Category Archives: Travel

The Great EU Quest: Greece – An Athenian Anniversary

Well it’s a happy anniversary to myself and the hub as today marks three years since we got married. How it’s already been three years just boggles the mind. Similarly, I can’t believe that it’s already been two years since I was last in New York. Anyway.

Our anniversary got off to a bit of a sketchy start as we ventured across the city to purchase our bus tickets to Delphi. The coach station is in an interesting part of the city full of auto mechanics and a lot of graffiti (more so than the rest of the city which, to be frank, has a massive graffiti problem). Early start tomorrow, we must need our heads examined.

It was a hasty exit from this area of town so that we could get on with our day proper – which really began with breakfast from a bakery near Monastiraki station. As you can see from the picture, looks very much like that Georgian cheese bread boat that I made a few months ago, but with fresh olives, feta and mixed bell peppers. This was exactly what we needed. Very delicious. Also, we got an interesting bit of street theatre as we ate, the arrest and escorting away of a couple of drug dealers from the square. A bit different from the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood.

Now the main point of day was to mop up the rest of the sites form the bumper Athens archaeological sites ticket that we began using a few days ago – starting with Hadrian’s Library. Much like the TARDIS, this site is a lot bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside.

There are parts of this site that are remarkably well preserved, to the point that with the guidance form the signs you can actually see what this was – with a bit of imagination that is. Some of the original mosaics still remain as do the outlines for the reading rooms and the actual steps. This visit also marked the unofficial restarting of Tortoisewatch with one of them making a hell of a racket as he speedily made his way across a corrugated iron roof.

From here we walked through the Athens flea market in order to get to Keramikos – one of two sites on the ticket that has an accompanying museum. This huge area is pretty much the remnants of part of a giant cemetery. It formed part of the Sacred Way – a kilometre long stretch of statues and tombs dedicated to those that could afford them. There is still so much of this left to be discovered, but that’s underneath already built on parts of Athens – so who knows if we’ll ever see some of these original sections ever again.

This area is pretty expansive (with two more tortoise residents), but all of the interesting ornamentation have been placed in the museum for protections, with copies now populating the outside. The centrepiece of the museum is an incredibly impressive marble bulk that would have once adorned the top of someone’s tomb. It also contains some other remarkably well preserved grave decorations that are worth checking out.

Our final destination from the ticket was the Ancient Agora which, with two notable exceptions, has been completely levelled. The first exception to this rule are three large statues of Tritons (think large male water spirits) that greet you as you enter.

These, however, pale in comparison to the Ancient Agora’s crowing glory: the temple of Hephaestus. This is the best preserved Greek style in Greece and really does give you pause as to what the Parthenon could have looked like had it not been partially blown up. Sadly you cannot walk through the temple, but all of the original insides were removed when it was converted to a Christian church to St George.

We made a stop by the Agora’s museum, which explained how successive invasions and cultures lead to the growth and the eventual destruction of the Ancient Agora. It’s also at this pint where I learned that Geometric isn’t just a type of pattern, but also a period of history where these types of patterns were first being exploited. Feels like I really am learning a lot this week.

Due to our late breakfast, we skipped lunch in order to visit the National Archaeological Museum. I know this doesn’t appear to be the prevailing opinion on Trip Advisor, but I found this to be far more interesting and varied than the Acropolis museum. Sure it isn’t as swanky, but they sure do cram a lot in here.

In total we probably spent about three hours in here. We might have been able to spend a bit longer, but our feet really started to hurt and our concentration was beginning to lapse after looking at ancient sites all day.

I think more than anything else on his trip, the time scales involved with some of the exhibits were truly sobering. Just to give two examples, you have a large bronze statue of a boy on a horse that’s two millennia old… and a wooden statue of woman at work that is four millennia old. These are just two of the many notable things here.

The prehistoric areas provided an insight into the various cultures in the area that started to emerge before what we now know as Greek culture started. Because of the interesting style of their statues, I really took a shining towards the Cycladic stuff.

Of course, being a Greek archaeological museum, there was a wealth of vases and statues – most of the museums being devoted to those two things – the huge bronze statue of Zeus (or Poseidon, it’s disputed) being a real highlight. So was the temporary exhibition on the depiction of beauty through the ages, where they made a recreation of perfume based on ancient instructions (it smelt like rosewater).

 

As we had plans this evening we went for an early dinner at a place around the corner called The Black Sheep. To start there was a dish of some par of breaded and fried cheese served with honey, sesame and nigella seeds. We also had kataffi pastry nests filled with smoked aubergine and walnuts – a real highlight.

For the main was pork kleftiko – think chunks of pork, sweet onion, bell pepper and feta wrapped in parchment paper and cooked to the point that the pork is so tender that it can be difficult to get a whole piece on the fork. It was so good, especially as the leftover juices made for something good to dip the fries in.

That rounds off most of the day, except for what we got up to in the evening. However, this post is becoming incredibly long and this provides me with a good spot to stop for now and pick up the rest later. As of writing this I am about an hour into a coach ride to Delphi having gotten 5 and a half hours sleep. I think it’s time for a nap.

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The Great EU Quest: Greece – Mount Hymettus

Right so I’m going to start off today’s post with a bit of a lessons learned from today: do not go for a big hike up a mountain without having breakfast or bringing along some sort of snack. We were fine, but it’s a pretty dumb thing to do.

Anyway, let’s get started with day three of my time in Athens.

—-

After yesterday’s early start I think we both felt that a lie in was in order – or at least waking up with the alarm at 9:30. Since we had nothing in the fridge at the apartment we talked about how we would need to breakfast and some sort of packed lunch as today was get day that we were going to do a big hike up Mount Hymettus (as you can gather, this didn’t happen as the end of the bus line was a cemetery with marry a bakery in sight).

Mount Hymettus is more like a small range or giant ridge than an actual mountain. It’s one of those things that you can see from most places in Athens, crowned with a mass of transmitters and radio antennae. Since we’re here in Athens for quite a long time, and there are a lot of mountains in the area, we set aside a day for hiking – this mountain being picked because of its relationship with a remaining food list item.

Before making for the mountain proper, we were going to pay a visit to Kaisariani Monastery – another Orthodox monastery but, unlike those we saw at Meteora, this is no longer occupied by anyone other than cats. To get to the monastery itself you need to make a 30 minute mini-hike from the cemetery at the end of the bus line and make a partial beeline through the Kaisariani Aesthetic Forest.

The build is in a similar style to those we saw yesterday, just on a smaller and less gravity-defying scale. From the outside the church is beautiful to look at; in the inside it is even better.

The frescos inside, like those at Meteora, are so well preserved. However, since this is no longer occupied, there were no restrictions on the number of photos I could take… so I may have gone a little bit barmy. Then again, I took many pictures of the church from numerous angles so it might have just been Kaisariani affecting me.

After this began, what would end up being about 4-5 hours on the mountain itself. The aim was for us to follow a trail known as the Botanical Trail which was meant to take us up the mountain at a leisurely-medium pace whilst seeing some monuments and a lot of cute signs telling you what the different plants were. Let’s just say that we lost that trail after about 45 minutes, cut to us clambering up steep sections on all fours.

The hike up was, although tiring, such great fun. The variation in plant life was so interesting, especially how it changed as we got further and further up. The coolest part however were the number of hissing tortoises that we came across – seven in total and each time I heard them hiss it made me think I’d come across an angry snake.

The big win from this hike, other than the knowledge that we climbed up 700m of a mountain, was the sheer wealth of views that we got of Athens from way up high. Every time we got a new view, we played a game of ‘find the Acropolis’ – even as the view widened to the point that we could see the sea.

We decided to make our descent at this point because it felt like we were reaching the point of diminishing returns. We hiked to know that we could and to get an awesome view. Now, little did we know that we would get kinda lost on the descent. On the way up we spied a less steep route that would’ve taken us ages, so we thought that would make for the perfect path for the way down – turns out this path was the victim of some sort of landslide and we ended up having to find a safe route down ourselves (luckily previous hikers had sprayed paint on safe trails so we managed to find our way down).

The moment we got off the mountain we realised that we’d basically ended up at nearly the other end of the ridge… so we needed to cross a freeway (which was scarier than all the times I nearly slipped and fell down that mountain) and find a bus stop that would take us back into central Athens where we would finally get food.

FOOD! Turns out pie can make you happy, especially when you have it with some peach iced tea and the pie is chock-full of feta cheese. It really helped us to feel human, as did resting in the apartment for an hour before heading out for dinner.

Being the wonderful husband that he is, I was led to a speciality food store that my husband was sure would do the Greek honey that I needed for my food list. Sadly they did not. A bit of googling and a short ride on the metro helped us reach another specially store called Yolani’s that not only did my honey, but also the Corinthian vinegar that I needed. So watch this space for future posts about those when I get back from Greece.

To finish the day we had dinner at The Greco’s Project where our eyes were a lot larger than our stomach. We shared starters of zucchini fries and a Greek sausage (like the one we’d had on Day 1), had a Greek salad to share and then a souvlaki plate. As nice as the food was, I was thankful of the 20 minute walk home so that I would be less bloated when I got back in to write about my day.

So that’s it for Day 3. Tomorrow we will be mopping up some ancient sites that we missed out on and celebrating our 3 year wedding anniversary by seeing a ballet! Not bad if I say so myself.

The Great EU Quest: Greece – Meteora

There aren’t many things that I would do a ten hour round trip for. Especially when it only means three and a half hours to be able to appreciate a place. However, this is exactly what we did today in order to see the precariously perched monasteries of Meteora.

So long and so infrequent are the trains between Athens and Kalabaka that you really have to make sure you book a seat and make it there on time – otherwise that’s your day gone. The train left at 8:20 from a platform that was only announced about 2-3 minutes before the train came in, so you can imagine me in a slight panic trying to work out where the hell to go.

This also meant us having to be up and out of the apartment by 7:20. Breakfast was some sandwiches I made the night before containing mortadella and some unidentified cheese that bore more than a passing resemblance to Gouda. Keep in mind that yesterday was a Sunday and that very few grocery stores are open – so we got what we got and it helped us last until the train back.

Despite being 5 hours long I must say that the trip pretty much flew by. Watching Frenzy for two of those hours definitely helped, but so did staring out at the passing scenery – something I find myself doing as I write up this blog post on the train back to Athens.

For the most part the train goes through the Greek countryside with views of rolling fields and tall mountains of all shapes and sizes being on offer if you sit on the correct side of the train. As you get closer to Kalabaka and the Thessaly Valley the more farmland you see with cotton as far as the eyes can see. I know I’ve seen cotton fields in Gone With the Wind and in a Geography textbook about lake shrinkage in Russia, but in person they look like something from a Doctor Seuss book.

At about 13:30 we arrived what Kalabaka and loaded up into a small (air-conditioned, yay) minibus for our three and a half tour around Meteora. From the station you can actually see one of the many monasteries resting atop one of the many huge rock formations that are unique to this area. According to myth, these stone structures are petrified Titans having lost in battle against Zeus and his Olympians – something that only endears me to this area all the more.

As you go up the winding roads to Meteora proper is is seemingly impossible to stop somewhere without finding an excellent opportunity for a photo (trees willing that is). The huge rock formations are, in places, pock marked by caves – which originally provided schedule to hundreds of Christian hermits prior to the establishment of the first monastery.

In total there are six monasteries open to the public, with each one closing on a different day of the week for the purposes of upkeep. We purposely chose to do this tour on the Monday because it meant the oldest and largest of them would be open – which is the place that we visited first.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 82/100Sight: Meteora
Location: Kalabaka, Greece
Position: #119

The Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoro is over 600 years old and towers above all the other monasteries in the area. Despite being the size of a small village, very few monks reside there anymore due to the tourists (tourists that they need if they are to keep it open, as it is the tourist money that now pays for upkeep). This was the first of two monasteries we were going to see today and despite having an hour here, we could have had a lot longer.

The views from the wooden balconies were spectacular and started theme of myself and the hub wanting to get back into a game like Skyrim. The wide panorama photographs really do not do justice to what you can see from there.

Inside the monastery itself there are a number of rooms set up to be mini-museums as well as a church and an ossuary. The walls and ceiling of the church itself, the first Greek Orthodox building I’ve ever been inside, were covered in frescos. Thanks to the painting method, these frescos look like they cook have been painted 5-6 years ago rather than 5-600. The only damage having been done by the Turks when the Ottomans took over Greece and scratched off a number of saints’ faces with their swords.

From here we were driven to a number of photo points in Meteora. The first, showing the landscape that Game of Thrones used to depict the Vale in Season 2 (the monasteries were removed digitally as they wanted no part in an X-rated TV show).

We were then taken to an outcrop that is a popular spot to take wedding photos. It looks a lot narrower than it is and did allow for some exceptional pictures of the area – even if I was a bit scared at first to make it onto the rocks, let alone towards the edge. I was fine though and found my inner mountain goat to be alive and well.

A few more photo stops later we got to the second monastery – which is now a nunnery because all the monks have left. The Roussanou nunnery (named after the founding monk who was either Russian or a redhead or both) is quite young for this area… having been founded in 1545. It’s a lot smaller in size, but still has a lot of stone stairs in order to get up there.

Everything about this monastery feels a lot quainter, down to the ticket office being operated by an actual orthodox nun. With this smaller size came the problem of other tour groups. When we got there an Italian school group took up all the room in the, admittedly small, church and in the way out not only did we have them to contend with but also a huge tour group coming in the opposite direction. I’m go glad that I was able to get the pictures I could when I did.

Then that was it for Meteora. The time passed in a flash and yet I feel that we saw an awful lot in the time we had allotted. It was back to Kalabaka in order to buy a late lunch/dinner for the way home. Also a final photograph so I could remember what I saw when the train pulled in.

Dinner was a big slice of spanakopita (Greek spinach pie) and chocolate cigars. Writing this has helped me to kill the first hour and a half of this journey and now, as long as my iPad battery holds up, I’ll be indulging in a second movie now that the sun has set over the Greek mountains.

The Great EU Quest: Greece – The Acropolis!

List Item: Visit all EU countries
Progress: 20/28

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I am finally crossing off Greece from the list of EU countries to visit. This really feels like the last truly major country to tick off the list and what a better way to cross it off officially than by visiting one of the major ancient wonders… more on that later.

Country: Greece
Year first visited: 2018

Getting to the apartment last night was a bit of a misadventure as a mixture of plane delays and broken ticket machines meant that we didn’t get in until gone 11. Thankfully the bed was comfortable and our temporary digs are exactly what we hoped for. It’s also cool that each apartment takes a name from a Greek god, ours being Dionysus.

Due to our late arrival, we didn’t get up until about 9 (which for me on a holiday is rather late) and we made the decision to skip breakfast in order to get a start on the day. Of course the hundreds of local Athenians we came across doing a cancer run got a better start on the day than us. Oh well.

Since our apartment is about 30 minutes walk from the Acropolis we opted to walk there so that we could start to get to know Athens just that bit better. On the way we passed an interesting landmark: the stadium that hosted the visit modern Olympic Games in 1896. Pretty cool to come across this just as an extra site! I had to photograph it later in the evening due to the sun being right overhead.

A short hop from there was the first (of many) ancient sites of the day: the Olympieion. Back in the day this was a tall temple to Zeus, but now all that remains is 15 standing columns and 1 collapsed one. It really worked to see this first thing as we could still marvel at the height and not be spoilt by what is to come.

The Olympieion area also features Hadrian’s Gate which marks the then boundary between Ancient Greek Athens and Roman Athens. It’s amazing just how intact this particular gate. Also, if you stand in the right place, it provides a perfect frame for the Acropolis in the distance – our next destination.

We got a tip online that if you want shorter queues to get into the Acropolis area not only should you pre-buy your tickets online, but go to the South-Eastern entrance. Most people tend to go to the western entrance as it is the more direct route to the Acropolis itself, but with the entrance we chose there was plenty of shrines and other ruins to see on our way up.

The big one to see is the theatre of Dionysus, whose area spans a lot more than you would first think. The ruins of the theatre is a real mixed bag. Some of it is amazingly preserved whereas others are completely missing. Still, it gave us a cool chance to take a seat in a proper Ancient Greek theatre – something that we will be doing again in a few days time… where I hopefully won’t regret not packing a cushion.

After weaving in and around a number of ruins it was time for us to hit the big ticket item itself: the Acropolis itself.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 81/100Sight: Acropolis
Location: Athens, Greece
Position: #28

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the Acropolis is the whole area at the top of rocky outcrop. The major part of this is the Parthenon, but other ruins (including the incredibly well preserved ‘Old Temple’ to Athena) can be found up here. Also feral cats, but those really are everywhere in Athens.

The weird thing about seeing the Parthenon for the first time is just how hard it is to process what you are being confronted with. Most of the times you see it in pictures you are seeing a zoom in from a nearby hill or the picture is being taken at a distance from a helicopter. Up close, it’s just difficult to parse the scale of the whole thing.

To allow the brain it’s time to process (and to get out of the way of some big tour groups) we went down to the ‘Old Temple’ to Athena (so-called because it predates he Parthenon as a place to worship Athena). It’s a bit of a marvel that is incredibly well preserved and has some interesting building quirks. This is a place that had to be built around a crack in the floor said to be where Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, the original olive tree as planted by Athena, the burial place of a mythic king and a substantial slope.

After this we still couldn’t quite process the Parthenon… so we climbed up a platform on the eastern edge of the Acropolis to take in some great views of the city (including a bird’s eye view of the Olympieion). I think it was the point where we turned around to face the Parthenon once again that it really hit us that we were here.

The Parthenon itself is truly vast. I can only imagine how it would have been to see this before most of it was devoured by the explosion in the 1600s. It will also be interesting to see how it will end up looking after the restoration work has been completed – although this really does feel like a project that will never be truly finished.

We ended up walking around the Parthenon itself two times to try and soaking he ambience as well as we could. It also afforded me the perfect opportunity to take a bunch of photos before we made our way back down the slope. I cannot over emphasise the number of great views that you get from up in the Acropolis – I can only imagine what it must be like to be there when it’s all lit up at night.

After finishing our descent it really was time for some lunch, and what could be more Greek than gyros! I feel that there is this big list of Greek food that I want it try authentic versions of whilst I am here – gyros being the top of that list equal to some proper feta cheese. We appeared to be the only people eating a meal of this size, but then again we had missed breakfast and (more importantly) who cares.

Next to the Acropolis’ slopes is the Acropolis museum – a newly built museum that houses all the findings from the Acropolis area as well as a lot of the original sculptures. However, before getting into that, we went around a temporary exhibition about Emperor Qianlong from China. This did serve as a bit of a palate cleanser for what was to come.

Sadly there is no camera policy in the vast majority of the Acropolis museum, so I’ll be brief. The sheer number of recovered statues and relics is truly overwhelming. There is so much that it makes you wonder just how much did not survive. Some of the best pieces are actually pre-Parthenon pieces that survived a massive act of arson by the Persian army. Some of these pieces still have visible paint on them!

The elephant in the room if the Acropolis museum are the missing marble pieces that are currently sat in the British museum. Being a Brit, it’s interesting to hear the Greek side of the story – especially as they characterise Elgin as essentially being an upper class pirate. Who knows if this will ever be fully resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.

It was pretty late in the afternoon when we left the museum, so we had to prioritise some sites from our Archaeological Sites of Athens ticket (with the rest to be done in a few days). We made our way down a lovely promenade and some really touristy ships to the Roman Agora.

There isn’t too much to this as most of the area compared to everything we’d seen previously, but it still had some columns and a gate intact. Also, and most interesting of all, the old observatory is nearly perfectly preserved. It really does help if a building has been buried for a long time.

List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Salep Ice Cream
Progress: 753/1001

We had a bit of a walk between the Roman Agora and our final site of the day. A walk which took us down some busy shopping streets and gave us the chance to cross off some ice cream. Salep ice cream has a number of names, which has made the hunt confusing. The Turks call it dondurma and the Greeks call it kaimaki. If I did not know this piece of information, I would never have found it today. The key feature of this ice cream is texture, which is like regular ice cream infused with an almost marshmallow-like stretch and chew. I really did like this ice cream and it makes me want to see if they have different flavours elsewhere.

So we ended the day at the Lykeion, which was the most far flung of the sites on our ticket. It is also the flattest as pretty much nothing behind the foundations have survived to this day. We didn’t get a whole lot of time here as it was 20 minutes before closing, but we probably got as much out of it as we could. Still interesting to beamong history, even if it wasn’t entirely visible.

List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Loukanika
Progress: 754/1001

For dinner, I found a place just around the corner from the apartment called Katsourbos. It was pretty high on Tripadvisor and apparently specialised in Cretan food. I guess that this sausage, which is meant to found all over Greece, can also be found there. Now, I have had a lot of different sausages for this food list, but this Greek sausage (smoked and flavoured with honey, herbs and citrus) is truly something else. Sure is nicer than both of the sausages from the French box and it gives the Cumberland sausage a run for its money. Something tells me this will not be the only time I eat this before I leave Greece.

My main was liver with skin-on fries and a honey-balsamic sauce. I didn’t get this for the liver, I got this because the sauce sounded really interesting. Man, this really was a great sauce. I hope that I’ll find a recipe to replicate this as it feels like of those that could go well with a lot of different foods.

I probably should have finished writing up hours ago as it is an early start tomorrow. How early, well we need to incorporate a 5 hour train ride. Wish me luck!

Efteling!

As of writing this, I have been with my husband for well over nine and a half years. This has meant more trips to the Netherlands than I can count. First to see him and then to see the in-laws. I mention this because it has taken him this long to take me here:

Efteling, the largest and most popular theme park in the Netherlands is only about an hour away from his family! I have been hearing about this place from him for AGES. How it was one of the big influences on Disney Parks. How well they do the fairytale settings. How much I would enjoy it. So here we are finally.

As you can see from the pictures, it was a bit of a grey day when we visited. However, the clouds and the eventual rain cannot takeaway from what is a fantastically themed park. Everything in the park is done in the style of a fairy tale, folk tale or legend. The highest concentration of this can be found in the park’s famed Fairy-tale Forest.

Through animatronics, sculpture work and proper re-tellings, the Fairy-tale Forest brings a huge and varied number of fairy tales to life. Some of these pieces, like the character of Long Neck from the Six Servants tale, have become hugely famed across the Netherlands. You could easily spend at least an hour going through and seeing all the different stories being brought to life… but then there’s rides.

Whilst I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an adrenaline junkie – I really enjoyed the roller-coasters in Efteling. The vertical plummet of Baron 1898 roller-coaster really sticks out at the major wow moment for me, but I also really had fun on the duelling Joris en de Draak roller-coaster and the water-coaster themed around the legend of the Flying Dutchman (how apt, right?).

It really was a fun day out. Aside from the coasters there was a great rapids ride called Piraña (the first such ride outside of the US when it was built in 1983) as well as a substantial number of dark rides. Our first and final rides of the day were on two of these rides and really helped to bookend the day.

The first was Carnival Festival, the Dutch take on Disney’s ‘It’s A Small World’ and had music that still gets caught in my husband’s head to this day. The final ride,  Droomvlucht (meaning Dream Flight in English), was one that he was really itching to show me. It’s a suspended dark ride through the fairy and troll worlds, which is really cute and quite creepy at times.

Between Efteling and Europa Park I have remembered fully just how much I love amusement parks. The fact that we did not have enough time in Singapore to check out Universal Studios just means that a return visit is not out of the question (as if it ever was). Taking this into account, I feel that this would the perfect opportunity to start yet another list on here. Nothing too serious, but something that could be fun to see fill out over the next few decades.

List Item: Visit 25 Amusement Parks
Progress: 13/25

Technically there should be an additional park on this list (Busch Gardens Tampa Bay), but as I don’t remember going it isn’t being counted.

Freiburg & Forests: Day 4 – The Black Forest

Right, so the whole reason we came to Freiburg in the first place was to visit the Black Forest. My husband went through my list to see what we could hit up I’ve the August bank holiday weekend and this was his top pick (he really wanted to go walk in some nature). We had a bit of a (rainy) taste of it yesterday as we walked up Schlossberg, but today’s hikes were a bit more of what we were after.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 80/100Sight: The Black Forest
Location: South West Germany
Position: #458

Half an hour from Freiburg (by tram and bus) is a mountain in the Black Forest called Schauinsland. This was going to be our hiking playground for the day. To get up there we used the Schauinslandbahn – which is not only the longest cable car in journey but this was the first circulating cable car ever built. The journey is meant to take about 20 minutes (although it feels shorter) and takes you to 1294 metres above sea level.

There are a lot of hiking routes that can be done on and around this mountain, we decided to do the two medium difficulty hikes that added up to 13 kilometres, with a fair bit of ascending and descending. Rather than give a play by play of the walks, I figured it would be worth going over some highlights.

The first walk we did (titled as Hike 3) was about 8.8 km long and took us 3 and a half hours to complete. Early into the walk I had to keep stopping because of the recurring wow factor of the views. I took so may pictures in this first stretch of the walk compared to the rest of the day (probably because taking photos is the last thing you want to do when making a steep ascent or descent).

For this hike we were mostly in the open fields, which allowed for lots of beautiful panoramic views and a number of animal sightings. Well, we mostly saw cows (and they were glorious), but we also saw some birds of prey (I think they were red kites) soaring through the sky and making good use of the updrafts.

This hike took us past a number of hotels and guesthouse sand we were able to resist… for the first two hours. It was just after lunchtime by the time we got to the final one and we really felt the need for a snack, so I finally got to try some Flammkuchen – in the German mountains no less.

We probably should have taken more of a break between the two hikes because the second one we did (known as Hike 2) felt a lot more difficult than the first one, despite being less than half the length at 4.2km long. Maybe this was was because this was a lot steeper than the first one and that there were fewer opportunities for extended breaks… yes that’s probably it.

This hike was far more in the trees, although that did not prevent us from seeing more cows and the occasional goats. Being more in the shade meant that despite the sun being out and being quite hot, it was pretty damned cold.

Whilst there weren’t as many opportunities to have an extended sit, there were some interesting landmarks such as a small mining museum, a 400 year old house and a memorial to some English Boy Scouts who died of exhaustion on the mountain in 1936. The latter landmark is pretty interesting as it was a way that the ruling Nazi party tried to ingratiate themselves with the UK.

The highlight of the walk is right at the end when you arrive at observation tower and, with legs like wet noodles, get to the top platform that puts you at 1302 metres high. It was ruddy cold up there, but you just to let the many different views all soak in. It also served as a reminder of how near the borders Freiburg is as, on one side of the tower, you can see the Swiss Alps in the distance.

We were up on the Schauinsland for hours, but we couldn’t walk for much longer and so at the end of the second hike we made our way back to Freiburg. Sadly, because it was Sunday, there was no chance for some last minute purchases of Mezzo Mix to bring back to the UK. It did, however expedite outer search for dinner.

Right so this wasn’t the best meal we had this holiday. The soup dumplings were really delicious, but the soup itself was quite oily (and that did not sit well with my stomach). For a main, I tried sauerbraten for the first time. It came with spatzle, which really appears to be a theme for the dinners of this holiday. I really enjoyed the sauce that this came in (and therefore dredged the spatzle in as much sauce as possible), which makes me wonder if this is something that could be a pick for Germany when doing my food challenge.

As tomorrow is a ‘crack of dawn’ flight, there’ll be no real point in me doing any sort of write-up. It’s been a nice little break here in Freiburg and definitely one with a lot of variety over the three full days. Could have done with one more to check out the open air zoo, but other than that this worked out well.

I’m really pleased to say that it won’t be long until I am back in the air again to see more things outside of my native UK. Still, until then, there’s always time to make plans and fantasise about future getaways.

Freiburg & Forests: Day 3 – Seeing Freiburg

It rained all day today. Okay that’s an exaggeration. It stopped raining at about 5:30 in the afternoon after precipitating near constantly since we left the hotel. Annoying? Yes, but I managed to escape rain for the most part during my trip to Singapore so I can’t exactly complain here. Still, got to make the most of our time here.

We woke to the sight of a big market in the square surrounding the Minster – the smell of which truly made us hungry despite having already eaten breakfast. The smell of cooking sausages, olives and cheese followed us into the Minster, which was currently undergoing some restoration works which rendered the tower inaccessible and made the interior darker (and more atmospheric).

It’s a pity that we didn’t get a chance to see all those stained glass windows shining in their regular glory (due to both the scaffolding and an overcast sky), but you get a flavour of them whilst you’re in there. The distinctive thing about this cathedral would appear to be the integrated sculptures (of which we’ll see more at a later point in the day) and some of the metal railings that had been painted to resemble vines, leaves and berries.

From here we walked down what appears to be one of the main shopping street to see two of the old city gates that are still standing. I saw one of these on a YouTube video about a photographer in Freiburg so it was a bit weird to see them in the flesh. These two are far more prominent than the ones I saw in Munich. It is a shame, however, that the city walls that these once found a place in are no more. Still, they are great to see with the backdrop of the more modern city, their old clocks and murals still being preserved.

From the second gate we went to the Augustinermuseum where we bought a day ticket, which also gives you entry to four other museums around Freiburg. The museum gets its name from the monastery that it occupies, which has been repurposed and updated in recent(ish) years. The focus is mainly on church art, but the attic contains some 18th century paintings that serve as an interesting contrast.

Among the collection I really did enjoy some of the gargoyles that were on display (especially the screaming lion man that represented the sin of wrath) and some sculptures of patron saints of the guilds within Freiburg. There was also a pretty creepy painting of a crying Christ surrounded by lots of crying cherubs (including one who appears to have gotten his leg stuck in the wound on Christ’s side) that still haunts me as I write this.

Lunch was a return to the Minster Square and we indulged in a hot dog made using a local Freiburg sausage. It made for a nice change from the regular bratwurst, and the Freiburg sausage is so long that it needs to be bent in half to fit in the roll.

Next was the second museum of the day: the Archäologisches Museum Colombischlösse. It’s small museum housed in an old villa (which appears to be a theme for the museums in Freiburg) that contains locally excavated Stone Age, Bronze Age and Roman artefacts. What this museum lacks in big ticket items, it really makes up with excellent display work.

There are three things in particular that they did well. Firstly, all the tools were shown alongside the modern equivalents, which helped given context. There were also videos showing some of the techniques used to create a toll within the room. Finally, for fragments, most things were shown in the context of what they once were. All of these things are small touches, but it makes a big difference in a museum like this.

After this we went to the final museum of the day: the Museum Für Neue Kunst. Another fairly small museum, as one where your experience lives and dies depending on the temporary exhibition. The permanent exhibition is still interesting, with one room making a rather powerful statement about the censorship of art under the Nazi regime. There was also a room set up with new acquisitions to the gallery, each with an accompanying essay written by a local art student – which is a novel way to encourage art appreciation.

The temporary exhibition was excellent. It was centred around the idea of interconnectivity and featured audio, video and virtual reality exhibits. There was also gigantic versions of the board game Risk, where the method of world domination had been changed to more modern means such as economic block chaining. I got to use a virtual reality headset twice, the first allowing me to watch and listen to some interviews with immigrant students on topics like LGBT issues and religion. The second one… I took off pretty quickly because it gave me a hint at what it might be like to be schizophrenic and it wasn’t exactly pleasant.

The rain had let up slightly (only to return later in full force) and we decided to make our way up to the top of Schlossberg, the nearby hill that looks over Freiburg. We took the funicular half way up the hill and then hiked our way to the top, where there is a metal observational tower which can give you a birds-eye view of the surrounding areas. The main platform is 251 stairs up, but there is also a single person platform that is even higher up… which shakes in the wind like nobody’s business, so I got down form that quickly.

As we descended the tower the heavens truly opened, but we still wanted to take our time exploring the Freiburg-facing side of Schlossberg. We walked around the forest until we made our way down to the Kanonenplatz which, despite being lower down, allows for better views of the city.

List item: Kiss in the rain
Status: Completed

Honestly, the whole thing was kinda romantic. We’ve probably done this before, but this might be the first time that the rain, the view and the situation properly lined up. Maybe it would have been nicer on the Kanonenplatz if it had been sunnier and less misty, but it would not have been as quiet or as atmospheric.

We gradually made our way back down off the hill and it was getting towards dinner time. For the first time in God knows how long, I thought it would be a good idea to have dinner at our hotel. After all the restaurant where we were staying, Hotel Oberkirch, is fairly high on TripAdvisor and the food always smells great as we get back in the evenings.

After our hike I really wanted a particular type of soup you find in Germany – and they had it at the restaurant. I don’t know what it so comforting about beef broth with cut up pancakes in it, but when done well it is hard to beat… which is great when this hotel made one of the best versions of this that I have ever had.

For my main I had something from the seasonal menu, which was themed after chanterelle mushrooms. Honestly I couldn’t see the meat escalope for all the mushrooms, spätzle and sauce – never a bad thing. The chanterelles were so so good and gave a wonderful flavour to everything on the plate. I need to find a recipe for something like this as I could see myself copying this meal for when I eventually cover Germany for my food challenge.

So, with my trip up the Schlossberg I had a preview of the Black Forest today, but tomorrow marks our trip out to see it properly. Lots of walking through the hills and forests tomorrow… so a good sleep and breakfast seems like the best way to prepare for now.

Freiburg & Forests: Day 2 – Europa Park

So yesterday I made a bit of a point around setting foot in four countries in one day. Today I visited a place that has themed areas from all over Europe – the amazing Europa Park. It was a happy coincidence that this trip to Freiburg would allow for this visit – we originally booked this trip as it was on the edge of the Black Forest. I guess things happen for a reason sometimes.

The trip from Freiburg to Europa Park takes less than an hour (depending on your connections), but we still got up before seven so we could get breakfast in the hotel and still be at the park for when it opens at nine. The bus section of the trip was jam-packed with teenage boys, which brought to mind the scene in Pinocchio where they make the trip to Pleasure Island. Thankfully I did not come back as a donkey.

One thing that I want to properly draw notice to is just how lucky I was today with the number of people in the park. I see people on TripAdvisor talking about how they often had to wait at least an hour to get on a bunch of the rides (similar to my time in Tokyo Disneyland). However, in the 9 hours that we spent in the the park, we managed to fit in about 25 rides – the longest wait being just over half an hour with many others being almost immediate.

I won’t go over every ride I went on (otherwise I would be here for hours) but there are a number of highlights that I want to get down for some sort of posterity. The first cluster of highlights happened in the Austrian section of the park, which is where I actually managed to tick off something for my main bucket list.

List item: Ride a record breaking roller coaster
Status: Completed

I think it’s fair to count a first as a record, and in that case the Alpine Express helps me to check this off as it was the first coaster to use virtual reality. It’s set us you would expect, you get in a physical roller coaster with a headset on that plays a 360 video which is synced up to the twists and turns. We picked a video that had you flying around on some sort of glider and, surprisingly, it was incredibly immersive to the point where I thought I’d actually gone upside down. We re-rode the ride straight afterwards without the VR and got a completely different experience with the original runaway train through a goblin mine setting.

The next big highlight was two rides in the Iceland section. Both of them were some of the parks bigger coasters and yet,between them, we only waited for 45 minutes. I also made the potentially stupid move of riding these even though I had pulled my lower back 3 weeks ago and still had residual soreness. Weirdly, this soreness has disappeared after riding Wodan (a gigantic wooden coaster) which was like some sort of miracle.

Blue Fire, the other coaster in the Iceland section, is probably the best coaster that I rode whilst in the park. It doesn’t reach the heights of Silver Star (which was previously the tallest coaster in Europe), but it has more interesting twists and loops that help you have those thrilling extended moments of weightlessness.

We did a lot of the smoother rides in the park too. There are so many well themed rides that are fun for the family, but the runaway winner for best theme and experience was the Madame Freudenrich’s Curiosities. It’s an indoor track ride where you see lots of cute dinosaurs wearing kitted items and making cakes. Sounds weird but it is adorable and makes me marvel that Europa Park is able to make these mini-worlds without having the intellectual properties that Disney have to fall back on.

Of course we visited the England zone. There weren’t really many rides here but it was funny to see what stereotypes were used here. Mostly it was London based with the black cabs, double-decker buses and Paddington station, but there were also arcades like you’d find at the seaside.

In terms of best whole world (for rides, decor and available food) the winner for me has to be Greece. It had the best water ride, a cool coaster and a really fun laser shooting game. The place was done up as a mash-up of Ancient Greece and present day Santorini and you could smell that they were cooking gyros.

Speaking of food – we didn’t really have any meals today but just had snacks every now and then. This included a hot dog in England, burger and Olivier salad in Russia and a visit to the Foodloop restaurant in Luxembourg. Food Loop has a bit of a queue to get in, but the gimmick of having your food delivered to your table by mini-roller coaster is worth the wait. We had Mezzo Mix and Black Forest gateau, with the cake being a pleasant surprise.

We finished the day by going on the panorama train for one final look around the park before getting onto the last: Voletarium. We weren’t event going to go on this originally, but our interest was piqued as I bought myself a keychain in the ride’s gift shop. To think I almost missed out on the best experience of the day just goes to show how an amazing day can unexpectedly get even better!

To describe Voletarium is to make it sound a little bit twee. It’s essentially a large indoor cinema were it feels like you are flying through the air and the landscapes that you see. For this ride it is a number of different places in Europe (sadly none in the UK) and you are soaring through the sky between different scenes. Now, I don’t know if it was the music, my love of Europe or some other factor… but it made me cry (in a similar way to the water show in Singapore). I was just so moved and it really was the perfect way to end the day.

As you can gather from this entry, not only am I considering this trip to Europa Park as my best ever day in a theme park – but also in the top ranked of holiday days that I’ve had with my husband. We still have two more days here in Germany, both of which are set to be incredibly different to today. Tomorrow I’ll be seeing more or Freiburg itself – and will also be getting a well earned lie in.

Just as an FYI I’m finishing this post with a list of the rides we managed to fit into our day with a few notes if not already mentioned before. I’m trying to do this in order, but it’s already getting a bit fuzzy:

1) Jungle Rafts – gentle boat ride around some (possibly insensitive) depictions of African culture (Adventure Land)
2) Alpine Coaster with Sky Riders VR Experience (Austria)
3) Alpine Coaster as originally built (Austria)
4) Tirol Log Flume – which goes through the same goblin mining scene as the coaster (Austria)
5) Feria Swing – an inside spinning ride where the controller yelled Spanish exclamations in an extremely strong German accent… which made the whole experience hilarious (Spain)
6) Fjord Rafting – River Rapids ride where I stayed dry… but the man opposite got absolutely soaked (Scandinavia)
7) Blue Fire – best coaster of the park (Iceland)
8) Whale Adventures – water shooting ride (Iceland)
9) Wodin – a huge wooden coaster, possibly the largest I’ve ever been in (Iceland)


10) Euro-Mir – a spinning coaster themed around space station Mir, but is also unapologetically nineties with its blacklights and techno music. Really fun, even if going backwards down a coaster is moderately terrifying. (Russia)
11) Snowflake Sleigh Ride – gentle indoors ride where you’re sat in really cute sleighs (Russia)
12) Cassandra’s Curse – my first revolving room ride. Cool and trippy (Greece)
13) Poseidon – a water coaster where I got absolutely soaked. Totally worth it (Greece)
14) Pegasus – a coaster that I hoped would help to dry me off. It didn’t. (Greece)
15) Atlantis Adventure – laser shooting ride with a lot of cool sea creatures. Absolutely thrashed my husband with my score (Greece)
16) Monorail (between Luxembourg and Iceland)
17) Puppet Boat Ride – gentle cruise around a bunch of puppets depicting folk tales (Germany)
18) Elf Ride – another cruise ride where my main memory is signs of crying flowers saying “Let Us Live” as a way to stop people picking them (Germany)
19) Ghost Castle – similar idea to the Disney haunted mansion, but actually pretty gruesome in places (Italy)
20) Picollo Mondo – cute gondolier ride where animatronic animals take on different Italian stereotypes (Italy)


21) Swiss Bob Run – bobsleigh coaster where you do the whole thing when lying down (Switzerland)
22) Silver Star – previously tallest coaster in Europe, had one hell of an initial drop (France)
23) Madame Freudenrich Curiosities – super cute indoor ride with dinosaurs, cake and laundry (France)
24 Panorama Train – for a final look around the park via a train with not a lot of leg room for someone who is 6 foot 3 (Germany-England-Spain-Russia)
25) Voletarium – breathtaking indoor cinema flight ride (Germany)

Freiburg & Forests: Day 1 – 4 Countries in 1 Day

There’s something cool about being able to say “I’ve set foot in four countries in one day”. To be honest, outside of actively seeking something like this, I couldn’t think how it would happen. Yet today, as part of my journey between my London home and my hotel room in Freiburg, I managed to set foot in the UK, France, Switzerland and Germany.

It’s things like this, which came about because Basel airport seems to straddle the French-Swiss border, that really makes me love Europe. I mean, where else could an airport have a small customs gate in the middle of a departures lounge that helps you easily pass between two nations?

Given that we didn’t actually make it to Freiburg until just gone four in the afternoon, this is going to be one of my shorter travel posts. However there are some first impressions that I want to get down.

Firstly, the view I have from my hotel has to be up there with Vilnius, New York, Hiroshima and Cairns. We are overlooking the Minster (the section not currently clad in scaffolding) and therefore had front row seats to it being illuminated by the massive thunderstorm that struck Freiburg this evening. For a solid hour the rain was torrential and there was lightning every 30-60 seconds. I was clutching my glass of Mezzo Mix and staring out the window the same way a young child does in front of a toy shop at Christmas.

Our first walk around the city centre (which we will properly explore on Day 3) was lovely – even as the storm winds picked up and we started making our way back to the hotel. You can tell that this is an old town because of the architecture and the cool cobble art on the streets (where, for some shops, they have had their trade incorporated into the cobblestones – like an orange and glass for a juice shop).

You can also tell that this town has a very youthful spirit, thanks in part to the nearby university which has really made local businesses spring up to appeal to the clientele. This weird dichotomy of an old city with a young university population really reminds me of three years living in York. As much as I love London I do sometimes wonder how it would have been if I had stayed in my university town and made a life there…

Anyway. Being me, the final first thought is food. Already I am wanting to eat pretty much everything I come across. Tonight I let the hub pick a place – and not just because I felt bad for how much I’ve been continuing to rib him for a card the hotel left us a welcoming ‘Mr and Mrs [my last name]’.

I really could have had anything on the menu, but since I had a lot of schnitzel in Kraków I went for a cutlet in cream sauce, spatzel and a (gorgeous) side salad. There will be plenty of time for sausages and schnitzel during the rest of this trip.

That’s it for day one. The thunderstorm has sadly stopped and we have an early start time tomorrow as we’re off to visit Europa Park! In the rain! Wish me luck!

The Great EU Quest: Poland – Salt Mines and Ermine

It’s already come to the final day – it’s sad to be leaving such a lovely city, but I think I’ve fit in a lot of things over this extended weekend.

After a breakfast cobbled together from random delicious things we found at Carrefour, we headed off to the main focus of the day: the salt mines at the nearby town of Wieliczka. Honestly, this is probably not a place I would have booked prior to the holiday if it wasn’t for its placement on the Lonely Planet list, but when in Kraków.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 79/100Sight: Wieliczka Salt Mine
Location: Wieliczka, Poland
Position: #213

It was another scorcher of a day, so spending a few hours underground in 16 degrees felt like a nice sojourn. I didn’t quite expect how much I would enjoy listening to the guide talk about the history of the mines or the fact that I would be given the chance to lick the walls (since the walls in most places are made of rock salt, and are therefore anti-microbial).

I also didn’t quite expect just how beautiful a lot of the chambers would be. Some contained artificial brine lakes (which were very well lit), many contained sculptures carved out of the grey rock salt and most had marble-like floor tiles that (again) were made from the rock salt.

The biggest shocker of them all was St Kinga’s chapel. This monumentally large chapel was carved of rock salt with statues, friezes, floor tiles and chandeliers all made from the rock salt found in this very mine (some of the pink salt sculptures were made form salt from a neighbouring mine). Some of the most impressive elements of this chapel included a carving of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and a weirdly lifelike statue of Pope John Paul II.

Honestly the 2-3 hours underground just flew by about as swiftly as the lift that took us back to the surface and I am thankful for the Lonely Planet list for giving me the proper push to something a bit different. It’s been too long (probably 17 years) since I last saw such impressive underground structures although, being completely man made, this was a different experience.

Lunch was brief and was decided the moment we got to the salt mines and I saw a man cooking kielbasa for 10zl a pop. I cannot believe that it has taken me until Day 4 before I had a proper Polish kielbasa, but boy did it not disappoint with some mustard and a kaiser roll (side note: I wish you could get kaiser rolls in the UK outside of speciality stores, it really is the perfect all purpose roll).

After finishing lunch and enjoying some of the midday sun, we made our way back to Kraków to visit the National Museum. Why? Well, as the Uber driver correctly deduced, we were here to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Lady with an Ermine. This is a painting I’ve always loved and it’s a privilege to see it up close.

I can really see how this is considered one of Poland’s National Treasures (above: a picture of the poster outside as, for obvious reasons, photographs of the real painting are forbidden). If there had been a bench in the room, I would have been able to stare at it for at least 15-20 minutes. As it is, it was just my husband and I (and two guards) alone with the painting in a darkened room. It just felt like one of those special moments where I could have as long as I wanted to appreciate an art object and there was no one around to hurry me along.

Since we’d already paid for the museum it only made to spend a lot of time in,their permanent collections. Doing a museum like this on the final day really works as it helps to contextualise a lot of things that you pick up about the local history via osmosis. It also helps that I have been devouring the ‘In Our Time’ and ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ podcasts as I was able to play some fun games of historical detective with certain exhibits.

This was typified by a long time that I spent just analysing this chess set that was on display. Not only unpacking the history behind its depiction of a battle between Poles and Ottomans on the board, but also knowing the cultural reasons why the queen piece was replaced by a vizier/advisor. I felt like a proper clever clogs and it felt great.

There were also galleries featuring modern art by Polish artists and one containing a wealth of armour and weapons. At this point, pretty much anything we saw was a bonus seeing how the main reason for us to come here was for a single painting. There was also an exhibition on Polish comics, but we had to miss it as we forgot to include there in our ticket.

By the time we left the museum it was early evening and, seeing that Kraków old town looks it’s prettiest under the bubblegum sky of sunset, we went on an extended to explore the streets we’d yet to visit. Did we get a lot of guys coming up to us and telling us about the beautiful girls we could see at their employers strip club? Sure, but that didn’t detract from the beauty of the town, just from the respect that I have for my own gender.

We saw so many new churches and other places of interest on this route. There are surely countless buildings that we missed, but it was time for dinner and boy were we ravenous.

It was a long walk to tonight’s restaurant (one that was stupidly close to the hotel) and it was exactly the place we wanted. Proper Polish food and am interior that was decorated like some sort of ski chalet. The sour soup that I had to start was exactly what I was looking for, even if it wasn’t served in a bread bowl.

The star of the show was the main – a huge platter of Polish things that, between the three of us, we struggled to finish. On it there was two types of sauerkraut, pierogi, grilled kielbasa, potatoes, a cabbage roll, pork knuckle, pork steaks in a tomato sauce and bigos (a sauerkraut stew with meat). This is exactly the sort of food I was looking to find and I made sure to make the most of it.

Stuffed like thanksgiving turkeys we did a final tour of Rynek Główny to say goodbye, ice creams in hand (mine was rose flavoured and I feel inspired to make my own once I get home). I couldn’t help but linger as long as I could – this is definitely one of the loveliest squares that I have ever seen.

We are technically leaving tomorrow afternoon but, since it really is just a case of getting up and leaving for the airport, I guess that it is goodbye to Poland – for the moment at least. I have so enjoyed my time here and felt so at home in the culture that there will be a return visit in the next few years. Maybe it’ll be Warsaw or Gdansk or some place I haven’t event thought of yet; I just know that this is not my last time in Poland.