A Trip to Toledo.

Toledo is a City in Spain about a 45minute train journey South of the countries capital, Madrid. One of it’s earliest mentions is from 193BC by a Roman general, so it’s pretty old! It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site and has cultural influences from Christians, Jews, and Muslims as well as Roman and Visigoth.

Although Madrid is a cool City, we wanted a bit of medieval history and I thought Toledo looked like a great place to take a day trip to. So after having Breakfast at Plenti, a cute little place not far from our hotel.

We walked over to the train station and got our tickets. It was a little pricey as we were taking the tourist train. I’ve since heard you can get the tickets for much cheaper, especially if you plan ahead. Make sure you check out the lovely tropical garden in the oldest part of the station.

The train journey was pleasant as we passed through the dry Spanish countryside, and as soon as we arrived I knew we were going to love it in Toledo! The station opened in 1920 and was designed to imitate the architecture of the City, it was gorgeous and the tiling inside was so pretty.

The walk up to the walled City isn’t too taxing, and the first sight you get is magnificent, Toledo has a river running alongside it, so you see the bridge over to this walled Citadel and a huge palace sat at the top.

After taking a few pictures we ran up to the bridge and crossed, passing underneath a gatehouse. It’s a little bit of a steep walk up but you can stop and take a look back from a huge terrace halfway up.

We carried on and after passing a statue of a very dapper looking gent, we found ourselves on Zocodover plaza, we picked one of the many streets ahead of us and started our exploration.

The shops are filled with medieval antiques, classic spanish food and wine and a lot of souvenirs. Our favourite street was Calle Comercio because of the view down to the cathedral.

Along the way we even found a shop that had roman ruins in it’s basement that you could look at for free beneath a glass floor! The walled area of Toledo isn’t too big so it’s easy to wander without fear of getting lost, which is exactly what we did.

We soon found ourselves at the Monastery of Santo Domingo Real, built and run by Nuns since 1364. It’s a beautiful building with the interior to match.

Our only problem so far was that every church or monastery wanted to charge a pretty large fee to enter, we wanted to climb up the belltower of one church but it was over 10E, I don’t mind donations but charging to enter a church is a bit much.

After reaching the Puerta del Sol or ‘South Gate’ we turned back to stay inside the City walls, following a street along to more panoramic views of the countryside and the river.

Turning into the City we decided to head towards the huge tower that is Toledo Cathedral. Work on the cathedral began in 1226 and it wasn’t completed until 1493! It’s a huge building and very grand with it’s gothic architecture.

It’s so big you almost can’t get it all in to one picture it’s said to be this size to cover the sacred space that the old mosque held before it. It was nice to sit and gawk at it in the square at the front, with it’s majestic stained glass windows and 146ft height! It was early afternoon at this point and we were hungry.

So we found a cute little restaurant off the main streets in a small plaza. We shared a beautiful vegetable paella, olives and a a couple of glasses of Spanish Rioja, the sun was shining and it was a perfect lunch. Obviously we had to finish it off with some churros, the famous spanish elongated donuts with choc sauce.

Once we were finished it was time to check out the Alcazar of Toledo, built up on the highest part of Toledo you can see it from miles around. There was originally a Roman fortification built here in the 3rd century but much of the Alcazar was destroyed in the Spanish Civil war and had to be rebuilt between 1939 and 1957.

The Alcazar is impressive, but we loved the little park just beneath it, where you can stand on the turrets and look out across the valley to the military academy on the opposite hill.

Honestly the views are incredible and it was sad to say goodbye to them, but we didn’t want to get back into Madrid too late as we were checking out one of the art galleries it’s famous for.

On our way back down we noticed a cute little marzipan shop and decided to have a look inside. The lady that worked there was wonderful and let us try a few things, they were so delicious we had to buy some sweets and marzipan ice cream, yum! Once we reached the other side of the river we realised we still had 40 minutes or so till our train, so we took a little stroll along the river bank.

It was nice to get another angle of the City, and there was a cool abandoned building on bank which looked like an old mill house. We slowly wandered back under the bridge and down to the station, on our way we found a fun Toledo sign to take a pic of.

I’m sure there are a few things we missed out on seeing in Toledo, but half the fun is exploring without using a guide or map and seeing what you discover.

It’s so old, Craig loved it as there aren’t any buildings like those in Australia. The train back was nice and relaxing after a full day of walking and we both ended up having a little power nap before arriving back in Madrid.

A Kiek in De Kok and Dark Tourism in Tallinn.

So today there were more than a few sore heads this morning, I needed food, so a few of us managed to drag ourselves up and out. I had heard of a pancake place called Kompressor and it did not disappoint!

We ordered potato balls, cheese balls to share and pancakes, check out the menu here. It was delicious, the garlic sauce that came with the snacks was amazing, and the pancakes were soooo tasty, just what we needed! Plus the price was so cheap!

Feeling partly refreshed, we were back on the sightseeing game. It was time to visit Kiek in de Kok, the artillery tower from 1475 with the amazing name. The name comes from early German, due to the ability to see into people’s kitchens from these tall towers. I think we must’ve said the name about 1000 times between us all.

The actual tower is impressive, the walls are 4m thick and you can spot cannon balls dating from 1577 stuck in the outer walls! Inside is a museum with some really cool features, lots of interactive moments including a medieval torture device you can test out! You can do a bit of dress up, and the views from the upper floors are immense, especially out of Toompea hill and the cathedral.

After stopping for a coffee we met up with the final members of the group, there’s a cute little train you can take around the town for those that don’t want to walk too much, very handy for a hangover. We checked out the Kalev Marzipan Museum, a very random shop selling every conceivable item made out of marzipan. It’s worth a little wander around and a fun gift for someone back home. They use molds that are around a hundred years old, and claim that Estonia were the inventors of the sweet candy treat!

Our next destination was quite the opposite of a sweet treat, we were heading to the Museum of Occupations and Freedom, I love learning about a countries history and I think it’s important to know what it’s citizens have been through till this point. It was really interesting learning about the occupation and resistance in Estonia. I will always love the story of the Baltic chain, when 2 million people held hands to form a line from Tallinn all the way to Vilnius in Lithuania as an act of peaceful protest against Soviet rule. Read more about it here.

Our last stop was the old KGB prison cells, at only 5 euros it’s small but very interesting and you really get an understanding of the horrors and suspicions that people faced everyday. It had a pretty creepy vibe too, it’s a top destination to visit for dark tourism, and I always find places like this really eye opening.

After this we went for dinner at a bad curry house, but sometimes you make wrong choices hungover! Everyone was up early the next day to travel onwards so after a little night time walk around Snelli park it was time to chill in the apartment together. Snelli park was actually really pretty, the water was all frozen over and couples were taking romantic walks along the banks. Plus the sight of the old castle and buildings up on Toompea was amazing, unfortunately my phone battery had died so I couldn’t take any pics.

The next day I was taking the star ferry over to Helsinki to spend a few days there, while everyone else took the bus to Riga to fly home. The report back that I got of the bus was really positive! Comfy seats, air con and in-seat entertainment for free! The ferry was really easy too, I bought my ticket at the terminal on the day and it was amazing travelling across the Tallinn bay and the gulf of Finland with ice blocks floating past. Apparently the Blatic has a really low salinity so it freezes over much more than other bodies of saltwater.

A Winter Wonderland in Tallinn.

Tallinn had always been high on my list of places to visit. Somehow I had made it to the other Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania first, mainly because they were both easier to get to.

It’s is the capital of Estonia, it’s located on the North coast directly across the gulf of Finland from Helsinki. It has a rich history, and was occupied between 1940-1991 by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union again!

52% of the country is covered in forest, and it has one of the lowest populations in Europe at 1.325million.

To reach Estonia we took a flight to Riga and then on to Tallinn from there. It was actually pretty easy and fun because we met up with our friend Amy in Riga airport. It was January so we were hoping for snow and we weren’t disappointed.

We arrived quite late and took a taxi to our cute apartment located right by the old walls of the City. I used Booking.com and we used daily apartments for 7 of us. It was a beautiful space and great location. After a quick change we headed out for dinner.

We ate at a traditional Estonian place where I tried Elk for the first time! It was pretty good and we had a couple of local beers to wash it down, after another beer or two at a nearby pub we walked through the winter wonderland that was the town square with a huge Christmas tree in the center and everything was covered in snow. There’s a big Irish bar situated here and we took the opportunity to try Vana Tallinn, the Cities own personal liquer!

The next day we got up and headed out to explore properly. It’s such a pretty place and the whole old town is UNESCO heritage, we wandered along the old town walls and through a lovely big park at Tower’s square. We stopped at some cute shops along the way and emerged into the town square again.

The town hall is so cute, it was completed in 1404 and is the oldest in the Baltic/Scandinavian region. I loved all the Gothic and Hanseatic architecture, it feels like you’ve gone back in time hundreds of years.

We walked down Viru Tanav which is pretty touristy but not overly busy. It ends at Viru gate, two big towers guarding the way in and out. For โ‚ฌ3 you can climb the walls and explore, the views from here of the tiled rooftops covered in snow was amazing.

Tallinn is a great place to wander the little streets and get lost, and that’s just what we did. It felt like a really safe place too. We somehow ended up back in the main square and stopped at another traditional restaurant for lunch, it was pretty expensive so do some research before you go.

Once we were all filled up we decided to head up Toompea hill. It’s a large tableland piece of limestone that sits right in the middle of the City. It’s believed to be the resting place of King Kalev, an important figure in Estonian culture and folklore. Now it holds Toompea castle and the awesome Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, it also houses the Estonian Parliament.

It’s a fun walk up the hill and not too taxing, and once you’re at the top the Cathedral takes centre stage, big and imposing it feels like it sits right in the middle of the hill. It was starting to get dark already due to the time of year and the temperature dropped a bit, luckily we found someone selling mulled wine which was delicious.

There are some gorgeous buildings here, but the main event for me was thge Kohtuotsa viewing platform. This looks out over the whole of the old town, and as night fell twinkling lights began to appear in front of us and it began to snow. It was an amazing spectacle to witness.

We followed a different path down into the town and passed Kiek De Kok which we’d be heading to tomorrow, and freedom square. Freedom square is a big open space which has the cross of liberty as part of Estonia’s memorial to the war of independence.

After a lot of sightseeing we stopped at a bar we noticed along the way, it was called Labor Baar and was totally science themed, you could order test tube shots and cocktails in science beakers and the whole placed was decked out to the max. We stopped to have some food and then walked up to a fun bar that was completely dedicated to Depeche Mode.

After a few beers we realised we didn’t know as many songs as we thought, so off we went to Satumaa karaoke bar! It was a lot of fun and everyone was pretty crazy there, we sang a few songs and somehow managed to wander back to our apartment feeling pretty tipsy.

48 Hours in Minsk.

Entry to Belarus

Belarus is the forgotten child of Europe, more closely linked with Russia than any other nation, it’s only recently changed the rules for entry. When I visited I had just started applying for the visa, but stopped after they allowed 30 days entry through Minsk airport.

I flew through Vilnius in Lithuania as I couldn’t find any direct flights from the UK to Minsk, and my plan was to take a train to the Ukrainian City of Lviv. Unfortunately I didn’t read the fine print, which stated you had to leave through Minsk airport!

After a 3 hour train journey to the border, I was taken off the train and given a stern telling off and questioned by Belarusian border guards, made to sleep in an abandoned train overnight and shipped back to Minsk where I had to book a flight out to Kiev. I was lucky that one of the guards seemed to feel sorry for me, and came and got me in the morning before giving me instructions on how to get back to Minsk.

Belarus

While this was all a big hassle and meant I missed out on visiting Lviv it was certainly an adventure! I also really enjoyed my time in Minsk, it was such a different place to anywhere I had ever been before and I found it quite charming.

Located as far East in Europe as you can get before hitting Russia. Belarus shares a border with Poland and Ukraine and is the 13th largest country in Europe. 40% of it’s area is forested, making it one of the greenest countries in Europe. I had 48 hours to explore Minsk, the capital. A City that has reportedly been destroyed and rebuilt 8 times!

Minsk

I was visiting in November so it was pretty cold, but i was hoping for some snow to add to the beauty of the place. I arrived mid-afternoon and took a bus from the airport to the City centre which was around 45 minutes.

I decided to walk in the cold evening air to my hotel and enjoy some sights.I was staying at the Yubileiny Hotel which was near to a few of the things I wanted to see. It was very soviet, much like a lot of the City and a little old fashioned, but it was cheap, comfy and staff were very friendly.

My Top Sights

Number one on my list was the Museum of the Great Patriotic War otherwise known as WWII. We get a lot of Western history around the war, but I always fin dit interesting to see what happened in other parts of Europe and the World and the fact that they call it a completely different name intrigued me. So this was the first sight I wanted to look at. It’s also hard to miss, located on a hill in a huge green slice of land called Victory Park.

It’s amazing architecturally looking very modern but also with a hint of soviet in there. I had a wander around the park and then found an amazing statue of a soldier and his wife. It really spoke to me and I thought it was beautiful.

The museum itself is so interesting, loads of good information and everything had English alongside the Belarusian. The final memorial hall is also a must see, towering above you it’s a truly stunning place.

The next place on my itinerary was Minsk Old Town on Trinity Hill. I followed the river South for about 1km and had great views across to the cute traditional houses. Don’t forget to stop at the small island in front and check out the awe inspiring Sons of the Fatherland monument and the crying angel statue.

The old town has a few traditional shops and the cobbled street and pastel houses are nice to see. This area was actually built in the 1980s to show visitors a small slice of old Minsk as over 80% of the City was destroyed in WWII.

Crossing the river takes you over to more of the old town, with a cool statue of citizens using measuring scales, with a beautiful church in the background with it’s distinctive Eastern orthodox architecture.

In fact Minsk seemed to have hundreds of amazing statues dotted across the City. You can also find the Palace of the Republic here with it’s dominating architecture and the Palace of Culture.

I continued my journey down Praspiekt Niezalieznasci to the Belarusian State Circus, another grand old soviet building, you can come here to watch some interesting acts. Though I’m not sure what the animal welfare situation is like so I chose not to go to a show. There are a couple of funny statues just outside too, and Janki Kupaly Park is just across the road. I love how every park has to have some sort of statue mounted in it.

I decided to check out Gorky Park as well, which was just a little further up the road and across the river. There are so many green spaces in the City it’s brilliant, this one is home to an old fashioned ferris wheel and the planetarium.

It was a cold day and suddenly little snowflakes started falling as I walked through the park. It was beautiful so I sat for a moment to enjoy the scenery.

I also realised that Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assasinated John F Kennedy had lived right around the corner from here, so I had to go check it out. I walked around the apartment block but couldn’t really find or see any evidence that he lived there but it’s a cool slice of history hidden away here.

I stopped at the National Art Museum to check out a exhibition on Lenin, the former head of Soviet russia and a revolutionary. This was interesting and apparently there are over 400 Lenin statues in Belarus alone. I love the soviet imagery, it’s so grand and imposing. The City really started to come alive as the sun went down and I headed back out into the streets.

I walked back towards the old town and stopped off at the State Opera house, I tried to buy a ticket but unfortunately the show for that night had sold out so get there early to buy your tickets.

I watched the sunset behind the little houses of the old town and walked back towards Praspiekt Niezalieznasci and Oktoberpl station, nearby is a little pyramid which shows the true centre of Minsk that all roads in Belarus lead to called Kilometre zero.

I walked straight down the street, passing lots of restaurants and shops to see the statue of the Archangel Michael, and a monument to the victims of nuclear war. Further down however was the main reason I wanted to walk all this way.

The statue of Lenin surrounded by these huge domineering communist era buildings. It was all very imposing and I visited in the day time too so I could get the contrast.

My last stop were the Gates of Minsk these resemble two castle towers. I had read that it was impressive at night and it certainly was, the towers are 11 storeys high and the clock weighs 300 kilos! They were built in 1953 at the height of soviet imperialism. I thought it was ironic that there is now a Mcdonald right next to it.

The Statues and monuments in Minsk are really cool, because of my border debacle I had to come back to Minsk and felt like I had seen a lot. So after a quick google I found this website http://tobelarus.com/minsk/64-sculptures.html and decided to do my own little tour. It was really fun and walking around I got to see a lot more of the City and the bas-reliefs are really impressive the best one can be found on Niamiha St.

I really enjoyed Minsk, I hope with the new tourist visas more people opt to come and explore this underrated City.

The old Capital of Myanmar, Yangon.

I arrived on the night bus into Yangon early in the morning, and like most buses in Asia it dropped me off on the outskirts of the City. You can then either take a taxi or get on one of the local buses for free, I was in no rush so chose the latter, this meant I could get a better feel for the City.

Yangon, or Rangoon, was the capital of Myanmar for a long time until the military moved the capital North to Naypyidaw. It’s still the central hub of the country however, and it’s a huge City located like many, on the banks of a river.

I arrived in central Yangon and found my little hostel with no problems. Unfortunately they didn’t have a room for me yet as it was still early. So I dropped my stuff, had a quick freshen up and went out to explore.

Myanmar was under British rule in the 1900s and I found a tour of some old colonial buildings that survived WW2. So I wandered around chatting to some locals and enjoying the sights and sounds of a big City again. Most of the colonial buildings are found around the downtown area. I think doing a tour would be great as you get to see inside some of these amazing old buildings.

Feeling hungry, I found a place selling these super tasty pancakes covered in sugar l, and continued my walk, not really knowing where I was headed. I passed the train station which I was going to get to later, then realised I was near a big park and lake called Bogyoke. As it was recommended in my lonely planet guide I thought I’d have a wander around it.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the nicest park, the lake was bright green from algae and there was a cool looking restaurant, but other than that there wasn’t much going on. I walked pretty much the whole way around the park before taking a taxi down to a little market area also called Bogyoke. This was your run of the mill market area, good if you want some souvenirs etc

I stopped off and had a pineapple shake, when the heavens opened up and it began to pour down. I finished my drink and took shelter at a nearby mall for a bit. It was the most modern place I had seen so far in Myanmar, but the rain wasn’t stopping so I jumped from shelter to shelter back towards my hostel, it was mid afternoon at this point and I was feeling pretty tired.

So I arrived back and had a little nap, went up to the rooftop to watch the sunset before heading back out for dinner. I’d read about a place called 999 Shan noodle and it was so worth it. Super cheap, super tasty, I couldn’t believe how good it was. After that I wandered around trying to find somewhere to watch the football, eventually finding a proper expat bar.

After a few beers and chatting to some fellow Arsenal fans I wandered back through the deserted streets of Yangon to my hotel. There wasn’t a great deal of sightseeing stuff that I could find to do but tomorrow I was going to hit up one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world!