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Aegina – Quiet Greek Island

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This island sits only a short ferry from Athens, and if you’re looking for a break from the big city, you’ll struggle to find a better destination for a couple days.

IMG_20160802_142624229IMG_20160802_144524691I decided to explore the island after a shining recommendation from a friend, and I’m grateful for it. It’s easy to get to from Piraeus (Athens main port) with the fast hydrofoil ferry (16EUR each way, 20mins) or the slow one (12EUR return, 1hr30mins) leaving approximately hourly. Once on the island I found myself a nice lunch – there’s some great places just one street back from the seafront that are excellent value. You must try a Aegina Salad, similar to a Greek one, but with pistachios, the islands speciality crop.

With a full belly I set out to explore, renting a moped from one of the only two places in town I took the coastal road around to the north side, dipping through pretty little harbour towns, past stunning quiet beaches and over gorgeous headlands. The breeze thanks to the bike kept me cool, although I was on and off the bike plenty of times, grabbing some snaps or just having a quick stroll through a village.IMG_20160803_120258065There are a few points well worth investigating while on Aegina, a collection of old churches scattered on a hillside overlooking the main valley in the centre of the island, but when scaled to the top offers views down to the northern shores as well. Despite the heat the climb wasn’t hard, and gave me the adventurous kick I love so much. Each church had recent dedications, although as I reached higher it was clear that people preferred the lower ones for their visits, not wanting to over exert themselves.

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Next on the list, and only a minute down the hill is the Monastery and Cathedral, while the monastery is a rather sensible settlement, the cathedral is quite impressive, with a large dome framed on either side by impressive towers. The eastern influence is truly apparent with the architecture in these holy buildings XXXX. My last stop before I found my accommodation was the ancient site of the Temple of Apollo. A decent amount still remains, with enough ruined that it looks well used as well. The majority of the coloumbs are still standing, along with much of the roof structure. You can see where much of the base structure was built, and the useful signage means it’s possible to build up a pretty decent picture of what it would looked like when still functional

IMG_20160802_202921184_HDRI was staying in the town of Aegina Marina, on the eastern side of the island. Usually I don’t name the hostel/hotel I stay in, but the lady that runs the Flora Rooms was so lovely they deserve a mention. A top floor room with good views of the bay, plus homemade lemonade and cookies on arrival made me feel very welcome indeed. The village is rather basic, mostly tourist restaurants and shops, but nothing here was overly expensive. The vibe was more family friendly than the better known islands further south, no late bars, and certainly no clubs in that part of the island. I asked about a good place to watch the sun set, but the only option was to drive back to the main town (the big city as the Marina locals call it). But after some research I found that the highest mountain on the island was climbable, and would take about a half hour from the base, which was a half hour drive away. I had nearly two hours until sunset, so after a quick shower I got a shuffle on and headed south.

IMG_20160802_200355822Google estimated a 30min drive, but I feel Googles vehicle is not an underpowered, elderly moped, so I arrived with barely 25mins to make the climb. The way was rocky for sure, loose pebbles, shingle but nothing too steep. I hustled up as fast as I could, soon making my shower somewhat redundant thanks to the sheer amount of sweat I shed. I climbed, constantly watching the worlds finest countdown over my shoulder, hoping that I would make it to the top in time. 14 minutes after I started on the trail, I reached the summit.IMG_20160802_144524691That gave me nearly 10 mins to grab as many snaps as I could, and enjoy the view in all directions. It was a glorious sunset, made so much better by my solitary climb, I savoured it as long as I could, but knew it would start getting dark soon, so had to make my way back down again. Biking back home with two headlights pointing way out to the sides is definitely not recommended, but finding an appropriate challenge and completing it is the most rewarded experience I know.

IMG_20160802_160553183I congratulated myself with fresh swordfish steak at one of the restaurants opposite my hotel, not worrying about eating alone, surrounded by families and couples. Retiring to my room, I slept very soundly that night.

IMG_20160803_121847563The next day I set off to explore the little island off the southwestern corner, Moni. Checking out early I said goodbye and hit the road over to Aegina town, before cutting off down to Perika. I found a nice spot for breakfast as I’d heard the beach bar on Moni was somewhat overpriced – although this isn’t surprising as the island is totally uninhabited. The beach you arrive into is busy with tourists, with plenty boats in the bay, but it’s not hard to get away from them all. 5 minutes away is beach after beach, untouched and unpopulated, perfect for a truly relaxing experience on the island.IMG_20160803_122944581Moni is an uninhabited island, but there are some local residents worth finding. Peacocks and deer both thrive, but the peacocks are certainly much easier to find. The slopes near the main beach is full of them, scratching and pecking at the dirt to find food. It seemed likely that they’d be having a feast once the last of the people had left, hoovering up all the leftovers and dropped crumbs. I didn’t see any deer, but I hope to head back one night and camp out, hopefully then we can see a little more, and maybe climb the mountain there as well.

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Back from Moni it was a simple case of finding some lunch, returning the ped and jumping back on the ferry home. Two islands, well explored and I was ready to face the city again.

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Festival Season Pt.1 – San Fermin

San Fermin – often mistakenly called the Running of Bulls – is a week long celebration of a local saint the town of Pamplona in Northern Spain. It’s a lot more than Aussies running away, bullfights and sangria, so here’s how to make the most of it.

IMG_20160704_123832072_HDRThere’s two main parties of the festival, the opening and closing ceremonies – the closing is a rather more sombre affair, with candles and quiet respect before getting drunk, while the opening ceremony has an early start with short presentation from the town mayor, followed by an impressive sangria fight. The fruity wine concoction is thrown everywhere dying those fresh white clothes a delightful shade of pink. This is followed by a full day of music, dancing and celebration by all those attending. The town is half boarded up by this point, with many businesses closed up for the entire festival and others making the most of their location to sell cheap but tasty bocodillas (sandwiches) and hundreds of bottles of Sangria.

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There’s no bull run on the first day, just the opening, and a full day of parties, although it’s highly recommended to take a siesta at some point, the 8am kick off makes it quite a challenge to go through till late. There’s plenty of streets where the party is outside, but also a few specific bars that work well, NZ bar is a favourite certainly.

Once opening day is done and dusted, it’s on to the bulk of the festival. Each day 6 Bulls and 6 Steers (the floppy bulls) are released at the end of the corridor, comprised of city streets and wooden fences, to run to the bull fighting stadium. Most of the runners wait outside the town hall, ready to flee from the beasts. The start is marked by three fireworks, the first letting people know the gates have opened, the second meaning the first bulls have left the corral, and the last for the last bull out. It’s considered cowardly to run on the first rocket, so the crowd wait until they hear the hooves on the stone streets before running. From then on it’s a matter of survival – many people get injured each year, broken bones, bruises and scrapes are very common, with the occasional goring from a bull. It’s not uncommon for people to be killed. If you want to run, you need to get down very early, Busabout ships you in with plenty of time to spare. If you want to watch, you can pay for access to a locals balcony, which ranges from 20EUR up to several hundred, cram yourself into the streets and watch over the double layered fences or my recommendation is to head to the arena and watch it on the big screens. With cameras all along the course you’ll see the best of the action (and slow-mo replays) along with a couple thousand other fans.

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Once the bulls have chased those brave/stupid enough to run into the ring and left themselves, one of the most entertaining sections comes next. The crowd is allowed to leave the arena floor, but six more bulls are released, although much younger and with covered horns, to charge around the stage giving everyone another opportunity to risk live and limb for the adrenalin rush. After just a couple minutes the floppy bull is released to collect the young one. The floppy bulls aren’t dangerous, although the do have big horns, they more like the pace car at car races, keeping everyone moving along.

The run and arena fun is all early morning, from 8am, so afterwards it’s best to head to breakfast and back to bed again. If you’re on the camp site, you will have been woken up at 4.30am (and were probably still drinking at 1) so midday nap is not a bad idea at all. Then once evening rolls around you can watch a professional bullfight or hit the bars and work on tomorrows hangover. I personally don’t recommend the bullfight, while the running is certainly questionable as far as animal cruelty goes, there is no arguing about the fight itself. The bull is slowly injured and weakened before being killed by the matadors, there’s a lot of tradition with it all, but personally I would not want to pay money to support the fights.

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2016 was the last year that Busabout ran it’s San Fermin package, which provided camping, hostel and hotel options for it’s passengers. From 2017 onwards they will continue with their Hop on Hop off network, which goes through Pamplona, allowing people to make their own arrangements for the festival.

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Monaco – making a day of it

Recently I had a little time off in Nice on the Cote D’Azur in the south of France. While Nice is a beautiful town with lots to do, I was drawn away to explore Monaco the tiny country only a short bus ride away

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Monaco is the second smallest country in the world, only 2 square Km, ruled by the longest standing monarchal house in Europe, the Grimaldi family, and is home to some of the richest people in the world. It has an impressive residency policy, with applications costing $100 million US dollars, and the final vote coming direct from King Albert himself. Many celebs have tried and failed to gain citizenship including 1/2 of U2, Tina Turner and many more. Successful candidates included James Bond actor Roger Moore, British F1 driver Jenson Button (along with plenty other drivers) and various Tennis stars notably Rafael Nadal.

Getting to the country is as easy as going to the shops, simple hop on the train or the bus. The bus 100 heads all the way to Menton via Monaco, and is just 1.50EUR for a single ticket. Take the bus through Monaco, past all the sights until place de le Moulin (just remember where the castle stop is) and then you can head back through town to catch the bus back without doubling up.

IMG_20160620_161846564The city is not as expensive as is thought, it was only 1.20EUR for a croissant in the little bakery we found, and although there’s plenty of opportunities to spend, it’s easy enough to avoid. So grab a bite and wander along and down towards the sea. There’s a good few car showrooms around, so depending on your route you may find Maserati, Ferrari, Rolls Royce and more. At the bottom you’ll find the Grimaldi Forum, and next to it the Promenade of Champions, and the beautiful Japanese Gardens, along from here you can walk up to the famous Monte Carlo casino, or through the tunnel, well known to fans of the Formula 1. If you want to see both, it’s definitely better to go through the tunnel, then take the subway near the far end which has elevators up to the Casino above.

The square in front of the Casino is grand enough itself, with enough fancy cars and luxury suits to satisfy most playboy fantasies, but when you step inside the casino foyer itself you’ll understand what the fuss is all about. While it is banned for the citizens of Monaco (known as Monegasque) to gamble, the casino pulls in thousands of visitors a day, many of whom are the high rollers we all wish we were too. The country actually built much of its success on the strength of the casino, and it’s used to raise funds for the government in place of taxes. You can enter the lobby for free with no clothing restrictions, however if you wish to gamble, you’ll need a collared shirt and to pay the 10EUR entry. This is just the common people area though, and to get through to the real luxury you’ll need to be dolling out a lot of cash.

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There are a few shops nearby to nose through, all of the high end fashion labels, and a few high street stores have set up camp, but don’t worry about those, as the view as you continue along the main strip is far more impressive than any handbag. Overlooking the marina you can spot those poor people who can only afford a super yacht. These days mega (over 65m) and giga (over 100m) yachts are the real deal and have pride of place in the central port. Walking around the marina will lead you to the path up the hill to the palace, where you’ll find the traditional guard standing to attention and another epic view. Also at the top is the marine biology centre, which features an impressive public aquarium and the church where Hollywood starlet Grace Kelly married Prince Rainer III. It also happens to be where they are buried, and often mourned by the locals.

If you fancied extending your day, heading down the Menton, or jumping off at Eze en route would be good options. Otherwise, enjoy the oppulence and relax.

Benjamin Duff

@versestravel

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Bled, Slovenia

IMG_20160525_135358522Why Bled?

A little pre-season time off gave me a chance to explore one of the new East Loop daystops, something I’m very glad to have done.

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Staying with Jani and his family at Jazz Bled Hostel is an absolute pleasure, they are so welcoming and friendly it makes you feel right at home from the moment you arrive. The hostel is clean and tidy with an excellent kitchen and even a playstation if the weather turns sour. Luckily for me though, we had gorgeous sun for the whole of the trip.

IMG_20160524_120839125The first day we took a trip over to Vintgar Gorge, a beautiful canyon cut through the hills by centuries of water flowing from the Julian alps. It’s only 4EUR entry, and it’s easy to get a shuttle from the town, so well worth the trip. The path winds through the gorge on wooden walkways, which don’t spoil the view at all, in fact they provide some pretty cool photo opportunities, there’s chances to get down to water level as well, and taste the fresh mountain water. The river itself is a series of pools, waterfalls and rapids, each turn providing a fresh view, and another unmissable snap. On the way back you can head through the gorge again, or venture along some of the lesser tracked paths through the triglav national park. Navigation isn’t so simple, but all paths lead back home

Back in Bled the lake has plenty to explore, you can take a boat over to the church on the island for 14EUR per person. This is no motor boat, but one of the locals rowing the traditional boats across, which is quite a distance depending which end you jump on at. The church is an extra 6EUR to enter, but isn’t that special, however the bell tower is included in the price, and the views from the top are pretty spectacular. Don’t feel like you’re missing out if you don’t climb it though, the view from the island in every direction is awesome.

IMG_20160524_175213186_HDRLastly we chose to climb up to the castle, a good uphill walk of about 15-20mins depending on how fit you are. The views from inside are again great, but if you want avoid the 10EUR charge (the castle itself won’t blow your mind – but the view from the cafe might) head around to the right of the building. There’s an iron fence here that you can follow until you see a path on your left – climbing this will give you the best views that I found of the lake and the island. If you climb a little higher you’ll find the old secret entrance, although these days it’s locked tight – no sneaking in. You must be careful if you do decide to try this out though, once you leave the iron fence there’s no protection so watch your footing.

Day two we decided to explore the rest of the Triglav National Park – the 3glav Adventures tour wasn’t running, but we used their itinerary and built our own trip – although to add canyoning and rafting into our day would have really made it incredible.

IMG_20160525_111841305_HDRStarting the day we drove around to the north side of the park, entering from Kranjska Gora and starting the winding road up to the pass. Soon after was the first stop Jasna lake, not huge, but the calm water meant you could get an excellent photo with a reflection of the snow capped mountains in the distance.IMG_20160525_115412501From here the road winds alpine style up the pass, and with each corner another jaw dropping view. Stop 2 had a little more history, a wooden church built in a russian style – dedicated to the Russian prisoners of war who built the road, and died in the process. While it’s only small, it’s a poignant reminder of how the road came to be, and the life style of the people in the region before they were connected. On the way up there are plenty more places to stop and take a photo, or have some lunch, little restaurants are dotted about, or you can take a picnic. If you’re doing it with 3glav, then lunch is sorted for you.

IMG_20160525_142200704The top of the Vrsic pass offers even more views, down into the valley on both side of the saddle. and from there it’s back to the alpine road, hairpin corners and all. The next and possibly my favourite stop was nearing the bottom of the valley, the source of the Soca river. it’s a 15min rocky climb up to the waterfall which is pretty impressive by itself, but dare to climb the via ferata (be careful if you do), you will be rewarded with where the river simply appears from under a rock. A sheer rock face, with a glowing green pool at the bottom, which quickly flows down to the waterfall just below. The water here is sweet with minerals, and having a taste is a must, but really all you’ll want to do (once you’ve got your snaps) is just sit on the side and relax, marvelling at how awesome nature can be.

IMG_20160525_153847477_HDRFrom here the road chills out a bit, running along the bottom of the valley, next to the turquoise grey Soca river, there’s still plenty of chances for pics here especially at the Boka falls – another short rocky climb up the side of the valley, this time however it’s not possible to get close to the source as this waterfall is over 100m high, coming from an underground network and straight out of the side of a cliff. The viewing platform is enough however, providing a wonderful view of the intense waterfall.

IMG_20160525_170039578Our penultimate stop is another contender for my favourite, the Kozjak Waterfall is an easy and relatively flat walk, about 20mins from the carpark. There are sections of walkway that have been built to provide access to the final grotto, a dark and brooding place filled with the spray coming off the powerful falls. It is here I decided that going for a swim would be a good idea… after wading through the river to the pool my feet were already numb with cold and I was shivering, but after some ‘encouragement’ from my fellow travellers I had the quickest dip of my life. My breath was short, my muscles tense and every part of my brain was telling that this was a bad idea. Thankfully the warm slovenia sun soon dried me off and warmed me up. I’d recommend it only to the brave (or stupid).

IMG_20160525_164614955_HDRThe last stop of the day was another lake; Bohinj. Larger than Bled, and equally as pleasant to the eye, the town has plenty to do, but we stuck with dinner, enjoying some proper Slovenia schnitzel and chevapchichi before heading home to get a well earned rest.

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Busabout

Well I’ve been rather busy lately.

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I decided a while ago to apply for a few positions as a guide as I wasn’t overly satisfied with my work at Flight Centre. I wanted to get back to the source of the travel, to be truly involved in making peoples holidays, talking to the people having fun, not just booking their flights. Of all of the positions I applied for, it was Busabout that I wanted most (although a position in Africa was pretty tempting as well). The Hop-on Hop-off style is how I would want to travel Europe, with a guide to help out, but no restrictions time wise. With so many cities visited in so many countries, it allows you see the best of Europe, and gives you the tools to see the rest of it as well. Plus the coach gives people a chance to meet new friends, much more sociable than the trains.

I got through the interview process with a hastily written presentation on Barcelona FC, and wowed them with my one on one, which meant I got invited to join the 7 week training trip – visiting every city on their loops, through 14 countries in Europe. So I handed in my notice, packed up all my things and hit the road again.

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It was a gruelling 7 weeks of coaches almost every day, rushing around cities to find out as much as we could, bike tours, pub crawls, cooking classes, boat trips and much much more. There were some late nights, some stressful situations but I felt it was all manageable, they tested me, but I never felt like I would fail. Once I got into a routine of having everything prepared a day before, I could hop up and give a talk on cities and countries I’d never even been to. It was a lot of fun in fact, meeting so many like minded people, learning huge amounts about European history and every city on our network. Now I’m sure all my friends will complain about the constant barrage of facts.

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Then as the end was in sight, they told me I’d be flying off to Greece for an extra 10 days of training on the Greek Island Hopper adventure product. While I was craving some rest, I jumped at the chance to educate myself in Greek gods, mythology, and how to avoid sun burn when it’s 40+ everyday. As we experienced the product I learnt how much fun it would be, parties every other night and some beautiful islands to explore.

I am now happy to say that I am employed by Busabout as a European Guide, and have started with my first sector just two days ago – Munich to Paris with just 10 passengers. Tomorrow I will be hitting the road with many more, heading to Amsterdam. Time to brush up on my Dutch history.

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I have to thank all of the trainers who helped me prepare for this, pushing me to my limits, making sure I’m ready for silly questions, difficult questions, and everything else they can throw at me. Here’s to a wonderful summer in Europe.

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Tignes (again) with Wasteland Ski winter 15/16

So I was fortunate to get sent back over to Tignes this December to Head Rep for Wasteland Ski

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IMG_20151210_143850After 3 weeks in the resort last year, Tignes became one of my favourite resorts in Europe, I got to know the parks, the runs, the bars and even a couple of secret spots ‘off piste’, so when I got my request to work the resort for a week this winter I was very happy. I’ve got a lot less free time this year, so to be heading to one of the largest ski areas was something to look forward to.

It was also to be my first time as a proper Head Rep. I’d done it for SCUK (Snowboard Club UK) a group of 100+ adults or various ages, but they stayed in a nice hotel, and didn’t need supervision every night, so once they were all there, it was a very simple week indeed. I’d also been Zone Manager for BUSC Main Event in Tignes, but with so many support staff, I found the week pretty simple, and didn’t have too much hassle at all. So heading out with a good friend, and one of the great new BUSC team to be the ‘bosses’ for a team of 7 reps and about 250 students, I certainly anticipated a bit more of a challenge.

IMG_20151215_130101And a challenge was an understatement! Within less than 12 hours we’d lost a rep and had to send him home, which meant all the preparations we’d done were for nothing as we rushed to prepare for arrivals. But prepared we were, and within 12 hours of the students arriving we had two more missing people, some minor injuries, a couple of rooms with no water and a handful of other complaints and issues. Certainly it looked like we wouldn’t be getting much sleep that week! I think the earliest night was 3am, and the latest lie-in 9am, although I blame myself for the early starts, most mornings anyway. I had come to the mountains to ride, and ride I would do.

IMG_20151215_130136Most days I’d complete a couple of laps before joining with the reps to explore the mountains, get the typical selfies and group photos. We even had a sprinkling of powder, so to make the most of that one of our crew let her snowboard lose, and we got to adventure into the unknown to find it. Some lovely slash turns and rock hopping and even a cheeky little cliff drop to get out of some tight spots made the riding varied and exciting. I got plenty of time to ride through both the Tignes and Val D’isere parks, both of which while incomplete were big enough for me. I certainly got more comfortable riding the mid-line and might have tidied my ugly 3’s up a little. Grab for the week was the Stalefish. I think what I really like about the rideable area in Tignes is the pure variety, and the options from every point on the piste map. There’s always a couple of choices if not more from the main chairs, and whether you want something fun and easy, or to beat your speed record there chance is right there.

Weather wise it felt more like spring riding than December, with warm days and blue skies for most of the week. A little cloud which brought us just enough snow to freshen the runs didn’t cause a white-out. Not great for the resort for the rest of the season, but for us there that week we couldn’t ask for better conditions.

IMG_20151216_111558The nightlife is still great fun, although a little limited for options compared to somewhere like Val Thorens. The usual favourite Saloon and old faithful Dropzone provide different vibes but good fun until it’s time to head to the clubs – which I find hard to differentiate really, it’s club tunes and house, it’s dark and a bit smelly but get the right group in and before you know it, you’re raving with a lot of semi-naked people.

The student groups, (with a couple exceptions) were great fun, and the committees certainly helped throughout the week, there’s plenty of opportunities for them to be a huge time sink for the head reps, but on the whole they were pretty chilled out and happy with the week. I’d be happy to work with them again, if they’d have me!

Benjamin Duff

@Versestravel

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Rome Pt.1

So I had another couple of days available, so decided a quick jaunt over to Rome was in order.

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I’ve never been to Italy before, but I’d heard good things about it, mostly about the food. But we all know about the history, at least some of it. The Ancient Romans, the Vatican and so much more, it’s really got a lot of the ‘big ones’ all in one city.

IMG_20151122_115213I took an evening flight over, and as always I was hopeless at finding my hostel on the public transport system. It’s pretty easy to get into town, and worth paying the extra for the direct train to Termini, the others don’t stop in the city centre, so you have to jump onto the metro. That said, buying a metro ticket for the length of your stay is a really easy way to save a lot of walking, valid on metro, trams and buses it means you can hop about all over the city. You can certainly see it all walking, but unless you’re an active walker, it’s easy to get sore feet from the miles you’ll clock up. I arrived at my hostel to find the friendly staff happy to help, and a room full of sleeping people, so I joined them.

The hostel was not IMG_20151122_120137very busy, and I didn’t meet anyone in the morning to explore with, so I set out alone, without any game plan to find somewhere for some food, and see what I could see. I found myself on Via Dei Fori Imperiali the pedestrian road that connects the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia past the Roman Forum. I close to take a right, and explored the area along with the ‘typewriter’ the magnificent Altare della Patria, and the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but I was very impressed by the architecture of the buildings, both old and new, with some stunning designs and iconic views of the city, and back over the Forum. Inside the Basilica you start to understand why the Italian design has done so well, with incredibly delicate and intricate design and craftsmanship of all kinds to decorate the church. Certainly a good starting point, combining the ancient and the religious, two of the strongest influences over Rome, and certainly on the tourist industry.

IMG_20151122_143646From here I started heading toward the infamous Spanish Steps, which were unfortunately closed for renovations, but still quite a marvel to see. The Steps are well known as a meeting place, and at night quite an active spot for some socialising with a drink or two. It’s certainly known by the budget travellers as they can avoid bar prices and pick up some cheeky beers on the road. Again, the architecture of the area is quite remarkable, this time for the classical style, and the way Rome has blended so nicely from ancient to modern. From Spagna, down to the Piazza del Popolo is a short walk through some of the more commercial streets, and although busy it’s easy enough to enjoy the city. I can only imagine the hoards that gather on these streets during the summer months though, and I’m very glad I went at one of the quieter times of year. The Piazza is know for the huge obelisk in the centre and the twin buildings that make up one of the early gates to the city. You can walk up the hill from here to look over the city, and spot several of the famous landmarks dotted along the skyline. following the ridge of the hill leads back to the top of the Spanish steps again, from where there’s plenty to choose from.

IMG_20151122_151036I decided to save the Trevi Fountain for later in the day, and aimed at getting across to Piazza Navona, via a few of the churches and sights along the way. Through my rather improvised route I also stumbled upon the Pantheon, a spectacular temple again showing how ancient and modern worlds sit nicely within Rome. While it feels a little cramped in around the edges, theres enough space to appreciate the building, and getting inside was no bother (although I can only imagine the queues in summer). Inside it’s even more impressive with the high roof stretching up high above, it’s hard to understand how such a place could have been built so long ago.

IMG_20151122_152611Piazza Navona is a hive of tourist restaurants and souvenir shops, but the fountain in the centre makes it worth braving the square. Again Rome impresses with it’s design, and these walks just show sight after sight, with so much to see, and so many fantastic historic buildings along every street it’s hard to appreciate them all. If just one of these were in the centre of a modern city it would be a sight, but when compared to the massive tourist pulls in Rome they pale by comparison, which is something that could only happen in a city as impressive as this. The next stop was Largo Di Torre Argentina, a relatively insignificant section of Roman ruins, but home to a colony of cats who prowl the grounds seeking food and attention. On the way back to the hostel, to rest the worn feet and for a much needed nap I passed the horrendous crowd that was gathered around the Trevi Fountain. Truly a spectacle worth visiting, but not when you can’t relax and enjoy it. I made a note to come back later.

IMG_20151123_011810That evening I ventured to another hostel nearby to find some fellows, and did so. After a few drinks in some odd bars as we dodged the rain, we settled down with some takeaways outside the Colosseum. My first close look at the magnificent building was suitably impressive, and bigger than people had led me to believe, perhaps because they had been disappointed themselves. After a pleasant evening of easy conversation I headed home, back along Via di Forti Imperiali and back to the Trevi Fountain, which was much quieter and more peaceful. I spent some time relaxing and enjoying the incredible fountain built into the side of a building. I’m not sure what they do to make the water so gloriously blue, but it works. Strolling through the city gave me no worries, and despite the reputation for pickpockets I was happy not to have any trouble.

Continued here

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Berlin Pt2

Continued from here 

IMG_20151023_134700On my second day in Berlin I had a nice brunch near the hostel then decided to take a wander through the city, I came across the sad and now empty bear pit, where the cities mascot bears had lived until the last one was put down recently. The conditions didn’t seem very nice for them, so perhaps it is better that there is now nothing living in the enclosure. Exploring Berlin on foot lead to quite a few fascinating discoveries, and a chance to get a bit closer to some of the sights I’d seen on the bike tour. It’s a pleasant city to be in, and while touristy in some places, is spacious enough, and getting away from the main attractions mean the streets are quiet and calm.

IMG_20151026_141709Heading back to the hostel I joined the free tour up to the Sunday Flea Market at Mauerpark, the tour was fairly quick, just a quick intro before being left to our own devices to explore, shop and enjoy the goings on. The market is actually very nice, and with only a couple tacky tourist stalls there’s plenty more to find. Lego figures, car parts, furniture and home printed clothing seemed to occur quite often, along with plenty more curious items making the browsing a fascinating experience. The food strip in the centre is also very impressive, and with the wide range of options actually picking something to eat was a real challenge, from vegan and vegetarian through to freshly barbecued meats, and all different styles of world cuisine.

IMG_20151025_175951In the park next to the park, we were lucky to catch the very last Bear Pit Karaoke an amazing display of brave tourists and talented locals singing songs from all around the world. I was rather upset with the British entry from a couple of girls singing S-Club 7, especially after a couple of Americans managed to ruin Spice Girls just as badly, but with a much more positive audience reaction. The music ranged from the cliche, to the abstract and the talent ranged even more so. Some stand out numbers were the old local guy crooning ‘My Way’ in German, and the South Americans mumbling the whole way through ‘la Bamba’ A nightcap in one of the many bars near the hostel finished off the night nicely, and meant meeting even more Americans, who would have thought they’d be so many in Germany in November.

IMG_20151026_130152My last day was spent doing yet another free walking tour, this time the ‘alternative’ option. This was probably my favourite tour of the trip, with our amusing local guide coming out with some brilliant quips and really helping us to enjoy the surroundings. We saw pockets of Berlin’s recent history, and proof of the quick development of the city. A little back alley off a normal commercial street is filled with incredible street art of so many different styles, specific commissioned and planned pieces along one wall, while the others are littered with so many little pieces, it’s hard to tell them apart in places. There’s a couple of installations there as well, along with a couple little bars and an excellent book shop of the darker side of Berlin in the last couple of decades.

IMG_20151026_113950Exploring Kreuzburg we are shown famous pieces, and various examples of unusual styles of graffiti, including using a fire extinguisher, filled with paint to spray your name high onto a wall, Not always with the best results. There is a lot of cool little things in Berlin, many very small, but it’s incredible when you notice them, such creativity on almost every street. It’s also got a very positive attitude, with many people seeming happy just to in the city. A great example of this positive attitude is how the city dealt with the annual workers day riots, the solution was to organise a street party instead. Closing down the areas that usually suffered from rioting and introducing stages of various musical styles, allowing people to enjoy the city as they liked, and all for free.

IMG_20151026_151310Finishing in the Caribbean collective beach bar on the river, we tucked into some jerk chicken and other treats, it was a short walk over to the East Side Gallery, the largest section of the Berlin Wall still standing and home of many of the iconic street art images that Berlin is known for. The Gallery is actually huge, stretching over 1.3km, with artwork on both sides, there’s a lot to see, and while some isn’t amazing, there’s a lot of pieces that really can make an impact and a statement. It’s a shame that the wall gets such abuse from taggers and tourists, scribbling their names wherever they can. It would seem that the wall is due another overhaul soon, but it’s a shame that anyone would think it’s appropriate to deface these works of art. Certainly if they add new artwork or create something new then that should be encouraged, however when it’s simply another tourist scrawling their name over the art, then something should be done.

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From here it was only a short stroll back to the hostel, and then onto the airport to return home. Berlin certainly left an impression, and it’s a city I would highly recommend visiting, and one that I am looking forward to returning to soon.

Benjamin Duff

@versestravel

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Berlin Pt1

Arriving in Berlin was fun, I had hardly any idea where I was, and I’d forgotten to do any research into where my hostel was, how to get around or basically anything at all. Thankfully the Berlin transport system, and a cheeky bit of roaming data got me to my hostel (after a nice detour to where google maps incorrectly listed my hostels location). Just in time to meet some other travellers for dinner and an early night.

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IMG_20151023_102205We’d planned the night before to hit a cycling tour, and as I still had no idea what to do, jumped onto this. Another slight problem meant my phone alarm was slept through but again the efficient German public transport system did me proud and I barely missed a thing. With Berlin being the size it is, I was very glad we did the bike tour, the same distance on foot would have taken well into the evening. In fact the bike tour is a great way to get a feel of the city, and thanks to the routing you don’t see anything more than once. Our guide was a friendly guy from New York, who did a great job educating us as we rode around, and we got to see all of the historic German highlights in a single day. It felt good to tick so many off, even though I ended up walking past many of them again later on the trip. It’s also nice to have had the tour, and actually understand what you’re looking at.

IMG_20151023_162146It was great to see the sites of so many historical events, and it certainly adds a certain realism to the idea that such things happened less than 100 years ago. Places like Checkpoint Charlie, which are now tacky tourist stops are incredible when you realise the transformation of such a significant landmark. As the guide quipped you can see who won the war by looking at the shops around – MacDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC etc – Capitalism won. Other locations are less spoiled, places like the Reichstag (Government) building, or Bebelplatz the University courtyard that hosted the monumental book burning by the Nazis with it’s thought provoking tribute under the ground.

IMG_20151024_141240We also cycled through Tiergarten, a large park to the west of the city centre, which broke up the tour, and gave us a rare chance to see such a part of Berlin. It’s a little out of the way, but if you’re craving some greenery it’s well worth a look. It’s also host to the Berlin Zoo, which if you’re a fan of Zoos is supposed to be one of the best in Europe.

After the tour we decided to check out the Topography of Terror, a history of the Waffen SS and Military Police used by the Nazis. While an amazing piece of history, it only covers that one specific topic, not deviating into the war in general, and it has a lot to read, which makes it rather dry, and trying to get through it all becomes something of a chore later on. Just read the bigger signs or you’ll be in there for days.

IMG_20151026_114828We joined the bar crawl from our hostel that night, which was interesting as we were pretty much the only folks on it. The guides were nice though, and some of the bars were very cool, although we did start and end in some pretty rubbish venues. The eastern end of Berlin has two districts fighting to be the coolest, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, the bar crawl was in the northern of the two (Friedrichshain) and I was impressed by the alternative style of many of the bars and clubs. Hearing music from NOFX and other punk-rock bands was very cool, as was the friendly and laid back attitude of many of the venues. The live gypsy-folk band in one of the bars was very entertaining as they got the audience bouncing and dancing with some very odd moves. Overall the crawl is not worth it for the drinks, but having a bit of structure and going to a nice variety of bars (and one terrible club) was pretty cool.

Benjamin Duff

@versestravel

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Prague Pt2

Part 1 here

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IMG_20151021_115145The next day I decided a walking tour might mean I learnt something about the sights I was seeing, so headed to town to meet the late morning one, only to miss it. From there however I decided to head to another part of the city and check out DOX the modern art gallery that had been recommended to me. The route there meant passing through another hill park, again with some great views of the city, and what I assume to be an abandoned rail-yard.

IMG_20151021_122244DOX itself had a couple of exhibitions, the main being ‘Brave New World‘ featuring art work based upon, and inspired by 1984 – George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury and Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. The general theme being the control of our personal lives by a totalitarian government, and the way we’ve started to slip into this society. From giant statues of Hitler, Stalin and more, to videos of Nazi parades, the pieces worked together to make a statement about modern capitalism and consumerism. A wall of TVs played a loop of adverts, originally designed to sell a product but now used to show us how our lives are lead by these sales pitches, selling lifestyles along with their products. Probably most spectacular was the floating construct, made of sheet plastic and built into tubes that could be crawled through, hung from the ceiling above the gallery.

IMG_20151021_155701From DOX I hopped the trams back into the centre, without much of clue which way I was actually going most of the time I had to jump on and off a fair amount, but it’s easy and you never need to wait long. Back in the city I managed to join the walking tour for a fascinating look around the old town and jewish quarter.IMG_20151020_152619You certainly learn a lot more about what you’re looking at with an experienced guide, and while a lot of people are put off by the free guides, I have always found them excellent, from Dublin to Berlin (see next blog) they work hard to be interesting and entertaining, as they work for tips. With a pre-paid tour they’re working for good reviews, while the free tours are working for their living, so tend to put a bit more effort in. I highly recommend them in whatever city you’re visiting (or even your own, you never know what you might learn)

So after a great little tour of churches, synagogues, clocks and plenty more old buildings it was time for a quick drink with some tour mates, and a semi-traditional Czech meal curtesy of my hosts parents. The next day was a simple choice of bus or train over to Berlin, but given the price difference, and that the bus had airplane style seat back entertainment it was an easy decision. After a few passport control stops I was in Germany, and headed for Berlin.

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Benjamin Duff

@versestravel