Naples, EATaly & the Amalfi Coast!

After Rome, Nabil and I took a train to Naples – the gritty, fast-paced, mafia-run, pizza capitol of Italy. 3 days of checking out sights and eating A LOT of Italian food later, I then took 2 days to check out Positano on the Amalfi Coast.

*****

Our first stop in Napoli, after dropping our bags off into the world’s tiniest loft room, was PIZZA! Right around the corner from our hostel was a pizzeria made famous by former president Bill Clinton. He ate there once and now, of course, his picture is all over the wall! After a few ordering issues, we ended up with an amazingly delicious full-sized margherita pizza….for only 3 euro! 

Image

So much yum for so little money!

Image

Can you spot Bill?

After pizza, we stumbled into a limoncello factory. Limoncello is an Italian liquer, commonly drunk in the south as a digestive after dinner. Contrary to the shot glasses it’s usually served in, the drink is actually sipped slowly. Lucky for us, this place was offering free samples! We got to try the original limoncello plus a variety of cream flavours such as melon, strawberry and chocolate! After our tasting, we both picked up a few tiny bottles (that looked like potions!) for home.

Image

Enjoying some citrus-y delight!

Continuing on our gastric tour of Napoli specialities, we went right next door for baba. Baba is an Italian dessert that people, apparently, enjoy. We were not those people. It’s a stale cold muffin that they squirt with rum and tasted like a sponge soaked in alcohol. I could feel the taste in my mouth hours after eating it and still get shudders thinking about it. I lasted only a few bites. But dear Nabil decided to tough it out and finish the baba – which resulted in a HUGE final bite and the agony pictured below.

Image

He deserves a medal for this!

Image

Good job Nibs! Finish strong!

We spent the rest of our first Napolian day exploring the city, walking to the pier and getting lost in the tiny streets. It’s not as picturesque as Rome, but it was definitely an interesting walk. On the way back to our hostel, we ran into the cutest pug! This guy was sitting on the sidewalk, waiting patiently for his owner who was shopping across the street. I almost took him home! 

Image

How cute is he? :)

That night we went for Julia Roberts pizza – pizza at the place where Julia Roberts filmed Eat Pray Love (or the Eat part, at least). Despite being a Hollywood film set, this restaurant is extremely popular with the locals! We got there around 7, which is early for Italian diners, and still had to take a number (lucky #13!) and wait to be allowed in. Once inside, your choices for pizza are limited to margherita and marinara. I was shocked by how much I enjoyed just the plain marinara pizza – probably the best pizza I’ve ever had. If you’re headed to Naples, this place gets my highest recommendation! 

Image

YUM!

Image

Pictures of Julia are also all over the restaurant! This gem was right behind us while we ate.

On day 2 in Naples, we took the very crowded Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii – the ancient town that had been wiped out by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. It was very similar to Ostia Antica in Rome, but much bigger, more crowded and a lot hotter. It was amazing to see how well-preserved this city still was and to see some of the “mummified” inhabitants from 79 A.D.  The large amphitheatre, where one of the visitors decided to do an impromptu song for us, was probably the coolest thing to see. As much as I loved seeing all of the ruins, the heat and crowds were definitely getting to me on this day! 

Image

Image

After sweating all day at Pompeii we came back for a nap at the hostel before a dinner of, you guessed it, pizza! This time we went to Signollo’s which is run by one of 21 (!) pizza-making siblings! All of the pizzas on the menu have Italian names, which we hoped correlated with each of the siblings. It was nice to get a pizza with a few more toppings and, of course, it was delicious! 

Across from the restaurant is a graffa shop we had read about in our guidebook. Graffa is basically an Italian donut, but at this shop, they hand make them and fry them fresh to order. They also have a magical machine that squeezes chocolate into them. So, basically, they’re little bites of heaven. Nabil and I loved them so much, we came back twice more before leaving Naples! The staff started to recognize us :) 

Image

Way better than a Krispy Kreme!

Our last day took us on another day trip, this time, to the island of Capri! We had a pretty rough time getting there, spending an hour+ walking along a giant pier to try and find an affordable ferry or hydrofoil to take us. But, we made it! And within minutes of disembarking, we were sitting on the beach with Caprese sandwiches in our hands. 

Image

“Let’s go to the beach, beach, let’s go get away!”

After getting in some beach-time we took a funicular up to Capri Town – which is atop the mountain on the Isle of Capri (there’s also AnaCapri, but I won’t get into where that is). I’m really glad we didn’t spend all day at the beach, because the views from the top were amazing! It’s so different than what I picture when I think of Italy – pebble beaches and houses on grassy hills all less than an hour from crazy Naples! We walked along the main road, stopping often to take photos and squeal over the view. 

Image

In order to really enjoy our surroundings, we thought it would be a good idea to grab a drink on one of the terrace bars.  This turned out to be a horrible idea as the price of the drinks was steeper than the hill we were sitting on top of! We reasoned that all our meals had been about 5 euro each, so a few pricey drinks wouldn’t be too bad.

Image

Beautiful view but hideous for my wallet!

Finishing our time on Capri with a cup of gelato, we headed back to the mainland and relaxed a bit before dinner. Finally tired of pizza, we turned to our hostel staff for a non-pizza recommendation and ended up at Tandem. At Tandem, you can play a game where you pay 1 euro/minute for either a bowl of ragu and bread or ragu with spaghetti.  Stepping up to the challenge, I went for the spaghetti and Nabil got the bread. Once served, a man from the kitchen came out with his cellphone timer and counted us in. After a few giggles and complaints over the heat of the sauce, I got serious and was able to finish my bowl of pasta in just over 3 minutes! Nabil had me beat at 2 minutes 40 seconds, but we both agreed it was the yummiest ragu we had ever not really had the time to taste!

Image

Nabil gearing up to demolish his dinner in less than 3 minutes!

The next day concluded our time in Naples and my time with Nabil :( It was sad to be heading different ways at the train station, after having had so many fun adventures through Rome and Naples. I was used to travelling with someone, and having that someone be as organized , informed and enthusiastic as Nabil was such a treat. But I was also really excited to check out Positano and, essentially, do nothing for 2 days before getting back to my oh-so-hectic-and-demanding life of 1 class per week in Amsterdam :)

Having survived an extremely long Circumvesuviana ride and very windy bus trip, I walked up to Hostel Brikette and was greeted by two lovely British guys and an amazing view! Positano was winning me over immediately. 

Image

The view from my hostel balcony!

Hostel Brikette is located at the top of Positano, which is a town on a hill.  The beach, of course, is located at the bottom. I took a series of secret staircases down and was amazed by how well-designed this precarious town perched on a hill seems to be. I arrived at the Fornillo beach to find the place pretty much deserted. There were maybe 5 other beach-goers present. So I got to read my book, stare at the ocean and take a scary amount of photos – aka my perfect afternoon! 

Image

The Il Fornillo beach I had to myself

From Il Fornillo, I took the path over to the main beach: Spiaggia Grande. This one had a few more people, but was still relatively quiet. I checked out the touristy shops and enjoyed a pizza sandwich under the shade of a palm tree.

Image

Spiaggia Grande

Following my day at the beach, I headed back up the hill to my hostel. I’m not a huge fan of ascending steep staircases, so I opted to follow the road which winds up and down the mountain (less steep but less direct). It took about an hour to get back to my hostel, but I was able to stop and take in Positano from lots of interesting angles. I even befriended a couple of old ladies from the States! 

Back at the hostel, I hung out on the balcony and met the few guests who were also staying there. Most hostels I’ve stayed at have felt pretty impersonal and nothing more than a place to sleep at. Hostel Brikette was really different. On my first night, I met 2 students from Melbourne, a social worker from Brisbane and another student from San Francisco.  The 4 of us, and one of the English guys who worked at the hostel, decided to go for dinner together. It was really nice to chat with new friends and spend a night together laughing over pasta, wine and lemon cake! After dinner, and for the rest of my stay, we all spent a lot of time chatting on the balcony and grabbing food together. It was a really nice feeling of community, something I don’t get that often in hostels.

Image

The next day, I headed back to the beach! There’s not a ton to do in Positano, besides beach-time and hiking (which I passed on), but that suited me fine. I took my time walking down, checking out little boutiques along the way. I went into one cafe that doubled as a decor store. They had an open kitchen in the back, where they prepared made-to-order organic food.  Tables lined one wall and the other was used to hold the beautiful homeware they sold. If my budget (and backpack space) had allowed it, I would have loved to buy some of the gorgeous bowls and table runners. But, I settled for a lemon ricotta cheese cake and tea! 

 

Image

 

I spent the rest of the day shopping around, reading and relaxing on the beach. Unfortunately, being a Saturday, bus-loads of other tourists had also descended on the beach. It wasn’t as relaxing as my first day and made me very glad I had opted to come in April, instead of the summer when the place gets swarmed. 

Image

This guy followed me on my walk back up the road to my hostel! He even waited while I stopped to take photos.

My last night ended with (another) pizza, though it wasn’t up to Napoli standards. It was nice to sit out on the balcony with new friends and take in the last of my sights of Positano and the sea. The next morning, I woke early and took a shuttle to the Napoli Airport and back to Amsterdam. It was sad to leave Italy, but also exciting to return “home” and get back into my routine. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to check out a few more amazing Italian cities and can’t wait to visit the rest on my list (Venice, Pisa, Florence, Verona, etc.) one day! 

Image

Ciao Positano!

More photos of Naples & Postiano can be found in this facebook album.

***

Shockingly, I don’t have any future travel plans at the moment. The plan is to stay in Amsterdam until my mom comes to visit/travel in late May. But, I’m still keeping busy! The day I got back from Italy, we hosted a friend from Berlin and today another friend from Sweden is coming to stay! I plan to do more local sightseeing – such as checking out all the museums (for free with my MuseumKaart) and beautiful parks. This local touring started off well with yesterday’s visit to the Amsterdam Zoo and through an Easter fair. There’s also the gorgeous tulips at Keukenhof and King’s Day on April 26th!

So while I might not be crossing country borders, I plan to be crossing a lot of things off my Amsterdam to-do list in the next month! 

 

 

When in Rome!

After my first taste of Italy back in February, I decided to check out more of the south with my wonderful friend, Nabil. I started off with 5 great days in the bustling and beautiful Roma!

***

I arrived in Rome 2 days before Nabil, and wanting to save the big sights for us to do together, I headed outside the city to Ostia Antica on my first day. Ostia Antica is a Roman ruins site from 2-6 A.D. (according to the poorly written info signs placed around the area). It’s very similar to Pompeii and even has its own amphitheatre. I was pretty blown away by Ostia Antica; it was like an ancient Roman playground! So many of the ruins were still in tact and visitors were free to climb all over them and explore. The best part was after walking past the few school groups, I pretty much had the whole place to myself!

Image

Ostia Antica

 

Image

This part was so empty, I was able to use the 10-sec timer on my camera, set it on a pillar & take this “selfie”

The next day I decided to check out some ruins closer to Rome. I walked down Via Nazionale, taking the time to check out clothing stores, see a National Geographic exhibit at the art museum, and, of course, get gelato. At the end of the street I found Il Vitorriano and more ruins. It was so cool to see these giant pillars and crumbling walls just in the middle of a busy city square.

Image

Once Nabil joined me, we set off straight away to the most famous sight in Rome: the Colosseum! I had caught a view of it from the balconies of Il Vittoriano, but the structure up close was much more impressive. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait in a massive line to get in. Once inside, I think we were both pretty amazed to be walking around such an iconic place. But, to be honest, it wasn’t as spectacular as I thought it was going to be.  I imagined it a lot bigger, and maybe with a gladiator or two ;)

Image

Nabil at the Colosseum!

Image

Pretty cool…minus the scaffolding!

Image

Don’t get me wrong, the Colosseum is still a must-see….it just gets a little more hype than it deserves.

Our Colosseum tickets also got us into the Roman Forum & Palantine Hill ruins next door. We walked over and had a great time exploring gardens and walking around some really cool pillars and archways. One of our best finds was an orange tree grove that smelt delicious (we were pretty hungry by then). The Forum was surprisingly empty, so again it felt like we had this bit of history all to ourselves. I think I preferred it to the Colosseum!

Image

If it wasn’t clear yet, I’m a really big fan of columns!

The next morning we managed to find the perfect North American breakfast. It was hands-down the best breakfast I’ve had in months and such a surprise to find in Rome. The best parts were the chocolate chip pancakes with butter rum syrup, authentic sausage and fresh squeezed red orange juice!

Image

YUM!

Heading off to more sights, we stopped at the Spanish Steps (of Roman Holiday fame). Luckily, our route spat us out at the top of the steps, so we only needed to bypass tourists and street vendors on the way down, instead of up. Apparently, they are the widest steps in Europe!

Image

The steps lead us to….the Trevi Fountain! The Lizzie McGuire movie scene (where she throws in her penny, and then meets an Italian pop star) was the first thing that came to mind. The fountain was my favourite sight in Rome. It was so exciting to come around the corner and see so many people bustling around this GIANT fountain. It’s way bigger than I thought it would be and all of the statues are way more intricate and impressive. Nabil and I gleefully threw our lucky pennies into the water! 1 penny means you will come back to Rome, 2 pennies mean you will find love in the eternal city.

Image

Make a wish!

But our greatest find in Rome came right after Trevi. We had read about this gelato place hidden around the corner from the fountain. After passing the street a few times, we finally stumbled into San Crispino. The gelato was homemade, organic and extremely unique. We both chose Seville Orange and Caramel Meringue as our flavours.

And then we had our first bites….I have never been literally brought to tears over food, until now. This was, without a doubt, the best gelato I have ever tasted. It was like you were actually eating oranges! We couldn’t stop exclaiming about how good the gelato was, right down until the last melted morsel had been licked up. We spent the rest of the day pitying tourists who were obviously eating less superior gelato and comparing every good thing to Seville Orange-level amazing (“but is it as good as Seville Orange?”).

Image

Heaven in a cup!

Next sight: the Pantheon! The building from outside was impressive but the ceiling inside was even cooler! It was also a great opportunity for us to rest our legs by taking a seat and just craning our necks to take in the place.

Image

We popped into a few more churches, strolled through some piazzas, got gelato (again) and ended up in this tiny pizza place that was home to “arguably the best pizza in Rome” (according to our guidebook). It was really cool to see the pizzas being prepared and cooked right in front of us. Plus, it set us up for our coming pizza-tour through Naples!

Image

Image

The owner insisted Nabil take a photo of him and I. Later, he pinched my cheeks. And then when we said no to dessert, he said it was because I was sweet enough. I guess my 2nd penny worked: I found my Italian lover!

Our last day in Rome was mainly consumed with a long and crowded, yet breathtaking and informative, tour of the Vatican. I was mainly blown away with how much there was to see….and by how many people were there to see it! We got to see the extensive art collection in the Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. To be honest, the Sistine Chapel was not as awesome as I thought it would be.  It came pretty late in the tour and was ruined by the hoards of people, many of whom were being told off for talking or trying to take photos. I personally thought a lot of the other parts were more impressive – like the Raphael rooms and St Peter’s Basilica.

Image

The paintings by Raphael were some of the most impressive works

Image

Apparently the Acorn family used to birth all of the popes, so there are acorns everywhere!

Image

My favourite room was the geography room! There were really old and detailed maps along the walls and the ceiling was insanely ornate.

Image

Image

Holy light shining through St. Peter’s Basilica

Image

Sending mail from the smallest country in the world!

Image

St. Peter’s Square with a nun; does it get more Vatican than that?

After an exhausting 3+ hours in Vatican City we relaxed with delicious sandwiches, another round of gelato and a nap! That afternoon we walked across the river and got to see more ruins, more churches and an island in the middle of the Tiber. The coolest part about Rome is that it manages to be a modern, functioning city that just happens to house all of these awesome ancient relics. As a local, you could be walking to work and just happen to pass an insanely well-preserved piece of history – how cool!

Image

Ciao Roma! Arrivederci!

After Rome we headed south for 3 days in Napoli and then I went solo for 2 days along the Amalfi Coast. Next post will wrap up that leg of the trip with a strong emphasis on food & coastal views :)

More photos from Rome can be seen in this facebook album.

*****

Side note: I came across this amazing comic about young women not letting fear stop them from travelling – a fact I hugely advocate for. Because in this “big scary world full of strangers”, I have been helped way more times than I been hurt. 

Ou est le fromage!?!

5 days adventuring through Switzerland and France which, actually, had very little to do with finding cheese :)

********

Our Swiss adventure started off pretty rocky: we originally planned to take the train to Bern and spend our first night there.  Unfortunately, train tickets ended up being over $100 instead of the $26 as advertised online. We spent the better part of the day trying to find alternative transit, trying to cancel our Bern hostel, trying to find a new hostel in Geneva and trying not to lose our minds! It was stressful, but we eventually booked an overpriced closet room in a hotel in Old Town.

Image

Clearly a rough start to our Swiss adventures

After dropping off our bags and breathing a big sigh of relief, we headed back to the lake to check out Geneva’s icon: the Jet d’Eau. Basically, it’s an oversized water spout. But, it was pretty remarkable up close and wonderful to sit out on the lake and enjoy the sun. Next we walked up to St. Pierre Cathedral, which was supposed to be the perfect background for a jumping photo (where tourists jump in front of monuments….sometimes it looks cool). Unfortunately, Gabby took an astonishing eighteen (18!) photos before capturing Carlie and I in mid-air. It was hilarious & exhausting!

Image

Jet d’Eau

Image

St Pierre’s Cathedral

The next day we set off to visit the United Nations located in Geneva. We saw the Broken Chair, a giant three-legged chair built in honour of landmine victims. We walked around the grounds, stopped in at the Red Cross Museum and then headed back into town for lunch.

Image

The Broken Chair

Image

The United Nations!

After lunch, we stopped at a department store for some authentic, but cheap, Swiss chocolate. The place was swarming with tourists – chocolate buying has never been more stressful! We took our new purchases to the “bohemian neighbourhood” of Carouge, which ended up being pretty deserted. Last on our Geneva tourist list: visit the reformation wall! This giant wall holds the statues of 4 guys who reformed Europe….or something (we didn’t do much research on it). We did, however, watch some fearless young boys climb all over the statue and leap off of it!

Image

LEAPING off the wall!

Our time in Geneva ended with a yummy chicken dinner and views from Old Town. The next morning, we set off for the beautiful French town of Annecy!

Image

Bienvenue a Annecy!

Image

The oldest building in Annecy (built in 1132)

And thank goodness we did! Annecy absolutely made the trip! Annecy is home to a stunning lake, picturesque French Alps, an adorable little Old Town, tons of gelato shops and way better prices than Switzerland. I can’t recommend a visit to Annecy enough! We were so happy to arrive in France and be greeted by the Old Town’s Sunday market. The streets were buzzing and we dug into a full chicken and potatoes with our fingers while sitting on a bench with the mountains and water behind us :)

Image

Rues de la Vieille Ville

Wanting to get closer to the Alps, we decided to try our luck at hitch-hiking up Mt. Semnoz. We got many an apologetic head shake until finally, an older Vietnamese guy pulled over and we jumped in! With our shaky French and his shaky English, we managed a very windy 20 minute car ride straight up the mountain. When we got out, the scenery had gone from road and trees to snow and ice! It was insane! We walked out along the peak to try and get a better view, while sliding in our inappropriate footwear and watching the snow bunnies of Annecy do their thing down the mountain.

Image

Trying our best to get up the mountain

Image

Ice Ice Baby! At the top of Mt Semnoz!

Speaking of down the mountain, we confronted two French women by their car and basically begged for a lift back down. They were super kind and happy to struggle through broken French conversations with us. As unimpressive as my French skills are, it was nice to have the opportunity to try them out in a very French town.

Back at sea level, we fulfilled Gabby’s boat fantasies and went paddle-boating! I was a little scared about jumping into the boat – because if anyone is falling off of a paddle boat, it’s me – but we managed okay. We even had the sore thighs to show for it! The rest of the day was walking through parks and the cobble-stone streets of Old Town, eating gelato (twice) and finishing the night with cheese fondue (delicious, but you can only have so much melted cheese and bread in one sitting).

Image

I’M ON A (paddle) BOAT!

Image

Ou est le fromage? Ici!

Day 2 in Annecy started with a visit (or two) to the bakery. It felt very authentic to visit a French bakery first thing in the morning while the rest of the town was still waking up. We took our treats up to the basilica on the hill and enjoyed the view over the lake. We followed our view back down to the water and spent a few sun-drenched hours walking along the sea wall (lake wall?) where we made new friends (bunnies, dogs & swans included!) and took too many photos.

Image

Heading up to the basilica

Image

Image

Carlie befriending the swans of Annecy

After lunch and more time admiring the views, we had to leave Annecy :(

Image

Au revoir Annecy!

We picked up our bags and boarded a bus back to Geneva. We spent our last night on the Swiss-French border, at a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Restaurants were closed, or non-existent, so Gabby and I settled on vending machine soup for a late dinner. The next day we picked up lunch from the grocery store, spent our last Swiss francs on more chocolate and made our way back to the airport and back to our home.

Image

Amen! Annecy over Geneva any day!

After 5 days in Switzerland/France and a whirlwind day and a half back home in Amsterdam, I am off to Rome tomorrow! Ciao :)

27 Things I Discovered in Budapest

Image

Standing atop Castle Hill admiring Chain Bridge & parliament

1. WizzAir (the company we flew with) has entered a new level of cheap by classifying between small and large cabin bags (you pay for the large ones). We stressed for a good 10 minutes and creatively side-stepped our way past the gate attendant. No fees for us! 

Image

Budapest, here we come!

2. Forint (Hungarian currency) is fun! I’ve never seen thousands of dollars in my wallet or been happy to pay 200 dollars for a pastry.

3. Shuttle buses will leave without you. And waiting at the airport for 2 hours on an empty stomach and little sleep is not fun.

4. Hostels can be gorgeous! Even ones called “Hipster Hostel” can enchant with loft-style bedrooms, inner courtyards, creepy old school elevators and a pet bunny! 

Image

Hipster Hostel!

5. Walking from Pest to Buda (yes, they are two separate areas) in the sun is breathtaking. The architecture of Budapest is beautiful and there is no better way to see it than walking over the Danube River.

Image

6. Hungarian baths are wonderful. A tad overpriced, but wonderful. We visited the Gellert Baths and managed to spend 3 hours in baths of various temperatures with mainly elderly Hungarians. We even did a few seconds in the world’s hottest sauna and coldest chill pool! 

Image

The Gellert Baths

7. There is no shame in dessert before dinner. 

8. Tourist traps are alive and well in Budapest. For example: the duo outside of the “authentic” Hungarian restaurant who convinced us to dine at their establishment. Feeling conned, we still managed to enjoy a bottle of wine and the big meat platter.

Image

Cheers to tourist restaurants!

9. Burger King serves Belgian waffles in Budapest. And they had to be tried. 

Image

The BK Belgian Waffle – actually kind of tasty

10. The Great Market is a super cool indoor market home to souvenir stalls, delicious strawberries, goulash in a bread bowl and Hungarian pizza! 

Image

Hungarian “pizza” = deep fried bread with toppings

11. Chain Bridge is worth all of the hype. And, not so fun fact: the architect of the bridge was convinced it was perfect, until it was pointed out that the lions were missing tongues. So, he killed himself.

Image

Chain Bridge selfie!

Image

Chain Bridge

12. Funiculars are usually the best (based on my funicular experience in Italy). But sometimes, they’re overpriced, and you have to walk up Castle Hill.

13. But the walk is so worth it! Fisherman’s Bastion, the ruins of Buda Castle and Matthias Church are beautiful and show off a great view of the river and Parliament. 

Image

Image

Image

14. A “hang” is a tortoise shell shaped instrument that plays the music of the gods. When combined with guitar and violin, it’s pretty much impossible not to fall in love and buy the album! 

Image

Good music, good company & beautiful setting

15. Another tourist trap: the cafe at the bottom of the hill that serves 3 chicken wings for 8 euro and tries to add items you didn’t order to the bill.

16. If I thought Castle Hill was a climb, I had no idea until I reached Gellert Hill. Luckily, these night time views were even better! 

Image

Night time views of the Danube

17. The yummiest thing I ate in Budapest was a duck burger. I’m not great with traditional Hungarian food.

Image

Yummiest duck burger!

18. Budapest plays host to a few ruin bars: bars that are located in abandoned buildings. We visited Szimpla – a huge space covered in graffiti and a foosball table where Steph dominated! 

Image

Szimpla!

19. March 15th is a national holiday in Hungary! This meant we got to see a big group of people with a lot of Hungarian flags, hear from a scary speech-maker, watch Hungarian dancing and join the crowds shopping the stalls on Castle Hill.

Image

Feeding the masses for a Hungarian holiday

20. St Stephen’s Basilica is also worth the hype.

Image

St. Stephen’s Basilica

21. Sometimes a cold rainy day with a sick friend is best spent inside a coffee shop! 

22. The metro escalators are FAST! Like gear up, jump on and grip the handle kind of fast.

23. The caves in Buda are very far away from our hostel in Pest. 

24. The caves in Buda are cool, but maybe not worth the long hype.

Image

Buda caves

25. Margaret Island, an island in the middle of the Danube River, does not serve food, much to our displeasure. 

Image

Walking through the wind to Margaret Island

26. Andrassy Avenue is a pretty cool street for shopping, statues and sights. It would have been cooler in nicer weather, but Heroes Square was still pretty awesome! 

Image

Parliament

Image

Heroes Square

27. Budapest was my first foray into Eastern Europe and it was a wonderful surprise. The city was gorgeous, with unreal architecture, and a weekend spent with good girlfriends made it that much better! Thanks for an amazing trip! 

Image

Stephanie & Candy practising for their girl band debut!

Image

First night in Budapest

Image

This might be true :)

And now: a week off to actually sleep in my own bed, write an exam and prepare for Switzerland at the end of the month!

 

Live. Love. London.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to return to one of my favourite cities: London, England! As soon as the plane (which was only in the air for 40 mins!) touched down, I got a crazy sense of coming home. I’ve often said that London is a city I could live in, and this trip only made me want to move there that much sooner!

***

My original purpose in planning this UK trip was to volunteer at Free The Children’s first We Day outside of North America. This would complete my We Day hat trick: attended the first ever We Day in Toronto (2007), worked at the first We Day in the States (2013) and volunteered at the first We Day UK (2014).

The show was amazing! I volunteered as a Crowd Pumper, so I basically got to cheer and dance while having a great view of the stage.  I was most excited to see HRH Prince Harry (!!!) speaking, but was more blown away by the inspirational and well-spoken Malala Yousafzai (who didn’t even use her teleprompter), parolympian Martine Wright (who competed in London 2 years after losing her legs) and the always-impressive Spencer West. Of course, dancing with new friends to Ellie Goulding wasn’t too bad either :)

017

My future husband – aka HRH Prince Harry!

028

Malala Yousafzai – pure inspiration!

After We Day wrapped up, I met up with my good friend Andrea, who is currently on exchange in Sweden. We set out for the exhilarating, yet continually disappointing, Book of Mormon lottery – you put your name in a giant spinning drum and 2 hours before showtime, they give out 21 front row seats for only 20 pounds! It’s exciting, standing in the crowd and clapping for the lucky few who hear their names called. But it’s also pretty disappointing to walk away empty handed.

Fingers crossed! Waiting (and losing) at the BOM lottery

Fingers crossed! Waiting (and losing) at the BOM lottery

After losing the lottery, we tried at a few discount theatre ticket shops but decided on a cheap dinner and early night.  Unfortunately, our cheap dinner didn’t turn out too good (I paid 8 pounds for 2 chicken wings and a waffle) and neither did our early night. At the last moment we decided to buy tickets to Once, which were upgraded when we got to the theatre!

Trying to look happy about our mediocre dinner

Trying to look happy about our mediocre dinner

The next morning, still on a theatre-rush, Andrea and I headed to the Wicked box office for student tickets to that night’s performance. Tickets in hand, we walked over a few blocks to Buckingham Palace’s famed Changing of the Guard…

…which was an overrated let down! I have never seen more tourists crammed into an area for, what boiled down to, a few marching bands. Regardless of where you stood, you could only have visibility for a portion of the ceremony. The best part was the bad-ass cop on horseback who had crowd control down to an art form.  I can’t believe that gong show goes on every other day (every day in the summer)!

117

The real star of the Changing of the Guard

145

Tourists suck

159

Yup, we were there!

Next we followed in the tourist tracks and joined a free walking tour. It was a beautiful day for it – but our attention span wasn’t quite there. We tuned out most of the stories and ended up ditching our group for birds in the park about halfway through the tour.

208

The guards at St. James Palace come right up to you on their march!

234

The guy next to us was throwing his bread in the air where the birds would fly, hover & catch it mid-air!

We continued on our own “walking tour” heading up to parliament, Big Ben & Westminster Abbey before dragging our sore feet through some stores on the way to dinner.  After enjoying some Wok to Walk, we jumped on the tube and got in line at the Apollo Vic Theatre to see WICKED!

287

Pretty sure I take this exact same photo every time I come to London

304

Andrea enjoying the legendary Wok to Walk

This was my 3rd time seeing Wicked (2nd time in London – rough life, I know), but it still gives me chills every time. I notice new details and have to restrain myself from joining in on the songs. Our Elphaba was phenomenal and in addition to her incredible voice, had plans to run a marathon in April! To be that talented!

Best show ever!

Best show ever!

Our final day in London started off with delicious brunch with a familiar face: my (second? removed? who knows?) cousin Rachel! Rachel, her husband and her adorable dog just moved back to London after spending a few years in Brazil. It was nice to see some family and really nice to enjoy yummy brunch out in the sun.

Brunching with Rachel & Lorenzo!

Brunching with Rachel & Lorenzo!

After food, we headed to the train station. On the way we walked past St. Mary’s Hospital (where Prince George was born!) and a market on houseboats (which seems like something Amsterdam should be doing!).

325

The Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s Hospital where Prince George was born!

327

Checking out the used books on the house boat book store

We took the train to Windsor Castle and spent a good part of the day exploring the grounds, checking out the state rooms and trying to guess where the Queen might be.

334

Heading into Windsor Castle

348

This flag means the Queen is home!

360

Family crests of British soldiers

The castle was pretty spectacular, and the whole town was really cute. There were lots of little shops including a discount bookstore and some overrated award-winning ice cream.  By late afternoon, we were ready to head back to London.

368

400

Before we realized what a let down the ice cream would be!

377

Windsor’s gardens

Though we didn’t actually reach London for a few hours thanks to lots of train delays.  Luckily, we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be. We stumbled across an Indian buffet (spicy, yet delicious), purchased some postcards and headed back to our hostel.

Our few days in London flew by pretty fast: Andrea was off Sunday night and I took a bus to the airport Monday morning.  We saw a lot, but there is so much of London and the UK left to discover. I found myself constantly saying how I would see that thing and go to that place when I (eventually) live in London. I will definitely be returning to London – in fact, as soon as I got home I emailed my mom with plans to start our trip there in May. So I might get a few more lovely London days in May and hopefully some lovely London months in the not-so-distant future!

****

And tomorrow morning – off to Budapest, Hungary!

Belgium in Bad Weather

…and in photos! Pictures from my rainy 4-day whirlwind tour through the land of waffles, beer, chocolate & gorgeous buildings!

002

Carlie blissfully enjoying our first Belgian frites!

012

First spot of Grand Place in Brussels!

011

Carlie getting her 15mins of fame: getting interviewed about Italy while in Belgium!

024

On to our next Belgian activity: waffles!

033

Belgian chocolates! In the shape of the famous Mannekin Pis and in assorted flavours!

034

The famed Mannekin Pis… #letdown

038

The way cooler Mannekin Pis, in my opinion

059

Belgium Day 2 began by taking the train to Mons to see a familiar face! Hi Fidel!

061

The gorgeous little town of Mons

062

#trainlife
I spent a fair amount of time waiting for & riding trains around this little country

063

Public piano in the Brussels Midi train station – genius!

074

The Belfort in Bruges

079

Cute houses in the medieval city of Bruges

104

Watching the magic happen at Choco-story, a chocolate museum that ended with free samples :)

124

Bruges by night

109

Pearls of wisdom from the streets of Brugge

136

Fancy dinner: croquettes & champagne!

171

Wandering the graffiti streets of Gent

207

The view of Gent from the Gravensteen Castle

227

Gravensteen Castle!

255

The view from my hostel room in Ghent. Best location ever!

283

Arriving at the gorgeous Antwerpen Central Station!

303

Tigers lounging at the Antwerp Zoo. Zoos are a bit of a moral debate for me but Antwerp’s is one of the oldest in the world, the sun was shining & the cute animals were calling!

327

The giraffes I didn’t get to see in southern Africa last summer!

346

And my favourite: the gorillas! This guy sat right next to the glass looking very pensive.

381

More kick-ass graffiti!

384

First sighting of Antwerpen’s gorgeous cathedral.

398

Antwerp from the port

4 days took me through Brussels, Mons, Bruges, Gent and Antwerp! The weekend was pretty grey and rainy, but that’s springtime travel for you! I loved walking the crooked cobblestone streets and appreciating all of the castles, churches and cathedrals that tower over these picturesque cities. I also didn’t mind indulging in a few waffles and chocolate samples along the way! If I were to return to Belgium, I think I would spend more time in the little towns or the more medieval ones (like Brugge) and visit the independent shops that line the stone streets.

*Note: the French/Dutch multilingualism of Belgium results in interchangeable names for the cities above (i.e. Brussels/Bruxelles, Gent/Ghent, Bruges/Brugge and Antwerp/Antwerpen)

Coming up next: a weekend in London for We Day & sightseeing with Andrea!

Ciao Milano!

Milan: a city of beautifully crafted buildings, amazing views, tons of adorable dogs & way too much delicious food!

****

Day 1:

We arrived in Milan on a gloomy Thursday after quite the trek from our place in Amsterdam (walk, taxi, bus, plane, other bus, metro, walk). To escape our equally gloomy accommodation (tip: don’t book the Zebra Hostel) we walked up the street to Willy’s for our first taste of authentic Italian food.

Off to Italy!

Off to Italy!

Needless to say we were a little surprised by some of the uniquely Italian parts of this restaurant: they charge for water (tap water doesn’t seem to be an option), they charge for the “free” bread you receive at the beginning of meals and THE PORTIONS ARE ENORMOUS!

Biggest. Pizza. Known. To. Man.

Biggest. Pizza. Known. To. Man.

Could we have any more carbs on this table?

Could we have any more carbs on this table?

After filling ourselves to the rim with lunch, we did the only sensible thing: added gelato! Gelato in Milan is sweet, homemade, delicious and not nearly as expensive as I thought it might be.

Yum!

Yum!

We trekked over to Milan’s pride & joy: the Duomo. A fairly impressive church, Duomo sits in a central square of Milan’s shopping area. We also checked out the Galleria Emanuelle (gorgeous and kept us out of the rain, but extremely unaffordable) and Carlie made some new friends!

Carlie and her new friends!

Carlie and her new friends!

Duomo

Duomo

We finished up the day with leftovers and boardgames back at our hostel. After a long day of rain and travel, we happily hit the hay by 9!

Day 2:

Valentine’s Day! And the only day with sun!

We decided to take advantage of the bright skies and romance in the air with a day trip to Lake Como (where George Clooney has a house!). We took a train to Varenna, a cute little lakeside town, where we marvelled at the water, mountains and cute little homes before taking a ferry over to Bellagio.

Welcome to Varenna!

Welcome to Varenna!

Ferry boat views

Ferry boat views

Bellagio was also home to amazing mountain and coastal views, but with the added bonus of sloping cobblestone streets where we found a cute little family restaurant to lunch at. After wobbling back down those sloping stairs, we hopped on another ferry to the bigger town of Como.

The steps of Bellagio

The steps of Bellagio

Getting lost on the streets of Como felt worlds away from the busy, rainy streets of Milan. We discovered cute little stores, grand churches and that every other resident has an adorable dog! Right before our train ride back to the city, we took the funicular up to the top of the mountain just in time to catch the sunset. Only complaint of the day was not running into George and receiving an invite to stay at his house!

Beautiful church in Como

Beautiful church in Como

The FUNicular!

The FUNicular!

Sun setting over Lake Como

Sun setting over Lake Como

Back in the city we decided to try out a new pasta place that, while delicious, brought us a bottle of wine we didn’t order. We spent most of the meal fearing the worse, since you pay for everything at restaurants (including a cover charge for sitting!), but turns out, we didn’t need to worry. The wine was only 5 euro!

Day 3:

Overcast, but not raining, day 3 saw us exploring some of Milan’s more hidden gems. We started with the Papiniano flea market that opens every Saturday. The market was HUGE, literally stalls as far as the eye can see. Most of the stalls were clothing, where respectable Milanese women were digging through piles and elbowing each other for the first grab at a 3 euro sweater. We also found some food stalls and were very tempted to bring bags of cheap produce back to Amsterdam.

Admiring the food stalls at Papiniano

Admiring the food stalls at Papiniano

We stopped at a cafe for lunch and then carried on to a random natural science museum that Steph found…that actually turned out to be pretty cool! There were lots of interactive components and whole hangars filled with boats, planes and trains. We managed to spend a good 2 hours there before we got museum-ed out and had to listen to our daily gelato calling our names.

Only the coolest museums have ornate balconies

Only the coolest museums have ornate balconies

After the sugar fix, we joined the crowds at the Santa Maria della Grazie church for the 5:00pm viewing of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The whole process was very orderly: you buy tickets online beforehand and are corralled into different rooms where the doors shut behind you before the next doors open. Finally, we got our 15 minutes with the painting and I was pretty impressed (unlike the overhyped postage stamp that is the Mona Lisa). The painting is directly on the church wall, bigger than life-sized and has undergone years of deterioration, vandalism, war and careful restoration.

Home of the Last Supper

Home of the Last Supper

Spot the difference!

Spot the difference!

We ended the night back at Willy’s with much more sensible orders of pasta, instead of giant pizzas.

Seafood pasta - yum!

Seafood pasta – yum!

Final day:

Our last day in Milan started with a visit to the Castello Sforzesco, which honestly turned out to be a bit of a let down. The castle looked cool, but we quickly discovered that there were only mini-museums to view and not even all of those were open. I was hoping for some grand rooms decked out in royal furnishings, but instead we just saw a lot of art.

Carlie finding an Asian wedding outside of the castle!

Carlie finding an Asian wedding outside of the castle!

We recharged at a nearby cafe, where Carlie taught us, and the wait staff, how to make paper cranes! Unfortunately, our waiter ripped his crane, but the 3 remaining ones were proudly put into the cafe’s display case.

After lunch, we walked along the shopping strip and poked our noses into a few places. Finding a tiny crepe place was probably the best purchase of the day – absolutely delicious! We followed the crepes up with coffee and tea at a quaint little Italian cafe.

Best crepes ever!

Best crepes ever!

The rain must have finally gotten to us, because on our search for a dinner spot, we decided to risk it and try AYCE sushi! Apparently, Japanese/Asian food is pretty popular in Milan. Unfortunately, it pales in comparison to Vancouver, or even Toronto, sushi. I didn’t mind it too much, as it satisfied my Asian food craving, but I don’t think we’ll be repeating that mistake any time soon.

The next morning we said goodbye to a very rainy Milan at 4 in the morning. After another long trek, I was napping in my own, much more comfortable, bed by 1pm.

***

Grazie Milano, for a lovely trip! Next weekend, Belgium!

Arriving in Amsterdam!

I’ve officially been living in Amsterdam for a whole week!

024

<3

And I love it so far! The city is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve spent a good chunk of everyday walking along the canals and admiring all of the skinny houses while trying not to get run over by the racing bikes.  Luckily, the Dutch weather gods have been nice so far and it’s barely rained (though that’s supposed to change soon).

021

Gabby enjoying some food at the Albert Cuyp Market

014

Carlie showing off her Dutch pride

I arrived last Wednesday and moved into my new apartment. Technically it’s a “waterfront” apartment, but the water is an industrial pier and our apartment is a glorified shipping container.  Other negatives: the extremely sparse kitchen and frightening shower that soaks the entire bathroom with each use.  Luckily, the place itself is pretty large, the rooms are clean, our kitchen came fully stocked and my flatmates are awesome :) I’m living with two girls, a Canadian and a Kiwi. They are both lovely and excited to explore Amsterdam and the rest of Europe.

021

Our kitchen…note the lack of oven and full-sized fridge

020

Happy Birthday Carlie! Enjoying pizza on our first night, which happened to be Carlie’s birthday!

Unfortunately, I didn’t register for the official international student intro week (must have missed that email) but neither did one of my flatmates, so we took the first few days to do our own introduction! We got acquainted with the city centre, found our classrooms, figured out transportation and visited the Anne Frank Huis.

034

The Anne Frank Huis

The Anne Frank Huis was an incredible experience – very moving to actually be in the rooms that the Frank family lived in for over a year. To walk the steep stairs to their attic, touch the bookshelf that hid their entrance and see their slim view of the outside world through a window made their experience come to life. One part that really stuck with me was a video interview with Miep Gies, one of the ladies who assisted the family in hiding and collected the pages of Anne’s diary when the family was discovered.  In the interview, she explains how Mr. Frank asked her if she wanted to help the Franks hide.  Her answer: of course, yes. That much certainty and courage for such a dangerous task is almost unthinkable and extremely impressive.

056

The fanciest H&M. Also, 1 of 3 H&Ms on this street!

059

Centraal Station!

These last few days also included a visit to IKEA (first time for my Kiwi flatmate), impromptu birthday celebration of pizza and waffles, cooking adventures, orientations, strolling through markets, a potluck dinner in our apartment complex and the reason I’m actually here: going to class! The semester is a little strange here, but at the moment I only have two classes. They’re both pretty interesting and seem to be off to a good start.

018

My room before….

031

…and my room after! Much nicer with some homey touches including a flower vase & candles on my desk.

And for the secret reason I’m here: travelling!  So far I’ve got two trips booked (and many more in the works). Next week, my flatmate and I are spending 5 days in Milan, Italy! And then in March, I’m meeting up with a fellow UBC-er in London where I’ll be volunteering at We Day UK! So excited to keep booking flights and discovering the rest of Europe while falling deeper in love with my new Dutch home :)

028

Doei! Dank u wel! (The only Dutch I know…)

The last of Iceland

Before I move onto my new adventure in Amsterdam (!!!), I wanted to finish off with a few last photos of Iceland. I was able to go on an amazing tour of Iceland’s south coast, take in spectacular views of Reykjavik and go on two freezing and failed Northern Lights tours in my last few days.

Without further ado:

224

Walking behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. There was a path to walk behind the falls that included stairs and then an impromptu rock climb, mud slide and ice crossing.

235

The front of the Seljalandsfoss waterfalls

198

The famous Icelandic horses! (Not ponies, that’s offensive)

160

60 metre tall Skogafoss waterfalls!

156

Another view of Skogafoss! You could walk right up to the bottom of the falls!

140

The waves at Reynisfjara were so powerful! And the wind was so crazy, we had to walk backwards or else get pebbles to the face.

131

Reynisfjara, famous for its black sand beach, is also home to a wicked cave!

086

The Solheimajokull glacier!

072

Glacier selfie! #onlyiniceland

054

More from the gorgeous glacier we got to explore

026

Sunset over Reykjavik. My view from the wraparound deck of the Perlan building.

012

More of Reykjavik

005

Lastly, my best shot of the “Northern Lights”. Needless to say, the two tours I attended on a jam-packed bus where I huddled with strangers in the freezing cold till 1am, did not pay off….Maybe next time?

 

 

 

Gullfoss, Geysir & Gorgeous landscapes

On my 3rd day in Iceland, I went on a tour of the Golden Circle with Reykjavik Excursions. This six hour journey took me (and a packed bus full of tourists) to Thingvellir National Park, a hot spring hot spot home to the famous Geysir and the astounding Gullfoss waterfalls.

Unfortunately, the bad weather kept up and we were met with dark clouds and rain for most of the day. At our final stop at Gullfoss, Mother Nature decided to have even more fun by throwing some snow and freezing wind our way. It must have been comical to see a huge herd of people covered in white fluff and shielding their faces on the way back to the bus.

021

Overlooking Thingvellir National Park

Image

The hot spring Strokkur goes off every 7-10 minutes, much to the delight of us tourists

Image

Little Geysir – bubbly but not active

Image

Strokkur going off again!

Image

The famous Geysir

Image

Hot spring Haeta

Image

Gullfoss

Image

Gullfoss, from another angle

102

The cold at Gullfoss was beginning to set in…

The famed Northern Lights have still been avoiding me. I’ve been scheduled to see them every night since I’ve arrived but each day my tour gets cancelled due to crap weather. Only 2 nights left for things to hopefully turn around! Besides that, my remaining Iceland itinerary includes a walk up to the viewing deck of Perlan and a tour of Iceland’s southern coast.