The journey Through Java: Yogyakarta

Cities, Experiences, South East Asia, travel

One of my favourite parts of travelling is turning up to a new city that you know next to nothing about. Sometimes these unknown cities prove to be underwhelming, a brief pitstop in your journey that comes and goes with little impact. Some however, turn out to be perfect surprises. These places are perhaps quieter than big tourist destinations, with a more ‘untouched’ quality. Yogyakarta was our first pleasant surprise.

The main reason we visited was for the famous temples. The city is surrounded by breath-taking religious relics. The to the North you have Prambanan (9th-century Hindu temple) and Borobudur (9th-century Mahayana Buddhist temple) We spent a day exploring Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia and the whole place was truly amazing. You know the setting from the Jungle Book, where King Louie lives, ruling over his monkey empire from the relics of an ancient temple? Singing that iconic tune? Well that’s the closest reference point I have for this impressive site. And I challenge anyone to visit Pranbanan temple and not come out humming ‘ooby doo, I wanna be like you-oo-oooo…”

 

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As well as the main temple, it’s definitely worth having a wander around the rest of the historic site. Other, smaller, temples such as Sewu will also take your breath away and be far less rammed with tourists and selfie sticks.

After taking in these historic wonders, we decided to spend an unplanned day exploring the city centre. One of the wonderful things about Yogyakarta was how friendly all the locals were. Many seemed eager to share a bit of the city’s culture with us: what shows were going on, where the best places to visit were and when to go, and a bit about the local art forms, particularly Batik.

At one point we found ourselves in a small Batik gallery above a shop on Malioboro street (the bright and bustling shopping district  of the city). The owner of the gallery was lovely, offering us a free cup of tea and talking us through the fascinating process of Batik printing. Tourist trap or not, it was interesting to learn about this custom and see the creation of some beautiful batik prints first hand. Also, the general push to promote local artists was so nice to see.

After our batik lesson we continued with our sightseeing mission, exploring Yogyakarta’s other attractions such as the Taman Sari Water Palace and the bright bohemian neighbourhood surrounding it. The street art, murals and brightly painted houses that characterised this area turned it into an Instagram-able gem- definitely worth a wander!

After a days’ worth of city sightseeing we were desperately in need of nourishment (nourishment… coffee… whatever you want to call it) and Yogyakarta did not let us down on this front. After visiting the Water Palace we called in at a small, almost hidden café which specialised in the famous Luwak coffee.

If you haven’t heard of it before here’s a bit about the odorous origin of luwak coffee: Once the coffee beans have grown in a plantation, small furry creatures called civet cats come along, gobble them up, and right on cue, poop them back out. The poop is then harvested and processed to make the infamous brew. Pretty gross right? But people spend a LOT of money on this shit (pun completely intended). A cup of Luwak coffee can fetch up to $50 and you could even fork out $100 for a bag. Something about the fermentation process going on in these coffee cats makes the coffee highly desirable and, to be fair, pretty tasty. We got to try this rare treat and even had the pleasure of meeting one of the plantation’s civet cats in person. She was called Louise and was very friendly.

Other than luwak coffee, there are loads of lovely little places to grab a refreshment on Yogyakarta. If you’re on a strict budget there is also no need to worry; we had a delicious meal at a quaint veggie café called Fortunate Coffee and it cost about a fiver in all for both of us. The food was just what we needed, and the staff were friendly, I would strongly recommend for anyone after some budget veggie grub!

Yogyakarta is a small city, and it doesn’t take too long to explore. Saying this, the region is surrounded by natural beauty and plenty of opportunities for day trips: caving, mountain climbing, and sand boarding to name a few. If you’re ever in Java, it is not an area to be missed!

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The Journey Through Java: Jakarta

Cities, Journeys, South East Asia, travel

If you ever want to experience culture shock, without travelling particularly far, fly from Singapore to Jakarta. At a first impression, the two cities seem to be complete opposites. Everything clinical and hyper-organised about Singapore was suddenly whipped away from beneath our feet. The comfortable, air conditioned, polite world we’d just come from now felt like another planet.

After we managed to figure out which cramped bus was headed for the city centre, faffed around for a while at the train station-come-bus-interchange, sweated our way to the bus stop nearest our hostel, our haven was finally in sight. There was just one more challenge to face: crossing the road. Honestly, I think you should get some kind of recognition (perhaps a certificate?) for every road you manage to successfully navigate in Jakarta: the roads are CHAOS.

Ryan and I, two polite and nervous Brits, stared across at our would-be home for the next two nights. The Wonderloft hostel is painted bright yellow and looks incredibly inviting after you’ve trekked across the busy city with a backpack. But for a minute there, I didn’t think we’d actually manage to get to the front door. Anyway, this crossing the road saga probably isn’t the insightful and informative travel info you tuned in for… Although you’ll be happy to know we made it in the end. I never quite mastered the art of confidently walking into traffic, one authoritative hand outstretched in a ‘stop’ motion, but Ryan took it in his stride (perhaps the traffic stopping power went to his head?)

Other than the road crossing drama, our few days in Jakarta went pretty smoothly. It is a big city and could be given much more time for a thorough exploration, but with the short time we had, we mainly stayed around the old town area. Fatahillah Square turned out to be a great place to start. Flanked by museums on all sides you have an instant selection of arts and culture to choose from. I somehow got my way and managed to drag Ryan to the Wayang puppet museum (instead of the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics or the Jakarta History Museum) which was rich in Indonesian culture, but super creepy.

The puppets were all intricately decorated and the craftsmanship behind each style was amazing. Each piece was initially made as part of a Wayang performance, in which the puppets would be used to tell traditional folk stories. As impressive as the puppets were, and as much as we appreciated the artwork, wandering through those dimly lit rooms full of menacing looking characters without any other humans in sight proved enough to give anyone the creeps. Getting back into the scorching daylight and managing (quite skilfully) to avoid what was shaping up to be a perfect slasher film premise came as a relief.

As we’d already seen in Singapore, Jakarta’s colonial history was difficult to avoid. We ate at cafe Batavia which had a balcony overlooking the old town square and the whole vibe of the place, from the architecture to the framed black and white pictures of British royals, was heavily colonial. It seemed strange in relation to the rest of the bustling city.

Jakarta is a shockingly ‘real’ city, compared with the metropolitan dreamland that is Singapore. It definitely grounded us back in reality. The hectic life there was so interesting to be a part of, even in the brief whirlwind of a couple of days. Creepy puppets and death defying road crossings may not be the regular tourist itinerary, but I enjoyed Indonesia’s fast-paced capital nonetheless!

What I’m reading in Singapore: Crazy Rich Asians

Book Club, Cities, South East Asia

Wherever I go, I want to make sure I’ve got a book to accompany me. Seeing the world from the novel come to life around you as you explore a new city is such a perfect way to travel; and as an English literature graduate, my natural way to learn. Admittedly, I wanted to start this trip with something pretty light. Something I could easily get into during the THIRTEEN HOUR flight. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan certainly did the job.

At times this book was deeply satirical (I hope) and at times completely ridiculous. The characters were pretty standard, fairly 2-dimensional yet humorous, with gossip and the social stratosphere always at the forefront of their minds. As I read, I found myself far more invested in the descriptions of the city- the food, the local haunts, the different districts- than in the interweaving plot lines.

Don’t get me wrong, the stories were enjoyable. At the centre of the narrative there was a Romeo and Juliet-esk melodrama. A VERY rich young man falls in love with a (wait for it) SLIGHTLY LESS rich woman. I know, shock horror. I imagine you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to hear how that one will unfold, but I’m afraid you’ll have to go out and buy the book yourself.

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I think that if I hadn’t been using this book half as a travel guide (ok fine, most of the places weren’t exactly in my backpackers’ budget but they did mention the occasional Hawker centre…) then I might have grown tired of the laborious lists. Ok Kevin, you know Singapore very well, we get it. For my purposes though, this narrative style worked perfectly. All this name dropping of specific streets, districts and eateries heightened my anticipation to find them all in real life. This detail was also great for giving a poor tourist like me little imaginary glimpses into the interiors of the super flashy buildings that I could merely gaze at from the outside. Reading about rich kids Nick and Rachel flirting over Singapore Slings, toes dipped in the infinity pool on the rooftop garden of Sands Skypark, was BASICALLY as good as the real thing, right?! Probably…

Some of the description in the novel really did pin-down the metropolis though. When new-girl-on-the-block Rachel first catches sight of the city the view that greets her will be familiar for anyone who’s visited:

“The view she could glimpse from the plain did not resemble some romantic terrain swathed in midst- rather, it was a dense metropolis of skyscrapers glittering in the evening sky, and from six thousand feet Rachel could already feel the pulsating energy that was one of the world’s financial powerhouses”

This was spot on. You can feel the power of Singapore as soon as you catch a glimpse of that crazy cityscape. It is certainly no surprise that it has become a playground for the rich.

For now however, I’m going to have to accept that this crazy rich lifestyle will remain the stuff of novels. Time to bring by backpacking head down from the clouds and pick up my next book!

The Five Travellers You Become in Singapore

Cities, Experiences, Journeys, Photography, South East Asia, travel, Uncategorized
  1. The Culture Vulture

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One of the things you’d be blind not to notice while wandering the streets of Singapore is the crazy mix of cultures; East meets west; big business meets small village-like streets; Chinatown meets Little India. The city is the O.G melting pot- belonging to no one and therefore everyone.

The transport system is fantastic in the city, so during our time there we took to metro everywhere. This meant that every time we wandered back up from the air-conditioned underground we were hit in the face with the sudden humidity and a completely new cultural backdrop to wherever we were last.

Chinatown is a fantastic example of this- if you’re there definitely check it out. The town sprawls out in every direction, centred around the spectacularly ornate Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The architectural style of the traditional shop fronts spans hundreds of years and this gives you an instant insight into the history of the Chinese community in Singapore. Be sure to check out this area as the sun goes down; the hanging lanterns that flood the streets into a warm light every evening give Chinatown a wonderful glow. The markets and the food here (more on that later) are worth the trip alone.

Little India and Arab Street showcase yet more cultural diversity. The brightly coloured houses and street art that brings Little India to life make wandering these streets a cultural experience in itself. The diverse places of worship, often side by side, seem to compete with their bright decoration but stand in harmony otherwise. For food, art, and architecture from all over the world, within walking distance, definitely choose Singapore.

  1. The Foodie

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Singapore serves up a crazy array of snacks. From the traditional dishes to the millennial oddities you’re pretty much guaranteed to try something that you’ve never sampled anywhere else.

The best place to start is at one of Singapore’s many Hawkers. The Hawker centres are collections of small food vendors and cafes based around a large seating area. The idea is that you sample a little bit from a few places and make your own mix-and match banquet. We went to the Newton Hawker and tried some great dishes accompanied by soursop juice- super refreshing!

Chilli crab is the top traditional dish- we saw it served all over the city. A full crab served up with a hot sauce, I wouldn’t even know where to start with that dish. Ryan and I are both vegetarians however, and although we were tempted by Singapore’s wide array of sea food specialties, we had to look a bit further for veggie grub.

Chinatown came to our rescue. Amongst the collection of authentic street food trucks which pepper the narrow streets, there was a vegan stall (‘Hello Baby’) which served delicious alternatives to the classic dishes. We tried the vegan chilli crab which was made up from pulled mushrooms and the ionic chilli sauce.

Perhaps my favourite food venture in Singapore was, admittedly, a little less traditional. Two words: Selfie coffee. It literally is just that, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Tucked away down one of the tiny lanes near Arab Street, lit up by eclectic street art, we found Selfie Coffee. When you order, you take your selfie and wait as it is seemingly magically transferred on to the top of your latte. Super heavy on the cream front and an odd experience all round, but I would definitely snap up (ey…) this rare opportunity to drink your own face.

  1. The History Buff

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There are many things that gives Singapore a uniqueness today, but its singularity throughout history is also really fascinating. As I’ve mentioned, you can see ongoing overlapping of cultures as you walk around the city and the reason for this lies in Singapore’s dynamic history.

As we discovered at the National History Museum, there is little known of the ‘original’ residents of Singapore. Located at the tip of the Malay peninsula, the city has always been a vital point for trade in Southeast Asia. After this trade route was monopolised by the Dutch (up until 1819), the British made their mark. Endeavours such as the East India company relied on Singapore’s strategic position and it was therefore a strong part of the British colony.

Even before these colonial days, Singapore was primarily used as a trade port. This led to Chinese merchants settling in particular areas and a specific cultural history known as ‘Peranakan’ has evolved from there. There is a Peranakan museum for anyone who wants to get a bit more niche after getting an overall insight at the National History museum.

If you’re interested in this aspect of Singaporean history, it is also worth taking a stroll down Telok Ayer Street. Tucked away right next to the business district this street seems to take you back in time. It was where the first Chinese merchants settled, and it has retained its charm and character ever since. It is also a great place to stop for a coffee and marvel at the mad cultural diversity of the whole district.

  1. The Eco Warrior

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We’ve seen planet Earth II, so we all know that Singapore is making a HUGE push to become a greener city. From a mass clean of the rivers (which started in 1977 under the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) to Gardens by the Bay, Singapore has gradually been encouraging wildlife to return to the city and doing its part to build a more sustainable future.

Within the crazy complex which is Gardens by the Bay, the Supertree Grove is the real show stopper. You’ll have seen these before; insane towering structures reaching up to 50 metres tall, flowers and greenery crawling up their sides, illuminated by mesmerising pink and purple lights. The trees and their surrounding greenery have become a haven for insects and birds that may otherwise not prosper in the city environment.

If we needed any proof of the insect activity in the Supertree Grove we certainly got it. As dusk fell and the scent of the flowers grew more pungent the insects met with their nemesis: SO MANY BATS. The bats were not afraid of humans either, weaving and winding their ways through the crowd (some less successfully than others, one poor girl took a bat straight to the face), trying to catch as many insects as possible. It was pretty crazy to see natures food chain in action on such a concentrated scale. I can appreciate this phenomenon now, but of course at the time I was shitting myself.

At the other side of Gardens by the Bay you can explore the Flower Dome and the Cloud Dome. Within these fascinating structures (massive greenhouses in the shape of, well, domes) you’ll catch glimpses of plants that you’d struggle to come across anywhere else in the world. Housing many endangered botanical species, the domes play such an important part for conservation, a massively important cause.

  1. The Art Critic

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The final character you will find yourself slipping into while roaming this vibrant city is the art critic. With so many places to view so many kinds of art, Singapore is any art lovers dream.

The art venues around the city are arguably as enticing as the art itself. The National Gallery is located in what used to be Singapore’s court house and is surrounded by impressive stately buildings.

You can find a great trove of modern art within the Gillman barracks complex, with each small building showcasing a different artist. I personally loved this set up, jumping from place to place rather than spending all day traipsing around one huge building.

For something a little different, check out the ArtScience Museum. When we went there was a ‘When Science Meets Art’ exhibition on which served up some incredible interactive visuals. Again, the building itself is fascinating; located at Marina Bay Sands you can take in a breath-taking view of the cityscape after playing around with the glowing digital waterfalls that the Science Museum exhibits.

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So whatever kind of traveller you are, whatever tickles your fancy, Singapore is pretty much guaranteed to take your breath away. With so much to learn, see, taste and try, I’m sure that you’ll become obsessed with this diverse city!

A City Guide to Surreal Singapore

Cities, Experiences, Journeys, Photography, South East Asia

Utopian is the first impression I had of Singapore, or at least one version of utopia (which is probably reserved for the rich and famous). The city is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Jungle like parks and hike trails break up the towering metropolis. I think it is this juxtaposition between nature and man-made dominance that makes this place feel so unique. Every snap we take on the camera looks peculiar and collage-like, as if someone has just plastered a cut out forest in front of some avantgarde skyscrapers- weird. Despite its strangeness it is quite spectacular, clean and clinical yet still rich in life and culture (when you know where to look).

Gillman barracks was today’s gem. After a short search in the sweltering heat we stumbled across the first of many small buildings (former army barracks), all of which housed a small showcase of modern art. There was something brilliantly “middle finger up to the man” about the very concept of these liberal art pieces being celebrated in an ex-military complex. We learnt a lot about the history of conceptual art in Singapore, which was heavily criticised for its liberalism, leading to many artists’ incarceration during the 1990s.

The photography festival that is currently taking place was another highlight. Nguan’s pastel depictions of the Singaporean everyday made me all the more excited to go and explore each obscure city corner for myself.

 

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After the barracks we began to wander up the forest trail, up to Henderson Waves and mount Faber. When I talk about how the city interacts with nature, THIS is what I mean. The elevated paths lift you to tree level and if it wasn’t for the disconcerting glimpses of tower blocks between the leaves you might believe you really are in a jungle. The trail was manageable and paid off with the stunning cityscape views, but I would be hesitant to attempt it in the humid midday heat; an evening stroll taking in the sunset and finishing looking over the twinkling lights of the harbour suited us perfectly.

Ok, even I’m surprised I’ve got this far without talking about one of Singapore’s most iconic attractions: Gardens by the Bay. We visited these insane gardens on our first full day here. Weighed down with the confusion of jet-lag and not yet adjusted to the intense heat (apparently actually drinking water helps this…pro tip) we followed the path of escalators through a fancy mall (The Shoppes) with anticipation at an all-time high. Ryan described the journey into the gardens as “what it would probably be like to enter Jurassic Park” and that’s about as accurately as I could describe it.

 

 

When we finally saw them, we realised that not even David Attenborough in planet Earth 2 had done these towering beauties justice. I can easily say that the Supertree Grove is unlike anything I have ever seen before; absolutely mental. After a walk around the flower dome and the cloud dome (I challenge anyone not to be enticed by that title), we took to the treetops to experience the Skywalk. Seeing the colossal man-made trees up close was incredible, and the view of the city was second to none. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder we found ourselves relaxing on the grass and watching the epic light show. On the night we went the theme was “a night at the musicals”. Honestly, if “seeing 22 meter high supertrees light up majestically in tune to The Phantom of the Opera“ isn’t already on your bucket list then it should be.

We both watched the show in awe. Completely cheesy and simply ridiculous, we still fell for the theatrics and we fell hard. Both Ryan and I watched in stoic silence, afterwards humbly confessing that we MAY OR MAY NOT have shed a single tear at the crescendo of “I dreamed a dream”. Neither of us have even watched Les Mis… Those trees had got us good.

Stay tuned for more Singapore travel tips coming your way soon…

On the road again: Southeast Asia

Experiences, Introductions, Journeys, South East Asia

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After saving up for the past year (working an actual job, oh my) I’m off on adventures again, and plan to share all the best bits! I’ll probably also share the strangest bits, tastiest bits, most picturesque bits and, should they happen, the most challenging bits.

 

At the beginning of October my boyfriend Ryan and I flew from London to Singapore, on an insanely cheap flight by the way- check out Norwegian air if you’re on a budget. 13 hours later we stepped out into the super fancy Changi airport (I’ve never been so hyped for smooth airport security and plant based interior design), and then into the CRAZY HUMID city streets.

 

Before we arrived at our lovely Air BnB, in the Choa Chu Kang area, I had already seen the biggest wasp in existence (chronic fear of buzzy things over here) and had serious fears that the humidity would be the end of me, badly chosen skinny jeans and all.

 

But we got there and- spoiler alert- I did not die. So, we begin another adventure… watch this space for twists, turns, oversharing and lots of chatting on about food.

 

Oh also, I’ve made it my mission to incorporate a reading diary/book review section to the blog. I’m going to try and read a book about each place I’m in, or a book by an author from each country. So expect a bit of a mishmash of travel stories, local tips and book reviews- these are a few of my favourite things!

 

Italian adventures

Cities

 

 

I’ve only been back in Venice for a little over a month but my flatmate (and pal) Rachel, and I are already conquering Italy one weekend at a time. It’s a luxurious life being able to easily jet (or more likely ‘flixbus’) off to a new, beautiful city every weekend and we’re taking full advantage! Since returning to Italy via a round-about European route (don’t worry; more on that adventure later) we have explored our way away from the lagoon for exhibitions in Vicenza, coffee and cake in Treviso, a chocolate festival in Ferrara, and most recently, caving in Trieste. We may have been coined as ‘travel fiends’, who are completely neglecting any notion of uni work, but it’s a known fact that a study abroad year isn’t actually for studying.

 

In addition to these recent ventures, we have also explored Rome, Florence, Padua, Verona and Bologna during our time living in Italy. I’m sure, by now, it’s becoming easy to see why I chose to spend this year in this particular country, with it’s endless supply of beautiful unique cities. We haven’t even started on the south yet so there’s no running out of adventure locations this year. The places I’ve seen so far have all had their own individual charm and whenever I’m asked the daunting question: which is your favourite place so far?? I honestly can’t come up with a consistent and honest answer. The only way I’d be able to just a solid favourite is if I were able to take a little feature from every Italian city I’ve travelled to and create some kind of magical Italian dream. So here you go, here is my answer, my concocted recipe for my dream Italian city:

 

  1. Bologna’s student life:

It’s obvious from the second you arrive, Bologna is a student city. It’s grand university buildings are a main feature and the vibes of social drinking, activism and beautiful bearded Italian men speak for the vibrant student population of the town.

 

  1. Rome’s history:

Ok, so this statement isn’t exactly the most original but it can’t be argued. Try and go to Rome without taking in some incredible history. Just give it a go, you’d have to walk around with your eyes closed, and even then you’d probably trip over some ancient ruins and fall head first in to the Trevi Fountain.

 

  1. Florence’s Duomo:

Florence’s architecture and cityscapes are what makes it so notoriously breathtaking. Literally: When we visited I had failed to source a map OR any knowledge of the city so we were wondering around pretty much clueless (amateur hour I know), when we turned an unsuspecting corner in to an open square dominated by the enormous Duomo we were quite literally ore struck by it. Easily up there with my favourite buildings in Italy.

 

  1. Trieste’s location:

Trieste was my most recent adventure (only arrived back to Venice from there this morning) and it is the location of this city that characterised it for me. The fact that it’s on the border and was originally a part of Slovenia gives it a different atmosphere, still Italian but with refreshing influences of Slovenia and Austria with it’s coffee shop culture and more varied cuisine. On top of all that its coast is pretty beautiful. Our hostel room looked out over the ocean and the views of the sun set were magical.

 

  1. Ferrara’s chocolate:

This one is pretty self explanatory. I’m sure I don’t need to go into too much detail about why I liked the chocolate and art festival which took place in Ferrara when we visited. Featuring so many different sweet-treat related market stalls, all of which gave out free tasters of the tastiest Italian chocolate imaginable. Can’t argue with that!

 

  1. Treviso, Vicenza and Padua’s understated charm:

The nearest cities to Venice, beautiful, but far more understated and refreshingly normal after the crazy world of the lagoon. They are all understated and liveable. Places to go to relax away from the crowds, for a coffee in one of their cute tea rooms or an exhibition. We were surprised by the Escher exhibition at Treviso last time we visited, an amazing collection to stumble across in the small but cute town.

 

  1. Verona’s romance:

An obvious choice, seeing as this city is most famous as the setting for Romeo and Juliet, but Verona really is a romantic place. It was one of the first places I visited from Venice and we went on such a perfect sunny day, we saw Juliet’s balcony and the Roman amphitheatre, and it really wasn’t difficult to fall in love with the city.

 

So there you go, Delilah’s top Italian picks so far. With hopefully many more to come! I’m already looking forward to Napoli’s Pizza, Milan’s glamour and Cicely’s beaches, but I’ll keep you updates with all that and any other adventures on the horizon!

Going Native in Venice

Lifestyle

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After moving to a new city, or even spending a certain amount of time there, we begin to resist the label of ‘tourist’. We travel and explore but we forever wish to be perceived as one of the locals, someone with the know-how, who knows places off the beaten track and who has wisdom enough to avoid the ‘tourist traps’. Of course, whether we call ourselves travellers, adventurers,backpackers or tourists we cannot deny that we are new here, slightly disorientated and most likely jet-lagged and a bit lost (even when we insist that the hostel we are searching for is meant to be RIGHT HERE).

 

Since I have moved from the North-East of England to Northern Italy, I have found my self in this limbo; not quite a tourist but still a little clueless to the true ways of the locals, the places to be and the hidden culture of Venezia. As a student currently studying in Venice I have neither the funds or the desire to act as a tourist for my entire time here so I’m very much ready to start discovering the hidden gems of this unique city, from where to get the best Spritz and Apéritif in Italy to the knowledge of hidden little art spaces and lesser known cultural spots. However the thirst for this knowledge does not only apply to me, a student living here for a year, but any traveller whether here for a weekend break or as part of an Italian tour is likely to be eager to ‘go native’ and live the true Venetian life the way the locals do.

 

Venice has the (not necessarily founded) reputation of being one of the most expensive cities in Italy. Before I left England people seemed to love warning me about this; travel costs, food prices, pretty much everything was deemed too pricey for a stingy student traveller. My time here so far however has not lived up to this harsh reputation, turns out you just need to know where to look. Yes, of course if you decide to go out for a fancy evening meal in one of the flashy restaurants next to the Basilica in Piazza Santa Marco your pockets might be a bit strained (although I am sure such places have elegant food and a classy atmosphere to offer), but why not instead head towards the Dorsodoro district: the lesser known and more student friendly area of Venice. Campo Santa Margarita has a lot to offer. Pizzerias and bars surround the quaint square and the atmosphere created by people drinking Spritz and Hugo’s out in the square during happy hour (in which many cafes provide food, served with the traditional Aperitivo). Both the locals and new comers here are open and friendly and striking up conversation over the reasonably priced cocktails is never a difficulty! If you venture a bit further up into San Polo one particular bar ‘Bacaro Quebrado’ you will find one of the best ‘happy hours’ in Venice. The drinks are delicious and accompanied with a (free) buffet of homemade traditional delicacies, pasta, Bruschetta, polenta and other snacks. The staff are friendly and welcoming, living up to the classic Italian stereotype of joviality and a bit of cheeky back-and-forth with both locals and new guests. Hidden away down one of Venice’s many winding side streets it is a true gem and a great alternative to the chaos of St. Mark’s.

 

After being reassured that such friendly and alternative places can be found I have new found confidence in a British student’s potential to truly embrace the culture as the locals do rather than through a kind of veil, which separated the observer from the actual life and culture itself. I am sure I am not the only one ready to escape the cold distance of being a ‘tourist’, I think most of us are ready to become someone who experiences rather than only views sights. So let us carry on exploring, getting lost and discovering the hidden secrets of the cities that our old dusty travel books seem to have completely overlooked.

Fairytale Ljubljana

Cities

 

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Sometimes venturing to a place with next to no preconceived expectations or plans may result in panic, disorientation and disappointment. In the case of Ljubljana however, this couldn’t be further away from the truth. Something about the quaint, yet satisfyingly edgy, eastern European city instantly welcomes you in to it’s heart, to be greeted by cosy cafes hidden down cobbled side streets and Italian tastes at eastern European prices. From being dropped off by our ‘Blablacar’ driver in the middle of Dragon bridge at midnight the city already held a promise of fairytale-esk magic, guarded by the city’s mascot, the dragon statues towering up against the backdrop of Ljubljana castle, silhouetted and elevated above the city. Reminiscent Brothers Grimm style illustration. The fairytale continued to unfold as we visited the small and warmly welcoming Christmas market. Homemade jewellery and intricately decorated Christmas decorations, including gingerbread tree decorations stole my heart instantly, as did the sellers, eager to engage travellers in conversation and impart local wisdom about the city.

 

The Alternative graffiti tour proved to be the perfect way to explore Ljubljana lesser known and easily missed areas. This gave me the chance to meet some local artists and musicians who had a passionate knowledge of street art, which the city is rich in. It was also a refreshing way to learn a bit about the city’s vibrant history and culture. Of course it was also the perfect way to meet the type of people who could advise you on the best way to spend a Friday night out in Ljubljana. This is how I discovered the surreal complex of abandoned army barracks which is now known as Metelkova City. A night out there guarantees you a disorientating Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole experience. You find yourself moving between different alternative clubs and bars, never quite sure how you ended up dancing to a gay-punk anthem when you don’t remember leaving the tiny standalone Bollywood cabin, draped in multi-coloured fairy lights and packed with chatty locals. When you need a moment to catch your bearings the only option is the startlingly brightly painted climbing frame, slide and swings oddly placed in the mist of the whole thing. Sit back and watch the mad, vivid nightlife of Ljubljana swim around you.

 

After the chaos and magical confusion of Metelkova City Slovenia also has the serene answer to your escape from city life. Lake Bled is situated less than an hour away by bus and provided the refreshing natural beauty that I’d come to crave after travelling through cities. Catapulting you straight back to the Slovenian fairytale which started with Dragon bridge, lake bled is everything the postcards promise. Gently rippling clear blue water, lazy boat trips to the church on the island, and a breathtaking mountainous backdrop. Ljubljana is one of those rare cities that will engulf you welcomingly but then allow you to instantly escape. Perhaps to the tranquillity of a day wandering around the lake after the bustle of the friendly coffee shop culture and the unique night life of the unassuming city.

White Chickens take Sofia

Cities

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It’s been quite a while since I last told any tales of adventures so I thought I’d mix it up a bit and ignore the restraints of chronological order. Call me crazy, a true rule breaker but I’m jumping a year forward, away from snowy Sarajevo, to Bulgaria. This time it’s myself, Daisy and Rachel, aptly referred to as the ‘white chickens’ by a (rather rude) Turkish man who told us that we were too pale for sun bathing. We made sure he never caught a glimpse of our embarrassingly British sun burn lines after we ignored his warning..

So this time we flew into Sofia, capital of Bulgaria. With very little plan but a lot of enthusiasm and the valuable ability too laugh through any problem that might face us. Although we didn’t spend long in Sofia we had time to take in the historical sights, such as the immense Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski, which seemed to be jumbled at random throughout the more modern elements of the city. The random spots of Roman archaeology which could be seen cordoned off in metro stations gave a true feel of the clash of old and new which, for me, characterised the city.

During our stay we also found time to participate in a bar crawl put on by the hostel, which of course started with plans to only stay for one drink (we were travelling on early the next morning) but lead to (very) amateur salsa dancing to Bulgarian pop in an underground club. Learning new dances, which have nothing to do with the country I am in, in some random underground venue seems to be becoming a theme. I’m not going to fight it.

So we were off to a good start. With a very vague plan of looping round through Turkey and Greece we knew/ hoped we’d be back for another helping of Sofia. Just so long as we avoided ferry strikes and the complete collapse of the Greek economy on the way right? Nah, (spoilers) we somehow managed anyway.