Nuremberg is a beautiful German city with a checkered past. The second-largest city in Bavaria, Nuremberg’s exquisite, timber-frame buildings and dark beer bring tourists thronging all year-round. The old town in particular is well-preserved and beautifully captures the image of traditional Bavaria. That’s not even mentioning that Nuremberg has been a thriving hub culturally, artistically, and economically for centuries. It was the centre of the German Renaissance and birthplace of the great artist Albrecht Dürer and composer Johann Pachelbel (Pachelbel’s Canon, anyone?). Yet what made Nuremberg such a successful urban entity is also what attracted the interest of the Nazi party.
In an abandoned, Nazi amphitheatre at the summit of Heidelberg‘s Holy Mountain, bonfires burn bright on Witches’ Night. On April 30th, young students from the university town of Heidelberg make the long hike up woodland paths for a glorious night of fire-eating, twirling and juggling. Drunken revelry, drum circles and candle-lit picnic spreads makes for one hullabaloo of a party, though nobody’s really sure of what they’re celebrating. Lucky for us, our well-timed visit Heidelberg allowed us to witness this witch-repelling tradition first-hand.
A cliff-top castle, an island monastery and alpine surroundings add to the wonderment of Lake Bled. The enchanting scenery of this placid lake, under the colossal presence of the Julian Alps, looks stolen from fairy tale. Visitors from all over the world come to Bled for a day of hiking in its forests, boating to its island, and bathing in its thermal waters. The mineral springs at the north-eastern section of the lake are famous for their healing abilities and have attracted many wealthy tourists over the centuries. All in all, Lake Bled is one magical place.
“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”
… The family finds themselves in a city alive with romance, drama, and the shadows of two of the world’s most famous “star-cross’d lovers“! Ah, William Shakespeare, who doesn’t remember reading at least a few of his works in school? While Verona sets the stage for three of Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juiliet (of course), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew, there is much more to it than the famous writings of an Englishman.
On its way to recovery from the Bosnian War, the beauty and mystery of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been revealed to the world. In the Herzegovina region the town of Mostar lives and breathes again as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Balkans. With its fascinating blend of medieval European and Islamic architecture, cobblestone alleys and slate roof tiles, Mostar is a picturesque town settled peacefully on the crystal clear Neretva River.
Top Five of Romania
Romania is wrapped in an aura of mystery and timelessness. Even today when we mention Romania, people still seem a bit in awe by that sense of wildness we take away from the old stories of strigoi, Vlad Tepes, and Dracula. There’s something darkly romantic about the forests, castles, and the villages standing still in time with their horse-drawn carts and superstitions. We were very excited to visit Romania, and it didn’t disappoint! I would go back and wander those quiet, mountain trails and dark castles in a heartbeat. For now, here were a few of my favourite parts of our time in Transylvania, Romania!
It was love at first sight as Nathanael and I hiked uphill towards the old town of Sighișoara. It had this dark romanticism to it that I love about Romania combined with a pastel palette everybody loves about these medieval towns. The old town is perfect for walking around, but don’t bother with the restaurants. The prices are ridiculous (think double to quadruple what is typical), and just down the cobblestone road running beneath the clock tower are plenty of affordable options. We had some fantastic sarmale and a pork dish with a paprika sauce (which I NEED to learn how to make) in a little place tucked just beneath the old town, yum!
My Top Five of Ukraine
Our time in Ukraine was an eye-opening experience. We met some wonderful people who invited us to see Ukraine from their point of view and I felt that was priceless. It wasn’t without its frustrations; my Mom can vouch for how often I called and regaled her with our latest train/bus/general miscommunications as we tried to pick up some of the Ukrainian language. But all things considered, we had a great time in Ukraine! So without further ado, here were my top five favourite parts about our travels in Ukraine!
The man who scouted out the location of the Ukrainian fortified town, Kamyanets-Podilsky (fortress of stone), must have received a shiny, gold star for his brilliance. Surrounded by a 100 foot deep, natural canyon, this citadel has got to be in one of the most defensible positions in the world.
Top Five of Slovakia
Ahhh Slovakia! Imagine the dramatic peaks of the Tatra Mountains, hearty food, and medieval castles– does it get much better? Modern, thriving Slovakia is a popular destination for skiers, hikers, and those in search of a little peace and quiet, but if a good party is more your style go no further than Bratislava. Bordering five other European countries (Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, and Poland) makes it a great platform to explore from, so don’t miss out!
A cold wind was already blowing when we arrived in Levoča, a medieval, fortified town that became part of the UNESCO Heritage List in June, 2009. Spiš county was our final stop in far eastern Slovakia and we were eager to take a walk-about through Levoča’s historical sites before the day was through. A hideous, dark cloud was building in the distance and rolling out in our direction, so made haste like soldiers on a mission.
“Winter is coming…” I whispered to Ashleigh with a sidelong glance as another gust of cold air spewed icy needles into our faces.
After a spectacular New Year’s in Banská Bystrica, we set off on a whirlwind, couchsurfing adventure through Slovakia. Our goal was to spend about a week making our way over to the Ukrainian border, the next country on our list. We’ve done a bit of couchsurfing here and there, but in Slovakia we definitely had the best luck finding hosts so far. Maybe it was just the right season, who knows, but we immediately found some great people that happily took us in along the way. So here we go!
The day before New Years Eve we set off on a hop, skip and a jump through Slovakia, with only a week before our time to be exiled from the Schengen area, and kissed Austria goodbye. My mind was completely open to whatever this country of former Czechoslovakia had to offer and I was hoping to explore the best parts within our restricted time-schedule. Banská Bystrica was our first target in Slovakia (not counting Bratislava)– a small, university city on the south-western edge of the Low Tatra Mountains.
This is terrible to admit, but before I visited Slovakia the first thing that came to my mind when I thought of “Bratislava” was that funny movie Eurotrip from 2004. Essentially, the lead characters end up in Bratislava by accident after a hitchhiking adventure gone wrong. Stepping out of the lorry they rode in on, they are confronted with a desolate, Soviet-esque block of litter-strewn, grey apartment buildings complete with an old man bathing from a bucket and a dog holding a severed human hand. Awful, eh? Putting that out of your minds for a moment, Bratislava isn’t at all the depressing, desolate capital that Eurotrip pokes fun of. It’s vibrant, fun, and was the perfect weekend-getaway for us while we were living in Vienna.
Having a weekend off from babysitting duty in Vienna, we were trying to figure out the best place to spend our Christmas holidays– and it had to be somewhere cheap because Austria was killing us! A fine thing about being in central Europe is that you’re rarely more than a couple hours away from the nearest border, Austria itself being closed in at all sides by Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany and the Czech Republic (don’t forget Liechtenstein!). Surveying our choices, we decided it would be fun (and cheap) to take a couples’ vacation up to Brno, Czech, only a couple hours by bus from Vienna. Czech is a country we’ve visited before on our trip to Prague and Karlovy-Vary, and we were more than happy to return to its loving embrace.
When we arrived in Salzburg, Austria on Dec. 5th, Christmas had already come! The streets were lit up with brilliant lights and the smells of baked goods wafted deep into our senses. Around every corner Christmas carollers galore sang traditional tunes, accompanied by brass bands and accordion players. Mulled wine was being quaffed in sickening amounts and temporary stalls, set up in several of Salzburg’s squares, were selling a multitude of bees-wax candles, holiday decorations, and mountains of sugary sweets. Little did we know that all of these familiar festivities were leading up to something strange…. and possibly terrible.
My Top Five of Hungary
We spent a few weeks in Hungary, travelling mostly in the area around Budapest, and I loved it! It was a country I didn’t know much about, but I had been curious to know more for a long time. Especially with everyone raving to us about how incredible Budapest is, I was sold and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. I will hopefully visit again, but for now, here are my top five things we saw this time around!
The Puszta Great Plains
The Puszta Great Plains is a large, incredibly beautiful region encompassing most of southeastern Hungary. We were lucky enough to be volunteering along the northern edge of the plains, quite close to Hortobágy National Park, and flocks of cranes flying overhead brightened up our mornings. The region is characterized for its grassy, treeless plains stretching out into the horizon, but famous for its bird-life, Hungarian Grey Cattle, and the Hortobágy Stud, one of just two breeding centres for Hungarian Nonius horses. While we didn’t manage to see one of the amazing talents of the csikós (mounted horse-herdsman, a.k.a. cowboys for horses) check out the (slightly cheesy) video above for a glimpse into this amazing tradition!
We arrived into Ljubljana a bit earlier than expected, but excited nonetheless. We were right on time to watch the Christmas lights start going up and in just a few days the city would be lit up! In the meantime, time to get to know the city behind the dragon.
Ljubljana is a great mix of everything I love to see in a capital: laid-back vibe, easily walkable, great cafes and restaurants, and plenty to see. The central market was perfect for grabbing everything we’d need. Besides the fresh fruits and veggies, there were cheeses galore, mountains of sauerkraut, fresh flowers, and even, if you so desired, running shoes. The Christmas markets were just getting going, mostly Advent wreaths in every size, shape, and colour possible.
Ashleigh and I stepped off the bus into Belgrade’s streets around five in the morning, expecting the city to be asleep. Instead, we were met with a heavy bass thumping from thriving nightclubs, scattered people swaggering with half-drunk bottles in their hands, and a completely smashed sailor who just wouldn’t leave us alone (in a friendly sort of way). Most of Belgrade was still awake from the night before and still rearing to party!
Early in the morning we bid a sad farewell to Ola and John, our most gracious Workaway hosts in northern Poland, and prepared ourselves for the two week tour ahead that would swiftly sweep us into the unknown. The Baltic Nations, three post-USSR countries sandwiched between Russia and the Baltic Sea, were completely unfamiliar to us and we relished the chance to discover its mysteries first-hand. First on the list: Vilnius.
We grabbed an evening bus from Prague to Kraków, Poland, thinking we could sleep on the way and be fresh to explore. Well, between the drunk singing in the back of the bus and an overly friendly/socially imperceptive guy thinking our closed eyes meant we were really interested in what he had to say, I wouldn’t say we felt “fresh” hopping off the bus. After a transfer to a quiet but strange little mini-bus (basically a mini-van where they give you a free bottle of water), we arrived into Kraków early in the morning. Off we went to check-in to our hostel in the Old Town. Lucky for us we could check-in right then and there and get some of the sleep our bus friend stole from us before adventuring out into the city.
Poland was a thrilling, financial break for us. After being traumatized by a $30 bowl of soup at a fish-market in Oslo, not to mention the ludicrously lavish living expenses in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and London—Poland was a pleasant dream that just kept getting better. Suddenly, a pint of beer at a bar cost $2.50 instead of $12. Milk Bars, a cheap and excellent source of perogies and sauerkraut, could be found around every corner and offered decent meals for as little as five dollars. In the end we likely spent more money than usual, surrounded by a sea of “good deals”, but we certainly felt better about it.
My Top Five of Poland
Poland is a country rich in culture and full of surprises. Nathanael and I spent about three weeks in Poland, but easily could have spent more if the Baltics hadn’t been beckoning. For people interested in history, Poland is a great country to visit; not only is it so rich in historical sites, but they’re easily accessible even for those on a budget. Just staying in Krakow for a few days we felt like we saw and learned much about Poland’s history and the people of today. Let’s not forget, the food is fantastic, don’t forget to check out the Milk Bars for hearty food on a budget! Anyway, without further ado, here were my favourite spots in Poland!
Due to the large number of castles Ashleigh and I visited on our tour of the United Kingdom (16 in total!), and the vast amount of information attached to each, I have been forced to split my article into two parts. Welcome to PART 2! If you haven’t seen PART 1, please read it here.
The last outpost of Scotland awaited us next in the Shetland Isles! We visited a few English castles in Tamworth and Newcastle, the Scottish castle of Edinburgh, and others in the Midlothian region. Muness Castle on Unst Island, the most northern tip of land in Scotland, was to be our next stop, followed by Urquhart Castle on the waters of Loch Ness, Cuchulainn’s Castle in Ireland, and Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, Rhuddlan, and, finally, Flint Castle in Wales. Each one of these imposing strongholds had their own stories to tell, through their importance in history, the way they were designed, and the legends surrounding them.
My Top Five of the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic! What an awesome country; beautiful, rich in history and culture, and we can’t forget the great beer! It was tough to narrow down my Top Five favourite things/places in Czech because we had so much fun. I didn’t even want to start delving into how much I loved the food and beer, because that would never end. But I did my best, so without further ado, my Top Five of Czech!
After three months in the United Kingdom and Ireland Nathanael and I were ready for a completely new vibe. We flew out of the Bristol airport and with a quick glance at our passports, stamp-stamp, we were in the Czech Republic!
The energy, the architecture, the food! I loved it! And the best part… My family was joining us for a week and a half tour! We started in the dynamic city of Prague. Just down the street from our apartment was the Old Town Square, where an Easter festival was winding down. We started our day by walking around the little kiosks selling models of Prague’s famous astronomical clock and beautiful painted eggs while listening to local bands in leather outfits. After a tasty trdelnik, a pastry dusted with sugar and almonds, we were off for a city walking tour.
Before coming to Britain, even before embarking on our European journey, I would often sit and dream of treading through stone passageways, patrolling the length of rocky defences, and keeping watch from the tallest turrets on a windy night. Castles were raised by the ruling powers through the blood and sweat of their toiling subjects; impenetrable fortresses of carved stone blocks atop rocky crags, castles are truly an awesome sight to behold. They were, at many times, scenes of bloodshed: from sword clashing medieval battles to the assassination of nobles. They were once the seat of lords and kings, protecting, as well as dominating, the countryside. They have stood for hundreds of years and will hopefully continue to stand for centuries more (partially thanks to the National Trust).
Staggering off the ferry, we took our first steps back into Great Britain. Bleary-eyed from grabbing a handful of hours sleep on the ferry we set off from Holyhead to meet up with my brother, Braeden, in Beaumaris! We had meticulously (or so we thought) planned the next week and a half that the three of us would be touring to maximize our sightseeing.
My Top Five of the Wales
So I might be stretching the list a little bit here, but since we only spent a few days in Wales we didn’t get the chance to see too much (though not from lack of effort!). The Welsh are so lucky; Wales is GORGEOUS! We would love to go back and spend more time travelling around, ogling everything in sight. Without further ado, here are my top picks for Wales! Also, check out Scotland and Ireland while you’re at it!
A long time ago, sometime between about 600 and 150 BC, Celtic tribes journeyed across the sea from western Europe and invaded Ireland. The land was lush, fertile and beautiful, a much desired location for a new home, but it was not empty. Another race had already been settled in Ireland for thousands of years. The Tuatha Dé Danann were recorded in Irish mythology as being a race with supernatural powers and god-like abilities. Whoever these people were they left their mark on the landscape, building enormous burial chambers and temples, erecting massive standing stones, and leaving behind exquisite, scrolling carvings, a style that is still duplicated today in Celtic art.
My Top Five of Scotland
It has been a little while since my last top picks entry (Finland), so here is an overdue entry of my top five picks of Scotland! Honestly, we spent so much time in Scotland and saw so many amazing things that it was really difficult to narrow it down. So these here are just scraping the surface of all the cool things you can do/see/visit in Scotland!
We had an amazing adventure on the shores of Loch Ness. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the legendary monster of the deep? The cute little village of Drumnadrochit was a short bus ride from Inverness and is home to both Nessieland and the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. We didn’t go into either of them, but we got some great pictures with the Nessie statues outside Nessieland. A short, scenic walk later, you can glimpse the ruins of Urquhart castle sitting on the edge of the lake. The lake is always a bit misty, no matter the weather or time of day, giving Loch Ness a mysterious air.
We rolled and rocked over the North Sea; we were bound for Lerwick, capital of the Shetland islands. Some days the sea is too rough and the ferries won’t run, stranding people at the docks. Luckily for us, we had a relatively calm ride. We set up shop in one of the lounges at the far end of the ship, watching a few movies before curling up to sleep on the benches. When we initially planned to sleep in the lounge, we felt a little shy about it, but looking around we could see that we were amateurs. More seasoned ferry riders were pulling out sleeping bags, pillows, and eye masks; everything they needed for a good night sleep curled up on a bench.
‘Neath ancient Rosslyn waits secrets so secret nobody really knows what the secret is anymore. Some say the Knights of the Templar stored vast riches in the tombs of Rosslyn chapel and are perhaps even buried there themselves, dressed in full-plate armour. Some say the mummified head of Jesus Christ and perhaps even the sacred cup of Christ, the Holy Grail, is waiting in some secret chamber. Some say Rosslyn Chapel is the site of an alien landing pad, and perhaps the secret resting place of… Elvis?
We arrived by bus into the lovely city of Stoke-on-Trent in late January, eager to move on from the bustling streets of London. Phil and Carole welcomed us into their home with open arms, and eager to show us their beautiful garden that was in need of some cleaning up. The Sensory Garden, as they’ve named it, has been designed to be a fully wheelchair accessible oasis of peace and tranquillity, filled with fragrant flowers, fruit, healing herbs, and plenty of places to sit and enjoy your surroundings.
They had been off living the dream for the past two years, travelling in a caravan, so the garden was in need of a bit of cleaning up. Chopping wood, power-washing the pathways, getting pots ready for planting, and tidying up the greenhouse for the most part. Phil was also involved with a local community project, Friends of Hartshill Park. Hartshill Park is a large nature reserve just down the street from their home which has been undergoing a transformation over the last few years thanks to the help of volunteers and local grants. My favourite spot was a nice little lake at the foot of what was once the gardens of a Catholic covenant, carefully tended by the nuns living there.
My Top Five of Denmark
Frederiksborg Slot was built by King Christian IV in the early part of the 17th century. It was a bit of a train ride north of Copenhagen, but situated in a lovely little city of Hillerød it was well worth the trip! We loved the lived-in (and spooky) feeling of the rooms. It was easy to imagine the royal family gazing out the windows at the lake or beautiful gardens. There were walking paths out behind the castle leading to the well-manicured palace gardens (we had a lovely lunch) as well as rougher trails leading into the spooky forest (with a witch’s house! Or at least, we imagined it was 🙂 check it out). We could have spent all day wandering the palace and the grounds, well-worth the admission!
We crossed the bridge from Sweden to Copenhagen. In the water towered several wind turbines, blades spinning silently in the distance. The bridge snaked to the other side of the border and we saw Denmark stretching out, a flat plate of land the Danes call home. We were dropped off near the central station, and swinging are packs onto our backs we set out to figure out where we were going to go next.