Locked Out & Snowed In: A Winter Welcome from Kelowna

As the plane began its descent, billowing clouds dispersed to reveal the sight of snow-dusted, tree-studded mountains flanking a shimmering lake. A rush of frosty air hit me as I descended the plane’s steps and walked into the airport. With no checked bags to wait for, I headed straight to the line of yellow cabs outside. Yes, cabs. No longer am I the super frugal 20-year-old student always looking for the cheapest mode of transport. There was no direct bus route from the airport, and I didn’t fancy waiting outside in this weather.

“So what are your plans for Kelowna, visiting family or friends?” asked my driver.

“Ah no, I’m here alone,” I replied brightly. “Just going to wander round, do some hiking, you know.”

“Do you ski?”

“Nope.”

At this point the driver must have decided I was a weird person, because he didn’t ask me anymore questions.

This was my first trip to the Okanagan Valley in six years, having previously spent a week doing a Workaway exchange in a tiny town called Cawston. In bitterly cold late December, it was hard to remember how hot it can get in this region during summer. I had almost come to Kelowna in the late summer of 2017, but since it was mostly on fire, opted for the slightly less smoky Rockies instead. It was actually at the Kelowna Greyhound bus depot where my backpack went missing. But hey, that was six years ago, no grudges.

The 15k drive into downtown Kelowna saw us pass large department stores, car dealers and warehouses. I paid my $40 fare and walked up the steps to my airbnb motel apartment  – an excellent choice for a solo traveller looking for simplicity and convenience. (If you’re new to airbnb, you can get $45 in travel credit by following this link.) I dumped my things and headed out to wander through City Park, located close by. Traffic roared over the bridge that leads to West Kelowna. The beach, scattered with bathers in the scorching summer months, was now swathed in snow and there were super pretty views of the mountains across the placid lake. I walked along the lakeside passing squealing children on an ice rink, a small marina, Canada geese gathered on a hill to escape the icy waters, and a Cactus Club Cafe pumping out music while its guests celebrated Boxing Day. Near Waterfront Park, two boys with hockey sticks zoomed up and down a frozen pond against the backdrop of a casino.

Tip number 1 when travelling to a new place it to research the nearest supermarket before arrival. Bernard Avenue had a nice array of bars, cafes, bookstores and boutiques, as well as a Safeway. By now my face had probably frozen into an awkward expression and through my jeans my legs stung with cold. Thankfully there was a Starbucks inside the Safeway, as if the store manager had anticipated the visit of naive English girls to Kelowna in the winter. Normally I’d prefer to support local independent coffee shops, but right now I was desperate for a sugary liquid to warm my insides.

Setting off back to my apartment unashamed to concede defeat to the -10 temperature, I pulled out my keys and inserted them into the lock, excited for warmth. But the door wouldn’t open. I blew on my fingers and tried again, but to no avail. At first I laughed about it, until a further five minutes of failure inspired me to ask for help for one of my neighbours. Five different doors and no response. Worry levels starting to rise, I tried the lock again only to cuss in frustration when the door didn’t budge.

Suddenly the door two rooms down opened and out peeked a dozy looking topless guy, followed by a strong wift of weed.

“Oh, hi! I’m sorry, I was trying to -” The door shut before I had a chance to ask him for help, although that was probably for the best…

Looking around me, there seemed no other option but to ask one of the (slightly better off-looking) neighbours across the road. An elderly lady wearing bright red lipstick opened the door.

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” I began in my strongest English accent, “but I’m staying across the road and can’t seem to unlock my door.” *Rolls my eyes self-deprecatingly*

The lady “Ooohed” sympathetically and ushered me inside before calling down her husband. “Marcel, come help this nice young lady here.”

Marcel followed me back to my door, asking with a French accent where I was from, which inevitably led to the “long way from home” spiel I’ve heard many times the past year.

“I’m pretty sure the top one is unlocked, it’s just the bottom one that’s really stiff,” I explained.

Marcel took the keys and opened the door immediately. My mouth fell open. “More power!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, silly me!” I laughed, thanking him and apologizing profusely before he went back to his wife to mock silly young English girls.

Tip number 2 (or maybe that should be 3 after “learn how to unlock a door properly”) is to make the most of good weather for hiking, even if it’s been your plan to complete a certain activity another day. I awoke the next morning to see snow falling and wind blowing the tree branches. Appropriately layered, I walked up Ellis St towards Knox Mountain…only to realize I couldn’t actually see it too well. I had a head lamp and suitable footwear, but decided a solo hike wouldn’t be a smart move if I couldn’t see the trail. I should have gone the afternoon I arrived, when skies were clearer and I’d still had a few hours of light left. Lesson learned.

Instead, I headed back south and walked down Abbott St past cozy houses and small lakeside parks towards Mission Creek Greenway, where I commenced a 6k walk on a snowy path alongside the frozen creek. It was a nice walk during which I encountered dog walkers, runners who were somehow finding traction, and elderly couples.  A pleasant oasis from the town, the greenway would make a lovely running route in the dryer months. About 3k into the walk, the views on both sides of the creek changed from residential properties to open spaces with hay barns and horses. Upon reaching Mission Creek Greenway Regional Park, I now had to find my way back to downtown. Returning the same way seemed a little pointless, but my only other choice was to walk along the fairly busy Springfield Rd. Most of this 6k walk was spent inhaling car fumes and focusing intently on the ground, because I did not want to slip on my backside in front of swarms of traffic.

I made it back downtown with my legs exhausted from around 15k of snow-walking. As I collapsed on a bench in City Park, I was greeted by a cheery elderly couple. Then I looked up to see a handsome hunky runner, who also looked at me but of course said nothing, because handsome hunky runners do not simply initiate a greeting with shivering pale people. And then a middle-aged lady jogged by and jovially remarked, “Now you just need a Starbucks cup!” Indeed, that seems to be the Kelowna attitude towards winter weather: get yourself a hot drink, and get on with it. Thankfully, it only took two minutes for me to unlock my door this time.

On my third day there was a snowfall warning in effect. It looked like I wouldn’t get any of my mountain hikes in afterall. I guess I should have been a little more realistic. Still, missing a hike wouldn’t detract from the trip. Ultimately I had a good idea of what views I could expect; it would just be a rewarding bit of exercise. Instead, heavy snow days are for art galleries, museums and cafes. Luckily for me, admission to Kelowna’s art gallery is free on Thursdays. While I’m not talented at creating them myself, paintings are something that I have recently realized I really appreciate. Based on Water St, the gallery had some lovely oil and acrylic canvases, as well as a rather dark but interesting exhibition exploring existential themes.

Outside the gallery, cars drove along the snowy roads as if there was nothing slippery on them. I spent the remainder of the afternoon reading in Pulp Fiction Coffee House on Pandosy St. Featuring a vintage bookstore and antiques section, this retro cafe played music by the likes of Johnny Cash, Jackie Wilson and Del Shannon. I resisted buying a cinnamon bun until I left. All for the good cause of supporting local, obviously…

I didn’t hike Knox Mountain and see views of Okanagan Lake from the summit; I didn’t see the trestles at Myra Canyon or witness the waterfalls at Crawford; I didn’t climb the extinct volcano of Mt. Boucherie, but I still got something out of the trip. I fulfilled my need to get off Vancouver Island for a few days and spend time alone exploring a new place at my own pace, with time to process recent feelings and events that materialized during what I found to be quite an emotionally challenging December. In the age of Instagram (which I foolishly joined recently), there is so much pressure to do the BIG things and get the BEST shot. This takes the attention off simply enjoying the experience of being somewhere different. Aimless wandering is an underrated activity. Sometimes you just need to get away to clear your head.

The next morning I booked another cab for 11am, my airbnb checkout time. My driver quickly commented on the volume of flight cancellations caused by snow the day prior. “Oh no!” I replied, not for a second considering that these circumstances might repeat themselves. The queue for security was huge. I got chatting to a man who hadn’t flown for 10 years and looked perplexed when he saw signs with the rules on liquids, and a lady originally from Liverpool going to visit her boyfriend in Cranbrook. 30 minutes later her flight would get cancelled. And then other flights were delayed…only to be cancelled because planes couldn’t land in the snowstorm. I soon learned that the stereotype of Canadians being sweet, passive folk is very misleading…

“Oh dear, what will you do?” asked one lady I’d gotten chatting to, after my flight was officially announced as cancelled.

I shrugged and smiled. “I’ll probably just sleep in the airport and get the earliest flight I can tomorrow.”

“I’d offer you a place to stay, but I’m all the way down in Summerland.”

“That’s very kind of you, but it makes sense to just stay here so I can leave as soon as possible tomorrow.”

Of course, I soon learned that all Saturday’s flights with my airline were fully booked. The next available flight was Sunday at the same time of 15:45. Oh good God. I quickly checked the Greyhound website to assess the possibility of an awkward reunion with the Kelowna depot, but all buses to Vancouver were fully booked the whole weekend. I saw little point in  paying money to go back into Kelowna when I had no guarantee of a place to stay, and I didn’t know anyone who lived there. I mean, there was a hunky guy who also missed my flight and was in front of me in the queue to chat to the airline staff. He left the airport soon after, and I figured it might be a wee bit forward to tap him on his shoulder and ask if I could invite myself to a sleepover. It was official: I was going to slum it in an airport for two nights.

‘Kelowna really doesn’t like me,’ I thought as I headed towards Tim Hortons to commence my longest relationship with this national chain, the only catering option in the airport aside from a White Spot restaurant. As I ate my crispy chicken meal combo, I looked around at the other passengers with their disrupted travel plans and couldn’t help but wish I at least had someone to keep to company – to watch my stuff when I needed the washroom, to fetch me snacks, to make me laugh. Travelling solo definitely has its challenges in certain situations.

Airports are already draining enough when you’re waiting for an on-time flight. By 7pm I had already had enough of my temporary home, and in an act of desperation, I went to the next level of abandoning my frugal principles and booked a room at the hotel opposite the airport for the next evening. As I entered my credit card details on the reservations website, I tried not to think about the weeks of groceries I could buy with this money. But screw it, when do I otherwise have a reason to stay in a hotel? Why not treat myself to a bit of relative luxury?

After achieving a PB of four hours’ sleep in an airport, I spent the morning just watching all the people passing by heading off in various directions (when their flight wasn’t cancelled, that is). I was pretty much lying across a row of seats in the same clothes as the day before with my hair greasy and messy, looking like a true hobo and not giving a damn.

At 3pm I walked up to the Four Points at Sheraton Hotel, doubtlessly entertaining drivers as I struggled to walk through the knee-deep piles of snow at the junction island. While I don’t believe my room was worth the money I paid for it (and there was no complimentary breakfast!!) it was also so worth splashing out on. Privacy, a bath and a proper bed should never be taken for granted. I enjoyed reading the comments friends had written on my Facebook status about my situation. It hit me that evening that it was a year ago that day, December 30th 2017, that I had arrived in Canada full-time to start this crazy new adventure. My circumstances were a lot different then, and most of the people commenting on the status I hadn’t known back then. It’s crazy how one’s life can change so much in the space of a year.

On Sunday morning I watched out of my window to see planes taking off. The skies were a little clearer. Hopefully I would be back in Victoria before 2018! I naturally took away the room’s pen and toiletries (because hey, I mayaswell get my money’s worth!) and went to check out. My aim to get my money’s worth also included taking advantage of the free hotel shuttle that runs to the airport, even though I’d probably have walked there just as quick. A lady called Svitlana with a thick Ukrainian accent was driving the shuttle, and I happened to be the only passenger at this time. Svitlana seemed a little nervous, and I soon began to wonder how often she had driven the van in snow, if at all.

“What asshole!” she exclaimed at the 4-way junction when the driver opposite pulled out instead of letting her go. I settled myself back in my seat having been thrown forward by her jamming on the brakes, and laughed politely. As we precariously descended the hill towards the airport, I had to bite my lip to refrain from suggesting she use the engine brake a little more.

Having arrived in one piece, I went to check in for the second time. My flight was delayed by an hour, and with the airline having an open seating policy, never have I rushed up so quickly to get on a plane once the boarding call has begun. It was a tiny plane with one seat on each side. We set off down the runway to depart, only to turn back again so the pilots could double check the wings didn’t need de-icing. I’m a pretty chilled person when it comes to reacting to delays that are caused by safety-related issues, but at this point my weary soul was ready to have a tantrum. Thankfully no de-icing was required. We touched down at Victoria airport around 6pm on New Year’s Eve, and a friend kindly gave me a ride home where, exhausted, I went to bed at 9pm.

Getting away from Victoria and the Christmas-time blues for a few days (plus two extra) left me feeling mentally rejuvenated on the first day of 2018, but never have I felt so glad to be back in my Canadian home.

 

 

 

 

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Have you ever read a blog post and thought, “I wish I could take this with me on my trip?”
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When I’m exploring a new city, I tend to let my feet wander and seek out interesting places away from the tourist trap. Guidebooks are great but they sometimes miss out unique areas of interest that a deviation from the conventional tourist route will help you discover. Using a guided-travel app will allow you to recreate such alternative routes for yourself, allowing you to experience different sights and sounds of a city. You’ll maybe even find more undiscovered gems along the way!

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It costs $1.99 to upgrade an app to a GPS-guided version, of which the author will receive a small amount. The content of articles that become apps remains untouched.

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If you’re unsure about the value of GPS guided-travel articles, you can get an idea of them through the free app giveaway. For a limited period, you can upgrade for free the following article app: Escape to Portugal: Arrival in PortoAbout my first day in Portugal, it traces my steps through quiet alleyways and past street buskers, alongside dazzling rivers and over bustling bridges, and into small markets where I encountered locals going about their day.
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Other articles available to download include:
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Thank you for reading. Happy exploring!

Books & Bridges: Budapest for the Quiet Solo Traveller

There seem to be two types of solo traveller. There are the ones who, as extroverts or simply because they don’t enjoy being alone, enjoy putting themselves in social situations and meeting new people. They will join free walking tours and bar crawls and essentially go to any place or do any activity that allows them to interact with others. Then there are the solo travellers who, perhaps being slightly more introverted, are happy to explore alone and avoid the big social scene, looking for picturesque serenity more than pubs and parties.

I definitely fall into the latter group. If I’m travelling solo, particularly if it’s just for a short break, I don’t tend to look for social contact and companionship. Brief encounters with a random character are enough to satisfy my social sanity whilst ensuring my personal itinerary isn’t interrupted. The truth is, I like having time alone and having the chance to fulfil my own plans at my own pace. However, if I do happen to meet someone who becomes a great travel companion, I will cherish this new friendship and do my best to preserve it.

Budapest is a top choice for a boozy holiday with a friend or romantic getaway with a partner, but it’s also a great place to wander around solo. Below is an account of my time in Hungary’s capital city.

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A few bad experiences of sharing hostel dorms with snorers has made me more inclined to choose Airbnb for accommodation. This is definitely a wise option for Budapest because of the exchange rate. I spent £19 a night staying in a spacious room with a double bed, hosted by a lovely lady called Maria. Her cool apartment is decorated with various travel souvenirs and is conveniently located next to Nyugati station. She’s also very helpful when it comes to recommending things for you to do and see that cater to your particular tastes. If you sign up to Airbnb using my code, you’ll get a discount!

It was in Budapest where my love for vintage shops was reignited. Falk Miksa utca is home to many antique stores varying in value and appearance – some are elegant stores featuring opulent collectables, others have more of a flea-market feel.

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I love nosing through vinyl collections for Motown records, and the one above has many to browse (although Motown music isn’t so popular in countries of the former Soviet bloc). Inside, the store was packed with CDs from Britney to Deep Purple, Jennifer Rush to Santana. Opposite this was an antique shop called Kacabajka, where an old lady sat contentedly on a wooden chair chatting with the male owner. Some people would call the items in the shop junk, but I loved looking at the typewriters, delicate crockery and other interesting knickknacks. It was here where the question “Beszél angolul?” caught my attention (it means “do you speak English?”) and I looked up to see a Middle Eastern couple asking me what metal I thought an ornament was. After helping them, I hoped the shop owner wouldn’t proceed to start chatting away to me in Hungarian…

To others it was obvious I wasn’t Hungarian. As I browsed some fancier antiques in a store down the road, a man on a stool said: “This man [the owner] would like to know where you are from.” The questioner wore a top hat and waistcoat and rested the point of a long black umbrella on the floor. When I said I lived in London, he told me he had visited Portobello Market a few months ago and had some good finds. He spoke with a well-to-do accent and I suddenly felt like I was in the scene of a 1920s F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

I was keen to browse some second-hand book shops, but discovered that sadly those recommended in my (slightly dated) guide book had shut down. However my Airbnb host recommended I try Massolit on  Nagy Diófa utca. This is a quiet little street (I walked past it about three times) which makes the cosy cafe and book store even more appealing. University students and academics appear to be the main customers, with a range of genres being offered from romantic fiction to political economy. I spent a good 30 minutes deciding on which book I would buy, only to end up buying two – ‘Roughing It’ by Mark Twain and Pascal Mercier’s ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ –  for between 1000 and 1500 Forints each (£2 – 4). In some cafes you feel very aware of being alone, but here you can sit with a hot drink, some cake and a book and feel completely comfortable. Once again I was transported to a New York setting, this time when I was aged 15 on a trip to visit my sister, sitting in a cafe in Greenwich Village and seeing a girl in a black hat, blue vintage dress and boots eating soup alone whilst reading a book, thinking to myself that she was really brave and cool.

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Budapest is a beautiful and safe place to walk around at night. Visit in early spring and the river banks are not bustling with people, as they seem to be all year round in London. If you’re into photography, you’ll love capturing the glittering bridges and various Churches, palaces and parliamentary buildings that beam brightly at the Danube below. I happily spent a couple of hours each evening taking photos from both sides.

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Another thing I love when travelling alone is to have picnics. You can choose where you eat and there’s no waiting involved. Thankfully there was an Aldi near where I stayed so I could stock up the night before, paying around 775Fts for some baps, cereal bars, fruit and chocolate. Naturally I also had to include Hungarian cakes in my itinerary. A good takeaway bakery is Lipóti on Kiraly utca, which makes a delicious chocolate and blackberry brownie cake as well as classics such as poppy seed cake.

For picnic locations, head to the Buda side of the city where you’ll discover more historical architecture and see its greener side. I made my way there over Margaret Bridge, taking a detour to visit Margaret Island. In summer this large park holds performances in its Open Air theatre and there’s also an outdoor swimming pool. You won’t see the park at it’s prettiest in the spring, but I did love how there was a separate 5 km track set up for runners!

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Castle Hill in Buda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to regal museums and the Royal Palace. You enter a quaint quarter where you’ll find many tourists but all within a tranquil haven of cobbled streets, splendid statues and quiet restaurants. The picturesque views of Pest continue for over a kilometre. It’s the perfect location for a wedding parade!

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If you want to get even bigger and better views of the city with fewer tourists on your tail, head further south and stride up Gellert Hill. There are various paths that zigzag to the top, with little signage to direct. The logic seems to be that the quicker paths will hurt the most! It was just below the famous Liberty Monument that I noticed a man stood with a briefcase with a fidgety manner looking around at fellow tourists. As I passed him he asked me to take a photo of him so I naturally obliged. He was Dutch and explained with shifty eye contact and an odd smile that he was on a stag do and had been told to have a crazy picture taken, otherwise he’d be paying for all the drinks that evening. I shrugged and nodded along. “The crazy picture involves me wearing no trousers,” he said with nervous excitement. I politely declined and walked away while he looked on helplessly. Seeing random men expose themselves in woodland areas was definitely not on my itinerary today!

Panoramic views of the Danube and Buda’s rolling suburbs await you at the top of Gellert Hill. It seemed like the appropriate place for my picnic. Unfortunately I also seemed like an appropriate person for people to ask for photos from. One of the requests came from a Scottish man around my age. A brief conversation revealed that he was having a week off from teaching English in Prague. He asked what my plans were for the rest of the day, and I sensed he was interested in hanging out some more. However when I mentioned my plan to browse more markets and second-hand shops his mouth straightened with indifference. He was planning to go to an open table-tennis meet in a bar.  The two types of solo traveller had clashed. Maybe it would have been a fun event but I had no intention of changing my plans; I was enjoying my independence too much! Shortly after we said our goodbyes and followed our preferred routes down the hill and into the remainder of our individual trips.

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Take a right after crossing the Elisabeth Bridge and join Vaci utca – one of the longest shopping streets in Pest. Near the end you’ll find more craft shops. If you carry on south you’ll reach the Central Market Hall near Liberty Bridge. Inside this huge building is where locals will buy their meat and fruit, as well as spices, spirits and pastries. Upstairs tourists can find various gifts and souvenirs including paintings and shot glasses. There are also plenty of food stalls around if you fancy saving your Pick salami for later…

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For your third day in Budapest, City Park is a pleasant place to come and read a book in the spring sunshine. It was here that I enjoyed seeing a mother leave her toddler to crawl on the ground and examine a stone plaque. I wish more parents would be less pedantic about safety and allow their children to explore their inquisitive nature!

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Heroes’ Square

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If the weather isn’t so nice, and even if it is, definitely devote a couple of hours to the House of Terror which is on Andrássy utca in the direction of the park. Interested as I am in history, I’ve never been a huge fan of visiting museums. I find them quite draining and if the weather is decent, I’d rather stay outdoors being active. However this former headquarters of the Nazi and successive Soviet regime is definitely one of the most interesting and enlightening museums I’ve been to. In each room visitors could pick up a sheet which summarised the country’s history relevant to the context or theme of that particular room. Excellent footage was shown, whether it was interviews with former camp labourers during the Nazi occupation or propaganda films created by the Soviets. Harrowing as some of the films and photos were, the museum didn’t try excessively to influence visitor’s emotional reactions; it simply gave the facts and left them to decide how they felt. Even better, I only had to pay 1000 Fts for entry because I had ID to prove I was under 26. This discount scheme is a brilliant way to encourage youths to learn about the history of their or another nation. For just £2.50 I became so much more knowledgeable about a period in Hungary’s fascinating history.

Because I ended up being gripped for almost three hours in the Terror House, I could only grab a milkshake from Kino Cafe before heading for the airport. This 80s-style art house cafe situated off Kiraly utca makes fruit shakes for 570Fts that actually taste like real fruit, with no added sugar. I wish I’d had more time to spend inside (…and try their cheesecakes).

Whilst the city didn’t have so many events nor so much pretty greenery at this time of year, March was still a great month to visit the very walkable Budapest. I’d highly recommend it to someone embarking on their first solo trip, especially if they are a quieter traveller. Even if wandering alone, there are still plenty of opportunities for momentary but memorable social encounters that won’t require you to sacrifice individual plans. Flowers were beginning to bloom but their arrival hadn’t yet attracted swarms of tourists – ideal for someone who likes to avoid the crowds and adventure alone!

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If you have additional suggestions for quiet solo travellers visiting Budapest, please comment below.

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Have an iPhone or iPad and planning a trip to Budapest? You can download this article for reference on your visit as a GPS-coordinated app! Just click here and you’ll get to the GPSmyCity download page.

Views of the Afternoon in Szeged, Hungary

Most people who visit Hungary are bound for the bars and bridges of Budapest. I however began my trip from Liszt Ferenc airport not towards the capital city, but south towards Szeged where I would be reunited with a girl I met on a bus from Porto to Lisbon in July 2015. I left behind the Brits on their stag-dos and girly weekends for the quieter side of Hungary, encountering views of a modest country life that exists away from busy beaming tourism, and views that exist behind closed doors and closed borders.

I decided to purchase First Class tickets for my journey from Ferihegy to Szeged, simply because they translated into £14 and I’ve never experienced a train journey in this class before. I boarded a quiet carriage occupied by only a few people, businessmen and smartly dressed ladies. The two men sitting near my seat reservation looked up at me in surprise, as in unused to seeing people of my age and casual dress in this carriage. I quickly realised that First Class in Hungary offers the equivalent to standard class in England i.e. no complimentary drinks and meals. Dang. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the peace and quiet of my two hour journey to Szeged as country life began to unfold outside the window after we pulled out of the rusty train station where a white cat wandered warily along a wall covered in graffiti.

It looked like winter had been harsh on the land. In the distance a tractor stood abandoned in a bland field, waiting for summer to awake it from its slumber. An old man ambled among his dreary crops as around him crows pecked around like looters looking for the last valuables from a battleground. A pile of logs and mouldy hay bales lay forgotten near a muddy marsh. Dilapidated shacks were dotted randomly in areas of wasteland covered in blankets of felled trees. In their small pastures, families shovelled manure from a wheel barrow onto the hungry ground. Thick-fleeced sheep huddled together whilst a shaggy coated horse sniffed for signs of grass and chickens scratched at the sandy earth. A scarecrow stood lonely in a deserted orchard that was too bare for even the most desperate of crows. But as the train approached Szeged, the views seemed to get brighter. Three deer cantered elegantly through a field where the grass was greener. The Hungarian flag blew gently in the breeze as it hung off a canary-yellow house with a pool in the back garden. A local white bus cruised along a road in the distance until the traffic increased on a large road heading into the city. Szeged is known as the “city of sunshine” and sure enough, the sun came out from behind its cover as my train pulled in.

My friend and her boyfriend met me at the station and we walked on towards Dóm Square. For a small entrance fee, visitors can walk up to the top of the twin-spired Votive Church for 360-degree views of the city. It was pleasing to see a lack of skyscrapers for a change.  Home to a very distinguished university, Szeged is a nice area for students. The trees on the other side of the river Tisza lacked colour at this time of year, but it is easy to imagine pretty postcard views in the summer. In warmer seasons, crowds will lap up the sun by sitting on the banks of the river, and there is an Open Air festival held every summer.

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Following the great flood of 1879, the Emperor promised to make Szeged “more beautiful than it used to be.” Within this there was a pledge to build a Church as a thank you to God if he would help the city recover from its immense damage. Inside, it was possibly the most beautiful Church I’ve ever seen. Even someone who is not religious, like myself, couldn’t help but be silenced in awe and respect by its grandeur. The intricate detail of the interior decor was incredible, with regal furnishings catching my eyes and rich colours catching the afternoon light that shone through the glass painted windows.

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We moved on to drink mulled wine and eat cake in a cafe called A Cappella. Ordered desserts were delivered upstairs via an elevator. I sampled Hungary’s “cake of 2015” which contained peach pálinka (brandy) syrup, and dobos cake which is layered with buttercream and topped with hard caramel. We talked about our lives in England and Hungary. My friend’s boyfriend is training to become a doctor and remarked how he’d hoped to study in England because of its reputation for having good medical schools. His high view of the British medical scene seemed ironic when taking into account the strained resources of the NHS and the current strikes by junior doctors.

I then asked my companions about Hungarian views of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. They were aware of their country’s reputation for taking a hard-line stance on immigration, although they were not aware of the infamous video which surfaced in 2015 showing a Hungarian journalist pushing and kicking arriving migrants. I asked why they thought their government had decided to close the border. I was told that the government had chosen this approach itself, but it followed consultation with some members of the public through a survey. Questions they were asked included what they thought the cause of the refugee crisis was, and what they thought the results of taking in migrants would be. It quickly emerged that a fear of terrorism was the key cause of public reluctance to accept them, along with an assumption that those from Arab nations would not assimilate into Hungarian and European culture.

To me this was an interesting view. Hungary was briefly involved in the coalition force that invaded Iraq in 2003. Around 360 Hungarian troops were also sent to fight in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. However, Hungary is not a country one would associate with attracting terrorists. Its involvement in foreign military conflicts is minimal compared to the likes of Britain, France and the United States, i.e. countries who are key targets of terrorist activity.

“I have heard that there are areas of London controlled by Muslim communities,” the boyfriend said. It wasn’t his fault for having this exaggerated view; clearly the right-wing journalists in Hungarian media have been fabricating reports and creating scapegoats. I tried to explain that there is a large presence of Muslims in London, and indeed extremism is probably being secretly bred in some of these areas, but a distinction must be made between moderate followers of the Koran who are proud British citizens, and jihadists who aim to destroy western society from within it.

Later we went to a cool bar and restaurant called Maláta for burgers and home-brewed beer. A silent black-and-white film played on a big screen next to a book shelf and umbrellas hung off the ceiling. At one point I was distracted by the arrival of four boys asking the waiter in English for a table. They had British accents and I assumed they were exchange students doing a semester abroad at the University of Szeged. They were of either Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, possibly Muslims themselves. I thought back to the Muslim boys of their age fleeing Iraq and Syria, perhaps jumping onto jam-packed boats at that very moment to begin a treacherous journey across the ocean. Is the evident fear of migrant-led terrorism present in Hungary based on the migrant’s religion or their citizenship? Would these young male migrants be viewed differently if they hadn’t come from the Middle East and instead had British accents and birth certificates? Or were the British boys enjoying a meal in the bar also being viewed with concern because of their potential association with Islam? The vast majority of Muslim men are fleeing areas controlled by Islamic State due to fear that they will be forced to fight for a group they do not support, and not because they want to spread its violent ideology westwards.

Lying in bed that night and going over the events of my first afternoon in Hungary, I recalled the splendour of the Votive Church. The power of religion is both fascinating and frightening. Some people believe so strongly in the existence and goodness of an unseen higher power that they will invest all their time, effort and money in building a magnificent Church with their two hands to demonstrate their respect and create a place of community for their fellow worshippers. But some of these people cannot respect the peaceful presence of another faith and recognise the clearly visible desperation of its civilian followers fleeing war, oppression and persecution. They refuse to open their arms to at least sympathise with these vulnerable people if they are unable to help them practically. They are so open to the existence of a God, yet so closed to the reality of  human events.

This afternoon in Szeged had revealed many views, some pretty, some unpleasant. I should clarify that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently argued, being reluctant to take in thousands of refugees doesn’t make a nation and its citizens racist. By increasing the population, mass immigration poses a problem for a country’s resources in terms of finance, infrastructure, jobs and welfare. But some of the expressed rationale behind such decisions can reveal the presence of unjust, bigoted views within society. They are views that seem to contradict the instruction in the Bible given to Christians to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

Around the time I was in Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia closed their borders to migrants, and deals have now been agreed for Turkey to accommodate arrivals form Greece in return for economic support. I hope that those innocent refugees turned away from Europe can understand that there are many people on this continent who pity their situation, and do not view them with fear and suspicion.

 

 

Cuisine for a (Budget) Queen in Victoria, B.C.

The port city of Victoria in British Columbia is a lovely choice for travellers who appreciate a slower pace and smaller size in a capital city. With its pretty harbour, regal legislative buildings, vibrant Chinatown, and charming antique shops, the former gem of the British Empire evokes much character in its comparatively small visage. A gateway to the ocean and offering easy access to hiking territory, Victoria is popular with young families, retirees looking for an ocean-side retreat, and youths who come to study at a top Canadian research institution, the University of Victoria.

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Victoria offers a range of dining options that reflect its British heritage, Asian communities and West Coast setting. Pick a street to walk along and you’re guaranteed to find something new and interesting. However just because the city is named after a British monarch doesn’t mean you’ll be eating like a pauper whilst here. If you’re over for a visit, here is a sample of places to try that won’t use up all your travel money.

MokaHouse Coffee
With locations on Fort St, Cook St and James Bay, this is a great option for a grab-and-go breakfast before work or a lazy Sunday coffee. It’s nice to support an independent business instead of opting for Starbucks. They sell fresh sandwiches, pasties and baked goods as well as a wide selection of drinks. I’m a sucker for their fudge brownie!

Wild Coffee 
A good place to grab a hot drink and read the paper, this coffee house on Yates St has a cool interior featuring driftwood decor and comfy sofas. They have a varied tea selection (I usually go for the rooibos chai latte), baked goods and light warm meals including red curry and burritos.

Jam Cafe
This trendy cafe with its brick walls, rustic furnishings, and friendly staff is found on Herald Street, slightly sheltered from busier Victoria. The perfect place for weekend brunch, you’ll likely be waiting around 15 minutes to get in as reservations are not accepted, but it’s worth the wait. The menu features unique combinations – think pulled pork pancakes or chicken waffles drizzled in syrup – alongside your classic eggs and French toast options. The Charlie Bowl and Gravy Coop are two of my preferred options, along with their yummy milkshakes. Portions are so generous, it’s unlikely you will be able to finish! Have a look at the website and prepare to drool.

Blue Fox Kitchen
Jam’s rival, located on Fort Street, is renowned for its specialty drinks and egg breakfasts. I personally find the oatmeal porridges a highlight, and this place is a great choice if you are craving some fresh fruit! Offering big portions within a pleasant atmosphere, queues are often long so going on a weekday is recommended. Check out the website for more info.

Ageless Living Market
As well as selling groceries and health products, this relatively new store sells delicious healthy wraps. For only $8, you’ll find a great amount of protein and veggies stuffed inside! Located on Johnson St, there is a seating area and it’s a great option for lunch.

Fig Deli
Alongside a market section, this small eatery has a cafe area offering Mediterranean salads and desserts. A lovely option if you are looking for a change from North American food or have a craving for baklava!

Sally Bun
A sweet couple run this small cafe on Fort Street serving yummy warm buns stuffed with delicious ingredients, such as Korean BBQ Beef, Feta and Spinach, and Chicken Curry. Finish with an irresistible soft and chewy chocolate chip oatmeal cookie. An excellent choice for a fast but filling cheap lunch, and lovely to see a local business doing so well.

Italian Deli
Staff at this bustling cafe on Blanshard St are always friendly and efficient. The sandwiches and pasta salads are fresh and filling, and priced at only $2, their chocolate banana bread is to die for. The deli section sells a variety of Italian condiments, pasta, and sweets. Have a look at their menu!

Red Fish Blue Fish
Situated in the harbour on Wharf Street, this is a must for fish-and-chip lovers. The fish is sourced locally and sold out of a renovated cargo container by college-age kids listening to indie West Coast music. Stools are placed near the water for you to admire the boats while you eat in the fresh ocean air for lunch. The prices might seem high at first, but once you see the portion size, you realize you are definitely getting your money’s worth. Please note that this place closes between November and mid-February. See the website for further details.

Gobind Food Market
You should go to this deli on Quadra Street just to brighten your day with a smile from the kind Indian lady who serves you. The lunch menu is different every day but is always meat-based (Chicken Tikka, Butter Chicken etc) and served with rice and sides (a mix of chickpeas, lentils, aubergine, Bombay potato), naan bread and samosas in a polystyrene box. It’s not gourmet-quality but it’s hearty, good value and you’ll look forward to it after a long day of lectures.

Tacofino
This fast food restaurant on Fort Street sells tacos and burritos stuffed to the max with meat, rice and veggies. A popular eatery in a small venue, it can get pretty crowded so prepare to queue. It’s a great choice for dinner if you’re in a rush to get somewhere. You”ll also find the chain in Tofino and Vancouver. Check here for info on the Victoria venue.

Phonomenal Vietnamese Cafe
Soups and subs in a small and quite characterless dine-in/take-out cafe in Shelbourne Village Square near Tim Hortons. The food won’t be as phenomenal as higher-end Vietnamese restaurants in town but it’s a solid choice if you want to broaden your cultural palette and only have a short time to do it. Sandwiches are around the $7 mark, noodle soups $10. Pay at the counter once you’ve finished. Browse the menu here.

Christie’s Pub
A friendly pub with a local feel that sells a wide selection of craft beers which can be enjoyed on the heated patio. Burgers are half price after 9pm (the Christie’s Burger is delicious!) and they host music trivia once a week. If you want to be a true Canadian, order the tasty poutine. Reservations can be made online or on the Facebook page. This pub is situated on Fort St in the Oak Bay area.

John’s Place
Located on Pandora Avenue, this fun restaurant serves a range of hearty dinners with tasty desserts. They play great music from a range of decades and you won’t get bored waiting for your food when there are so many photos and memorabilia plastered all over the walls to keep you entertained. A glance at the varied menu is enough to get your mouth watering.

Little Thai Place
A small restaurant with adorable staff, dishes cost around $13.50 and are served quickly with generous portions. The vegetable fried rice and red curry were delicious. Surrounded by other little stores and cafes in Shelbourne Plaza off a busy road, it would be easy not to notice this place in the corner, but make sure to scout it out. Menu here.

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Would you like to take this article on the road with you? You can download a GPS version to your iPhone or iPad by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Escape to Portugal: Lazy Sundays in Lisbon

Sometimes people have an outfit that they really like but don’t dare wear too often. It might seem too extravagant or inappropriate for the occasion. You want to wear it but feel too self-conscious whilst doing so. Then there will be a day when something about the place you are in makes you feel care-free and confident. Something in the environment gives you a new perspective that makes wearing this outfit seem more acceptable. I experienced this feeling on my last day in Lisbon when I put on a multi-coloured sundress that I hadn’t worn for four years since I had been on Vancouver Island.

My Sunday started by enjoying the sound of drums playing in Rossio square. People of all ages wearing t-shirts with ‘Project Lisbon’ on played to the beat, inviting spectators to come join. Here I met up with my new Hungarian friend Virág before spending a lazy day together sightseeing.

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Sundays are an excellent day to go exploring in Lisbon because many attractions are free between 10am and 2pm. If you like museums and architecture, the place you need to visit is Belém which is the historical district of Lisbon. Located 6km from the city centre, it’s accessible by the tram which can be caught at Praça da Figueira.

The downside of Sundays is their popularity with tourists, which inevitably leads to crammed trams. As Virág and I boarded the carriage, I found myself trapped between a man with a huge sweat mark down his back and an old lady’s armpit which every now and then would radiate a whiff of something stale and make me want to wretch. Finally we reached our stop at Torre de Belém and I could escape the toxins.

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Queues for the Torre de Belém are insanely long, so unless you are desperate to get a closer look at the interior of this tower, just enjoy views from the outside whilst you paddle in the river.

Belém is famed for its custard tarts (natas) which are even named after the municipality. If you are not concerned about top quality and have no patience for queues and high prices, head to Pingo Doce on Avenida de Torre de Belém where you can buy a pack of 9 for 1.50Euro (as opposed to 4 for 6Euros like in most bakeries). With some fruit and the shade of an olive tree nearby, they tasted good to me!

The Mosteiros dos Jeronimos stands on the edge of the Rio Tejas with its striking Gothic design. Built in 1496, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that commands respect from its younger surrounding peers. Ladies would pester those tourists waiting in the queue by trying to sell fake Pandora jewellery. The queue soon got moving and I found myself getting inside without having to pay a penny, with 15 minutes of free entry remaining! Inside you’ll walk on marbled floors underneath meticulously decorated ceilings and alongside conscientiously carved pillars. There is a huge Church on the right side and even if like me you are not religious, you can’t help but find yourself becoming immersed in the spiritual state that surrounds worship.

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Near the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discoveries), built to commemorate Portugal’s imperial expansion, was placed a structure with the word ‘LOVE’ displayed in hearts with love-locks attached. Ducking under and out of the underpass in which homeless people played the accordion, we wandered through a long market that sold a variety of things – tiles, wood carvings, tea towels, vintage car toys, ceramic plates, fancy cutlery, photoframes, hanging decorations and jewellery. The tiles are without a doubt my favourite feature of Lisbon – I could happily decorate an entire bedroom wall with them!

In the hazy afternoon shade I watched the columns of water in the large fountain continually rise and fall as life calmly slowed down around me. Even when not doing anything in particular, Lisbon is a great place for lounging around. Being lazy feels acceptable. It feels like you are relaxing in your hometown, rather than wasting time in a foreign holiday destination. I walked around in my vibrant dress but wasn’t self-conscious, instead too relaxed and absorbed in my surroundings to think about it. This didn’t feel like a city where appearance mattered, nor did it any longer feel like a city where I stood out. Instead I felt like I blended in with everyone else here enjoying the Lisbon vibe. In a place where the sun is shining, there may be less room to hide but there is also less reason to judge.

Along Rua da Prata there is a wonderful gelateria selling a variety of ice cream flavours like banana and pistachio. Burn it off by taking a fairly steep climb along the backroads between Martim Moniz and Castelo de São Jorge to Miradouro da Senhora do Monte where you find a quiet viewpoint of the city. Here local elders sat on benches looking pensive and content as they admired a skyline of orange-roofed white houses and church steeples nestled near the river Tagus. From here they could look down fondly at the city that they recall as home without having to go into the busier, more international side of it.

Lisbon feels extremely safe. A young fair-skinned girl can walk around on her own in shorts and a strappy top at 11pm in the evening without having to worry about being pestered. I loved walking around with no money, no phone and no map – it felt liberating and reinforced the sense of feeling like a local.

On a magical last evening in Lisbon, we sat on the walls of the St. Lucia Church and admired the lights on the tanker as it slept on the river. Fado music flowed out of candlelit restaurants as we wandered down lantern-lit lanes towards the river in front of Praça do Comércio, where a man played guitar complemented by a girl on the saxophone. Tourists sat on the steps with their drinks and snacks to chat or just gaze across the river. At 10pm the Ponte de 25 Abril lit up with red speckles while the moon cast its golden glow over the still water of the Tagus river. There was a light breeze but it only flickered faintly over my skin. Everything here was so warm – the tempeature, the ambience, the friendliness.

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The past 72 hours in Lisbon had unraveled like a romance of the platonic kind. I had slowly developed an affection for both a place and a person. I had entered an unexpected state of comfortability with both the city and my new travel companion, and sat on the steps looking out over in the river in a state of peaceful content. Lisbon provided a perfectly therapeutic holiday and I look forward to coming back again one day.

Escape to Portugal: Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

Few times have I experienced walking around a city in the early hours of the morning with a relaxed sense of security. No need to look over my shoulder with suspicion, to shiver into a jacket with a sudden cold rush, or feel like I was trespassing the silent empty streets at an unsaintly hour. The sun rises sleepily into the soft sky as one ambles down St. Lucia in the Alfama district of Lisbon towards the Rua de Augusta. Here waiters set up tables on the street to get ready to serve breakfast to the many tourists that will swarm this street later on. I walked into Patisserie Brasileira to buy a cinnamon pastry and ate it on the steps of King João I in the Praça de Comércio. It suddenly hit me that it was the 1st of August and I pinch-punched myself to commemorate a new month.

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Today I would be heading west towards the town of Sintra with Virág, the Hungarian girl I met on the bus down from Porto. This plan of travelling with someone else had arisen only the late evening before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What advantages and disadvantages would having company bring?

The statues in the water fountains in Rossio were still dozing in the dawn as I walked towards the train station, which I had heard could be pretty sketchy. A return ticket cost 4.80Euros and as I headed towards the barriers, a man suddenly called for us to hurry – the train was about to depart. Assuming he was correct, I hurried through the barriers with him straight behind, only to realise soon after that he had been using us to get on the train without a ticket…

A 40 minute journey away by train, Sintra is famed for its fairy-tale castles and palaces, many of which are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First however we planned to visit Cabo da Roca which is the westernmost point of continental Europe. Bus 403 will take you the 18km from Sintra station to the cape, with a hop-on-hop-off ticket costing 12Euros.  Prepare for an entertaining journey. The bus driver would navigate up steep roads and around countless hairpin bends whilst occasionally holding his phone to his ear. Every time we ascended a narrow street and an approaching car suddenly came into view, I would suck in my tummy tightly. We wound our way past lush green rainforests and through towns with large fruit markets and elderly residents chatting on café corners before arriving at the windy coast. Here the ‘land ends and the sea begins’,* the vast ocean of blue sending rippling waves crashing against the rocks. (*Luís de Camões – one of Portugal’s most highly-regarded poets)

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I quickly noticed differences between myself and Virág. I descended the sandy, rocky terrain downwards at a quick pace without giving too much thought to where I was putting my feet; she walked with more caution. She was keen to see as many palaces as possible; I was wary of spending too much money on admission fees. I was happy to walk to most places for exercise, but Virág preferred to take the bus. Virág seemed to want us to agree on the tiniest things, such as whether to go left or right, whereas this constant confirmation made things a little too rigid for my liking. She wanted to have a hot meal for lunch; I said I normally snack on cold eats when travelling.

Back in Sintra, we walked towards the town centre, passing a display of crafts laid out on top of the pavement wall with the pillars of the National Palace poking up in the background. There are various bus stops in the centre from where the 12Euro ticket can be used for most routes.

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The Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) was built by Muslims in the 8th Century as a base from which to check the Atlantic ocean for incoming invaders, before coming under Christian control in the 12th Century. Hold on tight (especially to your stomach) as the 434 bus zig-zags around more hairpin bends for 3km to reach it. Costing 8Euros to get in, the castle has been reconstructed in the 20th Century, but as you squeeze up narrow stairways before dropping down into little dens, you can easily imagine soldiers crouching down to protect themselves from armed attack. Over its rigid stone walls you’ll see great views of the surrounding countryside (but more so on the right-side.)

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The National Palace of Pena is classed as a 1.5km walk from the castle, but feels like less. Don’t let the uphill gradient put you off, as you’ll likely find that by the time the bus arrives, you would have reached it by foot. Being the most popular of the palaces, this one cost 14Euros to go all the way inside. I found myself in an unfamiliar position where I had to explain my budget to someone else, and with me feeling restricted, we agreed to pay the lower fee of 10.50 for access to the grounds and onto the terrace only, although I soon learned that this was perfectly adequate. Built in 1840 as the holiday destination for the Portuguese monarchy, the palace strikes as quite gaudy with its vibrant mix of bright colours and patterned tiles. But even if it’s too kitschy for your liking, it’s still worth a look and you can’t help but be impressed by the effort that has gone into building and maintaining it.

It was while walking through the park with its various nooks and crannies that I began to realise that actually, Virág and I were more similar than I thought. Just like first impressions of the palace’s exterior might be that it is over-the-top in its appearance, I learned that Virág had more appeal to me than at first believed. We had interesting conversations and seemed to have similar outlooks towards certain issues. It made me smile when, after a moment of silence during which I began to feel grateful for her company, Virág said “I’m glad we met on that bus from Porto.”

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I found during the day that I was rubbing off on Virág, and likewise she was rubbing off on me. At one point she agreed to walk instead of take the bus, and I was persuaded to choose a hot option for lunch. A great place to eat in Sintra is at Xentra. ‘Free buffet – 8.50’ may look deceiving, but you’d be amazed at how great the value is. Drinks are priced separately but for the main, you can choose to have as much as you want of salad, chorizo sausage, chicken, pork in white wine, fried squid and bacalhau (a cake of cod, potato and white sauce), while for dessert there is the traditional treat of Serradura – whipped cream mixed with a ‘sawdust’ of crushed biscuit. You won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

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Virág was keen to see another palace and feeling content with my stuffed stomach, I was no longer feeling frugal. We took the smaller bus 435 to Monserrate Palace which is situated a twisty 3.5km from the town centre. After paying the 8Euro entry fee and walking along the dusty path towards the entrance, I became mesmerised by the view ahead. The palace evokes an ‘Arabian Nights’ feel alongside hints of a mansion in British India, and when I saw a wedding reception take place outside, I longed to wear a pretty dress instead of my scruffy denim shorts and trainers. Pastel pink marble pillars lined a corridor underneath an intricately decorated ceiling. In the circular music room with a grand piano I could imagine the happy couple waltzing to their first song. The stone terrace looked out over a sprawling lawn that led to a majestic oasis of botanical gardens. We explored this exotic maze hearing only the sounds of trickling water and bird song. I felt even more like I’d entered the Garden of Eden when we encountered a hippy trio singing and banging a soft drum. It almost seemed inappropriate that we were all wearing clothes…

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I envied the little girls in their white bridesmaid dresses because they must have felt like princesses here. This palace was everything a palace should be – authentic, classy, elegant, pure and sophisticated, but small and subtle at the same time. Everything looked so pretty, catching the late afternoon light so perfectly, that I found myself constantly getting my camera out, no longer caring that the battery was getting very low. We had definitely saved the best till last. But was it not for having company, I might not have seen it.

The day had definitely reminded me to be more open-minded when it comes to sight-seeing with other solo travellers abroad. Listening and taking into consideration the interests of a new companion had been a valuable experience. It had highlighted that two minds can be better than one. With some people, one day of their company travelling around would be sufficient, but I found myself wanting to also spend the next day with Virág too. It was not that I had suddenly lost all desire to travel alone, but I was more inclined towards the idea of giving spontaneous companionship a chance.

I walked back to my hostel from Rossio station with map-less ease, feeling more comforted and confident in the knowledge that I had the option of sharing my experience of Lisbon with a new friend.

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Would you like to take this article with you on the road? You can download a GPS version to your iPad or iPhone by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Read the final chapter from Lisbon in Lazy Sundays in Lisbon