Tag Archives: travelling

A weekend in Kiev

15 Oct

Over the weekend I was visited my 33rd European country – Ukraine. It seems that there are always political news stories about Ukraine and I confess that I don’t read enough to know 100% what all the implications are.

A few people gave me raised eyebrows when I mentioned where I was spending the weekend but that didn’t stop me from having a great weekend in Kiev.

Kiev city

Kiev is a very smart modern city. I loved the old style buildings from the Soviet era mixed in with the new. The city was vibrant and full of life. All of the churches we saw were incredibly stunning. We didn’t realise that it was the start of a long public holiday when we arrived and on Saturday the Main street was closed to traffic. Being able to stroll down the street of a European capitol city and enjoy music and fire-eaters is something special.

Monuments

I love that many Eastern European countries have lots of monuments and memorials to people and battles that we’re not so aware of in Western Europe. I think one of my favourite monuments was in Kiev. It was called the People’s Friendship Arch. It’s beautifully made and commemorates the 1’500th year since the city of Kiev was established.

Chernobyl

The highlight of the trip was a full day tour of Chernobyl. I haven’t seen the HBO series and before going I didn’t know a great deal about the disaster and what actually happened. The tragedy happened during my lifetime but I was only 4 so I don’t remember news reports at the time.

You can only visit Chernobyl if you have a guide because specific areas are still dangerous and there are no road signs so I can imagine it would be easy to get lost if you don’t know where you are going.

We joined a group tour and our tour guide was fantastic. She could answer all the questions we put to her and had a great sense of humour which, in a case like this, must help to keep you sane.

The videos and photos that you have seen of creepy dolls, abandoned school buildings and former inhabited places overgrown by weeds and vegetation are true. I think my overwhelming feeling was of sadness. Not only did people leave a thriving new city which had the very first supermarket in the whole of the Ukraine but they thought that they would be coming back to their homes in a few days. The land we visited will never be inhabited again because, on a long-term basis, it’s not safe for human habitation.

We were regularly checked for radiation poisoning but I felt this was more a bit of entertainment than anything else. We had a dosimeter with us the whole time that told us how much radiation we had been exposed to. For the whole day we had been exposed to the same amount of radiation as you would be exposed to on a one hour flight. Also if you were contaminated, what could you do? You can’t take a pill to change it. What’s done is done.

 

 

Food and drink

No trip away is complete without sampling the local food and drink. We stumbled upon a local microbrewery and decided to have a beer tasting which included 6 beers.

We also tried borsch – a traditional beetroot soup, khachapuri – originally a Georgian dish and delicious dumplings! Now I’m back home it’s definitely time for a few salads to compensate for how much I ate.

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Passport Stamps

Of course, one of the most exciting things about visiting a country that isn’t in the EU is that I got another two stamps in my passport.

In November I will be heading to Tenerife for some winter sun and then to Nice and Monaco, which will become the 34th country I have visited in Europe.

Weekend in Luxembourg

26 Jul

Last weekend we went to Luxembourg. I have never been before and as one of my challenges is to visit 40 countries in Europe it was time to change that. So Luxembourg is officially the 31st country that I have visited in Europe.

Luxembourg is a small country and, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot to see and do there so I was glad that we had decided to only make a weekend out of it. But the city itself is charming and very beautiful.

Here are some of the things that we did:

Free Walking Tour

If you have been reading my blog for any length of time you will know that I am a big fan of taking a free walking tour in any and every city around the world. It was good that we did this on the first day so that we could get a good grasp of the city and find our bearings. It was during the tour I realised that the city really isn’t that big at all.

We visited St Michael’s Church during the tour. Mainly because of my education, I am a bit of a church geek and I was blown away by the stained glass window in this church. I know it sounds like a strange thing to say but the windows looked so modern even thought the church was one of the oldest in the city. Of course, it could be that the church had been recently renovated but they are still the nicest windows I have ever seen in a church.

 

The Bock Casements

On the outskirts of the city are the remains of the underground tunnels from a fortress. The fortress was built to help protect the city and over the centuries the enemy had tried to raze the fortress. Only a few towers from the fortress is still standing today but 17 kilometers of the casements or the tunnel of it are left. It was fun exploring what is left of the tunnels. Some of the tunnels were very narrow and I had to make sure constantly that I didn’t hit my head on the roof.

Beer and Food

I didn’t realise how many Luxembourgish beers there are. We tried a couple of them and were impressed! I found the prices of the drinks and the food as well to be very similar to Swiss prices. It definitely didn’t turn out to be a cheap holiday in that respect.

We didn’t try any specialities from Luxembourg on the food front but we did find a very nice sushi place for lunch one day and we had a meat and cheese board for dinner on the first night which was excellent.

Skaters

It’s always interesting to see how local people entertain themselves on a Saturday night. Luxembourg did not disappoint. We walked past a stakeboard shop that was holding an event. Basically the whole road was blocked off and they were staking down the road, hitting a ramp and then jumping over a bin and landing on the other side. Just when I thought I had seen it all, one of them decided to do this naked. It took the poor guy 4 times to land the jump on the other side of the bin. By the time he landed the jump to raptuous applause he was covered head to toe (and also in between) with grazes and brusies.

I have no idea why the police weren’t called to break up the disturbance but I was glad that they didn’t. The people who had “organised” this were relatively responsible and did stop proceedings to let traffic pass safely.

 

My next travels will be to Dublin in August (but I have already been to Ireland so that won’t count towards my list of 40) and then to Belgrade, Serbia in Septemeber.

 

Things I’ve learnt in October

1 Nov

I have been a bit quiet of late but that’s because I’m studying like a woman possessed for my German exam that is fast approaching. Therefore, most of the things that I have learnt this month do have a strong connection to German grammar but there have also been a few things not language related.

1. Reading books in German can be fun. I love reading. If I could get paid for each book I read I would be laughing all the ways to the bank. However, reading in another language takes longer and requires looking up words to make sure you have got the meaning. Up until recently I’ve come up with so many reasons NOT to read books in German. With the exam approaching, I broke off from reading English books to try reading German ones instead. It seems I must have been choosing the wrong ones to read. The last two books I’ve read have been really funny and I’ve enjoyed them. I know what you thinking: German literature that’s funny? I am as surprised as you are!

2. I can talk in a professional setting in German. Talking about what the weather is like and what you want to eat are relatively easy but talking with potential employers is something that I have avoided thus far. I was recently thrust out of my comfort zone and had to introduce myself in professional surroundings. I don’t know how I managed it but I did. And it wasn’t half as scary as I thought it would be!

3. There is not a lot about wine from the Bordeaux wine region that I don’t know. As we spent a week in the south of France, we ending up learning a lot about wine. Not just about if it tastes good or bad but the history, the production and the varieties of wine. It was great to learn more. Did you know, for instance, that the first wine bottle was opened in Bordeaux in the 1800s by an Irishman called Mitchell? Well, now you do!

4. Convincing yourself to do exercise is harder than actually doing it. As my knee is now better, I have been trying to make up for lost time. Last week I did some form of sport (either running or cycling) for six out of seven days. The first few days I did it was I dreading it and putting it off for as long as possible but a few days in and I was looking forward to getting outside in the fresh air.

5. Filing a Swiss tax return isn’t as difficult as I thought. The deadline for tax returns is the end of March but as we were travelling, we extended our deadline until the end of October. It seems like there is a lot of paperwork and things that you need to fill in and send off but all in all it’s not too complicated. I’m still glad that I only have to do it once a year.

So, that was October… and November has already started. I hope you learnt some interesting things in October too

Spain and Andorra

29 Aug

Last weekend we went to visit some of my boyfriend’s friends just outside of Barcelona. It was a nice short break and we managed to eat, drink and see a lot.

After collecting our rental car, we drove to Montserrat, a mountain range just outside Barcelona. The views from the top were nothing short of stunning. It is possible to walk to the top but we took the cable car to save our legs!

There is an impressive Basilica at the top and even more impressive queues to go into the church and pray to the Madonna at the top of the High Altar. Because of the heat, we decided not to wait but to go and have some lunch.

Later we drove to Manresa, where we would be staying. We found an amazing jamón shop where we tried some jamón, tomato bread and red wine. The wine was only 1.50 Euros and I was expecting it to taste like vinegar but I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. When we met up with our hosts, we got ready to go for evening meal and then onto a club where there was a jazz festival. It was a great atmosphere but after food and an early flight we were happy to go home for some rest.

The next day we went to Andorra. If you have been reading my blog for a while you will know that I have a #40Before40 challenge, in which I have challenged myself to do 40 challenges before I turn 40 (I have a few years to go yet!). One of my challenges is to visit 40 European countries and Andorra is one that I haven’t been to before.

Andorra wasn’t what I expected. It is a shoppers’ paradise because there are no taxes on the goods. It felt like every shop sold tobacco, booze, perfume and shoes and nothing else. I thought it had a bit of a weird atmosphere – like a place that’s in between here and there. I can’t imagine living there. It also took a long time to get in and out because so many people were crossing the border to get a bargain. However, I have been and it’s one less country to visit.

The next day we went to Sitges, a coastal town near to Barcelona. I had visited once before as part of a business trip but it was nice to go back again, especially for the delicious paella! I think Sitges is a bit like Blackpool for Spanish people. It was packed with lots of people who were just there for the weekend.

And then it was time to come home to Switzerland. I’m sure that weekends go quicker than weekdays – the secret is then to enjoy the weekends more!

Post-holiday Blues

29 Mar

Since I have arrived back, I have got a bad case of the Post-holiday Blues. I honestly wasn’t ready to come back. I thought after five weeks of moving from one place to another would be enough but I could have carried on travelling for at least another few weeks.

I don’t start my new job until next week and I had more than good intentions that this week I could get X,Y and Z done and use the time wisely and productively. I have no idea when I will next have to opportunity to spend a week doing what I want without any outside pressure.

So far I have only been able to find the motivation to download my photos (but not sort them or make them into a photobook) and to wash all of our clothes, which took the best part of a day.

To cheer myself up, I have decided to make a list of reasons why it is better to be back at home rather than on the road.

1. No daily application of suncream

I don’t need as long to get ready in the morning because I don’t need to apply suncream to every exposed part of my body before going out. I did go out once in Bolivia without suncream on and I was almost burnt to a crisp, even though the sun was hidden behind layers and layers of clouds. In fact, the only part of my body that is remotely brown are my feet. How am I meant to show that off in the office.

2.  I know where things are

On the road, I was constantly searching for things that I needed that had managed to find their way to the very bottom of my bag. It would take me five minutes to find the charger for my Kindle. Broadly speaking, at home I know where things are and they haven’t moved around during transit.

3. I have clean clothes

My bag was organised by using three plastic bags: one for clean clothes, one for “wearable” clothes and one for dirty clothes. At the end of the trip, I was nervous about opening thing bag with the dirty clothes. It really did stink. I was thinking about incinerating it when I got back home because I wasn’t entirely sure if I would be able to cope with the collective smell at the end of five weeks.

4. No mosquitos

Mosquitos are one of my pet hates. The ironic thing is that they really, really like me. No, I mean it. If there is one mosquito within twenty miles of me, it will find me and bite me. I’m like a walking-buffet for insects. This means that every early afternoon/evening I was reaching for the DEET, anti-mosquito wristbands and any other method which is remotely proven to keep mossies away. I don’t have that problem in Switzerland. At least not until the summer…

5. Toilet paper

This seems like a strange one but in a lot of South American countries you aren’t supposed to put toilet paper down the toilet. There is always a waste bin beside the toilet that you are meant to use. My problem with this wasn’t that I forgot to put the toilet paper in the bin but the fact that in public toilets this is just not so hygienic, although I get that the sewage systems in these countries aren’t so good and paper being flushed down the drains would increase the likelihood of blockages. I’m just glad that I no longer have to use a toilet paper bin.

6. Food

Although I did find the food amazing, there are always things that you miss when you are travelling, things that you can’t buy abroad. So it is nice to be back to essential foodstuffs that you are used to. In South America I was surprised by how few vegetables there were. It could have been the time of year that we were there but I’m glad to be back in a place where there is a greater variety of vegetables on offer.

7. Tea

Other countries just don’t go an English Breakfast tea right. I have been drinking coffee, which is not like me at all, and juices. There were “tea” options but the one time I tried it, I was bitterly disappointed. I saw on the menu that they served tea with milk. Perfect! Nice cuppa in the afternoon. Below is what arrived. I just didn’t know where to look. Lesson learnt: lay off the tea until you are back home with a Tetley teabag and just a splash of milk!

That’s the list. Now that I’ve written it, I do feel bit better. Experiencing amazing things each day makes you forget the little things that you miss. What do you miss when you are on holiday?

Final travel update

26 Mar

As I write this last travel update, I am back in the comfort of my own home in Switzerland. It already seems like life of the road ended a long time ago (even though I only arrived back yesterday). Here is what we got up to after we left Chile…

Mendoza, Argentina

By pure chance we noticed that it was the final of the Supercopa in Mendoza while we were there. Not only was it special because the final was between Boca Juniors and River Plate, fierce rivals from Buenos Aires, but also because away fans are not normally allowed to go to football games in Argentina. Since about 2013 away fans were banned from attending games because there had been so many deaths in recent years because of football related violence. This makes a complete difference to the atmosphere in the stadium. We had standing tickets in the River Plate end and, as Boca Juniors are currently the side with the better form, we weren’t too hopeful that “our” side would be victorious. A clear penalty in the 20th minute changed all that! And late in the second half a fantastic goal sealed the win for River Plate. I have never been to a football match like it – there were flares, banners, chanting for every minute of the game, fireworks and the stadium was almost full two and a half hours before the players even came onto the pitch to warm up. Crazy stuff!

Mendoza is also world famous for producing wine and for very good reasons. We stayed at a chateau that provided accommodation and we were able to make a tour of the other local chateaux and try some of the wine. One thing that we noticed was how different the wine making is here as to how it is in Bordeaux, for example. In Mendoza, there are some chateaux that don’t actually grow any grapes at all, but buy them from specialist growers each year. Where we stayed, the owner sells most of his grapes to someone else but also produces a smaller number of wine bottles every few years. The place where we stayed was really nice and the food that the onsite chef produced for us in the evening was also fantastic.

Montevideo, Uruguay

We caught a ferry and a bus (from Buenos Aires) to get to Montevideo. The ferry was about an hour and then the bus journey was two and a half hours. We arrived so late at the hotel that we almost missed the check-in time. The next day we explored the city and took a free walking tour. There isn’t a huge amount to see there but it was nice to relax and wander around the markets and the pier, where a huge amount of people were fishing. In the evening, we found the local St Patrick’s Day celebration so, of course, we had to join in.

The next morning I was woken up at 4am by thunder, lightning and rain. The rain continued and continued. That was our plan for a trip to the beach scuppered. The weather was, what I can only describe as being, biblical-like. The rain was bouncing down and it never stopped. I am used to rain but there was nothing that we could do, especially as it was Sunday and most of the museums were closed. We decided reluctantly to go to the airport and wait there. Our flight wasn’t until the evening so we had a long wait…

Ushuaia, Argentina

Our next flight was from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia in Patagonia in the early hours of the morning so we had more time to kill in the airport. Ushuaia was a lot cooler than Buenos Aires as it is only 1,000km away from Antarctica. It was a refreshing change and it wasn’t as cold as I thought it was going to be. I was glad that I had remembered to pack my wolly hat though.

The first thing we did was head to the Terria del Feugo National Park to take the “End of the World” train. It was an old Locomotive train and it went through the National Park. It is famous because the train used to transport prisoners, who were imprisoned in the End of the World prison.

The next day we had booked to go on a boat trip to see the sea lions, penguins and Haberton, which is a community that, until as recently as 1972, was isolated from the rest of civilisation. I was a bit disappointed because theren’t weren’t all that many penguins but we did see a humpback whale which was incredible. We weren’t all that close to it but you could see how big it was. In Haberton, we also visited a marine life museum, where they collect dead marine animals that they find in the area and preserve them. The guide told us some fansinating things about whale and dolphins that I never knew.

In the evening, I had the best fish I have ever tasted in my whole life. We ate King Crab legs as a starter which are not the most appertising thing to look at and then I had sea bass. I have no idea how big the fish was but I only had a small portion of it. It must have been massive. And, as I say, it was the best fish I have had in my life. Nothing really beats fresh seafood on the coast.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

We found an incredible parrilla (barbequed meats that is common all over South America) to eat at when we came back to Buenos Aires to thaw out after our chilly experience in Patagonia. My steak looked like South America so I was beginning to wonder if this was a sign that I should not return back to Switzerland!

The next day we explored some of the places in Buenos Aires that I hadn’t been to befre and then we went for a tour of the Recoleta Cementary. It seems like a bit of  morbid thing to do but some of the masoleums are incredibly beautiful and have a lot of history surrounding them.

In the evening, we found another incredible parrilla to eat at that also had great wine. I was slightly distrubed that there was a picture of Maradona’s Hand of God incident from the World Cup on the wall where we were sitting. Cheating is not something that should be praised.

Colonia del Sacremento, Uruguay

Markus surprised me with a day trip back to Uruguay with the ferry. He had already visited here without me before I arrived and I was bitterly disappointed that he went there without me. Colonia is a lot nicer than Montevideo. It is so quiet and relaxed. Having a beer while looking out over the ocean was a perfect way to unwind and get ready for the long journey back home the next day. The ferry only takes one hour so the journey wasn’t stressful, but we didn arrive back in a wet Buenos Aires. This time we were lucky to miss the rain!

Buenos Aires, Argentina

After packing and heading out to do a bit of last minute shopping, we wandered back through the city. The city was full of people protesting/commemorating/gathering for their rememberance day. One thing about South America is that they love to get out and have their voices heard. Everything, in this respect, seems to be well organised. The streets are lined with BBQ, people selling merchandise etc.

We now had plenty of time to get to the airport – or so we thought. Someone realised that he didn’t have his passort on the way to the airport! I aged about 20 years in a second. I wasn’t looking forward to returning home alone. We realised that when we had changed money that morning that the woman at the money exchange place hadn’t given Markus his passport back. Cue a mad dash to the other side of town, with fngers and toes crossed that the passport was actually there and hadn’t been lost on the street or stolen, before relaxing for ten seconds before frantically finding a taxi to get us to the airport on time. As you might have guessed, we made it.

…And there you have the most memorable, interesting, hilarious and slightly scary five week that I have experienced for a very long time. I am still processing half of the things that we have seen, done and experienced. I don’t think it will be too long before we are back on the road exploring what other countries have to offer but first we might have to renew our passports – there aren’t too many pages left blank.

The demise of the humble postcard

17 Mar

On our travels in South America, I’ve been slightly shocked at the demise of the humble postcard and the Post service in general.

In Bolivia, we were keen to send a few postcards back home but, no matter how hard we tried, we weren’t able to find any at all in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. In fairness, these two cities are definitely not tourist destinations in the true sense of the word and we hardly saw any other tourists. So perhaps it wasn’t so surprising.

In La Paz we found postcards and stamps. Hooray! My general rule is that if you find a shop that doesn’t sell stamps to accompany the postcards then don’t buy them. You’ll end up forgetting to find a post office and end up carrying them with you for the whole time and then bringing them home with you. I also used the sneaky trick of asking the hotel to post them for us rather than look for a post box (and I have no idea what colour they are in South America, so it would take me ages to find one).

In Uyuni we found more postcards but no stamps. As I said before, my rule is if you can’t buy both together, don’t buy at all! But I was overruled. We found the post office but it was “closed for a week for a public holiday”. That seemed slightly suspicious to me as no one could tell us what public holiday it was and everything else seemed to be open.

We still had the postcards in Oruro. We found the post office but two days previously it had gone into administration!

We still had the postcards in Iquique, Chile. We found a post office that was open! So we now had Bolivian postcards with a Chilean stamp on. That wasn’t part of the plan and some people at home are going to be a bit confused if they study their postcard in detail.

We thought it would be good to buy some postcards of Chile at the post office because they had some on display. But it turned out these were for display only and they had none to sell us. In the rest of Iquique, we didn’t find any other postcards and now we have sort of stopped looking.

It is perhaps no wonder that people are sending less and less postcards because the stress of finding a stamp to send it home means that you need to plan another holiday for all the time you have spent looking for a post office.

I wonder how long it will be until postcards are no longer printed. I hope they continue for a long time to come. There is something quite lovely about receiving a note from someone you know who is in a far away land and marvelling over the pictures on the front and trying to decipher handwriting. This is a holiday tradition that I would hate to see no longer with us.