Bulgaria

Bank holidays while living in London mean only thing… travel time! For the May Day bank holiday I went to explore Bulgaria with Jess and Elisa.

After a very late night flight, we exited the airport to find around 50 people who were all on our flight waiting for taxis… and there were none. After a minute or so a few taxis rolled up, which were quickly snapped up by a few people. Then after another few minutes, more started coming, and then even more. At that point we realised they must all just be parked elsewhere… and it didn’t matter much to us as we managed to swipe one and get on our way. As luck would have it, our driver didn’t speak English. After some faffing about we managed to communicate where we wanted to go and got there safely, with Coolio’s Gansta’s Paradise as out soundtrack. 

After arrival and a sleep in, we attempted to pay for our accommodation before heading out to explore the city. This again proved difficult due to a lack of English and some confusion of the amount we owed. Once we got that sorted (which required a phone call to the manger) we got the metro into town and found ourselves a breakfast spot. It just so happens we managed to find what was probably Sofia’s most popular hipster café, complete with funky music and flat whites.

After breakfast we wandered the city, exploring the sites and trying to figure out what the different buildings were. At one point during our wanderings, we were sitting enjoying a coffee and saw what looked like football fans causing some trouble and letting off fire crackers. As we continued exploring the city we kept hearing the fire crackers but figured it was all pretty harmless. As we made our way to checkout the Sofia markets and get some food before an evening walking tour, we came across a massive group of what we thought were football fans earlier, apparently beginning some kind of demonstration. They were all kitted out in blue and white, with flags of the same colour and a large banner. They were being escorted by police and letting off blue flares and firecrackers. One they started marching, they also started chanting and doing Nazi salutes. At this point we realised all of them were skinheads, and figured they must be some sort of extreme Nationalists (a bit of a thing currently in Eastern Europe) . Being sensible young women, we decided we were better off far away from where they were so continued on our way. 5 minutes later we walked past the cities Mosque, to find it surrounded by police fully kitted out in Riot gear….After finding ourselves a very delicious but late lunch/early dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant, we made out way to join a walking tour. Enroute to the walking tour, and all day in fact, I couldn’t help but notice all the Roma and Gypsies. Bulgaria is the first European country where there have been a lot of them so I found it really fascinating.

Our walking tour was very enjoyable and informative, and helped us understand more about the long history of Bulgaria and Sofia. It was also a great opportunity to ask our guide about the demonstration we have seen earlier. Turns out they were football fans, as there was a local derby match that evening. However, also turns out Bulgarian football supporters are all Neo-Nazi, skinhead nationalists. Our guide gave us a very serious and sombre warning to stay well away from them, avoid all interactions, and even suggested being back at our accommodation before the game finished at 11pm to avoid all travel.

After our tour, we went and had a few drinks at what appeared to be British stag do central, before wisely being home by 11pm.

Our second day we spent the day exploring more of the country. After an early start, we drove up into the mountains south of Sofia to visit the Rila Monastery which was credited with preserving the language, arts and culture of Bulgaria during the 500 years of Ottoman rule. Exploring the Monastery up in the clouds and the rain was almost mystical, and the frescoes on the Orthodox church were truly stunning.

After a quick pit stop for lunch and a nap in the car we made it to Plovdiv. Plovdiv as a settlement is over 6000 years old, and interestingly, over the last 50 years or so, Roman ruins have been discovered and dug up right in the middle of the city. We wandered the city with our guide, and explored the old town, before making our way back to Sofia. After dinner, drinks, hookah and a Taxi scam attempt, we made it safely back to our apartment to have a nice sleep in before our flight back to London.

Photo credits to my travel pals, Jess and Elisa. You can check out Elisa’s blog here https://quarterlifewhatblog.wordpress.com/

The Mineral Baths

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Sneans on Tour 

Tulips and Churches

The former royal residence

Park life

The National Theatre

Nationalist Neo-Nazi Football fans

The Markets

Bulgarian Food

Sveta Nedelya Church

Royal guards, previously the most eligible bachelors in Bulgaria

St George Rotunda Church and ruins

Bulgarian Orthodox Church within the Rila Monastery

The Monastery

The oldest part of the Monastery

Freacoes

Frescoes

Go Pro shots in the rain

Plovdiv

The Longest pedestrian street in Europe 

Old Town streets

Old Town houses

Gossip boxes from Ottoman times… where the women would watch and gossip since they couldn’t leave their homes. 

New Town from old town

Conquered old town

Plovdiv street art


roman Amphitheater discovered after earthquake 50-ish years ago

Krakow 

Over the Easter Weekend I popped off to Krakow, Poland with 2 friends to explore the city and take in the nearby WW2 sites.

After arriving late Thursday and settling into our AirBnB, we were up early on Friday for a trip to the Salt Mines. These mines were huge and impressive, and exploring them required descending hundreds of steps, down as low as 300m below ground. The mines are full of sculptures and carvings all created by the miners in their own time. After the salt mines we made our way back into Krakow and to the Jewish Quarter for world famous pizza sticks for lunch which were delicious. Next up was Schindler’s factory museum. Good thing we booked as the line was massive! This museum was so much more than just the history of the factory made famous by the film. It also provided an incredible, in depth experience covering the majority of Krakow’s modern history. It has to be the one of, if not the best museum I have visited. Incredibly well laid out, and informative. Post museum it was time for beers in the spring sun in the main square of the Jewish Quarter, followed by a traditional polish dinner.Saturday saw us up at the crack of dawn and on a bus to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. We all learn about the history of WW2 and the horrors of the Holocaust, however seeing with your own eyes is completely different. I firmly believe this is an experience everyone should try to have at least once in their lifetime.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana

After returning to Krakow and having a quick nap, it was back to beers in the sun, this time in Old Town Square where we were treated to come Polish Eurotrash break dancing against our will. This was followed by Vodka tasting and a healthy (non-Polish) dinner.

Easter Sunday we joined a free walking tour of Old Town Krakow. We had a great guide and the tour was very informative. We learnt all about Krakow’s history from the glory days to the downfall. Our tour wound it’s way through Old Town, finishing up at Wawel Castle. After the walking tour, we had planned to attend an Eataway. This is a platform which enables everyday people to host meals in their homes. The couple who hosted this Eataway were Americans living in Poland, who were lovely and hospitable and the food was delicious. However, it was a very interesting group of people who attended the lunch. The blind couple from Sweden, the American Director, the loud Australian guy, the Polish girls who’s family were all in Ireland, and many other interesting characters. The hosts also had pet rats in cages…. So overall a very different and interesting experience, however unsure it’s something I want to repeat. After escaping the Eataway we explored more of the Jewish Quarter, had a drink and then headed back to our AirBnB for an early night.

Monday I had time for a quick breakfast, and then I was off to the airport and back home to London. 

Old Town Square by Night

Descending the many stairs to the Salt Mines

Church within the Salt Mines

Jewish Quarter street art 

Pizza Stick

Beers in the sun

Main Square, Jewish Quarter

The most delicious perogis 

Auschwitz 

Birkenau 

Old Town Square

Old Town market building in the square 

Vodka tasting! 

Krakow city gate 

The rotunda 

Old Town 

One of the worlds oldest universities

Wawel Cathedral

Wawel Castle

Castle Selfies

The Citadel

The Citadel

Secret Churches

The Vistula River


Krakow sunsets 

Eastern Bloc: Latvia and Lithuania

I recently made the trip to Latvia and Lithuania to explore the old towns of these former Soviet countries. My first observation of both, particularly Lithuania, is that they were what I expected Russia to be like. I suspect they are actually what Russia is like, except while I was in Russia what we saw was very much controlled by our guide and not ‘the real’ Russia.

Riga in Latvia is famous for it’s old town and party until dawn clubs. I unfortunately (or not) was there to relax and explore old town before meeting Jess in Vilnius, Lithuania. I spent my morning wandering the beautiful lanes of old town, enjoying the beautiful mixed architecture and navigating between sites with the help of google maps. Later I joined a free walking tour which took me out of the old town to the site of the old WW2 ghetto, Moscow suburbs as they are known and some other spots in the city less visited by tourists. This tour was a great introduction to Latvian History, as all I really knew about before I went was the Soviet/Nazi history and Independence. I didn’t realise the Baltics were the last Pagan nations, nor did I realise Latvia has a very high Russian population, something like 30-40%. After the tour I made my way to the Central Markets to have a wander. I even bought myself a snack of cheese and gherkins from younger stall operators (to ensure they spoke English) and my Russian ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ came in handy since most of the market stall owners are Russian. This was a bit of a surprise to them I think since based on appearance, they were definitely expecting me to say Hello, rather than Privete (no Russian characters available haha).

6.30am Saturday morning I made my way to the bus station to go to Vilnius to meet Jess, while everyone else was making there way home from the clubs. The 4 hour bus trip was relaxing and a good opportunity to look out the window at the Baltic countryside. Honestly it was pretty grim. Run down cottage type houses, surrounded by a frozen swamp and bits of snow didn’t really make it look that much fun. Once we got across the boarder and further south it became green fields and paddocks being prepared for crops, but still the homes were a bit rundown and depressing.

After meeting Jess, we made our way to lunch. This turned out to be somewhat difficult as unbeknown to us, it was Latvian Independence day. This explained the flags everywhere and all the closed shops and restaurants. We did eventually find an open restaurant, and after lunch went for a wander and explore. We checked out xxx, and the KGB museum. After a relaxing break at the hostel we headed out for dinner and wine, key aim being to try some local food. My advice on this if you ever visit Lithuania… potato pancakes are great, flag everything else. Unless stodgy potato dumplings and pigs ears are your thing.

Sunday morning we managed to fin ourselves a hipster coffee shop in old town, complete good flat whites and Avo toast. After breakfast and some wandering to explore the Presidential palace and other parts of old town we joined a free walking tour which was great to learn all about Vilnius and Lithuanian history, before making tracks to the airport.

Cold snowy mornings in Riga

Lovers bridge

Old City Gate

Three Brothers

Old Town Alleys

Buildings similar to what they have in Russia, but turns out they’re actually German

Rigas Streets

Town musicians of Bremen… in Riga


Central Markets

Run down Riga

Site of the Riga ghetto in WW2

24/7 flower markets


Enjoying the Sun

Riga’s frozen city canal

Kiwi Bar! Free drink if you can prove you’re a kiwi.

Frozen road to Vilnius


Vilnius street art

Old town streets

St Nicholas’ Church

Free town!

Uzupis… Vilnius’ free town

Uzupis Constitution


Church of St Bernard’s and St Francis

Off to the Museum

Avo toast and flat whites

Lithuanian Streets

Presidential Palace

I have this theory that the former soviet countries paint their buildings so colourfully to cheer themselves up during the bitterly cold winters

#laisve #freedom

Another beautiful church

The old city gate

Vilnius City Hall

Free town street art

The Cathedral

Just another church

English Adventures: Cambridge and Birmingham

Over the last week I’ve made two day trips to explore more of England. I went up to Cambridge with Sophia and Joe to visit Rhi, and also up to Birmingham to visit Elisa. 

Cambridge was a lovely, relaxing Sunday, including roast lunch, wandering, punting and beer. 

The day I picked to go to Birmingham was the day Storm Doris hit. Managed to avoid the rail chaos however almost got blown away. Again this was a pretty relaxed day of exploring a new city.

Here’s a selection of photos from my days out, enjoy!

Some fancy doors

Kings College, University of Cambridge 

Corpus Christi College

Kings College from the Cam

Swan buddy

St Johns College

Punting fun!

Bridge of Sighs

Duck friend

Birmingham Back to Backs

Birmingham Museum

Birmingham Town Hall

St Phillip’s Cathedral

Canal Boats

Canals!

Gin of course

Canal exploring

The best Chinese in Brum

Saint Martin in the Bullring


Commuter chaos post Storm Doris

Belfast and Norn Iron

After several days of solo travel and reflection (read: Nigel no mates no more), it was time to meet up with Jess and Jeremy for Northern Ireland exploring, hostel styles. Sometimes I really think I am past hostels now, and I definitely felt this way given our below par hostel in Belfast. Never mind…

A sleep in and delicious brunch got us all sorted for a day of exploring. First we visited the old Cumlin Road Gaol complete with underground tunnel to the courthouse to prevent priosoners being assassinated before they stood trial. After ‘The Crum’ we made our way to the Titanic museum. This is an activity I would 100% recommend if you’re ever in Belfast. Not only did we learn about the history of the city but also that of the Titanic complete with ride! Next we wandered into the Cathedral quarter in town and enjoyed several drinks, dinner, and some fantastic live music.  

Saturday dawned freezing and windy which was perfect since we were off on our Game of Thrones tour. We visited several locations from filming near Belfast, including Melissandres cave, the rope bridge, the iron islands, Renly Baratheon’s camp and the Black Woods. Our tour even included a stop off at the Giants Causeway. That night we had dinner out and a few drinks, again while enjoying Belfasts fantastic live music scene. 

Sunday we checked out Belfast’s Georgian markets before doing a famous Black cab tour. These tours sometimes get a lot of flack for being bypassed, however our driver, although blatantly Protestant, seemed to present the facts of the conflict in a very honest and fair way. After the tour, we failed at getting the airport bus so we had to über to the airport. 

I assumed Belfast would be just another English city, however I was very wrong. It’s probably my favourite UK city after London, with its vibrant music and pub scene, and the locals were all so friendly. Every taxi/uber driver we had was hilarious, and they all had a different opinion on what we should be doing while in town. It really was quite funny. 

The Old Courthouse. Now derelict due to lack of developer funds

Inside the Crum

Outside the Jail

Looking pretty menacing 

Don’t let go Jack! We’re flying!

Cathedral quarter as the sun sets

Murals 

Belfast on a wall

Murals!

Best bar interiors at the Duke of York

Belfast Town Hall

Enroute to Melissandres Cave!

Game of Thrones tour excitement 

Way too excited about a rope bridge

We made it!

On the way back up!

The beautiful and rugged Nothern Irish coast

Getting a bit carried away in my Iron Islander get up

The Iron Islands *cough I mean Ballintoy

More stunning Coast line

Enroute to the Giants Causeway

Tourist pose

So much sea air in one week

Travel buddies!

The Black Woods


More Belfast murals on the Black Cab tour.

Dublin (and some big Cliffs)

In line with my becoming funemployed again, I decided to take a trip to Dublin for a few days before meeting friends in Belfast later in the week. 

I arrived in Dublin on a windy and rainy afternoon, and after checking into my AirBnB, made my way to the Guinness Storehouse, via Dublin Castle. What trip to Dublin would be complete without a trip to the Guinness factory to see how this stout is made and pouring your own pint to enjoy?

My second day in Dublin I enjoyed a sleep in and brunch and then just generally explored the city on foot. I visited the famous Cathedrals, Saint Stephen’s Green and Trinity College Dublin and its library. In the afternoon I joined a walking tour to learn more about the history of ‘The Troubles’, the uprising and the revolution. Next was a beer and whiskey tasting tour in the evening and then swiftly to bed.

After an early start on the Wednesday, I was on a bus, enroute to the Western edge of Europe. After a few hours we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher where I enjoyed walking along the cliffs in the sea air and might have taken a tumble in the mud. After the Cliffs we drove to Galway City via the Burren, before making out way back to Dublin in the evening. 

Thursday was my last day in Dublin, which I kicked off with a wander through the streets and some genealogy research at the National Library of Ireland. After lunch with a former colleague I headed up to Belfast via train to meet up with Jess and Jeremy. Interestingly, when the train crosses the Boarder, a siren goes off on the train!

Dublin Streets

Dublin Castle

Pouring my own Guinness

It’s true, Guinness is better in Dublin

Cliche Guinness factory photo

Ha’penny Bridge

St Patrick’s Cathedral

From the gardens

St Stephen’s Green

The Library at Trinity College Dublin where they keep the Book of Kells 

Brian Boru Harp

Trinity College Dublin

Garden of Remembrance 

Craft Beer Tasting

Bangers and Mash

Sunrise

The Cliffs of Moher

Mud…

Pretty happy being back by the sea

Rebel at heart

Battling the wind for a selfie

That’s better!

The Burren 

Grumpy skies and wintery light

First beach I’ve seen in a while

The Lunar landscape that is the Burren

Galway City

Irish Stew


The Famine memorial

Freethinking in Berlin

Berlin. City of hipsters, bohemians, free thinkers and all thinks cool and trendy. Since I use words like trendy, obviously I am not quite Berlin material. However, I definitely enjoyed a relaxed few days catching up with fellow kiwis and enjoying exploring the city. As we had just spent a full on week in Russia, we started our days slow and in true kiwi style with brunch, catching up with other kiwi friends in the city. We also wandering between the sites,and partook in a few walking tours. I ended up doing the Red Berlin tour, to learn all about the Berlin Wall and Soviet occupation of East Germany. This was incredibly interesting and made me understand why my Mum  entered into East Germany through checkpoint Charlie in the 70s in her early 20s. We also did the Alternative Berlin tour which was a great introduction to the alternative society that makes Berlin the city it is today, as well as exploring some of these very cool neighbourhoods. After a relaxing few days, and New Years Eve celebrations, it was back to London for work.

East Side Gallery wandering

Berlin sunset

Ampleman!

Brandenburg Gate pre-NYE party

Street art…. many people can do big things, terrible things.

Kiwi brunching

Worth the 2 hour wait

Canal reflections post Turkish markets

Kiwi catch ups in Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Markers to show where the Berlin Wall used to be.

More kiwi’s having brunch

Reichstag. Bowie played Heroes to East Germany from here.

East German boarder guard escaping the wall instead of building it.

TV tower NYE

Fireworks!

Madonna, Bowie, Cobain aaaaaand ??? 10 points for whoever the lady on the right is.

Drumpf (Trump). The danger of blind following.

Ode to Tinder

Iconic. The flag is a silhouette, not painted.

Refugees Welcome!!! I think Angela Merkel is one of my favourite things about Germany.