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Sunday, 24 May 2015

"I was never going to go, if I waited for someone to go with me"

Tallinn, Estonia
As much as I love solo travel and as much as I promote it to others, there are times when I run into the most bizarre situations. Situations so uncomfortable and strange that I'm wondering what the heck I am doing in this random country all alone!

This was one of those times...

Vilnius, Lithuania


For those who know me or have had the unfortunate experience of being around me on a cold winter's day, you will know how much I absolutely detest cold temperatures.

I often day dream about snowy mountains and charming little villages with beautiful white covered trees and catching magical snowflakes on my mittens. The reality is so very different and so very ugly. I am one hundred percent, a bright, colourful, sunshine, heat loving kinda gal. I do not mix well with the cold whatsoever. And yet, I always seem to find myself in cold destinations, bundled up more than a five year old about to spend the day making snow forts. While the setting is beautiful, no doubt, the reality of the coldness sets in and I find myself thinking, "What the heck am I doing here!?".

This was my trip to the Baltic States - A mix of beautiful destinations, rich history, and a freezing cold girl left wandering around the windy, frosty streets dreaming and promising myself that my next trip would include a beach and swimsuit!

Despite the unfortunate timing (that being the dead of winter), I am happy I was able to visit this unique part of North Eastern Europe. After returning from Christmas in Canada, a near missed flight in Zurich and lost luggage in Milan, I finally made it to Vilnius, Lithuania - just in time to ring in the New Year.
Vilnius, Lithuania

I stayed at a charming, family owned hostel and bunked in the attic. Strategically I chose the bed next to the space heater, snuck the blankets from the free beds and placed on my body every article of clothing I had in my little carry on bag. I was in for a cold week and another crazy solo adventure.

The owner of my hostel - a young Lithuania single Mom, made my stay so enjoyable. She and her two sons prepared traditional Lithuanian treats and along with fellow hostel guests from Mexico, Sweden, Brazil and the Philippines, we had an international potluck, followed by story telling, traditional board games, and champagne in the park with fireworks above to ring in the New Year. January 1st marked Lithuania switching to the Euro. This meant that all of the local banks also put on their own light shows and celebrations. It also meant that ATMs and trying to figure out how to pay for things became total chaos as the old currency immediately became useless (a fact I didn't know until that night).
Vilnius, Lithuania
The beauty of traveling solo is that you have these amazing experiences with complete strangers who are from totally different walks of life.
Soon after ringing in the New Year, hugging total strangers and finishing our champagne, a snowball fight ensued. My beautiful Italian gloves were destroyed (who knew they weren't made to handle the snow), but in that moment I was having too much fun pub hopping with new friends to care about gloves or the cold!

The following days in Lithuania included Christmas markets, local food markets, and a bonfire atop the lookout point of the city. Old Castle ruins sit high above the city. The Military were out in full force to celebrate the Nation's Flag day. A slippery walk up an ice covered cobblestone path and I was greeted with a huge bonfire and beautiful panoramic views of the city.
Vilnius, Lithuania
Lithuania would be the first country on my seven day journey across the Baltics. After leaving Vilnius behind, I boarded a five hour bus ride to Riga, Latvia.

Riga is a total gem. I stayed in a party hostel in the Old Town and with the short hours of daylight experienced this far North, I tried to soak in what I could. A snowstorm soon hit which made sightseeing on foot pretty tricky for someone who hates venturing into the cold. I did my best to suck it up and see as much as possible. The Old Town is completely beautiful and I kept thinking how amazing it would be on a blue, sunshiny day in the summer.
Riga, Latvia
Riga, Latvia
The two things I had planned for my stay in Latvia were dog sledding and a visit to the AK-47 shooting range. Sadly, the snow melted over night and dog sledding was cancelled. Even more sad was a poor decision to be adventurous and partake in a local Latvian moonshine tasting event at a local pub. Needless to say, an early morning wake up call to go to a shooting range just wasn't going to happen.

While in Riga, the employees at my hostel warned me to absolutely avoid the Riga Black Market - also known as the Moscow Black Market (nicknamed this, as it was traditionally a common stop for those on route to Russia). In fact, all of the maps had a big blacked out area with an 'X' crossed through it. When I asked why to avoid this place, they summed it up by saying if I were to brave it I would either end up with an unwanted hair cut (so my golden locks could be sold) or - I, myself would be sold! I later read in a guidebook that if you're lucky enough to return, you'll most likely return with only one kidney. I'm not sure how much truth there is to any of this, but a fan of my hair and organs, I stuck to the Old Town.
Riga, Latvia
Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia
Soon it was time to continue my journey and head further North to Estonia. I booked an early morning bus and woke up to trek through the snow to get to the bus station. I decided to go a bit early so I could sit, have a coffee and relax. Well, that couldn't have been a bigger mistake.

I consider myself incredibly lucky. I have felt safe and have had mainly positive experiences throughout my travels. This luck seemed like it was quickly changing. Without generalizing or judging too much, I will sum up my experience in the bus station by saying I felt like I had walked into a men's prison. The stench of alcohol and body odor hit me the second I opened the door. I hugged my laptop bag closely as I felt eyes from all directions gazing my way.
Thankfully, a fellow traveler I met at my hostel was with me. The two of us (both well traveled and not normally nervous people) couldn't have felt more uncomfortable.

I waited for my bus, counting down the seconds. After saying goodbye to my fellow traveler, I boarded my bus and looked for my assigned seat. Upon finding it, I also found a drunk man in the seat next to mine - a paper bag with a bottle of vodka in hand. He began speaking Russian to me and I knew I was in for a long trip.

What should have been approximately a five hour bus ride ended up being much longer due to a snowstorm. It was bumpy, damp and stunk of alcohol. The chairs had built in televisions with a movie selection. As if this experience couldn't be creepier, the drunk man next to me was watching the movie 'Taken'. A true bus ride from Hell!

I sighed a breath of relief when the bus pulled into the Tallinn bus depot in the late evening. I couldn't get away from that bus fast enough.
Tallinn, Estonia
I checked into what looked like a cozy hostel in the upper part of the Old City. I could immediately tell I was going to love Tallinn. Unfortunately, my bad luck was following me. Upon checking into the world's noisiest hostel and finding out I would be sharing a room with five less than friendly looking men, I had just had enough! I looked for a hotel, but it was too late. Too uncomfortable to sleep, I spent the night in the hostel kitchen watching 'Friends' on my laptop.

Traveling as much as I do means being a budget traveler. While I am by no means a picky or luxurious traveler, I do not put a price on my safety. Knowing I couldn't stay in this hostel one more night, I broke out my credit card and treated myself to a beautiful hotel in the centre of the Old Town for the following nights. I nearly cried tears of joy when I was welcomed with smiling faces, a Christmas buffet, and a huge, clean, comfortable room!
Tallinn, Esonia

I later found out that Russian Christmas was the next day. My hotel was full of Russians on holiday and everyone was so cheery and friendly. Unfortunately, due to the holiday, many of the museums and places I had hoped to see, were closed. One of the main attractions in Tallinn is the Old Soviet Prison. I had read over and over again that it is a must see. This too, unfortunately was closed.
I did however, manage to spend an afternoon in the WWII Museum, took a walk on the city wall, and frequently found cafes to shelter myself from the blasting winds coming off of the Baltic Sea.
Tallinn, Estonia
The Baltic States are incredibly interesting countries to visit, with such dark and rich histories. Although, my experience started out rough, I loved it by the end and would love to return someday when the weather is a little more welcoming.

"I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list"

A recap of my travel highlights from August to December.

After spending a relaxing month in Canada, it was time to return to Milan and jump back into work mode. Luckily, our school likes to gently ease us back as we yet again spent our first three days of 'work' up North at Lake Garda. We probably spent more time drinking wine and catching up with each other, than we did on actual professional development. I also experienced my first Italian earthquake during this time!

September brought wine tours, my first Italian wedding and a visit from my Aunt and Uncle who traveled all the way from New Brunswick.

Morbegno in Cantina is an annual event held in a town in Northern Italy, not far from Switzerland. It is an opportunity for locals to show off their wine. Upon arriving we purchased our packets which allowed us to visit ten cellars. Underground in dark, damp cellars we were able to taste various wines, cheeses, sausages and other treats.


Ale's Wedding
Ale's Wedding

Uncle Nev & Auntie Juitta visit

The wine tours didn't end in September. October brought us to beautiful Verona and what might just be the world's worst wine tour. We went with high hopes and sadly left with little wine in our bellies. While the scenery was spectacular, the tour left us bored and wondering where all the wine was!

Juliet, Verona

Lunch in Verona


Later in the month I spent a long weekend with my friend from the Bahamas in her new home - Berlin. I also met up with friends from London and New Zealand at a traditional beer hall in the city!
Hanna was a great tour guide and brought me to all the main sights. What a cool city!

Jewish Memorial

Berlin Wall


Brandenburg Gate

A return to London and the beginning of Christmas season in Europe!
It had been over two years since I left London. Despite only living in the UK for six months, I met some incredible friends and absolutely fell in love with London. It was finally time to return.
I stayed with an old friend from high school and we had a great time visiting Christmas markets, Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and taking a day trip to the majestic Cotswolds! I also had a chance to reunite with my old London pals and fell in love with the city all over again.

The Cotswolds

The Cotswolds

December brought lots of Christmas cheer. The markets were out in full force and the city was decorated so beautifully.
Two friends and I hopped on the train and headed North to Switzerland for a long weekend. We stayed in Zurich and did a day trip into the extremely tiny country, Lichtenstein. The drive through the Alps was stunning! While in Zurich we made a quick stop at the Lindt Chocolate factory and enjoyed the famous train station Christmas markets. However, we didn't enjoy the extremely high prices that came along with being in Switzerland. We quickly realized that three days in a small, expensive city may not have been the best choice.

Lindt Factory

By the end of the month I was back in the comforts of my Canadian home ready to celebrate Christmas with my family!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

"My favourite thing is to go where I've never been" - Diane Arbus

The absolute best part of living in Europe is having an abundance of incredible places to explore at your doorstep. Planning my summer vacation was a blast! I decided to take a solo month long trip and visit places I had never been. The difficult part was narrowing down my list. I knew I wanted some beaches and sunshine, but I also wanted to take advantage of my long holiday and explore some cities that needed more devotion than just a weekend trip during the school year.

With my one little carry on bag, 9 flight tickets in hand and the excitement of having a full month of exploration ahead, I left Italy and set off to explore the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Greece and Turkey - before heading home to Canada for the remainder of my summer holidays. Unfortunately, the last leg of my trip in Turkey fell through and has now been postponed until 2015.

When I set off on this month long journey I figured I would have boat loads of downtime to sit in my hostel rooms and write about my adventures. Surprisingly, I wrote very little - because I was just having TOO MUCH FUN!! So, rather than detailed posts about each place, here are a few highlights from each country.
Czech Republic
I spent four days touring the beautiful medieval city of Prague. The cooler temperatures were a nice change after a month of heatwaves in Milan. I took advantage of the small size of this city and spent my days walking and exploring the old town, trying local cuisines and checking out some of the many museums Prague has to offer - my favourite being the Museum of Communism.
My hostel had a great pub which made meeting new friends quite easy. I spent a lot of time here watching more soccer during the World Cup than I probably ever have in my life! I also visited one of the best pubs I've come across. This pub has tables equipped with beer taps and computer screens. You can type in your name, pour your own beer and at the end you are charged by litres. A great concept!
Another highlight was taking the train outside of Prague to the small town of Kutna Hora. This town is home to a Roman Catholic Church that is constructed with more than 40 000 human skulls and bones. A truly haunting place to visit.
Despite a near mugging incident (I managed to push a purse thief away and yell very loudly at him!), I had an incredible time in this city. I found it to be a lot like Budapest. Both cities I love and would easily go back to.

The Netherlands
The second leg of my trip may have been the most fun. I spent four days in Amsterdam visiting friends and exploring the city and countryside. My wonderful friend Glenn lent me his beautiful apartment that sits along the canal is an amazing location. It was the perfect home base for my time here. Before Glenn took off for his holiday we took a luxury boat cruise around the city. A great introduction to what is now one of my favourite places. The following days I spent time visiting great friends Ferry and Niek and meeting their lovely friends. The guys took me on their boat and we had bbq as we cruised the canals through the red light district. I also took time to tour the Anne Frank House, the Heineken brewery and took a bike ride to the countryside to see some traditional Dutch communities and windmills.
A great time with fantastic people in a city I will certainly be returning to again soon!

Who doesn't love sunshine and beaches? That's right...nobody! Croatia is a total hot spot in Europe right now. This post war, developing country with its cheap prices and ideal location has become a tourist haven. Because of this, it isn't exactly a peaceful and relaxing place to be in the summer months. I stayed in the old town in Dubrovnik - a walled city that is often the backdrop in 'Game of Thrones'. This medieval city is incredibly beautiful. The wall surrounding the city is the largest in Europe and for a small fee can be hiked - offering incredible panoramic views of the city, sea and mountains. A swimming beach is a short hike from the old town and there are tons of boating excursions available.
I happened to arrive during the opening of the Summer Festival. The torch lit streets of old town were very much alive with preparations for the kick off of the summer season. Fireworks, street performers and traditional dancers brought celebration and positive energy for the summer ahead. Dubrovnik relies heavily on tourism during the summer months as this is their main source of income.
A beautiful and unique place to visit, but I would definitely recommend visiting outside of the peak season.

Montenegro was never part of my original plan, but due to its close proximity to Croatia, I figured I would check it out while I'm in the area. I only spent a short time in this country full of mountains and seaside villages (the word Montenegro literally translates to 'black mountain'). 
With a fairly small population and only recently joining the EU, it is a country that is struggling economically and relies heavily on tourism - much like Croatia. After Yugoslavia broke apart and these smaller nations formed, many multimillionaire Russians moved in, bringing their yachts and building resorts. Montenegro is still relatively quiet, but it appears to be the next Croatia and I predict within the next several years will be a booming spot.
I spent my time village hopping, hiking, and enjoying the ridiculously cheap prices of seafood! I was also eager to learn more about the history of the Balkans so I joined a tour, which meant I got to see more than I would have had I been traveling alone.
Entering Montenegro wasn't the easiest trek. We had to go through three border crossings and drive through several areas of 'no mans' land'. Definitely worth a visit purely for the scenery, but I think Croatia has more to offer at the moment.

 Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bosnia may just top my list of favourite places, or at least come close to it. I was absolutely blown away by the raw beauty of this country. I joined a war tour and spent time traveling through four city/villages that were some of the most heavily devastated during the fall of Yugoslavia. Mostar was by far the highlight of my summer travels. This city that is naturally divided by a river was once, not very long ago the centre of a civil war between Muslims and Christians. The river literally divided the populations and the famous Mostar bridge (named after the original bridge keeper) acted as a connector for attacks and rescues - until it was severally bombed. This now peaceful city still has obvious evidence of its recent devastation. Bombed building rubble and bullet holes line the streets. Apparently each year the government sponsors one building in the city to be rebuilt.
The bridge was rebuilt and is now the focal point of the city. A local man can be spotted daily collecting money to make the 24 metre jump into the river. A definite must see!
With a National unemployment rate of approximately 45%, Bosnia is very much a developing country. Tourism hasn't quite reached this beautiful nation, which is a shame. The people I met were incredibly friendly and welcoming. I found a traditional restaurant for lunch and had the best meal and service and was only charged four euro!
The tour also brought us into the small town of Medjugorje. This town was put on the map by six children in the 1980's. They claim the Virgin Mary appeared and ever since, devoted Catholics from around the world have been flocking to this area.
After visiting some countryside ruins, the final stop was in a quaint hillside Muslim village, full of markets, a beautiful mosque and hillside homes.
Bosnia is a country I definitely cannot wait to continue exploring!

I arrived in Athens and was greeted by my wonderful friend, Mary. I spent three days with her at her family home and was shown the kindest hospitality by her and her mother. Home cooked Greek meals, tours of the city, an afternoon at the beach and a night of clubbing with Mary and her cousins until the wee hours of the morning made for a very memorable time in an incredible city. Athens was surprisingly quiet while I was there. This city is seriously impressive and surpassed my already high expectations. After a wonderful few days (and some unfortunate cockroach experiences), I boarded a ferry (with a home cooked packed meal by Mary's Mom!) and took the four hour journey through the Mediterranean Sea until we reached Port on the Island of Santorini.
As my month of traveling was coming to an end I chose to get off the beaten path and booked a private cave in a less touristy part of the Island. I was more than ready for some quiet, down time. My hostel was about a 25 minute walk from the main tourist town. After some unclear directions I found a local to drive me and save me from aimlessly walking alongside a busy road in the scorching sun. When I arrived at my hostel I was greeted with a huge welcoming pool overlooking the ocean, pink flowers, little white caves with blue roofs and the friendliest dogs who apparently live at the hostel! It was truly paradise and I couldn't wait to spend the next week doing absolutely nothing!
Well, my plans for doing nothing didn't last long. I soon met some new Aussie friends and we spent the next days sailing, hiking a volcano, soaking in thermal waters in the middle of the sea, partying in Fira Town and watching the famous sunset in Oia. This may just be one of the prettiest places I've ever been!

My last stop - Turkey, had to be cancelled due to being sick (punishment for having too much fun for the last month?!). I was soon back in Milan and ready to return to the comforts of my parents' house in Canada for the remainder of summer.