A Travellerspoint blog

Slovakia - Bratislava

overcast 20 °C

I found a good flight across to London from Bratislava, so I be-lined to Bratislava from Warsaw on a Polski bus. It probably would have been nicer on the train but the cost was near €100, versus the bus at around €30. Plus the bus had Wi-Fi, so I did it that way. It was a very scenic 10 hour trip, especially once we were in Slovakia.

Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia with around 500,000 people and I bunked down in the old town at Wild Elephant hostel for around €13 per night. There's a fair few volunteers that work there which are loads of fun and generally explore the nightlife with guests. It's another really cool old town to wander around and is flanked by the Danube river. Some things to check out are the main square in the old town, the Slovak National Theatre, the 'UFO' bridge, and the Bratislava Castle which looms over the whole town and provide great views across to Austria.

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Another highlight was exploring an abandoned hospital thanks to a tip from Deb who works in the hostel. It's around 6 levels with loads of chairs, tables and medical equipment that was just left there about 20 years ago. It's boarded up but there's a small hold around the back you can get into. We sat on the roof with a few drinks and watched the sunset - very nice apart from the spooky walk back through the building in the pitch black!

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Poland - Warsaw

overcast 16 °C

I was originally thinking of heading into Minsk, the capital of Belarus after Vilnius but due to the time it takes to get a visa as well the cost, I changed my plans and decided to take the 7 hour Lux Express bus to Warsaw. I had been to the region around Krakow previously but not to Poland's capital. It felt like a modern metropolis when I arrived in the new bus station, flashy billboards and glass covered buildings. It's come a long way since the early 90's.

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I Couchsurfed with Paulina, a great host who gave me loads of tips and took me to Zapiecek an authentic Polish restaurant so we could enjoy potato pancakes, goulash and dumplings. She also took me to a vodka bar which are scattered across the city. The concept it simple, on your way to a club - stop at a tiny vodka bar with around 50 flavour options, shoot 3 or 4 at 1 euro a pop and continue on to the club. Ideal for a pre-drink.

Warsaw is a big city of 1.7 million and you can sense both the Russian communist feel as well as the new exuberant western European feel. It's busy and in a good way. I walked right throughout the city centre checking out Royal Park which includes the Chopin Monument, the Presidential Palace and the Polish National Opera building. The old town was a fascinating place to walk around. On the face of it, it seems like a collection of impressive building and squares that date back to the 13th century. This is true but around 90% of the city was destroyed in world war II, so therefore the majority has been rebuilt since then.

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Lithuania - Vilnius

sunny 18 °C

After a train back to Riga, I jumped on a bus to Vilnius, Lithuania. Larger that both Estonia and Latvia in terms of population, the capital Vilnius felt busier and was bustling when I arrived. I stayed at a place called Detroit Pillow, which I booked through Airbnb but it turned out to be a small hostel. I scored a private room which was perfect and situated right in the old town. I had a few drinks at a Couchsurfing catch up and we ended up at a very cool Cuban bar.

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I left the map behind and wandered, exploring the Palace of the Grand Dukes, right next to Cathedral Basilica, and many of the cities other impressive cathedrals. There's a nice view from Gedimina's Tower and the Bernardine Gardens was a great place to walk around. Uzupis was interesting, a part of the city over the river that has claimed independence from Lithuania. This bohemian centre even have their own constitution! Housed in an old KGB Prison is the Museum of Genocide, it's packed with info with loads to check out, although it was pretty creepy.

A day trip that was well worth doing was out to Trakai. The Trakai Island Castle has been built on and island in a lake, pretty spectacular.

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Latvia - Sigulda

overcast 14 °C

Next on the list, a popular Latvian holiday spot an hour away from Riga, Sigulda. Set in the picturesque stretch of the primeval Gauja river valley. October was an ideal time of year to visit as autumn was thriving in the mountains with green, red and yellow leaves covering the trees.

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I Couchsurfed with a fantastic host family. They cooked some delicious meals for me, gave me a bike to borrow and really made me feel at home. I spent a couple of days riding around the trails and checking out some of the sights. The Sigulda castle built in 1208, a luge track, Latvia's biggest cave - Gutmana and Krimulda Castle - just over the river.

Turaida Castle was a great place to spend a few hours, with loads of historic buildings that surround the impressive red coloured castle.

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Latvia - Riga

overcast 18 °C

A 5 hour bus from Talinn to Riga...I wasn't expecting anything that great, but it really was! If you book with Lux Express, you get leather seats, a personal screen packed with movies, internet and Wi-Fi, all for less than 15 euro - nice!

There are quite a few similarities between Latvia and Estonia in terms of the people and landscape. It small country of 2 million people and most reside in the capital, Riga, a city renowned for it's night life. I stayed at the Naughty Squirrel Hostel, a fantastic hostel in the heart of the old town. For my last night I Couchsurfed with Laura and her family south of the city centre.

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There is plenty to see and do in Riga, the old town is beautiful, you could easily spend a few hours just wandering around, checking out St Peters Church, Riga Dome Church, Doma Laukums and the green park by the city canal. I enjoyed do a few nights out with some pals I met including a great traditional meal at Folk Club Ala, a few drinks at the local Aussie bar and the popular nightclub - Rokkafejnica.

The open air museum, just out of town is a huge open space set in the forest and is full of historic buildings, well worth a visit! The Central market is one of the worlds largest, full of all types of food and is even Unesco listed. A slighly odd experience was when I visited and Russian market, full of old war memorabilia. I was checking out old coins and gas masks when I noticed behind me a guy practicing knife throwing into and old board...he was not the friendliest looking guy when he glanced across at me, so I quietly slid away.

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Estonia - Tallinn & Haapsalu

sunny 17 °C

There are two ferry options to get to Estonia, the 2 hour option and the less expesive but slower 2.5 hour option. I opted for the 2 option with Eckeroline. It was probably the biggest ship I have been on, complete with two bar lounges, two restaurants and rooms over 5 levels.

I arrived in Talinn and Couchsurfed east of the city with Kadri. Estonia is small with just 1.325 million people with the majority residing in Tallinn. A charming city with a fantastic and near complete walled old town. Timing seemed just right, as the busy season was over yet the weather was still good. I only spotted half a dozen other travellers in the old town. It's a fascinating place with a history of varied fortunes and still has a significant Russian influence. Some highlights include the Art Museum of Estonia, the office of the president of Estonia, Patarei (an ex-Russian prison), the Occupation Museum and of course the old town itself which is split into to distinct areas.

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In terms of food, the Olde Hansa restaurant was spot on. Set in a 14th century building, 14th century food is served on traditional plates and the whole place is lit by candals. Even in the bathrooms, hands are washed by pouring a hinged jug of water - just like in the 1400's!

Well worth the day trip, was a bus journey to Haapsalu. Some call it the Venice of the east...It's not but it's a quaint town set in the Estonian countryside, right by the ocean. It's a nice place to spend a day, I checked out the Haapsalu castle, the promenade and the slew of traditional old wooden houses.

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Finland - Helsinki

sunny 16 °C

Helsinki is the capital of Finland with 1.4 million people. My first impressions of? Modern, stylish, clean, efficient and beautiful. I wanted to make sure I Couchsurfed where I could throughout this Eastern Europe trip and after a couple of nights bunking at the hostel housed inside the 1952 Olympic stadium, I stayed with Elin - a budding film maker. Couchsufing allows you to meet like-minded people, get immersed in the local culture and find out what it's like to really live in each city.

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Despite getting nearer to winter, the weather was still warm and allowed me to check out some of the great parts of the city. Suomenlinna Island is home to an important historic fort and a great place to explore. Other sights such as Senate Square, the National Museum of Finland and Seurasaaren, a fantastic open air museum. I also sampled some tasty vendace fish at the food and market area down by city hall.

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Italy - Rome

overcast 19 °C

The cheapest way to fly from Toronto to Europe, was via Rome. Would you believe it?? Once our gear was sold, I booked the flight and off I went with Air Transat. Two days in Rome and then a flight to Helsinki.

It has been 10 years since I explored Rome, and as this was my first view of Europe after such an extensive time in North and South America, let's just say I was yet again blown away. It's like an enormous museum with unmatched history and character. With less than 48 hours, and like a kid in a lolly shop I wandered in and around a good portion of the city centre. It's not just the main sights, but the people and their way of life. Properly enthralling. Gone are the modern glass building, 6 lane highways and gigantic SUV trucks. Hello colourful ancient building, winding lane ways and smart cars.

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The Funny Palace hostel was ideally located next to the main train station and after delicious pizza, coffee and ice-cream - I found myself boarding a plan to the next destination: Helsinki, Finland.

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Canada - Toronto, Ontario

semi-overcast 20 °C

After 24,000 kms of driving for the past 4 months we're nearing the end of our North American adventure. Our final stop, Toronto! There have been so many great experiences and awesome people that made our trip! Our good pal Raky lives in Toronto now and generously let us stay with him in Etobicoke. We got to enjoy some beautiful sunsets from his 30th floor apartment ('condo'). Toronto is by far the biggest city in Canada, a sprawling metropolis full of a huge variety of cultures and people from all corners of the globe. Modern and fast paced, it doesn't have the beauty of Vancouver but makes up for it with it's buzzing culture.

The 'hipster' Kensington market was great and we also enjoyed High Park and the distillery district. We had a good time exploring Toronto, there's a great music scene, and we got to also catch up with Aaron and Nikki - pals we met in South America.

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We drove down and saw the 'must see' sight: Niagra Falls. The amount of water pouring over is astonishing. It's hard to comprehend just how big the lakes and waterways there are in this part of the world. It's a far cry from Australia which has 200 lakes. Canada has 3,000,000! The only downside was how commercialised the area of Niagra Falls is. Hotels, restaurants, casinos and other tourist establishments crowd this world wonder which takes the shine of it. It's also no match for the mighty Iguazu Falls in terms of sheer size.

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We had to get ourselves organised so we could once again fit into our backpacks. It meant we had to try and sell Franklin, our bikes and all of our camping gear...Paul ended up staying an extra week to make it happen. It was a sad day when the van drove away but it went to a good home - an Australian girl who was about to embark on a trip to Alaska! The next leg of our trip? A comparatively short stay in Europe. I decided to return to England to spend time with friends and family, followed by Spanish studies in Valencia, Spain. Paul on the other hand decided to venture to parts of Eastern Europe that he has not been to before!

North America, you exceeded our expectations. Geographically and culturally diverse, incredible wildlife and jam packed with endless adventures. It's unlike anywhere else on earth and wonderful place to explore.

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Canada - Prince Edward County, Ontario

storm 20 °C

On our way to through Ontario we drove along the St Lawrence River and we could see New York State over the water! We were also able to check out the Thousand Islands National Park. A stunning place where the islands are actually the worn-down tops of ancient mountains. Our final camping spot was at Qunite's Isle Campground in Prince Edward county - part of Ontario's lake district. The district is where many of the locals go 'cottaging' on the weekends from Toronto. It's a beautiful and peaceful place to get away from it all right by Lake Ontario which is known for it's wineries, scenery and beaches.

We had a picnic dinner on the edge of Lake Ontario. We were camping for the last time on our trip, but as a storm approached we could see a lightening show threatening in the distance, so we reluctantly opted to sleep in the Van... we made it through the night without being blown into Lake Ontario. The area is an up and coming wine region which we checked out on the way out and learned that they have to bury the vineyards completely in winter because of the cold! We then set of for our final destination...Toronto!

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Canada - Ottawa, Ontario

overcast 25 °C

Arriving back into 'Canadian' Canada we arrived in Ottawa, the Capital of Canada. The Government is housed in a beautiful ' Gothic revival' building, which was a visual contrast to the capital of America. Parliament Hill is perched on the bank of the Ottawa River along with some other buildings of the same era, including the Chateau Laurier, built by the Grand Trunk Railway. The Rideau Canal runs through the centre of Ottawa and travels all the way from Ottawa to Lake Ontario 200kms away.

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We took a tour of the Parliament building, followed by catching the rickety lift up to Peace Tower which is a tall clock tower in the Capital commemorating the end of WWI- with nice views across the city. Around the corner is ByWard Market, where we grabbed a snack at a popular bakery, and enjoyed sunset overlooking the river from Nepean Point. We also crossed over the Ottawa River arriving back in Montreal, and spent an afternoon in the Canadian Museum of History learning about the indigenous history of Canada.

We were just in time to see one of the last showings of the summer an evening sound and light show Mosaika tells Canada's story through impressive projections onto the Parliament building itself. It was very impressive!

We feel so lucky we've got on so well with all of our hosts through Airbnb, and we really recommend it as a great way to travel and meet locals. We had some great conversations with our Ottawa host Marina over a meal we shared together on our last night.

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Canada - Montréal, Québec

semi-overcast 27 °C

It was a nice drive to Montréal, stopping for a picnic in one of the small towns on the way, along the banks of the wide Saint-Laurent River.

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We stayed with some friends who are true 'Quebecers'. We met Chloé during our time in the wine region of Argentina and her and her boyfriend André kindly put us up in his home, which we were pretty impressed to hear has been in his family for 100 years. We felt like we had such an authentic Montréal experience and they and showed us around so well, including some great places to eat and drink! We had some beautiful weather and warm weather, and meandered down markets streets which were closed to traffic on the weekend, along the waterfront and through the old part of the city.

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We spent the mornings enjoying some tasty brunches, including some delicious homemade crepes, and then worked some of it off walking to the top of Mount Royal for a panoramic view across Montréal. We took the opportunity to walk wherever possible, and took in the World Press Photo Exhibition, showcasing the top photojournalism shots of the year, some of which were quite confronting, opening a window into what is going on in the big wide world out there. Paul also couldn't resist checking out the Montreal Grand Prix track (on his bike!), which is build on an island in the middle of the Saint-Laurent River. We loved our time in the Province of Québec, and it was a little sad when it came time to leave!

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Canada - Québec City, Québec

sunny 28 °C

Wow what a change in culture!! We arrived in the Province of Québec and were immediately surrounded by French speaking Québécois, French road signs and French foods!! It really has a different feel to what we've experienced of Canada so far, and we're so glad we had the chance to visit this part of Canada.

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Québec was settled in 1608, making it one of the first places to be colonized in Canada and the architecture of the city reflects this. Beautiful buildings, winding streets, the city is built on quite a hill with a large citadel on the top! We spent a day walking around exploring the old city of Québec, which has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. There is a great wide board walk along the waterfront overshadowed by the grand Château Frontenac, which is now the operated by the Fairmont Hotel. The Château Frontenac was one of a string of hotels set up across Canada by the Canadian Pacific Railway, to promote luxury travel in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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We enjoyed sampling Chocolatine (chocolate croissants), Poutine (local style chips with cheese curds and gravy) and brushed up on some of our high school French.... "parlez vous anglais?" We were staying in a great apartment just outside of the old city, on the top level of a historical terraced house, which we entered by climbing up a winding staircase.

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Canada - Hopewell Rocks, New Brunswick

sunny 24 °C

The Hopewell Rocks are nestled into the Bay of Fundy, in The Rocks Provincial Park. The special thing about this area is that they experience some of the highest tides in the world, with a difference of 14 meters between low and high tides!

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We checked out the shore at low tide, where we were able to walk down on the beach amongst the tall flowerpot rocks. When we returned at high tide it had risen covering the beach we had been walking on and coming halfway up the cliff! it was pretty cool to see the dramatic change, and the rangers in the park are so enthusiastic they have some great time lapses to demonstrate just how fast the tides come in and out:

We camped at a sweet campground just outside of the park, with a very relaxed atmosphere and we enjoyed some local fish and chips. The campground had a k-cup coffee machine with a massive range of k-cup coffee and tea, which were fun to choose from...!

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Canada - Prince Edward Island

overcast 21 °C

We loaded up our car onto the ferry over to Prince Edward Island (PEI), which is it's own province, the smallest province in Canada, and is located just north of Nova Scotia.

Charlottetown is the capital of the province and steeped in history as it's the birthplace of Canada where the idea of a Canadian Constitution was formed. Charlottetown itself was a small town with a buzzing atmosphere. We enjoyed the PEI Celebration Zone, a massive area created for live music over the summer months. We caught some great Saskatchewan bands playing in to the evening! We also spent a night at the local drive in theatre (a first for Lucy!) watching a couple of movies which was fun! Anne of Green gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery grew up on PEI and we visited the old farmhouse where the book is set, which is in a gorgeous area of the island, where we also spotted a friendly fox!

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We couldn't leave PEI without trying some mussels which are a delicacy of the area, they were pretty tasty with a garlic and wine seasoning with a local beer! We enjoyed them in the town of Summerside overlooking the colourful shoreline houses with some more live music! Red sands characterise the southern shore of the Island, and we spent our final night camped on the shore before taking the lengthy 13 km Confederation Bridge stretching back to the mainland.

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