Out of all the wonders we’ve witnessed in our travels through Europe, our workaway experiences have been the most memorable. In Finland we lived with an alternative community, constructed a yurt and worked on a straw bale home. In Hungary we helped renovate a 200 year old adobe brick house. We walked dogs through the Balkan mountains, babysat 3 kids in Vienna, helped bring back a lost garden in Scotland, and made caramelized sugar schnapps in Poland. We built relationships with people across the continent through the opportunities provided by work exchange organizations. Workaway forced us to get off the beaten, tourist trail and experience what we would otherwise have ignored. Our 18th and final workaway experience, within our 22 month European journey, began on the island of Crete. It was in the seaside town of Stalida one evening where we met the hyperadobe earth building visionnaire, Michael.
You could say that the Roman Empire lives on though the Vatican. It was Emperor Constantine the Great who built the original church on Vatican hill, over the grave of Saint Peter himself. After the Western Roman Empire fell, the Catholic Church acted as the principal force of unity in the Western World. In the Middle Ages, the Pope was considered greater than all the kings and rulers of Europe. Even today, the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.2 billion followers. Vatican City has become one of the most popular attractions in the world, drawing over 5 million tourists a year to its priceless works of art and opulent architecture. Despite one’s religious beliefs, one cannot deny the cultural and historical importance of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican.
Between the beautiful architecture and delicious wines (just outside the city you will find the Chianti wine region) tourism has become the major driver of the Florentine economy. Florence, or Firenze in Italian, has been at the front of the pack economically for centuries; in fact in the Middle Ages it was the centre for Medieval finance and trade. All that wealth was put to artistic use and the city is considered to be la culla del Rinascimento, “the cradle of the Italian Renaissance” for a very good reason.
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!
Bamberg has stumbled out of a medieval fantasy, trailing the seductive, smoky scent of Rauchbier behind it. If enchantment is the game, Bamberg is top of its class luring you in with hearty food and Bamberg’s distinctive smoky beer. The entire Aldstadt (“Old town”), with its medieval flair and distinctive photo ops, has been designated a UNESCO heritage site. Each of Bamberg’s seven rolling hills are topped with its own church and often a bevy of other historic landmarks. Our couchsurfing host from Nuremberg dropped us off one sunny day, and I couldn’t have been more excited to get started exploring.
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.
Hugging Slovenia’s miniature coastline, wedged between the borders of Croatia and Italy, sun bathes the seaside town of Piran. Glittering at the tip of a green peninsula, this Venetian village is a gem on Slovenia’s 47 kilometre slice of shore. Piran offers incredible views from its old town wall, opulent architecture within the historic village, and a lively harbour front to sit and soak in the sights.
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.
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.
We were en route to our new workaway home: a horse farm venturing into permaculture, just a short train-ride from Croatia’s capital of Zagreb. Arriving at Zagreb’s main station, we had the first of what would be many frustrations with Croatia’s transit system. While we were waiting at our designated platform, a mysterious locomotive rolled up. The train had a different number than the one we were waiting for, so we ignored it and didn’t think too much of it. As it was getting closer to our departure time, this foreign train still sat there, the display hadn’t changed, and we started to worry. Is this hunk-of-junk going to get out of the way for our ride? What’s going on? (I’m sure you can all see what’s coming). As the mystery train was finally chugging away from the platform, the screen briefly changed to display our train’s details, and then went dark. What? NO! We frantically emailed our host that we would be on the next one, shooting hate-filled glares at the displays that betrayed us. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long, soon we were off to our temporary home near the Slovenian border.
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.
Bumping and twisting around the mountainous coastline of Dalmatia, the lower region of Croatia, we took a sudden left up Pelješac peninsula. We were racing the setting sun, crossing our fingers that we would make it to Korčula island, and Korčula town, in time to snap a few photos with the last of the day’s light. The bus pulled over in Orebić, and while we impatiently waited for our ferry we got our first glimpse at Croatia’s southern Dalmatian islands. Beautiful. There is a reason why it felt like literally everyone was telling us we HAD to visit Croatia’s islands.
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!
We scored a pretty sweet Airbnb place in Sibiu, right outside the old city walls. It was in a perfect location for us to explore the old town and, since it was still pretty early in the year, the area was relatively quiet with just a few out-of-season tourists like ourselves.
Sibiu (“Hermannstadt” in German) was the largest and wealthiest of the citadels built by the Transylvanian Saxons: German merchants who settled in the area around the 12th century. The vast amount of wealth accumulated by the guilds allowed Sibiu to flourish, and permited/encouraged construction of the city’s impressive fortifications. At one time, Sibiu boasted 39 defensive towers, four gates, and five artillery batteries in addition to the walls surrounding the city. Nathanael and I were lucky enough to be staying right outside from one of only three of the remaining defensive towers, the Carpenters’ Tower. Pretty hard to beat that, eh?
Just before leaving our home in Cluj-Napoca, in the spur of the moment, we were convinced to hitch a ride with a friend in the direction of Sighișoara: a brightly coloured citadel overrun with medieval architecture.
Like something out of a German fairy tale, the Transylvanian-Saxon village of Sighișoara rests on top of a steep plateau, wrapped in ancient fortifications, and furrowed with twisting, cobblestone passageways. This UNESCO-claimed heritage site, founded in the 13th century, is among the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.
We had finally arrived in fascinating land of Transylvania, Romania. We had been eager to visit for quite some time, even more so after speaking with Gabor, a big fan of the Transylvania region, back in Budapest. In my head I was imagining haunting castles perched on mountaintops, farmers still using traditional tools, and horse drawn carts rattling through towns; a mysterious, romantic country tucked away on the edge of Europe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the top of Šentviška Gora Plateau, Ashleigh and I descended along a walking trail that had been altogether obscured by a passing storm. Felled trees littered the path like strewn match sticks and we had to scramble our way through like an obstacle course. We were staying with English expatriate Helpx hosts who lived in a terribly remote region of Slovenia, amidst the tiny settlement of Ponikve– a carpenter and a hairdresser who decided to make a new home in a strange country. Unable to get a ride, and with no other way to get off the mountain, we set off on our weekend adventure on foot in an attempt to get to the beautiful Tolmin Gorge, about 15 kilometres away.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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?
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.