Amsterdam, The Netherlands

When I was younger, one of my aunts had businesses all over Europe, and visited them constantly. My dad would never let us go with her (thanks, dad), but she promised that when we turned 16, my sister and I could choose any city in the world and she’d take us. After reading a book called Postcards from No Man’s Land when I was 12, I fell madly in love with Amsterdam from afar, and knew this was where I would pick. And while a change in fortune prevented me from going when I was 16, I promised myself I’d make it there one day.

That day ended up being last December, in between Berlin and Poland. Gareth wanted to wait until the Spring, but I l’d already waited over ten years, so off we went.

that is me between the red hat and red scarf. I love wine and all wine colored things.

We arrived (barely) after a ten hour bus journey from Berlin, and from the moment we stepped off the bus we were already excitedly talking about how this is where we want to live. I still feel that way. Amsterdam felt alive and inspiring and immediately like home. I spent all our down time researching the logistics of a move to Amsterdam, and it’s still probably the number one place in Europe I’d like to live. I really hope it happens one day!

We only had two days in the city, and missed out on some vital stuff. We’d already said we’d go back in the spring to see the tulips, and will know to book ahead to see the Anne Frank house. But I wouldn’t trade our winter trip for anything. The city wasn’t very crowded, we got to pop in for a mulled wine whenever it got too cold, and spent an evening ice skating next to the Van Gogh Museum. That said, there was a shocking lack of Christmas markets in Amsterdam, which I hadn’t expected. However they did have ice skating and mulled wine, which are the best parts of Christmas anyway.

We didn’t do the “other side” of Amsterdam at all. We accidentally walked through the red-light district for about a minute, but didn’t see anything other than some literally red lights.

Things I’d recommend:

The Van Gogh museum is worth it. The collection is huge, and it’s not just his art but history of his life, personal items and letters. I remember being in second grade and learning about the crazy guy who cut off his ear. It seemed so insane back then, far away and from a different world. I loved being able to see his things, look at his writing, view his work.

We went to Omlegg for breakfast both days. I know you’re supposed to try new places, but we’d already found the perfect spot and were happy sticking with it.

We decided early on that after the Van Gogh museum we’d try to spend as much of our time as possible outside. We took a long walk from one end of Amsterdam to the other, which I’d highly recommend copying. Omlegg is in De Pijp, which was imo the coolest neighborhood in the city. It’s easy to go from there to the Albert Cuyp Market (largest market in Europe, open 9-5 every day of the week except Sunday). Then take a stroll through Museumplein Park, and along the river.

We saw so much of the city just by wandering around, popping in the shops, chatting with the servers, and got to know the city beyond just its tourist attractions. End the walk at Arendsnest to try the local beer brews. This was a highlight of the trip, even for a wine drinker like me. Honestly, this place is incredible.

There are a lot of bookstores around, and we had so much fun stopping in them (or maybe I just loved it enough for us both). Like I said earlier, the city felt very creative and young, and the bookstores were no different. I got this book, and it was SO good. I learned so much about the history of Amsterdam and it was so well written, I flew through it in just a few days.

Amsterdam is hard to capture in just a post. The bikes, the young population, the crisp air. The whole time I was there all I wanted to do was read and write and explore, and that feeling is basically what I’m looking for when I travel. I don’t know when or how we’d live there, but it’s still something I’d really, really like to do at some point.

(feature image photo cred to The Telegraph)

Lake Bled, Slovenia

About five years ago I saw a picture of what looked like a fairy tale brought to life. It was of a gorgeous lake, surrounded by towering mountains, with a tiny island in the middle with an old church on it. I wasn’t sure if it was real, but eventually tracked it down: Lake Bled, Slovenia.

Slovenia. It sounded remote and was definitely not a place I already had on my list. But after seeing that photo, up it went, and I am so incredibly glad I was able to go last Semana Santa, in between Italy and Croatia.

I made friends with a few people from my hostel, and we decided to spend the day in Bled together. Getting there from Ljubljana is really easy. The bus leaves right from the main station, and drops you off right at the lake about and hour and fifteen minutes later. They depart hourly, and are 7 euros each way. Some buses even continue on to Bohinj, which is another gorgeous looking lake. You can also go by train, which is faster but the stop is a few miles away from the lake so unless you feel like a walk, you’d have to then catch the bus or take a cab.

It was as stunning in person as it is in photos, which isn’t always the case, and even though it was Easter we only had to share the lake with about ten other people. We spent a few hours walking the loop, and at about the midpoint found a little shop that had groceries–we picked up some wine and the makings for a picnic. There’s a trail almost directly across from where you first enter that leads to the most incredible view point. It was a lot more steep and rocky than I had expected, but WOW were the views worth it. We stayed up there for about an hour, picnicking, and soaking in the beauty. There are hostels nearby if you want to stay for the night, but unless you’re planning on going to Bohinj the next day, there’s not much to do in the area once you’ve done the lake. It’s a perfect as a day trip from Ljubljana, and such a perfect way to cap off any trip to Slovenia.

48 hours in Ljubljana, Slovenia

A weekend in Ljubljana was the perfect rest stop between the craziness of Italy, and the fast paced road trip I was about to embark on with G.

A tiny capital city, there is very little to do but wander around, soak in the beauty, and speak to the amazingly friendly locals. Also ask again and again how to pronounce it–apparently it’s Loo-blah-nah. But the Spanish call it Libby-anna, the Germans have something else entirely, and it seemed like every person I asked had their own take–even the natives! So I guess the best advice is to just go with your gut and hope not to get it too wrong.

There weren’t many tourists while I was there–and this was over Easter holidays. I love avoiding tourists and instead trying to get a feel of what actually living in a place might be like.. And after the loneliness I felt in Venice, Ljubljana was the perfect place to do some solo travel.

The bus I took from Italy was delayed at the border due to what could only be described as some pretty serious racism. It was horrible to have to powerlessly witness it, and be unable to do anything to help.

Because of the delay we didn’t get into the city until past midnight, and I entered in a bit of a panic–my phone wasn’t working (the new rule that keeps EU phones working across borders is THE BEST, but hadn’t yet gone into effect), my hostel had a 21:00 pm check in cut off, and I had no idea how safe it would be to walk the streets alone at night.

Luckily, I was in Ljubljana which is probably the most charming, friendly, and sweet European city I’ve visited. They had free wifi everywhere, so I could easily log on, find my hostel, and alert them to my arrival. Walking the streets felt a lot safer than it does in London or even LA. There wasn’t a single moment I felt nervous walking alone.

I stayed at Zeppelin Hostel and I really loved it. However—I woke up on my second morning to discover that both me and the girl below me were covered in itchy red marks! BED BUGS. I don’t know if it’s me in particular, of if everyone is equally horrified by the idea of bugs crawling all over them whilst they sleep, but it was a really horrendous discovery. The hostel was fantastic, moving me to a new room, washing all my things (pretty great after a week on the road), and made my entire stay free. They were great people and from talking to others around Ljubljana, it sounds like it’s a huge problem at all the hostels—the bed bugs come up from Northern Italy—even the trains and buses that do the route are infested. So if you’re staying in a hostel, check the mattress carefully before climbing into bed!

BUT, even bed bugs could not get me down, as Ljubljana was fantastic. There’s not much to do, to be sure. You really only need a day or two in the city–it really is the perfect respite. I hiked up to the castle that sits atop the city, swung on the swing, and read a bit. 

Honestly though, wandering around the city, popping into shops, and eating the delicious food was so refreshing. To anyone who needs a respite after a bit of hectic travel, I highly, highly recommend taking a break in Ljubljana. There’s no need to sightsee, because the city is the sight. That, and Lake Bled, obviously, which is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been.

After 48 hours hanging around in Ljubljana, I was ready for the next adventure. I went into the bus station, and there were so many bus companies that weren’t listed online, with routes to Belgrade, Sarajevo, Trieste, and more, all for under 10 euros. My advice would be to check here before booking anything online, where the options were much more expensive.

I had a week before I had to meet G, and could go anywhere. The freedom was such a fantastic feeling, only hampered by the realization I couldn’t do it all. After checking out the weather, connections, and timings, I decided on Zagreb, as it was where G and I were meeting, but we wouldn’t actually spending any time in outside the airport. And seriously, it was the right choice!

Pisa and (finally!) getting my ID card!

A few months ago I had my first interview at my current job, and left it so (unusually) confident, that I arranged a spur of the moment flight to Italy for the next day, as I knew if I was hired I’d need my proof of right to work in the EU. I had originally planned to get it a few weeks out, and fly into Milan, rent a car, and drive out to the tiny mountain town my ancestors were from. However, with one day’s notice, Pisa ended up being much cheaper, and was about the same distance as Milan. It was also quite close to Cinque Terre, and this unplanned, last minute trip became one of my all time best travel experiences.

I flew into Pisa and stayed at Hostel Pisa. It was walking distance from the airport, and can I just say any city where you can walk to the airport is OK in my book. I was only spending one night in Pisa, and didn’t arrive until 4:00, so my expectations weren’t high. However, I had the best night. I don’t have major Pisa recommendations, other than the tower, obviously, and the most fantastic dinner/drinks place.

I headed straight for the tower because the light was fantastic and I wanted to see it in all its glory. While there I asked two girls to take my photo, and they recognized me from checking into the hostel. They were returning home to Germany a year volunteering at in International Hospital in Jerusalem, and we also met up with a guy who had just arrived in Europe for a year abroad in Florence.

On the walk to the tower I had stopped to take passport style photos for my ID card. (They did not come out well—Gareth kindly pointed out the shading makes it look like I have a 5:00 shadow, which is an accurate analysis of the photo). Nearby, I saw a dock on the river that looked like it may be a restaurant. I mentioned it to the crew I had met, and we decided to head there for dinner. It ended up being such a lovely night. Two of us were heading home after a long journey, both to graduate school. One was arriving for the first time in a country he was about to make into a home, and I was there to get proof of my newly recognized European citizenship. Arno Vivo was half on a dock and half on a floating raft, where we grabbed a table. There was live music, mood lighting, and the buffet style food was free with a drink. We shared a bottle of wine and swapped travel/life stories, and it was one of those moments that reminds you how absolutely wonderful travel can be.

The next morning I walked back to the airport to pick up a rental car, and headed out for Vernasca. I was so nervous the whole drive, that they would be closed (our communication was all in Google-translated Italian, and I wasn’t sure they’d be open until I arrived), or that I didn’t have the proper documentation. It seemed too easy, honestly, after the process leading up to it had been so drawn out and difficult.

The drive was beautiful, through the mountains and farmland, and the little village was so cute. I headed straight for the municipal building, and there was one woman working behind the counter. She was expecting me, and we chatted away—her in Italian, me half in Spanish and half in hand gestures. She filled out my ID card right there (so easy, it’s just made of paper!), and handed it to me with a big huge and a congratulations. It was such a surreal moment, being in my ancestors old village, even being in Italy, and I’m honestly so grateful that’s how I received my ID, rather than at a consulate in LA or London. Afterwards I wandered around the town a bit—there’s a big church up a hill right behind the municipal building that offered incredible views, before getting some lunch and starting the drive back.

downtown in the village

I was eager to drop the car off because that night started the second part of my trip—Cinque Terre!

24 hours in Venice

Going to Italy during Semana Santa helped me realize something about myself–I hate tourists. Not just other people, but I don’t like being one myself. It’s probably why whenever I go anywhere I even moderately connect to, I’m convinced I’ll move there one day and experience the place like only a true local can. That said, I don’t want to move to Venice. Venice is like Prague to me–too magical to be real. I couldn’t ruin Venice by actually moving there and having to worry about running late for work or changing the kitty litter or any other real life burdens. I want to preserve it’s otherworldly charm, but I do still want to go back. Because of Semana Santa the cheapest hostel I could find was over $45 and I could only afford a night there.

Venice was my second stop of 17 day trip over Semana Santa, and to be honest about the fact that travel is not all wonderful all the time, my night in Venice was not the best. Usually I love traveling alone, but after Rachel left Italy to go back to London, I was facing another week alone before Gareth and I met in Zagreb, and I suddenly felt really lonely. Add in that I didn’t arrive until the sun was beginning to set, and that Venice is not exactly the ideal place to be a single– I spent the most of the night sticking close to my hostel and on the phone with Gareth. Lame, I know.

Luckily after a good night’s sleep I remembered how much I actually love solo travel, and got my mojo back. I spent the day wandering through the maze like passages, stopping in awe every few minutes that a place like that actually exists.

    

I don’t have a ton of suggestions for how to best “do” Venice, because I don’t think I did it properly. I have a few suggestions based off of lessons I learned, however.

Book early – and by this I mean everything. Accommodation, certainly. But there are places online you can arrange a gondola share, because they are privately hired and seriously expensive. That said, the looks on people’s faces as they rode convinced me they are worth it.

Get off the beaten track – the restaurants that have their menus in a dozen different languages aren’t going to be the ones with food you never forget. One of my biggest regrets was the place I chose for dinner. I was staying in the Jewish area, an immediate left after crossing the Guglie bridge. I had wandered deeper into the city, and it was getting dark. I knew it was a bad idea, but I settled for a place on Rio Terà San Leonardo that was filled with tourists and served legitimately bad food. On the five minute walk back to my hostel, along Fondamenta Cannaregio, I passed about three places lit by candle lit and filled with Italians. Learn from my mistakes. And probably go to dinner on that street cause it looked amazing.

Buy a water bus day pass. The pass is 20 euros and a single journey is 7.50. The ride is such a good tour of the city, and to have been able to go to San Marco, Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, and back to Guglie all on a water taxi would have been great.

Set aside time to get lost – this, I did, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day. As I wandered back from San Marco to Guglie, I passed through quiet, residential areas that were nearly empty, and offered just as much charm as the packed city center. I also stumbled upon La Bottiglia, which is an amazing deli. They asked me to trust them and built me the most incredible sandwich. If you like sandwiches, this is your place.

Saint Mark’s Square – They charge an outlandish price to sit and have a drink, but you should do it anyway. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s everything you imagine when you think of Venice. Have the Prosecco, obviously. Sit and listen to music and watch people try get a photo with the pigeons. Drink in the magic of the city, and if you’re like me have to remind yourself over and over again that you haven’t fallen into a movie set, but that Venice is a real place that exists in the world.