Where the last 6 months of travel have taken us (Part II)

The last 6 months have been far from quiet, contrary to my blog activity. Admittedly I have been struggling to keep up with updates but I’m hoping to catch up with this quick 6 month summary of where we’ve been.

IMG_4542

A snowball fight up the Swiss Alps

We finished the year 2013 in a small town called Frauenfeld in Switzerland while making side trips to Zurich, Schaffhausen, Fussen (to see the Neuschwanstein Castle) and Lindau with family who flew for miles to visit us. Snow evaded us all Christmas so we made a trip up the Santis mountain to throw snowballs at each other.

IMG_5010

Our workaway stint in this mansion

In the new year, we happily returned to Paris for a quick trip to revisit old favourite spots before taking a train to the small town of St Thomas de Conac in the Southwest of France, close to the region of Cognac, where we stayed with a French family for 2 weeks. In exchange for free lodging and 3 meals a day, we worked hard each day to turn their beautiful old mansion into a bed & breakfast. Our french improved and we learned how to appreciate french vegetarian cuisine.

IMG_5339

Le Mont St. Michel from afar

After our 2 week stint ended, we wished our new friends good luck and left to go up north to visit the towns of Saint-Malo and Mont St. Michel in the region of Bretagne. Crepes never tasted better than in the region  it came from and we swore never to eat crepes outside Bretagne again (which incidentally did not last long…).

IMG_5423

Made a new friend in our second workway stint

A few days later we joined our second host family in the town of St Pere En Retz for 2 weeks and learned a host of new things like building fences, flipping crepes, making marmalade and salad dressing, appreciating wine and shopping in french farmers markets (which happens to be a leisurely weekly activity).

IMG_5482

The American cemetery at Omaha beach, Normandy

Two weeks went by incredibly fast and we were soon saying goodbye again to our new friends before leaving for Normandy. We got to see the D-day beaches and American cemetery and despite atrocious weather conditions, felt strangely peaceful to be surrounded by thousands of crosses.

IMG_5588

Shopping in the souk of Marrakesh, Morocco

We boarded a plane and landed in the welcoming heat and exotic smells of Marrakesh where we were joined by old friends we had not seen in ages. Together, we trekked on camels and spent a night in the Sahara dessert amidst a sandstorm, took a bus ride through the breathtaking Atlas mountains, ate one too many tagines, visited a foul smelling leather tannery in Fes and explored the picturesque blue city of Chefchaouen during our two week Moroccan adventure.

IMG_6975

The town of Lagos, Portugal

A short ferry ride transported us across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tarifa in Spain where we indulged in some of the most amazing tapas we’ve ever eaten. The next day we hopped on a bus towards the Algarve coast in Portugal where we visited a bone chapel in Faro and ate delicious chicken piri piri in Lagos. In Lisbon we were captivated by Fado music as well as the famous custard tarts of Belem.

IMG_7400

The Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal

Sintra was a fairytale escape from the buzz of Lisbon and Porto fast became my favourite city because of its riverfront and charming buildings.

IMG_7636

Standing at the edge of Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain

A quick stopover in Salamanca en route to Madrid impressed us with its vibrancy and stunning Plaza Mayor while Madrid stayed in our hearts.  We went vintage shopping in Malasana, soaked in art at the world class museums and hung out in tapas bars. Madrid reminded us so much of NYC it made our hearts ache.

IMG_8180

Watching a bullfight in Valencia, Spain

We reunited with our old friend again in Valencia to party like never before in Valencia’s Las Fallas festival. For four days we watched fireworks, heard never ending gunfire explode and saw elaborate structures get burned down in the spirit of the annual fire festival. No one does festivals quite like the Spanish. Our experience was further heightened by an unforgettable bullfight show in the Plaza del Toros of Valencia.

IMG_8949

The Gap of Dunloe, Ireland

We then parted ways and made our way to Dublin where we piled back on winter layers to brace the cold and winds. We rented a tiny car and drove for a week around Ireland, taking in some of the most breathtaking natural beauty there is out there. Our last stop, Belfast in Northern Ireland, was an eye opening visit and we learned so much about its recent troubled history from spending some time with  our friendly host.

1

The town of Bruges in Belgium

A quick flight took us back to the continent, specifically Brussels and we had one full day to see the many Tin Tin artwork and chocolate shops around the city before taking a train to Antwerp which felt like a whole new country with locals speaking Flemish and looking more Dutch than their French speaking counterparts in Brussels. A day trip to charming Bruges rewarded us with beautiful sunny weather, pleasant strolls along its many canals and mouthwatering waffles.

IMG_9995

The quintessential windmill in Holland

We spent more than a week with good friends in Amsterdam and cycled around tulip fields in the Dutch countryside, fell in love with Vincent Van Gogh’s art work in the Van Gogh museum and climbed a working windmill in Zaanse Schans.

IMG_0320

Semana Santa processions in Andalusia, Spain

Leaving our good friends this time was easier knowing that we had more family to see soon, which we did in Spain. Together we spent 11 days in the historically and culturally rich region of Andalusia where we watched flamenco in Seville, observed Semana Santa processions in Cordoba and visited the Alhambra in Granada.

1 (3)

The French Riviera

After Andalusia we flew to Toulouse, France and rented a car to drive around the the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The highlight was watching flocks of pink flamingoes in their natural habitat in Camargue. The mediterranean beckoned us and we headed east towards the Cote d’Azur, basking in the Mediterranean sunshine in towns like Nice, Cannes, Antibes, and Menton. Monaco was probably the smallest and richest country I’ve ever stepped foot in.

IMG_2876_edit

London’s calling!

London was our next stop and we spent a good week seeing all that London had to offer, including a little side trip to Oxford for scones and tea (and to see the university of course!) with surprisingly more sunny than rainy days.

IMG_3355

Inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

In Krakow, we ate pierogi (Polish dumplings) and joined a fantastic free walking tour of the city (our first one ever!). A sobering trip to the  Auschwitz concentration camps left us shaken by the horrors of the holocaust.

IMG_3434

An indoor food market in Stockholm

We spent 3 days in Stockholm and fell in love with its many sleek design shops. Less than an hour’s flight away, Helsinki was surprisingly liveable and the Finnish language sounded like a variation of Japanese.

IMG_3792

The streets of St Petersburg, Russia

We boarded an overnight cruise ship to St Petersburg, Russia and spent 72 hours in this gorgeous city, meeting interesting locals, watching a fascinating ballet performance and shopping for cheap Russian dolls at a local market.

IMG_4583

Looking over Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland

The last leg of our travels was spent with a good friend in the UK where we hiked 13 km in the Lakes district, visited a castle in Snowdonia, Wales, ate chinese food in Manchester and searched for Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford upon Avon to no avail. We made our way north to Glasgow in Scotland and contemplated joining a ghost tour in Edinburgh but ended up entertaining ourselves with some good old Scottish stand up comedy instead.

IMG_5445

The Basilica Sacre Coeur in Paris at sunset

We flew from Edinburgh to Paris and had 2 hours to spare in transit for one last baguette and stroll by the River Seine, and then it’s au revoir Europe as we fly to Doha, Qatar for one night to see what this gulf state had to offer.

The last 6 months have seen us through 14 countries and countless travel stories, memories and lessons that would last us a lifetime. We are beyond blessed to experience this and are excited to continue on our journey through Asia for the next 6-12 months. Keep following our journey! Your support and comments are invaluable to us :)

See the summary of the first 6 months of our travel HERE.

48 Hours in Doha, Qatar

IMG_4656
IMG_4683
IMG_4696
IMG_4713
IMG_4730
IMG_4734
IMG_4774
IMG_4809
IMG_4812

Forty eight hours in this progressive Arab nation was enough to reveal interesting facets of this tiny country. Every other person we see on the street is a migrant or expat with local Qatari nationals forming a minority in this oil rich state. You would also never see a Qatari taxi driver, alluding to how rich the country is.  Unsurprisingly, impressive sky scrappers and high rises crowd the skyline of Doha bay, and many more are on the way. The notable architect I.M. Pei of the Lourve glass pyramid fame was even commissioned to design the Museum of Islamic Art, the star attraction of Doha.

Despite the intense heat and temperatures, Doha was a gem of a visit. Relatively clean, safe and modern, this city is one to watch out for.

72 hours in St Petersburg

IMG_3655
IMG_3642
IMG_3590
IMG_3736
IMG_3802
IMG_3848
IMG_3853-horz
IMG_3897
IMG_3703

We have had a deep fascination with Russia ever since visiting the ex-Soviet block countries like Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. We figured, why not visit the very place where it all began? Moscow was out of reach due to visa restrictions but St Petersburg offered us a taste of Russia visa free! We just had to adhere to some simple rules which was to board a ferry from Helsinki in Finland, not overstay our 72 hours allocation in St Petersburg and return via ferry back to Helsinki. The process was straightforward and uncomplicated as long as you followed the rules and the moment we got past customs, we were exhilarated! Our first foray into Russian soil and we never felt more excited to explore this foreign land that so much of the world talks about.

St Petersburg can be summed up as truly belonging in a class of its own. Elegant, polished and majestic, the buildings were made to impress. The boulevards are wide and plenty and not short of traffic. It is a bustling metropolis that attracts hordes of tourists who want to see the beautiful and ‘European’ city of Russia, fashioned by the great Tsars of Russia. Exploring the city and all its architectural marvels with occasional glimpses of the unmistakable Soviet style building blocks was a real highlight. The Hermitage and Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood were just some of the outstanding sites we visited in 72 hours, plus a spectacular ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theatre

As for the locals, we left with positive experiences and new friendships that we hope continues on. There’s nothing like a rewarding local interaction to top off an experience in a country.

Tulip fields in Holland

IMG_9708
IMG_9671
IMG_9666-horz
IMG_9556
IMG_9538
IMG_0264-horz
IMG_0254
IMG_0198
IMG_0162
IMG_0161
IMG_0153
IMG_0133-horz

It’s no secret on this blog that I have a thing for fields of flowers. Canola fields, sunflower fields, lavender fields or even just plain wildflowers bring out the childish urge in me to run, jump and lie in them. So it’s been a goal of mine to add to this list and see the famous tulip fields of Holland. Getting the timing right was the tricky bit, but we knew our time in Europe afforded us this flexibility to catch the next available flight to Amsterdam as soon as the first bulbs of the season bloom. And it sure paid off.

I wish I could clearly describe the sheer joy and exhilaration from spotting the first tulip field from afar. I remember cycling down flat bike lanes, our eyes scanning the horizon for streaks of colour and when a glimpse of one is discovered, shrieks of pleasure can be heard. We pedal faster and literally jump off our bikes to photograph these amazing flowers. We take our time at each field to soak in the beauty before our very eyes, yet knowing that there were many more fields in all colours imaginable to be discovered. The season was heavily in bloom as hyacinths and daffodils were not missing out on the spring party either. We felt unbelievably lucky to have seen at least 50 fields of flowers in full bloom in two days of cycling, no doubt ranking as one of the best times of our lives.

Highlights of Portugal

This month has been a whirlwind of travel activity for us. Festivals, road trips and the usual sightseeing covered across three European countries have left us little time to catch up on blogging, which explains my lack of updates. The temperatures are looking up and the worst of Europe’s fairly mild winter this year is (safe to say) over! Hurray!

We were in Portugal early this month and spent little over a week exploring the Algarve coast and up north through the cities of Lisbon and Porto. Here are some highlights:

IMG_6996

Lagos in the Algarve coast was a standout for us. Stunning cliff faces and some of the best beaches we’ve seen in Europe propelled Lagos straight into our good books. Lagos also served up some of the best food we’ve eaten in Portugal (finger licking good peri peri chicken and delicious monkfish stew) so you can’t hardly blame us for the good time we had there.

IMG_7067
IMG_7137

We felt a little letdown by Lisbon having heard so much good things about it. It definitely had its charms and character but we probably had disproportionate expectations rocking up from the Algarve on a high. Lisbon did blow me away with its famous Portugese egg tarts, specifically the ones from Belem. This shop, Pasteis de Belem has been making these delicacies for decades and its reputation is unrivalled. Rightly so because they taste downright AMAZING.

IMG_7359
IMG_7378

Sintra, an hour’s train ride away from Lisbon is a magical place that must go into every tourist’s agenda in Portugal. It is jam packed with palaces, castles and sprawling royal estates that give this entire town an air of fairytale charm. One of our favourite sights was the Pena Palace. It is unlike any other castle we’ve seen. I’m at a loss of words to describe this palace, only that it evokes a childlike wonder within me. Not like the fairytale princess castles that I once imagined and envied, but akin to a happy place with happy colours and all sorts of fun and dreamy things like unicorns and rainbows. I guess that’s the best description I can come up with for now.

IMG_7441
IMG_7561
IMG_7596
IMG_7627

Oh, Porto! I could sigh about you all day long. Picture perfect waterfront buildings, freshly grilled fish coated with sea salt, beautiful blue skies that have us reluctant to leave and so much more. Porto stole our hearts.  It was the best part of our time in Portugal. I would return to Porto in a heartbeat (ok, maybe not so soon) but I sure wouldn’t pass up the chance to visit again in the future.

The Blue City of Chefchaouen

IMG_6835
IMG_6880
IMG_6848-horz
IMG_6841
IMG_6792
IMG_6789
IMG_6788
IMG_6787-horz
IMG_6824

When I first heard of a Moroccan town with buildings awashed in hues of blue I knew I had to see it with my own eyes. This town is no stranger in the Moroccan tourist circuit and it’s no wonder why. Wandering the maze of alleys and corners in Chefchaouen is like unwrapping presents on Christmas day. Every turn reveals a delightful surprise of a quirky blue door or blue steps leading to more hidden buildings. Getting lost within this blue maze is part of the fun of exploring Chefchaouen and it amazes me that people actually live and go about their daily lives here amidst tourists sneaking glimpses into their half open doors and windows. And yes, the insides are blue too ;)