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April 6, 2014

I love travelling everyday of the week except Sunday

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I love travelling everyday of the week except Sunday.

I am not following that rule today.  I am back on the ‘road.’ I’ve escaped through a hidden portal in time and find myself back in the city I lived in for almost 9 years.  Yet, having been away from Edinburgh for so long, I feel like I am in the uncomfortable embrace of a stranger. It’s a cloudy and misty- what you would call a dreich morning.  I am missing the warmth of home. Madeira. I don’t feel like getting out of bed.

My mind wanders back into another gap in time. A similar lazy, Sunday morning almost a year back. I had been travelling through Germany for 3 weeks. I had just arrived in Dusseldorf. It had been an eventful trip, blighted by bitterly cold weather. It was the end of March. Germany was firmly still in the jaws of winter. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, I tried to make the most of my trip indoors.  From the sweet buttery cinnamon flavoured goodness of Franzbrotchen in Hamburg to the deliciously fruity ‘Klaben’ of Bremen, my mornings had fallen into a waist busting routine of discovering some of Germany’s finest regional pastries.

Afternoons were spent in some of Germany’s finest museums.  The Kunsthalle in Hamburg and Bremen followed by the Sprengel in Hannover: Germany is blessed with some of the finest contemporary art museums. By the time I arrived in Dusseldorf, the weather patterns had started to shift. A band of high pressure had brought clear skies. Cold, frosty nights gave way to crystal clear, cold blue sunny mornings.  The snow had melted, leaving behind a mixture of dead yellow and lush green grass. Craning my neck from my bedroom window of my stylish double room of my Jugendherberge hostel in Dusseldorf, I could see the iconic Rheinknie bridge towering in the distance , while the Rhine flowed serenely beneath, sparkling in the spring sunshine.  It was almost 10am. I was in danger of missing the hostel breakfast. Still, I lie dazed and lethargic. I usually can’t stay in bed longer than 9am. I spent a few minutes reading a ton of literature I had amassed the evening before from the local tourist office.

Dusselfdorf, Altstadt, on a Sunday afternoon.

Dusselfdorf, Altstadt, on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

 

I had a choice of activities to choose from. Maybe a stroll down the Rhinuferpromenade. I can watch the Rhine cruise boats sail by . I can check out some of the city’s iconic architecture in the Mediahafen district. Later in the afternoon I could continue my binge of contemporary art in the world famous K-20 + K-21 museums. Still, I found myself blighted by some sort of malaise. I spent another good hour under the covers, checking Facebook updates. Then I spot a picture from a friend in Edinburgh enjoying a traditional full Scottish at one of my old favourite haunts, the Holyrood 9A. I felt an instant pang of jealousy. There are a few better places in the world to start your Sunday morning than the Holyrood 9A. The staff are cheerful. There is a faint dash of morning light in this pub. It’s dark and cavernous. You’ll find a cosy log fire crackling away in the corner. When I lived in Edinburgh, my sunday mornings would be spent here reading their full selection of morning papers. I had a pang of nostalgia. I wanted to be far away from Dusseldorf. I wanted to be home. But where was home? Edinburgh was my home for 9 years but now no longer home. I had been living out of a backpack for almost a year now. Home was everywhere and nowhere.

It’s 12pm by the time I dragged my sorry ass out of the hostel.Sun was now high on the sky. After a 30 minute vigorous long walk to the city that included a very windy interlude on the bridge, I could feel a tickle of sweat forming on my back. The city’s main thoroughfare had a steady trickle of locals. I walk past wide gaping empty shop entrances adorned with confetti and balloons announcing mega spring savings. The eeriness and desolation reminds me of Sunday afternoons before in another world and space. Everywhere I looked, people looked disconsolate and slow in their step.

It’s only when I reach the banks of the Rhine river, there are suddenly signs of life. Tourists, mainly stag groups had congregated at the riverside bars gulping generous amounts of the quite dark and bitter local Altbier. I sit at the steps of the embankment and join the steady growing crowd of sun worshippers. It’s quite peaceful and orderly with the exception of a gaggle of homeless people with Lidl shopping bags, listening to music on a radio with a cracked speaker. They were a vision of happiness, drowsing themselves in cheap beer.

Pleasure boats drift by, crammed with over excited tourists waving their arms madly at the sun worshippers. The gaggle of beggars are the only people to respond. They start waving enthusiastically and like a terrible afterthought, the stag party group from the riverside bars stagger to their feet and join the impromptu rave. I sip on my lukewarm bottled water and wish it could turn into beer.

I get up and start walking. There is a wave of happiness along the Rhine river. Picture postcard scenes -couples walking by arms interlocked, the young family with cute baby and obligatory cute puppy in tow. I see all these scenes with a strange mixture of fascination and disengagement.

This could be my life. This cafeteria with great wifi, so nice and cosy. I could have my Sunday morning cup of coffee here. This could be the park I go running in the mornings.

I soon find myself walking by beautiful houses with broad bay windows that invite the outsider to gaze in. I see people gathered around the TV.  The biggest plasma widescreen TV you can imagine. It’s a scene that looks very inviting. Cosy leather sofa. I see a dude lying slothenly with the remote about to drop from his hands. He looks bored as hell. I imagine he could be watching something utterly tripe. I remember Sunday tv schedules from the past . Probably the sunday matinee movie. Or he could be numbed watching a very one sided football game from the Bundesliga involving Bayern Munich.

I walked back to the hostel with a nagging feeling. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be like to that dude. Watching the dullest TV programmes you can imagine. However the idea of waking up at home, in your own bed and not feeling the need not to go anywhere…. is a nice feeling. Maybe I am showing my age here. Maybe it’s good to watch utter tripe on TV and be numbed into a deep slumber on the sofa.

Maybe there is no place like home on a Sunday.

Since I am not home, I am going to make the most of now. The sun seems to be making a comeback in Scotland…peeking through those dark grey clouds. I might just drag my ass out now and have that full Scottish at Holyrood 9A….

Have a great Sunday, wherever you are in the world.

Do you love travelling everyday of the week, especially Sundays? Love to hear your thoughts on my post.

More stories from the road? Have a peek at the archives.

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January 31, 2014

Paris, in 40 photos & 20 songs

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Here are 40 pictures I took from my latest jaunt to Paris.

Pictures are taken with my humble iPhone 4s.

To accompany the pictures I’ve also created a Spotify playlist of 20 songs that have inspired my past and present trips to Paris.

Press play. Sit back and enjoy this little November ride through the streets of Paris….

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St Pancras International Terminal, London

Every great adventure has a great beginning. Our first big adventure to Paris started at the epic Eurostar terminal in St Pancras International which is a destination in it’s own right.

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We went to Paris with Eurostar. Booking early, you can get tickets as cheap as £69 return to Paris. Another bonus of travelling with Eurostar is that they are offering passengers 2 for 1 entry  into some of Paris’s top cultural attractions like the Musée d’Orsay. Great for culture vultures like me and Sofia.

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Gare du Nord

2 hours and 30 minutes after we left St Pancras, we are safely nestled in the heart of Paris.

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Hotel Manufacture

This was our double bed at Hotel Manufacture. Very comfortable room. Nice bedding. Quiet. Great friendly staff. It’s located in the 13th arrondissement and just a 20 minute walk to the Latin Quarter. The nearby (50m) Place d’Italie metro station offers easy access to several metro lines (5, 6 and 7) so it’s a ideal base for exploring Paris. Booked via Expedia’s new mobile app ( I got 20% off booking via the app) , I got a room for 3 nights for £197 which works out to be £67 a night. Great deal for Paris.

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Roue de Paris

Next day. A cold, grey day in November. We start our walk at the northern edge of Jardin de Tuileries at the Roue de Paris , a 60-metre (200 ft) tall Ferris Wheel, installed on the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

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Fontaines de la Concorde, Place de La Concorde.

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Place Vendôme

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La Madeleine, Paris, just a few minutes walk east of Place Vendome.

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Jeu de Paume – a home for all types and periods of the visual arts. During our visit there was an excellent exhibition about the photographer, Erwin Blumenfeld. Plus 2 for 1 entry with our Eurostar ticket. Saving of €8.50. Magic.

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 Sofia capturing the last colours of autumn in Paris.

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Time for lunch. We loved Mavrommatis on 42 rue Daubenton, just a 5 minute walk from Jardin Tuileries. Best Greek restaurant I’ve ever dined out in. €38 for 3 course lunch. Pricey, but damn good food. Lamb moussaka was amazing.

Nice service. No tourists. Just locals. They also have an excellent deli downstairs which serves delicious sandwiches with great fillings- jambon, grilled halloumi, artichokes..to name a few.You can have a sandwich, drink & one of their delicious desserts for just €9.90.

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The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris’s most visited garden thanks to it’s perfect location between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. In winter, I guess it’s a different story.

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Approaching the world’s greatest art museum, the Louvre...

Dunno who the naked dude is. Can anyone enlighten me?

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Love the courtyard of the Louvre.

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While people were jostling in the long queues to get into the Louvre, we were content just to soak in the atmosphere outside, observing visiting tourists striking all kinds of weird poses in front of the pyramid.

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Continue our walk up the Seine. I am desperate for the loo. I am hopping like mad to find a place to pee. I ask politely at two restaurants. I get a firm, grumpy ‘non.’ My third attempt is a moderate success. I have to pay 50 cents as my fee to pee. Which I reluctantly accept.

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Continuing our walk up the Seine, we meet a few friendly locals.

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Shakespeare & Company, across from the Notre Dame Cathedral is my favourite bookstore in Paris. I love coming back here every time I visit Paris. Upstairs they have a cosy library with lots of worn out interesting books and worn out sofas. We spend a few hours leafing through their collection. There’s a lot of tourists packed into the bookshop but still a wonderful silence.

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Then I find a typewriter! It’s been years (decades) since I’ve sat in front of a typewriter.

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Unfortunately, the typewriter was broke. Still, like R.B from India above, I too was inspired just sitting there.

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Day 2. We’re at the beautiful Musee D’Orsay. Probably my favourite art museum in the world. Plus 2 for 1 entry with our Eurostar tickets. A grand saving of €11.

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From inside the Musee D’Orsay looking out….

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Favourite painting at Musee D’Orsay? Probably Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette

 

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Another favourite of mine at Musee D’Orsay. Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe by Claude Monet

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Clock Cafe, Musee D’Orsay. Overpriced and very touristy but worth visiting just to enjoy the ambience.

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Sofia, lost in wonder , enjoying the view of the Sacre Coeur from inside the Musee d’Orsay clock tower.

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One last look at the impressive atrium of Musee D’Orsay …

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Macarons at Richart. Situated very close to Musee D’Orsay ( 258 Bvd. St. Germain ) it’s perfectly located . Priced at just €1.60 per piece, it’s very reasonably priced.

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Wondering the Left Bank, we stumbled upon the famous Hotel D’ York (56 Rue Jacob )

The Treaty of Paris was signed here on September 3, 1783 that marked the end of the American War of Independence between Great Britain and the United States of America.

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This is the courtyard of Hotel D’Angleterre on 44 Rue Jacob, just a stone’s throw away from Hotel D’York. I love coming back and going for a wee nosy in this historic hotel. Hemingway spent his first night in Paris here.

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Thanks to tip from my friend Alexis from Hejorama blog, we ended up for dinner in Cafe de l’Industrie just off the crowded Rue de Lappe in the Bastille area. It’s a charming restaurant, filled with locals and has a nice cosy atmosphere.

If you do visit here, I recommend the wonderful snails cooked in garlic and butter.

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We end the day wondering the cobbled streets of the village of Montmartre. Lit up at night, Sacre Coeur looks stunning.

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While looking for bars to have a farewell drink, we noticed that bars don’t offer free wifi here and revel in the fact that they don’t offer it. I get your point but still there is a certain snobbery about the whole issue of offering wifi in Paris which frustrates me.

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In the touristy drag of Rue Lepic, we find a bar that offers free wifi has a real down to earth charm. Welcome to the lovely Un Zebra de Montmartre. The food is decently priced, staff are friendly and the wine is great. We buy half a carafe of red for €7 euros and enjoy our wine, sipping it slowly and savouring the last moments of our holiday.

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So that’s our 40 pictures from Paris. Hope you enjoyed the moments from our holiday and also my Paris playlist. It would be great to hear your suggestions of the perfect song for Paris.

Essentials

Courtesy of Eurostar , I travelled from London to Paris. Booking in advance you get one-way fares for £39 and return from £69.

I flew from Paris to Madeira courtesy of Transavia, the low-cost airline from KLM. I have to admit before this trip, I wasn’t aware of this low-cost airline. They have some great deals. Currently they have a fantastic sale on where you can fly from Porto to Lyon for €29 or from Rotterdam to Prague for €30. If you’re planning to travel across Europe this summer, it’s very worthwhile bookmarking their website.

We stayed at the Hotel Manufacture courtesy of Expedia. They currently have a fantastic winter sale on where you can get 40% off hotels.

Disclaimer

While my flights and stay were offered courtesy of Expedia, Eurostar and Transavia, the views represented in this article are entirely my own. 

 

January 19, 2014

Travelling with the forgetful man

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I have a confession to make to you, dear readers of my blog. I am a forgetful man.

 

I always remember a face. However, I always forget stuff when travelling. Pens. Mobile phones. Jackets. Cameras. Umbrellas. Magazines. Debit cards. Medicine. I guess I never took it seriously till know. It’s reached the point where it’s become more than just a minor aggravation in my life.I could blame it on my father and the science of genetics.

Just now. Literally a few moments ago. I had my latest episode of forgetfulness.

Mid-air on my way to Helsinki from Amsterdam. I like to listen to music while writing. I started rummaging through my bag for my iPhone. I usually keep it in the front pocket of my bag. Actually, that’s a lie. I sometimes keep it in my jeans. No. I sometimes keep in the inside pocket of my jacket. Sometimes the outside pocket. Damn. That’s the problem. I am so absentminded.

I need process.

I spend a good part of an hour trying to search my rucksack which is towed under the front seat. I don’t know if you’ve had the utmost pleasure of sitting in the middle seat of an old rickety Boeing 737-300. Trying to do anything, is almost nigh impossible. I am strapped in firmly and can’t wriggle. My tiny elbows can’t compete with the competition from my hefty fellow Dutch travelling passengers. Plus, the gentleman in front of me has decided to lean back and make the most of the space available. I bend down and try to reach for my bag. Bang my head against the seat in front of me a few times (begins to feel quite therapeutic after awhile ) before managing to suck the bag into my lap. I plunge my hand into the bag.It starts as a gentle inquest. I dig my hand into the cavernous insides of my backpack. I’m not finding the familiar contours of my phone. I soon find myself muttering expletives to myself. I am fearing the worst by now.After a few more desperate looks, I call off the search and slump back into my pigeon hole.

I have another bout of emotional self-flagellation and realise I have another case of lost memory to add to the collection.  As I wonder where I might have lost the phone, I kind of wonder into a black hole of lost time and revisit the tragic timeline of all the things I have forgotten in my life.

I lost probably 10 umbrellas while at school.

The king size umbrellas never fitted into my school bag. So, there were easy to lose. My mother then bought the more expensive, smaller and cooler umbrellas that would snugly fit into my bag. Still, my mind played tricks on me. I would find a way of losing them. Leaving them on public buses or in cafes.I’d come home drenched. In India when the rains come, it’s like walking under a waterfall. There is no place to hide if you don’t have an umbrella.

October 2009. I lost a black jacket.

It was sleek. Wasn’t too expensive. However, it felt very comfortable with lots of pockets. I love jackets with lots of pockets. However, if you are of a forgetful disposition, trust me, it’s not a good idea having a coat with too many pockets.

I lost the black jacket on the way back to Munich airport after a few hours of drunken revelry at Oktoberfest. I had been 15 hours in Munich, thanks to easyJet. The last day of Oktoberfest. I had been set a challenge by the airline to see and discover and see many things as possible in Munich in 15 hours. Plan was to checkout some of the city’s sights before heading to the Oktoberfest grounds for a final flourish. While I managed to soak in some of the famous landmarks, rich architecture and climb up St Peter’s Kirche, practically everywhere I ended up going to in Munich, I found a beer garden. Even if you go to a public garden, you can find a beer garden. So, you end up doing what the locals do. Drink beer.  And getting drunk.

At around 4pm , I manage to drag myself to Oktoberfest and stumble into the Hofbrau tent. Inevitably, after a few hours of hanging out in the beer tent , I am dancing on the benches swinging the bigger-than-my-head-stein glasses to the Oompah band. Beer flows like water down my gullet. By the end, I’ve learnt the unofficial Bavarian national anthem and made a lot of friends. After exiting the tent, it’s all a big blur. The train journey to the airport seemed a long arduous journey.I remember sobering up in the plane on the way back.  Moment of truth. Passport was in my jeans pocket. Backpack was stowed under my seat. Suddenly I realised I was missing my new jacket. I must have left in the train. Now, when I look at the pictures and the video of my 15 hours in Munich , there is a bittersweet nostalgia.

Fast forward to 2013. One fine, sweaty afternoon in June in Venice. 

Well, a few miles outside of Venice.

A camping site on the edge of nowhere. Outside, there’s the annoying blare of cheesy Italian technopop music. Since I’ve arrived in the past hour, they’ve played the same song 5 times. I was told by the bubbly receptionist at the camp site that is the song of the summer in Italy. While the parents are beached beside the pool going red as lobsters, next-door in the bar with flashy neon lights, amidst the odd gloomy looking solo traveller with laptop, teens are getting trashed on alcopop to the sound of the song of summer.

I’m in a claustrophobic cabin at the edge of the campsite.

It’s dark inside with two small windows from which I can see only the metal fencing that encircles the campsite. Beyond the fencing is a bare naked field. I am shouting and ranting at myself in the claustrophobic cabin. I’ve ravaged the insides of my backpack a few times and in a final roll of the dice have now emptied my backpack onto the bed with squeaking  metal bed frame.It’s a strange sight to see the guts of your backpack emptied onto a bed. Something very raw, naked and undignified. A few Chupa Chupas . A bottle of brand new Chanel Bleu aftershave.My passport. My Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring book. Interrail pass. Bunch of Euros. Ton of endless beer, bratwurst and burger receipts from my time in Berlin. A few museum tickets and a few chocolate wrappers I’ve collected that I’ve kept in the hope that one day I’ll create a scrapbook about my travels.

One key thing is missing. My bank card.

My wallet looks confused, dysfunctional without the card. 

I keep looking at the wallet, digging through the few euro notes and receipts, hoping by miracle that the card would magically reveal itself and my nightmare would be over. Finally, I give up and slump onto the squeaky bed. I  close my eyes and remember when I last used my card. While buying my favourite aftershave, Chanel Bleu at duty free in Berlin airport. I must have left the card in the machine . I look at the Chanel Bleu bottle with disgust for many hours and have a daydream of finding a time machine.

I have just €20 in my pocket and I don’t have a normal credit card or any means of access to cash. I don’t know anyone in Venice. I do have one of those prepaid credit cards.  I don’t know if you ever had one of these cards. You can pre-load them with cash. I unfortunately had no funds left in the card. The card had been my backup option and gathering dust for awhile in my wallet. It took me 48 hours for cash to transfer from my UK bank account to this prepaid cash card. 48 hours in Venice. With just €20? What followed was quite an emotional experience.

These are just a few of my favourite things I have lost. I could write a book about stuff I’ve lost. It’s scarred me a fair bit.  Whenever I am on the road, I’m always worried I am forgetting something. On the airport bus. Leaving the hostel.

Wallet check. Passport check. Ticket check. Laptop check. Smartphone check. Camera check. Tablet check. Medicine check. Contact lenses check. There are so many damn variables to juggle.

You think a life of constant travelling would make one more functional.

More organised. Less forgetful. Instead the more I travel, the more worse it seems to becoming. I’ve become more shaky. I’ve always known I have a problem of forgetting stuff. I guess I’ve never realised until now that it is a serious problem I have to address.

I’ve grown weary to travelling with the forgetful man.

I want to say goodbye to him. Forget him. Leave him in some dark corner by the road.

I have taken a major first step to banishing him and googled ‘ways to avoid forgetfulness.’

The first article that Google brings up suggests in the very first line

‘The best way to remember things is to not use your brain..’

I must remember that. Thanks Google.

How do you remember things when travelling on the road?

I’d like to hear your thoughts and tips.  By the way, I have now arrived safely in Helsinki and writing this post from my hotel room. A little piece of news. Just after the plane landed and I was about to bolt from my pigeon hole and make a run for it, I had the good sense to have a look at the seat pocket in front of me.  Nestled right at the bottom guess what I found…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 16, 2013

Discovering Delft through the eyes of Vermeer

 

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We visited Delft on a windswept, moody day in Autumn.

Shades of grey and of sparkling blue sunshine.

Without the crowds of Amsterdam, it felt strange but also wonderful.

We snailed our way to our hotel from the train station, enjoying every step of the journey. We wondered through the lonely squares. Paused and admired the picture postcard houses stringed unevenly along the dreamy canals. Within a few hours of entering the city, the verdict was loud and clear.

 

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We loved Delft.

It’s a small city. Very walkable. We got a feel of the place very quickly.

Often these cities are our favourite cities.

As if they were solely invented for our pleasure and convenience.

Wherever we encountered humanity, in the form of locals, we were accorded a warm welcome.

Starting with our hotel, the Hotel de Emauspoort.

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Small and friendly.

They have beautifully furnished rooms. Nothing , however beats a night in one of their gypsy caravans.

After briefly savouring our cosy little caravan ‘Pipo de Clown’, to the chime of the clock from the nearby Nieuwe Kerk, we strolled out to explore Delft.

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We were here for a few hours. We knew little about the city beforehand. We knew that Vermeer lived here. However, we knew little about his history of living in the city.

With no guidebook to guide us, we let our instinct and curiosity take over.

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First thing that caught our eye, walking out of the hotel was this glass sculpture of a blue heart.

A blue heart on a cold autumnal day. Heartwarming.

The blue heart of Delft sculpture represents the excellence in local blue pottery, known better as Delftware.

In the background, we spot a building, a church which we are informed by a local, is the spot where Vermeer lived and painted his key works. His house apparently burnt down so there is nothing to see or do.

 

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There is apparently, little left of Vermeer’s Delft.

We drift into the main square.

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Looking up the first thing that caught my eye was the beautiful renaissance structure of the city’s town hall. It was constructed in 1618-1620 by local architect, sculptor and illustrator, Hendrick de Keyser. What I loved in particular was the eye-catching sculpture of the Roman goddess of Justice- ‘Justitita’ She’s pictured with her scales which she uses to measure the strengths of a case’s support and opposition and in the other hand she holds a copper sword. This symbolises the power of Reason and Justice.

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After that we wondered into ‘Cheese and More’ store in the main square. Here for free, you can sample various forms of Dutch cheese including the popular ‘Gouda’ cheese. The staff were lovely and gave us lots of tasty samples ( Gouda with cumin, my favourite) This is also a good place for picking up souvenirs.

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A hidden alleyway led us from the main square onto the beautiful Voldersgracht.

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Voldersgracht is beautiful. It is one of the oldest canals in Delft dating back to 1348.

It’s got a lot of interesting shops plus houses the new Vermeer centre.

From 1635 to 1672, Vermeer lived his entire life in Delft and produced just 37 paintings. You can read about his life in Delft, his work and delve into the stories behind his various paintings at this centre. However at €8, I felt the entrance price was too pricey so we skipped this and spent some time exploring the gift shop.

Instead, we explored the streets of the city he painted. There are few more picturesque and haunting streets in Delft than Voldersgracht which recently has been claimed by historians to be the inspiration for Vermeer’s ‘The Little Street.’

Strangely walking this street, I feel the ghost of Vermeer guiding me.

Everyway, I look, I stumble upon private moments.

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The lady, pausing for thought, gazing at the canal.

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An artist at work.

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The cold, grey day that had lulled this cat into a deep slumber.

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Locals, sharing stories or dreams over cups of delicious freshly brewed coffee at ‘Kek’, this beautiful coffee and crafts shop.

It is such ordinary moments that give life it’s true flavour.

I think this was what made Vermeer’s paintings so rich.

Despite, painting such deeply private moments and inviting our curiosity, Vermeer also gave his subjects a deep, touching humanity.

The paintings, whether a woman reading a letter or appraising a string of pearls directly engages the reader.

It is this humane and life like quality, which for me makes his paintings so perfect.

We continue the day in similar vein of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ moments.

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Get fun passport style photos taken of us at ‘Kek.’

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We then stumbled upon this beautiful pub called ‘De Beierd’ where we had a delicious Soto Ayam soup, washed down with some of the excellent Trappist ‘bockbier’ which is typically brewed at that time of the year.

Then after a cosy afternoon nap, we strolled out into the pitch black night. There is a distinctly cold nip in the air.

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Guided by the buzz of locals and jazz notes, we soon find ourselves tucked into this dimly lit bar called ‘De Wijnhaven’ where the bier van de tap is excellent as the banter of the bar staff. Plus they serve here excellent dutch finger food like ‘Kaassouffles’ , ‘Vlammetjes’ and the delicious , crispy ‘Bitterballem.’ served with a tongue tingling mustard dip ( Note: Dutch mustard is great! ) All for just €4 a portion.

A belly full of good food and beer, we dribble our way back to the caravan, led by the canals aglow. Every few steps, we are invited to the gaze through the lit up windows of the canal houses.

Locals, busy doing the everyday ordinary things. Cooking, chatting, watching TV or even drinking a glass of wine.

There’s a timelessness about the images before us.

All we have to do is use your curiosity and imagination to discover the city he painted, lived and breathed.

A quality, I’m sure Vermeer would have approved of.

 

October 16, 2013

In praise of the museum cafe

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Last weekend. It was cold, raining and we were lost in the confusing maze of canals of Amsterdam.

 

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The rain was no longer vertical.

It was lashing into our faces from a horizontal angle on the back of furious gusts of moisture laden air.

Unlike the beautiful Autumnal day before, the canals were no longer still and silent but thanks to the incessant rain overnight, had swelled considerably.

They were like tidal rivers now,  angry and shrill as the swirling wind around us, threatening to overflow their banks.

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Umbrellas were of no use in these blustery conditions.

Every 5 steps, we found broken umbrellas sprayed across the pavement or jacked into bins.

‘Broken umbrellas like dead birds’  was the phrase that came to mind, to quote Mr Waits.

Dead autumn leaves were like now like a slimy carpet under out feet.

The earth was truly beginning to move under our feet.

 

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It was at this precise moment that we finally managed to locate FOAM, the museum of photography in Amsterdam.

I love this museum and I always come back here whenever I revisit Amsterdam. I find their photography exhibitions always thought provoking and moving.

 

photo 2

To warm our hands and feet, we nip down to the basement café of Foam.

The staff here are always warm and welcoming. Out of the rain and away from the prying wind, suddenly a moment of calm and peace descends upon us. We sit down. Rub hands to generate warmth. Order tea. As we flick through the prospectus of the exhibition ( 40 years of Dutch magazine photography) a pot of steaming tea arrives with a smile and a nice piece of shortbread. We are paying for the tea but still, sitting there feels like a privilege.

The food menu looks like quite varied and interesting. Little pricey for the BudgetTraveller, nevertheless, it looks like really good quality food and smells great. Everyone is smiling, happy with their food. We look at the animated faces of all the people in the cafe and wonder about their lives, where they came from. Marvel at how fate has brought has together at this precise moment in time.

The low lighting is soothing. The rain drops slide down the broad window panes behind us. There is a reassuring sense of comfort and gratitude being in the museum café, shielded from the unpredictable elements.

Then, as gratitude envelopes my heart, a nagging thought enters my brain…

Why are museum cafes such an unloved instituition?

I rewind a few days back to our day in Rotterdam. I remember Sofia, my girlfriend suggesting that we have lunch at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen ( Fabulous collection of surrealist art )

I scoffed at the idea with the nonchalance of a well travelled man. In my heart, museum cafes were not an entity within themselves. There were an unwanted add-on. A sideshow to the main event. Somewhere you passed through on your way to the exit or after taking a wrong turn from the souvenir shop.

I closed my eyes and visualised tired faces when thinking of museum cafes. Bored faces. Haggard looking parents. Weary waiting staff.

However, maybe I was a victim of a stereotype?

 

I plumbed my memory to think of all the museum cafes I’ve visited on my travels.

I immediately picture myself back in Edinburgh where I lived for almost 8 years.

I am taking a walk down the enchanted Water of Leith canal. Starting at Dean Village, I wind my way through the village, into Stockbridge and then finally found myself at the feet of the city’s two excellent modern art galleries- Dean Gallery and the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.

Both the cafes in these two museums are excellent, my favourite is the Café Modern One at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.

The café is always is this vibrant mix of art lovers, tourists and locals. It’s always packed. Especially on sunny days where people soak in the sun in their glorious outdoor garden patio. The food here is excellent too and offer generous portions.  From their delicious crispy jacket potatoes to homemade soups and casseroles to their puy lentil salads plus an excellent range of cakes-this café is a great place to eat in it’s own regard.

Cafe, Bojimans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam.

Cafe, Bojimans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam.

Back to almost the present- Rotterdam and the café at the Bojimans museum. Sofia was desperately needing to make a phone call to her parents via Skype and hence needed a decent wifi connection. After buying our tickets to the museum, the friendly receptionist informs us that the café has both free AND working wifi. While she makes her phone call, I buy two coffees. Both come with a free piece of chocolate shortbread. I pick up a selection of local magazines lying on the next table and for a few moments, find myself really absorbed, enjoying myself.

Sipping on the freshly brewed coffee. Words. Images. A beautiful sense of calm. Around me I don’t see any bored or unhappy faces.

 

The more I travel, for better or for worse, I’ve realised I’ve become a godamn fussy person. The travellers curse. A simple café won’t do. I won’t settle for a cold slice of pizza for lunch or visit Starbucks just because of the free wifi.

I want to feel welcomed. A smile, when I walk in.

Even if it’s a tiny bite of something, be authentic. Even if all you got is soup and sandwiches, if your soup is something local and unique to your establishment, you’ve got me hooked. Lie. Tell me you made it with your grandma’s secret recipe. Tell me a story.

 

I want to feel a sense of connection with the environment I’m in.

I love places with great design, that allow light and seem cheerful, even on the dullest day.

Plus I really really love FREE WIFI. Especially when you are travelling on the road in a foreign country, it’s great to be able to connect with your friends and family on the road.

 

A museum café ticks all the boxes.

They won’t have the most jaw dropping menus but they will have a limited but good selection, something nice to nourish your soul. The staff I’ve found are always polite and friendly. The design of most museum cafes, in harmony with the rest of the building, is always eye catching. The coffee is always good.

So the next time you visit a museum, don’t treat the café as an unwanted add-on. A place just to rush through to pee in their loo or catch up on your Facebook messages using the free wifi or a convenient pit stop to stuff your mouth before running to the next destination.

Treat it as an experience in it’s own regard. A quick escape from reality. A place for reflection in the midst of a holiday where you can gather your own thoughts before you are ready to face the world outside.  Come rain or shine, I promise if you give them a chance, they might just surprise you and be a highlight of your next holiday.

 

Some of my favourite museum cafes to check out on your next trip..

 

Le Café Diane, Tuileries Gardens |Paris

In the heart of the Tuileries Gardens, this is the Museum Café with THE view, offering a great vista of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Perfect for a sunny day, nestled within the beautiful Tuileries Gardens, this place is perfect.

 

Café Modern One, Scottish Gallery of Modern Art | Edinburgh

Hearty food, generous portions, a beautiful outdoor terrace and a nice mix of locals and tourists- this is a place not to miss on any trip to Edinburgh. Perfect, when combined with a walk up the Water of Leith.

 

National Café, The National Gallery | London

 If you want to get away from the bustle and clamour of Trafalgar Square in the evening and really looking for a decent bite to eat, then do pop into the beautiful National Café at the National Gallery. Menu is a mix of modern British and European cuisine. At the moment, they are offering an excellent offer of £10 supper ‘dish of the day’ with a glass of wine, beer or soft drink. You can expect dishes like Wiltshire pork and mussel paella to a homemade fish pie and fragrant Thai seafood curry.

 

June 24, 2013

Volcano-hopping in Iceland: Win this trip!

Volcano Hopping in Iceland

Sitting on top of Eldfell

By Frankie Bird

The more I travel, the more I start to think that places have more stories than people.

One of the places that all but convinced me of this was the Westman Islands, a cluster of wild, rocky islands off the southern coast of Iceland. Here I was lucky enough to see – and climb – part of their story; the 40-year old remnants of a volcano that drastically altered Heimaey, the Westman Islands’ only inhabited isle. When it erupted unexpectedly in early 1973, it effectively “grew” the island by a fifth, spilling lava out into the sea , which hardened and formed a new landmass that is only now starting to calm down and grow vegetation.

Exciting and enthralling as this may sound – and it was an honour to see it – it was also deeply frightening and destructive as the eruption also took with it 400 homes and threatened to cut off the island’s lifeline; it’s harbour. While the island grew by 20%, the population dropped by the same amount as families were evacuated and didn’t return. Those who stayed had to live with a black and red steaming mountain as a reminder of what happened in 1973. As life-altering as this particular story is (and it’s a small miracle that no body was killed), it certainly goes some way to confirm that Heimaey is a very special place – which proud locals would tell you in a heartbeat – as it’s one of the youngest and most raw volcanoes in Iceland that you can literally get up, close and personal with. In fact, you can climb its full height and sit on the cusp of its crater, admiring a view of the town and surrounding islands. For an idea of the magnitude and force of a volcano, you can dig a few inches into the golden brown mass you stand on and you’ll feel the heat of Eldfell – the volcano you just climbed to the peak of – it’s barely starting to cool down.

 

Volcano Hopping in Iceland

Feeling the heat of a volcano

 

Volcano-hopping in Iceland

Eldfell is one of three volcanoes I got, up close and personal with in Iceland, albeit from different angles and in very different ways. Eldfell is certainly the only one I can pronounce, Thrihnukagigur and Eyjafjallajökull (of 2010′s “ash-cloud” fame) being the other two. Three volcanoes, three days of eye-opening, mind-blowing and memory-making adventure. Before I tell you more, I need to inform you that you can win this exact same experience. You (and a friend) can enjoy a five day trip to Iceland with flights, accommodation (at Bus Hostel Reykjavik), car hire and tours all included.

Read on to find out exactly what we did and how you can win exactly the same experience.

 

Day One

Volcano-hopping in Iceland

Admiring the view from the top of a volcano

 

This was our trip to the Westman Islands. We drove south through lunar-like lava fields and caught whiffs of sulphur in the air as we passed a geothermal energy plant. The scenery changed quickly but stayed consistently impressive; Iceland is one of those countries that is a privilege to drive through. With a few stops planned en route (I don’t want to spoil all the surprises!) we met our guide “Viking Jon” and from there drove to catch the 30 minute ferry across to Heimaey. After climbing up to Eldfell’s peak (a steady but short hike that is steep in a few places but with endless spectacular views) our efforts were rewarded by a visit to the island’s cliffy coastline where puffins take their summer holiday.

 

Volcano Hopping in Iceland

Puffins on Heimaey, Westman Islands

 

If you’re still awake and up for it, Jon will also treat you to a drive along a beautiful black sand beach once you’re back on the mainland.

Day Two

Volcano Hopping in Iceland

A view to remember

 

Again we left Reykjavik by heading south. It was the same journey, but it was far from broing. After meeting Viking Jon again, we headed inland and were given a tease of what was to come later as we drove past a row of beautiful waterfalls including the famous Seljalandsfoss. Quickly, the tarmac road gave way to gravel and flat turned into rocky and river-like on occasion; you’ll be grateful that you’re in an elevated 4×4! Eventually we reached the foot of the Gigjokull glacier and there followed some fascinating lessons in geology and geography (and I don’t say that loosely – geography was my least favourite subject at school!).

 

Volcano Hopping in Iceland

Off-roading in Iceland!

 

Afterwards we travelled further into the vast valley which became even more unforgiving in terms of terrain – but no match for the beast of a vehicle you’ll be driving in. We parked up and took a very gentle hike into a nearby valley.  Thórsmörk National Park is renowned for its natural beauty and hiking trails – and hiking isn’t my favourite activity – but I loved the views on offer.

 

Volcano Hopping in Iceland Thorsmorsk

Thórsmörk National Park

 

Heading home we got to “play” in the waterfalls we’d seen earlier and it’s actually hard to describe how impressive these were. What I can easily say, however, is this – bring a waterproof jacket!

 

Day Three

Volcano Hopping in Iceland

Inside the Volcano – Photo by the fantastic Anders Bergh

 

By this point you have climbed a volcano and explored the base of another one. Today it’s time to go inside the volcano, literally. Google it if you want, or leave it open to your imagination, but “Inside the Volcano” is a very new and completely unique experience that has only been available to the public for a year so I now feel very privileged to be one of only a relative few who have stood inside a magma chamber. Crazily colourful, very humbling and peculiarly emotional, it’s an experience I won’t forget. It’s made all the more fun by a lively hike across a lava field that crosses continents as you’ll have the opportunity to have one foot in American and one in Europe across a crack that shows you how the continental plates are pulling apart making Iceland grow by 3cm every year.

 

Volcano-hopping in Iceland

Lava fields in Iceland

 

That afternoon we followed one of the most spectacular roads I’ve ever driven across more lava fields and other-worldly landscapes to see some of Iceland’s geothermal activity at the smelly but sensational mud springs at Reykjanes Peninusla.

 

Volcano Hopping in Iceland

Blue Lagoon

 

Our day ended with a well-earned soak in the Blue Lagoon, though the relaxing doesn’t stop there; you’ll also be treated to a delicious dinner in the adjacent Lava Restaurant. Magic!

 

Volcano Hopping Iceland

A delicious dinner at Lava Restaurant

 

Day Four

A day of rest and relaxation in Reykjavik. I climbed to the top of Hallgrímskirkja, wandered the pretty city streets, admired the striking Harpa concert hall and took photos of the colourful corrugated iron houses. However, if you still have a taste for adventure you will still have the keys to your hire car so feel free to go exploring further afield too.

 

Volcano-hopping in Iceland

Reykjavik from above

 

I feel like I’ve touched on only a handful of the stories told to me during my five day stay in Iceland, but maybe that’s a good thing as they’re stories I think best heard when you’re there in person. And how fantastic that you could make that happen…

To enter this competition all you need to do is take a photo of a bus (yes, really!) and share it on Instagram using the hashtag #bushostel. The photos will be shared on Bus Hostel’s Facebook page and a jury of bloggers will pick a winner from the ten best.

For full details about the competition and how you can enter visit this page. GOOD LUCK!!

 

Volcano Hopping in Iceland

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

March 25, 2013

Beatles to Binki: A journey through Hamburg’s musical heritage

 

Spring is yet to arrive in Germany and indeed for the most of northern Europe.

It’s been bitterly cold.

I’ve been walking around in mostly sub-zero temperratures for most of the day.

In this kind of weather, my wanderlust has been more restricted to discovering more of the indoor sights and delights of Hamburg.

My search for Hamburg’s youth hotspots has taken me through a few museums, the odd bit of window shopping, few bars and checking out some of the city’s inexpensive fast food joints.

Cruising on Alster Lake, long walks in some of the city’s 1400 parks and gardens of Hamburg will have to wait till my next visit to the city when it’s a little bit warmer.

I have visited Hamburg a few times before and on those trips done some of the more touristy stuff like go on a cruise around the harbour, the obligatory hop on and hop off bus tours plus I loved the now sadly closed Beatlemania museum.

 

photo 1

 

This time, I’ve tried to go more local and also dig into the musical and maritime history.

Hamburg is one of Germany’s leading musical cities: it’s where the Beatles started their long winding road to fame and discovered their sound, it is home to musicals like Lion King, Dirty Dancing and Mamma Mia plus you can enjoy world class classical concerts at the Laeiszhalle-Musikhalle and soon visitors will be able to enjoy the highly anticipated opening of the Elbe Elbphilharmonie.

My musical pilgrimage of Hamburg started at the cool district of Karoviertel ( Nearest U-Bahn stop: Feldstrasse )

Karoviertel

Alt, quirky, laidback and grungy Karoviertel

 

While the Schanze is more hip and where the creative, cool types go ( Hence, the prices of everything are a little higher) neighbouring Karoviertel has that more rugged, alt-rough at the edges feel. In many ways it reminded me a lot of Shoreditch.

 

Mono. Karoviertel

Mono. Karoviertel

 

There’s a ton of great shops to discover here-from second hand stores to designer boutiques to lots of smoke filled bars like Mono.

Yup, you can still smoke inside bars and restaurants in Hamburg. In a separate room, according to the law….

 

2013-03-19 17.33.05

 

Mono has a very laidback feel with chatty barstaff and played a great selection of tunes everything from Massive Attack to Faithless. In the spirit of trying all things local I ordered a glass of the local Alsterwasser- ‘water of the Alster.’ ( Cost: 2.50 euros for a half-pint ) Basically it is the local version of a shandy but  ordering a ‘Alsterwasser’ sounds much cooler + masculine.

I am going to try that the next time I’m in the UK :)

 

Hanseplatte

Hanseplatte

 

For casual window browsing and as a refuge from the cold I visited Hanseplatte (Neuer Camp, 32) , unwittingly discovering a store which is a bit of everything that is local and unique to Hamburg.

Besides stocking music of local Hamburg musicians you can find a whole bunch of stuff from local artists –from art prints , designer tees to even locally made chocolate.

The music scene is quite eclectic in Hamburg and caters to people of all tastes: next store I popped into in Karoviertel was the Groove City Record Store,  which sells mainly vinyl records of funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz, Latin, Afro and electro.

 

Groove City Record Store

 

I had fun hanging out in this place. Has real character and great music.

 

Groove City Hamburg

Groove City Records, Hamburg- Tone of groove and character

 

It’s a shame to see record shops die out in the UK and everywhere else but I am happy to report to you that in Hamburg the spirit of music that the Beatles discovered is still well and truly alive.

This is more than evident on my unexpected last-minute invitation to the Adam & Binki gig at Mojo Club- one of Hamburg’s hottest nightlife hotspots that in the 90’s was the hotspot for dancefloor Jazz in Germany hosting a bunch of great music artists like Gilles Peterson, Massive Attack, Moloko, the Propellerheads, Pizzicato Five, Roni Size, Goldie, the E-Z Rollers as well as Kruder & Dorfmeister.

It was a great gig and had I good company in the shape of local bloggeratti : Kathryn Wittich and David Phillipe. Even though I hadn’t heard of Adam Green and Binki Shapiro before, I loved their honest, bittersweet songs of heartbreak and well crafted, chilled out melodies.

The locals love, appreciate good music and the loud hollering, whistles that followed at the end of the show, show that they clearly loved their personalities too.

Adam Green with his good natured banter and ridiculous dance moves clearly warmed the hearts & voices of the crowd.

Beatles Platz, Hamburg

Beatles Platz. I am a John or Paul here…hmmmm

 

The last stop of my Hamburg musical pilgrimage fittingly ends with a silly picture of me at the Beatles Platz ( Is that Paul or John, John was lefthanded right? ) a vinyl record shaped memorial at the crossroads of Reeperbahn and Grose Freiheit, dedicated to the memory of the Fabulous 5′s ( Stuart Sutcliffe, who left the band after Hamburg) time in the city from 1960-1962.

So….Brahms, Beatles or Binki ? Whatever music turns you on…do make a date with music on your next visit to Hamburg.

 

Next instalment : I’ll be digging into the maritime history of the city. Catch you soon.

If you’re coming to Hamburg definitely I would check out some of the city’s cool live music scene and also check out concerts. Here are some links to some local concert venues to have a look at

http://www.fkpscorpio.com/en/ , http://kj.de/.

I’ve been a guest of the cool Hamburg Jugendherberge Stintfang hostewhich I’ve found a cool base for exploring the city and highly recommend.

Big thanks to Catharina, Martina and everyone at the German National Tourism Office , their partners for the ‘Youth Hotspots’ campaign – Jugendherberge : The German Youth Hostelling Association and Deutsche Bahn for sponsoring my ‘German Wanderlust’ tour.

I’m touring Germany as part of an effort to highlight and discover the country’s emerging ‘Youth Hotspots.’

Find out more about these hotspots at their website , feel free to add your own and also do download their free youth hotspots app that is now available on the Apple Store & Android Store .

Please note: While my trip has been sponsored, the views and thoughts represented in this article are my own.

 

March 18, 2013

Brief encounter: Friends for life or new wife?

 

BudgetTraveller intern Amy Woodyatt’s latest post addresses the highlights and pitfalls of making friends while on the road….

 

One of the best things about travelling is getting to meet new and interesting people. However , sometimes, even if you set out with the best of intentions, that new friend can turn out to be mental. Time and time again I have learned this the hard way.

 

Friends for life

The summer of 2010 and I was travelling without a parent for the first time around Europe with a group of friends, your standard Interrail holiday. We arrived in Vienna weary, smelly but ready to ditch our bags at the hostel and explore the city. Staying in our otherwise all-female dorm we found Josh, a chatty Australian travelling alone.

 

He seemed nice enough, was our age and most importantly, not at all fazed by the fact that he was sharing a room with a group of giggly 18 year olds (I half expected that he would ask the hostel staff to relocate him), so we invited him along to join us for a meal, as he was travelling alone and seemed pretty chilled. To really get a taste for Austrian culture, we went to a restaurant recommended by several locals, and due to us being obviously foreign, we were given picture menus.

 

Wow, this place was cheap. We ordered from a picture menu that priced every dish at 10 euros, but nothing prepared us for what would happen next…

 

Lo and behold, a MEAT SWORD was brought out of the kitchen and presented to us. A SWORD OF MEAT.  The thing was about half the size of me.

AMAZING we thought. All of this for only 20 euros!

Lo and behold, a magnificent sword of meat!

Lo and behold, a magnificent sword of meat!

 

Our amazement was shortlived when we received the bill, which revealed that the meat sword actually cost us 100 euros. Uh oh. We were nearing the end of our trip, and as true budget travellers, we only had about that much money to last us ‘til we went home.

 

And here’s where our new travel buddy stepped up. Unfazed, he paid for over a third of the bill, and wouldn’t even let us pay him back. With no money for a bar we shared a beer in a park later that night and it turned out the guy had some pretty awesome stories from the road. We got on so well that when I’d gone home and he continued his travels, he even made a detour to visit me in England!

 

Just goes to show, however brief your encounter, you can make lifelong friends when travelling.

 

Friend or ‘wife’

Sat on a street corner at a Bia Hoi stand in Hanoi, Vietnam, my boyfriend and I were enjoying a refreshing glass of (20 pence) beer to finish off the day. A few tourists were sat around us, it was warm and breezy; we had found an oasis from which we could sit and watch the busy, bustling city.

 

‘My name is Sunshine’. She certainly was a vision, wearing only a bright orange vest and neon yellow Playboy boxer shorts. Yes, that’s right, she was wearing underwear as actual clothes. A sweaty, chubby vision in underwear stumbled towards us.

 

Nothing more attractive than a woman in boxer shorts

Nothing more attractive than a woman in boxer shorts

 

Although she came to sit next to us, it became clear after a while that Sunshine didn’t want to be friends with us… well not both of us, anyway.

 

‘Your face is so old. You are wrinkled. I am so young, my skin is so young, don’t you think? But you look so old!’ she charmingly told me.

(At this point, can I point out that I was 19 and she was about 40…)

‘Err…’

‘Everybody says I am beautiful. You agree.’

Conversation between myself and Sunshine had stopped. She had moved on to my boyfriend.

‘Err…’

‘You want to take me to tourist office? Get me a visa?

Wow, she was forward alright.

 

‘I always wanted to marry Western man. So we go tourist office?’

My boyfriend politely declined, at which point her comprehension of English also dramatically declined.

‘Get me visa. I am very beautiful and want Western husband. Get me visa.’

It took an hour and a tenuous story about food poisoning and sleep deprivation to get rid of her.

My advice: if they seem crazy when they approach you, don’t kindly give them the opportunity to prove you wrong. Run for the hills.

The next day our taxi driver drove past her, burst into laughter, pointed and screamed ‘she crazy!!!’.

No shit, Sherlock.

January 24, 2013

Tampere: A stairway to heaven

Stories-3

 

Funny how talking about a place to a friend can make you nostalgic about a place. It’s like entering a hidden portal that takes you magically back in time exactly to that moment.

 

Friend and fellow blogger, Ayngelina Brogan from Bacon is Magic is off next week to explore Finland as part of a blogger fam trip to the region.

She mentioned if I had ever visited Tampere and had any cool tips about the place and BOOM!… just thinking about all the places I visited made me want to grab my Macbook air and whip out a fresh word document to start writing down all the cool things I did.

Before they escape my memory.

Sadly I have no pictures from the trip to Tampere. My iPhone 4 with all my pictures and memories from the trip was stolen in Nice. I just have a few from my Instagram feed to share with you.

 

A memorable travel experience always starts with meeting an awesome local.

In this case, the awesome local was a guy called Ville Virkki, owner of Tampere’s coolest hostel called the ‘Dream Hostel.’

 

Dream Hostel, Tampere. Beautiful hostel and you get to meet the great Ville!

Dream Hostel, Tampere. Beautiful hostel and you get to meet the great Ville!

 

I had only 36 hours in the city.

I arrived at the Dream Hostel on a damp evening in July and on entering the hostel was afforded a hearty welcome and some popcorn by Ville.

Popcorn? The Dream has a memorable tradition of offering popcorn whenever it rains in Tampere ( which it does a fair bit so your chances….) or when it is Friday.

 

After dumping my bags, Ville is standing there with towels and saying that we are heading to the sauna.

I am not sure about the idea.

After the stress of a long journey, a pint of something local would have sounded like a better idea.

 

Ville tells me

 

 ‘Visiting the sauna is our favourite national pastime. It’s very relaxing and the most authentic Finnish experience. Trust me, you’ll enjoy this.’

 

A 15 minute bus ride and we are out of the city and transported into a different reality.

 

 

At Heaven's Lake: Tampere

 

Everywhere I see are lakes and green lush forests. It’s a heavenly sight. I feel I am in God’s land. I don’t know what heaven looks like but I sure think it can’t be more beautiful than this place.

I already  feel the stress draining away.

We then come to public sauna. It’s by the lake. A gaggle of old men, nubile young women and kids are all scurrying back and forth from the sauna house to the edge of the lake. There is an elevated platform from which they jump into the water with a big ‘yelp!’

Ville shakes his head and informs me

 

It’s probably not even 14C the water now in the summer. I wouldn’t go into the water now.’

Sensible lad. I see grown men and boys walking back, shivering as they enter the hothouse. It’s one of 3 public sauna houses in Tampere. A mere 5 euros gets you access. I’ve been to saunas in my local gym so I am expecting a snot inducing steamy affair. However what I had not reckoned with, is the hardiness of the Finns.

I walk into a cauldron of steam. I make the mistake of trying to breath through my mouth ( bad habit from being a kid) instead of through my nostrils and instantly feel, my organs are cooking. Ville motions me to take a seat on one of the benches higher in the room. My contact lenses were melting and I couldn’t for a moment see a thing. I felt like running out but after a few slow breaths, I begin to relax and adapt to my surroundings. I see in front of me a row of people of all ages, mainly older men, lobster faced with a kind of half-pained expression. It doesn’t look like a very pleasurable experience. Especially to a newbie like me. Even the kids seem to be struggling.

Everyone’s sucking it up so I stick with it. I maybe didn’t want to be perceived as the foreign ‘jessie.’ After a few minutes, it’s not getting any better. Ville seems to be toiling in the heat so we finally bail and walk into the fresh cool lakeside air. It’s only then that I feel the beauty of the whole exercise. Pain and then pleasure. It’s like a warm but chilled blanket of happiness, the air, tousling my eyebrows and tufts of my hair. I can feel the endorphins pouring out. I am on a natural high. Ville then cranks out of his rucksack  a pair of chilled beers. I sip on that and feel heavenly bliss.

The Finns now how to relax in style.

 

The next day, Ville takes me for another bite of the authentic Finnish life. This time we are trying something a bit local and special.

We visit the local Tammela market. It’s bustling at 9am and packed with locals.

 

‘Its’ a typical breakfast. You will like it,’ Ville assures me.

‘What’s it called?’  I ask

‘MUSTAMAKKARA’ he says, in his deep baritone voice.

 

I love the word the moment I hear it. It’s love at first sound. It rolls off my tongue and the moment he mentions the word, it plays on repeat in my head. That’s until I see ‘it.’

 

Mustamakkara with Lingonberry Sauce: Tastes better than it looks.....trust me

Mustamakkara with Lingonberry Sauce: Tastes better than it looks…..trust me

 

It’s big and fat. Black.

On first look, you might mistake it for a big fat turd to be frank.

Looks can be deceiving though.

Ville sees my disconcerted face. He then brings out on a tub of Lingonberry sauce which definitely adds a bit of colour to the proceedings.

 

‘What’s it’s in the sausage’ I ask nervously.I have that half-pained expression I saw on the faces of the men in the sauna last evening.

 

Ville confirms the unique origins.

 ‘It’s blood sausage. We eat it with the lingonerry sauce and wash it down with milk.’ 

 

I realise with dread how Ville’s firm and deep voice has an air of authority about it. You can’t say no to it.

I stop worrying of I can stomach something this exotic at this early hour of the morning. In the spirit of trying new things, I decided to go for it.

Let’s do this!!!

I take the fork. Dive in my fork. Sausage has a juicy red interior . I then dunk it liberally in the lingonberry sauce. Taste.

Surprisingly, it’s damn tasty. I love the mild spicy flavours ( thinking of Haggis ) mixed with the sweetness of the lingonberry sauce.

Then gulp it down with some good, local full-fat milk. All that for just 2 euros.

Who said Finland was expensive?

 

Fortified by blood, sucrose and calcium, we go for a walk through the city. It’s green and lush. Lots of red brick mills along the side of the rapidly flowing Tammerkoski river reveal it’s industrial origins. In it’s heyday, Tampere was a hotbed of paper production and cotton making it an industrial superpower, earning it the dreaded epitaph ‘Manchester of the North.’ It’s great walking around the downtown with it’s mix of historic buildings. Especially at night when the canal walls and surrounding buildings are tastefully lit when it’s dark.

 

We then stumble upon Tallipha, a collection of quaint Russian style houses in beautiful garden surroundings. Very twee indeed. The houses were formerly stables from the 19th century. In these houses you can find artisan boutiques, handmade chocolate and a café. We’ve barely walked off the calories from breakfast we are already sitting down in this traditional , quaint cafe with plates of homebaked goodness and being served tea in ornate china teacups.

Our next stop is something off the beaten track. Ville takes me near the railtrack near Santalahti, pass a hippy commune and one of the city’s popular public sauna’s. By the railtrack we visit an abandoned roof felt factory. It’s got some amazing work of graffiti there. This place really moved me.

 

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Something about the whole abandoned desolate nature of a place and seeing all these empty spray cans and colour everywhere-I feel extreme highs and lows. I’ve seen a lot of graffiti around the city. It’s a big part of the city since the 80’s and for a small city, it has a very vibrant scene. The locals are proud of it and there is a demand for it seems. In 2011 the Tampere Power Utility ordered a large work of graffiti art for the temporary fence surrounding a construction site near the Frenckell dam bridge in central Tampere. The graffiti, “Fiery Stream”, was made by seven graffiti artists, including Tero Karvinen, also a provincial artist laureate of the Pirkanmaa area of Finland.

 

It’s late in the day and the sun is breaking through the clouds. Ville has one more surprise in the bag for me.

We power walk to the Pyynikki Ridge. Rising between two lakes this is a beautiful forested area of walking trails that is great for people for all ages to explore. I find wild berries growing everywhere and voraciously plunder them. It’s a steep climb up and suddenly we come to a clearing in the forest and a carpark. I then realize what we are here for. In front of us a there is a red granite observation tower (adult/child €1/0.50; h09:00-20:00) which apparently is on top of the world’s highest gravel ridge Pyynikinharju.

26 metres high and 180 meters above sea level, it’s a wee jaunt up.

However the view is worth it. From the top of the tower, I get a stunning panoramic view of the forest, the city and the sea in the distance.

‘Next time, you must come for longer’

Ville notices my solemn almost wistful look as I see the sun sink beneath the horizon. I agree and nod my head.

 

It was an amazing, fun-filled 36 hours.

We go down the tower and I then drown my sorrows with some freshly grounded coffee and some ‘munkki’ aka doughnuts.

They were the best doughnuts I have tasted.

As if I needed another reason to revisit Tampere.

 

My trip Tampere was made possible by the kind sponsorship of Visit Tampere and Visit Finland. Massive thanks also to Ville from Dream Hostel for being the most awesome guide ever. As awesome their support was, please note that all the views and thoughts are completely mine :)

 

January 21, 2013

More than just the journey-Why I travel

 

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Why do I travel?

plus why do people travel…..These are questions that have been a kind of lifelong obsession for me.

Especially since travelling is now not just a hobby but also the way I earn a living.

I was a long train journey from London to Edinburgh recently thinking about this topic and finally have managed to pull together a post.

I’d be interested to hear what travel means to you-feel free to leave your comments below.

 

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Travel for me has always been more than just the journey.

It has served different purposes at different stages of my life.

 

A means of escape from everyday life?

The breakup of my marriage 2 years ago forced me to revaluate my life. In the last few months of my marriage I had kind of gone into a bit of shell. I restricted myself to the companionship of one or two good friends, ignoring everyone else. I had become a hermit to the point of not interested in nights out. I was content with a sedentary life of watching the Food Channel, drinking Merlot and listening to Classic FM. I wasn’t happy with my career path in sales within the media sector and wanted a change.I was looking for answers.

This is where travel became very important to me. This was the heyday of budget travel where you could still fly for 2 pence return with Ryanair. Any of these marvellous 1 pence Ryanair sales became an opportunity to escape from my humdrum existence and my everyday problems. A 2 pence return flights and cheap hostel room and boom…I was off.  These ultra budget short breaks were not just about discovering new places. The hours of travel offered an opportunity for reflection and a pause for thought.  Each new place visited represented a new window of life. Observing how locals interacted, the food they ate, the places they socialised were all part of finding of my quest to find a better ideal, a better way of life. In many ways these little trips also made me realise that I still had a sense of curiosity and hunger for life. The fire had gone out but beneath, the embers were burning bright.

 

Leaving Home

Travel allowed me to discover a new career, a new identity.

 

In the last year of my marriage, I started my first blog: Europebudgetguide.com It was a big turning point for me. After years of talking about starting a blog, I finally had managed to find the will to starting one. This was thanks to the endless promptings from my ex-wife and friends who advised me to start a blog so that I could share some of the travel tips I had picked up on my budget adventures.

 

Starting a blog was like going into therapy.

 

I didn’t have the time or money to travel. I was working three jobs to pay the bills. The blog was an outlet for reliving past travel experiences which for me is the next best thing to not travelling. The more I wrote on the blog, the more I started becoming passionate about its existence. Unwittingly, the blog became a personal growth tool for me.  Blogging was like starting a new degree at university. I had missed using my brain and learning new things in my few years of working in sales. It forced me to redevelop my skill set. Everyday was a new test- from developing my writing skills to learning how to start a wordpress blog. Endless hours of my precious youth (haha) understanding the importance of SEO and the plethora of social media channels that were crawling out of the woodwork.

 

The blog breathed life into my body again.

I was waking up everyday with a renewed sense of purpose. I was hungry and my brain full of questions.

Starting a blog also brought me back to the highs and lows of starting a business. I was still raw from the failure ( still I am paying off the debts) of my first business 7 years ago- a magazine for students. However my passion for entrepreneurship had not been extinguished by the experience. In fact, the failure made me even more determined to succeed. I rediscovered some old passions from running a business like the joy of networking- I realised I still enjoyed meeting new people and the joy of shared ideas and learning new stuff. I started attending various travel related conferences to help develop my network of contacts within the travel industry and learn more about the craft of travel blogging from some of the leading bloggers in the industry.

What I loved interacting with travel bloggers was their passion and dedication to their craft. Interacting and listening to inspirational travel bloggers in my early days like Keith Jenkins from VelvetEscape, Melvin Boecher from Traveldudes, Janice Waugh aka The Solo Traveller  and Lara Dunston from GranTourismo was one of the best things to happen to me. I gained so much knowledge and ideas from simply listening to them.

More than just learning, through my life as a travel blogger, I’ve been lucky to meet some amazing people that I am lucky to count as friends. These are people who I not only have the ability to share the highs and lows of my profession but also in general are GOOD PEOPLE. I think a life of travel makes people more aware of the world around them and less selfish.

 

 One of the other great reasons why I love my life of travel is that it in the end, it’s all about the experience.

 

I learnt this firsthand through my experience of developing the guide to Luxury Hostels of Europe. Each hostel I visited, offered a unique experience. The initial idea behind the project was to enlighten people about these cool new hostels where people could enjoy the comfort of staying in hotel style private rooms whilst still enjoying the benefits of the hostel experience. After visiting these hostels, I realised that these hostels were so much more than just offering a comfortable bed with a private bathroom.

 

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Plus Berlin -One of my many memorable hostel experiences this year

 

Whether the hostel was a gateway to meeting locals and creative artists , a portal for discovering local fashion designers and emerging  musicians or just about enjoying a superb meal or just… relaxing in a swimming pool or sauna: all these hostels offered a great experience for its guests. Sometimes the experience could simply be distilled from the passion and enthusiasm of the people running the hostel. Meeting them was what made my trips to these hostels so memorable. It wasn’t about just a cheap bed and a great location. Hostelling was evolving with the maturing demands and interests of travellers. The incredible diversity of these experiences in these hostels for me also was indicative of how rich, varied and rewarding travel itself can be.

 

Travel continues to be a rewarding source of inspiration in my life.

 

It also present some answers to some of the key challenges I face in my everyday existence. I’ve become a better person because I travel. I hope in the years to come, I can grow more through my blog and my life of a travel. There is so much more to learn about the world around me.

When it comes to travel, the sky literally is the limit….

 

 

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