Thursday Travels: London

LONDON-12Today’s Thursday Travels takes us back to our trip to London (only one of our favourite cities ever). We (Vicky, our mum and I) were there in June, around the time of the Queen’s Jubilee (and a month before the Olympics), and the city was brimming with national pride: lots of Union Jack bunting and special British-themed window displays everywhere. I had been to London a few times before, but the levels of patriotism were definitely higher than usual.

Vicky and I both really loved London — she loved it way more than Paris, but I think I’m a fan of them both in equal measure. While Paris has that certain je ne sais quoi that makes it just so charming and enchanting, London, for me, is a far more liveable kind of place (chiefly due to the fact that it’s English-speaking, I guess). When it comes to big cities, it’s the one place I’ve visited  that I’d actually want to live in at some point. Weirdly enough, I’m not the hugest fan of New York; it just didn’t do it for me as a city, much to my disappointment. Maybe the fact that the one time I was there was in the dead of winter had something to do with it as just I found it dark and dingy and strangely depressing… But London?! London I instantly loved

Here’s a little recap of what we got up to in our few days there:

{We went to the Natural History Museum…}

{…where we saw lots of dinosaurs…}

{…and birds!…}

{…before taking a break to re-fuel.}

{And then it was on to Harrod’s; the Food Hall, specifically…}

{…where I nearly got thrown out for taking these illegal photographs.}

{And then we wandered into a souvenir shop where we saw the ghost of Princess Diana!}

{We paid a trip to Kensington Palace…}

{…and saw Queen Victoria’s dolls’ house…}

{…and these beautiful gardens…}

{…this was before Vicky dropped a tray of china cups on my foot at the cafe (I still have the scar to this day)…}

{We visited my favourite museum in London, the V & A, and fell in love with this 15th-century Islamic minbar. (Of course I misread it as “minibar” and got really excited that not only did the Islamic world have minibars in the 15th century, but that they were of such magnificence!)}

{And then the following day we went to the Ritz…}

{…for a spot of Afternoon Tea…}

{…we’re so fancy, you already kno-ow…}

{We hit the shops on Carnaby Street…}

{…and the stalls of Portobello…}

{…where we stopped for a Hummingbird Bakery cupcake break.}

{Please can I live in this pink house?…}

{…or any of these little gems, I’m not fussy.}

{Last random outing: the Leighton House in Kensington. A bit off the beaten tourist path, but worth a visit if you like that whole Victorian Aesthetic thing.}


Thursday Travels: Lake Bled & Postojna Cave

Our time in Slovenia wasn’t just limited to seeing its capital city; we also explored its beautiful countryside, too (namely its most famous lake and cave). 

Lake Bled, in the northwestern part of the country, is truly stunning: a crystal-clear expanse of water surrounding the fairy tale-esque Bled Island with its beautiful Baroque church. We weren’t there for long (story of our travel life), but it was a super pleasant way to spend an hour or so, and it’s somewhere I’d love to go back to (we didn’t get a chance to visit the island itself, so that’s something I’d definitely love to do at some point). 

Our other Slovenian adventure was visiting the Postojna Cave, which was…interesting. We’re not exactly cave girls ourselves, but it was definitely a unique experience — it’s so incredible what nature is capable of! It was almost like a Disneyland ride: we started off on a little train that brought us to the heart of the cave, then we had some time to explore. At Postojna, they have one section known as the “Concert Hall” that can fit up to 10, 000 people, and it’s a popular venue for symphony orchestras (apparently the accoustics are out-of-this-world). We didn’t attend a concert here ourselves though (our musical entertainment at Postojna was limited to “Nothing Compares 2 U” being blasted as the train started chugging off…the things you remember, right?!). 

{Cake break! (Apple in case you were wondering)}

{Woo! Caves!!!}

{We weren’t allowed to take photos in the parts of the cave that were actually photogenic, so here’s our one sorry little shot}


Thursday Travels: Venice

We return to Italy this week’s Travels; specifically to Venice, that legendary city of canals, masks, and gondolas (or gondole, as the Italian plural form is, if we’re being technical). I’d been there once before on a rainy day several years ago, and had been somewhat disappointed with the place, finding it rather creepy and claustrophobic. Things this time round were immediately improved by the weather; we enjoyed beautiful sunshine which naturally put everything in a better light – the plenitude of water in Venice which had seemed murky and sinister in the rain was now shimmering and benign. All in all, most ideal for a leisurely gondola ride down the canals — the perfect way to start our day of sightseeing in Venice.

{Say formaaaaggioooo!}

I don’t seem to remember our gondolier being particularly lively (some serenade you but I think ours was pretty charmless). However, the sights we passed were entertainment enough…

{…like these stunningly shabby old buildings…}

{…and this gondola full of very cheerful fellow tourists}

The disembarkment area happened to be right smack dab in front of a Hard Rock Cafe, and as we were already pretty pasta and pizza-ed out (although there is no such thing as being gelato-ed out, there just isn’t), we decided that good American-style burgers and fries was exactly what we were craving. After this refuelling, we were ready to tackle the abundance of culture Venice has to offer…

{Venetian vista}

{Tucked away canal}

{San Zaccaria church — not wildly significant or anything but made for a beautiful backdrop}

{Everywhere you go in Venice you have these creepy masks staring at you — total Stuff of Nightmares, right?!}

{Venice is also renowned for its lace so we paid a trip to a Lace School (yep, that’s a thing!)}

Some of my favourite memories of Venice are not the countless museums and churches and other sites of cultural significance we visited, but the random little diversions we had throughout the day, such as getting lost…

{…and turning into a little street only to be greeted by this gruesome sight}

And then searching endlessly for a public washroom and finally winding up in a little Chinese-run cafe serving Italian food, where there were no customers, just the family all sitting around chatting.  And Rihanna was blasting on the radio. It was one of those surreal moments, where we just thought to ourselves “How weird is it to be in Venice listening to Rihanna?!” I mean, in theory, it’s not that weird at all, but when you’ve been surrounded by so much decaying grandeur and tales of prisoners being locked away never to see the light of day again, it was just kind of jarring. In the best possible way of course; we do like Rihanna’s music. As did the super polite little Chinese boys who silently showed us where the washroom was whilst bobbing their heads to “Disturbia.”

 And then, after a bit more wandering, we decided it was dinner-time…

{…and this happened…}

{…and this newly-bought, bird-in-a-cage necklace (named Donna) made her debut…}

{…and Rebecca Saw The Light…}

And, as dusk fell, bathing the city in that golden light so typically Italian, we bade a fond farewell to Venice…

{Ciao, Venezia!}


Thursday Travels: Florence

Today we’re recapping the brief time we spent in Florence. As we’ve mentioned in our previous Travels posts, this is by no means an exhaustive guide to what to do here…more than anything, it’s just a way for us to keep the memories alive! For some reason, Florence was one of those cities where we didn’t take a whole lot of photos (I’d like to think it was because we were too awestruck by the spectacular sights to bother reaching for the camera, but it could very well have been that we got sidetracked by gelato). As we were only there for a day, we didn’t get to cover nearly enough ground–you could easily spend months in the city and never run out of things to see and do…and eat, might I add!

Did we like Florence? Yes, definitely — who wouldn’t?! It’s got incredibly beautiful buildings and some of the finest museums in the world, and it’s clean and not terribly crowded (by European standards). And it also happens to be the capital of Tuscany, one of the most beautiful regions in Italy. But did we love it? A lot of people actually prefer Florence to Rome for all the reasons mentioned above, but to be honest, we didn’t love love love it. Rome may be chaotic and dirty and super touristy, but it has an energy to it that Florence just kind of lacks. 

Florence is beautiful, though, and we enjoyed our short time there. We’d both been there before a few years back and had seen some of the major sights, so didn’t feel the need to see them again this time. We started the day with a guided tour around the city, and then did some exploring on our own. We saw the Basilica di Santa Croce–not the “big” one (that would be the Duomo), but a beautiful church nonetheless, set on a pretty piazza. We strolled the charming Ponte Vecchio bridge with its centuries-old shops, and meandered our way through the streets, stopping for gelato breaks here and there. All in all, a peaceful, pleasant day. 

{The River Arno, with the Ponte Vecchio in the distance}

{And again}

{And one last one for good measure!}

{In case you can’t read it, that little sign says “Do Not Touch. Just For Beauty.” The fact that the shop was run by a little old man made it all the more cute}

{Shops of the Ponte Vecchio}

{And more shops. Back in the day, they were largely butchers’ shops and the like, but were thankfully replaced by goldsmiths and jewellers in the 15th century}

{Santa Croce courtyard}

{One last gelato shot}


Thursday Travels: Lucerne & Weggis

This week for Thursday Travels, we’ll be recounting our Swiss adventures, which took place in the Lake Lucerne region. None of us had been to Switzerland before, but we had a clear preconception of the place, imagining it to be clean and efficient with an abundance of chocolate, cheese and fresh air. And, as it turned out, we weren’t too far off the mark — all the Swiss stereotypes are kinda true.

We started off in Lucerne (or Luzern, its German spelling), spending a few hours in this serene, lakeside city with a population just under 80, 000. It’s a very pretty place, with an interesting mix of architecture; modern(ish) steel buildings alongside the traditional wooden chalet-style structures. We checked out the city’s two best-known landmarks, the Chapel Bridge and the Lion Monument, and stocked up on our Milka and Lindt chocolate (as was to be expected, the selection of chocolate bars was amazing).


{Vicky in Lucerne city centre}

The Chapel Bridge, constructed in the 14th century, is the largest of the numerous bridges in Lucerne, and definitely the most ornate, with beautiful interior paintings.


{The Chapel Bridge, aka Kapellbrücke}


{Loving life}


{Vicky on the bridge}

The Lion Monument (created in 1820-21), is a tribute to the Swiss mercenaries killed during the French Revolution. It’s in a secluded little part of the city, shaded by trees and overlooking a glassy pond; a poignant sculpture described by Mark Twain as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”


{The Lion Monument, aka Löwendenkmal}

We were staying in a family-run chalet up Mount Rigi, about an hour from Lucerne, and midway between the summit of the mountain and Weggis, a sleepy little lakeside town at its foot. Cable car was the only way of getting up and down, and it provided us with these absolutely breathtaking views.

On our second and last (full) day in Switzerland, we went up to the summit of the mountain in the afternoon, and then down to Weggis later on in the day. There wasn’t a whole lot to do at the top of the mountain, other than gaze at the jaw-dropping scenery and have a hearty feed of chips (all that fresh air gives you an immense appetite).


{Cable car up the mountain}


{Alp Life}


{Kinda like Canada, right?!}


{Chip break on Mount Rigi}

And then we proceeded down to Weggis, pronounced “Vegas,” ironically enough, as it could not have been sleepier. The streets were strangely devoid of people (apart from a handful at this super-incongruous “Latino” festival by the lakeshore), but what the town lacked in humans it made up for in kitschy garden ornaments. Seriously, every garden in the place had a fine display of colourful, creepy statuary.


{Vicky approves this garden’s wealth of gnomes}


{Vic’s hotel}


{Partybeck is in the houuuuuse tonight!}

While the day had started off beautifully, all blue skies and fluffy white clouds, the heavens had taken an ominous turn by the time we got down to Weggis and we were caught in a sudden, torrential downpour. We dashed around the town frantically looking for shelter and eventually found respite in a little lakeside tea-room, where we consoled ourselves with sweet treats under the shelter of an awning while watching the rain lash down on the lake.


{Hot chocolate & raspberry tart: the perfect cure for bedraggled, rain-sodden tourists}

We then had the daunting task of getting back up the mountain to where we were staying, which was no mean feat, given the pounding hailstones, thunder and lightning which had now taken over from the rain. Our only way back was via that:


{Just a liiiiittle bit scary}

But we made it back in one piece, thank God! And no sooner had we stepped off it then the hail stopped, the sun came out, and all was right again. Ah, Swiss weather, how fickle you are! We’d never been more soaked to the bone in our lives but even that didn’t detract from our fond memories of this beautiful alpine country. We’ll be back!


{Beautiful sunrise the morning we left}

Image 14 via Flickr


Thursday Travels: Prague

Prague definitely ranks up there amongst our favourite cities ever. It kind of took us by surprise how much we liked it, as we didn’t really know what to expect. Unlike with cities such as Paris, Rome and London that you just know you’re going to love before you’ve even set foot in them, we entered the Czech capital with indifferent expectations, and left it true Praha (its Czech name) lovers.

It was just the perfect combination of majestic, fairy-tale buildings, lively streetlife, good shops, beautiful gardens…in short, a very well-rounded city. There’s a lot to see and do, and we left it without seeing nearly as much as we wanted to in the day and a half we were there so we will absolutely, most definitely be back!


{Old Town Square by day}


{The stunning Church of Our Lady before Týn}


{The Prague Astronomical Clock}

St Charles Bridge Prague

{The St Charles Bridge by night — SO MAGICAL}

Compared to other cities in Europe, Prague seemed to have an abundance of all the typical Western chains – Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, etc. – which brought so much joy to our greedy little North American hearts. (As much as we loved Italy, we just could not love/get used to their idea of a coffee – everywhere you went, a cappuccino to go was watery and tepid, and served in the teensiest cup, like the sample size ones Starbucks gives out). But in addition to Starbucks, Prague has its own delectable cafe chain, Coffee Heaven, which received a hearty two thumbs up from us.


{FYI, the filling to pastry ratio of that delicacy on the left was amaaaaazing}


{Vic in Coffee Heaven!}

The one sketchy culinary experience was this little scene below — simply because at the time we were visiting Europe, there was an E. coli scare, with lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes being the offending culprits. Even though the deadly outbreak was largely in Germany, it did make us a bit wary of consuming those particular veggies…


{We called this one “Czech sausage rolls with a side of E.coli”}


{But you can always rely on a good old Mickey D’s!}


{We hadn’t seen a mall of this magnitude for nigh on a month…delirious excitement ensued}


{The most beautiful Mango shop}


{Posing in the gardens of Prague Castle}


{So intriguing!}

The second afternoon, we somehow found ourselves in a kinda random part of town where Becky found this abandoned physics textbook from the ’50s just chilling by a fountain. Despite it being (a) entirely in Czech, (b) weighing roughly fifteen pounds, (c) about PHYSICS (hehe sorry Becky, I know it’s your major but that stuff isn’t exactly a walk in the park!) and (d) potentially the precious property of some starving student who put it down for a split second with the intention of returning…she claimed it for her own, and named it Trotsky.


{Becky and her baby}

And then we went in search of the Jewish Quarter…and oy vey, was it a trek! We got lost several times, the day was hot and we were very hangry, but eventually we found it, and its sombre beauty was definitely worth the hassle.


{One of several synagogues in the area}


{The 13th-century Old New Synagogue}

And then it was back to the Town Square, which was thronged with people and even more charming by night!


{Prague by night}





Image 4 via Wikipedia


Thursday Travels: Bruges

Bruges was actually the last place we visited on our trip around Europe before heading back to England (but it’s not our last Travels post; we’ve got quite a few more of those lined up ;-). We were only there for a few hours, but that was enough to get the general vibe of the place—a little bit sleepy, yes, compared to some of the other cities we’d visited, but a charming place nonetheless.




bruges5The main part of the town centres around a big square known as the Grote Markt, and then from there you can wander around countless little backstreets and canals (so incredibly picturesque — our sub-par photos don’t quite do it justice).

Bruges is the kind of place that would be perfect for a weekend trip — a half day there wasn’t nearly enough time, but you could see most of what needs to be seen over a leisurely few days.



bruges11SO, what did we do in Bruges? Our first stop was the Grote Markt, where we had our lunch while doing some people watching (that outdoor cafe culture is something we really miss in North America). Belgium is renowned for its chips/fries/pommes frites, so of course we had to indulge in some (dipped in mayonnaise, Belgian style!). Sooo delicious! Bruges has a few interesting museums, but as we were strapped for time, we felt it would be more interesting to just do a little wandering on our own. The back streets of Bruges are beautiful — you never know what quaint little gems you’ll stumble upon. One of our favourite moments was hearing Rihanna blasting from one of those picture-perfect little houses above (it felt like her songs were always playing in the most incongruous places during our trip). That’s the funny thing about Europe — the architecture is so old and stunning that you can sometimes forget you’re in the 21st century.


{Crappy picture, but you get the idea–those are all the toppings you can get for your chips!}




{Bye bye, Bruges!}


Thursday Travels: Berlin

After a long Thursday Travels hiatus, we are finally back with our post on Berlin. To be honest, we didn’t find the German capital the most charming of cities, but as we were only there for two days, we’re willing to believe that a longer stay would have revealed some of the hidden charms that all cities have if you seek them out.

The centre of a metropolitan region of nearly 5 million people, it’s a bit of a sprawling, concrete jungle at first glance. The first of its sites we saw was part of the famous Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961 to separate the communist East Berlin from West. It officially came down in 1989, with dismantling beginning the following year, and today only a few parts — enlivened with very high-calibre graffiti — remain.


{The Berliner Mauer, as it’s known in German}


{Vicky and I randomly selected this colourful mural to pose by…}


{…while Becky’s backdrop of choice was a bit more profound}

On our second day, we went on a walking tour that took in the major historical sites: the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building as well as a few World War II-related places of interest. Our abiding memory of Berlin is how hot it was…we were there in early June, and it was already scorching before noon. Funnily enough, we’ve heard people who visited in winter claim they’ve never been so cold in their lives!


{Early morning Brandenburg Gate}


{Side view of the Reichstag building — the seat of German parliament}


{Brandenburg Gate feat. Ali & Vic}

We then paid a visit to the poignant Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: 2711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern which you can walk around.


{The ‘stelae,’ as they are known, range in height from 8 inches to 15’9}


{The ground is sloping in places and is meant to evoke confusion and unease}

Our next stop was the sinister-sounding Topography of Terror: an outdoor museum on the grounds of what were once Nazi headquarters. Well laid-out displays in both German and English chronologically guide you through the city’s troubled past in a very moving way.


{The thousands of Holocaust-related photos made for a tear jerking experience}

Our last cultural port-of-call was Checkpoint Charlie — the historic crossing point between East and West Berlin overseen by American soldiers during the Cold War. There’s not a whole lot going on there now, however — just Berliners posing as US soldiers and holding American flags. There’s also a museum, but we didn’t get a chance to check it out.


{Checkpoint Charlies}


{Trying to hide our hangriness for the camera}

At this stage in the day, we were starting to get mighty hungry and weary from walking around in the heat, so decided to retreat to the cool depths of a mall. We happened upon a big, airy one that seemed to fit the bill nicely, until we realised, to our utmost horror, that it was nothing but car showroom after showroom…all 5 levels of it.


{Definitely not our cup of tea…}


{…but we tried to muster up some enthusiasm}

At long last, we finally managed to find an actual mall mall, and were delighted to discover the wondrous “Pasta Deli” chain — basically a food court place that serves delicious, restaurant-quality pasta to order at super reasonable prices.


{Trying to keep a straight face while holding up PastaDeli’s rather harshly worded manifesto}

We didn’t really do a whole lot more in Berlin after our daytime exertions. We went on a pub crawl around grimy little dives in what was once East Berlin, but ditched midway in favour of kebabs and chips, the finest way to end a night.

While Berlin didn’t rank up there as one of the favourite places we visited, we’re willing to believe that it’s definitely worth a second trip. It’s not as instantly attractive as say, Paris, but it has a certain edgy, cool, buzzy vibe that has its own distinct charm.


{Goodbye to Berlin!}


Thursday Travels: Dresden

The city of Dresden is the focus for this week’s Thursday Travels. Located in eastern Germany, with a population of just over 1 million, it was once regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the country but suffered devastating destruction in World War II bombing raids. Despite extensive reconstruction, there still remains a sort of hollowness to the place. Even though there was a massive gathering of Evangelical Lutheran teenagers on the afternoon we were there, the city still felt a bit…empty. Unlike many other European cities with their lively, street-cafe cultures and narrow, crowded streets, Dresden seemed to have an abundance of clean, empty, open spaces with just not enough people to fill them up.


{The reconstructed Frauenkirche}


{Katholische Hofkirche}


{The porcelain tile mural on the left is the Furztenzug (Procession of Princes), which depicts the rulers of Saxony}


{The city’s main square, the Neumarkt}


{An Ontario-themed cafe in the middle of Dresden. So random!}


{Again with the Canada theme…BC represent!}


{Streets of Dresden}




{Outside the Zwinger — a palace turned museum complex}


{Zwinger courtyard. How cool a name is ‘Zwinger’?!}


{Squinting in the sun. Dresden was so…bright!}


{Spires of Dresden}


{The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister — an art gallery}


{Auf Wiedersehen, Dresden!}


Thursday Travels: Nice & Monaco

Nice is definitely nice, but we wouldn’t be the huuugest fans (at least I wouldn’t…Vic isn’t too keen on Paris so in making the Paris/Nice comparison, she doesn’t really favour one over the other). The only two occasions I’ve been to Nice have been directly after visiting Paris, and in my opinion, it just always seems ever so slightly boring. Some people really love the gentler pace and sunnier clime of this French Riviera city after the bustle and grime of the capital, but I find it a bit meh as a city. Having said that though, the south of France as a region has to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, (the sunflower and lavender fields! the quaint little villages!) so there’s that.


{Ok, fine, Nice is pretty damn nice…there’s just sooo much of this}


{We loved all the warm, sunset-coloured buildings though}


{A yellow and burgundy palette is super popular here, we noticed — every restaurant we were in was done up in those colours}


{No idea why this one was so sulky, after being so well-fed and all!}

We did a lot of walking in Nice. Our hotel was by the train station, in the somewhat less salubrious part of town, so the walk in to the city centre was a good twenty minutes through lots of these kind of streets:

nicemon5We did make some interesting discoveries, though, like the fact that there exists a type of burger called “Bicky”!!! So of course Vicky and Becky had to have their picture with it.


{Vicky + Becky = Bicky! Still no idea what exactly this “bicky” burger consists of…}


{We also did boring things like laundry}


{Posing in the Place Masséna — Nice’s main square}

We then took an evening trip to Monaco. We were only there for a few hours so didn’t have too much time to explore. After briefly having a look at the legendary Monte Carlo casino, we went in search of somewhere for a bite to eat…but the part of town we were in was strangely deadsville (seriously, there was no one around) and the only place we could find was this fancy outdoor Haagen Dazs. So ice cream for dinner it was. And there were no complaints.




{There were actual menus…}


{…and actual tables and chairs and even a hostess at the front like in a proper restaurant. So weird.}


{Every bit as good as it looks}


{Monaco at dusk}


{Sea front views}

And then it was goodbye to the glamour of Monaco (well, supposed glamour — it was super soulless when we were there) and back to our shabby little Nicean hotel. And a little midnight snack at the Chinese across the road from us. Delicious and elegantly-served as that ice cream was, it wasn’t very sustaining.


{Chips and chow mein — the best of both worlds}