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!

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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

Italy part one: Pisa!

Salzburg wrapped up my 2014 adventures so on we go in to the “new year” of 2015, exciting right? Italy had always been a dream destination for me growing up, so when an opportunity to visit in February 2015 presented itself surely I had to go?

Perhaps surprisingly I was actually unsure. You’ll have to wait until my next post to hear why I was visiting Italy and consequently why there was a little question mark over going but after weighing up the pros & cons I quickly decided that Firenze (Florence) was too good an opportunity to miss!

With my heart set on visiting Firenze I started looking at flight prices and I came to the realisation that it was bloody expensive for the dates I was looking at. What was plan B?
I’d given up hope of flying to Firenze directly so I had to consider how else I could get there. Were there any other cities nearby that might work out better?

Pisa was one option that caught my eye and booking flights would save me around £100! The train from Pisa to Firenze was less than ten euros too so it was a much cheaper route and a “no brainer”.  I booked my flights to Italy and then started thinking about accommodation.

 

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Pisa!

Once I knew I was flying to Pisa the next question was how long do I stay in Pisa? I didn’t really know what Pisa had other than the obvious (the leaning tower) so was there any need to stay overnight and have less time in Firenze? I decided that I would give Pisa the benefit of the doubt and I booked a hotel for one night. Maybe I could come home and tell everybody that Pisa was vastly underrated!

“So is it vastly underrated Jason?

No. It’s a city with a famous tower and little else. I posted recently about Bratislava and awarded myself the title of “unofficial ambassador” for Bratislava / Slovakia. I feel bad but I feel like in this instance I’m coming across closer to “Pisa hater” but sadly I did find it a little underwhelming.

I don’t hate Pisa though, I’m not even telling you not to go to Pisa because I genuinely believe everywhere is worth a visit once. It might only be a city with a famous tower but people are still going to want to see that tower so here’s what I got up to with my overnight stay in Pisa! I’ll try not to be too negative!

Having arrived in to Pisa late-morning I quickly made my way in the direction of my hotel for the night in the hope I’d be able to check in a little early. Success! My room was ready and I could drop my things off and get out and explore the city straight away!

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Exploring in the rain!

I didn’t go to Pisa with the highest expectations but there was one clear exception – the food! It was my first time in Italy and I was eager to experience authentic Italian food. Having dropped off my things I went on the search for some lunch and quickly found a nearby restaurant and ordered myself a pizza! Wow! Pisa might have otherwise disappointed but the food did not!

I was in pizza heaven! I don’t know if I’ve let the experience of eating Italian pizza cloud my judgment but it’s the best pizza I’ve ever had. It seems too easy to say that the best pizza you’ve ever had was in Italy but it’s how I remember it. It was so good and Pisa had made a great first impression! At the very least Pisa now had a famous tower and great food!

Having appeased my appetite it was time to explore and inevitably there was only one place to start! I went off in search of the famous leaning tower! I say in search, I knew it was only around the corner so it wasn’t really much of a search but nevertheless off I went!

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The leaning tower of Pisa!

It’s cool to say I’ve seen it in the flesh but I guess I was hoping for more, it didn’t really “wow” me – the pizza was more impressive. I don’t know what my expectations were, something too unrealistic probably because it just felt smaller than I’d envisaged.
It’s 55 meters high so I don’t know what I was expecting – a tower leaning at a 45 degree angle at over 500 or 5,000 meters high? It’d be ridiculous/impossible but nevertheless I did feel a little like “is that it?”.

You can go up the tower but it’s situated in this fairly enclosed square so I didn’t actually expect to see much. I’ve since seen photos of the view and it does look quite good in fairness. Whether it justifies the admission price I don’t know because it isn’t the cheapest. Harsh? Maybe.
I settled for getting a few photos instead and then swiftly moved on.

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Pisa’s Duomo!

In the same square you’ll find Pisa’s Duomo (cathedral) which, shock horror, I actually liked. Crazy to be so positive, right? It’s a nice building from the outside but you have to make sure you go inside as it’s beautiful, I actually preferred the interior of this to Firenze’s own Duomo, the exterior in Firenze makes up for it though!

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Inside the Duomo!

I’d checked out the Duomo and seen the famous tower so what next? I’d picked up a map at my hotel and I couldn’t help but notice that Pisa’s football stadium was within walking distance of this square. It wasn’t something I would have considered looking for otherwise but as it was so nearby I figured I’d check it out, have a walk around the outside of it and maybe see if they offered any stadium tours.

To my surprise as I walked up to the main entrance the players were walking out. It looked like they’d just finished a training session and I found there was nothing stopping you walking right in pitch-side. Whether I should have been there I don’t know, logic would dictate I probably shouldn’t have been but I figured someone would come and tell me if it was an issue.

I didn’t overstay my welcome, I only took a quick look around and grabbed a few photos from inside an empty stadium. The capacity is supposedly 25,000 although it was hard to picture this as the only one inside. Pisa’s football team play in the 3rd tier of Italian football so it’s unlikely I’ll ever be here for a game so I was pleased I’d taken a little detour and that my timing had been so spot on to take advantage.

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Home of Pisa’s football club!
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Stadio Romeo Anconetani

I spent the rest of my afternoon just wandering the city but I just didn’t really warm to Pisa. There are certainly pretty areas in the city, walk along the river and even the “Pisa-haters” of the world would struggle to not admire some of the views because they are stunning. Nevertheless I just couldn’t connect with it right, it wasn’t for me.

Eventually I admitted defeat, gave up exploring and made my way back to my hotel. I figured I’d relax a little and freshen up before heading out for some evening entertainment. Day-time Pisa hadn’t really won me over but Pisa’s a university city so I was hopeful its nightlife could save the day!

I’m not going to be too critical here because I don’t think it’s fair to judge a city’s nightlife based upon a Tuesday night but the lack of life in the city just summed up my time in Pisa.
I spent ages wandering through the city and it was dead. Where was everyone? Perhaps Pisa’s students actually spend their time studying? Whatever the reasons I had little luck finding anywhere with a bit of life to it. Perhaps I was just looking in the wrong parts of the city but no luck! As I said though, a Tuesday night in February probably isn’t a great time to be judging a city’s nightlife. I’d be intrigued to experience a weekend or summer night in Pisa and see how it differs.

In the end I just settled for a quiet dinner (more amazing food!) and an early night relaxing back at the hotel.

I wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting Pisa, you might find you actually like it more than I did and I’m still glad I visited myself.
In hindsight though I would have gone for just 3-4 hours and caught a later train to Firenze rather than staying overnight in Pisa.

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I woke up early the next morning and didn’t see any benefit to sticking around for much longer. I walked to the train station which gave me a chance to see a little more of Pisa on route but I was soon buying my train ticket to Firenze.
Pisa had given me a little taster of Italy and I’d certainly fallen in love with the food but I was heading on to city number 2 with more hope and higher expectations.

Did Firenze live up to those expectations? Stay tuned for that!

Jason

Part 1: Budapest – a hidden treasure?

In my last post ( Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Salzburg – why? ) I spoke about my decision-making in planning a mini Eurotrip for October 2014. It was an adventure that would see me visit three countries and four cities over ten days – starting in Budapest!

Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect from Budapest. I think if I was going for the first time now it’d be less of a struggle but at the time it didn’t seem like anyone was talking about this destination. I was a bit of a novice traveler at the time so maybe I was just looking in the wrong places but Budapest and Hungary were both a bit of an unknown for me.

I didn’t know anyone who had visited and I had never learned anything about Hungary in school so I went there just hoping for the best. In some respects I’m quite thankful I went there blissfully unaware – within a couple of hours I was mesmerised by Budapest and I think it helped with it coming as a surprise rather than the feeling of “I’ve seen this on Instagram 1,000 times already” that I have when visiting some places now.

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Stunning on both sides of the Danube!

I don’t know what the catalyst for change was. Shortly after I booked my trip George Ezra released his hit ‘Budapest’. Without boosting his ego too much (George blatantly reads my blog, right?) I can’t help but feel that it put a little spotlight on Budapest. Alternatively perhaps people were just waiting for the seal of approval from myself before visiting. Whatever the reason (probably not the latter), Budapest appears to be a much more popular destination than it was when I visited in 2014.

Anyway, back to my trip. It’s October 2014 and I’m counting down the days until my adventure begins. My first bit of excitement came when I was exchanging currencies. I picked up Euros for Slovakia and Austria but I also had to get some Hungarian Forints for the trip. I think the exchange rate at the time was around £1 to 300-350 forints which left me walking away with thousands in my wallet and feeling rather rich.

Soon enough I was flying out to sunny Budapest and leaving the miserable English weather behind. I arrived in to Budapest around lunchtime on Saturday and went on the hunt for my hostel – that took some finding. I don’t know why but I never seem to find hostels too easily and I must walk past them several times as they blend in to the other buildings around them. Bizarre.

With three days to explore I didn’t really want to waste any time so I dropped off my things and started to wander towards the river Danube. It was only a short walk from where I was staying and seemed a good place to start my exploration of Budapest. My first impression of Budapest was one of disbelief, I’d been blown away by the beauty of the city and I couldn’t understand how I’d got here without knowing how stunning it is.

With the blue skies and beautiful scenery Budapest had won me over instantly! I continued my walk alongside the Danube, admiring everything in all directions and then I stumbled upon the Hungarian Parliament building for the first time. Wow! I’d seen photos of it online but photos don’t really do it justice. It’s my favourite piece of architecture I’ve seen anywhere and, even with my London bias, it is much more impressive than our own Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

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Budapest Parliament. Photos don’t do it justice!

I don’t know how much time I spent admiring the parliament building, it doesn’t matter what angle you’re seeing it from it isn’t any less impressive. As afternoon quickly turned to evening I decided I should find somewhere for dinner and somewhere to entertain myself for the evening. It was at that point I realised how cheap Budapest is. I’ve always been good at numbers but I was left second guessing myself if I’d calculated the exchange rate correctly – “that must be wrong” I thought as I came to the conclusion that a beer, dinner and a tip was still ridiculously cheap.
After a couple of drinks I called it a night and had a relaxed first evening in Budapest, keen to get off to an early start the next day.

I started my day off with a “free” walking tour, I find that these are a great way to familiarise yourself with a city and you usually learn a few things along the way. For instance I quickly learned that one side of the city was called “Buda” and the other side of the river called “Pest” and between them they formed one city called, that’s right, Budapest! Who knew?

I wasn’t overly impressed with the specific tour-guide but overall it was a good tour, covered a few of the sights and gave me a better understanding of the history of the city. It also offered me a little inspiration for other things to see in the city that weren’t covered on the tour. The tour began on the Pest side of the river but it finished off in Buda, I was staying in Pest so hadn’t ventured to this side of the river yet so it was quite convenient to explore a little more over here.

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Views of Pest from Buda!

Buda is on much higher ground so offers great views overlooking the river and the Pest side of the city – in particular the parliament building which is perhaps best viewed from the Buda half of the city.
After a little wandering I made my way back over to Pest in time to catch a tour which explored the Jewish district a little more. I was fascinated to learn how involved Hungary were in the rise of the Nazi regime around World War 2 – a history, much like Germany, that they’re not proud of but don’t shy away from re-telling.

The tour was really interesting, not just telling the history of the Jewish district but also showing it off in a modern climate. You’ll find the largest Synagogue in Europe here but also plenty of street art, restaurants and bars making it one of the livelier (and cheapest) parts of the city to enjoy an evening.

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Exploring the Jewish district!

Following the tour I found some dinner in a nearby restaurant and then headed back to my hostel for a little downtime before deciding what to do with my Sunday evening.
I was sharing a 4 bed dorm in my hostel and on my return I found a fully occupied room. The other 3 guys coming from Scotland, Switzerland and Pakistan. We quickly established we were all in the same boat – traveling solo around Europe and up for a night out with new friends.

Budapest is famous for its ruin bars and it wasn’t long before we were heading out in search of the city’s most famous – Szimpla Kert. Words don’t really do it justice as to how unique it is but it’s a must visit and you can find some photos of it here: Szimpla Kert

From the outside you’d never know what was awaiting inside in what is one of the quirkier bars you’re likely to visit. It attracts both tourists and locals alike, perhaps more the former as it’s one of the highest rated bars in the world. Tripadvisor had it rated as the 3rd best bar worldwide at the time of my visit I believe. It’s definitely worth a visit and if you don’t fancy the crowds in the evening they do host a farmers market during the day on a Sunday too.
After a few beers and a few shots we called it a night and went in search of a kebab house on the way back to our hostel. It was a great night and a highlight of my time in Budapest.

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Entrance to the Szechenyi baths!

I’d ticked off a ruin bar on my Budapest bucketlist, the other thing the city is famous for are its baths/spas which was on my list for Monday. I’m not a spa type person but “when in Rome..”

The Szechenyi baths are Budapest’s biggest and most famous and perhaps the one you’re going to see recommended most – they even have a bath party on Saturday nights during the peak season. However it’s worth noting there are several in Budapest and if you want to escape the crowds you’ve got other options too. I chose the second route and found one on the Buda side of the city. If you’re in to that sort of thing they’re probably well worth a visit but I found the experience a little underwhelming and made use of the pool more than anything.

It did however set the tone for the rest of my day. I felt fairly relaxed and in the end I decided rather than rush around trying to do a million things in a day to just enjoy the city at my own pace. By this point I knew I’d be coming back to Budapest some day and I didn’t want to spoil my experience by rushing around when it could wait for future visits.

After a little breather I went and found a lunch spot near my hostel and had the most amazing goulash – not something I’d normally eat but I was in the mood for something a little more traditionally Hungarian and it was a really good decision – probably my best meal in Budapest!
The rest of the day was just spent wandering before settling down in a bar for a few drinks.

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Vadjahunyad Castle

I woke up on Tuesday morning a little down-hearted. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Budapest yet and there was definitely a part of me tempted to change my plans to stay a little longer. However I knew an extra night in Budapest meant a night less somewhere else and I didn’t want to miss out elsewhere. I made my way to the train station suffering a bit of the holiday-blues at the realisation that I was leaving.

Then it dawned on me. Yes, I was leaving but not to go home. I was leaving Budapest behind and heading onwards to part 2 of the adventure. I still had 3 cities to explore, why was I moping about?

I used up the last of my forints to book a train to Bratislava and then grabbed a beer until it was time to leave.
I took my seat in a small enclosed carriage on the train and said farewell to Budapest, however the adventure wasn’t over. I was off to Bratislava!

More on that soon!

Jason

Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Salzburg – why?

In my last post I spoke about my plans for a 30 day trip to the USA this summer.  Planning a multi-location trip takes a lot more work than a one-stop holiday and that’s certainly true with the US where there is an endless number of places to visit. Planning this trip has given me so much to think about to make it work, fortunately it’s not my first multi-destination trip and that takes us on to my next batch of posts!

My last destination post focused on my trip to Berlin! in August 2014. A couple of months later I was jetting off again! Back in October 2014 I embarked on my biggest adventure yet. Alright, it’s perhaps debatable as you could say Sydney was a bigger adventure but that was just one location to plan for. This trip would see me visit four cities across three countries in 10 days! A mini-European tour featuring Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Salzburg!

My next few posts will be dedicated to those four destinations so stay turned but first let me explain why these particular places as they’re perhaps surprising choices. I mean, does anyone really go to Bratislava?
“Haven’t you seen the films?!”

Spoiler: Bratislava is lovely. Go now!

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Bratislava castle – so recognisable!

Anyway, to explain why we have to start at the end of the trip! You might recall from my Lisbon (Mar 2014) and Barmouth (Apr 2014) posts that I was in a “long” distance relationship which was slowly coming to its conclusion.
Long distance relationships are tough, I seemed to spend half of my time traveling back and forth on trains (and bus replacements!) between Peterborough and Birmingham and at times it was a little draining.

It would have been easy to be put off of the idea of long distance after that experience but instead I went the opposite way and continued a cycle of falling for women further and further from home. I don’t think I limit myself to a “type” but you see movies and such glamourise the “girl next door” whereas my dating history is more like “girl 20,000 miles away”.

“Where are you from?”
“Peterborough”
“Bleurgh.. how about you?”
“Mars!”
“You’re fantastic, I’ll fall in love with you!”

It’s not that simplistic. I don’t do it purposely of course but nevertheless my dating history makes for comical reading. Things didn’t work out with Jasmine (Birmingham) and I’ve since become close to Nicole (Germany), Mella (Georgia, USA) and currently Haleigh (Washington State). Each subsequent relationship has resulted in me falling harder and typically being further away from home. Birmingham suddenly doesn’t seem so far away! Haha!

Anyway there’s a little background for you, now back to the story. Leading up to Berlin I was a little resigned to the fact that I felt something for Nicole, we’d been talking pretty much daily for a few weeks and we’d become pretty close in that time.

Berlin was probably the last trip I had where I was “off the grid”, no contact with anyone back home or in the South of Germany. If I’d had any doubts about long distance with a woman in Germany, spending 2-3 days of not talking quickly made it clear how I felt.  There was no guarantee it was mutual or, even if it was, that long-distance was a good idea but I couldn’t keep my feelings to myself any longer and had to say something! Fortunately the feelings were mutual.

Talk quickly developed in to actually meeting up and spending a little time together to see if the spark between us worked as well in person.
One of the things we had particularly bonded over was our taste in music which meant we talked about possibly going to a gig together. We kept our eyes peeled for any bands touring and soon found a band touring Europe that we both liked.

We browsed through the tour dates and Salzburg (Austria) stood out as one of the best options. It was a weekend gig which suited both of our schedules perfectly and it meant that we both got a little adventure out of the country!

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Beautiful Salzburg!

So that covers why I went to Salzburg! Why did it end up being a multi-city trip and why these particular destinations?

I was excited for a weekend together in a country I’d yet to visit, however I also had a decent bit of annual time left to use at work and we were approaching the end of the year so I had to use it up pretty soon!
Whilst Nicole’s schedule was less flexible there was nothing stopping me exploring solo for a little longer before winding up in Salzburg, so that’s what I did and I extended my trip a week!

I booked a one way flight home from Salzburg and just had to figure out where I was going to start and how I was going to get to Salzburg.
I knew Salzburg was somewhere near Germany and in Austria but as it was somewhere I hadn’t been to I couldn’t really visualise exactly where it was in Europe. I figured once I knew where Salzburg was that I could then narrow down my starting points.

The problem with Salzburg in particular is it seems to be, smack, bang, in the middle of Europe. Take Amsterdam for instance – unless you fly you can only attack it from Belgium or Germany which helps the planning process if that’s where you want to end up. As I looked at Salzburg on a map I realised there were places I would happily visit North, South, East and West of the city – having one location on the itinerary was of little help.

It also didn’t help that, at the time, I hadn’t seen an awful lot of Europe. As far as mainland Europe was concerned I’d only really been to Köln, Brussels, Bruges and Lisbon which were all too far away to have been realistic starting points on a 9/10 day Eurotrip anyway. It was back to the drawing board.

As I planned out the various routes, costs and attractiveness to each place I kept leaning towards Budapest – I feel like in the four years since I visited that Budapest has boomed but at the time it wasn’t somewhere I’d seen much of, nor did I knew anyone who had been. Nevertheless I stuck a pin in Budapest and had my starting point.

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Overlooking the Danube River in Budapest

Budapest to Salzburg! That cut down the possible routes and I figured I’d have to travel through most of Austria to get to Salzburg so one obvious destination that sprung out was Vienna. All that was left to decide was whether I keep it at a 3 city trip or 4. If four, would it be between Budapest and Vienna or between Vienna and Salzburg.

Costs played a part, Austria was expensive so squeezing in a third Austrian city was going to make it a much more expensive trip. Between Budapest and Vienna was another small country (Slovakia) and another capital city, Bratislava.

Bratislava is often overlooked in favour of its illustrious neighbours Vienna, Budapest and Prague. I’d only heard bad things about Bratislava which is sad and I imagine can only be from people who’ve never actually visited. It did put a little doubt in my mind but what swayed me was the fact that it was super cheap! Two nights in Bratislava plus an extra train journey still worked out to be cheaper than a night in Vienna so I gambled and slotted it in to the itinerary.

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Vienna!

This was my final itinerary and thoughts if you were considering doing similar.

3 nights in Budapest – not long enough. I would recommend 5 days.
2 nights in Bratislava – just right. Doable as a day trip if you’re traveling onwards but I would personally recommend staying overnight. I loved Bratislava’s charm and it has a good nightlife too.
1 night in Vienna – impossible. You can’t do Vienna in a day. A city I’ll have to return to.
3 nights in Salzburg – good weekend trip. I would personally recommend 2 nights.

Personally I have no regrets, as much as I would have liked an extra night in Budapest/Vienna I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice a night elsewhere.

Anyway, that is how my October 2014 trip came together. In my next four posts I will be going in to much more depth about experience in all four cities and my quest for love!

Stay tuned!

Jason