Istanbul

Istanbul is a bustling, energetic, noisy and full-on city with a population of about 15 million people (but likely to be higher). It was my second trip to Istanbul and I thoroughly enjoyed it second time around.

Avoid the masses of people by getting up early and arriving at the main sites before the crowds start lining up – otherwise you’ll be waiting for hours. First stop was the Blue Mosque, a functioning mosque that was built between 1609 and 1616. It contains Ahmed I’s tomb, a madrasah (educational institution) and a hospice. Gorgeous blue tiles adorn the mosque’s interior walls but unfortunately scaffolding was up when I visited the second time. At night the mosque is lit up blue as lights frame the five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes. My hotel overlooked the mosque so the breakfast view was incredible (breakfast was also incredible!).

5 minute walk away is the Hagia Sophia which has been a Byzantine Christian Cathedral (537-1054), Greek Orthodox Cathedral (1054-1204 and 1261-1453), Roman Catholic Cathedral (1204-1261), Ottoman Mosque (1453-1931) and finally a museum. The Hagia Sophia is an impressive building and was the world’s largest building and an engineering marvel of its time. It is impressive to see the mix of Islamic and Christian religion in the symbols displayed (including the Virgin Mary and the central mihrab).

I had loved going to the Basilica Cistern the first time I visited but found this time it was just a bit too touristy.  The Basilica was built in the 6th century is approx. 138m x 65m and can hold 80,000 cubic metres of water! 336 marble columns 9 metres high support the ceiling. It was refreshingly cool after a hot day in the Turkish sun! Keep an eye out for Medusa’s head. You could also get a tacky picture with some “traditional” Turkish clothing and sit next to a dressed up local in the Cistern….

58870199_10161620046395641_8084422602027696128_n

The Grand Bazaar is giant and you definitely have to be in the mood for it. It is one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets – 61 streets, 4,000+ shops and between 250,000 – 400,000 visitors per day. Be prepared to haggle and to receive some creepy vibes – I bought some gorgeous Turkish lights from a young man who was the first one not to say anything inappropriate so he was winning in my book. I got there when it opened and there weren’t many tourists at all. You’ll find anything from dried fruit to mirrors, clothing, jewelry and tea sets, carpets, bags, counterfeit goods and random assortments. Well worth a visit but keep your eyes on your wallet at all times!

One of the highlights of my time in Istanbul was having dinner cooked by a Syrian national for an NGO (Small Projects Istanbul). We were met by Jen (Aussie) in central Istanbul who took us by tram to the charity where we had a delicious dinner and listened to a Syrian refugee discuss life in Syria and then tell us about the charity. You can also support the charity by purchasing jewelry, clothing and bags made on-site. It was a fascinating evening.

Didn’t make it to any of the Turkish baths but did have some excellent Turkish food. My highlight was when a Turkish man said I had excellent English – good to know that’s not slipping!

The locals love kiwis and I had many “welcome home” and “kiaora Anzac” – there was also a huge appreciation for Jacinda Ardern so that made Turkey even more of a winner in my book!

 

 

Pamukkale

58602770_10161620056895641_6848781483293802496_n

Pamukkale means cotton castle in Turkish and the name fits perfectly. Pamukkale is famous for carbonate mineral left by the flowing thermal springs and is in Denzili, southwestern Turkey, and very easy to fly to from Istanbul.

58461550_10161620056695641_6377672980226375680_n

The white castle is 2,700m long, 600m wide and 160 high! The thermal springs drip down the mountain and leave little terraces with milky pools. I arrived around 9am to avoid the hoards of tourists and walked up from my hotel – you have to be barefoot and a lone guard will quickly remind anyone to remove their shoes to protect the white limestone. Don’t forget your togs and a towel!

The terraces are made of travertine, sedimentary rock and there are 17 hot water spring with temperature ranges from 35-100’C and the water flows down into the town – weird to feel warm water in a spring next to a driveway!

Pamukalle is adjacent to the ancient city of Hierapolis which was once a large city but now is just well-preserved Roman ruins and museum which was weirdly empty of people! I was invited to join a tour group so jumped on the tour for 20 minutes or so and listened to the stories about the old buildings and water reservoirs. You’ll find artifacts and Bronze Age craft and an old library and gymnasium. There’s also a giant restored amphitheater which was very impressive and stands alongside extensive necropolis.

 

58420083_10161620065925641_9005963081548824576_n58619791_10161620065235641_926279061104230400_n

People would visit Hierapolis for the health and beauty treatments from the thermal pools and even now you can have a dip in Cleopatra’s pool and let all your problems disappear (if only!). You can receive balneal treatment, mud baths and massages to enjoy the real experience and wonder of the healing water.

58442982_10161620066895641_3723222821514510336_n

 

Anzac Day at Gallipoli

I’ve always wanted to visit Gallipoli on Anzac Day and it truly was an incredible experience. There are heaps of different bus companies that can take you from Istanbul to Gallipoli and we went with Crowded House Tours but they’re all pretty much the same – drive you to and from Gallipoli (5 hours each way) and give you a lunch box for the day. Security was pretty tight and this year they weren’t allowing Turkish nationals to attend which was quite a shame. There were also armed cops and soldiers so felt pretty safe! The site was also alcohol and smoke free but you could take your own snacks.

58679397_10161620054605641_1684597756741550080_n

By the time you get through security and find a spot on the grass it was about 2am. Highly recommend taking giant black rubbish bags to stop the cold dew in the morning, a sleeping bag, and warm clothing is also needed as temperatures plummeted at about 3am. The big screens played war docos throughout the morning and we were all woken about 4am to start getting ready for the dawn service. All very bleary eyed after a couple of hours sleep we staggered to where the stage was set for the start.

The service started with a screening of an excerpt of the Australian wartime film The Telegraph Man. This was followed closely by an overview of the Anzac battle of April 25, 1915, with reference to Ataturk’s speech who said the fallen Australasians were now “our sons as well”.  Next the names of fallen Antipodean soldiers were projected on the screen. Speeches acknowledged the medical staff who worked throughout the night and then speakers from NZ, Australia and Turkey acknowledged our fallen soldiers and those killed in the Christchurch terror attacks. It was moving hearing the Last Post and the national anthems. Then we slowly walked to Chunuk Bair (for NZ) and the Aussies went to Lone Pine where each had a service. It was surreal hearing waiata and haka from the NZ Defence Force. It was a fantastic experience and reminded me how lucky we all are to be from NZ.

I had already been on a Gallipoli tour previously but would recommend staying for 2 days to attend a tour to fully understand Gallipoli.

Cappadocia

Turkey is one of my favorite countries and is well worth a repeat visit. The food, the weather, the people and the over-use of my favourite colour, turquoise.

Flew from Istanbul to Neveshir and then caught a taxi to the town of Goreme. Goreme is found among the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia and is a cute wee town. I spent the arvo wandering around and drinking endless cups of Turkish tea  with the shopkeepers. Had a delicious dinner of lamb slow cooked in a clay pot which is broken and then poured on your plate – delicious. There’s ample accommodation and we decided to embrace the cave lifestyle and stayed in a cave hotel.

Ange and Hayden arrived at midnight and the next day we walked to the Goreme Open Air Museum. The museum contains some of the earliest churches in history and the area is said to have been one of the first to embrace Christianity. Here you’ll find rock-cut churches, frescoes and refectories with rock tables and benches. Pretty impressive considering they date back to 3rd and 4th century BC! We were also very lucky to hit the cold snap and had snow in April!

Next I walked 4km to Uchisar Castle – a 60m high castle which was the main point of defence for Cappadocia. At the top of the castle you are rewarded with the panoramic view of the surrounding towns and endless fairy chimneys. The castle has underground passages and rooms with only a few open to the public, and it used to house 1000 people. The small town itself is full of tourist-trap shops and fancy looking hotels.

My last full day was spent on the Green Tour of Cappadocia (lots of tours and can just book at your hotel) which took us to Kaymakli Underground City. The complex carved underground has been used for hundreds of years by locals to hide from Romans, Persians and Arabs and are thought to have first been built in the 7th-8th centuries BC. The city contained stables, churches, bedrooms, wine cellars, pantries and even a room for the dead. Just imagine a normal village but it’s built underground. It was incredible.

Next was visiting the Selime Monastery in the Ihara Valley- a cathedral sized church cut directly into the volcanic rock. The church is separated into 3 sections by two rock columns. Kitchens and stables are also present as well as monks’ living quarters which are adorned with time worn frescoes. There’s also pigeon homes/dovecotes as they used pigeons for food and fertiliser!

Last stop was a walk along the “Grand Canyon” – a very easy walk along the river to a restaurant for tasty local fish. Not a bad way to spend a snowy day in Cappadocia! Unfortunately the weather didn’t play well and I was unable to go hot air ballooning but there’s always next time.

Restaurant recommendations include: Pumpkin, Organic Cave Kitchen and Dibek.

 

 

Trolltunga tips!

68443437_10162098367555641_2348729378650718208_n

Trolltunga is a rock formation 1,100 metres above sea level in Odda, Norway. The famous troll tongue pops out about 700m above Lake Ringedalsvatnet and is an incredible hike (27km or 20km depending on if you cheat like we did!).  It’s also thanks to social media that has seen this hike rise in popularity with less than 800 people visiting in 2010 and now attracts over 80,000 visitors each year. We struggled to find some helpful information when we planned this trip so hopefully this blog can help others!

68471478_10162098354975641_8860733224905605120_n

We flew into Bergen from London Luton, hired a car and drove 140 km through windy fjords to our Airbnb at the base of the road to the hike. Don’t underestimate the fjords – it took us 3.5 hours to get there! Highly recommend having your own car as I think it would end up being quite expensive and time consuming relying on public transport. We also pre-cooked our dinners and froze them (win win – frozen food doesn’t count as a liquid so can come in hand luggage) and packed snacks from the UK as Norway is insanely expensive – a 2 hour cider tour was going to cost £75!!

The first 4 km are up a steep road so we skipped that and booked tickets on the Trolltunga Shuttle – recommend booking in advance and we were on the 7am. It cost to park at the 2 carparks (think it was £40 for the day and it helps maintain the track); alternatively, you could have caught a taxi, bus or walked from the bottom (an extra and unnecessary walk!). The Saturday was horrendous weather – severe winds and torrential rain and the warning was “don’t stand close to the edge!” so instead we went into Odda (about 4 shops in total), had a walk and then a very chilly dip in the glacial fjord.

Sunday weather was perfect – sunny with sporadic rain and not too windy. Monday they told people not to attempt the hike so definitely give yourself a couple of days just in case (keep an eye on this page). The hike is not difficult if you are reasonably fit and are prepared for the change in weather. Hiking boots, merino baselayers (Icebreaker get my vote), merino jumper, puffer, raincoat, warm socks, sunglasses, woolen hat, gloves and waterproof trousers made for a comfortable 8 hour return walk (with breaks) in early August. Some people were in shorts and chucks which was just stupid considering how quick mountain weather can change!

The first hour of the hike is pretty steep but not terrible. The next few hours are a nice gentle up and down with spectacular scenery. It was also very easy to come off the track or that may have been the in-depth conversations got us distracted! There’s ample fresh water you can drink from streams and it was so fresh and a delightful change from London water!

Once you get to the tongue, you join the line and wait for your turn to take the famous shot (45 minute wait but can take up to 2 hours). We all stayed in the middle of the rock but some people were jumping and others dangling their feet off the edge which freaked me out. It’s a long drop down! We walked back in time for a gin and bath and surprisingly not aching feet! One of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done and highly recommend!

68756666_10162098367700641_7891314730596302848_n

Lisbon + Lagos = perfection

I was in dire need of some vitamin D after three trips to cold, wintry (beautiful) countries so I booked myself a mini-break to the beauty that is Portugal. Things started very well when I secured a £9 flight to Lisbon – it would have been rude to say no!

53516192_10161425152940641_1792098675036520448_n

Since I was by myself for 6 days, I decided to stay in an excellent hostel so I wouldn’t become too much of a loner. It was a lovely clean, modern hostel in a handy location. Recommend.

I started my trip with the Sandeman free walking tour – three hours of walking around the old part of Lisbon with a very knowledgeable guide. Poor Lisbon was basically decimated by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 1755 which wiped out 90% of the population. There’s still remnants of the gothic Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – a cathedral without a roof as it was destroyed in the quake which measured what would have been 9 on the richter scale.

I had lunch at the Time Out food market (was ok), then took a bus to Belem to sample the world famous Pastéis de Belém – delicious baked custard tarts (best eaten with a sprinkling of cinnamon) that were amazing! I was very lucky to avoid the crowds as I was able to walk straight in without having to line up. It’s worth the trip to Belem! Very close by is the Jeronimos Monastry, church and archaeological museum (the latter all in Portuguese but you get to see some mummies and ancient jewellery!). I ended the day in the best possible way: eating incredible seafood at Ramiros  you order off an ipad and I had the most delicious garlic prawns, giant prawns and delicious bread (not a vege in sight on the menu). But be careful, everything is charged by the weight and you only find out the weight when they bring you the bill so don’t get too carried away!

A day trip to Sintra is a must see and I decided to try something new – a tour of Sintra and the coast in a jeep! Francesco was our tour guide and he runs the company with his family. He was so passionate about showing off Sintra and a great host! It was an  incredible day seeing the sights of Sintra, and seeing things off the beaten track (and avoiding the tourists as much as possible!). The Quinta de Regaleira was beautiful – a 20th century residence with stunning gardens styled to represent ancient secret orders, with hidden tunnels and concealed symbolism. They were obviously too concealed for me as I missed the symbolism of the Masons and the Knights Templar. The well is well worth a visit (haha) and symbolises the initiation ceremony for the Knights Templar and there’s also a hidden passage that goes down 27 meters with tunnels going everywhere down the garden – very easy to get lost! Our lunch stop was a traditional Portugese restaurant where we all had fish soup followed by fish fillets which had been soaked in milk, and a dessert platter. The shot of ginja (cherry liquer) was pretty horrendous but obviously a requirement!

Next we tested the quality of the jeep on some off-road dirt tracks and out onto the coast to see some breathtaking scenery. There was also a rope going literally straight down the cliffs onto the rocks where fisherman clamber down to remove the barnacles to serve to restaurants. Pretty impressive! Our last stop was Cabo da Roca, the most western point in Europe. Good to tick off but it was just full of tour buses so not my fave place!

The next day I took a train to Lagos (took about 5 hours all up) and it was so good to be back at the beach! I even managed a very brief dip in the water (the Atlantic is freezing at the best of times so 2 March 2019 wasn’t exactly going to be tropical. Spent three days wandering around, walking along the Algarve coast and along to Luz, eating delicious food – I had the best tuna steak of my life at Casa do Prego and I went back twice (potentially for both the food and the waiters!). There’s not a lot to do there if you don’t have a car and I think it just gets overrun with tourists in summer so going off season is definitely worth it (accommodation is also 1/3 of the price!).

The highlight of my time in Lagos was sunrise SUP with an Aussie called Dave! I met Dave on the beach at 7am and the beach was empty except for a guy from the Hawkes Bay coaching triathalon to some locals. I’d only ever been on a SUP in very flat water and we had a bit of a swell thanks to Storm Freya – my board bumped into Dave’s and he ended up in the drink so that was satisfying! I only fell off as we were coming into shore, but I’m saying that was intentional. We went through the grottos and along the coast and it was such a magical way to start the day. Make sure you book a trip with Dave if you’re in Lagos and tell him I sent you!

Belfast & the Antrim Coast

51689114_10161336910950641_3261926385983160320_n

A few friends had recommended a weekend in Belfast and when I saw £9 flights each way I thought, this is it! Then I got upgraded to the Executive Suite room and me and my handbag (very proud to last 2 nights away with just a handbag!) were very happy.

Started my first day with a very hearty Irish brekkie (included soda bread and potato pancake and the usual fry up) which kept me going all day. I spent the day on a 9 hour bus tour from Belfast, around the Antrim Coast to the Giant’s Causeway. The coast was very reminiscent of some NZ coastline – almost felt like I was back at home! First stop was Carrickfergus Castle – a Norman castle and one of the best preserved medieval structures in Northern Ireland and originally 3/4 of the castle perimeter was surrounded by water. Next up was the town of Carnlough to stretch our legs (a very winding road!) and see where they filmed Arya crawled out of the harbour after being stabbed by the Waif in season 6. There’s even a placard so we know it’s legit.

Next stop was the Giant’s Causeway which I’m afraid was quite disappointing. And I walked straight past it thinking, this can’t be it! I was expecting giant rocks like Punakaiki but these were a lot smaller. Impressive with how they have been developed over time and the scenery is gorgeous. Half the path up the hill was closed due to the gales (was a decent storm passing through) but the walk in summer must be incredible.

My favourite stop was the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge – a rope bridge that connects the mainland to the island of Carrickarede. The bridge spans 20m and is 30m above the rocks and back in the day fishermen (mainly salmon fishermen) would cross the distance with ONE SINGLE ROPE. It was beautiful- the green hills, blue water and extremely fresh air = a great combination for the soul. Next up was the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery and I’m afraid the Irish genes haven’t come through strong – give me a gin any day! Last stop was a photo opportunity to see the Dunluce Castle – the first was built in the 13th century but is now ruined. Apparently an annual fair was held in the castle but was closed due to excessive bawdiness and debauchery!

The highlight of my trip was the Black Cab Tour around both the Catholic and Protestant parts of Belfast. It was absolutely fascinating and my driver, John (a Scottish Catholic) was so knowledgeable and able to answer all my questions, regardless of how morbid. We went into no mans land – a portion that separates the two sides and there’s a 5 mile wall that runs through the city (three pics on the right of the pics of QEII below). At 6pm each night the gates are locked and the wall has never been taken down. It is 2019. In the UK. It is insane. There are hundreds of murals painted on people’s houses of murderers, pictures of the Queen, paintings of hunger strikers who were imprisoned without a trial (interned) and shrines dedicated to those who were killed. People were killed in bombings in fish shops, bars and on the street. I had no idea. It was a real eye opener.

Spent the rest of the day at the Titanic Museum, wandering around the city and having delicious food. Perfect place for a mini-break from London. And we got sun, wahoo!

Incredible Iceland

50906999_10161284764105641_1617938438378487808_o

What happens when two lawyers and an accountant plan a holiday in one of the priciest countries in Europe? Iceland on a Budget!! (Nana, I hope you are proud!). We started with £50 return airfares (booked in June) with 10kg of carry on bags only: these were filled with homemade dinners for 2 nights, and lunches for 3 days plus a load of snacks and wintry outfits. Rental car and a 3 for 2 bus deal! We did well!

We hired a car and checked into our Airbnb cabin. Note to self, don’t rent a cabin in the Icelandic countryside in winter. Let’s just say, I was thanking my parents for years of work on the orchard using a shovel – it came in handy when we got caught in a blizzard!

Friday we drove about 45mins from Reykjavik for Tom to go dogsledding. Emma and I got to play with the dogs and they were just so cute! Some were rescue dogs because people didn’t comprehend how much work huskies are…. They were all very well taken care of and Tom came back beaming so a successful visit! I’d keep an eye on the snow though – as when there’s no enough you’re on a buggy with wheels, when there is snow, a sled. We then drove to the Secret Lagoon and had a relaxing soak in the pools (budget tip: go to the local pools for about £4 as opposed to £30-40 because there are hot pools everywhere). And then it was dark…in January the daylight hours are 1045am-430pm. Our guide said the locals survive on holidays to Spain or Miami, prozac and coffee.

Saturday we did the Grand Circle tour with Bus Travel (we got 3 for 2 deals which included the Northern Lights but alas too cloudy!). First stop was Kerið – a crater lake which (when not frozen) has red lava rock that surrounds the deep blue water below. It was blowing a gale and very icy so we all took our time (pic below. This was about 11am).

47827504_10161284766110641_2551371733881847808_n
Crater lake

Next up was the waterfall Faxi – a pretty waterfall coming out of a frozen landscape Gullfoss was next and is the most visited waterfall in Iceland. It was pretty impressive with a height of 32m! When it’s not winter, there’s a golden shimmer in the water from the minerals, hence the name translating to the Golden Waterfall.  By this time it had started snowing. Heavily. And we were very pleased to be in a bus with a very skilled driver!

49857932_10161284827505641_8659019012107141120_n
Frozen waterfalls!

We stopped for lunch at the Geothermal area of Geysir which is a real good tourist spot: food, shopping and geysirs (and also geezers no doubt). You can walk around the geothermal park and see a few eruptions – it was impressive but having grown up near Rotorua you’ve seen a lot of this before! It was pretty awesome being there with heavy snow falling though! Power and water is super cheap because of all the geothermal power – and they have glasshouses everywhere being fueled geothermally with fresh fruit and vege.

Last stop (and the highlight) was the Thingvellir national park – the venue of the first parliament in Iceland. No Beehive unfortunately. Þingvellir is also the location of the Silfra fissure, where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates began to separate. You can even dive here if you fancy (no thanks!). The countryside of Iceland is absolutely stunning and there are heaps of Icelandic horses and the cows are kept in sheds – understandably! It certainly lived up to its name when we were there.

Sunday we went on the 10 hour South Iceland Coast bus tour (same company). First up was the Skógafoss waterfall – a casual 200 feet tall. It started snowing pretty heavily when we arrived then 5 minutes later, blue sky! Next we went to Sólheimajökull which is a glacier tongue of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier which caps the Katla volcano which is apparently overdue for an eruption. Nearby is the volcano that caused all the travel chaos in 2010: Eyjafjallajökull which incidentally lead to a massive increase in tourism for Iceland. When life gives you lemons…

50673235_10161284897475641_1087343551634735104_o
Glacier

We enjoyed our lunch on the black sand beach in Vík í Mýrdal – the southernmost town in Iceland and an old fishing town. Pretty awesome having sand, snow and waves all in the one place! Bought some Icelandic wool and a jumper to enjoy the full experience!

Next up was the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara. Our guide warned us of the sneaker waves that literally just sneak up behind you and get swamped. A few tourists have been killed because the undertow is so strong and the North Atlantic water absolutely freezing. Having mocked a few tourists for getting too close to the waves, I was about 12m from the break point and I got swamped! I can confirm that the North Atlantic water in Iceland is absolutely FREEZING. Not recommended to get your feet wet. I got soaked up to my knees and froze for the next 5 hours…

Last stop was waterfall Seljalandsfoss at a height of 197 feet. I’ll be honest, we were all a bit over the cold especially with me starting to lose feelings in my toes so we took some pics then had a hot choccy! Took about 2 hours to drive back to Reykjavik but the adventures were not over…we got stuck in a blizzard and I volunteered to shovel the snow off the road. The Airbnb host thought we were being “OTT tourists” until he came to rescue the other guest’s car from the snow-filled-driveway. He also did this all without gloves and a hat…they’re a tough breed those Icelandics and not too shabby on the eye!

I will definitely be coming back to Iceland to see the Northern Lights and to hopefully also visit in summer when there’s 24 hours of daylight. In terms of winter, we were lucky as it wasn’t that cold (coldest it got to was -9 but most days 2’C) and I only had to wear my longjohns once! Provided you’re well prepared, (Icebreaker baselayers, softshell trousers, merino hoody, ski gloves, beanie and puffer jacket with waterproof snow boots) you’ll be sweet!

Oh, Canada!

49307638_10161190708715641_5868864710228574208_n

The last time I went to Canada was in 2010 and I loved it as much this time as I did then! Flew via Chicago to Vancouver (note to self – avoid USA stopovers) on United Airlines which were surprisingly good! Stayed at the gorgeous Barclay House – comfiest bed, claw footed bath and a delicious breakfast with a very welcoming host. Recommend!

 

One of the best things about Vancouver is the close proximity to nature and all the fresh air! Walked around Stanley Park for a few hours and enjoyed the very fresh temperatures! Met my friend Kerryn for lunch – who did a very good job at convincing me to move over so we shall see! Took the little boat across to Granville Island and wandered around the food stalls, yum! Next day Kerryn took me to an outlet shopping centre – amazing bargains! We had a delicious donut in Kitsilano then I had an early night – I had the worst jetlag I’ve ever had!

 

Next day I flew to Kelowna to stay with my cousin, aunt and uncle for Christmas! One major difference I noticed compared to Europe, once we landed, everyone waited on the plane until it was there turn to get up instead of a mad panic the second the plane lands. It was a nice change!

 

We had a very Canadian Christmas with a turkey, yum, and the obligatory NZ pav (which was even better for brekkie!). Kate and Kinsley were fantastic hosts and I was very spoilt. Boxing Day was spent at Silver Star ski resort – Sue, Rik and Kate went off skiing and I spent the day tubing and snow mobiling, was fantastic, highly recommend. And it snowed the whole day, wahoo!

 

Sad to say goodbye to the fam as I flew to Calgary, then a bus to Lake Louise. Unfortunately Greyhound stopped operating in October so I paid a very heavy $96 for a 3 hour bus! Stayed at the HI hostel – excellent – and it really was a winter wonderland with a tonne of snow and absolutely freezing conditions. The next day it was -21’C when I ventured out to walk to Lake Louise. I had to buy a face buff to stop my nose from freezing and some shoe spikes to stop me slipping on the ice. It was the coldest I’d ever been and I spent a good 3 hours walking to, and on, the frozen lake. Ended up with frozen lashes and hair, insane. I’d always wanted to visit Lake Louise for the turquoise waters…and I also forgot how frozen solid it would be in winter. I’ll just have to return in summer! Had a very warming seafood chowder and a hot choc at the Fairmont then walked back to the hostel as it lightly snowed, gorgeous.

 

Next stop was Banff where I stayed for 2 days at the Samesun Hostel – which thankfully wasn’t full of drunk 18yos. In our room was a 60yo doctor, a 35yo ex-Mormon and a social worker so a good variety of women. The highlight of my trip was dogsledding and I I went with an excellent company who were very ethical and knew all names of the 190 dogs. It was a 2 hour experience including 1 hour of sledding and I got to go in both the sled and pushing it along at the back!

 

Banff is a great little town but best suited to a skier or boarder – there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do otherwise but I did go for a walk up a mountain with 2 of the girls from the hostel and also watched 2 movies so a pretty ideal time to chill! Flew back to Vancouver and spent the day eating delicious food and shopping, a perfect end to a fabulous Christmas break!

Poland

Everyone needs to visit Poland at least once in their lives. I started my long weekend in Warsaw and was lucky enough to be shown around by my very own tour guide (thanks Lukasz!) and we started at the Rising Museum. The museum is dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising where the Polish underground resistance fought to liberate Warsaw from the Germans in the summer of 1944 for 63 days. It is a fascinating museum with  real video footage of the uprising, weapons and clothing from both sides, letters (carried by children through the tunnels) and a replica plane just casually hanging from the ceiling! There’s mock tunnels which felt quite claustrophobic and before and after footage – basically Warsaw was annihilated, even the Palace, and it’s incredible to see how the country has worked insanely hard to create a new city.

We walked around the city seeing the remnants of the old buildings and walked to the Old Town on a very freezing -6’C day. Lunch was a delicious feast of pork knuckles, goulash and the obligatory vodka! Last stop was the Royal Castle – it used to be the official residence of the Polish monarchs but was almost completely destroyed in the war. Paintings and artifacts were taken by the locals and hidden in buildings or buried underground and some went to the UK, before the Nazis took over the Palace. The Castle was completely rebuilt and reconstructed and is now a protected UNESCO site.

Next stop was a 2.5hr train to Krakow. Started with a free walking tour for 3 hours which was led by a PhD history student, so informative and went all through the Old Town ending up at the Castle. Krakow wasn’t bombed during the war as the Germans considered it a German city and now the Old Town is a UNESCO site. A new friend and I then went off to try pierogi – had both sweet and savoury, yum! Followed by some very delicious vodkas at Radocha bar – elderflower and caramel. 50% alcohol and so silky smooth and delicious. Next stop was the Schindler’s Factory – a museum focused on the 5 year Nazi occupation with an emphasis on Oskar Schindler’s factory and his Jewish workers. The guide was very quick to tell us the movie Schindler’s List wasn’t 100% accurate! (You can attend without a guide but you have to book in advance – the only availability to visit was through the walking tour group). Took an uber back into town (£2!) then had a very delicious dinner of chicken with dumplings (like gnocchi) followed by hot apple cider and raspberry pie, perfect!

I was really dreading my visit to Auschwitz but it is one place that everyone really does need to visit at least once in their lives. The museum was opened in 1947 by former prisoners and has been run as a museum ever since. I highly recommend hiring a guide as they are able to give a better understanding and explanation of the history. I booked directly through the museum 4 weeks in advance (book ahead!) and the guide’s grandfather had been a prisoner at the camp. Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers with over 1.1 million people killed; 1 million of those were Jews. It was a very moving experience and heartbreaking to see the photos of those who were killed, the piles of shoes and hair that had been taken. A very respectful museum.

A couple of tips – don’t book a tour for £30-40 from the tour operators in Krakow – instead pay online for a tour from the museum and take the bus from the Krakow bus station for about £3 each way!

Got back to Krakow and attended a macabre free walking tour where a very enthusiastic guide told us about a serial killer, an unsolved murder and a vampire! Last visit was to the Wieliczka salt mine  – a salt mine that started in the 13th century and it produced table sale until 2007. You can now go on a walking tour through the mines where there are statues and chandeliers made of salt! I found it a bit commercialized and the guide had seriously had enough but it’s worth a visit for something a little different.