Saward Abroad

"I shall always be haunted by thoughts of a sundrenched elsewhere." Isabelle Eberhardt

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 2)

Catch flights, not feelings: Is that really the way to go?

People often ask me how I can afford to travel. It’s a common question, I think, for anyone who takes more than the occasional holiday. Usually I pass it off with a shrug and a ludicrous reason (bank robbing and black market organ donations being my favourites). But somehow, as I’m sat here flying over the Atlantic coast of Canada and the US, it feels disingenuous. I’m incredibly privileged. This time last year I was staring in awe at the red dirt of Australia, trying to follow the traceries of roads and rivers. Now I’m watching snow and craggy coast lines pass under us and wondering how the hell anyone made it over this landscape before cars and planes. Being able to travel is a luxury that I never have, and hope never will, taken for granted.

Time to be honest though. I am not a bank robber. As far as I know I still have all my organs. I don’t have to scrimp and save for my trips. All this travelling, as with so many things in my life (learning to drive, my 1st car, my postgraduate studies) are all thanks to my mother.

Louise Dorothy Adams was a complicated woman. My mother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, she had a wicked sense of humour and was well known for laughing so hard she’d collapse on the floor. She used to buy me pomegranates and make me eat it with a darning needle to make it last longer. When I was a baby she would put Marmite on my dummy to keep me quiet. If she couldn’t sleep she’d watch horror movies because they made her realise everything could be a lot worse. When she was doing good, she was a riot, wickedly funny, smart and sarcastic.

But bi-polar is a bitch. It sneaks up on you and grabs you by the ankles and pulls, knocking you on your arse. Coupled with alcoholism, the lows get lower until you’re trapped inside your own head. Mum would disappear into herself for days and weeks until eventually she didn’t come back. She killed herself in 2013, just as I’d finished my first year of university. The bottom of my world dropped out. I could go through the cliches here but I think Lemony Snicket says it best with: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”

A few months after she died, we discovered she’d some money saved. Not a lot but enough that with some careful investment and a lot of advice from my family I was able to start travelling. But why am I talking about this now? I guess it’s because I’ve been struggling so much with my own mental health for the past year or so. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2012, with PTSD added along the way. When my mum died, however, I decided to do the British thing and pretend everything was fine. It got me through my degree with a damn good grade too.

After graduation though, I started to unravel. During a particularly low dip, I did what anyone with social anxiety coupled with a helpful fear of being alone would do: book a solo trip to Australia and New Zealand. I bought into the whole ‘catch flights not feelings’ deal. And if it works for you, great. Do what you got to do. But as I was crying my eyes out eight hours into a flight to Malaysia and questioning what the fuck I was doing, it wasn’t working for me. The whole first week of that trip, I learnt a hard and very important lesson. Being alone is difficult.

Don’t get me wrong. Travelling alone gave me such a tremendous sense of self-assurance and power. I’d managed to get myself to the other side of the world without a hitch. Sydney was a wonderful first place to visit on a solo trip. I felt safe getting around on public transport, didn’t feel weird eating alone and I could wander around by myself comfortably. It wasn’t the city. It was me. I’d booked this trip hoping that by leaving the UK I’d magically leave my depression behind. Turns out it had a passport too. There’s one afternoon that sticks out, sitting on the edge of Sydney Harbour for hours, chain smoking and feeling that horrifying, paralysing numbness. Here I was, on the other side of the world, in sunshine, by the water and I couldn’t think of anything. My brain was just fogged out and gone.

I started this talking about how I afford all this travel. Truth is, I kind of wanted to address the whole travel solving all your problems attitude that’s floating around at the moment. I wanted to be honest about my mental health. I love being in new places, getting myself lost in new cities and people and cultures. The prospect of a new trip is sometimes all that keeps me going back home. But mental health is complicated. My mother proved that. I’m proving it right now. I’m in Rhode Island, Ocean State having spent the last few days at the beach. And I feel like crap. Numbed out as I am back home, with a whole new heaping of guilt because why am I not enjoying this fantastic, amazing chance that I’m having.

This has been somewhat rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it is okay to not be on fantastic form when you’re travelling. What with Instagram and other social media platforms, it’s so easy to get caught up in chasing that perfect trip. Let yourself be down. Roll with it. Know your own limitations. Don’t feel that it’s wrong to need friends and travel buddies. Solo travel is great for some of us. Big groups are great for some of us. And sometimes you need to curl up in bed for a few hours. And that’s okay too.

This is the first in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Milkshakes in the Ocean State‘ and ‘Trouble in Toronto’.

Berlin The Third

‘You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin.’ Written in 1800 by the Austrian composer Franz von Suppé, this quote still rings true now. Berlin has a special place in my heart. We had a rocky few years. I spent Christmas’ there as a child, then returned for the first time in 2014. After this trip I declared it overrated, boring and not for me. Fast forward to the past summer and I fell in love with the city all over again [hyperlink]. So much so that I just had to go back with my SO for Valentine’s Day. I am not one of life’s natural romantics. In fact I cringe at even hugging my partners in public. But if I have to celebrate a holiday based on public displays and declarations of affection, where better to do it than beautiful Berlin.

We stayed in an Air BnB in Prenzlauer Berg, an area to the north east of Berlin. It was right on the edge of East Berlin, with the Berlin Wall running down the western boarder of it. Now it’s become something of a hipster neighbourhood, dealing with the gentrification that Berlin’s become somewhat famous for now. Unusually for East Berlin, it’s lacking in Soviet architecture, still keeping its old townhouses and apartment blocks. Our Air BnB was in one of these, just round the corner from the U Bahn station Eberswalder Straße. It was a studio flat with plenty of space for the two of us and central enough to go exploring. Both my SO and I have been to Berlin before so we skipped the main museums and tourist attractions for the most part.

Potsdamer Platz

Our first night, we nipped round the corner to Kreuzburger for some food. It’s good, fast and has a pretty impressive selection of burgers. We were too hungry at this point for me to take photos unfortunately! The next morning we went for a walk around the Tiergarten. We were so lucky with the weather while we were there. There had been snow in the days before but we had beautiful, if cold, sunshine. Founded in 1527 as a hunting area, the Tiergarten is one of the largest urban parks in Germany. It’s the sight of many memorials, including the colossal Soviet monument to the fallen soldiers of the Red Army. Ironically, it was built so quickly after the end of the Second World War that it actually ended up in West Berlin, cut off from Soviet citizens after the construction of the Berlin Wall.

One of the most moving monuments for me, however, is the monument to the Roma and Sinti people of Europe. In the Holocaust, 220,000-500,000 Roma and Sinti were murdered by the Nazis. That amounts to between 25 to 50% of the entire European population. In November 1935, ‘Gypsies’ were defined as “enemies of the race-based state” in a supplementary decree to the Nuremberg Laws, placing the Roma and Sinti in the same category as Jews. The treatment of the Romani was not consistent across Nazi occupied territories. In some areas they were deported to concentration camps such as Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald and, from 1942, Auschwitz. In these camps they were made to wear inverted brown triangles to distinguish them from other prisoners. In other areas, namely to the east of Europe, they were rounded up and shot by mobile killing squads. In Auschwitz, Romani children were a particular favourite of Dr Josef Mengele. The monument in the Tiergarten is simple. A circular pool, a triangle in the centre and paving stones around carved with the names of the camps that the Roma and Sinti were deported to. It’s a place of reflection and respect.

After this we headed over to the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) to climb it. The inside of the Dom’s dome is insanely beautiful, intricate and painted with religious iconography. The real beauty of the Cathedral, however, is in the walkway around the top of the dome. It’s a long climb, over 200 steps so not for the faint-hearted. If you’re up to it though, do it. It was one of my favourite moments on this trip, purely because of the view we got over Berlin.

The following day we took a more unusual city tour. Both my SO and my friend who was in Berlin at the same time are both really interested in the Cold War and so we headed underground to tour some atomic fallout shelters. Our tour guide was an amazingly flamboyant Dutchman. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos but I will do my best to paint a picture of the shelters. The first shelter we visited was called Blochplatz, originally a WWII that was turned into a fallout shelter in the early 1980s. Here, 1318 people were supposed to shelter for up to 48 hours. Not a great amount of time to wait out the nuclear apocalypse! After this we took the U-Bahn to Pankstraße station to see a more modern bunker. Here citizens of West Berlin, up to 3339 people, could shelter on the platform and in other purpose built rooms. One of the most interesting things about the shelters for me was how they’d been constructed to diffuse shockwaves from bomb strikes (admittedly not nuclear ones), with walls at right angles to stop the blast from killing everyone instantly. Pretty neat trick.

To finish off the day we visited Juki, a Korean restaurant on Lychener Straβe. In case my posts from my trip to South Korea last summer didn’t make it clear, I adore Korean food. Now I got to share it with my SO! I ate japchae which was my absolutely favourite dish – sweet potato glass noodles with beef and vegetables. After this we visited a local bar called Zu mir oder su dir.  Good beer, suspiciously 60s décor and red lights. It was a chill place to spend an evening.

Modern art IN the Stasi Museum

The next day, SO went off to investigate modern art while I and a friend headed to the Stasi Museum. The Stasi were the secret police that operated within the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) that operated from 8th February 1950 to the 13th January 1990. Using a colossal network of civilian informants they spied on the population of the DDR. Internal intelligence was controlled by Erich Mielke and Markus Wolf predominantly led the foreign intelligence section of the Stasi. Wolf was incredibly successful at infiltrating West German political, governmental and business circles. The Stasi maintained close links with the KGB throughout its time in operation. They employed a total of 274,000 people, with 189,000 of these being informants. That includes IMs (informeller Mitarbeiter), members of society who informed on their friends, families, colleagues and neighbours.

Perhaps the most horrifying thing that the Stasi did was a form of psychological warfare known as Zersetzung. Rather than overtly supressing dissent within the DDR, the role of Zersetzung was the ‘fragmentation, paralysis, disorganization, and isolation of the hostile and negative forces’. What this meant in practise was that the dissenting citizen often found that they’d lost their job, their friends and loved ones, socially and economically isolated. It was an insidious form of state control. The network of informants made it so that it was impossible to trust anyone.

After spending the morning learning about the apparatus of the police state that was the DDR, we thought visiting the remains of the Berlin Wall was only fitting. The East Side Gallery, in Friedrichshain, is the longest section of the Wall left standing and has become a public art gallery. It’s somewhat ironic that it’s now been placed behind a fence in order to protect the murals on it from graffiti.


Our final night in Berlin was spent at Liquidrom. How to describe Liquidrom. It’s sort of a spa and sort of a club and very confusing as a result. You leave unsure of whether to be relaxed or pumped up. There’s a salt pool that plays techno underwater. It’s surreal, you can’t hear it above water and then you put your head under the water and you can hear it so clearly. There’s enough salt in the water that you float and the room is dark so you just drift with your eyes shut. It was incredible. Then things got very German and naked when we went to the sauna. Yup. Public nudity. There were various different saunas at different temperatures and a steam room. I obviously was very British about the whole thing to start and was embarrassed as heck but you can’t stay embarrassed long when you’re surrounded by naked Germans.

No nudity allowed so here’s a nice river photo

Berlin, as always, was delightful. For once I haven’t talked endlessly about the food. There’s still so much of the city that I want to visit and explore. I still haven’t made it into Berghain. Maybe next time. If I’m cool enough.

A cracking trip to Krakow

2016 was an incredible year for me. I had the chance to travel to so many places: Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna and Bratislava. How else to finish it off than by squeezing in yet another trip, this time going back to Krakow in Poland. I visited Krakow for the first time in December 2015 and had a cracking time (I’m not even sorry for the amount of puns that will happen in this post). If you want to visit a Christmas market but don’t want to brave the madness of visiting the bigger German cities, Krakow’s is well worth a visit. But that’s not the only reason to head to this beautiful city.

Wawel Castle

If you’ve come from the British schooling system like me, you probably don’t know that much about Poland’s history beyond the Second World War. Like every European city, Krakow has a fantastic founding story. And it involves dragons. Way back in the mists of time, when it was still the capital of Poland, the city was besieged by a terrible beast. The townsfolk were forced to feed it sheep and cattle in order to stop it attacking the town. When they ran out of these, they turned to their daughters. Because the logical escalation from sheep is virginal women. Gotta be virgins though, dragons uphold the patriarchy through their palates. Once a year, a young woman had to be sacrificed to the creature. Many brave men attempted to fight the dragon but none could defeat it. Eventually the only virgin left in Krakow was the daughter of King Krak, the lovely Wanda.

Enter a humble young cobbler named Dratewka. He had a cunning plan. Using his cobbling skills, he made a fake sheep full of sulphur and placed it outside the dragon’s cave. Dragons being notoriously stupid, this one gobbled it up. Then, a great and terrible burning raged through his entire body and he immediately began to regret his life choices. The dragon rushes to the river and drinks and drinks and drinks until you could see the bed of the river Wisla. He drank so much that he exploded spectacularly.

When you visit Krakow, one of its most famous sites is a statue of the dragon, Smok Wawelski, near a cave underneath Wawel Castle. It’s no ordinary statue. It breathes fire. It actually breathes fire. Every 10 minutes, you can stroll past and see old Smok breathing his firey breath by the river.

The castle itself is impressive. It’s not like a British castle, all grey stone and moats. Wawel Castle is red brick, set high on a hill next to the Wisla River. Similar to Prague Castle, there’s a long winding walk up to castle itself that brings you right next to The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill (Wawel Cathedral for short). I just have to include the Polish name in here because as a language geek, the amount of consonants in Polish makes me so happy: królewska bazylika archikatedralna śś. Stanisława i Wacława na Wawelu. Impressive huh? When you first see it, it doesn’t look that impressive. It’s got a huge door but appears small, slightly oppressive. And then you go around the corner. The current cathedral is the 3rd one, having been begun in the 14th century but there’s been a cathedral on the site since the 11th century. It’s been the main coronation and burial site for Polish monarchs for centuries and is suitably grand and gold covered. It has 3 iconic towers, Sigismund Tower, Clock Tower and Silver Bell Tower. There are also some famous Chapels, which have gorgeous golden roofs.

Wawel Cathedral

The complex at Wawel has always been central to Polish life, acting as the formal seat of the Polish monarchy and the residence of the President of Poland. During the Second World War Germany’s General Government occupied it and the Nazi Governor General Hans Frank lived there. At the end of the war it was made into a national museum.

In the centre of the Old Town is Rynek Glowny, the Main Square. It’s one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe and dates back to the 13th century. In December, it’s home to the Christmas markets where you can stuff yourself with pierogi, trdelnik, tea with plum vodka and other Eastern European goodies. If you’re there when the markets are up, it’s perfectly possible to eat entirely from street vendors, starting with obwarzanek krakowski (a speciality Krakow bagel) in the morning and then grazing your way around various stalls throughout the day.

Rynek Glowny, and the Cloth Hall in the centre of it are beautiful enough on their own but my favourite part of the Old Town isn’t even visible. It’s underground. Beneath the Main Square is a museum dedicated to Krakow and Poland’s history. There’s been a market on the site since the 13th century and in Rynek Underground you can see the archaeological layers that these years of occupation have created. There’s even a section where you can see the burnt out timbers from a destroyed market stall. The curation is excellent and it’s a really interactive museum if like me you have the attention span of a hyperactive toddler.


Krakow is a beautiful city, full of history, culture and delicious food. For a European capital, it’s cheap as well. Hostels are inexpensive and even an Air BnB doesn’t set you back too much. For a short break, weekend away or a place to start a longer trip to explore Eastern Europe, I can’t recommend Krakow highly enough.

It was the best of times, it was the Wurst of times. Interrail Stop 4

Vienna is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. I’d like to tell you it’s for high cultural reasons or a keen interest in history but mainly it was for the cake. Sachertorte is legendarily delicious and anyone who’s read my previous posts will know how important food is to me when travelling. Unfortunately I’d pushed myself a little too far over the summer. I’d had tonsillitis the week before I’d flown to Korea and had still been taking antibiotics for it when I’d arrived. Between that trip and interrailing I’d given myself just two days to get over the jetlag. In Vienna it finally caught up with me. I completely lost my voice which meant my friend had to do all the talking for us. Got me out of trying out my rusty German! It meant I couldn’t explore Vienna as fully as I had other cities. There was a lot of sleeping and watching the Olympics in our room while my buddy wandered his way around Austria’s capital.

Oh Vienna

I managed to get up to make my way into the city centre, stopping along the way for copious amounts of good Austrian coffee. Viennese coffee house culture is world famous for their specific atmosphere. There’s a whole load of social practices, rituals and interior design that are unique to Vienna’s café culture. A coffee shop in Vienna is a place of cheap coffee and sitting for hours talking, writing, playing cards and reading newspapers or journals. It’s the kind of place where you can sit without being interrupted and just enjoy the peace and caffeine. The story goes that the reason Vienna is so famous for its coffee is thanks to the Ottoman Empire. When the city was under siege by Ottoman invaders in 1683, the Polish-Habsburg army that liberated it found sacks full of a strange bean. They thought it was camel food and wanted to burn it but fortunately an enterprising army officer decided to brew them up. He experimented, adding sugar and milk before going on to found the first coffee house in Vienna. A cool story to add to the collection of bizarre European trivia you now know.

Coffee is always served with a cold glass of water alongside and topped up if you stay a long time. In the beginning of Viennese coffee culture there were names for specific drinks, with patrons choosing from a colour-shaded chart. We made our way to Café Hofburg by the Spanish Riding School to enjoy some coffee and of Vienna’s finest baked goods. Fortunately they have a wide and varied menu, both in English and German with handy pictures for all the different types of coffee and cake they serve. My friend trusted my judgement enough to let me order him a Maria Theresa which is a double mocha with Cointreau, whipped cream and orange peel. Delicious right? I went for a Weiner Melange which is coffee and hot frothy milk. Nothing like a classic. I also tried their trio of teeny cakes so I could have a bit of everything. There was Mozart torte (chocolate and pistachio cake), Frasier torte (strawberry cake) and of course, Sachertorte. So tasty and so worth the walk even when I was sick.

That afternoon we visited the Kaisergruft. This is where the Habsburg Royal family were buried for centuries. It’s incredible. The tombs are all made from iron and are delicately carved and moulded. It’s underneath a church in the city centre and tickets are fairly cheap. Definitely up there on the list of bizarrely beautiful places I’ve visited. After this we wandered home leisurely, checking out the National Library on the way – what can I say, you can take the English teacher away from work but…


Our hotel was ten minutes walk away from Prater, Vienna’s famous fairground. Fans of The Third Man will recognise the huge ferris wheel there. It’s one of Vienna’s iconic landmarks. There was a fair queue to ride on it but once you’re up the top, it’s totally worth it. At night, when the whole of Vienna is lit up, the view is stunning. You can see clear over the whole of the city on a summer night. Afterwards we rode on some the rides including an insane spinny upsidedown monstrosity that made me feel unbelievably sick. Not my smartest move.

The next day we visited the Natural History Museum. Anyone who’s a fan of shiny rocks, you need to go. Their geology section is insane. It’s huge. It’s organised by location and we had fun trying to find rocks from our hometowns in the UK. Because we’re big old nerds. Their quartz collection is incredible too. But nothing compares to the flowers that were carved out of quartz. Check it out.

Bratislava

I’m aiming for 25 countries before I’m 25. Vienna is only an hour away from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, so we figured why not put our interrail passes to good use and hop over the border. Excellent spontaneous decision. The day we picked was roasting hot and Bratislava is gorgeous in the sunshine. Its architecture is similar to Prague’s with a unique Slovak twist. We only day tripped and I was very out of it with whatever was making me ill but we managed to make it to the famous Blue Church. It’s a Hungarian Church, opened in 1908 and located in the east of Bratislava. I’ve not yet made it over to Budapest and so I’m not familiar with Hungarian architecture but oh gosh was this building pretty. They’re not joking around with the name either. It’s a bright blue church.

We finished the day off visiting the castle. It was a long long long walk on a very hot day up a big old hill. I only made it halfway up and settled down on a wall overlooking the Danube. Apparently the Castle was really cool and my friend is something of a connoisseur, having been dragged to enough National Trust properties as a kid.

Just like that, our interrail trip had come to an end. I know I’ve used words like incredible a lot. But this trip, getting to discover new cities and explore old favourites, was incredible. Doing it all with my best friend was pretty great too. The interrail pass gives you the freedom to be spontaneous, to visit places you hadn’t planned and to travel all across Europe while doing it. Do it. If you get the opportunity, seriously take it. And even if you’re not interrailing, visit Amsterdam, visit Berlin, visit Prague, visit Vienna. Explore Europe. Soak up all the culture and beauty of these cities. You’ll have a blast.

Alchemy in Prague – Interrail Stop 3

I fell in love with Prague as soon as we arrived on my first trip in 2015. It’s always held a special place in my heart. My mum visited when I was young and had told me stories about the Charles Bridge, the Old Town and the Astronomical Clock. I’ve read so many fantasy novels set in the city and so in my mind its streets have such magical potential, so many adventures just waiting for you to stumble into them. Where else to spend my birthday than my favourite city?

One of the things I find so fascinating about Prague is the city’s rich history of alchemy. It’s pretty much down to one guy, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. In 1576 he moved to Prague and brought with him a fascination with alchemy, magic, astrology and science. Edward Kelley and John Dee, noted English mystical types, both lived in Prague. Kelley claimed to be able to summon angels in a mirror, turn lead into gold and have created the Philosopher’s Stone. Bold claims. Sir John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s royal magician which is a title I’m still hoping to claim for myself one day. If you want to hear more about the bizarre and fascinating world of Prague’s alchemists, check out this The History of Alchemy podcast. It’s one of my favourites for obvious reasons.

The alchemy of ink

The alchemy of ink

I’ve wanted to get a tattoo of the alchemical symbols for the four elements for a while now. Someone I’d met in Berlin had just got a tattoo from One Love in Prague and told me to check it out. Within 2 hours of arriving in the city, I was lying in the tattoo studio making awkward small talk with a Czech tattoo artist. If you’re wanting to get inked, I’d 100% recommend them. It’s one of my favourite tattoos now, was reasonably priced and they took me as a walk in. I even got to skip ahead of the queue of German teenagers debating between various pieces of flash work because I came with a design and knew exactly what I wanted. It pays to be obsessed with tattoos sometimes.

We followed up this slightly (definitely) spontaneous decision with dinner at the restaurant next to the Czech Shakespeare theatre. The food was delicious (with lots of potato dumplings) but more importantly they served over 50 kinds of beer. It’s in the city centre near the creepy Don Giovanni Statue. You’ll know it when you see it. Our hostel, Advantage, was only about 15 minutes walk from Old Town. We’d stayed there the year before and weirdly were in the exact same room as before too!

Old Town

Our second day was spent taking a friend of ours on a walking tour of Prague. We started in the Old Town Square under

Astronomical

Astronomical

the Astronomical Clock. Pražský orloj was first installed in 1410 and is the oldest astronomical clock that still works. It’s not only a clock, it also shows the position of the Sun and the Moon in the sky and has a calendar dial with medallions for the months. There’s an hourly clockwork show of moving sculptures that include the Apostles and Death, who’s a skeleton that strikes the time. Like all good historical buildings, this world famous clock has a grisly creation story that I just love. Buckle yourselves in kids. It’s gonna get gory. The legend goes that the Orloj was built by Jan Růže (who is also called Jan Hanuš – there’s a lot of Jans in Czech history). The clock was so beautiful that the leaders of Prague had poor Jan blinded so that he could never create another. I’ve also heard that he had his tongue and hands cut off so he could neither tell another person how to make one, or construct one blind. In revenge, our man Jan throws himself into the mechanism of the Orloj, breaking it beyond repair. It stayed broken for another hundred years, his bones jamming the mechanism in a really long lasting act of vengeance. You’ve got to love insane inventors.

After the Astronomical Clock we took our friend across the town square and through the Old Town. On the walk, I told him the story of Jan Žižka (I told you, a lot of Jans) a 14th-15th century general who fought in the Bohemian Civil Wars. He’s central to another brilliant Czech folk story. Not only was he an incredible military leader and one of the few commanders throughout history who never lost a battle he did most of this with one eye. And then with no eyes. He continued commanding because Žižka was a freaking badass. A badass who died of the plague in October of 1424. And asked for his skin to be made into drums as his dying wish so he could continue to lead his men. Yup. You read that right. Skin into drums.

This story took us to the Spanish Synagogue in the Old Town. It’s an odd sight, an Arabic Moorish style building in the building of all this Czech architecture. But it’s well worth looking at, especially inside as it’s beautiful. The Jewish Quarter itself is packed with fascinating synagogues and you can buy a ticket from the Jewish Museum to access several different ones. The Prague Cemetery is probably the most famous landmark in this part of the city and it is worth a visit. But my personal highlight is the Pinkas Synagogue. It’s been turned into a memorial to the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust from what was Bohemia and Moravia. The walls are covered in their names and there is an audio loop reading them continuously. It is haunting. I can’t explain the impact that this has, it’s something you need to experience for yourself.

Vtlava River and Prague Castle

Vtlava River and Prague Castle

Once we were out of the Jewish Quarter we made our way across Charles Bridge. It was crowded, with tourists, market stalls and performers. As any travel blog or guide will tell you, the best time to go is early in the morning or late at night to avoid this. Once you’re over the bridge you’re in the Old Old Town. Now I know that there’s already an Old Town but this part of town is older. Older than Old. It’s dominated by the Castle. Any history nerd would be jumping at the chance to visit Prague Castle. It’s gorgeous, it’s got a cathedral as part of it, it has beautiful views over the whole city and at night it’s lit up by lights that are rumoured to have been donated by the Rolling Stones. Don’t quote me on that.

Prague's rooftops

Prague’s rooftops

Birthday in Prague

For my birthday we decided to go classy. We went to a classical music concert up at the Castle. They were playing famous Czech composers so there was a lot of Antonín Dvořák. If classical music is your thing, they have these regularly  – you can find tickets here. Then, because we’d had our fill of high culture, we headed to the Sex Machine Museum. Seriously. Check it out. It’s eye-opening. And eye-watering. I’ll just leave this photo here. Make of it what you will.

naughty-see-saw

We finished up my birthday celebrations in my favourite restaurant in Prague, Krčma on Kostečná, near the Old Town Square. It serves traditional Czech food and amazing beer. Lots of meat, potato dumplings and deliciousness. There was lots more beer to follow back at the hostel ready for a nice early start the next day.

Český Krumlov

See the tiny shed. That's the station.

See the tiny shed. That’s the station.

Our next destination was the city of Český Krumlov in the south of the Czech Republic. A family friend runs the Penzion Onyx and so we headed there to stay on our way to Vienna. The train journey took us through some gorgeous Czech countryside with this beautiful teeny weeny train station. Once we arrived, our hosts had an incredible evening lined up for us. She’d bought us tickets for the famous rotating opera. It’s a really incredible place, with round outdoor seating surrounded by a stage. The seating rotates as the action moves around the stage. We were watching Carmen and thankfully I’d studied the book at university because neither of our French was really up to scratch to follow it.

Walking home through Český Krumlov after the performance, I saw my first ever bear. Odd first to achieve in the Czech Republic but there you go. Apparently it’s tradition to keep a bear in the moat of a castle and Český Krumlov proudly upholds that. After this slightly bizarre evening, we were ready for the final leg of our interrailing adventure: Vienna. Here I intended to drink my body weight in delicious coffee, eat sachertorte until I was sick and generally roll myself back to the airport. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. But you’ll have to find out what they were in the next blog post. Nothing like a cliffhanger to keep you interested.

 

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Brezel in Berlin – Interrail Stop 2

The journey from Amsterdam should be fairly simple. One train, 5 hours, nice and easy. We’d gone for the 9am train thinking that no one else would be up that early. Rookie mistake. Not only were all the seats for this train fully booked but the 7am train from Amsterdam to Berlin had been cancelled so it was absolutely rammed. I’m talking London Underground in rush hour levels of packed. We managed to get some seats but were waiting to be booted out at every stop. Fortunately about an hour out of Amsterdam our train broke down. We were still well in Dutch territory and went set off the stricken train to get another to the border. Once we were there we had to wait for a coach to Hamburg. Ominously while on our way into Germany we were told we were stopping to see if there was ‘anyone in Bad Bentheim’ as if some catastrophe had happened there.

Well deserved beers

Well deserved beers

After an 11 hour journey we finally arrived in Berlin. Our hostel, East Seven in Prenzlaur Berg, was 5 minutes walk from Prater Garten. This is Berlin’s oldest beer garden, having opened in 1837. The beer was cheap, cold and well-deserved after that monster train journey. If you’re staying in Prenzlaur Berg, definitely check it out – I recommend their pretzels too! We headed back to settle into the hostel and to get ready to check out Berlin’s infamous nightlife. While I’m not much of a partier back home, you can’t visit Berlin and not go out.

Deciding there was no hope of getting into Berghain, we instead tried our luck at Suicide Circus. We’d managed to time it so that we went out in the middle of a thunder storm so trying to find the club involved a lot of running and screaming. Turns out Australians, not so great at dealing with wet weather. We’d made the rookie mistake of arriving at midnight which is apparently way too early for Berlin, especially on a Friday night. The pouring rain and lightning didn’t stop the outdoor room from filling up as the night went on. One of my more memorable clubbing experiences!

Potsdam

After a late start that had nothing at all to do with me feeling fragile, we took the S-Bahn out of Berlin to Potsdam. One of the other great benefits of the Interrail Pass, you get free S-Bahn travel in Berlin. Potsdam is a city that directly borders onto Berlin and was the residence of both the Prussian Kings and the Kaiser up until 1918. The Potsdam Conference between the Allies at the end of the Second World War was held here, which is where the division of Germany and notably Berlin into four administrative zones controlled by Britain, the USSR, France and America was agreed upon. The city is home to many beautiful palaces and an absolutely stunning university. Seriously, it’s unbelievably beautiful and I’m still kicking myself that I was too in awe to take photos of it.

Sanssouci Palace

Sanssouci Palace

We wandered around the city centre for a while before visiting the Sanssouci Palace. It was a summer palace built in the 1740s for Frederick the Great of Prussia (ace title). The weather was beautiful when we arrived and so we spent a good hour strolling around in the gardens, pretending to be fancy Prussian aristocrats. There was a lot of restoration work going on but it didn’t detract from the elegance of the design or the slightly confusing terraces that lead up to it. Let me tell you that those stairs, after the night I’d had, were a bit of a challenge! One of my favourite thing about visiting old palaces is the presence of follies. A folly is a building project that serves literally no purpose other than to show off how wealthy you are. In the case of Sanssouci, they were a series of temples and castle ruins dotted around the park that surrounds the palace. Imagine having enough cash that you can just build the ruins of a castle for the look of it.

ramen-burger

Worth the difficulty of eating

That evening back in Berlin we discovered that our hostel was near not one but two Korean restaurants. Anyone who’s read my previous posts should know how excited this made me. Of course I dragged my friend to one of them as soon as I realised. We went to Chilee for Korean style burgers. I had to try their famous ramen burger. A ramen burger I hear you ask? Instead of a bun, you have deep fried noodles. Add a delicious beef patty and kimchee hot enough to make your eyes water and you have the best burger I’ve ever had in my life. I’d go all the way back to Berlin just for that burger.

Bite Berlin

Our 2nd full day in Berlin we decided to check out the DDR museum which tells you all about life in East Berlin under Soviet control. It was interesting but I think more geared towards younger visitors. It was super interactive and split into distinct sections that told about home life, work, school, holidays and the city itself. It was interesting learning about transport – weird I know but hear me out. People have probably heard about the Trabi’s the notoriously unreliable East German car but the subway system was also janky as all heck. People were trusted to pay for their tickets which obviously they did not. People just wanted the chance to screw over the system.

turkish-meze

Meze

It only took about an hour to look around the DDR Museum so we then hit the market in Hackescher Markt. The main event of the day was undoubtedly, however, going on the Bite Berlin food tour. It’s run by Sam Reidie and she takes you around the city sampling all kinds of different foods. We started of with gigantic cheese pretzels from the Brezel Company. Pretzels are such a nostalgic food for me, you can’t get much better than their salty, chewy goodness. This was followed by Turkish mezze and tea at Hasir, which was the first Turkish restaurant in Berlin. We then moved to Lindner for traditional German boulette, a kind of meatball – think frigadelle from Denmark or similar. Delicious! Next up was Vietnamese. Before I’d been to Berlin the first time, I’d never had Vietnamese food and so the two are strongly linked in my mind. At District Mot, we had a bao burger which is in a rice flour bun and almost as tasty as the ramen burger.

The only thing more tied to my childhood than pretzels is currywurst. If you’ve never had them, bear with me because the explanation is a little odd. Imagine a bratwurst, the most delicious of German sausages, covered in ketchup and curry sauce. Don’t knock it until you try it. And try it you must. There’s a good chain in London called Herman ze German that sells it but seriously, head to Germany to check it out. Currywurst was followed by cake, coffee and sparkling white wine. Sam knows so much about the history of Berlin as well as the best spots for delicious food. Also, with all the food you get as part of the price of the tour, you won’t need to eat afterwards!

Currywurst

Currywurst

Our final day was a relaxed one. We had a late breakfast at Impala coffee opposite our hostel before walking up to Mauerpark to browse the flea market there. A lot of German shops are shut on a Sunday, even supermarkets so prepare yourself for that. The fleamarket was a hipster’s dream, selling vintage clothes, handmade jewellery and delicious street food. I came away with enough rings to wear one on each finger. The day was rounded off with a doner kebab, that most German of takeaways.

Mauerpark

Mauerpark

I’d come to Berlin with low expectations. The first time I’d visited I’d hated the city. I’d been disorientated by the lack of old buildings in East Berlin, I’d been overwhelmed by the size of the city and I came home swearing to never ever in a million years return. But I am so glad I did. Berlin is a beautiful, vibrant city and I can’t wait to visit again. There’s so much left to discover and rediscover. I wish we’d stayed longer but we were off to Prague, possibly my favourite city in the world. I hope that I can share some of that magic with you in my next post.

Pancakes in Amsterdam – Interrail Stop 1

Interrailing has almost become a rite of passage for young middle class Europeans. As far as travelling goes it’s a relatively cheap way of making your way around Europe and has the potential to be as free as you want it to be. No rushing to get prebooked flights or feeling like you’ve missed out by having to leave a city on a certain date. If you’re willing to take the risk of not getting a seat on your train, you can fill out the pass on the platform while you’re waiting for it to arrive. I met a lot of people this summer who were totally winging it, deciding on their next destinations dependant on recommendations from fellow travellers. I’m not that chilled out about travelling and so we’d made an itinerary before heading off. Our first stop would be Amsterdam. I’d been there before, on a day trip when I’d stayed in Rotterdam, and wanted to have a chance to explore this infamous city.

Sloterdjik Station

Sloterdjik Station

Neither my travel buddy nor I are massive partiers so we avoided the central hostels and stayed in a Meinenger (a hostel/hotel chain) in Sloterdjik. We got a decent discount as Interrailers and were right next to the local train station. From here it was less than 5 minutes to Centraal and the centre of Amsterdam. As you may have guessed by my previous posts, food is an essential part of travelling for me. So we jumped right in and tried Ossenworst which is ox sausage. It was a lot like salami but richer and meatier – sort of like salami and black pudding had a delicious baby.

Kicking things off

We kicked off our first day by doing a city tour with New Sandeman’s tour company. Our guide was Axel, who was actually from Amsterdam (something of a rarity with tour guides given that they’re usually travellers who never left). Before this started I had to try some Dutch pastry seeing as there’s so many different kinds. I tucked into an Appelflappen (apple flap: sweet pastry folded over and stuffed with apples and cinnamon, covered in sugar) as we headed off to lean about Amsterdam’s history. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a beautiful city. The little streets, narrow houses and the famous canal network come together to make what you’d imagine from a European capital. I’m from Oxford, a famously medieval city full of old buildings and architecture. I honestly feel a little disorientated in newer cities. Rotterdam (which was almost entirely destroyed in WW2) made me feel like this. But I felt right at home in Amsterdam. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the city, as you’d expect from a nature, while also having the worst Dad jokes I’d heard from someone his age.

more-canals

A personal favourite story that we learnt was about Napoleon’s annexation of the Netherlands. Before this, family names were not common in Holland, with Dutch people instead using patronymic names (ie a boy called Pieter whose father was called Jan would be Peiter Janszoon). Napoleon and his fancy French ways meant people had to register one family name and stick to it, passing this down to their children. The story goes that outraged by this the Dutch registered protest names that were rude or complete nonsense. Zondervan meaning ‘without surname’ is a favourite. Unfortunately when France lost control of Holland, turned out people thought this whole given name system was a good ‘un. And so some families were stuck with their protest names, even to this day. How true this is, I don’t know but it’s a great story.

We finished our tour in the neighbourhood of Jordaan where we had lunch at Café Sonneveld (Egelantiersgracht 72-74) as recommended by Axel. I had a traditional Dutch dish, stamppot with sausage. Stamppot is (like all good Northern European dishes) based on potatoes and is solid and warming. Not great food for the end of July but still delicious!

Bloemenmarkt and Pannenkoekenboot

The next morning my friend and I woke up early to head to Amsterdam’s Flower Market, the Bloemenmarkt. The friend I was travelling with is a biochemist whose special interest is plant genetics so he was in his element. There was a beautiful assortment of flowers in colour combinations I’d never seen before. Tulips were obviously a big feature but you could also buy all different kinds of bulbs and seeds. I think if we’d been at the end of our trip rather than the beginning our bags would have been full! You weren’t allowed to take photos of the actual flowers but there was a gorgeous selection of wooden tulips to choose from.

Wooden tulips at The Bloemenmarkt

Wooden tulips at The Bloemenmarkt

The Amsterdam Museum

The Amsterdam Museum

From here we wandered over to the Amsterdam Museum. We’d been meaning to go to the Rijksmuseum but we’d heard it was super crowded during the summer months. I’m really glad we went to the smaller one. It focused on the history of the city as a whole, tracing its origins as a small fishing village, through its history at the centre of a trading superpower, to the vibrant city it is today. The curation was excellent, leading you chronologically through Amsterdam’s timeline. Each room had a short video explaining the section of time that was the room’s focus. There was also a running side exhibition throughout the museum detailing the LGBT history of Amsterdam. I’d definitely recommend checking it out next time you’re in the city.

For me, however, the highlight of the trip was the Pannenkoekenboot. Yup, that’s right: the Pancake Boat. You pay €17 and get an hour and a half on a boat out in the port to eat as many pancakes as you can manage. They had three kinds: plain, apple and bacon. You could also ask for gluten free ones. Then there was a massive buffet full of toppings. We’re talking chocolate sprinkles, cheese, peaches, strawberries, a huge choice. I managed a respectable five. My father would have been proud.

Bacon and banana, a classic combination

Bacon and banana, a classic combination

That afternoon, full of pancakes, we headed into the Red Light District to explore. There’s a museum in a former brothel called Red Light Secrets that tells you a little about the history of prostitution in the city. It’s in an old narrow house and so can get a little crowded at busy times. But it’s an interesting set up and you learn a lot about the lives of the girls in Amsterdam’s famous windows. We also found a street with my name – a small victory for someone with an unusual spelling of ‘Bethanie’.

It's the little things

It’s the little things

We finished up the day with some beer tasting while the rain absolutely hammered it down outside. Our time in Amsterdam had come to an end. Coming back to a city I’d already been to proved to be a good choice. I felt I’d had more chance to explore and still had a lot left to discover. But regardless we were off to Berlin. And it was a whole different kind of adventure to get there.

No British stereotypes here

No British stereotypes here

 

Jeonju: Exploring traditional Korea

Jeonju is a city just over 2 hours drive away from Mokpo (check out what I got up to in Mokpo here). It’s famous for its Hanok Village, an area of the city designed to show off traditional Korean culture. Jeonju is also famous for 2 important Korean foods: bibimbap and hangover soup (Kongnamul Gukbap to give it its proper name). My time here was so interesting I’m just going to focus on that for this post.

Hanoks

We stayed at Dukmanjae, a traditional hanok just outside of the Hanok Village. When building a hanok, the position of the house in relation to its surroundings is considered as well as the impact the seasons will have on it. As you’d expect with this much care being taken about where the house is, the inside is also carefully planned, following the principles of baesanimsu. This literally means that ideally a house is built with a mountain in the back and a river in the front. Hanok also have wide front porches for keeping the house cool in the hot and humid Korean summers. Ours had sliding panel doors but some have ones you lift up and hook onto the ceiling of the porch.

Dukmanjae Hanok

 

Haejungguk

After dropping our bags off we headed out into Jeonju to find hangover soup, despite not being remotely hungover. It was a real hot afternoon and it turned out my friend was not the most reliable map reader in the world but eventually we made it to Sambaekjib, home of Kongnamul Gukbap in Jeonju. Kongnamul Gukbap is a hot bean sprout soup with rice and there’s a whole ritual to eating it. You’re given the soup with a fried egg and seaweed on the side which you have to add in a specific order. You can also top up any ingredients you feel you’re running low on, adding rice or vegetables as you need. It’s packed full of carbs, veggies and protein: you can see why it’s a hangover cure!

Hangover soup

Hanok Village

ChurchWe returned to start our sightseeing, heading first to the Jeondong Cathedral (also known as the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). I’d known that Christianity was a major religion in Korea but I had been surprised at just how many churches there were everywhere. It was even more surreal seeing a European style cathedral in amongst the hanoks and distinctly Korean buildings. The cathedral was built between 1908 and 1914 to honour Roman Catholic martyrs who had lost their lives during the Joseon period. This was when the Joseon Dynasty ruled Korea, from 1392 until 1897. In October 1897, this kingdom was renamed the Korean Empire (which was made up of what we’d now see as North and South Korea). Joseon Korea was a Confucianist state which led to the persecution and martyring of Catholics in the 19th century. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside as a service was taking place. Nevertheless, it was still an interesting angle of Korean culture to look at.

Gyeonggijeon Shrine

Our next stop was much more traditionally Korean: Gyeonggijeon Shrine. It was beautiful – my photos don’t really do it justice! I love the colour schemes used on temples and palaces in Korea, the reds and greens with the gold accents on the really important carvings. From a massively nerdy point, I’d been looking forward to seeing palaces and shrines since I’d arrived in Korea. I’m a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the Earth Kingdom in the show has some distinctly Korean influences in its design. So getting to see some Joseon period buildings in real life was pretty spectacular.

Archives

It was here that the hanbok craze was clearest. There is a big trend at the moment in Korea for renting hanbok, which are traditional outfits usually reserved for events like New Year. Despite how hot it was, most of the people we saw in Jeonju, both men and women, were wearing hanbok. The women were wearing a mixture of the more traditional silk, full-skirted styles and a modern knee length version in pastel shades with a lot of lacework. Some men were wearing gat (traditional hats) while some women wore ornamental hair pieces. Hanbok simply means ‘Korean clothing’ but has come to mean specifically Joseon period style clothing. There were foreign influences on Hanbok but it was only Mongolian princesses marrying into the Korean royal family after a peace treaty with the Mongol Empire in the 13th century that had any lasting impact.

Given all this historical context, I loved watching people using selfie sticks to take photos of themselves in their Hanbok. This mix of old and new, traditional and technology and the pride in their culture was pretty cool to watch. No way would you get British teenagers putting on Tudor ruffs and doublets to visit the Tower of London! Getting particular attention for selfies were the guys dressed as guards at the palace gates. One was wearing an awful lot of fur for July in Korea and the other had a magnificent hat with huge feathers. We got to watch the guards change over which involved a lot of shouting and ceremonial handing over of swords. Once the excitement of this had died down we headed further into the shrine complex to explore.

One of the things I reaHanbok galorelly liked about Korean architecture was the focus on outdoor space. If you think of traditional English buildings (castles, cathedrals, stately homes) they’re all about the whacking huge construction projects. Korean architecture tends towards a lot of smaller buildings with plenty of peaceful outdoor space. Gyeonggijeon Shrine was built in 1410 to house the portrait King Tae-jo who founded the Joseon Dynasty. This was housed in its own building and there was a separate small museum dedicated to other royal portraits. One of the most interesting pieces for me was a replica of a portrait that is currently in North Korea. As an English tourist, I think it was easy to forget that it’s only recently that these two countries separated. There’s such a huge amount of shared history and culture for what we now see as such disparate places.

Hanbok

My friend decided that the best thing we could do to immerse me in Korean culture was to get me in a Hanbok. But not just any Hanbok: a royal Hanbok. Complete with a collosal hairpiece. The Hanbok was beautiful, red silk with a lot of embroidery. It was also incredibly hot. The hairpiece was extremely heavy and I’m not sure my gingery curly hair really matched it! While I definitely felt very regal, I couldn’t move much at all. I guess if you’re a queen you have people to move for you and you just need to sit, trying not to show that you’re melting.

The Hanbok was enough of a success that my hosts wanted me to try on old fashioned Korean school uniforms, the kind that their parents would have worn when they were younger. This was fairly simple, consisting of a black skirt and a jacket with a white shirt. The issue came with me trying it on. Turns out being average height in the UK translates to being super tall in South Korean sizing. There was also the matter of the armband. While in the UK having a position of responsibility at school usually means getting a tie or a pin, in Korea it’s an armband to be worn over your school jacket. I don’t think it has the same fascist overtones over there as it does here!

 

Bibimbap

Bibimbap

That evening we went to try Jeonju’s most famous food: bibimbap. This is a dish of rice, meat and vegetable with egg, covering all the important food groups. Other than the name, the most fun part of bibimbap is that some versions are served in a hot stone bowl and you mix it really fast to finish cooking it at your table. This was the food I’d been looking forward to eating since I’d arrived and to actually be able to eat it in the place where it came from was awesome.

We followed it up with some grapefruit beer. Now I’m from the UK. We’re pretty serious about beer over here. It’s kind of our thing. So I was expecting some kind of fancy craft beer. Sadly it was just lager with grapefruit syrup in it. And head out of a slushie machine. I’ve drunk enough beer in my life to know that there’s an art to pouring with the minimum amount of head. Otherwise you’re wasting precious space in your pint glass. Not in Korea. Here beer comes in a domed iced coffee cup to make extra space for all that delicious foam. Bonkers.

Dumplings

Our night in the hanok was very peaceful. Again, I’d definitely recommend Dukmanjae as a hanok stay, it was super quiet and the owner was lovely and friendly. We wandered around the market for a bit, and I had fun trying to find a sports bra in my size (top tip – if you think you’ll need sports underwear and you’re more than a C cup in the UK, take it with you!). We went to a dumpling place for lunch that had had a queue out the door the night before. I got to try the heavenly combination of fried dumplings filled with dangmyeon) sweet potato noodles. Seriously, they were what my food dreams are made of.

Dumplings original

These delicious dumplings marked the end of my time in Jeonju and with my South Korean hosts. They’d done an amazing job showing me as much Korean culture as they could in the five days I spent with them. I ate so much delicious food, probably more sea food than I’d eaten in my entire life until that point and to be honest, I’m still not completely sure what everything I ate was!

I fulfilled a long-held wish to eat proper Korean bibimbap and visit a bamboo forest. Now it was time to hop on a train back to Seoul – I caught a slower train this time which took 3 1/2 hours from Jeonju to Seoul but was slightly cheaper at 17,600₩. After some adventures involving failed wifi and Ichon subway station’s 6 exits (seriously, get a Korean phone sim if you’re visiting, it’s so worth it) I managed to meet up with my friend in Seoul. This is where I’ll end this week as the next item on my itinerary was Boryeong Mud Festival. And a day that crazy deserves a whole post to itself.

Mokpo, Damyang and the start of South Korean adventures

South Korea has been on my travel list for so long it was in danger of becoming a permanent fixture. I had a South Korean friend at school who has been trying to get me to visit her every summer since we left. Finally, this year, I got my arse in gear and flew over to the Korean Peninsula. I arrived in Seoul super late on the night of the 10th and crashed with another friend who’s based in the city before heading down to Mokpo on the 11th.

Mokpo is a port city way down in the south-west of South Korea. If you’re in Korea for a longer trip, I’d definitely recommend taking the time to head out of Seoul and explore the rest of the country. By getting the train down to Mokpo, I got to see how amazingly green a place it is (this coming from a girl who grew up in England’s green and pleasant land!) with the landscape being 70% mountains. It’s easy to see why hiking is such a big deal here. I caught an express train which took 2 and a half hours and cost 52700W (around £35 as of July 2016). This train also had free wifi. I mean, what else would you expect from a country that’s a world leader in internet connectivity?

Meditation - Rising Islandby Kim-Hyung-Joon

Meditation – Rising Island by Kim-Hyung-Joon

Once I arrived in Mokpo I was met at the station by my friend and her mum who instantly whisked me off to see Yudalsan, the resident mountain. There are hiking trails up it but we decided to visit the sculpture park instead as it was raining on and off. A quick aside – I have a track record for booking holidays during the worst weather a place had to offer. I didn’t disappoint with South Korea, arriving during monsoon season. But back to the sculpture park! It has a mixture of sculptures from Korean and international artists and was the first sculpture park in Korea. Behind it is a beautiful Buddhist temple. You also get some good views over Mokpo from this part of the mountain.

After this we headed back to my friend’s house for dinner, going via the hospital where her dad works as an osteopath after I’d mentioned that my ankles were sore (Korean hospitality extends to free x-rays I guess?) My hosts were determined that I get a taste of real Korean food and so we had japchae (sweet potato noodles called dangmyeon with beef and squid), galbijjim (steamed beef rib), kkaennip-kimchi (sesame kimchi) and mooli. Dangmyeon would out to be my new favourite food ever and I’m going to miss those little noodles so much!

I could honestly write several posts devoted solely to the food I’ve had on this trip. It’s my first time to Asia at all, and while you can get Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and pretty much anything you could want to eat back home in the UK, nothing prepares you for the food culture out there. In my whole 10 day trip I don’t think I ate a single bad meal. I ate plenty where I had no idea what I was eating (more on that later) but I never left a table hungry.

Shinan shipwreck

Shinan shipwreck

My second day in Mokpo was fairly laidback as I was still trying to sort out my sleep pattern. In the afternoon we visited the National Maritime Museum, which showcases Korea’s shipping history and has a dramatically curated exhibition on the Shinan shipwreck. This was discovered in the 1970s and kick started Korean underwater archaeology. They also had a completely bizarre animation explaining this to kids. I thought it was just because there was no English translation for me to follow but my friend said it was bonkers even if you understood Korean!

That night I was taken out for hanjungsik which is a Korean banquet of deliciousness. It’s a traditional meal with lots of courses, each of which is in turn made up of lots of smaller dishes. I can’t list everything we ate because then I’d be straying into listicle territory (50 tastiest things you should eat in Mokpo!) but some highlights were: octopus, abalone (which my friend translated appetisingly as sea ear just as I’d put it in my mouth), some very angry fish, more japchae and yakbap which is sweet sticky rice with chestnuts and honey.

Angry fish

Angry fish

After dinner we walked along the seafront. One of the landmarks of Mokpo is Gatbawi or as I insisted on calling it, Hat Rock. It’s supposed to look like a man wearing a traditional Korean hat called a Gat. I couldn’t really see it but perhaps that’s just me! I’ll let you be the judge. It was a beautiful place to watch the sunset over the Yellow Sea.

Damyang

On my third day in Mokpo we headed further inland to do a tour of Damyang and its surrounding area. We took a bus to Gwangju. This was somewhere I wanted to spend more time in as it’s a pivotal place in modern Korean history – it was here at pro-democracy protests in May 1980 that 165 students and protestors were killed by the military. If you’re interested in finding out more Human Acts by Han Kang is a heartbreaking exploration of what happened. We didn’t spend long in Gwangju but if I return to South Korea it’s somewhere I want to explore.

This time, we got on a tour bus heading out to Damyang. It was run by Kumho buslines and it ended up just being the 3 of us! The tour was in Korean but our driver made sure that I had information about everywhere we were going in English. Our tour guide talked A LOT but as it was all in Korean, I was able to zone out when she was lecturing my friends! My poor friend tried to translate at first but she simply couldn’t keep up.

Our first stop was Soswaewon Garden, which is a typical Korean garden from the middle Joseon Dynasty (it was built between 1520 and 1530). It’s very different to an English formal garden. If you look at our famous examples (Chatsworth, Kew) they’re all about the landscaping, how humans can assert their control and regimented order over nature. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still incredibly beautiful. But Soswaewon felt a lot more organic, as if the buildings had been built to fit the landscape rather the other way around. There was a moment here that captured my experience of Korea as a country. While we were looking around there was a woman sat in one of the hanoks, a traditional Korean building, using her smartphone. For me, this kind of perfectly summed up the respect and pride for traditional culture as well as an intense rate of innovation that I’d noticed since arriving in Korea. It’s a place where you can get free wifi pretty much anywhere (if you have a Korean phone contract) and where the latest craze is for wearing hanbok, traditional clothing, to take selfies of yourself visiting historical sites – more on this in my post about Jeonju.Korea

Next we went on to Sigyeongjeong Pavilion. This was another traditional hanok and apparently it’s been a place of inspiration for many famous Korean poets. Unfortunately our guide talked non-stop for around half an hour and wouldn’t let my friend translate at all for me! So I can’t give much more information than that.

So much food, so little time

So much food, so little time

Juknokwon Bamboo Forest was next on our agenda but first it was time for lunch. Damyang is famous for tteokgalbi which are beef patties (think burgers but without the bun) and for rice steamed inside a piece of bamboo. You get to take the bamboo with you afterwards which was a nice moment of this particular meal. Needless to say it was all delicious! The day had started to heat up and so we headed into the bamboo forest itself to get some shade. Now, I don’t know how accurate this is (any biologists reading this, please feel free to correct me) but apparently the reason it’s cooler around bamboo is because of how efficient it is at photosynthesis. Whatever the reason, it was a great place to hide from the sun. Being a complete newbie to Asia, I had no idea bamboo grew so tall! We spent a relaxing hour wandering around and trying out all the bamboo furniture that was dotted around in various clearings.

Juknokwon Bamboo Forest

Juknokwon Bamboo Forest

There were more trees to follow for us as we headed next to Metasequoia Road which has been officially designated one of South Korea’s most beautiful roads by the Korea Forest Service. The trees were planted in the 70s when the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared the road a boulevard. Again, it was another cool place (in both senses of the word) to spend some time.

Here’s where our day took a decidedly more surreal turn. We were dropped off at Old Gokseong Station and Railway Village. This turned out to be an almost entirely empty theme park. Once we’d got through the ticket office we didn’t see any staff. Most of the attractions were open but no one seemed to be in charge of them. There was your stereotypical creepy carousel and ferris wheel, turning with no one on them or running them. There was a completely empty children’s train museum where we tried on tiny train costumes and could run around a fake track. My personal favourite, however, was the goblin themed optical illusion building. No one else was in there apart from me and my friends. I think we were a little over the target age by at least a decade and a half but we had a blast!

The entrance to the theme park

The entrance to the theme park

The bizarre end to our trip would continue when we got back to Mokpo. We went out for kalguksu which is soup (in this case manila calm soup) and dumplings. I love dumplings. When I went to Poland I pretty much lived off pierogi for five days. I’d do a dumpling tour of the world if I could afford it. So safe to say I was satisfied with this dinner. The evening turned bizarre though when we went for another walk by the sea. I was introduced to Mokpo’s dancing fountain. This is a bit out from the shore and happens every night. There’s a fountain and lasers all of which is timed to fit with music. When we saw it, the song playing was Gangnam Style. Never did I think I would be standing in a city in South Korea watching an ocean light show to K-Pop’s biggest western hit.

A Mokpo sunset

A Mokpo sunset

This seems like a good place to stop for this week. I couldn’t possibly fit my whole trip into a single post, not without making it into an essay. Next up I’ll be talking about my stay in Jeonju Hanok Village which was awesome and surreal in a very different way to the first few days of my trip. And of course, there’ll be even more about the food I ate!

The Edinburgh of the South: Dunedin, New Zealand

My second week in New Zealand was spent down in Dunedin. This is a city in the south of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s pronounced DONE-E-DEN rather than the rather more Tolkienesque DOON-E-DINE that I was expecting. I was staying with a friend who was on an exchange to the University of Otago which is apparently infamous throughout the country as the party uni. All the Kiwis I met told me to watch out for couch burning when I was down there – apparently this is a frequent occurrence during the street parties on the main student road, Castle Street. Once I’d wrapped my head around the fact that it would be getting colder the further south I went, I bundled myself up and got on a plane.

View of Dunedin from Signal Hill

View of Dunedin from Signal Hill

History of Dunedin

Dunedin was the largest New Zealand city in terms of territorial land area until Auckland overtook it at the end of 2010. It was also the largest by population until 1990. Tertiary (so university level) education is one of its most important economic activities and, like Norwich where I went to university, it is a UNESCO City of Literature. Pretty awesome, huh! There’s archeological evidence showing that the Maori occupation of Dunedin dates to around the same time New Zealand as a whole was settled by them between 1250-1300 AD. Settlement went in cycles, with evidence showing that there were Maori settled in what is now central Dunedin as late as 1785.

European settlement was kickstarted by sealers in 1810 but there was a long running conflict between them and the local Maori (known as the Sealers’ War). Permanent European occupation of the area began in 1831 when a whaling station was set up on the Otago Harbour. In a story that has become distressingly familiar, epidemics ravaged the Maori population. Yay European settlement…

Dunedin itself was founded at the head of Otago Harbour in 1848 by The Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland. It’s name in fact comes from Dùn Èideann, the Gaelic name for Edinburgh. It’s not known as the Edinburgh of the South for nothing! I have family in Scotland and it was slightly surreal driving around Dunedin and seeing signs for Invercargill, Balclutha and other incredibly Scottish sounding places. Almost as odd as being able to catch a train to Liverpool from Sydney!

The Catlins

Nugget Point Lighthouse

Nugget Point Lighthouse

For my first day in Dunedin we actually headed even further south to Nugget Point in the Catlins. This is an area, sometimes known as the Catlins Coast, in the south east of the Island and it is stunning. It’s pretty sparsely populated these days and is known for its scenery and coastal walks. We visited Nugget Point and its famous lighthouse. It was here that I hit over 19,000km (nearly 12,000 miles) away from home. I did have to text my parents about that one! The Catlins has been notoriously dangerous for shipping and Nugget Point Lighthouse was first constructed in 1870 to attempt to reduce the number of shipwrecks in the area. It’s been fully automated since 1989 and is now controlled from a room in Wellington nearly 700km away. I can’t imagine what it must have been like living up there when there was a lighthouse keeper. In 1901 Walter Hutton Champion and his wife Alice had this job. You’d have to hope you got along with the one person you were out there with!

After Nugget Point, which is a beautiful area of coastline, we headed inland to Purakaunui Falls. These are an iconic image of the Catlins, a three tiered cascade waterfall that once featured on a New Zealand postage stamp back in the 1970s. That evening my friend drove us up Signal Hill to watch the sunset over Dunedin. There’s a big monument up there to the first European settlers, very Scottish with their tartan shawls and stoic faces. All Victorian Europeans had suitably stoic faces for statues.

Street Art Trail

First Church of Otago

First Church of Otago

Something else that Dunedin is famous for is its street art. It was one of the first places in New Zealand to have a public art gallery and its artistic history has been continued with the Street Art trail (you can find more info about it here). I spent a happy day traipsing around the city trying to find all of the pieces on the list: I think I got about 11 of them which wasn’t bad going for one mornings effort. I had lunch in Vogel St Kitchen (a name which made me think of the Vogons and their terrible poetry in Hitchhikers) where they had an awesome array of tasty treats and, for an English girl abroad this was heaven, a great selection of teas. In the afternoon I went to check out the First Church of Otago. This was opened in 1873, only 25 years after the founding of Dunedin. The land that the church is built on was cleared by convicts, who had to lower the hill it stands on by 40 feet using just picks and shovels. That evening we went to Jizo Japanese Cafe and Bar. The place was rammed, which is always a good sign for a restaurant as far as I’m concerned! I had a very tasty chicken katsu but their sushi also looked gorgeous.

I can’t make much more in the way of recommendations for Dunedin as I was only there for four days in total but some of my friends who spent a year studying there have suggested a few places. In terms of eateries, Plato is apparently a great fish restaurant. As for things to do in the city, the Saturday farmer’s markets are usually great, with musicians scattered about amongst the stalls. If music or poetry is your thing, Dog with Two Tails is the place to be. And the historic Dunedin Public Art Gallery always has something interesting going on.

Beaches

Tunnel Beach

Tunnel Beach

Dunedin also has a tonne of beaches to check out. I made it to Tunnel Beach and St Kilda’s in my four days. Tunnel Beach is accessed by, you guessed it, a tunnel which was apparently built by a father so that his daughter could get down to the beach more easily. She apparently drowned soon afterwards. On a more cheerful note, St Kilda’s is gorgeous, even if the evening we went it was incredibly windy. My friend also recommends Sandfly Bay and Aramoana.

St Kilda Beach (photo credits Imogen Simmonds)

St Kilda Beach (photo credits Imogen Simmonds)

St Kilda’s was the last place I visited before my epic 50 journey back to the UK. I came back via Wellington, Sydney and Dubai and landed back at Heathrow more than a little exhausted! New Zealand is a beautiful country. I discovered a love for the outdoors over there that has driven me to go exploring around Oxford. There’s something about travelling as far away as it is possible to be that makes you appreciate your own city.

 

Beth Saward

 

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