Tag Archives: Hostel

Picture perfect, serene and well, downright weird – the one European location you should not miss.

11 Jan

YOU know when something happens that is so strange and unbelievable that people are not going to believe you when you tell them about it later?

Well, now that I’m safely back in the comfortable familiarity (if you can call 40 degrees and 50 percent humidity comfortable) of home, or the southern coastal suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, even I’m having trouble relying on my own memory of some of the happenings of the last 3 or so months. It all feels kind of like a dream.

But here’s one that was just that bit too unique to forget, or make up.

We were abruptly woken in the early hours of one morning in November 2012 by three thugs ‘from the Projects, man’ bursting into our hostel dorm in the lakeside town of Bled, Slovenia.

While two proceeded shouting in strange American accents, (they weren’t fooling anyone with that thick Slovene lilt) threatening to rob and kill us in the semi-darkness, calling out fairly offensive political propaganda that needn’t be repeated here, the more subdued offender jumped into a bed and promptly went to sleep.

Eventually, (like two hours later) and thankfully, we somehow worked out these unscrupulous felolows were none other than Slovenia’s most esteemed rapper Klemen Klemen and his ‘Tea Party’ who had put on a show at the tiny town’s only nightclub the evening before. Apparently they had nowhere to stay and nothing better to do than to terrorise us. Klemen actually returned later with cold and half spilt ‘apology’ coffees for us and got quite angry when Nic wouldn’t take his.

I’m almost 87 per cent certain you won’t get mugged, unless The town hosts another rap concert, so would highly recommend anyone wandering that part of Europe visit the tiny town of Bled, Slovenia.

In stark contrast to that one crazy night, Bled boasts a postcard-perfect lake, with the country’s only island, a bevy of beautiful but sometimes angry white swans, a leafy, mushroomy gorge you can navigate for kilometres above the rushing stream, leading to a breathtaking waterfall, a bar dedicated to former Man United star George Best, a sex shop with Slovenia’s only 3D porn cinema and devices designed by the owner’s husband and some of the most amazing goulash from this place.

Plus, in summer, the cosy 5000-strong population swells to 25,000 adventure sports enthusiasts who come to take advantage of the pristine lake.

There’s even a toboggan.

Check out our photos below, and if you’ve been to Bled, let us know what you thought!

This swan was friendly – and check out the gorgeous lake.
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View of the mountains while walking to Vintgar Gorge.
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Colours of Autumn.
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Welcome to Bled.
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Island view on an overcast day.
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Some interesting fungi at Vintgar Gorge.
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Vintgar Gorge
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A blog post from me would not be complete without one of these majestic creatures. Ruler of the abandoned house.
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Should you clean someone else’s skid marks off the toilet bowl?… And other quandaries.

24 Dec

I’M GOING to say all that needs to be said about the four days we spent in Italy at the beginning of November by talking about something else entirely.

Well actually, I’ll say two things. Venice = €7 coffee and… On what planet?

Oh wait, also… Croutons are not toast. Never ever. No matter how big they are.

Instead, as I sit in the beautifully temperate common room of our Kuala Lumpur hostel, knowing that the outside humidity of 99% is going to hit me like a ton of bricks – even worse than the sticky heat, the reality of going home is starting to sink in.

I’m being plagued by first world problems.

So as 2012 reaches its pointy end, so do our four months of (mostly) European travel, and if these crossroads weren’t difficult enough to navigate, we’ve just narrowly avoided being drowned/obliterated by world’s end.

It makes you think about a few things, no?

But instead of burdening you with my own woe-filled quandaries including debt, impending unemployment, a stupendous amount of weight gain and the fact that the European autumn has turned my skin so pale it is almost translucent, (see what I did there?) I will talk about another set of dilemmas – a more lighthearted kind.

FIRST WORLD MORAL QUANDARIES we have encountered during the last four months.

1. When you’re in a hostel/public toilet and someone before you has left skid marks in the bowl, do you clean them off so the person waiting doesn’t think it was you, or do you leave them there?
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2. When you’re borrowing Internet at [insert fast food chain name], is it okay to download the last four episodes of Family Guy as well as three seasons of Fresh Prince and Skyfall 007, thus disallowing everyone else in the restaurant from being able to load their Facebook pages for five hours?
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3. How do you decide which, if any, beggars you should give change to whilst travelling? Should you reward the guy playing the recorder for his incentive? Or how about the trio with the ‘For Beer’ sign, for their honesty? Or there’s the guy with the dog that’s just had puppies. Or the lady sitting right underneath the ATM you’ve just withdrawn cash from for a boozy night? Or to the street-kid that looks like he should still be having his school sandwiches made by his mum? Should you just give the money to a local charity that purports it will help the homeless? Or spend it on more alcohol so you can forget that these problems exist in the world?

Beggars in Krakow, Poland
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4. On long train journeys, is it okay to take up three seats in a cabin so you can sleep, when people around you are crammed together, when you know that if they had got there first, they would be doing exactly the same thing?

Nic on the train from Krakow to Budapest.
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5. Should you have a poo in your dorm room bathroom and risk stinking out the whole room for hours, affecting, possibly killing the other occupants by asphyxiation, or should you make the extra effort to climb down four flights of stairs to use the public loo?

Dorm in Bled, Slovenia.
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6. At the end of your meal when dining out, even if the service/food was very average, should you still tip? Should you have let them know during the meal, so they could rectify any problems, or does that just make you a whinging, difficult customer?

Mouldy bread on the train from Zagreb to Prague.
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7. When reviewing stays on Hostelworld, should you give a glowing review or should you tell the truth, that the hostel receptionist tried to bribe you into giving their filthy, creepy hostel with exceedingly rude staff a high rating in return for letting you sleep in a dodgy bed in a massive, full dorm for a few hours after checkout while you are sick and throwing up with a migraine?

One hostel in Prague was appalling.
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If you can help us solve any of these dilemmas or have any others to add to the list, please let us know!

If you’re a crazy cat lady… Go here! Istanbul, Turkey. October 25-31.

2 Dec

SENDAR reached down and gently lifted the stray from its makeshift cocoon of white hessian under an old table by the roadside. The wide-eyed chocolate-coloured tabby almost fitted inside his curved palm. Her mother had died giving birth and she was the only surviving kitten of the litter, he said. When the snow came, she would be allowed inside the hostel.

On the third day of our stay at the bottom of the steepest road in Istanbul, Sendar told us he had named the kitten Gül, the Turkish word for Rose.
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The collective care of animals, mainly stray cats in Istanbul was one of the first things that struck us as unique about the Turkish capital. With no RSPCA or similar, there are a lot, and I mean a lot of stray cats around. They are freaking everywhere, which was lucky for me, because I am a crazy cat lady.

A pounce of cats?
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Brothers – Near Arasta Bazaar, Sultanahmet.
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Coming from a media background in Australia, animal cruelty charge statements made a fairly regular appearance in my email inbox, so it was surprising, in a country lambasted for its slaughtering methods last year when activist group Animals Australia released video footage of the mistreatment of Australian live export sheep at Turkish abattoirs, to see an old man breaking off parts of his sandwich to feed to a cat hovering around his feet outside a cafe.

It was equally surprising to see small home made shelters littered along the city’s notoriously winding alleyways with cats lazing in or in top of them to catch a couple of hours of sun, and even more so to watch a fishmonger throw a small fish to a black and white cat that had been eyeing off his day’s live catch, before reaching up and feeding two huge seagulls that had settled on the red awning of his stall at the bustling Karakoy fish market.

Street shelters.
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A scene from Karakoy fish market.
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The seagulls’ rooftop vigil paid off – they were fed by a fishmonger moments after this photo was taken.
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But Istanbul was just full of surprises for us.

Traversing three countries by rail and road, Nic and I stepped off the third bus of a 22 hour journey to Turkey at dusk, finding ourselves at the foot of Istanbul’s most famous road and in the midst of a pulsating crowd of two million people celebrating Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).

I suppose we should have realised something was going on in town when our bus crossed the Bulgarian border into Turkey passing hundreds of commercial trucks backed up for about 6 kilometres. (Check out the video we took!) We had set down in one of the world’s most populated cities at the beginning of a major Islamic holiday, followed directly by Turkish Republic Day.

The start of Istiklal Caddesi near Taksim Square.
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From the subdued hum of weary travellers chatting quietly on the bus, we were thrown headfirst into the myriad of lights, sounds and smells that is Istiklal Avenue.

Kebab cooks in dirtied white aprons called out to us as we squeezed past their gaudily lit shops, laden with 18 kilogram conspicuous backpacks, to enter the main vein of the street. The crowd resembled giant schools of fish guided by invisible currents. Pairs of inebriated men with linked arms stumbled past street vendors spruiking mussels, sizzling chestnuts and pretzel-like bread rings. Families and groups of women in various degrees of hijab moved in tight groups, halting occasionally to look in clothing and sweet-shop windows. A bright red tram periodically parted the masses as it rattled past, gathering barnacles, or numerous young boys who jumped aboard to hang off its back and sides. Yellow taxis, heavily scratched and dented, beeped loudly, nudging their way out of side streets. Before we disappeared down one such alleyway, we soaked up fleeting loud moments of bass-filled dance music from second floor clubs.

From the very beginning, we were in awe of the spectacular energy of Istanbul. Already accommodating a massive 3 million people per day on a regular basis, hostel owner Sendar later told us that during the holiday, up to two million people filled Istiklal Avenue during any one moment.

Istiklal Caddesi.
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Slipping away down Bogazkesen Avenue to our hostel, Cheers Midtown, we found it was a narrow, undulating road on a steep downhill slope, running almost all the way to the Galata Bridge, which connects the cities two major commercial and tourist districts, Taksim and Sultanahmet, and the Asian and European continents, over the Bosphorous Strait. Closer inspection of our surroundings revealed a ramshackle of convenience stores, a book shop, trendy bars, clothing boutiques, cafe’s, barber shops, bakeries and even homes – from various eras and in various stages of disrepair. A steady stream of taxis shot up the road and a woman stood in the shadows waiting for something or someone. She held the end of a rope that was tied around the neck of a thin sheep laying on the footpath. We later realised the animal was to be sacrificed in religious ritual.

Bogazkasen Caddesi.
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We arrived at the hostel late, but gracious host Sendar put us up in a better room than we had booked for the night anyway.

The next (early) morning we were introduced to the surprisingly soothing call to prayer, met Rose and the dozens of other cats inhabiting Bogazkasen Avenue and found out just how unfit I had become during the past seven weeks of holiday, when tackling the uphill part of that really steep downhill I was talking about earlier.

We could hear the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque from 4 am!
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Rose.
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We ended up staying in restaurant and nightlife district Taksim, or more specifically Beyoglu, for three nights and moved to the tourist-centric Sultanahmet for a further three. It was in Taksim we gained the most cultural insight.

Despite being a republic – with 99.3% of its population Muslim and smack bang in the middle of a religious holiday, we weren’t sure how a night on the town was going to go down. But we needn’t have worried. One day we lunched in a two storey Shisha bar overlooking restaurant alley Nevizade Sokak. Below us, a young Muslim woman sucked on a Shisha pipe the entire time we were there (we saw this a lot) and we could see a few pairs of young guys having lunchtime beers. When we went out that night, to our delight, we found a live music pub scene that could rival that of any openly beer guzzling nation in the world.

While we sat street-side downing a few Efes pints, complimentary beer snacks (yays!) and a pineapple flavoured water pipe, all kinds of debauchery, table dancing included, was going on around us. After soaking up a mixture of live Turkish folk music, some cringeworthy Eurodance tracks and a few plays of Gangam Style we ended up in a really terrible nightclub with really expensive drinks. I hear that there are some great clubs in Istanbul, but the extortionate door fee is a huge turn-off when the pubs are so much fun and are also culturally rewarding.

Everywhere you turn in Istanbul there is something going on. There is a vibrancy there unlike anything I have ever encountered. There is no such thing as a quiet alleyway. Just when you think you have exited one bazaar or market, selling spices, tea sets, glassware and textiles, you turn a corner into an open air market, this time selling tools, kitchenware or knock-off clothing. Then, when you come to the end of that market, there’s a guy selling kofte (meat balls) or fresh fish burgers straight from a rolling grill. And this isn’t even touching on the crowds…

Crazy crowds near Eminonu.
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Spices at the Egyptian Bazaar.
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Fish cook.
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Tobacco seller at Karakoy.
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We arrived in Istanbul at probably its busiest time of year, but with a population of 14 million on a regular day I’m guessing it wouldn’t diminish a lot.

Now, I couldn’t finish a blog post without talking about food. All I can say is that I have a huge appreciation for Turkish tea, coffee and cuisine, fast, street and slow. I didn’t even miss bacon… that much.

Turkish tea and coffee.
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Neither myself nor Nic tried that dodgy looking wet hamburger (Islak Burger) and I will trust anyone who tells me it is awesome. With no kitchen to use at either hostel, unfortunately (Ha! Not!) we had to eat out a lot. Tavuk (chicken) Shish appeared regularly, served with green pepper, salad, chips and rice. We also ate a ton of chicken kebab meat, but found the best 2 am meal to be the not so authentic Patso. Chips, pide bread, mayo, amazing.

Chicken shish and chicken kebab.
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Karniyarik, aubergine stuffed with mincemeat, was my favourite dish from the cafeteria style workers eateries, along with baked beans. But the highlight had to be at Serbethane, this beautifully decorated restaurant inside a 300 year old compound with views of the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. We first went for endless cups of Turkish tea with Shisha under the stars and went back for the Testi Kebab. Lamb, chicken and vegetables, cooked over hot coals in a ceramic urn – we were lucky enough to have the restaurant manager bring ours out, still over a flame and smash it open in front of us.

Testi kebab at Serbethane.
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Istanbul deserves a lot longer than the six nights we afforded it and was truly worth every minute of the 22 hour journey it took to reach. Nic even came out of our stay about 5 years younger, thanks to a traditional Turkish cut throat shave and hair cut from the barber on Bogazkesen street!

Cut throat!
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TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 148 hours

The most fun you can have whilst trapped in a tiny room. Budapest, Hungary. October 16-20, 2012

7 Nov

STARTING this blog post on our time in Budapest (while on a very flashy and modern train from Rome to Venice) was really difficult. Was it such a dull place that I couldn’t recall anything exceedingly good (or bad, for that matter) to write about?

The people we encountered were not remarkably friendly and the typically Eastern European food we ate (Goulash, meat stews, potato dumplings etc), whilst certainly not bad, was nothing to write home about either. The day we arrived, it poured with rain. But the four following days were beautiful, so nor can I pass judgement on the weather. Straddling the Danube River, the City’s West Bank, Buda, is hilly, with some pretty architecture and over on the commercial East Bank, Pest, there are some lovely wide pedestrian areas and parklands that are a pleasure to stroll around.

Pretty streetscape
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Stunning architecture
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But then, only a few minutes walk away, where whole districts are still digging their way out of the post-WWII Communist stranglehold, fashion and hairstyles look like they have roughly caught up to about 1995 and I would be lying if I said we did not pass by more than our fair share of very dodgy characters.

It looks like I’m painting a pretty critical and unappealing picture of this often-raved-about City, but bear with me. I soon realised that Budapest, though lacking any kind of definitive cohesiveness, is actually a magical and extremely enjoyable sum of many tiny factors.

Here is why…

You can bathe outdoors, in crystal blue ,40 degrees Celsius water – in the middle of European winter.
Budapest sits on a fault line in the earth, which has produced 118 thermal springs, so there are a number of naturally heated public baths in the city that offer a range of services. We went to Szechenyi Baths. There were a lot of seniors wearing shower caps and bobbing around in the whirlpool and it was a great novelty. We bought an hour massage for about A$50 each, but unfortunately it was pretty awful.
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You can pay a man A$40 to lock you in a tiny, creepy room, with no key, a series of cryptic clues and an hour to get out.
Kind of like the horror movie franchise ‘Saw,’ except you don’t die. ParaPark is tucked away underneath a pub in south-central Pest. It’s basically another one of those adult playgrounds that I adore, except in this one, you have to work in a team and think quickly in order to find keys, unlock codes and escape. We played on two separate days, failed the first time and got out with about 3 minutes to spare the second. While I ran around panicking and holding up bits of overhead projector plastic to a computer monitor, Nic’s God-like knowledge of electricity compelled him to Macgyver a random piece of metal from somewhere in the room to complete a circuit, thus opening the door to our freedom.
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Paprika.
Need I say more? This crimson spice is the national food, emblem, religion and major export of Hungary. Well, probably not the last three, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It is sold en masse to tourists in dedicated shops along with every type of related memorabilia you can think of – tea towels, tins, spoons, bags, aprons, the list goes on. Hungarians are also fond of serving chilli peppers, bell peppers and capsicum with every dish, even breakfast.
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Budapest’s Metro system has the worlds longest, fastest and scariest escalators.
Don’t look down.
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You can stroll across a bridge that actually looks like a chain (Chain Bridge) into Medieval Budapest.
Castle Hill can be reached by funicular or a decent hike uphill on foot (our stupid? choice). There’s a great view of the Danube, the Royal Castle and surrounds are very cool, as is the mosaic tiled roof of Matthias Church – and I am not a church person, but by far the coolest thing is the underground Labyrinth. It’s dark, damp has been used throughout the centuries as a jail and a harem. Apparently Count Dracula was imprisoned down there during the 15th century! It costs about A$8 to get in, which we thought was a bit steep until we got to the really dark bits, then we thought it was worth it. There’s also an old nuclear bunker and wartime hospital inside the hill that you can take a tour of.

Chain Bridge
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Matthias Church
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Cave Labyrinth
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The bar scene.
There are dozens of small bars and ruin pubs (open-air pubs established inside disused and decaying buildings) scattered around the Jewish district. Hungarians are clearly not congruent with the Red Bull-Vodka concept, as we got strange looks when we asked for it – otherwise, the atmosphere is really fun. One bar we went to had wine carafes suspended from the ceiling and a toilet called Lady Gaga. Win.

There were fish in our hostel toilet.
Well, in between the two panes of window glass anyway. I didn’t get a good photo, but the toilet window had been turned into an aquarium, so while you’re sitting there happily taking a dump, so are the goldfish! The whole hostel, called Lavender Circus, was pretty bizarre actually. Our room had a massive painting of a fat naked lady on the wall and the common room had furniture stuck to the wall. The staff were really nice though.
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I can safely say we only scratched the surface of what Budapest has to offer and I do believe that it’s a City that deserves more than a few days to get aquatinted with, but before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to the olive-skinned, blue eyed Magyar people and moving south to Spearwo–, I mean Serbia.

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 115 hours

Not what we expected, but not so Bad(alona) after all. Barcelona, Spain, September 17-19

3 Oct

Our two days’ stay in Spain’s party metropolis had all the makings of a successful whirlwind pseudo-weekend away. Despite being situated in Badalona, in the City’s suburban outskirts, the hostel we booked, BE Dream Hostel Barcelona promised a youthful party atmosphere, just 5 minutes walk from the beach and a few metro stops from central Barcelona, with a ping pong table and art supplies to boot.
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We had heard numerous people rave about Spain’s second largest city being their favourite European hub and we had high expectations coming off the back of an epic week of beautiful sunshine, an indulgence of beer and Sangria and an endless supply of quality food in the country’s capital, Madrid.

It actually turned out to be a bit of a non-event, which I’m inclined to think may have been initiated by the curse of the overnight bus.

For about €30, at least half the price and surprisingly quicker than the slow train and about a tenth of the price of the fast train, bussing from Madrid to Barcelona was an easy choice. Not so easy, however, was gaining any form of rest, comfort or fresh air on the 7-hour trip. I know, cry me a river, but by the time we arrived at Barcelona Nord at about 6.30 am, we were tired, irritable and certainly not amused to find this almost uninhabitable bus station kindly supplied toilet paper to commuters… on the OUTSIDE of the cubicle.

The hostel was easy enough to locate, close to Pep Ventura station and we were able to check in early and start ploughing through a mountain of laundry from Madrid (we were washing in the plastic bin in Madrid), even managing to go food shopping and later whip up a stir fry. We had a wander through Badalona and I was spun out over how suburban it was after being in cities for the previous 3 weeks – there were kids walking home from school, people walking dogs in the park and jogging along the beach, so in that respect it was nice to see how people like us lived in suburbia, but overseas. In the evening, we were keen to crack into the beers (€2 for a six pack of San Miguel in Del Rio supermarket) and chat to other travellers, but apart from a high school group of 50 kids from Holland (to be continued), the hostel seemed fairly quiet, so we downed a few beers on our own.
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Badalona Beach

We ventured into a grey and overcast Barcelona (not the beach weather we’d hoped for or expected) the next day without much of a plan (mistake #1) and ended up being disappointed by the Erotic Museum (€8 entry) on Las Ramblas (Barcelona’s main ‘happening’ street) and underwhelmed by Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), the Arena Shopping Centre lookout and Olympic Park but we were excited to find La Boqueria market, tucked away off the main street.
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MNAC – Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

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View from MNAC

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La Boqueria market

This fresh produce market is teeming with locals and tourists (probably to the chagrin of the locals who are just trying to get their shopping done) and provides the complete sensory overload. Fresh fish, live crustacea, meat, sweets, fruit and vegetables, preserves, nuts, grains – anything you can think of is there and in vast supply… but disappointingly there are no free testers. We spent a good hour and a half in there trying to decipher lung from liver and filming still-moving crayfish and crab sitting on an ice display.
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An assortment of meats and entrails

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Grains and cereals

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Lollies!

In retrospect, we should have just organised a day trip up to the mountains at Monserrat (the Dutch kids said it was awesome) or to the castle, Castell de Montjuic, but we didn’t and instead got drunk by ourselves two nights in a row at the hostel, the second night peaking only when Nic got yelled at by the teachers supervising the Dutch school trip for inciting some sort of bad behaviour (we call it fun, they call it naughty, whatever.)

I think the highlight of our stay in Barcelona was the Madrid vs Manchester City football game. Nic wanted to watch it at the pub and we were going to head into the City but we happened upon a small family-run bar in Badalona called Frankfurter’s, which, true to its name, sells about 20 different types of sausage, as well as some traditional tapas dishes including our old friend Patatas Bravas… and they were screening the game.

At first we thought the owners didn’t want to let us in, because they couldn’t speak English and they thought we just wanted a drink without food, so one of the guys started waving his hand at us telling us to go away. Once we had got past that misunderstanding, we got a good spot at the bar and soon had two fat bratwurst in bread and two beers to devour. We ended up having a lot of fun with the staff and met a Spanish couple who had recently returned from driving around Australia, who helped us translate a little.
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Wares from Frankfurter’s, Badalona

So, our brief visit to Barcelona was not the one we had envisioned, but after writing this blog post I realise it was actually a nice two-day break from our otherwise hectic trip so far.

HOSTEL

Be Dream Hostel http://www.behostels.com/dream
Av. Alfonso XIII 28B, Badalona, Barcelona, Spain

    Pros:

Comfy beds, well-equipped bathroom (hostel converted from some sort of aged care or disability centre), nice staff, commercial kitchen, decent breakfast included, free Wifi

    Cons:

Hostel is in the same building as a day care centre so from morning to late afternoon, all you can hear is screaming children. Hostel lacked a bit of atmosphere, but maybe because of the huge school group, even though they were really nice kids.

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air: 22 hours.
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time: About 53 hours.

I love your €1 bocadillos, endless tapas and cervesa, Madrid, but I’m struggling to keep right on the escalator! September 12-17

28 Sep

It’s 1 pm and a vocal buzz perforates traffic noise from Carrera San Jeronimo, flowing onto the footpath outside Museo de Jamon, one of Madrid’s many stand-up Tapas bars. There are signs on the windows and doors advertising €1 bocadillo (bread roll with filling) or bebidas (drink), an insanely good price that is snatched up by what appears to be the City’s entire population, which is literally bursting out of the bar’s doorways into the cloying inland heat of the day.
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€1 Bocadillo or beer at Museo del Jamon

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After a couple of days practise at this typical lunchtime rush, it becomes clear that if you can think quickly, talk quickly and move quickly, you will get along just fine in Madrid. We have been here for a few days and in Ibiza for 10 days prior, so we are primed in the language and custom of ordering a meal in Spanish, but getting fed and watered in this cacophonous meat market requires the mettle only a cash-strapped and starving backpacker knows. More than 100 patrons are packed four-deep to the narrow stainless steel bar that runs around the length of the small shop on the corner of Madrid’s famous eat-street Calle Victoria, laughing, chattering, devouring food at speed and tossing napkins and crusts of bread onto the floor.
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Lunchtime rush at Museo del Jamon

If you can get close enough to the glass and plate-cluttered bar to be heard and for your cringingly pitiful Spanish to be understood, then you should come away with an unbuttered crusty bread roll with cheese, ham or chorizo slapped inside it and a half-pint glass of ice-cold Estrella or San Miguel beer for €2. So, if not for the spectacle, the price makes the ordeal worth it.

Tapas, which has recently found popularity in other parts of the world, including Australia, is one of the reasons that I cannot stop talking about Madrid. Less about the food (although it is delicious!!) and more about a culture of sharing and enjoyment, I think Tapas speaks loudly in encapsulating the Spanish ethos.

Madrid, particularly the central barrios (neighbourhood) of Sol, where we stayed, is absolutely chock-full of tapas bars, restaurants and cafeterias, mainly small and family run. We ate out a lot and drank a lot in Madrid – it’s fairly cheap, the food is to die for and beer and Sangria is cheaper than water. Chorizo and Patatas Bravas are recurring favourites and we noticed the locals ate a lot of bite-sized empanadas, which look like small pasties, green olives and deep-fried cheese and ham-filled croquettes.

One afternoon, for about €12, we bar hopped on a Sandeman’s New Europe ‘Tapas Tour.’ we met some really cool people and tasted a variety of traditional tapas foods, including tripe stew! (Sandeman’s is a really great tour company, we’ve also done a few walking tours with them and they’re fun and informative.)
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A plate of Tapas from our Tapas tour

Now, back at the beginning, a little worse for wear, but better than expected, we flew into Madrid from Ibiza on another surprisingly good Ryanair flight (highlights included watching other passengers get busted for oversize hand luggage). I thought Madrid might give us a few days rest, but how wrong I was!

Like Ibiza, Madrid does not sleep. Shops open around 7 am, after the party has finished around 5 am… every night of the week.
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Central Madrid by night

I was going to recall the ridiculous hour plus trek we made to find our hostel, Barbieri Sol, amongst Madrid’s winding alleys, but a tale of stupidity and lethargy would only ruin the story of a city so, well, perfect.

Madrid is a decent sized city, but you would never know it. There are no skyscrapers piercing holes into its’ historically rich skyline casting cold and looming shadows on taut-faced business people (Well, they are limited to one district). In fact, midweek, not even a suit can be found in its’ central parts – though there many very stylish women! Madrid did not feel like any city I have ever been in. It is intense, vibrant and non-stop, but for a large, modern European hub, Madrid is remarkably warm, inviting and homely, even for the foreigner.
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Madrid’s buzzing streets

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One of the many street performers we passed by each day

The City is divided into 21 unique districts and unfortunately we didn’t get to visit them all.
Sol, the namesake of our awesome hostel Barbieri Sol, is in the district Centro, best known for the busy Sol metro station and corresponding Puerta del Sol public square.
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Puerta del Sol on a sunny Autumn day

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Our landmark to get ‘home’ – Sol metro station

We rowed boats on the lake (€4.50 for 40 minutes) and watched rollerbladers in Retiro, home of the beautiful Retiro Park, took in some culture at the Reina Sofia Museum in Atocha, Arganzuela, mingled with dense crowds at the neverendingly huge El Rastro flea market in Latina and witnessed the slaughter of six bulls during the weekly Sunday bull fight at Las Ventas bullring in Ciudad Lineal, the ethics of which I won’t go into during this post.
We also ate a standout meal of succulent Cabrito Lechal (baby goat), downed burgers and Budweiser, American-style at Tommy Mel’s diner and indulged in our first ever ‘chocolate and churros’ at Chocolateria San Gines, which is open 24 hours!
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Rowing on the lake in Retiro Park

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The leafy Avenida de Mexico in Retiro Park

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El Rastro flea market, Sundays in Latina neighbourhood

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Before the bullfight at the beleaguered Las Ventas bullring

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Alhomora restaurant on Calle Victoria – serves a mean (and massive) leg of goat dish

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Tommy Mel’s Diner – if you need a break from Spanish cuisine, this place is fab

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All American- burger, chilli fries and Budweiser

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Chocolate, churros and coffee at San Gines Chocolateria

Madrid has been the standout City for us so far on this trip. Madrid’s Metro system is beautifully functional (the best in the world?) and sometimes quite beautiful and, albeit loud, positioned in the middle of Calle Victoria, our hostel was lovely, made even more so by the very kind and helpful staffer Sofia. We did have to move hostel for our last night in Madrid, to the old, dark and ghost-like Hostal Naranco, on the other side of Gran Via -a far cry from the fun at Barbieri Sol.
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An underground art gallery at one Metro station…

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… and this characteristically Spanish and fun mosaic at Retiro station

I ended up shipping 7 kilograms of stuff back to Perth, which cost €50 and should take about 8 weeks. And yes, Nic did say ‘I told you so.’ But, the hair straightener stayed and is being well used, I’m pleased to say, however my gold sequin hot pants got shoved into a green cardboard box at the Correos (post office) on the third floor of the maze that is Il Cortes Ingles department store, along with an assortment of other impractical items. Literally and figuratively though, it was a weight off my shoulders.

Besides still looking the wrong way for cars coming down the road, we found our feet quite quickly and easily in Madrid, even eventually mastering right-hand-side escalator and stair walking etiquette, which was quite surprising and amusing on our arrival.

HOSTEL
Hostal Barbieri del Sol, Calle Victoria 6

    Pros:

Perfectly central location, close to the best food in Madrid and 2 minutes walk from the Metro. We had a shower and sink in out private room, but the toilets were shared and they were super clean and nice. The free continental breakfast is nice and all of the staff were very friendly and helpful. Wifi is free.

    Cons:

Very very loud at night, given that it is situated atop a street of bars. Earplugs a must and even then, don’t expect to sleep much.
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Nic relaxing with the hostel cats over dinner on the terrace at Barbieri Sol hostel

HOSTEL
Naranco hostal, Calle Pueblo, 6

    Pros:

It was cheap? And available. It was also clean and the owner is a nice lady in her 50’s, but she cannot speak a word of English. Wifi is free.

    Cons:

The hostel is dark 24/7, which is a bit spooky. It’s also not in the best part of town and a bit of a trek to civilisation.
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The entrance to Hostal Naranco – it wasn’t that bad, but, you get the idea

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air: 22 hours.
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time: About 43 hours.

Eat ALL of the things!!!!! (Don’t be afraid to eat from the street in Kuala Lumpur, it’s amazing) DAY 1′ September 1, 2012

3 Sep

SO we didn’t exactly plan to eat all the things in Kuala Lumpur, it just kind of happened that way. After checking into Reggae Mansion and being duped into accepting a twin room instead of the double superior we had booked (It’s a better room the concierge said, it’s got a television he said!!) neither of us really cared to argue as it was only for the one night, so we pretty much dropped our bags and headed into town in search of some good Malaysian food.

We walked and walked… and walked… and eventually found a food hall with red chairs and red plastic tablecloths and even table service and ordered Nasi Goreng, forgetting that Mee is noodle and Nasi is rice, and I realllllly wanted noodles!! (Writing this on the plane from KL to London, I cannot believe I left KL without eating noodles!)

Being the only Westerners in the ‘restoran’, we must have looked like complete dicks trying to order the meal, but it was worth it as the spicy rice was amazing, as was the ensuing culinary rampage around the streets of this hectic but inviting city.

The street markets in KL are pretty much the same as every SE Asian country I have been to, crowded, loud and vibrant, but the clothes, bags, tshirts, electronics, jewellery, sunglasses etc are interspersed with stalls of sizzling grills and woks and baskets housing a myriad of (mainly fried) meat, fish, sweets and fruit. We had to ask what most of it was and then we ate it… A lot of it.

From what i can remember, here is a list of what was consumed in far to short a period for its quantity and richness:

Grilled corn in a cup (RM2 or about AUD65 cents)

Tropical fruit cup – with flavour! No one could tell us what this brown granulated powder was, they just kept saying “flavour flavour” so we sprinkled some on the fruit and it was salty and not awesome. (RM3 or about AUD$1)

Hugest doughnut in the world – walked like 2 km back to the stall to get another one) (RM1 or about AUD30 cents)

Samosa (RM1 or about AUD 30 cents)

sweet egg pancake thing – So so delicious. (2 for RM1 or about AUD30 cents)

Fresh Spicy chickpeas (RM1)

Square coloured ice cream on a stick (RM1)

Fried onion thing chopped up with a bag with sauce. (RM1)

Tiramisu and vanilla flavoured sponge cakes – I can’t remember how much these were but it was just coloured sponge cake that looked better than it tasted!

We were literally running from one stall to another, in a cloud of excitement, eating everything in sight until we literally could not fit another morsel in… Until we found a supermarket… With a wall of Cadbury…

Walking though the streets of KL, it took me about an hour to realise I was the only female around who did not have her shoulders covered, let alone was not wearing a headscarf. I felt a bit disrespectful after that and still haven’t worked out in my mind whether i should have put a T-shirt on. There were also very few westerners about.

Back at the hostel, two beers, a bowl of wedges and finding that the amenity of the hostel far exceeded its ambiance, we went to bed, food comatose.

HOSTEL: Reggae Mansion

    Pros:

great facilities, nice bar and courtyard with buy one drink get one half price, friendly staff, nice rooms – beds were hard but I actually slept really well.

    Cons:

lack of atmosphere – but I want to put that down to us only being there one night and crashing fairly early due to an early12+ hour flight to London ahead.

KUALA LUMPUR: (half a day judgement)
Want to return. Eat everything.
I didn’t realise KL would be as ‘third world’ as it is, but everyone is super friendly and helpful and they don’t mind speaking English to ignorant tourists 😛
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