Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world, has been a thriving metropolis for thousands of years. More than a third of Greece’s population sprawls across the Attica plain amidst ruins of ancient grandeur. Athens is known as the founding place of western civilization: its arts, politics and philosophy. It has always been a highly revered city, even to foreign conquerors who would choose not to attack it out of respect. The Athens of today is still the political, business, and artistic centre of Greece and much beloved by the rest of the world.
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.
Throughout our European travels we have found evidence of the greatness of the Roman Empire; from Hadrian’s Wall in the misty isles of Britain as far as Ephesus on the Aegean shores of Turkey. Every church, every castle, and every European city we visited was built upon the foundations of Roman temples, forts, and towns. Roman language, culture, and technologies spread all across the western world and are still used today. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when at last we had arrived at the centre of it all, the birthplace of western civilisation, to which all roads once led: Rome.
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.
In the land of Istria: a broad peninsula jutting from Croatia’s northern coastline, one can wander through seaside fishing villages, clamber up to hilltop citadels, and rediscover leftovers from the might of the Roman Empire. Among the many medieval and Roman fortified towns dotting Istria there are four that stand out as wonders of Croatia: Porec, Rovinj, Pula, and Motovun. Though we had been lucky enough to explore most of Croatia’s southern coastline, the Istrian Peninsula promised unforgettable treasures that we couldn’t pass up when the opportunity came ringing.
“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.
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.
Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, has been the most impressive “old town” we’ve ever visited on our incredibly long journey. An extraordinary citadel set on the rocky shores of the Adriatic Sea, built up out of bleached stone and capped with red terracotta roofs, the splendour of Dubrovnik glistens in the rays of the Croatian sun. The three days we had in Dubrovnik were spent simply meandering through the old town’s maze of corridors, peeking into its limestone dwellings, and striding upon its battlements and bastions (we didn’t even have time for a swim!). It would be hard to find a city that can compare with Dubrovnik’s lavish, Venetian architecture, scale of fortifications and the excellent condition of its ancient monuments.
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!
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!
We decided to take a bit of a vacation from volunteering to venture through Serbia and get a last taste of summer in Montenegro. First stop: Niš!
Isn’t that the best ice-cream sundae you’ve ever seen? We found this treasure at an adorable cafe decked out in old Tram décor. They had a few other really good ones on the menu. For us it was a toss up between the one above, titled “Adam and Eve,” and one called the “Viking Cup,” which looked like a deluxe sundae with two bananas speared on either side of the glass to look like Viking horns. A little expensive, but the picture alone was worth it.
Ashleigh and I swung back and forth in unison as we wound up the snaking road to the top of Belogradchik, a small village resting on the side of a mountain. The town wasn’t too far from the train station but the taxi ride meandered wildly, taking near 180 degree turns every few minutes, and we struggled to keep our heads on straight as the g-force took its toll. Stepping out into the streets, we were met with a sense of peace and quiet in this sleepy village.
My Top Five of Turkey
Our time in Turkey was filled with wonderful people, delicious food, and incredible experiences. We went out and saw as much as we possibly could, and here’s a small taste of some of my favourites from our adventure in Turkey!
Troy was an incredible experience for Nathanael and I; the setting of one of the most famous legends in the world. The English name wavered between Troy, Troya, and Truva, and locals seemed a bit bemused as to why we wanted to visit, but if you’re an ancient history buff it’s a must-see. They have pretty good signage all over detailing what kind of structure you’re looking at and from what time period it’s from (because the city has been rebuilt at least NINE times!). One cliff had signs slowly going down its height detailing at which “Troy” occurred in the sediment layers. Çanakkale is the nearest city to the site and is worth a visit too, you can pose with the Trojan Horse movie prop!
We were planning on slowly making our way north along the Aegean coast, stopping at two Workaway hosts and a couple historical sites along the way. Our first host in Turkey was Hülya, a wonderful Turkish woman living near the summer resort town of Dikili. Days were blazing hot; I felt like I was sweaty from sunrise to sunset. Lucky for us, Hülya organized the day so that we worked a couple hours early in the morning before it got too hot and then had a break until the evening when it got cool(ish) again. Most of our first week was spent weeding out Hülya’s large yard and mulching the plant beds with a couple of volunteers from the United States. The second week we were on our own helping to clean and patch up the adorable guest cottage Hülya had renovated and build a new oven to use on warm summer nights.
Sometimes more powerful forces than your own direct you down paths you wouldn’t otherwise go, and our plans always seem to change. This time, the great forces of “cheap airline tickets” directed us to Izmir in Turkey. Apparently many Finlanders travel there during their summer holidays to get a bit closer to the sun and work on their non-existent tans, thus there were many different airlines offering thrifty flights to Turkey. Climbing on-board the Sun Express, we set off on our own holiday towards a whole new world under the blazing sun.
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 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.
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.