This blog is about my travels. At home in New Zealand, in other parts of Oceania, North, Central and South America and in Europe.
From Budapest, I caught a bus and then a series of trains to a tiny Slovakian mountain village on the border of the Slovak Paradise national park. I traveled through the night on a long series of trains. I arrived at the small town of Slovensky Raj on my final leg of the journey. It was a Sunday so the streets were almost empty. Soviet era statues looked down at me with guns in their arms. It was grey and swept by an icy wind and I was mighty hungry. I wandered the streets looking for a supermarket, or just any place where I could get food but everything was shut. In the end I found a tiny store that only sold vodka. Unwilling to drink vodka for breakfast, I kept looking and guided by my nose, finally found a warm pizza place, that happily made me a giant vegetarian pizza. The young people working there spoke pretty good English, something that I noticed the older folk didn't seem to as much in Slovakia*. Despite this, a very kindly elderly Slovakian gent had helped me on my train journey, despite not speaking a word of English. One thing that you learn when you travel is that kindness is everywhere.
* I should note that I also do not speak Slovakian!
I travelled to the small town of Spizzka Nova Ves and stayed at a little guest quarters run by a mother and son, the son spoke English and was surprised to see my New Zealand passport. I had difficulty finding food in Spizzka Nova Ves too, but I managed to find a place that sold pea soup. I was pretty delighted with my little room with its soft cozy bed after travelling all night.
The next day I visited the National Park. It was somewhat cold and rainy, but I had a raincoat. Unfortunately I had been having some battery issues with my camera and I was only able to take two photos of the forest.
The Slovakian forest was mossy and shrouded in mist, like something out of a fairy tale. It was so nice to be in the forest again after spending time in cities! Slovakia has quite a few national parks and they are much loved by the people of the country.
From Vienna I caught the train to Budapest. Budapest is a city with a full on history, and it is also full of beautiful architecture. It had to endure not just Nazi occupation but was also on the Western frontier of the Soviet empire, so it has some dark history. The city is undergoing a metamorphosis as some of it's beautiful but crumbling buildings are being rapidly gentrified.
There are so many interesting corners to the city, like the underground church, and mid 19th Century hot pool complexes. The city is a varied, colorful and quirky place. I must say, I really do love Budapest!
Budapest is home to the largest Synagogue in Europe, which I went to visit. It is a beautiful building and I signed up for a guided tour. Sadly, it is also accompanied by a tragic history, most of the Jewish population were killed under the Nazi occupation during WW2. There is a beautiful shimmering tree sculpture in the garden to the people that were killed called the tree of remembrance.
I went to see Vajdahunyad Castle, built in 1896, it is really quite a recently built Castle. I particularly liked it's pointy turrets, it kind of reminded me of Dracula's castle.
I also went to see the cave church in central Budapest. The legend goes that a hermit monk used to live in these caves and use the naturally occurring thermal water to heal the sick. It was later turned into a monastery and chapel.
Budapest has some fantastic, historic hot pools, so I made sure to visit them when I was there. They seem very popular with the locals as well as visitors. They are truly beautiful and a great place to visit on a chilly autumn day.
From Casablanca I traveled up to Vienna. It was like stepping into another world again. Instead of the heat of Marrakesh, the air was crisp and autumnal. Instead of the delicious smells of spices in the markets in Casablanca, was the sweet smell of cinnamon and apple tea for the guests of the hostel. I must say, I do also like apple tea!
My first visit was to the Summer palace of the Habsburg dynasty, which was a short walk from my hostel. This giant place is also known as Schönbrunn palace and has 1,441 rooms! Like many other European palaces, it is completely over the top. Unfortunately taking photographs of the interior was verboten but I can tell you that one of the rooms was where Mozart gave his first performance. The palace was also the birthplace of Marie Antoinette. Everything is covered in gold and just seems so excessive. Meanwhile, most of the population lived in poverty!!!
Next I went to the beautiful St Stephens Cathedral. This amazing Catholic Cathedral was completed in 1160. It really is beautiful, and being inside this building is like stepping into the heart of medieval Vienna.
By the time I popped out of the Cathedral it was dark. The days sure are short in Europe in Autumn! I went for a wander around the city before heading back to my hostel.
The next day I headed off for the winter palace. This has a whopping 2,600 rooms! Now, aside from the museum it is mostly used for government buildings and other assorted purposes.
The tour of the winter palace was interesting, sadly, this is another place that photography was not permitted. So I was only allowed to take photographs of the seemingly endless gilded cutlery and porcelain crockery. One of the most interesting features of the tour was an exhibition on the story of the life of 'Sisi' the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Engaged at only 15 years old, she quickly became unhappy in her arranged marriage, disliked her formal duties and wandered listlessly around her vast palaces, usually at the opposite end to her husband. I felt sad for her husband too, as he seemed to have been besotted with her. She was an interesting character, very athletic and intelligent, and I wondered what her life would have been like if she hadn't of been royal. If she had of been able to marry for love, to be able to make full use all her drive and energy and her many talents, I am sure she would have been a much happier person. Her father is known to have said that she and he would have been in the circus if they hadn't been born 'into nobility'. Looking at the vast array of gold soup tureens, porcelain dinnerware and fancy furniture of the palace, it seems such a sad spectacle, a life in an unhappy marriage filled with material possessions instead of personal fulfillment and happiness. Another reminder that material things can't buy happiness, if, however, some of this wealth had been used to help the less fortunate it could have done a lot of good. She suffered from eating disorders and other mysterious mental health conditions throughout her life, and died in 1898 when she was assassinated by an anarchist.
Next I headed off to the Art History museum, the Kunsthistorichesmuseum. It really was the perfect day for visiting an art gallery, grey and drizzly! The building itself was really something. There are some fantastic works of art on display. My personal favourite was Hans Holbein's portrait of Jane Seymour. I had recently read 'Bring up the Bodies', Hillary Mantel's sequel to 'Wolf Hall' and she actually mentions Hans Holbein in the book, he painted several members of the Tudor court, and they really are terrific portraits, full of incredible detail with little symbolic touches.
From Marrakesh, I traveled to the neighbouring Atlas mountains. On the way we stopped at a traditional Berber village. At a roadside stall I bought a 350 million year old fossil, from when the Atlas mountains were buried under the sea.
On the way we stopped for lunch and had traditional mint tea and some kind of bread which you dip in date and almond paste and Argan oil. It was super delicious.
We kept on going until we got to the small mountain village of Imlil. The towns in this area are all Berber - the indigenous people of Morocco. Although the Atlas mountains are in general a dry place, the towns are well irrigated and green, due to the fertile mountain soil.
At 4137m. Mt. Toubkal is the highest mountain in the Atlas mountains, and the second highest on the African continent. Certainly high enough to start feeling the altitude!
We stopped at a little mountain store on the way up. I was pretty hungry, but the servings were too generous for me! I also listened to traditional Berber music while I had my lunch. Not an experience that happens every day!
As we arrived at the lodge as it was getting cooler. The altitude made things a lot colder and the wind was cold. The lodge itself was very well equipped, and plenty of people were staying there. In winter it gets so much snow it is a ski resort, and it is very affordable for locals, it only costs $5 to ski there per day. I had dinner and went to bed, tucked under as many blankets as I could find. I didn't have much rest because the next morning we were all getting up at 3am.
The next morning, bright and early, we bustled awake and headed off up the mountain. It had snowed a bit overnight and there was a lot of wind and it was very cold! We headed on up, a row of bobbing head torches. Towards the summit we could see a bit more in the pre-dawn light. The sun rose just as we reached the summit. It was amazing to see the sun rise over North Africa. The locals said prayers to Allah and we took our summit photos and headed back downhill quickly. It was freezing cold and the wind was blowing so hard it was hard to stand up straight!
We headed back down and I went back to Marrakesh. By the evening I was sitting in my colourful hostel drinking mint tea. The next day I caught the train back to Casablanca and also went to the hamman (spa complex) at the mosque. It was very affordable and definitely recommended after any climb of Mt Toubkal.
From Casablanca I took the train to Marrakesh. My hostel was in a rabbit warren of tiny streets in the old part of town, but I found it in the end with some help from kindly locals.
Marrakesh is an ancient Berber city, surrounded by fortifications built from red brick. I wandered around the markets and met many more people who were keen to sell me things. Things in general are very affordable, a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice for instance costs about 40 cents. The market place sells everything you can imagine, with delicious fruit piled high, there are snake charmers and rug salesmen. I loved the giant piles of beautiful smelling spices and herbs piled into high in baskets. I went into one store to buy some argan oil and the salesman offered his me brother's hand in marriage, and to help sweeten the deal 'all the herbs in his shop'! I delicately declined this kind offer while awkwardly waiting for what seemed to be forever for my change and I even had to meet the brother at one point. I was at the point of nearly asking them to keep the change when they gave it to me and I was able to scamper out of the shop. Goodness me!
I had been so inspired by the beautiful Islamic architecture of Alhambra that I decided to visit Morocco from Spain. So, from Granada, I took the bus, then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar by boat. The boat journey was quite rough, but it wasn't long before we arrived. I was in Africa! My very first step on this giant continent. And I must say, it really did feel like another world compared with being home in New Zealand. French, Berber and Arabic were being spoken, and most people wore traditional dress, long shifts and head scarves.
The bus headed off from the ferry terminal and off to Casablanca where I made my way to my lovely, Bougainvillea surrounded hostel.
I went to the markets in town and there were a lot of people quite enthusiastic to sell me things. I did buy a traditional dress, and wore a headscarf as well, just to blend in a little bit more.
After I went to the market I also wandered down to the Hassan II mosque, the largest mosque in Morocco and the second largest in Africa. It stands on the shores of the Atlantic ocean.
Alhambra, the famous Islamic castle. The history of the Iberian peninsula over the past thousand years involved successive waves of conquest and reconquest, back and north between the Islamic (also called Moorish) and Christian forces. During the period of Islamic rule, what is now called Spain was called Al-Andalus. The beautiful palace of Alhambra was built during this time. It's difficult to get tickets to visit, so if you are considering going there, whatever you do, book your tickets well ahead of time.
The first place we headed was to the beautiful palace gardens. The gardens are kept as they were and in Islamic style they are designed for the five senses, there are scented plants and flowers, edible plants as well as ornamental ones, and trickling water that you can hear bubbling away.
We headed in to the gates of Alhambra, past the special cordoned off entrance for the lucky few who got tickets to enter the palace. I was quietly congratulating myself for managing to get a ticket ahead of time.
The palace of Alhambra was reconquered around 1500AD, and so some of the interior of Alhambra has some christian influence. Fortunately, however, this beautiful palace has largely been left as it was constructed.
As you can see, the beauty of Alhambra was mind blowing. I love the subtleties of the Islamic artistic style. There are no representative forms (in general - although there are a few exceptions in Alhambra) and instead there is an emphasis on form and light. It really is a truly incredible place. We also passed the hamman - a series of spas used before prayers that were of course, shut down once the reconquest arrived.
From Barcelona I traveled down to Granada. It is a small and beautiful city, overlooking the Sierra Nevadas (they are snow covered in winter time). The most famous sight in Granada is Alhambra, and the city as a whole has a lot of Islamic heritage and architecture.
The history of Granada is shaped by it's importance during the Islamic rule of the Iberian Penninsula (when it was called Al-Andalus) and the later Christian reconquest. As well as beautiful Islamic architecture there are flamboyantly gilded Catholic churches.
I went for a wander through Granada, past a stream in town overlooked by Alhambra and giant medieval balustrades, through a path shaded by fig trees and wandered through cobbled streets and the old part of town, up towards a lookout over the whole of the city.
After having a good wander around Granada I went back to the hostel and went to a flamenco show with the lovely people from the hostel.
While in Barcelona, I went to see the Sagrada Familia, the architectural masterpiece first designed by the Catalan modernist architect, Antonio Gaudi, and still under construction today. It is expected to be completed in 2022, so it's not too far away!
You have to book tours well ahead of time to see the interior of the church, so I did this. Our guide was very knowledgeable and started by showing us the features of the exterior parts of the building.
The church has two main entrances, one which is decorated in relation to the birth of Christ and the other with is decorated in relation to his death. The birth side depicts the nativity scene and lavishly decorated with flowers, creeping vines, spring blossoms, palm trees bearing fruit and animals, fluttering butterflies, bees, flocks of sheep and cattle. This is one of the oldest parts of the church and many of these sculptures were created by Gaudi himself.
The death side is deliberately much more sparse, with twisted anguished angles and distorted and mournful figures. It depicts the crucifixion and is designed to look sad and bony looking in order to convey emotional anguish.
Born in 1852, Antoni Gaudi was an interesting person. When his marriage proposal to his sweetheart was turned down he sought solace in his religion and the Sagrada Familia became his life's work. He poured almost every moment into the design of this amazing building. His designs were extremely innovative, so much so that many parts of the building weren't actually able to completed when the building began to be constructed. Gaudi had faith that technological progress would enable his vision to be completed, and as it turned out, he was right. He was also a vegetarian at a time this was considered highly eccentric. He took great care of the safety and well being of the workers in the church and made sure that there was a place for the children of the workers to go to school.
After having a good look at the exterior of the church we headed inside. It really is spectacular, with soaring ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. There also happened to be an opera singer singing right when we walked in.The acoustics of the church are also amazing.
The stained glass windows are absolutely gorgeous and different parts of the church have been designed to light up at certain times of the day and times of the year, depending on the natural light shining into the church. The colored light also reflects across the church.
The numbers of beams and windows are also influenced by significant numbers from the bible. The 18 towers of the church represent figures from the bible. There are symbols everywhere in the Sagrada Familia.
Gaudi took inspiration from many forms in the natural world, and the design of the church is very influenced by nature.
Gaudi stated that nature was his greatest inspiration. He studied plants, animals and even stars, and worked out geometric features from nature, and incorporated them into his designs for the Sagrada Familia. Honey comb, flowers, trees, stars are inspirations behind designs. The beams of the church are built like the trunks of giant trees. The church is designed along curved lines because Gaudi noted that straight lines don't exist in nature.
One feature I particularly liked was a giant conch shell which was used for holy water.
We then walked under the church where there were displays of Gaudi's designs for the Sagrada Familia. There was also a viewing window where visitors could look in and see the architects planning the ongoing construction of the building. As I headed out, I saw a large piece of a tower being hoisted into place.
From America, I headed over to Spain again and visited Barcelona. It is a beautiful city, and I particularly like the cobbled gothic quarter. It is full of tiny, twisting alley ways and obscure shops.
I am a traveller from New Zealand. My blog is to inform friends and family about my adventures. I hope you enjoy it!