New York City: Exploring Manhattan

In my last post (read me) I gave you a little prequel / introduction to my New York City series. In reality it was just a bit of a filler post, I’ve really been struggling to write about New York because I want to do it justice whilst additionally keeping it personal. The intro was just me buying some time to adequately put New York City in to words.

I’ve approached it in different ways and drafted several efforts but whilst they haven’t necessarily been badly written, they’ve just felt a bit generic. Trying to find the balance between writing about the destination and writing about my trip specifically can sometimes be tricky and this has probably been my toughest effort to date.

I visited NYC (June 2016) for a week which is a long time so subsequently I’ve decided to split this over several posts, beginning with my time in Manhattan.

Manhattan is really the Hollywood of New York City. It’s weird as a first time visitor because it is a huge city with massive skyscrapers which can make you feel very small, it could easily be overwhelming but in many ways it’s also incredibly familiar. Our (me and Kelly) flight to NYC was delayed by a bit and then the queues for border control were quite long so by the time we got out of the airport I suggested we just get a cab, our first yellow taxi experience and already a sense of familiarity having seen them across countless movies and TV shows. It was a sign of things to come – you feel like you’re constantly walking into movie sets wherever you are in the city.

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Exploring Brooklyn

Leaving the airport we headed for our hostel. We were staying in Brooklyn but didn’t really do much after arrival, opting for an early night and raring to go the next morning. We had a little wander of the area before meeting up with our friend Pran, a mutual friend who was inspiration for the trip (not that myself or Kelly need much excuse to travel).. We met Pran at some subway station, popped to a diner for some breakfast (pancakes!!) and made our way in to Manhattan for the first time.

Pran had to work whilst we were in NYC so knowing that we’d do some of the more well-known tourist spots on our own, he took us over to the High Line for our first stop in Manhattan. The High Line is an increasingly popular tourist attraction, built on a former train line it has been transformed in to public gardens and exhibitions and also hosts some small local businesses selling stuff. One of the best things about the High Line is that it was previously an elevated train line too so you get some great views of the city, the weather wasn’t fantastic and there was a bit of fog so some of the skyscrapers such as the Empire State got a little lost but it was a fun first stop in the city. Definitely worth a visit, me and Kelly even returned on another day to look around a little more.

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Returning to the High Line on a sunnier day

From there we made our way over to Times Square, another Hollywood moment in NYC. Instantly recognisable and for that reason its inevitably a tourist hot-spot. It was cool to see Times Square in person, the fog kind of added to the atmosphere of the place too. It was spectacular to look at with so much in your face and for that reason I kind of like Times Square but for the most part I hate it.

It’s SO busy and just feels a bit tacky. I’d seen it once but that was it for me, I’d happily not go back to Times Square. You spend so much of your time hurdling foot traffic that you just want to get out of there ASAP. We did pass through a couple more times in our trip but on the whole I’d happily avoid it altogether. Unless you’re venturing there in the early hours of the morning with nobody around, I’d suggest steering clear.

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Times Square. Again, a return on a sunnier day

Next on our list to see was New York’s famous Grand Central train station, it was easy to see why it was so popular. It looks incredible inside and you quickly forget that it’s an actively used station, as keen as we were to get some photos it’s also worth remembering that commuters are actively passing through and probably don’t appreciate dawdling tourists slowing them down! After a few photos we moved on to..

I don’t really remember.

I remember everything we did in New York but breaking it down day by day is a bit of a blur. Pran unfortunately had to work Mon-Fri which left me and Kelly to explore by ourselves throughout the rest of the week. Early on in the week we made our first trip to Central Park which is probably one of my favourite parts of Manhattan. I don’t think you appreciate how big it is until you’ve visited but it’s huge! The plus side to that is that although it inevitably attracts tourists, it never felt crowded when we visited. It felt peaceful and there’s plenty of interesting spots within the park itself, I think if I lived in NYC I would spend a LOT of time here and probably still discover new things and spaces to relax.

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Little castle in Central Park

One of the other things we were keen to visit whilst in New York was ground zero, the site of the 9/11 attack and home to a memorial in remembrance of it. It’s crazy to think that you’ve now got adults that are too young to have any recollection of this even happening. Whilst a tragedy, it’s one of those historic moments where you’ll remember where you were as the news unraveled.

I thought the memorial was incredible and really does justice to the memory of those who lost their lives there. The name of every victim is listed along the memorial and I did find it quite moving seeing the vast number of names, including emergency services that risked their lives. Occasionally there’d be a flag or flower attached to certain names, the latter actually left by the memorial employees and indicates the birthday of the name its attached to which I thought was another thoughtful touch.

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There is also a 9/11 museum you can visit, we did take a look around but it’s quite big and we went late in the day to take advantage of their weekly free admission so didn’t actually see much. If you want to visit for free you still have to reserve tickets in advance through their website.

The rest of our time in Manhattan was a little more relaxed. We explored various neighbourhoods including Chinatown, Little Italy and the financial district but we didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy. It was a fun city to explore, on foot we’d get friendly locals coming up and chatting to us (usually because we looked lost).

Additionally when not on foot we made use of the subway and every subway journey was an adventure of its own. Live music and performers were always in either the subway stations or on the subway itself which added a bit of liveliness and atmosphere to our travels. Again, it’s perhaps more frustrating for the daily commuter but as two travelers it was something we personally enjoyed.

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The constantly lively Union Square

Overall we had a great time exploring Manhattan together, we’d ticked off pretty much everything that we’d both agreed upon seeing but there was one last thing I had to try and do whilst here. I couldn’t come all the way to New York City and not meet up with the Cattry sisters if they were free.

I’d met Navdeep, Pardeep and Ravi online through our mutual love of Tottenham Hotspur and it only seemed right that we tried to meet up whilst I was in town. Fortunately they were free so we planned to meet up for lunch one afternoon. The invitation was extended to Kelly but she didn’t really fancy it so we split for the afternoon and arranged to meet up a bit later, Kelly took it as an opportunity to visit some Star Wars exhibition instead which was probably equally enjoyable for her and not something I personally had any regrets at missing (I’m now awaiting the wrath of the Star Wars fanatics).

It was nice to finally meet the three of them in person. We picked up some lunch to go at some nearby place which Ravi was insistent on paying for (thank you again!) and then headed over to the picturesque Bryant Park to enjoy it. With the sun shining it was a beautiful spot to eat, catch up, discuss all things football and get some more tips for things to see whilst in NYC.

Ending the post on one of the trip highlights, that roughly rounds up our time in Manhattan. You might be curious at the fact that the Empire State is a notable absence from this Manhattan post, there is a reason for that but you’ll have to wait to find out why!

Next up on the blog: The Top of the Rock and the Empire State building, including a surprising encounter!

Stay tuned!

Jason

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2019 Travel plans

Firstly let me start by welcoming the influx of recent followers and readers to the blog, January has seen a big increase in traffic and engagement on the blog which has made for an encouraging start to the year. I’m hoping there’s much more to come from “Jason likes to travel” this year so stay tuned!

The other thing I’m hoping that there will be much more of this year is travel itself. I typically post about old trips on the blog, in the hope (lies!) that I eventually catch up to the present day. I’d originally planned to post about NYC next but I thought I’d switch it up and tell you about my more immediate travel plans. 2018 had some incredible travel moments but I’m hoping 2019 is going to be just as enjoyable.

With January payday finally arriving I was keen to get some adventure booked ASAP, so this is what I have coming up in the next few months.

March
Alright, so I’d booked this particular trip before Christmas. If you’ve been following the blog for a while or you follow me on other social media platforms then you’ll know my first trip of the year was dependent on Tottenham’s European fate (read me).

Wherever Tottenham would go, I would go and comically Spurs are going back to bloody Dortmund. Attending a Dortmund game is a rite of passage as a football fan, it’s definitely one for the bucketlist but I’ve already done it twice. Moving away from the football, Dortmund has no appeal to me as a travel destination so the only way I was going to this would be if I stayed elsewhere.

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Dortmund, Nov 2017

I’ve opted for Köln, a fourth visit to the city but this particular trip overlapped with carnival season. I’ve heard it’s a bit crazy but the Kölner Karneval is running from Feb 28th until March the 6th. The game in Dortmund is on March 5th so I’m staying in Germany from March 4th-8th.

Currently I’ve booked a hotel for two nights in Köln. I’ll get to see what all the fuss is about on the Monday, on Tuesday I’ll go to Dortmund for the game and then I’ll be using the other two night to visit somewhere else. I was steering towards Amsterdam but the trains are pricier than I was anticipating so I might just stick to somewhere in Germany for a couple of days. Any suggestions are welcome! Although keep in mind it’ll be my 9th visit to Germany and 5th visit to the region so I’ve seen a fair bit locally.

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Another return to Köln!

April
As some of you will know, I’m in a long distance relationship so the first priority on payday was to book flights to Washington State. It’ll be my fourth time visiting and it’s always exciting to go back, can you ever really get sick of the mountain views?

Speaking of which, I’m hopeful I’ll actually see them a bit clearer this time. Last summer’s forest fires hit the West coast hard and the air quality / visibility wasn’t the best which was a shame. Additionally I’m hopeful that going in April means that it won’t be too cold but won’t be unbearably hot either as it was this summer (40+C? No thank you!).

Working around both our work schedules is a little tricky so I’ve decided to go around Easter time. Haleigh teaches and ridiculously they get no time off over Easter (why?) but it means I get to go for around 10 days and only use 6 days of annual leave at work. Perfect! See you soon Washington!

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Back to Moses Lake, Washington!

May
I didn’t get the benefit of the public holidays last year either. Speaking of that summer trip, I had to save my pennies beforehand and consequently weekend trips were a no go. Well, that’s not the case this year so I’m reclaiming my bank holidays!

In England the first Monday of the month is a public holiday and that means a three day weekend! I was keen to take the opportunity to go away and after having a look at a few different options I can confirm that I am going to..

HELSINKI! Finally! Some of you will know that I grew up with a Finnish grandmother, we even shared a birthday, so Finland is somewhere that I have always had a fascination with and wanted to visit. I was hopeful a visit would happen in 2018 but things didn’t quite pan out, so it was towards the top of my list for this year. I’m going to have to brush up on my Finnish a bit but I’m so excited to finally be making my first visit to the country.

May however doesn’t just have one public holiday, it has two! We also get the last Monday of the month off and have another three day weekend so why settle for just one weekend getaway, right? I expect Finland to be expensive but luckily I’ll get paid again before the next three day weekend so I had to make the most of it and consequently I am off to spend the weekend in Dublin!

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Irish bar, Florence, Italy

Like Finland, Ireland is a country I’ve wanted to visit for a while and I just haven’t got around to it before now. I’d love to be spending longer than a weekend in the country as there’s so much I want to see, both North and South of the border. I’m not sure I’ll get time to see anything more than Dublin this time around but I’m so excited to finally be making my first visit to the country.

Anyway that wraps up my plans between now and the end of May. If you’ve got any recommendations for any of the above, particularly Dublin and Helsinki, it would be much appreciated!

Where are you traveling to this year? Let me know!

Up next on the blog: New York City (I know, I know, I’ve said this before!).

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Stay tuned!

Jason

Luxembourg City – March 2016

Last time out on the blog I’d just returned to Köln following on from an enjoyable daytrip to Brühl and Bonn, I decided that the next day (Saturday) was going to be much the same and just had to ponder where to go.

Köln is one of Germany’s biggest cities so not only does it benefit from a location close to several countries, it also has really good transport links which makes a daytrip to most of them quite feasible. I’d narrowed down my preferred daytrips to either Koblenz or Luxembourg City. Koblenz is a picturesque German city that sits on the Rhine river, meanwhile Luxembourg City appeared to be equally picturesque and would mean a first visit to the country of Luxembourg.

My decision was pretty last minute, so much so that I was on the train and still didn’t know where I was going to spend the next few hours. There were no direct trains from Köln to Luxembourg, it seemed I’d have to change in Koblenz so I picked up a ticket to Koblenz and figured I’d make my mind up by the time I arrived. In the meantime I’d just sit back and admire the view.

The Rhine river flows through the heart of this part of Germany and the train travels alongside the Rhine for much of the journey to Koblenz (and beyond). I recently discovered that my grandparents plan to take a river cruise along the Rhine later this year so they’re in for a treat.

I passed by countless adorable looking towns and every so often we’d pass a castle sitting aloft a hilltop which made for an enjoyable train journey.

I’d hoped to have made my mind up by the time I reached Koblenz but I got off the train and still wasn’t sure whether to stay put or buy a ticket to go to Luxembourg. I was stood at the ticket machine and torn on whether to complete the transaction or just explore Koblenz, however with an hour between trains to Luxembourg I had to make a quick decision if I wanted to catch the next one.

The allure of visiting a new country was the only thing that really swayed it so I booked my trains and quickly found the platform I needed to catch the train.

One of the attractions, if you can call it that, in Koblenz is the ‘Deutsches Eck’ (Ecke, meaning corner in German). It’s here that you’ll find the Mosel River meet the Rhine river so I was bidding farewell to the latter and heading West along the Mosel towards Luxembourg.

Whilst the journey between Köln and Koblenz had been an enjoyable ride, the Mosel was arguably more scenic as you pass through more German towns on the way in to Luxembourg. I don’t think you see the best of the Rhine until you’ve passed Koblenz (which I did on another trip towards Mainz).

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Enjoying the train views!

Whilst the train journey was pretty, I knew that certain compartments of the train had a different end destination. It can be confusing enough in England when your train splits to know if you’re in the right carriage but more confusing when doing so in another country. Fortunately I managed to figure it out to ensure I was heading towards Luxembourg and not arriving elsewhere. Soon enough I’d arrived and was stepping foot in to the capital: Luxembourg City!

I had no idea I was coming to Luxembourg when I woke up so similarly had no real plans for my time in the city. I was just hoping for the best and a chance to explore. Fortunately, whilst not overly warm, it was a bright sunny day in Luxembourg and perfect weather for exploring.

As you come out of the station you immediately find yourself on a high street with various familiar brands which wasn’t quite what I’d expected, not that I’m entirely sure what I was expecting. However a short walk later you’re arriving in to the outskirts of the old town, built much like a fortress which I expect was designed to keep out potential neighbouring invaders Belgium, France and Germany (Luxembourg is a landlocked country).

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Luxembourg City!

Luxembourg is also a rich country so some of its architecture immediately stood out. I strolled towards a grand building to my right and began exploring, admiring the size and grandeur of each building, many of which were littered with gold. I popped my head in to a small little church to have a quick look around, I’m not religious but religious buildings are usually quite stunning and worth a visit and this was no different.

Shortly later I stumbled upon what appeared to be a Saturday market in this pretty square. The market itself wasn’t particularly huge but along the outskirts of the square were various restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. There was a nice atmosphere to the square and with seating which offered views overlooking the square most of the restaurants were unsurprisingly pretty full.

It did leave me feeling a bit peckish so I decided I needed to find somewhere for lunch, none of the cafes in my square took my fancy and looked a little pricy so I wandered through some of the side streets before finding somewhere that was tempting enough.

Luxembourg’s a small country and with France and Germany as neighbours it’s perhaps of little surprise that French and German are both official languages of Luxembourg (in addition to Luxembourgish). The problem is you require a bit of good fortune as to which places lean towards French culture and which lean towards German.

I knew I could get by on my German so typically I only seemed to find French speaking places whilst in Luxembourg. On the plus side, it did make me appreciate how good my German had become.

I was comfortable in Germany, here I was floundering and reverting back to English. Beyond bonjour (Good day), Je voudrais (I would like), S’il vous plait (please) and Merci (thanks) my French was atrocious. Ironically a fellow blogger wrote of her own Luxembourg language woes (here) in which she struggled with the regularity of businesses leaning more towards the German language.

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Nice day for exploring!

Having navigated my way through a delicious lunch I was back out on to the streets to explore. Much of Luxembourg’s city centre is built on higher ground, overlooking a valley. I was keen to discover what was hidden in the lower reach of the city referred to as ‘Grund’ (meaning floor / ground in German).

It turns out you don’t have to climb up and down the city steps, there is actually a lift somewhere but that wasn’t knowledge I was privy to at the time so I gave my legs a bit of a workout. Going down wasn’t so bad but I suppose as the Luxembourg locals might say – “what goes down, must go up?” in some sort of anti-gravity type logic.

The Grund area is really pretty. I quickly stumbled upon a small palace-like building which is now used as the national museum of natural history. Just beyond that you’ll find a tiny little village with adorable and colourful little buildings made up of houses and small businesses.

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The ‘Grund’ area in all of its beauty!

Crossing over the valley was a large hill above with what I understood to be a variety of caves and things so I was intrigued to take a look, it did mean another uphill climb though which I was less enthused about. Once at the top you do get some cool views looking across the valley back towards the old town, however the sun was shining directly on me with no cover so I couldn’t get any decent photos to do the view justice. A little hidden treasure was a castle-looking building, I didn’t go in but it’s home to the Grand Duke Jean Museum Of Art. The building itself was impressive enough for me.

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Cool looking museum, right?

Content I’d explored enough it was another downward journey to make the subsequent uphill journey back up into the old town. Whilst Luxembourg City is relatively small and theoretically an easy ‘daytrip;, it’s not a daytrip that is quite so forgiving on your feet. After one last look around the old town I made a stroll back towards the train station, I had to catch a specific train but I’d slightly overestimated how long it would take me to get back and had a bit of time to kill.

There was a restaurant opposite the station so I decided it was an opportunity to get myself a drink, I’m always keen to try a local beer so made sure I picked up a Luxembourgish beer on tap. It was a nice way to round off my time in Luxembourg.

Personally I’d recommend a weekend trip if you want to visit. It is a small place but I would have preferred to have taken my time exploring, similarly I hear its nightlife is really good so it would have been nice to have experienced an evening in the city. Nevertheless I left with fond memories and began my journey back to Köln via Koblenz.

I had to stop in Koblenz and I didn’t have to catch any specific train back to Köln so I figured I’d make the most of the opportunity and grab dinner here and take a quick look around. Unfortunately it gets dark pretty early in March so by the time I’d arrived it was already dark, not the greatest time to be exploring a new city but I figured I’d see a little in an hour or so.

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Koblenz, home to the world’s best White House?

Some of the architecture looked great, the most interesting thing for me was the White-House esque looking building that was shining brightly. Arguably more impressive than the White House too which I actually thought was quite underwhelming alongside DC’s other stunning architecture. Koblenz’ own “White House” would be more fitting and deserving of the name. It was all closed off though so I couldn’t actually get close enough to see what the purpose of it was.

I found myself a place to grab some food, a welcome opportunity to speak German again after a day in Luxembourg. I was and perhaps I still am quite critical of my German but it’s somewhat comforting knowing you can sit down in a restaurant and get through your meal without speaking a word of English.

I waved “Tschüss” to my waiter and made the walk back to the train station to return to the ever-familiar Köln which is where I spent my final day of this particular trip.

I didn’t envisage I’d be back in Köln before the end of 2016, you can get a little preview on that story here but the full thing will have to wait a little longer. Next up on the blog?

New York City! Stay tuned!

Jason

Amsterdam – Day 2! (Dec 2015)

Day one in Amsterdam had been a bit low-key, I spent a chunk of the day traveling and being December it was already dark by the time I’d arrived late-afternoon. It was also pissing it down with rain which meant there was only so much exploring I wanted to do on my first evening.

So I woke up relatively early on the Wednesday morning keen to make the most of my first full day in the city. Amsterdam is just one of those places that wins you over pretty quickly. In December you have a lights festival sprawled over its canals which makes it look spectacular after dark but it turns out it’s no less impressive by day either.

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After Tuesday evening’s miserable downpour I was pleasantly surprised to wake up to blue skies, hopeful they’d last and make exploring the city a little more enjoyable. I wanted to kick my day off with a ‘free’ walking tour of the city. I find these are useful for familiarising yourself with a new city, see a few of the sights and learn a bit about the city in the process.

I’d got out in to the streets a bit earlier than anticipated though and the starting point wasn’t as far from my hostel as I thought either so I arrived far too early, giving me a chance to have a little wander nearby beforehand.

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As I strolled along one of the canals, admiring Amsterdam’s beauty, I was caught by surprise and pretty much jumped out of my skin.
Just to my left was some woman, stood inside with only her underwear, knocking against the window. She was waving me in for a cup of tea I think but I politely declined and moved along, a little surprised that the women of Amsterdam were looking for company so early in the day. It can only have been around 9-9:30 in the morning so I wasn’t expecting it.

Soon enough I wandered back towards the starting point for the tour, you’ll find New Sandemans based in a lot of European cities offering ‘free’ walking tours (you tip what you like after). I quite enjoy their tours and this was another decent effort as we wandered along Amsterdam’s canals and got a bit more insight in to the history and quirks of Amsterdam. This particular spot on the tour was nicely hidden away and not too busy.

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I’d pre-booked the Anne Frank House museum for later in the day so had a bit of time to kill after the walking tour. I didn’t really have anything planned so just wandered aimlessly for the next couple of hours.
It’s recommended that you pre-book for the Anne Frank House and I passed the building a couple of times throughout my trip and the queues were fairly lengthy. It’s also suggested that Wednesday is the quietest day to visit and it showed when I arrived, I had sensibly pre-booked but there wasn’t actually much of a queue at the time I went anyway so I probably could have got away with not booking in advance.

This was really the one thing I’d wanted to do in Amsterdam and I can’t say that it disappointed. I thought the museum as a whole was really well done and is a credit to the memory of Anne Frank and the horrors of that time. I can’t say I enjoyed it as such because it’s not one of those experiences you enjoy but I came out feeling educated, humbled and sombre which is what you hope to take away from a place such as this. It’s somewhere you should make time to visit if you’re in the city.

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Whilst it wasn’t overly late, it was pretty dark by the time I came out so after a little stroll through the city I went and found myself some dinner to round off a rather enjoyable second day Amsterdam. The route back to my hostel afterwards took me by Amsterdam’s Red Light District and whilst I’d had a brief introduction to it earlier in the trip, I have to say it’s a part of the city that surprised me a little. I had this image of it being this seedy little district full of old men or stag-do’s leering over women in windows but it’s as far from that as possible.

I’m sure there is that element there but surprisingly it’s a real tourist trap, there’s a little buzz to the area at night. I wasn’t looking to do any “window shopping” but the whole area was just crawling with tourists, at times it felt like they were literally crawling.

“Can you please either walk quicker or get out of my way!”

If you actually want to get anywhere it’s an area best avoided, in theory passing through it should have made my route quicker but I spent most of my time hurdling tourists that were just dawdling along.

The red lights reflecting over the canal added a little atmosphere to the area, I didn’t ever at any point feel unsafe or uncomfortable passing through it. Perhaps the legalisation of the prostitution and having it (all) on display makes it somehow seem a little less seedy but beyond the hordes of people it’s a relatively nice part of the city to walk through day or night.

After finally escaping the crowds I made my way back to the hostel and thought I’d give the hostel bar another effort, hoping for a bit more luck at making friends than I’d had the night before. Again it seemed the height of the social activity was in the smoking room which, even in Amsterdam, has never had any appeal to me.
Following a couple of beers I headed up to my dorm, contemplated how I’d spend my final full day in Amsterdam and got myself some sleep ahead of another fun-filled day in the city to come.

Stay tuned for day 3!

Amsterdam (Dec 2015) – Day one!

Visiting Amsterdam was a mistake, not in the sense it was regretful but I hadn’t actually booked the travel intending to go to Amsterdam. I gambled upon a rumour that Tottenham would be playing in Brussels in December 2015 and snapped up cheap Eurostar tickets. Sadly those rumours were wrong and we actually played in Brussels in the October (also 2015).

Consequently I had to buy new travel tickets for the October and it left me with additional Eurostar tickets to Brussels two months later. You might be thinking it was silly booking a trip based purely upon rumours but it was a risk worth taking, I’d taken into consideration it could backfire and just figured I could take an additional trip later in the year.

So I fully intended to use the Eurostar tickets but I didn’t particularly want to go back to Brussels so soon so I started considering alternative options. Belgium in December certainly had an appeal but something was drawing me towards Amsterdam and in the end I just had to go! I knew a train from Brussels to Amsterdam was a pretty simple journey so that was the plan! Three nights in the beautiful Dutch capital – my first time visiting the Netherlands!

I decided to stay in London on the Monday night as it was a little more convenient. It allowed me the opportunity to catch up with a friend over dinner and some beers, however more importantly it meant I was already in London the next morning. So I benefited from having a lay in before making the easy trip to St Pancras to catch the Eurostar on Tuesday morning. I much prefer traveling by train opposed to flying, not that I’m a particularly nervous flyer but trains are just more enjoyable. Soon I was waving goodbye to the blue skies of London.

Further blue skies greeted me on arrival to Belgium. Despite having the Eurostar tickets for ages, Amsterdam was a relatively late decision so I hadn’t actually booked my travel from Brussels to Amsterdam yet. It left me with a bit of flexibility on what to do. However rather than spend any time in Brussels instead I pretty much got on to the first train heading to Amsterdam. I didn’t want to waste any time in getting to Amsterdam!

As we whizzed along I suddenly felt a little buzz in my pocket, my phone was vibrating because I had a text message. I looked to see what it was and found that my phone network were messaging me to welcome me to the Netherlands. We’ve crossed the border!!

I looked up and almost instantly the first raindrop spattered across the window.

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Welcome to the Netherlands!

“What!!? All we’ve done is cross the border! It wasn’t raining ten feet away in Belgium!!”

It was crazy. Following the Paris attacks in November 2015 I know that Belgium had stepped up border security but they’re keeping the rain out too? That’s bloody impressive! Sadly the Dutch borders weren’t so tight and it was soon pouring down with rain.

Nevertheless we drifted along, passing through a few different Dutch cities. Den Haag was somewhere that caught my eye as we passed through the city and it finally clicked that Den Haag is the same place as “The Hague” – for some reason I’d never made the connection haha. I think it’s somewhere I’ll visit another time. It was a pretty train ride but the rain kept on pouring. I was hoping by the time we reached Amsterdam it might have died down but if anything it was worse.

That’s what they don’t tell you about Amsterdam! It rains all of the time! Apparently it rains on average 217 days a year in Amsterdam, in comparison it’s only 156 in England which is famed for its bad weather. That’s roughly two more months of rain per year than “rainy” England!

I exited Amsterdam’s main train station and my first impressions were good. I just had that instant feeling that the city was going to live up to my expectations. I had a quick look around but with the rain coming down I moved on and hoped I’d find my hostel pretty quickly. I have a habit of taking ages to find them, fortunately this wasn’t one of those occasions but I was still drenched by the time I walked in to the reception area. The hostel (Flying Pigs) was pretty nice though. It looked like a sociable place and the rooms were decent too, my four-bed dorm had its own bathroom which is always a bonus when staying in hostels as you’re only sharing with 3 strangers opposed to the whole place.

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I didn’t really want to stick around in the hostel though. I was keen to see a little of Amsterdam before it got too late plus find some dinner. There had been no slowdown with the rain so I just had to make the best of it as I hurdled the puddles along Amsterdam’s cobblestones. Given it was December the city was beautifully decorated with decorations that were lighting up the streets and making the city feel a little more magical. I soon stumbled upon Dam square which had a number of Christmas trees adding to the festive atmosphere in the air.

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A Christmas-y Amsterdam!

As much as I wanted to keep exploring I soon admitted defeat, I ducked in to a bar and ordered myself some food from the menu. I’m usually keen to try the local beers when traveling, trying to avoid stuff I can drink at home, which is a little tougher when everywhere in Amsterdam seemed to favour Dutch beers Amstel and Heineken.
However one of the beers on the menu sounded good and I was soon presented a bottle with a naked lady printed on the bottle!

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Following on from dinner and a beer I drifted back in to the slightly-less wet streets of Amsterdam. It’s a stunning city after dark, Amsterdam’s annual light festival takes place across the canals in December which certainly adds to its beauty as a host of decorations and displays line its canals. You can do a canal tour in the evening but I settled for just admiring all of the lights by foot. It’s worth checking out!

After a little wander I figured I’d just spend the rest of my evening in the hostel bar. It was a sociable place but it felt like most of the social activity was geared away from the bar and towards the smoking room. That didn’t have any personal appeal so after one beer at the hostel bar I decided I’d just call it an early night and headed up to my dorm – there was still plenty of time for fun in Amsterdam and I was keen to get an early start to explore the city more thoroughly tomorrow!

Stay tuned for day 2!

Gent!

It was October 2015 and I found myself back in Brussels, a city I’d already visited in December 2013. There’s honestly nothing wrong with returning to a place again, despite what other travelers might tell you but of course there are some downsides to going back somewhere (there are upsides too).

One of those downsides is you’ve often seen a lot of the main points of interests in a city which was very much the case for me with Brussels. So I figured why not use one of my four days in Brussels to take a daytrip somewhere. I considered a number of options in Belgium, France, Germany and even Luxembourg before finally deciding upon a Belgian city called Gent – for some reason the English spell it as Ghent so you might see it written this way too. The only logic I can offer for this is that it rhymes with bent so is perhaps written that way to distinguish the difference from the English pronunciation of gent.

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Gent, Belgium

Anyway Gent, a city I didn’t really know much about to be honest. It was a last minute decision to go there too so I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any research, I was just going to have to wing it and hope for the best.
Needless to say with that approach it didn’t take long for my first problem to arise.

After a short train journey from Brussels I was arriving in to Gent’s main train station which is unfortunately a little outside of the main part of the city. Which way should I be going from here? I had no idea and for some reason Belgians have an aversion to signposting things sufficiently.

Brussels isn’t as bad and fortunately in Bruges we’d got by using the tried and tested method of “follow everybody else” but that wasn’t going to work here – there were no tourists for me to follow! I didn’t foresee following random locals ending very well so I just had to pick a direction and hope I’d see some signs along the way.

I’ve been to Gent and now Liege (another Belgian city) and it’s a common problem in both. There’s a distinct lack of signs everywhere and then if there are some they often conflict. Perhaps they’re intended for different people such as pedestrians / drivers but it’s pretty frustrating following a sign that reads “right to the city centre” and 100 yards later coming across a sign advising you to go left.

This isn’t Alice in Wonderland guys, I need some clear directions please! Sadly Gent had no “Yellow Brick Road” so I got terribly lost. On the plus side I’ve probably seen more of Gent than your average tourist!

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Somewhere in Gent!

Eventually I got myself on track but I’d wasted a good hour of my morning already and had worked up a bit of an appetite.

Before thinking about lunch I stumbled upon Gent’s Sint-Jacobskerk (St Jacobs Church) – I generally like visiting religious buildings anyway but the dark grey skies hovering above were additional motivation to pop in and have a look around.

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Sint-Jakobskerk

It was a pretty church and I’d timed my visit pretty well, it was mostly empty with the exception of a small school choir getting some practice in so I watched for a little while before leaving them to it. I was off on the hunt for some lunch!

I found a long stretch of restaurants along each side of what was a pedestrianised street, I just had to find one with something to tempt me from the menu. Like many European cities, Gent weren’t going to be deterred by the miserable weather and most restaurants still had outside seating. With parasols providing cover from any potential rain and outside heaters and blankets providing warmth there were still plenty sat outdoors opposed to the warmth inside.
I followed suit and took up a prime seat for people-watching at one of the restaurants – a favourite pastime when traveling.

It’s easy to see why our European friends prefer this type of dining, I’m not sure even with parasols and heaters whether it’d work quite as successfully in England but I always enjoy it on my travels. It was a good lunch, I think I grabbed a steak accompanied with a delicious Belgian beer before getting back to exploring.

The lack of tourists make Gent a nice city to walk around. I don’t know how long that will stay the case, I don’t think it’ll boom in the same way that Bruges’ tourism has but it’s certainly a city on the up and somewhere that frequents my Instagram feed with a little more regularity now opposed to three years ago. Interestingly Gent is the location of my most popular ever Instagram post which is some indication as to its beauty and charm.

The weather brightened up a little bit after lunch so I spent the next few hours just wandering its streets and admiring its architecture. I didn’t really do anything noteworthy in Gent but it made for an enjoyable daytrip, you could perhaps squeeze a weekend out of it but a day is a good amount of time to see much of the city.

I knew I had to think about heading back to Brussels soon so rounded off the afternoon with a stroll alongside the river which offered perhaps some of Gent’s most stunning views. From the riverside cafes and bars to the boats floating on by, I was a little envious of those that got to stay and enjoy the pretty setting. However I’d had a fun few hours in Gent and called it a day, slowly making my way back to the train station.

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On the way to getting lost again!

Very slowly actually, I got lost again. It was a further chance to see more of the city, albeit unintentional again. I wound up somewhere near Gent’s university and rowing lake – not quite where I’d wanted to be and I was suddenly racing the clock to find my way whilst there was still some natural light. It was one thing being lost by day but I didn’t really want to find myself lost in a foreign city after dark.

It had been an adventure but soon enough I was back on track and pleased to see Gent’s main train station once again. I hopped on a train and quickly made plans for the evening. My friend Natalie had arrived in to Brussels ahead of Thursday night’s football so we were both looking forward to catching up over some Belgian beers.

We quickly found an Irish bar which was a little lively. A few other Spurs fans were also in town and keen to make the most of the karaoke at the far end of the bar. They proceeded to butcher a few songs, including a Britney Spears classic but fortunately the Belgian beer went down well to make it a little more bearable!

All in all it had been a pretty memorable daytrip! It’s a city I’d recommend, particularly if you’re in Brussels or Bruges and want to visit somewhere a little less crowded.

Up next? Amsterdam!

Stay tuned!

Firenze: The end!

The final part to my Italy adventure (February 2015).

On the Tuesday I’d flown out to Pisa and spent a day exploring the city. Wednesday and Thursday (matchday) were days 1 and 2 of my time in Firenze and now we were at the end of the week! The football was over with and it was time to go home – or was it?

On Monday evening I figured I should probably check in for my flights, given I was heading to Pisa the next day. My outbound flight was no problem but I was trying to check in for my Friday flight home and was having no luck.

“Sorry, you can’t check in for a flight more than 7 days away”.

What? I’m flying in four days! What is this nonsense? My flight is definitely on the 27th! I was baffled and kept darting my eyes between the error message and the flight details and couldn’t understand what the issue was. What am I missing?

Wait.. why does that say my flight home is in April? That’s a mistake! Let me find my confirmation email.
Looking for reassurance, instead I found despair. All that email had confirmed was that I’d somehow messed up my booking and that I was indeed flying home in two months time! My February 27th flight home was actually April 27th!!

I was light-heartedly acceptant of my fate. I guess I’ve got to stay in Italy for an extra two months then – what a pickle, right? How do I break the news to my family, friends and work. Will a postcard suffice?
Realistically that wasn’t an option but resolving it Monday evening wasn’t an option either – it was too last minute and most of my available money was in Euros by this point. I knew I’d get paid whilst I was in Italy so I figured I’d worry about the flight home once I was over there.

So back to day 3 in Firenze, my intended departure date. Care to guess what my first plan of the day was? You’re spot on! I had to book a flight home! I was supposed to be going to a gig back in England on Friday night (I’d paid for a hotel too!) but Friday flights seemed so much more expensive than the Saturday flights so in the end I decided I’d stay in Italy an extra day.

 

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As far as mistakes go, winding up in Italy for 24 more hours is a pretty good mistake to make! My next concern was that I had no accommodation for the extra night so needed to sort that out. I loved the hostel I had been staying at, it was in a decent location and the host was incredible but sadly it was a small hostel and they didn’t have space for an extra night so I had to find somewhere else.
My host did help me find a hotel though which I appreciated.

Flight sorted, accommodation sorted, time to enjoy a bonus day in the city! I’m so glad at how things worked out because Friday probably ended up being my favourite day in Italy. Perhaps that’s just because it was an unexpected bonus day but I also ended up doing a few things to top off the Italy experience.

Firenze was a different city entirely. Most of the Spurs fans were England bound and the excessive police presence was long gone, this was Italy in all its glory and without the burden of an invasion of Brits.

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My first stop of the day took me to the Piazza della Signaoria which is a large square with stunning architecture, sculptures and a few museums closeby such as the famous Uffizi gallery. I wasn’t supposed to be here so inevitably I hadn’t booked any museums. Some of the lines were far too long so I decided I’d add the Uffizi to my “next time” list and checked out another museum instead that I can’t remember the name of.

I wish I could remember the name of it because I’d recommend a visit. The museum was over a number of different floors and had all sorts of art, although the sculptures were the pieces I enjoyed most and something you’d associate with Italy / Firenze I suppose. Eventually I was content I’d seen enough and my attention switched to a late lunch.

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Inside the museum. Anyone know the name?

I do try to make an effort to eat locally and delve into the culture when I travel but one of my guilty pleasures is the Hard Rock Café (HRC), I usually try and squeeze a visit in where I can to tick off another city from the many locations HRC are based.

My waiter asked where I was from to which I replied Peterborough and most of the time I end up wishing I’d just say London because it’s easier but to my surprise he’d heard of Peterborough, better yet he’d been to Peterborough.
“Oh yes, the place with the shopping centre opposite the train station.. Queens..? “
“Queensgate! Why were you in Peterborough!!!?”

Excuse my overreaction but seriously, Firenze sets a pretty high standard and its inhabitants are visiting Peterborough? Are you crazy? It did amuse me though before enjoying my HRC experience. It isn’t the best food you’re ever going to have and it can be expensive too but I just have a fondness of them and Firenze’s was nice too.

Following a late lunch I was ready to go and explore further. On Wednesday I’d climbed the Duomo as I’d heard it had one of the best views in Firenze – the views are great. However my hostel hostess assured me the best view of the city was at the Piazzale Michelangelo and that it was free! I had to check it out and on route could see the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge!

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Ponte Vecchio bridge!

It’s a beautiful bridge to look at but the bridge itself is a proper tourist trap. Historically butchers and other merchants occupied space on the bridge but you’ll now find a host of shops selling jewellery and gold! It’s cool to look at but it’s busy so I settled for getting a few photos and swiftly moving on to escape the crowds.

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Quick photo and then I was out of there!

I continued following signs to Piazzale Michelangelo and was soon climbing my way up this hill to discover the views awaiting me at the top. The Piazzale Michelangelo is a huge square that offers incredible views over the city – my host had said it was the best view in the city and it’d be hard to disagree. The one thing lacking from the view at the top of the Duomo is the Duomo itself which is the standout piece of Firenze’s skyline.

Whilst the views are spectacular you’ll also find a replica of the David statue here, a few stalls selling food and drinks plus a few buskers which all helps create a really nice atmosphere. You’ll find plenty of people occupying the stairs to sit and just admire the views over the river and the rest of the city.

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The best view in Firenze!

It was getting late in the afternoon and I would have loved nothing more than to have picked up a beer and waited for the sun to set on the city. It was a beautiful spot to watch a sunset! Sadly I’d arranged to meet my friend Daniel elsewhere and had no way to contact him for a change of plans so he could come join me instead. I left a little envious of those I’d left behind that got to enjoy it fully.

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The perfect sunset spot!

I didn’t stay jealous for too long, as a pick-me-up I made a necessary stop for gelato. Firenze is credited as being the city that brought Gelato to the world so what better place to enjoy it? I had to buy some and see what the fuss was about. It was delicious and a good ‘starter’ before finding dinner and having a few drinks.

I’d probably been the drunker of the two of us on Wednesday night so it was nice to see the roles reversed this evening. We shared a few beers on our final night and Daniel was a bit tipsy come the end of the evening which amused me plenty. It was a great way to enjoy our final evening before heading back to England.

The next morning I had a last wander through the streets of Firenze and was sad to be saying goodbye. After the disappointment of Pisa, Firenze had really delivered and made for a memorable first visit to Italy. It’s a cracking city and one you should definitely try to visit!

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My morning flew by and before I knew it the clock read 12pm! I had time to enjoy one final meal in Firenze before I had to leave and inevitably wanted one final pizza before I said arriverderci to Italy. It rounded off the trip perfectly, I hopped on a train to Pisa and was soon boarding a flight back to London.

Italy had lived up to my expectations and the food was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. I still haven’t been back to Italy but I’m feeling a return is long overdue!

Who’s coming with me?

Jason