Barcelona

IMG_2140aThe first thing we did in Barcelona was get lost, and separated. I was walking in a small group with one member of our tour party who had twisted her ankle sky diving in Lauterbrunnen, while Mark and we missed a phase of the lights that Mark and the rest of the group made. When we couldn’t find them on Las Ramblas, I tried calling Mark, and this was when I discovered my phone had run out of credit, without telling me. Thanks 2 Degrees! Thankfully we all found each other again.

A major tourist attraction we skipped was a visit to La Sagrada Familia. We stopped to take a look at the outside during a quick bus tour of the city on our way in, but opted not to go back and see the inside. I think we were churched out at the time, which is both fair enough and frustrating, as it is rather unique.

We went off the tourist-beaten track and went for a swim at theIMG_2208a old Olympic Pools. Turns out, to use the indoor pools you have to have a swim cap (and they don’t sell them), so we were the weirdo’s in the outdoor pool, on our own, in early June, when its not actually that warm by local standards yet.

With both of us being Introverted, we were struggling by the time we got to Barcelona. I also still had a head cold. So we really need to go back to Barcelona on our own at some stage, as I somewhat hateOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAd my time there, which I don’t think does the city justice.

The last thing we did before we left was a group dinner at a Tapas restaurant, somewhere just off Las Ramblas in the Gothic Quarter. Amazing. Such good food. Actually, all the food we had in Barcelona was great – from the paella on our first night, to lunch at a noodle bar near the markets, to the gelato in the alleyway near the Placa de Catalunya.

Amazing Amsterdam

Other than sleep (due to a 10pm arrival at Schipol), the first thing we did in Amsterdam was a yellow bike tour. What an awesome way to see the city. Our guide was friendly and knowledgeable, although he also had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about some political things. We got to see a lot of the city, and the weather was perfect for a bike ride – cool but not cold, and dry.

The most tourist-obvious thing we did was visit Anne Franks House. But then, I would probably struggle to find many women, anywhere in the world, who did not read her book sometime in their teens or pre-teens, so it was absolutely a given. I’d advise booking ahead – although that often needs to be done up to a month ahead. The line moved well enough without a pre-booking though. It was crowded in the museum, despite the limits on numbers going in at once. Amazing to see just how SMALL the rooms were. If we could figure out when the house isn’t so busy, I’d love to go back then.

Our worst experience would have to be the Ice Bar. We only went because we had a booklet of vouchers and some free time. Not worth it. And if you do go, don’t buy the photo – grainy and awful.

An unexpected highlight was the tour of the canals on a low boat. On a gorgeously sunny day, the cool breeze and shade on the boat was amazing, and it was really cool to see the sights from the water.

We skipped the Rijksmuseum, simply because we just did not have time to do it (yes, we could have gone instead of the brewery tour and the ice bar, but…) and because we’d done a lot of museums already. We’d love to go back and do it, as we hear there are some stunning artworks in there.

The most random experience we had was definitely the live show. We went because… that’s what you do, right? I wont tell you not to do it, but yeah, totally weirded me out. And I am exceptionally glad we weren’t there with our tour party – unlike the three separate tour groups who were in there with us and had to keep looking their tourmates in the face for the next however long.

 

The Hills are Alive!

IMG_1468aWe had two short stops in Switzerland on our trip – the first being a half day stopover in Zurich on our way to Edinburgh, the second a two-night stay in Lauterbrunnen with our Top Deck Tour.

Zurich was beautiful. Totally an unexpected highlight of our trip. Having local tour guides helpedIMG_1484a – I don’t think we would have found the train to the top of the hill on our own. We will have to go back at some stage and visit again.

Lauterbrunnen was beyond amazing. Absolutely breathtaking. Our accommodation, just out of town, was the kind where we were glad to be there in good weather, and the doors had no locks. Having the Top Deck Cook Tents was an absolute blessing, the food they produced was amazing.

The most tourist-obvious thing we did was take the train up the mountain to Jungfrau. It was expensive (probably the single most expensive thing we did all tour), but worth it, even though the weather was awful. Being that far up the mountain was amazing, and the train technology to do it was incredible. Stopping off for a short wander in Grindelwald on our way back down was lovely but far too brief.IMG_2014a

We wish we had had more time in Lauterbrunnen (if only there had been a way to skip Avignon the next day…), because our tour friends who didn’t take the train still had an amazing day, walking to waterfalls, and taking a massive gondola up the mountain on the other side of the valley.

The hardest part of our couple of days in Switzerland was actually dealing wiIMG_2022bth cash, because they don’t have Euros and the exchange rate is really random. Figuring out if something was expensive was really hard! And the last thing we wanted was to have to pull out our credit cards to buy ourselves a chocolate bar (what with the currency conversion fees etc), so we had to get just a little cash to do that time.

We definitely need to go back and spend more time in Switzerland. We met people on our Russian tour who had just come off a “Switzerland by Rail” tour that sounded AMAZING. Totally our cup of tea. We also would be dead keen to stop in at some of these villages that cling to the sides of the mountains, and to do some walking (and some more photography). Going back up Jungfrau in nice weather would be fantastic too.IMG_2068b

Ich Ben Ein…

The first thing we did in Berlin was have a domestic on a residential street because Mark was adamant we weren’t lost, despite having also assured me it was only 3 blocks walk from the S Bahn to our hotel. Turns out we had come out an exit he hadn’t expected, so had gone completely the wrong way. We both took a nap as soon as we were checked in.

The weird thing for us about Berlin is that we went there without any real purpose. We had 8 days between leaving one tour in Rome and joining another in St Petersburg, so we needed to be somewhere that had direct flights to St Petersburg for a couple of days, and Berlin it was.

The hardest part of being in Berlin was that everything (and I mean everything) touristy was to do with the war or the Soviet Occupation. It felt really morbid, and almost as if the city has achieved nothing worth celebrating since the wall came down in the 80’s?

An unexpected highlight was breakfast at our hotel – the Mercure Checkpoint Charlie. The breakfast was immense, and we sat each morning for a solid hour, grazing our way through it. Who needs lunch beyond a bretzel and a piece of fruit when you’ve had a 6-course breakfast, including cereal, fruit, toast, croissant, juice, yoghurt…

Our most abiding memory of Berlin would have to be our day trip out to Sachsenhausen. Our free local guide was exceptionally knowledgeable and made the site come alive. While it was no Auschwitz (being a work camp, rather than a death camp), the stories were still miserable, and being able to walk around the site definitely gives you a much stronger appreciation for just how tough things were.

Our worst experience was probably going up the old TV tower at Alexanderplatz. The line was long, the views were average and the ticket price was expensive. Later the same day we discovered a lookout (slightly lower, but still with great views) at Potsdamer Platz that was half the price, no queues, and a café at the top.

The last thing we did in Berlin was probably the best part of our stay – dinner at UnSicht, a dine-in-the-dark restaurant. Really yummy food, and a really enchanting experience. Not kid-friendly, so please don’t ruin other diners experience by bringing in your kids like someone did while we were there!
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Explorastory: Italian Escapades

The first thing we did on Italian soil was visit a short stop in Fair Verona, where we lay our scene… Including visiting “Juliet’s Balcony”. Arriving at our campground just out of Venice was a relief after a hot day in the bus – 6+ hours. Not our longest, by any stretch, but long enough. Our cabin had its own bathroom, and for the first time in 10 days, only the two of us in it. Bliss – even if the beds were singles. The campground had a pool too, heaven.

 

The most tourist-obvious thing we did would have to be a toss-up between leaning “on” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and going for a ride on a gondola in Venice. Its hard to know which would be considered more cheesy. The gondola ride was definitely our favourite of the two though.

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We wish we had had more time on Venice proper. Our accommodation was off the island, so we only arrived at 10am, and had to be back at the bus by 5pm. Next time we get to Europe, we are definitely planning to stay on the island proper, whatever the cost. We felt like we hardly got the chance to explore.

 

The single best thing we did was “run away” from our tour party in Venice. When we went exploring with a group, we turned a corner and came across our tour leader, who was headed for the pub. Everyone decided to join her. We opted not to, and purposely went the other way, letting ourselves get “lost” in the alleyways away from the tourist hub. Sitting in a courtyard, in a patch of sunshine, watching local kids have a water fight was bliss.

 

A major tourist attraction we skipped was visiting Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. Tickets have to be booked months in advance, Mark had seen it before, I wasn’t that keen. In the end, this was a massive blessing, as I wound up having a health meltdown on our day in Florence, so we might have lost our spot anyway.

The most challenging part of our time in Italy was probably the visit to Orvieto. The usual cable car up to the town on the hill was broken, so we all squeezed into buses. I was still feeling way out of it from the spell in Florence the day before, and really just wanted to lie down and sleep so I could enjoy our arrival in Rome that night. Its sad, because when I look back, I see that Orvieto was probably one of the most picturesque places we visited, and I just did not have the energy to appreciate it.

An unplanned highlight was Becs organising a Vineyard tour and dinner on our first night in Florence. The food was scrummy – far more so than the pizza the next night. In fact, apart from being sick, Florence was a lot of fun, and a lot of drunkenness. Some of my most hilarious memories from the entire trip are from our evenings around the campground in Florence.

We definitely need to go back and do all of Italy again, taking more time about it, staying closer to (or actually in) the central parts of town.

 

Rome

 

Must Do

1. The Vatican. Go on a tour – you get in faster, you see more. Be warned though, any bag that is designed to be carried on two shoulders (regardless of how small) is considered a “large” bag and has to be left at security. Also, climb the stairs at St Peters – the view from the top is AMAZING, as are the mosaics inside the domes.
2. Go walkabout. Rome is seriously walkable – its incredibly flat in the central city. And to be honest, the underground probably doesn’t take you where you want to go anyway. Also, all the hidden gems of the city are to be found by foot, really. The places we found “by accident” were some of our favourites – Piazza Navona and Piazza del Popolo are two treats we stumbled on.
3. Get outside at night. Places like the coloseum look so different flood lit. I wish I had been well enough to do more than just the Coloseum at night.
4. Be a typical tourist. There is no shame in doing the standard circuit – Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Coloseum, St Peters, Trevi Fountain. Don’t let any travel snob try and tell you that your experience is less authentic because you went to tourist hot spots.
5. Eat all the pizza. The number of by-the-slice pizza places in Rome is incredible. And some of the varieties they offer are unusual, yet tasty. Eat the pizza, because I can’t any more.

 

Stay

We stayed at a cute wee Pensione near Termini station. Well located for getting everywhere, only 3 rooms, a little kitchen, a free computer in the room. Would stay again, if we could find it. Friends from our tour stayed in a backpacker somewhere closer to the Coloseum, which they didn’t overly rate. Before that, when we were with our tour, we spent a night at Camping Roma, well out of town. Given we arrived, dumped bags, then headed in to town for a walk, back for dinner, drinks at the camp bar, up early to leave for the Vatican, I cant review this at all.

 

Eat

Dine on street food. Seriously. No need for fancy restaurants in Rome. Eat Pizza and enjoy gelato. We did treat ourselves to one nice lunch, dining outside, near the Pantheon, and it was nice but not brilliant. Visit the gelato shop near the Pantheon, with its 200+ flavours.

Get Around

A Roma Pass is fantastic. Gets you on the train over and over again, throughout the wider city, and gets you free or discounted entry into a range of places, including queue jumping at the Coloseum, which can save HOURS of waiting. The underground in Rome is limited, and not well signposted above ground, but it gets you around the place nicely and services are regular. We didn’t try any of the bus services, except out in the suburbs to get to and from the campground we had stayed at with our tour.

Nice and Monaco

 

The first thing we did when we arrived in Nice was go for a walk around town. Anything to get out of our hotel room, which we were sharing with another couple we did not get along with (yay tour!). That said, it was a big group walk, to go and find dinner and then on to a bar. The dinner was great, the bar gave me a panic attack. We went home for an early night.

The single best thing we did was go exploring. We split up – Mark went with a couple of the guys, and I went with some of the girls, and we wandered. Mark wound up on his own, and the girls I was with adopted him into our group. The markets were cute, and we paddled at the beach.

The biggest let down while we were there was the evening trip to Monaco. We were dressed up to the nines (including new shoes for several of us), for a walk around town, and then “go find your own dinner”. Mark and I had a lovely date dinner at a restaurant that was expensive as anything, and we poked our noses into the casino, but honestly, we could have skipped it and not even noticed.

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We wish we had more time generally in Nice. It was actually really pretty, and felt a lot like Wellington. We would love to have had more opportunity to explore. The markets were pretty, and walking along the promenade next to the beach was lovely. The town itself is also very photogenic.

It turns out that the beach at Nice is not nice. Its rocks – and big ones at that! Really unpleasant on the feet. Also, despite what we expected, the Mediterranean is cold. We swam anyway.

 

The most random experience we had was paying the woman sitting outside the toilets to get access to the loos in the reserve on the hill. Just, odd.

The hardest part of our time in Nice was that we got pretty much zero alone time. Our room mates were in our room constantly, and strung their laundry everywhere. We both felt crowded and over-stretched socially and really just wanted a break. Thankfully, our lovely tour guide promised we would be in private rooms from here on, otherwise we might have considered quitting the tour early. IMG_2225b

Paris

The first thing we did when we arrived was change out our remaining pounds for Euros at Gare du Nord. Then we stood in a queue for metro tickets, before trying to squeeze both of us and packs onto already very full trains to our accommodation. Thankfully, we arrived just at a nice time for check-in, so dumped our bags and went straight back into town to start exploring!

An unexpected highlight was easily the opportunity we got to see the Mona Lisa uncrowded, by being at the Louvre early in the morning, beating the crowds. That said, the painting directly opposite is even more incredible, and I find it sad most people don’t seem to notice it.

Our worst experience in France was our night in Avignon. The accommodation was rank. Far and away the worst of the trip. We also lost our tour group, which wasn’t all bad – the dinner we had sitting on the banks of the river was pretty sweet. Other than one rough lunchtime trying to find somewhere to eat in the Jardin des Tuileries / Champs-Elysees, I cant really say we had a single bad experience in Paris.

Our most abiding memory would have to be the smell of the Paris Metro. They all stank. We never saw anyone actively peeing on the wall, and I don’t actually know if they still do on a regular basis or whether perhaps the smell is embedded into the tiles? Anyway, it was inescapable.

We wish we had had more time and energy to climb the Eiffel Tower. It was hot when we had the opportunity, the same day we had already climbed the Arc de Triomphe. The line for the lift was about 4 hours long (no thanks), and the other option was the stairs, which was also significantly cheaper. For reasons I will never fathom, especially given the climb we later did at St Peters, we opted not to take the stairs.

Our absolute favourite activity was getting up high for a view over the city. Whether it was the Arc de Triomphe, the top of la Tour Montparnasse, or the steps up to the Sacre-Couer in Montmartre. All offered fantastic views over the city, and great spots to sit and ponder the wonder of the fact that we were really there!

The most random thing that happened to us started what felt like a chain reaction. We grabbed the Funiculaire up to Sacre-Coeur one day, and as we were about to depart, in raced a dozen Military Police with very large weapons. Strange. Then we kept seeing Federal / Military Police EVERYWHERE.

We definitely need to go back and do Paris again. This time, staying in the city proper, rather than way out in the boondocks. I want to see Paris by night, and not just from the lookout at Trocadero or the window of the bus. I want to walk the Champs-Elysees in the evening.

The last things we did before we left Paris were visits to the Opera (Palais Garnier), which was INCREDIBLE, and the Musee Rodin, which was a nice respite from all the rushing around we had done.

 

Explorastory: The UK

The first thing we did when we arrived was have a lie down. Seriously, we’d been awake since 4am local time on our flight to Zurich, then spent 6 hours exploring Zurich, before arriving in Edinburgh at 4pm. Then we took a taxi the 3km to dinner with Gavin & Lucy. We did walk back, in the beautiful gloaming of a high-latitude summer evening that was still light at 10pm.

An unexpected highlight was definitely the afternoon we spent chilling out in Kensington Gardens, doing nothing. It felt so wasteful, but was so needed after rushing around for the 5 or 6 days previous. Lying on the grass in the shade and people watching was lovely.

The hardest part of the trip turned out to be our two long days on buses – from Edinburgh to Loch Ness, and from London to Windsor, Bath, and Stonehenge. Combined with leaving! I loved our time in the UK and it was woefully insufficient. I wouldn’t bother with (or recommend) the day trip to Loch Ness. If you want to see it, do a self-drive over a couple of days so you get to really enjoy the scenery at times that suit you. We both liked Windsor and Bath, and would probably visit them both again if we got the chance.

My absolute favourite activity was riding the tube (yes, I’m odd). Learning my way around, exploring the city by train and then on foot. We took an over-ground to where the Olympic Park was being finished one day, which was a massive mission. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Greenwich for the gondola.

We definitely need to go back and re-visit the Tower of London, and actually do a tour, rather than just wandering independently. It was really cool to visit, but there are bits you can only see with the tour (which is free!), and they have some awesome stories.

We wish we had had more time in general in the UK. 3 days in Edinburgh, 5 days in London. Not enough, especially when each place we had a full day out of town. We had the weather, but not the time, to climb Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh, and we didn’t manage to do any of the major museums in London.

Our most abiding memory would have to be the ghost tour to Greyfriars church yard in Edinburgh. Pick one up on the Mile, its an absolute must do. I’m still unsure how much of the guides history narrative was story, and how much was fiction, but I do remember having my foot stood on when someone freaked out in front of me.

Our worst experience would have to have been waiting in the queue at Kings Cross-St Pancras for our Eurostar to Paris. There were loads of trains leaving, security had been tightened without increasing capacity, and despite arriving over an hour earlier than we had been told to, we barely made it onto our service.

The very last thing we did before we left was spend an evening at a laundromat near our hotel. What we should have done was find the local after-hours GP or pharmacy for the awful cold I had before we headed off to non-English-speaking countries for nearly 2 weeks. I also wish we had spent more time exploring London in the evening, but the cold was too exhausting.

Kepler Track – All Weather

The planning for this trip was super simple – despite it being the first real holiday Mark and I were taking together. The hardest part of the jigsaw was fitting in overnight stops on the way to and from the track, but we got all the bookings we wanted on exactly the dates we wanted.

We decided on walking dates because I wanted us to be back in Te Anau for New Years Eve, to enjoy a bit of a party, and relive my days of working in the town – probably the single best NY party I had been to was at the Moose. Sadly, instead we wound up sleeping through New Years…

Our route included two hard days – harder than we expected at least. The climb up to Luxmore hut was much harder than I expected, and the drop in to Iris Burn was hell on the knees with no walking poles to help as brakes.

Our accommodations were nice, with unique arrangements of rooms! The lounge / dining space at Luxmore felt a little cramped, and we were not thrilled at having to be upstairs at Iris Burn, but it was awesome to have flush toilets, and provided toilet paper.

The weather we got was incredibly changeable. From swelteringly hot getting up to Luxmore hut, to cool and breezy across the tops. Then it rained all our way out from Iris Burn Hut. We stopped at Moturau hut for lunch, where the fire was going and the sign on the door said “no wet clothes inside hut please” – how naked do you want me to get? Everything was wet through. On New Years morning, when we got up, the weather had cleared again and there was snow on the tops.

The hardest part of the tramp was the weight of gear we were carrying. We underestimated how hard things would be, and so carried heavy food (and a glass bottle of wine, which never got any lighter), along with an excess of gear. Part of me was glad I had accidentally swum my dSLR camera in Lake Wakatipu two days earlier, as that was a good couple of kg I didn’t have the option of carrying.

To get to and from the track, we used local track transfer companies. We left our car parked at Safer Parking in Te Anau, and the shuttle collected us from there, then returned us there. The shuttles were fantastic – yes, we had a super early start going to the track, but we saved 45 minutes walk around the lake to get to the control gates. By being picked up at Rainbow Reach, our final days walk was shortened by about 4 hours. We also got out over an hour early, and the shuttle company happily transferred our booking for free.

Its hard to calculate a total cost for this trip, as the travel there and back was part of a wider holiday – but the track itself was not massively expensive. Transfers, food, hut bookings, probably $200 between us. The extra nights accommodation, petrol, the night on Doubtful Sound etc etc added easily another $1,000 between us!