Georgia – Part one: Atlanta (Feb 2016)

How time flies, right? This summer Haleigh drove us across the Oregon border and in to my 12th US state – California! That story will have to wait a little longer because I’m going to rewind two years (Feb 2016) and continue my Georgia story, visiting Mella, which just so happened to be my first visit to the USA in eight years and just the second state I stepped foot in to. The second! Three years ago I’d been to just one state and now it’s 12 – how mad is that!?

Anyway I was torn about how to approach this trip on the blog. First and foremost it was a trip revolved around romance and you’ve already had the spoiler – there was no fairytale ending to it. As far as “best case” and “worst case” scenarios go I guess we landed somewhere in the middle and I still remain good friends with Mella. Long-distance is always a gamble and on this occasion things just didn’t go to plan. I’m not going to go in to any huge detail but that chapter ended.

The second reason I was torn on how to approach this was because I wasn’t sure if I should try and jampack two weeks in to one post or split it over two? I’ve decided to do the latter and focus on city life in Georgia and rural life in Georgia over two posts, starting with the big city – Atlanta!

That’s the thing about long distance relationships (LDR’s), they come with a lot of complications but one perk is you get to travel somewhere! Whilst I don’t consider this a typical holiday, it was still two weeks in Georgia, a long overdue return to the USA and a new state to explore. I don’t know if I would have visited Georgia for any other reason and subsequently I didn’t go with huge expectations.

That did all change though. In my last blog post (here) I spoke about my ‘fun’ border control experience which, whilst memorable, also begged the question what are they so desperate to contain from the outside world?
“Co-operate or you’ll be on the first plane back to London!!”

Money-permitting I’d move back to London tomorrow so it was a bizarre scenario to find myself in. I was jumping through hoops to get in to Atlanta to avoid being sent back to my favourite place in the world – it didn’t quite add up. I’d gone to Atlanta with low expectations but having had to prove myself to get in to the damn city, Atlanta now had to prove to me it was worthy of such arrogance.

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“Was it worthy Jason?”

No. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely did enjoy my time in Atlanta / Georgia and I know the officers at border control are just there to do a job but calm down Atlanta, you’re not all that!

Nevertheless I’m not going to stick the boot in any further, let me focus on why I DID enjoy my time in Atlanta. As we discovered in my last post, I was granted access to Atlanta! I had escaped the airport! I was free! We arrived at my hotel in downtown Atlanta on the Tuesday evening and after quickly settling in I was then waving Mella off. “See ya!!”

Mella lives roughly an hour North of Atlanta and had to work on Wednesday and Thursday so having waited all this time to finally meet, we were very quickly separated again. It left me with a couple of days to explore solo before Mella could join me for the weekend.

I didn’t really do much Tuesday evening, I figured I’d adjust to the five hour time difference and get an early-ish night. So following a decent sleep I was raring to go bright and early on Wednesday morning. I hit the streets and found a grey and dreary looking Atlanta. I decided to make my first stop the civil rights museum which was only a short walk away from where I was staying.

I’m not typically the earliest of risers when it comes to my travels so I was quite pleased to stroll up to the museum and see nobody around. My early approach meant I’d beaten the crowds and walked right up to the entrance without a person in sight. Unfortunately nobody was around with good reason, they didn’t open until 10am! I’d got here hoping to beat the lunchtime/afternoon rush and was quickly disappointed.

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Plan A had had a small setback but no worries, what else is nearby? I took a little stroll and it’s relatively close to the aquarium and Coca Cola World, two things I knew I’d be doing with Mella later in the week. I soon stumbled upon a children’s museum and thought that would be perfect! Closed on Wednesday’s!!

Really Atlanta? I wanted you to bring your A game and instead I’ve got your zzz game!
“Sorry, we don’t work before 10am or on a Wednesday! We need that lie in”

Accepting defeat I headed back to the Civil Rights museum and just decided to wait it out, making myself “one of those” people I used to dread in my supermarket days. I’d arrive at work and finding a flock of customers waiting for the doors to open – “it’s a Sunday morning, go back to bed!!”
Roles had been reversed and now I was clock-watching until 10am hoping for a prompt opening.
“Excuse me, it’s 10:01. Open up!!”

I wasn’t waiting long before I was joined by a woman, she was awaiting the rest of her school entourage to arrive and we quickly got chatting. She was friendly and offered some recommendations and, at last, I was experiencing some of this Southern hospitality that the South is famous for. Things were finally looking up!

Soon enough an army of school children arrived and given the setting it was interesting to see the diversity of the group. The museum was focused on civil rights with a large exhibit particularly focused on the persecution of black people in the South. It was nice to see all these little kids running around, playing and laughing with eachother, irrespective of their differences. Yet any moment now the doors would open and we’d be reading about the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

Ironically having clock-watched until 10am I then held back to allow the school party to jump ahead of me, it allowed me to experience the museum at my own pace and really take in a lot of what I was reading. It was interesting, fascinating, educational and more than anything humbling.

Some of the stuff I was reading seemed too inexplicable, how was some of this propaganda and vitriol ever deemed acceptable? I’d say the rest of the museum gets easier but it’s equally thought provoking and turns its attention to discrimination and inequality of other people based upon their gender, sexuality, disabilities and so on.

It’s a museum I’d fully recommend visiting if you’re in Atlanta. I left feeling rather privileged, aspects of the museum showed we’re heading in the right direction whilst others also highlighted that we have some way to go. Looking 600 or so miles North and seeing a black president in the White House gave me some hope for the future. Hindsight is a funny thing mind you, the remainder of 2016 saw political victories for Nigel Farage and Donald Trump which made me wonder if that hope had been a bit premature.

Feeling hopeful, I turned my attention to getting some lunch and was quickly ticking off another Hard Rock Café (HRC) visit – my love of which began in the neighbouring state of Florida so it was nice to be enjoying it once again on American soil.

I didn’t really do much following on from lunch, I planned to cover a lot of Atlanta’s main points of interest later over the weekend with Mella so it was a fairly chilled day.
Thursday took a relatively similar pattern. I took some time to go and explore Piedmont Park, a peaceful spot in the city that makes it easy to forget you’re in such a big city. Within the park you’ll also find Atlanta’s Botanical Gardens which I figured I’d take some time to visit.

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I liked it, the location probably added to that but it felt good to escape the busyness of Atlanta for a little while. Beyond that I didn’t do too much, wandered the city a bit before grabbing some dinner at a restaurant. The couple of free days I’d enjoyed in Atlanta had allowed me to familiarise myself with the city on foot and given me a good indication of where things were, particularly the attractions that I had planned for the coming days.

Friday saw everybody arrive in to town. Mella and a friend of hers joined me for the weekend. However a couple of penpals, Samantha (Alabama) and Crystal (Florida), had also made their way to Atlanta for the weekend. Sadly the “penpal curse” struck and things unfortunately didn’t quite work out. I’ve since seen both Crystal (in New Orleans) and Sam (in Nashville) but we’ve yet to successfully meet up with all three of us at the same time.

Mella I had more fortune with and it didn’t take long for our plans to start taking shape. The highlight of Friday was a trip to Shakespeare’s Tavern – a cute little theatre which houses Shakespeare plays. Mella had bought us tickets to see Romeo and Juliet which was good fun. It was an intimate setting and one of the perks to that was the cast meeting us in the lobby area after the show to thank us and similarly allow us to compliment them on the play. It was a nice little touch to have that cast/audience interaction.

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On Saturday we visited Atlanta’s aquarium, supposedly one of the best in the US and of the three I’ve been to (Dallas and Mall of America) it’d be hard to disagree. There was one room with a large tank that we sat at for a while just enjoying the fish swimming on by.

Next up was a trip to the nearby Coca Cola World. I’ve never really entered the Coke/Pepsi debate as I don’t drink either so theoretically it was a bit of a pointless attraction to visit but in the home of Coca Cola (didn’t realise it was Atlanta) it seemed the apt thing to do. It was actually quite enjoyable. It was interesting hearing a bit more about the history of Coca Cola and it had some interesting stuff. The final piece of the attraction is the tasting room where you can taste a variety of drink products from around the world. I can’t particularly remember which were delicious / disgusting but it was a fun way to round off the visit.

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We ventured from there over to the nearby Centennial park which is a small public park with statues and things dedicated to the 1996 Olympics which was hosted in Atlanta. It’s a nice little park in the heart of the city.

Beyond that we didn’t do too much else in Atlanta, just ate food and relaxed mostly but it was a fun introduction in to life in Georgia. It’s a nice place to visit for a few days but it has a long way to go before competing with places such as London and New York City.

It’s somewhere I’d potentially go back to but I feel like if I didn’t I’ve seen enough of the city and ticked off enough of the main things to do that I’d be content with a one time visit. I’d enjoyed my time in the ‘big city’, next up was a week experiencing a more rural side of Georgia.

Stay tuned for that!

Jason

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Welcome to the USA – Georgia style!

I think it’s naive to suggest with 7 billion people on the planet that the person you’ve supposed to end up with is automatically going to be on your doorstep. Nevertheless there’s a practicality to dating local isn’t there?

I remember going on a date a few years ago and this woman lived relatively locally. I spent the day at work, we went out for dinner and I was home again the same night – a traditional date! She was friendly, we had plenty in common, she was relatively attractive and we had a nice meal together but that was it. She ticked all of the right boxes on paper but it was just nice. It wasn’t a bad date as such, it’s just that it wasn’t a date-date, it was a mate date. There was no chemistry, no butterflies, no spark and ultimately no second date.

As practical as finding someone that lives locally is, you need that something extra and for whatever reason I always seem to find it in people that live millions of miles away from where I live.

I’ve given some mention to my romances in this post here (Read me!), when explaining why I visited Salzburg, so you might recall that before dating Haleigh (Washington State) that my love interests were with Mella in Georgia.
Things had fizzled out with Nicole but of course, Germany wasn’t far enough away to find love so I made my first trip across the pond in eight years.

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I’d only ever been to the USA on family trips to Florida (1997, 2002, 2004, & 2008) and my parents had pretty much taken the lead on those trips so it felt like this was my first time visiting the US as an ‘adult’. I was traveling solo and the first piece of business was to get a valid visa. It’s actually pretty simple, you can easily do it online and it wasn’t too expensive. Visa granted – I’m going to the USA!!

The excitement and nerves kicked in. I was going to meet Mella finally, plus some of her friends and family, but on the flipside I was going to meet Mella finally. On one hand it was exciting but on the other hand, it’s a bloody long “first date” if you can call it that. I was going to Georgia for two weeks!

Maybe. That’s the thing about booking a trip, you do so assuming you’ll reach your destination without any issues. US border control had other ideas –  “don’t be nervous about meeting Mella, there’s no guarantee we’ll let you in to Georgia anyway!!”

Booking your ticket and having valid documentation is only step one of entering the USA. On arrival I walked up to the next available desk and the entry process began. Passport checked, visa checked, fingerprints checked, eyes (retinal scanner) checked!

“Congratulations, you’ve passed step two! Now for the questioning!”
“I’m sorry, what?”

You’ve literally matched my fingerprints! What more do you want from me? The man at the desk asked me why I was here and in the back of my head was this little voice – “honesty is the best policy”.
So naturally I explained I was visiting somebody. In most places you visit that’s followed with a “have a nice trip Sir” but not here, not in the USA! It had set the alarm bells ringing.

“YOU’RE DOING WHAT!? NOT ON MY WATCH SON!”

Moments later he’d picked up the phone and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. Shortly after an announcement was belting out of the tannoy system.
“Can someone please come and take this high-risk criminal away from desk number..”

It might have been a little more subtle than that but was effectively the message behind it, I looked up and wasn’t surprised to see it was my desk. Great. I’ve failed already.
“Can you follow this woman please?”

I foolishly thought I might get some sort of greeting but no, she snubbed my entire existence. The back of her head was as close as we were acquainted with eachother. This is the famous Southern hospitality I’ve heard so much about? She dropped me off at this small waiting room where I was left to ponder my fate. Fortunately they didn’t keep me waiting long and I was called up for further interrogation by some guy – another new face to try my luck with.

Round two! Fail this test and I’m going home! A thought that had me a little torn in truth. A one way trip to London is my punishment? Don’t get me wrong, it was far from ideal but this is the charade I have to bow down to?
London is my favourite city in the world, it’s home for me, and you’re wanting me to jump through hoops to get in to Georgia? Georgia!! Are you bloody mad?

“I’m already slumming it coming here mate.”

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Co-operate or you’re going to this awful place!!

Nevertheless I figured I’d keep my thoughts to myself. The US border probably isn’t really the setting to start pointing out all of the USA’s flaws. You’ve got to understand that across the pond they believe that the USA is the biggest and the best and the land of the free and blah, blah, blah. I played nice and I tried to be as co-operative as possible. Time for a game of 20 questions!!

“Why are you here?” “How long are you here?” “How did you meet?” “Where are you staying?” “Are you visiting anywhere else in the US?” “When are you going home?” “Have you booked your flight?” “What does she do for a living?” “Are you employed?” “When do work expect you back?” “How much money do you have?” and on and on and on.

I’ve visited some places and you half-wonder if they’ve even looked at the photo on your passport before passing it back to you.
“That was a black woman in the photo by the way..”
“Just hurry up and enter the country!!”

This was the complete opposite and it does get exhausting getting interrogated to determine whether you’re worthy of entering the US. One final question – “Do you have Mella’s phone number?”
SHIT! I don’t! I hadn’t anticipated this debacle and assumed I wouldn’t need it. Luckily I managed to find it on Facebook, passed it over and then had my phone confiscated.

He obviously didn’t want me giving Mella a heads up but it was a tad frustrating. I was sent back to my little waiting room whilst he tried to get hold of Mella.

Now personally, I don’t accept phonecalls from numbers I don’t know. If it’s that important they’ll leave a message, right? I’ll decline and generally give the number a quick search on Google afterwards.

“Oops, that was US border control? I probably should have taken that!”

Fortunately Mella was much more sensible and did pick up, albeit unprepared for her own interrogation as this officer was keen to discover if our responses were consistent. A little time passed and my enthusiasm for Georgia was draining out of me. I mean if you’re going to send me home can we just get on with it?
Fortunately he was soon calling for my return and it was clear that, with Mella’s help, I’d passed the test! I’d been granted access in to America.

I can’t really remember what my reaction was. I think I was pretty apathetic by this point so I forgot to show my gratitude by doing cartwheels.
“Thank you so much for letting me in to Georgia..”

With that said it was clear the non-English speaking guy at the desk to my left was being advised by his Spanish translator that he wasn’t getting in to US so I suppose it could have been worse. I went and found my suitcase and soon enough I was free to stay in the US forever!!! Muahaha!

Alright, calm down Big Brother (I know you’re reading), I’m joking! I didn’t plan to stay, I was free for the next two weeks though and quickly found a friendlier face awaiting my arrival – Mella. Unsurprisingly we didn’t stick around at the airport for too long and made our journey to my hotel in downtown Atlanta. I was finally in Georgia!

More on that to follow soon! Stay tuned!

Jason

The final trip of 2018!

I’m not one of those travel bloggers that “work from anywhere” – there’s definitely something about that which is appealing but I just work a regular office job, Monday to Friday.
Therefore the secret to traveling as much as possible is generally maximising my annual leave and making use of the public holidays. It’s something I’ve generally been good at and I perfected it last year.

You can read more about that here (A 2017 summary) but I made sure to take advantage of the time off around Christmas / New Year, I made sure to go away at Easter, I escaped to Germany over the May bank holiday and my annual leave (26 days) seemed to go a long long way last year.

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Ending 2017 in the stunning Edinburgh!

This year has been the complete opposite. My company offer a scheme that allows you to purchase an extra week of holiday, which I took up this year, but with 5 extra days I don’t feel like I’ve reaped the benefits this year.

I booked two weeks off to visit Washington in February and then four weeks off work to visit the USA in the summer and ‘POOF’ – where’d my annual leave go? I got back from the US at the end of August and already had no remaining annual leave for the rest of this year. It has meant FOUR straight months without a day off and that won’t seem a big deal to some of you, particularly having had six weeks off this year but damn.. it has genuinely felt like a struggle.

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Where’d the summer go?

Work, work, work, work, work and repeat. I can’t pretend to have any regrets about taking a month long trip, it was a sacrifice I willingly made but you don’t appreciate how valuable a single day of annual leave is until you don’t have it.
One day of annual leave can quickly translate in to a Friday or a Monday off work and suddenly you’ve got the opportunity for a long weekend somewhere.

Sadly I don’t have that luxury but similarly I couldn’t wait until January for the next trip. If all I’ve got is a weekend to play with then so be it, I’ll go somewhere for a weekend. Obviously that has some restrictions, I won’t be flying to Australia or anywhere far-flung. I knew I’d be restricted to a European weekend trip but it’s a big old continent to go and explore so I wasn’t short of options.

After browsing through various options I found suitable flights and on Saturday morning I’m flying to Warsaw in Poland. On Sunday evening I’ll be flying back to England. It’s my first time in Poland and I’m gutted I’m not going to be able to enjoy it for longer but it is what it is. Hopefully I’ll be able to make the most of my limited time there and look to return at another point in the future but for now it’s a quick little trip.

Any recommendations for Warsaw or traditional Polish delicacies to try are greatly appreciated!

Up next on the blog? Georgia, USA!

Stay tuned!

Jason

Amsterdam – Day 3-4 (Dec 2015)

Following on from days one and two in Amsterdam, I had one final full day (Thursday) to enjoy the city before waving goodbye to Amsterdam on the Friday. My only concrete plans for Thursday were in the evening so I had the rest of the day to do as I liked.

There weren’t many things I felt like I “had to do” whilst in Amsterdam, I was pretty relaxed and flexible about the trip but two things stood out. The Anne Frank house which I’d visited the previous day and a canal boat tour. I’d explored plenty on foot already but thought it’d be cool to kickstart my day with a tour on the water.

I headed down to the area the tours departed and got a ticket for an hour long tour. I enjoyed it, it was an interesting way to see the city and allowed me to see a few parts I hadn’t seen before. Our captain talked about the history of the city and pointed out some cool points of interests along the way. It’s such a pretty city and the canals play a big role in that so it was good to see them in a little more depth.

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Having now ticked off my two “must do’s” I had no real plans left until the evening. I passed a little café and decided a cup of tea was a good chance to ponder what to do whilst enjoying a little people-watching. It was away from the main tourist crowds so was a good opportunity to mix in and see what the locals get up to.

I decided I’d go and explore the area around the I Amsterdam sign and that I could probably squeeze in a museum or two too. Walking in that direction took me via Amsterdam’s famous Bloemenmarkt (flower market) which was particularly pretty with a range of colourful flowers on display, including the tulips you’d hope to see at any good flower market in the Netherlands.

As pretty as they were I avoided the temptation to take any flowers home with me and got back on track to where I wanted to be. Soon enough I was looking up at this spectacular building which is home to the Rijksmuseum. At the back of the building was a pretty garden area with some sculptures and then a little further on was the I Amsterdam sign and an ice rink overlooking the area.

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I expect this area attracts a lot of tourists anyway, it’s an “Instagram favourite” so no doubt draws crowds whenever you visit but as I walked up there was this large red truck in front of me. It was the Coca Cola lorry! Santa was in town and was all too happy to give me a thumbs up – I guess I wasn’t on the naughty list! Hurrah!

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Santa had a busy day ahead of him so I left him to it and got some photos from around the area and moved on to the Rijksmuseum for a while. I spent a bit of time there before moving onwards and looking for somewhere to grab an early dinner. Pretty closeby was Amsterdam’s Hard Rock Café, as some of you’ll know by now – a favourite of mine. It was in a good location overlooking the water and met the usual HRC expectations.

Following on from food I had a bit of time to kill. I passed the Heineken brewery and was tempted to give the tour a try but there was a bit of a queue and I didn’t have an endless amount of time so instead had a little wander before catching the metro to the evening’s big event I’d been looking forward to!

I was off to the football! The Netherlands most illustrious football club, Ajax, just happened to be playing at home in Amsterdam! It wasn’t a particularly glamorous game by Ajax’s standards so after tackling the ticketing website in Dutch I managed to pick up a ticket for the game – sat right at the very back of the upper tier mind you.

I have a general ‘bucketlist’ of places I want to visit and then an additional ‘football bucketlist’ which occasionally overlap. I’d obviously wanted to visit Amsterdam at some point but similarly I’d always dreamt of going to watch Ajax someday. Growing up they were a club I’ve always held a huge respect for and the good relationship between Ajax and my beloved Tottenham hasn’t harmed that either.

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I was in the stadium pretty early. I’d anticipated there being a little more near the ground to entertain myself beforehand but with little to keep me amused I figured I’d just go in and soak up the atmosphere. I wasn’t too sure what to expect but it was a “must win” game for Ajax if they were hoping to progress in the Europa League so come kick off there was a bit of a buzz in the air with flags waving and most of the noise coming from the corner of the opposite stand.

I’d like to think for a bigger game the atmosphere would have been better but Ajax’s noisiest section of fans did their best in keeping the noise going and trying to get the rest of the stadium involved.
One of the favourites amongst the Ajax vocal support was Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds’ – synonomous with Ajax football club but feeling a little surreal watching a game between a Dutch and Norwegian football team in Amsterdam and hearing the fans singing in English.

It’s hard not to be impressed by it either. I’m sure Bob Marley didn’t write it with the intention of it being sung by thousands of Dutch fans at a football game but in unison it sounds absolutely beautiful. It’s so damn catchy too, it was stuck in my head for days! “Baby don’t worry..”

and now again! Damnit Ajax! The video above is actually from this summer when Bob Marley’s son attended an Ajax game and sung it together! Incredible!

Anyway despite Ajax’s best efforts the result didn’t go the way it needed to. It finished 1-1 but Ajax’s slim hopes of European football in the New Year were dependent on winning this game so a draw left many, including myself, rather frustrated.

Ajax were playing in the 7pm-ish fixture which ended around 8:50pm I suppose. My beloved Tottenham were then playing at 9ish (8 UK time) so I was hoping to make a mad dash in to the centre to find a bar – expecting to miss a chunk of the game.

Post-match traffic / delays seemed minimal. I don’t know why – better efficiency perhaps but I was pretty much straight on to the metro and back in to the heart of Amsterdam. Somewhere along the way it started raining so I walked out on to the street with the rain falling and jumped in to the first bar that caught my eye. I’d only missed around 10 minutes but Spurs were already winning 1-0.

I grabbed myself a drink at the bar and seemingly missed us score a second. I initially thought I’d be lucky to see the first half, I’d amazingly only missed 15 minutes of the game and we were 2-0 up. Typically Tottenham had chosen tonight to start so impressively.

We scored a third before half-time so it made the rest of the game a chore in all honesty. Spurs had wrapped the game up in the first half which meant the second half was played at a rather pedestrian pace. I’d wanted to finish my night with a couple of beers and some good football but Spurs had taken their foot off the gas. I spent most of the second half people-watching, amused at the drenched pedestrians outside whilst looking on at the drunken conversations taking place across the rest of the bar.

The game finished and I took that as my sign to call it an evening. It was just shy of 11pm so I hurdled the puddles of Amsterdam and made my way back to my hostel. I walked in to the bathroom of my dormroom and it was clear I had new roommates.
A huge selection of beauty products were sprawled across the bathroom that hadn’t been there this morning!

Within a few minutes the ‘beauty queen’ had returned – “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!!?” she asked.

Wait, what? A million questions started running through my head. I’d been exploring Amsterdam obviously. Is that not an expectation in hostels? How long have you been waiting for me? Have you regularly been returning awaiting my arrival? I was a tad confused – “sorry, didn’t realise there was a curfew!!”

In her defence it was a question formed out of friendliness. She was clearly sociable and looking to make new hostel / traveler friends and I’d, rather selfishly, spent my whole day out of the hostel doing my own thing. Having made our introductions it only took a couple of minutes before she followed it up with an invitation to the hostel bar.

At long last!! Wait, no, I’m leaving tomorrow and could do without waking up hungover. What do I do? Where were you when I wanted friends to mingle with on Tuesday and Wednesday night? You’re a day too late!
I was a little hesitant. I was looking forward to a chilled end to the night and getting comfy in bed.

My new hostel friend made her way to the bar without me and after overthinking it a little too much I decided to make my way in the same direction. I’d been disappointed at the lack of social interaction the last two nights so why not make up for it?

It wasn’t long before I was in conversation with new friends and perhaps just coincidental but I seemed to get talking to a few other people this night too. Why it had to happen on the last night I don’t know. This was what I’d wanted earlier in the trip! Sadly I took the sensible approach and after 2-3 beers called it a night. No hangover this time but at least I’d ended the trip on a positive. Thursday had been my favourite day in Amsterdam and I was sad it was almost at its conclusion.

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Friday morning I was up bright and early – and hangover free! My train home from Brussels was mid-afternoon so it left me with a few options. I could explore Amsterdam a little more before catching a later train to Brussels, I could go to Brussels now and spend some of my afternoon in Brussels exploring or I could potentially travel to somewhere in between and squeeze in some time in a new city.

Call me cynical but the UK train network has made me distrusting of trains ever being reliable so I decided I’d get on the first train to Brussels. Better that than risk getting stuck in Europe because of train issues later on. I think it was the right decision, soon enough I was back in Brussels.

I’d first visited Brussels two years earlier (Dec 2013) but more recent than that, I’d been to Brussels about six weeks ago! One of the bonuses to having visited a place is knowing exactly where everything is! I only had 3 or so hours in Brussels so luckily didn’t have to waste any of that finding my bearings, Brussels was still fresh in the memory from October so I was quickly on to the metro system and in the heart of the city.

Brussels is nice, probably not a city you’re ever going to fall in love with but it is likeable. However I think if there’s ever a time you’ve going to fall in love with the city it’s going to be in December.
It’s incredible how different a city can change in barely six weeks. Brussels appearance had been uplifted and there was a bit of Christmas magic in the air. It’s dreariness in October had been replaced by Christmas decorations and Christmas markets lighting up the city.

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There was only one place to start my limited time in Brussels and that was with the appropriately-named Grand Place. No matter how many times you walk in to this square it doesn’t seem to be any less breath-taking. I strolled down to see what festive attire Brussel’s peeing boy (Mannekin Pis) was wearing on this occasion and then I went to find a spot of lunch.

I settled down with some good food and enjoyed my last taste of some Belgian beer for a while – it hadn’t been particularly long since my last visit but it felt good to be back in Brussels. As content as I’d have been to keep watching the Belgian beer flow, sadly I knew time was passing by all too quickly. I made one last little walking lap of central Brussels before bidding it farewell and making the slow journey back to London.

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Amsterdam had been wonderful, everything I’d hoped it would be and a few hours in Brussels just rounded off my 2015 travels perfectly. I arrived back in London, enjoyed the festive period at home and then switched my focus towards the first of my 2016 travels.

Stories of that will follow soon but next time round on the blog I’ll be sharing which city I’ll be visiting next week!! 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!