Tag Archives: transport

Delphi and Meteora

With the time off I get in Athens, it gives me a lot of chances to see more of Greece, so I decided to do an actual tour. I wanted to see some of the real history of the country, so Delphi and Meteora were a must do. Epic scenery and some great stories as well

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I booked through a website called GetYourGuide.com which was pretty good, their price was about 30EUR less than if I’d booked direct, and the company I went with was called Key Tours. It’s a two day tour, and the price included a stay in Kalambaka at the base of the Meteora cliffs.

img_20160816_093201012I was picked up, transferred, fussed around and faffed about until eventually I was on a coach heading up to Delphi for our first stop. The guide was an impressively knowledgable lady called Anastasia, talking almost constantly all the way out of Athens, and then from Athens the whole way to Delphi. Honestly it was very hard to listen to her talk for such a long time, there was just too much chatter that didn’t interest me, so I fell asleep. The service breaks were depressing tourist traps full of over-priced tat and rubbish food, but we didn’t get much choice.

img_20160815_122408611_hdrOnce we got to Delphi there was a little more fussing, then the group followed our guide on a rather uninspiring tour of a hugely inspiring location. The site itself is incredible, ruins of treasuries, a huge temple, a stadium and so much more, all built around the Oracle, on the side of a mountain. The views in all directions were wonderful, the valley spreading below us and the mountain peaks above, while the ruins showed how the ancient holy location functioned. The story goes that Zeus released two crows who would meet at the centre of the world, then hurled a rock down in that location to mark it for mankind. There is a fissure in the rock there, where sulphuric gasses rise from the depths of the planet, and they found that breathing this gas caused strong hallucinations. They would use a virgin, who sit atop the fissure, breathing the air and explaining what she saw (or just mumbling nonsense) and priests would translate this into advise and prophesy for the leaders of the various city-states. The most well known of the prophecies is the story of Croesus who was told that he would destroy an army if he went to war. He went to war, and his own army was destroyed.

img_20160815_123438774It was a holy location, so nobody lived there, meaning there are no remains of homes, just the main temple of Apollo and various treasuries, or gold supplies for the city-states. The location at Delphi meant it was close to the coast and accessible relatively easily by all. The formed a council of elders, and it was at this location they could make decisions for the entire nation. The Oracle features in several movies, including 300, which depict it as a truly mystical place – It’s unlikely to have been quite to fantastical, but the Ancient Greeks certainly believed in the power of Oracle.

img_20160815_162113848We missed the museum, which contained many of the statues and more delicate artefacts in order to get going towards Meteora. We did get a brief stop at the monument to the Spartans who died Thermopylae. A mighty spartan warrior stands atop a wall, with a carved depiction of the battle of the 300 against the immense Persian army. Since the water level has lowered the narrow passage shown in the movie is now much much wider, and would be impossible to defend with so few men.

img_20160816_085842672We switched out guide when we left Delphi, and I had been hoping that our new guy would make the journey a little better, with shorter talks about the most important sights, however he also decided to expel every nugget of information he could about the regions we travelled through, including a wonderful 20 minutes on a special cheese, 40 minutes of the plains of mid-greece and plenty more that I was more than happy to sleep through. I expect I missed a lot of the interesting and relevant information, but trying to concentrate was just impossible. We arrived at Kalambaka tired and drowse, but a reasonable feed and a stroll around cleared my head before bed.

img_20160816_090721228An early start meant we were on the cliffs before most of the tourists, and actually had a chance to view some of the very impressive sights of Meteora. The place is famous not only for the high cliffs rising out of the plains below, but also the monasteries and nunneries built upon them. Built by religious hermits who had been residing in the caves, the cliffs gave the monks the solitude to worship and act according to Gods will. Nowadays there are roads up there, and tourist crawling all over the churches and holy areas, so I imagine the solitude is less effective, but the idea of constructing entire buildings on rock outcrops and effectively inaccessible cliffs, back in the 11th Century is just unimaginable.

img_20160816_114643010_hdrWe visited two of the main complexes, and viewed one from the outside (it’s closed on Tuesdays) and each had it’s own charm, and was an impressive structure when you consider the challenge of building on the pure rocks. The views were possibly the most spectacular, although our guide insisted on teaching us about every mural in each chapel, which took up most of the time inside. I decided to skip out of tour to enjoy the location without being surrounded by other tourists, and there’s something about musty church air that makes me feel pretty bad (I must be a sinner).

img_20160816_094120506The trip home was long an uneventful, I tried to sleep as much as I could, I had certainly had enough of the guide. At least the ride was smooth and there was minimal faffing around.

I’d absolutely recommend the sites, they’re excellent, and good value for entry, but if you can find a way to see them without doing a tour do so. Greek guides have to go to school to qualify, and the school teaches them to talk as much as they can, for as long as they can, and it’s exhausting to listen to. I’m surprised they can still talk at all.

Benjamin Duff

@versestravel

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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.

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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Vietnam Pt3 – Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC, named after the saviour of Vietnam, previously Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam, and you can really feel it. The most commented thing about this city is the traffic, and you can see why.

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It’s incredible, even compared to Bangkok, like a river of mopeds, with the occasional tree branch of a car being swept along. The traffic rules are very flexible, and you’ll often find the pavement filled with oncoming traffic as they try to edge themselves closer to the red light that has cause this momentary tailback. Crossing the street is not for the faint hearted, in fact, it’s more like doing a high wire tight-rope than crossing a normal street. Walk straight, slowly and keep moving, that way the the traffic will flow around you. Any sudden movements will leave you at the bottom of a multi-bike pile up. That said, I never saw any accidents in the city, which considering I think I saw more mopeds in the first two minutes than I ever did in any European country in total is a miracle.

Post OfficeWe stayed in Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, the backpacker area, in one of the many alleys that maze their way between the park and the drinking street that are home to the guesthouse and hostels that accommodate the travellers in the city. It’s close to plenty of naff fast food places, including the ‘arriving soon’ McDonalds, the second in Vietnam. Exploring this city was very different to Can Tho, the gentle urbanism replaced by big commercialism and in-your-face advertising boards and the constant need to pay attention. Despite this, from the main backpacker area most tourist attractions are only a short walk away.

Reunification PalaceThe Reunification Palace is open and is an interesting spot to experience, mostly thanks to the rooms in the basement that show what was necessary in order to survive the war. The building was an important symbol during the vietnamese war, and housed several significant events marking the start, and end of the war.

Notre Dame

On our wanderings we also visited the City Post Office and Notre Dame Catherdral, both of which are close to the Palace. In a nearby shopping centre, the food court gave us a chance to experience urban food in Vietnam, somewhat confusing, but we ended up with a good variety of interesting and tasty foods.

War Remnants MuseumThe War Remnants museum (there’s one of these in every city) is very impressive, while it has much less in the way of actual weapons, it still has a display of artillery, tanks and aircraft, inside is dedicated to photo, and art galleries ranging from the effects of napalm, peace posters and historical propaganda. The stories it tells through pictures alone convey so much more than the bad captions and artifacts that other museums rely on. It is both tasteful and poignant in its delivery, and with such a strong and simple message the impact is quite moving. Of all the military museums, this was the best, and of all the attractions in HCMC, this was my favourite.

SkydeckWe finished the day with a trip up the highest building in the city. You can reach the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor of the Bitexco tower throughout the day, or you can go a little higher, to the 52nd, and have a drink as well. It works out about the same price, but with seating and a drink, we felt the bar was the better choice. Watching day turn to night across the city was fascinating, especially as the roads changed to rivers of light blurring streaks across the city.

Benjamin Duff

@versestravel

The Best (and Worst) Ways to get around the world

There’s a lot of different methods of public transport in the world, each one has it’s benefits and problems, so here’s a little of my favourite. If you’re got any transport horror stories, or favourites that I missed, let me know – if I get a lot, I’ll turn them into another post.

  • Trains

One of my favourites, they’re simple, they’re hard to get wrong, and generally pretty quick. If you’re lucky, you’ll be on a nice quiet coach with a few seats to yourself able to lie down and get some shut eye. The Sydney area double-decker trains are cool, although uncomfortable, and most British ones are passable. The Overnighters in Thailand are a little odd though, not uncomfortable until you need to go to the bathroom.

  • Buses and Coaches

I don’t think these are anyones favourite, but as far as cheap transport goes, these are the bomb. From the Greyhound and Premier buses that cart loads of backpackers from stop to stop, with the occasional riot/party on board, and some of the worst nights sleep imaginable to the Thai VIP buses with complementary food and water, big comfy chairs and plenty of stops. Then there’s the coaches in other parts of SE Asia, where it’s goodbye to any idea of luxury, and you’re lucky if you’re not sat on a stool in the aisle. Dangerous overcrowding, awfully maintained seats, sitting with your bags, it’s not good.

  • Mini-buses

Proabably the worst form of transport I’ve ever experienced, and rarely are they any good (outside of a western country that is). I’ve shared mini-buses with chickens, pigs, motorbikes, twice the amount of people the bus was designed for and so much more. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a real seat, not a wooden one, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll get it all to yourself. Sharing with your bag is not unusual, but makes it tricky to go to the bathroom. Often there’s no choice but if you can, avoid these death-traps!

  • Tuk-Tuks

They change depending on the country, but the typical Bangkok tuk-tuk is what most people think of. Named after the noise they make, these are little trikes that usually fit no more than three passengers, are cheap, and a great way to get around in the citys. Often confused with Song Thaws, which are more like pick-up trucks (or backies/utes in Africa/Australia) Tuk-Tuks are more common, and much smaller. Cambodian tuk-tuks tend to be a motorbike, with a carriage attached, while in Loas you’re looking for miniature minibuses. Always check what your journey should cost before you go, so you know you’re getting a good deal, but these should always be good value.

  • Airplanes

The best way to go to a long way, and sometimes the only way into some countries, but if you can avoid the short haul flights, please do. They really aren’t even close to being sustainable, even with the £1 carbon offset donation. I love them, because they take you a long way fast, but I hate waiting in airports. I think my favourite thing about them is watching all the movies during the flight, and not having to worry about food for a good few hours.

  • Metro/Tube Systems

Love them, I don’t care how confusing they are, how many people are squished in, there’s nothing better than zipping around a city via a network or tunnels or above the streets on tracks. I am have done three laps of Kuala Lumpur city centre before I got where I needed, but hell, it was fun. Singapore has a nice system, as does Dubai, just be aware that you may need to push to get off, they’re not as polite as the British.

  • Trams

Better than the metro/tube lines because you can see where you are easily so can hop on and off exactly where you need, or at least, where you think you need. But best of all of course, you rarely need to pay for these, especially as a foreigner. For 6 months in Melbourne I got away with playing dumb on the rare occasions I got caught. The same in Dublin, where the moment they heard a non-irish accent they just kicked you off to buy a ticket.

There’s a few I missed, local buses tend to be useful, but never popular, boats, which are really just very damp coaches, and I’m sure there’s some odd ones out there I’ve missed totally.

Have fun, and as my Dad always told me, ‘Mind the Trams’

Benjamin Duff

@versestravel