Bologna is known by many names because it’s a city with a high reputation. It is called “La Grassa” (the fat one) for its famous rich and fatty cuisine. A view from one of its many towers will show you why “La Rossa” (the red one) perfectly describes the earthy hues of Bologna. The nickname “La Dotta” (the learned one) tips a cap to the University of Bologna, the oldest operating university in the world. With all of this acclaim and more, Bologna has a lot to be proud of.
Looking at a map, you can see the province of Tyrol, the leg of Austria (kicking Switzerland in the face) with the capital town of Innsbruck stuck to its shin. Nestled there in the Karwendel Alps, Innsbruck has become an internationally renowned mountaineering/skiing destination, the two-time host of the Winter Olympics, the Paralympics, and the first Winter Youth Olympic Games. It’s ideal location as a stop-over point for travellers crossing the Alps allowed Innsbruck to flourish into an important cultural and administrative centre of Austria. Although people often overlook the town and head for the ski hills, Innsbruck has its own elegant allure that shouldn’t be ignored. If you’re transversing the Alps between Germany and Italy, stop by and take a peak into Innsbruck before moving on to your next destination.
It’s hard to know where to start with all that Munich has to offer. Bavaria’s capital and largest city holds the bar high as an economic powerhouse, popular tourist attraction, and a major centre of arts and culture. Despite being bombed into oblivion during World War II, Munich has rebuilt itself stronger and better than ever. In 2015, Munich was rated fourth city in the world with the highest quality of living. It’s a home to global corporations like BMW, Allianz and Siemens and has the lowest unemployment rate in Germany. Its historic architecture, rowdy beer halls and elegant parks make Munich a desirable place to live, play, and visit. Oktoberfest, the largest folk festival in the world, alone attracts 5 to 7 million tourists to Munich a year. All things considered, Munich seemed to be the perfect place to end our Bavarian adventure!
If you’re craving the ambience of a quintessential medieval town, look no further. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a vision straight from the pages of Grimm’s fairy tales. Enter through one of the six gateways and take a stroll along Rothenburg’s rough cobblestone streets. Pass under leaning wattle-and-daub homes with intricate timber frames and terracotta shingles. Climb any one of the stone towers and gaze over a forest of feudal keeps, chimney tops, and church spires. A mix of ancient history and olde tyme fairy tales lie within Rothenburg’s walls, just waiting to be remembered.
Ahhh Venice… a labyrinth of stunning architecture and alluring attractions, riddled with canals and trampled by 20 million tourists each year. Everybody wants to come to Venice and realize that romantic image of Italy we have in our heads: wandering the secret campis or grand piazzas, sipping espresso at canal-side cafés, and, of course, riding the gondolas as the drivers sing, “Thiiis is the night, what a beauuutiful night…” Although the dream of Venice has long been propagated through popular media, the reality comes pretty close to meeting expectations. Like Paris or Rome, Venice is a historical masterpiece, a wealth of architectural wonders that will continue to draw the masses for years to come.
Italy’s infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa attracts over a million tourists a year, so we thought it was time to join the flock and see what all the fuss is about. Embarking with a caravan full of Ashleigh’s family we left the gorgeous shores of Tuscany and proceeded inland to the province of Pisa and its capital city. With Fred behind the wheel of our monstrous bus-van, Braeden navigating and the rest of us back-seat driving, we carefully piloted through Italy’s narrow streets, avoiding reckless Lamborghinis along the way.
Fixed like a giant spider-web on the map, Milan stands out as one of Italy’s greatest, and most dazzling, metropolises. We had heard people say Milan’s a commercial capital without much else to do but shop for Gucci purses and dine in exclusive restaurants. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of renaissance art and architecture, marvellous churches and green spaces Milan has to offer. You don’t have to be ‘rolling in the dough’ to spend a couple of enjoyable days strolling around the city (or using its cheap transportation system), revealing the cultural riches of Milan around every corner.
The city of Split is filled with time-worn wonders, but where most monuments have been left uninhabited, this 2400 year-old colony is still fully-functional and bursting with energy. The stronghold of Emperor Diocletian has been adapted into apartments and cafe-bars, while storekeepers have set up shop its cellars. Halfway up the coast of Croatia, this thriving, harbour town attracts visitors from all around with its well-preserved Roman relics, lush parks, and a sunny-side harbour front.
The city of Brașov, with its medieval towers and Saxon architecture, surrounded by gorgeous mountains and ski slopes, stands out in my memory as being a idyllic place to live in Romania.
We were very fortunate to have met Bogdan in Casa de Cultura Permanenta— our temporary home in Cluj-Napoca. Bogdan owned an apartment in Brașov and was gracious enough to give us a place to stay while we were exploring the city. For five nights we had a wonderful home in Brașov, as well as a room-mate named Eduardo who brought us to some of his favourite restaurants and pubs. Eduardo was a young man from Australia who had moved to Romania to start an online business. With Romania having one of the fastest internet speeds in the world, as well as cheap living expenses, settling in Brașov is certainly a tempting idea for anyone who can make their income online.
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!
It’s always fun to take pictures with random sculptures, especially when they seem to invite people to pose with them. Who could resist this guy? No one wants to sit alone! Lviv is a fun, quirky little city with a charming, cobblestone heart. It’s hard not to fall in love with a city where you’re stumbling across surprising, little treasures, like this guy, around every corner.
After spending some time workaway-ing at a nearby farm, it was time for us to get back to the big city and enjoy the sights and charms that Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, had to offer. Life was simple back on the ol’ farmstead, and we enjoyed the daily chores of milking the goat, feeding the animals, fetching water from the well and scouring the property for eggs never laid in the same place twice. Evgeniya, our host, had bought this large property in the village of Bobryk and started a farm in order to independently sustain her family. Pretty much all the food we ate was grown from her land, including the delectable chicken eggs (when we could find them) and fresh goat’s milk. As much as we enjoyed having a break from being a tourist, a time to let our minds rest with a few chores to keep us busy, Ashleigh and I were eager to find out what was beyond the outskirts of this small village.
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.
Our very first Couchsurfing experience began in Budapest and we were privileged with meeting such a wonderful host! Gabor met us at the train station and took us into his family home, a hundred-year old apartment building with a beautiful, enclosed courtyard, quite near to the Danube. His parents were extremely friendly, offering us tea, biscuits and breakfast, and Gabor himself was a wealth of knowledge about the history of his city.
…Meanwhile, in a remote village somewhere on the Hungarian plains…
Yes indeed, that was a straw bale dressed up to look like a pig from the video game Angry Birds, but wait, we’ve got the WHOLE collection!
The tiny village of Tiszaigar, population of 946, is a cheery, little community near Tisza Lake in the Great Plains of Hungary, a two-hour drive east of Budapest. The Tisza people take great pride in their hometown, keeping it clean, building a beautiful fountain garden, and taking care to decorate according to the holidays. This year there was no particular theme but they chose to create several straw bale Angry Birds characters (including the giant slingshot), a straw bale Mater the Tow Truck from the movie Cars, and a maze for the kids to wander around in and get lost for hours. What were we doing in a wacky place like this you may ask?
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!
All roads in Bulgaria lead to Sofia, the capital city, so we were bound to cross paths eventually. As it turned out a friend of ours, whom we met in Makvarket, Denmark, was passing through Bulgaria on her travels and so we timed our visit to Sofia to meet up with her. Kat had just finished exploring Istanbul with her companion, Elena, and we were excited to swap stories as well as discover a new place together.
Time for a little break from real-life and a sweet, relaxing vacay in Latvia! Wait a minute, haven’t we been on a break from real-life for a while now? Oh well, we went ahead and booked an apartment near the beach anyway. Woohoo!
We had a slightly terrifying introduction to our vacay home. Our squat, little two-story building sat in the middle of a run-down apartment complex. Fences falling down, graffiti, stray dogs laying around, garbage… You get the picture. Walking down the hallway of the building made us even more nervous. The floor boards were uneven and coming up, the door across from ours looked like someone had stuffed a couch in the doorway, and the overall feel was a bit like a drug den. We anxiously watched our host open the door to our apartment to see what we had gotten ourselves into… And it was so cute! It was small, but had been completely renovated and looked great. What a relief!
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.
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!
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.
My Top Five of England
I knew that we would be spending more time in England with my brother so I decided to postpone judging my favourite spots in England, and I’m glad I did. The three of us saw some spectacular places on our whirlwind tour of southern England, so I hope you all enjoy!
Bath is such a pretty city, full of beautiful Georgian-style buildings and wide promenades. The Romans built the original bath house and temple complex around the natural hot springs, though they were likely enjoyed in its natural state long before they came. The Roman Baths have been modified several times over the centuries, but you can still find some remnants of the Roman structure within the foundations. If the admission fee to the Roman Baths is a bit steep for you, The Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides offers a great free walking tour which (at least on our tour) takes you to see the Sacred Spring from above. It’s also worthwhile just wandering around and admiring all the beautiful buildings, including the Royal Crescent and The Circus.
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 Finland
What could be more enchanting than a skyline of medieval buildings, cathedrals, stone walls, and spiralling towers? Tallinn is an amazing blend of medieval history and young, party vibe. Nathanael and I can’t wait to grab a few friends and come back in the summer!
Our first night in Tallinn couldn’t have been better. We arrived in Tallinn on the ferry from Helsinki around supper time and set off for our hostel in the heart of the Old Town. The harbour was only a 15 minute walk from the hostel, but we took a bit longer. The streets wound and intersected haphazardly, coupled with the fact that everything around us looked so achingly beautiful in the falling snow.
A little tired, but enthused from our mini-cruise, we arrived bright and early in Helsinki harbour on December 20th. The ferry pulled in, and after snapping a few nice shots from the ship, we got our packs on and off we went.
We were meeting our Finnish host about an hour west of Helsinki a little later that day, so we didn’t take much time to look around this time. That ended up being fine though, because it was raining anyway. The route to the central train station went by a lot of nice buildings too, so we could do a little bit of sight-seeing as we walked.
Long ago, as early as the 3rd century AD, a great temple was built in the name of the ancient Norse gods on the site of what we now call Gamla Uppsala in Sweden. This temple was said to be adorned with gold, and inside the people worshipped the statues of three gods. On the left was Odin the All-father, decked in armour and with his spear Gungnir. In the centre was Thor the thunder-god, the mightiest of the three, clutching his great hammer Mjolnir. On the right side of Thor was Frey, god of fertility, depicted with his immense, erect Penisnir.
Every nine years during the month of Goi (Feb. 15th-March 15th) a general festival for the provinces of Sweden would be held, and all the people would come to this centre of worship to sacrifice to the gods. Nine male animals of each species would be slaughtered and give blood to appease the gods. The feasts and sacrifices continued for a total of nine days, and during the course of each day a man was sacrificed along with two animals. In the nine days, a total of twenty-seven sacrifices would occur. Their bodies were hung in a grove which was adjacent to the temple. This grove was so sacred to the people that the individual trees in it were believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. In this grove, even dogs and horses would hang beside human beings.