From Madrid we booked an overnight train to Lisbon, Portugal. It was a 10 hour train ride so I was looking forward to sleeping horizontally and not upright in a seat. There were two bunks in our little cabin and very little room for anything else. Sleep did not happen on this train and we arrived in Lisbon a little cranky. Our hostel (Lisbon Lounge) was awesome; it was nice, clean and totally inexpensive.   

The first thing we did in Lisbon was a walking tour of highlights of the city. It was only 10 Euro for a three hour guided tour. We learned a lot about Lisbon and got a good overview of the main sights and also took a vintage tram through part of the city.

The most terrifying moment I have ever experienced happened here in Lisbon, in our hostel room. There were three bunks in the room all of which were full except the bed above me. It was the middle of the night and everyone was sleeping until someone walked into the room and climbed into the bed directly above me. A few moments later the bed was shaking and this person was making the most awful sounds I have ever heard. He was gurgling, swearing and yelling incoherently, hissing and laughing in the most evil way possible.  He did not even sound human, if you have ever seen Lord of the Rings, it sounded like Smigel/Golem was in our room. I was terrified to the point that I couldn’t move or leave the room because I thought he might get me.  After about 30 minutes of this horror, I heard him snoring and I eventually fell asleep. The next morning, by the horrified looks on everyone’s faces, I knew that no one had slept through that experience. We eventually found out he was an Irish man in his 30’s and he had no recollection of that night…I wish I had no recollection of that night either!

The following day we took a day trip to Sintra. It is here that the Pena Palace (picture below) is located perched on top of a hill. This palace is like that from a fairytale, it was beautiful and we got to go inside and wander about. This day trip was a must for sure. One of the other stops along the way was to Roca Cape cliffs, the most western point of continental Europe. The view of the ocean from the cliff was spectacular but the height was a bit frightening.

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Our most spontaneous moment on the trip happened in Portugal. We randomly decided to leave Lisbon a day earlier than we planned and head north to a city called Porto.  This turned out to be a great spur of the moment decision as Porto turned out to be a hidden gem.  It was truly a beautiful place. We were only there for a full day but it was well worth the visit. We went on a wine tasting and tour of a winery that makes port wine. The best part about this was that it was completely free!

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Other highlights of Portugal

·         Castelo de Sao Jorge: a castle in Lisbon that dates back to the 10th century

·         Town of Belem: visit the monastery, climb Belem Tower,  see the discovery monument and try the famous Belem custard tart

·         Go out in the Bairro Alto district in Lisbon and drink some Super Bock beer and have a shot of Ginjinha

·         Portugal is one of the cheapest countries to travel around in Europe and it’s one of my favorites…so don’t skip it

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Barcelona

·         Wander up and down Las Ramblas –a street in central Barcelona lined with street theatre, vendors , cafes and markets

·         Follow Las Ramblas to Port Vell- sit on the bridge and watch the boats go by

·         Visit Montjuic- a hill overlooking the city and harbour

o   The national palace is situated here

o   Also the site for 1992 Olympics        

·         Visit the architectural works of Antoni Gaudi- his buildings are incredible, you can take tours through each of them

o   Casa Batllo-the picture below is of the rooftop of this house

o   La Pedrera-

§  Both buildings are filled with creativity and imagination-there are interesting shapes, underwater themed rooms and mosaics everywhere

§  You don’t have to be into architecture to appreciate these unique buildings either

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o   Guell Park- This beautiful park will make you will feel like you are walking through candy land

o   La Sagrada Familia- this church designed by Gaudi has been under construction for over 100 years, there are so many different elements to it.

 Madrid

·         Visit Palacio Real (the royal palace) and take a tour through the different rooms including the armoury

·         Prado Musuem

·         Visit the many parks

·         Plaza Mayor is where we spent a lot of time eating, drinking and sitting around listening to “authentic “music – this is pretty much how we filled our time in Madrid:

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We really just wanted to get to Nice in southern France but for some reason it was the most difficult place to get to. The train stations in Interlaken repeatedly told us we needed a reservation and the earliest we could get there was a week later. Refusing to believe this, we jumped on a train to Bern, Switzerland, where we hoped our luck would turn around.  We got to Bern and were able to get a train that went to Nice without a reservation.  We ended up having to take 4 different trains before we finally got to Nice. That was an adventure in itself as we nearly missed the first train, crammed ourselves on another train and met some interesting military boys on the last train. From the time we left Interlaken, it was 12 hours later at midnight when we arrived at a dark and empty train station in Nice. We called the hostel we were going to be staying at because they offered free transportation from the train station.  It turns out the guy who picked us up was from LA and was traveling and working at hostels along the way; he was actually new to the job and got us lost on the way back to the hostel. After a very long day we finally arrived at Villa Saint Exupery  (highly recommend staying at this hostel) and were thrown into a room where there were 13 guys sound asleep.  The next morning we got another room with fewer people and headed to town. The hostel provided free shuttle services to and from town and the staff was great too.  Each morning while we ate breakfast someone would come around and ask you what your plans were for the day, if you didn’t know what to do they suggested things and were very helpful with information. 

hostel website: http://www.vsaint.com/

In town we went to a fruit and flower market where I had the best clemintines I have ever had, this was a daily stop where we usually grabbed lunch. One day we decided to walk to a fishing village called Villefranche, on the map it looked like a 15 minute stroll. In reality it was about an hour hike and a great deal of it was uphill but we rewarded ourselves with a nice lunch by the sea when we got there.  The following day we hopped on a city bus (1.50 Euro) that took us to the small medieval village of Eze. From there we were off to Monaco.  We got off the bus and realized we didn’t have any maps or information on Monaco and didn’t really know where we were going (we weren’t always the smartest of travelers). We found our way to the Monte Carlo casino which was very fancy, we were only allowed in the main lobby as we did not have the money or proper attire to go any further.  The marinas in Monaco were incredible too with so many enormous yachts docked there; it is quit a sight to see. 

img_14401The next day we did another day trip and went to a town called Antibes and Cannes.  We saw where the Cannes film festival is held and pretty much just wandered aimlessly around. Out of all the places we visited in southern France, Nice and Monaco were my favourites.

 

 

From Paris we jumped on a 4 hour train to Interlaken, Switzerland.  We each knew people who had been there before and they all said to stay at a hostel called Balmer’s, so we did. The hostel was pretty well full of American’s and Canadian’s so it did not feel like we were in another country but as soon as we stepped outside and saw the mountains surrounding us, we knew we were anywhere but home. We stayed in a room with 8 girls and we quickly found out what to do while staying here. We overheard someone talking about horseback riding and my ears quickly perked up as I love horseback riding.  

dscn1770We eventually made it to the horseback riding place where we went on an hour trail ride with two guides.  The horse I was on did not like one of the other horses and apparently did not like me either. About half way through the ride, my horse got spooked and bucked. In one quick second I went from sitting in the saddle to being thrown over the horses head and falling straight down on my back. I was not hurt but my camera which was in my jacket pocket was thisclose to being stepped on. My friend also informed me that I was literally less than a foot away from landing in a large pile of shit.  I was a little shaken but like a true cowboy, I brushed myself off and got right back in the saddle and finished the ride.

 

 

img_1342Interlaken is truly an adventure sports city. There is so much to do there including ice climbing, canyon jumping and river rafting but unfortunately it also costs a pretty penny. We stayed away from these extreme sports (my horseback riding experience was extreme enough for me at this point) and instead spent the day getting to the second highest peak in Switzerland (Shilthorn). We started the trek by walking, we passed beautiful waterfalls and quaint little villages. We then took a train that brought us part way up the mountain before taking a gondola the rest of the way up. At the top of the mountain was a building where one of the James Bond movies was actually filmed. Inside this building was a gift shop and revolving restaurant where we ate as the mountain peaks passed us by. It was truly beautiful up there and the air was so fresh…and cold.

 Tips

·         Go to a restaurant and order fondue…we had chocolate fondue and it was delicious

·         Buy some Swiss chocolate and bring some home for the family

·         Definitely stay at Balmer’s hostel  http://www.balmers.com/

·         Take a trip to the top of a mountain

·         Bring extra cash and take part in an extreme sport…canyoning was apparently  a thrilling experience and I wish I had done it http://www.interlaken.ch/index.php?L=3&id=53

 

We arrived in Paris after a 2 hour train ride and took a cab to our hostel.  We usually took a cab from the train station to the hostel to avoid getting lost. We arrived at the hostel (Le Montclair Montmartre) and were given our keys to a room on the sixth floor. We politely asked where the elevators were but we were shown the stairs instead. Walking six flights of narrow, steep stairs with what feels like a small person on your back is no easy task. 

We were in Paris for three full days.  We got around the city via the metro (subway) and our feet. Paris was city where we ended up doing a lot of walking, both intentionally and unintentionally as we got lost on more than one occasion…even with maps in hand.  The metro is also a great way to get around; it’s easy to understand, even for a small town girl like me and a ticket is only 1.50 Euro. 

We went to the Lourve Museum (I am not much of a museum person but this was a must see), saw the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe and walked along the Champs-Elysees. We then went to see the Eiffel Tower and began the long climb to the top. We reached the second or third level after climbing a couple hundred stairs and the view was amazing and very high up. We did not end up making it to the very top, my fear of heights got the better of me but the view was still incredible.  Seeing the sights by daylight is one thing but seeing them at night all lit up is a completely different thing. The Eiffel tower especially looks better when it is lit up and every half hour the whole thing actually twinkles.

.Eiffel Tower by Night

 The Sacre Coeur Basilica in the Montmarte district was a place I had never really heard about. Our hostel was located in the Montmarte area and we were told that we should go see the Sacre Coeur Basilica. It seems like everything that is worth seeing is at the top of some huge hill or you have to climb hundreds of stairs to get there. This was the case for the Sacre Coeur but it was worth the hike. The area around it was cute too with little streets full of shops and restaurants and a market area where artists were selling their paintings.

Must have foods

·         Crepes….they make them in front of you and can fill them with anything, my favourite was filled with Nutella…yumm

·         Croissants-  I had at least 2 a day

·         Bread and cheese- delicious

·         French onion soup- amazing!

 

London calling

February 27, 2009

Our month long adventure started out in London, England with a bit of a rocky start. Once we boarded the plane in Toronto, we waited on the ground for over an hour as 5 armed men escorted a passenger and his belongings off the plane for questioning.  The passenger was then let back on the plane and we were all told it was a case of mistaken identity…interesting. Once we landed safely in London, we waited in line for customs for about 2 hours.  During this wait, my friend started to feel ill, turned ghostly white and almost passed out. I was sure that our trip had come to an end before we had even began it, but she eventually felt better and we carried on. When we got through customs and picked up our bags we realized that we were truly on our own. No one was there to tell us where to go or what to do; it was a strange feeling but a great feeling of freedom as well.  

We walked 30 minutes to our hostel and realized the whole backpack thing was not all it was cracked up to be.  We arrived exhausted from our short walk and completely sleep deprived as well, we were in bed by 8 p.m. The following day, the first thing we did was buy a ticket for the hop on, hop off double decker sightseeing tour bus. This is a definite thing to get in London especially if you are only there for a short period of time.  It was about 20 pounds for the day but it took you to all the main sights and there was a guide as well. You could get on and off as many times as you wanted throughout the day. You will definitely feel like a tourist on this bus especially if you sit up top in the freezing cold like we did. We went to the Tate Modern museum, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London.  The thing about London is that it is expensive; a single one way ticket for the underground (subway) cost 4 pounds (about $8 Can) which is why the tour bus was a great idea. We saw Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. One way to get a great view of the city is to go in the London Eye which is basically a giant ferris wheel. It was expensive but the view was worth it. We stayed in London for a total of 2 nights (one full day) and we accomplished the things we wanted to accomplish in London. It was now time to take the Chunnel to Paris.

Random tips

February 21, 2009

After reading Elise’s latest blog posting I thought I would give a few more tips about getting started

Your backpack should between 20 to 30 pounds, I believe mine was about 40 pounds, now that doesn’t sound heavy but it definitely feels heavy. So think long and hard about what you are packing, and bring only the essentials. I also had a second small bag (like a purse but not) that I carried daily to keep my camera, water, maps and things you need while out and about.

As for the money issue I do not recommend bringing travelers cheques.  They tend to be more of a pain than they are worth and not all places take them, you usually have to go to a bank to cash them in. I used my debit and credit card.  Just go to your bank first and make sure your debit card will be accepted in Europe and find out how much you will be charged each time you use it (I think mine cost me $4 each time I took out money). Also take out larger sums of money to reduce the number of withdrawals you make (I usually took out 300 Euro about once a week). Then you can also put a pin number on your credit card so that you can use it like a debit card in the ATMs. I also used my credit card to book the hostels online. 

 I definitely recommend buying a money pouch (it’s not a fanny pack but similar, its flat and you wear it under your clothes). I kept my passport, debit and credit cards and cash in there at all times, and it was on me at all times too.

Like most people I was worried that I was going to get robbed and people would steal my things at the hostels or on the trains…it never happened. Most of the hostels had lockers, some you needed your own lock while others provided them.  Most of the time my bag was too big to fit in the lockers so I just put in the important things and left the rest out and I never had a problem.

On the trains it was the same thing, you can’t always sit near your bag so as long as you keep the important things on you, you should be fine. For the overnight trains (I only took this one time) I slept with my money pouch on me and my bag was on the bed with me, not because I wanted to keep it safe  but  because there was no  where else to put it.

Another note about overnight trains, in theory it sounds like a good idea, but in reality they are miserable.  If you have a Euro Rail pass you need to pay extra for the overnight train (I think I paid 30 euro extra).  I thought it would save me money by sleeping on the train instead of in a hostel, but really it was about the same cost and it was a horrible night sleep.  

Planning for this sort of trip is difficult because you really don’t know what to expect until you get there. It is best to have an idea of what you want to do and where you want to go but I do recommend flying by the seat of your pants. This was particularly hard for me to do because I am a planner and I like to be organized. We left home with a rough plan of where we were going, what we were doing and roughly the order we would do it in. For the most part we accomplished those things but we did end up in some places we didn’t plan for and there was something exciting about not knowing where you were heading next.  

Having already been to Italy and Greece, we decided to visit England, France, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal.  After booking a flight to London and buying a Eurail Pass, the next step was to buy a backpack. I was lucky that my brother already had a heavy duty travel pack so I borrowed his.  I find it hard to pack for a week long vacation so packing for 33 days was next to impossible. After my bag was finally packed I picked it up and threw it on my back and thought yeah this isn’t heavy at all…I can definitely carry this.

 After landing in London and walking 30 minutes with the bag that was half the size of my body I quickly realized I had made a big mistake.  After the first day I hated my bag and everything inside of it! When I started out, I was careful and locked my bag in the hostels so that no one would steal from me but by the end of the trip I was leaving it out in the open wishing for people to steal things just to lighten my load. Never again will I travel with a backpack unless it has wheels attached to the bottom!

 Tips

  • Go in the off season (October-April)…shorter lines at attractions, less people in hostels, and cheaper!
  • Stay in hostels, they aren’t all bad and not like the movie, although I do have one story…
  • Look at hostelworld.com they show all the hostels in each city with prices, pictures and reviews, you can also book them on the site  http://www.hostelworld.com/
  • Buy a Eurail pass…there are several ones to pick from so choose wisely http://www.eurail.com/
  • Pack lightly…do not buy a big bag because you WILL fill it, trust me, buy a small bag so you have no choice but to pack lightly.
  • Don’t over plan…things will change once you get there

 

Welcome to my blog

February 5, 2009

After finishing school I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to travel.

With my best friend and the heaviest backpack I have ever and will ever carry, I set out on a month long trip around Europe. In 33 days I met some interesting and downright crazy people, I ate far too many pastries, climbed more stairs/hills than I care to remember and overall had the most unforgettable experience of my life.

So, with this blog I thought I would share some of my adventures…and misadventures with you while giving some pointers on what to do, what not to do, where to go and where never to go while in Europe.