Two Hours in Bruges

Bruges, Belgium was the final “day stop” before boarding the ferry back to English shores. I really liked this medieval little town. It’s actually quite deceptive. When first entering the town, you spot old workers’ cottages and towering medieval cathedrals, however, after rounding a corner, you see the canals and Bruges suddenly changes.

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The canals change your ideas concerning the caliber of Bruges. At least, they did for me. Maybe it was the fact that it was the last day, but I was more than ready to return to England. I was sick of the coach travel and the tour in general. I trudged into Bruges, not really paying attention, snapping random pictures of things I found interesting. I was honestly just counting the hours til I was on my own again (my introvert was starting to show).

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The moment I saw those canals, however, I was fascinated about the town I was in. I wanted to know the story behind the canals and how the city operated through the centuries, what life was like for those who lived and worked along the canals. Everyone knows Amsterdam has canals but Bruges was a mystery to me. Unfortunately, since we only had a few hours, I was unable to find any answers (and Googling it just didn’t seem appropriate).

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Though Bruges is fairly small, the town centre is filled with activity. All construction, even new builds, are strictly monitored to ensure they match the medieval atmosphere. I personally love this. Nothing detracts more from a beautiful city filled with rich history than modern buildings and international brands. Who wants to buy a Kardashian handbag in Europe when they’re flooding the Australian market at home?

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I therefore stuck to local delicacies; chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate! There are more than a dozen different chocolate stores in and around the main square. All are locally owned and produced and all are equally delicious. As I always say, don’t be afraid to wander up alleyways and smaller streets. This is where you will find local hot spots.

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I spent an hour or so alternating between snapping pics of the town and marvelling at the chocolate masterpieces. Every store had a completely different window display and no two stores sold the same chocolate figurines. That in and of itself is worthy of admiration. After all, in a city known for its chocolate, it must be hard to be original year after year. Hot chocolates are apparently also a local specialty but I can’t vouch for that as every café I saw was too full for me to try. One would assume that to be a good sign.

Before too long, it was time to head back to the coach for the final leg of the trip. I did get my requisite souvenir, though. Couldn’t help myself, in all honesty.

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All in all, Bruges is certainly a place I would revisit. I’m not quite certain what else there is to see but I’m sure there is a museum or two that would be worth the trip. I urge you to take a trip to Bruges yourself, even if you think you wouldn’t enjoy it. You may be surprised, as I was.

Happy travels!

Berlin

Berlin was one city that I anticipated loving and I was not disappointed. As the capital of Germany, Berlin is a city that has so much modern history, from the Wars to the split and subsequent reunification of the city, that my historian self was salivating the moment we drove into the city limits. My family background is also German, so I felt a special connection to my descendants’ homeland.

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Accommodation

We stayed in Plus Berlin. The hostel had a massive foyer and bar/dining room, however the rooms were a tight squeeze for 4 adults. The bathroom felt luxurious compared to some of the others I’d stayed in (and at least it was in the room). Overall, it wasn’t entirely unpleasant but neither was it the best of its chain (I cannot praise Plus Florence highly enough, guys!).

Plus Berlin was, however, directly across the street from a local club, as well as the train. This was super helpful (if you remember the name of the stop, of course) after a long, cold day battling the elements to sight see.

Attractions

First off, I highly, highly recommend taking the Nazi Walking Tour. I’m not sure if it was exclusive to Topdeck tours but it was absolutely fantastic! The guide was very informative (considering he wasn’t a local) and each stop was relevant to the Nazi period of reign. Unfortunately, when we were on the tour it was freezing. No, literally, freezing. It snowed the next day in Berlin. Nevertheless, our guide was considerate of the temperature and didn’t dawdle or talk nonstop. He even stopped to give us the chance to buy a hot drink (there are some delicious hot chocolates in Berlin. I mean heavenly!).

The tour visited the Holocaust Monument, the Reichstag (if you want to tour inside, book months in advance as spots are limited and it is a functioning government building), the original spot of Hitler’s bunker, the Topographie des Terrors and the former site of the Gestapo, Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate and a section of the underground.

The Holocaust Monument is an interesting one (pictured below). It has not been explained by the designer, nor is there any signage listing the rules concerning the monument. The only rule is not to stand on the blocks, out of respect for what the monument represents. It is said that the monument is designed to illustrate what it would’ve felt like once you reached the concentration camps, lost in a sea of people, with no idea of what was happening or to come. However, as I said, it has never actually been explained. It’s open to personal interpretation. As a claustrophobic, I found the monument extremely discomforting. If you went deep enough, those blocks are all that can be seen in all directions.

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The original spot of Hitler’s bunker is actually a paved area in the midst of a housing estate in the centre of Berlin. Of course, you can’t actually see the bunker. When the Russian army captured Berlin, after all the celebrations and general carousing, they decided to destroy all trace of Hitler and his regime. By this point in the war, Berlin was already practically reduced to rubble. However, the Russians wanted to deconstruct any of Hitler’s pride and glory. The bunker was initially aerated by attempting to blow it up with bombs, which only blew a hole in the roof (It was a bunker, guys. I mean, honestly, what did they think would happen?). Since that failed, they decided to fill it in with concrete, making the bunker vanish beneath the surface.

Hitler’s office, his greatest prize, was made of expensive, red marble. The red marble was removed carefully and now it lines parts of the underground train system, hence the stop at the underground. I have to admit that it makes quite a statement, when you think about it.

Fun fact: Hitler used Greek architecture as his inspiration in all his buildings as he wanted his accomplishments to be remembered always and the Greek monuments such as the Acropolis are world renowned.

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The Brandenburg Gate is such a phenomenal sight, especially if you know the significance. To the German people, the Brandenburg Gate symbolizes their freedom. It had always been a symbol of military prowess. When a battle was won throughout Germany’s history, the returning troops would enter triumphantly through the Gate and celebrations would begin. During the communist rule, and split between East and West, the Brandenburg Gate sat between two barbed wire fences, and on the communist side of the Berlin Wall. It was held hostage, surrounded by guard towers and platoons of troops. Now that Berlin is once again reunited, the Brandenburg Gate sits proudly, freely.

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When I visited Berlin, it was the 30th of December and, with New Years Eve fast approaching, the Gate was surrounded by trucks and people setting up the celebrations. My pictures are therefore not that great, unfortunately.

The Topographie des Terrors is an exhibition held on the grounds of the former Gestapo site. The Gestapo, for those who don’t know, was an organisation that dealt in intelligence during Hitler’s reign. They were the guys who did all the torturing and killing of enemies of state. Their headquarters in Berlin was originally a hotel, before they commandeered it for their own purposes. After the war, the building was demolished, however the ruins of the basement is now a tourist attraction.

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Beyond the ruins, you can find a portion of the Berlin Wall. There is, of course, the famous painted section of the wall in another part of town. This section, however, has been left exactly as it was the day the wall fell; a drab length of concrete slabs. You can even see graffiti made during those years of segregation.

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Though most of the Berlin wall has been destroyed (and sold in pieces to tourists), the people of Berlin wanted a reminder of how monumental the Wall had been. Therefore, they have placed a line throughout the city to trace the length of the wall. It’s a neat tourist attraction, though it’s not really something you can go definitively to see. Like the original barrier, it’s kinda just there.

Checkpoint Charlie was a point of entry between the two sides of Berlin. It is only so famous because of an incident that happened there. There was a dispute as to whether a U.S. diplomat needed to hand over his travel papers to East German guards. Both the Russians and the Americans then rolled out a hundred or so tanks on their respective sides of the checkpoint and a stalemate ensued. Both sides eventually backed down and peace resumed, however Checkpoint Charlie has now became infamous. Today, a museum has been constructed to commemorate that era and the incident. The checkpoint on its own is not that interesting but the museum is fabulous.

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Berlin also has a heap of different museums, from a spy museum to the Trabi museum. A trabant (trabi) was a car used in communist Berlin during the years after the wall was constructed. The cars were actually very unreliable and the owner generally learnt to be a mechanic  in order to ensure they were able to actually use the car. Today, you can drive one of the cars around the city for a few hours. The cars have had some amazing paint jobs and, I assume, been fixed to ensure they will run. If driving is not your style, pop into the Trabi Museum to learn about the history of this odd vehicles.

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There are so many other things to see and do in Berlin. It would take me weeks to list them all. From culture to history to food, Berlin is a bundle of potential. I would definitely recommend visiting some of the historical spots of the city, even if you don’t like that sort of thing normally. It will blow your mind to realise how swiftly the city and its people have recovered.

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Food and Shopping

The local delicacies are, of course, sausages. Germany as a whole is known for its sausages. Berlin, however, specializes in curry wurst, a sausage in a flavoursome curry sauce. I tried it myself, opting to buy it from a street vendor rather than a restaurant, and it was absolutely delicious. I can’t guarantee that it’s not fatty but it is worth every kilo gained. Plus, you’re on holidays! Live a little. It’s perfect on a cold day, warms you right up.

There are restaurants and cafés in practically every street of Berlin. In winter, you will find it difficult to find a seat in the cafés as everyone flocks to them for the most delicious hot chocolates and mouthwatering breakfasts.

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Shopping was actually not really something I did in Berlin. I mean, of course I bought the requisite souvenir, but I didn’t spend hours strolling in and out of shops (there was just too much to see). If you find your way to Checkpoint Charlie, head down any of the streets intersecting with the checkpoint to locate a variety of stores. If you go around Christmas and New Year, you will benefit from sales. Always a good thing, in my mind.

Final Tips

Due to the amount of history that resonates within the city, it is important to be duly respectful when visiting any of the monuments. Berlin (and Germany) is eager to move forward from the tragedies of its past and, as such, the city is extremely open minded and lenient. However, acting inappropriately will not be treated lightly.

The German people are extremely welcoming. Everyone I came across was so lovely and polite. I never got the “oh, she’s a tourist” stare. If you’ve been travelling, you know what I’m talking about.

As you walk the city, you will find an assortment of interesting statues and monuments. Look out for these bears, however. They are scattered around the city, all painted in a different theme and style. The bear is the mascot of Berlin. I only found four so let me know if you find the rest.

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I was delighted to spend two nights in Berlin. My only regret was having to leave and travel onward. By now, the tour was coming to a close. The remaining stop was Amsterdam for the New Year (I have written a review previously on Amsterdam. See here: www.beccaseestheworld.com/cities/amsterdam-a-city-of-mazes).

If you have ever thought of visiting Berlin, or any part of Germany, I would say go for it! Germany is a beautiful country, no matter whether you visit a city or the countryside, and well worth the visit. It is a journey you will not regret taking.

Happy travels!

Short Stop in Dresden

As the title suggests, this week I’ll be discussing my 2-hour stint in Dresden. I apologise in advance for the picture quality. This was one of the few times I used my phone as opposed to my DSLR so they may appear grainier than usual.

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Dresden is in the region of Saxony, Germany.  Though Dresden has contributed a fair share to Germany’s economy through the centuries, the city is now most famous for its role in the Second World War. In response to the destruction of London and many other English cities, the Allies decimated Dresden. A series of air raids led to the death of over 20,000 people and resulted in a catastrophic fire that destroyed most of the city.

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But it was a war, right? Why is Dresden significant? Dresden had actually been more of a silent city in regards to the war effort. Yes, they did send troops and have military factories, but perhaps not enough to justify the horrific turn of events of 1945. There have been so many debates over the years about whether it was a war crime (which is punishable by law) or merely a natural part of war.

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Dresden, nevertheless, managed to rebuild. Many of the buildings were actually rebuilt using the original, charred stones. This is why many of the buildings in the Old Town are blackened or discoloured. I think this was my favourite part of Dresden; the fact that they didn’t just rebuild, they salvaged the original stones. It’s almost like saying; yes, we’re a bit worse for wear but you haven’t beaten us.

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There are, of course, buildings that were completely destroyed and had to be reconstructed from scratch but each building was rebuilt using the original plans. Among these was the Fruenkirche, a historic 18th century church. The church was left as a pile of crumbling foundation stones after the bombing, as a memorial for the war. It wasn’t until after the reunification of Germany that it was rebuilt with the rest of Dresden. The golden sphere at the very top of the Fruenkirche was a gift from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, as both an apology and a peace offering. Though nothing could repair the damage, the Queen was eager to mend relations with the people of both Germany and Dresden.

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Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to tour any of the buildings, nor see much more of the city. I did find a lovely little bakery that sold an assortment of indulgent food (I did sample some). Two hours in this beautiful city did not do it justice but it did give me a taste for German culture as we headed for Berlin. I would definitely encourage you to visit Dresden. Like Auschwitz, it displays a different aspect of the war than many of us learn in school.

If you are planning a trip to Germany, make sure to allow a few days in Dresden to explore the secrets of this enchanting city!

Happy travels!

 

Prague!

Prague is a beautiful city. The capital of the Czech Republic, Prague has an amazing mix of history and modernity that few cities are able to pull off. Prague has a place for every type of traveller; clubs for the party animal, culture and museums for the academically minded and food for the foodies. For myself, Prague was both a frustration and a delight. I love glassware (or crystal, in Prague’s case) and had an absolute ball drooling over the shops. However, Prague was the only time I allowed the actions of my tour companions to dictate my own.

Let me explain: Australians are well known for being drunks. We are identified by the rest of the world as party animals, especially whilst on holidays. For myself, I don’t see the point of spending $3000-plus on a holiday only to drink myself into a stupor and remember none of it. I also wanted to be capable of seeing the sights the following day, since I’d flown all the way to Europe (no mean feat). Having said this, I had no problem with others doing so. They are adults and that’s their choice. The thing that bothered me was a number of my tour stumbling up the street, yelling at the local police as they drove past, whilst we began our evening walking tour. I opted to return to the hostel rather than lose my temper and further alienate myself from my tour group.

Because of this poor decision, I then had no idea how to find any of the main sights of Prague. I also had no idea which tram to take, nor which station to disembark. I found this put me at a great disadvantage straight away. I ended up getting off on the wrong side of the river, making the walk to the centre of town much longer than it should’ve been.

However, I always seem to discover beautiful and interesting spots during these instances.

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Accommodation

Our accommodation was probably not in the best spot of Prague, however we did have quite a few other hotels, etc. around us so maybe it was the accommodation district. We stayed at Plus Prague, a chain of hostels across Europe. I also stayed at this chain in Florence, which I have mentioned before, and Berlin (That post will be coming in a few weeks). Prague’s version of the chain was certainly not the best (Florence was absolutely the best). The rooms weren’t small, they were comfortable. The bathroom was also adequate. It was more that everything looked like it would fall apart if you touched it. Plus, the hostel was an hour or so by tram to the main city of Prague, which is not ideal for long days of sight seeing.

The hostel did have a lovely restaurant/bar area in a separate building. It was quite industrial-feeling but I found it enjoyable. There was even a karaoke machine, for those who enjoy karaoke. The staff were very friendly and eager to help you. Overall, the experience was pleasant and I would certainly return.

Attractions

Honestly, I don’t think I found any of the main tourist attractions, mainly because I had no idea where they were. The tram station where I got off was on the opposite side of the river than the sights. I think it may have been more of the locals’ hangout than the tourist section of the city. This in no way meant that it was boring or empty (for locals were out and about on their daily business) but not many spoke English and those that did spoke it quite brokenly. I felt absolutely ashamed when an embarrassed shop owner apologised multiple times because she couldn’t communicate with me. After all, it wasn’t her fault that I couldn’t speak Czech and I was being unfair in assuming she would speak my language.

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The walk along the river actually became the highlight of my day (apart from the shopping, of course). I discovered some truly beautiful buildings, all in a variety of colours and styles. I know I always say each city I visit has beautiful and unique buildings but it’s true for each city. If it weren’t for the fact that I can’t draw to save my life, I would surely be an architect.

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Here come the unique buildings! These two could not be anymore different than the Gothic buildings I had found so far in my journey. The first building, I honestly was like “What?”. I had just walked past all the colourful, pointy Gothic buildings to be struck dumb by a curvy, modern structure. The second building is so flat and drab that it can’t help but stand out against its surroundings. Perhaps this was the plan?

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The river views were actually quite spectacular. I was able to see the city from a distance, as a whole. Sometimes I feel that when I’m in the midst of a city, I get a little overwhelmed by all the activity and sights. There’s almost no chance to admire the fact that you’re in another country. The walk, however, gave me that chance in Prague.

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Whilst stumbling through the city in search of the sights, I came across a lovely park area. I’m not quite sure who this guy is but he must be important if they made a bust of him, but not overly important as he is also attached to a bench.

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I did find eventually Wenceslas Square in the New Town (whenever in doubt, follow the crowds). This is where a multitude of the shops are and I must confess that I did splurge quite a bit (The crystal, guys!). It actually took about 3 hours before I reached what I assumed to be the centre of Prague. I took my time exploring the square and the surrounding streets. I then became very, very confused when I couldn’t find the Astronomical Clock that Prague was so famous for. Apparently I was quite close without even realising it (I should’ve bought a map! I broke my own rule).

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Probably the most fascinating thing about Prague, however, was not a sight or attraction. It was the fact that they seemed to sell  beer at their Burger King (Hungry Jacks). I mean, beer! I have never in my life believed such a thing would be possible.

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Food & Shopping

As I didn’t actually get to see much of the city, I’m afraid my only advice for food would be in Wenceslas Square. Having said that, the square is part of the New Town and as such it has been designed with the intent of entertaining tourists. There are a number of top restaurants scattered around the square, as well as typical fast food restaurants (Burger King) and vendors.

Shopping can be really fun in Prague. I found a few cute little shops whilst making my way the Wenceslas Square and, of course, the square itself has an array of shops including a bookstore, bag store, numerous crystal stores and many souvenir stores. The usual international brands can also be found throughout the main tourist areas.

Final Tips

The most important thing to remember is that you are in a different country and therefore, more often than not, people will not speak English. It would be a good idea to learn a few key phrases before travelling to the Czech Republic.

The tram system is long and extensive. It takes you all over the city. I found it confusing to navigate at first but so long as you know the stops you need, you will be fine. The tram displays the final stop on the line, like the Australian public transport system, and determines the direction of travel. Make sure you do stamp your tickets! If you are caught without having the ticket stamped, you will face a hefty fine.

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I am very disappointed that I missed the top sights of Prague, however I always try to find the positive in every experience. The beautiful pictures I took are enough to whet my appetite for more exploration of Prague. Maybe I’ll find the Astronomical Clock on my next trip! One can surely hope.

Happy travels!

Auschwitz Concentration Camp

This week’s post is such a somber one that I am at a loss as to how to begin it. The Second World War introduced the world to a new level of atrocity, something that those who had lived through the Great War (WW1) couldn’t believe was possible. No one could’ve guessed the extent of the damage that World War 1 would wreak on the entire world. From shortages to the Great Depression to the staggering loss of life, every nation felt the effects of the conflict.

Germany, however, was the biggest loser- they were blamed for the entire war and forced to pay restitution to the Allies. The German people were suitably enraged that they had been solely blamed for the war. Enter the man that has been labeled as one of the most evil men in all of history- Adolf Hitler. Hitler served as a Lance Corporal in the Bavarian Army during the Great War and was quite certain that the superior German race would conquer the inferior Allies and rule the world as was their right. At the news of Germany’s surrender, Hitler was bitterly disappointed. When Germany was plunged into debt, more so than the rest of the world, because of the restitution payments, Hitler saw the wealth of the Jewish communities within Germany and a seed of bitterness that had planted years earlier began to sprout.

Hitler’s rise to power is not all that stupefying. The German people were desperate to improve their situation, making radical ideas easier to swallow. Hitler also had an arsenal of weapons in the form of loyal followers who believed the same philosophy regarding Germany’s superiority. These followers had no issue with disposing of anyone who objected to the Nazi’s rise to power. This is where the idea for the concentration camps arose.

Some of the first victims of Hitler’s schemes were political rivals or influential persons. Many were imprisoned before the Second World War began and kept alive until the final days, starved and worked to death. Gypsies and any other form of “impure” race was targeted next, almost used as guinea pigs whilst the Nazis perfected their system.

Once World War 2 began, and Hitler conquered neighbouring nations, they were able to ship their victims off to far off places, away from the German people’s eyes. A vast majority of the population had no inkling of what was being done away from home.

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Auschwitz is one of the most famous concentration camps and the largest by far. Auschwitz is located in Poland. The camp was built from scratch by the millions of Jews that were detained there. Auschwitz is most famous because of its size but also because it was a well-oiled extermination camp.

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Today, Auschwitz has been preserved and opened to the public. The grounds have been left in its original state, with minimal alteration, to allow visitors to understand the conditions in which the prisoners lived in before their death.

 

During the guided tour, you follow a path that depicts the story of the prisoners from the moment they arrive to their final moments within the gas chambers. Pictured above is one of the rooms where an indecent amount of prisoners lived, at the end is a photo of the women and children as they are herded through the gates of the camp, unaware of the horrors that would face them. The middle picture is a portion of the empty cans of zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers. The final picture is an urn of the ashes of some of the victims.

Many of the prisoners were sent immediately to the gas chambers upon arrival at the camp. They were told they would be taken to bathing chambers in order to keep them calm. The German soldiers looted the bodies for jewellery and gold teeth, their clothes removed, hair cut and their bodies burned. Any personal documents were destroyed and their personal effects were sorted. In essence, all trace of the victims were erased systematically and without hesitation.

The remaining prisoners were kept as slave labour and worked to death before sharing the same fate. The prisoners were even forced to build their own torture chambers. As the number of victims increased, so did the workload. More lodging was required to accommodate the growing influx of prisoners. Now that the war was in full swing, prisoners of war were added to the camps regularly, as well as the “inferior” races that were conquered by the Nazi forces.

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Auschwitz has many rooms that I was not allowed to take photos of, out of respect for the victims. However, these rooms were filled with their belongings; shoes, suitcases, cooking utensils and a wall length glass cabinet of hair from the millions of prisoners. There is a hallway that has the pictures of all the recorded prisoners, their eyes downcast and their faces filled with despair.

The entire experience is eye-opening and quite distressing. I am a firm believer in knowing the truth about history, even if the truth is upsetting. How else will we learn? I especially believe that, being so far removed from those horrific times, everyone should understand the pain that was felt by the world when these horrendous acts were uncovered.

Though I was brought to tears and an unbearable ache filled my chest, I will never regret my visit to Auschwitz. Even now, tears fill my eyes at the memory of what I was shown. It is a testament to how far we as human beings have come, the fact that we can’t imagine such acts being allowed. I am glad.

For those who are anticipating visiting the camp, I must urge you to be considerate of the victims. It is not a place where tourists are smiling, laughing or taking selfies. It is an attraction that brings a great deal of soul searching. The pain will be almost physical so you must be certain you will be able to handle this.

May we never see such cruelties ever again.

Happy travels!

Krakow

Krakow (pronounced Krakov) is one of the only places that I don’t have particularly good memories of. I fell victim to the “lost tourist” theft, where two guys crowd you, pleading to be lost tourists while one picks your pockets. Luckily, they only stole my spare wallet that contained an extra card and a little bit of cash. Had I been paying attention, I would’ve saved myself that embarrassment but I am glad they didn’t manage to take all my money.

Krakow is in Poland. Once again, Poland is a country that I had never thought to visit. Somehow it didn’t seem “safe” enough for me to visit comfortably. I had also never even heard of Krakow. Looking back at my stop there, I am glad I saw the city as it was very beautiful, despite its miscreants.

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Accommodation

I am not a fussy person when it comes to my accommodation. I don’t mind sharing a room if that is the cheapest option. However, I do believe that if a room is reported as accommodating three people, that it should be roomy enough for three adults to move in without too much puzzle work.

The Quality Hotel System in Krakow, our accommodation for two nights, was quite interesting. The rooms were dusty and cramped. There was also a desk in the room which wasted precious space. To enter the toilet, you had to stand at a certain angle to allow the door to pass you before you were able to squeeze past and enter the bathroom.

For two nights, these accommodations were adequate, if a little tricky to navigate. What really annoyed me was the dinner they served us on Christmas night. I was hoping for a little traditional food but instead I received a boring soup, coleslaw, some kind of roast meat and a glass of water. The food was a definite letdown. What was the point of being in a foreign country on Christmas day if nothing was special about it? I understand that no one wants to be serving a group of foreigners on Christmas (I wanted to be home with my family, too) but I was paying for this and I felt thoroughly cheated.

Attractions

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I know this will surprise you but I loved the Christmas markets in Krakow. We arrived early in the morning, just as the stall holders were beginning their day. The stalls held so many things! Krakow has an obsession with covering things in chocolate. There were a few stalls that sold chocolate covered bananas and strawberry skewers. There were truffles and biscuits. There were baked goods. I saw bread bigger than my head that I wished I could’ve taken home to share with my family. I also came across a stall that held hundreds of different kinds of lollipops and sweets. I was in heaven!

For those who don’t have a fascination with sweets like I do, Krakow has a fantastic amount of history. For instance, Krakow’s castle (pictured at the beginning of the article) is said to have been built on top of a cave that was the lair of a dragon. This dragon would plague the nearby farmers, stealing their sheep (poor, little sheep). The castle was built by the man who defeated the beast, who then became the ruler of Krakow. I was told that if you follow the water, you can find a life-size, fire-breathing dragon guarding the castle.

There are also two towers in the square where the markets are held that were reportedly built by two brothers, both fighting to make theirs the most beautiful. Once they had completed the towers, the winner was decided. The losing brother was so enraged that he threw his brother from the tower. Pretty brutal, right? Well, honestly I could imagine doing that to my brothers, as well.

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Stories such as these fascinate me. After all, they are the stories that make up a place. The local lore that has been passed down through the centuries. I also enjoyed staring at all the interesting buildings that give Krakow character. Yes, I know. I do have a thing for buildings but when they’re so different from those I find in my hometown, can you blame me? These buildings are the reasons I came to Europe!

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Beyond the original city walls (beautifully preserved, by the way), there’s a castle-type building. I have no idea what it’s for but it had its own moat and everything! In the middle of a city! You won’t see that in Australia.

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The building below is found at the main square (where the markets are) and it is an old church. No matter how long I stared at the building, I couldn’t wrap my mind around this. It looked nothing like any of the other churches I had seen in Europe thus far. It was so small and it was square! Unadorned and almost sad looking. It felt like a true place of worship; one that was not built for boastful purposes. It was functional, you know?

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Food & Shopping

The centre of Krakow holds the majority of shops. If you are there at Christmas, you really should check out the markets. The local artists sell all their most popular work there and, to be honest, the food is phenomenal (deep fried batter, guys). I found if you enter the old Cloth Hall, there are stalls set up inside selling a variety of wooden objects. They have the most beautiful wooden boxes there that come in all sizes and make great gifts.

As for food, should I mention the markets for a third time? Don’t be put off by the lines; the food is completely worth the wait. There are also restaurants in the buildings surrounding the square, ranging in price and eating styles. The local bakeries are also a big seller. I bought a massive chocolate cupcake that was delicious. Try one of everything, I dare you!

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Krakow is an amazing city to visit for those interesting little stories. Wander about and visit the sights. Go see that fire-breathing dragon. That is the first thing I will be checking out when I return. I hope you have as much fun exploring as I did!

Happy travels!

Budapest- Twin Cities

Budapest is made of two different cites, separated by the Danube River. Having been taught all through schooling that communism was crippling, I didn’t expect Budapest to be quite so organised. Budapest, however, is a major tourist destination and they pull out all the stops at Christmas time. There were lights and decorations on every street. It felt like the entire city was celebrating, enjoying the season. It was an intoxicating feeling and I loved every minute I was there.

Accommodation

Because Budapest is essentially two separate cities, it can be hard to decide where to stay. Both sides of the river have great attractions so it is really a personal preference. Bear in mind that Budapest is massive and seeing all the sights will take more than a day, no matter where your accommodation is.

We stayed at another Wombats Hostel near the centre of the city. Being as it was a Wombats, the accommodation was outstanding. Our room was amazing. It even had a skylight window, which is a nice touch. My main criticism would be the distance the hostel was from where our coach dropped us off. There was a lot of uneven paths to trudge along before reaching the hostel. The foyer, as well, smelled awful. I can’t even name the odour.

Attractions

One of the negatives of travelling over Christmas and New Year was the uncertainty when it came to attractions in each city. The European culture places a good deal of importance on Christmas eve. This is when all the families get together and celebrate. Stores close in the afternoon as their owners return home to celebrate and many attractions won’t even open

However, like many of the cities in Europe, Budapest is an attraction all on its own. What I mean is that the city is so interesting that I found I wasn’t bothered about the attractions closing. The only thing I found difficult was all the restaurants and cafés closing around 3pm. What was I supposed to do for dinner?

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Budapest is one city that is resolutely proud of its heritage. Everywhere I looked, I found statues and monuments representing someone of historical importance or a crucial period in the country’s history. The most interesting ones I found were the piece of the Berlin Wall and a monument for the “Iron Curtain”. The piece of the wall was bare and stark, representing the horror of living under communism and in celebration of the Wall’s fall. The Iron Curtain monument commemorated a time in Hungary’s history when their lives were not always easy, living under communist Russia’s rule. Our coach driver was actually Hungarian and he grew up during communist rule. He stated that  it wasn’t a terrible time, like most assume, merely a more restricted period of his life. These monuments are found outside the House of Terror, named so because those who openly opposed the communist government were taken there and never seen again. I was sore that it was closed the day I was there.

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Hungary especially likes to honour their fallen. The most notable example of this is the Square of Heroes. This is a square at the centre of an intersection that holds a beautiful monument to Hungary’s leaders, as well as The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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On either side of the square are two separate museums, The Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art. Both were closed when I was there but I think the outside of the buildings were as beautiful as any of the art held inside.

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Budapests’ buildings were so eclectic, too. I loved walking the street and seeing all the different styles of houses, all a different shade or shape. Many of the buildings were undergoing repairs or maintenance but most were still as beautiful as the day they were built.

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I found that Budapest also had the most interesting doorways of any of the cities I visited. Many had exquisitely carved pillars and columns or ornate doors. I loved it (I can be won over by any beautifully crafted feature, to be honest)!

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But enough about buildings. Back to the sights! If you are visiting Budapest in the cooler months, you must visit the baths. They’re extraordinary and a great way to warm up. The Hungarian State Opera House is another beautiful building but it’s also an attraction. Come see the amazing Hungarian Ballet perform classics such as The Nutcracker (and the best thing is there’s no language barrier).

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The Fisherman’s Bastion is a very popular tourist attraction. It is further away from the centre of the city, in an area still surrounded by the original castle and city walls. On a good day, I’m told you can see right across the city. When we were touring it, however, it was very foggy. I actually didn’t mind that, though, as it lent an eerie atmosphere to the city.

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My favourite thing to do, however, was the Christmas markets. Surprise, surprise! The markets sold everything from honey to linen to souvenirs to leather. And the whole of Budapest was there! There were stalls of local food and hot drinks. There was even music cutting through the chatter. I love Christmas markets but hate crowds, however there was such a community spirit at the Budapest markets that Ididn’t mind being surrounded by people.

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Food and Shopping

Budapest has a great variety of restaurants, bars and cafés scattered all through the city. Many are not exactly in plain sight but they are the best, for sure. As part of my tour, we went to a local, family-owned restaurant a few blocks from the Christmas markets. You had to climb down a set of steep stairs to reach the dining room, which appeared to be underground. They had traditional food in massive servings. It was fascinating watching the food come to the table and having no clue which was yours until they called the order. I tried these noodles that looked and felt like scrambled eggs with some very salty meat.

When I was wandering the streets, I saw a bar that claimed they had the best burgers ever. I am disappointed I didn’t get to test their claim. If anyone does try their burgers, let me know if they are the best. After all, that’s a mighty big claim.

As to shopping, Budapest has plenty of shops in the newer part of the city. Hungary is actually famous for paprika, can you believe it? Fun little fact there, guys. Souvenir shops abound, of course, and don’t be surprised at all the paprika-themed souvenirs. For the smaller stores, you’ll have to walk the backstreets and narrow alleys of the inner city.

Final Tips

The language is quite hard to learn on the spot. If you plan on visiting the city for a good amount of time, you might want to think about learning some key phrases before arriving. I found there were quite a few who didn’t speak English (like in supermarkets) and all the gesturing at the counter can get tiring, for both you and the cashier.

Budapest can be a foggy city. As you can see from my pictures of the Bastion, fog is quite regular in Budapest. It’s something that can’t be avoided. Therefore, it would be best to prioritise those sights where you require clear skies on the sunnier days.

You can always haggle at markets. I don’t want anyone to take this as a chance to attempt to rip off the stall holders, however many market products are overpriced (as we tourists don’t know any different). You can therefore try to haggle the price down, if you’re feeling up to it. I actually haggled the price down on an item by accident. How? The lady told me a price and I, not sure how much money I had on me, told her I would have to check how much money I had. She immediately dropped the price and I graciously took the lower price. I’m not certain if she still overcharged me but I was thrilled with my purchase (and so is my Mum).

Budapest is one of the few cities that I wanted to stay for weeks. I found the city to be full of Christmas spirit. The moral of this story is not to make judgments on a place based on its history. Give a city the benefit of the doubt.

Happy travels!

Vienna

Probably my biggest regret whenever I visit a new place is not having enough time. While I felt that 36 hours in all the previous stops was rushing things, it was nothing compared to the 8-hour flying visit I had in Vienna. It was the only time of the entire tour when we only spent one night in a destination, which forced me to explore what little of the city I could at night. As a woman alone, in a city that I had no idea how to navigate, this put me at a disadvantage and made me feel quite uncomfortable. The tour had also organised an optional extra to see an orchestral performance and I found this a waste of the precious time we had in such a grand city.

Accommodation

We stayed at a Wombats Hostel, a large chain of hostels located all over Europe. Because Wombats is a chain, the hostel was very organised. The rooms were a good size and the staff were eager to help. It was difficult, however, to drag our luggage through the streets, across dangerous crossings as our coach was unable to stop closer than the main street. When there are 40 plus people, all with large luggage, it makes it difficult to stay together when crossing streets, as well as being mindful of other pedestrians.

Attractions

Before we even reached Vienna, we stopped at the Schönbrunn Palace. The palace grounds are said to be some of the most beautiful in Europe and though the flowerbeds were empty during my visit, I can believe this to be true. Both the palace and the grounds are extensive. The palace has it’s own maze (not open in winter as the hedges are bare) and even a zoo. Tours of the palace are reasonably priced and vary in length for your convenience. Whatever you choose, be sure to factor in a few hours to make the most of the visit. I was only given an hour and wasn’t able to see much but I could’ve stayed all day.

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Once we reached the city, we went straight into the city tour. Considering the limited amount of time we had to explore the city, I became a little frustrated during the tour. It felt way too rushed but at the same time a waste of time and too long. The tour was completed on the coach and, without the chance to explore the places being pointed out, it was boring. I was eager to explore but it took another couple of hours and darkness falling before I had the chance.

Once the coach had dropped us off later that evening, I forced myself outside of my comfort zone to see this amazing city for the few hours I had left. Vienna is named one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and I have to agree. The varying architecture is quite eclectic and yet it suits Vienna. It was fascinating to see the city’s growth and change over the centuries through its buildings.

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In Vienna, I found my favourite Christmas markets. Throughout my journey through Europe, I visited every Christmas markets I could find and looking back I have decided that Vienna’s was my favourite. It was everything you would expect of a European Christmas; stalls filled with handmade items, traditional food and cold weather. The markets were held in a massive park, by a beautiful Gothic Cathedral and opposite the Opera House. The trees throughout the park were decorated by hundreds of lights, all of different shapes such as hearts, candy canes and angels. There were a few stall holders that didn’t speak English but with a lot of gesturing and broken German I was able to communicate. I dared to try a pizza-flavoured pretzel and a strange pastry roll filled with cream.

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Vienna is more than just their Christmas markets, however. Vienna is filled with museums, memorials and cathedrals. Vienna was once the most fashionable city in Europe and my flying visit didn’t do it justice.

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Shopping & Food

If you are visiting Vienna around Christmas, you must peruse the Christmas market stalls. There is something there for everyone and it is very family friendly. Otherwise, you can walk the Mariahilfer Strabe, which has posh-looking stores that are bustling with people, even late at night.

As for food, Vienna has some beautiful restaurants. However, you must be organised as these restaurants fill up quickly. If you have a specific place in mind, I would recommend booking a reservation. Vienna is also known for its coffee shops. They are a place for locals to meet with friends and family and are dotted all around the city. Pubs have also begun to appear as the world shrinks and cultures merge.

Final Tips

Vienna is not a city you can rush through. There is too much history whispering through each street to disregard. If you are planning a trip to Vienna, it would be best to research the city and decide on a proper length of time for your visit. It is not the type of city where you can see it all in a couple of hours, like I was forced to.

The Viennese people are warm and friendly. I stopped at a supermarket and the cashier was very eager to hear all about my trip, where I was from, etc. I also found that people are more than willing to stop and help when you need it. I got very lost (no surprise there) whilst attempting to return to the hostel and was pleasantly surprised when a French lady stopped and helped direct me to my hostel.

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Vienna is a beautiful city and I honestly regret the poor timing I had while I was there. I have promised myself that I will go back and pay the city a proper visit.

Happy travels!

Salzburg! Sound of Music, anyone?

Anyone who has seen the classic movie The Sound of Music will know of the city of Salzburg. I myself grew up watching the movie and can probably quote it word for word. The stop in Salzburg was actually one of the biggest factors that made me decide which tour to take with Topdeck. Having seen the movie, I had sort of romanticised Salzburg and I was desperate to visit the site of the most famous scenes.

Accommodation

First of all, the movie is quite deceptive of how big, or small, Salzburg actually is. My tour stayed in a youth hostel on the outskirts of the city called Yoho’s Hostel. The hostel is part of a chain so they are pretty organised. The breakfast was perfect and the rooms were quite spacious for a hostel. However, they only had two toilets on each floor, one male/one female, and the shower was unisex (meaning both men and women were forced to shower in the same area). The shower was my biggest issue as no woman wants to fear being perved on by the opposite sex whilst showering.

As to the location of the hostel, while it was on the outskirts of town, the walk towards the town centre (or Old Town) took roughly 15 minutes. This was a big plus for me, especially since there were many different ways to reach the hostel that weren’t too confusing.

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Attractions

A city known for such a classic movie is bound to capitalise on the opportunities. There are many tours themed around The Sound of Music, that allow fans to follow in the steps of the famous Do-Re-Mi song sequence. There is also the Abbey, that features in the film and even a trip into the countryside to see the grand houses similar to the Von Trapp Mansion. Even if you are not a fan, one of these tours would be the perfect way to see the city’s best sights.

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Salzburg has such an old world feel about it. The streets of the Old Town are cobblestone and winding. The store signs are beautiful wrought iron and hand-painted lettering. It is just the most charming place that has embraced its history whilst managing to introduce modernity with ease.

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The Mirabell Palace is an absolutely stunning attraction. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and therefore worth a visit. It wasn’t as pretty in winter, mind you, since all the flowers were actually dead but the starkness of the empty flowerbeds against the august buildings was actually quite striking. I can imagine how vibrant the grounds would appear in springtime.

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Salzburg is also the birthplace of artistic genius Mozart. The city is very, very proud of the fact. You can visit his birthplace, an impressive yellow home in the centre of the Old Town. The home has been so meticulously kept that it almost feels like it was built yesterday, if not for the history that whispers from its walls.

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The Salzburg Castle is another must-see attraction. It sits on a rock overlooking the city and it is quite stunning. The 11th century castle has so much prominence that it appears in almost every shot of the city (and in many of mine). It is quite a climb to reach but no pain, no gain, right? Halfway up the mountain, you will find the Nonnberg Abbey (the one where Maria was a part of). It is said to be the oldest abbey in the German-speaking world! Amazing.

Salzburg was honestly a surprise. I had no idea there was so much to see. It has a zoo, a marionette museum, tons of museums, really. And best of all, it is one of the prettiest cities in all of Austria, surrounded by snow-covered mountains.

Shopping

Once you hit the centre of Salzburg, the shops are everywhere. It is a compact city so there are stores up every little alley and on every corner. You can find typical souvenirs in most of the stores but there are also wood figurines, painted eggs, snow globes, beer steins and fancy knives. Various stalls fill the squares, especially around Christmas when the markets draw tourism.

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The Christmas markets are spectacular, if busy. The smells of mulled wine and hot sausages fills the air and marries with the frosty weather. The smell of pines is also a regular scent on the wind. I loved it. Be warned, the crowds are crazy. Don’t be surprised by the groups huddling around the food stalls, either, as many people will grab a hot drink or meal and gather to take a break from the festivities. The market stalls consist of everything from jams and biscuits to home-made Christmas decorations and glassware.

Food

Salzburg holds a range of varying kinds of dining experiences. You can grab a quick bite to eat from a stall selling hot sausages or from a fish and chip shop (not like in Australia, guys. Sorry). Or you can sit down for a proper meal at any of the excellent restaurants. They also have deli-style stores where everything is pre-wrapped.

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Remember how I said Salzburg is proud of their link to Mozart? Well, they have at least one restaurant dedicated to his honor. I also found that Mozart has his own style of confectionery called Mozartkugel, or Mozart’s Balls, which is made of marzipan, nougat and dark chocolate. In all honesty, I did not feel comfortable eating something with that name so I did not try one myself (plus I don’t like marzipan) but I would be eager to hear of someone’s opinion on the sweet.

Final tips

There are just a few things that need mentioning. Salzburg is an alpine city, surrounded by mountains. Therefore, it can be very, very cold, especially in winter. If you are planning a winter trip, you can expect below 0°c no matter what time of day it is and the sun does not make a difference. Trust me.

Also, Salzburg, and Austria in general, is considered quite safe to visit. The entire time I was there, I did not feel the need to be overly cautious and I certainly never felt threatened in any way. Many people would be worried about the crowds of the markets but I can assure you that the people are friendly. I found that most people were too busy minding their own business to bother with pick pocketing.

If you are a fan of the musical, I would certainly encourage you to visit the home of the Von Trapp family. If you’re not, go anyway! Salzburg is a beautiful place with plenty of culture and history.

Happy travels!

 

Venice: Canal City

Every country has its hot spots, or “must see” cities. Venice is one of the top destinations visited in Italy each year. It is a city known for it’s cerulean canals, singing gondoliers and stunning glassware. As a big fan of glass, I was seriously excited to visit Venice. The island of Murano produces some of the most intricate pieces of glassware. Add to this the amazing masked Venetian festival held each year and Venice is a wonder for every traveller to see.

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No matter what time of year you visit Venice, understand two things; it will be crowded and, because the city is on a series of islands (and therefore surrounded by water), it will be colder than the rest of Italy. I visited in winter and the freezing breeze that gusted from the sea was soul-sucking (a tad dramatic, but I am a Queenslander. Cold is not something we really do). Either way, you must prepare yourself for the coolness of venice, especially at night.

Accommodation

For my tour we stayed in a beautiful hotel called the Delfino Venice Mestre. It was a 20 minute bus ride to the canals of Venice. The rooms were impeccable and ridiculously spacious, the staff friendly, and the breakfast wonderful. Whilst wandering the streets of mainland Venice, I didn’t find any accommodation so I can’t say for sure where you could stay if you wanted to be closer, however the Delfino was a magnificant place to stay.

Attractions

The attractions of Venice are quite honestly seasonal. What I mean is, it depends on whether you are visiting Venice to participate in the festivals or as a general visit. As I mentioned earlier, the most famous festival that Venice is known for is the Carnival of Venice, where thousands of people flood the canal-lined streets in fancy dress and elaborate masks. This takes place around Easter. However, I was there during winter and the atmosphere was much more somber.

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The most iconic attraction of Venice is, of course, its canals. A gondola ride is a must. I myself am not a big fan of boats (I definitely prefer to have my feet on solid ground) but I didn’t want to miss out on this experience. Your gondolier will take you on a leisurely tour through the narrow streets of the city and out onto the Grand Canal before dropping you back at the dock. I found being in such a small vessel on the Grand Canal daunting but there is nothing to fear as every gondolier goes through extreme training for years before being given a licence. Don’t be afraid to engage your gondolier in discussion. We found out quite a bit about ours simply by asking.

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If you have ever researched Venice, you will have no doubt seen pictures of the Piazza San Marco filled with pigeons. Well, the pigeons are still there, even in winter. The Piazza is actually quite cold as the L-shaped buildings that make up the Piazza block out sunlight and direct the cutting wind into the thoroughfare, where you will most likely be standing in awe. Within the square (piazza), you will find numerous shops and restaurants, as well as a few attractions. These include the St Mark Basilica, San Marco Campanile and a gorgeous astronomical clock.

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The San Marco Campanile is basically a bell tower, a really tall bell tower, that now has an elevator to take tourists to the top. For about €5 you can ride to the top to get the prettiest view of Venice that anyone could imagine. You can see way across to many of the other islands. My favourite thing was seeing how tiny people looked below. Yes, I know I’m odd.

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St Mark’s Basilica is an ornately painted church found at the far end of the Piazza. If you want to see inside this cathedral, you had better get in line early. As stated earlier, I was there in winter and the line was halfway across the square at 9:30am. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that Napoleon has links to the church (namely to do with him taking things that didn’t belong to him and upsetting people). Check out the Basilica to hear the full story. Needless to say, the history inside the walls fascinates travellers as much as the beauty does.

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Around the corner, next to the Basilica, stands Doge’s Palace. This was the seat of the government in Venice for many years but is now a museum. If the outside doesn’t impress you, then you must have seen something more stunning elsewhere (tell me about it, please!). I found the design of the building to be absolutely fascinating. Who thought of the design? How many hurdles did they have to jump through in order to gain approval? What did the locals think about it?

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If you are interested in visiting the Murano glass factory, you will have to catch a boat ride over there. I, unfortunately, ran out of time (there’s so much to see!). The other islands are also available to see with a short boat ride. Along the esplanade, there are a number of ferries and gondolas that await you. I’m not quite certain of the logistics as I missed my chance but I’m sure it’s as easy as pie.

Shopping

Venice is a maze of streets, all filled with intriguing secrets and hidden gems. I found two lovely little Murano glass sellers in the streets near the Piazza simply when trying to find my way back to the hotel. The shops that form the Piazza hold a variety of items such as glass sculptures (of course), Venetian masks, jewellers and even a workshop of handmade lace. Be aware that some of these stores are quite expensive as they are in a prime location. If you wander the esplanade, you will find stalls of souvenirs such as keyrings and magnets. Because of how compact the area is, shopping literally takes 10 minutes so there is no need to stress about factoring too much time for it into your day.

Food

The Piazza holds about 10 restaurants/ cafés for you to choose from. The menus include traditional Italian fare, as well as decadent desserts and (if you go in winter) plenty of fattening drinks to warm you right up. Along the esplanade, there are even more restaurants. You have a mass of choices for each meal so don’t overthink your meal planning. All the staff are warm and welcoming the moment you show interest in their restaurant (they do have tipping, after all).

Final tips

Venice will be cooler no matter what time of year you visit. Ensure you prepare for this, especially if you plan on seeing any of the sights at night.

Don’t kick a pigeon! This may seem like an odd thing to remember but it is actually illegal to harm the pigeons that flock to the square. There are police monitoring the Piazza so if you have children, be sure to keep an eye on them around the pigeons.

You can’t sit everywhere. It’s strange but in Italy there are restrictions on where you can and cannot sit in public places. There are signs everywhere in English that state what is prohibited and, like I said, the Piazza is policed so be aware of the laws.

The streets are super confusing. When I told you I found those shops while I was trying to reach the hotel, that wasn’t the entire story. I went up a couple of different streets in an attempt to find my way but each one looked the same. I ended up finding those stores and stopping in to purchase some gifts but eventually heading back to the Piazza to wait for my tour leader to show me the way. If you are spending any length of time in Venice, you need to buy a map. Don’t be like me who figured I wouldn’t need it. Be prepared.

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Venice is a jewel. I was on limited time so I didn’t see half of what this eccentric city had to offer. Like most destinations, there is the need to prioritize your visit (something I didn’t do, fool that I am) if you have a limited amount of time. Research the sights. Know what you want to visit.

Happy travels!