Montenegro – My New Favourite Summer Destination

Summer Holidays in Europe

While Greece, Italy and Spain have long been popular destinations for seaside holidays in Europe, Croatia is arguably southern Europe’s hottest summer destination at the moment. However the mass tourism in Croatia has been taking its toll; the queues for seeing popular sights are increasingly long, the historic old town areas of places like Dubrovnik and Split are packed and locals are getting fed up with the influx of tourists that pour in every summer (and particularly with those pesky drunk backpackers!) Now don’t get me wrong despite the crowds of tourists I really loved travelling along the Croatian coast last summer. But as lovely as Croatia was the southern European summer destination that I absolutely can’t wait to get back to is actually Montenegro.

Beach in Kotor

Why Montenegro?

This small country is Croatia’s lesser known Slavic speaking southern neighbour, a former principality and part of Yugoslavia up until 2006. Montenegro still boasts the beautiful Adriatic coastline not to mention some stunning mountainous areas (its name means Black Mountain after all) but it is not so overrun with people as to no longer be enjoyable.  It also has a fascinating history with parts of it having been under Venetian control from 1420 through til 1797. While some places in Croatia are bustling and over commercialised Montenegro has a much more relaxed feel to it. The weather in summer is nice and hot and the Adriatic Sea is so very inviting! What’s more the prices in Montenegro are more reasonable than in Croatia – sitting somewhere between what you’d pay in cheaper places further East like Bulgaria and more expensive Western European destinations like Italy.

Kotor from the Fortress
Bay of Kotor

Best Montenegrin Seaside Destinations

My favourite part of the country would have to be the Bay of Kotor, a drowned river valley that cuts inland from the Adriatic coastline of Montenegro. It boasts beautiful seaside towns such as Perast, Herceg Novi, Tivat and Kotor. The water is warm, the beaches are numerous and the locals are friendly. If you’re looking to truly relax this is the place to do it! I’d particularly recommend visiting the town of Kotor which was a real highlight of my last trip across Europe.

Kotor, Montenegro
Kotor Old Town

Top Tips for visiting Kotor

Getting to and From Kotor and Montenegro

We used trains for most of our travels through Europe, as we bought a  global Eurail pass valid for 15 days in 2 months If you’re moving around a lot these tend to be good value in most countries except France and Italy (because of the extra reservation fees that can apply.) However the train network in Eastern Europe is patchy at best and can be very sketch (we ended up stuck on one train from Romania to Bulgaria for 16+hrs!) Because of this buses are generally the best way to get around. We caught a night bus to Kotor from Skopje, Macedonia and then headed on from Kotor to Dubrovnik in Croatia by bus as well. The exception to this would be if you’re travelling from Belgrade, Serbia through to Montenegro’s capital Podgorica (that’s Pod-go-ritza) or to Bar. In this case there is a very scenic railway trip to do , and you could travel on to Kotor by bus from either Podgorica or Bar.

Accommodation

We again opted for a whole apartment on Airbnb seeing we were travelling as a group of 3. We only booked it a few weeks out but it still cost us just €19/£17/US$22/NZ$31 per night each. If you haven’t used Airbnb before you can sign up here to get free travel credit.

Spending your hard earned pennies

Unlike Croatia, Montenegro now uses the euro as their currency. They weren’t really meant to adopt it seeing they aren’t yet part of the EU, but they just went ahead and did it anyway. It’s useful for travellers though as it means one less currency to worry about when travelling around Europe!

Favourite place to eat

Tangja Restaurant, this casual grill place does some amazing big platters with lots of different types of chargrilled/barbecued meat, chips and salad with flavoursome sauces on the side. A perfect feed after that big hill walk or a day spent swimming! We got a platter to share amongst 3 of us for just €6.50/£5.80/US$7.60/NZ$10.70 each including drinks. Feel free to savour your food in the dining area in the garden around the back.

Things to do
  • The obvious attraction of summertime in Kotor is swimming and sunbathing in the beautiful turquoise water.
  • Kotor also has an interesting medieval old town area to explore (complete with cute stray cats that the locals look after.) There are a lot of restaurants and gift shops in the Old Town (but like in all blatantly touristy areas you do end up paying a premium.)
  • There is also a stunning walk to do that takes you up the side of the valley to the old Venetian fortress of Saint John above the town. This walk is best done before the sun comes over the hill or after it has dipped behind the other side of the bay. There are a lot of steps to climb and in summer it gets really hot!  It’s a great workout after lots of lazing around by the seaside and the view is simply spectacular.
  • Finally if you have a bit of extra moolah for paid activities then you might like to consider a boat trip around the bay, you can easily book one down on the waterfront.

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No surprises that I’m already planning my next summer Vacay to this achingly beautiful country, I’d love to see more of it!

 

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Why Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia is the Most Affordable in Europe

Eastern Europe is become increasingly popular as a travel destination, and countries just east of Central Europe like Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia are now buzzing with tourists. While these countries are still a little cheaper to visit than Western European destinations, welcoming so many tourists inevitably causes price rises and leads to overcrowded cities, particularly in the midst of summertime. But never fear! There are still countries in Eastern Europe where you can get much more bang for your travel buck and avoid the crowds of tourists. These include Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These slightly more off the beaten track destinations offer you the perk of not having to fight off hordes of people as you try and make your way around to see the local attractions. Plus the added bonus of visiting these places is that you get to feel a little more intrepid by travelling the region before everyone you know has! But if you’re wanting to live a little of the sweet life without paying thousands which city will truly give you your money’s worth? The answer is without a doubt Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.

Why Sofia?

Sofia is consistently ranked as one of the cheapest, if not the most affordable, city to travel to in Europe and unlike some of the cheapest destinations it really has a lot on offer. We’ve just completed a 3 month trip across Europe and this city was one of the highlights of my trip. We had four nights in Sofia and I am so glad we decided to spend a decent amount of time there because there was a lot to see and so much good food, drink and shopping to make the most of!

Sofia History Museum
Sofia Central Mineral Baths
See the Sights

The most famous attraction in Sofia would have to be the Neo-Byzantine style Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Completed in 1912, it was built to honour the Russian soldiers who liberated Bulgaria from the Ottomans in 1877-1878. It is without a doubt one of the largest and most impressive Eastern Orthodox churches in the world!

Eastern Orthodox Cathedral Sofia
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Another fascinating aspect of Sofia is its long history. When work on the the city’s underground transport system started in the 1990s many ruins of the ancient Thracian/Roman city of Serdica were uncovered. Visitors can see these up close at the Serdika metro station.

Serdika station ruins
Ruins of Ancient Roman Serdica

Sofia is also one of the highest capital cities in Europe, being surrounded by mountains. It is just a stone’s throw from Vitosha Nature Park on Vitosha Mountain which is a great hiking destination in summer and is home to several ski fields in winter.

Fit in some Retail Therapy

The Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main retail street with views down to Vitosha Mountain, this is also the best place to get a drink or dine out! Here you’ll find designer shops, mid-range shops like Adidas and Etam as well as your more affordable clothes brands like H&M and Zara. The prices are very competitive so you can refresh your wardrobe without feeling too guilty!

Sofia's main shopping street
Vitosha Boulevard
Savour the Local Cuisine

Another great thing about Sofia is how affordable it is eat rather luxuriously. There is a lot of great fresh produce because the Bulgarian climate is well suited to growing a range of fruit and veggies. You’ll find tasty salads with Bulgarian cheese and scrummy veggie (and meat) dishes in any good local restaurant.

Fresh market produce bulgaria
Local Market Produce

There are also many foreign influences contributing to Bulgarian cuisine so you can easily find Balkan, Russian, Turkish and Greek food in local supermarkets and when dining out. Plus alcoholic beverages are cheaper here than in most countries in Europe too so you can sip Bulgarian wine or enjoy your favourite spirit or mixer to your heart’s content!

Bulgarian Cuisine
Traditional Bulgarian Dishes
Top Travel Tips for Sofia
  • If you love natural skincare products that are free from any nasties but don’t want to pay a fortune be sure to check out Zoya, there are 3 locations in downtown Sofia.
  • My number one recommendation for eating out is Shtastliveca restaurant on Vitosha Boulevard. This lively restaurant is fitted out with charming 1930s style furnishings. We got a delicious three course meal with drinks there for three people for just under 14€/£12.50/ $16 US/$23 NZ per person! This sort of quality would easily have cost us triple in most other western countries!
  • When it comes to accommodation don’t bother slumming it in a hostel- we booked a centrally located private apartment on Airbnb about 6 months in advance which cost us just 12 euro/£11/US $14/NZ $20 per person per night for 3 people. If you havent used airbnb before you can get free credit by signing up here. You can also check out booking.com for other affordable options.
  • Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet so many words will look completely unrecognizable for anyone from countries using the Latin alphabet. These days in Sofia many things like shop names are written in Latin script. But it’s a good idea to make sure you have data/internet available on your phone, when this isn’t the case Google translate is your new best friend!
  • Much of central Sofia is best explored on foot but for getting to and from the train/bus station or Sofia International airport the metro (underground system) is probably the easiest and cheapest way to get around.

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If you’re yet to make it to Eastern Europe be sure to include Bulgaria in your itinerary and if you’ve already been to Sofia or Bulgaria, let me know how you found it!

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The First Month of London Life

In my earlier post last month I let you know some of my thoughts from my first few days living in London. Now that I’ve been here over a month I thought it was time to update you on how London life has been going since then!

Google Map London
Map of London

Maybe you’ve never visited London and are curious to know what it is like living here. Maybe you are planning to move over soon and want to know what to expect. Or maybe you’re a seasoned London Kiwi already, in that case I’m sure you can relate all too well to how the start of London life plays out!

Here are some of the trials, tribulations and triumphs I’ve experienced in the first month or so in London.

Starting out in London

Why is basic life admin so hard over here?!

How am I meant to set up any bill accounts to get proof of address so I can set up a bank account if I can’t get a mobile plan or sign up with a utilities company without having a bank account? (Thank God for a boyfriend with a British passport who can get all of this sorted right away so that I don’t have to!)

There is just so much to do all the time!

Watching sports in pubs with friends, bottomless brunches, going shopping in Oxford Circus or at the huge westfield in Shepherd’s Bush, sightseeing at Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London and Kiwis in London meet-ups. I could easily fill up every weeknight and weekend with activities. (Only issue- my bank account might start to hate me a little!)

Expat friends vs. UK friends

It’s almost weird how many people I knew back home are over in London now (I’m looking at you East Auckland) but it’s great having friends! And by extension yay for lots of new Kiwi and Aussie friends too! But will I ever actually get to know any British people besides the people I see at work? Maybe I won’t lose my kiwi accent after all…

Dealing with the NHS

How the hell am I meant to get my hands on the prescriptions I need for any medication I take if I can’t go to a GP until I have a permanent address? There are NHS walk in centres, and they’re free but it turns out there is often a two hour or so wait time (I have so many better things I could be doing with my precious weekend!)

Expat Kiwi Problems

Why do I only miss marmite, milo, vogels, pineapple lumps and jaffas when I am overseas?! And how am I gonna get my hands on my favourite natural skincare products from Skinfood NZ so that I don’t break out all the time? (Hint: you can find them on Amazon UK.) Is it too early to ask my mum for a care package yet? (and at minimum $50 postage will she even agree to send me one?)

The Tube – Do’s and Don’ts!

Ok so there is a few positives in all of this- now that I have a job (albeit a temporary one) I’m starting to get the hang of the London Underground in rush hour.  I have learned to not fall over even when not holding on, how to squish myself in like a sardine with all my fellow commuters and how not to lose a limb to the closing doors in the process.

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As you can see despite the odd drama I’m starting to settle in to London life a little more (cue smug chuffed with myself face.) 

At this rate I’ll be a right Londoner in no time!

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A Kiwi freshly arrived in London

So I’ve just done the typical 20 something kiwi thing and moved to London. It may seem like an easy next step seeing so many young New Zealanders have done it before me but it turns out leaving everything behind and setting up a new life in this sprawling metropolis on the other side of the world has both its highs and its lows. Before I tell you more about them here is some of my small observations from the first few days in Londontown.

First Impressions from the first few days

How British

Ooooo look red double decker buses, red post boxes, red phone boxes and  black taxi cabs! It’s all SO British! 

Navigating the Underground

Wow this tube thing is a wee bit confusing compared to other subways I’ve used. Some trains running on the same lines don’t end up in the same place, hope I don’t get hopelessly lost! Take me back to Paris where the metro is all so easy!

Touristing but not

There’s all these places that seem so familiar from the news and movies like Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster and Buckingham palace. Pinch me, is this real?!

So where is that…?

But then there’s all this stuff I don’t know, like where all these suburbs are?! This city seems huge!  And like where should I try and find a place to live? How do I know where to avoid and where is super expensive and where all the hip millennials like me (ahem) hang out?

Grocery Shopping

Ahhh touring supermarkets, one of my favourite things to do whenever I get to a new country. The ready meals are really great and not too expensive here, which is quite ideal! Other than that there’s not too much weird or different stuff though, there’s sour cream and cottage cheese and blue top milk. It’s just like home except less expensive : )

Clothes Shopping

Yay for Topshop and H&M and Primark! I know, I know we have some of these in little old New Zealand now but the range is no way near as good. And everything is soooo cheap here too… oh wait, 35 pounds is more like NZ $65… maybe not as cheap as I thought! I really need to stop converting prices. 

Unpronounceable Places Names

I may come from New Zealand’s most British City and living in Christchurch has prepared me well for knowing how to say Leicester and Worcestershire but how do I pronounce Southwark, Marylebone, Chiswick and Walthamstow?!

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So many new things to figure out before I can properly settle into London life! I’ll be sure to keep you updated soon on how the first month has turned out. 

 

 

The Number One Destination to visit at Christmas

As I write this we have just hit mid-winter in New Zealand and it’s getting pretty chilly. One of the things that frustrates me at this time of year is that unless you’re a rugby player, a big ski or snowboard buff or plan lots of house parties there’s not a heap to do during our wintertime. It’s not time to celebrate Christmas or New Year’s and there’s no public holidays until October.  Then later in the year when it does come time for end of year celebrations we’re all so busy thinking about getting outside and getting a tan before our upcoming summer holidays.

And while a summertime Christmas, where you have a BBQ in the backyard or Christmas on the beach is a unique experience, for those of us from the Southern Hemisphere experiencing Christmas at wintertime (especially a white Christmas) is something really special. But whether you live north or south of the equator if you’re heading abroad for the silly season where is the best place to go? Well my vote for the ultimate Christmas destination goes to Germany!

Near the end of my time at University in NZ I did an honours year studying the European Union and someone from my department mentioned that there were some great travel opportunities available through the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service ) I jumped at the chance and applied to do a 3 week course on European Integration, with a bunch of other Kiwi and Aussie students in a small village in Saarland, Germany called Oztenhausen. After spending almost a month in Germany in December, I will forever be nostalgic about Germany at Christmastime! Not only are there breath-taking castles, moody forests and amazing cities, in December Deutchsland is also home to the Weinachsmarkt or traditional Christmas market.

Yuletide markets are a big tradition in most European countries but they all originated in Germany, where they’re an absolute institution for the 4 weeks of advent leading up to Christmas. They’re not just a place to you go to buy presents or food but a veritable smorgasbord of the best bits of German culture and cuisine.

While I was over there I managed to fit in visiting some German friends in Frankfurt, Darmstadt and Freiburg and as part of the course, in between classwork and listening to various speakers, we got to visit a few other towns and cities in Western Germany like Bonn and Trier. Each place I went the Weinachsmarkt (or Christkindlesmarkt or Adventsmarkt or whatever you want to call it) was the most animated part of town and the highlight of everyone’s social calendar and I happily joined in the festivities!

The star of Weinachsmarkt beverages is without a doubt Gluhwein or mulled wine and boy when it’s cold it goes down a treat! You can get red wine gluhwein or white gluhwein and each version will be slightly different depending on what spices are used to flavour it. Think sugar, cinnamon, cloves and orange wedges… it is lip smackingly good!

You can also get hot apple cider with similar flavour infusions along with non-alcoholic hot drinks. And there’s no wasteful throwaway cups either, you pay a small bond and get served your drink in a limited edition mug with the name and year of each market on it. If you want a cute souvenir you can keep it or if, like me, your suitcase was too heavy already you can just return the cup and get your bond back.

Then you have the amazing array of food stalls, and while Germany may not always be associated with haute cuisine, the Weinachsmarkt is the best place to sample local favourites as well as hot food from other parts of Europe. From the savoury side of the spectrum; wurst (sausages of all different types) and reibekuchen (potato cakes dipped in apple sauce) to the sweet lebkuchen (gingerbread) and stollen (Christmas cake.) And depending on where you are exactly you can also find Swiss cheese fondue, Hungarian lángos (fried flatbread) and Dutch poffertjes (small fluffy pancakes) and the list goes on!

Lastly along with the food and drink there are carol singers, nativity scenes, joyrides for the children and amazing craft, art and homeware stalls, all very tastefully decorated for the season with paper lanterns, green wreaths, red bows, coloured ornaments and twinkling Christmas lights. That means no shortage of places to get some original and authentic Christmas gifts for the rellies and find some cute souvenirs to take home with you, so make sure you leave some room in that suitcase!

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Take my word for it, Germany in December is simply magical, just as Christmastime should be!

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Marseille is France’s most underrated destination

Marseille, France’s oldest urban area and largest port, is arguably also France’s most underrated destination. That’s a big call to make when speaking of the world’s most visited country, home to such drawcards such as Paris, the Cote d’Azur, Avignon, The French Alps and Mont Saint Michel and I certainly don’t make it lightly. For me Marseille’s great modern infrastructure and Greek history dating back to 600BC, combine with a stunning seaside location in Provence to make the city a real French highlight.

Indeed I spent a year studying in Marseille in 2008, staying with a local family and learning French and was hugely enriched by the whole experience. (You can read more about that here.) But while I could see the potential of the city back then most of the people I chatted to from elsewhere in France didn’t sound at all enamoured with my adopted city and admittedly Marseille has long had a bad reputation among the French as being derelict and unsafe. But having experienced it all first-hand I always maintained that if you look past her imperfections and embrace the spirit of adventure you are sure to find in Massalia a diamond in the rough, bursting with history and oozing with Mediterranean charm.

When I visited my french host family again at the end of 2013, after the city had spent a year as the European Capital of Culture it was like everyone else was finally starting to see and appreciate what I saw in her. I rediscovered a city with a new invigoration and flair that has every reason to be proud of itself, its heritage and its prospects for the future. With the addition of the MuCEM, the very unique Villa Méditerranée and other new redevelopment projects on the waterfront France’s second largest metropolitan area is well and truly coming into its own and has certainly stamped its mark as one of Europe’s up and coming cities.

But don’t just take my word for it, here’s the top ten reasons why Marseille is absolutely worth your visit.

Top Ten Highlights of Marseille

The Vieux Port

The Vieux Port, or old port is at the beating heart of this lively, multicultural port city. Ships have been docking in this colourful maritime arena for over 26 centuries, while it is now mainly used for recreational and fishing boats as well as small passenger ferries it is surrounded by some amazing historical sites and is home to many animated cafés, bars and restaurants. The Vieux Port is serviced by trams, buses and the Metro.

The MuCEM

The MuCEM for short (or Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée in long form) is Marseille’s newest major attraction, made up of the J4, an impressive latticed building which is linked to the historic Fort Saint Sean and the Vieux Port by an elevated footbridge. Built as a part of Marseille’s year as the European Capital of Culture in 2013 it is the first museum dedicated to telling the story of the Mediterranean region and its people. Tip: the exhibitions are free on the first sunday of the month!

Villa Méditerranée

The Villa Méditerranée is another brand spanking new, striking architectural work that has recently been completed down on Marseille’s waterfront, used as an archive and research centre it features an upper floor gallery for exhibitions that juts out over an underwater conference space, definitely one for the photo album. Nearby you can also visit the romanesque Cathédrale de la Major.

Le Panier

Take a wander around the winding lanes of the historic quarter, Le Panier, just up from the Vieux Port, it was initially home to the local marketplace which is why it became known as “the Basket”, it was later heavily bombed in WWII but rebuilt following the war. At its heart is the charming old Veille Charité, a complex built as a charity centre for the poor by a local sculptor and architect, Pierre Puget.

Notre Dame de la Garde

The hilltop Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, construction of this Roman Byzantine Basilica started in 1853, the 9.7m statue of Mary is famed as the protector of the Marseille and holds huge importance in the eyes of locals. A walk around the outside of the church will afford you 360 degree views of the whole city, including down into the Vieux Port and across to the Frioul Islands and Chateau d’If. If you’re up for a relatively strenuous walk you can catch the metro and walk to the top or alternatively just a bus all the way up.

Chateau d’If

Château d’If, this legendary prison, which was once a fortress was made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ novel the Count of Monte Cristo and is located on the Ile d’If, part of the Frioul Archipelago just off the coast of Marseille. It can be visited on a short ferry ride from the Vieux Port.

Iles Frioul

You may like to combine a visit to Chateau d’If with a trip to the other Frioul Islands, Ile Rattonneau and Ile Pomègues which are linked by a dam. You can order a hearty lunch of Moules-Frites in the sleepy little seaside port and then take a bit of a stroll to find a sandy Mediterranean beach to savour all to yourself. The water is generally warm enough for swimming from late April through to September.

Palais Longchamp

Palais Longchamp is a water palace with spectacular fountains, columns and sculptures that also houses the Musée des Beaux Arts and the Museum d’histoire naturelle. It was built in the 1860s as the end point and celebration of a canal bringing water from the Durance River. You can get there by catching the tram from the Vieux Port as well as the Metro.

La Corniche

Be sure to grab a hire bike to enjoy the ride along this rocky section of Marseille’s waterfront, La Corniche; interspersed with little beaches and the Vallon des Auffes, a colourful and iconic little marseillais fishing village tucked away under a bridge. The seaside restaurants, albeit a little pricey, are also where you’ll find the best of the local speciality Bouillabaisse.

Les Calanques

The Calanques National Park is made up of kilometres of Mediterranean coastline between Marseille and Cassis featuring towering rocky cliffs, sparkling turquoise bays, and tucked away sand beaches. From October to June you can catch a bus to take a hike down to one of the beaches, but in July and August the trails are closed so you’ll want to hop on a boat tour or hire a kayak to explore the coast. To really feel like a local be sure to stop for a refreshing swim, a midday feed and then an afternoon sieste in the sunshine.

So voilà, there you have it, 10 reasons why you have to put this city on your European bucket list. So what are you waiting for, drop everything and get yourself to this jewel in the Mediterranean Crown before the rest of the world wakes up and realizes what they are missing out on!

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