completion of a goal I have had for several years. As we entered the tiny country of Andorra, I reached my 30 countries by 30 goal. It was a great feeling to accomplish this goal and to be with my parents who have been so supportive of my travels over the past six years!

Coming up: Fun in the sun throughout Italy and a summer of European Travels!