Life in the Basque Country – Donostia / San Sebastian

Arriving by plane, Bilbao airport was the chaotic beginning place to our week in San Sebastian. The bus trip was fraught with misunderstandings over payment and tickets, thank goodness for a helpful fellow traveller from England who sorted us out with the exact change needed to get on the last bus for the night to our destination. Again, in crowds and through language misunderstandings at the bus stop in San Sebastian, we battled with our cases through boutique lined streets filled with Saturday night strollers and revellers, around a few unnecessary blocks before we at last found our welcoming apartment.

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Once at our Pension we enjoyed a warm welcome, lots of directions and useful sight seeing tips and from our room there was a beautiful view along the main shopping street towards the Cathedral.  San Sebastian is a tourism hot spot for the Spanish, French and other Europeans as well as for the British who enjoy the warmer temperatures, sunshine and delicious foods of this Basque city.

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During our stay we noticed a huge gathering of locals, who had made a human chain holding hands for 100 km along the Basque coast stretching from France into Spain making a point of the unique culture and heritage of this part of the world. In the evening a concert saw a huge gathering of all ages coming together with pride in their Basque language and background. We learn that Donostia is the Basque name for this city and the Basque language is being revived and spoken by locals, one of the oldest Western languages to survive and now thrive.

 

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As well as the expansive Atlantic Ocean beaches, promenades and quaint shop lined streets San Sebastian is known and loved for it delicious Pintxos. The old town street are dotted with bars selling these tasty morsels, many just a mouthful, of seasonal produce often served on tiny slices of banquette or in little pastry cases. The helpful host at our Pension had told us to be aware of the protocol of eating one pintxos and having one drink at each bar, suggesting we were careful with the one drink per bar, our problem though was not the drinks.

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We were so taken with the yummy treats that we just could not pull ourselves away from the very first bar we visited. Every pintxos was delicious and there were so many more that we wanted to try. Eventually though we moved on and found similar treats on offer in each bar, the better bars filled with locals, the floors covered in discarded serviettes and toothpicks. After two days of filling ourselves with all the beautiful flavours on Donostia we were well and truly ready for a break from pintxos and sought out different tastes.

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Not is keeping with the old school yard saying “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain”, we found that in Basque country the rain does fall at the beach resort. For the next couple of days we persevered through torrential tropical like rain and extreme wind gust,  putting an end to our plans of spending days on the beach and in the ocean. Long lunch was a good alternative, as was a visit to the Aquarium and a walk up the hill to the medieval castle and fortress that protects the city.

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By the end of our stay in San Sebastian we had seen the sights, eaten the local food and wines, learnt about Basque culture, both old and new and once again saw some sunshine, enjoying a beautiful evening watching the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.

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The sunny streets of Dublin

We arrived during a June heatwave. “The first summer we’ve had since 1993” – overheard in a Dublin bar. The blue sky and clear sea breeze that greeted us as we left the airport was refreshing and surprising! Coats, beanies and jumpers were delegated to the bottom of the case while the summer beach clothes waiting for Spain had an early outing.

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Along the streets of Dublin – Grafton Street, O’Connell Street, Temple Bar and along the banks of the Liffey River, the locals revelled in the sunshine. School boys strutted along with their shirts off, followed by girls in skimpy shorts and singlets with bathers underneath, after work drinkers sat in the full sun sipping on warm pints of beer, on TV the Irish were urged to apply sunscreen, buskers played to Grafton Street crowds, while protesters against Israeli occupation of Palestine protested outside the famous O’Connell Street Post Office.

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In pubs we were greeted with “welcome home” when we told the locals we had come from Australia – they know their history well! Millions of Irish left on famine ships for Canada, USA and Australia and are warmly welcomed back as long lost relatives. Of the pre-famine 1840’s population of 8 million, the potato famine and harsh colonist laws of the English occupiers brought this down to 3 million by the late 1800’s. The population has still not recovered, it sits now at 4.75 million and is not expected to recover to pre-famine levels until 2024.

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A visit to the Famine Ship on the Liffey River including a great guided tour was a real hands on history lesson. While a walk along the riverside Famine memorial was a moving reminder of just how desperate the famine times were, no different to the experiences of the refugees of today.

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More recent history is also well represented in Dublin. Kilmainham Goal is a grim and pensive place where the tragic stories of the Irish uprisings against the British are bought to life as you wander through the cells, chapels, exercise yards and places of execution, hearing stories of the people who lived and died there because of their political beliefs and Irish culture.

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There is so much to see and do in Dublin – another must is a visit to the Guinness Brewery, an institution of Dublin, employer, welfare provider and manufacturing institution spread over many acres of the city centre. The aroma of roasting barley is delicious and pervades through the museum and you make your way up to the top floor of the old brew house learning about barrel making, advertising and the fresh water used to make this national favourite brew and all the complexities of how Guinness is made and sold.

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After visiting the brewery there are no end of pubs to taste the local drop, from the Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Ireland dating back to  the year 1198 to the many Temple Bar hotels where Irish music plays day and night and revellers wander from pub to pub along the sunny cobbled streets.

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Of course, being Ireland the highlight of the trip was always going to be the music and this time for us the music was from Australia and New York. We were so lucky to see and hear the magnificent sounds of Nick Cave and Patti Smith, supported by Limerick band When Young, in the grounds of Kilmainham Hospital.

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In a festival like outdoor amphitheatre, in weather so sunny and warm, the festive atmosphere and magical feel of the experience was heightened. The friendly people around us, Irish, English, British, Italian and another Aussie couple also from our home town of Melbourne, all added to the special experience that we shared, together with 1,000’s of others squished in like sardines taking in what we all knew was something unforgettable.

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What an amazing time – music, pubs, history, sunshine, beaches, wonderful people – locals and family, villages and cliff top walks – it truly felt like home.

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Camden Rocks!

So excited to be back in London and off to the Camden Rocks music festival for the second time. After the 21 hour flight from Australia – 7 to Doha then another 14 long haul hours to London, the tube from Heathrow conveniently conveys us the Camden underground station.

 

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Blinking to adjust to the unexpected bright sunlight we were thrilled to be in London and especially to be in this exciting area. Walking the 1km up Camden Road to our bnb, early on Friday morning, we passed homeless rough sleepers, workers in business suits, workers in high vis labourers gear pulling along their tool boxes in the same way we pulled along our wheelie cases.

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We made our way past a huge Sainbury supermarket with its own ATM out of the front where customers waited in a long cue to withdraw cash, past bus stops full of commuters on their way to work and over roads with and without pedestrian lights – which no one really took notice of anyway – until we found our home for the next three nights, a basement room in an old London home. Green garden at the back, shared kitchen at the front and a bed to sleep off our long flight and jet lag ahead in anticipation of a great day of music ahead.

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Camden is a dynamic town within the city of London and buzzes with life everyday of the week. Friday market crowds, buskers, dodgy dealers, tourists and day to day people filled the streets as we wandered around, along and past Regents canal and the various sections of the Camden Markets. Each day of our stay the area was full of vibrant, from the old horse stables to the tent covered stalls selling copies of spring fashions, punk style gear, doc martin boots, retro and vintage clothes, jewellery of every descriptions and on this unseasonably warm day freshly squeezed orange juice.

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On walls, doors, rooftop terraces and bridges Camden is covered in fantastic street art – the Camden Lock rail bridge by John Bulley, the Free West Papua wall by Dale Grimshaw countless versions of Amy Winehouse portraits and a variety of birds, animals, people and abstract designs bringing art to all who pass by.

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The highlight and reason for our stay in Camden was the Camden Rocks Festival, an underground one day music festival with 250 acts spread across 24 venues. Venues ranging from the Doc Martin museum to the Underground, Electric Ballroom and Koko’s iconic London music venues, to tiny but atmospheric and historically important pubs like Dublin Castle (home of 90’s band Madness). From midday to midnight wandering between venues, only distinguished from the Camden locals and tourists, the festival goers coloured entry arm bands, band t shirts and especially happy faces gave away their purpose on this day – to see as much great music as they could fit in.

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Between acts a wander down Camden High Street could take you to a delicious kebab shop, a bakery, a fish shop, an Italian restaurant to fill up ahead of some more music at a bar in the same block or down a tiny laneway.

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Adventure and fun was the theme of the day thanks to the bands we enjoyed including – the Tequila Mockingbryds from Melbourne, the Ramona’s from USA, The Professionals and Public Image Limited (previous London legends Sex Pistols all represented), the BeatSteaks from Germany, Men they couldn’t Hang from the UK. All great acts for us topped up by John Lydon of PIL – thankyou uncle Johnny!

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Happy times in Greece

As the last stop on our 10 week trip around the world, Greece always ran the risk of coming off second best in our hearts. But 9 weeks in, Greece was a warm and welcoming destination. We loved every minute spent there.


Flying in seeing below islands sprinkled over the the ocean rising from the mist and the sprawling white metropolis of Athens we were entranced. Arriving at Athens airport though we were overwhelmed by the crowds – there were more people and was more chaos here than we had experienced for weeks. This no doubt contributed to our lost iPad (now found) problems with security checks and boarding passes! Despite this we managed to catch our connecting flight to magical Santorini where we were welcomed warmly by our gorgeous  Anthena room BnB hosts Aliki and Maria with home made supper and local wine at midnight.


We were so happy that we decided to stay in the hilltop village of Pyrgos in the centre of the island of Santorini. This little village, a castle town from medieval times, sits like a lighthouse looking out over the island in all directions. It is surrounded by vineyards of low growing vines where grapes are cradled in the vines close to the ground protecting them from the strong summer winds. The little white houses and blue doomed churches of Prygos look just like a picture postcard.


Santorini is known for its sunsets and from Pyrgos village we had spectacular views of this natural beauty. At Francos bar, built on top of  the ruins of the old castle, classical music sounds out and the handful of people lucky enough to be sitting in the terrace bar were reverently quiet at the moment the sun went down through clouds of heat mist over the volcanic islands that make up the Cyclades. The setting is truly magical and a spiritual connection between humans and nature is so close it can almost be touched.

The main tourist towns of Ios and Fira where well worth a visit and visiting them using local buses was both entertaining a stressful. The Santorini bus system was a bit of a mystery with unique characteristics like no destination names on buses, a timetable that is very loose, conductors who don’t give correct change or tell you how much a ticket costs, ticket inspectors who randomly hop on the buses and demand to see tickets but who have no ID or uniform and hard to understand locations of bus stops for drop offs and pickups.


Once at our destination though the beauty of the caldera was breath taking. This island is spectacular – a natural phenomenon, where like in the mythical Atlantas, after a volcanic eruption most of the once circular island collapsed into the ocean, leaving the horseshoe shaped caldera, a huge bay and a still smoking volcano crater where the middle of the island once was. Now the picturesque towns of 

Oia and Fira sit on the edge of the bay, pretty white and blue houses and churches, curved stonewall pathways that fit into the landscape and compliment its beauty in a way that deservedly attracts millions of tourists from all over the world each year.


We enjoyed every meal that we ate in Greece. This included beach meals lazing on deck chairs at Perivoles black sand beach to Taverna meals with traditional live Greek music and dancing to a delicious dinner at one of the best restaurants in Santorini, Metaxis Mas with Aliki our wonderful BnB host and at one of the most popular traditional restaurants in Athens where the portion size for one was enough to fed a whole family.



In Athens the Ancient Greek history was everywhere. It was fascinating to walk through and learn about the history of this city at the same time as getting a better understanding of Ancient Greek mythology. We also discovered how the Romans respected, added to the temples and important buildings during their occupation, how the Ottomans and even Venetian Empires had an impact on this dynamic city. Most impressive were though we’re the ruins of the Parthenon, the Ancient Greek theatre on the side of the Acropolis and the stadium used for thousands of years for Ancient Greek Olympics and most recently in 1895 as the home of the first modern Olympics.


Santorini and Athens were made more enjoyable by the happy faces, laughter and hospitality of the Greek people who we met and who we watched going about their day to day lives. There were signs of the economic problems in closed and boarded up businesses but there is an underlying feeling that this country and its positive, welcoming people have a strong culture and history that will no doubt still be here for thousands more years to come. 

Return to Korcula

Approaching the beautiful city of Korcula for the first time since our two month stay two years ago, excitement and anticipation of happy times ahead was is the air. The ferry ride from Split on the Krilo Eclipse ferry was a quick 3 hours with lovely views of Brac, Makarska and lots of tiny limestone islands and mountainous coastline.


Pulling into dock we quickly spotted our apartment host, Roko. As a previous ships engineer, taxi boat captain and council worker Roko is a well know identity around Korcula and a perfect person to show us everything we needed to know about Korcula and about Dalmation food, wine, customs and history.


A highlight for us on our return visit was a delicious lunch of sea bass and calamari cooked expertly on the grill by Roko accompanied by tasty salads of local tomatoes and greens and a potato salad using olive oil and vinegar instead of mayonnaise made by Roko’s wife Ela. We were really looking forward to some of Roko’s grilled seafood and Bryan was happy to join him in choosing and buying the fresh fish at the local fish market.


Another food highlight that we were hoping to recreate from our long stay in Korcula was to be found across the sea in Orebic on the Peljesic Pennisula. A quick ferry ride on the always on time Orebic ferry, the boat that is so regular that you could set your watch by its arrival in the harbour at quarter to each hour and departure on the hour,  in time with the hourly chimes from St Marks cathedral. Once in Orebic we swam at the sandy beach and enjoyed the best fish soup  in the world, followed by the best ice cream- red orange and dark chocolate- delicious!


Of course on an island thoughts of swimming in the sea are never far from mind – the the crystal clear water is almost always in sight. We counted around 30 different places that we had swam during our two month stay and with just a week we had to settle for just a few favourite spots. 


Each swim was so good, the soft feel of the just cool enough water on our skin was magical and worth travelling across the world for! From the rocky beaches of the city walls and the sandy beach of Lumbarda we were rewarded with a welcome respite from the 30+ degree dry heat and a view from the sea back into the island and out to the nearby islands that was magical. 


To top all this off were welcoming reunions with people we had met last time and stayed in contact with. We had lots of coffees and tasty meals with Ivand at Marco Polo and enjoyed listening to the nightly acoustic performances of Vanda and Marin at Sevantes. 


We were also very excited to welcome our friend from Geelong Danni, who is crewing on a Mediterranean cruise boat,  into port and show her the sights. This was a great end to our week in Korcula, a place that we would love to return to again one day in the future….

Three really impressive Central European cities – Budapest, Lujbljana and beautiful Zagreb

Since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the domino effect across Central Europe that followed, an array of cities are now easy to access and should be go to destinations for travellers. In June and July 2017 we were lucky enough to visit three of these fascinating cities.


Budapest is a busy hub for tourists travelling through some  on cruise boats – taking in the beauty of riverside buildings and bridges lite up each night, others on back packing adventures and on short breaks from other parts of Europe enjoying the young lively, cheap party scene of the Jewish quarter.


For us the beauty of the city was in the lifestyle of the local people (not yet overrun by tourists), the magnificent buildings and beautiful views around every corner, the resilience of the people who have survived war and communist life behind the iron curtain, outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants spread across pavements and squares with fine water sprays to keep us cool in 35 degree summer city heat!

After eating our fill of Italian seafood and pasta, the variety of food in Central Europe was a delight. We enjoyed the paprika infused goulash, soups and vegetables, tasty gourmet hamburgers, gnocchi with truffles, Mexican style burritos and wraps, delicious Burek and ever tasty beef and fish soup.

Transiting between Budapest and Ljubljana was a real adventure! First the underground train trip with a few station changes all helped by perfectly aligned trains and platforms with no need for ‘mind the gap’ announcements and a moving trip through time as we travelled through ultra modern stations on state of the art trains to slightly run down but magestic Austria-Hungarian style stations on rusting, squeaky but efficient communist era carriages. Once on the “international train” where we expected a dining carriage and air conditioning for the 8 hour trip, we found no  food or drinkable water, open the windows style air conditioning and an amusing 2 hour delay at the border with no engine, drivers or conductors to keep us informed. The scenery was magnificent and worth every bit of the slight inconveniences of the day. Adding to the amusement though was the welcome from the taxi driver in Ljubljana who refused to drive us to our apartment telling us to ‘walk, not far, go that way’ as he pointed us towards the city centre!


Not far from the station we wandered over the dragon bridge and through the pretty market square to the centre of this pretty city.  It is a tiny capital city, neat and filled with grand buildings, lovely bridges over a built up canal/ river, young students from the city university working in the little restaurants along the cobbled streets and river walkways. The is surrounded by lush green woods, hills and nearby alps which in winter are popular ski spots. A highlight is a walk or furnicular ride up castle hill to see the restored castle and ancient remains from various civilisations going back to early human and  neanderthal times and including the legend of the slaying of the dragon by St George. We had a great time catching up with Martin and his family over a couple of long lunches with lovely local red regular wine from popular vineyards of Gradiska Brda close  to the Italian border.


The bus trip from Ljubljana to Zagreb was less eventful and took a very quick 2 hours along a main highway, the only delay being a lengthy border crossing with individual passport checks for each person once leaving Slovenia and a few metres along again entering Croatia. In Zagreb we were meet with a warm welcome from our friends and 4 City Windows Bed and Breakfast hosts Ivo and Tanja. Open arms, kisses on both checks, walnut Raiki, local Ozujsko beer and homemade bruschetta made us feel at home before 5 days of exploring, laughing and fun times.


Zagreb is a unique city with a centre filled with landscaped parks, fountains, band stands and stages, rumbling trams, statues, street art, garden meadows, woods, promenades, rustic homes, grand buildings, a magnificent  cathedral enclosed in medieval fortress walls, a lively cafe, bar, beer garden scene, live music, museums, art galleries, museums and theatres catering to every taste. There is this and so much more, the huge Dolac market with its pretty red striped umbrellas, a vast array of food options from corn on the cob, cooked by street vendors to traditional local eateries to 5 star gourmet restaurants. This is a city filled with people living their vibrant day to lives, with just enough tourism to add to the atmosphere. It is certainly a city that deserves at least 5 days to start to get a real feel for its spirit, history and culture.


Idyllic days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Once a sleepy, pretty fishing village – one of the 5 lands of the Cinque Terre on Italy’s Ligurian coast, Vernazza in 2017 is a bustling tourist magnet by day and a romantic seaside town each summer evening. But each morning from dawn until the 10 am tourist rush, it is the home of locals who shop, chat with neighbours, work in their terraced gardens and get on with their centuries old lifestyle of living and working in this picturesque and idyllic paradise.


The walks between the 5 villages are a huge attraction to visitors from all over Europe and from the USA, UK and Australia. Serious hikers are kitted out with hiking poles, sturdy boots and back packs, other less serious but certainly just as enthusiastic can be seen in  thongs and bikinis or board shorts, with no hats, shirts or backpacks with just a phone and a bottle of water to keep them going. The walking trails around Vernazza are spectacular and invigorating and worth exploring, best early in the morning before the scorching summer heat sets in. A swim in the crystal clear Mediterranean Sea is a must after a trek and a well deserved therapy for sore feet and tired legs!


When in Italy eating always comes to mind and in Vernazza there are no end of lovely places to eat. The difficult choice each day is which lovely view to take in while eating which delicious seafood option from menus which include calamari, anchovies done every way possible, freshly caught fish and home made pasta, washed down with delicious local red or white wine, capped off with strong coffee and lemon liquor. 


After a week in Vernazza, a couple of days in Pisa is a great way to acclimatise back to busier life. The change of pace is a stark contrast -beeping cars horns, buzzing motor bike engines, bike riders whizzing past and sightseeing helicopters over head as we walk through a maze of medieval old town streets, keep us on our toes! The sight of the leaning tower is certainly worth the walk through town – it is a fascinating thing to see and is surrounded by impressive churches and buildings, thousands of tourists taking the inevitable holding up the tower photo and lush green lawns that you can’t walk on. All of this seemed a long way from the quiet life of Cinque Terre where the loudest sounds are the half hourly bells that chime the time from 7 in the morning until 10 each evening.

Travel – the experiences, cultures, people and places