That time I rode a camel at The Great Pyramids of Giza

Visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza is something I think must be on everyone’s bucket list. It was definitely on mine. So when I got the opportunity while working in Cairo to spend a day at pyramids I literally jumped at the chance. You may be surprised (like I was) to find out that the pyramids are so close to the city centre that in some locations you can actually sit down for a meal and see the vague shadow of a triangle in the far distance. It is quite amazing really. Getting there then isn’t far at all by car as my colleague and I were lucky enough to find out when we got a lift with some local friends we made on one of our first nights in Cairo.IMG_0994After a quick purchase of tickets you walk through a security check and it’s hard to contain your excitement when see the oldest standing seventh wonder of the ancient world right there in front of you. As soon as you get there you can practically jump on a camel and in a whirlwind hear the history of the pyramids rattled off from its handler, who like many of the workers there, had been in the same job for over 10 years. Needless to say he had done this mannnny times before and we were encouraged to take ALL the cheesy touristy photos.IMG_0922IMG_1014IMG_0939Following a long photo shoot spent on a pretty angry camel by the end of it we entered the tomb of the architect of the pyramids, which was a man named Hemiunu. We were told we were lucky to take photos there and that it was forbidden to put them on social media (I doubt this is true but I have a million other photos to share from that day). Nevertheless, I saw my first ever hieroglyphs before then being taken around to each of the three pyramids by horse and cart. This was definitely a perk of having Egyptian friends who could negotiate an actual “Egyptian price”, a term which you will hear COUNTLESS times in Egypt as if the Egyptian sellers truly think you will believe this as a tourist with blonde hair! Meanwhile we saw other non-Arabic speaking tourists (the few other tourists that were there) walking painfully in the heat. The downfall of this deal though was that we didn’t enter any of the pyramids with the guide dismissing it as the “tunnels being too narrow and dark to see anything” – something I wasn’t so impressed with but a reason to come back one day right?

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Another perk of being with Egyptians was that we got chauffeured to the nearby perfume and papyrus stores where we were shown the true scents of Cleopatra, Nefertiti and Chanel (yes before it goes to Paris guys!) before purchasing original papyrus prints – see definitely not a tourist trap… To cap off the day we returned at night to see a light show that was spectacular, not because it was anything fancy or super high tech as truthfully it was probably barely surviving in contrast to the tourist hot spot it once used to be. However, the mere fact that we were sitting front row (with probably only 10 others in the crowd max) while watching lights flicker across such an imagined place in the world is truly an experience. The pyramids may not be as ‘exotic’ you would expect through the imagined films from Hollywood but just sitting in front of such remarkable structures whose sheer size and magnificence took over 20 years to build that have lasted over 4000 years to this day is something I will not forget. Having stood the test of time, they really do achieve the vision of immortalising the Pharaohs forever.IMG_0634IMG_0661IMG_0677IMG_1167.jpg

Discovering Romania and Bulgaria in 7 days

In the true spirit of adventure, a flight to Bucharest was booked with less than 24 hours before take-off and a week later another flight back to London from Sofia. The vague plan? Get from point A to B in between hunting Dracula in Transylvania.

Having just booked a few nights accommodation to start with, this trip turned out to be one of the best yet. Castles, a road trip and the biggest cheese platter of my life – what more could you want? Here’s what that 7 day journey looked like and some lessons learned along the way…

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DAYS 1-2: Bucharest

We arrived in Bucharest with little expectations and even less information to go off. A Google search will tell you that this “modernising” capital of Romania has impressive Soviet style architecture and due to this was known to be the ‘little Paris’ of Eastern Europe but what does it make it now?

Our first impressions were that it was cold – really cold – and as I struggled pulling up my skinny jeans over thermals I recalled my friend’s response who had visited Romania last year when I told her I had booked my tickets.

“You’re going at this time of year?! It will be f***ing freezing!”

Yes, yes it was dear friend. However, despite that one time I almost cried because my hands were so sore from the cold that after we escaped into a beer hall I actually sat on them Bear Grylls style to prevent frostbite, it actually wasn’t too bad. While layers are essential, you can’t argue that snow makes for good photos and is also great for throwing snowballs at boyfriends who wake up late (true story).

Bucharest is worthwhile visiting but as we found, can mostly be explored in about two days. The architecture is definitely impressive and big, and we stood in awe of the Palace of Parliament – the fourth largest building in the world – for quite sometime taking it all in (which had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we couldn’t enter that day due to some official gathering). Along with the buildings, wide streets and their very own ‘Arc de Triomphe’, you can see why a similarity would be drawn between Paris but it did seem to stop there. Bucharest has its own feel, more akin to Budapest perhaps but not quite as cool. However still, we spent a nice time wandering the streets while enjoying the coffee shops (Origo was one), parks and restaurants. We also celebrated Valentines Day at a rooftop bar and then moved on to Alt Shift, where you will find the holy grail of cheese platters.

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Lessons learned:

  • Studio apartments are good value and give you a nice feel of how the locals live. We met the owner upon arrival who kindly left complementary beer, soft drink, water, red wine and chocolate! Would highly recommend Victoria Studio.
  • Food for vegetarians is quite scarce and while I am still working off all the carbs I ate, I can tell you the pizza and cheese pastries are good!
  • Uber is really the way to go here however if you are travelling from the airport, make sure you book a cab inside the terminal, that way you are less likely to be scammed.
  • Deemed Bucharest’s oldest beer house, Caru’ cu Bere is “touristy” but is in no way a tourist trap. Somehow without a lunch reservation we managed to score the best seat in the house – on the second floor overlooking the violinists playing everything from Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon to Enrique Iglesias’ Bailando. Feasting on homemade bread, aubergine dip and soup, it was the perfect pitstop to escape the cold.

DAY 3: Bucharest to Brașov

After some initial hesitation we finally decided to brave the potentially icy roads and drive through Transylvania, listening to the reassuring advice of a friendly Romanian guy who we sat next to on the plane. While we had read plenty of warnings against it online, the roads had been well cleaned of ice and snow, the only real danger being ourselves and our ability to drive on the other side of the road!

We had booked three nights in Brașov and decided to use it as a base. Being a central location with some key sites nearby, it’s a safe and convenient option – saving the hassle of booking numerous places to stay.

Lessons learned:

  • Book the rental car in advance rather than on the day at the airport like we did! This may result a long wait or worse, no cars available (booking online also has cheaper deals).
  • Stay somewhere with breakfast if possible like Casa Albert on the main pedestrian street. We got the Blue Suite, which we later realised was had 2 rooms for “the kids”. Considering our lack of, we used this room to store all our snacks (another hot tip… bring snacks for the road!)

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DAY 4: Brașov to Râșnov Citadel, Bran Castle and Poiana Brașov (Ski Resort)

Now this was one of the best days because we could see so much in the one day (thanks to the car and central location). We first went to Râșnov  Citadel, a fortress built sometime in the early 1300’s, which is perched on a rocky hilltop in the Carpathian Mountains. If you think outside the fortress is impressive, wait until you go in – it literally takes you back in time. After looking around, taking in the incredible views and trying our hand at axe throwing (get it, heh heh), we made our way to Bran Castle which is known for the Dracula myth and is a national landmark in Romania. We had some lunch (I got a nice Romania soup and bread) before visiting the castle, which is a very well-marketed tourist attraction that reveals why the belief in a bloodsucking vampire still lives on in Translyvania.

Lessons learned:

  • You do not need to get a train up to the fortress, while they may tell you it’s a 1km up the hill, a generous estimate would be roughly 400 metres.
  • Bran Castle gives you an insight into the links between the “real” Dracula (known as Vlad the Impaler) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula story – both of which have loose ties to one another but work well to keep the myth alive.

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DAY 5: Sighișoara, The Fortified Church of Biertan

Today we drove just over 1.5 hours from Brasov to Sighișoara, which at first glance may not seem like much but once you take a proper look around you will see it is a rich mix of what it means to explore Romania. Arriving there, it is noticeable that there exists a considerably high Roma gypsy population, with kids seen asking for money along the streets. If you make your way to the medieval “old town” by entering the citadel under a giant clock tower you instantly forget what is outside those walls. The colourful UNESCO-protected site dates back to the 16th century and is still a fully functioning town. Walking the cobbled streets you are reminded that locals still live there as they go about their daily chores of sweeping the streets outside their home or attending to their small restaurants, regardless of the fact tourists like us wander around with cameras. After some solid exploring and a thousand photos we then drove to the village of Biertan, another UNESCO-protected stronghold boasting medieval architecture. Driving there is interesting as you pass through smaller villages on the way and inspired by this we decided to take the longer yet more scenic route back to Brasov.

Lessons learned:

  • Sighișoara is beautiful but it does have one of the highest Roma gypsy populations in all of Romania. Another fun fact is that it is also the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler who was born in 1456.
  • If you want to enter the Church of Biertan try to arrive early, it was after 4pm and unfortunately by then the gates had closed..
  • There are two routes from Brasov to Biertan via Sighișoara… to really see the ‘real’ Transylvania, take the road less travelled (it’s only about 20 minutes longer) on the way back to Brasov. You won’t regret it.

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DAY 6 – Peleș Castle, train to Sofia

We did a macca’s run and left Brasov early so that we could fit in a quick visit to the stunning Peles Castle before catching the only train to Sofia from Bucharest. The train took a good 10 hours or so with a stop on the way. After entering Bulgaria by crossing the Danube Bridge which is a sight to see in itself in the snow, by the time we got to Sofia it was quite dark. Nevertheless, being the young adventurers we are (and fearing dodgy taxi fares) we decided to brave walking with our suitcases for a good couple of km’s and still live to tell the tale.

Lessons learned:

  • Coffee is even worse at Mc Donalds in Romania and there are basically no healthy options at Gare du Nord station in Bucharest – prepare to eat takeaway, beer and delicious bakery items.
  • Do NOT put your feet on the seats of the train or lie down to sleep… we learnt this the hard way when a stern Bulgarian guard gave us a huge lecture (not in English) then tried to fine us (or worse) for resting our feet on the chair in front. We may or may not have looked up emergency/Australian embassy numbers.. thankfully the person he called to assist him didn’t come and we got let off.

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DAY 7 – Sofia, Bulgaria

To end our trip we spent a full day in Sofia, which was most memorable not because of the tourist attractions we visited but for the wonderful white powder that filled the streets overnight. From none at all when we arrived to the biggest snowflakes I’ve ever seen, the city literally transformed itself into a winter wonderland before our very eyes. Having stayed at L’Opera House, which was only a few hundred metres from the famous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, we enjoyed the day playing in the snow and eating some good vegan food, something we had missed during our time in Romania.

Lessons learned:

  • It snows A LOT in Bulgaria.
  • Hospitality is a bit different in Bulgaria as is the style of restaurants they run. For example, it was no less than a mission to find DreamHouse that had been listed as one of “best vegetarian restaurant in Sofia” thanks to trusty Trip Advisor. It was basically up a flight of stairs via a passageway off the street (no sign mind you) and next to a hostel that had a bunch of backpackers smoking and drinking beer outside in the stairwell… the food was good though!

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A weekend with the Geordies in Newcastle

One of the best things about living in London is not just how easy it is to travel to cities in Europe but also within the country itself. When I studied in Spain, I was lucky enough to make some British friends from Newcastle. And so it was a perfect excuse for a trip up north.

Less than three hours from London Kings Cross Station by train, Newcastle upon Tyne or ‘the Toon’ as the locals call it, is a university town that has grown quite the reputation. Perhaps most popularised by the TV series Geordie Shore, the UK’s answer to Jersey Shore, Newcastle is a compact city is full of bars and clubs where you can get ‘mortal’ (wasted drunk) and the girls go out wearing next to nothing despite the freezing temperatures. It was actually my second visit to the Toon, visiting the same friends here some five years ago, so I had vague memories of all this before. In true Geordie style, we went to the notorious and aptly named club, Sinners, known for ‘trebles’ (triple shot drinks).

Like all things though, a second look and the passing of time will always reveal something more. The town lies on the river Tyne, which is where you will find the Tyne Bridge (almost a mini-me version of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge) and the Millennium Bridge – two icons of the city. It’s against this backdrop that you’ll really discover Newcastle in all its glory. We found a great deal on an AirBnB apartment right on the Quayside with a water view, if you are ever in Newcastle, a view of the Tyne is key to soak it all in. Here you’ll find the nicest places for a drink, runners zipping past on the walkways (although not so great to see when hungover) and markets that I visited on Sunday, where you can try some Northern delicacies like ‘pease pudding’ (a chickpea spread) or get your fortune told in a gypsy caravan.

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Picturesque Quayside
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Stunning view of the Tyne (and yes, it’s sunshine!)
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The Tyne Bridge – a mini replica of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge
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The Gateshead Millennium Bridge lights up at night
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Get your fortune told at the Sunday markets

Immersing yourself in the history is easy with sights like Newcastle Castle, which stands tall with incredible views of the city while walking around town and through its 1800s architecture will take you back in time. Known for its such buildings (but also the strip of bars and clubs) Grey Street is perhaps the most well-known area in all of Newcastle and marked by the Greys Monument at its Northern end, a 130ft column and statue that is a central meeting place for locals where you can go up for a bird’s eye view of the city. The history is also still echoed in the dialect of the people from Newcastle or ‘Geordies’ and its surroundings area that can be recognised by their broad accent, which is unique to the region. While all regions of the UK have their unique languages, the Georgie accent is really something to behold and can be difficult to understand at times – even if English is your first language (my friend admitted to changing her accent on the phone so ‘an Australian to understand’). Over the course of the weekend I learnt some new lingo (‘tab’ = cigarette, ‘aye’ = yes and ‘wey aye man’ = hell yes!) and that the term ‘Geordies’ itself is a derivative of the word ‘George’ due to the loyalty of the people to King George back in the day.

In contrast to the deep history is quite a vibrant modern Newcastle – shopping, restaurants and some quirky attractions like cat cafes (there are two!). Not the world’s biggest fan of cats, I was convinced to go to “Mog on the Tyne” (‘mog’ = cat) where I tried my best to enjoy a coffee and scone in the presence of some curious felines. As for the nightlife scene now, it’s still going strong but since my first visit it does seem that trebles are not so much the trend anymore. Besides the debauchery, what really sets Newcastle apart is the unique setting, history and people that captures your imagination… and so what if you find the time to have a wild night out on the Toon?

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On top of Newcastle castle – best view of the city!
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Historic buildings of Newcastle 
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Coffee and cats
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Still no trip to Newcastle is complete without a night out!

One Month in London

Eating, touristing and fiesta(ing) in London

This week marked the one-month anniversary of my move to London and what better way to celebrate than with the first post of my new blog!? I’ve been sitting on this for a while and I promise I had the absolute BEST intentions to get this started as soon as I practically got off the plane from India (but that’s another story saved for another day). Time somehow seemed to get away so quickly since day one in London in between the dazzling lights of Christmas, a New Year with a countdown one minute early and that trip to Copenhagen…

Anyway, with the festive season over and it’s official that I have survived my first 30 days of London winter, I now have no excuse (besides searching for a way to supplement my spending)!

So what have I been doing and how did I spend my Christmas and New Year in London?

Firstly I’ll tell you that while I’m yet to find my dream job, I’ve managed to accomplish some adult things like moving into a flat, getting a bank account plus a UK phone number, applying for my National Insurance Number and most importantly, joining a gym. I won’t deny that some of this was made a little easier by the convenience of having a boyfriend who’d already moved here from Australia a few months earlier (enough time for him to develop what he believes is a ‘legitimate English twang’ to his voice, I beg to differ) so trust me, I have counted my blessings. If you want to hear an expat horror story, just ask any foreigner about their time searching for a suitable non-extortionist flat in London… in saying that though, every flat of my Australian friends I have visited so far is nice, you just need to take some time looking around and be prepared for a bit of stress on you and your bank account. Bonds aren’t always cheap and often you’ll have to provide proof from your employer that your salary is enough to cover monthly rent, which can be difficult if you are still looking for work.

Now on to the fun stuff that, I’m not going to lie, pretty much makes up everything else. I believe it fits nicely into three simple categories; eating, touristing and fiesta(ing?)…

EATING

I’m not a huge foodie (my friends who believe/know I can’t cook will attest to this) but I do try to eat healthy and can appreciate a tasty (and hopefully) nutritious meal. The thing is, after being vegetarian for two years I have finally come to realise that finding decent places to eat can be a matter of life and death(bycarbs) plus cheese and peanut butter can only get you so far.

What’s great about London though is that restaurants and cafes almost always have vegetarian options while wholefood stores are definitely not few and far between. Within the first four weeks of being here I took it upon myself to sample a few of the local places in my area and while they can be overpriced, for the most part they are delicious. Also grabbing organic chocolate from the wholefood stores makes it so much more healthy, right? Like Australia, avocado on toast is a thing here too while brunch is just as popular as back home except one key extra: the option of bottomless prosecco. Need I say more?

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Visited the vegan-inspired ‘Farmacy’ twice already!

TOURISTING 

Ok so I’ve been to London as a tourist a couple of times before, the first was on my inaugural “Eurotrip” eight years ago where, in my final year as a teenager, I thought Camden was the greatest place ever while taking a ride on the London Eye + getting the souvenir photo was absolutely essential. Besides that though I visited the typical sites, you know The British Museum, Big Ben, The Tower of London, Hyde Park… but looking back and thinking I’d “seen it all” was a massive underestimation. There are still so many things on my list of things to see and there is SO MUCH TO DO in London.

Although I’ve moved here with the intention of becoming a ‘local’, I openly admit that I’d never really been to the West of London until now. In saying that then, I’ve been taking the time to get to know the area and explore the city. Some of the highlights would include afternoons spent at Portobello Markets and Borough Markets (Portobello Road is literally a two minute walk down from me), a visit to the Tate Modern, seeing a  couple of theatre shows and going up on the viewing platform of the iconic Shard courtesy of a best friend who gave me tickets as a farewell gift.

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Exploring the pretty streets of Notting Hill
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The Thames from Tate Modern
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View from the Shard

FIESTA(ING)

Everyone says Christmas is truly magical in London and it’s the truth. The lights on Oxford Street, the carols, the sparkling trees shining through peoples’ windows, and just the general festive buzz is something unique. Then there’s Winterland Wonderland in Hyde Park, which is kind of like Oktoberfest in London minus the dirndls and lederhosen. I kid you not, there are even Bavarian beer halls. I spent Christmas Day a bit differently than I would in Australia, beginning with a midnight mass the night before at the local chapel, something I’d never done before. In the morning, I FaceTimed my parents where I found and opened the presents they’d hidden in my suitcase then made pancakes for breakfast before heading off to feast at a friend’s house with his family who were so nice to invite us over to spend the day with them. There were the cheesy Christmas sweaters, festive movies, games and round two of presents but I can tell you now that it was also the first time I’d ever had Indian food on Christmas day.

New Year’s Eve was also different to the norm in Australia, where the whole day is spent drinking in the sun and the whole night is spent, well, drinking in the dark. Getting back from Copenhagen at midday did not have a bearing on our plans as I found out that for Londoners the biggest events are often held on New Years Day and most people tend to go to house parties at night on NYE. And supposedly it’s only the dedicated tourists or “grown-ups” who camp out for hours, in the cold (and sometimes winter rain) to watch the fireworks on the Thames. In considering this then, we had a four-course pub dinner with some British friends and danced the year away at a NYE party instead. Come countdown however the DJ was a little too keen and did the New Year countdown a minute before the rest of the country. Regardless of this, I’ve had a great (and minute early) start to 2017 and am so ready for a year full of possibility ahead.

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The magic of Winter Wonderland
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Homes like this make Christmas in London special