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The Mango Tree

Day 0     1/11/2017    Wednesday

I had the day off from Nike and spent most of it preparing myself for my travels. I had to clean out my room and move my things downstairs so that Amy could move in. Amy was a girl from Perth who recently moved to Canberra and needed a temporary place to stay while she figured out a more permanent option. This worked perfect for me as I had someone who could stay at mine and pay the rent on my behalf. I did a bit of shopping as well making sure I had all the necessities before embarking on my travels.

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Moments before heading to Jolimont Centre

My bus from Canberra left at 3:00 in the arvo. Rahat wasn’t home when I left, but I said farewell to Serene and made the short walk to Jolimont centre. Mentally checking if I had taken everything I needed – passport, visa, travel docs and all the right equipment. I decided to travel light for this trip and only carried books that I really needed. I had a travel guide for Europe which I had in case of an emergency, a small dairy and my travel docs.

Check-in at the airport was fairly straightforward. Flying in an Emirates Airbus A380 wasn’t too shabby. The seats were quite comfy, the entertainment system was on point with a range of options, the staff friendly and the food frequent and hearty. My favourite thing though was the glow in the dark stars that came on when the light was switched off.

I sat beside a lovely lady who was telling me how her son was doing something similar to me and was travelling all around Europe and she wanted to visit him for two weeks for the final leg of his journey. I tried learning basic Spanish through the entertainment centre inside the aircraft, which was mostly fruitless. You cant learn a whole language under 12 hours. I proceeded to do the next best thing, watch some documentaries on Italy and Spain to get a better understanding of the culture in these places.  There was a short layover at Dubai before I embarked for Amsterdam.

Now is a good time to mention my travel route: I will start from the Netherlands, spend a few days with my cousins before I start the adventurous part of my journey in Iceland with the hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, followed by Portugal to balance out my expenses. I will head to Spain after that and indulge myself in tapas and paella and appreciate the architecture of Gaudi. This will lead me to Venice, the city of canals. I hear its expensive there so I will only plan to spend a couple of days at most. After Venice will be my budget Switzerland, Slovenia, visiting the picturesque town of Bled and then finally coming back to Italy to appreciate the Renaissance and the Roman Empire in Florence and Rome respectively. I know the countries I want to go, but haven’t really planned the day to day activities. I have left that open to change. Let’s start now.

Day 1     2/11/2017    Thursday:    Explore Amsterdam

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It’s pretty easy to fall in love with the canals in Amsterdam

Landed in Amsterdam. Check-out from the Schiphol Airport was fairly straightforward. Checked into my hostel Clinknoord, which was a quick ferry ride away from the Central Station. The hostel was highly rated, secure, clean and had all the basic facilities but lacked the social atmosphere. I was a bit edgy in Amsterdam thinking that I would be pickpocketed or someone would try to pull a fast one on me. Had two instances were I was approached by people since I looked lost but swiftly brushed them off.  Met up with Bhabi after I had freshened up from the hostel and together we explored the main bits of the city – Central, Dam Square and the shopping street that runs from Central. We stopped at a cafe where Bhabi introduced me to Bitterballen, which is deep fried minced meat with cheese. We left the cafe and chilled at Bhabi’s place for an hour or so before I left and went back to the hostel. I was still jet-lagged and crash almost immediately.

Day 2     3/11/2017    Friday:    Reunited with all the Cousins 

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Quick snap before the canal cruise. Absolutely love the symmetry in this photo.

Woke up at 5 in the morning thanks to my jetlag. Packed my things. Took a shower, freshened up and had the breakfast buffet at the hostel. Explored Noord on my own before I met up with Bhabi for the Canal Cruise through Amsterdam.

The city has three main canals, arranged in concentric circles. People living within the boundaries of the inner Canal where the richest and of the elite class and whilst people living on the outskirt of the third canal where the normal middle class. Nowadays, most of the mansions or building within the inner Canal boundary are too expensive for anyone to live and they have all been refurbished into workplaces, hotels or museums. The city is made on the soft ground and the buildings are designed to be as light as possible. A small pulley is located at the top of each building to hoist up furniture to the top floors as the stairs are pretty tight.

Shortly after the Canal Cruise, we took a train from Central to Eindhoven. On the way, we had some frites and took in the beautiful scenery filled with lush green outfields with wind turbines. Had a mini reunion with Musi and Abrar who joined us later in the night. Abrar brought a smoke and together with Musi we went about having a walk through Eindhoven. Musi was a great host and had the dining table filled with food for both lunch and dinner.  We went to bed relatively early in preparation for our day trip to Antwerp, Belgium.

Day 3     4/11/2017    Saturday:    Day trip to Belgium 

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Planned a day trip to Belgium with Abrar and Isha Bhabi whilst Musi got some work done at home. We had a relatively early start to the day as we took the Flixbus to Antwerp, Belgium. Antwerp has an amazing Central railway station with intricate designs that can’t be matched. The clear skies and sunlight perching through the windows made sure we saw the station in its full glory. We had close to 9 hours to kill Antwerp, and although the city is great it didn’t have enough things to do to pass the time. We made a split second decision to go to Brussels, the capital. Brussels was more developed and had a better range of things to do. We didn’t have data on our phone in Belgium and had to explore the city old school style where we just immersed ourselves in everything and got lost in the madness. We ran up the beautiful streets, took in the Gothic architecture similar, admired the old churches and cathedrals, and took panoramas at the plazas. We saw something interesting and walked towards it and then found something interesting again and walked towards that.

Belgium food was amazing! We bought a chocolate covered waffle and shared it amongst the three of us. We did the same with second waffle which was also covered in chocolate and topped with cream. We also stumbled onto the oldest chocolate store Neuhaus and sampled their mouth-watering chocolates.

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing the Manneken Pis. A small landmark statue of a little-naked boy taking a piss while holding his wiener. Next to it was a waffle place which had a replica of the monument, where the boy was holding a waffle on the other hand.

We left Brussels to head back to Antwerp and had a couple of hours to kill before the bus back to Eindhoven. We went to a hip bar/food joint with multiple vendors that were really popular had shawarma and dim sum as a light dinner. Explored the inner city for a bit longer and then finally caught the bus. Smoked the second joint before entering Musi’s and ate to my heart’s content before dozing off promptly.

Day 4     5/11/2017    Sunday:    Quality time with the Fam 

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Sunday was a lazy recovery day after all. the shenanigans from the day before. Tahsin Bhaia arrived from the States after his conference and we caught up with him. I decided to cook lunch for everyone and had a lot of fun doing it. Video chatted with all the family members back home and just had quality time with everyone. At night we decided to go the bike path made in honour of Van Gogh. The path glows in the dark and passes through places of significance for Van Gogh when he lived. Abrar and Isha had to leave not long after that. When we came back to the house I sorted things out with Jonas, one of my travel mates from Indonesia and planned our day together.

Day 5     6/11/2017    Monday:    Groningen and Emmen 

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Took the 6:30 train to the far north of the Netherlands, to a city called Groningen where I met up with Jonas. We explored the small college city together and reminisced about our travels in Indonesia over some chai latte. We later smoked a pretty big blunt and went to an Albert Hein nearby to grab some Dutch food to snack on. I can safely say that I have tried most of the famous Dutch food.

We took a bus to Emmen, a small town south of Groningen where Jonas lived. The bus dropped us off at the station and from there we had to bike it to the house. I sat in the back seat of his bicycle as he showed me around the town. Along the way, we stumbled upon some really scenic places that reminded me of Canberra. I met his dad who was really nice and is into music and played a lot of instruments. We smoked shisha together as Jonas showed me the travel video he made of Indonesia. His dad made us a delicious lunch with a spicy Indonesian style chicken curry and steamed rice. I gobbled it up and even went for seconds. The guys were also nice enough to drop me off at the train station as I went back to Eindhoven.

Back in Eindhoven, I got to hang out with Musi and Tahsin bhaia again, who took me out for dinner. We went to a steakhouse and had some really fine cuts of meats along with some delicious sides of baked and mashed potatoes and some baked vegetables. For dessert, we went to an Italian place and had Panna-Cota and tiramisu.

Day 6     7/11/2017    Tuesday:    Amsterdam Second time around

I wanted to have a day to myself and spend it enjoying Amsterdam. Woke up at Musi’s and sorted out some housekeeping before catching the train to the capital. I checked into St Christopher’s Wilson Hostel at the heart of the city right next to the Dam Square. I walked around the Red Light District and checked out some of the museums including the Anne Frank museum. Right across from the museum was a pancake joint that served poffertjes (Dutch pancakes) sugar-coated and served over hot butter. The little puff balls complimented the cold weather perfectly.

Also, met a cute Romanian girl with curly hair and also got acquainted with my hostel mates Greg and Michael from Oregon and Melbourne respectively. I caught up with Isha bhabi one last time and we went to have dinner at an Italian place next to my hostel. I had initially planned to have a big night but later called it off.

Day 7     8/11/2017    Wednesday:    Farewell to the Netherlands 

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Had an early start to the day once again. The hostel came with complimentary breaky and I didn’t waste it. Skyped with my parents soon after and found out Redwan was in Dhaka.  I still had a couple of places in Amsterdam that I hadn’t seen. First of which was Rembrandtplein, a major square in the city named after the famous artist who lived nearby in the 17th century. I walked further down to the museum district to have a better look at the Rijksmuseum. I didn’t have enough time or money in my budget to warrant a thorough visit inside. I did, however, do the tourist thing and took a photo with the I-Amsterdam sign. A stone’s throw away from the Rijksmuseum was the Van Gogh museum. Again, I only admired it from the outside before catching a tram back to Central, followed by a train to Eindhoven.

My third museum visit of the day was the Philips Museum and this time I decided to do the self-guided tour. It was really intriguing to learn how a family owned business turned into one of the largest tech companies in the world today. Later that night, Tahsin bhaia showed me around the Eindhoven University of Technology, where he was doing his PhD. We went inside the research building of applied physics and electrical engineering and even checked out a plasma lab where all the thin film solar cells were experimented on.

Once we headed back to the house Musi cooked up an amazing feast for everyone. Tasmeen Aunty and Alyesha joined us late at night and we stayed up till 3 in the morning chatting away. I crashed soon afterwards and was on the first train out in the morning to catch my flight to Iceland.

The Netherlands was amazing. I caught up with my family and was kind of jealous of the fact that they were all in such close proximity to each other compared to me in Oz, I had also met up with my travel buddy Jonas from Bali and finally I had the chance to explore one of the most progressive and unique countries in the world.

Day 8     9/11/2017    Thursday:    Iceland and the Aurora Borealis 

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Said my farewell to everyone and caught an early train to Schiphol airport. Check-in did not take too long and I was once again at the airport with three hours to kill. The flight was fairly pleasant especially since I spent the better part of it catching up on some much-needed sleep.

My first look at Iceland was a view that both excited and scared me. It was one of the glaciers and all you could see were the mountains covered in snow. It could have been easily mistaken for some low altitude clouds.  As the aircraft prepared for landing I finally got a closer look at the terrain. Not a single tree in sight. Everything barren and covered in light to medium snow. As silly as it sounds, I wasn’t really expecting snow for my short stay in Iceland. The sudden snowfall was my first introduction to proper snow but it also made me think twice about how adequate my winter gear was.

The snow picked up over the next hour and a city completely covered in snow was a sight to behold. I checked into the Oddson, my hostel for the next five days and soon fell in love with it. It had a hotel vibe to it and was a significant level up from the hostels I saw in Amsterdam, and the kicker was that it came with a jacuzzi.

I wanted to make the most of my time in Iceland and had consequently packed every day with multiple activities. The first night I had the Northern Lights Tour. The activity level was a 3 for the night, which isn’t the best but was still promising. When we arrived at the national park we could only see a faint white glimmer called the Aurora Crownus. I was a bit disappointed plus the cold and the snow was unbearable. After heating up for 20 mins on the bus with my tea and chocolate cake I went out with renewed enthusiasm. The lights got brighter. They turned from a pale white to a luminous green. They got bigger and soon they started dancing as more colours added to it, a bit of pink and purple. It was magic! I had seen the mystic lights within the first 12 hours in Iceland and with that, I had ticked off the top thing from my bucket list.

Back at the hostel, I met some lovely people in the kitchen and everyone was eager to share their experiences and get to know everyone else. We stayed up till 3 in the morning having a drink and chilling. At one point we even went out and flew some drones. One of the backpackers, Felix from. Germany even had his own YouTube channel. I reluctantly headed back to my room to wake up in time for Golden Circle tour in the morning.

Day 9     10/11/2017   Friday:    The Golden Circle and the Aurora Borealis II

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Started the day at 8:00am Iceland time, which is an hour behind Central Europe. I Met up with Yati, another backpacker from the hostel and together we went to the nearest grocery store that was open to grab some pancake mix and general grocery items. I was rushing to make it to the Golden Circle Tour. Yati was a doll and cooked up the pancakes while I got ready. Together we had pancakes, orange juice and strawberry yoghurt for breaky. I also made some pasta with sundried tomato pesto for lunch before I embarked on my day tour.

First stop was where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates met. We did a short walk along the foggy road created by the American plate and took in the scenic view. Also learned that in the old days, Icelandic punishment was cruel: men were beheaded and women put in sacks with weight and drowned in the ice cold waters of the lake. We also stopped by a place where the first Icelandic parliament stood.

Second stop was the geysers. The main geyser erupted every 6-7 minutes and I was lucky enough to catch it in a recording. The sight of the geysers was quite surreal, on one hand, the temperature was in the negatives but then the ground was releasing steam and the sun shining in the background. For lunch, I opted to eat at the Cafe where I had a chicken burger and some hot wings with a vinegar based sauce. It was quite tasty.

The third and final stop was Gullfoss, the golden waterfall. The temperature at this point was – 8 and my feet couldn’t take it anymore. I quickly checked our the waterfall and took in its beauty but had to rush back inside the cafe to warm up. My Prestos, are my favourite shoes, but they weren’t designed for this weather. I downed my tea to heat up as much as I could. Overall the stops were great, but I would rate the journey even higher. On the way, we saw snow, Icelandic horses, barren fields with the golden sun shining, glaciers, lakes, mini waterfalls, caves and everything in between. Just taking in the breathtaking scenery was my favourite part.

The northern light activity seemed promising and I decided to do a second tour. that night. The Golden Circle Tour took a toll on my body and the late night tour for the Northern Lights left me absolutely exhausted. Saying it was cold would have been an understatement. I wore every single article of clothing I brought – five layers to cover my vitals, two layers of trousers doubled up socks and my beanies but I was still shivering. It was brutal. After waiting for forty odd minutes in the cold I couldn’t help but take a quick power nap. I woke up with the guide excitedly asking everyone inside the bus to come out at and have a look at the lights. And, just like that, it was all worth it. The lights were dancing once again with an array of colours and covered the sky with the greens, pink and a sliver of white. They truly were magical. I was lucky to see them twice and that too in such quick successions.

I returned to the hostel and sorted out everything for my south Coast elements trip the day after and crashed.

Day 10   11/11/2017   Saturday:    South Coast Elements Tour

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It was a very big day. The South Coast Elements tour was only second to the Northern Lights in my book. I had high expectations going in and with 14 hours of activities planned ahead it was sure to get the blood flowing and leave me completely knackered by the end.

The pick up was slightly delayed by half an hour, but by 8:20 we were on our way. Along the way, we picked up a few other people an Indian couple, a French guy and a Pakistani based in London.

First stop was a servo which had a Cafe next to it and a grocery store across the street to stock up on food as we could only manage a picnic lunch. On the way, we stopped to see the sunrise at close to 10 in the morning. It was a beautiful sight with the sun rising behind the barren and rugged landscape of Iceland. We were next to a horse riding farm of sorts and this gave us the perfect opportunity to pet them and see their majestic beauty up close. Even got to experience them in four different colours.

We left the horses behind and made our way to the black sand desert which was situated in close proximity to the ocean. We were given fat bikes to make our way downhill to the DC 13 plane crash which crashed during WW2. The ride was amazing with a light breeze blowing, the black sand on either side and mountains with snow as the backdrop, you could even see the waves of the ocean crashing. The aircraft was a lot smaller than I had anticipated but it was surreal seeing it up close. I climbed up to the top to get a really good shot but then struggled on the way down and had a hard landing on the ground much like the aircraft. Basit, one of the guys from the was wass nice enough to take some photos of me. The ride back to minivan was a struggle. It was uphill, negative ten temperatures, and against the wind. The fifteen-minute ride took me a half an hour and I had to get off the bike and walk for parts of it. My body was sweating with the multiple layers, the sun was glaring right at me (thank God I had sunnies), and the chilled breeze basically froze my face. To make things worse the helmet was ill-fitted and constantly moved about. But it was definitely an experience to have. It took me a good few minutes to recover back inside the warmth and consistency of the bus.

Next stop was the glacier hike. I learned my lesson and made sure the helmet fit properly this time. We had to put on a lot of safety equipment including a harness, snow axe, helmet and hiking boot with spikes to walk on the ice /snow. The landscape was beautiful the sun was giving off a soft light which bounced wonderfully off the snow and the mountains. Even the clouds were soaked with the light. As we made our way up we came across a lake which was completely frozen. I even had a really nasty fall along the way. Our hike was pretty short as we were pressed for time. But we managed to taste some of the ice and even pretend ice climbed which by the was is a lot harder than it looks. On the way back we were once again presented with a magnificent displace by the sun, this time the sun setting behind the mountains.

We rushed to see the waterfalls that were situated pretty close to us. I think the first one was called Skogafoss and the second Seljalandsfoss. You could walk behind the second waterfall and get a truly unique view. But it was too dark and icy, and our tour guide advised us against it. At Skogafoss I refilled my water bottle with some of the purest water that you can get – straight from the glaciers.

By this time. It was completely dark and we were exhausted. We made our way to the middle of nowhere to find an underground lava tube. A cave formed due to the flowing of lava during an eruption. As we stopped the minivan and got out we were blessed with clear skies and a perfect view of the milky way right above us. We switched on our headlamps and followed our guide across the snow with nothing in sight. We stumbled upon a huge hole in the ground with a giant ladder and made our way down to see the huge tube formation that span over a kilometre long. The cave was pitch black, filled with boulders with a thin layer of ice on the surface and icicle cones dangling from the ceiling. It was an accident waiting to happen. This was Iceland. It’s rugged. It’s extreme. It’s beautiful.

This was the last stop in the tour. Soon we returned to Reykjavik and said goodbye to everyone and I picked up a pizza on the way back to my hostel to feed my hunger. It was an absolutely exhausting day but within a span of 14 hours, I had experienced the sun rising, petting Icelandic horses, visiting the site of a WW2 plane crash, riding a bike on volcanic ash, climbing a glacier, the sun setting over the mountains, drinking glacier water from Skogafoss, exploring a lava tube and finally enjoying a view of the Milkyway. As far as experiences go, I think this will be hard to beat.

Note:
Basit was a nice companion to travel to and enlightened me with his travel stories.
Geothermal water can be used as a primary source of water or secondary and heat the existing clean water. Geothermal water usually has a smell of sulphur in it.

Day 11   12/11/2017   Sunday:    Exploring the City and the Blue Lagoon 

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The South Coast elements tour and the hectic sightseeing left me exhausted. I decided to sleep in and have a proper recovery. After a lazy morning and having some pancakes for breaky, I decided to explore the city with Ross. Ross was a fellow backpacker staying at the hostel, originally from the UK. We explored the seaside and took in the breathtaking views of the mountains in the backdrop. Everything looked magical with the snow. Really surreal. If you squinted your eyes, you could even see Greenland on the other side. We walked along the harbour where all the big cargo ships were docked and made our way to downtown Reykjavik. I had decided to get myself a small hot chocolate to keep myself warm. That hot chocolate turned out to be 11 AUD! Downtown was a hip little area with bars and hot dog stands and tons of places selling Icelandic wool clothing. I found a really nice beanie that I might get as a souvenir. I parted with Ross as he had a pass to one of the museums and I made my way to the church at the heart of the centre. From the top, I got a picturesque view of the whole of Reykjavik. Little house with snow-covered rooftops and of different coloured bases. The ocean in the backdrop of the mountains made sure the view was a solid 10.

I left the church to grab an Icelandic hot dog. The only thing cheap in the country and went to the hostel to prepare for a relaxing session at the blue lagoon. The weather at the lagoon wasn’t the best with solid rain and winds of up to forty km per hour. But the warm inviting geothermal water more than made up for it. The walk from the change room to the water was the coldest two minutes of my life. Wearing next to nothing, I had to sprint from the change room after I had washed myself to the pool with the icy wind blowing. Once in though, it was heavenly. It was sundown when I went and I couldn’t take any real photos. I tried the algae and silica masks to rejuvenate my skin. And some tropical juice from the bar to enhance the experience. The water made sure my body was warm but the icy wind made my hair frosty. I tried the sauna too at some point to get the full experience. Spent close to two hours in the water before I had to get ready and catch the coach home. I was hoping the lagoon would be relaxing and help me sleep better but the rain and the chilly wind didn’t help my cause. The warm milky blue water did help me heal but the better weather would have significantly helped matters. I was absolutely exhausted once again from the cold wind which gave me a slight headache and went straight to bed. When I think back now, the experience was out of this world. I had travelled by myself a few thousand km from home in the middle of nowhere in Iceland, inside a geothermal pool during a snow storm. Every day in Iceland seemed to be special. Every day was unique. It was a sad realization that my time in this beautiful country was drawing to a close.

Day 12   13/11/2017   Monday:    Recovery Day

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Icelandic Street Food. Good food at a good price.

I had an extra day scheduled for Iceland in case I missed the Northern Lights the first few days. I have been lucky that the weather was mostly good in during my short stay. Everything about Iceland was amazing, but it did take a physical toll on me – I wasn’t eating enough especially since food was outrageously expensive and cooking seemed to take to much time, the long tour days didn’t make things any better either.

I needed a leisurely day. A day to do things at my own pace. I explored the city once again and purchased that beanie I had my eyes on. I tried this Icelandic soup recommended to me by Yati (another fellow backpacker from the hostel) at a little restaurant called the Icelandic Street Food. I would highly recommend this place to anyone. Delicious food, good vibe and amazing service all at an affordable price tag. The owner was nice enough to give me a complimentary small serving of the special, while I waited to be seated.

The fisherman’s delight as it was called looked very scrambled eggs but was a mix of codfish, hollandaise sauce and eggs, and tasted really good. I ordered the lamb soup which is a traditional Icelandic dish and the owner was nice enough to include some bread without extra charge. The food was heartwarming, literally. Really hearty with a lot of vegetables. Finished off the meal with a small slice of lemon cake on the house too. The rest of the day I spent back at the hostel, preparing for Lisbon and my transit flights. It’s a strange feeling when you travel to a new place. It’s mostly sombre in the beginning. What if Iceland was the peak of my travel and everything goes downhill from here? How can anything really match up to the Northern Lights? What if I have a terrible experience in Lisbon? All these questions racing through my mind. Then you have a small voice inside of you which says things will be alright, just keep moving; this was all part of the plan.

Day 13   14/11/2017   Tuesday:    Three Cities in a Day

This was one of my big travel days. Had to catch two flights between three airports, and drop off some extra baggage in Amsterdam. I left my main backpack in the airport storage unit and caught train followed by a tram to Isha bhabi’s University. Bhabi gave me a quick tour of the campus and her building. We had lunch together and I dropped off some of my extra baggage before saying goodbye one final time. I was a bit tight on budget and decided to head straight back to Schiphol Airport to kill the last 5 hours before my flight. I spent my time reading up on some drama happening back home and a new book from the airport bookstore. I also took the time to say my farewell to my cousins and thanked them for being amazing hosts. I didn’t have high expectation for my flight with Air Portugal, which is why I pleasantly surprised to have an in-flight meal. Rest of the flight was pretty uneventful but I did remember catching a glimpse of Lisbon from the flight with all the city lights glowing and tiny islands nearby. Spain and Portugal didn’t really have Uber so I decided to take a taxi to the hostel. I quickly found out how beautiful the streets were and how they were all inclined to some angle. I later found out that Lisbon sat on seven hills.  I had high expectations of my hostel, the Lost Inn. The last twenty reviews were all 9.5 or higher and it did not disappoint. The hostel was located in a quiet street right next to the infamous pink street with all of its bars and clubs. It was really small and had a limited number of guests. In my experience these were the best hostels as they tend to have a better atmosphere.  Everything was really clean, breakfast was complimentary and so were some snacks throughout the day. Every night there was free sangria and tapas. However, the best thing about the hostel that I would soon find out were the people – the friendly staff and the diverse group of backpackers who were staying there. The common area upstairs was pretty nice too with low hanging arches and a soft light illuminating the room.

Once I had checked and settled in, I decided to grab dinner at a local diner just down the street. During the 5 minute walk to the diner, I got offered to buy coke twice. Quite amazing how easily available these things were. I ordered the grilled mackerel and the soup of the day. I have been craving seafood for a while but decided to resist my temptations for the cheaper prices of Lisbon and I am glad I did. I went to bed soon afterwards, after all, I was in three different cities with a span of 18 hours.

Day 14   15/11/2017   Wednesday

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First proper day in Lisbon. I knew roughly what I wanted to do and see in this city but haven’t really planned things like Iceland or the Netherlands. Having an open slate really helped me to dive in and go with the flow. I was still new at the hostel and didn’t really know too many people. I tried out the free breaky and gobbled the scrambled egg and sourdough and washed it down with the fruit juice on offer. The hostel took part in free walking tours and I decided to sign up. This is where I met Catherine and Sandra two other backpackers from the hostel. Catherine was a French Canadian, and Sandra was from Germany.

The walking tour was really informative and helped me set my bearings right. We learned about the history of Lisbon and then its downfall caused by the earthquake and fire which wrecked a major portion of the city. We learned about the scorched churches and how Lisbon was famous for its tiles. Literally, every pedestrian walkway was covered with small tiles all of which had to be done manually. The guide was nice enough to recommend some viewpoints of the city from the many hills that Lisbon had to offer. We were also taken to a pastry store where we tried some of the most talked about egg tarts in Portugal, Pastel de Natta. This was a variation of Pastel de Belem which I had later on in the day. The walking tour finished near the riverside not too far from the hostel. Catherine went left and Sandra and I decided to explore Belem.

Belem was another neighbourhood and only a couple of train stops away.  Best part of Portugal was the weather – clear skies and a crisp 25 degrees. We explored the neighbourhood and stopped by the Belem Tower, Jeronimos Monastery, and the Monument to the Discoveries built in honour of the great Portuguese explores including the likes of Magellan and Henry the Navigator. One of our most cherished stops was a pastry shop just across from a park in the quiet neighbourhood. The only people in sight were the 50 or so queuing up for these ever so famous egg tarts. The recipe for these little fluffs of heaven have been passed down by monks from the 18th century and currently known by only three people. There have been multiple attempts to replicate the recipe but none quite match up like the original or so I have been told. We returned back to the city where I had a seafood lunch/dinner at a food court right beside the river. Afterwards, I returned back to the hostel and skyped with my fam and spend a few minutes reading up on my book until the Sangria was served. Once the drinks started pouring I quickly made friends with the fellow backpackers and soon we gulping down wine and getting absolutely buzzed. Nadim (from Germany), Maddie (French Canadian living in Paris and an artist by trade), Mansoor and Eduard (from France), Feril (from Middle Eastern descent) and Thiago (from Brazil) – these were all the people I closely bonded with and soon we would be repeating the same activities every night. We went out to Pink Street and tried a few of the bars but didn’t stay too long since I had to catch the Sintra tour the next day.

Overall, my first day in Lisbon was a really good one. I didn’t expect to do so many things and meet so many lovely people at the same time. My last day in Iceland I was feeling sombre and after my first day in Lisbon I was excited and thrilled and couldn’t wait for the next few days.

Day 15   16/11/2017   Thursday

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Woke up with a mild hangover, but had a pretty early start to the day. Got up, got ready and headed downstairs for the free breakfast. At 5 mins left to 9 everyone else from last night came down to quickly push in for the breakfast, all looking very hungover. I didn’t have too much time to chat but we did make plans for the night. The Sintra Tour included a quick tour of the resort town of Sintra in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains, lunch at a local restaurant, Cabo da Roca (Westernmost point of continental Europe), a quick hike to a lovely viewpoint on one one of the mountains near Sintra, and finally a stop at Bellem for the famous egg tarts.

We only saw the colourful Sintra palaces from afar, but we did visit the Quinta da Regaleira, an estate located near the historic site of Sintra. It is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The estate was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro Family built in neo-Manueline style. The residence included the main house, a chapel, towers, caves, fountains, aquarium and underground well and so much more all encapsulated by a beautiful garden. The sheer size of this place was mesmerizing.

Cabo da Roca was the westernmost point of continental Europe. It was a bit surreal being at the edge of a continent and thinking if you swam straight you would end up in the states. Makes you think how big the world is and at the same time how close we are. We left the Cabo da Roca and went up to a viewpoint up a hill. This was commonplace for people to practice dark magic and we found a chicken hanging from a tree, proof that the place was recently visited by the practitioners. The view from the top was quite extraordinary – a 360 view of the hills and the Forrest. It was quite calming. Clear skies and a gentle breeze made for the perfect weather.

Our final stop was the pastry shop in Bellem. I could go on about how amazing the egg tarts were but the short story is that I had four of them again and they were all delicious. I even made a quick tasting video with some of the other guys from the tour, Alex and Sebastian (Both from NZ). We finished our tour and returned back to the hostel just in time for Sangria and tapas. The whole gang came down again and we drank the night away. We also had a new girl named Saskia join us this time around. She was from Germany and seemed to really hit it off with everyone. Ruben, one of the staff who worked at the hostel decided to take us out and together we bar hopped for a bit and drank plenty to keep hydrated. I don’t remember much in between but there were some minor dramas but overall it was an amazing night. I remember at one point Feril, Eduard and I were down by the riverside just having a D&M just before we headed back to the hostel. Maddie joined us at some point and after a quick debrief of the night we soon headed to bed.

Day 16   17/11/2017    Friday

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The morning after, we had the usual breaky downstairs. Some of the guys were quite hungover and had their own thing going. Nadim, Mansoor and I decided to explore Lisbon a bit more. We took the ferry close to midday and went to the other side of the Tagus river. We roamed the streets for a while and decided to grab a cold bevvy, it was quite hot at this point. Hard to believe it was November. The Almada area was a bit rundown compared to Lisbon. There were a few restaurants just by the river, but for the most part, the houses were abandoned and had graffiti or wall art on them. Great potential in the future to turn the area into a hipster neighbourhood. Saskia joined us after lunch time and Mansoor had to head back to meet up with a friend. The three of us decided to walk towards the Christ statue at the top of the hill. It was a fairly long walk but the company was great. The statue was really similar to the one in Rio but significantly smaller. Portugal seems like it had a bit of every country – Trams similar to Melbourne, 25 de April Bridge which looks identical to the Golden Gate bridge in San Fran, and finally the Christ statue. We took in the marvellous view from the top before heading back to Lisbon with the train, crossing the bridge. Back in Lisbon, we decided to get lost. We wondered about for hours but mostly we headed towards one of the hills to grab a look at the sunset. The view from the hill was amazing and we were blessed with a colourful sunset that complimented the orange rooftops of all the buildings. Nadim bought us some beers and we drank it with some crepes from one of the vendors. On the way back to the hostel we were in one of the main streets of Lisbon with lots of street performers and shops on either side. Later found out it was Rua Augusta Arch, one of the main visitors’ centre in the city. Back at the hostel, I took part in a traditional Portuguese dinner cooked by a chef. A bit hard to recall what I ate, but there were plenty of courses mostly involving cheese, bread and fish and lots of alcohol. Met some lovely people during dinner who recommended me places to go in Seville. I spent a bit more time with my usual crew before they all headed out for a techno rave. I wasn’t feeling it and decided to stay back and get ready for Seville. I started getting that feeling again where I did not want to leave Lisbon but I knew this was only temporary and with that, I went to bed.

Day 17   18/11/2017    Saturday

I had very little expectations of Lisbon coming into Portugal. I wasn’t sure whether to treat it as a passive holiday or an active one. Over the course of three days, I absolutely fell in love with the city from its cheap food to the amazing title houses and streets, sunsets over the orange rooftops and the amazing hostel and the people who stayed there. I couldn’t find a single fault of Lisbon when I left. This city is extremely underrated and warrants a second trip during summer where I will visit Lagos and Porto. For now, though, it was time to leave and go towards my next destination Espana.

I bid farewell to all of the guys at the hostel and checked out of the Lost Inn Lisbon. I went to a nearby convenience store to buy a sim card, where oddly enough the staff was from Bangladesh. We bonded for a bit and he gave me some good deals. I used the sim to arrange a ride using Bla Bla car as recommended by Alberto (Backpacker I met in Indonesia). Soon enough I was in a minivan with some other travellers/locals en-route to Seville. Agnieszka was my companion in the car and we bonded for pretty much the whole ride. She was originally from Poland and was doing her Erasmus in Seville but decided to treat herself to a short holiday in Lisbon. Agnieszka gave me a good idea about all the amazing things you can do in the city and recommended some places to eat as well. The ride took almost 5 hours and by the time we reached the city it was 9:00pm. On the way, we were lucky enough to see another gorgeous sunset. I have been having some really good luck with them recently. The driver dropped me off at one of the busy streets and the hostel was only a 15-minute walk but I was really tired and hungry at this point. As luck would have it, I walked to the wrong location and had to make a further twenty-minute walk to the actual hostel. The hostel was quite big and was part of a chain, polar opposite to the one in Lisbon. You can imagine my disappointment. Nevertheless, I finally checked in and decided to grab a quick bite to eat at a place nearby. Turned out that I had some issues communicating with the Spanish people and they only accepted cash. I was a bit frustrated at this point and decided to just get some good old Asian takeaway and return back to the hostel. After an hour-long search for food and getting lost multiple times, I was finally back at the hostel with food. I was in my happy place again and went to bed soon afterwards.

It’s difficult to experience a new place, especially when you keep comparing it to the last. Lisbon was amazing and so was Seville but in their own way. It wasn’t fair of me to compare them as that only tarnishes their reputation.

Day 18   19/11/2017    Sunday

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Relocated to a different hostel, the Black Swan. I was a bit let down when I found out that neither Seville or Granada (my next destination) were not too well known for their Paella, and in fact, I had to go to Valencia to try the real deal. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to fit in that small detour so I told myself I would splurge in Barcelona. What Seville and Granada did have was tapas. I tried a good tapas joint recommended to me by another backpacker from Lisbon. I went to the restaurant for an early lunch where I ordered two dishes, one was a chilled beef dish and the second was a codfish served in classic gastronomy style, as they took off the lid filled with smoke to enhance the flavour. The tapas were served with an ice cold glass of Tinto de Verano. This was my first time trying it and it would soon become favourite drink in Spain. I finished my meal and decided to explore the city best way I knew how – getting lost.  I ran into Agnieszka who I shared a ride with the day before and caught up briefly.

I was meant to have a date with a girl but cancelled last minute and instead watched Justice League. Criminal, I know but I couldn’t wait any longer. After the movie, I met up with a Colombian girl who was doing an exchange in Seville. She showed me around the bell tower, the park and Plaza de Espana. Looking back now I couldn’t have pictured this is how my day was going to be when I woke up. We later had Sangria at a bar before she had to catch the last bus home.

I came back to the hostel to see two new roommates, Noortje and Dagmar, both from Groningen, Netherlands. We caught up for a bit and made plans to travel the next day. Noortje actually did part-time modelling which was quite impressive. Fun fact, the girls had their friend over who was doing her Erasmus in Seville too and it turned out she knew Agnieszka too. Small world!  We made plans to go out the next night and soon went to bed.

Day 19   20/11/2017    Monday

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The next day I woke up and got paella despite my better judgement of ordering the dish from street vendors who serve it frozen. It wasn’t the best but was enough to stop my craving. I ordered a tinto de verano again and the bartender made it extra strong and the drink left me quite tipsy and left me feeling quite loose at 11:00 in the morning. It was a bit difficult acting sober to the parents while on the phone. I went out exploring the city after a hearty breaky.

Alcazar was a Moorish palace and gave me a taste of what the Alhambra in Granada would be like. The Alcazar was so intricate with its lush green gardens, intricately designed walls of Arabic mosaic and pictures, extravagant domes and skylights. Dorne from Game of Thrones was shot in this area. The whole place had a yellowish tint to it and resonated warmth.

I visited Plaza de Espana last night with Daniela and realised I just had to see it during the day. I am not entirely sure about the history of the Plaza but I do understand its importance in Pop-culture. Stars wars episode II was shot here. The plaza is huge with the main building/structure at the background and a fountain in the middle. A small canal surrounded the plaza where people can go on boat rides. I met up with the Dutch girls over here and then proceeded to walk through the Maria Luisa Park. The main pathway down the park formed symmetry with the plaza at the end. Horse carriages everywhere and people on Segways doing tours added to the vibrancy.

We sat down in a quiet spot and indulged with some ice-cream and took a break from the heat. The walk back to the hostel involved me leading us there without using the map. As predicted it took a lot longer than expected but ensured we got some good bonding time. The girls went and had dinner with their mate and I got the chance to try some more tapas at a really popular local joint, one was a chicken based dish the other with eggplant and of course some tinto de verano to wash it down. I met up with the girls later in the night and we went to a secret bar in Seville. The place had no signs and you had to knock on a random door and someone would ask you a question through a small peephole. It was super cool. The place was rather small but had a good vibe. We shared a couple of drinks and headed to an Irish pub. Most of the bars were closed and we didn’t really have too many choices. I headed back to the hostel around 2:30ish to finish my last night in Seville.

Day 20   21/11/2017    Tuesday

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I woke up around 10ish, showered and got ready. I accidentally left my shampoo and shower gel at the hostel which I would realise the next day. I checked out of the Black Swan and said my goodbye to the Dutch girls. At the bus station, I grabbed some food at the Maccas boarded my coach en route to Granada. I was absolutely exhausted and took the time to catch up on some sleep and watch the latest episode of the flash. The ride took three hours and dropped me off at the bus station in Granada. On the way, I saw valleys of olive trees and wind turbines in the background. Lots of mountains too. Very scenic!

I took the 30 min ride using the SN1 local bus to the cathedral at the foot of the hill where my hostel was located.  From there it was a 10 min walk up the hill through the oldest part of the city to the hostel. All the buildings were slightly run down and whitewashed. There was even a street filled with middle Arabic stores and restaurants. The hostel was really cosy and humble with just the basic amenities but had a nice vibe to it. I quickly checked in and decided I had to grab something to eat. I tried out one of the Arabic restaurants down the road. I had a set menu with hummus and bread as the appetiser followed by chicken and vegetable couscous and some mint tea to finish off.

Back at the hostel, I met a cute Canadian girl who lived in British Columbia and introduced me to all of the other people in the hostel – Jonas (Germany), Spencer (Aussie), Ann (Kiwi), Louise (Dutch) and some other Italian and French people too. Together we chilled at the terrace and headed to a tapas bar (Moe’s) where we got free tapas with the drinks. After a drink or two, we headed towards a shot’s bar where each shot was a euro. We did rounds and I ended up having 6 or 7 and a few glasses of tinto de verano. I was absolutely smashed. We ended up ordering over 50 shots and won a pair of thongs. Also, every time we moved between bars we would get lost. It was quite funny how we kept changing directions. Last stop was a karaoke bar with me, Louise, Ann and Spencer. We ended up singing hips don’t lie, teenage dirtbag and some random song. The other guys from the hostel joined us too. The videos of the karaoke were hilarious and I would find out the next morning that we had no god gifted talent for singing. I was quite wasted at this point, the drinks soon got the best of me and I had to throw up. After stopping for some late night food at a kebab place we came back to the hostel around 4am and went straight to bed.

Day 21   22/11/2017    Wednesday

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Woke up late with a slight hangover. It was around midday and went to grab some food with Spencer just down the hill to a middle eastern kebab place where I had a hamburger menu which included the chips and drinks for 4e – an absolute bargain! Munched on the food pretty quickly and went to visit the Alhambra. It took about twenty minutes to reach the fortress. For fourteen euros the Alhambra is well worth the visit and would a 110% recommend it. I wish I took a guided tour really learn about the history.

There are three main palaces within the complex – the Nazaries, the palace of Charles V and the Generalife. There is also the Alcazaba which is the main fortification. The Alhambra is beautifully surrounded by gardens especially Palace Generalife. Every view is breathtaking both inside and outside. There are various viewpoints where you can see the old parts of Granada as the backdrop with mountains and the caves behind. There was a big open auditorium I visited, circular in shape where I think people stood in the middle to sing and sound echoed through the whole auditorium. The palaces all had intricate water features and a lot of detail on the wall carvings and the tiles. The place is mind-blowingly big and took me close to three hours to cover.

When I came back to the hostel I was starving again and decided to get some cash-out and try some of the local food. I wandered about for close to two hours in the city before finally returning back to the Arabic street and setting for traditional middle eastern food like the night before.

By the time I returned back to the hostel everyone was chilling out on the terrace with some music and drinks on their hands. Then a couple of people started playing the guitar and it just went off! Really good vibes with everyone chanting along and either beer or hot chocolate in everyone’s hands. One of the girls who volunteered at the hostel, Sophie (UK) was her last day of work so even the staff were keen on going out again. I decided to have a chill night and join some of the other guys in the hostel in the lounge room and hang around with them before I decided to call it a night.

Day 22   23/11/2017    Thursday

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Had a late start to the day once again and decided to try out some tapas. I Went to a bar call Avia in central and had three dishes and a drink for 5e. Good portions and great taste. I spent about half an hour doing some window shopping for the Black Friday sale and had my eyes on a denim jacket from Pull and Bear.

By the time I came back to the hostel, it was time for the walking tour. Together with some other guys from the hostel, we headed up the hill and stopped at a couple of viewpoints to get a good look at the beauty that is Granada. There was one stop in the middle where we got a really good view of the Alhambra. Finally, we went up a hill where all the caves were. Most of these caves were occupied by gipsies and ownerships only transferred once the current resident permanently moved out. They don’t have to pay tax or rent on these caves and live quite cheaply. Most caves have solar panels, sound system and a proper working bathroom, which I found quite impressive. If you want to buy drugs this is the place to be.

At the top of the hill, we got the most amazing view of the sunset and Granada.  I met up with some of the other guys who I hung around with at the hostel and together we chilled for a bit before going for tapas again. We tried a couple of places but finally settled on Poes (same place as the first night) which was the best value for money and the food was amazing. We stuck around Poes till midnight and then headed towards a chocolate-bar, where we tried some amazing hot chocolate. The bar had a jazz feel to it and was covered with shelves of books and really cool musical instruments too. The atmosphere was really nice! After some lively conversation, we decided to call it a night around 2 headed back to the hostel.

Day 23   24/11/2017    Friday

Final day in Granada. This city has been amazing and much like every other city I have visited so far, it was sad to leave. The small hills and whitewashed buildings with sunlight reflecting off them, blue skies and the Alhambra at the backdrop, scented candles and shisha joints and finally the amazing tapas have left quite an impression on me.

Today was mostly a relaxed day and I spent it taking advantage of the Black Friday sale. I went to the big shopping mall and tried some Texas barbecue and bought myself a new jacket, jumper and a tee. I have gotten tired of my old clothes and needed something new to rejuvenate me.

At the hostel, I caught up on my packing, housekeeping and journal writing. The flight was at 10:45pm and by the time I would reach the hostel in Barcelona it would be late at night.

The flight was delayed and left close to midnight. I reached Barcelona around 1:00am and had to wait a while for the luggage. All modes of transport from the airport to the city were closed and I was forced to take a taxi. By the time, I had checked in and was in my bed it was already 3 in the morning. Time was flying by. In no time at all, I was almost done visiting 5 countries. After Barcelona, only Italy and Slovenia remained.

Day 24   25/11/2017    Saturday

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I was woken up multiple times at night by people who went out clubbing. It was a bit annoying especially since I didn’t get much sleep. I had a lazy morning and woke up at midday. Took a shower and asked the friendly staff member at the hostel for advice on local sights.

I was starving at this point and decided to stop by a local Cafe on my way to Sagrada Familia. Ordered poached eggs on toast with hollandaise sauce on top and vegetables and rice on the side. Also had an iced latte on the side. Service was really slow and the wait was close to fifty minutes. The staff decided to shout me the coffee which was great.

After a filling brunch, I decided to make my way to the famous Sagrada Familia the church that is still under construction and one of Gaudi’s final projects. It’s a beautiful church, definitely unique in Gaudi’s signature architectural style and unlike anything I have seen before. I roamed the streets and got lost only to find my way to two of Gaudi’s other famous buildings – Casa Batllo, and Casa Mila. Barcelona and Gaudi were quite linked together and in fact, Gaudi to some extent gave Barcelona its identity. I also wandered into some free museums to get a better vibe of the city, and the art and culture associated with it.

I came back to the hostel shortly after to rest my eyes a little and went out to have dinner at a local diner. Unfortunately, the place was closed and it was drizzling. I was stuck in front of a Japanese restaurant and decided to try my luck over there and ordered some ramen. First time having ramen and it did not disappoint. I returned to the hostel and got acquainted with Gabi (German) and Ashley and Ryan (American) siblings staying in my room. Together we bonded over our travels and decided to try some drinks at a local bar. We wandered for a bit and found ourselves close to the Gothic quarter where we went to a bar with some great vibe everyone got tipsy and started dancing along to the live music. Most people were slightly older than us but they knew how to have a good time. We ordered a Sangria to share and relaxed.

Afterwards, we roamed around in the Gothic streets for a bit in search of a second bar but decided to settle for some pizza and take the metro back home.

Day 25   26/11/2017    Sunday

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Had big plans for the day. Ryan, Ashley and I decided to start off the day with a lovely brunch down the road. I had an omelette and cheese bagel along with a masala tea. While we were munching away, Ashley booked the tickets to Park Guell. We finished up brunch and decided to look for an Apple store so that Ryan could get his phone fixed but most of the stores were closed on Sunday. We ended up walking around Plaza Catalonia for a bit before heading towards Sant Pau Hospital, built in the early 1900s it is meant to recreate what a Hospital ward was like in the 1920s. The entrance was ticketed and we decided to only have a glimpse from the outside. Pretty close to us was the Sagrada Familia and we made the short walk to see the cathedral from a different angle before attempting to catch a bus to Park Guell. The atmosphere was very lively with street performers dancing to MJ on the small plaza right outside and couples celebrating their 50th anniversary. We took it all in before making our way to the bus stop.  After several failed attempts with the bus, we opted for a taxi and split the bill. We reached Park Guell with a good twenty minutes to spare and explored the free areas. Park Guell was designed by Gaudi in collaboration with Guell who was the client. Guell wanted to design a neighbourhood for the rich and wealthy people in Barcelona and the hill provided the perfect area. It overlooked the city, had splendid views and yet not too far away from the CBD. 60 plots in total were set aside for this reason with very strict rules and regulations on housing sizes to keep the beauty of the park. Unfortunately, the project fell through and the park later came to be known as Park Guell with Gaudi’s impeccable architecture style beaming through everywhere-the columns which look like giant mushrooms, the railings covered in tiles of different shapes and sizes and gracious curves and the overarching bridges on top of the other. The park was a lot smaller than I had anticipated but it was still well worth the visit and gave me a glimpse into the mind of Gaudi. Gaudi’s last few moments was him admiring a building on the way from Sagrada Familia to his usual church when he was hit by a tram and died soon after.

We left the park to have some amazing tacos at a Mexican place and bought some drinks for the sunset before we embarked towards the bunkers at the top of the hill. This is meant to be a secret place but it turned out to be just as touristy. We even spotted a rapper doing his music video not sure if he is famous or anything. We watched as the sun went down and you could visibly see the grids of Barcelona. This city had to be one of the most well-planned cities I have been to. The bunkers gave us a 360-degree view of Barcelona and you could see all the different spots around the city. Nice place to get your bearings right. We left the viewpoint and took the public transport back to the hostel. I crashed soon afterwards and woke up a couple hours later to have the free dinner before crashing again. It was a very exhausting day.

Day 26   27/11/2017    Monday

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Lazy morning. My regular people to hang out with have all checked out of the hostel. I decided to grab brunch at Sant Joan the place that was closed on the second night. Ordered steak and chips with some bread on the side and a tall glass of Tinto de Verano. For the twentieth time in Spain, I got tipsy well before midday. I needed to come back to the hostel and sober up a bit. After I was walking straight again, I found a walking tour of couch surfer. And took the metro to the Gothic quarter. We met at Plaza Reial, where the fancy lamp posts were designed by Gaudi. The guide Jessie was amazing, originally from England but spent time in Italy and Australia. We explored the Gothic quarters and the remnants of the old Roman walls. Jess spoke about the architecture of the churches and how the small plaza in front of the churches where originally graveyards. We even stopped by a small church, which is where Gaudi was headed on his last day. We stopped by the main cathedral and walked past the Jewish quarters and were told about how the Jewish were less affected by the plague because they had better hygiene and more cats which killed off the majority of the rats. The Christians protested to this and burned down parts of the quarter. A lot of the churches in Barcelona caught on fire and still have the marks left behind inside. In front of the cathedral, there was a small building part of which uses the original Roman wall as a support structure. Jess also talked about how Catalan is quite different from the rest of Spain and the pride the people carry because of it. We finally stopped by the Christmas markets and ended the tour in front of the monument for Catalan. The monument was designed to show respect to the 500 =0 who died during the war.

I grabbed a mocha afterwards and explored the city by myself. I wandered around the narrow alleys before reaching Las Ramblas, a big street with shops on either side and pedestrians and tourists everywhere. I Stopped by the Nike store there. And made my way down to the El Barceloneta neighbourhood near the beach. I promised myself in Seville I would splurge on some good paella when I got the chance. Now was the time to keep that promise. I found a really nice restaurant by the beach and waited for an hour for it to open. I ordered the seafood Paella and the waitress was nice enough to grab a single serve and not force the rule of two on me. I washed it down with some Tinto de Verano again and headed back to the hostel quite buzzed.

Day 27   28/11/2017    Tuesday

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Had an extra day in Barcelona and I decided to use it to average my cost down. I went with the cheap option and had cereal for breakfast and went exploring the city one last time to use up the remaining trips on my transport card. Spain is quite well known for its smoked paprika and saffron and I stocked up on it from a local supermarket. I dropped off my bag of goodies back at the hostel and embarked once again.  There were still a couple of things I haven’t seen in Barcelona.

I walked to Arc de Triomf and crossed the beautiful park behind it, passed the zoo and into El Barceloneta where the beach was. The beach was man-made and lined with big nightclubs all along the coast. Summer parties in the city are quite big and definitely worth a revisit. After chilling by the rocks with the sound of the waves crashing against the coast I reminisce my time in Spain. Six weeks seemed quite long when I started but now I was nearing the end of my fourth and it seemed to pass by just like that.

On the way back I walked through the Gothic corner and had some really good pizza for a couple of euros and remembered that I still haven’t had churros. After a quick google search, I found a respectable local joint with good reviews that did them for really cheap. The churros were amazingly fluffy and crunchy but the dark chocolate was a bit too bitter for my taste. As I finished my churros is Plaza Reial I walked around and found myself again in Las Ramblas. Finally took the metro back to the hostel where I had signed up for the Valencian Paella dinner option. The chef, Anthony showed me how the basics of it and I felt confident now that I could replicate the process. Bonded with some of the guys at the hostel and did some housekeeping for my flight to Venice and called it a night soon after. There ends my journey to Barcelona and Spain itself.  Next stop Venice.

Day 28   29/11/2017    Wednesday

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Flight from Barcelona to Venice. Caught the early flight to Venice and followed it by taking a bus ferry combo to my hostel. The weather wasn’t pleasant. Overcast. Windy. Scattered rain. And it was extremely cold. I checked into the Generator Hostel which is just off the main island of Venice. Really nice hostel. Service could be a bit friendlier though. Found out about the local sights and how to cover the majority of them in one day. Most of the main sights were close to St Marco Square and that’s exactly where I went with the Route 2 Vaporetto (water boats). Venice had that vibe that I picture Rome to be. Statues of Roman soldiers everywhere. Italian architecture and a feeling of grandeur. I Walked passed the Doges Palace, the former residence of the Doge of Venice (the supreme authority of the former Republic of Venice). The entrance was ticketed and price a bit steep and I chose not to enter it. The main square was really big with the clock tower, bell tower, Bascilia and the palace all very close to each other. Entrance to the Bascilia was free but no photos were allowed inside. This was the main church/cathedral for Venice and the interior was stunning. Very detailed art on the walls and the dome. It had treasures from St Marco that you could pay extra to see but I opted out. I went to the bell tower next to get a view of the skyline. It was about 10 storeys high and the open windows meant it was freezing cold. It did, however, provide a 360 viewpoint of Venice and you could see all the major highlights. Venice is a relatively small city but for some reason, GPS doesn’t seem to work properly as I would soon find out.

I came down from the tower and was really struggling with the cold. Decided to get a hot chocolate. Europeans make the best hot chocolate it’s basically melted chocolate and felt amazing with the cold weather. I sat down by the river and did some people watching while I finished my cuppa. Afterwards, I went in search of the famous Rialto Bridge and found out that google map wasn’t really working. This provided me the perfect opportunity to get lost in Venice. I knew the general direction to go to find the Grand Canal. The streets of Venice were something else. Very narrow lanes with age-old architecture on either side but occupied by very modern stores. I finally found the Rialto bridge after a bit of searching and got a stunning view of the Grand Canal. Clear skies with the sun out and no rain would have made the moment even better. Got a lovely tourist to take some photos of me. And I embarked on getting lost again. I followed the Grand Canal and found some of the most beautiful waterways with cute buildings on either side. Lovely places. After walking for about an hour or so I decided to take the Route 1 Vaporetto back to St Marco Sq. The Route 1 went through the whole Grand Canal and was one of the slower ferries, a poor man’s cruise through the Grand Canal. It was lovely to see the sights on either side. Beautiful buildings. Gondolas taking romantics around the canals, museums with Renaissance architecture and history everywhere. The population of Venice has been gradually decreasing over the years and is only at 30000 half of what it was three decades ago. I made my way to the hostel as the sun began to fall. At the hostel I matched with a Singaporean girl who was studying abroad in Scotland and decided to grab dinner with her. Not a memorable dinner date to be honest. Exhausted, I went to bed soon after that. The next day I planned to go to Ljubljana and explore Slovenia.

Day 29   30/11/2017    Thursday

Travelled from Venice to Ljubljana. Took the Flix bus from the bus station in Venice to the Slovenian capital. The trip was close to five hours long and on the way I met an Austrian named Wolfgang. We chatted for a bit and he was like a travel agent trying to get me to visit his city Graz. The scenery outside was terrific with snow on both side and mountains on the backdrop. The little hills were covered with pine trees and the snow made it into a great view. When we finally reached Ljubljana it was freezing cold and it was snowing. Thankfully my hostel was pretty close to the bus station on the artsy side of town. The hostel was previously a political prison and since then had been remodelled to be a hostel/cafe restaurant with a bar and was a popular point to visit. Most of the people staying at the hostel were a generation or two older than me and seemed like the more artsy and cultured type, with many playing instruments and singing along. The staff were really friendly and helpful and recommended me a Balkan restaurant to try. The place was pretty close by but the snow made things difficult. My down jacket wasn’t waterproof and I did not want to stand at the spot for too long to have a look at the map. After crossing the same street multiple times and walking in the wrong direction I finally found the place. Balkan food involves a lot of meat with very little greens or carbohydrates. I ordered the smallest dish I could find and it was a huge lamb patty served with some bread and tomato relish. Tasted great and it was cheap. The serving size was more than sufficient. After dinner, I went on two back to back tinder dates. One with Spela, a uni student and a real party animal. Together we bought a bottle of vodka and finished wandering about the main city area of Ljubljana as she showed me the castle and the bridges. We stopped by a bar were we got really drunk. Spela had to leave and i dropped her off at the bus station before getting intimate for a bit. Second date was with Monica a ski instructor and graphics designer. This was more tame we basically strolled around the city as everything was either closed or closing. We got some late night snack and went our separate ways.

Day 30   1/12/2017    Friday

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Checked out of the Celica art hostel and took the bus to Bled. Bled as Alex Mariotto puts it is budget Switzerland. The place was recommended by Tanya and Shanthi as well. Temperature predicted to be a maximum of 1 degrees. It was snowing with overcast conditions. I checked into the Castle Hostel which was close to everything much like everything else in Bled. Very clean and really nice staff. Would recommend.

Bled is a tiny little town surrounded by mountains and very close to Austria. At the centre is the beautiful lake bled with its crystal clear water and swans and little duckies. It was the first day of December and officially Holiday season. Christmas lights and the night market were all up and running. I spent the day just exploring the lake and its surrounding. My Presto survived the snow in Iceland, but the rain and wetness in Bled was a different scene. The Flyknit absorbed the water and got damp pretty quickly making it really uncomfortable to do anything. I had to drop some cash to buy a proper pair of boots.

Slovenia is known for its eco-friendly lifestyle. Most stores sell environmentally friendly products; Wind turbines provide clean energy to the country, and the detailed waste management sorting system ensure waste is minimized.

I spent the day just taking it all in – the lake, the swans, the island with the church, the castle on the hill – everything. For the past few years, I have only heard about this place and the many things to do and I was finally here, experiencing it all. It’s a surreal feeling. As the sun set at 4:30 I decided to head back to the hostel and cook up some food and catch up with the other people from the hostel. Turned out there was a couple from Canberra, who lived in Braddon. Small world! We had dinner and watched the Truman show. I quickly ducked out in the middle to have a look at the Christmas market and tried some much desired mulled wine. After the markets, I returned back to the hostel and watched the first couple of episodes of The Punisher on Netflix before heading to bed.

Day 31   2/12/2017      Saturday

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The weather forecast was much better today. Maximum of 1, and a minimum of – 11 but no snow and only partly cloudy; meaning there would be better visibility and a bit more of the sun.

My day started with a short stroll down by the lake before I took a 10 min boat ride to the little island in the middle. I climbed 99 steps to the top of the hill. People say if the groom carries his wife to the top, climbing the 99 steps they are blessed with eternal luck. Didn’t really apply to me. I did, however, make a wish! More on that to follow. The island was quite small and only had the tiny church with a wishing bell, a clock tower that provided a stellar view, a little gallery with contemporary art and a cafe serving some amazing cake. During my two hours there, I checked off all of them one by one.

The view from the island was amazing, you could see the highest peak of Slovenia covered in snow, the viewpoints for the city and the little town. I knew there was a wishing bell inside the church. Tanya, Shanthi, and Alex have all talked about it and now it was my go. I rang it three times and made a wish on the third to visit Slovenia once more in the next few years preferably during summer and maybe with a plus one. I left the church to climb to the top of the clocktower. The stairway had signs of different ways of telling and measuring time using a sundial, hourglass, and the flow of water. At the top there was an arched window in front of which you could sit and I decided to take a self-portrait; problems of being backpacker, most times you have to take your own photo or pester a passerby for it. I went to the gallery next, which was covered with abstract art, not that exciting and soon left to try the cafe. I had some delicious cake, unfortunately not the famous cream cake that Bled is known for, but I did get to enjoy it with a crisp view of the lake. I Explored the island a bit more before heading back to the boat. There are three ways you could get to the island, a motorised boat which is what I took, a traditional boat where the guide rows and a standard rowing boat. It was lovely seeing so many boats on the lake and the sun rays made it even more magical. Back from the lake I decided to visit the Christmas market again and tried some lamb stew. Seems to be a really popular option for cold countries, had it in Iceland too. 5 euros and I got a full bowl with bread. The hot soup was perfect to bring up the temperature inside me. I headed back to the hostel afterwards where I met up with some of the other backpackers and together we would do a lap of the whole lake and go to the viewpoint at the top of the hill.

We walked around half of the lake passed the castle and took in the beautiful scenery and finally reached the base of the little hill. The climb was steep and covered with snow and a mix of mud and snow which was undesirable but thanks to my new shoes it wasn’t much of a problem. There were three viewpoints, the first one was only 10 mins away, the second one, forty minutes from the base (the one we took), and the third one was over an hour away. We were content with the one we took. Some of the rocks were slippery and were quite dangerous but we managed to the top although we did lose half of the crew because of the different pace we were doing it at. The view from the top was a solid 10. Lake in the centre, with the island right in the middle and the mountains bordering everything. Saw many pictures of this view on my laptop screen but it was great to finally see it with my own eyes. I had really high expectations of Slovenia and it did not let me down. On the way back we stopped by a spot in the lake where the water was shallow and you had rocks underneath. I decided to stand there and seemed as if I was walking on water. We finished our lap around the lake and I decided to grab some pizza for dinner. I Needed the extra carbohydrates. After dinner, I was pretty much in bed where I rested up and planned my trip to Florence the next day.

Day 32   3/12/2017      Sunday

Decided to save a bit of money today by spending most of the day on the bus. I took the hourly bus from bled to Ljubljana and from there took the Flix bus to Florence. The scenery was amazing – snow on either side as we were in Slovenia and then finally a bit more of the Italian countryside as we went through Trieste, Venice and Bologna. I took the time to catch up on my journal and provide some well-needed rest to my legs. I arrived at Florence after dark and did short walk carrying all of my belongings to the Plus Hostel where I stayed only the night. By this time I  had accumulated quite a few things and even these short walks were quite difficult. The hostel was a 2/10. It lacked atmosphere and was too big to actually meet with anyone. The staff didn’t go out of their way to help either and this left me wanting more. I decided to try a smaller hostel the next day, Emerald Fields which was just down the street. I had a decent sized meal with roasted chicken and grilled potatoes for dinner at the Plus and caught up with Rahat before heading to bed.

This was my first night in Florence and most of it was spent on the bus and would really rate it too high. The next few days in Florence were to be a highlight of my trip and I was eagerly looking forward to it.

Day 33   4/12/2017      Monday

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Checked out of the Plus Hostel. I realized bigger hostels didn’t really suit me. I preferred a more intimate setting where I could get better know the staff and the other backpackers living in the hostel. Emerald Fields provided exactly that. Gabriel was the manager and only staff in the hostel and did everything himself. He gave me some great tips on places to go, things to do and helped make an itinerary for my time in Florence. He was also kind enough to have me check in before the 2:00 pm mark that most other hostels insist on.

I was staying at a six bed dorm room and quickly got acquainted with one of my roommates. Ida, was from Sweden and together we spent the day exploring Florence. Most of the museums were closed on Monday and so we decided to do all the free stuff. We started with Piazzale Michelangelo, a viewpoint south of the city on the other side of the Arno river overlooking the whole of Florence.. You could see all the major sights from here the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi gallery, the Galileo museum, the Duomo and the great Arno river dividing the city. A bronze replica of David was located at the centre of the square with statues of Dawn, Dusk, Day and Night on the fours corners. The statues are the same ones that are located inside the tomb for the Medici. The walk to the top of the hill was quite interesting. I got to know Ida better and realised how silly her sense of humor was. It was quite refreshing to be with someone who didn’t take themselves too seriously. We got lost a few times and ended up at the Santa Croce Basilica once and the other time at the Duomo. We stopped by a classic Italian place close to Santa Croce where we had lunch. I ordered pasta with beef ragu, while Ida had a vegetarian pizza. Both dishes were quite delicious. Afterwards, we stopped by at a gelato place to have my first taste of Italian gelato and it did not disappoint. I went with the tried and tested option and ordered pistachio.

We stopped by the Duomo but were put off by the long lines and decided to purchase online tickets and do the tours the next day. We still managed to marvel at its beauty from the outside. I really let myself dive into the rich history of Florence. The construction of the Cathedral and how it compared to others around the world and how Brunelleschi drew inspiration from the Pantheon to design his Dome, the Medici financing the Renaissance and the rich history and legacy they left behind. Every random fact excited me especially as it was a new bit of information which helped me put the puzzle together. We roamed around the city a bit more and found ourselves next to the Uffizi, another item on my list of things to do in Florence. We headed back to the hostel for a bit of rest and to book the tickets for Duomo the next day.

We had dinner at the Central Market which had a giant food court on the second floor and offered a wide range of food. Post dinner we explored the city a bit more. Florence is a pedestrian-friendly city and my favourite of the Italian cities on this trip. We stopped by Duomo at night once again and it looked quite different under the moonlight, almost like a different building. We headed back to the hostel soon afterwards and went to bed

Day 34   5/12/2017      Tuesday

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Plan for the day was to explore Santa Maria del Fiore. The lines were quite long and this was during December, peak season must be insane. We took our time getting ready and started with the Bell Tower at 10:00 am sharp. The wait wasn’t too long, the lines moved fast and good banter made the time fly by. We climbed the 400 odd steps to the top of the tower, stopping every now and then to admire the view. Pretty similar to Venice, the Belltower provided a 360 view of the city and is a good vantage point to admire Brunelleschi’s Dome.  I had high expectations of the Cathedral and that’s where we went next. We queued up and watched the random horse carriages and ambulances passing by. It was quite noisy to be honest. As we entered the cathedral someone was handing over flyers for a free Orchestra at the Santa Croce church. We were pretty down for the orchestra and it would be another thing ticked off from my to-do list. Back to the tour of the Duomo, we went past the security check and finally entered the Basilica. The interior was massive, it had to be. The Dome in the centre was one of the biggest in the world. Paintings covered the wall and statues made up the remaining portion. A large portion of the Cathedral including the Dome was restricted for visitors. I was a bit let down and made my way underground to the Crypt. The Crypt of Santa Reparata is situated right underneath the Basilica and provide archaeological evidence of the old Basilica, it also houses the final burial places of many notable figures including Giovanni Medici, Filippo Brunelleschi two popes. The history in Florence is a bit surreal. It started off with hearing stories of the past, followed by some History channel videos to get a better context and then by seeing the actual art and culture in real life and finally I was at the resting place of these incredible individuals. I left the crypt a bit awestruck and was roaming around trying to find a place to have lunch when I stumbled upon the Medici Palace. The entrance was a garden with statues on either side of the pavement leading up to the main gate. Designed by Michelangelo himself, this place was something. Unfortunately, the entrance was ticketed and Ida wasn’t too keen on it so we decided to go back and look for a place to eat.  The place we found was called Fiaschetteria Trattoria Mario, a mouthful! A very cheap eat with really high quality food. I opted for the pasta again because why not? We had some fresh bread and olive oil to start things out before we were served the pasta. I really enjoyed this place. It was busy but had character. The menu was written on a paper and stuck in front of the counter and there were no conventional tables per say. You sat where ever you could which forces you to socialize. After lunch I grabbed a hot choc and headed towards the Baptistery. Ida had some work back at the hostel and left soon afterwards. The artwork for the dome of the baptistery was very detailed. Jesus was at the centre with angels above him symbolizing heaven and the devil and otherworldly creatures symbolizing hell underneath him. I left the Crypt and continued to walk aimlessly until I found the Uffizi. I stopped somewhere in between to have a quick chat with Aju and tell him all that I say in the past few hours and how he had to come visit. I put on my audio guide and entered the Uffizi. The guide started with the iconic picture of Mary and baby Jesus. It talked about the different versions of the paintings and how the Gothic imagination was mostly two dimensional but the Renaissance brought depth and uniqueness to paintings. Subsequent paintings in the room showcased this in more detail. Some notable paintings included Spring and the Birth of Venus, both by Botticelli. This was a perfect example of a renaissance painting. I am not a big arts person but I found it refreshing, innocent, detailed and otherworldly. I took a short break and enjoyed the sunset over Ponte Vecchio before getting back to the art. Most famous artists had their own exhibition room including Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci. The Annunciation by Da Vinci was also a stand out. I finished off at the Uffizi and met up with Ida at the Central Market where we had dinner. I ordered a stuffed chicken breast with fried potatoes on the side. Similar to every other meal in Florence this hit the spot. We went to the Orchestra afterwards and soon found out that even though it was free we needed to grab tickets. The line was a few hundred people and growing and we were worried that we wouldn’t have a place to seat. Luckily things did work out and for the next hour we sat quiet in our seats, eyes closed and took in the music. I have really grown a liking to classical music over the last few month and I am glad I got the opportunity to do this. It was a nice way to end the night.

Day 35   6/12/2017      Wednesday

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Florence added a layer of complexity that I hadn’t really encountered in my trip so far. Eindhoven gave me time with my family, Reykjavik the northern lights, Lisbon introduced me to really exciting bunch of people to hang around with, Spain, in general, gave me great food but Florence gave me depth. The rich history of the city excited me. The statues, art, food, the music they all spoke the same language and it all evolved from the Renaissance.  Our reservation for the Dome climb was at 12. We climbed the 500 steps through the spiral staircase up to the top. The Dome is made of two parts the exterior one with the tiles on the outside that is viewed by everyone and slightly smaller one inside which is covered with detailed artwork. The night before I stayed up looking up on the herringbone design used to build the Dome. The herringbone design was an engineering feat achieved by Brunelleschi. The pattern allowed the shear forces on the Dome to be distributed in a way, not horizontal plane thus ensuring the structural integrity of the building. It was simple and genius. The view from the top was surreal. It was the tallest structure in the city and had a birds-eye view of the whole city.

For lunch, we went to our usual place. The busy classical Italian place close to the central market. I went for a slow cooked lamb this time around. It literally melted inside my mouth and went hand in hand with thick loaves of bread. Ida and I went back to the hostel afterwards where she packed her stuff to head to Rome and I got some pointers from Gabriel about the best place to buy leather goods. After saying my farewell to Ida I went towards Santa Croce which was situated in close proximity to a leather factory. I saw the artisans at work putting the finishing touched on their products. I bought a wallet for Aju and got his initials engraved on it. Tuscan leather product with a personal touch I think that makes for a good present.

On the way back, I stopped at Vivoli, the best Gelateria in Florence and tried out three of their most popular flavours. It definitely was one of the better ones I had tasted but I would rate the parlour from the other day higher.

I still needed to buy a present for Abbu and I figured a handcrafted Italian shoe would be the perfect item. Leonardo shoe is a family owned business with 25 years of craftsmanship, it also had amazing reviews. I was served by a young lad named Alex who found me a nice pair of derby for Abbu and a matching one in brown for me. It was an expensive day and I was blowing through my budget at this point. I decided to save some money on my dinner and went for a vegan option. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best option. Food was just as expensive and the taste was meh.

Day 36   7/12/2017      Thursday

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Last day in Florence. I Checked out from the Emerald fields and thanked Gabriel for an amazing time and took a photo of him before I left. Side note, Gabriel loved using the word “Allora” in his sentences which I found quite funny.  I left my backpack at the hostel and went to the Accademia Museum to see David. David was standing tall and mighty at the end of the hall. He was a lot bigger than anticipated and gave me goosebumps just looking at him.  He truly was a work of art. The depth in detail, the sheer size and his masculinity was something to behold. Leading up to David are some of Michelangelo’s unfinished works more famously known as Michelangelo’s Prisoners. The artist worked on his statue through creative flow alone. His scientific familiarity with the human physique allowed him to create statues that were quite distinct from his peers. He simply took a slab of marble and etched his way until the art presented itself.

I left the Accademia and headed towards the Ponte Vecchio which now is filled with stores selling gold and precious metal ornaments. The Ponte Vecchio is connected to the Uffizi and other important building in Florence and provided a path for the Medici and other nobles to pass through without using the streets where the common folk resided. It was drizzling at this point and I bought myself an umbrella and wondered the streets of Florence one last time. I had that bittersweet feeling once again, similar to Iceland and Portugal. I did not want to leave. I took in the views of the Arno River and proceeded to walk towards the Medici Chapel, the final resting place of the remaining Medici members. The entrance was ticketed and I chose to only admire it from afar. I said my goodbyes to the Medici and Florence as I grabbed my backpack from the hostel and boarded the train towards Rome, my final stop.

The journey through the Tuscan hills was stunning; mountains on the backdrop, wineries everywhere accompanied by olive farms and a picturesque sunset to match the setting. My only regret from Italy was I wouldn’t get to explore Tuscany like this. This warranted a second trip. I reached the Termini station of Rome around 8ish. This place is well known for its petty crimes and scared the living shit out of me. The area was dodgy but the hostel was equally cheap.  I closely held all of my belongings and sprinted to the hostel without making eye contact. I managed to check in safely and went out to grab a pizza from a local joint not too far away. The pizzeria was very simple and easy going but made some damn good pizzas. I came back to the hostel where I became friends with Aaron (Aus) and Jake (Canadian living in Milan). We bonded over how people always switched the lights off at the hostel and how inconvenient it was. Turned out there was no-one else in the room and we simply just forgot to switch them on. We made plans to explore the city the next days and went to bed pretty soon afterwards.

Day 37   8/12/2017      Friday

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First proper day in Rome and its a big one. Stayed up last night looking for itineraries for Rome. We decided to what Ricky calls the Caesar shuffle but we kept going off course quite frequently.

Spent the day exploring with Aaron and Jake. Made fun of how I thought Aaron was French. We had breakfast from a little Cafe. Very cheap bakery items. Pricey hot chocolate though. Our first stop was the Colosseum. The walkway leading up to the mega-structure is covered by trees on either side of the amphitheatre at the end. We did a few runs around it and admiring the beauty from afar. Florence was the Renaissance hub during the 14th and 17th century. It was a lot smaller than Rome and easy to cover most of the historical sights.

With Rome though, everywhere you turned there was an artefact which was around 2000 year old. The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, the arch of Constantine were all in close proximity. This posed an interesting dilemma, what should we see first? It’s easy to get lost in the history when there is so much of it. There was the history of the Roman Empire and the Pagan Gods, the Renaissance and modern-day Italy. We decided to check out the highlights and use the Rick Steve audio guide to put things into context. Rome was built on seven hills. With statues, monuments or clock towers on each of the hills. The city is also more spread out than Florence and has a combination of Renaissance and Pagan age art, statues, buildings and monuments.

We left the Colosseum, and started wondering about and stumbled upon a really big white building at the heart of Rome besides busy intersection. It seemed fairly important like most thing in Rome. We decided to check it out and found the place was called Altare della Patria, a monument built in honour of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy. The base of the structure housed the museum of Italian Unification. We climbed the stairs and went to the top of the building which gave an excellent panoramic view of Rome. I remember it being quite windy at the top and quite a few birds. A very complex set of ruins stood out from our vantage point and that’s where we decided to go next.  I remember having a very lively conversation with the guys about the future. Looking at all the history makes you contemplate what things will be like in the years to come. We talked about the green revolution, AI, and big data. We soon reached the ruins we saw from the top of the monument. The place was called Trajan’s markets. We appreciated the history of old Rome before wondering about again.

Rome is divided into two by a small river. We went to the little island on the river, which looked like a Star Destroyer. Did a quick stroll on the other side and returned back to the Roman Forum. Good old Ricky had our backs with his audio guide. We started from the Arch of Titus and walked towards the old Basilica which is what the cathedral and temples base their designs on. The old Basilica was served as a law court and not a religious building. It’s only a tenth of the size it was used to being, but it’s not hard to imagine how far it spanned back in the day. We crossed by the temple of Venus and walked to the temple of Caesar where Caesar was burnt. The ruling families and parties did not give Caesar a proper burial but burnt his body and left no monuments of significant value. A sad end to the emperor. At the end of the guide was the Roman senate. It looked quite different from what I imagined and surprisingly enough, was not the place where Caesar was murdered. The Senate was temporarily meeting at a different place when Caesar was killed.

We finished the forum and stopped by the Trevi fountain twice once during the day and once at night. Made a wish to come back again. It was a public holiday and the Pope was expected to give a speech at the Spanish steps. We hurried there but the crowd was huge and we could only manage to take pics of people standing in front of us.  We decided to bail on the speech and check out the Pantheon. On the way, we saw some amazing street performers, guitarists, opera singer and all-around talented individuals. As luck would have it, the Pantheon was closed and we walked back to the Spanish Steps where the Pope had finished his speech but there was still a treat left. An American dance crew was touring Italy and performed at the Steps. Reminded me a lot about High School Musical and how cringy it was. Nevertheless, it was a capacity crowd with all the streets and plaza in front packed with on-lookers, and we were lucky/unlucky to be in the second row.

We went back to the hostel exhausted. Rome isn’t small by any measure of the word and we spent most of the day walking sometimes in circles. After some chips and sangria at the hostel, we decided to head for dinner. Aaron recommended a Nepalese place and to be honest I needed some rice and curry at this point.  I remember the food being on point, chicken curry, daal, mixed veggies and a spicy sauce along with rice. It really did hit the spot and it was cheap. We went and had gelato afterwards. I went for the pistachio one as usual. We crashed as soon as we went back to the hostel.

Day 38   9/12/2017      Saturday

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Had to cover a lot of ground today or that’s what we planned and had an early start to the day. We were out of the hostel by 9:30 and stopped by the little Cafe same as yesterday for breaky. After loading up on some caffeine, croissants and custard pastries we headed towards the Colosseum. The line wasn’t too bad and we soon entered the amphitheatre. It consisted of three tiers with the Emperor sitting on the first tier next to a golden cross and plebeians sitting on the top tier. The building is no more the structure it once was but, it doesn’t take a lot to imagine what happened here. Animals were brought from all parts of the empire and made to fight each other as the starting act. Subsequent acts involved humans with the final act being the gladiator matches where the outcome of the fight was usually death. Sometimes people were spared depending on how valiantly they fought but the decision was usually left to the emperor or the crowd. The gladiator games as a means of pleasing the general public for Rome and take their attention from socioeconomic issues and it worked more often than not. I took some short videos whilst playing ‘Now we are free’ in the background as cringe as that may be.

We left the Colosseum to go to old Palatine Hill which overlooked the forum but sadly our ticket wasn’t valid anymore. We decided to walk towards the Vatican which was an hour-long walk at least with the most optimistic route but we sort of zigzagged our way there and took a lot longer.

After we had crossed the river we stumbled upon a restaurant which had very good value for money. We ordered the lunch special and included bruschetta as the appetizer, lasagna for the first plate, chicken cutlet with wedges for plate two and tiramisu for dessert. Thoroughly enjoyed the food there.

By the time we reached the Vatican it was close to 2:30-ish and we were absolutely shocked at the size of the line. I heard about the long queues but didn’t figure it would be this bad. The fact that it was a Saturday and the day before was a religious public holiday did not help much. The Vatican is the world’s smallest country with the Pope running his own government. We decided it was not worth purchasing tickets for the museums and chapel since they closed at 4 and there was no way we could make our money’s worth. Instead, we opted to stand in line for the free entrance to St Peter’s Basilica and Michelangelo’s Dome. St Peter’s square is a huge oval shaped area with over 200 pillars on the side on top of which lie approximately 100 statues of the saints. The square was impressive in its own right. At the centre was a monument that is old enough to see the fall of Egyptian and the Roman empires. The Basilica was remade during the Renaissance on top of the old cathedral and is the burying ground for the first Pope, St Peter. We climbed up the 550 steps to the top of the Dome parts of which had a very trippy spiral stairway and a slanted really claustrophobic section too. At the top we were blessed with an amazing sunset and a panoramic view of the Vatican. Michelangelo built the Dome after Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence and is bigger than the one in the Duomo and has a more complete feeling to it. It’s a shame that the facades of the Basilica shadows the masterpiece that is the Dome. We went inside the cathedral after and was absolutely awestruck by the detail that is put in every nook and cranny. To many it is considered the biggest cathedral in the world but the interior is designed to make it look smaller and have a cozier feel.

We took the metro back to the hostel and went to the Nepalese curry place close to the hostel. Needed the carbs badly after walking 17km. Afterwards, we stopped by the gelateria and said goodbye to Aaron and Jake as they would leave early morning.

Day 39   10/12/2017      Sunday

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Both Aaron and Jake left before I woke up. They had early morning flights to Sydney and Madrid respectively. My initial plan was to go to either Pompeii to check out the archaeological site of the ancient Roman town or go a bit further down to Naples and try the authentic Neapolitan Pizza. Poor weather, extra expenses and sheer laziness convinced me to opt out. Instead, I went out socializing with a couple of people I met online.

First one was with Julia, a Korean American girl whom I had breaky with. Together, we explored the Pantheon and went to a toy store that specialized in Pinocchio products and a chilli store. Julia showed me the place where Caesar was murdered. This must have been the temporary place where the Senate was meeting. We wandered around for a bit before climbing up New Palatine Hill and said goodbye soon afterwards.

The second date was more of a hanging out with two Hungarian girls Vanda and Malda. Really nice people. We met at the San Giovanni metro station and together had pizza. They took some time to come out of their shells but it was absolutely great when they did. Vanda showed her friend and me to some of the churches nearby. They were all great and had their individual history associated with themselves. One, in particular, had a staircase where Jesus was found guilty. People aren’t allowed to simply walk up to it but can kneel down and climb up using their knees whilst reciting prayers.

Afterwards, we went to Merulana Cafe which was close to the Colosseum. At the Cafe, we started off with some coffee and tea but as we began to burst out of our bubbles we started drinking a bit. We chatted about life in Australia, Budapest, our travels mine in Europe and theirs in Porto. Vanda spoke very fondly of Budapest and made me excited to visit during my next trip. We spoke about their studies, she was in her last year and doing an Erasmus in Rome and studying Psychology. Parents divorced but have a really healthy relationship with them. She is pretty good on the eyes too. We hung around for 5 hours before we had to leave.

Day 40   11/12/2017    Monday

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Had a relatively lazy start to the day again. I wanted to relax after walking 20km on average the past few days in Rome.

Agenda for the day was only the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel. Had a hearty breakfast at the Nepalese place and took the metro to the museums. Was pleasantly surprised to see no line at the Vatican and I walked straight to the ticketing office and then actual museum thereafter. Museums were really large and one could easily spend a couple of days there. Luckily, I had good old Ricky to guide me through the whole tour. We went through small courtyards, rooms with animal sculptures and statues of Roman gods and symbols, the replicas of which I saw at the Uffizi. Saw an array of renaissance paintings, an Egyptian section with stones of hieroglyphics and mummies, tapestries covering whole walls, the maps used by the Vatican until a few decades ago and so much more.

Throughout the Vatican, you have amazing mosaics which I think very few people talk about but are just as impressive as anything else on display. There was a particular section where the ceiling seemed as if it was engraved but in reality, was just painting. The detail in the artwork was truly inspiring. The last stop of the museum was the Rafael room. Saw many of his masterpieces including the School of Athens where he displayed the great minds of the Renaissance by putting their faces on the Greek philosophers – a combination of Socrates Plato Aristotle Pythagoras Ulicid and even a self-portrait of Rafael himself. Rafael managed to alter the painting at the last moment to even include Michaelangelo which I thought was fantastic.

The end of the museum leads to a small gallery after which was the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s personal chapel. The Pope had to request Michelangelo numerous times to take on the project of doing the interior artwork. Michelangelo finally agreed on the condition of having full control of the work and it took him four years to complete his masterpiece. When you have to face the altar you will see The Last Judgement painted all over the wall. The sheer size of the painting is impressive on its own but then you see the countless bodies that Michelangelo has drawn to perfection and the story he is telling. On the ceiling was the 9 scenes from the genesis at the centre of which was the creation of Adam. The artwork was done on soft plaster to lock in the colour to give that radiant look and Michelangelo completed most of it on his own standing up, covering approximately 6000 sqft of the area. Wasn’t allowed to take any photos in the chapel but it was definitely a highlight for me.

For dinner I stopped by the same pizzeria I did on my first night in Rome. I have noticed a pattern in Italy I have opted to go the same place multiple times instead of changing things up. I guess it helped me find a bit of routine when everything else is so fluid.

Day 41   12/12/2017    Tuesday

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Checked out of the Alessandro Downtown Hostel but hung around to kill some time. Mostly spent time catching up with the family back home and then checking in on Ida and Daniel (the Aussie from my room). Vanda replied to my message from the night before to grab coffee with me and together we went to Merulana Cafe. We ordered coffee and tiramisu and had a really engaging conversation. We talked about the museums and art works, family, travels and shared love for tiramisu. We left the Cafe after an hour and walked pass a European movie being shot. The actor who was shooting was apparently really famous and Vanda had a fan girl moment. We hid in a nearby Cafe until they finished the scene and Vanda took a photo with the guy. We left the movie set behind us and walked toward the Colosseum, it was nice to see it one last time and bid my farewell. I hurried to the metro which I took to return to the hostel and grabbed my bags from the hostel before boarding the airport shuttle to the international airport.

Checking in and boarding was uneventful and am I writing this on my flight to Dubai. Met a lovely Italian journalist named Pablo on the flight and together we chatted for a bit. Pablo complimented me on the gift I got for Moonti, a Ferrari replica. We spoke about my travels and how he’s jealous of the fact of not being in one of the many countries I mentioned. We shook hands and parted ways at the airport in Dubai.

Day 42   13/12/2017    Wednesday

Most of the day was spent in my flight. Crossing different time zones made me lose all track of what day it was. The flight from Dubai had an unofficial lay-over at  Thailand, which coincidentally was where Shafayat was travelling from work. I couldn’t really exit the Airport or the departure gate for that matter but it was a fun fact. Most of the other people inside the Thailand airport where returning back to Aus and seemed like they had a very different holiday to mine. Everyone was quite tanned and mostly wearing summer clothes contrast to my holiday which had me shiver in -10 Celsius.   The second flight was uneventful as I prepared for my life back in Canberra – back to 5/77 Northbourne Avenue, 10-6 shifts at Nike and the crisp weather of the Australian Summer.  The flight landed on the 14th Aus time and I caught a bus back to Canberra to attend dinner for Moonti’s graduation.

I had managed to travel by myself for 6 weeks in a continent I had never been before between 8 countries, staying at 13 hostels and making friends with countless people. I would say Europe was a success. I realize at the end of my trip how much more to the continent there is and how I have only scraped the surface. Even before I reached home I started planning out the route for my next trip:  France – Germany – Czech Republic – Austria – Hungary – Croatia – Greece. I also need to make separate trips for the Scandinavian countries and one for the South of Italy, covering Tuscany, Amalfi coast, Pompeii, Naples and some of the accompanying islands nearby. When do I plan on doing this? I am not sure. How do I plan on saving up for it? I am not sure. Uncertainty is a good thing to some extent.

To be continued.

 

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In keeping with my promise to travel more, I decided to revisit Malaysia with my family after 12 years. The 6 days we spent were split between the hustle and bustle of the KL city life, the tea plantations and vegetable farms of the Cameron Highlands and the ever so inviting waves and crisp sunny days at Pangkor. Here are my highlights from the trip:

The Mossy Forest and the Boh Tea Plantation: 

 

The two days I spent in the Cameron Highlands was the highlight of the trip for me. Standing at 1100 metres above sea level, the Cameron Highlands provided a much-needed escape from the humid and high temperatures of KL The Mossy Forest and the Boh Tea Plantation are part of a half day tour we did. The lush green trees of the plantation, coupled with the cool breeze after the light afternoon shower meant we could take in the view with a sense of calm and serenity that was unmatched. Our tour also included a trip to the museum and the factory at the plantation. Although, we did not get a chance to partake in those activities. Not too far from the Boh plantation is Mt Brinchang, the highest mountain in the Cameron Highlands that is accessible by car. Standing at 2032m above sea-level, we were at a touching distance from the clouds. As we climbed to the top, we began to get a sense of what the Mossy Forest at the summit would be like. The low-level clouds in the sky trap the mist and moisture in the air and keep the sun away. This creates a surreal environment for the evergreen forest. In fact, the damp, low-light and unnatural look to the forest almost makes it seems like something out of a horror film.

The Milkyway from Bala’s Chalet:

 

Bala’s Chalet is an Edwardian style former schoolhouse located just outside the small town of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. Located at the top of a small hill, with a view of the mountain range and a lovely garden in the front, Bala’s Chalet was the perfect place to sit down and unwind. If you haven’t been there, I would urge you to check it out.

At night, once the clouds had cleared up and the moon was out of the way, we climbed to the top of the hill. With clear skies and only a little bit of light from the town, we were able to drink in the view of the starry night. The Milkyway was right on top of us, almost smiling down. The only thing I love more than a vibrant sunset is a pitch black night with the stars shining brightly!

Banana Leaf Meal:

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Malaysian food is a mixture of three different cuisine – Malay, Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian. Each with their own authentic dishes. I love South Asian food, and even before we landed in KL, I was looking up places to go to for a good banana leaf meal. My prayers were finally answered in Tanah Rata, where I was served an array of delicious vegetables and curry platter on a vibrant banana leaf. My recommendation would be to skip the meat item and go full vegetarian to truly enjoy this dish. Also, get your hands dirty.

Sunset from Daddy’s Cafe: 

 

Our time at Pangkor was limited, but we made the most of it – drinks by the beach, fresh seafood, and sunset over the horizon. All that was done in the span of 3 hours at Daddy’s Cafe. After a day in the water, it was nice to sip some fresh juice as the sunset over the sea. The perfect way to sit down, relax and unwind. As the sky turned dark, the lights at the cafe came on and together with the candles on the table created a really pleasant ambience. For dinner, I was craving something spicy and ordered the flower crab which was served with a garden salad, rice and some crackers. Had to get my hands dirty once again, but it was worth it.

Street food at Jalan Alor: 

 

Hidden between the skyscrapers of KL is Jalan Alor, a whole street dedicated to street food. Packed with stalls and restaurants from one end to the other, Jalan Alor provided a range of cuisines from Chinese, Thai, Mongolian, South Indian and Malay. Half of the street was covered with a sitting area for restaurants and hawkers and the other half was jam packed with people trying to decide where to go for dinner. We decided to go to the Meng Kee Grill and ordered Chinese seafood – freshly grilled fish, spicy prawn, squid satay, fried rice and assorted vegetables. Everything we had was on point. Complimenting the food was some fresh fruit juice to wash down everything. My only regret with Jalan Alor is I did not find the place sooner.

Buy a book or two from Kinokuniya: 

The Japanese retail bookstore has a store located in the heart of KL inside the Suriya Mall. Kinokuniya came heavily recommended from my cousin and it did not disappoint. It was easily one of the bigger, if not the biggest bookstore that I have been to. We spent close to two hours just browsing through the vast collection of books and manga that were available. My brother and I ended up buying 8 books in total. This place was gold. The average book retails for 45 RM and is significantly cheaper than what I am used to paying in Australia.

 

The First of Many

I made myself a promise this year. Travel more. There’s so much I don’t know and so many things I haven’t experienced. I wanted to change that. Planning my first solo travel was exciting and scary. There were times when I got anxious but I knew stepping outside my comfort zone was the right thing to do.

I wanted to visit a place I have never been to, somewhere unfamiliar, where I am not used to the culture. I wanted to feel truly lost. Europe sprang to mind. Backpacking across Europe did sound exciting, but I did not have the time, money or the experience to take on the challenge. I kept that dream in my back pocket for later this year. Instead, I opted for something on the opposite end of the spectrum, Indonesia. wasn’t my first choice. It resembled too much of the Asia that I grew up in and didn’t seem to have that wow factor that most of the European countries seemed to have. It was, however, an easy choice though. It was cheap. It was close to Australia. And I have had a lot of friends who went solo travelling there so I knew what to expect. Indonesia seemed to tick all the boxes and after a bit of planning and saving up, I was on-route to Kuta.

I am the type of person who tends to relate memories with music. My bus journey to Sydney saw me listening to a lot of movie soundtracks – Star Wars, Gladiator, and Lord of The Rings whilst reading to the most cliche travel book, The Alchemist. Now every time I feel nostalgic I listen to those soundtracks and they speak to me on so many levels.

One of my biggest fears of travelling by myself was that I would be alone. Oh boy did I get proven wrong! From the moment I boarded the flight to Denpasar to the time I got off the bus in Canberra two weeks later, not once did I feel alone! I reached my hostel at 11:00 pm and was immediately introduced to a fellow backpacker named Alberto. Together we hired a car the following day and explored most of South Kuta – Tanah Lot Temple, Jimbaran, Pandawa and Padang Padang Beach, and finally Uluwatu Temple. Over the next few days, I met up with other backpackers including one of my friends from Canberra. Together we went to Ubud. Ubud was a nice change of pace from Kuta. Everything was more relaxed and calm. On one of the nights, we went out to a lounge to celebrate Maddie’s birthday. After a few rounds of drinks and rainbow shots, we decided to call it a night. Except for Yann, a French backpacker we met in Ubud. Yann was persistent on going to a pool; mind you, it was three in the morning and the streets of Ubud were deserted. Yann with his French charm convinced us to sneak into a random house and have a quick dive in their pool. We all obliged. Out on the street, Jonas was on the ground passed out from all the rainbow shots. It was a pretty memorable night.

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Over the next few days, I had accomplished a lot. I faced my fear of being in close proximity with monkeys, hiked a volcano at night to see the sunrise, crashed a scooter and got hit on by the tour guide at white water rafting. Ubud was exceptional. I had a lot of new experiences and came through largely unscathed (except for my knee).

Ubud left me exhausted. I needed a day to relax. We returned to Kuta to have a night out and go to Sky Garden. During the day, I was in full holiday mood. I was in the pool with my trusty book on one hand and a glass of ice cold watermelon juice on the other. With 90s rock playing in the background, I was in my elements.  At night we decided to go Sky Garden, one of the premier nightclubs of Kuta. With $10 entry, we got a buffet and unlimited drinks for the night. Good music, gorgeous people and some on point shisha summed up Sky Garden for me. This was quite different from Ubud. I finally got to experience the party side of Bali, and it did not disappoint!

Nusa Lembongan was next on the list. We only had two and a bit days in Lembongan to soak in the sun and try out some water activities. To our disappointment, we were welcomed by the rain gods. We made the best of a rainy day and rented some dodgy bicycles that broke at least 5 times while we attempted to explore the island. Despite conventional wisdom, we decided to ride up a hill in the hopes of grabbing a view from the cliffside and to enjoy the sunset on the other side. After riding for a couple of hours we reached the top, where we sat on a swing at the edge of the cliff taking in the gorgeous view. On the way down, we went through rural villages with lush green trees on either side and the refreshing breeze blowing. The road finally opened up to a secluded beach with clear waters and the Nusa Penida as a backdrop. We left the beach to watch the sunset. The colours changed from golden to an array of shades between red and purple disappearing completely. The trip back to our homestay was pretty exciting too. It was pitch dark. Visibility couldn’t have been more than a couple of meters and we went up the wrong hill. We were lost. No reception and no-one in sight. For about 90 minutes we were aimlessly riding our bikes and at one point even got chased by wild dogs. When we finally entered the streets of Lembongan, we were able to catch the last bit of the Nyepi (Balinese religious festival)  before we headed back to our home in preparation for Silent Day.

We were stuck in our homestay for the whole day, the next day. No electricity. No internet. No phone network and the town in complete shutdown. It gave me time to reflect on my trip. Little did I know I would have the highlight of my trip not long after. At night, the clouds cleared up we were blessed with an amazing display of the dazzling stars in the night sky. I spent hours just taking it all in and trying to find constellations. It was magical. The rest of time in Lembongan was spent snorkelling and mucking about on the beach trying to find lobster. Soon afterward, we went back to Kuta, where we sorted out some work. And not long afterward,  I was on a plane back to Canberra.

Overall, Bali was all that I hoped it would be. I got outside my comfort zone, experienced that things I wanted to, met with some of the most amazing people and got to know their stories and now I am left wanting more.

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