#foreveralone

Is there such thing as The Perfect Travel Companion?

You’ve all heard the stories. Best friends and groups of college mates, embarking off on the trip of a lifetime. What could be better then you, your friends and backpacking across the world? Two weeks into the trip Sue and Amy are at each other’s throats, Megan just bought a ticket home and as for Amanda… Shit no one’s seen her in days. Amanda was left in Spain.

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Travelling is a facilitator of new, interesting and enduring friendships. It is also infamous for ruining friendships in irreparable ways.

How can such a good thing be so bad for our human bonds? The thing is, Travel is such a subjective experience and we all have our preferred choices. Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it fast, some like it slow, some like it in the…oh you get my drift. THe real issue is, just HOW (?) when everyone wants to do something different, are you supposed to meet each others needs without sacrificing any of your own wants? Call me selfish, call me childish, but i cannot give up my own travel plans to accommodate anyone else. Any other topic of life and I am open to negotiation but when it comes to seeing the world…thats my once in a life time journey that ain’t nobody gonna mess with. Ya hear!

Now, due to the fact my friends are too few and too precious for me to be able to afford to lose any, I opted for solo travelling without a second thought. Being a lonely backpacker, able to do what I want to do, go where I want to go, spend what I want to spend and have only myself for blame suited me just fine. At least it did for a while.

Solo travel, with all its freedom and flexibility, has one ultimate downfall. It’s not loneliness. Travelling as a band of one, you can meet so many people along the way that loneliness is far from an issue. The flaw is found in those soul inspiring moments, when you stumble upon some place, some breathtaking view and you turn to the person next to you all gibberishly excited like “Holy shit, ERMERGERD, looklooklook,” and… there’s no one next to you to squeal with. There goes that split second of awkward silence before the moment resumes its epic self.

These once in a life time moments can’t be photographed, Instagram don’t got shit on that and if you don’t have a comrade to back you up when you try remind yourself that it was real, the magic gets lost slightly.

I loved travelling alone, but after a while I couldn’t help wondering if I really would be doomed to travel solo forever unless I was willing to give up my refusal to veto my own plans for someone else. NEVER.

#foreveralone

And then I met Anda. Doesn’t that sound like the start of a love story?

I know i’m not the only highly independent and stubborn individual who likes to go my own way and truth be told, i still hold solo travel in high regard. I do believe everyone, just once, should go it alone.  I also realise, that there will come a time when you crave companionship and will freak out at your inability to go along with others plans. I’ve been there and let me shed some light for all you solo wanderers and  single backpacking fiends out there who might be feeling the tickle of worry. Should you ever want to share your adventures with someone, you are never doomed. There IS a perfect travel companion out there for you.

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These are two common mistakes people make when finding a travel buddy;

The first mistake is assuming your best friends at home will be your best friends overseas too. Hullo? You’ve taken a “comfortable” thing and chucked it into a situation way outside of anyone’s comfort zones. It’s a whole other world out there and the buddies you needed at home are not always suited to your needs out in the wild unknown. If a lack of a partner in crime is holding you back, please – stop looking for someone to go with you and just go! If you have left with someone and you’re just having a bitch of a time with them, please – don’t stress, just go on without them (preferably before you never want to see each other again). You can’t just choose your ideal travel mate, the world chooses them for you and you don’t really get a say.

The second error is looking for someone who wants to do the exact same things as you. Yes, I know, I made this mistake. Whatever mate, i learnt my lesson so let me preach! The key to a perfect travel companionship lies not in similarities but in opposing characteristics. What you need, is a Ying to your Yang not a Siamese twin (Channelling my inner Confucius here). Where you are weak, your travelling soul mate is strong, where your interests lie, your travel buddy’s interests lie elsewhere. This is how you work like clockwork,  because you can carry each other on your strengths and you get on with each other through your differences. It’s all just so magical.

Without stressing, or trying too hard, chances are you’ll wake up one day and realise you’ve been having breakfast with the same friend all over the world for weeks now without even realising it! True Travel Soul Mates. Boom.

You know you have found your travelling soul mate when;

1. You travel together to the same destinations, yet you can still do your own things. The best part about a good travel-lationship (yes, i did just do that to that word) is the ability to do your own thing. There’s nothing worst then getting sick of each other and it’s only human not to like the same things. Plus there’s nothing like reuniting with some fresh new yarns to share over too many reunion beers after a day or two a part.

2. You seek the company of others, not just your selves. One of you is really good at picking up randoms, the other one knows when its time to stop talking and move on. This means you make a healthy amount of friendships without having a bunch of weirdos following you all over the place.

3. You get lost far less then you would alone, and when you do get lost it’s far more fun. One of you has a good sense of direction (or at least know how to read a map) while the other knows how to ask for directions. This way you’ll always get there in the end. Anda and I… We laugh in the face of getting lost and laugh even harder when we end up at the wrong place.

4. You are both poor. Or you are both rich. I don’t care what they say, if one of you is a baller, and one of you is getting creative with the local vegetable and two minute noodles for dinner, this relationship is going to end up in irreconcilable differences.

5. You have different taste in the opposite sex. Because best mates just cannot cut each others lunch out there.

6. You laugh at each other. This has the soul cheering effect of making you laugh at yourself and turning even the shittiest occurrences into a comedic and unforgettable memory. This one time I got egged at 3am on the way to Norway and smelt like a raw meringue for the best part of 12 hours. There I was ready to bite someones head off and Anda (see – heartless bitch) is laughing her head off. Not long later, I was laughing myself. Only a true travel soul mate could turn a moment like that into one of my favourite travel stories.

7. You party on the same level. I don’t know anyone else who would have happily spent 3 days partying at a music festival in Porto with no sleep and then fallen asleep on the concrete steps of some old (apparently judging by all the tour buses) famous Portuguese church as if it was a feather down mattress. We would have made a few tourist photos that day.

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8. You trust each others judgements. Sometimes people just have that tone in their voice that says “don’t question me just do what I say” and you really REALLY want to walk away or say no but… when Anda talks like that i ask no questions and I’m pretty sure she’s saved my life. When I talk like that Anda does the same and I’ve probably nearly killed us both too many times. But she’ll never stop trusting me. Respect.

I spent the best part of 7 months travelling on my own whim. It was an experience I would not change for the world but there were definitely places i avoided for the reason that i just believed I needed someone else there. Like Italy. A bowl of fresh pasta is best enjoyed with a bottle of Vino and a friend, am i right?

Anda is my perfect travelling companion. We have been places together and one day we will meet once more and continue  travelling the world together. She has proved me wrong in thinking that travelling with another was simply impossible. I didn’t really ask her to come with me, nor did she really ask me to join, it kind of just happened and it totally just worked. That’s a happy ending you would never see in a love story.

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Travel advice from NZ travellers to NZ travellers!

Cheapflights NZ, a travel inspiration and flight finding site is beginning a new feature where they have been inviting Kiwi bloggers around the world to share their favourite home and away destinations for travel. I’m a fan. Who better to recommend places to New Zealanders then other New Zealanders? We know what we like. And you can believe this or not but…they’ve asked for my opinion.

Gobsmacked.

So from a twenty-something backpacking blogger, here goes;
For my top recommended international destination let me take you to the opposite side of the world, to a little town in Portugal called Lagos. Situated on the Southern West coast of the Algarve this town with its cobbled streets and white washed buildings will steal your heart (and ruin your liver). Surrounded by magnificent golden cliffs, crystal waters, beaches and natural grottos it’s beauty is what catches first time visitors off guard every time. New Zealanders will feel right at home in what is practically an outdoor playground. From surfing and kite-surfing, paddle boarding, kayaking, treks with magnificent views, and much more you won’t be bored. For those who just want to relax you’ve got a multitude of beautiful beaches to choose from to get your tan on. Then there’s the nightlife, where anything goes. Not to mention, in comparison to the rest of Europe, it’s a cheap destination where you get bang for your buck. You must hit up local Casinha do Petiscos, which in summer’s peak has lines out the door. Iv never seen a disappointed or unsatisfied place leave (nor have I seen someone been able to finish their meal!) and at 10-14 euro you just can’t argue. The best time to visit Lagos if your into a more chilled out vibe is May and September. If partying and crazy night antics are your game you want to be there in July and June. Whenever you go though, you’ll have a good time.

Me at Praia do Camilho

Me at Praia do Camilho

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My view this morning when I finally rose from the bed- still drunk. BELOW- Some snaps of the streets of Lagos I when I Dragged myself out

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As for back home, I feel like the Bay of Plenty wins hand down as my favourite place to spend a holiday. With the cruisy, and hip Mount Maunganui beach town on one side, and the peaceful, cool mountainous escape of the Kaimais and Mclaren Falls on the other. It’s the best of both worlds for nature and outdoors lovers.
Don’t be fooled by those who call it a retirement village because one walk down town the mount and you’ll see fresh new design stores, local boutiques, and a cafe culture that could give the streets of Auckland and Wellington a run for their money. For an ultimate coffee and famously HUGE slice experience hit up Cafe 88, right at the end of the Main Street down town. This wee cafe is always pumping. Feel free to grab a takeaway and hike up to mount Drury or on to the beach to enjoy it with a view. Of course a must do is the Mount Maunganui climb itself. The panoramic outlook at the top is always worth it, even the locals never get tired of posting endless “top of the mount” selfies. If salt water isn’t your thing, head over to the fresh water falls of Mclaren’s, a true escape from the crazy world. Whether you want to beach it and surf away the days or hike through some bush land and jump from falls into fresh water pools, the Bay of Plenty will have you loving life.  Watch out though because you might find you never want to leave.

Go explore McLaren Falls and you might find something as beautiful as this!

Go explore McLaren Falls and you might find something as beautiful as this!

Classic "Top of the mount" snap

Classic “Top of the mount” snap

Looking forward to checking out what other NZ travellers have to say about their top picks! Head over to Cheapflights NZ for more destination recommendations from kiwi travel bloggers and get inspired!

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Life After Travel- Living with Wanderlust

To anyone thinking about going backpacking, pay attention. This is a warning about Wanderlust and the rest of your life after.

Everyone will rave about how the trip you are about to embark on will change your life. It will. You’ll plan your trip, you’ll head off on an adventure, you’ll be scared shitless, laugh ’till you pee, brought to tears, be exhausted, be exhilarated, be loved and be broken. The people, the food, the cultures, the parties, the sceneries, will all leave an indelible mark in you. In short you will be Mind blown.

Take heed though, because while Travel is the best thing ever, life after travel is the worst. No one raves about that. It’s important to me that you know this. I was not warned and now I am caught off guard and trying to deal. Real life, it’s a struggle. Wanderlust is now my best friend, and my worst enemy.

What you left behind, you will come back to in one way or another. Whether it’s your home culture, a career, study, a normal stable routine. Whatever. Doesn’t matter, you will resent it. You will be distracted by day dreams, you might become a little bit depressed, you will undoubtedly be bored. Wanderlust is in your blood and not even shopping for clothes and shiny things is fun anymore.

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It’s been a month and a half now since I re-joined the working world, the daily grind. For the first time in a long time I have my OWN room! My clothes are in drawers, I can home-cook meals (well try to, I won’t promise anything gourmet), and I even have a gym membership! It would appear I have fallen back into the 9-5 society quite nicely, as if I had never left.

Except I feel oddly disjointed and out of place.

My random Europe adventure feels like some kind of crazy dream and I am in a constant state of after-sleep fog. You know that feeling you get when you wake from a restless sleep and it takes half the day to break the blur and focus on reality? A normal life (or widely accepted normal) of work, eat, sleep, make a family, buy a house, feels depressingly pointless and hard to understand.

How is it possible that the most directionless thing I’ve ever done- spontaneously wing my way around the UK and Europe for 7 and a half months- has given me more sense of direction (in a figurative sense, I still am a tragic case when it comes to reading a map) and belonging then following the path of living that general western society would acceptably call successful. Blow me down.

Your life changes once you’ve experienced how easy Travel can be. When you bite the bullet, swallow down your anxieties and your ‘what if’s ‘and just pack your backpack and go, afterwards, travel no longer feels like a distant goal that requires hard work in planning and saving. Backpacking, as you’ve experienced first hand, is perfectly doable. Gone are your pre-travel excuses keeping you in one place.

This makes it really hard to make yourself stick to a desk and financial security when the urge to go explore somewhere new is now engrained in your soul.

So here I am, sitting once again at a desk, wearing uncomfortable heels, an uncomfortable high waisted skirt and counting down the hours while I try to work out what I’m really living for. I thought I couldn’t wait for stability, to have a proper job again and to travel on my holidays. Routine, ya know? I was wrong. Truth is, two weeks holiday on another shore will never be enough, and routine will always be boring.

Not saying you shouldn’t go off on your adventure but just thought I oughtta let you know, you may never be satisfied with your old way of living again. I sure as hell am not.

There’s no other way around it, time to start  thinking about the next adventure.

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Lost in the Mountains of Montserrat

Barcelona, A popular and much loved Tourist destination in Spain. Whether your here to do the whole ‘tourist’ thing or just hang out, you wont run out of things to do and see in this colourfully cool, hip city. Everyone who’s been here will have their ‘favourite’ must-do in this vibrant Catalan city and they will chew your ears off talking about it. From countless architectural icons, to landmarks, museums, bars, beaches and attractions. They will repeat their demand of you over and over again and if you dare to return home without evidence of having followed their advice and also been where they told you to go, you’ll be met with such disappointment you just want to shrink and pretend you never went to Barcelona at all.

Now, I’m not going to preach tourism to you here but if you get to Barcelona and you don’t take the chance to visit Montserrat then your life has an empty void in it. Just saying.

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As far as I’m concerned Montserrat is an underrated wonder of the world and a natural park of phenomenal standings. I can’t call it beautiful because it does not fit my definition of beauty. If anything its better. Monserrat is the epitome of breath taking. Standing up there staring down at Catalonia/Spain, I truly lost my breath and it wasn’t just because I’d climbed about a thousand steps in 28 degree heat.

The stairs just kept going on into the clouds

The stairs just kept going on into the clouds

Montserrat is actually a monk retreat way up in the rocky mountains of Catalonia. The name ‘Montserrat’ translated means ‘Serrate mountain’. All the guides and websites say it takes about an hour to get to by train. Of course this is written in the Spanish way not inclusive of siesta time. A handy hint for Spanish time frames, take the Estimated time of a journey or wait, and add a half hour of ‘siesta time’ to that and you’ll have a more accurate idea of travel time. There is also a bus option which is a lot cheaper if you’re scrambling for coins and don’t mind leaving at 9am, returning at 5pm and the even longer travel. Being an impatient human I consider the extra euro for flexible and faster train ride euro well spent.

View from the Train approaching Montserrat

View from the Train approaching Montserrat

So Montserrat is a place of great religious significance and a destination of pilgrimage. Yet you don’t have to be religious to want to come here. I will admit, The Basilica is worth a look whatever you’re level of spirituality. I was just following the crowd digesting my lunch before attempting to climb the mountains (ain’t nobody got time for the stitch) and I wondered inside.

Approaching the Basilica

Approaching the Basilica

I thought after the UK I was all ‘churched out’ but turns out there’s always room for being impressed and in this case I actually stepped inside and exclaimed out loud ‘oh my god’. I’m not religious but the inside of the basilica is something else. Decorated with stained glass, monuments and glowing amber lights it’s hard to decide what to stare at first. All around the seating area are individual lights encased in these ornately designed lanterns, each one of them unique. I don’t even have the words to describe the rich imagery and décor of the altar and head of the Cathedral.

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The basilica is famous for holding one of the black Madonnas of Europe, la Moreneta (means the little dark skinned one, which I think is a very PC translation). She’s a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus and the line to say hola to her was at least a Kilometre long. I don’t do lines and I’m not full of enough faith to wait for three hours to come face to face with her but by all means, join the line if the need takes you.

After my ‘holier than thou’ walk through the Basilica I turned towards the unusual rock formations and began what was to be a hike I wasn’t prepared for involving several views I wasn’t prepared for. In 28 degree heat in my New Balance sneakers I began a walk that killed my calves and made me a lot sweatier then id anticipated. That will teach me. Not only is 80% of the path a bloody steep climb, it also tends to disappear leaving you wondering where the hell you’re supposed to step next. One section was connected by a log over a gap in the cliff, another section was broken up by some rockslide and you had to clamber over rough large gravel to get to the next part. Great fun if you like to walk on the wild side. Every time I thought of giving in and retreating back down I would see a new obstacle, or catch sight of the view which would be so stunning or exciting I would be motivated to clamber on and up in search for an even better view or just to best the broken path in front of me. Yeah, my inner Bear Grills was getting a bit carried away.

Determined to get over the next hill of stairs

Determined to get over the next hill of stairs

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Broken paths

Broken paths

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Sadly I never made it right to the top. After an hour long climb I had to turn around. It started to rain and no one wants to slip alone up here I’m telling you. It’d be you and the mountain goats. I also don’t fancy ending my time on the road dead in a crevice, no matter the view. Its ok though because I’m coming back to Barcelona soon and when I do l will be ready to tackle Montserrat once and for all.

 

So why on Earth should you travel 2 hours (give or take) to a monastery in some rocky mountains when Barcelona has so much else to offer within the city itself?

Montserrat is a unique place. It’s not just another building, or another church, or another museum/gallery in the middle of another city. Which after 8 months of traveling and seeing all that shit over again can be more of a turn off then anything. At least it was for myself.

For me, Montserrat was an escape from the city and the masses of noisy people. I mean, you can still expect a lot of people up here, it is a tourist draw card after all. But at least you leave the noises of streets, of traffic and the smells of urine and dirty air far behind in exchange for quiet and crisp fresh oxygen in your lungs.

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There’s something for everyone. Those with The Faith can visit the Basilica and wait in that line! History buffs have a museum to enjoy. Outdoorsy humans and nature lovers have a range of walks and hikes around the monastery to choose from.

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The walks are not all missions either. There’s plenty of flat little walks near and around the monastery which are just as peaceful and also give a great view of the landscape. So whatever your fitness there’s a path you can take.

Images from some of the easier pathways around the monastary

Images from some of the easier pathways around the monastary

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As well, to get to the very top you don’t have to do the massive hike if that’s not your thing. For an extra 7 euro you can get what they call a ‘funicular’ which is kind of trainish except it climbs a practically vertical slope to the top of one of the rock towers. I’m the kind of soul who needs to conquer these thing’s on her own two legs. But at least if the top and a view to make you topple off the edge is what you want, for an easy extra cost, it’s what you’re going to get.

If I could do this again (AND I will when I return) id wear sturdier shoes and pack a picnic to take with me (cos trust me, you’re going to want and need fuel). There’s also some pretty sweet spots I passed where I couldn’t help thinking how awesome it could have been to have a munch while looking at the vast rocky canyons surrounding you. My best advice is not to be a wank like me and be prepared. You don’t have to go hard core but proper shoes, and an emergency rain jacket wouldn’t go amiss.

Up among the great rock pillars of Monserrat I felt like I was on top of the world, in the clouds, and all alone. It found the moment of solitude I needed up here. My travels in Europe coming uncomfortable close to the end for 2014, it was a pretty cool place to have some time to reflect on the insane, beautiful, scary and life changing moments of the past 7 months.

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Montserrat was the touristic highlight of my stay in Barcelona. So you should totally go here. It’s an absolute must see. Not that I’m going to be disappointed if you don’t… who am I kidding, don’t you dare tell me you skipped out on Montserrat without a legit excuse.

A market stall where I bought a yummy dry fig and walnut cake

A market stall where I bought a yummy dry fig and walnut cake

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Oslo on a budget? Yes you can!

Oslo. The capital of Norway and acclaimed “most expensive city in Europe”. But don’t worry. It won’t cost you 90 pounds/180NZD to get from the airport to the city centre. Which is what I thought when my currency converter app fucked out on me…. It’s ok. It was actually only about 16 pounds. Still pricey but…before I had realised my mistake I was pretty ready to get the next bus back to the airport and sit there until the plane home. I mean yes I know, ‘this is Oslo‘ but I was bloody  scared if that was what it cost just to get out of the airport, how on earth was I going to survive three days here. I rarely feel this happy to be so wrong.

It was a slow and unexpectedly long train journey into the actual city of Oslo. However the journey is mesmerizingly scenic which kind of makes up for the extra travel times. Picture infinitely clear blue sky, reflected by lakes of mirrored glass, surrounded by pine forests and pointy little houses that look like something “Heidi” would have lived in and you might be half way there to what it looked like. The country side is pristine and fresh. At least it was on this day. Everything was as I imagined; clean, well-kept and fairytale-novelesque.

I’m not going to try and gloss over the fact that Oslo is expensive. I mean the city looks expensive, smells expensive, even the fresh Norwegian air tastes expensive. When ever you look shocked at the price of something I can 100% guarantee a local will simply say ‘this is Oslo” – as if that’s an excuse?. What I will say is, baby it’s worth it. , you’ll get our bang for your buck. Quality over shit. In Oslo you pay top dollar, but you get the quality to match.

Being a borderline broke traveller, it was only the temptation of cheap flights that got me here. 52quid return! I know, not bad at all. Then I got sick of everyone saying “don’t be fooled by cheap flights you’ll spend a fortune” and my stubborn streak kicked in. I’m Mandy Hale, I can go anywhere on a budget if I have to. So, With a 150 pound limit set for three days I certainly saw the best of Oslo that I could. I even had 10 pound left over.

Can i get a, hell yeah!

This is how myself and my travelling partner in crime, Anda, tackled Oslo in budget exploration style;

  • We couchsurfed. A lot of people have fears about couch surfing and are turned off by it and yeah there are pros and cons to going couch surfing just as there are pros and cons to staying in hostels. The thing is, when you’re faced with free lodging or a €28 a night charge, staying with a local for a few nights looks like a fantastic idea. Even better if you luck out and you’re host turns out to be someone you really enjoy the company of! Either way, couch surfing hosts are almost always kind hearted (they let strangers sleep on their couch!) and open, just wanting to connect with people from all over the world. So spend half your budget on accommodation, or save it and couch surf instead. You decide.
  • We ate and drank ‘in’. In a place like Oslo you save a shit tonne of dosh limiting the number of times you eat and drink out and utilizing the supermarkets instead. Asides from drinks on our last night and a fabulous lunchtime meal, we ate in and life was good.
  • We walked. I don’t mean walked as in your day to day walking either. I mean walking as in, we trekked the entire city on foot. I’m not kidding when I say it was worth every blister and ankle ache. If I could give anyone wanting to save money and experience Oslo one piece advise it would be this;

Wear comfy shoes and use those legs!

Why wouldn’t you want to walk it either? There is such a range of terrain here from romantic harbour side wanders to dynamic city streets, to bush trekking in the hillsides. I feel like together, Anda and I saw every inch, half of the time with giant rucksacks on our back (we are tough bitches man. All in the name of travel ay!) and spent not a single cent on getting anywhere.

This ones probably going to cop some dirty looks but, if you’re looking for a night out – befriend people. People who look rich. A costly 21 Euro for 2x vodkas is going to rack up your budget and double your hangover guilt the next day. Are we drinking liquid gold people? Luckily we befriended some lovely Americans who proceeded to shout the rest of the night. Hate to be them when that credit card bill turns up.

Here’s a quick break down of my favourite sights and areas we explored on foot.

The Opera house:

Reminding me of the Sydney opera house, this building feels like it’s made of layers of glass and concrete slabs. Standing on top you get a wicked view of the port. Also the roof feels a bit like it’s designed to mimic the swell of the sea, all choppy with some sections rising and some falling. I’ve never seen any roof like it and it’s pretty neat. And I’ve seen roofs in my time don’t you doubt it.

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The 'ocean' roof

The ‘ocean’ roof

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The Seatless chairs:

Ok so this isn’t an official sight to see here but I couldn’t help but notice and be amusingly puzzled by it. Oslo seems to be dotted with random chairs and I think it might be some kind of Norwegian joke I haven’t been told about, because none of them actually make any sense to sit on.

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Akershus Fortress:

My favourite thing about wandering around the fortress was the fantastic views from the battlement walls. It was also where we first started to get a taste for the interesting sculpture culture here. A giant top hat, a pillow man (who certainly didn’t look as comfy as a pillow but…) and an elephant bird. No I don’t get it either but it does make you stop and stare.

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Oslo Harbourside:

One of the nicest parts of our Oslo adventure was the evening stroll we took from the palace down to the port and along the boardwalk. There is such a vibe of wealth but also such energy. People are put and about, there are vendors and street acts, people eating and talking and dancing even. Again, our walk was plagued by strange sculptures. A pattern was emerging here; nudity. Oslo seems to appreciate nakedness so much in the sculpturing around the city. I can’t believe people bother wearing clothes here at all.

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The city, the people, the night.

In the city centre there were three very different areas we walked through. The first was like a ‘high street’ style with fashion houses and beautiful people eating outside restaurants (apparently, everyone in Oslo eats out a lot because there were a tonne of people in and outside cafés and restaurants the entire time we were out. I guess they can afford it!?). The second part was a very ethnic area. It was here we found a street style market and bought some of the longest looking watermelon we have ever see. Thirdly were the city park areas, breaking up all that concrete!

We also got the chance to walk around the city that first night, too tired to party but still wanting to get an idea of Oslo nightlife. I’ve never felt so serene walking a big city at night. It also feels like it is in the night when all the tiny little elves come out and work their magic so that when everyone wakes up in the morning the streets and parks are picture perfect again.

I have to say, it’s not just the city; the people here, very beautiful. The men, my god. This short little brunette feels entirely unworthy. They are tall and sexily handsome. They are bearded and with an air of confidence about them. It’s just a bonus that most of them are rich. Even bigger bonus, from what we’ve seen, Norwegian men are always taking bouquets of flowers home! What lucky women are these? GAH! It doesn’t help that the women are equally as show stoppingly stunning. Long blond hair, tall, lithe and curvey shapes. Yeah, no I will not be standing next to any Norwegian ladies if I can help it.

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Grünerlokka

We love shopping vintage so following local advise we beelined it to Grünerlokka. Of course, keeping within budget, actual shopping was out of the question. A 500 pound coat would have exploded our cheap spending dreams out of the water. Still, we got to browse all the pretty things and think ‘one day’. It was here as well that we stopped for lunch and I literally had the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Right heres another quality budgeter tip for Oslo backpackers; When you’re hungry for lunch, come here. It’s delicious, nutritious, filling and at 690- 900 NOKS (£6.90- £9.00) well within means. It was kind of like a really wholesome, high market subway minus the dodgy ingredients. This baby had me going for 3 hours trekking round Ekebergparken. Hashtag Om nom nom.

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Ekebergparken

At the top of the green hill you can see from the Opera house in Ekebergparken is one of Oslo’s most famous parks renown for it’s sculptures and as a camping spot if you’re into that kind of thing. I found Ekebergparken both fascinating and a little bit spooky. I could never camp here. For many reasons, a) there’s a tonne of burial sites here, b) a Nazi cemetery once existed here c) there’s a few of those creepy “art” exhibitions where the artist uses recorded voices and videos of people (dismembered eyes and mouths etc) that makes me think of psychiatric hospitals. Gives me the heeby jeebys. Asides from that, it’s a great escape from the city life. Here you’re surrounded by trees and fields and sculptures (many abstract and many naked) which makes for a pleasant change of scene.

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One of the creepy exhibitions with videos playing, human heads and all that weird jazz.

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and last but not least, The Outdoor Cinema at St Hanshaugen park!

When we were looking for free things to do, Anda stumbled across this gem. on our last night off we went with cider and popcorn to the park to watch the original film, Sherlock jnr. The place was crowded with people; young ones drinking, smoking and old ones and families, with their picnics and rugs. The Atmosphere was very chilled out. Sure the film was in Black and white and sure It was in Norwegian and sure, it got kinds hard to see anything as the crowd filled up and everyone began craning their necks to see. We did get to chat to some Norwegian fellas, share a beer and enjoy the experience nonetheless so if your lucky enough to get to attend something like this, don’t sweat that you don’t know the language. Its not really about the film anyway!

The crowd from high, before we arrived and way before it was actually full

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The crowd from high, before we arrived and way before it was actually full

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There’s so much more of Oslo worth seeing guys! I just can’t bore you yarning on about the rest of it when you could just go see it yourself. Of course, the more money you have, the more things you can actually do in terms of museums and tours etc. At this time in my life, I’m too antsy for museums and expensive tours anyway. Lucky cos I’m traveling cheap. For now, just being able to be here was amazing.

It wasn’t easy leaving Oslo. Not only did I whimper the whole way to the bus station about not wanting to leave but also because of the state of the Sunday buses. Our one was 45 minutes late and at one point it was as if the bus had disappeared completely. One very distressed lady missed her plane. It was a scene you’d expect in London but not in Oslo, the model of a perfect city. In a way it was nice to see a more humane side of it all. Not even Oslo is a perfect place and it gives me hope that I could acceptably live here after all! My first day in Oslo I was filled with unexplained happiness. I just felt so peacefully good to be here. By the second day I made up my mind that one day I was going to live here. Maybe next year. Maybe in five years. Maybe for three months, maybe for the rest of my life. I don’t care if I’m not blond, tall, rich or perfect enough for this city! Fact is, there is a time and space waiting for me here and yes, you can hold me to that promise!

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Is there such thing as Luxury Budget Travel ?

If someone had asked me this a few months ago I would have laughed in their face so hard they’d be splattered with my DNA loaded saliva. You hear the words ‘budget travel’ and those in their right mind imagine the following; springy mattresses, bunk filled rooms, cockroaches, smelly socks (not yours, the guy in the bed next to you), cheap and uncomfortable seats, sleep deprivation from long bus journeys next to people with no body space awareness (the middle arm rest belongs to the person squished up to the window dammit!) and the most inconvenient time schedules possible. It’s all part of the fun!

Anyone with images of smiley stewards, complimentary waters, potpourri filled bathrooms, clean sheets,  and leisurely check ins at normal times of day may want to take the next step up into ‘leisure travel’ or you will be in for the shock of your life.

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As you can see, my mind was sarcastically cynical about the possibility of comfortable travel on a budget. Until recently, when I saw something that gave me, ME, the biggest unbeliever, that there could be the oh so slim possibility that I could travel, on a budget, AND in comfort. NO WAY!

This discovery came about after a particularly long and arduous coach journey to Belgium and back on a weekend. Coach travel in London, for those who don’t know, can be extremely cheap and therefore extremely popular for budget travellers like myself. The thing is though, we trade comfort and time for low cost. At the time of payment this feels marvellous. However 4 hours into a coach trip when your seat doesn’t recline, you’ve had to get on and off the coach three times for border checks (each time just as you were about to drift off!) and then you’re on a ferry where no one can get a piece of floor let alone a seat because all furniture has been scavenged by selfish bastards to form makeshift beds (really I’m just bitter they got there first because I would have done the same had I known. Every man for himself and what) AND you realise you have 4 more hours of this shit…WELL. That 100 pound flight starts to look like a fair deal.

So a week after this trip to Belgium, I was faced with the prospect of another long distance coach trip. This time to Scotland. While reluctantly perusing 20 to 30 pound buses something caught my eye. A 25 pound trip to Glasgow on the coach companies  ‘luxury service’. That stopped me in my tracks. A luxury coach? Could it be? I refreshed and reloaded that page. There it was, a luxury ticket for the same cost as ‘non-luxury’. The non-believing voice in my head was scoffing and muttering about a luxury coach with a ‘budget’ price being a scam. Louder though was another voice in my head, the voice of optimistic hope who with inexplicable excitement, drowned out Mr negative by raising A very good point; ‘there’s only one way to find out’.

You can bet on your mothers life I booked that trip there and then. On a roll now, I also booked a more pricey return. Prompted by the websites refined graphics, pictures of friendly looking staff and the advertised promise of wi-fi, refreshments and… A BED. Why not?! Actually there could have been nothing but a bed and I still would have been all ‘fuck it’ and booked. The memory of that sleepless trip to Belgium was still painfully fresh.  My hopes of a comfortable 8 hour journey to and from Scotland were raised and ready to be met.

The good news is I made it to Scotland and back on this ‘luxury’ service. The bad news is, the journey certainly wasn’t without its hiccups. The worst part is, I should have known. You see what I had in my head, encouraged by the fancy website, was fucking ‘butleresque’ type service. Tea, coffee, gourmet snacks, single beds with velvet curtains, the whole shabam. I should have seen through the fancy marketing bullshit because a) the parent company was still, and always will be, the biggest BUDGET coach provider in the UK And b) the words, budget, luxury, and travel, put together make an unsolvable equation that equals nothing but impossibility squared.

If you don’t believe me, lets go through my experience there and back.

1) London to Glasgow for 25 pound on a ‘luxury’ sleeper coach service.

I arrived an hour before my coach. I was there, ticket in hand, prepared, EXCITED even. The prospect of sleeping on a comfy bed to Scotland rather then sitting next to some stranger and staring out the window in a vain attempt to sleep had me actually looking forward to the journey. I waited, the reservation screens switched and the next bus to board was s11. My bus.

Funny, it looked exactly like the normal coaches. I looked around, there were no other coaches in the building. I checked the date and time. All correct. No worries, I’m sure if this isn’t right I’ll be pointed in the right direction. So I line up, the ticket lady takes my ticket, checks my reservation number, takes my bag, and on I went.

Seats. Seats everywhere. My heart sank. I don’t know why I didn’t move or say anything. All I can assume is I put my faith in the ‘luxury’ service to rescue me. That’s the problem with these voices of ‘optimism’, they can never face it when everything turns to shit, clutching onto hope until its way too late. This positive me was clinging to the idea that once we got moving, the bus would undergo a transformer morphation and turn into ‘luxury’. If you were also hoping this for me I hate to break it to you but no. No it didn’t.

Seated and still hoping for the best...

Seated and still hoping for the best…

So I sat, for over 8 hours, next to a girl who was smaller then me yet seemed to need two thirds of our seat space. I got no sleep. At all. Red eyed and cramping I watched as the bus finally arrived in…Edinburgh. This was not where I was meant to be. Everyone got off.

I forgot to mention that I was on a direct service to Glasgow, so why I was in Edinburgh I had no idea. I just attributed this to be part of the nightmare that was this journey and refused to move. Eventually the bus driver came back and asked to see my ticket. He looked at me with that look that says ‘ here we go another stupid girl catching the wrong bus’ . I looked back like, ‘I may be stupid but so is whoever checked my ticket and put me here’. Sure enough, Mr Bus Driver confirmed i’d been put on the wrong bus. He then kindly drove to Glasgow.

Resigned to another hour, but now with room to stretch my legs, I sat back and sent a polite email to complaints enquiring as to why this happened to me. It really was nicely worded and polite! I can be polite… but I still have had no response and if by the time I’ve written this post I have had no response there will be hell to pay.

2) Edinburgh to London, 55 pound on a ‘luxury’ sleeper coach service.

It was a tired and heavily laden with doubt me that arrived at Edinburgh bus station. My ‘positive’ voice had been well and truly kicked to the kerb on my journey here. I was in the mood for no-fuck-up service this time round PLEASE. Thankfully, the coach that arrived was definitely NOT the same as the seated coaches I was used to. This one was all clean, and royal burgundy and luxe looking! Just like that the childish anticipation of my optimistic self was back . FINALLY I get to test this shit out.

On boarding the bus every passenger was handed a water and a double chocolate muffin by a jovial little man. No Ryan air, infomercial spiel or extra cost included. Can’t complain.

Then I got inside and actually got to have a good geez at the interior. It was the strangest thing I have ever seen in all my ‘transport’ experiences. It looked like a shipping berth. The beds were hammocky and teeny tiny. Admittedly they were the perfect size for myself but if you’re above 5’6 in height or on the larger side in weight then you’re in for a squeeze.

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Skinny beds with safety nets!

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I called top bunk because it looked like it had more room. You still couldn’t sit up without having your head cranked at a 90degree angle. ‘Luxury’. But you are here for sleeping so I guess sitting up room shouldn’t be an issue. Except it was because a) I’m a wriggler, b) I had a bra, a thermal and shoes to remove before I could actually get comfy enough to sleep. It was like trying to undress in a coffin. I also had a bag with me and turns out there’s absolutely no where to put a backpack except in bed with you. Like a dirty, smelly canvas teddy.

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All tucked in and… ready to sleep?

10 minutes into the journey, as I began to get all sympathetic for the plight of tinned sardines, the lights went out and eye masks were handed around. This is nice, this is some what ‘luxurious’. Airlines only hand this shit out for business class and above. Maybe I was a baller after all I thought as I awkwardly tried to get my mask open in my confined space. Typically, i put too much muscle into ripping open the bag and the mask went over the side. Did it land on the person below? They never reacted but I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. The lucky cat was probably asleep and who am I to ruin it for them just because I was failing miserably at traveling in luxe style.

You know, I think I did fall asleep. Cause I did that thing where you wake up and there’s drool all down your face and on your pillow. The not so eloquent cat nap. I was also uncomfortably hot so I threw off my (very nice red polar fleece) blanket and maybe slipped back into dreams again. This time I woke to the feeling of cold drool on my cheek and arm (I really hope I’m not the only one who has this issue with sleep drool or this is a bit embarrassing…) the air conditioning had been cranked up. Frustrating. There was also three hours left and I knew none of these hours would involve me sleeping. All I wanted to do was… sit up. Also frustrating.

Everyone will be pleased to know I made it home in one piece. Albeit a bit smelly, with drool stuck to my face and feeling incredibly jet lagged despite having crossed no time lines.

After all that, am I a converted believer in luxurious budget travel or do I remain faithless on the subject? 

Look, I wouldn’t call it luxury at all. According to the oxford dictionary, Luxury is defined as being ‘a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when at a great expense’. From experience I can say, in no way is this service a ‘state of great comfort’. If anything it’s an awkward state of comfort. Now the idea of this form of travel being ‘elegant’ literally had me spit my coffee back into its cup before I sprayed it all over the table. Oh the jokes I could make at the idea of ‘elegance’ here! Christ not even Miranda Kerr could look elegant traveling like this, and Il leave it at that. As for ‘great expense’, well this might be the greatest contradiction yet. Budget, being low expense, luxury being high expense. It just doesn’t work. Can’t work!

On a brighter note, I do applaud this effort to open up a new avenue in cheap travel alternatives. I also recognise that even though my journey was first, a fuck up and second, quite the awkward experience, there are some pros to taking this option.

The Advantages of Luxury Coach Travel;

  • If you’re the lucky type of human that can fall asleep anywhere and you’re embarking on a long journey, taking the sleeper service means you wont arrive after 8-13 hours travel feeling like a zombie.
  • No stressful check-ins. These are quite often involved when your flying out of airports. Particularly somewhere like Standsted Airport, London, where unless you arrive at the airport the night before you’re departure you do risk missing your flight (been there, done that).
  • If you came prepared i.e in your pyjamas then it would be a lot easier to settle in and Zonk out. The site should put some sort of warning there!
  • Free water and food! What traveller could moan about that?
  • You don’t have to be next to a stranger. Ha! Just imagine how politically incorrect it would that be if they shoved two people per bed in the bunks! 

Back to the question at hand; Is there such thing as ‘Luxury Budget Travel’?

Sorry guys but my verdict is still a big fat NO.

This idea of an ‘upmarket’ travel alternative in the budget coach travel market is definitely food for thought. To call it luxury though is just a slap in the face of all the elegant men and women who can afford great, expensive first class novelties. Lets not try and pretend like us budget backpackers are on the same level as them. We’re not and some of us (maybe just me) never will be.

But hey, its not all bad. One great thing I did get from my experience was a great sense of pride. Not just for myself but for all worn out travellers who endure cramp and sleepless nights to get somewhere. Maybe we can’t afford luxury, but we can totally be proud of this stamina we have to tackle such arduous journeys and still come out the other side rearing to explore a new world. No ‘5 star’ feeling can compare to the adrenalin rush of being plunged into the middle of an unknown city, with slobber on your face, back pack at your feet and the scarily delicious question on your lips, “what the hell do I do now?’.

Peace.

Ps the company i travelled with graciously compensated me for the mistake of my initial trip. A very much appreciated gesture!

One Night in Bruges on a Backpackers Budget!

‘Oh Bruuuuges. Bruges Bruges Bruges’ We sang as we joyfully, drunkenly made our way back to our hostel at 3am. Drunk and lost by one of Bruges many canals, it was the perfect end to our spontaneous night in Bruges. Originally our weekend in Belgium was to be spent in Brussels. We only ended up here because people kept telling us ‘you MUST’ see Bruges’. Easily susceptible as we are to the idea of seeing as many places as we can on a budget, Bruges became part of the plan. Luckily Bruges is an easy 1 and a half hour train away from Brussels and a reasonable 12 euro return fare. It was also the perfect decision because I don’t know that we would have enjoyed another day in Brussels so much Bruges was another story. I could have definitely had another day here. Two. Maybe even three.

Drunkards by the Bruges Canals

Bruges is a city out of a fairy tale. It is a lot cleaner, less chaotic and a heck of a lot prettier then Brussels. I have not been to Venice yet but I can imagine that Bruges with its canals, cobbled streets and storybook scenery is the Belgian equivalent of the famous Italian city. There’s also such a romantic feel here. Maybe its the whole ‘canal’ thing but it made my heart melt. Its not just me either because there were loved up couples everywhere! Has Paris got some competition for the title of ‘City of Love’?

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From our hostel we managed to join onto a free walking tour lead by a charismatic young drama graduate called Matt. Matt took us through the labyrinths of canals and medieval buildings, pointing out famous set scenes from the film ‘In Bruges’. We toured around the historical centre, passing famous places like the Basilica of Holy Blood (quote of the day goes to my girl Anda who laughed loudly when Matt explained about the vial of Holy Blood housed here and  said out loud ‘HA, they ACTUALLY think that’s really Jesus blood, REALLY? Yeah right!” Ye of little faith Anda. I was just glad we had no firm catholic believers on tour!), the Belfry, the city hall (a beautiful yet somehow empty building. Insanity. You could a make an epic library in there Brussels people! Do NOT let Apple build another store!) and the famous church. All the while, our guide kept up a casual, informal and humorous banter. The tour also included two pitt stops. The first was at one of Bruges many chocolate shops. This I found a little bit pointless because the lady shop owner was very busy and when she finally had a moment all she really did was point out the chocolates we could buy. It would have been cool to find out how they made such amazing looking cocoa treats. Our second stop was at the Beer Museum. This was much more my style as at the top we got to stop at the museum bar and try one of the unique Belgium beers on tap. I went out on a limb and chanced it with the wheat beer. I’ve never had a good wheat beer in my life and figured if there was ever a chance to taste what a decent wheat beer could be like, this would be it. I was not disappointed either! I found my choice refreshingly crisp and the perfect way to rehydrate after all that walking and photo taking! Anda on the other hand was not so lucky. She chose a red-wine looking beer that the bar tender claimed was his favourite. She took one sip and could go no further on it. I tried it and I didn’t hate it, but I think I could only drink it very slowly, sip by sip, with long…long…gaps between. An American girl in our group hit the nail on the head when she described it as tasting like vinegary cider. Emphasis on the vinegar. Either the bar tender has unique taste buds or he told a big fat lie.

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Vinegar beer on the right, wheat beer on the left!

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The Basilica of Holy Blood

The Basilica of Holy Blood

On our own, Anda and I meandered through the streets that were now heaving with tourists as dinnertime approached and people began to come out to play. In one street there was a massive Congo line happening, in another a marching band was playing. It felt like being in a festival! Eventually we came across the Lake of Death (or Lake of Love depending on how you choose to interpret it’s story. Legend says a woman who believed she was widowed when her man went to war, drowned herself here. When her fella returned and found out, he followed suit. Very Romeo and Juliet. I see it as a Lake of Death). We also found the worlds Shortest Bridge. Actually. This thing is famous for being the smallest bridge ever built. It was quite funny that there were so many people (especially couples) trying to get a photo here, but because the thing is so small and there were so many people it was impossible for anyone to get one without having some random person feature in it with them. Still, we all tried.

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Dinner was probably one of the best budget traveller meals I’ve had to date. theres this amazing pasta place, Pasta Delizia where you can get a box of pasta for 3 euros. That’s just the carb hit you need when you’ve been walking and talking and taking photos all day! Sure it’s not typically Belgium but pair it WITHA Belgium beer, a side of fries, in the middle if the Bruges town centre as the sun sets and a local talent plays out some tunes and you have yourself an authentic Bruges meal experience just like that! No more the 5 euros. Nailed it!

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Well fed and ready to party (it was Saturday night after all) we lost no time in getting to a bar for drinks. By pure accident where I mistook a local for a guest, we ended up befriending two locals. Two really lovely (and good looking I may as well add ) blokes from Bruges who took us out and showed us the true nightlife of the city! We drank and yarned the night away until the mood to dance took over and us girls said farewell to hit the club. Don’t ask me where we ended up I have no idea. All I remember is a shit tonne of people, ‘bangers’ playing out over the crowd and rubbing up against multiple bodies every time I moved. I was loving it though and that’s all that matters. Which leads us back to the beginning of this post. And a and I, singing along as we tried to navigate our way home to bed. Hands up if you were lucky enough to get our tuneful snap chat you lucky wee things.

I woke up in the morning with a hangover and fully understanding why so many people talk about Bruges. Now it’s my turn to spread the word. If you’re going to Belgium, you MUST go to Bruges! I did and I absolutely loved it. I also found it pretty easy to experience the city on a budget. So from one borderline broke backpacker to another, here’s my best advise for a less expensive and still full experience of Bruges!

For all you travellers on a budget with your hearts now set on Bruges, here’ s a few things you should know before you go;

  • Unlike in Brussels, the local language here is Belgium. French will get you nowhere. Or at least no further then English.
  • Meals and drinks can be quite expensive. In one bar we were charged 17 euro for two gin and tonics! Thank god we were already drunk at this stage or that money would have been a lot harder to part with. My advice for those on a tight string purse would be to stick to beer. As for feeding yourself, don’t forget you can’t go wrong with pasta and beer in the town square.
  • Brussels may be the King when it comes to waffles but Bruges is dominating the chocolate market. How all the individual chocolate businesses survive I have no idea. Practically every second shop is a hand made Belgian chocolate specialist so you’d expect the competition to be fierced. I saw no empty stores however. Chocolate lovers will be in heaven. Still, feel free to splurge on a homemade boutique chocolate but keep in mind the supermarkets stock real Belgian chocolate at cheaper prices. Brands that taste just as delicious and can’t easily be found in other countries. Great money saver if you’re getting a lot of chocolate gifts!

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Chocolate boobs!

  • For those who are sensitive to lactose don’t you worry. There’s also plenty of these treats called Cuberdon which are cone shaped shells of sugar filled with jelly. A devilishly delicious Belgium lollies which I can see myself becoming dangerously obsessed with if I lived here. There was a French lady with a stall that sold only Cuberdon but she had every flavour you could imagine at lower prices Keep an eye out for stalls over expensive boutique looking stores. I walked away with a bag full of original, liquorice, cherry, cocoa and vanilla ones. Yummy!
  • We booked a hostel last minute and our trip coincided with a festival (Pukkelpop-and I am totally coinciding my return to Bruges with this festival because word is it’s amazing!) so accommodation was our greatest expense. I reckon your best bet is to NOT book the night before you go.
  • From my experience, I would say that people from Bruges are quite friendly and approachable. Use this to your advantage! Making friends with the locals is the way to go for a fun night out.

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Partying with the locals

  • Free walking tours with the “Can you handle it’ tour guides. This is who Matt was working for and I would recommend it. As well as getting to explore the city, the guides point out cheap eats, or local joints that are not overrun by tourists yet so you can get the most out of your Bruges holiday. Check out the website for times here.

Most importantly, have a ball and if you can, stay for longer then one night because I can guarantee, unless you have a stone cold heart, you will fall for Bruges head over heels.