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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. 

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