Tuesday, June 28, 2016

How I ended up in Helsinki ...

 ... and other interesting observations about unplanned solo travel on a tight time frame with huge distances to cover:

Travel in Europe is an interesting phenomenon. You have the ability to cover large distances incredibly easily, whether it be by bus, plane, train, boat or car. Until I arrived in Helsinki, my main method of transport was bus. Interrailing seemed like a great idea until I discovered that it would cost twice as much for me to do it as I am not an EU citizen. On the advice of friends who had already travelled around Europe, I decided not to plan too much and rely on busses, which actually have been quite cheap so far.

The road from Paris to Prague was an enlightening one. Why from Paris to Prague? Helsinki is not as accessible as other parts of Europe. Flying it had to be, and of course, if it had to be by plane, I had to find the cheapest country to fly from. Which was the Czech Republic. Using google maps and a calendar, I figured out it wouldn't be too taxing to spend a week or so getting from A to B (or from P to P). Obviously I didn't take into account just how many hours I would spend on busses.

But so far no experience on a bus has been as bad as the time I was on a bus in South America and a kid shat their pants; in the same bus that the ventilation from the toilets wasn't working so the allocated seat I was in stank like ... Bus toilet ... Which was really unfortunate for my friend, who had been recently food poisoned from a chicken sandwich sold in the bus station. Adventures...

Anyway, I already booked a flight from Prague to Helsinki, because I had a few dates I was aiming for. One date was to reach Helsinki for my friend's graduation. Before I found out when I needed to be back in NZ, I was thinking of heading back to the 'mainland' via the Baltic States, but then I realised I would have to be back in NZ earlier and so ended up plotting my way through Sweden to arrived in Denmark to catch another friend after she finished exams and before she headed of on an overseas adventure herself.

And that is why I travelled through Scandinavia.

I got to experience the best weather Europe has to offer in Summer - torrential rain and flooding.

The arrival in Helsinki marked the farthest point I have ever been from New Zealand, not a big achievement considering every place I had been in Europe has always been 'the most distance away'. And every time someone asks where I am from, and I answer with New Zealand, there are two answers I get. Number one is 'that's so far away' and number two is 'ah, I'm going/have been to Australia'. That's great that NZ is considered a part of Australian to so many foreigners, and they're always surprised when I say it's the same distance between the two as it is from Spain to Turkey. Nearly.

Helsinki airport was a plethora of blonde, tanned Finnish mums with their muscular husbands and blond children who were possible models. Judging from the weather outside, and the fact that were obviously sun kissed, the tan was most definitely from holidaying in sunnier spots than Central Europe. While they all picked up their nicely coordinated suitcase from the conveyer belt, I waited for my understated grey and blue 50L pack and looked a lot less glam carrying it through the airport, because of the invariable boob-squash from the front straps and the tummy-squash from the hip strap, that I couldn't adjust to make any lower because apparently if I buy a backpack in Spain it's going to be made for the average Spaniard, who is shorter than me. (That's the first impression I make on most people I meet, a sneans-wearing, backwards-cap toting gal with a backpack on her back and a backpack on her front, probably with a slightly lost expression on her face. Hi, I'm Anita).

I was luckily that my friend was there to pick me up from the airport in her car, so the time spent walking in the rain was limited. That evening, I went to catch up with another friend in a bar in Helsinki. I was amazed at how early it still was. Then I looked at my watch and realised no, it was not early, the sun sets at about 11pm in Helsinki.

I awoke with a start by my bedroom being very very light and thought that I'd overslept and missed out on doing activities. Only to realise that not only does the sun set late, it rises early and it was only 4.30am. Back to sleep!

The rain continued in the morning, and I got absolutely saturated walking to the train station. By the time I got off the train and walked to the main square it had eased a bit, so I took shelter by stepping inside the church that crowns the plaza. Unlike fancy Catholic Churches, it was understated and 'functional' (my favourite adjective to describe Helsinki). Everything there seemed to be built for function, not for show. I tend to notice odd little things about cities (not because they're odd themselves, but because they're odd things to notice), and my favourite odd thing to notice about Helsinki was the double windows - needed for the insulation against the extraordinarily cold winters they have. The other thing I oddly noticed was the upside down broom heads, used to dust snow off shoes before entering shops and cafes and the like.

I exited the church and the sun was starting to show! So naturally walked along the waterfront, which was lined with little tented stalls selling berries, snow peas, stone fruit and Scandinavian food like salmon soup and hot dogs. Huge cruise ships dominated the background, and distant green specks of islands in the archipelago.

The sun was well and truly shining when I walked to a cafe to get a coffee, and from another church built on a hill there was a spectacular view of a harbour and tall colourful houses built along the waterfront.

That evening was a party for my friend's graduation, which we celebrated by having a lovely meal of salads, a quiche-type thing, rye bread, champagne, beer and cider and an excellent Finnish musician, who played songs in Finnish that everyone enjoyed listening too and dancing to in the lounge.

On Saturday morning we ventured out to the Natural History Museum, a stone church and Suomelani, a little island that appeared to be a genuine hobbiton. The NHM was full of dioramas from different periods of history, and toddlers whose parents were taking them on a weekend excursion. They had a section dedicated to NZ birds, so I felt at home there for a few minutes.

The stone church was something quite different. You notice the reddish rock appearing a lot in Scandinavia, and this church was large and round and built into the rock. Being a rainy day, there was even water dripping down the sides. The roof let in a lot of light, because it was a mixture of timber and glass.

We took a boat to the island - apparently popular with Finnish high school students who go there to drink. It had cute little houses, a church, and hundreds of what looked like houses built into the bumpy grass. We were lucky with the weather on that count - on a sunny day you can wait for ages to catch the ferry to get there and back, but we were able to get straight on and off.

I had a bus to catch to get to Turku, on the other side of Finland - where my ferry to Stockholm left from. And I was also lucky enough to have another friend from Finland to meet there. We knew each other from when he did a exchange to NZ the year afterI did my exchange to Chile. It was a really cool chance to catch up, ride a bike into town to meet his friends at a cafe, and yet again wake up frightfully early because of the brightness.

Then it was onwards to Stockholm.

Sorry about the lack of photos - I actually can't put any on the blog because of not having a proper computer - but seeing as most of you are reading this via my Facebook page you can see travel photos a plenty. And if you're not, considering a cheeky add on Insta - @anitasidney


I'll try not to make this post too gushing and lovey about this city, but I really truly fell in love with Paris, just as anyone who visit probably does.

I'll start by my arrival in Paris. (How creative, chronological order!) Somehow I'd gained an extra backpack worth of stuff and my suitcase handle wouldn't retract, so I was struggling a bit with the carriage of my luggage. Paris Point #1: three separate men stopped and help me with it in the metro stations.

I was also panicking because of the heavy rains and the flooded Siene and the apparent strike of the people who worked on the metro. I texted my friend, who I was staying with, that I would probably get in quite late, because of having to take a ridiculous number of busses to get into the city. Paris Point #2: none of this was actually a problem and it wasn't even raining.

I arrived at the restaurant where I was meeting my friend and her friends, and was immediately greeted by the chef and a waiter, who I thought were going to complain about the fact that my luggage took up about half the floor space in the restaurant. Instead, they joked about rugby with me and offered to keep it all behind the kitchen. Paris Point #3. And a bonus point for laughing at my weak joke in weak French about cooking my suitcase.

Paris Point #4 was the meal itself. Ravioli in garlic sauce, chicken in mushroom sauce and a caramelised nectarine dish, followed by cookies the chef stole from the other chef and came and sat at the table to joke with us for a while. Point #5 for the banter and free lollipops.

Point #6 and #7 have to go to my amazing friend who hosted me for four nights, and even slept in the lounge of her apartment, giving me her bed (because it would be easier for when she had to get up for work in the mornings, she told me). Fresh pan au chocolate in the morning too. Such a dream.

Another point for not raining, and letting me take photos of the flooded Siene alongside hundreds of other tourists and Parisians alike. I loved the trees dripping with leaves, the art and book stalls alongside the river, and all the cliches about Parisian style are true. Not just in the people but in the city itself. The fonts of the signs, their designs, the composition of that against the old buildings. I loved it. It's a city that is truly a feast for the eyes.

So we must be at Point #9 now, and that goes to the Notre Dame and the Ponte Neuf. I took some pics outside the Notre Dame (not wanting to go in because of the huge line) then wandered to Ponte Neuf, also known as the padlock bridge. Two of the padlock sellers talked to me about how I was taking so many photos, and we chatted for a bit.

Point #10 was the party that night - with friends of my friends slightly out of town in a very green suburb. I thought we were going out for dinner - it turns out, they put out an incredibly spread of quiches, dips, cheeses, fruit, and topped it off with some amazing cakes - a giant macaron and another fruity-mouss-ey type cake. They were super welcoming to me, and made an effort to talk with me despite my very limited French.

On the Sunday we picked up a roast chicken and potatoes from the market, which were like nothing I had every tasted before. Divine and so simple. Point #11 for cheap, yet delicious food.

Palais Garnier (the opera house) gets double points. It was an absolute treat, and also had an audio guided tour that explained the key parts of the opera house in exactly the right amount of time. Designed by Charles Garnier, it is one of the most exquisite opera houses in the world. One room literally took my breath away, I think I said something like 'wow' or maybe swore (can't remember which) out loud when I walked in. Go there if you go to Paris. If I could describe it, I'd say it had lots of gold and marble and paintings, but if you've been travelling and sightseeing you'll probably say 'yes but so many buildings in Europe do'. That's true. But this is literally 10x amazingness.

Another point to staying with my friend and going to an old peach orchard in the outskirts of the city where a band was playing live Italian music, the garden was illuminated by fairy lights, and I ate the most amazing mozzarella it made me want to cry. Would not have seen this side of Paris if it wasn't for my friend.

We must be up to point #15 or something. It's gotta be the Louvre, and it gets a point even though I couldn't go inside because it was closed because of the flooding. I guess I could somewhat call it a sympathy point because while I was there some of the building work caught fire and the police and army turned up, but chur Louvre, you added an interesting element to my photos.

Laduree gets point #16, despite being a bit of a mechanical tourist machine, where you are herded through the shop part with velvet barriers amidst the dim turquoise and gold opulence of the shop. I got a macaron and a cake thing and walked to the Eiffel Tower to eat it (because why not?) along the poncy Champ-Élysées and via the Arc de Triomph. The Eiffel Tower was setting up for the Euro football cup, so boasted a giant blue and gold football hanging up in the triangle part. It was a great way to end the day.

I'll chuck in another point for the Pantheon, and the view from the Muslim centre. And the lady begging from the second floor of a dilapidated apartment by dangling a cup out the window with a piece of string gets a point too. She definitely entertained all of us who were sitting outside the café.

Point #18 goes to the powers of social media for making it possible for me to meet with a friend from law school who was also in Paris and explore the catacombs together. They were creepy, different, artistic and a pleasant relief from the heat of the day. Even if seeing ancient bones piled up and arranged in formations like hearts and crosses doesn't sound like your cup of tea, I'd give it a try.

Point #19 goes to the Sacre Coer and the harpist outside, and the spectacular view over the city. Also to all the people taking wedding photos outside, amongst the hundreds of tourists.

I'll chuck some bonus points out there for the food and the friendliness of the Parisians. I had heard somewhere that French dislike you not being able to speak French, but I never came across anything but helpfulness and friendliness when I said (in French) that I didn't speak French.

Anyway, go to Paris. It's amazing. I really liked it, and it got 20 points.


Currently I am on yet another bus and the driver is particularly good at making sudden swerves, although this road is fairly straight. At first I thought it might be because of the dozens of Porsches overtaking us at high speed (could be 200km/h, not even kidding) but they drove past loooong ago and this swerving side to side business is still happening.

I'm on the road to Budapest, and my stomach has just started rumbling so here I am, hungry in Hungary. Pun city.

Somehow last night merged into this morning, and games of jenga at the hostel in Vienna merged into very deep and meaningful conversations about literature, life and lies. What a night, that was followed by a day of speed-sightseeing around Vienna. Armed with a map, I managed to tick off the Hundertwasser Museum, the Opera House, a church where a choir was sound checking for a performance later on this afternoon, the gardens - and none of that, aside from the Hundertwasser Museum was planned. That's what happens when you give me a map. I get lost and find places, and when in doubt, follow my nose.

The bus ride through the Bavarian countryside to Vienna was something out of a fairytale. Thank goodness it ended up happily ever after, because I spend at least half an hour in the bus terminal in Munich wondering where my bus was, before discovering 5 minutes before they bus was due to depart that 'Vienna' is actually 'Wien' in German. The things you learn.

Back to Vienna. Nice city. Wish I'd stayed for longer. I must be used to the tiny narrow streets of Spain, because like Munich, I found the streets there incredibly vast and expansive.

The Hundertwasser museum conjured a bit of nationalism in me - (another Porsche just zoomed past) when, upon entering the second story, a huge Koru flag was displayed - the one he designed for NZ. He had cool names for things like 'tree tenants' and manifestos written to support his artistic ideas. If you don't know Hundwertwasser, look him up. Wonderful artist.

The Hundertwasser Houses, a few minutes walk from the museum, were unsurprisingly touristy, and I felt sorry for the people who live there and have to deal with tourists snapping pictures outside every day. On the upside, they get cool houses.

The grandness of the Opera House and the church was also impressive, although I was disappointed I didn't have time to go to the opera. Another day, I told myself.

After note:
I visited Vienna sometime in Mid-June (not recently, these posts will be quite out of order!) I spend a lot of time writing posts on busses and transport but can get bored very quickly hence the shortened tone of this one! (And I can't really be bothered going back and making it longer #lazy)

Monday, June 20, 2016

High speed travels across Europe

It's 10.30 in the morning and I am in the Finnish archipelago, somewhere between Turku and Stockholm. The ship I'm on is kind of like the Interislander (times four). It's huge! There are multiple restaurants and cafes, a huge duty free shop, slot and other gambling machines everywhere, several viewing decks, and my idol - a fashionable blonde lady sitting out on the deck drinking a glass of white wine.

The intense-travelling phase of my journey began when I hauled a broken suitcase, a 50L backpack, a 32L backpack, and a handbag to the airport in Madrid, boarded a plane to Paris and set off from there.

A while before I left (and before I knew I'd be returning to NZ earlier than I imagined), I booked a flight from Prague to Helsinki and decided I would slowly and meticulously waltz my way across to Prague from Paris, stopping to enjoy the sights at a slow, leisurely pace.

But things don't always go to plan - so now I have been trying to pack as much in as I can. It's been exhausting, exhilarating and exciting to travel at such a fast pace. It's also made me look forward to a time a few years down the track when I hopefully will have another opportunity to travel and to see more of each country I visit. I never really wanted travel to feel like a matter of 'ticking all the boxes' but at the same time, those boxes are there because they are one hundred and fifty per cent worth ticking. There are some amazing places out there and there's a reason why they are so popular. As I haphazardly reserve overnight busses, day buses, ferries and the odd plane, and find my way to stations in unknown cities with my trusty and cheap backpack, I wonder how much more lost I would be without offline maps on my phone.

The trip so far
Paris (four nights) --> overnight bus to Amsterdam --> Amsterdam, staying at a friend's house in Deventer then visiting Wagingen and Utrecht the next day --> overnight bussing from Utrecht to Munich --> couchsurfing in Munich, then travelling by bus to Vienna --> staying in a great hostel in Vienna, spending a day there then travelling by bus to Budapest --> two nights and one full day in Budapest, then and eight hour bus to Prague --> two nights in Prague (one full day) then a flight to Helsinki --> three nights in Helsinki, bus to Turku and one night in Turku

I wrote a post about Paris, so watch this space.

The Netherlands
I'd heard so many people rave about Amsterdam. Unfortunately, getting about three hours sleep on my favourite method of transport ever (cheers overnight bus and loud passenger who didn't realise that at 2am in the morning most passengers in fact do not want to listen to your music), I looked through the city with glazed over and red eyes, but not for the same reason that most other tourists in Amsterdam have glazed over and red eyes for.

Cliches were all there, bicycles, canals, flowers, narrow houses (because of taxes) and the odour of freshly smoked weed. One thing to be careful of - cyclists! It's not hard though, if you look both ways twice and stick to the specially marked pedestrian footpaths and not the specially marked cycle lanes.

The street art was also super funky, and my quirky tour guide spend a while explaining about the different kinds of street artists (apparently one of the most famous ones is a primary school kid who puts a picture of a cute strawberry up everywhere). After spending the day touristing around Amsterdam, I collected my beloved fourty-euro backpack from the luggage storage in the train station and hopped on board a train to Deventer, a village where my friend lived.

This was where I got my first taste of a real Dutch snack - a croquette. A mixture of mince and potato, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. The cool thing about these snacks is that you get them out of rows of mini ovens, which you can open once you've put in enough coin. This is just one example of how quirky yet functional the Dutch are. Vending machines in walls selling hot fried snacks. Amazing and so practical.

The friends who I stayed with lived the outskirts of a small village, where her parents run an organic farm. Despite being in the acclaimed city of Amsterdam, I also loved finally getting a taste of country air. We walked around the farm with the dog and saw where the lettuces grew, the greenhouse for the tomatoes, the irrigation and the tractor. Country lyf. You might think it weird that I enjoyed it so much, but the opportunity to see a friend again, stay with a friend and her family, eat homemade food and pick up freshly milled flour from a windmill isn't the kind of experience an everyday tourist gets, and I loved it.

The next year day we dropped by her cute university down nearby, then I trained to Utrecht and spent a few hours wandering round there before taking the bus to Munich. Utrecht looked quite similar to Amsterdam, but lacked the thousands of tourists that Amsterdam had. Instead, the people on bikes were those who genuinely lived there, the cafes and restaurants didn't have menus printed in English and in Dutch, there wasn't a smattering of weed smoke drifting in the air and the shops weren't selling just tourist paraphernalia. I'd recommend visiting Utrecht if you're in the Netherlands, for a s'more genuine Dutch experience. It was a funny experience ordering food in a fast food place there - I apologetically said to the cashier that I didn't speak Dutch (and like all the other Dutch people I met, he was super friendly and spoke excellent English). But I sat down with my receipt and waited for my food, before realising they were calling out numbers. In Dutch. So I waited a bit then went back to the same nice cashier and asked if my number had already been called, and he kindly said that he would bring it to me when it was ready so I didn't have to listen for a number in a foreign language.

Overnight bus number #2 was later that evening, to Munich.

Tired and sore, I disembarked the bus from Utrecht at about 9am and had the whole day to explore before meeting with my couchsurfing host. Luckily the weather was nice (it was only raining a little bit.)

So what does one do when they only have a day in Munich? Obviously coffee. I researched a decent cafe and followed a map (to moderate success) to find it. This was after having a speed shower at the public bathrooms in the train station, which were amazing. Constantly being cleaned, bright, lots of space and mirrors for make up and also power sockets. But by speed shower, I mean not a proper shower because I was too stingy to pay seven euros for one, instead I had a packed of baby wipes in my handbag. Useful. But not as refreshing as a proper shower.

Munich, like Amsterdam, was a city that breathes efficiency and order. I loved coming across the cute little design shops and flowers coming down the walls. The width ofthe streets surprised me after Paris and Madrid. I was in a bit of a daze from lack of sleep and the ratio of sitting in a cafe drinking coffee versus going out and sightseeing was probably weighted the wrong way.

Anyway, after thoroughly enjoying my coffee and my me time, I wandered around the city, checking out the palace gardens and was surprised by the vast expanse of the park, where hundreds and hundreds of people were enjoying the afternoon sun by picnicking, playing soccer and volleyball and having a few drinks. In one part of the palace gardens, there was a man standing in a belvedere playing music on glass jars filled with water.

Part of the next day I spent doing a 'free' walking tour, with who I thought was a genuine German tour guide - chubby, blonde, red cheeks and smiling. Turns out he was from Dallas, Texas, but was one of the best tour guide I'd had. Unlike other free walking tours, he knew the perfect amount of time to talk for (ie, did not give a 20 minute complex history lesson in every place we stopped at but instead injected humour and sass into his accounts of the history and the places). Unfortunately I wasn't so lucky with the weather there, and it was cold and drizzly. What a start to a European summer. Oh well. The raincoat that I nearly forgot to pack was well and truly getting it's money's worth.

From Munich, it was on to Vienna. I'll leave that out because I wrote a whole post on it in a bus to Budapest (I think?)

Well, Budapest. Probably the craziest and weirdest part of the trip so far, and also the place I regret spending so little time there. It was my first taste of Eastern Europe and that was something you could notice as soon as you stepped of the bus. What does one want as soon as they step off a bus? Food? The shops in the bus station were full of unfamiliar yet delicious looking cakes, pastries, tarts and types of bread. And if I wanted to pay for it, it was time to rip out the Hungarian Forint - not Euros. (Despite the fact Hungary is in the EU).

On the road to Budapest the bus I was in was overtaken by dozens and dozens of Porsche going at about 200km an hour. It was utterly ridiculous - and the bus driver seemed to be scared of them because every time one overtook us he would suddenly swerve.

The first night in Budapest was one of those nights worthy of the name 'Accidental Big Night' - ie when you think you'll be back early enough to get a decent amount of rest before the next day, but things happen and next thing you know it's 4am.

I arrived at around 9pm, found my way to the hostel by bus and tram, had a shower and decided to get some food then head out to the hostel where everyone else goes to have a few drinks. I got lost.

At 10pm I was still wandering around the area, alone and hungry in Hungary, wanting something that wasn't a kebab. I finally got something to eat, and it wasn't a kebab. It was a Mexican wrap.

Then I found the hostel everyone else was at  and some friends I met in Vienna, bought one beer (which was why I didn't expect to be out so late, because it literally was only a one-beer kind of night on my one-beer kind of budget) but we went to a crazy bar/nightclub thing with a glitterboar - yes, not a glitterball but a glitterboar hanging from the ceiling - and then when that part of the club got too hot we went downstairs and found a literal rave cave - a concrete brick encased basement, which was relatively empty, where the DJ's were playing the most intense rave music and there were some dudes there who were literally doing the most insane kind of dancing I have ever seen in my life. And that's how it turned into a 4am kind of morning. Special mention goes to one of the girls I was with. When we went outside to get some fresh air, we noticed metal detectors in the entrance to the club. She thought they were for library books. No no no, they were for metal instruments like knives and guns.

That night being a rather late one, I still got up at a reasonable hour and went for a walk down to the station, about to explore, when it started absolutely pissing down with rain. I can't even begin to describe how heavy this rain was. It stopped people in their tracks. And also trams. And me, one of the reasons being because I was wearing a white tee shirt and had no raincoat with me. That didn't turn out to be a bad thing though - I went back to the hostel in time to sign up for a hop-on-hop-off tour which a rather large number of people from the hostel was suddenly interested in. So we set off, stopping to buy 'water' from the supermarket and jumped on a tour bus to the first destination, where men were doing a strange war dance in front of Heroe's Square. There was also a lake and a castle which was apparently fake. The weather was still pretty foreboding looking, and part of the situation was that not all of the busses we could take this tour actually have roofs.

The best part of the tour wasn't seeing a snail smoking a durry on the path up to citadel, but the amazing view of the city from Citadel flanked by incredibly huge statues. It was impressive and definitely a good idea to take the bus up the hill. Did I mention it was a Monday? Game of Thrones had already been out for a night and a bit. Luckily some others from the hostel were wanting to watch it that evening before heading out. As a group we ventured out into the not-so-rainy Hungarian evening in search of a place we could get some take-away Hungarian food. We stopped outside a restaurant with a sign we couldn't understand (because it was Hungarian) and decided to attempt to communicate that we were after dinner, but wanted take away. Lots of smiles and miming and looking at menus later, I had my goulash in a take away container, they had their ribs and meatballs and mashed potatoes, and we were sitting on a floor in the hostel watching Game of Thrones.

The next morning I got to catch up with a friend who lives in Budapest and we went to a cute cafe a few tram stops down from my hostel. They served a traditional Hungarian treat with our coffee - curd cheese coated with chocolate. It sounds weird, but they are so good! She explained to me what was and I was embarrassed to admit I had already eaten two of them the previous day...

The bus station was also an interesting one. I arrived and confidently walked to what I thought was the platform. It wasns't the platform. I walked to another platform. No. Not the right platform. I tried to figure out if Prague perhaps had a different name in Hungarian, but couldn't figure that one out. Luckily I ran into a guy from the hostel who was looking for a bus to Bratislava but with the same company. He went to the information desk while I looked, who told him that this bus was across the road. Thinking there was a small chance we were on the same bus because we were with the same company leaving at the same time, I also crossed the road and ran into him, two lost Americans (yay, not me being theb only one who was lost!) and some Aussies. But not the bus. We searched high and low, and we still didn't find what we were looking for.

I saw a shed and walked behind it, to the corner of that road an another one. Lo and behold, there was a bright yellow bus with Regio Jet Student Agency written on the side. Here was the bus! Not only was it going to Bratislava, but it was also going to Prague. None of us had any idea what to expect from the bus, but we hopped in and wow. The seats had TV screens! And we got free coffee and tea. Heavenly. And much needed on an eight hour trip. The downside - the toilet didn't work. Not so heavenly on an eight hour bus ride.

I got off the bus and was immediately accosted by a strange Czech dude who didn't give me my personal bubble of space and wanted to change money (I think) but there was no way I was getting my wallet or card out of my bag with a guy who was standing that close to me, so I went to find an ATM elsewhere. Despite that little scare, it didn't feel unsafe there, so Mum please don't worry about me.

Anyway, that little delay proved to be a good thing, because it meant I randomly met some Americans in the train station who didn't have a hostel to go to and led them to where I was staying, where they were fortunate to have enough space for them.

However, you may realise I have an absolutely terrible sense of direction and in Prague for some reason, this was excaberated even more - I can't even use words to describe how lost I got in Prague on an almost constant basis. Before I met the guys, I had actually already gone down to the platform where the train was, then thought I was on the wrong platform, so surfaced again to check if there was any other platform (of course there wasns't).

But wait, there's more. Upon arriving into the city, and following the instructions from the hostel which I had a screenshot of in my phone, we attempted to catch the tram to the hostel. First of all, we caught the tram the wrong way, then caught the wrong tram. Eventually we made it to the hostel.

Then we went out for dinner and got a Czech meal in a quirky restaurant run by a Yugoslavian man. Bread and sausages had never tasted so good - it had been hours and hours since my last meal. We then got ridiculously lost again trying to find the bar via trams and trains, where a friend from Vienna was with some other new peeps from his hostel. We eventually found it, caught up with them, then made our way back to the hostel via tram and Google maps. Also catching the right tram but the wrong way. It was late, and the next day I forced myself to get up and do a walking tour, which I then ditched because the tour guide was giving us a history lesson in each stop and I just couldn't handle the information overload. So I went up the Astronomical clock instead and saw the view.

I genuinly thought Prague was like a fairy tale land. Full of houses and buildings with orange tiled roofs, a castle that looked out over the city and the river. The sun also came out, which was one of the best things that could happen! After checking out the view from the Astronomical Clock, I wandered to a mall to buy a much needed memory stick - and realising how many religions influence Prague. There was an alchemy museum, and so many buildings had starry symbols and signs of the horoscope. There were also several churches and synagogues. If I'd stuck withb the walking tour, I probably could have found out more, but no regrets on leaving it.

I purchased the much needed memory stick in a modern shopping mall (Prague has experienced rapid development in the past twenty years, making it a really cool blend of old buildings and streets but also very modern facilities), I attempted to find my way across the river to the castle. This proved a mission for this very geographically challenged kiwi girl. I was walking around in circles. Thankfully, as soon as I found a bridge across the river, I also found signs that pointed up to the castle, so followed them. I didn't actually end up going in the castle, but looked out from the top of the hill over the city again. Again, another spectacular view but this time with a bright blue sky.

The walk back down the hill back to the hostel led me over Charles Bridge and back (because I wasns't actually supposed to cross the bridge). But at least it was a special bridge. One of the boldest in the city. Since I didn't do the walking tour I can't describe what's so special about it, except for the fact that there were dozens of old statues on each side of the bridge and hundreds of tourists taking pictures from it. Post Charles Bridge, I got lost again trying to find the affamed John Lennon wall.

Although there were tourists there, it was a completely different kettle of fish to the bridge. Shaded by trees and in a quiet side street, there was an amazing busker there playing sixties songs on the guitar while people watched. The wall is an amazing piece of graffiti, with messages of peace and love sprawled all over it in brightly coloured paint, pen, and whatever other medium there is. The other interesting thing about the wall was two older teenage girls, wearing very fancy clothing and high heels, with their hair and make up done, taking literally hundreds of pictures in all kinds of different poses, probably for instagram. They were doing this for a veeeerrryyy long time. The cheeky wall also had wet paint which they also didn't realise for a veery long time.

That was my last afternoon in Prague before I boarded a plane for Helsinki.

I have more blog posts to come, when I get a chance, so please watch this space!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Sola in the South of Spain

Before I left Spain, I really wanted to explore a bit of the country and thus booked Bla Bla Cars to Seville then to Córdoba. Seville was for two nights by myself, then I would meet up with friends on the third day in Córdoba. Not too shocking for a kiwi girl to be travelling around Europe alone, but to Europeans it comes as a bit of a surprise and they often ask why (like, do I not have friends?) and say how brave it is. This is exactly what happened to me on my Bla Bla Car to Sevilla and it got me thinking.

Europe is so easy to travel around, and at times a lot cheaper than just travelling inside New Zealand. Not only are there cheap bus companies and airlines, Bla Bla Car exists, which is comfortable and even more cost effective at times. You just reserve a seat in a stranger's car for a journey, through a website. But because it's so easy to travel around Europe, Europeans travel, and not alone. Families from the Netherlands have summer houses in Marbella, the British love the Balearic Islands, party people take pills in Ibiza... It's possible to do a weekend trip or a summer holiday in another country because it's only a couple of hours or so on a plane and it's cheap. Whereas if I was so say, travel with a friend from NZ, I'd be looking at going to Europe for an extended period of time, we'd both have to make sure we had coinciding time off work (or Uni, of which it's either over the summer in NZ hence winter in Europe) and hadn't already been to the same places before, and both wanted to spend time with each other for weeks. I suppose that's why tours like Contiki and TopDeck are so popular - you get to see a lot in a short space of time and make new friends. But it's not really my cup of tea and doesn't make sense to me - especially knowing quite a few people dotted around Europe who I am desperate to see. I'm happy to travel by myself (most of the time) and if I get sick of my company, it's only me who has to deal with it.


Yeah, so anyway... Bla Bla Car to Seville. Featuring a fast talking, fast driving Spaniard, a possible future Olympic athlete and a beer-drinking, video-showing, singing, middle aged Spanish man. It was actually quite a fun trip. The beer-drinking man sang Spanish songs to us and showed me videos about Spain and Sevilla on his smartphone. The athlete and him both gave me tips and insider info on Seville, so I learnt about the culture and what makes Sevillians tick. And the driver drove, well, fast, so even though it was quite far away we got there faster than I have on a bus.

The first thing I did when I got there was slip over in a puddle and get mud all up the back of my leg, which didn't exactly look like mud when it was up the back of my leg. Gr8 work Anita.

I checked in at my hostel (Black Swan Hostel, would definitely recommend it) and asked the staff for places where I should visit. With a map in hand and the intention to 'practice' my navigational skills, I set off to discover the city, promptly getting lost about two blocks from the hostel.

there's a song that goes 'Seville has a special colour' and it's very true. This is one of the most colourful, beautiful cities I had been to. Just imagine a city dotted with churches, outside of which are huge white pillars with purple wisteria woven around them. Random archways are painted red, white and ochre, and several of the houses also are white and ochre, with multi coloured flowers dripping off the balconies.

Then there was the park, a lush paradise with bird song and palm trees, more tropical flowers and the sound of water. Random tiled sections with more purple wisteria and pink fuschia. I loved the park so much I ran through it the next morning.

The Plaza de España is one of the most well known attractions in Spain. Go me, I thought, when I ended up there at dusk, and the colours really did shine through. It's unlike other plazas in that it's semi-circle shaped, and a canal runs through part of it - and you can row boats around it. Bridges cross the canals, and bordering it is the council building with balconies which you can enter to get a view of the plaza and the park. If you're a Star Wars fan, you've probably already seen it in the movies.

One of the places I was most excited to see was the Alcazar, which the Game of Thrones fans reading my ramblings may recognise as Dorne. Those gardens were also spectacular. Beautifully maintained. The glistening sound of the many water features and birds rang throughout the park. It boasted so many different colours, not just in the plants but also in the tiled designs that were inside the Alcazar building. Sevilla is close to Africa, so a lot of the designs are Moorish and Arab influenced.

I said that Seville had a special colour - it also had a special smell. Not the 'Spanish drain smell' one visiting friend once called the smell of Spain, but the smell of incense and rosemary. On Sunday I stumbled across a Christian procession in the neighbourhood of Triana. Finally it made semi-sense why a lot of men I had seen leaving churches were wearing white pants and sandals. They were marching with a statue of the Virgin. Marching with her was also a band, young children in traditional costume carrying really long candles, and young men in red and gold robes carrying incense. Further along the street were shrines with the Virgin, and people were throwing rosemary at it. I don't know why - maybe she liked roast potatoes.

The streets of Triana were blistering hot and several of the low, two stories houses had hung banners outside, probably because it was a Sunday. They were also covered in Rosemary, other dried plants, and Spanish people in restaurants enjoying a family lunch of beer and tapas. It was lively, happy, family friendly and I really found it quite wonderful.

Later on that night, I met up with an exchange student I met back in 2009 in Chile, who is now living in Seville. It's amazing what social media can do - I'd seen she put a few photos of Seville on Instagram, so commented on one of her photos that I was going to be there, and the suddenly there we were, reunited and catching up on our lives. That night we went to a traditional Seville tapas bar. It was painted white and covered in religious devour, small and crowded, but that's like any bar in Spain and I love it. The next day we wandered around to another neighbourhood and market, and went up Las Setas, the largest timber sculpture in the Northern Hemisphere, which offers amazing views over Seville.

I then caught a Bla Bla Car to Córdoba, to meet with my friend who had already been there for two nights.


Córdoba was more a traditional, untouched Spanish town. We stayed in the old part of the city, where all the buildings were white, flowers cascaded down balconies, and there were hundreds of patios.

What are patios?
It gets really hot there, and they're a cool place just inside the entrance of a house, shaded but in open air, where you can have a spot of tranquility amongst plants that are meticulously maintained. It's really quite something. Our hostel had two patios and a solarium on the rooftop, where we could look over the city to the fields and the hills.

I went to the Mezquita, quite a special place because it's a church yet also a mosque. Back in the day, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived harmoniously together there. It was quite impacting - red and white striped archways, together with crucifixes and statues of Christ and the Virgin.

The Alhambra are gardens in Córdoba, and like the Alcazar in Seville, full of water features and beautiful flowers. We climbed the tower and got more spectacular view over the city and the surrounding hillsides.

Even the Bla Bla Car back was great - more amazing scenery. It's hard to get bored on long journey when you go through completely new and beautiful places. Like most people who travel, I wish I had more time to spend there, but hopefully I will be back one day.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ups and downs and exams and broken toilet seats

What is wi-fi? It's definitely not something that we used back in 2012 when travelling around South America. Due to this strange phenomenon of not having data or wi-fi, I've taken to writing blog posts in busses while travelling, then never actually getting around to posting them. So here's one on my last few weeks in Madrid.

I am writing this on a bus somewhere in Austria, en route to Vienna. In the space of a few weeks (short weeks on long weeks, depending on whether I was studying for exams or travelling), I can sincerely say that life has had some serious ups and downs. But because every cloud has a silver lining, when one door opens another door closes etcetera etcetera - here's an overview of them in a bullet pointed list that also frames the last few weeks of my time at uni.

Spending hours and hours studying for exams, wondering how on earth I'm going to manage doing this Monday to Friday.

Spending several of those hours studying with friends (and when I say study, yes, we did study) but study breaks are nicer when you can moan about your exams with other people, they can help you plan your trips, and when you place bets with each other (for coffee) about how late you will be to the designated study spot.

Exams. Nobody's favourite part of the semester.
Here's how my exams went.
Exam 1: Delitos contra el patrimonio.
Oral exam. 28 topics to prepare for (and I got the wrong information so studied the most for topics that weren't going to be in the exam.) Arrived 9.15am for 10am exam. Me and two classmates entered room. Professor gave each of us three topics. From those we chose two. We wrote on a piece of paper everything we remembered about each topic. Then when we were ready, we all had a turn speaking about those topics, while the professor asked us questions, if we missed something out. Quite brutal really.

Exam 2: Derecho laboral
Multiple choice exam + one long answer question. Exam began at 3pm, we didn't started the exam until 3.30pm. Multi-choice questions were very snakey, along the lines of (well, for me at least) every answer looking the same except for one word.

Exam 3: Derecho proceso penal
Study 16 topics (that was the hard part in itself, considering I had minimal notes because of how the course was organised and what the exam topics were) and a 600+ page manual organised by topics which didn't correspond with the ones we had in the exam. Not only that, but of the 16 topics, the one I drew out of the hat and had to do a 10 minute exposition on was one that was barely in the manual and apparently I was supposed to prepare for it by looking online (which I actually had done for most of the topics, because it was all higedly pigaldy throughout the manual. I can't express how frustrating and scary it was knowing I had to study enough to be able to talk long enough from memory in Spanish on one of 16 topics which would be selected at random, when I basically had to learn all the material from scratch, not even being certain if what I was learning was actually correct.

Exam 4: European Union law
Yay, an exam in English! I had been steadily chipping away at it, thinking I was well prepared, and even had a 'go-through everything' session with a classmate before the exam. We went in there pretty confidently, got given the paper and were immediately regretting putting in all the long hours studying because the lecturer had given us an absolute brain teaser of an exam, with multi choice answers that required more logic than knowledge to solve. Something like 'A) ...' B) ... C) A is partially correct and so is B; D) A is partially correct and B is partially wrong, so C must also be partially correct'. I really felt sorry for the non-native English speaking students in my class because some of the answers literally didn't make sense.

All in all, compared to Vic exams - much much muuuuuuuch more rote learning, no chance to apply knowledge to a problem question (although in Delitos contra el patrimonio and Derecho laboral we did that in our classes), shorter exams (maybe 1 hour to 1.5 hours), oral exams, and a lot more relaxed - students regularly going up to ask the professor questions and that kind of thing.

Passing exams. Probably could have got away with studying a bit less, to be honest.

Being beautiful, hot and sunny outside while having to study.

Not having to walk to the library/Google campus in the rain.

Goodbyes. It was that time of year that everyone started leaving. Probably the worst goodbye I had to say was to one of my closest friends, in which I had to leave suddenly to run to the train station to catch a train home for a re-scheduled Skype interview, so it never really felt like I said goodbye properly. But that set the tone for all the goodbyes from there on it, because of my travelling there was always a small chance I would actually see someone again.

Having friends to say goodbye to! (Haha). But in all honesty, my 'group' was pretty diverse, from many different Madrid universities and it was a cool thing that we all came together in bits and pieces and because of different reasons to do stuff together.

Dragging a broken suitcase weighing about 20 kgs (retractable handles would no longer retract), two heavy backpacks and a handbag to the train station and on two trains to get to the airport, in 30+ degree heat.

Dem gainz from all that heavy lifting (with the luggage).

Rushedly last minute packing, switching off all the power sockets, having to stand on toilet seat to unplug shower heater and ending up with my foot in the toilet bowl because I broke said toilet seat by standing on it.

Well, at least I know I managed to unplug everything. And I had cleaned the loo before that happened.

Celebrating end of exams at Retiro park by having a picnic. Was great, until the sprinklers turned on exactly where we were sitting. We moved. Sprinklers then turned on in the new spot we were sitting.

Being with people who, like me, saw the humour in this happening and didn't let it dampen the night.

Realising that I was saying goodbye to quite a lot of people who I had only recently started becoming really good friends with, and knowing that if we had more time in the same place there was so much potential for fun times and activities.

Those people (and my closer friends) being such great company and good banter.

I can't think of anymore, but hope that gives an overview of the last few weeks.