Canals & Cobblestones | Exploring Copenhagen on Foot

In early October 2019, I spent a few days in Denmark visiting one of my closest friends who currently lives there. She was offered a job that started just before my arrival date (yay for her!), so I would be entertaining myself for two of the four days. This was a great opportunity for me to have some solo travel time I’d been craving, and I spent it walking around Copenhagen.

After touching down in Copenhagen in the mid-morning, its airport quickly stood out as the best of the many I’d been through in the weeks prior. The washrooms were clean, there was lots of signage that actually led you to the correct place, plenty of bins, and there were free maps! I love a free map. The back of it even had a photo of a bikini-clad lady wrapped around a pole, advertising a gentleman’s club in the city centre. How did they know that’s what I was looking for?!

Buying a one-way ticket for 36Kr, I hopped on the metro to Christianshavn, wondering how quickly I’d regret only bringing one sweater with me. I’d been in Greece the week before, where the temperature had been a good 15 degrees warmer with zero chances of rain. At a nearby Fakta supermarket, I got off to a strong start by giving the wrong change (why must the smallest amounts be the bigger coins?!) to the cashier who, upon realizing the bright blonde girl in front of her wasn’t Danish, looked very confused. It was bound to happen at some point, so I mayaswell have got it over with early on.

Overgarden Oven Vandet ran along a quiet canal lined with trees and overlooked by tall colourful buildings. I quickly got accustomed to the sound of my suitcase rumbling along the cobblestones. Locals and tourists passed by on their bikes, all helmet-less. The city is very bike-friendly, as you would hope all would be to help reduce global carbon emissions. I crossed the Inderhavnsbroen (pedestrian bridge) and caught a glimpse of colour in the distance. Following its direction, I soon realized I was approaching Copenhagen’s most photographed spot: Nyhavn (New Harbour). A swarm of buzzing photographers were gathered on the bridge with their cameras to capture the colourful buildings and the old boats that sat before them. Grey skies weren’t clouding their excitement. I annoyed a sufficient number of the hive by squeezing past with my suitcase in tow to take a quick peak, before escaping to a quieter viewing spot down the side of the canal.

I then continued down Havnegade, pausing on a bench to eat one of my cheap supermarket snacks. Passers-by would occasionally look my way, sometimes with a curious expression and sometimes indifferent, and I remembered how strangely nice it is to be alone surrounded by strangers. It’s the best way to realize that you don’t actually care how you look to other people.

By the early afternoon, I was starting to lose feeling in my fingers from dragging my suitcase, so I went to find the Royal Danish Library on Castle Island, where I’d agreed to meet my friend later on. Behind it is the Danish Jewish Museum, and behind that is the Bibliotekshave (library garden), a lovely little oasis with a pond, statues, and benches for sitting with a book. In today’s case it was too cold for that, so I went into the library and found a spot to read on the second floor. It’s a lovely library and I was fondly reminded of my days as a university student when I basically called the library my home.

Higher education is free in Denmark, which probably explains why so many of the people studying looked older than me. All of the females also looked very cool, and not because they were trying to wear the latest trends; they just looked genuinely and effortlessly cool in their fashion sense. With their stony faces, you’d think they were walking the runway rather than trying to find the Philosophy section.

That brings me to my next observation. The Danish (or at least, those in Copenhagen) don’t exactly strike you as the friendliest bunch of people. You can’t help but feel that if you were to collapse to the ground from a heart attack, they’d cycle past you with a look of disdain that suggested you were inconveniencing them. When I met up with my friend (who, incidentally, I hadn’t seen in 3 years!!), I brought up my observation and she confirmed that it’s an accepted cultural trait. She even recalled how someone had once told her he could tell she wasn’t Danish because she smiled too much…

The next morning, after an evening of learning about hygge, I got the train from Lyngby to Nørreport. Seating consisted of fabric-covered benches rather than individual seats, however this communal arrangement failed to encourage any conversation between the passengers. Opening the inter-carriage doors required you to wave at them in front of your face, which often resulted in one looking daft if it wasn’t done properly.

Today I was suitcase-less, meaning I’d be able to move quicker, not have to deal with the incessant sound of wheels struggling over cobbles, and avoid losing one hand to numbness from the cold. I also now had a woolly hat lent to me by my friend. It was going to be a good day. 

Approaching the station, my bladder suddenly decided to put in a request. Thankfully there was a free public washroom located outside Nørreport station, one of those circular ones like the one outside Russell Square in London (if it still exists). These had always seemed a little sketchy to me, but upon opening I was pleasantly surprised. It was clean, there were multiple cubicles with doors that worked, and the sink actually had soap, water and hand towels. This might just be an underestimated contributing factor to why Denmark is often considered one of the happiest nations in the world..!

After browsing a Netto supermarket for the cheapest carbs that would keep me going through the day, I headed to the Royal Garden, located off Gothersgade. With its open space and pretty horticultural arrangements, this seems like a great place to walk a dog and pen the next popular Scandinavian crime series.

Further up the road was the Botanical Garden, another aesthetically pleasing place where I could admire the autumn colours starting to show on the trees. From here I walked down the street path past Peblinge Sø (lake), which was popular with runners. Continuing my tour of Copenhagen’s parks led me to Ørstedsparken, where I witnessed an Eastern European couple taking pictures of every single monument around. A fluffy labradoodle-cross caught my attention, galloping around gleefully with a stick in his mouth. He ran up to me and I petted him for a few seconds, only to look up and see his owner several yards away watching with a mightily pissed off expression. At least the dogs are friendly here.

As I ambled down Vester Voldgade, which surrounds the more commercial district, I suddenly realized how clean the streets were, and that there was a distinct lack of homelessness in the city. Denmark is known for having one of the highest tax rates in the world, but if that money is going towards ensuring people don’t have to sleep on the streets, you have to applaud it.

I decided to walk around Castle Island again. Today, royal horses were being trained in the arena of Christiansborg Palace.

After retreating into the Royal Danish Library again for 30 minutes of warmth and washroom access, I returned across Knippelsbro to Christianshavn, so that I could admire the neighbourhood’s cobbled streets again without a suitcase. To go up the Church of our Saviour only cost 35Kr. The chance to see 360 degree views of the city and get rid of loose change? Excellent!

It takes around five minutes to reach the top of the Church, depending on one’s level of fitness and how many times you have to wait for people to descend the stairs or, in my case, finish taking a million photos of the same bell. Thankfully the sun had just started to peep out from behind the clouds as a gesture of goodwill. There were some lovely views looking over the harbour and the sea of orange-roofed buildings surrounding it, with Church and tower steeples poking up here and there. I appreciated the lack of skyscrapers.

One thing I really liked about being in Copenhagen was simply hearing bits and pieces of different languages. I was starting to notice however that the majority of conversations I was hearing were in German. At the top of the Church, I saw members of a family taking it in turns to take (or as the Germans would say: “make”) photos of each other. Feeling generous, I asked them in German if they’d like a photo together, but the father waved me off with his hand and a curt “Nein”, before thanking me as an afterthought. Hey buddy, I didn’t vote for Brexit, okay.

I next headed towards Christiania, the Freetown of Copenhagen. As soon as I entered the area, I got weird vibes. The people seemed sketchy and on edge and, frankly, some of them looked like they had just murdered someone. Weed is sold here, and I couldn’t help but find it amusing to see blaring hand-painted signs of “No photos”, along with a man whose specific job seemed to be shouting at people for getting their cameras out. Living in Canada, where recreational use of marijuana became legal in 2018, it’s easy to forget the secrecy that surrounds its selling in other countries. I didn’t stay there long. Taking photos of bronzed leaves against a backdrop of red and yellow houses seemed much more appealing.

Now that the sun was out, I decided to briefly stop by Nyhavn again, and happened to arrive just as the bridge was up. From here I walked down Larsens Plads before taking a left to see Amalienborg Palace, where Denmark’s Queen resides. If you listen carefully, you might hear her still laughing about Donald Trump daring to propose buying Greenland off her.

Further down Frederiksgade is the Marble Church with its distinctive dome. Yet more Eastern Europeans busied themselves taking 5000 pictures of every statue in the courtyard. The ones that displayed male genitalia always seemed to attract the most interest. It was here that an American man asked me to take a picture of him, and then promptly ran off after. “What an interesting place,” I thought.

When continuing down Larsen Plads, you eventually come to Kastellet, which is a preserved fortress. Upon my arrival it started to rain, but I continued to walk through the entrance. Surrounded by an inner and outer moat, the fortress is used by the military but is also a public park popular with runners, especially those wanting a change from flat terrain.

As I walked on down one of the gravel paths surrounding the Kastellet, a lady stopped me to ask for directions. Blatantly assuming I was Danish, she said she was looking for the Little Mermaid statue. Since I had an idea of where it was, I was able to point her in the right direction, and the illusion was maintained. Maybe I look more effortlessly cool than I thought..?

I made my way to Østerport train station to meet my friend, and that concluded my two days of solo time exploring Copenhagen. If you are just looking to walk around and get a comprehensive idea of the city, two days is really all you need. Those planning a longer trip will be able to enjoy many different museums and restaurants.

While Copenhagen was a little too cold (in more ways than one) to win my heart, it is a very walkable and photogenic city with some gorgeous architecture, and overall it’s a great choice for anyone craving some time away for solo exploration.

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If you enjoyed reading this post and would like to use it as a reference during your own trip to Copenhagen, you can download it to your iOS device from the GPSmyCity site by clicking here. Happy travels!

24 Hours in London for the Big City-Hater

I lived in London for five years, first as a student at King’s College London and then after university when I got my first “grown-up” job as a staffing coordinator at a renowned cricket ground. As a 19-year-old who had grown up in a remote valley in North Yorkshire, moving to London truly was a life-changing experience. It opened my eyes to more cultures and experiences, brought me some fantastic opportunities, and introduced me to some great friends. However, it was never a place I was going to live in forever. A country girl at heart,  the city lifestyle and culture didn’t appeal to me. By the end of my five years in London, I couldn’t wait to be out of its smoggy urban maze. Some friends suggested I hadn’t given it enough of a chance, and they were probably right, but I wouldn’t be dwelling on it once I had moved to the west coast of Canada.

When I planned some time in London during my visit home in June 2018, I vowed to go in with a more optimistic attitude. Being in London as a tourist rather than a local would allow me to see the city with new eyes and perhaps appreciate it some more. As I was staying with my best friend in Hertfordshire for a few days, we organized just one full day dedicated to London, involving some of my favourite places and minimal exposure to the crowded hot spots. The below guide is for anyone who also has a disinclination for tourist-bombarded concrete jungles, but wants to get a taste of London.

My day started with a bus from Kings Cross to Hackney. My adopted home of Victoria on Vancouver Island hasn’t yet adapted to the whole cashless card-tap thing, but I personally find this backwardness quite endearing.

“Ooh, a new restaurant!” I would note along the way, or, “What happened to that shop?” We had brunch at a place called Café Miami, where a good-looking-but-he-knew-it hipster provided the least amount of welcoming customer service as possible. Nevertheless, supporting independent businesses is something I always liked to do in a city where international food chains can be found on every street corner of the central tourist traps.

After stuffing our faces with fish tacos and pancakes, we waddled down to London Fields where football (soccer) supporters were watching a World Cup match on a pub’s outdoor screen and sunbathers lounged on the sun-bleached grass. The park also has a lido (public outdoor swimming pool, for my non-British friends), but as its one of few places in London to offer clean water, prepare for it to be packed with people on hot summer days. This park leads on to Broadway Market which, in addition to its stalls selling flowers, fruit and veggies and multicultural dishes, has a lot of nice albeit pricey independent cafes and restaurants. Street markets, of which there are many spread around London, were one of my favourite things about living in this city.

We then joined Regent’s Canal. Ahh, the memories. I would often run, cycle or walk along this canal, enjoying how it wound through the city, exposing me to the various neighbourhoods that make up this cosmopolitan city. In some spots you get beggars or drunks, in others you get talented buskers and charming boats selling plants and books. During our walk, I was even treated to the classic experience of having my ankles snapped at by a territorial male swan. It’s like they knew I was coming back.

Camden

Arriving in Angel, you have to temporarily exit the canal. Walking through this borough on a sunny summer’s day, I’ll admit that I had the thought of, “I wish I had spent more time in this part of town.” Sunshine can make anything look nice, but Angel definitely seems to have a certain charm to it that doesn’t involve being shrouded in selfie-snapping tourists.

Moving further along, King’s Cross has seen a lot of development in recent years, with new little walkways and green patches put in behind the station. You can’t deny that there are some very talented urban developers in this city.

Regent’s Canal runs through Camden, which is a tourist haven I can make a slight exception for, because it’s got a great vintage market, great music scene and, most importantly, a Lidl supermarket. It’s a place where on two separate occasions (once as a student, once as a graduate) I went on second dates that would eventually lead to disastrous short-term romances and consequent over-analysis on my part. But I can’t really blame Camden for that. Plus, the dates were so romantic in nature (think Cuban bars, tapas, margaritas, and live soul music) that I honestly still smile when I think about them, even though both guys turned out to be jerks.

The stretch of canal between Camden and Little Venice is a pretty spot along which my university running club would often run on Wednesday afternoons. One of the exits takes you to either the zoo (nope) or Primrose Hill which, forming part of Regent’s Park, is always a place I recommend people go to if visiting London. It offers awesome views of the city that showcase its famous old landmarks and newest architectural creations. It’s a place where you are close enough to the city to feel in it but far enough away to not feel its pollution in your lungs. It’s also a place where you can spot cute dogs and the occasional celebrity, though good luck being able to chat to any of them (the dog being my priority here).

I lived next to Regent’s Park for two years as a student (in an expensive box of a room in a courtyard where dear little boys would kick balls into our kitchen window) and it was always the place where I’d go for a run, have birthday picnics, or watch local cricket games after work. My friend and I met some work friends here for a picnic (I’ve missed Marks and Spencer’s confectionary tubs) and when they asked about my Canadian life, it certainly seemed worlds apart from my life in London.

Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill in 2013 (before more skyscrapers were built)

If you’re going to be in London for just 24 hours, you should probably treat yourself to a night out. My friend and I used to subscribe to Time Out Offers through which we would get deals on theatre tickets, outdoor cinema screenings, and restaurants. One of the last places we got a discount for was a casual restaurant called Bird, on Chalk Farm Road. As the name might suggest, it specializes in chicken. And it’s really really good.

My favourite bar in London is also located in Camden. Joe’s is a 60s northern soul and rock’n’roll bar. Simple in design, its standout feature is its juke-box, which gets everybody up twisting and jiving and not caring what they look like. I confess, I didn’t actually go during this visit, but that was only because my friend and I had to catch a train back to Hitchin. Joe’s is the place where I fell for my Beautiful Heartbreaker during my first year of uni, and the place where I fell over attempting my (drunk) version of a Lindy hop on my 22nd birthday after graduating. It’s a place that plays genuinely great music unlike the generic horrors in the charts today, and a place where strangers actually talk to each other.

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The next evening, I caught the train into central London again to catch up with some uni friends who are all nailing corporate careers, whether recruiting, writing for newspapers, or working their way up in big law/financial firms. I can be happy for them but also happy knowing that I wouldn’t be happy doing the same thing myself.

We met at the Knights Templar on Chancery Lane. (It should be mentioned that this place happens to have the grandest, largest, most beautiful public washrooms ever known to a pub-goer). Boarding the tube and quickly remembering the route I needed, I thought, “Maybe I could live in London after all.” I’d had a nice day out previously and the city seemed so familiar. Then I emerged out of Holborn station to a hostile swarm of miserable commuters on the rush home, elbowing past others and looking like they wanted to shoot themselves. Hmm, maybe not.

As much as it isn’t for me, the truth is, London is so big and diverse that you can find a neighbourhood and activities that fit your personality and interests. You just might have to spend half your monthly earnings living there, or face a minimum hour-long commute to get there (unless you are the child of a Russian oligarch or Arab oil tycoon, in which case Chelsea probably already has a bachelor pad in your name). London has an abundance of green spaces, amazing sports stadiums, a vast array of festivals and events, more bars and restaurants than you will ever be able to squeeze into your lifetime, some really cool converted buildings offering some really cool shows, and it carries a lot of history (much of which, admittedly, is hard to be proud of) and nice architecture.

Looking back, there are definitely things I wish I had done more of when I lived in London, like going to the theatre, trying different bars and restaurants, and exploring more boroughs. But I know it wouldn’t have been enough to keep me there. I just tell myself that I can have these experiences as a tourist whenever I visit again. London is simply too crowded, hectic, grey, dirty, and impersonal for me to want to live there permanently. So I’m happy to just enjoy it for 24 hours and then never see it again for the remaining 364 days of the year.

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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.

The cab driver asked what my plans were, and clearly thought I was a weird person when I told him I didn’t really have any, because he proceeded to stop talking to me.

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 residential care home.

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 -15 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.

A door two rooms down opened at my knock 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. He followed me back to my door, asking with a Quebec 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.

The man took the keys from me and opened the door on the first try.

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. They 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. Instead, I spent the day browsing 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. 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.

That evening should have been my final night in Kelowna, but mother nature had other plans. I arrived at the airport the next morning to discover a huge queue at security and a crowded lounge due to flight delays caused by snowy conditions. Then the cancellations began, followed by the complaints. (Canadians aren’t as polite as you think, folks.)

I spent that evening sleeping on a row of seats in the airport (not my first time), with the only food options being a stodgy sandwich from Tim Hortons, a stodgy sandwich from Subway, or a stodgy meal from White Spot.

Sleeping in an airport against your will can make you do crazy things. For me, it was spending $200+ to book a room at a nearby hotel for the next evening. But the comfy bed and warm bath was worth it (I mean, not reeeally worth that much money, but anyway…).

I left Kelowna two days later than planned, arriving back in Victoria late on New Year’s Eve and going to bed before midnight. It’s fair to say my trip had some unexpected developments. But hey, these moments are what make our travels so memorable!

Puzzled in Poland | Tales of Coping with a Language Barrier

Ask someone why they would not like to travel alone in a foreign-speaking country. The answer will most likely be because they are scared, or because they do not want to feel lonely. Ask them what they’re scared of and they’ll probably say being kidnapped or getting lost. They will probably not mention the more immediate, everyday emotions and situations that people tend to be afraid of: the confusion when you’re on a bus and aren’t completely sure when you should get off; the daunting feeling of entering a room with an awareness that you are not proficient in the local language; the alarm when a stranger starts speaking to you and you have no comprehension of what they’re saying; the potential loneliness when everyone around you is laughing or debating about something in another language and you can’t participate.

Before visiting a foreign-speaking country, I always ensure I know a few key words and phrases, such as “Yes”, “No”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me/Sorry”, “‘I don’t understand”, “I don’t speak…do you speak English?” Even if the recipient speaks your language, this gesture of making an effort in their language can help foster good relations. But of course, these are not conversational terms and you will still be left clueless as to what people are talking about most of the time. However during a visit to Poland in autumn 2016, I began to see the funny and advantageous side of having a language barrier in a foreign country.

Sightseeing

On the Sunday morning of a weekend in Kraków with my co-sister-in-law, we visited Wawel Cathedral. The queue was extremely long and snatches of conversation apparently suggested ticket sales were about to end for the Royal State Rooms. My sister went to inquire inside and came back grinning. In a moment of jamminess, two South American ladies with spare tickets had overheard her asking about the probability of getting tickets within the next hour and offered her their spares. One of the ladies was an architect working in Warsaw and proficiently explained in Polish the origins behind the royal tapestries and regal pieces of furniture. It’s quite rare for someone from Latin America to speak Polish, and it was refreshing that this was the language of choice over English. I would stand with little idea of what they were saying, smiling and nodding at what seemed like the right times.

The funniest point is when people suddenly start laughing. Laughter is contagious and it’s an instinct to join in…except when the laughter is about something you can’t understand, people will look at you with a puzzled expression and you’ll feel like a Ben Stiller character.

At the same time, and, rude as it may sound, having a language barrier can bring a sense of liberty. There is no obligation to pay attention and contribute, but instead the freedom to wander around in your own world.

Yoga Classes

A few days after my Kraków trip, my sister-in-law invited me along to a yoga class. It would be my first experience of yoga but with traffic congested, we were running late. I suddenly felt a slight build-up of butterflies, flashbacks to when I was a child  turning up late to my first session with a swimming club not knowing anyone, or feeling self-conscious as a teenager walking into a party already in full swing.  But I was older now and more used to new situations.

We entered the studio with four other participants already making shapes (so much for my plan of going to the back of the room!) and were thrown straight in to abnormal stretches. Oblivious to what was going on, I would glance around the room and attempt to mimic the poses, with my sister-in-law whispering occasional instructions. Sometimes I would close my eyes to help me maintain a pose while the instructor kept talking, only to look up and notice that everyone now had their legs over their head and so forth.

The instructor had trained in California and could speak English. She would approach me with calm whispers of “Focus on your breathing – in and out through the nose.” ‘But I might collapse!’ I thought as I attempted to stick one leg straight out behind me while putting my hands in the praying position to my chest and twisting my head up towards the ceiling.

I then found myself in what I can only describe as the ‘Giving Birth’ position. Lying on my back with my legs spread far open, the instructor slowly attempted to ease them further apart. With eyes wide like a baby rabbit staring into the open mouth of a fox, I smiled up at her pathetically, hoping she wouldn’t snap my legs off (and be too disgusted by the condition of my feet).

By the end of the class, my brain and body was destroyed. However I went again a week later and saw a definite improvement in my ability to hold some stretches. I even started recognising the Polish words the instructor was using to count and say “hold” etc.

Dog Shows

I also had my first experience of a dog show in Poland, when my brother and his wife took their two dogs to two competitions in one weekend. Over two days, I got a glimpse into the snobby, two-faced world that is dog shows. Imagine a row of poodles, Old English Sheepdogs, and Chihuahuas on tables having their fur blow-dried, curled or straightened. Imagine big men in tracksuits blowing whistles and shouting commands at their Alsatian as it gallops recklessly around a ring with the handler hanging on for dear life. Imagine smarmy judges reducing owners to tears with their arrogant, disapproving comments about a dog’s features. Imagine owners casting you filthy looks if your dog so much as glances at theirs. (Any slight scuff of contact can stimulate verbal wars.)

I was put on dog-and-baby-holding-duty, the latter inviting some curious looks which I was relieved didn’t lead to anything more. (My brother later joked that, based on typical Polish culture, most people were probably thinking I was too old, rather than too young, to have a baby.) When holding the dogs however, people would sometimes approach wanting to stroke them, occasionally asking questions. I could only smile and nod. On the second day I noticed one of the dogs trying to smell the bag of another owner sat near us. The owner later turned and said something to me with a facial expression that I found hard to interpret. I later found out he had been complaining about the dog’s alleged salivation on his bag. Being oblivious, I wasn’t able to feel bothered by anything he said.

This is where a language barrier can be beneficial, because of the desensitisation it brings to verbal interactions that might otherwise upset you. Another example of when I’ve appreciated language ignorance for this reason comes from Porto in Portugal, where I would sometimes walk down the street and males would make what seemed like, based on their body language and facial expressions, sexual comments towards me.

There are of course disadvantages to this specific scenario of a language barrier though, in that you can’t apologise for any bad actions you’ve committed unawaringly. This dog owner probably didn’t appreciate me smiling as he grumbled about my dog…but hey, I didn’t see any saliva anywhere.

Great Grandparents

My sister-in-law’s grandma speaks very little English. We stayed at hers over the weekend we went to the dog show, and as she showed me my room, she would mutter away in Polish as if not realising the extent of just how unproficient I am at the language. I would make enthusiastic “mmm” noises and say “piękny” (pretty) whenever she pointed at something and looked at me. Then there was the time when I was holding my nephew after he’d started crying. I finally managed to soothe him with some cheerful singing (Motown genre, to be precise) and looked out into the garden as his head flopped onto my shoulder. Then I sensed a new presence in the room and heard the approaching steps of the grandma sneaking up behind. I glanced around and saw her with her arms reached out expectantly, looking at her great-grandson with calculating glee. I had no choice but to relinquish him, before looking away awkwardly when he immediately started crying again.

Birthday Parties

One evening, my brother’s neighbour invited us over for a birthday dinner. One dessert dish was roasted pumpkin with honey, and it was really tasty. While guests would talk to me in English now and then, naturally the conversation would soon revert back to Polish. Again I faced the challenge of smiling at the right time, but there was also the added challenge of refusing food offerings. Polish culture has an emphasis on hospitality – people enjoy feeding others…a lot. I felt my stomach ballooning to the point of discomfort but felt rude saying no when someone mentioned in English that they’d made the cake themselves. Even if I said no, minutes later they would only hold the plate under my nose with encouraging nods.  “Pyszne,” (delicious) I would say with a thumbs up as I forced the food down my throat.

Then there came the biggest challenge: the singing of “Happy Birthday”. My solution to this seemed to be standing with my mouth half open, nodding my head from side to side in time with the tune, trying to guess when the person’s name was about to be mentioned so I could jump in and contribute at least one word.

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There will always be times when not knowing the local language leads to stressful situations. But having a language barrier can also be highly entertaining and create fond memories. It also reinforces the value of patience, good manners, initiative, and observation – attributes useful in any environment, no matter what languages you speak.

Please share your hilarious language barrier stories below!

Popular Tourist Spots That Will Leave You Disappointed

*Guest Post by Jordan Greene*

No one likes to be disappointed, especially when they’re travelling to see something supposedly amazing. But not all tourist spots are worth the hype they get. To save yourself the journey, we’ve picked seven of the most disappointing tourist attractions from around the world. Check them out:

1. The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Look up any list of reasons to visit Denmark, and Copenhagen will be near the top – and rightly so. The capital city is beautiful, chilled and full of enough tourist attractions to keep you busy for a weekend break. But for some reason, a very small statue of a reclining mermaid has become hugely popular for no apparent reason – although the Secret Traveller suggests it might be due to the lack of other attractions in the rest of the country. Stick to Copenhagen’s real attractions, like Tivoli Gardens or the National Gallery of Denmark.


2. Mona Lisa, Louvre Museum, Paris
The Mona Lisa painting itself isn’t what’s disappointing. After all, it is the world’s most famous painting. It’s the fact that you’ll never get close enough to see whether it’s any good or not, as there are so many people stuffed into the one room of the Louvre. Add to that the disappointing view from the Eiffel Tower, and you’ve got a very disappointing visit to Paris if you don’t plan it well.


3. Hollywood Walk Of Fame, Los Angeles
Surrounded by tacky shops trying to get tourists to buy some rubbish souvenir, the Walk Of Fame has nothing good to offer visitors. A TripAdvisor review from someone local to the attraction says it’s a waste of time, and suggests going to Griffith Park and doing the Hollywood sign hike instead. “You’ll get exercise and have a better time,” they say.


4. Times Square, New York
New York is busy, everyone knows that. But every day, tourists still turn up to Times Square hoping to get a great photo to show everyone at home. But there are virtually no pedestrian areas, making it not only disappointing but potentially dangerous. Spend your time elsewhere in the city – Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Top of The Rock are just some suggestions to start you off.


5. Loch Ness, Scotland
Loch Ness in Scotland is famous because of the legend that a monster apparently lurks in the waters – aptly named Nessie. There are numerous “photos” of the beast, and some people have devoted their lives to proving its existence. But at least with all the other disappointing tourist spots on this list, you’ll see something. Here, you won’t.


6. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy
All you need to know about Italy’s most famous tower is revealed in its name. It’s a tower than leans. Going to visit it is just a bit underwhelming and you’ll find yourself getting annoyed at everyone trying to get the perfect photo of them “holding” or “pushing” the tower. Adding to the frustration is a load of salesmen trying to get you to buy some trashy souvenir. Looking for a relaxing break? Avoid the Leaning Tower of Pisa at all costs.


7. Stonehenge, England
We’re back to the UK for our last disappointment. Stonehenge might be on many people’s must-visit list, but don’t devote an entire trip to it. As this post says, only visit Stonehenge if you happen to be near the local area. And don’t expect too much – you can only view the boulders from a distance and it’s quite expensive.

Do you agree with these choices of disappointing tourist spots? Have you visited somewhere else and been disappointed? Let us know!

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Please note that all views expressed in this post are those of the guest author and not of SoleSeeking.

Return to Reykjavík | Tourism & the Changing Face of Iceland

Everyone is talking about Iceland. That island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean with Björk, an unassumingly victorious football team,  and those hard-to-pronounce volcanoes. Its convenient location between Europe and North America has been taken advantage of on a higher scale in the past few years, and with Icelandair offering up to seven days of stopover time for free, why wouldn’t you go and see what all the fuss is about?

I first visited Iceland in August 2013. It was becoming more popular at that time but still had a minimalist feel to it that made me warm to it. I sensed that things would be different when I returned for a quick stop in December 2016 en route to Canada.

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Some things remained the same. The FlyBus from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík still played the same man’s slow, soothing voice to welcome passengers. As we passed the same barren lands and swathes of lava fields, I still got flashbacks to medieval times, imagining Viking soldiers in battle. But as we entered the surrounding towns and suburbs of the city, I noticed more apartment buildings than before. Had they always been here and I simply hadn’t noticed? Maybe the sparkling Christmas lights just made them stand out more? No, there were definitely more. The place looked more developed and modern.

My friend picked me up from the BSÍ terminal and confirmed the development that had been taking place in and around the city. She asked if I had any plans for my two and a half days in Iceland. I realised I hadn’t given it too much thought; my main goal was to see the Northern Lights. But I also thought it would be nice to go to a geothermal pool, since I had chickened out of going to one on my last visit due to shyness about the nudity element of pre-bathing showering. I had always regretted what had later seemed like a pathetic reason not to go. My friend suggested we go inland to a geothermal pool to that was smaller, less commercial and more natural than the popular Blue Lagoon, a place I briefly stopped by at on my last visit and didn’t enjoy. She had also never been and so it seemed like a great idea.

After waiting for snow storms to pass the next morning, we set off. There are no signs indicating where the pool is. Once we arrived however, we were surprised by the number of cars parked up. I was expecting a very rustic set up with mostly native customers, but reception was bustling with a variety of nationalities. I paid 2500ISK for the ticket and followed my host to the changing rooms.

“So, we have to shower completely naked here, don’t we?” I asked, feeling the butterflies from three years ago begin to flutter back into my stomach. My friend nodded with a smile. I took a deep breath and undressed, looking straight ahead as I walked towards the shower. It was as if I thought this would stop people looking at me, but I soon realised that nobody was going to look at me anyway. Showering naked in public was so much less of an issue than I had previously let myself believe. Good on Icelanders for their fearlessness and their motive to protect their natural pools. Later on, I would even find myself shooting disapproving glares at the back of a bunch of Brits who I noticed proceed towards the pool having showered in their swimsuits. We are definitely a prude nation when it comes to public nudity (which seems ironic given that we have a fame-obsessed culture that promotes sex through various mediums).

The pool was very relaxing. There was even something refreshing about having your face pelted with hail stones from above whilst your body remained submerged in warm water. However it wasn’t as quiet as I’d hoped. Perhaps selfishly, I’d expected fewer people. As more loud groups entered the water and the drinking increased, the experience became more distracting than relaxing and we got out. Before arriving, I had already decided that I wouldn’t write a blog post about the place, in order to preserve its secrecy. I’ve since realised that the pool’s name of the Secret Lagoon has become an appealing marketing tool, and there is actually no secret to hide anymore.

The next morning over breakfast, my friend read a newspaper article which highlighted the growing problem of tourists feeding horses in the wild. These animals are not used to eating sugar or bread, and the treats were actually causing more harm than good, with more horses suffering from digestive problems without access to medical help. If you are reading this and planning to road trip through Iceland, please do not feed the horses or try to bribe them with food to come closer. They are self-sufficient animals and will not starve without your treats, nor suffer without your petting.

Another article discussed the rising number of car accidents on roundabouts as foreign visitors do not adopt Iceland’s road rules. On a roundabout, those in the inner lane have right of way to exit. I know – seems bonkers – but we should respect another country’s rules nonetheless. Another article reported that Keflavík airport had seen a record 6 million people enter its doors in 2016, a 25% increase from 2015. There are 323,000 inhabitants of Iceland.

That day, my friend took me on a rainy tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula in the southwest of the country. Lava fields smother the land  where you can find the Bridge Between Continents – a fissure in the ground where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and diverge. The gap grows by 2 cm every year. Further on is Gunnuhver, the steam vents and mud pools of which are named after a female ghost whose shouting is supposedly symbolised by the eruption of the geyser. Reading her story reminded me of the mythologies I learned on my last visit – cultural traditions that helped make Iceland unique in more ways than its geology and landscape. Ferocious waves battered the cliffs as we drove further on. I read about a bird called the Great Auk, the last colony of which lived on a small island called Eldey off the coast of Iceland, before becoming extinct in 1844. Similarly looking to the penguin, it was flightless and stood no chance against human hunters.

In the town of Grindevík, we ate lobster soup in a small cafe decorated with ship memorabilia and an old piano. A group of Americans got up to leave shortly after we arrived, thanking the owner. The ditsy 20-something daughter then said to her mother, “How do you say ‘thank you’?” The mother had no answer. My friend grinned at me and I felt like dunking my face in my soup. A perfect example of one of the bad travel habits I wish I could see less of. Maybe I think too much, but I find that there’s something so rude about coming to a foreign country and not even bothering to learn one simple word (“takk”). Some might argue that paying money for a travel experience represents enough ‘giving’ and justifies the ‘taking’, but I think this outlook promotes an imperial-esque sense of self-entitlement and disrespect for local culture.

On my final morning, we took my friend’s dog for a quiet walk around a frozen lake. The only others we saw were a runner, another walker, and a party of horse riders. I got the impression this was one of a decreasing number of places locals could come to where they wouldn’t find many tourists…at least in the early hours of the morning. In downtown Reykjavík later on, my friend pointed out the construction of new hotels. It’s a contentious issue, the threat that hotels and other tourist accommodation options like Airbnb pose to long-term rental space for locals. You get the sense that some natives feel they are prioritised below tourists when it comes to urban planning.

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Overall, my short return to Reykjavík was enough to illustrate the increased popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination since I last visited. (Me ahead of a trend? Wow.) I’m not saying it’s bad that Iceland has become more popular. Afterall, as my friend acknowledged, tourism is good for the country’s economy. But my brief visit also illustrated the potential problems Iceland faces from its popularity growth. Its authenticity makes it popular and yet I worry that this is under threat from pressure to meet the expectations of tourists who come from more consumerist, materialistic, and fast-paced countries. I fear it’s in danger of becoming exploited at the expense of its culture, citizens and landscape.

I think of the slowly widening rift between the tectonic plates and relate it to what seems like a gradual tourist-takeover of Iceland. I think of the geographical mythologies and wonder if they’ll ever become regarded as archaic and unmarketable. I think of the Great Auk being hunted to extinction because of human greed. You’ll find ignorant and inconsiderate behaviour from tourists in any country, but for some reason I get defensive when Iceland is the victim. It’s perhaps because I have experienced the country from the perspective of both a tourist and local. I know how hard living in Iceland can be for Icelanders, and am able to see how large volumes of tourism can contribute to this. Are there any “secret” places anymore? Apart from their homes, where can native Icelanders go where they are free from tourist-oriented advertisements, expensive cuisine, English-speaking “banter” and complaints about WiFi?

I didn’t see the Northern Lights as hoped during my brief stay, as skies were too cloudy. Although it was a shame not to witness something I’d been hoping for, I took comfort knowing that there remains something in Iceland that can never be influenced and caused by tourist demands and actions. A natural phenomenon that doesn’t give a hoot about how much people want to see it and how much money they have to offer.

Please visit Iceland, just don’t plunder it. Support the economy, just don’t govern it. Embrace the culture, just don’t squash it. Take many a photo of the nature, just don’t leave a mark on it.

Travel & Trepidation | How My Solo Adventures Began

People often remark how interesting/brave/crazy it is that I go travelling by myself. In a world where we often hear stories about kidnap and homicide abroad, it can seem risky, especially if you’re a young female. I sense that people don’t really understand why I’m happy to do it, or how I go about doing it. As I mark five years since I first travelled solo, I’ve been remembering how this seasonal hobby of mine came about.

The funny thing is that I too used to feel the same way as those aforementioned people. If a psychic had told me in the summer of 2010 that a year later I would be travelling through Canada by myself, I would have laughed in their face. I’d been lucky to travel to some great places on opposite ends of the world as a child with my family, and I had loved those experiences, but I couldn’t imagine going off somewhere myself. The world seemed so big and I didn’t think I’d be able to cope on my own.

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After finishing my A levels I opted to take a gap year, with my main aims being to apply to university and earn some money. The first half of that year was spent filling out UCAS forms and getting up at 5.15 a.m. to start a morning shift at the sports centre where I worked. Then in March 2011, after craving a break from the bleak spring weather, I flew to Australia to spend a month with some family friends. The only thing I had to do on my own was the flying, and then I would be in the care of people I knew. I would be meeting up with my sister at one point to visit our cousin for a few days, but hadn’t made any specific plans to go and see somewhere by myself. It wasn’t going to be a true travelling experience as such; I simply wanted to chill out in the sun for a while.

I turned up at the house only to find out that the family were hosting a Scottish man, who was working for them in return for food and accommodation. He’d set off nearly a year ago by himself to do a round-the-world trip, and hearing his stories got me thinking. Even if he was a few years older than me (and male), he made travelling alone sound fun and, most importantly, doable.

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I returned to England with the travel bug, revitalised by my month away. I’d received an offer to study at university in London before I left, and I now accepted it. I would be moving from life in the isolated countryside to the bustling capital – a complete paradox. London had previously seemed too daunting a place to live for a girl who was used to travelling 10 miles to the nearest village. But following my time in Australia, my curiosity about the world had increased and London seemed like the right choice.

In early May I started researching Canada, a couple of weeks after I returned from Oz. Hiking in the Rockies attracted me, and yet the prospect of travelling alone still made me feel nervous. Ideally I still wanted to travel with someone, but was unable to find anyone with the time, money or interest. In response, I looked up help-exchange schemes similar to the one my friend in Australia had been part of, thinking that I would just live with different families the whole time. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about turning up at a hostel with nobody to talk to. I found a few families in British Columbia who were happy to host me for a week each. However all the families I wrote to in the Rockies were fully booked, or demanded a minimum length of stay that I couldn’t commit to.

The plan seemed to be crumbling and I began regretting telling my friends so definitively that I was going to Canada.  Questions of rationality filled my head – had I really thought about this, or was I just trying to impress someone? And yet I couldn’t just give up so easily. To me that would be a failure. Slowly it sunk in that for the first week of my five-week trip, I would have to stay in hostels and risk having nobody to hang out with.

But gradually I got more into the idea of travelling alone. It was exciting – I could plan my own adventures without having to think about what anyone else wanted. I was totally free. I realised that I did want to do this for myself. It was my own challenge – I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Travelling alone formed a category in this new and improved ‘me’ that I wanted to create. I saw it as a way of reinventing myself before starting this new chapter in my life of university and life in the  big city. I wanted to be able to tell stories like my friend had – unique and interesting stories that were my own.

From that point onwards I became determined that this trip would happen. I was bored of my daily routine and craved an adventure. In early June I gave in my notice at work. My spare time when I wasn’t lifeguarding or serving customers was spent poring over my ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook and typing websites into Google, papers covered in scruffy notes soon beginning to pile up on my desk. I’d decided to start in Toronto and then spend a few days exploring the Rockies, and on June 25th I booked my flights. It was really happening – I was going to a new country by myself…and I had no idea what to expect. Of course I was excited to see a new country, but I still felt unsure of my capability to cope alone. 19 still seemed very young to have so much responsibility.

At the beginning of July I sorted out my travel insurance (with my dad’s help) and booked my hostel for two nights in Toronto and a flight to Calgary. It was really beginning to feel like an adventure now. July 1st may mark Canada Day and the increasing unification of territories into one nation, but for me too it marked a growing sense of autonomy and completeness. My friends and work colleagues remarked how brave I was going on my own, and it made me feel good. They assured me that I’d have no trouble making friends. I’d learned in this year that kindness can get you far, and it would now be time to use it. About ten days before my trip I went to attend my sister’s graduation ceremony in Sheffield, and afterwards joined her and her friends for drinks to celebrate. One of them told her that I was “confident without being arrogant.” It surprised me. I hadn’t realised I portrayed such traits. ‘Maybe I am braver than I thought?’ I wondered to myself. While I was still more nervous than I appeared, these comments helped boost my incentive. I liked the idea of being regarded by my peers as an inspiration.

I was volunteering at an international competition in Kent a few days before I left for Canada, so had to organise and pack everything before and bring it down in the car with me. I started feeling stressed, remembering how easy Australia had been in comparison. My backpack was stuffed with horse-riding gear, trainers and outdoor clothes and I couldn’t decide whether it was too much. “How am I going to carry all this?” I asked my mum incredulously, only half-joking. I checked and re-checked I had my passport and then said goodbye to my dad, who seemed very relaxed. He’d travelled alone when he was 17 and obviously thought there was little to it. With one last look back from the car at my home with the rose bushes taking over the front of the house, it was weird to think that I wouldn’t be back for another six weeks.

In Kent I was asked whether I was scared about going travelling on my own. My brave face re-appeared as I replied with a “Nahhh”. But I seemed to lose my voice over those few days, surrounded by adults who made me feel really young. I felt embarrassed as I struggled to make myself heard in conversation. Was this what it would be like in Canada?  My friend asked my mum if she was worried about me going away on my own. She said “Not at all” confidently, and I believed she meant it. But I wasn’t so sure of myself.

On the evening before my flight I took some clothes out of my backpack, still unable to decide exactly how much to bring. It was difficult to estimate – I had to consider how often I’d be able to find a washing machine and so on. At midnight I had finally finished, and collapsed on my bed exhausted. Mum asked how I was feeling. “Fine, just wary of getting lost,” I said with a nervous laugh. She reminded me to check everything twice, whether it be my luggage, or a map, or a bus schedule. It seemed simple, yet the butterflies were beginning to kick in. It suddenly hit me that I was going to be on my own, without her help. I lay on my bed in the hotel room and felt like crying. But I couldn’t pull out now.

We left the hotel early on the morning of August 2nd to avoid the busy traffic. I saw the signs for Gatwick airport and almost longed for a traffic jam so that I would miss my flight. But we soon pulled up at the drop off gate and it was time to say goodbye. Mum hugged me tight, saying “Love you, squeeze you, miss you already” as she always does, only her voice was starting to break. I pulled away and saw tears forming in her eyes. I hadn’t expected that from her because she’d seemed so calm about me going off by myself.  I felt my own eyes start to water and had to make myself turn around and not look back. Her fifth and final baby was going off into the big world and I guess I should have expected her to get quite emotional about it.

I had a window seat on the plane and looked down absent-mindedly at the men below scurrying around on the luggage buggies. To distract from thinking about my mum, I started talking to the mother and daughter next to me, asking if they were from Canada or visiting. The daughter said, “You’ll enjoy Toronto, it’s a great city.” I told myself she would be right, but when it came into view six hours later the butterflies returned. This was it. I waited for my backpack to emerge on the conveyer belt and sighed with relief when it did. As I checked it over and re-arranged the straps, I suddenly felt really glad of its company, as if it was some kind of friend. A girl with blonde hair similar to mine was doing the same about 10 metres away. ‘Maybe she’s staying at my hostel,’ I thought hopefully. But she soon walked off with a purposeful gait that suggested she had been here before, and my spontaneous hopes of immediately finding a travel companion were dashed.

As I walked through the arrival lounge I felt like a lost puppy. Then a young guy approached me, asking if I was heading downtown. “Er, yeah,” I said hazily. He told me where to get the bus from and where to get off in the city. I thanked him, my confidence soaring. My trip had started off well without me having to do anything. But naturally as soon as I got off at my stop the hustle and bustle of the city hit me and I felt confused again. I fumbled in my pocket for the map of the city that I’d picked up from the guy at the airport, only to find that it had fallen out and was now being trampled by people’s feet. I had no option but to ask someone, but people looked like they were in a rush to get somewhere and my voice came out faint and pathetic. Then I spotted a girl in a summery dress walking in my direction who looked a similar age, so I cleared my throat and asked her if she knew where my hostel was. “Sure, it’s…oh actually, I’ll just walk you there.” I followed her gratefully for a couple of blocks and she wished me a nice stay.

An Irish woman checked me in, giving me quizzical looks as if questioning whether I was about to vomit. I walked into my dorm only to see two girls sat on the floor studying a map. I greeted them with a prolonged “Heeeey” that sounded more confident than I expected. They nodded a greeting in return then got back to their map, mumbling in French. I turned away awkwardly and began making my bed in silence. They obviously had their own agenda and weren’t interested in making conversation. It was around 5 p.m. now. ‘I can’t just stay in here like this’ I thought to myself, so I padlocked my backpack and went for a walk around. The road system was confusing. I went to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing only to jump backwards in shock as a car shot round the corner. I cautiously watched other people to find out what the road rules were, feeling completely out of my comfort zone. Soon I stumbled upon a food store and bought some ham and bagels – breakfast and dinner for the next two days. The store was busy and I sensed the fellow customer’s impatience as I took my time to make sure I used the right coins. I hadn’t realised that tax wasn’t included in the item’s displayed price, and fumbled around clumsily in my purse for more change, wishing I’d remembered to remove my British currency.

I had no sense of where I was and soon realised I was lost again. Feeling like an idiot, I asked a couple for help. The girl got her iPhone out to find the hostel. She then gave me her number when I told her about the reserved girls in my dorm, in case I wanted to hang out. I felt surprised but relieved at the same time. But when I did get back to the hostel and turned on my phone, I realised I’d forgotten the pin to activate my new Sim card. I rummaged through my bag for the piece of paper, cursing myself silently when it became obvious I didn’t have it. Pessimistic thoughts flooded my mind. I went to email home from the computers in the hostel, to let mum and dad know I’d arrived safe. Trying to sound upbeat was difficult. I was completely useless at finding my way around, had nearly been run-over, had nobody to talk to, and didn’t have a working phone to contact my hosts later on with. All the worries I had carried beforehand about my ability to cope alone seemed to make sense. ‘What am I doing?’ I thought to myself, head in hands.

I went down to the kitchen to make my boring bagel, feeling disheartened. Then I suddenly heard an Australian accent and my shoulders lifted as the familiarity of it gave me a sense of comfort. A guy was making some pasta with a German girl. I realised I had to speak up. It was now or never. So I made a joke about something he said. We got chatting and they asked if I wanted to join them outside.  I was offered a beer and crisps were shared out as everyone spoke about their individual travel plans. Most of them planned to stay in Toronto for a while and work here. I began to relax and enjoy myself, relieved that I’d made the effort to join in. The afternoon had started badly but now I was beginning to feel more positive.

The next morning I’d booked to go on a tour to Niagara Falls, but nobody from that group was going. I hoped I wouldn’t be on my own all day. A few minutes later two smiley girls got on my bus, chatting in Italian. They seemed friendly enough, but how did I know they’d want me to join them? I spotted another guy sat on the other side of the bus, and sensed he was English. Sure enough, I heard the accent when the tour guide asked him something. One voice in my head said ‘Perfect! You can hang out with him’, but another was reluctant. I knew English people. If I wanted to hang out with them I could have just stayed at home. This was my opportunity to meet people of different nationalities.

Grey clouds filled the sky as we walked down to the falls and got handed our blue waterproofs ready for our ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat trip. I purposefully stood myself fairly close to the girls. One of them caught my eye and we laughed at how funny we looked, with introductions following. They were the first Italians I’d ever spoken to. We hung out on the boat together, getting drenched by the spray from the magnificent falls. I went on to spend the rest of the day with them. I almost felt bad, as if I was intruding, but they didn’t mind at all.

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We were driven on to a quaint little town called Niagara-on-the-Lake with amazing chocolate shops and a store dedicated to Christmas. On the way there we passed a building with the name ‘School of Horticulture’ crafted in flowers on the front lawn. Its name rang a bell. I looked at my watch and smiled when I read ‘Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture’. I’d found it in a hostel in Australia with my sister and had (naughtily) taken it. It wasn’t flashy at all, but there was something about it that I’d liked. Now I was randomly and completely unassumingly passing its original home. It was as if I’d been destined to come here.

The tour ended with a trip to a winery where we got to sample some sickly sweet Ice Wine. The girls were staying at a different hostel to me. I wrote my name and email on a piece of paper, ready to offer it should they wish to keep in touch but anxious that they wouldn’t. But sure enough, they turned around as we approached their stop and the question “Do you have Facebook?” went on to become a key motto of my trip.

Before I got back to my hostel I went to the shop from the day before again to stock up on water, and felt slightly smug as I returned without getting lost. I was beginning to feel more like I could cope and I was walking around feeling less self-conscious. This time when I approached my hostel reception  to collect my key, the Irish lady flashed me a smile, as if my increased confidence showed. As I sat in the living area reading my guidebook, a German girl walked in and asked “Where do I go?” with a laugh. I told her where the dorms were and she later joined me. We sat with an Austrian boy and two Irish people. One of them was 30 and said she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to travel alone at 19. But then she added how great it is to do so because it makes you more open. I totally understood what she meant. Suddenly I felt really glad that I was on my own. Thinking back to the French girls in my dorm, I felt sorry for them. Their trip was going to be limited by the fact that they weren’t allowing themselves to hang out with other people who might enrich their experience.

I asked the German girl and Austrian guy if they wanted to go up the CN Tower with me in the morning. They said yes and we set off the next day with the sun now shining over the city, as if reflecting how much brighter my trip was becoming with every new day. From the tower one could see for miles. It couldn’t quite match the views in New York, but was still impressive. I stood on the thick pane of glass staring down 1500 feet at the ground below. Some people even dared jump up and down on it. We then spent the rest of the morning wondering around the city. On the way to Kensington Market in Chinatown with its abundance of fruit stalls, the Austrian guy pointed out a road sign with ‘King’s College’ on it. “Isn’t that where you’re going to study?” he asked. I laughed at the irony of it. But London was nowhere near here, and university still felt like ages away. I was starting to really enjoy myself and didn’t want to think about studying.

My bus to the airport was at 1 p.m. I gave the other two my contact details and checked out of the hostel, excited for the Rockies. I had a map of the city, but soon got confused and when I asked someone for help they sent me in the wrong direction. My back soon began to ache from lugging my huge backpack around in the midday heat. When I did find the stop, the driver told me its schedule meant I wouldn’t get to the airport in time. My confidence that had been improving so much began to falter as I envisaged missing my plane to Calgary. I had no idea what to do and stood helplessly on the pavement as passers-by looked at me inquisitively. Then another man showed up with a travel bag, only to hear the same information. He looked at me running my hands through my hair anxiously and asked if I wanted to split the fare for a cab to the next station where our bus would be. Without thinking twice I said yes. He was going to visit his mother in Ottawa for the weekend. I ran to make sure the bus didn’t leave without us as he gave the money, and sank into a seat, relieved that this man had been in the same boat. Some people might be funny about sharing taxis with strangers, but I had no regrets. It had been the most sensible option and was nice to know that we’d done each other a favour. I suddenly felt like a real traveller – spontaneous and practical.

We arrived at the airport and the guy called “Have a good trip” with a wave. I was sat next to a good-looking man on the plane, probably around 30 years old, and I didn’t expect him to want to talk. Then he asked casually, “You heading home or away?” I smiled to myself, remembering how I had asked the family on my flight over the same thing. We flew with the Great Lakes below us, and I asked him more about the geography of the country, surprising myself with how chatty I was. ‘Why sit in silence when you can learn something?’ I thought.

We landed in Calgary four hours later. I found my bus to Banff with no problems and as the glacier mountains came into view my excitement kicked in. This was the part of the trip I’d been most looking forward to. I got off on Banff Avenue and went to find a bank, remembering Dad’s advice about getting lots of money out at a time because of commission prices. The streets were filled with tourists on the way to dinner. A group of older ladies in peep-toe sandals gave me funny looks as I roamed around in my scruffy flannel shirt and trainers, hoisting my huge backpack higher up. This time I had no trouble finding my hostel. It was situated in a quiet area over the bridge. I was sharing a dorm with two girls from Montreal, who invited me to join them at a bonfire. The offer contrasted so much to the reception I received in the Toronto hostel, but I politely said I was going to do my own thing. It was different now. I’m a country girl. When I got to the city I felt miniscule and needed someone. But now I was in a rural area I felt more at home and less apprehensive about being on my own.

I set off walking along the Bow River, appreciating the peace and quiet. The air smelt of pine cones and midges hummed near the water. When I checked my emails later Mum had replied, saying she hoped I was okay – I’d sounded quite downbeat in the first email. That seemed like a long time ago now. I updated her of my whereabouts, telling her my plans for the next day. The girls were still asleep as I got up to get dressed and go explore in the early morning. I felt completely in my element. I didn’t even have a real map but just followed my feet and unlike in the city, they always led me to the right place. Reaching a main road which headed up towards Sulphur Mountain, I knew there was a bus I could get and went to read the signs, hearing mum’s advice of “check twice” in my head. Unlike in that store on my first day, I didn’t have to rush. With the rural environment comes so much more freedom.

I didn’t have time to hike the 5.6km route up to the mountain’s summit, so I got the gondola instead. A boy who looked about my age was sat in the ticket office looking bored. He gave me a look when I asked for my ticket that seemed to say ‘Why are you on your own?’ It made me blush and I got into my carriage feeling a little silly. As I rode up to the top I noticed that the carriages above and below me contained couples or groups. I was reminded of my Scottish friend recalling how some people had thought he was weird for travelling on his own. “I guess I’m weird too then,” I said aloud to myself, gazing at my watch pensively.

But if I was weird, it was worth it. After admiring the mountain squirrels for a few minutes, I walked along to a viewing point that overlooked the town below. It was breathtaking. I could just make out the glistening of a lake in the distance, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on either side. The turquoise river wound its way through the town with its patchwork of tiny houses, situated amongst layers of lush fir trees. I’d seen this very view in a photo on a website, and read about it in my guidebook. Now I was here myself, all through my own doing. A great sense of fulfillment hit me and I felt really proud of myself. This was my own personal achievement. All the stress and worries and embarrassing moments from before seemed like nothing now. It didn’t matter anymore if I got funny looks from people for wondering around on my own with this huge backpack. How many of them could say they had done something similar at the same age? I felt like I was on top of the world and nobody could take this feeling away from me.

Views from Sulphur Mountain

So in conclusion, I suppose that’s why I like to travel alone, because of that unbeatable feeling of individual accomplishment that it brings. I’ve always liked exploring the outdoors and in a sense it was something I soon fell into easily after the first few days. But it was by no means something I’d planned to do from a young age. There were butterflies, there were cynical questions, and there were tears. But with that comes so much more confidence afterwards. Since that trip, I’ve never looked back. Going off somewhere by myself just seems natural now and if anything, travelling with someone else feels ore stressful to me. Travelling alone gave me an extra spark, and I really don’t think I’d be who I am today without having done it.

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.

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.

Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon

My third morning in Portugal saw me heading to Lisbon, with a single bus ticket costing 19 Euros. In the early hours of the morning I quietly stuffed clothes into my bag, praying that the zip wouldn’t break under pressure. I had my bus ticket in my camera bag, so at least I wouldn’t have to open this one for a few more hours…

Even though I had walked past it previously, I still found myself getting lost on the way to Redo Expresso bus station. On a street corner I dropped my bags to the floor and reluctantly re-opened my bag to rummage around for my map, pulling out clothes creased with a frown that seemed to say ‘I was just getting comfortable’. Out spilled my toiletries from the plastic bag used for the airport screening, the bristles of my toothbrush just happening to land on the dirty floor. I quickly clarified where I was and, hearing footsteps approaching, precariously shoved my things back inside the bag. It was 7.30 in the morning and on this empty street, I probably should have been more careful not to expose my luggage like that.

Inside the bus station a scruffy man loitered between waiting passengers asking for money and occasionally yelling out bus numbers. I noticed a tall skinny blonde girl on my left with a large suitcase also avoiding his unsettling gaze. Looking down as he approached again, I noticed I still had toothpaste on my legs from having applied it to defend me against midges in the night. Whoops. A darker girl eating a pastry then joined the blonde and asked if I knew the ETA for Lisbon. I followed them onto the bus and they happened to sit down adjacent to my reserved seat, only my window space was taken up by a sleeping lady who scowled at me when I attempted to explain. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get far so I sat down next to the aisle with her bum sticking into my right thigh and buckled up. It soon emerged that I was the only one wearing my seatbelt. As we zoomed along the motorway, passengers would walk up to the driver to ask him something without any repercussions. A sharp contrast from transport rules in England!

I got talking to the girls next to me. One was from Croatia and the blonde was a Hungarian called Virág. “It means ‘flower’ in English,” she proudly told me. They had been participating in a student exchange program in Porto and were bewildered when I said I was travelling alone (“aren’t you scared?”) Virág would be alone in Lisbon until Monday and was keen to go sightseeing together.

I always find it a little strange when I meet people travelling who want to buddy-up. If friends from home ask if I get lonely when travelling, I often say that it’s easy to meet people, and yet when I do I’m sometimes reluctant to spend time with them, having got comfortable with my own plans and company. Sometimes just 15 minutes of chatter is enough to satisfy a desire for conversation. Nevertheless as we headed towards the metro station, I swapped numbers with the Hungarian girl, but with neither of us having Portuguese sim cards and hence being unable to call each other, we simply set a time and place to meet in Baixo.

Outside Jardim Zoológico station we were accosted by a lady who pointed at her daughter in a pram and held out her hand for money. I’ve seen homeless people in London use dogs as an incentive to give them money, but never a child. There would be further sights of poverty on the metro as disfigured men walked through carriages asking for money. I would later be told by a Lisbon-expert that such facial damage is sometimes be created intentionally for begging purposes.

A green ‘Viva Viagem’ card costs 50 cents and you can top up accordingly for where you need to travel to, with a single journey costing 1.40. Leaving the Baixa-Chiado metro station, I was overwhelmed by the rush of people and the midday heat. Porto had been quieter and simpler in terms of navigation, but here I had no idea where to begin. I paid 3Euros for a map from a vendor who pointed me in the direction of Alfama, where my hostel was. He told me it would take an hour to walk there. I just wanted to throw my luggage somewhere and chill out for a while, but the mere thought of walking in this heat and through these crowds was exhausting on its own.

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I wandered down streets with boutiques and high-fashion stores towards the Praça do Comércio, the statue of King José I overlooking the Rio Tejo. The bright sun reflected off the gravelly ground and my head began to feel heavy from the heat. It had only been 10 minutes of walking, but that was enough for me to know that I really didn’t feel up to walking around sightseeing today. However I was unable to get through to Virág, and I wasn’t convinced she had given me the correct number in the first place for me to try texting her. By the time I would reach my hostel to dump my bag and rest in the shade for a bit, it seemed that getting back to meet her on time would be difficult.

So there I was in this odd and unexpected situation of feeling a sense of loyalty to someone, of having to think about someone else. The only other time this had been the case was when I was travelling with a boyfriend whose welfare I naturally wanted to consider. But this was a person who I had only just met. I felt conflicted in that part of me wanted to be alone, yet I almost felt a sense of duty to hang out with this stranger, especially following our spontaneous plan to meet.

With my battery running low but having failed to get through to Virág, I hesitantly turned off my phone. A Yellow Bus Tours kiosk near to where I was sat on a stone stool downing all the water I had left was advertising a boat tour on the river. This seemed like a great way to see the city without having to walk around, and I told myself that I would regret not filling my time with some sort of passive activity. I paid 16Euros for the tour and asked the helpful girl for more recommendations of what to see before joining the queue. Virág had seemed slightly wary of walking around alone and I felt terrible when I glanced at my watch on board the boat at 3 p.m., imagining her standing outside the station waiting for me. But I told myself that this experience would be good for her, and reminded myself that I was here to see Lisbon, not keep people company who I didn’t know and might not even have much in common with. Making friends would just be a bonus of the trip.

The 90 minute boat tour itself was pleasant enough. We passed Cacilhas in the municipality of Almada opposite Lisbon before sailing underneath the Ponte 25 de Abril which seems to represent a European version of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran. Built in 1966, the name of the suspension bridge refers to the Carnation Revolution of 1974, with this date being celebrated yearly as ‘Freedom Day’ from the fascist dictatorship of  Estado Novo (New State). To our left stood the Cristo Rei (Christ the King), embracing Lisbon with open arms in a pose similar to that seen on the monument in Rio de Janeiro. This was inaugurated in 1959 to commemorate Portugal’s promise not to participate in the Second World War, the pose being intended to express gratitude for the subsequent lack of hardship borne on the nation. With the famous fado music being played in the background, the tour commentary then drew our attention to the Torre de Belém on our right, which was built in the 16th Century as a base for defending Lisbon from foreign attacks. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is an impressive monument erected in 1960 to celebrate Portugal’s imperial expansion during the 15th Century.

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With a better idea of Lisbon and it’s history (and some fresh river breeze) inside me, I was re-energised and ready to find my hostel in Alfama. The man who had suggested it would take an hour’s walk couldn’t have been more wrong. I hoped he just had a terrible sense of time and direction and it wasn’t because he had looked at me and assumed I was too weak to walk at a good pace! Walking up Rua da Madalena in this Old Town area of the city was the moment when I began to develop an attraction towards Lisbon. Life became a constant scene of steep cobbled streets with the pretty tiles on the houses like those in Porto – only prettier and radiating more warmth because of the extra sun – with trams clanging and tuk tuks whizzing past.

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My map led me past Igreja Sta Luzia where I was distracted by the sight of three women putting finishing touches to a mural of blue and white tiles. Behind a pool of water was a lookout point with purple flowers dangling down from the pillars. White houses with orange roofs and rising Church steeples sat gathered before the shimmering blue of the river. Further up, the lookout from the Igreja St Tiago was even more rewarding. Before coming to Portugal, I had envisioned a large reddish-brown wooden door surrounded by pretty paintwork and lush flowers. Now I had found that image. Here was what I regarded as quintessential Portugal, and it was lovely.

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Carrying on up the Rua de St. Tome, the postcard-perfect views continued. I eventually managed to drag myself away and found the road that led to my hostel, passing a salsa bar on the corner with a red mini parked outside. Alfama Patio Hostel – what a place! My impression of Lisbon continued to grow. Dumping my stuff in my dorm, I changed into sandals and went in search of an ATM, tempted by the receptionist’s talk of a BBQ. Map-less, I walked along the street past more gorgeous houses with old men sat on the tables outside smoking wistfully. Tuk tuks would appear out of nowhere, charging up the narrow streets but in a way that was entertaining rather than off-putting. I walked up a street towards the famous Castelo de São Jorge and dropped some cents in the tin of a small lady playing the accordion. Further up a group of tanned, long-haired guys and girls in their mid-twenties attracted a large crowd with their music. I ignored the men bothering people with sales of selfie-sticks and continued my hunt for an ATM.

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Walking back, a solo guitarist played outside a restaurant on the corner and I experienced a brief longing for a romantic date. A mini-mercado sold iced tea and orange biscuits and I sat slurping away on a bench at one of the viewpoints next to a hunky French guy with a man-bun smoking a roll-up and tapping his feet to Bob Marley’s ‘Concrete Jungle’ playing in a restaurant below. Later on on the viewing ledge opposite young boys would start break-dancing. This area and the view around was infectious, one of those places where it didn’t matter if you were alone and not doing anything specific – you could just sit and get lost in your thoughts.

Back at the hostel I got chatting to an an older German lady on the patio who recommended that I see Belém, before she left to meet a friend. People then started arriving from the sister-hostels for this barbecue. I wanted to at least have become acquainted with someone else who was going before heading down to join, but the Swiss girls in my dorm were pretty cliquey and it was difficult to make conversation. I looked out of my open window at the increasing mass of people, trying to psych myself up. ‘I’ll go down in 10 minutes,’ I would tell myself, but I kept adding time on as I began to feel more and more shy. I climbed up to my bunk, unsure what to do. My stomach began to rumble and I ended up opening my pack of biscuits and remaining in the dorm all evening, too shy to go downstairs to a party and introduce myself to an English-speaking crowd. ‘This is pathetic, what’s wrong with you?’ I thought. I had flashbacks to my first solo trip, hesitantly going down to the hostel kitchen in Toronto and daring myself to make conversation with an Aussie guy. I had come so far since that point four years ago, and now I seemed to have regressed. But something put me off joining the party and I instead opted to feel lonely, with only a 1Euro pack of biscuits for comfort.

Out of desperation I turned on my phone, as if hoping it would provide me with some sort of company. Normally I hate using social media whilst travelling but I was craving contact from someone, anyone! A text message with a new number flashed up. It was Virág from earlier, asking where I was. I felt awful and relieved at the same time, instinctively texting back to explain myself. Suddenly the idea of being alone in Lisbon for the next two days didn’t appeal. I had been reading my guidebook for ideas of what to do whilst here and proposed that we spend the next day together in Sintra. We agreed a time and location and my optimism increased. My outlook had changed and I was now looking forward to getting to know someone new, and getting to know a new place with them.

The party continued all night. It was a Friday evening and I knew I couldn’t expect much less. But as much as I struggled to fall asleep, I felt better for having a plan for the next day, and for now having what would soon become great company. Now when I reflect back on how things turned out, I’m glad that I was a social wimp and sad loner on that evening…

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Read how the next day went in Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

 

Would you like to access this article during your trip? Thanks to GPSMyCity, you can download this article and find all the areas I’ve mentioned pin-pointed on a map. Click here!