Category Archives: Europe

So, it’s been a little while…

So, it’s been a little while since my last post.

As you probably know from your own life, things can get hectic from time to time and I let things slip. Sorry! That being said, life is good.

Since my last post I’ve done a reasonable amount of travel – internationally to Taipei, London, Brussels and Kuala Lumpur and I think that is it… But mostly I’ve just been working, saving my pennies and thinking about when we might next get away. At this stage we’re planning on September – somewhere in the Pacific which will no doubt be amazing.

So, a quick round up of my travels of late:

I was anything but the healthy globetrotter in Taipei. Great city, though Karthi and I ended up extremely unwell with the worst food poisoning I’ve ever experienced in my life. Hello four days in our hotel room. Once I get over that experience I promise to share some more positive stories about the city, including seeing a panda for the first time. Words can’t describe how excited I got, even if it was in a zoo.

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London was amazing. Freezing, but amazing. I was lucky enough to visit two of my close friends and just spend time hanging out. I worked a bit, helped them with some of their wedding plans and generally just relaxed. Oh and I shopped. Tourist highlight? Seeing Big Ben covered in snow. Very different from my last few trips to London which have all been in Summer. I also really enjoyed living the London lifestyle for a week – seeing how my friends live over there was definitely a tick for the expat lifestyle.

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Brussels is still a blur. I visited for a conference but packed in as much as I could. It was great to experience that city for a second time (though my first time in winter). There was more snow here too, which always makes me happy and I really enjoyed getting to know some of my colleagues better as well ūüôā Yes, I promise I indulged in Belgian chocolate – in moderation, of course. I’ll have to share some photos from that trip in another post.

Finally, Kuala Lumpur – a quick trip to visit Karthi’s mum which was really lovely. I felt so welcomed and I really enjoyed visiting a warm destination for the first time in a while. A lot has changed since my last visit to KL in 2006, and it was very different seeing it from a local’s perspective! The food was just phenomenal as well, which was mainly thanks to the amazing hospitality of Karthi’s mum and aunts.

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I will try and draft a fuller update on each of these trips in the coming weeks! In the meantime, I’ll be planning my next trip! Any recommendations for pacific destinations?

Cheers,
The Healthy Globetrotter

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Inside the Aya Sofia (Hagia Sofia/Aya Sofya)

The Aya Sofia (Hagia Sofia/Aya Sofya) is, in effect, a fascinating museum. Having served as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, a Catholic Cathedral and a Mosque (all before 1935) you could be forgiven for becoming a little confused upon entry.

This is part of its charm – it’s not often you get to see competing religons in the same space.

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia

I visited the Aya Sofia on my Dad’s insistence (and given how long the queue was when we decided to visit, we probably would have left if not for it).

Upon seeing the queue, we were approached by a guide offering to help us skip the queue and provide a guided tour – despite initial doubts, we readily accepted. The tour was great value. From memory it was around $20 each, though the cost to enter is $13 in any event and we literally avoided about 2 hours of queue time. Further, our guide was very knowledgeable and pointed out things we would have otherwise missed. If you can afford the extra spend, I’d definitely recommend finding a reputable guide.

Aya Sofia

Our guide began by taking us around the outside of the building, which (by comparison to the inside) is modest. It’s only upon entry that you realise what you’re witnessing. It is pretty spectacular.

But how spectacular? You see, there’s a bit of competition in Istanbul between the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque about which one is well, more beautiful. Both are gorgeous buildings in their own right, however history tells us that when Sultan Ahmed commissioned the Blue Mosque to be built (around 1000 years after the Aya Sofia), he intended to design it in a manner which would outshine the Aya Sofia. So, did he succeed?

To be honest, I don’t know. What I will say is that the Aya Sofia blew me away. From the detailed mosaics (many of which have backgrounds of gold), the marble, the size, the competing religious graphics… All were just ‘wow’. By comparison, the Blue Mosque is (relatively) moderate in its decoration. However, the two buildings are so completely different, it is almost unfair to compare them. Coupled with the fact that the Blue Mosque is still used for its intended purpose, they have a completely different ‘feel’ to each other. We spent most of our time walking aruond Aya Sofia with our mouths open in awe.

I loved both the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia. I can’t recommend visiting them highly enough. Though I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about whether Sultan Ahmed succeeded in his quest. You can compare by seeing my photos of the Blue Mosque here and my attempt to capture the Aya Sofia in this post.

Aya Sofia

So tell me, what are your thoughts on the two buildings? As you can see, we were pretty pleased with our visit!

The Healthy Globetrotter

Acropolis

I’m just going to say it…. I didn’t like Athens

It’s unfortunate but true, I didn’t like Athens. Turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I recently read Travel Letdowns and Why I Don’t Like Athens¬†and to be honest, it was a relief. It made me feel a little better about my experience. It always helps knowing you are¬†not alone, even if our travel experiences were vastly different.

Our arrival in Athens was literally a series of unfortunate events. Five of us were flying in from Istanbul to meet our friends, intending to take the bus the next day to Lefkas (where we had charted a yacht to sail nine of us around the Ionian Islands).

A text from two friends warned of us of an impending taxi strike and the need to take the¬†metro to our hotel. Not the worst problem in the world. However, given the heat and the fact there were five of us to spread the cost, we decided to see if we could organise a transfer to our hotel. Our friends on the ground organised this and upon our arrival in Athens we were (eventually) met by our transfer. The hotel owner’s son.

His late arrival didn’t matter, we were grateful… well, until we got to his car. An old Barina for five people (plus a driver) and luggage.¬†Let’s just say, we didn’t fit.¬† This was how we stayed for the entire journey to our hotel.

Our arrival into Athens… did I mention it was 40 degrees and around an hour drive?

Deciding to get on with things, we showered and went out to dinner… It was a great night, but I woke early the next morning¬†with food poisoning. Now, I’m¬†a pretty determined person and food poisoning be damned, if¬†I was going to see one thing in Athens, it would be the Parthenon on the Acropolis.

So off we set. Looking back at the photos now, it actually looks pretty special. Perhaps if¬†I hadn’t of been so sick,¬†I would have enjoyed it more. As it was however, I lasted about an hour before catching the metro back to our hotel (the taxi strike continued). I did however manage to take a few nice shots of my¬†visit.

Athens

The view!Athens

For a short trip, I took quite a few photos… perhaps trying to make it feel like I was enjoying myself more than I actually was. Here I am with my gorgeous friend Pippa and while¬†you may not be able to¬†tell,¬†I am seriously struggling here. Worst. Feeling. Ever.

After a bit of exploration (and I’m sorry to say a few detours to the bathroom)¬†we came to it, the pi√®ce de r√©sistance, the Parthenon on the Acropolis:

Acropolis

Parthenon on the Acropolis!

This was exciting! I was pretty stoked to be able to walk around the ruins and I’m definitely glad¬†I dragged myself out of bed for it. Make no mistake however, this was not a fun experience.

You’d think¬†things would have improved after this but unfortunately not. We had intended to leave Athens later that afternoon, but after receiving some incorrect information¬†regarding buses to Lefkas, we were stranded until the following day. With little choice in the matter (and probably a blessing for me with food poisoning) we booked another night in the worst hotel in the world (if you’re determined to avoid it, comment below and I’ll find the name) before setting off around 5:30 am the next morning to get bus tickets.

Why 5:30am? The¬†ticket counter¬†opened at 7am and we needed to get on a bus¬†that day. We couldn’t risk being late. However,¬†having to rely on public transport the journey to the bus stop¬†wasn’t exactly the easiest! (To give you an insight into our predicament, there had been quite serious debate about sleeping at the¬†bus shelter overnight. Let’s just say, we’re all glad that didn’t eventuate…)

After arriving at the bus stop early in the morning, we were happily rewarded with tickets and eventually left Athens later that day for a sailing trip starting in Lefkas (that was one of the best travel experiences of my life). For that reason alone, Athens was totally worth it.

However, I can’t help but be disappointed and feel¬†that we really missed Athens as a city.

I get that my circumstances were unique and I am willing to give it another chance should that opportunity ever come my way (and I hope it does). In the meantime however, I don’t exactly recommend it. So tell me, did you have a better experience in Athens? I’d love to hear about it!

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Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Listening to my Dad has almost always paid off (ok, so I’m sure it’s probably always paid off!)

His advice on Turkey was no exception.

My whole family has spent time in Turkey and while they’d raved about it for years, I decided to go because it was a convenient destination. Not exactly on a whim, but a well-located stop over on a planned trip to sail the Ionian Islands in Greece.

When I told my parents of my plans, they were excited. Not just a “great, you’re going on holiday” kind of excited (which they always are when it comes to travel), but a rare excited that I don’t think I’ve ever seen them match for another destination. At this point in the conversation, my Dad took the phone from my Mum and insisted “You must see the Blue Mosque. And Aya Sofia. Magnificent buildings. You will love them. Go”.

He was right, I loved them both.

After my horrendous journey to Istanbul, my first stop was the Blue Mosque. This alone made up for everything that had occurred in the preceding five or six hours.

Technically named the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Sultanahmet Capii), those who haven’t visited often wonder why it’s called the Blue Mosque, it’s not exactly blue from the outside. However, once you’re inside you quickly realise why: It is simply the number of blue tiles on the interior. That said, I must admit I do think the white/grey exterior seems to take on a blue tinge in certain lights, though perhaps that’s just me!

Blue Mosque

Outside the Blue Mosque

As the story goes, Sultan Ahmed (I) commissioned a mosque to be built, reportedly designed to intentionally outshine the Aya Sofia (deserving of a post in its own right so I won’t go into detail here). He was only 19 at the time and it took seven years to build, though sadly he died just one year after completion at 27.

Whether or not the story about his intent is entirely true, it is fair to say the mosque has a big impact on the city of Istanbul. It was the first thing I saw on my way into Istanbul, and come to think of it, probably the last.

Here’s a little evidence of why it’s so spectacular!

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

I went snap happy in here. Couldn’t put my camera down kind of crazy. That’s not altogether uncommon for me, but it was pretty phenomenal.

Blue Mosque Blue Tiles

Blue Mosque with blue tiles

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

A tourist mecca, this place is popular. Amazingly enough however, it’s still actively used as a mosque. Dress respectfully or you’ll be forced to pay to borrow scarves or other clothes (though given the heat when we visited, this was well worth it for us).

While it was certainly busy when we were there, it wasn’t as busy as we were expecting. This was because a group prayer session was scheduled shortly after our visit and we were asked to leave before it commenced (also be mindful of the ezan – the call to prayer – which occurs, as I understand it, at slightly different times each day). While this meant we had less time inside, it did allow us to have a few moments shared with far fewer people than normal, definitely something to consider if you’re planning a visit.

Besides, if we hadn’t been kicked out (read: asked politely to vacate), we may never have left. It’s pretty spectacular. A must visit on any trip to Istanbul.

Have you visited the Blue Mosque? Do you think it outshines Aya Sofia as Sultan Ahmed wished? I’ll let you know my thoughts when I share my photos of Aya Sofia

Until then,
The Healthy Globetrotter.

The kindness of strangers: Istanbul

Not long ago, I was in Turkey and I loved it. However, having just seen Taken 2, I feel like a few of the Istanbul locals may have gotten a bit of a bad rap.* But here’s the thing: two of the kindest strangers I’ve ever met call Istanbul home.

Beautiful Istanbul… despite the start to my adventure I loved it here.

I’ve previously alluded to the fact that my arrival in¬†Istanbul didn’t quite go as planned. It was only with the help of two strangers that I arrived at my eventual destination and able to commence what was an absolutely amazing trip.

Upon arrival, I caught a taxi from the airport to meet my friends at our well located apartment near the (Sultanahmet) Blue Mosque. My driver only spoke Turkish, but nodded when I showed him my destination and drove off in the direction of the city. After around 10 or 20 minutes, my driver made a call, spoke briefly to his friend and then handed his phone to me. Confused, I accepted it and raised it to my ear.

The friend explained in English what my driver couldn’t: There had been a major accident on the bridge into Istanbul from the airport, meaning that if we took a taxi the whole way to my apartment, I may be in the taxi for several hours (which would also cost me several hundred dollars). Instead, my driver wanted to recommend I take the ferry, saving me considerable money and time. It might not seem like much, but as an English speaking tourist in a foreign country travelling alone, I was a prime target to be taken advantage of. The driver could have just kept going and left me with the fare and hours wasted. He chose not to and I thank him for that.

Upon arrival at the ferry terminal, my driver didn’t just dump me at the curb. He took me all the way to the terminal carrying my backpack, showing me where to go and how to buy a ticket. As an added bonus, there were some fairly fabulous views on the ferry.

A nice surprise on my way into Istanbul

Views from my unexpected ferry ride!

The ferry ride went well and upon reaching the other side there were numerous taxis lined up to take me to my apartment. So the problem? No one would take me.

I asked almost 20 drivers to take me to my apartment. The responses I received ranged from “too close” to “I don’t know it”. I even offered to pay extra money on top of the fare to those that stated my destination was too close, but to no avail. All of them pointed me in the right direction – up a¬†steep hill. I wasn’t keen but as I had no choice, off I set:

  • Without a map;
  • In 35 degree celsius weather;
  • With 15 kilograms on my back; and
  • Wearing clothes suitable for a Copenhagen summer and an overnight flight (read: jeans and a jumper).

I asked for help along the way, but it was fruitless. However, after approximately 45 minutes of walking around looking for my street, I saw a man standing outside a hotel. He was young and smiled at me as I approached. He probably thought I was a guest at his new hotel; I wasn’t. But it didn’t matter, he treated me like one.¬†

Where I found my saviour!… Image via:¬†http://www.ayasultanhotel.com/en/galeri.html#

By this stage, it is fair to say that I was in a bit of state. Upon explaining my predicament, the man told me that while he didn’t know where my apartment was, we could use the hotel’s computer (and google maps) to find it. Inside the hotel, he sat me down (in air-conditioning: Best. Ever.) and asked someone to bring me some tea. He then looked up my apartment and gave me instructions to give my friend who he insisted come and collect me (thank you, Anurag). Beyond nice and this kind stranger¬†wouldn’t even accept a tip.¬†

Picture me, sitting exactly where this photo is taken from. Looking like a complete exhausted mess. Image via: http://www.ayasultanhotel.com/en/galeri.html#

The cynic in you might think that my cab driver just had somewhere better to be and that my friend from the hotel just wanted a good review on trip advisor, but I choose to believe in the good in people. Yes, I could have been better organised, prepared for the weather and the walk, but the kindness of strangers saved me on this trip (and that ridiculous walk totally counted as my exercise for the day). I am so grateful for that!

We all need to be cautious when travelling, but sometimes you’ve got to have a little faith too. ¬†Who are the nicest strangers you’ve met when travelling?

The Healthy Globetrotter

P.s. In case you’re wondering: Time taken from my flight landing until my arrival at the apartment? Over five hours.¬† Without water. On zero sleep. Yup, it was an ordeal. The take away? It didn’t ruin my trip. Remains up there with the best of them.

*Ok, so obviously the Albanians got a worse rap than the few Istanbul locals who were helping the Albanians, but i’m yet to travel to Albania. When I do visit, i’m sure i’ll meet some kind strangers there too and i’ll be sure to tell you all about it.¬†

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Mallorca

I went to Mallorca for one reason and one reason only. I was desperate for warmth. Having spent two lovely months in Sweden, late September seemed a little too early for winter to set in so my friend Sara and I decided to take advantage of a last-minute and unforeseen break in our class schedules.

We didn’t spend long planning our trip. Destinations were based on budget and Mallorca seemed as good a place as any to stop between Berlin, Germany and Porto, Portugal.¬†We weren’t disappointed.

It was 28 degrees (celsius) on arrival. I would post a picture of the temperature sign in the capital, Palma, but I was so excited by the weather that I shook my camera and the photo turned out all blurry.  It may have been overcast but it certainly was warm. And it was amazing.

Sunset!

Most people know Mallorca as a party island. I came to know it as a relatively quiet little place (at least it was when I was there) with beautiful sunsets, gorgeous laneways and one very scary train ride that turned out fantastically well.

Palma as a city is reasonably small. There is some lovely architecture (including the Royal Palace of La Almudaina and Santa Eulalia church) and it is a beautiful city to explore on foot.

Royal Palace of La Almudaina

Santa Eulalia church

While Mallorca may have been the first (and hopefully only!) place I’ve ever been conned (a story for another day)¬†we came across lovely people everywhere we went.¬†I highly recommend getting out and about away from the beach and seeing some of the beautiful streets this place has to offer:

After a day or two exploring the city, we heard about a fabulous train ride we could take to Soller in the North West. Not knowing what to expect, we booked our tickets (setting us back around 20 Euro) and went to take our seats on the train…. except there weren’t any. Nor was there any real standing room, or at least not any standing room that would be pleasant for an hour’s journey.

Beginning to worry, we went out the carriage door in an attempt to move between the carriages. Seeing the next carriage was just as full, we stayed put. Sort of stuck in the small gated area between the carriages. Most definitely outside the train. This was our view:

Pretty cramped down here!!

The train goes through 13 tunnels which are pitch black.¬†Needless to say, it started out a little scary. But here’s the thing: Once we got used to it, we realised how lucky we were. Short of getting to the station in Palma very early in the morning and securing a window seat, this was a great way to travel.¬†Unlike those squished inside the carriages, we got to see the views of the¬†Tramuntana mountains and once we got over the fear, had an excellent time doing it as well.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Soller is a gorgeous port that makes for an excellent day trip.

However, if i were to do it again, there are perhaps a few things that I’d do differently. Want to make the journey from Palma to Soller? Here are my tips to make your journey a little easier:

1. Get to the train station early. The queue for tickets is long and just when you think you’re all sorted there’s the fight for seats on the train. If you’re at the front of the queue, there’s no issue. Judging from my experience I’d expect you need to be there at least an hour or two in advance. However, if you do manage to get a seat, be prepared for the dilemma of seeing those in need without a seat. ¬†I don’t envy that position.

2. Failing your early arrival, get used to the idea of sitting (if you’re small) or standing outside. Once you get over the fear, it is well worth it for the space and the view.

3. Check the return timetable. There are plenty of trains from Palma to Soller. However, there are very few on the way back (from memory around 2:30 and 6pm in the afternoon). We got stuck on a bank holiday and ended up waiting 4 hours for a bus in the middle of nowhere. Learn from my mistake.

Mallorca is lovely destination particularly for those wanting to escape the winter blues! Definitely experience Palma and Soller on foot and once you’ve exhausted yourself, don’t forget to head to the beach for a bit of rest and relaxation!

Have you caught the train from Palma to Soller? What was your experience?

The Healthy Globetrotter

The √Öland Islands

A little while ago now, I had a trip to the Åland Islands and it turned out to be one of the best in my life.  I would go back in a heartbeat. Not just because it is a pretty special place, but because I fulfilled a lifelong dream there as well.

Åland is situated between Sweden and Finland and is an autonomous state that technically forms part of Swedish speaking Finland (described as an autonomous and monolingual Swedish region of Finland with its own flag). Confused yet? You can read more about Åland here.

Populated with around 27,500 people, there is the main town of Mariehamn which while I’m¬†sure is lovely to visit, we¬†didn’t spend much time there. Instead, we took¬†our¬†ferry directly from Stockholm¬†to another part of the main island (there are 6500 of them!)¬†and found ourselves a little cabin less than 50 metres from the water.

Our cabin – it may not look like much but it had everything we needed.

Apparently there are about 700 cottages to hire on the main island so you can choose a relatively basic one like we did or go all out for the luxury model. Either way, you have options.

Our location was perfect for a little get away. We were right on the water and looked out to this:

Taken virtually out the front of our cabin

It was a pretty special location and the sunsets were amazing:

Most definitely amazing.

During the day, we spent quite a bit of time walking around the main¬†island. It is a great place to discover on foot with a number of nature trails and what are called “long distance footpaths”. Either way, this is definitely one of the best ways to see the main island.

Another great way to see the island is by boat. You can hire kayaks and row boats (we opted for the latter) and I’m sure there are various options across different parts of the island. Another way to get in some great exercise and enjoy the phenomenal views all around.

This is me, struggling to row.

I didn’t think the row-boat would be particularly difficult, but turns out, I’m not terribly coordinated. We didn’t get very far but it was lovely to look at the island from the water.

There were a number of smaller cafes on the island which we visited and there were also other places to eat out (you can find more information here). However, we visited the supermarket at the ferry terminal and decided to cook our own dinner and eat on the beach.

Turns out, that was one of the best decisions of our lives.

Earlier that week, there had been a lot of solar activity, and apparently what is a called a¬†solar storm. Now, I’m no expert, but the benefit of this for us was that it made the Northern Lights visible as far south as √Öland.

I had been wanting to see the Northern Lights since I had first heard about them when I was about ten or eleven. While the lights weren’t particularly strong this night, it was pretty special. Oh and did¬†I mention it was my birthday? Best. Present. Ever.

Here’s how it happened: We were sitting on the beach with our little camp fire, staring into the flames and had been¬†talking for hours. Luckily one of our friends, Kirsten, received a phone call causing her to look away from the flames and to the sky while she was speaking. It was at this moment, when Kirsten said seven words that changed my life: “Holy **** girls, is that the Northern Lights?” To think we could have missed them.

Unfortunately at that time¬†I didn’t have the type of camera strong enough to capture the lights to do them justice, but it didn’t matter. The experience was amazing all the same. So if you’re somewhere the lights might appear, remember to look up once in a while, you never know what you might miss.

What pleasant surprises have you had when travelling?

The Healthy Globetrotter

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