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“…And because there is nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars…” Contiki Honeymoon Part 1 of 3

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I’m back. I’ve been back in Winnipeg for about a week now, after a much-needed adventure overseas in lands vast and beautiful. J. and I had booked our honeymoon long before I lost my job (ironically scheduled to take place at the time my vacation days would kick in),  and though this meant zero employment insurance for three weeks (despite having used up my vacation payout to, well, survive since August), I tried my best to put aside my feelings of guilt and anxiety, leave the stresses of the preceding month behind, and venture off with my new husband who’d worked extra, incredibly hard to take care of us. We had three back-to-back Contiki trips planned (seriously, after last summer’s trip seeing what I think ended up being 14 cities in 16 days and meeting some of the best people I’ve ever known, this was the only way to travel – yes, even for a honeymoon!): Mainland Greece, a cruise through the Greek Islands, and a week in Ireland. #diversity.

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After a bit of a surprise getting to Winnipeg Airport, we soon discovered we wouldn’t be flying Air Canada, but instead Air Canada Rouge, their best kept secret for travellers on a budget whose retro idea of in-flight entertainment included such joys as Name That SmellAdventures With Strangers (Because You Aren’t Allowed To Sit Together), and Cake in the Face (and other surprise wake-up calls). Slightly baffled that a two-hour domestic flight came with a nice glass of wine and TV screens for all, yet 8+ hours across the Atlantic was to be spent wondering if that green sauce was actually food and playing the world’s most limited edition of I-Spy, we promptly took a couple of sleeping pills and attempted to knock ourselves out until we got to Greece.

We arrived in Athens to clear skies, warm temperatures, and the happiest taxi driver in the world, who ended up taking one of my EPs! We were dropped off at the lovely hotel a few hours before check-in, so ended up crashing in all our jetlagged glory with our suitcases in the lobby. We were to meet the rest of our group later that night, and after getting in to our room, taking in the view from the rooftop pool (no Ibis here!), and discovering iced coffee wasn’t going to be hard to find at all (“uhh, we’re kind of famous for it”), we met our first tour manager Alex and our group of fellow travellers for the next few days.

Our first day spent as a group started in Athens, where we ended up walking through the city centre, exploring the Plaka area and ending up at the most picturesque Greek scene for dinner, at a restaurant built over several areas up some steps canopied with a roof of open-air ivy and vines. Traditional dancers and ALL THE CATS (Greece = cat lady heaven) provided a gorgeous atmosphere, we dined, made new friends, and got to see the Acropolis all lit up under the moonlight. A beautiful first night topped off with a walk back where poor Alex was trying to give us a bit of a tour by night but we all got distracted by playing with the dog with a ball instead of paying attention to the story of the monument in the city square (oops).

Day two was pretty chocka. We began by hiking it up to the Acropolis and the Parthenon itself, which was nothing short of breathtaking – both in terms of view and for the less fit of us. Being at this spot, next to these impossibly big old structures (constructed in 447 BC and finished by 438 with no modern-day machinery? Somebody get those Greeks time-zapped over here to maybe do something about our roads!) completely reinspired my love of Greek mythology, and everything we learned was a brilliant combination of folklore, myth, belief systems, and history itself. We then trekked over to Mycenae to visit some cool tombs, took in Agamemnon’s Palace, where we learned tales of murder, incest, treachery and Troy, and ended the day in Olympia, where we spent the evening getting to know our new friends, played tonnes of games, drank one too many Mythos, and climbed a tree. My scrapes from falling out of it were nothing compared to the misadventures that ensued after we’d gone to bed – apparently poor Alex had been called at 3:00 a.m. to be informed that some of his group had launched themselves heroically from their second-floor balcony in an attempt at subterfuge so a fellow dedicated adventurer could go skinny dipping in the (very much closed) pool. Love you guys 🙂

Our second-last day of this trip began in Olympia, and the spot of the very first Olympic games in 776 BC. I wish you could capitalise numbers; the history of some of these places is mind-blowing. We had a really in-depth tour of the site of the games, met Olympic Dog, visited the temples of Zeus and Hera, and the exact spot the Olympic flame is lit every four years. Some of the guys took it upon themselves to have a race (James!! You’re supposed to win!), which was tonnes of fun, and we had a bit of time to ourselves to pick up some goodies and our first real gyros of the trip – HEAVEN! (They even put chips in them over there!) We had a stop in what might have been my favourite spot on this leg of the trip, the relatively untouristy little town of Nafpaktos. We all enjoyed the most turquoise water ever, splashing around, soaking up the sun, and a quick margarita before heading off to Delphi for a night of dancing in a local bar (we are feeling our age a bit on these nights, but I’ve decided that the Aussies are just born with the superpower of being able to drink copiously and constantly and still manage to be upbeat and functional the next day regardless), and a surprise – because it was our honeymoon, they’d arranged a special room for us in the hotel there – the actual Presidential Suite where Hillary and Bill had stayed!! It was breathtaking. I only wish we got to enjoy it for longer!

The final day of Spotlight on Greece I spent hanging with the girls at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Everyone was feeling slightly rough from the night before, but we had in front of us one of the most magnificent sights and amphitheatres, so we went for it and climbed as high as we could to enjoy the view!

After making our way back to Athens, we picked up some last-minute souvenirs, ate more gyros, and transferred to our new tour group for the Golden Fleece. Only three of our group were moving on to this next cruise, so we said our goodbyes and made our way to the next spot, where we’d be joining a new group to set sail through the Greek Islands on board the beautiful Celestyal Crystal. We’d already packed so much into four days I couldn’t believe we still had over two weeks left, and though I was sad to say goodbye to a couple of really awesome people (AJ, Steve, we’ll meet again, and Ashleigh and Carime, all the hugs in the world to you ladies), I was excited for another two Contikis and thirsty for more sun, sea, and mythology.

Stay tuned for parts two, three, and compilation video! 🙂

 

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History and Hauntings (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Tuesday’s post

So after a stunning (yet exhausting!) whirlwind trip to Madrid, I arrived back in Stevenage, a bit later than expected, since some genius managed to get his luggage on the plane and then couldn’t actually find the plane. Which resulted in missing the last bus back! But I eventually made it, and spent a bit more time with Nan, who distressingly, had had a pretty bad accident right before we’d walked in, and had injured herself severely, causing her to be laid up in bed the rest of the trip. In all her stubbornness she refused for us to call a doctor, but consented by Friday, when both a nurse and doctor visited and thankfully declared that though bruised and in a lot of pain, she hadn’t broken anything. It’s things like this that make it so incredibly difficult to be so far away, but my Dad is heading over within a few weeks, which will mean the world to her, and hopefully something can be done to help make sure she is as safe and comfortable as possible.

The next day, I visited some beautifully kept gardens at Hatfield House (where Elizabethan history began!), with another good friend, Shareen, and her boyfriend, who was great! We had afternoon tea and scones, Victoria Sponge (well worth the three pounds I put on in the last week), and talked travel, memories, and Extreme Ironing – a venture yet to come! That night, another one of my oldest friends, James, took us out to an historic little town just outside Stevenage, where we spent hours talking about everything and anything, learning about life in the military, reminiscing, laughing, and sharing hopes of the future. It still blows me away that someone I sat with in school over a decade ago, who I’ve only seen once or twice since, can still be so close and so comfortable to be around. Nights like that truly make me count my blessings.

The next day, we made way to Leeds, where I learned that booking train tickets in advance is crucial. Clearly I hadn’t; and discovered it was consequently going to cost about $200 to travel there and back! C’est la vie, I suppose – didn’t let it spoil the time I had with one of my oldest friends, who I’ve literally known since I was about nine or ten years old, and her fiancé, who was incredibly hospitable and such a laugh. After a night of dinner, exploring the city, cat cuddling and zombie fighting, he drove us into our final destination: York.  London may have a piece of my heart but I have to say York has a little part of my soul, too. It’s the most haunted city in the UK, and the sense of history that consumes you the second you cross the city’s walls is just awe-inspiring.  Surrounded on all sides, York’s streets are made of cobblestones that date back hundreds and hundreds of years. Lining them is an assortment of speciality shops, boutiques, and small pubs, one of which is built without foundations, giving rise to an inside full of warped nooks and twisted crannies with no regard to symmetry or balance at all. The walls were lined with newspaper clippings and framed ghost stories – the perfect place for a good English beer and a bite to eat on Friday the thirteenth! I squeezed the day dry, exploring the Dungeons, learning about Highwaymen, conspirators, plague and witchcraft, not to mention being scared witless as a group of us made our way through the dark. I walked a recreation of 10th century York and learned all sorts of Viking history, as well as the Shambles, an ancient street of mismatched buildings recorded as early as 1086, leading to Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral. I was led on an award-winning ghost tour where I laughed, cried, and was left wondering if I’d capture a glimpse of the plague girl abandoned by her parents, or the medieval army of ghosts. It was perfect.

I made my way back to Stevenage for a last goodbye with my Nan, a night with family friends in London, and onto the flight back – bags packed with sweets, souvenirs, and photographs, eyes heavy and jetlagged from a whirlwind of excitement, and hearts full of memories and contentment that would soon be making space for nostalgia and wanderlust.  Times like these may be few and far between, but the lifelong memories and friendships make them more than worth waiting for. This week, it’s back to work, back to reality, back to ROSE KITTEN, and back to catching up with all of you who I missed terribly! I took a look at my Reader, which is pretty close to 300 unread. Not going to lie – that’s a pretty scary number. So tell me all what you’ve been up to for the last two weeks – and I promise, I’ll get round to catching up on everything ASAP. 🙂  And as an ad said quite aptly on the plane:

Onto planning the next trip! I don’t think I’ll ever get the travel bug out of my system, not ever. Prague, Italy, more of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and India are all very much still on my list, and I have every intention of exploring every one inside out. One day…

Oh England, my Lionheart (Part One of Two)

Oh England, my Lionheart,
I’m in your garden, fading fast in your arms
Flapping umbrellas fill the lanes
My London Bridge in rain again
Oh England, my Lionheart
Peter Pan steals the kids in Kensington Park
You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames
That old river poet that never, ever ends
Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in,
And keep the tower from tumbling
Oh England, my Lionheart,
I don’t want to go

– Kate Bush

WARNING: This WAS going to be my longest post ever, and there was going to be a serious high five waiting for you if you made it all the way through – I did SO MUCH on this trip, I couldn’t leave anything out! However I think breaking it into more manageable pieces is probably for the best, so this is just part one. 🙂

It seems I’ve arrived back in one piece, and I cannot begin to describe how quickly the last two weeks seemed to pass. Or how mortified I was to have had to go back to work on extreme jet lag and a throat which may as well have been full of razorblades the morning after landing!  The trip was nothing short of breathtaking – visits with friends I’ve known over half my life; the feeling of pure belonging while roaming the streets of London by night, high on post-West End Musical awe and excitement while simultaneously thrilled at the feeling of sharing the grandeur of thousand year old monuments. Getting lost in a country not speaking the language and exploring another culture; seeing family and loved ones and moving on again in a whirlwind journey to the country’s most haunted city, full of gothic architecture, cobblestones, and ghosts. It was perfect, though all over far, far too fast.

The trip started in one of my favourite places in the world: London. I don’t know if you’ve ever been away from home before (though I suppose London is a train ride away from the place I should truly call home), but every time I see a reference to the city on Doctor Who, have BBC radio playing on a Friday morning at work, or hear another English accent, my ears perk up along with my heartbeat and I feel an enormous sense of longing to be back there again. Sweet and I arrived at our hotel, which was a stone’s throw from Big Ben, the London Eye, and all things iconic and dreadfully, wonderfully touristy. Which, after a brief nap, I threw myself into headfirst.

Initially, I went on my first international blogger meetup with the lovely Stephen Ko, where I overindulged in proper sausages, mash, and copious amounts of gravy. We then headed off to explore the city’s museums, which Stephen was kind enough to lead us to, though I must admit an hour’s sleep in over 24 hours didn’t make me the most brilliant of company! That night though, I must have got a second wind, and set off for what was certain to be a highlight: Wicked! I’d seen the show once a few years ago, and it was the best thing I’d ever seen, and once again, it was nothing short of gobsmacking. Dazzling costumes and special effects combined with incredible songwriting and world-class singers, and by the end of it, I was so thrilled with the evening ($12 for a drink aside – forgivable, since it was Pimm’s!) I decided to walk back through the streets of London by night. Illuminated monuments and landmarks were at every turn, and I arrived back, perhaps a hundred photographs later, and collapsed in a happy heap. Roaming London after dark should very well have been dangerous, so I hear, but I felt no sense of fear, only an incredible feeling of belonging. I must say a good part of my heart will forever lie in that city.

With the next day came my NEXT blogger meetup – brunch with Aly, who was absolutely lovely (she even left me with a little koala bear!). She took me to a favourite place of hers, where we talked for hours, feasted on pancakes, fruit and clotted cream, and discovered an amazing secret: our little table was in fact an old desk, and was the only one, it appeared, with a drawer. Aly opened it and found a secret stash of notes – on receipts, napkins, notepaper – little notes of love, hopes, appreciation and dreams, to which we of course added our own. It was quite remarkable, and made for quite the magical morning.

After moving on to Stevenage, my home town (as well as teen pregnancy and chav capital of England), I was shocked at its deterioration. The walk from the train station to my Nan’s should have been filled with little shops, friendly faces, a picturesque duck pond and flower gardens at every step. I’m not sure if it was a trick of the memory of youth, severe degradation, or a combination of both, but the streets I grew up on were no longer as I remembered. The pond was caged off; a rank quagmire of mud, shopping trolleys, and birds no longer able to swim. The shops had all closed down, and the streets were covered in rubbish and trodden-in gum. But I was going to see Nan. The last time I’d visited was two years ago, when she was still very much herself; in a sling, yes, but in good spirits and perfectly able to come out with us, to cook, and to hug. When I walked into her living room, I almost didn’t recognise her. She’d lost a lot of weight, as well as her glasses, and her hair had grown out, shining and white, making her look small, frail. She’d broken both shoulders, and was unable to extend her arms, and seemed consumed by the armchair which I’m certain hadn’t moved in years. But then she opened her mouth to speak, and then she was Nan again. Fiesty and opinionated as ever, and beyond thrilled to see me. Everything was okay once she spoke, and the next day we went out with her wheelchair, her first exposure to the outside world in two months. It meant so much to be able to do something for her.

That night we met up with Kier, one of my oldest friends in the world, for some drinks, pub food, and hours of talking and reminiscing. It felt wonderful to be able to share in his company again and I only wish the time didn’t have to be so fleeting, or the distance quite so far. We met again for a brief brunch later on in the trip, where he surprised me with a gift – a Star Trek bottle opener and a star ready for naming up there in the beautiful night sky. The thoughtfulness was incredible, and I must admit I shed a few tears on the way home that such good friends must be so far away.

I didn’t spend much time in one place – I only had nine days left of holiday time from work, and two of them were spent on the journey there and back, so I REALLY crammed everything in. Next day I headed off to Madrid, Spain – a city I’ve never seen. After a plane ride where I was sat in front of two of my least favourite things in the world (a seat-kicking, screaming baby), I arrived in the middle of siesta time, when everything shuts down for a few hours and people retire for a brief nap to energise for the night ahead. I hadn’t realised my hotel was in The Dodgy End, either, so the initial impression of deserted, streets covered in graffiti was slightly disappointing – until I asked reception what there was for evening entertainment, and was pointed to the Metro station, similar to London’s Underground, which took me to the heart of the nation’s capital.

Elegant, ornate building fronts combined with enormous billboards to envelop us in a city of culture. Nobody seemed to speak a word of English, but I’d been told of a hidden little Michelin Star restaurant, considered one of the “top 1,000 things to do before you die”, where I’d find fantastic food and see some of the world’s best flamenco dancers, which was supposedly a 10 minute walk from the train station. 10 minutes ended up being well over an hour, which had been filled with getting lost and exploring streets full of cathedrals, cityscapes and architecture (not to mention rather sore feet), but eventually, we found the Corral de la Morería, found my seat, and experienced a night of breathtaking entertainment. The next morning, I got up bright and early to visit the grand cathedral and the Palacio Real, where I was heartbroken to find I wasn’t allowed to take photos. A REAL PALACE, from the outside in, where I saw such elaborate decor – gold embellished walls, ceiling frescos, a dining hall which very well could’ve been a mile long, and the thrones upon which King and Queen sat only a few hundred years ago. It was remarkable, and I left thoroughly satiated in beauty, history and culture, before arriving back to a shocking and distressing surprise…

Going to stop here, as this marks about halfway – the rest to come on Thursday, along with stories of the most incredible, most haunted, most beautiful and one of the oldest cities in the world. Thanks for your patience 🙂