Tag Archives: europe

Santorini was more impressive than expected

Europe trip – a photo story

It’s been a dream of Susan’s to go to Europe for ages and it’s also been a dream of mine to walk the Camino de Santiago across Spain, so in late July we caught a Saudia Arabia Airlines flight to Paris to start a 4 and a half month journey that would include a 780km walk, a camel ride, several cable car rides and hundreds of kilometres of hitchhiking. It was an incredible journey.

On this trip I used my dSLR even less frequently than ever before and my iPhone became my everyday camera. I think learning how to edit photos a bit better on the phone has really tipped the scales for me as the process with a dSLR is so clunky. For me, the benefits of using a big old beast of a camera are diminishing by the day.

So here is 4 and a half months of travel in photos.

The Louvre
The Louvre

There’s a lot to love about Paris – hundreds of galleries, monuments and museums plus incredible cakes! I love cakes!

Sunset in Cologne
Sunset in Cologne

We went to Cologne because we found a car share heading that way from Amsterdam where we had become trapped due to the gay pride festival. Luckily for us we caught a fantastic sunset across the river.

Fancy dessert in Budapest
Fancy dessert in Budapest

Budapest was great for many reasons, but this dessert was one of them funnily enough.

Budapest was a highlight of Europe
Budapest was a highlight of Europe

With cheap lodgings, good cheap food, plenty of things to see and do and a more gritty feel than much of Europe, Budapest became a favourite stop on the trip.

Venice - total tourist trap, but you have to go
Venice – total tourist trap, but you have to go

Venice was both disappointing and exciting. Strange really. It’s a wonderful old city filled with maze-like alleys, historical buildings and those famous canals. The problem with Venice is that it is a full on tourist town. You pay a lot of money for absolutely rubbish food, after about 10am you have to fight your way through the alleys with all the other tourists and you end up feeling like a walking cash machine. I’m glad I went, but never again unless I win the lotto.

Cinque Terre - beautiful towns on a rocky coast
Cinque Terre – beautiful towns on a rocky coast

Cinque Terre is another one of those famous Italian towns which can be chockablock full in summer and empty in winter. Unfortunately for us we went there in Summer and it was full — totally. It was great, however, to walk up the mountains and look back down on the coast. Most tourists prefer to swim at the beach rather walk which made life away from the ocean quite nice.

The Camino de Santiago - someone got lost early on
The Camino de Santiago – someone got lost early on

After a whirwind month through Europe, it was time to walk from the French side of the Pyrnees all the way across to Santiago in Spain, 780km away. This was definitely a trip of a lifetime and a totally different travel experience. Something I’d like to do again.

There wasn't much to do on the Camino except walk
There wasn’t much to do on the Camino except walk

One of the great things about the Camino is that there is nothing else to do. You just walk. It was nice not to have any pressures (such as the transport pressures we’d had in Europe during the first month).

A 500 year old bridge on the Camino
A 500 year old bridge on the Camino

Much of the infrastructure on the camino such as roads and bridges has been around for centuries as this route has been popular for over a millennium.

Free food
Free food

You get a sense of entitlement on the Camino so I stole a few bunches of wine grapes while in the famous Rioja wine-growing area – they were surprisingly delish!

Sunflowers as far as the eye can see
Sunflowers as far as the eye can see

Sunflowers were everywhere and people liked to make funny faces and signs in the faces of the sunflowers — something to keep things interesting as you walk. (and walk)

Towards the end of the Camino it's all about walking through rainy sodden forests
Towards the end of the Camino it’s all about walking through rainy sodden forests

The last 5 days of the Camino has a reputation for being extremely busy and usually rainy. We got both and it was a battle to keep positive as we trudged through this forest.

Porto was a relief
Porto was a relief

Getting to Porto in Portugal was a relief as it changed up the routine a bit. Luckily for us Porto is a fabulous city.

The wild seas off Porto
The wild seas off Porto

There’s something about the ocean when it gets angry — I love it.

Chefchaouen was an impressive start to Morocco
Chefchaouen was an impressive start to Morocco

Chefchaouen is a wonderful town in Morocco and it was a great start to our time in the country. Sadly, it all went down hill from there because we were harassed by so many hostile men. For that reason alone, I recommend people just go somewhere else where the people are friendlier. Why bother with hassle when there are over 200 countries to visit?

The oasis around Todra Gorge
The oasis around Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge was a bright spot in Morocco. We hardly encountered another person in our time there and that made for a less stressful experience.

Obligatory Bedouin selfie
Obligatory Bedouin selfie

We didn’t know it at the time, but it seems that most people go on tours from the big cities to the desert towns fringing the Sahara. We got to the end of the line as far as roads go under our own steam and it was a truly rewarding experience. In the end we got our guesthouse owner to take us out into the desert for a night on some camels. Definitely worth the hassle of riding buses at awkward times over long distances — stunning scenery, great food and the real Morocco.

Sand dunes as far as the eye can see
Sand dunes as far as the eye can see

We chose not to visit the places that had the biggest sand dunes for fear of running into loads of other people. In the end we got medium sized dunes to ourselves – incredible!

Santorini was more impressive than expected
Santorini was more impressive than expected

After Morocco it was time to head back to Spain and then onto Greece. I feared Santorini would be yet another tourist trap as most of Europe had been, but we got lucky. The high season had ended by the time we got to Santorini, it was cool, accommodation was cheap and tourist numbers were down. It was genuinely enjoyable to stroll the streets of the island.

One of the best sunsets ever
One of the best sunsets ever

Santorini sunsets are famous and the one we saw was up there with the best I’ve seen. It really was that red.

Setting sail enroute to Selcuk
Setting sail enroute to Selcuk

We headed to Turkey after Greece and it was a complete surprise. These birds followed our ferry as it carried our bus across a large body of water enroute to Selcuk.

Ephesus was impressive, but this guy didn't seem to think so
Ephesus was impressive, but this guy didn’t seem to think so

Ephesus is one of those cities named in the Bible and it is remarkably in tact for such an old place. A Turkish highlight for sure.

Pamukkale - pretty cool place, heavily touristed
Pamukkale – pretty cool place, heavily touristed

I was a little disappointed with Pamukkale — it was certainly something different, but we stayed a guesthouse with a shitty owner and the pools weren’t as natural as I had expected. On top of that the number of independent travellers vs tour bus travellers was about 100 to 1. It was overwhelming and unpleasant. Still, it was worth a visit.

Cappadocia was truly marvellous
Cappadocia was truly marvellous

I was a bit suspicious of Cappadocia. Places that people rave about so much don’t usually suit me (can you see the theme here?). But Cappadocia was a truly special place despite being a typical tourist destiantion. Plenty of places to get decent food at reasonable prices, decent acccommodation, nice people and… Stunning scenery. And it’s all about the scenery really. People lived here a while back in the caves that dot the landscape and they’re all open for you to explore.

Mount Nemrut - world heritage and totally empty
Mount Nemrut – world heritage and totally empty

Mount Nemrut was another Turkish delight. (good joke). It’s World Heritage listed, but there was no one else there. Not even a ticket person. A guy did turn up later to take money, but he seemed like one of those dodgy guys that hangs around tourist sites collecting money “on behalf of the Government”. Nemrut is definitely worth a visit. It didn’t even snow despite being over 2000m above sea level and at the end of November.

Ani - so stunning
Ani – so stunning

Ani. Incredible.

How can a place so incredible be so empty?
How can a place so incredible be so empty?

Another empty place. Why? Where are all the backpackers? Too busy on the Thai islands I suppose.

A great introduction to Georgia at Vardzia
A great introduction to Georgia at Vardzia

Georgia impressed from the very first encounter with a Georgian person – a border guard. Vardzia was one of our first sites in the country.

Davit Gareji - just go
Davit Gareji – just go

Davit Gareji is not too far from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It was an easy day trip and definitely worth visiting — it was absolutely sensational.

Kazbegi is an incredible place - it gets cold, so rug up
Kazbegi is an incredible place – it gets cold, so rug up

There were 3 other foreigners on the bus to Kazbegi on the day we went meaning we practically had the entire town to ourselves as far as tourists go. It’s up in the mountains near the restive border with Russia — it gets bitterly cold in winter. This small town was one of the highlights of the entire trip due to incredibly warm hospitality from our homestay owner and…

Possibly the best setting for a church ever
Possibly the best setting for a church ever

…the stunning scenery all around the area. You can even walk past this church towards Mount Kazbek and see a glacier (apparently — you need to be fitter than me).

Armenia is full of old school cars (with gas tanks on their roofs)
Armenia is full of old school cars (with gas tanks on their roofs)

After Georgia it was time to visit Armenia, another one of those countries that you know nothing about. That’s what made going there so fun, I think. You just went with no expectations. What we got was fantastic hospitality.

I got my ruski on in Armenia
I got my ruski on in Armenia

So hospitable were the people that every time we stood on the side of the road wondering how to flag down a bus, someone would stop and pick us up — and that’s how I got this military hat.

These buses were so fun to ride on
These buses were so fun to ride on

Still, when hitchhiking a bus would sometimes come past and we’d jump on that. These bus are so old school, but so fun.

Armenia is bleak, but beautiful
Armenia is bleak, but beautiful

I took this photo after being dropped off by a guy after hitchhiking. We had to walk the next 2km into town and it was so bleak. But I felt alive!

Massive apartment blocks plonked in the middle of fields
Massive apartment blocks plonked in the middle of fields

The strangest thing… I thought Hungary and Czech Republic would feel like ex-soviet states, but they didn’t. Not a bit. Armenia did. Totally. 100%. Ex-soviet. Mad! Love it!

Istanbul is as good as everyone says
Istanbul is as good as everyone says

After zipping through the Caucasus, it was time to head back to Turkey and linger in Istanbul for a few days. It is wonderful.

Walk across Galata bridge at sunset and just absorb the atmosphere
Walk across Galata bridge at sunset and just absorb the atmosphere

The best thing about Istanbul was getting your bearings and then just walking around the place. You don’t have a lot of choice anyway as the public transport system isn’t integrated and can be confusing.

Petra - a massive disappointment
Petra – a massive disappointment

To cap off the 4 and a half month journey, we hit up Jordan. After seeing all the glowing blog posts from people who went there for free as part of the #VisitJordan campaign, I wanted to see it for myself. I really enjoyed the low-key nature of Amman, but Petra was tourist hell. Expensive hotels, expensive eateries and… an $80 entrance fee to the site. It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a place like that and it certainly tarnished my experience there. If I had gotten it for free, I’d be raving about Petra. Just like everyone else. For a budget traveller, Petra is just not worth it. Go somewhere cheaper instead.

So that’s 4 and a half months of ups and downs, praise and criticism. I’m really starting to understand what I like and what I don’t like and I think it’s time to start travelling accordingly. Slow travel. No tourists. Short stints in cities unless they’re marvellous. Genuinely nice people. I’m just not interested in the rest.

A Portuguese chicken. That's pretty Portuguese, right?

Pleasantly surprised in Portugal

Wow. Portugal. What a pleasant surprise. You always hear about Portugal and think about it as just that tiny sliver of a country hanging off the edge of Spain and it’s always difficult to associate it with anything significant. What is Portuguese food? What is Portuguese culture? What is there to do in Portugal? Well, I can now safely report that I learned a bit  about Portugal after finishing the 780 km Camino walk across Spain. Most of it I should have known before!

A Portuguese chicken. That's pretty Portuguese, right?
A Portuguese chicken. That’s pretty Portuguese, right?

I entered Portugal from the north and ended up in Porto where I rented a superb AirBnB at a bargain price of around $50. Upon arriving at the main bus terminal, it was time to figure out the subway ticketing system and this was where I encountered Portuguese friendliness for the first time. A young lady noticed Susan and I were looking around with blank faces trying to figure out which ticket to buy to which station. The young lady hesitated slightly and asked if we needed help. Of course we did! She basically told us which station to get off at, which ticket to buy and which platform we needed. It seemed a little odd at the time as people aren’t usually so eager to help in most cities, but I came to understand that this sort of friendliness was par for the course in Portugal.

Every time I got out the big paper map our AirBnB host gave us, someone would inevitably stop and assist with directions. The same would go when we entered a cafe or restaurant — everyone was extremely friendly.

Of course, there are also a bunch of cool things to see in Portugal. In Porto it’s mainly architectural with a great seaside whereas in Lisbon it includes other stuff like the Belem area, food and historical stuff. Actually, they’re very similar in that regard. Food, architecture, history… Favourites of mine?

Pasteis de Nata

Pasteis de Belem - the best in Portugal?
Pasteis de Belem – the best in Portugal?

These things are what we know as Portuguese Tarts… But it’d be silly to call them that when you’re in Portugal — they’d be just called tarts right? Anyway, very nice in most places I tried. My favourite wasn’t actually at the most famous place, Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, but I think that’s just a personal thing. Most people rave about those at Pasteis de Belem and they are very good. Best thing to do? Try find your own personal favourite by eating multiple pieces per day!

Seaside in Porto

The moody Porto seaside
The moody Porto seaside

The Porto seaside is quite similar to most seasides around the world, but on the day I visited it was particularly moody. This made it great for a walk along the breakwater out to the lighthouse — big waves, lots of fishermen and plenty of people getting drenched by rogue waves. Made my day. A short tram ride on an old tram from the centre of town.

Pork Roll

The pork sandwich from Casa Guedes
The pork sandwich from Casa Guedes

The pork roll at Casa Guedes in Porto is a bit of a secret really. It’s not on the tourist circuit thankfully, so we were the only foreigners having a snack at the time. The pork is melt in your mouth, the cheese is already gooey and the whole thing is about a million calories. As we all know, the more calories, the better it tastes. This pork roll was probably the best I’ve ever had.

Portuguese Tiles

Even this woman and the cat next door love tiled buidings
Even this woman and the cat next door love tiled buidings

I don’t know a lot about the history of Portuguese tiles, but they do a pretty good job of them. I took heaps of photos of the tiles over the course of my time in Portugal as I just couldn’t get enough of them. The best thing is that they’re not afraid to decorate the outside of whole buildings with them. Anywhere else it would look crappy and old fashioned — in Portugal it’s pretty cool.

And that sums up Portgual as a whole really. Old fashioned, but cool. I enjoyed the people, the food and the general atmosphere in Portugal more than Spain and more than almost any other European country. Yes, it’s a big call! But Portugal just clicked with me. Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the low prices. Maybe it was the people. Whatever it was, Portugal is OK by me.

Walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

So I completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela almost two months ago now and I’m only just starting to process it — mainly because of all the travel I’ve been doing since then and now. It was an incredible travelling experience — the sort of experience I think many travellers simply miss out on.

Fields of wheat are a feautre throughout the middle 2 weeks of the Camino
Fields of wheat are a feautre throughout the middle 2 weeks of the Camino

The Camino de Santiago is a walk to the Spanish city of Santiago and it’s been a dream of mine for some years now. You can start walking from wherever you want really, but the most popular places are either 100km away in the town of Sarria or 780km away across the Pyrenees in the town of St Jean Pied-de-Port in France! I chose the one from France and completed the walk in a lazy 33 days.

People often ask how it’s possible to simply walk from one end of a country to another without some sort of support crew and the answer is quite straightforward really. You wake up, put on your shoes and walk until you’ve had enough. That’s it. There are always cheap hostels to stay in, there is a walking track of sorts and you simply walk. Every single day.

It was sunflower season during my walk
It was sunflower season during my walk

The spirit of the walk is part pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Santiago part losing yourself for a month part “what am I doing here” — but every person does it for their own reason, in their own time and for themselves. And that’s what’s so cool about it. Despite meeting up with plenty of other walkers, you’re still responsible from getting yourself from A to B every day and as such you really are walking your own journey.

Day one of the walk for me was up over the Pyrenees and into Spain. It was a fabulous introduction into what lay ahead — fantastic scenery, wonderful people, brutal adventure. To be honest, the first day wasn’t as hard as expected, but it was difficult to imagine being able to keep that sort of intensity up for a whole month. The very next day the difficulty of the journey became real when I injured my knee. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary — no funny twist, no weird bend. It just stopped working properly and became very sore. And I had to hobble and shuffle about 10km until I got to my accommodation. Not fun.

Climbing through the Pyrenees
Climbing through the Pyrenees

As the days wore on, that injury healed and other ones surfaced and never went away — blisters. Almost everyone I met on the Camino got blisters. It’s just part of the journey and finding a way to nurse them is the key to continuing your journey.

A typical day on the Camino for me involved waking up at 0630, throwing my clothes on and simply walking outside to look for the nearest bar serving breakfast. Many others arose at 0530 and hit the road to beat the heat, beat the crowds, find some solitude.

Puenta la Reina on day 4 of the Camino
Puenta la Reina on day 4 of the Camino

After a quick breakfast, it was time to get some KM under the belt and after a couple of hours it’d be time to stop for a second breakfast and some coffee. Walk a bit more, get tired, stop for lunch. By this stage the end of the day is usually in sight with only another 10km to walk. I’d usually aim to get to a hostel by about 3pm, but in the earlier stages when walking in excess of 25km, this sometimes turned into 4 or 5pm!

Much of the Camino is along dirt tracks in rural areas. To find which way to go, there are yellow way markers everywhere. Towns are usually spaced a few kilometres apart giving the journey quite a rural feel and the odd town brings welcomed respite.

Waymarkers on the Camino are generally regular and reliable
Waymarkers on the Camino are generally regular and reliable

One of the things which really surprised me about the walk was the friendships I made along the way. You very quickly recognise the same faces every day and those same people tend to bond over breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s not even like you need to make an effort to make friends. You automatically become friends due to your shared experiences — pain, exhilaration, frustration. It’s fantastic!

Friends - the unexpected best part of the Camino!
Friends – the unexpected best part of the Camino!

So why should you do the Camino de Santiago? Because it’ll be the single most challenging walk you’ve ever done. You’ll get out of your comfort zone and battle all sorts of problems. It may well be the catalyst for change in your life!

And besides, there is nothing better than watching the sun rise every day for a month, watching scenery gradually change as you head west and noticing the sun rising later and later.

Sunrise every single day on the Camino - one of the best things about it!
Sunrise every single day on the Camino – one of the best things about it!

For me, it’s one of the great travel experiences out there. Not many people can say they walked 780km across a country. Now I can and I’m damn proud of it!

What do you think? Pretty cool walk or what?